It's football season, which for us - like so many families - means our schedule is packed now through October, and the vast majority of the dates blocked out have something to do with the gridiron. No need to guess where we'll be on Friday nights, either. We'll don our black and red to sit on metal seats where we'll stomp and clap and cheer ourselves hoarse. Well, I will. My sons will spend quit a bit of that time walking around with their respective herd of teenagers.
I've watched many of these boys play since their 7th grade year. I've watched them mature, as young men and as players. We've been the underdogs in these parts for a long time. The glory days are something I hear whisperings of but, having only lived here for 5 years, I wasn't around to witness. And while I acknowledge that the surrounding towns might not think much of us, our football team has heart. They have a spunk, a grit, that I admire.
If you talk to any of the players or go to many games, you'll hear the rumblings that the refs don't like us much. Calls seldom seem fair and the opposing teams often blatantly cheat and aren't called on it. (For reals - my son was bitten once on the field. I've seen kids kicked while down, after the play had stopped. It's not cool.)
But, from the relative comfort of the stands, I can also see that point when our boys give up. They come so close to victory and then you can see them decide the odds are stacked too much against them, and they stop giving it their all. Sure, some of them hang on until the bitter end, but enough of them check out that the crowd starts to check out, and the inevitable end comes.
And, in all of my bleacher wisdom, I know that until they decide they have a chance to win, they have no chance to win.
My oldest son only played football with this team for two years. A broken arm ended his second season and he opted to homeschool after that because he was eager to finish early and find his great adventure. Blake, number two son, couldn't play football because of his head injury. And, in truth, I think he doesn't mind so much. He only would have played because it was the thing to do, not because he loved the sport.
My number three son, though. That boy lives and breathes football and now that he's in 7th grade, his time has come. He graduates from Mighty Mites to being part of the football team. I watch him on the field with the other boys and I know they're beginning a journey together, just as his brother began a journey before him.
Last night, after the game was done, I listened as Number Three told me every bad or unfair call he'd seen. As I replied, I realized that I needed to heed my own words.
You see, the last time I was a football mom, I didn't feel as keenly how alone I was because my other two children were still young enough to always sit with me. Now they're off and gone with their friends and I can't hide from my solitude. For me, only part of my mind was on the game last night.
I have to admit that I spent most of it feeling very much isolated - from the moms whose sons stayed on the team to play all six years together; from the moms who are married; from the younger, single crowd; from the people who've lived here all their lives... you get the picture. I sat there, painfully aware of how alone I was and the weight of every terrible thing from the past week just kept getting heavier and heavier until I slunk home, drank two glasses of wine, and watched an episode of Outlander while wishing I'd get sucked back in time. Only--let's be real--I wouldn't end up in Sam Heughan's lap, no matter how much I wish I would.
But anyway, back to my reply. I told him, "Life never fights fair and there will be many times when it seems like the ref isn't calling the game like He should. But you keep fighting until it's over. As long as you're fighting, there's a chance you'll win. Stop fighting and your chances go to zero. If you want to be a football player, then wrap your head around it now - the refs will not call fair games, the other teams won't like you, and it will be hard. But you still gotta fight."
So enough moping. I am alone and it is not the end of the world. There is a lot of scary/awful stuff happening in my world right now, but it won't last forever. Because I choose to fight.
Today is my 40th birthday and the 3-month anniversary of moving into my new home. I still haven’t tired of the feel of my toes in between my sheets, of having a bed that is mine. And so, even though the coffee shop and a birthday latte beckon me, I lie here a bit longer, relishing the sheets on my skin. The kitten we rescued is nestled at the juncture of my neck and shoulder, purring. My Holly dog lies alongside me, her ears alert as she watches the parakeets chatter happily and flit about their new, expanded cage. My windows are flung open and an unseasonably cool breeze chills what little skin peeks out from the covers. Yes, even the coffee shop can wait on mornings like this.
If I emerged from a cocoon three months ago, a new and more beautiful creature than I had been before, this house has been the branch where I’ve basked in the sun, allowing my wings to dry while I figured out what to do with them.
We moved in with very little--the clothes on our backs, a smattering of dishes and furniture, and camping chairs for the living room. It’s a bit mind-boggling how quickly that changed, through the grace of God and the kindness of others. One old gentleman in particular is a good example of that kindness. For a month straight, things would mysteriously appear on our front porch. I’d see him at Bible study and ask if he new anything about it and he would blush, duck his head and smile.
Bit by bit, the empty spaces were filled until it was our home, comfortable and full of peace. It’s a peace others notice right away, often commenting as much when they cross the threshold.
The past three months have not been without their trials. There have been money woes, there always are, but we’ve met them with faith and the need is always met just in time.
My beloved 16 Hand Marketing has undergone so many changes that I sometimes wonder if it will survive and I know that if it does, it’ll be forever changed. But that’s okay, because maybe it’s already served its purpose. It reminded me I’m alive with dreams left to dream. They don’t all have to come true to make them worth having.
I have two family members who’ve received terrifying diagnoses this summer. One will be okay, one will not. The face of my family is changing and I’m grieving it. Most days, it feels like I’m inching my way along, trying to find my way through a dark and unfamiliar room.
There has been uncertainty in the past months - with my job, my horses, next steps… But there is hope. There is peace. And I am keenly aware that those two things were the cry of my heart leading up to my decision to leave my husband.
I am learning each day to let go of fears of failure, of being in trouble, of being too much, of being not enough. As I watch my children shift and grow in response to their changed environment, I’ve realized that I’m not the only one who has been unfettered, who is learning to navigate our new normal. Still, they are thriving in their new worlds and it does this mama’s heart good to see, even if I miss them now with their new social lives and space to spread out.
This week, we’ve been blessed with glorious weather. I’m telling myself it’s God’s birthday gift to me (I mean, seriously, how often does Missouri see jacket weather in early August?) I have spent my evenings on a football field, watching my youngest carve out a space for himself in a world his oldest brother once dominated and I treasure this moment.
Yes, there is ugliness swirling about my world. There is uncertainty. There are times when I feel my loneliness more keenly. But more than anything, life is good.
I suppose all of the people and places that brush against our lives shape us, but some more so than others. Some people you can know for years without ever truly knowing them. Others, it takes only a short while for them to become the dearest of friends.
If you read my recent series, My Own Ever After, you might remember me mentioning my local coffee shop, Maple and Main. My oldest son and I have spent an obscene amount of time there in the past six months, at first because the internet at our house in the country was sketchy and now because I’ve yet to hook up internet at our new house in town. Over the course of those months, Jacquelyn and Lyal--the mother/son duo who owns the place--have become friends I can’t quite imagine my life without.
We’ve spent enough time there that they hired Dylan to be a barista. Lyal works with us at 16 Hand, making video and graphics. My younger boys mow their lawns. It’s this fun little money loop, where we’re just passing it back and forth between families.
I don’t know if so quickly formed a bond of friendship because we found people as creative and quirky as us, because we can relate to mother/son team who are friends and business partners as well, or because of the sheer volume of time we’ve spent with them this year. Whatever the cause, they've helped me reshape my world into a brighter one.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book event or made any public appearance. I’ve been in survival mode, I guess, barely eeking out a book a year, let alone enjoying those books or my readers. But that, like so many things in my life, is changing.
What better way and place to change it than with the inaugural book event at Maple and Main? I will be one of three local authors appearing at Breaking in the Bookcase on June 1 from 6 – 8 pm. I truly hope you can join us that night, for so many reasons. The top three being:
If I ever begin to question God’s timing again—scratch that—the next time I begin to question God’s timing, I need to remember this chapter, this moment in my life. I felt compelled to write my story last fall. I ignored the prompting in my spirit to write all winter long. Late winter, I finally put fingers to keyboard. It wasn’t until I decided to release it on my blog each week that I truly began to make progress. That was 12 weeks ago. At the time, I knew my marriage was over, but I didn’t know where I was headed, where this story was headed.
As I sit to (belatedly) write this chapter, I am listening to my Charlie-dog snore contentedly on my bed. In the other room, I can hear my boys watching a movie as they wind down from their day. Beside me, my budgies are chattering my ear off, presumably telling me all about their day. What’s special about this moment is that it’s happening in my new house. My new home.
We thought we’d found the perfect house to rent, but it fell through. Another house seemed okay—we were all a little meh about it but figured it would do—but it had six people competing for it. Houses for rent in this town are scarce at the moment. So, at Dylan’s prompting, I called on a house that we’d seen for sale in town. I thought it would be too small. I thought there was no way I could buy a house. I thought a lot of things.
But I prayed that God would lead us home, and then I did my very best to truly leave it in his hands. The first time I saw this house, I wasn’t sure. I walked through it a second time and thought, this just might work. By the third walk-through, I was falling in love. Chris, like me, had to walk through it a couple of times to be sold. Blake was cool from the get-go. Dylan, from the moment he saw it, knew this was the one. Whenever I started to doubt, he reminded me this was the one.
There is a part of me that is tempted to sit and write out the details from that moment to this one because they are too perfectly, intricately timed to be coincidence. But I think the telling might get a bit convoluted, the details mean more to me than they would to another. Still, I am convinced to the very fiber of my being that God did, in fact, lead us home.
The house might not look like much to someone else. It’s a little white house with a green roof. It was built in 1900, which we think is terribly cool but does come with its own set of challenges. It’s officially a two bed, one bath, but it has a screened in porch on the back that I’m turning into my room. The first bedroom is massive, so two of the boys easily divided it to accommodate both of them. We actually wound up with quite a bit more space. The house is adorable and we’re even more in love than we were before. It’s in easy walking distance of anywhere we truly need to be, so not having a car is survivable.
Of course, our little haven isn’t without its share of trouble. At first, the water heater didn’t work. A tip from a friend at church help solve that problem, so we had hot water by our second full day. About the time the tank filled and got good and hot, Dylan was tightening the hot water hose on the washing machine when the pipe it connected to snapped, effectively creating a volcano of hot water shooting into my kitchen. I was trying to hold the pipes together, screaming “Make it stop. Somebody make it stop.” Teenage boys, some not even my own, were scrambling like mad to comply, even though they had no idea what to do.
By the time we got the water shut off, we had a good 50 gallons of hot water in my kitchen and Dylan and I were soaked to the bone. My drywall, well, I kinda wanted to try wood paneling in that spot anyway. A friend and former neighbor, God bless him, came out and taught Dylan how to fix the pipe, offering to walk him through anything else that arose after this. The entire weekend, the entire move process, was a testament to the amazing people we have in our lives. We are blessed beyond measure.
Now that I don’t have hot water spraying me in the face, I can laugh about the incident. But I think, on some level, it was a sobering moment for Dylan. Right, wrong, or indifferent, he’s been the de facto second adult in the house since he was, I don’t know, ten. In that moment, I think he realized that he was stepping into a whole new level of adulthood. I want to reassure him that he’s still a teenager. The burden to support us, to fix the broken pipes and fill the pantry, falls on me. But the reality is that he will accept more of that burden than he should. It’s in his nature.
To their credit, his brothers are stepping up. They’re mowing lawns for extra money rather than asking me for it. They’re helping around the house, being more responsible for their own schedules. Whatever the road ahead holds, we’re in this thing together. We’ve got each other’s back.
It’s been not quite a week since we loaded our meager belongings on my daddy’s trailer and hauled them to our new house. Already, a friend commented that I look like a new woman. I certainly feel like a new woman. I look back at the creature I had become and I don’t recognize her. She feels foreign to me.
So many people, when they hear about the divorce, express their sympathy. I feel bad, but I’m not sad. I miss my horses, my land. But even that isn’t as deep of an ache as I’d anticipated. There is such peace in our new home—even the dogs are calmer, happier. But I think it’s because I did my mourning a decade ago. There was a time when I wept for the passing of my marriage. But that time isn’t now.
My finances are no more certain than they were a week ago. There are still mountains in my path. But for the first time in a long time, I feel as if I can find joy even in the climb.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I have no clue what my own ever after will look like. I told a friend recently that I feel like I’m staring at a blank canvas, wondering what to paint. Maybe the picture will include a love story of my own, maybe not. As lonely as I’ve been, I do know that I have to show myself at least as much respect as I expect others to show me. I hope I’ve learned my lesson to never again allow another to devalue my place in humanity. I have to be the kind of woman I write books about if I ever hope to meet the kind of man I write books about, if I ever hope to raise the kind of men I want my boys to be.
Whatever my ever after looks like, it’s out there. And I intend to find it.
In November of 2016, one wild and wooly year after I’d rejoined the corporate world, my body was giving me unmistakable signs that I couldn’t keep the pace I’d been trying to maintain. Whether it was warning me of a heart attack or the squeezing in my chest was from panic attacks, the stress of my life was starting to take its toll. I’d been working multiple part-time freelance jobs in addition to my job at Incredible Pizza, trying to keep our family afloat. It was beginning to dawn on me that I made more money at the freelance jobs than I did my day job. More and more, my oldest son Dylan and I began to discuss opening our own marketing firm.
A couple of things happened that month that would once again change our path. First, I went to my boss at Incredible Pizza and explained that I couldn’t keep going with the status quo. After a few discussions, it was decided to farm one piece of my job out to a different department, bring in someone full-time to take over another piece of my job, and I would cut back to half-time from home to do the piece I’d originally been hired for: social media ads and strategy.
The second thing that happened was Booktrope friend and colleague Jesse James reached out to me on Facebook with a simple question, “Want to take over the universe together?”
My response was equally simple, “Sure.” Thus was the birth of 16 Hand Marketing. Sure, maybe being an entrepreneur isn’t the best way to reduce stress, but my gut told me it was the only way I would ever be able to truly support my kiddos while still having the flexibility I crave. And, being totally honest, it’s crazy how much I love this little company. In the five months since Dylan, Jesse, and I hung our shingle, we’ve assembled the most amazing team on the planet. I love each and every person we work with and I’m blessed beyond measure to spend my days creating magic with them. I’ve never been so proud of the things I’ve been part of as I have in the past five months, and I’ve never laughed so hard at work or felt so alive.
There are times, like right now, when I panic that I’ll drop the ball or somehow mess it up and 16 Hand will go away. But then Jesse reassures me that’s not gonna happen, and if it ever did, the company would just morph into something new.
Amusingly, Dylan and I are trying to run a digital marketing firm while having terrible internet at home. And, in one of life’s snarky little twists, our subpar internet got ridiculously useless once we really needed it. We struggled through for about a month when we realized someone new had purchased the defunct coffee shop in town and had reopened under a new name, Maple and Main. We gave it a try—mostly for the WiFi, partly because we’re coffee shop kind of people.
I have to sheepishly admit that, despite it being our sole purpose for being there, it was our fourth visit to the shop before we got the WiFi password. The owner was always busy and I didn’t want to be a bother. Then it got to the point that we felt stupid not having asked already. Dylan and I both tend to overthink things, so we were in real danger of never finding out the password. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask and we were once again reunited with the interweb.
We wound up spending so much time at Maple and Main over the past four months that its owners have become dear friends. I can’t imagine my world without them; they’re such creative, kind, and lovely people. In many ways, I credit their friendship for helping bring me back from nearly slipping over the edge—them, and 16 Hand Marketing.
I am positive there are those who would hear my story and think of a dozen or more things I could have done differently, moves I could have made that were much smarter. Sometimes I can feel the judgment rolling off of people in my life, or at very least they’re baffled by my choices. One of my dearest friends here in Buffalo is a realtor; when she heard about the circumstances surrounding our move down here, she said “Oh Heather. I wish I’d known you then…” and proceeded to rattle of six different things we could have done differently that wouldn’t have left our family staggering under the weight of this tax burden. I wish I had known her then—she’s one of the kindest, most amazing people on the planet and I'm sure she could have made a difference—but I went with the advice and resources I had at the time. That seems to be a pattern for me.
Having never been in an actual bar fight, I can only guess at what it feels like. Still, the best comparison I can give is that my life has been something of a bar fight for at least the last six years, if not twenty. Life is bigger than me, an experienced fighter with muscles, and life doesn’t fight fair. Me and life, we’re in the parking lot and a crowd has gathered around to watch my opponent just absolutely kick the snot out of me. With each blow, I get up a little slower and I stagger a little bit more.
I can hear people in the background, “Oooh, she should have gone left there,” or “Hasn’t she realized life telegraphs those right hooks?” But those things are harder to see when there’s blood in your eyes. It’s hard to process when your ears are ringing and the noise surrounding you is so deafening.
Sometimes it feels like I call out to God, “You are bigger than life! Why won’t you stand for me? Do something!” I probably send out this particular SOS more than I care to admit, actually. The response varies. Often, it feels like God just claps me on the back, gives me a quick drink of water and responds, “Nah, you’ve got this, champ. It’s good for you,” before shoving me back in the fight. Sometimes He’s silent. I look around the crowd and I can’t see His face.
But sometimes, He gets in a clean right hook that causes life to stagger back and give me a breath. Blake not only surviving his accident but thriving in the face of it is one of those moments. And so the times when I can’t even see God’s face in the crowd, when I can’t hear His voice, I cling to the memory of the when He clobbered life for me. And until He steps in to do so again, I keep getting up—however slowly—and I’ll keep staggering around the makeshift ring, trying to win this fight against life. And to think, there was a time when life and I were friends.
Not too long ago, I was on the phone listening to a friend talk about a struggle she’s having. Something about that conversation brought to mind the book of James, Chapter 1. I’ve always scoffed at the notion of rejoicing in trials and tribulations. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful; I just wasn’t sure patience and perseverance were worth the cost. But in that moment, I knew God has used the past 6 years, 10 years, 20 years to change me. He’s used these trials to change my children. He’s made us stronger, calmer, and kinder.
In many ways, I feel like I’ve been in a chrysalis. And now it’s time to break free from that cocoon of suffering to be the creature God has been molding me to be.
Mine and Adam’s marriage has never been a stable one. The things I write about in my books, they aren’t part of my own story. Sure, there were aspects of me in each book, but the love story that provided the heartbeat of my novels, it wasn’t mine.
Still, we both fought to save it, to make it work. Usually not at the same time and rarely in effective ways, but we tried. But in late 2008/early 2009, the marriage died, replaced by an arrangement that would spare our children having to shuttle between houses at a young age. Adam made it clear he wanted to someday have more. I made it clear I didn’t know if I’d ever get there. I won’t go into the reasons why—that’s between me, God, and Adam.
I’d agreed to stay, to see if time would heal wounds because our kids had been through so much already. And then the accident happened. And then the past six years happened. The days blended one into the next and somehow I forgot there could be anything different. It took longer and longer to write a book. I blamed my schedule, but the truth was that I was deeply depressed. I’d given up on love, on life. I was existing for the sake of my children and silently wishing I would die because then I’d be free.
It was a silly Facebook game that woke me up. It was probably click bait, but I fell for it. I clicked and took a picture of my resting face to see if I have what’s known as Resting Bitch Face. The app then analyzes the emotions your face gives off at rest. My face, without the smile to hide behind, shouted sadness. Like, off the charts.
We tried the app with each of my kids’ faces. Blake was neutral-to-happy. Dylan and Chris both showed underlying anger—a lot of it.
They took their dad’s picture. According to the app, his face oozed contempt. I’d put less stock in the results if my kids hadn’t unanimously said of all of the results, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
It was like a slap in the face, or a bucket of cold water over the head. That’s when I decided it was time to come out of the cocoon. It was time to change my life so that I could once again live my life, so my children could live their lives--because whatever I'd told myself, the world I'd created for them was not one of stability. It's not a healthy dynamic being modeled for them.
When I told the kids about the divorce, they barely blinked. On some level, they seemed almost relieved. Maybe it’s because Adam has operated separate from us for so long—he spends most of his time gone or in his room. But I suspect it has as much to do with the tension that hangs in the air of our home, permeable and ever-present.
The months since the decision was made have been have been some of the most stressful of my life. We switched cars since mine was in his name and his was in my name. The Blazer promptly died, leaving me car-less. Finding a place to rent has been a nightmare—there aren’t many rentals when houses can easily be sold. We owed taxes again this year. I had a farm full of animals to find good homes for… the list goes on. And on. And on.
But these weeks have also been, in many ways, some of the best times I’ve had in a very long time. Once the decision was made, something changed with my boys and I. Something lifted. Excitement settled over us in its place.
For the first time in a very long while, I have things I look forward to each day. The stressful stuff is easier if you’re fighting for something beyond mere survival, when there is joy and laughter woven throughout each day.
We finally gave up on finding a rental and bought a small house in town. Lord willing, everything will come together and we’ll close in 10 short days. It feels like 10 excruciatingly long days. People have commented that I don’t seem excited; I’ll be excited when the papers are signed and I have keys in hand. Until, then, I’m trying not to fret, to trust that God’s got this. Every now and then the excitement bubbles up, but I’m still afraid the rug will be pulled out from under me again. I hate admitting that my faith is so weak, but God already knows, so there you go.
The nice thing about buying a house is that I can take all three pet dogs with me. I’d been worried sick about having to leave someone behind. As for my horses, they’re going to be boarded. An intelligent person would sell them, but we’ve already discussed that that doesn’t apply here. I can’t bear to do it. It’ll be hard enough only getting to visit them when I can get my hands on a car, to not be able to walk out into a field and hug Daisy’s neck whenever I feel like it.
Yeah, I still haven’t solved the car pickle. Until we get over the expense of moving, it’s not in the budget. I tell myself that living in town means I can walk wherever I need to go and I’ll lose all the weight I’ve packed on over the past few years. I already have a 25 pound head start—that’s another change I made this year. I’ve begun the slow journey back to physical health as well as mental.
The one thing that has hit me, hard, during this process is how blessed I am by the people in my life. I am realizing that those roots I’ve longed for had already begun to grow in this little town I’ve come to love. But it’s not just here, friends from all over have stepped up in support of me and my boys. I feel completely and totally wrapped in the love of those friends, and that’s not a bad place to be.
To be continued...
By late 2015, my family was completely immersed in my publisher, Booktrope. In 2012, when they’d needed someone with project management experience, I’d recommended Adam. They’d hired him, and his role had increasingly grown with the company until he was VP of Production. Granted, it was a startup, so they handed out titles when they couldn’t hand out appropriate pay, but he was pretty much living and breathing that company.
I’d been one of their first authors. Then I took on marketing others’ books. Then I became a book marketing mentor. Then, when they decided to create imprints for their more specialized books, I took the helm of Vox Dei, the Christian division. I later took over their middle grade and parenting divisions, but Vox Dei was always my baby.
Over the course of 2015, with the help of Becki Brannen (an author who has, over the course of the years, become one of my dearest friends), we built something unlike anything I’d ever been part of before.
From a practical standpoint, taking over Vox Dei was stupid. My family was still broke; we still had a mountain of debt. My own book sales were languishing because Booktrope had never quite figured out their book management program (that was supposed to provide each author with marketing support). Sure, I knew book marketing, but I needed someone to help with my own novels. I’m a firm believer that every book, in order to succeed needs both an author who is willing to hustle and at least one other person in their corner. It’s not a solo effort. It’s really more of a team effort. I didn’t have that team.
By taking over Vox Dei, I effectively closed the door on my own book babies. I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time, I thought I could handle both. At the time, I thought the small percentage of book sales I was being offered in form of payment would mean something for my family. As it turned out, I couldn’t handle both and the pay was never even a drop in the bucket for us—far less than I could have been earning back in corporate life. (Or working fast food, to be honest.) Now that I know, I can’t say I would have chosen differently. What we did that year was that special.
The book industry is struggling right now, and the game plan adopted by big publishers (both the big five and established Christian publishers) is to go with the surest possible bets, names they’re reasonably certain they can sell. With Christian publishers, there is an added layer—The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). They have a set of strict standards that assure bookstores the titles are, in fact, Christian and adhere to Christian values.
While I applaud the intent, I’ve always felt that everyone was trying so hard to play it safe the end product was impacted. So many Christian books wind up looking like a plastic replica of life because they can’t ring true while still adhering to the standards set out by the CBA. Because of this, I was okay with the fact that Booktrope wouldn’t even consider joining it. I wanted to create Christian books for a messy world. Books that honored God while still meeting people where they were.
And boy, did we have some amazing books. Books that moved me, changed me, challenged me to be a better person. Books that reached out to the hurting and the broken, helping them find their way to healing. Books that engaged young Christian readers in a way they’d never been before.
We made good books, and we had an amazing team. We prayed for each other. We supported each other. We became involved in each other’s worlds. We were a family.
Becki and I faced too many challenges to name that year: turnover in the book management program, hiccups in the production line, and the ever-present push to publish more books faster. I look back now and am amazed at what we accomplished together.
By the time 2015 was in its home stretch, I was realizing that my life had been completely absorbed by Vox Dei. I was working from 6 am until 10 or 11 pm with barely a bathroom break. My kids’ homeschooling was turning into a disaster, salvaged only by the fact that I have amazing kids who helped each other and me. But with all of those hours put in, we still weren’t selling books. We couldn’t overcome the hurdle of not being in the CBA. We couldn’t crack the Amazon code.
I had some thoughts there, about what we could do, but I didn’t have the budget to test it. Booktrope had a pretty set formula of what they expected from book managers, of how they saw book marketing playing out. I’m not going to say if it was good or bad, only that it wasn’t complete.
In November of 2015, Booktrope hired me to do some competitive intelligence analysis for them. What were our competitors doing? What were other authors doing? How could we better sell books?
That analysis raised so many red flags for me, confirmed so many of the things I’d been feeling in my gut. Everything in the industry indicated that to survive in the publishing world, you either had to be a highly-diversified giant who could throw lots of money at your titles or a highly-targeted niche publisher who was deeply involved in each book you put out the door.
Booktrope was neither. We were churning books out at a record pace without any plan to sell those books. It was a recipe for disaster. I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to grow a division that I now knew would never get the budget it needed to succeed. And without an ad or marketing budget, there was only so much I could do.
I also knew that my family was in a state of financial ruin without me actually using my degree to earn a living. Adam didn’t see things my way. He was sure Booktrope would pull through. I, however, was absolutely certain it was no longer safe for us to have all of our eggs in the Booktrope basket. Perhaps it never was, but now my eyes were opened to it.
So I made the heart-wrenching decision to turn in my notice at Vox Dei and return to the corporate world. I had been reminded of my contract and that I couldn’t give explanation as to why I was leaving, even now, there is so much left unsaid. Still, navigating that departure was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Trying to do right by my team and my family was a slippery slope.
I applied for a job in the marketing department at Incredible Pizza, a family entertainment center based out of Springfield. The pay was about half what I was looking for, but something in me kept coming back to it. There were other jobs I could apply to, other jobs pursuing me, but my gut told me it was the right one. And while the pay wasn’t a lot, it was more than I’d been making at Vox Dei, so I applied. When I met the man I would be reporting to, I was even more certain that was where God was leading me. Tim, the VP of Marketing, and I had an instant rapport and I could see myself working well with him. Of all the times I’ve been wrong in my life, this was not one of them. I can still say Tim is a good human being who cares for his employees—and they’d walk through fire for him.
I took the job at Incredible Pizza, much to my children’s delight. For those who have never been to or heard of America’s Incredible Pizza, let me pause to explain. The front of the house is a full buffet, not just pizza. The back is an entire indoor fairground. Yes, fairground. Video and prize games are just the tip of the iceberg. They also have (depending on the store) laser tag, go karts, bumper cars, a tilt-a-whirl, a roller coaster, mini bowling, mini golf, a trampoline park… it’s insane. It’s incredibly fun. And it was now a part of their world.
Knowing how excited they were made it easier. I was proud to finally be doing something that delighted them. The past few years had been so hard for them; it warmed my heart to be able to bring my children such joy. Still, there were days I cried the whole way into work. I missed my kids. I missed Vox Dei. I missed my farm and my animals. Being in a cubicle for 8 hours a day felt like being in a cage. And since I was THE social media department for a company that was busiest on evenings and weekends, I was tied to my work phone or a laptop all evening and every weekend, too.
Somehow, I’d landed myself in yet another position where I was working seven days a week and not making much money. I have a knack for that.
I was in Tulsa for my first Incredible Pizza store visit when the announcement came down that Booktrope would be closing its doors. I’d found out a few days before but had been instructed not to say anything. Even though I’d had a couple of days to mentally prepare, the official announcement was a huge blow. I had indie-published my most recent novel, but I still had eleven books that were now going to be pulled out of publication. What little revenue I was still getting from them—and five years of work building them up—would be erased. I had two divisions full of people looking to me to help them understand and navigate the implications for their books. And my husband was losing his job.
I cried a lot that weekend. I felt bad, like I probably wasn’t making the best impression on the Tulsa Incredible Pizza, but I took lots of breaks back to my hotel room to cry, then I’d pull myself back together and walk back to the store, where I was surrounded by laughing, happy people. The disconnect was surreal.
So many of my hopes and dreams had been placed in Booktrope. Even though I had seen it coming and had jumped ship months before, I still mourned the loss. Deeply.
Adam was determined to go down with the ship. He was more actively involved right up until the bitter end than even the c-suite. I know it was the right thing to do for the authors who were panicked, struggling to get things in order before their books disappeared. But for our family, it was catastrophic. He was so immersed in the sinking Booktrope ship that he didn’t have time to look for a new job.
Booktrope closed in April. It would be September before Adam found a job to replace it. In so many ways, it’s the perfect job for him. He’s now helping the homeless in Springfield and surrounding counties. The pay is a little over half what he’d been making at Booktrope. On the one hand, he’s helping others and he is fulfilled. On the other, raising a family is expensive and I think there’s a tendency to get so wrapped up in saving the world that he downplays the needs of his own family, he forgets how much his own children have given at the altar of our dreams.
Dylan, our oldest, never does things the normal way. He is so like me in that regard. He had no desire to return to public school, ever. In fact, he once told me he had nightmares that I’d make him go back. I remembered having those same nightmares, so I helped him finish his high school diploma sooner rather than later. He’d been testing at Master’s level work as a seventh grader. Finishing a high school curriculum in three years instead of four wasn’t tough for him. For his final semester, he enrolled in a local community college to take a few classes there while he dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s on his homeschool education.
I re-enrolled my other two boys in public school in Fall of 2016. They aren’t like Dylan in that regard. He would have suffocated had I made him go back and do things the normal way. They, however, are thriving. I love their school and their teachers. I love that my kids are making friends. And I love not being wholly responsible for their education. There was a joy in homeschooling, but there was a serious weight to it as well. I appreciate the teachers who accept that weight not only for my children, but for every other child in the school.
While I stopped mourning Booktrope, there were times when I questioned if I’d heard God right about Incredible Pizza. It was an intense job, to say the least. I was solely responsible for all six Facebook pages with about 180,000 fans between them, both producing content and responding to every single customer comment and complaint. Then there was the rest of the social plan, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In addition, I was responsible for finding, arranging, and often working the community events for each store. With six stores involved in six to 10 events per store per year, that added up. And there is a lot about the business that makes working there a unique challenge and, well, intense.
There are so many things about Incredible Pizza that I love—the team and being part of something that makes kids smile are at the top of that list. But the pressure was unbelievable. I hadn’t had a day off since February. By November of 2016, I had gained even more weight, I was losing my hair from stress, and I was having chest pains. It was the chest pains that got my attention. I knew something had to change.
To be continued...
As I write this, I’m sick yet again. I’ve had some sort of respiratory illness pretty much since November, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my house—the mold, the dust, the mice. This is one of those houses that no matter how much I clean, it’s never clean. No matter how much I battle the mice, they find another hole. We never intended to stay in a tiny, outdated house. The plan had always been to update, to add on. Life has a way of laughing at plans, though.
As I think about where to start with this particular chapter, it’s a needed reminder to be thankful, and there was a time I was very thankful for this house. November of 2013, my family embarked on what would be our most difficult adventure yet. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had purchased our land and cabin just in time for what would be the harshest winter in anyone’s memory.
The cabin was just 325 square feet with one room and two lofts. We didn’t have running water. I built us an outhouse with a composting toilet and a makeshift sink. Adam took one of the lofts for his bedroom and office. The boys took the other loft for their bedroom. I resumed my usual spot on the couch. We had a wood stove in the center of our room. I turned one corner of the cabin into my “kitchen.”
The setup was as close to a Little House on the Prairie kind of gig as I ever want to come, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the women who settled this vast country of ours. It was not an easy life by any stretch.
As odd as it seems, the boys and I were all excited about this new adventure at the outset. After 18 months of being buffeted about by the whims of others, this was something we felt we could control. This was our chance to own something, to sink down some roots. The plan was to hunker down for the winter and break ground on a cob house in the spring. (In fact, I have an entire Pinterest board to attest to that plan.)
The week we moved into our cabin began the most brutal of winters. Arctic winds howled seemingly non-stop. It snowed, it snowed again, and then it snowed some more. My boys got really good at splitting wood. Our little stove was so tiny that it only burned for two hours at a time, so Dylan and I slept in shifts to keep it stoked, lest it go out overnight and the family freeze to death. Even so, there were mornings the water jugs at the far corners of the cabin would freeze through.
On the coldest of days, there was little more we could do than pile up in blanket igloos on the couch to watch TV. We watched a lot of Netflix that winter. We watched so much Psych that to this day, whenever I hear the theme song, I’m transported back to that cold little cabin.
We lost several animals that year, despite having barns and plenty of bedding. The oldest alpaca, two of our baby goats from kidding season (which started in January for us), and a bottle baby goat named Anna that we’d taken in. Anna was the hardest. I adored that little goat and the way she’d dance when she saw me. We never knew what happened to her; we just came home one day to find her dead.
One night in December, I agreed for Dylan’s friend Zach to come spend the night with us. Zach’s parents had a party to go to and they didn’t feel comfortable leaving their teenage son to his own devices. I was reluctant to have company because I was so embarrassed for their friends to see how tiny our home was, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. As it turned out, Zach wasn’t alone. He’d brought another of their friends, Noah, with him. Those goofy boys got to horsing around in the loft and you could feel the entire cabin rock. When I smelled burning rubber, I looked around for the source, only to discover that Noah had thrown a pair of Dylan’s shorts onto the wood stove. I snatched them off the stove and threw the smoldering britches outside, but my house smelled like burnt shorts for pretty much the rest of the winter.
Noah was an enigma. Sometimes he was a total punk. Sometimes he was as loveable as an overgrown pup. Sometimes you’d catch a glimpse at the pain he carried inside and it would tear your heart right in two. I don’t think anyone really understood how much Noah carried around inside; he took his own life in February 2015. The story of the burning shorts was one of the stories the pastor told at his funeral. That funeral was one of the hardest I’ve ever gone to. There was a group of us football moms who huddled together, all with the same look on our face. That look was a mixture of our hearts breaking for our own boys as they dealt with the loss of their friend and the question none of us wanted to ask: Could I have done more?
Noah taught us a lot of things, most of which is not my story to tell, but first and foremost he taught me that the things that can seem so insignificant to us can be the world to someone else. You never really know what kind of impact you have on someone else’s life.
There were times in that little cabin that we thought the winter would never end. By February, I was in a pretty dark place. I was severely depressed and felt completely and utterly trapped in my marriage and in the constant poverty that seemed to be tightening its grip on us ever since Blake’s accident. But I continued to put one foot in front of the other, if for no other reason than my boys needed me.
If there was anything that got me through besides my boys and my faith, it was hearing from an old friend from Scottrade. Kate had written a book and wondered if I’d be willing to read it and give her feedback. Not only was the book amazing, it was heart-wrenching (I went through an entire box of Kleenex). And it reminded me that our lives are never as insignificant as they can sometimes seem. In many ways, that book saved my life. (Saving Jason by Kate Anslinger, btw. It’s worth reading.)
Ironically, the time of my deepest depression was also when I was writing Waiting for You, one of my happiest books. There were things that were good about our “Derksen Days.” We learned a lot. We drew even closer to God and each other. I lost all of the weight I’d put on after Blake’s accident. (Hey, I’ll take a win where I can get it.)
Thankfully spring did come, eventually. And with the lengthening days and sunshine, my mood improved. I only let life keep me down for so long before I look around to figure out what I have to change to make things better for us. The instant the ground began to thaw, I knew the first order of business was to build us a home. I’d spent my winter studying up on cob building and was dying to give it a try. We started with a cob chicken coop, which was absurdly fun. After a couple of days, we really had the hang of creating just the right mix of sand and clay and water to create our building material. For a week, I utterly enjoyed the hard labor of hauling materials and the feel of the cob under my fingers. I envisioned all the lovely things I would make out of cob.
We had the trench dug for the house’s foundation and we set a date for a “cob party”—we knew we’d need more hands on deck if we’d ever get our home built. Our friends and family showed up and worked hard all day. It was fun, it was exhausting—our bodies ached from it—and at the end of the day, we had absolutely no discernable progress to show for our efforts. It was right about then that I began to rethink my cob house. In fact, that’s when it began to occur to me that a person who’s biggest building accomplishments to date were a chicken shanty and goat houses probably shouldn’t be building their own home from scratch.
As I re-thought my strategy, we began to spend quite a bit of time at the coffee shop in town. They had tasty drinks, wi-fi, and it felt good to be in a normal building. Adam really liked the shop’s owner, who also happened to be the mayor at the time. I always got the impression that she was nice to me because I was a customer but we wouldn’t be friends if we met on the street. She was nice, though, and she let me put a couple of my books in her shop. She was also pretty with a lovely singing voice.
I remember one particular day—by that time I’d taken a job doing some book marketing at Booktrope in addition to my own book stuff—anyway, I was sitting at the shop working when a man came by the shop to practice a duet with Kristy. He was cute, they made a pretty pair sitting there singing, but the thing that struck me was how obscenely talented he was. He could play a guitar like I’d never heard before, and his voice was both soothing and gripping at once. That was the first I learned that Buffalo has its very own rising star in Lyal Strickland. Once Adam told me the name, I realized I’d heard a couple of his songs on Adam and the boys’ playlists.
I didn’t think much else of it after that day, but man, I was jealous of her in that moment. If I could have been anything besides a writer, it would have been a musician. There are times I toy with the idea of learning guitar and singing in coffee shops and wine houses for the sheer joy of it someday, when my kids are grown. But I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my fear of singing publicly to accomplish that one.
Spring was in full force by then and I was no closer to solving my housing issue. We couldn’t stay in the cabin much longer without losing our minds, but I had no real clue what to do about it. And then, our neighbor put her tiny little house on the market. The house sat on about an acre, completely ensconced by our property because the two had once been one. Buying the house seemed like the perfect solution to our problem. If nothing else, it had running water. Hauling animal water from the creek had lost its appeal months before—more than once, I’d get the water to the top of the hill, only for something to send the bucket rolling back down, emptying its contents.
There were a couple of problems with that plan, though. Namely that I had a short sale on my credit, a mountain of medical bills, and no money for a down payment. And that’s when the same deacon we’d bought our land from stepped in and bought the property solely for the purpose of reselling it to us, owner financed. It’s been three years, and I am still at a loss for words to explain my gratitude to that man and his wife for what they did.
We now had an end in sight, indoor plumbing was tantalizingly close. The only problem was the closing date got shuffled a few times after we’d packed up the cabin and told the company we’d rented it from they could come get it. Money was tight and we couldn’t afford both. And that, my friends, was the birth of gypsy camp. For a few weeks in May, my family literally camped on our own land while we waited for the house to close. We called it gypsy camp and did our very best to make it an adventure. And most days, it really could have been worse. Storms sucked.
But then, the house closed and we moved in and began to feel like normal human beings again. (If you’re counting, this makes the fourth address we’ve had on the same street.) We had running water and a propane heater. At first, 725 square feet felt huge. Adam got a room/office. Blake and Chris shared the second room. Dylan turned a shed into his own room, and I resumed my spot on the couch. But, whether it was due to our kids getting huge or just the newness to wearing off, it didn’t take long for the house to start feeling cramped.
Things break faster than I can fix them. We’re right on top of the dirt road and the house has terrible seals, so it’s ALWAYS dusty, even five minutes after you dust. The internet is awful. The house next door (that sat vacant for a decade) got a tenant who, quite honestly, scares me. I could go on—there are about a million things about this house that drive me crazy or I wish were different.
But then there are the flowers. I mark my year by the rhythm of the flowers and the trees. I adore our creek and our orchard. Everywhere I look, there is something about this land that I love. I wish things were different, that I wasn’t so alone in tending the farm, that I had more money, more time, no creepy neighbor… but however discontent I may be at times, I am thankful for this little house, down to the very core of my being. I know things could be so much worse.
It’s been three years since we moved into our home. And we have had so many happy memories here. We have dear, dear friends on this little road—good, hard-working people who have been there for us in good times and bad. Our horses, Dixie and Casper came back to us. Sadly, we lost Casper to cancer. I still remember my youngest son, curled up with that horse out in the field. He didn’t leave his side until the end.
I got my darling Daisy in this house—she’s an appaloosa filly who has become the horse of my dreams. We got her when she was six months old from the same breeder we’d bought Dixie from. The first few months we had her, she was kind of a brat and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. But I kept working with her and then one day, we just started clicking. She’s two now and I’ve never had a horse I trust more. We have a bond I can’t explain, the kind I’ve always dreamed of having.
We still visit Jack on occasion; it was important to the boys and me to keep that friendship going. On one of our visits, he offered to let us breed Dixie to his stallion, who had been moved to a nearby university. I was beyond excited to take him up on the offer, knowing the foal that pairing produced would be far better than anything I could ever afford. (Though, in truth, Daisy is an amazing horse worth far more than I paid.)
I felt awful for agreeing to the breeding when poor Dixie was so miserable during the process. But the breeding took, and I will never forget what it felt like to watch the baby’s heart flutter on an ultrasound. I cried. I think I was as emotional as I had been watching my own ultrasounds. The year between that ultrasound and foaling seemed to drag on forever. Dixie ran past her due date. Jack lost one of his foals to fescue poisoning, which made me worry all the more about Dixie and her baby. I was terrified I’d do something wrong and mess it up.
And then came the morning that I went to check on Dixie and there was a little red filly learning to walk at her side. She had a huge blaze of white that rambled awkwardly down her face. I don’t know how long I stood there watching the pair, crying like a fool, before going to get the boys.
Pip eventually grew into the white blaze and her color deepened to a dark bay, just like her daddy. She’s a phenomenal horse. Watching her grow, being part of her start in life, has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Of all the things I love about my farm, I love the way we have it set up the most—the land wraps around the yard in a way that means I’m always close to my horses. I can always look out a window and see them. And when life gets too rough, I go out and hug their necks and drink in the smell of them. Pip and Daisy are the horses I waited my whole life for, and it was worth the wait.
I want so badly to end the chapter there. It feels happy and complete, but there is one other event I feel the need to work in. It was the October after we moved into the house, and I was walking across my parents’ lawn when I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. I could hear it tear and the pain was immediate. It just so happened that on that particular night, my sister’s friend was also there. She was a nurse and I knew she’d take one look at my ankle and insist that I get it treated, which I had no intention of doing. (We have a high deductible health plan, and I know I've mentioned the crushing medical debt before.)
When I was 15, I tore all of the ligaments in my left ankle and knee doing step aerobics in gym class. (Ironically, my middle name means “full of grace.”) Anyway, that little slip saddled me with years of physical therapy and surgeries. At one point, my orthopedic surgeon told me that I had arthritis so bad in my left foot that by the time I was 40, I could very likely be in a wheelchair. Off and on through the years, my foot will flare up or I’ll re-sprain it. When that happens, I baby it, do my PT exercises, and move on.
But on this night, as I sat staring at my enormously swollen foot that was an ugly shade of purple, I suspected I’d need to more than baby it. Somehow, I got through the night without having to go to the hospital, even though I couldn’t bear any weight at all on the foot. When we got home, I wrapped and iced it and we pulled my crutches out of storage.
I kept telling myself it would heal soon. “Soon” turned out to be more than 8 weeks before I could even get off the couch without it instantly puffing up and turning purple again. It had to be elevated ALL THE TIME. Try running a farm, keeping up with three kids, cooking from scratch and not having a dishwasher with a foot that has to be elevated ALL THE FREAKING TIME. All of the from-scratch cooking that had become part of our routine went by the wayside during that time. We fell back in the habit of eating easy but unhealthy packaged meals since I was no longer able to cook.
The foot did eventually heal, though it was probably a year before it stopped hurting and I have only now, more than two years later, started wearing cute shoes occasionally instead of the support shoes that I’ve needed to walk without pain for so long.
Two things happened as a result of that fateful night: the farm went downhill, fast, and I’ve never been able to fully reclaim the ground I lost. The other is that by switching back to processed foods and my activity level plummeting, I packed on 70 pounds over the course of two years. I’m sure my age has something to do with that, too, but that’s a rather touchy subject this year.
Here’s the thing about gaining weight, and it’s also true of getting older: you might not recognize the person in the mirror anymore, but you’re still the same you on the inside. It’s frustrating when the rest of the world doesn’t recognize that.
When I asked Dylan to proof this installment for me, he commented "a lot happened then, didn't it?" He's right. I mean, I didn't even get into the mountain lion attack. As we talked, we realized we haven't had much of a breath since March 31, 2011. No wonder the boys and I are all feeling so worn down.
But for every hardship, there's an Uno game that left us laughing so hard our sides hurt. For every time life has thrown us a curve ball, there is a friend who unexpectedly cooked dinner or checked in on us "just because." This life may not be easy, but it is full and we are thankful.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.