Sunday, December 26, 2010

plum pudding and lutefisk

The first Christmas of my marriage, my husband informed me that I was required to put an orange, a bottle of green olives, and a can of grape juice in the bottom of his Christmas stocking. I asked why. He said, "I don't know." But that was the way the Richardsons did things. I followed tradition, even though I never once asked him to eat lutefisk or potato sausage, the Swanson Christmas traditions. I didn't miss them.

Almost twenty-five years later, all three of our kids get an orange, a bottle of green olives, and a can of grape juice in the bottom of their Christmas stockings. When they ask why, I tell them, "I don't know." When I asked my mother-in-law why, she said, "I don't know." I'm going to guess that if I were able to ask her mother, or dad's mother, or any of the entire series of mothers going back to the homeland, they would all say, "I don't know."

"But it's tradition!" (Cue music.)

So, fifty yars form now, God willing, my great-grandkids will ask why they are receiving an orange, a bottle of green olives, and a can of grape juice in the bottom of their Christmas stockings. And my grandchildren will say, "I don't know."

Some traditions for tradition sake ought to die a well-deserved death. Their time has gone, if it ever came. Traditions like "children should be seen and not heard." Or women doing all the cleaning up while the men watch football. Or forcing anyone within twenty miles to consume fruitcake, mincemeat pie, or plum pudding. Some traditions you simply cannot explain, and perhaps their necessity needs to be revisited.

In looking up a few Christmas traditions, I particularly liked the Ukraine tradition of tossing food at the ceiling on Christmas Eve. This sounds like something my family could really embrace. Not so much the Spanish poop log. I'll leave that one to your imagination. Some traditions you simply cannot explain, and perhaps it's better that way.

Some traditions, like oranges, olives, and grape juice, just live on, not because they make any sense at all, but because they create a sense of identity, family unity, and at least, stories to pass on. Some traditions you simply cannot explain, and that becomes half the fun. So what if you can't explain it? That's not the point. The tricky part is to figure out which traditions are which type. Which ones to keep and which ones to say goodbye to.

So my question for today is, what is your odd holiday tradition? Something you do, year after year, but you could not explain why if someone held a yule log to your feet. This should be fun to discover.

For to us a child is born;
to us a Son is given.
And His name will be called
Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace."

Monday, December 13, 2010

dreaming during the day

Last week, we sat in our Happiness Project ladies' group and discussed dreams. Not the kind we have at night, though some of my best ideas have come right when I'm trying to drift off to sleep. The kind of dreams we might have had as kids about what we wanted to be when we grew up and what we wanted to accomplish with our lives. And we asked the question--what do you do even if you don't have to do it? What do you do in your spare time, what do you read for enjoyment, or what thread ties all the important parts of your life together? This is where your dreams tend to lie, if you look hard enough.

A day or two later, I sat on my couch surrounded by books. Which is always a good thing. These books, however, were commentaries and word studies on the book of Romans, not the sort of thing most of us probably read on a daily basis. Together, carting them from the upstairs hallway to my couch probably constituted my workout for the day. Most people would have looked at me there and said something like, "Wow, too bad you have to do so much work to write a sermon. That does not look fun."

And it hit me that this was just what we had been discussing.Because I was having fun. Lots of fun. So much that I didn't want to quit and do the million other things calling for attention that day. And most other people would not find this normal. For that morning, I was what we were talking about and searching for: perfectly happy. The same feeling I have when reading a good piece of literature, or writing what I hope is a good piece of something, or making a masterpiece of a gingerbread lighthouse with my kids (last night's project). Blessed to be living in the moment doing something it's my passion to do.

What are your dreams? Do you have some that need dusting off? What do you find yourself going back to time and again, or getting that feeling of joy out of, or reading about all the time? These are keys to your passion, and your joy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

the dangers of 'wish you were here'

I'm picturing the scenario:

Middle aged, prim woman, in her sophisticated pumps, probably coming straight from tea with her bridge partners, walks into the pawn shop.

--"Oh, dear, I seem to have lost my entire collection of Jane Austen BBC DVDs, and I was wondering if you might by any chance have those?"

--"Wow, lady. I do believe you're from the twilight zone. Why don't you go to Buckingham Palace and ask the Queen to hep you out?"

--"Wow, lady, you're in luck. Normal people would never try to sell such a thing to me, but someone did just last week. And I said, 'What the heck? Business is slow, sure I'll take 'em.' Here ya go."

I write this because I am puzzling and puzzling til my puzzler is sore as to why someone would have cleaned out our entire DVD cabinet while we were at the in-laws over Thanksgiving. (And in case you're wondering, our Copy of The Grinch was safely on video still.) Because for the life of me, I cannot fathom what exactly the resale value on the black market would be for, say, Showboat, or Anne of Green Gables. or Gideon, Tuba Warrior. Not to mention the random copies of our community theater performances. I won't even watch myself playing Mother Superior in Sound of Music. Now someone else wants to?

The killer for me, of course, is the entire six hours of Pride and Prejudice. Watched at least three or four times a year. It has become a bonding experience between me and Middle Child. I am an avowed Jane Austen freak. I even took an entire class on her in college. And as anyone who really knows me knows, if I were not very happily married, I would be stalking Colin Firth. So altogether, not a happy loss.

In any case,the point of this post is not to whine. It is to mention an important reality that many know but others may overlook. Teach your children (and yourself) about safety and social media.

You don't have to look far to find a news story about someone who got ripped off because he or she posted easy-to-interpret details on facebook or twitter. Now, we're one of those statistics. Even though we did try to safeguard ourselves from that happening. Things to avoid:

--Mentioning your vacation plans, dates, reservations, etc.
--Posting pictures before you get home and letting people know 'this is where I am'
--Talking about normal times when everyone is away from home
--Talking about what you are doing way from home or how much you miss things at home on your status
--Talking about the things you're seeing. Like, for instance, if we had lost our sense enough to go to Mall of America over Thanksgiving, we should never have mentioned it. Not simply because this is embarrassing to admit, but because anyone who checks our information page knows we do not live in Minneapolis.

And even if you don't do these things, your kids might, in simple normal virtual conversation with their friends. Except, not everyone they are 'friends' with is a friend. And you really have to impress on them how one, small innocent piece of information can give away so much.

Any other good ideas on what not to post for the world to see? I'd love to hear them. For more information on how people use your information, see the link below.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

OK, maybe you can make me

Microsoft told me it was 50,010 words. I am sure Bill Gates does not lie. So my consternation was great when, as I plugged in my novel writing word count total for National Novel in a Month last night, their word counter told me I had only 49,909. Now, normally, 91 words would be a breeze for me. Some of you know this, as you often wonder when my blog posts are ever going to end. But you must realize, it was 11:55pm, and if the word count was not in by midnight, I would not “win.” Faster writing one has never seen. Nor worse, I can assure you.

Some background for the uninitiated: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo—you just want to be part of it to get to say that) is a month set aside each year (November) in which those who sign up manically attempt to write 50,000 words on a novel. Or, as they put it, “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon.” If they manage, by midnight on November 30th, they “win.” And I am nothing if not extremely determined to win once I set my mind, or pen, to something.

I did this for two reasons: One, I had a novel sitting since last spring that had three chapters finished and no more. It needed finishing. It wanted me to finish it. It sat there every day looking at me accusingly because I had neglected it and thinking it just might ask for a divorce soon.

The other reason was that it was part of my Happiness Project Group promise for me to find time in November, and one of my goals therein was to find more time to write. Thus, a predetermined goal and time frame seemed perfect.

It was. Even at my age, there is nothing like peer pressure to light a fire. Which makes me think abut the value of something like NaNoWri Mo for all of us.

I don't know if it can be blamed on too many choices in our culture, too little direction, or too much independence. All I know is I know an awful lot of people who want to light a fire in their lives, but they have no idea how to do it. And just like my desire to finish my book wasn't going anywhere as long as there were other desires that were far easier to pursue, so their desires sit somewhere looking good, if a little lonely, but not at all productive. Admit it and ask for help? Heavens, that's just not the American way.

Enter me, sitting at my computer all day yesterday, after having slacked off at the beginning of the month and having had unplanned and unavoidable interruptions in the middle of it. Woefully behind in those 50,000 words. I typed for nine hours. I took two breaks to scarf down some noodles generously made for me by Youngest Child and to watch the Grinch for twenty minutes so my brain could function again. I'm letting you know now, now this is not optimal. For mental health or your writing content. My personal favorite paragraph was the one that went:

"I have to take a nap! I have to pee! I'm not sure which one is more necessary. I am sure I have to sit here and can't do either one until I reach 35,000 words because I'm making myself, I can't get up, no, no, no, no, no--there. All done. Goodbye." I hope I remember to delete that one in edits.

And for what? Sure, I get a Tshirt, but we all know another thing to sleep in is not worth nine hours of insanity and carpal tunnel syndrome. No one was going to call me and razz me on the phone because I had fallen short by 4,000 words. So why? Because I signed on for it, I had a goal, and for as long as I have known me (and some days I forget how long that is), I have never been able to admit defeat easily. Plus, I knew if I quit, I wouldn't go back for a long time.

I went to the website at 11:35, ready to plug in my words and claim my fame. And the website said, “NaNoWriMo is over.” What? Hey—I have twenty-five more minutes! You cannot deprive me of my God-given right to twenty-five more minutes! I may have said some things to my computer a pastor ought not say. I was pretty tired.

After about twelve minutes of fiddling, I discovered my personal settings page and the fact that, though I had originally set it to Central Standard Time, it had not taken, apparently. I have no idea what continent it thought I was on, but it was one where midnight had already passed by to the chagrin of unfinished writers in, maybe, Uganda or something. I changed the settings, went to my page, and tried again. Success! The page was open, and the words went in At which point I found that our word counters did not agree. I do think Bill gates should trump in that one, but yo can't argue with a machine. Especially with five minutes left until midnight. Went to my manuscript, put in a hundred more words of pure drivel, give or take, back to the website, and plugged it in. At 11:58. “Congratulations—you're a Winner!” never looked better. At least, I think so, since my eyes were not completely open.

There is a lot to be said for structure and accountability from outside of you to get that fire going. Its not a thing to avoid but to embrace. This, from a woman who has avoided structure most of her life. There is a reason I get “random” on that personality test so many of us take. I don't like to be told what to do or have constraints put on me by anyone else. But when I avoid it, when I say, “I can do that myself”--I don't. It never happens. Those fires sit there in embers that won't ever make anything warm or burn any evil away from the world around me..

Now, instead, I have 50,000 words on a book I've wanted to write. Some of them are very horrid, badly written words, but they are words I didn't have before. And that is progress. Thank you, outside structure, for giving me something to shoot for. Thank you, God for giving me a personality that will not give up. Thank you, three cups of Earl Grey, for making today possible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

portrait of the author as a middle aged woman

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook quizzes, I now know that the Harry Potter character I most resemble is Tonks, my Disney Princess alter ego is Belle, I am a night fairy, and I should live in Denver. I have to admit, all these are OK. (Except I'd rather live on the ocean.) The only one that really disturbed me was the "what famous author's psychosis do you have?" I got Edgar Allen Poe. Not a good sign.

But the 'test' that concerns me the most as I enter this writing a novel in the month of November venture is the one sent by a fellow writer. You plug in samples of your writing, and it analyzes them and tells you which famous writer you are most like. I put in several samples and got several responses, but one came up repeatedly. "Your writing style is that of James Joyce."

Now, on one hand, who would argue with being compared to what literary experts call one of our greatest writers? In fact, according to Wikipedia, "In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses first on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century." At 265,000 words, I wonder about its sales record, though. The only problem here is, in my entire college career as a literature major, there was only one author whose work I truly despised. I left my Intro to Brit Lit copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a cab. I swear it was an accident. Yep--James Joyce.

I had no idea what the man was saying, and he took a long time to say it. Yikes--is that what my work looks like to unsuspecting readers? I prefer to believe that his name came up because I do tend to write in a stream of consciousness, random fashion. I hope, though, that in the end, it makes sense to people. Looking through the first five chapters of this novel in a month (no I do not work that fast; I had already finished three), I can see that the main character is extremely random. That, I like to think, is her charm. But if she goes the way of James Joyce, I am going to be in trouble with readers.

How, how did a Jane Austen, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis loving writer get James Joyce?? I do not know. But in writing as in life, it is always best to stick with the style that says 'you.' You can work with it, evolve it, mix it around a bit, but in the end, your best success lies in being the unique person God made you. So, I guess I'll stick with Joyce, for better or worse. I promise though, no 265,000 word novels. Really, who could get that done in a month?

Friday, November 5, 2010

time flies--on a jet plane

So, I'm thinking this is not a coincidence. At our Happiness Project meeting this week, I announced that my goal for November was to "find time." Find as in, clearly, it is getting lost somewhere, and if I can just figure out where the bad fairies in our house are hiding it, I am sure I will be able to accomplish all those noble goals I want for my life. Along with getting the dishes washed within the same week that they are used.

No, I'm not making any great resolutions for using that time wisely at this point. Right now, I just want to figure out where it is. You can't use something wisely if you have no idea where it is. Or, in my case, if your time has jetted off somewhere and is sitting on a beach drinking virgin strawberry daiquiris instead of working hard for you. (Wow, I definitely had to look that word up on spell check; you can tell I don't drink.)

In the same day that I made that goal, I received a link to a website for a book called 168 Hours that had a download for a time management spreadsheet. I could and would track every hour in the day and how it is used. It starts at 5 am. That is amusing, to say the least. But you are supposed to track how much sleep you get, too. It's already making me want to use that time better. First "coincidence."

As part of my goal, I determined to look up the concept of writing a novel in a month, something I've heard about and knew there would be information out there somewhere on. My current work is stuck at chapter three and getting nowhere fast. As it turns out, November is National Write a Novel in a Month month. Who knew? There is not only a website but a word counter, support groups, write ins, and general kicks in the butt to get a person going. Starting November 1st. The month I made this goal. Second "coincidence."

I'm thinking these things are adding up. Time, I'm going to find you. I'm going to round you up and take you prisoner to serve me. I'm going to kick your butt for a change. Or else, I'm going to join you on that beach. It could go either way. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

what have you got to lose?

He had me at chocolate. Twenty-seven years ago, at the beginning of summer break, I sent a letter to one of my college friends. It had a sticker on it that said something to the effect of "In case of emergency, please send chocolate." Less than two weeks later, a box of homemade fudge arrived in the mail. I can bake, but fudge has always eluded me. I have tried it about three times, and three times I have created a lovely fudge sauce for ice cream, but that is it. The only kind I can make is microwave. So, I was impressed. Impressed enough to decide this guy should probably be more than a friend, and I married him three years later.

Today is National Chocolates Day. Today. Believe in the power of fudge. What great thing might you do today with it? Reconcile a relationship? Console a child? Make a first date? I'm not saying it works miracles. I'm just saying, it could be much more powerful than you believe.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

if you had one question

We had an interesting question come up at a group meeting the other night. "If you could ask God one question, what would it be?" Hmmm. When will we have world peace? Why suffering? What is my place in the world? What will be going on in ten years I have to prepare for? Why on earth mosquitoes?

All good questions, I suppose. But I found myself realizing something pretty quickly. I don't want the answers to them. (Except, perhaps, the last one.) Would it do me any good to know the answers to questions that have plagued humankind forever? It would not make anyone listen to me about them. Just because we know the right answers does not mean we will do the right thing. I mean, we all know the answers to what happens when we smoke, or eat to excess, or drive too fast, or tell our spouses, "Of course that doesn't make you look fat." But people are human, and we do these things anyway. And they are pretty insignificant things compared to world peace. Can you imagine how frustrated and depressed a person would be if he or she knew the answers to the tough questions and could not change anything? Plus, I'm pretty sure that, despite an honors degree in theology, I would not really understand the answers.

The future? Do I really want to know? If I had known the future of the past several years, would it have made them any easier? It might have caused me to take my family to a deserted island and hibernate for a decade, but I don't think that would have worked so well. I'm pretty sure that at least the people in our community theater would still find me and still be calling. One day at a time is all you can manage to do sometimes, and to know how long it might last or how bad it might get would be far too overwhelming for the average human being. That's why these things are left to God. And most certainly I do not want to know if my career never takes off and I end up my days in a little hut in Key West lamenting what could have been with no friends but the manatees. I'd just rather not know.

So, I finally came up with an answer. It's not something I want to know but something I want to see. God, if I could ask one question, it would be, "Can I see my sister, please, who is with you?" I would like to see her running around and dancing. I never saw that in the fourteen years I knew her. I want to see my sister who, I am certain, will never get tired in all of eternity of using her legs and never forget the wonder of it. I do believe that might be something that would make me more grateful for each day rather than worried, like the other kinds of answers would. In any case, I'm looking forward to it.

So what would you ask? I'd really like to know.