Monday, September 28, 2009

Cancer Consciousness

After I shared my experience with thyroid cancer in August, I was approached by a Facebook acquaintance who is an editor for Creation Care, a sub-community of that brings together people of faith committed to stewardship of the earth's natural resources. She asked me to share the story of my experience with cancer and how it affected my views on sustainability with Creation Care's readers. Here's the piece I submitted.

If you make your way over to the SustainLane site, you might consider perusing the other content and joining the social network. This "people powered sustainability guide" has the potential to be a great resource for folks interested in urban homesteading and green living.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The fruits (and vegetables) of our labor

We did it! After months of planning, we were able to successfully launch the Tosa Farmers Market this last Saturday, September 26.

Our fledgling collective of Wauwatosa residents came together too late this season to launch a full-blown farmers market in 2009, so we decided in May to kick-off the 2010 season with a one-day event in 2009 that would offer a foretaste of what is to come. The Tosa Farmers Market "Kick-Off" was fantastic. The turn out was phenomenal -- it exceeded our expectations, especially given that our starting budget was humble, our lead time was short, and the morning of the event was dreary and overcast. Despite these things, we had a very special, wonderful day.

Highlights included the jazz and strings musicians (mostly high school students who performed beautifully), the preschool story time in front of the charming Little Red Store provided by Molly Del Vecchio and Nancy Clarkin, Maxi's Southern Comfort's hot breakfast offerings, and the kettle corn guy, who might have sold his delicious honey-coated popcorn all day, the line was so long. The morning was exactly the kind of community outing we'd hoped it would be.

Unfortunately, the handful of actual produce vendors at the market were so bombarded with customers that they were mostly sold out about half-way through the event. Latecomers seemed disappointed by the lack of fruits and vegetables available after 10 a.m. This is, I suppose, a good problem to have, and hopefully next year's vendors will know to expect large crowds at Tosa's weekly farmers market. Let's hope so, anyway!

Now we have to wait until next June for the fun to begin again. My heart aches at the thought of waiting so long for Tosa's next market day!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bad Days Happen.

This morning *so* did not turn out the way I wanted it to. I thought it was going to be great -- it's a beautiful sunny Saturday, and we had plans to spend it with family celebrating my two-year-old niece's birthday in Illinois.

At 10 a.m., my niece's present was wrapped, I had a bag of tomatoes to share with family at the party, and I even thought to cut a big sunflower for my niece. We were ready to go.

Steve asked me to drive to Illinois, because he had homework for his music theory class and wanted to get it done in the car. Fine. I love driving. So we left. I wanted to swing by Fondy Food Center beforehand to visit their "Eat Local Celebration." We drove east from Tosa, zig zagging around to avoid construction on North Avenue until we finally made it to 17th and North, the location (I thought) of Fondy.

We couldn't find it! Since we were pressed for time on the way to the birthday party that began at 11:30 a.m. in Round Lake Beach, we decided to jump on 43 south and begin our journey to Illinois.

It was disappointing not finding Fondy, but I can always find it some other time. We cruised for about an hour on 94 south, got off at Grand Avenue in Gurnee, and were on the home stretch. Then, about a block and a half before we reached my sister's house, I heard a sound that always makes my blood run cold: a police siren. I Looked in the rear view mirror. Is that for me?

Yes. I pulled over and the police vehicle pulled over right behind me.

I really didn't have a clue as to why I was being pulled over. I didn't recall speeding. Was my license expired? Darn -- I must have forgotten to renew my license plate sticker.

A female police officer approached my car, asked to see my driver's license and registration and said (or rather, barked), "did you know you were going 42 in a 25?" She looked inside my car. "And your daughter is unbuckled!"

I looked behind me. Sure enough, my four-year-old was standing in front of her car seat, feet on the ground, seat belt swinging behind her, unclicked.

Remember, I have no voice. It's still barely stronger than a whisper nearly three weeks after having two neck surgeries, and the surgeon told me it could take weeks or even months to return.

We didn't argue with her. We just shuffled through our wallets looking for our new insurance cards, which we couldn't find. Must have forgotten to put them in our wallets this August when they came in the mail.

I've been under a lot of stress lately, and although I'd managed to more or less keep it together until that point, I couldn't help myself. Tears started flowing.

The officer went to her car and came back with TWO citations -- one for speeding and one for the seat belt. Adding insult to injury, I actually have to go back to Illinois on Oct. 20 for a court date because of the seat belt situation.

After the officer drove away I continued to weep, mortified that I'd have to enter a birthday party red-faced and share with all the guests my shame. Without a voice. And with a big scar across my neck. Nice.

But it got worse. We pulled into my sister's driveway and there were no cars in sight. The garage doors were shut. The house was dark. No one was home!

No one is home? Did we get the location wrong? Is my mom hosting the party at her house nearby?

Steve called my mom on my cell. "Oh, Heather, I'm so glad you're able to call me," Mom answered.

"Uh, no, this is Steve." He told her about the tickets. She told him that the birthday party is actually NEXT Saturday. This morning the family was at Grandma's house, having a gay old time.

I started crying harder.

We backed out of my sister's driveway. Steve and I switched places so he could drive and I could cry my eyes out.

At that point we were both dumbfounded at the police officer's accusation that our child was riding without a safety belt. After all, as Steve puts it, I'm the "Seat Belt Nazi." I'm always ADAMANT about my kids wearing seat belts.

It occurred to us that our four-year-old might have popped out of her seat when we had stopped, because she often does that when she knows we've reached our destination, and we were in my sister's neighborhood.

We grilled our kids. "Did Anya get out of her seat before or after the car stopped?" Various answers were shouted from the far back seat. Finally we asked the culprit herself. She must have heard me talking with her dad about whether I should plead innocent or guilty, because I swear I heard her mumble "guilty."

"Speak up, honey. Did you get out of your chair when the car was still moving?"


Great. Guess I'll be pleading guilty at that court date on October 20. And paying the great State of Illinois $130 in fees. Which totally sucks because money is so tight for us right now, what with all these doctor bills and the fact that I can't teach this semester because of my voice. Those two little traffic violations are going to hurt.

I wish I could say something hopeful and inspirational, but today I'm just cranky. My eyes are sore and tired from crying and I'm feeling emotionally drained. I have taken solace in cooking this afternoon, and not only am I looking forward to trying my hand at making calzones, I also discovered large carrots in my garden, so we'll now have carrot cake for dessert. I'll be using the bounty of tomatoes throughout my yard to make sauce for the calzones, and found two more large zucchinis in my garden that I'll be able to use this week. So I guess I am thankful that even on a day like today, the fruits of the earth can lift my spirits.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fourth Random Act of Publicity: My Mom

It's the last day of the Week of Random Acts of Publicity and I'm breaking the rules again today, because my final random act, like my first, doesn't involve a book at all. Not yet, anyway.

Dawn Wakefield Sullivan is a hair over 5 feet tall and 57 years old. She decorates her suburban home with crosses and icons, Americana kitsch, and pictures of her favorite actors playing vampires. She's my mom, and today I've decided to publicize her writings.

My mom is the reason I write. When my three sisters and I were young, she taught us multisyllabic words and recited "d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y" when we asked her to spell something for us while doing our homework. She encouraged us to appreciate good music, movies, theater and literature and read voraciously, all the while drinking Tab Cola by the gallon and never missing her soaps or an afternoon episode of Jeopardy (for which she mysteriously knew EVERY "question").

Decades later, she's still going strong. Last time I was in her car, she pulled out her iPod, blasted Nelly and sang her heart out. She even incorporated some upper body dance moves as she drove. Did I mention that she's 57 years old? Um, yeah.

Having lost both her father and step-father as a child to untimely deaths, my mom desperately wanted to create her own traditional, two-parent family. She made it her goal to have one, so when my dad proposed, she dropped out of college after one year as an English major and got a day job to prepare for wedded bliss. Ever the devoted mother and wife, she decided years into her marriage to go back to school. This was no small task for a mother of four teen and pre-teen girls living in a remote suburb of Chicago, but she managed to get an Associate's Degree in English when I was in high school. She's had a few careers since, from working in the insurance industry to her most recent job as a cardiac technician in a hospital.

She's a woman who accomplishes what she puts her mind to. Which is why I hope that decides, soon, to sit down and start pounding out some book manuscripts.

Right now she's a bit obsessed with vampires, thanks to Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball. Yes, she's an absolute True Blood junkie. Do I find it odd that my mom spends her days searching the web for TB fan fare, reading and re-reading Harris's novels and watching and re-watching episodes of TB? A bit. But then, it's my mom's eccentricity that makes her so lovable.

Until my mom releases her first novel, we'll have to enjoy her occasional piece of fan fiction and her blog.

Below is a piece my mom wrote a few years back, then reposted to her blog several months ago. It's a personal essay about the death of her step-father, David "Roy" Nudell.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I came of age in 1964. I was twelve. I can tell you the exact day – It was November third. My step-dad died that day.

Let me back up though. The day I was born, my dad was in the hospital. He had collapsed at work and they did not know what was wrong with him. It turned out he had a brain aneurism and he died two and a half weeks before my third birthday. I actually remember some things about him. I am certain that, even as young as I was, I felt a crushing loss. But children are resilient, and I learned even then that if you block pain, you can function. You can survive.

When I was five, my mom remarried. My step-dad became my dad. In every way. I didn’t think of him as a step-dad. He was just my dad. Life was simpler then. There were not a lot of families like mine. Not a lot of children suffered such a devastating loss as I had. There wasn’t a lot of divorce back then, and there weren’t as many blended families as there are now. This was the post-war era. Women were through helping with the war effort. They left the factories so that the men coming back had jobs. Women went back into the kitchens. Dads worked. Moms stayed home with the kids. Leave it to Beaver. Father Knows Best.

I felt like a misfit. I was already the girl who had lost her ‘real’ daddy. I just wanted to be like everyone else. My new daddy was so sweet. He loved me; I WAS his little girl. I had a second chance. Then my brother came along, and we were – gosh – we WERE just like a real family. Dad worked. Mom was home. A girl and a boy. A house in the suburbs. WOW.

But my step-dad was sick. I watched him with fear. Coughing. Slowing down. Eating a funny diet for a sick man. Coughing more. God, I used to listen to him cough and I would stiffen. He would go down to the basement – we had another bathroom down there. He would go down there when he wanted to be sick. I think he did this to be further from us so as to spare us, but we knew. We heard. Even now, today, more than forty years later, I can go down to that bathroom and look at the knotty pine paneling covering the wall, and if I look in just the right spot, I can see a tiny fleck of his blood. From the coughing. The blood remains a silent sentry. I want it to stay there. Does that seem crazy? It is a piece of him. Oddly, I find it comforting. He was there.

I made some bargains with God.


But God moves in mysterious ways.

And I lost my step-dad on November 3, 1964. A couple of days before, he had gone back into the hospital for surgery that they thought would help him. The morning he was going back in, I was getting ready to leave for school. I was almost out the door and my mom said, “Hey, aren’t you going to kiss your dad goodbye?” I said, “Well, I’ll be seeing him again real soon”. Denial. It was the last time.

So the fateful day, I came home from school. There were cars parked in front of our house. Strange. I came to the door and Aunt Sylvia was there to greet me. “Dawn, your mom wants you to go get a haircut. Walk over to Mr. Vito’s and get one, then walk home.” OK. No questions asked. It was 1964, remember? I went obediently. Sat there for an hour. There were no other customers at Mr. Vito’s, but they did not seem to be taking me. They did not walk me to the shampoo station. They did not walk me to the salon chair. They swept the hair off the floor. They chatted, ignoring me. I was patient. After all, this was 1964. Kids did not question adults. I guess they had been told to stall me. I sat there with a sick feeling. My brain was screaming SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT. THIS IS NOT RIGHT. But finally, I felt the pull to go home. I cleared my throat and asked them if I could get my haircut now. They did it and let me go.

I walked home and saw my mom, and I knew. She took me into the back yard where we could be alone. She was shaking. She looked at me and said two words. “He died”. I had never, before or since, seen such pain on a person’s face. The sound of heartbreak in my mother’s voice was wrenching. I will carry this memory, fresh as that day, my whole life. When my first daddy died, I felt the loss. Immeasurable. When my second daddy died, I felt the grief.

On this day, my childhood ended. On this day, I learned what children usually learn much later – that sometimes, things do NOT work out. That sometimes, terrible things happen to people. That you cannot protect those you love from heartbreak.

The thing about grief is, that when you’re in it with someone else, it actually helps. Because you can focus on the other person – on getting them through it – and push the pain away a little. I was so worried about my mother it enabled me to bury my own suffering. She had to go back to work. I took on some more responsibilities – mostly around caring for my brother after school. I worried about money. Twelve years old and I worried about how we would manage. We had to pay for the blood. Blood cost a lot of money. There had been a lot of blood to pay for. My mom tried to give some, to offset the cost, but her veins kept collapsing. In time I was able to function because as I mentioned above, I just wanted to be normal. But now, I was REALLY different at school. I had lost TWO fathers. Who has ever lost two fathers? I felt their pity. I felt their curiosity. I felt their judgments about how I should be grieving. I tried to pretend it didn’t matter. I used to say about my first dad, it’s OK – I don’t remember him. I used to say about my second dad, it’s OK – he was my step-dad. Can you believe it? It was NOT OK.

It wasn’t until I was married and had started having my own children that it all started coming back to me. It was always a huge milestone when each of my daughters turned three.

From that point on, they would have more than I had.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Third Random Act: Jane G. Meyer

For my third Random Act of Publicity I've created a Facebook fan page.

Remember how I said yesterday that I don't care much for pedantic religious children's books? Well today's Random Act is to honor a person who has worked in religious publishing and resists every impulse to edit and release "pretty tracts." She is someone who approaches publishing with the heart of a craftswoman and artist, and for that I think she is worthy of a little extra attention.

Her name is Jane G. Meyer, and she is both an editor and an author of children's books. Lovely books. Good books. Books that inspire.

Jane was my colleague at Conciliar Press, where she served as the children's books editor. She is also one of my mentors, having encouraged me and championed my work when I was just getting started with fiction writing. Jane's passion and enthusiasm for children's literature is contagious. She is so committed to the craft that she works tirelessly to improve the inspirational titles that we offer to our children. And she isnt' just a great professional. She's also a wonderful woman who brings light and joy to the often cranky world of publishing.

I've decided to create a Facebook Fan page to celebrate Jane and her books. If you're on Facebook, I urge you to become a fan. Unfortunately, today Facebook seems to be massively malfunctioning, so you may have to try becoming a fan of Jane at a later date. In the meantime, you can check out her website at Or visit her Amazon page and buy some of her books, including the newly released picture book The Life of Saint Brigid: Abbess of Kildare.

Second Random Act: 'From I-ville to You-ville'

Today participants of the Week of Random Acts of Publicity were asked to write a book review. Here's mine.

I don't like pedantic children's books all that much. Especially when they're religious. Yes, I know that probably sounds surprising, given that most people know me as someone who writes for religious publications and spent a year doing publicity for a religious press. Thing is, I much prefer the rare religious children's books that infuse spirituality with engaging stories to books that are glorified tracts with pretty pictures. I'll happily take a well-crafted secular story any day to a poorly-crafted religious tract. (Incidentally, I hate that I have to refer to any publication as "secular" or "religious," but that's a whole other blog post).

I admit that when I first heard about the book From I-ville to You-ville by Mersine Vigopoulou (published in 2006 by Uncut Mountain Press), I assumed this children's title released by an Eastern Orthodox publisher was more "pretty tract" than "beautiful, spirituality-infused story." I'd heard of the book long ago, but assumed, quite unfairly, that it was yet another dull, preachy, morally "safe" book we'd have to force feed to kids who'd rather be reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Still, I'd heard good things about the novel from many folks I like, so out of curiosity I picked up a copy at a friend's house last weekend, sat down on the couch and started reading. Thirty-five pages later, I put it down only because I was at a party, and much as I wish this weren't true it is SO not cool to sit on a couch reading a book when you're at a social gathering. (Thankfully, my friend let me borrow the book).

'From I-Ville' is part picture book, part novel. Its hard cover, larger trim size and bright illustrations make it look like it's targeted at preschoolers, but it is actually fairly text-heavy, which means it would work better as a family read-aloud. The story involves a boy named "Stubborn" from a "great kingdom called I-ville." I-ville is ruled by a goddess-queen named "Conceit" who lives in a crystal palace at the center of the kingdom. The people of I-ville love their home, but they've got problems. They fight a lot. Every person wants to do things his or her own way. And the children never play together, because when they do each one wants to be the leader, and they can never agree on who gets that coveted role.

One day Stubborn happens to meet a stranger outside the walls of I-ville -- a girl named Serenity. She is traveling past I-ville with her father on her way home to a placed called You-ville. Stubborn immediately takes to Serenity because she is kind and sweet. He likes her even more after he challenges her to a race and beats her. After losing the race, Serenity lavishes Stubborn with praise, instead of complaining like the children of I-ville. "Well done!" she says, shaking his hand. "You run like the wind!"

Stubborn is surprised to learn that there are other kingdoms beyond the walls of I-ville, and he likes Serenity so much that he asks Queen Conceit if he can journey to the distant land of You-ville. She grants him his wish to be a "great explorer of I-ville" and off he goes on his journey.

Despite Stubborn's overwhelming self-confidence and the prideful notion that he'll have no trouble finding You-ville, he ends up wandering and can't figure out how to complete his journey. Then he stumbles upon a kindly "elder" (illustrated wearing the garb of an Athonite monk -- the one marker in the entire book that reveals the religious leanings of the author). The old man instructs him on the way to find You-ville. The entry to You-ville, he says, is a small, low passage, like a tunnel.

"I'm small," Stubborn says, "so I should be able to pass through."

"I don't think you'll fit," says the elder.

"I'll bend down then."

"The secret," the elder continues, "is this: in order to pass through, it's not enough just to bend down. You need to shrink your ego."

You might think, based on the naming structure of the characters in 'From I-ville,' that they are as one-dimensional as Goofus and Gallant. Surprisingly, this is not the case. While the people of You-ville are innocent, thoughtful and Gallant-like, the people of I-ville, selfish as they may be, are redeemable, human, and capable of love. This makes the story all the more intriguing, as we wonder what will happen when Stubborn makes his journey back from You-Ville to I-ville to share the good news with his countrymen about loving one's neighbors as oneself.

Yes, the book is simple and pedantic, in the same way that the great fables of Aesop or the Ancient Greek myths are pedantic, encapsulating critical life lessons in absorbing stories. 'From I-ville' speaks directly to readers living in a world where Ego is king, where selfishness is a virtue, and where "God" is a positive force whose sole reason for existing is to bring us the good things we wish for (think Disney godmother, except not as chubby).

The truth is, we live in a world full of fleeting joys that disappear like vapor almost as soon as they come. The happiness that lasts is the joy that comes from loving and serving our neighbors. Sure, it's important to take care of oneself to a certain degree, but if we spend all our lives making ourselves the gods and goddesses of our own personal "I-villes," we'll never really know true joy.

Imagine, for a second, if our world was You-ville -- a place where EVERYONE put the interests of others before their own. What ecstasy would we all experience if all humans were motivated primarily by the desire to bring joy to the lives of others?

First Random Act: Tuesdays at Ten

It's my first day participating in Darcy Pattison's Random Acts of Publicity Week and I'm already cheating.

Because Tuesdays at Ten, my first 'random act', isn't a book. Rather, it's several books. It's also rhymes and songs and finger plays. And it's a talented singer/guitarist, a Spanish teacher with word cards, a creative photographer snapping shots, a cast of adoring fans and one adorable storyteller named Molly Del Vecchio.

Del Vecchio's concept is simple -- once a week, she offers a structured 30-minute story time that brings families out of their homes and into a local cafe for fun and friendship.

A former elementary school teacher and mother of a 5-year-old, Del Vecchio begins and ends her weekly story time with hugs for the many friends -- big and little -- who wouldn't miss their weekly pick-me-up. In between the hugs are songs, finger plays and books: Molly reads a few different picture books related to the theme of the day, which can be anything from feet to friendship to firefighters. She not only reads the books to her audience, she carries along a crate full of picture books from the local library. When story time is over, moms and dads mingle while children romp around, often finding a cozy spot to flip through one of the library books they've dug out of Del Vecchio's crate of books.

Del Vecchio is already a local celebrity adored by the Tosa toddler set, so hopefully it won't be long before she'll be able to share her stories with a wider audience. She's already expanded her storytelling efforts: she recently started doing birthday parties and special events under the moniker Happy Hour and was hired this summer to teach part-time at the Milwaukee Zoo. Let's hope this is just the beginning of a fabulous storytelling career.

Let's also hope that other creative moms and dads around the world will follow Del Vecchio's lead and start their own story hours in coffee shops around the globe. The beauty of Del Vecchio's simple idea is that it promotes literacy among our children and helps families engage with the community. Kudos, Molly!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Random Acts of Publicity

You may know that I write stories, and as such I'm a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This morning I learned from an SCBWI e-mail about an intriguing concept dreamed up by another children's writer named Darcy Pattison. It's called Random Acts of Publicity Week. Darcy's idea is for book loving folks to spend a bit of time each day for one week promoting the books they love out of the goodness of their hearts.

I *love* this idea. As a former book publicist and as someone who is disillusioned with American mongering-I-mean-marketing, I find this concept refreshing. I am coming to believe that books truly succeed not because of the scheming of corporate marketeers, but because they are GOOD, and because the average consumer is intelligent enough to recognize a book's quality and then share the good news with their communities.

Or at least, that's the way things should be, and the Week of Random Acts is just the kind of concept that supports this publicity model.

Starting tomorrow morning I'll unveil my four random acts of publicity, one each day. I'm not going to say much right now, but I'll give you a hint: I'm promoting books/authors because they're GOOD but also because they're flying under the radar right now. Sure, I'd love to publicize Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, or Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but I don't really think they need the publicity.

One more thing: I might cheat a little. Pattison recommends we follow a regiment that involves a different kind of act each day, and that we promote *books*. I might promote an author, instead of a book, or I might promote something related to books, but that isn't a book. And because Tuesday's action is to promote something by word of mouth and I *still* don't have my voice back after two thyroid surgeries, I'm going to have to take a different tack.

Now I just have to narrow my choices down to only four days' worth of book-related things to publicize. Yikes!

Till tomorrow, friends.