Reflections of an eclipse

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I loved seeing the images of the moon eclipsing the sun yesterday. More than that, however, I loved watching the light and shadows shift, twist, and grow. I wondered at how quickly the air warmed, then cooled, then warmed again. I marveled as the world around me went silent and then burst out in the second morning song of the day. In many ways it felt like a fresh start. A chance to do better, to be better.

Yesterday’s eclipse was beautiful. It was magical. And for one glorious moment, it brought us together as a community again. Not in protest, not in anger, but in awe.

I want more moments like that.

—Jen

 

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Endure with Strength

I recently stumbled across a letter I wrote to myself over a year ago. I don’t remember what prompted me to write it, but I couldn’t have rediscovered it at a better time.

Dear 2004 Jen,

It’s 2016. It’s been twelve years since you graduated from college. Six years since your last Writing for the Soul Conference, and nearly four years since you went to Mount Hermon.

Everything has changed — you’ve given up your attempts to find continued work in the publishing field. You’re living north of Portland of all places, working as an executive assistant for a nonprofit fighting to protect women and children from being sold for sex.

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No, you haven’t found the love of your life. Fancy is still just a dream—one that seems to be collecting dust and is only brought out from time to time for a bit of polish so it doesn’t completely crumble away.

You’ve traveled through severe depression. You’ve wondered what any of this has been about. You’ve thought about giving up all together.

But you have endured.

Jennifer, you are a fighter. You may not feel that way most days, but when it all comes down to the wire, you are a warrior. It’s okay to get tired. It’s okay to be disappointed. You’re going to feel every scrape, break, and bruise…and you will find a way to rise from it all.

You’re going to discover your worth is not dependent on your independence. You’ll find strength in your brokenness. You’ll discover a Peace that holds you together when everything around you is falling to pieces.

You may not be the best seller or big shot editor you thought you’d be at this stage in life, but you will find new friendships that build you up in ways you could never imagine. You’ll discover, finally, that your love for things like Doctor Who, the Lord of the Rings, comic books, and super heroes is more than okay — it helps define the unique individual you are.

(By the way, by 2016 girls will be celebrated for their love of what was once relegated to the world of geeky man-boys living in mom’s basement.)

You’ve come a long way in your healing, Jen, but there is one thing you are missing in 2016. Your passion for storytelling. You’ve come to believe that your imagination is broken. The stories that once came so easily are often drowned out by the busyness of every day life.

My one piece of advice to you is this: Learn to dream again. Don’t get so caught up in learning about how to write to sell your work. All of that is well and good, but it does you no good if you lose sight of your love of words.

I said before that you’re a fighter. Remember that. Fight to reclaim what you’ve lost! It’s still there, deep inside. I know it because I can feel it. It hasn’t been driven from you fully.

Find your voice again. Dream. Write. Love.

I have no idea what the future holds for us beyond today, but I hope one day future Jen finds this letter and is reminded of who she was—and who she still wants to be.

2016 Jen

When I wrote this letter I had no idea it would mark a turning point for me, or that in the not-too-distant future I would take my own advice: I’d learn to dream again.

I’m sharing this letter today as a public reminder to myself and in the hope it reminds someone else that their life matters, that their dreams are worth fighting for, and that regardless of life circumstances, we always have the choice to “Endure with Strength.”

—Jen

 

Sometimes a mountain is just a rock

I’ve always loved the mountains. I think they’re some of the most beautiful things in all of creation. I’m mesmerized by their colors and textures, of the way they go on forever and then suddenly end. Having grown up in the midst of them, I feel vulnerable and exposed when I don’t have them tucking me in from all sides. But mountains can also be my biggest hindrance.

Miniature Mountain

This past weekend I was able to do something I haven’t done in several years: spend a full weekend at the coast with my entire family. We returned to the campsite we used to stay at every summer and spent the day at a section of the Oregon coast that isn’t well known to tourists, which meant we had a large chuck of sand and surf largely to ourselves.

It was heaven.

I broke away from the group at one point to enjoy a moment of introverted solitude (which is a rarity when in a crew of 13 adults and five dogs). And that’s when I saw it. The mountain that wasn’t a mountain jutting out of the wind-blown sand.

I know. Here I am with salt-and-grit-filled air pelting my skin and the roar of the ocean pounding in my ears, and I’m seeing mountains where they don’t exist.

But a barren and forlorn mountain poking out of an endless desert is exactly what my mind was fixated on. I could just picture little people a quarter inch tall struggling to find shelter in the rocky shade as I walked towards it. Naturally, I pulled out my phone and got down on my belly to snap a picture from what would be the little people’s point of view. Then I took another shot, this time from my 5-foot-4-inch perspective.

Large Rock on Beach

Next thing I knew, I’d spent nearly an hour climbing all over rocks and driftwood looking for other places where I could play with my perception. This ended up being a fantastic impromptu project for multiple reasons.

First, it encouraged a form of creativity I rarely engage in. Second, it helped me take a step back from some mountains in my life and look at them from a different angle. Third, it reminded me of a verse I wrote in the back of one of my journals years ago:

“Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Ecc. 3:11

Two days later, I’m still mulling over those pictures and asking myself how often I make a mountain out of an oversized rock. How many times do I plop down on my backside because I can’t see over or around the obstacle in my path? And how often to I question the journey God is leading me on because I can’t see the entire scope of His work?

My computer is set up with dual monitors that now reflect each of the photos. It’s a lesson in perspective I especially need right now. Sometimes a mountain is mountain. Sometimes it’s a rock that I can just walk around.

—Jen

Who needs silence?

I’ve forgotten how much I need the quiet. 

I’ve grown so accustomed to the constant noise of phones, meetings, to-do lists, and hoping from one place to the next that, when I finally took some time to completely unplug from everything and retreat to my fortress of solitude, it was anything but the relaxing experience I was hoping for.

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I feel silly saying it, but I was terrified by silence.

The entire first week I took for myself, I was anxious. I was antsy. I couldn’t focus on a single thing without worrying about what I was missing somewhere else. Which only made the anxiety worse.

I’ve read about the effects of the brain being overwhelmed by cortisol. I’ve listened to talks about the dangers of constantly operating under the conditions of fight or flight. But until recently, I had no idea I was actually living that way.

It was destroying me. My health. My sanity. My creativity. All of it.

It’s taken a full month of conscious effort, but I finally feel like I’m returning to normal. My sleep has become more restful. I don’t have to play music in the background 24-7 in an attempt to calm my nerves. The only reason I’m drinking a single cup of coffee (instead of half a pot) is for the sheer enjoyment of it first thing in the morning while writing on my patio.

Aside from being less anxious, I’m also discovering an increase in my attention span. In the first week I could only read for 5 minutes at a time before picking up my phone to check nonexistent email, or getting up to walk around because I just couldn’t sit still. In the three weeks since, I’ve increased that time to 45 minutes.

Perhaps, given time and the right book, I’ll be able to read something from cover to cover in a day like I used to in years past.

I’ve started daydreaming again. Before, my creative energy was being completely consumed by worry, fear, and doubt. As with reading, I was lucky to write a couple hundred words a day. Today, I’ve written over a thousand, and it feels great!

In living a life filled with constant noise and urgency, I’d forgotten the most important thing of all: In order to be effective, the body and mind need rest.

In order to rest, I need quiet. No phones. No email. No social engagements. Just quiet.

Regardless of our professions, our economic status, whether we’re in a relationship or have a family, we all need moments of silence in order for our bodies to recognize we are not under constant threat. We need the quiet for the adrenaline flooding our system to return to a normal level. When we don’t, we risk becoming overly irritable, depressed, unable to sleep, or worse.

After taking some time for self care and refection, I finally understand why even Jesus made it a point to slip out of the crowds and find a isolated spot from time to time. He couldn’t care for others if he didn’t also take care of himself.

Right now my life resembles a hermit more than a socialite. I know I won’t (and can’t) go on that way forever. Community is vital to a healthy life, too, but that’s another story for another day.

In the meantime, I’m learning to love the quiet again.

-Jen

 

*Image courtesy of Pixabay

Learning to eat an elephant (and not choke)

The last month has been one of the more challenging and exciting months I’ve had in a couple of years. Between traversing up and down the I-5 corridor training for my new adventures in self-employment, attempting to decipher the mysterious language of government forms, and hunting down the gremlins that are preventing me from fully getting my new system up and running, I’ve also been helping my successor at S.H. get up to speed. 

Each day I learn something new, yet for all the reading, writing, and training I’ve been doing (both as the trainer and the trainee) there are moments I feel like I’m not making any headway at all.

I hit one such wall on Sunday afternoon. I plopped down on the floor, head against the kitchen cupboard, and stared at the ceiling for a good half hour while all the reasons why I was going to fail banged around in my head. Honestly, I felt a little sick and I was most definitely overwhelmed.

As I sat there, I wondered, “How does anyone handle it all?”

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There’s so much to do, all of it’s important; but there’s no way to tackle it all at the same time. It’s like trying to eat a proverbial elephant* in one bite…and not choke. 

So naturally I did what any rational person would do in my shoes. I grabbed the novel that I’ve already had to renew from the library once, curled up in a lounge chair outside—and promptly fell asleep. I probably would have slept straight through the evening had some jerk of a bug not attacked my arm (I’ve still got a welt from whatever bit/stung me, but I digress). Once the the initial irritation wore off I remembered there’s only one way to eat an elephant—one bite at a time, same as everything else. 

On Monday I woke up and spent some time reflecting and praying. As I wrote in my prayer journal I asked that my eyes would be opened to the good, the bad, and the best uses of my time, and that I would have the strength and courage to cut out the bad, set aside the good, and focus on the best. 

The first step is to evaluate how I’m filling my day, specifically, what I’m doing when I start feeling frustrated or stuck. I’ve already discovered one time suck that I’ve deleted for now (surprisingly, it’s not social media). I’m setting up a new schedule for my time that breaks down the various projects into manageable tasks based on their importance, and I’m scheduling myself breaks. I’m also turning down the faucet on new information.

Learning new things is important, but again…it needs to be taken one bite at a time. Chew. Swallow. Repeat.  

I’ve still got a ways to go before I have everything sorted out, but at least I’m making forward progress. And I’m feeling less anxious this morning than I was on Sunday. That in itself is an accomplishment. 

—Jen 

*I do not advocate eating real elephants.

How do you handle feeling overwhelmed by life changes and major projects? I welcome your thoughts below, or join the conversation on my Facebook author page.

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The lost art of the Thank You: 3 ways a simple note can save your writing

As a writer, it’s easy to become distracted, to feel overwhelmed, or to lose sight of what first inspired you to write. Whether it’s demands on our time or pressures we place on ourselves, burnout and block seem to regularly pull at the writer.

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Just shy of two years ago I took a job with an international non-profit and one of my main responsibilities was communicating with donors, primarily through thank you notes written on behalf of the president of the organization.

A few months into the job I lamented to a friend that by the time I got home at night I was so drained I couldn’t think clearly enough to get more than a few words down. And there were stretches of weeks in which I was unable to write at all.

I told her I felt like a failure and that I was beginning to wonder if I was wrong all along. I just wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Her response completely changed the way I looked at myself and my writing.

First, she reminded me that I was writing. I was writing every single day. She asked me if I was counting those words to my daily quota, because if I wasn’t, I should be. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was right. 

As odd as it sounds, writing thank you notes saved my writing. It can save yours, too.

The main reason for writing a thank you note is to convey gratitude to someone who took a moment of their time to bless you. Whether the blessing comes in the form of a gift or a word of encouragement, that individual went beyond themselves to reach into the life of another. 

When we write a thank you note, we are honoring the gift and the giver. Thus came the first takeaway lesson of the Thank you card:

1. A thank you note isn’t about the person who is writing. A thank you note is about the person being written to.

In the early days of my job, all I had were notes in a file about each of the donors and what little I knew about my boss. As time passed, I had the honor of meeting a few donors in person. Some I spoke with on the phone. Others, I received notes from that shared a bit about what was going on in their own lives. In time, I came to see them as active parters in my work. 

That knowledge changed my perception completely. I stopped writing thank you notes because it was part of my job and started writing thank you notes because of genuine gratitude. Which taught me the second lesson of the thank you card: 

2.   In order for a thank you note to have meaning, the thanks must be genuine.

When I started writing the Thank You cards, the notes being sent out were generic and bland. Part of this was because I was still learning my job, about the mission of the organization, and about the woman I was writing the notes for. As I grew in the job, I started looking for specific examples each month that I could use in my notes. Not only did it change the way I wrote, it also changed the way I felt. 

Searching out those examples and responding to the personal notes enclosed with the gifts created a sense of true gratitude within me. And that emotion appeared in every card after that. Which brought me to the final lesson of the thank you card:

3. In order to be genuine, the writer must be willing to be vulnerable.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read about vulnerability in writing. On one hand, being open and honest about ourselves (whether it’s writing from the viewpoint of another person or character) is crucial in creating a bond between the writer and the reader. On the other, we must be careful not to focus too much on ourselves or we risk appearing completely self-centered. 

When it comes to vulnerability, there’s a careful balance that must be maintained. The thank you note teaches us that balance.

Writing thank you cards has taught me a great deal about writing with my audience in mind. It’s also encouraged me to write personal cards more often. We should never underestimate just how precious a piece of handwritten mail can be to another.

If you’re struggling with creativity or with writing in general, might I suggest buying a roll of stamps and a box of cards? Look for ways to thank the people in your life. Remind them of why they are an important part of your life. Your note might be exactly what they need to hear during a particularly difficult season. It might also be just the thing that’s needed to save your own writing.

—Jen

I’d love to hear from you! Share your thoughts and comments below or join the conversation on my Facebook author page.

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What makes a story Great?

I love to read. I’m also very particular about the stories I read.

Over time I’ve discovered that the greatest stories, the ones that have left the greatest impact on society, are not the ones that set out to preach, incite, or inflame; rather they are the stories that invite the reader to explore a rich world where they can discover universal truths buried deep within the pages. These truths are weaved into the story so subtly even the writer may not be fully aware they are there.

Why? I believe it’s because the writer was focused on the story rather than the message.

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A great story doesn’t need an agenda or a soapbox to touch a life. Instead a great story reveals what was put into words by the ancient slave turned playwright:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

A great story remembers that we shares a common kinship regardless of our diverse backgrounds. A great story remembers that we are all human. We experience the same emotions. We have the same needs. We have dreams of leaving behind some sort of legacy, a proof that we existed and that our lives made a difference…even if only in a small way.

The writer who remembers this may also find certain pressures are removed from her writing process. The pressure to be original. The pressure to get the message right. The pressure of perfecting the craft.

Instead, the writer is left with the ability to tell the story that’s been whispered into her subconscious, to grasp the wisp of a dream and shape it into something tangible and real.

This is the type of writer I endevor to be. Someone who is less concerned with platform, status, and publication credits than I am with sharing moment in time with a stranger before parting ways—preferably with a better understanding of our similarities and our differences.

As a writer I write in order to learn more about what makes us unique and similar all at once.

I write for the pure joy of creation and the wonder that is the human imagination.

I write because it draws a song out of my heart that only my fingers seem to know the words to.

I write because I know everyone has a similar heart song, but we live in a noisy world and we can’t always hear it.

Ultimately I write in the hope that it helps others find their own heart song.

So I ask you today, dear friend: Why do you write?

—Jen

I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below or join the conversation on my Facebook author page.

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