A Better Story

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Love this post from Tom Basson about the need for story and the power of story in our lives.

tom.basson

There is something wonderfully powerful about STORIES.

Stories are universal – crossing boundaries of language, culture and age. We can all relate to stories, and it is in the context of narrative that the human heart truly responds. In fact, people have been telling and responding to stories since the beginning of time. It’s how most cultures pass on information from generation to generation.

Interestingly, recent evidence from neurology and psychology is confirming that humans think in narrative structures. Concepts conveyed in story form – more than ideas explained with logic and analysis – imprint themselves naturally into human minds.

It’s why we can remember a book or a film from years back, but can’t remember the PowerPoint we saw 10 minutes ago.

There is something about story (especially a good story) that is able to capture our hearts, our minds, and our imagination.

Now, I believe inside each of…

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Do What You Love. Or Maybe Not

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Love Never Fails

photo by Jhon Alfa Tumbelaka

Is it really best to do what you love? Or is it better to just get a job? What if you want your passion to remain your passion and not your job?  If you’ve ever actually tried to make money doing what you love (art, music, writing, teaching–whatever), you know that your passion can be sucked dry by the pressures and sticky details of actually earning a living. Even worse, that thing you love, that thing that was once a joy and release from the every day, has become part of the every day, so now you no longer even have your fun escape valve.

A friend of mine built a business around a passion of hers. After 14 years of running a successful but demanding business, she advocates keeping your creative passions for yourself versus wrapping your sustenance around them. Others say, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  I don’t know, though. I’ve been doing what I love for a long time, but writing as a business is a whole different animal from writing for the sheer joy of it.  It involves nasty unpleasant things like taxes, bookkeeping, billing, negotiating, and contracts.  I know. I know. This is all just reality. I get that. But is there wisdom in hiding a little piece of your creative soul away from your paycheck?

So, I’m curious. I’m really curious how others who work within their passions or creative gifts address this issue.  What do you do?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ideas on How to Survive Creativity

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Just ran across this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.  Gilbert wonders aloud about whether creativity is internal and innate, or whether it comes from somewhere outside ourselves. The difference may be critical to the survival of the artist.  As a Christian, I found myself nodding. Hmmm. I think this is what we call the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God the Creator. The Spirit that was there at creation “hovering” over the emptiness like a brooding hen. (See Genesis 1:1) This 19-minute talk is well worth the time.

5 Things You Should Know about Creative Minds

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creative minds

photo by Alex Erde

Do you struggle to understand the artistic souls in your life (maybe even your own)?  I’ve been surrounded by creative types from birth. My Dad? Artist. Grandmother? Artist. Husband? A musician. Oldest son? Musician and chef. Younger son? Artist. Believe me, I’ve had ample opportunity to think about how we creative types work. I’ve also got just enough left-brain functionality to understand that the creative personality completely confounds the rest of the population.

We don’t mean to.  Honest.

But our very being is a source of consternation to those who believe that 2 + 2 should ALWAYS…and I mean ALWAYS…lead to the neat and tidy and oh-so-predictable sum of 4.

And it should do so in a timely fashion.

In sympathy with my orderly, logical, left-brain friends, I thought it might help to compile a few tips to help you navigate the universe of your right-brained loved ones.  So here’s just five ideas.

1) We creative souls really do work better under pressure. Seriously, creativity thrives within boundaries–even the temporal kind! We’re not procrastinating. We’re waiting for the creative pressure to kick in. Give us too much time, and we’re staring out the window.

2) Speaking of staring out the window, we need to do this. Regularly. You’ll just have to trust us about this.

3) We respect you left-brain types with such disciplined routines. We marvel. We know we should be more like you. But I’m not gonna lie. In our world, routine is boring and overrated.

4) Feedback is fine. Collaboration is fine. Re-doing the work that you hired us to do. Confusing. You don’t, for instance, march into the kitchen of your favorite restaurant and say, “You know, this looks like fun. I’ve always fancied being a chef. Move over. I’d like to re-do that Chicken Marsala.”

5) We aren’t trying to make you crazy by changing the way we do things. We just don’t like doing things the same way twice.  (See #3)

Beginnings

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Carolina morning

Carolina morning. Photo by L. Kay Johnson

The importance of accepting new beginnings has become clear in recent months. I know I’m in a time of transition, but where there’s no road map or guaranteed formulas, every morning is like a new experiment..a “why not try it this way” kind of day. I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m also learning to rely on that “new every morning” mercy. A few practical routines and practices seem to help:

  • Breathing: Sometimes taking the time to breathe is an act of trust.
  • Gratitude: I’m reading Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts. Timely stuff.  (Highly recommend it, by the way.)
  • Prayer. My favorite these days:  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. Seems if I can keep these two prioritized, the rest is water under the bridge.
  • Journaling: Forgive the analogy, but when my mind is roiling, journaling is kind of like throwing up on paper. Messy and gross. But you feel so much better afterwards. And somehow it all often magicaly transforms into clarity and useful ideas.
  • Exercise. Don’t think. Just do.  Amazing how much clearer my mind is when I give myself this gift.
  • Sleep.  Do I really need to give myself permission!?  Apparently so.
  • Sunshine. Seriously. Amazing what a few minutes outside can do for my attitude.
  • Truthful Friends. No substitute for friends who listen when I wail and then tell it like it is.
  • Trust. Like breathing, all of the above require trust.

One blogger captured some great ideas about how to start the day that I thought I would share as well.  Good stuff. Now trust…and go for a walk.

Daily Manna Gathering

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morning coffeeHad coffee with my friend, Katy.  While we shared the woes of mounting bills and diminishing funds, we talked about the daily manna or bread from heaven that the Isrealites were given in the desert. Katy reminded me that God opted for a daily provision. When the people tried to hoard enough for the week, or even for the next day, the food rotted. They didn’t like having to trust that God would come through for them tomorrow. I don’t like it either.

In fact, like the Israelites, I am often tempted to look back at “Egypt” and think it all looks pretty good in retrospect. Like the Egyptians, I sometimes find myself saying, “Yes, I was a slave, but I was a comfortable slave!”  I keep forgetting that God loves me too much to leave me in places where I have become too comfortable. And he loves me too much to let me remain a slave versus pushing me to embrace my own freedom.

Katy also reminded me that it is just as silly to look forward into the future and allow ourselves to get all amped up with anxiety.  She said, “Just lay out the bills and see which one is due today. Pay that one. For all you know, you’ll be dead tomorrow!”  She’s right. And then I will have spent my last day on earth worrying about a bill that I will never have to pay.

See…this is why we need honest friends. Thanks, Katy.

Top 5 Ways to Get Over Writer’s Block

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Hilarious! What writer can’t relate to this and many other tried and true solutions to writer’s block? This post reminds me of Anne Lamott’s claim that it’s normal to write six pages of crap before you actually come upon a coherent thought.

Life and Laughter

I spend a LOT of time writing. Whether it’s my Life and Laughter column, an article for a magazine or newspaper, a press release or this witty blog, I’m ALWAYS trying to come up with interesting topics, fun words, brilliant sentences, blah, blah, blah. But there are SOME days (I call them “weekdays”) when my brain doesn’t engage and I stare stupidly at my computer screen, watching that irritating cursor blink in my general direction. Mocking me.

Writer’s Block.  For some reason, the voices in my head have gone silent.

So I type anything. Lalalalalalalalalalalalala. UMMMMMMMMMMMMM. Peri is cool. I want chocolate. Must quit my writing job. Goats are people, too. This grapefruit is fascinating. Etc, etc, etc.  Blah, blah, blah.

Doesn’t usually help.

But I’ve found some things that will get those creative writing juices flowing again:

#1: Wallow in self-pity. This is the point where I admit I’ve been a writing fraud my entire life and I…

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Soul Weeding: Clearing the Clutter

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clutter

Photo by Emerson

 

I once read that you should get rid of the things that make you grimace every time you pass by. (I’m assuming this does not include family members.)  Still, without external pressure, I’m sometimes more comfortable staying in the weeds than going through the painful process of extricating myself from them. In fact, I start to convince myself that while the view is lousy in Weedville, it’s not so bad. There are lots of other weeds to keep me company.

I read recently, though, about that moment when God calls out to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?” It’s like God kept a regular sunset-watching date with his friends, but this time they were missing…hiding, as we know….as God knew.  I hear longing in that question: Where are you?  Is it possible that God actually looks forward to my companionship, but I’m so buried in the clutter of my own ambitions or fears or anxieties or agendas that I don’t even notice?

What if stopped, listened, and I answered, “Here I am. Come sit with me”?  I suspect I would gain perspective. Focus. Insight. Wisdom. I suspect I’d get rid of enough weeds to enlarge my view and find fresh perspective.

I don’t know why I hide from God’s call. I find it difficult to shut my chattering brain down long enough—even though I know it’s what I need more than anything. After all, if there’s space for God in my life, isn’t there space for everything else?

Review: Someone Knows My Name

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Someone Knows My Name
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are in a current funk of self-pity, this is definitely not the book for you. On the other hand, if you could use a vision of courage, Someone Knows My Name will not disappoint. This book explores what it means to be a slave and what means to be free. Through the central character, Aminata, we also also explore what it means to be human.

Lawrence Hill has achieved the remarkable in several ways. First, he successfully writes from the viewpoint of an 18th-century African woman, thereby ensuring we see the extent of how slavery affected “the least of these.” Second, his careful research guarantees just enough detail to facilitate our transport to the world of 18th-century colonization. Finally, and I think this is the most remarkable thing, Hill goes beyond simply indicting European slave traders, or even Africans who fully collaborated. He doesn’t shy from the truth that slavery exists wherever human selfishness, fear, and greed exist. In other words, he indicts us all.

Only after Hill has given the reader a real eye-full of the horrors of slavery does he allow his characters to discuss the issues surrounding slavery and the lies that slave-traders and their collaborators used to condone the industry. And only after ensuring that the reader sees the misery and cruelty as blatantly as possible does he show Aminata’s own struggle to identify the right people to blame. Is it the slave ship owners? Is it those who buy the slaves? Is it the Africans who participate and profit from the trade? Is it even ladies in the drawing rooms of London who can’t live without sugar in their tea? And how does she figure in the fact that her own village once owned a man?

Identifying the enemy was far more complicated that she imagined, and knowing how to fight slavery was equally challenging. At one point, she strikes a bargain with an African slave trader to take her back to her native village. She is pained to realize that this man and his followers, who are faithful Muslims, are actively engaged in profiting from slavery just as easily as those who called themselves Christians or Jews. She also soon realizes that she has participated in the threat of her own re-enslavement by paying for their services. Even worse, as she witnesses new groups of slaves being led to the coast, she is appalled to realize that she is just like the bystanders she had condemned so long ago for watching the captives pass by and doing nothing to stop the captors.

As she tells her stories later to fellow Africans, the chief of the village is incredulous when she claims that not all “toubabu” (white men) were devils. He asks, “How could it be possible to see good in some of them?” Aminata replies, “Do you not know the human heart?”

Aminata spent years associating her identity with her father, her mother, her language, and her Bayo village. As her dream of returning there fades, she begins to realize that Bayo and all that it held is a past that she must surrender. The thing that she cannot surrender and that becomes her new identity is her commitment to freedom.

Hill’s book is a striking illustration of how easily we can justify wrongs, even whitewashing them with words like “progress and prosperity.” He forces us to look at the price of greed and evil, while also considering the power that one soul, completely free from fear, possesses to effect change. Aminata’s ultimate commitment to the truth versus even to her own dreams is one we would all do well to emulate. As she so beautifully said, “I don’t govern my life according to danger.”

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Addicted to Extraordinary

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sacred ordinary

photo by schmense

Some things in life spoil you for the ordinary. Meaningful volunteer work, crisis situations, military service, even adventure travel—these kinds of things may lead to an addiction to the extraordinary, where our identity clings like seaweed to the “importance” of what we do.  My “spoiler experience” was five-year stint as a young adult with a mission organization. I lived and worked with a pack of fired-up young people out to save the world. We worked in an inner-city mission in Amsterdam, and it seemed that everything we did had eternal significance. Nothing wrong with passion and a desire for meaningful service, but I made the fatal error of deeming that kind of work as “sacred,” while a regular job was merely “secular.”

Of course, now I see things differently. Everything is sacred. I read a book once years ago, whose title I have forgotten, where the author shared his struggle with ordinary life. He was attracted to a radical life of solitude, prayer and meditation, but this guy had a regular job, a wife and three kids. He could barely get in a quiet moment edgewise, much less hours for meditation!  In time, though, he began to realize that before there were any monastical orders, before there was even a church, before the first apostles forged unknown territory to share God’s story, even before Jesus preached or healed or died on the cross—before all of that…there was a Mary and a Joseph.

A housewife. A carpenter. They didn’t do anything any more radical than raise a child.

They got up every day and worked, cleaned the house, paid the bills, and made dinner.  It was all so very…ordinary.  But without that ordinary, or as author Leigh McLeroy calls it, that “sacred ordinary,” the rest of the story could not have unfolded.

I don’t want to miss that sacred ordinary now. Do you? Whatever you are doing, give it to God who redeems all of our work, making it sacred through his grace.

Refrain from the Identical

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Do you flutter from one creative passion to the next, leaving in your wake a trail of unfinished projects and a stack of expensive supplies? If so, I can name your ailment. You are a creative eclectic. Refrain from the Identical: Insight and Inspiration for Creative Eclectics is a guidebook for people who love to explore new avenues of creativity for the pure joy of it.  Author JoDee Luna offers good news and bad news. The bad? You’ll be “this way” forever. The good news? You can learn to enjoy, manage, and embrace your creative self. You may even help friends and family understand you a bit more–or at least you’ll learn to deal with their consternation and befuddlement over your creative wanderlust.

JoDee understands that consternation. The creative eclectic feels it too! She recalls a conversation with her daughter, where they laughed, to avoid crying, about the frustration they shared over their wandering creative eyes.

“I can’t help myself,” her daughter moaned.

I stopped trying,” JoDee replied, and she went on to describe the creative process as something akin to childbirth, complete with post partum depression. JoDee encourages the reader to understand that there is a cycle of “rebirth” in the creative process.  “Like a weary, worn-out new mother, the soul must regenerate and renew.”

Many creative souls fear this depression because they do not grasp the dynamic. As a result they run from subsequent endeavors. Instead, I encourage you to take the time to understand this process in order to mature as an innovator who can deliver many gifts to the world.

JoDee Luna and Elya Filler

Author JoDee Luna with her daugher, Elya Filler

JoDee explores topics such as Exploring Your Creative Temperament, Aligning Your Creative Compass, Practicing Creative Self-Care, Overcoming Obstacles, Developing Creativity, and Refreshing Creativity through Excursions.  Exercises at the end of each chapter encourage readers to push beyond their present boundaries. In her chapter about creative self-care, JoDee challenges the reader to “Identify something or someone who drains your creativity. Write down your feelings about this situation or person. Now decide on one positive step you can make to take care of yourself when encountering this activity or person.”

JoDee understands the dilemma of creative eclectics all too well. She is the poster child. She loves photography, writing, sculpting, gardening, floral arranging, music, home decor. Name the creative venue. She’s been there, done that, and has a closet full of  supplies to prove it. For years, JoDee beat herself up about her meandering creative mind, but time and a tough divorce taught her the healing power of creativity for herself and, eventually, for her students. She gave herself permission to explore new creative paths. Good for us that she did. Her book offers invaluable encouragement and practical help to those of us who long to do the same.

Refrain from the Identical

My copy of Refrain from the Identical arrives in the mail!

From time to time, I do book reviews, and I’ve so looked forward to this one for two reasons. JoDee is an old friend. She was in my wedding, and we worked together in a creative arts ministry. Last year I reconnected with her through Facebook. She had already completed the manuscript for Refrain from the Identical, but she needed editing help, so I offered to help. We even met up for a writing retreat in Colorado. This week, my postman delivered my long-awaited copy of JoDee’s finished book.  Writing a book is, indeed, like birthing a baby and, in some ways, just as painful! (I’ve had two. Without drugs. I know what I’m talking about here.) JoDee is to be commended.

If you need creative inspiration, I highly recommend this book, along with JoDee’s resource-rich website. JoDee will give you permission to let your creative self soar. She’ll also give you wings with fresh ideas, resources, and a feeling that “Maybe I’m really not so hopeless after all.”

Pay Attention

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One of my goals for this year is to PAY ATTENTION. I simply want to be more aware of simple joys; to tune my ears to hear God’s whispers; to pay closer attention to kindnesses as well as to the needs of others. As an exercise to pay closer attention, I’m keeping my camera handy to capture a few things.

So…in that spirit…here are this week’s “Things that made me smile.”

 

The Chocolate Bark Company

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If you are going to be absent from your blog for a while, you really should have a good excuse. Can I just say one word in my defense?

Chocolate

As in…fully involved…grownup…chocolate.

I’ve been working a temporary Christmas job at The Chocolate Bark Company here in Sarasota, Florida, and can I just say it’s pretty much heaven? With more than 50 generous 6-ounce barks, essentially large chocolate bars, this is a no brainer for delectable treats. Dark chocolate with cranberries and walnuts, or pumpkin praline seeds, or sea salt and caramel. And that’s just for starters. There are also the truffles, including mocha, espresso, raspberry, coconut, cocoa, pomegranate, key lime, passion fruit, creme brulee and more—guaranteed to make eyes roll in bliss, tense shoulders melt into chocolate oblivion, and turn grown men and women into 6-year-olds.

Chocolate Bark Company OwnerOwner Kelli Kamm and Manager Deb Kern

When I asked owner Kelli Kamm, an attorney by trade, what possessed her to open a chocolate shop, she laughed and said, “The better question is, ‘What possessed me to be an attorney?'” It’s not that complicated, really. She loved chocolate, and she learned to use rich ingredients, like Belgian Callebaut, to make works of edible art. “The hard part about the chocolate business is the business. This part,” she said, as she filled trays with a delectable river of chocolate with grey sea salt almond, “is the fun part.”

Chocolate Bark Selection

Chocolate Bark Selections

Attention to detail and the personal touch are two key aspects of her 14-year success. Kelli and her long-time manager, Deb Kern, design and make everything in their shop, right down to the gorgeous packaging. (I should know. I’ve hand-tied hundreds of bows on boxes, packages, and bags of assorted chocolate heaven.)

Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate Truffles

Besides the chocolate itself which is (did I mention this?) divine, the customers are, hands down, my favorite part of the shop. I love watching the  newlyweds who come in every Friday for their weekly two-truffle treat.  I loved meeting the woman who teaches Parkinsons patients to dance. Another woman, a cancer patient headed for her last chemo treatment, came in to buy chocolate for her nurses.  One man bought 16 truffles the other day for himself and his wife—just because. It wasn’t even a Christmas gift. It was just a random weekday “I thought of you” gift. I love that.

The Chocolate Bark Company

It is delightful to watch people take the time to pick out such a simple, scrumptious, and elegant treat for friends, family, spouses, or even for themselves.  For just a few bucks, it’s hard to beat the certain smile such a gift will bring to the recipient’s face—and, of course, there’s the (did I mention this?) divinely rich and decadent chocolate, mixed with such surprising flavors that you, too, will turn into a kid again. Guaranteed.

Dark Chocolate Grey Sea Salt Almond

A Rachel Ray (and Kay Johnson) Favorite!

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark

Dealing with that “love your enemies” verse

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After Jesus tells his listeners (during the Sermon on the Mount) that those who struggle in life are the “blessed,” which really does seem like a strange blessing indeed, he gives them a huge word of encouragement: He tells them they are the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.”

Mind you, he is speaking, here, to an oppressed people. Their land is occupied by a mighty and, often, cruel foreign empire.  Many of their own countrymen have ridden the coattails of Roman power right over their heads. Their own religious leaders offer little comfort, instead using oppressive legalism to exert their own power–only adding to the already overwhelming burden of Roman occupation. Jesus’ words must have been either encouraging or downright hard to believe.

I am the salt of the earth?  Really? I thought I was just dung under someone’s foot.

Just when the crowd might have been tempted to congratulation themselves (“He says we are the light of the world!) or see Jesus as siding with them against those nasty Romans, Pharisees, Scribes. and tax collectors, Jesus turns his challenge directly towards them.  He says they have to do an even better job than the Scribes and Pharisees, their own hyper-holy leaders, in being righteous.

What?! Isn’t this the guy who just said we are the light of the world. This is a such a downer message.

For at least 27 verses, Jesus goes on to talk about–what?  Political oppression? Hardships? Life’s difficulties?  No!  He talks about relationships. Relationships!  Is this guy serious?

He challenges his listeners to do a better job in loving others–and he has really weird ideas about who those “others” are. He talks about loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, giving up your right to retaliate, allowing people to take advantage of you, treating others the way we want to be treated.

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy. Photo by Vavva

It’s one thing to encourage people today to go the extra mile, smile when you’re down, or overlook insults. We live in a rich society. We have generous rights and legal recourse if we are harmed. But Jesus addresses crowd here whose sons or daughters could be, and often were, enslaved, killed, or imprisoned at a moment’s notice–and they could do nothing about it. These people had nothing close to the rights we know today, and many lived in or on the edge of poverty.  Yet Jesus has the gall to sit there and say it’s not good enough to love your friends and family.  Anyone can do that, Jesus says.  How about loving your enemy? How about loving someone who really doesn’t care about you?  How about loving someone who wishes you harm?

Is that even possible?

I won’t lie. It is totally impossible to me. If someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back.  If they hurt my kids–forget it! Mercy and grace may be in God’s nature, but it’s not always in mine. There are times when I just want justice–not mercy. And there are times when justice is the greater need. But even in oppression, Jesus does not let them, or us, off the hook.  Can oppressed people be guilty of sin? According to Jesus…absolutely. Had his listeners been given the power at that moment to overturn their enemies, would they have behaved with largesse and kindness and generosity towards their former oppressors?  Not likely. They would probably have given the Romans back, in spades, what the Romans had given to them.  And how, then, would they be any different from the Romans, their enemy? How are we?

Jesus doesn’t let us get away with simply exposing the sinfulness and unrighteousness of others. He challenges us to see and deal with our own. It starts with us. It always starts with us.  When we are incapable of love because we are hanging on to our right to retaliate, we must start and end with a dependence on God for the love and forgiveness we cannot give.