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When my daughter was in third grade she decided she wanted to be in the school talent show. I signed a permission slip, and together we chose a short humorous poem for her to read—Cartwheels from the book Hey World, Here I Am! by Jean Little.

On the day of the talent show, my daughter tripped lightly onto the stage and read her poem about not being able to do cartwheels. She demonstrated one of her failed cartwheels, shrugged and walked off. The audience loved it. They clapped and cheered and gave her tons of compliments afterwards. This was the beginning of my daughter’s love of theater.

I figured theater classes would be good for my high-functioning autistic daughter. Perhaps in learning how to interpret scripts, or deconstruct a scene, she might learn how to interpret life. The early classes were taken at the community center. They were simple and fun, and she loved them. She did some plays at with the community center. These were also simple and fun with a part for anyone who wanted one. Then came the plays in the park. The first play was a musical version of Alice Through the Looking Glass. My daughter wanted the lead, and she got it. Everyone assured me that it had nothing to do with the fact that she looked like Alice with her blue eyes and long blond hair.

Alice was a great experience. My daughter learned all her blocking and lines right away. She learned everyone else’s blocking and lines, too, and she regularly corrected and prompted the others—even when she was on stage doing a performance. We discovered she had a beautiful singing voice. The show was a triumph.

My daughter was on fire for acting. She decided to audition for the local community theater. I must admit, I had misgivings. At one time this theater had a strong focus on children’s theater and education with children’s shows during the school year that heavily featured younger actors, and a summer theater program for teens. Then they decided to cut the summer program and roll everything into just three shows during the year. The classes became little more than seminars, and the competition for roles became fierce.

Then there was the audition itself. The community center auditions had been easy-going. I knew that the ones at the theater might be more formal. Theater auditions can involve interpreting the language of the script into emotions, interacting in a meaningful way with people you just met a few seconds ago, and lots of eye contact. All of these can be problems for an autistic child. Still, I took her, and she did well. She even made it to callbacks before ultimately ending up painting scenery.

She went on to audition for other, less competitive theaters in the area. Sometimes, she got in, sometimes she didn’t. She performed another major role for the plays in the park. She got into two school plays in her middle school. Many of the plays she got into were plays that wanted as many children as possible and cast anyone who showed up. However, once she worked with a director, he or she would always cast my daughter over and over again in increasingly large parts. She’s incredibly good at taking direction (as long as it is specific) and has absolutely no stage fright or inhibitions when it comes to what she is asked to do. Need someone to come out during a scene change and lead the audience in the Hokey Pokey? She’s your girl. Want someone to run screaming off the stage, through the audience, and down the hall? She can do that, too. Plus, I’ve noticed she has a real stage presence. She sparkles up there.

Still, despite all her successes and a resume I would have killed for when I was her age, she never managed to break into the community theater where she first auditioned. It became her holy grail. Her grandfather thought that maybe she needed an in, so he bought her one of their theater seminars. At the end class, her teacher’s only comment was: I want to see sad, not what sad looks like.

I felt frustration well up inside me. My daughter worked hard to learn what sad looks like. I remember two years of her pointing to faces in books and on TV.

“What is he feeling?” “What is she feeling?”

She studied the emotions she saw so she could recognize them and know how to respond appropriately. It was something she had to learn—it didn’t come naturally to her like it does to the rest of us. I am endlessly proud that my daughter knows what sad looks like.

The seminar led to more tech jobs, but no real roles—not even chorus. This theater considers itself an artsy theater and it keeps its chorus size down. The people who run it seem more interested in the art than providing opportunities for the community to act. Unfortunately, with the recent economic problems, most of the other programs my daughter acted with have disappeared. This theater is rapidly becoming the only game in town.

Finally, she broke down. Once again she had made it to callbacks, only to end up building scenery. It was the same place she had been seven years ago when she started, and she recognized that fact.

“It’s not fair,” she told me. “They use the same people over and over again.”

And she was right. Theater is essentially not fair. The best way to gain experience and skills is by working with a director in a show, and those lucky enough to have that experience use it get into more shows where they gain more experience. It’s the Catch-22 of theater.

It’s a frustrating thing to watch. The director didn’t know how hard my daughter had to work to provide the audition performance that she did. He didn’t know that by even being up there at all she was playing to her weaknesses instead of her strengths. She was doing what all the books say she shouldn’t be able to do at all, and I am so incredibly proud of her.

We discussed getting her onto the forensics team at school. Participating in forensics is a great way to gain experience and learn skills without actually being in a play. There is a certain amount of school pride tied up in how you do at competitions, so the director of the program will spend some time working one-on-one with you, and that is invaluable. Of course, it can be daunting. There is maybe five feet between you and your audience with no fancy lighting to soften that fact. You learn to create a fourth wall really fast. But my daughter has never had trouble with that. She feeds off the audience when she performs, interacting with them as a collective much more skillfully that she can interact with them individually.

My daughter agreed to give forensics a try, and I spent most of the night sitting up with her. As I looked at her I thought back to that seminar comment.

If the teacher could only see her now, I thought to myself, she would see sad.

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     Every now and then, I don’t recognize myself. It happened just yesterday. I was working in my rose garden–pulling weeds, clipping off dead branches, and spreading mulch. When it was done, I sat back to look at it, and it looked pretty good. Then all of a sudden, I saw my garden through the eyes of the college student I used to be, and I wondered, “Where did that come from?”

     You see, I grew up in apartments. I didn’t garden. I didn’t sew. I didn’t cut hair. In fact, I had few domestic skills of any kind and no real interest in acquiring any. When I think about what I was like then,  I find myself looking at who I am now–the at-home writer mom who sews, bakes, and gardens–and wondering how I got here from there.

    Of course, part of the answer is necessity. I grow roses, because I like roses. I would have cut roses in my house every day if I could–but buying roses is too expensive. This same rule of supply and demand led me to develop most of my current domestic skills. I took up sewing so I could make Halloween costumes–the nice kind that cost so much–and so I could dress my toddler in one of those red velveteen Christmas dresses with the three inch lace. (One experience sewing with velveteen got that out of my system.) This summer I am going to learn how to make jam because my family has become fond of blueberry jam, and blueberry jam is one of those specialty jams where you pay twice as much to get a jar that holds maybe four servings.

     This same reasoning can be used to explain how I started writing. As a kid, I got tired of reading fantasy stories with one token female character, so I started making up stories for myself–stories with female protagonists. If you think about it, I’ve never really stopped.

     Perhaps my old self would have despised who I have become, but I have learned some valuable lessons along the way–not just sewing, cooking and gardening–but lessons on problem-solving and perserverance. My mother did without a lot of things like roses and blueberry jam because we were too poor to afford them. I am also too poor to buy such things at the store, but I have learned that if I want them badly enough to put in the time and effort to learn something new, I can have them. Not only that–the homegrown roses have a better scent.

     On my back deck are a pair of shrubs, still in the pots I bought them in. They are blueberry bushes. I don’t just intend to learn how to make  jam. I am going to grow my own blueberries. My old self would probably look down on me for that, but then my old self wouldn’t have blueberry jam.

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On Juggling

     My sister used to juggle raw eggs. She would stand there in the kitchen deftly passing the eggs from hand to hand with one eye on my mother—because the whole display was aimed at her. Mom hated the willful destruction of perfectly good food. I would watch with wide-eyes, torn between admiration and horror. I had already been indoctrinated with my mom’s hatred of waste. One day, I asked my sister to teach me how to juggle. We used rolled up socks. (I wasn’t yet egg-calibre.) She tossed me one little sock ball and I bounced it from hand to hand—easy. Then she tossed another. This time it was harder, but with some concentration I was able to juggle the two back and forth. Finally, she added a third…and suddenly there were sock balls bouncing everywhere.
     Well, the years have passed I’m still struggling to learn how to juggle. Of course the balls have changed in size, number and importance. Instead of socks, I juggle kids, writing, home, bills, church, PTO & etc. Unfortunately, my skills haven’t improved that much from when I was a kid. I can concentrate on one thing—say writing 1500 word a day/5 days a week—and that’s pretty comfortable. I add another—still good. I can even manage a third with only a stumble or two…so I keep going. A few people come along and helpfully toss in some balls that I’ve overlooked. Suddenly it feels like I’m surrounded by a group of people pitching balls at me and smiling encouragingly as I try madly to keep them all in the air. And then all the balls fall at once.
     These last couple of months have been filled with the resounding thud of falling balls. Only it turned out I must have been juggling flaming torches because when they fell I found myself putting out fires. When I had gotten most of the flames extinguished (or at least down to a few sullen embers), I finally looked at my blog and realized I had written a resolution to write a new blog every week—in December. That’s one ball that rolled under the couch.
    So now I am back at it, carefully adding one ball at a time without any of the rest falling. Today, I am writing this blog. Tomorrow, I will restart my exercise program. I have managed to lose track of my eldest’s progress report, but honestly that’s hers to juggle—she’d just like me to do it for her. Today’s world encourages juggling—it practically demands it. And I still find myself mesmerized whenever I meet a really good juggler. However, I am still mediocre at best. Luckily for me, my sister is still an excellent juggler of all things including life, and she still gives me tips.

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That Fall Feeling

I love the autumn. I guess that’s pretty obvious from the picture on my blog page. When I was growing up, there wasn’t much of a fall season. It seemed to go from summer to winter in about a week. By Halloween we were trudging through snow in our heavy coats, flashing our costumes at the people who opened the door. The place I live in now has a regular fall season full of colorful leaves, sharp cool air, and crisp apples. As I said before, I love it.

Surprisingly, I’ve never actually set any of my stories during the fall. The one I’m working on now is close, but it’s set around the beginning of the school year and the storyline should wrap up before autumn well and truly starts. The idea that is percolating in the back of my mind (The story I will start whenever I manage finish what I’m working on now) will take place primarily in winter.

But here and now it’s fall, and I am having a hard time concentrating on everything I have to do. Instead, my attention drifts out the window, and I keep finding excuses to go outside. I think I’ll let my revisions go for a day, load my toddler in a stroller, and go for a walk. I can call it research for that autumn book I’ll write one day.

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I click a few buttons, choose a theme, and presto…I have a blog. And there it is…my blog…just waiting for me to share all of my thoughts. I have been staring at it all week—the blankest of all blank pages—waiting for those magically important thoughts to come to me. And I’m still waiting.  

Of course, being a writer, I know that the only way for me to deal with writer’s block is to start writing, because the page is just going to stay blank until I do. So this is just to let people know that this blog, like most of the things in my life, is a work in progress. Eventually, there will be a description in the about me section. There will be a page about my books—both the manuscripts making their rounds to editors and the ones which, like this blog, are still very much in progress. As my knowledge of the site expands, I am hoping to add links and possibly pictures. (Though, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the pictures. I still haven’t managed to upload many onto my Facebook account.) I might even add a widget or two—as soon as I figure out what a widget is.

For now, I have at least managed to post my first blog, and now I must go look after my four most important works-in-progress—the youngest of which still has sour cream in his hair from dinner.

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