The Best Recipes Are Our Own [Eventually]

I don't follow recipes well when cooking.

My method usually goes as such:

Look up several different recipes, compare and contrast.
2. List common ingredients and steps.
3. Ask: what can I do to make it my own?
4. Give it a go.
5. Take note of the missing flavors and textures; tweak it for next time.

This is the closest thing to a scientific experiment you'll ever find me doing. Except that it's definitely not scientific, nor is it proven fact. It's just me and my independent streak. Today I made beef stew from scratch, plus no-yeast biscuits from scratch. (Note: the no-yeast part is important. I try to avoid finicky ingredients at all costs.)

To make the stew I looked at nearly a dozen different recipes. Most of them were very similar, so I wrote down the basics and then gave it a shot. With the biscuits I only found one recipe that had only the ingredients I already knew I had in possession. (Flour, milk, shortening, salt, baking powder.) When I began to knead the dough I realized it was too dry and added one egg white - the perfect glue!

As I worked on my dinner, which I planned to serve not just to myself and my husband, but to our friends who were coming over (eek!), I began to get nervous. What if it doesn't turn out? What if the stew tastes bland and brothy? Did I put too many onions in it? What if the biscuits come out hard as rocks? Did I make enough food for everyone?... Why is it that I always decide to get gutsy and experimental when company is coming for dinner? You'd think I would stick with the easy and familiar instead of risking my culinary reputation over a desire to master the art of a beef stew on my first try.

Why didn't I just make something I already know how to make? Good question. There are plenty of soup and stew recipes from my mom, aunts, grandmas, cousins and in-laws that I could have used instead of hodge-podging my own recipe. Why am I so damn independent?!

And yet. It's not that I don't love or trust their recipes. They're like old friends, and a little like the people that handed them down to me : comforting, familiar, faithful, reliable, full of family quirks and personality. But the recipes aren't my own. If you know me, then you're probably nodding your head (Mom, Grammy, Aunt Bev?) "Recipes, schmecipes" - That's me. As it turns out, my instincts were not off base. My biscuits turned out soft and crumbly, very nearly like the correct texture and the flavor was light and buttery.

For next time: use buttermilk instead of 2% and a few tablespoons less flour. The stew turned out to be a soup, but the flavor was good. For next time: make sure the base of the soup is thicker. After browning the meat, add a tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of flour to the meat drippings in the skillet. Heat and stir until thick and golden brown. Add a cup of beef broth to the mixture and stir thoroughly until it thickens. THEN add to the rest of the broth, plus the meat, veggies and herbs in the slow cooker.

And my life?

Instincts : good.

Foundation : solid.

Flavor : delicious.

Recipe : it's a work in progress, but it's my own.

The best part : I'm learning.


Christmas Vacation. Inspiration. Time. ACCOUNTABILITY!

Holy smokes, folks! With two whole weeks of vacation beginning next week through January 2nd, my mind cannot stop producing creative ideas to keep me busy. I have one big long list of topics I want to post about. Every few minutes I think of something else I've been wanting to write about.

I may have just unlocked my creative block I've been experiencing over the last few months. Time: I need more of it. The anticipation of whole days in my pajamas with nothing but a hot cup of coffee and my ideas has me itching to write. Be prepared! A whirlwind of words to come.

By the way, if the whirlwind never comes, will one of you please hunt me down and hurt me? Not really. But really, I'm going to be embarrassed if I have nothing to show for myself in two weeks, which is why I'm posting this now. 


Death to the Black Box

My husband and I moved into our new apartment in July and since then we haven't had TV. We own two TVs, but we don't have cable. Not even basic channels. Not even NBC or ABC or the local channel that's usually a super old power-point slideshow with odd instrumental music on loop.

I know, I know. How have we survived?! It's downright unamerican.

We're not hippies. We're not ultra-conservative fundamentalists who have denounced pop culture.

We're just poor. Every paycheck gets dolled out to rent, utilities, car insurance and school loans and with whatever is left, we think to ourselves : we could get a digital converter box this month.... but we'd rather buy a few extra groceries or go on a date.

At first I felt like our apartment was much too quiet. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls on DVD.

And then I started reading books I haven't read in awhile. And then I started writing in my journal. And sketching and making decorations for our apartment. And painting. And organizing all my shoes and art supplies.

My husband and I still rent movies at least once a week and watch them together.

When I'm home alone now, I don't get the feeling anymore that the big black box is going to swallow me unless I turn it on. My brain isn't rotting away in front of the propaganda machine anymore. I don't come to consciousness several hours later, sprawled on the couch, asking myself, Wait - What did I do today? Oh yeah ... nothing. ... except eat 3 bowls of cereal and day old pizza.

I've tested this theory, and I'm pretty sure I'm right. If there is a TV in the room with a cable connection, it is inevitably on. Having the TV off in my living room growing up was pure torture. I would try to concentrate on my book or drawing, but I was distracted by the almost audible voice telling me,

"Look at me. I'm empty and sad. You're empty and sad, too. Turn me on. Let's be friends."

On goes the TV, and my productivity - no, my brain activity - plummets.

Without cable to tempt me, the TV isn't this ominous black void to fill. Yes, it's quiet. I turn on music sometimes or NPR. Yes, sometimes I give in and watch a movie. But a movie is an investment. I have to be willing to sit and watch the movie for at least an hour and a half, and if I'm not, then what should I be doing? It's a good test: Watch a movie I've seen before OR make myself useful.

We trick ourselves into believing that TV is just a filler, just something to bide our time until we have an appointment or plans to hang out with a friend. False. It's a productivity killer. Imagine what we could do with all the time we've spent watching prime time TV. I could learn a new recipe, write more than one blog post, read that novel I bought but doubt I'll finish, or organize something. That's not busy work. That's actively participating in my life.

The only time I'll ever miss TV is probably on Christmas day when TNT does the 24 hours of A Christmas Story. Yes, I love it that much. But! It's a movie so maybe it's time to actually purchase it? That way, we'll only watch it once and spend more time talking with the family we traveled 250 miles to see on the best day of the year.

Bottom line is: I've found other things to do with my time. So is it okay that I don't ever want to get cable?

What about you? Could you survive without TV or are you afraid you'll be bored out of your mind?


Poem : Oranges Aren't Just for Eating

I peeled back its thick skin to feel the sticky, sweet juice and dusty white pith glaze my fingers. 

Its sweet and tangy scent filled the room as I bit into its smooth flesh.
Oranges aren't just for eating.
They nourish and sustain us.
They delight us with a delicious scent and taste and color.

We are meant to enjoy life in every sense.
That's why we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear.
We are meant to serve more than one purpose and more than just ourselves.
That's why we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear each other.
If we just open up.


Dear College Life (Do I miss you?)

I've been thinking today about what I miss about college. Most of the time I don't really miss it, especially since I haven't really left. My alma mater has now become my workplace, which means I still see the lovely campus everyday, still see some of my classmates, roommates and former professors on a fairly regular basis.

This morning I sat outside the cafeteria trying to sell tickets for an event tomorrow night. The students rushed past, eager to get in, get some grub and get going to classes and finals. I barely recognize anyone now. And they all look. so. young. Though I was slightly distracted by how many girls wear leggings rather than actual pants - They're a thick pair of tights! Please! Cover your ass in public! - I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. It wasn't the pathetic, I-want-to-be-20-years-old-and-sans-responsibility-forever kind of nostalgia.

I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there's something I miss about college. I don't miss eating cafeteria food. I don't miss sitting through mind-numbing lectures. I don't miss being up at all hours of the day and night studying and writing papers for classes that I barely remember now. I don't miss the other fashion fauz-pas that sleep-deprived, shower-deprived college kids tend to make when they roll out of bed in the morning...

Okay, I admit it.
I had an infamous pair of "no-no" pants, too. "No-no" pants because of the hole that ripped from my inner thigh across the back of my leg and I still wore them for several weeks afterward rationalizing that it wasn't that bad until one morning when my roomie said, "No. No. Not again. Wear these instead." And she tossed me another pair of jeans. Those had holes as well, but not anywhere near my backside. (Seriously, thank you.)

I don't miss working crappy part-time jobs just so that I could buy a couple packs of Ramen Noodles. I've paid my dues - as a library page, English tutor, waitress, telemarketer, retail associate, nanny and much, much worse. I don't miss walking to class in rainstorms and blizzards or getting parking tickets from Campus Safety. I don't miss fighting with roommates over dishes duty or whose turn it is to clean the bathroom. (If you've ever lived with girls, you understand my dread at having to unclog the shower drain.)

At this point in time I feel like I've won some big battles. I've crossed a major threshold in life. I've survived adolescence and my college years and I've come out on the other side having achieved several goals. I completed my Bachelor's Degree. I completed my degree in four years AFTER switching my major AND after I traveled abroad for a whole semester with classes that didn't directly count towards my degree AT ALL. (Worth every penny and extra class, by the way.) I'm married to my college sweetheart. I have a full-time job (and I'm even using my college degree!) I've confronted some pretty big fears and painful experiences and the consequential character flaws. I'm writing of my own accord on a regular basis without needing a mentor to spoon-feed me inspiration.

So what was that nostalgia, then, as I watched students scurrying past me in the cafeteria?

Here's what I do miss :

I miss having a roomie around to tell me when I need to use a hairbrush or put on a better pair of jeans. (I'm blessed with a husband who mostly thinks I look good in everything, but he's biased.)

I miss late-night burrito runs, having people to eat lunch with nearly every day and walking to class with friends.

I miss the feeling of earning an A on a paper or project I've spent weeks researching and studying for. (Note : Paychecks are an entirely different kind of gratification - the kind that wears off as soon as you hand over your rent check.)

I miss sleeping, eating, working, studying, and spending nearly every waking moment in a community chock full of people I love.

I miss travel and studying abroad - packing my bags, taking trains, wandering around old cities that are new to me - the general freedom of being a wanderlust.

I miss morning, afternoon and evening naps squeezed in between classes.

I (occasionally) miss wearing jeans and sweatshirts (and "no-no" pants) instead of dress pants and heels.

Sometimes, without taking the "lifelong learning" bit too literally or wishing to go back in time, I do actually miss college. It went so fast. Time stretches out before me now with few definite plans. I plan to be a parent. - in the distant future, a very VERY long time from now. Like, when God creates a 36-hour day, OR 5 years from now, whichever comes first. I plan to pursue a career in writing. I'm trying to pursue that now, but I'm not sure what the next rung on the ladder is...

Time for grad school?


Black and White : Lessons Learned.

I woke up this morning to find several inches of snow outside my bedroom window. After a long work week, a big blanket of white to cover everything is exactly what I hoped for on my long-awaited Saturday to sleep in and spend time alone. I'm wrapped in my grandmother's afghan with a cup of tea as I watch it continue to fall. For the first time in a long while, I have time to sit and contemplate and write.

My writing dilemma of late has been this: reconciling myself to my imperfections.

A writer's mistakes are always going to be there, in black and white, for everyone to see. That makes it hard for me to want to be completely honest, sometimes. And if I can't be honest, I have a hard time convincing myself to say anything at all.

The potential for grammar, spelling and punctuation errors alone is embarrassing. When we write we have the added expectation of committing ourselves to an idea, a perspective, a way of seeing the world.

We're arguing. We're saying,

"This is my story and I'm sticking to it."

And I hate being wrong. More than that, I'm emotional, sensitive and overly sentimental, which means I'm an argumentative basket-case that doesn't know when to shut up. Great qualities for writing about something with passion. Horrible combination when I'm confronted about it.

With the advent of online writing tools like blogs and social media networks we have the option of controlling feedback to a certain extent. The delete button is always handy. It doesn't erase memories, though. Moderating and filtering out the comments that you don't want people to say about your work will only separate you from the moments meant to help you grow.

I'm learning these lessons the hard way. I'm learning through trial and error that I either write, make mistakes and attempt to right them, or I don't write at all.

Writing is a constant process of coming to terms with what I am: a writer.

I bleed black and white.

I wear my heart on my page.


Hello, December.

You'll be here tomorrow But I feel you today Waiting with your blowing, blustery winds around the corner. Some may dread the winter you bring, But I welcome you with open arms. You usher us in to a warm, cozy season That tells us to stay a little bit longer in the warmth with our friends Or read an extra few pages in our book And snuggle under the covers with our loved one And light one more candle And eat an extra bowl of soup. You usher us in to a white, clean season That reminds us that there is still a beauty that touches everything, A blanket of peace and quiet that covers the cold and the barren.


Stranger than Fiction

I've decided to stop fighting it.

What exactly? I was driving home yesterday contemplating, once again, my writing woes. My ever-encouraging twitter friend, Friederike, tweeted a word to me the other day:

"Very often, our characters tell us what they are up to. We must take our time and wait a little to find out what they want."

And then, in response to my whiny, "But what to do while I wait for them to speak to me?" Friederike said, "Have a coffee and watch your soul while you are waiting for your characters to do the work."

Again, an all too wise response to my needlessly worrisome writing self. At that point, I was asking myself what characters are speaking to me. Do I even have any? I was never planning on being a fiction writer. But is that what she meant, and does fiction versus nonfiction make any difference here?

In the midst of my brain working through this idea, my ears were half-listening to my car radio, which was faithfully playing NPR's All Things Considered. The host was interviewing a writer that just published a new novel. What was his inspiration and theme behind the book, she asked? I was suddenly all ears.

The writer explained that his work centered around the belief that home is not always where we are most welcome or a place that we can take refuge from a misunderstanding world. What happens to people who live with that discord?

For reasons I cannot explain, his description of pulling together his ideas into a novel pulled together my own disjointed ideas about what it means to write.

I've been fighting for a long time the idea that I should write fiction. It seems to me that any attempt I've made is not literary, but a deep-seeded and irresistible need to reconcile misunderstandings in my life - people, experiences, memories, social, political and religious issues. Every version of my fiction has been some attempt to tie those things together so that I can make sense of them, or remove them from myself. Like Dumbledore's Penseive, my writing extracts those things that will not rest within myself until they've poured out of me onto the page in black and white, where I can examine every detail. (Kudos to J.K. Rowling for that concept. I wonder if she ever thought about that in terms of her own writing experience?)

This isn't right, I tell myself. Great writers don't turn their lives into fiction for a good story. There's always that speculation that something within their works - a character or a scene or a setting is a fictionalized, dramatized version of something real to the author. But many authors would, and have, denied those theories outright. And then the critics and readers idolize them: "He's just that genius that the work is entirely fictional!"

Underneath the guise of literary genius, every good piece of writing has soul, and what is soul but personality, your collection of beliefs, experiences, passions, and talents that are not quite like anyone else's?

This is what I'm not going to fight anymore: you, dear readers, friends, loves of my life (and people I might not necessarily get along with) are the interesting characters that fill my thoughts and speak to me. Experiences and memories, you are a part of who I am. I am passionate about you. I am inspired by you. I know you and you know me. You drive me to words. Black, white, gray, and every color and shade in between. You speak to my soul, and I'm listening, truly listening now.

After all, life is stranger than fiction, right? So don't be surprised if some version of you lies within my words. I won't be surprised, anymore. I may not pen the great American novel any time soon, or ever, but this is what I know.

I won't go against the grain anymore, for you are ingrained in me.


Top 10: Books that Changed (or Made) My Life

When did I first decide that I wanted to write? It's funny... I don't remember. I wouldn't say that I have always wanted to write, but I can say that I've always loved to read.

This week, one of the assignments that my writing partner and I gave each other was to choose a book that made us want to write... and of course, I could not think of just one. Which led me to wonder, is it fair to try and only choose one, or would it be more honest to say that it was all books, or maybe the act of reading itself that gave me the urge to write? For reasons I don't entirely understand, I'm hesitant to try and answer that question. At times, a single phrase in a book overwhelms me with inspiration. Other times, I find a deep sense of gratification in the story as a whole. And then there are the moments when the sheer act of turning a page, of smelling an old book, of holding it with both hands, is a deeply spiritual, emotional experience.

As we discussed our picks, I was struck anew with the realization of how deeply influential good writing is and how transformative it is when people learn to read. As a young girl, my days were filled with great stories, pages, and words. When my frizzy-haired, stick-figured self had no one to relate to, I always found deep comfort in the weight of a book in my hands, and a deeply awkward main character, not unlike myself, that could be found within it's pages.

And at every stage of my life, it seems, I've found book after book that meets me where I am emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and it takes me somewhere new. Even better, I love to find out that the people who wrote them were also once awkward, inquisitive, imaginative young people that found books and authors that inspired them, too.

The Official List:

1. I Think that It is Wonderful - I read this over and over when I was little! The start of my love for poetry.

2. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Judy Blume - between the ages of 8 and 13, I read this about 400 times! It was the first book that I remember mentioning World War II, Hitler, and anything about being a Jew. Note to teachers and parents: I recall this book much easier than any elementary school history lesson...

3. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster - the first book where my teacher told us to think about writing themes and messages, rather than merely text.

4. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle - between the ages of 10 and 14, I read this about 800 times! The characters were so unique, but utterly relatable.

5. Harry Potter (1-7), J.K. Rowling - controversial those these books were in my household, they had a huge impact on my life and my desire to write. My own peers, kids who at one point felt indifferent to reading where consuming these books like after-school snacks - all 700+ pages of each one! And suddenly, the underdogs, the awkward, geeky kids had a hero who fit their mold. And suddenly, it was cool for teenagers to talk about the things that are important in life, like love, friendship, good versus evil, and ask ourselves, could we be as brave as Harry, Ron, or Hermione?

6. A Great and Terrible BeautyLibba Bray - initially, it was the sheer gorgeousness of the cover that made me pick this one up. But the style of writing, the character of Gemma Doyle, and the recurring theme of coming of age as a young woman had me hooked from the first page. (Sadly, the sequels don't quite live up.)

7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley - by the time I finished college, I had read this book for a class no less than 5 times. A little daunting after the third time, but I still love it. The first time I was assigned to read it was in my high school British Literature class, and after reading it we had to write a 10-12 page research paper. To this day, that paper is one of my proudest accomplishments [135 points out of a possible 135 points from one of the most demanding teachers at our school!) and I am still utterly fascinated by the layers and layers of meaning to be found between it's pages, not to mention the inspiring author herself who dominated her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron - at the age of 18, no less!

8. The Reader, Bernard Schlink - It's simple: this book changed my life. I was working at my hometown library as a page, and one day I came across this book. The cover looked interesting, but I was drawn to the simple, mysterious title more than anything. It was the Oprah's Book Club seal on the cover that kept me from actually checking out for 6 months... When I finally did pick it up, I found a story so rich with compassion and raw, utterly human history that I could not believe that I had not even heard of it before. It's been made into a great film, but I highly suggest you read the book first. If I had to choose, this would be the book that made me want to be a writer.

9. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger - If I were stranded on an island and could only bring with me one book, this would be it. The characters, the plot, the writing - all work together to create this magnificent and completely original love story. It's like listening to your favorite album on repeat - it just never gets old, and you feel like the characters are real, like they live in your head, and that each word was written for you. DO NOT under any circumstances see the film before you read the book, or I swear you may never pick it up. Even if you read it first, I'd say the movie is a rental at best. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, that cinematic "interpretation" is like getting McDonald's when you ordered filet mignon.

10. Atonement, Ian McEwan - Of all the books I could have chosen to take with me when I traveled in Europe, I impulse-purchased this one in the airport just before we left American soil. Talk about context. Once again, the writing itself is reason enough to love it, but the characters and the story are so vivid and heartbreaking that it was glued to my hands for the first two weeks, save for that whole seeing the world part of my trip... Again, this book has a film adaptation, and I am happy to say that it is every bit as good as the book itself, although I always recommend reading it first.

Tell me, what are your favorite books?


[ _ ]

Why does this post not have a title? Because I've chosen the anti-theme.

The theme is : there is no theme.

The theme is : there is no synopsized, clever label for what my life is about right now.

Writers get very fussy when there seems to be no linguistic solution for whatever it is they feel. At least this writer does. Articulation is my life. I'm not the try-this-on-for-size writer that says the same thing fifty different ways of average. No. A clear, concise, carefully-crafted thesis is my policy. On the one hand, I'm proud of it; words are a finicky medium.

The best writing is like oil-painting. I've always found both to be difficult, because at some point you just have to leave the piece alone. An extra stroke or word or phrase will only make it muddy. The image will lose it's vibrancy and it's clarity, it's meaning.

Sometimes writers don't know when they've written something that it makes readers feel like they're running a marathon on a path made of… pudding. Thick, messy, icky-sweet, utterly debilitating. They'll never make it to the finish-line.

On the other hand, the times - like now - when I feel like I can't articulate myself, I become too restless to let the writing process flow easily. I write, erase, rewrite, and slaughter.

Clear and concise thesis? Abandoned.

I'm left with scraps and ramblings. I'm left with a muddy, indistinguishable image of my life, where my thoughts and feelings run together like all the wrong colors from a dirty brush.

And I also find reading others' writing tough to swallow. I'm often envious of the phrase or analogy that they were smart enough to articulate before I could reach it myself. 

Yes! That's exactly what I mean/think/feel! Damn. They said it first…

So I am both frustrated with myself and starving for inspiration, for something that doesn't make me feel like this whole writing business is a spectacular myth. My solution-oriented self isn't handling this well, clearly.

Before I get too whiny and cynical about "how hard writing is," let me just say that I haven't given up. I know this is only a funk, a season, a 'tude, a phase. I will exhibit confidence in my writing through action, if not in thought.

I need to put myself out there more. I need to write, write, write, even when other things may feel wrong.

So I will.


Puking Pink: My Adversity to Breast Cancer "Awareness" Campaigns

I'll tell you the truth : I love October, but I hate breast cancer awareness month.

Hear me out. I'm the daughter of a breast cancer survivor. To make a very long and painful story extremely short, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago. She had a mastectomy, chemo, and went into remission. Five years later, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer - breast cancer that had moved to other parts of her body. First, it was a tumor that had wrapped itself around one of her lower vertebrae. Then, it was her femur, her humerus, her ribs. She had radiation treatments. She found a cancer treatment center to go to where the doctors could give her more holistic treatment options. She started taking vitamins and eating better and pursuing clinical trial treatments that might help her. In 2008, we found out that it spread to her liver. She still kept moving forward, finding more ways to treat her illness. Her list of treatments and counter-treatments is a million miles long.

Eight years after her second diagnosis, here she is. And here I am. We've learned a lot about what's important to us, and we've learned that we are blessed beyond our wildest understandings. But that's not to say that the heartache of living with cancer isn't abundantly, painfully real to us.
We pray that someone finds a cure to this disease. We pray that others find the strength and the faith to battle their own diagnoses and that they can learn to advocate for themselves. We pray that people learn to pay attention to their own bodies, their own health histories, their own well-being.

However, I just cannot stomach the pink-ribboned, horrifically over-sexualized, over-commercialized breast cancer "awareness" campaigns that have come out in recent years. Whether it's buying a bag of chips with a pink ribbon on it, sporting a "Feel Your Boobies" t-shirt, or posting a vague and suspiciously sexual statement in a Facebook status, it has all become an easy target for manufacturers and commercial advertisers to target their most vulnerable and influential demographic: women.

Should we be donating to a good cause and raising awareness? Yes. But at what cost?
Even the products that sport the pink ribbon have been known to contain harmful cancer-causing chemicals. And there are other campaigns meant to "raise awareness" that raise questions about their moral and ethical treatment of women.

So the question becomes: are these companies milking the breast cancer issue and are you willing to continue buying into their exploitation?

Because here's the thing: raising awareness and finding a cure breast cancer is a good cause.

But not all campaigns "for a good cause" are good for us.


How To Be Alone

A friend shared this video on Facebook today and I am in love with it. [Make time for you.]


The Elusive Age.

I wish I knew what this thought meant, but I have no way to articulate it, except to repeat it over and over again. I want something new. Am I thinking clothes? Or house decor? Or a new design for my blog? Or a new haircut? Or... (_fill in the blank?_) No, it's deeper than material things. I wish I knew what it meant. And why. Maybe it's an emerging pattern of nostalgia? Every year at this time I remember that I spent a Fall in Europe wandering and reading and writing and learning to my heart's content. You can take the phrase 'travel bug' literally. It's an itch that must be scratched and when you don't it gnaws away at your thoughts, convincing you that if you could just go someplace new, everything would be better. But am I now incapable of being happy where I am? I am happy. I have a wonderful husband and a good job doing something I actually like, and I have a great group of friends and family. I just have this restless feeling. Like I'm waiting on an elusive "new", an elusive "better," an elusive "different", and I don't know when or where or how I may find it. A lot of people my age feel this way. A lot of people who were once my age felt this way, and they either did something great or resigned themselves to the waiting and the wanting. How will I deal with it? How will my friends deal with it? Our days aren't meant for biding our time or waiting for something to come to us. We're meant to reach out and grab hold of what we want. But what if we don't know what that is? How do we find out what it is? What is the "great" that we might do? I've just asked a lot of big questions, many of which may not be answerable. It's better than not asking, though. It's better than not contemplating what it is we're doing. I found this quote the other day, and I really hope that I can find a way to live up to it, and that my peers do, too. I have a feeling that this is what we want, and what we are most afraid of. "What we are is God's gift to us. What we become is our gift to God."-Eleanor Powell


Restless Writer

Today is my ritual Writing Saturday. I'm at Starbucks, all by my writing self and a goooood cup of coffee. And I'm enjoying it... sort of. I have a lot of thoughts rolling around and none of them are very helpful. After a long, busy, roller-coaster week, I have nothing to show for it - at least not in terms of my writing. Last Saturday I felt the same way. I wrote a solid 1,500 words, but none of what I wrote is anything that I would inflict on others. Now I sit, coffee in hand, listening to the friendly but distracting sounds of the cafe and I question, Did I come here this morning for the coffee or the writing? I might have just pulled myself into a bad writing habit by coming here instead of sitting at home in the quiet. I know that's not the only thing bothering me, though. I feel stumped. Uninspired. Frustrated. Displaced. Like something I once had is now gone; I feel the void, but what is it exactly that I've lost? I'm just wondering, for you writers and bloggers out there, When you feel like something is missing in your writing, how do you find it? I have a feeling that many of you will say, "I keep writing." Thank you. That was very helpful. But how do you subdue the anxiety that accompanies the sense of aimlessness? Truth be told, I feel bored with my writing self. Possibly, I am bored with my self self, and it's infringing on my writing self. (Am I helping or hurting my writing by separating my writing self from my whole self?) When I become restless with my writing, it often feels like I'm talking my writing self down from the ledge. Don't be so over-dramatic. The thing you're missing? It will come back to you. Just be patient. Wait it out. Write it out. And then, my self self gets frustrated. I am talking to myself. I am insane. I'm the crazy writer girl that's going to start wearing all white and never leave my house. Or I'll wind up sticking rocks in my trench coat pockets and wander into the river. Or stick my head in an oven and inhale deeply until the unhelpful thoughts go away.... See what I mean? It would be great if I could actually be satisfied with my writing self before the end of my life. (Disclaimer: I'm not actually suicidal. I just find it sad and amusing that so many great writers never knew their own potential.) I know I'm not alone in this, so tell me, how do I talk my writing self back from the ledge? How do I break the cycle of unhelpful thoughts? Advice, please. For now, I'm going to keep working on an unfinished writing project from a few weeks ago and hope that it yields something reader-worthy....


A Saturday Morning at Starbucks.

I've written before about making time in our schedules to write. Recently, I've developed a habit of using my Saturday mornings (the one and only time each week when I am alone with no obligations) to write. Most times, I wake up, make myself a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee, and I sit on my porch for awhile and think. I then pick up my pen and journal and start writing whatever comes to mind. Last Saturday, I decided to do something a little different. I enjoy going to coffee shops and of course I'm a sucker for Starbucks, which just happens to be closest to me. I gathered my notebook, my laptop, and a few other writings in a bag and went there to spend a few hours writing. My goals? 1. Drink a good cup of coffee since there was none to be had in our apartment. 2. Test myself : can I write when I have a flurry of activity going on around me? 3. Observe others going about their day and write what I see. More specifically, focus on visualizing and showing the moment with descriptive language. Don't be a slave to a theme. Don't spoon-feed readers and tell them what to think about it. (I do this a lot.) I've written in coffee shops before, but mostly it was when I was working on class assignments or work; never for the purpose of writing what I saw. Many writers encourage writing in places where we can observe others, or simply putting ourselves in a setting out of the norm. The idea behind this is that a new setting makes for new ideas and inspirations; writing in the same place can lead to stale writing and for me, it can leave me feeling lonely or restless. I'm supremely glad I tried it. I realized: people do so many things inside a day that go unrecorded. They may remember small moments, but they're more likely to forget them. I'm glad that for one Saturday, the things they said and did that they have by now probably forgotten were an inspiration to me, and so will not be lost forever. Here is one of my favorite moments...
There's a dad sitting a few feet away playing with his daughter. She's young- maybe four. She's wearing a black leotard with the light pink tights and sparkly tennis-shoes; she's just come from ballet. Her eyes are a mirror of his: big, bright silver saucers. She giggles again and again as they play their game. He pretends she's not there and then, after what seems like an eternity, he suddenly turns and looks at her with wide, googly-eyes and a contorted face. After a few rounds of their goofing, he grabs their drinks and now he's walking to the door, drinks in hand, trying to coax her to come with him. She wants to keep playing the game, so she doesn't move from the couch. He stops. I dread, for a split second, the part where he will ruin a perfectly good moment with his young daughter. He'll grow impatient and yell. He'll drag her out as she wails in confusion and hurt. He turns his head away, and then back. He gives her one more silly face. She giggles wildly, and the people around us pause to look and smile. He pretends to walk out, and she whimpers as he passes from her view. Suddenly, he hops back into the doorway, drinks still in hand. She smiles, a little relief lingering at the corners of her mouth. "Ready?" he asks again. She crosses her arms and closes her eyes, nose in the air. "Come on, Miss Sophisticated. You don't want to stay here in the cafe and drink this by yourself. We have to go give one to Mom." She hesitates. The cogs begin to turn, and she hops down from her chair. "Okay. Let's go see Mommy," she decides, and skips out the door and toward the car.


It's just another one of those days when...

I wake up confused from a dream about another time and place in my life and it felt. so. real.

I oversleep.

I rush to get ready for work, walk out the door and I'm met with a torrential downpour.

I hit my head on the door as I scurry to climb inside the car and simultaneously spill coffee on myself.

I read things from people that reaffirm my belief that life is not fair.

I take a deep breath and attack my pile of to-do lists again.

I say a prayer of thanksgiving for my superhuman coworkers that make this office function.

I take a sip of my coffee and realize that my mug is half-full, not half-empty.

I look out the window and I'm reminded that downpours nourish the earth and everything in it, and by extension, me.

I remember that memories and dreams reaffirm the moments that mean the most to us.

I realize that even if I don't see a loved one's face, hearing their voice is a life-affirming, God-filled moment I have to look forward to every morning.

I think of everything on my plate and I'm reminded that if we're doing what we should, then a lot of our tasks have nothing to do with our own personal gain.

I notice the time, and go back to repeating my mantra...... This day will end eventually and another one will begin, and I'll stumble and hit my head and spill my coffee and get caught in the rain and get frustrated and realize that it's a good thing that life isn't fair, because that is why His grace is real.


When everything seems upside down...

The best conversations happen like this: 

Friend 1 : Would everything and everyone stop being a pain in the ass so I can stop freaking out?!

Friend 2 : Hey! Want me to get drunk on my lunch hour or eat a whole wheel of cheese...?

Friend 1 : I'm sorry? What?

Friend 2 : I was trying to be funny and cheer you up...

Friend 1 : Oh! [laughs.] Well then, please by all means get drunk on your lunch hour or eat a whole wheel of cheese. But can you swing by and pick me up first so we can do it together?* [laughs, then falls into silence again.] I'm sorry, I'm just upset about everything going on.

Friend 2 : I know. I'm here for you. What's up?

Friend 1 : Well, you know, between all the different people in my life who are in trouble and sick and hurting, plus the fact that I'm flat broke most of the time, I feel like I'm constantly fighting to keep my head above water. One minute I feel fine, the next, I feel like crying in a corner.

Friend 2 : Aww, my love! It's going to be okay. Deep breaths. And if you need to cry, do it. It helps sometimes. I love you and I know things will lighten up.

Friend 1 : Anyway, I know half this stuff is out of my control. I just hate that people don't make better decisions and that I am the one who worries about it. Thank you for being supportive. I love you.

Friend 2 : It's my pleasure, love.

Friend 1 : Thanks for cheering me up! Everything okay with you?

Friend 2 : Same old stuff, different day.

Friend 1 : True that. Well, you know I'm here whenever you're ready for a freak out session. Because, you know, sometimes that happens as we both know all too well...

Friend 2 : Heck yes we do. Lovelovelove!

And the really best part? Depending on the day, you may be either Friend 1 or Friend 2, but it's still the same conversation, the same amount of love. Thank you.

*Sidenote: I do not advocate drinking on the lunch hour.... or eating a whole wheel of cheese, for that matter. Just in case you were wondering.


Love List for Labor Day Weekend.

Inspired this weekend, I've made a list of love for my family and for our Labor Day weekend tradition. Cold and rainy or hot and sunny, it was wonderful.

I love :

Waking up and eating breakfast with our giant brood.

Eating with my family, period. SO. MUCH. FOOD. And ALL of it is good!

Laying in the hammock with my brother.

Thinking about past Labor Days on the lake and realizing how much we've all grown up.

Finding moments with each person to laugh and tell them I love them.

The peaceful, exclusive scenery of northern Michigan:

Hearing Sufjan Stevens' lyrics from "Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!" and remembering my roots :
"I was raised
In the place.
Still I often think of going back
To the farms, 
Golden arms. 
Tried to change the Made in Michigan
But I was raised
In the place, 
Part to remind me..."

I don't love the fact that living away from my family is hard. There are moments when I wonder how exactly life led me here, away from them. The truth is, that as much as I love them, Chicago is where I belong. This is where my dreams flourish and grow and connect. This is where my other family is: my husband, his family that has made me their own, the family I made with the people I met at college - my friends who have become my sisters and brothers in another sense.

Will I be here forever? I don't know. Will I ever go back to my small hometown in Michigan? I don't know.

But home is where my heart is, truly. And my heart, although I would not say it is divided, has many roots in many different places all over the globe.

Ultimately, my heart resides in me, with my memories and my thoughts and my endless gratitude for the people that have raised me. So they're in my heart, even when they're not here with me.

And my heart is with them, even when I'm not.


A Running, Writing List.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I would be working on assignments in a writing book I had. The book I chose, The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, was used as a textbook in one of my college classes. It has sat on my shelf untouched for 3 years, but I decided to give it another chance. Albeit cheesy and dramatic - Cameron is a playwright - the book has some good advice and interesting writing exercises to get my thoughts flowing on the page.

The exercise I chose asked that I write down a list of things that I'm thankful for, that make me happy, that are inspiring. So I wrote down 25. I shared them with my writing partner at last week's meeting, and we both liked the idea so much that we decided to make it our assignment for our next meeting. I came back with 25 more, she with 50.

We chose random numbers without looking, and then took turns reading our answers. Each of them different, but surprisingly complimentary.

At first, I thought it was just an easy way out - a good way to jot thoughts down that are floating in our heads while emphasizing the positive, but easy - is this "real" writing?

The list is easy, but it is also hard. And it encourages more than just jotting down random thoughts. It spurs discussions about things that we might otherwise have deemed trivial, but do in fact matter to us. And of course, each item begs an explanation, an articulation of WHY it matters. Suddenly, we're pinpointing specific things that make up our moments of joy, the very things that inspire us and motivate us to write.

The whole drive home I was finding things to add to the list. When I walked in my door, I immediately sat down and wrote as many as I could remember and wound up with a whole new list of 60 more! This time, I was able to articulate things more specifically, with more detail.

And then as I went to bed I was reminded of another list I had made several months ago. It was a late night, and I was frustrated. I felt lonely, even with my husband asleep at my side. I felt disrespected in an argument with a loved one earlier that day. I felt restless with my two part-time jobs that weren't giving me enough professional experience or enough money. I felt trapped without a consistent creative outlet. So I opened my journal, my pen point resting slightly on the page.

Without thinking, my journal entry became a list. An inventory. A long line of things that were following me, haunting me. As I wrote, the list became a string of words that expressed my thoughts, but didn't bother with the burden of forming full sentences.

Four pages later, I was exhausted and empty. I closed the journal and dropped it in my bedside drawer.

Weeks later I read through that journal entry and could see a pattern weaving itself through the string of words. To my surprise, the flow of consciousness through the list was clearer than some of the entries when I toiled over correct, complete thoughts.

So lists. Turns out, they're good for the writing process. Sometimes we can't allow ourselves to labor over forming "whole" arguments or ideas. We stumble over phrases and words and emotions, and we lose things along the way that might have been valuable. Our thoughts are often so fleeting that they come and go before we can wrap a sentence around them.

Sometimes we just have to go with the flow, letting all the words that come to our minds -







- pour out of us.


A Writer's Weekend.

Once again, my Twitter friend Friederike has been the exact dose of support and inspiration I needed following my last post. A non-Facebooker, she has some great insight to contribute, so make sure you read it. Friederike, I am learning so much from you!

[Photo taken from another Twitter friend, Wakako, on her ultra-inspiring blog, Baum-Kuchen.]

On a related note, my weekend was good. Saturday, which I have dubbed my creative workspace/time, was somewhat productive although not as much as I had hoped. I made a few decisions, though.

1. My weekends will now be free of social media as much as I can help it. I won't Facebook, Tweet, or email on Saturday or Sunday. The reason being that I have realized how much more positive and creative I am when I leave it alone for a couple of days. So if you need me, truly need me, then you have my cell phone number and you can call or text me. [Translation: if you don't already have my cell phone number, then you don't need me.]

2. Every Saturday morning will be dedicated solely to the act of sleeping in, getting up and eating breakfast on my porch, and writing or art-ing. Just me, myself, and God. ;)

3. Celebration with friends and family is important to me. So my Saturday morning wasn't the most productive, but my Saturday night was a blast with all the friends that came out to support my husband and his band. It made me realize how important interacting with my loved ones is to my creative endeavors.

Where once I thought that scheduling in time to be creative was unnecessary (maybe even contradictory), I now find that it's fundamentally important to being consistent and committed to my art. Surprisingly, it has satisfied a deep need I have to reconnect with myself. I feel like I've said this before, but I'll say it again: making time for our own creativity is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves.

In fact, I have a theory. My theory is that the more consistently we make time for our art and our selves, the moments when we feel drained and tired and tapped out and frustrated and angry because of work or drama will seem less hopeless. We know it's there waiting, we just have to remove ourselves from distractions and allow it to restore our faith and our confidence.

This weekend I am going home to see family and celebrate Labor Day on the lake. There will Bocce-ball tournaments, hours and hours in the sun and under the stars, planning my cousin's wedding, and eating lots and lots and lots and LOTS of food, and a few quiet moments to write. That's what I call Pure Michigan. [And Pure Joy.]


Will Facebook Let Us Say Goodbye?

A friend of mine deleted her Facebook profile this week. It was rather sudden, although she did message me to ask for my other contact information before doing so, which makes it slightly less of a shock. I don't know why she did it, although I am curious and... sad. Really sad. Surprisingly sad and taken off guard. And silly - am I really mourning the loss of a friend... because she deleted her Facebook? She didn't die. She didn't tell me I would never see or hear from her again. For goodness sakes! She's still online. She still has a phone. She's still in my world... in a sense.

And, to be clear, it's not any of my business why she did it.

But without Facebook to connect us, I won't get to "see" her whenever I want. Or write on her wall to tell her "I love you and I was thinking about you today." Yes, of course I could email that same message. But to me, emailing has always felt like I'm sending something out into a vast void, something like a message in a bottle, and I don't know if it'll ever be opened or even reach the shore. There's no way to know the recipient saw it if they choose not to respond.

But Facebook. Facebook is different, although I can't entirely articulate it. Is it the visual aid of a person's profile picture that gives us that similar sense of direct contact that we feel when we've talked face-to-face? Is it the sense of community that we get from being able to give and receive along with hundreds of other people? Or is it the comfort we find in bearing witness to others' lives on some level, even if we don't converse daily? We still get to see their wedding pictures, their new-baby pictures, or their rant session when something has ticked them off enough to write it in their status, or the inside joke that they write on their best friend/sibling/parent/co-worker's wall... we even get to see where they've gone for dinner if they use Facebook's new Places feature. I'm tempted to leave out the part about witnessing their FarmVille obsessions, but it says a lot about how productive they are with their time.

In one sense, all of these features seem to give us a more direct and inclusive connection than communicating via telephone, email, letters, or other social media like Twitter, MySpace, etc. Even blogs can be more limiting than Facebook depending on the writer's purpose for the blog.
On the other hand, I suspect that Facebook makes us feel closer to a person than we actually are. We think we're keeping tabs on people, but we don't actually bear witness to their daily lives. What often results is a deeply misplaced sense of entitlement, an expectation of obligation and responsibility to participate, and it isn't real. The truth: they don't have to share.

And some don't. I realize that Facebook users are not all equal in the amount of time they spend using it or the quality of their engagement. Some feel it is a colossal waste of time, which I certainly respect. Facebook is indeed a portal for people to escape productivity. I just can't bring myself to pull the plug. I'd miss everyone too much. I'd miss other things, too - invites to events, seeing people celebrate major life experiences, the chance to find inspiring artists, writers, and businesses. I'd even miss major news headlines. And according to my approximations, about 15-20 of my average 25 readers on this blog are friends and family who I am connected with solely on Facebook.

Is that why I was so... uncomfortable with the idea that my friend disconnected? Is that why I'm so uncomfortable with the idea of disconnecting myself?

I stared at her message and thought to myself, "But... you don't want to share your life with us anymore? You just got married! Don't you want to leave those pictures up there for everyone to see and admire? Don't you want to be able to write on my wall and vice-versa whenever we're feeling nostalgic?" I'm saddened when people choose to stop sharing.

And here's another thought: In another era, I might have met this girl and traveled with her just as we did for 3 months, and then when we each went home we might have written letters. Or we might not have written letters. In the time before the internet and social media existed, we would have missed each other, but I might not feel so ill-equipped to accept the fact that I may never see her again, in a real or virtual sense. I wouldn't have been able to miss something that wasn't there: the constant connection we have in the digital era.

Now that I've graduated from college, there are many friends and peers and professors that I still feel connected to, despite the fact that I may go several years or a whole lifetime without seeing them face-to-face. I have the added experience of living states away from my family for the last 5 years. Facebook has been a good way to keep the family together, to allow me to keep my own connections rather than waiting for news to travel through the grapevine.

This is the internet's purpose: to keep us always connected. Through social networks, the once unfortunate reality of leaving people behind or losing touch as we move from one phase of life to the next is no longer inevitable. Up to this point I had regarded this as a good thing. However, I'm questioning it now.

I mean, is it a good thing that I'm still connected with all but one of my ex-boyfriends? Is it a good thing that the curiosity of knowing what's going on with 75% of the people we've met in our lives has almost become what we would articulate as a "need"?

What if what we really need is the ability to let go? What if we need the ability to accept that we may never see or hear from someone again, even if they're not dead? And if we do need that ability to disconnect from one another, then Facebook and social media have most certainly had an impact on us.

So here is what I'm really concerned about:

What if Facebook, social media - the world wide web - have compromised our ability to say goodbye?


Write Your Own Story

Oh how I adore my dear co-worker, Kat. Always the design-savvy eye, she saw a notebook at Michael's the other day and knew I would love it. In the lower right-hand corner of the front cover was a small embossed graphic of a typewriter, with the words inscribed, 

"Write your own story." 

So she bought it for me! How sweet is that?

When she handed it to me, I was reminded once again of what an abundantly creative weekend I had. I had the whole glorious Saturday to myself! It was spent admiring the gorgeous sunshine and everything it touched, writing about it, and... painting it. Yes, painting. Haven't done that in ages, so I was both proud of myself and deeply comforted by the fact that I could do it... I haven't lost it - the need, the ability, or the delight I find in it.

Needless to say, the weekend was everything I needed it to be, including Sunday.

Here's my thought: the act of creating, whether it is writing, painting, music, dancing, or even cooking, is an act of dedication. You are dedicating your creative energy to the miraculous story that is your life.

So, I say, create your own story. 

Write your own story. Paint your own story. Sing your own story. Or as my very wise writing friend insisted: Dance your own story. Cook your own story.

Whatever it is you are good at, doing it is a testament to who you are at your core.

Dedicate. Document. Devote time to it. Delight in it.


Writing Update.

It's been a downer of a week and after last night's meeting with my writing partner, I've decided to get back to the 'task at hand' so to speak, and update you on my writing efforts.

Once again, I'm struck by how influential our surroundings can be on our creative flow. In the month and a half since we moved into our new apartment, I have been writing more here and in my journal than I have in the last 2 years! I can attribute it to the fact that my husband and I currently don't have network OR cable TV, so the only time were tuned-in to the tube is to watch a movie. This has made the act of turning on the TV so much more intentional and less of a "I'll just have it on the background" distraction. I ask myself: do I want to watch a 2-hr movie, or do I want to spend my time doing something productive? Now if only I could convince my husband that we don't need cable, but that will never happen. And I'm sure that once Grey's Anatomy is back on I would definitely miss it.

So with all my TV-free time, last Saturday I spent 3 whole hours working on an assignment for my weekly writer's meeting, and I pulled together a cohesive draft after struggling with it for months. I started the piece before my partner and I agreed to begin meeting, for myself, but I think the lack of direction I felt had everything to do with the lack of accountability and the lack of personal space.

For awhile, I felt so guilty blaming my lack of creative energy on my surroundings, but the more writers I meet the more I realize that to hear the truly creative voice within yourself, you have to find a place where the other distracting, condemning voices fall silent. Living with my in-laws in my husband's bedroom with no space of my own is not what I would call "distraction-free."

This is why I felt so compelled to write during my time studying abroad; having ample time to myself, the changing scenery, kept me in a state of perpetual meditation and inspiration. This is also why I felt compelled to write about meditation earlier in the week; if you take time for yourself, whether you practice faith or not, you will find that you have much more to say than you imagined. The doggedness of running around and fulfilling schedules and appointments can inhibit our connections to our creativity because we haven't made it a priority. We haven't let it speak to us.

So anyway, new apartment + new writing partner = new-found writing motivation!

My new assignment for next week: read a few chapters of one of my writing books, and finish 1 or 2 short writing assignments from it. While some writing books are cheesy, I actually find them helpful when everything I have been working on feels stale. Trying an assignment can help divert your thoughts and help you look at something with a new perspective. Maybe if I think it's good enough I'll post it here next week.... We shall see.

What about the rest of you writers? What are you working on? What kind of "exercises" do you to spice up your writing?


Margin and Meditation.

I set this picture as my desktop today:

This will come as no shock to you, but I've been dwelling on this one thought for the past several days: Americans do not understand margin. We do not make time for time. We may think ourselves disciplined when it comes to prioritizing work, school, family, and finances.

We're not.

In fact, several studies have shown that while Americans are making less time for vacation and more time for work, the rest of the world is working and playing and moving forward at a steady pace. Meanwhile, we're running ourselves into the ground.

This is not a plea to my employers to let me have a couple weeks off. This is just an observation, made more pertinent by the fact that I'm getting nostalgic for my Euro-trip in '08. I long for that time when time was all I had to think and reflect and let go.

Also, I was struck by the realization of how Christians in particular view meditation. While we knock other religions for the beliefs they are founded on, we give no regard to the fact that many other religions are much more disciplined and devoted to the act of meditation, or a time set aside for prayer and reflection. We're encouraged to pray on the go, while we go about our work day or running errands or standing in line at Starbucks. Is that true devotion, though? Is that making your meditation the sole priority and focus of your consciousness at that moment?

Meditation - to think, to ponder, to consider, to deliberate, to reflect.

Margin - leeway, latitude, room, room to maneuver, space, allowance, extra, surplus.

Meditation and margin - two things we don't understand and therefore don't do.

I have a lot on my plate with work and projects and home. Before I let this blog and my life become one big rush towards "making it" in a career, I need to stop and take a moment. I'm past the point in my life where my time is my own and I can wander to my heart's content. But. We become less and less effective the more we accumulate on our to-do list. Getting caught up in the rat-race won't make us successful.

I put this picture on my desktop this morning in part because of my nostalgia for my favorite place on earth (Salzburg, Austria) and in part as a reminder to give myself margin and meditation. I need to give myself that leeway, that allowance of time to reflect and consider my life and the world around me.

This is a reminder for you, dear readers, to take what moments we can each day and walk and wander and reflect and pray. You'll be surprised to see what blessings God lays at your feet when you do it.


A Time for the Bittersweet.

It's been a few days since my last post, mostly because the last two days of work brought me twice as many emails as I've been getting in the last two weeks! But I wanted to take a minute to lasso my thoughts into something tangible, and to get some feedback.

Last night, I finally sat down with two of my very dear friends for the first time in several weeks. We ate dinner, talked, prayed, shared news, and laughed about many things. And then I saw it. Laying on the ottoman next to my feet was Mackenzie's fresh copy of Bittersweet, the newest book by one of our favorite authors, Shauna Niequist. I wound up reading aloud a chapter called "Twenty-five."

The chapter is at once a call to action, a letter to Shauna's twenty-five-year-old self, and a prayer for twenty-somethings everywhere who are desperate to figure out who they are and what they want.

"Now is the time," Shauna says again and again. Now is the time before families, before mortgages, before iron-clad schedules, before "job security" that keeps us from reaching for what it is that we're actually passionate about. Before it gets that far, ask yourself what you want and make sure you do it.

Could there have been a better time for the 3 of us to read this? Now IS the time. So we talked. We talked about what we want and what we know we're good at it and what we're doing now to try and make it happen. No solid conclusions, but I am finding more and more that in this period of time where change is the only constant, we should stop being afraid of change and start using it to our advantage.

And this is the very core of Shauna's book: change itself is bittersweet, but it makes our lives so surprisingly, unexpectedly, and beautifully rich. Like coffee. Like chocolate. Like a good Merlot. Like a deliciously well-written chapter in a book.

What I like about chapter "Twenty-five" is how Shauna examines our tendency to cling to familiarity, to circumstances that keep us from reaching our full potential because we are afraid of change.

Any life-changing moment, any epiphany we have doesn't come when we're walking on cloud nine. It doesn't come from being in our comfort zone. It comes when we've just discovered that what we thought was "good enough" isn't good for us, and so we have to try something different in order to find that thing we "can't live without."

I'm not sure that life is about finding ways to make yourself "happy." Can any of us define what that is? There is no remedy, no choice that can ensure that elusive thing that is often only there to make us dissatisfied with what we've already been blessed with.

"Happiness" only satisfies one facet of our appetites, and eventually we realize it isn't enough to make us whole. And then we realize, we don't like the person we're becoming. What we really need is balance. We need boldness and courage.

Bittersweet is a way of life, one that's more real and true and one that allows us to make decisions with the wisdom that the bitter and the sweet, the good and the bad, are intertwined and equally necessary to becoming selves that we are proud of.

We may hate that we don't have everything figured out right now. We may wish that we had peace of mind, the feeling of being secure, settled. But peace never comes at the cost of settling.

Instead of grabbing desperately for the time when we're so sure we're going to "have everything figured out," let's take our twenty-something years and live them like we know they should be: the years that we will look back on as some of the most poignant, the most teaching, the most changing, the most triumphant, the most bittersweet.


For Friederike, A New Look at Brewing a Story.

I started out writing this post as a comment in response to Friederike, who commented on my last post. But then I realized, why not explore this further in an actual blog post? So here are her thoughts and my response. And thank you, Friederike. Though we have yet to meet in person, your tweets and comments are a huge encouragement and motivation for me to write!

I like the idea of brewing a story - like coffee! Because I am both, coffee- and literature-addicted, and I also know that the taste of coffee changes, depending on the time of day you brew it, of the place and even country where you do it. (May[be] it depends on the water ...) Think about Greek mokka or Turkish coffee! What I am thinking about: When I change the place, live somewhere else, will I brew another writing style?

Bethany Says:

Friederike, that is SO true! I know that when I write, the setting that I am in, my daily routine, my experiences each day, the people I am with, etc, will inevitably influence the tone in which I write something and what I am willing to write about.

For example, when I was traveling in Europe for 3 months, my writing was nonstop. More than that, the subjects I wrote about changed. How I wrote about myself and the world changed. How I viewed the home I returned to changed. (Not to mention my preferences in coffee!)

And now, I've found that having my own space - my own office, and my new apartment - has had a surprising influence on my writing habits. I write more, I write freely, I'm less discouraged then I was before.

Last night I was working on a piece, and when I got to that point where I wasn't articulating accurately anymore, I was actually able to stop and say to myself, "Come back to it later, and you'll have the words you need to finish it."

That is quite possibly the first time I've ever had the self control to do that. At least when it comes to my personal work.

This is why I have a hard time agreeing with critics who claim that a writer's personal life doesn't have an influence on their work. We may never know for sure the extent to which a writer's personal life flavored their writing, but you can taste the difference from one writer to the next.

That's part of what makes writing so incredibly important : CONTEXT. History, culture, personality, experiences. It's what makes it taste and feel so right. It's what keeps us coming back for more. Fiction or non, there is an underlying context to the written word. One sip will give you a taste of the rich soil that it was grown in. The toil or tender care that went into harvesting it. The journey that turned a seed into a good story. And it's addicting, just like any good brew. 

This is also why I find it so important to remove myself from distractions - television, music, company - when I'm writing. You have to be able to hear your own thoughts and discern whether it was you or something else that has tainted or flavored them.

Thanks again Friederike, for that intriguing comment! I will now go back to sipping my morning coffee and get to work.

You can find Friederike's blog here, though some of you might need to brush up on your Deutsch. :) 


Monday Morning Brew.

Oh Monday. My office is empty while everyone recovers from a high-activity work weekend that I was not obligated to be a part of. I'm eating dry cereal and drinking Folgers that I made myself.

And I'm pondering this constant mystery: my husband always brews the coffee better than I do. Even Folgers. I'm gulping mine down, hoping that when I get to the bottom of the cup I will get to the bottom of what it is I am doing wrong to make it taste like... salty dirt in lukewarm water with nutty undertones. And hopefully I'll be able to extract what little caffeine is actually in this brew. I never seem to wind up getting the buzz I would get from a cup of good ole Starbucks. [Or is that just what my addiction is telling me?]

I'm also pondering - still - what I am supposed to write for my meeting with my writing partner this week. Bring something old that we're proud of, and something new that we've been working on... The only thing I've written outside of work in the last year is my journal and my blog. Good practice, but I want whatever we work on to be a venture into new territory. I want to work towards writing something that someone else will be willing to publish.

My ideal job: to be a writer for a newspaper or magazine. 

So the constant question is: what do I have to contribute? What do I have to say that matters? How do I brew a good story?

I read others' pieces, and read my own. And I'm still trying to figure out what elements I am missing. What is it about my work that makes me feel... bland when I want it to be bold, sweet, refreshing?
I guess I'll have to write, edit, submit, repeat until I figure out how to infuse my thoughts and words together for the right story.