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How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.

The Beauty of “The End”

Almost four months ago to the day, I wrote this post about my rather unsatisfying writing vacation at Gun Lake, where I had hoped to finish a good first draft of my current WIP, but only succeeded in getting lots of words down on the page that I knew I’d have to fix later. I’ve been picking away at it on and off since then, adding layers and altering plot lines and deepening characters. And I am happy to be able to say that it is now ready for my first beta readers’ critiques. It feels so good to not only have it finished, but to be happy with it. I’m not truly done, of course. Once I get feedback from a few readers I’ll have plenty to edit. But the first big hurdle — writing the dang thing — has been cleared.

In reaching The End, there is a loosening of something that had been wound tight in my chest, a liberating sensation that I am now free to work on a new story, one that has been forming in my mind for weeks, like a flock of birds ahead of winter’s snows. After all, The End is really just the beginning of something new…

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.

And Spring Slips into Summer

Foamflower, hostas, and a stunted Japanese maple frame an angel bought years and years ago and then forgotten in the garden behind the garage. Now she has center stage in the main shade garden.
Foamflower, hostas, and a stunted Japanese maple frame an angel bought years and years ago and then forgotten in the garden behind the garage. Now she has center stage in the main shade garden.

Have you ever told yourself you’d change and then actually done it? This weekend I really lived my new “to-be list” philosophy. I did do a lot, but I never made a list of things to accomplish and then checked it off, item by item. With everything I did, I felt no rush, no pressing need to do it now, no guilt in the doing or the not doing.

I spent time with my son at Van Atta’s Greenhouse and Nursery, I mowed and transplanted and weeded, I filled a dozen or more pots with annuals, I managed to keep the kitchen pretty clean. Saturday morning, Zach and I were talking about finally putting in a new fire pit sometime this summer. By afternoon, it was there! Suddenly we were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the backyard.

On Monday, the boy and I went downtown to visit the various war memorials and monuments and statues, and to check out the “fuzzy” Capitol building (the dome is currently covered with scaffolding as they do maintenance of some sort). We were practically the only ones downtown. We talked of war and sacrifice and men and women who served. We talked about how our state became the Arsenal of Democracy, turning auto factories into factories that made munitions and tanks and Army vehicles; how women built the machinery and the ammunition that finally subjugated the axis powers in WWII; how some wars must be fought and some do not make a lot of sense; how some people come home heroes, some come home to sneers and derision, and some never come home at all. We talked about men in our family who fought and those whose number never came up.

The wind was gusting and it started to rain on us. By the time we were home again the sun was out. We watched Charlotte’s Web for the second time in two days, and now the boy is a spider (with just four legs) who gives spider hugs and spider kisses and makes his webs out of the pile of dirty laundry his father gathered at the bottom of the stairs.

In the coming days we will celebrate the boy’s seventh birthday, his class will take a field trip to the zoo, we’ll take him to his first Brandi Carlile concert (shh–it’s a surprise), he’ll have a birthday party at the park with his friends, and we’ll celebrate with some family the next day.

May is always a big month here.

But I’m not sweating it. I’m loving every minute of it.

Trading “To-Do” for “To-Be” in this Busy Life

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Lately I’ve felt there is simply too much input streaming into my life. Too many emails (even though I signed up for updates on these blogs and already weeded out the ones I just don’t care that much about). Too much junk mail in my mailbox (I’ve considered whether I should simply replace the mailbox with our recycling bin). Too many newsletters and flyers from my son’s school each week (can I unsubscribe, please?). Too many posts in too many groups on too many social media platforms (although, again, I choose to participate and I’m not planning on quitting).

Beyond school ending in a few weeks . . . oh, I’m back. I passed out there for a minute. Beyond that, there’s no end in sight. And for someone who enjoys silence, requires a certain amount of unstructured solitude, and gets a cheap thrill out of eliminating expired condiments from the fridge, I’m not really sure how to deal with it all. I have too much to read and do and it is crowding out what I really want to read and do. What I really want is a sabbatical. What I’ve really got is a normal life like everyone else.

So, what to do? It’s time again to take stock of how I’m spending my time and make conscious decisions about whether I’m really using my time wisely and purposefully. I want to enjoy time with family, to spend time tending my garden, to read for pleasure and read for research, to finish revising one novel so I can begin to write another, to eat delicious home-prepared food, to be still and commune with my Creator, to do my work with enthusiasm and passion, to keep my house clean enough so that it doesn’t clutter my mind.

I’m really good at making to-do lists. I have to recover that chair, weed the south flowerbed, make that ninja costume for my son, water those plants, sew a red skirt, vacuum that floor, sow those bean seeds, write that copy, finish that chapter, sweep up those maple seeds, sort that laundry, get that dead bird out of the garage…I could continue ad nauseam.

But somehow I feel that I might be better served by making a to-be list at this point in life…

To Be:

A loving wife and mother
An obedient child of God
An exemplary worker
A thoughtful writer
A collector of ideas and impressions
A decent housekeeper
A reader of good books
A passable guitarist
A lover of nature
A protector of creative time

All of those sound pretty doable to me. And reading them doesn’t stress me out. I can do those, whether they happen in increments or in concentrated bursts or slowly over time or whatever.

What would you have on your to-be list?