The Ugly Side of Perseverance

Perseverance is one of 13 “attributes” my oldest daughter’s school studies each academic year.

I bring in poems to share each attribute cycle. This attribute I found the perfect poem for last year– and it was perfect because of the story that framed and created it.

Today I found the book that introduced me to the piece (First Loves, edited by Carmela Ciuraru), and began to reread the selection, noticing what I underlined last year:

…Broadsky’s trial in the former Soviet Union condemn[ed] him to forced labor. When asked on what authority he pronounced himself a poet, he had answered that the vocation came from God. Silence followed, and also the sentence.

It was Broadsky, of the stirring conviction in his vocation, who recommended reading the Russian poet Anne Akhmatova.

Anne was a poet “in a time when a poem on a scrap of paper could mean a death sentence.”

…To continue to write, to commit one’s work to faithful friends who were prepared to learn poems by heart and thus preserve them, was only possible if one was convinced of the absolute importance and necessity of poetry.

These are observations from Carolyn Forché, who coined the term, “poetry of witness.”

Knowing that about her, I see clearly the influence of Anna Akhmatova, who lived and wrote through one of the many intense seasons of the former Soviet Union, while her grown son was imprisoned for the crime of having two parents who were poets.

He was only one of many so imprisoned, and many others did all they could to comfort and care for their loved ones while they were locked away.

Anna wrote about the experience:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day, somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

Carolyn Forché (the poet introducing Anna in this book) says, “I knew that the poet’s work was to describe ‘this’ before I knew what ‘this’ was, but that it was indescribable.”

I knew that [Anna’s] I can was courageous and defiant, less an expression of confidence in her ability than an announcement against the triumph of evil.

Continue reading »

Openness and Healing

Two Januaries ago, I started taking notes on what books I was reading.

This started because when I was in Antarctica (November/December 2014) and we finished our day’s work [read: quit before our arms fell off so we could still dig the next day], we had a stretch of down-time, and I had some novels in my Kindle app that I’d never gotten around to.

I don’t remember how many novels I read while I was on ice, but what I do remember was my shock at how quickly I could read an ebook. We’re talking an afternoon into an evening. Sometimes staying up late (24-hour light tends to promote such bad habits).

I had been struggling a long time with guilt over not reading enough as a writer, and now, it seemed, reading novels wasn’t so far out of my reach.

I do sometimes entertain the thought that reading is for writers as “good works” are for compassionate-minded people, and practice is for musicians of any kind. However little or much we do we always question whether it is enough.

The beginning of that next year (January or February 2015) was the last of a long stretch of frequent Jay-gone. That last few weeks was really hard, and every hour I wasn’t homeschooling the kids, managing food or the house we’d moved into six months before, I curled up with a novel.

When Jay returned he wasn’t going to leave again for almost a year. (I don’t remember the last time he was home this long of a stretch. Probably before we had kids.) He knew I’d been reading as a coping mechanism, so it was a bit disorienting for him when the reading continued after his return.

It was decadent, inspiring (you can find lots of stories with healthy relationships and characters to admire), and surprisingly soothing. I still can’t tell you whether it was the stories that made me feel so much peace and delight, or the experiential reality of laughing into tears while the house and family carried on for hours upon hours without me. Continue reading »

Acknowledgements (aka My Book is Out)

lindormkingdom_smallerThe book is out in the world. (Here, too, if you prefer Kobo over Amazon.)

It would be really encouraging if you bought a copy, or shared it with a friend, or left a review.

With that out of the way, I wanted to share my thank-yous on my blog, since I already know the book isn’t for everyone (seriously, if you don’t like magic, or dragons or if any kind of violence makes you uncomfortable, this probably isn’t the book for you), and I want to say this “out loud” for anyone to hear.

From the back of my book:

Lindorm Kingdom began in 2006 as my first NaNoWriMo novel. At the time my daughters were two and three, and I achieved a decent one-handed typing speed from all the time at the keyboard while I held my six-month-old son (those midnight wakings were put to literary use).

To all the people over the years who asked, “How do you do it?” the answer is Time. The story – more specifically the themes – wouldn’t let me go. I chipped away for years, learning as I went, and eventually it was sculpted into its current shape.

In eight-plus years, a variety of people have read my pages, encouraging me to stick with it, making me feel heard and valued:

Jay (my husband, best friend, protector, provider), Becky (world-champion encourager, endurance reader and editor), and David (the second engineer to read my work and the only reader to catalog all the places that made him laugh), along with Tori, Mitzi, Kim, Bluestocking (Brooke), Katie, Carolyn, Crystal, Tiffany, Corinna, Kati, Annie, Sarah, (another) Tiffany, Bekki, Lara and Daniel.

Special mentions for Lindorm Kingdom include Jerry Smith (who is one of the reasons this novel didn’t end before it was really started), and the delightful Irene who was born after the stepmother’s name was set, and is nothing like the Irene in this story.

Finally, to my friends that share this writing path and the delight of discovery: Becky (again), Jennifer, Kit, Roy, Janet, Beth, Jen, Kati, and Tiana (my precious Watson), I am so glad to be doing life with you.

With fewer years between books, maybe the next Acknowledgements section will be shorter, but I can’t express with fewer words how tremendously blessed I feel to be surrounded by such honorable people and incredibly live-giving love.

Better

ball of twineBetter is a funny word.

It can designate improvement (“I’m feeling better than I did yesterday.”) or it can say you’re done with what ails you.

“Do you still have the flu?”

“No, I’m better, now.”

I’ve been dealing with depression in some form or other since June of 2010 (When it smacked me upside the head, and that ‘others-have-it’ problem became mine).

The first two years were pretty solidly bad depression. I started with my first counselor within two months of symptoms showing (which I’m given to understand is unusually good. I credit a combination of Becky pushing me, and good insurance coverage).

I went through a couple counselors before finding a good fit (and no longer have the good insurance), but I recognized counseling’s benefit, even when it was uncomfortable.

Side note/pet peeve:

Being able to receive instruction or derive benefit from “less-than-ideal” should not be a life-sentence to be stuck with it and “appreciate what you have.” If anything, the miss-matched individual ought to get extra points for humility and the openness to persist into usefulness. {GRRR}

What I ran into a lot was an attitude my chronic-illness/chronic-pain enduring friends continue to face:

Suffering can be very isolating, because [outsiders] are often afraid of seeing people suffer in ways they can’t fix. Sometimes things aren’t ok, and aren’t likely to be ok any time soon, if ever.

We are surrounded by people who don’t want to see us suffer (this is a good thing) but who may also (not good) end up in their own denial about the situation, and try to bring us with them.

If we refuse to come along for the ride (nope, already worked that stage of grieving), we become the difficult ones, and have to deal with disappointed other-people along with our disappointed selves. But there is a better way.

Continue reading »

What Connects with…Me

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

I found a “coach,” at the end of last year, because most of what I do with my counselor seemed to be coaching, anyway. I was looking for an “outside” voice and perspective that was sharing a brain/time focused on me.

Becky and I have talked about how this is the reason to hire someone: friendships are more mutual, and we don’t want to muddy those relationships to work through our issues.

The coach got me thinking about some good stuff, and some new angles on older projects that have been marinating for a while.

~  ~  ~

Then I got my heart stomped on, and I was back in the counselor’s office.

I had a double bomb in an exhausting 48 hours: First, someone I already guessed didn’t like me confirmed they didn’t like me, and second, someone I love very much– who has a degree in an industry not supported by our local economy– told me they were saving up money to move away to do the work they went to school for.

Both totally make sense, were almost predictable, and so it took me 4 or 5 days to realize I was deeply hurt and grieving. I was so scared by my response (it felt like my depression was returning- freaked me out and you don’t play around with that!) I visited my counselor the day before my coaching appointment.

The counselor gently reassured me that that this wasn’t my depression returning. She affirmed that I was grieving, and validated my experience that just because someone is a jerk, or someone has beautiful dreams that don’t need to include you, intellectual assent doesn’t necessarily change how others’ choices affect you. Continue reading »

The First 15 Days

There was a group I signed up for at the end of the year, inviting “30 days of hustle” to jump start the new year.  Each day we get a little (or not-so-little) to-do in our inbox, designed to encourage or nudge us farther on our path toward our goal.

Today, the 15th, is a “progress report” day. Since my goal was about establishing patterns and habits (in how I eat), I can’t really suggest a “bridge” between where I’m at and 100%, but the challenges have shaped the way I think about what I’m doing, so I’ll just run through what we’ve done so far, with my goal (eating patterns) as the example. Continue reading »

January 1, 2014

Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.

— John Carmack

Image courtesy of Gerla Brakkee via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Gerla Brakkee via stock.xchng

I am |this| close to making a resolution to not learn anything new this year.

But that would be silly.

I’ve made “not” resolutions before (like NOT buying books). That didn’t really work/happen/exist very long…

And I didn’t feel bad about it, either. HA!

Last night I updated my Writing page, and for the first time actually made a list of what I’m interested in– what I research, pursue and actively learn about. And it wasn’t a mile long!

Though I admit to some deceptively concise labels.

I used to think this complete listing was not possible, since I’ve watched myself latch on to any new idea that enters my line of sight. I’ll chew and taste and explore– and that willingness has sometimes made me feel like and intellectual toddler who needs to be protected from my own curiosity.

That unnamed image actually made me vulnerable to the type of person who was more interested in telling me how to think than strengthening my own ability.

It was my untrained, but still existing, ability to resist this attitude that taught me I wasn’t an intellectual toddler.

Image courtesy of Mihai Tamasila via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Mihai Tamasila via stock.xchng

I was an explorer– an occupation which requires intense levels of maturity, initiative, adaptability and courage, words that, until last year, never entered my mind as ways to describe myself.

Much of my adult life has alternated between delighted and frantic exploring. I see something I don’t know, and rather than just enjoy it’s existence, I need to understand it– to explain it– to participate in it. Sometimes I feel behind and deficient until I am up to speed with usable information about whatever just hit my radar.

[I should qualify this to say not everything-everything is this way. I always love it when an experience completely “misses” that absorption instinct– fly-tying, bell-choir, crochet, singing alto. It allows me to absorb– and release!– that topic in a completely different way.]

Sometimes, if I cannot deliver an extemporaneous lecture on any topic (no qualifications– any topic) that leaves me feeling deficient.

Today I’m declaring that unrealistic.

I have my brief (deep) list, it encompasses more to study than I can ever use up , and it provides quite enough meat and sugar for my life and brain.

I don’t need to keep looking for new things to know.

~ ~ ~

Image courtesy of Richard McCroskey via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Richard McCroskey via stock.xchng

For many years I have been in the pursuit of the “right” system– that magical *something* that will make life “work” where it hasn’t before.

I’m convinced such a system exists– there are so many books about organization and time-management with great (This WORKS!) reviews– but I think now that this system is something as effective as medication for brain-based disorders. That is, about 40% effective at best.

40% is a pretty high number, and nothing to dismiss– That is a LOT of people with improved lives. Unfortunately, if any of those lots-of-people found their peace (or method) without difficulty or pain, their level of understanding and compassion or grace is diminished toward the remaining 60%.

The rest of us must learn to live in ways that schedules and methods may inform, but not master.

In 2013, my future-focused, planning-addicted self began to ask:

What if this life didn’t change? What if this is who I am, what I’ve got, and it’s everyday? Then what? Would I choose this?

I’ve found this way of thinking to be incredibly helpful for me. It actually keeps things from getting too big. As someone who goes meta really quick, it’s about the only thing that’s ever been effective:

One day at a time.

Take food as an example. We all KNOW that we’re not supposed to “diet,” as in change the way we eat, just for a little while, with the plan to return to our old ways.

If we want to be healthier we must find a way (meals, timing) to eat that we are willing to continue forever.

One day at a time.

So this is where I’m beginning the new year:

I write. Every day. Already. I don’t need a resolution to do that.

Sort of like I eat. I don’t have to plan for it to happen.

I do have to have some sort of  plan if I want to reach certain goals, but this plan doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s.

The beauty of a plan, of any plan that’s worked for me, I mean, is how many decisions are already made.

And this loops back in to What you already know.

Decisions that don’t need to be made.

I do have goals, because I know where I want to end up.

But the difference this year is that I’m focusing exclusively on what I already know to do.

I know a whole. heap. of a lot. I have had experiences that worked, and have learned from things that didn’t work.

Image courtesy of Farquois via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Farquois via stock.xchng

For the month of January, I am doing many things (like pressing on with the writing plan I began in October), but counting the days, I am returning to a few food principles that I know work for me.

  1. I’m writing down what I eat– holding myself accountable for the good decisions I know I should make.
  2. Decide that every every meal (or snack!) I eat has to include protein.
  3. I will still eat deserts (while following #2), but only on the weekends.

These are all things I’ve done and sustained before. This is not an “experiment” I hope will work. These are proven strategies I’ve been too [fill-in-the-blank] to stick with.

So here it is: not a new-year-resolution, but a plan to remind myself

I have enough. already.

2013 In Review

Here’s my annual letter, the one I decided not to mail because I prefer readers who volunteer to read the info (blog visitors) rather than “forcing” it on folks. ;)

I would describe 2013 as the most challenging year of my life, but that could be because I’m sitting here looking straight at it for the first time, and I don’t really have the stamina to actively compare it with challenging years that have come before. Continue reading »

Limits and Love

I’m not sure how much I’ve written about it here, but one of my serious quests over the last few years is about naming (and to a certain extent accepting) my limits.

There is a fine balance between what we can do, what we should do, and what we want or need to do.

Last month– the month of November– I didn’t write much.

That is, I didn’t process much via journal or blog writing.

I did write my 50,000 words of Sherlockian Daze, and fell in love with a whole new cast of characters.

I also had my limits tested, and my will challenged.

The day after Jay left for his month in Antarctica, I was already past the half-way mark on my 50,000-word goal.

I should say a few things here:

  • At some point this summer Jay made the connection that when I said “our work is not equal” I wasn’t talking about value. I was talking about him getting to spend hours and hours of his life (almost daily) on something he enjoys and is good at.
  • He made the connection that the crowd-control, housework, homeschooling and the myriad of details that fill my life (while he is doing work he loves) is nothing close to “enjoyable” for me, and with a couple notable exceptions, something I’m only marginally “good at.”
    • I’m speaking here of the list above: people are not on that list. Just the grunt-work of making life liveable for a group of people.
  • Jay’s trip was up in the air because of the gov’t freeze, so I found out about 10 days before he left about his departure date. [Cue Amy’s standard non-freak-out that involves a lot of focused breathing, book-buying, and vitamin-checking.]
  • In a spurt of insightful generosity, Jay pulled his details together in time to stay home and manage the house and kids on November 1, so I could write all day. November 1 I wrote 10,352 words.
    • The 10,000-word day is sort of my generic “professional writer” benchmark, mainly due to this book. (Which I recommend: along with quality content it only takes an hour or two to read– which is also why I recommend it.) So crossing the 10K mark on the first was a big-huge deal to me.
      • She writes “full time” with her kiddo in daycare, which is sort of how I define full-time: someone else watching your kids so you can focus on something else.
  • I tracked my words per hour in a spreadsheet, so I saw that my 10K day was built in hours of 1,000- 1,200 word hours. So when Jay left and my life became exponentially more complex, I maintained my sense of professionalism and good will by producing at the same rate, but in smaller chunks. Chunks more like half an hour to an hour than whole days of application.

On that day after Jay left, I still had a mathematically doable goal of finishing the entire first draft (not just the 50,000 words) by the end of the month. I was half an hour (and a respectable 556 words) into my 2-hour writing block when a got a phone call from a young mom who asked if I could keep her baby “for about a week.”

I used to be a foster parent (of elementary-age kids, before I had two babies of my own) so I knew a few questions to ask, and a week seemed overly optimistic for resolution, but I said I’d talk to Jay.

Jay way still somewhere between Fairbanks and New Zealand, completely unavailable.

Normally my gap MO in such cases is to talk to my mom or dad, but they had left town that morning, and were also unavailable. So I called my IRL Christian/writer/mama friend (do you know how hard it is to get all five of those elements in one person?!) Afiya to have *somebody* who knew my situation to help think things out.

I don’t usually call (phones are not my friend), so she started by asking what was up.

This is why I needed my own pet in the midst of a busy life.

“Do you remember the last time I called when Jay was traveling? I was asking your opinion about adopting a little dog without his go-ahead, because I wasn’t sure it would still be around by the time he got home.”

“Oh sure,” she said. “Did you ever find a dog you both like?”

“No, we ended up getting two cats instead, but that’s not why I’m calling. Today I’m calling about a baby.”

“Oh, Amy, Amy, Amy…”

It was Afiya who pointed out I should ask the kids, enlist their participation because there was no way I could add a baby to my life as it is.

So I spoke with them (“Are you in? Because I’m not doing this by myself: God didn’t design a baby to be raised by one person all alone.”), they jumped at the idea, and that night I was doing baby laundry, watching babywearing videos on YouTube, and introducing my kids to the Dunstan Baby Language DVDs.

Over the last month my kids have impressed me again and again with their attentiveness and problem-solving skills as we’ve integrated this baby into our family.

It is unknown how long he will be with us, and I am thrilled to be writing this the morning after his second night of a big sleep-through (8p.m. to 6a.m.). Writing has emerged once again as a necessity, not a luxury, so with his stay stretching out I’m learning how to reintegrate writing even when we don’t particularly have a schedule. Since I don’t do schedules. Because they require too much energy in ratio to the benefits they proport to offer.

And, no, we don’t plan to adopt him, we’re just giving him a safe place to live while his forever-home stabilizes. Please don’t ask how we’re going to deal with “being attached” or the kids’ “being attached” or what we think we’ll do when he goes.

Odds are we’ll be sad. Odds are we’ll have a very real mixture of grief and relief, but fact is, there’s no way to “prepare” emotionally for a loss other than an unhealthy disengagement, which would damage baby as well as us.

I like how C.S. Lewis wrote about it:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

When I was 17, I considered a 6-month after-graduation job in another country. I actively considered what it would mean to fall in love with people and a community that I didn’t expect I’d visit again (non-traveler that I am). I quickly reached the “wrap [your heart] up tight” conclusion when I heard two words, almost as if from the voice of God.

Love lavishly.

It was my job, I felt him saying about me, to pour out the love I’d been given, the love I was full of. It was his job to keep my heart whole enough to keep loving.

 

I’ve learned a lot about love since I was 17, and I have learned more about actively protecting my heart, and defending myself in a useful way, but none of those things is really about limiting love. They’re about choosing how I’ll live, and accepting that people won’t always understand my love, or the way I express it.

One of my lessons is that the outward expression of my love (be that gifts, or listening or service, etc.) isn’t just about what I can do. That is too great a burden. It is about what I can keep on doing.

A one-time gift, or a series of large gifts, adequately spread out to allow me to recharge, is not showing greater love than the small bits that happen every day.

By making choices based on a pattern of sustainable giving, I am allowed consistency (one of my high values) and I am spared the choice or angst of having to decide with each “opportunity” to be stretched, can I endure *this* right now?

It is tied to my recent study of self esteem. My favorite summary of good self esteem has two parts.

  • The ability to trust your own mind.
  • The assurance you are worthy (or capable) of happiness.

By practicing these two halves, I am more-able to set meaningful limits in the relationships I have, and build a sustainable life that isn’t about running from crisis to crisis (mine or anyone else’s), putting out fires.

I used to think that if I was living life right, I could “work ahead” enough to coast for a while. I could push, then rest, push than rest. I wanted that rest so badly I pushed really really hard. But there’s always more to do, and there is a point we need to take the rest.

More than just taking the rest, which I believe *is* critical, I think some of us also need to work the rest into our daily living.

There will always be people “worse off” than me, and for a long time, I was not able to feel peace in my plenty because of that. But there will also be people better off than me, some because of their hard work and some because of good luck.

I can only live the life I have, and I have proven over and over again that I have plenty to think about without adding to the complexity of my world.

Life is complicated. Love hurts. Limits mean we don’t have to deal with all of everything at once.

Limits are a gift.

When Words Become Abusive

Image courtesy of Linden Laserna via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Linden Laserna via stock.xchng

I put the words “verbal abuse” in the keyword search engine for my local library, and one of the titles it brought back was a grammar [correction] guide.

That made for a great joke on Facebook, but no one asked why I was researching that topic (in fairness, I research a lot of random stuff as a novelist).

One of my skills is what I call “instant extrapolation,” the power to see A and reach G very quickly. I am very sensitive to attitudes and approaches to life and theology that grow into gross misrepresentations of God and his character.

But you see that word, sensitive?

“Admitting” sensitivity in some environments is tantamount to saying your awareness is not representative and may, therefore, be written off.  “Most people are fine,” the math seems to say. “This is just a random data point. Doesn’t matter.” She doesn’t matter.

Having removed myself from an environment that contained mental and emotional abuse, I am already feeling stronger, but I have continued to wrestle with the language to articulate what I walked away from, and I struggle with the question of grace.

That is, I really don’t expect people to be perfect (I am too aware of my own imperfection), so how do I make the distinction between carelessness, or foolishness, and abuse?

I came across a set of words recently that was a huge help in this process.

A few years back there was a huge on-line exchange between some pretty big names in the Christian world, including The Gospel Coalition, Rachel Held Evens and others.

This post includes the relevant links, but also the illustration of that point that has become so important to me.

Words are my gift, but (as much as I joke about it) reading minds isn’t.

I will do my best to be not-unkind, but I cannot control my own ignorance.  I don’t know what I don’t know, so I assume I will hurt people at times. I wondered if this made me an abuser.

The people who hurt me are still at least acting clueless, so I couldn’t figure out the distinctions.

Then this post. She says many meaningful and relevant things, but summed up my own pain and frustration in these words:

My issue is that a violation has occurred and no one will so much as even own it. My issue is that I am hearing almost the exact same words in the exact same mentality and attitude that were spoken to me when I was personally violated and spiritually abused: “I didn’t mean for it to be offensive, so if you’re offended, you’re wrong.”

It made me think of a (disappointingly common) scenario in my own household.

One child will be waving a stick, or throwing a rock, or swinging a toy around like David’s sling, and it will “impact” a sibling who was equally oblivious to the activity as the perpetrator was of the other child’s presence.

I have witnessed the wounder trying to prevent the hurt child from coming to a parent, and, failing at that, accompany the child to loudly protest innocence, even as tears roll over a rising welt on the wounded child’s cheek.

“I didn’t mean to hurt!” is the unchanging refrain, as if intent will absolve them of the effects of reality.

“The fact is, you did,” I always say. “What you meant doesn’t matter any more. You owe him/her an apology.”

This is the missing piece.

This is how I keep from becoming those I used to fear. I acknowledge hurt. I acknowledge ignorance. I acknowledge there is more than I understand, and that a person is worth my compassion, not my condescension.

Brother, if your sister tells you it hurts, it just hurts. If your sister tells you it wounded her, it just wounded her. And all any of this condescension and evasion of responsibility is doing is showing her that your need to be right is worth attempting to argue her out of her violation.

Jamie Finch from The Fig Tree