Friday, November 11, 2016

Artists, We Are Needed

Artists, we are needed.

I know. It's too hard to find it, to tap into that creative space and pull from it.  We are too vulnerable; with everything going on in the world and in our nation, it just hurts too much.  I know.  I feel it, too.  But we are needed.

It hit me today as I sat at my desk, humming the refrain of 'Hallelujah,' over and over again.  Cohen, I thought, was a poet.  He would have been able to make sense of this.  Because that's what poets do.  As Gwendolyn Brooks said, and my sister lives, "Poetry is life distilled."



I will (with all due respect) take this one step further: Art is life distilled.  It is finding the essential and extracting it.  You've felt it, right?  Something - word, song, photo, paint, animation - something hits you with a ferocity that leaves you shaking.  It makes you realize, as though for the first time, that true beauty is a jagged edge.  It tears you open and drives you to your knees, leaving you gasping and quivering, and somehow in need of more.  You are changed.  Tender, open.  Broken.



So we are driven to our craft, to our art.  We find it deep within us and we pull it out.  It may be loud, it may be soft.  It could be for the world to see, or the solace you find in your quiet garden.  But you create.  You recognize the need.

Artists, we are needed.

We need to show up and let the light shine through our brokenness.  Because that is our super power, our secret weapon: we do not cover up the hurt.  We use it.  We harness it.  We face it and direct it.  We are broken open time and time again, and it lets us see the world with a vision others refuse to face.

We breathe in hurt and breathe out love.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Artists, we are needed.

We are needed to take a step forward, even though the air is heavy and the bog hinders our progress.  One step, and then another, and then another - until the earth firms beneath our feet just enough for us to rest, for only a moment, before moving again.

I have been suspended this week, held in the air, frozen, unable to move as I looked all around me.  Looking through the words I have seen hurt.  Hurt all over.  I see it and I feel it.  It presses on my shoulders, my chest, my back.  Down, down, down.

I turned to look for the light, and saw in surprise that it shone through me, through my broken parts.  So I took a deep breath, and then another, and then I lifted my head.

I cannot promise it will all be okay.  I don't that it will; I am not a Seer.  I can look at the past and see what we've survived, and I can glean hope from that.  But empty assurances are not helpful, especially to those who feel fear and hurt and despair directly in their lives.  So I won't offer them.

Instead, I promise this: I will watch, and see what is going on around me.  I will listen and hear what those who are afraid and hurting have to say.  I will make certain my path is safe for any who come across it.  I will be the vessel for the Speaker: Come to me, He says, and I will give you rest.   The sun will rise and set, and I will let it shine through me.  The earth will turn on its axis, and I will mirror the dance.  The wind will arrive, sometimes drifting, sometimes whipping, and I will let it blow through me, sweeping away the darkness.

Artists, we are needed.

But what if - you ask - what if I don't create art?

I have a secret for you.  Come close, and listen.

Artists, I believe, are nothing more or less than those of us who still remember we are all human.  We live our art in an infinite number of ways: gardening, cooking, writing, painting, designing, dancing, animating, singing, composing, speaking, running, lifting...the list goes on and on.  The only thing that makes us artists is the recognition that we share a nature.  We see that the lines of connection have been covered, they have been twisted and stretched and even torn, but they have not broken.  We are still all connected; we belong to each other.

We see this and we live this.

Artists.  We are needed.



Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I Heard the Bells

Oh, what a day.

Fear, excitement, panic, hope, dread...the list goes on and on and on.  Sitting at my computer (at work...shhh) I felt it all rise up within me.  I became suddenly overwhelmed.  How on earth will we go on after this election day?  No one can deny that this campaign process has incited and ignited passion within people.  And not just good passion.  No.  Anger...hatred...vitriol...

I wondered how our nation could move on after all this.  Surely we are more divided than ever before.

Except -

As I let my mind spiral downward a song came on my Dave Barnes (Holiday) Pandora station.  (Yes.  Holiday.  Judge not.)  As I listened I felt tears come to my eyes and peace wash over me.  The carol was a song based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863.

Folks, 1863 was the middle of the American Civil War.  A time when our nation was more divided than ever before, a time in which it seemed we could only splinter apart.  Longfellow, the widowed father of six children, had recently learned his oldest child had been severely injured in the war.  So he did what the artists and dreamers do: He put his pain and hope on paper.

I think it applies now, just as surely as then.

Here is his poem (emphasis mine):


I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Monday, October 24, 2016

On Fear

When I was young I made the Powers-That-Be turn on the lights inside the Haunted Mansion.



I know.  Cool, right?

Except it was my terror that made them do it.  Memory is faulty, and I was very, very, very young, so I don't remember much about it.  Here is what I can recall:

Sitting on someone's shoulders (my mind says my Grandpa's?  But that seems crazy....So maybe an uncle?) as we walked from the elevator to the Doom Buggies, clutching at his forehead in horror as I sobbed, "Turn on the lights!  Make them turn on the lights!" over and over and over again until suddenly the lights flickered on.  I remember my Grandpa saying, "Looks like you're in luck."  And I remember the relief.  That's it. I don't know if we all left the Haunted Mansion or if it was just a parent and me.

Just terror, searching for something to ground me to reality (in this case the feel of skin beneath my fingertips), and then relief.

A few years later I made them stop Star Tours mid-ride.  It was the same sort of thing, although this time just my mom and I left the ride, and I definitely recall that walk back to meet up with the rest of the family.

We've all been there, guys.  Don't deny it  (Love you, Mama!) 

I'm not bragging at the power I apparently hold over Disney ride operators.  (Not much, I mean.)  No, my point is this:  My fear is big, and loud, and demands to be heard.

Now, I have mixed feelings about fear.  I mean, if you look over the history of our species, fear has been a good thing.  Fear keeps you from stepping too close to the edge of a high cliff.  Fear redirects your steps when you hear a roar from out in the darkness, assuredly saving you from ending up in the belly of some great beast.

Or, if you're a small girl with a vivid imagination...
And impeccable fashion sense, clearly.

...Who has against her better judgement entered a Haunted Mansion, been herded into a secret elevator and then told - essentially - the only way out is to follow the choice of a hanging skeleton...

...Been plunged into a darkness filled by screaming people...

...And then suddenly finds herself in a dark hallway with pictures that only prove the house is, indeed, haunted...
It's waaaaay scarier with the lights out, folks.

Well...Fear steps up to the plate.  Fear reminds you there are GHOSTS INSIDE.

Fear is there to warn you when something may hurt you.

There are many who will tell you that fear is a liar.  I disagree.  I just think fear is really good at its job.  Seriously, Employee of the Month, time after time after time.  And let's be very real here - fear is good at its job because there is no way to be a human being and not be hurt.

One of my favorite quotes from Welcome to Night Vale
Fear has had a lot of practice.  Fear has been hardwired into our DNA as surely as joy, sorrow, delight, or anger have.  Fear may go even deeper, existing on the same level as thirst, hunger, the need to breathe.  Personally, I believe those who say they have no fear are either lying or foolish - or both.


Fear is not the voice to be shut up and ignored!  Fear is that friend who has your best interests at heart but just never quite hits the mark.  You know the one.  Maybe the Christmas gift is never right, but is given with a good spirit.

Maybe words are awkwardly phrased and the hug too tight/loose/long/whatever - but you can tell the intention is there.

Fear isn't out to get us, it's out to help us.  So instead of ignoring its voice, we instead need to turn and face it and say, "I hear you, fear, and you're not in charge here."

Boom.

That's it.  It is as simple and as difficult as that.

So whether I'm walking the sinister hallway toward the Doom Buggies and am feeling that familiar lick of terror along my spine (every time, guys), or I'm finally telling people that yeah, my agent has put the pitch out to a few editors and some have asked to read the complete manuscript - fear doesn't get to keep me from doing something I know is good.

Remember that time I said guilt could hand me the roadmap but didn't get to come along for the ride?  (No?  Let's change that.  Check it out here.)   It's kind of like that, except that fear has a seat in the car.  The backseat...and fear is an avid backseat driver.

Ideally fear will be passed out, though...just sleeping the drive away.

I just don't have to follow its direction.

Another winner from WTNV

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

My Quilt Square

I visited my grandma today.

It was a spur of the moment decision; I happened to be in the neighborhood and had a few extra minutes, so I stopped by.  Because it was a last minute thing I didn't follow my normal routine of visiting her.  Usually I stop by Starbucks and pick up some coffee - decaf, because it's always so late in the day.  But today, sadly sans coffee, I followed the now familiar turns and lowered the volume of my radio out of respect for anyone else who happened to be around.  I parked in my usual spot and walked the short distance, wondering, as always, why I even bothered to lock my car. After all, it's not as though my little, red Bug would be out of my sight.

And then, with a quick glance to Grandma's neighbors, I lowered myself to the ground.  "Sorry I don't have any coffee for you," I said, and I touched a hand to her headstone.

This is usually the point when I say (out loud, because I think she would get a kick out of it), "Pour one out for my homegirl," and tip the coffee cup upside down.  We share that coffee as I talk about what's going on in my life.  I alternate between taking sips and pouring some beside her name, and I always feel a gentle swell of pleasure in the knowledge that my love of coffee is something that came from her and Grandpa.  It is not groundbreaking or earth shattering.  It will never save a life or change the world, but it is a part of the legacy I have inherited from her.

I've been thinking about that word a lot lately.  Legacy.  I'll spare you the sordid details, but "legacy" has been something of a hot topic in some recent drama.  Truthfully, "drama" doesn't at all capture the reality of the pain caused, but that's not currently my story to tell.

Legacy, though, that is mine, though I share it with many.  Legacy is like a blanket - a quilt - which lays over many, offering warmth and comfort, and unique in each individual space.  I've been inspecting my quilt square, trying to see clearly which pieces of each of my grandparents have made it into my little portion.

Mama Bear from The Berenstain Bears and Mama's New Job.  LOVE those quilts!

So today I sat at my grandma's graveside and I thought.

I thought about the moment my grandpa mentioned Grandma's great love of Christmas, when my brother leaned over to me and whispered, "That's where we get it."

I thought about jumping excitedly onto the couch when Granddaddy was GOING TO TELL HIS MICKEY MOUSE STORIES!!!!  And then laughing years later when kids I babysat asked me to please tell a Mickey Mouse story? 

I thought about Mimi and her sense of humor - the moment during our Easter service when she just could. not. handle. the way someone was chanting.  She and I covered our mouths with our hands and laughed and laughed and laughed as silently as possible.  Even now I get a flash of that memory when I notice something ridiculous.

I thought about Grandpa's great love of family, the way you can tell he is soaking up the chaos around him when we're all together, and I remembered moments at family events when I just looked around, in awe of and grateful for all these crazy people around me.

Webster's dictionary describes "legacy" in the following way:

I am going to ignore the first definition, because my family has taught me that while money is nice and helpful and certainly not evil, it is by no means the most important thing in life.  So let's move on to the second definition:

Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.

This.  Yes.

This resonates with me.  Because when I think of my legacy, I don't think of property or money - unless we're joking about how our inheritance was used to buy Beanie Babies.  

Wait!  This is actually my legacy! ;)

No.  Money, properties, or things are not a part of the quilt laid over me.  My legacy is a strong sense of justice, loyalty, and family.  It is a goofy and silly sense of humor, and a sardonic delight in the ridiculous.  It is standing in front of people and feeling comfortable speaking to them.  It is yelling at other drivers.  It is whistling - a lot.  It is a tendency to assume that I know exactly what's best, even when I have no idea what's actually going on.  It is caring about my appearance.  It is wanting to know who is in church this morning - not to judge...just to know.   It is taking everything so hard.  It is being incredibly self-critical.  It is my storytelling.  It is the sound of my exhale when dismissing something.  It is the shape of my mouth and the slope of my nose.  It is the sound of my laugh.

My quilt square is not perfect, but it keeps me warm.  


And I love it dearly.



Photo credit: Aunt Judy Braun

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fear and Worth: An Update





I know this update is overdue.  Really.  And I'm sorry its taken so long to post.  The thing is, it's taken a long time to sift through the chaos that is my brain as of late.

sometimes i wish i could be a little simpler...think a little less:
Seriously.  Chaos.  
I've been processing a lot of new stuff, and - in case there was ever any doubt - it all circles back to my writing.

The other day I was making some guacamole at work and was imagining out what I would say if I were speaking to a group about writing.  (Incidentally, this is not just vain daydreaming, folks: Doxacon.   August 2017. Washington, D.C.  Be there.)  I kept coming back to the idea of talents, specifically the biblical parable of The Talents.

For those who are unfamiliar, there is, in the Bible, a story Jesus tells about servants who were given talents (a type of money).  Those who invested and used the talents were rewarded, while the poor sap who was so afraid of losing it he buried it in the ground was definitely not rewarded.  He was cast out into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Just a quick side note here.  At the time this parable was told, weeping and gnashing of teeth were expressions of grief.  As with anything biblical, there's a plethora of ways to interpret this story, but the most straightforward seems to be this:

We are given talents.  If we use the talents we are further blessed.  If we hide our talents we become grief stricken.  

I am a writer.  Writing is one of my talents.  It always has been.  In elementary school I crafted stories out of those, "write a sentence for each spelling word" assignments.  In high school I could certainly write essays well, but the creative writing was where I excelled.  And I have always, somehow, known that someday my words would be in print.  Back when Border's bookstores were still around I used to go and find exactly where my book would sit on the shelf.  It was my sacred ritual.  I couldn't leave the store without at least visiting my books' future home.  Even now, in the jumbo makeup store that has since taken its place, my eyes flick to that spot on the wall as I enter.  

My identity as "a writer" has always been there, whether I have actively used and invested (in) my talent or have hidden it away, buried deep beneath the surface.

Remember this picture?

 :
Taken right after a rare manicure, apparently.

I posted it a few months ago.  I gave it a silly caption about being nervous to send my work off and said that even though it didn't necessarily count as a submission, it was the first move of a game called, "How Many Times Do I Get To Submit This?"

Well, I have an answer.

One.

One submission.

In a twist I was not even remotely expecting, my first submission resulted in representation.  I went to a conference to meet my tribe and to gain some guidance from a real, live agent as to how I should go about taking my next step.

Now, barely three months later, I am googling terms like, "comp titles," and asking my agent - my agent!! - questions that must seem obvious and remedial.  I am telling my friends and family that, oh yeah, we'll start pitching at the end of this month, and will see where things go from there.

What.
Is.
LIFE???

I am so excited - SO EXCITED!!! - I can hardly think straight.  It's difficult to stay in this current moment.  And I am terrified.  Which is why I haven't posted anything about this until now.

#truth


I am afraid.

I am afraid that I'll talk about this most recent update - signing with an agent - and then, poof! it'll disappear.  Deals fall through all the time.  I am afraid this will be one of those.

I am afraid that I have forgotten how to write a book.  The book I've written is the first of a series.  I have to write the rest of it.  And what if somehow I can't?  What if I've forgotten what it takes to put one word after another after another after another...?  What if I only had one book in me?

I am afraid to put myself out there.  In writing one must be real, must be true.  Even in fiction.  Especially in fiction.  I am afraid to show people my insides and have them find me wanting.





Which leads me to my main fear, the one that drives the others:  I am afraid I am not worthy.  I am afraid that there's been some crazy mistake.  I wonder, Who am I to be so presumptuous as to assume that my work is good enough?  

BUT CLEARLY IT IS.

I'm shocked that someone believes in this story enough to help it get published.

BUT CLEARLY THEY DO.

I'm just Steph, standing here, holding this freaky, little story - and it is a freaky, little story.  But I am also a writer.  And it is time for me to uncover my talent, and to take that risk of using and investing it.  Who knows how long this ride will be?  I certainly don't.  But I promise now that I will ride it out.  I will keep sifting and processing and facing those fears.  And though I and my words are works in progress, we'll get there someday.
Taking a page from Stuart Smalley's book now.

Current goal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Let's Talk About Guilt, Baby

I've been intending to post for...oh, about 2 weeks. I've had great experiences to draw on, too. Good things are happening with my writing. I just spent a long weekend at a conference in New Orleans. I'm currently in Nashville visiting my sister and her family.

Doin' the Nashville hipster photo pose

So, so much.

I actually wrote a little something about NOLA, but couldn't shake the feeling that it was off.  Not bad, but not the right post at the right time.

But really, how cool is NOLA?  I will write about it soon.  Promise.


And then - well, then something relatively minor happened and I became afraid that I had hurt someone I love dearly. Suddenly I felt guilty. Oh, so guilty.

You know the feeling: pressure in your chest, churning in your stomach, the inability to focus on anything else for long...that horrible assurance that you are truly the worst friend/daughter/sister/HUMAN in the history of the world.

You know. Guilt.

It's a crappy feeling.

However, I've learned Guilt is like any other uncomfortable feeling: it's kind of hinged in the middle.

Guilt lets us know when we've taken a misstep. It's our alert for when we act in ways that are incongruous with who we are. It lets us know when we are being selfish, careless, self-centered -- when we are in danger of wandering far and away from our Truth.

To understate it, Guilt can serve us well.

But Guilt has a much more sinister side. It often overstays its welcome.  It can keep us down. It can whisper dark lies in our ear, keeping us away from Good. It can call over its big brother, Shame, and convince us that we are not worthy.

To understate it, Guilt can serve us poorly.

There are some who would claim I feel guilt because of my religion, my faith. They state that I have been conditioned to feel this way anytime I step outside the accepted rules of the establishment. Keep 'em down, keep 'em in line.

I don't agree. In fact, to those who say my misguided guilt is put upon me by my church, I kindly and gently call BS.

Sure, sometimes people suck, and due to suckiness will try to impose harmful rules on us. But that's a people problem, not a God problem.

You see, my God straight up said that I don't need to be kept downtrodden by Guilt.
"It is finished."

That's what He said.
"It is finished."

Hanging on the cross, enduring the worst humanity could offer, being mocked and scorned for His sacrifice.

"It is finished."

There is no need to keep opening up the door to the past. No need to pick off the scab. No need to stay in the gutter of our mistakes. We are not too dirty, too broken, too ANYTHING to move on. We deserve forgiveness. We deserve love.

It is finished.

Thank you, Jon Acuff.  And Pinterest, for the photo.


So I know that when Guilt comes to visit, bringing along any of his family members - Shame, Fear, Despair - I can say hello, hear the lesson, and then let him know he is not welcome.

Guilt can drop off the road map, but he does not get to come on the journey back to myself.

Photo from crazytraveler.com


And that is totally okay.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Not Cinderella

I'm a shoe girl.

I.
LOVE.
Shoes.

I know, I know!  It's cliche.  But, hey!  I'm a redhead whose favorite color is red, and while I don't mind a margarita or glass of wine, I'm definitely a whiskey girl.  I'm used to being a cliche.

My shoe closet pretty much holds the spectrum of colors and patterns: glittery ruby slippers, blue suede wedges, black patent leather stilettos...heck!  I even have a pair of pumps that have The Avengers all over them.
And they glow under a black light!

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that a certain pair of glass slippers crosses my mind on a fairly regular basis.  Glass.  Slippers.  (Or possibly fur slippers, if you're sticking with the original telling.  There's some controversy over the translation.)  There's no doubt in my mind that if I had a pair of those suckers they would be in my regular rotation.  Because functional glass slippers?  Yes, please!

But even with my slight shoe obsession (fetish?  No...okay, yes) it hit me the other day that I am not Cinderella.

Now, before I get to the moment in which I had this epiphany, I feel the need to say something:  I don't hate Cinderella.  I don't dislike Cinderella.  I don't have anything against Cinderella.

I LOVE CINDERELLA!


In some ways Cinderella is a perfect symbol of fairy tale princesses.  I would love her for that alone, but there's more.  Whether we're talking the Disney version or the Perrault (and then Grimm) version, or even the Egyptian story of Rhodopis, I am a fan.  She has incredible grace under pressure, is an example of perseverance and kindness in the face of hardship and hatred, and it's great that those traits are rewarded at the end of the story.  I think, "Go back!  Go back!  There's blood on the trail!" is an awesome - if Grimm -  refrain, and "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" is equally wonderful.

And don't even get me started on statements like this:


Who says these ideas are mutually exclusive?  Why can't I love fairy tales and dreaming and whimsy and still be a strong, successful woman?  I will make it rain shards of glass while wearing glass slippers.  I will chase my dreams in my cutest pair of shoes.  When I have kids they will be taught to dance and dream and demolish that glass ceiling.  You do not have to sacrifice one at the expense of the other.

Honestly.





Anyway, all that to say: I love Cinderella.

But I am not Cinderella.

Some of you may know that I've been doing the online dating thing for a bit.  While it's cool to meet new people and I always enjoy getting dressed up, I'm not stoked on it.  The guys are nice enough (barring, of course, those who think it's alright to ask for naked pictures right off the bat), but I find I'm in a strange mindset about relationships right now.  I don't want anything serious - but I'm open to that if it happens - and I definitely am not looking for a one night thing.  So something casual and with no pressure, but with the option to explore more if there's a connection.  And no hookups.

See?  It's not fair.  It's kind of setting the poor guys up for failure.

A couple days ago I got a perfectly nice message from a perfectly nice guy who was wishing me a good day at work.  I suddenly felt very clearly and heavily in my heart that while he may be Prince Charming I am certainly not Cinderella.  I looked at my phone and sighed, "I'm not The One, guy," before I typed a short and cheerful response thanking him for the kind thoughts.

Cinderella is delicate and strong, persevering and gentle.  She is faith in good things and working solidly and steadily at the task that has been set before her, all while never giving up on the dream of something better.



I am a temper that is contained 96% of the time and fierce the other 4.
I am constant vigilance against the threat of bedbugs.
I am a laugh that is just a touch too loud.
I am bottles of kombucha abandoned with 1/4 of the drink left.
I am Christmas music year round.
I am lying on the floor when writing feels too hard.
I am SO EXCITED to go to Disneyland.  Always.
I am quiet moments at my grandma's grave, telling her about everything going on in my life, and listening for the little bell of her answer.
I am always going to laugh at a fart joke...and most raunchy humor.
I am a dirty mind (*ahem* sexy imagination) that hangs out behind an innocent face.
I am incensed when anyone implies - or states - that I need to dress in a more modest/conservative/ladylike/whatever way.  Incensed.
I am not quite afraid of the dark, but I sleep much better with just a little light in the room.
I am conversations with random strangers about what on earth it means that they dreamt about that weird thing.  And also they swear they saw their grandfather after he passed away.

I am not Cinderella.

And so when well-meaning people tell me to have faith, that my perfect Prince Charming, with his pristine background and white steed, will come soon, well...I cringe.  Because I don't have time for you, Prince Charming - for you or your perfect posture and bizarre insistence that you will marry a woman you danced one silent dance with.

No.  For as much as I love fairy tales, and believe in fairies (well, faeries), I'm not looking for a fairy tale romance.  I need someone who will suit up and show up.  Someone who will don his armor and step into the gladiator ring to fight alongside me.  Someone who will push me to try new things and who doesn't care that "delicate" is a word that has never been used to describe me.  Someone who will embrace and explore life with me, who will hold my hand when it's scary or hard, or simply just because.
Frank and Sadie from Beyond Belief (Thrilling Adventure Hour)...Relationship goals.

So, until I find him - until we find each other - I'll just keep putting one well-shod foot in front of the other.  And to all you Princes Charming or Fairy Godmothers, I will never turn down the gift of a great pair of shoes.



Never.





Any pictures that are not mine were found on Pinterest, and as such photo credit is not given.