Tuesday, November 22, 2016

She Would Have Loved That

Two years ago my last grandparent, my maternal grandmother, passed away. Her death came in the week before Thanksgiving and so inevitably she enters my thoughts a lot in this holiday season. Similarly, it is summertime when my paternal grandmother comes to mind most often as my final memory of her was a family picnic at my parents' house on a warm summer day. Sunshine warmed grass between my toes, family sitting in chairs in the yard, Grandma Theresa makes herself present with us. Now, in the bustle of family focused holidays and age old traditions, Grandma Evelyn is here with me.

Grandma Evelyn with my firstborn, a few months before she passed.

During Sunday Mass last weekend, I leaned over to my husband and whispered, "Grandma would have loved this men's choir." The rich, reverent harmonies could have been from any number of old albums of hymns she used to play on her cassette deck next to her favorite chair. I savored every song during that Mass, enjoying it on her behalf.

Then at the end of Mass, I approached the giving tree set up near the sanctuary. Typically I choose a request for a child's gift from these trees. It gives me a special kind of joy to know a young child will be happier on Christmas day thanks to a small sacrifice on my family's part. It was with this same intention that I went to find this year's star on the giving tree. But what did I find on the first star I read? A little Christmas wish list for an elderly woman that could have been my grandmother's list pretty much every single year. My eyes filled with tears and I swallowed a lump of emotion in my throat as I plucked the star from the tree. I get to shop for my Grandma.

When I read that Christmas list and kept thinking, "she would have loved that," with each item, I realized something I hope I won't forget. Remembering our loved ones gone from this world is a special thing but loving on others with the very love your heart has marked for the ones you lost is immeasurably greater.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Because the Saints Said So: These Days (St. Gianna)

This is me pretending to be ok with the fact that I need a winter coat and hat again. And I need to leave the house even earlier to defrost my car. And my hands and feet will essentially be cold for the next four months (just ask my husband).

These days are hard for me in the motivation department. The uncomfortable temperatures, icy winds, and especially the sparse daylight hours take their toll and I tend toward hibernation instead of productivity. I'd wager I'm not the only one dealing with this seasonal slump. So what to do, what to do?

I used to think the trick was to focus on the future. Wishing my way through winter, counting on spring to come with all its fresh renewal of spirits and inner drive. What did that leave me with, really? A few months of dissatisfaction. There has to be a better way.

St. Gianna Molla said:
"The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day."

Moment by moment with thanksgiving. If I aspire to happiness in every season (winter, yes, but also any difficult or trying "season" you may experience), I must give thanks not merely for what is promised to come but what is here now. Am I thankful for the whipping cold wind? No. But I'm thankful for the sunshine on my skin. Am I thankful for having to wear layers and layers to be tolerably warm? No. But I'm thankful I have those layers to do so. Am I thankful for the darkness descending by the time I leave my office each day to drive home? No. But I am thankful for the brightness of the hugs I receive from my little ones when I walk in the door. Plus I guarantee those evenings make me more thankful for the light of dawn each morning.

What about this moment right now? Right now. Stop and be thankful. Pause to choose something worthy of your gratitude in this exact moment and consciously offer thanks to God. I'll do it with you.

...

And now I'm a little bit happier with my day than before.

The side effect of all this gratitude isn't only happiness. It's that internal motivation to persevere in whatever tasks, projects, or endeavors you are tempted to neglect in this season. For me it is writing projects and being diligent about cooking worthwhile meals for the family. When we see the good in each day, in each moment even, how much greater the impetus to treat the day as deserving of your best.

The lovely hope of spring is still a fine reality to contemplate, but if I count on it to make me my best self in this season of my life I am likely to be disappointed. The gifts of today are reason enough to invest myself in living.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Chasing It Down

This is the first bit of writing I've done in three days. By last night I began to feel the desperate, urgent need in my gut. I cannot go without it. It took 25 years to fully realize my passion. That's when I began the first draft of my first novel. When other (beautiful) things interrupted the pursuit, it took a handful of years before I rediscovered that same passion and dove back in. Now here I am, 35 years old, a few steps away from publishing that debut novel, and craving a taste of my passion whenever I set it aside for more than a day.

If you understand what I mean, you know there are two choices available: label the required effort a burden and gradually let it slip from your grasp, or chase it down with the fervor of a lover desperate not to lose his beloved.

I came across this image from success.com. Oh, how I laughed at the memory into which it plunged my mind. How applicable that memory happened to be for this train of thought. (Train! You'll see why that's funny in a moment.)

Maybe ten years ago, I traveled to Philadelphia with my sister and a good friend. We took the train to New York City for a day of living it up, tourist style. Sights were seen, miles were walked, photos were taken. It was grand fun apart from mildly injuring my foot in the early afternoon and continuing to walk on it for hours afterward. At the end of the day, really it was well into the evening, we tried to squeeze in one more must-see spot before navigating our way back to the train. To summarize, we at some point realized we had misread the train schedule and needed to haul our tired asses dozens of blocks across the dark, noisy, unfamiliar city to catch our connecting train or we would miss the last possible train into Philadelphia. So, haul ass we did. None of us were in great shape. None of us were runners. All three of us were already exhausted, all of us were doubtful we knew the way to the correct train station, and one of us had a terribly sore foot. Still, we ran. We ran through busy intersections and crowded sidewalks. We ran around street corners, glancing backward and forward to see if we were still a trio. We ran through the train station, our unrelenting pace echoing off the walls. We chased down that train like our lives depended on it.

There was no question of giving up. No contemplation of whether or not we should bother. We knew what we had to do and we did it. When we reached the summit of the steps exiting the station in Philadelphia and pointed ourselves toward our hotel, we laughed again and again over the adventure of it all.

I hope I can legitimately compare my pursuit of my passion (writing) with our pursuit of that train. I hope I pursue it like a cash poor, Midwestern girl who really, really wants to sleep in her hotel bed rather than wandering the dark and scary streets of NYC until dawn. I hope I never let up, never decide it is too much. I hope I come out the other side and laugh over the incomparable adventure of it all.

Lastly, I hope you find your passion worth chasing down. If you already found it, run hard, my friend. Run hard.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Doing the Hard Things

Ever have those days when God drops His subtle tendencies and instead places what you need smack dab in front of your face so you won't miss it? Today was one of those days. A Facebook friend shared this photo today and I broke down crying.
There's progress being made toward publishing Full of Days, my debut novel. Steps on this mountain climb of a dream coming true. Writing the first draft nine years ago was hard. Revisions ever since have been hard. Setting it aside when it was not top priority for a few years was hard. Rededicating myself to it this year with a level of commitment I had not employed since writing the first draft has been hard. 

It's all been hard and I have done it all. I have done it and every single bit has been worth it. That's what I keep reminding myself as I acknowledge the intimidation I feel right now. There's something no one ever told me about drawing close to fulfilling the dearest dream of your heart: it can be scary. Not pursuing the dream or giving up on it when you hit the inevitable bumps, those things are scary in their own crushing way. This is a different sort of scary. It's not crushing. It's not terrifying. It is simply intimidating. 

The repeated question running through my head is, "what will I do if this falls apart because I can't do it?" Sometimes the gist of that question is self-doubt, wondering if I am capable. Other times it is a panicked query of myself, at a loss for how I would handle this dream coming to an end so I'd better do everything possible to not let that happen.

I can do the hard things. As I've been doing and will continue to do until this novel is in the hands of every possible person willing to read it, I will do the hard things.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Say It

I love when my pair of crazies sleep at the same time. Today I used the first half hour of the nap productively: clearing things from lunch, folding laundry, and putting clean dishes away. Then it was time for Mamma to sit down. I flipped on Gilmore Girls and opened up Pinterest. My feet up and a pillow under my head, I was ready to relax for however long my children would allow.

A few thumb scrolls down the screen, I pinned a writing tip that looked useful: "100 Ways to Say 'Great.'" One of many similar resources I've found to help a writer avoid using an overused, mediocre word. I scrolled on, perusing recipes and fashion ideas, but the title of that pin kept returning to my mind.

100 ways to say "great." Admirable. Impressive. Spectacular. Lovely. Engaging. Miraculous. With this many superb (another on the list) words available to us, why is it so difficult to tell someone they are great?

We need to say it more. We need to hear it more. We need to stop keeping it to ourselves. When someone makes you laugh or smile extra wide, or someone offers a hug when you need that human touch. The favor-doer, the kind word speaker, the generous server. They all deserve to hear it.

It takes courage to do it. There is a vulnerability in saying kind things but I can't really explain why. This makes me think it is mainly rooted in our fragile pride, which in turn makes me think it is all the more worthwhile to overcome.

So pick your word. Look up the list on Pinterest or dig out that old Thesaurus and find your word. Then, say it. Say it often and say it genuinely to anyone who is great in your life.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Hell of a Way to Die

Writing Prompt: It was a hell of a way to die.
Writing Time: 30 minutes (Longer than usual! We'll see where this takes us.)

Canoe. River. Rocks. Cougars.

It was a hell of a way to die. At least it would make an interesting story. I curled myself deeper into the crevice of the cliff and imagined the teenagers that would hike out here a year from now.

"This is where that girl got mauled by a pair of cougars."

"Yeah, they found her canoe half a mile down the river, all torn up."

They'd stand on the ledge eight feet above where I crouched now, enjoying the horror of it all.

I normally turn around before reaching this section of the river. Today, I wanted to keep going. It's those damn leaves and the way Autumn makes me feel. Oranges, reds, yellows, and those stalwart evergreens living up to their name; I simply had to paddle farther.

A regrettable whim.

When I hit the rocks, the wood of the canoe split beside my left foot. Split is a gentler word than what really happened. Those rocks were not the rounded boulders smoothed by the current that I have encountered before. They were dagger sharp offshoots of the cliff, typically not immersed but the river is high this week.

The water invading the canoe took away any control I still had, tossing the boat into the next set of rocks then flipping me out of my seat. My forearm was sliced by an edge of one rock but my real concern was the undercurrent. A river this high, I knew that undercurrent was stronger than any resistance I'd be able to muster after more than a few minutes of struggle. I wrapped myself around one of those blades of stone like my dearest possession rather than the source of my demise.

From there it was a slippery, bruising scramble toward the cliff. I found enough footholds to reach this crevice, a cave of sorts, and rested. The sun can't reach me here; the brisk October chill, so lovely as I paddled, had me shaking as I watched the rivulets of water running from my boots and clothing over the side of the cliff. My arm was throbbing but not bleeding much.

When I thought I could manage it, I set my mind on making it to the top of the cliff. It was mid morning; at least eight hours til sunset so light wasn't a worry. Surely I'd find my way to a road or a house before then. All I had to do was make it up there and start moving. Move to keep warm. Move to find my way out.

I stuck my head out from under the ledge. Eight feet or so; doable. The stone face was dry up here, which was helpful. I felt around for a place to grip, pulled my body out of the cave, and gritted my teeth as I used my injured arm to continue the movement. One step at a time, carefully, determinedly, I ascended to the top. Such relief when one hand then the other landed on dry grass and cold dirt! Every muscle in my upper body strained to lift. When my face was met with open air instead of the gray striations of stone, I exhaled in a giddy shout.

That's when I saw the cougars.

They both were crouched, chests to the ground, wide jaws suspended above the grass. One was still, glaring, eyes locked on mine. The other was moving toward me by inches at a time. My shout became a split second scream then silent. I could hear them breathing that throaty purr of big cats. I climbed back down to my cave.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't Stop Being That Girl

There was a girl dancing in her driveway on my way to work this morning. Backpack on the ground; jeans and sneakers, pink hooded sweatshirt and brown hair in a swinging ponytail. She didn't care that a stranger was.driving by. As I passed, she glanced my way without missing a step. It looked like a particular dance routine, something she'd been practicing.

As she disappeared from my rear view, still dancing the length of her driveway, I flashed back to years ago when I was probably about her age. My sister and I were briefly obsessed with the Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman soundtracks. We made up a dance routine for one of the tracks; I can't for the life of me remember which one. It might have been just the two of us or it might have been with our two best friends. Exactly the sort of scheme the four of us would have undertaken with solemn, sleepover dedication.

I wanted to turn around and hurry back. I wanted to jump out of the car and shout, "Don't stop being that girl!" Don't stop being the girl who doesn't care that a stranger sees her dancing. That girl who imagines, creates, and does what she sets her mind to do. The one who laughs at her mistakes then sets her mind on succeeding the next time around. Don't stop being that girl who smiles like she has a sweet secret and dances like no one's watching because she doesn't care if anyone is watching.

"Don't stop being that girl," I whispered to myself and kept driving.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Almost

You know that tremendous weight of something being nearly finished but not quite? It is not a burden, this weight. It is thick with anticipation and heavy with significance. The matter paces the circuit of your brain, refusing to step off your mental homestead even while you focus elsewhere. It is always there, always present in the shadows, biding its time. It waits for that break in the day when you'll pull it back into the light. It looks forward to those end of the evening hours when, despite the tiredness, you can't bring yourself to be so cruel as to make it wait until tomorrow. It knows you'll come for it if it simply holds its ground.

The book proposals are almost finished.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Because the Saints Said So: If a Little Flower Could Speak (St. Therese)

Tonight I burnt my thumb. It hurts like the dickens. Every time I take it out of the cup of ice water it makes me want to cry. So, we're going to keep this brief.

Saturday was the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, nicknamed the Little Flower. She's one of my favorite ladies. Therese is an incredible combination of strength and sweetness, of wisdom and youthfulness, and of humility and beauty. If there is one single spiritual work I could recommend due to how it affected me it is Fr. Jean d'Elbee's "I Believe in Love," which is a retreat in book form based on the spirituality of St. Therese.

As we do in this series on the blog, we will focus on a single quote from today's saint of choice:
"If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case."
We are the little flowers, dear reader. Creations of beauty. That's us. Crafted by God and adorned by His gifts. Stop pretending you're not. Don't shake your head or scoff at my words. We are the little flowers and we can speak! Acting as if we are less than what God created us to be, thinking less of ourselves, leading others to think less of us: none of this gives God glory.

Recognize the good, realize its divine source, and proclaim it by your life. We are always proclaiming something, by our words, obviously, but also by basically every other aspect of daily living. Be a conscious, deliberate proclaimer.

Speak well, little flower.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Week I Took Over the Internet

I type this tucked into a high back lounge chair. My feet are up on a leather ottoman, laptop on my legs. The room is wonderfully quiet as most of the 200 conference attendees dutifully returned to the conference center for tonight's keynote address. I, on the other hand, lingered here.

One of the pieces of advice offered at newbie orientation today was to step away when you needed a break from the group sessions. If you feel a compelling need to sit or walk alone, mulling over what you heard, or praying, or writing, do it. That's where I found myself after the last presentation before dinner. My head is full of the information and advice from the experts I've listened to this afternoon. It is both thrilling and overwhelming. My internal reaction is approximately 71% energized and motivated to move forward, 22% discouragement that my manuscript will never ever be as good as necessary to find a publisher, and 7% desperate need to simply write without worrying about where the words will or won't take me.

I've only been here six hours and already there has been an immeasurable amount to learn. I have briefly met publishers and editors and agents. I have shared conversations with other writers, full of dreams and drive. I have both questioned whether my goals are foolish, and reaffirmed that I cannot fathom life without writing. What a day.

This past week (and many other days in the last few months) was filled with focused preparation for this conference: one sheet, sample chapters, amateur headshot photo (thank you, honey), book proposal, researching the publishers and agents I'd have the opportunity to meet, and so on. If I'm being honest, it was all stressful. It's been a while since anything has brought me that level of anxiety. I was suddenly tackling the nitty gritty of this endeavor and I grew scared.

Have you pursued a dream? Not merely imagined pursuing it but really, seriously pursued it. If so, you know what I mean. The closer you get to that dream being fulfilled, the more frightening the possibility that it will stay out of reach. There are no guarantees and that can be terrifying.

One piece of the preparation was setting up author pages on Facebook and Twitter. I'll say it right now, self-promotion is uncomfortable! Even sharing the links on Facebook for my blog posts leaves me a bit embarrassed. It works though, so I do it. These online platforms are among the most useful for promoting your writing and making yourself available for discovery by potential readers. Publishers and agents are keen to know how you'll help promote your work and having these already established can help your pitch.

Attempting to take over the internet this week (yeah, I now have a Twitter page, a personal Facebook page, an author Facebook page, and this blog), was exactly what I needed to prepare for this conference precisely because of how it made me feel. It was the perfect amount of sacrificing my comfort level for the sake of the goal to set me up to do more of the same now that I'm here. It helped me believe a little more that I can manage to network with strangers, that I can speak boldly about my unpublished manuscript to editors and agents, and that I will never stop writing, whatever might come.

Oh, and if you haven't yet, you can follow me on Twitter @carrieinwriting and keep up with me at facebook.com/carrieinwriting. I'll try to make it an enjoyable experience.