Monday, January 31, 2005

inch by inch

Yesterday, after church, I stood in the foyer with two of my friends. We'll call them "Olga and Natasha." (When I told them I thought there was a blog in our conversation and I'd probably be writing about it, they each asked that I name them something exotic. So there you go.) I mentioned that I've been reading Sugar Blues, a truly horrifying book. It's a well-written book, but still horrifying, because now that I know sugar is as addicting and as dangerous as opium, I really have no choice but to empty my cupboards and get myself to the nearest SA meeting.

Olga said, "I couldn't do that. I love sugar too much."

I agreed with her.

She went on. "I try to eat better. I try all the time. I start out well--I mean, I have the apple, but then I want the chocolate too. I'll eat good all day long, and then at night I just blow it. So I figure, 'Oh, well. Might as well start tomorrow--today's shot.'"

Wise Natasha jumped in. This woman just oozes sound counsel--all day, every day. Sunday was no exception. "Olga," she said, "it's all just God calling you. He's calling you to a healthier lifestyle. Don't give up."

I agreed with Natasha. And then I told them what I'd just been thinking about the whole diet and exercise thing. I said, "I want to do it all at once. I want to stop eating for twenty-four hours and lose all the weight I want. And I want to not have to walk or go to the gym or do anything work-out-ish all year--and then go out and run a marathon. Just get it over with all in one big effort."

Of course, that's not how it works. Instead, every bite counts. Every trip to the gym counts. Every day makes a difference. Since you can't do it in one grand gesture, you have to do it in a thousand tiny gestures.

Writing is exactly the same. You cannot write a novel overnight (unless you're aiming to write a really poor novel. In that case, let me start a big pot of coffee and clear the desk for you). You have to write word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter. And just because you don't have time today for a marathon writing session doesn't mean you get to toss the day. You still have to take a step in the direction of your goal.

In the middle of my last book, a giant case of sailor-lost-at-sea panic set in. No matter how many words I put up on the screen, my destination seemed no closer. In the midst of such musing, I had an impression from the Lord. I always know it's Him when it's something wise. And this was. He made me think again about that sailor, the one drifting out there in the vast and endless sea. And He said, "No sailor can cross the sea in an afternoon. But every wave crossed brings him closer to shore."

I realized then that progress is made even when I don't feel it. If I'm faithful to sit down at the appointed time and strike the keys as I'm inspired to do so, words will appear. When enough do, I'll have a sentence. If I keep it up, I'll have a paragraph. And before you know it--certainly by April 15th, my next deadline--those paragraphs will have knitted themselves into chapters that will congregate into a whole book.

Kids know this helpful little saying: "Inch by inch, and it's all a cinch."

That's true. Except for dieting.


Sunday, January 30, 2005


Denise invited us to come see her new rental after church today. It's out on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. Partly she wanted to show us her new home, but partly she needed help with a speech she's giving later this week--a speech to a large gathering of kids at a Youth Meth Summit. It's difficult for Denise to even think about her daughter's murder (at the hands of eight men, all drug-affected at the time)--let alone write or speak about the details. So she wanted some help.

We always take two vehicles on Sunday mornings because Dave leaves the house at the crack of dark o'clock to go pray and read over his notes. So after church, we left the school parking lot and caravanned west with his truck in the lead. I knew the general direction of Denise's new place, but I couldn't have found it myself, not even if you'd offered me a giant bucket of Godiva chocolates to do so. (I would have tried, mind you--oh, how I would have tried.)

It occurred to me, following Dave along windy Marine View Drive, that by taking the lead, he freed me up. He could have handed me the little slip of paper on which Denise had written the directions, but he didn't. And because he didn't, I was able to talk to Tera about Sunday school, sing along with a song or two on the radio, and enjoy the curve of the road and the green of the trees and spotty glimpses of Puget Sound between the brush. I didn't have to worry about street signs or landmarks or mile posts or anything at all. He did all the worrying for me.

That's really the secret of resting. Keep watching the One in front, the One who knows the way, the One who sees around corners. It's not our job to find the way--it's our job to follow. I'm convinced we'd all be less stressed and less fretful if we just kept our eyes on Him. And we'd likely enjoy the scenery along our journey a bunch more than we do.

Today's a great day to talk about resting. It's the day God set aside for us to do just that. I hope you spend this day in a blissful state of un-worry, trusting that God has all things under control. I like to think you're taking a nap, or reading a book--or simply sitting by the fire with a bucket of Godiva chocolates. If that's the case, please save one for me.


Friday, January 28, 2005


“You should be a writer,” I heard occasionally while growing up. This encouragement generally came from two sources: my high school English teacher and my grandmother. What the two of them saw in my essays and thank-you letters, I couldn’t fathom. I had a very specific, very clear image of the type of people who became writers. First of all, writers were male. They were pipe-smoking, alcoholic males who were crazy and/or hermits and often suicidal. I was none of those things, and I seriously doubted the world would swoon over a steady diet of “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” and “Dear Grandma, I Miss You.”

So I wrote little after college. I became a wife, then a teacher, then a stay-at-home mother. During those early days of motherhood, I more often had a diaper in my hand than a pen. But days of diapers turned quickly to first words, and then sentences, and then questions. Lots of questions. As my son grew and became inquisitive about his world, my own world expanded. I began to see truths and connections through his eyes. Life just made more sense, suddenly.

All that expanded vision needed release. I picked up a pen--and started doing so regularly. It all began flowing out, mostly in the form of a journal, but now and again in standard manuscript form: article length; six pages, double-spaced; name and address top left. I knew these little bits of writing were slightly better than summer vacation essays or thank-you notes, but I still wasn’t convinced they were reader-worthy.

On a whim, I sent one article off to a magazine. In return, I received a contract. I sent another and received a second contract. I showed the subsequent magazines to friends and we laughed together to see my byline. But I didn’t call myself a writer.

The new editor of my magazine wrote and told me he was pleased with my work. He asked me to send more articles, so I promptly sent him three more--all of which he accepted. Each time my contributor’s copies arrived, I ripped the envelope open with the excitement of a child. I loved the simplicity of the whole process: observe, think, write, send. It was all great fun—but nothing more.

Then one day my aunt brought me a large envelope she had found tucked away in her attic. Inside were dozens of letters between myself and my grandmother. Somehow, the letters written by her had made their way back to join the letters I’d sent. Somehow, they’d ended up at my aunt’s house after my grandmother passed away ten years earlier.

I spent an afternoon with those letters. My words to her recalled details I’d long forgotten--small events that loom in a child’s eyes. Her words to me recalled love. Even from a distance, her warmth had always flowed to me unhindered. Now, I felt again her support and her encouragement.

But I didn’t feel satisfaction. Instead, recalling her belief in my talent and her hopes for my future, I felt a sense of failure. There wasn't even a moment, sitting at that table, where I thought, “Grandma, you were right. I did it. I’m a writer.” I no longer believed all writers were insane, reclusive males, but I clung to an unyielding belief that real writing should be substantial. Real writing changed lives, made people think and offered hope. It wasn’t the light, breezy prattle I put to paper. I wrote about my toddler, for heaven’s sake. That wasn’t writing--that was simply an excuse to brag.

My reflective state lasted for several weeks. I stopped writing articles. I bought three books on “how to write a novel” and one on “how to name your characters.” I tried to plot a story that would simultaneously make the reader weep, inspire random acts of kindness and answer all the world’s problems.

While in this great-American-novel frenzy, I received a letter from my editor. Just passing this along to you, he wrote, referring to the second page--a photocopied letter to the editor, written in shaky cursive.

I read it quickly, snatches jumping out as though in bold print. “Thank you for the article, ‘Why Ask Why’ by writer Shannon Woodward … I am suffering from a terminal illness … I have, myself, asked ‘why’ many times … this article comforted me.”

I read that letter a dozen or more times throughout that evening. I read it again the following day, just before filing my great American novel notes and shelving my new how-to books. And I read it again for inspiration before beginning a new article--about my son, his particular view of things, and the way all that has changed me.

These days, I’m busy writing about real people with real needs encountering a real God. I’ll get back to the novel eventually. But I no longer measure my worth by genre. Regardless of what project God brings before me next, whether that’s a devotional, an article, humor, fiction or nonfiction, I know my calling.

I hope you know yours as well.

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Thursday, January 27, 2005


Not long ago, I found a new recipe for spaghetti sauce. Scanning the list of ingredients, I snorted when I saw that it called for two cloves of garlic. Two? Two isn’t enough. Two is cruel. It’s just enough garlic that you know it’s in there, but not enough to provide a real bite. So I put in five cloves. I would have stopped there, but that left two lone, pathetic, abandoned cloves on the counter. So I mashed ‘em up and tossed ‘em in.

The sauce burped and bubbled and emitted a wonderful, fragrant, garlicky steam that drifted about the kitchen and down the hall. It smelled so good it drew my husband to the table prematurely. He had to wait while I cooked the noodles, and he did so with all the patience of a hungry two-year old. Before he headed out the door for a Friday night men’s conference, he ate two enormous helpings.

When he came home several hours later, I could smell him coming before he hit the front porch. He reeked, but I didn’t have to point that out to him. He said it all for me.

“I stink!” He shook his head. “I ended up sitting smack dab in the middle of a row of twenty guys, in a row that was smack dab in the middle of the auditorium. Everyone in a six row radius could smell me.”

He went on to describe how the aroma of garlic emanated from his body in a near-visible cloud and went swirling about in a hot, massive wave while he sat there squirming and sweating. “There wasn’t a thing I could do.”

Next time I’ll stick to the recipe. Maybe.

There’s a spiritual lesson in that little spaghetti sauce story, and it’s this: if you want the fragrance of Christ to precede you wherever you go and linger wherever you’ve been, you have to partake heavily of Christ. You have to sink your teeth into the meat of the Word, drink deeply from the well of wisdom found in its pages, and let the truth of scripture permeate every cell in your body until you just won’t be able to help it—you’ll carry His essence everywhere.

We bring a fragrance with us into every room, every conversation, every encounter. Hopefully, that fragrance is Christ.

So how’s your appetite today?

Now thanks be to God who . . . through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death to death, and to the other the aroma of life to life. 2 Cor 2:14-16


Monday, January 24, 2005

writer's resolutions

Just before the new year, I posted a list of writer's resolutions on my website. Yesterday, a new friend (who I actually met through the posting of those resolutions) wrote to ask me how well I'd been keeping them. Because I have a doctor's appointment in an hour, but also feel the pressure to post something new, I'm reposting those resolutions here, with an update on my obedience in brackets:

1. Soak
Every day, before I lift my fingers to the keyboard, I will immerse myself in God’s Word. I will use that time to praise Him, ask questions, and center myself in truth so it can flow through me to my readers. [Check]

2. Learn
I want to grow in my craft, so I will educate myself by reading one book on writing every month. My list this year includes:

Stein on Writing—Sol Stein [I'm half-way through]
Techniques of the Selling Writer—Dwight Swain
Page after Page—Heather Sellers

3. Live
As Henry David Thoreau said, “How vain it is to sit down to write, when we have not stood up to live.” I need to have something to say when I sit down to write. I will listen to my children and spend time with the elderly. I will love people. I will stare at trees and think great thoughts of the One who made them. As Sir John Lubbock, another wise thinker, said, "Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time." Writing sabbaticals are collection periods. I won’t stay away too long, but I won’t allow guilt to consume me if I spend my children’s school vacations taking them to the mall or a movie instead of locking myself in my office. [Didn't write a word during the kids' vacation--and enjoyed every guilt-free minute.]

4. Stumble
This helps me minister and gives God glory. Now, I won’t purposely set out to make mistakes, but when I do—and I will—I won’t crawl in a corner to inspect my wounds. Instead, I’ll watch the tender way God deals with me and I’ll share that with my readers. [Check, check, check. I'm a natural in this department.]

5. Eavesdrop
Once a week this year, I will buy myself a tall, nonfat latte and sink into one of the upholstered chairs in a corner of Starbuck’s, grab my pen and spiral notebook, and listen in on people’s conversations. This will hone my sense of observation and give me fodder for character studies. And because it's the right thing to do, I will pray for those I'm stealing from. [Another easy resolution. I wrote half my last book sitting in the corner of Starbuck's--and managed to listen in on plenty of conversations while doing so.]

6. Bless
I will use my gift without expectation of pay--whether that’s helping a new writer, contributing to a ministry publication or teaching a class. I will tithe of my gift. [Check--I've been mentoring a handful of new writers via email.]

7. Walk
Walking accomplishes two things: it releases endorphins, which elevates mood, and it busies the left brain with all that mechanical motion so the right brain is freed up to churn out creative thoughts. According to Raymond Inmon, “Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.” [Okay, I haven't done this every day, but you must understand: I live in the Pacific Northwest. Now, I normally take umbrage with anyone who criticizes and/or pokes jabs at our weather--because I adore the rain . . . from the inside of my house--but for the sake of justification, I'll blame the rain for my lack of walk-days. But I'm trying to get more days in.]

8. Reveal
I vow this year to make myself vulnerable to my reader and write only true words. There will always be safer, less incriminating options tugging at my fingers—but I will resist. If I want my words to cut to the heart of my reader and leave change in their wake, I won't settle. I’ll swallow hard, corral my fingers, and force gritty, edgy, startling, honest words to the page. And I’ll leave the results to God. [Painful check! My current work-in-progress has demanded an edginess that has cost me greatly, but when I sit back at the end of the afternoon and re-read whatever chapter I'm working on, I know it's worth the discomfort.]

9. Anticipate
This year, I’ll be on the hunt for God. In every conversation, every still moment, every chance encounter, I’ll listen for His voice. I will wake each day with expectation, knowing that the God who is real desires to reveal Himself to me. [He's everywhere.]

10. Thank
I will see the gift of writing as just that—a gift. I vow to thank the Giver every day for allowing me to help build His kingdom, encourage His people, exhort the stragglers, beckon the lost, and lift His name to whoever will read my words. [Check]

Too much? Too abstract? If you want one simple, concrete tip for the coming year, it's this: Write 20 minutes a day. And don't forget to say thank You.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

writers & ritual

I'm not a spitter. I don't keep rotten apples in my desk drawer to sniff for inspiration. I don't use a specific pen, nor do I wear a lucky writing hat when I sit at my desk. (And on the subject of clothing: I prefer to wear some while I'm composing--but that's just me. The rest of you do what you like.)

I don't habitually write in the bathtub while eating apples, like Agatha Christie, although I did write in a bubble bath once while eating an apple-based fruit salad, and I regularly jot notes in there while sipping herbal tea.

Writers love rituals. Something about habit, pattern and routine busies our left brain so our right brain can sneak to the forefront and create. It's wily, yes, but the end justifies the means. Let's be honest. It's daunting enough to face a blank screen without doing so cold--just like that, just because the clock says "write." So we creep up on the work. We dance near, careful not to lock gazes, and ease ourselves into position with familiar, comforting ritual.

My own is relatively simple. Every morning, before I've written a word, I go online, navigate to my local paper, and read the obituaries. Morbid, you say? Probably. But I'm okay with that. Part of this routine stems from the fact that I've lived in this area nearly all my life and I've reached an age where I know more people divorcing and dying than I do those marrying and giving birth. So I feel a need to keep tabs on my people. But I've discovered a bigger motivation in that ritual. There's something about seeing all those faces once clearly so full of hope, yearning, contentment, ambition, and passion--and realizing the hearts belonging to those faces have stopped beating--that causes me to sit upright and slap my lazy tendencies into submission. It has never failed me yet: I read those numbers, find two or five or ten within my relative age group, and say to myself, "You're still alive, girl. Get busy."

Today I saw the face of a beautiful 29 year old girl who will never speak another word. I looked in the eyes of a 43 year old man and wondered, "What would you say if you had five more minutes?" I grieved over an 18-year old boy and a 34-year old woman and an infant, and then I thought of a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us."

Sing. Whatever that means to you, find a way to express your song. And pray that your music heals and comforts and lingers, long after your voice is stilled.

I'm praying too.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

writing & dentistry

Good news: I'm keeping all my teeth.

That's the consensus of my dentist and her assistant, Marie. I had my annual check-up this morning. I walked into the office with heavy steps, carrying all the dread and trepidation that had been percolating since my last visit. Had I not already been flat on my back when she said it, Marie could have sent me there with her verdict: "Everything looks great. Teeth are fine, gums are healthy." I expected something else. I expected her to say, "I'm sorry, you'll be losing all your teeth sometime in the next three weeks. Enjoy these last few days of chewing."

I left feeling squeaky clean and forgiven all over, much the way I imagine the Israelites felt late on the afteroon of Yom Kippur when they all trudged home from the annual sacrifice. "Ah--a clean slate! Look at how bright and unblemished we are!"

Kept running my tongue over my slippery whites, you know, the way we all do right after that vicious buffing. For a short time I considered not eating again--ever--just to keep that clean surface clean. But then I got a hankering for bacon. You know what hankerings do to convictions.

While on that examining chair/bed, staring at the cartoons taped to the ceiling and trying hard not to apologize to Marie for every Milky Way bar and bowl of Chocolate-Peanut Butter ice cream I'd consumed over the last year, I tried to distract myself with a deep thought. But I couldn't find one, so instead I began comparing writing and dentistry.

Here's what I came up with:

When you bring a piece of writing before the eyes of a judge, or, better yet, let's say judges, such as a group of six very experienced female writers (okay, I'm talking about my critique group here), it's very much like setting yourself before a dentist's x-ray machine. The first task of a critique group is to take a wide shot of your work and look for cracks and glaring holes that need filling. In other words, they scan for decay.

After that initial assessment, they probe. They take their long, sharp, pointy red Bic pens and circle every weak spot in your work. If need be, if you've been very bad and overindulged in sugary adjectives and such, probing leads to drilling and extraction. Without mercy, but with plenty of murmuring about how "we wouldn't do this if we didn't love you," they chop big chunks and phrases and favorite words.

Just when you think you can't handle another poke, the excavation stops and the polishing begins. Here there are no sharp instruments, just gentle suggestions about redundancies and word choice.

And for good critiquees, sometimes there's a treat at the end. Sometimes, you hear, "This made me cry," or "Powerful," or "I love your style." And that's the most shocking of all, because you really expected to hear, "We're sorry, but your writing days are over."

I'd like to write more on this subject, and perhaps another time I'll revisit this topic and elaborate. But right now I feel an urgency to go floss--and re-check all the adjectives in my current chapter.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

the power of words

On the quotes page of my website I relate a story Sophy Burnham tells in her book, For Writers Only that goes as follows:

"Not long ago, a writer friend, sunk in apathy and despair, came to visit.

'What is it about writing?' he asked, striking his forehead with the flat of his hand. 'Why is it so awful? It's no way to live! Why do we do it?'

And then he leapt to his feet to walk unhappily around his chair. 'Look at writers. I don't know a single writer who doesn't hate his work. Writers hate writing. They're always talking about how hard it is. Artists don't hate painting. You never hear an artist talking about how much he hates his work. Sculptors don't complain all the time about how hard they find sculpting. But writers ...!

A few weeks later I had occasion to ask an artist if she agreed. Do artists hate their work? She looked at me, amused.

'You're forgetting something,' she said.


'Writing is so powerful. People rarely look at a painting and weep."

When I first read that story, I liked it immediately for the simple reason that misery loves company. I was in the midst a personal writing drought at the time and I liked reading that someone else smacks his forehead once in awhile and thinks writing is hard. But upon closer inspection, I appreciated this story for another reason: it reminded me that I've been given an awesome task.

We who deal in words have brought our little hands up to join God's on His plow. We've gulped, turned timid eyes upward and offered a squeaky, "Here am I; use me," to the the Creator of the universe. And He has accepted our offer.

I won't deny that writing is hard work. It can be so frustrating at times that it makes you scream, pace, writhe . . . and yes, smack your forehead. But it can also make your heart sing. It can connect you with the pulse of God and fill you with a rush of gratitude when, startled, you realize His rhythm drives your fingers.

When those inevitable moments of doubt, despair and discouragement arrive, remember this: remember that words are so powerful, so potent, and so filled with life-changing potential, that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God." Words have God's indisputable mark of approval. Words were His idea. He offered this form of communication to the world, and in effect said, "This is good."

His own book may be finished, but God is not finished talking to us. He reveals Himself day unto day, night unto night. He whispers because He loves us--and He can't keep silent about that. He wants to use you to further that message. If you invite Him in, He'll provide you with words that encourage, heal, correct and motivate. Whether you sit yourself at a keyboard or slide into a seat at a coffee shop or wrap yourself in an old quilt and perch on a chilly porch swing, when you next face that blank screen or page, stop for a moment and first offer your gift: "Here am I, Lord; use me."


Saturday, January 15, 2005


I dropped in on our friends, Scott and Diana, last night. With an hour to wait before Zac's basketball game, and seeing as how their new house was just down the road from the school, I figured I'd go see what they were up to.

I toured the renovations, snagged a tater tot, and then settled at the kitchen table to talk with Diana while she sorted unbelievably small beads (her newest hobby). We enjoyed about nine seconds of conversation before Luke, her hard-to-ignore 2 1/2 year old, bounded in. I love that boy. There's just something about his big head that demands I pet it, every time he's in reach. From there, it's a short step to tickling. That leads to chase, and hide-and-seek, and throw-the-toy-and-see-who-can-get-to-it-first. Diana kindly let me play; after a bit, she stopped trying to get my attention altogether. Good thing I wore my pedometer (see previous post), because I got quite a work out chasing Luke around that huge house.

One thing I observed about toddlers last night: they're amazingly easy to distract. They can also be bull-headed as all get-out when they're completely focused on something, but unless they really put their mind on the task at hand, any old pretty that comes along can draw them away. We were right in the middle of an intense game of "will she come to get me around the left side of the kitchen, or the right?" when I noticed it became awfully silent in the living room. I peeked around the right side wall and saw Luke trotting into his sister Madison's bedroom. He abandoned me, right in the middle of our game, simply because he heard the other kids playing. I had to go in there and remind him that I was the guest, I had him first, and I wasn't done with him.

I got him re-engaged in our game, but just a few minutes back into it, he noticed his dad's Dots on top of the TV. (Dots--you know, the really gross, flavorless, chewy round blobs that no adult with a palate would ever put in their mouth.) The boy completely forgot me, completely ignored my "Yoo-hoo, Luke . . . come and see where I'm hiding!" Left me standing in the kitchen by myself like an idiot. It's humiliating to be tossed aside for Dots.

I had to work hard to keep Luke playing with me. If it wasn't a sibling or a tater tot or a moth or a piece of cardboard with jagged edges or his reflection in the window, it was something else, some other tantilizing temptation.

As I see it, the only thing that separates adults from children (besides being taller and having all our permanent teeth) is our ability to resist temptation--most of the time, that is. Sure, I'm tempted to veer off the path now and again, too, but I've learned to stay focused. I've learned to stay on task. I mean, just because you have a thought or an impulse, doesn't mean you have to act on it.

Hey . . . I think we have ice cream . . .



Wednesday, January 12, 2005


A recent topic on one of my newsgroups, The Writer's View, was on "the writer and physical fitness." Now, I realize you probably don't normally put those words together in the same sentence. People envision writers dragging themselves out of bed each morning, crawling to their desk, and spending the entire day chained to the keyboard. At the end of the day, if no one is around to carry them, they plop to the floor and crawl back to bed. And I'd have to say that's a pretty accurate description. Except the "plopping" part. That sounds so . . . unfeminine. Let's say I slink to the floor.

Anyway, one of the posts suggested we get a pedometer to measure all the steps we take in a day (as if we can't all count to twelve). The price sounded right--the post-er said she got hers at WalMart for $3. So I drove down to WalMart, parked as close to the door as I could, and went looking. After what seemed like a football field-length stroll, I found them deep, deep in the back of the store next to the guns and camo-gear. Tuckered out from the intense walkathon, I had little energy left to complain that there were no $3 pedometers to be found. But I was happy with my $8.49 model.

Got it home. Tried to read the directions. Handed it--as I do every other gizmo with small working parts--to my husband. He then had me walk from one end of the hall to the other so we could count my steps and figure my stride. I very nearly whined about my already walk-intensive day, but seeing as he was doing me a favor, I restrained myself.

And then--I snapped that little device onto the side hem of my pants, and took a step. I glanced down at the tiny pedometer window and saw a "1." It was a magical moment. I took two more steps and saw the number "3" appear. And something happened. I was suddenly filled with an intense desire to see that window flash a double-digit number. So I walked down the hall and back again--and there it was! "24."

Well, there was no stopping me then. I walked out to my office and back. I did loops around the kitchen. I went down the front steps and out to the chicken coop, just to show the occupants my new toy. I came back and made loops again through the kitchen, hall and living room. And the numbers piled up.

Things were blissful for a few days. Sunday, while getting ready for church (which I never made it to--see Sunday's blog), it occurred to me that I could pace back and forth while blow-drying my hair. So that's what I did.

I managed to log just under 3,000 steps Monday--even while finishing two chapters of my book. But then, on Tuesday, the device turned on me. 897 steps didn't seem nearly enough for one day, so I tested the thing and found that it was only registering one step for every four or five I took. This afternoon, I took back the old model, drove to Big 5, and got myself the Cadillac of pedometers: the Sportline 345. Tonight, I'm back in business.

I suppose the thing I love about the pedometer is that it gives instantaneous feedback. That's reinforcing, behaviorally speaking. Everyone needs feedback. It spurs you on. That got me thinking. Wouldn't it be great if we could come up with a "behav-ometer?" It could function just like a pedometer, only the readings would be for things like "selfless acts," "kind words," and "spontaneous moments of worship." If you react better to negative reinforcment, yours could have readings of "uncharitable thoughts," "deceptiveness," and "greed-motivated behavior."

Or not. Hey--it was just a thought.


Monday, January 10, 2005


This was the view outside my kitchen window yesterday morning. And here's the cocoa recipe a few of you have asked for:

Snowy Day Cocoa

1/3 c sugar
2 squares unsweetened chocolate
dash salt
4 c milk
1 TBSP butter
1 tsp vanilla
8 large marshmallows

In a large saucepan, combine sugar, chocolate, salt, milk and butter; bring to a boil.

Add vanilla and marshmallows. Heat until marshmallows melt.

Divide between 4 mugs and top with more marshmallows if desired.

If you don't have unsweetened chocolate squares, you can substitute 1-2 TBSP unsweetened cocoa and 1/4 c hot water.


(For more recipes, go to www.shannonwoodward.com and click on "recipes" in the first paragraph.)


Sunday, January 09, 2005

snowy sunday

After a week of waiting, my snow arrived overnight. I shuffled in to make coffee at 7:00 a.m. and was disoriented, momentarily, by the brilliant glow in the kitchen. I stood at the sliding glass window for a minute and absorbed the gorgeous view. Then I started thinking about church and how I'd get there with four inches of fluff on the ground.

Dave had already left for the church office. He's usually there by 5:30 Sunday mornings to look over his notes and pray. I called him.

"What do you think?"

"I think it's great," he said.

"Yes, but do you think we'll make it up the hill?" We live deep in the woods. To get to our house, you must first traverse a steep gravel road, then turn and cross a recreational trail, then cross a narrow strip of road which runs over a fair-sized stream, then up an incline. The first hill is so steep that occasionally, first-time invitees have stopped at the top, turned around, and headed home rather than venture down for dinner.

Dave re-instructed me on how to put the jeep in 4-wheel drive. I'll be the first to admit that I have a leak in the area of my brain intended to store mechanical information. I can remember spark plug/carburator/4-wheel drive-type information just long enough to perform one single, immediate act--but then all the knowledge drains away. It's a perpetual, unpluggable leak. I've learned to live with it, and ask lots of questions.

We tried. And we might have made it, except for the fact that a jogger just happened to be running down the trail right when I most needed to maintain my momentum. We stopped for him, and that stopped us altogether. That, I could have lived with. It was the subsequent sliding that did me in. Maybe I'm the only one who panics when sliding backwards in a car and heading straight toward a 20-foot gulley. To hear my son, you'd think I reacted unreasonably.

"Mom!" he yelled, interrupting my OhGodhelppleasehelppleasehelppleasehelp. "You need to stop panicking."

He doesn't even have his license yet. But I'll remember his words the first time he's out driving in the snow, and we'll just see who's praying then. (All right . . . it will likely be me.)

I called Dave again and tried to make him fix it from five miles away. That never works very well.

"Do you have it in 4-wheel drive?" he asked.

"Yes. You told me to do that and I did that."

"Do you have it in 1st?"

"Yes. You told me to do that and I did that too."

The jeep started sliding again. OhGodhelppleasehelppleasehelp.

"You need to stop panicking," Dave said.

"I can't talk to you and steer into the ditch at the same time!" I yelled, handing the phone out the window to Zac, who had decided he felt safer outside the car.

"Dad, Mom's panicking," he said.

"I am not! I am not! I am not panicking--stop saying I'm panicking!"

The story is longer than I care to tell. In the end, Dave went on to church, and the kids and I walked back to the house. The jeep sits right where I left it.

Once my pulse stabilized and my heart returned to my chest and I remembered to breath, I decided we'd hold our own church service. Tera and I sang along to a Brett Williams worship CD; Zac read the words from the CD insert. Then I asked if there were any announcements. Oddly, there weren't. We read together from the Bible, discussed what it means to hunger after God, and prayed. Then the kids went outside and I started knitting a new scarf, which I set aside only long enough to write this entry.

Dave is home now and just discovered that something's wrong with the 4-wheel drive. That means it wasn't me--not a single part of it. Vindication always lifts my mood. What a wonderful day. And it's about to get even better. Our friends, the Kelly's, have invited us to dinner. They're even coming to get us--of course, they'll wait at the top of the hill.

Off to find my boots.



Friday, January 07, 2005


I woke up last night at 2:45, and for some reason, there in the darkness, I thought of Janusz Korczak. You're wondering: who is Janusz Korczak? Well, in my opinion he's about as close to a hero as you're ever going to find, humanly speaking. Janusz was a champion of children, an educator and writer, and the director of an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi Germany. During that horrendous period, thousands of Jews were forced to live in unimaginable conditions in the walled and guarded ghetto; when they realized they were being rounded up and sent to their deaths, they hid their children. Janusz took in as many of them as he could find and cared for them until the Nazis caught wind of his rescue. They paid a visit to the orphanage and demanded that Janusz hand over all those Jewish children; when he refused, they barreled past him and grabbed the children anyway. As the soldiers marched the startled group out of the orphanage, Janusz joined them.

It's possible the children never knew they were headed to their deaths. Witnesses said that Janusz led them in songs, played games with them and kept them happy all during the long train ride. And when they arrived at the Treblinka death camp, and stood in line to the gas chamber, they held hands and walked with dignity. And Janusz perished with them.

I learned of this hero while visiting Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, in Israel this past October. After I took this picture of his statue, I stared at those wide, embracing arms and the look of pained and patient compassion, and I thought, I want to be like Janusz Korczak.

I think most of us would like to be like Janusz. Deep at heart, we all wish we could face a moment like that--a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pour ourselves out on one last grand act; to make our life count toward something profound and weighty.

I once heard a story in which God gives a man ten thousand dollars and asks him to use it for His glory. The man accepts the money and says, "Yes, Lord! I'll find some spectacular way to use what You've entrusted to me--I'll spend it all at once, in one stunning, dramatic display that will make people look up at You in awe and wonder." But God stops the man. "I don't want one act from you," He says. "I want a lifetime of service. I want you to spend that money one quarter at a time."

The one glorious act would be far, far easier. Because I don't like--we don't like--to spend our quarters in secret places. Nor do we like to spend our quarters on people we don't deem worthy--people like the woman who rushes to take the parking space you waited for, pretending to not see your blinker. People like rude neighbors, and crabby relatives, and ungrateful strangers who don't seem to notice you slowed down so they could shove their cart in front of yours. We want to horde our quarters, then, and wait for a worthy spending spree. But God asks something different of us.

Oh, God, if it's true that the Christian life is lived one quarter at a time, I need Your help. Teach me to spend in a way that pleases You, and help me hold my quarters with an open hand. Give me the grace to spend freely. And if it's Your will, let me have enough left at the end of my life that I might still give You one last, spectacular gift.


Thursday, January 06, 2005


There it is again. The tsunami must have my senses on heightened alert--sort of my own personal "code red"--because I can't stop making comparisons. I can't stop feeling embarrassed about the lifestyle we enjoy in America.

I set aside my writing a bit ago just long enough to make and eat a bowl of Trader Joe's mandarin chicken. I figured I'd check in on The View while having my early lunch. They were just beginning a spot called "Mom Inventions," or something along those lines. The first invention was a snakey-looking flexible neck tube that you could contort until it aimed a bottle at your baby's mouth, thus freeing your arms for more important, more satisfying tasks. I don't remember resenting my bottle-holding duties when my son was a baby, but apparently there are enough mothers out there who do feel resentful that there's a perceived need for such a helper.

Next, they demonstrated a crust-cutter-offer. I've seen other versions of this device in the past, but never during the week of a major world disaster. As the guest pressed the plastic shape around a white-bread sandwich and pointed out that it was simple enough for a child to use, I looked at the half-inch rim of unwanted breadcrust and thought about a plea I heard this morning on the news, a plea from an island-bound South Asian boy who said, "We're starving. There's no food and no way to get supplies. Please send someone to help us. Please send food."

Turn on the news tonight. You'll see mothers with crushed hearts on the other side of the world, mothers who would love nothing more than to "have" to hold their babies' bottles again. You'll see hungry, desperate people who would be grateful for a handful of discarded breadcrusts. And then, as the reports turn to news here at home, you'll no doubt be treated to some heart-lifting human interest story about the newest lottery winner, or a happy botox success story, or a piece introducing the latest $50,000 cloned pet. Isn't it good to live in the land of plenty?

I am getting so cynical. I can't decide if that's good or bad.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Tera’s going through an odd stage right now. I can’t bring myself to call her behavior rebellion; I think it’s more a case of wiggly mischief. I see her wrestling with herself, and I believe she’d genuinely like to behave, but more often than not, she loses the battle. She just can’t seem to keep herself out of trouble.

I suppose some of it could be chalked up to her emerging sense of humor. You know how it is when kids start realizing they have the power to pull pranks. They hide things you need, just because it’s funny to them. They put tape on the cat’s paws, just because it’s funny to them. They tie knots in your pantyhose, and lick the entire top of a cake, and write their name across your driver’s license with permanent marker, and a whole host of other delightful things—simply because those things are funny to them.

A lot of it is actually funny to me but I can’t tell my daughter that. Instead, we correct her and take away her privileges and send her to her room. Once she’s safely out of earshot, then we laugh.

She had just been sprung from an extended time-out a few weeks back when she got a call inviting her to a slumber party with some girls from church. The tornado-like intake of air she drew gave us an idea of how badly she wanted to go.

“Oh, Mom, Jaimey will be there . . . and Elizabeth. I have to go. I just have to go!”

We team-lectured her. First Dave pointed out a recent error in her judgment, and then I reminded her of one. It went on like this for several minutes before she held up a hand.

“Don’t worry. If you let me go, I promise I’ll be as good as a plum.”

I laughed at that.

“Hey, plums are great,” she explained. “All they do is just sit there.”

I’ve been thinking her words over. It occurs to me that too many of us have bought into that philosophy. We’re all out there trying hard to be good plums. It seems we think the objective in life is to see who can sit the stillest for the longest.

I object to that objective. Who wants a plum for a child? I certainly don’t. I’d miss my daughter’s zest for life if she were to suddenly cower in a corner, terrified of breathing or moving or speaking.

I imagine God feels the same way. Contrary to our theory, He’s probably not too interested in having a relationship with a plum. As proof, look at some of the people He chose to hang around with. The sons of Zebedee wanted to call down fire from heaven and consume a town that had been less-than-welcoming. And don't forget Peter's shining moment in the garden when he hacked off the soldier's ear. God probably has to follow the Peters of this world around constantly, cleaning up their messes and picking up the appendages they lop off. But all the time, He’s interacting with them.

The most profound book I ever read, apart from the Bible, was Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven. Rich Mullins knew the secret. His allegiance, as his biographer said, was to to "something greater than not sinning." He thought that growing into the person God created us to be was the goal of the Christian life--not trying to sin less, but to be God's more. "He would often say that the most holy thing he could do was to be completely human. He was more interested in being genuine and real than being crisp and clean on the outside. He said, 'God created us human, and that means struggling, falling, admitting it, and being healed.' He always focused on the hope on the other side of the sin."

The word for today is this: Don’t try to be a plum. It’s fine--important, even--that you go out and bear some fruit for God. Just don’t try to be one. God wants a relationship with you—-mischief and all.


Monday, January 03, 2005


I had big plans for today. With Christmas vacation over, the kids would be going back to school--and I intended to put Phil Keaggy's "Beyond Nature" in the CD player, pour myself an extra-large mug of hazelnut-laced coffee and work until noon on my second book.

Plans change. My daughter woke with the flu; she's lying now on the couch with her pillow and the teal and purple fleece blanket I made for her last Christmas. So I've moved from the couch, where I usually write, to the kitchen table, which is crowded with a pile of snowglobes and candles and other waiting-to-be-put-away decorations. This chair is not nearly as comfortable as my spot on the couch.

Instead of Phil Keaggy's guitar licks in the background, I'm listening to Mary and Laura Ingalls. Laura's upset because it seems boys don't automatically like her the way they like Mary. Herein lies my problem: I can't ignore Little House on the Prairie. I'm genuinely interested in hearing Mary's explanation. Why are all the boys in Walnut Grove drawn to her? Why does it all come so easily for her? We brown-haired, brown-eyed girls are quite sure we know the answer: it's that blonde/blue combination she wears.

Pa will help Laura; he always does. I haven't seen this episode yet (we only just got season 4 last week) but I already know the outcome. At some point in the next 40 minutes, Pa's going to take Half-pint in his arms and make her feel beautiful. I love Pa.

I don't think I'll get much writing done today. We also own seasons 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. It's going to be a Walnut Grove day, and there's no way on earth I can tune out the drama long enough to write a chapter. I suppose I have to trust that God will help me finish this book even minus today's work.

Yesterday at church, my husband talked about the difference between a servant and a slave. Servants maintain a measure of independence. If they don't like the work offered, they can move on. Slaves, on the other hand, hold no cards.

When Zac and Tera squabble, we sometimes implement the "15-minute servant." If Tera, for example, is destructive to something that belongs to Zac, or disrespectful to him or just plain mean (and it happens; she's a sinner like all the rest of us), then for 15 minutes she has to serve him. He can ask her to do a chore he doesn't want to do, or straighten his room, or start a load of laundry for him. He can ask anything he wants--within reason. We're the judge of reason.

The term "within reason" doesn't apply to God or to His bondslaves. When we offered our earlobe on the doorpost and accepted the painful thrust of the awl and the gold ring that marked us for all time as His, we gave up the right to ask for reasonable service. He is the Good Master, the One who laid His life down for us, the One who loves us beyond reason. And if He asks us to go left, we can't complain that the road leading right looks mighty appealing.

My day belongs to the One who wooed me. If He wanted me to finish a chapter today, He would have cleared the couch. Instead, He placed another daughter there--and gave me the privilege of wiping her forehead with a cool cloth and bringing her barely-buttered toast and sitting together through another episode of "Pa loves Laura."

I'll write a chapter tomorrow--if He allows me to.

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

white as snow

No snow today. They called for it last night; I waited up until just after midnight, when the first thin flakes drifted past the patio light. I went to bed feeling satisfied and excited. But this morning, the ground is covered with only puddles and soggy leaves.

I'm disappointed, partly because I'm itching for an excuse to make homemade hot chocolate. You know the kind I mean--it's the cocoa you can't get from a packet. It's steaming milk and melting chocolate squares, vanilla and sugar. A sip of that makes you wonder how you ever got through a mug of the other kind.

So I wish I had a good reason for setting aside my self-imposed "no sugar" rule this morning. Around our house, the first snowfall also means homemade cinnamon rolls. It would be lovely to sit by the fire today, sipping cocoa and sniffing the smell of baking cinnamon rolls while snow drifted outside my window.

But I'm disappointed by my soggy, leaf-strewn patio for another reason. Symbolically, I wanted a covering for this, the first day of a new year. I liked the idea of starting 2005 with a pristine blanket of pure white; an untouched, unsullied layer of newness. It's a new year, after all. And I'm in need of a clean slate.

New years bring spanking new calendars and hopeful resolutions and the courage to try again. Looking at the vastness of my sparkling new year, I realize all the things I might accomplish. This year, I have the potential to finish my book-in-progress and start another. I can organize my pantry if I want to, and journal faithfully, and forgive someone, and seek forgiveness. Maybe I can even forgive myself.

And I realize, too--in this pensive mood--that with or without a symbolic covering of purity today, I am covered. I'm clothed in the new-every-morning blanket of brilliant white mercy only God could offer. My sins were as scarlet, but He covered me. He has made me white as snow.

I believe I'll make that hot chocolate after all. It will be a good companion for me while I sit and contemplate forgiveness.