Wiseness (AKA Wisdom)

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Wisdom. Do we all want to have it?

Some people I know prefer to walk the paths their passion calls them to, even if it goes contrary to advice they’ve received. We all know there’s such a thing as bad advice, but regardless of how good the advice might be, these friends would rather learn the hard way than submit blindly to directions. They want to learn the truth for themselves.

Other people prefer to be told the best researched, strategic approach to doing something so that they don’t have to experience the discomforts, set-backs, or embarrassments that go along with mistakes and mishaps.

I fall squarely inside the second category. I like discovering the “right” way of doing something before setting out to do it. (You can ask my close friends, this grown woman still sometimes gets distraught when she fails to do something well the first time. I’m not entirely proud of this.)

Some knowledge can only come when it’s learned through genuine experience. I turn thirty next year, and this life milestone is making me ponder the reality that I really am not a “young adult” anymore. What wisdom have I acquired for during this enormous time spent on planet Earth?

These are a few things that I know with certainty have changed in me over the last few years:

  1. I’ve embraced a moderate level of insanity and disorder in my life.  The chaos of a home shared with a rambunctious toddler is better than the impossibility of constantly striving to keep my world in a detailed, organized state.
  2. I apologize quickly and seek ways to make up for my blunders. I make sure my intent is clear when I communicate. Life is too short for grudges and incorrect assumptions. Pride and stubbornness still have a hold on me, but I’ve grown more fed up and annoyed with them, which means they don’t fester for long.
  3. I cry in public and don’t apologize for it. Too many of us wish we could feel more deeply on a daily basis (numbness is a strangely prevalent disease) and emotions should be embraced when they surface.
  4. I know what I want. I want to be a mama. I want to write fiction. I want to work from within the peace and closeness of my home. I want to love Jesus more every day and listen to his guidance for my life. I want to always grow and learn. I want to help other creative artists to reach their dreams.

When I was in college, when I thought wisdom had the aura of profound solemnity. Maybe I gave too much weight to the word “wisdom.” It doesn’t have to be intimidating.

When I see the ways that I’ve grown in comfort and bravery, in what I stand for, I think this counts as wisdom. Sometimes this knowledge comes in the shape of boundaries that I won’t flinch to protect because I’ve finally identified what’s precious to me.

This post goes out to all of you who feel like you somehow aren’t smart enough to be counted as “wise.” We can always grow if you take the time to pause and reflect, to stop and make stillness in the day to weigh your thoughts. The days when I take the time to pray before I rush into the fray of craziness are the ones when I have a steadier heartbeat.

Here’s to the time that lies ahead of us, filled with new, undaunting discoveries of wisdom and “wiseness” and knowledge.

P.S. To those of you who’ve been missing my blog posts, I’ve been extremely busy, but am hoping to return with more regularity in the near future. Thanks very much for your patience. Xoxo

Toys of My Youth

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Store-bought Barbie doll houses were often on my wish-list, but never a reality for me. My need for the products I’d seen on TV was the mother of my inventions.

I tucked fabric around VHS clam shell cases and stuffed a “pillow” lump on one end to make a bed. I clipped photos of flower arrangements from a floral catalog and taped them to the wall beside the bed. Years later, I wrote a “will” and bequeathed the precious dolls to my younger sister as a Christmas gift. Their hold on my had faded. I don’t even know what happened to the Barbies.

My son is inheriting toys. New ones from his grandparents with big wooden rings that stack. Cars on wheels from his parents because we know what he’s most obsessed with. A second-hand electric keyboard and activity box from our next door neighbors whose grandson has gone off to preschool.

My siblings and I once owned a massive collection of Beanie Babies. We’d build villages of Duplos for them and attacked the land with floods of blue scarves. We’d laugh and dream and imagine adventures for our little animals. It was a team sport. My brother and I will still toss out snatches of phrases from our times of Beanie Adventures.

And then we all must grow up.

My Barbies are a distant memory of resourceful strategizing as I did my best to recreate the commercial items I coveted. My son will also outgrow his toys and they will become a gift for another young child to discover. The small pile of Beanie Babies that remain to me are mostly designated as gifts for future baby showers. My siblings and I have moved on to playing mystery video games in which we solve puzzles collectively and crack jokes about the strange personalities we meet in the game.

We’re all constantly leaving toys and memories and old habits behind. It strikes me that adults have left themselves too few toys to play with, urged to discard childish things in the rush to be sophisticated. When I pull out The Trickster’s Hat and do a strange creative art project, I get excited and playful again. It’s a taste of my childhood. Some of my best inventions come from that place.

Growing up and moving on is unstoppable. But I’ll always be that girl who designed her own Barbie room decor and managed the plot lines of the Beanie Adventures. My son will bring his love for music and rhythm beyond the confines of his toy drum and keyboard and his Raffi Soundtracks.

Peter Pan had a bit of it right. For those of us who are determined to make it so, we never have to grow up completely.

A story lingers in my mind as I come to the end of this post: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s an enchanting, fantastical story, told by an adult looking back at the world through the beautiful eyes of a young person. Read it if you haven’t. I’ve read it twice and each time it filled me with child-like hope.

All of us can stay young.

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.