Howdy from Camp NaNoWriMo

On the field of the self stands a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day. ~ Steven Pressfield

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerIn my post “You Can’t Finish What You Don’t Start” I talk about how fear and excuses can stop us from starting on a path toward a goal or dream. That post was written in mid-November 2012 during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). On the day I wrote it, I had tallied 30,000 words toward finishing the first draft of a fantasy novel. And by the end of November I was a sleep-starved gelatinous mass quivering on my keyboard – having survived the last few days on mounds of chocolate and gallons of Mountain Dew – BUT I finished the race and surpassed the goal of 50k words.

I decided last year that I would never do another NaNo in November, but it’s April now and the memory of that past pain has faded, and National Novel Writing Month’s little sibling has begun. Camp NaNoWriMo is billed as “an idyllic writers retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” And crazy is one word to describe this journey.

On day five of Camp, my resolve is already wavering. I’ve written 4,000 words toward my 30-day goal of 30k words divided between five short stories. It hasn’t been easy, but like anything worth doing, sacrifice is necessary. My house is suffering and my husband is already eating toast and dry cereal for dinner. Between bouts of writing, I work on my lengthy to-do list which includes putting together and editing a 16-page newsletter for my writing organization, plus playing interim webmaster for their website. Let’s not forget that April is tax month – yippee!

What was I thinking when I committed to this? Certainly another month would have been better, less hectic, more convenient…but there is no better month, no better time than now. And what does convenience have to do with following my dreams?

I know I can do this. I survived Army basic training. I raised four children. I’ve dressed the dead (that’s a story for another day). I can do this. But commitment is not all it takes to finish such a project. I realize now, five days into Camp, that I simply didn’t plan ahead well enough. I can’t go back, but there are things I can do from here on out to make sure I finish the race:

  • Schedule. As much as possible. But be real and flexible – life happens.
  • Get Up Early. And go to bed at a decent time. Without sleep, I can’t think straight.
  • Creative Time. Mornings are best for me – that’s when I should work on projects.
  • Exercise. A little bit everyday is better than nothing.
  • Kill Time Suckers:
    • Television. Record favorite shows to watch later.
    • Internet. Don’t get sucked in. Make notes to do research later.
    • Email. Check email once a day, and set a timer to do so.
  • Plan Meals and Snacks. Note to self: I can eat dry cereal three times a day, but my husband shouldn’t have to.
  • Use Tools: A calendar, master to-do list, daily to-do list, and giant marker board are my friends.
  • Prioritize: Some things can wait and some things can’t. Do what’s most important first, carry over the rest to the next day, then re-prioritize.

I should have been better prepared going into Camp, but I won’t allow myself to use that as an excuse to give up. It takes a lot stronger dragon than that to drive me completely off course. That said, the focus of NaNoWriMo is to encourage writers to do what they long to do – to write. To help us move forward on our writing journey. And as I said in my November post, whatever the final word count ends up being, I will be closer to finishing than if I hadn’t started at all.

What is keeping you from moving forward on a dream? What do you do to stay on course?

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Brain Training

Active NeuronBy the time I was twenty-five years old, I had three darling children under the age of five. It was a challenging period of my life, but the four of us had great fun together. Interacting with them day and night allowed me to play out the best times of my own childhood.

But one afternoon I noticed an odd look settle on the face of an Avon representative who I’d invited into my home. I paused, silently trying to decide what I might have said to offend her. Then our conversation of the previous few minutes played back in my mind – I had been talking to her in baby talk. I said something like, “How silly,” and laughed. She laughed, politely. I was mortified, but I knew what I had to do. My brain needed exercise. By the end of that week I had studied a college catalog and registered for courses for the upcoming semester.

So here I am twenty-five plus years later, finding myself – not speaking baby-talk – but not able to hold a lengthy conversation without stopping in mid-sentence because the word I want to say has disappeared from my brain. It was there, this word-thingy, just the moment before when my thoughts, having been processed into words, were lining up to trip lightly off my tongue. It’s a frustrating experience, embarrassing, and scary. (Most of my girlfriends of the same age have this problem off and on, and we nod and try to fill in the gaps for each other.)

Onward into the fray that is the Internet.

According to HelpGuide.org, “The human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt and change – even into old age. This ability is known as neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, your brain can form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways. The brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself holds true when it comes to learning and memory.” This is great news.

We all know that exercise is good for us. Movement increases oxygen to your entire body, including your brain. It helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease and helps to counter the effects of these diseases that rob the brain of oxygen and lead to memory loss.

Our brains also need exercise. Throughout our lives, our brains develop neural pathways to help process information. As adults, we’ve come to rely on millions of these pathways to solve problems and perform everyday tasks. The thing is, if we only use the same paths, our brains won’t be stimulated to grow and develop. We need to purposely find new and challenging activities to exercise our grey matter – not something we’ve already mastered.

Now is the time to sign up for a computer class, learn a different language, take dance lessons, try a musical instrument, play computer games (if board games are your usual thing), or try Sudoku if you’re used to crossword puzzles. You can play games online at luminosity.com that are “engineered to train a range of cognitive functions, from working memory to fluid intelligence.” They have free, challenging games, as well as enhanced ones that require a monthly fee. (Go to luminosity.com for a list of other sites that offer free online games.)

In addition to exercise, there are others things we can do to boost our brainpower – we can laugh more, stress less, and eat healthier.

Research has shown that foods rich in omega-3s are especially beneficial to a healthy brain, such as fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring) and non-fish sources (walnuts, ground flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans).

Antioxidants protect your brain cells from damage and are found in higher concentrations in fruits and vegetables with lots of color (berries, plums, and guavas; spinach, peppers, and parsley), dried fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, some cereals and spices. (Go here for a more complete list). Green tea is also a good source of antioxidants called polyphenols that protect against damage to brain cells and may help enhance memory and slow brain aging.

Wine (in moderation), grape juice, cranberry juice, peanuts, and fresh grapes and berries contain resveratrol that boosts blood flow in the brain and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s.

In my research I found a lot of encouraging news and choices I can make to improve my memory and keep my brain healthy. “Choice” is a key word here and wisdom tells me to make these choices sooner than later.

Do you suffer with the same word-thingy problem? What are you doing to save your brain?

The Scales of Life

[We can] come, finally, to find at the end of the day, not merely time’s revenge on life, but life’s revenge on time: an abiding grace for both the fragility and the fullness of life. ~ Umair Haque

Man Climbing an IcebergI came across an article several weeks ago on the HBR Blog Network that I wanted to share, especially now that January is over and our resolve to change may be faltering. The following was taken from Umair Haque’s excellent article titled “How to Have a Year that Matters.” To read it in full, click here.

Let’s cut the crap. Life is short, you have less time than you think, and there are no baby unicorns coming to save you…

A life well lived always demands [that] one asks of one’s self: is it worth it? Is the heartache worth the breakthrough; is the desolation worth the accomplishment; is the anguish balanced by the jubilation; perhaps, even, are the moments of bitter despair, sometimes, finally, the very instants we treasure most? There’s no easy answer, no simplistic rule of thumb. The scales of life always hang before us — and always ask us to weigh the burden of our choices carefully…

Hence: every moment of every day of this year, and every year that follows, what I want you to map is the uncharted shore of potential: the capacity of life to dream, wonder, imagine, create, build, transform, better, and love; the infusion of the art of living into the heart of every instant of existence…

There’s a kind of quiet magic that each and every one of us is condemned to have in us, every moment of our lives: the facility to exalt life beyond the mundane, and into the meaningful; beyond the generic, and into the singular; through the abstract, and into the concrete; past the individual, and towards the universal. And it’s when we reject this, the truest and worthiest gift of life, that we have squandered the fundamental significance of being human; that the soil of our lives feels arid, featureless, fallow, a desert that never came to life; because, in truth, it has been.

And so this almost magical facility you and I have, potential, is something like an existential obligation that we must live up to: for it’s only when we not just accept it, but employ it at its maximum, that we can reconcile ourselves not merely to regret, but with mortality; that we can escape not merely our own lesser selves, but the all-destroying scythe of futility; and come, finally, to find, at the end of the day, not merely time’s revenge on life, but life’s revenge on time: an abiding grace for both the fragility and the fullness of life.

I don’t pretend any of the above is revolutionary, or new, or anything less than obvious. Yet, the lessons of a life well lived rarely are: they’re simple, timeless truths.

So let me ask…Why are you here? Do you want this to be another year that flies by, half-hearted, arid, rootless, barely remembered, dull with dim glimpses of what might have been? Or do you want this to be a year that you savour, for the rest of your surprisingly short time on Planet Earth, as the year you started, finally, irreversibly, uncompromisingly, to explosively unfurl a life that felt fully worth living?

The choice is yours. And it always has been.

Let’s live up to our potential this year. Let’s be the best we can be.

The Trap of Perfectionism

If you wait for the perfect map before departing on your journey, you’ll never have to leave. ~ Seth Godin

ICountry Road On Cloudy Day can’t tell you the number of times I’ve torn up a letter I wrote because my handwriting was crooked. Or how often I’ve scraped the elements off a scrapbook page and started over because something wasn’t quite right. I drove my publisher crazy by proofing the manuscript for This New Mountain over and over and over, making little “necessary” changes every time. Thankfully, they made the decision to cut me off and declare the book ready for the world. If they hadn’t done that, I would probably still be tweaking the thing.

I recently came across a blog post on another site that points out being a perfectionist means: 1) little tasks take a lot longer; 2) you have a compulsion to dot the i’s and cross the t’s; 3) you’re never happy with what you produce; 4) you are hypersensitive to criticism; 5) hitting “publish” on a blog post causes anxiety and doubt; and 6) procrastination rules. I agree with all of these points. I also know my perfectionism doesn’t extend beyond myself (see my post about imperfection) because I can leave a friend’s bathroom and not feel compelled to turn the toilet paper roll around the correct way. You know, so it unrolls over and not under.

In the past few years – and especially since my near-fatal publishing incident – I’ve been working hard not to be such a perfectionist. I’ve had to do some serious talking to myself. (Do people really care that my hand-written cards and letters are crooked?) I’ve had to step out and just do it, whatever “it” is.

Like taking on the editing responsibilities for SouthWest Sage (my writing organization’s newsletter ) – a perfectionist’s nightmare, making sure every page is filled up and laid out exactly right. But monthly deadlines have helped me get things done and learn to let go.

And then there’s the matter of all the photo albums I need to finish. Knowing my children would really like to have their baby albums in hand before they die (they’re all in their 30s now) motivated me to get them done. To do so, I had to remind myself that the world wouldn’t end if the paper didn’t fit the page or the colors/patterns weren’t exactly right or the photos didn’t line up. It was a battle.

If you’re not a perfectionist, you can laugh at all of this. If you know and love a perfectionist, maybe you can try to understand the person’s need. It is a hard thing to overcome, and I’m certain I won’t be able to completely – it’s one of the things that makes me a good editor, after all. 

The biggest thing that has helped me want to change is knowing that my perfectionism has interfered with reaching my goals, or even starting on a path toward them. I’ve reached the point in my life where I have fewer years ahead of me than behind. It’s time to stop wasting time and get on with it, whatever “it” is.

How has perfectionism affected your life?

Book Giveaway

TNMcoversIt’s been a few months since I posted news about what’s happening with This New Mountain, the memoir of AJ Jackson, so I thought I’d get you caught up on what’s going on.

AJ and I had several book signings at local bookstores last year. We shared her adventures as a private investigator and repossessor with many who’d never heard of this fearless redhead. And we were so grateful for our family and friends who came out and encouraged us with plenty of hugs and smiles that calmed our nerves and carried us through the hours.

This New Mountain was also honored in 2012 to be chosen as a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards in the biography category. For those of you who bought the book but didn’t get a finalist sticker, let me know right away if you’d like one (before they’re all gone) and I’ll send one out to you.

And today, Sandy Bazinet has posted an author interview with me on her website. Sandy has such a great heart for sharing joy and helping others. She says, “the bliss of writing is seeing you smile!” Check out the interview and leave a comment – and comment on this post, too – for a chance to be a part of…

Our First Book Giveaway!

You could be the random commenter who receives a free, signed copy of This New Mountain. Just leave a comment here – for an extra entry, leave one at the bottom of my interview on the S.S. Bazinet website – from now until midnight (EST) on Friday, January 25, 2013 (for US and Canada residents only). I’ll put everyone’s name in a hat and draw one lucky winner.

If you haven’t checked out the book’s back cover blurb yet, here it is:

Like most private investigators, AJ Jackson has more than one foot in the fire to make ends meet – driving a tow truck and serving legal documents for local law firms. But not every PI is a mother of four, a grandmother of ten, an ex-gun dealer and former mental patient, or a descendant of a great Choctaw chief. This is a memoir of Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson, a country girl with a go-to-hell attitude who must face her fears in order to keep her sanity and make a future for herself.

Good luck! I hope you have a fear less day.

Live More, Fear Less: Lessons from Babies

BabyI wish I could remember what it was like to be a baby or a young child. To feel my mother hold me close or hear her sing me to sleep. Of course, I only want to remember the good things about babyhood, and not the scary feeling of waking up alone in the dark, or the frustration of not being able to communicate. The closest I can come to remembering those very early months of my life is to observe babies through my grown-up eyes. And there are a few things I’ve learned from those little guys.

Babies give life everything they have.

They eat and drink with gusto. When they laugh, they light up a room. When they cry, the sound carries for miles. And when they give themselves over to sleep, they become little boneless heaps, completely one with whatever surface (vertical or horizontal) they’ve fallen asleep on. If we put that much energy into what we do, imagine what we could accomplish.

Babies nap.

And the world is at peace – and then they wake up ready to go. Enough said.

To babies, everything is important.

When they see that bottle coming towards them, they are focused. To them, losing a raisin is equivalent to losing a diamond ring. They are in tune with their bodies – hunger, pain, sensitivity to heat or cold or soiled diapers – and they don’t mind letting the world know about it. What’s important to babies becomes important to those that love and cherish them. Respecting how others feel, even if we don’t feel the same way, can bring peace to our world.

Babies don’t give up.

It takes practice and working their little muscles before babies can roll over. They have to concentrate and experiment to figure out which body parts to move in order to crawl. They fall, a lot, when they’re learning to walk. And when they finally master a few steps, they trip and fall some more. But they just keep trying, over and over. Imagine what would happen if babies gave up learning to talk. There would be no verbal communication in the world. Where is our determination? Where is our courage to try?

Everything is new and exciting to babies.

Of course, the whole world is new to babies, because it is. Colors, sounds, smells, tastes. Everything. And their wide-open eyes, kicking feet, and delighted squeals show how they feel. It’s been said too many times to count, that we need to see the world from the eyes of a child. How much more exciting and fulfilling life would be if we could only relearn how (or let go) to do so.

Babies thrive on attention.

They love being held and snuggled. They love music, your soft voice singing them to sleep, and the joyous sound of laughter. When you smile, they learn to smile back. The need for love, security, peace, and respect are things we never outgrow.

Babies don’t care what they look like – or what you look like.

Some babies are chubby and dimpled, some are thin, many are bald (or mostly so). But they’re all precious and beautiful and worthy of love. Just like you and I.

What have babies taught you about life?

Ready for Change?

Girl Preparing to Pool DiveAlbert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. “Insanity” seems like a pretty strong word to use – “foolishness” might fit better.

I’m not so foolish to think that something in my life will change if I don’t help it along, but I do have a bad habit of putting things off for another day. And then I’m surprised at how much time has passed without making headway.

I’ve known for a long time that I need help remembering to do things. That’s why I have a huge whiteboard in my kitchen with notes circled and starred all over it. If a to-do item is written there, it will get done (eventually). But here we are in a new year, and there are still things on the board left undone – from months and months ago.

Well, I’m finally ready for a change. So lists have been compiled and a plan is in place (with the help of my very organized husband who has been patient with my piles and undone-things for too long). Time will be spent more wisely and goals will be achieved. This is my hope and dream.

And to help organize my life, I’m going to pay attention to the following online resources:

  • Marla Cilley is The Fly Lady. “She weaves her way through housecleaning and organizing tips, with homespun humor, daily musings about life and love, and anything else that is in her mind.” If you follow FlyLady, you’ll get FLYmail everyday with FLYing Lessons to help you set up short, manageable routines to get rid of clutter and put your home and life in order. She says “you are not behind – you are just getting started.”
  • Kathi Lipp is the queen of projects. Sign up for her newsletter and you’ll get a free copy of The Ultimate Guide to Man Food, plus she’ll keep you up-to-date on projects such as organizing your house and connecting with your kids, and her most recent Christmas Project that shared daily strategies to prepare for the holiday.

There’s an old country saying that goes something like this:

“When is the best time to plant an oak tree? Fifty years ago. When is the second best time? Today.”

Change can be scary, but it’s easiest handled bit by bit (like eating an elephant is easier one bite at a time). One step after another, and soon I’ll have reached a mile marker. Each small goal achieved will bring me closer to my bigger goals – whether it’s to have an ordered house and life or to finish my latest novel.

I’m excited to start this journey of change today. How about you?

On the Road to the Sun

GlacierNP_2The Going-to-the-Sun Road wound upwards around the ice-carved mountainsides of Glacier National Park in northern Montana. Forests of evergreens, patches of fading wild flowers, and the yellow-orange of still-changing foliage spread out before me along the road on three sides. Even the cliff face on my left, climbing toward an autumn sky, held beauty in its grey hues, and jagged lines and shadows. Mountain buttes hid the foothills of ridges. Ridges bowed before peaks. Each layer a darker shade of blue to purple-grey. All filled the horizon above v-shaped valleys.

I went around a curve, the traffic slowed to a standstill, and there, blocking the panorama, was a rocky outcrop with a rough-hewn tunnel leading through it. In comparison, the harshness of the lifeless stone and the spiny, leafless trees here didn’t hold the same beauty as what I’d just passed. Behind me, the view was still so awesome I could have stared at it for hours, if not days, if not years (so different from the grassy mesas and the looming shoulders of barren mountains I often hike near my home 1250 miles away).

Glacier_4On through the tunnel, and the vista was again wondrous ahead, this time less so behind. And so, The-Going-to-the-Sun Road shifted before and behind, in varying degrees of glorious – because, really, even the views that held too much brown and grey or not enough mountain or sky, still held perfection in their own way.

During one of those moments in my ascent when I just had to stop and stand and try to take it all in, I thought of how much looking back can ruin my present and my future. The landscape of my past is filled with both beauty and ugliness. But living in the past – whether glorious or gritty – has often been a trap that keeps me from living in the present. At the same time, working busily for tomorrow (even if tomorrow means the end of the day) without enjoying this very day, seems as much of a waste.

I don’t make true New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I’m going to try very hard to do this coming year is to enjoy my every today and hope more in the future.

What changes do you want to make in the new year?

Seasons of Joy and Heartache

PeaceDoveThis is the season of joy-to-the-world, Christmas trees, elves and reindeer, snowmen and snow angels, baking and making and sharing, decorating and gift giving. It’s a time to celebrate the greatest gift ever given, demonstrated in Nativity scenes around the world – the birth of Jesus.

It’s also a time that many people suffer through. To see so much joy – to be faced with everyone else’s happiness, a reminder of what they may not have – can be truly painful when heartache overshadows everything else.

Emotional distress can destroy our physical, as well as emotional health. We are not meant to live for long in our grief, but to pass through it when the time is right.

In an interview with Jeremy Statton, Alece Ronzino approaches this subject from the viewpoint of someone who has made the journey:

Everyone eventually goes through a season of shattered dreams.

The greatest thing I can pass along to someone who is in that place right now is something a friend said to me, “Don’t bring building supplies to the graveyard.” There will be a season where all you can do is sit in the grief and the heartache. You have to face it and feel it, and not try to shortcut around it. But eventually – and you, or those you trust to speak into your life, will just know when that time is – you have to start taking steps forward.

Give yourself permission to grieve. And then give yourself permission to hope again.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

I hope this is a season of joy and peace for you. If not, I hope you will reach out to the One who understands you better than you understand yourself, because He made you. The One who named and numbered the stars. The One who counts every tear you shed, and is always with you.

Wishing you joy in the simple things and hope for better days.

It’s Not Too Late to Enjoy Christmas

TreeBowsSnowI’ve been getting up early and going to bed late, rushing here and there, trying to finish everything necessary to make this a great Christmas. I overextended myself in November, so I’m a month behind on everything including making crafts, baking cookies, decorating the tree and the house, and shipping off packages still waiting to be filled with gifts. Not to mention the Christmas cards that need personalized notes (plus addressing and mailing out). I even had to cancel my volunteer day this week – just no time. I am, in fact, doing exactly what I promised myself I would not do again this year.

I wanted this Christmastime to be less stressful and more joy-filled than previous years. To follow a plan, check things off lists, and put my feet up the week before the red-suited plump guy slides down the chimney, and sigh contentedly that life is good.

Today, in the middle of all this craziness – and my broken dream of a perfectly planned and executed holiday – I remembered why I like Christmas. It’s not dragging out the decorations and the lights, or the annual five-pound weight gain, or the hours of shopping and stressing over the right gift. But I love the twinkling lights that make the world glow like a fairyland. I love sharing and eating holiday goodies. And I love giving gifts and celebrating the reason for the season: the birth of Jesus. All these things, plus the feeling that everyone seems jollier this time of year, add up to why I like Christmas so much.

There’s one more thing I remembered today. Life is good. Very good, despite the self-imposed craziness. I’m blessed beyond measure. I have a loving husband and children, friends who care about me, a soft bed and a warm house, and plenty to eat. And too many more blessings to count.

And so this blog post is getting out late as I’ve attempted to uncrazify my day. Christmas isn’t what makes me rush around trying to get things done – it’s my own expectations and what I think others expect from me.

I can still enjoy Christmas if I let go of a few things on my unfinished to-do list. If I slow down and focus on what I want the next twelve days of December to be like, I will have the best gifts anyone could ask for, or give – joy and peace, and time spent with friends and family.

How are you handling holiday stress?