When You Write For 30 Days

Today marks the last day of my 30 Day Writing Challenge, where I set a goal to post every day for the month of June. I only missed one day, for good reasons, so I’m going to call it a success.

Here is the list of every post for the last month:
And there you have it! I don’t love all of them, but I love what they accomplished as a whole. Each one is proof that there is always something to write about. These posts trace a trajectory of my life during this last month, as well as multiple significant events in our country during that time.

By challenging myself to post every day, I cultivated the skills of attention and reflection, becoming more aware of each situation and deeply considering what could be said about it. It is easy to walk through life without paying attention or thinking about it, the challenge is being present through the process.

How often do you take the time to reflect on a month of your life, or a week, or even the day? It is a powerful way to remember how God answers our prayers, how our surroundings have changed, and what we take away from those collective moments. It can also inspire us for the future. You can do this in ways other than writing, the point is simply to generate a posture of awareness.

Writing Tools

The tools needed for writing: good books, plenty of journals, random notes I jotted down and kept, pens, and yummy smelling candles.

This challenge also confirmed what I wrote in my very first post:
Writers block more often comes from fear, not a lack of words.
There is always something to write about, the question is whether we are willing to show up to the page. Because I had to post something every day, I didn’t have time to overthink or fret about the quality. I did what I could and learned to be happy with the effort alone.

Obviously I still want to make sure each post is good quality, and this is easier to do when I have more time to invest in it. I hope to still write every day, but I will return to posting less often for the sake of quality and my own sanity.

Thank you to everyone who joined me during this 30 Day Challenge and read along. Thank you also to anyone who told me that they were reading and enjoying it. I probably scoffed at you in person, but deep down I really appreciate the encouragement.

We all have stories to tell and our own methods of telling them. We should challenge ourselves to explore these methods more, not because we have something to prove, but because we earnestly desire the resulting growth. I hope you are able to do that in your own way, and please share with me how it goes!

What was your favorite post from this month?
How have you challenged yourself before, and what did you learn?
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Learning to Shut Up

We ran to the walk-in closet, hiding from her little sister. The giggles were absorbed in part by the leather shoes and fancy dresses, but they reverberated on the mirrored doors.

Still laughing I said, “Ssshhhh! We need to shut up!”

Her eyes froze at me, blinking wide. The clothes around us hung heavy, concealing us in. As a first grader, what I had just said counted as a bad word, at least in her family. She proceeded to tell me not to say the “s-word” again, especially not in front of her mom. I deflated, feeling awful, and spent the rest of the play date wondering if my friend still thought I was a nice person.

My family wasn’t the type to swear either, and shut up wasn’t necessarily something I picked up from them. But I had never been told it was a bad word, and it didn’t carry any negative connotation in my innocent brain.

I know now that we tell kids not to say this phrase because it is often used with a tone of animosity, and it isn’t a healthy expression of frustration at a young age.

But as an adult, saying “shut up” is a nonchalant occurrence. It means little harm, but it has also transformed in its meaning.

“Shut up” is a firm direction. It could be used harshly, but it can also be the strength of a loving command, made out of good intentions. As much as I try to be forgiving and kind to myself (see this post), there are also days when I need to be firm and tell myself to shut up.

I first noticed my tendency to talk too much when I began giving tours for the admissions office in college. To be fair, it was my job to talk a lot. But there is a delicate balance between blabbering out of pride and offering knowledge while still listening to the other.

Gradually, I learned how to focus on asking the prospective students questions and also allow enough silence for them to bring up the questions they really wanted to hear about. I cultivated a posture of listening first and speaking second.

This was lost when I moved to Seattle and didn’t have as many friends around to talk to. I joined a women’s young adult bible study, and quickly found myself blabbering every week, gushing with the excitement of a child who learned something new and wants to tell everyone with in earshot about it.

It was exciting to feel like I knew something they didn’t, simply because they hadn’t heard the campus pastor preach about this already like all of my college friends. I had unique knowledge, and I wanted to share it.

The voice inside me began to nudge, pointing out my habit of talking too much and listening too little. I noticed that I was thinking of my response instead of actually listening, interrupting others, and dominating the conversation. It was humbling to step back and realize I needed to shut up.

Thankfully this group of young women are all patient and kind, still accepting of me and my pompous mouth. As I began to shut up and listen more, I was able to recognize the wisdom that they each had to share. We were all recently graduated, newly employed, and altogether trying to figure out adult life. But even with these similarities, we all have unique backgrounds and histories that add valuable input to the conversation.

Once I had opened myself up to really hearing someone else, I was humbled to find I still had a lot to learn.

This is equally important in our relationship with God. Oswald Chambers wrote that “We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves,” because “Jesus cannot teach us anything until we quiet all our intellectual questions and get alone with him.”

By over-talking and over-thinking, I create the false illusion that I know everything and I can figure everything out on my own. By shutting up, I am reminded of my foolishness in comparison to the great wisdom of God.

The truth is, I can’t ever fully know or solve my problems on my own. I need the wisdom of patient friends with different experiences. I need the wisdom of a God who understands the bigger picture. I need to shut up and be still.

The firmness of the words themselves usher me back to a hushed closet, a place of reverence and awareness. Shutting up doesn’t have to be negative, it can be about firmly redirecting one’s attention to what matters. The posture of listening is never permanent, we must fall on our knees again and again to relearn how to hear with our whole hearts.

Blogging every day for the last month is the opposite of shutting up, and that is ok because there is also a time when we need to speak out. However, I am grateful as this month comes to an end that I can return to a place of listening.

Writing requires me to have one ear to the world, one ear to God, and a heart that is willing to pour itself out on the page. Each one is important, but they need to work in conjunction, not in competition.

 Do you ever tell yourself to shut up?
How do you practice talking less and listening more?

Half Way There, Already Good

Yesterday marked the half way mark for my month-long challenge to write every day. So, of course, I didn’t feel like writing today.

I was tired, grumpy after a long weekend of travel, and altogether uninspired. The words I wrote about motivation two days ago had slipped away and seemed irrelevant. Why was I doing this again?

So I took some time to look through the journal I’m using for my year-long challenge to write more days than less. At least once each month there is an entry where I blubber about my lack of success and dissatisfaction with my progress.

Here is one from March 30:
“Once again I was not successful in writing more days than less this month. I can think of plenty of excuses, but the only judge listening is myself—and I don’t think I’m a fair judge.”

This is especially funny when I’m looking at a journal that already contains more entries than my journal from last year. I am definitely not an impartial judge, I am far too close to the subject.

After scanning through pages of self-criticism, I realized how it is possible to be over-concerned with self-improvement. I am never content with myself where I am, and I have a constant list of things I would like to work on. I want to do more sewing projects, cook more creative meals, exercise more often, spend more time outside, try to learn another language, read the giant pile of books next to my bed, and then read the ones I have on a separate list on my phone. More more more. This is the American Dream. And it is exhausting.

Some people don’t ever self-evaluate and actually need to, but I over-evaluate and need to cut back. This mindset causes other common problems like desperation for affirmation, deep fear of rejection, and perfectionism. If I’m being kind to myself I will admit that I’m less of a perfectionist than I was five years ago, because my confidence grew and my need to prove myself declined.

For those of you who can relate—we shouldn’t blindly accept perfectionism as part of our personalities. Being a perfectionist is not who I am, and that is a radical realization of God’s presence in my life. Perfectionism is a learned quality, not innate or natural.

I believe God loves us as we are, Christ died on the cross for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), and we are freely given grace and forgiveness (Ephesians 1:3-14). Those things inspire us to pursue a life that is a better reflection of Christ, but they do not require us to prove that we deserve Christ’s love.

Nature's imperfections

Nature always reminds me of the beauty in imperfection

While reading through my journal entries, I also found days where I managed to defend myself and accept this kind of radical grace. I found this bit of inspiration from an entry in February:

“I can’t do everything I would like. The attempt is noble, and we should never give up on growth. However, there is a difference between seeking success as a necessity and seeking growth in opportunities. It is a balance between trying to prove or improve oneself. One is done out of pressure-filled expectation, the other is forgiving and accepting of any result.”

I have to be careful with all these challenges I give myself, remembering they are not efforts to prove myself or chores that I must do begrudgingly. Growth is important and necessary in our lives, but it shouldn’t be surrounded by a fear of failure or pressure to measure up. I love God, and I want to commit to pursuing a life that is a reflection of God’s grace. I love writing, and I want to commit to give it my best even when I don’t feel like it. The effort of trying counts more than the results. We can never be perfect, and we don’t have to be.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Perfectionism and over-concern with self-improvement are aspects of this world. God gives us the opportunity to redefine our efforts and renew our mindset to one of grace. Only in that way do we realize that God is the only kind of good, acceptable, perfection we need.

Do you struggle with constantly wanting to improve?
How do you handle it?

Killing and Kindling Motivation

“Oh you can just take today off” she says to me. I smile at her, knowing I can’t. That is the whole point of this 30 Day Writing Challenge. No excuses.

So I close myself in my room and let my visiting family members go enjoy the jacuzzi without me.

But then I think I should wash my face.
Might as well change into something more comfortable.
My room needs organizing.
I haven’t checked Facebook in awhile.
Cleaning out my inbox would also be good.
And I could use a snack.

I grumble that I’m not feeling very creative and I can’t think of anything worth saying. Most of the time, I cave to those reasons and don’t bother trying. I say I will wait till inspiration strikes next. Two weeks later I still didn’t write anything and I get depressed thinking I was completely uninspired for two weeks.

But that’s not true either. Inspiration is fleeting enough that we rarely catch it in time to do anything about it. When it shows up in the shower or the car or the grocery store, it takes a back seat to the current task and is quickly forgotten. Inspiration makes regular appearances in my life, but I squander it’s presence because I’m distracted by other things.

What kills your motivation is not a lack of inspiration. In my experience there are 3 main things that keep me from doing what I want:

  1. Distractions and shifting priorities: If I don’t make writing a priority it will easily get swept aside by other items on my to-do list. Even checking Facebook and watching Netflix can compete when I decide I’m too tired to write or it can wait till tomorrow. Chances are, it will end up waiting much longer than that.
  2. Low confidence and fear of failure: “Why bother if it’s not going to be good?” That question plagues all of us at some point. But imagine if we asked this instead: “What could happen if this turns out good?” Suddenly there is a reason to try. Don’t think of the reasons why you might fail—think of the reasons contributing to your chances of success.
  3. Lack of self-care: Little happens when I’m exhausted, anxious, sick, or depressed. If I am overworked, have said yes too much, or haven’t set aside time for rest, I have again compromised my priorities and forgotten about my own needs for general well being. I am in charge of my own well-being, even when that means asking others to help me with it.

When I find myself unmotivated I ask myself which of these three things is present. Sometimes it is all three. Once I acknowledge the problem I can find a way to resolve it. Simple right?

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. Some problems take much longer than a quick fix of food or a nap. Deep insecurity, the inability to say no, or even the need to work long hours in order to have something to eat at all. Sometimes there are other people or things that really do prevent us from doing what we want. But what we do to overcome those things and in spite those things is what defines our success. Tony Robbins, in his TED Talk on “Why We Do What We Do” says that “the defining factor is never resources; it’s resourcefulness.”

Every successful writer got to where they are solely because they showed up even when inspiration didn’t. They didn’t always have the resources or obvious amounts of time, but they found a way to make it happen.

The Renaissance scholar Erasmus said “The desire to write grows with writing.”

Stephen King’s blunt opinion is similar: 
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
I would argue that even for non-writers, success comes from showing up to work hard even on days when you don’t feel like it.

The more you do that, the more you realize that success doesn’t even mean getting published or promoted or paid highly. Success comes from the reward of knowing you showed up in the first place.

What gets in the way of your motivation?
How do you find a way to motivate yourself again?

Choosing to Dream

Every post this week has been dedicated to one of my favorite things, including Gilmore Girls, good stories, a special pair of earrings, the ability to surprise myself, and learning surprising things about other people. As promised, it has all built up to this: the post detailing one of my favorite places on earth, which also happens to be the odd niche that I know a surprising amount of information about.

I can tell you why there are no 90-degree angles in the main entrance.

I can tell you how long the initial construction took.

I can tell you where two pennies are hidden in a weathervane, and the significance of each penny’s year.

I can tell you what the morse code is spelling out at the train station.

And I can tell you that the park is never really finished.

“Here you leave today and enter the world or yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” Here is Disneyland. 

It began early. I participated in competitive dance for the extent of my childhood, and every year we would have two competitions at the Disneyland hotel. In middle school I got my first annual pass. By high school my mom and I had been enough times to know every bit of trivia and the best daily route to hit the main attractions. There were afternoons where I would bring homework and study there simply for the ambiance.

Disney ambiance

Proof of me studying in Disneyland

The ambiance is the main reason I want to be there at all. Strolling through the streets, I don’t have to think about the outside world. Wafting scents of waffle cones and buttered popcorn satiate my nose, a spectrum of flowers and leafy trees soften every transition from one place to the next. I can mosey from here to there, or scurry if I want. I control the pace of my day and gladly bounce in step with a constant subtle soundtrack. It is a place where I always feel like my true self and I am never insecure about my decisions.

Disneyland is a place to escape and a place to dream. It encourages the simple joys of laughter, playfulness, and time together. Optimism feels easier and hope comes more naturally. The imagination flourishes, encouraged by a sense of adventure and set free without fear.

If this sounds overly romanticized, that’s because it is. Yes there are also multiple screaming children. Yes there are hoards of people. Yes there are lines, and God forbid we have to stand and do nothing for thirty minutes!

But I consider it a special gift that I have nothing I need to do than to stand in line with a companion and enjoy some good old fashioned conversation. We rarely make time for that anymore, and when we do have it we are often distracted by other things.

Believe it or not, I am not naturally optimistic. I was the epitome of a hysterical child, and then I became a depressingly dramatic teenager. The world was usually awful from my point of view. But not at Disneyland. There I learned the benefits of keeping a smile on my face, dreaming big instead of worrying small, and focusing on the bare necessities of life.

We need a place that over-romanticizes to balance out the over-depressing world around us. 

Yes Disney is a megacorporation that owns an insane portion of the entertainment industry. Yes there are fanatics out there who take it way too seriously. Yes the “classic” Disney movies contain terrible hidden messages of sexist or racist perceptions. Sadly, it was a company run by white men for far too long. And yes, the theme parks are pricey traps that can drain people’s life savings. I have counter arguments for all of these that mainly follow the theme of “Welcome to capitalist, male-dominated, consumeristic America. It could be worse.”

It is easy to be critical. But I don’t want to live my life that way. 

I believe in Disney because it represents a glass-half full kind of life. Despite its faults, Disney is still a successful company, not because their only goal is to make money, but because they are dedicated to portraying joy, hope, and a life that can still dream when things get hard. After all, most people believed that Walt Disney’s ideas of starting his own animation studio, creating full-length animated movies, or building a theme park were doomed for financial failure. My guess is that if anyone but Walt tried the same things they certainly would have failed. But this one man succeeded, not because he wanted to become rich, but because he believed in the power of dreaming and seeking happiness.

This doesn’t mean you aren’t realistic about the the not-so-happily-ever-after parts of life. Those parts exist, but your response determines the effect they have on your life. If someone is prone to deny reality and pretend life is always covered in sparkles, they could do that without Disney. The United States as a nation was guilty of unrealistic dreams long before Disney was on the scene.

The beneficial parts of Disney can be rooted in a reality that is fully aware of the world’s tragedies. Why? Because the benefits are things like inspiration to dream, motivation to try, and stories that remind us of the joyful parts of life.

As a teenager wrestling with deep insecurity and depression, I needed those messages. I saw the benefits of escaping to Disneyland for a day with my mom, the one place where work couldn’t haunt us and social pressures disappeared. It taught me that the sun would always come out eventually and you can learn to hope for happier days.

Mary Poppins Disneyland

Sometimes you need Mary Poppins to tell you every day can be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Ultimately I still believe that Disney (nor any other worldly things) can fulfill us with the joys or hope found in God. But I bet God is ok with people reminding each other of life’s goodness and the hope for a brighter tomorrow. Christianity is a fairy tale on its own, and the ultimate happily ever after will come when Jesus returns and we are fully redeemed into relationship with God.

Until then, I will be at Disneyland.

What are your thoughts on Disney?
Do you have a place that makes you feel like this?

Surprising Myself, Changing Assumptions

“You must be the boss now” he says. His fork lift encases him like a transformer, but I catch a look of surprise on his face. I chuckle as I lower the lift gate of the 15 foot box truck I drove here. That isn’t necessarily the case, but I guess I am the boss of driving this monstrosity and moving around supplies. One way or another, people are always surprised to see me behind the wheel.

Thirty minutes later, my voice echoes in the cavernous steel of the shipping container’s narrow stretch. Light streaks in from the front, where the shadow of a man waits for me to give him directions. The pallet of 33 boxes moves easily on the pallet jack. I maneuver it with little difficulty, knowing how each slight twist or turn will affect the direction of the load. Once it is at the front of the container, I ask him to move it out using the fork lift and put it on the truck. My hands are raw from rearranging the cardboard boxes, and my biceps throb after I heave each 50 pound bag of lentils to the front.

This is not what I pictured when I signed up for a job at a nonprofit. Yet, it is satisfying to surprise myself with the extent of what I can do. It is one of my favorite things, because it reminds me that the unexpected can be positive.

Heavy labor is only a small part of my job at Children of the Nations (COTN), a nonprofit that provides care for orphaned and destitute children in some of the poorest countries in the world. The staff is full of wonderfully kind and generous people who want to do their part to make a difference. My part is to coordinate with group partners in Seattle and organize fundraising events to support the COTN partnerships in Malawi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. They also let me move around a lot of supplies, everything from bags of lentils to mattresses.
DSC_1864

Besides the surprise of heavy lifting and instructing men on forklifts what to do, I never even pictured myself working for a nonprofit that helps poor children. It is such a cliché right? Having a “heart for Africa” is common among mission-oriented Christians, and I never really saw myself as one of those people. I told myself I wanted to work locally and make an impact at home before trying to change the world abroad.

Then I learned about Innocent, a boy from Malawi who was found abandoned under an ox cart nearly starved to death. He is now attending medical school and wants to be a doctor in Malawi, where there is only an average of 0.02 physicians per 1,000 people (source).

I also learned about Precious, and Danilo, and Ema, and countless other kids whose lives were drastically different from my comfortable childhood. Almost every story contained the loss of a parent or family member, desperate hunger, and the inability to attend primary school because of the need to work.

So compassion kicked in.

Yet, even after that I was skeptical. My logical side interrupted my heart to raise some important questions. After all, nonprofits and others trying to “develop” third world countries can often do a lot more harm than good.

So I did my research. And again, I surprised myself.

“Sustainability” isn’t just a buzz word for COTN. It is part of their programming, part of their vision, and critical to the life of the organization. They remain in fewer countries for more time, operating out of the commitment to empower the people who are already there and not abandon projects based on arbitrary timelines.

When a child is brought into the COTN program, they promise to support them whether they are sponsored or not. Hopefully she will be, but what matters is that a child is never kicked out because of the decisions someone on the other side of the globe makes. That child also won’t be left on their own as soon as they turn 18. She will continue to receive training and support, is encouraged to go to university and pursue work that will make a difference in her community.

I filled out my application and told God I was ready to keep being surprised. Two weeks later, the job was mine. Now, two months later, I did another surprising thing for a twenty-something: I committed to dedicating $32 every month to sponsor a child. Based on my meager salary and the price of Seattle rent, that is a big sacrifice. For you, it could only be the difference between another dinner out and eating at home instead. It could also be the difference between serving yourself with your money, or serving others with it.

If you want to learn more about supporting a child’s health, education, and well being check out the COTN sponsorship page (also comment below if you have any questions or if you do decide to sponsor a child). Even if you aren’t ready to make that kind of commitment, take the time to read some of their stories and remind yourself how surprisingly different life can be. Consider the long-term difference one child can make in their country and the world, as long as they are given the support and resources they need.

The best surprises happen when you remove your assumptions or skepticism and allow your heart to be changed.
It is proof that we have the potential for growth and change. It is also the only way that transformation happens to make our world a better place.

What are your assumptions about nonprofits like COTN?
you can tell me honestly :)
 
How have you surprised yourself before?

Bear With Me

There are days when you need a reminder that you aren’t alone. Days when you want someone tough on your side, someone to yell at the critical voices and defend you ferociously.

For those days, I’ve got these two bears that accompany me. They are unassuming and delicate in design, but strong and bold in meaning.

unnamed

They are connected to one of my favorite places on earth—Yosemite National Park. It is a place that taught me to love hiking, camping, and any kind of outdoor adventure. The days of roaming in the valley, encased by granite monoliths, are simple. From the groves of Redwoods, to the vistas above, each scene emphasizes my small presence in the world to humble me, while also expanding the limits of my mind.

It was the place where I first learned to ride a bike, gaining confidence with each rotation of the pedal, taking me to new places, and feeding my hunger for wind-swept movement. I was propelled forward, first around the campgrounds, then around the valley floor. Each year I rode the bike to new places, hiked to new heights, and found a different experience waiting for me.

Even when night falls, it is an adventure to sit in front of a campfire instead of a television, to stare at the flames pondering our ability and inability to contain their power depending on their size. Trees hoist the darkness above for hours until it seeps in and they become shadows disappearing into the sky.

John Muir, often quoted by anyone answering the call of the mountain, understood this sensation well. He spent a significant portion of his life exploring the Sierras, and he worked hard to preserve Yosemite as protected land. He knew no one could leave this place unchanged.

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

I bought my bear earrings in the Yosemite Village store at the age of 18. It was the summer before I left for college, and I knew there was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to come back the following summer. I wanted something to keep the mountains in me, before I faced the skyscraper mountains and subway valleys of Chicago.

The sentimental side of me likes that they keep part of my favorite place with me at all times. The imaginative side likes to think that they protect me and infuse me with a certain fierceness. But more than anything they are a reminder of that enthusiasm for a world beyond myself, where nerves quiver along steep precipices and pores are filled with nature’s energy.

Do you have a favorite place?
Or something that represents it?