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.

Almost.

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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Westbound and Down, Rollin' Up and Truckin'

"we gonna do what they say can't be done. We've got a long way to go, and a short time to get there, oh westbound just watch ol' Bandit run!"

Yeeeee hawwwww!



Tomorrow morning at the wee hour of 4 a.m. I'll be zooming out of here to the airport for another year of AWP, this year, all the way in Seattle. I am so happy that I am not in the state of mental breakdown that I was in at this time last year. I have not been dreaming about flies hatching out from underneath my fingernails, and no one in my immediate family has suffered from a kidney stone this week. Given those two things, I'm in paradise.

I am reading my work TWICE at this year's conference - first as part of the River Teeth 15th Anniversary Reading (I'll be excerpting "Country Boys, City Boys") and then later that night as part of the WordFarm/Rock&Sling/and someone else poetry extravaganza (planning to read "Making the Bed" from PBB). It's going to be a busy conference, with two dinners/parties for River Teeth and the MFA Program, plus readings and signings and meetings galore. PLUS I am staying with two of my favorite writer friends! We will be... Sleepless... in Seattle.

This is the first time in recent history that my children have been sad that I am leaving. I feel a little bad because... well... I'm not sad that I am leaving. ha ha ha. I AM sad that they were sad at bedtime - Lydia even cried. I held her for a long time until she got sleepy. Henry told me, "Don't go to work, Mom," which darn near broke my heart. Why don't they do this when Brandon leaves? He's gone ALL THE TIME. (Well, not all the time. But, he certainly travels more frequently than I do.) Of course I'll miss them. Of course. But MAYBE, it's time for mama to get out of Ashland and see her writerly friends.

At any rate, three little love letters are waiting on the counter for them when they wake up. And there will be Skype sessions ahead for the three little people, too. I will get my fill of writer egos, black clothes, books, and bars, and happily return ready for hugs and kisses from the sweet ones.

My husband, on the other hand, I will miss terribly, miss him already because he's working tonight in Cleveland. Sigh. Excuse me for one second, but how good is it to be loved and to love? It's a good kind of missing happening. I already can't wait to see him on Sunday.

And now I am off to sleep as much as I can before 4 a.m. Egads.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love Means Buying All the Things

It's the morning of V-Day, Henry woke up at his usual 6 a.m., and as I rolled out of bed, I began my usual scroll through last night's Facebook posts. Lots of posts about people's kids being their Valentines. And then I remembered. Nope. I did nothing for this holiday.

I've decided that maybe I'm the worst at Valentine's Day. I dread Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day, and to a lesser extent Halloween and Easter, not because of what they stand for but because I know that somehow these holidays are going to make me feel inadequate as a parent.

I love to buy gifts for my kids. For Christmas. And birthdays. But some of the holidays in between have been injected with steroids and made to look just as big. Candy everywhere. Stuffed animals with little hearts. Pink and red and sweet sweet sweet.

Do you buy your kids Valentine's Day gifts? I've run out of time this year; I had it in my mind for two weeks that maybe I could find something special for my little ones, even though we just finished a marathon of gift giving and receiving just six weeks ago, and yet I am still compelled inside to buy buy buy buy buy, buy more things to accumulate on top of the other things just so that they get some things on yet another holiday!  Things!

Who doesn't like to receive a present? Really? I LOVE presents. Of course my kids love presents, for that thirty seconds it takes them to open each gift and then the five minutes it takes for them to play with it until it becomes like all of the other collected remnants of previous presents.

Gifts is one of the many ways we can show our children love. In my case, though, I suspect the greatest gift I can give my children is more of my time and attention. Maybe instead of feeling so much pressure to go out without them to buy them stuff to show them I love them, maybe instead, I ought to shut off my phone and my laptop and turn my attention on them, play with them, snuggle with them, read with them, give them my undivided attention, which is what I yearned for as a child, too.

The day, every day, lots of days, can be made special in any number of ways. We tend to overemphasize the gift component of showing our love to people in our culture, mostly because we're a capitalist society driven by the success or failure of the economy, and all day long the television and the Internets tell us we better buy this car or that candy or this jewelry because that's how she'll know, that's how she'll remember you love her.

And that's true. But it's only partly true. The things they might need most from you today, and all of the days, are your presence, your encouragement, your help, your body snuggling against theirs on the couch. Expressions of love are meant to make us know that we are not alone. We are loved.

I'll admit I'm also trying to make myself feel better about not having time to buy all the things for my kids for Valentine's Day. So in basic self-justification mode, I'm ripping the giving of gifts for every occasion, and that's not fair. It's also focused on what I need to receive love, which is not usually gifts but more often time and attention, a body snuggling against mine. What are my kids' needs? Love in all the ways. But it doesn't need to come all at once, either.

I don't need to buy in to the marketing schemes to spend more money that I don't have in order to express love. But I do need to do something. I will love on my kids. I will love on my spouse. And it will be okay that they don't have a huge spread of stuffed animals and candy and chocolate to accompany it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Case For and Against Detox

As you might know, Brandon and I planned to detox throughout the month of January after happily indulging in all things sweet and fermented for the month of December.  It only seemed right to respond with the same or more fervor about diet as we had given toward gorging ourselves with holiday treats.

We started off well.  I think a solid week went by in which we adhered to our own strict guidelines (based primarily off of the Whole 30 plan). Then, a new wine bar opened in Ashland.  

Maybe you missed this news because you are so fascinated by yet another post by me about eating. 

THERE'S A WINE BAR IN ASHLAND.  In Ashland, Ohio.  I'm not kidding.  It's called The Happy Grape, and it's so lovely.  You must go.  

Which is what I did, two days in a row, the first day because it was opening day and when something as wonderful and unusual appears in Ashland, Ohio, you have to be there for opening day, and the second day because Brandon and I required a detox-free date night.  That particular day came with a whole host of heaviness, and we needed to unload.  We went to our favorite restaurant, The Cabin, and then ventured to the Happy Grape for dessert.

After date night, there were nights I got home at 5:30, and Brandon knew he was leaving for work the next day, and there weren't any leftovers left, and ooooh wellllll, order a pizza.  And then there were football games and friends, birthday parties and potato salad and cupcakes, and we partook of all that is good and sweet and fatty and alcoholic.

Here at the end of detox January, I am declaring our detox a brilliant success.

Because not once did I say to myself, What do you think you're doing?  You can't eat that! nor did I whisper to the little troll that controls my appetite, Okay, little troll, since you've failed today and permitted yourself these two slices of pizza, you are free to give up, you failure. Go sit in the corner and be quiet. It's no use.

Neither of these thoughts occurred to me because it's just food.  

We are a culture of extremes.  Starve yourself!  Stuff yourself!  Be the Biggest Loser!  Food is King!  Worship food!

But I say, stop idolizing food.  It is fuel to keep your body running.  In order to operate with the most functionality and wellness, to run with the fewest belches and rattles under the hood, the body needs to eat good food.  

You know crunching through an entire bag of chips and eating all of that cream and drinking all of that alcohol and indulging in all of those desserts isn't good for you.  It might taste good, initially.  It might feel okay, at first.  But then there's the gurgles, and the rumblings, and the gas, and the indigestion, and the heartburn, and the headaches, and the hangovers, and the 2 p.m. slump.  This is your body saying, I hate this!  Stop doing this to me!  

The body appreciates when we don't make it work extra hard to digest stuff that isn't natural; it runs best on certain types of food.  And when the body is running best, it stops being an uncomfortable distraction, allowing you to focus on other areas of health and wellness.

The body isn't just a piece of machinery that needs a particular combination of oil and transmission fluid and gas in order to work.  The body is also emotional.  The body is also thoughtful.  The body is also spiritual.  The body is also relational.  The types of food that you consume should not dictate or trump the rest of your body's needs.  Celebrate with those who celebrate!  Enjoy the company of friends and their delicious chocolate chip cookies without beating yourself up over it, but remember that your little troll can still say okay, that's enough now, two cookies is probably plenty. Go drink a glass of water, you sugar addict, you. 

Health is about more than just diet, and trying to extreme diet 100% of the time is the same sort of dysfunctional behavior that drives the appetite to eat whatever it wants.  Health is about exercise, and social interactions, and worship/prayer/meditation, and recreation, and sleep.

But health is also about diet.  In spite of the many pierogies and cookies consumed by me in December, in general our daily diets are clean.  I'm not tempted by soda anymore.  We have raw honey and maple syrup handy for sweeteners but otherwise we don't add sugar to much.  There's no dairy except sharp cheddar and greek yogurt in the fridge, and it's been so long since we've had pasta or bread in the house that it doesn't even cross my mind to buy it.  When we go to the store, we mostly perimeter shop, spending most of our time in the produce section and lingering for a few minutes in the meat section, mostly waiting for Henry to stop staring at the lobster tank.  

So when we determined to "detox" in January, the intent was not a radical modification of our existing lifestyle.  It was simply a good opportunity to reset after a season of much celebration, of much sweetness and thick pierogies and desserts and drinks.

Now, we're back to eating mostly meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, and seeds, eating until we're full and satisfied.  We're back to bi-weekly date night and the occasional glass of American Honey or wine to relax and enjoy each other's company.  We're back to Friday night pizza night.  If there are 21 meals in a week, two to three of those meals might fall out of the healthy category.  When those meals occur, the little troll doesn't get the night off.  He simply sits back for a couple slices of pizza until the ticker tape runs that says, I'm full now but I just love the way this tastes, and then he flashes his warning signal.  Time to stop now.  It was good, but don't make yourself sick, silly indulgent person.

So as the good King Solomon said once, Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved of what you do.  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Status Update: TLDR

I learned a new Internet abbreviation this week, TLDR, as in "too long, didn't read," which has me all kinds of sad because, well, here you are on my blog that by design goes "on and on and on."  I am the definition of "long-winded." 

Before you click away from this page after adding "TLDR" to the comments section (which has never happened to me yet), the following week in review is going to be a bullet list because all of us in any kind of field that requires marketing know that bullet lists are the only way to deliver content to a generation of overstimulated Internet users.

I had a really good week, by the way.
  • Wake Up Time: I didn't have to use my alarm all week long because of this guy to the right. Upon reading the Mary Oliver poem "Why I Wake Early" on Writer's Almanac, I composed this little poem, "Why I Wake Early" in response.
  • Work: Even though I'm now back to a five-day work-week like most of the adult world, I only had to work four days this week due to Snowmafreezebrrgeddon 2014. I shared this "Template for the Brief Bio" on Wednesday.
  • Writing: Besides these cheeky things, life in messay land was mostly sunny this week. (Watch out, this is where the bullet list goes crazy, indents and everything)
    • The spring semester of the Ashland MFA program started this week, and I am working with the fabulous Jill Christman this term.
    • I started sharing some marriage-based essays with The Good Men Project, including these two pieces, previously appearing here and on Brevity:
    • My poem, "Night Swim" circulated through the Every Day Poems newsletter
    • Writer friend Kate Hopper interviewed me on bearing witness, faith, family, and writing on her blog Motherhood & Words
    • Last night, I heard from the fabulous editor at Full Grown People that "Know True Love Ways," an essay about dancing with my dad on my wedding day, will be published over there.
    • Rejections and success seem to come in waves, and this wave is much appreciated after a couple of months of rejection slips.
    • I hit the landmark 5,500 tweets on Twitter, a rip-roaring 770,000 characters of wit, sarcasm, and links to wit and sarcasm. That's kind of an embarrassing landmark. Maybe I should delete it.
  • Welvis: My husband is off for nine days straight. Hallelujah!
  • Whole 30: BW and I started our detox on Sunday of this week, and I'm happy to report that my pants are starting to fit right again, the 2 p.m. slump is going away, and I'm back to sleeping like a rock. We don't eat poorly normally, but a brief detox period (30 days) right after the holidays is a good reset for me after letting my food impulses rule throughout December. And there's also all that American Honey and whiskey I was drinking...
  • Words with Friends and Candy Crush Saga: I continue to butcher and be butchered by "friends" on WWF, and now, I drift off to sleep with visions of red jelly beans switching with yellow lemon drops in my head. I'm on Level 50. Someone please uninstall these apps from my phone and Kindle.
How was your week?