Thursday, January 17, 2019

First Post of the New Year

My return to a daily writing practice is reinforcing important lessons in other areas of my life. I was explaining to a friend on the phone how my objective with my writing these days is simply to show up to the page and write. I don't have a particular project or outcome in mind. But the daily writing isn't an aimless pursuit. It's like weight training for my mind. It's loosening up my thinking and creativity and because I've been in this space before, I know that when an idea or project crops up, I'll be ready.

This friend and I have yoga in common. As I was explaining my writing practice to her, a yoga anecdote came to mind. For the nearly eight years I have practiced yoga, the half moon pose has taunted me. It is a balancing pose. One foot is planted on the floor while the other leg is lifted behind at a 90 degree angle from the floor. The body bends at the hips, so that the hand on the same side as the balancing foot reaches (ideally) to the floor.

This pose was so challenging because I have tight hamstrings that don't allow for easy access to the floor. I could find myself really frustrated by my inability to lift the back leg 90 degrees, by the pain in the standing hamstring, or by my general wobbliness.

Among the myriad lessons of yoga teacher training, chief among them was the importance of not resisting what I cannot do today. There were a lot of poses or drills that were beyond my capacity in the six months of training, but what I remembered was the importance of showing up and doing what I could. What was happening in the smallest increments, (so small I couldn't recognize it in real time) was I was gaining strength, flexibility, knowledge of my body and its mechanics, and confidence.

In one class a few nights ago, the teacher and same friend I was explaining all of this to on the phone, guided us into half moon. I followed her prompts and was in it! Just like that. I wasn't wobbling. I was solid in the pose. My back leg was at a 90 degree angle. My hand was propped on a block to bring the floor closer. This ability had sneaked up on me, while I was showing up at my mat, doing the work. I know that had I kept forcing half moon it would not have come so accessibly when it did. I laid the groundwork and the pay off—the full expression of the pose— followed.

“If you feel stuck, stop pushing. Resistance freezes. Acceptance flows.” - Martha Beck

I accepted where I was in my yoga practice and let it be okay. I did what I could and let go of what I couldn't until one day, that changed.

The same goes for my writing as this blog post demonstrates. I have written every day for the entire month of this New Year. I haven't felt like I had anything pressing to say on my blog, but I've shown up and put words on the screen. Each morning I really have no plan for my writing, I welcome whatever fills the page.

Today I heard the phone conversation with my friend taking shape as a blog post, and I stayed open to what might come. I labeled it “Potential Blog Post” in case something workable came of it, I could search the document and find it later.

If I had come to the laptop every morning determined to write something to post, that force would have stopped the flow of creativity. Instead this day's page has been written in about 15 minutes. I am showing up for my work, my craft, and letting that work have its way with me. It's the only way now. Seventeen days into the month and I've written more than 11,000 words.

Page Done.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Rejection Housekeeping and the Next Rejection

A few months ago, I did some digital housekeeping and created a better filing and numbering system for my submissions and rejections. In the process, I determined my numbering was off, so I have now corrected that and feel confident that my system will help me track my rejections and publications moving forward.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business. On November 14, I received the email announcing that I did not receive one of the Sustainable Arts Foundation’s grants for artists who are raising children. This makes rejection 19.

I haven’t submitted much this year. It’s been a quiet year of grieving and regrouping. I have been focused on learning how to garden and teach yoga. I am fine tuning my understanding of the rhythms of life. There is value in honoring and adhering to the particular seasons of life. It’s a relief to remember that I cannot write without breaks to catch my breath and live into the next season of writing. This insight helps me relax and take each moment as it comes.

I read the jurors’ comments to a coworker who I had encouraged to also submit an application. I felt tightness in my throat as I read the words.

“Generally speaking, I think blog posts don’t make for the strongest writing samples…it’s just really hard for most of them, with their more casual, sometimes off-hand style, to compete against really polished samples prepared for print or more formal publication. I hope this is helpful, and I wish you the very best with your work.”

It was helpful feedback. I will avoid including blog posts as part of my portfolio in future grant applications, but the reality is that’s where I am right now. I am primarily writing blog posts. So now what? But also, the blog posts I included were not the bulk of my submission.

The second juror addressed the short story, which made up half of the 15-page portfolio. It was the first short story I’d written as an adult and focused on a woman and her aging grandfather. It took some courage to finish it and to submit it for consideration. The juror asked, “Other than this being potentially the last visit, what makes this visit stand out from all the others? Why is this the one to record?” She wrote that the shift in my story “threw her,” wished she’d “had a clue earlier of what was coming.” Then finished with “I enjoyed reading this…”

Now I was defensive.  These comments felt all over the place and didn’t give me much to go on to improve my storytelling. Also, when a reader is “thrown” that’s generally not a good thing, so don’t soften it by then telling me that you enjoyed reading it. See? I was defensive.

I have learned how to take and offer constructive feedback from writing retreats and workshops I’ve attended. In those spaces, I didn’t always hear glowing comments, and I grew from having heard what needed to be said. I was disappointed that juror two’s comments didn’t give me clear direction forward.

For a short time after receiving the email, my internal monologue wasn’t upbeat. What am I doing? What is the point of this? Those questions evoked defeatist feelings, but they were crucial to ask. Even more important was my willingness to wait for the answers and to consider what bubbled to the surface.

Am I writing to be famous? No.

Am I writing to be rich? No.

Am I writing to understand myself and the world around me better? Yes.

Am I writing to help others not feel alone? Yes.

Do I feel joy when I write? Yes.

Do I have something to say? Yes.

Rejection 19 helped clarify how words shape my life and what I want to do with them. I am reminded of what a number of published authors have said about being published. If they'd got the book deal early on when they wanted it, they would not have been prepared for everything that comes with publication.
If I'm published, I want it to be my best work. I know I'm not there yet, but I am so much closer than I was five years ago when I started 300 rejections. These mounting rejections are practice ground. I have to keep writing to get to the story that will be ready for publication. I have no idea what that story will be, and it is a relief to not be freaked out by the uncertainty. I know how much better I feel for having written what I have so far. These rejections are asking me to commit over and over to this life of writing for the sake of writing. The rejections ask of me courage, determination, and grit. Am I up for that?
This exploration reminded me of what happened after I wrote a story to accompany my friend’s handmade doll. She recalled what it was like to watch the little shopper at her booth find the doll, read the doll’s story, and exclaim, “I am Prism.”

This story made me tear up. My words connected the child with the doll. My imagination made space for this child to feel seen and to know she matters.  My heart expands each time I string words into sentences and send them out into the world to be read.

For a season, I lost track of all of that. Rejection 19 reminded me to keep my eye on what I really want. Turns out, I already have it.
My job is to keep writing and trust that what’s supposed to come my way will come in its own time.

Monday, November 12, 2018

More to Say about Grief- 11 Months Later

2018 feels like three years in one. I cannot believe that eleven months ago my grandpa died. It feels like yesterday that my feet burned inside the funeral car after standing at the snow-covered graveside with no trees to block the arctic prairie winds that blew.
Grandpa's death was a devastation, but I was prepared for it. Another loss blindsided me weeks after I lost Grandpa. I haven't acknowledged that loss in this space because it has taken many months to wrap my brain around it. I haven't had words to make sense of it, and plus I was hurt. Hurting, double time.
Also, had I written about it then, I would have been really melodramatic, and I had no use for melodrama. Being still and letting the grief wash over me and do its work was the best way to cope. My, have I learned how to grieve well in recent years.
Tonight as I listened to an episode of the podcast, Armchair Expert with Dax Shepherd, I heard this post begin to write itself. Dax was interviewing Zach Braff. They are both actors, directors, and writers, and they were comparing notes about the writing process and how hard it is, how much discipline it requires, and what works for them in accomplishing a writing session or a finished draft.
Hearing these two creatives talk about their craft reminded me of the conversations I used to have with this particular person. 
On and off for the past eleven months I've had imaginary conversations with both my grandpa and my friend. The conversations with Grandpa always come so naturally. I imagine him hearing me and responding, and so my imagination and broken heart have been soothed.
The conversations with the friend are laced with a mixture of other things: a little sass, a little resentment, a little pout, and not a little bit of fire, feistiness, bravada (my feminine version for bravado).
Dax and Zach's conversation made me think of all the things I've wanted to tell this friend over the months. For instance:
  • How different my approach to writing has become. I write because I am compelled to. If readers read, that's great, but I no longer count or depend on “likes” the way I used to. I enjoyed writing this October's series so much. I felt deeply about the story I had to tell, and was undaunted by the fact that my blog stats showed it wasn't read by as many people as the previous years' series. It was an important story for me to tell, and so I told it.
  • I don't write every day, but when I write, it is life-affirming, and I always find something new to say.
  • My yoga training has been a fiery experience. To get the most out of it, it required me to question a new layer of questions about myself, my fears, dreams, and expectations. I have asked those questions, listened for the answers, and done so with gentle self-care when the answers that surfaced were hard to bear or to wrestle with.
  • The training scared me, which was one of the reasons I registered for it. I have come to learn that the things that scare me are the best experiences for me, and that I cannot shy away from them.
  • I observe my moods, thoughts, and sensations in my body before I react to them with more precision and capability than in the past. This practice has changed life for the better.
  • I feel so different than I did three years ago when this new approach to life seized me.
  • I genuinely enjoyed watching my daughter play soccer—a new sport for both of us.
  • I have a new book idea. The one my friend told me I would write. I was surprised by the declaration that this friend made, but I trusted it, tucked it away for later. In what feels like divine timing, the book idea is finally catching up to me, and I feel really excited about diving into it in 2019. I've known for a long time that I was still living the story, so I had to wait for the story to find me. It has, and I feel certain that the three years of writing has prepared me for this specific project.
  • Armchair Expert podcast is excellent, and I highly recommend it.
There are other things I would tell this friend, and I know they would evoke an 'atta girl' and maybe even a few 'proud of yous.' I don't need to hear them to feel them. This friend's fingerprint is on all of these things, and yet as time passes, the ink fades. That fact would have upset me a lot when I experienced the abrupt change in friendship status, but today, I am at peace with it. The shape shifting our friendship underwent doesn't negate any of the goodness or transformation I experienced. My gratitude for what our friendship gave me keeps the other feelings in check, and for that I feel relieved and capable of moving forward and thriving.
Learning how to lean into the discomfort and to actively grieve the inevitable losses that blow in and out of my life makes it possible to accept this unexpected one. It turns out I don't have to fully understand something to come to terms with it. I am so much better at living adjacent to life's mysteries and the unknown.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

31. What's Next

Since I'm no longer afraid or timid about dreaming big, I've got big ideas about the future of my backyard:

I want it to be a gathering place in the temperate months. A respite for myself, my family and friends. A getaway in a cul-de-sac on a property where the sidewalk ends, literally. I am dreaming of patio parties and workshops for littles where I can introduce them to gardening, planting seeds, cutting blossoms, and feeling closer to nature.

Phase two of the hill transformation will include building two more retaining walls—out of cedar—on either side of the existing flower garden.
The overarching goal for that space is to fill it with visual detail and plant enough stuff (a very technical term) that eventually there is very little weeding to do.
I will expand the size of my cutting garden with more rows of zinnias and sunflowers. (More flowers to share!) I will split my enormous pampas grasses and transplant them to other parts of the hill knowing that they will help fill the space and discourage growth of renegade weeds. Also, more grasses to wave in the wind, thus simulating Kansas prairie.
I envision planting lavender up high along the fence line. I love the color and the look of lavender. I also like that it waves in the wind, takes up space, and requires little maintenance.
By next fall the retaining walls will be built, so I'll know where are the best places to plant bulbs—tulips, daffodils, gladiolas. I want to look out my window in the next few years and be delighted by all the visual features of a space I transformed myself.
While I have no plans to move anytime soon, I do like to daydream about leaving that yard far more beautiful than when I got it. And thinking about the patio parties I will host, the stories told and marshmallows roasted around the fire pit. I like thinking that the bulbs I plant will delight future dwellers as much as the tulips that have been blooming every spring since I moved in fifteen years ago.
I will continue to document my journey on Instagram (@journalingjulie). I will continue to be inspired by the gardens featured in some of the accounts I now follow, especially @puscinaflowers in Italy.
I am energized and inspired thinking about how my gardening will influence and factor into my writing. I will be forever grateful for my willingness to lean in to the discomfort I felt about my yard and to follow my curiosities. It was a life-changing summer.

Late season blooms

  Thank you for following me on my journey.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

30. What I Learned

Practically speaking, I learned that the Queen Anne's lace-looking stuff that crops up each season must be vanquished whilst still in bloom. I made that mistake this spring. It looked pretty, and so I kept it around. But after it blooms, burrs develop, and they are insidious. I won't make that mistake again.

On a deeper level, this gardening experiment reinforced things I was beginning to recognize more readily in myself: I am determined, creative, and resilient. I did, in fact, inherit my grandparents' green thumbs. That bit of revelation thrills me to no end. It's a bit like learning that I'm not a complete dunce in the kitchen, which was an old, worn-out narrative I believed about myself for too many years.

I have a three-ring notebook full of reference articles. When something random catches my eye that I think I might want to return to later, I slide it into a page protector and include it in the binder. Recently, I had a few new entries to include. The binder was nearing capacity, so I flipped through it page-by-page looking for articles or idea inspirations that were past their prime. Things that I could remove to make room for other, newer items.

I was delighted and surprised to discover how many times something garden related had been added to this reference binder over the years. It seems I've been nurturing a desire to garden, to get my hands in the dirt and grow something, for a long, long time. Much the same way I nurtured my love of writing, long before I decided to claim that as a passion and something I would pursue with tenacity. Flipping through those pages was a form of archaeology. It was an enlightening, empowering discovery, and one that will serve and nourish me for years to come.

When I began this journey, I was weary of the physical scenery of my neglected, overgrown backyard. I was also tired of the stress and belief that to fix the mess, I would have to spend thousands of dollars I simply do not, nor would I have, for the foreseeable future. What a liberating thing to decide I would make it better on my own, bit-by-bit, and as budget allowed.

I was rewarded time and again by my willingness to ask for help and admit I was a novice. That quality has brought to my life the most serendipitous and helpful conversations and interactions. It also gave me the space to think out loud, to dream, and to plan.

In the process, I also had the chance to dwell in the memories of my grandparents, to ask myself the questions I would have liked to ask my grandmother, in particular, and by doing so now, wait quietly for spirit and my own intuition to help guide me to her answers.

Like my 40/40 list three years ago, this gardening experiment has been another practice ground for sharpening life and coping skills. It has served as a mirror to reflect back to me what I am seeing, feeling, and experiencing in life during this season. It's given me space to ask questions, listen for the answers. It's also been a safe place for me to grieve some losses that still felt fresh when the season began.

I feel stronger, more sure-footed, more hopeful about the future. I believe in the power of the changing of seasons—both physical and emotional.

I am the proud owner of a few new tools and a whole lot more confidence. I challenged some preconceived notions, and came out stronger than before.

I learned that I am much like the zinnias I grew: hearty and capable of withstanding harsh conditions. I am colorful, bright, and strong. I learned I AM a gardener, and far less of a novice than when I started brokenhearted and overwhelmed this spring.

Monday, October 29, 2018

29. Many Hands Make Lighter Work

The season is winding down. I feel it, and while at first I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to my flower garden, I am now. As I put my garden to bed, a new crop of story ideas and a new book project have landed lightly on my mind and heart like the monarch butterflies that have visited the zinnias in the cutting garden. I am ready to turn my full attention to a new season of writing.

In the past month, I have had the help of two sets of friends put the finishing touches on this gardening experiment gone very, very right. On September 29, five friends sacrificed their Saturday mornings to help me regrade the first level of ground past the main retaining wall.

Nine years before, the wall collapsed. It hadn't been originally built with drainage, so pressure built up, and kaboom! When the wall was rebuilt, the filler rock wasn't redistributed or graded, so it was a twisted ankle waiting to happen. It had also been host to an eye sore of renegade weeds.

My friends moved the rock around and then used a rented vibrating compactor to smooth out the surface and prepare it for weed block and mulch. They also transplanted a volunteer sycamore tree onto the grass part of the yard below. 


The rock did not make digging out this tree an easy task.

The laborers captured by my daughter lounging in the hammock.

Use of the vibrating compactor.


I paid them in really good pizza, and as we refueled and reflected on what we'd accomplished in a few hours, they discussed what my next steps were. I needed to buy weed block, staples, and order five to six cubic yards of cedar mulch.

I swallowed the pizza and tried to digest how I was going to do that next task alone. I didn't stew long because I had a summer's worth of surprise achievements under my belt.

I also knew how to proceed: Break. It. Down.

And so I did. 

I bought my supplies and then worked on it after work for several evenings.

Finishing some evenings by moonlight.

I was ready for my next set of friends who brought wheelbarrows, shovels, and a lot of pluck. We tackled the pile of mulch in my driveway. Over the three hours it took to complete the job, we tweaked and finessed our strategies and tactics and moved that mulch up and over the retaining wall. 

This is what 5 cubic yards of mulch looks like.

We've only just begun...

We've got a system down, and are making steady progress.

More progress.

These women join me in my wild adventures, and I'm grateful. I'll redistribute the piles when I'm rested.

It was hard work, but it was also deeply satisfying. It felt good to move my body in so many ways, and thanks to my yoga training, to do so safely. We worked smart, so we didn't have to work too hard.

We enjoyed a good meal and then went our separate ways. I went directly to soak in a tub of Epsom salts and relaxed the rest of the day. I am really mastering how to balance productivity and leisure, and both states feel great.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

28. Wheat State

I've thought a lot about my beloved Grandpa as I worked in my yard this summer. The last time he came for a visit, he looked out the window and brainstormed with me what I could do to rein in the weeds and tame the hill.
This man was one of my best friends, and he knew it. He told me once that he wanted me to get a hobby. I told him I had my writing and he reminded me that I could talk to him any time. But he also said that he was an old man and wouldn't be around forever. The way he saw it, a hobby would help keep me company when he was no longer around.
That conversation has replayed in my mind repeatedly all summer. I wish so much that I could tell him about my efforts, my successes, and my progress in my backyard. I want to tell him that gardening became a hobby and helped me grieve his death.
When we talked two years ago, I joked about planting wheat. To my surprise, Grandpa didn't completely laugh off the idea. We talked out the pros and cons of planting wheat. I was grateful that he took my considerations seriously.

For more than 40 years, he had a side hustle that produced beautiful leather work for horse hitches including the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales. He did business as the Wheat State Hame Company. I suggested wheat because what I want most on that hill is to look out and see plants and flowers that remind me of the beauty of Kansas. Sunflowers and wheat, iconic Kansas images.
Whether I plant wheat or not is irrelevant. What is beautiful is knowing how proud Grandpa would be of my efforts and my willingness to make something of that space with my own sweat, wits, and imagination.
Who knows? Maybe I'll throw some wheat up there in his honor after all.
Gramps and me in 2015