On Choosing the Blue Cord

My family and I just got back from a short vacation in the mountains where we celebrated my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Fifty years is longer than I’ve been alive. It’s more than twice as long as my husband and I have been married. My in-laws make marriage look easy, though I know from 19 years’ experience it’s anything but.

I’m lucky. I have a deep friendship with my husband. We met in college and became inseparable in fairly short order, partly because we shared a major and partly because we just “clicked.” According to statistics, we have an advantage in seeing our marriage through to the end. After all, we married without a ton of debt. Our parents have stayed married to their spouses. We share household and childrearing responsibilities. We bend and flex for each other’s careers. Most importantly, we share a common religious faith.

Still, it’s hard to stay married, sometimes. Even for us.

As I stood on the back porch of our mountain cabin, I noticed two saplings tied together by a blue cord. They pressed against it in opposite directions, clearly wanting to grow apart, but someone had made sure they couldn’t. The blue cord holds them together no matter how hard the wind blows or how their own intertwined roots might cramp them.

Me, too, little trees. Me, too.

We choose our own cords, I thought. My in-laws chose theirs, and fifty years later, we are all better for their dogged determination not to untie themselves when things (inevitably) got hard.

I hope my children will say the same about my husband and me someday.

On Living This Moment Well (And the One After That)

My agent just sent my manuscript to three big publishers. Now there’s nothing for me to do but to continue my daily life, to not allow my thoughts to burn in a fire of what-if’s since I’m not promised tomorrow–or even 2:30 this afternoon. I want to wait well, though, so far, I am not successful.

My sister brought this beautiful Wendell Berry poem to my attention. For me, it sums up the struggle of being a human ruled by time.

“From the Crest”

I am trying to teach my mind
to bear the long, slow growth
of the fields, and to sing
of its passing while it waits.

The farm must be made a form,
endlessly bringing together
heaven and earth, light
and rain building back again
the shapes and actions of the ground.

Wendell Berry, Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point, 1985), 190-91.

I would like to cool my mind, to accept the good gifts God gives me in the time He chooses to give them, or, maybe, to accept the withholding of them. I would like to teach my mind to bear long, slow growth, both today and tomorrow (if I’m still here).

Love > Art

My sister blew in to town this week. She’s one of my best friends, and I’m always happy when I get to see her. At the same time, I got my manuscript back from my agent. She had some ideas about things I should tweak to make my story stronger. Also, she wants me to up my mileage on social media (not something that comes naturally to me).

In other words, I have work to do.

But my sister lives hours away, and I don’t get to see her and my nieces and nephew very often. I don’t want to miss a minute with them.

This is how it always is: God gives me little opportunities to choose the most important thing in any given moment. Sometimes I choose the wrong thing. Sometimes I’m selfish or short-sighted. But this week I chose my sister, and I’m not sorry. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about my manuscript the whole time she’s been here because I sure as heck have. It just means I’ve been able to see things more clearly this time. I’ve been able to focus on what’s most valuable right now.

Writing is important, but people are more important. No amount of writing about people can make up for not actually loving them. So I chose the real characters in my life. And I chose to live a story instead of write one. This week, anyway.

The End.

On Curated Truth and Fake Vulnerability

Still over here thinking about vulnerability that helps connect us with others.

And now, after reading this article, I’m wondering about fake vulnerability–the kind that looks brave but is actually crafted and careful like those ridiculous #nofilter Instagram pics people love to post (No, really, she woke up like this).

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The first step to creating genuine connection with others is to be honest about where you’re coming from. Story: I just joined Twitter, and I wrestled with what to put in my bio. I didn’t want to say too much (or, Lord help me, use emojis), but I knew I needed to let people know a few true things. That way, if they aren’t interested in what I’m writing/thinking about, they can move on. No harm, no foul.

So I said I’m a Christian because that’s the realest thing about me. I’m aware putting that out there may cause some people to turn away immediately. I’m aware they might assume I’m writing “Christian fiction” when I’m actually trying to do something different.

I imagine most people want you to be upfront with them, though. They don’t want to feel like you’ve Trojan horse-d your viewpoint into their consciousness. If they don’t agree with what you’re saying, fine and good. At least you’ve been honest.

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The difference between real and fake vulnerability is…the truth. If someone sticks around after they know what you’re really about, guess what? You’re in a better position to say the things you really mean–and, in the end, maybe even help someone.

Art in the Second Half of Life

Some of the pros of pursuing a creative field in my forties are that

  • I feel calmer, braver, and less neurotic than I did when I was younger.
  • I’ve mostly raised my kids, so I don’t have Mom Guilt when I take time away from them to get better at my craft.
  • I’m more disciplined with my time because, honestly, there are fewer things in my life that feel like interesting distractions (with the possible exception of podcasts on unsolved murders).

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But there are cons, too.

  • I feel rushed, like I’m always on the verge of running out of time. It’s hard not to compare myself to twenty or thirty-somethings who are doing all the things I’m doing, but sooner, so the odds of success seem ever in their favor.
  • I get mentally exhausted sooner than I did in my twenties, and I wonder if my ideas are “safer” because of this mellow(er) decade.
  • I’m physically tired.

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In order to keep going, I have to remind myself that

  • I was meant to find this path at this time (I believe God directs our lives more than we realize).
  • My ideas are probably less wild but truer than if I’d written them down earlier. This is because I’ve lived more. I’ve sat in the shadows with people. I’ve traveled the world. This has to count for something.
  • My life is going to pass whether I pursue writing or not. Since there’s no slowing down the passage of time, I might as well spend some of it doing what I love.

Are you thinking of creating art in the second half of your life? If you need a little encouragement, check out these women who got published after the age of 40. 

Facing Silence

Last night I turned the last page of a book I’d been putting off finishing. I told myself I wasn’t making progress on it because I’m too busy, but the truth is that I was nervous it was going to wreck me. I’d heard a lot about Shusaku Endo’s Silence. My sister had read it. So had two of my kids.

Everyone I talked to said, “Just be in a good place when you read it.”

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I’m not in a particularly good place right now, but I felt this urge (sense of duty?) to finish it, for some reason. Maybe because my motto for my 40’s is: Don’t wait until you feel like doing [insert difficult, worthwhile thing] because you might not ever feel like it, and then what have you got?

I could edit this, but I won’t.

Now I’m on the other side of Silence, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Was it painful to read? Yes. Do I have a lump in my throat that I cannot currently swallow, even after three cups of coffee? Yes. Am I glad I pressed into the discomfort and questions and scenes of torture to get to the beauty? Emphatically, yes.

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I feel like this is a lesson–that it means something on a grander scale–but it’s too soon to tell. For now, I suspect it’s just one more example of how it’s better to face things than to avoid them. Even if what you’re avoiding is a heavy book.

Writing While Furious

There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and I find myself as susceptible as the next person to the slow burn of muted rage. And that’s just the stuff that has nothing to do with me. Factor in the mundane irritations, the occasional sleepless nights due to I-still-don’t-actually-know-what, the To-Do list that will not resolve itself, and I could stay ticked if I let myself.

Anger is an emotion I hate. I don’t feel energized by it the way some people do. To me, it’s nothing but pure body and soul malaise. It yanks my inner life into slow motion while morphing my external life into a pathetic series of jerkily completed tasks.

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One of the differences between writing for fun and turning pro is that you’ve decided you’ll do it when you feel inspired and calm–and when you feel awful. If I want to turn pro (and I do) it means I need a way to harness my occasional anger into creative energy until it burns away. Otherwise, it will become one more invitation not to move forward in my career.

This blog post isn’t how about to do that, because I haven’t figured it out yet (unless you count typing with ferocity). This is more of a personal memo, an item that needs to move to the top of my To-Do list for the foreseeable future. I have longterm ways of putting my anger into perspective, of giving my Big Scary Feels to God. I just need a short-term way to move forward creatively when the rage is still fresh and hot.

 

On Surviving ‘Big Opportunities’

In two days, I’ll attend a writer’s conference at a swanky hotel. My carry-on will contain professional clothes (okay, a few Stitch Fix mix ‘n matches). I will wear poppy-colored lipstick and have too many business cards in my purse. I will try to look bright-eyed and confident, but also cool and not too eager because gross.

I will try not to think about myself and my writing too much, try to remember that this kind of event is about reaching out to others with no strings attached. Let good things just happen, man. Think about how you can be helpful. Be the first to go in for a handshake.

Shudder.

The whir in the back of my head will be: I wonder what’s going to happen. What VIP will I meet that could change my future plans? Do I belong here? I don’t. No, wait, I do. But not really. But, yes. Yes, I do. I will lick my front teeth to make sure none of the poppy-colored lipstick is smeared on them. I will open my eyes extra-wide (but not crazy wide!) behind my glasses when people smile at me because I’m 40, and my eyelids are starting to sag even when I’m not tired. Even when I’m nervous and on sensory overload.

And then I will remember how fortunate I am to be here. I will think about the beggar kids that lived outside my apartment in India for three years, those pink warts on their toast-colored hands, the broken-off front teeth. I will think about the level of privilege this conference represents, and how I did nothing to deserve it.

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And that will set me right for a few minutes out of every hour until I reach my hotel room at the end of the day. There I will let my face sag. I will switch on the television to see what cable looks like after all these years. Then I’ll make decaf in the nasty little pot on the desk. I will text my husband and ask him about our three teenagers–the ones I miss when they’ve been out of my sight for more than eight hours.

I’ll thank God for seeing me this far.

I’ll remember who I am.

Return to Sender

An old lady looks back on her life as she sits in my living room and tells me things no one else knows. She offers tinted stories and looks hard in my eyes to see if I suspect hers aren’t the only shades.

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She doesn’t speak to her daughter, she says, because

the girl doesn’t love her,

won’t help with anything.

She wishes, in fact, she didn’t have kids.

It isn’t safe to answer, so I say nothing because she cries as she paints her life for me, and old woman tears are the saddest.

Then I hear from her daughter, the one who

never visits,

never calls.

And her side is black and blue (and then it’s my turn to cry).

How many mistakes do a mother and daughter get before they break what they borrowed?

Why can some patch up ragged holes, while others lie bleeding (but never quite dead)?

I want to return these stories, but they belong to me now.

So this morning I hug my teenaged daughter while she crunches cereal, and I try to send into her all the tender things I hope she’ll

remember–

and I pray for grace.