Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Memories Conjured by Music - Song 1

Since I don't have a reliable sense of smell, my other senses have heightened to compensate. I hear others talk about how smells conjure memories for them. Hearing music has taken over that role for my puny sense of smell.

I'm going to spend some time reminiscing about some of the music—songs or entire albums—that evoke memories of specific times and places in my life. A different form of time travel, which seems to be a theme in my blogging these days.

The first song in my soundtrack is the guitar instrumental, St. Agnes and the Burning Train, from Sting's Soul Cages album.

He'd returned for a visit to campus. I was excited and nervous, then disappointed. He'd made time for everyone but me, and then had the nerve to ask me for a ride to the airport. A four hour round trip drive in the middle of the week. He made practical use of my infatuation. He knew I would say yes. Of course, he was right.

I have no memory of what we said to each other on the drive south. I do remember that I wished the car ride could last forever and was simultaneously sad knowing that soon I would be driving home alone. The two hours blew past me. I pulled up to the drop-off area. I'm sure we hugged, and I'm certain he said something that helped to string me along, to give me false hope that at some undetermined time in the future we would reconcile and be the couple I wanted us to be. He was a smart man. He knew what I wanted to hear.

He walked into the terminal without looking back. I pulled my roommate's creamy yellow car back onto the highway and began to cry. Correction: I wept. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Accompanied by Sting's St. Agnes and the Burning Train, a fast-paced, though melancholy guitar instrumental. On cassette. Which means every time the song ended, I pressed the rewind button. The tape would make its whirring sound backwards, and I'd take a stab at stopping the rewind as close to where the song started. I listened and wept for miles.

I remember how bright the sun shined highlighting the cornflower blue of the sky. It was a stark contrast to the shades of gray and gloom I felt in my heart. I hadn't yet figured out that this man would make a habit of appearing in my life at his convenience only. It would take far too long for me to realize that my pining for him was a waste of time.

The car ride home, though painful and lonely, was good for me. It was a lesson early in life about the cathartic power of music and the importance of letting tears flow and allowing myself to feel my emotions. I don't remember returning to campus or what happened the rest of the day, but I am certain I felt better by the time I pulled into the dorm's parking lot.

I still love the song and think of that drive back to school when I hear it. But the heaviness of my sadness on that day has long faded.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

And the Winner Is...

The 4040 list has served as the backdrop for me to look at my life in new ways and to respond differently than I have in the past. I've written about how it has invited me to stare down my fears and conquer things I didn't believe I could do. It's created space for me to acknowledge my (many) fears and then set them aside and do the scary thing anyway.

The list has also set the stage for me to practice asking for help. I have come to learn how I generally do things the hard way and think that I have to do them by myself. Asking for help is an uncomfortable, vulnerable thing for me and I usually choose not to do it.

So since being afraid and not wanting to ask for help intersect at various places in my life, I've taken on the challenge of asking for help. This is how I managed to get to the Haven retreat in Montana.

When I heard myself say, “I'm scared to ask for support to get to Montana,” I knew that creating a gofundme account was the next step. To assuage my discomfort, I made my prospective donors several promises: 1. I would send each of them a postcard from Montana. 2. I would pay the tuition forward for a future retreat attendee. 3. Their names would go into a drawing for an opportunity to name one of my characters.

Laura talks a lot about the courage it takes for people to come to this retreat. She sat beside me at a meal and I listened to her say, “There are a million reasons that keep people from coming here. Money, kids, jobs, fear. I want to tell you how proud of you I am. You didn't let any of those things keep you from coming. You are here. I am proud of you for taking a stand for yourself and for your writing.” It was amazing to sit so close to someone who lives the writer's life. Someone who rides the roller coaster of rejection and publication, self-doubt and self-confidence, fighting her inner critic and relishing her confident self.

The experience in Montana was life changing for me as a writer and as a human being. The retreat came at just the right moment in time as I was finishing my novel's first draft. I feel armed with really great guidance from Laura on how to proceed when I begin phase two. I thought of each of the people whose financial support was also a vote of confidence in my pursuit of this writing life. Their support means so much to me.

I thought it would be really cool to have Laura draw the name of the winner of the naming contest. So on the morning that we were leaving, I emptied the word casserole dish that had held all of our writing prompts for the week and she drew the name. I was so grateful for her willingness to participate and to support me as I honored the friends and family who helped to make this retreat possible.

And the winner is:

Sarah and Rich Allen!

Rich told me at the 5k in Indianapolis what name he would choose if their name was drawn. I will confirm with him that he wants to keep the name and then share it here in another post. If it's the name he has in mind, it is PERFECT for the character I created.

Thank you to Sarah and Rich and all the others who generously helped make Montana happen. I am deeply grateful.

Friday, July 24, 2015

22. Read a book off a high school reading list - CHECK

My criteria for choosing a book from the high school list was that it had to be written from and about a non-white perspective. While I read a great variety of books, they mostly are written by white writers and I wanted to explore the amazing literature written by other talented perspectives. I scanned a list online and my interest was drawn to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. I have a weakness for accents. I have a habit of asking strangers where they are from based on their accents. This practice has granted me some really great conversations. So Alvarez's book was my choice.

I opted to complete this item on the list by choosing a title available on audiobook. Now that I've finished listening, I see that the audioversion has pros and cons for this particular story.

The pros were that I could listen to the book on my commutes to and from work. My drive time is anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes each way depending on traffic, so audiobooks have become a beloved way of passing the time while also helping to whittle down my burgeoning reading list. It was also helpful to listen rather than to read this story. I was able to hear the Spanish spoken rather than stumble through it on the page.

The con of listening to a story like this one is that the book's structure was hard to follow. With one CD left to listen to, I decided to google Julia Alvarez to get a sense of her background. I wish I had done this from the beginning. I would have had a better framework for the story I was listening to and a better appreciation for the context of the story. Alvarez is considered one of the leading Latina writers of her generation. Her books, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, are inspired by her Dominican American experiences and her family's eventual move to the US to escape trouble with the government under the dictator. She wrote this particular story as a set of short stories and tells the story backwards beginning with the sisters as adults and ending with the girls in childhood. Knowing this in advance would have helped me not feel so confused as I listened.

I am not drawn to poetry, but one thing I have learned is that prose written by poets takes my breath away. Their command of language is so different, enhanced, and this was true of Alvarez. I was especially impressed given that English was not her native language. To master beautiful writing in a second language is remarkable. Again, this is when I wish I had been reading it because it's impossible to bookmark or underline beautiful phrases in audio.

There were numerous times when I questioned whether this book and subject matter was appropriate for high school readers. There's where the 40 year old was creeping in. I kept remembering that I read books with challenging subject matter as a high schooler and I was able to handle it. I appreciated being confronted with the idea of age-appropriateness in reading. It underscored my desire to not censor my daughter's future reading, but to embrace whatever she chooses when she does and to read along with her. An experience just last night reinforces this decision.

We were driving home from a community concert in the park and Fresh Air with Terry Gross was on the radio. The woman being interviewed was discussing how the sound of her voice had been criticized by listeners of the podcasts to which she was a contributor. I didn't recognize her voice, so I kept listening and so did my daughter. The larger story was about how women are judged differently than men and held to different standards with regard to speech patterns. The overarching theme was lost on her, but my daughter perked up when she realized the conversation was about people saying rude things to this woman. As we pulled into our driveway, she asked, “That's not very good, is it?” I could tell that she had a lot more thoughts about the interview than she expressed. I asked her, “Tell me what you think.”

“Well, it's not nice for people to say mean things about her voice. What if I told you your voice was weird. That wouldn't feel very good, would it?” It was bedtime and not the time to bring up gender inequality, but I was proud of her for thinking critically about what she was hearing. That's only possible when we're exposed to challenging material. It reminded me that that's what reading does for us, no matter our age, if we are open to it.

Even though I was lost in the story line at times and was confused by the names of all the characters, I am really glad for the experience of listening to How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

My reading appetite is whetted. I want to seek out a more diverse group of writers from which to read. The other book that caught my eye while I was making my selection was Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. It is on my reading list now. Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison are also on the list. What other authors would you suggest?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Time Travel and Hope for the Future

Somewhere between my sophomore and junior years I began collecting items to place in a time capsule. I had made one in third grade as a Brownie and remembered how fun it was to think about opening it when I was in eighth grade. You know, when I was “really grown up.”

Besides that elementary brush with the future, the idea of a time capsule came out of thin air. I was heartbroken and couldn't see how my future was going to take shape. For a year, I collected movie stubs, photographs, news clippings of current events, catalog pages of styles that caught my eye. I wanted to document who I was at the time, and project forward who I might be in the future.

I collected items for a year and then sealed the box and labeled it: To be opened when I am 35. Just like that third grader years before, I really couldn't imagine yet what my life would look like at 35.

I'm beginning to understand that my 4040 list is another version of that time capsule. It is a declaration of hope. The list has been my way of reminding myself that while I can't see what the future holds, what this new decade has in store for me, I have hope that good things are to come. It is the choice to take an active rather than passive role in my own life.

I've always intended to write about the time capsule. What I collected and what the significance of the items were. In the five years since I opened it, I haven't felt ready or up to it, but now I do. I won't write about EVERY object in the collection. That would get long and boring, but I do think there is some great stuff to share.

The best way to kick off this series is with the letter I wrote to myself:

June 19, 1995

Dear Julie,

It is now 15 years since I sealed this time capsule. In those 15 years much I'm sure has happened, but since at the time of this letter those things haven't occurred, I want to refresh your mind of who you were at 20.

You were a young woman with enthusiasm, intelligence, warmth. You were (and hopefully still are) an attractive woman. Thin, but finally more fashionably so.

You loved life! You knew very much who you were, but was never satisfied. Growth, optimism, laughter described you. You were very much in love with a man named _________, and was patiently waiting to see how that turned out.

You were very goal-oriented, spiritual, reflective/introspective.

Travel, language (French), independence and self-sufficiency were big themes for you at that time.

Congratulations on the growth & successes you've seen since then.


I hear hope in those words, don't you? I couldn't begin to tell 20-year-old Julie what she was in for back then, and I'm really glad I couldn't. All the bumps and bruises, joys and happiness have made the future worth living into and waiting for with expectation.

Here's to some time travel!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A few words about the Weather

One of the things I started doing as I practiced living in the moment was to carry an umbrella more often. I decided that since the weather is something I cannot control, that I wouldn't think about it, talk about it, or cancel plans because of it (except in the case of tornados—that's a different story). I'd just carry an umbrella so if it rained, I'd be prepared.

You'd be amazed by how much this changed things for me. I came to enjoy the present moment. I coped better with extreme weather. Living in the present stopped the inner chatter that lamented a string of hot, muggy days or a month of rain.

In the moment I was able to remember that in summer it's hot. To think it might be otherwise is delusional. And in winter, there will be cold and wind and maybe snow. Living in the moment reminded me that nothing lasts forever, and so I stopped thinking about the unpleasantness that comes with Mother Nature's mood swings.

I also noticed that this new practice put me in the minority. Talking about the weather is a pasttime for many. A lot of energy is expended on the topic. Small talk is incessant. I'm not much for small talk to begin with, so when I stopped talking about the weather, I got quiet. For longer periods of time. And it felt good. My energy reserves were increased by not talking about things I cannot control.

Using weather as a practice in presence caused me to pay attention to the weather as I was experiencing it and to enjoy whatever was presented to me.

All of this came in handy one Sunday afternoon a few weeks back when my sister and her sons were in town. The plan was to go to the zoo, but clouds indicated rain was a possibility. We went to the zoo anyway. We dressed our kids in their swimsuits and flip flops. I carried an umbrella, and my sister wore a rain jacket.

It was a glorious afternoon. Our children jumped in puddles without a care in the world. Their mothers weren't worrying over their shoes and socks getting wet and muddy. We were living in the moment and it was great.

As our visit was winding down, we squeezed in a quick visit to the zebras and big cats. Storm clouds moved in. We hopped on the zoo's train and rode it back to the exit near where our car was parked. While we were on the train, those storm clouds opened up over the zoo. The rain came down hard. At first we were sheltered by the roof of the train, but then the wind picked up and the rain blew sideways into the seats. My sister and I turned around to watch our children all three squeezed into one seat take in the spectacle. They gasped as the cold hit their backs and arms and the mist sprayed their faces. They giggled with delight at getting drenched. Their giggles made us giggle.

We got off at our stop and the rain was falling in sheets. Our swimsuit-clad children were impervious to the wet. My sister tightened her hood around her head, and I held tight to my umbrella. We walked to the gift shop in the rain.

On the car ride home we talked about the afternoon and what our favorite moments were. The train ride in the rain was mentioned more than once. We could have decided that the rain would dampen our trip to the zoo and decided not to go. If we had, we would have missed out on the train ride—the memory maker of the afternoon.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

3. Make Pie Crust from Scratch - CHECK.

Warning: This is a photo-dense post. There were lots of steps that needed to be captured. I'm not sharing as many photos as we took, but I'm sure it will feel like it.
Warning 2: You may become very hungry as you read this post. So much deliciousness was Made. From. Scratch.

My friends and I had such a great time together at my birthday lunch I decided it was time to get the girlfriends together again. Voldi (a nickname has been decided! She is no longer the Friend-who-cannot-be-nicknamed. Calling her Voldi DOES NOT imply she's evil. Mischievous yes, evil no. Spelling it with an “i” is my attempt at softening the name from it's original Voldemort.) (Fashionista, also a writer, came up with Voldi. Thank YOU for solving this naming problem for me!)

I digress.

“I've got a plan for your dinner party.” Voldi announced at work one day. “I've been looking at your 4040 list and you've got a ways to go. I propose we have a pie night. We'll make your pie crusts from your list and then what we make will be our dinner.”

I loved the idea and that Voldi always has my back—4040 list and otherwise.

I added pie crust to the list because it served as another challenge to my low confidence in the kitchen, and it also was a way to feel close to my grandmother, whose cherry pies in "from scratch" crusts, were amazing. I was never around when she made her pies and I wanted the opportunity to see if I could do it like she did.

Voldi and Fashionista arrived and we began the process. I was a little tired from my day's work in my back yard. In the moment, I felt overwhelmed by the task at hand, and would have been fine with them taking the lead. They were determined that I did all of the preparation with their help on the sidelines, and a few minutes in my energy level had improved.

We dusted off my maternal grandma's 1978 General Electric food processor. Using this machine should have been on my list. I cut myself on a Cuisinart blade one time and have had an aversion to the magnificent tool ever since. They convinced me that using the food processor would be quicker and having them with me could assuage my fears of said machine.

After 37 years the machine still worked and man, did it beat doing the mixing of dough by hand. I thought of my Grandma Steele and pioneer women before her who didn't have modern conveniences. They didn't need yoga to build strong arms. They baked pies!

Math Whiz (so named because she was a math major, and the friend who helped me figure out how long it would take to achieve 80,000 words of my rough draft) arrived as we were getting the first batch of dough in bags to chill.

The first pie crust provided a reminder about not expecting perfection. As you can see from the photo we had to piece it together into the pie plate.

I made the filling for the spinach quiche. NOTE FOR NEXT TIME: when using frozen spinach, let it thaw and then squeeze out the excess water.

While the quiche baked, we worked on the peach pie.

Behaving like a seasoned baker, I made the suggestion that we pair the fresh peaches with fresh raspberries. Everyone agreed that it would be a nice combination. THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT MILESTONE FOR ME IN THE KITCHEN. Adding another fruit to a recipe shows a confidence in cooking that is still very new. I was so happy that my friends liked the idea!

The second and third crusts were colder and therefore far easier to roll out and place into and on top of the pie plate. I felt like a dang expert by the third time.

Long story short, the evening was delightful in every way. While we waited for our dinner and dessert to bake, we talked about books and work, redecorating and life in general. When I look back over all the fun I've had in my fortieth year celebrating life and a new decade, this evening will stand out as one of the highlights of the year. This baking/cooking-with-your-guests model is the way I'd like to entertain and extend hospitality while my confidence in the kitchen continues to rise.

I will absolutely bake pie crust from scratch again. I will also use the food processor with regularity. At the end of the night as we were saying our goodbyes, Voldi said, “I am so proud of you. You did a really good job baking tonight.” There's nothing like good friends telling you they are proud of you.

Making my way through this list is reminding me that the small quiet moments really are what make life so good. Creating occasions and reasons to celebrate instead of waiting for them to roll around is enriching and my favorite way to live. The “big” moments in life are simply too few and far between.

Last night was delicious. Simply delicious. And I know my grandma would be proud of the finished products.

Happiness and confidence personified.

Laughter is a key ingredient in the recipe of friendship with these women.

This text from Fashionista's teenage son was fantastic!

PS: We missed you, Design Maven (also named by Fashionista.)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Weeds and Words

I am sitting at my laptop still sticky and sweaty from a day spent outside tidying up the weeds that surround my patio. I'm having a patio party this evening with a small collection of my dearest girlfriends, so the patio weeds finally got some attention in preparation for their arrival.

My fingernails show evidence of the work. The spaces between my fingers where I grasped the more stubborn weeds are tender and on the inside of my thumb is a blister with exposed skin. All of these are signs of a warm, partly cloudy Saturday well spent.

Weeding is a lot like decluttering for me. It creates space for thinking, clearing my mind, and seeing progress at the end of the project. What I thought of the most as I yanked and raked, yanked and raked was my paternal grandmother.

Maxine Elizabeth's natural habitat was in her gardens. I'm certain she was more comfortable around her chrysanthamums and lilies than she was around most people. I consider myself supremely fortunate that I was one of the flowers that blossomed under her skillful attention and gentle care.

She and my grandfather created such natural beauty among their flower gardens that strangers often stopped to have a look.

I remember as I got older trying to ask her questions for future use, but sadly without a yard of my own yet, most of her wisdom blew away with time. Today's weeding session was like time travel. My work took me back to different parts of the yard that seemed vast from my young perspective.

“You really should wear a pair of gloves as you do this work,” I imagined her gentle scolding. And I heard my imaginary reply, “But Grandma, yanking out the weeds feels more satisfying bare handed.” I know she'd smile, roll her eyes and keep working.

I missed the chatter that would bounce leisurely between the two of us and the guaranteed laughter that would spring up like something beautiful in her garden.

I wondered what she'd say about the mess of weeds I have up the hill in the space that was once somewhat landscaped, but now only manufactures weeds by the bushel. What would her advice be about how to tackle that mess?

I thought about safe I always felt in her presence. How like a character from Anne of Green Gables, she indeed was a kindred spirit.

I admired her physical strength and stamina to do the physical work she did well into her 80s as I kept wimping out going inside for a breath of air conditioned air, and then a popsicle, and for an episode of The Office before returning to the patio and finishing the job.

I considered that the worries and qualities that made her difficult to be around might have been eased with her time outdoors. I suspect it was the only therapy she might have considered.

The job is done—for now—and I'm certain she'd be proud of my effort and my desire to “spiff up” my backyard as she would say. I know that she's my muse as I approach my writing every day. I pray she'll be show up in my back yard too.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A few words about VBS

For more than ten years, I have volunteered at my congregation's Vacation Bible School. I lead the songs at the beginning and ending of each evening. I love watching as the kids learn the songs, do the actions, and then pick their favorites. I love when they make song requests!

I enjoyed volunteering before I was a mother, and I love it now even more as I watch my daughter take part in and enjoy the activities.

Each evening, the children spend time with biblical characters who teach them about the theme. This year the children are meeting Mary, Jesus's mother, and Eunice, a busybody neighbor of Mary's. Eunice is a real peach. At the last minute, I was asked to fill-in and play the part of Eunice. This character is cranky and nosy and bossy. And as the week has gone on, I've come to really enjoy playing her.

I'd already done my first Eunice part of the evening and was standing in costume by the snack table for my next appearance. “Eunice, you keep scaring us when you come to Mary's house and knock on the door!” one of the children told me as he ate his snack. “You still don't believe in Jesus do you? We believe in him.” I didn't expect all of this, so I quickly jumped back into character and answered his questions. Other children piped up. “We love when you scare us. Scare us again tonight!” they pleaded.

Aside from helping make a bible story come alive for these kiddos, playing Eunice gave me a behind-the-scenes opportunity to hear my daughter interact in her class with Mary. One evening, Mary was talking about when Jesus was a little boy and what it was like in his home. “How do you feel when you're at home?” Mary asked the children. From behind the tent set up in our sanctuary, I thought I heard my daughter answer, “Safe and sound.”

There were a lot of voices answering Mary that night, so after the children left Mary's home and ran on to the next activity I approached my friend who is playing Mary. “Did Cadence respond to your question about how they feel in their home? Their were so many voices, I wasn't sure if I heard her voice or not. Mary smiled and her face softened. She nodded. “Yes, she told the group she felt safe and sound. And then other kids shouted other answers that didn't quite fit with the lesson, and Cadence told me, “My answer was the most appropriate answer for the question we were talking about.”

It cracks me up when she says the word appropriate and in the proper context. Clearly, it's something we talk about regularly. Mary and I hugged. “Good job, Mama,” my friend told me.

Those are the moments a mama hopes for. Confirmation that in the midst of hectic morning routines, cranky bedtime wrastlings, and general parent-child interactions, that our children reflect back to us in their own words that we're doing a good job.

I wouldn't miss this week each summer for anything. I love the way the Spirit moves. VBS creates community and opportunities to feel close to God in the midst of busy life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A few words about Goals - Part Two

Before I left for the writing retreat, I set the goal of reaching 65,000 words in my novel. Just because.

And I reached it.

A few days before I left, I told my friend, the Friend-who-cannot-be-Nicknamed (Believe me, I've tried to find a good, SHORT, blog moniker for her and so far, it cannot be done), "I've decided not to set any goals for my time in Montana.”

FWCBN smiled and said, “I think that's a really good idea. You are the goaliest person I know right now.”

“Me too! I've never set goals like I have in the past six months, but it's working for me, so I keep doing it.”

It's a really good thing I didn't set goals for my time in Montana because I would have been unable to achieve them. It was wonderful to just let each day greet me and to welcome what it had in store for me from moment to moment. It was an intense five days and my energy was zapped.

A few weeks after I returned and my functional use of words returned, I was talking all things writing with Mantra Friend. “You know you're building a writing career, don't you?”

“Yes, I actually do realize that.”

“Well, have you set your goals for what you want to achieve?”

I got a little feisty when I answered. “I want to get published, Mantra Friend. That's the goal. But how do you set a goal for something you cannot control???”

More conversation ensued, and I finally agreed to think about some writing-specific goals. What worked was taking getting published off the table entirely and thinking about the things I could control.

I can't control getting published, but I can control how much work I submit. I can't submit anything if I am not writing.

Once I got those things straight, the goal setting became much easier.

After a few days of contemplation, this is what I came up with:

Objectives: To Build my Portfolio, Platform, and Freelance Opportunities

Under one year:
1. Retool my LinkedIn profile into a writer's profile.
2. Publish at least two blog posts per week.
3. Meet with other writers monthly.

Within 18 months:
1. Complete second draft of Astrid's story.
2. Apply to Haven II in Montana.
3. Write a new short story per month.

Within 3 years:
1. Begin second book project using Camp Nanonwrimo online.
2. Submit a piece of writing for publication or contest per month including
3. Register for Washington University Summer Writers Institute Fiction Track.

These goals are stretchy and attainable. They are centered on building my practice of writing rather than focusing on the results of my writing. It feels liberating and exhilarating to have these goals spelled out.

“You're going to be a writing machine,” Mantra Friend exclaimed when he read my list of goals.

“That's sorta the point,” I said.

Writing machine. I like the sound of that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

18. Go on a Yoga Retreat or Take a special yoga Workshop – CHECK

I checked off #18 on my list while I was at the Haven writing retreat in Montana. After mornings of discussing and practicing the craft of writing, our afternoons were designed to get out of our heads and into our bodies. That notion has become a theme for me and the reason there are so many physical activities on the 4040 list.

I signed up for the two-hour yoga class. When I first began practicing yoga, I was hesitant about taking a class from anyone other than the two teachers I was familiar with. Now four years later, I welcome the opportunity to practice with new teachers. It feels adventuresome to not know exactly what to expect and I always learn something(s) new. My time with Samantha in the yoga studio on the Walking Lightly Ranch was no exception.

There were just two of us writers in this afternoon class. The windows were open and we were serenaded by a choir of birds hanging out in the trees around the building.

We began class on our backs, connecting with our breaths and sinking into the experience. Samantha guided us to consider the space from the crown of the head to the pelvic floor being the bridge that links our bodies to our thoughts and soul. She described it much more beautifully than I am here, but I was trying to be present in the moment and didn't have notepaper and pencil next to me. Part of that “getting out of your head” thing. I stayed present in my breath and body, but knew I was hearing something very cool and wanted to remember at least a bit of it for writing about later.

During a different part of class, we stood with our feet hip width apart. Here was my second new insight. I'd had a different notion of what hip width was. Before this class, I had measured hip width by the ball and joint at the point where the leg meets the backside, so the stance would be wider. When Samantha said hip width, she referenced the bones on the front of the body near the abdomen. From this perspective, one's feet are much closer together. As I was making this discovery, I was reminded how yoga teaches body awareness in a way I have never experienced before.

Which leads to another form of body awareness on that day. By the time I was taking this class I had been eating vegan for three days and my digestion was in havoc. My polite term for this is digestive distress. While I was uncomfortable and wishing I was feeling better, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the experience of eating such delicious, nourishing food lovingly made by our cook, Michelle, and to practice breathing through difficult, uncomfortable moments. This has been one of the enduring lessons yoga has brought into my life, and the one that keeps finding me off the mat.

Two hours passed. It was amazing how it went quickly and slowly all at once. Except for the digestive distress, I was not ready for the class to end. It felt so good to breathe deeply, move gently, and to continue to process the intense experience of the writing retreat.

I'm thrilled that the 4040 list intersected with my Haven retreat. Both experiences continue to profoundly shape me.

Just 23 items left to mark off the list.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Few Words about Word Count

I know now a week after hitting my goal of 80,000 words why that became such a singular focus.

Just two summers ago, I studied creative non-fiction at the Washington University Summer Writers Institute. There I came to understand that I love writing so much--the stringing of words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs--that I will always do it regardless of whether my words land in the pages of a book or magazine or simply remain in my growing collection of journals. That I could call myself a writer simply because I love doing it and regardless of where my work landed was an epiphany.

At the time, I labored over a story that I'd been writing in my head for twenty years. I workshopped it in class and on the weekends I continued to mold it like a lump of clay in a sculptor's hands. The narrative became my final project and I was so pleased with how it came out. But it was seven pages long. The effort it took to produce those seven pages felt like seventy, and so at the time, I heard a tiny door shut. I had thought this story would be a book one day. But I'd basically said all I needed say in those seven pages. I heard myself say, "Well, that must mean there's not a book in me after all. Just essays and other random non-book-length pieces." And so for the past two years as I kept talking to myself about squeezing daily writing into my already full schedule, I kept book length at arms length.

And then I challenged myself to write fiction. Day-by-day my imagination met me at my lap top and new stuff appeared. And kept coming. And I felt good. Really good. Empowered. Capable. And so, I kept writing (not without the encouragement of friends). That's where the 80,000 word goal originated. I wanted to see these days of writing pile up. To prove to myself that I had more than seven pages of anything in me.

And so I did. I have 212 to date. My characters have turned off the light and are having a little nap in my mind. I miss them already and once in awhile I check on them like a parent who slips into her daughter's room. But I'm letting them sleep. We'll all know when it's time to wake up and start working together again.

For now, it's enough carrying around my notebook of words. I did it. And now I know I am capable of so much more.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Sun Salutation Progress Report - Halfway Mark

I haven't written for awhile about the daily yoga practice that has become another new habit in this fortieth year. This habit shares a basic commonality with the writing habit: small, daily effort adds up over time. When I started writing Astrid's story, I couldn't envision creating a book-length story. And as of this week, I have! A page a day really did turn into a book draft.

Since I last wrote about yoga, touching my toes has become a regular occurrence. I took a class at my beloved yoga studio recently. Before class, I sat on my mat with my legs stretched straight before me. To my utter surprise, I leaned forward and touched my toes! This wasn't possible the last time I was on my mat in class. I laughed at my surprise because at home I was regularly touching my toes from a standing position. Why wouldn't it follow that I could do it seated? This seated discovery was such a boost.

It took about four or five months for touching my toes without major discomfort to happen. The daily yoga has taught me patience with the process and believing that the results will come in due time. My hamstrings have been tight since I was a ballet dancer in elementary school. Why would I suppose they would untangle overnight, just because I want them to? I could actually check off #4 Improve forward bends from the 4040 list now because they definitely have improved, but I know that the forward bends will continue to improve with even more time.

In April, I forgot to do the daily yoga on two occasions two weeks apart. I made up for them both on the following days by doing eight sun salutations. But I must admit I relied heavily on my word-of-2015 GENTLE on those days. I had to really talk my way through my disappointment. I eventually remembered that focusing on the few days I missed was missing the bigger point. A year before I didn't have a home yoga practice at all. Missing a few days here and there does not undo all that I've accomplished. I missed one more day in May. I took a breath, did eight to make up for the day before, and moved on.

The blank calendar page, just like the blank computer screen, no longer scares me. It is an invitation to enjoy what is to come, day-by-day. Now that the forward bend is coming along well, I've been working on improving the still-very-painful half lift. I can see and feel a change in this position, which seemed impossible only months ago. I look forward to measuring this progress and reporting on it in the coming months.

My body image has experienced a change too. I'm still skinny, but now when I assess my body, I see the effects of daily yoga: my arms and legs have definition; my once-pregnant belly is toned and defined in a way it never was before. I see strength where I once believed there was weakness. I know I walk with more confidence. I move in the world differently. What a gift to myself in my 40th year!

The bottom line is that this daily yoga is not going away when the 4040 list is complete. It's a productive, restorative five minutes spent each day. I am celebrating being the healthiest, most fit I've ever been, which is pretty cool to say at 40. The celebration does indeed continue!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

24. Write to Four State and Federal Legislators - CHECK

The productivity continues this Independence Day weekend!

The Fourth of July seems like an uber-appropriate time to cross off this item from the list.

I've drafted my letter to four female legislators and have hand written two of them. My hand is a little crampy, so I'm resting up, publishing this post, and will finish the other two letters later in the day.

This is what I'm sending to each of them:

July 4, 2015

Dear Representative ________:

I turned 40 in January, and am celebrating by checking off activities from what I named my 4040 list. #24 is to write four letters to state and federal legislators. Crossing this item off my list on Independence Day seems appropriate.

I am a mother. I blog at, and am employed at a local university. I am also reading my way through the presidential biographies chronologically to become a more informed citizen. Zachary Taylor's bio is next.

Thank you for your service. While everyone is wringing their hands about the discouraging state of the union, my historical reading has helped keep that worry in perspective. Our country has weathered hard times throughout its past. We have faced adversity and conquered difficulties. I am certain we can do so again.

My only agenda is to offer encouragement and to remind you that we, the citizens you represent, seek civility and cooperation among government officials. We're not seeing much of that at present. Writer Glennon Doyle Melton reminds her readers that “We Belong To Each Other.” It is an excellent guide as we interact with one another and as hard decisions cross your legislative desk.

Happy Fourth of July! Again, thank you for your service.

With Appreciation,

Julie Steele Mahoney

I read a meme this morning that says, "Be an encourager, the world has enough critics already." It resonates with me and is how I wanted to approach this list item. A while ago a friend called me a people builder. I like that. It guides my interactions often including this letter-writing campaign.

25. Zipline with M.M. - CHECK

The best parts of this 4040 list are the items with the least amount of direction. I'm having the most fun letting happenstance and serendipity (my favorite word and concept) fill in the blanks. For instance, yesterday's event was ziplining with my friend, M. We didn't specify where we would do this, we just knew we wanted to experience it together,so when I discovered we could zipline on the longest, mobile zipline as part of the Fair St. Louis celebration in Forest Park, we both said, YES! And for only $10!

The zipline is the shortest part of the story. The walk there from my University parking spot and the people we met throughout the adventure made the event memorable.

The walk. I told M we could park at work and walk to Forest Park. She had pictured the main campus (much closer to Forest Park). I didn't think to clarify that I work in an off-campus location. I slowed my long-stride pace to accommodate this comedic error. We enjoyed conversation with the backdrop of big historic homes and condos with new construction tossed in here and there down the street. We were shielded from the sun by mature trees that provided great shade for much of the walk.

The hallmark of my friendship with M is our laughter. We make each other laugh a lot. This walk had plenty of laughter.

We made it to Forest Park and opted to let the golf carts stationed to transport fair goers to take us the rest of the way to the Zipline.

The whole morning I blocked out the fact that I'm not in love with heights and that this activity might actually be quite scary. Block, Block, Block.

We met Bobby, with his lovely Georgia accent, and his team. They gave us the harnesses to step into and tightened them around our waist and M and I began our ascent.

At the top, we met Adam.

We chatted with Adam as we watched the people in front of us zipline. Suddenly it registered that for me to do this, I had to initiate the step off the platform. I looked over at M and I identified my own fear as I saw it cross her face. Adam assured us that we could go at the same time. He opened the doors for us. M and I looked at each other and stepped off. For three seconds, I couldn't breathe and then once I settled into the feel of the harness around my waist and legs, I enjoyed the ride.

It was a thrill! We stepped out of the harnesses and took them back to Bobby at the entrance. We chatted a few more minutes and then set out to walk back to my car.

The day's activity is a great example of how it's not the destination but the journey that is so important.

We saw the golf carts again and decided we would take one back to shorten our walk. This is when we met Brandon, our golf cart driver. We chatted with Brandon and explained that we were celebrating my fortieth birthday with a trip down the zipline. His shocked reaction to my age was priceless and earned him bonus points.

We chatted the entire way back to the free parking offered at my off-campus location. Brandon was lovely. He had personality, charm, and meeting him (and getting a ride back) was a great way to end our fun experience.

This is check off #2 for the holiday weekend. I'm on pace to knock off one or two more this weekend.


Friday, July 3, 2015

29. Learn to fishtail braid CJ's hair - CHECK

In a fit of industriousness and goal-orientedness this morning, I decided I would youtube a how-to video on fishtail braids.

I caught my daughter in a moment of willingness to sit through the tutorial and in one try I banged out a braid!

I really wish I'd had this knowledge when I had long hair and was French braiding my own so often.

The fishtail is so whimsical and lovely. There's not much to say about it. It looks complicated but is not at all. I'm pleased with my first attempt. I've got to work on the amount of tension I maintain as I add more hair down the plait, but otherwise, I'm considering this checked off the list. What a great way to start a holiday weekend, and Cadence is pleased with the results!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A few words about Goals - Part One

Last week, I saw my June 30 deadline looming for completing my 80,000 word goal in my novel-in-progress.

I admitted to Mantra Friend that I was worried about not hitting the goal by that date and how I would feel like a failure.

This friend has an uncanny ability to pull out just the right lecture at just the right time. He gave me a litany of things I have accomplished in the past six months as a counter to my failure argument.

He said, "This word count thing is worrying me. Are you writing for word count or for the story?"

I assured him that I was writing for the story and that there was more story to write. He made me repeat these words after him. I must admit I found them hard to say: I promise to...not look at my word count...until July 1...At which time...I will decide...what needs to happen next.

I stayed true to my promise. I wrote my page a day and felt liberated by the permission he gave me to not worry about the word count.

In the process, I named three new characters and wrote the back story for them plus two others. This work has informed my story for the past week and I am really happy with my progress.

The lesson here is: Goals are really important to getting a job done. They create momentum and energy and provide direction. But if taken out of context or too much emphasis is placed on the goal itself rather than the big picture, the goal can become a hindrance. It certainly had become one in my case. But now, I'm back to having a healthy outlook on my goal. I will get to 80,000 words when I get to 80,000 words. There is no room in this endeavor for feeling like a failure. As Mantra Friend reminded me last week, "You're the one that started this whole 80k thing. Nobody's put you up to it. Not even me. Six months ago there wasn't a story or characters. There were NO WORDS. Now you have all of it. Who cares how many words you have or when you reach your goal?"

I started writing this novel as a challenge to myself. Could I really do it? The surprise is that yes, I actually can. I cannot wait to print out this draft and begin to weave the story together.