Friday, October 30, 2009

The Creative Life -- Mine and Yours

I wrote both of my books -- Mothering with Spiritual Power and It's Okay to Take a Nap -- as my part in a conversation with mothers like you. Hearing back from readers has been a wonderfully satisfying continuation of the conversation I started with those books. Thank you for your e-mails and letters. I have enjoyed hearing from you. You inspire me.

People often ask me, "What's it like to have a book published?" and I can honestly say that it's great. Writing books is what I hope to do for the rest of my life. I'll never forget the months leading up to the publication of my first book -- signing the publication agreement, seeing the cover art for the first time (authors rarely select the book cover), and then, opening the box containing my newly published books and holding a copy in my hands. It was definitely a powerful moment where a big dream became reality.

So, now that I have two books under my belt, readers are beginning to ask "When are you going to write your next book?" and while I cannot say for sure yet, I'm getting closer. There was a time when I wondered if I would write another book, if I would live to write another book. You see, the same month my first book came out (and I had just finished writing my second book), I was in the hospital having surgery for ovarian cancer.

I had always been very healthy but had felt increasingly weak and out of sorts physically. I knew something was wrong and it was. Curiously, I ended up not just with cancer but with some other serious health issues as well -- a severe back injury, a second surgery, etc., so the reality is that it has taken me a long time to feel in a condition to write again. Even once I started feeling better, it took a long time to regain a handle on my home, family and church responsibilities, but I'm there now. I'm feeling terrific overall. I am in remission from cancer and feel a growing sense of balance and well-being in my personal life.

And so, I have begun to write again, starting with this blog and continuing with magazine and newspaper articles and, yes, before long, I hope, another book. So, the next question readers ask is "What are you going to write next?" And I have to confess that I'm divided. I'm considering heading in two very different directions -- possibly another non-fiction book (something written for a wider audience) or maybe, just maybe, a novel.

Some years ago, I took a creative writing class at the University of Texas and the James Michener fellow who taught it encouraged me to turn my short story into a novella. I did not follow up on her suggestion, but she planted a seed and one I'm beginning to desire more and more to nurture.

So, I'm currently dabbling with a novel idea. I have the core characters, a plot, some scenes, and a few pages written. It's dramatic fiction with some humor and, of course, some drama. Very strong themes about love and loss, right and wrong, and the choices we make. I think the opening sentence would hook the reader and while I'm tempted to share it now, I think I'll wait awhile so I can let the creative juices marinate the possibilities a little longer.

As I write this, I find myself wondering about your creative life. What do you enjoy creating? I am inspired by my friends who quilt, garden, sing, play the piano, bake and pursue other creative paths. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Little Heavenly Quiet

Each of us likely has stories to tell about how the Internet and other technologies have enhanced our lives. The Internet alone has been a welcome advance in our household. For starters, it was through the Internet that I learned that my best chance of surviving ovarian cancer was to seek medical care from a gynecologic oncologist. For that knowledge, I will always be grateful.

I find that the Internet enhances my life in other ways as well. Among them, my children and I have some great times together researching a variety of subjects on the Web, everything from the life and times of Elizabeth I to the Puffin colonies in the North Sea; I enjoy listening to podcasts and music (via; and I love staying in touch with friends, family, authors, and readers like you.

With all of this said, I sometimes feel concerned that if I'm not careful, I may allow technology (including the Internet, cell phones, mp-3 players, etc.)to deprive me of having real and meaningful relationships, including relationships with the people I love most. Do you ever find yourself thinking similar thoughts?

Given these feelings, you can probably imagine the intrigue I felt when I ran across an article in the November 2, 2009 issue of Newsweek entitled "The Devil Loves Cell Phones." In the article, author Julia Baird writes that "In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening." Fast forward hundreds of years and I think there's reason to be concerned that Satan may be using our own technological advances to succeed.

In the same article, Julia Baird quotes author Sara Maitland as saying, "I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture and that somehow, whatever this silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing, and unpacking."

I, for one, have decided that I want to be sure to hold, nourish, and unpack the silence that can be available to us every day if we clear out enough technological clutter to make room for it. I find I'm better at doing this when I begin my days in quiet prayer. Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in the Mormon church, encourages us to create our days spiritually through prayer before we create them physically through our actions. As I have sought to implement his counsel, I have felt an increasing sense of peace and clarity permeate my days.

When I begin each day with some measure of prayerful contemplation, I find that I am more conscious of sewing pockets of quiet into my family's days as well. When I say "quiet," I am talking about a silencing of the cell phones, the Internet, the television, and so on so that we can have some real time as a family to connect with each other. The more my husband and I seek to create these pockets of quiet in which to nurture our family, the more we feel a sense of family and find ourselves sharing experiences we will cherish and remember for years to come.

Let me assure you that as I write this, I am still working to find the balance that works best for my family and me. How much technology do I allow into my daily life? This is the question that I will be exploring for some time to come.

I confess that sometimes more technology sneaks into my life than I had originally intended. For example, I tell myself when jumping on the Internet, "I just want to look up one thing" and then before I know it, I've checked the weather, responded to e-mails, read a few compelling news articles and so on, until 30 minutes have passed when I had intended only two.

When I'm tempted to jump on the Internet for something that is not urgent, I recall my friend Victoria's example. She strives to not get on the Internet more than once in a day, usually in the evening after she's accomplished the other things she wanted and needed to do that day. This helps her to stay focused on the things that are most important to her during the day while allowing for Internet time to serve as a reward in the evening. If she thinks of something during the day that she wants to do on the Internet but does not need to do right away, she jots a reminder on a pad of paper and saves it until her "planned Internet time" in the evening. This is a clever strategy that works well for her and can serve as an inspiration for the rest of us.

I firmly believe that technology can be a wonderful blessing in our lives. We just need to be conscious of what part we are allowing it to play in our lives now and then thoughtful about how we will proceed from here. With this said, I have enjoyed connecting with you through this blog post, but I think I'll sign off for now and go spend some time with my family. Take care. I hope you'll make room for a little heavenly quiet in the days to come.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Aspiring Lemonade Queen

For most of my life I have been what I think of as an optimist overall. However, when I was blindsided by a couple of very difficult years with cancer, a serious back injury and two major surgeries while facing other worrisome challenges, I found myself turning into a rather gifted pessimist. I had developed the habit of dwelling on my losses and limitations rather than accepting what I could not control and focusing instead on what I could do to make the most of my life.

Some things got better like the fact that I am in remission from cancer. And for that, I am very grateful. But others continue to challenge me. Thankfully though, there came a time when I realized that I had to, if I wanted to be happy, take the lemons life had handed me and make the best lemonade I could make, maybe even lemon pie.

A turning point for me came one day when I was in bed with a back injury that was so serious I could hardly move. We had just received the news that my father had cancer and all I could think was "This cannot be happening." I had just entered remission myself and thought surely my father couldn't have cancer now, not on the heels of mine. His cancer was inoperable and I was very worried about his future. I pulled the covers over my head, wanting it all to go away, wanting life to return to the life I had known so well just a couple of years before, a life where challenges didn't come in one tidal wave after another. But, there was no wishing this challenge or the others away. My husband reminded me of this when he said (in response to my father's diagnosis), "It is what it is and we have to deal with what it is."

It may seem strange to some, but as soon as he said that, I felt a load lift. The load lifted because I realized that any amount of railing against the unfairness of it all or any unwillingness to accept reality was not going to change things. The best thing I could do was to take the very sour lemons life had handed me and work with them to make something more palatable, even something positive if possible.

In the case of my father's cancer, I prayed for him. I prayed for his doctors. I talked with my dad on the phone a lot, mostly striving to be a sounding board, a listening support as he and my mom sought the best possible medical care for his cancer (which turned out to be M.D. Anderson in Houston). I sent him some books to support him in his cancer fight and others to take his mind off the fight. I traveled to visit him whenever I could. And I worked to let go, to surrender my worries and to choose faith instead.

With my Dad's cancer, the doctors (and our entire family) took some terribly sour lemons and turned them into an amazing lemon pie. My father has gone from having stage IV Melanoma to testing negative for cancer. Its a miracle. And one that we are grateful for. Things do not always turn out this way. We do not always experience the best possible outcome. I have lost loved ones and friends to cancer. My mother-in-law is fighting a tough battle with cancer as I write this. But, no matter what, we can always take the lemons we are given and accept them for what they are -- lemons -- and make the best lemonade or lemon pie possible. In the case of my mother-in-law, we pray for a miracle, seek to be there for her, and enjoy the time we have with her.

Over the last couple of years, as I have faced multiple challenges, I have learned that hyper-focusing on the lemons life inevitably brings leaves us swimming in nothing but a sea of lemon juice whereas taking those lemons and mixing in some sweetness and a few other select ingredients can bring us a measure of joy and satisfaction regardless of our circumstances.

My goal, for the rest of my life, is to be an aspiring lemonade queen. I am not talking about being a naive Pollyanna, acting like things are okay no matter what. After all, there are times when periods of heartache and grief are absolutely called for. Rather, I am talking about working with the realities of my life to make the best life possible for my family and me. This is my goal. I hope you'll join me. I'll report back on my progress in future posts. I'd love to hear your stories of how you've taken the small or big lemons in your life and made something meaningful and perhaps even wonderful with them.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Autumn Pleasures

I love the cooler weather and the turning of the leaves. Some of my favorite autumn pleasures include fires in the fireplace, apple cider or hot chocolate, and chocolate chip pumpkin muffins. I just made a double batch of muffins which makes about 50, plenty for my family and to share with friends. Our home is saturated with the smells of pumpkin and spices. Yum!

Another of my favorite autumn pleasures is reading. I have a stack of books waiting in my bookshelf headboard (every book lover should have one), each one beckoning. One book I'm looking especially forward to reading is The Secret Diary of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James who wrote the fantastic The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I know some who feel no one should attempt to write anything remotely pretending to be Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen and oftentimes I feel the same way. But in the very capable hands of Syrie James such an attempt is well worth reading. I'll let you know what I think of her newest book once I've read it.

I hope this post finds you doing well and enjoying the scents, sights and feel of autumn. Thank you so much for your letters and notes. I love hearing from you. I'm sending well wishes for a Happy Autumn along with a recipe for some yummy hot cocoa (an autumn and winter favorite):

Easiest-Ever Hot Cocoa Recipe

4 cups powdered milk
2 cups sugar
1 cup cocoa

Mix all of the ingredients together. Scoop out 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the hot cocoa mix and add to 8 ounces of hot water. Stir. Add some whipping cream or marshmallows and enjoy. Stores beautifully for a cup of cocoa on demand.