Sarah R. Callender

Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

Me Too

In Faith on March 23, 2014 at 7:28 am

The other day, I wet my pants a little during a class at the gym.

I was doing jumping jacks, nothing fancy, and I wished my friend Steph was there because I always like to tell her when I wet my pants a little at the gym.

But Steph was probably off selling a house or listing a house or maybe eating cheese dip from a jar and cracking herself up with cheese & chip jokes. (“I’m nacho friend anymore!” “Please? Can’t we taco ‘bout it?”)

When I glanced around at others in the class, yet found no one in whom I could confide, I kept jumping-jacking, still wetting just a tiny bit with each landing. And laughing. While it’s not great to be at the point in life where I wet my pants a little, it is wonderful to be at the point where I can laugh at my gym-related incontinence.

Hold on. Did I just share too much?

Because I’ve been thinking about why we share what we share. Why my generation shares far more than my parents’ generation and far less than Generation Tee-Ball Trophy.

While there is, absolutely, the reality of TMI (I was recently privy to the sharing of someone’s stool sample story), I believe sharing one’s stories and foibles does good things. Sharing leads to understanding and understanding leads to acceptance and acceptance leads to cookies. I mean, connection. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing whilst residing on this big blue marble? Connecting, tethering, weaving?

connection

But my sharing about pants-wetting might not be any more acceptable than someone else sharing about stool samples. In fact, in Steph’s absence, I once tossed out a casual, “Wow. These jumping jacks sure make me pee!”

I shared because I thought it was funny, but in return I received only an uncomfortable, slightly-scared expression from the lady within earshot. That’s a lonely-making interaction, and that is the risk of sharing: I end up feeling less connected, tethered, woven than I felt before.

For some reason, though, I press on, I think because there’s always the hope I might hear these words: Yeah? Me too.

As in, Really? You feel that way? Me too!

Each time one of you stops me in the halls at my kids’ schools or writes me a little note on Facebook, about how you, too, went an entire day wearing inside-out underpants, I laugh with you. When we laugh together, we feel less alone and freakish, and when we feel less alone and freakish, we suddenly feel free to eat cookies. I mean, we feel free to connect with another someone.

Me too. Look at those two little words on a page, and they seem as breezy and inconsequential as a gnat’s sneeze. But those words are not gnat sneezes. Hear them after you share yourself with someone? Those little sneezey words have the volume and velocity to wipe out acres and oceans of loneliness and disconnection.

Me too!

You, too? Oh! Gesundheit. Salúd! Bless you.

I have been thinking about the line between being honest and being gross, when–wonder of wonders–the pastor at my church gave a sermon about being authentic, about how we humans spend a whole lot of time and energy wondering of one another, Are you one of us?

Not “Are you Christian?” or “Are you cool?” or “Are you liberal/straight/Irish/a Seahawks fan/someone who practices her dance moves when she’s home alone?”

But this: Do you also feel scared of failing? Do you ever feel stupid for trying to be an author? Do you ever wish you could go back and redo moments or days or years during which you didn’t behave well? Is your marriage also difficult at times? Do you sometimes wet your pants during jumping jacks? Do you feel sad and scared and hopeless sometimes, just like I do?

In other words, Are you easily-breakable, longing for connection, hopeful at the core? Are you human, just like I am?

Yeah. Me too. 

Here’s the rub. While we’re a society starving for connection, it’s scary to be authentic. It can also be uncomfortable to experience someone else’s authenticity. When I share personal details about mental health or parenting or God or marriage, it makes some people uncomfortable. When I hear about someone’s stool samples, it makes me uncomfortable.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so dang uncomfortable with discomfort. Maybe discomfort wakes us up, shakes us from our numbness, helps us understand that we do have something in common with someone who shares his stool sample stories. Because you know what? He’s not really sharing a story about his poop. He is sharing the story of waiting for test results that could have turned up something scary.

Oh. You’ve been worried about medical test results? Me too. 

I was doing a little research about being authentic, partly, I admit, because I do worry about how my sharing turns people off. I suppose I was looking for some kind of modern day Emily Post thing regarding what I should and should not share. Something like this:

Pants-wetting admission is acceptable in a blog post or private conversation, as is the fleeting mention of one’s stool sample. However, take care not to go into unnecessary detail about stool. Furthermore, take caution! Do not, in any venue or under any circumstances, discuss mental illness or Jesus, lest your audience assume you are crazy and/or intolerant.

I didn’t find an Authenticity Handbook, but my research reminded me of this fact: statistically, 10% of all people on this planet will not like me. No matter what I do or don’t do, no matter how much I reveal or don’t reveal about my incontinence, no matter how many cookies I hand out, 10% of the seven billion people on this planet will not ever like me.

That, my friends, is a number that starts with “7” and has a lot of zeros.

But there is freedom in those zeros. If all of those zeros aren’t going to want to connect with me, I can spend time and energy focusing on the people with whom connection is more likely. That’s a pretty big number too.

I was also reminded of Brene Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability. While she doesn’t have a tidy list of Share This But Don’t Share That guidelines, Dr. Brown’s research proves that if I want good stuff in my life, I must share my heart. I must share the important parts of my story. The stuff that illustrates my humanness. Even if the person’s reaction is an uncomfortable, slightly-scared expression.

Yes, that’s right. Sharing my heart requires the willingness to be vulnerable, and the willingness to be vulnerable means there’s a chance I’ll be mocked or uninvited to social events, and sharing something in the face of potential mockery and social alienation requires cookies. I mean courage. Heaps of it.

But when we are willing to be vulnerable? In Brene Brown’s words, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of  joy, creativity, belonging, love.”

Yes. I’ll have a triple helping of all of that.

Consider the power of seven billion Me too’s. Seven billion gnat sneezes. Imagine what all that Me Too-ing would do in the world’s messiest places:  Syria. South Sudan. The Senate. Seattle. The church. My closet. My heart. 

So many sneezes. So many reasons to say Bless you. Bless you. Bless you.

one of us

Photos compliments of Flickr’s Bobbi Newman and Sharon West.

Advertisements

Membrane

In Faith on September 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm

fragileThere’s an older man who lives not far from me. His neglected home is barely visible behind drooping trees and overbearing bushes. And his car, surprisingly new-looking, shiny and clean on the outside, is stuffed to the ceiling with newspapers, boxes, bags full of what-I-do-not-know, empty food containers, sweaters and coats, shoes, books, piles of papers, empty plastic bags . . . the driver’s seat is the only place where stuff and junk are not piled high. Sometimes, I see the man in the driver’s seat, just sitting, just staring, his car parked a little catawampus so the left tail light could be easily nicked by a UPS truck or a Metro bus.

It makes me uncomfortable, this man’s car. I didn’t understand exactly why until the other day, when I was thinking about life’s fragility. I passed his car, and I wondered if maybe he thinks about the fragility of life, too. Maybe he copes with it by cramming his car full of things he doesn’t really need. Maybe his car (and probably an equally full home) help soothe and calm him.

I would understand that. Life and relationships and people are all so easily shattered or squashed. Two women in my community lost their husbands recently, one to brain cancer, the other to a massive stroke. One was 39, the other was 41. In my Bible study circle, women have lost husbands, some without any warning at all. Two friends, both who have been battling cancer for years, both acknowledge that some day, cancer will end their life.

Beyond death and illness, so much of what I see appears fragile: Sweetie’s social connections seem rock solid one day and built on sinking sand the next. Relationships and marriages that seemed unbreakable, end without much warning. And homeless people in our city, I see them holding their Please Help signs, and I imagine they once held a solid job, that they have a college education, that they were just slapped with too much bad luck. They remind me that no matter how many safety nets we construct, we all live a life far more fragile than we want to admit or accept.

But! Two things keep me from crumbling. Were it not for my trust in the goodness of God, I might forbid my children to ever leave the safety of our home. I might not follow dreams of being an author. I might not get married or invest too much in friendships that could, in the end, unravel.

The other thing that keeps me from crumbling under life’s quakes? The simple act of noticing. Noticing that what looks fragile is actually far stronger than it appears.

I see this when I accidentally walk through spider webs, some of the most brilliant, perfect works of art. I have inadvertently destroyed this little guy’s hard work, but does he freak out? Does he throw a hand to his forehead, then roll over and die? No. He simply sighs, then says something like, “Oh, rats.” And then he gets busy spinning a new web.

That’s a tenacious little creation.

We are tenacious creations, too. One friend has been living with cancer—five or six rounds of it now—for nearly ten years. She keeps smiling. The homeless people I see in our neighborhoods, they return to their corners or intersections each day, holding tight to their Please Help signs and even tighter to their hope. My young friends who have lost their young husbands carry on, raising their children and muddling through with heartbreaking grace.

Have you read Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow? Anne is my kind of woman (a lovely, generous neurotic mess who isn’t afraid to act otherwise). I love this point she makes in her book:

Sometimes circumstances conspire to remind us or even let us glimpse how thin the membrane is between here and here, between birds and the grave, between the human and the divine.

That’s right. We all will suffer, and we all will die. But! We also persevere, leaning our full weight into the most solid, unchangeable, permanent, true, source of strength in our life.

The other night a fat, orange full moon sat in our sky. How tenacious is the moon . . . the sun too. How hopeful! Soon Husbandio will plant the tulip bulbs, that, come springtime, will push green sprigs from cold earth. How tenacious are the tulip bulbs.

Likewise, we humans are designed to forge friendships and fall in love and build various kinds of families, all-the-while knowing our webs might be walked-through by some clod.

When that does happen, we will grieve (as we are designed to). We will sigh, saying, “Oh, rats,” mostly because we had imagined our webs a certain way, suspended in a certain place ideal for catching flies and other yummies. But after the sighing and Oh, rats-ing, we will remember to turn hopeful faces in the direction of Light, getting back to the work of spinning fragile strands of silk into something that’s pretty darn miraculous.

Photo compliments of flickr’s arbyreed.

Bunions

In Faith, Writing on July 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Now if that title doesn’t titillate you (or make you throw up a little), I don’t know what will.

Today, friends, I’m blogging over at Writer Unboxed . . . but don’t let that scare you. The message in the post applies to writers AND anyone else who sometimes gets a little weary. Maybe you have, at one point or another, felt a little weary?

Please note: if you found me because you have a foot fetish and the title of this post suggests something footish, you will want to take your footish fetish elsewhere cuz my puppies ain’t pretty.

With that disclaimer, off we go!  

Lunchbox

In Faith, Parenting on June 13, 2013 at 7:02 am

In March, I put a cup of Safeway Select Mandarin Oranges in Buddy’s lunchbox. Ever since, that same little cup of Safeway Select Mandarin Oranges comes back home in his lunchbox, uneaten. I keep sending it. He keeps bringing it back home.

By now, the orange segments have taken roughly sixty round trips on the school bus. They have attended a field trip to explore the tide pools at Lincoln Park. They have gone over to Buddy’s friends’ houses. Spent hours and hours in his dark (and likely stinky) locker. Been jiggled as Buddy jogs to the bus stop. It’s now more like Safeway Select Mandarin Orange Puree with Some Kind of Frothy Top Layer. The frothiness might suggest fermentation.

Each day after school, I say, “Buddy, you have got to eat the fruit in your lunch!”

Each day he replies, “Mom, I don’t really like those oranges.”

“I know! Eat ’em anyway!”

“OK,” he says, racing outside, carrying the homemade ninja accessories he makes when I’m not looking. “I’ll try!”

“YOU NEED TO TRY HARDER!” I yell at no one.

That’s when I catch a glimpse of a big housefly ramming its stalwart body against the plate glass picture window. It always irritates me when a fly does that over and over and over, as if somehow, if it just keeps trying, it will be able to bust through the glass. I want to redirect it. Gently tell it to knock it off because it is so depressing to see an insect or a mother doing the same stupid thing over and over, always getting the same, frustrating results. Plus, it sounds like it hurts. Thunk–buzz–thunk!–buzzzz–THUNK!–buzz.

So it got me thinking about school lunches and how we can’t control what our kids eat when they are elsewhere. We can only make accessible the ingredients for a semi-healthy lunch (and understand that when Sweetie packs a container of pickles, she’s just giving them to her friend, Madeline), then hope they actually eat the semi-healthy things.

I realized that what we pack in our kids’ lunches is a metaphor for what we (i.e. earnest yet deeply flawed parent-people) try to do each day: fill up our kids’ internal lunch boxes with all sorts of good stuff–love, compassion, gratitude, humility, the ability to laugh at oneself, a decent work ethic, the peace that passes understanding–with the hope that when our kids are out in the world, flying solo, they will use that fuel to thrive and love and do good.

But sometimes our kids are going to ignore the good stuff we’ve placed in and around them. They are going to make dumb choices. They are going to do unkind and impatient things. I know this because I make dumb choices and do unkind and impatient things, even though I am a grownup, even though my parents lovingly stuffed me with all sorts of good things.

But I am the hopeful sort. I am the housefly, body-butting the window over and over. Each day, I have hope that if I keep sending my kid off to school with Good Stuff, then that Good Stuff will be at his fingertips . . . should he decide he’s in the mood to consume it. I just wish he would EAT THOSE PULVERIZED ORANGES SO I WOULD FEEL BETTER.

This seems like a good time to point out that sometimes, when I pack a thermos of hot Chicken and Stars soup in the kids’ lunches, the thermos explodes and Buddy or Sweetie comes home with a backpack that reeks of salty broth, with rubbery pasta stars glued to the homework folder. The lunchbox needs to be soaked and washed, and the kid is limp with hunger.

That’s a bummer. It’s also a metaphor. Sometimes we (earnest yet deeply flawed parent-people) present our kids with things that are, in the end, messy and unhelpful. We hardly ever mean to; we just pass on what we think is a good idea, or we pass on things without thinking much at all. And then, because of steam and pressure and maybe the lid wasn’t on quite right, ka-BOOM!!!! Chicken and Stars everywhere.

This also seems like a good time to mention that sometimes you come across a parent who packs this in her kids’ school lunches.

Bento 1 Bento4

Bento2

(These were from Parenting magazine’s 20 Easy Bento Box Lunches. They don’t look Easy to me, but maybe I just don’t have the proper tools or carrots or patience).

Looking at these photos, you might think, I have never once made a roaring lion out of my kid’s mac n’ cheese. I’m a failure! Or you might say, “Show me a mom-made lunch with farm animals made out of rice mounds, cheese, and raisins, and I’ll show you a mom with too much time on her hands.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Cool. This mom’s Love Language is Bento Box Lunches! 

J.D. Salinger once said, “All mothers are slightly insane.” I believe that’s true. Insanity just looks different in different mom-people. Sometimes it looks like a mom shouting about mandarin oranges. Other times it looks like a bento box stuffed with carrot tulips and PB&J florettes. We really are all slightly insane.

I think part of the insanity might result from this answerless question: What’s the best way to love my kid (surround him with good and healthy things, both fruit and life skills) and, at the same time, start shoving him out of the nest? How do we parent within that tension?

Remember that scene in James and the Giant Peach, where the massive peach (that had been successfully floating on the sea) was getting munched by hungry sharks? And how Spider spun hundreds of ropey threads, and James and the other creatures lassoed seagulls, and the seagulls lifted the peach and its passengers up into the air?

giant peach

I love the idea of that scene, the idea of a huge, dripping orb of peach being lifted from the salty water. Saved. Rescued. Protected. I like the idea of staying near my kids, in case they need to be saved, rescued, protected.

But it’s good to start snipping a few of those silky threads. To start relieving a few gulls of their peach burden. The Cloud Men are up there, remember? We don’t want to get too high.

I should stop shouting about mandarin oranges and trust the process of parenting. I should snip a few ropey threads, maybe five or six each year, so that Buddy and Sweetie will figure out how to soar safely, with hardly any help from me.

But gosh, isn’t hard not to want to throw our kids into a vat of kale-blueberry-pomegranate-quinoa-Compassion-Humility-Peace-Generosity-Kindness-God and yell, “EAT! Eat it ALL! Clean your plate, kids! Lick your plates clean!”?

I think it is. Nearly impossible, really.

Photos compliments of Parenting magazine and Flickr’s benimnetz.

Discomfort

In Faith, Writing on April 10, 2013 at 6:18 am

For most of the winter, I have been sitting at my computer, working on Book #2, wearing my long, down puffer coat that, according to Lands End, will keep me warm in Northern Michigan in the month of February.

It wasn’t until mid-March that I realized how silly that was. Uncomfortable too. Not that I do a lot of moving around while I’m writing, but a puffer coat–for good reason–likes to really snuggle up against its human. I felt constricted and puffered out. I had had enough.

So of course, I went to Amazon. Of course I did a search for “Snuggie Blanket with Arms.” Of course, I stumbled across a Wonder Woman Snuggie. This one:

Of course, I purchased it. Really, have you ever seen such a flattering, slimming Snuggie?

Now, when I am writing, I am much more comfortable. I am snug as a bug AND I have full use of my arms. Plus, I crack myself up each time I see my reflection in the window. Warmth and comedic relief in one Snuggie? I’m sold.

But what about the tough and chilling times of life when there is no Wonder Woman Snuggie? When there’s nothing we can order on Amazon to make us feel more comfortable with Life’s discomforts? When our only choice is, simply, to muddle through?

Friends, follow me over here where I blog about the challenge (and the importance) of getting comfy with life’s inevitable discomforts. And should you want to purchase a Snuggie for yourself, you know where to go.

Wildebeest

In Body Stuff, Faith on March 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

If you are one of my Facebook Friends, you know that at least once a month, I make mention of the whisker that sprouts from my chin.

I get a lot of empathy via my Friends’ comments, plus tips for carrying tweezers in the car. Tips on the best brand of tweezers (Tweezerman). The pros and cons of laser therapy.

From my older Friends, I get comments like, “Ha! Just you wait!” Which sounds a little ominous, but I think it’s just another form of empathy. Preemptive empathy.

I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the chin whisker. Perhaps because I didn’t know I’d be getting one (or five or twenty–Ha! Just you wait!). Or that I’d get the old lady throat. The lumpy hips. That my head hair would relocate on the southern part of my face. Little snowbird whiskers.

Yes, I expected wrinkles. I did not expect mass migration.

Just yesterday morning, my friend, Rapunzel, called. 8:42 a.m. “OK,” she said. “I know you are getting the kids to school, but I have to tell you something.” Rapunzel paused. “My eyebrows are migrating to my upper lip.”

We laughed and talked about our migrating facial hair, and then we hung up to carry on with our day. I love that girlfriends call me and tell me about their mustaches.

But since that call, I’ve been wondering why our hair and various other body parts migrate as we age. Why! Migrations usually ensure the health and survival of a species. Creatures and nomadic tribes migrate to follow better weather, fresher water, more abundant sources of food.

So what about my migrating hair follicles and southward-moving body parts? How do a droopy arse and chin whiskers ensure a woman’s survival?

In 2010, Husbandio’s company awarded him a sales prize–a ten-day, five-star trip to Africa–for him and one guest. He chose me!

In addition to hot air ballooning over the Serengeti, to snorkeling in the Indian Ocean, to seeing baboons piggyback their bare-bottomed babies,

hawaii 099

(I almost grabbed that little guy and packed him in my suitcase.)

we got to witness thousands and thousands of wildebeest in the middle of The Great Migration.

Scientists don’t know what triggers the massive, annual migration. Scientists know only that a few wildebeest, the trendsetters, the ones who would have known that 80s fashion would return in 2013, lead the charge. These prescient few raise their noses to the wind, catch the whiff of something, and post, “Wagons roll!” as their Facebook status.

(Behold, ye of many chin whiskers!)

Eight million hooves etch dusty ruts into the Serengeti. And when they run, spooked by big cats or mangy hyenas, the vibrations of their hoofbeats rattle the earth’s inner core. It is loud, it is powerful, it is beautiful, this great migration.

My body’s own migration is the opposite of beautiful and powerful. Those chin whiskers are tenacious and sharp. The sagging skin looking like a wrinkled plastic Safeway bag. The southward migration of breasts and butts and throat skin makes me wonder, where is that girl? What happened to her?

As I try to remember her–me!–that young-bodied girl, I twiddle my neck waddle. I catch a glimpse of my tush and wonder if someone has, by chance, invented a derriere brassiere.

But thoughts like that make me wonder why I think them. And what would I tell Sweetie about why mama wears a butt bra and is having her waddle tucked?

Instead, maybe I should embrace my body’s migration.

Maybe I should see that our hair and arses migrate not because of gravity or survival but because we are supposed to learn that the appearance of our bodies doesn’t matter very much. Not in the scope of things. That indeed, as my favorite book states, all really is vanity.

Maybe as we age, we’re supposed to learn that we should care for our bodies, but not obsess over their appearance. Instead, maybe we should obsess over what matters: loving each other.

Heck, maybe we’re designed to keep moving in some sort of migration, not so much geographical movement, but movement from one life stage to another.

I see it happening in my life, and in other women in their forties and fifties and sixties and upward. Our bodies are changing, yes, but so too are our senses of self. We no longer care quite so much about perfection and being well-behaved. We care about laughter and connection and making a mark. We stop caring so much about the size and style of our jeans and instead care about the size of our hearts, the style of our personality.

That’s how we are designed. So that we aging women can lift our whiskery chins, hoping to catch a whiff of something that tells us, Yes. Now is the time. Move and survive. Move and there will be a better life. Move and you will have more of what you need to thrive, more of what sustains you.

We are not meant to stay in one place. We are not meant to stay the same. We are not meant to look the same. There is beauty and power in the migration, in the movement of our lives.

That beauty and power is seen in the tracks formed by the hard hooves of the wildebeest.

Likewise, the etched tracks in this woman’s face show wisdom, experience, pain, joy. Beautiful tracks.
Does this mean I’m not supposed to pluck that chin hair? Should I toss my face cream? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. We can admire the wildebeest, but we don’t need to look like one. We can pluck that which makes us feel mannish. When we are eighty, we can wear opt for skirted swimsuits over bikinis. But we should not pluck, alter or hide those parts of us that show we are changing and moving. We should not conceal how our own hooves etch dusty tracks into green earth, searching for better, for fresher, for more than we’d ever be able to find if we stayed inside our own youthful, taut bodies forever.

Young bodies are a kind of beautiful, but the beauty of an etched-faced woman whose body has migrated south? Nothing is as beautiful as a woman who says, “I used  to be there. Now I am here.”

Your turn. How are you migrating? In what ways are you striving to find fresh water and greener prairie grasses? How do you cope with the physical migration of your body, from firm to soft, from taut to saggy, from smooth to whiskery? Please share. Whisker plucking tips are also welcome.

Baby baboon butt compliments of my camera.

Wildebeest paths compliments of Flickr’s  Ganesh raghunathan.

Wrinkle paths compliments of Flickr’s  Emilia Tjernström.

Dill-pickle-inator

In Faith, Writing on February 1, 2013 at 7:41 am

Hi, dear readers. I finally found a way to weave The Evil Dr. Doofenschmirtz into a blog post. Follow me . . .

Scary

In Faith, Writing on January 20, 2013 at 6:23 am

Just this past Tuesday morning, my brain and I decided to reconsider my dreams of being a published writer.

Instead, I told myself, I would apply for a job with the USPS. Or see if Nancy Pearl needed a Reading Assistant. Or I’d hold babies at the hospital, because while I didn’t especially love holding babies when I had my own, I think that was because I was depressed and sleep deprived and leaking milk and pee from various places. I’ve since learned that holding babies is funner when you’re not crying and leaking.

Of course, on this Tuesday morning, I knew that fear was making me want to pretend I am not a writer who is trying to get her book published, and while I’m not a Fear-ologist, I do believe fear is at both root and core of everything bad in our world. Fear leads to genocides; fear is the cause of bullying; fear can make religious people act judgey and intolerant; fear makes NRA supporters say silly things; fear makes gun control advocates say equally silly things.

Fear makes me want to don a blue polyester outfit and deliver mail instead of write books.

But after I shared my USPS aspirations with Husbandio (who patiently nodded), I went to my Bible Study, and without even asking for encouragement, without even sharing a word about my professional change of plans, I was bombarded by very specific-to-me wisdom and reminders of the importance of hope. I remembered there’s a good plan, writing-wise, for me, and it probably doesn’t require a blue polyester outfit and dog repellent or the holding of babies. Plus, there’s this fact: I love writing. Without writing, I’d turn into this lady.

crazy lady

I also remembered that we humans live better when we focus on Living rather than Fearing.

Which is all fine and well until you start thinking about all the scary things in life. Getting married. Having and raising children. Being real, even when being real means showing others you’re a bit of a mess. Learning about a second round of cancer. Having a husband die from a brain tumor. Sending our children off to elementary school on a normal Friday two weeks before Christmas. Watching our children fail their classes. Sending our children off to college. Sharing one’s faith with people who think Christians are utter whack-jobs.

(When I look at that big scary list, well, sending out one’s novel to New York editors seems like small potatoes. Or maybe like fingerling potatoes that look like fingers but taste like buttery potato heaven.)

What’s even more fascinating to me: that big scary list doesn’t deter us from doing all of those scary things, which tells me we humans are hardwired to be courageous, to take risks in spite of all the scary things that might happen. We still do crazy things like get married and have children and choose to believe in things we can’t see, because (this is my best guess) we have Hope that’s much bigger than Fear. Or at least we should. Plus, we know the rush of joy that comes when we risk and dare and tremble and somehow manage to survive.

Therefore, I try to say “yes” when someone asks me to do something that gets me a little trembly. Why? Because I think and hope that saying yes to small scary things will better prepare me when I have to say yes to living with cancer. Or living through a family member’s death. Or living through a child’s bad choices. Or on some particularly bad days, just plain living.

I also try to surround myself with others who don’t mind putting themselves in situations where their legs get a little trembly. One of those people is the lovely and talented (and brave) Lydia Netzer, author of the weird and wonderful debut, Shine Shine Shine, my favorite book of 2012 and one of my most favorite books of Ever.

I haven’t met Lydia in person, and I doubt she knows this, but because of Lydia, I know what to do when writer-me encounters a bit of rejection, a snarky review, unhelpful feedback from the wrong audience: Laugh.

Preferably like a hyena or a loon.

You know why? Because laughter disarms fear. That is a proven, unscientific fact.

I had the opportunity to interview Lydia for Writer Unboxed, so today, I want to share some of the witty and wise responses I couldn’t squeeze into the interview . . . ones specifically about Fear and Living. Reading her writing makes me a braver person. Take it away, Lydia!

Lydia, what’s the scariest thing about being a writer? 

I honestly don’t think there’s anything at all that’s scary about being a writer. There are things that make me nervous about it — talking to strangers, meeting with groups, waiting to hear back from my agent — but fear? No. This job is ultimately about entertaining people with ideas. Books are lists of words, wrapped in pretty paper, and each one is someone’s attempt to pin the zeitgeist or illuminate a thought. Bookstores are awesome. Libraries are wonderlands. Being part of that is a dream. Whether or not someone likes my book, or whether I do or do not reveal some dark fact of my self, or whether or not my book gets on this or that list or sells in this or that market — these things are not frightening. I do believe that literature is critical and valuable to humanity, and I can certainly paint myself a dramatic picture of books defining a metaphysical wall against some existential abyss. But it’s not the actual wall around the village, you know?

Scary is letting your kid stay home alone for the first time. Scary is getting pregnant in the first place. Scary is a sinister medical diagnosis or a tornado or a fire. So I think the brave writers are just the ones that are keeping things in perspective, and not letting these collections of words throw a shadow over their lives.

My husband (who read and loved your book) wonders whether you experienced a “wig flying off the head” moment, a time where you realized, “Oh crumb. The jig is up.” If so, what was the result?

When I was a brand new mother, living in a brand new town, I had a number of arresting moments. There was the time I invited the other mommies on the block over for lunch, and proudly set the table with every piece of china and silverware I had, including many serving dishes, and napkin rings, and cloth napkins. The unsuspecting neighbors arrived clearly wondering who was supposed to be coming, the Prime Minister?

There was the time I caught my husband attempting to give the frozen casseroles which I had so earnestly and carefully prepared from scratch away to the guy who had come to cut the grass.

There was the Easter Sunday I once stood on the sidewalk outside church in a handmade skirt, clogs, a fringe jacket, and a black plastic bag over my shoulder. Inside the bag was the most enormous frozen turkey ever, hopelessly thawed and dripping. I mean, I could give you context, but some helpful onlooker did take a picture which I have seen, and really, yeah, it was a “Oh crumb” type of moment.

Sometimes the biggest bumps or failures in our writing life turn out to be the greatest gifts. Will you share one such bump and explain how, in the end, it had a silver lining?

My kids were bumps, are bumps, will always be bumps. They keep me from writing novels, from answering interview questions for a month, even from thinking. But without them, I would still be cleverly fadoodling around with hypotheticals and braintricks, stories that didn’t really hurt about ideas that didn’t really bleed. Parenthood plunged me into the deep end of a cold pool, but without it I’d still be fluttering around on the surface, dry and unaffected. They inspire my best work and then prevent me from doing it because they have handwriting practice and nightmares, but they are all silver, lining and otherwise, and I’m lucky to be their mom.

And just so you know, I’m not the only one who loved her book. Nancy Pearl, The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalPeople magazine, and Amazon all shouted, “Hooray!” after reading Shine Shine Shine. And you might, too. Find Lydia at her website. Find Shine Shine Shine at Indiebound or Amazon.

Now get out there and do something that makes you trembly. Jump off something with or without a parachute. Climb something really tall. Swim in the deepest of oceans. Make art and then share it with someone.

And if it doesn’t go well, if it doesn’t turn out as you expected, then just laugh.

Preferably like a hyena or a loon.

Crazy Lady Photo courtesy of Flickr’s Orin Zebest.

Windowpain

In Faith, Parenting on December 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm

bird on glass

Beside my writing desk is a large square window. Outside the window grows a sprawling cherry tree. In the bare branches of that cherry tree, birds–robins, nuthatches, house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, wrens, spotted towhees–congregate for whatever bird conferences and forums are necessary in the avian world.

Today a shooting occurred. An elementary school. A town like mine, like yours. Children died alongside the teachers who tried to protect them.

We are nearing the shortest and darkest day, the equinox. But today the sun shines, and as I try to write, I am distracted by the birds outside my window. They flit and dart and swoop from branch to ground and back to branch, enjoying the break in the rain, searching for the bugs and worms offered by the saturated earth.

My parents taught me to appreciate birds, to show them kindness when they arrive, guests in our yard and trees.

I don’t care for crows. They are too much like ravens, the birds Edgar Allan Poe has forever ruined for me. But most others, especially the rounded-bodied ones that would fit perfectly in my cupped hand, are a delight to watch as they confer in the cherry tree. Their bird bones, filled with air rather than weighted marrow, their jerky movements, their fixed stare. Do birds even have eyelids? And how about the way they look at me, at each other, turning their whole head as if they have slept wrongly on their nest pillows, awaking with cricks in their necks.

It is unimaginable, this tragedy. Just as Columbine was. Just as Jonesboro was. Just as West Paducah was. The parents who have not yet been reunited with their children? How do they stand the waiting? Because of course, they know what the waiting means.

I just Googled it: birds have three eyelids. Three! So yes, they do blink, but apparently their eyeballs are capable of very little movement. And, their lack of strong binocular vision means they must turn their head to see something, using only one eye at a time. That explains why they move as if in a neck brace. And, while we’re on the subject, what about bird bones? Does air really fill their bones, or is that a slice of misinformation I chose to believe, a way of explaining how on earth a creature could fly with such grace? Oh sure, I have often thought, if I had air in my bones, I’d soar like that too!

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s the United States saw a sharp increase in gun and gun violence in the schools. By 1993, the United States saw some of the most violent time in school shooting incidences. In 2006-2007, 38 deaths resulted from school shootings in the US. 

Bird Bone Update: According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, flying birds (i.e. not ostriches or penguins) do in fact have hollow bones, but they are dense and heavy, not light like plastic drinking straws as has been thought for thousands of years. Who knew!

The backyard of my childhood was dotted with bird feeders and bird baths. My dad made special trips to the hardware store for the particular birdseed for our yard’s particular native birds. My mom mixed hummingbird nectar, and my sister and I marveled, from the breakfast table, at the blur of wings and the shimmer of iridescent throats.

I appreciate birds (excepting crows) because of my parents.

But there is an unfortunate consequence of the bird conventions that take place outside the window beside my writing desk: once or twice each month, a nuthatch or a wren, a sweet little monocular-visioned fellow with three eyelids and a hollow skeletal system, flies directly into the glass window beside my writing desk. The thud of that feather-covered, air-filled body against glass astounds me.

That exact terrible thud jolts me today from the imaginary word-based world that appears on my computer screen. Oh no, I murmur. Pushing my chair back, I step to the window, reluctant, craning my neck to see the concrete below.

I call my friend, Ann, who has three boys and lives in Connecticut. I leave her a message, crying as I push out rambling words. I call my friend, Steph. I don’t leave a message because one crying message a day is plenty. I don’t call my friend, Schmidtie because she doesn’t need to know this, not now. She’ll call me when she finds out.

From experience I know not every bird that crashes into the glass will fall. Some might realize their tactical error just in time and swerve to avoid the head-on collision; only their wings or a bit of beak will hit the window. Others though, fall stunned to the concrete, a dusty imprint of their feathers left on the glass. But I can see no fallen bird from my place beside my writing desk, from my side of the window.

Much of the time, the traumatized bird manages to fly away, a bit off kilter perhaps, but still airborne, as if nothing has happened. But the seriously concussed birds fall to the steps below the window and lie there, twitching or shuddering a bit, their puffed chests heaving. Some die instantly, their down-covered necks snapped by the collision.

This tragedy, on such a sunny December day, is as unforeseen and stunning as a clean, clear glass window. So we find ourselves saying all the usual clichés: There are no words. This is unthinkable. Why did this happen? Their lives are forever changed.

Because I cannot see the bird from my side of the glass, I shuffle, slipper-footed, to the front door and open it slowly.

The sight in front of me, a small brown bird on cold concrete, is not pleasant. Already, the stunned fellow has lost control of his bowels. Two small circles of shiny white excrement pool beside him. He is breathing still, but the breath comes hard and heavy, and his black eyes are open, staring, blinking even. With one or two or all of his three eyelids.

As much as I want to cover the fellow with something for warmth, I simply whisper to him. I’ll check back, I say. And I do. No longer able to concentrate on my writing, I check on him every ten minutes, wishing I could do more, wishing I knew what was helpful at a time like this.

It is the invisible windows I hate most. Makes me want to wrap my husband, my children, in bubble wrap, then hold the bundle of them tight in my arms. My friend, Schmidtie, believes the things we worry most about will never happen. Therefore, she worries over everything.

When I check on my bird friend this time, the fifth or maybe the sixth time, things have changed. His eyes are still open, but no longer does his chest rise and fall. It’s clear his bird blood circulates no more.

But I can’t bear to clean him up, not right now. I’ll do it before the mail carrier, Mary, arrives with her big black shoes. Before my scampering, alive, safe, unshot children arrive home from school. Before the crows that congregate in murders (of all things!) on our block, gravitate—caw, caw, cawing—toward the death on our front porch. It’s terrible to be so close, just one brick wall away from such fresh death. Death that is still warm.

It’s hard enough to be a kid these days. After today, it’s even harder.

An hour later, when I can no longer ignore the dead bird on our front steps, I do what I saw my mother do when birds collided with the windows of my childhood home: I go to the kitchen for a plastic grocery bag and an old dishtowel, this one green checked, a wedding gift from the decade when my favorite color was green.

Standing at the front door, plastic bag and wedding dishtowel in my hand, I pause to whisper something that could be prayer, could also be eulogy. But when I open the door, I stop. I swear the bird has moved.

Sometimes, I know, I imagine the things I want to happen. Snap-necked birds returning to life. Cancer miracles. Mean people getting kind. My children treating others with compassion and being treated with compassion right back. No more acts of evil on the campus of an elementary school on a sunny December day.

But yes! There it is: movement. His head lifts a little, and I see his body rise and fall as he breathes. My heart quickens and my face flushes. Go little guy, go! I whisper. Live! Live! Live!

I want to clean up the two ponds of white poop. I want to warm him with my faded wedding dishtowel, but instead, I back away, closing the front door, moving to my office where I can pull my writing chair over to the window and watch over him. So I can shoo away anyone or anything that threatens his recovery. Cats. Crows. The FedEx guy delivering presents I have ordered from my children who, today, will come home from school.

Maybe this is why it took me eight years to write my novel: dedicated bird watching.

My friend, Steph, calls me back. She cries as we try to help each other make sense of this, but we can’t find any sense in it.

So what do we do? Gun laws? Mental health support? I don’t know what we’re supposed to do on a day that brings this news.

But when I walk to the grocery store, to get away from my television, the Seattle sun is still bright. Once in the store, an employee asks whether I like the song that’s playing on the stereo. I can’t really hear it, but because his smile is so happy, I say, “Yes. It’s a great song!” And I find myself being especially kind to the woman behind me in line, especially friendly to the employee who rings up my soup. I say hello to a few other people I don’t know, and as I walk home, I realize I do know what we do now: We keep on being kind to one another. We love each other even harder and bigger than we did yesterday, just as we did after Pearl Harbor and Columbine and September 11th.

My parents have taught me about hope and love. My faith affirms these things, and helps me understand that we don’t understand this tragedy because we don’t have to understand evil. We have to DO something about it–please, God, help us figure out what to do about this!–but we don’t have to understand it.

I appreciate birds (excepting crows) because of my parents.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr’s  Swampthing1000.

Armor

In Faith, Writing on October 5, 2012 at 6:14 am

Hi friends. I’m blogging over at Writer Unboxed today, discussing rejection and the nasty chafing and heat rash that occur if we try to hide from rejection.

If you have never felt rejected in your life, no need to click over; otherwise, come join me over here. You need not be a writer to read this one!

Thank you, dear followers of Inside-Out Underpants.