Sew Long, 2012

It’s been a busy sewing year for me as I participated in 44 challenges at The Sew Weekly (the very last one is yet to be posted). Here’s everything I made this year. If you want to see all the Sew Weekly posts, here’s a link to my posts. Click each one to read it, page through to find them all.

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The one that hasn’t been posted yet (and that I’m not entirely sure will be posted) is one of my favorites. Here’s a sneak peek, in case any of you happen to be interested.

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In the coming days I will celebrate my 12th anniversary and my 33rd birthday, along with another family Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a busy time of year and I look forward to a fresh start of writing, blogging, and living in 2013. See you on the other side…

Perception Is Reality . . . Well, Almost

Tea“This smells like an old timey poultice that has just been removed from a wound.”

This is what my husband said as he walked into the living room with a mug of Sleepytime tea.

“It’s chamomile. It’s supposed to smell like apples,” I countered as I drew near to sniff the offending liquid. It smelled exactly how it was supposed to smell. Like yummy, soothing herbal tea.

My husband is not a tea drinker, and is especially not an herbal tea drinker (why bother if there’s no caffeine?) but he was going to muscle that poultice tea down anyway. The night before he had not slept at all. Not one blessed minute. So this night he was doing everything he possibly could, piling on all the useless advice he’d heard over the past five years, in a desperate attempt to trick his mind into shutting down for the night. Magnesium, valerian root, sleeping pill, sleepytime tea, and a few other things I don’t recall now. As he rattled of the ingredients to his sleep-inducing cocktail, I remarked that he was probably the world’s foremost connoisseur of insomnia cures. Much good that did, though, as whether they worked or not seemed to be a bit of a crap shoot.

He did sleep that night. But insomnia is not really what this post is about. It’s about perception. Specifically, perception of writing. Your writing, perhaps.

I thought the tea smelled fine. My husband thought it smelled like it had just been extracted from the germ-infested seeping wound of some filthy Dark Age peasant. I like tea. My husband does not.

In writing, as well as any other field that seeks to involve other people’s senses, desires, prejudices, and emotions (think advertising, movies, music, just about any media you can imagine) a stark black and white sense of reality does not matter, and many would argue it cannot be determined anyway. What matters is how people perceive what you’ve created.

In other words, if I write something I think is unique but others think is commonplace, it is commonplace. If I write something I think is edge-of-your-seat but readers put it down because they don’t feel the drive to keep reading, it is not edge-of-your-seat. If I write something I believe takes on deep issues but the reader dismisses as shallow and sophomoric, it is not as deep as I think it is.

Ouch. Criticism reveals our writing’s most persistent flaws. It’s hard to take at times, just as it was hard for my husband to swallow that tea. But criticism, even the mean and spiteful criticism, can strengthen our writing if we apply it correctly. Even a tirade can be turned into constructive criticism if we read it with the right spirit and thick enough skin.

But here’s the kicker. You are a writer. You are an artist. And even if people do not receive your work as you hoped they would, you have a message and a vision. While properly applying criticism to our writing does produce better writing, there is such a thing as too much compromise, when your writing and your story become someone else’s because you are trying to please too many people.

If you are confident that an element of your writing is right for your story, that it serves your story in a way that it would not if you changed it (perhaps the way a character acts or your point of view or the style in which it is written) then leave it alone. Sometimes people criticize things because they are not exactly like everything else they’ve read. Sometimes they criticize because they had a really crappy day and they need to lash out at someone. Sometimes they criticize because they are trolls. Be courageous. Be willing to be different. But only after you have truly and honestly considered your reader’s opinion and have a good reason for disregarding it (and there are many legitimate reasons to reject other’s opinions).

When I initially gave my novel manuscript to a few friends and colleagues to get feedback, there were a couple things that everyone said I did really well. And there were a couple of things that were distracting flaws. I had to choose how much of those perceived flaws I was going to change. If only one reader mentioned it, I might leave it as is. But if almost everyone mentioned it, I knew I needed to think hard about how to address it. And then I had to decide if I had really addressed it adequately once I did make changes. (I’m still not sure.) But I also had to decide if I was willing to sacrifice something I felt was necessary to retain the style of the storytelling.

Perception is reality for the reader. You can control the reader’s perception up to a point, but you cannot change the lens through which they read. So do your part to make things understandable. Do your part to create and mold the perception. But accept the fact that another reader may see your work differently, may catch your vision in a way the first reader didn’t. Maybe every single reader isn’t really the right audience for you. Maybe you’re happy with a smaller audience that truly understands and appreciates your writing for what it is because you are all looking at it through similar lenses.

I’m the tea drinker in our family. My husband will never like tea, no matter how many different kinds are out there, no matter how much sugar, no matter how it’s dressed up. He is not the “audience” for tea. And tea growers don’t grow for him. They grow for me.

Who is your audience? Your real audience. Write for them.

Why didn’t I think to describe someone as “mouldy?”

After a rather long hiatus, I have once again picked up Virginia Woolf’s abridged diary in the evenings. I’m absolutely enraptured with Woolf’s ability to use a few precise, often unexpected words to describe a person or a situation. Here are a few I’ve underlined.

“Roger is becoming one of the successes of the day as a painter of perfectly literal and very unpleasant portraits.”

“I doubt that anyone will say the interesting things but they can’t prevent their coming out.”

“Whether people see their own rooms with the devastating clearness that I see them, thus admitted once for an hour, I doubt. Chill superficial seemliness; but thin as a March glaze of ice on a pool.”

“Being an editor has drugged the remnants of ambition in him, and he is now content.”

“Sometimes everything gets into the same mood.”

“In my heart, too, I prefer the nondescript anonymous days of youth. I like youthful minds; and the sense that no one’s yet anybody.”

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

“It annoys me to be like other wives.”

“She has been working over these old stories so often, that they hold no likeness to the truth–they are stale, managed, pulled this way and that, as we used to knead and pull the crumb of bread, till it was a damp slab.”

“Ethel’s [tea] was a ghastly frizzly frying pan affair.”

“No I don’t trust him; I don’t trust any human being, however loud they bellow and roll their rs.”

“Such is human nature–and really I don’t like human nature unless all candied over with art.”

“I know why I am depressed: a bad habit of making up the review I should like before reading the review I get.”

“Here at the age of forty-five are Nessa and I growing little wings again after our lean years.”

“And now there’s the Femina prize to record–an affair of dull stupid horror.”

I’m happy to be once again immersed in the world of a very thoughtful writer who truly considered everything in her life and felt the compulsion to write about it–parties, visitors, scenes on London’s streets, the impact of a solar eclipse, books, homes, hairstyles, the subtle interplay between couples. Everything was literary. She inspires me to see all of life through the lens of what I might write about it.

We Play at Politics, and Yet, Life Goes On…

So, Michigan seems to be getting a bit of press lately, with the voting on Right-to-Work legislation and angry and sometimes violent protests at the Capitol, just down the road a ways from my house. Having friends on both sides of the issue and also because this space is not about politics, I’m certainly not going to take any stances here or push my own opinion, though I have one. Instead, I’m going to give you some peaceful pictures of places in Michigan where no one is protesting, except perhaps a squirrel chittering at a stray dog nosing around its tree.

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Now then, let’s all take a deep breath and know that the world will go on, season to season, no matter who is elected at any level of our government and no matter what does or does not get signed into law. The natural world cares not about Right-to-Work, because the trees and the animals must all do their work anyway, with no pay or benefits, with no unions, with no thought of fairness or coercion or sustainability. With no bitterness or rancor, a tree grows, a flower blooms, a bird builds its nest, a squirrel gathers its hoard of nuts and seeds for winter.

And life moves on.

Sweet December (or…Be Careful What You Pray For)

For those of you who don’t know, I tutor a very nice Chin family in ESL once a week and have been doing so since they arrived from Burma/Myanmar two years ago. The parents struggle, but the two school-aged boys, Moses and David, are doing quite well, especially Moses who is now asked by many of his Chin friends to come with them to appointments to translate. (Aside: it seems to me that refugees have more appointments than anyone I have ever met.)

This wonderful family invited my family to come to their apartment Saturday night for a celebration. This was right after I had asked them if they planned to celebrate Thanksgiving. They swiftly told me about “December One,” which they called Sweet December, and which, in my limited understanding of what they told me (there’s a difference between being able to speak English and actually speaking English after all), seemed to be a celebration of when they first arrived in America, like their very own personal Thanksgiving. I gladly accepted the invitation, despite my fear that I would again be served intestines, and started thinking of a way I could serve myself at the meal.

As my husband typically works Saturday evenings, just my four-year-old son tagged along with me on Sweet December. When I got to the Lian home, I could tell from outside that the place was full of celebration–kids yelling, people singing, lights on in every room–and I assumed that the already large family had invited some other friends from their church, which meets in our church building Sunday afternoons. Moses met me on the dark porch and explained that we would go in once the song was done. A moment later, he opened the door.

You know how Lucy must have felt seeing Narnia for the first time? Or how Dorothy surely felt when she opened the door of her dark gray house and was confronted with the bright and colorful world Oz? That’s kind of how it was when Moses opened that door. The dark concrete porch was awash in golden light and instead of seeing the dozen people I expected, it was more like fifty. One hundred deep brown eyes in tanned faces. Plus the children who were running about and playing. Altogether I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to place the total number of people in that one apartment at about 75. At least two thirds of that number were seated on the floor in the living room, facing the front door, and looking at me and my son as we squeezed in and added our shoes to the veritable mountain range that already blocked the front closet and much of the front door.

Moses pointed me to two empty kitchen chairs along the edge of the sea of people seated on the floor, the only two chairs I saw in the entire room. Now, being one of only two white people there (the other being my son), and being a good liberal arts graduate and stuffed full of oodles of white guilt from all of my white professors, I felt distinctly uncomfortable sitting “above” all of the Chin people in the room. Heck, even if I sat my 5’9″ self on the floor I would tower over these petite people. So I told Moses no, we would sit on the floor. But he again gestured to the chairs.

Then I looked to my immediate right and saw their pastor and his wife seated on a sofa in the front of the room. I realized that they had given me the chair because my husband is the pastor of our church and I, his wife, would be honored the same way he would. Coming from a country in which they are persecuted for their Christian faith, the Chin have the utmost respect for clergy. So I sat down and tried to figure out how I had thought I was coming to a family gathering when I was now so obviously in a church service. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about being offered intestines.

After another couple songs, I sent my son upstairs to play with the other small children, many of whom already speak English like natives. He gleefully joined them and I didn’t see him much for the next hour. Back in the living room, Moses took the chair next to me in a valiant attempt to help me understand what was going on. While people were talking he would lean in and say in his very soft voice, his words slurring together, that this was a prayer or this was announcement time or this was a group song. Most of the time I couldn’t quite make out what he was trying to tell me because, despite it being a church service, the din from the children upstairs, in the kitchen, on the staircase, and even sometimes in the living room, was constant and seemed fairly loud to someone who grew up in the Lutheran church with a very German sense of decorum (i.e., no talking, no fidgeting, and certainly no messing with the keyboard or standing right in front of the speaker and staring up at her as though you were a living pulpit…which, as you may have guessed, happened later that night).

But the wonderful thing about being part of a worldwide body of believers is that even if you aren’t quite sure what someone else is saying, and even if you only catch occasional words (Abraham, Hosanna, Jerusalem, Christmas, December, God is good) you still know the story. Moses gave me an English Bible and told me the passage that Pastor Hrang’s wife was going to speak on. Luke 2:11-… well, to be honest, I’m not sure where she ended, so I kept reading until verse 21. The story of the angels announcing to the shepherds that Jesus was born and the shepherds going to see the baby in the manger.

And even though I speak very limited Chin (I know that watermelon is dawnzuk–though I’m sure I’m spelling it wrong) I could still follow some of her sermon. I had to fill in enormous gaps, but when you know the whole story of God’s people, it is not difficult to do. She mentioned Moses, so I thought of Moses being sent as the deliverer of his people Israel from the whips of the Egyptians. Then I thought of Jesus the deliverer, sent as a little baby to save the world not from human oppression but from spiritual death. She said Hosanna and so I knew she was talking about Palm Sunday, when Jesus road into the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey, entering to the shouts of people asking him to save them. She moved her hand up, looked to an unseen hill, and I knew she was talking about those same people yelling “Crucify him!” and taking him to Golgotha to be executed.

After that, there were fewer things I could understand. No more familiar words, though she gestured several more times to the cross. But it was enough. I knew the story.

During this service there were also several prayers given by several people. I could recognize only the words Christmas and Amen. That, too, was enough.

Perhaps the strangest thing I witnessed that night was when everyone in the room prayed individually, not silently or taking turns as you would in an American church, but out loud and all at once. A cacophony of loud and fervent voices lifted to God in adoration. It took me so much by surprise I felt extremely uncomfortable for a moment (remember: German Lutheran). And I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that all speaking at once might not be looked upon favorably in the pages of Scripture (husband tells me it’s 1 Corinthians 14:26-33).

All the same, I felt compelled to join my thoughts and prayers with theirs and offer them up aloud to God (though at a much more restrained volume–God’s not hard of hearing, after all). And further checking into that Scripture shows me that it is talking about an orderly worship service and speaking in tongues. This service was certainly orderly and any speaking in a different tongue from the one everyone knew seemed to be done by me. So I thanked God for bringing these people safely out of a land of persecution to a land of religious freedom. I thanked him for the opportunity I have had to serve a few of them. And I asked him to show me and my church how we could serve them further.

And that’s where I went wrong.

There are prayers that God seems to take a long time to answer–months, years, decades, lifetimes. And there are prayers that God answers almost before you’ve said Amen. This was one of the latter kind. The service ended, strange food (though not intestines) was served, my boy came into the room for a doughnut hole and some water, his hair plastered to his head with sweat from running around constantly, and a woman asked me (through Moses) if I knew if there were any other people at the church who could help her niece and nephew with their homework.

Ah, yes. Homework.

One of my primary gripes when coming home from my ESL tutoring with this family for the past two years has involved the boys’ homework. In a large city with as many refugees and immigrants as ours, I simply can’t believe we don’t have a better system for intensive English instruction as the primary discipline of a new transplant and instead send students home bearing pointless and inane worksheets that will never help them succeed at life or even secure a job (like the crossword David was supposed to fill out last December in which every answer came from the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and ‘Twas the Night before Christmas–seriously).

Immediately I wanted to help these young people. Then I thought of how many junior high and high schoolers are in the Chin church and how many willing volunteers we might get from ours. The numbers didn’t match up. One thing that might make it more feasible would be if we had one big tutoring time scheduled at a central location that all students needing help could get to, transportation being an issue for almost all of them, and that the volunteers could easily reach. Like the church.

I asked Moses and this woman’s niece (I really couldn’t hear her name in all the noise) if they thought that those who wanted homework help could stay after their church service ended around 4:00pm. It would be so much easier to get volunteers to come to a central place. If we had even three people there for a couple hours, how many kids could we help decipher instructions, understand complicated concepts, write with proper grammar?

Remember a week ago when I posted this little gem:

I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.

Yeah.

And on Sweet December I foolishly prayed for more service opportunities to present themselves. But I hope I’m not a big enough fool to ignore a very clear answer to prayer. Now I must trust that the God who answered that prayer will also give me success in finding volunteers to fill the need. So if you’re a praying person, maybe you’ll say a little prayer for me today.