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.

La liberté ou la mort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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