The Painful Art of Letting Go

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My life has been the same for so long I can’t remember anything different. One day, I was a stay-at-home mom struggling with the question of whether my life had meaning, and floundering in my new reality. I was no longer an employee or a professional, but my workload was heavier and more significant than ever. My self -esteem was ebbing away and I was depressed. I felt like I wasn’t good at anything. I felt like a failure. And then, I was given a life-changing opportunity to turn everything around. Of course, it wasn’t really as quick or as easy as one day, this; the next day, that. I struggled for years, and just as quicksand is said to suck its victims under all the faster if they fight the inevitable, the more I searched for a way out of my self-loathing, the more mired I became.

I prayed for a long time for something to change. For some great and profound development that might positively affect everything. I always kept my faith, but my hope was waning. And then, coinciding almost exactly with the jarring crash of hitting rock bottom, there it was, a light shining out of the darkness, a hand reaching out, offering help and hope and salvation. Everything was going to be all right. Not right away, and not completely, but soon enough and enough-enough that I was saved. I will always be grateful for that.

Fast-forward to now and I’m stuck. Stuck in a salvation that feels more like a prison. I’ve reached a crossroads and I don’t know what to do. I was so loath to make the decision that I must make that I am ashamed to say I briefly stopped praying about it. I was afraid of what God’s answer would be. I knew that this was shortsighted. I knew I was making a mistake. But my fear was and is very real. Still, after days and weeks of pretending I was not facing a great change in my life, I began to pray again. I asked God for forgiveness and for direction. For the wisdom to know the best course and the humility to accept His will. I asked for a sign, a sign that would be unmistakable. Because my greatest fear is that my discontent comes from Satan. That I have been happy for so long, that I have been glorifying God and rejoicing in his light, so that Satan is jealous. Satan is angry. And maybe he wants to wreak havoc. Wouldn’t the perfect way of doing that be to turn me away from the right path, to turn me against the people who have been my friends and champions, to turn me away from the community I have created? Yes. And no.

Just because God guides us down a certain path doesn’t mean we are meant to follow that path for the rest of our lives. Change is constant and necessary. Without change there would be no growth, no learning and no chances for salvation. Change is hard and change is scary. This is especially true for me. So when I see change looming on the horizon, I don’t go boldly to meet it. I run and hide. And that’s what I was doing when I stopped praying. It didn’t work, though. The more I hid, the more obvious it was that change was coming, whether I wanted it to or not. And now it’s here. Or almost here. I am still scared. It’s up to me to look that change full in the face, to acknowledge and accept its inevitability. And especially, to take it in hand and make sure it works for me, rather than against me.

I asked God for a sign. And that very night, I had a dream. Its meaning was crystal clear to me. In the dream, I was having a meal with a group of people who make up a big part of my life. I didn’t want to be at this meal. I didn’t exactly resent that my presence was required, but I would have been happier if I were somewhere else. That was the first sign. Being in a place you don’t exactly hate being, but knowing you’d be happier elsewhere is a pretty big red flag. Of course we won’t love every place, every moment, every event in our lives. Not everything can be the best, the favorite, the most loved. But spending large chunks of time in a place that drains our energy or costs too much effort is not a good use of our time.

In the dream, delicious-looking food was being passed around the table and I couldn’t wait to serve myself. As it was passed, each person broke off a piece of the food for themselves, taking what they liked, taking what appealed to them. By the time the food reached me, the last person at the table, it was almost gone. And then, the person next to me, who had already served herself, broke off a piece of food for me. It was the smallest portion that anyone received. It wasn’t a part that I liked or wanted. And I didn’t get to choose for myself. This was the second sign. I don’t have much control over certain aspects of my life right now. I am not resentful about this, but I am disappointed. I like to have ownership over the things I contribute to. I like to have a certain measure of control. Not control freak-control, but some say-so in what happens or how things will proceed. I like to feel that my opinion is heard and valued. I like to be acknowledged and appreciated. I especially like to feel that I exhibit some level of proficiency in what I do. In the distant past, I had a great deal of autonomy in my life. Leadership positions and the opportunity to use my special gifts and talents. I was good at what I did.

Finally, in the dream, I left the table for a moment and when I returned, someone had put some more food on my plate. And everything that was there was something I didn’t care for. Foods that I don’t, or won’t, eat. This was the third and final sign. The things that are being put “on my plate” are things that I don’t want there. That should be all I need to know.

Still, I worry. I worry that my decision will hurt people’s feelings. I worry that it will change their perceptions of me. I worry that they won’t like me anymore. And I worry that once I have relinquished what I no longer want, I will suddenly want it again and it will be too late. All of these worries are simply excuses, though. Excuses to keep me from making the right decision, which is to move forward with my life. I am not being held back, not really, but I’m not being fulfilled, either. There are so many aspects to what I am giving up that I absolutely love. But when I don’t have ownership, when I am not in a position to receive appreciation, when I fumble and feel unsure of myself, when others reap the benefits of time and effort I have expended, I feel the only way I can be true to myself is to become a little selfish.

I go forward with no idea of what comes next, but with complete acceptance that God has directed me toward a more fulfilling future. I am going against everything in my nature and taking a leap of faith. I am stepping out blindly, yet secure in the knowledge that this is what He wants from me. I’m terrified by my boldness even as I am certain in my obedience. Someone once told me that my presence was an answer to a prayer. I don’t pretend to understand the ways of God, but that sentiment, while sounding lovely on the surface, bound me with guilt to an unhappy existence. I thought, if I was the answer to a prayer then I must have been where God wanted me to be. I have since discovered that I want and need to find out what are God’s answers to my own prayers. He may use me to help others, to fill needs and smooth the paths of the people around me, but He will also work everything to my good. And when what is happening is no longer to my good, He will make that abundantly clear. And so He has.

God, I’m listening.

Future, I’m here.

Time for Camp!

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It’s April 1 and that means just one thing for the writing community: it’s time to check in to Camp NaNoWriMo. From the folks who bring you National Novel Writing Month every November, Camp NaNoWriMo is a fantastic opportunity to start (and finish!) a new project in just one month.

My goal is to put down 30,000 additional words in my current work in progress, which is coming along much more slowly than I would like. It’s hovering at just around 56,000 words and is far from finished. It would be wonderful if camp life is just what I need to inspire me to tackle those blank pages and get writing.

Excelsior!

There’s Something to be Said for Traditional Church Music

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I recently came across an online post that listed what are, in the author’s opinion, the fifteen best Christian hymns. It made me think how much I miss traditional church music. I clicked through the post with interest, wanting to see how many of my personal favorites made the list. It turned out the list was more or less equally divided into three components: hymns I love, hymns I do not love, and a few hymns whose names were familiar to me, but that I have never sung. The list of hymns I love was the longest.

I grew up in a traditional Lutheran church that was founded in 1770. The sanctuary, constructed between 1795 and 1806, is historic and gorgeous. There are carved wooden pews topped with velvet cushions. There is an altar dressed with cloths that change according to the church calendar, with colors and symbols that correspond to Holy Days and periods including Pentecost, the Ascension and Advent. There are stained glass windows by Tiffany lining the chancel. There are mosaics under a vaulted arch. There are fat hymnals whose pages are edged with gold. And there is a pipe organ whose voice is powerful, poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful.

When I was growing up in the church, the only microphones were to amplify the voices of the clergy and the lecters. On special days we might have brass or strings or timpani. Handbells on Palm Sunday. Triumphal trumpets on Easter. Harps and acoustic guitars on Christmas. Sometimes the children’s choir was accompanied by a piano. There were no electric guitars or drum kits. There were no amps or wires. The front of the church did not resemble an arena just before a rock band takes the stage. There were no lightshows.

In so many churches now, this is not the case. The music is not so much a part of the worship as it is part of the entertainment. I don’t know how everyone feels about this, but I, personally, do not go to church to be entertained. Nowadays there seems to be so much loud, electric music that there is little time for anything else. No readings from the Scriptures. No order for confession and forgiveness. Prayers that do little to ask for God’s intercession in our lives and in our troubled world. Instead we refer to God over and over again as “awesome,” with the implication that He is more “cool” and “neat” than He is glorious and almighty. We seem to address Him now as if He is a next-door neighbor, our bro, our bestie, our equal.

I suppose I could take the path of least resistance and declare that my words are not meant to diminish, demean or belittle contemporary Christian music. To say that it has its place, or to excuse it by saying it’s what the younger generation wants, or it is the magic bullet that will have potential new members flocking to church doors. But I’m not sure I believe that. During the several years I have been exposed to contemporary Christian music, I have found a few songs that I can tolerate, and only one that I truly love. The key difference between the songs I dislike and the one I love is, predictably in the lyrics and the message. It acknowledges the pain of human existence, the power of God, and the reward for faith. Its message is true and sound, the language is grown-up, and nothing is dumbed down. I appreciate that.

The songs that I dislike are repetitive and simplistic. And when I’ve finished singing one, I feel depleted, exhausted, and strangely empty. When the songs sung in church are reduced to a handful of words, they become repetition and in repetition we see the loss of meaning. Words repeated ad nauseam, growing louder and louder with each iteration, aren’t delivering any message that anyone particularly needs or wants to hear. Where are the songs that are rich in emotion, that declare the true glory of God, that are unmistakable in their praise? Give us a few words and a catchy tune and it is nothing but spectacle. It is a show. And it is a distraction. If music is meant to set the mood, then the mood is irreverent. How I miss sitting peacefully during the Offertory, listening to the choir sing, or the organist play, calm and relaxed, feeling myself drawing to closer to God. My belief is that traditional hymns make worship a more personal experience, and a thousand times more meaningful.

We might sing to God about how He numbered the stars or can hold back the floodwaters, but He already knows that. As much as songs should be about worship, they should also be a way for us to connect with God, to come to a deeper understanding of His power and might. And to remind us that the path to salvation was not an easy one, riddled as it was with the pain and suffering that God’s son took upon himself, for our sakes. The contemplation of such unimaginable and undeserved sacrifice merits dignified language of beauty and grace, and a dignified presentation.

The old hymns have much to recommend them. Through their words, we remember everything that God has done for us, and we celebrate his remarkable love and sacrifice. Children learn, not only about their God, but through hymns, their understanding of Christianity is enhanced and their vocabulary grows. How many seven-year-olds are regularly exposed to words like bulwark, sphere, tribulation, prostrate, successive, cleft, almighty, and so on. I don’t know whether J.K. Rowling’s wizards go to church, but I always suspected that if Harry Potter’s best friend Ron Weasley had ever been to youth choir, he never would have had to ask, “What’s a diadem?”

And personally, I feel that’s the way it should be.

A Writer’s Mind, A Reader’s Heart

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Note: This blog post contains a spoiler about a plot point in Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s crime novel Career of Evil.

I think one of the most important things a writer can do is show the reader something of the reader’s self on the page. To speak a truth, to acknowledge a hurt, to hold up a mirror in which a reader can see one’s own reflection and confront it, bravely and unblinkingly. And through this showing, this acknowledgment, this reflection, the reader begins to accept something about herself, to appreciate, to come to terms. Not every writer can do this, and not every writer can do this for every reader. But sometimes, a particular topic or experience, written with care and concern, can touch a reader’s heart like nothing else can.

I recently finished reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter universe. This is book three of an ongoing series, and in this book, and the two preceding volumes, a likable and beautifully realized main character has a secret. Passing reference is made in the first two books to the fact that this character, Robin Ellacott, had a life-changing experience at the age of nineteen. Career of Evil reveals that Robin is a rape survivor.

J.K. Rowling writes about rape in a very straightforward way. There is no melodrama, no unnecessary glorification or gratuitousness. She writes with compassion and zero judgment for the victim. It is beautiful. And her depiction of the emotional aftermath is so understanding, so perfectly rendered, that it feels like a vindication and a legitimization of everything such a deeply personal violation makes one think and feel and believe-about herself-and others. More than any other experience or conversation I have had as a survivor of sexual assault, J.K. Rowling’s brief and simple treatment of this topic has made me feel that I am okay and that my reaction to my own experience is okay, too. That’s an incredibly powerful thing for a book to do. And it’s a powerful thing for a writer to do. To reach out, through words on a page, and touch the heart and mind of a person she has never met, and make a reader feel that she is not alone, that she is believed, and that she matters. J.K. Rowling may have written imaginatively and wonderfully about a fictitious world of magic, but her writing is its own kind of magic, and I am filled with awe at her talent, and gratitude for her compassion.

NaNoWriMo Winner

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November was National Novel Writing Month and I took advantage of the celebration by writing 54,000 words of a brand-new manuscript. That makes me, officially, a NaNoWriMo winner, which is just a fancy way of saying I finished, completing at least 50,000 words in 30 days. I finished ahead of schedule, on November 20.

Everyone will tell you that the point of NaNoWriMo is not to write the best or most brilliant prose you’ve ever put on paper, or on monitor, depending on how and where you write. A good thing, that, because what I wrote in November was nowhere near the best work I’ve ever done. Everyone will tell you that the point is to get the job done, because editing, fleshing out, polishing, et cetera will come later.

November was a strange month. A hard month. There were days when I didn’t want to write at all, days when writing seemed like one more obligation, one more box to check on an already overwhelming and onerous to-do list. And then there were days when I was so grateful to have a creative outlet that my words poured out of me like tears. As I said, a strange month.

I didn’t go into NaNoWriMo with any expectations so I don’t know if I got the experience I was expecting. I don’t know if I’ll do it again. But writing 54,000 words about a young, female archaeologist who must confront a powerful and possibly ruthless Ocean City, Maryland real estate developer when the groundbreaking for his new luxury hotel reveals a site of staggering historical importance (take a breath!) was a wonderful distraction, a premise I didn’t see coming, and great fun.

Going from zero to novel in one month is possible, apparently. Messy, painful, difficult, and possible.

December is here. Onward and upward.

NaNoWriMo

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November is National Novel Writing Month and I am participating in NaNoWriMo, a project that encourages and empowers writers to create a brand-new novel of at least 50,000 words by the end of the month. It’s fun and exciting and it’s always motivating to have a goal. To finish on time writers should complete an average of 1,667 words per day. As the sun sets on Day Three, my current word count is 7,046. I can’t wait to see what this month holds and to discover exactly what kind of first draft I’ll be looking at on November 30. See you on the other side!

A New Book

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The above picture was taken during the summer of 1994 at Mission San Antonio de Padua in Jolon, California. I’m holding a mission-period adze blade I excavated that day.

I am excited to share that I finished my second manuscript in August! If only publishing books could be as easy as writing them. I am not ready to query this one yet. It needs to rest. And then it needs to be revised. And a synopsis must be written, which to me is roughly equivalent to pulling off my own fingernails. But finishing any manuscript is a huge accomplishment, no matter what happens to it in the end. So I am happy, and proud, and exhausted. I am going to share a few details, and anyone who knows me will realize the utter truth of writing what you know. And anyone who knows me will also understand that some of what I have written has nothing to do with anything I know. Paradox? Yep!

It’s 1986 and Eleanor Blake is an archaeologist at a large and famous museum complex in Washington, D.C. Full of passion for her work, Eleanor has spent the past three summers on the teaching staff of a dig in Israel. A traumatic incident in the field frightens her into giving up fieldwork and she hides behind her desk job, refusing to admit that she is unhappy. During a road trip to install an exhibit at a rural museum in Tennessee, she meets the handsome and irascible Tom Gage. The circumstances of their meeting make her skittish and even rude but Tom won’t let her chase him away and deflects her bad mood with humor and jokes.

When she reluctantly joins him for dinner they realize their situations are remarkably similar. While Eleanor is too afraid to pursue her life’s work, Tom has been influenced by his parents to choose a career in movies instead of the theater he loves. As their feelings for each other deepen, arguments erupt. Tom gives Eleanor advice he isn’t willing to take himself, and Eleanor resents this interference from a person who has no idea what she endured in Israel. Even so, a sense of connection over their shared challenges leads to romantic feelings and a relationship that seems doomed to fail. From the Great Smoky Mountains to the halls of the National Museum of Natural History, to an isolated and starkly beautiful eighteenth-century Spanish mission in California’s Valley of the Oaks, Eleanor and Tom will fight themselves and each other to find the courage to pursue lives of purpose and fulfillment. It just may be that following their dreams will lead them far away from each other, and separate them forever.

It was an emotional journey to write this story and the pain and confusion of my characters as they were pulled in many different directions was very real to me. On the other hand, setting a story in 1986 was great fun. It allowed me to make passing references to pop culture: Duran Duran, MTV; trends in food and beverages: Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream and “New” Coke; and sociological and political issues: women’s equality, AIDS, the Cold War. What does the future hold for this as-yet untitled manuscript? Only time will tell. I think the best part of writing this story is how it enabled me to remember places and recall work I have done. I have reached into my memories and revisited some of my happiest and most beautiful moments. I don’t think any writer could ask for more from the experience of writing.