On Ukuleles

I’m not always good at asking for gifts. Someone says, “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’m like, “Um… stuff and things, please.”

But this past holiday season I planned ahead. I gave little lists to the various people who wanted them, and one of the presents I asked for was a thing I’d had tucked in my mind for a long time:

a ukulele.

I don’t know what drew me to the ukulele in particular. Maybe it’s because they’re small and only have four strings, although I did used to play the violin, which fits all those requirements. But a violin is much more labor-intensive; I appreciate the compact little ukulele, which you can pick up and strum with cheerful determination.

Sure enough, on Christmas morning an oddly-shaped package was labeled to me. It was my very own gorgeous little ukulele. I was so excited I spent three hours learning chords.

While I’m still rusty—though I do fancy myself a quick learner—the ukulele has already brought a lot of joy to me. There’s something about being able to sit down and make music, with no need to talk, no need to think really, and to be creative simply by showing up and letting your mind spill out into sound.

Sometimes as a writer, I want to be able to write without using any words, letting the repetition and flow of my mind create something without effort. But of course, this is the antithesis of writing. One must naturally exert effort, in order for the words to make any sense.

Playing the ukulele is my writing without words; my creativity finds a voice even when my words are knotted, and I can create something beautiful even when my mind is numb.

Writing to Myself

I love journals.

I’ve kept a personal journal since I was ten or eleven, and I have them all lined up on a shelf in my room. Every Christmas and birthday, I acquire journals as gifts, and I use gift money to buy more journals. Something about the pretty covers and blank pages of yet-unlived stories gets me every time.

I don’t recall how exactly it started, but I do remember starting to journal my thoughts, daily life, and memories with the conviction that these were all very important. I remember becoming so overwhelmed with each detail of life, so convinced that they were all significant, that I had no choice but to write my life down as I was living it.

I still don’t know why the ins and outs of daily life have always been so significant to me, unless of course it has something to do with me being a writer. I always wrote with the conviction that people in the future would want to know what my life was like, and I wrote, at first, like I was writing a story.

As I got older, of course, my journals became more raw, more honest, more stream-of-consciousness. This shift has made each journal like a tiny time capsule of who I was at the time. Now, I look back at my numerous autobiographical tomes and see patterns in my life that led to where I am now. I read about an event that happened six years ago, and I see how that led to some of my present-day behaviors. It’s fascinating how my own words, thoughts, and feelings jog my present memory. They put me in situations long forgotten.

Reading a diary is like time travelling; you meet your old self, hear her hopes and fears, and tell her things you’ve learned, things you know now that you didn’t know then. It’s very therapeutic in a way; it closes a loop and completes a journey. The things I struggled with in the past find peace, or at the very least explanation, in the future. The older and wiser me can meet the younger with more knowledge, more grace. It makes you more forgiving of yourself, more aware of the process that life entails. And even this pseudo-time travel is a process, because someday I’ll be older and wiser than I am now, and the cycle, the journey, continues.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? While I thought I was writing for posterity, I was really writing for myself.

 

Quintessential New Year’s Post

It’s inevitable. Any blog post I write will be the first of the new year, and so it must naturally be rife with sentiments like, “Oh my gosh! 2018? Already? New year new me! As the world turns, so we mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.”

There it is. Bask in it.

Like most people, I made some resolutions. They aren’t your stereotypical change-my-whole-nature-and-body-and-being-in-365-days resolutions; they’re more like tiny tweaks, little realignments for what I really want to be doing anyway. I’ve always liked having the new year to do this, cliche as it can get. Yes, time is relative, and no, we don’t need to depend on a calendar date to change. But something about the new year, a new calendar of blank, unfilled-up months, a fresh slate to draw upon, makes it fitting.

I am going to share my new year’s resolutions, and not just because all the kids are doing it. My reason is twofold: one, putting them out in public is an accountability builder, even if none of you email me and ask how I did (please don’t). Two, I have a hard time remembering what any life resolutions are at any given time, so I feel like putting them on a blog will give me, at the very least, a place to refer to.

Luckily, I made my resolutions simple. In the past I’ve made some grand aspirations. I will work out every day! I will eat only vegetables and ancient grains! I will suddenly change inherent qualities about myself and take up activities I previously had no interest in! I figured that the best strategy, this time, would be to start small, to do things I know I can and will do, and to build from there.

One, I’m going to do yoga every day in January. I follow a YouTuber yogi who does a yearly January challenge, and I’ve never faithfully followed it along. So I’m going to try it.

Two, for the month of January I’m not eating sugar and sweets. My husband has a problem with eating too many sweets, and I love him but it really has come to a point where public shame is the way to go (he gave his permission to be so shamed). I am a classic sympathy eater, so if he eats sweets, I eat sweets. And for thirty-one days, I put my foot down. (February will be a free for all.)

Three, in 2018 I’m going to take my vitamins. I don’t eat super well (see point two), but I’m not the most unhealthy person either (see husband comment). I try to eat mindfully and intuitively, but I know I still have a few gaps in my diet, because while I enjoy healthy eating, I also refuse to do any kind of “diet.” I will never go gluten-free, dairy-free, or heaven forbid, vegan. When I was a child, I was a sick child, I ate as a sick child, I had many food restrictions as a sick child. When I became a woman, I put away sick child food restrictions. For better or worse. All this to say, vitamins.

Four, I’m going to wear more blue. It’s my favorite color. It’s pretty. It makes me happy. And blue always matches other blue.

I have a few other floating resolutions, but these are the biggies. I have plans to update the list month-by-month, throwing out some ideas and incorporating others. I got a lot of candy for Christmas, and there’s no way I’m saving it all for months on end.

So far, in the cliche, quintessential way, I’m very hopeful for 2018. I’ve been working through a lot of life stuff lately. Some of these things I have power over, and others I have none. The latter group often seems larger than the former. But for the most part I am hopeful. Little glimmers of light shine through the cracks as the old year shatters to reveal the new, and I can mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.

 

 

Magic in the Quiet

It’s less than a week til Christmas. Like any adult, I feel it’s come too soon, and yet somehow I feel it hasn’t really come at all.

Life is incredibly crazy this time of year, especially in America, and especially in the household of a grad student married to a college student. It’s all rushing and stress and deadlines, followed by lights and glitz and shopping and spending and music and advertisements and decorations. Everywhere, even when you open up a social media site to wish someone a happy holiday season, you are met with a damn advertisement. I don’t want to find ads for things (I really do want to buy) when I’m scrolling Pinterest for something to make for dinner, okay? In my day, we met materialism in the newspaper, where it belongs. Thank you very much.

This year, I’m more belligerent about all the hype. I love me some lights and good food and presents, but to me they miss the mark. People have been celebrating Christmas, specifically, for thousands of years. That’s incredibly powerful. It’s magical. Each ancient tradition carries meaning, and if you are a Christian yourself, it’s even more poignant. But all this commercialism is a slap in the face of thousands of years of precious tradition. The trimmings of our Christmas celebrations should be the just that, the trimmings, an outward enjoyment of the holiday, not the functions of the holiday itself.

I know I’m not saying anything new. I know my fellow believers have been crying to Keep Christ in CHRISTmas for decades now. But to be honest, we haven’t exactly preserved our traditions very well either. Campaigning to say “Merry CHRISTmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” also misses the mark. It does nothing to change the deeply-rooted consumerism in our culture, because this deeply-rooted consumerism is in the human heart itself, and we know this because Christians are just as guilty of overspending, overcrowding, and overrushing as people to whom the holiday means far less.

Our efforts to keep Christ in Christmas have become outward focused, trying to convince nonbelievers of something; when we should be of inward focused, celebrating the holiday because of what it means to our faith… which is, in fact, its true meaning. I think if we see it more this way, connecting, rebraiding, reknitting ourselves with each other, God, and the people who’ve come before us, we will be much less frazzled, much more filled, and more like Christ ourselves.

So, good introvert that I am, I find intense meaning in being inward focused. Christmas is not in the blazing lights and blaring music and nostalgia for a Bing Crosby-esque snowfall. Christmas is in the flame of a candle, the hush of snow, the printed words of a true legend we can’t get out of our heads.

And this isn’t to say we should burn our Christmas trees and eschew all gift giving. I mean, if that would help you, go for it (unless you are someone who was going to give me a present. DO NOT go for it). But these stoic approaches also miss the point. Christmas should be a time of feasting and giving and joy, because of the ancient traditions. You can’t have one without the other. Mainstream society gets it wrong when it triumphs celebration over spiritual tradition, and we get it just as wrong when we do it the other way around. There is an order, but both are important.

I know I am biased. I’m an introvert; I’m a grandma. But I keep coming back to the fact that the first Christmas was very quiet. Yet it was powerful enough, magical enough, to stick with us. So perhaps I’m not a complete fuddy-duddy. Perhaps we really should stop looking for magic in all the noise. Perhaps the magic is in the quiet.

Be a Person, Not a Brand

As a freelance writer, a lot of the advice I’ve come across for building a blog, a client base, and social media following all boils down to one mantra, humming over and over and over:

Build your brand.

It’s the mantra of many a millennial. In the internet age, the dream is that we can all achieve success with our passions. We just have to market ourselves enough, post on social media enough, add a healthy dose of capitalism, and boom. The career of our dreams.

The phrase means that if you want to be an entrepreneur or creative, if you want to have a nontraditional career where you work from home or build a business, you must market yourself, sell yourself like a product. You must create an empire of one: you.

Every time I hear that phrase, build your brand, my soul shrinks back and grits its teeth, as if my entire being has just bitten into a metaphysical lemon. The mantra sounds good, and it’s worked, really well, for a lot of people. And I’m happy for them; I really am. But the idea at the root of branding yourself is one that absolutely terrifies me, because I think the implications of it go farther than we’re willing to consider.

A brand is a created entity. A brand is something a corporation makes to sell another thing. A brand is a surface-level household name constructed to be consumed. Oreos: you eat them. Nikes: you wear them. Sharpies: you bleed them dry. (I think I have a future in slogan writing, by the way.)

The truth is, human beings are so much more valuable than that. Humans are fragile and strong. We are terrifying and beautiful. We fly high and sink low. We are perfect and flawed, and the work we create is the same. There is so much more to us than the selling of a product or service.

Maybe you insist that I’m misunderstanding this phrase. Maybe it doesn’t mean what I’m taking it to mean. But then I have to ask: why are we using words like “brand” to describe people? People, with minds and souls that are somehow, magically, blessedly able to transcend the physical and inject everyday life with resilience and beauty and hope. The term “brand” to describe personhood is not just inappropriate; it’s insulting. Perhaps by using such paltry words to describe something so inherently magnificent, we are unconsciously saying what we tend to believe. Perhaps we are falling into the universal human trap: to take something valuable and trash it.

I’ve tried, as a writer, to build my brand, to treat my craft like a business and my self like a product. I’ve tried to blog in a way that sells, with flashy catchphrases and trendy buzzwords. I’ve tried to use social media to optimize my followers, with perfectly-curated pictures and relatable captions. I’ve tried to make flimsy business connections that are no more than a click on a web platform.

And all due respect to those who’ve achieved great success this way, but it’s not for me. When I write, I want it to be what I was born to say. When I post photos and say things online, I want it to be sharing something beautiful and making someone laugh. When I meet people, I want it to be in person, and I want it to be a real relationship.

The build-your-brand mentality may seem innocuous, but the problem is that this mentality doesn’t stay in the business world; it seeps into our mental states and social lives and personal development. I see a generation just a little younger than me growing up thinking that it’s normal to always be building yourself as a marketable image, never getting the chance to close the blinds, loosen up, have fun, and just be a person. I see us unable to accept each other as complex, three-dimensional people, instead choosing to commodify each other, to buy each other and throw each other away. I see us compromising the purity of our passions, crafts, and trades in the name of what seems like an easy ticket to a career. The internet may allow us to pursue our vocations like never before, but it has the danger of making our vocations the only thing people see in us. And this is a tragic, tragic thing.

So please: don’t be a brand. Be a person. It’s awkward and painful and vulnerable, but it’s also wild and beautiful and unique. You can create and accomplish far more meaningful things, a far more meaningful life, by just being a person. Because you already have, and you already are.

Being Still

Lately I’ve had the sense that I’m supposed to be more still. There are several things in my life I’m trying to get started, to make happen, to hustle into being, and time and time again it seems the answer that comes back to me is this: Wait.

And I didn’t think this would be such a problem for me. I’m Miss Introvert Homebody (that’s Mrs. Introvert Homebody to you). Being still is my jam. Nothing makes me happier than knitting and watching Netflix (the above photo is Exhibit A). When my best friend and I plan a wild Friday night, it usually includes staying home and dancing like old ladies to rap and injuring a ligament and retiring before midnight. It’s a good system.

But apparently, I’m not as good at being still as I thought. while I crave a life of stillness, I often loathe myself for being still. It feels too lazy to be peaceful, to wait. It feels like a waste. And so when I sense stillness being imposed upon me, I get belligerent. “Do you have any idea how wasteful this is?” I grumble. Instead of enjoying the rest in waiting, I do busywork to feel more accomplished. Instead of having hope that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, I drown myself in guilt for not doing more.

And so I run around in circles, doing more, trying more, and when all I try to do falls through and the message comes back, louder, JUST WAIT! I get more frustrated and more exhausted, until I don’t have energy to even do what one is supposed to do when waiting: being faithful in the little things. I’ve bought into the culture-wide lie that the little things aren’t good enough, that if I want to be successful, I must hustle! werk it! believe it dream it do it! So let me work on all that while I’m waiting!

And still the answer comes back: Wait. Busywork does not count.

And there’s really nothing to say but, “Okay.”

So I’ve been trying to focus more on the little things, the daily tasks in front of me. And oddly enough, I see some of what I’ve strived so hard to hustle into being come together on its own, just a little bit. Almost as if it’s not really up to me at all.

Almost as if all I need to do, is wait.

 

 

 

Know Thyself

In the past few months, my best friend and I have become inadvertent personality scholars.

I don’t quite remember how it started. We bought the same book, Better than Before, about temperament and habit formation. Then we hit a streak where, ironically, we got competitive about reading Quiet, the book on introverts (which we both are). Then during the semester, she read a Myers-Briggs textbook, and we figured out each of our personalities and those of our respective husbands, and read each feature of each personality to oblivion.

(In case you were wondering, I’m a shy introvert, an obliger with a rebel streak, an INFP with a turbulent nature, and a highly-sensitive person. On the Pinterest chart of introverted types as pets, I’m a cute cuddly mouse. According to Buzzfeed, which is even more scientific than Pinterest, I’m a meerkat.)

At some point Jenny asked me whether I thought our newfound knowledge of personality types made us almost too knowledgeable. “Do you think it might make us not rely on God enough?” she wondered. In our shared spiritual tradition, there’s a principle of recognizing, with humility, that we as human beings don’t know everything. And we certainly didn’t want to know so much we became smug, unable to relate to people without first asking the four letters of their Myers-Briggs personality type.

“I find it’s making me rely on him more,” I answered. For one thing, I need guidance outside of myself for putting my newfound knowledge to good use. Also, knowing a lot makes me that smug asshole. So I need help with that too.

But in all seriousness, figuring out how to use one’s knowledge of oneself is incredibly important. Learning so much about myself has taught me that I’m not always as impervious to cultural peer pressure as I think I am. Sometimes I adopt the values of my environment because everyone else thinks those values are common sense, when in reality they often squelch the very strengths I have. And then instead of being thoughtful about my nature, I’ve often been the hardest squelcher of them all, thinking I must fix myself in some way.

I’ve worked fast-paced jobs, but I’m a more quiet, deliberate person. I’ve worked in environments that encourage making sales, but I value authenticity and good causes. I’ve put myself in situations where I am expected to be chatty and engaging and to connect with a ton of people in any given day, but to me connection is something you can’t force. It must be deep and intentional and take a lot of time.

All of this pushing against my own nature has left me frustrated and even more disappointed with who I am. But when Jenny and I started studying personalities, (admittedly) becoming greater nerds on the subject, something clicked. It’s no longer a matter of changing myself to fit a mold, but rather of finding a mold that I can fit into already, a mold with a shape I fit and room I can grow in.

The catch, of course, is that we all have to spend our lives figuring out the tension between who we are and what life is, between who we should be and what life should be. We have to figure out when it’s okay to change and when it’s okay to stick to our nature, when it’s appropriate to build on our strengths, and when it’s better to strengthen our weaknesses. This goes along with that spiritual principle of realizing that no matter how much I know, I don’t know everything. I need guidance and strength outside myself to make big decisions and little decisions, moment by moment, that will polish me more and more into the person I truly am.

So that’s step two.

A Cautionary Tale

I don’t get road rage. I really don’t. Every once in a while I have a bad day and I might grumble at a slow person, and whenever I drive in Pittsburgh I will let out a string of Pittsburgheze. But these aren’t common occurrences. I’m a pretty placid driver.

No, I don’t get road rage. Unless… unless someone else is exhibiting road rage. And then I’m mad as hell. I get road rage at the people who get road rage.

I don’t know if it’s some righteous anger business. Maybe it is. (It probably is not.) I think it’s probably the result of mixed panic, overstimulation, and a compassionate sense of justice. I mean, come on, where’s the justice in tailgating someone who’s going five over the speed limit? Where’s the compassion in flipping someone off? And what the hell are you honking for? It’s taking me a while to lift my foot off the brake!

Yesterday I was on my way to Pittsburgh, and to be honest, I was in a sour mood. Something had ruffled me before I left the house, and then the previously sunny day had gone all gray, and then it started raining, and I can never seem to get the windshield wiper speed right. It’s either molasses-slow or ADHD-fast. I stopped at a light, and when it turned green, I took my foot off the brake, and suddenly heard six indignant horn blasts to my left.

Sluggishly and sullenly, like a toddler woken too soon from a nap*, I looked over. The lady in the huge brown SUV in the left lane hadn’t been honking at me; she was angry with the guy in the beat-up Toyota pickup in front of her, who was taking his (reasonable) time turning left. The sheer injustice of it all overwhelmed me. I was suddenly seized with road-rage road rage. My own horn looked incredibly inviting. I made a decision. I honked six little indignant horn blasts of my own, with a smug staccato that mirrored SUV lady’s. I felt a thrill of power and righteousness.

And then, terrified at my own strength, I scanned the area for police cars.

And then, by the time I’d gotten another mile down the road, I felt terrible.

And then I repented.

And then I kept myself from crying.

And then I wondered if SUV lady felt as bad as I did.

Road rage does no body good.

 

It’s Friday, which means I’ve released another chapter of my newest novel! Check out my Patreon page, where all my lovely sponsors can view an exclusive look at my first draft. Fiction is better than road rage. Read a story; save a life.

 

*Though, let’s be honest: anyone waking up from a nap is like this.

Rising Above the Oooh

I’ve always considered myself someone who likes to travel. I mean, it makes you sound so accomplished.

“What do you like to do?”
“I’m a writer, and a big reader. I also love to travel.”
“Really! Where have you been?”
“I’ve been to Europe,” *shrug*.
“Oooh.”

I live for the Admiring Oooh.

In all seriousness, I really do enjoy travel, not just for the Admiring Oooh. Visiting new places and seeing life done in different ways has always fascinated me. It’s wonderful to think that while you’re at home doing whatever you do, all these people are here, miles and miles away, doing what they do. It doesn’t stop and start when you arrive, it happens simultaneously with your own timeline. And for a moment, you get to step into a story not your own, and watch it, and sometimes even write some of it.

However, as I’ve gotten older (and this is really sad because I’m not even that old), I’ve found that I have to remind myself how much I love traveling, because more often than not it really stresses me out. New places are unfamiliar, full of a million unknowns, and I hate unknowns. Also I have a sensitive stomach that gets ill easily. Also I need to have enough sleep, and who knows if this will happen? Also I sunburn, literally, like hell. Also I am easily dehydrated. Where’s the closest water fountain? I pull away from my house, my place, with all my things in it, and see it looking so forlorn and abandoned, and I want to run back and cancel everything.

(And this is just going to visit my parents.)

I’ve learned that some things are worth hacking through a slew of fears for. I’ve done it before, and I regret it when I don’t. I want to cling to home, to peace, to the familiar, but not always for noble reasons. Often, very often, I cling to these things out of fear, thinking that without them I will no longer be myself. I forget that I am becoming evermore myself because of the times I travel, the times I encounter unknowns, the times I uproot myself now for better roots later. I would rather be that sort of person than to spare my house’s feelings.

I really do want to be the sort of person who travels, and not just for the Admiring Oooh.

 

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A Tourist

 

Yesterday the Russian and I were tourists.

We had breakfast at a random-but-delicious Greek diner in Nashville, then we went to the Parthenon. I’ve been there before, back when I lived in Tennessee for a few months. So for me, it felt less like touristing than it did being a local and showing a newbie the local sights. This, of course, in inaccurate, but it was nice to pretend.

The Russian isn’t really one for the arts, but he did marry a woman with an English degree, so he’s good at dipping his toes in. We milled around the art gallery under the Parthenon, looked at the collection of paintings based on Tennessee state symbols, and pondered how much of a hole buying two $7500 paintings would put us in. His favorite was a closeup of a ladybug on a leaf. Mine was a detail of juniper berries. Neither of us would compromise, so $15000 in debt it is.

It was a gorgeous warm, sunny day, the kind we probably won’t get in Pennsylvania until our annual February thaw. The place was full of people from everywhere, a mix of languages and dialects.

Hearing the Southern accent still makes me do a double take; I’m so unused to it, and I was even when I lived here. It reminds me that even though I consider Nashville an adopted city, even though I can get around without directions and show my husband the local sights, I still prefer a rugged Pittsburgh accent to a Southern one, a mess of damp hills to a dry plain of flatness, pierogis and sauerkraut to barbecue.

Despite everything, I’m still a tourist.