Life at Warp 10

Divergent: Do You Know Where You Belong?

Divergent by Veronica RothBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Did you know what you wanted to do with your entire life when you were only sixteen? What if you’d been forced to choose and could never change your decision?

That’s part of the dilemma faced by Beatrice (who later calls herself Tris) in Divergent.

The society in Divergent is divided into four factions—Abnagation (the selfless helpers), Amity (the peaceful, happy farmers), Candor (the honest, justice-seeking law-makers), Dauntless (the brave guardians), and Erudite (the intellectual researchers and scientists). In their sixteenth year, teens undergo testing to see where their aptitude lies, and then they must choose the faction that will become their new family. Faction over blood. And there’s no turning back unless you want to live factionless, a homeless, hungry outcast.

The leadership insists that factions maintain order and protect their society, and so they ruthlessly hunt down divergents—people who don’t fit into a single faction. Tris is a divergent. When it comes time to choose, she doesn’t have the guidance the aptitude test is supposed to provide.

Such a society sounds awful to our freedom-loving ears (though my husband and I did have some fun on the ride home from the movie trying to decide which faction we’d fit best in), but it’s not really so far off. How many of us were uncertain of what we wanted to do with our lives when we had to pick a major in university or a program of study in college? How many people end up in a different career from the one they went to school for? How many people stay trapped in a job they hate, that they selected when they were too young to know who they really were?

Last September, my husband went back to school. He’d already worked as a government contractor in the U.S. and an editor in Canada. Now he’s going through to be a paralegal.

When he originally went to university fresh out of high school, he thought he knew where his career path would lead. He’s had the freedom to change course, but not everyone does.

In fact, I think more people don’t have that freedom than do. Family commitments. Financial commitments. And when they reach a time in their life when they could change course, they feel like it’s too late to start over. (It never is, by the way. Just take a look at Debra Eve’s blog about late bloomers.)

But all this got me thinking—would we have fewer people changing course or feeling trapped if we didn’t ask young adults to choose their path so early in life? Are you someone who changed course? Was it difficult? I’d love to know what influenced your decision.

And for fun, what faction would you be in the Divergent world?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen. Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

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I’m Considering Eating the Groundhog

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last week the pipes in my house froze for the third time this winter.

When I looked in the mirror, I had crazy “is winter over yet?” eyes. Unless I did something fast, I was going to end up like this…

Wolf Ate Groundhog with Words

So I decided I needed to do something fun. Since my ebook of suspense short stories is called Frozen, it seemed fitting for me to put it on sale.

For this week only, you can get Frozen for 99 cents. If you haven’t yet read it, now’s the time!

Frozen: Two Suspense Short StoriesHere are a few more details for you about Frozen.

Twisted sleepwalking.
A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag.
And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.
“A Purple Elephant” is a 2,900-word suspense short story about grief and betrayal.

In “The Replacements,” a prodigal returns home to find that her parents have started a new family, one with no room for her. This disturbing 3,600-word suspense short story is about the lengths to which we’ll go to feel like we’re wanted, and how we don’t always see things the way they really are.

Grab your copy of Frozen here.

Hopefully it will help you forget about winter for a little while at least :D

(The sale is Amazon only, but if you want a version for a different ereader, buy a copy from Amazon, send me an email, and I’ll send you a version compatible with whatever your preferred e-reading device is.)

Please help me spread the word about the sale on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

If you’d like to use some pre-made tweets, here they are.

Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. A woman losing her grip on reality. FROZEN on sale for 0.99 (Click to tweet)

Prodigal returns to find her parents have started new family with no room for her~Suspense story FROZEN 0.99 til Fri (Click to tweet)

Two disturbing suspense stories in one book ~ FROZEN on sale for 99 cents til Fri (Click to tweet)

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Image Credit: Asia Jones

How Far Would You Go to Be Accepted?

Misfits

Image Credit: Peter Sorensen (sxc.hu)

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Sorry for the silence last week everyone. My husband ended up at the emergency room and was home sick for a few days. But I’m back this week to fulfill my promise!

Two weeks ago. I told you about my struggle to forgive the man who killed my best friend and how that influenced “A Purple Elephant,” one of the short stories in my ebook Frozen.

This week I wanted to talk about my inspiration for the other story, “The Replacements.”

I’ve heard that the best writers have had horrible childhoods or traumatic pasts. I think that’s untrue, a myth perpetuated by a small minority who talk openly about their tragic pasts and the sensitive nature of creatives that makes us more prone to addictions.

I had a happy childhood. In fact, I’d say that, overall, my life has been a good one.

That doesn’t mean I can’t write about tragedy, unbalanced characters, or the darker sides of life.

What it does mean is that I have to find something, some emotion, that I share with that character, no matter how small the connection. (If you’re a writer and want to see what I mean, check out my post on Three Steps to Creating Believable Character Emotions.)

With Natalie, the point of view character in “The Replacements,” that emotion was an overwhelming desire to be loved, accepted, and wanted. (You can read about my struggle with this in my posts My Life As A Three-Headed Chimera and Do You Ever Feel Like You Don’t Fit In?)

I chose a very different path from the one I gave to Natalie, but that was part of what I wanted to explore in this story—a different path. I wanted to take that deep-seated need to be loved and I wanted and put it in a situation where I could create a character who would take it to an extreme that I never would have. I wanted to explore how far a person might go to feel like she had a place to belong.

In “The Replacements,” Natalie is a prodigal daughter who ran away from home and cut off contact with her parents years before. As the story opens, she’s fresh out of an abusive relationship and she’s tired of living on the streets. The only thing she wants, the only thing that matters to her, is to be able to return home to her parents, to know they still want her and love her. 

Except when she arrives home, she finds out her parents have “replaced” her by having more children. In Natalie’s broken mind, the only way she can be welcomed home is by first getting rid of her replacements.

Frozen: Two Suspense Short StoriesHere are a few more details for you about Frozen.

Twisted sleepwalking.
A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag.
And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.
“A Purple Elephant” is a 2,900-word suspense short story about grief and betrayal.

In “The Replacements,” a prodigal returns home to find that her parents have started a new family, one with no room for her. This disturbing 3,600-word suspense short story is about the lengths to which we’ll go to feel like we’re wanted, and how we don’t always see things the way they really are.

Frozen is currently available at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. More venues coming soon!

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

What To Do When Your Loved Ones Want You To Quit Your Dream

Don't Quit WritingThree years ago I wrote a post called “A Writer’s Greatest Challenge.” I’m posting an updated version of it today under the title “What to Do When Your Loved Ones Want You to Quit Your Dream.”

As we start into 2014, many of you have probably committed to making this year the year your writing career takes off, or you’ve decided to finally finish your novel, or maybe you’re taking the plunge to write your very first story.

Or maybe you’re trying to decide whether to give up on your writing and move on.

What anyone who’s been writing long enough will tell you is that, as writers, we all face questions (and criticism) from our friends and family because of our choice to write. And especially if we turn our writing into a career.

A lot has changed in the three years since I originally wrote this post. The people I care about most have come to see the value in what I do (or have at least accepted that I’m not going to quit), and I’ve seen my career flourish in ways I’d never have imagined.

But I’m posting this again because writing it all those years ago was what kept me from giving up. I’m hoping reading it now will keep some of you from giving up as well.

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If you want to be a writer, the most difficult challenge you’re going to face isn’t writer’s block. It isn’t learning how to properly use a comma or write a lead or find your voice. It isn’t even getting an agent or making enough money to pay the bills.

If you want to be a writer, the most difficult challenge you’ll face comes when someone you love says one of the following things about your writing career:

“You need to start making better decisions.”

“It’s time you grew up and acted like a responsible adult.”

“You can still write as a hobby, but you need to get a real job.”

In her post “Are We Born to Create,” bestselling author Kristen Lamb wrote, “Many of us, when we tell our family that we want to be a writer, what they hear is akin to, ‘Blah, blah, throwing away college education blah blah cult blah Kool-Aid, blah blah writer.’”

And it hurts.

You want them to recognize how hard you work and how worthwhile your job is. More than that, you want them to be proud of you.

If they keep at it long enough or if you hear it from enough people, the pain crescendos to a level where you can’t ignore it anymore. You start to doubt yourself and the decisions you’ve made. You’re forced into doing one of two things. Either you build a protective wall around that part of your life, perhaps even your whole life, and you exclude them from it, or you give up the career you love for something more acceptable.

Neither is a good solution.

So next time you face these joy-stealing, dream-killing, confidence-shaking lies, here’s how to survive.

Remind Yourself that the World Needs Writers

When I was growing up, a lot of people pushed for me to become a veterinarian or a teacher, despite the fact that I faint at the sight of blood and don’t have the patience to deal with a roomful of children or teenagers (hey, at least I’m honest about my limitations). They told me (in not so many words) that becoming a writer was a waste of my potential. With my intelligence, I could do anything. Why would I throw away my future?

The world needs writers.

Without writers, we wouldn’t have classic literature or textbooks to study. We wouldn’t have the books, journal articles, and other written resources teachers use to learn their subjects and prepare their lesson plans.

Without writers, the millions of people whose favorite pastime is curling up with a book or magazine would have to fall back on watching TV or movies . . . except that without writers, we wouldn’t have TV shows or movies either.

Without writers, politicians would become a lot less eloquent. (You don’t really think they write their speeches themselves, do you?)

Without writers, both print and online newspapers would have no content.

Without writers, charities and non-profits wouldn’t be able to get their message out and bring in the funds they need to help people.

Without writers, we’d have to revert to preserving all the new advances in knowledge through oral traditions. Any student of history will tell you what a flawed method that is.

Ask for Clarification on What It Means to Have a Real Job

Some well-meaning relatives may go so far as to suggest you should have gotten a job at a fast food place long ago. I believe that all law-abiding work is honorable, but don’t understand why a minimum-wage job is a “real job” while writing isn’t. What does having a “real job” mean?

Does it mean helping people?

After publication of an article that Lisa Hall-Wilson and I co-wrote on pornography addiction, we received an email thanking us and telling us that we might have saved a marriage. It’s not the only thank you email I’ve received over the years. My words make a difference.

Does it mean fighting traffic?

Seems to me that telecommuting and home offices are a growing trend because people don’t want to fight traffic, burn increasingly expensive gas, and worry about bad weather.

Does it mean someone else needs to sign your paychecks?

Someone else does sign my checks. And I’ll let you in on a secret—those paychecks bring in more than I could ever make from a minimum-wage job.

Does it mean putting on a tie, or khakis and a polo shirt/blouse, or a uniform?

I could put those on to sit at home if I really wanted, though I’m not sure why I would when I can work in sweats.

Does it mean having the respect of clients and colleagues?

If you’re professional, you can build good relationships, a good reputation, and develop regular clients regardless of your job title.

Find Some Allies

This world will always have people who feel that they know better than you what you should do with your life. It’ll always have people who find it easy to judge you for your choices even though they’ve never been in your position. It’ll always have people who draw attention to your failures and weaknesses rather than your successes and strengths.

Find yourself some people who’ll call you out on evil rather than on personal preference, who have your back, and who will fight harder for you than you do for yourself. You need the support. Even Batman had Robin and Superman had Lois Lane.

Keep In Mind Who You Really Need to Please

When it comes right down to it, other people’s opinions don’t matter. You have to make your own decisions and follow your own conscience. You are accountable only to God.

So have a good cry and some chocolate. Realize that it’s always going to sting. And then pick yourself up off the floor, sit your bottom back down in your computer chair, and meet that deadline . . . and the one after that . . . and the one after that . . .

Are you following your dream or did you give it up because your friends or family didn’t approve? Are you a writer who’s faced some of these criticisms? How did you handle it?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including Strong Female Characters and How to Write Dialogue.

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Image Credit: Sigurd Decroos (via sxc.hu)

The Hobbit: Where There’s Treasure, There’s Always a Dragon

Hobbit By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins and the band of dwarves continue their quest to steal the Arkenstone back from the dragon who has it (the Smaug of the title), along with all the dwarven treasure stored inside the Lonely Mountain.

Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf who is heir to the kingdom of the Lonely Mountain, desperately wants the Arkenstone because he believes it will reunite the scattered dwarven families so they can destroy the dragon who stole their home. He wants to rule over his rightful kingdom. He wants the gold. It’s the dream that drives him.

As the band finally reaches the mountain and Bilbo heads into the depths to steal the Arkenstone, the oldest of the dwarves pulls Bilbo aside.

“If there is a dragon sleeping down there,” he says, “don’t wake it.”

The problem is that if you want the treasure, you’ll never be able to get it without waking the dragon.

It’s a truth well known to fantasy fans. It’s a truth that’s equally true in life.

The only difference is that the treasures we seek in real life aren’t piles of gold or magical stones. They’re usually less tangible—the dreams and goals we have for our lives.

And the dragons…they don’t have impenetrable scales and they don’t breath fire. But they’re no less dangerous. They’re doubts. Fears. Insecurities. Sometimes they’re even people or circumstances standing between us and the thing we most desire.

Dragons are scary things, so when we first realize they’re standing between us and our treasure, sometimes it’s easier to give up on the treasure. That’s the path the unhappy Thorin had chosen until Gandalf encouraged him to go after the Arkenstone, dragon or no dragon.

When we first try to reach the treasure, we often take the same tactic Bilbo took. We try to sneak around it, hoping it won’t wake up. Hoping it won’t see us. We try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

But dragons, in real life like in fantasy, can’t be tiptoed around. Trying only delays the inevitable.

When we wake the dragon and have to face it, many of us will try to bargain with it or trick it. I’ll only do this, if this happens. If I do this, it doesn’t really mean I’m that kind of person. I don’t have to do thus-and-so to succeed. I’ll follow my dream when a certain perfect situation occurs. I didn’t really want it anyway.

Like when Bilbo tried to flatter Smaug, dragons won’t be tricked by words and rationalizations.

And so we’re left with only one option if we want the treasure.

It won’t be easy. We’ll come out the other side a little more battered than when we went in. The costs may be higher than we ever thought.

But it’s the only way.

Because if we decide to give up on this treasure and chase another, we won’t be avoiding facing a dragon. We’ll only be changing dragons.

Where there’s treasure, there’s always a dragon. The dragon always wakes. And if you want the treasure, there’s only one way—fight the dragon and slay it.

January is the time when most of us think about where we want our year to head. What’s your treasure and your dragon? Have you managed to face it?

Special Announcement: I’ll be releasing a book of suspense short stories in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

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What’s the Secret to Making Relationships Last?

Making Relationships LastBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

There’s an old “joke” that says men marry women expecting they’ll never change and women marry men expecting they can change them. And they both end up disappointed.

I’ve been thinking about that since I went to listen to a woodwind quintet a week ago. It wasn’t the quintet themselves that got me thinking (though their music was beautiful). It was the announcement that the next classical performance would be a string quartet playing Beethoven’s Opus 131.

Beethoven’s Opus 131 is unique. Instruments go out of tune as you play them, so in most performances there are breaks which allow the musicians to re-tune.

But not in Beethoven’s Opus 131. He wrote it without those breaks on purpose. Each instrument in the quartet would go out of tune in its own way, at its own time, and the musicians would need to adjust as it happened. It required an additional level of skill, commitment, and focus.

Director Yaron Zilberman chose Opus 131 as the central symbol for his film A Late Quartet because he believed that what happens in Opus 131 represents what happens to all of us in our relationships. With the exertion and activity, right and wrong notes, time and wear, we all change. None of us are the same at the end of our lives as we were at the beginning. And life doesn’t stop so that we can re-tune.

We have to make adjustments as we go or eventually we’ll be so out of tune with those we’re playing with that it will be painful for all involved and we’ll need to stop and walk away.

I’d never thought about it that way before, but I’ve seen it happen in my long-lasting friendships. On Sunday I had coffee with one of my best friends. Our friendship has lasted for 18 years, through high school, into being university roommates, into volunteering together, into her being maid-of-honor at my wedding, into navigating the waters of careers and home ownership and adding other people into our lives. We’re not the same girls we were when we met. Yet we’re still friends and expect to be friends for the rest of our lives.

I’m now seeing the same in my marriage. We have love. We have commitment. We have friendship. But as we head out of the “honeymoon” years of marriage and into the long haul, we’re being forced to look at what it takes to make a relationship last for a lifetime. We aren’t the exact same people who got married three years ago. We’ve changed.

So knowing we all change, we have to ask—what’s the secret to making a relationship last?

I think Beethoven and Zilberman were right. It’s the willingness to make the little adjustments as you go. Accepting responsibility for your part. Setting aside your expectations of what things “should” be like and instead finding a way to make them beautiful just the way they are.

Do you agree with me? Disagree? What would you say is the secret to making relationships (both friendship and romantic) last?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Image Credit: Nithya Ramanujam (via sxc.hu)

Gravity: The Number One Reason to Never Give Up

Gravity movieBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Do you ever have those days (or weeks or months) where one thing after another seems to go wrong? Or maybe things are going right, but not as right as you’d thought they would? Or you’re just plain tired of working so hard to stay in the same place?

And you think about giving up. Giving up on that project or job or relationship.

It’s tempting because you feel like nothing you try works. You feel alone.

In the movie Gravity, engineer and first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) ends up as the sole survivor of an accident in space. Her shuttle is destroyed and she’s running out of oxygen. She’s lost contact with mission control on earth.

Worse, everything she tries only seems to make her situation worse. She makes it to the International Space Station, only to find the crew there has already evacuated to escape the same debris field that destroyed her shuttle. The parachute on the only remaining module has been accidentally deployed due to damage from the debris field, making it useless for returning to earth.

Before she can successfully make contact with anyone on the space station’s radio, the station catches fire. She escapes in the module, planning to use its thrusters to reach the Chinese space station Tiangong and use one of its modules to return to earth instead. Except the thrusters are out of fuel.

When she finally reaches the Chinese stations, its orbit is deteriorating (also due to being shoved out of position by the debris field), and she can’t dock with it. She shoots herself across space using explosive decompression and a fire extinguisher and barely makes it inside.

And just when she thinks she’s safe, just when it seems like nothing else could go wrong, when the module lands into a lake, a fire causes her to need to pop the hatch. Water rushes in and drags the module underwater. Ryan forces her way out, but her space suit is too heavy and she can’t swim.

She sheds her spacesuit and swims to shore.

As my husband and I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but think about how there was something to be learned from Gravity about what we can do when we feel like giving up.

Think outside the box and try something different.

When Ryan was inside the module with no thruster fuel, she realized that she had to find an unconventional solution to her problem. She couldn’t keep trying the traditional solution because it wasn’t going to work.

She found a way to trick the module into firing its landing thrusters instead (the ones that are only supposed to fire when the module senses it’s a certain distance from the earth’s surface).

Sometimes the solution to our problem isn’t giving up. Sometimes the solution is to look at our situation a different way.

Walk through your fear and discomfort.

At the start of the movie, one of the biggest things holding Ryan back from making it back to earth alive was her own fear and space sickness. She kept focusing on what would happen if she didn’t succeed.

It’s easy when things aren’t going right to allow our fear of what could possibly happen cloud our judgment or make us freeze. But we won’t succeed unless we push past our fear and what ifs.

And most of all, don’t lose hope.

The number one reason to never give up is we don’t know what will happen next (Click to tweet this.)

If Ryan had given up at any point along the way, she wouldn’t have made it safely back to earth. We can’t know what the next minute, hour, or day will bring. And maybe if we hold on and keep trying, it will be the turn for the better we were waiting for.

Have you felt like giving up on something lately? What do you do when this happens?

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Related Posts:
When Is It Time to Quit on Our Dreams?
The Dangerous Side of Hope

What Star Wars Character Are You?

Star Wars The Empire Strikes BackBy Marcy Kennedy (@Marcy Kennedy)

Every few months I like to do a crazy personality quiz here. The first quiz (What Star Trek Race Are You?) started because of a disagreement my husband and I were having, and I had such fun with the quiz that since then I’ve also done What Lord of the Rings Character Are You? I have many more I’d like to do in the future, and this week that means What Star Wars Character Are You?

Here’s how it works. Read the descriptions below and write down the letter of the one that’s most like you. (Don’t look for it to be exact, since you might be a child of two of the characters.) At the end, I’ll tell you what character you picked

(A) You’re confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance, loyal to those who are loyal to you, and you believe the rules are often arbitrary or unnecessarily restrictive. Despite this, your motivation is always the greater good.

(B) You have a quiet strength and determination that people respect. When a tough situation arises, you deal with it with tact and diplomacy, and you believe the rules are there for a good reason. We should respect the people in authority and the rules they make.

(C) You struggle to make decisions, largely because you underestimate your own abilities. You see things in black and white and are uncomfortable with the grey areas. Seeing the world in black and white, as good and evil, also makes you willing to sacrifice yourself for what you believe is right.

(D) You’re a born creative who thinks outside the box. Rather than repeatedly beating against a barrier, you try to find a way around, under, or over it. Unfortunately, this can also make you impetuous and impulsive, and can sometimes get you into trouble.

(E) Your biggest flaw is that you worry too much, including about what other people think. This leaves you unable to stand up for yourself, but also comes with a benefit. You’re able to see the flaws in a plan and analyze the chances for success better than anyone else.

(F) You have a taste for the finer things in life. You’re a shrewd businessperson when it comes to forwarding your own interests. This means you sometimes hurt people, but you regret when you do and you strive to make it right.

ANSWER KEY:

Do not go farther until you’ve picked your letter!!

(A) You’re Han Solo. As a Corellian, Han has no use for the odds because he believes he can beat them. He’s also learned from experience that laws were made by people in ivory towers and don’t usually apply well to the rough world he lives in, so he lives by his own code. Under his roguish exterior hides a heart of gold.

(B) You’re Leia Organa. Not only was Leia a princess of Alderaan, but she was also a member of the Imperial Senate until Darth Vader realized she was actually working with the Rebel Alliance. Unlike Han, she believes in going through the proper, official channels whenever possible, but she also believes that, if evil people gain power, they should be unseated: The government is meant to rule for the best interest of all. She was an exemplary diplomat.

(C) You’re Luke Skywalker. Everyone knows Luke as the “hero” of the Star Wars movies, but Luke didn’t see himself as a hero. He didn’t want to be a Jedi at the beginning, and when he was training with Yoda he was constantly talking about what he couldn’t do. He had to get past that and learn to trust his abilities before he could succeed. His black-and-white view of the world was a strength, but also a weakness.

(D) You’re R2-D2. He might have been a droid, but he was arguably the most creative of the Star Wars characters. While the others stood around talking about what to do, he jumped in and started testing ideas. Sometimes that got him into close calls and put his friends in danger, but sometimes it also got them out of it.

(E) You’re C-3PO. C-3PO was always giving them the odds of success, to the point where Han admonished him, “Never tell me the odds!” What he might be most known for, though, is his groveling. He was always apologizing for someone else’s actions in the hope of avoiding repercussions, and he rarely stood up for himself.

(F) You’re Lando Calrissian. Lando betrayed Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO into the hands of Darth Vader, even though Han was supposed to be his friend, in order to save his city, Bespin’s Cloud City (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back). But, when it really counted later, Lando made amends by helping save Han and the Rebels, and he and Han stayed friends throughout their lives.

Which Star Wars character (or combo) did you end up as?

Who Makes You Want to Be a Better Person?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I had a light-hearted quiz post prepared for today (and you’ll still see it next week), but I couldn’t post it. I felt the need to re-post something I wrote two years ago. You see, Saturday was the 12th anniversary of the death of one of my dearest friends, and this past week another friend of mine lost her son. He was only 24 years old. An unexpected health complication took him from those who loved him.

So I needed to re-run this post in honor of the memory of both Amanda and James because I know that he was to many people what she was to me.

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“I have forgotten that men cannot see unicorns. If men no longer know what they’re looking at, there may be other unicorns in the world yet, unknown, and glad of it.”—The Last Unicorn (1982 movie) based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle.

Unicorn

Don’t believe anyone who tells you unicorns don’t exist. I’ve met one. And no, I’m not talking about those pictures that occasionally circle the internet of goats who’ve had their horns trained to twist together.

I’ve met a real, live unicorn. She just didn’t look like what most people might expect.

Accounts differ about where the unicorn legend originated, but the most consistent picture of them is of a white horse with a single spiral horn growing from their forehead. As every little girl will tell you, they’re exceptionally beautiful.

Their horn soon became known as the bane of evil. A unicorn horn could drive away evil, neutralize poison, and kill any monster it came into contact with. Both their horn and their blood were said to have healing properties.

In China, unicorns came to symbolize wisdom. They were the kings among the animals. In the United Kingdom, they symbolized purity and many kings made them part of their heraldry.

They were and are beloved for a very simple reason.

Unicorns are the embodiment of good.

My unicorn had dark hair, hands that were cold even in summer, and an infectious laugh. She was exceptionally beautiful both inside and out.

Her name was Amanda, and she was one of my best friends. In 2001, a repeat-offender drunk driver with a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit and a suspended license slammed into her driver’s side door at 100/mph (160 km/h). After 21 hours in a coma, she died. In a way, it was a blessing. The doctors said even if she’d woken up, she’d never have been the Amanda we knew again.

For a year, I brought flowers to her grave every Friday. I went because I missed her, but to be honest, I think I went more because of the fear that if I skipped even one week it would mean I’d forgotten her. And she deserved to be remembered.

Then, a year after her death, sitting on the soggy ground beside her grave, I finally realized the best way to honor and remember her wasn’t to sit in the cold and cry. It wasn’t to bring her flowers. It was to let her life and who she was motivate me to be a better person.

When you cut away all the myths and speculations and stories, unicorns are the things that make us want to be better simply by knowing of them, by being around them. They are what we aspire to be.

Amanda was far from perfect, but I can’t remember the imperfections anymore. What I do remember is her creativity, her cheerfulness, her refusal to let anyone change who she was, her determination and strong work ethic, her soft heart for hurting people.

The qualities I still remember best about her are the ones I want people to one day remember about me too.

I’m far from perfect. I’m still far from being the person I want to be. But I hope that one day, if I keep working at it, I’ll be someone’s unicorn too.

Who’s your unicorn? What is it about them that you so admire? How have they helped you become a better person?

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Image Credit: aschaeffer via www.sxc.hu

Is Chasing Your Dream Preventing You From Living?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Over the summer, I dropped my blogging schedule down to one day a week. I also took a real vacation for the first time in three years. I did those things for a very specific reason.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry finds the Mirror of Erised that shows him his parents (who are dead) standing next to him. At first he thinks the mirror has brought his parents back to life. He shows the mirror to his best friend Ron, thinking Ron will be able to see Harry’s parents as well, but Ron doesn’t. Instead Ron sees himself as Quidditch Captain and Head Boy.

The mirror, it turns out, shows each person what they want most. As Dumbledore put it, “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.”

Harry goes back night after night, just to be able to see his parents again. Eventually Dumbledore finds him there, and tells him that the mirror will be moved. He asks Harry not to look for it again. As wonderful as it is to look into the mirror and see your most cherished dream come to life, that’s exactly where the danger of the mirror also lies. Men have wasted their lives staring into the mirror.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams,” Dumbledore says, “and forget to live.”

That’s the danger I think all of us face when there’s a dream we want so badly that we focus our life on seeing it come to fruition—we forget to live.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing our efforts on achieving our dreams. There’s value in sacrificing in the short term in order to reach our long-term goals. In fact, we’re generally going to be happier and healthier people when we do pursue our dreams.

But we can’t chase our dreams at the expense of living life day by day.

Sometimes when we’re always looking forward, we miss the joy of the moments happening around us. Many people have written about this lately (including my good friend Lisa Hall-Wilson), but as much as we’re told to “live in the moment,” we’re also given the message that we should sacrifice whatever it takes to reach our dreams.

Just get up earlier to write. But what if that means you’re only getting four hours of sleep a night? Should we be sacrificing our health to reach our dreams?

Go back to school if you want a better job. But what if you need to work full-time to support your family? Should we sacrifice time with our spouses or children, missing out on years of their lives, in order to get what we want?

Tell your friends you can’t get together because you need to do thus-and-so in pursuit of your dream. But how long can we expect people to remain our friends if we never have time for them? Will you be content at the end of your life if you’ve achieved your dream and have no one to share it with?

When do we cross that line between chasing our dream and forgetting to live?

I can’t tell you where that line is for you, but this summer I’ve been evaluating where that line is for me. Balancing on that line will mean cutting out some things, reintroducing others, working a little less, and living a little more.

Does this mean I want my dream less than someone else wants theirs?

I don’t think so. I think it means I’ve broadened my dream. Instead of my dream being the “end goal,” my dream now includes the day-to-day. It includes how I want to live each day in order to look back on my life with contentment when I’m old. It includes how I want to live each day with the knowledge that none of us knows how long we have.

And those day-to-day, mundane dreams are just as valuable to me as “the dream” that I chase. I’m not going to waste my life staring into the mirror.

What about you? Have you found the balance between chasing your big dream and living your life? Do you think one is more important than the other?

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