A Stick and a Story

This post is approximately 450 words – my interpretation of a child’s imagination.

As we waited for the bus the other day, our son Benji picked up a stick and brandished it. He’s non-verbal, but I could tell by the look on his face that he was suddenly going on an adventure. Like millions of kids before him, this simple act transported him from our world to another, turning him into an explorer, a hunter, or a hero.

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Divine providence signified that Ben was to carry Excalibur. That is why he is your king.

The same was certainly true for me. Like many of my generation, I remember playing lightsabers as a kid. As soon as you picked up the perfect stick, you were transported to the hallway outside docking bay 327 on the Death Star: one of you was Obi-Wan; the other, Darth Vader. Good and evil didn’t matter because YOU WERE IN STAR WARS. (Sidebar: Once, I made the mistake of acting out Kenobi’s sacrifice, which resulted in a painful whack across the arm. I still enjoyed my time in a galaxy far, far away, even if I didn’t disappear amongst crumbling robes.)

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Like Lucy Pevensie passing through the wardrobe, Benji emerged from the bushes into a strange new world.

It’s times like these when you realize magic is real. Like a portkey, a simple catalyst was all it took to transport you to another place, introducing you to new people and new experiences. It could be wearing a cape like Superman, holding a flashlight like the Hardy Boys, or sliding into the open window of a car like one of the Dukes of Hazzard.

Writing a story is very much the same. You’re looking at the mundane or the unusual in your everyday life, trying to find ways to send readers to places strange and wonderful. Maybe it’s a twisted tree or a distant hill or a scent carried upon the breeze. The point of inspiration doesn’t matter in the end; it’s the resulting idea that counts. If you’ve done your job as a writer, it should be as effortless for the reader as picking up a stick.

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The school bus calls for an end to the adventure.

Being carried away by your imagination is an amazing power, and I think writers need to feel the magic contained within sticks more often. At the very least, we’re transported back to our fondest childhood memories; but at best, we’re inspired to get back to the writing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going outside to pick up a lightsaber.

–Michael


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© Michael Wallevand, September 2017

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How Do You Honor A Life?

This post was the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and I apologize if your heart breaks like mine.

I’d nearly forgotten.

It’s been eight years since the traumatic birth of our son. Benjamin spent 14 weeks in the hospital and needed oxygen and other breathing assistance even longer. With that much time in and out of hospitals, a family sees regular examples of how precious the miracle of life is. And how fragile.

When you emerge on the other side of your ordeal, you are stronger in many ways. You are grateful that your loved one has survived. You consider yourselves lucky because many families have had it worse. Unimaginably worse. Over time, your heart and mind are healed, but permanently damaged by some piece of emotional shrapnel you can never remove. Forevermore, when you see children suffering, that splinter of old anguish is a twisting knife in your heart.

It’s not something that many people discuss, and the closer you are to it, the less you try. Whether it’s the pain, the sadness, or the desire to talk about happier things, many of us don’t seek to have those uncomfortable conversations with anyone we know. Eight years ago I tried so share some of what I was seeing, but it was too sad and too depressing:  Things I Heard In The Hospital That Broke My Heart. I wrote that piece so I could always remember, and because I knew I’d want to forget.

Recently, I learned about the four-year-old son of my wife’s high school friend, and all the memories came crashing back.

We didn’t see the family socially, so I’d never met James or his parents. We learned he’d been diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare, inoperable tumor which is found on the pons region of the brain stem. This type of tumor occurs almost exclusively in children 5 to 9 and has no cure. It’s a blessing that only 300 children are diagnosed with DIPG each year.

That particular placement impacts gross motor skills and the ability to speak. If you’ve had children in your life, you’ve likely marveled as they rapidly developed in these key areas. It’s like watching life on fast-forward. If you’ve witnessed this experience, you begin to understand the tragedy when that progress slows, and then reverses. I cannot imagine watching your son transform from an athletic and articulate child, to a boy that has difficulty moving and can no longer talk. And if that wasn’t terrible enough, it’s a terminal condition.

In a world often filled with horrors, this disease seems impossibly cruel.

For the last few months, I’ve been watching this child slowly regress through my wife’s grief, as she read the family’s unbearable updates. On a Saturday a few weeks ago, came the day of James’s benefit. A chance to raise money and offer a modicum of comfort to a family that would be unable to find solace for years to come. As if in response to the weight and sadness of the day, heavy gray clouds hung descended, releasing dreary, cold rains that chilled spirits and bone alike.

And yet, inside the sun shone through James. He was still very much a little boy, eager to play and laugh and eat.

When I shook hands with James’s father, Pat, there was a connection that perhaps only fathers share, an understanding of the importance of protecting your family and the despair that comes when you fail in that duty. As I looked into his eyes, I saw the face of a man who, understandably, was barely keeping it together. In that situation, you try to take a portion of that paternal love and strength and pass it on to someone who needs it more. You pray that your empathy doesn’t overwhelm you, because if your walls crack, his most certainly will crumble. I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to convey so much meaning into a handshake.

After that, I spent time playing with James and donated some money – both of which felt inadequate compared to what I received in return: some precious time with a radiant life. My feeling of hopelessness remains, but it’s somewhat offset by the joy I saw in his eyes and the love shared by all who knew him better than I.

Upon returning home, I put my grief aside, for it felt like a selfish thing. It does no good for James or his family or the world. For my part, I can tell you about his smile, which still came regularly and could light up any room. I can talk about his sense of humor – how he delighted in sharing false mustaches with the other kids. I can share with you how he savored the food he ate, gratefully consuming everything his family brought to his mouth. And I can convey how he was loved, by a room full of people willing to give up anything in the world to make him better.

While there is very little hope for him, he has given hope to all of us. He has shown us how much power there is in a child’s smile, how much strength there is in a twinkling eye, how much life there is in silent laughter.

Yet still I cry for the unfairness of it all. For the child just beginning to understand how wondrous the world can be. For a family robbed of their most precious treasure.

And so I write. The least-worthy beneficiary being myself, a person needing to process the emotions felt toward a child I’ve met once. I write to help others understand and remember what tragedies our fellow humans are enduring. And I write to immortalize a four-year-old who made an indelible mark on the hearts of anyone who met him, even if only for a few hours on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It is that tremendous impact by a human being that gives me hope, and perhaps others, too.

This will be a recurring theme here: donate your time and money and talent. As with every disease we are going to conquer, we all take small steps, both financially and socially. We raise awareness; we raise money. We do what we can, knowing that right now, it’s not enough. Not for the life we desperately want to save.

I’ve added links at the bottom of this post for those who would like to donate to James’s family, or to other worthy organizations.

Hug that person you love and never forget to keep doing that. Sit on the floor and play or call them on the phone. We never want to regret that we didn’t have just one more day.

Mike

© Michael Wallevand, September 2017

Organizations I support:

Paths of Imagination

This post is approximately 500 words long. That’s about a word for every friggin’ marble I’ve stepped on.

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Benji and I recently played with our Marbleworks set from Discovery Toys. Think of it as a cascading bobsled track for marbles that you assemble in any configuration you desire. Place one in the funnel at the top and it follows your path all the way to the bottom. This wonderful experience develops creativity in kids (and reignites it in parents).

Our construction approaches vary. Sometimes, Benji just gives me pieces. Others, I try to work in something creative, like every level is the same color. The basic approach is the same: funnel(s) at the top, finish line(s) at the bottom, fun raceway in the middle.

And (he says, appreciating the segue he’s created), this is analogous to writing a story. Continue reading

Building Blocks of Imagination

This post is about 400 words. 

I’m at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, sneaking in whatever writing time I can in a house with eleven people, two dogs, and more leftovers than any one fridge could contain. Despite these distractions, I’ve spent enough years writing that I have some tricks for keeping the creative fires warm. Right now, I’m sparing some time for a post that serves as writing analogy and inspiration for building creativity in your children.

Last night, our youngest son Ben brought out the blocks I played with as a child, and suddenly I was writing this post in my head as I built with him.

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My maternal grandfather made these blocks for me using 2x4s and some leftover paint. The basic blocks looked like this, though there were other lengths, too. With these, I could construct walls and forts and many other things as I played with my Star Wars figures.

But it was the oddballs that truly fueled my imagination. Call them scraps or discards, many would consider these pieces worthless. Clearly, my grandfather did not agree. Nor do I.

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Continue reading

Writing As A Parent #1

This post is approximately 200 words.

Sometimes, a writer needs absolute silence. No distractions.

Sometimes, you’re so inspired, the words just flow and you can power through the sounds of kids, wrestling dogs, or the television.

And sometimes, you need the wisdom to hand the computer over to forces greater than yourself.

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The smart writing parent saves and closes the manuscript, leaving a copy for the child whose artistic inspiration cannot be contained.

Ben was quite cuddly this morning, covered in several blankets, and pressed as close to me as a hibernating baby bear looking for warmth from his mother. He watched me typing for fifteen minutes before becoming interested in the computer himself. He loves drawing, whether with crayons or on electronic devices. I was still waking up – and he’d broken my concentration (though I wasn’t unhappy about it) – so I let him do this thing.

We spent some time together, doodling and such, which was a more enjoyable morning than putting him in front of the tv so I could get back to work. He eventually took a break, and now I’m back on the job, happier than I started the morning.

One additional note, I learned some new functionality, including the discovery of more emojis than I’d ever care to use.

–Michael

Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this from Michael!

© Michael Wallevand, May 2016