Notes on retreating.

This week I've been tucked away from humanity in the mountains, on what I termed a "self-imposed writing retreat." I didn't get into the one official writing workshop that I applied for this summer, and after some discussions with friends and family, I realized that I didn't have to wait for another "official" opportunity to show up.


So I came up here and have given myself head space and time to write. No social media, no responsibilities, no one else around. A few naps, some Netflix, some walking, a little yoga, lots of cookies. A Year in Provence by Mayle and A Circle of Quiet (READ IT) by L'Engle. And writing, don't worry. With a gorgeous corner set of windows that I want to take home with me.


Let me say that I know getting away like this is a privilege, that I had some monetary assistance in doing so, that it definitely sucked away my accrued vacation at work, that my husband was a willing and phenomenal solo dog-dad, and that this probably won't be able to happen every year, or even every other. However, let me also say, whether or not you're a writer or artist, whether or not you have kids or a spouse or a day job: If you can get away by yourself (BY YOURSELF) for just a day or two, not even to work on a project, but simply to be... do it.

This week has been scary and freeing.

It has been freeing because I don't remember the last time I was by myself completely for so long, maybe ever. I've seen a few people here and there, walking around the lake, but mostly it's been just me. Up to me to keep my own schedule for sleeping, eating, walking, writing. It's been freeing to sit on the couch with my laptop and write some bad stuff that feels like it might have some good parts in it too.


I made this time because I don't think about my writing project much--or let's face it, write anything on it--in the real world these days and I want to figure out if I should still keep working on it or not. It's the same project that I've had for nearly five years. There's a version of it that I finished for my grad program, but I've always thought that there might be a fresher version, a better version (what does that even mean?) waiting to be carved out of the original. But I don't give myself time and space (even within the time and space I have in my "real life") to start carving.


Here are some of the questions I'm asking, thoughts I'm pondering (and writer--or non-writer!--friends, I would LOVE to hear from you on these. Have you felt this way too? How have you responded? Tell me!):

- Do I think there is a "better" version mainly because I want to see if I can get it published? Or because I think I truly have a "better" way to say what I already said, whether or not it makes its way out into the world?

- Time has passed since I wrote the original; maybe I feel like I have something different to say entirely? (though I'm not sure what, and that's unnerving)

- I'll only know what I want to say if I write it out to the conclusion

- But I have so many pieces of what I wrote originally that I like and want to weave in. So am I writing something new or am I really connecting pieces that I already have? (OR do I like those pieces mostly because they are "done" and it would appear to mean less work for me in the end? I feel like I'm big into shortcuts which is not great.)


- If I'm connecting old pieces more than writing new ones, am I really going to be able to write the story out to its conclusion, whatever that is?

- Soooo... should I start from scratch? (If so, good Lord, HOW? WHEN?)

- Should I go back to the original and try to publish that as is?

- Is this meant to be a book at all? I've written so much about it that I think it is, but should it be pared down into an essay or even a blog post? Sometimes I'm not sure how much I've written is just different iterations of the same thing.

- Am I too young/inexperienced/not good enough to do this at all?

- Will I be able to say the difficult stuff that needs saying? Sometimes I feel like so much of what I write is the obvious, without much layering or exploration underneath it. How can I be sure and certain that I *DIG*? Writers and memoirs I love end up with such brilliant observations, on the surface and underneath, and I just don't know... I just don't know if I have that in me.


- If I decide to abandon a project, how do I know that it's because the project is meant to be abandoned rather than I've just decided that it's too hard to finish?

Asking these questions and not really finding good solid answers is why the week has been scary. I knew, going in, that having only five days would not be nearly enough--to what? finish an actual draft?--but better than nothing.

I stand by that. I have written something new everyday, and that's an accomplishment. I've remembered that I am wordy and I often use commas, dashes, semi-colons, and every other form of punctuation to make a sentence run longer, because it just feels like each part of it is supposed to be interwoven like that. Maybe there's an agent or editor just waiting for a long-winded-on-paper soul like me (a girl can dream).

On Wednesday, I hit a high point of writing a draft of a new chapter that I thought started out shakily but spending 3-4 hours on it made it better--even though it's still most definitely a first draft. On Thursday, I backtracked a little bit by trying to start knitting old and newer pieces together with no real sense of why I was throwing them into a certain order, and not really exploring any new insights on the page to help me figure it out--I so long for structure and order before I'm finished writing, but I should know by now that for me it doesn't normally fall that way. (I'm also not good at wearing only the writer hat without the editor hat piled on top. Need to work on that.)


I told myself that no matter what came out of this week, I would consider it a success. Because no matter what, I did it. I drove some thoroughly unnerving twisty turny roads to get there and back again. I read, drank tea, walked, slept, ate, and wrote. I played my bossa nova Pandora station, a couple of West Wing eps (and the Queer Eye with Mama Tammye, I know I'm so late, but Y'ALL)--and was silent a good chunk of the time. I made more room in my brain (I think) and hopefully my heart.

Even though I hoped it might be otherwise, I knew that I would probably come away with more questions than answers, more unfinished than finished--but better than not having tackled any of it at all, which is what had been (not) happening in the throes of daily life. 

Speaking of daily life, what can I take away from this and bring back to my normal routine, which often feels too chock full for these light and airy possibilities?

- Dedicate at least two hours a week to the project

- Write new drafts instead of focusing on old stuff. See what freshness blooms.

- Sign up for a couple of workshops this fall. Talk to people about the process and share the work itself. That's one thing that this week has reminded me--though a writer ultimately writes alone, I still need help.

- Be open to the fact that this might take a really long time.


-And that (maybe) giving up on a project at one moment doesn't mean that it will be abandoned forever. I feel like there's such a fine line between what the intuition part of me believes that "it'll happen when it's meant to happen" and then the whole "dude, in order for ANYTHING to happen you have to frickin sit down and write!"

It's weird; after this week, I feel both very much a writer and very much NOT a writer. I have never been solely a writer who stays home and taps away at the laptop all day, and I was (mostly) that this week. Very writerly of me. At the same time, I felt out of my element--not sure where to start or what would make me feel accomplished besides emerging with a full-fledged awe-inspiring new draft--which, of course, I didn't.

And yet, I still come away feeling accomplished. I gave myself the time and space. Some newness showed itself. May I hold onto the refreshment and rejuvenation long enough to see what it, and I, will become.

First month, worst month?

You'll be pleased to know that I wrote (drumroll, please...) ZERO new blog posts in January.


I know, I know, I'm impressed with myself too.

I'm blaming it on Advent blog overload from December, though I also chide myself that since I now know I can write 24ish posts in a row, I should just keep going.

But there's another piece to the puzzle: I've actually started writing pieces and submitting them to other publications besides my blog.

This has been an abstract goal of mine for awhile--well, solid in the sense that I can envision my name and words at the top of a screen, but abstract in that I hadn't put in the work to make it happen (funny how common that is). And even now, I'm not sure that it will--happen, that is.

As I've started this process, it feels like 3/4 of it is work, while the other quarter is this weird, floating wait. First, I re-realize how much time and effort it actually takes to create a new piece from scratch, one that will be examined by others before it ever lives anywhere besides My Documents--not simply one that I can dash off and send to the blog (though this is a great option to have). And then, once I hit "submit," there's the lovely auto response that appears from whatever publication I've chosen, thanking me for my submission, and if they decide to publish my piece, I'll hear from them in 3-4 months. (Or... never.)

I'm not sharing this to intimidate fellow writers or as a full excuse for my state of non-blogging so far in 2018. I'm sharing this because sometimes, we have to wait (and not just during Advent). We have to float, and not the dreamy ethereal kind of floating either--floating that feels more like slipping and stumbling on unforgiving air. Unable to turn back or move fully forward.

I've loved this January because it has been a return to my favorite parts of routine: exercise, meditation, journaling, hot tea and toast, group gatherings that I enjoy. I've added a few healthy things, like carrots and hummus and hardboiled eggs at lunch, mouthwash in the mornings, and more water all day long. And the month has had a bit of extra whimsy--a successful shopping trip, two snow days in PJs, a tradition-rich wedding.

But the start of 2018 has also been really rough. People and family members I love have been stricken with illness, with vocational uncertainty, with grief and transition. I feel that stumbling Muggle float very keenly right now. And I'm sure I'm not alone.

So here's what I want to say to you, to myself, and to all of us as we bid farewell to January and (please God) inch closer to sunshine and flowers and leaves on trees:

Do what you can. Hit "submit" on the piece or the project. Whisper the prayer, say "I love you," make the meal, drink the fluids, hold their hand, tell your truth. Do what you can. It may not feel like enough in the moment, and yet it is--and it will be down the road.

Onward, friends, and into February.

This was my message in my February e-newsletter that went out yesterday, along with some of my favorites from the first month of the year. Want in on next month's? Subscribe here!

30 things to do before I turn 31.

birthday party.jpg

Happy new decade to me! Here are some things I hope to live out in the year to come.

1. Consider what I actually need in terms of amount. Too often I find I don't think before I consume--whether that's clothes, dessert, or social media.

2. Continue building up strength/cardio. 15-pound weights, you're up next!

3. Get a dog. ALERT: THIS HAS HAPPENED! Sweet Lucy the 4-year-old black lab joined our family 2 weeks ago!

4. Drink a gallon of water per day. Because I want to see if I feel any different, and I know it will be good for me either way.

5. Feel free to say no. This isn't saying I'll shirk responsibilities, but I will consider what I take on as a responsibility in the first place.

6. Pray the hours again. I used Phyllis Tickle's Prayers for Lent Through Easter from the Divine Hours for my Lenten practice, and I'd like to do her prayers for Advent through Epiphany this winter.

7. Build authentic author platform. I created my own professional Facebook page back in the summer, and I've barely touched it since. Why? I think while some of it is legitimate forgetfulness or busy-doing-other-things, a lot of it is due to "imposter syndrome." Who am I to have a professional author page on Facebook? What do I have to say and share that people will want to hear? There are so many voices out there already. This year, I'd like to get past this and simply share what resonates with me--whether or not people end up reading it.

8. Meet more neighbors. We've already started doing this, but there are plenty of folks on our street that we still don't know. How to change that... cookies, perhaps? 

9. Live our own journey. The world we're in makes it so easy to compare our lives to others', and I want to strive to, well, ignore that, and appreciate where Sean and I are on our path.

10. Pay more attention to/ask more questions about/be more aware about money and finance. I am true to my English major self in that I really don't like or understand the intricacies here. I have a husband who does, so too often I lean on him for that support--not that I don't appreciate his strengths in that area, but I think that it would ultimately make me feel more confident in multiple aspects of life if I were more tuned in here.

11. Continue meditating and journaling. This has been an important part of my daily morning routine for almost 2 years now, and I'm proud of having kept it up. In 2017, I've added a third element: going through my Wendell Berry collection page by page and reading a poem aloud each day (now the dog gets to listen in).

12. Eat healthily (most of the time). Self-explanatory.

13. Seek out more writing continuing ed opportunities. I had the opportunity to attend a writing conference this summer, and did a 6-week writing workshop this fall--both inspired my words and gave me new writing communities to connect to. I'd really love to go back to the Collegeville Institute sooner rather than later.

14. Submit my writing to publications. This is something that I honestly forget about as a writer. I guess that partially means that I write first and foremost for myself, which feels positive--but I think that I also shy away ("forget") about submitting pieces because of (why else?) the fear of rejection. Plus, I write new pieces less frequently than I'd like. May all of this awareness spur me to put my voice out there more in my 31st year.

15. Run at least two 5Ks. Last year I successfully ran my first two 5Ks ever, finished both of them running, and had a great time. I'm already signed up for one in a couple of weeks. I haven't trained as much as a jogger, but I truly believe that walking up five flights of stairs at work and strength training on the regular have influenced my cardio capabilities more than anything else.

16. Quit using "nothing" as a response. You know how someone asks you "What's up?" and you say "Nothing"? Or "How are you?" and the word that blurts out of your mouth is simply, "Fine"? Sometimes that works, but most of the time I find those are covers for more complex emotions I'm experiencing. If I feel comfortable with the person asking, I want to be more honest about where I am in that moment.

17. Do yoga regularly. I'm excited that this has already begun to begin, thanks to a new class being held at my workplace. When I've tried to do yoga on my own in the past (or with a video instructor), I've felt impatient--it hasn't felt as "exercise-y" as strength training or cardio, it goes more slowly, it takes more concentration. But at this phase of life, with a great in-person instructor and friends in the class, I am really enjoying it and savoring how my body and mind feel during and after class. I'm even making it out of the house early one day a week, which tells you how much I want to be there!

18. Clean out my email inboxes. When do we ever have time for this? It feels so small and unnecessary because it's not visibly piling up on a desk. But mentally... that's another story.

19. Write paper letters more often. I just got some beautiful new stationary for my birthday, so this should not be hard.

20. Have a writing goal for each week. I'm not exactly sure what this looks like yet. I journal for myself everyday, so I'd like it to be different from that. A blog post? A shitty first draft of a new piece? Plugging along on my manuscript? I need to explore this further.

21. Advocate for myself at the doctor. This is something I'm not very good at doing, and I want to strengthen this "muscle" as it were. Too often, I feel like I'm at the mercy of the doctor's schedule, and that what they tell me is what it is. But then I get home and I have more questions, and I feel like an idiot for not thinking to ask in person, and I feel like an idiot for calling and asking them, and... why? Because I care what people think of me. But when it comes to my health, my well-being, I need to be the most important person in the room, and in my mind.

22. Keep home desk clean/organized. Check back with me on this at "40 things to do before I turn 41."

23. Be generous. In a myriad of ways.

24. Consider the source. Good advice for all of us these days.

25. Write down all passwords somewhere. Ick/ack/don't yell at me for not having done this yet in life.

26. Make a landscaping plan for our backyard and begin to implement it. Now, if only this didn't cost money...

27. When I'm riding the bus, no Internet; only reading, podcasts, or quiet. For reasons two-fold: stop using my phone as a tool for boredom, and save data.

28. Make actual photo albums. I haven't done this in years and it used to be one of my favorite pastimes. I think it's partially because now I have photos of such random daily life (thanks, Instagram) that it doesn't really feel like they fit anywhere... and yet I don't want my memories to disappear from view in the overcrowded cloud.

29. Apologize only when necessary. I'm one of countless women with the apology complex, saying "I'm sorry" more than I say most anything else. Sometimes it's meant as something different--I think of it more like "excuse me" at times--but in many moments I really do say it to bypass any discomfort at something I think I've done wrong (but often haven't really), or something I know I haven't done wrong but want to be told that it's okay anyway. It's almost a manipulation tool sometimes (I'm going to apologize even though I know I don't have to so I can be told how good I am!). And sometimes I just say it because it's habit. ("I'm sorry for saying I'm sorry" has come out of my mouth more than once.) But I want to be as mindful as possible about my apologies--are they deserved? Did I do something that warrants it? Am I using it to achieve something other than forgiveness? When I do need to apologize, may it be genuine, and may it be said only one time--with no need to lay it on in fear that the first didn't take.

30. Continue learning and listening--and acting--in the fight for racial justice and equity. I have felt really blessed to have opportunities to participate in dialogues with my sisters and brothers of color and with my fellow white siblings over this past year, and I pray that they keep going. I also pray that I have the courage and strength to bring more white people into these conversations and listening sessions. The key for me has been recognizing that I'm a strong human being and I am not being attacked personally--but I do want to help change things, and in order to do that I must acknowledge the realities of white privilege and that I benefit from it. White supremacy is real and today we are seeing that in forms extreme and moderate (both incredibly harmful) more than I can remember in my lifetime. If you want to talk with me more about this, please reach out. 

BONUS: I ended with a similar mantra last year, but here it is again, as we journey on in this divisive time: Approach all with compassion. Combat the fear of others, of the other, that has infiltrated our society. Do not propel those irrational fears forward into the world, but instead act as a vessel for kindness, listening, and understanding.


The Birthday Lists: An Archive

25 things to do before I turn 26

26 things to do before I turn 27

27 things to do before I turn 28

28 things to do before I turn 29

29 things to do before I turn 30