Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Collage as art, souvenir, and meditation

When I'm not telling stories in words, I tell them with images through collage. I have always found comfort and creativity in the cutting and pasting of images that catch my eye. I'm not an artist in the traditional sense, but I am able to create something unique and beautiful through my collages.

I have created collages for most of my travels abroad. These souvenirs are my answer to scrapbooking. The benefit of the collage for me is that when I hang the framed collection of memories on the wall, I can relive my trip every day rather than having to pull a photo album off the shelf, which I likely wouldn't do.

Like succinct writing, collage requires an economy of images to tell the overall story. There isn't room to include every photo from the trip, so I choose the ones that help tell the story best.

This past Christmas I used my collaging skills to create a gift for Cadence. I had a Coldplay calendar that had been a prized gift from a friend in the UK from a few years back. I decided to dismantle the calendar and to choose images to create a memento to remember our summer Coldplay concert experience. I chose a calendar page for each of us and then created notecards from other images. I enjoyed giving the calendar a new life through the collages and notecards. It seemed a better way to honor my friend's gift than to let it collect dust on a shelf somewhere.

This is the collage I made for my daughter. It includes a LOVE pin they handed out at the doors, confetti that fell from the ceiling, and her ticket stub.

I wasn't prepared for her reaction. “This is one of my favorite gifts! I love it. Thank you so much, Mommy! Can I take it with me to college?”

Her reaction restored my faith in the idea that handmade gifts carry a lot of weight and meaning. And that the best gifts don't have to cost a lot of money.

She's commented about her collage repeatedly since Christmas. When I asked her why she loved it so much, she told me, “Because it's a good memory from an awesome concert.”

That's exactly what I wanted it to be for her. That night in July was pretty amazing. I hope when she looks at the collage she remembers that our seats were close enough to the floor that she walked away from me to get a closer look at the lead singer, Chris Martin, as he walked through the audience. I hope she remembers the excitement she felt when she returned to her seat and yelled, “I touched Chris Martin's arm!”

No matter how big a fan I am, I would never have had the gumption to reach out to my favorite singer. Never. Not in my forties, and definitely not when I was nine. Her moxie in that moment made me admire her even more than I already did.

This weekend I felt a little restless, so I worked on my collage to complete the Coldplay collection. With scissors, rubber cement, glue gun, and quiet creativity at the ready, I put the elements of my collage together. The process was like meditation. I quieted the noisy chatter in my mind with each snip of paper and swipe of glue. It is true: art heals and soothes and makes the world better.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Labyrinth Walk with a Friend

My last walk through the labyrinth was last October. How time flies! I had mentioned to my friend, Renee, that I'd like to take her for a walk through the labyrinth if she was interested. She gave me an enthusiastic yes, so we set a date and marked our calendars.

The morning was crisp and the sunshine bright. We talked for a few minutes in the car before walking to the path. We paused to read the sign to introduce Renee to the history of the labyrinth. Before we started the walk, we agreed that we would walk at our own pace, and meet in the middle. Renee had the great idea to sit on the ground in the middle of the labyrinth with our backs touching. This way we could have our own space, but still feel connected to one another.

In the car Renee shared that her daughter was traveling abroad and having a profound, life-changing experience, so that was what we were focusing on as we took our walk. I was there to guide her through the experience for the first time and to hold space for her as she thought about her daughter's experience a continent away.

Walking the labyrinth with others always reminds me that my default walking speed is fast. I have to be really mindful about slowing down, breathing, and allowing space between us. I was restless as I walked. My thoughts were bouncing around everywhere. I couldn't seem to get my breathing, thoughts, and walking to sync up. I worked on not judging this and kept walking.

Sitting back-to-back, I directed my focus to the giant tree ahead of me. In this space, leaning against my dear friend is where I achieved a sense of peace and calm. I took in the deep blue of the sky and marveled at the way the autumnal sun makes the world glimmer.

I thought about Renee. I prayed that she was having a positive experience. I prayed for her daughter. I thought about how we come from different religious faiths, and how grateful I was that she was open to this spiritual practice of mine.

After a time, I was ready to begin winding my way out of the labyrinth.  Since I was walking ahead this time, I felt less pressure that I would be walking too fast. The restlessness I felt was gone. Peace and calm had washed over me.

Renee and I met at the bench afterwards. We sat in silence for awhile and then we began sharing our experiences. I needed the girl talk and especially from a sister-friend who is further along in years and experience. She helped me untangle some of the questions weighing on me about motherhood and life in general.

I am so grateful for the labyrinth in my life. I love how each visit is so unique and teaches me new things or reflects back to me the things I'm working through at the time. 

There are a few other labyrinths in the city I have not yet visited, and Renee said she would go with me. I look forward to adding those trips to my spring calendar.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bloom Where You're Planted

“If you tell me to call that eight hundred number in Ohio, I swear I'll jump over this counter and wring your neck,” said the blonde soccer mom.

This level of anger and type of personal interaction was de rigeur every day at the mobile phone company I worked for a year out of college. Being a front line customer service representative was awful and so draining. I didn't have a vision yet for what I should be doing (writing), so I stumbled along for months. I wore out the managers-on-duty with my requests for them to break the news to customers: your phone is out of warranty.

Finally, one day one of them said, “You've got to do this on your own.”

Some time later, I found this watch, which reads “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” I bought it and wore it to work. It became my mantra. I was determined to grow in this position.

Without calling it this at the time, I used my words to improve my circumstances. I devised scripts that could help me deliver bad news to customers. I learned how to reframe their situations, to tell them what I could do, what their options were, while also setting the boundaries of the company's policies.

As luck would have it, the scripts worked. Once I'd tested them and refined them, I shared what worked with my colleagues. It gave me a surge of pride when I heard one of my meeker co-workers using my words.

This high-stress, low-pay job is where I began finding my voice and learning to navigate how to operate without freezing in conflict.

One day toward the end of my tenure in this position I called the next number and a man approached my terminal. “I have been fighting my bill over the phone for hours without any success. I'm just warning you, I'm not leaving until this gets fixed.”

He thought he was threatening me, but he hadn't met the soccer mom.

“Well, you haven't worked with me yet, pull up a chair and let's get to work.”

The company had put an erroneous $300 charge on his bill. Call center folks had told him to pay the bill and he'd be credited later. Stellar customer retention plan. Wisely, the customer wasn't agreeing to that conflict resolution strategy.

Together we poured over months' worth of bills. I called my colleagues in the call center and began advocating for this man.

“I'm authorized to give a credit of $25,” said one person after I'd explained the situation.

“Well, clearly that's not going to work, the error is $300,” I said. “I need to speak to your manager.”

I explained the scenario to the next person. When I received more push back about crediting the high amount, I said, “Look, we made the error, not the customer. If we don't correct the error, he's going to close his account and tell everyone he knows about his dissatisfaction with our company. That will cost us a lot more than the $300 we rightfully should be crediting his account. The error is OURS.”

There was a pause.

The manager returned to the line. “If you'll refresh your screen, you'll see the $300 dollars has been removed from the account.”

“Thank you so much. This was the right thing to do.”

The customer left satisfied and still a customer. I left my shift feeling proud of my day's work. I had come a long, long way.

I have the opportunity to talk to high school students about my career path—my achievements, failures, and my experiences, in a few weeks. I'm excited to share a less familiar career success story: how seemingly aimless jobs can be the building blocks of a solid professional life. Those miserable face-to-face interactions with cell phone customers honed skills that I have used at every job since.

Not long after that two-hour customer interaction, I left the company, exhausted, and returned to nanny for the family I cared for the year before. Again, not a pleasant experience, but fertile ground for more learning opportunities. I'll gather up some of those stories and share them soon.

I'm sifting through my personal items and the stories attached to them. I'm deciding what I want to keep and what I can let go of.  The lessons of tenacity, perseverance, as well as knowing when enough is enough are firmly planted in my head and heart. Not only did I bloom where I was planted, I grew out of the space. I've replanted myself in places with bigger space for dreaming and becoming more of myself. I don't need this watch anymore. The watch served me well.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Time as Healer

FaceBook memories reminded me that a year ago yesterday I had written this piece. I reread it and was astonished by how different I feel one year later. I barely remember the heaviness that prompted writing that piece, and I am ever so grateful that I did. The adage Time heals all wounds might be a stretch, but my life is proof that time indeed does have a healing quality. For the purposes of continuing to mark time, I decided that this morning's writing would be devoted to commenting on last year's list with how I feel one year later and what I've learned in the past year from each of these honest statements that caused me angst a year ago.

Last year's statements are in bold. This morning's reflections are in italics.

I am coming to terms with how I can be deeply content and profoundly sad at the same time.

The deep contentment persists. I remain absolutely certain that the decision to divorce was the right one for our particular circumstances, and that difficult decision is made easier to bear because my daughter is thriving and I have a solid co-parenting arrangement with her father.
The profound sadness has lifted. I simply do not feel that way a year later. It's remarkable because at the time, I couldn't fathom how I could feel different. I imagine my 42 year-old self patting the hand of last year's Julie. “Trust me, it really is going to get better.”

I am lonely for something or someone I cannot quite put my finger on.

The intense loneliness I felt has also lifted. What I contemplated last year was the idea of being my own companion. This was a shift that required not discounting my own company. There were sometimes on lonely nights as I was falling asleep that I would hold my own hand and that act was strangly comforting. It eased the ache of solitude that plagued me a lot last year. Over time, I simply feel content with my own company. This has been an area of vast improvement for my well-being.

I am weepy, and when those moments come I wonder if I can ever grow strong in my broken places.

Not so weepy these days. I embrace my broken places remembering this: “In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold. The flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object's history, which adds to its beauty. Consider this when you feel broken.”
I do still struggle with the ability to cry alone. I've never been able to do it successfully, so I welcome the tears when they crop up in conversation with a friend or coworker. I also find that tears flow much easier when I'm at church. 
I'm not eating enough.

This issue crops up from time to time, and I suppose it will since I am stress non-eater. I eat much better when my daughter is at home with me because I'm responsible for feeding my child. I have room to grow in remembering that I'm responsible for feeding myself, but it's just not as enjoyable—especially without a sense of smell—to eat alone. All of this came bubbling to the surface when I met Writer-Dude. It would have been easy to shut down the conversation or never speak to this man again after his comment about my weight, but instead I paused. What could this moment teach me? What could I gain from exploring his concern and truth be told, my own concern?

This strange experience with my first post-divorce date led me back to counseling where I've begun to peel away deeper layers of my emotional pain. The man is no longer in my life, but I am benefiting from his ill-timed concern.

My daughter is joining the Girls on the Run team at school and I plan to run with her. This will require that I do a better job of fueling my body. 
I miss my daughter when we are apart.

This will never change, but I don't feel bereft when we're apart. I know she has a great time with her dad and that she's in good hands. The time apart offers me an opportunity to recharge my energy and pursue my interests without interruption. It also makes our Wednesday reunions even sweeter.

I'm tired of thinking about the debt I have to pay down.

I've accepted that this is where I am for now and take comfort that I won't always be in debt. I have removed the shame I felt that I had a credit card balance. I remembered that life happens. Cars break down. I didn't amass debt because I shopped too much at The Limited. 
I have made adjustments to my money management, which helps me feel more in control, and I am pursuing a freelance writing gig. Sometimes I fantasize about a big chunk of money appearing out of nowhere, but honestly, I really want to conquer this on my own. It will be another story I tell myself of my ability to care for myself and my family. I stopped wringing my hands, accepted where I am, and made a plan for how to move forward. I like that narrative much better.

I'm scared that I may never be a published writer.

I'm not worried about this anymore. I love writing at my blog. I honor the writing I do here, and appreciate the fact that I have generous readers who encourage me and seem to benefit from the stories I tell. This writing is enough. It fuels me. It heals me. It makes me feel good. If other opportunities come my way, I will welcome them, but I will not consider myself “less than” if a book deal does not come my way.

I'm scared that the story I'm writing will never be as good outside my head as it is inside.

Again, not something I worry about anymore. I know how important writing Astrid's story has been to my life. That's what's important. I've got bigger fish to fry than to worry about something like this.

I get anxious when I can't plan for the future or even have the remotest idea what might come my way.

This is the biggest area of improvement. I simply am not worried about what does or does not come my way. It's a measure of how far I've come in practicing living in the present. What happens eight months from now is not my business today. I'll get there when I get there. Time and time again over the past year things and people have crossed my path that I could not have imagined. These moments were glorious, difficult, and instructive, and made all the better because of the element of surprise. I am so much better at taking life as it comes—it's really the only way to live life. 
Settling into the idea of being alone seems to have made the biggest difference in no longer worrying about what's to come. I identified that a lot of my anxiety was coming from a place that was informed by what society says I should do or be: 
Society: Find someone, partner up, that's how you'll be happy in life. 
Me: Well, that didn't work for me the first time. I'd like to consider other options. Like enjoying my own company.

Society: That might work for a bit, but it won't last.

Me: We'll see about that.

I would love to find a partner. But it's no longer a goal. If it happens, it happens. That's such a better place to be.

These winter days have me feeling like I'm a character in Groundhog Day.

Admittedly, I do not weather the dark winter months as well as I used to. On nights without Cadence, I often am unproductive and put myself to bed early. I can't seem to muster much energy with all this darkness, and yet, I no longer think of that as a problem. In fact, I believe we're meant to hunker down, rest, reflect, and recharge before the days get longer and there's more for us to do.

I am an overthinker, and am wondering how to turn off the chatter in my head.

Still an overthinker, but I have found ways to quiet the chatter: walking and writing, chiefly. I accept myself for who I am so much more than I did at any other time in life. I am gentler with myself. I don't berate myself for what I think are flaws. I observe them. I see where they might cause me trouble and work to ease that and otherwise I let it go.

The other thing that occurs to me as I reflect: I am much more comfortable with being vulnerable. I am not afraid of sharing where I feel weak or where I need help. In doing that, I know I have grown stronger. And in my new-found strengths, I feel more capable of helping others. Owning my home as a single woman has exposed my vulnerabilities and is a great metaphor for this time in my life. I don't know everything I need to know to maintain this house, but I'm not shy about asking for help. In doing that, I learn, grow in confidence, and appreciate my house more. 
I keep thinking about how far I have come in one, two, three years. I am amazed at how much better I feel. How confident and sure of myself I am. I trust my gut implicitly, and let her drive my decision-making. I keep wondering, Where will another year take me? I am certain that wherever it is, it'll be good.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Power of a Sign - Women's March Post Script

We let the first wave of the March crowd pass us hoping that delaying our trip back down Market Street and onto the train at Union Station would relieve the press of humanity on the trains.

We were wrong. 

I unloaded my backpack of the orange slices and saltines we had packed for a little refreshment and told the girls to get to snackin'. My back was sore from walking and being on my feet for hours and I wanted to lighten the load. The girls used our signs as barriers from the damp pavement and gobbled up the juicy oranges.

After three trains full of people came and went, my friends decided to hire a Uber driver to transport us back to our cars. Our driver was friendly and chatty. We had an opportunity to remind him that what had just transpired downtown, in DC, and across the globe were not protests, but marches—peaceful gatherings to make our voices heard.

Our day's busyness wasn't over. Before I'd planned to attend the March, Cadence and I had decided to attend our local library's Hamilton Lip-Sync Battle in the afternoon. We had an hour of downtime before we needed to leave for that, so I told her I was going upstairs to relax for a bit.

“Mommy, don't come downstairs. I'm working on something and I need you to stay up there, okay?”

I love these moments with my daughter because I never know what's to come but she has a solid track record. It's going to be good.

Actually, I can't really remember what explanation she gave for why I must stay upstairs, and the rustling about made me curious, so I peeked outside my door and glimpsed her hard at work at the bottom of the stairs. I'm glad I didn't get caught because she would have been crushed.

A few minutes later, I heard, “Okay, Mommy, you can come down.”

And this is what I found:


She'd used the leftover poster board to make me a sign and taped it to the bottom of the staircase. Acrostics are her favorite form of poetry these days.

M – Magic

O – Oh so pretty

M – My word she's cool

M – Not exactly sure...something about Home

Y – Yes she's the best


I sat down on the step in front of her and gushed at her creation. “Is it a keeper?” Cadence asked. This is the question she asks when she's proud of what she's created and wants to know if her minimalist mama is going to keep it or move it along. I assured her it was a keeper.

I am so pleased that this historic moment also was a tender moment for she and me. When I took her to England at age five, I was hopeful that she would be old enough to remember the trip. Four years later, she continues to remind me of the good times we had and in astonishing detail. That experience helps me trust that Saturday's event has also been imprinted on her heart, mind, and memory.

I love her use of hashtags, and can only imagine what the next event will be that causes her to use #bestdaywithyou. I'll be ready.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Dating Epistle & Note of Thanks

Dear Writer-Dude,

In the few months that we interacted, I thanked you for various things and you told me not to. Your response caught me off guard. Gratitude is a thing for me—it's how I am oriented. I am grateful for everything that comes my way, including men who say a lot of really great things and then disappear without explanation.

More than a month has passed since the abrupt end of our regular contact. I've had a lot of time to ponder our time together. While our friendship was short lived, it created the space for me to learn new things about myself and get a better grasp of what I want in my new life. I'll be forever grateful to you for that.

Thank you for being wicked smart, gorgeous, tattooed, and having great hair. The fact that you, with these attributes, were attracted to me, built up my confidence.

Thank you for telling me after our second date that you were concerned about my weight. In the past, I've missed red flags and have been nervous that I would miss them again. This comment about someone you didn't yet know, and my ability to recognize it, gave me confidence that my red-flag meter is properly calibrated.

Thank you for being chattier than me and not letting me get a word in edgewise. It provided an opportunity to practice my active listening skills. It also underscored that reciprocity in relationships is essential.

Thank you for our endless conversations about writing and the writing life. These taught me that while writing is my life, I have other interests and want to explore them and share them. When I mentioned wanting to challenge us to talk about something other than writing, your response, “That would be a challenge,” spoke volumes. You really are a great editor and my work improved every time you read it and offered feedback. This, I will truly miss.

I am grateful that you are a devoted, intentional parent and that our times with our children were on alternating weekends. Our opportunities to meet in person were few and far between. This taught me that parenting and dating is hard, and that right now it requires more energy than I want to give to it. This was both an unexpected insight and a valuable lesson.

I am proud of both of us for examining the difficult times in our lives and working hard to rise above them and be the best we can be. Your response was to draw your circle very small. Mine was to draw a much wider one. I am reminded of how grateful I am for my precious tribe.

Thank you for initiating four dates in a row and canceling each of them with little or no explanation or regret. What you didn't seem to appreciate was that I was disappointed every time. I really liked you. I liked your company and our conversations. I wanted to get to know you outside of our text exchanges. Your cancellations created the opportunity for me to be direct and voice, “Enough is enough.” This is a new skill for me, and I am grateful I was able to practice it with you.

Thank you for returning the mug I loaned you weeks before. That mug is a cherished gift from a friend. While I'm not generally attached to material things, the idea of losing it caused me more angst than the thought of no longer seeing you. That, too, was an instructive moment.

I wish you very well, Writer-Dude. You have a lot of pressure and responsibilities that you are shouldering alone. I want things to get easier for you and your children. I will continue to pray for you because that's what I do. I look forward to seeing your work in print. I know it will happen, and when it does, I'll buy a copy.



Monday, January 23, 2017

One of Thousands - Reflections on the Women's March

To begin, I don't like crowds. Too many people in a confined space provokes mild panic.

Secondly, Cadence was going to be with me on Saturday. I wasn't sure how I felt about taking her into the crowd.

Then a friend asked me if I was going. I expressed the concerns above, but knowing she was going gave me courage to consider it.

And then I read the following words from the writer-mama-mentor-activist, Glennon Melton Doyle, who reminds me that We Belong To Each Other and We Can Do Hard Things.


My decision was made.

As I described to Cadence what Saturday's march would be about, I concentrated on our celebration of girlhood and womanhood and wanting an equal opportunity for everyone. Since we live in St. Louis, and she remembers the events of Ferguson three summers ago, I didn't want her to confuse the two and be frightenened. And I prayed that the Women's March would be peaceful.

We'd discussed her wearing her Girl Scout vest at the suggestion of our friend, a Girl Scout leader for her daughters. Friday evening we bought poster board at Target. I asked her what positive messages she wanted to convey on her signs. What immediately came to mind was:

Who Runs the World? GIRLS! (Thanks, Beyonce!)

And then without prompting, she turned the GIRLS into an acrostic.

G – Great

I – Intelligent

R – Radiant

L – Loving

S – Scouts

I was blown away. 


We met our friends at the metro stop near my office. A crowd formed and grew around the ticket kiosks. There was warmth, positivity, and community coursing through these people. The crowd was a diverse mix: women of every age, husbands, mamas pushing strollers and wearing their babies in packs. Cadence made a new friend as our group grew with friends of friends. 


An older woman held a ziploc sandwich bag full of colorful lapel pins. She handed Cadence and I a pin. A souvenir for our pin collections!

With tickets in hand, we walked down to wait for our train. The 8:10 came. It was so full of people, there was no room to squeeze on. We kept talking and waited for the next train. The long wait tested the mettle of our little girls. I reminded them that we weren't missing anything. The crowd here was a good sign. It meant people cared about their concerns and hopes for the future. More trains came and left, packed, without us. On our fifth try, we boarded the train and joined the masses.

When we got to Market Street, we were welcomed by event volunteers. They told us that the march had just started and was a few blocks ahead. We started walking down the middle of the street. The girls shared our signs and we began taking in the experience. 


It didn't take too long to catch up to the crowd. Signs were everywhere. The sentiments were deep, passionate, smart, and funny. I was in word nerd heaven. [My favorites: We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn't burn. And a sign with arrows pointing in all directions that said I'm with her.]

Before the ultrasound determined the sex of our baby, I imagined what mothering the baby I was carrying would feel like. Did I want a boy or a girl? On the one hand, I wanted a healthy baby and so I didn't care if I had a boy or a girl. But as I dug deeper, I believed I was more comfortable with the idea of having a boy since I'd nannied twin newborn boys ten years earlier as a new college graduate. It was familiar territory.

I felt more trepidation about having a girl. It was more personal. I wanted to parent differently than I'd been parented. I wasn't convinced I could accomplish that. I wanted a different relationship with my daughter than I had with my mother. I didn't know how to do that. I was afraid of messing up. And then we learned our baby was a girl. And I was delighted and determined to mother her the best way I knew how.

As I marched down the street, these ancient thoughts washed over me. I was so grateful to have a girl. This girl. And to be sharing this historic moment with her. Loving and mothering her has been the catalyst for my own healing. She has taught me how to be confident, fierce, brave, courageous—for her and for me.

She was the only girl we saw wearing a Girl Scout vest, and she was a hit. Multiple women approached her as they passed us, “We are SO glad you are here! Being a Girl Scout is the best! We are so proud of you! May we take a picture of your sign?” 

As we walked, I couldn't help but think of the suffragettes three generations before me. How they paved the way for today's women in so many ways. I thought of their bravery and courage. How their fight for the vote had been such a long, violent struggle. It brought me to tears.

Cadence, I want you to pretend your brain and eyes are a recorder. This is a really big deal and especially to be a part of it when you are nine. Take it all in. You are going to remember this your whole life.”

My daughter walked with her sign above her head with the message facing backwards. When I suggested she turn it around, she reminded me, “I'm holding it up for the people walking behind me. They're the ones who can see it.”

We arrived at the end of the march where the rally began and found a spot to stop and rest. We took in the crowd and tried to hear what was being said over the PA system. The crowd was remarkable. Smiles were on everyone's faces. The sense of community and goodwill was palpable. We lifted our girls onto the window sill of the building so they could have a better view. 

Photo Credit: Cadence

Photo Credit: Cadence

Photo Credit: Cadence

After a bio break for the girls, we decided it was time to head home. I was worried about a feeling of letdown as we made our way back to the metro stop, but the good vibes continued as we made conversation with women and reflected on what we'd just experienced together. Two days have passed and I'm still thinking about the experience, and so grateful that I stepped out of my comfort zone to experience history.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Rejection #6

Nearly three years ago a set of random events lined up to point me in a new direction. As often happens in life, I didn't know they were conspiring in my favor until after the fact.

Some of those events include a bowl breaking in my kitchen, and then my journaling about it. On reflection I realized it was a big moment. Simultaneously, I was reading a fellow blogger's The Here Year series on marriage. She offered readers an opportunity to write reflections on the topic. I wrote a brief piece, and she agreed to publish it on her blog under my pseudonym, Meg McMahon. The truth of what I was writing was too big for me to own as Julie Steele Mahoney, but I also didn't want it published as Anonymous. You can read it here.

The essay received a number of thoughtful, encouraging comments.  Months passed and then I made other big decisions that have brought me to where I am today. It's astounding for me to consider how far I have come.

Last August, a pen-pal who also happens to be my brother-through-marriage, sent me the winning essay for Glamour magazine's annual essay.  "I thought you would enjoy this story given your love of writing and newfound fondness for cooking. You should be a Glamour essay winner too!"

I had no idea what he was talking about until I finished the article. At the bottom of the page was the announcement of its annual contest: $5,000 prize, meeting with literary agent, and published in the magazine. Theme: the moment everything changed.

I had two months until the deadline and I immediately thought of the story of the broken bowl. I expanded the story into a 2,000 word submission and sent it off. As Julie Steele. I could now own this story as mine! The winner was to be notified by January 15, 2017. That date has passed so I am assuming that the winner is not me. I am now one rejection closer to 300!

My brother-by-marriage had  no idea what he started when he told me about the essay contest. Since I writing this piece, I have decided that it is the first of three I need to write. Together, trilogy will form a collection I called Object Lessons. Since it is not a Glamour winner, I am going to add an anecdote I forgot in the first draft and submit it to an online publication called Full Grown People. It is a goal/dream to be published there. The caliber of writing on the site is stunning, breathtaking, and I would love to find myself in those writers' company.

Most publications do not accept work that has been published on a blog, so I will publish it here only after I've received a few more rejections. In the meantime, I will also work on its companion pieces and shop them around too.

While I would have liked very much to win, I am in no way crestfallen. My pursuit of 300 rejections really has set me up for win-win situations every time. It's such an adventure to write and wait and write some more! I write because I love it and it does my soul so much good. I am mentally healthier because I write. The by-lines and prize money will always be icing on the cake (cream cheese icing, preferably). I really hope to announce that my work has been published somewhere, but until then thanks for reading what I have to say here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Four years ago I took my kindergartner to England to meet my college roommate and her family. The trip had been put on hold during the latest season of my then-husband's unemployment. While he wasn't working, I was banking the money we usually paid for our daughter's childcare tuition. It was a frustrating, worrisome time, but having the goal to travel gave me focus and a healthy distraction.

When we landed in London and were embraced by my friends, I felt the weight of all I had left behind. Unemployment, work stress, and family angst are heavy. You don't notice the weight as much when you carry it all the time. I noticed as I pushed through jet lag that I would think of these stressors and begin to pick them up like the luggage I had packed. And yet, someplace deep in my mind came a wise voice, “Those things cannot reach you here. They are an ocean away. Keep them there. Do not bring them into this space.” I exhaled and mentally set them down. Within a few days, I did not pick them up at all. I remembered the ocean separating me from my real life. I would smile and continue enjoying my vacation, my daughter, and the hospitality of friends.

In the two weeks we were away, I experienced true relaxation and refreshment. I had never felt so calm, so free, so peaceful--ever in my life. The trip was perfectly timed. I had needed the break from reality much more than anticipated.

We flew home. There was no longer an ocean separating me from the headaches of real life. When we picked up our luggage at baggage claim, I also lifted the other baggage that came with my life.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know what happened next: our family trudged along for a while longer. And then unemployment struck for the umpteenth time, and I knew I couldn't do it any longer. So I initiated the dissolution of my marriage. The process finalized. I adjusted to having less time with my precious girl. I also felt a sense of freedom and peace. I felt weak and weepy, and then grew strong, confident, mighty.

Which brings us to this January. A friend I met through the Haven writing retreat invited me to spend the New Year and my birthday with her and her husband. I accepted her invitation and flew to South Carolina. In the space of their southern hospitality, warm temperatures, and views of the water, my body relaxed. Suddenly, I recognized this feeling. It was the “ocean away” sensation, only this time while there was an ocean involved, it wasn't separating me from my life. I breathed and smiled and talked and ate and relaxed some more.

I left their home five days later feeling a renewed sense of restoration and wholeness.

“You've got to find a way to achieve this feeling without having to go anywhere,” my friend suggested.

Two weeks later Mother Nature gave me the opportunity to practice that very thing. An ice storm was predicted. Schools announced their closings the day before. It was my daughter's weekend with her dad. I'd gone to the grocery in advance of the city's rush for bread and milk. I was set.

I left work early on Friday to avoid traffic and the impending ice. I mentally prepared to be iced in, and even when the storm didn't reach the predicted intensity, I stayed in. I walked to the mailbox three days ago--the last time I walked outside my front door. I haven't worn make up for three days. I mastered a balance of productivity and leisure. I finished three books. I sewed Girl Scout patches on my daughter's vest until my fingers hurt, and then I stopped and moved on to the next activity. I spent one entire morning on the phone with one of my best friends, and FaceTimed another member of my tribe twice in two days. I watched and rewatched the new season of Sherlock. I youtubed episodes of the Graham Norton Show. Running the dishwasher, putting away some Christmas decorations, and doing a few loads of laundry were crossed off the list.

As I sit typing, robe on, hair air drying from this morning's shower, I am ready to step back into all that real life entails for me: long commutes to and from work, more letters to write at work than I care to count, the health concerns of family and friends. I have had the “ocean away” experience in my own home, and it is glorious. I know how it feels and how to achieve it: Grant permission to not do anything. Go to sleep early (if you're an early bird, or late if you're a night owl), wake early with a open schedule before you. Congratulate yourself when you accomplish something on the mental to-do list. Congratulate yourself when you sit still doing and thinking nothing as well.

In these days of seclusion, I cleared off my desk, and bed, and the other surfaces that had grown cluttered with piles of paper and to-dos. The physical clearing had a mental benefit too. I saw my way back to writing every day. I opened a new document and typed: PAGE-A-DAY 2017. This post is day two.

This woman with prairie in her blood found the ocean she's been looking for. Turns out she didn't have to go away to find it.

Monday, January 16, 2017

When recommending a book wasn't the answer and other book recommendations in the New Year

She stood at the island in my kitchen. I sat a few feet away at the kitchen table. She was telling me about her particular frustrations mothering her particular children. She didn't often confide these frustrations to me. It felt like a holy moment. I reminded myself that she needed someone to listen. That there was nothing to be said. I could help her most by being quiet and attentive. And I followed my own wisdom for a few minutes.

But then the more she described, the more I was certain that I had a remedy. A title. A book that described the parenting frustrations she was experiencing and suggestions that might provide tips, perspective, relief. Books are my go-to fix for everything. I regularly find myself with the name of a book on the tip of my tongue. “Read this. I'm certain you'll find something good, rich, helpful within the pages.”

I wish I'd kept my big mouth shut. I didn't.

“You should read this book. It helped me so much, and I really think you'd find some helpful suggestions and context in it.”  I hadn't finished speaking when she exploded. Threw her hands up above her head. 

“When do you think I have time to read?!?!”

I sat silent. Hurt, misunderstood, and fuming.

There was such pain and anger in her outburst. Our children who had been playing stopped, silent, watching. Their mothers had just had a fight. I knew the little recorders in their minds and memories were taking this in. I wanted to help guide them through the conflict.

At least one child began crying. Another asked, “Whose fault is this?”

The silence was palpable.

I inhaled deeply and exhaled even deeper. I spoke again.

“It's mine. The fault is mine. Your mama needed someone to listen. I stopped listening. She needed to talk and needed me to listen. It's going to be all right. Everything is okay.”

Replaying that scene in my mind, I felt ashamed. I knew that she needed me to listen. I succeeded at being quiet for a long stretch. Impatience and bad timing and a desire to help got the better of me. I betrayed both of us in that moment. I clobbered the inner wisdom that told me to shush, and my suggestion broke the spell of intimacy and safety that had allowed her to vent about a frustrating situation.

What I couldn't articulate in that moment was that books have saved my sanity many times over. Books have been an escape from situations that I couldn't navigate away from on my own. Books have been mirrors reflecting back who I am and what I believe. In some cases, the characters in books became friends. I wanted these things for her too, and it was why I was recommending the book.

I stopped giving book recommendations for awhile. I didn't want to be the “know-it-all” that the exchange seemed to reveal. With time and reflection, I understand that that moment didn't have anything to do with the book, so I've gotten over not sharing titles with others. I'm still mindful about the context in which I am sharing, but since this is my blog, this platform is always a good place to title drop. These are the first books I've read in 2017. I am thrilled by how good each of them were in their own unique ways.

The Book of Joy – Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

It was on my check-it-out list, and then it came in the mail as a Christmas gift from a friend. I love it very much. I read a chapter, set it down, let the Dalai Lama's conversations with Archbishop Tutu soak in, rumble around in my head and heart, and picked it up for another chapter. It is comforting, encouraging, and motivating.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years – Donald Miller

This book is harder for me to summarize. It's definitely a book for writers. I'm not sure how it would resonate with non-writers, but the stories he weaves throughout are so poignant and rich, that I believe it would be a meaningful read for many. It definitely gave me some fuel for returning to my novel. For that, I am grateful. And it made me tear up, repeatedly.

My AntoniaWilla Cather

A friend I've recently reconnected with after many years told me about this one. The books that people love tells a lot about them, so in getting to know this friend again, I was curious about this book. It was published in 1918, but the story is as relevant and entertaining now as it must have been then. To attempt to move through my vast book list quicker, I found it on audio at the library. It was an excellent choice for audio because of the accents that the narrator peppers throughout the story. 

Here's to reading really great work in 2017. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Year in Review - On my 42nd Birthday

This time last year, I was coming down from the high (and exhaustion) of completing my 40/40 list. I looked at 41 as nine years from age 50 and had a mild (or not-so-mild) freak out. How in THE WORLD was I going to pass the time now?!? All that wide-open space on my calendar--day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year--was intimidating and overwhelming.

At some point the freak out diminished. I rested, binge-watched shows that made me laugh out loud. I also did a fair bit of weeping. I gave myself permission for all of this. Over time I stopped thinking about filling my time and simply lived. Life got easier in the way it should, not because is is devoid of problems, but because I welcomed the difficulties and asked, "What have you to teach me in this moment?"

I also let my word of the year, Trust, guide me. I recognized that in order to live a meaningful life now and in the future, I was going to need to learn how to trust myself in new ways and also to trust that others were trustworthy too. These were not easy tasks in post-divorce life. When I was confronted or presented with something new or scary or uncertain, I conjured my guide word and bathed the situation with the image of what trusting myself and others would look like. This practice reminded me of the physical transformation my body underwent when I was doing four sun salutations a day for a year. These small movements added muscle definition in places that had not been defined before. I gained strength and confidence. The daily practice compounded the benefits. The same happened as I allowed myself to practice trusting myself and others. The more I trusted myself, the better my decision-making skills became and the better my life rolled along.

I spent the year re-reading and reliving the activities of my 40/40 list. I was reminded about all the fun I'd had in challenging myself, sometimes scaring myself, and always learning and growing as I celebrated being in the present. The two years of completing the list and then reflecting on the list have been good.

As I begin my 42nd year, I do so with far less anxiety. I have practiced seeing the unknowns of life as opportunities for adventure and reminders that the illusion of control is rarely helpful or productive. 

On the plane to Charleston last week, I was certain I knew the word I would choose to guide me in 2017. I looked out the window at the frozen landscape of rural Illinois. My weary mind and spirit relaxed as I pondered events of recent days. How one fall for my 94-year-old grandfather could have such drastic ramifications for his ability to live independently, for his physical health, and for my life when he comes to the end of this earthly journey.

I projected into the future what my life would look like and how I would cope. The landscape below looked like works of art. I was soothed and in the relaxing, a new word materialized: Quiet.

Trusting that I would/will be able to handle each situation as it appears, quiet seemed the next right word. It felt like an extension of trust and something I would need to observe in order to get through the next days, weeks, months--given these recent events. And so, it is decided. I will be quiet in 2017. Metaphorically and sometimes literally, though it is no vow of silence for this writer. That would be a bridge too far!

It is, however, my reminder that I can trust myself to make the best next decision after a period of quietude.

I have fewer expectations of myself in this new year. I know I want to write and submit work. I will work on the project that moves me at the given moment, be it novel, short story, essay collection, whatever. I want to honor my day job for its ability to support my daughter, me, and my craft. I want to embrace more minimalism, so that I can eliminate debt and pursue yoga teacher training as soon as possible.

Beyond that, I want to breathe deeply, express gratitude, love my tribe, and keep an eye out for the next adventure. The past two years have prepared me for this journey. I am ready.