Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Despite what Coldplay says, God gave me neither style nor grace

Photo by trevorappleton.
Of course it had to be someone else's photo,
because a) I rarely do mountains, and
b) if I'd taken a picture I would have fallen off the cliff.


I beg to differ with Coldplay: God gave me neither style nor grace.

Otherwise, why then, when I was slated to be in the tap routine for a show, would the choreographers have politely and discreetly cut the number "needed" in half? (I wasn't needed.)

Why then, when I was using on the squat machine at the gym this weekend, would another gym-goer say to me, "Not quite awake yet, are we?" (I was in the middle of a set.)

Why then, when I caught my flip-flop on the slightest raised inch of sidewalk and landed hard on the other foot on my way home from work, would a homeless man call out to me to be careful? (I walk the same route every day.)

I'm really, really hoping -- with all fingers crossed, except with my luck, I'll cut off circulation and lose a pinky -- that this lack of grace will transform to some greater purpose. That I'll have the sort of opportunities only abject awkwardness can reveal, like a lost diamond ring on the sidewalk right before cheek meets pavement.

I'm thinking this, actually:

Photo by shawnzlea.


This better be it. Otherwise, I'm taking out extra insurance.

Prayer #178: Stumblin' Fool

If I'm going to trip over anything, Lord, can You make it the curb and not my words?

I keep stumbling across the same arguments, the same worries, the same aggravations, the same fears. If there's a high expectation or misplaced assumption around, I guarantee I will stub my toe on it.

You'd think I'd learn. But no. I rush in where angels know better than to tread and consequently fall flat on my all-too-mortal face.

Help me clear the path, Lord. Or at least remove it of injurious debris for the time being. That way I can start making progress down the road, with at least some strength -- and some limbs -- intact.

Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Forget the blank page -- this is a writer's worst enemy

Photo by mpclemens

I sat down in the coffee shop yesterday, laptop at hand, with one goal: write a new picture book manuscript in two hours.

The cursor blinked. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I could read every acceptance letter from publishers, see every illustration in my head, hear every parent reading it aloud at bedtime to spotless, expectant little faces.

So I clickety-clacked my heart out, undaunted by the white page, unwavering in my self-belief. I had no reason to hesitate. I knew this was pure gold.

Until I read what I'd written.

And that's when I realized: Blank pages are not the enemies writers like to make them out to be. First drafts are.

Blank pages are the easy part. They're shining beacons of potential and hope. You haven't offended anyone with bad grammar or struggled to fill a plot hole or dyed the whole thing red with editorial ink. Blank pages hold only your best intentions.

First drafts, however, reveal just how far you are from your initial, glorious vision. Instead, all your imperfections have emerged in harsh sunlight with bad hangovers. Characters trip over each other and lose their voices. Chapters drag like mummy feet. You're pretentious on one page, trite on another. And for the love of God, do not. Put in. That EPILOGUE.

Coming up short is scary. Whaddya mean, I wasn't perfect out of the gate? you think. It shakes your confidence. To paraphrase Lincoln (a fine writer who I'm hoping had a ton of first drafts), better the page remain blank and be thought perfect than to fill it up and inject all doubt.

So where does leave us, besides crying in the corner and taking to drink? As I see it, we have two options for our work:

1) Put on blinders. Insist on your consummate brilliance. Consider your job done.

2) Admit your weaknesses. Admit your strengths. Keep working.

Hmm. Sounds a bit like life, dunnit? How the most productive route usually isn't the easiest? Or fastest? Or cleanest?

I sat reading that picture book draft and watched my happy daydreams evaporate like steam from the espresso machine. But don't get all depressed on my account. The visions, the goals, the ambitions -- they're all cyclical. I didn't diminish or abandon them. I just set them alongside the first draft to keep a watchful eye on my progress.

The good news is, the most evil part is over. I put real words on paper. Now I have something to work with. Something to improve upon. Something even bigger to earn.

Prayer #177: Work in Progress

God of sparks and daydreams and notebook doodles --

Take what is passable and elevate it.
Take what is useable and sculpt it.
Take what is good and burnish it.

Make me superlative, just as You envisioned.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What do you believe in the light?



Many thoughts and ideas jockeying for position this week. Among them:

* What does heartburn feel like?
* What do you say to people who don't believe in God?
* When do tennis lessons start?
* How do you get a friend to seek counseling help?
* What's the difference in feeling between a sinus headache, allergies, and a brain tumor?
* What if my parents die in a freak accident while traveling abroad?
* Am I ready to have kids?
* Is throwing leftover apple pie in the trash an act of courage or stupidity?
* Where do we really go when we die?
* Did I accidentally inhale a piece of pasta last week?
* Am I a writer poser?
* Have I turned into a hypochondriac?
* What do dreams about Frasier characters mean?

It's enough to keep you awake. Or distracted. Or worried. Or all of the above. Which I am.

So for the space of one blog post, I'm going to put these thoughts and ruminate on these lyrics --
[H]old on to what you believe in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight

Because somewhere between healthy insight and harmful obsessing, I took a wrong turn and ended up in pitch-black Agitaville (sans heartburn medication). Time to head back toward the light -- even if it doesn't come into view for a bit.

Prayer #176: Worries and Warts

How do you know when your logic has come full circular? When you're still at war, not peace? When you missed the exit for arrival at your conclusion?

I for one don't know. If I did, I wouldn't have turned my poor brain into a worry stone.

God of perspective, help my puny mind rest from wrestling with mystery. Direct it instead on solving the solvable.

Then rub off the soot that clouds the once-clear glass on my lantern. Shine it instead on a path worth following.

In short, keep me from worrying myself so smooth I slip away for good.

Amen.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The s-word that really turns me on

I just got back from a much-needed vacation with my fella, and I had a whole lotta something that makes me feel giddy. Alive. Weak in the knees.

What to know what it was?

It was SILENCE.

I dig silence. I crave it. I wallow in it. Be it library silence, beach silence, or monk-like silence, count me in.

But silence, as you know, is difficult to achieve. We're surrounded by din -- train screeches and cell phone conversations and coworker chatter. Even moments of supposed 'quiet' usually have some sort of hum in the background.

It's not just audible noise, either. Our visual world (especially online) is clutter incarnate. What popped up? What does that update say? Who just @ replied me?

Still, I strive to make a silent pocket each day, an unplugged moment where I'm sitting in my thoughts and tuning out the beeps and whirrs. And it's much easier on vacation when I'm sitting alone on a beach with only waves as a soundtrack, as I was last week.

Turns out this silence has a funny effect -- it makes me a better listener. So says sound expert Julian Treasure in this illuminating TED talk about "re-tuning your ears for better conscious listening." Watch the short video here:



So yeah. Silence turns me on (or is it off?). It helps me hear my boyfriend without the crackle of bad phone connections. It helps me absorb the sea air and the movement of tides. It helps me acknowledge the whispers in my own heart.

Silence, it turns out, speaks volumes.

Prayer #175: Silence Speaks Loudest

Amid cackles and crackles and reverb and pings
Couched in echoes and static and racket and rings
Next to babble and bellows and ruckus and dings

I sit still to listen ... and learn my soul sings.

For I could not hear it above all the noise --
Could not heed the sorrows, could not share the joys.

But now I'm aware (now that I've begun)
That souls tend to whisper at the top of their lungs.

So beyond all the clatter and clamor and fuss
Over the fanfare and shouting and muss
My soul quiets all with a "shhh" and a sigh --
God's voice not on mute, but instead amplified.

Amen.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Why Buffalo is your future, no matter where you live

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo. from PreservationNation on Vimeo.

"Oh, you're interviewing for Buffalo Unscripted?" said the Five Points Bakery owner to the customer. "Then you get a free loaf of bread!"

"Really?" she said.

"Really," he answered. "We posted it on our Facebook wall. Everyone who participates get a free loaf of fresh cinnamon raisin bread. Because we love this project and want everyone to come."

True story. Happened when I was filming in Buffalo (the reason I didn't post anything new for three weeks). It captures why I have fallen truly/madly/deeply in Buffalove. Not because I'm a carb addict, but because I'm a community addict. And Buffalo is my new drug.

I thought I was crazy when we ended filming and experienced sudden, acute separation anxiety from a city where I'd spent only 11 days. What about this old Rust Belt town was calling me home?

I wouldn't have put my finger on it if I hadn't just finished reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. (Cliff notes TED talk here, but really, this is a fantastic read and you should get the whole book.)

Drawing on the wide field of brain science, Brooks explores how our unconscious impacts all aspects of our life, from academics to politics to neighborhoods. At one point, he talks about the "shallow view" society shaped by a 20th century emphasis on material development that ultimately broke down the "social and emotional development that underpins it."

Other forces were at work too:
  • The cultural revolution broke down old habits and traditional family structures.
  • The economic revolution replaced downtowns with sprawl.
  • The information revolution replaced face-to-face community organizations and instead sent people alone in smaller, more self-selecting, more identical communities. (As Brooks puts it, "like found like.")
All these combined to dissolve the "webs of relationship" that gave society a deeper, richer social fabric. And with those webs disintegrated, people's social capital diminished and they were left rootless.

But not in Buffalo.

As interviewee after interviewee for our project pointed out, Buffalo's economic hardships in the latter part of the 20th century saved the elements of its society that support its revival today. Case in point:
  • They never knocked down their old buildings or houses to build new ones.
  • They kept their park system largely intact.
  • They came to rely on grassroots organizing to achieve community-centric goals.
  • They made a point of knowing and relying on their neighbors.
The result: Buffalo greets the 21st century with community solidarity, a can-do attitude, a reasonable cost-of-living, and a strong sense of place.

Now, it's not all rainbow-farting unicorns. The metro area is still in search of a new post-manufacturing economy. Their medical corridor holds promise, as do the energy and arts sectors, but none have emerged as the winning ticket just yet.

That said, the city has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its depth of community. And that's precisely what had me checking real estate listings by the end of the week. Something deep in my unconscious suddenly realized it was tired of transience, of living in a place with a shifting, nondescript point of view. And it got really, really excited about the idea of supporting local artists. Of joining a block club. Of knowing my mailman's name.

In my opinion, Buffalo shows us how we can reinstate the social systems that hold us together and meld them with the march of progress. When Buffalonians look at their city, they don't see the Rust Belt/snow-encased stereotype the rest of the country pokes fun at. They see neighbors working together. They see progress and reinvention. And they see it all all happening right now. Not in some distant, amorphous future, but in real time, as we speak.

Buffalo is a city well under way. We need to keep an eye on it. Better yet, we should participate in it, whether there or in our own communities. As native Meg Baco commented to me before, "Remember, my one word for Buffalo is POSSIBLE. Anyone can be a Buffalonian, no matter where they are."

It's time to discard the shallow view. It's time to be the Buffalo.

Note: This week's prayer is dedicated to all the generous, helpful, hopeful people we've met thus far who make our Buffalo Unscripted project -- and their hometown -- such a joy to be a part of.

Prayer #174: Rooted

I have no leaves, no branches, no bark or stem or petal. But I have roots that go deep, back to some primordial cave where individualism was not yet invented and connectedness was king.

My roots start at the spot in my chest that leaps when I near home. They snake through my legs and grip the soil in places that make my heart sing. They radiate out -- stealthy, subtle sentinels -- in constant search for others' cords to earth. For we are designed to be entwined.

Source of all things solid and growing, help my roots go deeper. Tangle them in knots and twists so I am that much stronger. Show me what it means to truly stand with others.

Amen.