Thursday, February 27, 2014

The End of an Era

Tuesday seemed like a fairly normal day for me. It was filled with ordinary blessings, busyness, and stress of various kinds, and not much writing time, as evidenced by the fact that when evening came, I hadn’t checked in at Epinions, one of the websites I write for regularly.

That’s not terribly unusual. I have days when I have to prioritize other things – teaching, ministry, or long-term writing projects – and don’t get to what I call my short-term writing projects at all or until late at night. What I didn’t know was that I had already written the last review I would ever write for Epinions. I got word in the evening that the site’s reviewing platform, fifteen years strong, was being shut down permanently.

To understand the shock of this for me, you have to realize a few things. I started writing for Epinions in May 2003, almost eleven years ago. When I started writing there, I was a recently turned 35 year old with a baby less than a year old. I have 1303 – yes, that’s one thousand three hundred and three – reviews and essays (mostly reviews) published at the site. That averages out to almost exactly 10 reviews a month for almost eleven years (yes, I did the math).

More importantly than the numbers, which show what a beloved habit writing for this site was, were the friendships I made there and the incredible amount I learned. What started as a mildly fun hobby – in my first several months on the site, I only wrote a handful of reviews and poked around on occasion, getting to know people and trying to figure out how things worked – picked up steam quickly. I had been looking for two things when I stumbled upon the site originally: a place where I could read good reviews of children’s books, and (once I realized I could contribute content) a place where I could keep my writing muscles exercised on a regular basis. That last felt hugely important to me when the sweet girl was a baby. My energy and time were both so limited (they still are, but in different ways) and I wanted to find a writing outlet where I could engage in real writing but have it be short-term writing, short pieces that had starts and finishes that felt manageable in the small spaces of a busy mom’s life. (I knew the novel and the longer non-fiction projects I wanted to work on would need to wait.)

The fact that the work was all self-directed and self-paced was a blessing. I could write and post as quickly or as slowly as I wanted and no one would mind. I could set my own deadlines and writing goals and try different ways of approaching reviews. The fact that I could write about what I felt most passionate about was beautiful. I liked that the posts were peer-reviewed, and quickly came to respect so many of the peers who were also writing and rating on the site. I liked knowing that my work had an actual audience. While the writing process brings me joy, a lot of it is lonely, and when you write never knowing if you what you write will see the light of day or communicate clearly to anyone, it can make the work feel that much harder. I knew I didn’t have a vast readership, but nonetheless, I had a readership.

I had taken journalism and feature article classes in college, neither of which, frankly, taught me a whole lot about how to write features. I remember struggling through a film review assignment for one of my classes (this was back in the 80s, pre-internet) and thinking how hard it was to craft a good review. I was right. A good film review is hard to write. I would have been astounded to know that one day I would write dozens (if not hundreds) of film reviews. Next to books, movies was my favorite category to write in at Eps; I was a top reviewer in the movies category for several years and was working to regain my momentum in that category when the site closed. Some of my early film reviews there weren’t very good – I labored long re-telling plot and often didn’t figure out what I wanted to say until I’d spent several hundred words – but my colleagues on the site, some of whom were dynamite writers, were encouraging with me anyway, and egged my enthusiasm on. So I wrote more of them, and I got better. When you labor at anything for a decade, you learn skills. I will always be grateful to my time at Epinions for helping me learn to craft strong leads and to hone my natural bent toward what I call “full-circle” pieces. One of my favorite methods for review writing is to bring the reader back around to an initial thought, impression, or assertion. I loved clarifying that skill over the past ten plus years.

There was also the richness of engaging in an incredibly diverse community of people who wrote about all kinds of things I’d likely have not read so much about otherwise. I learned about foreign films, musical instruments, gardening methods, adoptive families, classical music, best-selling thrillers, cozy mysteries, preschool picture books, cooking utensils, pet care, board games, business travel, and comic books. And that’s just off the top of my head!

And I made friends, at least one of whom, Erin, will be a life-long friend. We’ve emailed for years, blogged together, worked on stories together, gotten together in real life numerous times, prayed for each other, gotten to know each others' families and stories. In May, she’s getting married – to a man I’ve known for over a quarter century and had the privilege of introducing her to.

So forgive me if I wax a little nostalgic about the end of an era. In the grand scheme of the world, the sudden demise of a website looms small (and despite the struggles the site has had in recent years, the announcement was shockingly sudden as parent company eBay decided to retire the review platform effectively immediately). But this particular website has meant a lot to me. It’s been a long-term almost daily habit, a place to share passions and enthusiasms, a valued community of friends and colleagues, a place to keep my skills sharp, and if I shed a few tears when I heard the news, well…I think that’s pretty understandable. Although we weren’t given much chance to say proper farewells and do our grieving and celebrating onsite, a few hundred of us have found our way to a facebook page where those things are happening. I’m very glad they are. Epinions and the work and community it generated are worth celebrating.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Advice to Young Poets

I've been reading at Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets compiled by Paul B. Janeczko. Lots of gems here, but I found myself especially loving two bits of advice to a young poet from J. Patrick Lewis.

"Book your eyes on a never-ending cruise: become a lifelong reader."
And "Nothing succeeds like failure. Revel in it. You may take a measure of pride if you can say, 'I failed three times today, and that was before lunch.'"

Monday, February 17, 2014

When What You Do Doesn't Feel Like Enough

So I’ve been watching the Olympics and as usual, I’m in absolute awe at the courage, determination and perseverance of the athletes. Men and women, young and old (well, “old” by athletic standards) – they are showing the world some amazing stuff.

Every once in a while I get a flash of insight as one of them speaks. I think about the grace that can be involved in either winning or losing. Sometimes it’s the ones that lose – or at least the ones who don’t finish first – that pull most on my heart. Watching them cross finish lines only to see their time has fallen short, seeing them crash to the ice but get back up and finish, I am seriously moved by the thought of all the passionate work and practice that stands behind that moment. Perhaps especially behind the moment that didn’t quite turn out the way they expected.

The other day I was watching the women’s skeleton race, that incredibly high speed head-first sledding down a treacherous, winding track. The fact that anybody can do this at all astounds me – the initial run, the graceful leap onto the sled, the careful steering as the sled careens around corners and flies at a breakneck pace sometimes hitting 80 miles per hour. If you didn’t get to see it, believe it, it was great fun watching the sheer chutzpah and skill of these women athletes!

Two American sledders were highlighted. The first was Noelle Pikus-Pace, a mom of young children making a comeback after finishing fourth in the last Olympic games, only to finish a euphoric, stand-climbing, kid-hugging silver medalist in this one. The other was Katie Uhlaender, a bright-red headed 29 year old Kansan and the daughter of the late Ted Uhlaender, a former major-league baseball player and coach. He died a few years ago and she still wears his baseball ring on a chain around her neck. She finished eleventh in the last Olympics and had trained hard for this one, only to be derailed by a concussion last year. Still battling its repercussions, she fought hard and finished fourth by a mere four one hundredths of a second.

There was something about Katie that really got to me. She made me smile for one – her hip, dyed red hair and fun attitude reminding me of Tonks in the Harry Potter stories. NBC did several spotlights on the skeleton event in which Katie helpfully explained to the viewing audience how the whole thing worked, what the sleds are like, etc. Her enthusiasm was catching.

All the harder then to see her in tears at the end of the race, reiterating the “four one hundredths” of a second and clearly devastated to not win a medal. Listening to her talk to the reporter, her eyes welling with tears, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to dedicate yourself to such rigorous training for so many years only to fall just *that* far short of your ultimate goal. Then she said something that drew me up short, not because I couldn’t resonate with it, but because of how much I did: “I’m sorry, everybody.” Or as I read more fully later, “I want to apologize that what I did wasn’t enough.”

Ah, the heartache of those words. Do they sound familiar, sister? I say sister here (though brothers may be reading this too) because although this is a deeply human trait, in my experience, it seems that women tend to fall into the apologizing trap more readily than men. Yes, apologies are important when we really need to say them, but how often we apologize, even when we do something good, loving, real, because we fear it just “isn’t enough.”

Katie didn’t win a medal. In that sense, yes, quantitatively what she did was “not enough” to achieve the goal she so much wanted to achieve. But did she need to apologize for her performance? A gritty, determined, exciting performance with so much work behind it, a performance that showed on that given day, she was fourth best in the world at what she did? How many of us have ever poured our hearts into anything that fully, or worked that hard to achieve something? No apologies needed, Katie, I felt like saying, wishing I could reach through the screen to give her a hug. What you did was terrific.

But then I think, on a small and daily basis, how often I don’t cut myself or others the same slack. I don’t offer myself or others the grace of knowing that, hey, for today, what you did was enough. Even if it wasn’t perfect, not worthy of a gold (or silver, or bronze, or fourth place…or seventeenth). That meal you cooked with love that didn’t turn out quite the way you planned because you forgot an ingredient? That time you lost your temper yet again, but the way you pulled it together so quickly the next time and exhibited real self-control? Those pages and pages of really good writing you were going to accomplish that turned into only a few hundred hard-fought words that likely won’t all make it the next draft?

There really probably are lots of times in our lives, more than we’d like to admit, when what we do isn’t enough. But there are lots of other times when what we think of as “enough” is way more than it needs to be. Maybe there are times when doing our absolute best with all the love we can muster is enough, no matter what the results are. Maybe there is even something better for us than the results we so much wanted (that’s a tough one, I know). Maybe too God will make up for whatever’s lacking in what we did. He’s good at that. He’s always enough.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reasons I Love the Olympics

The fluid grace of flight and height.
The fall across the finish line.
The audacity of youth that forgets the spotlight
and throws down something new that’s never been tried.
The way the gold medalist fumbles for words to the national anthem.
The cheers of the crowd for the skier who comes in last.


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Bernard, Francis, Anselm

"O gentle Jesus, turn Thee unto me; What I have broken do Thou bind in me, And what is crooked make Thou straight in me; What I have lost restore Thou unto me, And what is weak and sickly heal in me."  ~St. Bernard of Clairvaux

That beautiful prayer was posted this evening on the Renovare page on facebook. I was happy to see it, both because I needed its heartfelt words, and because I've been thinking a good bit about Bernard of Clairvaux.

We started our introduction to the Crusades yesterday, and as usual, I am finding Bernard a tough guy to figure out. I like to segue into church history whenever I can in the course of our usual history studies, and during this period of the Middle Ages, with the church in such a position of power and cultural influence (for good and for ill) it's easy to make that jump.

What to say about Bernard? One of the most influential preachers of his age, he seemed to overflow with a true love for Christ ("gentle Jesus") and an understanding of his own deep failures. Yet he preached the first Crusade. Granted, we can't hold him responsible for all that came after, in that war or subsequent ones, but it's still hard to reconcile that fact with some of his prayers. At least for me at the moment.

Interesting side note: out of curiosity I went looking in our library system to see if I could find anything age-appropriate about Bernard for children. One book title popped up, and it was some sort of anthology (and only available as reference, not for check-out). By contrast, a quick search on children's resources on Francis of Assisi returned 34 titles, some of them quite recent. There seems to be about one new children's book on Francis each year. It's just interesting to see which saints speak to (or "translate") to our time and culture -- or at least seem to translate according to whomever is deciding what's appropriate and edifying for kids to read about saints.

And one more note: really thankful as we discussed the Crusades to have St. Anselm's prayers and meditations close to hand. We read from his prayer for his enemies. So good to have that clear, clear, humble prayer washing in from the past and landing on our shores yesterday.