How to Travel Like a Pilgrim, Not a Tourist

road-815297_1920

The grass is green and the sun is shining. Tomorrow I leave for an out-of-state wedding, and my airline just emailed me a friendly reminder about the long security lines at this time of year, recommending that I be at the airport at least two hours early for my 6:20 a.m. (yikes!) flight.

Forget green grass and my ensuing allergies. Those long lines at the airport are how I know it’s summer.

Summer is when we shake off the winter cobwebs and get moving. Family vacations. Camping. Road trips. Lots and lots of weddings. Given the excitement that accompanies seeing new places and visiting old friends, why does travel so often feel like a tiresome chore? Is there anything we can do to make it more meaningful?

I doubt much can be done to make the chaotic, circus-tent security maze waiting for me at the Denver International Airport (a.k.a. purgatory) more enjoyable, but when it comes to finding meaning in travel, it might help to look to an earlier age that didn’t have to deal with TSA (though admittedly, the bubonic plague was a bit of a nuisance).

During my graduate study of Medieval History, I became fascinated with pilgrimage—a concept that has made a lasting impact on my imagination and followed me into my fiction writing. I don’t want to sanitize or romanticize this popular mode of travel during the Middle Ages, but the notion of “going on pilgrimage” has seen a resurgence in recent decades, which suggests there’s something about the pilgrim mindset that modern people find attractive in our world of fast food pit-stops and kitschy gift shops. So what does it mean to walk through life as a pilgrim instead of as a tourist, even if our travel excursions have little to do with religion in the traditional sense? Here are a few guideposts to help us mark the difference…

Read the rest HERE at Humane Pursuits

Military Brats & Memorial Day

Military Brats and Memorial Day
One of the many perks of military brat life — parrots!

I’m very fortunate. We military brats like to pride ourselves on our toughness, our adaptability, our proficiency at living out of a suitcase and changing addresses a dozen times. But despite the minor sacrifices of military life—mainly a lot of tearful goodbyes—I consider my childhood to be one of mostly benefits and blessings. I grew up in what I like to call a “golden age” of military bratdom—that brief period in the 1990s between the first Gulf War and the second—where parents weren’t deployed that often (or at least that long), and life as a brat mainly meant getting to see the world while being part of a close-knit community the likes of which I have never encountered as an adult. I’m sure there are others from my generation who had a different experience, but for me, a military childhood was a blast.

Yet that doesn’t mean I don’t know what it’s like to be young and afraid. When I was about five-years-old, my dad was supposed to take part in Desert Storm, but got called back at the last minute. His bags were packed and waiting by the front door, and even as a kindergartner, I worked hard at being stoic and strong. I distinctly remember people (kids at school, maybe?) trying to comfort me by saying that my dad would be safe because he was a medevac pilot—“no one is supposed to shoot down a helicopter with a red cross on the side,” they assured me. Another memory forever seared into my brain took place when, as a high school senior, I heard about the 9/11 attacks on my morning drive to school, which meant panicked phone calls to friends whose parents worked at the Pentagon. But other than these two bookend events, my military childhood was mainly a decade of relative peace, not to mention a nonstop adventure.

That isn’t always the case for many military brats today. You may not know them personally, but if you live anywhere close to a military installation, there are likely kids in your area who are intimately acquainted with what Memorial Day really means. Only some of them have a parent who made the ultimate sacrifice, but after the frequent deployments of nearly fifteen years of war, almost all these kids are familiar with the anxiety that comes with knowing such a sacrifice is one their loved one might make.

Now that takes resilience, and it’s also worth remembering, so here are a few organizations that do an amazing job of supporting kids in military families:

 

Angels of America’s Fallen

This nonprofit based in my hometown of Colorado Springs stands by the children of fallen military members and first responders by providing them with mentoring and support.

 

Military Community Youth Ministries (Club Beyond)

Another nonprofit in Colorado Springs, MCYM made a great impact on me when I was a teenager and continues to touch the lives of military kids all over the world.

 

Military Child Education Coalition

This incredible team of educators seeks “to serve as a model of positive leadership and advocacy for ensuring inclusive, quality educational opportunities for all military-connected children.”

 

Humans on the Homefront

I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes of this new project, as I’m all about encouraging military families to tell their stories.

 

BRATS: Our Journey Home

If you haven’t seen this documentary, it provides wonderful insights into military brat life across many generations. The nonprofit also supports many wonderful projects that seek to share the experiences of brats with the wider world.

 

Ashlee Cowles is an Army brat and the author of BENEATH WANDERING STARS (Merit Press, August 2016), a forthcoming novel about a military teen and a young soldier who know what it means to sacrifice for the people they love.

Books about BRATs

Did you know that today is National Military Brat Day? That’s right, we have an actual day! In honor of this occasion, I thought I’d share a few fiction books about brats (and often by brats). What a perfect coincidence that my publisher released the Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of my debut novel, Beneath Wandering Stars–the story of a modern-day Army brat–in April, the Month of the Military Child. If you’re at all interested in reading this Young Adult, coming-of-age story before anyone else (one that adults will hopefully enjoy, too), please scroll down and enter to win an advanced copy!

But before we get to this “new kid on the block,” let’s talk about some members of the popular crowd in the world of military brat books.

Books about BratsThe Great Santini by Pat Conroy

The story of a Marine fighter pilot and his family, The Great Santini is a modern classic that captures one of the archetypes of military life–the authoritarian officer father. Although not every military brat grows up under such a strict regime, many will sympathize with Ben Meecham, the Great Santini’s eldest son, as he confronts his love/hate relationship with his larger-than-life father and fights to come into his own.

Sadly, Pat Conroy passed away just last month from pancreatic cancer. Like many brats, Conroy grappled with his complex identity his entire life and often explored these conflicts in his writing. He once told NPR:

“I’m a military brat. My father was a Marine Corps fighter pilot from Chicago, Ill. I did not live in Southern towns, I lived on bases. I was a Roman Catholic, which is the strangest thing you can be in the South. Not only that, I married a Jewish woman from Bensonhurst. So when people refer to me as a Southerner … I liked it because I never had a home. It was the first name that was ever associated with me that put me in a place.”

 

Books about BratsThe Yokota Officer’s Club by Sarah Bird

“After a year away at college, military brat Bernadette Root has come ‘home’ to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, to spend the summer with her bizarre yet comforting clan. Ruled by a strict, regimented Air Force Major father, but grounded in their mother’s particular brand of humor, Bernie’s family was destined for military greatness during the glory days of the mid-’50s. But in Base life, where an unkempt lawn is cause for reassignment, one fateful misstep changed the Roots’ world forever…”

 

 

 

Books about BratsDurable Goods by Elizabeth Berg

“On the hot Texas Army base she calls home, Katie spends the lazy days of her summer waiting: waiting to grow up; waiting for Dickie Mack to fall in love with her; waiting for her breasts to blossom; waiting for the beatings to stop. Since their mother died, Katie and her older sister, Diane, have struggled to understand their increasingly distant, often violent father. While Diane escapes into the arms of her boyfriend, Katie hides in her room or escapes to her best friend’s house—until Katie’s admiration for her strong-willed sister leads her on an adventure that transforms her life.”

 

 

 

 

Books about BratsThe Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins

If you’re familiar with The Hunger Games, you may already know that the author of this YA sensation is an Air Force BRAT–and upbringing that surely influenced her ideas on violence and war. Suzanne Collins explores military life more directly in her children’s picture book, which is a semi-autobiographical account of the year her own father went to the Vietnam War.

 

 

Books about BratsIt Burns a Lovely Light by Penny McCann Pennington

This  USA BEST BOOK FINALIST is on my summer reading list!

“‘Us four and no more’ is the James family motto as Farley, savant-like William, and their beloved parents move from military base to military base. Then, in the course of one horrific evening, the family becomes completely unsprung. Stunned and grief-stricken, Farley and William move into their aunt’s decrepit boarding house overlooking the city of Pittsburgh – a city still reeling from the loss if its great steel industry. But tragedy threatens from several directions, and their newly-built family must pull together in order to save what they can from disaster yet again.”

 

 

Books about BratsBeneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles
Here it is, my debut novel, which will be published this coming August! In the meantime, I’d love to give a few ARCs away to other book-reading BRATs (and anyone else who is interested), so I hope you’ll enter the raffle below!

In researching books about military families, I’ve discovered that many of the most popular brat novels depict military life during the Vietnam era or earlier. While many aspects of the military lifestyle remain the same (e.g. moving around a lot), one of the things that led me to write Beneath Wandering Stars was a desire to share the experience of military brats since 9/11, as well as what it’s like to be stationed overseas in Europe during high school. Here’s a short summary of the story:

 

After her soldier brother is horribly wounded in Afghanistan, Gabriela must honor the vow she made: If anything ever happened to him, she would walk the Camino de Santiago through Spain, making a pilgrimage in his name. The worst part is that the promise stipulates that she must travel with her brother’s best friend–another young soldier and a guy she has despised all her life. Her brother is in a coma, and Gabi feels that she has no time to waste, but she is unsure. Will she hesitate too long, or risk her own happiness to keep a promise? An up-close look at the lives of the children of military families, Beneath Wandering Stars takes readers on a journey of love, danger, laughter, and friendship, against all odds.

Enter to win an Advanced Reader Copy!a Rafflecopter giveaway

I  hope you’ll also join The Wandering Writer e-newsletter for announcements & future opportunities to win prizes!

Do you have any favorite BRAT books that I missed? I’d love to see other recommendations, so please leave a comment below.

The Cover for BENEATH WANDERING STARS is here!!!

BENEATH WANDERING STARSFor a new author, seeing your book cover for the first time is kind of a big deal, especially since most authors have little to no say in the cover’s design. That means if we end up hating it…well, too bad. Thankfully, this was NOT the case for me, as I’m happy to report that the wonderful publishers at Merit Press did an awesome job. I love, love, love the beautiful book cover for my debut Young Adult novel, Beneath Wandering Stars (August 2016). Merit will “officially” reveal the full cover on April 27 on YABooksCentral.com, but I wanted to share a “sneak peak” here as well.

If you are interested in receiving and reading a free Advanced Review CBENEATH WANDERING STARSopy (ARC) of the book, please email ashleelcowles@gmail.com and I will enter your name in a raffle drawing, as I have several copies to give away! Stay tuned for the full cover reveal at the end of this month!

Healthy Writing Habits: How to Stay Fit When Working from Home

As an INFJ, I love, love, love working from home, but doing so requires the establishment of healthy writing habits. As soon as I made the switch to a home office, I started seeing this annoying little phrase everywhere I looked: “sitting is the new smoking.”

And I believe it. I’ve always tried to be an active person, but when I went from teaching on my feet at the front of a classroom to teaching online at a desk all day, I noticed the difference immediately, especially since my “other job”—writing novels—also requires staring at a screen from a seated position for hours on end. And it wasn’t just weight gain I was worried about – my entire body hurt. Back, shoulders, wrists, legs – the constant aches made me feel like I was in my nineties instead of my thirties, and assured me that drastic changes needed to be made if this working-from-home gig was going to be sustainable.

Enter the FitDesk.

fitdeskA few months back I mentioned an awesome Christmas gift I received from my parents: a laptop desk…on an exercise bike. Several readers asked me to post a review after I had a chance to use the bike for a few months, so here it is:

Overall, I love it. If you work from home and spend a lot of time on your computer, the FitDesk is definitely worth the investment. Here’s why:

 

  • The FitDesk forces you to sit in a position that is good for your back and lessens tension in the neck and shoulders. That, along with the constant leg movement, has already lessened my aches and pains considerably. For me, this benefit alone makes it worth the $300 bucks.
  • It’s comfortable and high-quality, which makes me think I’ll be able to use it for many years to come. I usually spend between 2 and 5 hours on the FitDesk and only after that point does the bike seat start to make by butt go numb. If you do a few hours on and then a few hours off, this isn’t an issue.
  • You can change the tension on the wheel, depending on how challenging you want the pedaling to be. When I’m in video or phone meetings, I crank that baby up and try to pedal as hard as I can (so long as I’m not expected to talk), but I keep the wheel at a lower tension when I’m doing things like editing my novel, grading assignments, or checking email. However, when I’m doing something that requires me to think a little more deeply, I do find it difficult to keep the momentum going…

…which brings me to the major downsides of the FitDesk (though I don’t find it that big of a deal):

  • I can’t really write creatively while on the bike. In other words, I can’t write brand new material. Maybe it’s just me, but for some reason when I’m working on a story, I get so lost in this imaginary world that I have trouble doing two things at once. When I’ve tried working on my novel while on the FitDesk, at some point I’ll look down and notice that my legs have stopped moving. It’s like that little exercise we all did as kids: trying to pat our heads and rub our tummies at the same time. I’m sure there are people out there who are more coordinated than I am, but my brain apparently finds it challenging to create and pedal at the same time. That said, I have no problem pedaling while doing less creative tasks like email, grading, and even editing my novel, which means I still spend a lot of time on the bike.
  • The only other negative thing about the FitDesk is that I can’t seem to get the speedometer that comes with the bike to work. It would be nice to know how far I’m pedaling each day, as well as how many calories I’m burning, so I’ll need to call the company’s customer service team at some point.

I am happy with my purchase, but I don’t think the FitDesk is an adequate substitute for daily exercise. In the three months I’ve been using it, my legs have started to feel more toned and I’ve probably lost a few pounds, but most of the time when I’m working on the FitDesk, I’m not pedaling hard enough to really sweat, so I don’t count the time spent on it as high-intensity, cardiovascular exercise. This means I still try to fit in a run or a weight-lifting session most days of the week.

In conclusion, I don’t think the FitDesk is going to melt the pounds away on its own if that’s what you’re after, but it will likely help most people keep off the additional weight they’d gain from a sedentary desk job. Most importantly, my body feels so much better than it did a few months ago, and that alone makes it a worthwhile purchase and a great way to break up the time spent at a normal desk.

Other Tips for Staying Healthy & Fit

  • Get outside every day. A lot of the writers I know (myself included) have a more melancholic temperament (to use a medieval classification) and spend a lot of time in their own heads, so I find it vital to break up the time in la-la land with a walk or jog. The fresh air, sunshine, and movement are always energizing, and I get many of my best writing ideas out on long walks.
  • Start the day with a green smoothie. I can’t do anything (including speak to other humans) until I have a cup of coffee in me, but I’m not very good at eating enough raw vegetables. An easy way to add more of that beloved kale to your diet is with a green smoothie. My favorite blender combination is half a frozen banana, a handful or spinach/kale, mixed frozen berries, a teaspoon of flax seed, all mixed with almond or coconut milk.
  • Stick to a Screen Sabbath. I try to avoid screens, or at least my laptop, one day each week so that my eyes can have a break. I also have a daily tea time ritual in the afternoons that gives me a chance to get off the computer for 30 minutes to an hour to read a physical book.

book-goggles-348090_960_720

What do you do to stay healthy when you work at a desk all day?

Why Do So Many Adults Read Young Adult (YA) Fiction?

Young Adult Fiction

In college I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain and often took the Metro to get to class (going so far as to adopt the urban practice of wearing running shoes with my skirts while commuting, and then changing into leather boots once I got to school — college students in fashionable Spain don’t do sweatpants). Inside a particularly crowded Metro train one morning, I wondered how so many people could find the concentration to read despite the commotion and lack of personal space. Across from me, a woman ( in her late 30s) and a teenager a few seats down both read books from the same series: Harry Potter.

Arguably the Young Adult novels that reignited the YA genre back in the late 1990s, Harry Potter has transcended all kinds of boundaries — culture, ethnicity, gender, and perhaps most noticeably, age. Yet J.K. Rowling isn’t the only author whose work appeals to both youth and adults. According to a 2012 survey, 55% of Young Adult books are bought by grown-ups. Based on the blogs and conversations I’ve come across on the web, many of these adult YA readers seem to be young women in their 20s and 30s.

My immediate response to these survey results is why? Why do many adults enjoy reading fiction involving a protagonist who is so much younger than they are?

The easy and more cynical answer is that we live in an age where adolescence is prolonged due to a variety of factors, so turning eighteen or graduating high school doesn’t necessarily mean one has “become an adult.” Some might say our society idolizes youth (botox, anyone?) and fails to value the wisdom often thought to come with age. To give an example of the lack of “pop culture gap” between today’s generations, current parents in their 30s and 40s may find that they actually share the same tastes in music as their children — something practically unheard of in previous generations (“Elvis Presley! That’s not music! Sinatra–now there’s a man who can sing.”). So is that what the popularity of YA literature among adults is all about–we late GenXers and Millenials are simply overgrown juveniles? A generation of “lost boys” who don’t want to leave Neverland?

Cultural shifts in maturity levels and expectations may be part of the puzzle, but I don’t think it’s the entire story or even the most significant factor when it comes to determining the reasons YA literature resonates with so many people. After all, the concept of “children’s books” and “grown-up books” is probably a more modern distinction, and as C.S. Lewis noted, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The most timeless stories are often considered “good” precisely because they transcend boundaries and speak to universal human emotions, questions, and struggles.

But why the YA explosion in particular? I’m sure there are authors writing excellent stories for younger children, but stories featuring teens seem to be the most popular children’s books among adults, and I think there are several reasons for this:

  • To start, the visceral nature of adolescence is appealing in a society where more and more adults spend hours living “virtually” or in some distant future.

I can’t put this concept any better than my wonderful editor at Merit Press, Jacquelyn Mitchard: “For a young person, everyday life is epic. They live in dog years, changing on a molecular level.” I don’t think I’ve ever lived more in “the present tense” than I was as a teen. Granted, I was in high school before social media was “a thing”–so virtual realities weren’t really a distraction from the present moment–but I have always been a rather future-oriented person. When I was about 11 or 12, I used to keep myself awake at night dreaming about my future life –where I wanted to study Veterinary Medicine (yeah, that didn’t happen), the farmhouse I wanted to design and build (also hasn’t happened…yet), the kind of man I hoped to marry (one of out three goals ain’t bad!). Interestingly, most of my forward-thinking stopped when I was in high school, about the time adults actually start pressuring young people to think about the future. My sixteen-year-old self, however, was too focused on that day–on my friends, on a crush, on the upcoming soccer game. I can’t think of any other time in my life, except for maybe brief periods of international travel, where each day was lived completely in the moment. Every emotion, every new experience, every relationship had deep, life-or-death significance, and I suspect this raw, 3-D, technicolor existence is one of the things that attracts adult readers to YA fiction. Sometimes, we need to be reminded of the power of now. Besides, reading about teenagers struggling with some of the greatest challenges a person ever faces–growing up and figuring out who we are–is so much more rewarding than scrolling through the Tweets of grown-ups who supposedly have it all figured out.

  •  YA fiction bends the rules of storytelling–but they’re the right rules.

The broad category “Young Adult” is one of the most dynamic, creative genres in fiction right now. Yes, there are some fixed rules (the protagonist must be a teen, obviously), as well as common tropes (cough, love triangle), but many beloved YA novels tackle tough topics, cross sub-genres, and even create new ones. Take, for instance, Evangeline Denmark’s debut novel CURIO, a work of speculative fiction that has elements of steampunk, historical fiction, and fantasy, to the point that some have given this novel a new label: “magic-punk.” Yet while stories like Denmark’s may push the envelope in some ways, YA lit remains more reserved and cautious in others. Now there’s definitely edgy or even explicit YA out there, but most authors of Young Adult fiction know that an “everything and anything goes” mentality isn’t a responsible or appropriate way to approach this genre. As a result, YA authors can’t always rely on cheap tricks to hook readers (or at least not without push-back and controversy), or use excessive violence and sex as ways to keep people reading. The strength and appeal of a YA novel is more likely to be found in the storytelling itself, not in forbidden fruit or easy thrills.

  • Young Adult literature is all about “what ifs?” and possibility, and sometimes we adults need to be reminded that the world is much bigger than the one we often find ourselves in.

Many of the recent hits in YA are epic stories that make readers question what it means to be a hero, as well as the limits of what is possible. Nobody needs to be reminded of this potential more than adults, who often find it difficult to push beyond what is comfortable or secure the older we get and the more responsibilities we take on. Reading stories about hopeful young people who have an entire lifetime before them can reinvigorate an adult’s sense of possibility, while also reminding us of where we are on the mortality timeline (enter line from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”).
In short, adults who read Young Adult literature aren’t necessarily stunted adolescents trying to escape reality; they may actually be attempting to get more in touch with it.

Ashlee Cowles is the author of BENEATH WANDERING STARS (Merit Press, August 2016). Want to learn more? Join me here.