on fear, criticism, scraps, and feasts.

ashleefam62 I have recently become obsessed with reading Amazon book reviews.

It’s a normal thing I do now, like checking my bank account or reading The Skimm. At least once or twice a week, I sit in bed with my laptop, perusing Amazon for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes reading reviews of books—mostly books I’ve read, but occasionally books I haven’t.

In my own twisted mind, I have adopted this process as a way of preparing myself for what’s to come. After all, next April people will be leaving reviews on our book. Right there on the Internet, for all the world to see.

I have never been so terrified.

My entire career (as I know it now) was founded on the Internet. I started writing, for free, on the Internet. I taught myself how to be a photographer on the Internet. I launched a website—which eventually turned into a podcast, a shop, a writing course, a book deal—thanks to the great people of the Internet.

I have honed a craft on the Internet, created my own dream job on the Internet, and made a ton of real, genuine friends on the Internet. Suffice it to say, I love the Internet.

And yet.

The Internet still scares the crap out of me.

---

A woman I know recently published a book on motherhood. On the very day it was released, a small herd of people tore her to shreds. They left a noticeable streak of 1-star reviews, questioning a number of things: her motives, her theology, how many times she mentioned Jesus in the book (not enough, apparently). They called her names, questioned her faith, and described her book as "a waste of time" and "a huge disappointment."

The most alarming part was not the negative reviews themselves, but rather the number of people voting the reviews as “helpful” – which caused all of the 1-star reviews to float to the top of the page like a dark cloud.

I think of how hard this woman worked on that book, how many early mornings and late nights she spent writing and re-writing and editing and praying over those words. I think of all the people who were involved with the manuscript: editors and agents, friends and family. All to have it discredited, loudly, in the first 24 hours that people are allowed to comment publicly online.

I read the book myself. It was not the best book I have ever read, nor was it the worst. I found nothing in those pages worthy of the harsh criticism she received.

And that was the most disturbing part about it.

---

We do a reader survey for Coffee + Crumbs every year. The responses pour in by the hundreds, always around the same ratio: 94% positive, 6% negative.

The most interesting thing about that 6% is that they’re all upset about something different.

One says, “Your posts are too depressing.” Another says, “I feel like you wrap up every essay with a neat little bow; that’s not real life.” One says, “I wish you guys would lighten up a bit.” Another says, “You’ve become too precious.” One says, “You talk about God too much.” Another says, “You don’t talk about God enough.”

I take all the feedback with a grain of salt, and bring it to the team. (Worth mentioning: this is the same team who currently writes for no pay.)

My friend Anna reminds me of this truth as we analyze the feedback as a group:

“We cannot be all things to all people, but we can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”

---

Anne Lamott once wrote, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do---the actual act of writing---turns out to be the best part.”

---

Last Wednesday Everett came home from preschool and pulled artwork out of his backpack with an excited grin, his face beaming like the sun.

“Look what I made today, momma!”

He held up a yellow piece of paper with scribbles and stamps on it.

“I made it for you!” he said proudly.

I smiled at him, kneeling down to take the paper from his hands. Before I even responded, he darted out of the room to go find his Elmo.

---

Sometimes I find myself wishing that Coffee + Crumbs would stay small. There seems to be safety in smallness, less chances for harsh criticism and online hate. But in the very next breath I am working on a list of endorsers, adding ideas to the book marketing plan.

How does that work? How can I simultaneously want to grow bigger and stay small? How can I want our writing to reach more people while also wanting to stay in this safe cocoon we have managed to reside in for two whole years?

I suppose it is no different than motherhood.

I look at Carson, the Velcro baby of all Velcro babies. He is only two. There are probably loads of hilarious things that will someday come out of his mouth, brilliant ideas he will have, inspiring art he will create. And yet if I could keep him this small, waddling around the house in a diaper, I probably would. I would rock him in the grey rocking chair every night by the twinkle of the fish nightlight, burying my face in his neck and smelling his baby skin forever and ever.

He’s sweet and safe here, in the nest.

I know I can’t keep him here forever. At some point he will fly away to do good things, to make mistakes, to love and be loved, to leave a unique footprint on the earth. To keep him in the nest forever would stunt him, stifle him, trap him, and hinder him from reaching his full potential.

It’s still tempting, though.

We’re so cozy here.

---

Our pastor recently preached a sermon on the time Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the things I really love about our pastor is his ability to take a story I’ve heard a dozen times and put a fresh spin on it.

So he’s telling the story I already know: Jesus goes out on a boat to be alone, but the crowds follow him. The disciples tell Jesus that it's getting late, and that He should send the people away. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat.

The disciples look down at what they have, confused. They tell Jesus they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. It's not enough.

And then—this is the key, the fresh spin—Jesus says this: “Bring them here to me.”

You know how the story ends. He looks up to Heaven, breaks the bread, and feeds 5,000 men (plus women and children). There is enough leftover to fill twelve baskets.

---

How many times have I looked down at my work, my resources, my bank account, my art, my gifts and thought, this isn’t enough?

This isn’t good enough, God. This won’t work, God.

Perhaps I have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along.

It’s not my job to show up with a feast. It’s certainly not my job to work miracles. No, it’s my job to show up with the scraps, with my not-good-enough work and my not-good-enough talents and bring them to Him. It’s my job to put those scraps in greater hands and trust and believe with my whole heart that He is the only one capable of turning it into a feast.

---

This is the truth: I am damn proud of this book. I am proud of every essay in there, of every writer who contributed, of every story we reached deep into our hearts to find.

This is also the truth: I am terrified of what people will say about it. I am terrified of people ripping us apart, terrified that in the daylight I’ll shrug it off and say I’m fine but at 3am a single tear will roll down my cheek while I dissect the criticism in my head.

I don’t know how to keep courage. I don’t know how to stay brave when there might be people waiting in the wings to tear us down. I don’t know how to be stronger. I don’t know how to fight this, how to overcome my overwhelming insecurity. Sometimes I wonder if I should simply block Amazon from my browser so I won’t be tempted to check the reviews 400 times.

I’ll tell you what I’m praying for, though.

I’m praying that God will take our scraps and turn them into something beautiful. I'm praying that He alone will receive the glory if and when a feast arrives. I’m praying that the complaints—and the praise, to be honest—will not affect the way we see our own work. I’m praying that next April we will pull this artwork out of our backpacks, faces beaming like the sun, and hand it to the world with a simple, “We made this for you!”

Because we did. We made this for you.

Onward and upward.

the fleece.

ashlee

Photo by Wendy Laurel

One day last October, an unexpected e-mail popped up in my inbox. It said, “I’ve been watching Coffee + Crumbs for a while now; I was just curious if you’ve ever considered a book?”

This was before I had an agent coaching me on how to handle conversations with publishers, back when I was replying to e-mails all willy nilly, the way I always reply to e-mails—quickly and concisely and often with emojis.

Do you know what I told that publisher?

“I don't think Coffee + Crumbs is ready for a book of essays.”

Yep. I said that. I really typed those words.

I don’t know if that was just the fear talking, or doubt, or insecurity, or some bitter twisted cocktail of all of the above, but at the time, that was my truth. I practically scoffed at the idea, holding up a shield of resistance in front of my face.

Nope. It’s too soon. It’s too much. We aren’t ready for that. I am not ready for that.

Four weeks later, a new e-mail from a different publisher popped up in my inbox. It said, “We really love what you’ve made with Coffee + Crumbs, and we’d like to chat with you about writing a book.”

I wish I could say this is where all of the fear and insecurity fell away, and that receiving two e-mails from two different publishers in four weeks’ time was enough of an ego boost to convince me this book might be a good idea, but that’s not exactly how it went down. Doubt remained in full force, tugging at me, pulling on me, begging me to get down on the floor in the fetal position and hide behind my shield.

So I prayed about it. I told God I was scared. I prayed some more.

And then, He took the shield right out of my hands and told me to stand up.

***

There is a story in the bible about a man named Gideon who is probably better known for defeating an army of 135,000 Midianites with 300 men, and less known for the way he tested God.

While I love a good victory in the name of Yahweh, I have to admit—I am much more intrigued by the way Gideon worked up the courage to ask God for a sign (not once, twice).

When God told Gideon to gather the Israelite troops to defeat the Midianites, Gideon wanted to be sure it was really God’s voice he was hearing. So before complying with God’s wishes, he laid out a simple test. He put a scrap of fleece on the ground overnight and asked God to make the fleece wet with dew while keeping the surrounding ground dry.

And God made it so.

The fleece was so wet that when Gideon wrung it out the next morning, water filled an entire bowl. You’d probably assume that Gideon’s faith would be restored after this sign, but that’s not exactly how it went down. Gideon, bless his heart, needed just one more sign. He knew it was a lot to ask, which is why he prefaced his request by asking God not to be angry with him. This time around, he got super creative and asked for the opposite sign: that the fleece would be dry while the ground stayed wet.

Again, God made it so.

Finally Gideon believed, and went on to follow God’s instructions to defeat the Midianites.

Later in Hebrews 11, Gideon is referenced as a man of great faith.

***

Girl gets book deal. Shit hits the fan. Girl freaks out.

This is my very own Gideon tale.

***

When everything first happened: the e-mails from publishers, the agent, the book deal, one of the first emotions I felt (and was not expecting to feel) was guilt.

Publishers don’t just e-mail people like me out of the blue. There are writers on my very team slaving over this grueling process, day in and day out, pouring their hearts and souls into their manuscripts hoping that someday, someone will give them a chance.

My inner critic faithfully reminded me: You do not deserve this. You did not earn this.

It felt like I had cheated. Like I had walked up to the roller coaster everyone was dying to get on and skipped ahead to the front of the line. At night, I laid awake at 2am wondering if some of the other writers secretly resented me.

These nine women are like sisters to me; we are a family and we got to this point together. But things got complicated pretty quickly. There were lots and lots of e-mails and questions—valid questions—questions I myself might be asking if I was sitting on the other side of the table.

But I wasn’t really sitting on either side of the table; I was sitting right on top of it, smack dab in the center, as the official collector and distributor of all information.

I became the middlewoman between the agent/publisher and the writers. For two straight weeks, I did nothing but send e-mails. I became a machine, a human computer, information coming in and information going out. I took questions and forwarded them to the right people. I translated answers as soon as I got them. My brain became a vessel of constant input/output, to the point where I started getting nightly headaches.

With emotions and stress levels running at an all-time high, a few of those conversations left me feeling defensive and confused. Am I disappointing everyone? Is this book going to ruin us? What have I gotten myself into? Next thing I knew, I was driving to Chick-fil-A with tears streaming down my face to drown my sorrows in a carton of waffle fries.

I felt so fragile, so tired. Doesn’t everyone see how hard I’m working?

I cried a lot that night, and had to wonder: was this book really from God?

***

Things people don’t tell you about book publishing:

  1. You will spend more time sending e-mails than anything else.
  2. You don’t have as much say as you think you will.
  3. The whole process might wreak havoc on your marriage.

(Talk to me next April about all of the wonderful parts—I know they’re coming.)

***

In the two months leading up to the manuscript being turned in, I became a hermit. I was glued to my laptop at every opportunity dealing with e-mails about titles and cover images and contracts. I shut the bedroom door to write in peace and left town a few times to hole up in a hotel room to finish proposals and essays. I printed almost 300 pages at Kinkos and proofread them carefully in the backyard with a red pen in one hand and an iced coffee in the other.

I cannot remember exactly when I developed chronic insomnia, but somewhere along this journey, I started buying Zzzquil in bulk.

If I’m being real, gut-wrenchingly honest here, my marriage saw some of our Darkest Nights leading up to the manuscript being turned in. We fought a ton. We said things we couldn’t take back. We never had enough help with the kids. My husband felt neglected (he was), I felt like I wasn’t receiving enough grace (I wasn’t), and neither of those feelings were being communicated well. Instead, I expected him to read my mind and he expected me to read his, and after nine years of marriage, you’d think we’d both know by now that we are terrible mind readers.

It wasn’t the book’s fault, but the book was easy to blame. It was easy to point to. The printed manuscript sat right there on the bedroom dresser—all 64,488 words of it.

The day the manuscript was turned in, we weren’t even speaking to each other.

I celebrated in silence, threw up an obligatory Instagram, took my kids out for ice cream alone, and felt really, truly, sad. And it was that night, sitting isolated in my bedroom, feeling more empty and confused than ever, that I wondered for the second time: was this book really from God?

***

After the night of the waffle fries, I had a good heart-to-heart with the C+C writers. In some ways, I’m grateful that things got temporarily complicated because it opened the door for some bigger conversations about the future, about expectations, about roles and teamwork and trust. I realized how much my own insecurity played a part in my defensiveness, which is not the kind of leader I want to be.

Brett and I kissed and made up. (And also went to therapy.) A few weeks later, on the two year anniversary of Coffee + Crumbs, he brought home flowers and a box of coffee crumb cake mix—a perfect peace offering.

Last weekend we ran away to Calistoga to celebrate our nine-year wedding anniversary.

I left my laptop at home.

***

My publisher tells me this is normal, that every author feels this way, that I am in the thick of it, that the sun will come out soon. I believe those words. And the only reason I am writing all of this down is because next April, I want to be able to look back on the journey as a whole and appreciate the love and work and sweat and tears that have been poured into this book.

And I want you to know this part of the story, too.

So that when you see the glamorous side later: the book launch party and shiny new books propped up on shelves in the bookstore, you can appreciate the full journey—in all of its messy and beautiful glory—and feel like you were along for the ride.

Nothing good ever comes easy; we know this. Motherhood. Marriage. Running a marathon. Climbing a mountain. Writing a book. These things require perseverance, patience, endurance, loyalty, love, dedication, and heaps and heaps of grace. These things offer us the chance to grow, to adapt, to learn, to sacrifice, to push ourselves to the limits, and to lean on God like never before.

As far as work goes, this book is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not sure what’s more exciting at this point: the mental image of this book sitting on shelves in actual bookstores, or all the ways I will be refined in the process.

***

“Writing is my calling.” “Music is my calling.” “Missions are my calling.”

I’ve heard lots of people—Christians especially—talk about calling.

God is calling me here; God is calling me there.

I’ve said that before. I’ve had days where I suddenly felt my heart stir for something, for someone, for someplace, and the feeling seemingly came out of the sky.

Do things like that come out of the sky? Or do things like that come from God?

I suppose it depends on whether or not you believe in God.

I’m definitely not an expert in callings (in yours, or mine). But I do know this: when I needed the fleece to be wet, it was wet, and when I needed the fleece to be dry, it was dry.

***

On November 13, 2013, the idea for Coffee + Crumbs was planted in my heart.

Six weeks later, in a city 45 minutes from where I live, a total stranger named N’tima Preusser wrote a blog post called Babies Ruin Bodies.

On February 5, 2014, Babies Ruin Bodies ran on the Huffington Post, and one day in March it popped up on my Facebook feed. I subscribed to N’tima’s blog that night.

On June 15, 2014, I e-mailed N’tima out of the blue, introduced myself for the very first time, and, like a total crazy person, asked her to write for a brand new website that hadn’t even launched yet. Seven days later, she said yes.

Five weeks after that, her first essay went up: When Love Feels Heavy.

That post was viewed over a million times that month.

Coffee + Crumbs was only four weeks old.

***

On August 8, 2014, a stranger named April sent me an essay called Bad Math that made me cry actual tears all over the dress I was wearing.

She sent me another essay in September called Brave Brave Brave and I cried (again) reading it at the coffee shop.

I wrote her back and casually said, “Let’s add you to the writer team.”

She replied, “I am going to go scream in the bathroom, BRB.”

Our e-mails turned into texts and our texts turned into 15-minute voicemails and at some point, she confessed that she had been reading my personal blog since 2010. I laughed hysterically. We wrote together and maintained a long-distance friendship for nineteen months before meeting in real life for the first time in Palm Springs for my 30th birthday.

She walked through the door carrying a giant cake with tiny cactuses on it.

I knew we’d be friends forever.

***

I have hundreds of little miracles in my pocket, just waiting to be written down.

I have more stories involving C+C writers, and more perfectly-timed e-mails I could tell you about. But generally speaking, you should know that every time I have ever wanted to quit writing, an e-mail has popped up in my inbox from a total stranger the same week. (And I have wanted to quit writing more than once; there are lots of e-mails.) They all say some rendition of the same thing: Keep writing.

***

I am no longer wondering whether or not this book is from God.

Because now when things get hard, I just remember the fleece.

***

“You’ve so earned this!” “If anyone deserves this, it’s you!” “All of your hard work is finally paying off!”

Well. Maybe.

The bigger truth? The more exciting truth? The truer truth?

Look at the fleece.

***

I don’t know what your calling is. I don’t know if you’ll ever get a book deal or an agent or that dream job or that dream spouse. I don’t know if you’ll get pregnant or adopt or start that business or move to that city.

But I do know that God is working, all of the time, in every moment, all around you. He is in every breath you take, every decision, every step, every move, every interaction, every…..thing.

God is in everything.

And if you don’t believe me, that’s okay.

Because all I have to do is check your fleece.

on signing a book deal and eating chips on the carpet.

February 25, 2016 Today I signed a book deal for Coffee + Crumbs.

And then my child pooped on the grass in our backyard.

……this is a story about having it all.

***

People always say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. I have mixed feelings about that sentiment because the truth is: I really love wearing yoga pants every day.

However. On the rare occasion that I have a meeting scheduled, I typically put on real clothes. I always feel like Supermom when I’m wearing real clothes, as if the sheer act of wearing pants that button makes me more efficient. I race around the house sipping on coffee, getting everyone ready in five-minute spurts. You! Get your socks! Where’s your backpack? You! Get away from the curling iron! HOT HOT HOT DON’T TOUCH THAT!

I curl half my hair, then take a break to get a puzzle for the Velcro baby attached to my ankles. I curl the other half, then pack my bag: laptop, charger, wallet, phone, lipgloss, gum, day planner. Give one kid a yogurt pouch; brush the other kid’s teeth. Boom. We’re ready.

The babysitter arrives and Everett and I fly out the door on mission Get To Preschool On Time To Secure The Blue Bike (not the red bike, no mommy, I don’t like the red bike). I sign him in, kiss his cheek, and head off on mission Get Good Table At Coffee Shop (not near the bathroom, not under the AC, not next to the crazy man who watches loud YouTube videos).

The Starbucks barista knows me by name, which is sort of embarrassing but also makes me feel important in a pathetic sort of way.

“Hey Ashlee!” she smiles. She’s committed my high-maintenance order to memory, bless her (grande Americano, two pumps mocha, two pumps peppermint, shot of steamed milk on top – roll your eyes, I deserve it).

I set up camp at the community table to cram in as much work as possible in a 2.5 hour window. I spend half of that time with my bookkeeper, who informs me that I actually made money in 2015, which was very exciting for five whole minutes until I realized that I owed all of that money to the IRS (yay self-employment!). We talk about all sorts of official business – sales tax, shop reports, blah blah blah, we agree to meet again in a couple months and then she leaves.

Two minutes later, an e-mail hits my inbox. The E-mail. Finally. Official letterhead and everything. I celebrate in total silence, and contemplate telling the Starbucks barista about my Big News. She is nowhere to be found. It’s just me, at the community table, sitting next to a dude wearing headphones. Of course.

I carry the excitement home, and decide we should eat lunch outside to celebrate.

“It’s a beautiful day!” I tell the boys. “Let’s eat outside!"

I'm wearing pants that button, anything is possible today.

I prepare a quick lunch while they play on the patio, making sure to put Carson’s food on the orange plate and Everett’s lunch on the green plate.

“Mommy! I have to go potty!!”

I look outside and see Everett crossing his legs next to his scooter.

“Just go on the grass, honey! It’s fine!”

My phone rings; it’s my husband. I excitedly tell him about the book deal, about the fabulous meeting with the bookkeeper, about what a great day I’m having.

“Mommy!”

“Just a second, Ev, Mommy’s on the phone!”

“—but wait!”

“Mommy said just a……”

“—I went poop!”

Ummmmm, what?

I walk outside to find that Everett did, indeed, poop. Right outside on the grass. In broad daylight. Like a puppy......like it’s no big deal.

He pulls up his pants.

“Look, mommy! I pooped on the grass like Benjamin!”

I am too stunned to respond. A few weeks ago we had been at my friend Christina’s house for a play date. After playing in the backyard for a while, the boys informed us that Benjamin had pooped on the grass behind a bush. We never found evidence and thought they were lying.

I don’t know what to believe anymore.

I relay the story to Christina via text. She is mortified.

I take care of the poop and contemplate taking a picture of it on the grass to remind my husband that this is why I don’t want a dog. I’m dealing with enough poop inside the house; I don’t think I can handle any more.

Christina and I continue texting—I tell her about the book deal and suggest we celebrate that afternoon with Chipotle and margaritas. She offers to bring over the margarita supplies and I make a plan to order Chipotle through Postmates, a new delivery service in town.

I hop online and place an order for chips and salsa for us, and quesadillas for the kids, all to be delivered at 3pm. The plan was perfect: Chipotle would show up on my doorstep, we’d throw our kids in the trampoline, and clink margaritas on the patio in a tiny moment of celebration.

Cheers! I’d say. To the book! She’d say.

At 3pm, a giant Chipotle bag appears on my doorstep like magic. I text Christina again to see if her kids are up from their naps.

Bad news. The kids are up, but Grace is running a fever. We’re not going to make it.

I stare at the Chipotle bag on the counter. Of course.

I tell her that I’m sorry, and that I’d swing by in a bit to drop off the kid meals and an order of chips and salsa. Everett climbs up in his chair and I put Carson in his booster seat, ripping the quesadilla into little bites for him. While I grab a drink from the fridge, Carson squeezes his chocolate milk out all over the floor (and all over himself).

“CARSON! NO!” I cry out but it’s too late.

I spend the next ten minutes wiping up spilled milk while my chips get cold and my drink gets warm. Once the kids are done eating, I send them into the living room to play so I can mop under the kitchen table. I can't stand walking on a sticky floor.

I’m mid-mop, starting to sweat, when both kids start crying. I didn’t see what happened, but I’m assuming someone took a toy and someone hit back and now Carson is lying face down sobbing into the rug.

Really, guys? Today?

“That’s IT! Everyone outside! Into the trampoline, mommy needs a break!"

I grab a kid in each arm and use my foot to slide the screen door open.

“Five minutes in the trampoline. Go jump!”

My chips and salsa have been sitting on the kitchen counter for 45 minutes and my stomach is growling. I dump the kids in the trampoline and zip the net closed.

I retreat to the kitchen, grab my chips and soda (margarita would have been better) and head to my bedroom to watch the kids through our sliding glass door, which directly faces the trampoline.

I sit down on the floor of my bedroom and lean my body against the bed with my legs crossed in front of me, bag of chips in one hand and cup of salsa in the other.

Serenity now.

Not one minute later, Carson smashes his face against the trampoline net and starts sobbing. He wants to come back inside.

And I just......laugh. Out loud. To myself. This is my life. This is my loud, chaotic, trying-to-have-it-all, anything-but-professional, never-a-dull-moment, poop-on-the-grass, spilled-milk-everywhere, takes-45-minutes-to-eat-my-chips life.

Have you ever wondered what it looks like to “have it all”?

Because that, my friends, is how I celebrated on the day I signed my very first book deal. By eating Chipotle chips on the floor of my bedroom all by myself looking at this view:

IMG_2101 (1)

I wouldn't trade it for anything.

The Magic of Motherhood is coming to bookstores near you, April 2017. More here.

P.s. Yesterday I turned in the manuscript and Christina and I made a plan to get frozen yogurt with the kids to celebrate. 20 minutes later, we realized we had gone to different frozen yogurt shops. True story. So I sat outside at Yogurtland celebrating with my kids, while she sat one mile away at Yo Yo Yogurt with her kids. I don't even know.