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Come Walk With Me: October 15, 2012

Blogging about my day as a writer may have a fringe benefit. It might convince certain people (aka, my sons) that I do actually work. But I can’t blame their skepticism. Is there another profession where can you be your own boss, spend most of your hours relaxing in a chair, break whenever the mood strikes and still complain about working too much?

When you call yourself a writer, it’s only natural for skepticism to abound. After all, you don’t punch a time clock and you don’t draw a regular paycheck. Even more illogical, a writer gives perfect strangers a window into their deepest thoughts and imaginations yet at the same time they spend their days in isolation and often complain about being alone.  Can an odd-ball profession like that actually be called a “career”?

Well, for those who doubt or those considering the possibility of launching out for a life of free-lance writing, perhaps this picture tour of my “normal” days may encourage you. Or again, maybe not.

Every writer is different, but for me the average day begins shortly before sunrise. I skip the makeup and curling iron and head straight to McDonald’s. For $1.62 they feed me a light breakfast with coffee. I can’t pour a bowl of cereal for that price. I am such a regular they most often have the tray waiting when I come through the door. I’m on a first name bases with the staff and  they don’t think it strange when I hand them a camera and ask them to take a picture.

Once I am awake and fed, the gym is the next stop. I have been surprised (shocked might be a better term) at how much self-discipline getting old requires. I thought retirement meant relaxed, lazy days. What a myth! I was shocked to find this stage of life proves the proverb: “if you don’t move it, you’ll  lose it.” Most often I start the day with forty-five minutes of lap swimming but the elliptical trainer will work as well if I just can’t stand the thought of getting wet when the sun is barely peeking over the horizon.

By now it is 8:30 AM and, like most people in the USA, I am remembering I need something either at the grocery or at Wal-Mart. Since there is no boss to tell me different, running by the store before the work day begins is an all too common experience and by this point I am beginning to think my critics is right. Maybe I don’t have a job. I’m certainly am not acting like it.

On the day these pictures were made, the computer repair shop was another stop that had to be made before I could put the first word on paper. I still haven’t decided if God or Satan invented these infernal machines but either way keeping them up and running takes an inordinate amount of effort.

 I recently changed to a local company for service and web hosting. It has really been convenient to stop by and ask Daniel why something isn’t working. Usually he has some kind of answer and together we can figure out most issues. I was recently forced to change programs and on this particular day it was a problem with the uploading new info to the website that had me stymied.

Sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 I settle in to work at m desk. If I am lucky there is a tiny vase of fresh flowers from the garden to brighten up the space. And, without fail, there will be some kind of paper/foam cup with the day’s iced tea waiting for a sip.  The fact that the “glass” is often dripping on odd papers strung about the desk is an expected hazard. I’m willing to risk a mishap because the only alternative would be to do without the tea and that is totally unacceptable.

One problem with writing is that authors have to sell those words to somebody.  That is a simple, clean process when the “someone” is an magazine, online, or print publisher who will buy the words upfront then go off somewhere else to propagate them without input or effort from the author. However, a major change has taken place in the last five years. Authors are not only expected to write the words and give publishers unlimited rights to the work, they are also expected to sell the books themselves. “Marketing” is the new dirty word in most writer’s vocabulary.

Last month I was at the book Fair for Sulphur Springs Fall fest. But I could just as easily have been speaking to a Lyons club, church group, or small book club with a stack of books in tow. Wherever there is a group of people willing to listen (and sometimes pay!) a writer will be found.

There are far more writers than most people realize. Fifteen local authors cane to Suphur Springs and the competition to see who has the most attractive display and highest profile publisher can be intense.

But these public exposures do have an upside. I was surprised when these friends drove 75 miles to say hello. Often people stop by the table to say a particular book, article, or blog blessed them. One or two positive comments can go a long way toward making up for the hours you stood there smiling into space or giving other people’s customers directions to the restrooms.

Of course, a writer’s life must be more than McDonald’s, keyboards, and personal appearances. And, sometimes, it is! There are those shining moment when sometimes you have labored over for months or even years comes to life. It is almost like giving birth as a piece of your soul sees daylight for the first time.

I will have that experience this month when my first novel arrives, smelling of fresh printer’s ink and new paper. It was a fascinating journey to imagine what the world would look like if we could see the spiritual kingdom around us and it only took five years to put those images into words!  JaKobe’s Assignment should be available both print and for Kindle download by the 27th of October. Believe it or not, this book was fifteen years from idea to production and was rewritten again and again for five years straight. I am still not sure I have the book "right" but there comes a time when you have to let go and hope your baby knows how to walk. We will see.

Still, for all the labor, rewards, and disappointments, I would not trade the writing life for any other occupation—even when others sometimes wonder when I am going to get serious about life and get a “real” job! After all, what kind of job allows you to kick off your shoes, open a card game then--because  you are still thinking about a problem--tell yourself you are on the clock and still "working."

Come Walk With Me: June 15, 2012

Do you garden? Is it something you do for fun or just another chore to add to the list? For me, it is both. Having lived most of my life in either rural settings or the suburbs, cutting grass and sticking a few bushes in the ground have been necessities. But I must admit that my attitude about digging in the dirt has changed through the years. Now, in the years of my dotage, I see that gardening can be not only fun, but a path to wisdom as well. Come on a picture walk with me through my vegetable garden and I’ll show you what I mean.

Lesson One: Limitations are necessary.

I once read in a book that the first principle of gardening is to define the limits of your space. I didn’t
understand it at the time but experience has made me wiser as well as older. A garden has to be a place or a destination. Large or small, it must have parameters. I was fortunate when my oldest son put a low fence both underground and above ground defining the limits of my small space. The portion underground keeps the gophers, moles and other varmints out and the short fence above ground keeps my spring enthusiasm from becoming summer’s misery.

Lesson Two: Bounty is assured

I consistently underestimate how much space and how much food will spring from those tiny seeds I drop in the earth. Amazing. This year I wired two tomato cages together and planted a small ring of running green beans. Not a good idea. The vines were quickly over my head and weighed so much I spent the season struggling to keep the mass from toppling. The refrigerator and freezer are full of squash and the neighbors run when they see me coming with another sack full to give away. Tomatoes? Today I counted a hundred seventy-six on the vines and the late crop has only now begun to bloom! How I will finish out my next book obligation and manage all that produce is a mystery.

The good news is all this bounty from small beginnings is an encouragement to my soul. Jesus said I was to bear the fruit of righteousness and it would be a crop that remained, not one that was wasted. [John 15:16] He also said that I would not be given more bounty than my natural abilities could support and He made no provision for the possibility of failure for any child of His that was willing to try. [Matthew 25:15-29]

Lesson Three: What you see is not necessarily what you think it is

Although modern education may have reduced their number, I’m sure there are still city kids somewhere who do not know milk comes from the teats of a cow. However, it is not uncommon to find adults who mistake what vegetables look like in the “raw.” It takes a LOT of green foliage to produce a small bowl of beans and few would recognize the six-foot tall mound of feather-like fluffiness at the back of my plot as actually mature pieces of asparagus. There is one variety of cucumber growing fruit that is two foot long and only an inch and a half wide while a variety of eggplant has produce so small it takes half dozen of them to feed one person. A garden is full of surprises.

I guess that is something about both gardening and the spiritual life that I like least. Surprises. Call me a fuddy-duddy or a stick-in-the-mud but I love my predictable ruts. New stuff is okay once I get accustomed to it, but adventure is not something I run toward. I am too much like my English ancestors. I never get excited and never do anything for the first time. So, it is good that God doesn’t leave me to my own preferences. If He did, I am sure my nature would soon be cramped and jaded and loudly complaining that my sails never fill with freshness wind.

Spending an hour in the garden makes me realize why Jesus so often used parables and metaphors with nature as the theme. It’s like the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurner: “The kiss of the sun for pardon / The song of the birds for mirth / One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth.”

Come Walk With Me: April 8, 2012

photo: the town

My body moved into Pittsburg in February of 2005 but don’t think my spirit arrive until sometime after 2008.

That is probably not as unusual as it sounds. I think it’s rare for people to truly be where they are at. Most of the time we are on our way to somewhere else, or lagging behind as we cling to where we once were, or even mentally living in the fantasy of where we might have been. I know it took years for me to fully shift from big city living and snuggle down my country roots.

photo: prayer towerThat’s a shame for Pittsburg is really a very nice place to be. Just last week I took a walk downtown and let it sink in once more that this was my town; where I live and where I will likely be buried. I have connection here and an obligation to its people—most of whom I have never met.

The town of Pittsburg is only two block longs and one block wide with a single stop light hanging forlorn in the intersection. Other business are scattered along the nearby highway, but the real town—the old town—is snuggled closely together with many once empty shops now refitted as antique dealers. photo: graves of founding fathersThe graves of the founding fathers are a short walk from downtown and a railroad slices the land nearby. The same newspaper has been serving the population for over a hundred years and the two most outstanding features of the town—the prayer tower at one end and the feed mills at the other—were both built by the same prominent citizen.

Occasionally, I’ll buy a coffee latte from McDonald’s on the highway then drive downtown, park and take my time to stroll the sidewalks and feel part of the flow of history. Once, the dentist and grocery store and casket maker were within a few steps of the lawyer, hardware store and barber. No more. Yet the same homey feel of small-town, USA fills the air and I halfway expect to turn a corner and find the high school band leading a parade toward Main Street.

I am sure Pittsburg has always had this home-town feel but for several years I was too busy thinking of myself as an American and a Texan to really connect locally. Then, one day when some forgotten business had me rushing into a shop, I stepped onto the sidewalk as the prayer tower bells rang out a hymn. I paused, and for the first time realized that citizenship of a town is a choice. Of course, there are the legal aspects of taxes and mailing addresses, but to feel connected; to view one’s self as a part of the whole; to recognize a place as home, there must be a volunteer orientation of the heart.

Photo: Stained Glass

Soon after, I started picking up the local paper, paying attention to local events, and occasionally pausing to study older buildings. I even looked at the people on the street differently. The high school drop-out problem was a part of my world and when V.O.W. wanted volunteers, I tried to do my part. These activities made a difference and the more I was willing to think of myself as part of the town, the more home-like it became.

The prayer tower continues to be one of my favorite spots and I visit it fairly often. Inside, the huge stained glass windows telling the story of Jesus, the prayer rail and open Bible on the altar; outside, the flowers and fountain and walks. And always, the clear bells chiming both the hours of the day and hymns witnessing to eternity, are all southing to the soul.

But the item that blesses me most is the bronze statue at the north entrance: Jesus bending to wash the feet of Peter. The Lord of Glory come to earth to temporarily join citizenship with us and teach us the serving nature of love is the highest and noblest of all callings.

This Easter the town held a sunrise service at the tower and many denominations joined in worship. I looked around at the gathered faces and did not know a single one.

Photo: Bronze of Jesus Yet, something united us as we stood together in the early dawn that went beyond face and name recognition: We were all citizens of another spiritual kingdom as well as citizens here (Colossians 1:13; I Thessalonians 2:12). But I suspect to fully feel a part of that kingdom there has to be an orientation of the heart. We take time to read its literature (the Bible and good Christian books); participate in its events (like church) and begin to think of ourselves as a part in the long line of its history.

In the parable of the talents, the master instructed his servants to, “occupy until I come.” (Luke 19:13) Roughly translated that is, “Till I get back, you should get busy where you are at, using what I have already placed in your hands.”

It took a little time and effort before embracing Pittsburg as home and it became a connection I could feel. I suspect the same might be said of feeling myself part of the spiritual kingdom. My residence must not only legally be there, but I have to orientate my heart that direction as I take time to read its literature (the Bible and good Christian books); participate in its events (like church and prayer) and fully embrace the notion that it’s a kingdom to which, thanks to Jesus, I really belong now and in eternity.

Come Walk With Me: March 15, 2012

Coping mechanisms come in all forms. Some people eat. Others watch old movies. I’ve known those who yell and others who say they bury their frustrations in the ground with a gardening spade. I’ve tried all of those. But, for me, the coping technique that beats them all is to take a walk. A big walk. A get-me-outside, run-away-from-people, let-me-breathe fresh-air walk.

photo: park lakeOf course, Christians should find their primary emotional shelter and tension release in God. But sometimes I need a small boost from the natural world to get me fully concentrating on the heavenly and there is no better way to do that than take a long walk in one of the local state parks. Preferably, one with water.

The three mile nature trail around Dangerfield Lake is one of my favorite journeys. One or two circuits are enough to make me feel as though I’ve done something significant but the trail is not strenuous so there’s energy left over to pray and think. This year, when the first week of March arrived, my brain was fried and I couldn’t write one word more. So I stuffed a Bible, prayer journal, hymnal and a couple of apples in a backpack then took off to find how early spring was treating God’s world in East Texas. And, hopefully, to fill my spiritual sails with fresh wind.

photo: park treesFinding wind wasn’t a problem. March was coming in like a lion and the weather required a jacket even when hiking. Much of the landscape was still winter-brown and the sky overcast. Then a bird drew my attention straight over head where the battered, swaying branches of a small tree showed just how stubbornly insistent new life can be.

By Easter, this dogwood tree will be in full bloom. Three inch white blossoms will fight for space among small green leaves. Even at this stage both leaves and blooms are pushing their way out of dead-looking, grey twigs. Although hidden for months and battered by winter storms, life is determined to reach for the light and make itself known. With careful observation the slightly rounded shape of blossoms could be separated from pointed leaves even from ten feet below.

It must be an occupational hazard for writers to see stories, sermons, and symbols in most everything. But as I stood there looking up I couldn’t help wonder about my lack of spiritual stubbornness. I remembered God’s challenge to Jeremiah, “If you have run with footmen, and they have wearied you, / Then how can you contend with horses? / And if in the land of peace, / In which you trusted, they wearied you, / Then how will you do in the flooding of the Jordan?”

photo: park pathI thought, “Girl, what is your complaint?” When I look around at the challenges faced by other Christians, I have it easy. What is writer’s block compared to facing terminal illness? What is having a story rejected compared to being rejected by a spouse? Then, with a little bit more humility, I walked on.

This was my first time to walk the lake since it opened after being closed a year for major repair. Among some of the improvements were new trails and clear, four color maps posted to show the way.

One of the new trails led straight up a steep incline. Although the picture doesn’t show it well, this path rises at about a 60 degree slant. Yet, they had done such a good job of clearing it and I was curious to know where it would lead, so I scrambled up to the top and took a look around. But just over the rise, the trail seemed to abruptly end. There was a less well defined path leading east and according to the map that was supposed to be the way, so I followed it picking my way through occasional spots of underbrush.

photo: park pathSuddenly I was in a small clearing with a broad, easy path stretching away into the distance. It still headed east and although it was obviously cut to clear the way for electric lines, I thought it logical that new construction may have taken advantage of the situation using the clear path for a dual purpose.

Half a mile later, I had the gnawing feeling I might have been wrong. Two miles later, I turned round. I know all electric lines lead somewhere, but I suspected this one might terminate in Mississippi.

On the long trail back, I was tempted to fuss at myself. But as I examined my choices, the logic didn’t seem flawed. The path had been clearly marked going uphill then east. Carefully watching as I retraced my steps, I could find no other trail leading off from the one I followed. Because the map stated the trail would be .03 mile, something was obviously wrong. Perhaps renovations were not complete and the trail unfinished. But, whatever the reason, if there were any fault on my part the only error would have been clinging to a false hope longer than I should have.

photo: park flowersAs always on these excursions, my natural tendency was to draw a spiritual lesson from this most mundane circumstance. Early in the morning I had been impressed by the stubborn tenacity of the dogwood to bloom in spite of adverse conditions and wondered if I didn’t need more of that quality. Now, I realized the converse was also true. There are times when stubbornly following what I assume to be the right path can take me farther from the goal. It was no great tragedy that I didn’t turn around sooner, but being stubborn was the wrong thing to do.

I studied my feet and kicked leaves out of the way. How does a writer—or any other Christian—know when to press on and when to change course? When are hard situations challenges given by the Lord to strengthen us and when are they blocks put there to turn us? It was a train of thought I had followed many times before without resolution.

I was on my way back to the car when I snapped one last picture. I still don’t have the stubbornness vs. godly perseverance issue worked out. For now, I press on with my writing although circumstances are not smooth and I could perhaps be on the wrong course. But this one thing I believe. If God cared enough about spring wild flowers to cover each detail in beauty, He won’t let me lose my way completely. If my heart is to follow Him, He’ll take care of any honest errors I make.

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