Let Me Tell You a Love Story

There's a couple that walks down our street every night after dinner, a boy and girl who are most likely newlyweds. They're just a few years younger than I am, still lightened by the weightless possibility that comes in those post-graduation years of your early twenties.

My husband and I good-naturedly refer to them as Hipster Couple. They resemble each other in the way that long-term couples do. They both wear huge plastic glasses and, occasionally, matching fedoras that top their honey-colored hair. He has a signature goatee and a love of both flannel and suspenders. She wears only warm neutrals and has the impressive ability to pull off wide-leg pants with confidence. They even have a pair of matching dogs, each of them holding a leash.

Hipster couple is always touching each other. Sometimes they hold hands, but more often he'll have his arm draped across her shoulders, or she'll have hers circling his waist. If the dogs are pulling them apart, they still manage to lean towards each other, as though they're magnetized.

I have never seen them not talking, not smiling, or not laughing. They're adorable, is what I'm trying to say.


I refuse to feel creepy about watching them whenever they pass by. For one thing, our house is on a hill with a huge picture window facing the street; it's hard not to notice who's walking along. But more than that, I'm drawn to them.

It's like watching a rom-com day by day. They make my heart happy every time I see them. More than once, I've felt the urge to snap a few candid photos and anonymously leave them in their mailbox (after following them to discover where they live in the most non-stalkerish way possible). I think they deserve to see what their love looks like from afar.

Jacob and I can't help but comment on them. Mostly I'll talk about how happy they look and he'll talk about how he doesn't understand fashion these days. But the other day, we had this exchange. 

"Do you think Hipster Couple will be together forever?" I said. "We don't even know if they're married." 

And Jacob, who is no great romantic, replied, "Yeah, they will. Those two just go together."


I hope they never move. I hope I get to keep watching them walk by for years and years, eventually accompanied by a pregnant belly, then a stroller, then laughing, smiling, honey-haired children. I want to watch this far-away, shining love story go on forever. 

And I'm not delusional, okay? I know that I don't actually know them, that maybe all of us would look this happy and in love if people couldn't see our screaming fights and our secret fears and the nights we feel so far apart, even though we're sitting on the same couch. 

All I'm saying is, this boy loves that girl, and that girl loves this boy, so much that perfect strangers can see it from their living room window. That's the kind of love I'm going to keep believing in, even if it makes me the crazy stalker lady in the house on the hill. 

See Mom Write

"How do you make time to write with kids?"

Like this. 


May 23, 2018 

3:30 p.m. One kid is complaining of boredom, one kid is unfolding my laundry, and the baby is sleeping.

The ants were here before the kids were. They came with the house, which is built on a hill held up by block retaining walls. It's a veritable ant heaven. 

3:42 p.m.. The children are now leaning over the arm of the couch, peering at my writing and asking why I haven't started dinner because if I don't start soon, they'll surely starve.

That first year, the ants came streaming through the back door in a tidy line. I kept vigil at the kitchen table, looking up from my freelance work every few minutes to suck them into the handheld vacuum we'd been gifted for our wedding just a few months earlier. 

3:49 p.m. Baby is awake and toddler is throwing modeling clay at me. Time to give up for today?

May 24, 2018

9:20 p.m. Finally alone in the quiet . . . never mind. Husband just sat down and turned on TV. Will try to write anyway.

Back then, seeing the ants offended me on a personal level. Who were these tiny things to imply by their very presence that my house wasn't clean? I spent an entire afternoon hovering near the back door with the vacuum. No one could say I wasn't devoted to cleanliness. 

9:35 p.m. I don't like this. Is writing about ants stupid? Yes, yes it is. I'm going to knit instead. 

May 29, 2018

9:25 a.m. Literally watching the ants crawl by as I write this.

They appear in the center of the living room like our faded Target rug is hiding a vortex directly to the nearest anthill. "The sucker," as Hadley calls it, has become a permanent fixture in the room so that anyone sitting on the couch has only to lean over and push the button when they spot a crumb mysteriously walking across the floor of its own accord.

9:33 a.m. Paused for diaper change

It's a losing battle with the kids around. We Roomba daily, I sweep after each meal, and we've tightened up the rule that we only eat at the table. But still, the ants are marching on, and I'm losing my patience.

June 2, 2018

10:21 a.m. What am I trying to say with the ant essay? Maybe I can [This sentence unintentionally left unfinished. No idea what I meant to say.]

8:57 p.m. Just finished nursing the baby. He's not sleeping quite yet, but hopefully soon?

So when I spotted a steady line of ants tromping across the rug and disappearing between the coffee table and couch, I assumed one of the kids had snuck away from the kitchen to enjoy an illegal cracker or granola bar. I grabbed the vacuum, already mentally preparing the speech I'd make to the kids about how, no seriously, DO NOT EAT FOOD IN THE LIVING ROOM.

I followed the line of ants and discovered . . . a piece of popcorn from the bowl my husband and I had shared the night before, after the kids went to bed.

My mental rant died in my head.

Isn't that always the way it is with kids? I think things are their fault, that they're somehow interfering with my progress, when in reality the problem was me all along.

June 3, 2018

Have I written about ants before? I have deja vu. 

[Flip back to the beginning of the journal.] Oh, here it is. I have tried to write this before.


May 20, 2017

5:02 p.m. Cooking dinner

Sugar ants exist to make you think you're insane. Their tiny, gross little insect bodies blend with everything so that you only catch glimpses of them out of the corner of your eye while you're otherwise occupied, bent over the open oven door with your hands full of a piping hot 9x13 Pyrex. 

Do you sacrifice dinner to kill two ants? No. But it's tempting. 

Instead, slam the casserole on the stove, ditch the oven mitts, lunge toward the vacuum plugged in in the corner. But by then the ant is invisible again, marching merrily out to tell his friends about this great floor with all the toast crumbs on it. 

May 21, 2017

8:22 p.m. Kids are finally (finally!) sleeping. Is today's ant incident a better story than yesterday's?

I put "spray ant stuff" on my to-do list a week ago where it remained the only item not crossed off the list, taunting me from the fridge door. I figured I'd get to it. It stayed there for a week like a battle cry. And then, the rain came. Our ants always mobilize in the rain.

I should have seen them coming. I've lived here long enough to know their patterns. Instead, they caught me off guard in the bathroom. I was perched on the edge of the tub, once again waiting tedious minutes to tick by while Hadley's bladder weighed the pros and cons of going tinkle in the big-girl potty. 

8:37 p.m. Hadley is up requesting water. What have I done to deserve this slow torture of children not going the heck to bed?!

Reagan crawled in during our potty-training session and immediately took interest in some tiny speck on the floor that was surely a choking hazard.

But no, it was an ant. My nine-month-old was chasing a sugar ant across the bathroom floor. The bathroom! They've never breached the bathroom before. This isn't good.

I scooped the baby up and deposited her in the hall so I could investigate and round up my poisons of choice. Where there is one, there are many.

8:51 p.m. Too dramatic for ants? What's the point of all this anyway, other than that I can't remember the last time I washed the bathroom floor?

May 26, 2017

10:00 a.m. Kids are at Nana's. Blessed silence. I should be working. Or at the very least cleaning my house so these damn ants go away. Where am I going with this? Try a new angle.

I've never been one of those people who doesn't believe in killing ants. Sure, they're God's creatures (say the Christians) and it's bad karma (say the Buddhists) and who are we to take a life out of the universe (say the New Agers)? 

No one. I am no one. But ever since childhood, I've gone out of my way to step on ants. I guess that makes them angry or something, and word gets around the anthill eventually.

So now they are here in my house, and it's war. I'll turn a blind eye to our friendly spider colony, but never the ants. 

I've battled them ever since our first summer in this house. They came streaming through the back door like I'd issued an invitation. I'd sit at the kitchen table, glancing up from whichever manuscript I was editing to suck up the whole line of them every few minutes. 

10:18 p.m. Resuming while watching a bad movie

I tried everything: cans of poison that kill on contact, sprays that are deemed safe for kids and pets after it dries, and granules you shake out of a bag that claim to create "an unbreakable bug barrier." I hid the non-slip shoes I wore to work at the coffee shop, the ones with the layer of sticky flavor syrups adhered across the top. 

None of it mattered.

10:34 p.m. I'm so tired. Is this why everyone tells you to do important work in the mornings? 

May 28, 2017

1:40 p.m. I think I'm giving up on the ant thing. Are they a metaphor for something? Doesn't seem worth going after whatever thread this is anymore.


June 4, 2018

11:08 a.m. Rescued an old journal from my crayon-wielding toddler. I'll flip through just for fun.

May 27, 2016

8:40 p.m. 

There's a pineapple on the table, my hands are too clammy to knit, and the ants. are. back. 

I should write about those stupid things.


June 4, 2018

Two years. I've been writing about the ants for more than TWO YEARS?! That's it. I'm done. This ends here.


June 5, 2018

8:17 p.m. Outside. Typing quickly in the hopes that this years-long essay will actually get written before the baby wakes up. Husband is trying to talk with me, like reasonable married people would. I'm half-listening, trying not to be annoyed because I'm this. close. to. finishing.

If you've read anything I've written in the past four years, this is probably how it came to be. 

How do I make time to write?

I really don't. But this is the best I have to offer, and you can't stop me from trying.

 

Castles in the Air: Online Life vs. the Real World {Chasing Creative}

I feel like I live in two worlds sometimes, managing the parallel lives of two people whose realities are totally different. 

In one world, I'm subject to the whims of two tiny people with a never-ending string of needs. I sweep the floor three times a day and still have crumbs stuck to my socks, I don't go more than 15 minutes without answering the question "Why?" and I always seem to be feeding someone else and eating my own meals cold. 

In the other, I'm prepared and put together. I post well-crafted sentences and hold conversations with other adults, conversations I actually manage to contribute to in an intelligent way. I have a profile picture that always looks happy and has clean hair, even when the real-life me doesn't. This is a world of filters that act as rose-colored glasses. 

Take a guess which one is more tempting to spend time in. 

We're all drawn in by the lure of the online world with its promises of connections real people through social media, and building real influence by pouring into an audience, building a platform like a stage with steps as high as you can. 


Sometimes I picture it like the Castle in the Air from The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo, the boy hero of the story, has spent the whole book working to reach the Castle in the Air to rescue two sisters, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason.

Just before reaching his destination, Milo is distracted by a whole host of monsters: a faceless gentleman who assigns Milo an endless string of pointless tasks that will take hundreds of years to complete, the Demon of Insincerity who proclaims himself to be much more than he is, the Gelatinous Giant who tells Milo that being different isn't safe. 

The monsters chase Milo to the stairs of the castle, where a Senses Taker again distracts Milo from his real goal by asking a series of increasingly trivial questions. Just steps away from the Castle in the Air, and Milo has forgotten all about the princesses and the demons. Only an explosion of unexpected laughter make him snap out of it.


The Phantom Tollbooth is an allegorical children's novel published in 1961. It's nearly 60 years old, but I don't think it's ever been more relevant than it is now. 

The real world, the one that's messy and filled with hard work, is so much less appealing than the promises of the online world. But the real world is where we live, with our children and spouses and friends and family. The real world is where the magic of creativity happens. It's where we're called to be: here. 

Portions of the online world are real, like the genuine friendships we can form and the words we can share that might otherwise stay hidden away in a notebook on our nightstand. But most of it? It's all smoke and mirrors, distractions and insincerity. 


But allegories can never reflect real life perfectly. Social media and platforms have their place, especially for creatives who want their work to mean something and impact others. 

So how do we balance it all without getting pulled away from our real goals? That's the question Abbie and I are tackling in this week's episode of Chasing Creative. Head here to give it a listen: Social Media and the Creative Life. 

We don't have all the answers (or any answers, really), but we do have the hope that Princesses Rhyme and Reason gave Milo: it's okay that the journey takes a little longer than it might have as long as we learn from our mistakes and carry the lessons with us always.

How do you balance creating and living in the real world with the expectation to build a platform online?

Life Lived in a Moleskine Notebook

"So it's a diary?"

My black Moleskine notebook is open on the kitchen table in front of me while my husband peers curiously down at it. The notebook follows me everywhere, though I rarely have time to open it. It sits on the corner of my desk while I write client articles, on the kitchen counter while I chop onions, on the nightstand next to my bed just in case I happen to wake up before the kids.

The notebook is everywhere. I'm more attached to it than my phone. It's the thing I'd grab first in a fire (assuming the kids were already safe). But I don't actually know what it is.

"Um, not really. It's just where I write down things that happen and what I think about them. But not like, everything that happens. Just important things that might matter someday. Things I might want to remember?"

I'm stumbling over my words, not making sense even to myself. I add something about creative nonfiction as a genre and how it holds the start to many of the essays I eventually publish online, but I can tell that only muddies the waters more. My husband shakes his head and gives me a small eye roll, figuring it's one of the many things that he, a non-reader, will never get about me, a person who lives and breathes words all day.

I press the tip of my pen back down on the paper, but whatever I was going to write is already lost. I stare at the black dot the pen left in the middle of the paper, letting my eyes unfocus, trying to chase back whatever fleeting idea has been flitting through my brain. 


I was ten when I first stumbled upon the Pensieve with Harry Potter. Dumbledore says something about how your mind becomes so full of thoughts, you just need somewhere to put them all. Later, you can find patterns you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

Harry nods along even though he doesn't get it. At ten, this is how I felt too. A bowl full of thoughts didn't make any sense to me. How could your mind not have space to think about the things that needed thinking about? My head was balancing all sorts of things that year, like whether or not I would like summer camp (I didn't), which teacher I'd get next year (a good one), and how awkward my first experience with health class would be (very).

Then Harry and I both grew up, and now a basin filled with swirling silver thoughts makes a lot more sense. 

In the six years since entering "real" adulthood, complete with marriage, home ownership, and children, I've often wished for a magical basin that could hang onto thoughts and memories until I had time and space to process them all. But J. K. Rowling's Pottermore site tells us that it's even more than that. 

She tells us that it's difficult to use a Pensieve to sort through ideas; it's not something every wizard can do. It requires work and skill, and if you're too protective of your secrets or ashamed of your past, you'll never manage it. 


My notebook is a Muggle's Pensieve, the closest I can get to using magic to sort the thoughts that need sorting. It gives the gift of mental processing and the ability to find threads of stories in an otherwise mundane daily life, though these findings don't come easily. 

I have to be willing to write down things I wish I hadn't said or done. I have to know that I could get hit by a bus someday and people could end up flipping through those pages full of unpolished words that weren't meant to be read. I have to know that all the things I write there might not add up to anything real in the end, but they were probably worth writing anyway.

And so the notebook that holds all these words I can't quite define stays with me. I carry it from room to room in our house, jotting down a quick thought in between refilling sippy cups and breaking up fights over toys.

Someday, if I'm lucky, maybe I'll find enough magic to sort through the thoughts and find the pattern that was there all along.

 

 

When Your Friend Writes a Book {Chasing Creative}

I don't remember the details of how I started following Callie Feyen's writing. It probably had something do with Twitter circa 2013. I do remember how we went from being occasional commenters on each other's blogs to that weird space of internet friendship: Abbie and I interviewed her in the early days of the Chasing Creative podcast. 

She spoke about writing and motherhood with more raw honesty than I'd ever heard before. She refreshingly didn't have much to say about building a platform or getting mired in the work of maintaining your personal brand. Callie was, and still is, all about the work: showing up and writing whether you feel like it or not. 

In that first interview, Callie shared a quote I will never apologize for recycling through my Twitter every few weeks:

It’s my story. Nobody is going to write it except for me.
— Callie Feyen

We had Callie on the show again in 2016. Her life had changed quite a bit since we spoke the first time, and she was going through a rough season of transition with a cross-country move and a major job transition. She didn't know where she was going yet, but she was still writing. 

So Callie took all that drive and energy, and she kept doing the hard work during hard times, and she came out on the other side with a published book.

We celebrated by having her on Chasing Creative for a third time to talk about how someone who was a little unsure, someone who has two kids and a job and not that much time to write, followed the threads of her own life and turned them into a book. 

This episode is for the ones who can't seem to find time to do the work, who aren't sure if they'll ever accomplish that big creative dream, or who are just plain worn down by the season they're in right now. (I'm raising my own hand here.) Callie will speak right to you and give you the hope and encouragement you need to keep pushing through. Listen wherever you find your podcasts or by clicking here.

The Teacher Diaries Callie Feyen

 

The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet is a series of essays on teen love and teaching Shakespeare to a group of adolescents. It debuted on Valentine's Day 2018 from T.S. Poetry Press. Grab a copy here (affiliate link).

What's Saving My Life This Winter

We've all got those small but important things that help us keep our lives on track in different seasons. Is it too dramatic to say that those little things are saving my life? Probably. But they're definitely saving my sanity, and I have no regrets about any of these. Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share the small things that are saving my life this winter. 

Saving My Life Winter 18.jpg

Knitting

I'm in a season of facing a lot of big Adult Life Decisions, and it leaves me feeling fried at the end of nearly every day. A lot of things are up in the air right now, and not only does that mean lots of decision fatigue, it also means living with a mind that won't stop racing because I can't handle not knowing the future.  

It's a stressful place to be. When I don't even want to pick up a book to unwind, knitting is a strong second for keeping my hands busy and letting my anxious brain focus on something with soothing repetition. I can even use knitting to deflect some of my stress while my husband and I are debating Big Life Decision options, which is a big plus for helping me stay grounded in logic and not let my emotions take over the conversation.

Root Vegetables

We try to eat seasonally, in part because non-seasonal fruits and veggies are absurdly expensive and not great quality here in Minnesota. That means winter is all about root veggies. And they're kind of the best, aren't they?

You can put them into any sort of soup, stew, roast, or just toss them on a sheet pan in the oven. Kids will eat them. They last for-ev-er. Winter dinners almost can't go wrong, and it's all thanks to carrots and potatoes.

Homemade Iced Mochas

Okay, so my espresso machine is pretty much always saving my life. But it's extra appreciated in winter that I can have a home-brewed iced mocha without needing to brave the cold and wind with the kids. (Or worry about getting in the drive-thru line only to discover that your car's window is frozen shut . . . not that that's happened to me more than once or anything.)

Rosemary Mint Candle

When the kids are behaving at Target, I almost always take a trip down the candle aisle. That's where I found my new favorite candle, Rosemary Mint by Smith & Hawken. (It's already out of stock online, so I'm definitely stocking up if it's still in the store the next time I go.) It smells light and soothing, and it immediately calms me down if I'm feeling stressed. It's my current go-to scent anytime I'm at my desk.

Runner ups in the "things that smell good" category is Bath and Body's Works' Aromatherapy lotion line. I hate going to their store because all the smells mingling together gives me a headache, but I love these so much I'm confident ordering them in bulk online. My favorites are Eucalyptus Spearmint to feel like you just walked into the spa and Lavendar and Cedarwood for an instant dose of calm.

Remote Start Car

I live in the tundra with small children. This is self-explanatory. Let's just say there's a world of difference between loading two kids into an ice-cold car when it's -10, and a slightly warmer car that's been running for five minutes.

Making Friends

I'm introverted to the core, but one of my not-quite goals for 2018 was to find more of my people and put in the effort to engage with them and grow strong friendships. In my head, I want this to look like finding those friends that are more like family, who can stop over or call anytime and it will always feel energizing rather than draining. The reality doesn't look anything like this (after all, friendships like that take time), but I've done better than usual at putting myself out there and finding people to connect with.

I've spent a surprising amount of time chatting with other writers this month, and it's been so good for my soul. Talking with people who get me has been like a giant exhale. I'm also (kind of? sort of?) starting to make more mom friends for the first time ever, which is the most awkward thing in the world but has the potential to be so good down the road.

What's been saving your life this winter?

 

Reading Deeply in 2018

Traditional goal-setting isn't serving me well these days. That includes my reading goals.

Reading goals used to be one of the easiest challenges for me to take on. Pick a number, add it to my Goodreads challenge for the year, and get started working through that ever-growing TBR pile. Setting a reading goal used to be a great thing: it got me out of my post-college English major slump and reminded me of all the amazing books out there that aren't on a professor's assigned reading list.

But two recent conversations on the Chasing Creative podcast have me rethinking that strategy for 2018. In the first, Abbie and I talked in-depth about our reading lives and how they can help and harm our creativity. In the second, we dug into our (very blurry) 2018 creative goals and what we need to do to accomplish them.

Recording these podcast episodes made me realize that my current reading habits aren't doing me any favors. I've read between 30 and 50 books each year since 2014. During that time, I've also had two kids, grown a business, and am now trying to expand my creative writing into something that's more than just a fleeting idea I wish I had time for. 

Kindle reader on knitted blanket

It's time to admit that I need to cut back on certain things if I want to make room for others. That includes even good things I love, like reading.

So this year, I'm focusing less on the number of books I finish and more on reading deeply. I've noticed an uncomfortable habit of grabbing short or "fluffy" books that I might not have read otherwise just to try to catch up on my reading challenge. That's not a good use of my time, and it's not helping me round out my life in other areas. 

Here are the types of "deep reading" I'll be focusing on this year. (This list contains affiliate links.)

Books that make me think

According to the Modern Mrs. Darcy reading personality quiz, I'm an Explorer. One of my main reading motivations is to explore worlds, points of view, and experiences that are outside of my own bubble. Books that pull me outside of my life, not necessarily in an escapist way but in a way that makes me reexamine the way I see the world, allow my reading life to feed the rest of me in a healthy way.

The kicker is that I might not always like these books. I'll disagree with an author's point in nonfiction or the theme or character choices in fiction. That's okay, though! I go into books like this with the expectation that I'll broaden my horizons, so I'm not too disappointed if they don't make my Favorites list.

Books I read in 2017 that made me think: 

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins (an example of a book I gave only two stars on Goodreads)

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Books with outstanding writing

Another reading quiz, this one from O magazine, tells me that I'm an Aesthete, someone who values strong writing above all else. This is 100% true. I'll forgive minor character flaws, plot problems, and pacing issues if the writing is stellar. On the other hand, I've rated bestsellers as one star because I didn't care about the gripping plot; I was too distracted by writing that reminded me of 5th-grade English class.

This category tends to land me in literary fiction, but I'd like to branch out and find books in other genres (and even nonfiction!) that make an impact with the quality of writing.

Books I read in 2017 that have stellar writing:

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Books that teach me something specific

I have an embarrassing attachment to both the self-help and business/marketing genres. The problem is that these books are often too vague to actually make an impact on my life. I'll pick one up just because it's a buzzy new release without stopping to think about how it will actually help me right now. 

This year, I'll focus on books that meet at least two of these three criteria:

1. Will this book help me solve a specific business problem that I'm facing right now?

2. Will this book help me solve a specific personal problem that I'm facing right now?

3. Will this book deepen my knowledge of a topic I'm genuinely interested in right now?

My hope is that by limiting self-help books to specifics rather than picking up whatever's new and bestselling, I'll be able to actually put that knowledge to good use in my life.

Books I read in 2017 that taught me something specific:

The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Books that will help me write a novel

I had to take a deep breath before putting this on the list. It seems like a bad time to start writing a novel, with a third baby on the way in spring, but I've got an idea that won't leave me alone and I'm taking a big step later this month to see where it leads. 

Reading books while writing a book can be tricky. You need to absorb good writing and inspiration by "osmosis" from other writers, but you also don't want your unique ideas and voice to get lost because you're emulating what you're reading. I'm not totally sure what this category will look like for 2018, but I think the fiction will include classics from the '20s (Fitzgerald, Wharton, etc.), and the nonfiction will be a stack of books on writing that have been languishing on my TBR list for too long.

What are your reading goals for 2018? Are you changing your habits this year?

P.S. Are we friends on Goodreads yet? Come find me there! I set my challenge goal for 35 books this year, which feels doable but won't allow me to slack and stop reading entirely.