Dear Natalie of one year ago:

At around 2:40, on August 26, 2015, your life will utterly and irrevocably change. It will be hideous and heart-rending and be both a total shock and not a surprise.

Likewise, nothing I can tell you now can prepare you for it, yet you’ve been preparing for it for many years. I say that not only because you’ve always known something was hollow and hurtful in your marriage, but also because many things you’ve done and the ways you’ve grown have laid the groundwork for how you will get through the next year:
* your years of prayer and intimacy with God
* your years of (trying to) be there for others when they needed you
* your tendency to be open about your struggles
* your truthfulness with your kids
* your dealing with your depression and anxiety.

All these things will serve you well in the year to come. It will be worse than you have ever imagined, and that’s saying something. You will cry so hard and so much that you will not have to pee when you wake up in the morning. You will stop eating and drinking; I’d tell you to remember to drink water, but your anxiety over this upcoming one-year anniversary has gotten you not drinking enough again.

Here’s what I want to tell you, Natalie of one year ago: It will be horrible but you’ll get through it. People will help you, both practically and spiritually. You will get this message from many different directions: you are God’s beloved. Soak it up whenever you can. You will struggle to learn to rest in God’s presence, but it is a consistent refrain over the next year: trust it. Your friendships will deepen. Your relationship with your kids will get even closer. Work will find you, which is good, because your ability to get out and hustle will be impaired, but God and your friends will place work in front of you. It will be good work that uses your writing gifts. Your dream of being published will happen — As Real As It Gets, the project you officially announced with such hope just yesterday, will make its Kickstarter and the book will come out in the Spring and it will be beautiful. At the end of the year, you will even find a counselor who asks you questions you don’t have an immediate answer to, questions that really get you thinking.

It will be the worst year of your life. You will be called upon to make tough decisions, to say things to people you’d never imagined you’d have to say, to draw uncomfortable boundaries, to fill out so much paperwork, to ask for help. You will be so hurt and so angry. And also relieved. You will have compassion for your current self, but you’ll learn, right at the end of the year, that you don’t have compassion for the girl who tried so hard to make her marriage work. There is much work to do in the realm of forgiveness, both of yourself and of your ex, but don’t you dare think about that now, one-year-ago Natalie.

It will take all of the strength of your war- and poverty-surviving immigrant ancestors, all of the strength and vulnerability God will give you, to make it through the next year.

But you will make it.

love, Natalie of 8/26/16

[I’m taking a course called Making Blogging Fun Again, and “write a letter to yourself of a year ago” was one of the prompts.]

Today we will finish…

…the garage.

I’ve enjoyed my pretty-much-every-Tuesday posts, so I’m going to keep it going although this is mostly to say that I won’t have much of a post today: we’re painting my garage.

my partially painted garage and tools

Yesterday was a fun work with, my mother, my kids and I all working together.

my mother and daughter at work on the garage

my son scraping the garage

Today, it’ll be just my mother and I, and because my garage is tiny, we should finish today.

In the build-up for my mother coming and staying here two days, I cleaned the living daylights out of my house so she wouldn’t even have the impulse to take a break from painting the garage by mopping my floor. (It should be noted that she would do this with no sense of recrimination or guilt-inducing for me for having a floor that needed mopping [which she’d do on her hands and knees, of course], but just an, “Oh, I just did it quick a minute.” I hope I can be the same for my children.) But there are things one cannot control. When my daughter cleaned her room, she revealed a constellation of spots on her carpet that nobody had seen before, because of the three inches of clothes and detritus that had covered the floor for months. So my mother is upstairs right now, treating those spots with rubbing alcohol.

In the sweetest, most patient way possible, my mother will not be denied her opportunity to do a cleaning job, just quick a minute, for her children.

So here’s to summer work crews — I salute you!

me in my painting gear
It should be noted that, clearly, the most flattering angle for a photo of oneself is to position the phone at one’s stomach and aim it down, that way, one’s hips are guaranteed to be wider than the photo.

May we all get done what we need to get done!!
What nagging jobs are you tackling this summer?

The Laundromat Battalion

[This is a story I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write a 1,000-word science fiction story that took place at a laundromat and involved a tongue ring. I had a lot of fun with it.]

The photo that, along with interesting facts about the tongue, inspired the story.
The photo that, along with interesting facts about the tongue, inspired the story.

Five days after a Yopra scuttled up to me on the street and whispered, “Go to Laundromat. They take care of hardware in you mouth,” I was walking out of my tenth Laundromat, drowning in desperation and confusion. I had no method other than going into every Laundromat and speaking, revealing the ring, and exposing myself for what I really was. So far, nobody had offered to do anything helpful.

A van drove by with huge letters L, A, U, N, D, but a truck blocked the rest of it. Before I’d registered the impulse, I chased it. In the perpetual rush hour of Deimos, I pulled even with it in a half a block: a blindingly clean white van declaring, LAUNDRY.

I zig-zagged across two lanes of traffic and banged on the passenger door. “Hep me!”

The driver rolled down the window.

“Cang you hep me?”

He must’ve understood, despite how the ring made me talk, because he jerked his head in the universal sign for get in. The road erupted in honks and yells, so I stepped up on the running board, hooked my left arm through the open window, and banged to let him know he could go. We drove like this for three blocks until there was a red light and I could hop in.

“Ank you.”

“What can I do for you?” His voice was so nice. Or, rather, he was being nice, so it sounded like a serenade.

“A Yopra say Aunroma hep.”

He laid on his horn before I was finished. “You’ll have to put these on.”

The sunglasses looked ordinary enough, but when I put them on, they blackened my entire range of vision, even the transmundane aspect. So I was blind as a Lucifungus, headed to an unknown location with an unknown Tut to see an unknown being for an unknown purpose on the advice of a strange Yopra. This was everything they’d warned us girls about back home, but it was my only hope.

We were silent while we drove, so I could hear water sloshing and a motor running in the back. Did they have working washers in the van? Finally we stopped and sliding doors scraped shut behind us. I went to take the sunglasses off, but was told to keep them on and stay here. One of my hearts sped up and the other slowed down: one preparing to fight, the other for flight.

Everyone had warned me not to move to Deimos, but I just couldn’t believe an entire society could hate me because of my tongue.

The door opened; somebeing took my elbow and guided me out of the van. It felt like we were indoors. After fifty-three steps, and three turns, I was maneuvered into a chair.

A door closed, and then opened and closed again. Something else was breathing in the room.

“Open your mouth for me, hon.”

I did, but I could only push my tongue level with my lower lip, and even that hurt like the Dybbuck.

“Ach.” The woman had the voice of someone who’d worked in a diner back when everyone could still smoke MeO in them. “The new bind ring. We’ve been hearing they were going to start using these. I’m going to have to call a few people in.” She opened the door and bellowed some stuff before sitting back down in front of me, our knees touching. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

“Who are you?”

“The Laundromat Battalion.”

That didn’t explain anything, but other beings came into the room and she made me open my mouth again.

“See this?” she said. “There are two piercings on either side of the central vein, and this figure-eight metal bar between them, going across the tip of her tongue twice. I’m just going to lift you up.”

That last bit was said to me before she revealed the underside of my tongue. Even though she was gentle, I whimpered.

“Sorry, hon. Almost done. The bastards clipped her webbing. How long ago did they do this?”

“Oo weeks.” I held up two fingers.

She patted my shoulder. “Close up.” She addressed the others. “Her muscular hydrostat is completely shackled.” There was a noise like metal instruments on a tray. “This’ll be my first time removing one of these, but the closure system looks the same as the previous tongue rings.”

I slapped my hands over my mouth. “Ay cash me.”

“They won’t catch you. Don’t you know what we do?”


“We’ve figured out how to trick the sensors so you can get this off and keep it off without ever alerting the tracking system. I surround your tongue with a warm, sopping wet towel—I hope you don’t gag easily. Then I clamp the tips with a torsion tool of my invention, shimmy you free, and immediately throw the whole thing in a perpetually running washing machine set at 97 Farenheit. Moisture, motion, and temperature sensors remain satisfied. We even drive the machines around the city so they’re not always in the same place.”

“Pay you?”

“Nope. We’re a real mobile laundry company. It’s the perfect front. You ready to get rid of this thing?”

I smiled for the first time in two weeks.

“When I’m done, stretch out once, and then not again until the swelling has gone down. The holes should be closed within two days.”

She used the same bracket to keep my mouth open that the police had; although she was helping me, it still made me tremble. Water from the towel dripped down the back of my throat, but that was nothing compared to the vibrations of her machine. I was howling and punching my leg and panting, then all of a sudden, I was free.

I unfurled my tongue to half its full length, down to my chest, and let each muscle untwist, until all eight were waving like seaweed.

I over-enunciated because I finally could: “Thank you.”

A story I’m telling myself about myself

Although I decided to practice self-compassion when it came to my work on my David and Saul novels, and I have managed to make some progress, it’s time to get working a little more seriously again.

I considered this method.

me next to a statue of a person with a book tied to his or her head

But I’m not certain that tying the manuscript(s) to my head would do anything other than satisfy my latent need to punish myself for not working as much as I could have.

Perhaps merely being in the presence of those building blocks of language — words — would help.

me in front of an airy metal statue of a person that is made up of letters

No, it will require actual effort to get back into the stories, finding both their roots and tracing their repercussions.

bright metal sculpture of a ball with roots growing out of it all around

So no more giving myself an irritated pouty face.

a statue of a girl pouting

No more wallowing.

me imitating a sculpture of a person tired and despairing

Time to reach towards the light, towards the life-giving water, hand upraised, ready to receive.

my hand, reaching through a crack in a rock towards a waterfall


I love going somewhere and finding a story. This story courtesy of a recent trip to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Photos were all taken by me on a superhot sunny day, except #5, which was taken by Hannah Van Houten. Unfortunately, I didn’t do due diligence, and I don’t have the details of one of the works; I apologize.

  1. Bill Woodrow, Listening to History (thank you, Ken Verhulst!)
  2. Jaume Plensa. I, you, she or he…, 2006
  3. Roxy Paine. Neuron, 2010
  4. Tom Otterness. Mad Mom, 2001
  5. Hanneke Beaumont. Number 26 and Number 25
  6. Indoors in what we always called “The Jungle” when the kids were little.

But I’ve never been there

a dog sniffs the air with its head out the car windowPlease pronounce the been in the title with verve and so it rhymes with seen. This is so it will take part in an event that I didn’t witness, but have heard about enough times that I might as well have. A Canadian friend was in a play at his U.S. college in which he had to utter the line, “Canada! I’ve never been to Canada.” He apparently said that been in as Canadian a way as possible, to the high amusement of all his friends–so much amusement that they still tell the story some 30 years later.

Given that this post is about writing a book (series) set in a place I’ve never been, it’s a fitting anecdote to start with.

Also, that isn’t quite true. I went to Israel when I was nine. I remember being shocked at the soldiers walking around with automatic weapons, being weirded out that they searched my kid luggage at the airport. I lost a ring a friend had given me as a goodbye gift. It was very hot and very dry and there was one really straight road that felt like it was out in the middle of nowhere.

These are not observations to build a fully-fleshed world out of.

And that’s what I have to do in The Giant Slayer (and subsequent books): recreate the world of 1,000BCE in Israel. Youtube is a glorious friend; all I have to do is search for people hiking in any part of Israel and someone out there filmed it and put it online, so I can get sights and sounds. I can read a lot of books that contain snippets I can use about flora and fauna, camping in the wilderness, what it’s like inside a cave, what a shepherd’s life is like in countries where the kids still take the flocks out. But there’s one sense none of these help me get at: smell.

What does it smell like in the morning during the dry season? During the rainy season?

How do their different bushes and trees perfume the air?

What does their honey taste like?

What is the difference in smell when you go from a dry area to where a spring is? How close to the spring can you smell the difference?

How does the ground smell up close?

What do the rock outcrops smell like after they’ve been baking in the sun all day?

Those are all tiny details that I don’t have access to that I’m desperate for. I can make it up, of course, and I do, but how much better it would be to have something to use as a springboard for my imagination. If you have been to Israel and have any memories of the smells you experienced, let me know in the comments. Seriously. I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments.


Today, a friend posted a poem by Billy Collins about “trying to manufacture the sensation” of being in a place you’ve never been and doing a thing you’ve never done. I think it’s lovely and evocative.

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure—
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one—
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table—
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.


Who will pastor the pastors?

a graphic of a shrugging young man, with the words Who Will Pastor the Pastors?Hello, friends. This is the first time I’m linking to something I wrote for one of my freelance jobs, partially because I’m proud of it — I think it manages to be truthful while maintaining a light but not overly jokey tone. My goal was to make it seem possible to do something about the grief, pain, and fear pastors (and the rest of us) are feeling these days.

But I’m also linking to it because I’ve been pressed down by grief, pain, and fear over what is happening in my adopted country. As a person who’s sought out diverse neighborhoods, churches, and schools, as a person who’s been pastored and taught and loved by African-American pastors and friends, as an immigrant and a daughter of an immigrant, as a person who writes about black and Hispanic churches in Grand Rapids and who sees the deeply good work they do, I am in despair about guns, about policing, about anti-immigrant rhetoric, about the love of power and strength without an accompanying love of wisdom.

So this article comes out of my own despair, as well as what I know about how many pastors in Grand Rapids are feeling. I need to take my own counsel.

Who Will Pastor the Pastors?

Go forth and enjoy

In my part of the world, it is summer. Glorious summer.

Character from TV show Bones gives some mild side-eye

Okay, this summer’s getting some mild side-eye. I worked as many hours as I could during June, since a freelance contract was ending, so it hasn’t been fancy-free so far. But mostly the side-eye is because my family wasn’t able to get together for a beach day until this past Sunday — in July. And Lake Michigan was cold enough that there were hypothermia warnings for boaters. Hypothermia — in July.

A flashing gif that reads, Summer where are you?

I may be exaggerating my frustration with summer, because I did get to go on a road trip to an exotic foreign land.

My son and I have caught a few local pro soccer games, and now that the team is in first place in our league, the remaining games are going to be even more fun than before — We love you boys in blue!

Photo of stadium banners at a GRFC game.

The beach day was marvelous, and there *was* a beach to sit on (which there hadn’t been even two weeks ago).

I went to a Canada Day picnic (to which I had to wear a sweater and was jealous of the woman who had a fleece blanket, ahem, summer).

The kids and I have gone to the park to kick and throw balls and frisbees around. They even made me sit down and do nothing while they cooked dinner (I totally shed a tear).

Lisa Simpson says Wow and wipes away a tear

We’ve even teamed up to do some basic home repairs, which felt amazing and empowering.

Bart Simpson does some plumbing.

And gone out for frozen yoghurt and ice cream numerous times.

The cooler-than-usual weather has meant that I can sit on the porch in the evenings and read or watch movies.

So I have had a fun summer so far, but you know what I don’t have? Photos of the fun. I decided to spend more time IN my summer than documenting it.

Lest this become known at The Lost Summer, I may relent a little. But I’m enjoying being there and not worrying about whipping out my phone. Frankly, I’m also enjoying not having to convince teenagers that a photo wouldn’t kill them.

Whether you are in summer or winter, whether you document your fun or not, whether you jolly people into joining you or fly solo, I wish you many, many enjoyable moments.

(Also, many thanks to for making this lazy post just a little more interesting.)

I may be directionally impaired, but I can still get where I’m going

Last weekend I went on a road trip with my daughter. I love a road trip.

A gif of Kermit and Fozzie singing in a car.

I load up with books on CD and snacks and we’re off. We went to Toronto, the city of my birth, the city I left at the age of 19, the city I never drove in. I did not have cell service in Canada.

“How lovely,” you may be thinking. “No nagging emails or texts or anything to pull you away from where and who you were with.”

Sadly, no.

Chris Farley driving along all happy, but gets scared as he realizes something.

Because I am directionally impaired. I do not have a N-S-E-W grid in my head that I can use to orient myself any place I go. Even with step-by-step directions, I will make a wrong turn.

A cartoon stork struggles with a paper map and declares, "Definitely lost."

So without my blessed Google maps, there was no yellow arrow telling me what to do and where to turn, no distance calculator counting down the miles and feet to where I need to make a transition. I had only the three sets of directions I had printed out before I left, which didn’t prevent me from veering off the Gardiner once I got into to Toronto and taking the Lakeshore at the first opportunity, instead of at the last opportunity (this was exacerbated by my renting a Canadian car that operated under kilometers, and having directions that were calculated in miles).

The dad from Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is driving his boat, suddenly his eyebrows lift and he says "Nope."

I still got to where I was going, but I was worried the whole time that I’d done the wrong thing and I’d have to backtrack and I didn’t know enough about that part of the city to wing it and I couldn’t call my cousin because I had no service, and on and on.

My cousin believed me when I told him of my affliction, and took me on a Google street view trip to get to his dad’s condo, which was glorious. But later that day, when I had to follow instructions in reverse, I still managed to turn the wrong way–during rush hour–and added 30 minutes onto what should’ve been a 20-minute trip.

Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, looks around her surroundings in confusion.

And on the way home, I missed the turnoff to the 402 and wound up in Windsor instead of Port Huron. I toyed with heading back to London and continuing on as I normally did, but I went with my mistake and took the tunnel, had a super-short border experience, and The Blessed Phone Worked Again, so I was able to find my way out of Detroit and onto I-96 and home.

Michelle Obama does a happy dance with two muppets.

So what might I have learned from this slightly silly story:

  1. When I make a wrong turn, I can correct it.
  2. When I feel lost, it doesn’t mean I’m irredeemably lost.
  3. It may not be perfect, but I CAN DO IT.

You know what? Those are good things to know about myself and about life in general.

Do you have any good getting lost stories you want to share?

  • All gifs courtesy of the very fun-to-browse

But does it have to be this hard?

a woman looks up, questioning

Just because my hand is on you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

These are words I believe God spoke to me as I was raking leaves in my front yard several years ago. They didn’t come out of the blue: I was pouring out my heart about my disappointments and rejections, mainly to do with my writing and (lack of) publishing.

There were three things I took away from this message:

  1. My hand is on you.
  2. It’s not going to be easy.
  3. Things being easy is not the sign that my hand is on you.

Number 1 was powerful and moving to hear, and #2 wasn’t exactly encouraging, but #3 got at an assumption that hadn’t yet made its way to my consciousness: I’d been thinking that when God was with me, all paths would open up before me and I’d skate right through to success.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this assumption. It comes out in positive comments when things go your way, “God is really blessing you.” I heard it recently from a child of friends who, when thing after thing went wrong, asked, “Is God against us?” My complaint that day went along the lines of, “I thought this project had your blessing. You’ve energized and grown my writing and my faith so much through it, why isn’t it finding a home?”

Where did this assumption come from? Maybe a bit from Old Testament passages where God is begging the people to obey and they will have peace and rain and good harvests. Job’s friends certainly ascribe to the math of you are righteous = God’s blessing comes in the form of tangible success; therefore, lack of success = lack of righteousness.

Maybe a bit from my old fixed mindset: some things are easy for me, which means I’m good at them, I must be bad at the things that are difficult (or even, that something is difficult means that I’m not worthy).

And maybe a lot from the very simple human preference for things to be easy.

So those words that day changed me. Once that assumption came into the light, it was revealed as a sham, as something that was getting in my way.

These days, everything is hard. Getting published was a ton of work and risk and learning new things and tears and yelling at the computer, and there’s only more to learn and more to risk and even more work to do to make the book a success. This week is just really tough. Three days from now, it would have been my 22nd wedding anniversary, and as luck would have it, I have to be with my ex-husband that day; I’ve had a constantly simmering panic attack for over a week. I had a job set-back, so now I’ve got some employment decisions to make that could impact my availability for making the picture book a success. And I’m scared and grieving for my adopted country that is so divided, and so in love with guns.

But at least I know that none of these are signs that God is not with me, that God isn’t blessing me.

Just because my hand is on you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

I said that to a friend about her situation on Sunday, and, as it often goes, I needed to be reminded of it, myself. Maybe you do, too. Let’s go forth and do hard things, secure in the knowledge that Jesus’ promise below is given in the present tense: I am with you.

“I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:20 NLT)

We’ve only just begun

a sparkler lights up the night

For the last month and a half, my main focus has been on getting the Kickstarter rewards for As Real As It Gets distributed. We’re so close — only 5 true delinquents who we cannot get addresses for. But we’ve tried multiple times, so I’m calling it good.

Which means now the real marketing begins.

The emailing, oh the emailing: schools, school libraries, public libraries, picture book review bloggers, social service agencies, adoption agencies, and anyone else we can think of. If you know someone for us to contact, tell in the comments. If you want Amanda and/or me to come to your school, let me know in the comments. We’ve got a lot of books to sell!

But I’m taking a moment to revel in these delicious things:

It’s a dream come true. A dream 13 years in the making.

Yes, there’s a crazy amount of work ahead (including begging people to go to those sites above and leave a review), but today, I’m just going to smile and daydream about ways to celebrate this accomplishment.

How have you celebrated major accomplishments?
What do you think I should do?