Monthly Archives: February 2010

Chapter Four Excerpt: Sea To Shining Sea

The following excerpt incorporates a bit of real life via my experiences in speaking out against 9/11 conspiracy theorists on prominent sites like Parcbench. As with my first effort, the entire novel is based on real-life experiences; however, unlike Water Signs most of which was based on my own personal reality, Sea To Shining Sea weaves true-to-life public events into the fabric of its fictional characters (who are based on real people).

Thus in this scene, Ken and Madeline confront an angry mob of “truthers”, anarchists and cult-like followers of fictional congressman Nathaniel Ulysses Trent (I’ll leave it to my politically astute readers to figure out the real-life inspiration behind that character). 😉

The insults hurled at Ken, including “stooge of the New World Order”, “communist, fascist pig”, and “corporate shill” are the same ones I’ve received as a result of questioning and criticizing the foreign policy, isolationism and blatant courtship of 9/11 truthers attributable to one very well-known, 20-year incumbent congressman who champions himself “The Defender of the Constitution” (recognize him yet, dear readers?).

One note to fellow authors and writers: because the events described in Sea To Shining Sea are mostly from public life, as opposed to personal life, it became necessary to make them personal for my characters. Thus, we learn that part of Ken’s passion and outrage expressed against the truther crowd stems from the fact that he’s lost a few Navy buddies in the USS Cole attack.  With respect to the FISA Act (with which I’ve taken some creative liberties in order to make a serious point), the US Congress’ failure to renew it leads directly to the implosion of Ken’s telecomm deal, and the loss of his livelihood — an event that will prompt him to run for Congress as the conservative, grass-roots upstart (a la many of today’s candidates including Ed Lynch, Allen West, Corey Poitier and Bernard Sansaricq, to name a few from Florida). On the way, he’ll encounter much resistance from the GOP good ‘ol boys, who will throw all of their money and support behind their chosen RINO, Bennett Whitehorn.

In other ways, however, Sea To Shining Sea is a hybrid of the personal and public: like Madeline, I too lost a cousin in The World Trade Center on September 11. Like Madeline, I also have a dear older brother with Down’s syndrome, and like Madeline, I have a tremendous amount of respect for a certain former governor for choosing life when tests determined she’d be giving birth to a baby with an extra chromosome. She’s also been immortalized in my book in the character of Anna Hardin. And I’m pretty sure y’all know who I’m talkin’ about, if I may paraphrase Hillary Clinton! If you don’t, you must’ve been hiding out on a deserted island for the past 1 1/2 years, with no access to internet, talk radio or television. 🙂

Seriously, my goal with this latest effort is to uphold American principles, values and traditions within the context of an entertaining, continuing love story.

As always, I look forward to your feedback and thank you for taking the time to read my posts!

Chapter Four

The North Shore Mountains stood resplendent and proud in the distance beneath the orange glow of the Vancouver sun as Ken and Maddy stepped out of the limo and onto the Marina. As a chill breeze enveloped them, he slipped an arm tightly around his wife, who was at once relieved she’d had the presence of mind to put on a lined raincoat before they left the Penthouse. May in Vancouver bore no resemblance to May in South Florida, which typically heralded the return of intense heat and humidity. But in spite of the slight discomfort of an unseasonably cool – even by Vancouver standards – evening, the couple looked forward to a few hours’ respite from all things corporate and political.

Alas, as they approached the impressive line of fellow fun-seekers, they quickly discovered that a few carefree hours aboard a touristy dinner cruise would not be devoid of at least some conflict.

“What’s all that commotion?” Maddy asked, noticing a rowdy group of at least 50 protesters standing off to the side, waving signs and yelling.

“Not sure,” Ken replied, protectively tightening his arm around her as they neared the scene. Upon realizing that the assembly of mostly unkempt, gothic-looking twenty-somethings – interspersed with a few elders who appeared to be veterans of Woodstock – were self-described anarchists, 9/11 “truthers” and anti-war activists, they let out a collective groan.

“Ugh, I thought these idiots were mostly concentrated in Austin, Hollywood and Seattle,” Maddy sighed angrily. “Where’s their hero, Congressman Nathaniel Ulysses Trent? Probably speaking to college kids somewhere in the States, calling for the CIA to be taken out. Or maybe he’s here visiting Vancouver on the taxpayer dime to further incite anti-American sentiment.”

Glancing at Kenny, she noted the palpable rage building within, evidenced by his crimson cheeks and stiff upper body. No doubt, gruesome images of the Cole bombing at the hands of barbaric terrorists – complete with the subsequent gaping hole in the ship’s hull and his friends’ violent, bloody deaths – were reverberating through his mind.

“Kenny! I know you’re mad; I am too,” she counseled in a firm, yet gentle tone. You know more than anyone how much I cannot stand these traitors. I’ve been deleting and blocking them like crazy lately on Facebook, but please don’t pick a fight with them. Just ignore them. Things are bad enough at work already; the last thing you need is to end up in the Vancouver papers as the American Executive who beat up a bunch of punks at the Harbour Cruises Marina,” she warned. “We both know who the media will sympathize with, and it sure as hell won’t be the ‘rich’ Americans from Boca Raton.”

He looked at her wordlessly for a moment before suddenly remembering the fragility of her emotional and physical state, and the news he’d yet to break to her. Surely he could summon the inner strength necessary to practice restraint, notwithstanding the fact that – in that very moment – he wanted nothing more than to teach the aging hippies and their lazy, brainwashed protégées a lesson they’d never forget.

“Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ve got it under control,” he assured her assertively as they took their place in line behind an attractive, smiling couple that reminded Maddy very much of her cousins Lyle and Daphne. Suddenly she felt a little homesick wondering what everyone was up to back in Pennsylvania. She leaned closer into Kenny’s chest as a cold shiver ran up and down her spine.

“Good,” she noted in a muffled voice. “Because I just want to spend some quality time with my husband and forget about all of the insanity for a little while.”

Madeline closed her eyes and tried to drown out the cacophony of angry epithets and hateful chants of “9/11 was an inside job!” even as the Vancouver police valiantly attempted to maintain order by enforcing a legally mandated distance between protesters and cruise ship patrons.

But in the very next instant, she nearly toppled to the ground in the domino effect caused by a violent, powerful wave of resistance on the part of the unruly mob. Ken had felt the repercussions first, instinctively holding her up while he fought to keep his balance. Enraged, he first inquired about Maddy’s state before sternly instructing her to move further away for the sake of her own safety. Then he returned his attention to surreal mob scene.

“Fucking punks! Damned cowards! How dare you show up here promoting your 9/11 conspiracy bullshit!” he bellowed, as an officer tried to restrain him.

“Sir, please – get back in line now!” the policeman barked at Ken.

“These Woodstock rejects who don’t know a damned thing about duty, honor or country nearly caused my pregnant wife to have an accident! Get them the hell out of here!” he ordered, undeterred by the uniform.

“Corporate shill! Stooge of the New World Order!” an obnoxious teenager taunted at Ken. “Your former president ought to be tried for war crimes!”

“You little son of a bitch; you have no idea what a useful moron you are do you? Do you know how quickly a Jihadist would chop off your ignorant little head?!” Ken shot back with fire in his eyes. By now, two police officers were restraining him, as the others fought to break up the demonstration.

“Sir, please, I am going to have to arrest you if you don’t get back in line! We’re handling this!”

Ken let out a bitter laugh. “Not very well, I’m afraid, officer. What the hell are these people doing here anyway?”

Before the cop could reply, the young anarchist cried out, “Even one of your own Congressmen knows 9/11 was an inside job. Nathaniel Trent is the only member of your government with guts to call it for what it is – just a bloody ploy to instigate two wars for oil and profit!”

“You stupid punk, you don’t know a damned thing, do you? If you did, you’d know that Nathaniel Ulysses Trent is a laughingstock among anyone with half a brain!”

“Nathaniel Trent knows Al-Qaeda is just CIA fantasy, created to take away individual liberty. But what would a fascist communist pig like you know about freedom anyway!”

“Lucky for you, you little dirtbag, it’s because of people like me that you have the right to spew your conspiracy garbage. I was serving my country long before your worthless ass took up space on this earth. You—”

“Sir, for the last time, either get back in line or I will have to arrest you!” the officer interrupted.

By now, Ken’s face was beet-red, his heart pounding furiously as visions of his Navy days flashed through his mind. Although he’d completed his duty several months before the Gulf War began in 1991, he’d still witnessed plenty of tragedy in the loss of several of his brothers during the course of service; had he remained, he could’ve easily been one of the lives lost in the USS Cole. Encountering spoiled, ungrateful and painfully ignorant fools like this nutjob conspiracy crew – the polar opposite of the dedicated, honorable and patriotic young men he’d known as a sailor – awakened a simmering anger within him. Memories of horrific events like the Cole bombing and the September 11 attacks were never far from his consciousness.

A few feet away, Maddy called out to her husband, sympathetic to his turmoil but fearful of its potential consequences. He vaguely heard her cries above all of the commotion, prompting him to abruptly release his arm from the policeman’s grasp and slowly make his way back to his worried wife. By then, the officers had succeeded in subduing the protesters, while the cruise ship finally began the boarding process.

Ken encircled Maddy in his arms and held her close to him for a moment, relishing her soothing words and reassurances that – although initially rattled – she was indeed ok.

“It’s gonna take a lot more than some Kool-Aid-drinking 9/11 truthers to get the better of me, teddy bear,” she joked. “And they’ve sure given me something to write about on my blog tomorrow – along with RINO Whitehorn and the hapless Florida Republican Party.”

Ken let out a chuckle, then reminded her of their deal to put all of their problems on hold for the night. Placing an arm about her waist, he lovingly escorted her to the waiting ship, as the fiery orange sun glistened on the water and decorated the Vancouver sky with streaks of dramatic, colorful splendor.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel: Part Four

More thoughts on the reconciliation theme as it relates to real life transforming into fiction.

In my previous piece, I drew a comparison/contrast between the characters of Dr. Joseph Rose and Ken Lockheart, the two embodiments of The American Dream in Water Signs. Though generations apart, both Joseph and Ken overcome similar obstacles in their quest for a better life that expands far-beyond their respective, humble beginnings. It should also be clear from that post, but bears repeating here, that although they rise above challenging material circumstances, both men retain the traditional values with which they were raised.

These values — love of God, family, and country, and commitment to a strong work ethic — transcend the financial, and thus are not dependent upon how much money a family possesses, although consistent adherence to them serves each of these characters well.

Dr. Rose moves from the poor son of a tailor to respected Philadelphia neurosurgeon, while Ken transforms from son of a blue-collar union worker (who takes great offense at his youngest child’s ambitions) to successful corporate businessman.  Yet neither loses their sense of gratitude for the United States of America and the opportunities it affords them, nor their ingrained belief in right and wrong.

Ken differs from Joseph in having the extra burden of paternal disapproval, a reality explored throughout the book with the ultimate result being the renewal of the father-son relationship. But that’s not the only parent-child connection intertwined in the reconciliation theme. And there’s also a thread of forgiveness surrounding other influential figures such as school teachers.

Like her suitor Ken, Madeline is the youngest child in her family, another sensitive Pisces creation who came into the world on the exact same day and year. She’s also been raised in the Catholic faith and school system, which has had its blessings and disadvantages. In one scene, she confides in her new beau that as a first-grader, her teacher-nun made her life miserable from the moment she discovered Madeline to be the daughter of a doctor, branding her “a spoiled rich girl” . Whenever the six year-old would show up at school in a perfectly beautiful hand-me-down jacket from her older sister, the nun would inevitably sneer, “Oh, I see Daddy bought you a new jacket!”,  as if having a family that cared for their children’s material needs was a bad thing.

These insults were usually accompanied by lectures about the poor children in West Philly, which apparently the nun believed to be the fault of a first-grader who didn’t share the same hardships. And although this is not in the book, I remember that the First Grade Sister’s favorite Bible quote was Jesus’ admonition that is was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In real life, I have vague memories of asking my father about that oft-quoted Bible passage, horrified by the prospect that a good man like him might not go to heaven because he had money (I should also point out that while my dad made a nice living, we were a middle-class family, nowhere close to millionaire status). He did his best to assure me that Jesus was not condemning anyone for using their God-given talents to bless the world and, in his case, help people heal.

Another memory that is mentioned in the book involves riding home from school in the car with my mother, after another day of lecturing about the poor, disadvantaged kids in Philly. As we passed the familiar waste management company on the right side of the road, I remarked, “Mommy, I wish Daddy was a trash collector instead of a doctor!”

My horrified mother looked at me briefly before reverting her eyes back to the road and asked, “Why on earth would you say something like that?”

My response: “Because maybe if he was, Sr. Timothy Ann would like me!”

She then instructed me that I should be very proud of my father, as he was not robbing banks, but helping people get well. He hadn’t been handed everything on a silver platter; he’d worked hard for everything he had and shared with us. Being the protective (thank God!) “Mama Bear” she was, this little exchange resulted in a one-on-one visit with both the principal and the nun in question. To the best of my recollection, things did improve after that, but the damage had already been done.

As in my own life, the mixed messages Maddy receives about earning money contribute to her difficulties in achieving her own financial success as an adult. When she dates Jake Winston, her first long-term boyfriend, he reinforces the themes of the frustratingly misquoted “money is the root of all evil” (instead of “love of money is the root of all evil”). Years later, Madeline, through her own spiritual development, is able to forgive both the nun and the boyfriend by recognizing their own unique internal struggles that led them to inflict their pain and warped monetary outlook onto her.

In Jake’s case, his resentment over his family’s financial crisis — a difficulty not shared by his then-girlfriend Madeline — compels him to do and say hurtful things that ultimately doom their relationship. Regarding Sr. Timothy Ann, while there’s no concrete information as to the circumstances of her upbringing, it is safe to assume that a misinterpretation of her voluntary vows most likely contributed to her nastiness toward an innocent little girl. In fairness, there were plenty of nice sisters who never resorted to these tactics, sticking instead to the fundamentals of teaching the Catholic faith along with English, Math, Science, Social Studies and all of the other critical school subjects.

Interestingly enough, I am currently towards the end of an eight-week course offered by Unity Church of Delray Beach called, Five Gifts for An Abundant Life. My last two classes have focused on forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. Years prior to taking this course and writing Water Signs, I’d participated in a 12-week course which was also sponsored by Unity — Stretton Smiths 4T Prosperity Program.  I credit the principles I’ve learned there — particularly in the area of forgiveness — with helping me to recognize and release the negative programming I’ve received, along with cultivating a compassionate understanding for the people who perpetuated it.

It’s been a long, but fulfilling journey, and I hope by presenting these themes within the confines of an entertaining love story, others may find the same benefit.

More on reconciliation in my next post.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Three

Today’s installment draws a comparison/contrast between Water Signs’ main male character, Ken Lockheart, and Dr. Joseph Rose, the two most important men in heroine Madeline Rose’s life. As I’ve noted in previous posts, both are representations of The American Dream, though generations apart, and both are based on real people who impacted my life to varying degrees.

Dr. Rose (based on my father) is the offspring of immigrants, and a member of that generation that falls in-between The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. While he himself had been too young too have served during World War II, like my own dad, he certainly knew of those — including close family members and neighborhood friends — who had. Some of these noble men made the ultimate sacrifice, while others were fortunate enough to have returned home safely after honorably fighting for the cause of freedom.

My father did serve in the US Army during the Korean War, although this real-life fact is not obviously noted in the novel. Nevertheless, I grew up in a home that respected the US Military and celebrated traditional American values, quintessential holidays (Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc),  and the right of the individual to pursue any path he or she might desire, whether it entail a career in medicine, law, journalism, engineering, graphic arts or countless other noble fields in which one could put their talents and abilities to their best use.

Although my dad was a practicing surgeon, he never imposed his dream on his children. Like my mom, his fervent desire was for each of us to create the life and career of our own choosing. And though his work schedule necessitated an upbringing in which my mother did the heavy lifting in terms of administering discipline, teaching values and prayers, helping with homework, providing transportation to and from extracurricular activities, planning family outings and parties, and otherwise managing all of the duties associated with raising five children (including one with a handicap),  when my dad did arrive home, he was completely engaged in the family. (I will devote a separate post to my mom and her character, Monica Rose, both of whom are quite deserving of their own analysis)

Thus, our dinner (when he was able to make it home in time) conversations always centered on what we learned in school that day, what was going on in our lives and yes — what we wanted to be when we grew up. My response as a young child to that last question typically vacillated between: “I’m going to be a novelist!” or “I’m going to be a journalist!” To which my dad would always follow-up with approval and encouragement (Good thing, too, because although I was an excellent student, my obvious strengths were English and the humanities; math and science were a daily struggle and almost always marked the difference between the achievement of First or Second Honors in high school).

Another aspect of my father I didn’t fully appreciate until old enough to understand the pressures of the medical world (including the pervasive, sometimes devastating impact of trial lawyers and government) was that no matter how tough the day had been, he always came through the front door whistling. More often than not, he’d greet my mother with a cheery, “Che fai, Rosie?” and a kiss upon arriving in the kitchen, where she’d normally be preparing dinner. As a small child, I remember running to the foyer to greet him, where he’d always scoop me up and say, “How ya doing Little Lady?!”

All of these remembrances had their most profound significance in hindsight; I’m not exactly sure why it is so difficult to fully appreciate the gifts you’ve been given (e.g. a stable, loving family) when you’re young. But as I matured and met other peers in high school, college and far-beyond, I began to realize my good fortune of being born into a family that — while far from perfect — had almost been ideal compared with the familial circumstances of others.

Which brings me back to the character of Ken Lockheart. In Chapter Two of Water Signs,  Ken completely throws Madeline off-guard by actually following up on his 3 a.m. promise of meeting her at the beach in Ocean City — a declaration made under the influence of an alcohol-induced buzz. He’d driven her back to her car in the nightclub parking lot, after the couple had gone out for breakfast at a local Jersey diner, and stated his intentions with conviction. Without the benefit of pen or paper, Maddy wrongly concludes that while cute, entertaining and interesting, this guy is far from serious about her. Part of this stems from her own insecurity, and part from her inability to let go of a previous hurtful relationship, both of which are explored in the novel in great detail.

After returning home from church much later that same day, Madeline gets the shock of her life when her sister announces that Ken is on the phone, wondering where she’s been all this time, as he’s been waiting patiently for her at the beach as promised. This ultimately results in the extension of an invitation to breakfast with the family, suggested by Madeline’s mother, Monica. After a brief bout with nervousness, Ken accepts the offer and enthusiastically joins in the conversation around the table, amazed by the way in which the Rose family relates to each other. He’s also blown away by their accomplishments, from Dr. Rose to Maddy’s attorney-siblings Greg and Lori, and absent brothers Damian (a pathologist in Nashville) and Louis (the Down’s brother who was working in PA that weekend, staying with family friends).

Later at the beach, he’s even more amazed by how the Rose family welcomes him into their circle, and by Madeline’s ability to express herself intelligently in bursts of enthusiasm and passion on everything from politics to pop culture to sports. I recall conversations from real life in which “Ken” would share his admiration of the way in which my family members ate together, amid sometimes boisterous but always engaging conversation on a variety of topics. With some puzzlement, I’d asked him why this was such a big deal. Didn’t his family participate in the same kinds of activities?

His response was something along the lines of “not the way your family does.” It was a telling example of another seemingly unimportant detail of my upbringing, and one of the first reminders that not everyone I’d meet would share the same kind of family experiences.

In a later chapter, Maddy (as did I) learns of the troubled relationship between Ken and his father, instigated by Ken’s admirable decision to enlist in the US Navy to serve his country, earn money for college and to avoid, in his own words, “turning into a surfer bum.” During an evening spent perusing photo albums from his years in the service, a teary-eyed Ken admits to her that — unlike his supportive mother — his father never once visited him when he was on leave, nor wrote him one letter, although he did show up for the ceremony marking the successful completion of his son’s time in the Navy.

As with real life, “Ken” goes on to simultaneously complete his college degree and find success in the corporate world.

In the novel, I explore the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation through several characters. In this particular case, recalling the tension between Ken’s human counterpart and his father afforded me the opportunity to start with a real-life element and carry it through the entire work of fiction.

Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day of that same year, “Ken” had spent several days hanging out with my family and me at our home in Pennsylvania. I clearly remember his emotional dilemma on New Year’s Day, wanting to call his parents, yet dreading having to speak to his father — an issue he shared openly with me. After listening for a while, I suggested that he follow through with the call, mostly for his own sake, as it was clearly causing inner turmoil. Further, by doing so, he’d take the high-road, demonstrating respect without actually conceding that his dad was correct in his unfair criticisms of his son. Ken subsequently took the advice and they had a cordial conversation.

Both of these incidents served as starting points to chronicle the evolution of the troubled father-son relationship between Ken and Carl Lockheart. By the book’s end, Carl has developed a healthy respect for his youngest son’s decision to embark upon a dramatically different path than the blue-collar, union card-carrying one he’d initially envisioned for his offspring.

Having spent several years apart from Ken mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically, Madeline is thrilled to discover this incredible father-son milestone when circumstances conspire to bring him and his family back into her life. In a purely fictional chapter, she finally meets Kenny’s parents when she joins him for Mother’s Day dinner at their home, where, among other things, they enjoy a round of karaoke (inspired by my own karaoke experiences with friends at a friendly, Pompano Beach bar). This scene is but one of many examples of coming “full-circle” in the novel, and one of my favorites in terms of the writing process. Unlike me, Madeline has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, which is one of the countless qualities that Ken finds so intoxicating about her.

When I first met “Ken”, the similarities between him and my father were not obvious to me; only in hindsight have I been able to fully see and appreciate them. From overcoming difficult obstacles on the way to achieving success, to possessing an incredibly attractive, genuine love of God, country and family, there are many ways in which Ken and Dr. Rose mirror each other. Yet, perhaps the most significant of these is their shared love for Madeline — one as the man who brought her into the world, and the other as the man for whom she forever alters his.

Coming soon: More paths to reconciliation, and fact versus fiction.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Two

With the news that my wonderful father, Dr. Al DiGiovanni, will be honored by the Drexel University College of Medicine (now consolidated with Hahnemann Medical School, the institution from which he graduated in 1960) for 50 esteemed years in the medical profession, it is only fitting to focus this next installment on the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

As I mentioned in Fun Facts, I initially planned to make “Rose” my main character Madeline’s middle name, before deciding that it made an excellent surname for the entire family. Rose happens to be my wonderful mother’s first name, while Madeline (technically the Italian version, Madelina) had belonged to my maternal grandmother. So it had always been a given that I would create a character named Madeline Rose as a tribute to both women (I’ll discuss the character of Madeline Rose, who is based on me, in another post).

Like my dad, Dr. Joseph Rose is a successful doctor with an outgoing personality; deep love of family and friends; passionate allegiance to the Philadelphia Phillies; and abiding zest for life. In fact, Joseph Rose is pretty much a mirror-image of his real-life counterpart with the exception that his specialty is neurosurgery, whereas my dad’s had been general and vascular surgery. I specifically chose neurosurgery for Dr. Rose, knowing that his daughter Madeline would struggle with panic and anxiety disorder in the novel. Prior to her correct diagnosis, the medical profession would have to rule out possible brain abnormalities. By making her father an expert in this area, it helped to intensify his and his wife’s distress over their youngest child’s worrisome symptoms, which mimicked those of a patient with a serious neurological disorder.

In all other aspects — and perhaps most importantly in their representation of The American Dream — Dr. Joseph and Dr. Al are synonymous. Both are products of immigrant parents who migrated to the United States from Italy, in search of economic freedom and opportunity. Both grew up in the “inner city”, a section of Philadelphia known as Germantown, in a small row-home shared with their parents and three brothers. Both aspired to be Major League Baseball pitchers, but had to turn to their second-love, medicine, when career-ending injuries forever shattered their dreams of pitching no-hitters to packed stadiums of loyal, enthusiastic fans. Finally, both are eternal optimists, grateful for the opportunities afforded them in a free and prosperous country where even the sons of broken-English-speaking immigrants could raise themselves up to greater heights, fueled by their own passion, persistence, hard work and determination.

These are the qualities that define my dad and his character. I have to admit, there was much I took for granted growing up as a doctor’s daughter — namely, my father’s stunning transition from a poor boy with big dreams to a well-respected surgeon with a loyal patient following. I didn’t fully appreciate the obstacles he’d faced and overcome, having only known him an accomplished member of the medical profession. And since he was never one to harp too much (although he had his moments) about how tough life was when he was a kid, (preferring instead to talk about the positives of being part of a close-knit, though financially challenged family), most of the stories I remember involve food, cooking, laughter, childhood pranks and parental devotion.

Not that things were always rosy. There was the occasional brush with bigotry, as when Chestnut Hill Hospital refused to bring an “Eye-talian” doctor on board, resulting in my parents’ move to Delaware County, where he was offered staff positions at Mercy Catholic Medical Center and Riddle Memorial Hospital. And years prior, the tragic and unexpected loss of his mother when he was just a 19 year-old college student.

And yet, my dad persisted — always with an attitude of gratitude and an optimistic outlook.

In spite of his success, neither of my parents ever forgot their roots (although as the daughter of a pharmacist  who owned a corner drugstore in the neighborhood, my mom had grown up in a relatively affluent environment by comparison). Their closest friends included people from all walks of life — doctors, dentists, plumbers, printers, small business-owners, truck drivers and military veterans.

As children, we were taught to be proud of our family members for their accomplishments, but never to think that we were better than anyone else by virtue of what our father did for a living. And my dad certainly walked his talk. Whenever we were out in public places like restaurants, he would always engage our waiter or waitress in friendly conversation, so much so that typically by the end of our meal, we knew as much about that person as they were willing to share — which was normally a great deal, thanks to Dr. Al’s genuine interest and friendly nature.

Ok, I’ll admit, as a kid I found this somewhat embarrassing, just as my mother — a much more reserved person when it came to strangers — often did. We’d joke affectionately about how Dad felt absolutely compelled to know as much as he could about people he’d most likely never bump into again. But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate and respect this rare quality, particularly in the frantic, me-first culture we’re currently living in. If more people treated strangers, especially those who work in the service industry, as my dad did (and continues to do), our world would be a much better place.

Thanks for the great lessons, Dad! I hope I’ve done you justice in the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

Note: In my next installment, I will create a comparison/contrast between Dr. Joseph Rose and Ken Lockheart, my novel’s embodiments of the American Dream and the two most important men in Madeline’s life.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part One

Now that we’ve discussed copyright laws, and the obligation to remain mum about your “fictional” characters for legal, moral and ethical reasons, let’s turn to the process by which real people become characters in a novel. This of course, is based on my own experience of writing Water Signs, so the information is purely subjective, and intended as helpful advice to others embarking upon the same kind of adventure.

Since there is so much I want to share with my fellow authors, I am breaking the topic down into several posts, to allow me to concentrate on specific characters in my book, in order to support my statements.

My novel is infused with many themes: first love, second chances, family, faith in God, personal resiliency, patriotism, traditional values vs. modern-day society, reconciliation, The American Dream (embodied by two specific characters, Ken Lockheart and Dr. Joseph Rose), and spirtual/personal growth. I explore and uphold these themes through the use of characters, plot, circumstances and symbolism. But for this particular post, I will focus on characters, as it ties in with the practice of basing them on actual people.

So let’s start with my hero, Kenneth Lockheart. Also known as Ken and Kenny in the novel, he is modeled after a real guy I met and dated back in 1992. At the time, he seemed so much larger than life, as although we were both young adults of 25 (yes, I am giving away my age…:), “Ken” had already amassed so much more life experience, having spent four years in the United States Navy. An outgoing, energetic, intelligent and good-looking man, I was blown away by the fact that he’d summed up his young life and decided if he wanted to go after his dreams of a college education (something his parents could not provide), meaningful career and eventual wife and family, he had to go after it himself.

While this might not sound so unusual to my readers, as the youngest child of a successful surgeon, whose parents were determined to provide all of their children with a college education, it was a refreshing change for me. My dad, affectionately known as “Dr. Al” on Blog Talk Radio, was the child of Italian immigrants who supported him emotionally, but did not have the financial means to finance his dreams of higher education. Thus, beginning with high school and continuing on through medical school, my father worked several jobs, always grateful for the opportunity to achieve something greater, thanks to the USA (more on that later).

When he became a father himself,  Dr. Al was adamant about removing as many obstacles for his children as possible. Thus, I never had to worry about attending college; it was a given in my family that — at the very least — a Bachelor’s Degree would be the path for every DiGiovanni child (with the exception of my exceptional brother Ralph, a Down’s guy who achieved his own remarkable success. More on him later).

Back in 1992, I’d just come out of a very painful breakup with a guy (my first boyfriend) who’d spent a lot of time criticizing me, whether for my fashion choices, hair color or weight (years later, he sincerely apologized and we put the past behind us, which is another plot point in the story). Having come through a challenging adolescence, during which an extra 10-15 pounds made my life miserable in terms of my desirability among high school boys, I was still carrying around the unwanted emotional baggage of this relationship, along with my previous disappointments pertaining to the opposite sex. And although I’d lost most of the weight and had become — in the eyes of most others — a beautiful, sweet and attractive young woman, it was nearly impossible to see myself that way.

Which brings me back to Ken. When we “accidentally” ended up hanging out together at a Somers Point, New Jersey nightclub, I couldn’t reconcile in my mind his interest in me, expressed through conversation, hugs, high-fives and chaste kisses on the cheek. And the more I learned of his independence and self-sufficiency, the more impressed (and somewhat intimidated) I was.

To this day, no man prior and no man after him has treated me with the same genuine respect, admiration and affection. So when crafting the story, I realized that the Ken character had to be larger-than-life, in order to set him up as a stark contrast to the other men Madeline dates in the novel. Thus when readers meet Ken, they see a hard-working, optimistic, traditional, intelligent and determined young man who believes in his dreams and pursues them with passion. He knows the blue-collar job he’s currently holding is a means to an end, a way to keep himself going  financially, save for the future and figure out his next moves.

All of that is very true to the real man, along with his physical description. Sure, I could have changed eye/hair color, stature, physical build and place of residence (on this last point, my advice is to stick with the places you know, if indeed your novel is based on real life…what a time-saver!). I chose not to do that. This is obviously a personal decision for each author, but for me, authenticity is paramount. So while I did change the names for all of the obvious reasons, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to his other characteristics.

Now don’t get me wrong: Ken is a flawed human being like the rest of us. It just so happens that, unlike the other men Maddy dates, beneath the flaws remains a deep, consistent, abiding love for her. Therefore, everything he does — including the hurtful, stupid things — are a result of pure, genuine emotion. Readers may scratch their heads over some of his actions, but they will most likely never doubt his love for the story’s heroine.

Pertaining to the theme of traditional values versus modern-day society, Ken is also very much an all-American kind of guy: a patriot and US Navy veteran with a relentless work ethic, love of freedom and fervent desire to settle down with the right woman. Yes, he’s a young gun with all of the usual raging hormones and normal manly desires; however, he’s quickly tiring of the dating game, even as he optimistically searches for his perfect woman. Marriage is foremost in his mind — not meaningless hook-ups that regrettably characterize our current culture. And when he meets Madeline — a traditional woman in every way, he knows his search is over.

Blown away by the facts that 1.) she refuses to go back to his place for “coffee” after the club closes at 2 a.m. 2.) she’s not been with anyone in the Biblical sense, something he’d long given up on finding and 3.) she’s planning on attending Mass the next day, he realizes she’s a cut above the typical dating scene, and the women he’s previously encountered.

Of course, these qualities also become a source of conflict, particularly because Madeline lags behind a bit in terms of her own emotional maturity. While she’s adamant about upholding the values with which she’s been raised, the thought of marriage — and everything it entails with respect to physical intimacy — is incredibly frightening. She’s still struggling with body image and a fear of the unknown, a reality she has tremendous difficulty verbalizing to the man who stares at her adoringly and thinks everything she does is wonderful.

Ok, back to some specifics in fashioning Ken after his real-life inspiration.

As I mentioned, I remained true to his physical characteristics and personality traits. As much as I could recall through my journals and my memory, I recreated the townhouse he’d lived in in Somers Point, NJ. I literally retraced some of the steps we’d taken on the Atlantic City boardwalk, and toward Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, on our way to watch a live Eagles game.

Thus Ken and Maddy’s first date at Frisanco’s (a restaurant no longer in business), subsequent stroll on the A.C. boardwalk and eventual first kiss high atop the Trump Taj Mahal are all straight from real life. Other things are not, but were created with the book’s themes in mind. In keeping with the title, I endeavored to place my characters by water as often as possible. Therefore, in one of my early chapters, Ken surprises Madeline with a private beach picnic in Ventnor City. Did this really happen? No, but it certainly is something that could have happened, and it provided me a wonderful opportunity as an author to delve further into my characters’ feelings, motivations and outlook.

Other examples of things I did not alter: Ken’s birthplace, zodiac sign (the real guy and me are both Pisces), high school, family (both the real guy and me are the youngest in our respective families), faith (both the real guy and me were raised Catholic), marriage to another woman, and ultimate success in the corporate world. The reasons for this are varied — the shared Pisces sign, for example, ties in with water, which symbolizes renewal and emotions, the foundation of the story.

Examples of things altered:

  • Unlike the real guy and me, Ken and Madeline share the exact same birthday of March 7, 1967. This supports the “soul mate”, spirituality and metaphysical aspects of the book. In real life, we’re about two weeks apart, although both born in March. March 7 was chosen to honor my real grandmother’s birth, since she plays an integral part in the plot, albeit from the other side of life.
  • As I’ve previously stated, the name “Kenneth Lockheart” is completely made up. I needed a first name that would lend itself easily and obviously to shortened versions, thus Kenneth becomes Ken, becomes Kenny. As a side note, I wrote half of the book using the guy’s real first name as it took me that long to settle on a fictional one!
  • Ken and Maddy’s date at The Ship Inn in Exton, where he gives her a Pisces pendant is also a purely fictional scene. However, I’ve shared some enjoyable meals at The Ship Inn with family and friends, so incorporating it into Water Signs was easy to do. It is also relevant by virtue of Ken being a US Navy vet, and the use of water and the Pisces zodiac sign as symbolism in the novel.
  • Ken’s physical fight with his co-worker that ultimately results in his dismissal from the electric company is another made-up element that helps to advance the story and underscore certain themes. In this particular case, it is the tension between “working class” and “middle class”, fomented by jealousy on the co-worker’s part. It also feeds into Ken’s insecurity of not being good enough for Madeline, having not yet completed his education.

In my next installment, I will expand upon the points I’ve made here. I will also place particular focus on the American Dream theme, with a comparison and contrast between the two most important men in Madeline’s life: Ken and her father.

As always, I hope this information has been helpful, and I look forward to sharing more in the near future! 🙂

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Fun Facts about Water Signs

I will post the second part in my ongoing series about turning real life into fictional novels and/or stories very soon, but thought I would share these “Fun Facts” I’d put together last year for my Amazon and Facebook pages. Enjoy!

  • The character Madeline Rose is named for my grandmother and mother. Originally, I was going to use “Rose” for Maddy’s middle name, but decided it made an excellent surname for the entire family.
  • My confirmation name is Madeline, chosen by me as a young girl to honor my grandmother’s memory.
  • The shared birthday of Ken and Madeline, March 7, was my grandmother’s actual birthday. And while the real life counterparts for these characters don’t really share the same birthday, both are Pisces! 🙂
  • I wrote most of Part One using a different first name for the Ken character — the name of the real life person upon which this character is loosely based. Not wanting to lose any ground, I kept going until I finally settled on the name, “Kenneth.” Thank goodness for the “Find and Replace” feature on Word!
  • The name “Water Signs” was chosen for a variety of reasons, the most obvious having to do with Zodiac signs and the coastal locations of the story. However, since water is also a symbol of renewal in traditional religious faith and spiritual practices, the use of water imagery worked well for a 16-year personal growth odyssey. You’ll notice it throughout the book.
  • Chapters 21, 22 and 23 were culled from a manuscript I’d written about 10 years ago, and then thrown into a filing cabinet, never to be seen again until I sat down to seriously write the book in March, 2008.
  • A keeper of journals for over 20 years, I pulled them out to help me fill in details and flesh out characters, plots and circumstances.
  • Though I’ve been fully recovered from panic and anxiety disorder for 12 years, it still pained me deeply to have to go back and read my real life journals, which chronicle that awful period in vivid detail. Though I’d written in them faithfully on a daily basis, I’d never gone back to review them. So pulling them out after all this time was tough. To make it easier, I literally wrote the happy ending — the 2nd half of Part Two — first, then went back and filled in the story!
  • Technology progresses along with the novel, so we start off with the new phenomenon of “car phones,” work our way up to cell phones and beepers, and then finally to the Internet and website design!
  • To help set the time period from 1992-2008, I employed a lot of great music. During the summer of 1992, Jon Secada’s Just Another Day and Elton John’s The One, were two of my very favorites. You’ll see them and other familiar songs along the way.
  • Part One is laced with local Philly/South Jersey references including Herr’s potato chips, Wawa, Tastykake, Turkey Hill, soft pretzels and water ice.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles play a prominent role in Part One; the Philadelphia Phillies are mentioned to a lesser extent. With both teams, I tried to highlight the famous Philly/New York rivalries. Therefore, in one pivotal scene it’s the Eagles home opener against the Giants; in another, it’s the Phillies battling the Mets.
  • William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues was actually given to me by my brother Paul (Damian) in 1994. The handwritten note inside the book’s cover that Madeline reads at the end of Part One are Paul’s words, verbatim.
  • The flashback scene where Madeline recalls breaking her arm in a football accident with her brothers and cousins is also from real life. My brother Mark (Greg) fell into me while trying to catch a pass, resulting in one nasty fracture. And yes, he really did give me his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album as a way of expressing remorse — a hot commodity at the time! I used to love the sketches inside the cover, especially the one of Marilyn Monroe.
  • Damian is Paul’s middle name; Greg is the name of one of my nephews. The name “Louis” has been a nickname for my brother Ralph for as long as I can remember; therefore, I gave his character that name!
  • My sister Carolyn reminds me of a close friend named Lori; thus, the name of Madeline’s older sister.
  • My dad’s middle name is Joseph and he is a retired general and vascular surgeon. And though in the book Dr. Joseph Rose is a neurosurgeon, the character is pretty true to his real life counterpart in every other way.
  • Monica Rose is based on my mom, whose photos as a younger woman remind me very much of Monica Crowley, making it easy to name that character!
  • The psychic Ann Claire is based on a real person, someone I actually did meet at a monthly women’s social and business networking organization. Madeline’s interaction with her that evening mirrors my own almost exactly; only her name has been changed.
  • Madeline’s conversation by the pool with they guy who asks her if she’d go out with him if he wasn’t married is also (unfortunately) a true-to-life incident.
  • One of the best things about being an author is the ability to infuse the characters with personality traits, physical qualities and talents that may or may not exist in real life. For example, Madeline and I are both former ballroom dance instructors, but only Madeline is a professional singer, too!
  • The Atlantic City restaurant, Frisanco’s, where Ken and Madeline share their first date is no longer in business. However, it was the setting for the actual date in 1992, along with the boardwalk and Trump’s Taj Mahal. And yes, the rolling chair incident really did take place!
  • Les Miserables is my favorite musical, which is why I had Madeline sing On My Own in the theatrical production she participates in with her dance studio in Boca Raton. It also dramatically underscores her circumstances at this particular juncture of the book.
  • My dad really does have his pilot’s licence and flew a Piper Cub for years. The aerial route over the Jersey Shore that I describe in the book was one of his favorites, especially when entertaining new passengers.
  • I created the beach picnic scene as another method of getting the two characters near water (in keeping with the book’s theme), and a way of conveying a bit of the Philly/South Jersey culture, via the foods they are eating, e.g. provolone cheese from South Philly. This is one scene that is purely fictional.
  • I used the fictional character of Erin Mahoney to represent what I perceive to be our culture of excessive self-absorption. While on one hand we have people who overextend themselves — often to their own detriment — in my experience many more are the opposite extreme. Their obsession with self tends to focus exclusively on the physical body and material possessions. Of the three Boca Raton transplants Ken, Erin and Madeline, Erin is the only one who loses sight of her values and becomes enveloped by the “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality.
  • Traditional values and a clear-cut sense of right and wrong are thoroughly ingrained in me, and I wanted my book to reflect that. Madeline does the right thing by hiding her feelings and stepping aside, thus allowing Ken to make his own decision about his future without any outside interference. Years later, he unexpectedly comes back into her life as a free man only because he and Erin failed to resolve their conflicts. The dissolution of their marriage is directly attributable to the two of them — and not anyone else.
  • I wrestled with a little bit of guilt over employing a psychic to help me overcome panic disorder in real life, but finally resolved it in my own mind as an answer to an oft-repeated prayer. I’ve been free of the disorder for 12 years now, and have absolutely no regrets. It doesn’t change my religious beliefs in any way; however, it is kind of ironic that someone who once feared psychics was actually healed by one!
  • The characters of Isabella, Mark, Elyse, Audrey, Carolyn and Robin are all modeled after real people. All names have been changed.
  • Sunfest is an actual festival that occurs every year in West Palm Beach. Mark calling Maddy to cancel their date at the last minute is also straight out of real life, as is their first face-to-face meeting in Mizner Park, and their evening at the Acapulco Grill and the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier.
  • Ken’s roommate Kathy is a fictional character I created to set up another contrast between Madeline and other single women in the story.
  • Carmen is based on a personal friend, with whom I once taught at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Wayne, PA. While her name has been changed, the rest of the character is true to her real-life counterpart. Carmen also creates a contrast between Madeline and her peers, with Carmen assuming another “big sister” role in Maddy’s life.
  • Although the book is loosely autobiographical, it is definitely not a documentary. Not all of Madeline’s experiences are my experiences; some are actually gleaned from various conversations I’ve had with female friends who love to talk about the happenings in their lives!
  • Certain elements of real life experience have been embellished and/or used as a springboard to create more drama and intrigue. In many cases, I condensed the time period between events to tighten up the story. For example, Jake’s (based on a real person whose name I changed) phone call asking for forgiveness actually took place several years prior.
  • Even the closest families have their difficulties, and mine is no exception; I worked hard to create balanced portrayals while also highlighting the importance of forgiveness — another theme of the novel.
  • The Pisces pendant that Ken gives Madeline at the restaurant was just a literary ploy to reinforce the Pisces/water imagery, although I have eaten many meals at The Ship Inn in Exton!
  • Some plot points are left purposely vague. For example, I know of a woman who was raped on the beach by a former boyfriend. To give an added element of drama as well as a contrast between Ken and the rest of the men Maddy encounters, I created Ray Smith, an older guy who takes advantage of her. The point here is not about a crime being committed, but Maddy learning an important lesson about trusting her inner guidance. It also serves later on as a test of Ken’s character and Madeline’s courage.
  • Since we are all free to filter literature through the prism of our own biases and experiences, some may interpret the book as a repudiation of traditional values. As the author, I can assure you it is not. Quite the opposite: the true merit in striving to live up to one’s moral foundation lies in the fact that it is difficult. And it’s only through faith, forgiveness and endurance through the trials of life that we become better people and develop a closer relationship with God.
  • Although I wanted to, it just wasn’t possible to immortalize every good friend through fiction; likewise, there were some real life events that didn’t make the cut. Good thing, or the book might have been 800 pages!
  • The character of Cassie is based on my close cousin, Annie, who was also one of my “test readers” along the way.
  • I really did live with family friends when I first moved to Florida. They were wonderful people who opened their home to me for nearly two months, until I got on my feet. My mom really did grow up with the Rita character (last name changed), whose daughter Debbie has been my hairdresser for 14 years!
  • Elyse Lombard is based on a very close friend who is very much like another big sister to me. Our friendship grew even stronger as a result of a horrible tragedy — the untimely death of her five year-old nephew from brain cancer. This awful incident is referenced in the story. And yes, in real life, this friend loves to offer unsolicited fashion advice! 🙂
  • Audrey Solomon is also based on a dear friend with whom I also share a sisterly connection. She’s really a foot and ankle surgeon, wife and mom of two (though her second baby wasn’t born until well after the book was written).
  • Water Signs delves into sensitive emotional and physical territory — the kind of intensely personal matters most of us are reluctant to discuss. In addition to panic disorder, Madeline deals with overwhelming insecurites regarding the opposite sex and her own attractiveness; irregular menstrual periods; fear of physical intimacy and even pelvic floor dysfunction. Some of these are “borrowed” from friends’ experiences; some are my own experiences.
  • There is nothing gratuitous in my book, though there is plenty of “adult content.” Maddy struggles to live up to her values while trying to date in the modern world and deal with her own grown-up desires. The chapters involving older, divorced man Mark Donnelly are an excellent example of this.
  • I debated whether or not to include a consummation scene near the end of the book, but ultimately decided it was necessary in order to demonstrate the physical, emotional and spiritual growth of both characters. Still, I focused on making it more romantic (as opposed to explicit), by incorporating conversation and describing the setting in vivid detail. I am not as concerned about what the characters are doing as I am about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  • Having made the above two points, it was still not easy to reconcile my inclusion of intimate scenes with some members of my family. As an author and an adult, I knew most people would certainly understand and approve; however, as a daughter I was well aware that my parents still think of me as their little girl. I am happy to report my mom loved the book, though she was a little put-off at first. Now she’s my best PR agent!
  • The karaoke scene is also pure fiction; however, I used to sing karaoke a lot with some close friends at a little bar in Pompano Beach. Getting up to sing in front of a crowd really was a fear I wanted to confront. Leather and Lace and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around were two numbers I used to perform with the bartender that worked there.
  • The nicknames Elyse bestows on Madeline’s parents — “Yaki” and “Tootsie” — are straight out of real life. A few years back, this friend and I took a road trip to Philly to visit my family. Though we were exhausted from the drive, my excited dad, who LOVES to take pictures, insisted we view his photo gallery from a recent trip to Italy. Thus, the nickname, Dr. Yakimoto, or Yaki for short!
  • My mom has a very dear friend she calls “Lolly,” short for Lauretta. My friend “Elyse” came up with “Tootsie” for my mom so they could be “Lolly-Pop” and “Tootsie-Pop.” Silly stuff, but fun nonetheless!
  • My grandmother really did leave me her engagement ring, a beautiful antique piece I wear every single day. Though many in the past had suggested I reset it, I steadfastly refused. And though I’ve worn it for years, I still get compliments!

Author’s Note: Family members mentioned in these bullets were excited about being immortalized through fiction, thus I had permission to use their real names. For reasons outlined in my copyright post, real identities of the other characters will never be divulged by me.

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A Lesson from the Five Gifts for an Abundant Life Class: The African Queen

I will get back to my regular posting about the characters, plots and themes of Water Signs, but wanted to take a moment to share some of the lessons I am learning in the Five Gifts course written by Diane Harmony and offered by Unity Church of Delray Beach. The following excerpt is from author Alan Cohen, pertaining to the principle of surrender:

In “The African Queen”, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn are exhausted after a long and grueling adventure down a troublesome river. After overcoming terrible obstacles, their boat is stranded on a dry river bed, inestimably far from the ocean they have fought so hard to reach. Spent, and knowing they can do no more on their own behalf, the couple falls into a deep sleep, prepared to surrender to death. As their eyes close, the camera slowly pulls to an aerial view that reveals the ocean they have sought lies just beyond the next bend, but a few hundred yards away.

Then a miracle happens.

While the couple sleeps, rain comes and in a short time the river begins to flow again. By the time they awaken, the boat has floated to the ocean they believed was many miles away. They were closer than they thought.

You, too, may be just inches from your goal — not the miles you believe. If you have done everything that you can possibly do, it may be time for you to surrender and accept help from above. Self-made millionaire and insurance mogul A.L. Williams called his book All You Can Do Is All You Can Do But All You Can Do Is Enough. We are asked to do only what we can; beyond that, the universe is in charge.

Consider any projects or goals you have been struggling over, or about which you feel are fruitless. Write them down on a piece of paper, and place it on an altar. Make a statement of surrender in which you let go of your efforts to make something happen, and entrust the entire process to the hands of a loving God. Like the “African Queen” travelers who made their best efforts and then surrendered, you may find that the ocean is just around the next bend.

Affirmations:

“I have done all I can. Help me to find the peace I seek.”

“I turn my intention over to God, trusting that love will care for me.”

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