Imperfect Humans

Several weeks ago, Jane flooded the laundry room while doing a load of laundry. How did she manage that, you ask? Well, a few months before that, we discovered problems with our septic tanks.

Just as my husband left on a trip this past Spring, it rained, the tanks filled, and we lost all ability to use the facilities, shower, or wash clothes (the washing machine inexplicably drains to a tank). I very competently (if I do say so myself) dealt with the crisis, but we were not left fully operational.

Most noticeably, our washing machine would not reliably drain without backing up. So… well… we started snaking the drain for the washing machine out the window and attaching the end to a garden hose to drain.

This was not to be a long term solution.  But we were busy and it became normal.

Only Jane failed to put the hose out one day.

Her daddy came around the corner of the house to see water pouring out the seams of the window. He got pretty upset at her. We both thought it was a strongly incompetent act on her part. How could she forget? I thought for sure that after that, none of us would ever forget the hose again.

And then… I asked my husband to wash a load of laundry while I was at work last week. He did. And walked up to the front door later to see water pouring out from under it. This time, the water ran the full length of the laundry room, into our entry way, and out the door.

I thought about this for a little while and it reminded me (on a much different scale, of course) of a time period over a decade ago when there appeared to be a rash of parents leaving their infants in the car when they went into work and the babies died.

People I talked to were all horrified at the incompetence of those parents. “How could anyone possibly forget they had their child with them?!”

How, indeed. I knew the answer. They were distracted. They were probably out of their routine. The baby was asleep. I once drove to work with infant Jane in the car because the route to the babysitter’s house was the same as my route to work and my husband usually took her. I headed down the familiar road and went on autopilot. I remembered her as I parked my car, but a few more thoughts about work, and I might not have.

Empathy. Being able to see yourself in another person’s shoes. To recognize yourself in another person’s humanity rather than seeing them as an incomprehensible, inhuman anomaly. I suppose sometimes it can’t be done… but I suspect it can be done much more than we realize.

Jane exercised some questionable judgment at summer camp this year. Some of her friends misinterpreted it and one of them is still mad at her. He’s not completely without merit but he is certainly showing a lack of empathy. While watching the slide show, I saw pictures of each child holding the bowl they had decorated for a mission project. Kids from the previous week had constructed the bowls. Jane’s had a defect so she wrote “Imperfect Human” on it. A reference to the bowl. And its maker. And herself. And the boy mad at her. And her dad. And you. And me.

All of us are imperfect. Sometimes that has little consequences… like flooding the laundry room. Sometimes big… like losing your child. We can’t simply say we would never do it just because we never have. Or because we don’t want to admit that we could.

Editor’s note: Jane read this and told me that her bowl actually had a dot between “Imperfect” and “Human,” meaning she considered the words to be synonyms.  I don’t think that alters the meaning or significance of anything I wrote here but it is, in my opinion, an even deeper observation on her part.

Learning to Write… and to Listen

Eight months ago, I published my first blog post. Ninety-nine posts later, here we are: number 100. I want to mark the occasion with something a bit different. Instead of another tale of humor or angst from my life, I want to reflect on what this blogging journey has taught me.

I have learned many things about myself as a person, a mother, and a writer. This post is primarily about the writing lessons learned. I’d like to think my stories have become more engaging and better written as time has gone on.

I love to talk. That’s probably a fairly good quality for a blogger. You need to like to share or what’s the point? The problem with people that love to talk is that we often ramble. When I began telling stories on Facebook, the character limit forced me into brevity. Sometimes it felt restrictive but it almost always improved the telling of the tale.

Then I moved to a blog. Suddenly the stories could be as long as I wanted! Such freedom! And such a rambling mess… One thing I have learned is that I have to keep a tight rein on my words. Left to my own natural devices, I will glibly tell a ten word tale in a hundred.

I can point to the posts that I don’t think quite worked or that I was never satisfied with. They tend to be some of the longest ones. Sometimes I got caught up in the blow-by-blow, providing more detail than needed. Sometimes I was lazy and didn’t take the time to figure out how to say it better. Still other times, I wasn’t clear what story I was trying to tell.

Here’s a good example of that last point:

The whole time I was writing it, I felt like I wasn’t focusing on the true story. The story was the attempted smuggling of the rabbit into the house. The fact that the smuggling took place during a particularly crazy evening was irrelevant. But I couldn’t let go of telling about the entire evening. I wanted to whine about the boys not knowing where their sister was, the missing tortillas, my husband stranded. As a result, I squandered the opportunity to tell a succinct tale of two boys capturing a rabbit.

Constructing a well-told story is challenging. It’s one thing to convey the information. To engage, amuse, enchant, transport your reader, you have to take your writing to another level. It’s as much about construction as it is content. A tale told chronologically is in danger of being boring. Sometimes you need to shake up your timeline so you can maintain the element of surprise or add some spice.

You have to know how to start the story and how to end it and how to weave the individual parts together. Sometimes you have to cut scenes to make the whole better. You have to settle on a voice. Who is telling the story? What is their tone? Why does the story need to be shared?

Perhaps the most fascinating and rewarding part of the process for me has been writing the title. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed sitting back and pondering it. When one didn’t come to me, I got irritated. The title sells the story. Without it, it can’t “go to print”, so to speak. I have settled on mediocre titles at times (see the bunny post above) but usually I keep working on it. When the “right” title strikes, it’s euphoric.

That may sound melodramatic, but it’s true. I struggled with the title for this one:

I couldn’t decide if I wanted to highlight the sibling rivalry aspect, the game playing, or the cunning trickery of the youngest child. I felt that since I referenced a book, the title should somehow encompass both my story and the one from the book. When the scripture about the last being first floated through my head, I knew I had the title. The last always wants to be first. That was Hal’s motivation in swiping the Kindle and Almanzo’s in tying up the sheep. There it was: the perfect title.

One final thing I’ve learned is that I tend to write in bursts. I might write a dozen posts in a week and then go a week without writing anything. Those dry spells were troubling at first. Why can’t I write? There’s the obvious scenarios: I’m too busy or too tired. I’ve also learned that I can’t write when I’m in a bad mood. Sometimes, however, I want to write but nothing worth writing about has happened.

I’ve wondered about this. I’m not convinced that nothing blog-worthy is happening during those times. I’m beginning to suspect that I’m just not in the right frame of mind to see the stories. I can’t capture the story if I’m not paying attention. I have to listen and watch.

I’ve picked up a few followers over the past eight months. There are more people following me than I honestly expected to acquire when I started out. Many of you are bloggers so I’ll ask you:

What have you learned during the time you’ve spent blogging? What insights have you gained about your strengths and weaknesses? What tools have you added to your writing tool bag? What’s your favorite part of writing? Why do you do it?