When Grief Catches You by Surprise

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“No one is promised tomorrow,” they say.

“Live every day like it’s your last,” they say.

“Life is short,” they say.

And “they” say it all the time. Everywhere, reminders not to take life and health for granted find their way into our consciousness. You can’t escape them.

But we’re pretty great at ignoring them. That’s why it takes the news of a friend (early 30s) having a seizure and being put on life support to shock us to tears and expose our collective denial that we are indeed finite.

Today as I cried out in prayer for my friend, Carmine, I imagined taking Daddy God by the wrist and yanking His hand down to touch Carmine’s brain and restore his health. Like a child frustrated at her own efforts who just wants Daddy to “make it work,” confident in Father’s ability and desperately at the end of her understanding, I want God to “make it work” again. It’s a miracle Carmine needs and a miracle God’s got. So I begged and pleaded and wept for God to grant mercy, to let Carmine live, to spare his wife and infant daughter and all those who love him dearly the pain of losing the light of their lives.

But as I prayed, I felt guilt wash up. Suddenly, I couldn’t distinguish the tears of pain from those of shame. I knew Carmine years ago. We hung out at church a few times and played ultimate frisbee at the beach once. We catered at a few weddings together. But we haven’t spoken in long, long time. Surely my tears were unwarranted. Surely they belonged to his wife, his mother, his brother, his sister, his friends. Surely the brief season our lives intersected couldn’t produce a grief this strong.

And then I realized my anguish isn’t just about Carmine. It’s about fear. A healthy young man’s sudden seizure and the subsequent discovery of an inoperable brain tumor mean that I, too, am not exempt from knocking on death’s door at any moment. It means we’re all a moment away from grief, that as much as we work to delay the end of life, it comes. And that’s as true at 15 or 30 as it is at 90. Our youth belies our frailty. It’s not fair, it’s not just, it’s not beautiful. It’s downright terrifying.

On a normal day, if someone asked me if I was afraid to die, I’d start quoting Psalm 139 and assure them that I trust God with the number of my days. But today I look up at the God I’ve chosen to serve with my life and say, “What are You doing?! Get down here and help! I know You didn’t do this, but You’re the only one who can fix it!”

That we are asked to trust His sovereignty even in doubt is too much for me to grapple with.

Every fiber of my being wants Carmine to survive this. I want his new daughter to know her father and for him and his wife to grow old together. I want his mother to never know the pain of losing a son. So, I’ll keep praying, yanking on Daddy’s wrist, begging Him to please have mercy on my friend, and by extension, on me.

I’m okay with admitting that my faith is as fragile as my health—capable of being broken in an instant. But in faith and in life, one thing survives the crumbling. One thing is more resilient than fear, and that is hope. Tonight, it’s all we have. Carmine, we rally our hope around you, open our clenched fists to the One who holds your healing, and pray:

Psalm 119: 73-77

With your very own hands you formed me;
now breathe your wisdom over me so I can understand you.
When they see me waiting, expecting your Word,
those who fear you will take heart and be glad.
I can see now, God, that your decisions are right;
your testing has taught me what’s true and right.
Oh, love me—and right now!—hold me tight!
just the way you promised.
Now comfort me so I can live, really live;
your revelation is the tune I dance to.

UPDATE: Carmine passed away on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. Though I’m heavy with the unwelcome, yet familiar ache of grief, I know the only way to keep from abandoning hope is to cling to it; to remember that God’s grace is capable of exchanging beauty for ashes, even in this.

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I’m here! …and other less exciting admissions

FeaturedI’m here! …and other less exciting admissions

I think it’s time I dust off this catacomb of thought. When I started it in 2010, I had just graduated college and had no idea what to do with myself. Scripted Scenes & Coffee Beans was a way to keep writing, to share with far-away friends and family, and document my journey into adulthood. A quick scroll to my “Older Joes” will show you how that’s gone.

But the absence of entries is not an absence of life. In fact, quite the opposite. My life has been bursting and brimming with substance the last three years as I’ve grown professionally and creatively and allowed my dreams to crystalize a little, and now I find myself in much the same position as I was in 2010…at the beginning of a new chapter having no idea what to do with myself. 🙂

So it seems fitting I would return here now to keep writing, sharing with far-far-away family and friends, and documenting my journey into the entertainment business as a writer.

This wasn't even taken in Cali.
This wasn’t even taken in Cali.

Moving clear across the country to pursue a dream brings with it a lot of introspection and a potent cocktail of emotion. So before I sober up and settle in with my 8-5, Starbucks, happy hour, networking, dream-building California life, allow me some transparency.

This is hard. And admitting that it’s hard is even harder. This is my dream. This is what I’ve worked for, prayed for, fought for, and uprooted for. I never said it would be easy, yet I can’t cut myself a break when the distance bruises me to tears and the sense that I’m a third wheel in my own life hollows me out from the inside.

“Great!” I say when friends and family ask how things are going. Because outwardly, they are. I have a great job (!) and generous friends who didn’t even kick me out after a month. I’ve been to some really cool places, met some great new people, reconnected with old friends, and made some quality contacts for the future. I have nothing to complain about.

And yet…

I wake up every morning, realize where I am, and say “Oh my God, I actually did it.” I actually left Virginia Beach where I was known and loved and cared for and where Hubs and I had built something of a life that, to the outsider, was only just beginning. And I dug it up and transplanted it to another planet. (And trust me, when you’re born and bred on the East Coast, California may as well be another planet.)

It’s a strange sensation because this is the fulfillment of so many dreams and the seed of so many more to come. Yet I’m not gleefully Instagramming my way through my #LAlife because it doesn’t feel like mine yet. And that’s…unexpected. Instead, I’m busy trying to make sure I’m doing enough to get where I want to go and comparing my “start” to the friends I know who have made the same jump with seemingly different results (This is an extremely helpful and healthy practice, of course).

So how am I? I’m happy, anxious, excited, nervous, confused, lonely, and above all, grateful to be here.

I’m great, but I’m homesick. I’m great, but I’m secretly scared I made a terrible mistake and will ruin everything. I’m great, but the pressure to get it right makes my chest tight sometimes.

One day, hopefully soon, the flood of photos and cutsie captions on social media will resume. But for now, I’m taking it all in and figuring it out. California, you’re like a new pair of jeans. I’m confident the more I wear you, the more comfortable you’ll become, but doggone it if you aren’t pinching my thighs at the moment.

Never Forget…

I had never been to New York City.

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At that time, it was this otherworldly place from the movies, a million miles from my Carolina town. As I walked into my freshman math class moments after the first tower had been hit, the image on the television screen looked like an action movie. Never mind Mrs. Bultman’s furrowed brow. Never mind the rattling chatter of frantic newscasters. It was some great tragedy on another planet to me. Even still, when the second tower was hit and our stomachs sank with the shattering sense of security we’d been born into, I couldn’t connect the dots. I felt the sense of history changing course as I watched the towers fall, but it wasn’t until cameras were able to get low into the streets and show me mourning faces covered in blood, dust, and fear that I understood it was real. New York was filled with Americans just like the ones I cried next to hundreds of miles away.

Today, I honor their memory and the memory of those who have paid the ultimate price since then to ensure that our definition of what it means to be an American, though forever altered, still remains. #NeverForget 9-11-01

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The True Task

FeaturedThe True Task

“I know that you’ve got commitments and stressors and what’s so wrong with watching an hour or two or three of TV before bed? Nothing, of course. Except that you weren’t created to do that. And at the end of your life, you may just end up regretting finding ways to distract yourself from your true task.” Jeff Goins

Google “artistic procrastination” and you’ll find articles and blog posts calling this Hydra-esque issue  everything from “the artist’s companion” to the artist’s “graveyard.” Apparently, how an artist views it and how it affects their work is completely individual. I’m quickly finding in these free-form summer months that writer’s block refers to much more than not knowing what to write.

I know what to write.

I have ideas and projects in progress to last me another decade. Yet, last night I went for a run at the beach, cleaned my room, filed my nails (?) and went to bed. The night before, I learned six new pinup hairstyles on Youtube. And I’m boooored. But every time I sit down to write, this dread of beginning wells up through the keyboard and I find a way to procrastinate. Again. No, writer’s block is not about ideas. It’s just about finding the courage to begin.

Unbeknownst to most of the world, I’ve succumbed to this classic ailment and have been rather zombie-fied this month. Like tranquilized zombie. Sure, I might look productive: going to work, coming home, taking care of the apartment, making to-do lists and schedules, sitting in front of my laptop while hubs kills virtual monsters on the Xbox. But appearances can be deceiving, friends. It took me six days to complete a two-hour writing software tutorial because this whole other ADD person has taken over my body and shrunk my attention span down to about 20minutes.

Alright, enough metaphors. The point is, I haven’t been myself lately and it’s really irritating my type-A side. So I did what most well-adjusted 21st-century young people do when they’re facing a personal problem…

This post from Crystal Street’s archives made me feel happily justified in my Lucy-Come-Lately habits, while this post on Slate made me feel relieved that I’m not alone in my ebb and flow of industriousness. A few articles just made me feel like a worthless hack. They don’t get hyperlinks.

What I conclude from this little search experiment is that guilt does more harm than good, always. It perpetuates the distance between an artist and her work and spirals her inward to the dark places of fear and failure.

It’s enough that the administrative side of me sees all that’s scribbled on July’s calendar and what needs to be accomplished before August 19 when classes start again. It’s enough that come September I’m going to loathe having wasted precious time I could have used to take the pressure off at crunch time. Guilt won’t solve those problems of procrastination any better than filing my nails last night could make me feel productive. But maybe painting my nails will…

Just kidding.

It’s time to find better ways to cope with writer’s block and procrastination, and Jeff may have found the way for me. My “true task” is to write great stories.

Nothing delays greatness like fear.

But nothing assuages fear like a sense of purpose.

And nothing affirms a sense of purpose like doing what you were created to do.

Write.

“I am not afraid…I was born to do this.” –Joan of Arc (kind of)

See ya later, writer’s block. 😉

Ode to a forgotten blog…

Ode to a forgotten blog…

(Cue Alicia Keys) “I-hi-hi keep on fallin…in and out…of love…with-a you.”

Poor blog. It’s not his fault. The reality is that grad school taught me something very important this last 5 months.

It’s hard.

Like, drive your health, sanity, work performance and marriage into the ground kind of hard. Thankfully, all aforementioned aspects of my life are making a brilliant recovery and I have an amazingly patient husband who is willing to let me do it again in the fall.

Until then, I’m taking ground on all fronts: socially, spiritually, creatively, professionally, entrepreneurially, and physically.

Living in a place like this…

…it’s easy to let the sand and sun (and relentless humidity) drain every bit of motivation still sparking in my creative muscle. But I’m determined not to let it happen. I’m reminded of this post deep in the archives, in which I encountered just how crazy I can get when I’m not creating. During school, I don’t have time to succumb to the craziness. Or, rather, the craziness takes another form altogether via all-nighters, caffeine overdoses, spouse and house negligence, and the insane amount of laundry I have to wade through just to get to bed right about mid-term week.

Summer is a great opportunity to regroup, refocus, and revisit those dreams and goals I envisioned back at New Year’s.

I think it’s time we ask ourselves the tough questions about how we’re spending our time and what we’re willing to do to answer those questions satisfactorily.

This is my list. What’s on yours?

  • Amanda, have you touched your NaNo manuscript since December?
  • What about the script you outlined last fall?
  • Have you started working on that business plan you’ve been “meaning” to get off the ground?
  • Are you doing your best to shed the “fluff” you gained through months of no sleep and bad food?
  • Are you prioritizing time with your husband in a way that will be sustainable when school starts again?
  • What about personal devotion time? You know if you don’t carve out time now, it will be impossible come the first day of class.
  • Is your volunteer system for church working as it should be? What can you do now to improve it so you’re not working so hard come September?
  • Are you prepared to be called on at work should the opportunity you’ve been hoping for present itself?

Oh boy. Happy summer!

Let the reckoning begin.

The Paradox of Busyness

A quick scroll will tell you that I’m not winning any awards for world’s best blogger probably ever in my lifetime, but here’s an interesting pattern I’ve found in my writing habits: I’m more apt to blog when I’m busy than when my schedule is virtually empty.

Blame it on my anti-social-media husband who would rather keep me busy watching movies and looking at houses than clacking away at a keyboard after dinner…

NaNoWriMo
BTW, November's NaNoWriMo attempt was successful. I win!

Blame it on the fact that I am, by nature, a 90-or-nothin brand of go-getter and when I’m idling at zero, I might as well be parked…

vacation
This is my brain between burnout and inspiration.

Blame it on the superwoman complex that kept me standing during undergrad ’08-’09, which I barely remember because sleeping got nixed from the to-do list that year.

We go way back.

When I’m being lazy, a literal fire under my you-know-what may be the only thing able to get me off the couch. But when I’m inspired to be productive, I suddenly get the urge to tack blogging and writing projects back onto my weekly to-do list. My husband is exasperated and perplexed by this and I think he fears I may actually be crazy, but I just smile and shrug my shoulders as if to remind him, “Sorry, Charlie. This is what you get.”

So, dear reader (who may, in fact, only be my father at this point), this is what you get. Batten down the hatches because a storm of productivity (or just plain-ol-activity) is coming your way. I started my MFA on Tuesday so there will be much to blog about. However, I may also be starting a ghostwriting project on top of school, work, volunteering at church, and house hunting, so there will be much to keep me from blogging. C’est la vie.

c’est la vie foreign term \se-lä-vē\ : “Such is life,” a phrase that is a way of shrugging off what can’t be helped.

How about you (Dad)? Do you go through spurts of being crazy busy and productive followed by stretches of lethargy? Or are you better at long term stability? If you are, please share your secrets. My husband will pay a handsome reward. 🙂

All opposed, say “I”

Can I just be a rebel for a minute? As a writer, I sometimes feel obligated to embrace the elements of story as perfect, absolute, and well-defined.

But I’ve always turned my nose up at the idea of an “antagonist.” Perhaps it’s the way they teach it in small-town public schools, but I feel like I’m “doing it wrong” if my opposing force isn’t a person or group of people. The antagonist of a story can be an entity…

like the government

or the Catholic church.

But even then, those are still groups of people. They can speak for themselves and no matter how twisted or convoluted the reason, they can always justify opposing the main character. Where human enemies are concerned, fellow human characters have some degree of control over their impact on the story. Kill them. Conquer them. Or just get out of their way.

I’ve found I tend toward antagonists that humans have no illusion of control over or justification for. Illness, death, evil, nature, accident. I think the unfairness of it all makes the angst we feel for the character experiencing it deeper and more tangible.

Yes, we always need human antagonists. Bad things can’t just keep happening to everybody all the time. And we need them because they are real to us. We understand humans as antagonists. At some point in life, we all make an enemy or two. And so we enter a story with ideas about what a human antagonist can and cannot do.

But we can’t understand untimely death, or a terminal diagnosis, or what triggers domestic abuse, or a devastating tornado, or a plane crash.

These symptoms of brokenness are the true enemies of the human race. And these are the foes that make the most compelling stories. Why? Because they’re not just the character’s enemies. They are our enemies. A corrupt cop feels like the good cop’s enemy, but cancer feels like my enemy too. These universal opponents connect us to the story in ways no wicked stepmother could dream.