Monday, September 29, 2014

Investing in My Love Story

You know you like a good love story. You know you love seeing those cute little stories on facebook about such and such couple who have been married for 70 years or something and they're dolling out their marriage advice. And they're just SO. DANG. CUTE! Right?!?

About 3 months ago, my husband lost his job. Rather than wallow or take advantage of the down time, my husband threw himself (I mean FULL BODY LAUNCH) into promoting my dream--to be a professional writer. He has worked NONSTOP at marketing, building my twitter and facebook following, setting up a tour schedule, sacrificed and risked our resources to promotional materials and inventory. He did it without a thought but one:

"I believe in what my wife is doing and I want to help her."

I have something to tell you.

I have written 6 of the 7 books in the Colorworld Series, and the only reason ANY of them have made it to your hands is because my husband believed in me SO much, he would not let me hide my talents, or cower in fear of what people would think about my words. We fought and argued. Countless times I defended that "I wasn't good enough yet." "I don't do this for other people. I do this for myself." And while it's true, I am not a perfect writer, and my greatest joy has been what I have discovered about myself and the world through writing, we are not meant to hide beauty. Many times I resented him for pushing me. And if he had let that back him down, again, you would not have access to this series

Our journey, as a couple, has not been easy. Like, ever. Even now we are beset with the threat of financial ruin.

But I have never, EVER been happier. Because I finally see myself the way my husband has ALWAYS seen me. Do you know what that kind of love can do? It makes you fearless. It makes you write your guts out, open your heart up, and spill the blood on paper. And then it makes you show it to your friends and the cold harsh world. It makes you not care what ANYONE says. That one person thinks you are the most incredible person in the world and SHOWS it in everything they do. If you hear that message from them all the time, for 12 years, how can you NOT put your every effort into BEING that person?


This series was born out of my personal love story. It is not just MY child, it is Brad's, too, because HE is the one that is making sure it sees the light of day.  And he is working SO hard to promote it. And not just IT. He is promoting ME. He is shouting MY name from the rooftops. That's love, ya'll. That is friggin' real-life L.O.V.E.

I don't want to see his efforts go unrewarded. I want him to experience the validation that I have. Because I have always believed in HIM. His ability to love fearlessly, to cast caution and self-consciousness aside, to spare not a thought for himself, to put zeal into every action, and to sell like a BOSS are astounding and enviable and ought to be rewarded.

Will you help me show him that?

Below is a link to my KickStarter project. Brad's baby. ANY pledge counts and helps. And EVERY reward level gets you something. Think of KickStarter as preordering something you already will buy in the future. It's getting the funds for production up front. And we NEED this in order to keep our pace and to continue to promote Colorworld by every means available.
Thank you for investing in MY love story!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1197738127/colorworld-the-rogue-story-reimagined

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time to Judge a Book by its Cover

I work with some amazing people when it comes to my books. A few of them do work for me for free or next to nothing. I had a hand in deciding what would go into the cover, but I did not make it. It was up to the talents of people who care about their craft. I want Colorworld to be judged by its cover. Absolutely. So could you do me a favor? Do YOU like Colorworld's cover? How about voting for it?
Click on the link below and comment on the entry. ALSO, if you share the link on facebook or twitter, that earns votes too!
http://bookgoodies.com/cover-contest-colorworld-by-rachel-e-kelly/


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

June 18th

If you read my last blog post, you know about my friends, the Clarks, and their son, Chase. Last weekend was particularly hard for him and for them as he struggled to stay alive. Kami sent out a plea for stories about how this experience has affected others, and well, I had one brewing. It just took me a while to write it out the way I wanted. With their permission and encouragement I am sharing the letter I wrote to them.


Dear Kami & Phil,

On Tuesday, June 17th, at around midnight, Brad came home from work to find me in my office, supremely agitated. I’d been in a state of general unrest for a few months until that point, feeling off about the place I was at spiritually. I was trying to come to terms with a lot of things, namely the fact that I hated going to church and came away each week feeling drained rather than edified. Weekly I’d been asking myself why I still went, and then I would remind myself of the same thing over and over: I’m not going for me; I’m going because others need me there. My kids, my family, other people in the ward whom I love and respect. I love the Gospel. I think everyone needs the perspective it brings. I know the Plan of Salvation is true. I clung to the memory of the “Before Rachel” (before I was a member) and “After Rachel” to catalogue all that the Church had done for me. I wanted that foundation for my kids. Despite knowing these things, I still asked myself the question all the time, even though I always answered myself in the same way. Even though I knew, in my heart, I was committed to going no matter how onerous it was.

But I was tired of asking. I just wanted to do the right thing without questioning the whys all the time. I wanted to stop feeling like church was an endurance test. If that was what it was going to be for me, I wanted to let go of wanting it to be different. But I couldn’t. I wanted to find the same spiritual growth there that I did at home in the quiet moments I spent studying or reading or writing. Because the reality was I had grown an awful lot in the last few years. I could not have been more pleased with that, but I began to feel like I had outgrown church because I never found understanding or peace there anymore like I did on my own. The short of it was that I was soul sick over it, experiencing a gradual decline in how I felt about church, and to my dismay, it affected how I saw people, and therefore life. I wanted out of feeling so confused and conflicted all the time. Something needed to change.

On that evening when Brad found me, I had hit the peak of it and wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong with me outside of simply being unhappy and unsettled. We’ve had a lot of things up in the air for a while now and I was halfway to believing that my unrest was a sign that one of those things was going to have a resolution that would change things. I wasn’t sure if it was a good foreboding or a bad one. Anyway, I was so upset that I considered asking Brad for a blessing. That’s a big deal because I have never, ever asked for a *blessing. I accept them tentatively, but not because I want them. Occasionally they seemed to help, but I wasn’t convinced (still am not entirely). I just do not have a testimony of them and I don’t really understand them. So when I asked him, it was more out of desperation than expectation. Either way, both Brad and I had been feeling similarly in our anxiety. We both expressed that “Something isn’t right” and we both conceded that “something is going to happen.” For me it was more like, “Something NEEDS to happen so I can get out of my head.”

He gave me a blessing. It was long. Probably as long as my *patriarchal blessing. I’d call it a recap of the things I had done, the questions I had, the things that were important to me and the things that bothered me. I think it was hearing that repeated back to me, validated in that way, that made my anxiety ease that night, but I don’t know. I do know that I remember most specifically the end, when Brad counselled that I should strive to stay close to my visiting teaching sisters, that I should seek out every way I could to serve them. He said I should work hard to fulfill that calling and I would find comfort in doing that.

The next day, June 18th, Wednesday, my own visiting teachers came around 10 am. I had not read the message for the month because I asked Maggie, my partner, to be in charge of preparing it. We planned to go later that day. That morning Julie Jones gave the message to me. It was very quick but I do know that she told me her favorite part of it was the account of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young told the people during a conference that the handcart company travelling to the valley needed help. They needed everything, so the sisters undressed right there in the tabernacle to donate their clothes. Petticoats and all.

I admit I listened to that story with a little bitterness, thinking, “just another well-meaning story to make our acts of service pale by comparison.” Nobody does that anymore. Can you imagine everyone undressing down to their skivvies in general conference just because someone pointed out there are homeless people in Utah? I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to glean from that story. It’s not relevant to today because we’re too engrossed in our own insecurities to accept that kind of help or to give it.

A little after 1 pm that same day, I received your call. I’ll fast forward through all of the ensuing emotions and phone calls to standing in my living room and seeing the sobs building behind Alora’s eyes as Brooklyn recounted that Chase would be airlifted to Minot after all. I remember hugging Alora and thinking how nice it was to do that. I don’t particularly like to hug people. Touch is not my love language, and I usually feel awkward when someone other than Brad hugs me. But I liked hugging her, I think because it felt like I was doing something. That’s all we want during these times: the opportunity to DO something. But we’re so helpless and inadequate compared to our maker. Life so often feels like fumbling, and it only occasionally yields a catch. At least I could hug Alora. That was the only catch I could manage right then, though I began to seriously ask myself what more I would do.

While your kids made preparations to go stay with the Martinez family, I began plotting because I was NOT about to sit around and do nothing. If I look back, I can see all the ways that I should have felt responsibility toward doing something for you. I’m your visiting teacher. Brad is your home teacher. You live three doors down. All these things might have added the pressure of “This is your job” but interestingly, it had a completely different effect. It became my justification for doing things that I worried wouldn’t be received well. A conversation in my head would go like this:

“Oh look! Kami didn’t do her laundry! Yay! I can do her laundry and I bet it will be SO nice for her to have clean clothes when she needs them.”

“What?! You can’t do people’s laundry without their permission!”

“But if I ask her, she’ll tell me no!”

“Exactly!”

“But I’m her visiting teacher. I’m allowed.”

My motto became “better to ask forgiveness than permission.” When I asked Brooklyn and Alora for the key to your house to “look after it” I was very adamant with them that I would gladly pay a bribe if it would keep them from telling you what I was doing. Once they were finally gone and it was just me and your house, I spent a great deal of time mulling over what I was “allowed” to do. One minute I’d think, “Holy Mother, Rachel Kelly! Kami is going to hate you!” and the next minute I’d say, “Kami will love this!” and eventually settled on the more realistic, “Kami might bite your head off at first, but she’ll get over it. Just do it. It’s okay. It will be okay.”

I kid you not, I was downstairs with my trusty shop-vac in Boston’s room, having one of my doubting moments, and I honestly considered messing the room back up so you wouldn’t know I was down there. I had moments like that a lot as I went from room to room. Fortunately, I had so many good reasons on my side, so many excuses like “but we’re neighbors!” or whatever that I could use to violate your home haven that I won the arguments against impropriety over and over. The more I ignored self-consciousness over what you would think, the easier it became.

One day someone came by for something and saw me folding laundry. They said, “If my child is ever in a hospital, you are NOT allowed to clean my house. In fact, it will be your job to bar anyone that tries.”

“Why?” I asked, knowing exactly why. After all, we ALL know why we wouldn’t want someone in our house, don’t we?

“Because I would be embarrassed!”

And there it was, my precise fear over what I was doing confirmed by another source. I think it should have shaken me, made me rethink what I was doing. But instead I found the most incredible conviction. I remembered the story about the sisters in the tabernacle, undressing. In. Front. Of. People. During a time when that would have been a HUGE cultural no-no. They must have been embarrassed. I bet the people on the receiving end felt embarrassed for taking what they didn’t have, for taking clothes off the backs of others when they should have been better prepared. I bet there was embarrassment all around. But then I remembered how strong those saints were, how close. I’ve read conference addresses by Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses to the people during those early years. The language is intimate. They all knew each other and they were an incredibly close-knit community. Probably not by choice, but out of necessity. So many hardships they faced that required deep trust in each other. They must have learned quickly that embarrassment was a luxury they could not dwell on. There were more important things, things that actually mattered.

And then I remembered the story of the Savior when he washed his disciples’ feet even though it was the lowest job that could be done. His disciples were embarrassed. I’m sure of it. Can you imagine the Savior washing your feet? In fact, it’s considered such a powerful act that in Joseph Smith’s time it was common practice for him to wash the feet of the 12. It’s actually an ordinance. I don’t know if it is still practiced, but I have no doubt that during that time such a thing bound those men as more than colleagues. There had to be brotherhood among them, and not just by title or assignment. The bonds would have had to have been familial.

And that’s when the negative voices stopped. I cleaned because people thought I shouldn’t. We aren’t related and we aren’t super-close, but I don’t think I could have felt any more pain for you over Chase or cried any more tears if we had been. And I wanted to do something more than send you a text or tell you I’m praying. I wanted to wash your feet. A clean house does nothing for Chase, and you may never get to appreciate it, but I don’t care in the least. The Savior washed their feet knowing they’d get dirty all over again that same day. It was the act that brought them together, not the outcome of clean feet.

I began to experience how that happens. Other than simply staying busy and feeling engaged, I began to know you. A home, I realized, is the most intimate expression of who someone is on the inside. The way we arrange things. Which things are organized versus which things aren’t. What we keep versus what we throw away. What is messy and what is not. You can tell what matters to a person in this way. Even the arrangement of furniture says a lot. The books someone keeps and which ones make it up to the light of day in the front room rather than being in the basement. Notes your kids taped to their wall to remind them of whatever incentive program you’ve got going on or something they need to remember. Old records on display in Chase’s room and his neat line of bows on the wall amid a pile of shoes and boots and candy wrappers. The bow tie he was working on himself next to a small pile of pins and a paper pattern. I stood there with it in my hand for a minute and imagined the quick-witted conversation/argument you two must have had over it.

The way we weave organization and chaos in our homes is an expression of how we balance life, what we’re working on and trying to improve, and what we have mastered. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped what I was doing to smile at something I saw, and how many times I felt humbled to be “allowed” to be there. I loved you more each day as I pushed past inhibitions and decided I'd gladly face Kami's aggravation with me over violating her personal space. Getting to know the both of you more personally was worth it.

The days since June 18th have changed my life forever. I went to bed emotionally spent every night. My moments were beads of fear and courage and worry and hope and faith and anguish all strung together. But I’d never felt more involved with other people. I’d never felt more involved with a church community. As a result, I’ve never had more peace with it. I began to understand what was happening to me and what the sickness was that I felt leading up to and so powerfully in my soul the night of June 17th. I was disconnected from church because I was disconnected from its people. And I allowed it because I feared offending. I imagined that people don’t like you butting in to their lives, showing up unannounced or without a reason, or asking invasive questions just because. I was upset that people were inauthentic without ever doing anything to encourage authenticity. I waited to connect rather that doing something TO connect. Church was a hardship because I spent the time waiting instead of working. Wishing to be asked instead of granting without being asked, thinking I needed an excuse to serve, to smile, to hug. I was awaiting an invitation to be let in because I was afraid of making people uncomfortable. I realized how few people I know here, how few people I know in general, thinking for the first time that my excuse of not being a "people person" was lame. It's a poor excuse for simply being afraid of people. You can’t connect deeply if you are always afraid of offending. I had to ask people more meaningful questions. I had to not be afraid to ask a new person their name for the third time because I can’t remember it. I have to text or call people just for the heck of it without worrying whether I’m “bothering” them. I need to do things for people without worrying that they’ll read the wrong message in it. Doing so leaves us free from the fear of misinterpretation. When we serve that deeply, unafraid of how we are perceived, we love according to the higher law. And that love will never separate us from our fellow men. It only has the power to bind.

People are the spark that has been missing from my life. It is our earnest endeavour as human beings to connect to others. When that is not fulfilled, our spirits become malnourished. We NEED each other, and I will never “outgrow” church for this reason. It’s ironic that I found such realizations while so often alone in your house. But I never really did feel alone. The essence of you and your family is there.

So you ask what have I learned from Chase’s experience? It has shifted my view and healed my soul. I do not say that lightly and there is no need to contrive the implications this has already had and will continue to have on my life. It is just as powerful and heartfelt as it sounds. I know I was being prepared to make the most out of what would happen to Chase so that his suffering would not be in vain. I know that the writhing unrest I felt the night of June 17th was no coincidence. I know the idea to get a blessing was not my own. And I know I was meant to be your visiting teacher and your neighbour. The beautiful intricacy of the whole thing is breathtaking, the way moments have aligned, details have moved forward in my memory so that I can see how our Father ensured that the most lives would be touched when sorrow came to visit. I thank you for your part in it. I thank Chase for his part. I realize it’s probably often hard for you to escape the chaos of emotions amid the situation. Sometimes life hurts so much that we can’t see anything past it, and we often reject the things we HAVE seen. But quiet moments will return. They always do. What we choose to see in those moments of clarity is what matters. Those are the moments that make us. What we choose to organize in our spiritual homes matters more than the surrounding chaos. I know you have a powerful spiritual home. Thank you for letting me see it and thereby making mine more powerful, too.



*blessing-Sort of like a prayer, but basically revelation from God given by someone who is ordained to the Priesthood. There are healing blessings said over the sick and afflicted but also, and in my case, comfort blessings given when we are spiritually ailing.

*Patriarchal Blessing-Similar to a regular blessing but given only once in someone's life, delivered by someone who is called as the Patriarch. It is personal revelation to apply throughout the course of one's life. They are typically transcribed so that the person receiving the blessing can reference it over and over throughout their life.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

This is Chase Clark


There is an animated movie most of you should be familiar with called The Incredibles. It’s about a family with superpowers who were put in “hero protection” because society no longer wants superheroes and if people knew their true identities they would be persecuted. The young boy in the family named Dash has super-speed ability and is trying to convince his mom to let him go out for track. His mom argues that he would not be able to hold himself back and would reveal himself by running too fast.


Dash replies, “But Dad said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers made us special.”

His mom sighs and says, “Everyone’s special, Dash.”

Dash poignantly replies under his breath, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

I’ve given that bit of surprising logic a lot of thought over the years, pondering again and again when I hear people refer to someone as “special.” People particularly like to use this phrase whenever someone who has hard lot in life perseveres. We often use it when speaking about children who are faced with horrific diseases and also when young people die. We use the word “special” so often, little wondering what we really mean by it and what it is that makes “special.”

But this past week I finally learned what “special” means.

It starts with a young man named Chase Clark.

Now that you know what he looks like, let me tell you some things I know about him.

1)    Chase wears vests over a dress shirt on Sundays. He always has his sleeves rolled up, and he completes the look with a tie. I think vests ought to try for a comeback in men’s fashion. It may be because I know him better than the other young men at church, but his snappy clothes always catch my attention. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s only 16, (and therefore clearly has never worked in a casino), I would expect him to pop out a pocket watch from his vest pocket or maybe a deck of cards. In actuality, he’s more likely to have candy in there instead, which he often sneaks to my children.

2)    “Chase!” belted out by my kids—Iyov in particular—is a sound I can recall very easily in my head with little effort. He is very, very good with little kids—exceptionally good because he enjoys playing with kids. This is not a quality I possess but really appreciate seeing in others.

3)    One time Chase babysat for us, and when Brad and I got back, Chase refused to let us pay him. He literally ran away from me and went home (his family lives three houses down). Brad and I peeked in at the kids and they looked like this:


Brad and I were like, “Whaaaaat happened?” And then we laughed our butts off and put it on facebook. For the record, we have not seen them like this at bedtime before or since.

4)    As the oldest, Chase knows how to annoy his sisters. One time we were over at the Clark’s house for dinner, and we challenged Kami to Monopoly (a game she loves but nobody will play with her because she’ll kick your butt). Chase and his sister Brooklyn played with us, and the whole time Chase bugged the crap out of Brooklyn. She got that high-pitched angsty teenager voice, and kept saying “Stoooop!” over and over. I honestly cannot remember what Chase was doing to her. I just recall thinking, “Wow, he’s good.” and “So this is life with teenagers…”
And then I discovered Chase is pretty much an expert at quickly figuring out how to push anyone’s buttons. I think he hangs on to Momma’s Boy status, just so he can annoy Kami, his mom, and get away with it. :-)

5)    Case in point: Chase likes to sing falsetto in the Soprano section during Choir practice to annoy his mom who is the Choir director. When she puts the kibosh on him, he sits with the bass section who are the rowdy bunch (thanks to Brad), so he can be in on the rabble-rousing. Sometimes he sits with us tenors, and I like elbowing him to get him to stop singing the melody in my ear and messing me up.

6)    Chase is a self-taught musician. Guitar, I believe. I’ve never heard him play though…

7)    I hired Chase to mow our lawn last summer when we went on vacation. He was almost done doing it when the wheel broke off. And once again, when I got back, he ran away from me when I tried to pay him. I honestly don’t think he would have taken it even if he had finished, so I doubt refusing pay had anything to do with not completing the job.

8)    Being introduced to someone and actually MEETING someone are two different things. I was obviously introduced to Chase when I first met his family, but I actually MET Chase the first time we had the Clarks over to our house for dinner. It went like this: I was kind of nervous about feeding them all. Not only are there 5 kids aged (at the time) 5 and up, but Phil (Chase’s dad) had already labeled us “his liberal friends” and was already known for ribbing us for our vegetable-eating, ethical meat-eating ways. (Such honesty, for the record, is our favourite thing about the Clarks) I made a vegetarian Ethiopian stew, which seemed to go over well, fortunately. But my clearest memory of that night involves Chase. Brad and I were talking and laughing about something after dinner with Kami and Phil when suddenly a hand squeezed my shoulder and a voice in my ear said, “Thank you, Sister Kelly. That was so good.” I realized it was Chase, and I was taken completely by surprise. In that moment, Chase became more than Kami and Phil’s oldest son. Funny how such simple things can leave such a lasting impression.

Chase was in a horrific accident on Wednesday of this past week. It involved a semi, which I think tells you just how bad it was. He is alive, but suffered lots of internal injuries and bleeding. But the most worrisome injury was to his head. He is currently in critical condition at a hospital in Minot, being kept sedated and on paralytics to keep him from fidgeting and possibly injuring himself further. With lots of brain swelling to be concerned about, and being unsure of how well his brain will heal, whether there will be long-term effects, how long his recovery will take, etc, waiting is the limbo in which his family is suspended currently.

I happen to be Kami’s visiting teacher*. And Brad is the Clark’s home teacher* (double Kelly whammy for the Clarks). That, and the fact that we are virtually neighbors, means that we’re kind of up in their biz. In a nice way, I think. From the time Kami called to tell me about Chase in the hospital until now, I think I’ve had a rare view of what has transpired among our ward family in the past three days.

I cannot possibly expound on every single act of service on behalf of the Clarks that I personally know about, but I will say that the most pointed demonstration of all of those acts is best summed up in the Ward Fast* that we participated in for him that ended with and filled up our chapel on Thursday night. It was clear, from day one of this tragedy, and each day since, that Chase Clark is beloved on a level that I do not think the Clarks recognized before now.

Chase’s situation is certainly not unheard of. Crap happens to people all the time, and people rally together in support. It’s pretty much what human beings do best. But this is certainly the first time I have been so heavily involved and also aware of the monumental effort that has gone on behind the scenes as well as in the open.

Because I am the neighbour, I have been hanging on to their house key, letting people in for various reasons, taking care of pets, dropping off stuff, etc. Today I went over there to change over a load of laundry. As I passed through the living room, I had a strong desire to just sit down there and start matching up the socks that have been there since yesterday waiting for me. I suddenly realized how much I liked being there—how pleasant it was doing something mundane like matching socks (which I hate doing on any other day in my own home). The house was empty of people, but for whatever reason, it felt incredibly full anyway. I was wondering over this feeling—how could a house that wasn’t mine feel so much like home?—as I went downstairs to grab up the sheets and blankets from Chase's and Boston’s rooms. I was halfway down the stairs when this same feeling came over me even stronger, overwhelming me as if the air were permeated with it. I sat down on the steps, overcome with it to the point of tears. It was then that I finally recognized it as the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.

I’ve heard people say quite often that when a great number of people pray for you, you can feel it. Kami and Phil have said the same thing several times since Wednesday. And I’m telling you, that even though they are two hours away in Minot, that same Spirit has brimmed over to their home as tangible and comforting as if it is drawn to their very belongings, to the space that they call home.


By the end of The Incredibles, Dash finally feels special. But it's not because he can now kick super-villian butt with his super-speed. It's because his Dad has finally let go of the past glory days to realize how much his family matters to him. Dash finally knew he mattered to his Dad for reasons outside of his supernatural talents.

That's what being special is. Being part of others' lives and mattering to them.
Chase Clark is special. Not because he possesses superhuman abilities or earth-shattering skills, but because he’s come to leave a lasting impression on a great deal of people. Whether it was by annoying people just to get a rise to make things more interesting, making kids giggle by wrestling them, or putting his hand on someone’s shoulder and telling them thank-you, Chase matters to a LOT of people. I know this for a fact. I have not just seen it; I have felt it as I found myself alone in his home with the Spirit that has been intensified by the sheer number of prayers and thoughts offered by the thousands who care about him. It is just as clear as the time Chase put his hand on my shoulder. I cannot think of anything more special.



Now that you know Chase, too, will you say a prayer for him and his family? They are special to all of us, and we all want to have Chase back again.

*Visiting Teaching is a program in our church where all women are assigned to visit with other women in our congregation in order to be sure their needs are met.
*Home Teaching is pretty much the same as visiting teaching except it involves men being assigned to other families to visit and attend to their needs.
*A ward fast is fasting done by an entire ward (aka congregation) for one particular cause or purpose for a twenty-four hour period. The bishop of the ward decides if a ward fast is called for. It does not happen often. This is only the second time I have been involved in an emergency ward fast.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

By Popular Demand

One of the things we get to do (or some might say HAVE to do) in our church is speak on occasion because we have no trained or paid clergy. When I first became a member this was difficult as I was very shy and unsure. But over the years, getting more comfortable with people, and in gaining confidence that I have something to say (thank-you, writing), speaking in church is now something I greatly enjoy. I LOVE the preparation and spend the weeks prior reading all kinds of things relating to my assigned topic and pondering various angles while I'm vaccuuming and stuff. It's really just writing, except geared toward verbal delivery, so you know that's my niche. I'm not saying I don't get nervous about it. In the few hours right before delivery, I kind of want to throw up. And then I'm up there, and it's all clear and I'm in a zone. This particular topic is one I have ALWAYS wanted to speak on, so I was thrilled to get the assignment. Here it is. Stay tuned at the end for the choir number. I actually accidentally recorded it because I forgot to stop recording after I finished speaking. But it was obviously not a coincidence. It was my favorite choir number we have ever done--and a pretty good recording considering my phone was under the pew!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Piles of Things

In our house, our favorite meals consist of what Brad calls, a "pile of things." Say, a bed of rice with fresh veggies on top and drizzled with some kind of dressing. Or a piece of broiled fish with a bunch of chopped veggies on top. We also like sandwiches (not your standard lunch meat and cheese, but bread with a bunch of veggies piled on and maybe egg or mushrooms or chicken inside). Wraps and Quesadillas, too. The point is, we like meals that are "all in one." Not only is this a convenient and healthy way to eat, but it's pretty much dead-on for the smorgasbord that is our lives.
Steak and corn yumminess on a bed of red cabbage AKA Pile of Things

A couple of days ago I got a summons for grand jury selection. I had to go online and complete a questionnaire that would help them determine if I’m what they’re looking for. One of the questions asked my occupation. I stared at the blinking cursor for a moment and considered what to put. My knee-jerk answer was “homemaker” because, well, that’s what I’ve always put and that’s my primary responsibility at the moment. Brad has always spoken with more progressive terminology, stating that I am a “Work from home mom” because I do a lot of things besides “making a home”(which is pretty ambiguous if you think about it) or even taking care of children.

Sometimes, though, you can be something without actually BELIEVING you are, know what I mean? Take “child of God” as a label. We hear it all the time, but life is this seemingly endless process of finding the conviction to believe it. Once we actually believe it, ACTING like it becomes a lot easier. Anyway, lots of things are like this. My husband calls it “faking it ‘til you make it” because you have to ACT like what you want to be in order to BECOME that person.

In the case of writing, I want to BE a writer. I want to sell books. I want people to read them. And by golly it’d be nice to contribute to the family budget via this avenue. But to be honest, despite the huge amount of time I spent working toward the goal of publishing my first novel (and have continued for subsequent books), I never believed I was “a writer” in the same way I believed I was “a homemaker.” “Occupation” carries with it an air of obligation. We go to our job at wherever because we have an responsibility to provide for ourselves/family. I have a responsibility toward my children, an obligation if you will. These obligations are necessary for survival of our family. Therefore I was a homemaker. My primary purpose for publishing was not and is not to make money, therefore writing never felt like an obligation in that way.

But as I weighed the word “homemaker,” it suddenly did not feel like the right label anymore. I don’t feel like a homemaker now in the same way six months ago I didn’t feel like “writer” was my occupation.

But a lot of things have happened since then. They haven’t changed the reality of my obligations, but they have changed the way I see myself against the backdrop of my day-to-day life.

So what DO I do? For one thing, I have executive assistant responsibilities toward our insurance and investment business, which we have now had for around 8 years. It’s something I have always taken part in—answered emails, checked stock prices, quoted insurance, called clients. I do this from home. In the case of phone calls, I hide behind 2 locked doors to get a kid-free moment to talk to people who might not see working amid screaming children as "professional."

As for our stock portfolio, I’ve recently taken on more responsibilities toward it so that we could stop paying someone else to do it and thus earn more money. This job means analyzing charts, options chains, and trade history, setting exit prices and researching the earnings calendars and looking at valuations.

It’s a bit hectic at times to juggle all these things during the business day. Answering an email about an escrow close is often woven in with making my kids lunch or hugging an injured child and settling disputes. I can have Zillow pulled up to look at the specs on a home for an insurance quote while Iyov sits next to me on another computer playing ABC Mouse. Keshet can be on my lap (her favorite place) while I answer emails.

I think I always subconsciously saw these things that I so regularly do as not a “for real” job because I didn’t leave my kids at daycare to spend 8 hours at an office. I didn't earn a paycheck with my own name on it and my work day does not flow seamlessly without interruption. I'm constantly moving between completely unrelated tasks (wipe 2 year old's butt and then go back to composing that email, followed by  looking up a recipe for dinner, for example) But seeing myself as a non-professional is societal standards talking, not mine. I have simply bought into the American idea that civilized society means segregating the different parts of our lives in the same way we might divide side dishes from the main dish at dinner.
Me at my "jobs." Photo taken by one of my apprentices. :-)

And now I am also a writer. For too long I didn’t see this job as seriously as my other jobs because I did not see it as an obligation. Instead it was a hobby that took up a TON of time. But again, I allowed a cultural standard to dictate the word “obligation” and to tell me how “legit” I was as a writer. Book sales, I thought, would decide whether I could put “writer” as my occupation on a government form. But the reality is that writing IS an obligation. The circumstances and experiences of my life have breathed it into me. Putting it down on “paper” is the exhale. It has altered the way I see everything and the way I treat everyone. It has been miracle grow to my spirituality and a mirror to reflect my true self-worth. Accepting that writing is quite literally essential to my well-being is something I have come to understand gradually, because it took a lot of effort and experience to stop feeling guilty over "taking so much time to myself." Once I did accept it's necessity, I took it as seriously as I did quoting an insurance policy. I have slowly but surely been edging toward feeling I have the right to label myself as a “writer” when I tell people my occupation.

I don’t think one blank is sufficient for a question about my occupation, but of all the things I currently do, writing will be the one that remains as long as I am alive. It describes who I am and what I do better than anything else. So "writer" is what I put on that jury summons questionnaire. And it felt absolutely right to do so. Not because of the royalty deposits I finally get every month, (as substantiating as that is), but because I finally allowed it to be as important as my other obligations without guilt. Now I spend time on it without the mentality of “I should be doing xyz instead” but with the mentality of “I have to go to work.” And like all forms of work, some parts are pleasant (the writing itself), and some parts are not so pleasant (the marketing).
And the really cool thing is that I stopped seeing this thing as time I deprive my children of. Instead all of my “jobs” are meshed together in a way that sometimes feels like a well-oiled machine, and other times feels like a giant pot of 15-bean soup that gives everyone gas afterward. And I'm totally fine with imperfection of such a giant mess of things to do and trying to find enough hours in the day to do them.

Accepting writing as one of my jobs has also done something I did not foresee. It has brought balance to itself. A lot of writers face the chore of making themselves find time to write. I face the chore of stopping myself from writing too often. But ironically, once I allowed writing a place of necessity in my life, I stopped feeling so compelled to do it all the time. In effect, I can tear myself away without withdrawls. And I am content to wait until another free moment arises to crack on with it again. I can't say I'm going to bed any earlier (too many demands from too many jobs!) but I know I'm getting better at balancing my many obligations, tossing aside the ones that don't truly matter and allocating enough time to the ones that do. As a result, moments are fuller and I feel less haggard. Even crazy post-15-bean-soup flatulence is a reason to laugh at the end of the day. Disappointment is shorter lived. Patience lasts longer. We're still a work in progress, but I only ever demand of myself that I am moving in a direction and I can undoubtedly say I'm doing that.

Look, I can’t tell you my house is immaculate, (which I think is a waste of time to care about when you have small children), but I’m more pleased and concerned with showing my kids that work is well-being and well-being is work. My Dad was someone who was always, always working (It should be no surprise then, to see who I chose for a spouse), except when we watched Star Trek, which we did as a family. :-) Dad would come home from his job on base (he was in the military) and he'd start working on some project--building a shed, fixing the chicken coop, rebuilding a lawnmower engine. Whatever. His weekends consisted of nothing but him outside, working. Mowing. Spraying our peach orchard. Fixing the tractor. As a child I once asked my mom, "Doesn't Dad ever like to relax?" Her answer, "For Dad, working is relaxing."

As I got older, those projects my Dad did began to involve us girls more and more. We pruned peach trees and then picked bushels of them to sell in the summer, we helped fill the hay barn with bales to store for winter and sell to surrounding horse owners. We gardened. We helped build our horse barn and we trimmed yards of hedges and mowed miles of fencelines and cleaned stalls and fixed fences. Even when my dad was sick with cancer, he was working on something and not until he was unable to get out of bed did he stop. It is this legacy of work he left behind, and it is the one I have more desperately fretted over teaching my children than anything else. I cannot give my children a farm. But I can give them an environment of work. I can always be doing it and by my eagerness demonstrate that I look forward to it.

We are often warned against "working too much" and neglecting the needs of our family, but I'd argue the problem is not working; the problem is trying to live work-life and family-life separately. But if this segregation never occurs, it's not possible to do it too much. The kids know what our various jobs require, having been in and around it all the time. If Dad gets called away by his job outside the home, they get to take turns going with him. It is the greatest joy for them and I cannot think of any moments when the look on their faces and the joy in their voices communicates how special they feel during those times that working and spending time together occur precisely simultaneously.  Even a trip to the pool or park together doesn't rival their feelings on being taken to work. "Mom is working" or "Dad is working" are phrases so often repeated in my home. I relish the fact that they understand it's importance, the priority that work is, and that it is ever-present and that we love that fact.  And I love that these many responsibilities of ours reside together, in one place. This ideal is one that actually feels ideal.  I have a lot of things on my plate, but family is not the main dish and work the side dishes. Instead, it is all-in-one, inseparable like one big pile of things that I get to enjoy all at once.

Monday, May 5, 2014

My Mother-in-Law and My Kitchen Sink

“If it were me, I’d be at the hospital with my child every second,” Wendy, my mother-in-law, said.

A litany of angry word possibilities jostled forward in hopes of being chosen to come out of my mouth. I was good at self-restraint though, so I kept my mouth shut and let the silence fill the space on the phone line.  I’d just been released from the hospital, but Novan was still in the NICU, in Fontana, California, having been born a month early. I’d just filled Wendy in on his condition and she took the opportunity to tell me I was shaping up to be a crappy mom if I didn’t visit Novan more often than I had been. Or at least that's what I heard.

Finally, I said, “The hospital is 30 minutes to an hour away depending on traffic. And the visiting hours are limited. If I go to both shifts, there is no time in between them for me to get anything done after driving home and back again. And if I go later for the afternoon shift, I don’t have much time to spend with him.”

“No reason you can’t stay there. You don’t have to come home.”

Hot, angry tears were backing up. This time, I opted for silence because what do I say to that? And even if I did think of something to say, I wasn’t sure I could get it out without sobbing.

Wendy started talking about her plans to fly over from Arizona the next day, which was where she was currently doing a travelling nurse assignment. Eventually the phone ended up in Brad’s hands to coordinate her pick-up. Meanwhile, a whirlwind of red put my thoughts in disarray. ‘How dare she!’ came to mind a few times, along with a lot of other choice words that would forever stay locked in my head.

I looked around my messy apartment that was entirely unprepared for a baby. We didn’t even have a crib yet. There were towels spread all over our living room floor, now stiff and dry from the night I went into labor. Brad said the fish tank had overflowed. AGAIN. My fridge needed a good clean out, but an overfull and messy fridge was a habit I picked up from my mom. And the laundry definitely needed doing.

And then there was my belly, much trimmer now, sans baby. But there was no baby in my arms to explain it. Something about that realization, despite my baby being alive and well at the hospital, no matter how many times it hit me, could put me into an emotional upheaval. That woman needed to learn some damn restraint, but I’d never learned how to put her in her place.

Wendy did indeed show up the following day. After visiting Novan in the NICU, we all came back to the apartment and she started attacking my stainless steel sink with a scrubby pad and as if that wasn't message enough, she then declared out loud how disgusting it was.

Oh yes. I wanted to smack her. And send her packing. And tell her to get the #*%& out of my apartment; I’d gladly live in filth rather than put up with her presence in a clean apartment. Didn’t I have enough to deal with?

Later that day I grabbed a leftover sandwich from my fridge to eat. Someone from church had brought it over the day before from Wolfe’s Market (they have AWESOME sandwiches) and I had never finished it.

Wendy got the most abhorrent look on her face. “I can’t believe you’re eating that.”

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, eyeing the sandwich like maybe I’d missed a gross part.

“It’s eaten off of.”

“Yeah. By me.”

She shook her head in a tsk-tsk fashion. “I don’t eat leftovers that have been eaten from.”

We had some brief conversation after that in which I was offended by her disgust, and awed by her snobbery. By the end of her visit, my nerves were in utter chaos, and not just because my child was under constant nurse care and my body had just expelled a human being.

I remember telling Brad how I felt, and he told his mother she was being insensitive to me. Her reply?  “I shouldn’t have to tip-toe around her. I can say whatever I want.”

My gosh, I have never wanted to get her on a plane so badly.

Looking back, though, it’s a shame that we remember the bad things much more easily than the good. It’s a shame that when we’re in the pits of anguish we take everything in the worst possible way and make the tiniest slights into the biggest deal.

True, my MIL probably should have taken my unstable hormonal state under advisement,  but I don’t think she was born with such filters. And ironically, it’s the thing I have come to love about her the most.

Now, when I look back on those early days of our relationship, I shake my head at myself. We could have had a fun time with that, she and I. I could have told her I couldn’t wait for her visit so she could come clean my apartment and outfit it for a baby while I spent all day in Fontana loitering outside the NICU. When she scrubbed my sink, I could have pointed out the cleaning supplies and told her that the fridge was next and I expected it to be done by the end of the day. I could have pointed out the laundry, too. She would have rolled her eyes at me, made some comment about my sauciness, but she would have done it.

See, the thing about my MIL is that she’s quite a brat when she feels she can’t say what she wants or that YOU aren’t saying what you want. She pokes and prods and says snotty things until she gets a reaction (Anyone wonder where Brad got his shock-and-awe tendencies from?). It took me a lot of years to get this about her and to learn how to take advantage of the close relationship that kind of oddity could foster.

I missed that all those years of poking at me about dumb little things was her way of trying to connect with me, to get me to react with my real self rather than the self-conscious silliness most everyone experienced from me. It’s a shame that it took me so long to look back on that time that Novan was born and remember how she literally jumped on a plane within DAYS to come be with us and offer help (even if it wasn’t the kind of help I wanted, but why I expected her to read my mind is beyond me).  It’s a shame that I forgot that when she left, my laundry WAS done,  my floors were vacuumed, and that I DID get to visit Novan more often while she was with us.

It’s a shame that I forgot how she TOOK that nursing job in Arizona not only to help out Brad’s brother, Adam, but also because she wanted to be closer when the baby came. It’s a shame that I forgot that Brad’s mom was the first person Brad called the day we brought Novan home finally. He was literally overwhelmed with the task of being a parent, having been pooped and vomited up on in the space of five minutes. She calmed him down when I couldn’t. She has always had the ability to ground him when I can’t. I think it’s because those two have always spoken the same language, and though I did learn it eventually, it is still not my native tongue.

It’s a shame that I forgot that my sink was clean when she went back to Arizona.

In the years that have passed since those days, I learned how to look for the clean sinks. And I found them everywhere.

My MIL has been the first to show up after the births of every single one of my kids. She kind of sucks at knowing what to do with herself while there, but she doesn’t apologize for it, and I don’t expect her to. She’s there. Which is the best kind of support there is.

When our home flooded in Winston-Salem, my in-laws showed up the next day to take our kids. And they kept them for an entire week while we worked living arrangements out.

She is ALWAYS the first to call me up and ask me if I need anything when she learns I’m going through something. She and David, my father-in-law, have always had our backs when it counted. And they have never once made us feel guilty about needing help. Wendy has always looked out for me emotionally, and is always on the lookout for signs that I’m struggling. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I know that Wendy has never judged me, despite the fact that she will spout her thoughts from the mouth without restraint. But I have also observed her capacity to accept ANYONE, without equivocation, despite those observations that most would consider callous.

I can recall the day when I really began to get her. Many years ago a bouquet of yellow daffodils showed up at my house somewhat randomly. Wendy had bought them for me along with a bunch of Trader Joe's treats to fill my freezer and had given them to Brad when he was in Raleigh that day to deliver to me. She didn’t know it, but I’d been having a particularly hard week, and it was the perfect gesture at the perfect time and I cried because I was touched so deeply. It was then that I finally saw what I was to her. I was her family. The for real kind. The kind you don't tiptoe around, that you fight with and forgive without thought. And she had been treating me like that since day 1 only I never saw it.


Does she insult me anymore? Maybe by other people’s standards. I don’t think she has changed the way she speaks to me.  I’m just not capable of hearing  her words with the same defensiveness anymore. I now hear them as separate from her opinion of me as a person.

Once I stopped being hung up on the words that bothered me, and imagining that they blanketed some deep-seated judgment, I started hearing the OTHER words she said. Words that were just as clear and unhidden and had always been there.

Like, “Those kids are so lucky to have you for a mom.”

“My son is lucky he found you.”

“You fit in our family perfectly.”

“I tell my friends how awesome our relationship is and they just can’t believe it!”

“You tell me if you ever need anything. I’ll make it happen.”

“You are not my daughter-in-law. You’re my daughter.”

“I love you,” said over my shoulder as she hugs me. When that brash woman puts her arms around you, she puts her whole self into it. Her hugs are some of the most expressive and heartfelt I’ve ever had. And then look out for that hard kiss on your cheek at the end. It always takes me by surprise in the nicest way.

I now read every word on the cards she sends me for birthdays and mother’s day because I know she combed the card section looking for the one that said EXACTLY what she means. She takes sending cards seriously. They aren't just conventions to her.

She speaks with purposeful honesty. It can smart if you are living life on the defense. Which most people are. Which I was for several years after I married Brad. Now, if I hear, “This sink is disgusting,” I know that rather than mince words or wage silent warfare on me and my dirty house, she’s just going to get the ugliness out there so I don’t have to wonder what she really thinks. Plus, my sink is definitely disgusting if she's cleaning it. But what she thinks of my sink and what she thinks of me are mutually exclusive. My sink is not some veiled reference to my character as a person. She may be talking about my housekeeping as a whole, but I really do suck at that. I own it. So we’ll just banter about her anal-cleaning needs and my lack thereof, and at the end we feel closer than ever. 

I love that woman. I love making fun of her watching Hallmark movies. I love sharing private jokes with her like the miracle of holey Afghans. I love the extra drama she infuses in her voice when she tells a story. I love how if you want someone to express excitement over something with you, she always delivers. I love how loyal she is to her family. I love how she hangs up on Brad but calls him back the next day like nothing ever happened. I love how she texts like a teenager. I love how she raised the most amazing man I have ever known and gave him all her best qualities.
I love that she's hip enough to take selfies, and when she does they look like this:

There are very few people alive that get me like she does and who let me be absolutely myself (lover of snarky conversations and constant ribbing), and whose motives I don’t have to question.

Yes, my mother-in-law is better than yours. Neener-neener-neener!

*As a side note, I will definitely be cleaning my house before she gets here in a week. And it will probably stay pretty dang clean while she’s here because sometimes you have to accommodate clean-freaks. :-P

But the sink is yours, Mom!