Beach + Ocean

Rediscovering Prayer

There’s a pastor in Santa Cruz named Danny, with straight, blond hair down to his shoulders, who totes around a surfboard and spends hours in the surf. He says, when God speaks him, God calls him “dude.”

Dude, this is what I’ve got next for you.

I like the idea that God speaks to us in ways we understand.

Beach + Ocean

When Anthony and I felt God calling us to move to Los Angeles, do you know what He told us? I never heard the word: “Go.” Not in a whisper. Not in a shout. Not audibly at all.

God speaks to us in ways we understand.

One night, I was praying, hard. Beside me, Anthony was praying his own prayer. Then I got this moving picture in my mind.

In my favorite films, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo tells Galadriel: “Then I know what I must do. It’s just: I’m afraid to do it.”


“Gandalf the Grey.”  Photo credit: Pierre Vinet

Then scene cut. 

Next slide.

Gandalf tells Frodo: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.

Days passed, and over and over, specific scenes from LotR would come to mind as I prayed.

Could it be that I just couldn’t stop thinking about my favorite movies? Perhaps.

But over time, the recollected scenes tied together. Out of the context of the original filmed story, now together in my mind, they formed a new narrative. And it followed a specific path, hinted at a course of action.

When God gives us a picture, or a thought in our mind’s eye, I’ve found He confirms it with something complementary and concrete.

A word from a friend.

A prayer by a pastor.

A verse in Scripture.

A sense of peace.

After years of youthful praying, God is showing me something new.

I don’t have to sound like David from Psalms when I pray. I don’t have to sound like Moses, or even repeat after Paul the Apostle.

I have to sound like me. Just be me. 

And when I’m just me, then He’s just Him.

And I think we come to understand each other.

Words: Ally Siwajian © 2014

Photos: Ally Siwajian, beach image; Pierre Vinet, Gandalf the Grey portrait

Ally and Anthony by rustic wooden wall
Connectivity, Daily Life

Why We Read Stories as We Live Them

Ally and Anthony by rustic wooden wallWe met about this time many years ago—Anthony and I—in a cold classroom in an antique brick building at the University of Nevada. I remember his laugh, full-bodied and genuine.

I often sat at a narrow desk in the classroom’s back corner, dressed in my black snowboarding jacket and flared jeans. My brown hair was styled in a punk-inspired pixie cut. I felt so empowered with short hair, as if I had to prove my femininity in other ways than long locks.

Anthony had longer hair then. It grazed the nape of his neck and flipped to the sides. But he was always clean-shaven, except for the tuft of chest hair that peeked above his Threadless T-shirts. His denim jeans shredded at the hems, and his shoes featured holes that revealed his gray-toed socks. He wore those “animal shoes” every day, even in winter.

We met in winter, in January. But I wouldn’t truly notice him until spring more than a full year later. In class, he was just the funny guy. He cracked jokes, quoted “South Park” with reckless abandon, and laughed without restraint. He also had a knack for having all the right answers, sometimes to an annoying degree. But the guy did his homework. I appreciated that fact.

That semester, we had both registered for a class that became the basis for our friendship. Although the course was billed as Twentieth Century British Literature, the course description made its field of study quite clear. This class focused exclusively on author J. R. R. Tolkien. Anthony and I independently chose this quest for our mutual adoration of The Lord of the Rings.

Now, five years later, I can think of no better starting point for our adventure.

In the pages of Tolkien’s book, we discovered tales of men and women who suffered hardship, endured grief, and received for their toils the greatest joys of all. In its pages, the word “hope” appeared in earnest. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, committed people do what they must for the good of others. In doing so, they find the good within themselves, even if they might misstep into darkness along the way.

Hope always exists, and good always wins. This story enlivens as a metaphor for our own world. But its symbolism changes, walking alongside our perceptions as we absorb each word.

Ally and Anthony hold book pages

We hold the pages between us, as two stories become one tale.

That’s the power of stories. No matter who you are, you can find yourself amid the pages. You relate. Not to the literal situations, but to the emotions characters feel as they survive those fictionalized moments that, in the moment, feel all too real.

We’ve been here before, we realize as we read.

Isn’t that why we read?

Now the stories of my books become my stories. We march in tandem as I flip each page, knowing and believing and understanding and feeling.

It’s that feeling that brought us here in the first place.

Had we not taken these steps to grasp the cover and peruse the pages, to so desire to immerse ourselves in the world and to take a chance on awaiting adventure, we may have never met at all.

“I’m glad you’re with me” for we were meant to go together.

Photograph credit: Jamison Frady of Quiet Art Photography © 2010   (Photos feature Ally and Anthony in January, two years after we met.)

Journal pages wirth writing
Connectivity, Stunted World Changers, Writing Tips & Thoughts

How Do I Start Writing? Blogging tips to avoid sounding like a high school girl keeping an “I Love Orlando Bloom” diary

I’ve been writing in journals since 2003 when a high school English teacher encouraged me to write every day during summer vacation. Maybe he saw within me a great future writer. Or maybe he knew I just asked too many questions, and this journal idea was a fantastic way for me to write them all down and ask him the following year. (He did dodge that responsibility rather aptly by switching to another school before the new semester’s start. Smart move, Mr. Lamb.)

My Start in Writing: Journey of the Journal

LOTR comic strip

Okay, I may have also been this kid in high school. Ha ha! (Comic credit: Bill Amend)

I tell you this tale to let you know where I began. I started my writing journey with Pentel pens and decorated spiral notebooks.

Sure, blogs existed. That whole Xanga thing was a big deal.

But if I had published publically when I first started, it would have flopped. I didn’t have the guts to be myself in a written public setting. Also, I didn’t have much to say that would allow me to connect with others. (I mean, who wants to hear how much I liked Legolas from The Lord of the Rings movies again? … On second thought!)

I Don’t Know What to Write: How do you start?

This week, a reader from Reno, Nevada, contacted me. After reading my post “The Resurgence of Passion,” he wanted to take that Pans and Pickpockets challenge and make a difference by using his voice in the blogosphere.

“I want to join,” he said, “but I don’t know how.”

Today I want to start the exploration of that question. For this inaugural Writer Wednesday, let’s take a look at ways you can begin to write.

(1) Discover your passion.

First, know why you want to write. You each have something to say. Now find out what it is and why you care. This motivation will empower your words. If it’s too difficult to pull this passion from the nebulous unknown, ask yourself this question: What do I love?

Still too much? Try this bit of wisdom from author Jon Acuff: “Instead of asking, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ you ask, ‘What have I done that I loved?’ … Then you can start to really dream.” To really grasp the concept, simply replace “life” with “blog.” (Just this one time, of course).


Blogs require focus. (Note to self: So do close-up photographs.)

 (2) Find your outlet.

Once you know what you care about and what you want to say, find a place to say it. I started with journals. Today I have a blog. Both work. To this day, I still keep a journal because blogs require focus. I realize not everyone wants to read about my amazing attempt #462 to make scrambled eggs. (Besides, that’s what Facebook is for.)


(3) Focus your message.

It’s easy to make your blog an online journal. But I want to challenge you to go beyond that. Rather that stating what you did today, tell us a story. Use narrative power as an ally. Let us connect with you by showing what we have in common. Tell us a story, and show us why it matters.

(4) Pick a lens.

Journal pages wirth writing

Speak. Write. Share.

Writing must exemplify your voice. “Your voice” is essentially your personal writing style, your sense of self, and your perspective demonstrated on paper. The more you write, the more your voice develops.

As you start, select a lens through which to view the world. This should match your current outlook, whether you’re known as an encouraging counselor, sarcastic storyteller, slapjack comedian, or even a thought-provoking poet. Use your lens when you write, and you’ll find your voice.

The Pans and Pickpockets Challenge: How will you start?

Let me know how you’re going to start.

Tell me your favorite tip in the comments below, and be sure to link to your blog too. Then you can share with all of us in the Pans and Pickpockets community how you’re choosing to use your voice and speak the words that can come only from you.


* Special thanks to Tim M. for asking the question that inspired today’s post! You can find and follow his blog at TimmyMac.

Photo credit: Foxtrot comic by Bill Amend, photographs by Ally Siwajian of Pans and Pickpockets and by Lauren Patton of NerdieBlonde Art

home burns, white picket fence remains
Daily Life

As the wildfire burns…

Last Monday, I drove into the parking lot of my apartment complex, greeted by the shrill sound of sirens. The screaming wails and flashing lights ignited within me a fear: Something was wrong. I saw smoke rising from beyond building 8. But I live in building 12, and I didn’t want to be one of those gawkers on the site of an accident.

I grabbed my purse and my keys, and I slammed the car door closed. As the wind blew smoke across the nearby lake, I scurried to the third floor of my apartment building. I turned the key, shoved my weight against the door, and tumbled inside. Then I shut the door, and I worried.

Are those people okay? Do they need anything? What could I provide though that the fire station and the police haven’t already delivered?

Then I thought: What if the blaze makes its way to my apartment building too? Will I be okay?

home burns, white picket fence remains

Earlier this year, the City of Reno and neighboring Washoe Valley suffered in the face of flames. Wildfire burned dry, crackled sagebrush plants, and the conflagration grew as it swallowed acres of dusty, cracked land ripe with spindly bushes. Soon whole homes were destroyed.

This wasn’t the first time fire struck Reno. Last November, wildfire consumed the Caughlin Ranch area and fire ate its vicious way to Windy Hill, the Foothills, and Lakeside. Over 9,000 people were displaced to hotels and high school gymnasiums, and I watched it all through an updated online map of the city’s fires. Two of my friends had to be evacuated from their homes for several days, and we worried about their safety through relayed text messages and phone calls.

With fires on the other side of the freeway, my husband Anthony and I were safe. But for how long? That November day at lunch, we planned what we would take from our home in case of an evacuation. We didn’t have much time to think, but this is what we deemed important enough to carry with us:

  1. Social security cards and passports,
  2. Photo album that documents our wedding day,
  3. Anthony’s desktop computer and my laptop,
  4. My snow parka from Auntie Susan and Anthony’s warm jacket, and
  5. The Lord of the Rings trilogy book set, complete with Alan Lee illustrations, given to us by our friend Jill.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to evacuate amidst the November onslaught nor its January repetition. But months later in March, as I sat at my desk in my apartment with knowledge of flames nearby once again, I started to plan a more detailed packing list.

How much could I fit into a suitcase? Would I want to take clothes or books? Should I try to shove as many photographs as possible into the small packing space, or would it be better to include the family heirlooms of Japanese sculptures from my Canadian grandmother, a Vietnamese doll that Papa brought back for Mom when he returned from the Vietnam War, and the dark red trunk with the elephant and tiger paintings that once belonged to Anthony’s Armenian aunt?

When I looked at my life and at all that I’ve accrued and I had to decide what to take, I realized what I most cared about. We can buy a new television. We can purchase a new favorite couch. The china dishes can burn, and the instruments can be replaced. But memories and the objects that ignite those memories, I could never reclaim, replace, or refurbish. That’s how I chose what I wanted to hold and protect. It’s what brings the spirit, not the body, comfort and peace of mind.

I didn’t have to make any final decisions that day. The fire was contained in the dry field beside building 8, and no homes were burned last Monday. But burned into my mind is that new packing list, filled with objects that represent memories of people, times, and places I couldn’t live without and never want to forget.

~Ally Siwajian © 2012

Photograph credit: Tim Dunn of Reno Gazette-Journal in “Washoe Drive Fire: All Day 2 Updates

Leave a comment, and share your ideas: What would you want to take with you in this situation?