Friday, December 21, 2012

In the Absence of the Apocalypse, I Will Smile at More Pedestrians

The world didn't end today.  Last night as I was getting ready for bed I wondered, "What if the Mayans were right?" and I realized: I'd be fine with that.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not depressed, or looking to escape. But I've reached the point in my faith where I'm excited about heaven. I believe it will be spectacular, and if we'd all awoken there this morning, I think it would have been quite a party.

But we didn't.  Which means there's still work to do.

In the sermon series that I can't stop talking about (that I will hereinafter think of as "The Advent Series," even though it thus far makes no reference to Advent), the speaker describes how having a sense of purpose in life comes from organizing one's life around ministry, or "changing people's lives for the better."

I like that, because it's so broad. I don't do all that much to change the world, but I do some little things that seem to make a difference. Like my new favorite activity: smiling at pedestrians in crosswalks.

Cambridge is a perilous city for transportation, with drivers, bikers & walkers all vying for the same small slices of pavement as we navigate.  There are crosswalks everywhere, which makes it close to impossible to get anywhere in a hurry if you're in a car (Indeed, the city has been systematically removing parking spaces in an unsubtle attempt to force us all to use public transportation. As a person who grew up in Maine, where one does not voluntarily go underground until one has reached one's own "end of the world," I dislike this very much).  So pedestrians are a kind of a pain if you're driving...and cars with frustrated drivers are a real danger if you're a pedestrian.

One day not long ago, a grumpy-looking woman was waiting by the side of the road.  I stopped, but she just eyed me warily, not moving. So I smiled, and waved her across.  Her entire face lit up in stunned surprise, and she trotted across the road waving and smiling back at me like there was a trophy with her name on it on the other side.  It was marvelous.

Ever since then, in my better moments, I smile at pedestrians.  The response is so uplifting that now I'm addicted.  Sometimes I even scan the sides of the road looking for some potential crosser to smile at (which gets awkward when people are just waiting for the bus).

So I'm glad that the world didn't end today.  It means there are more pedestrians for me to smile at.  A small thing I can organize my life around that will (hopefully) make this waiting of Advent, for Jesus to return to rescue us once and for all, a little bit easier.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Admitting Disappointment

The other day, Steve called in the middle of the afternoon to see how things were going.  As I started to  update him about a change in plans for a home improvement we'd hoped for, I was horrified to hear myself blurt, "I'm so disappointed!"  I went on to describe the shift, but I kept circling back to how let down I felt that things were going in such a different way than expected.

I was extra un-proud of myself for admitting this because it is SUCH an unimportant aspect of our life right now.  I mean, in the midst of all the very real things going on, who cares? 

Apparently, me.

Afterwards, I sensed God showing me how rarely I admit to Him when I'm disappointed.  I tend to skip right to acceptance when I pray ("Thy will be done"), with occasional detours through anger ("How could you let this happen?"), abandonment ("Why have you forsaken me?"), or ridiculousness ("Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!").  But in all of that, my point of view is that things are what they are, and I have to deal with it.

I felt like God was asking me to involve Him earlier in the process, before I decided all hope was lost and started working with this new reality.  So I did.  It felt weird to tell God, "I'm really disappointed about X...." But weird is okay.

This morning I read this wise gem: "If what God is asking you to do seems improbable or impossible, remember: all you have to do is take the first step."

This has proven true in my life so many times.  I wondered if by not admitting when I'm disappointed (at least not until later, when I can make a joke out of it), I'm skipping a step?  Maybe God doesn't want me to fling myself into forced acceptance, or assume that just because a decision is made, it represents His will.  Maybe disappointment is part of God's plan, intended to start a conversation with Him, a conversation that might lead somewhere interesting and unexpected.

If we're tuned into Advent, we hear endlessly about waiting.  Today, as I wait, my prayer is this:  Dear God, help me to put down all my pretending and be honest with you.  Remind me to talk to you as if You really care about how I'm doing -- when I'm fine, and when I'm hurt or disappointed.  Open my eyes to notice what happens next, and how You're in it.  Amen.

Do you tell God when you're disappointed?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Getting Unstuck

Yesterday I was listening to that sermon series I mentioned, and heard this (I'm paraphrasing):

"If some area of your life isn't working, do something different. Try something. Often, we're reluctant to try something new because we're afraid we'll make things worse.  But as God's people, we have a promise that we won't make it worse, because we're heading towards things getting better: our lives being more fruitful, our attitudes being more synched up with Jesus, the experience of more miracles and unexplained grace and power in our lives."- Jordan Seng

Interesting, right?  What if it's true that if we prayerfully try some new things to get unstuck, we have a promise from God that we can't make it worse?

Pondering this, I thought of two things:

First, Charlie Sheen. As clear an example as I've ever seen that indeed, one can try something new and screw up the rest of one's life in epic and theretofore unimagined fashion.  (See: "Winning!")

But before the snark got the best of me, I remembered (or was Divinely reminded; make of it what you will) that Sheen never claimed to be one of God's people. He claimed to be god.  If you're going to try something different, becoming your own god is a bad way to go.

My next thought was more helpful: a snippet from one of the Psalms that about how God's people (who may or may not have any overlap with Charlie Sheen's followers) are "blessed" and "go from strength to strength." Nice idea, right? So I looked it up to get some encouragement.  You can imagine my surprise when I saw that in my Bible, this passage (Psalm 84) is covered with notes from a conversation with my friend Lisa about how this is a prayer of disappointment and heartache. Here's the full verse:

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; 
the autumn rains also cover it with pools. 
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

So I prayed, asking God to sort me out. Here's what I saw:  God sets our hearts on pilgrimage - a journey we're called to that is designed to lead us to Him.  And yet part of this journey includes passing through the "Valley of Baka," which translates to the "Valley of Weeping." It's dark and sad and yes, disappointing.  But still, there should be a sense of progress. We don't stay there.  If we do, we can find ourselves going a little berserk, worshiping ourselves and talking about how we're invincible and filled with tiger's blood.

I'm guessing this was not at all what Jordan had in mind when he made this comment in his sermon.  But as I consider Psalm 84 (and the array of celebrity examples we have of what it looks like to be well and truly "stuck"), it seems that God does promise that life should involve progress, and if I don't see any for a long, long time - if I'm stuck in some area - then I can go ahead and change some things in an effort to get going again.  This may lead to more Baka moments - change usually does.  But on the other side will be strength and blessing...and God.  He promises.

What does this have to do with Advent? As we wait - in joyful hope or hopelessly stuck - we can ask: Is there anything I should change? And then respond with courage, trusting that God has us covered.

My prayer for today: Dear God, show me when to wait, and when to strike out and try something new. Give me wisdom and discernment. Help me believe Your promise that my journey will be from strength to strength until I appear before You.  Make me brave, even when I'm weeping.  And bring the morning, when the joy comes.  In  Jesus' name, Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bright Spots

In some seasons, certain books or songs come along that are like monkey bars for me - I reach for them over and over again as I make my way across the day. They hold me, somehow supporting not just my weight, but the emotional/spiritual burden of everything I'm carrying, too.  I think of these things as bright spots: bits of light to reach for when there's darkness all around.

Here are three bright spots lighting up my Advent season:

A book: Enuma Okoro's memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim.  She writes long, beautiful, sarcastic, candid, challenging, FULL sentences that poke at me and say, "Remember when you were brave enough to do that?" For example:  "I am a well raised, charming, highly educated young woman who can get even a mute person to tell me her or his entire life story in less than an hour. But that doesn't mean I know about neighborliness and servanthood. It basically says I know how to work a room."  Love it.

A song:  Stand, by Rascal Flatts. I first heard this when a contestant on The Voice performed it.  The lyrics make me tear up because they're so true and I need to be reminded: "Every time you get up & get back in the race, one more small piece of you starts to fall into place."  Amen to that.

And a sermon series:  Are You Stuck? by Jordan Seng. (Scroll down to 11/4/12 for the first one).  It's a series about waiting (and praying and working toward) a breakthrough. Jordan is a man of genuine, delightfully low-key wisdom.  I listened to this series in the car as I drove all over Cambridge this month, and the temptation to try and take notes while driving has been very real.  I resist, of course (If you've driven here you understand how truly stuck - or wrecked - that sort of multitasking would get me). But this is good enough that I'm hoping to rope off an entire afternoon soon and listen again, car in park & pen in hand.

My prayer today: Dear God, thank You for these bright spots. Please send more. Help me to see You in them. And bless us all as as we fumble about hoping to be bright spots for one another.  In Jesus' name, Amen.

What are your bright spots this season?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Saved by the Peach

What a weekend.

I spent Friday afternoon scanning online news updates of the tragedy in Newtown, afraid that if I watched the live TV coverage, I'd be too much of a wreck to pick up Princess Peach from school.

I felt trapped between the senseless evil of this massacre, and my new understanding of how children are put into real danger every single day by all manner of craziness.  I felt almost overwhelmed by the fear and anger, desperate to do something.  And yet aware of how little we can do.

Don't worry, I'm not climbing on a soapbox.  It's just that as demands for gun control and mental healthcare reform fly across my Twitter feed (and for the record, I'm for both), I know how useless such measures are in stopping evil.  Our laws don't have that kind of control...or miraculous healing power.

Hence, Advent.

We are (I am) desperate for rescue from the constant threats that assail us and the people we love.  We do the best we can, and yet we're waiting, hoping for something better, something that will really help.  Someone that will really make a difference.

On the way to school this morning, flustered by the new level of fear hovering in the air and trying not to show it, I was SO frustrated to find that our usual route was blocked by construction, and the next two roads turned (inexplicably, without warning) into one way streets a block and a half down.  There were repeated three point turns (and suppressed four letter words).

Princess Peach is very tuned into the emotions of the adults in her world, so she asked me, "Are you angry?"

"No," I said, trying to sound reassuring, "I'm just frustrated - all these turn arounds are making it hard to get you to school."

"JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH!" She yelled.

I took a deep breath, trying to say calm.  We're working with her on the whole "Not using God's name as a swear word" thing (and how there is some language you don't get to make choices about until you're a grownup.)  Then I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that she was pointing.  I looked, and sure enough:

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  A manger scene, lit from within, covered in icy rain.

Tears filled my eyes. Thankfully, the light turned green just then and I had to focus on the road - it gave me a moment to re-gather my yard sale of emotions.  When I looked back again, I saw Princess Peach still looking out the window, smiling.

I don't fully understand, and yet I know: The hope I'm longing for this morning is in that manger.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

To Change, or Not to Change? (It's Not Even a Question)

Yesterday I read a blog post from author Susan Isaacs where she considered a question she'd heard at a conference:  Where will you be in one year, three years, five years if you don't change anything?"

She shared her answer re: art, and how, if she changed nothing, she'd be exactly where she was that day, not having produced anything new, all of the ideas percolating in her heart and mind still unrealized. She shared how this pushed her to move forward and accomplish a HUGE artistic feat - inspiring stuff :)

The question stuck with me. At a certain point I realized that I was considering it not just as a writer, but across the larger span of my life. What I found surprised me.

Let me preface by saying, I've seen a lot of change. Steve and I are well-paired in that we're both pretty comfortable with risk, and so whether we put much intention into it or not, our life looks remarkably different year-to-year, even as the infrastructure (faith in Jesus, marriage to each other, cleaning up after THAT DOG's various misadventures) stays the same.

In this, I've learned:

1. There are some changes I control.  For example, whether I write, clean up the house, work out, reach out to friends, or take THAT DOG for a real walk rather than just another tour of the backyard. And some I do not.  Such as when I met my husband, if we have children, how well my books sell, or what my hair looks like on any given day (you'd think I'd have some control there, but no.)  So when I think about initiating change, I'm limited to group one. I've tried a bunch of times to force change in the second group and failed. (But found material for 2/going-on-3 memoirs, so not a total loss!)

2.  Change finds me. I don't have to hunt for it. As I think about where my life will be in one/three/five years if I don't change a thing, here's what I see:  I may not have finished any of the book projects on my laptop, which is sad.  But still, my life will look nothing like it does today, because I'm not the only player in this drama (or comedy) of life.  There are intervening factors, choices by other people, phone calls that come out of nowhere and reroute everything.  There's God.  He has a plan, and while I think I know the details, I don't.

What does this mean in terms of Advent?  Nothing, really.  Or maybe this: We think we know what we're waiting for...but we don't, not entirely.  We see pieces of the salvation we need: artistic motivation, romantic turnaround, family fulfillment, professional breakthrough (a trash can that will keep a dog out of the garbage once and for all...)  And yet God has more in store.  I'm excited about that possibility.  And it feels so vast and untamed that I can pray into it with boldness, having no clue at all what I'm asking for.

This thought, just now: What if bolder prayers are a bigger change-maker than I've considered?


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some Embarrassing Thoughts on Angels

We decorated for Christmas this year.  It's been awhile since we've done that - Steve and I typically celebrate the holiday at family members' houses, availing ourselves of their trees and tinsel.  But this year we went all out.

What surprised me as I looked around yesterday at our newly festooned living room was the prominence of angels.  With no specific intention on our part, there are angels everywhere.  And in that, I sensed God trying to tell me something.

Now, I wish I could say that the Lord led me to the Christmas story in the gospel of Luke, and I was awash in wonder at the miracle of the virgin birth.  But alas, no.

Instead (and perhaps because He knows me so well) God pointed me to a book. It's a paperback novel I've read at least four times, because it describes the battle between good and evil in a way that helps me believe.

The book is called This Present Darkness by Frank Perretti.  I first read it a the behest of a friend. She's a numbers person who never raves about books. So when she said, "You HAVE to read this," I did.  The prose is a little...unsophisticated.  But once I stopped being a writing snob, the plot swept me up in a story that felt very real, detailing a world where the people in power who are charged with looking out for others are corrupt, knowingly cooperating with evil, and hurting everyone they're supposed to be helping. In the midst of this, the prayers of the little people--the powerless--feel futile.  And yet a few  pray anyway, because that's the only thing they can do.

And in that, here's what Perretti shows us:  How their prayers summon angels.  Not sweet old-lady angels with harps and rhyming promises about sitting on your shoulder, but big fighting angels ready to deliver God's message, take down ugly spirits with their swords, and change things, miraculously, in the way that we hope for when we pray, but don't quite believe is possible.  (Sort of like Touched by an Angel...only with weapons!)

THAT is a Christmas message I can get excited about.

I doubt that things work exactly the way Perretti depicts in his novels. But I think he's onto something, offering a glimpse of the truth that invites us closer to God--to ask for more insight, more heavenly help, more belief that what is happening is not limited to what we can see.

That seems like an Advent-y kind of place to be.

My prayer today: Dear God, help me believe in Your angels. Help me trust that You are working in places I cannot see, bringing good I cannot anticipate, winning battles I'd give up on if left to my own devices.  Thank You for not leaving me to my own devices. I believe - help my unbelief. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

March Me Onward!

So I jumped the spiritual gun yesterday and turned on Christmas songs while I was running errands.  One of my favorites is Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, and when it came on, I accelerated a bit and sang along (I was alone in the car, so no small children or animals were harmed by the off-pitch clamor).

But when final stanza came, the part that declares, Ever singing march we onward, victors in the midst of strife! I burst out laughing. If someone were to put a caption under a video of my year, I'm pretty sure that would not be it.  (Every swearing, maybe...)  Lately, I feel more like a golf ball waiting to be whacked over the fairway than a holy majorette leading a victory parade.

As I giggled, I started to wonder: what would it look like if it were true?

Could I be a victor in the midst of a Target checkout line?  Do I have what it takes to be ever singing & marching onward on a night like last Sunday, when I made two pizzas for dinner and one of them came out raw & the other burned and then I was up until well after midnight trying to get my work done?

I don't know if I can, but I'd like to.  I want this to be my new caption.

So starting today, my goal is to be ever singing, marching onward, a victor in the midst of strife! (Complete with exclamation mark!)  We'll see how that goes.  I suspect there will be challenges.  But when I hit a bump in the road (or the road rises up and clocks me), I'll remember the thousands and thousands of people who have drawn strength from knowing that presumed victory in in the midst of strife is one of the benefits of faith in Jesus. We may lose some battles, but He wins the war.

As I was searching for a great example of this hymn to share, I came across this treat from the universally acknowledged film of divine inspiration, Sister Act Two.  Watch here as Lauryn Hill and Whoopi Goldberg put some groove in their onward marching.  And imagine how, when I got to the part where they do the mini-tribute to Janet Jackson ("ooo...what have you done for Him lately?"), I teared up, reminded again of how God uses every one of our interests and passions, fitting pieces together in ways we don't even see coming.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What To Do With Empty Space

"Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" - Luke 1:45

I'm thinking about promises this morning. Conceptually, that is -- I've not yet progressed to specifics.

At church yesterday, the sermon was on joy. The pastor noted how much of our joy is anticipatory: we feel joy when we get great Celtics tickets, even though it's weeks before tip-off and we have no idea how the game will go.  He described the joy he felt in waiting at the alter for his bride, even though he didn't know how their marriage would unfold. What we have in these moments, he said, is the promise of something we're excited to witness and be part of.  And we have joy in those promises.

I have all kinds of promises from God, both the ones in the Bible and the personal ones He whispers in my ear.  It's hard to believe these promises sometimes. (I tend to have more confidence that the Celtics will show up and play than I do that God will.)

And so I wonder: What would it look like for me to let myself be filled with the joy that comes from anticipating God's promises?  Over the years, I've gotten rather "realistic," as the ways I can imagine God coming through have blown by.  It feels more responsible to pursue acceptance instead, acknowledging that what I see today is the life God has given me, and if I can't find joy in that then I'm a faith failure.

What I love about yesterday's sermon is that it gives me a Biblical way out of this messy patch of lies. The Bible doesn't tell us to accept our sorry plight, or force ourselves to be happy.  Instead, it says, "LOOK AT ALL THESE PROMISES!" and suggests that we believe, and let anticipation of what God is rolling our way cause us to wiggle with joy, like little kids on Christmas Eve.  Just because we don't know how Santa will get those giant presents down the chimney does't mean he won't :)

As we were driving to school this morning, Princess Peach and I were listening to the Ryanhood song, I Didn't Put Anything Into Your Place (listen here).  She was singing along in the backseat, while I was navigating a traffic circle and thinking about how the lyrics remind me of Advent: the struggle to wait and hold the space for God's promises, rather than filling it up with other things.

Some drink in coffee and some think of shopping
Some get new lovers and some get new drugs
I wrote you to say that it must have been grace
I didn't put anything into your place

This is my prayer today:

Dear God, help me anticipate Your promises. Help me feel joy as I trust that the holes in my life will be filled with Your good gifts, and resist the urge to fill the space with placeholders. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

The One Sentence Plan

I finally finished reading Babar the King to Princess Peach last night (I'd forgotten that when the story is that detailed, one must read in installments.  It's like Harry Potter, only with elephants). The final line, offered by the King's friend the Old Lady after she recovers from a harrowing snakebite emergency, is this:

"Don't you see how in this life one must never be discouraged?  Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy."

Not a bad perspective.  I'm not sure I can pull it off with any consistency, but it seems like something worth striving for.

I think most of us need some sort of goal or standard by which to measure our choices as we make them. Not a grand standard, like the entirety of the Bible, but a bite-size synthesis that is consistent with the Bible, but manageable to consider in 15 seconds or less. It's handy to have some one-sentance reminders of who and how I'm hoping to be.

"Let's work hard and cheerfully" seems like a good one for me this season. It's so easy to get overwhelmed. And when things pile up, my reaction tends to be a low level of frustration about everything, even the things I like doing, or I get to do because God rocks.  A decision to go about my days - in this season of in the meantime, navigating the gap between what I see now and what I'm praying for - with a pre-made decision to work hard and cheerfully, seems like it could actually accomplish what the Old Lady promises: happiness.

(of course it also sounds a bit like one of those Chinese propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution.  Which may be why when I Google images for "work hard and cheerfully," it pulls up this picture of a folder labeled, People I Want To Punch In The Face. So I guess we'll just see how it goes...)

Do you have a reminder or slogan you use to keep you on track in the day-to-day?  Please share, in case this one doesn't work out! :)

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

We Make Plans...

I went to drop our foster daughter (who I will hereinafter refer to as Princess Peach in an effort to give her an identity and still protect her privacy) at preschool this morning, only to find her teachers in the parking lot, waving cars by.  The fire alarm was malfunctioning, so they cancelled school for the day.

As I drove home, I imagined a giant squeegee coming down from the sky, wiping off my calendar.

A popular saying claims that when we make plans, God laughs.  I'm not sure that's how it works. But there is a warning in the bible that says something along the lines of "Don't brag about what you're going to do tomorrow, because really, you have no idea how things will play out." I don't think I bragged about today, but I had a pretty clear plan outlined in my head.  Now I'm wrestling with how to go with the flow, scribbling "Go to library & playground" where "Finish chapter 8" used to be.

Bottom line: whatever thoughts I had about Advent this morning (there was something about a hymn I just realized I like even though I don't know most of the words) flew out the window as I drove home wondering what to make for lunch (Princess Peach doesn't really groove on my "let's just look in the cupboard and grab a handful of whatever is there" habit).  I might be back later with deep thoughts. Or not.

May your day be filled with only the best sorts of curveballs & surprises :)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Fault In Our Stars

Last night I stayed up a bit too late finishing this book. It's a love story between two teenagers who have cancer.  The narrator, Hazel, is fairly certain she'll die in the near future. She meets a boy, Augustus, at a support group meeting. They fall in love, and John Green somehow writes their story in a way that makes you feel like you're right there, a teenager again, watching these lives unfold.

When I turned the last page, I just sat there on the couch, staring at the back cover. I wanted to stretch out that moment, to stay with these characters a bit and think about what had happened.

I realized: as much as this is a story about dying...and's mostly a story about waiting (which makes it perfect for Advent).  For one small example: it was weird for me to imagine what it would be like to wait for a boy to contact you when you don't know how many days you have left to live.

Without giving the story away (it's too should read it), one of the most profound things the author explores is the idea of legacy: what we long for when we consider how (or if) people will remember us.  Augustus longs to be bold and heroic, to make his days count for something public and significant.  Whereas Hazel is more pragmatic about how cancer has made her world smaller-- her parents, one friend who tries to stay in touch and talk about normal things like shopping for shoes, Augustus--but she seems to have made peace that this is her life, and her role is to do the best she can within that.  That would be her legacy, and that would be enough.

I've always been more of an Augustus than a Hazel.  There's a line in Nichole Nordeman's song, Legacy, that gets me every time.  She asks God, "Did I point to You enough to make a mark on things?"  

How to measure such a question?

It makes me realize that much of the waiting I do is for opportunities: to point to God, to love someone or something in a way that makes a difference. And most of these moments aren't hugely heroic. They're small, and can fly by without me noticing if I don't pay attention.

Paying attention is just another word for waiting.

I tend to think of "waiting" as what we do before things get better. This book makes me think about all the waiting we do for the chance to be part of the solution, rather than rushing in, or walking away because things didn't work out in my timing.

If you're looking for an unusual way into Advent, try this book. (Here's a heartfelt review by novelist Lev Grossman if you're still on the fence). It gave much-needed depth and nuance to my understanding of what I (and we) are waiting for.

Monday, December 03, 2012


That Harry Connick Jr. movie insists that Hope Floats, and for the most part, I agree. But there are seasons in life where no matter how stubbornly buoyant my hope has been in the past, a sharp pointy object comes along and punctures it. Then hope is in pieces all over the pond, floating away.

On most spiritual paths I've walked, there is the belief (sometimes spoken, often not) that my hope is my responsibility. If it gets stabbed, shot, or stepped on, it's my fault for not taking better care of it. And it's up to me to find all the pieces and cobble it back together, STAT.

This is especially difficult in church settings, where my failure as hope's babysitter doesn't just let down some vague force or the universe, but God Himself.  Yikes. Better get that special hope glue, or rush to the hope store and ask for a new line of credit...  Because the only think worse than being hopeless is being hopeless and disappointing God.

And yet with all that, there's one thing worse.  I call it Whatever.  Meaning, I'm so numb that I've reverted to neutral, waiting to see what happens, dealing with life as it comes at me, reacting rather than acting (and yes, I think hope is an action).

Whatever feels safe, but it's not.  It's evil, hidden in a Slanket, or Pajama Jeans.

The antidote to Whatever's poison is asking God for help. Prayer. Not in certain special words, but honest ones.  One of my favorite grim passages in the Bible is this letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, where he admits how flat-out lousy life has been:

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many."  (2 Corinthians 1:8-11.  Read the full chapter here.)

Jesus is the answer to our despair. I don't get it, but I believe it is true. We reach out to Jesus via prayer. Prayer is the alternative to Whatever.

When I can't pray, I ask someone else to pray for me. I wonder if there isn't power in this act of asking...even if the person wanders off and forgets all about me, I suspect that God treats the asking someone else just as if I'd gone ahead and asked Him.  (But that's just my theory.)

Today, instead of hiding under yards of fleece on the sofa, I'm going to pray:  Dear Jesus, please repair my hope. Make it float. And then steer it, so it lands somewhere good and solid and true.  Thank You. Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

I Was Hoping For More...

I've felt this strange compulsion to blog during Advent this year. I ignored it, figuring the urge would pass.  But here I am in the final hours of Day 1, figuring out what to say.

I'll start with a confession:

For several years now, I've hated Advent. There's nothing like the holidays to highlight the gap between where you are in life and where you'd hoped to be.

As some of you know, this has been a particularly wild year for us, as we've become foster parents to a little girl.  She is wonderful. The system is not.  And so the gap we're facing now isn't even a stretch  between what we'd hoped for and what is.  It's just a giant hole labeled, "We have no idea how this is going to turn out."  (Who knew our lives could get LESS suitable for inclusion in a holiday card?)

Now, I handle this gap pretty well for most of the year.  But when my faith tells me this is the season to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus because he came to save the world and make everything right (I remember one sermon that insisted, without caveat, "EVERYTHING YOU'VE EVER WANTED IS FOUND IN THE BIRTH OF JESUS!"), the analytical side of me kicks in and asks, Really? Because I've read the book, and what happens is that in thirty-three years he gets murdered, then comes back to life and ascends into heaven, after which we spend the next two thousand  years trying to figure out what to make of it all.  It's a fabulous story, but I've been unable to see how Jesus' birthday gives me everything I've ever wanted today. (In fact, isn't that the experience most of us have with Christmas? That once all the presents are opened, it's all very nice...but somehow we'd hoped for more?)

BUT...even as this year has been particularly difficult, we've seen God working. Everywhere.  It's no exaggeration to say that in the midst of this sea of impossibility, we are astonished on a regular basis.

Because of this, I realized that I don't want to slink through Advent this year.  I've had enough of the tight-lipped smile, pretending everything is okay. So when I went to church this morning, I didn't cringe when I saw the Advent wreath.  Instead, I asked God for a new way to see this season.  And wow, did He come through.

The pastor said this about his life:  "I am so incredibly blessed...and yet I'd hoped for more." He went on to say that this tension between the blessings we have and the disappointment we feel is our human condition.  No matter what is going on, there is always more we'd hoped for.  In some seasons, this tension is more unbearable than others. But the feeling is consistent. He talked about how the message of Advent isn't "Hooray, Jesus has come! Everything will be fine now!"  But rather, "The rescue is underway...and Jesus is coming back to complete it." (Here's a link to the full sermon.)

That is something I can celebrate.

So I'll be doing a little of that here each day, sharing thoughts about living in this tension between what I hope for and what is, looking for what God is doing and anticipating the rescue.  I hope you'll join me. We'll see what God does.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: Dear Deb by Margaret Terry

One of my favorite things to do is to share books the work of other authors. I love getting book recommendations, and I love passing them along.   So when Thomas Nelson offered to send me books that might interest me (and you) in exchange for candid reviews, I said, “Sign me up!”

The first book I’m reviewing through this program is Dear Deb:A Woman With Cancer, A Friend With Secrets, and the Letters That Became TheirMiracle by Margaret Terry.  It was not what I expected.  I thought it would be more of a communication between the women, or at least reflections from one side of their relationship considering Deb’s prayer requests and circumstances.  It’s not that.  It’s more of a collection of essays the author shared with Deb in an attempt to build on a friendship and encourage her friend to continue to hope.  I can’t argue with that intent.  The book was just different than what I expected.

In the spirit of celebrating the positive, here is my favorite line from the book:

“Outside church, Deb and I didn’t socialize. We didn’t talk on the phone, meet for coffee, or go to the movies. I’m not sure why this happens in churches. We hug the same people every Sunday for years, we watch their children grow, and we share their trials and joys, yet for some reason we limit our relationship to church friend. Maybe that’s why I decided to join the group to pray for her. She was sick, and I thought she might need a better friend than the one I’d been.”

I appreciate that candor.  And thanks to Thomas Nelson for giving me a chance to review this book.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Memoir: old, new, borrowed, one blue

I've read three fab memoirs over the past few weeks:

First, With or Without You by Domenica Ruta.  This is the story of a girl growing up in Danvers, MA with a mother who was a drug addict, eccentric, and (at one point) surprisingly brilliant business woman.  While nothing in this story is quite so outlandish as to put it in the Jeanette Walls/Glass Castle category, this makes it more accessible and real.  Ruta could be the kid at the end of your street, the one  you wonder about with the mother who screams and smokes a lot. And the writing is so good that the author feels like a friend sharing her story over coffee.  This belongs on your TBR pile when it comes out in March!

Then came Brain on Fire.  I'm squeamish about medical stories, but this was captivating: New York Post writer Susannah Cahallan began having strange symptoms--forgetting things, personality shifts--that eventually led to a seizure, hospitalization, and an mystery brain illness that left her a shell of her former self.  This is the story of the miraculous series of discoveries and bold decisions that led her back. Again, great writing.  This one is available in November.

And finally, a book I'm reading for the third or forth time: Heather King's Redeemed.  This is King's second memoir (the first, Parched, is about her recovery from hard-core alcoholism, and the third, Shirt of Flameis a chronicle of the year she spent following the teachings of St. Therese of Lixieux).  I love all three, but Redeemed is my favorite because she covers so much ground: her faith life, her struggles in love, the death of her father, why she declined chemotherapy when diagnosed with breast cancer, the loneliness of writing (the loneliness of life).  Do yourself a favor and get a copy now (along with an extra to give to a friend.  Trust me on this!)

I'll leave you with this bit I underlined twice, a funny reflection about life as a writer:

"It's an impossible line of work.  Nobody but a pathological martyr, loner, alcoholic, drug addict, sexually conflicted, chronically depressed social misfit and/or religious fanatic could possibly stay with it long enough to write a single decent page."

Her candor cracks me up and reassures me, all at the same time.  It makes me want to write.  Thanks to Domenica, Susannah & Heather for reminding me why it's worth it to wrestle with all those words.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Book surprises from NEIBA 2012

I often tell people that the best part of the annual conference of the New England Independent Bookseller's Association is discovering new authors (and that the worst part is that I still can't spell "independent" without 2 or 3 tries).  But that's a bit of a fib.  I love finding out about books I wouldn't have come across otherwise.  But even better is finding a new book from an author I already love and getting to read it (and blog about it) early.

The #1 "Squee!" moment came when I saw Randy Susan Meyer's new novel, THE COMFORT OF LIES.  I gasped out loud when I saw the advance reader copy. I can't rave enough about her debut, THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS, and I've been looking forward to her follow-up ever since she announced the deal.  Randy is a Boston author (yes, that makes me adore her a bit extra) and someone I love to run into at events here in town. I'm excited to have her latest to tuck into my purse and devour in all those extra moments when I can squeeze in a bit of reading.  (Out in hardcover in February 2013.)

I was also psyched to grab a copy of Pulitzer winner (I include that because if I ever won the Pulitzer...or even the award for best former baton twirler from my hometown...I'd want to be introduced that way forever) Richard Russo's memoir, ELSEWHERE.  He is one of the funniest authors I've heard speak, so I'm excited to see how his "in person" voice translates to the page as he tells his story.  (Due out next month.)

And finally...Jen Lancaster has a new novel!!!  I've been offline for most of the summer, so I had no idea this was coming.  And any new publication from Jen is a party for me.  She's hilarious, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she's cooked up in HERE I GO AGAIN.  (January 2013)

Hope this inspires you to catch up on your reading so there's room on your TBR pile.  All the links here are from Porter Square Books, our local indie bookstore here in Cambridge.  Order from them...they rock.

More soon :)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Adventures in Books

photos courtesy of
I spent this morning at the annual gathering of the New England Independent Bookseller's Association  (I think that's my turquoise elbow there on the right side of this picture).  It was my second time at the show, and I am delighted to report that I came home with a bag full of books covering a head-spinning array of genre & subject matter. Expect some fab book blogs in the next few months!

Aside from the wonderful new additions to my TBR shelf (yes, it's a shelf now... to keep so many pages in a pile would be architecturally unwise) this morning's event was also an interesting peek into the changing world of publishing.

The show was smaller this year.  Publishing houses that last year had four tables of new titles this year had only two.  And perhaps most telling was this: Last year, when I asked representatives "What titles are you most excited about?" they pressed countless books into my hands with impassioned descriptions that caused me read all sorts of stories I'd never have selected on my own.

This year, I started off with the same question.  A couple of reps answered with enthusiasm.  But they only had one title they were excited about, and perhaps another they'd mail me if I'd leave my address (and they meant it: to a one, they were gracious enough to write down the information, which was fantastic).  But there were also times when my question--and even my presence--was met with little more than a blank stare, followed by a firm head shake if my hand reached for a title that was only for show (the line between the books you're allowed to take and those you can't touch is always a bit fuzzy).

I'm still thinking over what this means, and where the encouraging news is in the midst of all this change.  (I'm determined to find the fabled boy who comes upon a barn full of poop and declares, "There's GOT to be a pony in here somewhere!")  I love publishers, authors, bookstores...the whole shebang, so it's tough to see this downturn in such undeniable terms. But I don't think this story is over yet.

Especially if this guy (who handed me a soda that would both poison me and save me from the zombie apocalypse) has anything to say about it!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Happier at Home

Hello after a long time away!

It's been a fun, busy, interesting summer, with life sort of filled to the brim with things I can't summarize in blog posts or tweets.  (In memoirist terms, I'm living book #3!)

But I wanted to share a FAB reading recommendation for you as we all head into autumn, in case you're looking for a bit of that "back-to-school" feeling to kick of this new month. And let me disclose: I gush a bit in this one, but it's not a paid review! Gretchen was kind enough to send me an early copy of her new book because I adore her and wanted the chance to share it with you guys. 

HAPPIER AT HOME is Gretchen Rubin's second book about exploring happiness.  It's wonderful.  I loved her first book on this topic, THE HAPPINESS PROJECT (along with millions of other people--it's pretty much the nonfiction counterpart to HARRY POTTER in terms of how long it's been on the NYTimes bestseller list) and was delighted to hear that Gretchen was digging even deeper in her pursuit of happiness.

I'll admit, I didn't think I'd be the target audience for HAPPIER AT HOME.  True, I'm a total homebody.  But Steve & I live in a rather, um, uniquely appointed apartment here in Cambridge.  We landed here because of circumstance, and have stayed because of family &'s perfect for us in this complex season of life.  But let's just say that the decorating magazines won't be coming by for a photo shoot anytime soon :)

One of the things I love about Gretchen is her candor, and this book is no exception. Right off the bat she admits that she's not interested in perfect decor as a path to happiness.  She has a hilarious riff about how the pressure to "make a room reflect who she is" is way too much to handle, which is a great point.  How many of us can be summarized by a throw pillow?

Instead, Gretchen focused on relationships, and how her home life was fostering them...or not.  Then she explored ways to change or adjust the "nots" to create more love, fun, joy, memories, and yes...happiness.  As I read it, I found myself considering how these ideas and possibilities might apply to my own life. It was fun, but not intimidating (a nice combination). I came away with lots of ideas I might try someday, when things slow down a bit.  I simply loved this book, and think you might, too.

And one other addition to loving her writing projects, I also adore Gretchen.  She's the real deal: generous, enthusiastic, supportive.  She's done as much for other authors as anyone I know, exemplifying that old saying about how "a rising tide lifts all boats."

There are a ton of ways for you to check out Gretchen and her work.  The link to her blog includes a sample chapter, book club reading guide, a video & and behind-the-scenes extras.  She's also going on a HUGE book tour.  (Boston peeps, she'll be at Brookline Books on September 13 at 6pm.  Get there early...last time it was standing room only!)

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. Let me know.
Happy Autumn!

Friday, July 06, 2012

Is there a downside to being inspirational?

This morning, I read an interview in Inc. Magazine with leadership expert/Stanford professor Bob Sutton. His answer to one question stood out to me so much that I highlighted it:

Q:  Is there ever a downside to being inspirational?

A:  That can get you in trouble, because happiness is a function of what you expect versus what      you get.  It can be better to have people focused on tiny things that keep them enthusiastic about what they're doing minute to minute than to always talk about the grand vision.  Most of what gets us to that grand vision is ordinary work.  Doing boring things well might be the key to success.

Interesting, right? What do you think?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Project Relaxation: on alcohol lyrics & starting where you are

So my month of intentional relaxation has come to a close, dumping me right into July (which is quite possibly the best month in which to have enhanced ones relaxation skills!)  Here's what I learned:

I'm not naturally relaxed.  I can chill, but it's not my default setting.  It takes a bit of effort, which seems counter-intuitive.  But I can fight off the nagging taunt of my to-do list by reminding myself, "But I AM doing something...I'm relaxing!"

I first suspected there might be different ways in which each of us are programmed to relax (or not) back in law school, when my friend Jon spent our exam prep week watching pro golf on TV and napping.  I spent the week drowning in outlines & sample tests, not sleeping or eating anything that didn't come from a chip bag or soda can... Our GPAs for that semester were two one-hundredths of a point apart.

This idea of having different set points for relaxation popped up again a few months ago at a Ryanhood concert, as I listened to Owen Plant, who opened for them.  He's a fabulous musician, with lots of happy tunes about life on the beach. His lyrics made me think of surfing, rum & fruity drinks.

At one point I thought, "Hmm...If I wrote songs, I don't think they'd be about rum.  They'd be about wine, maybe, or vodka...something a little more intense." My starting point is more go after life than take life as it comes.  And even if I sometimes wish this were different, it isn't. In my imaginary songs, I'm goal oriented, worried about my outfit, trying to figure out what will happen next.  You, not fruity drinks.

(Can you see a songwriting continuum from Owen, writing about relaxing me, with my imaginary lyrics about wine/vodka...then out on the other extreme, angry tunes about cheap beer & moonshine? I entertained myself with this for the better part of half an hour).

I don't write songs, but I'd guess that when you do, you write from where you are.  And I think relaxation isn't all that different: you start from where you are.

God made each of us unique...which is great, except when we look at other people's lives hoping to find some sort of owner's manual for our own.  We have to find our own relaxation level...and our own drink metaphor lyrics...and the manual that will tell us how we're built to work the best.

We're made to search, and if we let him, God will help us find.
That's a good thing.

I'm off to add "Relax!" to my to do list :)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Why I Teach Memoir Writing

I'm teaching a memoir writing class tomorrow.  I'm beyond excited.

This is a new class.  It's given me a chance to reverse-engineer my writing process and figure out why certain things work and others don't.  It hasn't even happened  yet, and already it's been a great experience.

My Dad was a teacher, and he always thought this would be a good career option for me. He was right, but I ignored him (the way teenage daughters often do).  Back then, the only image I had for "teacher" was someone standing in front of a chalkboard in a school, talking about the same math problem, frog dissection, or French verb conjugation over and over and over again each year.  It sounded kind of...dull.

Here's what I didn't know(and I'm still not sure if this applies to math, but there's never been a danger of me teaching math to anyone, so let's not worry about that here): teaching changes, each time you do it.  First, YOU are different - your perspective, what you've seen and learned in your own life, how you've grown. And second, because YOUR STUDENTS are different.  Each group brings something new to the table.  It keeps things unpredictable, and that's often where the gems are hidden.

Of course, there are certain topics in any field that will always come up. I doubt there has ever been a writing class where questions about how to navigate the forbidding world of publishing weren't raised...nor should there be.  But there are other questions--ones more personal to a specific writer's struggles or challenges--that move teaching beyond the instructive aspect, making it interactive.  That's the sweet spot.

I teach writing because it helps me write.  It re-fuels my love of stories, reminds me that as much as life tries to lump us all together into a few homogenous groups, each of our journeys has remarkably unique elements and surprises worth reading about.  And THEN it forces me to move beyond all of that wonder/amazement and focus on basics: How does one construct a scene?  What's the goal and how do you know if you've reached it?  What do you do with those scenes once they're written?  How do you finish the job?

I'm excited about tomorrow: as a chance to share what I've learned, encourage new memoirs (as a reader, it's my favorite genre, so it behooves me to keep the pipeline stocked!), and refuel my own excitement about what it means to share your story.

If you have a chance this weekend, consider: What do you love to do? Why?

(And if you're looking for a chance to write about it, come join me in class!)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Travels

I'm over at the Changing Seasons blog today, with more great summer reads...and proof that I'm a dork.    Come on by!

Monday, June 25, 2012

On Managing My Season

My deep love for all things Olympic was re-kindled this weekend as I watched parts of the U.S. Track & Field trials.  In particular, I loved watching Sanya Richards-Ross, winner of the 400m.  I love her style--it's nice to look so fabulous while accomplishing so much.  But what really caught my attention was one of the commentators, who said, "She's done a great job managing her season."

I'd never looked at track through this lens, although of course it makes sense that peaking at the right time is what sports training is all about.  Athletes know they have seasons, and each one is a new beginning, a chance to try new approaches, reach for new goals, and be better than the season before.  Early seasons are building blocks to establish what comes later.

And as Sanya flew around the track, I wondered: Am I doing a good job managing my season?

We regular folks have seasons too, even if they're less clearly delineated.  We have:
- Seasons of preparation (school, starting a new job/relationship/family status/project)
- Seasons of getting things done (when we're in that sweet spot where talent & capacity collide with opportunity)
- Seasons of recovery (either because we've accomplished a goal or been swatted down by an obstacle or foe);  and
- Seasons of starting over.

In every season, I tend to wish for that sweet spot season of getting things done.  Those are my favorite.  And there's a HUGE temptation to feel like a slacker whenever I'm not in that season.  Which is ridiculous.  I don't feel like I've failed when I can't hold the weather here in New England steady at a constant Indian Summer/September (my favorite season).  Why should I feel weird when my own life has changing seasons, too?  My job isn't to prevent or control the's to manage them well.

That, my friends, feels like a revelation of Olympian import.

Knowing the goal of a season helps:

- If the season is preparatory, the goal is to learn.
- If the season is getting things done, the goal is to DO.
- If the season is recovery, the goal is to find the wounds & get them patched up, then give them a chance to heal.
- And if the season is starting over, the goal is to listen to God as He tells me, "Wait.  Okay, start here. Try this.  That's it...keep going..." And act on what I hear.

We can't change our seasons or rush through them.  But we can manage them so that they build something solid to stand on in seasons to come.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The power of negative thinking?

I've been thinking about this video since yesterday.  I found it via Maria Popova's blog, Brain Pickings. It's the trailer for a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.  It won't be out here in the U.S. until late fall, so I'm left to wonder about the author's thesis -- that the happiness we seek comes from embracing the negative -- without getting to read the book.  Always interesting.

Here's the video...check it out:

Part of me finds this concept scrumptiously brilliant.  The idea that constant positive thinking tricks your brain into thinking that you've already achieve the goal, thus keeping you from feeling the hunger that propels you forward to actually get stuff done, makes sense to me.  I've lived it. And he's right: I've read THOUSANDS of self-help/actualization/pep talk books, and they're like scarfing down a huge mound of ice good when you start, a bit overwhelming toward the middle, and by the end you just feel vaguely nauseous, a failure with no clear sense of what to do next.

For all the babble about "being not doing," it's doing that gets stuff done.

BUT, I think perhaps (again, I haven't read the book) he might swing too far in the opposite direction with his suggested embrace of negativity.  I don't want to "bathe in insecurity and uncertainty and failure in order to confront my mortality."  Not because I resist these things; they're part of life.  But I don't buy that I'll find "enormous potential for happiness" lurking therein, anymore than I believe that I can make myself more loved because I give myself a hug or say, "Wow Trish, you sure are beautiful!" in the mirror.  Attitude matters...but effort does, too.  (And self hugging is just plain silly.)

And yet, the idea of embracing uncertainty (rather than negativity) intrigues me.  In my experience, being okay with uncertainty (along with its fab partners risk & potential failure!) opens life up in interesting, unexpected ways.  It gives me permission to look at impossible circumstances and wonder what else might be possible. I don't have to pretend to know for sure that I'll succeed or declare my intentions to the universe.  I just have to start, try... and pray.

The idea of positive thinking comes from the Bible. But the distinction that's often lost in translation is that God wants us to have our absolute faith in Him, not ourselves, our human potential, or our decisions about the next grand adventure.  With absolute faith in God can come days and months (years even) of uncertainty.  We can freak out about this, or we can trust and keep asking, "Okay, this the mountain you want me to climb? Is today the day I should start?" 

If we ask, He'll answer. Not right away, necessarily.  There's still uncertainty around the details, which may be what this author is suggesting we make peace with.

All this said, I am SO EXCITED to read this book.  The trailer did exactly what it was designed me thinking about this book months ahead of time.  Nicely done, Mr. Burkeman!

What do you think of this idea that negative thinking has it's benefits?