Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Mary and Muppets (trust me, it makes sense)

This post is about Advent (mostly Mary). And Muppets (mostly Muppets). And the unexpected thread that ties them together.

At first I thought I was brewing this idea because this past week's highlights related to either entity in some way, be it festooning Fella's front yard with lights or sitting in a movie theater watching furry creatures from my childhood flop across the screen. All happy things, to be sure, but the connection wasn't clear.

Then, in my online meandering, I came across these posts:
As “Mah Nà Mah Nà” climbed the charts, the fledgling Children’s Television Workshop was struggling to settle on a format for their educational TV program, Sesame Street. CTW co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney had recently given the OK to bring in Jim Henson, whose Muppet characters had at that point been seen only in commercials and on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. Henson, a bearded bohemian with no experience in children’s programming, was something of an odd choice, but that was just why Cooney wanted him.

Mahna Mahna, as the character would come to be known, made his televised debut on Nov. 27, 1969, during Sesame Street’s first season. [...] In Street Gang, Michael Davis’s history of Sesame Street, several of Henson’s colleagues describe his artistic style as “affectionate anarchy,” and it doesn’t take much in the way of exegesis to see an anti-conformist message at work here. As Mahna Mahna’s antics grow wilder, the Snouths grow more uneasy and eventually counterattack, smother him with their bodies. But Mahna Mahna eventually breaks free and runs right at the camera, making contact to the sound of shattering glass.
     -- Sam Adams, "Mahna Mahna," Slate

... I imagine a Mary who would look me in the eye and tell me to get my shit together... with love, but also with a gleam in her eye that would let me know she was serious and would open up a can on me without a moment's hesitation if necessary. I imagine Mary with a firm jaw, saying "Yes, if I could bear the Son of God, bear the shame of my pregnancy and all of the difficulties with and questions around raising Him... and then watch Him die, then you can handle what God places in your life." I imagine a Mary who even now says "that's not too trifling a problem for me to take to God for you. Hold on, I'll be right back." I imagine her tough and strong and a little weathered. She was a carpenter's wife, after all. It's not like she had it easy.
    -- Amy Moffitt, Hail Mary, Bad-Ass Queen of Heaven

That's when I was able to pin down the elusive thread: The most unexpected people take unexpected action to achieve unexpected outcomes.

Think about it. Both Jim Henson and Mary were unlikely heroes in their respective contexts. They were on predictable paths until the powers-that-be asked them to do something beyond their ken. Their subsequent actions revealed their non-conformity -- Henson through his artistic vision, Mary through her decision to stick by her "Yep, it was God" story for over two millenia.

In a way, you could say that Mary pioneered 'affectionate anarchy.' Sporting a pregnant belly out of wedlock was not a subtle pronouncement. It was direct, defiant, and courageous. The result, however -- a child -- was a universal human experience others could understand and rally behind. (Much like how we TV viewers bought wholesale the idea a talking frog playing a banjo in a swamp. Because we all got that it's not easy being green.)

Strange comparisons to Jesus and Kermit aside, consider this: Advent is, by definition and design, a season of expectation. Yet its principal players -- and more broadly, its reason for being -- are any thing but expected. So, in honor of this dichotomy, let's stay open to the pleasure of surprise this season. For whether you prefer Maranatha or Mahna Mahna, there is always room for wonder.

Prayer #190: Didn't See That One Coming

I grew up knowing you would come

once we'd picked the turkey clean
and scrubbed the windowsills,

once we'd watched the pink wax drip
and arranged the figurines,

once we'd chosen tags at church
and opened all the little doors

and had in every way prepared for you.

But only now, grown up, I see
that you were there before the chores
and will be there long after

and for that wonder
I was unprepared.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The turkey-patience paradigm

Look! A hipsterized turkey!

This time of year in the U.S. always instigates wracking self-doubt among first-time poultry preparers. "What if I mess up the turkey?" they ask, gripping a baster for dear life, when what they really want to know is, "OMG WILL I RUIN THANKSGIVING?"

I can't vouch for the success of your turkey, but I can share with you the turkey-patience paradigm, an excellent model that will carry you through the holiday and beyond. Here are the basic tenets:

Plan what you can plan. If you're buying a frozen turkey, purchase it at least 2-3 days in advance so it can thaw out. If you're cooking the day of, look up cooking times and work backwards (leaving 20 minutes or so at the end for browning. Then, if all hell breaks loose in your kitchen that day, you at least don't have to worry about the turkey.

Simplicity is key. Stuffing a turkey is counter-productive; it takes longer for the turkey to cook and dries out the meat, so don't worry about cramming every single thing into this one bird.

Shine the spotlight on what matters most. While following fancy turkey recipes can make you feel like Mario Batali, just a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and basic spices will take you far. Fill the bottom of the roasting pan with cut-up carrots, celery, and onion for flavor that showcases, rather than masks, the meat.

Time is your friend. Leave. The turkey. ALONE. Do not open it every 10 seconds and baste; again, it's counter-productive to let all the heat out of the oven. Also, don't be in a rush to brown the darn thing. Leave an aluminum tent on it for 3/4 of the cooking time, remove it for the last quarter, and voila! a beautiful, moist, unburned turkey.

Take a moment to enjoy your success. We all love the classic Norman Rockwell Freedom from Want painting for a reason -- because everyone is living fully in the moment and appreciating the cook's handiwork. So before you take a knife to your turkilicious product, stand back, take it in, and admire what you hath wrought. You earned that much at least.

Got that? Plan where you can, keep it simple, focus on the big picture, let time do its work, and don't forget to take it all in. A recipe for patience -- and one helluva winning turkey. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Prayer #189: Baste Not, Want Not

Keep me heated
Cook me through
Don't let me dry
Before I'm due

Keep me hearty
So I last
May I enjoy
Then breaking fast

Keep me happy
(Sane, at least)
And grant me patience
Til the feast!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

7 steps to reclaiming your personal plotline

Palacio Real. Spain 2011.

She was a little slip of a thing -- rounding 70 by my calculation, with skinny bird legs and a smoker's laugh. I didn't put together who she was until the conference emcee read her bio: "Patricia MacLachlan is an award-winning author, know for the beloved classics Sarah, Plain and Tall, Skylark, Baby ..."

My 9-year-old self raced into the Wyndam Hotel ballroom, knocked me off the seat, and sat in my place, chin in hand, ready to hear everything and anything this woman had to say.
Sarah, Plain and Tall stands as a seminal moment in my young reading life. It introduced me, a suburban kid accustomed to hills, trees, and the modern automobile, to a windswept, rural, bygone prairie world. Its language was spare and direct. I remember feeling trusted as I read it -- trusted to grasp its deeper significance, trusted to carry its emotion forward.

The memories flooded me as I sat there, an excited participant in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Tri-Regional Conference this past weekend, surrounded by 150 or so people who have almost identical dreams to me: to put their own writing in the hands of children and trust them to impart it to others.

Being so surrounded is at once comforting and daunting. Comforting because you're among your 'tribe,' as SCBWI founder Lin Oliver said. You can throw terms like MG and YA around and people don't just nod politely, they ask you for your hooks and your querying progress.

Yet it's daunting because these same 150 people -- a small slice of the 25,000 or so members worldwide -- are all reaching for the same brass ring you are ... and there's no guarantee there will be enough brass rings for everyone.

Session after session, question after question this weekend, it sunk in that I have signed on for a mighty big goal. The chances of me being the next Patricia MacLachlan are, at the moment, non-existent. I need much more practice. More risk. More originality.

This, by the way, is when I kicked my 9-year-old self back off the chair and groaned, "How the hell am I gonna make this happen?"

Well, by writing. But not by writing any book the book a book (though that's a clear first step). I can apply what I learned about writing at the conference to every aspect of fulfilling this goal. For example:

1. Choose action. In picture books, illustrators can illustrate action best. Dialogue is static; characters can only talk so much before they must get up and DO something. So must I be about my 10,000 hours of practice. I must type. I must research. I must read. I must act.

2. Give myself a break. No first draft is perfect. It's not supposed to be. I struggle with this, as I prefer delusion and often think I am above improvement. But try as I might, I can't escape the fact that my skills are not at genius level. So I'll embrace it instead and see what emerges from my imperfection.

3. Grant myself permission to play. Here's a novel idea I picked up: enjoy the process! Imagine that! Stop thinking about the end goal and focus on the joy of creation. Be wacky. Make words up. Ignore the rules -- they won't always get you where you want to go.

4. Be able to surprise myself. Be unpredictable. Don't fall into old habits on or off the page. When I know everything that's coming, the magic disappears. I hereby challenge myself to forfeit control and see what my busy brain comes up with on its own.

5. When in doubt, take it piece by piece. Achieving goals does not equal scaling monoliths. It's going step by step, usually forward, sometimes backward, but always in motion (see #1). Am I overwhelmed by the years -- decades even --  it could take to get published? Then I'll write one chapter this month. Or five pages this week. Or one paragraph today. The point is, begin.

6. Nothing is sacred. Writing is often about choice. My stories can't have it all and neither can I. What I have to preserve is the core of my story -- the unflappable nugget of original thought and universal truth that makes my work sing. Which brings me to ...

7. Do I have heart? Or to put it another way, do I care? Why am I writing it? Do I make you care enough? What about this work matters? Why should I share it with the great wide world? What's getting me up each day to do this? Can I even answer these questions? Cuz if not, I best be revisiting my motives.

I'll admit, my first professional critique this weekend was less than stellar. I saw other attendees raise their hands when asked "Who's published?" and I heard other aspiring writers talk about their agents & editors, newly acquired. I watched all the dynamic keynote speakers -- all acclaimed authors and illustrators -- and thought, "I could do that. I'd love to do that, in fact. One day. Someday? Oh god."

But then I remember what Patricia MacLachlan -- published author, beloved storyteller, sassy speaker -- said in the ballroom of the Wyndham: "As writers we whisper in the ears of children."

To which my 9-year-old self nodded and then put her nose back in her book.

Hang on, kids. I'm coming.

Prayer #188: A Plot Afoot

In the beginning, I feared the end.

In the middle, I worried I hadn't begun.

In the end, I wondered why I'd bothered wasting the energy fearing and worrying when instead I could have been enjoying the beginning and the middle.

Lord, help me live each act as it comes and turn the pages at just the right pace.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Well, I *could* change, but that would require work.

I should really listen to myself more.

I knew I wanted to write about change this week. Earlier this fall, my workplace underwent a not-insignificant reorganization. Our vision, our operations, and our staff are in a state of reinvention. And it's in transitions like this when you discover/remember/wonder what you and others are made of.

For example: I fancy myself a smooth agent of change, someone who stays calm amid crisis, takes the long view, errs on the side of optimisim. This is a very generous and perhaps delusional view. Because I also get knots in my stomach when people are unhappy. I soak up others' stress (as if my own weren't substantial enough) like a sponge on steroids. I bought a bottle of Chianti earlier this week just for myself.

Put down the phone. I didn't drink it in one sitting. I just wanted to.


Now that we're a couple months into the reorg, I'm questioning how well I roll with the punches -- and how much better I could roll with them if I put my mind to it. Which is why I wanted to write about change this week. And also why I procrastinated heavily, because I didn't want to spend yet another hour in my own head thinking about such sticky matters.

Until, that is, I remembered I have already written about this very thing. Over three years ago, in fact, when I was still living in Philadelphia and undergoing my (first) quarter-life crisis.

Here, take a look:
Spare change. Noun. The coinage and assortment of other small metal objects found in pockets/couch cushions/tip jars around the world.

Now try this on for size: Spare change. Verb. To use life's shifting events frugally or carefully. To avoid the full experience of new decisions or circumstances.

Or this: Spare change. Adjective. Bare, as referring to life. Lacking in amplitude or quantity. Plain, unembellished, and just plain boring.

Do you really want to spare change in your life? Do you want your picture next to these definitions? Ariane de Bonvoisin wants to make sure both your answers are NO.

She and her book -- The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Any Change (and Loving Your Life More) -- were the subject of a Guy Kawasaki interview earlier this week that caught my eye in my RSS travels.

Maybe my own recent life changes were still fresh in my mind. Maybe two separate conversations with my Philly BFFs about new directions and doubts kickstarted the train of thought. In any event, I read the article, and discovered the nine principles that make people good at change (straight from Ariane's mouth):
1. They have a positive belief about change and are generally optimistic. I call these people "change optimists."

2. They believe in the change guarantee: that something good always comes from change.

3. They know that they possess a "change muscle"--that they are strong, capable, powerful, and intuitive enough to handle any change that comes into their lives or that they want to initiate.

4. They refuse to become paralyzed by "change demons"--negative emotions that arise during change.

5. They don't resist change--choosing instead to accept the reality of their situation.

6. They understand that their thoughts, the words they say and the feelings they allow themselves to experience during change have a direct affect on how easily they move through the transition.

7. They believe that life has a deeper meaning than what can easily be seen or felt, that something greater is at play, and that no change is arbitrary.

8. They surround themselves with a support team to help them move through change.

9. They refuse to get stuck during change. They keep moving and take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally.

You can view these principles through a few prisms -- spirituality, pragmatism, philosophy, and so on. Whatever your context, though, the truths remain the same. Change happens to you, within you, and through you. All three steps must be present for change to succeed.

So don't be stingy with change. Grab it, gulp it, glory in it. Otherwise, the only thing getting lost in the couch cushions will be you.

(Original post here)

Ah, to be so young and wise again.

But really, I think the point still stands. I can hide under the bed for the rest of my life, or I can go step by step in supporting myself through every transition, major or minor, that life delivers.

Change is, after all, inevitable. Let's not just roll with it -- let's make the most of it.

Prayer #187: Be The River?

Be the river, said my friend, by which he meant go with the flow, adapt, and any other number of calm and soothing water metaphors.

I think he forgets, however, that rivers can rage. They freeze under winter's grip, choke on melted snow, explode after summer storms, even gasp for air in arid seasons.

I'm only the river in that I react more than I control. I don't know what rocks lie in my path or how fast the current flows or where my destination rests. At best, I reflect the sunlight when it reaches me and absorb the raindrops when they fall. And always I move forward, drawn by a pull set long before I joined the earth, on a course that will persist long after I depart.

Still, I'll be the river, God, not because I have no choice, but because You have given me power between the banks: fluid strength, coursing energy, and the ability to heal myself in time.