Monday, April 11, 2016

Only One Starting Place

There's only one starting place with God. And that's admitting how we really feel inside, and how things actually are. This can be a surprisingly difficult place to get to. It can take years.

But that's OK. If you're making an honest effort to get there, God will help you along. You might have to come face to face with a lot of stuff you've been trying your hardest to avoid. He'll guide you through.

People think they can approach God as they should be, as they want to be, as they think He thinks they should be. It doesn't work. He sees right through it. He already knows what's going on inside, even if we don't. There is zero point in trying to pretend.

But still, we try.

It only holds us back. Keeping us from the life, help, insight, and love that we so desperately need.

It works this way with people, too. Having a close friend. Having people in our lives who really get us, who provide that deeper connection that spurs us on, that gives us life. I haven't found many people I'm able to do this with. It's pretty rare. But when you find this kind of friendship and connection, I believe it's one of the richest gifts in life.

I haven't written on this blog in ages. The reason is, I'm working on a Young Adult Fantasy/Reality Trilogy, and I've become pretty much obsessed with my own story. People ask me how I get so much written, and the honest answer is that I've become fascinated with my story and characters, so that everything else feels like an interruption from what I actually want to be doing. And, like many of you, I have a busy life. With a six-person household, homework and sports and ministry, groceries disappearing as fast as I can buy them and yadda yadda yadda, there's a lot to do. If I'm ever going to accomplish anything, I can really only focus on ONE other thing. Right now, the novel/trilogy is it. Family and close friendships--those are still important. But housework, grocery shopping, other types of shopping, gardening, home and craft projects though--some of which I've enjoyed in the past--have become minimal.

I feel like I've found my me. And that feels awesome. But it took a long, long time to get there. I'm almost 45, and this feels new.

The lesson being, keep pursuing God. Keep pursuing the real. And you'll get there in the end.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How did I get that done? A post about work habits.

Sometime around February of last year, I got the germ of an idea for a new story. For months, this idea simmered in the back of my mind. Then a few more thoughts came and I wrote them down, but overall I felt frustrated. I couldn't focus to work out my ideas, and I didn't have a clear sense of the overall plot, of where the story was going. Over the summer I felt especially frustrated, as more ideas took shape, but I did not have the time or space to work them out. By the beginning of September, I had about 20,000 words, and still no clear sense of the direction of the story.

Two months later and I've just finished a 62,000 word first draft, and have a vivid knowledge of how the characters and the plot progress and tie together. I also have a good chunk of a second book written, and the final chapters of the third: It's going to be a trilogy. Today I'm taking a little step back, and thinking, how did I do that?

Though I will confess that two major factors in accomplishing this were: 1. The kids finally went back to school. On most weekdays I have a few uninterrupted hours at my disposal, and I've been disciplined to sit down at my computer and use them well, even on the days I initially didn't feel like it, and 2. The more I wrote, the more I was enthralled with my own story, which caused me to be a bit obsessive, and want to get back to writing it whenever I had to do other stuff.

But I'm noticing a few other habits have evolved that are working for me, too. I'll write them down here in case anyone else might find them helpful. Many of us have things we want to do, dreams we want to accomplish, and it's so easy to let them slide away--to let the busyness and tasks of daily life completely take us up. Maybe you want to make an intricate quilt, or write a screenplay, or train service dogs or learn viticulture or to play an instrument. But the dream never feels important enough. Maybe it seems self-indulgent or impractical, or maybe you just can't conceive of how to begin, with all the other stuff you have going on.

You DO have to believe in the legitimacy and value of your desires. They are not simply "selfish". Of course the bills must be paid and the laundry needs done and the groceries need bought and cooked and the kids have a basketball tournament this weekend. All of that still needs to happen. But you are a person, too. And what you really want to do--not simply what you have to do--should factor into the mix somewhere. If it doesn't, here's just saying it straight, your family situation or your own perspective or maybe both are not actually healthy. But that's a different topic. Here are some practical habits and ways of thinking that have evolved for me:

1) USE THE TIME YOU HAVE: Most of us have some time at our disposal. When other members of your family are watching TV, you could claim a free hour. When you have to take your kid to practice across town, stay in the car with your project or your laptop instead of doing errands. It won't hurt the kid to go to the store, and having an hour to yourself is precious! Same with naptime and littles: Use the precious naptime to do something meaningful for you. The chores can be done later with a baby in a front-pack or on your hip. Negotiate with a friend or a husband for some free time--I'll give you a half day here, and then you do the same for me. It doesn't have to be a lot of time--little bits can be OK. Just make a start, and plug along, and you'll be surprised how it adds up in the end. I wrote a whole post about this here, back when I had finished my first novel and worked five days a week at a bank.

2) LEARN WHEN AND HOW YOU WORK BEST: Many accomplished people rise very early in the morning and finish a ton of stuff before 8 am. I've learned that my mind moves at the pace of thick sludge before 8, so that doesn't work for me. I've also learned that if I take an hour or two to get the obnoxious stuff done before I sit down to write--do the dishes, sweep the dog hair off the floor, do some banking and bookkeeping (which I do for my husband's business), make the necessary phone calls, or prepare a package to mail--I will focus much better. If I sit down with a will to write first thing and keep getting distracted by the disgusting dog-hair littering the floor, I may have spent more time writing, but I get less done in the end.

All I really need to write is a decent chair that supports my back and a relatively silent room, something that can be a bit hard to come by in our busy household of 6. Some people like music in the background or the buzz of a public place. I've tried that, but it doesn't work for me. Kind of like in college I learned that I could stare at my notes or flashcards all night long, and the information would never stick. But if I recopied my notes by hand, it was all there. Everyone is different. So notice what works for you, and what doesn't.

3) THERE MAY BE LITTLE "COMFORT TRICKS" THAT HELP YOU SETTLE IN: I like a cup of tea by my chair at all times. It often ends up half-drunk and stone cold, but making the tea seems to send a little signal to my brain that it's time to focus now. I go through a LOT of tea, and this nice strong decaf black, which comes gift-wrapped on my doorstep all the way from Ireland for the unreal price of 7.99, was a such a great find!

4) REALIZE THAT YOU CAN ONLY TRULY FOCUS ON ONE THING: I've always had way too many interests: I want to learn to paint and create knitting patterns and take awesome photos and read interesting articles on all manner of subjects and try new recipes, and on and on, all at the same time. But time is limited, and if I ever want to gain any ground, I can really only focus on ONE thing. That's hard for me. 

Also, since I immersed myself in writing this new novel, other things have suffered a bit: The fridge gets more empty before I get to the grocery store, the dog hasn't been walked every single day, and once when immersed in my story, I forgot a doctor's appointment and got a rather nasty pink slip in the mail. I'm just one human person, and I'm doing the best I can. It's not like I let the other stuff drop completely, but I can't say I'm doing as good a job at the details of life as before. But before, I wasn't getting any writing done, either. It's kind of like politics: To actually get anything accomplished, the art of compromise must come into play. Which is difficult for us perfectionists and black and white thinkers, but it's just the way it is.

5) REALIZE THAT THERE MAY BE TIMES IN LIFE WHEN YOU HAVE TO LET IT GO: Maybe it's a colicky baby, or an ailing parent, or an international move, or a teenager going through a crisis time. There are seasons in life when you have to let all else drop and focus on a present need. It's OK--realize that this, too, shall pass, and then you can write or do whatever again. But don't put off what you really want to do for years on end.

6) MAKE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE: Entire books have been written about this. Here's a few things that have made a big difference for me: Make your child pick only one sport or involvement per season. Refuse to be busy more than three nights a week--this can be difficult with kids of different ages, but stick to it as much as possible. Only volunteer for one or two things that are most meaningful to you. Unless, of course, volunteering and community involvement is the thing you love most to do. And for some extroverted souls, it is! For example, I teach Sunday School, but I don't volunteer at my daughter's elementary school. Go modest buying things like houses and cars so you are not over-stressed and stretched financially. And don't feel like you have to make everything from scratch unless that is your joy. Find some nice, store-bought items you can bring for a party or potluck.

7) TAKE BREAKS TO MOVE YOUR BODY, ESPECIALLY IF YOU'RE OVER 40: I wish I could stay in my chair all day, every day, and write (or read, or knit, or draw) without consequences. But the pain of a sore back or neck or hip will interfere with and stop your creative endeavor like nothing else. And sometimes moving your body is just what you need to release a creative idea that just isn't coming together. The finale that ties together the entire trilogy for my new story came to me while taking a break from writing and walking the dog. Then I couldn't wait to get home and write it out! Even a quick and vigorous scrub of the bathroom can serve as this kind of break. When you feel things getting stale and frustrating, take a break and move.

8) IF YOU ARE A WRITER, USE SCRIVENER: Scrivener is awesome. For plotting and organizing and then compiling your writing into any kind of format--ebook, kindle book, PDF, Word file, whatever--it works so much better than the word processing software I used to use. There's a thirty day free trial, and at $40, the price is totally reasonable. There is a bit of a learning curve, but there's lots of free help from other generous and kind writers on the web, and simple google searches when I'm stuck have yielded everything I've needed to know.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Facing Fear and Getting Through

I've been thinking about fear. And about how maybe there is no fear so terrible that we cannot face it . . . and come through.

Since getting help with focused counseling and EMDR, I've had to face a lot of fears. Fear isn't even the word. Words like terror, horror, hatred, grief ,and pain are closer to the mark. But unless you experienced the kind of abuse I am talking about, trust me, you have no idea. So much of my life--more than 40 years of it--has been dominated and overrun by fear.

I needed to face that fear and come through. I needed to face a lot of horrifying details, and incredibly painful realizations, because that's where the fear was located, that's what it was all tied up in. I needed a lot--and I mean a LOT--of help. And I want to just say here, that a good counselor is worth his or her weight in gold. Not to mention a thoroughly kind, patient, and committed spouse. Because it ain't easy to be married to someone like me. But I am so grateful that somebody believed I was worth it, despite all the difficulties along the way, and persevered. Right now, despite all the really terribly things that happened to me, I am feeling incredibly lucky, and blessed.

Am I safe now? Maybe, maybe not. I am in a wise, good, protected kind of place. But anything can happen in life. Just ask the millions of refugees from Syria and other countries right now, whose wise, educated, normal-looking "safe" lives have been ripped to shreds. If you're brave enough to really look, you will know that could be my family--that could be me. I don't really think in life you get those kind of guarantees.

The guarantee that you DO get is, no matter what things feel like or how awful they seem, you are never alone.

In abuse groups and stuff survivors are often told to repeat to themselves "I'm safe." That may be true in a specific moment, but to say this as one's outlook--it never feels completely true. But now I think I know that whatever happens, I will be OK. I can be me: intact inside, not shattered into a bunch of different pieces. Not overruled or overrun by someone else. My body and my mind are my own, and are no longer dominated by the fear of something or someone on the outside. For the first time, I am starting to feel "at home" in my own body. And honestly--it feels very foreign. But it also feels good, safe, and empowering. I have a freedom to choose to think or do things, or not. For most of my life, a lot of that felt like an automatic reaction.

For instance, long ingrained habit used to cause me to flinch whenever I was touched, even in the most benign, neutral ways. To shut down, to go someplace else (at least in my mind), to go numb. Now, I'm realizing that I can choose not to do this.

And that is a new feeling, a new thought. I still have a lot to learn.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Beautiful Fall Day

We came back from a longish trip visiting family in California and noticed immediately that all the colors had changed while we were away, and it is beautiful here. This reminded me of some pictures I had taken on a lovely Saturday afternoon walk two years ago sometime in Fall of 2013, which I remember was an exceptionally long and beautiful Fall. Sometimes we don't get much color here: The weather can go from hot to cold, and all the leaves turn brown and simply fall off without making a show. I wanted to enjoy these pictures again, and thought others might like them too.

Above is the place we started from, a patchwork of community garden plots.

I had my two favorite girls with me: My daughter, then 8, and Leia (below), also 8, named after Princess Leia when the boys were young and into Star Wars. We think she was born at approximately the same time as our daughter so they share a birthday.

I love this little trail off the asphalt biking/walking/running path because it shoots off into the brush and along the river (ahem, more of a creek IMO), so it does not feel like you are in the city. It is not very long, and you can still hear the cars in the distance, but I love it anyway.

Does anyone recognize this path? Here is the marking place where it starts. I'm not sure the symbolism was intentional or who put it there, but it is meaningful to me.

Wherever you live, I hope that you are enjoying this Fall.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

When your kids are really different than you

My daughter wants me to take her running. She wants me to time each lap, so she can try to better her time. She'll be competing in her first triathlon soon, and she's disappointed to learn that there are no "places", no medals. Everyone who finishes will get a medal, the idea being to keep it positive and fun for kids. But being timed and ranked, while potentially crushing for some kids, would be motivating for her. She's happy when I tell her that next year she'll be in middle school and she can compete in track.

I watch her bobbed blond hair swing back and forth as she runs. She makes it around the last curve of the track to the starting line, then gulps water and dramatically flings herself down on the grass. "Ready to go home?" I ask. The sun is setting coral behind the high school, and the colors of the sky and field are draining away to dark blue and gray and black. "No," she pops up beaming. "I want to do it again!"

This is new to me, foreign. Whenever I have been required to run laps or lift weights, it feels like nothing but a dreaded chore. I resent the time required by most exercise, I'd rather be doing almost anything else. I can't relate to the enjoyment my friends tell me they get from running and swimming laps. I've made attempts to join them, to give it a chance, but the joy is just not there for me. It's not that I reject movement completely. I enjoy long walks with the dog when I can look around and notice things. I'm fine with a strenuous hike up a mountain or down to a beautiful lake, preferably with a good camera in hand. But it's the looking around, and noticing the details of nature, that feeds my soul and recharges me, not the exertion itself. On a really good walk or hike I even get ideas for poems or pictures in my head. And if there's competition involved--forget it!

My daughter is so different than me.

Sometime this summer I was working at my art table, a thing I don't do very often. My daughter came and stood at my shoulder for a few minutes, quietly watching, and then she said, "Mommy, are you happy when you do that?" Her question made me pause and think. Yes. Yes, I am happy when I do this. Creativity, making things, makes me happy. Recently after a very difficult counseling session I gave myself a few hours to spend at the art table to try to regain some balance before the kids got home from school. Before long I was surprised to find myself humming--something I never do. I felt content, peaceful, and yes, happy. After such darkness only a few hours before. Maybe this is how my friends feel after a run.

We are all unique. And when we have family members, spouses and children who are very different than us, it is easy to reject them, or to unintentionally put pressure on them to be different. We can miss the clues telling us who they really are, what they love, how they're motivated and how they can thrive. An organized, task oriented parent feels upset at the mess made by his or her creative child, or frustration and anger what seems to her like daydreaming or dawdling. A creative, spontaneous parent may not realize the stress and frustration a very organized child feels at the lack of structure at home or the flippant disregard of his or her real concerns. An athletic family may feel frustrated when one of their brood complains about playing sports or going to games, or may make fun of and deeply hurt a child who loves drama and musicals. We have to "tune in" to each other, and in a family we all have to learn to flex to some extent. But parents need to be the ones to pick up on important differences, and we must be the ones to flex more.

When my daughter was six, the thing she wanted most for her birthday was a clock for her wall. One with a second hand. She also likes to cross off each day on her calendar. When I've tried to share with her the imaginative books and stories I loved as a child, she isn't that interested. And the times I've tried to sit down with her and do arts and crafts have not gone well. I could be frustrated with this. Disappointed and resentful. Or,

I could watch the way her hair swings golden back and forth as she runs down the track, and notice the way that--despite her red face and heaving chest--she glows when she finishes a whole mile. I could take her to a women's soccer or basketball game at the college, or, (confession time), at least listen with interest to her play by play description when she comes home after attending with her dad. I can watch the March Madness games or the NBA finals with my oldest son, or agree to film my other son while he dunks a basketball, over and over again and in every imaginable fashion, so he can make a YouTube video. I could go play disc golf with my husband even though I'm terrible at it and I find it both humiliating and boring, because this is something that relaxes him and occasionally he resorts to doing it by himself if he can't find another friend.

And once in a while I can take time at my art table, because that's what feeds me. It's hard for me to do this. It feels unproductive. No one else in my family does this sort of thing, so I even feel self-conscious and a little silly. Knitting in front of a show or televised game while hanging out with everyone fits in easily, but dedicated creative time--that feels harder.

But in a healthy family, there's room for us all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Power of Imagination, and Why I Like Disneyland

A "magical" picture from a Disneyland trip several years ago
In a few weeks my youngest and I will be going to Disneyland for a few days, tacked on to the front end of a longer trip to visit my husband's family in California and attend a ministry conference. The much-older teen brothers hear about this, and roll their eyes and groan. Which is why they're not invited. At 10 years old child #3 is in the twilight of childhood, and I'm going to hold on to every moment, to milk it for all it's worth. I had a ton of air miles saved up, and she's still young enough to be really excited to go to Disneyland. Especially without her cynical big brothers.

Now Disneyland has got to be one of the most contrived, cheesiest places on earth. A massive display of the most blatant commercialization you will ever see. And yet despite this, if you can think past the too-loud music blaring from everywhere and the astronomical prices attached to everything, some of the "magic" remains. Why? Because beneath the layers of glossy marketing, there is Imagination. Ingenuity. Wonder, even. The real deal.

What a gift imagination is. To a child in a bleak situation he or she has no power to change, imagination can fill the mind and heart with delight, interest, and hope. As a child, I loved books and stories. As an adult, I think I love them even more. Without imagination, we could not think our way past the negative circumstances of our lives, past the problems that seem fixed and inescapable. Without imagination, we would be severely limited in our ability to reach past these things in faith and grasp the idea of heaven, or of a GOOD God who loves us and helps us even when everything around us looks bleak.

I'm working on a new book, a young adult fiction/fantasy book. Chock full of fantastic imagined characters and adventure. What a delight it is, in this season of life when I'm frankly feeling a little bored by my "suburban soccer mom" lifestyle, consisting mostly of must-dos that often are not terribly interesting to me, to open my laptop and enter another world for a while.

I've had people ask me if I plan to write more about the characters in my first book, and my answer is: Not now. I do not think that book is overly heavy, but it isn't exactly light-hearted, either. In my own life, I've been through months and years of facing heavy and hard and sad stuff. I'm stepping free of shadows which for most of my life I did not even realize were hanging over me. I'm ready for some lightness, triumph, joy. Because in the real story, that's how things end.

But to get a glimpse of that end, you need enough illumination to see the road you're walking on. And that illumination might reveal some stuff that's pretty hard to deal with.

Someday I'd like to ditch the big house and yard, live in a simple condo or apartment near a great airport, travel a ton and have real adventures. But for now, flights of the imagination, along with the occasional short excursion our way-stretched budget will cover, will have to do.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Summer Garden Party Shrimp

At last the kids are back in school! The first two days the kids were in school I had solid blocks of time in which to write, and it felt wonderful! I'm working on a new story. It seems to be shaping up as a young-adult real-life-mixed-with-fantasy story, and I'm so excited about it. Meanwhile my 10 year old daughter and I are listening to the audio books of the last three Harry Potter books. I was just a little too old when these came out, so have never read them before. They are so well-crafted, it's inspiring to me. And seeing J. K. Rowling's hand-drawn spreadsheet where she worked out the details of her characters and plot helped me visualize how such a story might come together.

In the meantime, here's a recipe I made up the other night that was super easy, totally nutritious, and turned out sooooo good, I want to remember it for the next time I need to bring something to a summer party. For myself I am naming it "Party Shrimp".

Whisk together in a medium size bowl:
2-4 tbsps Olive oil
Juice of 1-2 lemons
1 clove fresh garlic, pressed
Salt and pepper to taste

Add to the bowl:
Peeled and chopped fresh cucumber
Chopped fresh tomato or halved cherry tomatoes
Large size cooked shrimp (I used a whole bag of frozen shrimp. Put them in a colander and run lukewarm water over them until they no longer feel icy, and pat dry with a paper towel)

Gently toss everything together, and add in a bit of chopped fresh Italian parsley. Serve with Coconut Rice (Cooked rice mixed with a can of coconut milk and a bit of lemon or lime zest), or some nice crusty bread.