Happy Thanksgiving!

Today I am thankful to God for . . . 

Curtis (he's very wonderful)
My family
My job
Freedom from fear

And myriad other things—but the list would be too long if I kept going. 

How Can We Not Say Thank You?

I feel gratitude by degrees. If someone holds the door open for me, I say thank you. If someone buys me a car, I say thank you—but if I'm honest, I'm feeling a lot more thankful for the car than I am for the door.

In a strictly utilitarian sense, I could make a chart numbering from one to ten, and instead of saying thank you for things, I could say, 

"My level of gratitude towards you is somewhere between five and six." Even though it's technically a more articulate way to express my thanks, it wouldn't make sense to anyone. But the simple phrase we use for everything can't always express the depth of gratitude.

Take the leper . . .

Jesus was on His was to Jerusalem when ten men who had leprosy called out to him from a distance, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

Leprosy. For anyone in the first century A.D., the diagnosis brought the cold chill of dread. It meant pain, exile, shame, and a slow, excruciating, unstoppable death. It killed nerve endings, stunted the larynx, and slowly ate skin away until there wasn't much left. Leprosy was thought to be wildly contagious, so lepers lived in communities outside the city with specific boundaries for their habitation. They had to yell, "Unclean, Unclean!" if anyone even came near,

When Jesus saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."

The priests were the authority on health. If they declared a person clean, he was clean. If they declared a person unclean, he was unclean. If you thought you were cured of an infectious disease, you had to be checked by the priest before you could re-enter the community.

As they went, they were cleansed.

Instantaneously, completely, just-like-new cleansed. Fingers and toes that had been lost were back, gaping wounds were suddenly new skin, and weak voices and limbs became strong and vigorous.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Samaritans and Jews were rivals. They hated each other—the Samaritans had intermarried with gentiles, the Jews didn't like it, and the Samaritans didn't like that the Jews didn't like it. They never interacted voluntarily, and when they did it certainly wasn't civil. But here, a Samaritan cast himself down in a position of voluntary subservience to a Jew and tried to express the breadth of his thankfulness to Jesus—technically his foe.

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?"

The freshly healed leper, brimming with delight and gratitude, looked around in stunned silence. Maybe he had yelled to the others to join him and they'd started back with him then changed their minds, or maybe he hadn't give them a second thought. The biblical author didn't see fit to include a reply—maybe the only answer was a shrug.

Then Jesus said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."

And we can assume he did, and that's the end of the story. One man got a five verse mention in the Bible because he stopped, turned around, and said thank you. On the scale of gratitude, he would have come in at 10+, but all he could do was praise and say thank you again and again. Mere words couldn't express the wild joy he must have been feeling, or his thankfulness. Jesus had given him his life back. He could go back to his family, friends, community, and work. He could move without pain, talk louder than a whisper, and feel heat and cold again for the first time in years. Jesus had restored everything. It must have seemed obvious to the leper, now a whole man—how could he not say thank you?

God gives and God takes away. This year He's done both, and we don't know why—but we know He is sovereign and we know all He does is good. Sometimes that's all He chooses to tell us and it has to be enough. In the midst of pain and confusion we have a God who cares, who heals the leper, and who loves us unconditionally.

How can we not say thank you?


*Story from Luke 17:11–19 (NIV)

** Happy Thanksgiving!!!

How to Receive Critique

Everyone comes in contact with critiques and criticisms at some point in life. When you're under critique, it's good to remember a few things:

1) What you think about my work does not define me. I don't have to build my character house on the foundation of your opinions.

2) My style isn't wrong just because it's not how you would have done it. Compare Shakespeare to Dr. Suess—surely one wouldn't have liked the other's style, yet each is a master in his own right.

3) A little bit goes a long way. Don't dwell on the negative criticisms you receive, or you'll see them as truth. Don't just listen to the people who constantly sing your praise, or you'll earn an inflated ego and an inability to see your own mistakes. Hear criticism, evaluate it, and let it go. The past is the past, and you don't owe it anything.

4) You always have something to learn. In the vein of a humble and teachable spirit, listen carefully for the lesson in every critique. It could help your art, your style, or just your ability to critique someone else well.

5) Graciousness is king. It's hard to smile and say thank you when you hear something negative about your work—but the people who are willing to tell you the negative things deserve commendation for their honesty. And even though you may not want to hear how your work is missing the mark, it may help in the long run. No matter if it's off base, unfair, or poorly delivered, say thank you. In anything from a sticky to an explosive situation, it builds relational equity. And we all need more of that.

And, most of all, remember Who you do your work for, and what He thinks of you.

A Small Brown Bird

This morning I saw a dozen sparrows chipping through the ice of a frozen puddle in the parking lot. Each one persistently pecked and suddenly when one broke through the ice, they all did. They did small birdlike things with the water—drank, bathed, refreshed—and hopped around merrily.

Few things look as cheery as a sparrow. He hops around, tilting his head left and right, leaning forward to peck the ground, hopping more, and flitting a yard at a time. The staccato precision of his movements and the sparkle in his beady black eye signal mischievous intent, and his mottled brown feathers, though not vivid, are beautiful.

Civilla D. Martin was also fascinated by sparrows. Born in 1866, she was a schoolteacher. She likely spent her days surrounded by children who were keen on awe and wonder—and you'd imagine that's where she noticed the sparrow, but it wasn't.

In the spring of 1905, Civilla and her husband, Walter, were in New York. They became close friends with a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. The wife was 20 years bedridden, the husband an incurable cripple who traveled to work in a wheelchair. Yet, though their griefs should have been many, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to everyone they met. One day, Walter asked the Doolittles for the secret of their bright hope. Mrs. Doolittle had a simple response:

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Walter and Civilla, gripped by her simple expression of boundless faith, wrote a song. It drew from Mrs. Doolittle's original inspiration, Matthew 10:29–31.

Conviction well expressed carries art a long way. More than a hundred years later, a hymn inspired by a bedridden woman and a small brown bird is still around—and still rings absolutely true.

* See the whole story of His Eye is On the Sparrow.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, 
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, 
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, 
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.


Sunday Best

Spending a few extra minutes in front of the mirror and closet.
Taking the morning slow.
Singing on-key (although I don't think people intentionally sing off-key).
Making an extra fine—or extra easy—lunch.
Napping under the softest blanket money can buy.
Making a finger paint turkey, because Thursday is Thanksgiving.
Eating sugar.
Hearing The Word from my favorite—and yes, I do have a personal bias.
Reading out loud together.
Cleaning the house up around the edges to start the week out fresh.
Thanking Him for all the good, because there's so much of it.

Sunday best is more than just finery—perhaps we've been writing it wrong all this time.

Sunday, best.

Ya Got Lipstick on Yer Teeth

Lipstick is messy business; it often gets on teeth, and since I pay attention to detail it's quite distracting to me. I always want to lean over with a tissue or something and say, "Here, let me get that for you."

Of course, that would be socially unacceptable (I think. I've never tried, actually. Let me know if you have and how that went for you.).

I have a friend who says that 'girl code' is to run your tongue over your teeth, then the other lady will know you're telling her she has lipstick on her teeth and she'll do something about it. Apparently I got the wrong 'girl code' curriculum, because I would just wonder what they were doing.

It seems like it would be embarrassing for the lipstick wearer, probably lower than the 'booger in the nose,' but higher than 'your shoes don't match your belt.' This adds to my inability to say anything, because you never really know how someone will react. Presumably they'd be grateful . . . but you never really know.

Mostly I'm in a state of eternal limbo, because I'll always be distracted by lipstick on women's teeth, and I feel like I can't do anything about it.

But this isn't really about lipstick on teeth.

When you're reading a story, extra words are like lipstick on someone's teeth. They're distracting, you can't quite figure out what to do about them, and you're vaguely embarrassed for the writer.

When you're writing a story, extra words seem so easy—they make your stuff sound fancier and look cooler, and big words seem to equal intelligence these days.

But, remember, anything that does not drive your writing forward is unnecessary. It's like Strunk and White consistently drive home in Elements of Style

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Adding extra words is like lipstick on teeth: awkward, unnecessary, and very distracting.

Edit ruthlessly and your reader will appreciate it for the clarity, speed, and brevity—just like we all appreciate when the lady realizes her teeth are stained bright red and wipes them clean or licks them or does whatever women do when they realize their teeth are covered in lipstick . . .

Artistry—And The B & W Photo Challenge

Still reading On Writing Well, and of course, loving it—but then, how could anyone not?

To dispel some rumors about writers, some excerpts:

  • If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.
  • Professional writers are solitary drudges who seldom see other writers.
  • "Do you put symbolism in your writing?" "Not if I can help it," I replied. I have an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime, I have never had any idea of what is being conveyed.
  • It had never occurred to me that writing could be easy.
  • Professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.
  • Clear thinkers are clear writers.
  • The clear writer is someone who is clearheaded enough to see fuzz for what it is: fuzz.

My uncle challenged me to the black and white challenge, a social media inspired fad to take a black and white picture that describes your life every day for a week. There are only two rules: no people, and no explanation. I spent a surprising amount of time coming up with a good picture to define every day, then took every shot until I got the one I wanted, then messed with the settings so it looked exactly how I thought it should.

It's funny how a lot of artistic expression is exactly the same—you think about what you want to do, you do it (a first time, a second time . . . a twentieth time), and when it finally looks (says, sounds, etc.) how (what) you want it to after way too much time, you release it to the public. The public (as it were) thinks you just snapped a picture running past, scribbled down the sentence on a napkin, or real quick wrote and recorded that song before breakfast this morning.

But it's not exactly like that.

Producing clear content takes work, contemplation, and a lot of editing. But the outcome is worth it, because the artist who can clearly and simply communicate an idea is the artist who is mastering his craft.

PS. My 7 black and white pictures . . .

Day 1, Sunday. Rest (and a TOASTY warm office).

Day 1, Sunday. Rest (and a TOASTY warm office).

Day 4, Wednesday. Responsibility (and a LOBSTER bag from Ikea).

Day 4, Wednesday. Responsibility (and a LOBSTER bag from Ikea).

Day 2, Monday. Home (and a BLUE throw rug).

Day 2, Monday. Home (and a BLUE throw rug).

Day 5, Thursday. Productivity (and YELLOW LEMON salt and pepper shakers and COFFEE).

Day 5, Thursday. Productivity (and YELLOW LEMON salt and pepper shakers and COFFEE).

Day 3, Tuesday. Love (and YELLOW SUNFLOWERS).

Day 3, Tuesday. Love (and YELLOW SUNFLOWERS).

Day 6, Friday. Celebrating Jesus (with RED and SPARKLY ornaments).

Day 6, Friday. Celebrating Jesus (with RED and SPARKLY ornaments).

Day 7, Saturday. Curtis (he's very wonderful). I realize I broke the rule, but how could I post about my life without crediting such an integral part of it?

Day 7, Saturday. Curtis (he's very wonderful). I realize I broke the rule, but how could I post about my life without crediting such an integral part of it?



Smaller Bites, Dash. Yikes.

At the beginning of The Incredibles, the family sits down for dinner. Dash, a 4th grader, tries unsuccessfully to cut his slab of steak (which is at about eye level). He shoves a corner of the steak in his mouth and growls as he tries to bite a chunk off the slab. At this point, his mother's maternal instinct kicks in, and she says,

"Smaller bites, Dash. Yikes!" Without missing a beat, she continues, "Bob, could you help the carnivore cut his meat?" Mr. Incredible cuts through the plate and goes to get a new one (but really to read the newspaper), and chaos ensues in the dining room, and it's wonderful comic pandemonium that any parent immediately understands.

Sometimes you have to give up doing everything so you can do something.

William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well. In the first chapter, he writes about a writing panel he was on at a school.

"What do you do on days when it isn't going well?" Dr. Brock was asked. He said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better. I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke."

It's not a good reason to not do something because you don't feel like it, you're tired, or you can't think of anything to say. Those are fancy ways to say you're neglecting a gift.

You have to do something, though.

this post is a struggle

For three weeks I've written almost nothing, because of cleaning and work and, well, life. Mostly the second two—my house is evidence that the first one has (how shall we say it graciously...) clearly hasn't been taking too much of my attention.

Sometimes writing feels like a sport, only instead of one season on and one season off a year there are six or eight of each. Sometimes it's an on season, and I'm not awake for long enough to write everything down that I have to say. Other times it's an off season, and no matter how desperately I want to write, I have nothing to say and no way to say it. The biggest difference is that sports is supposed to have an off season, but writing is like a savings account; the more time you put into it, the better it gets (AKA, no off season).

I can continue the analogies if you want, but it might become (assuming it isn't already) far fetched. I'll stop to save us both, the only problem is the less I can think of to write about, the more analogies I think of . . .

Writing is like a car—sometimes it starts alone, and sometimes it needs a jumpstart.
Writing is like a Christmas tree—it's better when it has a point.
Writing is like exercise—if you don't do it, you get out of shape.
Writing is like leftovers—sometimes it's better the second time around, and sometimes it's way worse.
Writing is like sports—you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you break a bone and have to sit on the bench for three months.

I guess my point is that sometimes writer's block is selective. It blocks all the substantive ideas and sits like a two-ton gorilla on the part of the brain that understands logic and writes it down. The past month, several gorillas have been hibernating on that part of my brain.

I'm poking them with a stick, though, because they're getting obnoxious. And like the famous lady from the internet says, "Ain't nobody got time for that."

A Three Year Anniversary

Three years ago today, I met Curtis (he's very wonderful).

He came up to me in the student dining room and sat down and asked me if I remembered him. Apparently we'd known each other in high school. I had no recollection. He showed me pictures, himself as a young boy with a baby face and braces, holding a tiny bluegill up next to his face. I still didn't remember.

He sat down next to me and talked to me for an hour and a half. I spun a red delicious apple around on the table the whole time we talked, and he leaned forward and grinned and took a genuine interest in everything I had to say. He charmed me through and through. A week later, he picked me up from the airport in the middle of the night. He had a backpack full of different flavors of sparkling water and gatorade, and a big green poster board that said, "It's Me, Curtis." We rode back on the el together and he told me about his family, and his dog, and the forest green Buick century that used to be his grandpa's.

We nonchalantly agreed to study in the library together, although we didn't get much homework done. We went on a long walk through Lincoln Park, and climbed a tree, and got bread and cheese and chocolate milk and sat by the river. The next day I helped him (by which I mean he kindly let me think I was helping him) tear down sound equipment that he'd set up for work.

A month later, after a long cold walk late at night, we sat on a bench under the big mushroom at Rainforest Cafe, looking at the McDonalds across the street. He told me he liked me.

And the rest is history.