National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery


National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!


50 thoughts on turning 50: #30 – Protesting and Social Media

comedians in cars trevor noah
(Click image to go to website)

My social media news feeds have been filled lately with rants and lectures and quips and tirades on myriad hot button social and political topics.

I’m all for supporting causes we believe in, but I’m often left wondering how often we hit “share” or “like” on social media and feel like we’ve done some great service to social justice, when in reality all we’ve done is hit “share” or “like” on social media.

I’ve been trying to sort through my thoughts on this when I saw this week’s episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, and was struck by something guest comedian Trevor Noah said:

“People are now able to protest in their underwear. And that almost defies what protesting should be about. The whole point of a protest is to get up out of your bed, put your clothes on, walk out in to the cold and say, ‘I stand for this. I march for this.’ And now you really don’t have to have that conviction, ‘cuz you’re on the couch, in your underwear, you’re going, ‘You know what? I don’t like it, either.’ Punch in a few characters, and you’re ‘Yeah, yeah, I fought for the cause.’ No. You didn’t.”

For years I’ve struggled with this topic when it comes to church. We talk a lot about loving our neighbor, and we give to charities, and we support missionaries. But until we stand in the streets and publicly speak our mind, or get our hands dirty doing actual work, or sit down face to face with people on the other side of issues and actually inhale each other’s words in conversation, we really can’t say we’ve taken a stand, or fought for a cause, or had a discussion.

It’s easy to hide behind 140 characters and a photoshopped profile photo, easy to take a stand and argue back online when you don’t have to look someone in the eye, hear the quiver in his voice, feel the tension in the air, and be accountable for the words leaving your lips.

The other thing that struck me about this episode was Noah talking about apartheid in South Africa, and what it means to be black, white and colored (yes, those three are all different in South Africa), and growing up with parents who were illegally married (yes, in the 1980s), and what it means to live in a country where free speech was outlawed until the mid 1990s.

Really, watch the entire episode. It’ll give you something to think about.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

Writing, technology and the beauty of the pen

I’m an avid scribbler. I’m constantly making notes in small notebooks tucked in my purse, on scrap paper and receipts, and when paper can’t be found, I write on my hand.

I joke a lot about how I hate technology, but that’s not necessarily true. I hate the way technology has become a crutch for most Americans, replacing our own ability to think, to solve problems, and to record thoughts and ideas.

So I love this TEDTalk by Master Penman Jake Weidmann, in which he extolls not only the virtues of the pen but the ways writing increase our historical, intellectual and creative literacy.

I was taken by his story about Platt Rogers Spencer, who in the 19th century created the Spencerian Script – when he was just 13 years old. Spencer believed that God had instilled beauty in nature, so by taking cues from nature he could instill the beauty of God in his penmanship. This is a kid after my own heart.

But the most compelling part of the video is when Weidmann talks about the way the tactile movements of writing with a pen actually engages the brain and helps ingrain the information in our memory in ways that typing doesn’t do. He makes the case that children who write actually learn more, adding:

“Schools are leaning all the time, more and more so, on technology to help move kids down the conveyor belt of the educational system. But what we need to do is be a good steward of both and listen to what our technology is telling us and pick up the pen and keep writing. You see, it is not technology that is the direct enemy of the pen. It is our dependence on technology. And the greater we grow our dependency on technology, what we may soon find is that we’ve created the most technologically advanced way of creating illiteracy.”

God has created our minds and bodies to work in perfect harmony, and the simple tool called the pen can bring it all into motion.

Make sure you watch the video all the way through to see some examples of Weidmann’s incredible artwork.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #22 Flowing with the river of life

life is a river

For most of my life, I’ve been consumed with finding my purpose in life. I believe that I’m here for a reason – that God created me for something and that I’m not here by accident. And yet I’ve never really felt like I could put my finger on what that reason and purpose was.

Then a few years ago, I stumbled on a quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which reads in part:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

I wrote about it in this post, 50 thoughts on turning 50: #17 Be a link in the chain. But I wanted to take that thought a bit further today, after reading an article last week written by local sportswriter Scott Pitoniak, in which he looks back on forty years spent working at his dream job. Continue reading “50 thoughts on turning 50: #22 Flowing with the river of life”

50 thoughts on turning 50: #18 Take a nap

My cousin Becky and her dog. The ability to nap is clearly in our DNA.

I have a friend who insists that she can’t nap. No matter how hard she tries, she says she just can’t relax enough to curl up on the couch, close her eyes and catch a few minutes of shut eye during the day.

I think there’s something seriously wrong with her.

I love taking a nap but I’ve always felt like a lazy slug for lying around in the middle of the afternoon while the rest of the world is slaving away. Then a few years ago, my doctor told me that it’s good to take a nap during the day. Not a big, deep sleep. Just a short, 15 or 20 minute snooze to clear away the cobwebs and recharge your batteries.

As someone who loves taking a nap as much as I like drinking tea, you can be sure I’ve followed her advice as often as I can. In fact, I’m off to take a nap right now.

Today’s lesson? Napping like a dog is a lot better for your life than working like one.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

Caution: influence may appear much bigger in rear view mirror

I was cleaning my office on Sunday – I’ll wait while you pick yourself up off the floor – and for reasons I can’t explain pulled out the old CD player and a box of my favorite CDs and started blasting music.

I mean, blasting music. Windows open, breeze blowing in, music pouring out.

I haven’t done that in a long, long long time, since before I crawled under my emotional rock and curled up into a ball with the dogs and dust bunnies.

But on Sunday? It was rock and roll and sing out loud and dance with whichever dog was closest to me.

I’m no musician, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the art of making music. Which, of course, is why I always felt like a fraud when I was covering music. I just know what makes me happy,  makes my blood tingle and my spirit soar. And doggone it, I love a song I can sing along with. Loudly and off-key.

What I loved about covering music was the people. I’d go to music events and pick the unknown bands to interview, especially the ones who had the time to hang out and talk, who weren’t dishing out pat, rehearsed answers about how they wanted to share Christ with their music when in reality, they just loved making music and being on stage. Which of course was often not only the more honest answer, but the one that may actually have served God the most.

So this music I was blasting away on Sunday made me think of old friends. A lot of CDs were from artists I know or I’d interviewed and remained friends with, or music that was playing while I was with friends having fun times and making memories.

But I didn’t just listen. In between listening to music and doing the cha-cha with Bandit, I actually contacted with those friends. Sent a little Facebook “I’m thinking about you today” hello.

It was awesome.

I had a discussion, for example, with an artist pal who caught me up on the band and added that he hoped big things would happen soon. I told him, “Hopefully big things will happen soon – but remember that just doing what you’re supposed to be doing might actually be the ‘big thing’. You just might not get to see how big it is until it’s in the rearview mirror.” He said that was actually encouraging.

The truth is, that was something I needed to be reminded of, too. Trying to lift the boulder I’ve been living under has been exhausting, and when I look at the work that needs to be done to clean house – literally and figuratively – I can get overwhelmed.

Which is why I am so grateful that, while at a writing conference a few years ago, someone encouraged us to create a writing mission statement to help guide us when things got overwhelming. Here’s mine:

“Connect. Inspire. Change the world.”

Nothing drastic. No plans for world peace (I can’t even manage dog peace in my own house). No specific goals to save the world or feed the hungry – although those are all tasks that happen within that little mission statement (although not nearly as much as they used to happen, which may be one of the contributing factors in my years under the rock. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

I’m reminded of that quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which I often share but will share again because it’s so darned inspiring for me (bold emphasis mine):

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

There’s nothing in there about meeting page view goals, making money, or being a literary rock star. I’m good at a few things: connecting people and encouraging people, and hopefully in the process facilitating others to fulfill their missions in life and thereby be a link in the chain that will change the world. 

So here I am, halfway through the week, feeling so flipping fantastic, so happy to have reached out to people and found them still there, to be reminded that nothing more is expected of me than to do exactly what I’m supposed to do today.

Which, if I’m reading the signs right,  means some serious puppy snuggling.

I’ll never be a leader in my generation. I’m not even a leader in my dog pack.

“I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.”

     – Cardinal John Nenry Newman

* * * * * * *

So I’ve had this book idea rolling around in my head for a while. It’s a great idea. I even had an agent tell me he’d work with me if wrote the proposal. I never did anything with it. If you read my blog earlier this week, you know that fear of failure, fear of success, and a host of other fears keep me rooted in place more often than not.

Anyway, while doing some research for another idea I set out to contact a writer who I once worked with at another publication, and lo and behold, she has written a book that is very, very, eerily similar to my idea. Got a major endorsement from a famous name in Christian circles calling her the next leader in our generation, blah blah.

She didn’t steal my idea, I’m not saying that. It’s a very general idea, and once I can’t believe more people haven’t written about. She just wrote the stupid book I never did.

Someone once told me that God will get the job done, whether or not you obey when he gives you the assignment. Is that what happened?

Sigh. I’ll never be a leader in my generation. Shoot, I’m not even a leader in my own dog pack. Then again, maybe I’m not supposed to be a leader of my generation. I’m just supposed to do the job God gives me. If I fail, I have to believe he’ll use me again. I feel strongly, for example, that my mission right now is to be a voice for people who can’t find the words to say what they need to say or find a way to make people listen.

You know what? I don’t need fame or accolades to do that. As Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.”

Thought for the day: Loving the unlovable

“Churches are filled to the brim with people who love the lovable. But if you want to know true love, if you want to capture the very heart of Jesus’s teaching, if you want to tap into the extraordinary – love those who do not love you back or learn to love the seemingly unlovable.”

– author Matthew Paul Turner, “Provocative Faith”

This was years ago. I had been attending a church for a very long time, and was having a discussion with some folks about inner city outreach. This church was very good at helping people from the inner city find churches in the inner city. I threw out the question, “Well, what would we do if a prostitute came to our church?” – our nice, clean upper middle class suburban church. One of the women in leadership responded, “We’d help her find a church in the city that would best suit her needs.”

I’d like to say I was surprised, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that from church leadership. Several years before I’d volunteered for a project called Flower City Work Camp, helping with mini Vacation Bible Schools on the streets of the inner city during spring break. I did it for several years, but that first year I bonded with a few of the kids. They asked to come to church with me, so for a few Sundays my husband, daughter and I picked them up. First two kids, then three, then more wanted to come than we could fit in our car.

I asked around the church to see if anyone else would help pick up kids, and the only taker was a couple who, unable to have kids of their own, adopted … well, I don’t know how many now … but I’m sure that if they’d had room in their own already crammed van they would have not only brought the kids to church but offered them a home. But that wasn’t going to be enough. The few kids was growing to more kids and their families.

Instead of helping to find ways to get the kids to church, the pastor gently suggested that I connect them with a church in their neighborhood.

Their drug and crime ridden, very dangerous neighborhood.

I was very, very naive about organized church, having up until that point attended very small churches or a house church. So I did what was suggested, and found the kids a church in their neighborhood. The kids, understandably, felt like I’d abandoned them. Which I had. I still cry over that.

I understand why the pastor suggested a local church; the kids needed more than just Sunday School. They needed role models and breakfast programs and a safe place to go after school, all that they could see on a daily basis. At the same time, I think our church really missed an opportunity for some intense – and probably not very comfortable – spiritual growth. It was easier to hand over the kids than actually step in and help, to drive into the dangerous streets and pick the kids up every week, to bring into our fold children and families who live and think (and bathe) differently than we do. We missed the opportunity to really – really – reach out to the inner city.

I’ve never felt good about that decision, so when the conversation came up again years later, I spoke up.

“So if a prostitute came into our church we’d send her somewhere else to have her needs met?” I remember asking. The woman said yes (and everyone else agreed with her). “Can you tell me what her needs are that are different than my needs?” Blank looks.

I left that church not long after, not because I thought there was something wrong with the church. I’d loved that church for years. I left because I felt God talking to me in a way that he wasn’t talking to everyone else – or if he was, they weren’t hearing the same thing I was.

I was hearing love the unlovable. Love the dirty, unwashed, and ill-mannered until you don’t notice that they’re different than you are. Because they’re not. We all have the same needs – the need for food and shelter and water, for companionship and safety, for an eternal answer to our spiritual questions.

A prostitute walking into a suburban church has the same needs at a corporate executive sitting in the same pew. And when you start to think of people in that way, it’s much easier to love the seemingly unlovable. “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

A thought for today on sharing the gospel

“We have too often reduced the glory of the gospel to bumper stickers, condemning slogans on T-shirts, and awkward quotes on church billboards. We have unthoughtfully pushed verses or tracts on those who have needed our time, love and attention more than a quick overview of our beliefs. And we have demanded that people clean up their lives before we introduce them to the boundless love of Jesus.”

from the book “Water Into Wine,” by Kelly Minter (Waterbrook Press, 2004)