Taking Back 2020

On January 2nd of this year, I turned 40. I had one overarching goal for my 40th year on the planet: live with intention. Basically, decide beforehand how I was going to spend my days, choose my reactions to setbacks, make some purposeful changes in how I was spending my time, etc. etc. etc. I bought a 365-day journal with the intent to record this very intentional year.

It was going to be a big one. I had a full calendar of writing and book events lined up. I was anticipating making a little extra money from them, garnering a little extra name recognition, building a little bigger network of fellow writers. I thought to myself, in my delightful naiveté, that this would be a year of building my career. This is where I would lay the foundation for future success.

And wouldn’t you know it, things didn’t go according to plan.

I abandoned the journal in early February because it was straight-up boring. I mean, who cares what I did each and every day? If I didn’t, certainly posterity wouldn’t. Gone.

And then…well, you know. Everyone’s plans went up in smoke. Our family trip to Yellowstone was canceled. The writers retreat I direct in Albuquerque was canceled. Nearly twenty events at libraries, book clubs, bookstores, and conferences were canceled.

I thought, well at least I can use that extra time to write more. [Insert sick, desperate laugh.]

There’s something about a pandemic and a 24-hour news cycle and the dumpster fire that is social media that really hijacks one’s concentration if you let it. Add in a kid suddenly home from school 24/7 and you’ve got a recipe for slow writing. Or, no writing for awhile.

Instead of being intentional and proactive, I, like many of you I would imagine, found myself in reactionary mode for about six months. My schedule, my comings and goings, my very thoughts felt like they were not my own. This was the most unintentional year I could remember.

And yet…

There were some things I did manage to make happen. I finally got the new fence I had been needing/wanting for the backyard. I lost fifty pounds and starting fitting into my old clothes. I spent a lot more time outside over the summer, reading, working, and yes, even writing a little. (Thank you, Lord, for such incredible summer weather this year.)

And there were some things that happened to me that were good. Because everyone in the world now knows how to use Zoom, I was able to talk to a number of far-flung (as well as local) book clubs and libraries, the furthest afield being a book club in Honduras. I won both the debut and general categories of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s 2020 Star Awards for my debut novel, We Hope for Better Things, which also had the honor of being selected as a Michigan Notable Book for 2020.

But the thing that I think has really been a turning point for me, mentally and emotionally, is that I kept something precious to me rather than losing it to a virus. Instead of loosening my grip and accepting that in this world, in this year, I will not be able to do this, I squeezed a little tighter and did something anyway. Even though there was some risk involved. Even though it meant spending money we should have saved. Even though it would invite public censure on social media (see my last post for another positive, intentional action taken in the wake of that).

What I kept was my annual writers retreat in Albuquerque. Not the retreat I’d carefully planned for nearly 100 writers. Not the retreat with the notable speaker and all the great food and all the socializing with writer friends. All I kept was a plane ticket and a hotel reservation. All I brought was some clothes and my laptop and my intentions of getting some writing done. All I wanted was time alone in a place I had grown to love and to need in my life over the past six years.

And I got it. Well, perhaps I should say I got it and then some. Not only did I get precious alone time after a season of everyone being stuck in the house; not only did I get time and mental space to write; not only did I get to spend five days in a hotel that feels like a second home to me…I also got community–unexpected, unintentional, and unequivocally soul-restoring community–at the best cigar shop I have ever been to.

An acquaintance local to Albuquerque told me about it and then, when Uber was uberexpensive, was kind enough to drive me to it in order to pick out some gifts for my husband. This friend smoked his first cigar as I perused the largest humidor I’ve ever set foot in and pawed through a gorgeous selection of pipes. I made my purchases after consulting with the very personable owner of the store (the third generation of his family to run it) and chatted with some other patrons–members of the store’s private cigar club–as I finished my own cigar and the glass of bourbon the owner poured for me. Then I figured I had imposed upon my driver long enough and was going say my thank yous and have him drive me back to the hotel.

Instead, one of the cigar club members invited me on a tour of the private lounge. After the tour, another gentleman who was in the lower level (yes, this amazing lounge had multiple levels and rooms) of the club invited me to sit down. I had already finished my cigar and my bourbon and I felt I had abandoned my ride, so I demurred. But the thing is, I didn’t want to leave yet. And these guys didn’t want me to leave. I was handed another bourbon, another cigar, and prevailed upon to stay. Eventually other guys came rolling into the room until I was holding court with five men, only one of whom I’d ever met before that afternoon.

Full disclosure so that you can gauge how incensed you should be at me right now: no, we were not wearing masks (hard to smoke a cigar through a mask) and no, we weren’t a full six feet apart. Probably we managed an average of four feet of distance. Yes, we were inside. Yes, I had shaken every one of their hands (at their initiation), as well as the hands of nearly every man who had entered when we were just standing around talking and smoking in the non-club portion of the store. These men ranged in age from their mid-20s to around 60. They worked in law enforcement, health care, the film industry, the news industry, in finance, for the military. And every single one of them made me feel…welcome, at ease, happy.

In a year of hunkering down and not even seeing the people I’ve known for years (or in some cases, for my entire life) I was introduced to this new community of instant friends. I was made to feel utterly welcome in what has become a very stand-offish world. The things I said were not met with raised hackles and links to articles to show why I was wrong/careless/borderline evil/probably a murderer. I was not walking on eggshells about how I worded things or anticipating the objections or arguments to come. I was not dreading the fallout from simply being myself.

I was just…there. Amongst people who were in all ways generous and gracious to each other and to me. They gave away pieces of themselves to a stranger in their midst, sharing their stories, trusting me to be gentle with them, to take them at face value, to simply derive enjoyment from them. We had nothing to gain from one another beyond a few hours of congeniality. But I don’t think you realize how truly precious such a thing is until it has been stolen from you, first by an invisible virus and then by the near-constant piling on of guilt that accompanies your every action in a world where everyone is watching and feels they have a sacred, self-appointed responsibility to judge and condemn you for each and every small way you deviate from their impossibly high expectations of you.

We had such a great time chatting, six hours flew by. We all missed dinner.

Over the remaining days of my trip, I was able to get together with a few of the guys again, and each time I discovered that a little piece of me was being put back together. A little confidence in myself that had been chipped away by listening to too many people was being restored. A little boldness I once had came creeping back in. (I know that someone reading this is horrified that I accepted rides and drinks I didn’t see poured from men I had just met, but why the hell should men have the freedom to hang out with anyone they want while women are taught to be afraid of everything and everyone? It may shock you further that the reason I saw any of these guys again was because I invited them to join me for drinks and dinner in the days that followed.)

Here’s the thing about meeting someone new in the context of having no “mutual friends.” When you meet someone new, apart from your previous relationships and work and accomplishments, apart from your carefully crafted online persona, you get to see yourself in as pure a form as you are likely to get in this life. They are meeting you, undiluted, unadulterated you. Not you the student or you the wife or you the mother or you the writer or you the former football star or you the once prom queen or you the executive or you the mechanic or you the failed artist or you the real estate mogul. Just you. You’re an unknown quantity. You’re a risk. And when they take that risk to spend time with you, and then have the exact reaction to you that you wish everyone would have–they find you interesting, charming, intelligent, fun to be around, worth their time and attention–it feels good. It feels like maybe there is something more to you than all the stuff about you.

We all want to feel that we are worth something in and of ourselves, irrespective of who we know or who we married or who we gave birth to, regardless of what we have accomplished and what we have failed to accomplish. And when someone sees that pure spark of you inside and wants more–more time, more stories, more eye contact, more of your attention–it’s intoxicating. It’s the kind of thing that makes you miss a meal and yet never actually miss it. It’s the kind of thing you want to share with other people even if it means you’ll get raked across the coals for daring to leave your house and deciding that social niceties like handshakes are still important and are worth a little risk (and a lot of public censure).

Reader, something important that I realized during this “inessential” trip is that I’m still essentially me. I’m still me, in and of myself, the me I’ve always been. The me that prefers hanging out with guys to hanging out with women. The me that loves hearing other people’s stories more than telling her own. The me that is not afraid to get into a car with a man I just met to go get some waffles. The me that is done being acted upon by distant forces and judged by distant people.

The me that doesn’t actually care what you think of me.

2020 has been a trial of a year, for sure. But I am taking it back. I am accepting with open arms the unexpected gifts it has given me. There are three months left in the year. Those are my months. I’m going to live them intentionally, without fear, without second guessing, without explaining myself to people who hold no power over me.

How about you?

Breaking Up with Facebook (well…almost)

It’s felt like a longtime coming, but I finally did it. I finally decided that enough was enough. I’d tried. I’d put in effort and care and time–oh, so much time. But there comes a point at which you have to decide if a relationship is working. And in our world, sometimes there is a point at which you have to decide if hundreds of relationships are working.

For me, they weren’t.

I joined Facebook back in 200…6?…7?…after someone in my graduate program at MSU told me about it. It was fun at first. Actually, it was mostly fun for the first eight or nine years I was on it. And then it became not so fun.

But I stayed engaged, kept accepting friend requests, more and more from people I knew through writing organizations, some I’d never actually met or interacted with but who had mutual friends in the writing community I was involved in. I gathered in people I worked with either in the past or present. I acquired more relatives from my husband’s rather large extended family. I collected some of my relatives’ friends, some brothers and sisters and spouses of people I graduated high school with, some people who read my books and wanted to connect on my personal page rather than my author page.

And it got…difficult. You see, you’d never invite all of these people to the same function in real life. You’d want to connect people who would get along with each other, who would treat each other a certain way. People with similar interests and values. That’s not to say you wouldn’t hang out with everyone in certain contexts, but everyone all at once? Bad idea.

In 2014, Facebook introduced the “unfollow” button. In 2017, it introduced the “snooze” feature. And I used these features liberally in order to tame this list of people I knew, sorta knew, and didn’t know at all, which had grown to more than 1,400.

Now listen, I’m an introvert in a solitary profession who has worked from home since 2005. I do not know 1,400 people. I certainly do not have 1,400 friends. And frankly a lot of those 1,400 people didn’t treat me as a friend would.

A friend–a real friend–knows you. They know your heart. They know that even if you have a different opinion than they do on any given topic, you’re still a decent, intelligent, caring person. They know this because they have actually spent time with you. Real time. In the real world. They’re people you can be honest with and you know that if they disagree they’ll just kind of smile and nod and bite their tongue, then give you a hug and look forward to the next time you see each other.

In the snowballing of my social media accounts, it was those actual friends who seemed to be getting squeezed out on my feed and in comments by “friends” who didn’t know me all that well yet had a lot of opinions about how I should vote, how I should think, and how I should live my life. And social media, while certainly social, wasn’t any fun. And if you don’t have fun with people…why would you spend time with them? Why would you spend time with people who only want to argue or scold or explain how you’re wrong about everything?

Answer: you wouldn’t. No one wants to spend any amount of their leisure time with people like that. And yet we do. All of us do.

It was the summer 2018 that I started yearning for a return to real, offline friendships. That was the year of my 20th high school reunion. That night, I spent time with a few dozen people who, even if some of them weren’t my close friends back in school, even if we had differing opinions on politics or religion or child-rearing, still knew me. In fact, those people I hadn’t seen in 20 years knew me way better than almost anyone I had met since. Because I’m basically the same person as I was back then, though hopefully slightly improved (read: nicer). Many of them had known me since kindergarten. I’d been in real fights with them back when hormones ruled our brains and we’d say anything to get the insult upper hand, and yet I still knew they liked me. I bet none of us could even remember what those fights might have been about.

Not so online, with the arguments that last for days and suck people in from all across the spectrum of your acquaintance. That never resolve, never change anything, never build people up but always manage to knock them down. Day after day on social media, there is instead a steady tearing down, gnawing away. We become afraid to say anything because even though we know it will make this person laugh, it will make that person incensed. The audience is so big you can’t talk to any part of it without stepping in it with another part.

I’ve tried to walk that line for a while. It’s exhausting, disheartening, joy-stealing. But I also didn’t want to unfriend anyone and make them feel bad. I do want to be friendly to people. I don’t want anyone to feel rejected or unwanted. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to them. It’s just that I don’t want to talk to them and everyone else about everything all the time. It just got too big.

Facebook also became a place for me to seek out attention, accolades, likes, comments, and compliments. A place I could puff myself up. A place that fed into my most problematic besetting sin: pride. It feels good to rack up those little hearts and thumbs-ups. And social media companies know that. They know how to keep you coming back for more (watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you don’t believe me).

It’s also a place where colossal amounts of my life have been wasted over the past decade plus. And I have far better, more rewarding things to do with my time than scroll. (Read Deep Work if you need some encouragement to rethink how distractions like social media are eating away at your ability to do solid creative work.)

But…I didn’t want to throw the whole thing out. Not yet. I am connected with my writing community through our Facebook groups. I communicate with people coming to the retreat I direct through Facebook. I run my own author page through Facebook. And there are people I’m happy to be able to keep up with through Facebook. I love all the Facebook memories that pop up containing hilarious or sweet things my son has said or done while growing up. I like seeing old photos pop up. And there are some people I connect with on Messenger that I have no other way of contacting at the moment. So I knew I couldn’t quite quit it cold turkey.

What I did do this year was two big waves of unfriending. The first wave, early in 2020, was simply people I realized I didn’t even know. That allowed me to drop 500-600 people from the list. But I still had a list that was too large. What I really wanted was to separate out my personal, professional, and public lives. So I dropped about 750 more people. People I like just fine, but maybe people it was okay to simply see in person once a year and not keep up with the rest of the year. People whom I wish the very best, but am letting go out of my everyday life.

I’m a big believer in white space. Clearing out the stuff you don’t need. Leaving room in the margin. Allowing for empty time in my schedule. Reserving mental space for being creative.

Most of my social media interaction over the past five years can arguably be called clutter. How much of it actually needed to be said? Precious little. How much of it led to unintentionally hurt feelings? Probably more than I know.

So I’m letting it go. Mostly.

If you’re reading this and you were let go, I need you to know that it had everything to do with me and nothing to do with you.

If you’re reading this and wondering how to keep up with me and my newest books, you can follow me any of these places:

But please don’t be offended if I don’t follow back. It’s not you. It’s me.

The One Who Leaves and the One Left Behind

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The summer after my freshman year in high school, my best friend Tina announced to me that she was moving to a boarding school. We were fifteen. I was crushed.

All of my fondest memories starred me and Tina. Against varied backdrops — her bedroom, her cottage, a stretch of sand along Lake Huron, the auditorium at the Bay City Players, the Wheel at First Presbyterian Church, the back of their ’80s-fabulous van — we shared secrets and music and thoughts and dreams. We laughed uncontrollably at inane inside jokes, the basis of which I can no longer pull from memory. We weathered the hell that is middle school together, walking the long stretch of road from Cramer Junior High to Lesperance Court, where I dropped out, followed closely thereafter by our friend Andrew. Then Tina would continue on alone.

She was the trailblazer, always traveling, always going somewhere and doing something and sending me a postcard written in her huge, lefthanded script with the strange M’s that looked like a hammock strung between two trees — like the one in her backyard that I would never lounge in again. When she left, I began to scheme about a way to leave as well, not because I wanted to get out of my hometown or get away from my parents, but because I wanted to be the one who leaves instead of the one left behind, the one who was embarking on a new adventure instead of the one standing on the porch and watching taillights fade away in the distance. The one who leaves and the one left behind are both parted from one another, but it is far from the same experience.

I had the distinct joy of keeping in touch with Tina. After she graduated from her boarding school, she went on to Boston then Boca Raton then Colorado then Argentina and then back to Colorado with occasional trips to Cambodia and Thailand and Scotland. Whenever she was back in Michigan I tried to make it back to Bay City to visit. She was a better letter writer than I, and so occasionally I would get a card or note in the mail. I never felt like I had much to report back to her; my life was so tied to routine and the everyday tasks of the student, the worker, the wife. In 2002 or 2003 I sat with her in the cafe at Schuler Books in the Meridian Mall in Okemos, overjoyed to hear of an important change in her life. When I drove out of that parking lot to head back to Grand Rapids where I was living at the time, I could hardly see the road for the tears — tears of joy, yes, but also tears of loss. And every time I have thought very long about her since she left me on my porch in 1995 — my God, twenty years ago — I have cried.

Five years ago I flew to Denver to attend her wedding to a wonderful man I have recently had the pleasure of getting to know a little better. A few weeks ago, I flew out again to visit for a few days and meet their little baby boy. We rambled about in the mountains, shared meals at their table, talked of our parents and our friends and our families. And like all true friendships, we picked up where we had left off like no time had passed between us. But even now, as I type this, tears are in my eyes. Because I’m still the one who was left behind, and the ache never quite goes away.

Last night, my husband and I got the heartbreaking news that our closest friends in town are moving three states and ten hours away. It’s wonderful news for them — an answer to years of fervent prayer for a teaching position. And I am truly happy for them. Yet here we find ourselves again, standing on the porch while the ones who know you most deeply, for whom you put up no front of having-it-all-togetherness, drive away to a new life. We feel emptied of something that made us us. And it sucks.

My sophomore year of high school started without my best friend. I wasn’t sure if I would make another close friend — everyone else already had their best friends. They’d been best friends, most of them, since elementary school, just as Tina and I had. But then, a few weeks into the school year, I met a senior named Zach.

And five years later, I married my new best friend.

Rocky Mountains Reflections: The Landscape

My, my, how the week just gets away. April slipped out while I was busy with other things and now it’s a full week since I had the good fortune to be here.

Rocky Mountain Foothills, near Denver

And here.

Moraine, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

And here.

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Compared to many of you, I’m sure, I have lived a very sheltered life close to home. It’s not for want of desire to travel. As a child I was wildly jealous of my best friend and her frequent travels to places beyond our small town. She summered in these mountains at a camp called Cheley. You can see it here if you look hard.

Cheley

Don’t see it?

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She spent her summers riding horses (something else I longed to do, as all girls do at some point) through this landscape.

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Now, I love my state. I could never live in Colorado because of the water factor. It’s hard enough living in mid-Michigan when you grew up with sailboats and freighters and seagulls and drawbridges. But I understand why Colorado sucks people in.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by this?

Rocky Mountains

And this.

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountains National Park, CO

And this.

Rocky Mountains

And this.

Leaving the Rockies

It is fantastically beautiful, inspiring us to stop and reflect on our own cosmic insignificance — were we not made by the same creative and loving hand as each of those mountains. Yet we are known as intimately and cherished as closely. The same God who caused the earth to push up Long’s Peak…

Long's Peak at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountains National Park

…causes the earth to push up the mountain crocus.

Mountain Crocus

He bids us leave our homes, get out of our cars, get off our duffs, and start to climb.

ClimbingUp

He calls us to seek higher ground, not for safety’s sake, but so that we can see the world closer to His vantage point.

Rocky Mountain National Park

He calls us to love and care for this incredible planet, and for all of the living things He put here for our enjoyment and education and inspiration.

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And to pass that love and sense of responsibility down to our wide-eyed children.

Tina and Micah

He calls us to notice the shade of the dirt…

Abandoned Mining Operation?

…the sound of the river…

St. Vrain River

…and the chaotic flight of the swallows.

BirdWatching

My first trip to the Rocky Mountains was entirely too short. But I will be back, with husband and son in tow. Because beauty like this is meant to be shared.

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What I Learned from a Chatty Iraqi Woman at the Park

Yesterday I met a woman from Iraq at an area playground. A teacher, she was there with a number of young girls and two other teachers. She has lived in the US for 6 years, coming here with her two young daughters after her husband was killed in the war. She was much more talkative than any other Muslim woman I’ve ever encountered, and I probably see Muslim women every other day in the Greater Lansing Area. It may be because she had been living in the US for so long and spoke such good English that there was no language barrier. We talked for perhaps twenty minutes, and in that short time frame she shared a number of interesting things with me.

First, she was compelled by one of her charges to go down a slide. Afterward, she came back to our bench and said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I may hurt my baby.” She shared that she was two months pregnant and that in Iraq, when a woman is pregnant, she basically does nothing but sit around all day. “We are afraid that the glue that holds the baby in will come loose. But American women do everything–they work, they run.” I told her that it was my understanding that as long as you had a normal healthy pregnancy, nothing much was forbidden by American doctors except flying in the last month of your term. She said her husband, who has lived in America for 18 years, told her the same thing. “He says, ‘Get out of the house. American women do not just sit around when they are pregnant.'”

Second, she said that her daughters, now both in high school, live with their grandmother rather than her and her new husband. He had proposed to her not long after she arrived in the US and she refused him because her daughters were “still missing their father.” But a few years later, when he proposed again, she accepted and the girls from her first marriage moved in with their grandmother. “I can tell my girls are sad without me, but it is hard for a new husband and wife to live with older children from another marriage.” I found this very interesting. At first, her focus was on her daughters who were grieving, but then they are sent out of her house, as high schoolers, so that she and her new husband can focus on their new relationship. I’m still not sure what I think of this method of not blending families. But apparently, that’s how it’s done back in Iraq.

Lastly, when I asked her if she liked living here she said yes. She mentioned that her neighborhood was very safe, but that she used to live in the area where two men were shot back in May (you may remember me blogging on that incident). Coming from a war-torn country, she was very concerned that she be somewhere safe. But even in her East Lansing neighborhood, she said, there had been a recent break-in and robbery. I told her that there really is nowhere that is safe from all crime and she seemed surprised by this. This seemed so odd to me since she has come out of a situation in which the worst of human nature is on display.

Soon my son retrieved me and I had to leave. I was reluctant to stop talking with this woman and we never even exchanged names. I don’t know that I will ever run into her again. But I wanted to share our conversation with you. She and I are of different origins and different faiths, but we came together on a bench, connecting first through the common subject of children. We chatted, told each other “it was nice talking to you,” and went our separate ways.

I see those “Coexist” bumper stickers all over town. I’m not a particularly big fan of them because they seem to imply to me that we should ignore all of our difference and leave each other alone. But I don’t want to ignore our differences. I want to discuss them, learn from them, and struggle with them–in a civil manner. And I don’t want to leave other people alone. I want to have conversations and strike up friendships.

My short time with this kind, thoughtful, and sweet-spirited Iraqi woman on a bench in an East Lansing park is what coexisting really looks like, and I’m so grateful that she struck up this conversation with me. I will (hopefully) never know the horrors she had to live through, but regardless of that, we had a lot in common. We both love our families. We worry a little about safety. And frankly, we think that perhaps the new equipment at this playground is a little on the dangerous side for small children.

Thinking of how often Muslims in the US probably encounter hostility from others, I hope that my friendly demeanor reinforced a positive view of this woman’s adopted country. After all, one of the foundational principles upon which this country was built was religious toleration (brought to you by the Baptists via Roger Williams…You’re welcome, America). Toleration doesn’t mean that you accept that the religious beliefs of others are correct or that you never debate about them. It means that you don’t let those differences cause you to persecute those not of your own faith. You live side by side in peace.

So who have you encountered lately that broadened your horizons?