The First Candle

 

“Who dares despise the day of small things?”

Zechariah 4:10

 

Welcome to the first week of Advent! Not being raised Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican or really anything with a fondness for ceremony, I sort of missed out on Advent celebrations as a child. I can imagine it being lovely to have a nostalgic tradition of Advent, but there’s something hopeful and fresh about coming to it as an adult too.

Well, at least, there will be when I actually find the perfect set of Advent candles… Target and Meijer have both failed us, and we haven’t had time to go any place better yet.

The beautiful thing about Advent is how open it is. There may be an overarching theme of preparation and celebration, but according to the Internet (which does not lie) there is no Advent police force to ensure that the progression is from Expectation, Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment or Prophets, John, Mary, Magi.

Advent is simply a spiritual journey. My Advent need not be your Advent. Like Christianity itself, Advent is not a one-size fits nobody arrangement. And, this is what my first week of Advent is about:

Hope.

The thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson, though I guess you could compare hope to a lot of other things too: acorns and eggs and hyacinth bulbs and the distant glittering of the night’s first star.

The unifying theme is that it must be small.

We don’t usually like small.

We want Big Things. We want fulfillment. We’re like two dimensional characters trying to accessorize ourselves into 3D. We want the book or the relationship or the bigger home or the baby or the job or the feeling, but satisfaction—or enlightenment or peace or whatever you want to call it—not the transient taste but the state of being—I don’t think that exists on our plane. I think that’s a 3D thing my 2D hands will never be able to grasp.

I don’t mean that to be depressing.

But, I get irritated sometimes with the well-groomed spiritual leaders who  insist we can all experience Deep Satisfaction and True Meaning In Life… and if we’re not then we just aren’t Doing It Right.

I don’t need another week to celebrate the American Dream or even the American Dream 2.0: Spirit of Steel. I need a week to contemplate the small things, the building blocks of hope.

Because, I don’t know about you, but my life is full of small things right now. Rejection letters with sincere compliments attached; the hesitant sharing of friends; $10 Christmas trees; the fleeting suspicion that God is more interested in our healing than our obedience.

We live on the plane of small things. We serve a God who prefers small things. To despise small things is to miss the point of everything and certainly the point of hope, which is by definition the opposite of everything that is big and shiny and fully materialized.

This is a week for celebrating small things.

For grateful acknowledgment of hope.

So, whatever your Advent reflections may be, I wish you a blessed, thoughtful journey through the season. Hard to believe it’s this time of year again, yet happy as always to see it come!

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Munchkin Holiday

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

I spent the majority of the week with my people in Grand Rapids, Carl swooping in as work allowed. We had some notable grown up time—wrote a collaborative poem cycle on Mahatma Gandhi’s list of virtues, traded lists of book and movie recommendations, long talks into the night. It’s nice to be grown ups together for sure, but I have to admit the 3 short people sort of stole the show.

Reuben, concentrating on his art

 

Gideon telling stories to himself. Cute little introvert.

 

Reid: smiley, gooey, and 7 months old.

Hope your holidays were just as swell if not more so. We got home late last night, and I’ve spent a blissful morning cleaning and doing laundry. You’d think that would be a downer, but here’s the thing about me: I love my home. I really, really love my home. And, no matter how fantastic it is to see family and eat mind-blowing cheeses late at night whilst chatting about EVERYTHING, there comes a time—usually somewhere between the asphalt and our front door—when I start to register that deliciously cosy emotion that is some strange mixture of comfort and autopilot energy.

Call me crazy, but I think there’s an underrated pleasure in pulling out the woolen sweaters before tossing the laundry in the dryer. I like changing the towels and tidying up the kitchen and getting reacquainted with the quiet. There’s a happy purr to my engines the first day home from a trip, a sort of introvert’s triumphant jungle cry:

This is my world! I make decisions! Ha HA!

… So, anywho.

Am just about to put the kettle on and start digging into the mystery nov. Happy Black Friday!

3×5 Happiness

Well, it’s not quite been two weeks since mailing the crime nov to NY, NY, and I’ve been luxuriating in all the usual pleasures of the domicile. Made bacon, leek, & tomato carbonara together one night, experimented with chocolate ganache cupcakes, cleaned the bathroom, decluttered all the usual spots, played stylist and came up with some NON-pajama looks, read a couple of books, got some exercise, etc.

I figured it was time to get a move on with life, howev, when I found myself holed up on Tuesday with friends, drinking margaritas and watching the Kardashians.

Not that that doesn’t have therapeutic benefits of its own. But, I guess I see my situation as the age old conundrum: book, baby, or alcohol.

I keep choosing book because having a child Right This Minute for distraction purposes feels sketchy and repeated application of alcohol just makes me sleepy and morbid.

Book it shall be.

And, can I just share the resounding glory of a newly hatching book?

Am trying a new, 3×5 card system for plotting my book, since plots are always my bane. I love character development. I love a good conflict. I love dialogue and setting. But, the carefully constructed plot that builds in slow layers to reach a death-defying climax exactly 280 pages in, that will be totally resolved by pages 330, and neatly tucked to rest by 340… what can I say? It eludes.

Therefore: 3×5.

Am also color-coding them for maximum usefulness. The standard white ones are for plot elements: actions, suspicions, specific scenes or conversations that forward the central mystery.

Pink is for relationships, and you can see in the picture that I’m just trying to figure out where and how to weave the relationship arcs into the main plot.

Blue is for historical details. I’ve read a handful of books about the time period by now and have pages of notes… that aren’t doing me any good lost in my writing files. Specific facts (say, about the railway strikes in January 1919) will be a whole lot more help if they’re neatly placed right in the story board where I need them.

Finally, the yellow cards that you saw in the first picture are for characters, so I can see exactly where and when I’m introducing people for the first time and what details need to be conveyed.

And, of course, I’m a goon, so most of my plot cards have titles like “No Note = Murder” and “The Firmness of Mrs. Balfour’s Upper Lip” and “The Education of Tom Villers.”

Because I’m all about efficiency.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have NEVER been so well prepared for a book. Hail and well met, L and Winding Road.

 

Be a Manly Man’s Man

For work, Carl often has the unenviable job of making people look good. He came home looking a little worse the wear on Tuesday or Wednesday after trying to edit together a promo video for a speaker with clips from his “Manly Man’s Conference.”

His what? I asked politely.

He assured me that was the real title of the conference and made the usual lament that the speakers all had “annoying voices,” (a typically Carl complaint. I guess when you have to listen to voices over and over and OVER again when you’re trying to get the cut right you get pretty sensitive to them. “What if I had had an annoying voice?” I said once, early in our dating career, trying to make the point that it’s really not that important in the grand scheme of things. “Then we wouldn’t have dated,” he said. Touche. I guess it IS that important).

And, apparently the speakers looked like Wallace Shawn (Vizzini, for you Princess Bride fans) and a rapist.

A what? I asked politely.

A serial rapist. Not somebody you would want for a neighbor.

Well, at this point you know I had to see the conference promos, and you can too if you go to You Tube and punch in “manly man conference.” (And, yes, I think you have to punch it in. I don’t think these guys would ever do anything so wussy as type). Warning: Carl did not have anything to do with the conference promos, so if your retinas get scarred from the special effects, you’ll have to file a claims with the Manly Men.

We watched in attempted silence, which didn’t last long for either of us.

Carl: “WHO does this appeal to?”

Me: “I don’t know, but I’m excited that ‘what makes a man a man is his ability to keep his word.’ Clearly I would be walking a dangerous transvestite line if I should ever, you know, ‘keep my word’ or ‘be responsible.'”

I went to the web site today and was informed in excitedly bold font that participants get to CELEBRATE BEING A MAN, which means (not kidding) “No singing. No crying. No holding of hands.”

There you go.

Because what the church really needs today is a whole raft of conferences designed to teach people exactly how to shoot themselves in the foot.

One more for the files.

Fresh, crisp Monday

We are tapping on our laptops, a plate of orange cranberry muffins between us and two mugs of tea cooling to drinkable temps.

It is, in fact, the perfect Monday morning.

And, we’re headed to Somerset mall after breks, the ritzy mall 45 minutes away with a Gucci and a Barneys and an Anthropologie for an afternoon of shameless wandering and soaking in the holiday decor. And maybe a little Christmas shopping. Who knows.

(Carl’s foot has just snuggled up to mine. C: “Remember when we used to play footsie when we were dating?” K: “Hmmm. No.” C: “Me neither; come look at these pictures and tell me which ones you think are better…”)

Ah, Monday and a whole week of bliss ahead.

Both of my babies are grown up and in exclusive relationships right now, so for the first time there is literally nothing I SHOULD be doing with either book. I can’t send them to other agents. There’s no point in editing until I hear back.

So, it’s either a week of domestic play in the abode or time to start the chicken scratches of another book. Or maybe some of both.

All I know for sure is that I’ve officially switched to a 2 month holiday schedule. I used to think Christmas shouldn’t start until after Thanksgiving, but Carl had a hockey practice the other night and I ended up waiting for an hour for him in a coffee shop nearby, snugged up with this beautifully thoughtful book and a hot chocolate, and people kept coming in and out all wrapped in scarves and cheerfulness, and this jingle bellish music was playing and the back table was reserved for this fantastically jovial bunch of middle-aged papas playing dominos and speaking very quickly in what sounded like Italian and was definitely not Spanish.

And it was lovely.

I have always been a person of instant conversions, though I can fret forever about the things that don’t really matter.

But, holidays matter.

And I am celebrating.

Resistance

Compassion is a spirituality of meat, not milk; of adults, not children; of love, not masochism; of justice, not philanthropy. It requires maturity, a big heart, a willingness to risk and imagination.

Matthew Fox

 

Been working lately with resistance in my life—which is an optimistic way of saying a lowering sky of craptitude has settled over the horizon of my hut. A general desire to resist the difficulties. A magnetic pull to news sites rather than novel drafts. A vague hope that the difficult people in my life will finally go all out, elbow-chomping insane so I can feel less guilty about walking away from them for a while.

And, then I remembered something from my monk books. The calm, unavoidable question that is the beginning of awareness: what is this?

What is this experience really about? What are the thoughts that are swirling, the underlying judgments and assumptions that are producing anxiety, impatience, or avoidance? And, most important: what is it that I’m fearing?

The strange thing is that the more I ask these questions, the less I ultimately care about whatever the THING is that precipitated the uncomfortable experience. It’s amazing how many THINGS aren’t really things at all. Most of the stuff we get upset about are just triggers.

Anyway. I’ve been having these interesting time outs with God lately—especially this week, it seems, when my internal resistance to working on my novel was unparalleled (oddly enough at the same time I’m having unparalleled successes with the agent hunt). You know the drill: stepping away from the computer, making a cup of tea, and just sitting for five or ten minutes. Just being open to whatever God or your gut has to say.

And then late in the week I got embroiled in one of those truly awful Facebook debates and, apart from the generally unfortunate character that is ALL Facebook debates, I realized this same principle applies to genuinely hearing other people.

If you can get past the bloody messiness of their words, anyway.

Because the thing I read on Facebook was one of those semi-cranky rants about men being VISUAL and women needing to get with the PROGRAM and all of us being on a well-greased zip line to HELL.

(I simplify, but you understand).

Well, when I read something like that, of course, all my defenses are instantly up because I’ve spent the last decade of my life trying to escape that shame-based merry-go-round. So I assemble my objections and recall my research and fire off my response.

But, it’s not until the exchange gets truly ridiculous (I invoke truisms, he claims victimization) that I remember to stop and read the rant the way I would read myself, by asking: what IS this?

And, I could be completely off my rocker (it’s been known to happen), but it looked for all the world like what he was really saying was: I am in pain right now. I am struggling with something that is dark and deeply upsetting to me, and I am so tired of struggling that in my internal resistance to this problem, I find it infinitely easier to look at all the things other people should be doing differently to make my problems go away or at least seem justifiable. But, more than anything else, I am in pain.

Dear God, I thought.

If that’s what he meant, what response is there but compassion? We’re all in pain. We’re all tired. We all struggle with shame.

And beneath the rationality and feminism and, yes, contempt, of my previous comments was my answering lament: I am in pain when you say that, because I have spent my life being given the maudlin, self-deceptive excuses of oppressors who will not take responsibility for their sin. And I will fight you to the death if you take up those colors, because truth is more important to me than life. But, more than anything, your words trigger pain.

If I had said that, I also know what the response would have been. There would have been no argument.

What a pity it’s so hard to tell the truth.

Alternately, how much nicer it would be to have these realizations BEFORE one says snappish things to people who are in pain.

 

If you call Jesus Goodness, he will be good to you; if you call him Love, he will be loving to you; but if you call him Compassion, he will know that you know.                                    —Brennan Manning