On the Death of a Beloved Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Saying Goodbye to Sweet Sasha

Sasha in the Snow

Earlier this week we had to say goodbye to our beautiful, sweet-natured Sasha. This picture was taken three winters ago, when she was already 13 (and when we actually had snow on the ground). Even then I thought she must be living on borrowed time as the breeds that make her up (German Shepherd and Samoyed) had average lifespans around 10 and 12 years. Had she made it to February, she would have been 16.

Sasha came to live with us when she was six, less than five months after we moved into our house in a new city where I didn’t know anyone and I was now working from home with a cat who didn’t seem to care if I was there unless her bowl was getting empty. Sasha has been a constant fixture in my life since then, always parking herself right behind my rolling desk chair (and freaking out when I moved it back to stand up).

However, for the past year, she had rarely moved from the dining room rug and slept most of the day. She had developed a deep and persistent cough that only went away when I could get the vet to give me prednisone for her. Her back legs had grown weak and she struggled to get in and out of the house (each trip to go to the bathroom meant several stairs both ways). She fell more and more, developed a wound by her ear that would not heal, and her belly and side were covered in little tumors, one of which had grown considerably in the past year. Hardly four days could go by without her getting sick.

Last year we had to re-home our longtime cat due to our son’s allergies. And now without our dog the house is very quiet and empty when everyone is gone but me. Zach and I talked before about trying to be pet-free for a while (except for my son’s fish). But we’ve already begun talking about potentially getting a parrot. We’ll have to do a lot of research before making that kind of commitment. But it’s hard to envision a future with no pets.

In the meantime, we miss our sweet old dog.

A Good and Terrible Day

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

~ John 11:45-53

 

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

~Matthew 27:51-54

 

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”

~Acts 2:38-40

New Release: Drive

I pleased to announce the release of October’s short story, Drive. I got the initial idea for this story last year and this is one of the first covers I designed when I decided to write and self-publish a short story every month of 2013. However, it was not until last weekend when the last piece of the plot puzzle fell into place.

Writers, this is why you always want to capture those little ideas on paper. If I hadn’t written myself a note saying “guy goes to collect U-Haul-type trucks that aren’t returned” I might not have even remembered the premise when I came across a news story last weekend about a guy who was legally dead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So there you have it. Nearly a year in the making and here it finally is! Buy it here for Kindle. For those of you with other e-readers, I plan on releasing all of this year’s short stories on Smashwords in every conceivable format next spring. And for those of you who prefer traditional books, also coming in the spring will be a printed collection of all of this year’s stories. I’m so excited about it! So hang tight, stay tuned, and hold fast–your day is coming!

A Short Hiatus as We Tend to Other Matters

Besides my regularly scheduled Wildflower Wednesday blog post, I may be conspicuously absent from the blog this week. Over the weekend our church lost three lovely older ladies to death after a very short time for all of them in hospice. In case you had never gathered from previous posts, my husband is a pastor, and so our household will be very busy ministering to grieving family and friends (and grieving ourselves) in addition to all the rest that our busy lives entail.

I hope if you are a person of faith that you will say a prayer for us, especially my husband, Zachary. The longer we serve at our church the more closely we know those whom we lose to the grave and the more deeply we feel the void they leave behind in our church and in our hearts. Our one comfort is that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own so that not only will we live with Him but we will be able to see, embrace, and love all of those believers who have gone on before us. And so we do not grieve as those who have no hope, but as those who are secure in the Savior’s hands.

I’ll see you next week.