Extra/ordinary

The other night I dreamed I gathered all my friends and family together because I had something important to say. At the last moment, my bosses from work showed up. My husband’s extended family came. Random acquaintances and strangers fromĀ  the internet arrived. The room was full and everyone had something they wanted to share.

At last, it was my turn. I stood up in front of them all, all those expectant faces, waiting to hear what I’d called them all here for. That semi-conscious part of my mind hovered over the room, as curious as the rest.

My dream self took a breath. “I have always dreamed of having an extraordinary life,” I said. “But I’ve come to realise it is a far more noble thing to desire a life of quiet and ordinary joy.”

I told the room that I was a writer, and I didn’t need my name on the spine of a book to fuel and feed me. That I had a joy no one else could give me and it came from a pen and a blank notebook page.

I told them in my childhood dreaming I’d never imagined I’d be doing this kind of work, this humble, physical task of hauling bags of fertiliser and preaching the wonders of weedkiller. But that this is the best job I’ve ever had and I am so grateful that I get to use my hands in good, useful ways. I come home from work each day with dirt under my fingernails and hair in my eyes and I would have it no other way.

I told them I’m studying economics right now even though it pushes me far, far outside my comfort zone, even though it brings me weekly misery and I have no chance of making anything better than a passing grade. I told them this because I’ve come to understand the importance of humility, of shaking off your own understanding of your limits like an old winter coat. I’m studying economics because I want to find small, practical ways to help other people. I’m studying economics because I no longer accept the lie of “I can’t”.

I told them I have an incredible husband and the great, fulfilling ordinary kind of love that occurs when two people commit to serving each other in everything they do. I told them I have a puppy and a roof over my head and a regular paycheck. I told them sometimes I get to travel and sometimes travelling means driving to the beach. I told them I have a quiet, gentle relationship with the Holy.

I told them there’s nothing else I long for.

I’m happy.

I am content with my humble, ordinary life and the humble, ordinary joy it brings.

The other day I came home from work while the sun was still shining. I smelled my blooming jasmine and picked up after my puppy and watched the sunset for awhile and I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

This is what I dream of. To have this quiet, ordinary, creative, love-filled life for the rest of my days.

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Extra/ordinary

A Perfect Storm

A month ago I finished my novel. This is a happy thing, I know it is. The feeling of being done, finally, finally done, is just lightness and air and every good and joyous thing. I went out to celebrate with my husband and, unexpectedly, we were joined by pretty much everyone else we know. I took a few deep breaths and I smiled and then I steeled myself for what was to come.

I try to prepare, to think ahead. I start planning my next book as early as possible, months before I expect to need it. But the problem is, the book I plan has never, ever been the one that I end up writing next. No matter how many plugs I construct, they just don’t fit the hole that emerges when I finish a manuscript.

I think partially it’s my mind’s way of forcing me to take downtime. I have to take a break between books. I don’t have a choice. But I hate that time, I can’t stand it, because no matter how many books I read or walks I take or cookies I bake, the anxiety always comes.

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Stormy sea

Writing is my therapy — I realized that a long time ago. I started writing when I was a kid in part because it forced my brain to slow down and focus, rather than running in endless, exhausting circles. My mind is like one of those dogs in a too-small yard. Boredom frustrates it. Inactivity sends it wild. It paces the same old, worn paths until the grass is all worn away and all that’s left is dirt and an overwhelming, unnameable terror.

When I’m writing, though, I feel normal. I feel like anyone else. I don’t lie awake at night, paralyzed by everything could possibly go wrong in my life. I don’t spend the drives to and from work running through every embarrassing thing I’ve ever said and imagining crashing on the side of the road just to make the thoughts stop. I don’t spend hours thinking about all the ways I could die or have my loved ones taken from me.

But when I’m not writing, all those things come back.

I know what to expect, my husband knows what to expect, and we mitigate the damage as much as possible. It gets easier every time, because I know what’s coming, and I recognize it when it does. It helps to know that I’ve gone through it before, and always come out the other side. Here’s a maxim I learned when I was a teenager, suffering through my first ever bout of depression: tomorrow will be different. Maybe better, maybe worse, but never exactly the same. How I’m feeling right now won’t last forever.

It wasn’t too bad this time. Or at least it could have been much worse. Because everything that could have gone wrong did, all at once.

First, my Labrador, Mika, injured her hip. This meant I was without a running buddy for the first time in two years. I was too miserable to try running on my own. I was too afraid to go into the bush without her. Two of my major coping mechanisms — running and nature — were taken from me at the worst possible time.

Then, Robin Williams died. I didn’t realize it would hit me so hard. Celebrities have died before, lots of them, and the sadness has always been momentary and light. I guess it was the way that he died, as well as the timing. It brought up a lot of things for me. I started thinking, if Robin Williams, a man who made his living from laughter, couldn’t make it, then how could I? I guess I wasn’t the only one, because Beyond Blue, an Australian helpline for people with anxiety and depression, received 50% more calls after the news broke.

I got sick, my hours were reduced at work, and then the rain started. Weeks of it. It’s still going — it feels like it’s never going to stop. Even sunshine was taken from me.

But I’ve weathered the storm. I grasped at every good thing I could find. I searched for beauty in every ordinary moment. I went out for coffee a lot (yay coffee!) and I went for walks when the sun came out and I hugged my husband and puppy as often as I could. I tried to be kind to myself, recognizing that the bad moments would pass and I’d write again when I was ready. I wasn’t always good at these things, but I did my best.

And on Monday I took my puppy on her first pain-free walk and then I sat down at my laptop and started tapping at the keys. The flow was slow — just a dribble, but it was something. Then yesterday, I did a session of yoga, Vinyasa-ing until I couldn’t feel my arms anymore, and wrote 500 words. 500 beautiful, wonderful, happy words. I’d hug them, but I don’t want to scare them away.

Today the rain is back and some of the old fears are creeping up on me, but I’m going to sit down at the laptop regardless. Maybe the words will come or maybe they won’t, but every season passes. The good ones and the bad. Tomorrow will be different.

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Ferocious sea on one side, calm harbor on the other.
A Perfect Storm

Everybody Hurts

My sweet puppy Mika turned one this month. She’s getting to be quite a big dog, but she still has the brain of a puppy, leaping headlong into every situation without thought. Unfortunately, this joyful and innocent approach to life had some negative consequences earlier this week when she came across a German Shepherd on a walk. Mika did what she always does, bounding up to meet the other dog (and dragging me along behind her), but the German Shepherd didn’t return her affection when she tried to lick him on the face.

My girl
My girl

The consequence? Our beautiful puppy now has a nasty bite on her muzzle. A quick trip to the vets and a round of antibiotics and she’s okay, thank goodness, but it was a bit of a scare.

Mika has a boo boo
Mika has a boo boo

It’s never easy to see the people you love get hurt, especially when you are in a position of authority. All night I thought of what I could have done differently, how I could have kept her safe. I shouldn’t have left the harness behind. I should have crossed the road instead of walking by the dog. But the thing is, the only way to keep people — or puppies — totally safe, is to wrap them in cotton wool and keep them locked up inside all day, and that’s no way to live.

It wasn’t nice for Mika to get hurt like that, but she’s certainly learned from it. She’s learning manners, the correct way to approach other dogs, and that not all dogs are as nice as she is. These are skills she needs if she’s going to do all the things doggies like to do, such as go to the dog beach and meet other puppies. In the long run, Mika will be a happier puppy having learned this lesson.

The incident made me think of a lesson I learned recently about crafting memorable characters. Through many, many drafts, I discovered the only way to create meaningful change and growth in my characters was to give them challenges that reflected their deepest fears, brought out their worst traits, and forced them to be vulnerable.

As writers it’s certainly tempting to keep our characters safe, to wrap them in cotton wool and put only small hurdles in their paths. But stories are about growth and change, and these things do not occur in a vacuum. People only change when they are forced to do so. The strongest tissue only grows in response to a deep wound.

When creating characters that have real power to affect the reader, we should strive for nothing less than complete emotional honesty. Probe your characters for their deepest injuries, their most potent fears, and then exploit them mercilessly. Only when you let our characters get hurt in a meaningful way will believable change and growth occur.

P. S. I think this is especially important when you’re writing YA fiction. Teenagers live with their deepest selves so close to the surface, so raw and vulnerable, at the same time as they are being exposed for the first time to all the pain that exists in the world. It’s an emotionally tumultuous time and you’re doing your readers a disservice if you only skim the surface of what it’s like to be a teenager.

P.P.S. This past week Nova Ren Suma has been hosting a bunch of authors on her blog responding to the question: “What haunted you at 17?”. Go check it out if you’re interested in an excellent example of emotional honesty in writing.

P.P.P.S. Check out this awesome essay by Carrie Ryan on connecting internal and external conflict to create really memorable stories.

Everybody Hurts

Bright Lights In Darkness

There’s this thing I do every year at about this time. I grab all my favorite TV shows and I go through and watch all the Christmas episodes. It’s a little tradition that I’ve been doing for awhile, but that has taken on a new meaning this year.

To borrow a phrase from Community (one of my new favorites) it’s been a dark year.

I almost don’t feel right saying that, because I know so many people who have been through so much worse than I have this year, but it’s true. Nothing especially tragic has happened, just small stresses that add up to one long and difficult year. Honestly, I’m just glad to be (almost) done with it.

I have a theory. Last year was a fantastic year (two months of it spent traveling — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream) but Christmas was kind of blah. This year was a dark one, but I think the darkness has made us value the holiday season so much more. Lights shine brighter in the dark.

Every time I do something Christmassy, every cookie I bake, every bit of tinsel I string, every present I buy, things seem just that little bit brighter. Christmas is my personal mission this year. It will happen. It will be great. My soul needs this.

I need the joy of Christmas carols, church services, gift giving and Christmas food. I need to pause and think about the wonderful things in the world — the bright lights among the darkness. And I need to find a way to be that bright light, in my own little corner of the world, for someone else.

To quote Castle, another of my favorites: “I love that feeling, that sense of hope. It’s crazy, you know? On the shortest, darkest days of the year, people of all faiths celebrate the light.”

Here’s a little light for you this Christmas (please ignore the mess):

Our beautiful puppy, one big bright light in our year.
Our beautiful puppy, one big bright light in our year.
Bright Lights In Darkness

Little Boxes

Hi friends! It’s been awhile! I’ve got to say, I’ve missed you all terribly, but life things got in the way. ‘Life things’ being buying a house! And moving!

We moved last weekend but we still have boxes around the place. Some of this is complicated by the fact that Husband, Puppy and I are now living with friends. That’s right, we bought a house with our close friends Raech and Michael, who you may have seen from our travel photos last year. We call ourselves the Scoobies and our house is the Mystery House. It’s been a tonne of fun so far, a lot like an episode of FRIENDS, but with a dog instead of a monkey.

In honor of this big becoming-an-adult step, I thought I would give you a very mature tour of our new house. But then I decided that mature is no fun, so instead I’m going to show you some of the most interesting things about the new house.

First, and most importantly, pictures! on! walls! (after renting for five years we were very sick of not being allowed to hang things up):

Our wall of Battlestar Galactica posters!

Mika is very happy that the new house came with a little house for her as well!

Queen of the yard!

Something interesting but not terribly practical (who needs practical?) is our spiral staircase:

No one has fallen down the stairs yet, which is a relief.

Along with the staircase, one of the most interesting features is the secret passageway:

I have not explored it yet. The skull and crossbones seem rather dire.

And oh! oh! We now own a garden gnome! We are such grownups now.

Hello, Mr. Gnome!

I am very pleased with my study, which is currently also my bedroom. Here are some of my favorite bits:

Inspiration photos
Bookshelves all set up. I’ll be painting them soon, so stay tuned.
The Japanese screen which separates my study from the bedroom.

I don’t think even one of these photos is level. Ah well.

The house is totally a work in progress. The old owners made some very interesting renovating decisions, i.e. random holes in walls and doors that open into nowhere. We have a whole bunch of ideas on how to fix it up, but for now it is very satisfying to be paying our own mortgage instead of someone else’s.

Oh, and if you weren’t aware, the title of this post is a reference to this song:

 

Our house isn’t made of ticky-tacky. I don’t think.

Little Boxes

Writer, Adventurer

So, I’ve had a few requests for more recent puppy pics, and I’ve been trying, guys, honest! But it’s SO HARD to take photos of a six-month-old puppy. Seriously. Most of them turn out like this:

Mika’s superhero name is The Black Blur

But there’s nothing I like more than sharing the Puppy Love, so today I took her for her first hike to try and wear her out. A tired puppy is a good puppy, right?

My neighbourhood is kind of beautiful:

View of Lake Macquarie from the hill near our house. On a clear day you can see the ocean.

If some of these shots are a little wonky, it’s because Mika wasn’t even close to tired yet and kept yanking me as she ran ever which way.

But I did get a few shots of our intrepid puppy:

The only reason she’s sitting still in this one is I’m holding a carrot — her favourite kind of treat.
Physically restraining her works too! Until she squirms away…
We made it to the top of the hill!
Good puppy! Tired puppy!

 

This walk was good for other things as well. I used to live in this same neighbourhood as a teenager. As often as I could I would walk up the hill and it under a tree and pretend I was sitting under an olive tree in Greece. I had so many dreams. Dreams about the places I would travel. Dreams about the stories I would write. Dreams about the man I would one day marry and about the puppy I would one day buy.

Not an olive tree.

A few days ago my friend Lena stopped by. We were watching Mika attack the spray from the hose my husband was holding. She loves water, just like me. Lena turned to me and said “So many of your dreams have come true”. And she’s right. Going for the walk today was a nice way to acknowledge that, to reflect on how far I’ve come.

I’m becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be: The Writer Adventurer. I’m just so glad I have a gorgeous puppy, a loving husband and some very patient friends by my side as I do.

 

Writer, Adventurer

On Achieving Goals and Meeting Milestones

Since our dating days, one of Michael and my favourite things to do is go out for coffee or for a drive and talk about The Future. We’re goal oriented people. Since those early days there have been a few things we’ve been working towards: Going on a road trip around the US/Canada. Getting a puppy. Buying a house.

The road trip happened last year (and was amazing!). We welcomed a Labrador puppy into our family six weeks ago. On Friday we received pre-approval for a home loan.

We’re moving into a very odd period of our lives. In fact, since getting back from our Amazing Overseas Adventure the husband and I have been feeling a little out of sorts. All our hard work is coming to fruition. We’re having all the big adventures we always dreamed of. Now what?

We enjoy the fruits of our labour, right? Believe me, we are.Image

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But… is that enough? It’s not that we’re not happy, not satisfied with what we have. It’s that it’s not just about the end product. For Michael and I, a large part of the satisfaction comes from working towards the goal. So we’ve made new goals.

It’s a lot like novel writing. Recently I finished polishing a novel. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I’ve worked so, so hard. I suppose the larger goal would be publication, but I’ve written a novel that I’m proud of, and whatever happens next, this is more than enough for me. It’s SUCH an amazing feeling.

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My celebration: Buying book related items. The canvas for my character. The R for Restless.

But despite the satisfaction that comes from achieving my goal, soon enough I’ll want to be writing again. Soon enough I’ll long for the happiness that comes from the day-to-day. That comes from the work.

Some might ask “When does it stop?” For me, it never stops, and that’s the larger joy.

It’s not about not being satisfied with the goals I have achieved. It’s about being satisfied with the process. It’s about the work. It’s always about the work.

On Achieving Goals and Meeting Milestones