New Things.

pexels-photo-775779.jpegWell, we made it. A new year! And with the flip of the calendar page comes mystery and possibility and hope for making the next 365 days better than the last.

For some reason, in spite of the potential January brings, I sometimes get overwhelmed by all the excitement and determined energy around me.

In grad school we called this phenomenon “analysis paralysis.” It happens when you overthink a situation to the point of being unable to take logical next steps. You spend so much time thinking about your options until the thought of actually exercising any option and experiencing a possible consequence becomes ridiculous.

 

This failure to make a decision means that eventually, the passage of time makes your decision for you. It means instead of shopping for a good loan and buying a new vehicle to replace an unreliable one, you end up stranded in your hoopty on a busy highway at rush hour. Or it means you pay overtime plus weekend rates for a plumber when you could have sorted out the clogged drain when you first noticed it.

I’ve spent all of January worrying about which resolution to make, which bad habit to correct, what to do with my time. Maybe this is the year that I budget my time better. Or stop procrastinating. Or spend more time doing and less time worrying.  Am I too late to try?

Maybe not. Maybe my New Year starts February 1, when all the other resolvers start to wonder if they really want to stick with their new things.  Maybe I can cut myself some slack and remember that His mercies are new each morning, whether I’ve analyzed them to pieces or not. I can be thankful that grace is never indecisive.

 

 

 

 

What happened when I started a diet: A cautionary tale.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’m staring down the barrel of (at least) one family member’s wedding, a multi-decade high school reunion, and a cruise. Not only do I need to boost my stamina and endurance for these exciting events, I would love to feel comfortable in something other than sweatpants at these things.

So I made a plan.  Starting Jan 2, there would be:

  • No dairy
  • No processed foods
  • No bread or grains
  • No sugar

The days leading up to Jan 2 were pure gluttony. Of course I’d made Christmas candy, and bought cheese, and bread, and the list goes on because how can you celebrate holidays without shameless overindulgence? (there’s lots of sarcasm and embarrassment in that sentence that doesn’t come through on the screen, btw)

As I polished off a plate of cookies and let out my drawstring pants another notch, I could feel the dread flooding me like a melted chocolate wash. This was going to hurt. I knew it.

So tried to reframe my eating strategy in a more positive light. Instead of all the “no’s,” I thought about the things I loved that I could eat. For example,

  • I can have all the roasted brussels sprouts I want!
  • Yay blueberries and apples!
  • Steak? Chicken? Yes please!
  • Avocados anytime!

And I looked at old pictures, reminding myself that once upon a time I was healthier and stronger. Wouldn’t it be great to not be winded every time you climb stairs, I asked me. Won’t it feel better to, well, feel better?

January 2 was a long day. Not gonna lie. But I did it. Scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms for breakfast. Garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette and an avocado for lunch. Cashews for a snack. Shredded cilantro chicken over an avocado for dinner. Water and mint tea all day long.

I would love to tell you that it was fantastic and easier than I expected.  Some parts were. Giving up bread, breakfast cereal and pasta wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it would be. Eating vegetables and fruit, it turns out, is still possible to do without adding butter or cheese. And it still tastes good.

Somewhere around the middle of the day I developed a nagging headache, and noticed I was ridiculously irritable.  My filter was in overdrive by dinnertime, I was trying so hard not to rage on my family, our dog, birds outside. It was exhausting and confusing.

The third, fourth, and fifth of January weren’t much different. I adjusted pretty quickly to the eating plan, and I started riding our stationary bike again. So that was good. But this disturbing new She-Hulk personality still lingered.

Then I realized why I was so cranky: sugar addiction. I had been denial about my eating habits for so long, I didn’t really see it. My answer for everything – boredom? thirst? sleepy? stressed? – was to eat or drink something, and that something was usually sugary or starchy. I’d get my quick fix of sugar happy and be on my way.

My body just needed a little time to recalibrate. The headaches and moodiness lasted about a week and a half, and I learned to manage them without turning to a soda (or a chocolate covered cherry).  Epsom salt baths and ibuprofen helped, as did drinking lots of water.

What’s my point? I’m wondering the same thing. My point is not to be discouraged if you change your eating habits and it’s horrible and cranky-making. The detox process stinks, but it’s worth it. You’re worth it. Hang in there.

Anybody else kicking a bad habit this year? How’s it going?

 

An Open Letter to My Teenage Son

Dear Son,

You came into our world and brought joy with you.  You brought a fierce, pure heart and a genuine love that humbles me daily.

In your relatively few years on this earth, you’ve been blessed with triumphs as well as sorrows; gifts as well as challenges. Your faith and “silver lining” attitude has helped you persevere through them all.

Oh, how I wish I could say it gets easier from here.

Although the world desperately needs men of virtue and integrity, the world also makes it increasingly harder to become one.  We have taught you to be sincere, honest and kind, but you will be tempted to grow calloused, disrespectful and snarky by “entertainers” on YouTube, TV, movies, and elsewhere. We have tried to teach you humility and service, but you will be encouraged to compete for money, notoriety and status by your peers in academics and sports.  Even by teachers, family and friends who mean well, you’ll be encouraged to prioritize the things of this world.

When this happens, and it will happen a lot, my prayer is that you look to the best role model we have: Jesus.  Spend time each day reading the truth, and growing your relationship with Christ.  The lies this world will tell you have no chance against Him.

The truth is that your story began long before that snowy night in Kansas when you were born, and it is intended to be eternal. You are loved more than you know.  You were created for a purpose, and you aren’t going through any of this journey alone, even though sometimes it feels that way.

I am beyond proud of the young man you are becoming.

I love you more than my feeble words express.

I believe in you.

Love,

Mom

Cheese is the perfect vehicle for cheese.

My family gathered ’round the kitchen table early afternoon the day after Thanksgiving. Football was on, the kids were heavy into a foosball tournament, and us grownup-types were snacking and visiting. Waltzing down memory lane over leftover turkey.  It was good stuff. The visiting, that is, not the leftover turkey (although that was pretty good too).

Only I wasn’t actually eating the leftover turkey. My plate was loaded up with the remnants of Thanksgiving’s cheese tray.  For a cheese-a-holic like me, this moment was glorious, even though since we accidentally tossed the wrappers, I couldn’t honestly identify any of the cheeses on the cheese tray and had no idea what I was shoveling into my mouth.

But anyway.

The conversation was so lively and the company so warm that I was halfway through the pile on my plate before I noticed the lack of crackers and/or vegetables. It was amazing, but it was all. cheese.

My brain wheeled. I’ve been snacking nonstop, though. But how? 

In my hand, inches away from my mouth, was a wedge of hard cheese that had been dipped into a delightful herb-coated goat cheese.  I saw it. I shrugged. I ate.

This is how I discovered that cheese is, in fact, the perfect vehicle for cheese.

 

 

The power of being chosen

For weeks, my kiddo had been searching for a place to take karate lessons. I schlepped him to trial classes in pretty much every studio within a 15-mile radius.  No joy.

“Too noisy. Find another one, Mom.”

“Too many kids.”

“Not enough kids my age.”

“Too drill sergeant-y.”

“Too crazy. No rules.”

Goldilocks had it easy. “Find another one, mom” was the rally cry.  I wasn’t sure we were going to find any place he felt good about, and I really didn’t think there were any options left.

“But there aren’t other ones nearby, kiddo,” said me.  “There has to be another one,” he insisted. He’s persistent like this. He had expectations that I wasn’t sure any class or teacher would be able to live up to. But I had to look. He just knew there was another studio out there.

There was. It was 45 minutes away.

So we trekked south. To another town. To start a free two-week trial that I was convinced wouldn’t last two days.

The second we walked in the door, I knew there was no way this would be a permanent situation.  It was everything I knew my child hated: crowded, noisy, and chaotic. There wasn’t a clear surface in the room – every wall was either a floor to ceiling mirror or it was plastered with motivational posters, instructions, weapons, belts or commemorative plaques. Too many distractions.  Too many people.  It was too much.

I was mulling over whether or not to make a hasty U-turn when I heard our names over the din.  “McKinneys?” The voice was bigger than the woman wielding it.  A petite, smiling woman extended her hand, and my kiddo grasped it, and grinned at her. She nodded a greeting at me and led him to the gym floor. My doubts and I sat in the viewing area with the mish mash of parents, grandparents and siblings.

I watched them go through drill after drill in a corner of the room, ticking through the checklist, filling myself with dread.

The music is too loud, he won’t like it.  How many mirrors can one room have?  It’s too bright in here. The teacher has to yell instructions over the music – he hates yelling.  Wait. Are they doing calisthenics? How is that karate? Do they really need the music so loud? He’s going to get a headache. I’m getting a headache.  Oh, no. There are younger kids in here.  And much older kids too. He won’t feel like he fits in. He’s going to hate this.

At the end of class, the young woman returned my child to me and we stood awkwardly in an aisle as streams of families flowed in and out of the room. After weeks of trying out different classes, I knew what was coming, and I steeled myself for the sales pitch.

Here it comes.  She’ll tell me how much classes cost, and ask if we want to join. He’ll look at me and shrug, and I’ll tell her we’ll talk about it at home. When we get in the car, I’ll ask him and he’ll say ‘not this one.’ Then I’ll probably forget to call her back and she’ll call me every day for the next three weeks and … my stomach hurt just thinking about it. 

But she didn’t speak to me. She didn’t even look at me. She kneeled, and spoke to her sweaty pupil.

“Mr. McKinney, you listened very well and followed instructions the first time. That’s really important in this class.”

He nodded, and stood up straighter.

“I liked that you said yes ma’am and no ma’am, too, without being reminded. That showed me that you’re respectful, which is also very important.” She smiled.

He smiled back.

“I think you would be a good student to have in class.”

He stood even a little taller, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a modest smile.

She continued. “I hope you’ll want to come back. Would you like to come back next week?”

I held my breath, expecting to hear the same answer I’d heard week after week.

But he didn’t hesitate. “Yes.  Mom, can we?”

 

After I got over the initial shock, I felt foolish for letting my doubts and negativity blind me to what he had been looking for all along. I had been looking at my child through the wrong lens, thinking him picky and distractible rather than discerning. I suddenly recalled watching him each morning as he walked into elementary school – every day, he held the door open for teachers and classmates. And nearly every day, nobody said a word to him. He was looking for a place where he felt like his hard work would be noticed. He wanted to be seen and chosen (by someone other than his parents).

I will never forget that first trial class. His teacher noticed him, respected him, blessed him immensely, and made him feel cared about and important.  He studied with them for another year and a half, until we moved away.

I want to leave behind the doubts and impatience that lead me to frustration. Instead, I want to be like his karate teacher. I want to choose to treat people with respect and kindness.  I want to be like my persistent, positive kid, who knew in his heart if we kept trying we’d find a place he belonged.

 

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, blessings and curses.” – Deuteronomy 30:19

 

99 Days

In my previous career, my employer was a big proponent of the management principle “measure what matters.” They had quantifiable goals for just about everything, from length of employment to number of phone calls the customer care line answered in an hour to how many Facebook ‘likes’ each post received.

It’s been several years since I worked for them, but some of those ideas stuck with me.  This morning, I had a measurement moment when I picked up my phone and a notification caught my eye.

The text was a daily reminder for my Bible In One Year app.  “Good morning, Kell.  Day 99 is waiting for you.” Day 99.  I’ve read the Bible every day for 99 days. That’s a lot of days. I’m on the threshold of 100. Nearly a third of the year I’ve spent each day deliberately with God.

If this sounds like a brag, I’m sorry. It kind of is, and it’s kind of not.

It kind of is a brag because I’m proud to have begun this new habit. My life has changed because of it, and I’m not just saying that. Seriously. I’ll write another post on the measurable ways my life has changed since I started reading the Bible. But for now, I’ll just leave it at I feel genuine joy in my life more often than I used to.

Another thing that’s changed –  I feel physical longing to read the Bible every day.  No matter what else I have going on,  until I’ve read, I feel incomplete. It’s weird. The closest thing I can compare it to is thirst.  I crave my time with the Bible.

Ninety-nine days later I’m the same, but I’m not.  I’m flawed. I’m selfish, arrogant, impatient, envious. But I’m reading about people from history who are just as flawed as me and God loved them. Forgave them. Taught them. Sent His Son to die for them so He could be with them forever.

Ninety-nine days later I’m finding that the more I read, the less alone I feel in the world.  So I want 99 more days. And 99 after that.  Because after all these years, I’m finally learning to measure what really matters, and it’s not Facebook likes.

 

How to get through the long winter

No, this isn’t a Game of Thrones post. Sorry.

This is yet another post about how my kid amazes me. When we moved from a southern state to one a little further north six (!?!) years ago, I dread spending  long, grey winters indoors.

Until I saw how happy it made my kiddo.

Me:  (wrapping scarf #2 around top of child’s head and ears)  Fifteen minutes. You have fifteen minutes to play, then you come inside and warm up for five minutes.

Kiddo: mmffff  hmm meh hhmmm fmm mm.

Me: What?

Kiddo: (unbundling face) You don’t have to worry.

Me:  Of course I worry.  Frostbite is serious business.

Kiddo: Not for me. I’m part penguin. (grins)

It was that moment when I decided to let go of my worry (within reason) and I’m so glad I did. I watched from the window as a pack of tiny bodies waddled in the snow, flung snowballs with reckless abandon, and, generally speaking, behaved like a bunch of young penguins on an iceberg. My son-of-a-southerner flopped face first into a snowdrift, arms and legs flapping, and scooted across the front yard on his belly. Why? Who cares. It was fun.

Subsequent winters saw us with more snowball fights, snowmen named Jasper who liked jaunty caps, snow alligators, green with food coloring, towering forts and even a three-headed snow hydra.

So, now, I actually kind of look forward to the first big snowfall of winter. When the air is heavy and smells like ice, and you just know when you wake up the world will be clean and quiet with new snowfall. It seems no matter how old my kiddo gets, his face still lights up when he looks out the window at new snow. Maybe he is part penguin.

 

 

About extremes

 

I think it was near the end of fourth grade when my child started incorporating some of the Disney-channelisms into his everyday language.

Everything remotely good that happened, whether it was a bowl of cereal or a three-point basket became  “epic!”

On the other hand, if something didn’t quite work out – a stray dribble of ketchup from the bottle hit the dinner plate –  that was “so much fail.”

It’s all normal, I know.  Kids will pick up expressions from the playground, the classroom, YouTube, and that ilk. They try on different aspects of their personalities like  hats,  trying to see which ones feel the most comfortable.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but an adjective like ‘epic’ doesn’t pair well with anything other than Homer’s Iliad.  Maybe Star Wars. The noun that follows a word like epic truly needs to demonstrate heroic substance and weight. With all due respect to Kevin Durant, I question whether the most beautifully-executed three-point shots truly qualify as epic. Nor does a simple misstep along the way to the trash bin equal devastating failure.

For a while, I thought maybe these expressions were a byproduct of the hormonal roller-coaster known as puberty. And honestly, at our house, this is probably exactly what it is – a temporary step in the process of our kiddo growing up.

But it seems like everywhere you look, daily events are hyperbolized into life-changers of one extreme or another. I laughed out loud this morning at an advertisement for a cereal that proclaimed This. Is. Everything.  I had no idea honey-sweetened oats were so powerful.

bowl of cereal a.k.a. everything
Everything?

On the one hand, I am a big fan of celebrating everyday joys.  Doing a happy dance when I toss a wad of paper towels from the kitchen table to the trash bin *and make the basket.* My child and I singing at the top of our lungs in the car. Life’s too short to not celebrate whenever you can.

On the other hand, though, when everything is an extreme – either everything or nothing – we lose our ability to appreciate the vast majority of our lives that lie in between.

I think that’s a shame. All those in-between things, the everyday observations that would otherwise go unmentioned in the  novel of my life, are the daily simplicities that sustain us. Because it’s in those little things, my husband’s smile, my child’s yawn, my dog’s snore, those are the things that show me how near God really is all the time. And that, my friends, that is what’s really ‘epic.’

 

 

 

 

presto change-o

I almost gave up again. On writing, that is. Between daily life and the holidays and new school/job, I’ve been struggling to make time to put words on the page.

It’s too much, I told myself.

It will keep, I reassured myself.

I can always try again after____ is over, I promised myself.

Somewhere in the middle of my rounds of self-negotiation, I was chock full of self pity and feeling pretty low. I mean, seriously, who do I think I’m kidding? I’m not a writer. I’ve started and stopped how many times? You could probably fill an entire wing of the internet with the number of blogs I’ve neglected to nurture. (I know the internet doesn’t have wings, but I’m making a point here)

It was at that point that a small, still voice told me it was time to pray about it.

I hadn’t prayed with much regularity since I was in high school, and even then, I confess that I was more of a gumball-machine prayer – the kind that dropped prayers in  and expected the good stuff to flow out.  So I was feeling pretty sheepish and awkward about trying to strike up a relationship with God again after, well, a long time.

Maybe I’d better not ask for anything, I thought. Maybe I ought to just read the Bible and see if there’s a verse that points me where I ought to go. After all, I don’t know that I would just strike up a conversation with someone I hadn’t talked to in years. That would be rude. I don’t want to be rude to God. Isn’t there a Commandment about that?

Anyway. I opened my Bible and here’s the verse I landed on, from Philippians 2:3:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

My immediate response wasn’t pretty.

When have I been selfish and vain, exactly?  I mean, sure, I’ve been aggravated when my plans haven’t worked the way I want them to.  Consider others better than myself?  I mean, I’m every bit as good a writer as these other folks, right? I might even be a better writer than they are. I’ve been writing most of my professional life. So why am I not published yet? Why is my name not on the best seller lists? Why am I not going on book tours or being asked to speak?

When my temper tantrum subsided, the truth hit me square in the face. The truth is that I’m not so great. And I really haven’t been trying to serve anyone but myself.

I’ve been writing to show other people that I could do it. To prove to people – family, former coworkers, friends – that I could be creative and imaginative and funny. I wanted everyone to know that I was important.

It’s hard to humbly serve when you’ve got a chip on your shoulder. In my case, I think I may have lugged around boulder-sized weights on both shoulders. I’ve been writing to advance my own ambitions rather than to help other people, to share the joy that comes from knowing we’re not alone, that God is for us.

So yeah, I prayed. I asked forgiveness for my arrogance, and for guidance to find the work that I’m supposed to do. I don’t have any answers yet, but I know that step by step I’ll uncover what God has in store for me.

Even though I may not be working on a manuscript, I felt like maybe blogging here about this next part of my journey might help someone else who’s feeling lost.  Every morning I ask God to help me find my place, to help me use whatever gifts I have to serve Him and others.

Whatever it is I’m supposed to do – whether it’s writing or building a powerpoint or shuttling kids to karate class- I’ll do it knowing that He loves me enough to show me the truth. He loves me where I am, and He’ll help me fulfill his purpose.

 

 

 

 

My Summer ‘To Read’ List

This year I was lucky enough to go to the Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference and hear the fantastic Nancy Lohr speak about writing for children. One of the first things she asked the group was “who here has read a children’s book recently?” More than half of us raised our hands.

She was happy with our response, and told us that she’d spoken to a number of groups – writers’ groups – in which no one had read a children’s book in the past year, five years, ten years. How can you write in a genre you don’t read?

If you’re a children’s writer, you have to read children’s books. And there’s plenty of incredible ones out there to soak up. Here’s a list of a few that are on my list for the summer months.

Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles  Breadcrumbs 

I adored “Breadcrumbs” and “The Real Boy,” for their wit, the dialogue that’s grounded in reality while playing in a fantasy world, and simple, beautiful characterizations.  I’ve been itching to read the Cronus series for a while.

 

Absolutely Almost, by Lisa Graff

Story of a ten-year-old boy with learning challenges who changes schools and becomes the target of a bully.

 

Del Ryder and the Crystal Seed, by Matthew David Brough

Full disclosure – I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Brough at Blue Ridge, and was intrigued by how he described the heroine of this series. Del Ryder sounds like a character I could cheer for.

 

For Animal Lovers, by Kim Cano

Three short stories about animals (including a special needs swordfish obsessed with aliens), with a portion of the proceeds going toward the ASPCA.

 

What’s on your list? Tell me in the comments below.