The Slow Work of a New Year

It’s January 22st, and I’m still easing into the New Year.

This is not how I usually am. Generally by the time the ball drops over Time’s Square, I’ve made a page-long list of resolutions divided into various subcategories: Relationships.Writing. Personal. Family/Home. Spiritual. Health. I’ve always gravitated toward the idea of blank slates and turning points. A new year; another try. A chance to get it all right from the get-go.

Normally, by the time the New Year rolled around, I would have had a completely fleshed out Blogging Plan and a new determination to Write More. I would have had measurable goals and barometers for success and all the other things that the writers of business-y books say you need to succeed.

It’s January 22nd. And I don’t.

This year, I dragged a lot of things with me into the first days of 2015, not the least of which was the almost-not-quite-finished draft of the Book #2 manuscript that was due to my editor months ago. I spent the first late nights and early mornings of the new year bent over the troubling portions of the book, writing and erasing, writing and erasing.

Finally, on Monday the 5th, I sat in the middle of the total wreck of my kitchen, finished the last three paragraphs, and sent it off.

Then I ate a cookie and put away the Christmas stuff. Or 3/4 of it. As I write this, the nativity, mistletoe and Christmas art are all still up, and I’m too tired to really care.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks wandering around, blinking, as though I just emerged from a windowless room. I suppose in some ways I was — cloistered in the private world of the work I was trying to do. The finished pages whipped away from my email inbox — so quick, so simple — and then they were gone…off in the Void, waiting to be read by the People Who Read Such Things.

Over the next few days, I cleaned out my closets and got my hair cut. I let the impossibly thin and beautiful stylist cut a swoop of bangs across my forehead and then spent the rest of the day trying to catch my reflection in mirrors and windows, not sure if I looked silly or stylish.

I tried on a pair of fire-engine red corduroy pants at Marshall’s and sent Kim and Alissa a selfie from the dressing room. “Can I pull these off?” I asked. “YES!” They said. “Buy them!” They said. And since they were only seven dollars, and since I had finished my book, I did.

Note: It's surprisingly hard to get a photo in which you capture both your new red pants and your new bangs. This is not the best. But I tried.

Note: It’s surprisingly hard to get a photo in which you capture both your new red pants and your new bangs. This is not the best. But I tried.

I started running again. I started making green smoothies for breakfast again and started keeping a giant pitcher of lemon-cucumber water in the fridge. I never wrote on a piece of paper, No Diet Coke in 2015!, but when I walked down the aisles at Walmart past 24-packs of Diet Coke, I began to tell myself, “Not right now. If you really need some, you can come back later. Just not now.”

I didn’t make resolutions for the first time ever…but I find myself moving slowly, tentatively, toward new habits. Maybe it has to do with starting the year off working through the final chapters of my book. Maybe it’s just the Tired Thirties. For whatever reasons, I find myself deeply aware of the slowness of change. It doesn’t usually look like a sharp angle from a single resolution toward a new life. It’s the ordinary work of creating new patterns. Falling back into old ones. Standing up, brushing off, and trying again.

Maybe it sounds simple to you, but it’s a revolutionary concept for this perfectionist-idealist. This girl who wants so much to get it right the first time has spent the last year writing and erasing, writing and erasing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

And I wonder if coming to your life is a little like coming to the page: open-hearted, brave, bringing everything you have, knowing that some days you’ll get it wrong, some days you’ll get nothing done, some days it will be the wrong words…but that it’s all part of the process. You don’t know exactly where you’re going, but you have the general idea of what you want it to feel like when you get there. So you come back again and again and again. Keep trying. Keep writing. Keep going.

It’s all part of creating something beautiful.

It’s a new-ish year. 2015. I don’t have any resolutions this year, but I want to like who I am. Instead of berating myself for my unhealthy habits, I want to begin to slowly move toward new ones. To accept when I fail, let it go, and then get up and try again.

I want to come back to the page no matter how many words I deleted last time. I want to wear those seven dollar red pants. I want to be brave and I want to be kind, and I want to be here…whatever that looks like, whatever that means.

All this to say…happy 2015. It’s been a while. But I’m back.

Expand Into It

“Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling to settle for anything else.”
~ Brennan Manning

Christmas Day 1

So it didn’t go entirely, exactly perfect.

Does that surprise you?

You’re ashamed to admit that it does. That you’re caught off-guard again, this year, every year, at how far from magical Christmas Day actually feels when everything is finally said and done.

You believed you were sincere when you thought the joy was in the giving, not realizing how much hope you’d hung on the reactions to those gifts. You poised the camera, trying to capture the split second of delight when the box was torn open, but you missed it every time.

Or maybe you saw it — and for a moment, it was exactly how you imagined it — but then it was overshadowed by the whining and the complaining and fighting. The everyday frustrations of your young children’s tumultuous moods appearing like unwelcome guests into your magical Christmas celebration.

You stuff red and green paper into overflowing garbage bags, and there are K’Nex and Legos all over the floor, and the whole room feels both full and empty. You ate too many Christmas cookies and are starting to feel icky. Half the lights on the Christmas tree went out. The dog got into Santa’s cookies and got sick on the living room floor. There are pine needles everywhere, like Christmas is shedding itself, dying before your eyes even as it’s happening.

Somewhere along the way, all those Hallmark movies with their special-effect-snow and their soft, fuzzy lighting wormed their way into your imagination. It’s not real, your brain said, while somewhere in the unseen depths of your psyche, your expectations were forming themselves around magical moments, nostalgic songs, movie scenes and greeting card sentiments.

Christmas.

The day comes and goes. You go to church and sing the song and wait to feel that awestruck peace, that holy hush in your heart when the congregation stands holding lit candles. If you don’t feel it, you find yourself disappointed in your own reaction: What’s the matter with me?

The family comes, or you go see family, and there is joy and happiness and tension and chaos. You say the wrong thing. You say the right thing but not enough of it. There are too many people and not enough time with any of them.

You receive things you didn’t expect and feel loved. You receive things that are so obviously not you, and you feel odd and unknown. Someone spent more on you than you spent on them, and it makes you feel bad, though you can’t put your finger on why. When you leave, you’re exhausted by the crush of feelings. Expectations exceeded and shattered all at once.

Christmas.

In the days after Christmas, you sit down at the comically messy kitchen table and sigh at how quickly it has gone. Again. Wasn’t this the year you were going to truly notice it? Grab hold of those holy moments? Take your time? Wonder? You made a point to buy all of the gifts early, and still the season was a locomotive, crushing through your hopes and best intentions.

You think you should have had lower expectations.

Then you read the line from Brennan Manning. Expand your expectations.

Not lower. EXPAND.

Christmas Day 2

It occurs to you that you had been expecting the wrong thing. A glistening moment. A holy, breathtaking ellipses in the chaos of your life. You’d wanted to feel the quaint peace of the stable. The sudden burst of angel voices into the night sky. You’d wanted — for a moment — magic.

Expand your expectations.

This was never about a moment. It wasn’t about one holy night, one perfect day. It was about a shift in reality. Emmanuel. God with us — in every normal temper tantrum, every mess, every strained moment, every disappointment.

Twelve days, apparently, between Christmas Day and Epiphany… nearly two weeks between the day the Light comes to the world and the time we finally get it.  Epiphany: a vision of God. And you find that it’s true: it’s taking long, normal, post-Christmas days to stop seeing all the imperfections, disappointments, mess, chaos — and start seeing a new vision. Expand, expand, expand.

Emmanuel. God is with us — not as for one holy, star-spangled night — but for all the average, routine, disappointing, terrifying, happy, forgettable nights of your life.

Take a breath on a regular Tuesday morning after Christmas. Expand into it.

Christmastime in the Suburbs

photo credit: Fifi LePew via photopin cc

photo credit: Fifi LePew via photopin cc

The night we lit the first Advent Candle, the CenturyLink sales-guy came to the neighborhood and seduced us away from a tumultuous relationship with Comcast with low rates and the promise of cable. We haven’t had cable in half a decade. Maybe longer.

The CenturyLink kid came into our house, took off his boots, loosened his scarf and sat at our kitchen table in the glow of our Hope candle. He sat there while my kids refused to eat spaghetti and meatballs, and we asked him questions about his life while Andrew compared plans and signed the papers.

Within a few days, a dish had been installed into the roof of our house and four-hundred channels were streaming in. Most of the channels don’t interest me, but I am thrilled that the Hallmark Channel, with its nonstop “Countdown to Christmas,” is here now to make my wrapping/baking/cleaning more bearable during these Decemebering days.

On the Hallmark Channel, there seems to be an overabundance of female executives who are obsessed with their work and who have some Lesson to learn about the Magic of Christmas. And some attractive fireman/lawyer/novelist/woodworker to help them figure it out. I finish some, half-watch others, turn some off only a quarter of the way in when it becomes clear that they’re bad even for what they are.

The Hallmark Movies are like glasses of cheap red wine. One or two is fine. But take down any more than that in too short of a time period, and you find yourself nauseous and filled with regret.

*

advent journalI made an Advent Journal out of ripped cardboard and scraps of pretty paper, and every day I try to write down something. A quote from my advent reading; a moment from our day; a scattered list of gratitude. In the mornings, when I am reading the pretty words, writing in my pretty book, I remember that Christmas is complex and shattering and revolutionary and heartbreakingly beautiful.

In the morning, I remember that when we say Peace, we’re talking about a great power — the kind that banishes every bit of unpeace. But by the afternoon, I am bogged down again in all of my middle-mess. A book that’s almost-but-not-quite done. A blog that’s been ignored; a pile of half-wrapped, half-finished gifts. Gift cards still to buy for teachers and bus drivers. Christmas cards to get mailed out.

In the afternoons, the Light fades into the afternoon gray, and I forget about that powerful peace, and all I can think about is the mess. The kitchen, strewn with dishes and the dishwasher that’s leaking and the laundry that’s piled up on the bed, waiting to be folded. I’m thinking about the upended lives of friends in pain, wanting to do something — feeling stuck in the middle of my horrendously messy house. Not sure where to start.

In the morning, I want to make my heart a sanctuary for God. I sit in the dim-lit living room, staring blearily at my Christmas tree, and I know in that moment that nothing I do can bring Christ into the world. The he comes anyway, without any of my hand-wringing angst, without my struggling and scraping and scrambling to make things “ready.” In the morning, I understand that making space is not about eliminating mess…it’s just about opening my heart up wide, wide, wide. As wide as I can.

But then.

Afternoon.

*

I keep forgetting things at Walmart and having to go back the next day. I have been there a shameful amount of times this past couple of weeks.

On Saturday, when I went for laundry detergent and juice for the kids and a couple of other staples, there was a Santa Claus installed between the artificial Christmas trees and the toiletries. He was nothing like the magical, twinkling versions in the Hallmark movie — or even the moderately senile one we saw last week at Culver’s. This Santa was wearing a removable white beard with pronounced white elastic and could not have looked less jolly if he tried. Every now and then, he let out a half-assed Ho ho ho that sounded so strangled and hopeless it could almost make you cry.

So many illusions. All these strings behind the magic. It didn’t seem quite as exhausting until I was the one in charge of conjuring up magic for little people. Now it seems downright excruciating.

A few parents pushed their children toward the Santa, but the kids looked unsure…if not scared.  I wasn’t over there for very long — just long enough to grab a couple of gift boxes — but as I left, I watched a two-year-old burst into tears and resolutely refuse to get out of her cart and into Santa’s lap.

Probably best. If the photograph centered the picture even a centimeter wrong, neatly arranged bottles of shaving cream would find their way into the shot, shattering whatever illusion they might have been trying to capture.

*

I bought Ann Voskamp’s new Jesse Tree book and tried to read it to the kids, but at five and three, it’s too much for them. I kept reading the words louder and louder while they punched each other across my lap. I feel like Ann’s children do not respond this way when she reads to them and curse myself silently for doing a bad job of teaching my children the true meaning of Christmas.

What they actually interested in is Elife — our inherited Elf on the Shelf. They have a borderline unhealthy obsession with him, every morning waking up early to figure out where he is. One day, when friends were over, I heard Dane yell, “YOU GUYS. ELFIE IS WATCHING AND HE’S GOING TO TELL SANTA THAT YOU ARE BAD!” I smacked my head on the kitchen counter a few times and lamented my terrible parenting.

At three and five, Dane and Liam could care less about the Advent candles except for when it comes to who gets to blow them out. When I suggested that Dane and I go to the Dollar Store to buy a gift for his brother, he burst into tears and said, “But I want to buy a gift for ME!” and if I’d been alone, I’d have found a place to smack my head again.

I think that maybe we’re failing at Christmas, but then Andrew says, “Maybe this is the part where they learn the joy of expectation.” And for a minute I feel better.

*

I slide my credit card through the machine and buy a Chipotle gift card for the kid whose name I pulled off of the McDonald’s Christmas giving tree on a whim. I can do this — buy gifts for strangers. Feel a certain amount of satisfied goodness when I give it to the lady at the counter. We’re not poor — not in that way. Not rich of course— not free from money troubles — but not destitute. I can give good gifts to the people in my life. I can give good gifts to strangers.

In the morning, I am writing in my beautiful journal, feeling the gratitude of all of this.

But then Afternoon, and I feel just as poor as anyone else, standing in my fully stocked, wildly messy kitchen. I am not sure what it is I need to be delivered from, only that I am clinging to this story of a Deliverer born in Bethlehem.

I am desperate to believe that he will deliver even those of us who find our homes in the suburbs, our hunger and poverty not quite as physical but every bit as terrifying.

On the table — a pile of gifts that will communicate love, but not the kind of love that the world needs. On the counter — cookies that are sweet but that cannot fill our hungry hearts. Red wine that does not quench our thirst; Hallmark Movies on a reel whose fictional plots are a two-dimensional, shadowed attempt at capturing That Great Romance — the one I will never wrap my mind entirely around.

*

santaChristmas is just barely over a week away, and I’m doing it wrong…and I’m doing it right. I’m rich and I’m poor. I’m giving, and also, I’m standing in my kitchen, destitute. I’m receiving something beautiful that I don’t feel, don’t understand, don’t know how to accept.

In the suburbs, the Christmas lights are glowing bright on lonely homes, and the trees are heavy with baggage and hope. The Walmart Santa is carrying his own set of demons, and the Hallmark Christmas Movies actors have washed out of hopeful film careers into this netherworld of sappy movies. They kiss, and the credits roll, but we all know that the story goes on past “Happily Ever After.” That it’s never quite that simple.

And it’s just another Christmas in the suburbs — just another month of seeking and being sought, of looking and losing and being found, found, found again by the God who always comes to the most unexpected places in the most unexpected ways:

A manger. A big box store. The buzzing silence of your own hungry heart as you eat a sugar cookie in two giant bites over the kitchen sink.

What I’m Into – November 2014

what i'm into

This month has been all about the book.

I had this goal to finish my first draft of Book 2 by Thanksgiving, and so while other things happened during November, there was a giant book-shaped shadow over the entire month. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I deleted. Then I wrote some more.

I was bound and determined to hit that deadline (even though it wasn’t my publisher’s but my own self-imposed, arbitrary date). And it might have actually happened, if we hadn’t caught what I can only assume was the Bubonic Plague.

The kids and I went in for our flu shots, and we all ended up with some bastardized version of the flu mixed together with some nasty cough that we picked up at the pediatrician. Dane missed a day of school, and I had to cancel the three playdates I’d lined up for Liam the week before Thanksgiving (the ones at other people’s houses so that I could drop him off and go write).

Instead, the two of us spent the week laying on the living room floor, hacking and feeling generally miserable.

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I did try to power through, even with the Plague, and get the manuscript done, but I didn’t quite get there. And by the time I sent the first 53k words off to a friend to read, I hated everything about it. Plus everything else I’d ever written. Plus the entire word.

You’d think that, having already written and published a book, I would have my “writing process” figured out. Turns out, I don’t. What I learned this month is that I do not do well with trying to “power through” and get things done. I thought it would be so nice to spend a month just zoned in on the manuscript, and then I could sit back, breathe, and leave it entirely alone during the Christmas season.

As it is, it’s much more complicated than that. Writing, like anything, requires you to live in the tension between two realities. At least it does for me. I can’t shut myself away for weeks at a time, so I have to find try to find that elusive place of balance where I am present both to my work and to the life happening around me. It requires that sometimes I put my work away and do the dishes or play Ninja Turtles or have coffee with a friend. It requires that sometimes I find someone else to take the kids, drive away, and work.

It requires sacrifice and patience. It asks that I be willing to let go of timelines and expectations while holding on to faithfulness. It’s beautiful and terrible. I wouldn’t trade it…or wish it on my worst enemy.

In short, it’s been a complicated month.

Reading

It’s been a shameful month in the reading department. (See Overzealous Focus on Writing Deadline above.) But I did pick up a great little anthology at Half Price called The Writer on Her Workthe voices of several different women writers on their craft. In her introduction, the editor Janet Sternburg writes:

“When an individual writer tells of her day-to-day struggles, what we’re seeing in operation is a person choosing to continue, to grow, to not be silent. She is claiming her original impulse and carrying it forward — knowing that as she does so, she commits herself to change.”

I love that, and I’m grateful to these women’s beautiful voices for bolstering me up as I work through this last terrifying part of the writing process.

Listening To

I found Radical Face this month, who I really like. They’re probably old news, but I tend to be behind the times when it comes to music. I blame a decade of my life lost to DC Talk and Amy Grant and Newsboys. It takes a girl a while to bounce back from something like that.

Noisetrade has so much good FREE Christmas music over there right now. The Orphan Care Network has a particularly good compilation out, and I discovered The Calendar Years, who I really like. 

Watching

Still watching: Parenthood, Scandal, Grey’s, How to Get Away with Murder, Nashville, and Vampire Diaries, though did lose interest in Marry Me. It was little too goofy for my taste. Andrew and I finished Season 1 of Blacklist but not in time to catch up on Season 2…so we’ll have to wait until that comes to Netflix.

In addition to the usuals, there has been a light speckling of terrible (wonderful) Christmas movies. Oh, who am I kidding, there have been a ton. I’m not even going to try to count them because it would only make you respect me less.

I have all of these writerly beliefs in compelling stories with complex characters that mirror some unspeakable reality in our joint human experience… And then the Christmas season starts, and I shamelessly abandon it all in exchange for the fluffiest of holiday love stories known to man…most of which, inexplicably, star either Candace Cameron Bure or Haylie Duff. WHAT IS THIS ABOUT? Please tell me that I’m not alone and that someone else out there has this Issue too.

On my last What I’m Into post, an astute reader, Ryan, made this comment:

I don’t mean this at all to sound critical, really, but: holy cow, I can’t believe how much TV you watch! It’s a miracle you get as much other stuff done as you do!

Of course,he’s right. I watch an abominable amount of TV, and I realize that.

My secret is this: I rarely simply sit in front of the television and do nothing but watch. (The only time I do that is when I’m watching a show with Andrew, because it bugs him when I multi-task.) But mostly, I watch my shows on the Internet, days after they air. I watch while I’m folding laundry or loading the dishwasher or prepping a week of school lunches or making a lasagna.

It’s my little way of rewarding myself for all the Mom Tasks that I have to do. A little mind-game I play with myself. Not “chores.” ALONE TIME. TV TIME! WOO HOO! True, I could spend this time better. There are TED Talks to watch and podcasts that are full of useful information or even books on tape. But what can I say? TV is my special addiction. I can’t quit it, and I don’t even want to.

Other Things I’m Into

- A trip home to Chicago to see my family. And one last walk through the woods with my kids and my Mom before winter.

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- Hallmark Christmas movies

My parents have cable, which is why holiday movie viewing started so early and has been so embarrassingly…comprehensive. We do not have cable, so I tried to cram in as much sappy viewing as possible while I was home.

But then — CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!! The CentruyLink guy stopped by last night, and my husband switched us from Comcast on the spot, and I will have free cable starting next week.

Ryan — you thought I watched a lot of TV before. Just you wait until I can watch Christmas movies all day and all night without pause. Lord help us.

- Best friends having babies.

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If you’ve read my book, then you’re familiar with my two best friends from high school, Kim and Alissa. You should probably then know that they are both preggers, and freakily, due the exact same day. February 18th. Kim is having a girl, and Alissa’s having a boy, and I can’t even deal with it at all. I keep accidentally buying things for the new babies. It’s a problem.

How beautiful are they??!?!

– The first snowfall. I’m not THAT into this, but I’m trying to make my peace with winter. More about that soon.

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- Living room forts.

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(We way or may not be watching Rudolph. Before even Thanksgiving. I have SUCH A PROBLEM.)

- Christmas decorations copied from Pinterest

With the new bookshelves I bought this fall comes all sorts of space for new decor. So I took on a variety of Pinterest projects that I’d had my eye on for a while.

Andrew helped me create this sign out of reclaimed lumber. (Tutorial here.)

He took apart and reassembled a pallet and drilled the holes for the Christmas light stars, and I stenciled on the words and the wise men.

I’m in love with how it turned out. It might be my favorite decoration currently in the house.

pallet art

I also did these — a quote from The Polar Express, a chalkboard Christmas tree, JOY nail-and-string art, a glittery reindeer bust and a piece of snowflake art. I don’t know if you can really see it all here, but it looks pretty awesome if I do say so myself.

bookshelves

I put all of our Santa pictures up on the old shutter by our front door, made a garland of cinnamon stars to hang on my kitchen window, and found a bargain on this pretty frame for our Christmas cards at Home Goods.

decor 1

And ADVENT…so bags with our Jesse tree ornaments and some chocolate. (I ordered Ann Voskamp’s new Jesse Tree book a little late…and I’m looking forward to trying it out with the kids!)

jesse tree bags

And book presents…one storybook every night until Christmas. (I bought them all from garage sales and thrift shops years ago, and I just keep re-wrapping them every year. For the first year, Dane is starting to catch on. “Hey! We opened this one before!!)

book presents

I know. There should be support groups for this.

- And of course getting a Christmas tree. As much as I wish we were a “go to the woods and cut down your own” kind of family, we’re a “spend 5 minutes at Lowe’s picking out a half-dead, green spray-painted tree” kind of family. Whatever. It’s fine.

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Book and Blog:

I’ve already told you about the book, so let’s not talk about that anymore. Or the fact that I’ve barely blogged all month.

Let’s talk about the fact that it’s Advent Season. There are a lot of wonderful bloggers doing Advent series. (If you read nothing else, check out John’s wonderful words at The Beautiful Due. He’s amazing.)

I’m not doing that, though last year I did do a little series on Christmas mindfulness, which included the following posts:

This year, I’ll probably just share what’s going on in our little corner of the world, as we try to wade into the Advent season in mindful, imperfect ways. I hope you’ll keep following me, even though my posts have been erratic at best.

I did write one post that is especially meaningful to me about my friend, Stephen, who had a surgery go wrong and now lives with chronic pain. He introduced a concept to me called “redemptive hygge” which has stayed with me in a very powerful way and that I will continue to bring up again and again on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, please go read it now. And if you can, support Stephen and his family.

Thanks for sticking around even though I’m totally unpredictable lately.

I’m linking up as usual with my lovely friend Leigh Kramer for What I’m Into.

What about you? What’s your November been like? Less angst-y (and Hallmark-obsessed) than mine hopefully?