How writing makes me a better person

Eight minutes changed my whole day.

Between grocery shopping and preparing lunch for the kids, I had squeezed in a phone interview for an article I’m writing. Phone interviews were a daily part of the job when I worked for newspapers, but since I’ve been a stay-at-home mom and sometimes-freelance writer, they’ve been rarer. Because predicting a time of day when the kids might offer me a few minutes of uninterrupted time to speak to another adult in a semi-professional capacity is about the same as picking winning lottery numbers. In this particular circumstance, I took a chance (and my husband was home and available to referee briefly as needed) and it paid off.

After I ended the call, I eagerly and willingly put the rest of the groceries away and engaged the kids in reading and play time before we sat down to lunch.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for me, wanting to play with my kids doesn’t come easy. See, I’m a task person. I see a job that needs doing, and I do it. (Unless it’s washing dishes and then I ignore it for as long as possible.) I need activities to have purpose. Sometimes playing Barbies or taking a walk around the block at a snail’s pace seems pointless to me. And don’t get me started on seek-and-find books, which are my daughter’s absolute favorite right now.

Measuring productivity as a mom is hard. I know that playing with my kids, reading to them, taking walks and the like are all part of their development and do have purpose. It’s just that I can’t always see it. Which is why I often choose housework or errands over straight-out playtime.

Here’s what I’m learning, though. I was called to be a writer before God gave me children. I know that some moms feel called to their role. I’m not sure that I do. So when I have the chance to exercise my calling — a phone interview, writing an article, attending writers group, leading Bible study — I become a better wife and mom. Those things fill my tank and restore my sense of purpose. Being a mom is important work, and I know that. However, there’s more to me than my mom-ness.

While my husband’s been in seminary, he’s had one night class almost every semester. I’ve taken those nights as my writing/creative nights. Looking forward to that time helps me get through the cleaning, the picking up toys, the breaking up fights that encompass the rest of my day.

For me, writing is a need. When I don’t do it, I suffer and so does my family.

I learned in Sunday School this week (via video teaching from John Ortberg and Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy) that one of the best things you can do for the people around you is to take care of yourself. Writing is part of my self-care plan.

For you, it might be something different. Art. Youth group. Talking with a friend regularly. Volunteer work.

How does [fill in the blank] make you a better person?

Saturday Smiles: World Peace edition

I know almost nothing about current events and/or sports except the snippets I catch from my husband’s ESPN viewing habit. So I have NO clue why some guy, whose name is World Peace, is in trouble for some kind of physical altercation on the basketball court. But the irony is so funny, as are the many tweets and Facebook statuses I’ve seen about it.

That’s something to smile about. Unintentional humor gets me every time.

We had our own “world peace” funny in the house this week. While playing this game, Isabelle decided the faces needed friends not matches. So she set down United States boy and picked up the Afghanistan girl and said, “There. They can be friends.” I have no idea how this translates to foreign policy, but maybe we need to get the U.N. to play this game and give everyone a friend. Later she matched India with Iran and said they could be friends. There was a lot of boy-girl matching going on, so if the foreign policy gig doesn’t work out for her, she can always run a dating service.

She is the source of many smiles this week.

Like when she pretends to be a cat.

And finishes her first-ever soccer clinic, complete with end-of-session medal.

One afternoon, I was lying on the couch because I could not keep my eyes open any longer. (Tell me you’ve been there!) She comes right up to my face … or should I say, she backs up to my face, pauses then walks away. I asked her why she did that. “I tooted on you. It was a BIG toot.” My husband, who was supposed to be working on a paper, busted out laughing. Trust me when I say, she is his child. This is learned behavior from a Dad who often shows his affection in dad-like ways, like tooting in their general direction. What was funny to me was how funny he thought it was.

I’d never considered that teaching your kids about Jesus could have unexpected side effects. Isabelle was singing to her brother out of the hymnal (she can’t read it yet) and her song went something like this: “He makes us happy when we sing. He makes us happy. He makes our ants die, die, die forever. They die forever.” Our kitchen is currently under attack by ants and I’ve launched a counter-attack in ant traps. Isabelle has been fascinated by the illustrations on the back of the packaging that show ants dying. Stay with me; I’ll get back to Jesus. Later, she and Corban were playing with a Little People ambulance and an Ariel doll (Barbie sized). Ariel was sick, or as Isabelle said, “She died forever.” Izzy carried her to the play kitchen oven and put her in because it was “a dark lonely place.” I assume this is her interpretation of Good Friday and not something altogether sick and twisted. Let’s go with Good Friday.

I’m amassing a collection of photos for which my son will hate me when he’s a teenager. Here’s the newest addition.

Here’s a more respectable one for him. He was jealous of the Izzy-as-cat picture at the time.

He looks innocent, but he gave us a “first” this week. We’d been to storytime at the library, where he and his sister had made ladybugs, and somewhere along the way, his ladybug lost an eye. By the time we sat down to lunch, it had lost both eyes. Corban’s had a bit of the sniffles lately, so we’ve been blowing his nose a lot. Just before lunch, Phil had Corban on the couch blowing his nose when I heard Phil exclaim, “Corban Ranard!” Wondering what warranted such a reaction, I rushed to the living room to find my husband holding one of the googly eyes from the ladybug. It had come out of Corban’s nose on one of the blows. I don’t remember Isabelle ever sticking anything up her nose. I think we’re in for a treat with this one.

Two workouts in this week plus a chance to get out of the house on a nice-ish sunny day in the middle of the week. The rest of the week was surrounded by cold, gloomy, rain-type days.

My husband’s senior banquet … a date night equivalent. We dressed up. I didn’t have to cook. Someone else watched the kids. The celebrations begin.

Three papers stand between my husband and graduation. Last week it was seven papers/assignments. One step at a time.

Happy Saturday!

Anthem Thursday: Oh My God

I came home one night and my husband was listening to a Jars of Clay album on Spotify. This song is on it, and it’s one of my favorites because it helps me express what I feel about suffering and injustice.

“Oh My God” is such an overused phrase these days, especially when shortened to OMG. There are valid times to say “Oh My God.” The song gives us plenty of examples.

Enough from me.

Epic road trip: review of Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus by Joyce Magnin

A bet between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can’t end well, right?

Rest assured, it’s not as bad as it might sound. In fact, it’s better. It’s the premise for Joyce Magnin’s latest novel, Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus.

When Harriet Beamer, a 70-something widow, falls off a chair while hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree, her son and daughter-in-law decide it’s time she move from her home in suburban Philadelphia to their home in California. The catch is: she only has to move if her ankle is broken. Harriet, never one to turn down a bet, agrees. When the X-ray comes back showing she’s broken her ankle, Harriet has no choice but to keep her end of the bet. She packs up her salt-and-pepper shaker collection and puts her basset hound, Humphrey, on a plane. Realizing she’s never been anywhere, she decides not to get on the plane with her beloved canine. She’s going to move to California, but she’s going to see some sights along the way.

What follows is Harriet’s bold, outrageous and sometimes frightening journey across the United States on public transportation, with a few alternate means. Her trip is nowhere near a straight shot from east to west, which is how she intends it.

I’ve been a fan of Magnin’s books for about a year. (Read my reviews of a couple of her other books here.) She weaves a tale that is remarkable and inspiring with characters who feel like old friends. Magnin has a knack for creating outrageously believable scenarios and is a master of imagery. A person Harriet meets doesn’t just have wrinkles. He has more wrinkles than the prunes Harriet ate for breakfast. The book is brimming with clear pictures of people and places. What a treat.

FAVORITES: In the midst of Harriet’s travels are nuggets of wisdom that hit you almost out of the blue. Harriet is on a physical journey and a spiritual journey.  What she learns spoke to me in the midst of a journey of unknown destination in my own life.

FAULTS: If there is any fault at all, it’s that Harriet  Beamer may not appeal to a younger generation because of her age. Although with the popularity of Betty White and her friends on television, there is hope. And I do hope that readers of all ages pick up this book, or download it, because just like our grandparents’ generation, Harriet Beamer has something to teach us all.

IN A WORD: Vicarious. Reading Harriet Beamer Takes the Bus makes me want to travel and do unexpectedly courageous things. Now. Not when I’m 70. I even marked a couple of places in the book to look up later as possible travel destinations.

Harriet’s journey continues on her blog. Yes, that’s right. Harriet Beamer has her own blog. You can follow her ongoing adventures here. I’m eager to catch up on her travels.

Side note: If you’ve got a Kindle, Magnin’s first book in the Bright’s Pond series, The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow, is free (as of Tuesday night). Check it out here.

About the Author

Joyce Magnin is the author of five novels, including the popular and quirky Bright’s Pond series and the middle grade novel “Carrying Mason.” She is a writing instructor and frequent conference speaker. Joyce lives in Pennsylvania with her son, Adam, and their crazy cat, Mango, who likes to eat nachos.

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In exchange for this review, I received a free advanced digital copy of the book from Zondervan.

Grace changes everything

I am a judgment junkie.

Maybe that just means I’m human. Sometimes, I can’t help myself. I see someone dressed a certain way, or behaving a certain way, and I come to a conclusion based on almost no information.

That sort of thing would have gotten me fired in the newspaper business. Snap judgments, incomplete stories, speculations … that’s the stuff of tabloids and, too often, television. Facts and truth — these are the things on which I built my journalism career.

I read this quote recently, from a book I’ll review later on this blog. The author wrote it in the context of suffering and the meaning of suffering, but I think it applies in daily life as well.

Given our extremely limited perspective, it is premature to leap from “I can’t see the reason” to “There is no reason.” We cannot condemn what we don’t fully understand. (Godforsaken by Dinesh D’Souza)

How did it come to this? How can I so easily dismiss people as less worthy or less talented or less intelligent or less anything than me? What, after all, makes me so special?

The answer is:  nothing.

This occurred to me as the kids and I were walking home from church last week. We’d had a potluck, so in addition to our usual baggage, we were toting the food leftovers. Actually, the kids, who had just eaten a FULL lunch, were eating tortilla chips straight from the bag as we moseyed the three blocks home. I think our son ate half a bag. I was half-horrified at what people passing by would think and half-uncaring because I’d been sick for a week and didn’t have the energy for a fight.

Weeks earlier, I had mentally shamed a mother who allowed her son to eat lunch meat straight from the bag while in line at the grocery store deli counter.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to walk in her shoes while my son left a trail of tortilla crumbs on our street.

Grace changes everything.

Before I was a mom, I thought if your kid left the house with a dirty face, then you must be a poor mother. Or if you let your kid eat candy more than once a day, you weren’t trying hard enough. Or if you yelled at your kids in public, you were probably abusive. Or if you were on food stamps or WIC, you were irresponsible, lazy and/or uneducated.

Grace changes everything.

God has graciously given me the opportunity to walk paths I never would have chosen for myself. As a result, I’ve received more grace than I knew was available. And I’ve given more grace than I knew I could give.

Grace is a work in progress in my life, both in the giving and the receiving.

I have much to learn.

I don’t think it’s enough to look at someone in circumstances different from ours and say “But for the grace of God go I.” Because God’s grace is available to them as well. I need it daily. They need it, too.

Grace changes everything.

Most importantly, it changes me.

How has grace changed you?

Saturday smiles: back to our normal edition

Major theme of the week: We’re healthy! And by “we” I mostly mean “me.” I’m learning that the old adage, “If momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy” rings true and you can substitute other words for “happy” like “healthy,” “calm” and “peaceful.”

So, Momma’s healthy again, which is one reason to smile, and I can eat food again, which is another reason to smile because I like food to have more consistency than Jello and more flavor than crackers.

The hubby is in the midst of his final papers and projects for seminary, and he was home for supper on Thursday, so I said I’d make whatever he wanted for dinner. We had pork burgers, seasoned fries and a salad. I’ve never made a pork burger in my life, but it was good enough that Phil said we could make them again sometime. Hitting the spot for dinner is a big deal for me. I still feel like a novice in the kitchen sometimes.

Speaking of my husband, I love watching him react to the ridiculous awesome antics on Top Gear. He’s like a little kid, and I mean that in a good way.

A friend brought this pretty lilac bundle to our house for a playdate on Monday. Their springy fragrance permeated the house all week and reminded me of the lilac bushes that lined the property between the house where I grew up and the neighbor’s. My dream house would have at least one lilac bush in the yard.

And speaking of purple, a friend and I got pedicures this week. It’s one of our coping mechanisms while our husbands read, write papers and try to figure out life after seminary. A survey of the kids for what color I should get on my toes yielded these answers: “Red!” (from Izzy) and “Blue!” (from Corban). I wasn’t initially crazy about either color, so I went for purple, which I think is a combination of the two. At least, that’s what I told them. Maybe it’s vanity, but I always like looking at my feet after a pedicure.

Corban is taking good care of his monkey named Baby. These days, he wraps Baby’s arms around his waist and gallops through the house, or down the road, yelling “Piggyback, piggyback.” One day he did this all the way to the library and back, which is a 20- to 30-minute walk each way.

After cleaning the bookshelf and weeding the holiday related books, the kids have rediscovered the recordable stories their Nana and Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Zach have sent to them. One of my favorite things they do when they “read” these books is they talk back to the voices. “Can you hear me Nana?” “Are you there, Nana?” and “I LOVE YOU!” (in response to a “We love you!” in the story from their aunt and uncle). How I wish the family could hear them from here.

And Corban is offering to pray more often at mealtime. Mostly, he says, “Dear Jesus, goodbye.”

We’ve had some good outdoors time this week, too. The boy in his truck always cracks me up.

One of the biggest developments is training wheels for the little girl.

On subsequent rides she was wearing a helmet. Please don’t report us for child abuse.

I’m off to writers group this morning, which makes me smile before I even get there because I love being with other writers and learning more about the craft and encouraging each other in our ventures.

Happy Saturday!

Anthem Thursday: If I Ever Needed Grace

I’m learning a lot about grace right now. Giving it. Receiving it. What it is. What it isn’t. The most profound truth I’ve encountered about grace this week is that I would have needed grace even if I had never sinned. (Source: Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).

This song says what my heart feels right now while our family is in the throes of transition.

I need grace. How ’bout you?

Historical imagination: author interview and review of Tracy Higley’s Garden of Madness

It’s been a year since I met Tracy Higley at an all-day writer’s workshop in the area, and I have yet to read a book she’s written that I haven’t loved. (Check out a past review here.) Her latest release, Garden of Madness, is another winner. In it, Higley takes us to Babylon during the seven years of madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. (For biblical background, see the book of Daniel.) The king’s daughter, Tiamet, finds herself widowed and a pawn in a power struggle to solidify the kingdom during the king’s mental absence. What I love about Higley’s books are that they are not direct retellings of biblical stories but are historical imaginations of events we don’t know much about. In this story, the familiar biblical character Daniel is given life, as is the prophet Jeremiah. Though we never meet the prophet, the importance of his letters to the exiles is highlighted. Sometimes, when I read the Bible, I forget that these are real events, not just words on a page.

FAVORITES: Higley writes characters who are compelling and realistic. Her books make me more interested in history especially the cultural and historical context in which the Bible was written.

FAULTS: Honestly, I can’t come up with one. The only “faults” I find are that I want to read more about the time periods in which she writes and I finish the story too quickly. Those aren’t bad things.

IN A WORD: Addictive. That’s probably not supposed to be a good thing, but I find every time I finish one of Higley’s novel, I’m ready for another.

Read on for an interview with the author and news of what’s coming up next from her.

Interview with Tracy L. Higley 

Your novels are based, in part, on historical people and places. So, where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? For example, in Garden of Madness, at what point does the story become something that could have happened instead of a historical retelling of the facts?

Most of my novels brush very lightly against actual historical events. Whenever the people are historical, I try to remain true to what we know of them. But there are many gaps in the historical record, and that’s where I have fun filling in with my own imagination!

Often your characters have bold, sometimes frightening, confrontations with evil. How important is the portrayal of this conflict to your stories and what can modern-day readers learn from the stands your characters take?

Yes, the ancient world was probably more aware of and in touch with the spiritual evil in the world. I do think it’s important not to gloss over the often demonic influence of paganism. And I would hope that my readers would see that evil is something that can definitely be confronted and conquered, with the help of God.

Along those same lines, do you ever find yourself experiencing spiritual warfare or oppression when writing about good-versus-evil conflicts?

I don’t think I’ve experienced anything strange in the way of spiritual warfare, that others don’t experience. I do pray often, though, as I am exploring these concepts in my research, for protection. There are times when I am reading actual ancient spells, etc., that I get a little creeped out!

Your books and travels have taken you to beautiful and interesting places across the globe. What’s on your must-see list that you haven’t seen and/or written about yet?

I would love to visit Morocco someday. [I even love Morocco at Epcot!] I think it would be very cool to write a story set in Casablanca. I’d also like to write some stories set in the British Colonial empire – perhaps the West Indies or the Caribbean.

When you aren’t able to visit the location you’re writing about (as was the case with Garden of Madness), what are your best resources for accurately describing the setting and culture?

I take a multi-level approach to research before I begin writing, starting out with skimming textbooks to get a big-picture view of the time and place, then diving deeper for the details I need. As I write, I often leave “placeholders” for little details I don’t have at the time, then come back to those later and use the internet to dig out the small pieces.

What can we look forward to next from you?

I am just finishing up revisions on my next novel, set in Ephesus during the time of Paul – specifically during the incidents of Acts 19. It will be another story focusing on spiritual warfare and the pagan worship of Artemis, along with the early church’s victory over evil.

Connect with Tracy on her Web site and Facebook for the latest news, chances to win free books and travel journals from her research trips.

In exchange for my review, I was given a free advance digital copy of Garden of Madness from Thomas Nelson through the Booksneeze program.

I review for BookSneeze®

Crafting with kids: an overachieving mom’s guide to making an artistic mess

Last week, the kids and I were fighting spring colds, and even though the temperature outside was reasonable for spring, the wind was gusty. I opted for an in-house project instead of playtime outside.

For a few weeks, I’d been wanting to make these.

They are magazine files made from cereal boxes, and I first saw the idea on this site. I’d marked up the cereal boxes but was waiting for the best time to drag out the scissors, glue and scrapbooking paper.

My kids are 4 and 2, so art projects in our house require lots of supervision and tons of help (not to mention a boatload of patience on my part.) I like making things, but I’ve never been very good at follow-the-rules kinds of crafts.

Anyway, they didn’t turn out too bad, and I only had to threaten one time that we were going to put it all away before were done. The mess was minimal, and we made something useful.

Craft projects with kids can be intimidating, especially if you’re a control freak perfectionist like me, but it can be done, and I hope the effort pays off later in life and that my kids enjoy creating things as much as I do. (Or more!)

Here are some tips I’m learning about crafting with kids.

  • Be realistic. About how much time it’s going to take. About what you can accomplish. About the amount of mess you’re going to make. I usually approach these projects optimistically thinking “how hard could it be?” or “we could totally do that” and then find myself frustrated because I had unrealistic expectations. Repeat after me: The time is worth it. I don’t have to do every project I find on Pinterest with my kids this year. Messes clean up.
  • Plan ahead. My kids have a short attention span. Case in point: Easter egg dyeing. Do you know how long five minutes is to a 4-year-old or a 2-year-old? I suspect the experience was slightly less than what they expected. With that in mind, if I can have some prep work done before I get them started, we’re more likely to succeed. For example, with the cereal box project, I measured the boxes ahead of time. I should have cut them, too, because in the down time when I was cutting, the kids were bored. Gather your supplies. Lay out newspapers (if you’re working on your kitchen table like we usually do). Take a deep breath. Dive in.
  • Take your kids shopping for supplies. Hobby Lobby with two kids under 5 is one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had. One time we were shopping for a picture frame and my son, the 2-year-old, insisted on holding the basket. Every time he swung around, I envisioned shattered frames all over the floor. That said, when I take the kids with me to buy craft supplies, they get inspired and excited about what we’re going to do. Our next project is to glue seashells we found on our trip to Florida to small wooden objects we found at Hobby Lobby. My son picked out a train, something I wouldn’t have bought if he hadn’t been with me. Giving him a choice in what to make, I hope, will keep him interested in the project.
  • Keep it simple. I try not to spend a lot of money on arts and crafts, frankly because we don’t have a lot of wiggle room in our budget. Projects that use things you have around the house (like cereal boxes) or things you can find (like leaves, flowers or sea shells) cut down on costs. Our biggest art expenses tend to be things like glue sticks and clear contact paper. Otherwise, I look for things that are sitting around the house, like my stash of scrapbooking paper that I’m not using for scrapbooking right now, and paints I used for projects years ago before I had kids.
  • Settle for imperfect. I want things to turn out right and look good. With kids as young as mine, that’s almost impossible when it comes to craft projects. If you look closely, my magazine files are misshapen and the paper is crooked. They may even be falling apart by now. Sometimes I lose it in my quest for perfection, but I’d rather my kids learn to try things and get it wrong than be afraid of trying anything because they know it won’t be right. Besides, it’s art. That’s one of the beauties of creative projects. If you make a mistake, you can convince people you did it on purpose and it was just your creative spin on the project.

What am I missing? How do you make craft projects fun for your kids?

Saturday smiles: Uh, what day is it again? edition

I know it’s Sunday now, but I spent most of the week plagued by sickness of seemingly every common kind. Needless to say, the week was kind of a blur. I didn’t eat much of anything for three days. (Apparently that’s my new weight loss plan because I lost 3.5 pounds this week!) A lingering hacking cough has me wondering if I should leave the house for church this morning. (I promise to cover my mouth and take cough medicine!)

So smiles this week? Let me jog my memory. (Think The Princess Bride when Fezzik jogs the albino’s memory. “I didn’t mean to jog him so hard.”)

Maybe the biggest smilemaker this week was learning that I was one of 10 winners in the adult age group of the Lebanon County Library System’s annual poetry contest. Yes, you read that right. I have to read it again from time to time, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever entered a poetry contest before or what compelled me to enter this one. The prize is winning and having my poem published with the other winners in a book the library is putting together. I can also attend a poetry reading of the winning poems in May. Totally crazy but a bright spot in my week.

Isabelle watched Mary Poppins for the first time and gave it four thumbs up. We’re working our way through Disney movies after visiting the world of Disney. Next up, at her request, is The Jungle Book. I love her passion for stories, in book or movie form.

Breakfast with friends and watching the kids take over the Chick-Fil-A play area because they were the only ones in there. They actually played together pretty well, which seems rarer and rarer.

Outside time. I’m learning that the more space in which my children have to play, the less likely they are to get on each other’s nerves and fight. Hooray for nice weather the past couple of days and in the days to come!

Corban and I read a 100 words picture book one night when his sister had gone to bed early. I would point to a picture and say, “Corban, what is that?” He would reply, almost every time, with, “Um, I’m not sure. It’s a frog, actually.” So hilarious.

Not hilarious is the fact that I’m sure this boy is going to land us in the emergency room for the first time. Because of him, I’m needing to acquire the skill of getting blood out of clothing (he plays hard) and yesterday I learned that the little flap of skin that connects your mouth to your gums is called a frenulum.  I know this now because he tore his after he hit his head on something in the living room. I freaked out. Phil googled it to convince me we didn’t need to go to the ER. He seems to be healing just fine, though when I ask him how his lips are, he says, “Not good yet.” That didn’t stop him from eating everything on his plate for supper last night plus an extra helping of frozen yogurt. Some things only sons can teach you, I guess.

I wish I had some pictures from this week, but it was not a very picture-worthy week. (Actually, I have a few but I’m too lazy to share them this morning.)

Keep smiling!