When and where were you born?

I was born in 1968 in a West Virginia hospital. My mother's first words on seeing me for the first time were, "Oh, she's homely, but she's cute!"

Tell us about your life when you were growing up.

My home life until I was about seven was rather typical, probably. It was the early '70s; both parents worked and shared household duties and child care. My father was an exceptionally good Dad back then. He and my mother did not get along very well, and I think he poured all his love and energy into enjoying and teaching my brother and me, and he gave us great times. I remember spending nights in the backyard with him as he taught me constellations. And there were bike rides and matinee movies and trips to the library. He taught me how to play chess, too.

After my parents divorced and my father left, his "new" family occupied his time, and my brother and I did not fit in well, there. My father legally adopted my stepbrother and stepsister, and he and my stepmother had two sons together.

My stepmother is a rather jealous woman and didn't care to have my brother and me around as reminders that my father had loved someone besides herself or her own children. Whenever we lived with them, my brother and I were often singled out as being "problems," no matter how hard we tried to get along with everyone else.

The benefits of living with them were that we had regular meals and adequate clothing, and adults we could depend on to meet our basic needs.

Whenever we lived with my mother, life was a great deal more chaotic. After the divorce, both my parents remarried almost immediately -- but my mother's subsequent marriage was very spontaneous. And it lasted only three weeks! She didn't even know, for instance, that her new husband wore dentures until after they were married.

She didn't know he could be domineering and abusive, either. So before the first month was over, my Mom, brother, and I waited until Mom's soon-to-be-ex-husband and his kids left for church one Sunday morning -- and we loaded Mom's little blue Ford Pinto with as much as we could stuff into it (which wasn't much!) and drove away, my Mom's hands trembling as the road to freedom passed directly by my stepfather's church.

People behaved much more freely during this period, my Mom included. She used the magazine "Cosmopolitan" as her bible and wanted to live carefreely. The problem was that my brother and I were a bit too young to be left to our own care. But she didn't seem capable of taking care of herself, let alone two children. We were left alone a lot, and often without sufficient food. There were also times that I wore my mother's clothes to school because I didn't have enough of my own clothes that fit, or that were clean.

My mother would often go straight to "happy hour" at the bar after work, and wouldn't call to let us know where she was; I was certain sometimes that something had happened to her. I'd run screaming and sobbing through the house. The sound of any siren when my mother wasn't around could provoke that sort of reaction. It's ironic that as an adult, I became an EMT and was responsible for driving the ambulance with "lights and siren"!

There were also times that my Mom would just take my brother and me to the bars with her in the evenings -- but never late at night. My mother was attractive -- and despite having two kids with her, she did not seem to lack attention.

The one bar we frequented looked seedy, but wow -- it had such interesting people! The bartender answered to "Bad Eye" because he'd lost the sight in it a while back. And it did look like a Bad Eye. It looked like an evil eye -- always red and angry-looking and staring at nothing while his other eye actually did match the friendliness the rest of his face showed. He always poured me root beers in the pre-frosted beer glasses.

There was one man who was there often; he and my mother dated off and on for a good while. He was tall and heavy, shaped like just the opposite of an hourglass. He loved my mother and he treated me and my brother as though we were just as important to him as she was. Whenever he was there, he and I would dance some sort of silly step he called "the Sylvester," named after the cat that was always sneaking up on Tweetie bird -- we'd start out face-to-face in the typical dance position, but we'd start low and act like we were creeping across the dance floor as though we were going to spring up and attack something on the other end of the room. He was the only guy my Mom ever dated that we called "Mister." He was also probably one of the only ones my Mom dated who deserved that respect, as well.

I did find some solace in my relationship with God, even as a very young child. We weren't really taught much about God; my father considered himself an agnostic at the time. We did attend church on occasion before my parents divorced -- probably four or five times each year and during special occasions. However, I always found myself drawn toward stories from the Bible and felt comforted by the idea that God loved me.

During the time we were with my Mom, I did attend a Baptist church by myself. The church had a bus that drove through my neighborhood every Sunday. Although the church did not seem to know how to minister to kids very well -- fire-and-brimstone preaching seemed a bit much! But there was something in me that felt comforted when I attended.

By the time my brother and I ended up living with my father and stepmother for the first time, they had become very devout and rather unconventional Christians. They were very enthusiastic about God -- they praised and worshipped loudly and did whatever "the Spirit moved them to do" which was sometimes raising hands, clapping, shouting, jumping up and down, and speaking in tongues.

We continued to live with my father and stepmother off and on during our childhood. They became increasingly fanatically religious, but I was okay with that. I tried my best to do whatever was required of me and what God might require, as well. So I dressed differently than other kids, wearing skirts and headscarves sometimes. And ultimately their religious beliefs took them -- and by virtue of being one of their children, me -- to living on a number of different communes when I was a teenager.

What was school like for you?

I loved school, but teachers often did not know what to do with me. When I started first grade, the school ended up putting me in a second-grade classroom for most of each day because I already knew so much of what they taught in their first grade. I was already reading at an advanced level and well -- I don't know what they were thinking, really. They didn't double-promote me; they ended up putting me back in the first grade classroom and giving me advanced work. So I started school with the sense of being singled out.

After my parents divorced, I bounced back and forth a lot between them. And they all seemed to move frequently -- so I ended up attending thirteen schools in twelve years. At the time I was in the public school system, I often dressed differently and was very religious, and was regarded as just "odd." However, I was also very friendly and did well in my classes; I was considered mostly harmless.

When I lived on the communes, I was still considered odd, I think. Because unlike most of the other kids there, I had not grown up in that environment and seemed more "worldly" to them. Also, at fifteen I left my family to live alone on one commune in British Columbia. I was also struggling with a serious depression and with the realization that as much as I wanted to fit in somewhere, I was still the oddball.

Ultimately I had a teacher who recognized that I needed help and support and love -- and she was able to reach out to me in the way I needed. With her support I was able to find my way through that crushing sense of futility and find hope for myself. To the point that I realized I liked living communally and at the least, away from my family and its chaos. I still keep in contact with her and see her every couple of years; I treasure her even more now, I think.

What was your first job? How did you feel when you began it?

I got my first job at sixteen; it was after my father and stepmother left communal life because of a bad experience on the farm where they were living. I was determined to go back to where I'd been living in time for the next school term, so I found a job living in with three elderly people -- a farmer and his wife and his oldest sister -- and I assisted with daily care for the sister and cooked and cleaned and kept them company.

When I first took the job, I cried for a good day -- here was yet another big change in my life! And I'm living with complete strangers and what was I thinking, that I could even do this? But even as I was pressing my face into my pillow so they wouldn't be able to hear me crying, I knew that it would just be a matter of adjusting yet again. The job was by design, only four weeks long, anyway. I settled in quickly and was grateful that commune life with all the chores and requirements they required had well-prepared me for this job.

The weeks did go by quickly, and when it came time for me to leave, both the farmer and I had tears in our eyes when my father arrived to pick me up.

What are your strongest recollections of your working life?

Whenever I think of any job I've ever had, it's the people I was around that I remember most strongly.

In my final year of high school at a commune in Canton, Ohio, I took a job as a nursing assistant in a local nursing home. In that type of job, given the low pay and enormous workload they put on their employees, it can be easy to slide into seeing the patients as chore-generators. I could never do that -- I always wanted to know about the people in my care, and I was in awe of how much each one of those people must have seen or what they went through. I wanted to know their stories.

Do you belong to any clubs or groups? (Other than AW! ) Tell us about them, and what you do.

Right now I attend a local church and have been involved with teaching the kids. My goal has been to get them to view the world as a place where they can be a positive influence in some way, with a heart toward serving others in whatever way might be required.

These days, there are so many ways people can help their neighbors -- and it doesn't have to be through a church to do it. There are many organizations that take volunteers. It's just the idea that we need to be open to opportunities around us and be ready for God to use us wherever we're needed in some way. (That is a statement of what I feel Christians are required to do, and isn't a comment on what other people may or may not do based on their own religion or lack of it.)

What has been the most rewarding thing about raising your children?

When I see my children try something, even though they aren't certain they'll succeed. Or when I see them behave well in difficult situations, like when someone is mistreating them and they respond with grace and dignity. There are those days when I feel like I'm Best Mom Ever! But admittedly there are days that I would be happy with Merely Adequate Mom.

My children have also made me realize, through helping them to find and follow their dreams, that I need to do the same for myself. And that's actually how I found AW.

What do you feel are some of the best times you have had as a family?

Our best family times have been when we do things together. Yesterday we drove for two hours in a blinding snowstorm to get to a park that has an elaborate Christmas light display. Santa Claus was there and my kids each enjoyed telling him what they hoped he'd bring them. They also have a laser light show -- and sitting there with one of my children leaning against me as she ooh!ed at the laser pictures was a moment I'll treasure. My kids love hearing stories from when their father and I were younger, as well. Vacations are also places where we make treasured memories.

And the best time of every day is when I'm tucking each of them into bed at night -- getting a chance to give them one by one my undivided attention and getting to tell them how special each of them are. Saying to them that "I'm so glad you're my kid, and that I'm your Mom!" That routine of sameness that's as comforting and warming to their minds as the blankets are to their bodies. And the quiet peace after they're asleep and the feeling that they're all safe, all is right with the world.

Other than your family, who are the people who play the biggest role in your life?

My best friend and I spend a good bit of time together -- we've known each other for more than twenty years; she was at one time my sister-in-law. The marriage to her brother was a BIG mistake. But what I gained from my friend has made that mistake one I can't entirely regret.

My online friends are priceless, as well. Shweta and I became very good friends through the chat room on AW, and I'm very grateful to count her as a friend. Unique is another valuable AW friend; we've spent time "in real life," as well. There are a great many others from AW that I could name!

What makes you laugh?

Personal tragedy, really bad jokes, really good jokes, other people laughing, my kids doing something silly, random people doing odd things in public that one catches them doing when they aren't aware someone is watching, sex... well, pretty much everything can make me laugh in the right situation.

Give us the details of one of your favorite jokes you've played on someone.

I have to choose a favorite? Okay -- this one, because it's a Christmas-themed one:

I once worked as receptionist/sales secretary for a manufacturing company, and one of my jobs was to prepare form letters for the sales manager to sign -- letters to people inquiring about the product that referred them to a distributor.

One day I realized that the boss never looked at what was on the letters; he merely assumed they were all basically the same. And that it would be really easy to put something in there just a little bit different. So...

I wrote a different letter. One that had the basic letter parts in the same places. I stuck it in the middle of the stack of the other letters I'd prepared for him and I put the whole thing on his desk.

I got them all back about an hour later, which was good. Because I was leaving early that day, and I didn't want to be around when my joke was discovered.

Years have eroded the exact wording from my mind, but here's the gist of it:

Dear Santa,

I am 55 years old, and I have been a very good boy this year. For Christmas I'd like membership to all the local golf and country clubs so I can go golfing whenever I feel like it. I love golf! And I also want my very own golf cart. I want to take it to work so I can run down the other sales staff when they're in the halls. Vroom! Vroom!

Please don't send me a lump of coal like you did last year. I promise I've been trying very hard!

I posted the letter (on company letterhead, of course) on the bulletin board in the staff break room, right where everyone stands to pour their cups of coffee. And I left.

The next day I came into work, as usual. Boss came around the corner as soon as he heard me enter. "You're fired," he told me.

I just laughed at him and started the day. It never occurred to me until years later that he might have been serious!

Do you have a favourite book or author? Do you have certain books that you turn to when you want comfort?

Oooh -- that's a hard question. Depends on what I'm in the mood for. Some books are the equivalent of junk food. Entertaining and a good diversion, but not memorable or filling. Murder/mystery/suspense have become like that, for me, just because I've read so many of them. My Mom raised me on Agatha Christie books.

I'm more of a SFF reader than I realized, even though I don't really follow the genre much. Shweta has pointed me toward some really great books, as has my husband. I like the occasional Stephen King novel and still admire the way he can turn a phrase.

About the only books I long ago gave up on are romance novels. Although I'll admit that if someone were to suggest a good one to me, I'd go looking for it. I know there are some well-written ones out there.

I love David Sedaris books, especially the essays. He's been able to make me laugh and cry myself to tears within the same essay.

Oh -- and I love memoir and biographies. I've always hungered for other people's stories.

Speaking of non-fiction, I get my kicks reading about one subject or another and learning as much as I possibly can about something within a given amount of time. Like the time I latched onto bike-packing and bike maintenance and thought it would be really cool to take a long trip somewhere and back. I never did take that trip except in my imagination.

Do you have a favorite movie? What is one of your favorite movie moments?

One of my favorite movies is a James Stewart/Margaret Sullivan gem called The Shop Around the Corner. They've remade it a few times. Most recently, it was done inferiorly as "You've Got Mail." But the original is sweet and wonderful and funny and romantic. My favorite part is at the end and it would spoil the ending should I describe it, but here's an exchange between Stewart and Sullivan that's cute:

(Stewart): There might be a lot we don't know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.

(Sullivan): Well I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter... which doesn't work.

But any movie that moves me in one way or another -- gets me to laugh, or cry, or think twice about something, or even that gets me to forget about something for a while! Those are winners.

You're an artist. What do you like to portray in your artwork?

Whenever I've attempted to express something visually, I have long tended to draw characters in somewhat ambiguous situations. My people are androgynous and/or with no distinct facial features -- which was always done purposely in order for people to possibly identify themselves with the person in the picture. I have always wanted to create a powerful emotional reaction to my images, too. I want the viewer to identify with whatever they think the figure is feeling -- as if the figure is telling the viewer's story too, somehow.

What would you like to achieve in your life-story writing? Do you write about moments that change a life, or perhaps those that define a new direction for a person? Tell us about what is driving you in your work.

With regard to life-story writing, my goal is to tell my own story in such a way that even though my experience might be foreign to the reader, they can understand that what has happened to me could easily happen to them, too. I would like to show that we don't perhaps know ourselves as well as we think we do, nor know each other as well as we might assume -- that we are complex, beautiful, compartmentalized creatures.

In my own memoir, for example, I'm working on showing that I was desperate to tell myself a terrible secret, yet just as determined that I'd almost rather kill than know what that secret was.

I think I tend to write about moments that change a life. At least my essays seem to deal with such moments of revelation.

The odd thing is that it's often very difficult for me to talk about the issues I am addressing in my memoir, which deals partly with a crushing depression, or even to think that my story is one worth telling. And yet at the same time, I'm so willing to tell my story. When I think of the hellish roads I've traveled inside my own mind -- knowing that the treatment I received at the hands of so-called "professionals" was sometimes anything but helpful or professional -- I believe that other people need to know what can happen to a relatively "normal" person: how miserably inadequate our treatment of people suffering from depression, and how unkind the social stigma that accompanies admitting one suffers mentally, especially within religious circles, can be.

But "what can happen" can also be positive. An important focus of my story is one particular person, and the lengths they went to, to save me from myself. That person was my first therapist, who died recently and suddenly from an accident while he was on vacation. I know, from his example, that there are people out there willing to believe that one life is worth anything to save -- and I hope that sharing that will make for an uplifting and interesting read.