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.

From Bottle Caps

Sometimes you are sitting at your husband’s company lunch, 1/16th of a heart-shaped pizza on your paper plate, and you look straight down into the fishbowl of beer bottle caps used as a centerpiece on the table and you see the message, “BRAVELY DONE.”

When that happens, you feel like the universe has delivered a beautiful affirmation of your life choices – or maybe just your existence. You are suddenly grateful for an unknown marketing guy at some tiny beer company who had the idea to print words under bottle caps, thankful for the person who tossed this cap into this bowl. You are thrilled that it is precisely these words pointed squarely at your face on that Friday lunch hour.

You are thankful for simple gifts and the sometimes complicated manner in which they make their way to you.

 

Parenthood: Choosing Our Risks

She's all about dat bass ...A wise friend once shared this statement from her husband:

“We will not parent out of fear.”

In that case, we were talking about their choice at the time to send their kids to public school – which seemed like their best option educationally – instead of homeschooling – which this mom was thinking maybe she should do because she was afraid the public schools wouldn’t be good enough or would corrupt the good morals she wanted to instill in her kids. I’ve found the statement very useful over the last few years.

Recently my sister and I had a chance to travel together without kids or husbands. In one of our many conversations during that road trip, she said something interesting that I’ve also thought about a lot since. She was talking about the vaccines, about how passionate people are on both sides of the fence, about how passionate she was in her opinion, and about how hard it was for her to find a way to live in peaceful relationship with someone who shares an opposing view-point. I mean, this is the world of mom wars and culture fights and political partisanship, right?

Charity said she’d come to peace with it recently when she realized,

“We’re all just choosing different risks.”

In her case, she’s chosen to risk the real but rare side effects of vaccines as opposed to the multiple diseases themselves. That’s the choice she’s made. Other parents prefer to risk that their child might be unprotected against those diseases and not have to worry about adverse side-effects of the vaccine. In both cases, we are choosing which risk scares us the most. In both cases, we have to live with the consequences of our decision.

And this is what parenting is about – choosing your risks.

We recently did this with our kids’ education. Until this school year our kids had been in private Christian schools their entire lives. But there was this nagging thought, what if public education would have the mix of excellence, opportunity, and mission we’re looking for? What if? It soon became apparent to us that we were more willing to risk the idea that public school might be as bad as we had heard more than we were willing to risk the regret we would feel for never trying it ourselves. We chose to risk being wrong over being ignorant (as in, personally uniformed).

Other parents make a different choice.

I know homeschoolers who are choosing to risk their reputations because they are not willing to risk what might happen to their kids in a structured educational system.

Couldn’t we apply this to almost any issue? Religion. Youth sports. Diets. (I mean, let’s be honest, I’m actually fine without super-flat abs if it means I still eat bread. I’m CHOOSING this risk!)

I think looking at issues in this way is helpful because it reminds us how much we’re all living in the same situation: there are pros and cons to every decision and only we know which risk is going to weigh on us the heaviest. The real point is, we’re all taking risks.

Likewise, we might do well to see our individual risk measurements and subsequent choices as one of the many ways unique perspectives contribute to our diverse world. What if the risks you are willing or not willing to take are part of are what makes you you?

There is the related issue of benefits. I let my kids listen to music of questionable moral content. Some of my parent-friends don’t. We’re each choosing our risks. I’m risking that my kids will buy into some crazy-town philosophy of living. But I believe the benefits include a kid who knows the culture around him, can converse with people about that culture, and therefore might someday be able to contribute to that culture in an effective, positive way. I think that benefit is worth the risk. But not all parents do.

I know a guy who likes to go sky diving. The benefit of an adrenaline rush and life-long bragging rights is well worth the risk. (Which is, like many less extreme things, of course, death.) For me? Not so much. That risk is not worth it to me. But I know plenty of people who risk death in different ways all the time because the other risk – that they might live a life of complete boredom and routine – is too much for them.

I have a friend who’d rather travel for days by car than to take even one short flight. And this is a good example with which to bring in the issue of statistics and numbers. It is statistically safer to fly than to drive (or so the fliers tell me). But do those statistics matter to the guy with a very real (though possibly irrational) fear of flying? No. No, they do not.

We’re all choosing our risks.

So I guess I write this instead of butting my head into another Facebook debate. I write this to remind you to be gentle with people who can’t live with the risks you’re taking. To remind you that they are taking risks of their own, too, even if you don’t get it. I write this to remind myself to be gentle with me when one of my decisions means I have to face a negative consequence. I want to remind myself, this was the risk you knew you were taking, and you did the best you could. That’s all anyone can do.

I know it won’t stop debate. It shouldn’t stop the sharing of information, the sharing of our lives. We have a lot to learn from each other. But there comes a point when the choices have been made and the only thing left to do is figure out how to be kind, compassionate human beings even when we disagree. I think that’s the time to remember we’re all choosing risks and let that quiet our arguments, our primal drive to always be right, to have the final word.

My friend’s husband is still onto something. We shouldn’t parent out of fear. But in a way, we do. We’re just choosing the fears that seem most immediate, life-threatening, or important. We’re choosing to live with the fears we can tolerate in exchange for the fears we can’t. It’s a hard, difficult balance with so many applications. But it isn’t without hope. Parents have been doing this for years and years with the same mixed results you and I are going to have. And let’s face it, that’s the nature of this thing we call life.

All the best to you, friend, in every risk you take!

And a Happy New Year!

We were actually stuck in traffic on our way to a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends. But while we sat, the city began a fireworks show. We watched it from our warm van through the Christmas lights draped on the trees in this part of downtown Omaha. It was perfection.

The scene also reminded me of the way we often view the New Year: through the sweet and nostalgic lens of the holidays. Just after the rush and crush of family gatherings and tables piled high with food, we get the chance to say, ah, yes, all things new. And new feels promising for me usually because old has been so sweet.

Sure, occasionally there are days we want to put behind us, as far behind us as possible, but usually we anticipate another year of goodness in most ways. The way a child believes six will be awesome because five had been the best yet. I hope that is how it goes for you. Luckily, the opposite is also true. Even if 2014 was a bust, 2015 could still be something entirely different. This is why we love a fresh start, a new morning.

Happy New Year!