Every Single Star

Stars are glowing mysteries. Science and wonder collide in those incomprehensibly giant and mind-bogglingly ancient balls of fire that appear to little you and little me as tiny points of light.

They are countless. There are more stars than humans who have ever lived. A quick Google search tells me there are maybe “1 billion trillion” or “100 octillion” stars in the observable universe.

So it seems both fitting and misguided to me that we call people who have set themselves apart, people who dazzle us from dizzying heights, stars. If you can somehow distinguish yourself from the masses around you, maybe you too can rise and become a star.

Why are stars so remarkable when there are so very many of them, each shining its light out all through the universe? For all of human existence, we’ve been staring up at stars on clear nights, lost in wonder, drawn far beyond ourselves or deep within ourselves, like our parents and grandparents and distant ancestors long before us.

But you are remarkable too. And so am I. And our neighbors, and coworkers, and everybody who calls and tries to sell us something, and all the old people sitting in the assisted living place down the street. Every politician, every middle-schooler, every complaining customer and annoying coworker, every single life.

So be you, you bright star. Shine on.

And rest in peace, Prince.

The song I wrote for week 16 of #songaweek2016 has something to do with the above thoughts, but it’s still not all untangled for me. See what you can make of it:


Other People’s Work

Read any good books lately (besides your own)?

Frederick Buechner said, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is exhilarating to discover this place and then get to work in it, pay or no pay, day job or not, published book or engaging tweet.

But without a healthy sense of self, a grown-up level of security in our personhood, we creative-types* can begin to identify ourselves with our work. We become the work we make. And then, instead of celebrating the good work that other people do in our same field or genre, we start to compare our work (ourselves) with theirs, become annoyed and critical, and sometimes just stop listening to, looking at, or reading other people’s work altogether.

Nobody can tell it, write it, sing it, film it, or whatever your thing is – like you can. But you are one voice among hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions, depending on your particular medium – and each of those voices is also unique. Some of those creators are better at using their voices than others, some are still working to find their own voice at all. You are in there too, somewhere on that continuum.

There will always be people who make better work than you do. “Better” is wildly subjective and depends on all sorts of things like budget, public opinion, connections, aesthetic, age, experience . . .

But as I’ve listened to and learned from creators I consider to be “better,” I’ve seen a common thread. These are people who pay attention to other people’s work. Musicians who rave about other musicians, poets who immerse themselves in other people’s poetry, filmmakers who go into great detail describing how other people’s films have inspired them. And they tend to seek out work they consider better than their own.

That takes a healthy sense of self, a realistic perspective on one’s own work and calling. It’s humbling to remember that other people picked up guitars and made up songs before I could tie my shoes – that I was not the one to discover music. Sounds crazy-obvious and astonishingly arrogant when I say it like that, but these are the sorts of unvoiced exaggerations self-delusion sneaks into our minds if we don’t acquaint those minds with the voices and work of other people (I know, because I’ve been there).

And so, I think that one significant mark of maturity in a creative life is when you can be moved, inspired, and challenged by the work of another (especially a peer, someone living and working in your field, even in your particular circle of influence), without feeling threatened, jealous, hyper-critical, or compelled to copy.

I’m not saying that these feelings shouldn’t surface as we interact with other people’s work. In fact, they almost certainly will and should as we mature, but if we recognize them for what they are and continue to create in spite of them, they will prove to be very helpful teachers and teach themselves right out of a job.

So hit the library and grab a book of poems, subscribe to somebody else’s blog, go out and hear another singer/songwriter at your local coffee shop, go to somebody else’s gallery opening. And feel your mind broaden, and say a little word of thanks for all the brilliant voices in the world.

* In this post I’m writing specifically from my perspective as someone who tries to create on a regular basis, but these ideas could probably apply in other fields of work as well, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Resetting Your Life

Do you ever wish your life had a reset button, like an iPhone? Ever left the house door unlocked on your way out with a secret hope that someone will break in and take all your stuff while you’re gone? Or subconsciously wished for a layoff or a house fire so you could start with a clean slate?

Life gets busy, our stuff weighs us down, our routines become tiresome ruts and we bore ourselves. Sometimes we (or at least some of us) start dreaming about a whole-life reset in these cases, and sometimes that can be just the thing.

But making smaller changes can bring surprising depths of refreshment and energy to our lives as well. Choosing one facet of life to tweak or experiment with can bring great joy and creativity to a complete life.

Here are some things I’ve learned in my own experiences of life-tweaking:

It’s okay to change your mind. Going into any new venture with this attitude can greatly relieve the pressure you feel to make it work, and thereby, ironically, help you succeed. Or, if you get going and find out it’s just not your thing, this mindset gives you permission to stop and move on to something else, guilt-free. Politicians are always accusing one another of “waffling,” changing their minds, as if thinking and doing the same thing all your life is a measure of good character. I say that’s a measure of obstinacy and stagnation. People who are alive and growing will certainly change their minds. (Of course not everything is entered into this lightly. Commitments you make to people – especially family relationships such as marriage and parenting – are made on a deeper level than “life-tweaking,” and aren’t part of this discussion. You may decide on other non/less-negotiables for yourself as well.)

Give it some time. This balances the above point. Most new things feel strange and ill-fitting at first. Starting something new requires a certain level of commitment and discipline to attain some level of skill or comfort with it. Maybe you will make different demands of yourself for different activities. But it helps sometimes to look back at past accomplishments or adventures that felt “all wrong” when you started, which after you acquired some skills and familiarity became favorite activities. A certain degree of stoicism, “just do it” mentality is needed for any new venture in life.

Accept loss forever.” (Jack Kerouac) Some things simply will not be for you. Certain dreams, romantic attachments, friendships, business ideas, career paths, and loved ones have died in each of our lives. We can cherish memories from these treasures we have lost, but we can’t remake them. Resurrection always takes a new form. The end of the caterpillar is the start of the butterfly; the burial of the seed is the birth of the flower. Your particular losses are the rich soil of the new creation of your life. Don’t hold on to the wispy ghosts of dead things. Let them die so new life can begin.

Start small. Nathan and I once dreamed of selling our house and living on a sailboat. I, the impulsive extremist, wanted to jump in and do it right away. Nathan, the careful adventurer, advised that we buy a small sailboat, learn to sail, take some weekend trips, and see what we thought. We did this, and I learned that I got seasick easily, realized that I loved gardening and would miss it, and then found out we were pregnant with our first child. We made some great memories with our small sailboat, and when the time seemed right, we sold it. Maybe living aboard is still in our future, but it was good to test the waters rather than diving right in.

Or dive right in! Evaluate your situation, the people potentially affected by the change you want to make (are you single or married? do you have young children? are your parents aging and needing more support from you? are you in debt?), and dive accordingly. I do think every person can benefit from at least one impulsive leap in life. “Impulsive” may mean different things for different people though.

Ask yourself, “what’s the worst that could happen?” When you honestly face that question, the potential risk often doesn’t seem so scary. Remember that risk has two sides – something can be lost, but something can also be gained. Are you willing to lose the one thing in order to potentially gain the other? Or are you committed to keeping the one thing and therefore erasing any chance of gaining the other?

Re-evaluate from time to time. Just because you rejected an idea at age twenty doesn’t mean it still can’t work at age forty. So much about us changes over the years, regardless of the external changes we make to our lives. Career positions, stages of family life, physical health, interests, abilities, worldview, daily habits – all of these and plenty more can change multiple times throughout our lives, and can affect our openness to new opportunities.

What life-tweaks and experiments have you made, or what are you considering trying? What would you add to or change about the advice above?


I’d like to take a snapshot of my four-year-old son right now, but I’ve decided against it. I don’t want to interrupt his reverie.

He is playing the piano. Not banging on it, but playing it. A note here, a note there, a little pattern, which he will repeat if he likes it. Even some simultaneous notes now and then to make a pleasant-sounding chord. His older sister’s piano book is on the music stand, and he is paging through it, looking at it as he thoughtfully presses keys.

The parent voice told me to get over there and show him a thing or two – “look, Silas, this is middle C! Can you play middle C?”

Then the artist voice in me said, “easy, sister, let him explore. Let him lose himself in the moment, let him float on the music he is making!”

Then the parent voice said, “oh yes, good thought. But I should at least get this on video.”

And the artist and the mother together decided, “Nope. No video. The camera would distract him. Let him be. Go type this out on your blog and let him be.”

And so he is alone in his reverie, which is probably the best way for him to start his friendship with the piano. I suppose that “reverie” shares a root with “reverence,” and that is how this moment feels.

Wrestling With Why

Researchers tell us that most humans only use 5-10% of their brain capacity. As I watch my small children, I am convinced that they are using much more than that. They are always busy creating, discovering, exploring, trying something new. I, however, find it easy to believe that I’m only using a tiny fraction of my brain capacity. I have to work hard at creating, learning, trying new things. It’s no longer my natural inclination. To my children, it seems effortless.

I spent much of last year gorging on the writings of Madeleine L’Engle, a noted author whose “children’s novels” are plenty good reading for this adult. While pondering the generation gap and the sometimes-rebellious behavior of adolescents, L’Engle wrote in her reflective book A Circle of Quiet, “. . . the challenge I face with children is the redemption of adulthood. We must make it evident that maturity is the fulfillment of childhood and adolescence, not a diminishing; that it is an affirmation of life, not a denial; that it is entering fully into our essential selves.”

Hmm. Is it possible that children’s natural inclination towards discovery and creative thinking is something that should be encouraged, developed to even greater heights as they move into adulthood? Is it possible that the rebelliousness we’ve come to expect from adolescents mainly exists because the adult world for which we are preparing them is seriously flawed, because this world commands them to give up the seed of life and joy with which all children are born? Do we ask them to stop feeding the very thing that many of us go seeking in our midlife crises?

Currently I’m reading True Believers Don’t Ask Why by John Fischer, which I found on a ‘free books’ table at a local church that was cleaning out their library. Fischer’s book was published in 1989, but applies all too well today. Fischer, a singer and writer of the 1960s Jesus movement, wrote in this book that the youth of the 1980s were disappointingly less radical than he, a then middle-aged man, was.

Fischer wrote that this generation was much more interested in answering “how-to” questions rather than “why” ones. “How-to” questions are easily answered by the appropriate specialist. Answering “how-to” questions ensures success in an endeavor, and assumes that the answer is out there, fully obtainable if one knows who to ask.

“Why” questions, however, rarely have concrete answers. The same “why” questions have been asked and explored over and over again through the millennia of human history. Those who have wrestled with them have soared and suffered, produced brilliant work and been driven to madness – but have rarely remained the same after the struggle as they were before.

A person or generation who never asks “why” questions loses a sense of wonder, lacks the wisdom that the world, life, faith, everything true, is bigger than words, cannot be contained in a concrete answer. This person or generation lives superficially, fearful of new ideas and different perspectives, using not more than 5-10% of their brain power to explore the world around and within them.

So here’s to the askers of “why,” including my own especially fervent questioners Luthien and Silas. May the life I live encourage their continuing quests. May each of us grown-ups be a little more courageous this week in facing the “why” questions we’ve all-too-successfully grown out of asking.