Wednesday Wonders: Falling Back

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“For this weekend, you get to call yourselves writers loud and proud instead of in a small voice at the end of a long list of other things you do.”

My writing teacher Lois Brandt said this (or something very like it) at the beginning of our Weekend on the Water retreat with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Lois wasn’t lying. All weekend long, I talked and heard about books. I talked about my books in progress, I heard from debut authors, and I listened to the faculty tell of how to write as well as what they as editors and reviewers look for when they read. I chatted with my group about their writing and heard what they had to say about mine.

It was glorious. 

Sometimes, I learned, it’s good to be stuck. Sometimes it makes me stop, look at what I’m doing, open my eyes and ears, and hear something new. Sometimes the stuck let me hear old things in a new way.

Gradually, I felt the cement blocks on my creative feet and fingers lifting.

When I got home I found a contest to submit to and the deadline is soon. After that I have my short story who sits so close to my heart I have to crack her open and send her out as soon as I can find a possible home.

And my middle grade novel. This weekend I felt my character wake up inside me as I listened to another writer give me story idea after idea from his own experiences with characters like mine.

Here is what I learned in my two full days at a former convent in Des Moines, Washington:

We do not create alone. 

Even as I sit at this keyboard, far away from everyone I met this weekend and from any of you reading, I feel all of them and you with me.

It’s crazy sappy, yet I have to say it because it’s truer than true.

May you find joy in the people who love life like you do.

And do remember the anonymous quote Kim Baker told us as we went our separate ways:

“You are a ghost driving a skeleton made of stardust on a rock flying around the sun. Fear nothing.”

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The published works of the writers I got to meet over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

 

 

 

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Last on this post, but first in my heart, Amanda Hosch. She told me her book journey from the summer of dreaming about her character to the 6 weeks of writing it in a flurry to the agent to the book deal after three years. She was so elated and bubbled over with book joy. Amanda is now one of my heroes. MABEL OPEL PEAR AND THE RULES FOR SPYING hits the stands and the websites in the fall of 2017. Hooray!!

 

 

 

Wednesday Wonders: The Garden Gift of Forty

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When I was a teenager, working in the garden numbed my brain with boredom. I could not understand how my mother spent hours and days pulling weeds and clipping dead branches. I loved the beauty of the place and went to the roses to talk to her often, but I could only do the work for a few minutes before running off to bike 30 miles, pace the floor, drive to the beach, or anything else besides working with plants.

Life has changed me. 

My latest read is by Cameron Diaz and Sandra Bark. In The Longevity Book: The Science of Aging, the Biology of Strength, and the Privilege of Time, Diaz talks of how to embrace each age you are in as you live it. I’ve only made it a few chapters through the book but already see the beauty in this approach to growing older.

I think gardens may be one of the gifts of forty.

Soon after I entered this decade, I  began enjoying the time I spend outside with the flora. I worry less about having a perfect looking place and enjoy more the experience of being outside and touching the dirt. Pulling weeds and moving earth heals me when my soul aches, and the work gets me outside when I need to move from too many hours with a book or in a basement level classroom. To make it even better, my six year old dances around me, playing his games and talking to the neighbors as they walk their dogs by our home.

When I was a teen the heaven of my imagination would have been filled with action. Now I think my vision of it would be much more like Eden.

The newfound garden joy also gives me hope for the decades to come. I can no longer run as fast as I did in my twenties. In fact my hip now tells me not to run at all most days. I haven’t given up on running altogether–I still am working to heal.

But who knows what new gift I will find as I grow older?

Gardens may be just the start of the party. 

May you find joy in every age-

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Wednesday Wonders:What if Superman Couldn’t Take it Anymore?

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On Monday, I hobbled into my teaching job. Every other step, pain zipped though the right side of my hip and forced me into a jerking sort of movement just short of a collapse. I could not keep my face straight or look people in the eyes until it eased up again.

Over and over I heard the words: “Are you okay?”

And, because I like honest answers to this question, I said, “No.” Over and over.

The day before, I had been feeling so much better I thought I could go for a glorious forty five minute walk on a blustery day with an eagle soaring above me and later surprising me by flying right in front of me.

I don’t like taking long breaks.

Short breaks are lovely but breaks that last more than a few days get on my nerves. My hip has been teaching me that, although I might feel healed after one physical therapy treatment, this does not mean I can go on an intense walk up hills.

The same sort of thing happens with my writing.

After meeting my deadlines I made everything stop. I hadn’t taken a single day off from writing in weeks and, like I wrote earlier, I needed time to play with paints and let my mind wander away from my checklists. I gave myself a week to leave the words behind.

I made it four days before I couldn’t take it anymore and ached for my pen and keyboard.

 

Shortly after that (and before my disastrous walk), I wrote this piece on Superman in an exercise I found in Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink by Gail Carson Levine.

Superman Calls It Quits

It was the look in her eyes that first made me snap. Even my cat didn’t glare at me with that much disdain when I forgot to buy his food after a busy day pretending to be Clark Kent.

“You could have come a bit sooner, you know.” She stood now, brushing herself off and putting a hand out to keep me at arm’s length.

As I felt the sting of her words, I couldn’t help but notice how perfect her face was. Everything about her features was symmetrical — her lips looked like something an anime artist would draw. Seeing her filled me with an ache that made me want to turn away. Or do anything for her.  Even jump to the top of the burning bridge where Lex Luther had put her about an hour ago.

Which is what got me into this mess to begin with.

“I needed you to get me off that bridge right away. And you couldn’t even manage to save me without tearing my dress on the trusses.” She picked up the flimsy thing around her legs and waved it to show me the rip in the fabric. Apparently, she wore it to dinner with Luther after he’d bribed her with the promise of a good story.

She was right, of course. I didn’t really know how this rescue work was supposed to go. I’d just started a few months ago with little experience battling bad guys or saving people who got themselves into peril.

I nodded, knowing I should say something. Anything. But nothing was coming to me. My Super Tongue was stuck to the roof of my Super Mouth and the man of steel was no match for the wrath of this woman who was late for her next appointment.

She gave me one last exasperated look, threw her hair back, and climbed down off the rock where I set her earlier, underestimating my speed and causing her to turn her ankle.

I watched her struggle on her own and slip into the mud as she huffed along and knew better than to offer help again.

Right then I decided  to quit. Obviously, I was not cut out for hero work and damsels would be better off without me.

 

Maybe the poor guy needed to take a break. And not just a short one. Superman and I will keep working on it and taking shorter walks for now.

May you find the rest you need-

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A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

Wednesday Wonders: Finding Love at the Zoo Under Deadline

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One more deadline this week so another post heavy on pictures today. (More on deadlines and productivity coming up. Wow! Those things are motivating!)

I spent Valentine’s Day at the zoo with my two guys and my wonderful Seattle family. I hadn’t considered it before we went, but it turns out other people think Woodland Park is a good place for a romantic getaway. I think half the young couples in Seattle joined us there.

I especially liked George the Great Blue Heron who flew in and out of the penguin exhibit. He posed for all of the tourists wanting to take his picture, and I suspect he liked the fame as much as the free fish. The frog also stood still for every picture loving passerby, staring at us from his perch above.

A nurse log caught my eye this week. I’ve walked by it hundreds of times, but this time the ferns begged me to notice.

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Q and I sat for over half an hour reading this long book filled with one dino story after another. That was a wonder. (My voice even held out!)

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And this 3-puzzle sat in our game closet for months or more before I pulled it out last night while Q messed with the obnoxious duck quacking game. I’ve always wanted to try one of these. 60 pieces made for just about the right amount of effort.

May you find photogenic wonders, a good long book, and just the right challenge this week-

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A recycled bit on the wonder series:

As a part of my 2016 blog revision, I started a new small weekly post I call ‘Wednesday Wonders.’

One of my favorite things about writing and other art forms is the way they open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

On Choosing the Best by Letting Go of Some Good

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Tomorrow is my first day back to teaching after my late summer/fall break.

I’m nervous.

After thinking about juggling teaching, writing, family, and critters, I’ve decided to cut back on blogging for a stretch.

I have the usual reasons which you might have, too, when too many things call out to you to be done:

I want to have enough left of me for the best stuff so I’m scaling back on some of the great good stuff like blogging, getting creative with cooking dinners, and maybe even the joy of having folded laundry.

For the next few months, I’ll be posting only my words as a reader columnist for The News Tribune every six weeks unless time and space otherwise allows.

In the meantime, here are a few gratuitous kitten photos I hope will bring you a smile.

My ‘cat lady starter kit’ (so named by my most excellent sister-in-law) is definitely something ‘best.’

May you find the courage to let go of some good to have time for what’s best. 

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The Art/Prayer Intersection Part One: Praying in Color

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My friend Ruth kept telling me about the book Praying in Color by Sybil MacBeth.

“I just love it!” she said many times over, her eyes all lit up from the inside and a soft smile with a shake of the head when she tried to explain it.

I could not imagine a prayer in color so I nodded and smiled back even though I couldn’t imagine what on the green Earth she was talking about.

In the meantime, I kept meeting with her and several other people every Sunday as we wrestled with the Bible, with what we believed and with the trouble we all have in our daily lives.

At the end of each meeting, we ask each other for prayers. Sometimes these prayers are for friends and loved ones with problems and, at times, the prayers are for joys. I dutifully looked at the list of my friend’s names, closed my eyes and tried to pray. Sometimes I wrote these prayers in a journal. They always sounded something like: “Please, God, be with so and so. Take away her pain. Let him be healed.”

This all sounds good and like what I was supposed to do but was often very quick and then I would forget. It also felt an awful lot like worry for or gossip about the person. I thought all about the issues and often felt no connection to any higher order of good afterward. Just anxiety. 

Finally, I gave in and got the book Ruth kept telling me about. The instant I opened it’s cover, I knew this would be something amazing.

The author describes many of my same problems and then goes on to tell how she stumbled upon a solution simply because she loved to doodle and happened to start praying while she drew one day.

Here are the steps:

1. Get pens full of color that inspire you and some paper. (I love my art journals with the heavy bond paper but lighter smaller paper can work better if you wish to carry your prayers around with you.)

2. Write the person’s name or some shape that symbolizes that person for you.

3. Doodle while you rest your mind and think peacefully of that person and your wish for him/her. Dwelling on the troubles of the person isn’t really necessary. When it works best for me, I am simply holding that person in my mind and letting all other thoughts drift through in a sort of drawing meditation.

4. Let the thoughts that come to you guide your doodle and its colors. Don’t be afraid to draw the problem (like a broken heart or eyes for an eye surgery). Let yourself feel the emotions, knowing that your heart can break and then mend again. I have been amazed to see where my doodles have gone.

5. After you finish and as you go through your day, remember what you’ve drawn in your mind’s eye. 

You can work on one doodle over a matter of days. If you have a bouncy person in your life like my four year old, this is often necessary.

You can pray with pens for others, for yourself, for something tragic in the news, or for your enemies. Doodles can be about your finances, about elections, or some grand celebration you are living through.

Most of all, remember that it isn’t at all about making a perfect piece of art! It is about the peace you bring to yourself, to the other person and to the world around you when you put colored pens to paper with a mindset of connection and peace. It’s also about the permission to get out colored pens and simply play as a prayer.

I will be brave and share two of my doodles here with you. Next week I will see if I can get some of my mother’s fabulous artwork up so you might understand how difficult it has been for me to overcome my lack of ability in comparison to her. I’m so glad I got over myself and drew anyway.

This month, I’ll look at other ways that artists use prayer in their work. I’m finding that the art and the prayer work in two directions. The art impacts the prayer and the prayer alters the art.

And Ruth was right. Praying in color is an absolute joy. (And if you know her, you understand that my wise friend often is right.)

Creative Beginnings Part Two: The Family Artist Date

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In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron insists that we need weekly artist dates alone to court our inner artist. I have done these, and they are marvelous for boosting creativity. But I have also taken my family and friends along on dates and gotten oodles of inspiration that way, too.

At the beginning of this year, I completed two New Year’s rituals together with my family and one alone. My inner artist loved them all.

First, we all went to the Nisqually Nature Preserve, a place I written about before but have never visited in the winter. If you haven’t been there in the cold, you may have missed a few birds. They apparently come out to be seen when the temperature drops.

We saw herons, a bald eagle, a woodpecker along with the usual crows, seagulls and ducks.

Later, I took my youngest son to see the trains at the Washington History Museum. I fell down on the blogging job and didn’t take pictures but I was impressed by how much my four year old loved the whole place from the trains to the other exhibits. A museum full of things you can do with children playing and learning is always a grand place to start a new year. Inner artists love this kind of play.

Finally, I went to Starbucks in Sumner and spent an hour with my headphones on (it’s loud there!) mapping out my goals for 2015. It may not sound like a thrilling date, but alone time with a notebook, music, and a cup of tea is my kind of fun.

Overall, I’m happy with the creative beginnings I chose. My  inner artist must be, too, because the word output has been good so far this year and my joy level is up.

Short Sabbatical from Spoken Words

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been on break from my teaching job and staying home full time with my sweet three year old. At least I maintain he’s sweet even though sometimes he’s not.

The words I have spoken look something like this:

“Do you have to go potty?”

“Flush the toilet and wash your hands.”

“Do you have to go potty?”

“Sit down to eat your food.”

“Do you have to go potty? You are doing the dance.”

“It hurts Mommy when you do that.” (hit me with a stick, arch back when I’m holding him, step on my foot, etc.)

“Do you have to go potty?”

“No, you may NOT pick the cat up by his skin.”

“It’s time to go potty. You are still doing the dance.”

I found these words draining. Painfully draining. And my inner troll has been rising up to snap at the little guy not unlike the troll under the bridge in the Billy Goat’s Gruff story he loves.

I pestered my husband to grant me a retreat. At first I thought just a morning might do. I took my notebook to the local Starbucks and listened to people talking, taking notes on what they said and journaling my heart out. I went to the park I’d seen but never visited. I walked downtown and saw the gorgeous landscaping at the new city hall that I’d never taken the time to look at before. But two hours wasn’t enough. I needed more time away from “Do you need to go potty?”

So, last weekend I took most of a day and went to our little lake camping spot out by Shelton. I didn’t talk to anyone all day, leaving my phone in the car so I wouldn’t be tempted. I took my time and moved slowly, reminding myself that I was on retreat. The peace felt like I’d entered a sacred space and sunk into a world without spoken words.

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I can see why the monks and nuns take vows of silence. The peace of not talking brings an inner connection like the vibrations settling down on the pond after you finished skipping stones across it. When I did see others at the grocery store on the way out, they smiled at me and I smiled back. This was a change from my usual focus on wrangling little fingers away from the ATM machine buttons and hand holding in the parking lot where I hoped he wouldn’t take anyone out at the knees.

I had thought earlier of going to St. Placid Priory, a place in Lacey where I could have a sister as a spiritual director. But the lake worked better for me. I worked it out with my husband on an hour’s notice and got myself to bliss without the nagging stress of “I don’t know this place or these people.”

Plus I only needed to pay for gas and food.

I figure my inner artist is also about 3 years old, and she loved playing in silence without competition from my son. I can recommend a retreat for anyone who feels the troll under the bridge threatening to take over.

When I got back from my break from words, I was able to sink into the better ones like:

“Let’s go for a walk to feed the horsie.”

“How about we go pick blackberries and eat them from the bowl before they get to the refrigerator?”

“I love you.”

And, even better, I could sink into the words I heard.

“I wuv you, too,” he said when we went back to my retreat and filled it up with sound a few days later.

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Facebook Fasting

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I first started using Facebook when I went to China in 2008. Back then, the status line read Karrie Zylstra Myton is …. and I was supposed to fill in the present continuous with an -ing verb. Which only English teachers could name like the nerds that we are. It was fun. I loved feeling so connected to my friends back in the states and my only disappointment was that my computer averse husband never did post his statuses for me. Facebook held no charm for him.

Although I was disappointed in him, a part of me now envies him. Facebook calls me a bit more than I care to admit. I’m not talking about privacy issues here. I’m talking about where I want to be spending my life. The siren sound of Facebook sometimes pulls me into swirling waters. She looks beautiful and sometimes she is. But sometimes she eats up the time I want for my writing. And sometimes I think too much about what others are thinking because of her.

A colleague at work feels the same way about Pinterest. “Pinterest is a Problem,” she said. Apparently she wakes up first thing thinking about what others have pinned and what she can find to put on her boards. Listening to her let me know I’m not alone in my social media troubles.

When I started chapter 4 of the Artist’s Way, I decided to include Facebook in the ‘reading deprivation’ that Julia Cameron recommends. I gave up Facebook and curtail my emailing for one week. And I was unpleasantly surprised at how hard that was for me. I felt myself pulled to it when I knew I didn’t need it.

I know I’m not the first to think of this.  One of my favorite bloggers and online art teacher Melody Ross gave up Facebook for an extended period. Here is her blog post about it  along with an excellent video comparing a Facebook life to a strict cool whip diet.

I also heard a piece on NPR talking about this and found an article from a renegade Facebook escapee who wrote a book about her experiences as a fb employee.

After my week, I learned  how restful it is to lay off the status checking and posting. I felt relaxed at the end of my week. I felt less pulled and my mind less scattered to the four corners of what everyone is doing every minute of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against social media and have no plans to give it up for good. I love my connections online and the people I’ve met there as well as old friends I can now stay in touch with. I feel like it is a better way for me to get ‘news’ than the tradition media offers.

I also don’t think that this is a ‘new’ problem — this need to disengage from interactions goes back, I believe for all of time, especially for those of us introverts. Henry David Thoreau, after all, was making an escape long before the Internet.

I am, however, taking steps to give myself more rest from my online interactions.  I’m loving the time it gives me for art and family. If you’re curious about how it feels, give it a try. Just be gentle with yourself if you, like me, find yourself sorely tempted to break your fast. It helped me to say, “Wow. That’s interesting that way that I’m compulsively drawn to checking my page or email or what have you.”

Say that to yourself and then go play with your kids or pets, or go for a walk, or paint a picture, or write, or play your instrument.  You might be surprised how much you like it. Then please let me know what you thought and how you plan to keep social media in your life without falling over your head into the swirling waters again. For me, it’s a work in progress and I’d love to have suggestions.

The Week after NaNo

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In the days and now a week after NaNoWriMo, I’ve set the novel almost completely aside. I say almost because I’d be fibbing if I said it wasn’t on my mind. It lurks back there and pesters me with ideas about how it could be better. It also growls sometimes about how painful it will be in January when I sit to read through it. And sometimes it glows with the thought of how much I enjoy revising compared to the process of that first draft whenever I work on my shorter pieces.

I’ve got a plan for this month, though, to keep the novel in the box and using it’s ‘inside voice’ when it nags at me.  The plan goes something like this:

1. Find small projects to write that I can draft and finish in under a week. This is refreshing to say the least.

2. Revisit the submissions I have floating out there to see if they need sending to new homes or if I should put them in the ‘for practice’ file.

3. Draft writing goals for 2013.

4. Spend some time with Julia Cameron and her Artist’s Way again. I did this once many years ago and fell on my face. The book’s been nagging at me, however, through friends and other coincidences. So I’m back at the morning pages and not hating them. In fact, they are becoming a friend, those 3 pages. Go figure.

So far the plan is working. The novel is behaving itself while it waits for me to return, and I am enjoying the space between wild write-a-novel-in-a-month and revision.