September Blogging Challenge Topics

September 2021 blog alongBack in April I did a month-long blogging challenge and I enjoyed it so much. It was stimulating to write a blog post and know someone else would read it. In September, Effy Wild is doing another blog challenge so I'm going to join in.

When I did the challenge before, I blogged more but I didn't blog every day. This time I am going to attempt everyday blogging, while at the same time giving myself the grace to know I might not accomplish it, and that is OK. Especially because in September I'm also going to be working on an essay I want to contribute to a writing contest.

Some of my blog posts will be on topics I write about often:

  • book reviews
    life right now/currently

But in preparation, I thought I would create a list of blog topics to pull from when I'm not writing on those usual ones. These words came from random poems in the poetry anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart, edited by Edward Hirsch, which I'm also going to be reading in September. (If you like poetry, or if you ever thought I'd like to learn to enjoy reading poetry but I don't even know where to start, Hirsch's books are excellent. This one includes information about the poet, the time period/social setting when the poem was written, and some analysis of each poem. It's also very wide ranging, not just familiar poems from American writers.)

  • Café

Hoping I can get some writing momentum going again!

Thoughts from a Shadow Dancer

A memory I thought of this morning:

In the 90s, there was a short story magazine called Story. It was a beautiful publication, bound like a paperback rather than a magazine, with heavy cardstock covers and thick paper. I’m not sure how I found it, but once I did, I subscribed to it and when it came in the mail I would read the whole thing. This was during the years when I was a newlywed and then when we were building our house.

In one issue, the first one that came to my mailbox at our new house, there was an advertisement: Story was having a contest. You could submit your work and if you won, your story would be published.

I wanted to have a story published in that literary magazine. I wanted a copy of it, with my name in the table of contents and my words printed on that thick paper.

And at that point, I was always writing stories, so I finished and polished the one I thought was best, printed it, and got it ready to mail.

But that’s not really the memory. Honestly, I’m not even sure what story I sent in. The memory that surfaced is different, and more painful.

There was a five dollar submission fee to enter the contest. Five dollars is not a big deal, but right then—when we’d put literally every single penny of our savings into our house—it felt like a big deal.

More than that, though, was that I didn’t want to write a check for $5 because I didn’t want to have to explain it to Kendell.

I literally never talked to him about my writing aspirations. Just the thought of it made me blush. (Literally…not the sexy blush, the ugly one.)  Writing—the act itself, as well as the idea that I might think I could be successful at it—has always felt a little bit…shameful to me. Like it’s a cute aspiration a child might have, but not a grown up in the adult world. I didn’t want to tell my mom about it either, or my friends; it isn’t only true in my marriage, but everywhere. “I want to be a writer” is both my deepest, longest desire and the one that embarrasses me the most.

So I didn’t want to tell my husband what I was doing. Part of me imagined my story winning and then showing it to him as a surprise. Part of me imagined my story not winning, and if he knew I’d submitted it I’d have to tell him it didn’t win, and how awful would that be? If I didn’t tell anyone, I could avoid the embarrassment altogether.

So I drove to the grocery store and used cash to buy a money order.

And that is the memory I came to this morning, after my sister-in-law shared this article on her Facebook page: sitting in the car (we had a Honda Accord then and it was my favorite car we ever owned) in the Macey’s parking lot, putting my submission together, full of hope and also of embarrassment and not able to put into words then how much hurt was involved in that hoping. I licked the manila envelope, fastened the clasp, and drove to the post office, trying not to cry.

Why that memory this morning? Because of something from that article. It’s about how women in their 50s should do something new or big, something life-changing. It divides women of this “certain age” into three categories: the retirement pushers, the I’m-just-a-moms, and the shadow dancers. I am a shadow dancer:

In their 20’s, these women labeled their dreams as foolish, and chose related (but sensible) careers, instead. (I chose Marketing Manager over author at 20. Just in case I wasn’t Hemingway….) The shadow dancer’s dream has never died; but a little bit of her soul has, every day.

Because, of course my story didn’t win the contest. Of course it didn’t; I was young and full of dreams and ambition but not much skill or knowledge. Since it was a contest, I didn’t even get a rejection letter. Just waning hope at the mailbox. (That is much, much worse than a rejection letter.)

During those years, before I had kids, I wrote a lot. I read Writer’s Digest and I submitted a ton of things. I had one poem accepted in The Daily Universe, BYU’s student paper (even though I wasn’t a student there yet), but that was it for success. Then I had Haley, and I started working on my undergrad degree, and I had professors tell me things like “I’ll be lucky if I find one real writer in my entire career as a professor” and “don’t get your hopes up about being a writer because most of you won’t succeed.” I read over and over, in different spaces and approaches, that success as a writer is basically impossible.

So I did exactly what that article describes: I chose more sensible things. I didn’t keep pushing and get a PhD like I had originally wanted. Instead, I taught high school English and then I became a librarian.

That dream didn’t go away. I’ve blogged, I’ve written for scrapbook magazines. I had an essay published in an anthology and a few in some LDS publications.

But life just chipped away at that thing I had in my early twenties, the absolute belief (even if it was tinged with embarrassment) that if I tried hard enough, I would be a writer.

And let’s be honest: I haven’t tried hard enough.

I let the shame overwhelm the belief.

I let sensible take the place of ambitious.

And I just carried it around.

I never stopped wanting to be a writer. I never stopped filling up with envy when I went to a book reading or signing or I met a writer in any form. I never stopped reading and thinking “I want to do what this person does.”

But I didn’t do it.

I made a life with my children and it has been a good life. I love them. I am grateful I got to be a mom and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. I’m grateful for the years I got to be a stay-at-home mom, short as they were. I get to work at a place that I love and I get to use the knowledge I gained from my degrees to help people.

But, here’s another truth: the shame is still here. The embarrassment. How dare I still carry around this dream? How could I think that I would be successful at writing, when so many others have tried and failed? There is also shame at not trying, too. And at the fact that maybe I am selfish for even my sensible choices, because it’s not like I’ve achieved any sort of financial success by working part time at the library.

But I also am not that girl in the Accord in the grocery store parking lot. I can at least find the words to describe what I am feeling. I have more to say than I could that day in my car, because of what life has brought me, good and bad.

I want to do what that article describes. Take a big, bold step. Reclaim that glittering, positive hope I used to have. I don’t want to be held back anymore by shame and embarrassment.

I just don’t know how to take the step, because even as I consider it—and I have been seriously considering it, the next step which would be getting an MFA—I am again filled up with worry. All these years I’ve worked as a teacher and then a librarian, I haven’t really been contributing much to my family, at least not monetarily. And now I want to use more money to get a degree that has a teeny, tiny silver of the possibility of success?

It feels selfish.

And that feels shameful.

The shame makes me go back to the sensible. Maybe instead of an MFA I should get a Library Science master’s. Or do something different. Law school? High school councilor? A total change—nursing? Hospital chaplain?

I could do those. I could choose something that makes more money.

I could stay where I am and change nothing.

But the tug is still there—the one that has tugged me since tenth grade, when, in my honors English class, another girl shared a poem she had written. She didn’t seem embarrassed. She read it in front of the whole class. And I thought—wait. We can do that? Not write, I was already writing. But share. Without shame.

That would be big. It would be bold to say “I am still worth pursuing what I have always wanted to do.” Because I only get one life, and I have this life right now, and that is it. I have years left, but not as many.

I want to be ready, and maybe that wanting is the thing that will make me actually be ready?

I want to give myself permission.

Thoughts on Blogging and Writing

It’s hard to believe, but here is a truth: I’ve been blogging for more than 13 years. When I started, Kaleb was just a baby, Haley was only ten, Jake & Nathan were cute little boys happily thriving in elementary school. My dad had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but he could still talk to us. All of the other grandparents were still alive. We knew one day fairly soon, Kendell would have to have his hip-replacement surgery, but we had no idea all of the health issues he’d be facing. I’d recently left teaching and was so happy being a stay-at-home mom again, hanging with my baby and the Bigs, writing articles for Simple Scrapbooking magazine.

Back then, in 2005, so many people had blogs. So there was sort of a blogging community. Lots of commenting, lots of memes, lots of interaction. I never was a blogger with a ton of followers, but I had enough that I loved that part of my life, too. I thought more followers would come with time, because (I thought) I was writing about real and personal things, and because I always have tried to write posts that were well-written, with a point to be made.

Really, though, I was just writing about my life. Random pieces of stuff I experienced. And, it turns out, people are mostly only interested in the random pieces of stuff that well-known people experience.

So many of the friends I made through blogging no longer blog. I see them on Instagram or Facebook, but the interaction is different. Yet, here I am. Still blogging. (Just like I’m still scrapbooking even though literally NONE of the friends I started scrapbooking with, the ones who introduced me to it, still scrapbook.) (Also like I still use WordPerfect.) (And I never gave up Dr. Martens, even when they weren’t cool.) (And I still listen to some of the same music I listened to when I was sixteen.)

Because for me, while I did want to be one of those people who became well-known for her blog, deep down this blogging thing hasn’t ever been about followers. Or, at least, that wasn’t the main point.

For me, blogging was about writing. It was about writing the random pieces of knowledge I gained from my experiences and then sharing them with the world-at-large, even if the only person who ever read my posts was my sister. (I’m not sure my mom even read my blog!) It was about the fact that I have always processed my experiences by writing about them, and a blog made that act feel less solitary.

I’ve slowed way down on my amount of blogging, but I’ve never really stopped thinking like a blogger. Last weekend, for example, I went hiking; deterred by mud, we took a different route and ended up at the path of an enormous avalanche. Not only did I enjoy scrambling (very carefully) up the edge of the avalanche and then walking out across it, but I was also thinking about how I would describe it. (As if an enormous wave were turned into snow and then frozen.)

But let’s be honest here: blogging is a lazy approach to writing. Not because it doesn’t take time or concentration—at least, since I try to write interesting posts, time and concentration are definitely involved. But I write a blog post and I click on the “publish” button, and that’s the end of it. Hoping someone might stumble upon it. And, sure, some people do achieve writerly success that way.

But usually, it takes much more work. Submitting, for example. Writing query letters, searching for calls, polishing my pieces and sending them out again after they’re rejected.

While I still think like a writer, and while I still sometimes write, I am not doing the work. And I’ve gotten out of the habit of actually writing my ideas.

So here I am, trying again. I’m whispering this…I’m not going to write about it on my Facebook or my Instagram, where I have a few more followers. But I’m putting it out into the universe: I’m joining in with the 100-day project with this goal: to blog every day for 100 days.  Not all of my posts will be long, but all of them will be longer than something I could write on Instagram (so...more than 300 words).

And yes…I know my history of success with trying to do anything for any number of days in a row. It’s dismal. I never, in fact, have actually achieved it. And maybe I won’t with this one, too.

But I want to. Not for blog followers (although of course, I wouldn’t be sad if I had more!). But to get myself back in the habit of writing again.

Because here’s another truth: this month, I’m turning 47. So much of my life is behind me, and fewer people need me, and maybe it’s becoming my time to be something I’ve always wanted to be.

Women's History Month: A Collection of 31 Personal History Prompts

Womens history month 2017
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to read was a series of biographies called Childhood of Famous Americans. They were hardback books with orange covers, and told about the childhoods of, yes, people who grew up to be famous Americans. I think I checked out every single one my library had at least four times, but with one caveat: I only wanted to read the stories about girls. Amelia Earhart, Mary Todd Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Pocahontas, Louisa May Alcott, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Annie Oakley (oh how I loved the Annie Oakley story!), Martha Washington, Molly Pitcher, Abigail Adams.

I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why I didn’t want to read stories about boys. Maybe because my family, with our four sisters, was so girl-centric. No one told me I couldn’t read stories about boys. (Actually, the more I think about it, if someone had told me “girls shouldn’t read stories about boys” I would’ve been more likely to read the boy stories.) No one told me girls’ stories were better. I just, when I looked at the names on the spines, felt a deep sense of boredom and even annoyance at the boys’ names.

But it’s a long-established fact that I was a strange child.

I have since learned to read about men in history, too. King Henry VIII, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Van Gogh, Degas, both Lewis and Clark are especially fascinating to me. But I will always be more drawn to women’s histories (Anne Boleyn is far more interesting than Henry, who just blustered around being a complete jerk), as they have always felt like the stories most imperative to know. Whether in novels or in non-fiction form, I like reading the stories of how women have influenced their current times. I like knowing how they lived, the details of their lives, how they dressed and cooked and interacted with people and with the world. I like discovering how, despite the limits of patriarchy and social mores, they achieved their remarkable achievements, or they lived their quiet, average lives.

March is Women’s History Month, and I have been thinking all February, since I wrote this post about writing down your stories, about how I could contribute. Because I don’t think that only important women’s histories are valuable. I think those “average” lives that most of us are living are important to document, too. One day, those stories will be histories, and someone in the future will be interested in learning how we lived, what we thought, how we dressed and cooked and interacted with the world.

So! Today I am posting a list of 31 questions for Women’s History Month. You could answer a question every day and then, on April 1, have told a chunk of your stories. I’m going to answer all of the questions, and I am planning on sharing some of the responses on my blog. I wrote the questions like I used to write essay questions for my students: several different sub-questions to flesh out the more general main question, to help you structure your thoughts.

If you want to play along, don’t make it complicated. You could use a notebook or your computer (or, heck, use your phone if writing long things with your index finger doesn’t drive you nuts!); you could post on your blog or keep it private. You could ask your mom, daughters, sisters, cousins, nieces, grandchildren and/or best friends to join you. You can write as short or as long as you want; some questions will evoke more words than others.

Later in the month, I’m also going to post a list of photo prompts for recording your personal history.

I hope you’ll join in. Let me know if you do. Here is the document:

Download Womens history month questions

Just download the PDF to get started.

Happy women’s history month! Happy writing!

Christmas Writing Challenge #11: The Stockings

Write about your stockings. What did they look like? What did they feel like? Where did you hang them, what did you find inside them?

Yesterday, I wrote about how I wish I had a photograph of our Christmas stockings. Unless some previously-undiscovered package of pictures is found, I believe I'll have to live my life without one. Words will have to do.

Unsurprisingly, our stockings were made by my mom. They were made of red velvet—a thick, luxurious velvet—with lace and ribbons sewn onto five of the six. The sixth one was just plain, not because it was my dad's and thus more masculine, but because mom ran out of ribbon and lace, or maybe time. Then she just didn't ever get around to doing it the next year. (As I have several partly-finished Christmas quilts that each year I am finally going to finish—but never do—I have only empathy for her.) Each of the beribboned stockings was different, and we didn't have the same one each year—it was totally random who got which one.

Oddly enough, I don't remember anything about what was in the stockings. At least, nothing specific. Candy, oranges, jewelry, makeup when we got older. A year with peanuts and peppermint candy, an odd flavor combination that nevertheless evokes Christmas in my heart. What I remember most fondly is hanging up the stockings. We had a fireplace in our basement, with six nails in the stone mantle where we hung the stockings. I loved the fireplace; I loved having a fire, especially at Christmas. And hanging the stockings on the mantel over the fireplace: somehow it made me feel like we were a family. I mean: of course, we were a family. But the stockings over the fire sparked my affection. It made me love everyone.

That I don't remember what was in the stockings tells me something about memory. I think that I remember best what had an emotional impact upon me. Opening the stockings wasn't as big of a deal as it is in my house (it is my kids' favorite part), so what was inside has been lost. But that feeling—the red stockings, with their ribbon and lace and the very faint reflection of light on the velvet—all six of them across the mantel? It's sort of a visual synecdoche. The stockings = my family, with all our quirkiness, our failures but also our successes, our flair for the girly side. Our togetherness: that's what struck my heart, and that is what stays with me.

Photo challenge: Snap some pics of your empty stockings where they hang waiting to be filled.

Christmas Writing Challenge #10: The Background of Photos

When I first started this writing challenge, it grew out of a bunch of pictures I found at my mom's of our childhood Christmases. I remembered some of the pictures, but some I had entirely forgotten or never even seen. When I found the albums, I had a memory of some of the pictures, and my memory was definitely better, in most cases, than the pictures themselves. In my head, the photos were sharply focused and well composed, but in real life, not so much. And I found myself wishing I could time travel, to actually take some pictures I wish we had.

If I could time travel, some of the photos I would take are pictures of the ornaments on our tree and of our stockings. I remember how instantly swamped with the Christmas spirit I was, as a kid, when we got out our ornaments for the "cute tree," which was the tree we had downstairs by the fireplace. I wish I had a photo or two or ten, maybe one of the entire tree but most of them zoomed in close to the individuals ornaments.

Alas, no such photos exist.

But then last week, when I started working on these prompts again, I looked closer at the photos, and while I still haven't found a picture of the ornaments on the "pretty tree" (the one we had upstairs by the big window, always a fresh flocked tree), which is really what I wish I had the most because of the story behind it, I noticed something in this picture:


I scanned this one, even though the subject is obviously blurred, because I wanted to remind myself to write the story of those nightgowns. But what I noticed (finally!) is that the tree is the thing that is in focus...and there they are: the ornaments on the cute tree!

Which is, I confess, quite a long introduction to today's writing prompt:

Find a photo from your childhood Christmas and look at the background. What memory sparks do you find there? Write about that—about what you find in whatever is behind or around the photo's main subject.

Since noticing the tree detail, I've put together a list of eight memory sparks to write about, just based on the background details in pictures. (I still, alas, have not found an image with our stockings in it.) But since I started with the tree, the ornaments are what I'm going to write about today.

We always had two Christmas trees at our house, the pretty tree upstairs and the cute tree downstairs. Some years, Santa brought presents upstairs and sometimes down. The cute tree had wooden, painted ornaments in traditional Christmas colors. I don't remember all of the ornaments on the cute tree, but here are the ones I do:

  • ​the toy soldier. He had a little gold gun slung over his shoulder. Why are toy soldiers also Christmas-y? I don't know.
  • the nutcrackers. Three or four little nutcrackers, with a handle that moved their jaws up and down. We went to see The Nutcracker a couple of times when I was a kid (as most of us were dancers at some time or another in our childhoods, that was nearly a prerequisite to existence!) and even now, a nutcracker soldier is a requirement for Christmas.
  • the rag dolls. They had red hair, but otherwise they were so much like my favorite dolls.
  • the rocking horse. I think it had a fur-covered body.
  • the books. There were four of them: The Night Before Christmas, a fairy tale of some sort, a retelling of The Nutcracker, and one other I can't recall. Leather cover, colored illustrations, gilt edges, the text in minuscule print: these were just like regular books, except tiny and with a gold cord that turned them into ornaments. These were my very favorite ornaments on our tree and I have fantasies, every December, of finding something similar for my own tree. I did find the Moore one at Mom's during one of our clean-out-the-basement trips, but the cord is broken and the binding torn, so I don't hang it up.
  • the balls. Not glass, but the foam kind covered in red satin. Sometimes the satin would come unraveled and I was always tempted to pick at those unraveling ones, which annoyed my mom.
  • the tinsel. Instead of a traditional string, the tinsel on the cute tree was made of round tinsel links, strung together. Like a countdown-to-Christmas paper chain, except sparkly. I loved that tinsel.
What I remember most clearly about the cute tree ornaments was how they made me feel. They were small and cute, with working hinges and perfectly-crafted details. Getting them out of their box and hanging them on the fresh pine tree was a magical thing. Without them, the TV room was just the TV room. With them, it was a Christmas place. We didn't have many other Christmas decorations, so maybe that's why, but seeing them again was what made me feel like Christmas was here. In a sense, they weren't just a spark to Christmas spirit, but the thing itself.
Photo challenge:​ Let the background of some of your pictures this year be cluttered with Christmas-y details. Who knows what someone will be grateful to have in an image, three or four decades in the future?

Christmas Writing Challenge #9: an Object that Triggers Emotion

I'm cutting it close, but as promised, here is the first of the last four of my Christmas writing prompts. Stay tuned for a new one each day until Christmas. Read about the first 8 here.

Writing Prompt: Write about an object of any kind that you associate strongly with the holidays.

Maybe it’s a holiday decoration of some sort—but maybe not. What object plays strongly in your memories of Christmas? How was it involved in Christmas? What does your connection to the object reveal about your life or holiday celebrations?

There are many things I could write about for this prompt. My mom’s nativity, the ornaments, the large glass tree my mom filled with candy and then left on the coffee table in the front room. But this December I’ve been thinking about something else: the golden stool.

Every Christmas, after we’d opened presents, had breakfast, admired our gifts, and gotten ready for the day, we’d go to my grandma Elsie’s house for dinner. My dad’s two brothers and our cousins would all be there. Even though we all lived within three miles of each other, we almost never saw our cousins. Sometimes for birthday parties, and when we were older we also started having a family Christmas party, but when we were young, it was just once a year.

Grandma Elsie—my dad’s mom—was…well, I don’t have just one word to describe her. I very nearly want to write “cold.” A cold woman, detached and unemotional. But I think, looking back on her now as an adult, she was a lot like me. She was a reader; she loved cats and literature and photography. She liked moving outside and went for a walk almost every day of her life. (I like to think that, were she an adult now, she’d also be a runner.)

Her marriage was an unhappy one and I wonder if it felt like a relief to her when her husband died at 48. She supported herself as a widow by working for AT&T as a switchboard operator. She kept every calendar she ever had, all of them featuring cats, so when she died her kitchen was plastered with cat images; all of the calendars were turned to the correct month. She was a fascinating woman—but my feelings for her are complicated. She wasn’t very affectionate and didn’t try very hard to build a strong relationship with us. In that family, my sisters and I were the children of the least- favorite son, the youngest who wasted his potential as a baseball star and ended up being the least successful. I often overheard my mom talking about her dislike for Elsie and the obvious ways she loved the other cousins better.

I had such a strong and vital relationship with my other grandma that I don’t know that this bothered me terribly as a kid. But it bothers me now. I wish I could know more about what Grandma Elsie was like, without the filter of my parents. I wish I could know—even if it was only to have my ugliest fears confirmed—how she really felt about us as opposed to how my mom thought she felt about us.

But family tensions aside, we got together every Christmas afternoon until I was a teenager.

the cousins with grandma elsie
(I think this was the Christmas I was five. Can you guess which decade this was?)

Grandma Elsie had what felt like, to my young eyes, the world’s largest and most elegant front room. The carpet was pale, the furniture cream-colored or gold. And a fireplace with a mantel! I always thought the room was so pretty. The crowning glory, to all of the cousins, was the golden stool. It had a gold crushed velvet cushion and an intricate metal back, also painted gold. It stayed in the corner most of the time, until everyone was there and we needed every chair possible pulled up to the dinner table.

Each Christmas, it was one cousin’s turn to sit on the golden stool during dinner.

Counting my family, there were twelve cousins. So it was, for some of us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, sitting on the golden stool. (Although I suspected that my cousins, who went to my grandma's house for dinner far more often than we did, got to sit on it all the time.)

I remember the year my cousin Jamie got to sit on the stool. She is three or four years older than me, but that day she seemed so grown up. So lucky! And so beautiful, with her jet-black hair and confident smile. I watched how she laughed with the older cousins and felt myself seem more and more babyish. (I couldn’t put it into words then, but that was how my cousins made me feel: like a baby. Too silly and immature for their attention. If I am honest, that is how they still make me feel.)

A couple of years later—or maybe the very next year?—it was my turn to sit on the golden stool. I thought I’d feel the way Jamie looked, confident and happy. I ran my hands back and forth across the velvet cushion. I leaned against the golden wrought iron. I kicked my feet, sitting taller than I was used to.

I felt exactly the same as I always had.

I still couldn’t laugh and talk to the grown-up cousins. I still felt like a baby. I still felt homely and shy and awkward. I was sitting on the golden stool and yet Grandma didn’t look at me or talk to me any more than she had before.

Plus that stool was uncomfortable. The cushion was worn down to stuffing and the back was too short to lean against. A high stool pulled up to a dining table meant I could barely fit my legs underneath, so I spilled gravy on my new outfit.

The strangest part to me about this experience is how much I cherish it. Even though I was miserable, the Christmas I sat on the golden stool, I still love the memory of it. Maybe because it is a true memory, unembellished by nostalgia or fond emotions. It is one of the earliest times in my life I felt bitterness, but when I look back on it, it is a key (or one of them) to understanding some of my adult traits. It teaches me many things about the type of grandmother I hope to be one day, both how I want to create traditions for my grandchildren but also how I want them to go through their lives never, ever questioning whether or not I loved them. In the end, the golden stool is the perfect representation of the second half of our Christmas day: seemingly beautiful, but complicated and uncomfortable when you looked up close.

Photo Challenge: What object triggers emotion for you during the holidays now? Photograph it!

the Return of the Christmas Writing Challenge

(Not a good photo by any definition of "good photo," but I still love this for what it captures. I remember this very moment, in fact, the way my grandma's apron was scratchy and smelled like her house, and knowing she was only teasing and would give my doll back to me soon, she just wanted to hold it because she loved babies so much, and the ringlets which I detested and that bathrobe which I loved, and Suzette's glasses and Michele's young face.)

Last year's Christmas was a rough one. There was a lot of conflict, fueled partly by our current stage of life—negotiating what our family will be like as the kids grow up and leave home—and partly by my own need (no, it is more of a drive or maybe even a compulsion) to make Christmas as perfect as possible. That desire for a peaceful, joyful, perfectly perfect Christmas pushes me, but it also creates unnecessary tension.

So this year, I resolved to look at Christmas in a different light. To let myself let go of the idea of perfect and instead to embrace whatever I find. Because even with last year's difficult moments, there were also some fairly magical ones, and most of them just happened. I am letting myself know that while my efforts to make Christmas magical help make it magical, the best moments are the organic ones that spring, fully formed, from whatever force is bigger than me, the one that really makes the magic. I am watching for those. I am taking things slowly and savoring what I love. I am buying fewer gifts for my kids. I am paying attention to how I feel every day, and then changing what I can to help rid myself of anxieties.

I am finding more peace within myself.

And I am remembering that Christmas isn't only about my kids feeling the magic. I can still feel it, too. We moms are so busy at Christmas, so busy making the experience magical for our kids. It's easy to forget that we don't only get to make the magic. We can feel it, too. We deserve to feel it! So I have been surrendering myself to experiences. Taking forever to decorate, for example, because I enjoy it and because so many sweet memories are tied to most of my decorations. I've been worrying less about shopping (although, I really do have to buy some gifts here at some point!) and searching out good deals and finding the. exactly. perfect everything for everyone. The gifts I have bought so far have been things I have found by serendipity and can't wait to give. I have been trying to reconnect, too, with how it felt to be a kid at Christmas, remembering my own childhood experiences and looking at pictures. 

And I've been wanting to write down more of those memories.

Eight years ago (how can it be eight years ago?) I wrote a series of eight journaling prompts, designed to help you (and me) get at the heart of some Christmas memories of your own. My original goal was to write twelve prompts, but that year I only wrote eight. So this year, in the spirit of making Christmas magical (but not perfectly magical) I'm going to write four more, so you'll have twelve different possible entry points into your own memories.

Pick one, pick three, pick all of them. Write about it in your journal or blog or on your Facebook page. Or make a scrapbook layout if you want! The point is twofold: put the memory down somewhere permanent, and re-experience the memory as you write about it. It doesn't matter if you have a picture to go with the story. Just write it.

Here's a list of the first eight I wrote (click on any of the items in the list to see the journaling prompt and what I wrote about) :

  1. A Wished-For Photo
  2. Your Most Vivid Christmas Memory
  3. The Guy in the Big Red Suit
  4.  December Activities
  5. Traditional Gifts
  6. An Overdue Letter
  7.  Holiday Treats
  8. Christmas Mornings

And stay tuned for four other journaling prompts before Christmas. (Also, my thoughts about Mary, some new Christmas treat recipes, a few ideas for books to give, and hopefully some wisdom I have gained this holiday season.) If you respond to any of the prompts in a public way, make sure to let me know!

Happy writing!

Prompts added in 2015:

9.    An Object that Triggers Emotion
10. The Background of Photos
11. The Stockings

Holiday Hodgepodge #12: a Thought for Next Year

When Kaleb woke up this morning, he ran over to the advent calendar and put the 24th toy into Santa's sack. Then he came to snuggle with me and said "Mom! All the toys are in Santa's bag! That means he's ready to come tonight, right?"

Well, almost.

I'm certain you're caught up in lots of last-minute prep, too, but I thought I'd share this idea. Maybe it's something you won't use until next year, but that's OK. Here's the concept: as parents,we invest a ton of time in our kids at Christmas. The shopping, of course, and the wrapping, but there are also the activities and the traditions and the baking. Sometimes it's nice to do something for yourself.

Enter my Christmas Eve notebook. Every year after I've set out all the gifts from Santa, I take a few minutes to write. And in this notebook, I focus on myself, on what I'm feeling about the holidays, what my hopes for the day are, how I have changed since the last Christmas, what I hope the next year will bring. It gives me a moment before the drama of the day to focus my thoughts and to relax.

This year I needed a new notebook, so I made one. You can see it here, at the Write Click Scrapbook blog. But it doesn't really matter what you write in. It can be just an ordinary, $1.00 spiral bound notebook you bought at Target. The important thing is that you write.

Merry Christmas!

Writing Challenge: Textuality #6

(So sorry I missed doing a prompt on Friday. Friday was A Day. So it just didn't happen!)

Welcome to the Inspired by Poetry Week of Writing Challenges! Before you freak out, don't worry: you won't be writing poetry (well, you can if you want of course! I would be thrilled!), but responding to it. There are sparks all over the place in poems! So. You simply read the poem, then respond. Your goal isn't to analyze the poem. It's to use it as a starting point, a way of evoking an emotion or an experience within yourself. You can use my suggestions in your response, or you can go somewhere else—where ever the poet took you. Here's today's poem:

The Pond
   ~Mary Oliver
Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe
their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them—
the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch
only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?
I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided—
and that one wears an orange blight—
and this one is a glossy cheek
half nibbled away—
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Today's Writing Prompt:

Respond to Oliver's poem. Some topics you might write about: perfection, flowers (lilies specifically if you wanted), nature/being outside, "the white fire of a great mystery" in your own life, what you want in your own life (Oliver wants to be willing), how you "float a little above this difficult world," or anything else that felt like a spark to you.
My response:
Last spring, Cindy gave me some lilies. The kind that come in pots, that linger for a few weeks, flowering through Easter until the blooms start to droop, the petals dropping off in odd numbers. The fragrance was sweet, a white, startling scent that spread throughout the house. Even the corners of closets had a faint lily swirl.
But I left them too long. I should have watered them more; the soil grew dry, the stems became stalks, and instead of furrowing down into a new dirt home, they died and I threw them away. There wasn't any decay of the lily-pond sort, no dampness, no slumped purses full of decay. Instead, just: withering away.
Maybe that is the perfect metaphor for my own sort of imperfection. Not wet and fecund and blowzy. Just...fading. Just needing something, more sun, more water, more something I cannot find in my current environment. I feel, sometimes, trapped like those plants, unable to move, incapable of changing the environment so I can get what I need. So I can blossom again. And it might be too late for blossoming anyway. At least this year.
Still, there is a sense of hope this poem gives me. It is not that the looking for perfection that matters, or the fact of the existence of imperfection. It's not even the acknowledgment of failure. It is the turn that happens at the word "still," it is the willingness to say "yes, but there is also this." Despite imperfections, despite the failures and the unfinished, if I can just find that ability to say "still," perhaps I can find the way to wander into my own great fire.
(all maudlin sentimentality inspired by Mother's Day. It will pass soon!)