No Regrets

 

birdsinnestI learned today that the author under whom I studied last summer did not offer the same high-intensity workshop this year. A squeeze tightened in my chest as the thought ran through me: Did I attend the last session he will offer? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it started me down a path of gratitude.

I’ve sometimes wondered in the time since attending the writing boot camp if it might have been easier if I’d waited for the workshop to be offered closer to my hometown, or if I’d given my son some more time to grow up, instead of dragging an eight-month-old along with my dear friend who came with me to care for him.

That workshop was seriously one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Now, as I ponder the possibility that it has become a final chance to study under a man I greatly admire, I feel sadness, and also a personal relief. It was effort well-spent, a worthwhile exhaustion, especially if it was indeed my last chance.

I know, in a solid, confirmed, way that I don’t need to regret the struggle I endured to make that journey possible.

I now stand on another threshold as I face-off with the very real choice between continuing my writing in the routine I’ve created, or dialing it back and having more time and attention to give to my family. My stubborn pride cries, “I will not surrender my talent and my calling in order to just stay at home with my kids!”

And yet, I’m seeing how very hard it is to write and edit and submit and publish and make appearances while my little guy is so small, and in so much need of my attention, affection, and nurturing.

I realize this balance need not be all-or-nothing, but I also know my current arrangement is also is due for an update. I don’t believe I’ll never stop writing, but I might very well take a break from writing massive novels. I don’t believe I’ll ever cease in my aspirations and literary goals, but I will need to rest from the break-neck speed that I use to pursue them.

I want to live with no regrets about the time I’m able to spend with my son and any younglings who might come after him.

This isn’t a goodbye (far from it!). This blog continues, as does my writing. I should have a new *published* book ready to show you early this fall. :) However, the only thing that’s constant in life is change, and I see another one around the bend.

A writer and mother friend of mine recently wrote this to me:

Nothing will matter more to you than being a mom during these first few years. The writing will be there. Enjoy your little monkey.

I intend to live my life with as few regrets as possible, and that means taking good care of all my responsibilities and relationships, not just making sure to nurture my writing career at all costs.

No regrets.

It’s a tall order, but I’m trying!

Lessons in Middle Eastern Hospitality

breakfastMy Lebanese grandparents taught me to play Likha, a card game similar to Hearts, but with more ways to accidentally earn unwanted points, and no means to shoot the moon. They taught me to love Greek-style yogurt and spices with olive oil on pita bread for my breakfast. They taught me what lavish generosity looked like.

They also taught my mother Middle Eastern hospitality, and she helped them pass the model along to me.

I’m never aware that my thoughts are molded by another culture until something startles or offends or baffles me, but it doesn’t seem to trouble those around me.

When I reach that point, I must stop and wonder what lens is shifting my vision. I’ll give a couple examples to show you what I mean:

Potluck Scenario:

  • Response 1: Bring the chips and salsa and Sprite (because it’s cheap and easy and takes no prep time).
  • Response 2: Bring a macaroni casserole.
  • Response 3: Bring an ornate salad with hand-carved carrots, homemade dressing, and fresh-roasted nuts to sprinkle on top.

Somewhere along the way, I was taught that bringing food to an event was a time for showing off my best stuff, for bringing an exciting gift to the community. Having a dish that people complimented was always nice, too.

Somewhere, somehow, I grew to believe in the importance of planning ahead and making the group meal a jubilant festivity of delicious, fresh, food.

(If it’s not obvious, the Middle Eastern option in the scenario above would, in my experience, be Response 3).

Overnight Guest Scenario

  • Response 1: Welcome guest, show them linen closet and hand them a towel.
  • Response 2: Welcome guest, make up guest bed/couch with folded towels at foot of bed.
  • Response 3: Welcome guest, make up guest bed, write welcome note, arrange vase of flowers on bedside table, include basket with granola bars, fruit, and bottle of travel shampoo.

That’s right folks! It’s Response 3, once again, that was the norm in my house!

The spirit behind this level of hospitality is something that makes the recipient feel as if they are royalty come to visit. It requires thoughtfulness. It takes more time. It’s an act of service. (And for the record, I forget all the time to offer people something as simple as even a glass of water when they come to visit my house. I’m not perfect at this!)

But if we are working to practice this Middle Eastern level of hospitality, the difference in the potluck scenario is that your kitchen becomes a fountain that blesses the heart and the stomach of those it touches. If you’re having people over to eat, your dining table becomes a gift basket that people want to encircle. When you have people come to stay with you, your home becomes a haven of beauty and rest.

Everyone has their own things they do or don’t do with regards to hospitality. This isn’t about giving us all one more thing to do, it’s re-thinking how we view the social convention.

You will find the level of hospitality that fits your lifestyle, talents, and artistic taste. I’m sharing what my grandparents’ culture passed along to me. I love the idea of making my guests and friends feel showered with fine things and leaning into a lifestyle of abundance instead of the scooting by on the bare minimum. It’s a way of spreading beauty and joy. It’s an expression of love.

Do you have any lessons in hospitality that you’d like to post here?

She Grows Up (and I Write Her a Letter)

erikagradMy sister was born in the beginning of summer and named after the feminine form of the god of war. She lived up to her fiery namesake and was a fierce little wildcat in her younger years.

Later, she poured her passionate dreams into her artwork. I’ve watched her blow glass fearlessly, sculpt clay into dramatic forms, sketch a story in paint across a canvas and, more than all of these, I’ve watched her stick to her work with a determination and dedication that matches her old toddler ferocity. (You really should have heard the growl she used in imitation of a mountain lion’s roar. She liked showing it to strangers).

She has the most wonderful, organic handwriting. It looks like tropical vines from a rain forest.

Love has always been her strong suit. Love for her friends, her family, her little nephew (my son). She loves people to the point of tears. She loves in the way that she lives.

Yesterday my little fish entered the big sea. I stood high above and blew her kisses from the sun-baked bleacher seats of Husky Stadium as she graduated with the Class of 2015.

She caught the kisses from me and from my parents and pressed them to her heart.

I remember when I walked through this same stadium, wearing my own cap and gown. I had hopes for a brilliant career in writing. I had a summer internship with a UW professor. I thought that getting a job would not be much of a challenge for someone with my skill set.

The ceremony of Commencement is filled with high hopes and soaring expectations. It’s also shadowed with the fear of the unknown.

My dear sister,

If I could tell you anything about graduating, it’s to keep your community close to you. They will become your precious lifeboat and first aid supply as you learn the new set of rules that we like to chuckle and call “the real world.” 

Ask for help with anything that confuses you. Find ways to continue learning, whether that is books or classes or people who agree to mentor you. 

Take those cries for fear and the desperate dreams of your heart and share them with God. He hears you and he desires wonderful things for you. He gave you your talents and he has already made many plans for how they’ll be used.

You’ll be tempted, somewhere along this post-college road, to bottle up your dreams of art and to just find that “real job” that makes you money so that you can “be an adult” and do responsible things like renting your own place and paying the electric bill. Those things are good to do, but don’t let any tell you those are the most important.

My future course was changed when I was a college senior, just like you, and a writing professor told me to work as little as possible so that I had time to do what I loved, When you find a job, you’ll have to forge creative ways to work in time for your art. If this art is a deep part of you, you have to keep doing it, even if that means picking up your tools only once a week at time. You must keep nourishing your creative soul. Start that habit now, when you still have the freedom to form your schedule and commitments.

I love you, Sister. I am so proud to see that you’ve found a place where you excel. You have already brought such beauty to the world. I await with joy to see what you will make in the years to come.

Love,

Elise

 

For those of you interested in looking closer at her incredible art, she can be found at www.ersaba.com.

 

Divisions

Sunset on Lake purple Light

I’m a bit obsessed with prioritizing.

Sometimes I divide my life so carefully into priorities, I create a hierarchy of things that are “worthy” and “unworthy” of the time I can presently give. This works fine and helps narrow my focus when I’m in survival mode. It allows me to just do what I can to meet immediate needs and make sure nothing catches on fire (and now that I have a toddler, that no longer needs to be a figurative sense of fire).

The thing is, when my crisis has passed or the massive project is finally complete, I step out of my survival mode and, after a moment of gloriously resting that lasts about 24 hours, I decide that the things I’d been ignoring are dull and uninteresting and perhaps should be ignored indefinitely. (I’m quite certain this is not a completely healthy way to view life’s less-than-thrilling necessities (i.e. answering emails and paying bills)).

I enjoy living with work piled high around me and a frantic energy to tackle as much of it as I possibly can, but I’m also seeing the toll it takes on my emotional outlook, my levels of energy, my relationship with my husband, my ability to help other people, my patience with my son…to name a few. All-consuming artistic projects are fun. They’re draining.

They have a cost.

I can’t naively think it’s possible to move from the end of one project into the beginning of another (though you should see my brain try to convince me!). I can’t make my temporary divisions of “high priority” and “low priority” activities remain the same. There’s a time to play catch-up.

It’s actually a healthy thing.

Wiseness (AKA Wisdom)

pier

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

teddy

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

dew

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

fire

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!).

tollofanotherbell

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

Quote

The Small Scale

muffin

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