Author Archives: Julie Brown

The Totally True Story of Julie and Jack

Searching for my Broken Heart

It’s been six months. My mom died last summer. Although she was elderly, she was in pretty good shape, so her death, while not untimely, was unexpected . . .

We sat in the rabbi’s office and shared stories to prepare for the memorial. Everybody laughed. Everybody cried. Everybody except for me. I felt nothing. After the meeting I asked to speak to our rabbi alone. I told him something was wrong with me, that I felt no emotion – no sadness, no loss, no heartbreak. He said I was in shock.

“I’m not in shock,” I said. “I feel fine.”

“It’s sort of like being in shock,” he explained. “Your subconscious is not ready to deal with the loss of your mom.”

I had trouble with this explanation. “But that doesn’t make sense. I should be devastated. I should be sobbing. I cried more when my dog died.”

“It’s normal,” he assured me. “Your broken heart is there. You’ll find it.”

I left feeling skeptical. I went through the motions, played the role of dutiful daughter, took care of arrangements, hovered over my father, prepared food for visitors, wrote my speech. At the service I spoke with confidence, laughing in the right places and not crying when expected to do so. The tears of people in front of me, some who didn’t even know my mother, failed to move me. All I wanted to do, what I needed to do, was take care of everyone else.

The Friday night after the memorial, we went to services. We said mourners kaddish – I tried to cry. Nope. People visited me, brought treats, and gave comfort. It was nice, and I appreciated it very much, but still no tears. Yom Kipper came and went. Nothing. I took my mother’s things home with me – her nightgown, her cuddle pillow, some half-used cosmetics, the red infinity scarf she wore every day because she always was cold. It held the faintest scent of her.

I prepared myself for the worst Thanksgiving of my life and my birthday the same weekend. The proverbial first “fill-in-the-blank” without my mom. We ended up having a wonderful Thanksgiving. And my birthday, well, I don’t really remember it.

I stopped searching. Maybe I would just be one of those who would weather the death of a parent without feeling loss. Maybe I was so relieved not to be worrying about her anymore that the relief outweighed the sadness. Maybe I didn’t care as much as I thought I did. Oh God, maybe I should go back to the rabbi or see a therapist . . .

I had a plant of my mom’s. It was ugly. I think it had once been two plants that she had stuck into a pot together with a scoop of dirt. One piece of it was a wispy fern and the other a more hearty-leafed thing. I liked the pot, so I brought it home intending to plant something that flowered. But the ugly plant my mother had created seemed healthy, so I just left it alone. I did nothing to it – maybe a bit of water now and then. It thrived. Ugly as ever, it just kept living. Then one day, my dogs made a play-thing out of it. I went outside and found my mother’s ugly plant knocked over and ripped apart – the wispy fern shredded, the hearty leaves scattered across the grass. I stared at it for a moment or two, and my eyes filled with tears. The tears ran down my cheeks like streams of melting snow. The sob that came out of me scared the birds away, and my heart broke apart. I frantically gathered what was left of my mom’s plant and tried to find one root that could be salvaged. I yelled at my sweet dogs who had torn up the plant because I had left it where they could. It was all my fault. My fault the plant was dead. My fault my mother was gone.

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. My mother was old. She had many health issues. But I’m a second-guesser, a “what-if” kind of girl. What if I had done just one thing differently?

Now the tears come easily. When I see her handwriting; when I walk by Chico’s and think “Mom would love that top;” when I see her little soap dish and remember how she washed her hands; when I make the cookies we used to make together.

Mother’s Day is coming. Another “first.” The first mother’s day of my life that is not about my mom. I cry just thinking about it.

Real Writers Write Every Day . . . except for those who don’t

Writers are often asked: “What is your writing routine?” It’s a good question. After all, people want to know how it’s done. How do writers find time to write between jobs, kids, pets, chores, distractions, and the endless list of things that must be done before we allow ourselves the luxury of indulging in our creative passion.

Hmmm – this is where “the plan” comes in. My schedule is rigid. I am asleep every night by ten pm and up at five am – before the household stirs. I make coffee, settle down at my laptop, and click away, letting the words flow from my imagination without interruption. I don’t stop until the sun sends golden rays of light through the window and I’ve pounded out at least 1000 words . . . And of course, I write every day. 

Oh please, rigidity is not even a concept I understand. I’m the queen of loosie-goosie, the wing-it girl, the juggler of all things that probably shouldn’t be juggled. I stay up way too late watching animal videos on you-tube. My mornings don’t even begin until the sun assaults my eyes with razor-like precision. My husband makes coffee before he leaves the house (it’s one of the things I like best about him). My three dogs paw at me to get out of bed. I find an excuse to text my children or spy on their now defunct FB pages. Then I get caught up in posts and photos – photos of glorious vacations my “friends” are on and the perfect lives of people I don’t even know. I tear myself away from social media when the phone rings, the wash machine buzzes, or a dog throws up.  How the hell do I ever find time to write?

Here’s the truth. Writers do not “find” time – at least not the ones I know. We make it. We carve it out of our days in bits and pieces. I put “write” in my calendar wherever there’s open space. I say “sorry, I can’t go” to a lot of fun stuff. There’s no magic, no roadmap, and definitely no one-size-fits-all answer.

Writers without editors or agents breathing down their necks to meet deadlines can be like untethered balloons. We are at risk of wandering from project to project, changing goals, touching down in random places, getting lost. It’s up to us to tether our strings, preferably to the back of a chair in front of a desk, and focus.

So do I follow the “rules?” Sometimes, maybe, sort of . . . but for every rule that exists, there are exceptions to prove it wrong. And I can tell you this – I do not write every day. But I sure do think about it.

“The Golden Rule is that there are no golden rules.” George Bernard  Shaw

The Art of Forgiveness

I submitted this essay in application for the Dr. Ellen Taliaferro Scholarship to the San Francisco Writers Conference 2017. The prompt was this: Write 500 words or less on the power of forgiveness. So I did. And I won! The conference took place at the Mark Hopkins Hotel this past weekend. It was fabulous. Thank you Dr. Taliaferro!

“It took a long time, but as soon as I let go of my anger and resentment, I was free. I dropped the chains I’d been carrying around like Ebenezer Scrooge and felt as if a single balloon could lift me off the ground and carry me to the sky.”

I wrote those words some time ago while working on a story in which my main character had been betrayed. She was suffocating under the weight of her own hostility and venom. As the writer who created this character, I understood her refusal to forgive. In fact, I was quite sure I didn’t want her to. But as any writer knows, sometimes characters have minds of their own, as if they can jump off the page and poke the author on the shoulder and demand we go in a different direction. That’s what my character did – she forced me to allow her to forgive . . . of course that changed the trajectory of my plot, but that’s another story!

I used to think forgiveness could only be given following an apology. I mean, why should I let someone off the hook who isn’t sorry for acting against me? It makes sense that apology and forgiveness go together. They are opposite sides of the same coin. They complement each other like ingredients in a recipe: 

Sift equal amounts guilt, remorse, and admission of wrongdoing into bowl. Add an open mind, a kind heart, and a scoop of understanding; stir gently; bake as long as it takes. Enjoy the delicious blend of sincere apology and heartfelt forgiveness.

But over time I’ve learned that forgiveness is like a piece of art that stands on its own. It might be part of a set, but it is still complete and rich with possibility all by itself. A willingness to “let it go,” with or without the apology, makes us better people. People who forgive readily are happier, easier to get along with, and have more patience. They don’t hold grudges or revisit old arguments and are kinder than those who choose to stay angry. And what I find most interesting, people who forgive are quicker to recognize their own faults and apologize for their own misdeeds.

So, back to the story in which my character decided to forgive her betrayer . . . She and I ended up parting ways, and I decided to set the story aside. But my opinionated character left me with a wonderful gift, a message whispered into my ear:

“The true beneficiary of forgiveness is not the one who receives it . . . it is the one who grants it.”

I’d love to hear from you in comments below. And if you aren’t already, please follow my blog by entering your email in the box on the right. Thanks!

Should I Stay or Should I go?

I’ve gone in and out of several writing groups over the years. For the most part, I’ve gotten at least something out of each one — encouragement, sympathy, advice . . . and oh yeah, homegrown vegetables – writers have all kinds of interesting hobbies! For many of us, however, there comes a time when a critique group fails to serve its purpose.  Here are FOUR situations that indicate it might be time for you to move on.

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In Defense of Prejudice

And what’s that got to do with writing anyway?

One of my writing colleagues recently published an article about prejudice against beauty. What? Who doesn’t like beauty? We all enjoy seeing beautiful things, places, faces. But what we don’t usually consider is how that pretty face makes us feel. Envious? Intimidated? Intrigued? Superior? Before that gorgeous gal utters a single word, have we judged her based on appearance?

Drawing conclusions, positive or negative, and making assumptions about people according to how they look is human nature. If I see a good looking guy driving a fancy-schmancy car, I think he’s rich. But he could be the chauffeur, the son of a rich guy, the boy-toy of an heiress, a car thief . . . who knows? From a young age, we are taught not to judge a book by its cover (or a man by his car), but we can’t help it.

From Science Daily: “Contrary to what most people believe, the tendency to be prejudiced is a form of common sense, hard-wired into the human brain through evolution as an adaptive response to protect our prehistoric ancestors from danger.” Okay then, it’s all about survival. While we’ve come a long way since the caveman days, we cannot ignore our instinct to be wary of those who might harm us, thwart our plans, or get in our way. Stereotypes help us make sense of the world, and we want to be able to look at people and think we know what they’re about.

So what do stereotypes have to do with writing? For starters, it’s one way writers create surprises, twists, and tension. We take preconceived notions and turn them on their heads. The drunk, depressed girl with no life becomes the one who solves the mystery (The Girl on the Train); the nerdy newspaper reporter turns out to be the super-hero (Superman); the ambulance chasing, low-life lawyer is at his core a noble advocate for the truth (The Night Of); the outcast, scrawny dog/wolf steps up to be the leader of the pack (Balto).

As writers, we often give a protagonist prejudices as a way of showing character arc and creating tension. The protagonist must evolve, have a change of heart, or experience a revelation in her quest for whatever it is she desires. And it’s the “will she or won’t she” question that keeps the reader in suspense.

So the next time you draw a conclusion based on nothing more than appearance, don’t feel bad. It’s your inner caveman at work. Just know, you might be wrong . . .  then again, you might be right.

Read Mark Fine’s insightful article here: http://www.thefinemaxim.com/are-searchyou-prejudiced-against-beauty/

Would love to know what you think . . . And please follow my blog by entering your email in the box on the main page. Thanks!

A Point in Time

I’m sitting in a dark room sandwiched between two old women in wheelchairs. The one on my right is my mom. We are watching An American in Paris. I don’t think I’ve seen it before. Over the last month, my mother’s health and well-being have preoccupied my life. As a writer, I’m not happy to have my writing schedule thrown off track, to miss deadlines, to feel my creativity stifled. However, as a daughter, I am far more distressed to see my mom decline.

As I adjust to my new normal, I find time to write, as I’m doing now, in odd places and situations. In a strange and sweet way, Mom has become my muse. I’m spending more time with her now than I have since I was a child and she was the one who tended me – keeping me safe and fulfilling my needs. The ultimate role-reversal.

Hanging out in a senior home, surrounded by elderly, is both heartbreaking and humorous. If you think kids say the darndest things, try talking to old people. In general, they have no filters – they say whatever comes to mind without regard to appropriateness. The other day at lunch (yes, I eat lunch here on occasion), an old lady said to her friend, “Don’t order dessert, you’re getting fat.” I nearly choked on my orange jello. As it turned out, her friend didn’t hear her, or she pretended not to, or she just didn’t care. She ordered pie a-la-mode and a cookie.

As writers, we are keen observers – every person is a story. I’ve seen countless interactions here  – a loving moment between husband and wife; an adult child holding her mother’s hand; a family bringing a new baby to meet Great-Grandpa. I imagine the pasts of these old people, who and what they used to be. The man who worked for the CIA, the woman who raised eight children on her own, the military couple who lived all over the world. vintage-1319058__180I think about the lives they were living decades ago, when they could run and drive and use power tools. The lives they lived before their bodies aged, their minds faded, or illness robbed them of independence.

I’m trying to remember my own mom as the woman she used to be – my mommy, my advocate, my champion. Right now, I  can’t, it’s just too hard. But someday I will. She would want that.

Note: I wrote this on August 24, 2016. My beautiful mom passed away six days later. I will be eternally grateful that, almost on a whim, I decided to spend that afternoon with her, watching a movie and holding her hand.

 

To Read Me is to Know Me

cropped-Untitled.jpgWriters must be brave. When we write, we reveal stuff – what we think, believe, imagine. It took me a long time to get over feeling vulnerable and exposed. Actually, I’m not over it – I’ve just learned to live with it.

As a writer of fiction, I have no choice but to open up my head and spill the contents onto paper, creating stories with a fervor and passion that allow me to let go of my fears. My current work in progress deals with sexual abuse, a subject that is difficult to read and excruciating to write. My readers will judge, infer, and assume things about me when they read it. But I’m okay with that. As writers, we reveal how we think, expose what matters to us, divulge how our brains work and where our imaginations take us. All of that is what makes me the kind of writer I am.

If you want to know me, read my stories. Bits of me are sprinkled throughout every one of them. And if you really want to know me, watch my interview with Chris Williams from “I SHARE HOPE.” We spoke about everything from kids to cooking to how anyone on earth is able to inspire hope in others. His project will renew your faith in people. And it just may change the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A TASTE OF HOME ~ short story

“A Taste of Home” is based on my short play, “Traveling With Chicken Soup,” which was performed at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture in April 2016. It won second place! 

Nicki rolled over, sweaty and thirsty. She sat up and sneezed, smacking her head on the top bunk. Again. “Ow, shit. The door opened, and Nicki’s roommate, Jessica, walked in wearing only a towel. “Are you sick?”
“I think so. Can you get me a bottle of water?”
Jessica turned and grabbed a bottle of water from the top shelf of the closet they shared. She tossed it onto Nicki’s bed from across the room. “Sorry, but I cannot get sick. I have a physics midterm in two days.”
“It’s okay.” Nicki took a drink and fell back onto her pillow.
“Maybe you should go to student health,” Jessica said, putting on jeans, boots, and a Berkeley sweatshirt.
Nicki sneezed into her sleeve. “I don’t want to.”
“Okay, well, I’d better get to class. See you later.” Jessica scurried out the door as if heading to a decontamination shower.
Class, midterms, studying . . . Nicki couldn’t think about anything except the bump on her head and her burning throat. Just as she was dozing off, the ping of a face-time call disturbed her. Who would be trying to face-time so early in the morning?
Nicki got out of bed and opened the laptop on her desk. “Oh, crap.”
It was her mother, and she had ignored three calls from her yesterday. She tapped Accept.
“Hi, Mom.”
“Nicki! I’ve been trying to . . . Oh my God, you look awful!”
“It’s just a cold, Mom. I’m okay.”
“You most certainly are not okay.” Her mother leaned closer to the screen “Your eyes are all bloodshot and glassy. Have you taken your temperature?”
“No.”
“I can tell you’re running a fever, probably over a hundred and one.”
“I don’t have . . .” Nicki’s voice was swallowed by a fit of uncontrollable coughing.
“Good lord! Just listen to that cough! You’ve been at school for barely two months and already you’re at death’s door.”
Nicki wished she had ignored the ping. “I’m not at death’s door, Mom.”
“I know when my baby’s at death’s door. Open your mouth so I can see into your throat.”
Nicki rolled her eyes and opened her mouth wide.
“Lean in closer to the camera and say aaaah.”
Nicki put her open mouth near the camera lens on the computer. “Aaaaaaaah.”
“Hmm,” said her mother. “I think I see pus on your tonsils. Get your flashlight.”
“I don’t have a flashlight.”
“Yes, you do. I put one in your emergency kit”
“What emergency kit?”
“The one under your bed. Don’t you read your emails? I sent one last month with instructions for every item in the kit – the kit I put under your bed the day you moved in!”
“Oh, yeah, I remember now,” Nicki fibbed. “Lemme look.” She dragged herself to her bunk and got down on hands and knees. Her head was so heavy it almost hit the floor. Peering under the mattress, Nicki saw the large Rubbermaid bin. She pulled it out and lifted it onto her desk.
“The flashlight is on the left next to the antibacterial wipes and extra batteries.”
Nicki removed the lid. “Jesus, Mom, I could live for a month with all the crap you put in here.”
“That is the purpose of an emergency kit. Did you find the flashlight?”
“You mean this monster?” Nicki picked up the waterproof, ultra-bright, titanium, 17000 lumen torch. She turned on the light and shined it into her throat.
“Just as I thought,” her mother said. “You have tonsillitis.”
“You can’t diagnose tonsillitis through a computer screen.”
“I just did.”
“You’re not a doctor, Mom.”
“Jewish mother, doctor, what’s the difference?”
“About ten years of school,” Nicki said, turning off the flashlight.
“Don’t get sarcastic with me, young lady. I was the one who told the pediatrician your brother’s mosquito bites were actually chicken pox.”
“Okay, Mom.”
“And your Aunt Sheila told your cousin Adam his girlfriend had herpes and that he’d better not let her . . .”
“Oh God, please stop. You want me to throw up now, too?”
“No, but Aunt Sheila was right, and she’s a Jewish mother.”
“She’s also a dermatologist.” Nicki rifled through the emergency supplies and found five dozen pocket packs of tissues.
“Don’t get snippy with me, young lady. I want you to start a course of antibiotics. There’s a few z-packs in that brown paper bag.”
“What a surprise.” Nicki turned over a brown lunch bag, littering her desk with a colorful assortment of medications. “What are you? A drug dealer?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. A friend of mine knows somebody who knows somebody with a pharmaceutical connection.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“I really don’t care, Miss pre-law know-it-all. Now eat one of those granola bars and take a pill before you end up in the hospital with pneumonia.”
“I really think you’re overreacting.” Nicki swallowed the antibiotic with a sip of water.
“That’s what your father said when I forced him to go to the urologist, and it turned out his prostate was the size of a grapefruit.”
“Eww. I knew I shouldn’t have answered.”
“Too late for that, isn’t it?” Nicki’s mother stepped away from the computer.
Nicki watched her open the refrigerator and pull out a bag of carrots, a bunch of celery, an onion, and a whole chicken.
“What are you doing now?”
Her mother leaned toward the camera and smiled, her face filling the screen. “I’m making you chicken soup.”
“How’s it gonna get here? Fed Ex?”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll bring it to you.”
“No no no! You are not coming up here, Mom.”
“I most certainly am. Let me see,” said her mother, looking at he watch. “Soup will be done in a couple of hours. Probably won’t be my best, but it’ll do. I’ll pack it up and get on the road and be at your door by dinnertime.”
“That’s insane! Don’t do it, Mom. I don’t want chicken soup.”
“I don’t care if you want it or not. You need it. And once I’m there with it, you will want it. And you will eat it, even if I have to feed it to you myself.”
Nicki groaned. “This is unbelievable! I’m in college. I can take care of myself.”
“If that were true,” her mother shook her finger at the camera, “you wouldn’t have gotten sick. Too much partying and not enough sleep. I should never have let you skip the third grade. One more year at home with me wouldn’t have hurt.”
Nicki knew she had been defeated. She pouted and blew her nose and watched her mother slice the onion.
“Mom?”
“Yes?” Her mother stopped slicing and looked at the screen.
“Are you gonna make matzo balls, too?
“What’s chicken soup without matzo balls? Of course I am.”
“Do you have any of those skinny noodles I like?”
“I’m sure I do. And I’ll chop the carrots and celery into bite-sized pieces and put in some shredded chicken.” Mom's Best
“Just a little.”
“Just a little. Now, you get yourself back into bed and take a nice long nap, okay?”
“Okay,” Nicki said. “Keep your laptop open so I can watch you cook.”
Nicki’s mother gave her the look. The look that said: you’ll always be my baby-girl.  “See you in a few hours, honey.”
“Thanks, Mommy.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” Nicki crawled into bed with her laptop and watched the familiar sight of her mother bustling about. She took a deep breath and dozed off to the sounds of her mother’s kitchen. She slept, dreaming of chicken soup, a taste of home.

WRONG TIME ~ RIGHT DOG

The day started out like any other day. Ordinary and uneventful – just the way I like it. I’d been running errands when, as if pulled by an invisible force, I stumbled onto an animal adoption event in full swing. I picked up my pace, but a girl wearing a blue apron stepped in front of me.

“Hello!“ she said, her voice a bit too cheery. “Would you like to see one of our dogs? All of them are vaccinated and neutered.”

“Oh, thanks, but no. I just . . .”

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