#bloginstead Day 1: What is interesting so far?

I was up early (child, dog, job), and that first groggy waking moment had a crisp edge of curiousity on it because TODAY is Day 1 of our #bloginstead challenge. I have the WordPress app, so I peeked at the notifications after breakfast. Sure enough – there you were! I saw posts from friends, and friends commenting on posts from friends. I love this!

Relief

Leaping off a social norm is always interesting, and I expect many moments of insight during #bloginstead. The first? It’s striking that the primary expressed emotion among the group is RELIEF. Blogging is slower than Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, and it’s deeper. And at least for now, it’s beautifully free of the death spiral of insanity we see daily online. I know not every blogger is sane, but the group intentionally communing for #bloginstead? All quite sane. Lovely. Articulate. Interesting.

Mechanics

The second thing that struck me was my own awkwardness at getting around to see all of the participating blogs. It’s been a while since I did this, and the participants are on several different platforms. Makes me realize how I’ve adapted to the one-finger scroll on social. That awkward feeling is just the brain stretch of releasing one habit and looking to build another. No problem.

Food for Thoughts

Yes, that was a typo at first – “thoughts” – but then I left it because it fits. Already, just a few hours into #bloginstead, the experience itself and the posts and comments have spurred a host of ideas, questions, introspections, speculations. Perhaps that’s the natural result of any step outside routine. Or it could be that this platform – which was intended to help you WRITE – is naturally more conducive to THOUGHT than the frenetic anxiety scroll in which we usually indulge. It’s too soon to draw conclusions, so I’m planning to enjoy the wondering.

If failure was impossible

UPDATE: Please note that we have 2 new members of our group, and 2 current members with a new address: New members are Amanda at https://emberings.com/ and Susan at https://kindlerofjoy.com/ and Matthew’s new address is http://vespersinvienna.com/index.html and Catherine’s new address is http://eventhinealtars.home.blog .

It’s Day 1 For REAL of #bloginstead, so now I can dream up interesting things to talk about with this friendly group of people who are spending these 3 days communicating with one another ONLY on our blogs.

So ask yourself this: if it was not possible for you to fail at anything, what would you choose to do with your life? What would your career be if you knew going in that every choice you made along the way would be the right choice? What if all your plans would be flawless and smoothly implemented? What would you do if you really could do ANYTHING?

The last day of 2019

This moment has little in common with the year that preceded it. It’s quiet. I have no immediate responsibilities, and I’ve had enough sleep for several days. The writer in me has relaxed into a daydreaming creative. Gratitude and peace are vying for space in my heart.

As always, I reserve this space for reflection on only those aspects of my personal life that directly manifest in my writing life, so I will not be journaling the events of this year. They were many, and more than once, they were life-changing. But I learned from them, and I’m glad of that.

In my writing life, I broke into two new genres! First, board books. It began with Piggy in Heaven, and then I got a contract for a second board book (due out in 2021), and a third is about to be contracted for August 2020. Three board books, three different publishers. Happy dance!

I love board books! I love writing stories that will be illustrated. I don’t think that will ever get old – hooray for illustrators! And I love the solid cardboard pages. I remember that board books are often teething toys, and this makes me smile. Little hands, dimply cheeks, wide eyes. God bless them every one.

My second burst into a new genre is a book I wrote with a group of friends. That in itself is unexplored territory, but the genre – a devotional journal – is also new to me. I’m looking forward with curiosity and wonder to the Fall 2020 release of Seven Holy Women, from Ancient Faith Publishing.

The third Sam and Saucer book took shape this year. I just sent in my revisions. The name of this one is still evolving, but it’s due out in July 2020. It’s interesting, to me at least, to look back to the scratch papers scrawls, the short story, the collection of short stories, the day we abandoned the collection, and the birth of that first book, Shepherding Sam. At first, I thought that was the only book. But the second – The Barn and the Book – came quickly, and its release in Romania was another highlight of 2019. I was sure there would be only two Sam and Saucer books. My editor said she thought there might be three. No, I said, just two. But maybe there are three, she persisted. Well, maybe. Actually, yes. It turns out there are three, and now I have learned not to decide how many books are in a series, because what do I know?

This was the year of audiobooks, too. Shepherding Sam and The Barn and the Book are now both on Audible, and with the gifted help of actress Sophia Boyer, so is Letters to Saint Lydia!

And now. I’ve lived too long with my wild brain and my busy life and my acceptance of the many twists and turns in the Great Plotline to make plans for 2020 in the ways I might have once. I do have hopes. I hope I write often. I hope there will be board books. I hope there will be many spacious hours adrift in the middle-grade novel I began this year. I hope I photograph our corgi doing one of the zillion adorable things he does, all the time, when I can’t reach my phone.

God bless and keep you!

Image: Clock, Grand Central Terminal, New York City, Bryce Barker on Unsplash

Wishful Thinking on Independence Day

Close up of the American Flag

On this 4th of July, I am pondering the complexity of military service and national identity. As with many human conditions, the outward show of military life is a fraction of its meaning. Because they are the “instruments of foreign policy,” service members are held up as symbols of what is most loved and hated by proponents of various ideologies in our country. They live on the receiving end of assumptions that are more often based on emotion than information.

The crux of military service is an existence that would be unnecessary in a perfect world. Armed forces are the painfully tangible proof that human beings do not treat each other as they should. Many would argue that July 4th is not a military holiday. It is the commemoration of our birth as an independent nation. At some level, we all rebel against the idea that this independence is impossible without military force.

Military life teaches you to engage what IS. You won’t last long clinging to what you WISH would be. Military life is predicated on the understanding that you control far less of your reality than a civilian does. But it also reveals the truth that civilians control far less than they wish to. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that evil is both totally unnecessary and extremely powerful. Stand in that space for a few minutes today – the space in which you know that evil could be stopped if enough good choices were made, and in which you also know that actual human beings, many of them, would rather die than make those choices.

 

Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash

Things that Make Me Happy

Last night, I stood in my front yard, looking up. Through the black lace of branches, I saw stars. I traced a constellation, then another. It was a perfect thing – the earth, the tree, the deep midnight blue mystery, and the stars.

All around me are so many things that I love but don’t always notice. They’re like the colors sliding past in a kaleidoscope. Today, I’m taking a moment to focus the lens of my inward eye and see them in detail.

What makes me happy?

The textured plaster swirls on my living-room wall.

Raspberries picked from the prickly bush, still warm from afternoon sun.

The corgi mischief in my dog’s face when he glances back at me over his shoulder.

The touch of book pages on my fingers. Especially the old ones, thick and slightly stiff.

Babies.

Good lettuce. Fresh, crisp, still tasting of the garden.

The clicking sound of rapid typing.

The scent of jasmine tea.

Lilacs in bloom. I will swerve off the sidewalk and sniff the blossoms in a stranger’s yard. I love lilacs.

Shoes that fit well.

Gazing out of windows. Almost any window. House window, classroom window, car window, office window. Windows!

Daydreaming.

Writing the whole story, all the way to the end.

Walled gardens. But it must be a proper garden – full of old-fashioned flowers, old trees, a bench or two, a fountain, winding paths – an a proper wall of moss-grown stones with a path along the top that you may run along to the village, if you choose.

Reading in bed, by lamplight.

My glasses! They are miraculous, I think. Eyes for my eyes.

Baking bread. I love it all – stirring, kneading, and the wonderful warm yeasty aroma of it baking and coming fresh from the hot oven. Crusty joy.

Warm water indoors, and summer rain outdoors. I love rain – the scent of it in the air, the sound of it on the roof, the shimmer, the way it soaks away into the thirsty earth.

Going to wash the dinner dishes when your hands are cold. See above, re: warm water.

Small friendly herbivores, wild or tame. I love little creatures with bright eyes and tiny paws.

Opening the box of author copies and holding my newly published books for the first time. This is an enchantment that will never grow old. Worlds within worlds, coming from imagination into being.

What makes you happy?

 

Photo by Marian May on Unsplash

 

 

 

Writing Around the Ten Commandments

Consider the following plot (a real plot, from a novel I’ve read, but with names changed to prevent a spoiler). Abigail is engaged to Bert, and Christopher is engaged to Danielle. Abigail and Christopher meet at a house party at a country estate, and of course, they fall in love. But because they live in a bygone era, honor takes precedence over emotion. Abigail returns home and marries Bert. Christopher returns home and marries Danielle. Years pass, events conspire. Bert suffers a terminal illness that terminates him. Danielle has the misfortune to be directly under a German bomb.

Drum roll, swelling tide of romantic orchestral music. Abigail and Christopher meet again, and to the great delight of all their friends and relations (who never liked either Bert or Danielle very much), Abigail and Christopher marry.

Is something wrong with this picture? What’s going on here for the reader? What about the writer?

As the reader, I’m being urged to hope for the breakdown of two marriages, and when Bert and Danielle die, I’m encouraged to heave a sigh of relief and cheer on Abigail and Christopher as they move toward their reunion.

As the writer, what would I be doing? The author of this novel happens to be long dead, so there’s no way of knowing what she was thinking as she wrote. But it is fair to state that she arranged her novel in such a way that the eventual marriage of Abigail and Christopher is what every right-thinking character (and reader?) hopes will occur.

One voice in my head says, “Oh, come on already. It’s just a story, and at least they didn’t commit adultery.” But the other voice says, “Isn’t there something faintly adulterous about writing this story? Deliberately killing off the intentionally unappealing spouses so the two attractive people can marry?”

I wonder at what point our fictional acts as writers touch on our real-life morality as human beings. Does it matter if or how the story argues for an ideal?

At what point could a fictional creation become a real-life trespass, a figurative breaking of the commandments? Are the characters and events part or not part of their literary creator? Is there no moral connection between fiction writing and real life?

What do you think?

-Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

The “To Don’t” List

Closeup of cherry blossoms with blue sky behind them

I am a close friend of the “To Do” list. My work space is home to assorted spiral notebooks, paper scraps, and post-its, and it gives me great satisfaction to outline my tasks – all of them, as many as I can think of – and march through them, crossing them off as I complete them. Although I recognize the value of online task managers, and use them professionally, it will never be as much fun to click a check mark on a digital list as it is to carve a check mark into a paper list and then scribble-obliterate the item beside it.

But today, the sun is shining, the house is mine alone, and I am observing a pause in the domestic and creative frenzy that is my daily life. Today, it is time for the “To Don’t” List.

On such a day, my instructions to myself, in no particular order, are as follows.

  1. Don’t wake up in time for anything.
  2. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
  3. Don’t vacuum. Don’t.
  4. Don’t get a jump on Monday. If you must jump, go outside and jump in the grass.
  5. Don’t make telephone calls. Your telephone is also observing a “To Don’t” Day.
  6. Bless it.
  7. Don’t sort closets, coffee tables, kitchen drawers, desk tops, or book ideas.
  8. Don’t read a single page you can’t get through without exhorting yourself to pay attention.
  9. Don’t forget to feed the fish. [Not everything can be part of a “To Don’t” list.]
  10. Don’t read the news.
  11. Don’t enter any space, virtual or real, in which you might read the news by accident.

Of course, a “To Don’t” list is more apophatic than the human activity it’s meant to inspire. I can’t cease existing for the day, nor do I want to. It is only an exercise in removing myself from the deep ruts of habit and responsibility. I need and respect these ruts. But I also need the space outside them.

Because I exist even when I lay the ordinary aside, I replace everything I’ve removed with that “To Don’t” List. Yes, that means I am writing a “To Do” List, but as you will see, it is not the kind you’ll find on the paper pile around my desk.

  1. Sleep until you wake.
  2. Eat when you are hungry.
  3. Go outside.
  4. Write.
  5. Look out of windows.
  6. Daydream.
  7. Enjoy the deep quiet.
  8. Be present, but remember this, too, will pass.

It will pass. I am an energetic adult. I am responsible for work, and I love my work. Work is part of my meaning, and I treasure that. A “To Don’t” List can never be permanent, in the way that a “To Do” List can. If I’m responsible for painting the deck or submitting a manuscript, the tangible outcome of those accomplishments will make a mark on my world that I will see for days to come. Whereas I can only look out the window for a time. That moment will end. I will step away from the window, release the day dream, open the door to the returning voices of my household. I will stop saying “don’t” and begin again to “do” the parts of my life I took exception to for this set of hours.

But the effects of this day I’m spending in the peaceful sunshine of imagination and stillness will linger with me. I will have strength for the journey, food for the thought, creativity for the tasks that return to me, because of this day I spent away from the working world.

 

-Photo by Amy Luo on Unsplash

Memories of God

When you convert to a new faith, you leave everything behind. You are not a refugee, with $200 and two pieces of luggage. You weren’t forced to leave a country you love. You chose to leave a country you could no longer love. You are gone.

No doubt, everyone’s conversion is different. Life has taught me, in hundreds of big and little ways, that people are like snowflakes – there really are not EVER any two exactly alike. So I won’t speak for your conversion, or their conversion, or any other conversion but mine.

Conversion never ends. At first, it’s a decision. There’s a long road to the decision, and a long road away from it. You can’t see ahead on this road. You can only see the two footprint-sized parts of the road you are standing on right now, this minute.

My piece of road right now is about memories. Hymn fragments, remembered feelings. I thought I had left everything behind, and at first, this was true. But life flowed on around and through me, and now I discover the pieces of my faith that belonged to me then and are still with me now.

Is this possible? If it is, it has nothing to do with dogma or canon. It’s the fact that God does not wait for us to check the right box and join the right group before He decides to get in touch.

Was He always there? I remember asking my priest, after my conversion, “Who am I talking to when I pray now? Is it still the same God I was talking to before?” I wasn’t sure then, but now, I am.

Sometimes, time is like water. You wash something in this water, and it comes clear. At first, I didn’t want to love anything from my pre-Orthodox spiritual life. I was too concerned with building this new faith life, and I didn’t want to contaminate it.

But now, time has washed my heart, and I can see patches of gold in those old shadows. My longing for them now is not unlike my need for them then. They can still belong to me. They can still comfort me.

Wherever I find it, light is light.

 

-Photo by John Jennings on Unsplash

Becoming Invisible

Light comes through an open window in a dark room

It’s a cultural flaw, observed and decried by many, that the marks of a woman’s increasing maturity reduce society’s belief in her sexual appeal and thus render her invisible. We lose our value, apparently, as our skin wrinkles and our tolerance for superficial thinking deteriorates.

I deplore this trend, but it is not what I am writing about this evening. There is another kind of invisibility, one that manifests itself gradually along the slopes and valleys of our spiritual journeying, and I believe it is the reward of dogged perseverance.

First, we must agree that visibility is a complex thing, and I am speaking here only of that type measured by the human eye’s ability to perceive it. It is a manifest thing, approached with lens, pupil, retina, nerve.  What is visible can be detected on the skin, on the page, outside the window. What is invisible cannot. But I hope you will stretch a point and let me gather audible, tangible things under this useful word. Eyes, ears, nerves in the tips of our fingers – these are the managers of our outer world.

If we live vigorously, seeking to discover and perfect ourselves, our reality shifts across time so that where once it was mostly visible, mostly outward facing, it becomes mostly invisible, perhaps inward facing, perhaps upward. I don’t know that this journey is linear. In my experience, its facets develop at different times, on different levels. A child’s play may begin with a round, red ball, mostly understood with the eyes and fingers, and in just a few years, the same child may stumble into the wilderness of imagination and spend hours engaged in intricate games that will remain invisible to everyone but herself. But the same child may have no patience, and her lack of patience may be completely visible for decades after she has learned to rely on the invisible people and places of her imagination.

A person living in this world will never be completely visible or completely invisible. But the trend is there – the chain of insight. There are milestones on this path that I was pondering tonight, washing the dinner dishes with my hands, talking to the puppy with my voice, sorting words and impressions in the quiet of my own mind.

Patience

Patience is an intangible thing, but impatience is not. Our impatience is often loud and always visible – our faces change, our voices grow shrill, our hands and feet move quickly and irritably. Patience is the invisible thing. When you are patient, you are not grimacing or raising your voice. Your hands and feet are under your control, and so is your irritation. If your patience is visible, it’s not patience. It’s impatience with a mask on, struggling to make a point.

It reminds me of something my father said the summer he refinished the picnic table. When he began the project, the table looked bad. The finish was peeling off and the wood was discolored. After hours of labor, sweat, and persistence, the table looked wonderful. “Now you don’t even notice it,” he said, ruefully. “It just blends in.” The eyesore stood out; the result of his effort looked normal and unremarkable.

Patience is like that.

Self-Awareness

Like patience, this is a gift most visible in its absence. A person who speaks his words without hearing them, who can’t stand outside his opinions, will commit one solecism after another. He will be the target of frustration or disgust, but he won’t receive these incoming signals.  Ironically, a person is much less visible when he can “see” himself, when he can hear what others are saying to him and about him and believe that it might be accurate. He is an integral part of the human whole, not the sore thumb protruding from it.

I think humility is part of this awareness, humility and perception. You need perception to understand what the world believes you are contributing to it, but you also need humility to accept what you perceive when it isn’t attractive or simple to repair.

Moving Inward

Much of what disappears from the visible world only moves into the invisible world. This is literally true in the case of death. A person leaves the physical world and enters the spiritual world fully. We bury the body, and cling to love and memory, but nothing that remains to us is visible. But what are we removing from sight when we become patient and self-aware? Has something died in us? Are we burying ourselves in the stifling grip of self-control?

It happens. But I think it happens in error, or as a forward, but not final, step. Patience becomes possible when we are able to relieve our own irritation, when we can soothe or readjust ourselves internally without producing visible signs of the process. We can talk ourselves out of reacting, and actually heal the aggravating feeling behind it. Self-awareness depends on a parallel skill – it’s the ability to believe what we perceive from others, where patience is the ability to believe what we tell ourselves.

Instead…

Because patience is the most elusive of the gifts I seek in my own life, my meditations at this point left self-awareness behind and focused to a finer point. From visible to invisible, from outer world to inner world, what is the power behind the shift? The silent words that bring me peace and stamina now were not effective, or even available, to me at earlier points in my life. Why are they now?

You answer that question with your own experience, as you must, and I can answer it with mine. For me, it all comes to an upward spiral of imagination, a circular stairway deeper and higher into the mind. Where once imagination was a plaything, or a comfort in loneliness or distress, I believe it’s evolving into the currency of my spiritual existence. It is the reason I can experience the substance of my own thoughts. Imagination makes what I learn visible to me. Yes, visible! Imagination is the inward eye, the sights and songs and memories that are deeply personal, deeply spiritual, essential as air and water are essential. But only because it is no longer fictional. Instead of creating what is not, imagination clothes the bones of truth. If we are experiential beings, imagination is the first small leap into eternity. It is our first experience of the life beyond life, outside of eyes and hands and bodily impressions.

We become invisible only in one dimension. In another, we begin, finally, to appear.

-Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash