August 27, 2014

The Messy Life

When the kids are older, then I'll have time again to organize, I said. Things will be so much tidier, so much more manageable.

As I look around my house and see the piles, I can't help but think of those yearnings for order that have proven so elusive. What a fool I was, I think now.

And yet, am I really surprised?

I think there has to be a bit of a welcoming of disorder to open one's heart to a large family, for one. Add in the fact that most of us are high on the creative spectrum and the truth of the matter comes more assuredly into view.

I'm not making excuses. I care about order. I feel better when things are in place. But I gotta be honest, they're not right now, they haven't been for a while, and I'm not exactly sure anymore when that day is going to arrive, and I'm okay with that.

As a writer-mama, there's a lot to accomplish, and most days, I do what's in my face and work my way down the list. And that's as far as I get. The deep cleaning and organizing? I'm not there and don't know when I will be. I'll do what I can when I can.

Even though the kids are no longer in diapers, the layers have not gone away, and here we are. And as I look around, feeling a little mystified, I realize I have to give myself the excuse, because quite frankly I can't do anything more than what I'm doing.

A friend of mine has been saying she's realized she can only focus on one big project at a time. She can either cook fabulous meals, or have a tidy home, but not both at once. Another time, she said that even if she did have the time to be more organized, she's not sure how much she'd want to delve into it.

I'm like that too. Some people go stir-crazy without order. I go stir-crazy trying to maintain it.

Another factor has to do with my life as a writer. As someone who is creating order daily in her writing, there's only so much of that kind of intense energy it takes to write well to go around. By the time I've done my interviews or collected all the words or written the stories, there's another around the bend, and kids who need me, too. I pull away to tend to what is most obvious in the home and with the kids and that's as far as I can go most days.

Somewhere in this, I am at peace. In the messy, I am finding a way to exist and be at rest. Because every day I am creating life-giving things. On top of the writing and family, I am also engaged in a faith that is vibrant and meaningful.

With these interior things in place, it's not only possible to embrace the mess, but on some level, to be grateful for it. I could not exist in a sterile, barren world for long.

So I come back to gratitude, for having the kind of world that invites in the messy, feeling assured somehow that the more wonderfully strange and varied ingredients go into the pot, the tastier the stew is going to be when it's done simmering.

Q4U: How do you like to create order from chaos? When do you leave well enough alone?

August 20, 2014

My Father and 'Mockingbird'

It started out as a mother trying to help her daughter's first year of high school begin on a smooth note.

When I noticed our local, historic Fargo Theater was going to be showing "To Kill a Mockingbird"  last week, I put it on my "to do list," knowing my middle daughter had been assigned the book for summer reading by her future English teacher, and that the movie, though old and severely outdated, might help the story come alive even more for her.

And, well, it wasn't completely altruistic. I like stories too, and am especially fond of classics. I also am intrigued by Harper Lee and her one and only published work.

I was excited as we grabbed our buttered popcorn and headed to the front of the theater, which was filling in quickly, the movie about to begin. As the black and white film played, I did a quick Facebook update, noting our Thursday night adventure. And my mom responded right away:

"Your dad's favorite book! Wow, I would have loved being there."

How had I forgotten? But I had. In the midst of thinking about my daughter's English class project, it had slipped past me that Dad had chosen this book, among all those he'd read in his study of literature, as his very favorite.

I was so grateful for the reminder, because suddenly I was watching the film not just through my own eyes but through Dad's. What were the elements of the story he most liked, I wondered? What drew him so close to this story? For the rest of our time at the theater, I felt Dad nearby, and during part of it, tears even began flowing there in the dark as I connected with the spirit of this man who was such a big and beautiful part of my life.

It's his birthday month, and also the month of his and my mother's wedding anniversary, August 21.

So I can't help but have Dad on the brain anyway, and then this story...and seeing it there with my just sealed the deal.

I thought of how I'd grown up on a reservation, and how the color of one's skin seemed so insignificant to my parents. Why would they have settled there otherwise?

And I thought of story and how much story moved my father, and how much story has always moved me. His respect for story was so strong that it couldn't help but spill into the lives of his two little girls, who listened with awe as he shared bedtime tales about one-eyed monsters and the dinosaurs who used to visit his childhood home in New Rockford, N.D.

It wasn't until after the movie that I shared with my daughter how the story had been her Grandpa Beauclair's favorite. "I was actually thinking about that," she said. "Atticus reminded me of Grandpa."

It's not an exact match but there is some resemblance. The black hair, the glasses, to be sure. 

The intellect. The ability to overlook the things that separate us physically to get at the heart of a person.

The way he drew his kids near.

In my childhood years, I was a little like Scout -- always the little sister, always seeking adventure, always curious, and hopefully standing up for justice, just because it seemed the right thing to do.

Yes, the story has many parallels with my life, and in the remembering, my sister reminded me about a book we'd given Dad a while back for Christmas. She then sent Mom on a hunt for the book, and as Mom tells it, it didn't take long for her to find it in a prominent place in their home. "I think Dad led me straight to it," she said.

So we're reading, watching, remembering how much our father and husband loved story and the characters that bring it to life, and the powerful forces of human nature -- the quest for what's good, right and just despite all of our and the world's imperfections -- that have always and hopefully always will motivate us to create a better existence for all.

I'm still learning from my Dad and about my Dad, and I'm finding this happening most of all through appreciating all the more the things that moved his heart.

I can honestly say I haven't lost Dad at all. He's as close as ever through these things, and I love him all the more because of it.

And last but not least, to my mother on the day before her special day of remembering a long and fruitful marriage: Happy Anniversary!

Q4U: What are your associations with this story, or others that connect you to a loved one in your life?

August 13, 2014

Avoiding Writing Pride

After my last post here on Peace Garden Writer, during which time I discussed the blessings of writing for a local audience, a reader pointed out privately some thoughts that humbled me.

Specifically: "As a letter writer, I have a few times been a little embarrassed of the reaction and thanks that it can draw in the public square...I quickly turn the conversation back to the gracious person giving it to me. Everyone likes a little attention, and early on I thought it was somewhat ‘cool’ but now try to avoid any attention, as all praise goes to God."

I didn't take the words as condemnation, because I agree wholeheartedly. But they do offer a great chance to go a little deeper in terms of how much stalk we should take in our writing and any compliments that come as a result.

I imagine the temptation to be prideful about one's writing is something that every writer has faced at one time or another -- especially those who are aware of the pitfalls of pride. Because of the sheer nature of our work, it's always there, lurking around the corner.

What we do is public, and when we receive commendations for our writing, it could easily, if we're not aware and ready, go to our heads. We might begin to imagine, in error, that we're so great to produce such beautiful sentence structures, when in fact God gave us this gift for one main purpose: to draw others to Him.

At Gooseberry Park, Lake Superior, Minnesota

We don't have to be writers of faith to have this mission, but if we are people of faith it is inherent in everything we do. Even fiction writers can create works full of truth, goodness and beauty, and it is these things that inspire us all toward God.

My heroine Flannery O'Connor wrote in her letters about this; how everything comes back to God and God's purposes. Seeing it this way is a freedom, because we can relieve ourselves of the pressure of being perfect in our writing. We are here to be a vessel. Through our pen, we create sentences that will either draw people to truth, beauty and goodness, or lead them away from it. In that way, we are missionaries and prophets, all. But it is God who works through us, not we who own it all.

If God wishes to use our writing to draw people to Him, He will. The best we can do is continue to form ourselves to God, and the rest will follow. From there, what we write will be of God, even when it appears to be of human fashioning, because at the heart of it will be a divine light.

So it's true that all glory goes to God. Anything good that I have to say originated first in the heart of God. When people talk of any of my writing as inspiring or good or truthful, I necessarily must point it back to God. I cannot take the credit. I know that.

Thinking of it this way does not dehumanize me, or make me feel unworthy, or present a blow to my self-esteem. It places things in the right perspective, propels me onward with confidence (knowing I do not go it alone) and allows me to truly shine light where it is most deserving.

If I can be an instrument for the divine, there is nothing I can imagine that would bring me, and God, greater honor. It is a joy to serve in this way.

Q4U: Have you ever been tempted to believe it's all about you? What helped you see otherwise?

July 30, 2014

The Blessing of Writing Local

The successful thing is to go big and wide, right? To become a writer known to many, from east to west, north and south. Now that's the end-all.

I might have thought that way once, but then things changed. Doors I thought were opening seemed to close, and I realized I would need a Plan B.

Though I couldn't predict the future, one thing did seem certain: that one of my greatest callings in life was that of writing; that I'd been given certain gifts and sensibilities, even a certain temperament, that lent itself to a lifelong dance with the written word.

Now, I didn't say that I'm a great writer, but rather that it is one of my greatest callings. Great because it falls in the top three of those things I'm supposed to do in this life before leaving it -- something that will have made a difference when I'm no more than dust once again.

Plan B turned out to be focusing on writing for more local audiences. It was a fallback position, but nonetheless, it provided a new challenge, and I dove in eagerly.

Writing local has helped me find a grounding point, to be rightly intentional about another primary calling of mine -- that of motherhood. It's kept me closer to home and tethered more certainly to the place and people around me.

And it has been a blessing, more so than I ever could have imagined when I first set out with it seeming like Plan B.

Take for example Sunday morning. I'd just finished my monthly-or-so stint as a cantor at our church. And as I gathered my folder and prepared to leave the sanctuary, I realized someone was near me, and seemed to be coming nearer.

"Say, you...are you the one who writes? In the newspaper?" he asked. This wasn't going to be a parishioner telling me thanks for the music. No, it was about something else entirely.

"I just wanted to tell you that I love your work," he said. "I hadn't made the connection until just now but as I was watching you sing I realized, that's her. That's the one who writes the column. I just wanted to say, keep up the great work!"

Granted, I shouldn't need accolades such as this. The work in itself should be enough of a blessing -- and it is. But there's nothing more satisfying to a writer than to know she's made a connection with her readers.

Because quite frankly, I can't keep all my readers in mind as I'm in my office, or some corner of my house or a coffee shop, writing away. I try to focus on one or two people and write to them. Sometimes I write to and for myself and just hope it will reach others too.

So to realize those efforts have touched someone -- it's a pretty crazy, cool feeling. If it's happened to you, you know what I'm talking about.

I've had similar experiences before -- at the park, the grocery store, always when I least expect it, and often when I'm not prepared. It can be happily jarring because when I'm not in my writing hole I am in a different mode. And when these two world collides: wow!

I know that with the world as it is now I might have still experienced this, even if I wrote exclusively for a national or international audience, through digital means. But I don't think there's anything as thrilling as experiencing it in person, right in the little world of my city.

In the years since I've been writing local, I've slowly come to realize that it isn't the Plan B after all. It's just the Plan A I wasn't expecting, and cherish all the more for having discovered it at all.

Q4U: Have you had one of these "worlds colliding" moments as a writer? What was it like?

July 23, 2014

Being in the Right Space to Write

It's just a greeting card. How hard could it be to write in it and send it off, right?

But for me, there's a deliberation process, because to me it's not just a card. It's my words, from the heart, written to someone I care about. And for whatever reason, I can't usually make myself sit down in the middle of a busy day and dash off a message in a greeting card and feel good about it.

I have to carve out the right kind of space for something like this. I want to be in the right place, the right space, to write, whether it's a greeting card or a column. The right space is important.

I've written about writing spaces before, but this is a little different. This is more than just finding the right physical space. It's about finding the right mental and even emotional space. And in this case - the case of writing out greeting cards to loved ones - the right spiritual space as well.

I didn't realize how important this was until recently. I would procrastinate when it came to writing out things like greeting cards. But now I see it wasn't procrastination, but a matter of not having the right space.

I'm reading a book right now that helps me make my point. In his writings on "Interior Freedom" from his book with the same name, Jacques Philippe says:

"In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we're 100 percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. This is very difficult, since we have a strong sense of proprietary rights to our time and easily tend to get upset if we can't organize it as we choose."

Guilty! But at the very least, I'm aware of it, and I'm trying. And that brings me around again to the greeting card thing. Even though the writing of the greeting card implies time and distance, I retain that same sense within me that if I am writing such a card in the middle of busy, I am not really focusing. I am not giving that person the attention they deserve.

If my heart is in the wrong place, the words I write will be wrong, too. I can feel that. It's true.

So lately, I've been bringing some of the greeting cards I want to send with me to the chapel where I spend time one evening hour each week. As I sit there at the feet of Jesus, I pull out my envelopes and cards and write what's on my heart. There are no distractions, and I am there with the person; really there. And it feels right.

It's just a greeting card, I know, but to me, it's part of my heart I'm sending off in the mail, and I want to feel as if I am looking that person in the eye as I write. I want them to feel my heart, and not the distractions around me.

Being in the right space to write, as I've found, can make all the difference, whether it be a tome or a small thank you card. And I'm glad I've discovered this and that I have a place to go to offer my best attention to those deserving of it.

Q4U: Have you felt this dilemma, even with the simplest writings? How did you solve it?

July 16, 2014

The Humanity in Handwriting

My grandmother, on the cusp of her 100th birthday, had sent along a gift in a sealed envelope to be given to my niece at her graduation. And at the party afterward, as the envelope was passed to her, my sister and I both froze, exchanging glances as if to say, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

One of us, I can't remember which one, said it out loud, so we knew that, indeed, we were on a very similar brainwave.

We'd both been completely struck by Grandma's writing in the brief moment it had swept past our eyes. No more than a few written words was all, but it was Grandma's very essence in some inexplicable way.

All those tags she'd slipped onto birthday, Christmas, Easter presents through the years, to us, from her, in her writing, it was her. That was her. Her writing represented her in more ways than either of us had pondered before and it had hit us both square on.

"This is the Grandma you have known," it seemed to say. "This is me. Not the person you have seen lately, with distant eyes." Lately, Grandma seems to come into and go out of this world frequently most days, but her writing, now that seemed very much intact.

Freezing that moment was like holding onto a part of her we thought we'd lost.

It wasn't the first time I'd been affected so powerfully by handwriting. A few months earlier our cousin Greg had sent a note through the mail the old-fashioned way. In these days, handwritten snail mail stands out as something special, especially, perhaps, for those of us who have lived in times past when this was the primary way to communicate on paper; before smooth electric typewriters and computer processors and ipads and all the other ways we tap out our words.

When I opened the envelope and unfolded the note, I stopped breathing for a moment. Greg's handwriting was as close to my father's as any I'd ever seen. 

Dad had been gone only a little over a year, but it was as if he were standing right beside me. It was in the way he forms his B's, and all the capitals, and the R's, exactly like Dad used to make them.

Is handwriting inherited, I wondered? Can it be passed down from uncle to nephew even when they did not grow up in the same space?

I felt both slightly unsettled and deeply comforted all at once. It was a gift, mostly, and I could not deny that.

Realizing the power of the handwritten word anew, I can't help but wonder, will we lose this? Will the the dying of the handwritten word eliminate the power of words that spring not from a key but from our fingers? Will we no longer be transported in the same way to another moment, and feel as if we are standing next to those we love by a simple gaze at their writing?

Will the humanity in our writing be lost when the written word by hand is no more?

I'd like to think not, but it seems too far gone now. We are knee deep in the digital age, and I am feeling the loss of what was -- and in a way the younger generations may never feel. You can't miss what you've never known, after all.

And yet I hope I am wrong. I hope that there will always be a place in this world for a pen pressed into a hand pressed into a piece of paper in order to communicate a thought, one human being to another.

Q4U: What are your thoughts about the handwritten word? Have you ever had an emotional response to handwriting?

July 9, 2014

Under the Green Umbrella in NYC

I knew it was going to be just about impossible to meet up with her during our visit to New York in March, but it was worth a try. She lived just a hop, skip and jump away, after all.

After sorting through the possibilities by text, finally, an opening emerged. Our group, which I was helping chaperone, would be hanging out for a while, waiting for the rain to pass, at the American  Museum of Natural History. It was our best bet for finding a common place to converge.

"I can make it work," she said, and we made arrangements for where we'd meet and about what time.

I soon realized that if I were to get involved in museum browsing I might risk this one chance to see her. We'd only be there an hour or so after all. No, better to blow off the offerings within and wait outside. I love museums but I love friends more, I decided. Besides, I was craving some alone time.

There's indeed a special bond between writer friends, a certain language you share that not everyone understands. There are common dreams, parallel frustrations and a way of looking at the world in all its wonder and curiosity that can't be communicated with just anyone -- not in the same way, at least.

I treasure my writing friends. Pretty much all of them also double as friends with whom I connect on a spiritual level. Quite honestly, the chance to see Lenore, even if just for a short while, would be one of the highlights of my trip because, well, she's not something to just look at and study. She's someone I know, someone with whom I've eaten Italian food in Fargo, and gourmet cuisine in a screened-in porch in Pennsylvania with golden leaves as a backdrop.

Most of our crossings happen in email, and often, the stretches between even those can get long. But I adore this woman, who has been, at times, a mentor, and other times someone with whom I'm closer to eye level as a fellow professional writer.

We both started our careers in journalism and made our way to children's books. We both have read and love Flannery O'Connor's "The Habit of Being." We are mothers who understand the sacrifices of family life and how that and the writing life can sometimes bump into one another, but that it's important to try to work it out.

And so I looked to our meeting with great anticipation. As the rain came down, I waited and watched.

Writers are good for that, so for a long time I was very content to be outside and not inside, where I'd likely be overwhelmed by the offerings given the small amount of time we'd have to gaze at them. Instead of admiring dinosaur bones, I was content admiring passersby on the sidewalk as they rushed past, or paused, or peered.

I caught the eye of these twins, and asked their mama if I could take their photo.

After a while, though, I started to get worried. I'd seen a lot of people coming and going in what had been nearly an hour of waiting.

Each time I thought Lenore was about to round the bend, I became a little more glum as I realized it wasn't her, and that the clock was not going to pause on our account.

Soon, our buses showed up -- green bus and blue bus. I began to feel a tightness in my chest; a sadness.

One by one, members of our group began springing out of the museum doors and finding their way back into their bus seats, and as they did, I knew I was going to have to surrender. I knew she was close, but I couldn't hold up our group. I didn't have that kind of power.

So I trudged to the bus, trying with all my might to suppress my emotion. All that excited anticipation had to go somewhere and it wasn't going to be into a sphere where Lenore would be, apparently. 

My eyes met my daughter's as she appeared at the front of the bus, not far from where I was sitting. "It didn't work out. She didn't make it," I told her. She responded, "I'm so sorry. I know how much you wanted to see her."

But I was now resigned. It was over and I had to accept it.

Just as the last of the pack began to trickle in, however, someone said, "Roxane, your friend is here."

What? Could it be?  I looked out the window and there she was -- Lenore -- under a big, green umbrella, looking up at me, waving.

I ran into the aisle and down the stairs in disbelief. "You made it!"

Our time together was going to be exceedingly brief, so we agreed that a quick hug and photo would have to do to mark our world-record-short writer-friend meeting.

It was a thrill for me to introduce Lenore to my daughter, whose high school choir had brought us there. I'd shared a lot about my kids with Lenore through the years, and now, one of them was here in the flesh. Their pose under Lenore's big green umbrella will always be special to me. 

I had to jump in too for the necessary proof we were all together at the same time, even if short on time.

Thinking back now on that day in front of the museum in NYC, emotion easily returns; first a good dose of humility, because once again I'd gotten it wrong. I'd given up, decided that what I'd hoped for was never going to happen, and that my little prayer had fallen on deaf ears. But as it turned out, hope had not failed me. 

I also feel a great deal of gratitude, especially toward Lenore. Our lives have seemed increasingly filled with obligations, and we don't talk as much as I'm sure we'd both like, but I know that her being there that day was a sacrifice. Despite all the obstacles before her she still made her way through the travails of traffic in the city, in the rain, just to see me.

As E.B. White once wrote, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

And so is Lenore. 

By the way, you can read about the rest of Lenore's adventure on her blog, A Globby Bloogie.