On Pictures, Perspectives, and Telling Stories Anyway

My junior year of college, I took a photojournalism class. At the risk of seriously dating myself, I’ll tell you this was right when DSLRs came on the scene. Rather than having to learn how to develop photos in a darkroom, we were one of the first classes to do all of our photo editing in a computer lab using Photoshop.

The first project we were assigned that semester was to assemble five photos that represented our life. Our professor explained the photos would be due in one week’s time and that, in the class following the turn in day, he would select one photo from each of our submissions to critique in class.

It was toward the end of the critique class and we’d seen some really great pictures. Some of my classmates have gone on to be professional photographers, and their talents were apparent early on. Then Professor Heller put my picture up on the screen. It was one I’d taken of Jon, who, at the time, was my boyfriend of just over a year.

jonny b

“What do you all think of this picture?” he asked of the class, as he’d done for each of the previous pictures.

“The lighting isn’t very good,” one person offered.

“Her subject is centered,” said someone else.

“The background is too busy,” said another.

“You’re correct on all counts,” said Professor Heller. He spent several minutes detailing the ways I could’ve taken a better picture, and I slumped lower and lower in my chair. It was brutal; by far the most intense critique of the class.

“Where is Jennifer Manning?” he finally asked, and if I could’ve bolted out the door of the classroom I would’ve. Tentatively I raised my hand. I was certain he was about to kick me out, dismissing me as hopeless, beyond teaching.

“Who is this?” he asked, gesturing to Jon’s face, filling the projector screen behind him.

“Um, my boyfriend, Jon,” I said. My voice went up at the end so that it sounded as though I was asking a question rather than answering one. I cringed further.

“I thought so,” he said, smiling. “This is a great picture.” I nearly fell over in shock as he turned to the class and told them to look at Jon’s expression.

“You can tell he loves her, just by his face. She’s the only person in the world who could’ve taken this picture. Sometimes, it’s not just composition or lighting or angles that make your pictures great. Sometimes it’s because you’re the only one who could take them.”

I got better at taking pictures than that first fuzzy, poorly composed shot of Jon. I learned about shutter speed and aperture; I started paying more attention to lighting (and light poles). But I’m still not a great photographer. I have to take dozens and dozens of shots to get just one good one, and even my best photo isn’t anything special. But I take the pictures anyway. I snap and I snap and finally, the sheer volume works in my favor and I catch a little bit of magic.

***

It’s the same with our stories. Some people are really great at telling them because they’re artists. They’re at the very top of their craft; they weave words and phrases and imagery in a way that feels transcendent. They are better than I could ever hope to be, and instead of letting them be an inspiration, I feel discouraged instead. Why bother at all, when there’s someone who’s already doing it better?

But these wildly talented writers can’t tell my stories. The ones in my head and scribbled on looseleaf paper and living in Google Docs belong only to me. My perspectives and my truths will only be a part of the world if I choose to share them. Maybe I’m not the greatest, but that doesn’t mean my stories aren’t worth telling. If nothing else, they matter to me—I want to capture how it feels in this moment, right now, so that years from now I can look back and remember the details that will grow fuzzy with time. So I write and I write, and eventually the sheer volume works in my favor and I catch a bit of magic.

I can’t let my fear of not getting it perfect stop me from writing it down in the first place. There will always be someone better.

I’ll write anyway.

***

In June, I’m teaching a storytelling class with my Coffee + Crumbs teammate Anna Jordan. We’ll be spending four weeks talking about finding the stories in our lives and how to write them down. As of today, we still have eight spots left in our class, and we’d love to have you join us. You can learn more and sign up here. (It would also make an excellent Mother’s Day gift for the writer in your life if you’ve procrastinated.) Storytelling is the bread-and-butter of C+C, and we’re excited to dive into what it looks like when it’s done well.

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A Recipe for Marriage

jeff-sheldon-264920-unsplashIngredients:
4 C love
2 C devotion
2 C passion
1 C attraction
1/2 C (heaping) forgiveness
1/3 C patience
1/3 C determination
2 T encouragement
2 T plus 1 T honesty/gentleness blend
½ tsp shared values
Endless amounts of grace

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine love, devotion, and attraction in the depths of your soul with paddle mixer. Add passion in ¼ cup increments, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. Never stop stirring.

In a separate bowl, sift forgiveness, patience, and determination, then add to mixer to serve as a binding agent. Note: if you omit these ingredients, your marriage will fall apart when exposed to the heat of the oven.

Transfer contents to baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with encouragement, shared values, and 2 T honesty/gentleness blend, reserving 1 T for the really hard conversations.

Bake at 350 for a lifetime. Sprinkle periodically with grace to keep hard edges from forming.

Best served with friendship, family, and adventure.

To store, wrap carefully and thoroughly to protect it from jealousy, comparison, and complacency. When stored properly, your marriage will remain fresh indefinitely.


Happy nine years, love. You’re still my best yes.

On Books and Friendship

Sonya, Callie, Me, and Anna at the C+C Book Launch Party

This is a picture from one of my favorite days ever, with some of my favorite women ever. But I wanna talk for just a second about that beautiful brunette on my right (your left) for a second.

That’s Callie Feyen. She’s on the writing team with me over at Coffee + Crumbs, which is how I met her and came to take this picture with her at the book launch party last April. Callie has taught me more about writing in the 18 months I’ve known her (like really known her, not just Internet-stalked-her-essays known her) than I learned in my previous 33 years combined. Why? Well, because she’s a flatout brilliant storyteller and you learn how to do it by, I dunno, osmosis or something, when you spend time with her and soak up her words. But also, because she’s a teacher through and through. Middle schoolers are her special gift (bless her) but she can’t NOT teach. It’s in her, and it spills out without even trying.

When I was working on a particularly hard essay last spring—hard because it was honest and vulnerable and costing me everything to work with the words—I knew I needed help. I also knew that help had to come from Callie. She came in with practical advice (like changing up the intro and ending on a bit of a cliffhanger) but it was also like therapy in a way, because of how she pushed me to just sit with the words and the feelings they brought me, to sift through and figure out the parts I wanted to hold onto and the ones I wanted to let go of. I am really proud of how that essay turned out, but I’m even prouder of the work in my heart it wrought, and that was all Callie.

Today is a big day. Callie has a written a book, The Teacher Diaries: Romeo & Juliet, and it’s book launch day. If you like brilliant storytelling, you need to buy Callie’s book. It’s part memoir, part creative-non-fiction, and part masterclass in how to teach Romeo & Juliet to middle schoolers. She weaves the three together seamlessly and her way with words is … impressive. I got to read the first two chapters last week, and let’s just say I had to order it with one-day shipping from Amazon so I can read the rest of it as soon as possible.

I’m so proud of my friend.

Thirty Days of Gratitude

For the month of November, I decided to have Nathan and Ellie keep a gratitude journal. They’re only six and three, but their “I want that’s,” I NEED that’s,” and “Mom, can’t we please just get that’s” were a little out of control. Jon and I felt like we were raising entitled, spoiled kids without even meaning to, so we decided to spend 30 days focusing on gratitude.

I went to the craft store and bought a spiral bound journal and some leaves with the words “I am Thankful For:” printed on them. I think they were supposed to be place cards for Thanksgiving dinner, but they would do. Each night, after we brushed teeth and read books, both of them would name one thing they were grateful for.

Obviously this didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had orchestrated. Some nights we forgot, which meant we had to double, triple, and—once—quadruple up on our leaves. Occasionally one child would fuss at the other for “stealing” their thing they were grateful for (parenthood is a rich mine of ironic gems like that one).

But aside from the hiccups in scheduling and the squabbles, the leaves that filled our journal over the course of the month surprised me.

They were grateful for people.
Their grandparents. Their cousins. Even, gasp, each other.

They were thankful for experiences.
Math, art, and reading together each night.

They were grateful for God and Jesus. For our cat and Nana and Grandpa’s horses. Even my three-year-old—an age which is not known for their deep sense of appreciation for their many blessings—talked about being thankful for her best friend at preschool and the pumpkins we had painted together as a family.

Glaringly absent from their leaves of gratitude? Stuff. I had expected an itemized list from Nathan of every Octonaut Gup vehicle he owns. From Ellie, I expected the same—because if there’s one thing she’s thankful for, it’s her big brother’s toys.

But that wasn’t the case. Nathan gave his toys one passing, all-encompassing mention on one day. The rest of the time they talked about how thankful they were for the realest, most lasting parts of their lives. As the month progressed, I realized maybe my worries were a little misplaced—sure, shiny toys grab their attention; they’re kids! But it’s feelings of love, acceptance, and togetherness that rule their hearts and minds.

I feel better about our prospects as we move into December, even though no matter how much of a “simple holiday season” I aim for, blind consumerism always crashes the party. Turns out the kids are all right. They know what matters most, and that’s something to be truly grateful for.

Road-Tested Recs

Every year, I feel like I’m scrambling to come up with solid gift suggestions for my kids at Christmas. Between Jon and me, Santa, and grandparents, it’s a LOT of idea generating, and sometimes I just devolve to browsing the most-popular gifts on Target or Amazon, hoping for inspiration.

In case you find yourself in a similar boat this year, here are a few Batchelor-house favorites. I tried to pick items that foster creativity or learning, don’t play music or make noise of any kind, and aren’t based on a TV show or movie.

        1. Picasso Tiles: If you’re familiar with MagnaTiles, these are the same concept and quality—but half the price. We love them so much, they got their own dedicated suitcase to take them on vacation this year, where they occupied ages 2-13. Two sets are ideal for building elaborate towers … or for keeping squabbling siblings separated.

      2. Zoo on the Loose: $30 is a lot for a game, I know. But my kids will play THIS game for a solid hour, multiple times a week … which makes it worth it at our house. It comes with five small stuffed animals, a play mat, and two sets of cards: one set for play on the mat and one set that involves moving the animals around the house. If you have at least one child who can read, this is a great independent play game, but even the adults in our house have fun playing it.


3. Paint with Water: I am ALWAYS looking for a 30 minute activity that lets me get dinner on the table in relative peace. Arts and crafts usually fit that bill, but they’re so darn messy … and right on the table we’re about to eat at. Enter Paint with Water books—all the fun, zero mess (other than wiping up a little water).  These make great stocking stuffers.


4. Shrinky Dinks: I’m an 80s child, so I have fond memories of coloring and baking shrinky dinks at my grandmother’s kitchen table. I introduced my kids to them courtesy of a clearance pack that I scored at Hobby Lobby for $1.60, and they were a huge hit. So, I bought this dinosaur set as a Christmas gift.


5. Play Food Cutting Set: This was a gift for Nathan when he was 2 or 3, but both of my kids have logged countless hours playing with it—slicing, putting back together, and slicing again. It’s one of my go-to gifts for other kids.


6. Three Questions Book: Okay, it’s not a toy. But this is that rare book that our children love and we never get tired of reading. Beautiful illustrations, great moral, and just the right length for a bedtime story. If you do want/need/wear/read gifts, this is a perfect “read.”

(please note: this post contains Amazon-affiliate links.)

When It Feels Like The World Is On Fire

the-forest-fell-2370996_1920

When it feels like the world is on fire, you make meatloaf for dinner. Your mind reaches back to a moment when you felt safe and you didn’t know that bad things happened to good people, and the next thing you know, you’re chopping a green pepper and kneading meat and shaping comfort into a loaf pan.

I don’t watch the news anymore. I haven’t in years, actually. It’s a strange thing for an information junkie like myself to admit. My journalism professors would surely be dismayed by my declaration, but it’s a form of self-preservation.

I can’t watch the world bleed out anymore.

I don’t watch, but I do read. I read the New York Times and the Washington Post. I read the clickbait and the longform journalism. I consume and consume, because I mistakenly believe that if I can just digest enough information, everything will make sense again.

I just need to understand how it all started, and then I’ll know how to fix it.

That’s the thing about fires though. Sometimes we never see how they start, because we don’t notice until they’re raging out of control. We always want to find the person who struck the first match, because he’s to blame, right? And if we can blame someone, then everything will make sense again.

Even as earth turns to ash and what was once beautiful is laid barren.

Some people ask why I read the news instead of watching it. The only way I know how to explain it is that it’s the difference between reading the book and watching the movie. In the book, my mind can draw the pictures and fill in the gaps. Heroes and villains don’t look so dissimilar on the page; there’s room for gray. Watching it unfold in full technicolor, the nuance is gone.

Last fall, when Gatlinburg burned because two boys were playing with matches, the smoke reached all the way to Nashville. The acrid smell stung my eyes and nostrils in my own backyard, more than 200 miles from where the fire raged. That’s the thing about wildfires, though. The smoke always travels farther than the flames—sometimes even hundreds of miles away, depending on how the wind blows.

It’s the smoke that makes it hard to breathe, hard to see. It’s the smoke that will kill you, before the flames ever get a chance.

They say fires are necessary, sometimes, to bring unruly undergrowth to heel. You hear about “controlled burns” of swaths of land, but I wonder, how do you control something like fire? How do you keep it from growing too big and destroying something you never meant for it to?

 

And If Not, Is He Still Good? (On Her View from Home)

melissa-askew-6878If all things work for good for those who love God, what does that mean when a child is dying?

A childhood friend of mine has a son with serious heart defects. Three weeks ago, they headed up to Michigan for heart surgery with the only surgeon in the country willing to perform the procedure he needed to save his life. His recovery was precarious, and several days ago he went into cardiac arrest. He’s been on life support ever since.

He’s also the same age as my Ellie.

Throughout this, I’ve wrestled with the goodness of God, what it looks like when a prayer is answered, and why we live in a world where bad things happen. I’m still short on answers, but I did find a perspective that lets me hold space for both: God is good and sometimes bad things happen.

Read the full essay on Her View From Home.

As you can imagine, the Kelleys are facing substantial travel and medical costs during this time. If you’d like to contribute financially, you can do so here. And please keep them in your prayers.

The Calm in the Midst of the Storm

Let me tell you the story of the calmest, coolest bride there ever was.

It started on Thursday with flowers. They were supposed to arrive that afternoon, but we received word that morning that the entire shipment of ceremony and reception flowers was still on a plane in Colombia (the country). I made a few calls and sent a few texts, and we found a place to order backup flowers from. Only when Plan B was in place did I call Cassidy with the news.

“That sounds fine; no problem,” she said cheerily. “I’m sure it will be great.”

On Saturday, the (outdoor) wedding forecast was for scattered storms and showers. There was no indoor venue backup plan. We pushed back the setup time to 2, then to 4. Friends rolled heavy tables across the lawn from the lakeside setup to one closer to cover. While the rest of us watched the sky and made contingencies, she stayed calm, even-keel, and unflustered.

The wedding was to start at 7. Radar showed a massive storm arriving at 7:10. Everything and everyone was crowded under the open-air, covered pavilion—the best shelter available. We hurried the bride across the lawn and under cover at the precise moment that the first raindrops fell.

She walked down the aisle and when she arrived at the front, so did the 70 mph winds that knocked centerpieces and glass jars to the ground. The thunder and lightning were incessant. Children were crying, adults were casting anxious glances at a dark and furious sky, and the ceremony paused while everyone huddled together in the center. The bride never stopped smiling, while the groom, officiant, and friends compared weather sources and debated what to do. The winds abated briefly, but there was a series of storms lined up behind the first. It was clear this was as good as it was going to get, weather-wise.

“Snuggle together—we’re getting married!” the groom shouted to the cheers of the crowd.

Handwritten vows were read, tears were wiped, rings exchanged. They were pronounced husband and wife. Another cheer went up from the windblown, rain-spattered friends and family surrounding them.

With the decorations strewn across the ground by the wind and more storms imminent, the decision was made to cancel the reception and encourage folks to head for shelter. Many dispersed, but several also formed a line to hug the new couple.

“Most memorable wedding ever!” was the frequent refrain. “We will never, ever forget this night.”

As we cleaned up after the last of the crowd departed, my hair worked its way loose from the bobby pins and the hem of my dress was soaked. But all I kept thinking about was I would indeed remember this night forever.

I’ll remember the wind, rain, thunder and lightning. I’ll remember watching my brother find love, joy, and redemption after a lonely and hard season.

But mostly, I’ll remember her face and how she never stopped smiling. How her constant refrain was “I’m great/it’s great/whatever you all think.” I’ll remember her smile as she read the note he sent her and the way her eyes sparkled when they were pronounced man and wife. She was never ruffled, never worried, never shaken.

I’ve never seen anything like it. But then, I’ve never known anyone else like Cassidy. She is joy, and peace, and certainty in the midst of turmoil. You can’t help but feel she knows something you don’t. So you draw closer and you watch carefully, and you realize that it’s Jesus. Her trust and confidence in Him is unwavering. The rest of us are the disciples on the boat in the middle of the storm-shaken sea, bailing water and casting frantic glances at the sky. She is the one watching Jesus sleep and trusting that if he thinks it’s okay, then it will be okay.

It was all okay.

And now I have a sister who will remind me where to look when the storm rages.

That Kind of Love

bowlI’m in a Bible Study that meets every Thursday night. Most of us are mothers and all of us are women, but when we started our only common thread was the woman whose house we meet in. Ms. Ava knew some of us from church and some of us from other parts of her life, but she invited all of us to come sit on her couch once a week and talk about life through the filter of Jesus. We’ve been meeting for more than two years—a newborn Ellie accompanied me to the very first one. Over the years, we’ve developed our own bonds of sisterhood as we’ve helped each other navigate through births, losses, hard decisions, and bad news.

For the past several weeks, we’ve been studying the book of John. I will confess my disappointment when this was chosen for our study—John has never been my favorite writer in the Bible. I find him flowery and descriptive, with all his talk about Light and Life, vines and branches. Matthew and Luke have always been my preferred gospels, grounded in facts and the fulfillment of prophecy. John frustrates me, and because of that I find myself getting frustrated with Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

So … capital letter—Jesus is the word? What word? Jesus is the Bible? Jesus is God? THIS IS WHAT YOU START WITH, JOHN?

“Then they asked him, ‘Where is your father?’ ‘You do not know me or my Father,’ Jesus replied. ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also.'” (John 8:19)

HEAVEN, Jesus. Your Father is GOD and He’s in HEAVEN. As I tell my children, USE YOUR WORDS, JESUS.

There are a lot of shouty capitals when I read John.

My frustration with John (and Jesus) takes me all the way to the Upper Room on Thursday night during Holy Week. Jesus has spent the day explaining to his disciples that where He’s about to go they cannot follow (just tell them you’re dying, Jesus) and that one of them is about to betray him (Jesus, tell them it’s Judas. Someone will stop him—my money is on Peter).

I empathize with the disciples and the way they keep missing the point of Jesus’ stories.

Me too, guys. Just say what you mean, Jesus. Stop dancing around the metaphors and the parables and the answering of questions with another question. How is this supposed to help my faith? I’ve been in the church since I was weeks old; I’ve heard every story and know every character, and even I’m wondering how it’s possible to have faith in someone who can’t answer a simple question in a straight manner. Can’t He just SHOW us what he means?

And then, He does.

They’re about to eat when Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and gets a bowl of water and a pile of rags. He kneels before his friends and takes their dusty, calloused feet in his hands. One by one, he washes them.

Even Judas.

Yes, Jesus washed the feet of the man who would betray him. I wonder what Judas felt like during those moments. Did he feel loved? Known? Guilty? We know little about Judas, but sometimes I wonder if it’s this scene that played over and over in his mind when he tried to unravel his betrayal. When he found it couldn’t be undone and he tied his own noose.

Not everyone knows what to do with that kind of love, I guess.

They say that John was the last one to write his gospel. He knew what Matthew, Mark and Luke had written by the time he wrote his, which means he included the story about Jesus washing feet, knowing they’d left it out.

Clearly it meant something to John, and it’s everything to me. It redeems the confusing metaphors and analogies, because he finally captures one that couldn’t be more clear.

Jesus takes the dirtiest parts of us, and makes them clean. When he commanded us to love one another, he didn’t specify who the “other” was, but he didn’t have to. He’d already shown us.

Not everyone knows what to do with that kind of love, though. Sometimes it’s hard enough to love and serve our family, our friends. Washing the feet of the person who has hurt me the most? I don’t know how to do that. I don’t even know where to start.

But then, I remember that Jesus showed me that part, too.

It begins with getting on my knees.

The Choices We Make

weddingEight years. It was a cold and drizzly day in March 2009 when we said I do, and now we’re closing in on a decade of married life. I thought Jon wasn’t ever going to propose, you know. We’d been dating for five years, and he’d finally finished college. Everyone had me convinced I was getting a ring for Christmas. Instead, he got me a dress and I spent Christmas Day night in tears, asking him when he was going to marry me already. (I have never claimed to be the charming one.)

Five months later, he did indeed ask me to be his wife, on a dark beach in Charleston with the waves crashing in the background. So dark, in fact, that I couldn’t see my ring until we got back to the house. (This was before things like iPhones that doubled as flashlights when you needed to see in the dark.)

I learned then that he can’t be rushed. He will make a decision when he’s good and ready to make one, and no amount of impatience or pushiness or, frankly, childish foot stomping on my part is going to nudge him forward. Or rather, I should have learned it then. But like most important lessons, I have to hear them more than once before they sink in.

When we did our marriage counseling, we received one piece of advice that I’ve clung to for eight years. After talking with us for only a short time, our pastor noted how opposite Jon and I are. It’s true — we share almost no personality traits in common.

First, he told us the good news: marriages between opposites can be the strongest, most enduring types of marriages. Then, he lowered the boom. The key, he said, was to never resent the other for not being “more like me” and also to not try and change ourselves too much to mirror the other person.

Did you catch that? Resentment is the enemy of a strong marriage. The antidote to resentment? I’m not sure, but I think it starts with choosing to take care of each other, instead of ourselves.

So I’ll keep making Jon’s breakfasts and coffee in the morning, because he moves slowly and is perpetually running late. I’ll make the weekly grocery lists and all the doctor appointments. And he’ll keep closing my open drawers, refolding his t-shirts, and screwing the top back on the damn toothpaste.

Eight years. There’s been joy, sadness, excitement, anger, peace, and frustration. We’ve both had moments where we’re certain we married the right person, and some really honest moments when we’ve questioned it all.

We choose love though. We choose forgiveness. We choose hard work and sacrifice and grace.

We choose marriage.