Like many folks, I’ve faced a fair share of challenges the past couple of years due to the economic mess we’re plodding our way through. I’ve also had a few other challenges and disappointments, many related to family situations, writing failures, and having a big ol’ chunk of my heart residing 815 miles away with my daughter and grandson.

I worry and whine about my woes. Often. More often than I should. Which has been made quite clear to me by a young girl I recently met. Her name is Blessing, and she lives a life far more challenging than mine, with hardships that make my complaints pale in comparison.

Blessing is 12 years old. She lives with her mother and older brother — and umpteen cousins and others — at her grandparents’ shack of a home in Nigeria, after her father deserted the family. Blessing is wise beyond her years, she's tenacious in the face of upheaval, and she's fiercely loyal to her brother.

She’s also not real.

Blessing is the narrator of the absorbing coming-of-age novel I’m currently reading called Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. And though she isn’t real, the daily hardships she endures as an adolescent girl in Nigeria are. Fictional Blessing and factual residents of contemporary Nigeria provide a much-needed perspective to my perceived hardships and force me to reconsider pity parties I’ve conducted in the name of my plight.

I whine about having to cut back on groceries and dining out because of a tightened budget. Blessing and her family eat fish stew, stretched with water to feed all the hungry mouths of those sharing their ramshackle home. In addition, yams — one of the few foods I hate — are a staple of their diet, and all meats must be fried to kill the parasites they carry.

I lament not having the funds to spruce up and newly accessorize my bathroom. Blessing has no bathroom, uses an outhouse or a hole in the ground used by all the others in her family. She also has no running water and no electricity.

I complain about having to dust, vacuum, sweep, and clean the cat box. Blessing must collect water in town and carry it home in a bucket balanced on her head.

I bemoan the unsavory parts of my job, listen to Jim and the girls do the same regarding theirs. Blessing is forced to learn and practice the midwifery trade from her grandmother — at 12 years old! One of the other women living with her family has a job as a professional mourner at funerals. Both are happy to have the work, the meager wages that help keep the family fed.

I stress over the usual pains and occasional procedures endured by my loved ones and myself. Blessing fears daily for her brother’s life because of asthma and allergies that wrack his body, made worse by limited money for medication, limited access to appropriate foods, and limited (or nonexistent) sanitation.

I lament needing to lock the doors every night because of increased crime in our neighborhood. Blessing and her family are surrounded every day by crime and violence by way of corrupt officials, warring tribes, and renegades trolling for random victims as well as new recruits.

It’s a hard life for Blessing. It’s an even more difficult one for Blessing’s real-life counterparts, those not populating the pages of a novel but daily traversing the difficult, often undignified — and often fatal — road of contemporary Nigeria’s reality. A road that makes mine look thoroughly blessed and bountiful in comparison.

I’ve not yet finished reading Blessing’s powerful story, I don’t know how it all ends. But I sincerely hope it’s a happy ending for the young heroine and her family. She deserves that. Because although Blessing isn’t real, the positive difference she’s made in my attitude and my outlook is. For real.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson from the publisher as part of the From Left To Write Book Club, where members write blog posts inspired by books read by club members.

Today's question:

What fictional character has impacted your life?

Please step aside, ma'am

My pretty teen daughters — June 2003I recently started reading "29" by Adena Halpern. It's the story of Ellie, who, on her 75th birthday, wished while blowing out the candles on her cake to be 29 years old again — and was magically granted the wish.

I've so far enjoyed the amusing story of the cantankerous grandma made young again and her exploits with her 29-year-old granddaughter and 55-year-old daughter.

Ellie's desire to be young and attractive like her granddaughter reminded me of the pivotal incident that led me to realize I was getting old. Or at least deemed an older woman in the eyes of others and involuntarily required to step back as a female garnering male attention and watch as my daughters moved forward.

Yes, it was one incident, several years ago, during what would have been an otherwise ordinary trip to the grocery store.

Now, let me first say that I would never claim to be ravishing, a head turner, one hot mama, or any one of a million adjectives describing a gorgeous woman. Yet I admit to getting a fair share of looks from males throughout the years, as most females of a certain age do. It was never a big deal, nothing I put much stock in. Until I was no longer that certain age, until I witnessed in one fell swoop the move of male attention from me to my daughters and remain that way going forward.

On the day of which I write, one of my teen daughters and I ran into the grocery store to pick up a few things. As we reached the register, I expected cheerful banter with the cashier, a man in his mid-30s. So I opened my mouth, about to say, "How are you today?" But he looked right past me ... and started up the "Did you find everything you need?" conversation with my daughter. It was as if I wasn't even there, except for a cursory glance my way when it was time to pay.

The cashier, clearly closer to my age than my daughter's, didn't talk to her in any smarmy way that had me pegging him a pedophile and wanting to rush my little girl out of there. No, he was simply interacting with who he apparently considered the most vibrant, most conversational of the two customers before him. My daughter pleasantly rose to the occasion; I stepped aside.

It was the first time I'd experienced such an obvious shift — outside of the times I'd watched boys in their teens and early 20s fumble to impress one daughter or another while conducting business with mother and daughter(s), times that don't count. But from then on, it was the norm when in public together, be it dining out at a restaurant, attending performances, shopping in the mall. No matter which daughter was with me, my daughter was the one males smiled at, struck up conversation with, held a gleam in their eyes for. Eyes that dulled when they turned to me to take my order, my ticket, my money. No matter the male's age, no matter the reason for interaction.

I didn't cry over the matter, harbor ill will or animosity. I honestly was okay with the transition from front and center to a supporting role. My lovely, vivacious daughters were coming into their own, and the attention, well, most of the attention wasn't sexual or predatory in any way. (There are always a few creeps outside the norm, of course.) So I didn't mind stepping aside, didn't mind watching my daughters shine. I just found it interesting. And surprising. I always thought age crept up on you, as is the case with crow's feet, hot flashes, and inability to read past 9 p.m. at night without falling asleep. This, though, was sudden, immediate. And it caught me off guard.

I was — and am — completely and wholeheartedly accepting of my age, of the need to step aside. Funny thing, though: Now, years later, I've started noticing more and more looks coming my way. It's surely — and thankfully — not because I'm some cougar in the making.

No, I'm pretty much chalking up the increased attention to the ever-increasing, ever-impossible-to-conceal collection of age spots unattractively converging across my face. It's understandably difficult to tear one's gaze away from the artful display.

Just one more aspect of aging that has caught me off guard. One more I'll surely, eventually, come to terms with.

Disclosure: I received a copy of "29" by Adena Halpern free from the publisher for participation in the From Left to Write book club, with no obligation and no compensation for this post.

Today's question:

If you could magically be 29 again, would you want to be or not? Why?

ARE the kids all right?

Over the weekend, I finished reading The Kids Are All Right by Diana and Liz Welch, with Amanda and Dan Welch. The memoir, in which the four Welch siblings take turns writing chapters, tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of their once-normal childhood turned upside down by the deaths of their beloved parents: first their father in a car accident, then their mother of cancer.

Many of the chapters scrunched up my heart and made me wonder, as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls did, how children come through such things and grow into seemingly whole, functional, successful adults.

One chapter in particular gave me pause, stopped my heart, brought tears to my eyes. Not wholly out of sympathy for the Welch kids, though, but because it rang eerily similar to an incident from my childhood.

Soon after the death of their father, the Welch children's mother encouraged a relationship between Amanda, the eldest daughter, and a young man named Duncan. Mom hoped a masculine presence would be good for her son, Dan, so she was pleased with the progression of the budding romance between Amanda and Duncan as it led to Duncan's regular visits to their home.

One night while Amanda, Duncan and Liz, the second oldest sibling, shopped for groceries, Duncan shockingly professed to Liz his love for her while Amanda was in another aisle. Once home with the groceries, he continued elaborating on the inappropriate confession to Liz, cornering the young girl in the pantry and asking her to make it "their secret." Instead, the scared Liz told Mom. Mom immediately banished Duncan from the family, leaving Liz to worry that Amanda would blame her, hate her.

When Amanda learned of Duncan's come-on to her sister, though, all she said was, "What a jerk." No anger, no disappointment ... at least not toward Liz. She renounced Duncan. She stood by her sister.

When I was 13 years old, my parents were divorced and I occasionally stayed with my dad. My younger siblings did the same; my older sister much more sporadically.

Once when I spent the weekend at Dad's, my older sister and her even older boyfriend returned from a night of partying and climbed the stairs to where our bedrooms and a bathroom were. My sister headed into the bathroom; her boyfriend headed into my bed. He aggressively snuggled up to me, trying to climb on top of me.

As I woke from my deep sleep and grasped what was going on and the danger I was in, I pushed and kicked at the boyfriend, trying to get him away from me and out of my bed. My sister emerged from the bathroom, heard the rustling and came into my dark room. She turned on the light, saw her creepy boyfriend in my bed and started screaming and screaming -- at me. In her drunkenness and insecurity, my older sister thought I had somehow lured her boyfriend into the compromising position, was somehow trying to steal him away from her. The vitriol spewed from her drunken mouth ... and continued for weeks.

My sister was mad at me -- stayed mad at me -- instead of being mad at the jerk she'd unknowingly stopped just short of molesting her little sister.

I often wonder how different things might have been if my sister hadn't come into the room just in the nick of time.

And I often wonder how different things might have been -- for both of us -- if my sister had done like Amanda in The Kids Are All Right, if she had renounced the inappropriate lout and stood by her scared little sister.

Disclosure: I received a FREE copy of The Kids Are All Right from the publisher for participation in the From Left To Write book club.

Today's question:

How would you describe your relationship with your siblings?

A dog by any other name

As part of the From Left To Write book club, I recently read Cowboy & Wills by Monica Holloway, provided for free through the book club. It's the true story of young autistic boy, Wills, and the golden retriever, Cowboy, that transformed his life. Written by Wills' mother, the book is an unflinchingly honest look at parenting an extraordinary child and the efforts taken to help him lead as ordinary a life as possible. Wills' saving grace turned out to be Cowboy.

Early in the book, Holloway writes of how Wills names his soon-to-be-adopted puppy -- a puppy that would decidedly be female -- "Cowboy" after a quick run-through of ideas with Mom. His first choice (for a female puppy, mind you) was Vincent, of which Holloway writes: "'Vincent is good,' I said, hoping we'd come up with something more upbeat and less like the conniving killer with the bone-chilling laugh in The House of Wax." So she offered up "Ringo." Wills countered with "Cowboy" (from his bedtime song of Cowboys Sing Good Night). "And it's okay that Cowboy's a girl?" Holloway asked him. "Who cares?" was his response. Simple as that, Wills' puppy became Cowboy.

ShannonIt reminded me of Andrea -- the biggest animal-lover in our family -- and her penchant for giving animals unusual names, starting with the naming of her first cat at about the same age Wills named his first puppy.

For many years, our only family animal was a beautiful blue-point Siamese I named Sadie. I can't remember why I chose that name, and I don't recall there being any huge significance to it. The name just sounded good, it fit, it stuck.

Then for animal-loving Andrea's fourth birthday, she was given the kitty she'd begged and pleaded for after seeing it during a July 4 party hosted by a friend of mine. (I'll never cop to a few drinks being the reason I gave in to her requests.)

MickeyFor Andrea, her new itsy-bitsy gray-and-white kitty's name did have huge significance. So she named it Shannon. After one of Brianna's friends. The loveliest of older girls, with long blonde hair, an infectious laugh and a perpetually sunny disposition. All the boys at school pined for her; Andrea idolized her. So she named her cat after her. Which was perfectly fine -- except that Shannon regularly got out of the house and I had to try to lure her back in. Calling out the door or roaming the block calling "Shannon ... Shannon ..." surely sounded like I was the worst of the worst mothers ever, nonchalantly searching for a lost child who'd wandered away.

Soon after, we got Moses, a black lab/collie mix and our first family dog. I gave him that name in hopes he'd live up to it and follow our commandments. Then my sweet Sadie passed away at 19 years old and was (eventually) replaced by tabby Abby. Then, soon after Andrea went off to college, her precious Shannon passed away and was replaced (for me and Abby, not Andrea) with crazy Isabel, a Halloween cat if ever there was one.

KamileahAndrea had no say-so in naming that batch of animals. But when we unexpectedly rescued a sweet 8-week-old pit/pointer mix who'd had both back legs broken by his previous owner, we offered for Andrea name him so that although she was away at college, she'd feel some ownership of the newest family pet. The puppy was white with caramel-colored spots and made Andrea think of her favorite thing in the world at that time: Caramel Macchiatos from Starbucks. She wanted to call the puppy Caramel Macchiato -- but I couldn't go that far in allowing her free reign on the naming. We settled on Mickey. Good enough, she agreed, huffing adding that she'll just name her own animal Caramel Macchiato when she gets one.

LylaAnd her first animal did, indeed, have the same coloring as our Mickey. But she chose to name the calico cat Kamileah, which means "perfection" in Egyptian, Andrea says, and was chosen after much Googling and searching for the absolute perfect name for her very own pet.

LukeHer next very own pet, a rescue dog of black lab/shepherd descent, she named Lyla. Because in Persian it means "dark as night." And Lyla she remains -- although she's been adopted by Grandma and Grandpa (meaning me and Jim) after apartment living didn't suit her style ... and her overactive bladder, constant chewing, and hyper disposition didn't suit Andrea's patience.

It was only with her most recent pet acquisition that Andrea settled on something a little more "normal." A few months ago she purchased the cutest little fluffball of a dog ever, a Zuchon, and she named him Luke. Of course, unlike her mother who names animals just whatever sounds good, she crowned the puppy Luke because he looks like an Ewok from Star Wars, but calling him Ewok would have been a little bizarre, she thought. So she named him Luke ... after Luke Skywalker.

And it was that reasoning, that relatively normal name for a pet -- coming from a young adult who not so long ago thought Caramel Macchiato was an acceptable name for a puppy -- that led me to the most bittersweet of realizations: My animal-loving little girl, the last of my three babies, had truly grown up.

Today's question:

What's the strangest name of one of your past or present pets?