Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Mortgage Lifter

Heavy lifting. Photo by Rick Caldwell, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

"This variety," my friend with the green thumb said when he handed me the heirloom seedling, "is the Mortgage Lifter. It was so popular that the farmer who developed it was able to sell enough plants to pay off his mortgage."

I planted it one month ago, right before the constant rains, in a bright orange container with a saucer underneath, and already it is three feet high. The two varieties next to it seem to cower before its robust bushiness. Performance anxiety, perhaps? Everything about it shouts health and vitality. It is the tomato equivalent of beating one's chest before catching the next swinging vine.

In three weeks I will move this brawler to a new home with -- for the first time -- a yard. In six weeks I will tend it alongside my hot-off-the-presses husband. In nine weeks I will feed the early fruits to friends in our dining room. In twelve weeks I will boil and peel and squish together sauce for the winter ahead, to be retrieved from the basement only when the cold dark becomes too much and I need to swallow summer again.

I water it not knowing how much is enough. I turn it to the sun though the sun is on the move. I caress the vivid green leaves and will it to keep going. I refuse to pluck the suckers. The plant's unwieldy growth delights me. Despite my uninformed attention, it flourishes on its own terms, crowing with each fresh inch sprouted overnight, "You are not the caretaker -- you are the witness!"

Fretting over it will not yield a bumper crop. Trusting it will. And look, already, four tiny green tomatoes sprout. An immediate promise. An early gift.

Prayer #300: The Hope of the Harvest

Each tiny seed
an ancient creed
that bursts and bleeds
beyond the weeds
to ably feed
my hungry need

with God agreed
I too shall heed.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

When competition defeats me

Bruised. Photo by Christa Loman, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To be a writer is to invite defeat. Defeat in competitions, in publications, in the will and drive to continue. I know because in my quest to receive 100 rejections in 2016, I am already feeling black and blue at thirteen measly ones and wondering if I should invest in a more robust liquor cabinet to get through the year.

It's not just rejections of submissions, either. I feel the sting every time a fellow writer announces a publication or a fellowship, an article or an award. Doesn't matter if they're short story writers like I am or science-medical scribes appearing in peer-reviewed journals to which I have never aspired. The punch lands on my jaw all the same because they, at least on the face of it, have what I want: recognition that their art has merit.

In my deepest moments of self-pity, I regard myself as a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot of futility -- a blank figurine pinned within a ring I wonder why I asked to enter, caught unaware when the next slug connects and my head pops off my shoulders. But after my head drops back and I pause to observe my plastic fortress, I see it's not that intimidating. Only a flimsy rope keeps me from the wider, woolly world -- the very world I say I want, yet am scared to inhabit.

Because ultimately it's about fear, isn't it? Fear of being outpaced and outclassed. Fear of overestimating my potential. Fear of not leaving a faint smudge of immortality somewhere in the notebook of human civilization, all because I thought the ring real.

Look at how cheaply the rope is made, though, how artificial its construct. On closer examination, I start to see what sets me apart from the Red Rocker or Blue Bomber. Unlike them, I have agency. No one is pushing joysticks beneath me; I can stand there and jab at unfeeling air, or I can leave the ring to try punching above my weight.

Consider these words of wisdom from Colum McCann, which recently rocked and socked me in a different (and more productive) way:

If you’re writing to beat someone else then you’re writing with invisible ink. Watch it disappear. Instead keep counsel with dignity. [...] This does not mean that you don’t want to be better than another writer -- being better is part of the job. But be better in a better way. In a way that hurts. In a way that forces you into competition with yourself. If you’re going to throw a punch try your own jaw first.

So with 87 rejections ahead of me, I am not aiming to win faster. I am vowing to fight harder.

Prayer #299: Rope-a-Dope

Lay me flatter than my own low standards. Launch me higher than my timid goals. When I'm on the ropes, shove me through them, and when I hit the floor on the other side, expectorated into a new and limitless arena, raise my arm in jubilant victory, for I will have already vanquished the toughest opponent I will ever face.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Dear Stephen Colbert: What makes a Catholic marriage work?

Dear Mr. Colbert:

Julia here from the DC area! Forgive the open letter format, but I figured it was the best way to satisfy my monthly blog quota reach you.

I'm writing today to ask your thoughts on marriage -- specifically, a Catholic marriage. This summer, I am thrilled to be marrying an actively practicing, deeply spiritual, liturgically musical, and politically liberal Catholic man who, like me, has been most happy during our engagement when geeking out over pre-Cana sessions. (#catholicnerdlove. I know.) So who better to ask about Catholic marriage than a professedly practicing, openly spiritual, generally musical, and apparently liberal Catholic celebrity?

Alternate titles for this letter included "What makes a good Catholic marriage?" (which implied a right or wrong way to be married) and "What makes a Catholic marriage good?" (which implied a spectrum of judgment). The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized what I really wanted to ask: how two people can commit to each other and to their partnership in a world designed to challenge and test those choices.

Don't worry, I'm about to get more specific. Here, in no particular order, are my top three lines of questioning about what makes a Catholic marriage work. I welcome any thoughts, opinions, lessons, experiences, videos, or pie charts you have handy.

On Children

How do we raise children with healthy attitudes toward spirituality and religion? I don't necessarily mean raising "believers." I mean raising thoughtful, compassionate humans who sense they are part of something greater than themselves, who discern deeply, who apply skepticism productively, who seek and question, and who persevere in that seeking and questioning even when the lights are out. The answer might be "Sesame Street." Still, I'm curious.

If we do succeed in raising children with healthy attitudes toward spirituality and religion, what if they ultimately choose a belief system my partner and/or I do not share? How do we continue to participate in our children's journey and remain open to what it might teach us as well? And, most importantly, does this absolve us from buying them Christmas presents?

What if we can't have children (biological or adopted), or choose not to? What does parenthood mean -- or rather, what can it mean -- in a faith culture that emphasizes making as many little Catholics as possible?

On Long Days and Short Years

How might I navigate personal crises of faith when my partner has come to expect (or rely on) my belief? Or, to sit down flip it and reverse it ... what if my partner has a crisis of faith? How can I be there for him, no matter the outcome?

Seeing as we are fairly mature and self-examining people, I expect that my partner and I will evolve and grow over the course of our hopefully long lives. This will inevitably manifest in changes of heart, mind, and viewpoints. How can we best support each other when these happen -- not simply with agreement, but with productive discussion and debate? (Again, maybe the answer is "Sesame Street.")

How can we make spiritual and religious practices a part of our everyday life? How do we prioritize these moments and rituals as other obligations mount? How might we pursue them as individuals and as a couple? Most importantly, does sex count? Please say yes.

On Being Catholic

How do we celebrate and uphold this part of our identity in a secular world? You have been open about your faith from a very public pulpit. How can we profess our beliefs in our own spheres? Should we be apologists or evangelists, on defense or offense? Do actions really speak louder than words, or do words make a difference?

Along that line ... how can we avoid what we see as a growing "cult of Catholicism" where "being" Catholic (following all the rules, knowing every word of doctrine, etc.) trumps being Catholic (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.)? Pope Francis seems all about the latter, and though it's a tough and radical way to live, we want to follow that path, too. How do we keep our eyes on that prize in our daily practices?

Speaking of doctrine ... what's up, doctrine?? What's your approach to the laws and teachings you don't fully understand or espouse? How can we make sense of it at every level -- from within the known universe, to our society at large, to our communities, to our parishes, to our household, and finally to our own selves -- in a way that ultimately makes us feel right with God?

That's right! God! I've been rambling on this whole letter and haven't talked about the Big Guy/Gal Upstairs. At the end of our time here, I will not be surprised if our earthly distinction of "Catholic" falls away and all that remains between us and the veil will be the depth of love we chose to create in the world. This is a HUGE mystery to live with and a HUGE goal to commit to. How can we as a married couple help each other with both? And have time for sex? Please don't forget the sex.

Mr. Colbert, I have thrown a great deal at you in this letter, and I understand that you probably don't have the time or energy to answer it all. But if even one question in here piqued your interest, I would love to hear your response. And above all, in case I do have your eye and ear at this moment, thank you for being honest and open about your faith and showing an increasingly polarized world that religion does not have to be a dirty word or an outmoded construct, but rather a powerful framework for a joyful, fruitful life.

Yours in knowing all the songs in "Breaking Bread,"


Prayer #298: The Autograph of God

To a God in need of more publicists,

I have written you fan mail and hate mail alike, but no matter what I write, I get the same thing back: a glamour shot of you (obviously Photoshopped, by the way) with the standard line, "Thanks for getting in touch. I love you! GOD."

I bet you write this to everyone.

I mean, come on. You can't possibly love every person who tries to contact you, every person who wants your ear, your time, your help. To adore and cherish every single correspondent, regardless of whether they're sending you fan mail or hate mail, requires infinite patience and infinite forgiveness. Who has that kind of energy anymore?

I can't help but feel, however, that you've written something between the lines. That if I hold the picture up to a mirror or a black light, or leave it in the sun for a few days, a message will appear in lemony ink meant only for me that provides many more details, instructions, and answers. Surely "I love you" is not, on its own, enough.


Write back soon and let me know.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wedding Planning vs. Marriage Prep: A Case Brief

Case: Wedding Planning vs. Marriage Prep, 2016.

Facts: Engaged couples everywhere fall victim (in varying degrees) to the stress and pressure of wedding planning, thereby hindering their ability to focus on the real work at hand: preparing for their lifelong, life-changing commitment to one another and their marriage.

Issue: Is breaking down in tears acceptable during the wedding planning process, and if so, what does this emotional reaction signify?

Holding: (Vote: 1,915,925,038 to 2) Yes, this behavior is acceptable, though explanations of significance will vary.

Majority Reasoning:

A. Rule: Both wedding planning and marriage preparation are emotional undertakings, each with myriad decision points and opportunities for self-examination. The court accepts the realities of both, but rejects society's emphasis on the former activity because:
  1. Weddings are ephemeral, whereas marriages are, with good faith and effort, intended to last a lifetime.
  2. Weddings are subject to ultimately superficial expectations, whereas marriages are subject to a couple's expectations of each other and their unique, mutual relationship -- expectations that require open dialogue and receptive hearts to set in the first place.
  3. The world of wedding planning lies within the galaxy of engagement, which lies within the universe of marriage preparation. The day or way couples say their vows is not intended to be a goal or an endpoint. Rather, it is an opportunity to practice the very communication and problem-solving that will power their marriage and fuel their growth as individuals and as partners.

B. Application: When individuals are moved to cry, yell, stomp, or undertake any other extreme display of emotion related to either wedding planning or marriage preparation, they are encouraged to take a step back and examine what provoked the reaction. The court advises the individual to share his/her feelings with his/her partner to seek opinions, counterpoints, and/or comfort, depending on the particulars of the incident at hand.

Concurrence 1:
That's what's so touching about weddings: Two people fall in love, and decide to see if their love might stand up over time, if there might be enough grace and forgiveness and memory lapses to help the whole shebang hang together. Yet there is also much discomfort, and expense, and your hope is that on the big day, energy will run through the lightest elements and the heaviest, the brightest and the dullest, the funniest and the most annoying, and that the whole range will converge in a ring of celebration.

-- Anne Lamott, "Flower Girl," Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Concurrence 2:
When people say that your wedding is the happiest day of your life, they have it a little wrong. If all goes well, your wedding may be the happiest day of your life so far. But the wedding marks the beginning of married life; it is the announcement of the start of something great.
-- Meg Keene, A Practical Wedding

Concurrence 3:
Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby -- awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.

-- Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

Dissent 1: Society:


Dissent 2: Bridal magazines:

A. "La la la la all the pretty things!"

Dissent 3: The occasional heart and mind:

A. "..."

Conclusion: Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay loving. You'll be ok, and so will your marriage.

Prayer #297: Leap of Faith

Be with us as we leave the plane, pull the cord, and hurtle headlong into the rest of our lives. Make our descent productive and our landing soft, and when we have stopped bouncing, let us help each other to our feet and revel in the brave new world we get to build together.


Monday, February 15, 2016

43 Universal Statements of Friendship

A Partial List of Honest Exclamations, Declarations, and Exhortations Emblematic of Dynamic, Evolving, Imperfect Relationships Between Dynamic, Evolving, Imperfect Humans

Friendship bracelet. Photo by Sabrina Gafken/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

1.    I want to know about your day and your dreams, your longings and your lunch.

2.    Let’s avoid festering. Also wallowing. Certainly no stewing. Tell me when you are mad at me and I’ll do the same in return so we can get on with the most important (and more enjoyable) business of liking each other.

3.    Let’s be patient with our learning curves.

4.    Let’s be compassionate toward our own and each other’s mistakes.

5.    Our love will never be unconditional because we are human. Still, it's good to have goals.

6.    I don’t wish you happiness. I wish you contentment—a comfortable assurance that your life is your own and that it satisfies you.

7.    What do you see as your purpose on this earth? Can you articulate it? How can I help you achieve it?

8.    I wish you believed in something bigger than yourself.

9.    Why won’t you grow up?

10.    Wait for me!

11.    Please don’t ever grow so far behind or so far ahead that we lose each other.

12.    What grounded our friendship when it began? What grounds it now?

13.    If we met for the first time today, would we be friends?

14.    What if we grow apart? Then what?

15.    Can we fix this? Do we want to?

16.    Sometimes, you are really selfish.

17.    Sometimes, I am really selfish.

18.    You take more than you give.

19.    Do you need me at all?

20.    I miss you.

21.    Thanks for letting me be myself.

22.    Thanks for bringing out my best self.

23.    Thanks for putting up with me.

24.    Are you listening?

25.    Thanks for listening.

26.    Grow up.

27.    Branch out.

28.    Get over it.

29.    Man, friendship sucks sometimes.

30.    Cry with me?

31.    I don’t always like you.

32.    I’m here for you in spite of myself.

33.    You’re here for me, but I’m still lonely.

34.    I wish I had what you have.

35.    Seriously?

36.    Remember that time…?

37.    Growing up is hard. So is living. I’m glad you’re in the trenches with me.

38.    If I could shut out the world for a day and settle into time with you, I would do it in a heartbeat.

39.    Come over. Wear sweats. Bring ice cream.

40.    Deep breath. Count to ten. You can do it.

41.    I believe in you.

42.    I’m proud of you.

43.    I love you. Always.

Prayer #296: Do You Recognize Yourself?

When you look at me, red of cheek and sputtering of speech, do you spot your own frustration? When you listen to me, ebullient in tone and effervescent in spirit, do you share my rarefied air? When you drape your arm across my shoulders, tensed and drooped, do you follow me into the pit, not to stay, but to understand enough to hold my hand in the dark?

I already know the answer. I ask aloud because I sometimes forget  that you have said yes to me, that I have said yes to you, and that together we've said yes to a connection greater than ourselves. By asking if you are indeed my friend, I remember I am called to be one to you.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The shame inherent in killing a cactus

Clearly not my cactus. Photo by H is for Home, Flickr.

The spiny succulent graced my mantel for 7.5 years, but little did it know that yesterday would herald its demise.

My green-thumbed friend gifted me the plant on the occasion of my 25th birthday -- a most appropriate symbol of life and tenacity given that I'd ended up in the ER for the first time in my life just the day before. "Oh, good, a cactus," I thought at the time. "What could I possibly do to a cactus?" Nothing, it turns out. As in, I did practically nothing -- no water, no pruning, no nothing -- and thus the potted plant hung on death's door for many long, dry years amid my infrequent and insufficient attempts at revival.

Yesterday, when I was clearing the mantel of Christmas and graduation cards and giving it a long overdue dusting, I caught sight of two tiny, vivid green shoots amid the growing tangle of dessicated stems and, well, I snapped. I took the gasping little thing and dumped it straight in the trash. Then I put its moss-green pot back on the mantel, free of the specter of death that once obscured it.

For a moment I felt quite at home with my decision. I congratulated myself for recognizing the long-obvious: that I was not going to take care of this plant. Better to put it out of its misery and open the door to a new, living plant that I, further armed with the dubious ability to kill the un-killable, would commit to nurturing with greater, more fervent intention.


My stomach knotted. Was it the right decision? Had the situation been as dire as I'd evaluated? What about those two hopeful green shoots? Could I have extracted them somehow from the dried, gnarled thicket, replanted them, saved them? Or was the cactus sitting at the bottom of the trash can right now, gazing up at the molding inside of the white lid, wondering if this is what heaven looked (and smelled) like?

The doubt in my mind came down to expectation and obligation. On the first count, a grown woman should be able to water a small plant reliably. On the second count, I believe humans should do their best to avoid harm to nature -- the horticultural version of the Hippocratic Oath -- yet I'd just euthanized something that suffered only from my neglect.

The truth is, it was easier for me -- less accusing, less incriminating -- to excise the offending reminder of my incompetence. Watching it die on the mantel did not inspire me to positive action; rather, it fostered resentment, first at the plant's weakness, then at my own weakness in caring for it.

How often in our lives do we behave this way? How often do we see our mistakes and missteps as so entrenched that there is no way left to dig out of them? How often do we wait for the problem to solve itself, and then, seeing no solution arrive, take the "easy" way out, which really isn't easy at all because the ghost of the issue follows right behind, thunderous with its silent head-shaking? In such a shamed state, can we even spot the green shoots in our midst?

I did not try to save the cactus. I didn't look up how to salvage the living bits, I didn't consult the green-thumbed friend. I just decided I'd had enough. So the pot sits on the mantel, empty, holding loss alongside possibility. And maybe that is what remains when we let blame go, too. We are left with what might have been, but also what now can be.

Prayer #295: Suckulent

I hold shame like a cactus holds moisture -- close, greedy, sucking on it like a masochistic IV of self-recrimination. The thirsty pain demands slaking, but not like this. Not with moral hair of the dog, where the pleasure is poison, fleeting and life-draining.

You meant us for more than surviving. You meant us for thriving, too. And the only way to do both is to open ourselves to Your soaking, forgiving rain, which will sate what once we starved.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

9 things I learned during my graduate writing program

Pages coming to life. Photo by Maria Teresa Ambrosi, Flickr

My trusty green folder is dog-eared. My cloth book bag is worn. My colorful pens are depleted. I have filled several notebooks, reviewed hundreds of manuscripts, and printed a gajillion pages/killed a gajillion trees. Now, after three years, nine classes, and one thesis, I am done. I have earned my M.A. in Writing.

But in truth, I have been on this artistic journey since I was five years old, with significant steps in 2008 when I started this blog and in 2009 when I reclaimed my dream of writing. I puttered around on my own for a couple years, finding my way to picture book drafts; I contemplated the spiritual facets of creativity, seeking out artists on similar quests; and I finally understood that my dreams were mine alone to realize, leading me to apply for graduate school and push past roadblocks of my own construction.

No sooner did I start the program, however, then I saw the children's book author Avi at the 2012 National Book Festival and had the inarticulate epiphany that eclipsed my articulated goals. As I wrote then:
"Oh my god," I realized. "I can do this. This is a thing. And it's my thing. I can write and tell stories and touch people and talk to them and encourage them to do the same. I want this to be my life. This should be my life."

The conviction behind the thought overwhelmed me. I wasn't considering my day job or personal development; I wasn't project-managing the situation. I was simply stating what I wanted more deeply than anything else in the world.

The epiphany scared me shitless.

In that moment, my scary, hairy, audacious dream sank its fangs in my neck and could not be shaken loose. I could deny it no longer; I had to find a way to write or spend the rest of my life wondering what I could have accomplished if I'd only tried. So with my dream snuffling and drooling on my back for three years, I set about trying.

What, then, besides narrative elements and sentence constructions and query letters have I learned about writing? Or to put it another way, what would I say to my just-starting self, the eager beaver who wrote an open letter to her graduate school professors, about her goals, her passion, and her individual creative process? Perhaps this:

  • You will surprise yourself. Werewolves? Space adventures? Second comings of Christ? I never thought I'd touch such topics, and yet I did, and wouldn't you know, some of it is readable. But the surprise lay in more than just topics. It came from late nights blinking at the ceiling because my mind was busy, and from comments I overheard on the metro, and from syntax exercises that turned into labors of love. It came from parts of my brain and heart I rarely tap, and it was those revelations that led to my most moving work.

  • You are built to workshop. All those hopes and dreams and imaginations crammed into one classroom, an avalanche of voice and vision ... how could this ENFJ not revel in the boundless, thrilling potential of creative midwives attending the birth of art? Writing is by nature a solitary craft, so workshops are critical air vents for my pent-up thoughts and questions. Without them, I would give up in a fog of loneliness and second-guessing, with no one to share my vision.

  • You were right to wait to submit. A year or so into the program, I permitted myself not to worry about getting published yet and instead focus on crafting work worth publishing. By redirecting my energy to learning how I write -- my cycles, peaks, motivators, hang-ups, bogeymen, superpowers -- I built a stronger foundation for my writing career. Now I will submit my work with far greater confidence and perspective, and thus a greater likelihood of success.

  • Hustle is essential. In the words of author Kitty Kelley (via my thesis advisor), "Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent." If I don't send my work out, I will not be published. Simple as that. So I must turn this next phase into a numbers game, one where grit and gumption see me through the inevitable and regular failures. It's not unlike a job search in that regard, where smart research and targeted applications reap a higher rate of response. Which brings me to ...

  • Your Type A personality is an asset. I used to think I was too uptight to be a good writer, too much a fan of control to let the madman overtake the judge. But there's a time and place for every skill, and when it comes to the task of getting published, my beloved spreadsheets and calendars are precisely what will take me from saved drafts to literary credits. I don't have to fit the stereotype of a flighty scribbler in a garret; instead, I can play to my natural tendencies and project-manage my way into print.

  • You will survive rejection. I am prepared for the onslaught of nos. Not ready, per se, nor accepting of it, but prepared. Because in the end, neither form rejections nor breathless acceptances define me; writing does.

  • You have found your tribe. I never feel as much like the person I believe I am meant to be as when I am with other writers. They are my gang, my kindred spirits, the ones who "get it" without me having to explain. I need to hold them close and treat them well, because they above all will keep me going through the dark nights bound to come.

  • You can -- and do -- move people. Readers have giggled and welled up at my work, but will publishers? Doesn't matter. My loyal readers know the deal, and they're in my corner willing me to move them anew.

  • You will be published. I haven't been yet. It might take forever. But I have stated the goal out loud in multiple ways at multiple times now, and I will keep saying it until I call it into being. I believe it now more than ever. I can do it. I will do it. And I will not accept anything less of myself.
So. I have submitted my thesis copies and performed my reading, checked my grade and thanked my professors. All that's left is to sustain my momentum, make good on the lessons I've learned, and be the writer I now know I am. Easy ... right?

Prayer #294: Vision Revisited (see Prayer #226)

You now see the vision I planted in your heart, and the look in your eyes is breathtaking.

You want it more than anything you've ever wanted before, I can tell. You see it cross-legged in the corner, a patient Buddha of lifelong potential, and you think you are close enough to touch it. But when you reach out, it is still one arm's length beyond your grasp.

Only one, though. Much closer than when it first emerged in a shadowy corner, soft and unformed at its edges, and infinitely closer than when it snoozed alone in the dark, hidden and unknown to you. (Though I always knew it was there.)

This I promise you: I will help you do everything in your power to make up that final length. Whether you need longer arms or wider steps or seventeen revolutions around the room, I will support you as you shorten the distance, just as I have supported you year and year, day after day, for as long as you've inched closer.

Not that you want any more advice from me, of course, but I'll say it anyway. Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay the course. Though you might not hear it, I am cheering for you -- ever louder, ever prouder.