Monthly Archives: July 2012

How to Have a Successful Writing Retreat

First of all, forget your computer.

In your flurry to get the kids dressed and to the babysitter’s house, grab everything except for the gray laptop bag, weighted down with books and expectations and emails and power cords.

You’ll realize you’ve forgotten it about thirty minutes outside of Duluth, and there will be the inevitable pang. You’ll think of all you meant to do. All you could have gotten done.

You’re so used to its weight on your lap, to the feel of the keys underneath your fingers.

The other writers in the car will graciously offer to share theirs, but politely decline. This is how it’s supposed to go.

Wade slowly into the writing. Eat a fat sandwich of organic turkey and homemade bread from that little basement café you’ve always meant to try. Taste every single bite. Find a bench right by the water and watch the big ships come in for a while. At first, you’ll be so aware of everyone talking around you, but then, your heart will find its own quiet.

Finish that book you’ve been reading so piecemeal over these past couple of weeks. Take the words in great, uninterrupted gulps. Mark up the margins as you go. When you get toward the end, slow way down, because endings deserve to be noticed and honored this way.

Start out by writing what you see. Then what you feel. Let it be messy and disjointed. If a thought grows thin, simply draw a hasty line beneath the paragraph and start a new one. It may spiral into prayer and then out again. Let it. Really, all of it is a kind of prayer. Sometimes you’ll be aware of this; sometimes less so.

When you get to your hotel, let your heart swell with gratitude for this beautiful place. For its clean white linens and its lake view balconies. Loudly declare to the other girls that you will be taking a Jacuzzi bath at some point over the weekend. Don’t worry too much about which room you end up in or where to put your stuff. Drink your first glass of sangria.

Don’t be afraid to explore, but also, don’t be afraid to stop. To choose a place and stay there. That little inlet with a pebbly shore, for example. The one with the big, wide rocks reaching out like arms to the water. With the bench overlooking it all.

Stop there and watch dusk settle over the lake. Watch the lift bridge light fluorescent. Count the stars. Call your husband and thank him for the chance to get away. Write in your notebook; write the first thing you think of. Don’t worry if it’s bad, just write to feel  pen against paper, your heart against the surface of the world.

Go to sleep early and wake up early. Creep out of bed before the sunrises and put your bathing suit on underneath your pajamas. Be quiet when you close the hotel door.

Sit on the edge of a rock and watch the sun rise out of the water. Don’t think about it, just strip off your sweats and tank top and jump into the lake. Notice that the only sound is your body cutting through the water. Notice that you are alive and strong and beautiful. Notice the ships at the horizon, trekking toward the canal, the birds wildly wing across the sky.

Notice it all…and then dry off and sleep for a few more hours, your hair damp on the pillow.

Don’t be afraid to “waste time.” Let the hours trail through your fingers as you look out on the water from your perfect spot. When you get too warm, swim; when you get too cold, lie on the sun-baked rock like a seal. Turn off your Mama Mind entirely, except the part of it that reminds you to wear sunscreen.

Don’t judge yourself by how many words you write, how many pages you fill. The pen to paper, the trail of words…this is only one part of the process. What the world sees of your writing is only just the top of the great gray stone. There is so much that plunges below the surface, and all of it is important.

Take long showers and eat well. Drink Sangria and Mike’s Hard Lemonade throughout the afternoon…but also drink plenty of water. Be kind to strangers when they invade your space.

Take off your shoes whenever you can, because this is holy ground.

On the last morning of the retreat, you will almost convince yourself not to get into the water. It takes so long to dry off, you’ll think. You’ll wonder if it’s worth it to wreck your hair.

Here’s a hint: it’s always worth it.

Wading into water; wading into the words…it’s all so similar that for a moment the lines will blur. You are in the cold, clear of your own heart, and there are stories everywhere. It’s just a matter of going beneath the surface.

Before you leave, make sure you get your razor out of the shower and your Diet Coke out of the fridge. Throw out your own garbage. Take one last, long look at the lake. The ships are moving slowly toward the harbor, big behemoths, holding so much weight.

Be grateful, be glad, and move on.

Disequilibrium and Ducks and What is Saving Me

Today, I am joining up with Sarah Bessey’s synchroblog: What is saving your life right now. It just seemed like the right question.

Our next-door neighbor wears overalls with no shirt underneath, and he only puts in his false front teeth when company is coming.

He mows both of our lawns with his John Deere lawn tractor. Some days, he picks up our kids to ride along with him, one on each knee, as he rides slow, straight lines across the overgrown grass.

And sometimes, he raises ducks.

He found the most recent crop a month or two ago – just little balls of feather huddled behind some car tire in some parking lot. Their mother, gone.

He built a wooden pen in the back of his garage. When we saw them for the first time, they huddled together at the back of the pen around the heat lamp. Safe and warm and waiting.


Since Dane was a baby, we’ve gone to these parent-child classes through the school district. The kids play, and the moms sit in an adjoining room with cold cups of coffee and learn words like equilibrium and disequilibrium – the pendulum-swing of a child’s disposition.

It has to do with their growth cycles and their changing, and for months they can be precious and sweet and eager to obey, and then ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE and we are in disequilibrium.

Dane has been like a train, flying towards it for months, and now we are there. These last few weeks, he has been fearsome in his independence, pushing hard against every boundary, crumbling at every no. We are fighting about nap and potty training and food choices and sharing. He gets frustrated and smacks me in the face; he melts into tantrum – a noodle on the floor, debilitated by his rage.

I love him fiercely, and I am fiercely angry, tired to the bone. Another blogger posts a list of her favorite parenting books, and I spend the day wracked with guilt because I have not read any parenting books, and maybe if I had, there would be less shouting and screaming and exhaustion. Maybe I’d be able to navigate disequilibrium better. Maybe I could lead him through it.

But it feels like we are both there, drowning in uncharted waters. It feels like disequilibrium is happening to me too. These days, I struggle to pull myself out of bed at five in the morning to write. I feel swallowed by all this exhaustion.

When I do manage to get up, I sit for a long time in front of a blank page, and the words don’t come. I feel wholly inadequate. There’s so much tired built up in these bones that even the coffee doesn’t help much.

Last week, Andrew was gone on business, and I stopped writing altogether. I let my RSS Reader pile up with unread posts. I took a day off from this blog spent the week madly cleaning and decluttering, as if by restoring order to my kitchen, I could restore it to my soul.

I threw away old spices and expired Jell-O and filed all my varied ingredients into pretty containers from IKEA. I cleaned out the freezer and the deep freeze and made Pinterest-worthy inventories that I affixed to the side of the fridge with sticky tack. I stayed up too late; I woke up too early.

There was a whole jarful of expired mustard seed. Jesus once said that faith as small as a mustard seed could move mountains, but mine was expired and dusty, stuffed at the back of my cabinet.  Unused.

I tried to dump out a few of the seeds for a photo, in case I ever decide to blog about it, and they skittered madly around the kitchen, disappearing under the oven and the fridge. Renegade mustard seed that I will be finding for years.


I can’t believe how fast they grew, the little ducks. One day, barely as big as your hand. A few days later, little wiry pre-adolescents, pecking around their pen.

Then one day, I stood on the deck in the morning and watched as the six of them waddled in a little pack across our backyard and into the pond to navigate the waters together.

Every morning for a week, a few more ducks flew in, until suddenly the pond is teeming with them. It’s like they sensed, somehow, that this is a safe place to grow and play and live and splash. Our neighbor throws feed into his yard and they come, eat, swim, fly.

And this is what is saving me: in the early morning when I am too tired to do this again, when I’m in the middle of the first cup of coffee and the cursor is still blinking over the blank page and the kids are stirring—much too early—in the monitor…this is when the ducks come in.

They fly fast and low over our deck and down into the pond. There is something powerful to me about this soundless arc of feathers and flight, and I catch my breath when I see it.

I am saved by this daily reminder of the simplicity of rescue. Of redemption. One day, six ducklings were scooped off of the hot, unyielding concrete. All it took was a little warmth, a little food and light and water.

Just look at them now. They are sleek and strong and beautiful. They are floating under the bright orange sky. It is another beautiful day.

Spiritual Birthday

Spiritual Birthday: The day that you “prayed the prayer,” officially giving your life to Christ and being born new in him.

‎”You are so young; you stand for beginnings. I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I barely remember that day.

This is normal, I suppose. Those earliest years are a bit piecemeal for all of us. I’m told I was five; I remember the cold fear of a bad dream. I can picture my parents’ bedroom, the early morning light on their bed as I came running.

But I don’t remember “praying the prayer.” I don’t remember what my mom said to me or what I said to God as I “asked Jesus into my heart.” I only remember that bedroom. The wrinkled sheets. The light breaking in through the blinds.

I don’t doubt that it was important, that moment, that day. My child heart was reaching for something that it did not understand but believed to be true. A safe place, a good place. A home. It is the blurry beginning of something beautiful, and I keep this memory fragment close to my heart.

And yet, it was only one moment. And I was only five. If you ask the date of my “spiritual birthday,” I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know what day it was that I said that prayer, and I’m not sure that it matters.

I was raised, after all, in the stories and songs of Jesus; I knew his face from early on, and who can say when my small heart opened wide? I am not convinced that there is a certain prayer – a secret handshake of word and faith that gets you in. We are a hundred thousand kinds of different, and no love story is the same.

My faith is a beaded string of unmarked, important moments. That hazy five-year-old one, to be sure, where I understood God to be bigger than my fear. But also the dark ones, where I felt unsure of him. The lonely ones. The angry, questioning ones. They are part of it too.

There was an important moment when, as a teenager, the words of the Bible felt brilliant and new and alive for the first time, and I laid in bed and read and underlined and read and underlined. There was that day during my thirteenth year when I stood in the baptismal pool and spoke my faith from a note card. The water swirled around my feet and the people sang around me, and it mattered.

But it also mattered, years later, when those same words felt like a wall I kept hitting my head against. Grace was there, kneeling down next to me on the bathroom floor in my drunken, angry moments. He was there when I was running, when I was hiding, and this matters too.

I don’t remember much about the first time I chose God, but I remember the day early on in my first pregnancy, when I made a simple choice to move away from cynicism, to let it go. I remember what it felt like to be knee deep in anger and to shakily, imperfectly choose to move back toward the Light.

There are these and a thousand more. Moments I have forgotten; moments I never even noticed but that changed me imperceptibly. And it seems right that these marked days pass unobserved each year, because God is always doing a new thing.

Faith, after all, is not just one day in which your life was changed. It is that magnetic, changing pull of love every moment of every day. So it seems right to spend less time celebrating the moment that I found God and instead keep my eyes wide open. To look for the ways he is always finding me.

We are born, one day, into the world. We breathe in, and our spirits are already spread wide within us. We are alive and we are loved.

After that, it’s just a matter of waking.

Awana and the Art of Memorization

Awana: A para-church organization founded in the 1950s, still popular in evangelical churches across the nation today. Their mission is to raise children who know and love Christ. Their main tool for this is an evening program that is built around the memorization of Scripture.

When you are an Awana Spark in the 1980s, you wear a red vest pinned with plastic crowns: bronze, silver, gold.

You have a spiral Sparks book filled with verses to learn by heart.  When you can say a certain number of these verses satisfactorily to your Sparks table leader, you get a jewel, a shiny brad in red or blue or green or gold, and you stick it into one of those holes in your crown.

You can tell from these glimmering crowns who is smart, driven, motivated. You can tell who is not by the threadbare look of their red, undecorated vests.

You will repeat dozens (hundreds?) of verses in your Awana years, but you will actually remember very few of them. John 3:16 – that quintessential salvation verse. The Sparks theme song and the Books-of-the-Bible songs, which you sing every night in a room of raucous elementary school kids. (To this day, when you want to find the book of Hosea, you have to sing through the whole song to remember where it is.)

Mostly you’ll remember winning Crazy Hat Night – that King Sized Hershey bar prize and all the accompanying glory. You’ll remember your sweet table leader, Barb, who loved you, who smiled big whenever you came in.

Years from now, what will remain are not the verses, but that sinking you felt when the girl across the table was an entire book ahead of you, and there was no way you could ever catch up.

When you are an Awana Spark in the 80s, you are repeating Scripture every week. Certainly those truths, those words, are forming the soft clay of your heart. Creating a backdrop for your life.

But so are the crowns, the rewards. The jewels. The lack of jewels.


In high school, I fell in love with the Bible: the words, the beauty. It was the beginning of the On Fire days. I was underlining and circling and starring words. They were sparking new things in me, and I was writing them out in curly cursive.

I collected these verses like found treasure. I kept them everywhere: pinned to my walls, stuck in my textbooks, scattered on my desk. They’d gather at the bottom of my backpack, worn and crumpled.

Then I went to Christian College, and it got weird. We were a thousand Christian kids, many of us used to being the most spiritual. The leader of the Bible study, lead vocal on the worship team.

It was like the Sparks vests were back on, and we were comparing crowns. Who has the most jewels? The most patches? The most awards? Who loves God best?

And somewhere in there, I quit playing. I stopped comparing and started judging those who did. I grew a little cynical, a little bitter. I threw away my notecards.


These days, my mind is a black hole.

No matter how detailed a grocery list I make, I’m always running back to the store in the middle of my dinner preparations for avocados (because I swear they were not in the recipe the first time I read it) or a block of cheese (because I know I just bought one and it cannot possibly be gone already).

I walk to another floor of the house and forget why I’m there. I leave the load of wet clothes sitting in the washer overnight.

When I got pregnant with Dane, my doctor assured me that there was a medical reason for all of my forgetting. That “Pregnancy Brain” was a proven phenomenon, that the mind was actually pulling back, withdrawing, totally reorganizing. I shouldn’t worry – it would come back stronger when the baby was born.

But the other day my husband found the bag of soggy frozen French fries that I’d stuffed in the fridge. So there’s that.

My mother-mind is always whirring. So much time is spent remembering forward – did I remember to grab the diapers? The wipes? The sunscreen? My brain is racing through the day, down rabbit-trails of potential disasters, cutting them off. Remember the fruit snacks to bribe the tantruming child back into the car; remember the extra set of clothes for the inevitable poop blowout. Think, think, think. Remember, remember, remember.

Sometimes I feel like I cannot possibly stuff another thing into my brain. Like the whole thing might just shut down mid-email.

I’ve started, tentatively, with the notecards again. I’ve started with the verses.

There are only a couple, written carefully, propped in my kitchen where I can see them. Short ones; beautiful ones. Ones that remind me to breathe. Ones that remind me of the beautiful, ocean-depth of God.

I’ve read them over and over again for weeks now. At the kitchen sink, scrubbing the pans. Sitting at the kitchen table, answering emails. I’ve read them hundreds of times, and I still couldn’t say them back to you, could not earn a jewel.

My mind is a black hole; the words disappear almost as soon as I read them.

And it’s okay.

It has taken me this long to understand that there are no crowns in this learning; no jewels. Only God, only my own heart, my whirring mind, the quiet morning.

It has taken me this long to understand that memorization and learning by heart are two completely different things, and that there is value in this reading and forgetting, reading and forgetting.

It’s like walking the same invisible path again and again, wearing it deep into the earth. Teaching my feet to move toward Living Water; teaching my heart to remember the way.

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