Who’s Afraid of Imperfection?

Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building? 

The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?

At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?

Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?

I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.

The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.

I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.

I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.

But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?

Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line? 

As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?

As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.

And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.

Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?

My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?

Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?

This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.

There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.

Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.

I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.

They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.

One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.

Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.

My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.

Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.

You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.

 

These Changeable Days

It is a cloudy morning, but a springish light is in the air. Despite it being January. We’re all discombobulated by the weather, bouncing between thaw and freeze, rain and snow, sun and clouds. In the words of They Might Be Giants, “Everyone’s excited and confused.”

Lonely piles of snow still linger in the cold and sheltered places, but much of my world is a dull wash of brown and faded green. One day I walk our little chihuahua mix with her plaid coat on and worry about her little paws and ears freezing. The next she goes out naked, splashing through puddles of meltwater, going ballistic when she sees a squirrel.

This is January?

There is a tall and slender dead ash tree in the back yard that is listing northwest, aiming for the garage. It looks like a rope and a couple of determined guys could pull it the rest of the way down. Part of me worries about it and part of me is rooting for it. But it’s not big enough to do enough damage so that we’d have to replace the garage and might be able to claim some insurance money to get the job done. 

I worry about the fence as well. Katy is small enough to fit through the spaces between pickets. The fence needs to be replaced — it is rotting in spots, pulling away from the posts. But on one side the neighbors have a new metal fence Katy can get under and through with little effort. A tie-out is one solution, though it’s apt to get tangled up in bushes. A mostly invisible wire fence along the neighbor’s metal fence is another. For now, we take her out on a leash.

There’s a strange, unsettledness to life right now. We have more orphaned socks in our sock bag than ever before. I’ve been washing dishes by hand every day as we figure out a solution to a dishwasher problem. The workroom is clean, yet there’s sawdust being tracked through the house. The outdoor Christmas lights lie in a pile by the door, drying out before we can put them away in the attic. The far end of the dining room table is gathering an assortment of papers and Legos and headphones and items with no home. Desks are almost clean. Laundry is mostly done. Books are all half read.

And I have started writing a new novel. A story about sisters and identity and a hiking trip that will go very bad, but ultimately be good.

I don’t know yet how 2018 feels to me. I do know that eventually the seasons will figure themselves out. Eventually that dead tree will come down, one way or another. Eventually the fencing issue will be resolved.

Ultimately, it will be good.

Loosening the Facebook Noose and Rediscovering the Natural World

Two days ago, we got about five inches of snow. Yesterday was clear and cold, six degrees in the morning, warming to about twenty. My son spent his snow day largely out in the snow despite the temperatures. Between bouts his snow gear tumbled around in the dryer to get it ready for the next session.

Today it is snowing again and my yard is filled with birds munching seeds from dead flower heads and from the feeders which I’ve moved to the north side of the house so we can watch them from the kitchen and the dining room table. The neighbor’s garage acts as a windbreak for them.

We’ve seen dozens of goldfinches in their dull winter coats all vying for a place on the feeder with the thistle seed in it. House finches prefer the sunflower seeds in the tube feeder. Juncos pick up the scraps that fall to the ground. A woodpecker has been carving away at the seed cylinder that is laced with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels off it. Sparrows and nuthatches and cardinals and chickadees and the occasional blue jay round out the company.

“It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m reading for the first time. Winter is a good time for reading anything, but especially nature writing.

I find myself jealous of all that is right outside of Annie’s door in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and I recall how much time I used to spend outside, especially in winter, when I lived in Grand Rapids and volunteered at Blandford Nature Center. Winter and early spring hikes around the property were always far better than those taken in summer. The world holding its breath all winter and then finally releasing it. Each spring hike a wonder as new things came alive. The wonder of spring only made possible by the icy grip of winter.

I think I love winter more every year.

My friend Cindy Crosby writes in the tradition of Annie Dillard, though she is in the great wide prairie lands rather than the mountains. If you enjoy nature writing, you may like her blog or her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Here’s the description from Amazon:

More than a region on a map, North America’s vast grasslands are an enduring place in the American heart. Unfolding along and beyond the Mississippi River, the tallgrass prairie has entranced and inspired its natives and newcomers as well as American artists and writers from Willa Cather to Mark Twain. The Tallgrass Prairie is a new introduction to the astonishing beauty and biodiversity of these iconic American spaces.

 

Like a walking tour with a literate friend and expert, Cindy Crosby’s Tallgrass Prairie prepares travelers and armchair travelers for an adventure in the tallgrass. Crosby’s engaging gateway assumes no prior knowledge of tallgrass landscapes, and she acquaints readers with the native plants they’ll discover there. She demystifies botanic plant names and offers engaging mnemonic tips for mastering Latin names with verve and confidence. Visitors to the prairie will learn to identify native plants using the five senses to discover what makes each plant unique or memorable. In the summer, for example, the unusual square stem of cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, sets it apart from its neighbors. And its distinctive leaf cups water after the rain.

 

A gifted raconteur, Crosby tells stories about how humankind has adopted the prairie as a grocery, an apothecary, and even as a shop for love charms. Rounding out this exceptional introduction are suggestions for experiencing the American prairie, including journaling techniques and sensory experiences, tips for preparing for a hike in tallgrass landscapes, ways to integrate native prairie plants into home landscapes (without upsetting the neighbors), and a wealth of resources for further exploration.

 

An instant classic in the tradition of American naturalist writing, The Tallgrass Prairie will delight not only scholars and policy makers, but guests to tallgrass prairie preserves, outdoors enthusiasts and gardeners, and readers interested in American ecosystems and native plants.

Earlier this week, two red-tailed hawks took a brief respite in a maple tree in my back yard then went on hunting. I felt lucky to see them. And I feel lucky that I live in a place that gets a real winter, which always feels like my own respite. A Sabbath season.

I’m winding down my year of reading A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. Today’s selection includes this observation: “When promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated.” Lewis is talking not just of chastity versus promiscuity in this selection, but of the desire to be part of the Inner Circle of mankind. To be in the know. An early 20th century version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I never used to care about being at one with the Zeitgeist. I was comfortably on the outside, not even looking in, because I was spending my time looking at the same kinds of things Annie Dillard and Cindy Crosby were looking at. And I felt with certainty that was the one in the know, in the inner circle. I noticed the things that mattered while everyone else was whirling about trying to be current. I was the insider and they were all outside, not even looking in, because they were too busy for the slow, constant, predictable motion of the natural world.

Sometime in the late 2000s, that changed, and I’ve spent a decade far more engaged with the tumult of mankind than I could ever have imagined I’d be. It’s probably 100% due to my entrance into social media by joining Facebook in 2007. And honestly, I’m not happy about it.

There are things that have to be said, wounds that have to be opened, policies that need to change, and power structures that should probably be toppled. It’s certainly unclear if social media is the most effective place to do this. It certainly is clear that social media makes people feel less understood, less connected, and more anxious and depressed than they would otherwise be. It is the ultimate irony of our times.

The history of mankind and the history of everything else in the world run on parallel tracks, one frenetic and anxious and bumpy, the other timeless and deliberate and while not unchanging certainly changing slower and for more logical reasons sometimes.

Maybe its too early for resolutions, but this has been on my mind. This desire to jump back over to that other track for a while and remember that the weight of the world’s problems are not a burden I need to carry. I can’t carry it.

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” And to the Romans he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This is hard to do in a democracy. It is made all the more difficult when media and social media seem designed to stir up anger, fear, dissension, and self-righteousness.

When I first joined Facebook, it was fun. It was a waste of time, no doubt, but it was fun. Now it’s mostly not. I’m not dumping it entirely for 2018, but I’m taking a step back. I’m unfollowing A LOT of people. I’m limiting my time on it, and eliminating it entirely on weekends. I’m going to go quiet. Take a Sabbath rest. Rediscover my blog, which I’ve let go quiet this fall.

I’m really looking forward to 2018. A time to start fresh. A pure white blanket of fresh-fallen snow. A year of possibilities. A year to buckle down and work on what pleases me. A year to lead a quieter life, at peace with those around me.

I’m not worried about missing out. I’m looking forward to it.

 

The Problem with 30,000 Feet: Thoughts on Las Vegas, Evil, and Why God Tarries

As I flew back to Michigan after attending my third Women’s Fiction Writers Association Writers’ Retreat, I felt tired and satisfied, happy to be coming home yet still sad to leave.

Most of all, I felt a profound sense of love for the world that sped by 30,000 feet below. Almost everything I saw was lovely in its own way.

Neat lines of houses I knew were inhabited by people with hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments and triumphs.

Crooked lines of canyons carved out of the rock by rivers.

Fingers of mountain ranges stretching out across the ground.

The world from 30,000 feet is easy to love.

On the ground? Not so much.

I’m not talking about the natural world in this case, but the world in the way the Apostle Paul talked about it — the world’s system, the flesh, humankind’s sin nature, our tendency to corrupt and twist nearly everything we touch in some way.

Events like the shooting in Las Vegas Sunday night — 58 dead and 515 hospitalized with injuries is the last count as I write this — force us once more to grapple with this reality. Why are some people so utterly horrible? Why are we bent on destruction? Why this waste of human life and potential?

And no answer we come up with truly satisfies. It’s guns. It’s mental illness. It’s religious ideologies. It’s Fate. It’s dumb luck.

As much as we would all like to avoid the question of why great evil continues to be done “in 2017” or any other year, we cannot. Bad people do bad things. Storms level entire islands. People take advantage of one another. Evil simply is. 

I would like to live with my view of the world at 30,000 feet. But I’m not afforded that luxury. I live here on the ground. And so do you.

While I was at the retreat, a friend and I chatted on the patio after the sun went down. We talked about our work, but also about the state of the world. It seems it’s hard to avoid talking about it — it’s on everyone’s mind. She said something to the effect of, “I suppose your faith helps you with all that.”

It does. To an extent.

When it comes to politics, I vote my conscience and trust God to work things out according to His will. That frees me from a lot of hand-wringing, anxiety attacks, and ulcers I think a lot of my friends are dealing with on an almost daily basis.

When it comes to terrorism and massacres, it still helps, but it’s harder. I can intellectually accept that each of us is sinful and in need of redemption. But it seems like some people are SO sinful, so utterly consumed by irrational hatred. I feel sick to my stomach with the magnitude and mindlessness of it. There’s no revenge here or personal vendetta. Those, while still horrible, are at least comprehensible at some level. But randomly shooting strangers? Driving trucks and vans into crowds of strangers? Blowing up strangers? It’s incomprehensible. I hardly know what to do with it.

My one comfort in these cases is still my faith. That God is just. That evil will be punished. That my own sins are forgiven through true repentance. That He still has and is working out His perfect plan. That these events grieve Him — but they do not surprise Him.

And when I am tempted to accuse Him of allowing terrible things to happen as His judgment tarries, I must remember that it is because of mercy that He waits. That just like the door on my airplane, once the doors to salvation are shut they will not be reopened. His seeming slowness in setting things right is is not an oversight, nor is it an indication of neglect or of sadism. It is patience and compassion.

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” – Ezekiel 33:11a

and

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:9

I must rest in the knowledge that God sees the world from 30,000 feet and He sees it at ground level and He sees into the hearts and thoughts of every single human being that has ever lived, is now living, or will ever live in the future. And while I may sometimes have a hard time keeping a handle on the plot of a 400-page novel that I am writing, He never misses even a syllable of the story He has been writing from the Beginning. He is a far better author than I, and I can trust Him with every character, every plot twist, every dark moment, every triumph in His story.

And I can certainly trust Him to end each chapter exactly when it should end.

The Clock Ticks Ever On

If I’ve been lax at regular blog posts of late it’s probably because life is in a busy season. The end-of-school-year activities are picking up. The vigorous growth in the yard needs tending. We’re at the height of another catalog season at work. The articles for the WFWA newsletter need to be written and edited. And most of my spare time at the moment has been claimed by freelance editing and writing projects.

There’s a lot to prepare for in the coming weeks. Both my husband and my son have May birthdays.  I’ve been invited to speak to a large group of Nepali and Bhutanese women on Memorial Day as part of an event devoted to women and mothers in the church, so I need to start working on my message. Our summer travels are coming up fast, which means packing lists and playlists need to be created.

I’ve had little time for leisurely pursuits, like painting or taking photographs, though I am managing to read and wind down with a little Netflix now and then (Master of None at lunch, Better Call Saul or Brooklyn 99 in the evening). And I even watched a couple movies I’d had on my queue for months: The Imitation Game (amazing) and Sarajevo (quite good).

Life barrels forward. It seems with every new month I’m surprised that the last one is already ended. Were someone to find a way to slow it down to the pace of childhood, when every day was a lingering one and every summer hung on for eternity…Ah, but then we should complain that the future did not come fast enough.

Time is such a funny thing. Always a constant in reality, yet always slipping and shifting in our experience of it. And never enough of it, though it is infinite.

From One Attitude to the Next

A rare Sunday skipping church, home with my boy who has the flu. My world is all Pedialyte,  Tamiflu, vomiting, and Phineas & Ferb.

Outside it looks like the flu too. Blank gray sky, wet brownish ground, still-bare trees. Winter’s leavings. But the goldfinches are starting to shine a sunny yellow and two days ago it topped 70 degrees. We soaked it up with windows down and radios blaring, knowing it wouldn’t last. Yesterday it was 45 and raining. Thirty degree shifts in 24 hours is par for the course in a Michigan spring. But it does seem to make us all a little sick.

As I write this, Sunday school is getting out and people are pouring their coffee and placing cookies on napkins in the library at my church. My husband will be walking between there and his office and the sanctuary, talking with his flock and getting things in place for worship. The kids (minus one) will be bouncing and running through the halls, slaloming past the old ladies with their walkers. Chatting and laughing will filter through the air until people find their way to the sanctuary and settle down as the first notes of the prelude emanate from the piano.

It’s a time of transition from one place to the next, one attitude to the next. Like March. Like Lent. We’re now in the second half of that liturgical season, a time when it is easy to forget about what we intended to do or not do. I have read three of my five books for Lent. Tomorrow I start Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. I’m excited to begin my armchair pilgrimage, the story of going from one place to the next, one attitude to the next.

It is now fifteen minutes before the service begins. The microphones will be in place. The sound check done. The choir has finished running over their song and are now milling about with friends and grabbing a last cup of coffee or popping throat lozenges. I run upstairs at home to tell my son to take another sip of Pedialyte but he says his stomach doesn’t feel very good, so I decide to wait another fifteen minutes. I wonder when to try the Tamiflu. It’s been a few hours with no vomiting and I don’t want to get him started again, but I also know that if he can keep the nasty stuff down it will help shorten the whole ordeal.

So often we resist what is good for us because it seems unpleasant in the short run. And maybe it is unpleasant. March is unpleasant. The self-denial of Lent is sometimes unpleasant. Certainly contemplating one’s own sinfulness or mortality is unpleasant.

I understand that molting feathers is unpleasant as well. But without sloughing off the old drab colors of winter, the goldfinch will not find a mate, which is his purpose in life. He first needs to lose his old identity as an olive-gray bird before he can embrace his new identity as a drop of sunlight. He doesn’t do this himself. He doesn’t decide one day to molt his old feathers. That is something outside of his control. Just as my son cannot decide to be well and will the flu virus out of his body. Just as we do not simply decide to be holy and then do it in our own strength.

I hear those first notes of the prelude now. The worship service is beginning. So I need to stop my chatting. I need to make that transition from one attitude to the next. I can’t be among the saints and sinners at church this morning. I can’t join my voice to theirs in song. But I can commune with them and with our God in prayer. So that’s what I’ll do now.

Right after I check on my little boy.

Just a Girl in the World

Today, as you might know, is International Women’s Day, and as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I was struck by the juxtaposition of two posts. The first was posted by an novelist/missionary I have the privilege of knowing through my work in the publishing industry. She and her husband serve some of the poorest of the poor in Mozambique. Here’s what she has been up to today:

The very next thing in my feed was this “sponsored” post (which is another way of saying it’s an ad):

A cooking hut for a woman being rebuilt with the help of another woman, who will also be helping to rebuild half a dozen other homes, made mostly of natural poles, dried plant matter, plastic tarps, and even garbage. Then a marble kitchen in a $35 million dollar compound.

I clicked through to see what $35 million dollars bought Gwen…

Now, I’m not a redistributionist. People can spend the money they have earned on what they want, and many wealthy people are great philanthropists. This post isn’t about the disparity between Mozambique and Beverly Hills. It’s about women.

And I’m not anti-Gwen Stefani. Like many people of my generation, I am a huge fan of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani’s band in the 1990s and early 2000s. I love her feminist song “Just a Girl,” which came out in 1995 when I was fifteen and felt all of its lyrics deeply. Ms. Stefani has done well for herself, projecting a confident, powerful female persona to millions of girls and women (though lyrics of some other songs and her overly sexual videos may undermine that at the same time).

My novelist/missionary friend from the first post? She writes strong female protagonists, sells tens of thousands of copies of each book, and is the winner of several awards, so she has a reach too. Still, when stacked up against Gwen Stefani and her rock-star kitchen, how many of us might be tempted to feel like the little things we were doing with our own lives just didn’t matter quite as much?

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to submit that my novelist/missionary friend who is piecing back together grass huts that will likely fall apart again during the next big storm is doing more important and lasting work than Gwen Stefani, and that women should strive to be more like the woman with dirt under her fingernails than the one with the sterile, pristine, marble-ensconced palace who only encounters dirt in the tabloids.

Menial tasks that will have to be redone (like dishes, laundry, and cleaning) are not inconsequential or somehow “beneath” us, despite the fact that, unless you work in the cleaning industry, you do not get paid to do them. To those six or seven poor families who see a woman of God helping them rebuild, my friend’s labors may mean the difference between being safe and being exposed to the elements.

And that woman who is getting back her cooking hut? I bet she appreciates it more than Gwen Stefani appreciates her (frankly hard to look at) rock-star kitchen.

Today’s feminism often looks like a strange combination of worshiping Beyonce and screaming and flipping people off rather than listen to someone with whom you disagree. But feminism that makes a real difference in the lives of women is generally quieter than that. And frankly, it doesn’t pay all that well.

It’s my friend Jamie who works with women in the prison system.

It’s my friend Jeni who is in Thailand working to free women and girls from the sex trade.

It’s my sister Alison excelling at a traditionally male job.

It’s my mom who chose to stay at home with us when we were little, kept a clean house, and cooked dinner every night, but who also went to work when we were older.

It’s all of the amazing women writers I know who create female characters who have the wherewithal to admit when they are wrong and forgive when they’ve been wronged.

It’s the women in my church of different generations who have persevered through hardship, who have raised incredible children as single moms after unplanned pregnancies, who have survived a spouse’s infidelity, who have carried on with grace after the death of loved ones, who have been friends and mentors to other women.

If you are a woman reading this, I hope you won’t buy into the lie that feminism has to look a certain way. That it must be angry or hypersexual. That it must be full of bitter resentment against men or our society. It can simply be you being the best person you can be to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and yourself.

You don’t need Gwen’s rock-star kitchen to feel fulfilled. You don’t have to scream to be heard. Build a grass hut for someone. Get your hands dirty.

You’re just a girl in the world. But you get to decide what that’s going to look like.

Why I Don’t Think 2016 Was “The Worst Year”

Social media posts over the past 3-6 months would have us believe that 2016 was the “worst year,” if not ever then at least in living memory. A number of prominent celebrities died, some of them young, some of them tragically young. A fairly despicable human being was elected president of the United States and no one knows quite what to expect from him. Problems that I guess some people had thought were largely solved (though I can’t imagine why beyond wishful thinking) reared their ugly heads. Violence against people because of race, sexuality, and religion was too regular for our tastes.

Yes, some terrible things happened, and their impact was amplified by the frequency with which we saw them on social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Our parents’ or grandparents’ generation only had to confront such realities of life on planet earth once or twice a day in the newspaper or on the evening newscast, not every time they compulsively opened Facebook when they had to wait twenty seconds for their slow work computer to open a document or wait through the indecisive person in front of them at Starbucks.

But are our times truly worse than theirs? Is 2016 to be the new yardstick of calamity?

You’re probably thinking, “Geez, Erin, it’s just hyperbole. Don’t you understand simple rhetorical devices?”

Yes, I do. I also understand the power of putting our problems in perspective. And here’s just a little of that.

  • Between 1347 and 1352, possibly 50 million people died of bubonic plague, 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time.
  • In 1520, smallpox was introduced to the Americas and would eventually kill more than 60% of the native population.
  • Between 1769 and 1792, more than 20 million people succumbed to famine in India.
  • Adding up the deaths from starvation and disease during the deadliest famines in Russia (1601-1603, 1921-1922, and 1932-1934) and you get between 14 and 17 million people.
  • From 1861 to 1865, up to 750,000 Americans died during the Civil War.
  • From 1915 to 1924, 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government.
  • In 1918, not only was World War I reaching its bloody crescendo, but a flu pandemic killed somewhere between 20-50 million people, depending on who you ask.
  • In July 1931, floods in China killed between one and four million people. In fact, if you look up the ten most deadly natural disasters ever recorded, you’ll find China in five of those spots, including the top four (in 1556, 1887, 1931, and 1976). PLUS, between 1958 and 1961, tens of millions of Chinese civilians lost their lives to famine.
  • Or perhaps choose any year between 1939 and 1945. In that span of time, 60 million people lost their lives (most of them civilians, 6 million of them to genocide) during World War II.
  • In August 1945 nearly 130,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of them in mere seconds, when the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including 90% of the doctors and 93% of the nurses in Hiroshima alone.

And disasters, both natural and manmade, are not limited to the time before color film. I’m willing to bet that many of my readers remember these more recent events.

  • Between 1975 and 1979, 500,000-3,000,000 people died in the Cambodian genocide.
  • In the first half of the 1990s, 500,000-1,000,000 Tutsi people lost their lives to genocide in Rwanda. And let’s not forget places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, and Sudan when it comes to recent genocides.
  • In 2004, an earthquake and resultant tsunami killed 280,000 people all over southeast Asia.
  • In 2010, 160,000 Haitians were killed by a massive earthquake.

By comparison to all this, even the tragedy of September 11, 2001, pales in comparison, does it not? And yet anyone alive during that time would certainly say that was one of the worst years they had ever experienced.

Yes, in 2016 there were a disturbing number of terrorist attacks, which are so unsettling because they are unpredictable and unexpected. Yes, in 2016 a number of Baby Boomers died of cancer (this is not so unexpected). Yes, a possibly fascist manchild with an itchy Twitter finger was elected president.

This post isn’t about belittling people’s feelings about 2016. Is is about helping us all sit back, take a breath, and appreciate what we’re NOT going through. The perspective we take on bad things that happen should always be informed by all of the things that aren’t happening that could be happening.

The world is a dangerous place. We are dangerous people. We do terrible things to each other and terrible things can happen to us, at almost any moment. But to let 2016 drive you to despair? What if your grandparents or great grandparents had let that happen to them when 60 million people — their sons and husbands and fathers, their daughters and wives and mothers — died during WWII?

The world will never be safe. We cannot fix all of this. We can do a lot, and that much we must do, but the world is the world. Bad things happen. And we must get on with life, striving to love one another despite our faults, and working toward peace and safety. And you know what helps in that noble pursuit? A positive attitude and a little perspective.

So stop dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, and look to the future you want to make. Do the work, cheerfully, and maybe you’ll find in that future that 2016 was barely a blip on your radar.

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, 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.