on writing terribly, bathhouses, and a blogging crisis.

Wendy Laurel Photography-20I recently used a couple babysitting hours to visit a bathhouse.

If you don’t know what a bathhouse is, don’t worry, I didn’t either until I showed up. Asha Urban Baths is new in town, and when I saw their name pop up on Facebook a few times, I took it as a sign. Last week I booked a babysitter, threw my swimsuit and coverup in a backpack next to a half-empty spiral notebook, and off I went.

I was the only person there for 90 glorious minutes. The check-in girl commented on this fact, twice.

You’re so lucky, she said.

I nodded silently, not sure if I should feel guilty about this or go buy a lottery ticket.

It felt like I was playing hooky from school, skipping out on my children and my inbox to sit in a gigantic tub of warm water all by myself. With my legs curled up under me on the step, I opened my journal and wrote “New Years Reflection” across the top, followed by a single mantra for 2017: work smarter, not harder.

I set my intentions for the year (slow down, remember to play, create for the joy of creating to name a few), and then I set some actual goals in three categories:

Take care of my body.
Take care of my mind.
Take care of my soul.

Under “take care of my mind” I wrote five things:

Writing night once a week.
Read 17 books in 2017.
Attend one creative conference this year.
More “think” days.
Blog again. 

Blog. Again. Full recognition, on paper, that blogging is no longer a thing that I do.

I (somewhat unintentionally) stepped back from this space in 2016 to focus on growing Coffee + Crumbs, to work on the book, to save my marriage (that’s a joke, or is it?), to see my friends, and to occasionally breathe into a paper bag away from my laptop.

I came back a few times when I had words swirling in my head and needed to put them somewhere. Like here and here and here. And it felt good to get those stories out. Familiar. Like when you visit your Grandma’s house in the woods and it always smells the same and she has chocolate fudge waiting for you on the counter.

But it also felt a little awkward, a bit out of place, like when you slip on a dress you haven’t worn in three years and look at yourself in the mirror. Does this still fit me? Is this even in style anymore? Am I pulling this off? 

By the end of 2016, I was convinced of two opposite conclusions:

1) I need to stop blogging altogether. Make a formal announcement. RIP where my heart resides; you’ve had a good run.

and

2) I need to start blogging again. I miss it. I miss writing here. I miss writing, period.

This drummed up a lot of (first-world problem) confusion.

Where do I go from here?
Do people even read blogs anymore?
(Don’t answer that.)

***

I remember last January making the resolve to cut back on my blogging with an internal pledge: only write when you have something to say.

And for 2016, I think I needed that, to be honest. There were a lot of business dealings in 2016: contracts, agreements, e-mails, new accounts, forms, statements, and on and on and on and on and on. 2016 was the year of the left brain; the year of We Need To Figure Out How To Make Money Or Bust.

But 2017? I want to do things a little differently this year.

I don’t know if people still read blogs. I don’t know if people still read this blog. But I do know that once upon a time, this was my writing home, and I felt comfortable and safe here. I could be honest. I could be silly if I wanted to be. I could write and hit “publish” and go about my day without thinking about it too much. Even more importantly: I felt accountable here. Whether lots of people were reading or hardly anyone was reading, I felt a responsibility to show up. I had a routine. I was disciplined. My attendance record was solid. In the span of blogging from 2009-2016 I even stopped calling myself a blogger and began calling myself a writer.

Come to think of it: that self-professed title change might be one of the greatest values this blog has ever culminated.

And I guess what I’m trying to say is …

I miss it here. I can’t pinpoint when this happened, but somewhere along the line in 2016, I got so bogged down in logistics and spreadsheets and e-mails, that I started to believe I had nothing worthwhile to say. Every time I sat down to write outside of a deadline or specific commitment, I was empty. Every time I sat down to write for me, to write for fun, to write for you, there were no words. Just fear and insecurity (can I call them Satan?) whispering in my ear: do you need to say that? You’re adding to the noise; the world doesn’t want or need your story right now.  

Taking a break from writing is a slippery slope for me. I can only equate this to peanut butter cups. I’m talking about the dark chocolate ones from Trader Joe’s, you know the kind that come in a tub? You pluck one out carefully. Just one. And then one turns into two and two turns into three, and six wrappers later, you feel both shame and satisfaction.

It’s easy for me to skip writing for a day. Eh, I feel uninspired. I’ll write tomorrow. And then tomorrow rolls around and there’s a new episode of This Is Us on Hulu and that for sure sounds like a better naptime plan than writing. I’ll write tomorrow! But tomorrow comes and I can’t think of a good opening line for that essay floating around in my head so I give up on it altogether because the act of starting feels too damn hard. And then one day turns into one week and one week turns into one month and pretty soon I can’t even remember how to write anything anymore because I cannot bear the thought of sitting down and writing something terrible.

I don’t know what happened to me.

This isn’t me.

This isn’t my best creative self, which is terrifying to admit the year I am co-leading an entire course on creativity.

I wasn’t going to complete the course myself because isn’t that backwards for the teacher to become the student? But I went through the January lesson tonight and one of the assignments was to sit down and write two pages without thinking.

So here I am.

These are my two pages of not thinking. And I suppose now that I’m done I can shut my laptop, close my eyes, and dream the night away even though I may have written something terrible.

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the things she can do in a year.

“I think we should just get bunk beds now,” my husband says nonchalantly on a Wednesday evening. I am throwing toy cars into their allotted basket, a futile effort that will surely be undone within the hour.

“But what if Carson stops sleeping?!” I whine back.

A non-napping toddler has zero effect on my sweet husband Monday-Friday. I, on the other hand, often plan my entire days around the glorious hours of 1-3pm when everyone retreats to their respective quiet places. Carson naps in his crib, in his room. Everett plays quietly on the floor, in his room. I work/read/watch TV/scarf down a turkey sandwich with a side of apple slices and chocolate chip cookies, in my bed, in my room.

We have a whole system, and the system is not broken.

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“He’ll sleep fine. They’ll love it. Plus, we can turn the extra bedroom into a home office,” he says.

The idea of a home office is alluring to me (I currently work from my bed + the dining room table), but also seems highly unpractical. We want a third baby, eventually, and I argue that it would be silly to turn a nursery into an office and then back into a nursery again.

“One year is nothing, what’s the point?” I scoff.

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It’s January (how?), and I am starting to feel that nagging need to self-reflect on the past year. I blame Instagram. Every time I open the app, I am flooded with a slew of photos featuring year-end recaps and fresh goals and all of the chosen one little words for 2017. I create my own collage and reluctantly hop on the bandwagon.

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And it is only then, thinking back on 2016 as a whole, for better and for worse, that I realize how long a year actually is. For it was only in one year’s time that, by God’s good grace, I was able to do the following:

-Co-launch & co-host the Coffee + Crumbs podcast 

-Get paid $1,000 (!) to write an article for Women’s Day Magazine

-Sign a book contract (!)

-Write/edit/take photos for/help design an entire book, alongside my C+C team

Travel to Guatemala; launch the Mother-to-Mother Care Collective

-Co-lead two online writing courses (1, 2)

-Hire two new writers

-Launch a Patreon account

-Launch a monthly newsletter

Co-design a calendar

and last but certainly not least,

-Launch The Year of Creativity.

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I am … (to put it mildly) exhausted. What a crazy, busy, wild, creatively-fulfilling year 2016 was. I stand at the start of 2017 with a cup of warm coffee in my hands, a brand new office to call my own, and this simple realization:

One year in the greater span of your life may be nothing, but when it comes to dreaming and hoping and growing and walking through the doors God has graciously opened just for you, one year can sometimes be everything. 

For me, 2016 was the year of everything.

I am tired.
I am grateful.
I am proud.
I am slightly terrified of what comes next.

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Here’s to 2017 – to a fresh start, a new space, this book (!), and opportunities yet to be discovered. Thank you, as always, for supporting me, for supporting us, and for making much of this work possible.

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p.s. If you want to spend 2017 creating alongside me, please consider this your personal invitation. The Year of Creativity is open and ready for you; use ASHLEE15 to save 15% off the yearly price. We’re already making lots of beautiful things. Join us?

p.s.s. I was totally right about the bunk beds, which is why Carson is now napping in a pack-n-play. Worth it, though. I really really really love my new office.

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on fear, criticism, scraps, and feasts.

ashleefam62

I have recently become obsessed with reading Amazon book reviews.

It’s a normal thing I do now, like checking my bank account or reading The Skimm. At least once or twice a week, I sit in bed with my laptop, perusing Amazon for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes reading reviews of books—mostly books I’ve read, but occasionally books I haven’t.

In my own twisted mind, I have adopted this process as a way of preparing myself for what’s to come. After all, next April people will be leaving reviews on our book. Right there on the Internet, for all the world to see.

I have never been so terrified.

My entire career (as I know it now) was founded on the Internet. I started writing, for free, on the Internet. I taught myself how to be a photographer on the Internet. I launched a website—which eventually turned into a podcast, a shop, a writing course, a book deal—thanks to the great people of the Internet.

I have honed a craft on the Internet, created my own dream job on the Internet, and made a ton of real, genuine friends on the Internet. Suffice it to say, I love the Internet.

And yet.

The Internet still scares the crap out of me.

A woman I know recently published a book on motherhood. On the very day it was released, a small herd of people tore her to shreds. They left a noticeable streak of 1-star reviews, questioning a number of things: her motives, her theology, how many times she mentioned Jesus in the book (not enough, apparently). They called her names, questioned her faith, and described her book as “a waste of time” and “a huge disappointment.”

The most alarming part was not the negative reviews themselves, but rather the number of people voting the reviews as “helpful” – which caused all of the 1-star reviews to float to the top of the page like a dark cloud.

I think of how hard this woman worked on that book, how many early mornings and late nights she spent writing and re-writing and editing and praying over those words. I think of all the people who were involved with the manuscript: editors and agents, friends and family. All to have it discredited, loudly, in the first 24 hours that people are allowed to comment publicly online.

I read the book myself. It was not the best book I have ever read, nor was it the worst. I found nothing in those pages worthy of the harsh criticism she received.

And that was the most disturbing part about it.

We do a reader survey for Coffee + Crumbs every year. The responses pour in by the hundreds, always around the same ratio: 94% positive, 6% negative.

The most interesting thing about that 6% is that they’re all upset about something different.

One says, “Your posts are too depressing.”
Another says, “I feel like you wrap up every essay with a neat little bow; that’s not real life.”
One says, “I wish you guys would lighten up a bit.”
Another says, “You’ve become too precious.”
One says, “You talk about God too much.”
Another says, “You don’t talk about God enough.”

I take all the feedback with a grain of salt, and bring it to the team. (Worth mentioning: this is the same team who currently writes for no pay.)

My friend Anna reminds me of this truth as we analyze the feedback as a group:

“We cannot be all things to all people, but we can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”

Anne Lamott once wrote, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part.”

Last Wednesday Everett came home from preschool and pulled artwork out of his backpack with an excited grin, his face beaming like the sun.

“Look what I made today, momma!”

He held up a yellow piece of paper with scribbles and stamps on it.

“I made it for you!” he said proudly.

I smiled at him, kneeling down to take the paper from his hands. Before I even responded, he darted out of the room to go find his Elmo.

Sometimes I find myself wishing that Coffee + Crumbs would stay small. There seems to be safety in smallness, less chances for harsh criticism and online hate. But in the very next breath I am working on a list of endorsers, adding ideas to the book marketing plan.

How does that work? How can I simultaneously want to grow bigger and stay small? How can I want our writing to reach more people while also wanting to stay in this safe cocoon we have managed to reside in for two whole years?

I suppose it is no different than motherhood.

I look at Carson, the Velcro baby of all Velcro babies. He is only two. There are probably loads of hilarious things that will someday come out of his mouth, brilliant ideas he will have, inspiring art he will create. And yet if I could keep him this small, waddling around the house in a diaper, I probably would. I would rock him in the grey rocking chair every night by the twinkle of the fish nightlight, burying my face in his neck and smelling his baby skin forever and ever.

He’s sweet and safe here, in the nest.

I know I can’t keep him here forever. At some point he will fly away to do good things, to make mistakes, to love and be loved, to leave a unique footprint on the earth. To keep him in the nest forever would stunt him, stifle him, trap him, and hinder him from reaching his full potential.

It’s still tempting, though.

We’re so cozy here.

Our pastor recently preached a sermon on the time Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the things I really love about our pastor is his ability to take a story I’ve heard a dozen times and put a fresh spin on it.

So he’s telling the story I already know: Jesus goes out on a boat to be alone, but the crowds follow him. The disciples tell Jesus that it’s getting late, and that He should send the people away. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat.

The disciples look down at what they have, confused. They tell Jesus they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. It’s not enough.

And then—this is the key, the fresh spin—Jesus says this: “Bring them here to me.”

You know how the story ends. He looks up to Heaven, breaks the bread, and feeds 5,000 men (plus women and children). There is enough leftover to fill twelve baskets.

How many times have I looked down at my work, my resources, my bank account, my art, my gifts and thought, this isn’t enough?

This isn’t good enough, God.
This won’t work, God.

Perhaps I have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along.

It’s not my job to show up with a feast. It’s certainly not my job to work miracles. No, it’s my job to show up with the scraps, with my not-good-enough work and my not-good-enough talents and bring them to Him. It’s my job to put those scraps in greater hands and trust and believe with my whole heart that He is the only one capable of turning it into a feast.

This is the truth: I am damn proud of this book. I am proud of every essay in there, of every writer who contributed, of every story we reached deep into our hearts to find.

This is also the truth: I am terrified of what people will say about it. I am terrified of people ripping us apart, terrified that in the daylight I’ll shrug it off and say I’m fine but at 3am a single tear will roll down my cheek while I dissect the criticism in my head.

I don’t know how to keep courage. I don’t know how to stay brave when there might be people waiting in the wings to tear us down. I don’t know how to be stronger. I don’t know how to fight this, how to overcome my overwhelming insecurity. Sometimes I wonder if I should simply block Amazon from my browser so I won’t be tempted to check the reviews 400 times.

I’ll tell you what I’m praying for, though.

I’m praying that God will take our scraps and turn them into something beautiful. I’m praying that He alone will receive the glory if and when a feast arrives. I’m praying that the complaints—and the praise, to be honest—will not affect the way we see our own work. I’m praying that next April we will pull this artwork out of our backpacks, faces beaming like the sun, and hand it to the world with a simple, “We made this for you!”

Because we did. We made this for you.

Onward and upward.

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the fleece.

ashlee

Photo by Wendy Laurel

One day last October, an unexpected e-mail popped up in my inbox. It said, “I’ve been watching Coffee + Crumbs for a while now; I was just curious if you’ve ever considered a book?”

This was before I had an agent coaching me on how to handle conversations with publishers, back when I was replying to e-mails all willy nilly, the way I always reply to e-mails—quickly and concisely and often with emojis.

Do you know what I told that publisher?

“I don’t think Coffee + Crumbs is ready for a book of essays.”

Yep. I said that. I really typed those words.

I don’t know if that was just the fear talking, or doubt, or insecurity, or some bitter twisted cocktail of all of the above, but at the time, that was my truth. I practically scoffed at the idea, holding up a shield of resistance in front of my face.

Nope.
It’s too soon.
It’s too much.
We aren’t ready for that.
I am not ready for that.

Four weeks later, a new e-mail from a different publisher popped up in my inbox. It said, “We really love what you’ve made with Coffee + Crumbs, and we’d like to chat with you about writing a book.”

I wish I could say this is where all of the fear and insecurity fell away, and that receiving two e-mails from two different publishers in four weeks’ time was enough of an ego boost to convince me this book might be a good idea, but that’s not exactly how it went down. Doubt remained in full force, tugging at me, pulling on me, begging me to get down on the floor in the fetal position and hide behind my shield.

So I prayed about it. I told God I was scared. I prayed some more.

And then, He took the shield right out of my hands and told me to stand up.

***

There is a story in the bible about a man named Gideon who is probably better known for defeating an army of 135,000 Midianites with 300 men, and less known for the way he tested God.

While I love a good victory in the name of Yahweh, I have to admit—I am much more intrigued by the way Gideon worked up the courage to ask God for a sign (not once, twice).

When God told Gideon to gather the Israelite troops to defeat the Midianites, Gideon wanted to be sure it was really God’s voice he was hearing. So before complying with God’s wishes, he laid out a simple test. He put a scrap of fleece on the ground overnight and asked God to make the fleece wet with dew while keeping the surrounding ground dry.

And God made it so.

The fleece was so wet that when Gideon wrung it out the next morning, water filled an entire bowl. You’d probably assume that Gideon’s faith would be restored after this sign, but that’s not exactly how it went down. Gideon, bless his heart, needed just one more sign. He knew it was a lot to ask, which is why he prefaced his request by asking God not to be angry with him. This time around, he got super creative and asked for the opposite sign: that the fleece would be dry while the ground stayed wet.

Again, God made it so.

Finally Gideon believed, and went on to follow God’s instructions to defeat the Midianites.

Later in Hebrews 11, Gideon is referenced as a man of great faith.

***

Girl gets book deal.
Shit hits the fan.
Girl freaks out.

This is my very own Gideon tale.

***

When everything first happened: the e-mails from publishers, the agent, the book deal, one of the first emotions I felt (and was not expecting to feel) was guilt.

Publishers don’t just e-mail people like me out of the blue. There are writers on my very team slaving over this grueling process, day in and day out, pouring their hearts and souls into their manuscripts hoping that someday, someone will give them a chance.

My inner critic faithfully reminded me: You do not deserve this. You did not earn this.

It felt like I had cheated. Like I had walked up to the roller coaster everyone was dying to get on and skipped ahead to the front of the line. At night, I laid awake at 2am wondering if some of the other writers secretly resented me.

These nine women are like sisters to me; we are a family and we got to this point together. But things got complicated pretty quickly. There were lots and lots of e-mails and questions—valid questions—questions I myself might be asking if I was sitting on the other side of the table.

But I wasn’t really sitting on either side of the table; I was sitting right on top of it, smack dab in the center, as the official collector and distributor of all information.

I became the middlewoman between the agent/publisher and the writers. For two straight weeks, I did nothing but send e-mails. I became a machine, a human computer, information coming in and information going out. I took questions and forwarded them to the right people. I translated answers as soon as I got them. My brain became a vessel of constant input/output, to the point where I started getting nightly headaches.

With emotions and stress levels running at an all-time high, a few of those conversations left me feeling defensive and confused. Am I disappointing everyone? Is this book going to ruin us? What have I gotten myself into? Next thing I knew, I was driving to Chick-fil-A with tears streaming down my face to drown my sorrows in a carton of waffle fries.

I felt so fragile, so tired. Doesn’t everyone see how hard I’m working?

I cried a lot that night, and had to wonder: was this book really from God?

***

Things people don’t tell you about book publishing:

  1. You will spend more time sending e-mails than anything else.
  2. You don’t have as much say as you think you will.
  3. The whole process might wreak havoc on your marriage.

(Talk to me next April about all of the wonderful parts—I know they’re coming.)

***

In the two months leading up to the manuscript being turned in, I became a hermit. I was glued to my laptop at every opportunity dealing with e-mails about titles and cover images and contracts. I shut the bedroom door to write in peace and left town a few times to hole up in a hotel room to finish proposals and essays. I printed almost 300 pages at Kinkos and proofread them carefully in the backyard with a red pen in one hand and an iced coffee in the other.

I cannot remember exactly when I developed chronic insomnia, but somewhere along this journey, I started buying Zzzquil in bulk.

If I’m being real, gut-wrenchingly honest here, my marriage saw some of our Darkest Nights leading up to the manuscript being turned in. We fought a ton. We said things we couldn’t take back. We never had enough help with the kids. My husband felt neglected (he was), I felt like I wasn’t receiving enough grace (I wasn’t), and neither of those feelings were being communicated well. Instead, I expected him to read my mind and he expected me to read his, and after nine years of marriage, you’d think we’d both know by now that we are terrible mind readers.

It wasn’t the book’s fault, but the book was easy to blame. It was easy to point to. The printed manuscript sat right there on the bedroom dresser—all 64,488 words of it.

The day the manuscript was turned in, we weren’t even speaking to each other.

I celebrated in silence, threw up an obligatory Instagram, took my kids out for ice cream alone, and felt really, truly, sad. And it was that night, sitting isolated in my bedroom, feeling more empty and confused than ever, that I wondered for the second time: was this book really from God?

***

After the night of the waffle fries, I had a good heart-to-heart with the C+C writers. In some ways, I’m grateful that things got temporarily complicated because it opened the door for some bigger conversations about the future, about expectations, about roles and teamwork and trust. I realized how much my own insecurity played a part in my defensiveness, which is not the kind of leader I want to be.

Brett and I kissed and made up. (And also went to therapy.) A few weeks later, on the two year anniversary of Coffee + Crumbs, he brought home flowers and a box of coffee crumb cake mix—a perfect peace offering.

Last weekend we ran away to Calistoga to celebrate our nine-year wedding anniversary.

I left my laptop at home.

***

My publisher tells me this is normal, that every author feels this way, that I am in the thick of it, that the sun will come out soon. I believe those words. And the only reason I am writing all of this down is because next April, I want to be able to look back on the journey as a whole and appreciate the love and work and sweat and tears that have been poured into this book.

And I want you to know this part of the story, too.

So that when you see the glamorous side later: the book launch party and shiny new books propped up on shelves in the bookstore, you can appreciate the full journey—in all of its messy and beautiful glory—and feel like you were along for the ride.

Nothing good ever comes easy; we know this. Motherhood. Marriage. Running a marathon. Climbing a mountain. Writing a book. These things require perseverance, patience, endurance, loyalty, love, dedication, and heaps and heaps of grace. These things offer us the chance to grow, to adapt, to learn, to sacrifice, to push ourselves to the limits, and to lean on God like never before.

As far as work goes, this book is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not sure what’s more exciting at this point: the mental image of this book sitting on shelves in actual bookstores, or all the ways I will be refined in the process.

***

“Writing is my calling.”
“Music is my calling.”
“Missions are my calling.”

I’ve heard lots of people—Christians especially—talk about calling.

God is calling me here; God is calling me there.

I’ve said that before. I’ve had days where I suddenly felt my heart stir for something, for someone, for someplace, and the feeling seemingly came out of the sky.

Do things like that come out of the sky?
Or do things like that come from God?

I suppose it depends on whether or not you believe in God.

I’m definitely not an expert in callings (in yours, or mine). But I do know this: when I needed the fleece to be wet, it was wet, and when I needed the fleece to be dry, it was dry.

***

On November 13, 2013, the idea for Coffee + Crumbs was planted in my heart.

Six weeks later, in a city 45 minutes from where I live, a total stranger named N’tima Preusser wrote a blog post called Babies Ruin Bodies.

On February 5, 2014, Babies Ruin Bodies ran on the Huffington Post, and one day in March it popped up on my Facebook feed. I subscribed to N’tima’s blog that night.

On June 15, 2014, I e-mailed N’tima out of the blue, introduced myself for the very first time, and, like a total crazy person, asked her to write for a brand new website that hadn’t even launched yet. Seven days later, she said yes.

Five weeks after that, her first essay went up: When Love Feels Heavy.

That post was viewed over a million times that month.

Coffee + Crumbs was only four weeks old.

***

On August 8, 2014, a stranger named April sent me an essay called Bad Math that made me cry actual tears all over the dress I was wearing.

She sent me another essay in September called Brave Brave Brave and I cried (again) reading it at the coffee shop.

I wrote her back and casually said, “Let’s add you to the writer team.”

She replied, “I am going to go scream in the bathroom, BRB.”

Our e-mails turned into texts and our texts turned into 15-minute voicemails and at some point, she confessed that she had been reading my personal blog since 2010. I laughed hysterically. We wrote together and maintained a long-distance friendship for nineteen months before meeting in real life for the first time in Palm Springs for my 30th birthday.

She walked through the door carrying a giant cake with tiny cactuses on it.

I knew we’d be friends forever.

***

I have hundreds of little miracles in my pocket, just waiting to be written down.

I have more stories involving C+C writers, and more perfectly-timed e-mails I could tell you about. But generally speaking, you should know that every time I have ever wanted to quit writing, an e-mail has popped up in my inbox from a total stranger the same week. (And I have wanted to quit writing more than once; there are lots of e-mails.) They all say some rendition of the same thing: Keep writing.

***

I am no longer wondering whether or not this book is from God.

Because now when things get hard, I just remember the fleece.

***

“You’ve so earned this!”
“If anyone deserves this, it’s you!”
“All of your hard work is finally paying off!”

Well. Maybe.

The bigger truth? The more exciting truth? The truer truth?

Look at the fleece.

***

I don’t know what your calling is. I don’t know if you’ll ever get a book deal or an agent or that dream job or that dream spouse. I don’t know if you’ll get pregnant or adopt or start that business or move to that city.

But I do know that God is working, all of the time, in every moment, all around you. He is in every breath you take, every decision, every step, every move, every interaction, every…..thing.

God is in everything.

And if you don’t believe me, that’s okay.

Because all I have to do is check your fleece.

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a walking contradiction.

Wendy Laurel Photography-19photo credit: Wendy Laurel

Over the past nine months, I have treated myself to not one, not two, but three solo writing retreats. Picture this: a gorgeous hotel room (with a fireplace), one takeout order from the Italian restaurant down the road, followed by a single scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream from the candy shop next door, a giant king bed, and hours upon hours of dedicated work time before popping a sleeping pill and falling into an 8-hour coma.

It is just as magical, wonderful, and amazing as one would think.

I always pack too much, anticipating that 18 hours will magically feel like 58 hours because when you are alone, time is supposed to multiply, right?

Only I am finding the opposite to be true, actually, because when I am alone for 18 hours, it somehow only feels like 7 hours. Half the items on my list remain unfinished, my face mask doesn’t even make it out of the weekender bag, and the bottle of nail polish I’ve tucked into my purse mocks me the next morning as my hand grazes against it while I search for the car keys.

I tell my husband and kids I miss them upon my return, which is true (of course), but how can that sentiment be true when this is also true: it did not feel like enough.

It was enough in that I made a dent in the work. Between the three trips, I finished the book proposal, the sample introduction, the outline, the sales video script, a few essays, a blog post, some editing work. But when you are working against a deficit of what feels like hundreds of hours, it’s easy to let discontentment creep in on the drive home.

I needed more.
That wasn’t enough.

The most amazing part of those writing retreats was not the eight hours of consecutive sleep (thank you, zzzquil), or the fancy robe in the closet (although I do love a good hotel robe), or even the warm lemon scones that were delivered to my hotel door at 7am each morning (hello, little luxury).

The truth is, those perks paled in comparison to the real gold of the writing retreat: uninterrupted silence. Alone in that hotel room, my mind finally had space to think, to process, to pray, to reflect, to dream, to just…..be.

Can I confess something here?

For the past year, I have succumbed to the pressure of More, More, More in my work. I have said yes to things I shouldn’t have said yes to, and I have committed to things I shouldn’t have committed to. I have jumped in, headfirst, to every growth opportunity that came my way. I thought I could handle the stress, the fast pace. I’m strong and independent and capable so why shouldn’t I simultaneously run a website and work on a book and co-lead a writing workshop and photograph some families and co-host a podcast and wouldn’t it be amazing if we also created an app?

For me, the problem has never been a shortage of ideas or opportunities; the problem has always been time and space to put my best foot forward in those ventures.

From the outside looking in, people assume I have it all together. They say things like, “you inspire me!” and “I don’t know how you are doing all of that!”

I’ll tell you how.

I am drowning.

My marriage has been ignored. My kids have endured the wrath of my constant impatience. I have forgotten how to write. I feel uninspired, unimaginative, unoriginal, and exhausted. I barely exercise. I eat too much cereal. I’m not praying often. And don’t even get me started on sleep.

My to-do list has taken over my life. I’ve become a slave to productivity, held hostage by my own inbox. I can no longer focus on one thing—there are always eleven tabs and six windows open on my computer screen. I bounce around from task to task, too antsy and restless to finish any one project. My mind never stops moving, never stops working, never stops thinking. I lie awake at 4am every night making lists in my head, beating myself up, thinking of all the ways I am failing, all of the people I’m disappointing, all of the things I should be doing better.

I am…..a mess.

A stressed out, overly-ambitious, overly-committed, hot mess.

(Still inspired by me?)

***

I purge our home so often that sometimes my husband doesn’t even bother bringing items into the house.

“I know that’s going to end up at Goodwill,” he’ll say, retrieving something from the car and tossing it into a paper bag that I keep in the garage for such occasions.

Among my list of addictions, purging is right up there with sugar and caffeine. My idea of a fun Saturday is one where Brett takes the kids to the park while I get rid of 20% of our belongings with a podcast playing in the background. Introverting and liquidating: my personal recipe for a happy weekend.

I have a deep affection for empty cabinets, space between the hangers, tables with nothing on them. I have mastered the art of the capsule wardrobe, and only keep around 40 items in my closet at all times. When the house is picked up, everything has a place (including the toys). I am practically ecstatic that my kids are now at the age where I can leave the house with nothing but a clutch. There’s a single diaper and pack of wipes in the car for emergencies, and I no longer need to bring half a baby registry with me to the park.

I am free.

When there’s too much stuff in my house, my closet, the garage, etc, I immediately get overwhelmed.

My motto with stuff has always been: less is more.

***

Somehow I have become a walking contradiction: I am both a purger and a hoarder, tossing belongings out of my house without a second thought and collecting opportunities like seashells.

My whole life is starting to feel like a too-stuffed closet. Like there’s no room in here, like I can’t breathe, like I can’t find anything I need. I can’t figure out what to wear because there are too many skirts and shoes and dresses and where did all these scarves come from? I don’t even wear scarves, but suddenly I’ve got six wrapped around my neck and is this what it feels like to suffocate?

This is what happens, of course, when we add things to our closet time and time again without taking anything out. The hangers get closer and closer together, until everything smashes into an indistinguishable sea of fabrics and textures. Your favorite dress hangs in the back—shrunken behind an abundance of clothing—invisible.

What good is it to have a beautiful dress hanging in your closet when you can’t even see it?

***

I don’t know how I got here. But I know I need to get out. And I know it’s going to be a lot of hard work, a lot of undoing. I lot of I’m sorry, I can’t do that’s and a lot of I wish I could, but now is not the right time’s.

Disappointing people is never fun.

But what good is it to create your dream job if you constantly feel suffocated by it?

***

Most days, I feel like a total and complete imposter. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, making up my own rules and figuring it out as I go along. Did you know that I’ve never taken a writing class in my life? I’ve completed exactly one photography workshop. I’ve never taken a business class. I know nothing about paying self-employment taxes or bookkeeping or publishing a book. Every day I feel like an idiot at least once, googling how to do something else. How did people ever live without Google? I ask Google the small questions, and ponder the bigger ones at 2am while everyone else in my house sleeps.

How do women start businesses and take care of their kids and not lose their minds?

How do mothers balance pouring their hearts into their work while also pouring their hearts into their marriage, their children, their friendships?

and the biggest question of all,

How do I keep running this business without letting it run me?

***

I have no black and white answer, no aha moment, no pretty bow for the end of this. But I do feel better after saying it out loud.

I am starting to seek refuge and freedom through small steps. Ten minutes in the backyard, journaling under the twinkle lights. Fifteen minutes reading a devotional in bed. Four minutes writing an e-mail undoing an unnecessary commitment. Seven minutes making a smoothie bowl with freshly sliced bananas on top. Twenty minutes talking to my husband on the couch, our legs entangled like a pretzel. Thirteen minutes playing toy trains on the floor with my kids while my phone stays in another room.

Less is more, less is more.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to do those things. I became a walking to-do list, a chart of accomplishments, a name on a book, an Instagram feed. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was exhaustion, guilt, and the overwhelming feeling of not being enough.

One of my best friends growing up was a guy named Kory. I spent a lot of time at his house when we were in high school, and every time we left to go grab dinner or see a movie, his dad would smile at us and say, “Remember who you are.”

Remember who you are.
Remember who you are.
Remember who you are.

If you’re looking in the mirror today struggling to see past the exhaustion and guilt and inadequacy of trying to do it all and be it all and have it all; if you’re treading water and struggling to breathe, please know that I am right beside you.

Let’s remember who we are.

We are daughters of the King.

And that will always and forever be enough.

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