Mark this day on the calendar. For five hours straight, the sun shone warmly down on mid-Michigan from a cloudless blue sky. In February.
Phenomenal. Glorious. Magnificent.
Thank you, Lord.
I think when winter settles in, lots of people immediately put on their grumpy glasses. Everything about winter irritates them — the cold temperatures, the snow, the driving — and they are miserable until April. They see life in winter through a cold filter, like this:
Others put on a different pair of glasses. They see winter as a chance to be cozy at home, a chance to do winter sports, or even just a welcome blank space in their social calendar (post-Christmas, at least). They see beauty and artistry. They see life in winter through a warm filter, like this:
No matter what our station in life or what the season, our enjoyment of life is directly correlated to how we choose to see it. If we see adversity and enemies and obstacles everywhere we look, if we see everything as an inconvenience to us, then that’s what we’ll get. But if we can see that winter is merely a wondrous part of the yearly cycle of nature in a temperate zone, maybe we’ll enjoy it a little more.
After all, we’re all experiencing the same winter if we’re in the same area of the country. If you hate it and your friend loves it, the difference isn’t in winter, it’s in you. It’s in how you’re choosing to experience the exact same circumstances as your friend. Maybe if we stop complaining, we won’t feel so put upon by winter (which really isn’t out to get you — it doesn’t even know you’re there).
I have a friend who is experimenting with liking winter this year. She hates it, but she’s decided not to complain about it. And you know what she realized for the first time? Just how much other people were complaining about it. The experiment is ongoing, and I’m not sure if she’ll last until spring finally comes, but for right now, I’m really proud of her. If you’re normally wearing your grumpy glasses all winter, I encourage you to try it out, even if just for a week or two.
Besides, if you just can’t hack it, I’m sure Florida will take you.
It’s cold, cold, cold and snowy in Michigan lately, which suits me just fine. I stopped off at Fenner Nature Center today to take a few pictures on the way to pick up my son from school. I trudged in snow drifts nearly up to my knees and it was still coming down.
I wish I’d had more time and my snow pants on. After only about ten or fifteen minutes I had to be on my way.
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:
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
…but you can bet that it’s easier to maintain when others are there to hold you up.
I’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?
My dog is fifteen years old this month. She’s lived with us for nine of those years
Half German Shepherd and half Samoyed, she was built for the snow by centuries of selective breeding. The jobs for which she has been bred include keeping watch over reindeer, sheep, and people. She’s done an excellent job watching over us, always certain to alert us when a nefarious old woman was walking down our street or that infernal mailman was stuffing junk mail into our mailbox.
These days her hearing is starting to go. She doesn’t bark at the people passing by or the mailman. She isn’t usually waiting by the door when we come in, because she no longer hears the car coming in the driveway.
In her younger days, she would spend hours outside in this kind of weather. But a foot of snow overnight and single digit temperatures this morning were less enticing to her than laying under the dining room table as the humans in the family enjoyed freshly baked cinnamon rolls.
She’s well into her retirement years. Walks are shorter, naps are longer, treats and people food are ever more abundant (“She’s old!” is my husband’s bighearted justification for all the special treatment). I’m not sure how much longer she will be with us, but I am sure that she has been a very, very good dog.