I’m not a tranquil, easygoing person. Even as a kid I planned for imaginary contingencies. I worried and wondered. I made lists.
I’m convinced this is a bit of a personality defect since I had a wonderful childhood.
It’s still true of me as a 41-year-old wife, mom, and artist. I have a good life, and I’m still a bit of a hurricane on the inside. My emotions are easy to stir up. Hard to quell.
I love this time of year. I’m a Christian, and this season reminds me why I have hope–both in this life and in the one to come. But Christmas stresses me out, too. It ruins my routines. It sinks me under the weight of its happy expectations. It adds items to my to do list and upends my fragile status quo.
If I’m honest, I miss the way we celebrated Christmas when we lived in India. Which is to say, we did Advent readings, watched good movies, lit candles, and opened gifts on Christmas morning.
There were no concerts, no expectations, no parties, no travel, no Christmas cards, no feasts, no detailed gift lists, no endless choices, no school performances, no commercials reminding us that we hadn’t bought enough.
Our Christmas dinners in India were spaghetti and mutton meat balls because that was the fanciest thing we could find in our little hill station market.
I’m in America, now, not India. Sure, there’s plenty to love about an American Christmas. But peaceful, it ain’t. Not unless I plan for it.
So I’m mostly cutting out social media this month. I’m checking my email once a day. I’m listening to Christmas music I actually enjoy. I’m drinking coffee, slowly, in the wee hours of the morning. I’m putting on my makeup in silence so I can think. I’m reading my Bible before I reach for my phone. I’m working on tricky edits of my manuscript in the morning instead of pushing them off to the afternoon when I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed early. I’m reading novels instead of watching Netflix.
I want to thrive this holiday season, not just survive. And, for me, planning for peace is the only way to go.
Should I write something about gratitude since it’s Thanksgiving week?
I’m not over this cold. Running wouldn’t be a good idea, and I am losing my mind as a result.
Why are my dogs developing food aggression all of a sudden?
There are a bazillion doomsday blog posts out there. Every second person is writing in Manichean terms–as if life is a Star Wars installment, and everyone is either on Luke’s side or Darth’s.
Everyone pretends to be Yoda, but no one is.
I need to ease up on the coffee.
Another agent requested my full manuscript and says she’s anxious to read it (!!!!!!!!!!).
No more coffee today.
I haven’t touched my manuscript since I got that email.
What is going on with me that I can’t get back to editing the manuscript?
I entered my novel in writing contest in which one judge gave me a total score of 98.7 out of 100 with glowing comments. The second gave a 97.8/100 with similarly glowing comments. The third gave me a 77 with no comments.
I cannot stop thinking about that 77 with no comments.
A 77 is a C.
The only time I’ve ever gotten a C is in an Algebra class.
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).
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.
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.
In an earlier post, I wrote about how I’m intentional about filling my creative well during the day, whether by noticing visual art at my local coffee shop, listening to podcasts on interesting topics, or reading a few pages of a novel before bed. It’s creative input, and it helps me stay connected to right-brain pursuits.
But, increasingly, I need “no input” time, too–protected chunks of the day (however brief) to hear myself think. These are moments when I’m not listening to, or reading, anything. I’m purposely not taking in new data.
It’s hard to find these no input minutes in our modern world, not just because “news” and trivia are the white noise in our public spaces, but also because we’re addicted to looking stuff up on our mobile devices. We stuff our brains with junk info–beyond its capacity–all the time.
Author, runner, and NPR show host Peter Sagal writes about preserving space in his day for no input. He says if he didn’t run without listening to music, he would have no time when he wasn’t taking in data. This is crazy-making and has the potential to reduce productivity and peace. So, for a few minutes a day, he runs in silence. He lets his brain chew the food it’s already trying to digest instead of gorging it with more, more, more.
I’ve started keeping track of the times I could be going input-free but am choosing not to. I’m asking myself why I reach for my phone when I’m unable to process all that’s being hurdled at me. I’m taking a moment or two, several times a day, to mull over what’s already on my mind. I think it’s helping lower my anxiety.
At the very least, it’s helping me remember my limits.
Creatives have to take their art seriously, or no one else will. If what we’re making/writing/singing isn’t important enough to take it seriously, then why not just get the laundry done and stop messing around? After all, we’re all grown-ups here.
The irony is that taking our art too seriously also ensures that no one else will. Plus, it will be boring and un-fun to create, and we will wonder why we started all of this mess in the first place.
The trick is to take the work seriously enough that we give it space in our lives, that we bleed and sweat for it if that’s what it takes, but not so seriously that we become miserable people who can’t tell a good joke. Because art, like life, is worth working for, but it also needs a little levity to keep it from becoming insufferable.
A good way to keep from taking our art (and life) too seriously is to gain a little perspective. I don’t know how you recalibrate when you’re feeling stuck or stuck-up or struck down, but I just saw this photo my husband took in West Africa, and, yeah that did it for me.
I get to write because I have food to eat, clothes to wear, and I live in relative safety. I get to create. It’s a wonderful, luxurious privilege I did nothing to deserve. This is what I will tell myself as I sit down to edit my manuscript.
Something I’ve been mulling over: how do I work at something that takes up a lot of my time and mental energy, something I care a lot about, but not put ultimate hope in the results of my work?
You think I’m talking about writing, but I’m talking about raising kids. My oldest is 17, now, and my baby is 14. So much of what I’ve prioritized in the last 17 years is stuff that can’t be measured. The trips to museums, the long talks and I’m sorry’s, the tears over math worksheets, the orchestra concerts and travel, have they made a difference in my kids’ lives?
My kids are almost grown. They’re intellectually curious and kind. They’re beginning to know their place in in the world.
Still. How many of those traits would they have developed without focused effort on my part? Has what I worked for in the last 17 years mattered?
Also, how do I let my kids fail (which is so important) and not feel it as my failure? How do I let go of the results of years of caring?
Maybe this is one reason I write–because the joys and sorrows it brings, my various successes and failures, belong only to me.
My husband is in Africa, and I am in the U.S. with three teenagers and three dogs. I don’t worry when he’s gone, am not resentful to be the one holding down the fort, am used to a global life, etc., etc. Besides, sometimes it’s me halfway across the world, wondering if someone back home remembered to get more toilet paper.
This time, though, I’m trying to keep the home fires burning while developing a proposal to send to literary agents. While teaching Chinese kids English in the wee hours of the morning. While teaching American high school students medieval literature and essay writing. While being a friend (and sometimes an enemy) to my own kids. While being 40.
But I’m getting good at letting things go when I need to. To wit: my kids are eating Ramen noodles and ice cream for calories, and I let my son pierce his ear at the mall yesterday. I’m not scared to use Z-quil at bedtime (if, for example, I happen to eat a large handful of chocolate covered espresso beans for “snack” and find myself alarmingly alert at 9 P.M.).
This is real life. It’s possible to keep going strong if I let it be what it is: imperfect and good enough.
I’m still tinkering with my website since it’s pretty new. And, yes, I mean tinkering. Like an old man in a shop, bent over tools he doesn’t actually use.
Since returning from the writer’s conference, I’ve spent a bazillion brain cells adding to my ‘About’ page because, well, this is What You Do. It’s scary since I love a certain amount of anonymity. On the other hand, people want to know things about other people. I want to know things about you, though we may never meet.
Since the ‘About’ page is static on my website (doesn’t go to anyone’s inbox), I thought I’d add a link here in case you want to check it out. Take this as permission to snoop in my bathroom cabinet.
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.
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.
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.