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?

Old Dog on a Snowy Morning

My dog is fifteen years old this month. She’s lived with us for nine of those years

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Waiting for the Snows

But for a few days in November, mid-Michigan has been naked this winter. Today was rainy and in the 40s and felt like spring, a melancholy masquerade in late December. Two days out from Christmas with no snow on the ground and even the most summer-loving Midwesterner must feel an itching wistfulness. When we moved to Lansing from Grand Rapids in 2005, it was a green (brown, really) Christmas. During the week following, I was working in my new yard, pulling English ivy from walls, trimming tree limbs with a saw my father got me for Christmas, and digging up sandstone rocks from beneath the ground. I was more than 50 pounds lighter then than I am today, eager to make my new home my own. Nine years later and I have nothing to do in the garden despite the warm temperatures and the soft earth. The garden is “finished” as far as that goes.

I won’t lie; the lack of snow has got me down. What is winter without snow except a long, dull stretch of cloudy sky and gray-brown earth? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. There are lights on the house, presents under the tree, family coming for good food. I’m anticipating the smiles on the faces of my son and husband as they open up their gifts. I’m listening to carols and playing them for my son on the guitar at night. Tomorrow night is our candlelight service at church. Everything is as it should be–except the snow. Funny how one thing out of place throws off the whole thing.

One thing out of place.

When I turned my calendar to December a few weeks ago, I was met with an envelope containing a letter I had forgotten I’d written. Last night I cheated and opened it a week early. At my husband’s bemused urging, I read it out loud. It was cheesier than I can imagine myself being. Or maybe it wasn’t cheesy so much as it was too sincere. We had a couple good laughs during my oration. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my hopes for myself had come to pass in 2014. One very particular one did not–one thing out of place–but I am slowly becoming okay with it. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was ahead of where I had claimed I hoped to be when it came to my writing. And yet, for much of the second half of 2014, I have been impatient and felt as though I was lagging behind. My January 2014 self, the one who wrote that letter, seems a more reasonable person than my December 2014 self. And I’m glad that she reminded me just how much I have accomplished this past year.

So I wait for the snow and I wait for the fulfillment of a goal I hadn’t really given myself a year ago. I remind myself that I’m right on track and that Christmas comes whether it snows or not. I may feel that there is still one thing out of place, but in reality it is just my own impatience. God’s time is rarely our time, is it?

The Top Ten Ways to Get through Winter without Entering the Spiraling Vortex of Self-Pity

It’s no secret that much of the country has recently experienced a preview of winter. As I type this, my yard is covered in a few inches of snow and the sunlight seeping through the thin haze of clouds has everything glowing. My friends and colleagues in West Michigan are under as much as a foot and a half of snow. And, of course, Upstate New Yorkers are trying to dig out of six feet of it!

Snow like this, especially before Thanksgiving can make people super cranky (adults, anyway–children, it seems, are programmed to be ecstatic about snow any time before Spring Fever sets in in February). Granting that there are major problems when you get the kind of snow that Buffalo has in the past few days, the photos we’re seeing on Twitter and Facebook are generally showing people making the best of things–turning their front doors into refrigerators, shoveling in shorts and sandals, hopping into the hot tub between the drifts.

The nice thing about Buffalo being so bad off is that I’m not hearing much complaining from Michiganders at the moment. Which suits me just fine. Because if there is one thing that doesn’t change anything when it comes to weather, it’s complaining.  However, knowing that some people, despite being born and raised in the Midwest, have a hard time with winter, I thought I’d offer the Unofficial Midwesterner’s Guide to Loving Winter (a.k.a., The Top Ten Ways to Get through Winter without Entering the Spiraling Vortex of Self-Pity):

 

10. Open the Blinds and Turn on the Lights

Look, around the 45th parallel, it gets dark in winter. And I’m not just talking about the sun setting at 5 o’clock. Around the Great Lakes, it is cloudy. Like, almost all the time. Sure, you get the occasional blue sky and brilliant sun, but on most days you need to seek out the light, invite it inside, and supplement with electricity. If you don’t seek out the light, you may find yourself suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (symptoms include depression, extreme self-pity, irritability, and bringing everyone around you down). Older houses like mine tend to have lots of big windows. I face an east window most of the day at my desk, which really helps with my moods. But if you find you just aren’t getting enough natural light, get yourself some of those “sunlight” lights or at least up the wattage in the bulbs around your house. Turn on every light in the room. Get outside on sunny days. Schedule a skylight installation.

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9. Get Cozy

My friend Meghan introduced me to the Danish term hygge and I’m so glad she did. It wasn’t really a new concept to me, but I finally had a word to describe how I kind of already felt about winter as a time to enjoy being enclosed–in a house, in a room, in comfy clothes, under a warm blanket, with family and friends, eating lots of comfort food and drinking hot cocoa. Winter’s the time to enjoy being indoors as much as summer’s the time to enjoy being outdoors. It’s a time to layer on body fat and clothing and cuddle together to keep warm. It’s a time for sweet solitude and joyful togetherness.

8. Get Moving

But all this coziness can lead to feeling sluggish. And at some point, you’re going to get Cabin Fever. Not everyone knows this, but I’ve done some firsthand research and found that snow is not toxic. It can be walked upon, trudged through, played with, and even eaten with no ill effects! So get your butt outside and enjoy it! As long as you dress for the cold, endless possibilities are open to you, from walking your dog to making snow angels to skiing to snowshoeing to snowmobiling to surfing for crying out loud! Go places! Just make sure you have a shovel and a warm blanket and a granola bar in the car and that you brake gently, earlier than you would on dry pavement. Winter driving isn’t hard. It’s just different. Load your trunk with sandbags. Get yourself some snow tires and a vehicle with 4-wheel drive. Leave ten minutes earlier.

7. Burn Stuff

Fireplaces, candles, bonfires–winter is the perfect time to burn stuff. It gives off extra light (see #10 above), encourages and adds to hygge (see #9 above), and it gets you moving a little bit (see #8 above) by chopping, stacking, and gathering wood. Also, it smells great and sounds like childhood. Perfect the art of making a great fire, and you’ll be an indispensable part of any gathering in a home built before about 1990, when everyone starting installing gas fireplaces (which, let’s be honest, are a bit like vegan sausage). Fireplace or no, save up your money and go buy yourself a nice Yankee Candle. May I recommend Balsam & Cedar?

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6. Make Stuff

Oh, the things you can create when you have months inside! Mosaics, birdhouses, origami animals, paintings, cookies, quilts, hats, paper chains and paper snowflakes, music, novels, poetry, babies, Lego civilizations…the list is endless! That craft or skill you haven’t used in forever? Dust it off! That thing you’ve been wanting to learn for years? Get some library books and start trolling YouTube for tutorials! You can waste your winter grumpily watching TV and complaining about the cold on social media, or you can actually DO something with your time. Make some Christmas gifts. Make a hot meal for an elderly shut in. Make time for reading and prayer and reflection on the big things in life.

5. Feed the Birds

It’s not just for retirees, honestly. If you have a window at home or work, you can put a birdfeeder out there and I have to tell you, there is something about little birds that gives a watcher nothing but positive feelings. And watching squirrels? Hilarious! And sometimes you even get to witness an altercation like this:

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For a winter-loving double-whammy you can make a birdfeeder and even make homemade treats for the birds from seeds, nuts, dried fruit, bacon fat, peanut butter and more! (see #6 above)

4. Celebrate Small Victories & Don’t Take It Personally

Did you manage to drag your butt out of bed before the sun rose even though it felt like the middle of the night? Good for you! Did you walk the dog without slipping on ice and bruising your tailbone? Congratulations! Did you look out on a snowy night and think about how beautiful it was before you starting cursing about how much you’d have to shovel in the morning? Gold star! Garrison Keillor is fond of pointing out that winter offers us many opportunities to overcome adversity, and that that makes us better people. I agree with him. Even the little things that winter makes more challenging can shape our character. Do we take those challenges as a normal part of the season that everyone around us is also experiencing? Or do we take it personally, like God has it in for us and is up there laughing at us? As Keillor says, “Winter is not a personal experience.”

3. Share Your Most Harrowing Stories

Let’s face it, if the roads weren’t so bad, we’d have a lot less to talk about in the winter. Everyone loves a good “near-miss” story, the kind where everyone else out on the road is an idiot, but through your incredible driving skills you were able to pull out of a heart-stopping, spinning, skidding death trap and save your family’s life while avoiding the deer and the jack-knifed semi truck. Sure, your shoulders and back are aching as you get out of your car after three hours of white-knuckling it on the highway on the way to your extended family’s Christmas party in Traverse City. But when you make it there, you’re the hero! You’ve won the Iditarod! You’re Robert Peary reaching the North Pole!

Robert Peary

2. Seek Out the Beautiful

Every season has its own particular beauty. Spring has colorful bulbs and trees bowed with blossoms. Summer has wildflowers and beaches and amazing sunsets. Autumn dazzles us with red and orange and yellow leaves against a blue sky. In the same way, winter can stop you in your tracks. The sparkling light reflected from each facet of every snowflake. The hypnotic effect of big, lazy clumps of snow falling outside the window. The utter quietness that pervades a snow-filled wood. The shock of a red cardinal against a backdrop of white. The enchantment of your living room decorated for Christmas. When you’ve seen one too many dirty, slushy parking lots, go out and seek the beauty that is out there waiting for you.

And the most surefire way to get through winter with a smile on your face…

1. Choose to Love It

Attitude really is everything. It can mean the difference between success and failure in so many parts of our lives. When we choose to be positive about a situation, we so often find that there was good in it all along but we were blinded to it because we were so busy wishing that things were different. But when you live in the Midwest, winter is reality. It will happen. Sometimes it will happen BIG, like last year’s Polar Vortex and the last few days in New York.

Choosing to love it doesn’t mean we pretend it isn’t a very real trial sometimes. But it does mean that on any given morning, when we have to shovel the driveway and scrape the car windows and leave extra early to get to where we’re going on time, that we can at that moment choose to be miserable or choose to be stalwart, cheerful, and proud that we are a people who drill holes in the frigging ice to go fishing and drive snowmobiles across the Straits of Mackinac to get groceries.

And, most importantly, we laugh at those wimps down south who shut everything down when there’s an inch of snow on the ground.

Less Than 24 Hours Until February Is Over

It is a grand day, everyone. The last day of another February. Tomorrow it will be March. Let that sink in for a moment.

While you shiver on this sunny, 0°F morning; while my arctic dog is rolling around in the snow like an idiot; while we shuffle through yet another day that feels like a science experiment gone awry–all that time we are moving closer, moment by moment, to March.

Yes, it will be largely a symbolic victory. The battle against seasonal affective disorder will continue and we still can’t see the grass, but we shall overcome the snow in the end.

The birds are already starting to sing the victory song. Can you hear them?

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Making Peace with February

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAh, February. You’ve brought with you several more inches of snow. How embarrassing for you. Didn’t anyone tell you that’s what January brought too? In fact, she brought so much that front loaders have been spied filling dump trucks with the stuff to cart it off to wherever such things get carted off to. I do wish you’d instead decided to bring some sunshine. Though, admittedly, the warmer temperature has been pleasant. So thanks for that.

Friends, February has historically been my least favorite month (and I’m sure if you are from snowy regions, it’s your least favorite as well). Winter marches on so gray and dreary. We are at our most vitamin D deficient. Our pale, dry, chapped skin ages us so severely.

But in recent years I’ve worked on making peace with it. Honestly, the fresh snow helps. The days that are reaching for just a little more light each evening. The birds that are starting to sing a little louder.

And one more week off to write, capped with a three-day writing retreat for me and my husband at our friend’s house on Gun Lake. No Internet, no TV, no restaurants, no laundry, no kid. Just a fireplace, two laptops, and nothing but wide open time.

I can’t wait.

Arctic Blasts and the Reason for Fiction

Thanks so much to so many of you who downloaded free stories yesterday. What took me by surprise was that the overwhelming favorite of the day was “Beneath the Winter Weeds,” the story I wrote last January. I suppose I had thought that people would be more interested reading about summer during this second (or is it third?) cold snap.

Perhaps fiction isn’t truly an escape from reality so much as it is an exploration of reality.

In case you were curious about what Michigan has been like the past few days, here’s the Lake Michigan lakeshore:

Be sure to watch the whole thing so you can see how this photographer found shelter from the storm.

This morning it’s cold (-10 on the thermostat–that’s -23 celsius for my international friends) and sunny and definitely the sort of morning that Valerie Steele might head into the woods to make her discovery…

In the Dead of Winter, Life Still Stirs

This is the view through my 75-year-old windows lately.

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Some of these patterns put me in mind of coral–appropriate in a part of the world that was once the bottom of an ocean. In summer we gather fossilized coral. In winter, it graces our living room window panes.

It has been a ferocious winter, one that still has the Great Lakes State firmly in its icy grip. But while the windows may be frosty and the ground still covered in snow, beneath it all the earth prepares for spring. Squirrels are fornicating in the back yard. Birds are twittering in the pile of sticks that has been stacked up by the side of the road since the ice storm a month ago. The buds of this year’s growth already grace the bare branches of trees and shrubs. In fact, looking at that last frost photo, I kind of see those bud-studded branches right there in the ice.

And within my mind is a steady running stream of story that my fingers are faithfully putting down into words.

Settling into Cold and Cloudy

While a winter storm is apparently raging on the Atlantic coast, we in mid-Michigan have been enjoying a sunny day. But we’ll need to soak it up while we can, as the forecast calls for high temps in the teens and lots of clouds through the end of the month.

Late January and into February, my irritating habit of making the most of the weather starts to fade. The more the people around you complain about the snow and ice and wind, the more you start to resent it all too.

But I’m telling myself that it is a very, very good thing that I will not be able to get out into the garden until late April. I have a writing goal to reach and I don’t want to get distracted. With everything in my work in progress going fairly well (I’m up to chapter nine and have topped 20,000 words since starting just three weeks ago) I’ve decided to shoot for finishing the first draft by Easter (which is April 20th this year). If I reach that goal, then I can let the thing settle for a month while I get the yard and gardens in order and spend some serious time outside enjoying spring.

So I’m looking at the cold and cloudy near future as an asset rather than a reason to despair.

What about you? What are you going to get done before spring rolls along?