“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
– Frederick Buechner, Now and Then
Sending my socially awkward kid off to high-school brings up everything unresolved in me from that time in my own life that I have trouble concentrating for hoping she can stay relaxed and find the fun where she can because it will be over so fast and being cool won’t matter anymore.
People often talk about writer’s block or writer’s anxiety. Writing is full of anxiety. Writing well is even more so because there’s the expectation of producing something good and worthwhile.
Expectations are a setup. And as every writer knows, with a setup, you have to have a payoff.
The payoff of any expectation is either fulfillment or disappointment. And most often, when the inner critic stands ready to judge what comes out, disappointment is the result.
The conscious mind is very limiting.
This is why to write at all, let alone well, you first have got to get out of your own way.
If you aren’t willing to fail, you aren’t going to get any creative work done.
You’ve got to get past perfection and let yourself pursue play and risk you might likely fail at and have to try again.
You’ve got to be persistent, stubborn, and believe you are here not to produce something beautiful but to learn to let go of your expectations so you can see the beauty in everything.
You must want something better than success. You must want to grow and remain open to what’s next.
That way you never close off, never stop seeking to expand the relaxing comfort your heart truly wants, and the freedom you feel amongst your closest, safest friends. You will find safety and connection with them if you invite it and embrace it and don’t close off.
The world is too loud and dominating and the fight is too difficult not to keep seeking that relationship with God in all his many forms.
And to do this, we’ve got to be able to let go, but also to hold on to our specific grounding in the present moment.
That will release you from the anxiety so you can finally write what you’re able to hear that no one else can.
Remember, nothing is wasted….
After reminding myself of all this, I send off an email of dad-advice to Ellie, encouraging her to know how amazing she is and to always keep her smiley disposition. I let the anxiety push my better self to speak what I know. And the old fears don’t seem to hold the same power they used to anymore.
Working as a writer has much in common with learning good parenting: more than how to communicate, it really starts with learning to listen.
Also, both teach by showing you a lot of what not to do.
It was several years ago now, but I still remember it as clearly as when I first discovered it.
And of course, I thought I had my story straight as I was walking up the stairs.
Speak the truth in love. Remember to balance understanding and firmness.
As I make my way up to the smaller bedroom, I consider what the best, measured words might be to help my daughters realize they haven’t stayed on task in the bedtime routine. I know it’s a common parent gripe, this nightly battle over getting the pajamas on. But I need to help them respect the fact that because they’ve been goofing around up here and not getting ready for bed, it means no fun game together before brushing teeth. I’ve already explained that, and now it’s happened.
If they prefer goofing off that’s fine, but I also know they’ll be disappointed. And the truth is, now I’m disappointed too. I don’t get to enjoy them as much as I’d like and it’s always fun to play Memory or the Face Game with them.
I’ve tried to empower them to use their brains and compel themselves forward to make the best decision.
But as a parent in training, I’ve screwed it up. I got distracted and didn’t provide my usual 5-minute warning. I walk in and tell them their time’s up. Sorry, they didn’t make it. And of course, they’re upset and the younger one starts to argue: I didn’t give them the warning. She’s right, but instead of realizing this is a reasonable expectation and admitting my own distraction, I fight back and stay firm, aware that I don’t have much more time before bed myself and I need to finish up a few things first.
And that’s the first place I failed.The next one comes when I forget that this whole situation is just more practice for all of us, and it’s a glorious opportunity to show them something they’ll learn from, enjoy, and hopefully even remember for a long time. I blow it by not listening to my girls–in this case, both my audience and my subject–and I reduce the conversation to simply speaking decisively to them so things can be done. I don’t even explain. And because they’re naturally quiet, they don’t argue much–the older is naturally submissive, so she doesn’t argue at all. And I oversee the changing of the clothes and the brushing of teeth and we say prayers and turn off the light.
If you ever wonder why this parenting thing is so hard, this is exactly the reason: you simply won’t realize very often how stupid you’re being because you didn’t listen. You’d already decided what to do. And you’ll think you’ve got to be consistent. And firm. When really, you’re just proving why there are so few truly good parents in the world.
And you want to know the worst part? It totally doesn’t matter to them. In the morning, they’ve already forgiven you and you’ve lost no respect because they believed what you did was justified. You’re the adult. You get to disrespect them because they’re just kids. And that’s when you know you have to apologize before they drink up their juice and get out the door. Why did you have to be a power-tripping policeman instead of a dad willing to be gracious and kind to the two people who make his entire world spin?
It’s after the apology and their quick, undivided forgiveness, after breakfast is cleaned up and I’m back in my chair writing that I realize why they say writing is rewriting. It’s because it’s what it’s all about: learning from your mistakes.
So don’t let yourself get frustrated today, little writer. You didn’t quite get it right? It’s okay. You can get it right this time if you stop and listen. Don’t think you’ve already got it all figured. It’s really okay not to. And it’s also okay to need the support and encouragement. Raising a book as good as yours should probably take a bit of practice.
Today is just more practice. So give yourself the space to learn as you go. And don’t forget to listen. He speaks that all-important inspiration when you do.
I suppose it would take something like a kids basketball game to shock me into remembering that fear is also a gift.
Most of you probably guessed I’m not exactly a sports super-fan. But basketball is just about the worst. For proof, if that’s needed, consider the amazing imagination it required to invent a game of throwing a ball into a bucket.
The entire game feels like a crudely-conceived relic of the Bad Old Days. Some bored wingnut decided to torture his students, and the students, who didn’t have the good sense to tell whoever-it-was that it was kind of a stupid game, said something helpful like, “Shucks, we should give players a big court to prance aroun’ on like showboatin’ divas!”
And that’s how basketball was born.
To the rational, none of this needs explaining. The ridiculousness of the game is obvious. But until someone makes libraries more attractive to the kinesthetic types, we’re probably stuck with it.
So why bring this up? Because on Saturday, I took my 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to her first team sport experience—a basketball game. Of course it’s crystal clear now how dumb this was—how did I not see it coming?—that two half-hour practices could prepare her for this. But I have this wonderful ability to rationalize brainless ideas and tell myself, No, this really isn’t that crazy.
But even halfway there, the larger part of me suspected this could get mentioned in a future therapy session.
We got there fine, found the colossal gym and headed to the table where they read (shouted) the team room assignments. We hurried fast around the pounding games in progress to the back hallway, found the room with a big table, and the other parents and girls and coaches all arrived in their snazzy outfits.
Charlotte turned from the table to find me and gave a shy wave while the buzz-headed coach briefly explained the court rules, the process of warm-ups, the colored wristband system of pairing up defensive and offensive players (yeah, totally caught all of that), and what something called a “screen” was.
My own heart began to dribble around my chest.
After a hasty prayer for a good game or something, everyone shouted and we all filed out to follow the coaches through the world’s most overcrowded hallway. I was never in ‘Nam, but the noise and bodies pummeling me made me feel for Charlotte’s little hand and grip it like a lifeline. From their excitement level, you’d think they relished the chance to lose their hearing while being trampled to death. I held her for dear life and happened to glance down just in time to see the tears burst from her eyes.
Not that I blamed her. I was barely holding it together myself through the assault. But I knew if we stopped now we’d die a gruesome death, so I pulled her behind me, dodging and ducking the endless stream of congenial yuppies and shouting offspring.
Someday, I thought to myself, Someday, I must learn what makes people enjoy this.
I tried to console her as we jockeyed to the court. “It’s okay, honey! It’s just warm up. You can do it!”
Her voice was barely audible. “I don’t…(hic)…want to play.” Her cheeks were already blotchy.
“You don’t have to play if you don’t want to.” I wanted to scoop her up and get the heck out of there, but pushing yourself and bravery and not quitting was all hammering me at once. “It’s okay!” I smiled and tried to play it off, acting the concerned parent for all the wondering looks and blank stares as we headed to the seats.
“I can’t…(hic)…stop,” she said.
I knelt by her chair and put my arm around her, wishing I could shield her from the noise and tell her who she really was, an amazing, sensitive girl with incredible self-awareness and as brave as any kid I’d ever known. I knew how overwhelmed she was because I was too—I could feel all the parents and coaches watching, and I just kept smiling. I told her I was sorry, that I smile when I’m uncomfortable.
“That’s…(hic)…okay,” she said.
The sweet female assistant coach came over “I get nervous too,” she said. “You want to come warm up?”
Charlotte shook her head and clutched me.
Nope, sorry, she’s never even seen a basketball game before.
All my fear of sports came back to me in that moment. I’d avoided all this, happy to stuff it and say I survived. Luckily, I’d been fast enough and reasonably coordinated, but not to participate would have been social suicide, so I sucked it up. Now, to be here, expected to perform and to realize There’s just no way she can do this, I could feel that fear like a hot branding iron to the brain.
Such memories wake you up, tell you who you really are.
Vulnerable. Small. Alone.
For me it was on stage at a piano recital. I forgot my memorized piece and stopped twice. The thunderous silence of the giant church, all the eyes scanning me, the people thinking, wondering, waiting.
Feeling them all knowing how unprepared and terrified I was, that was the worst part I remember.
But my little girl going through it, that felt worse.
And yet it was afterwards, after we sat it out and watched the game and she calmed down and we finally left (never to return), I realized this intense fear wasn’t only a liability, it was also an essential gift.
It had brought an intense self-awareness and shown me who I’m not. I’m not a performer. And not because of the fear. The fear is a result. The cause is how I was made, personality-deep.
However it comes to us, the capacity to step outside ourselves, to disconnect and reflect on ourselves and gain perspective, it reveals us to ourselves. And maybe most importantly, it eliminates the false images.
Intuitively, we know it’s an important experience and maybe until something painful like this forces us to, we don’t realize we have this ability at all. But maybe with practice, it can become a tool we can use.
And I know it’d be so easy to forget about those clarifying memories in the common busyness. Just this past week I got distracted and forgot. I got cranky and started seeking my own way. I needed beauty and mystery in a fierce way and I hadn’t played music or pursued my novel for many days on end.
What brought me back was seeing my kid cry, whimpering terrified on the basketball court. I remembered that feeling, the irrational fear of playing piano on stage, and I realized I got twisted up this week because I’ve let fear distract me from who I really am. How do I expect to move forward in who I want to be unless I pay attention and practice habitual awareness?
As kids, we don’t need this discipline, but now we have fewer opportunities for reflection, and we’ve got to get in the habit. We stay in our mental cages more often than we’d like to admit.
This weekend, I was reminded and taken outside myself to see again. And the me I’m trying to be, the one who’s aware of his gifts and talents, I remember that’s who I wanted to be. And that’s who I get to be now, to help Charlotte be herself as well.
Maybe she not going to be a baller. But she’ll be who she wants if we can take the time to look for it.
If you’ve gotten distracted, go back and remember who you wanted to be. Use your gift of insight again. And imagine who you might be next year if you could just begin to remember to do this in the moment more and more…
Start an imagination habit and remember what gift your strongest fear taught you, as a writer and as a human being.
And let that fuel your pursuit of the higher purpose.
For the first couple decades of my life, I chose to see so little of my core neediness, I wasn’t yet human.
Did you ever know a kid who won’t get his hands dirty, who sends his mom to get him out of things, who’s demanding and coddled and thinks his poop doesn’t stink?
It’s safe to say he might not be a very friendly person.
I was protected and favored and snotty and I became prejudiced against those I found “needy.” Not the orphans in Africa, of course. They were tragic and terrifying. I was disturbed by the needy people at our church who took from us without realizing we didn’t have unlimited time and resources. They expected without giving in return because we were the model for Christians in our community of friends. As the pastor’s family, it was our job to fill others’ needs.
And it made me just a little resentful.
Fame had its perks, like some special treatment around town, even free bags of groceries now and then. Or when the cute girl in youth group knows you before you’ve even met. As an introvert, I had “quiet strength,” but I was just painfully shy and didn’t like attention, especially as Dad’s illustrations.
Everyone knew me but no one knew me. I didn’t know myself.
It can be a real struggle for pastor’s kids, and in the protected, privileged space around such a kid an ugly sort of pride can grow that looks down on those who willingly put themselves beneath him. The low-self-esteem, no-self-respect folks so hungry for grace that pour into the wide arms of the church, they frankly scare the sheltered, unscathed church kids who wonder what went wrong with them.
I was smart enough to be civil, even kind. But I soon learned not to let them in or they’d latch on, as they always did at the slightest provocation. It’s a real problem in many churches and it doesn’t get talked about.
Neediness is the world’s worst cologne. And I could detect it from a good distance.
So I lived alone. And it was only once I realized how needy I was that I became human.
It was 1981, a church BBQ. I was 7 and 1/2 and alone in the pool. The adults were nearby talking so I thought I’d try something and just walk a little farther toward the deep end.
Just as I turned back to see if anyone noticed, I felt nothing beneath my toes and said something really impressive like “Splutter-blluuurrglpllfft!” And my super-dad dropped his full plate of chicken and potato salad and dove in right there–polo shirt, flip-flops, aviator sunglasses and all–grabbing me around the waist and hoisting me to the side of the pool.
I was actually very near the side as it was, and I’d had plenty of swimming lessons. But it didn’t matter. For all we knew, I could have died. Neither did it matter that I was more than a little embarrassed with everyone looking at me.
I knew his love. I knew deep down I was chosen. And knowing that was the real help I’d come to need down the line.
Knowing that made me know I was needy too. Knowing that made me human.
But I didn’t learn it at 7 1/2.
For a kid like I was, that would have been pure gold. But it’d be many years before I linked that up–that piece hiding there for me all along, waiting for me to claim it and write it out. But that’s the great news: we can write these things out and choose to receive what we find as the pieces that helped us become who we truly are.
Through writing this, my belief has been reinforced that to possess our Father’s love is to become ourselves. Mine is just one way, one story. We can all find and possess our Father’s love if we’ll claim it and write our story out.
It may just be our greatest possession.
And it’s meant to know and to share.
Seek it.Respect it. Let your story out.
May you know him like you never did before. May you write him and represent him and live him for others to know they’re chosen too.
We just got back from celebrating my dad’s birthday over spring break with my parents and my grandma in California. They always feed and entertain us like royalty. And for some unknowable reason, they love me for who I am.
Which is pretty surprising considering who I am.
Few people can claim parents like mine, the kind who accept them for their true selves, imperfect in so many ways. Yet I’ve been taught this truth about life that makes it so rewarding, that being imperfect is a gift because it means you get to be human and learn and grow and fail and keep being brave and diligent and persistent. If only we all had parents who know that life is about being open to learning, not being complete and done. Somewhere along the way they learned that and now I get to live it too: the secret is just being engaged in the process.
As a parent myself now, I think of the gift to my girls’ self-esteem to see me accepting who they are and allowing them to fail and encouraging them to push on. I consider how open and honest I’m being about everything I’ve learned and haven’t learned yet. I want to be fallible and trusting in a higher authority because I think that’s the definition of a hero.
At least, that’s what my dad taught me.
In so many ways, he made things a learning opportunity. He helped me and my brother make things using his tools, tools every boy should know how to use. And when my brother and I were fighting, he secretly got us to make each other trophies as presents one Christmas. As a ski-instructor, he made sure we knew how to carve up a mountain like champions. And he made us breakfast every Saturday and took us to the hobby store and the bike park and then helped build the models we picked out and design the bike jumps on the front sidewalk. He took us fishing and when I showed no interest, he bribed me with candy bars. He taught me how to carry a gun, to read the Bible and study it, and how to pray for others even when you could use a little help yourself.
One of my favorite memories was driving in his VW Bug. I’d push the battery tester light on the dash (which only VW Bugs have) and in his car it was the “turbo button.” Off we’d go lurching down the road to my huge delight. When we went swimming, he was the dad to let us climb on his shoulders to launch us off.
But maybe the most telling picture I could give of my dad is that he loved to wrestle even though he never won, and it always seemed we’d only just barely overpowered him.
He was a pastor all my growing up years and my mom stayed home and we never went hungry. He performed our ceremony and the ceremonies of both my brothers when they’d found the love of their lives.
He taught me to believe in myself and to be myself even when I didn’t much want to. He’s always accepted just who I am and was always proud of me and prayerful for who I was becoming. It’s almost too much to go on, but you can’t leave off that he’s giving to a fault and supportive of all my ideas, and I know I’ve found my place in this world because he believed in me.
The books will get written and finished. It’s only a matter of time. I want to be there for my family and let reality dictate the time I have. I can’t always make time in the midst of life, and that’s okay. Daylight is limited and sometimes there’s no time to do what we’d like.
Discipline can absolutely help, I know, and I can always write at least a bit. But I won’t sacrifice what time I have to be fully available to my family. And if I can still make progress on all my work and believe there’s a book waiting me at the end of it, I’m okay with that because it will have been time well-spent.
I don’t have to write every day to collect the right words and pictures and experiences for the future. Because my dad taught me that even when you’re not doing what you’d choose, if you’re getting to spend time with the ones you love, then you’re writing the most important story you could ever capture.