In Which We See Ourselves As the Women We Have Become

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I’m joining Cara Strickland at her synchroblog! Find her here.

Three years ago, if you’d asked me to tell you about my friends, I would have told you this: “I’m not that great of a friend.” And partially, it would have been true. I’m an introvert—much better off hiding in a corner of my house, baking chocolate chip cookies in my kitchen, or reading another memoir—or so I thought.

I often retreat from relationships into my inner world. I’m not a fan of being in the bright, glaring, non-secrecy of life; it scares the bejeezus out of me at times. Sometimes I put other relationships before my friends, and often I don’t go out of my way to solidify a friendship.

But looking back on the last three years, I’ve discovered something surprising. It has been the most profound shock of these last few years. I can hardly believe it. Women have been one of the greatest sources of joy to me. Women have possessed a huge role in my growing up. They have been the place where I belong, within a circle of XX chromosomes. That’s where I feel strong.

I have long been one of those women who says she doesn’t get along with other women. Now I’m starting to think that maybe this isn’t even a thing at all. Maybe the reason some of us say this is (almost proudly) is because we are not particularly enthused about how the world defines being a woman. I know I’ve felt this way. Secretly, I’ve scoffed at womanly things. In college, I’ve trudged out in the snow  to the railroad tracks in order to be more like one of the guys. I’ve tossed pretty things out the window (while secretly wishing to be decked out like a Christmas tree in bling). I’ve marched through an eating disorder in high school all the way to the other side of healing. But I still wasn’t happy with being a girl.

I’ve refused to participate in any roles that feel too constricted and too gender appropriate (aka. when someone asks me to do something too service-oriented). I’ve refused to back down in arguments.

I’ve even taken to wondering with Chris about whether I am more like a guy.

“I like guy THINGS.” I tell Chris.

Chris is always amused by these conversations, but refuses to take me seriously. “But you are a girl,” He’d say, smiling at me from the other side of the bed.

“But I’m not really.” I would say.

“But you are.” Chris would state simply. “You are.”

—-

And I am. I am a girl, and not just a girl, but a woman.

 One of my friends read the manuscript of the book I’ve been writing, and she gently responded with a critique that blew me away. I’m paraphrasing, but she basically told me that I needed to come to grips with the fact that I was a woman by the end of the book.

You aren’t a girl anymore, are you? You need to think about how you use the word “girl” throughout the book to describe yourself, she said.

I almost cried, in a good way. I felt as if I had attended a counseling session on my issues with femininity. I don’t know why the title of woman is so hard for me to own. I still feel like I’m flubbing through life: a bowling ball in need of bumpers to keep it on track. I don’t feel like I’ve graduated to the adult lanes in the bowling alley at all. I’m not sure I even trust myself with this “womanhood” thing.

—-

All of you twenty-somethings probably remember the Britney Spears song: “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.” Britney Spears was my home-girl.  I used to croon these lyrics surreptitiously in my bedroom. I’d think about how the line between girl and woman was so confusing, so hard. Adolescence was a loss of innocence to me, rather than an anticipation of burgeoning strength and confidence.

But when I read my friend’s words: you really have to think through your use of the word girl as opposed to woman, something broke inside of me slightly. It felt strange, like trying on a cocktail dress that I didn’t feel like I could pull off. But it also felt wonderful, like I had been preparing for this all of my life.

You are a woman, I said to myself. And it felt good.

My belief in my own womanhood has also been cemented these few years through my friendships. I’ve grown up, and so have all of the other “girls” I once knew. My friends, new and old, are the quirkiest adults: the strongest and most dissimilar females I know. They are a bunch of beads in a tray—all different colors, shapes, and sizes of woman.

I remember in elementary school when everyone wanted to be on the boys’ team in P.E. Everyone knew that the boys were stronger and faster, and I always felt like being a girl was kind of like an automatic second-best. Oh, well, you get to be a girl.

 But this woman thing, I tell you, it is a heavy-duty thing, like WD-40 strength. I feel like I’m returning to some deep inner strength that I had as a toddler member of the XX chromosome society—that inner knowledge that the way I have been created is good. That being a woman means being something good, maybe even great. I’ve tossed off the stereotypes, and I’ve seen my friends refuse to subscribe to them too.

None of my friends fit into some stereotypical woman mold; and this has been pure grace, like dipping into a cold lake for my soul. Some of them are like me—they spend most of the time in their brain, thinking big-picture thoughts—some  have a handle on the details, like the operations manager of a large company. Many of them fit into certain feminine traditional roles, and many, many of them do not.

My favorite thing that my friends have taught me is this: Don’t forget to see yourself from the outside. When you are caught up in your smallness, analyzing your faults, it’s easy to ascribe to a very limited perspective. It’s easy to see yourself only as a girl, instead of as the woman you have become. It’s easy to stick to what you know, and who you once were.

But when you think about how your friends see you, they see you as the woman you really are. They value you for the decade(s) of experience you’ve gained, for the mistakes you’ve made, for the years built into the person you are now. They’ve fought alongside of you for that hazelnut of wisdom, and they want to see you own it. I promise.

So now I tell myself: see yourself as a woman who has now grown lean and tall, like a tree. See yourself also like a river, complex and always-changing, filtering through the muddy banks. A glassy, moving thing. A wonderful, sturdy person who owns her title of (albeit limited) age and wisdom. That’s who you are.

 

What Success As A Writer Looks Like

redefine success as a writer, writing, how to be a writer, how to write

Success as a writer can mean a million things. It can mean generating an income. It can mean feeling personally fulfilled. It can mean online publication at a well-known venue like the Huffington Post or Scary Mommy. Successful comes in many wild fluorescent colors.

I don’t often write posts about how to do things, but I’ve realized that I’ve learned a lot about blogging and writing and I love talking about it. Along with that, I think there are numerous misconceptions about what writing and/or blogging entails. So, because I am a genius after a single year of typing like a maniac (ha!), and I CLEARLY know all the things, I here-by present to you the first of six lessons learned.

For all you non-writers, indulge me.

Lesson Number One: Everyone has a different concept of the word “successful.” Your version of “success” is going to change how you approach writing. But it is your vision of success that will inevitably guide how you think about your work. For example, If you shoot too high (I’m going to be on the Washington Post my first year!) you’ll end up easily discouraged when things don’t go your way. If you choose not to challenge yourself (I’ll never achieve what so-and-so has achieved!), you’ll stop learning and growing. There is a good middle between these two, I think.

What does a healthy middle look like? For me, it involves putting on my blinders and approaching writing like I would approach anything I want to become good at.

If you want to run a marathon for the first time, what do you do? You train for it in small increments. You huff and you puff. You try to beat your own personal time. You celebrate small wins! You build a team of people who support you and love you. They will be the ones handing you a red gatorade at the finish line and hugging your sweaty shoulders. They are your tribe.

You also put in the time.

But there is the rough part of training for a marathon too. You learn what it looks like to run out of steam in the middle and be angry and sweaty and want to quit. You learn that it isn’t super fun to run in the sleet in a t-shirt and shorts. You have to deal with huffing and puffing in front of a crowd of people. And, yes, they saw your stretchy shorts slip down and your belly fat jiggle. You keep going anyway. You are often humbled. You often fall short.

Here is what you don’t do when training for a marathon. You don’t compare yourself to gold medal winners. Why the heck would you start measuring yourself against national record-setters? That’s like throwing a three-year old in the water and yelling at them when they don’t swim. It’s just plain mean.

Instead, you build endurance. You try to beat your own personal records. You do it because you enjoy the rewards of being healthy. You learn to love yourself while running—the way the breeze feels against your cheek, the way you can’t stop smiling after a run, the cold air in your nostrils.

The way your Lululemon stretchy pants make you feel like hot stuff.

Writing is like running a marathon. It is sometimes embarrassing and often hard.  I read blog posts I wrote a year ago and cringe at the amount of personal detail and navel-gazing (YIKES!). Then I remember that I’m a three-year old swimmer. I’m a newbie marathon runner. I’ve submitted horrible, terrible articles to publications and rightfully been rejected. I’ve made new friends and found my tribe. When I’ve wanted to quit, it has been a small audience reminding me that it’s worth it.

This is the gosh darn truth: You only have to beat your personal record. You only have to get to the end of this run.

Whatever it is you are doing: building a new company, honing a new skill, whatever it is, you’re the only one who can define success, and you are the only one who defines failure. The important thing is to realize that success take little bitty steps. That failure is inevitable. That growing is the most important thing. I’ve been seriously blogging for about one year now, and I can remember all the growing pains that made blogging seem like something I could never do.

Maybe you feel this way too about something in your life.

Start small.

Enjoy the small wins.

Celebrate with your tribe.

Beat your own record.

Begin again.

Favorite Spiritual Memoirs

In case you need some new books to read in 2015, I thought I would share with you my favorite spiritual memoirs. These are the books I often come back to for inspiration in my own writing. I’m using the term “memoir” loosely in this instance, but my favorite books are those that contain stories and/or essays and an authentic voice.

1. Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy”


I don’t know why this book is underrated as far as spiritual memoirs go. I think most people haven’t heard of it. It was written in the 60’s or 70’s. This book is a profound, loving glimpse into a single beautiful marriage. My father read it when he was a Junior at Wheaton College, and I read it as a sophomore at Wheaton, soon after I had met my soon-to-be husband.  I will say the prose is meaty and sometimes a little long-winded, but the descriptions are so beautiful and moving that you’ll be wrapped up in the journey. Christianity Today describes this book as, “A book for anyone who has truly loved another person.” (Christianity Today)

2. Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz”

Chris and I re-read Blue Like Jazz in college. This book continues to impact the way I look at spirituality and faith. Donald Miller is a wonderful writer, period. He has a way of connecting the dots together in our regular lives and allowing God to be as big and mysterious as He wants.

3. Shauna Niequist’s “Cold Tangerines”

I’ve heard so many people say that their favorite Niequist book is Bread & Wine, but I think I’m partial to Shauna’s first book. My friend Rachel gave this book to me in college with the sweetest note about our friendship. I read it for the first time on my honeymoon with Chris, and I cried and fell in love with the book and Chris, all at the same time. I can’t leave Shauna off this list, and this sweet, young, yearning book is a beautiful addition to the realm of spiritual memoir.

4. Anne Lamott’s “Thoughts on Faith”

I’m realizing that every single book that has meant something to me comes with a story of place: the place where I read that book originally. I’ve talked about this before, but the first time I read Lammott was in my Jewish friend’s house in Needham, MA. I remember thinking that I had no idea there were people writing about faith like this. I remember wondering why it had taken me so long to understand that my tiny, insular world of Christian writing was so small. That there were other, wild and wonderful people out there trying to figure out spirituality. Lammott was so key in this journey. I will forever be grateful for that night, under the covers, straining to hear her words.

5. Rachel Held Evan’s “Faith Unraveled” (Previously Evolving in Monkey Town)

Rachel and I have our theological differences. I finally read her first book and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She bravely articulates some of the questions that we often pat under the rug and tell people to stop asking. In this well-written book, she refuses to accept easy answers. Her personality is something like a pit-bull pulling out the tassels of our quaint theological rugs. I believe this is a very important book for our generation, and for that reason, I put in on the list.

6. Lauren Winner’s “Girl Meets God”

I went through a Lauren Winner “phase” where I was obsessed with Googling her name and reading everything she had ever written. This was sometime in college. Winner is an intelligent, theologically-well read and erudite woman (she was only 26 when she wrote this book). Girl Meets God talks about her conversion from Judaism to Christianity.

What I’m Into: Podcasts, Amy Poehler, and Lip Cream

Yesterday at lunch, my friend Christie said she was waiting for my “What I’m Into” post for this month! So this post is dedicated to Christie. I  would not be here without blog readers. You are the reason I keep writing, so thank you, all of you. And here is the thing: I love to know what you are into, so feel free to pop down to the bottom and tell me what I am missing!

Podcasts: Because…They are Just Awesome Lately.

When You Can’t Stop Thinking About Serial…

Read more about Serial. The podcast, Serial, has ended, with complex emotions for all involved. Several outlets have critiqued Serial for being entertainment— that a serious topic like murder (plus the repercussions on those involved) shouldn’t have been framed and consumed as entertainment. I feel mixed about this.

I also felt mixed about Adnan, the alleged perpetrator. I read this interview with Jay, who presents his pretty convincing story for the first time, implicating Adnan yet again.

If you are Having A Bad Day and Feeling Like a Bad Mother-slash-Worker-slash-Person…

Listen to Startup, an awesome Podcast because it makes you feel, overall, better about life. Basically, it is about a guy starting a business (longtime this American Life producer Alex Blumberg) and he lays it ALL out there. Like, all of it: the wet, dirty, underwear of business creation and all. You get the feeling he is in his boxers while he is making it. Kind of weird, but really, that’s what I imagine. Okay, not IMAGINE. Anyhow…moving on.

I credit Startup with cementing my sneaky assumption that nobody knows what they are doing, like ever in life. People are all faking it ’til they make it: artists, writers, even established radio producers.

Phew. Thank goodness we’re all in the same unmoored boat. *wipes sweat off brow*

I often listen to Startup around 5pm, when the kids are screaming and I really need a glass of chardonnay,  while I fold the 423 towels on my couch because my family uses a single towel once and then throws it in the laundry basket…fun.

When You Need to be Inspired about Creating Art…

Listen to THIS short interview. It was super inspiring. Artist Ann Rea talks about her careening, wild career towards becoming a full time artist. From anxiety and depression (and domestic abuse) to building something out of the wreckage. Beautiful and heart-wrenching story with lots of takeaways like:

If there is something you really want to do, do it now. -Ann Rea, Artist & CEO of Ann Rea, Inc.

 

Books: Because I Heart Them.

When You Want To Snuggle Up and Read Something Addicting…

Read Tana French. My friend Lily reads Tana French crime novels, and OBVIOUSLY I couldn’t just let her read them all and not try them out.

So this is what happened: I began reading Broken Harbor, which is about this eerily vacant housing complex where a family is brutally murdered. When I picked it up, we were on a car trip to Asheville. So inevitably, I read a sentence out loud. And then another sentence. And another. And then my husband was hooked. Now I have to read this 352-page book out loud to him and I’m not allowed to read it by myself.

Lesson for all of you lovebirds: read quietly, or you will be hijacked, and subsequently forced to suck on menthol cough drops due to dry mouth from your verbal gymnastics.

When You Need A Pep-Talk from A Close Friend…

Read Amy Poehler’s “Yes, Please.”

I was # 123 at the library for this book. I waited weeks for it, ya’ll. When I got it I told my family: “Okay, you won’t be seeing me for the next 8.5 hours. Goodbye.”

It was lovely. Also, listen to Poehler’s interview on NPR, because she is even more amazing when she is reading from the book and hanging out, in my humble opinion.  Sigh. I love Amy.

“In the book I write about growing up…and I think as a woman…you fight against that voice and you have to find a way to live with it because it will not go away, you can kind of relegate it to the back shelf…it comes out at strange times…to remind me that you’re ugly, or you’re not as pretty as this person.”

“You have to kind of learn to treat it like an annoying relative…that doesn’t make a lot of sense but you have to see at Christmas. ”

Lipstick:

When You Just Want to Feel Pretty…

Put on this lip cream from Target.

image credit: herchannel.com

img credit: herchannel.com

I don’t talk often about lipstick and fashion (not because these things aren’t awesome, but because I leave them to the X-perts (aka my sister Mikella Vandyke).

My sister just so happens to also be my personal shopper.

I am so not kidding. I give her all the MONIES and she basically shops for me for free. I have the inside scoop on all the trendz.

(The problem is that I forget how to wear the TRENDZ..and then I have to call my sister and say: What was I supposed to do with the 10-foot long checkered scarf again and why do I need a headband?!)

But I digress. What was I saying? Oh yeah. The Trendz. This super duper cute girl, Jenny Wade, introduced me to this matte lipstick at Target that I absolutely love.

It’s called NYX Soft Matte Lip and it is to-die-for. Like the strength of this thing: we are talking nuclear bomb for your face.

It stays on and the color is like, “I’m-here-enjoying-my-life!!” in a very nice way. I hope that makes sense.

Here is a picture of me in my glorious NYX, which is running dry. The only problem with it is that your lips get pretty parched with it on, which I don’t mind, but might be a problem for some of you during the winter unless your lips are super-supple. It’s also not as obvious on my face because this was after a little while wearing it:  photo-1

Super-supple. Fun word conjunction there.

That is all for this December/January edition!

Welcome to Your Twenties: It was the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

 

2015 is here, and maybe you have no resolutions. Maybe you have 522 resolutions and you are the type of person who will legitimately work all of them out. Maybe you are like me: a little confused at every New Year that pops it’s head in. You want to push it’s Sesame Street monster face back behind the stage and yell, nooooo, I’m not readyyy for you. (Caveat: do you remember being ten years old? Do you remember how every new year felt like the earth turned in on itself and fireworks exploded with sparkles and glitter?!)

Maybe, like me, you will write “2014” on every check for, like, the next 6 months at least. Maybe you are having a hard time retiring that crayoned-on calendar on which you scribbled ideas for a novel. Maybe you sorted through your clothes and tossed a bunch of shirts that meant something to you, oh, 3 years ago, and you kinda want to lie on your bed and cry about it. Maybe you are saying “good riddance to 2014.” Maybe you are closing a very important year and you miss it already.

Maybe the worst part of your twenties is you are starting to have a lot of doors close, and you are like Alice in Wonderland walking through these doors realizing that the “you” in college was never you at all. You are the person you are right now, the girl who has walked through door-after-door-after-door into strange room after strange room. The room you are in, right now, is the room you’ll be working with the rest of your life. There is nothing so bad about that, but for some reason there is uncertainty over who you are and what you are made of. This will be the defining feature of this room. Did I walk through the right doors? Am I the person I thought I was? How did I get into this room?

Maybe, like me, you just sorted through your kid’s clothes; you realized that your daughter is no longer in the Toddler sizes, but has graduated to Big Kid sizes, and your son went from a baby to a toddler in the zip of a single year. Maybe that seems scary to you. I know, me too. I feel it too.

I feel this earth spinning, this world precariously trying to get it’s bearings, like a gymnast after jumping into that tight squat stands shakily up straight. I feel the rumblings in Syria, the fact that the Ipad is as ubiquitous as books-on-tape used to be in the 80’s, the fact that the Ebola virus never gets tired, and I see that we are moving fast, fast, fast into the mid-century.

Breakneck speed, into the New Year.

Your twenties are composed of such crazy stuff. There have been a billion moments in the past few years where I’ve thought: I can’t get through this, and a million other moments where I have said: I’m living the best years of my life.

What I’m learning is that there are seasons—and your late twenties are a particularly formative season of life. You still feel new to the world, yet you notice that you are growing older and those shallow areas under your eyes are getting darker.

The other thing I’ve noticed is my abs—they ain’t what they used to be, my friends. Also the New Year: I missed it completely. I was asleep, with a cold.

You no longer have excuses in your twenties for what you haven’t accomplished. A revelation: Taylor Swift’s album is titled 1989 because that was the year she was born; she is solidly in the middle of her career. I just figured that out, wheeling through Target the other day. My husband was like, “I know, babe,” and I was like, “Ahhhhhh. Where have I been?”

In your late twenties you don’t grow taller and thinner and longer. It is more like a settling into the skin you already have, and the stretching of it, like a putty person.

And then there has been the motherhood aspect: I’ve watched my sister nurture her little infant. I’ve remembered the late night feedings, the blurry days. I remember it all. That season has blinked by. Moments disappearing like a freight train rumbling and winking through the night. Not that I want them back. I’m grateful. I’m no longer a zombie with the memory and bandwidth of a newt.
But still, there is that slippery nostalgia that you can’t quite catch in your hands and possess.

I’m left here at 2015, in my mid-twenties, with a mixed taste in my mouth—kind of like swigging orange juice right before I take a sip of coffee. To be honest, I’ve suddenly become hyper-aware that I’m turning twenty-seven this February, which means I am three years from 30. Our 5-year college reunion is this fall.

Where has the time gone? It’s a scary, a wee bit disconcerting; I feel like a kid at an aquarium who has lost his parents, staring at all these fish glub-glubbing in the dark, their shiny eyes glaring at me. It’s a totally new world under the sea when you are quickly becoming an adult–no longer a “young” adult. The pufferfish is stalking me, swimming left and right in a war-dance, daring me to say I have this figured out.

Kate Baer talks about how each time she tries to write about something she ends up saying the same thing: this parenting thing is so hard, over and over again. I have the same complex, except I am on this mantra: This life thing is ridiculous. This life thing is ridiculous. I’ll just shorten it to Ridic’. Yeah, that’ll work.

The truth is, your twenties, I’ve come to believe, are the best of times and the worst of times.

The older people like to scare the crap out of us by saying this is our defining decade. As if we aren’t already terrified that we’ve never measured up to expectations. As if we don’t know that we better – batter up! –and hit that home run.

As if we don’t already know that life is whipping by and we are living it with mixed results.
You know those slippery slides you make in the summer out of soap and water and a tarp? That is our twenties. One big slip n’ slide, where you bang your knees on a root or two, but where there is a kind of nonstop movement, a growing up, a growing older as you rush down across the slick surface. We haven’t slowed down yet and it is the ride of our lives.

This year is coming fast and hard, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe we’re meant to see our twenties in this light; maybe for every other generation, their twenties whizzed by just this fast, and this is exactly how it is supposed to be: this continued angst, this wondering, this wandering, this sitting in the middle of it all and declaring, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” It was good and bad, wonderful and scary. It was a million doors and room after room, and we did our best to choose the right ones.
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Lessons In Cuddling

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We were in Chicago a few weeks ago and the kids ran around the house and actually slept at night (by golly!).

Then this thing happened, that hasn’t happened for a little while. First, I put Kaiden down for a nap. He was curled like a soft animal, in his pack-and-play, crying, and I watched him for a moment, standing there at the edge.

I realized I had nothing to do, and nowhere to be. I climbed into his pack-n-play and wriggled my body into a kind of L-shape next to his chubby limbs. And there we lay. After a while, he kind of forgot that I was there, and I soaked up the smell of his curly golden locks, like syrup. I watched his tiny fingers play with his zipper, and the way that his lips pursed and he breathed like a kitten breathes: its rib cage visibly compressing and decompressing, its very knowable, breathing life right there—hard as its tiny miniature bones.

Right then and there, I fell in love with gratitude again, that slippery, sweet taste that comes into your mouth when you have paused, and when an unexpected gift slips right into your fingers, like a sweet candy or a the icing on a cookie melting on lips.

At first I thought: this is it. This is life. When gratitude slips in and holds your hand. I live for these moments. But then I thought about all the harder times, when gratitude is still slippery, but like a slinky salamander sliding through your fingers, and out, into the water, and then it is gone. Just gone. I thought about all the times where I’ve had to crawl towards thankfulness, and where it has been less sudden and more brutal, and less kind, and more like a cookie with gritty sand crunching in your teeth; you have to nibble around the edges to get the good bits.

I am not a “one thousand gifts” type person. By that I mean, the idea of “writing down things I am grateful for” makes me nauseous. Chris suggests that I might be in a better mood if I made this a habit, but I stubbornly refuse to believe that gratitude is a list of inane items I’ve come up with before my morning shower. I wish I was naturally optimistic, naturally thankful, naturally joyous, but these things don’t come naturally to me, so I feel like I might need to give this list-making a chance. Usually gratitude feels to me like wringing out a damp dish towel, trying to get the few drops of honeyed appreciation out. Perhaps writing it down is the answer. Maybe thankfulness is something like beckoning a skittish dog closer and closer.

Along the way, as I’ve thought about gratitude, I’ve realized that it comes in a million forms. It can be fancy, or simple, or brutal, or life-changing. It is this multitudinous, faceted thing, like a complex clock. I can cultivate gratitude, like a garden, and dig in the dirt of it and give the bulbs a chance to become flowers. And I can also wait for gratitude, like I waited that day with Kaiden, and my heart filled beyond capacity with warmth and hope and I was surprised by joy.

Sometimes gratitude comes fast and hard like a rough wave, dousing you in it’s force. Sometimes you get back up, laughing and shaking and teary-eyed with delight. Sometimes gratitude is hard as a black pebble in your palm, and you have to hold it and see it, and really look at it to know it.

Sometimes gratitude is crawling on your hands and knees, bloodied and barren, to surrender, but sometimes gratitude is like balloons falling, silver and gold diaphonous orbs streaked with sun, like pure grace bouncing on your head.

What I’m Into: Chicago, Books, and Beets

We’re back from a short, whirlwind trip to Chicago where we drank cabernet in ample glasses by the cozy fireplace, watched the kids bounce around Chris’ North Shore house, ate thick cheesy deep dish, and overall, indulged.

This month I have read a lot. I’ve also spent more time than I’m willing to admit ruminating on why book writing is as painful as pulling out a molar–or going into labor (except wayyyyyy longer), etc. etc. There are a million metaphors for writing a book, but none of them suffices for the grinding amount of self-humiliation and self-love it takes to bleed all over a piece of paper, take a step back and call it “good.”

Other nouns and descriptors for the process come to mind: vomiting on a page, sub-par, ‘oh well, I tried,’ chicken scratches, worthy-of-being-burned-in-campfire. It is rough, I tell you. Yesterday I sat in bed and told Chris that I’m getting to the point where I no longer know what the book is about at all. The ridiculous part is I have the first three chapters just about memorized. Memorized. And I don’t know what the book is about. Sometimes when I’m reading it over I wonder it if is in Spanglish or something, because by the time the neurons fire in my brain, it translates into something like Spanglish in context.

Wonderful Books:

I read a bunch of lovely books this month, including Donald Miller’s Book about fathers, To Own A Dragon, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Thrive by Arianna Huffington, Washed and Waiting:Reflections on Christian Faithfulness by Wesley Hill, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park.


My month of reading consisted of being consistently surprised. I loved almost every book that I read, but that said, they were all across the spectrum. I’d recommend Gone Girl  for those who like dark, riveting novels that have characteristics far less nice than strange and intense. It’s probably more PG-13/R rated, and I recommend it carefully–but I can’t stop thinking about how well done it was, it was one of those well-written/literary books that kept me up all night. I couldn’t stop reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who doesn’t like dark to begin with.

I love Donald Miller. He is a fantastic writer and I never get tired of reading and re-reading his books. I picked up his book about fathers while I was in Chicago and loved it, though at one point he says that girls won’t like/relate to the book (umm…okay?). Even with some of his interesting views on women (he loves to talk about them as fluffy, sweet creatures–kind of like bunnies), he has a way of universalizing the human experience that I love.

Where’d You Go Bernadette was actually a disappointment to me. I wanted to like it, but I was kind of bored by the end. I know it was supposed to be funny and silly, but the characters were annoying and unbelievable to me. The writing was fantastic, but I sometimes felt like she was showing off, and I hate feeling that way. I’m surprised I didn’t like it more.

I listened to Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell) while Chris was lying face-down in bed with pneumonia groaning. He agreed that it was a sweet, cute, and wonderful little book. We enjoyed the audio version immensely, and because it is YA, I found my mind drifting back to what if felt like to be 15 again…and then I was happy I’m 26.

I read Thrive, by Ariana Huffington of HuffPo fame, and at first I loved it. She inserts tons of interesting facts and makes a great case for getting enough sleep, yoga, making life more about family, etc. But then I read several scathing reviews online that marred my pristine, happy, guru image of her. Basically, they made it hard for me to believe that her book was the “read deal.” Not that that matters, but I like reading authentic voices, and it was hard for me to believe that it was authentic when Slate writes:

The woman who complains that “people are so addicted to technology” that 20 percent of us use smartphones during sex has also traveled with two BlackBerrys, one for each network so she is never out of touch….“We’re all on a journey,” she writes,and although she is not really prone to confessions, it’s obvious from talking to the people who work with her that she has further to travel than the rest of us. According to some Huffington Post staffers, her yoga teacher once told them that Huffington sometimes checks her BlackBerry while doing yoga but that’s OK because she’s a very spiritual person. Her assistants told me that she almost always double books flights in case she changes her mind about when exactly she wants to leave. “She’s insane! She works all the time. Literally all the time!” says another former personal assistant. (Read the rest of the scathing review here.)

I picked up “Washed and Waiting” by Wesley Miller, because I read something he wrote for CT Today that was phenomenal, and then I was hooked into his voice. He is a Wheaton graduate and writes about his journey as a celibate gay man. This book was as beautiful as it was life-changing (note: I am not making any kind of commentary on homosexuality here). So much of what he talks about applied to my own Christian spiritual walk that it hit me that I was missing out if I didn’t read more Christian stories from the margins. This might be my favorite pick for November. A reviewer at Relevant writes: “I did not expect my own faith as a heterosexual to be so encouraged as I read Hill’s reflections on being faithful to Christ. ” I felt this exact way reading this book and would recommend anyone read it–whether or not you share Miller’s convictions. It was on par with some of my favorite Christian reflections this year.

Movies

Chris and I watched some truly great movies this month. I absolutely loved this movie: Begin Again (Redbox). I loved it so much I started bouncing up and down in the middle. It is so hard to find a good romantic comedy, and this was it. For lovers of quirky, sweet movies and good music, this movie got romantic right.

After the best romantic movies do you heave this big sigh and feel like you have fallen in love again? I’m talking about the sweet, cute, wonderful kind of love. That’s how I felt about this movie. The funny part is that there is no real love story that progresses–it is more about life and it’s wild, beautiful, quirky grandeur. ‘Nough said.MV5BNjAxMTI4MTgzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTAwODEwMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_

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Chris loved this movie (I think it is on Netflix) but it is also weird.  It is slap-stick, feel-bad-for-the-main-character, sloppy-fun comedy. With the exception of a little PG-13/R humor, it was great. It will also force you to say “In a World..” with different accents to your husband/wife all night. Rotten Tomatoes calls it “a hilarious romantic comedy about a struggling vocal coach who strikes it big in the cutthroat world of movie-trailer voiceovers…” and a “funny, well-written, screwball satire.”

Frozen Beets & Raisin Bread

Found in any grocery frozen vegetable aisle. Pop ‘em in the oven for 20-30 minutes and they are a healthy, crunchy snack for everyone. I’m always, always trying to life-hack vegetables.  I love beets, but hate the peeling and the bloody fingers that result so that you look like a contributor to a homicide. This eliminates all of that. I bought two bags today.

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Also: Ezekiel Raisin bread, found in the frozen aisle as well. Supposedly these loafs are made according to the biblical method of making bread? Who knows. Either way, I eat two pieces every morning. So satisfying when you add a good hunk of fat batter on top. I’m loving this new routine.
That is all.

 

 

On Zombies and New Life

Here we are, bursting into winter. The season of buttery turkeys rolling in ovens and pumpkin décor losing it’s luster. This morning, frost dusts the ground like spices on cinnamon toast crunch. Zoe and Kaiden bundle up like stubby caterpillars and we march across the hard driveway: tiny Russian soldiers.

The car is frozen; whirled snowflakes ate the windshield. Our breath begins to steam. Hello winter! Thanksgiving. Christmas. Celebration. Darkness.

The darkness is a surprise every time. It creeps up after daylight savings, linking its hands into the day, relieving the sun of its duties. When we lived in Chicago, it felt like perpetual night. Darkness. Darkness. Darkness.

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Two days ago, in the evening, I sat with Zoe and Kaiden on the couch. We Skyped with my sister who recently gave birth to her first child, Paxton. Officially, this makes me an aunt. I love saying his name: Paxton, The Paxman, Paxxy, Little Pax. Nicknames come easy with this one.

During our conversation, Paxton’s tiny eyes peered around the room, investigating every corner of the darkness that is November in New England. I thought: all he has known is black. Even blacker than this. He’s been encased in warm black ink as dark as the depths of sea. Then suddenly, haphazardly, light. Even this shadowy, crappy light is bright to him.

And here he is. The surest sign that fragility and tininess and smallness are nothing if not beautiful. Nothing if not Grace. How is it that a curled hand, a blinking blue eye, can come out of the soft black of a woman’s body and inspire such hope?

I want to touch his little fingernails. I want to remind myself that he is closer to heaven than I have been for a long time, this tiny salamander boy. Fresh off the boat from God, a stumbling passenger arriving bleary-eyed on earth.

Chris and I watched the Walking Dead the other day (I watched a total of 15 minutes of every 30 because it grosses me out). I hate zombies, but I was drawn into the drama for a few moments. There is a baby on the show that they are trying to save; this was the height of the drama for me. That blinking, smiling, laughing baby, completely oblivious to the peril and the human attempts to either save or hurt him. Just tottering around like tiny humans do.

Zombies were crashing and destroying and killing and this baby was oblivious to it all. It terrified me.

Somebody save that baby. Save yourself, you dumb baby! I cried into Chris’ shoulder.

The baby was a hindrance the entire time (as you can imagine, zombies + human babies are not really a recipe for successful survival). It made me so angry to see something so small and of such great value dropped amidst such great darkness. So helpless.

Why would the TV show creators do this? I swung between being angry with the baby for being a difficulty and then to being desperate for them to rescue the darn baby. Everything was riding on that child. Everything.

Just as for a new mother like my sister, everything is riding on an infant. For my sister, the world shrinks to a bedroom, a breast, a baby’s soft mouth and belly breathing; the whole universe becomes that single life nurtured into the light amidst the looming dark.

As we approach Christmas, I can’t but think that the most vulnerable example, the most holy and outrageous way for God to appear was through taking a baby, that precious savior, and placing him amongst the destruction. The slashing, the killing, the zombie-like stomp of Herod’s rampage. It’s the beginning of a terrible drama. Our whole world shrinks to the size of a hazelnut during this time of year as we await this infant who comes on a black silent night, his cry shattering the dark.

This then, must be how we learn to see a great light in the darkness. This then, must have been His message: I have brought light to great darkness.

And we respond back, as we clutch an infant against the black sky, completely helpless and wondering and wandering. We understand that we are clutching for the holy: Save the baby. Dear God. Please come, Emmanuel.

When You Need Gratitude

The dishes are piled in the sink. Toddler pants and jackets strewn up the stairs like the laundry machine vomited on its way up to a nap.

The hubby has pneumonia, which makes everything seem harder: cleaning up the crunchy chips on the floor, constructing a tuna sandwich without the dried mayonnaise dropping onto the crust.

Yoga pants: the apparel of choice for 3 days.

Emails are clicked on, but not replied to. They linger like sly remarks about your competence.

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Nobody in the family has eaten unless it contains tomato sauce: spaghetti, more pasta, quick-bake lasagna. Microwave rays bounce across the room and boomerang enough times to arrive on that comet yesterday.

 Salad hits the plate and the kids look at it like it was harvested from Mars: some inedible alien leaf.

 The kitty litter stinks up the corner of the kitchen and Kaiden hobbles over to it. He thinks it’s a sandbox. So far he’s been deterred from his quest to dig in with a silver spoon.

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It’s 7 am, and you feel like you are behind. Rise and shine. You’ve forgotten something you were supposed to do. Is it the bill for the Pediatrics visit from 6 months ago? The mortgage payment? The goldfish Pre-K asked for in a giant-classroom size box?

All of the above.

Stumble downstairs to dump coffee grounds into the top of the pot. At this point, there is no tablespoon scoop. Just dumping. Strong is the only measurement. Strong enough to wake Lazarus from the dead. Strong enough to resurrect your nice self.

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The husband says he feels like you’ve staked your flag everywhere but with him. Your children have flags and you’ve given your blog a flag and sleep a flag and everyone else a flag but him. Nobody knows why the discussion is in terms of flags; it’s a stand-in for something else.

Sleep is like chocolate, soft and gooey and you never get enough.

You stare at him. He says he doesn’t have a flag, again. You don’t even know where to find one.

What do you mean, you ask? But you know exactly what he means.

Husband: Forget it. Can you pick up some Gatorade? The G-2 kind.

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It is a battle to love one another. A battle to think outside of yourself. Ebola is a thousand miles away. Remind yourself:

(1)Purell and Lysol and sick days and Arithromyacin.

(2)Four bodies with distended stomachs, not from hunger but from pasta.

(3)Starbucks holiday drinks just arrived; that warm, red cup like gold in your hands. Throw in a chocolate chip cookie for good measure. You deserve it.

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Crawl on your knees to gratitude; sometimes it’s the only way to get there.

I see you: fighting to be grateful. Feeling overwhelmed and tired and worried that your marriage is suffering, that you don’t have enough flags to give out. Those darn flags.

Tired. Over-extended. In need of a nice, warm bath.

All remaining love is gathered tight inside, somewhere that takes a screwdriver to get unstuck. You’re not the only one unsticking yourself, peeling off the glue of discontent, feeling that balled-up part try to unfurl, like a leaf.

Unfurl. Crawl on your knees to gratitude, it doesn’t matter how you get there, scraped and bleeding, it’s the finish line that counts.

 

 

On Writing and Art and Vulnerability

We are in the age of “will you play with me?” My daughter, Zoe devises worlds of me and you with two-inch plastic animals. She sits in the living room, hopping her hello kitty figurines to the hospital, stringing them with tiny necklaces and saying, “hi” a million times, from one tiny kitty to another. Children, like Zoe, make something out of nothing and are pleased with themselves. Picasso once said, “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Why can’t we create art as adults? We’ve forgotten the urgency of play, that imagination is not a job, but a way of being in the world. A way of seeing that everything has potential: the cardboard box, an unwieldy lifeboat, the kitten a physician, the playdough a cereal bowl. I’ve also forgotten, because I’m weary of audience, of standing up and raising my hands to respond with my teeny-tiny voice that is ordinary.

My friend once said to me that she doesn’t want to write because she is afraid of failure, of her words resounding out and echoing back, empty. “What if I put myself out there and it doesn’t matter?” She said. The shame is that she is a phenomenal writer.

All writers and artists and musicians feel this same way at some point: that their precious words boomerang back, void. It is a courageous, brave thing to create, but it is also a courageous brave thing to walk into a conference room and give a presentation, to arrive at a dance audition, choke down some ice water, and fling your body into the air before a judge. It is a courageous thing to “make” anything out of yourself, which is why art is larger than music, writing, or dance. I think it is anything where you give a piece of yourself away, without asking for anything in return…which is just about everything.

My mother is an artist. The kind that paints broad swathes of landscape in oil and watercolor. Her house is decorated with art—soft taupe trees in dark forests, a rushing ocean tumbling onto the sand, each a gift she made, not to be commissioned or bought—though they are beautiful enough for such endeavors; they are placed around the house, to me, they are reminders of her.

Have you seen the Always commercial where little girls are asked to “run like a girl?” It’s one of the most heartbreaking productions. Girls push their legs out, crane their bodies and prepare to give it their all. Their legs are jagged, racing machines, and their bodies thrust into running (watch it at the bottom of this post).

Then the teenage girls arrive, long-limbed and flush with self-consciousness. When these teen girl models are asked to “run like a girl,” they wing their arms out and act flustered and take miniature, halting steps. Each time I see this commercial, I think about Zoe, and her wholeheartedness and absorption in everything she sets her heart to. Zoe, running like she is giving everything she’s got, imagining that she is an Olympic racer, a beautiful specimen of physicality and brawn and strength.

Someday, Zoe’s play will come to a halt. The Barbies and dollhouses and cars will sit, stationary on top of a shelf. She’ll turn to mastering the quadratic formula and reading novels, and she’ll begin to understand that “running like a girl,” is an equation for half-hearted effort combined with the fear of failure, with incompetence. I’m terrified of that day.

We need vulnerability to create without fear of repercussion, without fear of looking dumb. To continue to create, whether it is only to adorn the walls of our homes (like my mother’s paintings) with beauty, or to present a product to the world with confidence and aplomb, we have to withhold our adult-knowledge of “what it looks like to run “. We have to come back to ourselves as toddlers, prancing our toys about a stage, glancing up at our mothers and fathers with absolute confidence and faith that words do not return void, that creating is a calling for every single one of us: the VP of a company, the general contractor, the musician.

Zoe understands this. Art is a portal back to childhood, stepping into a time-machine and returning to a lackadaisical freedom undeterred by constraint and fear. She creates as a way of being herself in the world, as a way of learning what the world has to offer and what she has to give. So should we all.