Small Songs

Seems like hummingbirds are everywhere this month. I think they like the hot weather. Somehow they manage to find and kiss nectar out of drought-dried flowers, wings beating faster than sight.

I remember the first time I saw a hummingbird sitting on a branch. I must have been about six. I was surprised that hummingbirds had legs.

The other night, on a golden summer evening walk, I saw a hummingbird singing. I was close enough to watch its little throat bulging like a frog’s. The song wasn’t beautiful, but it inspired me:

A finger-long hummingbird who sings, because he can,

with all his might, an off-key warble,

a brave small song because,

in the world’s great harmony,

only this finger-long, emerald-backed little man

can sing that note.

This week, I hope you sing because you can.  And because you’re the only one who can sing your note.

Happiness Haiku

About two years ago, I read the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It inspired me to start keeping a thankfulness journal.

Thankfulness has long been touted as an important spiritual discipline. But recent psychological research shows its connection to a happier mindset as well. Writing down the good things that happen in a day helps bring the positive things to the top of our minds and overcome our natural human “negativity bias.”

Over the long term, I think my thankfulness journal has really improved my mood and, more importantly, begun to discipline my mind into a habit of focusing on the positive things. Every night, look back over the day and write down the moments that brought me happiness. Sometimes they’re things anyone would consider happy–like getting a call from the Los Gatos Library, inviting me to their literary fair next month (see my note in the sidebar!). But more often, I write down the little things that brought me a smile or a heaven-sent moment of relaxation in the midst of a stressful day. A sunny morning walk. Classical music playing over the gas station speakers. A yummy cup of coffee.

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This past spring, I decided to take my one-line thankfulness notes to the next level for an extra boost of happiness. First thing in the morning, I would look back over the last night’s thankfulness notes, pick one, and immerse myself in that memory. Then I used it as the subject for a seventeen-syllable haiku poem (5-7-5). Haiku is short, rewarding, and emphasizes life’s details–a perfect form for this exercise.

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A haiku a day

Lupin beside the asphalt

Gratitude snapshot.

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Photo credit: Tom Flemming

Writing a happiness haiku first thing in the morning had two benefits. First, it started off the day with a focus on something good.

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Shopping bag of smiles

Rainbow Skittles, photos, frames,

A little goes far.

Photo credit: Dano Nicholson
Photo credit: Dano Nicholson

Morning haiku also had an unexpected perk. It got the words flowing. When I was done with my seventeen syllables (sometimes counting to seventeen before coffee was harder than it should have been), I wanted to write more. Which was perfect for someone working on a second novel.

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From among sharp spines

Pale orange petals shimmer.

Fierce, lovely triumph.

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Photo credit: Seen Not Heard

It’s been several months since I wrote my last haiku, but now I have a collection of these short, intensely focused memories of happiness, like tracks showing me the road I walked. At the moment all my words are going into The Book, but maybe when it’s done, I’ll pick back up on this habit of capturing the ephemeral blessings in daily life.

Silence

I wasn’t blogging last week because I was here.

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Sometimes life gets so full of noise that you can’t hear yourself, God, or anyone else. So last weekend, I did something I’d wanted to try for several years: a weekend retreat at a monastery.

I didn’t exactly plan on a silent retreat, and while the atmosphere wasn’t strictly silent for the four days I was there, talking/noise was definitely at a minimum, especially compared to what I’m used to here in the hectic, hyper-connected Silicon Valley.

At first the silence was challenging and awkward, especially when I realized the nuns and guests weren’t supposed to talk during mealtimes. There was a lot of chewing and silverware clinking. And the refrigerator droning.

But over that first hill of awkwardness, silence can be…amazing.

First all the yucky stuff from inside comes up; all the excess noise and stuffed-away thoughts. But then, like the calm that comes after a long, hard hike, better things begin to well up. Things like a quiet knowledge of the closeness of God. A sense of what’s right to do next in your life. And creativity. Lots of creativity.

You start to notice, really see, what’s around you—like the way morning dew condenses on pine needles and turns them silver.

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Or the way a clump of sun-rushed leaves looks like a bloom of butterflies.

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For the first time in a REALLY long time, I even stepped away from my camera shutter button and tried sketching some flowers by hand from the monastery garden. Unlike Ellie in my novel, I don’t have a natural talent for drawing, and I lack the patience to really practice and learn, but when you sketch a flower, you’re really forced to look at it and notice its details. You have to stop and sit with it, and teach your pencil to mimic its wild curves and shadows. In the absence of Photoshop, you notice the imperfections of real things in nature. But you also marvel at their complexity and wonder.

Monastery Sketch-Briar Rose

Silence doesn’t happen by accident, and it can be a costly challenge to flee from noise and face the first wave of unpleasant thoughts. But…beyond that…

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…silence can be truly breathtaking.

 

Spring Miracles

I never can decide whether spring or fall is my favorite season. Both are beautiful, offering change and new directions, the beginnings of new roads and opportunities. 

But with spring outside, ready to touch, see, and smell, I’m feeling a bit swayed toward the beauty of this season.

It’s in the living buzz of the bees as they stuff their pockets with pollen.

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It’s in the scalloped edges of the new leaves, still sticky from their buds.

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It’s in the outrageous colors of the flowers, outdoing the imagination of any fashion designer.

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It’s in the unshorn grass, joyful to be alive and growing.

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It’s in the unfurling petals, reaching toward the sun.

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It’s the magic and mystery of the world coming back to life, of beauty and expectancy, of wonder even in the tiniest of vessels.

And so I pay attention.

Because each day is its own kind of miracle.

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The Perks of Huge Tonsils

I wasn’t excited when it started in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

I was even less excited when it was worse the next morning. The tight collar of pain behind my swollen tonsils. A sore throat so debilitating I couldn’t even speak.

Not now,  I thought. I have so much to do.

With book publication just a few weeks away, deadlines are rushing toward me and the workload is piling up. Now is when I have to get sick?

I got home from the doctor’s office, diagnosed with a vague viral infection, and plunked down on the swing in the backyard. Drained. Weary. The medical advice sheet read: “Your body needs plenty of rest and quiet time.”

Rock back, forth. No energy even to get up and go to bed. Back, forth. The sun shone warm on my face, relaxing my skin, closing my eyes.

Clouds

Rest. 

Sickness has a way of calling off life. Suddenly all responsibilities are shuffled down in importance, secondary to regaining health and energy. It reminds you, forces you, to stop and notice.

Notice the puff of a dandelion suffused with autumn sun.

Dandelion

Notice the falling leaves, yellow as summer peaches.

Notice the “breath of heaven” heather, and remember why it’s called that.

Book publishing is full of deadlines–exciting, rewarding, stimulating deadlines, but sometimes I’ve gotten so caught up in the to-do list that I’ve forgotten to take time to just stop and notice.

And noticing is the foundation stone of so many things: thankfulness (particularly in focus this month), rest, and writing–what book publishing is really about. Writing comes from words, and words come from noticing. 

Fall leaves

And so having huge tonsils, which felt like a frustrating setback, led to some forcible, sweet rest. Time to sit still. To let the sunshine play over my hands and enjoy the warmth. To hear a tiny bird sing, close enough to touch. To keep the doctor’s orders, true whether we’re sick or well: your body needs plenty of rest and quiet time.

So, perhaps, does your soul.   

 

First Rain

On Wednesday morning, September 5th, it rained.

All right, laugh, my friends in the Pacific Northwest. Here in California, it doesn’t just rain all the time. It isn’t something to be taken for granted. And not just if you work for the Water Department.

This morning’s rain only lasted a few minutes, just barely wet the ground, but it was special. Have you ever really watched it rain before? It’s magical.

It’s the first silver puddles of the season.

It’s dusty dribbles on Baby’s windshield that make me glad I didn’t wash her yesterday.

It’s dark thunderheads gilded with bright edges by a sun that’s there, but that you can’t see.

It’s sharp contrasts in the sky and wet asphalt on the ground.

It’s a fine veil sewn all over with silver stitches.

It’s an eager rustle, like the crinkle of a safe blanket coming up to your chin, like the whisper of a fairy godmother’s skirts.

It’s a soft, growing smell, a smell of motion and of rising, a halfway dusty smell, like the pages of an old book.

And it’s a cool breeze blowing through your house, straight through open windows, sweeping away the stagnant heat of a long, hot summer. It’s ushering in something new, an anticipation of what may be.


Fall is just around the corner! What do you look forward to about this new season?


Thinking Places

Last week my family and I got away for a few days together. We scampered all around Northern California, experiencing new towns and possibly discovering every possible way to become carsick on winding back roads. However, it was refreshing to get some quality time together and a change of scenery. A bit of vacation also proved good for my writing.

One afternoon my family sat on the shores of a jade-green lake (interestingly named “Trinity Lake”) and sat in silence, each member absorbed in a different creative project. I took the time to soak in the silence, slowing down after nearly a month of nonstop work (and almost no time for my novel). I scribbled out a poem, a first response to the beautiful place and the quiet moment of being still and noticing. It felt like a drink of cold Gatorade after a hard run or hike.

One of our stops was at the charming Blackberry Inn in the coastal town of Mendocino. Caressed by the foggy, temperate marine layer, lush with dozens of varieties of colorful flowers, and deliciously out of range of cell phone service, it was the perfect place to stop and rest and write. Our adorable little room looked like a life-sized dollhouse, complete with a sunny window and a pair of wing-back chairs.

In my home office, the writing time I eke out is often interrupted by the phone ringing, the dryer beeping, new e-mails, the front door. In this quiet room in Mendocino, I was cut off from those interruptions. Sure, there were all my usual mental distractions (read a book! what do I need to do tomorrow? oh look, a seagull!), but in a one-room enclosure with almost no technology, I found it easier to center down and blurt out eleven pages of new novel material, written longhand in a pink journal. It helped to sit at this old-fashioned wooden desk under a painting of a thatch-roofed English cottage. I felt a bit like Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.

What I realized most was that my normal life is full of multitasking. It’s a skill that makes getting multiple mindless things done at the same time possible, but it really kills deep, original thinking. Writing is one way we mortals imitate our Father God, who breathed a world into being ex nihilo, out of nothing. That takes focus. When my attention is on fifty different things, it’s hard to get below surface-level maintenance writing and think of anything new

Creative thought, like a relationship with God, requires some periods of silence, solitude, and centering. (Hot tea, fuzzy socks, and a beautiful view don’t hurt either.) Sometimes it’s important to retreat from routine to create a nurturing environment where creativity can grow. For me, it was a time of peace and releasing the story within. It left me refreshed and a little readier to return to the daily world of multitasking.

Does the world of multitasking ever leave you in need of a retreat? Where do you go to refresh your creative side?

“Smile, Beautiful”

Well, spring doesn’t officially start until tomorrow. But the plum tree in my backyard doesn’t know the difference. Every year, it bursts into a puffy cloud of fragile pink blossoms. 
And every spring, it draws me irresistibly outside, camera in hand. 
Macro (close-up) photography has been one of my interests for a long time. In this world, it’s often the biggest, flashiest, noisiest things that attract the most notice. But macro photography focuses in on the tiny, the delicate, the overlooked, perfectly-formed, miniature miracles hiding in plain view. 
Like plum blossoms.
And to make things even more fun, this year my good friend Audry showed me some techniques with camera apertures. Oh boy. 

Turns out smaller F-stops (lens apertures) focus on smaller depths of field. They draw your eye to just one tiny part of the image.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the whole, you can focus the intricate beauty of one part–and maybe see something there you never noticed before. Look at the different textures of the pink petals and the red encasement–smooth and bumpy, frilled and veined. So much detail in such a small space!

Isn’t God amazing? All this beauty, like getting a card in the mail for no reason. It’s just God saying, “Smile, beautiful. I made this for you.” 

 Happy spring! What tiny miracles can you find in your world today?