Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Story 101: What to write when nobody tells you what to write anymore (PLUS a special discount on the e-course!)

I'm sure I'm not the first journalist who's left the daily grind of reporting to feel it: this restlessness. This question.

What do I write about now?

For nearly a decade, I've written what I was assigned, first as an intern, then a full-time reporter at a daily suburban newspaper; most recently, covering education. Now that I've moved from reporting to editing and shortened my commute from an hour-and-a-half in the car to 20 minutes on the El, I have the time and energy at the end of the workday to write what I want -- if only I could remember what that was. There are breadcrumbs to help me trace that journey back in time: old journals, embarrassing blog posts on Xanga from my college years, a whole lot of articles and memories.

That's one reason why this spring I signed up for Story 101, an e-course through The Story Unfolding.

I wanted to start down that path of remembering, of finding my voice. To mark this transition. To take the first steps renergized, arm-in-arm with a sisterhood of storytellers, with all the tools I need.


Nobody talks about soul care for journalists -- probably because nobody thinks we actually have souls.

I didn't think much about this until I attended the Festival of Faith and Writers this spring, and I noticed it included sessions like "The Facts about Faith: Journalism and Living a Meaningful Life." I noticed it because it was so unusual. I've been to conferences for writers, and we talked about faith, but we never talked about journalism. I've been to conferences for Christians, and we talked about writing, but we never talked about journalism.

I've been to conferences for journalists, and we talked about writing, but we never talked about faith.

Journalists talk about accuracy. We talk about ethics. We talk about thinking first before sharing graphic images of mangled body parts in the wreckage of downed airliners because we don't want to needlessly upset people.

We don't talk about the fact we've seen those pictures. We don't talk about the fact we're people, too, and we can be upset.

We don't talk about what it does to you to sit side-by-side with a woman your own age, married at the same time as you, who just has lost her husband in a war overseas; to gently ask the questions, to feel her anger and her grief, to feel the weight and responsibility of telling her story and to hold it with care. Or what it does to you to bear the news of the 33rd child victim of homicide in your city this year. Or to wade into the deep end of Internet negativity every day, and you can't log off and you can't not read the comments because THAT'S YOUR JOB.

In her autobiography "Talking Back," NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell writes about the emotional toll of covering the Jonestown Massacre, her first big story. Later, she told Washingtonian:

Only after I got out of the taxi from the airport, walked onto my front porch, and started crying did the enormity finally hit me. You can’t forget that these are families—mothers and fathers and children. It’s important not to be deadened to the suffering involved.

Nobody ever talks about finding that balance, about being human without being crushed.

That's one reason why I signed up for Story 101. I wanted to find that place again where work intersected with soul, to affirm the humanity.


I haven't read the book, but I know the quote. It's Ernest Hemingway, and it's from "A Moveable Feast."

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

Maybe that's one reason why I signed up for Story 101, too. I wanted to remember I've always written before and I will write now; to plant my flag and say, I still am a writer, even if that no longer is what makes up most of day – or my income.


For all those reasons, I signed up for Story 101.

But those aren't the only things I took away from the e-course, not so much about how to write, but a celebration of writing and creating. I took away some new ideas and inspiration: to keep my hand moving, to stay connected to the Source and to set boundaries to protect my writing. I realized finding my voice meant "digesting who we are. ... Then what I write will be imbued with me, will have my style" (Natalie Goldberg, "Wild Mind").

Or, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in "When Women Were Birds":

"My voice continues to be found wherever I am being present and responding from my heart, moment by moment. My voice is born repeatedly in fields of uncertainty."

Mostly, I learned to invite others on my journey.

So I'm inviting you.

I already am signed up for Story 201 this fall. If you're thinking of taking 101, whatever your reasons, now is the time to join: in 2015, the live conference calls, private Facebook group, peer critiques and weekly prompts will turn into a DIY packaged e-course.

The last hurrah runs Sept. 8 to Nov. 21 and is discounted at $127.

To learn more or register for Story 101, click here.

Signed up to take the last go-round of the e-course this fall? Comment and let me know! I'd love to follow your journey and hear what you take from it.

Thinking about taking the course? Let me know what questions you have, and I'll do my best to answer them.

Already taken the course? Share your experience and biggest takeways with us (links welcome!).

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

REVIEW: A Way: The Story of a Long Walk by Jenna Smith

My feet hurt.

I think about this while standing on the train, one leg stiff and one, relaxed, the secret I've discovered to keeping your balance as the car jerks along the tracks. I think about this as I plod up the stairs to the street, one foot in front of the other. I think about this as I shuffle the same well-worn path to work in the morning, the pavement unforgiving beneath the thin leather soles of my shoes.

I think about this as I read "A Way: The Story of a Long Walk" by Jenna Smith a chapter at a time on the commute to work and back, feeling each step of her journey with her husband Nicholas along the Camino de Santiago.

And I'm not even the one who walked 1,056 miles from France to Spain.

That's the story of a long walk Smith tells in "A Way," a wonderful, if somewhat uneven, collection of reflections on her 62-day pilgrimage on the Camino arranged chronologically and broken into two parts: France and Spain.

The Camino also is known as the pilgrimage of St. James or Compostelle, so-called because it ultimately leads to Santiago di Compostella -- the Cathedral of St. James in Galicia, Spain. It's an old pilgrimage: Christians have been making the journey on foot, carrying with them everything they will need, since not long after St. James' tomb was discovered in 813 A.D. and the first church, built there in 840, Smith said. In the Middle Ages, monastic orders started setting up hospitals and inns for pilgrims along the way, she said. More recently, the European Union has made it more accessible with seashell road markers, municipal inns and pilgrim passports, she said, and in 2012, nearly 200,000 people qualified to receive a Compostella, a certificate for completing the pilgrimage.

Today, there are many roads that lead to the cathedral, but the most popular -- and the one the author and her husband walked -- is the Camino Frances, leaving from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France.

Smith's reflections often read like missives sent to friends and family from the road, punctuated by recipes and updates on blisters and reviews of products with names like the Whiz-Easy (I'll leave it to your imagination what it's used for). There are offhanded references to a "regional pilgrim's association" and various pieces of hiking equipment without much explanation, and it wasn't until the end of the book I finally pieced together (I think) the author had been raised in an evangelical denomination and her husband, the Catholic church, a foundation that might have been helpful given the topic at hand of a religious pilgrimage. If you're looking for a how-to, this is not your book.

But there also are meaningful reflections on time, on community and on the body. One notable essay -- "Crunch, Ping!" -- hinted at Smith's "Camino question," the "why" that drove her to leave her home in Quebec and make the pilgrimage.

It happened on a day near the middle of the journey, as she and Nicholas approached the Spanish border: She woke up and didn't want to walk. She wasn't in any more pain than usual, and the weather wasn't particularly bad. She just didn't feel like walking.

That, her husband said, was her spiritual discipline.

Smith writes:

"You could say I don't have the best rapport with the idea of discipline. My spiritual 'disciplines,' the odd times when I would remember to pray and read the Bible, were cultivated out of a guilty idea from my Christian circles that I didn't have a serious enough faith. ... So I decided that I needed to reconcile myself to the idea of doing something repetitive and somewhat unpleasant without the associations of guilt and punishment that were passed down to me by the Church."

I think about this while I am riding the train, holding the book between palm and thumb in one hand while I steady myself with the other in a way that has become second nature now on my workday commute.

Some days I don't feel like walking my pilgrimage either. They aren't particularly bad days. They aren't particularly good days. They're just days, those long stretches of middle that are putting one foot in front of the other and doing the thing, then waking up the next morning and doing it over again.

There are moments of wonder that break the monotony, when my attention is captured not by rolling, grassy hills or 400-year-old buildings dotting the countryside in rural France, but by the fog sweeping low between the pavement and the tops of skyscrapers or the ice on the Chicago River cracking into geometric shapes or the summer sun warming my bare legs as I lie in Millennium Park listening to the music drifting from the pavilion.

There are dark days, too.

And then there is the rest. There is moving into a mode of comfort in our walk, the familiar crunch, ping! of walking poles in gravel centering us. There is resting in the knowledge it will take us to the next place.

Smith writes:

"The walking looked after me, even on days when I didn't like walking. Whether I wanted it or not, my body was becoming healthier, my face taking in more sun, my legs becoming stronger, my mind less frazzled. The repetitive, unpleasant motion, the 'crunch, ping,' was doing good things for me, despite my feelings of annoyance. The walk was taking care of me, healing me, making me stronger overall."

Crunch. Ping.

What are your thoughts on pilgrimages? Have you ever made one?

To purchase or learn more about "A Way," visit author Jenna Smith's website.

Full disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, July 14, 2014

My 2014 summer reading list

Remember those summer reading competitions at the local library when you were a kid?

That's how Rachel Held Evans kicked off her summer reading spectacular this year.

I know I do, although I remember participating through my school. We got to release a helium-filled balloon into the air for each reading level we reached, attaching handwritten messages to their ribbon tails in case they were found. Later that school year, or maybe the next -- long after I'd forgotten the thrill of Reading All The Books and Releasing All The Balloons -- I was called to the principal's office, something that was unusual, as I was the kid winning the reading competition, not the kid getting in trouble. It turns out a nice couple had found one of my balloons and mailed a book for me to the school's address, and even though it was about New Kids on the Block and I had no categories for that because I was in the first grade and had no interest in boys, I cherished that book and pored lovingly over all its stats and glossy photos.

The summer before we moved downstate it was a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. My personal pan pizza came with a plastic Ferngully cup that had a clear greenhouse lid and a packet of seeds to grow a pine tree. The pine seeds never took off, but a whirligig from one of the maples surrounding our patio fell into the dirt, and -- because I was the kind of kid who shoved everything under the bed or in the closet when I cleaned my room rather than putting it away -- I shoved it down into the dirt, and -- wouldn't you know? -- it started to grow. I brought it with me when we made the move, and my parents, probably thinking it quickly would die, let me plant it in the middle of the front yard of our new house. If you drive past my childhood home now, it is completely obscured from the street by the giant, full-grown tree in the yard.

You won't win balloons or glossy New Kids on the Block foldouts or a majestic maple if you complete my summer reading list, but I thought I'd share it anyway. I know I always like to see what my favorite bloggers like Rachel and Addie Zierman and Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy are reading, and I'd love to hear what you're reading, too.

Here's the list of books I'm reading this summer, which I'm about halfway through:

The usual: Spiritual memoir

A Way: The Story of a Long Walk by Jenna Smith. This is a book that found me: I interviewed Urban Loft author Sean Benesh about a year ago for an article about gentrification for RELEVANT. His book on the topic -- Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission and Church Planting -- recently was released by the publisher, as was A Way, and he contacted me, offering to send both. How he knew this was just the book I was longing to read, about a couple's pilgrimage from France to Spain along the Camino di Santiago, is beyond me, especially when all our interactions were about the city. I plan to review it later this week.

Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost and Found Again by Preston Yancey. I currently am reading a NetGalley review copy of Tables in the Wilderness, a book my friend Elora recommended to me and one I have been looking forward to since Preston announced he was writing it on his blog. I plan to review it closer to its September release date.

Found: A Story of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer by Micha Boyett. I've been meaning to read this book since it came out this spring and am packing it for the long drive up to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota later this month. I'm a little wary because I know she is writing about motherhood, which I can't very well relate to in this season, but I also know she is writing about Benedictine spiritual practices, which, hi, hello, you've read this blog.

The dense nonfiction: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Helping the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Given my work with Hope for the First Nations on White Earth, this has been on my to-read list for a while. My mom just bought me a copy, so I'm bumping it up on the priority list this summer.

The light fiction: Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger. This is another book that came recommended to me; this one, because of its portrayal of rez life in Minnesota. I was assured the people and places would feel familiar from White Earth. Plus, I always need one good, fast-paced fiction read I can plow through without thinking too hard about while floating on an innertube in the lake at my family's cabin in the Northwoods.

The devotional: Courageous Gentleness: Following Christ's Example of Restrained Strength by Mary Ann Froehlich. I ran across this book while browsing NetGalley and requested it immediately since "gentleness" is my One Word for 2014. Which reminds me, I owe you a midyear update on that.

The best of the books I already have read this year: Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther. This is one I still need to review. I devoured it in one sitting when it came out this spring, so if you generally like this blog and the types of spiritual memoir I generally read and review here, this is one book on this list I can guarantee you will love.

What's on your summer reading list?

Full disclosure: I received one or more of the books mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What I'm Into: June 2014


It's not quite the slow season it was when I was an education reporter, when instead of legislation and board meetings, I spent the bulk of my time covering county fairs and other things that involved eating ice cream. But the great advantage to my new job in the city is being steps away from free music and movies in the parks when I leave in the late afternoon, the things that make persevering through Chiberia-like winters so very worth it.

Here are some of those summertime activities I've been enjoying.

Things I love

Steve Gumaer and Partners Relief & Development. Steve Gumaer spoke about his work with refugees in Myanmar with Partners Relief & Development Sunday, June 29, at Missio Dei Wrigleyville. Gumaer and his wife had lived a comfortable life working with Youth With a Mission in Thailand believing a comfortable faith that was a "paradigm of words." After visiting a refugee camp on the border with Myanmar, they were shaken. They decided, he said, "Let's stop loving with our words and tongues and start loving with our actions and deeds." That may not look like working with refugees for everyone, he said, but, "It is up to you to find your war and fight it." Learn more about Gumaer here and Partners here.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938. My husband Joel and I biked to the Art Institute of Chicago Sunday, June 23, for the member preview and lecture about its new exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938. The weather itself that day was like something out of a painting by the artist: the wet, heavy clouds rolling along the ground, the skyscrapers stretched overhead into clear, blue skies. The exhibit shows "Magritte becoming Magritte," exploring word pictures that make us question the world around us, creating paintings that undermine the notion of what is there and what is real, paintings that completely defy our search for meaning. His aim, according to the exhibit, was "to make everyday objects shriek aloud."

I also dragged Joel and our friend Kristin to a Ghostbusters-themed art show, but more on that later.

Biking. Speaking of, I really was enjoying biking everywhere now that we're down to one car, which Joel has out in the suburbs with him late into the evening. I scrubbed the rust off my poor old cruiser, and we popped new white-walled tires on it after it looked like one had been gouged over the winter. Then my bike seat got stolen. So much for that healthy choice!

Pretzel Love Songs. Remember that unexpected package I Instagrammed from Wendy's? Inside the box, under a bed of red fabric rose petals, was a heart-shaped picture frame, a gift card to Wendy's, a cassette tape and a for-real Walkman. It took me a few minutes to remember how to play the cassette, which included several "Pretzel Love Songs" announcing the return of the pretzel bun to Wendy's this summer. It reminded me of the scene in "A Christmas Story" in which Ralphie locks himself in the bathroom while he decodes the secret message at the end of the "Little Orphan Annie" radio program; in the end, it was an advertisement for Ovaltine. It didn't throw me into the same existential crisis it did Ralphie, though: "Pretzel Love Songs" really is a clever advertising campaign, and I'm looking forward to trying a pretzel bun sandwich during road trip season.

Best food I made/ate. I made these Chocolate Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies for a coworker's birthday/workaversary. Then I made a batch for my husband because I'm old fashioned and I think my work at home may be as important as my work in the office. Out and about: Joel, my dad and I had dinner to celebrate Father's Day at Blackbird. We went once before, and Joel ordered this pink, tender elk I'm pretty sure he still dreams about. This time around, I had monk fish, which is the poor man's lobster unless you're ordering it at Blackbird, and a dessert drink flight appropriately called Communion. But the best thing I had to drink was the Temple Destroyer at Scofflaw, all gin and cilantro and revelation.

TV and Movies

Ghostbusters at Movies in the Park... sort of. The city showed "Ghostbusters" as part of its Movies in the Park series on Tuesday, June 24, in Millennium Park, and I got all the messages about it because everybody knows I love me some "Ghostbusters." But as soon as the movie started, so did the rain. My friends and I stuck it out as long as we could, wringing out our clothes and protecting the picnic we'd brought, until I announced it was silly: I have both "Ghostbusters" movies on DVD. In the end, we we cabbed it back to my place, where about a dozen friends and friends of friends we collected along the way dried out in all my pajamas, eating Harold's chicken on picnic blankets on the floor and watching "Ghostbusters" on our TV.

Speaking of Ghostbusters... Joel, Kristin and I also biked to the traveling art show celebrating Ghostbusters' 30th anniversary at Rotofugi. And, yes, of course I bought a print of the symmetrical book stacking -- just like the Philadelphia mass disturbance of 1947.


Quiet Company and Vampire Weekend in concert. Not together, although that would be an interesting pairing, given their most recent albums: Vampire Weekend seems to be wrestling with a God they find difficult to deny in "Modern Vampires of the City," while Quiet Company is wrestling with One they once found easy to believe in "We Are All Where We Belong." Both are outstanding in concert; Quiet Company, especially. Don't miss the band if it comes to a music venue near you.

Jurassic Park soundtrack. Mondo announced it would be releasing the "Jurassic Park" soundtrack on vinyl on June 11, the 21st anniversary of the movie, and it would be tweeting the link when it went up for sale that day. Now if there is one movie I love more than "Ghostbusters," it is "Jurassic Park." So I set Mondo's tweets to go directly to text on my phone and got the alert just as I was walking out of the morning meeting at work. The limited edition amber vinyl sold out in about seven minutes, and I was one of the lucky 1,000.

"Heavenly Father" by Bon Iver. NPR's All Songs Considered premiered this trackfrom the soundtrack of the upcoming Zach Braff movie "Wish I Was Here." I have no idea what the movie is about or if it is any good, but if "Garden State" and this track are any indicator, its soundtrack, at least, should be stellar.

"Joy, Pain, Love, Songs" by Lewis Knudsen. My friend Lewis Knudsen released his first full-length studio album this past month. He's playing a house show this weekend at our place, and Joel is creating a menu inspired by the music: a little soul, a little jazz, a little pop. If you're in the Chicago area this weekend, drop me a line, and I'll send you details. Meantime, you can stream the album below.


The Way: The Story of a Long Walk by Jenna Smith. I received a review copy of this book from the publisher and will be writing more about it soon.

The Fault in our Stars by John Green. Weepy Romance is not really my genre, but I was intrigued after reading a profile of author John Green in the New Yorker. I read the entire book in one evening. It was really well-written and unexpectedly funny at times. It also touched on a number of interesting themes like beauty, an author's relationship to his or her work and our beliefs about the afterlife -- well worth the trip outside my literary comfort zone.

The Enneagram Made Easy: Discover the 9 Types of People by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele. Leigh Kramer, The Enneagram Coach, was in the city in early June, and after a long evening wandering the Printers Row Book Fair and sipping revelatory cocktails at Scofflaw, I got her to give me the slumber party version of her Enneagram cards. This confirmed I was a 3 and sent me to the library the next day to check out "The Enneagram Made Easy," one of several books Leigh had brought with her. One of the things I liked about this book in particular was the practical suggestions and exercises for each chapter. Because I am a 3, and I like homework. Now on my to-do list: "Schedule time every day to rest," and, "Make time for doing some of the activities you value aside from work."

All the travel guides. We did it: Joel and I finally booked our tickets for that long-dreamed-about trip to Europe. Then we spent the day at Barnes & Noble, pulling out all the travel guides to Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria and planning our escape. What places would you recommend we visit?

On the InterWebs

Here are my favorites from the blogosphere this past month:

On the blog

I finally got around to writing up my thoughts on the reported apparition of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje and Marian apparitions in general. Even weirder than the topic at hand, half that post seems to have disappeared. Which is frustrating, because I had received so much encouraging feedback about that post. Hopefully I can find time to rewrite it this weekend.

I also got to spread the love here on the blog, sharing a bit about my writing process and introducing you to two writers whose work I adore, Grace Sandra andAntonia Terrazas. Grace since has shared her writing process on her blog, here.

In the paper

We had a lot of fun this month on the digital desk at the Chicago Sun-Times, thanks to a "magnificent and popular" quote from Donald Trump:

POLL: Whose sign is more #magnificentandpopular? Trump Towers' or the old Sun-Times offices'?

— The Mirage Tavern (@CSTmirage) June 12, 2014

Even Romenesko picked up on it.

Here are a few of the posts I wrote this past month for the Sun-Times:

In other publications

My article about Millennials' changing attitudes toward marriage -- "State of the Union" -- is in the July/August issue of RELEVANT Magazine, just hitting newsstands and e-readers.

And I'm off and running on my next big writing project, which is about ... Trolls. The Internet kind, not the delightful, pink-haired kind or the mythical, baby-stealing Norwegian kind. I'd love to hear your experiences. How do you handle trolls?

What have you been into this month?

I'm a bit late to add my link to Leigh Kramer's "What I'm Into" linkup, but you can find more posts like this there.

Photos: For more photos of my everyday adventures, follow me on Instagram.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Happy World UFO Day! 5 notable UFO sightings in Illinois history (Chicago Sun-Times)

Happy World UFO Day!

The quirky holiday has been observed on July 2 — roughly corresponding with the date of the reported UFO crash in Roswell, N.M. — since 2001 to “celebrate the existence of UFO’s and extra terrestrial [sic] life,” according to its official website. Those celebrations include watching for unidentified flying objects in the skies, starting conversations about the possibility of extraterrestrial life and inviting aliens to make contact via meditation or other forms of communication, it said.

More than one-third (36 percent) of Americans believe that UFOs exist and more than one in 10 (11 percent), that they have seen one, according to a 2012 study by the National Geographic Channel. Already this year, more than 4,100 UFO sightings have been reported to the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, a spokesman told USA Today.

And Illinois, reportedly, is a hotbed of UFO activity. The state ranks No. 7 in the country in reported sightings, according to National UFO Reporting Center data visualized by USA Today.

Here are five of the most notable UFO sightings in Illinois history:

Highland, 2000

Just after 4 a.m. Jan. 5, 2000, five on-duty police officers reported a triangular craft moving silently just above the treetops over the towns of Highland, Dupo, Lebanon, Summerfield, Millstadt and O’Fallon in southern Illinois. The “St. Clair Triangle” sightings are notable because of the reliability of the witnesses and have been profiled widely on shows with names like “Seeing Is Believing.” But they perhaps are best known as the inspiration for “Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois,” the opening track to indie troubadour Sufjan Stevens’ much-loved “Illinois” album.

For the rest of the list, read Happy World UFO Day! 5 notable UFO sightings in Illinois history.

For more on this topic, check out my previous blog post on Britain's UFO Desk and other conspiracy theories.

Photo: World UFO Day.
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