Posts Tagged ‘challenges’

neponset river sky

Mostly we go as far as we dare down the Road that Leads to the End of the World, rounding every corner adventurously and expectantly, as if we were going to find Tomorrow behind it, while all the little evening green hills neatly nestle together in the distance.

—Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery

Since we moved to Dorchester in late July, I’ve been exploring our new neighborhood: trying out the ice cream shop and a couple of restaurants, visiting the nail salon for a pedicure or two, buying potted herbs and cut flowers at the gorgeous garden center nearby. But my favorite thing about our new area might be the walking trail that’s only a block from our house. I’ve spent many weekend hours down there already, lacing up my sneakers and grabbing my earbuds, walking along the curving green path with the Wailin’ Jennys and my thoughts for company.

My first few walks on the trail were short ones: getting a feel for the route along the river, stopping to snap pictures of Queen Anne’s lace and weathered murals, or simply to take in the views. But a couple of weekends ago, I decided to see how far the trail went. I walked for over an hour, past two playgrounds and under several overpasses, enjoying the blue sky and the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.

That section of the trail stops at a small public dock that juts out over the river, and I walked out onto the dock and stood there, breathing in deeply, smelling the marshy salt air, watching a gull or two swing through the sky. And I thought of these words from Anne’s letter to Gilbert, which my friend Caroline mentioned on her blog a few years ago: “as far as we dare.”

katie river trail blue sky earbuds

My life, these days, requires more daring than I sometimes wish it did: I am learning every day, sometimes every hour, to face the vagaries of life by summoning my courage. Some of the challenges are what I call garden-variety chaos: the busyness of emails and meetings and work assignments, delayed trains and surprise thunderstorms, tricky schedules and missed deadlines. Those make me a little nuts, but I can handle them, and laugh them off at the end of the day. But I need more daring, more bravery, for the things I can’t possibly deal with in one fell swoop: the heartbreaking headlines, the complicated politics (both at work and in our nation at large), the daily (but far from everyday) deeper challenges of work and life and love.

It felt good, on that recent Sunday afternoon, to stretch both my legs and my courage, and go as far as I dared down the trail that led east – though I didn’t quite know where it went. But I followed it to its beautiful end, and then turned around and headed home, refreshed. I thought of this a few days later when a friend teased, “It’s always an odyssey,” and I replied, “That’s how you find your way back home.”

In Windy Poplars, Anne and her neighbor, Elizabeth Grayson, go for long evening walks (as mentioned above). They walk “as far as they dare” to escape Elizabeth’s tyrannical grandmother and the schoolwork that’s always waiting for Anne back at her house. But those walks, and each other’s company, help them dare more deeply and more often. They make each other more brave.

The people I love do that for me: they push me, by their loving presence, to dare a little farther, a little deeper. We walk “as far as we dare” side by side, and in so doing, we help each other find our way. But my solo walks on the river trail help me do this, too. Sometimes it’s good to test your own mettle, to find out how far you can go alone. To give a new meaning to “as far as you dare,” and to know that you can. That I can. That I dare.


Read Full Post »

cafe lalo table berries teacup

This year, I chose gentle for my one little word. Or, more accurately, it chose me.

I’ve been choosing a word each year for a while now, and while I can’t ever predict how my choice is going to shake out, I always enjoy the process of following a word through the year.

Gentle, when it came to me, felt like a deep sigh of relief, a much-needed shift away from some frantic and critical habits I’d slipped into during a hectic few months. Also, as I said at the time, it felt like a good companion to brave, my word from 2010 which remains so important to me.

The circumstances of this year, as it turns out, have not been particularly gentle. I struggled through a record-breaking Boston winter, with bitter temps and frigid winds and so much snow. The gentleness in that season was mostly internal: nourishing myself with tea and soup, reading good books, doing lots of yoga, making an effort to dial back the criticism (often silent, sometimes verbal) of myself and others.

When the weather finally warmed up, I found myself facing another hard thing: the loss of a job I loved, and the subsequent months of networking, interviews and job hunting. That process has been, in a word, brutal. And it’s not entirely over, though I am grateful for a temp gig I’m loving, and for my ongoing freelance assignments.

With the job hunt, too, the gentleness has been mostly internal: doing my best work on a given day, and letting that be enough. Working hard to polish my resume or answer interview questions thoughtfully or compose yet another cover letter. And then taking a break, to cook dinner or meet a friend for coffee or curl up on the sofa with a book or a good TV show.

I have been reminded, over and over again, that I’m only human. I am capable, but I’m not Superwoman. I need rest and downtime and connection with the people I love. I need to ask for things once in a while. And often, I need to turn off the computer and go to sleep.

It has also been (I need hardly say) a tough year to live in this world. Headlines that provoke anxiety and terror, so many shouting matches that solve nothing, an increasing sense of the precariousness of this life. I don’t know what to do about that, except to keep lighting the candles I possess.

It’s an ongoing process, this gentleness with myself and others. But I’m glad this quiet, unobtrusive word has been my companion in 2015. I’m hoping to find a new word for 2016, but I think gentle will hang around a while, too.

Did you choose a word for 2015? If so, how did it go?

Read Full Post »

stories matter nanowrimo sticker

A story is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle that would cover the whole floor of a room with its tiny pieces. But it’s not the sort of puzzle that comes with a box. There is no lid with a picture on it so that you can see what the puzzle will look like when it’s finished. And you have only some of the pieces.

All you can do is keep looking and listening, sniffing about in all sorts of places, until you find the next piece. And then you’ll be amazed where that next piece will take you.”

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks

I read Finding Serendipity in mid-November, and this quote struck me as perfect for NaNoWriMo.

Most people (including me) start NaNo with a shiny but elusive idea, and we spend the month chasing those ideas – or, as Banks would have it, sniffing about for the next puzzle piece. Some folks work from detailed outlines, but I tend to make a few notes and then plunge in.

My first two weeks of NaNo were, shall we say, prolific. I was a little hopped up on both caffeine and words by the end of Week 1:


I wrote so much, in fact, that my wrists and hands (not to mention my tired brain) began to protest:


I slowed my pace a little during the second half of November, but I still made an effort to crank out a thousand words or so every day. My story is full of plot holes (and too much dialogue), but I’m proud to say I hit 50,000 words over Thanksgiving weekend, which makes me a NaNoWriMo winner.

nanowrimo 2015 winner banner

My novel, Pies and Plies, isn’t nearly done, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day. But that isn’t the point. It’s flawed in a hundred places, but I still love the premise – which came to me in a dream this summer – of a family running a ballet studio-cum-pizza parlor (hence the title).

Every time I attempt NaNo, I take on a new creative challenge. This time, I enjoyed the process of drafting a young adult novel. (I read a ton of YA novels, but I’d never attempted to write one.) This story is set in the suburbs of Boston (instead of Oxford, where my previous two NaNoNovels take place). And while all my narrators end up sharing some of my thoughts and preoccupations, this narrator, Elise, is not a carbon copy of me. That was also a creative stretch, and a satisfying one.

I don’t think I’m a fiction writer at heart. I tend to write about what I know, or more specifically, what I think about what I know, and what happens to me. But I love stories and I believe that they matter, and I love joining in this annual, gleeful, worldwide burst of creativity. And it’s so satisfying to say it: I won!

Onward to December – wherein I will still be writing, but giving my wrists (and brain) a bit of a break. Whew!

Read Full Post »

home fires masthead

It’s no secret I love a good British period drama, especially Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Lark Rise to Candleford. This fall, I’ve been swept up in the latest series showing on Masterpiece PBS: Home Fires.

Home Fires follows a group of women in the fictional village of Great Paxford, most of them involved with the local Women’s Institute, at the outset of World War II. The show’s marketing has centered around the ongoing feud between traditionalist Joyce Cameron and new WI leader Frances Barden, but the plotlines delve deeply into the lives of several more women: quiet bookkeeper Alison Scotlock, schoolteacher Teresa Fenchurch, stoic farm wife Steph Farrow.

Most of the women are committed to “doing their bit” and to the work of the WI: making jam from local produce that would otherwise go to waste, building an air-raid shelter for the village, raising funds for ambulances. The WI gives Frances (in particular) a purpose to fill her days. But all the characters are also grappling with other challenges: family illness, raising teenagers, financial difficulties, deep marital rifts. Several of them have husbands or sons who end up going off to fight. All of them find their lives irrevocably changed by the war, and each of them has to make hard choices over and over again.

Home Fires is a quiet show: it lacks the tense life-or-death scenes of Call the Midwife or the soapy drama of Downton. So far (the first season ranges from 1939-40), there are few massive military battles being fought. But the quietness is what I love about it. It is a show about ordinary people living small but valuable lives, who are called upon to do things they never thought they would have to do.

I am not (obviously) living in a war zone or facing the same challenges as the women of Home Fires. But I am fighting my own battles every day, and I am also mourning with the world after Paris and Beirut, wondering where it will all end. I’ve enjoyed the period detail and witty dialogue of Home Fires, but most of all I have loved watching these women as they face what comes.

Sometimes they fail. (They are human, after all.) Sometimes personal tragedy shakes them to their cores. But most often, they rise to the occasion – usually with quiet humility, sometimes with all flags flying. They adapt and make do; they find new ways to solve thorny problems. They hear bad news, and mourn, and then get back up and move forward. Together.

Courage has been variously defined as grace under pressure, the judgment that something else is more important than fear, or the simple act of seeing something through. The women of Home Fires embody all these definitions, and I’m looking forward to watching them face new challenges in season 2.

Have you watched Home Fires? What did you think?

(Image from pbs.org)

Read Full Post »

nanowrimo laptop chai darwins

We are deep into November: golden leaves, crisp blue skies, vivid orange sunsets (which come all too soon every day now). And I am deep into my NaNoWriMo novel, because November is the month when writers around the world pick up their pens (or open their laptops) and begin writing furiously, trying to draft a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, my wrists and fingers are sore. But it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice before, writing a novel set in Oxford (mostly to assuage my deep homesickness) in 2008, and drafting a murder mystery, also set in Oxford, last year. This time around, I’m doing something a little different.

One morning this summer, I woke up from a dream about a combination pizza parlor and ballet studio, run by the same family. When I told my husband about it, he said, “That sounds like a young adult novel.” I came up with a title (Pies and Pliés) and put it on the back burner until November. Now, I’m in the thick of it, carving out chunks of time to write each day, in between job applications and freelance work and snapping pictures of leaves.

I love NaNo for many reasons. It’s a small but exuberant nonprofit run by fun people; it encourages school-age writers through its Young Writers Program; it provides writerly entertainment on Twitter for those of us plugging away at our projects. But mostly I love it because it celebrates creativity, and stories. The folks at NaNo believe passionately that stories matter, and they spend all year – especially November – encouraging others to put their stories out into the world.

There are several tricks to winning NaNoWriMo – “winning” being defined as producing 50,000 words on a new manuscript over the course of November. I’ve found it helpful to have an idea I’m really excited about, and to do a little noodling, a little plotting and note-taking, ahead of time. I haven’t worked from a detailed outline, though I know some writers do (and some writers simply open up a new Word doc and fly by the seat of their pants).

I also find it helpful, like Hemingway, to stop in the middle – of a scene, a chapter or a narrative event (not necessarily a sentence). Then I jot down a few notes so I have somewhere to start from the next day. And, most importantly, I’m enjoying the process. It’s fun.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or have you done it before? (Or attempted a similarly insane creative challenge?) I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

Read Full Post »

anne of avonlea dahlias

I’m not going to lie, y’all: October has presented a few challenges around here.

I adore fall in New England: crisp air, bold blue skies, vivid leaves, fresh apples. But the days suddenly grow shorter in October, presaging the difficult winter ahead. The seasonal shift, as Christie has so eloquently articulated, leaves me feeling a bit raw and vulnerable. And the daily struggles have been piling up.

I’m job hunting, as you know if you read this recent post. That ongoing strain is starting to tell on me – and on my husband. I’ve been fighting what I think (hope) are season-change allergies, and as we turned our heater on to combat the first few cold nights, it kept sputtering and switching off. We have made six service calls in three weeks, and though the repairmen are always prompt and polite, I just want it to be fixed. (Preferably before the snows come.)

As if that weren’t enough, I lost my wallet – a beautiful red Kate Spade wallet I adored, full of vital bits and pieces that had to be canceled (bank cards) and/or replaced (driver’s license, subway pass, health insurance cards). And on the way to church recently, my husband and I were in a fender bender. No one was injured, and the other driver readily admitted his fault, but still. We can’t seem to catch a break.

While the big stuff is driving me insane, I’ve been taking refuge in small triumphs: the little tasks that, once completed, give me a (sometimes disproportionate) rush of satisfaction.

something good mug porch

The button-down shirt, crisply ironed. The broken curtain rod, reattached. The perfectly brewed cup of tea; the vase of flowers trimmed and arranged. The book review, written and polished and sent off on time. And, related to my wallet loss: the phone call made, the paperwork dealt with, the brand-new account opened or ID card replaced.

I’m hoping some of these big challenges will smooth themselves out before long. But until then, I have to say: tackling a sinkful of dirty dishes or finishing off a few knitted smoothie hats can feel awfully rewarding.

What kind of small triumphs give you a rush of satisfaction?

Read Full Post »


This week marks five years since we landed in Boston, after a month of so many good-byes (and so much packing) in our West Texas college town, and four days of driving a moving truck cross-country.

We arrived at nearly midnight on day four, parking our unwieldy truck in the driveway of new acquaintances whom I hadn’t yet met (though J had). Our college friends Nate and Abigail, who had moved a month before we did, came to take us to their house, where we crashed in their living room for the night. Abi ran down the sidewalk to greet me, and I nearly collapsed into her arms. We had made it. It was an end, and a beginning.

The next day, we moved into the apartment Abi had helped J find, when he flew up for a weekend to meet his new boss and scout out a place for us to live. Our landlady, Gina, showed us around the empty rooms: creamy walls, wood floors, plentiful windows. “I hope you’ll be happy here,” she said simply.

We never had a set timeline for our Boston adventure. We were hankering for something new after nearly eight years in Abilene (where we met and fell in love and earned our college degrees), and J’s job hunt had foundered in Texas, leading him to cast a wider net. We figured we’d be here for three years or so, till he earned full licensure as a marriage and family therapist (with the necessary hours, supervision and mounds of paperwork), and then we’d see. We moved here knowing exactly three people (all fellow Abilene transplants), and we had not the first clue about what it would be like.

Five years in, I can say with certainty: it’s been a messy, rich, full, glorious adventure. And it has been hard.

We have loved exploring Boston and New England: gorgeous, historic, charming, so utterly different from the Texas plains where I grew up. We have delighted in apple picking, trips to seaside towns, the ease of driving to other states and even to Canada. I have gloried in the bookstores, the green public spaces, the farmers’ markets, the wonders of Harvard.

harvard yard autumn light leaves

Our community here is much smaller than in Texas, but we have made some firm and dear friends. (We could not have survived, in particular, without Nate and Abi, or without Shanna, another college friend who lived in Boston for a while and then moved to Atlanta.)

I am deeply grateful for colleagues and writer pals and the small but tightly knit community at our church, who have been our lifelines over and over. Many of them are fellow transplants, who remember what it’s like to be strangers here, who have walked alongside us as we built a life from scratch in this exciting, frustrating place.

Because Boston – despite its appeal in a thousand ways – is not an easy place to live. It is full of snarled roads and complicated public transport, elaborate parking regulations and surprisingly insular communities. It is hard work to build a life here if you’re not a native, if dropping your r’s and shoveling snow don’t come naturally. It can be lonely and isolating, and for a good chunk of each year, it is cold and snowy. We miss our families, the soul-deep friendships we left in Abilene, the spicy Tex-Mex food that doesn’t seem to exist up here (outside our own kitchen). Our life here is rich and lovely, but it has never gotten to easy.

I get asked a series of related questions often: What brought you to Boston? Where did you live before? Do you think you’ll go back to Texas one day?

The answers to the first two are simple: a job and a new adventure; West Texas (and Oxford). The last one is more complicated. We’ve never been sure how long we planned to stay, and we’re still not sure. Three years after I wrote about being in the middle of our time in New England, we are still there. We knew when it was time to move up here – trusting our instincts and taking the leap – and I believe we’ll know when it’s time to go.

The gift, and possibly the lesson, of this time in Boston has been to pay attention: to accept the gifts of the present moment and not get too caught up in wishing for what was, or what may be one day. The constant challenges of living here are an ever-present reminder to be here now. We may not stay forever – and every winter I wonder why we moved here at all – but we are here now. This is our life. And it is challenging – and good.

Happy five years, Boston. We are grateful for all your gifts. And we’re not done with you yet.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »