Pulling up stakes

Day 8: Season
No Novel November 2019

Photograph of three old frying pans against a wood background - Frying pans by Lestrovoy via Deviant Art

Butter and oil.

Salt and pepper.

Seasoned side down. Don’t jump when it screams.

More salt.

Three and a half minutes. Don’t touch.

Flip.

Three more minutes. Resist.

Onto the plate.

Rest.

I sit at my end of the table, knife and fork in hand, looking straight down at my plate and not at the seam in the center where I took out the leaf to make the room less empty.

A single slice through the crust, top to bottom, left to right.

It’s perfectly seasoned: butter and oil and salt and pepper and time and distance and relief and sorrow.

But it will never be as good as yours.

This story is part of No Novel November, a daily microfiction challenge. If you'd like to know more and/or join in, click here.

The State of the Ellie: October 2019

Of more delays, a mental break (and repair), and arting outside the box.

Colorful fairies string power lines in the clouds over a stormy sky with lightning - Lightnings by vladstudio via DeviantArt
The State of the Ellie is my monthly update on what's been happening this side of the screen for the last 30-ish days. It usually drops at the start of the new month, but I'm moving it to the end because it makes more sense and I don't know why I didn't always do it like this.

Immigration, Florida, and another Canadian winter

Welp. Here we are, staring down the barrel of November (seriously, how did that happen already), and despite our rosiest projections, there’s nothing to report here, except that, because there’s nothing to report, we are officially into next year for our big move. Between paperwork delays, the impending holidays, and the idea of driving a 20ft U-Haul through the Appalachian Mountains in winter, Lino and I (and our pastors) have re-re-re-calibrated our plans and are now looking at*giant sad sigh* April. Which means we’re woefully unprepared for the coming winter because this past spring all we could see in December were palm trees and beaches, so why would we need snow boots and gloves?

On the positive side, though, I had a breakthrough with my disappointment about the delays we’ve endured. I realized that Lino and I are on some kind of accelerated spiritual training track that’s growing our ability, capacity, and maturity in the Kingdom; God is stretching and growing us in ways we didn’t know we could (or thought we wanted) during this season. So I’m choosing to be content. I don’t want to miss anything by being impatient or distracted by jealousy or striving. Be here now, eh?

I accidentally facilitated a women’s workshop at our church.

Related to that accelerated training track, I was given an opportunity to lead a small group through the culminating event of this year’s series on dreams in our women’s ministry.

I sort of stumbled into it, honestly (which is how you know it’s God). Some folks couldn’t make it to the weekend retreat, myself included, so I offered to host dinner for those of us staying home. I got the green light, but because I’m me, rather than planning a simple night with friends, I wanted to tie our decor and conversation into the retreat material so everyone could feel included. Before I knew it, I was being handed official booklets and teasing out the story of Joseph with our pastor. I ended up presenting a full-blown six-hour workshop for eight women, including message, dinner, prayer, and declarations of the dreams we’ve hidden in our hearts.

And you know what? I LOVED IT.

It’s become clear to me that my path includes speaking, teaching, facilitating—roles that involve holding space and being the one everyone’s staring at (roles that give me nervous poops)—in addition to writing. Running this workshop was 100% a confirmation of that calling. It combined things I know I’m good at with things I’m just starting to wade into, and it felt like everything clicked. I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I do know that I am fully strapped in for the ride.

I had a serious mental health problem, but I got better.

I don’t want to get into a lot of detail about this here because I wrote an in-depth post about it last week, but it was a major deal, so I do want to touch on it.

The TL;DR of that post is that I suffered obsessive, graphic, intrusive thoughts after seeing an Instagram post in which a four-and-a-half year old died in an accident. It got more intense and frequent until I was worried I needed to seek help, but I couldn’t seem to tell anyone about it, either. Thankfully, I was able to scrape together enough resistance to use a visualization technique I learned in counselling to remove the damaging thought and get relief.

If this happens to you, don’t wait around like I did. Find someone to talk to and/or call a crisis hotline (here, in Canada). Please.

Drawing isn’t my forte, but Inktober has been a blast.

I’ve known about Inktober for years but never participated because I’m, you know, not a visual artist. But it turned out to be the perfect thing for my sister-in-law and I to do together as mothers with small children who know they’re still creatives despite evidence to the contrary in this stage of their lives. We decided that rather than bemoaning the loss of artistic expression, we’d art for fun instead of the serious business we’ve become accustomed to. And it’s been hella cool!

I’ve gotten behind a few times (and am still behind today), and my quirk of adding a story to each drawing has made it unnecessarily difficult, but it’s letting me play where I used to only see work and has shown me that there are stories in here yet. 10/10: Will do again.

You can see all my drawings on my Instagram for now. I’ll put up a site page here when they’re all done.

I can’t do NaNoWriMo this year, so I’m doing my own thing instead.

Speaking of challenges! I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month twice before, but I’ve struggled with novels since finishing Mirror of Ashes. As much as I’d love to dive into Apple of Chaos using NaNo as a container, with Mack nipping at my heels all day, it ain’t gonna happen.

But! About a week into Inktober, I realized that daily art is actually possible. (You’d think I would’ve figured that out after all the Noticing posts I’ve done, but I digress.) What if I did the same thing but with tiny stories? I asked a few people and got good feedback, so I ran with it, tweaking the concept to fit my writing needs and to be fun/challenging so other people could play, too. I even made a Facebook group. That’s how you know I’m serious.

Thus, No Novel November was born! We’re starting on Friday (omg tomorrow) writing microfiction from daily prompts, and I am super hype to properly stretch my writing legs after the great warmup from Inktober. I also have this tingle in the back of my mind that this Something Important, but I’m ignoring it so I don’t accidentally smother it with attention like a toddler with a kitten.

I’d love it if you’d join us! Click/tap/focus intently on this link for more info.

Miscellaneous

  • Lino and I are second-generation gamers, and as such, when the Enthusiast Live Gaming Expo came to Toronto, his mom took us as our Christmas gift. It was rad! We got to test so many cool indie games, see some truly incredible art, and I ate half a large pizza. A good time was had by all.
  • Mackenzie was in and out of casts again for toe-walking. We’re doing physio with her at home because money and are hopeful this is the last time.
  • I do not know how to Halloween as a parent. I seriously thought trick-or-treating was the Saturday nearest Halloween if it fell on a weekday, but nooooooo. WHY NOT. It’s supposed to rain like heck here, though, so I might be able to get out of it. This year.

How did October treat you?
(Do I need to have a stern talk with it?)

What are you looking forward to in November?

The curse of imagination: fear, obsession, and hope

How an Instagram post triggered me into obsessing about losing my child—and how I came out the other side.

Content warning: child harm, intrusive thoughts. 
A woman with streaks of blue lightning across her face and body; imagination, inspiration

A vivid imagination is a two-edged sword made sharp with use. The same gift that makes my writing so cinematographic allows me to picture my lost keys, for example, in literally any location, (unhelpfully) independent of memory or fact.

It also imagines unspeakable things as if I’ve actually seen them.

Comic book author Ben Hatke’s 4½ year-old daughter died from injuries in an accident last month, and from the instant I read about it, I couldn’t stop picturing it. The images came unbidden, intrusive, intensifying.

Not images of little lost Ida. But of my own child.

What it would be like to see my 3½ year-old baby covered in blood and tears and glass, crying for Mommy and Daddy because she thinks we can help her—but we can’t. To see her hooked up to tubes and machines, her tiny body in a too-big bed, slipping further and further away until we have to let her go to show her one final act of love.

It’s not real.

It’s not my daughter.

It’s not her story.

But that’s the curse of the blessing of imagination: to see and feel what’s not real as if it were. As if it were her life ended so violently, my heart senselessly ripped away, our family devastated.


I saw this horror over and over through the weeks, every time a little more graphic, a little more terrifying, until the fear spilled out into real life.

I hugged Mackenzie tighter, trying to memorize her face in case I never saw it again. I didn’t want to put her in the car or have her more than a held hand away outside the house. I lay in bed before falling asleep, watching the movie of this fictional disaster in my mind’s eye, living the numb sickness of the moment again and again.

Last Friday, I finally put words around my nightmare in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The obsession had spiraled out of my control, no longer a world I was choosing to enter but one that ambushed me in quiet moments when I wasn’t even thinking about my daughter. I typed out the pain and fear between huge sobs, trying to exorcise the demon.

But the next morning, there it was. The blood and glass and tears. Writing it out hadn’t helped. I despaired into the pages of my journal, now terrified of my own terror, wondering if I was in enough psychic danger to tell someone, to need help.

Then a small voice reminded me, “You have other ways to get things out of your head.”

I laid down the pen, closed my eyes overflowing with tears, and laid my head on my desk.

The same imagination that had been tormenting me brought me quickly to a familiar meadow and a familiar face. Warmth that had nothing to do with sunlight filtered through me, making my tears come harder. He said nothing, but held out his cupped hands and waited.

I reached up to the forehead of my spirit-self, pinched slightly, then tugged. A thick rope of black ichor extruded from my mind, becoming bloody as it plopped into my hand in a gooey, deflated ball. I turned the object over in my palms, its tarry surface covered in viscera, and realized what it was: the idea of my daughter being violently killed.

I dropped the diseased thought into the waiting hands before me. He wrapped his fingers around it and squeezed. There was a pale flash of light, then nothing. I looked down at his hands and mine to find them clean, with no trace of black or red.

I opened my hot eyes in the darkened office and drew a deep breath, then another. I realized I felt different. Lighter. Cleaner. Peaceful.

Unsure, I tentatively probed my mind for the nightmarish vision, like prodding the gap where a tooth has been pulled, afraid it would rush forward as it always had. But it was gone. Even actively trying to picture the scene, I found nothing.

The thought was gone. The haunting was over. The evil thing, banished. My mind was my own again.

Side profile of a woman with gold synapse lines streaking out of her head

I didn’t want to share this story. I was (and still am) worried about it hurting someone more than it helps anyone. It’s an upsetting story. It’s triggering. It’s painful.

And yet, it’s also hopeful.

I learned two things from this awful experience, things I believe someone needs to hear.

The first is that I didn’t know how much I loved my daughter until I imagined her being stolen from me.

I never wanted children (someday I’ll tell you how I ended up with one), and since she arrived, I’ve glibly said of course I can imagine life without her and waxed rosy about pre-baby life. I admit, at times, I’ve wished she’d never been born. I’ve always felt deficient in maternal love, especially when I see my mama friends coo over babies.

But this? This unwanted, violent perhaps? At the same time it crushed my heart, it showed me that, although I may wish for a simpler time when I had more freedom and money—that I may sometimes yearn for life without her—I couldn’t bear to lose her now that I do have her.

Motherly love is not instant. That’s a myth. You don’t automatically fall in irretrievable love with your child. It’s taken me three and a half years and a mental crisis to get there.

But here I am.

The second thing I learned is that I’m better at cleaning my mind than I thought I was.

For two decades, I suffered with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and a hyperactive sense of badness that made it impossible for me to let go of negative thoughts. It’s been a slow process of overcoming in the last five years, primarily through metacognitionnoticing what I’m thinking, holding the thought out and examining it, then deciding what to do with it.

Extracting the obsessive images from my mind when I was utterly abandoned to feelings of despair showed me that it’s still possible to capture my thoughts and deal with them when I’m in the thick of it. That it works.

This incident was a major victory for me. But it’s the first time I’ve done it so easily—it’s taken years of failing and trying again, building on tiny wins and then falling behind. It’s a practice, a muscle developed over time.

You aren’t at the mercy of darkness.

You may have battles, but you’re not required to bow to it. Your mind is yours. And you can take it back—one thought at a time.


My imagination showed me hell.

I’m sure your imagination has, too.

But don’t close it off. It’s a blessing, not a curse.

The same imagination that takes you out when left unchecked also gives you the power to obliterate damaging thoughts and to find soul-deep revelation on the other side of struggle.

It has the power to set you free.


“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ….” 1 Corinthians 10:5 KJV

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7 NIV

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity or cowardice or fear, but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of sound judgment and personal discipline [abilities that result in a calm, well-balanced mind and self-control].” 2 Timothy 1:7 AMP

“So we are convinced that every detail of our lives is continually woven together to fit into God’s perfect plan of bringing good into our lives….” Romans 8:28 TPT

Turns out I don’t hate fall anymore (but it took some doing)

I’ve always dreaded fall because it leads inevitably to winter, when my creativity hibernated under my depression. But this year, it’s different. This year, I’m free.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall - comic by Rachel Greenberg at WholesomeNSuchArt

This fall is different.

I can feel it in the sharp slice of the air, smell it in the not-yet-moldering carpet of leaves, taste it in the vanilla caramel pastries. The sound of a lonely, optimistic ice cream truck trawling the neighborhood evokes a smile rather than a sigh.

Years ago, I discovered that my energy and creativity ebb and flow with the seasons. Maximum productivity in summer; gradual slowing in fall; hibernation in winter; reemerging in spring. One season feeds the next, my internal calendar matching up with nature’s.

Once I noticed this innate rhythm, I intentionally wove it into my work. I wrote furiously in summer, launched and scheduled in fall, dreamed in winter, then spooled up again in spring. By knowing when I had energy (and when I didn’t), I could work with my natural flow. I could stop fighting myself and have ease all year instead.

And it felt so good.

Unfortunately, boss-level productivity was not the only side effect of this realization.

Rather than enjoying the fullness of each season, I started to dread fall because I knew what came after it.

Winter, with its hibernative atmosphere, not only put my creative energy to bed, but tucked it in with a smothering blanket of depression. Grey skies and bitter winds followed me everywhere. I often wouldn’t leave the house for a week at a time, sleeping to avoid thinking about how little I was accomplishing, holding on to hope as I crossed days off the calendar until spring when I could be reborn.

Knowing it was coming didn’t help. Predictability isn’t so great when you know you’re about to go down for six months (yay, Canada).

So for the last several years, I’ve hated fall. Not because of anything it did to me personally, but because of what it heralded.

But more than leaves change when you have a kid.

Since Mackenzie came along, I’ve had to do things differently. Basic stuff like showering and grocery shopping, sure, but also creative work. My desire to write raised its head again long before I found my feet as a SAHM. At first, I didn’t know what to do with it. My preferred way of working—six uninterrupted hours of butt-in-seat, Monday to Friday—didn’t mesh with baby life.

It took me a year to accept that, if I wanted to write, I’d have to be flexible. (All the Ones in the house said, “OH NO.”) I started writing in smaller chunks, experimenting with different times of day, leaving myself notes, not trying to write a novel again (yet). Piece by piece over the last year, a different method of working has fallen into place. I discovered I actually could adapt to a new flow; I even realized I was okay with having no flow at all.

And, because everything is connected, once I embraced that, my attitude towards winter changed.

Forcing myself to bend in new ways to continue writing opened up the possibility that I could still work in the winter. Despite the low energy, despite the oppressive weather, despite my self. If I could completely upend what I thought I needed to be productive in spring and summer, what else could be transformed come the winter?

Suddenly, the season of hibernation held no anxiety for me.

Sure, I still hate being cold and the snow can go back to the Arctic thankyouverymuch, but when I look ahead, down the barrel of another Canadian winter, I’m not worried about it. I may still feel like a grouchy, sleepy bear, but writing is possible. Living is possible. I know that I can do it. Even if it’s slow.

Which brings us back to this fall.

I knew I was free from the cycle of dread when I walked outside on a cool morning in early September, filled my lungs with the sweet, sad air and said, “Man, I wish we could go apple picking.” I was even cheerful about getting out the sweaters and putting away the shorts.

Who even am I.

Because winter doesn’t equate death for me anymore, I can experience the wonder of this season. The escarpment is blazing beautiful with the last fireworks of maples and elms. Spicy tea and coffee warm me inside and out. A tinge of melancholy in the air reminds me to be present, for everything in this world is passing away—and will be reborn.

All this to say, I’m enjoying that I’m enjoying fall.

Finally.

Begin again: a new marriage

At long last, the story of our 10-year vow renewal. A resurrection story told in vows, photos, scripture, and song.

As you may recall, my husband and I decided to renew our vows for our 10-year anniversary back in June. And while the actual event was for less than 40 people in a small backyard, it was the most important event in our lives, second only to our salvations.

And because it is such a big freaking deal, I naturally wanted to write and tell you all about it. But I don’t know how.

So instead of trying to capture the fullness of it in a story, this post is a collage of moments that, I hope, reveal the tenderness of this day that was more like a baptism—a consecration, a resurrection—than a wedding.


Dear Ellie, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for my moments of faithlessness, and how that hurt us. I’m sorry for my anger, and the chaos it caused. I’m sorry for not listening, for being more focused on being right than being compassionate. I’m sorry for the times I didn’t cover you, for the times you were left to figure things out on your own. I’m sorry for the man I was when we met, and that you had to be present as I figured out who I was and what mattered.

Most of all though, I’m sorry I didn’t lead us to Christ sooner, that it took things falling so far into seeming hopelessness before suggesting that, perhaps, we could find reprieve in God.

Before you, our friends, our family, our daughter, and our God above, I repent for these things. Please forgive me. (I do.)

In the past ten years I have learned, essentially, that C.S. Lewis was correct about love, and my own understanding was flawed. He says: “Ceasing to be ‘in love’, in the way that we were in love the day before our wedding, need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from ‘being in love’ — is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. it is on this love that the engine of marriage is run being in love was the explosion that started it.”

I couldn’t phrase it better myself. God, work, commitment, grace, and habit—these things are the new foundation of this marriage.

Ellie Di Julio, I promise hence forth…

To love you unconditionally, without expectations or conditions, without reservation, and to choose to do this every day no matter what struggles we may be facing.

To cover you and our family with Godly wisdom, and to lead our house in all ways, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make me.

To focus my attention on you, every day, and to choose you as a priority, as my favourite human.

To remain steadfast in my faith and work daily to keep our family on that narrow road which leads to life. Whether in the good or the bad, to remind us that He is a good God.

To be slow to anger, patient and understanding, eager to listen, that I might benefit from your wisdom and your gifts.

To be faithful to you, and only you, from now till the end of our time here.

These things, in front of all assembled and our Heavenly Father, I promise to you.

I never thought we would be standing here.

12 years ago, I wasn’t interested in getting married. 7 years ago, I didn’t know Jesus. 6 years ago, I thought we were getting divorced. But here we are.

The marriage we’ve had over the past 10 years is not the marriage we have starting today. Because God has rewritten our stories, individually and together.

Today we have the chance to honor God’s miraculous healing of our relationship by making a completely new covenant.

To me, that begins with washing away the old one. And that begins with repentance and forgiveness.

I repent to you, Lino. For punishing you with expectations. For being unfaithful. For giving up. For my stubbornness, my withholding, my distance, and my rage. I’m sorry for the thousand cuts of the last ten years.

Do you forgive me? (I do.)

And I forgive you, Lino. For hiding from me. For straying. For silencing my conscience. I forgive your stubbornness, your withholding, your distance, and your rage. I forgive the thousand cuts of the last ten years.

Do you receive my forgiveness? (I do.)

All of this is washed away, now, by the precious blood of Jesus.

And because 10 is the number of completion, now we get to close the book on our old marriage and start over fresh. A new marriage full of new promises.

Lino, I promise you that I am here, with you and for you.

I promise to back your play, to look out for your best interests, and to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

I promise to have right priorities. To put God first and to put you ahead of myself; to allow you to have your rightful place as the leader of our family and to honor your decisions once they’re made.

I promise to fight fair, to speak the truth with love, and to receive correction with as much grace as I can muster.

I promise to protect my heart, to be fully yours in every way, to seek you out first and only.

I promise to stop throwing away your stuff without asking first, to cook breakfast for dinner at least once a week, to always cry at the end of 300.

I promise that I will love you for who you are and for who you’re becoming, through all our changes, inside and out, until God calls us home.

I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new.” [Revelation 21:1-5 MSG]

This is my resurrection day
Nothing’s gonna hold me in the grave
This is my resurrection day
Nothing’s gonna hold me down
Say goodbye to my yesterdays
Ever since I met you I am changed
This is my resurrection day
Nothing’s gonna hold me down

.
Rend Collective, “Resurrection Day”