Sunday, June 25, 2017

I've Moved!

Please visit the new and improved blog at Caravan of Composition

Thanks for reading!!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Use What You've Got, and Do What Feels Good

It's the Monday after my favorite writer's conference. That feeling of joy and excitement lingers, my commitment to writing renewed. The weekend was wonderful - I met new people, learned new things, and had a great time bonding with my friends. The blog is about to experience a re-launch, as I work to build my writer platform. In the meantime, some reflections.

Not everything is sunshine and roses. I entered two contests and lost. Received feedback in my email this morning and as feedback tends to be, some was positive and some soul-crushing. The book is at a place where it is good, but not quite good enough. One of my friends and I talked about how we can receive twenty positive comments, but then one negative comment sends our brain into a tailspin. The thing is, everyone experiences the same thing. Even if you have written a best-seller, there is going to be a reviewer that didn't like the book, and as writers we have to find a way to incorporate the useful, constructive feedback and flush the mean stuff down the toilet. So this is me, mentally flushing the things that make me want to cry and set my manuscript on fire.

Writers, in general, are awesome people. Talking to strangers is so very hard for me, but I've figured out how to talk to other writers. It's like we have this whole, "I'm a slightly odd introvert who creates worlds with my fingertips, oh really me too" sort of thing going on. It bonds us. We've survived the above mentioned criticism. We've experienced first conference jitters. We've sat for hours staring at the computer screen wondering if perhaps we can just will the scene to life. (That's not just me, right?) The PennWriters community in particular is a great group. They are supportive and welcoming, and they bring in industry professionals that want to see writers succeed. It's why I feel like I can conquer the world after each conference.

Fear is okay, but don't let it become the enemy, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Life is overwhelming. And one of the topics this weekend was how we often make excuses for not writing. Why? For me, a lot of it is fear. Fear that no one will want to read my work, that it will never be good enough, that I will never be good enough. In writing and in life. But hey, I'm here to say that I am officially tired of being afraid of failure, of rejection (both personally and professionally), of not fitting in, of anything else that's holding me back. Still afraid of snakes, though. Can't seem to get over that whole forked tongue thing.

My friends put up with my weird personality, and I am incredibly thankful for them. Honestly, I can't imagine being on this journey without them. I laughed until I cried on multiple occasions this weekend, something I desperately needed. It is important to surround yourself with people who love and support you, that you can love and support in return. Writing can be lonely, and while that's okay sometimes, it's also okay - and necessary - to have people in your corner. Cheerleaders. Brainstorming partners. People who make you laugh and hug you tight.

Thank you, friends, family, fellow writers, and followers. Out of respect to my soon to be teenage son (ack!), I will be closing down The Family Van soon and starting a new, more writing focused blog. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Incarnation of Love

In honor of Valentine's Day, or perhaps in protest of it, here's a little flash fiction piece I wrote a few years back. And by "fiction" I mean a version of this actually happened to me, which I suppose technically makes it flash memoir. Or something like that. Names have been changed to protect the people whose lives turned out exactly as I expected they would.


As if it isn't miserable enough to be a twelve-year-old girl, add some jealousy and humiliation and you've got the makings of the worst Valentine's Day ever.

The year:1988, the object of my affection: a boy named Matt, part rebel and 100% flirt. In math class he would reach into a tiny Ziploc bag, pull out a miniature rubber band, and instead of slipping it onto his braces he would shoot it across the room. Right at me. From what I had been told about preteen boys, this act was a sign of affection. I would laugh, whisper a flirtatious, "Stop it" and smile inwardly.

He obviously loved me.

When Valentine's Day rolled around I took a chance and confessed my feelings via a student council carnation. My tiny act of adoration paled in comparison to what Matt did to show the world which girl he truly liked.

Spoiler alert: It wasn't me.

It was Kara, who had recently moved from Tennessee and had a sweet southern drawl and beautiful golden flecked hair. I had been one of her first friends when she arrived, but as we approached teenage-hood she began to pull away and associate herself with the popular crowd, destined to become a cheerleader in high school and date all the best looking jocks. Matt, of average attractiveness (a hunk by my standards), did not even blip on her radar. But that did not stop him from sending her a dozen red roses. Roses. That he ordered from a florist and had delivered to homeroom. Their appearance made a mockery of my single white carnation. And dashed any hope I had of Matt becoming my Valentine's Day sweetheart.

What a sad, sorry tale of woe. So what? Heartbreak happens all the time. But it didn’t end there. On a dare, Matt decided to eat my carnation. Chomped away at it during first period as if it were an ordinary breakfast sandwich. Did I mention he was a bit of a class clown? Oh, yes, the rubber bands. An act I had mistaken for affection, one that was carried out simply for a laugh. And there I sat, once again the butt of his joke. If that hadn't humiliated me enough, he proceeded to draw a flower onto a piece of notebook paper, staple it onto the last two inches of stem that hadn't ended up in his stomach, and place it on my desk. Desperate, I took it as a sign that maybe I did have a chance with him after all, and saved that pathetic spit covered stem for weeks. On the paper flower he had written, in scrawled boy handwriting, "Sorry I ate your flower. Love, Matt"

Love! I held onto that hope way past its expiration date.

Meanwhile, Kara threw her flowers in a nearby trash can, unwilling to give any indication that she returned Matt's affection. The path of rejection drew a straight line to her, the one with the most power. It taught me a valuable lesson in the hierarchy of love and showed that taking a risk does not always pay off.

As for Matt, he ended up in the hospital with stomach distress. Turns out the chemicals florists use to dye and preserve carnations make them inedible.

Love hurts, but karma is a beautiful thing.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Measuring success

Per the advice of my wise spouse, I decided to change the way I approach goal setting. Instead of vague ideas that never get fully accomplished and result in an endless spiral of self-doubt, I set out to be specific in what I hope to achieve and establish solid, realistic plans.

The house is better. Most of the time. We spent an afternoon purging the back room of our basement, which mostly contained empty boxes and other random things that never quite made it to where they were supposed to go. I cleaned out J's closet and donated several bags of winter clothing to a local charity. (SMART goal: to organize one space in the house and carry at least one bag/box of things out of the house). I've been consciously trying to end each morning and evening with a clean counter - which has been great for my psyche, but I haven't quite been able to get the rest of the family on board with helping out in that arena, which leaves me a bit frustrated. So that one is a work in progress I guess.

My health is better. I decided to do a thirty day yoga challenge for the month of January. It didn't start out so well, however, because I spent all of January 2nd in bed with a stomach bug. Determined to get back on track, I did days two and three on day three and managed to finish out the month strong. In fact today is the first day I haven't gotten up to exercise, but I gave myself the day off as a reward. My body is sore, but it feels good overall and I'm proud of myself for sticking to the challenge and actually getting out of bed with my alarm. Hopefully that feeling will keep me motivated to continue.

My writing.... oh dear. We seem to have arrived at an impasse. The good news is that I put myself out there for an online writing conference and with my critique group. They've even offered to workshop my entire novel. !! The bad news is I've been riding that annoying emotional roller coaster again, you know the one. Where you feel like you could conquer the world one moment and the next you are doubting why you ever tried to put word to page. Maybe it's because I am no longer drafting in the quiet silence of my office, surrounded by post-it notes and a sense of purpose. Now I am sending my baby out into the world to be picked apart and analyzed, and while I know it is a necessary part of the process and I NEED HELP fixing elements of the story, it does not make it any less terrifying. I much prefer the creative, locked in the room part of this journey. New projects swirl around in my head, but getting them down and going in a direction of some sort, well that's another story. In order to accomplish my SMART goal of sending out (some number - silly me wrote it in the letter, then stuffed it into my stocking without writing it down anywhere else... 20 maybe?) queries, I need to get DOW into better shape. Particularly the query letter, which currently stinks. Sigh. I did enter one writing contest and will receive feedback in May. And I'm trying to be helpful and encouraging to other writers. I really like my new critique group and am making new friends online.

My life in general is... better I guess? I decided to try acupuncture again and went for my first appointment last week. No overnight miracles, but I am hoping it will help get me on a more even keel. The new job is going well, although I feel a little overwhelmed by all there is to learn. Very much loving the shorter commute and lack of stressful traffic!! But I miss my old co-workers and students. Working in a cubicle is strange - kinda like sitting alone in an airport terminal. It can be incredibly lonely despite being able to hear the conversations of people all around you. Maybe even because of them? I don't know exactly... it's an adjustment.

Faithful readers: I hope 2017 is going well for you. It is not an easy place to exist right now, but I hope we can all find positive things to focus on. In an effort to help spread love instead of hate, our family committed to supporting a different local charity each month with both our time and resources. And here are a few more things I'm committing to this month:

  • Send entire MS to critique group
  • Plot new story
  • Try a different exercise video series each week - and work out at least five mornings
  • Recycle old/broken electronics
  • Give myself credit (not measurable, I know... but something I need to work on)

I'll pop back in with an update next month, and hopefully will have a post or two in between. Cheers!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Letters to myself

Last weekend we unpacked the Christmas boxes and began to decorate the house. My favorite things about the holiday season are our family traditions, and one of those traditions is to write a letter to your future self and hide it in your Christmas stocking. We did it for a few years when I was a kid, and I remember reading over highlights from the previous year, my current faves (which were somehow no longer cool a short twelve months later), and the list of things I hoped to accomplish. My boys love this part, writing things like, "Ride the Viper" and "Play video games for 100 hours". When boxes appear from the back corner of the basement, I excitedly search for the one containing our four stockings, and pull the letters out like buried treasure.

The letters are meant to be a snapshot of the year and an encouraging way to look at all we've accomplished as a family and individually. But sometimes they make me sad. When I was substitute teaching year after year, the letters would ask if I'd found a permanent position yet. Now that I've been querying, the letters ask if I've found an agent. And every single year I vow to be more organized, vow to really, truly purge the house and live with less.

Spoiler alert: I left the teaching world, am still searching for an agent, and the house isn't any cleaner.

But every year I give my future self a little pep talk.
From 2009: "Take care of everyone. And remember to take care of yourself."
From 2010: "Remember that you are a great mom, a devoted wife, a dedicated teacher, and fabulous woman!"
From 2013: "C'mon girl, you CAN finish things! Really and truly!"
From 2014: "Love yourself every day - despite the wrinkles and sagging bits, despite the incessant need to procrastinate. Despite the cynicism."

Last year I even acknowledged that my goal setting often falls short. "Every year you make goals for yourself. Some you reach while others fall by the wayside. That's okay. You need to forgive yourself and move on. Change what you can - change what you can CONTROL. In other words, let others be who they are going to be and focus on being the best you in that moment."

How's that going you ask? Eh. I was sad for several hours after reading the letters because not much has changed in the past year. The truth is, we can't escape our weaknesses - no matter how hard we try to cheerlead them away. There is an underlying current of jealousy in these letters, of wanting what others have and I don't, and it feels dirty.

Last night I attended a book launch for a new writing friend. Her book is beautiful (I read an Advanced Review Copy - one of the perks of being immersed in the writing world), the room was packed full of people who love and support her, and I was happy to be able to share in her moment. But right before I left I said to hubs, "I understand that saying now - the one about always being a bridesmaid and never a bride." It's impossible not to feel the "when will it be my turn?" feelings at book launches, impossible not to sit there and imagine my own book launch, imagine where it will be and if my mother will still be alive to make trays of Italian cookies. Maybe the green-eyed monster is a good thing. Maybe he'll keep me motivated. Maybe I need to look at the positives in my letters to self instead of worrying about what I didn't accomplish.

From 2015: "I'm making a promise to have DEVELOPING OUR WINGS finished in the next six months. To be a better blogger and continue to encourage others."
I finished my rough draft in early April and just completed the first full round of revisions.
My blog entries were at an all time low this year, and I'm pretty sure no one even reads this little life chronicle - but I've been at it for EIGHT YEARS. And in my world of not following through, that's a pretty huge accomplishment.
Do I encourage others? I hope so. Maybe not all the time, maybe not with shouts from the rooftop.

But I keep trying. Because lifting others up makes everyone feel good. So here's some advice from past Sandis:
To all you other writers out there - "Keep writing, hon - there are so many great stories inside you."
To the parents - "You are a good mom [dad]. Have faith in your children."
To everyone who worries all the time, who thinks they are doing too much, or not enough - "Relax. Let things be - you can do it and the world will still revolve."
To the world, especially now: "Love more."

Saturday, November 19, 2016


I became a mom ten years and 11 days ago, and I can vividly remember the first 24 hours of parenthood. The first five were spent coming home from the airport, hubby driving in the rain on zero sleep - my India.Aria CD playing in a continuous loop because he didn't know how to change it, and me in the backseat trying desperately to calm a hysterical seven month old stranger. Yep, we were complete strangers on that first night - connected only by pictures (we had three of him, he had a chewable photo album with a few pictures of us) and health reports. We stopped at a gas station to change his diaper and were yelled at by the attendant for not having a hat on our baby.

Initial thought: I am a complete failure as a parent.

Back at home, I tried my best to help P adjust to his strange surroundings while hubby caught some much needed zzz's. I showed him his room, lovingly decorated with Noah's arc animals. We read books and sang songs. I felt like the babysitter waiting for mom and dad to come home and take over the real parenting. In the morning, we gave P a bath and he screamed. His foster mother told us he loved baths. My husband looked at me with an expression that asked, "I thought you knew what you were doing - did you lie to me?" In truth, I didn't have a clue how to be a parent, and I'm pretty sure none of us do until it actually happens. My brother had become a dad a few years earlier and he told me that the hospital staff passed him his son and ushered him out the door. Without any sort of instructions as to what to do next.

Truth: No one truly knows what they are doing at first.

There were two profound moments in that first 24 hours and both of them could be seen as parenting fails, but to me they were shifts in perspective that helped with our rocky transition. The first was during the bath, after hubby realized that no, I did not know what I was doing. He said, "Everything we're doing is wrong." Me, with bewildered expression, "Huh?" But he was right. Every smell, every sight, every experience was not what P had become used to in his foster home. It wasn't WRONG in the broad sense, but wrong in his little slice of the world. The second moment took place that afternoon when we brought him to the doctor's office. Our pediatrician, a kind and enthusiastic Asian woman who cooed at P when she first saw him, made my little boy's face light up for the first time. Her face, her tone of voice - the familiarity - comforted him.

It wasn't me. We had ripped this kiddo away from everything he knew, forced him to fly across the world with a complete stranger who handed him off to two other complete strangers, two weird smelling people who had no idea how to draw a proper bath. When I think about that day I think about our gain - I love my boy so much it hurts and I can't imagine life without him - but I think about his loss, about how scared he must have been during those first 24 hours. We were all pretty terrified. But his journey, and the journey of his little brother four years later, must have been incredibly frightening. We celebrate the anniversary of those days (known in our family as KTA day, or Korea-to-America) and recognize both the joy and the heartache involved.

Truth: Parenting is hard, and I'm not always good at it. But I love my kiddos unconditionally and try to grow as a mom every day.

No doubt I have made countless parenting fails along the way and there are plenty more waiting for me in the next ten years and even in the ten beyond that. But I'm trying to shift my perspective. We had P's conferences yesterday and it was overwhelmingly positive. They haven't always been, believe me. But yesterday, as I listened to his teachers talk about how smart, hard-working, and enthusiastic about learning he is, my heart swelled with pride. Sure, a lot of that is genetics, but some of it must be our parenting. Don't get me wrong, I make mistakes. ALL THE TIME.

But somehow we've figured out how to do a few things right.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Van Family Summer Bucket List

Inspired by the launch of my dear friend's book, The BFF Bucket List, the boys and I decided to make our own summer bucket list. As soon as school let out, we brainstormed ideas, wrote them down on a piece of loose leaf paper, and posted the list on our fridge. There were 18 items and we checked off 14. Which is pretty darn good and made for an exciting, adventure filled summer.

Here are some highlights:

We started the summer off with a backyard campfire complete with requisite s'mores. Our friends joined us for a fun night - the kids loved launching LED copters into the sky once the sun went down. 

We actually did this one twice. Once for hub's work picnic, where J braved his first upside down roller coaster (and LOVED it), and once with friends for a crazy day of rides, water park, and slushies. We're pictured above on my favorite ride, one that does not go upside down or fast... the Ferris wheel. 

For whatever reason, this was important to P, so it made the list. We went out for ice cream to celebrate the removal of braces (YAY!) and let him order whatever he wanted. Look at the shiny, straight teeth! As you can see, he also decided to grow his hair long this summer. It's a middle school thing I guess.

There is a lot of cool history in our town. We rode a boat through two locks on the Erie Canal and then spent the afternoon walking through Lockport and sampling more ice cream (see next item). There is also an underground cave tour which we have done once before but decided to skip this year. Fun fact: part of Sharknado 2 was filmed in the Lockport cave. 

It tastes good.

The boys went to the beach a few times with their summer camp group, but the picture above is from our day trip to Canada to visit with some friends at their cottage. It was a fun, relaxing day that included fishing (item #18) and a campfire, with s'mores of course (item #5).

Look at us, all match-y and smiling... oh wait...

Our cub scout pack organized a summer outing to the drive in, and it was the perfect opportunity to cross another item off the list and enjoy a night out at the movies watching one of my all-time faves, The Princess Bride. P had a good time, he just didn't want to have his picture taken.

Camping next to a creek = AWESOME! I'm fairly certain J would still be in there looking for crayfish if we hadn't dragged him out when we left the campground.

Labor day weekend. Second to last night of summer vacation. Perfect opportunity to sneak in one more bucket list item. I have no idea why they wanted to sleep on the hard floor under a fort of several blankets ("Mom, it's really sweaty under here!"), but they did.

I'm happy with how things went this summer. The boys grew a little taller, a little braver, and a little more independent. I am grateful for their enthusiasm and willingness to try new things and happy that we are able to spend time together as a family. The day is coming when they'll have summer jobs and scoff at the idea of hanging out with mom and dad. So I'm doing my best to cherish the moments we have right now and letting go one finger at a time.