Media Happy Christmas Break!!

Carl won big this Christmas, if winning is giving your wife something she loves so much it’s hard for her to concentrate on anything else. To wit: Andre Agassi’s autobiography. Read it. Whether or not you like tennis.

I’m coming to the conclusion that if I want to be a better writer, I need to read more memoirs. Not books about writing. Not mysteries or bestsellers, though those are fine. But, mostly if you read exclusively IN your field, you’re sort of eliminating the chance of bringing in any fresh material, yes?

Memoirs, people. That’s where it’s at.

Also Agassi has a Pulitzer-prize winning ghost writer. So, clearly, that comes with its own rewards.

In other media news, we watched The King’s Speech yesterday (Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter (adoration of whom is mandatory in this house)). Am putting my money on Firth for Best Actor this year, and Rush for a nomination as supporting. A great, great movie (and for those of you concerned about such things the R rating is for isolated outbursts of vulgar language directly tied to matters of speech pathology. That’s it. No sensuality. No violence. Zip).

One of the best movies we’ve seen this year, we agreed. Carl made a caveat for Harry Potter, but that’s a personal and not necessarily professional assessment.

We’re not even half way into our Christmas mini-break, and it’s already a stellar success. Hope you’re all having a brilliant week.

Must dash.

Agassi’s memoir is calling.

The Book That Won’t Die

Never say never, because you never really know when never means ever or just not yet so.

… That’s the old adage, right? It’s also the truth, but the thing about life being unpredictable is it can get a bit anxiety-making to somebody like me who sort of enjoys schedules and time tables and clear cut endings.

Not that I’m complaining. In this case it’s totally working to my advantage.

Exhibit A: last Thursday night.

Went to Carl’s hockey game—the team’s championship, so there was a nice crowd (and they totally won, so IN YOUR FACE random people I don’t know!! Also: I’m not usually that mean, but they were kind of mouthy and… FINE. Also: merry Christmas). Anyway, the crowd was a happy change to the usual turnout, which is mostly just me. Give or take. Afterwards we were milling around, visiting with friends, and Dan (one of Carl’s team mates) introduced me to his brother.

Who works at Baker Book House.

And is friends with one of the fiction editors.

And said he would be happy to pass the Lilies manuscript along.

I kid. Despite the resounding mental chorus of We’re Off To See The Wizard, I’m well aware there are no fast passes to success. But, it’s another opportunity. Another possibility. A chance to bypass the agent step and chat directly with a publishing house about my book.

And even if the only result of this is the gift of hope, I’m still fine with that. My supply of hope is often stretched a bit as we near the two year mark of this full-time writing gig. A little hope would be fantastic about now.

One has hoped for crazier things, right?

Eternal life.

Relationship with one’s Creator.

A husband as hot as he is fabulous.

…. Hmm. Upon further review of this list, I’m also going to throw 100k and a pug into the mix. Can’t be crazier than any of the other things, right?

Gosh, and WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE, PEOPLE?!!?

I die.

Merry Christmas, everybody!!

Merry & Bright

Well, friends, my presents are wrapped, the Rat Pack is crooning, and whatever I may have forgotten for our Christmas Eve dinner is just going to have to stay forgotten, because there is no way I am going back out into all that commercial foolishness—whether or not a certain lake of f. has frozen over.

Nope.

Am home for the holidays, thank you very much.

Made a last scurry to the library this morning to stock up on mysteries for our vacation week, and have the rest of the day to prepare for the loveliness that is both Christmas and our mid-winter break.

We celebrated with the Johnson side of the family last weekend, complete with dinner and presents with the extended and breakfast and presents with the immediate.

Bella and Sophia were especially thrilled by a little plastic doll hairbrush and happily brushed everyone’s hair. Hard to believe they’re getting so big. Carl and I started dating about a month before the girls were born—the first time I met Phil and Cindy was at the hospital when the girls were only days old. Good memories.

Whenever a new season starts, I usually write down a wish list of all the fun things I’d like to do. Just checked my holiday wish list, and the only things left are a tour of the lights on Hines Drive (local drive with beautiful light displays), a cocoa and game night, and a getaway trip to Frankenmuth.

Last night we knocked off a holiday movie night from the list by trotting off to spend the evening with some of my favorite people (yay favorite people) and watch Christmas classics over mint chip brownies and Chinese. Fantastic to have people in your life who are there for you whether you’re experiencing a merry Christmas or more of a merry “effing” Christmas, as one of said friends expressed it. Sometimes the two kinds get all mixed up together, and that’s ok too.

The important thing isn’t really whether or not you can manufacture a certain feeling of joy or cheeriness during a four week marathon, right? Sometimes life isn’t joyful or cheery, and that’s ok. Although it gets misquoted a lot, I like the verse in Romans that actually validates the hollowness of denying where we are. Instead, Paul reminds us to be “joyful in hope, [and] patient in affliction.” The simple truth is Christmas can be a painful time of year. Whether you’ve lost a loved one or have a difficult family situation or maybe struggle with fertility issues and feel the urge to punch every plastic Mary right in the beatific eye.

It happens.

Bad things don’t stop happening just because it’s Christmas.

But, the good news is: neither does love. Though it might not be the kind of love or the timing of love or the image of love we want, it’s still there. Life is funny that way—half heartbreaking and half so beautiful it makes you giddy. I don’t know. I don’t think we ever figure that part out.

I guess we just roll with it.

Celebrating the good. Loving one another. Believing and looking forward.

Pulling back the curtains

I dreamed last night that it was morning and I was trying to open the blinds in our bedroom only to discover that the blinds had been amplified by a second layer of thick, blue corduroy blinds. And no matter which way I pulled their string, they just closed tighter and the room got darker.

Which is perhaps fairly apt as yesterday was the first day I’ve felt like getting up for a while now. Note: I do get up every day. Just last week I didn’t feel like it, that’s all.

Much could be made of the irony that my chosen theme of last week was meant to be joy.

I suppose.

Though irony is about as satisfying a meal as a ballet dancer’s dinner.

And, that thought just made me hungry, so am taking a minor break to reheat some potato & ham casserole (I found a super easy recipe for the sauce using cream of mushroom soup. It felt a bit like cheating, then again: the sauce did not separate this time. Most triumphs require a trade off of one kind of another, yes?).

Yes.

Although next time I may wait to add the peas until the last 15 minutes of baking as the recipe said. Being a short-cutter, I just tossed them in from the get-go, and they ended up a fairly grey and wizened bunch. Fine for zen masters, less cool for peas.

Speaking of food, we’ve been doing a very modest bit of holiday baking lately. Found a wonderful recipe for soft ginger cookies (I made 3 dozen and told Carl he should shop the container around work to help with the left-overs. He politely refused. They didn’t go to waste. Point taken). Also made our peanut brittle for the season and have everything set to go for our sugar cookies tonight. We might possibly make a small batch of fudge or truffles next week, but other than that I think our holiday baking is almost o’er, as the hymns say.

It’s been an experiment each year to figure out exactly how to gauge these things. Abundance is festive and lovely, but waste is sort of yucky. One tries to strike a balance.

Briefly, in other news:

  • Finished reading Francis Chan’s second book, Forgotten God, last week. Anybody else keeping up with the Chanster phenomenon? I rabidly disliked the first half of the first book. Decided I’d misunderstood his point and was ok with him by the end of Crazy Love. But, this one was just disappointing. Supposed to be about the Holy Spirit, but read exactly like Crazy Love Part II. Feels very works- and shame-based. Not a fan.
  • Discovered that my jaw is anatomically malformed so that not only does the jaw unhinge easily (which I’ve known since I started eating hamburgers) but now that the ligaments are stretched out, it’s even more likely to unhinge and get stuck. Yes. This means that my mouth can get stuck open and just not close. Awesome in one sense, but kind of alarming the first time it happens.
  • In related news, my new dentist’s name is Dr. Jimmy Stewart. Not kidding.
  • Started going through last year’s list of goals in preparation for putting together this year’s. Always a fun time.
  • Anybody have a favorite book about personal finance? One of my goals for 2011 is to have a better relationship with and attitude about money. I tend to worry or dislike financial stuff. But, I figure the more I feel things are under control and working right, the less energy I’ll expend in thinking or worrying about it. If you shine a light on the dark parts, they aren’t dark anymore, right?
  • I’ve decided that all churches need a panel of type-B, reflective introverts to translate the pastor’s type-A extrovert message into something that will be useful for the other half of the congregation.

I think that’s all I’ve got for today. Must dash and get the day in gear. Happy Tuesday before Christmas, everybody.

When books don’t write themselves

I don’t remember it being this hard.

I’m confused by that and a wee bit alarmed—well, probably more alarmed than I think, because the fact is I spend as much time as possible every day inventing errands and household tasks that must be done pronto so as to whittle down the hours available for sitting at my desk wanting to end it all.

Ending It All being writer’s code for working at Target.

On a good day, I can waste six hours on chores, leaving only two hours of actual writing, which isn’t actual at all because I’ve only been getting about a page down before scrolling back to the top and realizing that it’s all so foul and slow and there’s no action at all or character or spark of creativity. So I tinker with how to rewrite it for the remaining hour and a half and then ooze off in exhausted gloom to contemplate something highly caloric.

Sophomore slump? I guess. I don’t know. This is my fifth book, so I feel like I really should be a well-oiled machine with this whole writing thing.

Lesson #1: Apparently, I am not a machine.

There are alternate hypotheses, of course. Have I not had a long enough break between books? Did I over-plan this one, thereby killing the creative urge to figure it all out through the writing process? Too many expectations of this one being THE one? Not giving myself permission to write at the first draft level again?

So many ways to shoot oneself in the foot.

I don’t really know.

Just hard, I guess.

Or maybe it’s seasonal? (I’m a problem-solver. I can’t let anything go. Ever). It’s true that I’ve noticed over the years that I rarely make headway on anything creative for a good six week stretch over the summer—usually from the Fourth of July to mid-August, give or take a couple weeks on either side. Usually that’s because family commitments create a sort of swiss cheese pattern on my schedule, though there might be some residual summer vacation vibe in my soul. It’s possible.

And, we’re in the holiday season now, so it would make sense that my concentration is shot to pieces again. You wouldn’t try to bake bread in an oven with a wildly fluctuating temperature. Guess it makes sense that you can’t write a book with your emotions doing the same thing.

Not that such insights lessen the misery of staring at a computer screen and howling THIS IS CRAP THIS IS CRAP while backspacing past two days worth of writing.

Might be time to rethink my December writing goals. I’d been aiming for 50 pages (12-14,000 words, give or take a lot of dialogue). I figured 50 pages would be a nice test slice of the book, enough to let me see how well it was going to flow and come together. Which is great, but I don’t see myself writing 4,000 words in weeks that include holidays like Christmas and New Year.

Call me undisciplined.

Or maybe just Not The Grinch, since I also have lots of baking and singing and shopping and wrapping and thinking and visiting I’m planning to squeeze into the next couple of weeks. To say nothing of a major scrapbooking project.

Oops.

I think what this all really boils down to is that my life of ease and self-directed work doing what I love is HARD, people. You really have no idea/the agonies.

Pity? Understanding? Crickets?

Hmm. Shall go produce my 1,000 words then…

The Second Candle: Preparation

 

Kind of ironic because it’s already Wednesday, and I meant to write this on Sunday. My week thus far has actually been overwhelmed with a whole lot of things that would probably be going a lot more smoothly if I had bothered to prepare for them.

Was thinking about this last night as I hopped in the shower sometime after 11 (again, the preparation thing kind of lacking, but each project sort of rolled into the next and yeah, that’s how it went).

Preparation, I thought, is key.

And I thought dutifully about all the things I really ought to be doing, all the ways I could be preparing for Advent and generally improving my spiritual life and being a better person, you know, the kind with deep thoughts and good habits and maybe a cowl.

So, there I am scrubbing shampoo into my hair and trying to remember Bible passages that deal with preparation so I could maybe satisfy the nagging sense that I really haven’t been up to scratch lately (ever), and it eventually led into a quick word study because I could only really think of one passage, and it wasn’t about us at all.

Here’s the thing. Most of the time in the Bible when people are preparing for something, they’re cooking dinner or setting up a guest room or planning a party. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the vast majority aren’t what we would call super applicable to Advent.

But, I started noticing something kind of interesting about God: He also cooks dinner and sets up guest rooms and plans parties.

His are just way better.

“No eye has seen, no ear has heart, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9).

“In my Father’s house are many rooms… I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

And, it occurred to me that maybe when we talk about being prepared to walk with God, the best we can really do is prepare to be loved.

Though it may be harder than we think. Sometimes we get this funny idea that we wouldn’t have any problem accepting a good thing, and maybe it would be easy to accept a free car or something tangible like that (though I would imagine we’d be scanning the fine print pretty suspiciously), but when you’re talking about a gift that also comes with a relationship, one that is both intensely personal and invisible… well, most of us can’t actually fathom that without thinking there must be strings attached—like becoming very serious about sin and being apologetic all the time and quick to talk about the desperately wicked condition of one’s heart.

AKA preparing to be perfect.

Which seems pointless and distasteful the longer I think about it.

Even those good works Christians are supposed to be doing? Yep, God actually prepares both us and the works in advance (Eph. 2:10). Which is kind of uber fabulous, because it means that God’s goal may not even be his work so much as having us participate in his work.

The difference between an executive, say, and a mom baking cookies with her kids.

Or maybe it just comes down to how stressed out you think God is. I know lots of people who seem to think God’s about ready to go into cardiac arrest over our sins 24/7. Somehow, I just doubt that.

Preparing to be loved. Expecting to be comforted. Receiving every gift. Willing to be a part of whatever the next thing is. That’s about it.

I think I can handle that.

Although, given this week, who really knows.

2010 Reading Round Up

Ok, if you know me at all, you know I love analysis, trivia, and lists with a love that may not be entirely platonic, so December is always a fantastic time of year because it comes right before New Year’s Day. Ergo: sorting through resolutions from last year, forming resolutions for this year, and generally checking over one’s yearly stats.

I tallied my reading for the year, and it averages out to about a book a week (misleading, since reading one Trollope actually equals about 6 children’s books, but you know what I mean). Anyway, my reading is way up from last year—probably because I spent most of the year revising rather than writing. Or maybe life sort of smoothed out for me? Maybe I started choosing shorter books? Who knows.

I’ve decided to break down the books topically this year (and will star my favorites in case you’re looking for recs). Here goes:

History & Biography:

  • The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
  • George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes
  • The Great Silence: 1918-1920 by Juliet Nicolson*
  • The Greatest Day in History by Nicholas Best
  • Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist by Lois Gordon
  • Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall
  • Deceived by Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood by Angelica Garnett
  • Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet
  • Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck*

 

Fiction (Classic, Mystery, YA, and Contemporary)

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Gracia Marquez (C)
  • Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope (C)
  • The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (C)
  • The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide (C)
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Co)*
  • Cover Her Face by P. D. James (M)
  • Defend and Betray by Anne Perry (M)
  • And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander (M)
  • A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George (M)
  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King (M)
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (YA)*
  • Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (YA)*
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl (YA)
  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (YA)
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (YA)

 

Spiritual Interest:

  • Telling Secrets by Frederick Beuchner*
  • The Eyes of the Heart by Frederick Beuchner
  • With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen
  • The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen*
  • Finding My Way Home by Henri Nouwen
  • Crazy Love by Francis Chan
  • Forgotten God by Francis Chan
  • A Tree Full of Angels by Macrina Weiderkehr*
  • Intimacy with God by Thomas Keating*
  • A Glimpse of Jesus: The Stranger to Self-Hatred by Brennan Manning
  • Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
  • Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks by Jon Sweeney
  • Being Zen by Ezra Bayda*

 

Women’s Issues:

  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn*
  • Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore
  • For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
  • The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
  • Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem*
  • Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny*

 

Random Nonfiction/Research:

  • The Best American Essays 2009
  • The New Codependency by Melody Beattie*
  • Lessons of Love by Melody Beattie
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell*
  • Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy by Richard O’Connor
  • What Nietzsche Really Said by Robert C. Solomon
  • Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen*
  • For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller
  • Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman*

 

No real surprises here. The usual attempts to polish off a few titles from my list of classics, research historical periods and genres, and expand my knowledge base on women’s issues. I think every year there are a couple of issues that grab me: this year my spiritual reading definitely took a step up as I continued sorting through some basic and deep dissatisfactions with my faith tradition. Irreducible is a good academic word for problems like that.

Interesting, is another good word.

Anyway, hope your year was similarly full of good books! It’s funny but despite my penchant for list-making, I almost never make lists of books I want to read. I think I’ve learned the hard way that what sounds like a great read today will probably sound boring tomorrow. Anyway, if you make the list up afterwards, you never feel guilty for failing to read something.

And, that’s a bonus for somebody who really, really enjoyed a book called Tired of Trying to Measure Up this year.