Thursday, April 24, 2014

doing math with the heart

Math is not my strong suit. Lucky for me, some of the best things in life - heart things - defy mathematical logic.

Copyright © 2013

I'm good enough at math to help my 6th grader with her 8th grade algebra. I can make correct change without a calculator. I can figure out a 40% discount in my head. But in college, I flunked calculus and changed my major to English because - let's be honest -  I just didn't care that much about math.

But sometimes being bad at math can be a good thing for the heart.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

learning to listen: confession of a hypocrite

I'm a big ol' hypocrite. Like, the mother of hypocrites.

Sometimes I say one thing and do another. Sometimes I am a proponent of something in public, but in private I have a hard time measuring up to my own standard.

For example, I tell everyone they should recycle. We have recycle bins in our garage. We even carry off the recycle bins ourselves, since we don't have recycle pickup at our house. 

But sometimes we don't take the bins off for weeks at a time. The bins get full. Then they get overflowing. When they get overflowing, I get lazy.

And the recyclables go in the trash. Hypocrite. 

Another example: I'm in this great show called Listen To Your Mother that is produced across the country to honor Mother's Day. This is the inaugural show in Charleston (SC) and I'm thrilled to be part of an amazing cast

I'm excited and nervous about being in the show, about hearing everyone's stories, about reading one of my own stories aloud before an audience for the first time.

And I love the theme: "Listen to your mother." I mean, who can argue with that?

Well, turns out, I can. I don't listen to my mother very well.

See? I'm a hypocrite in the 1st degree. A black-belt hypocrite.

It isn't my mom's fault really. She is a great woman. She's beautiful, resilient, relentless. She's talented and loving and giving. She taught me how to cook and how to sew, how to serve with gratitude and how to love without reservation. All she ever wanted to be was a great mom, and she is.

She's a powerful woman of strong faith, strong convictions, strong mind and body. I once wrote she would have made a great pioneer. And actually, I suppose she has been. She's faced many life-threatening, life-crushing, life-sucking circumstances and survived with her body, soul and spirit intact.

So why do I have such trouble listening to her?!?

I love my mom. She loves me. But sometimes we don't like each other. We don't always see eye-to-eye on things. And sometimes we just plain don't understand each other.

Especially now that our mediator is gone.

That was my dad. From the time I was a teenager, my dad ran interference between me and my mom. He loved us both, knew us both. She was his soul mate, I was his little girl.

And I was a lot like him - quiet and bookish, an introvert with a penchant for puns. I had no problem listening to him. Not that he talked that much. He and I could sit outside at night and look at the stars for hours on end without saying a word. I felt he got me.

My mom, however, doesn't like sitting still for long. She's an extrovert who needs to be around people, to talk, to move, to do stuff. All that talking and moving and doing and being around people wears me out. We sometimes have a hard time getting each other.

So through my turbulent teens and young adulthood, when my mom and I had trouble communicating, my dad would stand in the gap. He didn't take sides. He listened to both of us and tried to help us understand each other. It was as if we spoke different languages and he was our interpreter.

He was my father first of all, so if I got mouthy or disrespectful, he clamped down hard. But there were times when he saw my point and asked my mom to be more reasonable. Somehow the three of us came through each confrontation successfully without too many scars.

Then the unthinkable happened. He left us.

It was sudden. One morning, he and I were in the hospital corridor after his first stroke, looking out the window, him telling me what he could see and me explaining what was missing in his vision. Then I was home, fielding a phone call that he'd had another massive stroke and was in a coma.

That visit in the hospital was the last time he ever spoke to me.

His body lived for another 16 months. But his mind and his spirit were gone.

And so was his voice of reason.

It was a hard 16 months caring for a strong man who had become a mere shell.

It was a hard 16 months watching the woman we both loved slowly being crushed by the weight of responsibility and fear and loss, watching her power go out.

Somehow, through the grace of God, we made it through that time. Somehow we made it through his death. Somehow we made it through the aftermath.

And then it was time to build a new reality without him. The empty place he left was epic.

Communication was the hardest. My mom needed love, needed support, needed someone to lean on. And I didn't know how to do that. I was grieving. I was selfish. And I was scared.

How was I supposed to communicate with the woman who gave birth to me without my father?

The first five years were the worst. Yes. Five years. Some griefs are heavier than others. And even when you're grieving, life doesn't stop. No, it keeps slinging things at you, stacking bricks on top of bricks, knocking the wind out of you just as you start breathing again. That platitude "God never gives us more than we can handle"? Not scriptural, not true, not anything but BS.

So what happened five years after death that made a difference?


Five years to the date of my father's death, on 27 December 2001, I gave birth to my daughter. She was named after her grandmother. She had my red hair and my dad's grey-green eyes.

My daughter redeemed a tragic day just by being born.

I prayed that her birth would help break the shell of grief that surrounded my mother. I prayed that my mother's love for this tiny namesake, this daughter of her daughter, would rekindle her power. And I prayed that somehow God would use this child to create a new normal in the relationship between my mother and me.

That was twelve years ago.

My daughter is now big and smart. She is a kind person but she is also a force. Sometimes she gets mouthy. Sometimes we don't see eye-to-eye. Sometimes we don't understand each other. And sometimes we even need a mediator to help us interpret what the other is trying to say.

Deja vu.

At 70, my mother is still a powerful woman, a force to be reckoned with. And my prayer was answered.  She and I have a new, better relationship. We still don't agree on everything. We have different styles, different ideas, different worldviews. I hate talking on the phone. She wishes I would call more than once a week. When we talk, we don't always understand each other.

But we both try to listen better to each other.

I still find it difficult. I still argue. I still misunderstand. I still take offense even when no offense is meant.

I know sometimes she thinks I'm not listening at all. But even when I act like I'm not, I am.

And don't tell her this, but in my heart of hearts (as much as it kills me to admit it), I'm betting she's right.

Monday, April 07, 2014

who's my tribe? an exercise

I've been reading a lot lately about tribes. Not the Native American kind (I have one but we lost touch over the past few generations), but the kind that I belong to as a writer.

I don't want to write just for fun. I write for fun and satisfaction, true. But I also want to be read. I want to write about things that matter to other people, things they want to read. I want to influence people, make them think, make them laugh, make change in the world. To me, that is success. 

So I've been doing some soul searching, some reading, some serious research. How can I become more successful as a writer?

Seems the first step is to identify and build my platform by figuring out who my tribe is. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

why I am not a Christian writer

I love being a writer. I feel lucky to have this freedom. But being an artist of any kind can be challenging. 

Being an artist is a satisfying way to live, but it usually isn't a great way to make a living. Depending on your field, it can be expensive buying supplies. It can be lonely, unless you're in a band or a play. It can be daunting, depending on an audience to appreciate what you do. And it can be scary, since so much of our art comes directly from who we are as human beings.

It's hard to make good art without being vulnerable, without splitting yourself open and letting others see who you really are. You can play it safe and let people assume that you have a certain kind of perfection. Or you can drop the facade and be real.

That kind of raw vulnerability is one of the most challenging aspects of being an artist for me. Especially when it comes to being a writer and a Christian, with all the variations of interpretation and expression that go along with that.  Because invariably, as soon as you admit you're an artist AND a Christian, someone is going to come along and show you how you got it all wrong.

My Christian faith happens to be a big part of who I am. It is one of the things that inspires my writing. It naturally colors my perceptions and perspective. It provides a framework for my experiences. It infuses my writing with optimism and grace. 

A weird thing happens as soon as you say you're a Christian and a writer, especially on the Christian end of the stick. All of a sudden the dynamics change and you get stuck in a box. The "Christian Writer" box.  

Once you get put in that box, there are certain assumptions made about you and your writing. Everything you write has to somehow point people to God through Jesus, preferably in an obvious, straight-forward manner. All of your work should deal with nasty "real-life" situations as cleanly as possible so that no one is actually tempted to sin.  All issues raised must be satisfied by prayer, reading the Bible, holding hands and singing Kum-Ba-Yah. The ending should be pat, with all evil doers either redeemed or dead, everyone smiling, and all questions answered. It obviously should be sold in a Christian bookstore, or at least in the Christian section of a secular bookstore.

And it goes without saying that, even though none of us are perfect, you must live beyond reproach or your books will be pulled immediately and pitched into the burn pile along with works by other reprobates like Anne Lamott and Donald Miller.

Okay, I know that is an oversimplification. I don't have a (huge) problem with Christian writers or Christian writing. 


I think there is a huge difference between being "a Christian writer" and being "a writer who is also a Christian." Just like there is a difference between Christian films and films about content that happens to be relevant to the Christian community and to human beings as a whole. These two are, unfortunately, usually not equal. (For more information, see my friend Nathan Fleming's viral post, What's Wrong with Christian Filmmaking?

So let me declare: I am not a Christian writer. I am a writer who happens to be a Christian, just the way I happen to be white and female and redheaded. It is part of who I am, but it isn't ALL there is.

At this point anything I have written could safely be carried in the average Christian bookstore. My worldview is Christian because that is my belief system. I have what I would term a relationship with God. The things I write tend to be uplifting and encouraging. I tend not to use profanity or write about the gritty side of life. I go to church. I have a nice family. I'm a nice person. 

Why do I feel the need to delineate?

The first reason is the big "J" word. Not Jesus. Actually, the anti-Jesus J-word: Judgement.

I had two big fears that kept me from writing for a long time: 1) that I might be judged as not a good writer, and 2) that I might be judged by my other Christians.

I've sort of gotten over #1. I've had enough feedback to know that certain people like my style, certain people don't, and that I'm ok either way. There are lots of flavors in the world, and the worst thing I could do is try to be rainbow-flavored trying to appeal to everyone. I need to be true to my flavor. 

But #2 is a bugger. And apparently I'm not alone or clueless in having this fear.

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a friend who is a priest. He is very supportive, commenting on my Facebook page and liking my writing, even the posts about boobs and girly stuff. We're both a little eccentric and there are things we don't see eye-to-eye on, but we have mutual respect and that's a good thing. 

During our conversation, he congratulated me on going public and getting my writing out there on my blog. I confessed that one of the biggest hold-backs for me was the fear of what church people would think of what I wrote. 

What if they thought it wasn't "Christian enough"? What if, based on my writing or my thoughts, they became convinced I wasn't even a Christian, aka "No one who is a real Christian would think/say/believe/promote that."  

(For example, I almost didn't use the word "lucky" in the first sentence because in my head I heard Sister Christian chant, "Cindi, there is no such thing as lucky. You are blessed!" )

He nodded. "We Christians are a tough audience, quick to crucify our own. I don't blame you for being skittish, but try not to think about it too much." 

Basically, he said, do what you do and leave the rest to God. 

Which brings me to my second reason - Audience. 

There are a ton of Christian authors. They write what they feel called to write. Or what makes them money. Western Christians have deep pockets, and they love to spend their money on Christian stuff. So if you are a Christian author who has a way with words and a great marketing strategy, you can make a killing. 

That's not my gig.

I'm not very good at writing to a template or writing to please or writing to comply with someone else's set of beliefs. I don't enjoy being safe or predictable or pat. And I don't enjoy preaching to the choir.

I want to reach a broader audience. I don't want to lose a reader who might not normally read a "Christian" writer. I might have something to say that speaks to them 
where they are.

I want my fellow believers to read me too, but I don't want my first thought to be "does this sound Christian enough"?

I don't want to censor myself in the fear that someone else might read it and based on their particular flavor of Christianity deem me apostate or heretical or any of those other religiously-excluding words.

I enjoy sharing all the quirky thoughts and feelings and experiences I have without hesitation. When I write, I always want my thoughts to be:

Is this well written?

Is this honest? Is this helpful?

Is this meaningful?

Is this challenging and compelling and entertaining at the same time?

Is this something that another human being - regardless of belief or creed or culture - can read, enjoy, learn from?

And, most of all, am I being authentic to who I am, to who I feel called to be, without fear of reprisal?

If I can honestly answer all of the questions Yes, then I am satisfied that it is ready for public consumption. At that point, because of my faith, I do exactly what my friend the Padre advised me to do at that point. 

Don't think about it too much, and leave it to God.