Writing

On A Lighter Note

fullsizerenderToday’s photo is courtesy of my son. This is one of the thank you notes he wrote to his great aunt and cousin. Yes. He is 15, and this is his note. In addition to his ADHD, he also struggles with dysgraphia, which means that he has trouble putting thoughts on paper, battles with grammar, punctuation, word spacing, and spelling, and has nearly illegible handwriting. You can imagine how much he loves that I compel him to pen handwritten notes for gifts. This is why his last notes were completed today, nearly a month after the holidays.

Over the years I’ve learned to let go of my expectations for his notes to be neat. I’ve pushed content over form. It’s required a lot of deep breathing for the editor in me not to be hypercritical and to accept things as they are. I used to get all bent over the quality of the penmanship and grammar. Now I simply insist that 1) he spells the recipient’s name correctly and 2) he offers some personal information about the gift other than a simple thanks.

As I was reading over Joe’s notes today, this one made me giggle.

Dear Aunt Bobby and Mary Lynn,

Thank you for the toy train in a tin, 50 dollars, and the Peanuts puzzle. I was pleasantly surprised by the train. It reminded me of my childhood. It was also fun doing the puzzle. I can’t wait to see you again. 

Love, Joe

On Christmas Day when he opened the train, he put it together in the living room. Then when his brother opened his same set, the two of them attached their two small sets to make a larger one. And there they sat, watching it run around, a scene out of their days with Thomas the Tank Engine. After family had left, they took the tracks downstairs where they reassembled them and played with them some more. Joe did remark that day that the train was surprisingly one of his favorite gifts. Now we know why. It reminded him of his childhood.

I love that my 15 year old is maturing and now looks back on his younger days, seven or eight years ago, with misty nostalgia. And I love that things like this continue to make every day with my sons time that I too will look back on and remember fondly in the not too distant future.

 

 

Call Me Stretch

fullsizerender

My tallest self

This year, as part of my never-ending quest to grow, I decided to take a photo a day. The way I have it figured, it should help me accomplish two goals: 1) capture the year in photos and 2) find my photographer’s eye and improve my artistic skills. So today, as I was driving home after depositing my sons at school, I noticed that the morning light was damn near inspirational. God bless Colorado and its bluebird days after storms.

Knowing I had a photo to take and about five loads of laundry at home that would convince me not to venture out again, I stopped at the large park across from our ‘hood and trudged out into the 4-degree temps in my not-quite-pajamas-but-some-people-might-still-think-I-am-wearing-pajamas outfit and my snow boots and my long down coat with my steadfast iPhone. (Did I mention I am taking all 365 photos via iPhone?) While wandering through the park as quickly as my short legs could carry me, I collected myriad photos of evergreen trees tinted white, the crisp and glittering snowy ground, the frozen wire backstop on the baseball field, and a squirrel sporting a frosty beard a la Santa Claus. After I felt satisfied I must have something worth sharing and determined my right hand might be headed towards frostbite, I swung around to head back to the car. Then I saw it. The photo of the day. The sun was behind me, and there in front of me was the tallest me I have ever seen. In real life, I’m a measly 5’4″ tall. I’ve always wished I was taller. Both my sisters are. And I get tired of standing on counters to reach things on the top shelf in the cupboard. So when I saw my lean, lanky, and impossibly tall shadow cast before me, I had to immortalize the moment. I’ve never felt that big. Ever. I’ve never felt anything but small. The image spoke to me.

I spent part of my laundry day thinking about this new year and how I could bounce back after what was perhaps not my greatest year yet in 2016. I thought about where I was coming from and where I might want to point my feet next. I thought about the photo I had taken earlier, and it occurred to me that the photo is the embodiment of what I want for myself in 2017. What I need to do this year is stretch. I need to reach higher. I need to be the bigger person. I need to cast a long shadow. I need to realize that I am not limited by my 5’4″ frame. I need to believe I am larger than life.

I have been meaning to get back to writing over the past year but have been more adept at making excuses than recording thoughts. So I am going to continue to take photos as planned for the next 359 days. Then I am going to post them here with a few words or comments or reflections or lines of utter nonsense just to get myself back into the habit of writing every day, no matter how mundane my daily photos might be, no matter how prosaic my thoughts about them are. It’s about the process and the effort, the journey and not the destination. I have to start sometime. I lose a part of myself when I stop writing, and I miss me, dammit.

I have sold myself short for too long. I printed out this photo and put it on the wall next to my desk. Just like my shadow that photo, I am going to be huuuuuuge this year.

 

The Beginning of Badassery

img_8905

I am standing in the Best Sellers section of Barnes and Noble and, directly below my reason for the visit, a bright yellow book with large black text screams to me. You Are A Badass. I ignore it (of course) and pick up the book I came in for. I begin reading its back cover. Again the book below beckons, this time it tries with a whispered “Pssst. Hey…I’m talking to you.” You Are A Badass. I look behind me. Who? Me? I pretend I heard nothing. I go back to reading. A third time it speaks up. You Are A Badass. Okay. Okay. Enough already. This book is a relentless, attention-seeking menace. So I set down The Girl on the Train and pick up the yellow book. I read the author’s first line in the Introduction, which begins directly under an inspirational quote.

I used to think quotes like this were a bunch of crap.

I decide I like this book. Because I’ve made a commitment to work on my self-esteem, and because I am intrigued and humbled by the way the Universe works and therefore it’s not lost on me that the book I came in for was placed directly above this book on an open shelf in a book store among tens of thousands of books, I buy the damn book. I have no choice.

Truth. I’m a great purchaser of self-help books. Their potential for crushing my issues in a relatively quick 200 pages suckers me every time. Second truth. I am not a great reader of self-help books. I rarely finish them because either they’re too mired in psychology and I get bored or they’re too weighed down by cutesy platitudes and I lose respect. When I get home, though, and start diving into this book, I realize this might be The One. I begin underlining ideas like a being possessed. Nearly everything the author writes is a line I can identify with or is something I desperately need to hear. It’s like one giant hug of You’re-Awesome-And-You’ve-Got-This. And at this point I feel could underline the whole book. I don’t, though, because that would just be silly.

Yesterday, I am reading (and underlining) and I run across this:

It’s not that the things and opportunities that we want in life don’t exist yet. It’s that we’re not yet aware of their existence (or the fact that we can really have them).

I get really stuck on the part in parentheses. Traditionally, I haven’t been brave enough to believe that I deserve my dreams. The voices in my head won’t allow it. What makes you so special that you deserve your dream? Don’t you appreciate how lucky you are already? Get over yourself, keep your head down, and realize that life is about living and not dreaming. Etc. Etc. Etc. Because of the voices, I’ve never allowed myself to have a dream.

So, I reflect for a few minutes about what the author is saying and try to imagine a world where I could really have a dream. What would that look like? And in my heart the answer raises its timid hand. My dream is one where I get to write every day and someone, somewhere, reads my words and finds a connection with them in their life and their experience, the way there is a connection for me with the writer of this book I am reading. As an added bonus, if I got paid for my work and never had to go back to a traditional workplace again, that would be perfection. Wait, though. Isn’t that what every writer wants? Who am I to….the negativity creeps back in, but I force it out. What if I could be a writer who made that happen? I imagine it. I let the thought in and then allow the possibility to wash over me. Mind. Blown.

A couple hours later, long after I’d stopped my reverie to let real life intervene, I stumble upon a friend’s link to a Washington Post article about a new book by Glennon Doyle Melton. Glennon (aren’t we on a first name basis?) is a blogger who has written several books, the latest of which was picked by The Oprah for her book club. My friend has written this long introduction to the article, talking about honesty and truth telling. And there, near the bottom of her post after she mentions Glennon and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, I see this:

Oh, and Justine, my beautiful FB friend, your truth, your journey, fully resonates with me. Bless you for being willing to take so many risks – you are the real deal!

I read the post a second time. Then a third. Did she just mention me in the same post along with Glennon and Elizabeth? I let that sink in for a minute. Then I went into a full on cry. The good kind. The therapeutic kind where the emotion of the moment, filled with a mixed bag of joy, surprise, hope, gratitude, dreams and, yes, even self-love, swallows you whole. I let the thought occur to me. Maybe I could live my dream. For real. Kim generously reminded me that I am already on the path to doing what I previously didn’t dare dream I could do. I am writing and when my words strike the right set of eyes there is a ripple in the pond.

I went back to the Badass book to search for something I had underlined.

You don’t have to know exactly where it’s going to take you, you just need to start with one thing that feels right and keep following right-feeling things and see where they lead.

So that is my plan. I am simply going forward doing what I love to do, what feeds my soul. I am going to write with honesty and share my truth. I am going to stop second guessing things that feel right and I am going to stop thinking about who I might offend. I am going to see what kind of ripples I can create and revel in those small moments and learn from them and move on to the next one. Sooner or later, the collective ripples will become a wave, and I will sweep up my tribe and we will go be badass together.

 

 

My Midlife, Middle School Experience

Hello, stark, college dorm room!

Hello, stark, college dorm room!

This past weekend I traveled to Baltimore for the BlogU Conference I impulsively signed up for months ago. As I was packing on Thursday, loading my suitcase with business cards, business casual attire, and an awkward middle school costume for the Saturday night party, I was cautiously optimistic. From the exchanges I had with a few of the attendees on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the conference, I had every reason to believe that new friends were on the horizon. I was looking forward to learning, networking, and growing my blog. I knew that masquerading as a successful blogger would be tough. Some of the attendees have readerships in the hundreds of thousands. Last time I checked, I had 1,549 followers. And that number seems shockingly high and inaccurate to me. Still, I was up for an adventure, so I boarded my flight and practiced my “I can be an outgoing introvert” mindset over and over for 1,500 aeronautical miles.

Upon landing in Baltimore, I learned a couple other attendees had arrived late after delayed flights and had missed their rides. Because I had a rental car reserved for myself, I offered to be their shuttle, figuring it would be a chance to make some friends before even getting my official name badge and conference schedule. One of my biggest reservations about attending the conference alone was an image I had of myself wandering around lost and friendless in the cafeteria like a middle school outcast. Perhaps offering a ride would keep me from that fate. Alas, that was not the case. When the three of us arrived and checked in, we went our separate ways. It’s okay, I told myself. There are a couple hundred folks here. My tribe is here somewhere. I shall find them eventually. 

I went to dinner on Friday night alone. The cafeteria at Notre Dame of Maryland was packed when I got there midway through meal service, its large, round, communal tables filled with chattering ladies of all shapes and sizes. I grabbed a plate, threw together a Caesar salad, filled another plate with halfway overdone-halfway underdone roasted vegetables, and began the hunt for a place to sit. I was overwhelmed. It seemed every person at the conference was there and successfully friended. I began to feel the fingers on my right hand forming the L-shape I knew belonged on my forehead. Conspicuously unfriended, I hastened to a nearby table where three women were engaged in animated conversation while a fourth woman sat to the side. Here’s another lonely soul just waiting to be my tribe, I imagined. We introduced ourselves and struck up polite conversation. Because she had finished her meal, she carried the lion’s share of the exchange while I scarfed down my veggies. As mealtime began to wind down, I realized I hadn’t had much opportunity to share about my blog. I was out of time, though, so I excused myself to prepare for the evening session. I kept telling myself that the introductions would become easier and my next meal would be at a table filled with new friends. It was early. There was plenty of time.

Perhaps I am as unfriendly looking as this sawtooth shark?

Perhaps I am as unfriendly looking as this sawtooth shark?

That night the conference hosted a pep rally. Writers who had won the submissions contest got to read their poignant and emotional pieces. During the break, I had the opportunity to touch base with a couple more bloggers. It felt good to share mom and writing experiences with women who could relate. When the program ended, I headed back to the dorm for the Open Mic session where we would put our names into a bowl and take turns reading our work. By the time I got to the lounge where we were meeting, though, it was standing room only and women were already sharing. The bowl to add your name to was at the front of the room through a maze of women seated in chairs and on the floor, placed on the floor directly in front of the gal at the mic. I didn’t want to be remembered as the rude woman who interrupted the speaker by stepping over other people to drop my name in the bowl, so I stood at the back sandwiched between a wall and a table for a while, just listening, before finally accepting that I had missed the boat on this event. I went back to my dorm room, mentally exhausted and ready for some introvert, alone time.

After a restless and wretched night of sleep on a squishy dorm bed, I hauled myself into the bathroom I was sharing. The other gal had left her Sonicare, her empty coffee cups, and a gob of chocolate-tinted toothpaste spit in the sink for me. I chose to assume this was because she didn’t realize it was a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. I locked the door, donned my shower shoes, and washed the dorm room off of me before driving to Starbucks for the most highly caffeinated latte imaginable. As I sat through the first two lectures of the morning, I eyed my fellow classmates looking for a like-minded soul. I suppose that would have come in the form of a carefully hidden yawn or a surreptitious glance at an iPhone. I saw none of that. Everyone was engaged, taking notes, and asking questions. The classes offered useful tips and I hastily scribbled just-barely-legible notes into my notebook, but the feeling that I was way out of my league persisted. I began to wonder if perhaps this wasn’t the best conference for me.

I stumbled into lunch in a state somewhere between dread and resignation. I once again wandered around alone, looking for a friendly face to welcome me to a table. No such luck. After sauntering casually with my food for a minute that seemed to be ten, I found an empty table and settled in alone. I checked my flesh for signs of leprosy and found none. Still, I had to wonder. I sniffed my armpits. Yes. There was deodorant there. I finished lunch and went back to the dorm room to freshen up just in case. On my way back to the classrooms for afternoon sessions, I set off a fire alarm on a poorly marked emergency exit. As I sped up my pace, praying no one would realize I was the goof who caused the ruckus, I decided my transformation from middle age nobody to middle school loser was complete.

I finished the next two sessions in a daze. In the 24 hours I was there, I made zero new friends despite putting myself out there as much as my reserved self could. The thought of sleeping in the dorm bed and sharing the bathroom again depressed me. I pulled up Expedia on my smartphone and booked a hotel room 15 minutes away. I didn’t need a Middle School To The Max party to feel any more unpopular than I already felt. Some takeout, a bottle of wine, and a private bath were all I needed to remind myself I was a grown adult and not a middle school reject.

Sunset on the flight home…all is right with the world.

Sunset on the flight home…all is right with the world.

That night while I was relaxing at the hotel and finishing up a blog post, against all odds, another attendee (one whom I hadn’t even met yet) reached out to me on the conference Facebook page wondering where I was. I was shocked. You know that scene in Pretty in Pink where the cute girl at prom motions to Duckie and he turns around to see if she’s talking to him? That’s how I felt. I quickly responded, telling her only that I was “out of sorts” and offering to meet up at the closing session the next morning. That’s what we did. As the conference drew to a close, my new friend, Martha, another blogger about mindfulness and zen, and I decided to drive into Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and consume a crab cake lunch. The conversation was effortless and affirming and exactly what I needed. I pulled the thumb and forefinger L away from my forehead. I had found my tribe. That it was a tribe of one seemed perfectly fitting for this introvert.

My experiences at the conference were, I’m sure, vastly different from most of the attendees. Most of them are successful and gifted writers, humorists, and mommy bloggers on a mission. The conference, while not quite my milieu, offered loads of helpful information I will be able to incorporate into my publishing experience going forward. My blog may never have hundreds of thousands of followers. I may never make a living from it. What I realize now, though, is that those things don’t matter to me and they never really have. My plan from the start was to use writing to learn more about myself, to share what I experience with others to prove our common connections, and to find greater peace and stillness in my present. In those ways, I’m already a successful blogger.

A Belated Holiday Letter For All The Late Bloomers

On their way to becoming awesome…someday

On their way to becoming awesome…someday

I was rifling through a stack of papers on the counter yesterday and came across a holiday letter that arrived in a card from some friends of ours around Christmas. Okay. I feel your sneer of judgment. Yes. I still have holiday mail on our kitchen counter. Guess what? We still have a broken, faux Christmas tree lying on the floor in the rec room too. I’m leaving it there at least until Easter to prove how very zen I can be in the face of ridiculous things. So there. Anyway, I opened the letter and reread it. It was, as most family holiday letters are, a beautifully composed, loving tribute to our friends’ apparently flawless, exceptional, decorous, loving children. I’m a natural skeptic, so I’ve always assumed children like the ones outlined in those letters are figments of fantasy, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and men who multitask…a charming idea, but a complete fabrication. Still, we get many letters just like that one every year, rife with phrases like Eagle Scoutstraight A honor studentVarsity letter, State championships, class president, volunteer hours, and first place, which are aimed at making me believe that children like this exist in families all across this nation. It must be reality for some people.

Friends have asked me why I do not send out a letter with our Christmas cards. They figure that a writer should be at the top of the list of Persons Most Likely To Write A Holiday Letter. But I don’t because comparison is an ugly thing. We don’t have the kind of children who look good on paper. They’re off schedule and complicated and not in line with many other children their ages. In terms of learning, our children are classified as “atypical” and that doesn’t play well without lengthy and exhausting explanations. Even though we don’t write holiday letters, we think they’re awesome. We’ve just accepted that their beauty sometimes gets lost in the comparison game.

If I were to write a holiday letter, it realistically might contain paragraphs that read something like this:

Joe is thirteen and in seventh grade this year. He’s completely immersed in Pokémon and adores Japanese culture. He keeps asking when we can go to Tokyo. He used most of his Christmas money to buy Pokémon plush toys that he and his brother use in elaborate stop-motion video stories they are creating for their YouTube channel. Despite his ADHD and dyslexia, he’s making great progress at school. We are so proud that he’s using capitals and periods in his schoolwork on a more consistent basis these days. He’s still reversing his Bs and Ds, but we are hoping that he’ll have that mostly figured out by the time he’s writing college entrance essays. Joe has finally mastered the coordination and multiple steps to tie his own shoes now, which has taken one thing off my plate. He uses about 400 knots to make sure they don’t come untied, though, and that has created a different hassle as I now have to unknot his shoes each morning. Be careful what you wish for! After two years of private ski lessons, his core strength and coordination have improved enough that he has a mastery of most beginner slopes. We hope to have him exclusively skiing intermediate slopes by the end of next season. His favorite books are graphic novels, his favorite food is pasta, and his classmates call him “Puppy.” He never misses his nightly spa time, which mainly involves sitting in the bathtub while watching a continuing stream of Netflix videos on his iPad from across the room. Thank heavens he was gifted with great eyesight and the brains to know not to bring the iPad into the tub with him.

Luke is eleven now and in fifth grade. He is a talkative, class clown, and his teachers have initiated a rewards system to keep him reined in during class. So far it seems to be working because our last parent/teacher conference went off without tears. This year his decoding skills have gone off the charts and he is reading at a beginning of fourth grade level. He’s still struggling with fine motor skills and his pencil grip is downright bizarre, but his handwriting is bafflingly lovely. He loves to draw, write stories, build Legos, and watch episodes of Parks and Recreation. And, this year he began catching footballs successfully. He’s still two inches shy of being tall enough to ditch the booster seat in the car, but he’s getting there! His latest career aspiration is to be an entrepreneur/architect/engineer, but he’s planning to author books in his free time, which we think will make him quite well balanced. His sensory issues force him to sleep in a nest of blankets, pillows, and plushes, but he showers regularly, doesn’t eat in bed, and sleeps on the top bunk so we are reasonably sure there are no rodents up there with him.  All is well and we are grateful. 

Now, this holiday letter fodder might seem a bit hyperbolic, but overall it’s an accurate account of life with our exceptional sons. They are not straight A students. They are not athletes. They are not overachievers. They’re not on the Dean’s List. They’re not first chair in orchestra. They struggle a lot, work hard to catch up with other kids their age, and keep plugging away. They are, in every way I can see, damn near perfect human beings, emphasis on the human part. And I may never be able to write a holiday letter extolling the impressive scholastic or athletic achievements of their youth, but I could not be more proud of my young men.

I don’t begrudge any of our friends the joys of having children who are achieving at a high level already. After all, it’s a lot of work being a parent, and a smart, capable child who is excelling in many things can only do so with personal support and chauffeur services. My friends have earned the right to brag about their offspring. As for our boys, I suspect they are simply late bloomers. Sooner or later, all their hard work and dedication will pay off. And someday I’ll send out a holiday letter to share how far they have come. Our Christmas card with personal letter in 2035 might just blow your socks off.

Good Writers Ruffle Feathers

“As far as I can tell, it’s just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it while letting go of how it comes to pass.” ~Jim Carrey

Last week, I made a big decision. I decided it is time to start taking myself more seriously. Now I absolutely do not mean that in the way where I plan on losing my sense of humor about life on this planet. I am working toward levity and whimsy in my life. It’s part of my path toward zen. I want to be able to laugh at myself easily and get my panties out of a bunch with greater speed when something goes wrong. In fact, my goal is to avoid getting wadded up in the first place, but that is going to take a lot of personal growth. I am working on it. What I mean is that I want to start taking myself more seriously in terms of what I can do. I want to have greater faith in myself. I want to act bravely, to take risks, and to give myself room to achieve things I’ve always wanted but have been afraid to ask for.

So, with that singular goal in mind, I visited my therapist on Thursday. I told her what I want for myself and together we brainstormed ideas to help me move toward my goals with courage, conviction, and purpose. I am ready to promote myself and see what may develop for me when I admit, without hemming and hawing, that I am a writer. We discussed my self-defeating habit of apologizing for and belittling my own work. We discussed that there is room for all kinds of writers in the world. My work doesn’t have to be for everyone, and merely because it isn’t for everyone doesn’t mean that it is without merit. I left her office feeling buoyed by intention and clarity of mind.

And then yesterday, less than 24 hours after I had spoken my dreams aloud and vowed to move in the direction of my writing goals, the universe sent me my first test. No warning. No time to work on a mission statement. Land mine. Boom! You have to love how that works. To give a long, hairy story a crew cut, something I wrote profoundly upset someone and suddenly I was in a maelstrom of self-doubt. Although I hadn’t intentionally been hurtful, something I had written caused duress. For awhile I felt so badly that I thought about taking the post off my site. I spent the morning and part of the afternoon cycling through emotions, rolling between incredulity and chagrin, frustration and trepidation. I had really stepped in it now. I was making enemies with my mommy blog. How was that even possible?

I reached out to a couple reliable friends, hoping they could stop my tailspin and rein me back in. And in the midst of my mental turmoil, one of them made this simple statement. Good writers ruffle feathers. Just like that, things stopped spinning. She was right. While I can do my best to avoid damaging personal relationships by composing mindful articles, at the end of the day my primary responsibility as writer is to my audience and my craft. Words, whether spoken or written, can hurt. If I live within a paradigm where I own others’ reactions to what I say, I will never be able to write anything meaningful to me or anyone else. And that is not the writer I am nor the writer I wish to be.

So thanks, Universe, for the test. I get it now. While I am sorry that someone was hurt because that was not at all my intent, I stand by my article. It was part of my blog, and my blog is an honest account of my stories. Not everyone is going to appreciate them, and I’m okay with that. I don’t always appreciate their stories either. There is room for me in the grand posse of writers, and I am going to keep diligently working toward my goal and stop worrying about the path my journey takes. There will be stumbling blocks and paralyzingly moments of self-doubt, but I am finished letting others dictate what is appropriate for me. If you get me, great. If you don’t, that is fine too. Life is too damn short not to be true to myself, whoever I happen to be in this moment.