When it feels like the end, that’s only the beginning

Counting down the days until Write on the Red Cedar 2016, which starts this Friday in East Lansing. This will be my third year attending (it’s only three years old) and second year presenting. Earlier this month I was on the WOTRC blog answering some questions about success, failure, the books I’ve read the most, and more. Click here to read it.

Beyond WOTRC, I have articles to work on for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association before the month is up, and I’m still finishing up the renovations in our chapel at church. Just have window treatments and a little touch-up painting to go. When I looked ahead to January back at the end of last year and saw the commitments I had already made, I decided that February 1st was going to be my new year, my fresh start. That’s the month I plan to bring back some good habits I’ve had in the past, namely getting up earlier and using the quiet morning time alone to read, write, pray, and journal.

On the bedtime story front, the boy and I are smack dab in the middle of Watership Down and things are looking bleak. Holly’s team has just come back from Efrafa with many injuries but no does, and Hazel’s been shot after the raid at Nuthanger Farm. As I closed the book Saturday night, Calvin’s voice wavered as he wondered what would happen now. “Don’t worry,” I said. “This is just the beginning of the most exciting part of the story.” It’s a cliché that things are always darkest before the dawn, but that is often how the story goes, isn’t it?

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US. Race relations have taken a serious hit in the past five years. Or perhaps the wider culture is just now noticing how bad things still are despite the work of Dr. King and countless other people who devoted their lives to seeking justice and equality in this country. The national mood must seem a lot like it did fifty or sixty years ago. Indeed, things look strikingly similar. Racial unrest, a long military conflict overseas from which we cannot seem to extricate ourselves, prominent political figures calling for the profiling and restriction of those with differing beliefs. I find it difficult to be optimistic.

Yet, what can make us rise to the occasion like opposition?

The rabbits of Watership Down will have to use all of their courage and cunning to save their warren. They cannot give way to fear, or they’re through. There’s only one way forward, and it’s down the most treacherous road. There are no guarantees of success. But to not go down the road at all means certain failure.

Don’t those make the best stories? When there is no choice but to walk through the fire?

There is nothing like a hard winter to make the spring all the more glorious.

Upon Finding Old Pages Ripped Out of a Journal

Last month I cleaned out one of our attics (bizarrely, our small house comes equipped with two of them) in an attempt to rid our home of stuff we really didn’t want, organize the stuff we wanted to keep, and make room for a number of items I’ve been steadily packing away in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the coming year. While going through boxes, I found, among other things, lots of old photographs, sketches and paintings, trophies and plaques, letters and notes passed and mailed between my husband and I when we were dating in high school and college, and all the cards and notes of advice from my bridal showers.

I kept out a few things to scan and share when time allows (apparently I was the most prolific and derivative fourteen-year-old artist to have ever lived). The rest I tucked away to await eventual moving trucks.

Then when Zach was in the other attic getting all the Christmas decorations down, he found twelve pages, written on both the front and back, I had removed from one of my many early attempts at journaling. Because I know myself, I am positive that at one point I found a journal that I’d started, but most of it was blank, so I tore out the written pages, kept them aside, and then used the rest of the journal, either making a new attempt to start an actual journal about my boring life or else, if it was found more recently, making notes in it for future writing projects (which is the only way I have ever filled up a journal).

The pages start in June 1998, the summer after my senior year of high school, when I moved up to Camp Lake Louise (then Lake Louise Baptist Camp) to work as resident staff for the summer. They are certainly not daily. They say nothing of camp life at all. They do record Zach’s proposal to me (in epic poem form, no less) and me settling into college at Grand Valley State University. Over half the pages are me dramatically recounting an incident and a misunderstanding with Zach, waiting at Afterwards, the GVSU coffee shop, and lamenting that he wasn’t showing up (remember, kids, that texting didn’t exist and most of us didn’t have cell phones anyway) and I had brought nothing to read beyond John Donne (can you tell what sort of a person I was in college?). This extended, maudlin discourse goes on for pages and pages and is postscripted with one line I penned the next day; turns out he had to work that night and that’s why he never met me at the coffee shop (disaster averted). The last page is my first and only attempt (thus far) at writing song lyrics.

Of all of these things, the only one I remember writing was the song. I have no memory of any of the rest of it, and I would never have remembered how emotional or lonely I felt waiting in that coffee shop after having that misunderstanding with Zach. After I read the pages I had him read them. He didn’t remember any of it either, but we had a good laugh about it and enjoyed all of my overly poetic turns of phrase (college freshmen can be sophomoric too).

Now, you may be thinking that the right thing to do would be to share some specifics of the embarrassing and dramatic content of these pages with you. Maybe post the lyrics or the poem here for you to chuckle at. To be self-deprecating and transparent.

Pffft.

No.

This is why in the past people burned their papers before they died — to avoid others finding such personal stuff once they’re gone. Now every dumb thing anyone ever said is archived forever on some server somewhere and future generations will have a too-real view of all of us. Hoping people will remember you as someone endowed with dignity and mystique? Don’t count on it.

There are competing views about offering a backstage glimpse into the life of a writer. Recently I’ve read calls for writers to be open about how they learned, where they failed, and how they found success. It’s better for aspiring writers, is the argument. It demystifies writing, removes the idea of “talent,” and is more honest about all the sweat and hard work. But then you’ve got someone like Ernest Hemingway who says, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Myself? I’m not sure where I fall on the transparency spectrum just yet. When you look at an entire body of work from one writer you should see growth (the alternatives — plateauing or declining — certainly don’t seem desirable). But what I know for sure is that anything I wrote in high school or college should probably be burned or buried with me.

La liberté ou la mort

The news of the attacks on Paris is on my mind, as it is likely on yours. I’m sure the French people, still sensitive after the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, are feeling a lot like we did in America after 9/11. Shock and fear will turn inevitably into anger and outrage. The freedoms and liberties our countries both hold dear will be tested and chipped away as people exchange bits of them for the illusion of safety. And the lines between caution and paranoia, between rational steps toward security and the threat of bigotry and racial profiling will have to be navigated. How do we protect ourselves from radicals without becoming, in some way, like them?

It’s an intellectual and practical struggle we need to have, within our own minds and as nations. What do we tolerate in the name of liberty? What wounds do we allow to fester in the name of political correctness? In America today it seems we are far more outraged by people voicing opinions that are different from ours than we are about real atrocities. And when it becomes too uncomfortable to think about, we turn to entertainment to take our minds off it. We have that luxury.

For most of 2015, I have been researching German and French history in the 19th and 20th centuries, paying special attention to the cultural and political forces that led up to both World Wars. I’ve been studying anarchists and socialists and fascists, capitalism and communism, the forces that unite people and the ones that divide. And the sobering reality one must face when reading about history is that it is in no appreciable way any different today than it was then. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

As we are learning about history in school, we use timelines in order to visualize when events happened. And I think this gives us (or it gave me, anyway) the sense that we are progressing, we are moving forward, and that is a positive thing. But just because time is passing does not mean we are improving. Progress is a myth we want to believe so we’ll feel better about ourselves in comparison to those who preceded us. It’s chronological snobbery at its most dangerous, because when we believe we are morally superior to the generations that came before us, we fail to guard against falling into the same sins and mistakes.

This is a strong theme in The Bone Garden and it’s an even more powerful force in another novel I’m beginning to develop, one that will take place in Europe in the time leading up to World War I (which may actually just be the first of a trilogy I’m envisioning that will go all the way through World War II). And as I’m reading about the political and social climate of Europe at that time, I have uncovered a fact that I missed in all of my history classes — perhaps because we spent far more time on what happened than why it happened.

And that’s this: Hitler was not an anomaly. He didn’t appear out of nowhere. He didn’t spring forth from his mother’s womb as a monster. He was created. He was the personification of his times. He did not invent antisemitism. He did not invent pan-German nationalism. He did not invent the idea of a vast Jewish conspiracy orchestrating conflicts and wars from behind the scenes. All of those ideas and beliefs were already out there, in books, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches. He merely took them seriously enough to work them out to their inevitable end. And he couldn’t have done it without followers. To treat him as a crazed lunatic who somehow hypnotized an entire nation is to forget the very important and very scary fact that millions of people were ready to follow him. Yes, he lied to them — often. But they wanted to believe him.

People must believe in something. Leaders of Muslim extremist groups like ISIS have given disenfranchised young men and women something to believe in — and they act on it by attacking and murdering innocent civilians, just as the SS did in Nazi Germany.

What have we to offer them that is better? Freedom of thought? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? Freedom of speech? Yes, all of those things. But how will we inspire belief in those ideals when we don’t appear to believe them anymore ourselves?

Can we say, with any conviction, “Give me liberty or give me death?”

Everyone Is Reading Your Diary: Why Facebook and Twitter Shouldn’t Be Your Journal

Remember journaling? It’s what a number of people used to do to record and work through their random, inane, deep, inflammatory, or otherwise likely-inappropriate-for-public-consumption thoughts before there was Facebook and Twitter and blogging. A private place to work out what you think about stuff and record what you ate for dinner. A place where it was safe to say dumb things because who would read it? A place where it was safe to say brilliant things that you would later recognize as dumb with a little more life experience under your belt because, again, who would read it? A place where you didn’t have to have it all figured out and prepare a defense of your views, your lifestyle, your existence.

Remember how you used to fly into a rage if your sister found your diary and read it? Now everyone’s reading your diary.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I read articles about why Twitter is dying and I realize that my first couple years on Facebook, when almost no one outside of Academia was on it, were filled with congenial exchanges with people I might otherwise not have a lot of chances to talk with because we were all so busy with grad school. Now Facebook is just all those annoying, cutesy, unsubstantiated forwards that used to junk up your email inbox. Now instead of deleting them without opening them, you see them — ALL of them — every day.

I have on many occasions been a click away from deleting my presence on Facebook and going back to living a life that doesn’t invite others’ opinions and unsolicited advice at every turn. But then, my parents get to see pictures of their grandson, so I should keep it up. Or now, I need to continue to build my online presence because I need effective ways to get the word out about my books once I start publishing novels. Or really, at this point there are a number of people I like to stay in touch with (many of my fellow writers, most of whom I know because of the internet) with whom I just wouldn’t stay in touch if we weren’t all on Facebook. So, I remain.

Then last week I had a realization that I think will improve my life greatly: I don’t have to use Facebook or Twitter as my diary.

I’ve never been great at keeping a consistent journal or diary, and all of my old attempts have pretty much been destroyed. I don’t want to remember how ridiculous I was in junior high. But now, as an adult who needs a place — a private place — to process life and record my hopes and dreams and fears, I’m turning back to journaling.

Over the past few years I have read through Virginia Woolf’s abridged diaries. I enjoy the staccato and often sarcastic way she describes her many visitors, both friends and people she merely tolerates. I’ve appreciated seeing her trials and triumphs in her writing, showing that the ups and downs I and so many others feel about their work are common to all writers. I’ve been enthralled by her descriptions of her surroundings. And I’ve appreciated that she doesn’t feel the need to write full sentences.

Thing is, if she and her friends and acquaintances had been on Facebook, she quickly would have had no friends and spent most of her time, thought life, and energies on explaining herself and apologizing when people misunderstood. She probably would have committed suicide much earlier in her life.

Instead, she put her insights and questions and suppositions into her fiction and her essays after safely trying them out on paper that no one would see until after she was dead. She sifted through her thoughts and theories privately before launching them into the world. She tested things out with close friends who wouldn’t assume the worst of her if she said something they didn’t agree with.

She didn’t go out into the streets of London and share her ideas with perfect strangers or even random acquaintances. She worked through things in her own mind, on the pages of her diaries, and with a small inner circle of close friends. And when she argued about God with T. S. Eliot around the dinner table, passersby did not poke their heads through the windows to comment. When she discussed politics with  Lytton Strachey, some lady she had as a substitute teacher in fourth grade did not burst through the front door and spout off some bizarre non sequitur to kill the conversation. When she made an off-hand comment about her truculent maid, she wasn’t then barraged with unsolicited and conflicting advice on how she should deal with the situation.

She simply wrote it out, pondered, moved on.

So with Virginia as my guide, I’m turning to the private page (an actual page made of paper that others do not see) and putting my thoughts there. I’ll still share things on Facebook and Twitter, but when I’m trying to process a sticky political point or when I want to work out my opinion on a matter of morality or when I just want to complain about something that hasn’t gone my way, I’ll do it in my journal. And someday, after I’m dead, after it doesn’t matter anymore, someone may read it.

But I won’t have to deal with the fallout.

 

When Life Hands You Synergy…

There was a semester in college when I had three classes that all lined up nicely in my brain and enhanced each other. I can’t remember now their exact names, but I know there was at least one history course, one English course, and something else. The stars aligned and nearly everything we talked about in one class helped my understanding in another. I felt very well-rounded during those few months.

This kind of synergy can happen in work, home, the books you’re reading, the news cycle. You can arrange it or let it be serendipitous, as it was for me just recently. It began with this book, which I read in April:

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I’ve been an amateur naturalist, a conservationist, and an environmentalist since childhood, probably due to the large numbers of National Geographic nature documentaries I watched…

Yes, I still own all of these VHS tapes. And there are at least two missing from this photo.
Yes, I still own all of these VHS tapes. And there are at least two missing from this photo.

and the books I read, which all heavily featured animals, environments under pressure, or simply a deep connection to a particular place…

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I’ve been keenly interested in the Christian environmental movement, which bases its conservation philosophy on the understanding that the Earth was placed in humankind’s care and stewardship and that we have a mandate to protect it and utilize its resources thoughtfully. I’ve always been troubled by the disconnect in the secular outlook toward environmentalism because it is fundamentally illogical. If evolution and natural selection are simply natural processes disconnected from morality, there’s no real reason for humans, the most evolved, to protect the weaker species or the endangered species because that’s simply the way the world is evolving. But if everything we see in the natural world was created, declared good, and given into our care, environmentalism and conservation make sense — and must be taken seriously by those who would call themselves Christians.

What’s helpful about Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology is that the authors root their arguments not just in Genesis but in many other parts of Scripture, in systematic theology, and in history, and then they follow through into the very practical implications of praxis. They do not take up the evolution debate at all. They do not pit science and religion against one another. They don’t waste time arguing about things that, while they matter, cause division that leads to inaction. While I didn’t always agree with everything the authors said, they didn’t always agree with each other either. And yet, disagreement in some matters should not cause us to sit in our corners and not act on one of the fundamental crises of our time.

I thought the most important part of this book was the distinction the authors made between talking about the natural world as a subject and talking about it as an object. Making that little semantic shift in our thinking and speaking about our environment has enormous implications. Seeing trees and animals and wetlands and resources as subjects rather than objects puts them not simply at our disposal, to do with what we will, but in our care, which is where they should be. It means they matter in and of themselves, not just in relation to humans. So a tree is good as a tree itself, not just in how we can use it for our own convenience. A bird or a snake or a bee is valuable in and of itself, not just in relation to us. And every thing in the natural world can point us toward the One who designed it. It’s not just there for us to use, it’s there to instruct us and cause us to glorify its Creator.

They also presented the ecological crisis as a moral issue, which it is but which many Christians sweep under the rug as they debate about other things that have less to do with their everyday actions (in other words, it’s easier and more fun to argue about others’ morality rather than face one’s own role in the destruction of God’s creation).

As I was finishing up Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology in May, I began reading Madeline L’Engle’s first book in her Crosswicks Journal series, A Circle of Quiet.

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I had never read her nonfiction before and I was experiencing a period of mild despair over where my work was going (or not going) and so I picked this up to read about another writer’s struggles and insights. I’m so glad I did. In L’Engle’s need for nature and solitude, I saw my own. In her struggles to reconcile with a culture that was changing and a world that was under duress, I saw some of my own struggles. In her dark times as a writer with something to say but no platform from which to say it, I felt comforted.

In the pages of A Circle of Quiet was the personal end of some of the ideas I found in Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology. Simplicity. Family. Domesticity. Introspection. And as I was reading both books I was busy planting my vegetable garden, weeding the flowerbeds, trimming the dead wood off trees and shrubs — doing my part to keep my corner of the world clean and beautiful and productive and chemical-free.

This spring has felt good. And it’s beyond the combination of beautiful weather and almost no mosquitoes. It’s slowing down, lightening up, centering myself on what matters, trusting God to bring me through my small frustrations, considering others — other people, other living things — and doing what I can to lighten their burden. It’s puzzle pieces interlocking. It’s divine synergy. And I like it.