Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What are we going to do today?

We are going to do nothing. Nothing at all, nothing planned, nothing scheduled, no agenda, no calendar items, no outings, no play dates, not even laundry. We are doing nothing.

I am out of the office (again) after the two-week summer residency. Because I worked so much during the last two weeks, I've been itching to schedule out all kinds of fun during this week of vacation, this final week of honest-to-goodness summer before I go back to regular hours and they get ready for school. It has taken me a few days to feel like a thinking human being instead of a gray lump of motionless clay, but now, there are plenty of things-to-do on our things-to-do calendar, like the zoo, a Rubber Ducks ballgame, a wedding, a birthday party.

But TODAY, there is nothing. I laughed at Lydia and Elvis as they whined, "There's nothing to doooo," creating two syllables where there's only supposed to be one. Yes, there's nothing!

I feel a certain mix of guilt and delight knowing that my kids have to figure out for themselves what to do to keep entertained without the default television or video game. I have to resist the urge to monologue, "When I was your age..." but in my head, I remember it being just me and my brothers, or me and my cousins, inventing games and playing for hours. Or reading, how many hours did I sit and just... read?

Today, the kids have thirteen potential playmates within 500 feet of our house. It is a rare occasion when none of them are home, but it does happen, like this morning, when some are off to camp and others off to daycare and others still off to dentist appointments. It takes a little perseverance to break through the whining, but sooner rather than later, the default settings of boredom are overridden by creativity, and now they play Spy or build castles in the sand, or, like right this minute, they go to the pound and bark like dogs.

Meanwhile, my "nothing" is reading The Circus Train by Judith Kitchen, a novella-length essay that turns inward and outward, tracing trains of thought and circus trains and memory itself the way that one can only do when sitting still. Paused. Besides following Henry from the front of the house to the back and then to the front again in some subconscious attempts by him to keep me from being productive, I have wandered with her through memory and into my own past, where cousins counted different colored cars as they passed, where we stretched out on a blanket and stared up at the clouds, making shapes and figures out of vapors.

Now, I have sat here long enough to hear the dozen honey bees humming in the Russian sage. I have sat here long enough to watch a monarch butterfly dart from flower to flower, its lemon wings folding and unfolding. I have sat here long enough to watch a hundred cars accelerate and brake up and down our street, darting along their roads between somewhere and somewhere else, off to do something, and I have done nothing except observe and travel through Judith Kitchen's memory into my own and back again, back to the monarch on the flower, back to the buzz of cars and bees and children, back to the nothingness of activity.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Holiday Greetings from Nine-Month-Contract Land

I'm a Donkey on the edge!
Back in November, I surveyed the approach of the holidays, the onset of bowl season, the ramping up of my husband's travel season, and the end to my four-day work-week on an 11-month contract. With all of the calm and clarity of a person anticipating the possibility of another mental breakdown, I sent an email off to my boss and the chair of the department declaring my desire for...no, the necessity of a modification to my contract. Either I work less or I look for another job. Boom.

If life was organized into collections of photo albums like it is on Facebook, then for me, the Spring of 2013 is the cardboard box of photos and negatives that got dropped in a mud puddle and then a toddler crawled inside and crinkled them all up. Every single thing was difficult. A quick peek back around February/March 2013 is funny-sad-bad.

I wasn't positive that this spring would be different, but I knew one thing. I didn't want to do that again.

It turned out that Spring 2014 was not the same soggy cardboard box of photos that Spring 2013 was, though when May ended I stumbled out of it feeling a little shocked and surprised.

Well. *Looks around at the lack of wreckage* That wasn't so bad. That actually went well. Brandon worked more local games, and I think that is the primary reason my head didn't implode.

There was also the shining beacon of The Future ahead: As of June 1, my 11-month contract at Ashland University turned into a 9-month contract.

After the first month of my new arrangement in which I had anticipated hours of free time spent with my family laughing and dancing in sunlight while Bob Marley sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and evenings cozied up on the couch with my man and my laptop writing the Next Best American Essay Collection, I am here to report that living in nine-month-contract land is not all that it is cracked up to be.


On Wednesday, I was off in nine-month-contract land checking email, because that's what I do from home when I'm not in the office, and Henry crawled up onto my lap between me and the computer, grabbed both of my arms and held them against his chest. He would NOT let me type. No matter how much I tried to break away, he just wouldn't let go. He thought it was SO funny, me chuckling and trying to type. 
"Now, Henry, let me just... if I can just finish this one thing... Just... Let go, Henry!" I said, for about twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes. That's how long I tried to do WORK from HOME on an UNPAID VACATION DAY while my son held my appendages hostage against his chest.

Here is the only trouble with nine-month-contract land that I can see, and it's all my fault: I still feel an obligation and necessity to work twelve months out of the year, to check my email and answer questions, even when I have a new administrative assistant I can delegate things to out of sheer necessity of NO TIME to do all the things anymore. I care a lot about my work, and I want it to be successful.

But Henry wouldn't let me work, so with a huge exasperated sigh I closed my laptop. This is where it gets really tough. Prepare yourselves for the horror of nine-month-contract land.

I took the kids to the pool.

We swam for a full hour with no pressing deadline to hurry up get out we need to go home to eat dinner and then bathe and then sleep. Normally, if I took the kids to the pool, we would go at 6 p.m. after eating the fastest dinner on earth, swim until 6:30, get out because it takes my children 30 minutes to move from the pool to our car, go home and take the baths that require 45 minutes of undressing and peeing and splashing and redressing, and then FINALLY bedtime. During that stretch from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m., I am in constant forward-thinking mode - hurry up and fill-in-the-blank so that we can hurry up and fill-in-the-blank. 
But Wednesday, in nine-month-contract land, there was no hurry up. There was only swim. Okay, you've had enough swimming? I guess we should get out then. Ho hum. Tweedle dee. Off we go. Meander and twiddle. Into the car. La dee da. Home again home again, jiggedy jig. At home, I made lunch at my leisure. 

Here, kids. Here is some food. Eat when you are hungry until you are hungry no more. The sun peeled back the clouds and the atmosphere warmed up, so, kids, why don't we go to the spray park? La la la. Off we go. Have some snacks, there's nowhere to be except here, right here, in nine-month-contract land.

On Thursday in nine-month-contract land, I worked from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., and sweetheart, you ain't seen nothing until you've seen me wanting to get all the things done before needing to be out of the office in nine-month-contract land for a week and a half. I am an administrative rock star. I administrate the heck out of work. Projects were zinging back and forth off the walls and into other people's offices; proofs zooming here, final versions swooping there, to do lists shot through the heart with check marks. At the end of the day, I kicked some checklist butt.
And today in nine-month-contract land, because I have an awesome husband with some fantastic friends, I spent nine glorious hours by myself. First, I left my phone downstairs and woke up when my body was ready to wake up. Ahh, I said, rolling over and stretching, is that daylight I see? Time to wake up, tra la, tra la! 
I exercised. No need to look at the clock-- there's nowhere else to be, sister. Just lift your weights. Just run on your treadmill. Then walk back home, because no one is waiting for you, so you don't need to drive the quarter-mile to and from the gym, there's all the time in the world. Take as long as you want in the shower. Drink some coffee. Switch a load of laundry. Type a while on the computer. No hurry. No worries.

All of that anxiety back in May about whether or not we could make it on two-months-less pay, and this is what I get? Relaxation and sunshine with my family?

What a waste of emotional energy.

"There is more to life than increasing its speed." - Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Just One More

I am confident that everything I have to give to my kids is never enough. All night long, they ask for things, all the things, every single thing. Just one more kiss. Just one more hug. Just one more song. Just one more book. Just one more game of tag. Just one more slow gathering of the outdoor toys. And if I ask them to do something beyond themselves, like, say, pick up their shoes and put them in the closet, it is as if I have shot their dog and sentenced them to a lifetime of slave labor.

I hate that all of the asking for more all of the time makes me so angry and irritated. I don't want to give you another hug because I just gave you SIX, AND we read a story, and you've gone to the bathroom twice, and before that I rocked you and sang "Wagon Wheel," and before that, you took a bath that lasted ten minutes longer than I wanted it to because you started to whine about letting the water out of the tub, and no, you can't watch until the next commercial break, because that's what you said the last commercial break.


Just, just, just be content, please! I love you so much and I don't want to yell or make you cry or turn you down or leave you kicking and screaming in bed because you pushed us all beyond your regular bedtime and now you are over-tired and I am angry that you aren't listening. I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. Just be content. What more can I give?

I think this is why this job of mothering is so exhausting. I can do the dishes and the laundry and make the dinners and vacuum (occasionally). I can do those things with ease and a jolly spirit. It's the Just-One-More disease that kills me. It wipes me clean out. After a night of severe Just-One-More-itis, I am bankrupt. Fill me with American Honey and send me to the couch for a romantic comedy or a dozen rounds of Candy Crush Saga or a book. Or just send me to bed.

I don't know the antidote to Just-One-More-itis. It appears as if I will daily disappoint my children by denying them just one more of something.

Unfortunately, it's the human condition. Ambition bites the heels of contentment all day, every day - in my case, it's just one more publication, just one more essay. I have to fight against my successes and failures defining my self-worth and instead remind myself that the things that I find most satisfying do not come with an acceptance letter: planting seeds and watching them grow, laughing with my husband, snuggling with my kids on the couch, writing for the sake of creating art, reading a good book, long talks with wine or coffee with friends, eating together with family... these activities dwell in the land of contentment. Ambition runs right over those things. Just one more level on Candy Crush Saga. Just one more.

What does it take to kill Just-One-More-itis? Persistence. Rationale. Setting priorities. Prayer. Patience. I think it's one of those diseases that keeps dormant for a time, and then just when you think you're cured, the symptoms start popping up again: oh, maybe just one more. It's no big deal. Just one more.

No more. Be content.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Showers

It is the end of National Poetry Month today, and while I wrote not a single poem for the month, I have been busy chiseling away at my memoir-in-essays, which has its own sort of lyricism and poetic turns, and that totally counts, right? I have done much to celebrate poetry in April, however, giving readings and talking enthusiastically about iambs and line breaks to ever-patient audiences.

I'm also celebrating the end of the spring semester today. There were many leaps forward made this semester in the Ashland MFA Program for me. I even have the first draft of my memoir-in-essays all saved in one Word document. This is a slight hazard to my health, because every time I make a change in an essay, I then have to go in and make a change in the book-length document, which drives me slightly batty.

I was thinking about "book-length" the other day. A few summers ago, I posted to Facebook or Twitter how daunting the idea of writing a book seemed. I told myself, better to write a sentence. And then a paragraph. And then maybe a couple of paragraphs. And then maybe an essay. And then start over. And then see what happens from there.

So that's what I did. Little bites. Just like every single other thing in the world, just take it in little bites.

More things happened this month-- I went to my best friend's Orthodox Church for a service during Holy Week that was lovely and refreshing; the kids and I tagged along with Brandon to South Bend, IN for Easter weekend; I spent a hilarious weekend with writer friends in Grand Rapids at the Festival of Faith and Writing, where I twisted my ankle dancing to American Pie; I read loads and loads of poetry to people.

And I've been thinking about a lot of things. I've been thinking a lot about bravery and bearing witness in writing and the power of vulnerability. I've been thinking about how my garden needs to be tilled. I've been thinking about how I'd really like to write some poems again someday. I've been thinking about how I'd really like to go to yoga or maybe even exercise again. I've been thinking about how I am changing to a nine-month contract beginning June 1 and what that means for our family financially and what that means for our family's health. I've been thinking about how we teach our children faith and hope and love and mercy and patience and how those methods differ from teaching them to study the Bible. I've been thinking about budgets and patience and stability and contentment and when you feel called to a place and how to tell when you've been released. I've been thinking about friends and community and large backyards and sandboxes and neighbors. I've been thinking about grilling out and being barefoot. I've been thinking about what a great winter and spring it's been, and how the tree outside my office window is sucking up the precipitation and pushing out leaves right now, right this minute, dripping and growing and greening up as if it takes nothing at all to do these things, nothing at all to recover from winter, to grow and to thrive.

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Writing Process

My good friend, Kate Hopper, has invited me to participate in this fun little blog tour about writing process. Kate is a brilliant writer and teacher who has published two books you might be interested in: Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. She has taught at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference since its inception, and that's how I've gotten to know her. She is fun, thoughtful, and passionate, and I just love reading her stuff and getting to chat with her!

So, here's a little bit about my writing process:

1) What am I working on?
I am currently shaping and straightening, like a hairdo, a collection of essays-in-memoir about my relationship with my dad and my relationship with my husband. It travels from youth through adolescence and then takes a hop, skip, and jump into the tenth year of marriage. The essays wrestle with body image, temptation, love, romance, obsession, faith, self-confidence, transitions from father's daughter to husband's wife, role reversal, the objectification of women, and parenting. And everything else I can jam in, too. The collection is tentatively titled, American Honey. This is the primary focus of my writing world right now, although I have sent out some poems here and there, just for fun.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
A lot of my material is rooted in faith and in doubt, wrestling between the two, and even though God might not come up directly in essays, underneath the surface he's always there. Like many essayists, I write to know more and to ask questions about what I think I know already or hope to know soon. I try to achieve what in yoga my friend, Jody, calls being "rooted and reaching" - my feet are generally planted firmly in the practical details of life while my hands are reaching upward and outward, seeking meaning beyond the physical world.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do because it is what feels most urgent right now, and I don't know of many books in which marriages survive. I wanted to write a marriage memoir that shows the nitty-gritty details of daily life, with all its challenges and compromises and promises, in the midst of living. Most marriage memoirs I know, the spouse either leaves or dies. In case you don't know yet, I am still happily married to my husband, and both of us aren't dead yet. The funny thing about trying to write these essays is that my dad kept appearing, and I decided to let that thread develop in my writing, to follow where Dad led me. This turned out to be a good idea. I have learned so much about myself and my marriage and my husband and my father by following the flitting butterfly through the field.

4) How does my writing process work?
I tend to write blathering first drafts that are horrible and ugly and resemble the title of my blog, "And so" first drafts. The lovely thing about these first drafts is that often one essay actually contains two... or more... essays that can be yanked out and shaped until they look more like something someone might want to read someday. I jam writing time into the crevices of the day - I am writing this on my lunch break while my husband plays basketball and my son takes a nap - or in the evenings after the kids are asleep. Sometimes, if a thought is really nagging on me, I'll carry my laptop around the house from task to task. It sits on the dryer while I fold laundry. It sits on the counter while I chop carrots. I usually work on more than one essay at a time because I'm thinking about more than one thing at a time. Lately it's all nonfiction, but maybe someday I'll write a poem again.

Next Up!
Here are three ladies you should get to know. They will post their blog tour replies next Monday, but check them out now!

Sonya Huber - I met Sonya through the Ashland MFA Program when she taught for us, and I adore her passion, her laugh, and her compassion for others. She is a lovely writer and a lovely person. http://sonyahuber.com/

Callie Feyen - Callie and I are social media pals. I've never met Callie in person but we've exchanged packets of writing together for over a year, and her blogs about parenting are just phenomenal. http://www.calliefeyen.com/

Yankee Drawl - Jayna and I have known each other since high school. She blogs about parenting three little people, and I think she is hilarious. http://www.yankeedrawl.com/

Monday, March 24, 2014

I Don't Read Postcards from Hell

I got a soul that I won't sell, 
And I don't read postcards from hell. 
- The Wood Brothers

It's been about a year and a half since I wrote this post, "Crazy Jesus Parables and Dead Pigs." In hindsight, it's a rather cryptic post. I don't give any context to why driving out demons and the house of the impure spirits meant something to me right then, that fall; I don't let on that I felt like I was constantly pushing off the temptation to engage another man who was interested in me, I don't let on that I did not want anything to do with him but I also didn't mind hearing that someone found me attractive, I don't share how conflicted I felt, how guilty I felt, how weak and needy and lonely I felt, even though my husband was around, yes, around, but I missed him. I was distracted and tense, trying desperately to stay pure, to resist temptation, to keep it together.

I wrote about what was happening in my life but I didn't really write what was happening in my life. My world was under threat, and I was the first guard at the gate. What better weapon to wield than the Word of God? 

I am not sure what would have become of me and my marriage if it wasn't for the Bible. 

This sounds crazy. 

Crazy Jesus Parables and Dead Pigs sustained me. Letters from the epistles reminded me what to do when my emotions reeled, when my immediate heart's desire was to be filled, to be filled with something, anything, when the easiest access was this other man who so readily handed out compliments, who readily flirted, who assumed I wanted to hear these things... and I did.

Except I wanted to hear them from my husband, the man I had committed to love, til death do us part, not him.

As fall crept into winter and winter sloshed into spring, resistance built on resistance, brick by brick. Gradually, it passed. It passed, and I survived. Our marriage survived. The notes and emails from him didn't stop, entirely, and some of the things he said ran on a random loop in my brain, but I knew what was right. I knew what was good. I knew what was true.

Lately, my guilt and shame about being tempted at all has dissolved away into rage. How dare he? I find myself thinking, from the safe distance of a healed marriage, from behind the wall of love and security my husband has built around me. This is one truth: I did not ask for those things. The realization that what I put up with for almost a full year could have been, should have been, called sexual harassment, this realization obliterates everything else.


Because this is another truth: I was still vulnerable. There is something inside me that longed to be filled, to be openly adored and desired, and, let's face it, after nine years of marriage, isn't everyone a little tired of trying so hard all of the time? The temptation was strong. It would be a lie to push the burden of responsibility entirely onto the other person. But it would also be a lie to take the full weight of that responsibility.

From this side of mercy, Brandon and I tell each other all things. Everything has been laid bare here; every temptation, every hurt, every longing. He has seen it all, and he still loves me. He loves me, he loves me, he loves me.

From this side of mercy, I see the Word of God a bit differently. As a new believer, I viewed the Bible and its rules as guidelines to earn God's love and acceptance. The B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. How clever. The laws of God were given to keep me in line; if I followed them, then God would bless me. If I broke them, God would turn his back on me.

Over and over again, the psalmists praise God's laws and precepts. "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long," the psalmist says in Psalm 119. What?! How could someone sing about rules? How could someone love the law, those restrictions, those barriers, how could someone praise God for the law?

From this side of mercy, however, I find myself singing along with the psalmist, "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long." It was the law, the Word of God, that showed me the way and said, now walk in it. The heart only wanted to be filled, immediately. I used to think the Law was given to earn God's love, but now I see that the Law was given as a gift of love from God. The Law was a grace bearer. The Law, fulfilled in Christ, delivered me. 

Here, child. I love you. I don't want to see you in pain. Here, let me tell you what to do, even though you think this is the hardest thing you could do, here, let me show you the way so that you might walk in it, so that you might walk into the valley, through the desert, and enter the promised land. You will persevere; perseverance will produce character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint. You will do more than survive, my child, you will thrive.

Daily I sing, from this side of mercy, from this side of grace, from the broken but healed side of redemption, "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Beauty Everywhere

A raging feminist has been lurking dormant in my system, it seems, and lately I find myself enraged at the objectification of women, lies we're told about our bodies, lessons we learn by osmosis-- how to talk about ourselves as never meeting the Photoshopped standard, too big here, not enough there, flaw after flaw after flaw, how to measure our self-worth, whose opinion matters. How dare they, I think. How dare I be judged and judge myself only on appearance?

Because of this, I have wrongly started to resist the word "beauty," hesitate to label a person as beautiful. The beauty of a human body is too closely aligned with sex appeal in our culture. I find myself thinking, "Wow, she is really beautiful," and then flinch - oh, no, am I a product of my culture? Have I fallen slave to the sex selling machine?

I want to be beautiful. Not just the inner beauty we all tout around, I also want to be beautiful outside; to leak joy and hope, yes, but also to view my physical being, not just my spirit, as a thing of beauty. Instead, I have been trained to analyze every perceived flaw in my figure. 

Beauty, we say, is in the eye of the beholder, but I don't think that's true.

When we look at the mountains, do we think, "Well, that range sure would be stunning if the trees were a little taller." When we look at a flower, do we think, "Oh, if only that marigold had a few more bunches of yellow, then it would be beautiful." When we are overwhelmed to the point of silence by a sunset over water, clouds pierced by rays of light reflected on waves, an array of color so bright we have to squint, our eyes tear up, can we think anything except awe, anything except, "Wow. Stunning. Amazing. Awesome. Gorgeous. Beautiful."

No. The thing itself is beautiful, whether we say so or not. Even the crumbling brown landscape underneath the frozen pack of snow finally exposed in the bright March light this eternal winter is beautiful, its grasses crisp, its dirt soaked, the buds on its branches so real, so good, so true. It is beautiful because it is. It is beautiful because it is real. It is good. It is true.

The philosophers of the ages hold up beauty as transcendental, equal to and paired with truth and goodness. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are the defining characteristics of God in the church. Where one goes, the other two follow. Complete truth, beauty, and goodness is holiness; it is what Christians aspire to in order to achieve wholeness in Christ, who is the embodiment of these three characteristics. 

Beauty is fine in nature, it is fine in art, fine in landscape, fine in architecture, fine even in the perfection of math, in science, in physics, beauty as theory as measurement as precision as symmetry as color as prism as light. 

Why not the human body?

This, I asked myself today as I walked from my office back to my car, surrounded once more by college students, all in their late teens and early 20s, bodies embellished or hidden, tucked in skinny jeans, falling out of tank tops, topped with ball caps, pierced, tatted, booted, some bare, some smiling, some talking, some frowning, some laughing, and all I wanted to do was stop each one and say, "God, you're beautiful." All of you. Miraculous you. You are beautiful because you are. You are real. You are good. You are true. You are beautiful, God-breathed, unique.

There's a quote that is often mis-attributed to C.S. Lewis that says, "You don't have a soul. You have a body. You are a soul." I used to love this, loved it even after I knew that C.S. Lewis didn't say it, because it de-emphasized the part of my being that I have always been most critical of, scorned and embarrassed by. Good, see, I will shed this body and be an eternal soul, and that's all I need to worry about, my soul, its truth and goodness and beauty, not my body, withering and dull and flawed. 

But this is not true. We are souls. We are also bodies. We are also minds. We are also spirits. We are all of these things, so intricately woven together that we still cannot unravel them to find where soul ends and body begins, where mind stops and spirit starts. We are all of these things, mystery of creation and dust, mystery of growth and decay. We cannot deny that we are also bodies; we cannot rail against the structure that holds the rest of us together. To deny the body is to deny a part of our being, and now we are denying ourselves wholeness. Truth. Goodness. Beauty.

Can we begin to separate sex appeal from human beauty? Can we begin to celebrate the human body in its strength, its tone, its architecture, its flexibility, its aesthetic design, its full range of motion and its ability to heal? How drastically different would it be to think of ourselves this way, instead of comparing ourselves to the cover of a magazine, judging a woman who walks down the street, casting a downward glance to avoid the crazy thought that someone else is lovely? Can we begin to speak truth into ourselves, into our children, into our family members, into our friends, maybe even into strangers, "God, you're beautiful." Beautiful because you are

Beauty. It is not such a difficult word.