The Clock Ticks Ever On

If I’ve been lax at regular blog posts of late it’s probably because life is in a busy season. The end-of-school-year activities are picking up. The vigorous growth in the yard needs tending. We’re at the height of another catalog season at work. The articles for the WFWA newsletter need to be written and edited. And most of my spare time at the moment has been claimed by freelance editing and writing projects.

There’s a lot to prepare for in the coming weeks. Both my husband and my son have May birthdays.  I’ve been invited to speak to a large group of Nepali and Bhutanese women on Memorial Day as part of an event devoted to women and mothers in the church, so I need to start working on my message. Our summer travels are coming up fast, which means packing lists and playlists need to be created.

I’ve had little time for leisurely pursuits, like painting or taking photographs, though I am managing to read and wind down with a little Netflix now and then (Master of None at lunch, Better Call Saul or Brooklyn 99 in the evening). And I even watched a couple movies I’d had on my queue for months: The Imitation Game (amazing) and Sarajevo (quite good).

Life barrels forward. It seems with every new month I’m surprised that the last one is already ended. Were someone to find a way to slow it down to the pace of childhood, when every day was a lingering one and every summer hung on for eternity…Ah, but then we should complain that the future did not come fast enough.

Time is such a funny thing. Always a constant in reality, yet always slipping and shifting in our experience of it. And never enough of it, though it is infinite.

Staying Put and Scheming about the Future

A couple summers ago, we began considering putting our house up for sale. Driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which were schooling options for our son, we started cleaning stuff out, sprucing stuff up, and living on Zillow.com. The plan had been to possibly list the house this past spring. That didn’t happen.

We still weren’t in as advantageous a position as we were hoping as the Lansing real estate recovery stalled. The urgency to move was lessened by us finding a good private school we love that isn’t too terribly far away. And then this summer I thought, hey, if we’re probably staying here at least a few more years, why not make some improvements, and thus began the transformation of the sunroom into the cigar room.

Our space and storage issues remain, but some recent scheming has made it plain that it would be possible to stay long term, just as we had originally planned when we moved in. This would mean some thoughtful reconfiguration of rooms, some creative storage solutions, some updates and upgrades around the house, and hopefully (please, please may it be so) some willingness to let go of some STUFF.

We’d like to do some updates in the kitchen, someday I’d really like to replace our deteriorating driveway and squirrel-hotel of a garage, and we’ll have to tackle the issue of closet space when we eventually move our bedroom into the current office. But some of these repairs and changes open up opportunities.

For instance, moving the master bedroom to the main floor got me thinking about adding French doors to the back yard, redoing the upper patio, and having my morning coffee out there. Updating the kitchen will mean adding functionality and style. Moving the boy into our current bedroom will mean he has room for all his STUFF in there and I won’t see it all over my living room. And the small size of his current bedroom, which would become my office and studio space, means it can only be mine and no one else’s stuff will fit in it.

Muahahahahaha!!!!! A room of one’s own, the holy grail of rooms. It almost makes me want to start moving stuff around now.

The decision to stay put for a while has lit our creative spark, which is a good thing. Last month Zach made more custom built-in shelves in the fun room (aka, family room) and a couple days ago we starting scheming about new custom shelves beneath the basement stairs to house all the hiking gear.

I’m sending away a bunch of little-used STUFF from the basement, garage, and yard through liberal use of our area Freecycle group. A number of things I’ve saved over the years “for if we ever have a bigger house” can now be let go of. Things I packed away when I was thinking about showing a house and then moving, well, if I don’t miss them over the next year and they’re nothing of sentimental value, that will be the next wave of stuff to go out to new owners. And if you know me, you know I love getting rid of STUFF.

We may still find that in a few more years we’ll want to move and the opportunity will be just right. If that’s the case, we’ll hopefully have less STUFF to move and an updated house to sell. But in the meantime, we’ll get to enjoy any improvements we’ve made, rather than just doing all that work for the next owners.

Or, maybe the feeling we had when we first saw this house back in 2005 — that we could live here forever — was right all along.

 

Only time will tell.

 

The Next Thing

Minute by minute, another August is ending. September whispers at the edges of leaves. It’s time for bats in the house and flocks of blackbirds lifting as one from fields and lighting like raindrops on telephone wires. Young woodpeckers sit on my windowsill and peck at their reflections. Hummingbirds hover at my morning glories and anise hyssop. The bees and wasps get more aggressive, the chipmunks get cheekier, and my pantry shelves fill up with jars to see us through another year of toast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

It’s the time of big clouds and dramatic sunsets and morning rain. It’s the time when the squirrels steal my almost-ripe tomatoes and I vow yet again not to plant them next year. The weeds I should have pulled are spreading their seeds all over the garden to be sure I’ll have weeds to pull next year as well. I did manage one big day in the dirt recently when the humidity dropped a bit and the temperature was only in the low 80s. But by and large I’ve been a neglectful gardener this year.

And as others finish up their trips and put away their luggage, we find that there are still places to go. San Antonio for him, Albuquerque for me, and smaller jaunts around the state for conferences and book events and hiking trips. There are books to write and books to revise. In the evenings after the boy goes to bed, we sit in the Cigar Room pursuing our shared passion.

Soon the goldfinches will be lending their color to the trees and the nights will be cool enough for fires in the fire pit outside. Soon we’ll be able to give our poor overworked air conditioner a nice long break. They’re predicting a snowy winter for the Great Lakes Region this year. I hope they’re right. In the meantime, I look forward to fall and bid this summer a fond farewell. It’s been marvelous. But I’m ready for the next thing.

You Need to Blink More

Alas, the first day of spring went unmarked in this space, though it was sunny and lovely (and cold). It was a busy Sunday morning during which I taught Sunday school (we’re discussing so-called “lost gospels” at the moment and why they are not inducted into the canon), forgot to bring cookies for Fellowship Time, read and prayed in the service as the lay leader, jumped into the choir number since I remembered it from years past, and then hosted a few church members at our house for lunch. During the afternoon and evening I decided to change tacks and do nothing.

And that’s what I did, or nearly so. I reclined on the couch in a shaft of sunlight, very much like a cat. I also read, unlike most cats I’ve known. In the back of my mind I knew I should be taking advantage of the free time to read a manuscript I’m critiquing for a friend, but I also knew that that wouldn’t be doing nothing. And I needed to do nothing for a bit.

A while back I visited the eye doctor with what I saw as a troubling symptom of some sort of problem — I didn’t know what. I feared glaucoma or perhaps crazy-early-onset cataracts. Whatever it was, something was most definitely wrong. I was experiencing a frequent sort of clouding, large chunks of my field of vision where it looked like I was looking through frosted glass. For someone who makes a living writing, who uses a computer 8+ hours a day, and whose greatest joys and hobbies all involve her sense of sight (painting, photography, reading, hiking, observing nature) this was understandably weighing on my mind.

With some anxiety, I went for the first time to an ophthalmologist, where I was put through the proverbial wringer for a couple hours. Test upon test upon test. And in the end, what was I told?

“You have dry eyes. You need to blink more.”

That’s it? Really? I don’t blink enough? I was relieved, of course, that it wasn’t something more serious. But there was a tiny half-buried part of me that kind of thought I had wasted two hours for nothing. Blinking? Wasn’t that something we just do without thinking? Who consciously blinks more?

Some of you may be thinking, Duh. Haven’t you read this, this, or this? Well, yeah, I’m sure I read something about that — on my pernicious computer screen, no less. But that’s about other people. Not me.

So now I have eye drops I’m supposed to use four times a day to make up for the fact that I don’t blink enough.

You know the saying, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it?” It’s applied to many things, most notably to your kid’s childhood. These are the things old strangers in the mall lean in and say while you’re already quite engaged with “not missing it” and from which you frankly don’t appreciate the interruption. And there’s a sense nowadays that you can never blink anymore. If you don’t catch the latest blockbuster, read the latest novel from so-and-so, see the latest clip of so-and-so on YouTube, participate (or at least lurk at) the discussion people on Twitter are having about this issue and the discussion people on Facebook are having on that issue, binge on the newest season of Hot TV Show on Netflix…if you don’t keep up, if you blink, you’ll miss it.

But I tell you what, I missed everything yesterday afternoon, and I didn’t miss a thing. I blinked so much I may as well have kept my eyes closed (though that would make it difficult to read) and I didn’t miss anything worth catching.

“You need to blink more.”

It’s okay. The world keeps spinning, even in the dark.

Home, Health, and Hope

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought, typed, or spoken the words, “It’s been such a busy fall” this year. It has. With retreats and conferences, board meetings and ad hoc committee meetings, costumes to sew and boxes to pack…I’d say this is one of the busiest seasons I’ve had in a while. And when you get that busy with non-routine items, your regular life has a tendency to atrophy.

The house is a mess. We’re eating on the fly (and thus eating less-than-healthily). I haven’t found time to rake the leaves even once.

But with a number of items checked off the oddball to-do list (the biggest being a revision of my manuscript for my agent) I am looking forward to November as a time to take back the reins from Chaos.

I will clean this house.

I will take all those boxes and bags to the thrift store.

I will make that eye appointment.

I will do a real grocery shopping trip.

I will make smoothies for breakfast.

I will exercise. (I will, I will, I will!)

I will start thinking about goals for next year.

I will get some renovation projects moving at church.

I will make every attempt to take a shower before noon.

And I will entertain some hopes and dreams that may come to pass next year: a visit with dear friends that moved away this year, the purchase of a new house, the signing of a publishing contract, the getting into clothes that haven’t fit me in a while. The new year is still two months away, but I’m already in that kind of renewal-type mood.

Trading “To-Do” for “To-Be” in this Busy Life

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Lately I’ve felt there is simply too much input streaming into my life. Too many emails (even though I signed up for updates on these blogs and already weeded out the ones I just don’t care that much about). Too much junk mail in my mailbox (I’ve considered whether I should simply replace the mailbox with our recycling bin). Too many newsletters and flyers from my son’s school each week (can I unsubscribe, please?). Too many posts in too many groups on too many social media platforms (although, again, I choose to participate and I’m not planning on quitting).

Beyond school ending in a few weeks . . . oh, I’m back. I passed out there for a minute. Beyond that, there’s no end in sight. And for someone who enjoys silence, requires a certain amount of unstructured solitude, and gets a cheap thrill out of eliminating expired condiments from the fridge, I’m not really sure how to deal with it all. I have too much to read and do and it is crowding out what I really want to read and do. What I really want is a sabbatical. What I’ve really got is a normal life like everyone else.

So, what to do? It’s time again to take stock of how I’m spending my time and make conscious decisions about whether I’m really using my time wisely and purposefully. I want to enjoy time with family, to spend time tending my garden, to read for pleasure and read for research, to finish revising one novel so I can begin to write another, to eat delicious home-prepared food, to be still and commune with my Creator, to do my work with enthusiasm and passion, to keep my house clean enough so that it doesn’t clutter my mind.

I’m really good at making to-do lists. I have to recover that chair, weed the south flowerbed, make that ninja costume for my son, water those plants, sew a red skirt, vacuum that floor, sow those bean seeds, write that copy, finish that chapter, sweep up those maple seeds, sort that laundry, get that dead bird out of the garage…I could continue ad nauseam.

But somehow I feel that I might be better served by making a to-be list at this point in life…

To Be:

A loving wife and mother
An obedient child of God
An exemplary worker
A thoughtful writer
A collector of ideas and impressions
A decent housekeeper
A reader of good books
A passable guitarist
A lover of nature
A protector of creative time

All of those sound pretty doable to me. And reading them doesn’t stress me out. I can do those, whether they happen in increments or in concentrated bursts or slowly over time or whatever.

What would you have on your to-be list?

The Only Stuff You Can Control

Today I was with my first grade son in line at Jo-Ann’s to buy elastic (part of a TMNT shell modification to hold smoke bombs, of course) when the older gentleman directly ahead of me turned around and asked me if he could speak to my son. I said, “Sure.” The man said, “Young man, do you want to hear a joke?” It went something like this:

“What did one snowman say to the other snowman?”

“What?”

“Do you smell carrots?”

It took a little explanation for my boy to quite get it. But then he thought it was funny. The man took his turn at the register, we took ours, and I’ll probably never see him again.

Why do I tell this story? Mostly because I’ve been thinking a lot about control this week. I have been really up and down creatively and professionally. Few would know it because I generally keep my struggles to myself (that’s the German Protestant side of the family coming out). I don’t broadcast my troubles to the world. Except for my husband and a few very close friends, no one would know the mental and emotional state I’m in is anything but balanced and generally positive. This isn’t because I’m putting on a front or trying to craft a life that seems perfect. It’s because 1.) everyone has enough troubles of their own (many light years worse than my own) and 2.) it’s no one’s business.

What does this have to do with snowmen smelling carrots? (It’s because their noses are carrots, by the way.)

There’s so little in life over which we exercise any real control. Most of the time, we can’t control who talks to us or what they might say. I was so taken aback that this man asked my permission to talk to my son, it shook me out of my standard way of interacting with strangers (which is basically to ignore them unless they engage me, and then, using lightning swift and probably premature judgment based on age, sex, dress, and whether or not I’m hangry, to determine if I will immediately be on the defensive or will give them the benefit of the doubt). This man gave me the option to shut him down before the conversation even started. Of course I didn’t (who would?) and of course after I said he could talk to my son, he might have said any number of inappropriate or terrible things. But he put the control in my hands.

I can’t make my house worth what it was worth when we bought it. I can’t give myself a promotion. I can’t make people take a chance on my writing. I can’t make an overly sensitive person chill out. I can’t raise the temperature outside above freezing (or even raise it one degree). I can’t stop my son from growing. I can’t make my dog’s back legs work better.

But there’s a lot I do have control over. I can keep my house clean and livable. I can do my best work each day. I can keep improving. I can disengage from people that baffle me and go buy a plane ticket to visit a childhood friend I miss terribly. I can put on another pair of socks. I can enjoy this moment in time. I can let my dog lick leftover syrup from the breakfast plates.

Writing this post won’t get me over what’s bothering me right now. I wish it would. Time, prayer, and likely the changing of the seasons in a month or so will help. But in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on what I can control and leave the rest up to Providence.

Cultivating Reasonable Expectations of Life in a World of Hyperbole

Perhaps like me you have noticed that we are living in an age where everything is AMAZING! Watch this video about this AMAZING girl! Look at photos of these fifty AMAZING bedrooms! Check out this AMAZING restaurant or this AMAZING cockatoo! If it’s not AMAZING, it’s STUNNING, SHOCKING, INCREDIBLE, LIFE-CHANGING, or UNBELIEVABLE!

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of this stuff isn’t AMAZING or any of its synonyms. At most, it’s amusing or interesting. For a moment. And then it’s forgotten.

Now, marketers and advertisers have always used hyperbole to sell products, but I find myself wondering if our age is perhaps unique in trying to sell ordinary life as AMAZING with, say, seriously overreaching claims about how much watching a two-minute video will alter your experience of the world FOR ALL TIME! Because these claims aren’t being made for products that might be sold and thus earn someone a profit. No one is making money from you watching a cute video about a cat who adopts an orphan piglet. And yet the online clamoring to get views and comments and likes is overwhelming.

I get it. No one wants to be ordinary. I don’t either. And to be honest, I’ve caught myself overdoing it when it comes to adjectives. But we seem to be living in a time where, rather than do something extraordinary, something worthy of comment or praise, we elevate the ordinary to the level of extraordinary, until everything we do, every meal we eat, every trip we take, every single thing that our child says is presented to others as a phenomenon unequaled in the history of the world. And this makes the truly ordinary stuff in your life, my life, seem pointless by comparison. Which seems dangerous. It seems like thinking that leads to depression or feelings of worthlessness or futility.

Conversely, the opposite also becomes true–that every little negative thing that happens is the WORST, most HORRIFIC, most HEARTBREAKING, most CULTURE-DESTROYING thing that has ever happened. Fearmongering news anchors or op-ed pieces chip away at our joy and our confidence. Unhappy Facebook friends drag us down with their consistent negativity.

What does this do to us, to our collective psyche? It breeds extremes of emotion and opinion that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We become living pendulums, swinging wildly from elation to despair, all imposed on us from the outside, from YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle. Rational thought and measured responses are employed less and less. After all, no one else in the comments section is thinking deeply and attempting to have a rational discussion about this issue, so why should I? I get more immediate reward for that zinger I just flung into the fray than for a long, drawn-out discussion based on empathy and research.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ordinary. It’s where we spend most of our time. It’s work, family, faith, and friends. It’s enjoying a concert (which, while not AMAZING or LIFE-CHANGING was enjoyable and entertaining). It’s helping your kid with his homework (for which parents should not expect accolades–it’s part of the job). It’s shoveling the driveway (without whining about it on Facebook in order to get sympathy from everyone else who also had to shovel). It’s folding the laundry (not the MOUNTAINS of laundry that are your own personal cross to bear). It’s feeding ordinary dog food to your very ordinary dog.

Why are we so afraid of this ordinary life?

I get the desire to “sell” one’s experiences as bigger and better than they are. I’m in marketing. My whole job is to persuade you to exchange your money for a book that, let’s face it, probably won’t CHANGE YOUR LIFE, even if it does help you in some way. But as much as our self-centered, consumer culture pushes us to make our lives appear AMAZING, we are most of us very ordinary. And that’s fine. If you’re looking for a reason to feel special, looking for deeper meaning in this life, I would advise you to look somewhere other than the internet. Look to God. Look to the impact you are having on your kids. Look to a service you can perform on behalf of your fellow man. Look to charity and forgiveness and truly loving your neighbor. Most of it could not honestly be described as AMAZING or SHOCKING or UNBELIEVABLE. But it would make a heck of a lot more difference in the world than another damn BuzzFeed article.

Accepting the Pace Life Wants to be Lived

I’m a week away from the writing conference I am helping to put on (Write on the Red Cedar). We’re sold out. All the nitty-gritty details are being dealt with. I’ve been busy updating the conference blog almost every day, which may partially explain my slow posting on this blog. And even though we haven’t run into any huge snafus yet, I still feel a bit like this guy…

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Like I have one little part of this thing in hand, but also I am going to trip up at any minute. I’ve started having dreams about things going wrong, like back when I was in high school plays and I would have dreams of shoddy scenery falling down during a performance. But mostly, I’m excited.

I am still slowly plugging away at the first draft of my current WIP. My ideas are at a slow burn. I type a paragraph then do other things, come back and type another. I stopped drafting the other day to jot off a very short story (fewer than 1,500 words) as a fun diversion. The novel draft won’t be done by conference time, but it should be finished by the end of the month, which is fine with me. That will give it enough time to sit and simmer before Zach and I take a long weekend writing retreat during which I can do the first big revision.

As frantically busy as November and December were, in writing and in life, January has gotten a slow start. And I’m okay with that. Winter’s really here now, and it bids us take our time.

Coming Up for Air

For the past couple weeks, I have been mired in some rather tedious work that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say, it may be a few more days before I can get my brain or camera back into working order. I will say that my weekends have been beautiful and tragic and backbreaking and relaxing, practically all at once. Two Friday evenings ago, I started ripping out sad tufts of grass from the very back of our backyard, moved about fifty large blocks out to expand the shade gardens, dug a long trench, and repositioned the blocks. It was hot, sweaty, mosquito-infested work.

Saturday morning I meant to go to church to plant some ornamental grasses and help mow the lawn, but as I was closing the lift gate on my Explorer, I accidentally ripped the thing off, which, as you can imagine, was fairly surprising. I caught the 50 pounds of window, etc. and stood there wondering what to do with it. I couldn’t put it down because it was still attached by a bunch of wires for the electric and one of the shocks. I ended up wrenching it from the other shock, maneuvering it into the back of the hatch, and fashioning a tarp cover for the gaping hole so as not to let the rain in that was expected the next day. Since no body shop in our entire city is apparently open on Saturday, I went back to the garden and worked six hours, digging up/dividing/transplanting what became 99 plants (I counted), and again got sweaty and buggy and dirty.

But Sunday–ah, Sunday!–was bliss. Gorgeous weather (after some helpful morning rain) and it was church, baseball game with friends, cookout, cigars, and great conversation into the evening. Fantastically relaxing.

Then after another mind-numbing week working on (and finally finishing!) copy for a few hundred books I’ve never read, my mother and I went to visit my almost-97-year-old great aunt who is closing her house and looking for homes for most of her treasures. I came home with a quilt that her mother (my great great grandmother) made from her and my grandma’s old childhood dresses, some teacups her mother bought on trips, some beautiful linens her mother had embroidered, a couple antique cameras, vintage aprons, and more. I also purchased her dining room set and was then faced with the problem of getting it halfway across the state.

Did you know that U-Haul will not rent trailers to you if you’re going to hitch them to an Explorer? True story. But an old friend on the west side of the state came through with his own trailer (which he pulls behind an Explorer) and on Friday we managed to get table, six chairs, corner china cabinet, and sideboard to my house in one piece. Some Old English and some Pledge and the set looks very happy in my home. So now Great Great Grandma Koch’s lovely linens can continue their useful lives on the very table they’ve graced for the past 68 years.

Saturday and Sunday were days of perfect weather, time with my boys celebrating one of the best dads I think there has ever been, and the prospect of returning to work this week with that gargantuan one-time (until the next time?) task checked off my list. I’m very happy with my lovely redesigned and expanded garden, the ability to keep some special things in the family, and a lot more storage space in the dining room. I’ve got my work cut out for me in the garden still this week. Every weed will be pulled in anticipation of 10 yards of mulch being delivered soon.

And then I guess I’ll be shoveling and spreading mulch for the rest of the month. 😛

What are you doing with your summer days?