At the End of the World

In a movie I watched recently, two strangers face the literal end of the world together. It was quite beautiful, really. And it got me thinking about what I would do if in the news today we were informed that an asteroid was on-pace to impact the earth with certain annihilation in the next 24 hours. What would I want to do?

I knew right away I wouldn’t want to be at my computer writing, which surprised me in some ways since writing is sort of one of my things. I also knew I wouldn’t care about searching for a great job anymore. I wouldn’t care about solving the many social issues that weigh heavy on my conscience almost constantly, because I’d know there wouldn’t really be much I could do in that amount of time. My goals would be much smaller, much simpler.

What would I want to do with the last 24 hours of our collective lives here on earth? I made a quick list of 5 things.

1. I’d want to walk my kids to school through my neighborhood. I mark my days by this walk. Or walk them home — in September when the air is still warm but the nights are cool enough to trick the trees into changing costumes from green to ruddy oranges, golden, and crimson. The sun would slant through the branches and between the two-story houses. The breeze would clear the uneven sidewalks of slowly dropping leaves. The girls’ voices would fall and rise, interrupting each other in the excitement over their days – tales of playground triumphs, classroom pedagogy, and lunchtime disappointments.

2. I’d want to sit at a football game. High school. Also in September, or maybe October when a mid-weight jacket is still enough but claps are muted by gloves. The band would play and the teams would battle. We’d eat stadium food and catch up with our neighbors. We’d laugh and cheer and groan. The photo above is from a baseball game – it doesn’t quite take me to the same happy place but close.

3. I’d want to be on a road trip with my husband. The sun would be shining in our windows and he’d be playing his latest musical find. We’d be talking about the future – or, considering the asteroid, maybe we’d be talking about our shared past. We’d be holding hands and maybe snacking. We’d have a long way to go but it would feel like we were almost there.

4. I’d want to nap with a newborn on my chest. Almost anywhere, but a padded porch swing might be perfect.

5. I’d want to visit the ocean. Or a sea. Not on a crowded sandy beach but on an island in Sweden where smooth boulders meet the salt water and an ancient fortress overlooks a storybook village. I’d want to fika there with every person I have ever liked or loved.

What do I notice about this list, the list that jumped first into my mind? It’s really not so much a wish list of things I’d like to do but a celebration of things I’ve already done. Things I know I love. Not a list of longing for unfulfilled desires (although I have some of those) but a list of beautiful moments I’d like to savor again. I wonder what this says about me?

But I think I’m glad.

How about you? What would be on your quick list? (Try to think of this as a rhetorical exercise and not a literal apocalyptic scenario. Otherwise things are going to get a little too intense.)


Trust the Process

When we’re parenting it’s easy to get stuck in a moment, to think this or that characteristic about our child may never change. Our picky eater will die of adult-onset malnutrition. Our hot-tempered toddler will have no friends. Our hygiene resistant tween will never find love.

But here’s the good news we often forget: Most of us were picky-eating, hot-tempered, hygiene-resistant kids. We played games, flirted with too many boys, and wasted hours at the pool. But look at us now! Grown-ups with jobs! We’re feeding our children, putting money in the bank. We actually make good choices 80% of the time (give or take a few misguided relational connections and various fad diets).

I’m learning to trust the process of growing up that got us from there to here and not freak out while we’re in the still-forming middle of it all.


When Good Parenting Means Doing Less

I write about parenting as an art because that’s the metaphor that makes sense to me. Art is first about skill and basic principles, but it’s also about taste and preference. Too often I assume what is working for me would work for everyone. Not so. Heck, as they say, what works for one of my kids doesn’t even necessarily work for the other three! I say that to make sure you know that when I share about my parenting philosophy practice I’m mostly just trying to share about what’s working for me. I’m not trying to tell you how to do it. (You already have plenty of people in your life doing that, and I might change my mind next month anyway.)

Claire is in summer school this month. I know, mean ol’ me forcing Claire to miss out on the traditional joys of a care-free summer break! To be fair, this program is more of a transition jump-start than remedial academic help. The students go on “missions” in which they have to follow clues to find designated spots in different classrooms and other school spaces (call this interactive tours for 100 kids in their new middle school that will eventually be crammed with 700+). They have relay races in which teams stand in front of lockers and take turns working the combinations (and apparently Claire is far from being the only incoming 7th grader who hasn’t quite mastered this skill yet).

Biggest challenge: she’s riding the bus for the first time. I know, the bus! What am I thinking?! First I put her in public school and now I put her on the bus?! Now you know I’ve lost it.

Here’s what I was thinking. Pick-up at her elementary school was the most difficult concern for Claire on almost any day. She would make trips to the nurse at 10 a.m. because she got herself so worked up about whether or not I’d be standing at the right door after school at 4 p.m. Some mornings she was already crying before school thinking about the afternoon plan. We tried different approaches – from ignoring her to arriving 15+ minutes early to be sure she could see us from the classroom window – but none of it was fail proof emotionally.

So when the middle school open house presentation said bus service would be available for summer school, I thought we had nothing to lose. The grandmothers might have panicked a little (although they are good at playing it cool), but I thought we had to try something different from what we had done so far, especially since middle school parent pick-up is a much more congested and chaotic process than elementary school pick-up. This year Jesse weaved his own way through bus lines, rowdy students, and a busy parking lot to get to wherever I had found an open parking space. I couldn’t see that same scenario working for Claire.

I also thought Claire might see the bus as a fixture of transportation reliability. What is always there when you walk out of school? The school bus line. What isn’t always there when you walk out of school? Your parent (NOTE: We were late or not within sight a total of three times the entire year, but it left a mark).

On her first morning, she trooped up those tall bus steps and never looked back. Even when her driver needed a sub this week and the bus was late at school, Claire was fine. I asked her what they did while they waited. “We just sat together on the grass. Mr. Cody has our names on his clip board, so he called the bus.”

(It’s not hard to make people feel safe. I was surprised by how much it meant to Claire that her bus driver and the school security officer knew her by name and kept track of whether or not she was on the bus. That’s all she needed to feel covered.)

This week I watched her bus driver move a kid to a different seat so that Claire could have the one in the very front. I didn’t ask her to do that, but I was very pleased to see it happen. Can being a public school bus driver be a gift to the world? I think, yes! The bus stop is just a block from our home; from it she can see our van in its parking space. She’s currently working up the bravery to walk home on her own. She’s just waiting for me to get her a key to the front door. (WHAT?!)  And I’m so proud of her. Since she’s started summer school, it’s been like watching her grow-up through that iPhone super speed filter.

What I’m doing, in some ways, is setting her up to not need me. It would have been easier in a lot of ways to drive her to and from summer school. But learning to ride a bus is making her braver. I’ve read stories about New York kids who take the subways to and from dentist appointments in the middle of the school days.The SUBWAY!

What if learning to ride the bus gives Claire a freedom she might not otherwise have? Can I overcome my own fears so that she can enjoy that? I’m not sure either of us has the nerve for her to get her driver’s license. A school bus today could be the city bus tomorrow. She could learn to ride to high school, work maybe. I don’t know what her future looks like. I just don’t want to get in the way. If I truly want her to be brave when facing the world, I probably need to start by being brave myself, which sometimes means doing less so that she can do more.



“…I’m a Lily.”

My husband hosts the 5-in5 Songwriting Challenge every year. It’s for anyone – from artists who have already recorded their own albums to kids still learning their instruments. It’s for any kind of song – from love songs to Jesus songs to very silly songs to instrumentals. You can sing, play, or both. You can record audio through Garage Band or simply hit record on your video device of choice and start singing. It’s an awesome, awesome thing to see people do the work in the first place (because writing is HARD) and then be brave enough to share it with the world.

Every year – especially this year when our own kids are participating like it’s their job (you know, the kind of volunteer job that sucks all your time and energy and offers no monetary reward) – the 5-in-5 Challenge reminds me of this clip from the classic Capra film You Can’t Take it With You. Here you’ll meet Grandpa, the patriarch, who lives life without worrying about traditional societal conventions. This is one of the first scenes; later scenes in their home highlight a delightful chaos of novelists, inventors, and dancers. The plot centers around visitors from the IRS and from the rich family one of the granddaughters is hoping to marry into. (Please watch the whole movie sometime. We quote from it constantly.)



Sometimes I like to pretend I’m more practical than the eccentric family portrayed in this movie. But then I remember that our family of six lives in a two-bedroom town home so we can be within walking distance of an ice cream shop (among other reasons, I’m pretty sure). I just finished a terminal degree in creative writing, a field that I love but one that will quite possibly never provide me anything like a lot of money. Dan hosts and participates in 5-in-5 because he believes in its merits, despite the fact that he loses hours of sleep designing the blog posts and interacting with the participants while also making sure he’s doing the creative work for his own music (for his own soul).

We might not have a lot of things … but we have our art and we have each other and we have all the little joys that come with living life surrounded by these gifts. “The die is cast …”

A Finish Line: An Update

I used to sit in my office years ago and flip through MFA program packets and dream about having enough money to attend one someday. Then, dutiful first-born that I am, I enrolled in an MA program because it was more “practical.” (This was true in some ways but not in all ways.) Through a series of circumstances, the MA program at Creighton turned out to be my way into an MFA program. And I was offered a fellowship that paid my tuition and enough stipend money to pay the rent.

My MFA fellowship didn’t only gave me time to write. Because I didn’t have to keep a part-time job on the side, I was able to volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, drop them off and pick them up everyday, bring them forgotten gym clothes and permissions slips. It’s been wonderful for us as a family. We made a big transition from split-level suburbia to two-bedroom town home in the heart of Omaha. The kids started attending large public schools. All of it has proved to be a beautiful adventure and rousing success. The timing for an MFA fellowship was perfect.

Now I’m finished! (Jesse took this photo.) I’ve got that terminal degree (meaning I have the correct papers to be a full professor someday, if the literary and professional stars fall into alignment) and without any extra student loan debt.

We celebrated all weekend and put a beautiful seal around the season of study. My biggest lesson from three years of grad school in literature and creative writing? My writing isn’t good enough, but I have plenty of ideas for how it can be better. The goal is beautiful. That’s what I’m working toward.

For the summer I’m scheduled to tutor GED students for about 20 hours a week, leaving some time for pools, flowers, walks, etc. with the kids. Also leaving time for more writing, revising, and submitting.

I had some good great news last week when an editor at a literary mag accepted one of my poems and asked to see four others after I revise them another time. That was a huge boost to my confidence! I’ve only been submitting for a little while, but when the red “declined” response is piling up, it’s nice to see a little green “accepted” in the queue. (That’s Submittable talk.) I’ll share more details when the particulars are in order.

So the plan is to keep up with my online teaching, part-time tutoring, and writing/revising/submitting for publication. (AND the children; I plan to keep up with the parenting of the children.) Of course, generous soul that I am, I am always open to Dickens-style benefactors. Applications welcome and there is no submission fee!


Rethinking Kids’ Sports Culture

I get it when people complain about the kids’ sports culture that waters down the idea of competition by giving everyone a trophy just for “showing up.” Once Jesse’s basketball team literally finished dead last in a tournament and every kid got a medal to hang around his neck. He was appropriately horrified. But I think my perspective has softened on that one a little bit, and here’s why: my sixth grade volleyball player.

Claire is every inch the competitor Jesse is. Despite her physical limitations from cerebral palsy, she has taught herself to shoot and dribble a basketball. This winter when she found out her elementary school was offering girls’ volleyball, she decided to learn that game. She had never played before. Because of the weaknesses in her left hand, she basically plays with one hand. She taught herself to serve by tossing the ball with her right hand and then popping the ball with the same hand over the net (sometimes – when all the parts fall into place perfectly). She has a pretty great bump when she can get under it. We’re very proud.

We’re so proud, in fact, we’d be thrilled to our toes to have a last place medal to hang around her neck. Because you know what? Just showing up is enough for Claire. Just showing up takes a lot of courage and tons of energy for this girl. She has every game carefully logged into the calendar app on her Kindle. Three days a week she goes to school early for practice, putting on and taking off knee pads over her brace – not an easy thing to do when I’m helping and very difficult when she does it on her own. (You try putting on socks one-handed.)

At first we weren’t even sure if she should play because it seemed to be making her nervous, but after a few practices she was pretty sure she could do it. Her coach (who also happens to be her principal) coaches her like anyone else, not just encouraging her but also challenging her to improve. Exactly what Claire wants and needs.

And her teammates? If you know anyone who wants to complain about tweenage girls, tell them to come with me to one of these games and have their faith restored in the fragile, mysterious species that is sixth grade girls. To be honest, these girls are also pretty great volleyball players. And I’d never thought of this before, but them being really good at what they do actually makes room for a girl like Claire to compete alongside them. They can score a lot of points so if Claire misses hers it doesn’t really matter. They’re athletic, jumping in to save a volley or back up a miss. (That’s another blog post altogether, but I’d never really thought about my strengths as a way of making room for someone else. That’ll preach, right?)

A few games ago when Claire totally whiffed on her serve, she threw her hands over her head and started to cry. I watched from the sidelines debating whether to embrace the impulse to run to her or to wait and see how she pulled herself together. Within seconds her coach and two teammates were at her side. They patted her on the back as she walked to the sideline (in this game they were all subbing out after their serves). I looked over later to check on her and saw two of her teammates making her laugh. She was fine. She had what she needed.

So I get it. It’s kind of crazy the way we do sports sometimes. And we might be really screwing these kids up. But, your know, for today, I’m just really happy we got to be here. I’m thankful there was a team that had a place for everyone, and even if we had lost all our games I’d have proudly displayed that participation medal with zero misgivings.


What I’m Always Looking For

New city this week! I was lucky enough to travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference. And when I visit a new city I’m always looking for a couple of things:

1.) the beautiful churches in the downtown area (always made of stone so worn it almost looks soft and always tucked in among the taller, more angular buildings of commerce, education, and infrastructure). I’m always interested in finding these beautiful edifices. I love how they seem to have sprouted up along with the other important buildings but have remained useful and beautiful despite the years. I love how they look different from those other buildings (always distinctive and unique) and yet still seem to fit in naturally with the metro landscape.

2.) the people doing art in the creative centers. Our group toured the amazing Loft Literary Center and our minds were blown. We walked through the offices of small publishers and the shared space of teachers and students of the Center. We even helped make paper and watched a letter-press in action. When we first entered the open house, we were greeted by an enthusiastic woman with silver hair who said, “We’re just so proud of our building – I hope you’ll enjoy looking around” with as much genuine passion as she must have said it to the other hundreds of people who has arrived before us.

While these two types of landmarks – churches and art centers – are separate and different from one another, they appeal to me in similar ways. It’s just knowing that places like this exist that gives me hope. That such places are in the world, doing their good work, standing in their places as advocates for art or faith or whatever work it is that brings them life.

I’m inspired by these centers to do similar work in my own city and life. And what I know is that the working and the standing are hard some days. Imagine the literary center that on Thursday night was as packed as a night club, rooms overflowing with people, booze, and appetizers. But I bet today it’s pretty quiet, and somebody is probably having to mop those striking wood floors, empty the non-glamorous trash cans.

Likewise, for that beautiful church to stay standing, someone has to monitor the health of its foundation, the wear in its carpets, the caulk in its windows. Not fun work but necessary.

So I’ve come home from a writing conference full of ideas and new faces, stocked with new books to read and submission guidelines to journals that might like my work. I’m inspired but know the only thing to do now is to get to work.