Donald Trump, Rape Culture, and “What do I tell my daughter?”

Let’s just put it out there: a pretty despicable human being has been elected president of the United States. One of the many reactions to this has come from parents, especially mothers, who are asking “What do I tell my daughter?”

Before I share my answer to that question, I want to share with you a story only a few people in my life know but which is agonizingly common amongst women.

I was nine, one year older than my son is right now, when a friend’s older brother molested me. It takes a lot — a lot — of effort for me to let that sentence sit there. To not go back and delete it. To not edit it out of my story.

But it happened. More than once. And I didn’t tell anyone at first.

Probably the first couple times it happened, most people would have termed it “teasing,” especially back then. But anyone who has been intimidated or tricked into a position of helplessness while someone bigger and stronger has obvious control over whether you must stay or you get to leave will tell you that it’s not teasing. It’s at least bullying. Sometimes it’s assault, even if it is not much more than one person’s weight keeping you down on the floor until you promise him you will come back if he let’s you go.

Though I won’t go into details, the last time it happened, no one could deny that it was molestation. And not long after that traumatic incident, I stopped going over to my friend’s house. But I still didn’t tell anyone.

In sixth grade, I finally told someone. A teacher. I wrote out the story in a journal we kept in class. It didn’t have anything to do with the subject matter — science — it was just supposed to be us writing about anything we wanted and this teacher would be the only person who would read it. So I wrote what had happened to me. When I got my journal back the next week, my teacher had written at the top, “I hope you slapped him,” but he didn’t tell anyone. I guess mandatory reporting wasn’t a thing back then?

A couple years later, that teacher was arrested, tried, and convicted of molesting boys in his scout troop.

The one person I had reached out to was also a sex offender.

Though I doubt it was a conscious choice, the way I saw guys from that point on was fundamentally different. Boys became a force to be resisted, fought, proven wrong, and outdone. I would be better, stronger, smarter, more successful than they were. I would become someone to reckon with.

And I did. I beat nearly all of my male classmates in academics. I beat boys at arm wrestling. I bested them in Trivial Pursuit. I hit home runs. I was never afraid of the ball. I didn’t run like a girl, throw like a girl, or do shot put like a girl. I never backed down from an argument. I opened my own jars. I didn’t believe in the phrase “that’s a man’s job.” I wrote feminist poetry.  And of the girls in my graduating class, I was voted Most Likely to Be President.

I never felt that same level of competition with other girls. Only boys.

Being an outspoken young lady who carries herself with confidence can draw idiotic sexist comments from a lot of guys. Some of them might even call you a “nasty woman.” But according to more than one adult man in my life, from my father to my teachers, the boys were just “intimidated” by me. When I heard that I would think to myself, “Good. They should be.” And I would go on being me.

Eventually, I told the story of my childhood molestation to my future husband (one boy who was not intimidated by me).

In college, I stopped worrying so much about beating the boys. I was comfortably engaged to my high school sweetheart, excelling in my classes, and relishing every moment spent discussing literature, history, and culture. Unlike this woman, my experience as the victim of unwanted advances or outright assault did not continue throughout my life. It may have something to do with the different circles we ran in or it may be that me “intimidating” guys had a nice scumbag repellent effect. For whatever reason, the worst thing that happened had happened a really long time ago. And when you hear what some women have gone through, my story is mild.

But that doesn’t mean that every time I walked home from a late shift at a diner on campus I wasn’t listening for footsteps behind me and constantly running through self-defense scenarios in my mind. Because I was. No matter how long ago, an experience like that never leaves you. This statement from a New York Times article regarding Donald Trump’s treatment of women rings achingly true: “They appeared to be fleeting, unimportant moments to him, but they left lasting impressions on the women who experienced them.”

It’s obvious to me in hindsight that my early experience as the victim of sexual abuse had a significant role in molding me into the person I am today. A person who, along with every other decent person out there, was disgusted by comments made (and then lamely defended) by the president elect. To some men it might be just “locker room talk” but to women, dismissing such comments is another dismissal of their own personal story of sexual harassment or abuse, another log to throw on the smoldering fire of what’s become known as rape culture, a culture in which men are rarely held accountable and women are blamed for their own life-altering assaults.

Now then, for the answer to the question, “What do I tell my daughter?”

What do I say to her as we leave an administration led by an honorable man who set up the Council on Women and Girls and eloquently explained the problems and solutions to rape culture, and enter the administration of this guy? (For the record, I don’t think he’s actually done what he says there, but parsing all of that out is a little beyond the scope of this essay.)

Well, you could tell her the truth.

Tell her that while the office of the presidency is to be respected, there have been a number of men who held that position who have been less than honorable in their conduct toward women.

Tell her that unfortunately we live in a world where she needs to be vigilant, on guard against people who might want to take advantage of her. That while sexual assault is never her fault, she can reduce her vulnerability by taking smart precautionary measures, like never walking alone at night, learning basic self defense, supporting her female friends, and remaining sober-minded and alert in potentially dangerous situations.

Tell her that women are not exempt from feeding into a culture that devalues and blames women. Sometimes, while they are trying to protect their own hearts, lives, careers, and families, they do and say things that harm other women. They excuse terrible behavior to protect a reputation that, let’s face it, is bordering on unredeemable. (I say bordering, because if the man actually humbled himself and repented, he absolutely could be redeemed. But at this point his “conversion” is obviously a false one because he doesn’t believe he needs forgiveness, doesn’t understand the meaning of the Eucharist, and tries to make up for the bad things he does with works rather than accepting God’s grace.) They may even perpetuate the view of women as sex objects and call it empowerment. They make bad choices, and may regret them later, but they feel like they have to double down to retain their integrity because there are so many ways to make missteps in our judge now, ask questions later culture.

Tell her that nothing, fundamentally, has changed. Before Trump we lived in a dangerous and fallen world. During Trump we live in a dangerous and fallen world. After Trump we will live in a dangerous and fallen world.

And you might even tell her that the kind of people who put sexual pressure on others or who desire to feel power over others, are often the past victims of sexual pressure, harassment, or assault.

Remember the story of the friend’s older brother who molested me? When I finally told my childhood best friend and my sister about it last year, both of them immediately said, “I wonder what happened to him.”

Those twin statements kind of hit me broadside. I had often wondered why he had done what he’d done, especially since he was only four or five years older than me, still a kid himself. But it had never occurred to me that he might be acting out a scenario that had happened to him in the past, only this time he could be the one who felt in control rather than the one who felt powerless. Leave it to my always compassionate best friend and my former Child Protective Services worker sister to immediately see him as more than a perpetrator, to see him as a unique individual who might have his own difficult past.

Remember that teacher who was sent to prison for molesting boys in his scout troop? The boys who had come forward with the allegations were the same age as the boy who molested me. And it’s possible that he was even in that troop. That he had either heard about this teacher’s abuse or that he was a victim himself. I don’t know. We’re not exactly in touch and I can’t ask his sister because sadly she died after an on again, off again struggle with substance abuse.

The last time I talked to him I was a freshman in high school. He had already graduated. I contacted him and asked him if he wanted to come back for the school’s talent show and do a duet with me. It was a carefully considered ploy on my part to get the chance to put the incident, which I had still not told anyone about, to rest. To get it out of my mind. Surprisingly, he agreed. I chose the song: “Always on My Mind.” I chose it because it would make a good duet. I didn’t think any deeper about the title or lyrics for many years.

We got together a few times to practice. We watched a movie. He taught me how to drive his car, a stick shift, even though I was underage and didn’t have a license. We drove out to the Saginaw Bay, to a remote little spot at the end of a very long pier. In telling my sister the story years later, this is where she interrupted and said, “Without even a cell phone?” I stopped to think about it and said, “Yeah, I guess that was really dumb.”

We stood and watched the sun sinking over the bay and I finally got up the nerve. I asked him if he remembered luring me into his bedroom, forcing me down, and laying on top of me. If he remembered cornering me in the tent they had up in their back yard or groping me in their van when we were all playing hide and seek. He did remember. I asked him why he did all of that. All he could say was, “I don’t know.”

And maybe he didn’t. Or maybe deep down he did, but unlike me he was not ready to talk about it, to admit that something may have happened to him.

Again, I don’t know that anything did. But it might have. Because eighth grade boys don’t normally grope fourth grade girls. And that big “maybe” has helped me move past what happened to me twenty-seven years ago. Were I given the opportunity, I’d love to talk to him again and tell him that I think I have finally completely forgiven him. In case you’re wondering, we never did perform that song at the talent show.

I’m not saying all of this to excuse anyone, least of all our president elect, from criminal behavior toward women, lewd comments, or even general skeeviness. Nothing makes me feel more capable of extreme physical violence than talk of sexual assault. If I had 20 minutes, a baseball bat, and the promise of no legal consequences, it would take every ounce of my willpower not to beat Brock Turner to a raw, bloody pulp, and ask for a few shots at that judge as well.

But Donald Trump being president (How? How? How did it come to this?) will not make humanity worse. Or better. Humanity has been broken and sinful since the Fall and anyone who can look at our world and still think that people are basically good is wishing for something that is demonstrably untrue.

We all wish other people were better people. But we only have control over the behavior of one person — ourselves.

So what do you tell your daughter?

Tell her to live in such a way that she intimidates the boys.

When you pair self-confidence with self-control and self-reliance, you get someone like her. And she is a fantastic role model.

Someday, if she can ever be prevailed upon to run, your daughter might even get a chance to vote for her for president. And that would be a very proud day indeed.

A Silver Opportunity: On the Set of Silverdome

This weekend I had the opportunity to take some of the last photos that will likely be taken in the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions from 1975 to 2002.

A dear friend and talented writer, Ted Kluck, asked me to take stills of the production of his first feature-length film, Silverdome.

My husband and I were delighted to join him and his wife Kristin in Pontiac for a few hours. Ted and Kristin are our closest friends and they moved last year to Tennessee.

Silverdome is the last film project to get to shoot at the stadium before what remains of the structure is demolished to make way for new development.

The building that cost more than $55 million to build was finally auctioned off in 2009 for just $583,000. That’s 1% of its original value, for anyone counting.

I only ever saw part of one Lions game at the Silverdome. I remember little about it — just walking around the concourse with my father, seeing glimpses of the players in their Honolulu blue jerseys through the entrances to the seating areas, like passing a huge TV and then another huge TV and another, the sound of the game ebbing and flowing like the regular rhythm of tires over concrete seams on the highway.

I know others were there. My sister, perhaps. My uncle and my cousins.

Which makes me think it might have been Thanksgiving, because that’s when we went to Detroit to eat the holiday meal with family.

On second thought, maybe my sister wasn’t there. She’s never been allowed in the room when the Lions played on Thanksgiving because every time she came in, someone would fumble or there’d be a turnover or a field goal would be missed. Then everyone would yell at her to leave and not let up until she did. Poor Alison.

I don’t remember sitting in any of the 80,000+ seats the one day I was there.

I don’t remember walking into or out of the stadium.

All I remember is walking around the outside of the action, apart from the game, which the Lions were (predictably) losing — with or without my sister’s presence.

Being just outside the action is a frequent feeling for me. Lurking at the edges of the party. Loitering at the door of the gym. Looping around on the margins, rarely walking straight in.

I’ve lived in Lansing for eleven years and I have never been to a Michigan State football game. I can hear the muffled sound of the announcers and the roar of the crowd from my back yard. And it gives me a warm, pleased feeling.

But I never go.

Crowds make me vaguely uncomfortable.

I hate jostling for a place in line, hate trying to get in and out of busy parking lots, hate moving in a river of humanity from one place to the next.

I much prefer solitude.

Or perhaps the company of a few good friends.

But solitude in a place that was meant to be filled with crowds of people is a very specific kind of solitude.

Sad and nostalgic and mingled with regret.

It’s days you will never get back. Memories that become harder to hold onto.

In 2013, a particularly bad storm tore apart the deflated canvas roof of the Silverdome. Nature had begun the process that I think most of us knew had to happen eventually: deconstruction.

Plans for revamping were scrapped in favor of plans for a shovel-ready site that someone might actually want.

Beyond football legends like Barry Sanders and basketball legends like Isaiah Thomas (the Pistons played in the Silverdome before The Palace of Auburn Hills was built), acts such as Pete Townsend, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Michael Jackson, graced stages erected in the stadium. I even work with a woman who saw Elvis there on New Year’s Eve of 1975.

It’s hard to imagine, let alone estimate, how many people over the past forty years have walked through these doors and sat in these seats.

And now, these are the only people left.

The last men standing.

The Time Given to Us

Fifteen years ago, on a morning much like this morning — cool, clear blue sky — the world changed forever. I have never during those fifteen years been able to think about September 11, 2001, without tears, never been able to talk about it without a catch in my throat.

There are many people alive today who don’t remember the helpless confusion and fear of those first hours, those first days. And I find myself wondering, what will be that event for my son? What will be his #NeverForget moment? For my grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor. For my parents, it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For me and my generation, it was watching those towers collapse.

What will my son’s great paradigm-shifting tragedy be? What will be the thing that brings tears to his beautiful hazel eyes? What event will divide his life into before and after?

Three months after September 11, these lines were spoken by Gandalf in the movie version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring after Frodo says that he wished none of it had happened:

“So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

There are so many things I would change about our time. So many things all of us would change.

But we have only the time that has been given to us.

What shall we do with it?

Despair? Give up? Fall into bitterness and hate?

Friends, we’ve no time for that. We must work. And hope. And love. And pray that God would change hearts.

I do not doubt that there will be a breathtaking tragedy that will someday divide my son’s life into before and after. Neither do I doubt that there will be an after. And that after is what defines us.

So, as we limp to the inevitable close of a contentious and mind-boggling political season, I want each of you to know that I see the image of God in you, and because of that, I have love for you. No matter who you vote for or against, no matter your color of skin, no matter how you got here, no matter what you’ve done, left undone, or will do in the future. And the reason I can love you is because He first loved me.

With the time that has been given to me, I will try to work for the good and fight against the darkness. And when I fail, I will look for forgiveness.

Why Write Fiction When the World Is Going to Hell?

In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.

You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.

As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.

But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.

I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.

I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?

We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.

The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.

Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).

What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.

I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.

I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?

Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.

Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.

So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.

What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?

You can tell their story.

Time: The Great Motivator

At some point over the long weekend, this blog surpassed 2,000 followers, so I want to take a moment to thank all of the new readers who’ve come on board. And I want to encourage you to look through some old posts in the category that brought you here. You can find broad categories on the sidebar or click on tags on individual posts to find more that may interest you. You may also enjoy my photography page, which I have plans to add to during yet another summer of exploring parts north. Take some time to wander around.

I think about time a lot. Not having enough of it. Watching it whiz by. It’s June? Really? Why do the months keep surprising me? My son turned eight this weekend and it kind of floored me.

Eight

Back in 1968 (not December — that’s just when the film was finally developed) someone took this picture of my parents at the Detroit Zoo when they were dating.

DaleDonnaZoo copy

Nearly forty years later, I took this photo of Zach and the boy in about the same spot.

I’m willing to believe my parents can’t believe it’s been practically four decades since they leaned against that railing for that first photo. And I bet in forty years I’ll be in a state of disbelieving shock that the second photo is that old.

At home I see time reflected in the growth of trees and bushes in my yard, the amount of chipping paint on the windowsills, and the number of new cracks in the driveway. I look at photos of long-dead relatives and touch some of the objects they touched — a pocket watch, a quilt, a silver serving spoon — and realize that the things we create as humans tend to outlive us. That railing around the fountain at the zoo was erected in 1939. Thousands of people have been photographed by it. Many of them are gone now, but the railing remains.

That’s part of the reason I’m compelled to write: to outlive myself in some small way.

Another part is to capture time.

During the past month I have been trying to get a catalog to press at work, doing ghostwriting work for a ministry, freelance editing a novel, celebrating my son’s birthday, visiting friends from Kenya, planting the garden, prepping and leading a workshop, and, when I can find a few minutes, working on my own fiction. When we get busy, time slips along like water down a storm drain.

Yet, when we write, we capture moments in time, hold them, and make them available to other people at a later date. Those bits of time wait patiently, encased in paper and ink, and begin all over again when someone starts to read. And as long as a copy of a book or letter or journal exists, those moments cannot be lost to busyness. And, graciously, they allow us to take time out of our own busyness when we settle down to read.

The problem is, there’s only so much time to capture time. (Does your head hurt yet?) And the fact that every moment that passes is a moment that will never come again is a great motivator to prioritize our lives, to make time for the things that invigorate us and makes us feel most like ourselves. Family, friends, and our special contribution to this world, whether its writing or cooking or encouragement or serving or sewing or photography or woodworking.

Summer is upon us. We have lots of daylight to use. May we use it well.

You Need to Blink More

Alas, the first day of spring went unmarked in this space, though it was sunny and lovely (and cold). It was a busy Sunday morning during which I taught Sunday school (we’re discussing so-called “lost gospels” at the moment and why they are not inducted into the canon), forgot to bring cookies for Fellowship Time, read and prayed in the service as the lay leader, jumped into the choir number since I remembered it from years past, and then hosted a few church members at our house for lunch. During the afternoon and evening I decided to change tacks and do nothing.

And that’s what I did, or nearly so. I reclined on the couch in a shaft of sunlight, very much like a cat. I also read, unlike most cats I’ve known. In the back of my mind I knew I should be taking advantage of the free time to read a manuscript I’m critiquing for a friend, but I also knew that that wouldn’t be doing nothing. And I needed to do nothing for a bit.

A while back I visited the eye doctor with what I saw as a troubling symptom of some sort of problem — I didn’t know what. I feared glaucoma or perhaps crazy-early-onset cataracts. Whatever it was, something was most definitely wrong. I was experiencing a frequent sort of clouding, large chunks of my field of vision where it looked like I was looking through frosted glass. For someone who makes a living writing, who uses a computer 8+ hours a day, and whose greatest joys and hobbies all involve her sense of sight (painting, photography, reading, hiking, observing nature) this was understandably weighing on my mind.

With some anxiety, I went for the first time to an ophthalmologist, where I was put through the proverbial wringer for a couple hours. Test upon test upon test. And in the end, what was I told?

“You have dry eyes. You need to blink more.”

That’s it? Really? I don’t blink enough? I was relieved, of course, that it wasn’t something more serious. But there was a tiny half-buried part of me that kind of thought I had wasted two hours for nothing. Blinking? Wasn’t that something we just do without thinking? Who consciously blinks more?

Some of you may be thinking, Duh. Haven’t you read this, this, or this? Well, yeah, I’m sure I read something about that — on my pernicious computer screen, no less. But that’s about other people. Not me.

So now I have eye drops I’m supposed to use four times a day to make up for the fact that I don’t blink enough.

You know the saying, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it?” It’s applied to many things, most notably to your kid’s childhood. These are the things old strangers in the mall lean in and say while you’re already quite engaged with “not missing it” and from which you frankly don’t appreciate the interruption. And there’s a sense nowadays that you can never blink anymore. If you don’t catch the latest blockbuster, read the latest novel from so-and-so, see the latest clip of so-and-so on YouTube, participate (or at least lurk at) the discussion people on Twitter are having about this issue and the discussion people on Facebook are having on that issue, binge on the newest season of Hot TV Show on Netflix…if you don’t keep up, if you blink, you’ll miss it.

But I tell you what, I missed everything yesterday afternoon, and I didn’t miss a thing. I blinked so much I may as well have kept my eyes closed (though that would make it difficult to read) and I didn’t miss anything worth catching.

“You need to blink more.”

It’s okay. The world keeps spinning, even in the dark.

On the Death of Artists

The literary world was dealt a double blow this week as two very different writers passed away at ripe old ages — Harper Lee at 89 and Umberto Eco at 84. Harper Lee published one book during her lifetime (evidence suggests she had little to do with the publication of Go Set a Watchman); Umberto Eco published around fifty, a combination of bestselling novels, literary criticism, and books for children. Practically every American who reads has heard of Harper Lee, while I would wager that only a small percentage of the US population has ever taken note of Umberto Eco, despite his prolific output and international success. Upon hearing of Lee’s death, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Eco? Two people I know (only one American) mentioned it.

It brings to mind questions of output, influence, and reach. What makes everyone able to connect Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird while most of us scratch our heads when faced with a headline about Umberto Eco? Why does one morality tale from an unassuming Southern woman outshine decades of intellectual rigor and innovation from an Italian man who was, by all accounts, a literary giant?

I’ll be the first to admit when I heard Eco had died I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t call to mind even one of his books. I knew I’d read Eco’s literary criticism in college, could even remember the professor who had assigned him, but I couldn’t immediately call to mind any titles. Scanning his book titles online, nothing jumped out at me. I’d forgotten him.

Surely I’d find him in one of my anthologies, those bricks of onion skin pages English majors lugged around in college. I’d see what I’d underlined and it would all come rushing back. Only, he wasn’t there. Had I imagined it? Had I simply seen and heard his name so many times in literary circles that I assumed I had read him? Or, perhaps more likely, my professor had made copies for his students to read from some out of print book, copies I simply lost track of or threw out sometime in the last fifteen years.

Had I ever read a word of Umberto Eco?

Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this. Americans heavily favor American writers when teaching literature. (The prof who had assigned him in my World Lit was from Gibraltar.) Americans don’t read in translation. Americans don’t read foreign-sounding names. American institutes of higher education have lower standards and expectations than those of Europe. Americans are stupid and self-absorbed.

And sure, a lot of those criticisms are based on valid, quantifiable data. But there is also the plain fact that reading Umberto Eco can be hard work.

Let’s compare Eco’s bestselling historical mystery/philosophical treatise The Name of the Rose with Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both seem to have sold about 50 million copies and both are sitting pretty in the top ten or fifteen Amazon ranking in their categories, depending on what edition you’re looking at. Both have about four and a third stars from their many Amazon reviews (though Lee’s 8,385 reviews as of the writing of this post far outstrip Eco’s 550). Both books have been made into movies with big stars, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose.

All in all, they seem fairly similar. But check out these reviews of Eco’s work:

“The book became a hit despite some obscure passages and allusions. This deftly abridged version…retains the genius of the original but is far more accessible.” — Library Journal

“Although the work stands on its own as a murder mystery, it is more accurately seen as a questioning of “truth” from theological, philosophical, scholarly, and historical perspectives.” — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

One Amazon reviewer called it “a rewarding but painstaking read.” Another said “As others have said, it’s wordy and at times difficult, but it’s very rewarding for those who persevere!” And these seemingly contradictory words from a review of his second novel, Foucault’s Pedulum, are revealing:

“If a copy (often unread) of The Name of the Rose on the coffee table was a badge of intellectual superiority in 1983, Eco’s second novel — also an intellectual blockbuster — should prove more accessible….Dense, packed with meaning, often startlingly provocative, the novel is a mixture of metaphysical meditation, detective story, computer handbook, introduction to physics and philosophy, historical survey, mathematical puzzle, compendium of religious and cultural mythology, guide to the Torah (Hebrew, rather than Latin contributes to the puzzle here, but is restricted mainly to chapter headings), reference manual to the occult, the hermetic mysteries, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons– ad infinitum . The narrative eventually becomes heavy with the accumulated weight of data and supposition, and overwrought with implication, and its climax may leave readers underwhelmed. Until that point, however, this is an intriguing cerebral exercise in which Eco slyly suggests that intellectual arrogance can come to no good end.” — Publishers Weekly

Now compare those to these words about To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon reviewers:

“I was simply floored while reading this novel. I wasn’t expecting a ‘classic’ to be so readable.”

“It is so well-written and moving that it reads like poetry.”

“This novel is beautifully written, transporting the reader into the souls of all the characters…If ever a book was written that should be mandatory reading (not necessarily in schools but rather in life) this is that book.”

Did you notice what I noticed? Readable, readable, readable. Both authors explore interesting and important issues. Both have devotees (and Eco’s are generally more erudite than Lee’s when it comes to the reader reviews). But one is difficult and the other is not. Both are described as slow in other reviews I saw (Lee’s at the beginning and Eco’s at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark), but one is compared to the slowness of a hot, sultry, summer day while the other is compared to slogging through mud.

Eco lovers might argue that he is dealing with far more complex philosophical and theological issues than Lee, and therefore he needs those 200 extra pages to get his point across. And that is likely true, and I don’t mean this post to be critical of such writing, because I certainly like reading (and especially rereading) difficult books when they deliver the kind of reward Eco’s are known to deliver. I recently had my first brush with Italo Calvino, another Italian writer, and found him both endlessly frustrating and completely riveting. As a reader, I don’t mind being frustrated. But I think I’m in the minority.

At any rate, Lee’s world of racial strife and systemic oppression and generational sins, and Eco’s world of 14th century religious schisms and hypocrisies, both seem, on the surface, to be just as important and applicable to life today. Our country is as racially broken as it ever was, and criticism of the church is always in vogue. Both narratives follow crimes and seek to divide the guilty from the innocent. And, quite honestly, I’m sure that just as many people have an unread copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at home as those who have an unread copy of The Name of the Rose, though likely most Americans have had at least a brush with Lee’s book in high school, whether or not they really did the required reading.

When it comes down to it, perhaps the difference is found in these terms: experimental versus experiential. Eco’s tome is very aware of its form and structure, and plays with those elements purposefully if the reviewers are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) whereas Lee’s book is rooted in the world she lived in and the people she grew up with. Eco seems to have written what he thought about. Lee wrote what she saw and what she lived. And unfortunately, most of us today see it and many today live it too. She wrote what she knew, and what she knew is still in many ways our reality.

When David Bowie died last month I was amazed at how devastated people seemed on social media. With a few exceptions where it was obvious that the person had been deeply affected by his life as an artist, I had a knee jerk reaction to most of the postings, and it was the same as my reaction to people crying in the halls in high school when Kurt Cobain died: You didn’t care about him until he was dead and I can all but guarantee you don’t own even one of his albums.

In contrast, when Michael Jackson died I felt that most people who expressed sadness were likely actually sad about it because his music had been the soundtrack of their young lives. Worldwide internet searches for news on his death crashed Twitter and Wikipedia and forced Google to block searches because they thought is was an attack. People weren’t just searching and posting about him so they would seem like they were part of an elite group, like they wore a badge of artistic superiority. They were searching for something that exposed it as a hoax. They were searching for someone who would tell them it wasn’t true. Because to like Michael Jackson didn’t take a lot of effort. His music was experiential, melodic, catchy — readable. Bowie’s was experimental and odd. (Though, admittedly, they were both quite odd and provocative in appearance).

I imagine reviews for the music of Michael Jackson and that of David Bowie might mirror those of Lee and Eco. One accessible and singing a melody we are now more than familiar with, the other less accessible but worth the effort. And I wonder, when all is said and done, if fifty years from now Bowie’s influence on music might be far greater than Jackson’s, if Eco’s influence on literature will far outstrip Lee’s. And how much of it is the listener or the reader looking for someone to tell them how to feel about things rather than allowing the artist to leave it up to the audience to sort out on their own. When artists expect us to do our part, are we less likely to embrace them? If so, why?

One thing of which I am certain in all of this, is that whether you write one book or fifty, whether you’re the King of Pop or a wily rock subversive, to die as an artist who contributed something of yourself, who offered up your ideas and visions for others to make of them what they would, is a noble death, whether it comes in your sleep in your 80s, from cancer in your 60s, from an overdose at 50, or a gunshot wound at 27. It is in a small way to live on, in the hearts and minds of your audience and in the work of the artists who come after you who might point to you as someone who influenced them.

We may wish our favorite authors and musicians and actors wouldn’t die, especially when they die in tragic circumstances. But an artist is never really dead as long as their work continues to be experienced, in large numbers or small.

What can we glean then from the death of an artist? A call to press on, to create, to share, to contribute to the story of mankind. Make your mark. And make it a good one.

For When Life Feels Like It’s One Big, Long, Dreadful February

Despite my optimistic outlook on the first of the month, February sank its inevitable claws into me with blank skies, a family health crisis, missing friends who’ve moved away, and just a vague sense of stasis in the realms of work, home, health, and writing. It happens. Dinner out with my guys cheered me up last night and today, despite the continual white-gray skies, I’m feeling a bit better. This helped too:


To save as MP3, right-click here and select “Save as.”

You might not think listening to two guys riff on how depressed they’ve been would cheer you up (especially when, in my case, one is your husband and one is a close friend), but trust me when I say that if you’re finding yourself feeling stuck or less successful than you thought you’d be at this point in your life, listening to this podcast will help. It’s honest about the expectations we have for ourselves and the ways we fall short and how to deal with those feelings of discontent and disappointment, not in a “Hey, buck up!” kind of way but in a way that might actually make some use out of those experiences. And to hear two men talk through those things honestly is a rare find.

You can’t avoid February, and sometimes you might feel like your whole life is stuck in a February. But spring is coming and God is faithful.

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.