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It’s My Dash

Gratitude is pecking at my window in the form a female cardinal. She is so dignified with her red crest and tail and beak, even if I do sense her judgment. It’s nearly noon. I’ve been writing since early this morning, and I’m still in my bathrobe. Our dog, Iris, sleeps in a puddle of sunshine, a respite after having surgery just a few days ago. She is also doped up on pain meds, her last vial of the stuff emptied as of this morning. Upstairs, middle daughter is home from college to rest off a bad cold. It’s winter, but already I can feel the season losing its grip. Not that it had much of one. We’ve had no snow to speak of.

The last few months have been the strangest and the best. I’ve left teaching for the first time in years, and now I have time to write. Not time to merely squeeze it in. Not time to neglect so many other things, like my husband and children, and try not to feel guilty about writing. But actual writing time.

Like the fussy steward of some historic structure, I am quite protective of this new stage. I will not squander it. Every single day, you’ll find me here on my sofa or at the dining room table, plunging into unknown territory. With this new novel, I’ve researched and interviewed. I’m planning trips to do more research and interviews. There’s a pile of books I’ve read and annotated and more I still need to read and annotate. I’ve devoured page after page of archives. This is how I spend my time now.

I can honestly say that out of all the books I’ve written (far more than are published) this new topic has consumed me to an extreme. It has me in its grip. It has angered me. It has brought me to tears. If you’re a writer, you understand this is a very good thing. Otherwise, how can you possibly tether yourself to a computer for hours on end?

Sometimes I marvel at this calling, this obsession, this addiction, this strangeness that comes with being a writer. Here I sit, having set aside a long-time career I loved, one that came with a title and a steady paycheck, to hang out in my bathrobe and, forgive the strong language, please clutch your pearls, make shit up.

A few days ago, I chatted with an old friend who is trying to decide what’s next in terms of her professional life. Often she is asked this question: What do you do? Her response is usually to hem and haw and say things like, “Oh, this and that.” To tell the truth of it, however, my friend has given up a job she enjoyed to look after her dying father, made a major move from one country to another, and rehabbed a house long-neglected. More recently, she moved her aging mother (and elderly dog) to a condo nearby so she can take care of them both. This and that? Really?

While talking on the phone, as we usually do once a week, my friend and I mulled over her situation and discussed the dreaded question: What do you do? She decided her response should now be this: “I clean up dog shit and take care of my mother.” If that’s the case for my friend, then my answer would have to be, “I sit in my bathrobe until noon and make shit up.”

There is a lot of shit in this post, but I’m striving for honesty here.

A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for someone I don’t know. He was a childhood friend of my husband’s. It was at a nice club and on a Friday night. Normally, I would’ve told my husband to go without me, but we figured we’d head out to dinner afterward. And, also, I find that memorial services for folks I don’t know can be interesting. Obviously, I don’t go browsing the obits in search of such events, but when, on occasion, I’ve done this sort of thing, it has proved oddly inspiring.

At the service, another childhood friend of the deceased got up to read a poem called The Dash. I’ve since Googled it. The writer is Linda Ellis, and you can see the poem here if you’re so inclined (or slated to speak at a funeral). https://thedashpoem.com To sum it up, the poem maintains it’s the dash that really matters. That tiny mark of punctuation in between the dates of our birth and death. You know, what we do with our time while on this planet.

Last week I had a not so good mammogram and was called back for another one, plus an ultrasound. The second mammogram didn’t go any better. A biopsy was scheduled. Let me stop right here and say, I’m a total wimp. I hate needles. I hate going to the doctor. I have two recurring nightmares: my teeth fall out OR I’m being jabbed with needles. You can imagine why I’m so scrupulous when it comes to brushing and flossing.

Like the neurotic writer I am, I spent the night before the procedure looking at gruesome YouTube videos. As much as I hate needles, I hate surprises about such things even more. Alas, I arrived at the facility sleep-deprived and on the verge of what Oprah calls ugly crying. I’m just barely holding it together as the radiologist initials my right boob with a Sharpie, and I take my arm from the sleeve of the gown. The tech, a soft-spoken, young woman with a nose ring, begins gnashing my breast with the ultrasound probe.

It’s freezing in this room, and I’m scared and now quivering. Quivering is probably not a good idea when needles are about to go into one’s breast, I decide, so I close my eyes. I take deep breaths. I try not to envision all the gray hair I’ve just gone through the trouble of growing out falling out. There is the soft murmur of voices, shop talk between the tech and radiologist. I will myself not to hear a word of it. It’ll be over in a few minutes. Celebrities who are long-term survivors of breast cancer go through my mind—Melissa Etheridge, Robin Roberts, Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate, Wanda Sykes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The radiologist, a pretty fifty-something woman with thick-rimmed glasses and bright green eyes, grips my hand, leans in close, and says, “We’re not doing the biopsy. It shrunk since last week. There’s not enough for me to grab with the needle.” Hearing this, I’m slightly disbelieving. But it’s true, so I get dressed and meet the pretty green-eyed doctor in her office where my breast is quite large on the dark screen. “Cancer doesn’t shrink. It gets bigger,” she tells me, though she insists we keep a close eye on things. I am reassured, but also curiously in limbo.

My husband and I collapse onto a bench out in the lobby. As we sit wedged between two plants, quietly talking, a woman in a wheel chair is pushed past us. She’s in a surgical gown and cap. Clearly, she is having some procedure far more complicated than the one I just evaded. For now, I still have my dash. I still can DO things. But what about hers? Is her dash shrinking or growing larger? I say a silent prayer for this stranger.

Rewind to the early morning of my biopsy. I’m about to head down the stairs, but I pause on the landing. A question is nagging me: Is writing full-time what you want to be doing? If this is it, is this it? Hard questions for a hard day, but I nod and go make toast.

For now, I’m stepping away from my computer. I’m going to go do something else— get dressed and eat lunch. Later this afternoon, maybe I’ll go for a walk in the winter sunshine and forest bathe down by a stream near our house. Believe it or not, this is also part of being a writer. Getting outside and breathing. Holding the ailing dog close and whispering, “You’re such a good girl.”

After all, it’s my dash, and I can do whatever I want with it.

 

 

 

New Year, New Books!

So many books, but not nearly enough time! Every year I set big goals for reading, and every year I fall short of said goal. In 2019, I read 38 books, and it’s very tempting to fudge here and say I read 40. There are two nearly finished books in my queue (City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson). There’s also a collection of poetry I’ve been savoring one poem at a time (A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires). Over the summer I read a large stack of books on frogs, but I’m too lazy to find that list.  

                                 Current book on my bedside table❤️

I’m not ranking or rating or ranting about any of these works. I’m simply listing them. Some I liked. A few I didn’t. At least two books on this list changed me in significant and hopefully lasting ways. One book made me laugh out loud. A lot. That same book also made me cry. It was the best work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in fact. There are weird books on this list and smart books and sweet books, too.

       The to-be-read pile. Every year I’m determined to read them all. 🤩

Books keep me afloat when I’m sinking. They make me feel less strange or maybe more so for liking them. Books nearly always help me feel less alone on this life path. So, instead of ranking or rating or ranting, I’ll just say thank you to all the writers for showing up and getting the words on the page and to all the unsung heroes in publishing who helped these books find the light.

                                               Books in my office
Books on the shelf. The mallet is for folks who borrow my books and don’t return them. 😜
                                            Books in the basement
                                     Books in kids’ rooms
                                                  Old books with yellowed pages ❤️
                                   Books in the living room, too!

Here’s to another year of reading, folks. My 2019 list is in the order read.

  1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  2. Greener Pastures by Charlotte Locklear
  3. What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
  4. In Pieces by Sally Field
  5. Calypso by David Sedaris
  6. Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
  7. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
  8. Because of Winn Dixie (again) by Kate DiCamillo
  9. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  10. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
  11. The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
  12. Maid by Stephanie Land
  13. Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
  14. Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
  15. South and West by Joan Didion
  16. Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key
  17. Blubber (again) by Judy Blume
  18. Eleanor Oliphant Gail Honeyman
  19. Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
  20. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  21. Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
  22. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  23. Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
  24. Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
  25. Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
  26. Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
  27. Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
  28. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson
  29. The Snail Darter and the Dam by Zygmunt Plater
  30. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  31. Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo
  32. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  33. Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
  34. Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me by Les Carter
  35. Don’t You Know Who I Am? by Ramani Durvasula
  36. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
  37. Boots on the Ground by Elizabeth Partridge
  38. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

 

Celebrating Charlotte Locklear!

Time to celebrate a very special person in my life, writer, teacher, mentor, friend extraordinaire Charlotte Renner Locklear. Rewind to many years ago, 26 to be exact. I was fresh from a two-year stint working in college admissions and eager to begin a teaching career in public education. In my new school, I had the privilege of meeting Charlotte.

         Charlotte Renner Locklear, author of Greener Pastures

To me, she was everything a teacher should be—smart, tough, kind, compassionate, funny, humble, warm, and supportive. Instantly, we hit it off, and when it came time for me to complete my student teaching, she served as my mentor.

Each day I’d teach my classes (technically Charlotte’s classes) and after dismissal, we would retreat to an office across the hall. We’d eat lunch together and go over my lesson plans. Again and again, day after day, Charlotte would ask the same question: “What’s your point?”

Young and feeling a bit defensive, I would reply (likely with some inane response), and Charlotte would persist. “Yes, Suzanne, but what’s your point?” Every lesson required an objective, a motto I came to live by in the classroom. It was a good way to establish my own roadmap. Why was I teaching this particular lesson? What was my point and purpose? What would the kids know and be able to do at the end? As a writing teacher for many years, it was abundantly clear that concepts couldn’t be mastered in a day, maybe not even in a lifetime, but it was worthwhile to try. Having a point made sense. It still does, both in teaching and in writing.

What’s my point here? you might ask. I’m getting to it, I promise.

Over the years Charlotte and I became close friends. When I left my previous school to write and be home with my daughters for a while, Charlotte would stop by after work. We would talk books and school and lessons and child-rearing. Mostly, we talked about life, however, and you could see our friendship wasn’t merely work related. It was lasting.

To say Charlotte encouraged me as a teacher and writer would be a true understatement. She was a champion. She cheered me on when I needed it most. She read my works-in-progress. She called me out on my stuff, too. She tough-loved me through the pain of losing my mom. She was there. She still is, I am so grateful to say.

               My first local book signing with Charlotte at my side!

Charlotte “retired” from teaching many years ago, and since a number of folks have tried to apply the R word to me, I’ll just say it’s a term I resist. First, I didn’t retire. I quit my job. I may teach again or I may not. And Charlotte hasn’t “retired” at all, either. She is still teaching. She gives her time teaching English at her parish to non-native speakers. I feel certain she is still teaching her grandsons and son and daughter-in-law, though I haven’t reached out to them personally to ask. More than likely, she’s still teaching her siblings and husband. I know for sure she is still teaching me.

            All these years later and celebrating Charlotte’s new book!

Not only is this post to give thanks for a decades-long friendship with a woman I truly admire and love, it is also to celebrate the next chapter in Charlotte’s working life. A book. A book ten years in the making. TEN. Charlotte has written and published her family’s complex and intriguing history. If this is where you’re thinking Another’s family history so doesn’t apply to me, keep going.

When I first settled in for a 302 page read, I was worried and nervous. I had to give back to a woman who had so generously given to me, but it was someone else’s family history. How interesting could that be? Very, as it turned out. A few pages in and I was hooked. I devoured. I cried. I nudged my husband and read him passages or remarked, “Charlotte is such a good writer! This is so good!” More than once while reading, I texted Charlotte to point out parts I found especially moving or interesting. To be honest, I was astounded that Charlotte had managed to put her family’s long and complex history on paper and make me love it so. It was, in fact, a feat.

Poignant, factual, and well written, Greener Pastures is a history of the Renner and Kopp families, but it’s more than that. It’s a good story. Charlotte captures so intelligently the experience of her ancestors, Germans from Russia who migrated to North America toward the end of the nineteenth century and eventually settled (and prospered) in the western United States and Canada. Settling in a new land requires tenacity and grit, and Charlotte so deftly conveys this point. Think Willa Cather or the Little House books.

As our nation continues to grapple with policies and practices and attitudes toward those crossing our borders, Greener Pastures serves as a kind reminder: we are all from someplace else.

Thank you, Charlotte, for continuing to share your many talents with us. And thank you for being a true friend.

You can order Charlotte’s book on Amazon. I’ve included the link here. 

https://www.amazon.com/Greener-Pastures-History-Renner-Families/dp/1723486817

You can hear Charlotte speak on NPR’s Prairie Public Broadcasting here.

https://news.prairiepublic.org/post/memoirist-charlotte-renner-hunters-moon-kudzu-crop-teacher-jessica-brandt

And, you can visit Charlotte’s beautiful new website here. 

http://prairierose.family

 

Tidbits

What happened? Where did I go? Why has this website only recently been updated? It’s a long and a short story.

More than a decade ago, I published three books in two years. It was a dream to say the least, one I’d worked and slaved and sacrificed for most of my adult life because … well, that’s how dreams happen. After said books were published, I went back to teaching. And while teaching, I was busy being a mom and a wife and also still a writer. I blogged sometimes, too, but then I went radio silent on this here website. It wasn’t that I was too busy. I was too busy, but most people are busy, so that’s no excuse. What happened was this: my previous web designer died. He died suddenly and tragically, and it was all very, very sad. Rob was talented and artistic and kind.

I didn’t want to undo Rob’s work. I didn’t know how to do the techie stuff myself. So, I let the site sit and sit and sit. For. Seven. Years.

Many things have happened these past seven years. I’ve let my dark hair go gray. My children have vanished and been replaced by women who are really tall. Some things haven’t changed, though. I’m still writing every day, even on weekends and usually on holidays. I still love to write. It’s both difficult and easy. You sit down. You remain seated. You don’t check your phone or email or social media. You allow things to come to you and you write them down. Sometimes these things suck, so you try again.

What is this Tidbits page? This and that, really. Sometimes it’s about writing. Sometimes it’s about life. Mostly, it’s just me talking to myself because that’s how I make sense of things.

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