The Everyday Words

I’m not sure why it came as such a surprise to me. A few months into a period of not-writing-much-at-all, I discovered that I was suffering from what some might call writer’s block. I had gone from blogging a few times a week to a few times a month, if that. Pitches and proposals had stalled.

There were — or, let’s be honest, there are — a few ideas I’m kicking around, but I avoid the hard work of expressing them. I’m anxious about the work I might produce, nervous that it won’t be articulate, that no one will appreciate it, and that it won’t garner the appropriate amount of blog hits to satisfy my ego. So in my motivated moments I freeze, scared that my work won’t meet my expectations.

Confessing this fear is my way of taking responsibility for the fact that I haven’t been writing as much as I would like. I should look that fear in the face,but doing so involves wrestling with a larger question, and maybe hearing an answer I might not  like. The question I have been trying to avoid: Do I have anything to say?

My writing took off during a period of my life that was fraught with struggle. I was in a long-distance relationship that was constantly strained. We were in love but working in separate states, and we were determined to wait until we could have the jobs we wanted that were in the same place. The wait ended up being four years. I wrote to tell God how frustrated I was that things weren’t working out, and I wrote to articulate a more mature faith that did not rely on getting what I wanted all the time.

Then I developed a mystery illness and had to go through the process of accepting a hardship all over again. I learned to live with pain, had major surgery, and battled post-traumatic stress. I wrote to admit that it was hard. I wrote to name and critique the struggle in order to find some power over it.

I came to believe more strongly in the power of words to make meaning of my situations. I wrote privately and publicly. It helped me, and by all accounts it helped others. I learned that I liked writing. It made me feel like I was contributing, and it helped me understand the world better.

Life is much easier now. My husband and I are living happily in the same city. My disease is in remission. My trauma is receding into memory. But I’m not writing in the same way I did in those difficult days.

Remembering how important writing was to me and how it made me feel powerful in a helpless season, I feel guilty for writing less.  I worry that the answer to that terrifying question — Do I have anything to say? — is no. Those years of turmoil were packed with drama, and I wonder if days without drama can be interesting enough. I sit with another question: Can I still create without pain to inspire me?

Of course I can. It was never really pain that inspired me. I was driven by the same impulse that always drives me: the desire to connect with others and to find meaning in life. When I could barely drag myself out of bed, writing was a lifeline. New love and chronic pain gave me plenty to think about, and long hours in the car gave me lots of time to reflect. The life I knew broke into a million pieces, and I used words to put it back together.

In this new, calmer season of life, I don’t need words to do the same things they did when I was suffering. I used paragraphs and pages to connect and construct, in health I do those things differently. Relationship is still the message, and words are still the medium, but the format has changed.

Now, writing looks like this: I stay late at school and come up with new lesson plans. I plan retreats and prayer services. With more energy for my musical pursuits I learn new songs, update my resume, audition and perform. I follow up quickly and thoroughly to emails. I develop programming for an arts non-profit.  And, from time to time, I write for writing’s sake.

Of course that is not the end of my words. After so many housebound months, with flagging energy and unpredictable pain, I am free to meet up with old friends and I visit my family. When a colleague stops by my desk with a question or a hello, I close my laptop and listen to them. I pay compliments. This connection that sparkles between people is the most important thing I can create, and it remains the true goal of my words.

Despite that spark, I still feel a twinge of guilt for not churning out blog posts and articles and pitches. That very guilt is a sign that I may break the writer’s block when the time is right, that the motivation to pour myself into formal writing will appear, and that I do have something to say. In the meantime, I am exploring the everyday words, and directing them toward the connection to which I am called.

How do the everyday words inspire you? What are some ways you connect with others? How has your purpose, your flow, your motivation changed through different seasons of your life?

How I Found Creativity After Being the DIY Queen

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Creativity is a privilege.

I wouldn’t have made such a statement five, ten years ago. I probably would have said that creativity is something we’re born with, that not being able to pass by your local Hobby Lobby without going inside may be a good indication that the Creativity Fairy has taken up residence in your life.

But that was before. For me, there exists a before and an after: before children and after children. I don’t know what “before” is for you, but there was a time in my grown-up life when, but for work commitments and social engagements, my schedule was entirely my own. I’d scour Martha Stewart Living and the Pottery Barn catalogue like it was my job. Ripping pages out of the magazines, I’d plaster the east wall of our garage with pictures of everything I wanted to do and create and make.

And then I’d do it — I’d actually do it. I repurposed signs out of wood I found on the side of the road, adding favorite quotes from Emily Dickinson and Saint Anthony to its tarnished sides. I invested in a staple gun so I could staple the hell out of a piece of plywood wrapped in cotton fluff and cover it in a gray and white striped fabric. Affixing stained wooden legs to the bottom of the plywood with brackets, our dining room table seemed to delight in the addition of a bench.

(Never mind that the legs were always wobbly, and we wouldn’t dare let anyone sit on it for fear of an emergency room visit. Alas, the stapled bench I worked so hard to create eventually made its way to the local Goodwill.)

Every room in our 1200-square foot condo was covered in Cara’s DIY creations. I took pride in my work. I showed it off with humor and with pride.

And then I got pregnant.

All that creativity mojo, which, at the time, had almost entirely been funneled into paint fumes and hammers, went out the window. What little energy I did have went to my job, to keeping a local outreach ministry afloat and out of the proverbial financial black hole. Exhausted at the end of the day, I couldn’t do anything more than lie prostrate on the couch and watch episodes of Law & Order: SUV.

Olivia Benson still holds a special place in my heart, I tell you.

I suppose that’s why I remind you (and me, and all of us), that creativity is not only a privilege, but it is an honor and a choice.

It is an honor to be given the time and space to do what we were made to do, whatever the outlet, whomever the recipient.

But leaning into our creative sides is also a choice we make.

If you’re anything like me, whatever your lot in life, you don’t have all the time in the world. After a long day at work, whether you sit in an office cubicle or wrangle small humans in the confines of your home, you don’t have more than a couple of hours each day to really do what you want to do.

So, we make a choice. We make do with what we do have instead of what we don’t have. We choose to believe that God will use us — even us, especially us — in these few and precious hours we hand over to him.

And then we go for it.

We give it all we got, because we know this little slice of time still matters deeply.

For me, creativity now looks vastly different than it looked when I called myself the DIY Queen. My creative side finds expression almost entirely through my words, when I have and make the time to sit down for an hour in the afternoon or evening. And maybe, because I know these hours are not only a gift, but a choice I’m making to enter in with, I guard them fiercely.

Because I know there are stories upon stories upon stories still waiting to be told. And telling these stories is a privilege. And entering into this privilege, as you can guess, is purely a choice.

Might we choose wisely.

Half A Lifetime Ago

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Half a lifetime ago. That’s what I realized as I was driving down the road, sunroof open, on one of the first warm spring days of the year. Before I was a mom, before I was a wife, I was just me. I worked in retail and would find myself driving the 45 minutes home down back roads on summer nights, the stars clear and bright as I looked through the moon roof of that ‘89 Saab I bought, my first car. Dave Matthews Band came through my speakers and the word “future” stated with a capital F, undoubtedly exotic and exciting. Nothing was set in stone. Do you remember what freedom was like?

Today I find myself following the checkmarks on my to-do lists. Laundry, dishwasher, grocery store, and most of the time in my minivan is taking kids from school to activity to next activity. Routine.

Oh, but the beauty of that routine. Of blankets tucked round little bodies sleeping in beds. Of bread dough punched down and left to rise. Of coffee beans and tea bags. Of bags of groceries, stacks of homework, and piles of dance shoes. Soccer schedules, water bottles, and chocolate chip cookies.

20 years.

And in 20 more years the minivan will be a sedan. The laundry will be manageable. The dishwasher will sit empty and my grocery runs will be smaller and spaced out further. And I’ll be driving down the road, wondering what the next 20 years will look like.

 

Where were you half a lifetime ago? Tell us about it in the comments.

Guatemala VisionTrip: Meet Justin

I’ll be flying out to Guatemala City in 5 days! I’m so excited to be representing The Mudroom on this Vision Trip with Children’s HopeChest. I’m also looking forward to discovering how the Lord will use you, my fellow writers and readers, to support and invest in a community and orphanage. We will be visiting 4 orphanages, meeting with the leaders, and playing with the kids. Some of you have contributed to this and I am so thankful for you. I was astounded at how fast I met my goal. The trip organizer told me she had never seen anyone raise money so quickly, and that is ALL YOU. Thank you also to those who have committed to pray.

Here is a day-in-the-life video of a 7 year old boy named Justin who attends a school partnered with HopeChest.

Let the Little Children Lead

I didn’t even know that artist injuries were a thing, and suddenly, I was hit with one. Not me exactly, but the artist I was counting on. Apparently, carpal tunnel is an issue for someone who primarily draws. I am the art director at my church. Every Sunday we have a worship band, and a sermon, and we also have an artist, someone who draws or paints or collages a visual representation of their interpretation of whatever we are talking about. The art piece is the reason we started coming in the first place.

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But, at the end of March I got very bad news. The artist I had scheduled for the month of April would not be able to do it. I had to find someone else. I sent out the list, but other people had just painted or already had plans. No response. Then, I looked at the sermon series. What does the Upside Down Kingdom really mean?

I had an idea. I sent an email out to the moms of my church. Did their kids want to paint? Did they ever. For the past two Sundays I have been asking a child or two, What do you think God wants the world to look like? They carefully choose their colors or ask me to mix them. There are a lot of rainbows happening. A lot of flowers. A lot of color. There is never any white space when the kids are done.

So far, my oldest artist has been 6, and I think the question, What do you think God wants the world to look like, is answered in the how, so much more than the what.

There is such careful consideration. Such thoughtfulness. My own girl took a turn this Sunday, and I promise I have never seen the amount of concentration come out of her. There is a deep love for this thing they are creating, and great care for how they are doing it. There is so much pride in being able to participate in the worship space provided. There is a desire to join in. Everyone wants a turn. And we are answering the question, what does God want the world to look like, so everyone gets a turn.

I have been asking them, these tiny artists, What does God want the World to look like? They hold their art in their arms and tell me. I have been shocked at how few words they need. Love. Open. Flowers. God wants the world to look kind.

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I started thinking about how I would answer that question, what do I think God wants the world to look like. I had complicated theological answers about power structures and systems. But I can’t stop thinking about the posture of my April artists. How the world would change if everyone acted like they did. How MY world would change if I acted like them. If I took great care in the work in front of me. If I asked for a turn when I wanted one. If I thought about the strokes and colors and I wanted to make something beautiful, that I was proud of.

I am longing for a life that I can be proud of, for one that contributes to the way that God wants the world to be.

The Weight of Perfection

Abby Wambach/USA Today Sports

Abby Wambach/USA Today Sports

Why is it so hard for us to accept responsibility? To be honest about our shortcomings and failures? Why is there so much shame around not being perfect?

I kept thinking about that when the headline popped up in my Facebook news section. “Abby Wambach arrested for DUI”.

And then she releases a statement. I take full responsibility for my actions. This is all on me. I promise that I will do whatever it takes to ensure that my horrible mistake is never repeated.” And I thought, wow, that’s actually an impressive statement.

And then the next day, I see this headline: “Former US Soccer player Abby Wambach enters not guilty plea in DUI case”. Which is actually misleading, because she didn’t even show up to court to enter her plea, her attorney did it for her. Maybe that’s typical, I don’t know. But still. Why does she feel the need to avoid saying she’s guilty?

This is just like a kid who you see has cookie crumbs on his face and yet will still tell you he didn’t eat any cookies.

What does it mean when we say we take responsibility? Are those just token slogans we throw around, when really we are trying desperately to find a way out of punishment?

I just wonder what would happen if we leaned into the pain a little more. If it was easier to acknowledge that we sometimes mess up on huge scales. I mean we all do it, and so it shouldn’t be such a shameful process.

What if we were a little more honest with each other, with ourselves, even with our judicial system, apparently.  

I mean, I know it’s not fun, like at all. But maybe our personal growth is worth it. Is worth the discomfort and the vulnerability. Maybe there is freedom to be found in acknowledging the standards we heap on each other can be so crushing. Maybe we can help each other towards healing when we realize that our own expectations can lead to destructive behaviors. What if we faced the emotions we so often don’t want to think about it or feel? What if we examined why we expect perfection out of people?

What if our public statements read something more like “Yes, I drove drunk and could have killed people, and I am so guilty. But that does not mean I am a hopeless, terrible person.”

“Yes, I have unrealistic expectations for my marriage and put too much pressure on my spouse and I should stop doing that. But that does not mean I am a hopeless, terrible person.”

“Yes I completely screw up this parenting deal all the time. Yes my kids screw up their being a good child thing all the time. But it doesn’t mean we’re hopeless, terrible people.”

Being a human is hard.

What if we just gave each other and ourselves a little more grace?

Waiting for Twilight

photo-1416958672086-951aa7064010The summer before I got married Dave went away to teach at a program for brilliant young writers and I stayed in Pittsburgh, trying to finish my master’s thesis, which I hadn’t started.

One night, there was a terrible thunderstorm, and my friend Rachael came over to keep me company. We drank mint juleps and she read my Tarot cards while the storm knocked the trees into the windows like a horror movie, the air charged with electricity and meaning. She flipped the first card over with a snap. If the image is upside down, it means something—something about blocked potentiality, abilities and events that want to manifest but can’t. All my cards were upside down.

I was secretly terrified. The words dabbling in the occult came to mind. But I was ashamed to tell Rachael for fear of sounding like some kind of fundamentalist nutbag. I’ve always been excessively religious, and I watched too many horror movies at too young an age. I know from The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchboard, Fright Night, et. al that it all starts out as fun and games and then suddenly you realize Captain Howdy is the devil and your neighbor is a vampire.

My older sister was braver. She spent years searching for a way to connect with our dead mother. She sat for past-life readings, trained herself to achieve a hypnogogic state that would allow her to fold space, and meditated in something called a psychomanteum—a form of mirror divination—in attempt to contact her soul. It was sitting before that mirror, in the back room of a hair salon in Dallas, staring at her own reflection for endless quiet minutes, that she says she came to her senses.

“What will I do if she shows up?” she thought. After all those months—years—of preparation, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. So she walked out, got married, had three babies and started teaching aerobics.

I’d begun to feel it was my job to keep the search for our mother alive. If our her ghost was out there wandering the moors, somebody had to keep the window open. I might not be a Bronte, but I could at least be a Heathcliff.

At the time I lived in a duplex on the edge of historic Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, which given my squeamishness about the supernatural should have disconcerted me. I remembered Poltergeist, and Craig T. Nelson screaming, “You only moved the headstones!” Nonetheless I found it strangely comforting. I loved the place. It was a great neighborhood, home to families, not grad students like me who smoked on the porch all night. Our backyard rolled into an expanse of soft green lawn, thickets of trees and crosses and angels and the occasional spray of flowers. At night, hundreds of red votive candles flickered in the darkness like a celestial event.

I watched funerals reflected in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I marked how quickly the grass grew on the fresh mounds. I began to recognize the mourners who came regularly. I watched them stand beneath umbrellas in the misty rain, their maps unfolded and flapping in the damp breeze.

In Louisiana, where my family is buried, you have to put people in crypts and tombs and mausoleums, or they will wash away. New Orleans is below sea level, and the ground is saturated, unstable; bodies decompose more quickly. I used to imagine floodwaters carrying the bones off in the tide, or my mother’s body floating down Canal Street toward the Mississippi River, her hair fanned out like Ophelia in the Millais painting. But in Pittsburgh, only the very wealthy are buried in vaults: the Fricks and the Heinzes and the Mellons. They rest in Millionaire’s Row, Section 14, near the lake. In the summer, a guided tour called “You Can’t Take It With You” takes groups through Section 14 every morning before it gets too hot.

Many mornings I woke to the sounds of riding mowers and men shouting over the repetitive tones of something large backing up: Beep. Beep. Beep. Breaking new ground back there, space for more bodies.

I had to finish my thesis by the fall or join the ranks of the many in our graduate program who never completed their degrees. For three years I’d been researching a book about the women who worked with Andy Warhol. Pittsburgh is Warhol’s hometown, and I’d moved there to work in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, to rifle through his Time Capsules wearing white gloves. I had pages of transcribed interviews with Pat Hackett, his secretary and the redactress of the Andy Warhol Diaries, and I’d just been introduced to Gerard Melanga, the guy who did the whip dance with the Velvet Underground, who agreed to talk to me about Warhol’s relationships with women (for $1,000). I didn’t have $1,000, but the truth was, the more research I did, the less interest I had in Warhol or his women. I was spending more time in church than at the museum, sitting in the dark of Sacred Heart in Shadyside, in the last pew just in case I needed to make a hasty escape. The only thing that really fascinated me about Warhol anymore was that he went to Mass every day.

I spent hours in the psychology and religion section at Barnes and Noble in Squirrel Hill, sitting in a chair by the window overlooking Murray Avenue and wondering if I should have been a therapist. I understand people, I told Dave over the phone during one of our nightly arguments. I’m intuitive. I also wondered if I should have been a high school teacher, or a librarian, or an archivist, or anything besides this. Whatever this was. A grad student not writing her thesis, watching people pass on Murray Avenue two stories below, haunting a graveyard like some teenage goth.

“Give yourself a new project,” Dave said, yawning into the phone. He was in Erie, three hours north of me, teaching fiction writing and drinking wine with a poet who lived next door to him in faculty housing. They played surrealist bocce, whatever that was, on their lunch breaks. Whenever he’d been teaching he had an annoying habit of treating me like one of his students if I complained about writing, and it was really starting to piss me off. I’ll never forgive him for telling me to cover my laptop screen with a towel. But he has always approached writing with more realism and practicality than I have. I have always wanted to be a mystic.

“Well, then. Make something happen,” he said.

I hung up on him and jammed the box fan into the open window and stripped down to my underwear and lay on the bed, on top of the covers, feeling sorry for myself, crushed by the weight of my unwritten thesis and a grief that I couldn’t believe was still so hard to bear, when my mother had been dead for more than ten years.

If I could just find some way to exorcise it, I thought, I might be able to write—if not about Warhol and his women then something, anything. But whenever I tried to write my stomach hurt and I couldn’t breathe. So instead I walked the paths behind my house, memorized the names on the graves, left flowers, and tried not to think about the only grave that really mattered, alone and untended back in Louisiana. I flipped idly through bridal magazines trying to excited about the wedding I was planning, since I hadn’t been able to convince Dave to elope. I took fitful naps and had nightmares.

I dreamed I presented my thesis to my committee. I opened the box where the manuscript should have been, and instead, there was an ornate tomb carved in stone, with a bust of a woman’s head as a sort of finial on the peak. My thesis director carefully placed the thing on the conference table and walked around it several times, shaking her head. “It looks nothing like her.”

When I woke it was dusk, quiet except for the echo of a basketball on the pavement, ticking away the minutes until summer would end and Dave would come home and my thesis would be due and my time would be up.

Make something happen, Dave had said.

I remembered my sister and her psychomanteum and thought, why not? I imagined building an elaborate contraption, pictured myself in the basement working a table saw, wearing a pair of safety goggles. I thought I’d get at least a chapter out of that. But when I found Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Loved Ones, I learned, with great disappointment, that this stunt required nothing more than a mirror, a comfortable chair, and a dim light. One man reported that his mother actually stepped out of the mirror and hugged him. He says he picked her up and lifted her clear over his head.

The psychomanteum is a tool of divination, like a crystal ball. I told myself it was as harmless as reading my horoscope or having my fortune told. Something a Victorian might have done at a tea-party séance. A game. And the world’s most clever writing prompt. Charles Dickens and Thomas Edison both used to induce trances when seeking inspiration. So did Jimmy Page. Visionary states enhance creativity. Altered states of consciousness enhance perception, inspire new ways of understanding. And many people believe they actually bring you closer to God. So there.

But what if I see something I don’t want to see? In The Odyssey, hundreds of spirits appeared to Odysseus before Teiresias finally emerged from the pit and gave him directions home. Moody never quite says it, but the subtext is clear. You might get nothing, and you might get something bad. Something evil.

Then there’s this. The spirit might not appear while I’m in the psychomanteum. She might appear in the rearview mirror, sitting in the backseat of my car the next morning.

I tried not to dwell on that scenario.

Then I tried to think of my one particular question. Moody says this increases the chances for success—benevolent success. The question might go unanswered, or the spirit might answer a different question altogether. But it was important to come prepared. I’d come back to that. Surely I’d think of something.

All day I marked pages with post-its and made notes. As the sun set I stalled and re-read Book XI of The Odyssey. While Odysseus is in the pit channeling spirits, I imagined my own story winding around his like a caduceus. Odysseus didn’t call the pit he filled with blood, milk, honey, wine, and water a psychomanteum, but it’s the same concept.

I’ll pray for protection, I thought. I’ll bless the ground with holy water.

I was afraid. I was also ashamed. Because really, it wasn’t a stunt. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to summon my mother from Hades and free myself from grief. And if that was too much, I at least hoped this project would bring about some much needed change in me—supernatural or not. Like my sister, who walked away from her search, left the mirrored room and went on to marry her true love and give birth to three babies and get on with it.

In ancient times, they were elaborate sunken caves and desert oracles. All I needed was a reflective surface and a comfortable place to sit and think. I’d make the sign of the cross and burn frankincense to ward off evil spirits. I’d surround myself with her memory—play Stevie Nicks’s Belladonna, spritz a bottle of Giorgio, chew a pack of peppermint Carefree.

I’d wait for twilight, for the crack in the spirit world to open and I’d sit and gaze beyond my own reflection, and remember.

Dr. Moody says there are only two guarantees: Whatever happens is what needs to happen. If I work hard enough, something will be revealed.

But when I lifted my head from my notebook, where I’d been frantically scribbling those notes, the spell was broken. The bookstore came back to life around me, the din of a dozen or so grad students flirting or clicking away on their laptops, the coffee grinder whirring, dishes clinking in the bus bin. I packed up my books, pens, and post-its and headed out of the café and onto Murray Avenue, feeling jittery and foolish.

It was warm, a late-summer night. The sun had set and I was too afraid to walk home alone past the cemetery in the dark, so I was turning back to Barnes and Noble when I heard my name in the dim and my heart jumped. In a moment Dave’s form emerged in the light from the streetlamps and the shop windows. He was walking toward me, smiling and waving his hands, jingling the car keys.

Surprise. Home early.

I’d conjured the living.

That October, on a beautiful Indian summer day, Dave and I got married at an historic Catholic church near his parents’ house in Ohio, followed by a quiet reception in their backyard during which I drank too much champagne and Dave watched the Notre Dame-Purdue game with his dad. I was far from home, and there were so few people on the bride’s side of the church I felt a little awkward, but in the end I was grateful that Dave had made me go through with it, even though I’d tried to back out right up until I walked down the aisle. I’d grown so accustomed to funerals, I hadn’t realized how happy a wedding could make people.

On Halloween trick-or-treaters were bussed in from Pittsburgh’s rougher neighborhoods to collect candy from our porch. We drank beer while our friend Brandon brought the bowl down to the smaller kids who couldn’t manage the steps, or to those who were too shy to come closer. He was always a natural with kids. He helped me to imagine our children in the world years before they arrived. My daughter and son call him Uncle Brando.

In the backyard, the votives flickered on the graves in the dark. A new memorial was complete, an elaborate temple with doric columns, a eulogy engraved on a plaque: She was an artist and a teacher. She accepted people for who they were. She was shy as a child and socially sophisticated as a woman. She had a positive self-image.

So oddly formal and yet so personal—“socially sophisticated?” But then, as if her parents had gotten half-way through their polite eulogy before throwing down the chisel and crying from the heart:

We knew the real meaning of grief when we no longer could see your bright face!

It wasn’t exactly poetry, but it was a run at the gates.

Back in my apartment, I collected the pages of my thesis as they emerged from the printer, started telling the stories of my life, stacking my grief like stones.

How alive do you want to be?

How Alive Do you Want to Be? Ashley Hales

 

“Searching for an objectively ‘better’ home is a poor reason to live abroad.” Ta-Nehisi Coates on Twitter

 

They say that when you live abroad that it goes in cycles: the first year is the honeymoon year. You swoon at the language, the accent, the magic of it all. It’s like Liz Gilbert in Italy: it is bathed in golden light and you just want to eat the whole thing (and gain 20 pounds in the process). The second year, you turn into a cynic, where “home” has become multifarious and all of sudden, those endearing qualities of your honeymoon turn out to be what gets under your skin. The third year (and perhaps beyond), you’re rooted in both “home” and “away.” There is no “grass is greener.” There is just grass. No better or worse; it’s all of a piece. “Home” is perhaps wherever you are not, or wherever you are, or all places at once, or none. You give up making sense of it all, mentally translating or making pro and con lists. You just get on with the living.

So it is with writing. The love affair, the affinity for words and how they taste drips sweet; words make your tongue thick with the wanting, the way colors and phrases swirl together and go down like a rich cabernet. Then there is the green-eyed envy, where you figure that everyone else has said it already, and besides, better than you, and the muse has left. Thankfully there’s a final stage. It’s when you settle into the the work itself. To state the obvious: writers must write. The words beckon— sometimes electric like a new lover, at other times we slouch toward them sullenly like a jilted boyfriend or perhaps, we’re just a bit chummy, like a lover-turned-roommate, sitting comfortably next to you on an overstuffed couch with your matching cups of Earl Grey. The words are always there, waiting.

To be magic, writing (like love) cannot be contingent on feelings. It is the dailyness of the writing that saves. It’s the butt-in-chair chicken scratches that open up spaces in our own hardened hearts for love (and dare I say, art) to enter into the cracks. That is the good, hard and holy work. We can find a home there in the liturgy of words. Words are paltry, malleable and fickle things. They can’t be told to line up and march in circles to make beauty. They come and surprise you as you play with them day by day. It is never the end result, the publishing deal, the success, the platforms. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Anne Lamott, patron saint of holy creativity on the work of writing itself: 

“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I spend a whole lot of time on Twitter when I’m meant to be writing. Or I write poems when I’m supposed to be turning in an essay. Or I suddenly realize that I need to do all the laundry and clean all the things. Anything but the writing itself. We put off the hard work of creation because we are scared of the quiet. We’re scared of all that writing might drudge up, all it may ask of us. We’re fearful we won’t be able to do it again, or that we will feel too deeply and then must go and do the washing-up and put in another load of laundry. And how are we supposed to follow up the glory of creation with the stuff of earth?

That’s it exactly. How do we reconcile not only the glory of creation with the reality of our laundry piles, but how do we understand those highs where we shift from what feels like holy wordplay with the unintelligible first draft? How do we combine the otherworldliness of art with the butt-in-chair discipline of it? We hide. We twiddle our thumbs, waiting for inspiration. Or we think we need the accoutrements of the writing life to prove that we are writers and creators. If you’ll allow me to be an elderly grandmother for a moment, I’ll pinch your cheeks and pass on a piece of advice. Feel free to roll your eyes. Hiding won’t help. Making it someone else’s problem because they’re better, stronger, faster, won’t help. Even “making it” will not save you from the mundane. The book deal, or the interview, or the day your blog post gets picked up and goes viral, all do not save you. There’s something in the habit of writing that saves. Let this steal over you quietly for a second: it is writing itself that saves. Writing regularly is the liturgy that brings life, in its very repetitiveness and ordinariness. Butt-in-chair writing is bread. We’re eyeing the flashy hors d’oeuvres, the decadent desserts and pass on the bread basket. Bread is not sexy, but it is full of sustenance. And really, we hunger for it.

I started writing again because something in me had died. I skated on the surface of things and just FYI, I am not a surface girl. I got sucked into square footage, vaccination arguments, the pretty little letters after my name, and the allure of organic produce — all fine things. But I could not live for the new couch, the PhD, or the green smoothie. I needed to play like a child. I needed to build sandcastles that were often rudimentary, ugly things. I needed to see what happened when I put this word with that one and played with texture. I needed to rediscover how words dance. I had had years of writing perfectly and annotating it all, like a choreographed dance routine. Now, I just needed to play. These days, when I dance in my kitchen when I’m cooking, it’s not always pretty, but there is nothing better than getting lost in a song where there is just moment, expression, and play. Writing brought me back. Writing taught me to dance again. Writing brought me home. 

Sometimes writing is nothing like the homecoming where the boy runs to meet the girl on the train. Sometimes it’s an utter disaster and you trip over your feet and you realize you’re doing moves from decades ago. That, my friend, is when you throw your head back and laugh. Who are we to take ourselves so seriously? This is what matters: it’s in the writing — and even in the failing — you have prodded a little bit of dead matter into the stuff of life. That’s it. When you create, no matter the prettiness of the product, you are coming alive. And who knows how far and wide that will travel? Who knows what ripples that will have across time and space? So I’ll ask you, how awake do you want to be? Wide awake, you say? Then celebrate your chicken scratches and your rusty dance moves and let’s get to work. 

Writing for Ducks

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Today, we watched Frozen twice. Once because they were tired and once because I was tired. Usually we do puzzles and read and bake and play in the little pink kitchen that’s always askew in the corner. But today we snuggled, we danced, we sang. We also ate Kit-Kats and had chocolate smeared on our cheeks for most of the afternoon.

There’s a scene in Frozen when Anna is finally outside the gates, experiencing life unhindered for the first time since her sister’s powers were hidden, and she reaches down to hold a family of ducklings. Every time my daughter sees this, she puckers her lips, her eyebrows furrow and she extends her hands out in front of her towards the television, hoping that by some magic those ducklings will hop on over into her hands.

The movie goes on and she’s left empty-handed every time, tucking her chin down with pouty lips until the melody distracts her back into a smile. She anticipates the disappointment because she knows it’s impossible to hold those digital ducklings, and yet she tries every time. She just loves those baby ducks so much.

Last week I was pretty discouraged about my writing. I have goals and dreams that seem so unattainable from where I am, now. Every day, though, I’ve committed to sitting in front of my computer and hammering out something. I don’t care what “something” is as long as it’s there. Words on the page—evidence of a somewhat productive hour of solitude during naptime.

“Why do you write?” A gentle question that often comes across as a challenge. The next one follows with a whisper. “Will failure make you stop?”

I look at my daughter and see those downturned lips and her stiff arms, refusing rejection from fluffy yellow ducklings for the second time today. She really wants those ducks, and the knowledge that they will never jump out of that television isn’t stopping her from going after them.

In high school I wrote my thoughts down on loose-leaf binder paper strewn around my room. I imagined that would be its final resting place until one day I carefully transcribed an allegory I wrote about an acorn and an oak tree to share with a friend of mine who was struggling. Weeks later she pulled it out of her wallet; it wore deep creases and tattered edges—evidence of her frequent references to my carefully woven words.

A seed was planted in my mind that day my friend held my first work so near to her heart—a seed that grew into a heavy realization that my words matter. My writing matters and has the ability to change people’s lives, to impart hope and spread joy. Even if it’s just one piece of paper, folded in one wallet, creased and worn until its nearly unrecognizable. It matters.

I softly tell my daughter that the ducks can’t come out and play. She looks at me incredulously and I see the glimmer of hope in her eyes disappear for just a second.

“Wait.” The little light comes back even brighter. “Look what Mommy has.”

I retrieve two neon Easter chicks and gingerly place them in her expectant hands. Joy overcomes her and she giggles and smiles, dancing along to the music and the scene with the ducks—the ducks that were once out of reach forever.

Perseverance and a determination to hope. I love the spirit of my little girl. If I never get published, if I never write a book, if I never become “famous,” will I still stretch my arms out over the keys and type, type, type? Will my fingers keep working, knowing that their toil is reaping nothing but the gratification of working overtime? Will I be able to rest knowing my stories may never take flight? Yes, yes, yes.

I write because I was created to; the Lord gave me a gift to worship Him and to communicate His grace. No matter how many times a scene of discouragement plays before my eyes, I will keep writing because I love it.

I believe that if I extend my arms far enough and purse my lips hard enough, it will be worth it. I really want those ducks.

The Mudroom at The Festival of Faith and Writing

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More than half of us are going to Calvin this year for their legendary writing conference, The Festival of Faith and Writing. Tammy Perlmutter, Ashley Hales, Heather Caliri, Grace Sandra, Cara Meredith, Caris Adel, Nicole Walters, and Jessica Mesman Griffith will be there. Most of us will be meeting each other in person for the first time, and we will get to meet a bunch of our guest writers! PLEASE come find us and say hello and give us hugs. We will be live tweeting and Instagramming, so follow us at #mudroomFFW and be sure to add #FFWgr too!

Even better, two of our contributing writers will be participating in a workshop and a panel discussion! We are so proud of these women and cannot wait to cheer them on. Mark your calendars and go hear these women!

Grace Sandra will be a facilitator for the Saturday, 8:30 a.m. workshop: Writing Whole: Making Peace With the True You. She will be joined by Tracey Bianchi, Lesa Engelthaler, and Erin Lane.

“People of faith believe that God designed us to have a unique voice, passion, and purpose. How does the creative process honor God by uncovering the “true you”? And how does ego, doubt, compulsivity, and anxiety get in the way of continuing to write from this deep, soul-filled place? Guided by the wisdom of writers including Adele Calhoun, Parker Palmer, and Richard Rohr, this workshop explores these questions and includes a True You writing exercise.” DeVos Communication Center, Bytwerk Theater

Jessica Mesman Griffith will be on two panel discussions!

How Chronic Conditions Challenge and Enrich the Writing Life with Daniel Bowman, Jr. and Ellen Painter Dollar.

“Writers who live with a variety of chronic physical, mental, and neurobiological conditions talk about how their experiences of disability impart hard-earned insight around issues including health, technology, and thriving within our limits. This discussion is for all writers invested in compassion, humility, creativity, and the unique ways that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Covenant Fine Arts Center, Room 115, Friday, 8:30 a.m.

 

Memoir as Feminist Testimony with Amy Julia Becker, Alison Hodgson, Katherine Willis Pershey, and Rachel Marie Stone.

“Recent studies and news reports suggest we live in a world where women still struggle to be heard and believed about their own lives. Perhaps that’s why memoir, as a genre, is particularly resonant for women writers despite the very real danger of being branded narcissistic. In this panel, we’ll discuss how memoir functions differently than other forms of non-fiction, why women love memoir, and common pitfalls in memoir writing, including oversharing and modes of faux-confession.”

Covenant Fine Arts Center, Auditorium, Friday, 11:30 a.m.

soul bare

Tammy has an essay included in the new book Soul Bare: Stories of Redemption, coming out in August through Inter Varsity Press and will be recording a book trailer voice-over at the festival. The anthology is edited by Cara Sexton, an early investor in The Mudroom, with essays by Emily P. Freeman, Sarah Bessey, Trillia Newbell, Seth Haines, Holly Grantham and more, as well as Mudroom writer Tanya Marlow. Visit the IVP table to learn more! You can preorder it here.

Several of our writers will also be pitching books! 

Ashley Hales: This is My Body: A Journey Toward Wholeness

Heather Caliri: Phoenix Song: Hope and Healing in a House on Fire

Cara Meredith: Black and White and Blue All Over: A Letter to my Mixed-Race Sons.

We can’t wait to meet!

Quotes taken from The Festival of Faith and Writing Schedule.

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