Late on a Friday Night

Photo by Krista Mangulsone via Unsplash

It’s late on a Friday night. Our two older kids are in the basement, watching a movie with a friend. Our two middle kids are in the living room, playing video games. Friday night is the one time of the week where we kind of back off the screen patrol and let everyone unwind. It works for us. You do you.

Meanwhile, I’m in the gliding rocker in the babies’ room, enjoying the peace and quiet and basking in the glow of my computer screen. I say babies, but Leo turns five this summer and Poppy will be three right behind him. In my honest moments, I have to face the fact that we don’t have babies anymore. This is a strange thing. Soon, Poppy will be potty-trained, and we’ll have put 15 years of on-again, off-again diaper-changing behind us. That’s a strange thought. Our first baby is almost a sophomore in high school. An even stranger thought.

When Maile is away, the sleeping life of our older three kids doesn’t change much. They go to bed in their own rooms, at bed time, and the world keeps spinning. But, when Maile is away, I end up sleeping on the floor in the babies’ room. So does Sam. So there are four of us in the smallest bedroom in the house, two of us on the floor (sometimes three if Leo crawls out of bed and decides to join us). But I love it. It’s warm in their room, and dark, and we keep a fan going. It’s a huge conglomeration of blankets and pillows and little bodies and sometimes I wake up with some little person’s stinky-sweet breath right in my face. Or a foot. Or a hand.

Someday, this house will be empty of everyone except Maile and me. Right now, it’s very full. I’ll take it.

It’s been strange, Maile away, on the road, getting ready to speak at a women’s conference in Orlando. I’m usually the one on the road. I’m the one who leaves, who comes home. This has been a good thing for our family. Maybe not for Poppy, who keeps asking, incessantly, “Where’s my Mama?” But for me, I get to see why Maile can’t always take my calls when I’m the one who’s away (laundry, kid-taxi, making food, changing diapers, baths, trying to find time to write, etc etc etc), or why she seems distracted when she does. I understand better why she is simultaneously excited for and annoyed with me when I do go away. I hope she gets to do this a lot. She’s done so much for all of us, so much for me, in the last twenty years. It’s long past her turn, and she has a lot to offer the rest of the world.

In about three months, my next book releases, Light from Distant Stars (do yourself and me both a favor and preorder it now). I can’t wait for you to read it. But to be honest, I haven’t been thinking about it too much, because I’m already deep, deep into writing the next one. Writing novels is a strange thing–I’m watching my writing evolve in front of my own eyes. Each one is a deep dive into something new, some alternate universe, and it changes me. Each novel sets the stage for the one that will come after it, in some tangible way. What a journey.

Well, I was going to work on that novel, but now I’m tired, and the fan is droning on and on, and Leo is asleep. I think I’ll just slide down onto the floor, vanish under a pile of blankets and pillows, and get some sleep. These kids are wearing me out.

Enjoy your weekend. Don’t forget, in the midst of this crazy life, to do something you love to do.

* * * * *

You can now get The Edge of Over There (sequel to The Day the Angels Fell) in paperback! Head here for a list of places where you can order it.

An Update on Leo and Further Thoughts on Pain

Our crew, circa October, 2017. Yes, Poppy is chewing on a stick.

Leo looks at me nervously while I move to change his bandage.

“Wait, Dad, let me tell you something!” he exclaims, so I relent, and I listen (again) to some small thing he is using to delay the inevitable. Except the changing of the bandages doesn’t hurt anymore. But he’s still nervous about it, so he stalls. It is the memory of pain that scares him now, and it is as intense for him as the real thing.

When he’s finally ready to let me do what I have to do, he slumps his shoulders, worried. I move to change the dressings, and he says quietly, as if to himself, “Gently, gently.” This makes me smile. He grins, too, as the bandages come off, realizing (or remembering) that it doesn’t hurt anymore. It really doesn’t. That particular pain is behind us.

He looks up at me, smiling. “I really love you, Dad.” That gets me every time.

* * * * *

Since Leo’s surgery, I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, how being in its proximity (whether in proximity to our pain or someone else’s) will always change us, often at a very deep level.

The pain Leo experienced after his minor surgery, the emotional pain Maile and I went through in trying to help him heal, these are things that will not leave us for a long time, maybe never. Our relationship with him is fundamentally different because of the journey we’ve traveled over the last week. I’m not sure if “better” or “worse” are helpful words when describing how things change when pain is involved. I think I feel things deeper now, especially when it comes to my children.

I also have a different view of healing, the long arc we are all on when it comes to getting better, whether from disease or emotional pain or old hurts that linger. I have a lot of questions about the relationship between pain and healing. I need to think about it a bit more.

* * * * *

Maile is away this weekend, speaking at a women’s conference in Orlando, Florida, and I am so, so proud of her. If you’ve followed along in this space, you know our family has been trying to adapt to some changes (which I wrote about in my most-read post of all time, “In Which We are Beginning to Find Our Way”), trying to rediscover a new way forward. Like any birthing process, it has its own discomfort, pain, and a sense of disorientation.

Early yesterday morning, before the house had woken up, Maile kissed my face and said good-bye. She was off on her adventure. She said some other things to me, but I was too tired to really hear her. The door sensor rang three times when she walked out, and I went back to sleep.

* * * * *

The sun is out this afternoon, and spring is here. There’s no denying it. The trees are blossoming, daffodils are peeking up through the ground, and kids’ eyes are getting itchy. Every season, something new.

We’re entering a new season of life, and I’m not talking about spring. Maile is growing towards a new light, my writing is evolving, the kids are getting older. Our family is changing, but it’s a good thing, a necessary thing. I know there will be more pain, but for the pain there is always healing in some form or other. This is the hope I hold on to.

The Connection Between Pain and Healing, Singing and Dying

Our brave little boy, pre-op.

Nearly two weeks ago, we went to a funeral for our friend’s father. We took Leo and Poppy along because the other kids were at school and no one was available to watch them. They are four years old and two years old. We sat in the very back row, and during the service they mostly colored and played with some toys we brought and asked how much longer it would be.

Although I was not directly related to the man who had died, the church was filled with my people–first and second cousins, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, close friends. Even though there were a few hundred people there, it would not have taken long to figure out how I was connected to nearly every person.

Maile leaned over and whispered into my ear, “There’s something really special about this community.” And she’s right. My ancestors have lived in this area for thirteen generations. I show up at gatherings and meet distant cousins I hadn’t met before. I feel connected to this place, this dirt, these fields and trees and churches and cemeteries.

In this community of Lancaster, death brings us together. Yes, we weep for those who have left us. Sometimes desperately. The sense of what has been lost can feel overwhelming. But when we come together to remember the person who has gone, and we sit there among so many generations, so many families, so many stories, there is a kind of healing that takes place. It is hard to explain, this aching wholeness.

The family whose father had died, they were a singing family, and at one point we all sang together.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

* * * * *

Later that night, I was putting Leo to bed, and he asked me if I was going to die.

“Probably not today. But we all die someday,” I told him quietly. It is hard to look at a four-year-old and imagine that this is true.

“But what happens when we die?” he asked, his voice tremulous, afraid to explore this new ground but helpless to turn away from his own curiosity.

“The Bible says that when we die, we go to be with God. We won’t be here anymore. We won’t be in pain. We’ll be with God.”

He sat there for a moment, very still, and then he looked at me with mournful eyes. “I don’t want to die. I like it here, with you. I like our house. I don’t want to leave.”

“You don’t have to worry about that today,” I said, but he wasn’t convinced. He pushed his face against my chest and said it again, this time in a whisper.

“I don’t want to die. I like it here.”

* * * * *

About a week after the funeral, Leo needed to have a minor surgery for which he would have to be put under with anesthesia. The night before the surgery I took him up to bed once again. I was feeling emotionally fragile in the face of our little boy going under the knife. I sang him his normal songs, and then he asked for his favorite.

“Dad, can you sing about the river?”

There is a river we must cross over,
When life’s sun goes to sleep in the west;
There’ll be a light for me at the crossing,
Guiding me to that home of sweet rest.

I could barely get the words out. I tucked my face in tight against his tiny shoulder and sang, the words catching in my throat. It is a beautiful thing, the ways that we comfort each other.

* * * * *

Fast forward two days after his surgery.

There is something that tears inside of you when your child is screaming in pain and you’re holding them down so that you can change the dressing on their wound. There is something unnatural about inflicting pain on your own child, even when you know it must be done, that it’s for their good.

Later, after we had all cried, after we sat in the new quiet still sweating from the distress, after the dressing had been changed and he was lying comfortably on the sofa hiccuping sobs, tiny bird sounds, Leo looked up at me.

“You had to put the bandage right at the top of my pain,” he said quietly. It was not an accusation. It was simply a statement of fact.

“I’m so sorry, buddy,” I said. “I don’t like doing that.”

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I kicked mama. I’m sorry I screamed at you.”

* * * * *

Now, it’s Sunday morning, and a low gray sky has pushed away yesterday’s blue. Maile’s mom is in town, always a pleasure, and she is on the front porch with the kids, all of them drinking coffee, watching the cars go by on James Street. I am alone in the dining room. Soon, we will get ready for church.

There is something about the last two weeks that seems crucial, something about funerals and not wanting to die, surgeries and dressings over painful wounds that must nevertheless be changed, and trying to sing songs that catch in our throats. There is something about pain and life and lullabies that I’m beginning to grasp.

I feel it now in new ways, the connection between pain and healing, singing and dying. We are, all of us, trying not to die, trying to be okay with dying. We are, all of us, trying to heal, trying to avoid the pain of healing. I think we need to have more grace for each other. I think we need to try to remember that all of us carry our wounds with us into the world.

Regarding a Weekend We Won’t Soon Forget (and Exciting News About My Next Book)

We sat on sofas and on the floor. We tried to catch up on each other’s lives in a few short days. We ate and we laughed and listened. Some of their written words read out loud made me cry.

There were late nights over hot tea and a game that had us shouting and laughing all over again. There was a wood fire in the fireplace. There were quiet walks on an empty street.

There was this sense that, while I write alone, I am not alone. This realization felt like bread and wine.

We hugged outside the restaurant, knowing another long year awaited. But it felt like it might be okay.

* * * * *

Maile and I drove away early, heading towards our home, 500 miles away. The snow came down, and the roads were covered. We advanced slowly, followed the tracks of the car in front of us. The world was coated in white, and the road felt tenuous, unpredictable, like it might tire of us at any moment and toss us aside.

We passed four accidents within a mile of each other, cars spun off onto the shoulder. Hoods smashed in. They faced the wrong direction, as if lost. One car was burnt to a crisp.

At dusk, as we passed the exit that went to the college where we had met, Maile pointed.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“Five deer,” she said, awe in her voice, and a bit of sadness, “standing at the edge of the wood, in the blowing snow.”

* * * * *

We picked up the kids at my parents’ house, loaded their belongings in the back of the truck, the snow settling on us like a light blessing. We drove slowly home, unloaded, and entered the house. It was a whirlwind of children and suitcases, snow clothes and snacks, wet floors and the repeated command that turned to a plea, “Go to bed!” The radiators were already hot. Out front, James Street was quiet, covered in a layer of snow.

In the mail that had been waiting for us, I saw a manila envelope, and I tore it open. Inside, the designed pages for my new novel, Light from Distant Stars. There it was: the title page, the dedication, the first line.

“Cohen Marah clears his throat quietly, more out of discomfort than the presence of any particular thing that needs clearing, and attempts to step over the body for a second time.”

As Maile had said as we drove slowly along the snow-filled highway, “Well, this is a weekend we won’t soon forget.”

* * * * *

To find out more about Light from Distant Stars, or to find links to preorder (and basically make me the happiest person on the planet), click HERE.

Keep Looking for the Good Stuff

When I was a nine-year-old kid living on a farm in central PA, my friend and I ran down the long lane past the apple tree and pear tree and cherry tree, across the empty back road, and into the church’s parking lot. Sometimes, we rode our bikes there, and in the late spring days the air was still cool enough to blur our eyes. The trees were a kind of new green, not the shadowy green they would become in the summer heat, but a lime lollipop color that was new and fresh.

We each pulled a penny from one of our pockets, got down on our hands and knees on the macadam, and looked for Fool’s Gold. If Wikipedia can be believed, this is actually something called Pyrite, but that didn’t matter to us back then. We wanted the shiny stuff. We’d look and look and look, and when we finally saw a piece, we’d dig it out of the ground with our penny, pocket the gold, and keep looking.

* * * * *

I’ve been reading through the Psalms in the Message—I love the creativity and poetic language Eugene Peterson uses. And the other day I read Psalm 106:

They traded the Glory

            For a cheap piece of sculpture—a grass-chewing bull!

As the story goes, when the Israelites thought they had been abandoned by God and Moses, they threw their jewelry into the fire, melted it down, and created a calf to worship. They were so desperate to have something tangible to lead them, something they could see and touch and feel, that they were willing to walk away from the God who had miraculously provided for them such a short time before.

They were willing to trade the Glory for a cheap replacement.

* * * * *

Whether or not you’re a Christian, there’s a clear application here: stop trading in the good stuff for meaningless crap. Keep going for the real, the true, the meaningful.

I know it can be hard to keep believing in the work you’re creating when it feels like there’s nothing on the horizon, no hope for a bigger audience, no real reason to keep going. It’s hard to keep going when it feels like you’re leaving a wake of failure behind you. Or maybe you’re having trouble finding hope when it comes to your spouse, your kid, your church, your business, your dream. Maybe you’re finding it hard to keep hoping in yourself. I understand this. When everything seems to have vanished, when our goals and dreams seem unattainable, we just want something we can touch. And we get to the point where we’re willing to trade in the good stuff we can’t see (even if it’s just around the corner) for just about anything tangible, even if it’s a cheap imitation of that beautiful, wonderful thing we’ve been chasing for such a long time. Even if it means walking away from the Glory.

We give up way too early, way too often.

The key is hope. Trust. Faith.

As Journey would say, Don’t stop beleeeeevin’…

So keep hoping. Keep going. Keep trying. One more day. Find someone who will encourage you to stay focused on the good, the beautiful, the true, the real. And don’t trade the good stuff in for Fool’s Gold. If you do, you might walk away with pockets that feel full, but it’s really just a pocketful of shiny junk. The good stuff is out there, waiting for you.

* * * * *

What’s the good stuff that feels elusive to you right now? What’s the Fool’s Gold you’re tempted to go after? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

* * * * *

As of Thursday evening, you can get the Kindle version of my first novel, The Day the Angels Fell, for only $4.70! Check it out HERE.

My Great-Great-Grandfather Wrote on Barn Walls (or, Some Thoughts on Creativity, and the Cover of My Next Book)

I’m sitting at the small red table beside one of our large living room windows, looking out at James Street. There’s our porch, the wide sidewalk, the busy street. There is the sycamore tree, ancient and leaning, the leaves gently browning in this mid-autumn light. It is 50 degrees and the sun is shining, shining, shining, as if summer is still within its grasp.

My book, Once We Were Strangers, released only last week, but I am in the thick of editing my next novel, one that releases in July of 2019. I can tell you now that it’s called Light from Distant Stars, and it’s the most challenging story I’ve ever tried to write. It is a standalone novel for grownups, not connected with my YA novel The Day the Angels Fell. But I have lots of time to tell you more about that.

What I want to tell you today, or share with you I guess, is the fact that even in the writing of this current book, in working through the edits, I am assailed by voices of self-doubt and questions about my ability to write well. There has been no magic turning point, at least not for me, where I have woken up self-confident and swaggering, convinced that I am finally the writer I have always wanted to be. Not when I co-wrote my first book and saw it in Barnes and Noble in 2008. Not when I signed a contract with my first agent, or landed a book contract, or when The Day the Angels Fell won an award.

And yet. There has been something magical about the last few weeks, a kind of turning point. I have experienced a peace in who I am, in what I write, in the words that I share – no matter the sales numbers, no matter the Amazon rank, no matter the mentions or shares or high-profile praise (or lack thereof). I am determined to enjoy each of my writing days, to work hard at getting better, to read more widely, and to sink deep, deep, deep into the stories I am creating. God is there, somewhere, waiting for me.

I know now that there is no Promised Land in the distance where, once there, I will have arrived – this creative life is nothing but a journey, nothing but one more word, one more sentence, one more chapter, and one more story.

This is what I offer you today, in whatever creative pursuits you are digging into: give yourself the freedom to chase excellence, to go after whatever creative thing is calling your name. Don’t be afraid, and when you are, let it fill you with exhilaration at the risks you are taking. Keep going. Keep moving. Keep breathing. Be present, really present, wherever you are.

This isn’t just for writing – it’s for painting and photography and starting a business and running for office. It’s for when you become a parent or get married or take a trip or start a church. Keep going. Keep moving. Keep breathing.

Anyway, these are my thoughts today, looking out the window onto James Street, watching the traffic go by, pondering a sycamore tree that was probably planted when my great-great-grandfather was a boy – the same man who used to write on the walls of his barn, stories and news and thoughts about life. That is all I am really doing here. That is all any of us are doing.

And here is the cover of my next novel, in case you were interested.