Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Becoming Real - My Messy Beautiful

I have always wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer, but a REAL writer, a writer with my name on the cover of a book and a glowing review in the New York Times.
My writing career began with a story I wrote in second grade about a candy cane that escaped the conveyer belt at the grocery store and I never looked back.  I took AP English in high school, majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing in college, and edited and wrote for my university’s literary magazine, brushing elbows with Kurt Vonnegut and Joyce Carol Oates in the process.
Then I graduated and life happened.  I had bills to pay and fell in love with a man who hated New York City (how anyone can hate NYC is still beyond me!).  My dreams of being a REAL writer took a back seat to things like paying rent and not starving, and although I wrote for a variety of local newspapers, magazines and advertising agencies, my bread and butter came from my job in the legal field. 
Eventually, my first daughter was born, followed by a son and another daughter, and although I continued to write for local magazines, it never felt like the REAL writing I wanted to do. As forty loomed on the horizon, I realized it was now or never, so over months of stolen moments and late nights, I wrote a book.  It was called Wine in my Sippy Cup, and it was a funny, poignant, and (mostly) fictional account of a career woman turned mom trying to rediscover her romantic mojo and who she’s become post-motherhood. I sent it to agents and even pitched it at a writer’s conference, but the response was always the same—great writing, but people don’t want to read a book about a slightly imperfect mom trying to find herself.  Could I write a gritty murder or a nice Amish love story instead?
I put it in a drawer for a year before I decided to self-publish it.  In my mind, I wasn’t a REAL author since I published it myself, but it was better than leaving it in a drawer.  As it turns out, a lot of women did want to read a book about being a mom.  The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads fed my soul.  My favorites were the ones that said my book made them feel like they weren’t alone, that we were all in this beautiful, terrifying thing called motherhood together.
Despite the positive reviews and the thrill of seeing my name on the cover of a book I wrote, I would cringe every time some asked if I had self-published it, because to me that somehow felt like I still wasn’t a REAL writer.
What was real was my passion for writing, how happy it made me, how it filled a hole in me that I hadn’t realized was there.   I decided to write something more marketable and started a romance (although this time I wrote under a pen name to avoid awkward moments with my kids' friends).
I fell in love with my book and I fell in love with writing again.  There literally weren’t enough hours in the day for me to write.  The story flowed out of me like a river.  I finished it in a record six months.  On a whim, I submitted the finished manuscript to the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart contest for an unpublished manuscript.
Two weeks ago, I received a phone call that my manuscript was a finalist—one of only three books in my category that had received the requisite score of 90 or above from all of the judges.  Many in the industry say the Golden Heart award is like an Oscar nomination for romance writers, and that’s exactly how it felt. This was the moment I had waited for and dreamed of my entire life.  Finally!  Validation that I was a REAL writer.  To say I was thrilled is an understatement.  I was beside myself with joy, jumping up and down ecstatic.  The board member who called to give me the good news said something about author photos, a black tie dinner where the winner would be announced, and a champagne reception, but all I could think was, “They like me!  I’m a REAL writer!”
That evening, a writer friend of mine who was almost as excited about the award as I was looked up how the final round was judged and reluctantly pointed out to me a line in the eligibility requirements that said the competition was only open to unpublished authors.
“But I am unpublished,” I replied. 
I certainly didn’t think the little book I’d put out two years earlier counted.  Besides, as I'd read the rules, I’d thought they meant the manuscript you were submitting couldn’t have been previously published.  My friend read it as contestants couldn’t have published anything at all.
I spent a long night with a heavy weight on my chest.  What if my friend was right?  Since I was writing under a different name, it was doubtful anyone would ever know.  And while I may have misread the eligibility requirements, I had done so innocently. Should I tell them?
The next morning, I got on my knees and then I picked up the phone.  It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  The contest director was sweet and understanding and tried to find a loop hole for me, but my friend had read the rules correctly.  I was technically ineligible because I had previously self-published a work of fiction.  Twenty-four hours later, I officially withdrew from the contest.
Disappointment is a bitter pill.  I cried.  I prayed.  I wondered why I had been given such a gift, such validation, only to have it snatched away. And because I am a mom with three kids, I also went to a piano recital, took my son to basketball practice, and stayed up until midnight waiting with my oldest daughter to find out if she had made the drill team, putting my disappointment behind me to celebrate with her when she got the news that she had.
A few days later, I was reading The Velveteen Rabbit with my youngest. 
“’What is REAL?’ asked the rabbit one day,” she read in her sweet seven-year-old voice.” ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse.  ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.’”
I started paying attention a bit more to this wise stuffed horse.
“’When you are REAL, you don’t mind being hurt….It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept.’”
As women and mothers, we get a lot of practice at being real. We love without boundaries, often living with our hearts outside our chests as our children go out into the world. Those of us brave enough to be real do get hurt, but rather than let it break us, we let love in through the cracks of our brokenness.   Over time, we love and we lose and we keep trying and eventually, we become. 
Suddenly, I got it.  Real isn’t an agent or publisher or a contest telling me I’m a success.  Real is my sixteen year old daughter seeing me give up the opportunity of a lifetime to do the right thing and saying, “I’m proud of you, mom.”  Real is going to a piano recital and basketball practice and cheering on my kids when I all I want to do is crawl under the covers and eat chocolate.  Real is loving what you do so much that you can’t wait to do it again.  Real is getting so involved in the characters you’ve created that you accidentally call your teenage daughter’s guy friend by your book character’s name. Real is not being afraid to try.  Real is showing your children how to act with grace in the face of adversity, and to always keep dreaming and pursuing your dreams.
Real isn’t how you’re made.  It happens to you. 
Turns out I was real after all.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!




Friday, April 4, 2014

The Coach

Unlike his older sister, who discovered her passion for dance at the age of four, my son, H, is more of an explorer of life’s opportunities.  Over the 13 years of his life, he’s played just about every sport and tried his hand at a startling number of extracurricular activities.  He’s played soccer, baseball, and football (both flag and tackle), taken karate, been on swim team, been in Cub Scouts, played the trumpet, and taken guitar lessons. 

Then he discovered basketball.
He LOVED basketball.  He lived and breathed it.  Always tall for his age, he was a natural center and quickly became known for his skill at rebounds and defense.  After several seasons playing for our city’s youth league, he eagerly awaited the opportunity to try out for his middle school’s basketball team.  My boy is an easy-going, go with the flow sort who was born inherently knowing not to sweat the small stuff, and I had never seen him want anything as much as he wanted to make the school basketball team.
But he didn’t make the team.
It didn’t matter that there were 130 boys trying out for 30 positions.  It didn’t matter that the coach told him there were more talented players trying out this particular season than he’d ever seen before.  He was crushed and my heart broke for him.
Unfortunately, since the son of the coach of his city league team did make the school team, H was left without a team.  Then, mere days before registration closed, the recreational director at our church decided to put together a middle school team of boys who had attended a skills clinic he’d offered to get them ready for tryouts.  H signed up, eager for the opportunity to still get to play basketball.
He did get the opportunity to play basketball, and lots of it.  I watched his skill level triple on the court that season.  But that season, he got way more than the opportunity to play ball. 
Unlike just about every other coach my son has had in his life, Coach Greg didn’t have a kid on the team.  In his mid-twenties and single, Coach Greg didn’t have a kid at all!  Relaxed and easy-going, he was usually the only coach on the sidelines who wasn’t yelling at the boys on the court, giving them instructions or telling them where they should be.  He saved his instructions for practice, allowing the boys to make their own decisions during the game.  Sometimes he’d be lounging on the bleachers, other times standing on the sidelines, but he was typically fairly silent.  The only time I ever heard him raise his voice was to reprimand a parent who was yelling derogatory comments at the ref.  He made it clear to the boys (and the parents) that there was no room on his team for unsportsmanlike conduct.
During one tough game when the boys were down by a few points, getting unfair calls and clearly become more and more uptight, Coach Greg called a timeout and the boys circled around him.  He beckoned them closer.  As the boys all leaned in, Coach said quietly, “I just farted.”   The boys went back out on the court with smiles on their faces and the reminder to not take themselves too seriously. 
Coach Greg and my son had a special bond, maybe because they share the same even tempered personality, propensity for deep thoughts and the distinction of always being “the tall guy.”   Maybe they just got each other.  Regardless, Coach Greg’s opinion came to mean a lot to my son. When Coach told H he was a leader and commended him for helping a player on the other team up after accidentally knocking him down, I could have basked in the glow on my son’s face.  He worked twice as hard after that game to be the leader his coach had seen in him.
Another night, when games were running behind, H and Coach hung out together in the bleachers while they waited for the game before theirs to finish.
“We got deep, mom,” H later told me.  “It was great.”
For a thirteen year old boy who talks to kids his own age much better than he talks to adults, that ability to “get deep” with another man was profound.  While they sat in the bleachers, Greg imparted some of his coaching philosophy to my son.  He told him that in the previous game, one of the players had messed up.  The stands were silent save for the collective groan of the parents and the coach yelling at the player.
“I figure that when you mess up, you already know what you did wrong.  I don’t need to tell you,” Greg said. 
Instead, he focused on the important things.  Sure, the team learned how to play better ball and in fact ended up in third place in the championship.  But they also learned sportsmanship, the value of leadership, how to speak up for what’s right without being combative, and how to lose with grace and win with humility. He taught them how to be a man first and a basketball player second. 
One game in particular stands out in my mind.  At that point in the season, they were losing infinitely more games than they were winning, and they had practiced especially hard during the week hoping to turn that around.  To a player, the boys played their hardest and best that game, but it wasn’t enough and they lost.  As the buzzer rang and the boys made their way off the court in defeat, Greg walked out to meet them with the biggest, proudest smile that I have ever seen.  To him, they were winners.  Those boys learned an important lesson that night, and each one stood a little taller when they walked out of the gym that night, knowing they had played their best and sometimes that is enough.
Although the team disbanded after that season, it will undoubtedly make the highlight reel when my son remembers his childhood.  Although it’s often hard to accept at the time, sometimes things really do fall apart so that better things can come together.  If my son ever needs a reminder that God’s promise that all things work together for good for those who love Him, that basketball season is proof.
Thanks, Coach Greg, for teaching my son the real rules of the game.



Sunday, March 9, 2014


I’ve been watching her dance since she was four, when she first put on those bubblegum pink tights and impossibly tiny ballet slippers.  So why did it surprise me when she asked me this morning if I’d come with her to practice for her first solo at a dance competition?  Maybe because she’s no longer that little girl with the messy ponytail and the slightly rounded tummy.  She’s almost sixteen, with an entire wardrobe of dancewear that reveals the flat plane of her stomach and the strong muscles she has trained for years to develop—leotards and booty shorts and sports tops she has earned the money for  and selected herself.  Maybe because her expertise in this area far surpasses mine.  She knows the name and technical difficulty of every move in the piece she has choreographed herself.  I can only describe the moves I see her do as “that one where you turn really fast” or “the one with the back arch.” 

But I’m mostly surprised because I know she has friends, good friends, who share her passion and who would have been happy to meet her at the studio and laugh with her and tell her what works and what doesn’t and offer suggestions to make her solo better.  But instead, she asked me.
Trying not to act embarrassingly eager, I go with her to the studio at her high school on this cold Saturday morning.  Today it’s empty, and I think how the vast space with its polished wood floors and endless wall of mirrors must be to her what the empty page is to me—a blank canvas waiting for her mark.  Poised, arms artfully held in front of her, she stands completely still, waiting for the music to begin.    I can see the confidence and determination in her face.  She has prepared for this her whole life.  She’s ready to begin.
I am in charge of starting the music, and when the haunting voice of Birdy singing“People Help the People,” fills the studio, I begin to understand.  When she was trying to choose the song for her solo, she played the three she was trying to decide between for me, and I told her which ones I liked and didn’t.  A few days later, “People Help the People” played on my ipod and I instantly knew it would be perfect for her solo. I texted her my idea.  I’ll think about it, she texted me back.  When I shoot a questioningly look at her (she had told me she’d chosen one of her original choices), she shrugs and says, “This one was easier to choreograph.”  Later, when she is sweaty and flushed and out of breath, she will tell me she’s dancing to this song for me.
She begins to dance, strong and graceful, and I marvel at her skill.  She is in her element.  She was born for this, my beautiful girl with the long legs, graceful arms and the heart of an angel that can translate music into something so  beautiful and mysterious.  Because this is her first time to run through it in the studio, there’s choreography that doesn’t quite work, turns that are messy, transistions that aren’t smooth.  She laughs and starts over.  I give her my occasional opinion, pointing out the parts I love and the moves that seem jerky.  When her hour of studio time is up, her solo is stronger, smoother, better.   I would like to say I had some part in that, but I doubt I had much to do with it.  She has outgrown me.  So why did she ask me to come?
Partly I think it’s because she wants to share this large piece of her life, her passion, with me. And while I may know nothing about the technical aspects of dance, when I watch her, my heart feels like it might just burst right out of my chest it’s so full of love and pride and emotion.
But partly, there's a greater purpose for me being here to witness this rehearsal. Dance is like life.  Day after day, year after year, I have shown up at practice, encouraging her, cheering for her when she triumphs and holding her and assuring her there are always second chances when she fails.  Now, she’s ready for the performance.    She is poised at the precipice of adulthood, confident and ready for the music to begin.  And when it does, she will dance and I know she will dance with all the passion, and beauty and love that I have poured into her since she arrived in this world.   She will dance and she will transform the music she hears into something beautiful and meaningful.   She may fall, but she will laugh and start over. 
She doesn’t need me  there anymore, at least not the way she used to.  But she wants me there anyway.  Somehow, thankfully, a girl never gets too old to stop needing her mother.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

She Came in Like a Wrecking Ball

When my two older kids were small, we started an Advent calendar tradition.  Each day, beginning on December 1st, they take a piece of paper from that day’s “pocket” which has something written on it for us to do.   We all used to look forward to whatever surprise that day held.  Sometimes it was something big, like going to visit Santa or look at Christmas lights.  More often, it was something simple such as enjoying hot chocolate by the fireplace, dancing to Christmas music, or singing Christmas songs around the piano.
However, as the kids have gotten older, it’s become increasing hard to find time for our Advent activites.  It’s a rare night that everyone is home at the same time and the season has gotten so busy that most days I barely manage to slip the piece of paper in before the kids race to the calendar after school.  The last thing I needed was another holiday activity!
But there’s this elf…..
I think it was about two years ago that the ubiquitous elf started showing up in my friends' homes, and I watched with a mix of animosity and admiration as my friends posted pictures of a their elf doing fun and naughty things around the house.  Who were these traitors, and why were they being all creative and clever (and in December no less)?   Was I the only one barely making it from Christmas shopping to Christmas parties to band concerts before final getting around to addressing my Christmas cards at midnight?   I devote a good portion of my time trying to convince everyone in my family to STOP making messes.  Why would I make one on purpose?  And how did they remember to move an elf around EVERY SINGLE NIGHT?  The tooth fairy doesn’t have a very good track record around here and she only has to visit on occasion.   There would be no elf in my house!  I had enough on my Christmas plate, thank you very much!
And then one December day last year, the little one came home from kindergarten and asked tearfully why we didn’t have an elf.  I looked into those sad, blue eyes and I thought, maybe an elf wouldn’t be so bad.  In fact, it might be fun to get creative with the elf.   And then….light bulb!  Maybe if we started the Elf on the Shelf tradition, I could phase out the advent calendar.   I certainly didn’t want to rob my youngest of meaningful holiday traditions, but suddenly an elf seemed much more manageable.  So I took a quick trip to the North Pole (which looks suspiciously similar to Target), and grabbed the very last Elf on the Shelf.  Literally.    
Of course in my peppermint mocha induced holiday delusion, I forgot that my youngest, the one who so earnestly wished  for an elf, is the child who won’t put her tooth under her own pillow because she thinks it’s creepy that the tooth fairy might come into her room.  She’s also the child who refuses to take pictures with Santa because she thinks it's weird to sit on the lap of some guy you don’t know.  I guess she has a point.  I have a sneaking suspicion that when she finds out the truth about Santa, she’ll heave a sigh of relief. 
Anyway,  when I introduced our new elf and we read the book about how she watches children and reports back to Santa, C’s response was a little underwhelming.  Her eyes welled up with tears and she said, “I don’t want an elf.  You should send her back.”
Um.  Okay.
I agreed to send her back.  But then C cried, because she really wanted to want an elf.  She finally decided we’d let her stay for a few days, as long as I explained to the elf in no uncertain terms that she was NOT allowed upstairs.   As a result, I spent last December thinking of non-threatening places (DOWNSTAIRS ONLY)  for our elf to frolic.  No late night card games with stuffed animals or drive in movies in the Barbie car for our elf!
Although C enjoyed looking for our elf every morning, I don’t think she was entirely convinced the elf wasn’t going to secretly kill her in her sleep.  On Christmas Day, with our elf safely back at the North Pole, my husband opened the University of Texas garden gnome I’d given him and C eyed him dubiously.  Then she asked if the gnome was like the elf and would be watching her all year.  She was undoubtedly thinking, “I finally got rid of that elf stalking me and now I have to deal with a garden gnome?”
Needless to say, I figured our elf would be staying at the North Pole this year. 
But what a difference a year makes!  This year, C couldn’t wait for our elf Sparkle to arrive.  She loves seeing what Sparkle gets up to (although Sparkle’s still not allowed upstairs), and other than a couple of days when Sparkle got lazy and stayed camped out on the mantle for three days, our elf has added an extra layer of fun to our holiday.   My older kids have gotten in on the elf action, laughing hysterically as they draw moustaches on their baby pictures and coming up with ideas.  My oldest daughter came up with the cover photo for this blog post, with Sparkle channeling her inner Miley Cyrus.
While it looks like Sparkle is here to stay, it turns out none of us were willing to give up the Advent calendar either.  Although it’s a lot of work, I love that the calendar makes us slow down and do what really matters this seaon—spending time together.   There is something profound about hitting the pause button  and stepping outside on a crisp December night, with stars blanketing the black sky like a quilt, to make a Christmas wish. 

So now we have two traditions.  And although it’s crazy busy and I wake up from a dead sleep at 2am because I forgot to move Sparkle and we end up doing five Advent activities in one night because we got behind, I know these are the things my kids will remember the rest of their lives.  They may forget the dolls and the video games, but they won't forget the memories--the gingerbread house that caves in every year, piling into the car in our pajamas to go look at Christmas lights, our annual scavenger hunt around the house for chocolate Santas, making cookies, and the sweet sound of Silent Night sung by candlelight every Christmas Eve.
And if you need a little elf inspiration, here are some of the things Sparkle has been up to at our house. 
The Reason for the Season

Roasting Marshmallows (over a battery-operated fire)

"Editting" the baby pictures

Apparently Sparkle had a snack with the Tooth Fairy when she came at Christmastime
(the Tooth Fairy left the money with Sparkle)

Snowflake art with Q-tips

Marshmallow Bubble Bath

Piggyback Ride on the Nutcracker

Fishing in the Barbie pool (which was left downstairs!)


TPing the Christmas Tree

Sack Race

Snowball Fight

Reading a Story



Friday, December 6, 2013

Letters to Nicky Boy

Along with free babysitting, one of the unexpected benefits of the fairly substantial age difference between my older two kids and my youngest is that my older kids get to enjoy the magic of childhood and Christmas a little longer. I love how they embrace Santa and the Tooth Fairy and wishing on stars for the sake of their little sister.

That doesn't stop my son from having a little fun with it. Last night, they wrote letters to Santa. I absolutely love my son's  sense of humor, even if he did just expertly manipulate "Santa" into getting him either an iPhone or a hamster, two gifts that were NOT sure things (at least until his little sister knew he'd asked Santa for them).

If anyone knows where to purchase the fancy, shmancy iSanta version, please let me know as soon as possible.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks

Before we get to my Thanksgiving post, can we all just take a moment to admire that chalkboard art?  I did it myself.  Really!  This is no small thing.  Just before my last year of college, I came to the slightly too late conclusion that a degree in English might not be the most marketable major, so I decided to minor in advertising.  The prerequisite for all advertising classes was a 101-type course where we all had to build our own portfolio of ads that included our own copy and artwork.  Words I could do, but art was another story; I can’t draw stick figures!  But the professor assured us than in twenty years, he’d never had a student he couldn’t teach to draw.  At the end of the semester, he shook his head and told me I was the first.  So that chalkboard art is a Thanksgiving miracle!
But I digress.
Thanksgiving is typically the time when people stop to appreciate the things they are grateful for.  Some of my friends post things they are thankful for on Facebook each day in November, and it seems the things that bring us joy and contentment are universal—family, friends, good health, neighbors, faith, freedom.  Mostly, we’re grateful for enough.  Enough money for the things we need, enough food to eat, enough love to make the sometimes bumpy ride of life worth the journey.
I am definitely thankful these things too.  I cannot imagine life without my husband and kids who support me and love me and make me feel like there are at least a few other people in this world as weird as I am; there is no one I'd rather share my life with.  I'm grateful for my parents and brother who are my safe haven; for my small circle of soul sisters who know my heart like no one else; and my wider circle of friends who travel the road of daily life with me.   Since I’m the kind of person who can convince myself that a headache is  a brain tumor in less time than it takes to type GOOGLE, I thank God regularly for my health and the health of my family, and I am eternally grateful to be the child of a God of love, and to live in a country where I can worship that God and live my faith out loud. 
But for me, Thanksgiving is a time to also be thankful for all the little things that take this life from ordinary to extraordinary, those little moments that touch something essential deep inside of us and connect us to something more.   
Here’s my short list of the little things I’m grateful for:

The smell of a baby’s hair

Going to sleep to the sound of rain on the roof

The sound of ice skates carving into fresh ice

An open sunroof, the radio turned up, and feeling like I’m 18 again

Trees in the fall

The crackle of a fire, and the infinity you can see in its depths

The belly laughs of my six-year-old

My favorite pair of worn in jeans

Hot coffee on a cold morning

When I sit on the couch with my kids, and we're all piled on top of each other like puppies

Fireflies on a summer evening

That perfect song

The smooth cover and crisp pages of a new book waiting to be read

Road trips

A blue October sky in Texas

Talking to my best friend

Starry nights that make you feel small and infinite

The heavy weight of a baby asleep in your arms

Beach hair

Falling asleep in his old t-shirt

When my six year old runs to me after school like she’s waited the whole seven hours to be with me again

Fresh laundry

The way words can weave together to make poetry


I had planned to end my post here, but as I was putting my little C to bed tonight, I spied this list  of things she's thankful for. 

I love the six year old perspective. I am also thankful that I am not dead.  Isn't that the best thing ever to be thankful for? Because if you're not dead, everything is possible. And that's enough.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Monday, November 18, 2013


My hubby and I went away for the weekend and spotted this store in a quaint small town shopping square.  Christmas and clowns--who knew they went together?  Happiness and terror, all under one roof!