Some Things Never Change

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The air conditioner at home didn’t sound like this. The sofa was lumpy in different places, there was no carpet, and family members (furry four-legged ones included) were never far away.

All of that has changed. I’m curled up on a new couch, listening to the air conditioner compete with my instrumental playlist. I’m the only person here tonight. No matter how many times I imagined it, or how much advice I was given, I couldn’t know what moving out really felt like.

As it turns out, it feels like my entire life has changed. Everything, from where I store cereal to the route I drive each morning, is different. Some people seem to thrive on change, and while I appreciate that change is necessary, I don’t always cope well with it. Too much at once leaves me overloaded and anxious… like tonight, when I called my mom in tears over a malfunctioning fridge and soggy waffles.

I’ve filled countless journal pages with the changes that have come in the past couple of years, so I won’t belabor that point in my blog post. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed and a lot of it has been to my benefit.

In two days, another one of those good changes will happen when I walk into a church as Miss Munson and walk out as Mrs. A. I’m excited, thankful and a little astonished over this season in my life. Yet as wonderful, memorable and joyous as this time is, it’s also a little overwhelming. (Hence the weeping over refrigerators and waffles.)

After agonizing over kitchen appliances, a stain on the sofa, and more unpacked boxes, I was convinced that my life had changed 100% and would never settle down. Did I mention that I’m a tad melodramatic when things get overwhelming?

Since writing is my therapy, I typed and backspaced several captions about “Change,” and started to ponder what had really changed. Then it dawned on me that even though so much has changed in a short time, some things haven’t. In life, nearly everything changes but there are a few things that remain. Reflecting on those steady things in chaotic times helps to anchor me. Some of my unchanging things are:

Love. My relationships look a little different now that I’ve moved out and I’m getting married, but I still deeply love the same people I did before this season. I’m still confident they care for me. It’s reassuring to know that even when I’m not down the hallway, my parents and brothers love me. It’s comforting that even when I’m overreacting, my soon-to-be husband loves me unwaveringly. I’m truly thankful for the friends, church family and work family who have sacrificed and supported me through this time. I’m in a different place but I’m still connected to many of the same people. That hasn’t changed.

Words. A one-in-the-morning blog post proves I still need to write. Even when I have no idea what I’m trying to say, my brain needs to clear itself onto paper (or a screen.) I used to dramatically say that I was born with ink in my veins. While I’m very much red-blooded, I agree with Lord Byron: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

Chocolate. Just kidding… Maybe.

Community. The people we’re surrounded with cycle through changes, but I think it’s inherent that we all need community. Even when some friendships fade away, we need friends. I’m stubbornly independent and absolutely an introvert, but even I can’t change that I need others. While this forces me to be vulnerable and open, it also reminds me that I’m not alone in stressful times.

Jesus. Everything else could completely pivot, but we have the assurance that He is steady. He is faithful, until the end of time. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NKJV). Even though it’s a few years old, I love the song “Remain” by Royal Tailor right now. The lyrics are a perfect reminder that no matter what happens around me, God’s love will remain true.

The sky could fall
The ground could shake
The stars burn out
And seasons change
The time will pass
And beauty fade
But all my love will remain

If you’re overwhelmed by changes right now, know that you’re not alone and that despite all the differences, some things haven’t changed. Acknowledge the changes and start to get comfortable with them, but also reflect on what’s remained the same. Let those things be your anchor as you chart the course for your new adventure. Remember… some things never change.

In Season

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Hello, friends – old and new. After nearly three seasons, it’s good to be back.

One of my favorite things about living in the Northeast is the change of seasons. Although I grumble about the uncertain transition periods between seasons (Why was I still wearing sweaters for the first week of June?), I love that we’re never stuck in a single season. Winter thaws out; the spring rains dry up; summer falls away; autumn settles under the frost.

Weather aside, I frequently think in terms of seasons. We’re all familiar with them, but how would we really define one? One definition on Dictionary.com says a season is, a period of the year characterized by particular conditions of weather or temperature.” 

The words “particular conditions” struck me. It doesn’t surprise me when it’s rainy in April or blazing hot in August. These are the natural conditions for those seasons. Yet I’m often caught off guard or bothered by the conditions of my life seasons.

As surely as nature does, my life cycles through different patterns. A season of busyness. A season of longing. Of silence or restoration. Of expectation or disappointment. A season for waiting. Another for moving.

They’re more varied than winter, spring, summer and fall, but they are seasons nonetheless. Some of them are flooded with activity and blessings; others are brittle and dry. Each season comes with particular conditions.

Since my last post, I’ve been submerged in another season of busyness. This hasn’t been the energizing sort of busy. It’s been the burnout kind. I haven’t liked this season’s conditions – exhaustion, doubt, cynicism, and impatience among them. Like a heat wave, these are conditions that will burn and suffocate if you stay in them too long.

And I have. Like a stubborn four-year-old refusing to wear sunscreen, I’ve let those conditions scorch me. I’ve blamed the season for bringing such conditions, but that’s really just one side of the story.

The truth is, we can’t control the elements or the conditions. But we can control our response to them. Just like turning on the air conditioner or applying sunscreen, we can choose to tune our reactions. My season isn’t my real problem. The conditions of life have been challenging, but they’ve only revealed the conditions of my heart.

Maybe this is what Solomon meant in the oft-quoted chapter Ecclesiastes 3, when he said, “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven” (3:1, NKJV). In my mind, I think this verse works backwards, too- “A purpose for every time.” To adapt a cliché Christmas slogan, there is a reason for each season.

In the grand scheme of things, our seasons are such brief times. Whatever season we find ourselves in, another one is already on its heels. Even when we can’t see the change, it’s stirring. In the meantime, there is a purpose for this current time. There is meaning in our current conditions.

It’s another well-known verse, but further down in Ecclesiastes 3, we receive the assurance, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (3:11).

Everything is beautiful in its time… Even the seasons we’d prefer to skip or the conditions that test us. It is all beautifully woven into eternity.

It’s all in season.

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Deadlines, Dreams and Doing it All

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It’s November and that means three things:

  1. It’s socially acceptable to begin preparing for Christmas. Time to buy more wrapping paper for my collection and start blasting Josh Groban’s holiday album!
  2. It’s National Novel Writing Month. Authors everywhere are surviving on caffeine and competitiveness as they scramble to write 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30th. And…
  3. I haven’t posted anything in over five months. Cringe.

There are lots of words to describe the past 20-ish weeks. “Unpredictable,” “exciting” and “stressful” rank in the top three. 2016 has been non-stop and 2017 doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

With all that movement, some things get pushed aside or trampled over. In my case, blogging was one of those things. All my writing lately has been to meet deadlines. While that’s fine for my academic and professional life, it’s left me feeling stretched and empty as an author. I’ve met one deadline only to be greeted by four more. Each one seems to crowd out my dreams a little more. I looked at my planner the other night and realized my entire life has become a checklist.

When was the last time I did anything fun?  I wondered. A few social events were crammed onto my calendar, but my strongest memory of them was trying to enjoy myself despite the looming deadlines on my mind. When did I last do something for someone else? I thought as I flipped past scribbled out tasks. There was no time to serve others; I barely had time for myself. When did my life become a laundry list? 

Ordinarily, I like lists. But this time, my list made me feel more overwhelmed than empowered. It proved that I had too much to do, not enough time to do it, and no time to do anything else.

With every deadline and trying to do it all, I had left no space for dreams. Somewhere, I picked up the idea that busyness = success. I’ve made my lists, said yes to more than I should, and checked things off only to replace them with new tasks.

To be honest, I still do this. I’m still chasing down deadlines and leaving my dreams in the dust. And I suspect I’m not the only one. All of my friends, new adults and more experienced ones alike, nod knowingly when I talk about busyness. We all have twenty-four hours in a day and approximately twenty-four hundred things to do. In some capacity, we’ve all given up what we want to do for what we have to.

Part of that is simply being a responsible adult. But another part of it is something my mentors have told me, and I am finally beginning to understand: We can’t do everything. “Doing it all,” isn’t realistic or healthy.

Deadlines will always exist but they shouldn’t be all that exists. Life is dull without dreams-  those things we are passionate about, that make us smile brighter, love better, sing louder, talk faster, and dig deeper. Sometimes, the deadlines have to give way a little so the dreams can have a place to grow.

I say this as I have a list of assignments to submit and overflowing emails to answer. I’m shaking my head as I type these words, wondering if I’ll actually take my own advice.

Obviously, I can’t abandon everything and do whatever I dream. Much as I would love to spend every day telling stories, it isn’t going to happen right now. I can, however, carve out a little space to let my soul breathe. I can commit to making my passions a priority rather than an afterthought. I can give myself permission to take a break, to focus on something that is personally meaningful without guilt over being unproductive.

It’s not something I’m used to or fully comfortable with, but I’m taking steps towards finding that balance. This month, that means spending some time writing fiction. It means turning my phone off for a few hours each day, spending more time in prayer than political discussion, and making an effort to appreciate the people I love. These are’t drastic moves but they’ll clear some space for things that matter to me. I suspect that freeing myself from “doing it all,” and giving my dreams a place will also make me more productive when it comes to those deadlines.

I wonder, what dreams have you felt forced to set aside? Is there a small way you can bring them back to life? Your deadlines are important but your dreams are just as significant. If all you can see are deadlines, please do one thing to celebrate your dreams. Take a walk on your lunch break and capture photos of nature; publish that blog post; test out the recipe you found six months ago; support a charitable cause; try the workout you’re not sure you can finish. Deadlines don’t have to mean dead dreams. Living is done best when there’s space for dreaming.

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Author Interview: Mirriam Neal

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There are some bloggers who are simply unmistakable and unforgettable. Mirriam Neal is such a blogger. The first time I read one of her posts, I felt her storytelling seep into my soul. So much, that it’s been nearly two years and I haven’t forgotten the first post I read on her blog. I stumbled on her writing by following a rabbit trail of three or four other blogs, but hers is the only one in that trail I still read consistently. Mirriam writes with such eloquence and depth, but also whimsy and humor. Today, we’re celebrating the recent debut of her novel, Paper Crowns. (Which I desperately need to read. Curse homework for interfering with my reading habits.)

Until I can read the full novel, below is a little preview of Paper Crowns: 

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Ginger has lived in seclusion, with only her aunt Malgarel and her blue cat, Halcyon, to keep her company. Her sheltered, idyllic life is turned upside-down when her home is attacked by messengers from the world of fae. Accompanied by Halcyon (who may or may not be more than just a cat), an irascible wysling named Azrael, and a loyal fire elemental named Salazar, Ginger ventures into the world of fae to bring a ruthless Queen to justice.

Amazon // Barnes & Noble // Pages of Wonder

 

Doesn’t it sound magical? Be sure to check out the Paper Crowns Good Reads page for more. Before you rush off, though, pour a cup of mocha coffee and join me for a chat with Paper Crowns’ author Mirriam Neal. She graciously answered over a dozen of my questions, and her answers are as fabulous as I expected from her. They also make me even more eager to read Paper Crowns. 

  1. What does the beginning of your storytelling process look like? Do you outline, free write, etc.?
    The beginning always looks the same, but with different ingredients: I’ve had enough of said ingredients simmering around that I finally realize I can make something, as soon as I figure out exactly how. I’m a seventy-percent free writer and a thirty-percent plotter. I like to have a vague idea of how I want the book to end, and probably three major things I want to happen. Just enough pins to keep the whole thing from falling apart, and I take it from there.
  2. What was the most difficult part of writing Paper Crowns?
    Editing and revising, really. I wrote it in a month, so the whole thing was kind of a slapdash mess. It still is! I’m working on a couple more tweaks since a few scattered minor mistakes were found – it’s a process.
  3. Let’s play favorites! Without spoilers, who is your favorite character in Paper Crowns and why?
    This is phrased in a very tricky way, Sarah. Very tricky. Hmm. My favorite character to write? The character I’d most like to hang out with? WHICH ONE? Well, my favorite character to write was probably Azrael. He was the easiest. He wanted to be written (he’s pushy that way). The character I’d most like to hang out with is probably Hal. I’d have endless questions.
  4. What is your recipe for creativity?
    It depends, really. Sometimes it means a constant diet of reading, movies, shows, dramas, and music. Other times I need to step away for a while and not read anything but non-fiction. Usually it’s a good mix of both – but I try to immerse myself in stories and music pertinent to what I’m writing. I also try to get out and spend time in towns and cities as frequently as possible, and write in places other than my room or my house. Shaking things up a little often knocks something loose.
  5. Tea time! What’s your beverage of choice, if any, when writing?
    Black coffee is always my beverage of choice. Anytime, anywhere. (Although I’m a fan of many beverages and won’t turn down anything from tea to kombucha.)
  6. What is one thing most people wouldn’t guess about your writing?
    How hard it is, probably. Even the easy novels like the Paper series. They’re the hardest things I ever do. I get told my writing feels effortless much of the time, which is often a large compliment but sometimes feels a little confusing – is that good or bad? I don’t want people to think that writing is easy, or that I do it because I’m lazy. It’s real work. It stresses me and pushes me just like any job.
  7. What has been a defining moment for you as an author?
    My mother was reading one of my novels and was so physically revolted that she had to stop eating lunch. She asked how I could write something so horrible, and I pointed out that I hadn’t written anything horrible – I just wrote it so that her brain would fill in the gaps. She went back and re-read it, and told me, astonished, that I was right. This was a huge leap forward for me, both in style and in my personal confidence.
  8. If you could visit any fictional land, where would you travel?
    I would absolutely travel to Middle-Earth. #Basic, I know, but it was my first otherworld love and continues to be the strongest.
  9. What makes a good villain?
    I think the scariest villains are the ones who might actually do something good, or who show a human side to their villainy. In ‘Dragon Blade,’ Tiberius blinds his young brother with acid, but he weeps as he does it. He knows the pain he’s causing, and it pains him in turn – but he does it anyway. That’s terrifying.
  10. If you could have lunch with any author or artist, who would you choose?
    I would have lunch with John Howe. It’s still surreal to be able to say ‘I’m friends with John Howe,’ but it’s true – yet he lives in Switzerland, so we’ve never met. Having lunch with him would be a dream come true.
  11. Are there any quotes that inspire your creativity?
    Many quotes inspire me, but a consistent favorite is ‘be the person you needed when you were younger.’ It’s an important mindset, I think, and one I try to live by.
  12. Choose a superpower just for today.
    Flight. Every time.
  13. Would you rather have a pet dragon or unicorn? Why?
    A dragon. Unicorns are beautiful and often have healing powers, but dragons are more battle-fit, they can breathe fire (and often have other talents, like shape-shifting or voice mimicry) and they’re shrewd PLUS they can fly.
  14. Would you be most at home among hobbits, elves or dwarves?
    Elves. I think I would be happiest there. The history, the architecture, the art, the music, the war-skills, the aesthetics – the conversations I could have!
  15. Thank you for making an appearance at On Another Note today! Is there anything else you would like to share? The spotlight is yours!
    You have the ability to make an impact on everyone you meet. I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Thank you so much for having me, Sarah!

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About the Author: 

Mirriam Neal is a twenty-two-year-old Northwestern hipster living in Atlanta. She writes hard-to-describe books in hard-to-describe genres, and illustrates things whenever she finds the time. She aspires to live as faithfully and creatively as she can and she hopes you do, too.

Visit Mirriam’s blog, Wishful Thinking at mirriamneal.com or send a note to the­shieldmaiden@hotmail.com

Also check out the other stops on the Paper Crowns blog tour – you can view a complete list here.

Paper Crowns is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Now scoot, go get a copy.

Happy reading!

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The Time That Is Given Us

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One hundred and twenty-five. That’s how many days it’s been since my last post. I’ll spare the usual exclamations about how quickly time is flying by. (But seriously. How is it possible this year is close to halfway over?)

I only counted out the days because it feels like forever and I was curious as to how long forever really is. How do you measure the moments that make a life?

The weeks that have gone by have felt mostly the same. I went to work five times a week, church two or sometimes three times, met homework deadlines (some by thin margins), and didn’t get nearly enough sleep. Thanks to my English coursework, I did more writing than I had in a long while, though it’s not visible on the blog.

Within that pattern, though, change broke through. In the midst of to-do lists and deadlines came defining moments. While I was busy submitting assignments and filing paperwork for five months, my life changed in a few defining moments.

According to dictionary.com, a defining moment is “a point at which the essential nature of a character or person is revealed or identified.”

In storytelling, defining moments are no accident. Characters are positioned, trips arranged and stages set long before the moment occurs. If you’re truly perceptive, sometimes you can guess what’s coming before it grandly arrives. My favorite scenarios, though, are when the author is masterful enough to completely surprise me. A common rule is that defining moments should be both inevitable and unexpected. When we look back, we should see how everything led to this point, but when it initially occurs, we should feel a bit stunned.

One of the early defining moments of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien is when Frodo is bequeathed the One Ring from his uncle. At first glance, this doesn’t seem terribly significant. Eccentric old uncle Bilbo leaves all his possessions to his nephew and decides to become a hermit and an author. Suddenly inheriting a home in Bag End shouldn’t rearrange Frodo’s life too terribly; after all, it’s his uncle Bilbo setting off for the unknown. As anyone vaguely familiar with the Lord of the Rings can tell you, though, this moment means more for Frodo than for Bilbo.

Frodo goes from leading an ordinary, rather unadventurous life to taking on a quest with earthshaking repercussions. His calm existence is derailed by a single object… a defining moment. The consequences of this moment are drastic, leading to many other defining moments and later causing Frodo to say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” Gandalf replies. “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring) 

The time that is given us… whether that is a time of upheaval or unexciting activities.

Maybe it’s not a moment we want. Perhaps it’s one where we feel stuck and it seems like the opposite of a grand, defining moment. Maybe this instant hurts, and feels like it’s going to hurt until the end of time.

Perhaps this is a big moment and it’s terrifying. Maybe this is a decision we don’t want to make. Maybe this is a change we never asked to face.

No matter what is happening, this is the time that is given us. We don’t get to choose our own time. For better or worse, this moment is all we have to live in. This is where God has placed us. All we have to decide… Is what to do with the time that is given us.

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