Erin-Rah: Viewer with a Thousand Criticisms

I’ve been trying to find the time during this busy book-release month to weigh in on the new Netflix/BBC 4-part miniseries adapting Richard Adams’ Watership Down. To put it mildly, it’s been a bit difficult to find the mental and temporal space to do so. But as a lifelong devotee of the book, a fan of the 1978 animated adaptation, and an ardent admirer of the considerable acting chops of James McAvoy, I felt compelled to try.

Let me preface my (many) comments about the production with this: I have been excited about a new adaptation of my favorite book coming out since I first heard about it, which must have been about three years ago now. So I went into it wanting to love it. But the actual experience of watching it left me…wanting.

It’s been hard for me to put my finger on exactly what about it disappointed me. It wasn’t so bad that I would decry it on social media and encourage people to pretend it never happened. In fact, certain aspects of it were good. But…well…let’s just break it down, shall we?

Strap in. This is a long one.

 

WHAT WENT RIGHT

The Performances

James McAvoy was a marvelous Hazel, which I think is a harder role to pull off than the more “character-y” roles, like the brash Bigwig, the clever Blackberry, the winsome Dandelion, the irrepressible Bluebell. Hazel is actually a fairly flat character in the book. He is steady and deliberate, but he’s not funny or ironic or dangerous or even rather memorable. He is the kind of leader you want and need, especially on a dangerous quest where others are apt to lose their heads, but he is certainly not the kind of leader that could get elected today. He is all substance and no flash.

And yet, McAvoy voices him in a dynamic way, showing emotions I don’t think the 1978 adaption managed to do. This comes as no surprise to me. I was an admirer of McAvoy’s talents before I saw Split, which seems to be why everyone suddenly knows who he is. I’d first seen him in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as Mr. Tumnus and loved his performance (more on that later). Viewings of Becoming Jane and Atonement made me seek out everything he’d ever done. He is superb in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (I haven’t seen the combined version, Them) and The Last King of Scotland. He is utterly unnerving and disturbing in Filth and Split. He is charming and winsome in Arthur Christmas and Gnomeo and Juliet. And here he does a nice job with Hazel.

Other actors turned in their own good performances, including John Boyega as Bigwig and Sir Ben Kingsley as Woundwort, even if it was hard to keep from comparing them to the voices of character actors Michael Graham Cox and Harry Andrews from the 1978 version, which I have probably watched thirty or forty times, or even the voices in the abridged audio book I had when I was young and somehow lost along the way. And absolutely no one could voice Kehaar quite like Zero Mostel did, so Peter Capaldi, charming as he was with his Scottish brogue, had no chance of pleasing me, especially since the miniseries script failed to include most of Kehaar’s best lines (like “Piss off!” and other more…colorful language).

Aside: Diminishing Kehaar’s lines and screen time meant that one of the best relationships in the book (and the 1978 film), that of Bigwig and Kehaar, is lost to the viewer of the 2018 miniseries. And that is such a shame.

The tricky thing with playing characters that have already been played by others, of course, is making them your own at the same time you are attempting to please devotees of an older version. It’s a terrible tightrope to walk. It’s Barbara Streisand’s Dolly versus Carol Channing’s Dolly. It’s Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy versus Colin Firth’s Darcy. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby versus Robert Redford’s Gatsby (well, really there’s no contest there because the new Gatsby movie wins on any count of comparison).

Every new adaptation of a novel, every revival of a musical, every adaption of a movie to a stage play or vice versa must navigate that tricky territory. And it’s impossible to please everyone.

But here is the real test of these performances: what voice will I hear the next time I read the book? In every case, with the possible exception of Hazel, it will be those original 1978 performers.

So then, if it wasn’t the performances that bothered me, what did?

 

WHAT WENT WRONG

CGI That Often Looked Like It Was 5-10 Years Out-of-Date…or More

Consider this: The newest adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was made in 2005. Fourteen years ago! And yet, go back and watch it and the special effects—including James McAvoy’s hairy goat legs—look real. Aslan looks real. He moves like a real lion.

Compare that to the CGI of Watership Down 2018. Yes, some scenes look pretty good. Close-ups look good. Immediate surroundings—dirt or grass or buildings, even bird poop—look good. But take a closer look at the movement of these rabbits and you see that the animators didn’t quite capture the realism they were reaching for. Take a look at the dog from the farm…

and you may be forgiven for thinking more of this…

 

Image result for dog from over the hedge

than this…

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General Artistry: Animation

One of the most marvelous things about the 1978 animated adaptation of Watership Down was the art.

The English countryside Adams loved and fought to preserve from development came to life in this watercolor world.

It’s simply gorgeous.

Even when it is disturbing.

In contrast, the mediocre CGI of the new miniseries seems so concerned with making individual strands of fur distinct or plants look photo-real that it often forgets to make them feel alive, as if they are part of a vast tapestry of beautiful country. There is too much in focus at once and definitely not enough shadow:

 

General Artistry: Score

The soundscape of a film is probably one of the most important tools employed to convey how we as an audience should feel—pensive, fearful, agitated, frantic, triumphant, terrified—and one of the most overlooked by us as casual moviegoers. If it’s doing its job, you may not even notice it. If it’s not, you may feel that something is not quite right but at the same time find it hard to put your finger on why.

Setting aside the 1978 movie’s featured song, “Bright Eyes,” written by Mike Batt and performed evocatively by Art Garfunkel, consider the movie’s score, most of which was composed by Angela Morley (though Malcolm Williamson composed the score for the prologue and the main title). Set similar scenes side by side—the crows in the churchyard, Bigwig caught in the snare, the escape from Woundwort, the deliverance of the Watership rabbits by the dog—and you will see a marked difference.

The 1978 score is like a symphony in itself, something you would gladly listen to apart from the movie. It is memorable. It gets in your head and inside your guts and alternately ties you all up or releases you. The score for the 2018 version? Even though surely the same theme was played at the beginning and end of each episode, I don’t remember it at all. Nothing to get stuck in your head.

And lest you protest that I’ve only watch the 2018 version once through and I have already admitted to watching the 1978 version thirty or forty times, think of every time you left a movie theater humming or whistling a musical theme from the movie you just saw for the first time.

 

Pacing

Watership Down 1978 is 91 minutes long, which includes the rather long introductory sequence of the rabbits’ creation myth, a number of rather leisurely connecting shots of the rabbits getting from place to place, and the end credits, of course.

Watership Down 2018 is more than twice as long, with four episodes of about 50 minutes each. Despite this, the filmmakers did not manage to restore any scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the 1978 movie (more frequently they lost scenes from that much shorter movie). Some scenes they made longer, such as the attack of the crows or the raid at the farm. In all cases that I can recall, the extra length added nothing but perhaps some more footage of rabbits running around. Some scenes they invented, including a number that happened in Efrafa, though they could have simply put in more from the book.

What this all added up to was a discernable feeling of hesitation, of tripping over one’s own feet. Think of the numbers alone. The 2018 filmmakers didn’t manage to tell you anything more in 200 minutes than the 1978 filmmakers told you in 90. And quite possibly they told you less. As an editor, this bothered me.

But not nearly so much as…

 

Needless Deviations from the Source Material

I realize and celebrate that we are in an age of female empowerment and more a robust female presence in the arts, which has been manifesting itself lately in lots of tough female heroes and female-led reboots. I got teary watching all those powerful women training and battling in Themyscira in Wonder Woman as it dawned on me that I had never, ever seen that many self-sufficient, self-reliant, and strong women on a screen at once—and without any men on screen for long periods of time. When I realized that I was watching a woman being positioned as the Universal Character rather than the sidekick, the love interest, or the antagonist, I felt the release of a tension I didn’t know was living deep inside of me. It felt like an enormous step forward, and I joyfully imagine the young girls growing up today with all of these strong role models in their lives.

However…

Watership Down is a story about rabbits. Rabbits are animals, and it is clear that Richard Adams patterned his story around rabbits’ actual habits and roles in rabbit society. The book opens in spring—”The primroses were over…”—when the female rabbits, the does, have litters they are tending to.  Therefore, the hlessil, the adventurers who strike out on their own, are naturally mostly bucks. In the book, one very young doe without a litter, Violet, accompanies them, but gets caught and killed by a hawk when she ventures out of the cover of the bean field to eat. (You can see that moment at about minute 2:30 of this delightful video someone made of some of the most violent moments of that original film, rated U in the UK and PG in the US—WARNING: GRAPHIC). At that point, there are no does until the raid on Nuthanger farm, during which two does escape—Clover and Haystack—along with one buck—Laurel.

Strawberry from Cowslip’s warren is not a doe. But in the Netflix miniseries, he is. This allows the filmmakers to invent an amusing back-and-forth rivalry for her affections between Hawkbit and Dandelion, which is not in the book, at the same time it shoehorns another female speaking role in there. (Note that Strawberry does not appear in the 1978 film, one of those roles cut for sake of length and complexity.)

Image result for watership down black rabbit

The Black Rabbit of Inle is not a female, but the sex of this character doesn’t make much of a difference in the long run, so making her female in the 2018 version doesn’t really bother me much. (Note: there is some beautiful and nightmarish fan art of the Black Rabbit out there in case you are interested.)

Image result for hazel and clover watership

 

Clover, the hutch rabbit, is given a far bigger role than in the book (including, inexplicably, ending up in Efrafa, along with other Watership rabbits who were never captured).

She even usurps Fiver’s position as the one who finds Hazel in the culvert after he’s been shot by the farmer.

This hey-let’s-give-the-female-a-bigger-better-role move really bothered me. Because it wasn’t just sticking a female in where it wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other, simply changing out a male for a female, like in Strawberry’s case. This changed the meaning of important scenes significantly.

The very meaningful connection we see built between the brothers Hazel and Fiver is replaced with a romantic connection that is not only a needless deviation from the book which wastes a fair amount of screen time in the 2018 version, it also imposes human emotion (romance) where Richard Adams had allowed only for the very basic animal drive to continue the species. The rabbits in the book are never falling in love. They are concerned with survival. They are driven by instinct and limited by their small understanding of the world in which they live.

Image result for hazel and clover watership

Interestingly, the 2018 filmmakers strip from Efrafan doe Hyzenthlay (who is a smart, poised, courageous female dissident in the book and 1978 film, reduced to a mere ineffectual rabble-rouser in 2018) her vision of the rabbit in the hrududu (car) and give that vision to Fiver. I suppose they were thinking that viewers might be confused if two rabbits possessed a kind of second sight? And then—then!—who is it that rides in the hrududu in the end? Not Hazel, as it should have been, as it could only be as their smart, fearless, self-sacrificial leader who will take on mythical status in the future, but Fiver.

Why? Because for some unfathomable reason, the 2018 filmmakers thought it ought to be Fiver chewing through the dog’s rope (and even gave him new vision involving ropes) and getting caught by the cat rather than Hazel.

Image result for watership down hazel shot

It is Hazel who had the idea of chewing through the rope in the book (and the 1978 movie) because in a trancelike state Fiver repeated something Bigwig had said way, way back at the beginning of their adventure about a dog being loose in the woods, which is their impetus to cross the River Enborne, a scene that sets up a vital scene later in the story (which the 2018 version cuts).

The original line about the dog is also lost because the 2018 version cut that scene out, turning their flight across the River Enborne from a necessity to get away from a dog to getting away from Holly and the Sandleford Owsla, who were hot on their heels (despite never being that close to them in the book after the one confrontation with Bigwig).

So then we have Hazel, who can barely hop out to attempt to negotiate with Woundwort because he’d been shot just a couple days earlier, cast as one of the rabbits tasked with leading the dog away from the farm and up the downs to surprise the attacking Efrafans. Excuse me? What? Who thought that made any sense?

Image result for watership down hazel shot

This should have been the fastest rabbits—Dandelion, Blackberry, and Hyzenthlay (there’s your actual big, important female role!)—but in this new version, not only is one of the rabbits lame because of a gunshot wound, one of them—Blackavar—is barely alive because of his harsh treatment at the hands of the Efrafan Owsla. Using Blackavar to draw the dog is not only the most implausible choice possible, it strips him of the triumphant and symbolic moment of sacrificing his life by standing up to Woundwort during the siege of the warren. (BTW, listen to the score in that clip I just linked to. Fantastic.)

Image result for watership down blackavar

Dandelion, who is the fastest rabbit of all and the storyteller (storyteller role given to Bluebell for some bizarre reason in this version) is busy “guarding” an open run with Hawkbit from the Efrafans and therefore can’t take part in Hazel’s plan.

But even before the climactic scenes at the end, there are strange choices being made:

Why is there a town on the other side of the River Test?

There was no reason for it except to show a car and prompt Fiver’s stolen vision of the rabbit in the hrududu. But Fiver’s visions are never dependent on seeing something in real life first. They are just visions. (And while we’re on that subject, no, Fiver can’t just try to have visions at will like Hazel asks him to in this miniseries.)

Why did they remove the scene of how the Watership rabbits actually escaped with the Efrafan does by getting onto a boat and floating down the fast-moving River Test?

Image result for watership down rabbits on boat

This plan was devised after Blackberry connected it in his mind to another thing that floated at the very beginning of the story in order to get them across the smaller River Enborne when the dog is loose in the woods.

There is no explanation at all of how simply having Kehaar fly at them could possibly have stopped the hardened Efrafan Owsla under the remorseless direction of General Woundwort.

Losing this scene also means you lose additional mystique these Watership rabbits developed that spooked the Efrafans when they are trying to dig into the warren on the downs.

Even the raid on the farm is needlessly complicated, with the hutch rabbits being taken inside so that extra hijinks ensue when the Watership rabbits return to get them out.

Aren’t a dog, a cat, and a man with a shotgun enough?

I get that choices need to be made when making a film adaptation of a book. Some things will change. The 1978 movie leaves out the character of Bluebell entirely, and he brings well-placed comic relief to the 2018 version, just as he did in the book.

But if the changes being made do not enhance the story and make it work better for a modern audience, I fail to see why they should be made at all.

To my mind, the changes made in 2018 are a net loss, not a net gain. The Netflix miniseries makes this story feel less like a mythical legend passed down through generations (as it should feel, as Richard Adams clearly wrote it to feel as he gives us Hazel, the embodiment of the mythical El-Ahrairah saving his people) and more like a series of scenes of rabbits running or fighting.

 

And Watership Down is so, so much more than that.

 

Why Remake Watership Down at All?

All of this is not to say that Watership Down shouldn’t have been remade or that I’m against remakes in general or that I am blindly devoted to a childhood version of a story that was told far better in my adulthood.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is proof of that. (And proof that James McAvoy makes any film better.)

Image result for lion the witch and the wardrobe mr. tumnus and lucy

When I saw that Watership Down was to be remade it gave me the same giddy joy that watching the first teaser trailer for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did, which was simply a young girl walking into a room and pulling a sheet off an armoire. I was so ready for a slick, realistic, exciting CGI version to add to my Watership Down collection.  

And certainly a new generation deserves a film version of their own? After all, a forty-year-old animated film would not be the first choice for the children of today (though I will say that my son liked it).

But when you remake something that is already held in such high regard by its fans, you have to make it as magical and impactful, if not more so, than the original.

In 2005, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did this in spades. In 2018, Watership Down did not.

Opening the Door to 2019

If you follow me on social media, you know that the past week has been on the busy side, and that it’s not over yet. Christmas celebrations on both sides of the state, time with friends in different cities, my wedding anniversary. Now New Year’s (though we blessedly have zero plans) and my birthday rapidly approach.

And…release day. We Hope for Better Things will be out in the world on its own, like a young bird finally pushed out of the nest into the cold air of the unknown. Today’s podcast is about what that feels like.

That’s little first-grade me in the picture, reading. And for the past few months, I’ve been reading a lot.

 

 

 

 

These are all books that will release in 2019 like mine, with the exception of the first, which is already out, and I’ve enjoyed reading each one of them for different reasons.

Reading has always been important to me. I cannot imagine my life without books. And in the past eight or nine years, writing has been just as important to me. So as I consider what 2019 will bring and make goals for myself, reading and writing figure heavily.

It’s hard to believe we are entering the last year of the twenty-teens. The last year of my 30s. The last day, today, that I will consider myself an unpublished author or an aspiring author. 2019 is sure to bring with it a lot of excitement and opportunity, some stress and probably some overwork, and certainly some disappointments or failures. But one of the things I am sure it will bring in spades is more great books to read, more stories to write. And what book-lover could ask for more?

Thanks for coming along this journey to publication through the storytelling vehicle of this blog. Some of you have been here since 2012. Some came along with me to this space from earlier blogs, starting way back in 2008. Ten years! Ten years of reading my words, looking at my photos, watching me sew, seeing my son grow from a baby to a fifth grader…it’s nuts how quickly the time slips by. And it’s exciting to think about what the next ten years will bring.

I’m so grateful to you for reading this blog and my newsletter.

I’m so grateful to those of you who will read We Hope for Better Things.

I’m so grateful that I get to do what I love and that what I love to do can offer you some pleasure, comfort, laughter, or maybe just a moment to slow down and think.

May the Giver of all good gifts bless you in the coming year with faith, hope, and love. See you in 2019.

Calvin as Calvin (and Hobbes)

As far as Halloween costumes go, we seem to now be past the point of animals, firemen, and superheroes. We have entered the realm of clever cultural references half of the people won’t get. Which, to me, is a lot more fun than the stuff at the Halloween store.

I made that Hobbes toy for Calvin when he was just a little guy. I striped the shirt with fabric paint last week. The gun is the portable transmogrifier that turns Calvin and Hobbes into various things…

Image result for calvin and hobbes transmogrifier

Zach and I both read Calvin and Hobbes rather obsessively as kids, as did a lot of people in our generation, and it’s been really satisfying to find that they resonate with our Calvin as well.

This was such a simple (and cheap) costume because he already had everything but the shirt (which I found on clearance for less than $3 at Target) and the gel to spike his hair (which we got 30% off at Borics). And when it comes to something you will wear only once or twice (Halloween parties and trick-or-treating) I’m all about simple and cheap.

On the Death of a Beloved Teacher

The first message, email, or notification I saw this morning was one telling me that one of my favorite high school teachers had died. The youngest of all of my teachers, I doubt he was even fifty years old. He left a family and many former students behind. I cannot picture him any other way than smiling because he was so rarely stern. He was excited about teaching, passionate about his subject, and always kind and patient with his students.

I was his teaching assistant for one semester my senior year and that afforded us more time to chat about things beyond school subjects. We talked about our experiences in the church — mine positive, his negative. He listened to the CDs I brought in because I was excited about the bands. We even talked a bit about how ridiculous high school could be. He was one of the men in my life (the other being my father) who told me that guys were intimidated by me (more about that here). He took every opportunity to pour his positive energy into me and every other willing student he found.

When I graduated from high school I didn’t want to have a standard graduation party. So many of my closest friends were older and had graduated a couple years before. There were so many other parties people had to go to. And I was not a big partier myself. But I did want to do something. Something different. So I asked several favorite teachers out to dinner at a nice restaurant (yep, I was that student). And he was among them. Later, I felt beyond honored to be invited to his intimate backyard wedding.

Back then there was no social networking. No Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. And when I went away to college, we lost touch. A few years ago I connected with his wife online, but he wasn’t in any of her pictures. I didn’t want to pry, but it was clear that over the years something had changed. I discovered he was no longer teaching and that he was dealing with some difficult personal problems.

In January I reached out to his wife, hoping perhaps he and I could meet for coffee sometime. I let her know I was praying for him. In the back of my mind I knew I was unlikely to get a call or text from him saying, Hey, next time you’re in town let’s chat. But I wasn’t ready to hear the news that he died only five months later.

Grief is always hard. And it’s hard in different ways. I can’t feel the intense grief that this man’s wife and children do. Or his closest friends. My grief is distant and regretful and feels small and futile and very personal. I told my husband and my sister the news this morning. They both had him as a teacher and loved him. He was a “cool” teacher, after all. But somehow I don’t think the news, though sad, brought them to tears as it did me. He is not the first of our teachers to die, and my husband took it much harder than I did when two of his favorite teachers died a few years ago, teachers that weren’t generally considered “cool” and that many people actively disliked.

Just last year I pulled out my senior yearbook when some friends were over so we could laugh over how intense and sincere and clever everyone was back in high school. Amid the joking, I was deeply touched when I ran across this teacher’s note to me.

It was probably not something I needed to hear back then, when I was also very impressed with myself. But it was something I dearly needed to hear nearly twenty years later, when I was questioning my performance in my chosen career path, which has reached a dead end, and my writing, which comes with a lot of rejection and waiting and wondering if I am fooling myself. People expected big things of me back then. And I didn’t feel I’d measured up to the standards I’d set for myself or those set for me by others.

This teacher could have written any number of clichés — Great to have you in class! Have a nice summer! Best of luck in college! Study hard! Instead he gave me a little flame of encouragement that would brighten my outlook twenty years later, even when things were dark in his own life. And maybe that’s what I grieve. Because I don’t feel like I gave that back to him. I wanted to. But it was too little, too late.

How much our teachers give, and how little they so often get in return, even from the students who adore them. If there is someone in your life — a teacher, a babysitter, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, a music teacher, a relative, a mentor — whom you have neglected to thank in a while, who poured into you when you were young and self-centered and too busy to notice, rebuild your connection with them starting today. Send a note to tell them how much you appreciated them. Because someday, you won’t be able to.

Coming Back to the Light

What a week. Enough flu for everyone.

Thankfully there have been flowers as well, both inside…

…and out.

The earliest blooms are out in the back yard gardens. The Lenten Rose (hellebores)…

…and the Siberian Squill (scilla)…

…and these tiny little guys, who have made themselves quite at home in one of my beds…

They’re a weed called Veronica Speedwell I’ve decided to let stay because I need groundcover in that spot anyway and have had limited success with the plants I actually planted in this very sunny, dry area. We’ll see what they do the rest of the year. If they behave nicely, I may keep them. They can be invasive, though, so I may regret it later.

At any rate, I’m still in no shape to deal with getting the garden cleaned up for spring. It’s on its own for a few more days at least as I recover fully from the flu. It’s a shame to have wasted some perfect gardening days sitting in a stupor inside, but there it is. Nothing can be done about it.

While recovering, I was lucid enough to enjoy two literary moments of significance. First, I got my latest manuscript back from the German translator who was helping me translate certain lines of dialogue into correct German, and also helping me with the elements of the plot which touch on translation issues between English and German. She had some very nice things to say about the manuscript and encouraged me to let her know when it found a publisher so she could tell her editors to be on the lookout for the translation rights. It was a wonderful boost of confidence for me as she is the first person who has actually read it in full.

The second moment came the next day, Sunday, when I received an email from one of the editors of The Lyric poetry magazine accepting one of my poems for a future issue. I don’t have any details yet, but I’ll be sure to share more when I know more.

And then Sunday night I felt normal enough to paint.

I based this painting on a photo I took years ago over a field in the Grand Ledge area before sunrise back when I was occasionally picking up a friend early in the morning to carpool to Grand Rapids. There was that glow in the sky that just precedes the sun, and a fine mist among the distant trees. One of those moments that is so fleeting and that you rarely get to experience when your house is smack dab in the city like ours.

So, I’m basically feeling normal now. I’m back to work (at home, as always) and though it is the beginning of Spring Break, the house is finally empty after our week of sickness. My husband has taken our son and the neighbor boy off on an adventure and my only companion is my canary, Alistair. I have a full inbox to deal with and some laundry that needs a kickstart. Time to brew a cup of coffee and see if I really am indeed back to normal — the worst part of the flu has been that my taste buds (we actually call them taste bites in this family) seem to be confused and coffee is the most dire casualty. Good, dark roast coffee has tasted like diner coffee with almost-turned cream. I’m hoping today might be the day everything gets back to normal…

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.

In Which the Year Hurtles to Its End and I Try to Hang On

Life of late has been a blur of copywriting, baking, eating, decorating, laundry, and editing, with some DIY church renovations thrown in for good measure. And here I find myself on the first day in December with no food in the house, nearly every room in some state of disarray, one car in the shop, and one gorgeous refinished chapel floor.

The walls and the curtained panels on either side of the cross are next on my list in our attempts to bring the room out of the 1970s-1980s, but not for a couple weeks at least. I’m taking much of the week off to focus on finishing up an edit on The Bone Garden so I can send it back to my agent. We’ll soon be prepping to go out on submission in early 2016. I’d be excited and nervous, but I haven’t the time. Christmas calls and I’ve hardly bought a thing…

Home, Health, and Hope

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought, typed, or spoken the words, “It’s been such a busy fall” this year. It has. With retreats and conferences, board meetings and ad hoc committee meetings, costumes to sew and boxes to pack…I’d say this is one of the busiest seasons I’ve had in a while. And when you get that busy with non-routine items, your regular life has a tendency to atrophy.

The house is a mess. We’re eating on the fly (and thus eating less-than-healthily). I haven’t found time to rake the leaves even once.

But with a number of items checked off the oddball to-do list (the biggest being a revision of my manuscript for my agent) I am looking forward to November as a time to take back the reins from Chaos.

I will clean this house.

I will take all those boxes and bags to the thrift store.

I will make that eye appointment.

I will do a real grocery shopping trip.

I will make smoothies for breakfast.

I will exercise. (I will, I will, I will!)

I will start thinking about goals for next year.

I will get some renovation projects moving at church.

I will make every attempt to take a shower before noon.

And I will entertain some hopes and dreams that may come to pass next year: a visit with dear friends that moved away this year, the purchase of a new house, the signing of a publishing contract, the getting into clothes that haven’t fit me in a while. The new year is still two months away, but I’m already in that kind of renewal-type mood.