Sunday, April 30, 2006

my second writer's conference

I followed Mrs. Brown across the parking lot, my smallish eight-year-old hands, sweaty with nervousness, gripping the text pounded out days before by my mother on our old, staccato Smith-Corona. I looked down at it, marveling at my name in print on the cover as if uncertain how it got there, then, with a glance over at James, pulled it back into the obscurity of my jacket as if to absorb it into the fabric and avoid it ever being read. It was not a real story, and I, of course, was not a real writer—a fact I was certain would be discovered at any moment and broadcast across the campus as I was asked to leave under the shaming stares of all the authentic authors whom I had offended by my mere presence at this austere event. It would all prove that I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I knew this—how was it that my teacher did not?

Yet there we were, and she was leading us, unaware of the impending doom, across the campus of the University of Toledo to a large building with a tiny banner welcoming us to the Fourth Annual Young Author’s Conference. Everything was tall that day—the bell tower on campus, the trees lining the walkways, the students in the commons, the teachers, proud, with their apprenticing authors in tow. I felt small, small, small—my story puny in my grasp and shrinking further with each step closer to its threat of exposure.

James stood tall as well beside me—an interesting fact given that he was no bigger than I. Yet his creative presence was large in my eight-year-old sight, towering over and shadowing me and my tiny little tome. As we were good friends, I did not envy him this—it was purely a matter of fact. James, with his seemingly effortless ability to fashion worlds and characters and images, deserved to be there. He was the creative one. I was the imposter. At any moment, I would be found out and Mrs. Brown would rue the day she considered me a Young Author. I was ruing the day already, and it had barely begun.

I sit here now in the sun, at my second writer’s conference nearly thirty years later—skipping out of the last half of a session where four brilliant twenty-something-year-olds talked about having already been published several times over with the not quite sincere humility of youthfulness thinking it is not youthful any longer—and I think back to my early forays into the world of putting words and ideas on paper with that same, familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. The same, familiar voice whispers over my shoulder, unable to be ignored—You do not belong here. The same, familiar fear paralyzes my pen—What if that voice is right?

As the birds twitter around me and my notepad, unaware of the treachery going on in their midst, someone opens a window in a practice room above and a soprano voice, wandering in and out of tune, distracts me momentarily from my incessant insecurity. Repeated phrases and notes—at one moment beautiful and stunning, at another horrific and flat—float falteringly down, occasionally splattering on the pavement beside me. I am annoyed momentarily, but then I relax into revelation. She is doing, after all, what aspiring sopranos do. She is practicing—taking deep, full breaths and daring to do it wrong in the interest of getting it right. She is finding her voice—that which will make her distinct from the 50,000 other sopranos trying to likewise make their mark on the world. She is singing.

I see now, in retrospect, that I’ve never understood, even at the relative innocence of eight, how to just be myself and let the words come freely. Approaching thirty years later, I am finally learning to not force the words, to not “try” to write, to not struggle and strive to be something I am not but think I should be because that’s what I think it means to write. I am learning to take a deep full breath and put my fingers to the keyboard, writing out my scales and melismas in a faltering and sometimes out-of-tune hand, in order to find my one-in-50,000 voice. I am doing what writers do. I am writing.

Because I am real a writer, and I belong here.

Mrs. Brown was right, after all.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Highlights from the 2006 Festival of Faith and Writing:

“If God could shape Adam out of mud and Eve out of thin bone, what might he do with each of us?”
Luci Shaw

“A creative gift is not an ‘or.’ It is a need.”
Debbie Reinstra, author of Great with Child

“Don’t write from an empty life. Write from a crazyfulloverflowingspillingoutonthefloor kind of life. It may be the only life you get.”
Leslie Leyland Fields, author of Surprise Child

In the United States, there are approximately 250 people who make a living writing books full time.
Author’s Guild Statistic

“All creation is an act of faith.”
Alice McDermott, author of Charming Billy

“Reading ‘unfits’ a person to be a slave.”
Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God

“When Christ says leave your family, that’s harsh. When Juliet says it, it’s beautiful. We need to put the text back in the context of the narrative of Love.”
Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz

“Who you are writing for should always be present in your mind. The question is, are you writing to please them, or to serve them?”
Michael Card, author and recording artist

“The idea that the real world is realistic is absurd.”
Salman Rushdie, yes, THAT Salman Rushdie

“At the core of the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses is this question: Who shall have the power over the stories we tell ourselves about the way we live?”
Salman Rushdie

“There is a wistful certainty in most young writers that they cannot ascend to the highest level of their art, in part because of a lack of confidence in the reader.”
Marilynne Robinson, author of Pulitzer award-winning Gilead

“We have a tendency as mothers to live as if our personal lives are on pause. Life is not on pause. It is on play. We need to live in the now.”
Yours truly, at a forum for mothers of young children

“It is more important to believe you can rewrite than it is to believe you can write.”
Ellen Kushner, author and “Sound and Spirit” program host on PRI

“If you lie, you drive back into hiding that which God would call into the sunlight…you are the voice in the wilderness to someone. If you are to be that voice, you must tell the truth, even if it means you bleed to write it truthfully.”
Walter Wangerin Jr., author of The Ragman

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Draining Experience

(Click here to see the post by Dean and the ensuing conversation which prompted this post.)

The campus was dark—the air hung with equal parts chill and anxiety as we stepped out from our dorm, our breath condensing as it met and mingled with the cold of the night. We clung together, giggling nervously, as we crossed the street deserted of cars—eyeing other clumps of students likewise headed to various pursuits, few of which were academic in nature.

We approached the Fine Arts Building, mingling with the others as we convened for the evening’s events. Christa, as usual, was chatty and cavalier—squawking and squeaking and generally enjoying all the attention it generated. Julia joked in her much quieter, goofier manner, gathering attention naturally with her willowing height and graceful long, blonde hair. I vacillated between nervousness and jealousy, as I frequently did that year, attempting to focus on anything but what was to come.

Even then, had you asked me why I was rushing, I would not have been able to tell you. I wasn’t particularly enamored with our non-Greek yet Greek-like alternatives, with their lettered sweatshirts, service requirements, and glorified Bible studies. Truth be told, all I really wanted was to buy a pretty dress and go to formal, and to do that, you had to be in the club.

And to be in the club, you had to crawl through the drain pipe.

I knew this going in to Rush Week, yet head-long I went, anyway. Christa’s enthusiasm, as always, was contagious, and Julia and I were roommates, albeit unlikely ones, so it just seemed natural we would do this together. We gathered in the darkness outside Fine Arts with the other wannabes, a nervous twittering rising among the growing gaggle of sophomore girls. What was once a knot in the pit of my stomach had grown to something more akin to a ball of yarn, and my hands were cold with the clamminess of my growing anxiety.

The object of my fear was situated to the west end of the Valley, just outside of Decker Hall between it and the Library. There, just wide enough to support a flow of water under the sidewalk, was a drain pipe intended to prevent this lowest place on campus from flooding in the event of torrential rain. It was, for the most part, ineffective, but the drain pipe, approximately two feet in diameter, served a much more important purpose in the life of the campus—torturing innocent sophomores with dreams of fancy dresses and nightmares of being trapped in small spaces.

I don’t remember how we got there that night, other than it involved, as did most events that week, a lot of running and a lot of yelling. Then, suddenly, we were lined up, panting, half way through the Valley, headed toward The Lowest Place. My heart, which pounded with nervousness if I had to crawl under the BED, threatened to explode in my ears as its beat echoed off buildings and spilled down through the Valley. Taking deep breaths, I tried very hard to keep from panicking and chickening out. I was growing closer to both (and the pipe) by the minute.

Christa and I, thankfully, had already configured a game plan to get me through the tunnel. I would go before her and she would come behind, “pushing” me to keep me from freezing up and chickening out. She rattled on behind me—half cheerleader, half cabaret show—attempting to both encourage and distract me at the same time. Neither worked.

And then, suddenly, the girl in front of me, a flaky sort from South America, was down on her hands and knees and I was down behind her, thanking our Most Merciful God that the week had been dry and therefore so was the pipe. We approached the tube and the head, then body, then feet in front of me disappeared into the cold, dark ring of metal. Lowering my head to enter, I could see a vague non-light yet not-darkness at the other end, and fixed my sights determinedly upon it.

For several seconds, all thought was suspended as a matter of pure survival. Elbows and knees moved in unison by pure instinct—propelling me toward the other side, unimpeded. Until she stopped. A dead stop, right smack dab in the middle of the tube. “Oh my god! It’s so dark! Oh my god! Oh, this is soooo creepy!” The Flake was freaking out, with me trapped behind her. I shoved at her feet, trying not to panic. “Move it,” I grunted. She did not. Panic became a near-reality. But Christa had me covered. “Move your ass! Get the hell out of here! This girl is claustrophobic, you idiot!” Movement suddenly resumed, further spurred by my own pushing and clawing, and I resolved to look at Christa in a new light if I made it out of there alive. And then, as suddenly as I had entered the pipe, I was being pulled out into the less-darkness by a concerned and apologetic upperclassman male. “You okay?” I stood up, wide-eyed, trying to further distance myself from the hole lest I somehow found myself sucked back into it. “I am now,” I replied.

I regard the drainpipe nowadays, when I return for Homecoming, with an odd combination of pride, wonder, and embarrassment. Having made it through, I joined the club and went on to attend exactly one formal before going inactive my second semester and not re-enlisting the following year. As it turns out, pretty dresses were expensive and social clubs demanded a lot of time and energy I preferred to spend elsewhere. I wish I’d known that earlier…

I pointed it out to my daughter this past fall as we went about campus reminiscing. Her eyes grew wide—“You crawled through that, Momma?” I nodded, amused at her response. “Why did you do that, Mom?”

I paused, aware of the absurdity, unable to come up with an answer. “I don’t know, Bub,” I finally replied. “I really don’t know.”

Monday, April 24, 2006

dirty laundry

still unpacking, literally and figuratively, from my writer's conference this weekend. hope to write tomorrow...

Sunday, April 16, 2006


He had told them. He really had. All of it. He had been quite clear, in his somewhat obscure kind of way. The misunderstandings. The mistreatment. The beating. The crucifixion. The death. The resurrection. He had told them all, but they hadn’t believed.

Few, if any, truly understood this man from Nazareth. Few, if any, grasped his mission in the days before its fulfillment. They saw him as they wanted to see him. A king. A leader. A revolutionary. They looked to him to set them free from the oppression of Rome. He appeared to have failed. But they had forgotten what he told them.

Now they were alone. Grieving. Confused. In fear for their lives. He was gone, and with him all their hopes and dreams. What would they do now? Shock. Disbelief. Denial. It was not supposed to happen this way.

Or was it? The words he had spoken were washed from their memories—a watershed of tears brought on by the events of the last few days. Promises seemingly unfulfilled swirled in rapid whirlpools within their minds, threatening to sweep away belief and drag it under. They had trusted and believed, but in what? In him, or in what they thought of him? He had told them—did they not hear, or did they simply not believe?

In rare moments of honesty I recognize I am no different from these fragile-minded fools—hiding away in my self-pity, grieving in my forgetfulness the loss of an ill-conceived dream while behind heavily-guarded stones heaven turns hell on its heels. Quick to doubt, quick to fear, quick to flee. Which of us do I describe? For like them, I forget—in the dark of suffering’s night—what I have been told.

And like his first followers, I, too, stand bewildered where a boulder should be, dumbfounded by the emptiness of the tomb. I feel Mary’s confusion and fear, Peter’s skepticism and anticipation. I hear in Thomas’ voice my own, saying, "Unless I see … I will not believe it." And I feel my own cheeks flush when Christ appears, responding, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

He told them. He told us all. Pages of promises and prophecies—fulfilled in our sight—and yet some of us still do not believe until our eyes have beheld and our flesh has felt and our feeble minds have formulated the necessary evidence. We misunderstand and we misinterpret and we make Christ into what we want him to be—then panic when all does not go as we think it should, fleeing in fear and disbelief as if we’ve never heard the Word of God.

But there is a blessing that comes from believing that extends beyond our circumstances. Life conquers death. Hope conquers despair. Joy conquers fear. Belief conquers doubt. As it is written, so it comes to pass. Promises and prophecies—fulfilled.

The tomb is empty—he stands now before us with nail-pierced hands. The divine “I told you so.” The question is, will we believe?

John 20: 24-29

Monday, April 10, 2006

martha and mary, installment three

(See Installment One here, and Installment Two here)

In exasperation, she blurted out what she assumed to be obvious— “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” The plea in her voice was unmistakable—surely he would help her. Surely would jump to his feet and make things right. Surely he would appreciate all that she had done. But he didn’t move. She stared at him bug-eyed, breathless from her outburst, and tried desperately to read the look in his eyes.

“Martha,” he began. “Oh, Martha…”

The tone in his voice stung with its sweetness. She had not expected sweetness—she had expected anger. Indignation. She had expected rebuke. But the look in his eyes—what the look revealed caused her to draw in a startled breath and grasp the doorframe behind her. It was not anger. It was not indignation. It was pity. Pity. She was thoroughly confused before he even began to address her.

“My dear Martha,” he answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Things began moving in slow motion, his words coming in slow motion, her thoughts forming in slow motion. Only one thing is needed? “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary had chosen what is better? What?!?!

It was inexplicable to Martha how the blood could drain from one’s head at the same time one’s face flushed with heat as if on fire. In front of our guests… oh, Lord… how could he? He paused for a moment, as if waiting for her response. Martha remained frozen, mortified, the red of her neck deepening to near purple. She looked down, then back up again, as if hoping they had all disappeared. Her sister regarded her, puzzled and hurt, and she could not even look at the others for fear of their familiar scorn. “I’m sorry, my Lord. Please excuse the interruption.” She backed away through the steadying doorframe, looking up just long enough to catch the sadness of his expression as he lingered on her face before turning back to the others.

She turned and fled to the kitchen—once her confining cell, now her refuge. Tears, a betrayal of her pride, came like a torrent and she smeared away their presence in Pride’s defense. Lazarus came and stood, tentatively, in the doorway, a worried look out of place on his young, peaceful face. I do not need your help—be gone, she hurled, wounding him in her self-pitying fit.

Storm clouds gathered in her mind—huge, threatening skies bore down upon her countenance. You are worried and upset about many things. Flash! Kaboom! Mary has chosen what is better. Flash! Mary has chosen what is better. Kaboom! Mary has chosen what is better. KABOOM!!! She was drenched in the downpour of emotion, tossed about by high winds of confusion threatening to uproot her.

She had expected a rebuke, and it had come—but to rebuke HER? What had she done wrong? How was that fair? She was only doing what needed to be done! How were they to eat, hungry as they certainly were from their travels, if she chose to saddle up next to Mary and listen to him go on and on about things that made no sense to her? The least will be the greatest? Has she not been the least? She deserved some help! She deserved some appreciation! Some acknowledgement! And he REBUKED her!?!?

She began heaving dishes out from the oven, slamming them down on the table—hot and steaming, she and they alike. Only one thing is needed…you are upset and worried about many things…only one thing is needed. What on earth did he mean by that? Of course she was worried! She had a household to maintain and no family to help when times were tight and the land unyeilding. She had property to protect, with neighbors encroaching upon her boarders daily, pressing in, taking more that did not belong to them, and she, helpless to do anything about it. And there were certainly no suitors—not after her parents died and her uncles absconded her dowry, Mary’s as well. There was nothing. No one. No one else was going to take care of them. Of course she was worried!

And, truth be told, she was angry! Angry over broken engagements, deathbed swindling, pitying townsfolk with their superior, married attitudes. Angry for the burden she bore as a child of fifteen, some twenty or more years ago—still bears, daily, to this very day, with not an ounce of help or appreciation from anyone. Angry with the Lord for taking her parents. Angry with her uncles for taking their inheritance. Angry with her betrothed for taking her heart and reputation. Yes, she was worried and upset about a great many things. A great many, indeed! Who could blame her?

How could he blame her?

(To be continued)


There is a lull in the package-opening activity, long enough for me to scan the entire view of the playground from my post in the cafeteria. The uniforms make it difficult to distinguish distant, darting figures, but finally I pick my daughter out of the multitude of preppy-toned, plaid-clad children. Her back is to me, making it difficult to predict the forecast for our afternoon, until she turns and I see the smile that has often been absent as of late. No threatening storm clouds today—she plays hand-clap games and skips and jumps and leaps into the air, her friend following in a unison that is uncommon.

It has been a stormy year, first grade. Cloudbursts on the playground, downpours at home before bed. Soggy and weary to the bone, I gingerly clutch my umbrella, hoping the lightening will strike somewhere else this time. We’ve had enough relational excitement for now. But today, today the forecast is clear. Bedtime will be tear-free, and my galoshes will have a chance to dry out before the next time I am called upon to wade back into the middle and rescue my daughter from herself.

Ahhh… I breathe in the warm air and expel it with a sigh of tentative relief. She is smiling—all is sunny for the moment.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

eagle watch, 2006

IMG_7627, originally uploaded by as we see it.

after seeing the bald eagle in westerville with my daughter, we've been on a mission. no eagles today, but watched an osprey catch and eat a fish!

let ME see, momma!

IMG_7629, originally uploaded by as we see it.

he's getting a good view of the railing...

museum center

P3266006, originally uploaded by as we see it.

one of my fave pix from our trip to Cinci over spring break...

(it's a little grainy b/c i made it a lower quality image to upload it quicker, as I was uploading over 100 pix...)

Monday, April 03, 2006

fairy tale, redeemed

“She was our age when she died, you know,” my friend says from the passenger seat. “She was only thirty-six.” Resisting the urge to comment that I’m thirty-five-and-a-half, I stop to consider this for a moment, finally coming to the conclusion that this simply cannot be true. She was so sophisticated, so graceful, so elegant—she had to have been older. But the math adds up. Born in 1961, died in 1997. Thirty-six. I am nearly the same age as was the Princess of Wales. Somewhere in the back of my mind an apprehensive little thought whispers—I’m not old enough to be a princess. But, then again, at the time, neither was she.

We are traveling to Dayton to view the Princess Diana exhibit, though I cannot exactly tell you why except to tell you that I cannot NOT see it. I am drawn to it—indeed, I plan to return with my daughter and another friend, and I’ve not even seen it yet. I am captivated by her story, her beauty, her legend—I entered it as a child and now stand toe to toe with her on some eternal timeline, just as equally in awe as before.

I, who never got up before noon unless under great duress, numbered among the millions who rose in the middle of the night to partake in the spectacle of the Royal Wedding, just four days after my eleventh birthday. I numbered as well among the millions who did the very same in 1997, watching her body travel the very same spectator-lined streets, again drawn by steed, though this time followed by her somber boys, her fallen prince, and her inflammatory younger brother. I cried on both occasions.

As we view the exhibit—the childhood artifacts, the family jewels, the charity work—I attempt in my mind to articulate the allure of Princess Diana, but fail dismally. Indeed, I have never been entirely certain what has drawn me, and millions both like and unlike me, to this woman over the past twenty-five years. By the time we make it through the gallery of dresses, however, I’ve figured it out.

As a thirty-five year old woman (note how I drop the half), I now realize how very young Lady Diana was when she accepted a proposal for marriage and was plunged into the world spotlight. At eleven, nineteen did not seem young at all (though a thirty-two year old prince certainly did cause my preadolescent eyebrow to rise), but in retrospect, I see that she was a child, thrown to the wolves, and we, the world, watched with intense scrutiny and insatiable appetites as she struggled to navigate growing up in front of an audience of millions.

But navigate it she did, and you see it nowhere more clearly than in the dress gallery. Somewhere between twenty-six and thirty-six, Diana became a woman. She shed the flounce and fluff, she shed the idiot prince, she shed the eating disorder and intense insecurity, and she finally came into herself. You can see it in the photographs; you can see it in the dresses. Just like my friend and I, commenting that we have finally, for the first time in our lives, become comfortable with our selves and our bodies and have stopped hiding them but instead have started dressing with a confidence that shows the confidence within, you see the change in Diana through the change in her wardrobe. It is as stunning as the dresses themselves.

Diana was the epitome of the fairy tale, the fairy tale gone wrong, and the fairy tale redeemed. For all her failings, and there admittedly were many, she amazed the world with her tenacious resilience and humble fortitude, and remained Royalty in more than merely name.

Suddenly, thirty-six doesn’t seem all that bad. I know I will be in good company. But I won’t look nearly as good in an evening gown…


Sunday, April 02, 2006

pastoral privilege

A great part of my work has been listening to people, in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me... seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it... When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the "I" whose predicate can be "love" or "fear" or "want," and whose object can be "someone" or "nothing" and it won't really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around "I" like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.

The Reverend John Ames, in Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson