Since Then

June was insane.  I finished a draft of my third novel by writing every day for thirty days, no excuses, including weekends (I logged about 40,000 words).  During ten of those days, my husband was singing in California, leaving me to parent our 12, 13, and 14-year-old on my own (read: forage for brightly colored foods like pop ice and cheese and binge-watch old episodes of House while the kids played too many video games when they should have been sleeping).

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(Photo by my son, Ivan)

By the time my husband finally came home in early July my youngest sister and her three kids were already visiting our home to celebrate Independence Day.  Then, suddenly, my grandmother passed away, and my middle sister and her three kids drove thirteen hours to join the rest of us during that hard time.  The last seven days are a smear of lipstick and tears.

And, to quote Sarah Mclachlan, I’m so tired that I can’t sleep.

A few things come to mind: 1). Life happens in contractions.  There’s the normal we get bored of and there’s the pain we resent.  2). We don’t appreciate the respite without the strain in-between, and 3). You can still get a lot of stuff done in chaos, but you’re always glad when you managed to work ahead and can somewhat avoid that I-can’t-feel-my-feet feeling.

And then there’s this.  God is always good, even when life isn’t.

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The Routine God

 

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I love the liturgies of daily life.  I scramble to bring order to my days and I sometimes think I’m nothing without my routine.  So when things come along to throw off my groove (and they do, routinely–see what I did there?), I feel lost.

I could lie and say this love of habit blossomed after I finally woke from a compressed and super-intense baby-producing phase in which I trust I was present but only have scrapbooks and stretch marks to prove it.  But, no.  I was making workable life plans for myself in second grade.

The thing is, I have seen daily disciplines work.  I have, in fact, used them to lose weight, to read through the entire Bible in a year, to play certain difficult pieces on the cello, to learn to speak Hindi, to write a novel.  I also know that the slapdash, open-ended ways of a creative often hinder her from getting actual stuff done.  The Muse visits the writer whose bum is already in the chair, etc, etc, etc.

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But the workable routine always wants to become my god.  It promises to save me from sloth and chaos and irrelevance.  Or that’s what I hear it say, anyway.  And then the real God, the One who helps us even when we didn’t ask him to, castrates the fake god by letting mess happen, instead.  Not because routines are bad–they’re helpful–but because they aren’t more important than life, or God himself.

All of that is to say that I haven’t written in a week and I feel crazy.  I’m working on a project with a deadline I made up because it helps me accomplish more when I pretend disaster is looming.  But, like I said, life happened this week and I ended up thinking instead of doing.  My teenagers needed me and so did some friends.  And after that I just wanted to watch Netflix and read books that have nothing to do with the one I’m writing.  I wanted to go limp.

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So now I’m trying to get back to my former routine (again!) without loving it too much. Oh,  how I hate getting back into something instead of already being in the middle of it.  I also hate confronting the fear that fills the vacuum my ruined routine leaves in my psyche.  On the other hand, I want to grow trusting and flexible enough that I can ride these longterm contractions with quiet confidence that God knows what’s best for me, that I can trust him with all the things–including my writing habits and my time.  That I can get back to work eventually.

I should be working on my novel.  But I’m blogging instead.  Baby steps.

The Easy Way Out

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Once in a while I write about things that help get me through difficult seasons, that remind me easier days are (most likely) coming.  Today I realized that I don’t often write about tools that make educating my kids easier, and this is weird because helping them learn is such a huge part of my life.  I’m correcting that now.

Books/reading material we love:

Solid Joys daily devotional (online);  I love these thought-provoking snippets.  They’re easy to access and take about 10 minutes to read through.  They help the kids and me focus our minds and hearts on God and have become an essential part of our day.

101 Famous Poems, by Roy J. Cook;  Anyone who knows us well can tell you that we’re all a little crazy for poetry–yes, even the boys.  This book is a one-stop shop for many of the great poems and it’s helping us to sample words widely and well before starting more formal studies in the morning.

The Chronicles of Narnia;  You know how sometimes you just need to reread books that bring back good memories and make you feel safe?  We know that feeling.  This winter I’ve been rereading the entire Narnia series aloud, book by book, to my giant teenaged kids, not because they can’t read for themselves, but because doing so both reinforces positive feelings in all of us and doesn’t take much effort on my part.  We need these good vibrations because Algebra.

Educational tools that are transforming everything:

Pimsleur Spanish CD’s;  I’ve mentioned before that I was a German major in college and lived in Vienna, Austria for a time.  Later I moved to India and learned to speak Hindi both through hours in a classroom and with informal conversation practice.  But nothing has helped me or my kids learn to speak a language faster or more easily than this set of audio CD’s.  By following the program’s (somewhat intense) thirty-minutes-a-day speaking practice we’re netting huge language gains in this house.

Code Academy;  My middle son wanted to learn to code.  My idea of awesome computer skills was learning how to insert links in my blog posts.  This free website is serving both of us well.  He can teach himself (easy!), and I can remain a semi-Luddite.  Win/win.

Pandora Radio;  I talk about Pandora a lot, I just realized.  Whatever.  I’m a cellist so, naturally, music is important to me.  But I want my kids to learn to appreciate a wide variety of musical styles and artists without my having to work hard at it.  Almost nothing is easier than creating a variety of genre stations on Pandora and playing them while we go about our day.  I don’t have to create big “music appreciation” moments.  If my kids have questions about a piece, they look at the TV (where we play our stations) and read the provided information.  If they want to know more, I help them find it.  They know so much about music these days–and I haven’t broken a sweat.

The longer I homeschool my kids, the more convinced I am that not everything has to be so darn hard.  Sometimes easier is better.

 

So You Call Yourself a Professional?

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the difference between being a dilettante and a professional in a given field.  I’m not convinced that what separates the two is primarily whether a person’s making money or not, but that it has to do with a state of mind.

I started writing regularly when I lived overseas.  During those years it was a sanity saver, a way to let some emotional air out of a too-tight balloon.  When I came back to the U.S. it was a way to make sense of a painful re-entry into a life that no longer seemed to fit.  Writing was a means to achieving emotional health.

But something happened along the way.  I starting feeling better.  I began mapping out my days, automatically protecting blocks of time for writing not because I was battling another stout cycle of depression, but because I wanted to.  And then, eventually, I wrote because I couldn’t imagine not doing it.

That led to the blind creation of a confused, bleeding novel I couldn’t bear to re-read or throw away.

So I locked it up and wrote another one.

In the meantime, I consumed all I could about the craft of writing.  I checked out books from the library on plot and structure.  I read agent blogs and followed publishing houses on Twitter.  I explained character arcs to my desperately bored children at the dinner table, and polled my husband on whether certain plot points seemed believable.

I got published and got my first paycheck.  But the majority of my time is still spent in my bedroom with the laptop, writing words I don’t know if anyone will ever read.  And yet I’ve left behind the idea that I’m writing as a dilettante or for the sake of therapy.

I now consider myself a professional, though I haven’t quit my day job.  I think of myself that way because I’ve put myself on a trajectory–albeit a difficult one–and I’m living now the way I hope to be living when.  Which is to say, I’m educating and disciplining myself as if I’ve already arrived at my writing destination, though I haven’t yet.

This is the heart of professionalism, I think, this idea that we work with diligence and excellence when no one is looking because we’re deeply dedicated to the thing we’re doing.  And we continue to move toward attainable goals, one at a time, even if the money isn’t rolling in and no one is patting us on the back.

I write these words to remind myself because it’s easy to forget.

Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now

It’s February, the shortest month that lasts forever.  Of course, I kind of like it because my birthday is in February, along with my mom’s.  Still, it’s a gray month if you don’t count all the pink and red from Valentine’s Day.

Though there are plenty of things that seem to suck the life out of us during the cold months, over at Modern Mrs. Darcy people are talking about how they’re surviving, and even enjoying, winter in a series entitled ‘Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now.’  I’m adding my two cents below.

  • Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice Tea and Half-Caf Coffee.  This tea is heavy on cinnamon and is caffeine free.  It’s sweet, too, without any added sugars.  I’ve been drinking it throughout the day, and at night before bed.  As for the half-caf, it’s my weak attempt at ever-so-slowly reducing the amount of caffeine I consume because I read that higher levels of caffeine are linked to anxiety in women (something I battle).  In the end, I just can’t give up coffee right now because the warmth and ritual of drinking it is so powerful–especially in the winter when it seems I never get truly warm for more than a few minutes.  I don’t want to go cold turkey and drink full-on decaf coffee, either, because I’m chicken about the headaches and flulike symptoms of withdrawal.  Half-caf is my solution for now.
  • Music on Pandora Radio.  This is not new for me, but music becomes even more important in the winter when the sun is stingy.  I have a couple of favorite stations I play on the laptop (I work from home) while tidying up the house in the morning.  The good news is that the right music can set the tone–pun intended–for the entire day.  The bad news is certain kinds of music can be depressing earworms that also set the tone, but not one I want.  I try to choose carefully.
  • Reading Aloud to My Teenagers.  I kind of thought we were done with this aspect of our family life since my kids are voracious readers themselves and increasingly seem to have their own agendas for…everything.  It turns out, though, that spending a few minutes a day re-reading a favorite series while my teens loll on my bed and stare at the ceiling has made winter more bearable so far.  I didn’t plan it, i.e. we fell back into reading aloud from sheer weather induced boredom, but we’re all secretly becoming attached to this ritual again (some of us not so secretly).
  • Very Hot Baths with Epsom Salt before Bed.  Again, not something I actually planned because I’m not old yet.  But it happens that old timers have lots of wisdom.  When they say that Epsom salt is the solution for several of life’s little problems, including muscle ache, fatigue, and trouble falling asleep, they’re right.  At least in my case.  I’m taking hot baths for a few minutes before bed, soaking up the magnesium found in Epsom salt through my skin, and heading under the covers soon after.  While I may not fall asleep immediately, at least I’m warm to my bones for a while and feeling relaxed.

Those are a few things that are saving my life this winter.  Of course, prayer, off and on all day, everyday, is my actual lifeline.  And then there’s poetry reading and writing, which feels increasingly like its own kind of prayer.  But these are things I cling to even when the sun is out.

What are some things that are saving your life this winter?

The One Percent

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As I type, my daughter lies sleeping next to me.  We’ve been up since 5:00 A.M, stuffed stray shoes in backpacks, filled coffee mugs one last time, because my sister and her kids left to return to their home in VA while our town still slept.  They were with us for over a week, a blessing we didn’t anticipate because we hadn’t counted on the winter storm that painted our city and theirs in clean, thick white.  We couldn’t have been more pleased.

We did a lot in our eight days of togetherness–a little homework, a lot of Netflix watching, video game playing, late night giggling, drawing, even poetry reading.  We took turns cooking our favorite comfort foods and tossing paper plates and napkins into a continually popping fireplace.  We stared at one another’s messy hair and naked eyes and smiled comfortable smiles.

We are rich in family.

I told all six kids that after they’d piled into one room to spend their last night together.  Rich as Croesus.  Not everyone is.  And just like with material wealth, those who live in abundance should seek out those who don’t, in order to bless them in small or big ways.   My prayer is that some of what filled our house this week will spill over into other lives that intersect ours–to pay it forward, somehow.

In the meantime, I’ll keep warm this winter from inside out, my heart stoked with the orange embers of sister love.