Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rain and a writer's dilemma

It's raining today. One of those sudden summer thunderstorms that sweep dramatically through and leave the air feeling moist and warm and promising. The kind of storm that makes you want to put on your old raincoat and stand outside, catching raindrops on your tongue, and leaves the garden all fresh and dripping.

Anyway, here's my dilemma. I'm working hard on my novel, not writing as much as stewing over it. I'm hoping maybe you can help me. I'm trying to decide how authentic the setting should be. It's a fantasy, so I can make it whatever I want, but the question is... how much like real life should it be, and how much crediblity will I lose if I take liberties? Or am I just obsessing over details that no one will notice anyway?

Here's what I mean... I have set the story in the distant past, somewhat like Tolkein's Middle-Earth, so that it is pre-industrial with an idealized feudal system in place. The location is what I personally have dubbed the "Scotch-Coloradan Alps," a mountainous region combining elements of the Scottish Highlands, the Rocky Mountains and the German Alps. Here's the tough part. If my race of people, the Hanorja, live in this area and do not have trade with people from other parts of the world, then all of their clothing and foodstuffs would have to be indigenous. There would be no cotton, linen or silk; everything would have to be made of wool. It makes me itch just thinking about it! There would be no tea, no coffee, no ginger for gingerbread, no lemons or oranges, no sugar and no corn. They wouldn't have Mediterranean fruits like figs, dates or olives. They would not get enough hot weather to grow grapes for wine. There would be no tobacco, either.

They would be restricted to the dreaded British diet: meat, potatoes, vegetables, herbs, tree-fruits like apples and cherries, berries, cider, bread, nuts and honey. And since I have decided not to allow them to kill animals, their diet would be further limited to fish or fowl. They would also not be able to tan leather for saddles, boots, waterskins or anything else, nor use furs to keep themselves warm. I may have to rethink that decision!

My question is, if you were reading a story set in such a place and read that they had gingerbread with their tea, would you stop and say "Hey, wait a minute, where did the tea come from? And the ginger?" Or would you just accept it without thinking that deeply about it?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It's amazing how many troublesome incidents have occurred since I started teaching last September. Most of these were expensive, as well.

For example, the dog getting fleas just before we were due to go on vacation, causing allergic dermatitis to set in. I spent several nights up with the poor suffering creature, trying to kill these fleas with some product that wouldn't aggravate his skin and praying we would not have to cancel our trip. Not to mention that the house got infested as well, which required repeated applications of highly toxic chemicals to our home.

Then, at the very start of school, I got the flu so badly I had to go home sick the first week. A couple of weeks later, I woke up to find water all over the kitchen floor. Turns out, the compressor on the refrigerator had stopped working, causing the freezer to melt during the night. I spent a lovely Saturday running back and forth to a friend's house with boxes full of foodstuffs to put in their basement fridge, and then to Lowe's to buy whatever fridge I could find that they could deliver the next day and would fit into the space we had. The new fridge is black; the rest of our appliances are almond. Oh well. At least it fits.

Then there were the plumbing problems involving our only toilet, and all of the car problems: the bad fuel pump, the mysteriously ailing power steering, the "check engine" light that was some expensive part of the emissions system that needed replacing, and the slashed tire on Valentine's day.

Oh, and did I mention that the boiler blew up and flooded the basement in January? It's amazing how you can't get a repairman for love nor money for small jobs, but when you have a $4500 boiler to replace, there's one on your doorstep in 30 minutes.

Tonight it was another car problem. I was at Sears and when I came out to the parking lot, I saw that I had a flat tire, due to the inexplicable placement of a bright silver nail in the tread. Since the tires are all somewhat worn, hubby predicts we will have to replace all four of them. Great. Another $400 out the window.

This is just the physical stuff. I won't even go into all the problems I've had at work, nor that hubby has been going through with his job lately. It seems the Devil is really out to get us.

However, God is on our side, too. Tonight I happened to catch a friendly manager at the Sears Auto Center just as he was closing up shop. He looked at the tire for me, said it was a slow leak and put air in it to get me safely home. When the boiler blew up in the basement, we were home and able to take care of the water before any serious damage was done. Since I was working, we had the money to pay for the new boiler and the new fridge and all the car repairs, even if we did have to pay some of it in installments. And the dog did recover from the dermatitis and the fleas just in time for us to go on vacation.

(However, I will never forget hunting through his fur for those horrible black insects at eleven o'clock at night trying to spray them directly with pesticide, or roaming through the aisles of the 24-hour grocery store searching for some remedy that would soothe his poor skin. Nor will I forget those calls to Frontline in which they told me the product should kill the fleas within 24 hours and the fleas I had must be new ones. I said "They are getting bigger every day... they have to be the same fleas!" So the Frontline guy says, "Well, it sounds like you want a product that will repel fleas." I said "I just want something that will kill them. Tell me how to kill them!")

But I digress.

My husband and I had another one of those discussions tonight after I got home and told him about the tire. The "why is all this stuff suddenly happening to us?" discussion. The "can we afford for Christine not to work full-time if disasters keep occurring" discussion. I told him that I don't mean to sound superstitious, but I have been so busy lately that I have slacked off on praying over our family and our home. I have slacked off on devotions most days; I slow down to pray only when I have a need. The rest of my prayers are usually said in the car on the way to work. I also have been wondering if we should be giving our full tithe, even though I really don't see how we can afford to do that.

So, while DH was in the shower tonight, I took a few minutes to actually pray and open my Bible. I wasn't even asking for an answer, just letting God know I was sorry and was thinking about Him. The response from the Holy Spirit was graciously immediate and blissful. He told me to tell hubby that the reason all of this is happening is that we have been depending too much on ourselves to take care of things. Not that it is bad in any way to be responsible and independent and use the abilities God has given us to provide for our family, but that we need to remember that we can't depend on ourselves alone. We have to trust God for our daily bread, meaning that we have to remember that all we need for each day comes from Him alone. All that we have comes from Him and ultimately belongs to Him.

I read out loud to him the verses that my Bible opened to:

Psalm 37

3 Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

4 Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and he will do this...

7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Postscript: The day after I posted this, another really upsetting thing occurred at school. I am struggling with my thoughts right now because I feel so angry and humiliated. So it was good to come back and read this even 24 hours later, to remind me of these noble sentiments that slipped my mind so quickly.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Feeling Elfish?

I picked up "The Spiderwick Chronicles" at the library, just for fun. These books are way too short! Anyways, I'm starting to feel a little bit elfish. So there may be some new installments of The Elfin Chronicles soon. But I want to put up a disclaimer: The Chronicles are a writing exercise for me. They are not planned in advance or edited. I just write whatever pops into my head that day. So don't expect too much, okay?

Have a lovely Memorial Day weekend. It's sunny, cool and green here in Southern NJ today and we are headed to a birthday party. But first I guess I should clear those piled-up dishes out of the sink!

The End of an Er

The first year of teaching is coming to a close. Only 14 days of school are left before summer vacation. My contract was not renewed for next fall; the principal cited financial constraints. In teacher lingo, I've been "Riffed." RIF stand for Reduction in Force.

I can't say it's been an era. It's more like an "er." Picture a cartoon dog with his head cocked and a confused look on his face, with a thought bubble above his head. "Er?" What just happened this year? And what am I supposed to do now?

The obvious answer is "Look for another job, stupid!" But wait a minute, not so fast. Teaching jobs aren't that easy to come by. There are many more qualified appliants than jobs even in middle school math. I am hampered by the fact that I am an "alternate route" candidate. In other words, I didn't go to college and get a teaching degree. I got a math degree, then a master's degree in math, then I went and worked in industry for a salary and made mucho bucks. Now I'm coming in by the back gate, doing a one-year certification program by going to school at night.

I made a lot of mistakes this year, but I also worked my tail off. Rather, I should say, I worked ten pounds on. I feel worse physically than I've felt since being pregnant. The stress and late nights and early mornings and all the hours working at the computer and the night classes and all the junk food eaten on the run have taken their toll.

I have heard that the retention rate for new teachers is less than 50%. I can understand why. The kids are really draining. I love them and I love teaching, but I have very little left over for my family or my writing at the end of the day. Some days I have nothing at all left over, and it's all I can do to remain conscious until bedtime. My own son gets less attention from me than my students do; he's usually in front of the television while I work on the computer in the evenings. My husband feels like a monk, without the benefit of three square meals a day.

Every teacher I've talked to says that the first year is horrible. I would be encouraged by the fact that the first year is behind me now, but if I have to start all over again at another school, it will be just like having another first year. New students, new curriculum, new administration. Assuming I can even find a job.

The thing is .... I really, truly felt called to do this. Teaching middle school was the last thing I ever imagined myself doing, because I never considered myself good with kids. I was terrified to step into that classroom and face those kids all by myself. But I gave it my all and looked upon it as my missionary work - a way to serve the Lord with my talents. I discovered that I really enjoy it. Despite the way they suck the life out of me, the kids also provide a vicarious excitement that I am really going to miss. And it is not a thankless job. I have such good relationships with my students and many of the parents, as well. I've substituted for almost all of the grades in the school, and have been told that I'm the best substitute ever. Kids are already starting to ask me if I'll be their math teacher next year. I haven't told them that I'm leaving; I don't know how to explain it to them.

I still can't quite believe that it's over. I really thought when this whole situation arose that this was God's way of providing for us. I would have a low-key job with summers off and my son would get a Christian education. The benefits made up for the low pay. Now my son will be going to a public school and I have no idea what to do next fall. I told my husband that I'm taking the summer off because I am so burned out. It's kind of late to try to find another full-time teaching job; they've all been filled. I might try to find a part-time office job somewhere, or maybe part-time teaching, but I can't afford to work for too little as we do have bills to pay.

The really confusing thing is that the paperwork for my teaching certification has disappeared into the bowels of the state department of education. The school has re-sent it five times now, and every time I call the NJ Dept. of Ed., they don't have it. I can't help wondering if this is a sign that God really doesn't want me to be certified to teach full-time. Perhaps this whole year and a half of effort (including the nine months prior to the school year that I spent studying for my state exams and going to summer school) was simply an exercise in obedience. Perhaps God just wanted to know that I would obey Him no matter what, even if it meant facing adolescents alone and unaided. Perhaps He knew that this little Christian school needed a math teacher for one year and I was the person He chose to do it. I don't know.

I do know that He has a plan and that He has promised to bless me and my family for our faithfulness this past year. I don't feel very blessed yet, but I am holding onto that promise.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Random stuff

I copied this from Michelle Gregory. This is one of those narcissistic lists of trivial stuff about Numero Uno... but I think they're fun to do once in a while.


Not as easy as you might think. Now copy, forward, or post this and change the answers to yours and pass it on. It’s really hard to only use one word answers.

1. Where is your cell phone? purse?

2. Your significant other? shower

3. Your hair? head (Am I crazy or is this really dumb?)

4. Your mother? Ohio

5. Your father? Ohio

6. Your favorite thing? bedtime

7. Your dream last night? stressful

8. Your favorite drink? cappuchino

9. Your dream/goal? published

10. The room you’re in? messy

11. Your ex? none

12. Your fear? offending

13. Where do you want to be in 6 years? best-seller

14. Where were you last night? here

15. What you’re not? quiet

16. Muffins? English

17. One of your wish list items? windows

18. Where you grew up? Ohio

19. The last thing you did? email

20. What are you wearing? cotton

21. Your TV? Phillips

22. Your pets? dog

23. Your computer? Dell

24. Your life? educational

25. Your mood? rushed

26. Missing someone? Carolyn

27. Your car? Caravan

28. Something you’re not wearing? Who is writing these questions!!!!! tiara

29. Favorite store? dollhouse

30. Your summer? beach

31. Like(love) someone? hubby

32. Your favorite color? cobalt

33. Last time you laughed? today

34. Last time you cried? 9th

35. Who will re-post this? nobody

Monday, May 19, 2008

Back from Lancaster

I just returned from a weekend retreat in Lancaster County, PA, also known as Amish Country. I attended with some of my fellow teachers and we stayed at the Willow Valley Family Resort. I didn't get much writing done, only a couple of pages , but I had a lovely time. Here is a photo of the beautiful stone house by the golf course.

I discovered the wonderful German springerle cookies at The Springerle House
in Strasburg, PA. Here is a photo of the cookies, a traditional German recipe that is pressed into molds to make edible works of art. I can't decide which flavor I like best: raspberry, almond or lemon-lavender. You can order them online... I think I will be doing so in the future! Springerle House

The funny thing is I actually have some miniature molds like this that I bought in Germany several years ago. I thought they were gingerbread molds. They are too big to be to scale for the cookies I bought this weekend, but the woman in the shop said that there are bigger springerle molds so the miniatures I have might be springerle. I had used some of that Crayola Magic stuff... the white puffy clay that hardens... to make imprints of the patterns so I actually made springerle for my dollhouse and didn't know it! How cool is that!

Here are photos of the hotel and chapel. The resort is very nice inside and the food was terrific! There was a prom Saturday night so we got to see all the youngsters in their pretty dresses and tuxedos.

I wish I could say I had some major spiritual revelation from the weekend, but I didn't. It was just a very nice, relaxing weekend away from home and work. Which was just what I needed. I only wish I could have stayed for the rest of the week! I'd love to go back again for a writing holiday and spend more time in the little shops, as do some sightseeing as well. Maybe next year!