Category Archives: GreekAmerican

Taking Flight: On WINGS OF WAX, #MFA programs, & Finding Your Voice #MondayBlogs

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March Madness is nearly upon us, dear readers. No, I’m not referring to the NCAA basketball tournament, though I will try to find some time to watch a game or two while conducting a publicity tour around the publication of my debut novel, WINGS OF WAX. Work and leisure balance, right?

WINGS OF WAX is scheduled to hit retailers on Thursday, March 10th, two weeks prior to the release of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2, the sequel to Nia Vardalos’ wildly successful 2002 film about the loveable Portokalos family. The movie’s opening date coincides with Greek Independence Day, March 25th, so next month is shaping up to have quite the Hellenic flair. In looking forward to March, I’m also compelled to reflect on the past, waaay back to 2009 when I was a second-year graduate student struggling to find my story in a Creative Writing MFA program.

In 2008, I began graduate school studies at Mills College in Oakland, CA. I spent the first semester feeling my way around campus, taking lit classes and reading novels. I was in a critique group, but didn’t do much writing, primarily due to the fact that I entered the Creative Writing program with what I thought was a completed novel: an urban Oakland tale of a young man coping with the loss of his murdered brother. Each week I submitted sections of this story for feedback. For the most part, my work earned positive response from fellow writers. I seemed destined to cruise through the next couple years in route to earning my degree. Not quite.

Despite the early praise of my novel draft, I didn’t feel tied to the story. In reading over the work, it seemed as though someone else had written it. The characters and circumstances didn’t interest me, though I didn’t want to admit that to myself. Besides, I figured that if my colleagues enjoyed the work, I must have been doing something right.

Fast forward to the second semester at Mills. The same writing excerpts which had previously earned praise were panned this time around. My new critique group’s professor, a well-accomplished novelist who shall remain unnamed, marred my workshop submissions with red pen—truly mightier than the sword—to the point that I began to think of the page as my flesh; the crimson streaks across it akin to fresh wounds.

Each week in class, this professor peered at me across the room, her raven eyes brimming a predatory ferocity below equally dark bangs. She and uttered things like, “You need to do a better job inhabiting your characters. Your people aren’t real yet. This story reads like a TV show.”

A TV show? Ouch!

Unless someone is comparing your story to the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men for instance, no serious novelist wants to hear that their work is mere television without the pictures.

“You need to write from a place of authenticity,” my professor went on to say, “Write your story. The word is all that matters.”

As harsh as this professor could be, I began to realize, after shoving my ego out of the way, that she had the best of intentions. She was pushing me, like any good teacher or mentor, to do the work and get better. I know she didn’t mean I needed to literally write my story, but, in some sense, that’s what I began to do.

Heading into the final year of grad school, I gave much thought to the notion that despite the emphasis on the ancient Greeks’ contributions to world culture, there seems very little written in regard to modern Greek culture, and the experience of Greek-Americans in particular. Of course we do have the movie MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ stellar novel MIDDLESEX, but what else? The more I considered this, the more compelled I felt to write from my own experience, not in the sense of writing an autobiographical story, but in respect to joining other Greek-American artists in illuminating our heritage.

I began WINGS OF WAX fall semester of 2009, though it wasn’t called WINGS OF WAX at that point. “Flight Paths” was an early title. The earliest draft of the story began with Angelo standing outside of an exotic bird shop, his dreaded place of employment, while pondering the world beyond his inner-turmoil. In fact, the novel’s early incarnations were almost entirely focused on the protagonist’s interiority; a kind of stream-of-consciousness depiction of a young man’s deepest insecurities and anxieties as he tries to forge a place for himself within the local Greek community.

I started the story with no outline, though I did have a vague idea as to how it would end. The writing came fast and easy. It was a fun project—the book I should have been writing all along; the novel I had finally given myself permission to produce. Above all else, that was the greatest thing I gained from the program. Even my old professor, the toughest of critics, saw potential. She told me to keep pushing, to continue forging deeper into the story’s truth. That seems to be the most valuable aspect of attending an MFA program: You allow yourself time to write and read, and in doing so you find your voice.

The next semester, my final at Mills College, the story finally began to take shape to most closely resemble the novel that it is today. At least in the sense that it’s no longer a stream-of-conscious narrative as Angelo’s struggles are reflected in how he interacts with the world around him and outside of his head. This makes for, apparently, a more compelling read.

As graduation neared, I submitted for approval my thesis, sixty pages of a new novel draft, a Greek-American narrative now titled WINGS OF WAX. In the months after earning my degree, I completed the draft. I then spent the next several years revising the book, listening to the valuable opinions of my peers, and sharpening the story’s structure. I submitted the novel to publishers and agents, racked up some rejections, and did some more revision work. I sent it out again, almost signed a deal or two, but they didn’t pan out. Finally, seven years after the story idea sprouted in my mind, WINGS OF WAX is on the brink of soaring into readers’ hands at last courtesy of Seattle’s Booktrope Publishing. I found my story, and a publisher, and had a lot of fun in the process. In reading the novel, you might find that it is your story, too.

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A Greek-American Dream by Guest #Author Steve Karas #MondayBlogs #amreading

Hello readers,

This week I welcome friend and fellow Greek-American writer Steve Karas. A Chicago native, Karas is the author of the stellar short story collection Kinda Sorta American Dream. I had the pleasure of blurbing Karas’ book, and what initially stands out is his range as a writer. As he explores the theme of identity in both contemporary and futuristic visions of America, he inhabits the diverse voices of a Greek-American diner owner, an African-American cop, and a Indian-American woman, among others with deftness and empathy. He introduces us to people struggling to make a life for themselves in America, and despite the familiar settings, both urban and rural,
the stories feel fresh and vibrant.

In contributing a post to the blog, I asked Steve to touch on his Greek roots, his experience growing up in Chicago, and the ways in which his background as a psychologist informs his writing process.

Please enjoy Karas in his own words!

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My family began its migration from Greece to America in the early 1900s. My great-grandfather, Ioannis, was the first, passing through Ellis Island in 1902 with eighteen dollars in his pocket. He landed in Chicago’s Near West Side, then the largest Greek immigrant community in the country. He came here for the same reasons so many other Greeks did at that time—to escape a poor economic climate, find employment. I don’t know if he ever intended to stay, or if he had any idea he’d be giving his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren opportunities they wouldn’t have in Greece. My mom and dad followed in 1960 and 1970, respectively, unmarried at the time, strangers in fact. They came to join family that had settled here before them with the hope of having a better life. By the late 1990s, it’s safe to say my parents were living the American Dream. Both had established careers, they’d bought a house, saved a bit of money, sent two kids off to college. So as a late teen/early twenty-something-year-old, when I told my parents I wanted to be a fiction writer, I can only imagine what they were thinking. I was studying psychology in school, but having doubts about that path as my heart was in writing. What they told me was that I should stick with pursuing a more stable career. I remember having a talk with my dad during one of my college breaks.

“Position yourself so you have options,” he said. “After you have your degree you can do whatever you want.”

“This isn’t some hobby. A good job is one that makes you happy.”

“A good job is one that pays.”

I huffed, loudly I’m sure. Didn’t the Greeks have a rich history in literature, after all? How about Homer? Hadn’t my dad read the Iliad, the Odyssey?

“Get your degree, and then you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Just make sure you have options.”

I thought it would be too late by then. I never considered I could do both.

I traveled to Greece a couple years later, the summer before I was to begin graduate school in psychology. I remember meeting up with a close friend who had been living there and pursuing a soccer career after a series of knee injuries had cut short a promising college stint in the States. He’d been confronted by one road block after another in Greece: offers that had fallen through, shifty agents, corrupt coaches and team presidents. We’d spent the day carving through the Monastiraki flea market in the old town of Athens and Plaka, the historic neighborhood built on the foothills of the Acropolis. We took a break from the sun on the cobbled steps of a hidden alleyway, between white-washed cube homes, just beneath the Acropolis’ walls. I lamented about having to start school, how I’d felt pushed into it by my parents, how my dream of becoming a writer was being squelched.

He said, “If things don’t work out for me now, boom, I’m done. That’s it. And I’ll always wonder, what if? I’m telling you straight—you? You have your whole life to write.”

That stuck with me. Funny how when we’re young the things our friends tell us sometimes carry more weight than the words of our parents, the people who typically know us and love us most, have our best interest at heart.

My career as a psychologist has been a blessing. Above all, it’s been fulfilling. I hope I’ve helped people. On top of that, it’s fueled my writing career. My work as a psychologist and my Greek-American roots, in fact, probably had the greatest influence on the writing of my debut short story collection, Kinda Sorta American Dream.

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As a psychologist, I’ve tried to empathize with people from different walks of life, which has undoubtedly benefited me as a writer. I’ve worked with young people who are first generation immigrants like my parents. I’ve even counseled a few who moved to America from Greece amidst the recent crisis and struggled to assimilate into the American culture (probably not too unlike my propapou, Ioannis). I’ve worked with second generation immigrants, people like me, whose parents had come from Mexico and Poland, many of whom didn’t speak any English, but who knew they wanted better lives for their children. More than any other group, I’ve worked with kids whose families have been in America for generations, and it’s sometimes this group who I think experiences some of the greatest struggles. It’s often made me think about the value of suffering, of having to work hard to provide food, shelter, a future, not to mention iPads and flat screen TVs. It’s made me consider how my wife and I will balance handing things to our kids and having them earn what they get.

Of course, no one is more proud of my book getting published than my parents. They’ve sent a heap of copies to friends and family in Greece. The path to writing it was a circuitous one. But when I trace it back, in many ways, my dream leads to my family’s dream. To my parents and their wisdom. To Papou Ioannis. Even to America and the pull it had on them all.

Steve Karas is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015) and Mesogeios (forthcoming from WhiskeyPaper Press, 2016). His stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Necessary Fiction, jmww, Hobart, and Little Fiction. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids. Please visit his website at steve-karas.com.

May We Get There With You: On #Oakland, #MLK, and #Greek Allies

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Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos marching next to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chocolate City by the Bay.

Often coined with this term, the Oakland, California of my childhood in the 1980’s was–like Detroit, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and other metropolitan centers with a black-majority populace–a city in which African-American culture held prominent influence.

Lionel Washington, the city’s first black mayor, served three consecutive terms from 1977 until 1991 when he succeeded to Elihu Harris, another African-American Democrat. Local hip-hop made big noise during that period as the bass-heavy sounds of Too Short and the Dangerous Crew could be felt reverberating from the heights of the hills to the flatland depths. Sports figures such as the Warriors’ Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond of “Run-TMC” fame were touted as local heroes.

My experiences back then, as a Greek-American kid and Oakland native, are perhaps best exemplified under the guise of festivals. Each May I attended the Greek Festival at our local Orthodox church on Lincoln Avenue, home to the Bay Area’s largest congregation of Greek Christians. Gobbling down souvlakia and bobbing my head to the twanging Bouzoukia notes, I gathered among friends in celebration of our heritage, and its lengthy ties to the city we called home.

Come early June, and the initial hints of summer, I looked forward to Festival at the Lake. A now defunct arts event, it simultaneously celebrated the city’s ethnic diversity while showcasing the food and wares of the city’s many black-owned establishments. As much as Oakland was, and still is to a lesser degree, a “Chocolate city,” it has always been a town of coexisting flavors. It’s a city which bred, back in 1993, a Greek-American teen who identified with black culture to the extent that he penned a collection of short stories featuring African-American characters. This teen, grown into a man now, shall remain nameless, though I’m sure you can guess his identity. 😉

As a Greek-American of Oakland roots, maybe this early affinity for the black experience had some historical relevance given that an alliance between the two communities goes back many generations.

AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the largest lobbyist group of Greek-Americans, was founded in Atlanta, George circa 1922 in response to threats from the KKK who viewed Greek immigrants of dark, Mediterranean complexion as a swarthy horde of undesirables. Even after weathering threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Greeks were met with discrimination as restaurants in most Southern American cities displayed window signs declaring “No Dogs, No Greeks!”

Perhaps due to these early bouts with hate, Greeks who eventually opened their own coffee shops, candy stores, and restaurants, were among the first proprietors to openly serve an African-American clientele long before the Civil Rights Movement. In her examination of Angela Jill Cooley’s essay, The Costumer is Always White: Food, Race, and Contested Eating Space in the South, blogger Sara Camp Milam writes, “Greek-owned businesses challenged and intimidated the hegemonic, elite white social order that enforced segregation. Because they didn’t identify as white, and because they held positions of power in the community, Greek restaurant owners in Birmingham were able to subvert the social order, maintain non-white Greek-American identities, participate in desegregation, and expand their own businesses.”

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Greek-owned diner in Pittsburg catering to black patrons. Circa 1930.

Speaking of the Civil Rights Movement, those in the Greek community were among the first to publicly stand with African-Americans in their fight for equality. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the famous Time Magazine photo of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos standing in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. In a declaration of true Christian values, Archbishop Iakovos, who traveled across the country to be at King’s side, said, “We have fought oppressive and repressive political regimes for centuries. A Christian must cry out in indignation against all persecution. That’s what made me walk with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.”

In turn, Martin Luther King found inspiration in ancient Greek philosophy and often referenced the words of Plato and Socrates in his sermons. In his 1957 speech “Loving Your Enemies,” he referenced the Greek concept of love:

The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agapeis something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.”

Bringing things back to the present day–June 18th, 2016–from my desk in Oakland, California, I reflect on the words of Martin Luther King and wonder if, in America, we can ever truly attain agape.

Inhale, Exhale: On Mindfulness, Ancient Greece, & The Now

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The Oracle at Delphi. “Know Thyself”

 

You must plunge beneath your crowded thoughts and calmly contemplate the higher realities with pure, focused attention. If you do this, a state of inspired serenity will remain with you throughout your life, shaping your character and benefiting you in so many ways — Empedocles, ancient Greek sage.

Though we generally, and rightfully it seems, attribute the origins of meditation to Eastern tradition, this quote by Empedocles suggests similar practices were present in ancient Greece. There is evidence of a certain mindfulness taught in Plato’s Academy, and philosophy, which the ancient Greeks are often credited with inventing, requires an inward gaze while contemplating the outer universe. Let us not forget the words Know thyself inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi, the world’s navel according to the ancients. All this is to say that as a Greek-American with an interest in attaining inner peace, I find inspiration in the notion that my ancestors followed similar pursuits. It’s with them in mind that I have recently incorporated a new ritual into my morning routine.

Minutes after waking, before checking social media, prior to rising for breakfast and preparing for the day’s writing session, with eyes closed I sit at the edge of my bed and simply breathe. I focus my mind on the present moment–the carpet beneath my feet, the drone of distant traffic beyond my window, the warbling birds gathered in the trees. With each inhalation I ground myself in the present moment, letting any residual thoughts of past or future evaporate, and with each exhalation I radiate calm. After five or so minutes, I open my eyes to a new clarity and tranquility.

Now, let me clarify that I’m not some New Age bohemian committed to levitating above my mattress. In the past I couldn’t help regard the term “meditation” with a smirk. But, as a person who tends to ruminate a bit too much on potential hardships yet to come, and often finds it difficult to accept the things I cannot change, this simple five minute routine offers some genuine solace. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale into the the here-and-now.
Anxiety runs in the family. Both my yiayias, may their beautiful souls rest in peace, struggled with the affliction, their minds ever-churning with What if’s? That question, the What if of it all, too often plagues me as well. It’s kept me up at night, and it has also inspired my writing. Now I ask myself what if I can just enjoy the moment? What if what comes next is better than expected?

Since writing in itself is a meditative experience, as is any other artistic practice, perhaps this new routine of mine is just an extension of my work. I know that we Greek men, in our proverbial stance of Mediterranean machismo, frequently strut about with our chests puffed. As foreign as it will initially feel to exhale, and deflate those prominent torsos, we might find that it brings us into the present while simultaneously providing a link to those who came before us.

There’s a Coin in my Cake! On #Greek #NewYears & Luck. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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Happy New Year! Kalee Chronia!

After two weeks of holiday celebration, work begins anew with the first blog post of 2016. In looking forward, into January and the months beyond while preparing for the March release of my novel Wings of Wax, I can’t help but also gaze back to past New Year’s Days.

In my memory we sit around my grandmother’s table, at the center of which is a simple round cake unadorned with frosting or candles. Still, the moment invites anticipation as my yiayia hovers over the modest loaf with a knife, her hand making the sign of the cross–straight down, then right to left–prior to conducting the first cut. Four of us are present–Mom, Dad, Yiayia, and I–though she divides the cake, the Vasilopita, into several slices. The first is for Jesus, the second for Mary, the third for St. Basil after whom the cake is named, the fourth is for the house, the fifth for the poor, and the rest goes to those of us at the table from youngest to oldest. We dig into, albeit carefully, our special dessert. Amid the wedge of cake on my fork, something shimmers in the light. Upon further inspection, I discover the lucky coin, wrapped in gold foil, and hoist it high for all to see. Another year of good fortune for me! As a child it took me a while to figure that Yiayia rigged the cake so that I always ended up with the prized slice, but no one else seemed to mind.

As my Greek readers will know, the cutting of the vasilopita cake is a tradition often occurring on New Years Day, though it can also be done later in the month. It’s similar to the Mardi Gras King Cake of New Orleans fame in which a tiny plastic baby is substituted for the gold coin. The vasilopita commemorates St. Basil who, according to legend, redistributed the gold and jewelry of Caesarean citizens who had ransomed their goods to prevent the raiding of their city by a foreign tyrant.

This year marks the ninth since my maternal grandmother’s passing. Due to her upholding of the vasilopita tradition, I hold a special place for her in my memory each New Year’s Day. This January 1st there was no vasilopita at home, though I suspect I’ll find myself at a party in the coming weeks in which the special cake will be cut. Maybe both my yiayias will look down to ensure that I have more good fortune this year.

In one way or another, we all make our own luck, whether literally, through baking it into pastry, or figuratively, in how we choose to approach and interpret the often random occurrences in our lives. May the new year be a lucky one for you! Here’s to 2016 bringing all the best things!

#Art as Life: On Arts Education & Smelly Markers #MondayBlogs

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Imagine, if you will, a baby crawling up a mountainous flight of steps, one little knee at a time, slapping the surface of each stair in announcement of his progress. His ascent is inspired not by the promise of toy or treat, but by a desire to view up close the spectrum of colors and shapes beckoning from above.

I was that baby, and the stairs belonged to some famous New York City art museum, the Guggenheim perhaps, to which my mother had taken me during one of our visits to the Big Apple. It seems I was drawn to art (pun intended), so the story goes, since before I could walk, willing to brave even the most arduous climb simply for the sake of a layered canvas. Growing older, and more mobile, I could often be found reaching for a pencil, or crayon, with which I would fill countless sheets of paper; first with scribbles, and then, as my hand grew more confident, superheroes and monsters. My favorite tools of the trade were those gold and silver markers that emit the smelliest fumes via which I would grow intoxicated and then preform “drunken” dinner songs for family. Ah, but that’s another story.

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A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

Mom, no doubt, was an big inspiration for this early creative streak. Aside from taking me to see the framed creations of the masters, she provided visions of an artist at work as she spent countless hours at her drawing table laboring at her craft. Art was, and is, integral to our family experience, woven like tapestry into the texture of our everyday life. My mother is a painter and sculptor, and her father, my papou, earned quite a name for himself in the art world despite his feeble beginnings as a Greek immigrant. My dad, who while in America earned a living through his electrician business, has since, in moving back to his native Greece, dedicated himself to his own artistic talents.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the company of artists, attending gallery openings and exhibitions–many of them my mother’s–wandering among the paintings in search of both inspiration and a makeshift play space. Now, as an adult, attending galleries and museums is still a favor pastime. When Mom is town from Monterey, it’s a joy to trek out to San Francisco and take in an art exhibit. Each painting, every sculpture, tells its own story. I’ve learned that the point of viewing art is not always to glean “meaning” from a piece (“What is this artist trying to say? What does it mean?”, you often hear people remark), but rather to observe how it makes you feel.

I’m grateful that my family has gifted me with a life abundant in art. Just as I was exposed to paintings, so was I entrenched in the world of stories and poems as our home was one full of books. An artist’s life isn’t always easy, but it is ever vivid, consistently rich. When I was growing up, Mom taught art at my elementary school. I often heard classmates–the children of “square” families–say things like, “Art isn’t important becomes it doesn’t make money.” Well, sometimes it does, and it will, if nothing else, expose one to a spectrum of colors beyond the banality of dollar-bill green.

This post is inspired by the recent news that the Senate has passed an act making arts education part of the Common Core curriculum. Now, I believe Common Core is problematic in of itself for a variety of reasons that I won’t expound upon here, but this is a good thing for all. There surely is a place for art in schools. Today, more than ever, we need people who are unafraid to color outside the lines.

In Praise of #Gratitude: 4 Things I’m Grateful For. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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A heart full of gratitude

“In ancient Greek, gratitude was expressed in terms of praising. When Greeks wanted to say ‘thank you,’ they said: ‘That is excellent, I praise you,’ καλλιστ, επαινω.’ [This] brings us to the observation that in the Archaic and Classical period many hymnic texts of the Greeks did express ‘thanksgiving.’ The praise of a god, the narration of her or his birth, famous deeds and gifts to mankind, all this functions as thanksgiving.” — Jan-Maarten Bremer from the book Reciprocity in Ancient Greece; Oxford University Press, 1998.

This ancient Hellenic interpretation of gratitude as a form of praise–not simply an expression of thanks, but rather a paying of homage to pedestal-worthy recipients–inspires this week’s blog post as I reflect on four things I’m grateful for this holiday season. I had plenty time to consider the topic while celebrating Thanksgiving with Mom and extended family down in Monterey, California. I took a break from the usual writing routine to stroll the seaside trails with Mom and her pair of greyhounds, my thoughts churning amid the continual rise and fall of ocean waves. Here, in no particular order, are four things to which I’m offering praise as November makes way for December.

1. Bi-weekly phone chats with Pops: Dad and I have been talking on the phone quite often, Saturday mornings, usually. It’s a nice way to start off the weekend as I’m able to catch up on the news from Greece–stories of the latest haul from my father’s olive grove, the abundant crop offering a rich oil, luminous liquid gold. We speak of my cousins and their growing families, the delicious meals cooked by thea Anna. These conversations also serve as a way to prevent my Greek from getting rusty. They inevitably end in laughter as Dad shares a joke or too, comical reminiscings from our previous travels together in the Motherland.

2. Conversations with Mom that turn into escavations of family history: Mom and I speak often of her side of the family; my yiayia and her three sisters, that quartet of larger-than-life women who were the subject of an entire blog article a couple weeks back. Their stories are epic, abundant tales of which I have yet to skim the surface, though I’m committed to fictionalizing them in depth at some point.

3. Health: This is an obvious one, but it’s so important. I’m thankful that I’m healthy, and that, for the most part, my friends and family are healthy as well. Those who happen to be battling illness at the moment are often in my thoughts and I wish them a fast, full recovery.

4. Friends and supporters: I’m fortunate to have substantial friendships, tight bonds with people I have known for much of my life. I’m also grateful for the people I haven’t known as long, but who have brought an undeniable richness into my life. I have love in abundance, and to all of you–friends, supporters, faithful readers of this blog and my other writings–I offer praise. I’m grateful for all the people at my publisher, Booktrope–my editor Jessica West, my marketing guru April Gerard, and so many more–for the energy and enthusiasm and tireless work they have contributed to this process of Wings of Wax making its way into print.

Now, what are you grateful for this season?