Life with a Small Boy

In a few short weeks, I will begin a new folder in my electronic photo filing system as my son goes from age five to age six. At this point, this is the last photo of him as a five-year-old.

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His life is martial arts, Transformers, Voltron, playgrounds, TMNT, dancing, Legos, and scooters. He can’t wait to get back up to camp. He wants to do everything for himself. He continues to love animals and church and gardens and singing at the top of his lungs.

And life with him makes us wonder how we ever could have thought that our lives were complete before him.

Busy but Good

This weekend has been busy. Filled with springtime chores at home and church–cleaning house, moving mountains of mulch, transplanting perennials, refreshing gravel, spreading manure–plus a very busy day at church teaching, serving communion, preparing meals for shut-ins, cleaning up after the potluck.

I’ve definitely been run through my paces.

But I’ve also had lots of exercise, as well as time to read.

And time to quilt.

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I’m working on a gift this week. I love the colors, so I kind of want to keep it.

Here’s hoping you’re not too busy to enjoy yourself lately.

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.

New Release: Drive

I pleased to announce the release of October’s short story, Drive. I got the initial idea for this story last year and this is one of the first covers I designed when I decided to write and self-publish a short story every month of 2013. However, it was not until last weekend when the last piece of the plot puzzle fell into place.

Writers, this is why you always want to capture those little ideas on paper. If I hadn’t written myself a note saying “guy goes to collect U-Haul-type trucks that aren’t returned” I might not have even remembered the premise when I came across a news story last weekend about a guy who was legally dead.

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So there you have it. Nearly a year in the making and here it finally is! Buy it here for Kindle. For those of you with other e-readers, I plan on releasing all of this year’s short stories on Smashwords in every conceivable format next spring. And for those of you who prefer traditional books, also coming in the spring will be a printed collection of all of this year’s stories. I’m so excited about it! So hang tight, stay tuned, and hold fast–your day is coming!

A Short Hiatus as We Tend to Other Matters

Besides my regularly scheduled Wildflower Wednesday blog post, I may be conspicuously absent from the blog this week. Over the weekend our church lost three lovely older ladies to death after a very short time for all of them in hospice. In case you had never gathered from previous posts, my husband is a pastor, and so our household will be very busy ministering to grieving family and friends (and grieving ourselves) in addition to all the rest that our busy lives entail.

I hope if you are a person of faith that you will say a prayer for us, especially my husband, Zachary. The longer we serve at our church the more closely we know those whom we lose to the grave and the more deeply we feel the void they leave behind in our church and in our hearts. Our one comfort is that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own so that not only will we live with Him but we will be able to see, embrace, and love all of those believers who have gone on before us. And so we do not grieve as those who have no hope, but as those who are secure in the Savior’s hands.

I’ll see you next week.

The Courage to Be Yourself–in Life and Writing

I had an important realization this week as I made a big, life-changing decision (i.e., which “first day of kindergarten” photos to post on Facebook. I know, I’m still reeling from all the pressure.)

In my mind I tell myself that the pictures of my life and the life of my family should be “normal” and “pleasant.” Something you could put in a frame. Something you could send to parents and grandparents. Something like these:

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ZachErin2

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So I ask my son to “smile for real” and hear a lot of “c’mons” come out of my mouth. But in reality, these are the kinds of pictures I generally end up getting the best responses to when I share them (and they’re the ones I really enjoy sharing):

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MeetingOfTheMinds

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Why? Because they are more interesting. They have personality. They’re truthful. We’re kind of strange and we like it that way. Not to say that we’re not a very pleasant family and even pleasing to the eye at times, but beneath that thin veneer of propriety, we’re really…well, like this:

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Here’s where this parallels writing. Sometimes there’s pressure (internal or external) to make characters or stories “pleasant.” You hear from a writing group member or an agent that your character isn’t “sympathetic” enough. Or that your story is a real downer. Or “Can’t you just write a happy ending for once?”

Though he’s supportive to a fault, my husband will sometimes come to the end of a story of mine, look at me with…well…let’s say concern, and breathe out a little “Sheesh!” I actually love this reaction, but there is still a teensy-tiny part of me that starts to question…

Will people be put off by this?

Will people think I have done or would like to do some mean or immoral thing that one of my characters has done?

Will people think I’m a bad person?

Will people start avoiding me?

Will people think I have psychological problems when they read this?

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Generally, I’m happy enough with the literary results of my efforts that I simply shrug, upload a new story to Amazon, and hope that people will have a good reaction to it. And in my mind, “Sheesh!” is a good reaction. Being a little creeped out is good. Feeling kind of sad is good. Feeling is good.

When stories are too pleasant, wrap up too neatly, or are just a touch too sweet, I get the groans. I’m bored or I’m unsurprised or I’m simply closing the book and never picking it up again. And you can be boring even if you have an interesting plot simply because your main characters have no faults.

Here’s a useful tool to examine your own writing. If you have to answer yes to more than two of these questions, your protagonists may be suffering from pleasantitis:

Are they always attractive (even if they don’t see it themselves)?

Do they have overly-interesting eye colors, especially involving descriptors such as “the sea on a stormy night” or “flecks of purest gold?”

Do they have gorgeous, Pantene-commercial-worthy hair even if they lived in a time when no one showered?

Do they have beautiful teeth and winning smiles even if they lived in a time when EVERYONE had bad teeth?

Do they always know what to do in a given situation?

Do they always get the girl/guy/promotion/bad guy/treasure/best cuts of meat at dinner?

See what I’m getting at here? Too much “pleasant” or “normal” or “perfect” or “happy” and the rest of us mortals can’t really identify with them. Flaws are essential. Flaws in your characters are like the conflict in your plot. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story and if there are no faults, there are no believable characters. Real flaws, not just that she has to wear glasses or he once broke someone’s heart.

How about she has a secret and almost insatiable desire to ruin her sister’s life? Or he suffers from near-crippling anxiety around his father because he fears he’ll never measure up? Or she compulsively corrects everyone’s grammar and so her friends actually loathe her? Or he neglects his own children because he’s so focused on his own advancement and amusement?

Then you take your flawed character and you find something in them, some trait or some believably terrible backstory, that will make them sympathetic without having to be perfect. (Aside: If you want an excellent example of this type of character, watch the hugely underrated movie Young Adult.)

Perfect people aren’t sympathetic. They’re kind of annoying. And anyway, they’re not really perfect either. They’re simply afraid to be real.

Be yourself. Let the real you come through your writing or art or whatever you do.

No matter how weird…

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…or silly…

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…or generally off-putting.

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Choosing the Hard Way

Today my son turns five.

Explorer

I took this photo at Woldumar Nature Center last year when he and I were “hiking” through the woods. I stood back, proud to see that he ignored the stairs and chose instead the natural path. Instead of the easy way, he chose the harder way. If this picture had been taken in the fall, it would put me in mind of “The Road Not Taken” by Frost.

Then in the car a week or so ago, the boy and I were listening to Hard Way Home by Brandi Carlile. When the song was done he asked, “Why doesn’t she take the easy way home?”

“Sometimes,” I answered, “you have to take the hard way. And anyway, sometimes it’s more interesting than the easy way.”

This seemed to suffice. We arrived home and he went off to play and I’m sure he has given it no more thought at all.

But in the next five, ten, fifteen years of my boy’s life, he will have many opportunities to choose either the easy way or the hard way. If the easy way is the path of least resistance, an unchallenging, popular path that leads him to a sense of entitlement-because-I-breathe and success at the expense of his faith or his self-respect, I hope he chooses the hard way, the little-bit-strange way, the peculiar way of hard work, personal responsibility, earned trust, generosity of spirit, and faithful devotion to God, family, and friends. I hope he has the strength to eschew the cultural stairs, endure the stares he gets for being different, and press on toward a meaningful life amid a culture that is all too often focusing all of its energy on meaningless things.

And I hope that, as we guide and love him, his father and I will have that strength as well.

Happy birthday, Calvin. Let’s take the hard way together.

Seeing Beyond Myself

We’ve recently had some lovely frosty, clear mornings in mid-Michigan and I’m glad I had my camera handy when I was dropping off my son at school.

Mornings and evenings in cold weather are what make the dark and dreary winter months more bearable, and may even lift them to a level more on par with the wonder of springtime.

There are so very many lovely things in this world, to be found in all seasons.

We woke up this morning to a beautiful dusting of light snow, though most of it is melted now. The trees are all bare, but for a few that keep their leaves rather tenaciously, like the oaks. Puts me in mind of a little poem I wrote last November I’ll share with you here.

I think that may be the last thing I painted, an entire year ago! I’ve been getting the itch to paint again, though my usual spot in the sunroom has been taken over by model trains for the winter.

The waning months of the year are when we start getting those “Top Whatever of 2012” lists sprinkled across various media outlets, and before that silliness begins, I’m taking a moment to analyze my own year.

I’ve spent most of my free time in 2012 sewing clothes for myself, contributing to the Sew Weekly, and editing a novel. It’s been a very self-focused year. I was convicted of that this morning. As we near the beginning of Advent and the beginning of winter, I hope to turn my thoughts and efforts more toward others, which, as a writer who tends toward introversion and introspection, can sometimes be difficult to do.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.