Wet Earth

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Yesterday we buried our dead baby. This is going to be a sad post, so read on only if you choose to bear witness to a grief that is too often silenced.

For those of you who know my family, my 18 month old son is perfectly fine and healthy. It’s his younger sibling I refer to.

January was a dark month for us. We had our car stolen from in front of our house, retrieved by the police, but returned to us filled with damage and filth. Then, a week or so later, we discovered our growing baby was dead at 11 weeks old in my womb. There was an ambulance ride and a trip to the emergency–I’d lost too much blood too quickly.

I passed through all of this in a quiet horror, a deep sorrow that was accompanied by a strange calm. I think God must have been holding me tightly to himself, rocking me as I entered unbearable loss.

In the hospital, as they wheeled me back from one of my tests, I heard the sound of Brahms’s Lullaby playing over the speakers. Every time a baby is born, the hospital staff plays that song to celebrate a new little one’s arrival.

That was when I wept.

A baby was born just as I received confirmation that mine was dead.

I don’t believe this is morbid. These are hard truths and real things that women–so very many women–have borne in wordless sorrow. I will put mine to words.

We buried our small one yesterday in a patch of mossy wet earth. We wish we could have played with this child, brought along on adventures, tickled, held in our arms. But that is gone and all we have left is love and tears and the hope of seeing this young one face-to-face when this life is behind us.

The current chapter of my life is rocky and hard and literally feels like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, at times, but I know I’m not alone. God is holding me, even as he is holding my child. I have friends who’ve brought us meals and companionship that lightens the heaviness of grief for a while. I have the arms of my husband, who is there in the night when I can barely breathe through my snot and tears. I have the tiny kisses of my little toddler, who doesn’t understand his parents’ sadness, but offers fresh love and playfulness each day, healing us with joy, bit by bit.

My heart feels more pain than it knows how to handle, but it also feels more peace and love than it could have hoped for.

So I can say this and still mean it:

It is well with my soul.

New Release: THE TOLL OF ANOTHER BELL

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Once you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, the most terrifying thing you can imagine is losing that person.

I know this. I remember when I was a newlywed, I had a daily paralysis of fear that would hit me every time I thought of losing my husband in some fatal accident.

It’s a real fear and a real struggle. And sometimes that tragedy takes place. I wrote a short story about a young musician who faces this terror in a real way, and desperately decides to fight it with magic.

My short story PHOENIX appears in a new anthology entitled THE TOLL OF ANOTHER BELL. It tells the story of losing the best thing you’ve ever had and doing everything you can to get it back. (And I won’t tell you more!).

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Ten talented authors are featured in this collection.

It’s available for pre-order in both print and e-book editions. There will be an online release party hosted on Facebook. If you’re interested in attending the party, let me know and I can send you information on it.

In the meantime, enjoy the beautiful cover and the video trailer for this book!

TRAILER FOR THE TOLL OF ANOTHER BELL

 

Pre-order THE TOLL OF ANOTHER BELL on Amazon.com

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The Small Scale

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License plate I saw while driving:

“Dare to be outrageously happy and notice the changes around you.”

My first reaction was to make a rude sound with my tongue. Followed by-Ha! Seriously? It’s not like that’s an easy choice for a lot of us.

I know, I know that “happiness is a choice” has some truth in it. The underlying glibness that it implies really irks me, though. We can’t allow ourselves to become total victims of our circumstances, tossed like a rag doll on a trampoline. And yet, let’s be honest, we are so often tossed by such things as:

  • A bout of depression (Elise raises her hand)
  • A creative dry-spell (Elise raises her hand)
  • A loss of property (Elise raises her hand. Someone stole our car, in case you’re curious.)

For several days now, happiness hasn’t felt like a particularly viable option for me. Sure, I have my moments where I laugh or smile, and I’m surrounded by loving family, and my boys are both healthy and well, but I still struggle under this fog.

The pale January sky above me does not hold the answers for these feelings that evade me.

Habits are funny things. I don’t know where some of mine come from, but this one happens right as I wake. I run down a list of things I’m thankful for. The routine might have begun when I read One Thousand Gifts, but, however it got there, for someone who defaults to grumbling, it’s an excellent pattern.

I remember my husband’s patient tenderness with me, my son’s buoyant bounce in his crib as he waits for me to lift him into my arms.

The things that bring me joy are so small, I’d miss them entirely on those days when my pen spits brilliant dialogue or my optimism is filling me with new ideas for improving my life. Because on those days, I’m too busy to slow down.

So I hold me son’s little hand while he lays his head in my lap and I look at the golden star-glow on my Christmas tree and I later that evening I lean against my husband’s chest as we watch Downton Abbey and I know it’s all going to be okay, even if it really doesn’t feel like it right now.

Yesterday I was in tears because I had to call back four times to schedule and reschedule an appointment that agreed on the availability of my doctor, myself, and my babysitter. This happens. This does not define me, though I walk through it.

Being brave, putting on a smile, and throwing myself into loving a little boy who relies on me is helpful, too. My Guppy runs across the room to hug me, multiple times a day.

This is what I’m saying: When I can’t find cause for joy in my day to day, sometimes narrowing my focus and searching at a smaller scale is the key.

Looking Back: 2014

Fireworks 28The year of 2014 is drawing to a close and what a crazy year its been. To close it out, I am looking back on some of the milestones and lessons that visited me.

January-On our trip to Walt Disney World I remembered the fairy tale birthright that my mother passed along to me.

April-I defended my choice to be something more than just a mother. Honestly, it was a frightening moment for me.

June-The realization sank in that being famous just doesn’t need to be an ambition of mine.

July-Meeting one of my revered authors in the flesh and studying writing under him. Orson Scott Card is both tough and kind.

August-Seeing my son turn one year old and realizing how much we’ve both grown.

September-Releasing my Indiana Jones style adventure short story, The Lost Eyes. (I wrote that sucker in a long weekend. I’ve never done such frantic, focused work in my life.

October-Getting faith and love from a fellow parent and novelist. “You’re a real writer. You won’t stop.”

December-That sense of belonging as I understood I was finally settling in with the in-laws. Specifically, my brothers and sisters of different blood.

I hope this year is ending on an encouraging note for you and your loved ones. See you in 2015!

Love,

Elise

In Defense of Tragedy

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When I cry, I remember why forever. When I laugh, I forget about it tomorrow. –Anonymous

 

I’m trying my hand at a few definitions of sad things that we might experience:

 

Tragedy—def: the destruction of human lives or hearts on a massive scale. A loss of profound consequences.

Tear-jerker—def: you know after witnessing this kind of movie or song that you’ll hold your special someone tighter (or that you’ll wish like crazy that you’d found that someone by now).

Downer-def: something that leaves you feeling lower than you started.

 

I don’t believe the above three concepts are synonymous. I grew up understanding tragic stories as beautiful. They felt deeper and more powerful to me. I’d always viewed weeping as nothing shameful.

I have many friends who hold tragedy and sorrow at arm’s length. Sad stories, films, books, and ideas are more bitter to swallow, no doubt. They even feel like poison sometimes.

But the Greeks were onto something, when they claimed that drama created catharsis, and that these strong emotions were purging and healthful for the soul.

I encountered a Kahlil Gibran quote that perfectly sums up how I feel about tragic stories and my own personal dark valleys of life:

 

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. –Khalil Gibran

 

When it comes to entertainment, telling stories, or just experiencing life, I don’t always reach for the sob stories.

But I think it’s important for all of us that we don’t shun tragedy entirely. Sorrow and loss are real things, and pushing them away doesn’t make life better. I dare say it can make life shallower.

Gibran said that sorrow carves deep hollows within us, and from those, we are able to feel a greater capacity of joy. This is because we’ve seen what it is like to weep. It makes us more ready to dance when our season of life calls for it.

We’re in the thick of Christmas season when the lights and the fragrant greenery and the carols push us toward contented thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with feeling contented! But for anyone in the midst of grief or hardship, I like to remember that this pain is expanding our capacity for joy. I really, truly, believe that it is.

What’s your attitude toward tragedy?

One of the Siblings

harvestAnyone who’s ever gotten married and spent a major family holiday with the in-laws knows that it can be awkward at first. No amount of love and welcome can make the different traditions and communication styles feel effortless to the “stranger.”

And by this, I mean the one who is only included because of their spouse, not because of a lifetime of memories and shared blood. I don’t say this to paint my husband’s family in a poor light. I admit that it’s awkward because that’s how most of this starts.

James and I have been married for six years now. Even before we’d tied the knot, I came down for the long Thanksgiving weekend as “the girlfriend” to see his folks and meet his family. I remember the moment, a year later, after James had proposed to me and I had a ring on my finger, when his sister threw her arms around me and whispered, “My sister!” It was one of those first moments that hinted that my heart was finding a place here to rest.

Becoming part of The Stephens Clan has been a process for me. I’ve had a bad attitude at times. I’ve made valiant efforts to contribute at others. I’ve lamented the far distances that separate most of us, making year-long relationships very challenging.

This year, I hit a shining milestone toward my membership in The Clan. Once again, like the hug from James’ sister that touched my heart and sealed itself forever in time, this moment had to do with the siblings.

We had an event to plan and we needed to do it by ourselves. James’ brother and sister and their spouses crammed together with James and me into a single bedroom of the house and, as we examined our schedules, we had a chance to share what was going on in our lives. We talked about what was important to us when we got together, and how we wanted to divide labor.

We were a team.

I was part of that team and I had as valid a voice as anyone else. As I placed a reservation and handed the phone to my brother-in-law to manage the billing info, there was a bonding that filled the room. I felt like an important cog in some big machine, something that would endure beyond myself. It would stretch out to the memories of my children. It would leave a legacy. It would knit me closer to these siblings from my husband’s clan.

This moment during event planning in which I realized that I belonged is my nugget of gratitude from this Thanksgiving that I’m bringing back with me.

What are you bringing back this year?

War Effort

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If I were to tell you what I’m most afraid of, it’s this: doing something wrong.

Perfectionism runs deep inside me, cutting deep canyons, and though I once thought I could call myself a “recovering perfectionist” but the truth is the trait doesn’t ever shake itself off completely.

It sickens me to think I might pass along this harsh critical eye to my little son. As part of the war-effort on perfectionism, I made a post-it note that I fixed to my fridge with the circle with the line through it that you usually see along with a smoldering cigarette to tell people they can’t smoke here, but I replaced the cigarette with the word perfectionism. It’s a good reminder for me, and I get it multiple times a day.

My fear of messing up currently takes the form of my ridiculous desire to follow all of the advice and counsel I get from people who know more than me. There’s hours and hours worth of wisdom and tips and advice out there, and it’s laughable to think I can follow it all, but I try to because I’m an overachiever and a perfectionist. (I somehow manage to forget how much advice disagrees with other advice that’s out there.)

My perfectionism makes me a very bad listener. I try so hard to do everything right, there’s no time to pause and pray and see what God might want me to do. There’s no space to let myself stumble and screw up and disappoint people and step into freedom or explore because doing things “right” requires so much mental effort and it doesn’t allow for experimentation.

I wish I knew how to think myself out of this one. I wish I wasn’t this frightened to lose control of my life, even when the threat of losing control is nowhere on the horizon.

This is my counterstrike: In the morning, before the sun rises, I light a little round candle in a blue ceramic bowl. I focus all of myself on listening before the buzz of the world deafens me. I am striving to hear what God wants me to do, what he wants me to know, what he wants me to hear, rather than chasing the hundred other voices that are also trying to advise me.

In those quiet morning moments, there’s nothing perfect or imperfect. There’s a stillness of waiting. And in that gentle respite, for a few minutes, I’m not afraid.

How to Read Out Loud in 6 Steps

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We all read out loud.

It’s part of daily life. But what many of us don’t realize is that reading out loud is a skill, and, with a little practice, it can be honed in a way that transforms anything we say.

A mediocre story can become something fantastic with one simple tweak—the voice-acting of the narrator who breathes it to life. A well-written piece of communication can catch fire in a crowd when delivered by an eloquent and passionate performer.

Not everyone is a theater geek like me who loves to combine stage training with the delivery of a message or story, but almost all of us are forced to read out loud in a public or semi-public setting on a regular basis. After considering this, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. You don’t have to be an extrovert to speak well in front of people. Introverts are fully capable and equally gifted at this.

From my history of delivering speeches, telling stories, and communicating through many mediums, I’ve drafted some tips and tricks that will help anyone improve and even electrify their skills at reading out loud.

  1. Pre-Read Your Content

The chances of tripping over a word or mistaking it for its similar but incorrect cousin are almost zero if you’re already familiar with your content. Pre-read it out loud.

  1. Select Your Tone

Everything you read has some sort of attitude. If you’re reading a comedic piece, determine whether your stance is lighthearted or sardonic. If you are delivering a long list of information, decide what bullet points deserve the most focus. If your message is an urgent one, you must know this.

  1. Mark Your Beats

Once you grasp the content and appropriate tone for the piece, mark your manuscript. I find this easiest on printed paper, but you can make notes on an electronic document as well. The big trick: Look for where an audible pause in speech would underline your meaning. In theater, these pauses are called “beats.” Add another other annotations that will help you remember your tone and emphasis for when you read out loud.

  1. Establish the Cast

For a speech on one subject, you might have just one voice for the piece. For a short story involving three characters, you will need three voices. You don’t have to make your young boy talk with a high pitched squeak, and your jazz diva doesn’t have to talk in a honey-coated rumble (though you’re free to try it!). The primary goal is to keep the voices distinct from each other.

  1. Visualize Your Setting

If your reading will be delivered in a large room or hall, you’ll need to use a large voice to fill it, no matter how delicate the content. If your reading will take place in a circle of armchairs by a fireplace, you’re allowed to play with the subtler nuances of murmurs and soft volumes. Plan accordingly.

  1. Read Slowly. Never Rush It.

This last piece of advice, along with the first piece of advice are the most important. A rushed speech is hard to understand at best, and makes the reader sound ill-prepared and nervous at worst. Reading slowly may take some practice before it feels comfortable. Watch a video of a public speaker and note the speed/flow of words. It is actually quite slow, which allows listeners to absorb and interact with the message. Practice your reading several times, if necessary. It makes reading slower easier.

If reading out loud is something new for you, be prepared to feel silly at first. I’ve embarrassed myself loads of times, especially when I tried to don foreign accents for some of my characters and failed. But remember this—the life that you give to the written word when you devote yourself to a vivid delivery of reading out loud is absolutely worth a few embarrassments. The story is so much better for it.

I’ll say it again: the most important thing is to be familiar with your content (Tip #1). As fun as it is to dash something off, then instantly share it (if you’re reading out loud your own work) or to rapidly skim something great and then leap up to share it (if you’re reading out loud someone else’s work) if you take the time to give the writing a careful look over, consider your tone, mark the beats, number your cast (if there is one), plan for your setting, you will be ready to deliver your message in a way that has listeners hanging on your every word. Because you’re giving more than a reading.

You’re giving a life-infused, confident performance.

Less and Less

leavesI’m doing less and less these days. (In quantity, I must add. I dare not say I’m doing less “in quality.”)

Do it well and keep it simple. It’s so much better than reaching too high and failing miserably.

I shall elucidate: Picture me with four pots on the stove, veggies in the colander in the sink, meat thawing in the microwave, bread warming in the oven, sauce burning on the stove…and then correctly deduce my emotional state as losing my mind because my son is getting fussy and ready for his bath, but I have fifteen more minutes of chopping left before I can put the main dish in the oven to bake–you get the idea. I’m trying to cook something fancy for dinner, but if I’m interrupted (likely) or James gets home late from work (a frequent occurrence when he’s in a busy season), then the meal is ruined or cold and my mood is, shall we say, a lot like the dinner?

Here’s another example: A have a dear group of friends who often trek down to a local pub on Friday nights to grab beers after reading out loud excerpts of their fiction projects together. I haven’t been able to join them in months because I have a darling little human alarm clock who goes off between 6:30-7am every morning, without fail. I am now a dedicated morning person, weekends not excepted. I climb into bed early in the evening and have real feelings of affection for my new down comforter. I don’t think I used to love my bed quite as fiercely.

A third illustration: Walking around Seattle’s Green Lake with my stroller and baby in front of me and a good friend beside me is one of my favorite things to do. But meeting up with anyone requires me to arrive in a physical location at a specific time, and I can seriously feel the new gray hairs when I struggle to get my son and myself out the door. Friend dates have made themselves impossible to accomplish on a daily basis. The pressure and anxiety isn’t worth it.

I feel I should clarify what I’m saying here: This isn’t settling. This isn’t accepting defeat. This isn’t setting my sights low. Anyone who knows me knows I hold myself to ridiculously high standards in my art and professional work, as well as my community relationships. After that, everything else must be simplified.

If I cook fancy dishes, I resent mealtimes. If I stay out late and disregard my sleep needs, I wind up a grumpy basket case. If I book myself tightly with social engagements, I have nothing left for my husband at the end of the day and I’m shorter-tempered with my son.

You might hear echoes here of my post on Simplicity and Sunglasses.

Here’s where I’ve come out on the other side: I love early mornings again. I’ve found freedom in dinner-prep by doing spurts of chopping in the morning or afternoon. I can cherish outings with my friends as a treat, not a mandatory way to fill time.

It’s not easy. Life simplification can quickly swing to under-stimulation. When when I find myself surprised on a Monday morning by a peaceful, calm heart, I know I’m treading new ground.

Peacefulness is a victory that cannot be overstated.

Pearl

pearlI was hardly prepared for the weekend that just passed. I have a habit of being revved up and excited before a writer’s conference (and grumpy, exhausted, and burned out, after one), but this excited pre-conference state is understandable, right? It’s like being a candy shop of learning that’s jam-packed with people who are just as crazy as I am about how to tell a good story.

I didn’t feel that way this year. I didn’t want to go.

I wanted to use all the time I had to just write on my projects. It struck me that, though there are always new things I can learn (and someone please slap me if I ever develop a different opinion), there are also periods of my life when it’s the time to work, not the time to fill my head with new suggestions and techniques. I’m currently in that place where it’s my time to work: I’m revising my Irish fantasy with dragons and magic. I have a short story selected for publication in a fantasy anthology that tells a love story of heartbreak and loss that I’ll soon be revising. I have a precocious 14-month-old baby boy who is almost walking, and living up to the name (Curious) George with flying colors.

I’m busy.

Thus, I approached this full weekend of classes with a bit of pessimism. I desperately needed another perspective. I was feeling alone and small and exhausted. I prayed and asked God to come with me to the conference. Then I set for myself the goal of connecting with people and refusing to allow myself to become overwhelmed by what I would learn.

You know what happened? On Saturday evening, I found myself talking to another author, a friend who I met through my publisher, about being a parent and finding time to write in the midst of raising a child. I confessed my fear that my window of writing opportunities was closing, that I’d have to give it up entirely for the very worthy task of parenting, and how sick with dread that thought made me.

Writing is part of who I am. It’s not just a hobby. It’s a deep part of me and what I was made to do.

This author friend looked me right in the eye and told me that I wouldn’t have to stop. Even if I wrote poetry on napkins. He told me that I was a real writer, and obstacles like this don’t stop the real ones from continuing to write. He shared his own stories of attending night school, raising two sons, having a full-time job, and skimping on sleep in order to still write. I cried and walked around the table to hug him. He’d seen me and understood.

This was the highlight of my writing conference: sharing a human fear with another writer and having that fear addressed and quieted with compassion. It’s a funny morsel to take back with me from a writer’s conference, yet it shimmers in my heart like a pearl.