Making Next Year a Good Year: Christmas Will Be Here Before You Know It

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I know it seems early. Doesn't it seem like it was just Christmas?

Oh. Well of course, it was just Christmas, and good riddance to all the hurry and expense and overeating and gosh we are all so tired. And ready to get spiritual again, to finally pay some attention to that God who lay in the manger for weeks under our overstuffed Christmas tree as we rushed by.

But if we want to, we can make Christmas 2009 all about him. ALL about him. Next December, we can spend quiet moments in prayer and worship, in starry-eyed wonder (O holy night...) at the very idea that God of all the universe would be born as a baby, one of us. (Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee...")

Not only that, but we can end the year without new credit card bills to pay off in 2010.

Here's the plan:

1. Find a drawer or a shelf someplace that you can empty.

2. Write up a new Christmas gift list and put it in your calendar.

3. Write out your Christmas budget. Make it small. Smaller. Much smaller. People don't need stuff. They need your love and attention, and you won't have much to give if you are stressed out about money.

4. (This is the good part.) Take that Christmas Budget and divide it by 11. This should turn out to be a very small dollar amount, one you can eke out of, perhaps, your grocery budget if you buy carefully and eat beans from time to time.

5. Every month, January to November, use that budget to buy Christmas gifts*. Or make them: my mother says when she was a child there were rooms in the house that were off limits because her parents were making things. For months before Christmas, she wondered what was going on in the guest room, what they could possibly be making in there. We still have the doll furniture my Grandfather made one year, and treasure them more than anything we bought this Christmas.

6. As you buy or make gifts, put them in the drawer, or on the shelf you emptied.

7. Come December, you're free from the holiday madness at the mall. Schedule a pleasant, unhurried Saturday to wrap your gifts. Schedule a day to fall on your knees (Oh hear the angel voices!) Schedule a bunch of those.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas. Next year.

*If you like to shop online, consider, where your purchase will help to support causes you care about, from feeding the hungry to promoting literacy or child health, to fighting breast cancer, to protecting the rainforests, to rescuing animals. You can even buy gifts that will make a difference in the world, by following the links on each site to Gifts that Give More.

Making Next Year a Good Year: Seven Things That Will Be Free in 2009

Monday, December 29, 2008

After all the events of the past few months-- the economic troubles, the restrained but still costly Christmas gifts and celebrations, the resulting bills and fatigue ... could you use a little encouragement about the year to come?

Me too.

So I've listed a few things that will be stark raving free in the coming year. Are you ready?

1. Rest. Funny, isn't it, that so many Christians seem to know so little of the rest Jesus talks about when he says "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden." We are far too heavy laden to spend much time considering the lilies of the field. We have work to do.

I wonder if we wouldn't do well to bring the term, "worldly" back into the Christian lexicon. You know, that word we once used to describe things like the practice of dancing (even the Jitterbug) or going to the movies (any movies) or playing cards. We finally discarded the word because some movies are really good, and we like to play cards. (For some reason, a lot of Christians still don't dance, not even the Jitterbug, and that seems a shame.)

I do think it's a useful term. It's the only word I know that can rightly signify those unquestioned ways of thinking and doing things that Jesus didn't share with the rest of the world, and that he asked us to stop sharing: "Do not worry, asking, what shall we eat? or what shall we drink? or what shall we wear? For those are the things everybody else worries about." (Popa translation.)

This year, if you choose to, you can let everybody else do the worrying. You can let go the need to acquire and hoard, and take your bills a little step at a time. You can take a rest from all the worry, and trust that Jesus meant what he said about those lilies of the field.

2. Space. Without making it a burden, you can treat yourself to a regular un-shopping spree, by choosing a desktop or drawer or shelf in your home or office, removing everything, and putting back only the few things you really, really need, and a couple things you really, really love. Of course, the only way to keep this from becoming a burden is to work on one small area at a time. Not a whole closet. One closet rod or shelf.

What you're "buying" for yourself and your family in this un-shopping spree is open space, and open space looks a lot like peace to me. A valuable commodity, don't you think?

What to do with the stuff you remove? You know the drill: If it's junk, toss it. If it's not, give it away - I mean walk it right down to your second hand store or Salvation Army truck. If it's really, really, really precious, more precious than space and peace (think about this), store it away.

3. Beauty. Somewhere near you there is a beautiful place. A park? The beach? A lake? Go there as often as you can. Feed the birds. Note the changing seasons. If you have a camera, use it; if you don't, dig out a blank book or notepad and draw a sketch, or start a journal . Become a part of the place, and let it become part of you.

4. Friendship. Stay close to your friends this coming year. Find things to do together that cost nothing. Take them to your beautiful place. Give them half your coffee. They will need your cheery face, your encouraging words, and you will need theirs.

5. Meaning. This one isn't so hard. On a regular basis, find someone outside your circle of friends, and encourage them. Everybody gets a million subtle messages a day that they are not pretty enough, young enough, wealthy enough, smart enough. If you tell them to their face that they are all that and a bag of chips, they may not believe you. Find a million - or maybe just a few - subtle ways to tell them they are valued. Ask their opinions and advice. Admire their accomplishments. Look them in the eye, and openly like them. Make them your friends. Voila. All at once, your life will have meaning.

6. Quiet. If you keep considering those lilies of the field, you'll find it easier to just blow in the wind once in a while. Why not let go of doing so much and spend a little time just being? It's good to listen to that still small voice that can only be heard in the quiet.

7. A Kinder, Gentler Shorter To-Do List. I've stopped prioritizing my list. From now on, 1 is for the big bad urgent things, and most days I hope I don't have any of those. The numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 no longer signify hierarchies of importance, but rather times of day: 2 is early morning, 3 is late morning, 4 is early afternoon... see the trend? When I enter an item in the list, I preface it with the number of minutes I think it will take - and I try hard to overestimate. Then I look at how much time I've planned for each part of the day, and generally, if I've planned more than an hour and a half, something has to move to another time or another day. I know, an hour and a half times four equals six, not eight hours, but the unexpected happens every day, so why not just expect it? This method leaves me with a short, realistic, doable list. For free.

I have a confession. Some of this stuff I'm not doing - yet. Are you? Ah, but aren't we free to change?

And wouldn't this be a lovely way to spend the coming year?

"In the Days of the Angels...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

... The hair on the necks of the people,
Didn't it stand like static?"

That's the beginning of a favorite Christmas poem, which gave its name to a favorite book by Walter Wangerin Jr., In the Days of the Angels.

This is the book that somehow drove me to the keyboard to begin a novel of my own, which was later published as To Dance in the Desert. It was January of 2003, and I still had not found the holiday spirit. Better late than never; better sooner than summer. So I picked up Wangerin's book, and was escorted into the wonder of Christmas.

In a recent interview I was asked to state my life's message, and I stuttered around till I found something, anything I could say that would pass for an answer. I botched it, was what I did. Recently I looked at the tag line I put on my header months ago. "Duh!" said I to myself, sure that the interviewer had expected exactly that phrase: "Don't miss the wonder."

And it's not bad, for a life's message. (Though, I don't know, mightn't it be like the name on the white stone of Revelations, that only God knows?)

If I could, I would buy a copy of this book for each of you, because it is filled with poetry and stories that will lift you past the stars. I wish I could give that to you this Christmas, but I must at least point the way. Take some time to look around, and to read a good book. Don't miss the wonder.

Greenhorn Update

Monday, December 22, 2008

The lake was frozen over, all but a small area in the center, the size of my (smallish) living room.

I didn't bring bread, because I didn't expect the geese to brave the ice. Besides, weren't they supposed to have flown south?

There were a few there still, and those few expected bread. Alas. I only wanted their pictures.

Here's another favorite:

You can see the film below. I thought I'd turned it off sooner than I actually did, so you get to hear my guilty conscience.

May you have many days this beautiful.

Are We All Artists?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Last Saturday, J. Mark Bertrand posted this quote, from Roger Osborne's Civilization: A New History of the Western World:

"Once the artistic element has been separated out from any area of human activity, whatever remains risks being devalued as mechanical and even contemptible. Once religious paintings were made into works of art, then any church decoration that did not bear the mark of a master was of little interest; any building not designed by a known architect was 'vernacular'; any anonymous folk song might be charming but could only become real art when arranged by a serious composer. Low art disappeared below the horizon of history until its rediscovery by social (but not art) historians.

"This legacy has not simply divided 'low art' from 'high art', but has decreased the possibility of artistic achievement in everyday life. Once the decoration of churches or the painting of icons on the design of cathedrals and guild-halls was taken out of the hands of wood-carvers and masons and journeymen and given to artists, then the role of the artisan was decisively degraded. Artisans may take pride in their work but they must know that it is always somehow second-rate. When the artist is removed from society and made into a special person, then the artist within each of us begins to die."

The quote reminded me of an article I read a few years ago (I think it was in Christianity Today, but I can't find a reference for you) about the historical relationship of art and worship. It seems that from the beginning, art has always been about worship, and it is only in recent centuries that we have birthed the concept of nonreligious art. In fact, there was a time in church history when artists didn't sign their work, because to do so would be like performing prayers for pay.

The only work Michelangelo ever signed was The Pietà. The story goes that he had finished his sculpture, unsigned, when he overheard someone remark that it was the work of another artist, Christoforo Solari. Distressed that another man was getting credit for his art, Michelangelo carved his signature into Mary's sash. Later he repented of this act of pride. He never signed another work.

A book I love about the writing process is From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler. Where he says that good writing (or, I'd guess, art of any sort) comes from the place where you dream, I would also say that it comes from the place where your deepest prayers are prayed.

And I wonder, if that is so, whether we all aren't meant to live out of that place, and whether we are not all artists, made in the image of an artist God who created the snowflake, who began with The Word, who wrote a redemption story full of unexpected twists, astonishing epiphanies, heart-rending violence, magnificent love?

Maybe we write our little books. Maybe we put dinner on the table (and think of the story of Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesen, and how the act of cooking good food can change things, ever so subtly and beautifully). Whatever we do, can we call ourselves artists, and do it all in love?

Thanks to Josa Jr. for the photo.

First Snowfall

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ah. A day late. I meant to tell you this yesterday, but I took the time instead to snap the pictures.

It snowed. A silent waking, windows full of white.

The roads were icy, so we weren't going to walk. That meant that on our first really snowy day this winter, I wasn't going to see my lake. Not good.

So I wheedled. George, my husband, said he thought he could navigate the streets, if we were careful. "We'll just take a look," I said, because I knew a walk in the snow was not his idea of a good time, not with his bad knee that so much prefers the bicycle.

I didn't mean to lie.

But when we got there, we walked just a little way, and I took pictures.

Then we walked a little farther. And a little farther. And soon we found ourselves on the far side of the lake. Halfway round. So we might as well keep going, right?

Look what a beautiful day it was. In fact, why not look out the window at your own day, to really look at what's out there? Wouldn't it be sacrilege, not to notice? And this Christmas season, this time when the God of heaven came to be among us, this is no time for sacrilege.

I think that's why I love my camera, and why I love writing. You have to see, to take a picture. You have to notice. And you have to pay attention, if you hope to write it all down. One of my favorite bits of advice about writing comes from Ray Bradbury:

"Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made up or paid for in factories."

Don't be so busy. Get out there. Stuff your eyes with wonder.

Coming Soon - Novel Matters!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just in case you missed it, I'm re-posting an important announcement from my previous blog, about an exciting group blog, titled Novel Matters, which will debut on January 5th.

The topic will be one of my favorites: the reading and writing of richly crafted, sumptuous fiction. We've all spent the past several weeks gathering some great ideas for topics you'll love to read about and giveaways you'll love to win.

Let me introduce my new blog partners:

Upper left is Debbie Fuller Thomas, whose debut novel, Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon released June 1, 2008.

Upper Center is Patti Hill, whose latest novel, The Queen of Sleepy Eye just released in September.

Upper right is Sharon K. Souza, whose latest, Lying on Sunday, also released in September.

Center left is Bonnie Grove, whose novel, Talking to the Dead will release in 2009.

Center, um... center is Jennifer Valent, whose first novel, Fireflies in December, will also release in 2009.

Center right: You know me.

Lower left is Latayne Scott, whose novel, Latter Day Cipher, will also release in 2009.

All of these women are talented authors, with lots to say about what goes into great writing. Do stay tuned. This is going to get interesting.

Greenhorn Lake

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Several months ago, I took up the habit of walking, five days a week, around a nearby lake, with my mother.

It was to help her, you see. Her doctor told her she needed to start walking, and she said she would. But I knew her promise would go the way of most good intentions, unless something was done to seal the deal.

How did I know so much about good intentions? Because when it came to walking, my own intentions had died a thousand deaths, from neglect.

So it was also to help me, that I raised my hand and said, "We'll both walk. Around Greenhorn Lake. Starting tomorrow morning."

We began.

The very first day, we fell in love with the sparkling water, the wooded paths, the deer, the occasional fox, or squirrel, the hawks and pelicans and cormorants. And the geese, several hundred of them, all insistent that we share with them our bread. So we did.

And do. Each day, my mother and I take one loaf of bread, two walking sticks (for steep or gravelly places), one pair of binoculars, the occasional friend or two, and one good camera, to set off on our morning adventure. There's no question of ever stopping. The beauty pulls us along. Greenhorn Lake isn't an interruption in our day. It is our day.

The place was named for a certain man fresh off the wagon from Boston, who, during the 1800's Gold Rush days, stepped into the assayers office to ask where he might find a vein of gold to mine. Of course, if the assayer knew the answer to that question, he'd be a richer man. But he thought he'd play a joke on the young greenhorn, so he said, "Sure, son. Look out that window. See the oak tree up yonder? Go dig under that and you'll find your vein."

It wasn't long before the young man brought piles of gold into the same office, dug out from under the oak tree, just as he'd been promised. It turned out to be one of the richest mines in the area.

Have you ever taken a fresh new step in life that opened up whole worlds for you? So much of the good in my life has begun that way. One day I met a delightful man, and I ended up marrying him, and that began a journey that this summer will bring me my first grandchild (by my step-son, Noah and his wife, Julia), and my second daughter-in-law (Krista, who will marry Alex).

One day I wrote a book. One day I started walking around the lake. One day I picked up a camera. All wonderful new beginnings.

And one day this coming January, I will launch an exciting new group blog, Novel Matters, with six talented authors: Bonnie Grove, Sharon K. Souza, Latayne Scott, Debbie Fuller Thomas, Patti Hill, and Jennifer Valent.

What will we talk about? The writing, and reading, of beautiful fiction.

Which makes my former blog -- Reading, Writing and... What Else is There? -- sort of redundant, doesn't it?

Thus the new blog, Ever Mindful. This is where I will talk about everything but writing. About the lake, certainly, and the things I see there, the pictures I take and the thoughts I think. I may even discuss books I'm reading, but my emphasis will be different. This will chronicle my attempts at living a grateful, trusting, attentive life. A life that will foster the writing of beautiful fiction. (I guess I'll never get too far from that.)

And of course, I'll tell you all the breaking news about my books. A proud mother can't help herself.

I hope I'll see your comments here. And soon, at Novel Matters as well.

Have a beautiful day.