just write life · writing

Five Symbols of the South

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An Edisto sunrise. But we’re not there right now. Just dreaming. Photo credit Jocelyn A. Conrad. 

I’m on my back porch and the air is hovering between heavy humidity and storm-blowing breezes. Either way, rain’s been skirting all around our southern summer all week long.

The book has a cover now and if you’re in the know you’ve seen it. If you’re not, what are you waiting for? Sign up for my newsletter or let me know you want to join the launch team. Or just wait because we’ll be revealing it officially soon. It’s swirly and lovely and very southern romance–Gone With the Wind keeps popping up as a comparable, which makes me laugh because (don’t hate me), I don’t love GWTW.

I think I might have read it too young and need to re-read it now as an adult who can appreciate the history and the sweeping grandeur while hoping none of my daughters turn out like Scarlett.

You don’t get much more southern than Gone With the Wind, but I was recently asked if I’d write about what I saw as five symbols of the South. I settled on these and left off the hot-button topics, because at the end of the day, we’d all rather sit on the porch with a glass of sweet tea and the cicada chorus than sit at a table and talk anymore about that late unpleasantness.

Five Symbols of the South (that don’t hang off pickup trucks)

Food. The rule of true southern cooks raised in my mother’s generation is this: if it stands still fry it. I adhere to this each summer with okra and sometimes squash and on Father’s Day, I fried chicken for the first time in years. (Although my own mother has admitted it’s just easier to go by the Bojangles.) But I think southern cuisine is changing a bit with the times. I love seeing the shift toward locally grown and farm to table restaurants that make greens so good, you’ll slap your mama. But if you do, she probably won’t make you anymore fried okra and you’ll have to take your own self to Bojangles.

Fashion. I know very little about this myself, but I do know this: pearls go with everything. Sunday dress? Check. Funeral dress? Tasteful. Wedding sundress? No doubt. T-shirt and jeans? Why not. My sisters are far more fashion savvy than I, which is how we all wound up dressed alike for my sister’s wedding, right down to our cowboy boots. I got mine at Rack Room but now my almost-thirteen year old is wearing them out. If my novel makes loads of money, maybe I’ll spring for a sweet pair like these, handmade at King Ranch in Texas, by people who know boots.

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This is my family. All my sisters and our one brother. And Jasper, the golden retriever. Because when parents of 7 kids become empty nesters, they need a dog who’s treated like a child.

Football.  I still can’t tell you the rules of football. I just know if our guy has the ball, you have to holler until he crosses the end zone. This helps him run faster. But I do know that Friday nights and Saturdays are sacred down here. That wedding with the boots was strategically planned on a day UGA was off because certain family members said they’d wear earbuds. Which didn’t match the boots, obviously. I believe in the football tradition enough that it’s the background for my next novel and I might have a slight obsession with Friday Night Lights. Or just Kyle Chandler. Or both.

Faith. I tell people I write southern fiction because that’s true (even though Terry Kay told me I’m too young for that title), but I don’t tell people I write Christian fiction because here’s the thing–I am a Christian, so of course anything I write carries that viewpoint. I believe in happy endings and redeeming love and saved by grace. It permeates who I am. Down south, our culture is permeated by the Bible Belt and Southern Baptist and Methodism and Vacation Bible School. Sending my characters to church on Sunday is as natural as having them say “y’all” and “ma’am”. Where I make a story, however, is when that faith gets shaken by its culture and has to learn to stand on its own.

Family. Every good southern book has one iconic scene at the family dinner table, and the more dysfunctional and offbeat the family, the better the tension and the narrative. I love my family, but our little idiosyncrasies are finding their way into everything I write. Makes for good storytelling but awkward family dinners. I close ranks, though, when somebody from outside wants to comment. This family is mine. We’re allowed to poke at one another, but nobody else is getting through. Find your own family to write about. Trust me, everybody’s tree has some crooked branches and those make the best stories.

What defines your home place? Your culture? Ever thought about it?

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faith · just write life · motherhood · writing

When You Really Don’t Want to Run the Race Anymore

StockSnap_I5APPDXHX3Had one of those pinnacle moments of motherhood this weekend. One of those times where I thought–this moment is it. The choice I make, the choice she  makes, in THIS moment will define how I parent her for the rest of her life.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve had more than one moment like this with this particular child this past month.

And I’m not so certain she’s the one who’s learning. I pray she is. I hope she is. I think she is. But really? I’m learning the hard and fast truth about motherhood, writing, life–you have to keep going even when you don’t think you can. 

She fell Saturday morning barely 25 meters into the 3200 meter race at the state track meet for youth. That red-hued track ate up her knee and elbow and pride. The whistle blew for a restart because the rules allow it that early into a race.

(You know, quite often we aren’t as far along as we think, and the opportunity to begin again is right there if we take a few steps back.)

The gatekeepers let me out there as soon as I said she was mine, and I wiped the bloody trickle and slapped on a bandaid and told her to line back up. That’s the worst part of motherhood, you know. When your baby is crying and hurting and you know you have to make them finish. When you know it would be easier to say, good try, there’s always next year, you’re hurting so let’s quit. 

But truth is I called up reality–we drove three hours so she could run in one race. This is her event. She’s had a tough season, but we’re finishing. It’s two miles, I told her, and you’ll be done in fifteen minutes. Line up.

I practically pushed her back to that starting line believing she might make it one round and then beg to come out. I would’ve let her. Because she got back up and tried again.

She finished the race.

We run with endurance the race that is set before us…

The preacher called up those words Sunday morning amidst a congregation that featured a woman who left her Georgia home in 1954 and served 38 years in Nigeria as a missionary. The pews were filled with her girls, come visiting for her 90th birthday. What a race she’s almost finished.

…run with ENDURANCE…

My girl might carry that scar on her knee for awhile. She has a wall full of medals and ribbons from other races she’s won, but this one–this race she lost by all the standards which measure speed–this is the race where she truly gets the prize.

This is the race I will remember in this long marathon of motherhood and grace. The one that cost the most. The one that made me set aside the instinct to coddle and press forward with the commandment to endure.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [a]fixing our eyes on Jesus, the [b]author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. –Hebrews 12: 1-2

 

1000 gifts · faith · family · just write life · writing

That Time Looking Back Was Worth the Glance

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I’ve always had a smidge of sympathy for Lot’s wife. I know, I know. If God tells you to go,  you go and don’t wonder at what you’re leaving behind.

That’s a whole lot easier said than done.

Besides, I don’t think the point of the story is “never look behind you.” I think the point is radical obedience–which looks not the same for each of us.

We took our whole family on a jet plane a couple weeks ago and touched down in Nevada with no sights set on winnings bigger than the snuggles of missed cousins. We rented a minivan the kids liked better than ours and drove into southeastern Utah, where you can try, but you won’t be able to take a picture without an amazing background view.

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We stayed in this great house and everyone had plenty of space though they preferred to be together all of the time.

We hiked and walked and trudged through the sand of Snow Canyon and the most family-friendly trails of Zion National Park. Except for when my fearless one and her daddy ascended legendary Angels Landing–and she told me later about hiking the last half-mile holding a chain and that she didn’t believe I’d be able to do it. You’re not supposed to look down, Mommy. If you do, you’ll get scared. 

I suppose that’s a lot like, you’re not supposed to look behind. If you do, you’ll regret leaving. 

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Maybe Lot’s wife regretted leaving. Or maybe she was just nostalgic. We don’t really know. All we do know is God told them to get out of town and don’t look back–and she did.

I’m a master of hindsight. Oh, if I’d known then what I know now. I’ve got a long list of how our life could be better.

Better than what, though? Because, truthfully, right now, we’re pretty darn blessed. And I’d say it’s mere grace the Lord hasn’t turned me to salt.

 

 

 

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Instead He’s teaching me something with my tendency to look back and what if and wonder why. Showing me in great strokes of glory that what lies behind me is the best kind of broken beautiful.

Looking a lot like this sunrise I almost missed the morning I drove my sister into work so early the sun rose behind me while I drove back down the valley.

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Sometimes that glance back reminds us Who’s got our back–shining like the sun and sweeping us away into the greatest kind of love story. The kind where, when we glance backward we see all the little pieces falling together to make the story we have today.

Abraham’s family had to survive–no time for looking back. Praise Jesus, we get to live and learn and stare over our shoulders at the wondrous majesty that has protected us all along.

 

 

just write life · writing

What the National Championship Can Teach Us About the Inauguration

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Originally published in The Elberton Star and The Northeast Georgian, January 13, 2016.

In a flurry of text messages, my book club girlfriends reminded me why we get along so well. Half of them didn’t realize the National Championship was happening Monday night either. In face, I was pretty pleased with myself for already knowing Clemson was playing Alabama for the coveted title—and I could even tell you who ‘Bama’s coach is because he’s brave enough to own a lake house in the heart of Bulldog country.

I had to respond with a “Go, Tigers!” because my parents are Clemson alumni, but it’s my mama who’s always been the die-hard fan. She threw a spoon at the television one Saturday night while cooking supper, and we kids learned to duck if Clemson’s defense wasn’t holding. (She’ll tell you I’m making this up for dramatic effect, but I promise it’s true.) This past Christmas she bought my cousin (whom she loves more than me during football season) a wooden ornament from the Corder’s General Store down the road. It had a tiger paw handpainted in bright orange, and Mama told Heather, “This is our year.”

Sometimes she’s a prophetess.

Because from what I hear, those Tiger-boys delivered an upset worthy of remembrance. Mama also says the last time they won a National Championship she was pregnant with my brother and now his wife’s pregnant with their son and she thinks that’s pretty profound.

I think it’s the perfect illustration of how we all love our connections to things that seem bigger and more important than our small, everyday lives. Since I knew I wanted to say a few words, I did a little reading and discovered Clemson’s beloved quarterback is a north Georgia boy, and I grinned wide over one sports reporter’s reflection. He watched that kid grow up in Gainesville to lead the rec league and the high school to accolades that probably felt as good in that moment as Monday night did with that biggest of college trophies.

People will say, after all, it’s just a game. But any coach or teacher or player will tell you the game can be so much more. It can be a place where weak boys learn to become strong men, where sore losers learn to become gracious winners, where the lost become the found. I don’t even have to follow a particular team or player to know all that is true. I just have to file back through my memories of teaching middle school or watching the Elbert County Blue Devils bring home their state title in 1995.

Now this game, that was played under bright lights and fought hard until the last moment, is over, and America is set to see the next one come to life. Soon we’ll swear in a new President, and there are those who swear they’ll never wear his colors. That’s okay. We don’t all have to cheer for the same team to recognize the end goal is about more than winning—it’s about how your character is played when your team loses.

Right now I’m watching the Inauguration coverage live… and have so much respect for Hillary Clinton’s attendance today and President Trump’s initiation of a standing ovation in her honor. It is my prayer that our nation would find common ground, once again, on the issues we all believe matter: kindness, goodness, selfless-ness. 

family · joshua · just write life · marriage · school · writing

Yes, We Are Homeschooling This Year

I’ve been skirting around the proclamation for over a month. Dancing around the possibility for a few years. Making peace with the decision since we decided to jump the county line.

Yes, we are homeschooling this year.

Never thought I’d really say those words. Much less about having all three of my girls home a the same time. I figured if we ever did it, I’d be their middle school teacher for a few years and then back off to the land of textbooks and powerpoints where your teachers have more advanced degrees than I do for impossible subjects like chemistry and trigonometry. {insert shuddering at the idea of teaching that}

But they’re all home with me and homeschool is why we’re playing Barbies and drinking coffee in the middle of the day. Actually, no more coffee. I’m getting to that old age where caffeine after 2 o’clock makes me unable to sleep and I dearly love to sleep.

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School around here started the first week of August. Friday for one county. We went to the waterpark. Monday for another. I took Gus to preschool and worked all morning. They played games and Madelynne read Divergent for the second time.

Yes, Gus is going to preschool. I know my strengths and colors/letters/numbers/rambunctious boy while I’m trying to write aren’t in my quiver.

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I mean look how happy he is to be in PreK.

So we haven’t started yet and everyone keeps asking how it’s going, so it’s pretty easy for me to say, “Great!”

Yeah, I haven’t actually taught them anything yet.

Unless you count entrepreneurship because Annabelle and Amelia made homemade strawberry smoothies and went around the neighborhood last week selling. Half our neighbors are retired and home all day so they made $4.50. That capped off earnings for a new American Girl (Target knockoff) kitchen set.

Value of a dollar. I’ll jot that down as done.

The truth is we aren’t homeschooling because I think I can teach better than all the teachers who stuck it out in public school when I couldn’t anymore.

We aren’t homeschooling because I felt a religious conviction to give them a Christian education.

We aren’t homeschooling because I felt called to be their first and foremost influence.

Those are all great reasons if they’re yours. But ours is simpler.

We’re tired.

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The run around of four kids in so many places plus my freelance work and Joshua’s travel schedule and our volunteer commitments has meant school’s rigid schedule couldn’t bend to accommodate our needs. Our kids were going to bed too late, getting up too early, and our family time was always compromised.

Between the move and Amelia’s relapse of symptoms and our desire to travel outside the confines of spring break and summer vacation, we knew keeping them home this year was the right choice.

In some ways, the move made it easy. I don’t think I’d ever have left my safety net of a school system I know and love if I hadn’t been forced. And while Joshua ultimately left the decision up to me, and I all too often remind him he’s not the one saying no all the livelong day because our kids want to snack every fifteen minutes, the truth is my tipping of the scales came from him.

Because the person who will pick up my pieces on a bad day, who will  review the math I don’t understand, who will bring home the proverbial and literal bacon so I can feed it to these hungry children–is my husband.

If I’ve learned anything from this decision making process it’s that I was seeking opinions from all the wrong people. My friends are great. They’re supportive of me–which means some said go for it and some said I was flipping crazy.

But my husband supports our family and from the beginning he thought this choice was right. And I discovered there is great freedom in submission to my God-seeking husband.

Which I’ll remind him when he comes home to find us having an Anne of Green Gables marathon (literature) and eating popcorn for dinner.

In case you’re wondering, we do have an actual plan. We’re using Sonlight as a guide for Amelia’s reading, Math U-See because I have no skills there, and I’m teaching a middle grades language arts class for homeschooled students that will guide my big girls through grammar, writing, and literature. We will fill in science and social studies from a variety of sources, with our main focuses being American history, geography, and earth science.

We’re going on lots of field trips and I’m talking everyone into a cross country trek to visit my sister in Utah. I’m sure we will reassess almost daily and “regular” school might come back to us next year, but this is our year to embrace change.

Hopefully without losing my mind.

family · Home · hospitality · just write life · writing

When Your 3 Year House Becomes Your 10 Year House Becomes Your Sold House

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I tucked myself into the corner of the sectional couch we finally broke down and bought last year so we would have furniture that fit this tiny living room. Early in the morning the sunlight shafts through a kitchen window I’m not great at scrubbing clean and lights up a worn table with perpetually sticky chairs.

This is my quiet place. For three years I’ve risen early and written hard and sipped coffee and liked this little house best with that golden pool of light beaming on my hardwood floors.

In some ways, we outgrew this house before we ever moved in. When we bought it in 2006 at the climax of the real estate inflation, mere months before the fall, we figured three years.

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Three years. New paint. New carpet. A few handy little things and then we’d be moving on. I had two girls then, one toddling and one nursing. My mama told me this house wasn’t big enough for more kids.

Ten years later we’ve raised four kids in that house and hosted friends and family and parties and memories.

We tried to sell in 2010. Again in 2012. Again in 2014. Fourth time’s the charm. Did all the right things–items in storage, fresh and clean, highlight the good. Big backyard. 4 bedrooms… just very little family space. Really 3 bedrooms and an office and don’t forget we have fiber internet!

IMG_7156None of that mattered. When we get all the paperwork signed and sealed our little house that built me into a mother, a writer, a better person–this little house will be sold to a neighbor who felt the timing was finally right for her to take it on and share it with others. This little house is about to be a ministry, a caregiving place, a breath of hope.

We prayed that years ago. Thought maybe we’d even be the ones to keep it.

Y’all, when this house is finally sold it will be at the last possible moment before our loan changed, before we reached the end of our rope with what to do about finding me space to write, the kids space to play, my husband space to work from home.

Always it’s been one of those first world problems. Six people cramped in 1400 square feet. We always knew we could make it work and in the last few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to offer hospitality without comparison. Because I was tired of telling my kids our house was too small to welcome our friends.

That is never, ever true. No matter the size of your place, true friends will sit on a narrow porch and play games with ten kids running around inside because it’s raining.

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We take help in all sizes.

Some of those true friends helped us load a U-Haul with material wealth and drive ten miles down the road this week. To a place that’s bigger–and plenty better in some ways.

But that house that grew us into a family will always be out true first home.

P.S. I know you all want a tour of the house…. I’m working on it! Had to clear up some space on my fancy video camera, i.e. phone.

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Notice the difference between Annabelle’s friends and Madelynne’s… of course, they did unpack all the books to find the ones they wanted to read.
Guest Posts · just write life · writing

Slow Down and Dwell

The first new friend I made at the Florida Christian Writers Conference this year was Lucinda Secrest McDowell. She beamed a smile and a southern welcome and gushed with excitement when she heard about my Edisto novel. Then she connected me with her Edisto friend who can help me get this book into the hands of readers.

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All before we finished a meal. Lucinda is genuine, faith-filled, and delightful. When we met up again at Blue Ridge for another conference in May, it was my pleasure to buy her new devotional book before the bookstore had finished unpacking the box.

Dwelling Places offers a one word pondering for each day of the year. Categorized by seasons, and so very timely for my own life right now, it is my honor and pleasure to share Lucinda’s words with you today.

 


 

Driving through Pebble Hill Plantation I saw the road sign that caused me to grind to a halt.

            “Slow Down. I Mean It!”

And Pansy Poe, the owner of this beautiful estate outside my Georgia hometown, had signed her name to give it more authority.

Actually, God could have authored that sign as well.

I believe He sends signs warning me to “Slow Down” all the time, but I’m usually running by too quickly to notice. Missing what God has for me – “My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.” (Isaiah 32.18)

Or, as one seasoned pastor advises, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry.”

When was the last time you really rested? Hard to do, isn’t it? Our environment is constantly depleting us with noise, distractions and the compulsion to always be in a hurry. We are just too busy to rest.

“Busyness does not mean you are a faithful or fruitful Christian. It only means that you are busy, just like everyone else,” claims Kevin DeYoung, a pastor and father of six who struggles with finding true rest. “It’s not wrong to be tired. It’s not wrong to feel overwhelmed. It’s not wrong to go through seasons of complete chaos. What is wrong – and heartbreakingly foolish and wonderfully avoidable – is to live a life with more craziness than we want because we have less Jesus than we need.”

Do you want more of Jesus and His rest?

I believe our greatest threat is distraction. Did you know the root of this word is the Latin word distractus which literally means “to draw or pull apart?” No wonder we feel torn in every direction!

The author of “Sanctuary of the Soul” says that we have noisy hearts. “The fact that our schedules are piled high and we are constantly bombarded by multiple stimuli only betrays that we have succumbed to the modern mania that keeps us perpetually distracted. The moment we seek to enter the creative silences of meditative prayer, every demand screams for our attention.”

How can we quiet our hearts and discover these “undisturbed places of rest?”

Unplug. Sign out. Turn off. Hang up. Be ‘Closed for the Weekend.’ Clean up your surroundings so fewer projects call out your name. Put sleep and ‘nothing’ on your agenda and then keep those appointments. Determine your greatest distractions and energy-drainers and decide to be proactive about curbing their power over you.

And then go to Jesus and rest in His care. “Faith means resting – relying – not on who we are, or what we can do, or how we feel or what we know. Faith is resting in who God is and what He has done. And He has done everything.”

Slow Down. I Mean It!

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Lucinda Secrest McDowell is passionate about embracing life — both through deep soul care from drawing closer to God, as well as living courageously in order to touch a needy world. A storyteller who engages both heart and mind, she offers “Encouraging Words” to all on the journey. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Furman University, Cindy is the author of twelve books, including Dwelling Places, Live These Words, Refresh!, Amazed by Grace, Quilts from Heaven and Role of a Lifetime. Whether co-directing the “New England Christian Writers Retreat,” mentoring young moms, or leading a restorative day of prayer, she is energized by investing in people of all ages. Cindy’s favorites include tea parties, good books, laughing friends, ancient prayers, country music, cozy quilts, musical theatre, and especially her family scattered around the world doing amazing things. She writes from “Sunnyside” cottage in New England and blogs weekly at EncouragingWords.net