Chance Comes Once

Alayna is in her last semester at Texas A&M, preparing to graduate in May, 2018. It wasn’t easy re-integrating back into life in College Station after spending a semester in Grenoble, France.

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It wasn’t just the language and culture shock. It was the fact that most of her friends graduated last spring and life was going to look really different. She had one friend who remained, and a room in that friend’s apartment where she could put her mattress on the floor, and live out of cardboard boxes for a few months. I think we all figured she would grit her teeth and endure but hey, you only get one last-semester-of-college in life, and Alayna has never been one to pass up a chance at a new adventure.

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she flies through the air with the greatest of ease . . .
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in Rwanda, she’s always ready to engage with strangers who become friends

Last summer when she interned at Explore Austin she began to rock climb at a nearby climbing gym. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession. Upon her return to College Station, she tried out for the Texas A&M competitive climbing team, the Craggies, and made it! For Spring Break she went climbing with friends in Arkansas.

 

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climbing in Arkansas

Since then she has competed in several competitions and most recently qualified for nationals in speed climbing!

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She is officially hooked. She makes multiple trips a week to Katy where they have a regulation speed-climbing wall where she can practice for nationals. She inhales climbing documentaries, and is asking for climbing gear for a graduation present. I am so proud of her for taking on this last semester with gusto, and re-inventing her life in College Station with this new passion. She’s met new friends, and she’s earned some gnarly callouses.

I know about re-inventing. I’ve been re-inventing my Rebeka book for almost a year now, revising and revising again. I’ve built up some tough callouses, taking constructive criticism and cutting some “darlings” to get to the heart of the story. My most recent revision was coming up with a new title when my agent wasn’t entirely happy with the first two. I had sent an email to a friend in Rwanda, asking her if the phrase “seize every opportunity and make the most of it,” was common in Rwanda. Something like “Carpe Diem,” or “seize the day.”

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Rebekkah in Rwanda, who gave me “chance comes once”

She responded that in Rwanda they say Amahirwe aza rimwe, which means “chance comes once.” The phrase captures perfectly the tension in Rebeka’s life. Many times she was given opportunities where saying “yes” wasn’t easy. At age five, she stayed alone at a clinic for eight months to receive treatments for her feet. She left family and friends and all that was familiar to come to America where she endured painful surgeries and challenging physical therapy. And when she returned to Rwanda, Rebeka left her family yet again to attend a prestigious boarding school located several hours away by car.

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Rebeka’s bed at boarding school the year she returned

They were all tough “yes’s” to once-in-a-lifetime chances. These two girls impress the heck out of me. They suck the marrow out of life, pushing themselves as they pursue new opportunities and continue saying “yes” to life’s adventures. I am forever grateful for the time they got to spend together.

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Chance comes once. Sometimes we get only one chance to take advantage of an opportunity, and these two girls embrace their chances with gusto. I did the same when I took the chance to tell Rebeka’s story, now titled CHANCE COMES ONCE: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF A RWANDAN GIRL’S JOURNEY, and I’m so glad I said yes.

Rwanda Revisited

In July of 2017 I made my first solo trip to Rwanda to do interviews for my most recent project, based on the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze. I had been to Rwanda four times previously, with family and sometimes teams, but traveling alone for the specific purpose of interviewing Rebeka, her family, and others who know her brought a new level of intimacy and understanding. It was a privilege, and I learned all sorts of things I never knew. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Augustine, who made room in his busy schedule to translate for me and shuttle me around. We dug up old files and found treasure.

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Augustine was my translator and general “make it happen” man
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left is Rebeka’s sponsorship photo, right is Rebeka when she returned from US

Rebeka’s two youngest sisters have grown big enough to wear the clothes Rebeka once wore in Austin.

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left to right: nephew, Ooweetayka (sp?), Medi and me

Rebeka’s parents were gracious and invited me into their home two days in a row to tell me the story of Rebeka, starting with her birth.

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I got to see beyond the living room where we usually sit to the bedroom Rebeka shares with her sister, and the small dirt yard out back where goats and a cow hang out and maize dries in the sun on a blanket. I heard for the first time that Medi, Rebeka’s younger sister, was the first to go to school, before ANLM moved into the community, when the family only had enough money for one tuition. She would come home with chalk and teach Rebeka what she was learning by drawing letters and numbers on the concrete floor of their home. I saw the learning continuing with chalk letters on their back fence, scrawled by her little sisters.

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I met some of Rebeka’s friends who went running to find Rebeka when we arrived at her boarding school. She had no idea I was coming!

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left to right: Grace, Rebeka, Sharon and me

I had to break the news that it was just me visiting this time, and then I got to ask her a question that made a lump rise up in my throat. I couldn’t wait to tell her about writing her story, but what would she think? Would she want to tell it with me? Because I wasn’t going to tell it unless both our names were on the cover, side by side. It is truly her story. I just wanted to help her write it.

She said yes! She is excited to share her story and she answered my questions patiently. One of the things I have been curious about since she left in 2013 is how she described America to people back home. When I asked, she didn’t say anything about the fireplace that turned on with a press of a button, or the trampoline, or the grocery store filled with food. “I tell them about the ocean,” she said.

“What do you tell them about the ocean?” I asked her.

“I tell them it’s very big.”

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Clay holding Rebeka in ocean-California-Sprint Break 2013

The ocean is a great image, a great metaphor, for Rebeka’s time in America. It was big, from the surgeries to all her new experiences, including her first glimpse of the big blue ocean in California. Writing this book about Rebeka has been a little like wading out into the ocean. I’ve been knee-deep in facts, there have been some waves of uncertainty, but on the horizon is a big old story I can’t wait to share.

 

Something New

I was recently struck by a line in the book I Am a Pencil, written by Sam Swope.

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The book is Sam’s story of going into a third grade class and teaching creative writing. In one portion, the classroom teacher asks Sam if he has any homework for the kids, and Sam remembers what he calls “the best assignment I was ever given. One that changed my life.” He tells the kids that on their way home from school, he wants them to, “Notice something new, something you’ve never seen before, some little thing you’ll be glad you saw.”

The other day, I got home from the store, walked into the kitchen with my hands full of bags, and saw this out my window.

Look close . . . that's a parade of paddle boarders on Lake Austin.
Look close, all those little dots . . . that’s a parade of paddle boarders on Lake Austin.

This parade of paddle boarders was heading down the dead-quiet lake. There were at least a hundred of them, with boats escorts, and music, because all parades have music, right? I felt a little left out. Why didn’t anyone invite me? I googled and discovered they were a group benefitting Dam that Cancer, and they were paddling dam to dam on Lake Austin to raise money to help families dealing with cancer diagnosis. That’s over 20 miles of lake to paddle, and they’d  been at it since early morning.

It was easy to notice that particular “something new,” but some days I may have to try a little harder,  pay attention. I found this on the bathroom wall at BookPeople.

Graffiti on the bathroom wall at Bookpeople.
Graffiti on the bathroom wall at Bookpeople.

Wow. I’m in love with hash browns, too! There was more.

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Who knew such wisdom could be found on the bathroom wall? Then I found these in the bathroom at the new Royers Pie Haven.

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I love this “notice something new” idea of Swope’s. It reminds me of one of my favorite book characters. In Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Clementine is constantly being called into the principal’s office because she isn’t paying attention.

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But Clementine is paying attention. She’s paying attention to the clouds out the window, or the fact that the lunchroom lady is sitting in the janitor’s car and they are kissing.  Clementine is constantly “noticing something new,” paying attention, just not to her teacher.

Now that summer is upon us, I hope to have lots of time to notice new things, at least one a day. And I hope it becomes a habit I carry with me into busier times. As a writer it’s essential, and as a human, it’s a pleasure. I’ll allow my eyes to gaze out the window, my steps to slow on the sidewalk. You never know what you might find.

I saw this critter out the window of my car while driving down Koenig Lane.
I saw this critter out the window of my car while driving down Koenig Lane.
Cactus blooms on a hike in the greenbelt.
Cactus blooms on a hike in the greenbelt.
Benji and his friends are masters of finding "something new." They found this little turtle and kept him "safe" in a shoe.
Benji and his friends are masters of finding “something new.” They found this little turtle and kept him “safe” in a shoe.

 

The Cathedral of Junk

If someone were to look at the google search activity on my computer, they might be puzzled. Banana sticker images? Leila’s hair museum? A video uploaded to YouTube on December 20, 2010 about Marilu Henner’s superior autobiographical memory? These are all things I’ve researched in the past six months while working on a middle grade novel, and I love it. I love where my writing leads me. Today’s work led me to the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin.

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I took notes and lots of pictures and asked a few questions of the artist who made, and continues to make, it all happen, Vince Hannemann.

photo by Chaney Kwak, www.kwak.in/essence/
photo by Chaney Kwak, www.kwak.in/essence/

The Cathedral is 25 years old, and exists behind a quirky little house on a fairly ordinary looking street in South Austin. When asked to name one of the things he was most proud of, Vince said, “My building permit.” The structure seemed sound to me, as I crept all around, walking up and down stairs and under arbors made of twisting metal and repurposed mattress springs. It was solid.

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When I asked Vincent what his grand plan was, he said, “I can’t tell you that.” It is the line many writers will give you if asked about their current work in progress. I sense that Vince’s work in progress will continue to progress and progress, growing up and out and winding around his yard. But also growing in, becoming more dense as he adds something here and there.

 

The CD's that hang everywhere remind me of Christmas ornaments, and the silver duct tubing looks like giant tinsel. Bicycle tires, hubcaps, and an art deco light shade, it is unexpected and made me smile.
The CD’s that hang everywhere remind me of Christmas ornaments, and the silver duct tubing looks like giant tinsel. Bicycle tires, hubcaps, and an art deco light shade, it is unexpected and made me smile.

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And when I asked if he could tell me where Darth Vader’s head was, he nodded. “Sure.” He could tell me where pretty much every piece of “junk” could be found. After all, this was his creation, and he knows it intimately.

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I’m certain he could find the Simpson family, too.

In addition to getting some great ideas for my novel and my characters, I found this space required me to slow down. The slower I went, the closer I looked, the more I noticed. If I could only apply this to my whole life, not just the backyard at 4422 Lareina Dr. It is the purpose of cathedrals, I think, to encourage us to be still and notice and wonder.

Watch what you notice in these three pictures as I get closer and closer.
Watch what you notice in these three pictures as I get closer and closer.

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I spy toy cars, a meat fork, swing set chain . . .
I spy toy cars, a meat fork, swing set chain . . .

The entire place was an act of trust. While some items were secured with wire or concrete, others were just tucked in here or there. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people visit the Cathedral of Junk each year. Vincent trusts that they’ll leave stuff where they find, and for the most part, they do. To me, this place was about redemption. Things that would otherwise be forgotten were being used to delight and to inspire. What better place for that to happen, than in a cathedral?

Check out the crutches framing this throne.
Check out the crutches framing this throne.
A colorful nest of wires
A colorful nest of wires
Old mattress springs,  blue bottles and sunshine. A masterpiece.
Old mattress springs, blue bottles and sunshine. A masterpiece.

Research for this novel has led me all sorts of interesting places. What’s it about? I can’t tell you that. Not yet. But I’ll tell you this. I sure do love what I do.

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Getting Messy

I really don’t like getting messy.

My cousin's daughter, decorating Christmas cookies.

Unlike my cousin’s daughter, I hardly touched the cake served to me when I turned a year old. What, no fork? Too messy. I like neat and orderly. Maybe that’s why I like puzzles so much. I love the feel of the right piece clicking into place. Of watching the unsolved part get smaller and smaller until I slip the last piece in and stand back to admire the nice, tidy picture.

Over Christmas I went to my parent’s house and we started a 3,000 piece puzzle. After more than twenty combined manhours, we were barely a quarter of the way through it. We had to leave before it was finished, and it went against every fiber of my being to break up all that hard work without seeing the finished product, neat and tidy and done.

3,000 takes a lot of space!

As a writer, things have been messy lately. See how hard I try to be organized?

I had a complete picture of my story with my first draft, but I knew it wasn’t good enough. To fix things, I had to break the story apart, move things around, and hit the delete button an awful lot. As I crawl into my story’s space and tinker around with dialogue, or cut and move large chunks, it gets very messy. It’s the domino effect. If I move a scene from Chapter 42 to Chapter 10, then the character’s motivations are all wonky and I’ve got to keep going back and smoothing out the ripples.

The adoption has become rather messy as well. As much as we tried to keep things neat and clean and organized in the beginning, we are now waiting and hoping and praying that things work out. That’s all we can do, everything’s on hold. There were other things that made life messy this holiday season. Loved ones died, neighbors grieved, and life no longer looked like the pretty picture I sometimes imagine is on the box. The one I imagine is promised to us.

I do not like being messy, but I can’t avoid it. Life is messy. Writing, and relationships, and cake, it’s all messy. But it can be sweet and rewarding as well. I have a memory of another time when I got messy. Really, really messy. I was in Rwanda, and there was a line of street children waiting to get their plates of food. But before they got their plate, they had to wash their hands. It was my job to hand them a piece of soap, dip a plastic cup into a large bucket of clean water, and rinse them clean.

The water splashed into the red dirt as the kids ran through the line, and by the end of the afternoon my feet looked like this.

When I took off my sandals, you could still see the lines of them, outlined with red, Rwandan dirt.

My apologies to all those with feet aversions, but I would not trade that messy moment for all the completed puzzles in the world, even the 3,000 piece ones. I do not like being messy, but I do love life.

John 10:10- “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Almost

This is what “almost” looks like.

Maybe in a day or so, I’ll be eating our first tomato. I didn’t post a picture of my first tomato while it was still on the plant. I didn’t even really mean to pick it. I was just admiring it, turning it on the vine so I could see it better, and it popped off in my hand. I displayed it proudly on an upside down plastic glass in the middle of our island, with my “Tomato” book front and center beside it. It was still a little hard, so I decided to let it ripen up for a few days.

It had a black spot on the bottom, but I didn’t worry. I figured I could easily cut it out. I dreamed of how I might eat that first tomato. Sprinkled with salt? It wasn’t big enough to make a sauce, and I didn’t have any basil or mozzarella to make it the way my friend does. So, salt it would be. But then, a few days later, I cut into it.

Fail. I was pretty proud of myself for not getting more upset. Maybe it’s because I have twenty other tomatoes on the vine, and I figure they won’t all look this way on the inside. I was willing to wait a little longer. I figured all good gardeners have a few fails in their past. It was just a notch on my belt.

I’ve gotten several rejection letters from agents the past few weeks. They gave me the same feeling as when I cut into my first tomato. But several of them were generous enough to offer some advice. I think I started my story in the wrong place, so I’m going to edit before I send any more out. There are still many tomatoes on the vine. Many great agents.

Almost. We got our home study back from our caseworker, which means we’re one step closer to our baby. Someday soon we’ll getting our invitation to be fingerprinted. We’ll be tidying up our dossier and putting this process in Honduran hands.

Almost. I can be depressed by those rejections from agents, or I can move forward with each one. Taking the advice that feels right and continuing the search, with a better manuscript each time.

Almost. Any day now I’ll break out the salt and slice through a red, ripe tomato.

Almost.

The Extraordinary Ordinary

“Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street.” –G.K. Chesteron

This was the quote we chose as the banner for our “trip around the world” site, which we called “Faces in the Street.” It says everything we wanted to say about why we traveled for nine and a half months. We wanted to meet those faces on the other side of the globe. We wanted to hear their stories. We wanted them to become real. This blog is about the stories right here at home, because we all have stories to tell. The “Stories in the Street.” There are stories in homes, grocery store aisles, and cafeterias. I want to hear them. I want to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” (Henry David Thoreau) This is where I’ll share my stories. I hope you’ll share yours, too.

I came across a Jacques Cousteau quote that says exactly what I want to say about life, my writing, and this blog. “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”

We all lead extraordinary lives. The extraordinary can be found in the most ordinary things. A leaf with fuzzy balls on the back. The first hint of a tomato. Coming home with my arms full of groceries to find an elaborate dart game taking place in my living room. I’m talking take-the-picture-off-the-wall-and-mount-a-target elaborate. Of course extraordinary can be found in the big moments of our lives, too. Our trip around the world. A first book contract. The adoption of a child.

I begin this blog on the cusp of big adventures, and small ones. I’ll be sending a middle grade manuscript to agents in the coming weeks. Our family recently decided to adopt a baby. And I just planted my first tomato plant. Ever. If it is successful, it will be the first time I’ve ever grown something I can eat.

I write this blog because I want to share my adventures, big and small, with others. I want to encourage others to share their stories with me. I’m a lover of stories, big and small. If you’ve found your way to this page, maybe you are, too.

Check back  for updates on manuscripts, babies, and, hopefully, tomatoes.