Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My 2020 Wish for You: A Truly Happy New Year

I'm a writer; words are my toys. I play with them all the time -- in my head while I'm driving; in my Moleskine notebooks while I'm doodling; on my screen while I'm at the computer. This past week, I've been playing with Happy New Year!

The phrase is so automatic, it's becoming the December version of, "How are you?"

"How are you?"
"I'm fine. How are you?"

"Happy New Year!"
"Happy New Year to you!"

We hardly hear the words. This year, my wish for  you is to hear the words, and then make them come true. In 2020, I hope you discover true happy.
I hope you find big HAPPY. Dream-come-true happy, the way I did with the publication of Look Up: Your Unexpected Guide to Good in 2019. That was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacular moment, and I'm still enjoying every bit of the follow-up activities. Major happy.

But ... every day isn't spectacular, is it? No worries. On even our worst days, there are moments of good. No matter what's happening in your life, I hope you find and appreciate the little happy: An unexpected card from a friend. A remarkably good cup of coffee. A chat that makes you laugh. A wink that says, "I know you." 

In 2020, I hope you find the day-to-day little happy in novels that read like poetry, movies that make you cry, daisies that last for weeks and weeks. I hope you find it in a shared meal, a solitary walk. Pet those puppies and kittens. Push a kid in a swing. Practice breathing in a long check-out line.
You may or may not have a huge HAPPY in 2020. Those days are all the more special because of their rarity. That said, I absolutely guarantee that little happy moments are waiting for you. Every single day. 

May this be the year you look up and see them. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Magic of "Look Up" -- Part Two

People ask me how long it took to write "Look Up: Your Unexpected Guide to Good" and I'm not sure how to answer. I started writing the version that would morph into the final book last November. That said, some of the content goes back a dozen years.

The love and support and encouragement to write the book goes back decades.

It definitely took a village to raise Look Up. Rather than attempt to thank everyone involved, I'm going to share a story about one very important villager: my friend Jody Summers.

When I completely lost my creative mojo (see this post), 
Jod kept me going. 

There's a story in Look Up about my inability to think if I'm not holding a pen in my hand. I've been a reporter/writer for so long, there's a magical link between the pen and my brain. I was doing a presentation once with Jody, dropped my pen, and froze. Jod did this crazy dive for my pen on the floor, while -- at the same time -- handing me her pen so I could keep talking.

I dropped that pen years ago. I still use the example when I talk about teamwork and creativity.

After the launch party, I sent a message to Jody:

Jody is absolutely right. She -- and so many of you -- have been right by my side for years, handing me my pen whenever I drop it.

Without you, there would be no book. You are the magic, and I am forever grateful.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Believe: The Magic of "Look Up"

For many of you, our only connection is the Creative Instigation blog, and I so appreciate that you are still on the "follow" list, despite my posting gaps. Your patience has been rewarded: I have great news to share! My book, "Look Up: Your Unexpected Guide to Good," has been published and it's available on Amazon.

Yep. I said I was going to do it.
And I did it. 
The book is, in many ways, a tribute to Mom -- but it's much more than that. It's a way to share Mom's determination to find the good in the universe, no matter what. Because the good is still out there, waiting for us.

Talk about good.
Chris (on the left) designed the amazing display.
Vanessa (on the right) created the perfect event. 
The launch party we had last week at the InterUrban ArtHouse in downtown Overland Park, Kan, was beyond perfection. I could babble about it for hours, but I'm going to limit myself to three magical moments.

1. While we were getting things ready for the party, Santa showed up. That's right. Santa came by and gave this Jewish momma a big ol' hug before my first book launch party. Talk about your good omens. Santa, I believe.

2. Sherri, an art therapist who has a studio at the InterUrban ArtHouse, bought a book before the party began, and I told her, "You're the first person who doesn't know me to buy a book!" We chatted for a bit and I invited her to come back for the festivities. She did, and what happened next is hard to believe:
Sherri: "You're Lillian's daughter."
Jan: "I am."
Sherri: "I knew your mom. I did art therapy with her at Village Shalom. She'd come in and say, 'I'm almost blind, you know!' And I'd say, 'That's all right, Lillian. We'll make art together.' I still have some of her paintings at my house."

Say what? The first person to buy the book who doesn't know me knew Mom? She still has Mom's artwork at her home? You can tell me that's a coincidence. I will forever believe that's Mom, looking over us. Still.

3. Hmmmmm. Number 3 is about one of the people who has kept me going throughout this process. I believe she deserves her own post. Stay tuned. More magic tomorrow.

While you're waiting, here's an idea: You could buy my book! (Pretty please with sugar on it, as we used to say.) Then, review my book. When you do, send me your address and I'll send you a surprise!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Creative Inspiration: If by Rudyard Kipling

One of the great joys of being a reader is remembering lines, and having them pop into mind exactly when you need them.

The right words, at the right time, guide us through life. They make us feel less alone.

I was talking to my friend Vanessa recently about writer's angst -- and the stress of sending my book draft out for initial reader reviews. The line that came to mind is from If by Rudyard Kipling:

"If all men count with you, but none too much."

You'll find the entire poem here. Bonus! Sir Michael Caine reciting it here.

It's beyond me how people can not love poetry ... 

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Castor Oil Song: A Mother's Day Treat

When my girls were little, they would periodically exclaim, "That sucks!" I would then give them the full Mom stare-down, and they would quickly add, " ... like a vacuum."

Well, it has come to my attention that for many people, for a variety of reasons, Mother's Day sucks. Like a vacuum. We can't have that, can we? Absolutely not. My mom is here, with a song -- assuming the video works. Fingers crossed. Because I guarantee you, Lillian Sokoloff and the Castor Oil song make any day better. Even a sucky day. 

"When you're feeling lonely, and you're kinda blue, 
I bet, that I have the remedy for you!"

(If the embedded video doesn't work, click here. My technology skills are ... not skills.)

Monday, April 29, 2019

Are You My #Creative Type?

The Adobe creativity quiz I linked to on Friday was such fascinating fun, that I encouraged my husband, Tom, to take it. He did, and the following conversation ensued:

Jan: What creative type are you?
Tom: I'm the Thinker.
Jan (Squealing. Because. Jan.): That's perfect! We're meant to be together! According to the quiz, I'm supposed to partner with a Thinker!!
Tom (Pause. Because. Tom.): Well ...
Jan: What?
Tom: According to the quiz, I should partner with an Adventurer.

HOW COOL IS THAT? I assumed if the Visionary was supposed to partner with the Thinker, then the Thinker would partner with the Visionary. Nope. To get the best creative results, you need all types.

Love it. Happy Monday. Go find your type(s).

Friday, April 26, 2019

Friday Fun: What's Your #Creative Type?

My friend Vanessa got a link to this creativity quiz from her friend Melinda, and passed it along to me. My friend Jody got a link to the same quiz from her friend Claire, and passed it along to me. And now, since I'm your friend, I'm passing it along to you!

Take the quiz. It's a hoot. Some of the questions and responses made me laugh out loud. And, I'd like to think the results are right on the mark! (If you read my creative strengths carefully, you'll note that humility isn't mentioned.)

P.S. Mom used to say, "Little things amuse little minds." It amuses me to now set the blogs for automatic posting at 4:23 a.m. rather than 4:22 a.m. to honor her birthday, rather than mine.
P.P.S. Yes. She's up there laughing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Lanyard: It's a Mom Thing

in honor of National Poetry Month,
in honor of Mom's love for poetry,
in honor of what would have been her 98th birthday,
and in honor of her delight in dozens of useless, goofy gifts ...

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift - not the archaic truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.


While I was looking for "The Lanyard" online (too lazy to type it out), I found several versions. All with mistakes -- in words, punctuation, spacing, line breaks, you name it. When online, the old saying is true: Trust, but verify. I had Aimless Love by Collins on my bookshelf, so I finally got off my lazy tush, found the poem on page 60, and typed it out.

Mom, of course, would tell us that everything happens for the best. I will say that while looking around online, I stumbled across a poet I wasn't familiar with, Julia Kasdorf, and I love her poem: "What I Learned From My Mother."

You know what I learned from my mother?
Look up! And enjoy every possible moment. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

#NPM -- Play with Poetry on Emerge

It's National Poetry Month, and you have the chance to be an instantly published poet! If you've ever seen erasure or blackout poems -- where you cross out words in a newspaper or book -- Emerge provides a similar opposite. You select words from one of their selected writings, and your poetry pops out of the copy.

Clear as mud? Like this:

Fun stuff. Go play! Thanks to the American Academy of Poets for the link.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Friday Fun: When I'm 100 ...

Today, in honor of Kate's birthday, a flashback Friday illustration! My firstborn has always been a no BS, straight-shooting, funny person. This, my friends, was what the little artist drew in first grade:

Oh, Kate. Only you. 
Fortunately, there are a few good years between 29 and 100. 
Happy Birthday! I hope it's the best year ever. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Creativity Tips: Be Lovely

Hey, peeps! We've almost made it to spring -- the perfect time for a new adventure!

My newest adventure is THE BOOK. That's right. After years of talking about a book, and working on a book, I sat down and wrote the dang thing. I've hired a talented designer, and have the first draft in the hands of first readers. All systems are go.

At the end of the month, after incorporating first reader feedback, we'll move forward with beta readers, design, publication. My hope is to have Creative Instigation* ready for a late summer publication date. (And party!)
But, first ... one of the lessons learned in the process: Insecurity is real and praise is lovely.

Case in point: I've made a living as a writer for 40 years. You might think I'd be fairly confident re: my talents. You might be wrong. Sending my firstborn draft to first readers? Very intimidating. Fortunately, my friend Mark B. is one of those readers, and his response came with this subject line:

"Lovely, Jan. ..."

How perfect is that? I knew -- immediately! -- that he liked the book. Huge relief. I could open the email without terror. Did Mark have suggestions, comments, critiques? Absolutely. (And I knew that too, from the ellipses.) But I could more readily absorb the feedback, because of the positive start.

On the other hand, another first reader -- also a lovely person, because why would I give my book to a shmuck? -- started his comments with, "I've read the book and have some feedback." AIEEEEEEE. Terrifying. I was hesitant to respond at all, but finally said, "OK. Do you hate it?"

At which point he laughed and said, "I love it, I just have a few comments." It hadn't occurred to him I would doubt the overall goodness of the book.

People, people, people. When someone -- of any age or experience -- shares a creative work, please please please be lovely. Start with a positive.

"I really like your use of color in this drawing." (Rather than: "What is this?")
"Your imagination is wonderful! Where did you get the idea for this story?" (Rather than: "Your grammar really needs work.")
"It's so nice to have a home-cooked meal! Where did you find the recipe?" (Rather than: "Did you read the recipe right? This tastes weird.")

If you can't find something nice to say, try harder.

*Still working on that subtitle. The book compiles the best of some 1,300 blog posts, along with exercises and surprises. If you have subtitle ideas, please send them my way.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Creativity Tips: Find Your Zelda

Picture this: I'm 22 years old, just graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and am driving back to Kansas City with my entire life packed into my old car. I have to go home, because there's no where else to go.* I have no job and no money.

I do, however, have a bonsai! That I've grown myself. Potted, wired, shaped, cultivated, loved.

And, on that long drive, the bonsai dies. Falls down and dies. Given the mood I'm in to begin with, I take the tree's death as a sign.  Not a good sign. All life, as we know it, is over. We're doomed.


Now, flash forward 40 years.The hubby remembers me talking about the heartbreak over my much-loved bonsai. He researches bonsai nurseries in the KC area, then takes me out for Valentine's Day to select a new little tree.

WHOO HOO! Perfect present. Maybe I'll keep him.

I'm proud to introduce Zelda, the Zelkova elm. She survived repotting, and is now happily settling in to her new home. Too early for trimming and shaping, but ... watch out world. My bonsai shears are ready to go.

The ridiculous amount of pure joy I get every time I walk by Zelda reminds me of the power of creative adventures from our youth. What did you love to do when you were a kid, a teen, a 20-something? Did you fingerpaint? Bake? Dance? Write poetry?

Are you still doing it? If not, that's your assignment for the day: Find your Zelda.

*'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'
Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sorry for Your Lost: How to Help a Grieving Friend

First things first: The title is not a typo. Amid all the "sorry for your loss" messages I received after Mom died in November, I got one text that read, "Sorry for your lost." The friend who sent that speaks English as her second language, so I don't know if it was a typo or exactly the word she wanted.

Either way, it's perfect. "Sorry for your lost" made me feel better.

Now, my reaction to that text is random and reflects my life as a word nerd. However, after a few months of mourning Mom, I've discovered some (possibly) universal, creative ways to help people we care about through tough times, whether they are mourning the loss of a person, pet, job, or relationship.

Grief is, of course, incredibly personal -- and different each time. A friend might react differently to the death of his father than his mother. One person might see divorce as a Hallelujah! moment, while the other spouse is heartbroken. There is no one size fits all answer. There is no "solution." You won't "fix" life for a grieving friend.

But you sure can help.

How to Help a Grieving Friend
Show Up
Let's start with a question: Is the grieving friend a Facebook friend or a face-to-face friend? If we're talking high school pal you haven't seen in 30 years, then a heartfelt comment on Facebook is fine. If it's possible to add a personal note ("I loved going to your house after school because your mom always made me feel so welcome."), that's tremendously comforting.

If the grieving friend is a colleague, relative, coffee buddy, book club buddy, faith-group buddy, etc., posting online, even with a personal note, is not sufficient. Change your plans and attend the memorial service. It may be cold and inconvenient and you don't want to be there. Keep in mind, your friend doesn't want to be there either. Can't attend? Make a donation. Send flowers. Do something that says, "I share your pain." One friend, knowing how much I love the e.e. cummings poem,
"i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)"
sent flowers with the note: "I carry your heart and your sorrow." I will treasure that note forever.

If you're not sure what to do, consider what this friend has done for you in the past. If she sent a sweet card with a handwritten note after your pet passed away, send her a sweet card with a handwritten note. If he sent a funny card to cheer you up after you got fired, send him a funny card to cheer him up after his partner walks out.

And, in these days of social media, remember the power of a phone call. I know it's hard. But you can do it. Remember: It's not about you. It's about your friend. She'll remember the call long after she has forgotten the conversation.

Ask the Right Question
When you call, let the grieving friend talk. If you feel awkward, try this: Rather than asking your friend, "How are you doing?" ask, "How are you doing today?" As noted in Option B, Sheryl Sandberg's book on grief, that one simple word changes everything. "How are you doing?" prompts the automatic, "Fine. I'm fine. Thank you for asking." "How are you doing today?" opens the door to honest conversation.

"How are you doing today?" also reflects the reality of grief. During the course of a month, a week, a day, an hour, how I feel changes. Maybe you're calling right after I've opened a drawer and seen a note Mom wrote to me 18 years ago, a note I saved because it was dear. I'm missing Mom so much at that moment that it's a physical pain. Or, maybe you're calling after I wrapped up a big client assignment and feel like I knocked it out of the ballpark. I'm not thinking about Mom at all. After the initial tsunami, grief is not a constant flood of emotions. It's an ebb and flow.

Of course, not knowing what mood you'll be dealing with can make picking up the phone even more daunting. I get it. This works for just about any grieving situation, any mood: "Hi! I was thinking about you and wanted to check in. How are you doing today?" 

Warning: Try to avoid cliches that really don't help. "I know exactly how you feel," is never an accurate statement. And, while you may believe that, "It's all God's plan," your friend -- even if deeply religious -- may not find that comforting.
Emily McDowell Studio. Buy her cards. She's amazing. 
When in doubt, listen. Remember, the call doesn't have to be lengthy; it's the thought and effort that count. 

To wrap things up: "Good to talk with you." lets people know they weren't a burden as they unburdened their grief. If you're nearby, take the phone call to the next step: "Want to grab some lunch next week?" 

Provide Food
I know, I know. Everyone's on a diet. It doesn't matter. Everyone has to eat. And grief doesn't lend itself to menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc. Unless your friend, and your friend's family, is on such a strict eating plan that food would be an irritation, bring food. Send food. Take him to lunch.

If you love to cook or bake, homemade food is wonderful -- one of the most comforting moments in my grieving process was when a friend brought an entire Italian feast to the house, including pasta made with her grandmother's old recipe. The food was delicious, we felt the love from my friend and her grandmother. Bonus: Talking about the food opened the floodgates of conversation.

But, don't feel like you need to bring homemade goodies -- or stick around for the meal. Some people prefer privacy. Some friends prefer not to stay. All good. Buy a roasted chicken at the store, bag o'salad, and a baguette. Drop it off, give a hug, and go.

Out of town? Send food. We received several baskets of goodies, and they were wonderful. They not only kept us fed, but they made us feel loved.

Show Up Again
While the ebb and flow of grief never ends, the first year can be horrifically hard, especially when the grief involves a death. All those firsts. First birthday without him. First anniversary without her. First Thanksgiving. And on and on and on.

Grief is also isolating. Something that helped identify you -- a person, a professional position, a pet -- is no longer here. As my sister told me recently, "It's time to find a new normal."

True friends are the GPS on that path. One dear friend, who lives in another state, mails little notes to me on a regular basis , with a handwritten message like: "Thinking about you and hoping it's a good week!" The real message, of course, goes far beyond that. Every note tells me that I am in her heart. I am in her thoughts and prayers. I am not forgotten; my loss is acknowledged and remembered -- even when the words on the paper say nothing about that. Each note is a gift.

Another friend called recently and left a voicemail: "It's been a little while since your mom died, and I'm just thinking about you and wondering if the world feels a little less shaken."

She left the message while stuck in traffic on her commute home. The voicemail lasted 27 seconds. Not a huge time commitment, my friends. And yet, by showing up again, she told me that I matter to her. That my mother matters. That my grief matters. Now, that's huge.

Console Better
Years ago, I wrote a post titled Dance Better. What the past few months have taught me is that I need to console better. Being a baker, I typically bring food to grieving friends, but too often I've taken a "one and done" approach. In the future, I'll do better.

And, unfortunately, I'll have the opportunity. We all will: Loss is an inevitable part of love.

To everyone who has helped me these past few months, thank you doesn't begin to cover it. I do carry your heart, and I am blessed that you carry mine.