12. hope*writers Instagram Challenge – Life Out Here
Two weeks ago, I came upon the hope*writers Instagram Challenge. For those unfamiliar, hope*writers is a community designed to help writers with messages of hope stay the course. For their IG Challenge, participants were given one word prompts along with an additional quote and three questions to post photos and reflect on the hope*writer’s life.
The prompts were as follows:
For those who do not partake in social media – and for those who were able to view my recent work – the following are my responses to these prompts and a bit of what went on in my brain as I was writing for the challenge.
Day One: Voice
When I say, “I write it
better than I speak it,”
I mean that
died, my heart grieved
in poetry all I could not say
when you lived, bound
by expectation and weighted
with fear of being misunderstood.
On the eve of the challenge, I went to bed excited for morning. I woke with a slough of ideas, I reached for Imaginative Writing to see how it defines “voice” as it pertains to writing. I did some freewriting, and when the phrase “my heart grieved in poetry” came to me, I knew I had it.
In 2019, in my grandpa’s last days, heavy emotions shut me down – something I’ve learned to anticipate when big things happen. I was quiet. I’ll not call it a pensive state; I was numb. Even when words came to me, I was hesitant. Sometimes, when it really matters, I am not quite sure of myself when speaking. I wonder, “what if I say the wrong thing? Something too honest, too weird?”
Then, a few days after his death, everything came out. And it came out in poetry.
The poem “Voice Untethered” honors the gracious truth that it’s okay to go quiet, and it’s okay write your heart out in lieu of speaking out loud.
Day Two: Refresh
And eventually, the Chugach Mountains give way to the chill of dormancy – absence of color and light – and it is only natural that uncaring winter winds should sweep away the finale of the birch trees, those autumnal sunbursts roving the mountainsides like the gilded waves of the Turnagain Arm. Bare and mute, they surrender to days, weeks, and months of snow, which, come springtime, takes with it only the rootless. Avalanches are a given.
First, the sun appears over the Hurdy Gurdy, and then Harp Mountain until it rises over Three Bowls, a sure sign of longer days and twilight nights. In Pink Moon light, the birch are ghosts of last summer.
Until the blossoms push through what once seemed hollow.
These are the lessons I take with me to the Writer’s Desk when I am hollowed out from days, weeks, and months of dormancy. I am drained of color and light. If I am wise, I have stepped away. Let the cold wind hurl my yellowed and burned-out triumphs into the far sea. Walked the fruitless hillsides where once life flourished. Explored the unknown trails of the Artist’s Valley and hoped for refreshment even here. Where I find words again. In the springtime achieved only by cold death. [Romans 5:3-5]
On Tuesday, for inspiration, I looked to hills now awakening from winter and decided to channel my inner Norman Maclean and Barbara Kingsolver. In A River Runs Through It, Maclean plays on the unmatched, ethereal beauty of Montana and fly fishing to illustrate the rhythms and eventual dismantling of his family. Kingsolver, a writer and biologist, utilizes the language of nature in her novel The Bean Trees when a description of bean trees – or desert wisteria vines – explains the resiliency of her characters. Being a lover of nature myself, I wanted to do as my heroes do.
It was a rough first winter in Alaska, as many warned it might be. I did not heed advice to get outdoors everyday, and a long spell of no direct sunlight in our valley really messed with me. I knew better, and yet I could not motivate myself to do much of anything somedays, much less write. My bout with depression informs “Hard Reset,” which is about those stretches of writer’s block when creativity seems dead. But, if any of us know anything about winter (and of all its subsequent connotations), we know dormancy in season is absolutely necessary for seasons of fruitfulness.
Day Three: Story
Even before I began to own that yes, I am a storyteller, it was happening naturally. Maybe it’s because I grew up on country music – a genre in which the narrative style is quintessential. Maybe it’s because of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe it’s because my parents and grandparents always tell sensational stories in sensational ways. Maybe it’s because I’m human. What’s more human that telling a story?
Storytelling in fiction is a given; when it comes to nonfiction, other modes of writing might be employed. Yet, the narrative style is my go-to. It’s my favorite way to explain or describe or persuade. So, on Wednesday, as I was musing over the word “story” and its many implications, I chose to reflect on “story” not with an explanation or descriptive writing or persuasion, but with that beloved form of communication: story.
Day Four: Remember
I Seven eagles aloft treetops synchronous, drifting in spring winds like kites tethered to earth by invisible strings.
II Rose-hour in the valley below; blue-hour on the ridge. Golden hour behind the Alaska Range gives way to pearl-white undying twilight.
III You on sunny mornings, bright-eyed and exuding the hope of the season with every pirouette and your tales of mermaids and fairies.
IV Kewpie doll eyes, dark, rich, mirthful before you tip the dog dish. Your arms reach round my knees and my heart understands yours.
V Snapshots: Memories strung together Transferred by ink to paper For you For later For when I am old and have forgotten all I wanted you to remember.
I almost opted out of this prompt. As my generation loves to say, I felt “triggered” by the word “remember.”
Maybe it’s memory that’s the sixth sense. Just as I worry about losing my eyesight or hearing as I grow older, I worry about losing my ability to remember. If you’ve ever watched a loved one slowly forget almost everything, I know you understand.
I started journaling in earnest in seventh grade. My journal was a place to vent but also a place to commit my memories to the page. Photos and trinkets have the same power, but words complete them. With too many loved ones now gone Home, and with children of my own, I now try to memorialize through journaling, poetry, and stories the people, places, and moments of my life.
Section one of “Snapshots” is a great example of what I mean by all of this. One windy morning, the kids and I set out for the dump. As we approached the Anchorage Landfill, I saw over a dozen eagles floating on the breeze. They looked like kites with invisible strings. To see an eagle or two feels like good luck; to see an entire flock drifting on air currents felt like winning the lottery. I wanted to remember that incredible sight forever, so I memorized the moment to write about later.
Section two was born in the moment. As I was writing, I looked out to see the sky turning pink, the nearby ridges turning blue, and the distant sky turning gold. It’s my goal to observe and write about our time in Alaska so we can always remember what it was like, which brings me to sections three and four: Abigail and Izaak.
I always kick myself for not writing more about the funny things they say and do; life with children seems to click along at a faster pace and just as I want to record everything about Alaska, I want to record everything about these days before they’re gone. For myself, but also for them.
In section five, I compare the process of transferring memories to the page with developing film. I love to look at old family photos and hear old family stories; I once read my grandma’s journal from her first year of teaching. It was the year she met my grandpa. All the stories of their relationship and all the photos of their time together seemed to come alive as I read, in her penmanship, what it was really like in the moment.
That’s the kind of thing I’m most interested in passing along.
Day Five: Middle
“On Moving to Alaska (and Writing)”
In the beginning was new life. That is to say, hope. Hope for windows filled with mountains. The thrill of below zero weather and snow. Highways unknown. Bucket-list scenery right off the back patio.
In the end, part of my heart will stay – entangled by glimpses of Denali and a thousand other peaks yet unstudied – as the rest of it leans, expectantly, into the next beginning it will have to learn to love after all.
That’s the middle; learning to love what you longed for as you rush headlong to its finale, misunderstanding the speed of life, unaware that the sloggy middle is the stuff of the story you’ll tell over and over again.
I won’t say too much about “The Middle” right now; I have a blog post in the works about that very concept. But, as I reflected on the word “middle,” I realized that’s where I am now in my time in Alaska. The excitement of arriving has faded, and we’ve not come near the thrill of what’s next. Now is the time for humdrum everyday life in the midst of overwhelming beauty juxtaposed with a sometimes underwhelming reality. Now is the time for combating second thoughts and doing my best to embrace all the scary new stuff that is, as of now, unfamiliar. Now is the time for collecting memories that will one day make for fine stories.
Substitute the word “Alaska” for “writing,” or any other such experience, and the idea of the middle remains the same. The middle may not be as alluring as the start nor as flashy as the end, but it’s the most noble, rewarding, and essential component of the whole thing.
Day Six: Questions
By day six, I was worn out by the writing challenge and falling in love with Butte, Alaska. There, in Butte, at the Williams Reindeer Farm, I was keeping Izaak from eating rocks and pellets for the farm animals. I witnessed Abigail kiss a moose. As if hand-feeding reindeer weren’t enough of an attraction, they do this crazy thing where, if you hold a moose pellet in between your teeth, their moose will nuzzle his nose through the fence to eat it and essentially kiss you.
The ride home was rainy and filled with questions because Abigail grows even chattier when tired. That’s when it hit me. The lackluster prompt “questions” was suddenly my gleaming gateway into the poem “The Signs and Symptoms of Courage.” While trying to appease Abigail’s need to know everything, I pieced it together, and it’s one of my favorite pieces from the challenge.
Day Seven: Purpose
“Our Best Worship”
When I was young, my teachers nurtured my writing, made me believe it was something worth cultivation. I played on the page without fear, and in a Spirit-filled moment, I dedicated the whole pursuit to God. I interpreted the call as restriction to Christian Fiction.
That’s when the trouble began.
More trouble came when, at the University of Montana, the playing field was leveled. I found others who’d likewise been nurtured and spurred on in their talent. It was the season of experimental writing and I let the fear of disappointing God censor me. I let the fear of what the others might think govern me.
And in my ceaseless striving for perfection I stifled the very message of my heart.
Sometimes, I gave up, subscribed to belief that maybe I’d misunderstood everything.
Yet, the stories, the dreams, the need to paint pictures with words – the desire to encourage others and testify to God’s redemption – would not let me go. I took note of this, for the Spirit often nudges our own spirits in gentle, unrelenting whispers.
I stopped to listen.
He stripped away all my fear of failure, of judgment, of being misunderstood, and I saw plainly again the purpose of it all: love.
To love God and to love others as ourselves is the best thing we can do as followers of Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). It is our best act of worship and gives our muddled hearts clarity (Romans 12:1-2).
I had made it all too complicated when living fearlessly out of love for Him was all ever He had in mind when he gave me a love for writing.
On Sunday, I had many friends confirm how universal “Our Best Worship” is. How often do we find ourselves entangled by fear, discouragement, and distraction as we journey through life?
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”Romans 8:28
If that’s true – and per my experience, it is – then I must believe that good things are happening even when I feel lost, confused, fearful, and uncertain.
Coming across the hope*writers Instagram Challenge was more than a whim; it was ordained. It was my chance to step out in faith during a quiet period of exhaustion and self-doubt. I took the chance and it renewed me.
I don’t know how you are entangled by fear and all the rest this week, or which challenges you need to embrace, but I pray you stay focused and patient and faithful. Just as springtime comes to color the mountains with life once more, so do the good things He has in store for us.
If only we would remain hopeful in the waiting.