That “Thing” You Never Finished? It may take more than magic

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

many-books

Do you know which creature in the animal kingdom has the longest gestation period?

Elephant? Nope. Frill shark? Ha! What’s so big about a 3.5 year pregnancy?

The answer is a woman with an unfinished novel she started in college that insists on being born butt first.

Technically, I finished said novel for my master’s degree thesis back in the early 90s. Then I decided to rewrite it.

I worked on a few chapters, and several years back, submitted them for agent review via a special opportunity offered at the Festival of Faith in Writing. Real-life agents would actually be reviewing conference attendees’ manuscript proposals.

Two months later I received an email from an acquisitions editor at Moody Publishers. The book was different than what they normally published, but he wanted to see the whole manuscript.

He wants to see my novel! Oh, my gosh. You’re real, God! I knew it. You. ROCK!

Dear Mr. Editor,

Thank you so much for your interest in my manuscript. I am in the process of rewriting it.

[Also, 98 percent of the original novel is in hard copy format because I typed it in like 1702 on a word processor…it was kind of like Gutenburg’s printing press, except it plugged in, and now I have to enlist the help of my family to retype 40,000+ words into a real computer. Then I have to complete the rewrite while I work a full-time job, teach an evening college writing course, raise a family, and occasionally go to the bathroom.]

Sincerely,

The woman who ended up not finishing her novel when she found out that, although you told her to take her time with the rewrite, you left for a different publishing house in the meantime

But this post isn’t just about writing a novel. It’s about things left unfinished.

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Recently, a convergence of three things motivated me to type The End.

A deadline, Big Magic, and an encouraging word

The incentive of not getting shot

As a professional writer, my work most often revolves around deadlines.

The historical definition of deadline is “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” Hence, passing a deadline is something prisoners, and writers, tend to avoid.

Of course, the biggest deadline that looms for all of us is biting the big one. Barring any unforeseen events, I may have another 40 years left in me…minus the last 10 when I’m either too tired or senile to write, which leaves 30…minus 20 sucked up by fear of failure, social media, and grandchildren.

I can’t recall ever having missed an assignment deadline, at least not one set by a boss or client. The ones I set myself, with no specific reason or reward, tend to get pushed out by “paying” projects.

That’s why I attached an incentive to the deadline for finishing the novel rewrite…the Chicago Writing Workshop. I have paid the tidy sum of $29 for 10 glorious minutes to regale an agent with the synopsis of my book.

Setting a deadline in connection with a reward (attending the conference) and accountability (the agent meeting) motivated me to hire author and editor Andi Cumbo-Floyd to review my book summary and to write a new ending to the book. 

Big Magic vs. Big Dedication

I just started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller Big Magic. She has an interesting theory about ideas.

“Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us–albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

Hm, sounds kinky.

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Not only does our idea need us, she says, but if we don’t dedicate ourselves to the relationship, our inspiration could very well pack a small bag, lie about going out for a gallon of milk, and run off with someone who thinks he’s brilliant.  [My words, not the lovely Gilbert’s.]

Gilbert shares an example via her experience with the strange–but not uncommon–phenomenon of the exact same idea almost magically being sparked and developed in the minds of two completely unconnected individuals. This happened to her with the concept for a book she never wrote but another writer later did. She explains that her idea grew tired of waiting for her to follow through and left her.

This kind of scared the crap out of me.

I will admit that I can sound equally hoo-doo-voo-doo to some with all my Jesus talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. But Gilbert’s theory reminded me of the time a well-meaning minister told me if I messed up God’s Plan A for my life, there was always Plan B, C, D.

However, I don’t believe ideas commit adultery or that God ever gives up on rooting for us to stay the course no matter how many times we stray from the path. 

I do agree with Gilbert that following through on an idea takes dedication. Maybe even biblical long-suffering and obedience.

The last word

Now my friends and family, especially my husband, will read this post and scold me, because they have been nothing but supportive and encouraging when it comes to getting this book published. And I will always give them the credit for motivating and inspiring me.

As I was in the process of having Andi edit my summary, I confessed that I had grown tired of the book. Unlike Gilbert’s fickle idea fairies, the compulsion to finish the book never left me, instead becoming a burden…a “should” rather than a commitment. 

Andi responded with these words: “You are called to finish your book.”

Not called to publish, not called to sell a million copies, just to FINISH.

Sometimes we need to change the reason we hope to accomplish a goal or live out a dream. I asked myself why I really needed to finish this. Part of the answer is and always will be that writers write to be published. They just do.

But I also needed a stronger motivation than my writerly lust to see my words in print. I decided I would live out my gratitude to God for the words and stories he’s given me.

When the book is done, there will be a deep satisfaction in being ready to enter the publishing fray, in following through with Plan A, and in answering the Call to Finish.

What have you left unfinished? How do you decide whether or not to finish? What might motivate you to see it through?

Mother’s Day with all the vowels

Sometimes on a day you could and should sleep in, you wake up at 4 a.m. instead, because, well, that cup of peach tea at 8:30 p.m. …and that thing or 10 on your mind that you need to pray about. So you wake up God, too, who like a patient parent enfolds you beneath the edge of her own warm blanket while you recount in excruciating detail your nightmares.

Then you read a Kindle book under the sheets so you don’t disturb your husband, but that doesn’t put you back to sleep and you realize the rising sun is wrapping its fingers around the edge of your sun-blocking curtains. So you give up because your stomach is grumpy, and there is a shredded wheat biscuit promising satisfaction in a bowl of milk and honey.

Oh, and the kitchen counter probably should be wiped down before 6:30 a.m.

In the dim light of the living room, I see a small Christmas bag on the floor that says JOY and also a few crumbs from our “house church” gathering the night before when our pastor talked about God’s invitation to us to call him Abba, “daddy,” and how we don’t have to go all Old Testament and leave out the vowels because his name is too holy to speak aloud.

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We can come to him with grubby fingers and noise and wandering and tripping over our little brothers and blaming them for our falling down. And no matter what our fathers or our mothers are like, He/She/God is all and both and better.

When I open my eyes each morning, refocusing on which hurdles remain from the day before–unsettled arguments, lingering worries, that one (2, 3, 4) bill that never gets paid all the way down–he is standing there like a first-time parent who feels compelled to make sure his child is still breathing.

We can say Daddy, not G-d, but Abba, which also happens to be my second favorite band from the 70s. We can call him that even at the end of a day of sinful thoughts, harsh words, big doubts, shitty attitudes, and bad words.

I’m thankful my children can call on me and don’t leave the vowel out of M-m…that they know they’re loved by me and by a capital “G” with an “o” in the middle God.

Turning Up the Dark

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

This is about the time of year I start writing about spring and gardening and the anticipation of warmer days. And hope.

But just because the earth is stretching and ready to start a new day doesn’t mean we are. As much as I’ve been thinking about what to plant in my flower pots, I’ve also been ruminating about those times when spring hasn’t sprung a renewed sense of Wheeee, here we go!  

We’ve all experienced those seasons. They seem a better match for the dormancy and chill of winter when we keep our doors locked and windows shut tight against the world.

So a day like today, abundant with sunshine and teasing breezes that beg us like a best friend to Come Out and Play, may seem more of a cruel taunt.

As I sit on my patio, dead leaves loitering in the quiet corners and flowers sleeping in a black bed, I know that nothing grows or blossoms without a “turning up” of the earth.

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I don’t mean a turning of the earth on its axis or even of winter into spring, but the turning that requires me to grab a spade and put my back into the hard work of revival. To stab and turn up the soil so that the hidden and dormant bits are thrust into light and air.

Sometimes I just want to be a damn, pretty-in-pink peony, all petals and sweetness.

Like. Now. No waiting, no struggle. No pushing through the hard times, getting pelted by challenges, or straining against change. I would prefer the not so lovely things in my life, the wormy, squirmy dark stuff that makes people say ew, to stay nice and deep.

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Yet, all that dark matter, our pasts, challenges, and failures, can eventually nourish our roots. It may also need some turning, some exposure, some soil analysis, to help us understand why we may or may not be flourishing where we’re planted.

Actually, a good “turning up” can free us. In seasons past, I’ve sat with my family and closest friends and dumped a huge pile of deep down stuff at their feet. (I warned them beforehand to wear hip boots.) It changed our relationships, always for the better but not necessarily for the “prettier.”

Because here’s the thing, as a gardener, I can’t expect beautiful blooms or ripe tomatoes or a healthy harvest without acknowledging what lies beneath. Not only acknowledging it, but digging into it, healing it, and even loving it.

After all, it’s the dark stuff that feeds whatever we are trying to birth into the light.

Who died and made you King of the Jews?

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By Amanda Cleary Eastep

“That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.” Luke 23:12

Did you ever notice this verse in the crucifixion story? It hit me like a Roman brick this morning.

We can pretty easily recall the scene in the Good Friday story where Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate before his crucifixion.

3 So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”

What I forget is that Pilate then sends Jesus to King Herod to get his opinion before Pilate makes a final decision.

Herod is kind of excited about this. He’s heard of Jesus and wants to see some of his cool magic. But Jesus doesn’t oblige, so Herod relentlessly mocks him, and just for funsies, he dresses Jesus in an elegant robe and sends him back to Pilate.

That’s where the Roman brick verse comes in:

12 “That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.”

Isn’t this SO our love-hate relationship with the devil and the roles we often play?

Satan as Herod–mocking God, tempting us, sitting big and fat and proud in a false place of power.

Us as Pilate–wavering, unsure, likes Jesus or fears him, but can’t make a stand.

Of course Herod didn’t condemn Jesus, neither does Satan. He let’s us do that. He’s happy to play the innocent and leave the decision-making to us, because he knows our weaknesses. He sees our potential.

And Pilate takes the bait. But that’s OK, because you know what? He and Herod are BFFs now, friends forever. Once this whole nasty thing is over, maybe Herod will invite him over for a glass of wine and they can swap Jesus-fail stories.

Yet, Pilate is almost pitiful in his impotence as he takes his case back to the gathered crowd.

13-16 “I examined him in front of all of you and found there was nothing to your charge. And neither did Herod, for he has sent him back here with a clean bill of health. It’s clear that he’s done nothing wrong, let alone anything deserving death.” [The Message]

Like Pilate, we say things like, “Yeah, Jesus is a good man, I believe that. I haven’t seen him do anything worthy of my hate, but I haven’t seen him do anything that spectacular lately either.”

Like Pilate, I pass the buck, I do what’s easy.

I offer temptation a seat, I stay angry at the love I once couldn’t live without, I remain silent when I have such Good News to share.

I am lukewarm.

I make friends with Herod.

But sometimes we’re just part of the crowd, too, the one Pilate informs so gallantly about Jesus’ innocence…three times.

Yet, this is no ordinary crowd…oh, wait, it is. These are regular people, you’s and me’s, moms and dads, business people, farmers, teachers, law abiding citizens, worshippers of God.

Just like each man and woman there, we daily allow the devil to tempt us into rebellion. Rile us up against the only friend who’s true.

What’s the people’s reaction to Pilate’s namby pamby, “Wellllll, Jesus didn’t do anything wrong…even Herod says so. I’m gonna let him go. What do you say guys? Guys…??

The crowd cries out. Kill him!

Kill him in our holidays, kill him in our schools, kill him in our homes our marriages our parenting our morning rituals our thoughts our actions.

Give us Barabbas, the condemned murderer instead.

Give us what we want, what we think we need desire lust after, give us what makes absolutely no sense except to us, give us the thing we don’t realize will crush us in the end.

So…Good Friday…

So horribly good.

How can I not see myself standing where Pilate stands, almost pleading for someone to get him out of having to stand up for Jesus?

How can I not see myself in that roaring crowd demanding my wrong way, blinded by my sins, great and small?

And how can I not see that I was the one who scrawled King of the Jews over the bowed head of my dying Savior?

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What happened to the Year of Living Courageously?

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

Feeding chemotherapy meds to your three-year-old, knowing it may not make a difference, takes courage.

Honestly talking out that painful subject that sticks like a burr up under your heart takes some courage.

So does running into a burning building, walking into divorce court, preaching the gospel to cannibals. Fill in the ________.

Last March, I determined to live the year courageously. It was a scary declaration, scarier in black and white, in public, open to scrutiny as much as to hurrahs.

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Here I am a year later, sitting on the same couch, typing. Bullet pointing in my head what, for me, took courage.

I think the writing style guides recommend NOT using bullets for less than three items…oh, well…

  • Quitting my full-time job to make a 10-year-long dream of freelance writing come true
  • Helping prepare my youngest child, just 18, to travel to northern Africa and Central Asia for two months
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Photo by Megan C.

Impressive or just ‘eh’ depending on your perspective, but I could write a book about each of these life events.

Yet, at times, I feel this gnawing disappointment in myself, like I should have done more, like I should have traveled to Africa, like my white face surrounded by lots of brown-faced children would have looked more like  acted-out courage.

But that’s “outside” stuff.

Courage has to happen inside first. And it’s never Facebook photo worthy.

Before we act, before we declare, leap, or even drag ourselves out of bed on the crappiest day of our lives, we have to stand–skinny sword arm trembling–and face FEAR:

  • of failure
  • of instability
  • of rejection
  • of loss
  • of God being all done with us

Nobody sees that battle. It can be ugly. No Instagram filter to soften the jagged edges and color of blood.

sea-woman

Now it’s March again. I’ve been asking God what to do next, like we’re planning another vacation. Sometimes, when I’m totally out of my mind, I hope he’ll say, ‘Let’s do this big! No more safe, all-inclusive resort stays, we’re heading to India to wash the feet of lepers!’

Saying yes to that would take a lot of courage at this point in my life.

But maybe it’s not about courage at all. Saying yes to things, especially God-y things, is about something way harder, like obedience.

When I tell my children to do something, they don’t think, ‘Wow, doing what my mother is asking me to do is gonna take a helluva lot of courage.’ They obey me because they trust and love me.

Even if I love God, how do I know I can trust him? Because he’s proven he’s trustworthy, because I’ve seen it before, his coming through, his getting me through.

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I’m not sure what is next, what he has next. Maybe March 2015-March 2016 was or wasn’t lived as courageously as it could have been. But I can declare it to be the beginning of living the rest of my life courageously.

Especially on the inside. Slaying demons of doubt and shame and fear, so that whatever that ends up looking like on the outside is a #nofilter picture of his forgiveness and grace and love.

Sinking your fists into the bread of life

baking-bread

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

The man’s tattooed arms were up to the elbows in bread dough.

I could so relate. Not to the guy’s past, to his former gang life in Los Angeles, but to that feeling of fists sinking into soft dough and spirit reposing on a whiff of yeast.

He is one of the thousands of gang members who has found hope in the sacred work of baking  bread at Homeboy Bakery in L.A. I was watching him from my comfy white bread living room, but I understood his pleasure in the task.

I love baking bread almost as much as I love gardening. Dirt under my fingernails like wet flour. Musty earth smells that also signal a kind of fermentation. A slowness surpassing even bread’s in finally producing the fruits of our shared labor.

Baking bread forces me to slow my pace–slow stirring, slow kneading, slow rising. Breathe in, breathe out, bake at 350 degrees.

Today I bought the book Out of the House of Bread, Satisfying your hunger for God with the spiritual disciplines, by Preston Yancey.

I haven’t started reading it and have no idea what it’s about beyond the subtitle and the gorgeous cover photo of floured hands accepting/offering up the most basic and needed sustenance.

Yancey-book-cover

I’m kind of pissed, because I wish I would have written it. I had thought of writing a book about my love of baking bread and the lessons I learn every time I form a loaf (like, How to eat an entire loaf in one day and blame it on your kids).

I have contemplated God making man out of bread dough instead of dirt. But then Adam would have eaten himself before he even made it to the forbidden fruit.

I imagine him as a nice pumpernickel.

That was an exotic bread when I was a kid. Our small town grocery had Wonder Bread–which had the nutritional value of a piece of wide-ruled notebook paper–Butternut Wheat, and Beefsteak Rye.

People tend to like things sterile, wrapped up neatly, and twist-tied. Plastic gloves separate us from the lunchmeat lady’s morning routines, and pink hand sanitizer keeps us smelling like watermelon vodka.

But baking bread begs skin on dough…knuckles, sweat, and love.

“We have no eggs you know,” my daughter said as I buried my hands into the dough, flour dusting my wrists. 

This picture wouldn’t make a pretty book cover. The harsh light slanting through the kitchen window makes the 20-degree weather look warm, like it’s almost time to plant lettuce.

Yet my hand is still going about the same work as the man in L.A. and in our grasp is the same bread of life.

dough

Flour, yeast, salt and warm water. No eggs.

I reminded my daughter of the basic ingredients. Kind of the elemental water, earth, air and fire.

Baking bread reminds me how basic we are, too. And how miraculous. That we are full of potential…

that we can rise in the presence of both patient waiting and heat…

that we can nourish others.

 

Two of my favorite bread recipes

GRIT’s Homemade No-Knead Bread Recipes (although sometimes you really just need to knead)

Amish White Bread from Scratch This with Sandy

 

Sticky Notes from the Universe You May Have Missed

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By Amanda Cleary Eastep

There were sticky notes everywhere.

Just to make absolutely sure that the high school and college graduation party for my kids went off without a hitch, my mother had strategically placed important messages throughout the house.

“pans for grilled food only” (read: don’t use these pans for E-coli-ridden raw meat holders or musical instruments)

“hot” salsa and “mild” salsa

and our favorite note, placed on the pitcher beside the coffee pot, “water for coffee,” which, hours later, mysteriously ended up on the toilet lid.

Although certain messages may seem obvious and their transference to a small piece of hot pink paper superfluous, often in life we still don’t get the message.

Take last Sunday. I was being a poop.

At some point in the day, I thought or said the following…

I hate Sundays.

I’m not sure I want to write anymore.

What does God want me to do with my life?

Why is it raining?

(Followed by) It’s too cold to walk in the rain.

(Followed by) Why are you making me walk in the rain?

I was walking (in the rain) with my daughter, who loves to dance (in the rain) and tried to spin me around joyfully. I grudgingly acquiesced, like the dead guy with rigor mortis in the 80s movie Weekend at Bernie’s.

She said, You’re being a poop.

She prayed I would get punched in the face with joy.

The next day, Monday, February 1, the Universe (better known in my circles as God) answered with a barrage of fluorescent sticky notes smacked to my forehead.

Messages from the Universe that May Seem Obvious But that You May Have Missed

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How you begin the day matters

Before I got out of bed Monday morning, I read the first day of a new devotional in which Oswald Chambers talks about the Apostle Paul’s determination to do his utmost for his highest.

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“That’s it. I’m writing for God ONLY,” I announced to my daughter at breakfast.

I know about working for God’s glory, but I have a lot of personal reasons for why I blog, like the ever-elusive fame and fortune. Like building email list subscribers (for when I have an email list). And for growing a “tribe” who will snatch up my e-book (when I finally write one).

But I’ve kind of skipped over the “absolute and irrevocable surrender of the will” part Chambers mentions. At this very moment, at least, I’m writing because God wants me to, and he reads every word and takes joy in them (except for my occasional use of “shit”). True surrender means that even if no one ever reads another thing I write, my satisfaction will be complete and my success will be achieved with an audience of One.

Be open to insight from unlikely sources

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I recently bought a Groupon for Dahn yoga classes. My elder daughter and I attended our second class yesterday and had a brief orientation, during which we learned some cool Korean words. Then out of the blue (although the transitional phrasing may have been lost in translation), Master Chung looks me in the eye and says in Kor-english:

“We ask ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

[knock me off my warrior stance with a rice noodle]

“We don’t achieve goals because we stop then start then stop,” she said, extending her hand, palm down, and imitating the movement of waves. “But you must keep going until you reach the goal.”

Honor the work of those you admire by carrying out your own work

Yesterday, Tammy Perlmutter, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote about her journey to becoming a writer and how she started The Mudroom Blog, which celebrated its first anniversary–also yesterday. Obviously, these words resonated:

“God merged the two and gave me a new commission: Write for me.”

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I know this post spoke to many readers for many reasons. Not only was it an encouragement for me to continue writing/blogging, but I realized that by carrying out the work we are called to do, we honor the fellow writers, artists, musicians, mothers and fathers, pastors and masters whose work we admire (and also sometimes dementedly covet).

How you end the day matters (…OR share your sticky notes)

The final message of the day came in a shared Disney photo album from my son who is vacationing with his new wife. Most of the pictures are of fancy tropical drinks and dumb Keenan faces, but this was among them.

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That’s why I’m sharing my February 1 sticky notes with you.

All those messages from God and the universe and your mom that offer enlightenment and comfort and a good laugh are meant to be passed along, stuck on other people’s refrigerators and foreheads. And even if Monday didn’t “punch me in the face with joy,” at least it sent me the clear message to do my “utmost.”