Having Myself a Martha Little Christmas

Let It Snow quote

I’ve been putting off writing this particular post for a couple weeks. I even decided, just a few minutes before I read the above quote, that I wouldn’t write it. After all, it was going to be a post about how busy I’ve been, and writing a new post would just add to that busyness.

But then I did happen to read that line from Jubilee, and it sort of seemed to be speaking to me.

If you know me well, you know that I’m organized to the nth degree. I’m disciplined, an overachiever – okay, maybe I’m slightly OCD, which can be a problem – but the point is that I’m always busy doing something. The week of Christmas is no exception.

Somehow, it crept up on me this year. It was a couple weeks ago that I realized that the last week of school was approaching, and if I was going to do my usual make-some-goodies-for-my-coworkers thing, I’d have to get my act together, like now. And I didn’t even know what kinds of goodies I was going to make.

Christmas Tree Fruit

Christmas Tree Fruit

Years ago, I used to bake like a crazy person in the lead-up to Christmas. It got so stressful – putting the pressure on myself to make cookies for any- and everyone I might possibly see – that my husband asked me to please slow down. Even then, it took a couple years for me to actually follow through. I still make goodies (this year dark chocolate truffles, English toffee, muffins, cookies, and even Christmas tree fruit platters – cute, right?), but not nearly to the degree that I used to.

I could, of course, go to one of the many excellent chocolatiers in town and just buy treats that I know my friends will love, but that gets expensive, and here’s the thing: even though I don’t particularly love baking, I love giving what I bake.

I am the classic Martha – you know, from the story of the sisters Mary and Martha in the Bible? In case you’re not familiar, Martha is so busy serving Jesus that she doesn’t have time to listen to Him. Meanwhile, her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, and when Martha asks for Mary’s help, she gets rebuked by Jesus.

Okay, now I’m not trying to insert myself into a Bible story, but women often get categorized as Marys or Marthas, and I’m a Martha if ever there was one – except.

Except that I like being busy. There are very few times that I become Mary – sit and enjoy. My husband half-jokes, half-jabs at me that I can’t watch TV without reading a book at the same time. Multi-tasking is, of course, necessary if you’re going to work full-time, get the laundry done, fix lunches, and do all the other mom stuff.

But that doesn’t mean that I resent Mary. Right now, the Marys in my life are my two kids (who are boys, by the way, so this isn’t a perfect analogy). They’re busy, too – my elder son does karate, takes piano lessons, plays baseball, and has his school responsibilities. But right now, he has a two-week break from school, and he pretty much gets to be a kid.

While my four-year-old napped this afternoon, my eight-year-old bounced on our new trampoline. Meanwhile, I was cleaning the kitchen, preparing for guests on Christmas morning. He asked me to jump with him, and while I had plenty of good excuses not to, I decided to be Mary for a little while.

A few hours later, both kids spread out paper and markers on the floor and started making Christmas books. (Said Christmas books had pictures of Christmas trees, rattlesnakes, and worms – hey, they’re boys.) I was touched, not just because I’m a writer, but because they worked so well together, and they were totally into their project. And they wanted me to help, too. Again, I had any number of other things that I could have done, but these books, while not Caldecott candidates, are very important to them. So I let them trace my hand, and I added a choo-choo train to the snake-and-worm collage.

Because I spent time with my kids, I was left with plenty of things to do: dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and presents to wrap. I even had this post to write. But to be a Martha – a true Martha – I believe there comes a point when you have to understand why you’re so busy. Yes, I have to wash clothes so we’ll have clean things to wear. But why keep the house clean, why make goodies for my friends, why post this blog if it doesn’t in some way fulfill both me and the person or people for whom I’m doing each particular thing? And the answer is that if I’m being busy just to be busy, I’m doing it for the wrong reason.

Now that I’ve come to terms with this truth about myself, I hope I can live up to the good side of my inner Martha. And no matter which sister describes you, my readers, I hope that you all will tap the positive aspects of your personalities and fully enjoy this holiday season.

Slow-Mo WriMo

It’s been one of those kinds of months – you know the kind. I’ve had mornings in which I almost put apple juice in my coffee. The day before Veteran’s Day (a holiday for everyone in the family), I was in a near panic about my son’s baseball game that night and getting the kids to bed on time afterward – and my husband just stood there and listened to me stress about this – before I realized that because we had Veteran’s Day off, we could all sleep late the next morning. Problem solved. Duh.

This November has been exactly as crazy-busy as I feared November would be back when I first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2013. I had every excuse to not participate this year.

But I’m not here to give excuses. According to nanowrimo.org, I’m on schedule to finish my 50,000 words by November 29th. I would have been appalled by this last year, but I’m just happy that I’m still on track to finish this year.

So far, 2015 has been a very different experience than 2013 and 2014. Rather like trying to run in a dream, I can see exactly where I want to go and am trying desperately to get there, but my legs seem to be pumping in slow motion. Some nights, I don’t get to sit down and write until 9:30 (and I’m supposed to be asleep by then during the week). Sometimes I’m so tired that all I can do is stare at a blinking cursor, at a total loss for what to write. Other nights, I’ve written under 1000 words, happy that I was able to increase my word count at all. In fact, I told myself I would not write this blog until I had my word count met for the day, and this is the first day in two weeks that I’ve been able to do that before the kids were in bed.

This year’s novel is the third in a trilogy, the first of which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2013, the second of which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2014. Last year, it helped to edit the 2013 book right before I started on 2014, so I figured that this year, I would go back and edit 2013 and 2014. The only problem is that I only gave myself a month to do this (I was having too much fun writing my Camp NaNoWriMo book before that).

I got to the halfway point of the first book by mid-October and switched to the second book, which I wasn’t nearly finished with by October 31st. And at that point, I realized that 1) I needed to finish editing it anyway, to avoid terrible inconsistencies in this year’s novel, and 2) I had no idea how I was going to open the third book. Whereas with the previous years, I was brimming with words and could hardly stop them from flowing from my brain to my fingers/keyboard on November first, this year, I spent half the day editing, praying for a brainwave. None came. Sure, I knew lots of things that would happen later in the book, but I didn’t know how to start the confounded thing.

After three false starts, I got going and was able to limp forward for 2000 words. Now, 2000 words is a great daily goal. That means finishing on the 25th of the month, with plenty of time to spare. But my first year, I wrote  4700 words on the first day alone and had reached 10,000 by day three, 20,000 by day six. Last year was tougher, but I still managed 4100 words on November first and 10,000 by the 4th. I wrote well more than my personal minimum of 2000 per day, despite feeling like it was a slower start. It was a struggle the whole time, so I never imagined that this year would prove even more difficult.

Aside from dividing my writing time between two books for two-thirds of the month (I just finished editing last year’s book two days ago), being in editor mode – cutting, polishing, perfecting – is not the right mindset for NaNoWriMo, when the goal is to build, build, build.

IMG_5206

So I’m dumping mounds of sand right now, trying hard not to judge, trying to just get the job done so I can go back and make it the way I like it later. This dumping is ugly. Sometimes I’ll write a scene that’s not in chronological order because it just won’t let me go. Although these are fun to write, when I fill in the scenes in between, I often discover that I have to make so many changes that the fun-to-write scene barely resembles what I originally wrote. Oh well. It’s all a part of the process, I suppose.

And another part of this process, one that I just realized a week or so ago, when I was thinking that surely I should be on a roll by now, is that the middle is always the most difficult for me to write. It’s the in-between stuff that’s necessary but not exactly glamorous. And since this is a trilogy, much of this third book is still actually the middle of the story.

Plenty of exciting things are going to happen, but I just have to plow through and get to those things. Then maybe (please!) my story will take over and start telling itself. But even if it doesn’t, this girl isn’t about to quit.

No Back to School Blues This Year

Two years ago, I posted a blog about the stress that surrounds the end of summer break and going back to school – and I wasn’t even the one going to school. Still, as a parent of a then-five-year-old, I was fully responsible for getting him there on time every day and felt that pressure. I don’t even remember if I had the same feeling last year – I was probably too busy to notice.

This summer, I’ve done more summery things than probably any other summer of my life, including a two-week vacation with my family. It would seem that a summer like this would stir that familiar anticipation, that early-morning-wake-up dread. But for once, I look forward to the days ahead, when I will have a set routine (even if it means a 4:15 alarm). Funny how things change.

Although I am a little anxious about what the fall will bring, with my little guy transitioning from loosely structured days with me or other family members, I’m thrilled that he’ll finally be in the classroom his brother first entered four years ago. I’ve spent much of the summer preparing my three-year-old by teaching him the songs he’ll sing in pre-school, as well as the concept that it’s not cool to walk out of the bathroom sans pants. It’s a work in progress, but he’s actually getting it. For the past month, he’s told me almost on a daily basis that he wants to go to school – and it’s not just Peter’s school anymore but Ian’s, too. And Peter, who will be entering the second grade, is excited to meet his teacher and see what friends will be in his class.

But the kids aren’t the only ones who are excited. A couple months ago, I received the call from one of their school’s administrators, asking if I would be interested in a PreK 4 assistant position. I jumped on it, probably sounding rather giddy. It was one of those pinch-myself kinds of moments. Summer break had just begun, though, so it didn’t sink in fully for a while. Every once in a while, when thinking about the upcoming year, I would have to remind myself that this year will be different. I will have an assigned parking spot. Instead of walking the kids up, they will come with me to my classroom. No more phone calls while I’m in the shower, asking if I can sub. All welcome changes.

Toward the end of July, I did have a little bit of an overwhelmed feeling, knowing that I had a couple weeks of training and pre-planning ahead of me. Before most of my teacher friends were even back, I was at school, learning how to administer and interpret the assessment we use for pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. Then this past week, while many of my friends posted pictures of their end-of-summer vacations on social media, I’ve been hard at work. I have my badge, which makes me official, and people keep welcoming me to the faculty, but I can’t help but feel like I’m still the same old volunteer-slash-substitute mom that I’ve been since 2011. I belong here, I have to remind myself. Not only do my colleagues help cement that feeling, but my delight in my position tells me it’s true. As I confided in another teacher, I’m having more fun than I feel like I should be allowed to have – and someone’s paying me for it!

Regular readers, fear not – I’m still writing. I’m not about to give up on that dream. But now I’m able to help support my family in a way that freelancing didn’t allow, and my kids and I will be at the same place every day (although in different classrooms). I’ve die-cut, laminated, copied, stapled, cut, sorted, and painted my way through a number of projects this week, and while it sometimes felt like the room would never be finished, I’m proud of the results. I’m working with an amazing teacher, and since I subbed a lot in PreK 3 last year, I know eight of our ten kids already.

PreK 4 collage

I’m sure there are days ahead when I will be tired and irritable. There will be kids who grate on my frayed nerves. There will be days and weeks that never seem to end. I’m not deluded about what’s to come. Even so, I am very excited. So much so that I don’t have back to school blues at all. Instead, I feel like I do when a much-anticipated vacation is just around the corner. In fact, I feel much like I did over twenty years ago, when I was a girl attending this very school.

The night before the first day back will likely be a sleepless one. I’m just the kind of person who gets too excited to succumb to unconsciousness. So if you see me Tuesday, I’ll likely be carrying matching grey baggage under my eyes. But don’t worry, this is exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind losing sleep over.

To-Done!

If you read my post last week, you know that I had great hopes for this week. My to-do list needed to get a lot shorter, and guess what? I am happy to report that my first full week of summer break has been a success.

On Sunday, I finally finished Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the last book of which I’d been waiting for read for four years. I have to say, whatever my complaints about Paolini’s style in his early books, the last one more than made up for it. The only problem, of course, was that I was sad to be finished.

Reading Dilemma

With my recreational reading done, I plunged into work on Monday. And I even involved the kids. They sat at their table and had work time while I cleaned the kitchen. I have to tell you this because a day during which I clean an entire room (actually more than that because I cleaned the laundry room and one bathroom, too) is a day for the record books. (Please tell me I’m not crazy to be proud of this.)

I also spent my younger son’s entire naptime working on my biggest freelance project, a memoir that I’ve been working on for a year now. Thank goodness my client isn’t in a hurry. Although she still has some copy to turn in to me, my hope was to finish arranging and editing the material she’s given me so far and return it to her by the end of the week. I must have spent anywhere from three to six hours on this project every day this week, and although Microsoft Word had me practically pulling my hair out by the end, I did finally get a draft to her. (I would give details, but just know it had to do with pagination – if I try to be any more specific, I’ll most likely be reduced to gibberish and &%*!@ in order to keep this a family friendly blog.)

With one project out of the way (at least until that client gets back with me), I have one last freelance project (a much simpler one) to finish before our family vacation. I understand that I will come home from our vacation with work still to do, but my clients will have that time to decide what changes they would like for me to make, and I will only have to worry about finishing touches.

And then I will be done. As of this week, I am no longer offering my freelance writing services. And it’s not just Word that’s made me fed up enough to quit. Although I won’t go into details now, I am going to join the work force again soon, and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that I can make myself and my loved ones very miserable if my plate is too full. So while I will be glad to help friends with blogs or editing projects that don’t have critical deadlines, I am no longer pursuing freelance work.

It’s a relief, actually. Anyone who is self-employed understands the pressures of finding enough work to pay the bills. Last summer, I was able to land enough steady projects to earn a paycheck while I wasn’t substitute teaching, but it meant that when I was at home with my kids, we weren’t able to do much fun stuff; I was stuck at my computer working very hard for very little monetary compensation. This summer, I will be able to spend more time with them, and the time that I do spend at the computer will mostly be writing my own fiction.

Speaking of my fiction, now that I have one freelance project behind me, I have time to concentrate on editing last year’s NaNoWriMo book. I am determined to get my two free copies from CreateSpace. Beta readers, I will be reaching out to you sometime in July, so get ready!

Lastly, while I am reducing the stresses in my life, one of them will be this blog. No, I’m not quitting! Believe me, I still have a lot to say, but I won’t be pushing myself to reach my own personal deadline (which is once a week) anymore. Many weeks, I get to Sunday and panic because I don’t know what to write about. Or I have a lot to say but am too brain dead to arrange much of a coherent thought.

I have a friend who used to blog weekly, and she made the announcement earlier this year that she will now only post when she feels inspired to do so. At the time, I was saddened because I loved reading her blogs, but I could certainly understand – and I kept her idea in the back of my mind. To remove another stress that I put on myself sounded like bliss. I told myself that if I ever went back to work, changing from a weekly blog post to a “when I’m inspired to write” blog post would be the way to go.

Don’t worry. Even if you don’t hear from me next week, I still have plenty to say. I’ll likely update my book list sometime soon, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about NaNoWriMo 2015. But when you don’t hear from me, know that I’m enjoying my family or a good book… and, as always, striving make more of my to-do list items to-done.

Don’t Live for Another Day

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard or read that we should live in the present moment, and being a planner, a goal-oriented person, it can be easy to scoff at such a notion. I’m always preparing for the next thing, which is good, for instance, when I’m crunched for time and I already packed my lunch the night before. But it can also make it easy to ignore what’s going on around me when I’m always focused on the future.

My morning commute is 30 to 40 minutes, time that I use to think about whatever’s next in my personal inbox – doctor’s appointments, writing projects, the household budget, all the activities that I have planned for the day or week. Couple that with the fact that I’m usually very tired, and I make for a poor conversationalist. This, naturally, is when my seven-year-old gets chatty. I’m liable to snap at him (he always pipes up right when I’m trying to listen to the traffic report or extended forecast), only to chastise myself moments later. The very last thing I want is to stifle my child and make him feel like he can’t tell me what’s on his mind – or his heart. One time recently, I nearly bit his head off, and as soon as he heard that the weather report was over, he asked in a quiet voice, “Can I talk now, Mommy?”

It’s during these moments that he opens up to me about his theological quandaries or epiphanies, some of which are very deep, or he’ll tell me about something he’s excited about at school. These are precious conversations, ones that I don’t want to miss. There’s nothing earth-shattering about them. These aren’t Kodak moments that I can post on Facebook, so all my friends can go “ooh” and “ahh” over them. But they’re special, the small moments that mean nothing to anyone except us, and they’re what build our relationship as a family.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other, special times. We all enjoyed our recent trip to Disney World. We looked forward to that trip for weeks, and we’ll always remember it as a great family vacation. Life is made up of these memorable occasions, balanced with hard times – sudden losses and deep sadness. But we can’t forget the moments in between that hold them all together, the conversations in the car, the nights reading books together on the couch, the activities that are so routine that we don’t give them much thought.

It is these in-between moments that make up our lives, even if they don’t stand out. They are the background that can be easily ignored. Unfortunately, many people allow the foreground to get so crowded with mountaintops and valleys that they leave no room for anything else.

I notice this in people who trudge through their weeks, hardly able to stomach the normal routine, living completely for the distant promise of a two-week break from it all, only to become depressed at the end of the vacation with the knowledge that an unsatisfactory “real life” awaits upon their return.

I met a woman some years ago, who shared the story of the hopes and dreams she and her husband had for after his retirement. His retirement came, along with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. They spent his last weeks laughing at the dark joke of it all – he struggled and worked hard for 30 years, only to die before he was able to enjoy the fruits of decades of labor.

I’m not advocating that we throw responsibility to the wind and do whatever makes us happy right now. Nor am I saying that we should give up on long-term plans. Rather, we need to find a balance between the two, but more importantly, we need to learn to be grateful and satisfied with what we have, even as we strive for better.

To put this in perspective, a dear friend of mine recently decided that she’s done battling cancer, and she’s now under Hospice care. This friend has been on disability and unable to hold a job for a number of years, but that hasn’t kept her from making her life a blessing to others. While her means aren’t great, her heart is. She embodies the ideal of a Christian servant, yet shies from receiving service for herself. Even in great pain and with ever-waning strength, she has never ceased being faithful, thoughtful, and an inspiration, even from her hospital bed. She could easily choose to let her situation weigh her down and fill her with despair, but she refuses.

How does she do it? How must it feel to know that there may be some good days, some bad, but there will never be a recovery? Her life is in that hospital room… yet her influence still extends beyond it and into the lives of her friends and loved ones. I have a lot to learn from my friend, not the least of which is that my complaints are pretty trivial.

I will never give up creating goals for myself or trying to improve my skills or situation. I want the world for my kids, and I look forward to our vacations and special times together, like any normal person. I understand there will be disappointments and stretches of days when I’m too tired to eek much joy from the moment, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. Who was it that said it’s the not the destination but the journey? (The answer is that lots of people have said it, and it’s only because it continues to be true.) So even though the destination may be wonderful when I get there, I’m going to be more conscious of the road I take to get there and the people traveling with me.

Procrastination (I’m Writing This When I Should Be Writing Something Else)

Anne Tyler Quote

Anne Tyler might just have a point. Take this post, for instance: I’ve been thinking about writing about procrastination for a while. And what’s the best way to do this? Well, to procrastinate, of course. (I find it’s often helpful to write about things that I’ve experienced first-hand.) Granted, I did have other topics to cover first, which I did. Then I even sat down and wrote a few paragraphs. Which I let sit for five days. Then I came back and erased them all.

Sometimes I don’t write because I have other things to do. I am a very structured person, and as such, I cannot allow myself to write a blog post or edit my novel or read for pleasure when I need to pack my son’s lunch or send an important e-mail or wash a load of laundry. But sometimes I don’t write because… well, maybe I’m just wasting time on Facebook. Granted, I don’t do that too often – and I even got rid of all the games on my phone to eliminate those distractions – but there are still plenty of times when I should be writing, but I do things that could easily wait until later instead.

If such a self-disciplined person as me has a hard time staying on task, what hope is there for writers who aren’t nearly as structured to ever start the writing process?

I have a two-part answer, and the first part is that I think it’s a me thing, separate from being self-disciplined.

This isn’t something that’s just happened to me since having kids. It’s something that’s gone on as long as I’ve written. I remember spending afternoons at my parents’ business, pacing through the same four rooms, building scenes in my mind, sometimes even muttering the lines. I would hash over those same scenes ad infinitum. I still do this, although nowadays, I’m not a teenager with a bunch of free time but a mom who squeezes all of her creative thinking into stolen moments in the shower or car or while folding laundry.

The second part of my answer is that thinking is a part of the writing process – or any creative process. Now, the problem is that if you don’t ever move beyond thinking – to the actual doing part – you are not a writer or a painter or an inventor (or whatever) but merely someone who aspires to be one of those things.

Philip Pullman Quote

Thank you for making my point, Mr. Pullman. And my problem is that I don’t always take my ideas to my “desk.”

Sometimes I’ll think over a scene so much that I just assume I’ve written it. And then, as often happens, I’ll move onto something else. Months or even years later, I may look for that scene, only to discover that it was only ever in my head. Other times, I do sit down to write, but the words that were perfected in my mind have all but evaporated. Or they just don’t ring true anymore. Something has changed between the initial thinking and the writing.

Madeleine L'Engle Quote II

Well said, Ms. L’Engle – and the same thing can apply to blogs. But I don’t think it’s a totally bad thing. I think internalizing a scene or some dialogue or just an idea is all a part of the writing process. As long as I do eventually sit down and write (like I’m doing right now), it adds up to the creative whole.

Earlier this week, I discovered an incongruity in my novel. A scene hinged on my protagonist having an opinion based on a conversation she overheard. Unfortunately, I realized this conversation happened when she was three or four and would have been way over her head at the time (if she’d even been paying attention). I had to re-work the scene, keeping the content but changing how it happened. I couldn’t move on until I’d fixed the scene, and I had to think it through first. For several days.

I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated by it. When you realize that you’ve created a problem that you have to write your way out of, sometimes the easy way out is just to give up – set the manuscript aside. And I’ve done that before, but I can’t with this one because I’m shopping literary agents. I had to tackle that scene, and after letting it simmer and then reading a few scenes around it, I figured out a solution.

Madeleine L'Engle Quote

Yet again, I feel like Madeleine L’Engle is talking to me. I am that woman with children and another job – a woman who wants to write, who needs to. After all, I can only procrastinate so long before the creative dam breaks. I have legitimate distractions, but I also have stories to tell. So I will continue to fight myself but understand that sometimes it’s okay to just think – as long as I do carve out that time to take my ideas to my desk-slash-laptop.

Speaking of which, I think it’s about time to wrap this up so I can get back to it.