New Year’s, Zombies, Lamentations

I set out today to write about New Year’s Day and the blank wall it seems to offer each year. I sat and stared at that blank wall, thinking, “Well, there’s that then. Time to get on with the big bright shiny blank new year.”

It’s not really blank, you know. There are variations in the paint, chips here and there, maybe a faded handprint, if I look real close. I might spend too much time looking at it real close, finding the variations, finding the handprint. I forget, in those times of looking close, that the wall isn’t the thing. I stare at that blank wall for a long time, thinking about how to fill it, thinking about what to hang, how to paint, putting in a window or a fireplace. How hard would it be? How expensive? How long will it take? How messy?

When I look into the start of the new year, sometimes it’s a blank wall I see. Other times it is a dark and deep hole in the ground. How deep is that? I wonder to myself. I drop some coins into it. I listen for the plink into water or thud into the dirt, at the bottom. It does not always come. I peer into the dark a long time, waiting for my eyes to adjust, making out anything possible, anything moving, anything bearing just a little light.

I woke up today cranky, and it was not because I stayed up too late, or at least, I do not think that’s the reason. I moved through my familiar shuffle to the coffee pot. I greeted the now fully-waked children, who were already deep into the new box of cereal. I poured out a little prayer as the coffee dripped into my cup. Morning always seems promising. The first coffee bolsters that promise. The “New Year” catches me in a current, and I am riding it– so far, so good. But it doesn’t last, and my cranky mood takes over. What is it? I think to myself.

I know what it is. I remember it now as I sit to examine the sharp tone of my reprimands, the exasperation when I see the stack of dishes in the sink already, the tightness in my chest when, despite my best intentions, I find myself comparing my “New Year’s Eve” to the pictures I see on the computer, my last year to everyone else’s last year. It’s a new year. Why am I still so far from the goal?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
-Lamentations 3:22-23

After the second cup of coffee, a closing of the social media windows and maybe one more round of “why” I make a slow descent into prayer. I don’t want to go. I’d rather stare at that blank wall. I’d rather stare into the deep well in the ground. It’s astounding how fruitful that promise of the blank wall or the deep dark hole in the ground seems and yet, we both know Henri Nouwen is right when he tells us about the descent into the heart through prayer, don’t we?

“To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seing, within you.”
— Henri Nouwen The Way of the Heart

The start of the calendar New Year is a trap for me. It sets up a false expectation that change came in the night while the fireworks went off while the clock hands moved past midnight while my children slept soundly in their beds. Resolutions are made whether I meant to make them or not. Force of habit. Promises, not kept from last year, resurrect like zombies rising, arms outstretched and groaning. Remember me? They say, with voices that are eerily familiar from years of repetition. But it’s a trap. The idea that I woke to a blank wall or a deep well that formed while I slept and that the world somehow “reset” is flawed, at best. I just don’t buy it. I cannot buy it. It’s too expensive a cost because it is such a large purchase every year.

But the descent into the heart– not a deep staring into the dark once a year, but a daily, “new every morning” kind of looking, that’s an investment worth making, no matter what day of the year it is. The blank wall will be there, but great is His faithfulness. The deep dark holes in the floor will open up, but great is His faithfulness. The turning of time on the calendar will continue, along with the many and varied ways I can showcase my failings, but great is His faithfulness. Great is His faithfulness.

On Living and Dying and Making a Difference

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“I think I’m dying,” I said, and I coughed weakly. My children gathered around me, stroking my head and handing me small squares of toilet paper instead of Kleenex. My oldest got me a glass of water as I propped myself on some pillows. I tried to watch another season of Hell’s Kitchen but it made me hungry and being hungry made me feel nauseated. This sickness is not consumption, though that would be a far more literary way to write about my sick bed. This sickness is just a nasty head cold, a head cold I developed because my children are in grade school, and I just cannot help but hug and kiss them even when they are sick, which is always, because they are in grade school.

All that day I camped out in bed, and I read the stack of magazines I keep on my nightstand. I collect literary journals like some kids collect bottle caps. I line them up on the shelf under my nightstand. I stack them under the bed. I pile them on the coffee table. When the magazines arrive I read them while sitting on the couch, feet up, absent to everything else. On this day, I am reading Ruminate Magazine, one of my favorite journals. It is one of my favorites because of the beautiful work inside, the feel of the thick paper between my fingers, the splash of color of the artwork every few pages.

I might never have subscribed to Ruminate had I not met the editor, Brianna Vandyke at a writer’s conference in Michigan many years ago. I met her while walking through the “vendor” room. She was positioned behind the Ruminate table, smiling. I browsed the sample magazines on the table. They were a young outfit back then, just getting started. I had heard of them through a few other writers, and I had submitted to one of their writing contests. When Brianna saw my nametag, she said, “I know your name! I’ve been wanting to meet you!” and then she came out from behind the table and hugged me. At that point in my writing career, no one knew my name. I had no publishing credits to speak of and in fact, I was still unsure of whether I could truly say out loud that I was a writer.

I subscribed that day. And it was in that generous greeting, that moment of recognition and that small, well-loved journal that I began to form some solid understanding of what it means to create something beautiful. It’s something I still value to this day. Truly, I’m grateful for the work of Ruminate.

Because you might never have come across Ruminate before this post, I’d like to tell you that you also might never realize that they are in a funding crisis. Years of working on this magazine for no monetary compensation have taken its toll on the creators, and they are faced with closing their doors. This post is just to say that it will most likely not cut into your Hell’s Kitchen viewing. It will not keep you from your important engagements. If you have not heard about the magazine, the closing of Ruminate will not affect your daily living so far as you know.

What you don’t know is that the effect of this magazine on creative and talented folks is immense. Letting this magazine fall into the waters and not surface again is a loss that is felt at the deepest levels by people who read and imbibe the words there like vitamins, like minerals, like meat. These words sustain us, they bolster us, they fuel us well and whether you realize it or not, the loss makes us all weaker. The loss of good creative work, deep and beautiful work, wears on our communal immune system. We need Ruminate Magazine because we’re weary and worn down and words matter, art matters.

Will you help? You have a couple of days yet to lend a hand to help pull this powerful force from the water. Subscribe today, give a subscription or just toss some coin in this direction instead of a couple of pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks. Be a part of something foundational and good where art is concerned. Your small contribution makes a difference, I promise.

And listen, if you’ve never subscribed to a literary journal before, consider this your opportunity. Even Gordon Ramsey would agree that work like this needs your support.

Let’s do this thing.

 

Nobody cares about your blog

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There have been days, quite a lot of them actually, when I really wanted to buy this tee shirt. And on some of those days, once purchased, I think I’d actually have worn the tee shirt in public.

For a long time (in internet years) “blogging” has been the thing. Everyone’s doing it. But when I started this blog, back in the good ole days of the internet, the concept was new. We were all maybe a little paranoid while putting out all this personal and revelational material into the great vacuum of cyber land, even adopting a pseudonym (see: mrsmetaphor) to protect our identity. It felt as though I was shouting into the chasm. Nowadays it’s more like shouting into the storm of people shouting. Everyone has a blog. So what?

Many of my long time blogging compadres have left their cyber houses untended, letting weeds reclaim the yard and vines grow over the entrance. We can peer in the windows and see the layers of dust on the floors and shelves, white sheets draped over the furniture. I think back about the hey day of blogging, lo those many (internet) years ago and sometimes I sigh with wonder and appreciation. Those were the days.

Then the idea of monetizing came and the idea of viral posts and blogging for book deals and high profiles and millions of readers. It’s interesting to see how things shift over time. I was never much for monetizing or viral posts. I just write what I feel like writing and put it out there, no longer shouting into the storm but more likely whispering. That’s okay by me.

I have to admit that I don’t read a great number of blogs anymore. I just don’t have the time or energy. The information overload on the internet is too much and too often so now I subscribe to the writers I like and have it delivered easy-like to my email in box. I unwrap those entries at my leisure and savor them in my own time.

All that said, as recently as a few months ago I encouraged someone to start a blog. Even with all the saturation and monetization and the “nobody cares about your blog” feelings, I will sometimes still offer a big thumbs up when someone asks my opinion on it. In no particular order, here are the things that sway me on that front-

5 Reasons to start a blog (even in the modern soggy internet market):

  1. You love to write and you have something to say
    So let’s say you find yourself with a little time on your hands, a working computer and something to say but no place to publish or no interest in pursuing publishing as a career.
    Go for it.
    It’s a great way to start a writing discipline and begin to see words on a page. Just be warned that whatever you put out there is out there. I like to tell people that the internet has a long memory and a short attention span. Even if you remove a blog post or shut down a blog those words might live forever someplace else- someone’s hard drive, cached pages, etc. Don’t write anything you hope no one sees. That’s just asking for trouble.
  2. You have something to sell
    I hate that I just wrote that but nevertheless, it’s true. If you sell something like jewelry or essential oils or fitness practices (wink wink) then it’s probably a decent idea to have a blog connected to your website. Products are lifeless and cold, writing about what you sell or how it affects your life or even how much you love donuts or Disney movies helps to make you a real person, weirdly enough, and that will lend your product some edge in an overcrowded online market.
  3. You are an amazing writer
    It’s true that I know amazing writers who won’t go anywhere near the “blogosphere” (mainly because there are non words like blogosphere that describe it.) But if you are an amazing writer and are not published anywhere but want to have your work out there, go for it. It’s a good way to begin to build some presence online and perhaps even begin to build a readership for your work. My limited experience is that people who are amazing writers get blog traffic when what they write about fills a niche no one else is reaching OR fills a niche no one reaches with amazing writing. Let that roll around on your tongue for a while.I’ll give a caveat here though because I know from experience that if you are an amazing writer and have something to say, see #2 and heed that advice as well. If you “publish” a great essay on your blog but think you’d like to send it to a lit mag or online journal you may find they won’t touch it. The thinking on this has been shifting a little bit but for the most part the most respected journals won’t publish it even if it’s “just” on your blog. Take care with your work. Blog about “blog” things, keep ’em short and chewable and lovely but don’t stop there. Use it as a springboard to write longer and more interesting things to submit when you’re ready.
  4. You’re quirky
    For this one I’d say you also should be an amazing writer but that’s because I get tired of people trying too hard to be quirky at the expense of the writing. Unless you’re selling something or are already known it’s really hard to get your work noticed. People need a reason to visit or subscribe to your blog, they’re busy and distracted and impatient. If you’re quirky they’ll come back or trek along for the ride. If you’re not sure if you’re quirky ask your friends. They’ll tell you. Most likely that’s why they hang out with you.
  5. You’re already published
    Here’s the thing, most of my favorite published authors don’t blog and I respect that. There’s this little nagging thing in me though and I don’t think it’s only me. I want more. I want to know more, I want to understand more, I want to know what that author thinks about Ferguson or the deficit or the cost of higher education. Sometimes you can get that by following them on Facebook and, in fact, Anne Lamott does her own version of this on that site. She’ll post long status updates (blog length, I’d say!) and those serve the purpose. But if you’re not Anne Lamott and you’re published and people love your work and want more it may be worthwhile to start a blog. You can do it on an author Facebook page if that’s your bag but it may be a good idea to set up shop on an actual blog and just save Facebook for cat memes. That’s your call. In any case you want your work to be available and sharable. That’s the key.

I hate that this now feels like one of those “ask the expert” posts. Sorry about that. I’m no expert. I just have feelings, a whole lot of feelings…and I have a computer and some time on my hands. Maybe nobody cares about my blog or your blog these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

Good luck all my blogging people…make beautiful posts!

Advice for Voters…the basics

In many places in the U.S. early voting is open. You might be saying to yourself, “Well, heck…what’s the point of voting?”

and to that I say, “The point is that you’re a citizen and you ought to get involved here, Bucko.”

and then maybe you might say, “Hey, all those politicians are the same!”

so I’d respond, “Maybe that’s true but it’s also possible it isn’t.”

and you’d most likely counter with the old “Yeah but my vote doesn’t count.”

to which I’d shout, “Bullshit. That’s what they want you to think.”

and if you asked me “Who wants me to think that?”

I admit I’ll have to shoot back, “I have no idea but I still think it’s bullshit.”

Listen people, your vote does count. What you have to say does matter and in this wide internet driven information overload society you actually have the means to make really well informed decisions. Look up the people who are running for office. Look up the issues on your ballot. You can be away from Facebook for a few minutes, I promise no one is going to post the next cat video that will blow your mind while you’re away and even if they do, you’ll most likely see it show up again and again and again anyway.

And then do the next bit, get out there and vote. When we find ourselves ranking 138th out of 172 nations on voter turnout as compared to registered voters we have to ask ourselves exactly what sort of republic we’re rockin’ here, right?

Get out there. Let’s do this thing.

Silences

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“There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.”
Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Why I hate Bob Dylan…

Don’t get mad. 

Hear me out, because once in a while I have an inclination to write something that might be considered controversial, something that might make people angry or insulted. I don’t do it to stir up trouble. It’s just that this it the internet; a magical place where everyone has an opinion, a street corner, a soap box and a megaphone. So, there’s that but no matter how I try I just cannot contain myself anymore where Bob Dylan is concerned. That was misleading. I don’t actually hate Bob Dylan. I have no reason to hate Bob Dylan. I’m sure he’s a really nice guy. Historically, I just have not cared much for his music.

I have this friend I like an awful lot who hates does not care for Rufus Wainwright and she’s quick to rib me teasingly whenever I express my profound love appreciation of him. I can see her point about Mr Wainwright, though I guess it just doesn’t bother me that much. I’m willing to overlook her perception of his lack of musical prowess because, well, I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it was the moment I heard Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. Maybe I heard it at the right moment, in my car after a hard day or in a restaurant while lunching with a good friend. Maybe it was the chord progressions. Maybe it was the piano work. Maybe it was all of these things working together for the good. 

It stands to reason that all of these things might contribute to why I have always taken my friend’s view where Bob Dylan is concerned. I’m a child of the 70’s, living my teen years deep into the 80’s, fueled by a different flavor of rock and roll and rebellion. People have told me that Bob Dylan is the father of the music that fueled me growing up. They have impressed upon me the need to respect the roots, to learn an appreciation of the rock and roll family tree. But I turned that thought away, instead digging in with my distaste, voicing my disbelief that anyone would like Bob Dylan, rolling my eyes like any good overgrown teenager might. 

And then last week something interesting happened…or perhaps, it didn’t. Perhaps it was nothing outward that happened but something shifted, almost imperceptible and yet it stuck to me.

Dave and I were sitting on the deck that evening. His iTunes playlist jumped from track to track, randomly moving from Van Morrison to Tedeschi Trucks to some obscure polka/yodeling song (true story) when Bob Dylan surfaced. For whatever reason- the moment, the mood, the weather, the wine – he got me.

The song was Jokerman, a song and an album that Bob Dylan reportedly did not like all that much. The song itself is catchy, the chord progressions lovely, flowing and wide. It’s probably the first time I could listen to his voice without feeling as though someone was rubbing sandpaper on the back of my arms, so I listened, maybe for the first time. It’s not without irony that the first song I actually dug from Bob Dylan was one he didn’t end up liking. It’s also striking to me that the first song I dug was said to be about Jesus, a false messiah or Ronald Reagan. 

Who knows what the song is really about or if it was the scent of Mark Knopfler’s production that eased me in or if it was the weather or the wine or time passing. But I’m in. Now I’m in. I don’t hate you afterall, Bob Dylan. I guess never really did. 

 

Stay.

Well, that’s over now. We can all resume our regular programming. It’s been a week since Robin Williams died. The words and pictures and tributes are only trickling into the newsfeed. Maybe we’ll see an uptick from time to time as new information comes forth, as new insights are gleaned but for the most part we are cycling around again, coming back into our normal way of operating. Maybe we’ll think of him from time to time, when the quotes and memes resurface, when his films show up on television, when awards ceremonies air their tributes to those we’ve lost this year. But for most of us, those of us who did not know him personally, our regular lives just pick up right where we left them. It’s the way of things.

For those who did know him personally the loss is palpable, I imagine. The loss is daily and will continue to be felt in the day to day, perhaps even in the moment to moment. Haven’t we all lost someone at one point or another? Don’t we all know that ache? That empty? That unanswered question?

Robin Williams suicide raised important issues, awareness issues in its wake. Depression, mental illness, visibility, treatment. Between the posts of movie lines and funny tidbits and grief there were calls to action, to listen better, to pick up the phone when feeling as though all is lost. Despair has depths unplumbed to most of us, I’d wager.

I’d always thought that if someone wants to end their life there’s probably little any of us could do about it. We can see the signs, we can treat the signs, we can listen better, we can call and keep tabs and remind about medication or therapy appointments but it’s not a cure for what ails. In the end it feels to me that those people who choose suicide do so because they see no other options or perhaps if they do see options they seem untenable, temporary, too painful to attempt. Nothing will help, this is the course of action.

But what do I know? Nothing. I don’t know because I have not been there, I have not studied it, I have not survived the loss of a close friend or relative to suicide. I know nothing and of course that makes it so easy to judge. From where I sit, it’s a simple task to unpack all of the anger and regret, grief and despair. I can just pick up my life where I left off, resume my regular programming, unaffected.

Except that I don’t feel unaffected now. I feel some deep dark pressing in from the outside, the “there must be something we can do or could have done or should have done” thought. And it’s there because we don’t want to be absent anything. Loss is terrible and difficult, death seems so final to those of us who stay behind. Perhaps it’s true that there is nothing we could say or do or be that would entice someone so deep in despair that they’d consider and choose to end their own life and yet I’m compelled to try. I’m compelled to encourage all of us to keep talking and trying and exploring and listening well to those around us who struggle

And I’m compelled to put out this small plea to the struggling community at large, to all of us, to any of us but especially to those people who feel there is no other way than to leave the land of the living –

Stay. Please stay.

 

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The finer points of Kryptonite

I’ve been thinking about Superman.

After my first cup of coffee I made the bed. I felt good. I felt powerful. “Coffee is my Superman cape,” I thought to myself. Then I corrected that because Superman isn’t strong because of his cape. He’s strong because he’s an alien living on Earth. As I understand it (and please forgive me, comics fans, if I got it wrong) Superman is super strong here because of the particular mix of atmosphere here on planet Earth. Back on Krypton he’s just an average Joe.

Nobody flies or lifts cars off of people on Krypton.

So after scratching my superman cape/coffee connection whilst making the bed I thought, “maybe instead it’s that mornings are my kryptonite.” But that’s not quite right either. I mean, I’m groggy in the morning but certainly mornings won’t kill me, no matter what my hyperbolic Facebook statuses might say.

And of course that got me to thinking all kinds of interesting things about Kryptonite and Superman and coffee addictions and making the bed.

Kryptonite is home. It’s that little bit of home that affects Superman so badly. The thing about Kryptonite that  I remembered this morning is that it doesn’t kill Superman, at least I don’t think it does. It just makes him weak, but weak like the rest of us. It brings him back to average Joe status and I suppose it looks so painful because after being super strong and able to fly all that time, being reduced to just being average would feel pretty painful to anyone.

That piece of home makes Superman vulnerable.

And that revelation got me to thinking about my own home, my own history, my own story because that’s what I do. I think about the connections like that and then I write it down here. Home is our Kryptonite, it’s everyone’s Kryptonite. Home and the reminders of home make us vulnerable, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in not so good ways but it exposes us to ourselves, to our past, to our loved ones.

Home is our Kryptonite.

Home makes us human.

And the truth is, it can be painful or humbling to be reminded that we’re human after all.

Good Letters: Jars of Clay

I’ve got a post up today on Good Letters, the fine blog offered by that Image Journal magazine I like so much. If you’ve got a moment take time to check it out. In light of the heat the band (and front man, Dan Haseltine in particular) took a few weeks ago over a Twitter discussion on marriage equality I just wanted to check in with my friend, Stephen Mason. He delivers some lovely words and sage thinking. Hope you’ll give it a read! 20130614-jarsofclay-600x-1371228007-300x240

the problem with parenting…

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You might remember my feelings about “Mother’s Day.” If not, you can see my rants here

This year as we approach that day in the U.S, I’m struggling a little with that whole parenting thing. I know, what else is new?

In particular, I wonder how hard it will be to break the habit of saying “be careful” to my children whenever they get out of the passenger side of the car. I mean, I imagine that sometime, and perhaps soon, they’ll have internalized this concept. I say “be careful” to them all day long; when we’re taking walks, when they’re using scissors, when they’re making scrambled eggs. I caught myself saying it to my youngest son as he was coming down the stairs the other day, not running, not hopping, walking down the stairs. Force of habit.

It got me thinking about how useless those two words have become. Or maybe it isn’t that they are useless, maybe they are just code for something I am really thinking but afraid to say out loud. I’m slowly realizing that pretty much every time I say “be careful” to my kids (and for that matter, to my husband when he’s driving) what I am really saying is “I don’t trust you.”

I don’t trust that you’ll be safe.

I don’t trust that you’ll be able to take care of yourself.

I don’t trust that you won’t rear end that car ahead of us.

Sad but true.

The latest trend in parenting right now isn’t so much “helicopter” parenting anymore. Now, it’s what I’m hearing termed “lawnmower” parenting. These parents try to clear the path for the kids, wrapping everything in bubble wrap, sanitizing the area, sometimes literally. I like to make fun of parenting trends as much as anybody but hearing about this new trend gave me pause. As it was laid out for me, the realization dawned on me that as much as I try to get my kids to think critically, to solve their own problems, to make their own scrambled eggs, I do this. I smooth the road, I wrap the bubble wrap, I send the emails about the potential internship and the low grade gotten on a test. What I’m saying when I do this is once again, “I don’t trust you…”

So between my realization of the translation of “be careful” and the image of me smoothing the road ahead I found myself in a full on panic this week. Add to this the ill timing of my reading this story in the Atlantic about  a playground (that is actually a junk yard) in the UK and I had to admit that I would be a freaking basket case if my boys were playing in there. I mean, I WANT to be hip and cool and allow them to live out their kid-hood with some boldness and excitement but…you know…I also don’t want them to come home with lockjaw.

Reality is hard…bubble wrap is easy.

Now, I don’t tell you all this so that you’ll leave a comment assuring me that I’m a pretty good mother (obviously I won’t delete those comments if you feel so inclined.) I’m just laying it out there. I think too often I labor under the delusion that parenting is just easier for pretty much everyone but me. I think that my neighbor is doing it better, that her kids are turning out better, that her kids can get out of the passenger side of the car without tripping on the sidewalk and falling on the ground.

This is the problem with parenting…and it helps me to just put it out there sometimes, a voice shouting into the storm like Lieutenant Dan raging on that little shrimp boat in the hurricane.

In any case, this is where I’m at this week as I ponder the upcoming fake holiday celebration of Mother’s Day and I do the yearly internal assessment of my parenting skillz. Not to mention that all this is coming together as we reach the end of the school year. There will be playing outside and riding the bikes in the neighborhood. There will be stick fights in the backyard. There will be driving tests for my 16-year-old. There will be college visits for my daughter and high school choices for my oldest son. There will be pressure building and heat rising and maybe even a lawnmower leaking fumes in the wake of my parenting.

I think I’m going to need to be more careful.