Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Miracles... Again.

I'm still not quite sure how I managed to convince myself that I should be able to keep up with my normal routines even though we added a child to our family this summer. But mostly, I have--teaching nine piano lessons a week; trips to Costco with one child walking, one in the cart, and one in a wrap carrier; gymnastics for the eldest; teaching a children's Sunday School class; working on my writing career--all while getting very little sleep and watching my house get dirtier and dirtier.

The house is always the first thing to slip for me, partially because it's emotionally draining to watch my work be undone by toddlers as fast as I can do it. I'd rather cheer on a student learning a new musical concept, or fill a blank page with words--words that I save compulsively to ensure that they will STILL BE THERE when I come back.

But my normal pace of life is somewhat frantic, and when I add in a messy house, my brain and emotions turn to chaos. Add lack of sleep (I've never yet had one of those magical babies who likes to sleep through the night), and it's a proven recipe for depression.

And so, a month ago, I skipped out on a women's activity I had signed up for at the church. I pounded away on the piano and then took my girls to the park instead. Two weeks ago I told Ryan I wasn't going to a scheduled girls' night.

"Why not? I'll keep the kids."

I shrugged. "I don't feel like it. And I don't want to make cookies for the cookie swap part."

"I'm sure they won't care. Don't you like the people going?"

"They're awesome. I'd just rather read a book or something."

***NOTE: Reading books is normal for me. Lots of books. But skipping a party and the chance to get out of the house without kids? I'm an extrovert, people--that's not normal.***

Two days before my birthday, I told Ryan I was completely empty. I didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to read. I didn't want to write. I didn't want to talk to people. I wanted to sleep, and I wanted to hide in a closet and be left alone.

That was when he told me we'd be loading the kids into the car at 5:00 a.m. on my birthday and wouldn't return until the next day.

He'd planned a huge surprise for me, and I wasn't even excited or curious. I just hoped it wouldn't require much energy.

The night before we left, I frantically canned applesauce. I'd bought a box of apples, and though I hadn't even finished canning the pears I'd been working on the previous week, I was determined to get these apples done before we left (next time I try to take on a project like this, someone please tell me it's not allowed until my baby passes the 12-month mark). Between batches, I scrubbed away at piles of dirty dishes, trying to get rid of anything that would stink before we got back. We'd be leaving for my parents' house for Christmas the day after we got back from this mysterious birthday trip, and I knew I'd need Sunday night for packing.

Now, I'm going to skim lightly over the birthday part, though it was probably the best birthday I can ever remember. My husband took me to see my "second family," the family I had been a nanny for through so many years. They made traditional foods I'd shared with them over the years, including Michael's three-cheese twice-baked cheesecake. They enveloped me in a love I could never question. The twins I'd cared for as babies took care of my babies, patiently letting Cim help them feed the goats and chickens, and even carrying Mari out on their shoulders when she couldn't find her shoes.

I came alive again.

Due to circumstances, we didn't make it home the next day, and instead headed straight to my parents' on Monday. The dirty dishes I'd promised myself I'd finish? The mountains of laundry? The piles of clutter? They'd all wait. Because, as mothers know, the chores are always waiting.

We spent a wonderful week with my parents. We had a great Christmas. Then Ryan and the two older girls caught a nasty stomach bug.

After two days of Ryan being sick, and me cleaning up vomit and running on 2 weeks of averaging 2-3 hours of sleep a night, we began the drive home. With stops for food and gas, it took us over thirteen hours.

As we pulled into our neighborhood, I turned to Ryan. "Remember those pears I never got canned? I bet they stink. And the trash. And the dishes. Our house will probably reek."

Ryan grimaced. "We'll deal with it tomorrow."

The closer we got to our house, the more tense I became. I knew what I'd see when I walked in, and I hadn't had enough sleep to deal with it. A week of nothing BUT sleep might have let me deal with it, but that wouldn't happen any time soon.

And then we got home.

And then I walked inside.

And then I cried.

My Christmas tree lights were on, and their soft glow lit a shining wood floor--a floor not buried in clutter and dust.

My kitchen counters were visible--I think maybe the corner of one had been showing when I'd left.

The bathrooms were clean.

The bedrooms were clean.

The playroom was clean, for probably the third or fourth time since we'd moved into the house.

Everything was vacuumed. Everything was perfect.

Wandering through the house, Cim exclaimed over each room. Finally, in the playroom, she turned slowly in a circle, then looked at me and said, "Wow, that was a big work. They must love us a whole lot."

Depression affects a lot of things, including creating spirals of negative thoughts. One doubt leads to another and another, in patterns like this: In spite of dear friends who constantly go out of their way for me, in the last little while I'd begun to question whether people could actually even like me, or whether they were just too nice to push me away. I'm too loud. I'm obnoxious. I have a habit of interrupting, that I've been trying (and failing) to break for years. I talk too fast. My kids are too loud. They're too high-energy. They won't listen to anyone, not even their teachers at gymnastics or church. It's my fault. They're just like me. If I were a better mom, they wouldn't be that way. If I were a good wife and mother, I'd have a clean house, and they'd be helping me clean it. If I were a good wife, I'd have dinner ready every day.

My week away had done a lot to restore my spirits, but the drive home had exhausted me, and as we'd pulled into the driveway, I'd been ready to dive right back into those same thought patterns.

But someone did a big work. And they love us a whole lot.

They love me a whole lot.

Whoever did this, if you see this, thank you, thank you. Thank you for this Christmas miracle. Thank you for teaching my daughters that love can be expressed through service. Thank you for helping me feel so loved and blessed. Thank you for lifting a load I try to pretend doesn't weigh me down as much as it really does.

I don't know why I struggle so much this time of year. But two years in a row now, I've been blessed with Christmas angels who have done what I never seem able to do. And someday, when I have the strength, I will pass it on.

But for now, I'll sit in my clean living room, stare at my clean floor by the light of my Christmas tree, and just be grateful.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


My brain is fried. I haven't had much sleep, and the girls have been absolutely exhausting (no idea how they can switch from adorable to nightmare and back so quickly). I was too tired to face the dishes tonight. I was a little on-edge, and there was no way I was going to be able to focus long enough to write, but I really needed some time with no screaming children, so I wasn't ready to go to bed yet (parents, you understand this paradox of being exhausted yet unwilling to retire).

Not gonna lie, I thought about spending the evening watching Youtube videos.

But when I walked into the office, I saw our piano.

As some of you know, I teach piano lessons. I used to play a lot--two or more hours a day. But it's been a long time now since I've really played for myself. Lately, though, as I've watched my daughters' moods swing, I've been remembering how my mom said I was so much more manageable as a teenager when I had played the piano for two hours. I thought maybe it would still work.

I wanted sing-along music tonight, not classical, so I started out with "It Is You I Have Loved" and "You Belong to Me" from Shrek. Then I moved on to Phantom of the Opera, and there I remained until my voice gave out. (It's been a long time since I've sung that much too, alright?) My fingers are now tired, my voice is froggy--but my heart is happy.

While I didn't have the soul-enlarging, perspective-altering experience as last time I wrote about playing the piano, my brain's working better now. I was able to focus enough to write this, if not work on my novel, and I'm feeling like I could sleep.

I need to remember to recharge my batteries more often. I need it, and my family deserves to have me functional.

So if you're walking by my house in the next little while and hear slightly off-key high notes, know the dishes probably aren't done, but the kids are alive and mom is smiling. In the end, that's a lot more important.

What helps you recharge?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why I Wrote the Book

Once upon a time (if I'm going to tell you about my fairy tale novel, I might as well start properly), my husband and I were on a road trip. As was often the case before we had kids and the car became too noisy, I was reading a book aloud. This particular trip, the book was DEALING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede.

I, of course, had read this book several times before, but this was my husband's first experience with it. Two things came of this particular read-through:

  1. We decided to name our first daughter Cimorene (a year later, we did).
  2. I had a realization that led to writing the novel chosen this summer as an alternate in Brenda Drake's Pitch Wars contest. 
The realization was this: Princess Cimorene, the heroine of Wrede's book, is a tall, dark-haired, kick-butt princess. This was unusual for the time this book was written (published in 1990). Now, however, nearly 25 years later, nearly every princess you see is what I call an "empowered" princess. They're all out beating the villains and saving kingdoms. 

Now, I relate to a lot of these princesses; I've always been stubborn and adventurous, and I may have kicked a little butt here and there. But the trope-breaker has become its own trope. So it's time to break it again.

In my book A FROG, A WHISTLE, AND A VIAL OF SAND, Princess Ellean is considered old-fashioned because she has blond hair, blue eyes, and likes needlework. When her parents kick her out of the castle, the adventure she's always dreaded leads her to the love and friendships she's always needed. But with kidnappings and a sorcerer along the way, surviving long enough for happily-ever-after will require all the skills she does have--including embroidery.

As an alternate, my pitch and first 250 words will be put in a showcase November 6th where agents have been invited to browse and make requests. Wish me (and Princess Ellean) luck! Also, check out some of the other books that were selected for the contest. There are some I definitely hope to read. 

Tracie Martin: WILD IS THE WIND

Friday, October 3, 2014

I Stopped to Listen

Morning mist on a redwood stump.

When I was eight years old, my parents bought the Funny Farm. It was a "fixer-upper," which meant a cheap initial price tag leading to a nightmare of epic proportions. While my mom still has panic attacks from the trauma that house caused us, to an 8-year-old, everything was exciting. That spot by the living room window where they claimed the floor joist had fallen off its supports? Instant trampoline. It's actually termite damage, and they've shredded every joist in the house? Bugs are cool, I guess. Not having floors is even cooler, because you get to run across the room on the new joists and see who can make it without falling and cracking a shin. Digging our own field lines when we discovered the septic system hadn't been put in correctly and the backyard turned into a sewer every time it rained? ...Okay, even as an eight-year-old I didn't appreciate that one.

When I think of the Funny Farm, though, out of all the memories that flood back--eight years of them--the thing I miss most right now is nature. 

I feel like a sappy tree-hugger saying that, but you know what? I miss hugging trees. I miss wrapping my arms around the trunk of a silver maple, feeling for grooves in the thick bark and digging my bare toes in as I scoot up into the smaller branches; hiding in a world of green spending hours watching the way light filters through leaves the size of my hand; listening to the call of birds whose names I don't know but whose songs I can mimic; feeling the sway of the branches in the wind.

We had space, so much space, and so many burrows for me to squirrel away treasures and secrets. I had a fallen tree that would wrap its bleached limbs around me as I lay in the softest, newest green grass. I cleared space to let that grass spread, moving leaves that had smushed into clumps under winter snows. I picked certain spaces between branches and labeled them cupboards, filling them with walnuts and acorns in the fall, only to come the next day and find they'd been stolen by grateful chipmunks.

I caught salamanders in the cow pond, watched snapping turtles float with just their noses poking out of the lake-pond. I came nose-to-nose with a bat in a cave. I carved my initials onto a rock the size of our minivan that stuck up from the side of a pasture. 

I stomped up steep, forested hills drifted with snow, caught fireflies, watched the clouds, and watched the stars.

I spent eight years that way, and then life moved on, and we moved away, and I grew up. And I grew distracted. What little time I spend outdoors now is often hurried and frazzled, with me too busy chasing my kids and thinking about everything I need to get done to notice the patterns of the clouds, or the texture of new grass. 

Sometimes, though, early in the morning, I'll hear a bird through my window, and yesterday I stopped to listen. And I remembered. I stepped outside, cool concrete under my toes, and smelled dew on the grass as it trilled.  Life slowed. For just a moment, I felt time the way a child does, where every moment is an eternity and there will always be more eternities available to sit on branches and swing my feet in empty space. That's something I haven't felt in a long time, something I miss. Something I need to find again.

I'm setting a goal for the next couple of months. I'm going to take my girls, and we're going to find nature. Whether that's laying in the grass in the backyard, going to the swamp 45 minutes away, or just finding a park that has trees and walking trails, we're going to find it, and we're going to count birds, and crunch leaves, and feel, and smell, and maybe even taste.

And I'm going to stop, and stop again, until I find that place where moments live. Maybe, if I visit often enough, I'll be able to memorize the way there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Regret and Goals

My "teacher shoes." I was given these second-hand when I was fourteen, and I've been using them for twelve years. Still haven't found any more comfortable.

When I was fourteen my family started teaching a dance class. Free, Friday nights in the gym at the church, anyone who wanted to come. We didn't know much--just basics of Swing, Waltz, and ChaCha--but the closest ballroom studio at the time was at least two hours away, so our class was a unique thing. Some nights it was just my best friend dancing with my brother and me dancing with hers. Other nights we had 30-40 people.

One night a man in his early thirties showed up. He hung near the doorway, his eyes constantly darting toward the exit. My mom went and welcomed him; she and my dad had met him a few times, but didn't know him well. She knew, however, that his wife had recently died of complications with diabetes.

He said he might just watch a little; that he wasn't sure why he was there. As always, we made it our mission to make sure he didn't run.

He didn't say much as I walked him through the basics, but he worked hard and caught on quickly. Gradually, under a stream of praise and reassurance, he started smiling more and watching his feet less. He also stopped shooting glances at the exit.

He came back the next week, still nervous, but more determined. And then he told us.

"My wife always wanted to learn to dance. She asked me to learn for years, but I never did. Now I'm here." Our dance class was the first non-essential thing he'd gone to since his wife had died. He said, "Maybe I'll remarry. And maybe she'll want to dance. I want to be ready."

Regret. But it led to action.

He did remarry, and while I don't know where they are now, I'd be willing to bet that if his current wife says she wants to try something, he does anything in his power to make it happen.

I've been thinking about regret lately. Things I regret, like times I said something unkind or didn't follow through on a feeling to help someone, but also things I might regret if I let fear or laziness get in the way.

Recently I've been hammering out some writing goals. Word-count goals, submission goals, self-imposed deadlines for when I'd like projects finished by, that sort of thing. Along with almost instantaneous regret for things like wasting too much time on Facebook, I've also run into some unexpected doubts. Not doubt in my work, but doubt in my own desire to publish. This was prompted by a couple things, including reading posts on the Amazon/Hachette battle where authors are being used as cannon fodder, and also reading up on some plagiarism and general nastiness that's been happening on the indie author front.

I've always wondered if I had a thick enough skin to handle things like scathing reviews (I know everyone gets them), but I'd decided publishing would be worth it--but reading up on these and other author issues made me start to question whether I even wanted to bother with publishing.

And then I thought about regret, and what it would mean for me to give up this dream I've had since I was at least twelve. And I don't want that. That stomach-twisting, mind-spinning regret would be worse for me than any number of bad reviews, any comments by trolls, any headaches over queries and rejection letters, any hassles with publishers.

"What if I had" is a question that can't be answered.

So, at least today, I'm not going to ask it. I'm going to let the threat of regret scare me into action.

My current word-count goal is 500/day (these days it's enough to challenge me). This post puts me at 609... but I still need to work on my book. ;-) What goal are you working on today?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Marry the Man

Six years. Though people shake their heads and exclaim I don't look nearly old enough, I've been married to my amazing man for six years. Six years, ten moves, three kids, three degrees... we've kept busy.

Speaking of busy, did I mention we have three kids now? Ryan was able to get about a week off of work right after I got home from the hospital, so I had a week to ease into being a mother of three. Then, the day he went back to his 10-hr work shift--my first day home alone with all three girls--I found this when I woke up.

And this.

And this.

And this.

And finally, this.

I was exhausted, my hormones were wacky, I was nervous--but suddenly, I didn't feel alone. And throughout the day, as I saw those notes, I was somehow able to be more patient, more loving, and less crazy with our three girls.

As I've thought about my husband, our relationship, and all the things I could say for our anniversary, I'm reminded of a post I saw years ago on Facebook that said something to the effect of, "Don't go for the boy who calls you hot, go for the man who calls you beautiful." It was shared by a teenage friend of mine, and it's not bad advice, per se. Ever since then, however, when I've found myself falling in love all over again, I've wanted to offer my own advice to the girls who are trying to decide who deserves their hearts. Here, year by year, are some of those bits of advice.

When we were engaged, I would have said, "Marry the man who makes you laugh."

During year one of our marriage, a year that included some unusual circumstances and PTSD, it changed to, "Marry the man who makes you laugh when you think you've forgotten how."

Second year married, I learned about morning sickness, and would have said, "Marry the man who calls you beautiful as he holds your hair while you puke."

Third year married, I would have said, "Marry the man who calls your daughter beautiful as he holds her while she pukes."

Fourth year married, we adjusted to military life--something neither of us had ever planned on. "Marry the man who's willing to put dreams on hold to do what's right for his family."

Fifth year married, I was home with two very young toddlers while the military occupied Ryan for 14 hours a day. Recognizing that I was going crazy, he started sending me ballroom dancing every week. "Marry the man who tells you it's okay to have both a family and your dreams."

Now, at six years married, I feel like all those things have come back around. In this year alone, he's made me laugh (even when things were hard), he's helped me through morning sickness again, he's taken care of our sick girls, he's pushed through new changes and challenges with military life (even though sometimes he'd rather not), and he's helped and encouraged me in my dreams (writing dreams, this time).

He got home last night after three weeks away. Our new daughter is only 7 weeks old, and I was checking those notes on the wall daily as I struggled to care for her and remain patient with toddlers who think they're teenagers--who also missed Daddy, but didn't know how best to express it. I can't even say how much strength those notes have given me.

When I was looking for a husband, one of my requirements was, "Marry the man who makes you want to be a better person just because he's around."

Today, looking at those notes, I say, "Marry the man who helps you be a better person even when he's away."

I love you, Ryan. I can't wait to see what this next year brings.

(Photo used with permission from Samantha Rizzo Photography.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Writing Update

I haven't talked about my writing goals much lately, but I've been getting some questions about them on Facebook, so here's a quick update.

  • I currently have one manuscript that I'm querying. It's a stereotype flipping/mocking YA fantasy.
    • I just entered this in Pitch Wars, a contest where established authors help mentor an unpublished writer, who then competes with other mentees for attention from literary agents. We'll see if anything happens with that.
  • In April I completed the first draft of another YA fantasy. That's the one the progress tracker on the sidebar is telling you about ("Shadows" is just the working title--I've been playing with a couple others). I'm excited about this novel, but it needs a sequel, so...
  • I've started working on the sequel to "Shadows." I'm only one chapter in, but I've done a good amount of brainstorming, and I'm ready to get this one written.
  • After I finish the second in the duology, I plan to edit them both and start submitting the first. I feel I can do a better job with content editing/foreshadowing/etc. if I edit them together. 
  • I have ideas for a couple more projects spinning in the background, including a Middle-Grade contemporary novel and another fantasy novel. 

I'm also still planning to take on editing projects again starting in September (I took July and August off), so between that, the writing, and the kids, I should stay busy. ;-)

Wish me luck!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reading With My Children

There are lots of reasons I read to my girls. I was going to wax eloquent about memories of reading aloud with my parents, staying up late because Dad was begging to be allowed to read one more chapter, and how that helped lead to my love of books, which has affected my life more than I can say.

But the baby is screaming, and I'm not feeling eloquent, so tonight we're going to skip all that, and I'm just going to give you these brief reading moments instead.

"Skippy Jon Jones 1-2-3" by Judy Schachner

First, it gives me insight into how my children see the world. Mari, seeing this picture of dinosaurs, started naming them. It went like this: "T-Rex! Um... lizard. Unicorn!"

And voila! We now understand that to a two-year-old, anything with a horn is a unicorn.

(See above.)

Second, I'm learning about the role of flow and patterning in learning a language. My girls are obsessed with languages, and Mari loves to count to ten in Spanish, which we always do right after this page in this book. Her counting, however, goes like this: "...seis, siete, ocho mucho poochos!" No matter how many times I correct her, I can't seem to convince her that those aren't the words for 9 and 10. The flow is just too good. 

"Llama Llama Red Pajama" by Anna Dewdney

And then there are the moments that remind me why fiction matters to me. When I read this book, I read it very dramatically, and this page is the climax, so I'm a little over-the-top by this point. Normally the girls are giggling as I whisper, gradually increasing in volume until I'm shouting the last word, 

Llama llama
red pajama
in the dark
without his mama.
Eyes wide open,
covers drawn...
What if Mama Llama's GONE?

But tonight, my dear four-year-old looked at me with big eyes and said, so softly, "Sometimes I feel that way."

Sometimes, we need someone else's characters and words to make sense of our own feelings. Sometimes we see ourselves in books--even books about a llama. 

And sometimes, I see my daughters more clearly through books. There was a little more meaning tonight as I read Mama Llama's reply:

Little Llama, 
don't you know, 
Mama Llama 
loves you so?

Mama Llama's
always near,
even if she's
not right here.

Mama's here. Reading. Cuddling. Being with you. I hope you'll remember.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Confessions of a Perfectionist

A year ago, I bought fabric to make the girls some curtains. Lovely purple fabric with sparkles--I even wrote a post about how I was going to organize and unpack and make those curtains.

Well, friends, I never did finish unpacking, and I never got organized, and I never made the curtains.

Now I'm in a new house, where I've been for seven months, and once again I have not finished unpacking, I haven't organized, and I hadn't made those darn curtains. I decided that I had to remedy at least one of those.

But. I don't sew. Not really. Oh, some of you may think I sew, because of the post I did about the Halloween costumes I made last year. But in reality, almost all of my sewing projects end up disproportionate, with crooked seams, and with countless other errors. Why? Because I'm a perfectionist.

That's right.

Take a look at how my process usually goes:

  1. Fall in love with a fabric or an idea.
  2. Buy stuff (generally with a couple yards of extra fabric, because I'm bad at estimating).
  3. Look at it over the course of several months.
  4. Consider trying to start, but decide I'm too scared to cut the fabric in case I mess it up.
  5. Feel guilty for having bought stuff.
  6. Work up my courage to try.
  7. Deal with whatever household/childhood crisis occurs the moment I think I might actually start.
  8. Pull everything out a few months later.
  9. Chicken out again.
  10. Convince myself that I don't actually care what the finished product looks like.--THIS IS KEY.
  11. Haphazardly, with little measuring, much guesswork, and a lot of crooked seams and starting over, rush my way through the project.
  12. Hold finished product, feeling both proud and sheepish--proud that I actually did it, sheepish that I did such a shoddy job.
The problem, I've come to realize, is that I have no balance with my perfectionism. It's either crippling, as in steps 4 and 9, or completely set aside, as in Step 10. I know there has to be some in-between area, where I can genuinely try my best on a project but still accept gracefully if I mess it up; but I have yet to find that area for sewing.

Perfectionism is something I've dealt with my whole life, and I have different levels of it in different areas. It can be a benefit, such as for helping me get and keep my scholarship in college, or when I'm copyediting a manuscript. But in things like sewing, it can be a real roadblock to personal progress. 


I made curtains. I made it all the way to step 12. And you know what? The girls love them. (I won't tell them that I royally messed up the valance because I didn't measure it--I'll redo that another day.) And maybe if I push through to step 12 often enough, I'll find my balance point. Meanwhile, I at least got that purple fabric out of my drawer.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Out of the Corner of His Eye

Yesterday, results were announced for this year's Air Force Staff Sergeant promotion testing. Out of over 36k people qualified for this promotion, they selected just over 9k--the lowest promotion rate in 16 years.

My husband's name was on the list.

Making this even more unlikely, it was his first time taking it, and he'd just barely qualified as having enough time in his job (you get extra points for time-in-service). So this was considered a pretty big deal, and a lot of people, including his commander, came and congratulated him and the couple others in his group who made it onto the list.

For us, though, his name being on that list wasn't just surprising or amazing--it was evidence of God's hand at work. Because there's more to our story.

Last Fall, Ryan encouraged me to sign up for the LDStorymakers writing conference, which was being held in Utah at the end of April. It was something I'd really wanted to attend, but decided I shouldn't do once I found out I was pregnant. Ever supportive, Ryan told me to just go for it. He planned for time off work so he could watch the girls for 5 days, and we made my travel plans.

By March/April, Ryan was in the middle of multiple classes and tests as part of his job training/qualification. When the announcement was made that promotion testing was being moved up, and would likely be in May, we sighed, but didn't worry too much. Then he got assigned his date to test.

April 29th. The morning after I got back from my conference.

No big deal, we decided, as he finished up his other testing; he'd just get a babysitter once or twice while I was gone so he could go to the library and study for the promotion test.

Then, on the way to the airport, Mari started throwing up. Looking in his eyes as I climbed out in the drop-off zone, I hesitated. "I'm so sorry. Will you be okay?" I asked.

He grinned at me. "Go be amazing."

I went. I had a fantastic weekend listening to wonderful writers teach me about the craft, learning from agents and editors about the business, and meeting other people who were the same brand of crazy as me. I pitched a manuscript to an editor for the first time, and met some potential customers for my own editing services. I also got to catch up with a good friend and meet my cousin's children for the first time. I felt rejuvenated, filled in places I hadn't realized were empty, and ready to be a better wife and mother because I felt like a better person.

Throughout, I got little texts from Ryan, wishing me luck before my pitch session, asking how it went afterward, rejoicing with me in this incredible opportunity. And when I asked him how things were going with the girls, he admitted that he'd dealt with lots of puke, gotten no sleep due to Mari crying and kicking him as he held her hand all night, and couldn't get a babysitter due to both the girls running fevers--"But we're fine. You just have fun."

It's really easy to make me feel guilty. I'm the type to feel guilty for things I didn't even do. And yet, he managed to not make me feel guilty at all for leaving him with sick kids for 5 days before his huge test. Instead he sent me pictures of the girls in diapers, grinning gleefully and smearing each other with fingerpaints. Brave, brave Daddy.

I got back Monday night. By the time we got home from the airport it was 10 p.m. He hadn't gotten much study time, and his test was the next morning. Though he's always made it clear that his family is more important to him than work, and he'd just spent the last weekend proving it yet again, I could tell he was stressed.

At that point, I wasn't even sure what to pray for. Was it fair to pray that he'd know information he hadn't studied? Even if it was because he'd been serving me and the girls? Finally I just prayed that he'd know what to look over in the morning before the test, and that when he was taking it he'd remember as much as possible.

The next night, he told me he had no idea how he'd done, but that it had been better than he'd expected. Turns out a lot of the questions had to do with leadership principles--and he has a B.A. in Organizational Communications. He also said that he'd been able to answer a lot of the questions just from what he'd observed of the military structure/processes over the last three years--which he was hyper-aware of due to the nature of his college degree. And then there were sections where he just guessed.

Well, two months later, it appears that was enough.

I'm so proud of him. It's a fantastic achievement. He's worked hard, and is good at what he does (performance reviews factored in after the test scores).

But you know, some of those college classes he took were 6-8 years ago. He's gotten two more associates degrees since then, filling his head with new principles and ideas while the others grew dusty. I have no doubt that there was some divine assistance in remembering those things when he needed them. Neither of us doubt that he was blessed for putting me and the girls first that weekend.

When he got home yesterday, we smiled at each other, and he shook his head a little. "It's like that line from "The Count of Monte Cristo," he said, "'Once again, Zatarra, God sees you out of the corner of his eye.'"

We still don't know why God wants Ryan in the military. We still don't know why he was supposed to go in enlisted instead of as an officer. We don't know if he'll stay enlisted or try to go officer in another couple of years. We don't know why Ryan was able to make this list when so many of our friends--good, hard-working, family-centered people--did not (yeah, a little survivorship guilt there). Maybe we'll never know.

But we know God sees us out of the corner of his eye. And we know where to place the credit.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Where I've Been

As most of you know, I had my third daughter last week. As I've held her and looked at her tiny fingers and sleepy eyes, I keep reflecting on how much has changed over the last few years. How much our family has changed. How much I've changed.

Six years ago we got married.

Four years ago we had girl #1

Two-and-a-half years ago our family grew again.

And a week ago, we added baby girl #3.

Looking at these pictures today, Ryan exclaimed about how young I looked. Apparently I'm looking around 16 these days--better than the 12 that I looked when my first daughter was born (surprise--I was 22). 

More than physically, though, I've changed so much in my feelings about motherhood, personal goals, and my own perception of what I can and cannot handle. I know there will be a learning curve when it comes to handling three children (especially when I start trying to leave the house), but I understand now that it's like adding weights to a machine while exercising--it's hard at first, but you get stronger, and then it's time to add more.

All that being said, I'm praying this baby sleeps through the night sooner than my last two. I can hope, right?

Funny note: Look at the picture of me holding baby #2, and then look at the picture of me as an 11-yr-old on the post "Feeling Beautiful Revisited" on the sidebar. I pretty much haven't changed...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Feeding Creativity

"Dance at Bougival" by Renoir

I'm between writing projects right now--I have one book out on submission, a completed rough draft that needs some time to sit before I look at it again, and I haven't figured out which project to start next. So instead of trying to meet a daily word count goal, I've turned my attention to my editing business and to "filling the well," a.k.a. immersing myself in things that inspire me.

Creative inspiration comes from all over. The picture above is a painting that I fell in love with when I saw the (huge) original in Boston when I was 16. When I was a senior in high school, I used it as the model for a relief tile I made in a pottery class. There are also certain songs that touch my creative side as well as my heart; one in particular that has always moved me is "The Old Ways" by Loreena McKennitt.

And, of course, I'm obsessed with learning new things. Lately I've been listening to a series of lectures on the Italian Renaissance. I've been enjoying them, but more than that, I've been gleaning from them. My writer's brain is constantly picking up bits and storing them.

For example, I never knew that cities like Florence, that were democracies, have many more open spaces (piazze) inside the city where people could gather, whereas those cities that were ruled by princes discouraged public gatherings for fear of revolt, and so those cities are more compact. The princes also tended to have big, walled palaces inside the cities, whereas the walls of the democracies were mainly around the outside of the city, to protect from foreign attackers as opposed to the local citizenry. My writer's brain immediately said, "Well, that's a good world-building tool," and stored it away.

And characters! Did you know there was an archbishop who was excommunicated THREE TIMES, and proudly claimed he'd only said mass once in his entire career? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, there are men like Federico da Montafeltro, who was a hugely successful mercenary captain, then duke, but also a devoted husband and father. He valued art and literature, and turned his tiny city of Urbino into a center for culture and education. And if that doesn't sound interesting enough, how about this: He lost his right eye in a tournament accident, and to compensate, he had his surgeons cut off the bridge of his nose so he could see better with his left eye. As my husband said when I related the story, "That man was hardcore."

Oh, and don't forget the plot devices. Assassinations, failed coups, successful coups, political marriages that result in wildly successful women... all with lots of detail that I can go look up later as long as I remember the main ideas.

These types of things make me itch to go to Italy. Oh yeah, and to tell stories.

What makes you want to create?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thoughts for Mother's Day

"Look at these pretend-cracks," my three-year-old says, running her finger along the stretch marks on my stomach.

"Yeah, aren't they awesome?" my husband says, "Those are Mom's battle scars."

We lie in bed together, the three-year-old nestled between us and the two-year-old climbing and rolling across all of us. She pauses to kiss my bulging belly. "Hi Baby Evie!" She turns to look at me, laughing. "It moved!" Sure enough, the baby is shifting and rolling, responding to the movements and voices of her sisters. Six more weeks and they'll be kissing her head instead of my stomach.

It's Mother's Day morning, and in spite of the fact that I'm large and achy with the extra 45 lbs I've gained in the last 7.5 months, today those stretch marks don't feel like battle scars. In fact, today they seem so insignificant that it amuses me Cim even noticed them.

My feelings about motherhood have shifted and evolved so much over the last two years. From adjusting and accepting to recognizing my abilities as well as my limits, I feel like I've come a long way since I last had a small baby in my arms. My world with toddlers has been so much different than the world I lived in when I had one young toddler and a baby. I feel like it's now time, and our family is ready, to add this new baby and step forward into another phase, another time of adjustment and learning.

And, as always on Mother's Day, my thoughts turn to my own mother, and all I've learned from her. Two years ago I wrote a Mother's Day post thanking her for many things, mostly giving me freedom to explore and grow, even if it meant getting dirty or taking risks. This year those things are still important to me, but a few other things stand out more.

Thank you, Mom, for teaching piano lessons when I was young.

Thank you for tossing us in the pool while you coached high school diving, and dragging us along to sit on the bleachers or in the coach's office when you had to judge diving meets.

Thank you for attending sewing seminars and making wedding dresses (even though it stressed you out far more than you thought it was worth).

Thank you for buying "genius level" vocabulary tapes for us to listen to in the car, not because you thought we needed it, but because YOU wanted to learn.

Thank you for buying multiple college lecture series on video and audio, partially because we were home schooled, but mostly because you wanted them.

Thank you for taking us with you when you tutored the Chinese students who moved to the area speaking no English.

Thank you for showing me, in so many ways I never even noticed until I became a mom, that you were a real person with interests and hobbies and goals and dreams--all while home schooling us, which meant doing all these things with little people hovering over your shoulder and tripping on your heels. We knew we were the most important thing in your world--we had to be, or why on earth would you let us stay home with you all the time--but we also saw you doing things to enrich your mind and refill your emotional reserves.

I don't know what having three kids will be like. I don't know if this baby will sleep any better than the last two. I don't know how well I'll be able to maintain the activities I've gotten back into as my first two daughters have gotten old enough to play on their own more. But I know from experience that I'll reach that point again, and I know from watching you that I'll have time for those things eventually, and that if I put my kids first, they'll only benefit from seeing me pursue my goals.

Thank you, Mom, for being you.

Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why I Write

This post is a response to the second question I was asked a few weeks ago. Ironically, I've been too busy writing to write.  I wrote 25k words on my latest novel in the last three weeks, which left little time for blogging.

Aside from that, this was a difficult question for me, and I've been mulling over possible answers for awhile. Here are a few of them:

  • I write because I can't imagine NOT writing.
  • I think it started with my love of books.
  • Well, I tend to talk a lot, and this is an outlet for all the extra words that build up in my head. (I'm only half-joking.)
  • I love words, and when I read something beautifully-written it makes my heart feel bigger. I want to be able to do that for others.
  • I like having the chance to take time on an idea, refining it, polishing it, and then presenting it in a way that helps others see something I see. 
  • I write because I'm a glutton for punishment. (If you're a writer, you understand.)
  • I write because my thoughts get all tangled up, and they don't straighten out until I start to put words around them. 
  • It makes me feel good.
  • I have a compulsion to edit and polish everything, including text messages and Facebook status updates. (Maybe this one should go under the heading "Why I Edit," but it actually applies here, too, since the opportunity to craft instead of blurt is one of the things I love about writing.)
  • I like discovering new things about myself and the world. 

And then, beyond just the writing process itself, you get into stories. I love creating characters, putting them in uncomfortable situations, and watching them get out. I love the feeling when I've been carrying several story threads and panicking that they'll never come back together, and then suddenly they DO, and it just works.

I also like having tangible progress. No matter how many diapers I change, there will be more; no matter how many dishes I wash, they will always get dirty again. But when I look at that word count and it says 100,000--and I know I did that--it feels amazing.

There are a lot of reasons why I write, and sometimes one will seem more important than another. But in the end, it comes down to this:

I am a writer. I have always been a writer, even at the times in my life when I haven't written consistently. I write because it's part of who I am. And I'll keep working until someday my writing skill matches my writing dreams.

(And on that note, I'm going to go keep working on my pitch for the writing conference next weekend. Wish me luck!)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Choosing Favorites

Today I got blind-sided by a two-sentence Facebook post. It said, "Shannon Cooley I know you must be a reader since you are a writer. And I'd love to hear more about your favorite books and what drives you to write."

My responses are a little long for Facebook, so I'm putting them here instead, as two separate posts. First, the books.

I've always struggled with choosing favorites, and not just with books--if you ask me who my best friend is, my brain will start asking, "Best friend from growing up? Best friend from [insert state here]? Best friend from college? Best writer friend? Best friend at church? Best friend when I need a laugh? Best friend to cry with?" and on, and on. (Yes, I just gave you all license to consider yourselves my best friend. Just don't be offended that you share the title.)

Choosing favorite books also seems to fall into categories for me. There are books that are my favorites because they've profoundly changed my view of the world. There are books that I love because they're so darn re-readable. There are books that just make me happy, even if others wouldn't see them as anything amazing. There are books where just the words and cadences seem to fill me up and make me glow. There are books that have taught me about a specific aspect of writing, that I re-read just to be reminded of that thing. Then there are my favorites from this year, or since I graduated college, or from high school... you get the point.

I guess that's a long way of saying that the list you're about to get might not make sense--you may look at the list and see one book you read and loved, but three that you hated, and you wonder how I could possibly group them together.

That's why it's my list. ;-)

So, ordered simply by which came to mind first, here are some of my favorite books.

"Till We Have Faces" by C. S. Lewis. I read this book for the first time when I was 15, and I've read it many times since. I chose it for a book project in high school, and as inspiration for my most complex paper in college. No matter how many times I read it, I always feel like I'm scratching the surface. Lewis considered this his best work of fiction, and it's one that always leaves me amazed.

"The Blue Castle" by L. M. Montgomery. Though not as well-known as the "Anne" books, this one has moved and taught and entertained me nearly once a year since my early teens. The writing is lyrical, the characters are fantastic (Montgomery caricatures family relationships and small-town people better than anyone I've ever read--both their flaws and their virtues), and it's a sweet love story that actually feels real (no love-at-first-sight or he/she-is-so-gorgeous-I-can't-breathe here). She also excels at writing about nature--thanks to this and the Anne of Green Gables books, I really want to visit eastern Canada someday.

"Four Seasons in Rome" by Anthony Doerr. This one is creative non-fiction, and it's prose that reads like poetry. I pick this book up and read a single page, and my day is better. It's some of the most beautiful writing I've ever read.

"A Ring of Endless Light" by Madeleine L'Engle. Really, this book could be right at the top of this list. This book has changed my world-view in several ways over the years, influenced me for good, made me want to be a better writer, always keeps me pulled in from the first page, and just makes my heart sing. I love everything I've read by L'Engle, whether it be fiction or creative non-fiction ("A Circle of Quiet" is my favorite of her non-fiction). She was a person whose thoughts dwelt on things of cosmic significance, and so her writing, though often brushed aside as "children's books" or "just fantasy/sci-fi", is full of deep truths and beautiful insights. If I could pick one person to write like, it would be Madeleine L'Engle.

Other favorites:
  • "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" by Cathrynne M. Valente -- Yes, this actually lives up to its name. It's billed as YA fantasy, but the style is somewhat like George MacDonald, mixed with Lewis Carroll, and then a little L. Frank Baum thrown in for good measure. It has the narration style of a fairy tale from another century, with wisdom for our age and enough of the madcap to make it all thoroughly enjoyable.
  • "The Thin Woman" by Dorothy Cannell -- Cozy mystery, very funny.
  • "Merlin's Keep" by Madeleine Brent -- Adventure/romance/historical/a bit of paranormal? I'm not even sure how to categorize this one, but it's fun.
  • The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede -- YA fantasy, makes fun of a lot of the classic fairy tale stereotypes. Easy, funny reads.
  • "Arabella" by Georgette Heyer -- Regency romance. Really, most of Georgette Heyer's romances could make this list, this is just the one that comes to mind first.
  • "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte -- Do I really need to define this one?
  • The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander -- Most people have heard of "The Black Cauldron", but the entire series is wonderful. These are some of the first novels I remember my parents reading to us when I was a kid, and they're still wonderful when I read them as an adult.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis -- Another series I was read as a child, and have read again many times as I've grown up.
  • Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling -- Again, I doubt I need to say much about these. I love the world, I love the writing, and they're great re-reads.

So, so many wonderful books left unlisted. Really, you ought to be amazed I managed to contain myself to this many.

What are some of your favorite books? Can you pick just one very favorite?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Flowers

Yesterday I got suddenly and inexplicably desperate for spring flowers. I'm not ready to plant any yet, so instead I went to the craft store and bought stuff. Here, in all its springy glory, is my first-ever door wreath.

I didn't actually even glue in the flowers, I just wove the stems in--we'll see if it holds. If it does, it'll be easy to re-do for other seasons. ;-)

This is one of those instances where a small thing is actually a big deal. Decorating is one of the areas of homemaking where I feel least-competent, and I don't yet have a single thing hung on any of my walls inside my house. But now my front door feels homey, at least, and it soothes both the part of me that gets frustrated with my lack of decorating skills and the part of me that just really, really wanted pansies.

Next step: real pansies around my mailbox. Possibly the purple-so-deep-it's-almost-black kind.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Coming Back to Life

It's spring again--sort of. Georgia is confused. One week we get snow, the next it's 80 degrees. Then we get an ice storm (major disaster for an area that never has one--trees and power lines down all over the place), followed by an earthquake, and then it gets warm again. Then cold. Then warm. Then cold.

In the midst of this crazy weather, we decided to run away to Myrtle Beach, where it was nice and warm...

...for a day. And then it was bitter cold. Then we got back to Georgia, and it was warm and beautiful. And today it's freezing again.

You get the picture.

But somehow, even with all of these atmospheric anomalies, the trees in Georgia have started blooming. The grass is starting to turn green (except for ours, but that's another story). My thoughts have turned toward gardens, and our friends just bought a batch of fuzzy, multi-colored chicks.

I love seasons. As much of a paradise as Monterey, CA was/is, I desperately missed seasons while living there. It's not just the seasons themselves, though--while I love snow and heat in moderation, it's the changing from one season to the next that I love the most. It's when the weather moves from cold to warm, from warm to "let's go swimming;" every time the air starts tasting crisp and the leaves change color, or the first snowflakes start to spin; these changes are what I love.

The change in seasons makes me feel capable of change. It makes me want to change. It makes me feel like I NEED to change something, in order to keep up with the very fabric of nature.

I am a creature of habit, but unfortunately the bad ones are so much easier to pick up than the good ones. I fall easily into routines which are stagnant, more existing than living. I forget to notice details in my day and examine time as it passes. I forget to invite people over. I forget to take my girls on adventures.

But then the wind changes, and with it I feel that sudden drive, that need for change, and it wakes me up. Like the trees and the grass, I feel myself coming back to life.

I'm going to have adventures this week. Are you?

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Return of Gracious George

The last two months have been very long. With the exception of the last week-and-a-half that we spent on vacation--which was a lovely respite--we've had at least two people ill at any given time for the last two months. On top of my morning sickness, we went through two different stomach bugs and a nasty cold/flu which turned into sinus infections for Ryan and I. (Three of us came down with another cold the day after we got home from this last trip, and we're battling that now. Sigh.)

I'd like to say I've neglected the blog because I've been sick, but that's only partially true. I've also neglected the blog because the types of things I was seeing and dwelling on were not the types of things I wanted to blog about.

The exhaustion and pity and self-pity on my sick husband's face as he tries to take care of me and the girls when I'm puking and battling a pounding sinus infection. 

My one-year-old standing beside my bed at 4:00 in the afternoon yelling at me, "Wake up! Get up, Mom! Wake up!"

The hurt in my three-year-old's eyes when I tell her she can't cuddle me because I'm too sick.

These things were overwhelming and immediate, and I didn't feel I could write about them yet because I didn't feel like I had any perspective.

At the same time, as a direct counterbalance to all the illness and misery around here, I've been overwhelmed with love and support from wonderful friends. People I didn't even know offered to bring us meals. Several came and cleaned. We were brought a humidifier for the girls' room. People babysat on short notice when I had to run Mari to the E.R. for her ear infection, or when Ryan got sick and couldn't watch the girls during my doctor's appointment.

The night before we left for vacation, I was exhausted and starting to feel sick again, and Ryan was so ill he was nearly unable to get out of bed. I didn't know how I'd ever get us packed and ready for our trip. That night, two dear friends came over. One brought coloring books for the girls and Ginger herb tea for Ryan. One did my dishes while the other folded 5 loads of laundry. They put the girls to bed. They packed our suitcases while I lay on the couch trying not to puke. They stayed until past 11:00 that night, even though both had to work in the morning.

Before they left, one of them got our house key so she could check on the place for us while we were gone.

Three days ago, I got home from a long, tiring day of flying with two toddlers. We'd gotten up at 3:45 in the morning to get to the airport for an early flight, and I was exhausted and starting to feel sick again. I walked in the house, and almost started to cry.

My living room was clean.
My kitchen was spotless.
All our bed linens had been washed to get rid of the sick germs we'd had when we left.
Our mail was sorted into neat piles on the kitchen table, and everything smelled pleasant from an open jar candle sitting on the table.

And there, also sitting on the table, was something that did make me cry.

Gracious George, who taught me so much about selfless service as a child, is teaching me again. (See my last post if you missed who Gracious George is.)

Though I'm still struggling emotionally with the fact that we're sick yet again, and it sometimes feels like we can't catch a break this season, my new Gracious George now sits before me to remind me just how blessed I've been these last two months. I have been so loved and cared for, and the acts of service done have been far greater than the pain of the illness. The sting of sickness will fade, but I'll forever cherish the memories of the love that I've felt as my new friends--people I've only known for a few months at most--continually sought ways to help me and my family.

Thank you to everyone who serves. Thank you for giving love. Thank you for reminding me to focus on the love.