Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

Leave a comment!

The Undoing of Things

It’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I’ve been stuck dealing with a 2011 mess.

This is the view I’ve been tackling for the last hour:


It might be hard to tell what exactly is going on thanks to that tangled mass of yarn, but the tangled mass is what’s going on. Or what’s going out.

I volunteered to crochet some hats for charity, and as I was working on the blue-and-brown one a few weeks ago, my toddler and preschooler had a little too much fun with the skein of yarn. I got to a point where I couldn’t even use the yarn anymore until I stopped to unravel it.

And the unravelling is taking forever.

20120101-143249.jpgSimilarly, on Friday I bought myself a desk out of the classifieds. It called to me the second I viewed it, after paging through hundreds of other desks, this one full of character and exactly the size and shape (and price range) I need to move my writing station off our kitchen table and into our basement.

But it wasn’t in much better shape than my skein of yarn. I spent all afternoon Friday sanding and staining until my right arm was so dead I couldn’t use it to even wipe my nose that night.

As I sanded, I thought about the undoing of things. I thought about how much I wanted to jump to the polishing stage, how ridiculous it felt to be taking the desk apart before I could put it together better than it was.

20120101-143157.jpgIn many ways the original desk seemed closer to being done than the sanded desk I spent hours on, as you can see in the picture of the not-yet-sanded drawer next to the sanded one.

And I thought how it feels that way with writing too. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, undoing things in my story by deleting scenes and rewriting sentences. It’s hard to feel like that’s actually progress when I want to be at the polished stage.

I just have to remind myself that unraveling the story is essential. I have to sand it down until I’ve got everything in place, every piece ready to proceed.

Sometimes the undoing of things is the first step toward creating something better.

Soon I’ll have a ball of untangled yarn ready to become another hat. And as of yesterday I have a polished desk ready to hold a laptop, a printer, a manuscript binder, pens and scratch paper and all the other essentials, so that I can start 2012 off right, ready to be the year that I send off a polished novel to be published.


The desk will still be the site of more undoing as I cut more scenes and trim more lines. But it’s all in the name of progress.

Sometimes undoing is what has to be done.

Truths in Fiction

“What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something.”

~Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”

I’ve said it before: reading teaches us how to write. There are books I haven’t been able to read without a pencil because of lines so beautiful that I’m afraid of losing them if I don’t stop to underline. And when I look back, the passages I’ve marked are usually things that teach me about life. The best writing teaches us about life.

Right now I’m reading The Road (yes, I kept putting it aside for other books, but now I’m finally in it for good), mesmerized by its voice and often blown away by the broken beauty he captures in such a desolate and disturbing setting. Last night I underlined this passage:

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (89)

And the night before that I marked this:

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them. (74)

These are the kind of passages that catch my breath as I read and compel me to stop and ponder the words.  They make me want to catalog them, to thumb through every book on my shelves and type every underlined passage into this post and say, “Did you feel that? Do you see?”

But maybe you can’t. Maybe these have to be experienced inside story. All I know is that when I come across these profound bits of truth in fiction, I savor them like the best gourmet food. They illuminate the world in a new way, they make me marvel, they turn simple ideas into reverent ones.

There are plenty of books that I love just for the stories, that I own and savor and recommend to other readers. But the books that I cherish above all are the ones that I’ve underlined, the ones full of profound truths.

As Annie Dillard says, it’s a challenge to write a book that way. I hope I’m up to the challenge, though. My biggest goal as a writer is to give back like this: to catch a reader’s breath with an idea worded so well that it pays tribute to the writers who have shaped me, like the sincerest thanks.

What truths do you glean from fiction? What books have caught your breath with beautiful passages?

Leave a comment!

Power of a Picture to Persuade

Last week something pretty insane happened.

I began cleaning my kitchen as I cook.

It’s insane because I am a tornado in the kitchen. Hubby will get the whole thing sparkling clean before we go to bed at night, and by the time he comes home (after I’ve cooked two meals and am in the middle of the third), the poor guy’s effort has been all undone.

Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating for him. I can see exactly why, even when I’m in the middle of cooking and still using the measuring cups around me, he sometimes swipes my cooking utensils and throws them into the sink, just for the sake of making more of the counter top visible.

Cleaning house is not my strength, and yet the constant state of disorganization frazzles me almost as much as it frazzles my poor husband. So when a blog I subscribe to mentioned the e-book One Bite at a Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler, which only costs $5 and would give me amazing tips like “Eat your frog first,” let’s just say it’s the first time I’ve bought an e-book without hesitating.

The author’s recommendation is to choose where you want to start, and after reading through a dozen or more of the projects, I knew “Clean your kitchen as you cook” was the winner for me. I read it while nursing the baby upstairs for his nap and then came down and announced my intentions to Hubby, expecting him to be thrilled.

“What?!” he choked. “I’ve been begging you to do that for nine years.”

Poor guy.

But it made me think about persuasion. How had these couple of pages in an e-book succeeded where the man I love had not?

Sadly, Hubby’s main point didn’t work well enough for me. Yes, crusty, dried-up food takes five times as long to clean off as it would before the food cakes. But I figured I didn’t have time to deal with it while cooking. Cooking is not a leisurely activity around here. It’s a stressful effort, accentuated by cries of “Mom! I’m hungry!” So I always dealt with tossing dishes in the sink once the food was in the oven, etc.

That’s where the e-book spoke my language by showing me how cleaning as I cook would actually simplify my life. And it did that by using an image that gave me an instant association: what a professional kitchen looks like. The author of the project says she learned to clean as she cooks in her first day of cooking school.

That was when it started to click for me. Oh! Of course! A professional cook would quickly wash and put away a cutting board before moving on to the next step. I could picture that, and then could visualize myself doing the same.

And thanks to that effective analogy, everything else clicked into place for me.

I could see how important that would be in a professional kitchen, how they need the cutting board and other kitchen tools to be always ready for the next thing. How many meals have been delayed at our house when I discovered that the needed bowl/knife/measuring cup/chopper/blender/etc I needed was buried in the sink?

I could see how washing those things immediately and putting them away would also save me time trying to push things aside to create enough counter space.

I could see how other tips like having a bowl for scraps next to me while chopping veggies would mean my veggie chopping wouldn’t create a mess.

I could suddenly picture myself cleaning as I cook, and that allowed me to begin doing it.

It’s ironic that in the e-book the “Clean as you cook” project doesn’t come with a photo (other than the author’s portrait). What I mean here is simply the pictures created with words. When someone is trying to persuade us to change, I think that helping us visualize that change is essential to the transformation. We need the right details, like the “garbage bowl” and the analogy of the professional kitchen, to catch the enthusiasm of the idea and adopt it in our lives. And we need to see how the change will actually overcome the obstacles we thought prohibited it in the first place — like not having time to clean while cooking.

Yes, it might take me several weeks to fully master this first project and conquer my tornado habits, but visualizing the change has already made a huge difference.

Are you as visually dependent as I am? What does it take to persuade you to start a new project or transform a habit?

Leave a comment!

Ten Goals

There’s something overwhelming about tackling 350 pages from start to finish, about perfecting Chapter 1 before moving on to Chapter 2, about trying to revise all the problems at once, about scrolling through such a massive document on the screen.

On the other hand, there’s something solidifying about making a list, about forcing yourself to round it out to ten, about reorganizing it so the priorities are in order, about giving yourself tasks to check off.

I’m posting this from Lake Powell with my husband’s family this week, where I’m hoping I can find even a few hours to write while we’re here. And instead of my laptop, I brought a printed copy of my manuscript in a three-ring binder and the following list of goals. By flipping through and using post-it notes on the pages, I’m hoping I can tackle each goal throughout the novel instead of hitting burn-out after each chapter like I have been so far.

  1. I want Wendy’s character to come alive, deep and true and flawed and passionate and real-as-your-best-friend.
  2. I want the magic to be tangible, a character of its own, seen and felt leaping up off the page.
  3. I want Caprice’s motivations to be so clear that we’re bracing ourselves for her next blunder.
  4. I want Peter to make our skin tingle with excitement and steal every scene.
  5. I want the climax to be full of pulse-racing, breath-catching, mind-scrambling tension and each character to be so crucial that the whole plot would fail without every contribution.
  6. I want the selkie to be beautifully, heart-breakingly seductive, so much so that we hang on every detail and can’t look away.
  7. I want the blog posts to be laugh-out-loud, dying-to-read-the-next, have-to-tell-all-your-friends awesome and cleverly significant to the story.
  8. I want the parents to put a lump in our throats, to be understandable and flawed, trying their best and coming up short, better than they seem and unable to prove it until the end, making us cheer for them even while the characters misunderstand them.
  9. I want the settings to feel distinctive and three-dimensional, so vivid that we effortlessly fill in the blanks to visualize the world in full detail as we read.
  10. I want the minor characters to be unique and memorable and complex and fun, to add the perfect elements to their scenes and the story.

Okay, so that may not be the simplest list to check off. I do like to set my goals high. But I’m feeling great about it because these are the important things. Once I do these ten things, the manuscript will be ready to send!

How do you feel about goals? Ever force yourself to make a list like mine and neurotically set it to ten? What’s the best way to make it effective?

Leave a comment!

Earth Day, Good Friday, and the Intersections of Bettering Yourself

Spring! Easter! Rebirth! Earth Day! Blossoms! Seedlings! Green and growing things!

I’m not sure I can even express my enthusiasm for nature right now. The photo above is my tiny little peach tree in gorgeous bloom. The seeds that I planted April 1st are poking up out of the ground, turning into romaine and spinach and mesclun and swiss chard. My tulips are opening. The sun is shining as I write this, and it feels like a perfect coincidence that it’s Good Friday and Earth Day.

Maybe not everyone would agree on that. I’m sure that Good Friday means different things to different people. To me, the most important thing about Good Friday and Easter are remembering God’s ultimate gift to us — the sacrifice of His Son. He died that we can all be renewed (reborn, changed, bettered), the way we experience the renewal of spring, and to me Earth Day fits.

My kids are out of school yesterday, today, and Monday for a long weekend around Easter, and on Wednesday when my oldest came home from kindergarten, I asked if they’d done anything in class about Earth Day.

“Earth Day?” he asked. (Evidently the answer to my question was no.) “What’s Earth Day?”

“Well,” I said, thinking through how to put it in six-year-old terms (because Parenting 101 teaches you to translate all answers to age-level lingo), “Earth Day is when we celebrate all the beautiful things God put on the earth, like flowers and trees and animals.”

In my head I knew that wasn’t quite PC. Earth Day isn’t a religious holiday. But sometimes the kid translation of things comes out even better than the adult version. Why shouldn’t environmentalism and religion go together?

BUT . . . here’s my big confession. Up until recently I feel like I just paid lip service to both. I mean, I believed in both, and I did all the basic things that were asked of me, like recycling and going to church, but I didn’t have as strong of a conviction as I wanted to. I wasn’t going “above and beyond” with either one — just sort of meeting the minimum requirements, you know?

What’s amazed me the past few months is discovering how once you begin striving to improve one aspect of your life, it runs over into so many other aspects as well.

Six months ago when I suddenly became hyper-aware of how much everything I put in or on my body affects my health, I started to learn as much as I could about nutrition. I soon gravitated toward “whole foods,” “real foods,” and “traditional foods” — my gut instinct telling me that if God created us, He probably also created perfect sources of food for us.

And what I’ve found in this “real food” community has been nothing short of beautiful. I read blogs by people of various religious denominations who all want the same goals: health, sustainability, and spirituality.

I had never realized how absolutely intertwined the three could be and are until I started down this nutrition journey and ended up feeling  “above and beyond” in all three.

For example, by striving to eat the produce that’s currently in season where I live, for the health benefits of its freshness, I cut down on the fossil fuels necessary to drive my meals to my city, but I also find my thoughts turning to God more as I contemplate how my food is grown, astonished at the intricacies of the nutrients in each vegetable and fruit and the way they harmonize.

Instead of just recycling, I’m now also reusing and reducing: I use glass jars that come from marinara sauce and coconut oil and so on, wash them out, and use them for homemade yogurt and other products that I now make myself instead of buying, thus reducing the amount of plastic containers I buy and recycle while also cutting out preservatives.

A neighbor of mine mentioned that she prays over her seeds in her garden, and I’ve started to do that too, feeling that absolute connection between the seed, the earth, and the God who watches over all — and my own connectedness to all of it.

What’s more, I find that as my dependence grows on all three — nutrition, the environment, and God — my conviction of each is so much stronger. I depend on wholesome, toxin-free food, which has increased my awareness of the farmers around me and taught me that a big part of sustainability is supporting them and encouraging them to grow organically. I’m no longer just doing the minimum by wheeling my recycling can to the curb each week; I’m seeking out more ways to buy locally and protect the foods and the land and the animals God created. And as I continue to try and work through my health issues via nutrition, I find myself praying more fervently for God to give me direction, and noticing more constantly how much He does.

Today we remember God’s ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. It was His biggest gift of all, and I believe it’s a fitting time to remember His other gifts as well. As my appreciation for the wonders of nature increases, so does my remembrance of God.

Earth Day, at least at our house, is going to be a religious holiday from now on.

How did you celebrate Earth Day or honor Good Friday? What are your feelings about nutrition, environmentalism, and religion?

Leave a comment!

p.s. some awesome related reading for those interested: