For When Life Feels Like It’s One Big, Long, Dreadful February

Despite my optimistic outlook on the first of the month, February sank its inevitable claws into me with blank skies, a family health crisis, missing friends who’ve moved away, and just a vague sense of stasis in the realms of work, home, health, and writing. It happens. Dinner out with my guys cheered me up last night and today, despite the continual white-gray skies, I’m feeling a bit better. This helped too:


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You might not think listening to two guys riff on how depressed they’ve been would cheer you up (especially when, in my case, one is your husband and one is a close friend), but trust me when I say that if you’re finding yourself feeling stuck or less successful than you thought you’d be at this point in your life, listening to this podcast will help. It’s honest about the expectations we have for ourselves and the ways we fall short and how to deal with those feelings of discontent and disappointment, not in a “Hey, buck up!” kind of way but in a way that might actually make some use out of those experiences. And to hear two men talk through those things honestly is a rare find.

You can’t avoid February, and sometimes you might feel like your whole life is stuck in a February. But spring is coming and God is faithful.

Winter Has Arrived

Yesterday afternoon I took a solo walk at Fenner Nature Center. There had been a lot of puns and Christopher Walken impressions and general noisiness in the morning, so after lunch I geared up for the colder weather, grabbed my camera, and headed south. As I stood by my car getting my camera over my neck, made extra puffy with scarf and goose down, a man started shouting in another language at his kids. I looked up to see seven or eight whitetail deer bounding by in a line, the sound of a far-off dog an indication of what may have disturbed them. I turned back to the man and shared one of those smiles you only get to share with a stranger when you’ve both witnessed something wonderful. He gathered his kids and piled them into the car. I set off into the grassland.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

I saw a very occasional person, heard a dog bark once or twice. But the principal sound I heard was the wind whistling through the bare treetops and the shuff, shuff sound of my own walking.

I never use a trail map when I’m there, which may explain why I made two new discoveries yesterday. I took a couple smaller side trails I’d not noticed or simply not taken in the past. One led me to an observation blind built of plywood. The other led me past this…

Totem Pole, Fenner Nature Center

I have no idea what the story is behind this totem pole, but it has lots of wonderful carvings of people and animals, including these guys…

Totems

A look at the map later shows that both of my discoveries are clearly marked. I guess that’s one reason to use a map.

Fenner Map

The woods were quiet and filled with the subtle colors of winter — white, grays, and browns — but without the leaves to distract and cast shadows on the tree trunks, their underlying yellows, reds, oranges, and greens were easier to discern.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

All in all a lovely, cold, windy day. It snowed overnight as well and now the trees are blanketed in white and the grass is finally buried and the windchill is near zero degrees Fahrenheit. Winter has finally come. And I couldn’t be happier.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Suddenly, Snow

Winter's Arrival, Highway 52

The power of poetry. Two days after my lament, we’ve finally had a bit of snow. And lots of sudden ice on the roads. You take the good with the bad. This morning there are flurries and the ground is still powdered with white. I believe it’s all supposed to melt tomorrow. But for a moment yesterday afternoon, it was glorious.

I drove into it going west on I-69, coming back from Pontiac where my sister was graduating from the corrections academy of Oakland County. The sole representative in her class of Grand Traverse County where she will be working, she took the top academic honors.

I was in proud attendance, as were our parents. Alison spent the last fifteen years in child protective services and then adult protective services, hard jobs that wear you down, especially as resources continue to be stripped. The road to the moment in the photo above started somewhere back in the late spring with application, then a battery of tests and background checks and interviews, then five weeks away from her family at the academy.

As we run out 2015 and think about the year to come, I pray it’s a year of renewal, growth, satisfaction, and joy for all of you, but especially for her.

Sisters

A Poem for Our Unseasonably Warm Weather

An Exchange

To tout the beauty of a brown December
I am not capable.

I, the bright side looker—
I, the silver lining finder—
Even I cannot sing
the snowless ground,
the naked trees,
the coughing leaves
still blowing down the road.

Winter without snow:
the bride without her train—
no gossamer veil,
just a sodden sheet of rain
to screen her ruined face
and balding pate
from jaded eyes
in want of ceremony
on these bleak days
of grays and gray-greens and gray-browns
that lean in on you from all around
to snuff out what light you might still carry,
which the snow would have reflected—
were it present—
and done much to make hearts merry
despite the early nights
of thin starlight
and thinner moon.

Sixty degrees
with a light breeze
and spring comes more to mind
than Christmastime
and yet not ten days stand
between now and then,
when cars are packed
with presents stacked
so recently beneath the tree
and gifts unwrapped with studied glee
become the things surreptitiously
exchanged for items more in keeping
with one’s style.

And so I pose the insolent question
that’s been floating round my head:
Can I return this brown month and get a white one instead?

To which God answers, after a beat:
Do you have a receipt?

Lessons We Can Learn Halfway to Black Belt

Last weekend our son was awarded his red belt in karate (which is just our shorthand for the real name of the marital arts system he practices — the American Advanced Combat System — which was developed by Sensei Dan Timlin and is based on Bruce Lee’s system of Jeet Kune Do). At his dojo, this means he has moved up to the advanced class, and he’s still just six years old.

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When we started him in martial arts about a year and a half ago (largely due to his obsession with TMNT and ninja stuff in general) we talked to him about the investment of time and money it would entail, about how when we start something, we don’t just quit when we get bored or tired of it.

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We needn’t have said a word about it because his enthusiasm and dedication has not waned one iota. The young guy next to him in the photos above and below is one of his instructors. He’s a fantastic teacher and incredible to watch on the academy’s demonstration team. He was just sixteen when Calvin started as a white belt in the basic class. He started at the dojo at age eight. When Calvin is eight, he will already be a black belt. When I think of my son someday being able to do the things that this young man does, I get giddy with anticipated pride.

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Now, I’m posting about this partially to share my joy in my son’s dedication and his achievements. But it’s not all about bragging (it is a little about bragging).

It’s also about persistence and drive and dedication to an art. It’s so easy to start something big and then quit when we feel like we’re not making enough progress. Calvin could have watched his teacher do incredible takedowns and disarms and flying kicks and thought to himself, “I’ll never be able to do that. It looks too hard and I don’t think I’m fast enough or strong enough.” But he didn’t. He saw some majorly cool moves and thought to himself, “I want to do that.” And then patient and caring teachers came alongside him and said, “You can do that — but it takes discipline, training, and focus, and we’ll help you get there.”

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And his parents came alongside and gave him encouragement, took him to practice three nights a week, reinforced the lessons he was learning at the dojo, trained with him at home. Because while in some ways martial arts are an individual sport, no one learns best in complete isolation.

What about you? Are you trying to write all on your own? Trying to figure out your camera all on your own? Trying to figure out how to make a certain effect in a painting or Photoshop or a recipe all on your own? What are you trying to do solo that would be easier if you had support, if you had a teacher or a more experienced friend who could answer your questions?

It’s tempting to do art alone, especially if you’re an introvert. And there are plenty of opportunities to practice alone, and that’s not bad. But who do you have who can encourage you and help you adjust your technique if you’re doing it wrong or perhaps just not the easiest or most efficient way?

When I went out to take pictures of the aurora on Saint Patrick’s Day, it was a friend who told me that the aurora was active. That same friend was there when I had questions about how best to photograph them because he and I once had almost the exact same camera. There were a few things I had to figure out by myself, but he was there on the other end of the phone when I had questions. And when I posted a photo on Facebook, he was the first to compliment me on it. How encouraging!

In my writing, I have two great groups of writers who can encourage me to stick it out when the going gets rough and who can share expertise and advice. One is online (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) and one is in the flesh (Capital City Writers Association). Another writing community that is so instructive and encouraging is Writer Unboxed. Beyond that, my husband and a few close friends serve as encouragers, first readers, and sounding boards.

You can do so much more and so much better work when you have a community of like-minded individuals supporting you. If you quilt, join a quilting group or guild. If you paint, organize outings to paint plein air. If you love to bake, create your own informal school or throw a recipe sharing party. If you write poetry, find a local place that can host readings and put the word out to poets in your area. If you’re a musician, schedule a jam session.

When things get tough and your art won’t cooperate or you’ve faced rejection, that’s when you need support. And you’ll find that if you cultivate a community intentionally, that support will be there for you the moment you need it. Those people will keep you from quitting, they’ll celebrate your successes with you, they’ll help you grow, and they’ll feed your desire to succeed.

Your initial passion and intensity may come from within…

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…but you can bet that it’s easier to maintain when others are there to hold you up.

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The Work We Accomplish and the Work We’ve Yet to Do

GunLakeFireplaceI’ve just returned from a weekend excursion with my husband to Gun Lake where we sat (and slept) by a roaring fire for three days of writing with no responsibilities, interruptions, or internet. The house at which we stayed isn’t remote or lonesome–Gun Lake is fully developed. But there’s something about driving an SUV through a foot of unplowed snow on a long driveway that approximates the feeling of remoteness.

Temperatures were in the single digits and wind was fierce, making the frozen lake look and feel like the arctic tundra. Glancing ahead to the extended forecast, I see that the remainder of February will be very cold. No brief thaw for us this time around. Which is all well and good, I guess, as it inevitably leads to misguided feelings of euphoria that spring is just around the corner. We know better.

And anyway, who needs spring? Our indoor projects are not yet accomplished. As I type this, I hear the sounds of hammering below me as my husband puts the trim along the bottom edge of some new shelves in the family room. Today’s big project will be going through our son’s toys with him, weeding out the unused stuff, and making the basement family room into Toy Central, thus ridding the living room of constant six-year-old related clutter (I hope).

Sometime this week or next I’d like to get back to my rabbit mosaic and add the background tiles. The workroom and laundry room in the basement need serious reorganization and cleaning (so much sawdust!). There’s an embarrassing amount of piled-up fabric in my sewing area. And I’d really like to finish the prep work for a quilt I’ve been making for my son for the past three years (during which I’ve been periodically cutting out and hand-basting the edges of nearly 3,000 little hexagons) so I can get the top sewn together (again, by hand) and then quilted (by machine!) before he graduates from college (again, he’s six).

And somewhere in there I’d love to get the first draft of I Hold the Wind completed. I had had hopes of doing that this past weekend at the lake, but here I am home again with an incomplete draft. I’m happy that I made some more progress on it, but I left the lake with a nagging dissatisfaction with my work. It wasn’t bad, just…inadequate.

This morning I opened up a file on my computer titled Big Questions. It’s a list of, well, big questions that I want to consider and perhaps answer in this story. They are the themes and issues I wanted to explore. They’re what made this story idea so appealing to me in the first place. But somewhere in the middle and toward the end there, I got so focused on getting the plot down that I stopped thinking about these big questions. It happens. You may have to get through Lamott’s shitty first draft before you can make a story all that you believe it can be. Still–it’s painful to write stuff that’s not up to one’s own standards.

What I accomplished at the lake was forward motion. What’s needed now is depth. And depth can be achieved by slowing down, digging back in, focusing on character, and shining light on the little details that create poignancy and permanence in a reader’s mind.

And what better way to spend a long string of cold February mornings?