I Have Not Lost My Mother

Like so many others, I am watching my parents age. My father, at 85, is remarkably healthy. My mother, 84, is not. She has Alzheimer’s, basically bedridden and entirely dependent on help. We live four hundred miles apart, which makes it difficult to be with her as much as I would like. My heart aches when I think of strangers caring for her instead of me. Even calling her on the telephone is an ordeal that involves alerting nurses and making two separate calls, only to yield a brief conversation with very little information. However, I have friends whose mothers have already passed away, and I know they would cherish one more chance for even this tiny interaction. So I wrote a poem. When I read the title to my mother, she said, “Oh, it’s a happy poem.” I replied, “Yes, it is.”



I have not lost my mother
I have not said goodbye
We have not closed the coffin
Though part of her has died.

My mother can’t remember
She cannot name my kids
She cannot tell me stories
As she so often did.

My mother nods and listens
She smiles and says she’s fine
She lies in bed and mumbles
And mostly waits for time.

Her heart is beating wildly
Her skin has torn away
She’s not afraid of dying
She lived her life her way.

But Mother’s eyes still sparkle
She still can say my name
She tells me that she loves me
Her touch still feels the same.

I think of that good fortune
I tell myself I’m blessed
I know she won’t remember
I know I won’t forget.

I have not lost my mother
I have not said goodbye
But when we close the coffin
A part of me will die.

Karolyn Sherwood
October 2018

Don’t Be A Pigeon

Life moves fast. If a person is driving sixty miles an hour and sees something out of the corner of his eye, he must decide right now if he should react or stay his course. While walking down a street at night, a woman must decide if the man walking toward her is friend or foe. With television, computer, and cell phone images flashing before our eyes, then changing again and again every few seconds, humans must make nearly instantaneous judgements and decisions every single day. These are important traits, like the fight or flight instinct bred into us thousands of years ago.

Today, that instinct will more likely be used to size up a potential mate we spot on the subway than to watch for a snake in the grass. (Yes, the jokes abound, but let’s try to keep our focus here, shall we?)

According to Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of Straight Talking, it takes only seven seconds for us to judge another person when we first meet them. And after that, according to me, people tend to lump others into categories just as quickly. “She’s an artsy-fartsy type.” or “He’s a suit.” The labels go on and on: hipster; geek; gay; Republican; soccer mom … But who among us is one dimensional?

I once knew a man who loved his wife as long as she behaved the way he wanted her to. Her actions were supposed to stay inside the Pigeon Hole he had labeled: WIFE. She eventually flew the coop. And, not being a homing pigeon, she never went back. Other people use the same labeling system. They have a wall full of boxes labeled SON, DAUGHTER, FRIEND, BROTHER, EMPLOYEE … “If you fit inside this box, you can be my son/daughter/friend/brother/employee.”

But that’s not love. True love cannot be crammed inside a box. If you love someone, you need to allow—even encourage—them to grow from the caterpillar you meet to the butterfly they are destined to become. It doesn’t matter how old that person is, no one should remain stagnant. Imagine if you hadn’t changed your beliefs one iota from the day you turned 21. Same hairstyle, same career, same political and religious beliefs. HELP! How horrible would that be? Love allows people to grow and change. Even politicians must change, and fortunately, many of them have. It’s the ones who haven’t ever varied on any decision who scare me the most. (cough, John McCain)

Tying this back to literature and the world of writing, I know that publishers like an author to limit themselves to one category. They must protect their advertising budgets and bottom line. But even that industry seems to be changing, if slowly. J.K. Rowling and John Grisham come instantly to mind. This, too, is a good thing, I believe.

But back to real life.

I have spoken to three people in the past week who’ve been frustrated by others’ expectations and judgements. I said to my friends, “Relax. Be true to yourself. You cannot live your life to keep other people happy. If your friends and family don’t love you for who you are, they’ll have to learn how to deal with it.” And usually, they will. Or sometimes, people move on. Even familial relationships change over time. In a world where we’re encouraged to “think outside the box” and “color outside the lines,” how can people stay so rigid so as not to allow others to be true to themselves? I think the answer is based in FEAR, fear of change. I get that, really I do, but from my experience, that fear usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, since I’m not a psychologist and I can’t charge you for this wisdom, I think I’ll just print up some t-shirts. On the front they will say: I’M NOT A PIGEON. On the back they will say: AND NEITHER ARE YOU.

What do you say? Would you buy one of my t-shirts?

The Most Important Thing of All

It’s easy, fun, smart to post happy news, positive outlooks, positive outcomes.
It’s difficult to post bad news.

But sometimes, shit happens.

My husband and I just returned home after five weeks in Costa Rica, five out of our planned eleven weeks. Our home was robbed while we were there, asleep. A home invasion.

We are safe, and we know that’s the most important thing of all, but I can truly say we were shaken to the core. The bad guys, “los hombres malos,” came into our bedroom and stole our iPads from our beside tables. Inches from our faces.

I wrote about it. I had to. The feelings, emotions, fear, they haven’t let go. Even now, almost a week later, as I type this, my throat tightens and my eyes well with tears because I realize how close I was to never coming home, never talking to my children again, never saying “I love you” again, to anyone. You may find this melodramatic, unless you’ve been violated or felt absolutely vulnerable to evil. Then you might remember how this feels.

Los Hombres Malos

Sound asleep, wake to a noise, the unmistakeable noise, of a person, an unknown person, 
a bad person, close.
“There’s someone in our kitchen.”
Try to wake up, stumble to the door, turn on a light, face to face with a masked man.
Shouting, anger, the fear and primal rage of two grown men—
one fueled to survive, the other to save his wife.
Protect ourselves; hide; find a weapon. 
Now wait. Let them leave.
Long enough? No, wait. Wait. Okay, ready? Ready.
Quiet preparation, caution, caution, exploration.
Are they gone? Gone?
Are we sure?
Grab shoes, phones, keys—now get out! Call the police. 
What? What’s that? Don’t you speak any English?
Anger, fear, frustration—unleashed.
Slowly, finally, help.
A foreign country, a foreign language, a foreign system.
A helpless, total realization of vulnerability.
Then the visions.
They were standing over us, over me, in the dark, while we slept.
Pillows, fluffy and white, and capable of death.
Or a knife, or a gloved hand against my throat.
Or worse.
All for an iPad, or two.
Then a guard, a man, another strange man, with a gun.
This one’s on our side. Right?
Try to sleep, in the dark, in the same bed.
A noise. A branch in the wind? A bird?
No more sleep.
Take an inventory, make a list. What’s missing?
This, that, those too.
Counting. Still counting. And more—how bizarre… soap?
But nothing rivals our peace of mind. It’s gone. All gone.
Moving on. Chopping vegetables while detectives roam the house, 
dusting for fingerprints, black dust.
Okay. We’re okay. We can do this. We can replace it all.
All except a sense of peace.
We can stay. Limp along. Make changes.
No. Why?
We’re better than this. We don’t have to endure.
This isn’t normal. This wasn’t our fault. We did everything right.
We have options. We’re in charge.
Not los hombres malos.
We are safe. We are smart. We are in charge.
We’re going home. We live in the United States. We’re okay.
But, what if?
What if panic, instinct, fear, surprise, madness took over?
What if “something went wrong”, “that wasn’t supposed to happen”?
Feel your neck.
Imagine someone else feeling your neck.
With their hands. With their knife.
Feel your heart.
Feel it stop.
Close your eyes.
Never open them.

A Writer’s Silver Platter

When is the last time you counted your blessings? Is it possible to prioritize them?

Health might be the most important, neck and neck with family; food is a necessity, as is financial security; intelligence cannot be minimized or taken for granted—and with that, education; and don’t forget love. No, this is not an impostor sitting in for Karolyn… who only a few short years ago might have mentioned new black pumps, Prada purses and pearls. Now all I want is to be published—and to retain the aforementioned blessings.

Why do I not have a whiskey in my hand?

As I type this, I’m sitting in a beautiful Colorado home, where my husband and I will spend the next week. He’ll be drinking coffee and reading. I’ll be transcribing pages and pages of notes I took last week when we were lucky enough to spend the week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on my research trip for my current novel… the one I wrote while we spent the winter in Costa Rica.

Please forgive me here, I’m not bragging. This admission scares the shit out of me.

I spent eight years as an art dealer with an evermore lucrative art gallery (i.e. it started out paying me zero, and ended up paying me a monthly pittance). When the moment came to re-up my lease or close, I closed it so we could travel and I could begin writing. Now I’m back to being paid zero.

The scary part is that I have every opportunity and every bit of the responsibility. I have been given the Writer’s Silver Platter: a laptop, a location, loving support and lots and lots of quiet time. When I publish, I will have so many people to thank: my husband for his unending support, my parents for my brain and their encouragement, my children for growing up and leaving the nest, and countless friends who’ve given me so much encouragement and advice (specifically my former artists and Twitter friends who will not let me quit). But no excuses, and no one to blame if I can’t make this happen.

So, now I must produce. I have counted my many blessings, and I’m ready to test my skills. By October 1st, I will be querying agents for “Invented Lives.” Get ready World, here I come.

What’s A Normal Family?

Ah, families. So much love, so much happiness, so much dysfunction.

I just spent a week with my husband and his ex-wife. Well, it was their daughter’s wedding, so it wasn’t just the three of us. More like a hundred of us. And you know what? It was wonderful.

When I was a little girl, my mother answered an ad in our local newspaper. A pollster was looking for a “normal” family to interview. She of course thought we were as normal as anyone, but we didn’t qualify because she was a single mother raising three kids. They wanted a married couple with children. No way could they get away with that today.

And nuclear family? Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get a group of only blood-relatives together, and it will explode like an atom bomb. Merry Christmas, loved ones.

I fully applaud and support gay marriage, and single men or women who want to raise kids on their own. And with the divorce rate what it is today, my husband and I realize that potentially 3 or 4 of our 7 kids might end up divorced. We hope not, we’re just being realistic. After all, if it weren’t for divorce, he and I wouldn’t be together—this is a second marriage for both of us. Divorce is a hell in which you either lose a lot of money or a lot of friends. And yet, sometimes, it’s still the best option.

So what is “normal” these days?

One of the reasons that people read books is to explore feelings they can relate to. When a writer can put into words exactly how YOU feel, and you can say “Yes, exactly!”, then, in one regard, the book is a success. But another reason people read is to explore worlds they are unfamiliar with—escapism, if you will. While mining ideas, emotions, scenarios and story lines, it’s important for us writers to remember that the definition of family is wide and varied, and to not stereotype or pigeonhole people. In fact, it’s a beautiful story when a “traditional” family evolves into a “modern” family—when people see love instead of prejudice. Yes, it’s been done (from Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner to The Kids Are All Right) because it works, and it’s beautiful.

With any luck, we writers can help erase the stereotypes and pigeonholes for the definition of family. Hello, Webster’s? Are you listening?

How To Align Your Own Stars

Recently I was talking to one of my sons about his future. (We talk Big Picture around here.) He’s a bright child and has high aspirations. However, it seemed to me that he was waiting for it to all fall in place one day—a dream rather than a goal. In my most gentle, motherly voice I said, “You have to MAKE it happen.”

I learned that from Twitter.

And Malcolm Gladwell, and my mother, and life in general, I suppose. I referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, and my son casually pulled an unread copy from his bookshelf. So he’s not clueless, he’s just busy being a kid. I summarized it like this: “It takes 10,000 hours to be really good at something. Spend the first three hours reading the book.”

“I began writing novels in 2007,” she says with a sheepish smile. “Why am I not published yet?”

Every writerly blog I now read describes my story to a T on their What Not To Do blogs. It’s laughable because I know that there is so much more to know, and I hope to keep learning until the day I die (another 30 or 40 years, please).  Years from now I’ll re-read this post and laugh at my self-proclaimed wisdom on 7/18/11. But I am nothing if not persistent. Just today, for instance, I discovered ROW80, and in trying to add their badge to this blog, I discovered bunches of other cool stuff to add. I feel so professional! I’m sure somewhere out there is a blog about how to create blog, but I haven’t found it yet. But today I am one step closer to being a professional writer.

When I was an art dealer, many of my artists asked me how to become rich and famous. My answer was, “The tools are easy; it’s the details that’ll kill ya.” Here are the stars that must align to become successful in any career:

1. Talent: The more natural your aptitude, the less effort it will take, but fortunately talent can be learned. After an honest and concerted effort, consult multiple experts in your field and ask them for advice and if they think you have talent. Whether or not you listen to what they say depends on your passion for your chosen goal. Don’t give up too soon!  However, there are some  instances where it’s better to change your goals than kill yourself trying to be successful at a pipe dream; i.e. a wannabe basketball star might become a coach; a wannabe painter might try sculpture; a wannabe novelist might write non-fiction. Remember: There’s a fine line between persistence and insanity—at some point, reality should prevail.
2. Time: Winning the lottery is the ubiquitous example of people looking for the shortcut. But even those who win the lottery have usually been playing for years and paying thousands of dollars along the way. Imagine if you spent all that time and money on education, training or buying books to read about making yourself successful instead of putting all your hope in randomness. 10,000 hours = 40 hr/week for 5 years. Or, if your doing this in your spare time, 10,000 hours = 20 hr/week for 10 years. READ. PRACTICE. BE PATIENT.
3. Luck: Ah, lady luck. Oprah doesn’t believe in luck. Well, Oprah, I do. Yes, I believe we can make our own luck through preparation, but I was repeatedly amazed in the art world when the right collector stumbled upon the right piece by the right artist; bought the piece; showed it to other collectors and museum people; and the artist’s career took off.

Success. Simple as that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few more hours to put in.

The Power of Losing Friends and Being Okay With It

Quick, how many friends do you have? Not Facebook friends, or Twitter followers, not even People-who-will-come-to-your-funeral friends… but ‘It’s- 3 AM-and-I-need-to-talk-to-someone’ friends. Whoops, bet that number dropped a bit. Yes?

We all know a lot of people, but from my perch in life, I realize that true friends are rare. Yet sometimes good friends slip away. I’m here to tell you that we don’t have to feel badly about that—not necessarily.

People change and grow. WE ARE SUPPOSED TO! (Did I make myself clear there, with both CAPS and the exclamation point?)

My first marriage ended when I realized I had changed and my husband apparently didn’t want to accept that. (He might see it differently.) At first I felt badly about that, guilty even. Then I realized, how sad it would be if we were the same person at 31, 41, 51, 61 that we were at 21 (the age I got married). How sad if we never opened our eyes to new thoughts, dreams, goals, and wisdom. Or careers, or political parties, or sexual orientation.

It was difficult for me when I suddenly lost a set of good friends (at least I thought at the time they were) when I got divorced. But what was more difficult for me was, years later, when I realized some of my new “good friends” had faded out of my life. For a long time I wondered why I don’t talk to certain people anymore, whether I might have offended them, or what happened. Now I see that, perhaps, life happened, and that’s all.

I believe the theory that people come into your life at a certain time for a certain reason. We can learn from others, thank goodness. That being said, there are some good friends who fade away, possibly because we’ve learned our lesson from them, or because we grow one way and they grow another. Still, I grow nostalgic when I think of certain friends whom I rarely talk to anymore. Alas, life is busy.

People change, grow, evolve, like The Tree of Life. (Ooh, great segue into the new movie starring Brad Pitt that my (second & final) husband and I are going to see tomorrow.) This is a good thing. This is why Character Arc is so necessary and vital to the success of a novel. (Had to get the literary link in there somehow.)

Then again, sometimes friends have a falling out… But that’s a subject for another day.

The Joys of Summer

From My Perch 2: Across the street from where I live, there is a daycare center. As I type this, the kids are outside at recess. Today, they are swimming in inflatable pools and diving down those slippery slide plastic runners. They’re screaming and laughing and having a great time. While this might annoy some people, it makes me happy.

I had a great childhood, full of exploring nature, eating sand, running around barefoot, reading books, and going to the swimming pool. My life today is the same only different. I explore human nature. I eat seafood. I wear slippers (remember, I work from home). I write books. And I go to the swimming pool, but only when we’re in Costa Rica, and then only after the sun begins to fade. Most similarly, though, is my schedule. As a writer, I set my own schedule, like when I was a kid during the summer.

Growing up, which you already know about if you’ve read my bio, I lived in Lawrence, Kansas and my mother worked at KU. It was truly an idyllic time and place. My best friend and I rode bikes, jumped on trampolines, and made Lucy’s Lemon Squares. We didn’t have the Internet (eegads, how old is she?)(48!), video games, or crazy, programmed schedules.

The important take-away here (she says for the ten-thousandth time) is to be happy. Do what makes you happy. If you hate Monday mornings, change your life.

Life has good moments (that can last a long time), and it has tough moments (that can last a long time), but the BIG PICTURE is what matters. Are you on the right path? Do you have something or do something that makes you smile everyday? I hope so.

This weekend, kick off your shoes and read a good book. And think of happy childhood memories. After all, it’s summer!

I’m Off To See… Chicago

Tomorrow (during my regular blogging hours), I’ll be driving to Chicago to visit my son. Six hours, in a car, alone, and back again on Thursday… Almost heaven.

I actually like driving long distances alone. The obvious reasons: I get to listen AND sing out loud to whatever music I want; I can chat on the phone when I choose, not worried about waking fellow passengers; but, mostly, I get to think! Driving alone is great for my WIP. In the past, I’ve jotted down dozens of ideas while (carefully) driving 70mph down lonesome highways. Hopefully this trip will be just as productive.

This trip to see my son is long overdue. The highlight will be dinner for just the two of us-in a big family, alone time is hard to come by- good food, good wine, and good conversation with a great kid… er, young man.

The fact that he lives in one of the greatest shopping cities in the country is just a bonus.

Talk to you all on Friday.

Is Money Good or Bad?

This past week my husband and I went to Boston to visit my oldest son, Ryan, who is near completion of his Master’s degree in Music Composition at the New England Conservatory. He composes “Contemporary Classical” music.

Unfortunately, the inevitable question arose: What will you do post-graduation? (i.e. How are you going to pay your rent and buy food as a young composer with a disdain for commercial music?) The discussion turned (quickly) to how much money a person needs to survive and the importance of following one’s passion.

There is a pie chart, figuratively speaking, about the balance of Talent, Drive, and Money when it comes to raising a “successful” child, which of course leads directly to them becoming “successful” adults. If children are given too much money, it can squeeze out their drive to hone their talents. Conversely, children of little means often are forced to focus on their talents (e.g. good grades leading to scholarships, or basketball skills leading to being drafted by the NBA).

Then we moved on to whether money squelches the highest quality creative talent or lets it shine. Who is more likely to be the next Mozart or J.K. Rowling? Someone who must succeed in order to feed his/her family? Or someone who has no pressure to feed his/her family?

The deeper I get into the world of writing and publishing, the more respect I have for people who are able to complete books while working full-time and raising a family. I don’t think I could have done that with four young sons and eventually my art gallery. It wasn’t until I closed my gallery and my three oldest boys were in college that I dove head first into writing. I am fortunate to have both a husband and father who have been very successful and provided me with the means to follow my passions (first the art world, now writing). And this leads to our conclusion:

Of the figurative pie chart, which element is the strongest for you? In the case of my son, Ryan, and myself, our passion (and hopefully talent) for creating overpowers money. He and I (and my son Elliott who is also a writer) will always compose/write no matter what our bank accounts say; it’s in our blood and our hearts.

But thankfully, for now, we aren’t starving artists.