Monday, January 18, 2010

Working and Listening

Cross-posted on The Modern Myth Makers

I've been reading through Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, a collection of her ponderings on art, writing, and spirituality. L'Engle is most famous for her middle-grade novel A Wrinkle in Time. I came across a passage in the early chapters of Walking that felt was a good way to start off my writerly year.

"When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt's brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.

When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer. . . . Someone wrote, 'The principle part of faith is patience,' and this applies, too, to art of all disciplines. We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Marshes of Middlefriend

A couple of weeks ago, I danced the aisles of Target, singing the praises of chocolate Easter bunnies. There were two main reasons for this moment of public insanity: 1) I am insane and 2) I was in public.

Like most people, I have the glorious freedom to be myself--goofy, sarcastic, insane--with my close friends and family (Note: my best friend, Beth, was dancing through Target with me). What I didn't realize until recently is that I often have the same confidence to be myself among strangers. There is a good reason for this. What did I care what all those Target shoppers thought of me? I would never see them again. They had the same attitude toward me, I assure you. As I have matured as a person, any general acquaintance will inspire confidence in me as well. I usually have little trouble being myself with people I know, but only just barely.

It's when a relationship steps past jovial acquaintance that I freeze inside. When we are not strangers or acquaintances, but are still not close friends. That is what I call middlefriend--the uncharted, untamed, often impassable marshes of middlefriend. They are thick with expectations, muddied with embarrassment, and teeming with self-consciousness. You have moved past the season of not caring what another person thinks about you. Suddenly, what they think matters. You begin to adjust to their signals. You learn which jokes they laugh hardest over and which just go too far. You want to become comfortable with them, but the two of you haven't spent enough time getting to know each other. You will often misconstrue signals simply because you haven't a clue how the other person ticks. The goal of middlefriend is to move past the world of indifferent acquaintance and into good friend to know another person well enough that trust is mutual and shared life a priority on all sides. Middlefriend is that place where you want to trust somebody else with yourself, but you worry they will judge you or just plain flee if you do. You want the other person to want to be around you, so you hide who you really are so they will.

Most acquaintances that reach middlefriend never make it through the thick marshes of doubt, insecurity, and mistrust. There are many causes for this. First, many people simply don't notice that they have entered the marshes at all. They care neither one way nor another, as they are entirely to busy to form any more close friendships thank you very much (or any close friendships at all for that matter). Still others gauge whether the other person is worth their effort and pull away or press on accordingly. The possibility of being on the receiving end of this transaction is what makes middlefriend so nerve wracking. A third group includes those who have a whole crowd of middlefriends in tow--people they genuinely admire and share life with, but they never try to go any further on the trust scale. They wear a permanent facade.

I fall into yet another category. I hate the tension involved in being in middlefriend so much that I like to push through the marshes as quickly as possible. I risk everything, lay my whole self out on the line. I dare the other person to like me. This often results in my freaking people out. The most frustrating feeling within middlefriend is when you trudge firmly onward toward authenticity, but the other person holds fiercely to their facade. I usually overcompensate, and, again with the freaking out thing. (Note: This is not always the case. The TriMu became my best friends almost immediately.).

Middlefriend is an uncomfortable, sticky mess. I have noticed of late that when I am in middlefriend with a number of people at the same time (e.g., new church, new job, new class), I can hit humiliation overload. I can be having a great day, then say or do something stupid and end up trying to crawl under my chair to escape my shame. When you have a big group of middlefriends who are all lost in the marshes, you end up repeating the process over and over and over. I love to mingle with strangers, I hate to mingle with middlefriends.

Within the mess of my last hike through permanent multiple middlefriendship, I discovered something. In all my maddening attempts to force my reluctant middlefriends into good friends, I neglected the good friends I already have. I lost sight of how much they mean to me while I strove to attain shiny new friends. The best way to navigate the marshes of middlefriend is to 1) let people stay in the marshes if they want to and 2) remember and appreciate the real friends who already trudged through the marshes with you. It will make the mess a lot less sticky.

Because I know that if you actually read this whole blog post, you are my real friend, I just want you to know, I love you guys!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Book and the Scroll (and the Computer)

Cross posted on

Last week I attended a lecture entitled "The Book as Computer" given by Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania. I thought, based on the name, that it would be a look into the future of books as they relate to the internet, ebooks, portable readers, etc. I was excited about the lecture. I was also completely wrong about the lecture. It was actually a look into the past, into the history of books.

Stallybrass's premise is that throughout history there have been two basic modes of reading -- the scroll and the book. The format of a scroll forced readers to follow the text from beginning to end. You had to scroll through it one inch at a time. There were no ways to bookmark a favorite passage in a scroll, or at least it was very difficult to do. And referencing related passages was impossible without a really good memory. Books, on the other hand, have historically allowed for more discontinuous reading. Marking passages, skipping chapters and bookmarking sections for easy reference were made simple by the book. The book also gave people the ability to index information. Tables of contents and indexes allowed readers to find the specific parts of the book they really wanted to read, what Stallybrass calls "indexical reading." The reader took control of what they read.

Many people fear that the computer is bringing about the death of the book, but Stallybrass suggests that the computer is actually an extension of the historical concept of the book. Like books, computers allow for discontinuous reading, bookmarking, and skipping unwanted information. What is Google if not one giant index? The computer is pushing indexical reading to its limits.

According to Stallybrass (but I'm not so sure about this, myself), the concept of reading a book straight though did not come into fashion until the advent of the modern novel. In fact, the early novels were criticized precisely because they took the control of information away from the reader and put it into the hands of the author. To be engrossed in a story, to be passively carried along wherever the author wanted to take you, was considered a dangerous thing. The novel, therefore, changed the way people read, not only fiction but almost everything else as well. For example, people used to read newspapers from cover to cover. In effect, the novel returned the world to reading scrolls.

Stallybrass calls the novel a "brilliantly perverse" interruption in indexical reading. Movies and TV have for many people replaced the novel as the their preferred scrolls, and people seem to be returning to the habits of indexical reading on their computers. As an audience member asked, are we witnessing not the death of the book but rather the death of the novel? I hope not. This brilliant perversion is what we writers of fiction hold dear. I, personally, cannot see novels dying, but as technology changes the novel will have to change with it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In Praise of Buffoonery

Perfection is overrated. Most of us spend a large portion of our lives striving for perfection--to have the perfect body, get the perfect grades, live the perfect life, have the perfect reputation. Like I said in my last post, we want to keep a good standing in the lifeboat. I, for one, like to keep up perfect appearances. This week, I set out on a couple of new social situations that challenged my introverted soul to it's limit. Don't get me wrong, I love my new class and I have high hopes for the new friendships I'm forming, but I woke up with insomnia every 4 a.m. this week from either memories of a stupid thing I said or did the day before or dread of the stupidity that would occur in the next 24 hours. Playing the buffoon in front of people is a source of constant tension for me.

But something is changing. My beginnings of freedom from the lifeboat came in the form of a joke one of my guy friends told on himself. He said he didn't use the treadmills at the gym because he didn't want to be "that guy" who got on a machine between two hot girls and couldn't work the TV hook-up. I got the mental image of him watching soap operas for his whole workout. The comment was neither a big deal nor entirely true, I'm sure, but it stuck with me. I wondered what I would think of the situation if I witnessed it. I would probably laugh, but not in a way of ridicule. I would laugh because being human can be so funny sometimes. I would laugh and like my friend more for his humanity.

This idea broke something open in my soul. We all have our lifeboat moments, moments where we fail to hold onto out right to look good--and often fail spectacularly. But, I'm trying to live outside of the boat. I'm trying to dip my toes into God's ocean where our buffoonery does nothing to alter our position in life, where it is just a part of the romp. I'm starting to think the ocean looks a lot like the day Aslan made Narnia (The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis). Aslan had just finished giving the land to the newly formed talking beasts. He warned them not to return to the ways of the dumb beasts or they would become dumb themselves. The beasts all insisted that they would do as he said.

"But one perky jackdaw added in a loud voice, 'No fear!' and everyone else had finished just before he said it so that his words came out quite clear in a dead silence; and perhaps you have found out how awful that can be--say, at a party. The Jackdaw became so embarrassed that it hid its head under its wing as if it was going to sleep. And all the other animals began making various queer noises which are their way of laughing . . . . They tried at first to repress it, but Aslan said:

'Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.'

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw . . . said:

'Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?'

'No, little friend,' said the Lion. 'You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.'"

I am far from being the first joke, but I do have the chance to be a few of the more recent ones. I want to learn to follow the Jackdaw and laugh at myself. I want to trust that others who live outside of the lifeboat will laugh at our shared humanity. And in the deep places of my heart, I cherish the knowledge that the God of all flesh, the Maker of the first joke, laughs with me too. He laughs and loves me more for my buffoonery.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lifeboat Theology

Last night I was in a mood to reread some Don Miller (the author of Blue Like Jazz). He tells a story in Searching for God Knows What about a time in grammar school, when his teacher gave the class a "values classification" assignment. The teacher told the class to imagine themselves in a lifeboat populated with a lawyer, a nurse, a handicapped child, etc. The boat was sinking with the weight of all the people, and the class had to come together to choose one person to throw out so they wouldn’t sink. Debate ensued, debate over the value of human life, debate over who should live and who should die--in a grammar school class.

If, today, I were forced to defend my right to stay in the boat, my resume would look just good enough to keep me in the mediocre middle of the line. I’m relatively intelligent, relatively good looking, and relatively socially competent. That is, the lifeboat says I am okay relative to a lot of other people around me. That position should give me some relief, but it doesn't. Life in the lifeboat likes to remind me that I'm always on the edge. One wrong word and I’ll be rejected. One missed opportunity and I’ll fall behind. One false step and I'll be damned to hell. That's lifeboat theology at its best.

Christians embrace lifeboat theology just as firmly as everyone else. We just have a different set of credentials. The Christian lifeboat blesses both the suffering servants and the former rebels with good testimonies of their taste of hell. I never ran off the deep end, so my credentials in the Christian lifeboat are pretty much they same as they are for the regular one, mediocre. I’m not bad enough to be loved that extra dose and not good enough to be sainted.

Miller goes on to point out that we lifeboat dwellers all fight in some manner for the right to stay in. Lifeboat theology insists that our rights are the most important things in the world--the right to be loved, the right to be wanted, the right to be pampered, the right to be seen as capable, the right to feel sorry for ourselves, the right to be right. The lifeboat tells me that with my mediocre credentials I have the right to be seen, to be noticed. I am just good enough that I should have an audience, and if I don't then I'm slipping in line. Our rights "prove" we are valuable, and if someone offends them, intentionally or not, we freak out. We know we were made for glory, but we also know we are always close to the edge of shame.

Vikki, (my fellow TriMu) likes to quote Napoleon: "Glory is fleeting, Obscurity is forever." If you look at life from the lifeboat it's a very pithy statement. But it's not true. The lifeboat sounds so right, so true, because we all live there, but Miller says it’s all fake. True life doesn't have a lifeboat at all. True theology doesn't either. God clothes us in his eternal glory despite our feeble attempts to wrap ourselves up in our rights. The Bible says God sees our efforts as filthy rags that leave us naked and exposed to the elements. Our attempts to make glory for ourselves all end in obscurity. In that way, Napoleon was right. But only in the lifeboat. And the God of the universe hates lifeboats, because he is Life. He is True. He is the Way to eternal glory. He is the ocean.

I try very, very hard to agree with Don Miller and get out of the boat. But I like to live in the safe places deep in the bowels of the lifeboat. Every once in a great while, though, I'll dip my toes over the edge, still holding onto my rights with a white-knuckle grip. The water is warm. The boat rocks in a wave. I freak out and dive back in, stroking my vanity with blog entries and new clothes and a winning smile perfected for my bathroom mirror. I pray someone notices that I’m valuable and moves me to a safer place in line. I pray no one notices I’m a failure and throws me out. I pray this to the god of the lifeboat while the God of the universe sends another wave to shake me up again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Redecorating Your Brain

(Cross posted on The Modern Mythmakers)

With the successful completion of yet another NaNoWriMo by all the members of the TriMu, I thought this entry would be appropriate. Someone recently asked me "How do you go about writing a story?" and you know if you ask a novelist a question like that, you get . . . well, you get a novel.


The idea flies into my brain. It's shiny and cool to the touch. It glows with an inner light that fascinates me. I find myself staring blankly at it while I should be doing real-world things like working or sleeping or driving.

The idea begins to redecorate my brain. It asks to be taken on a tour of my mind, so it can steal furniture from other rooms. It also likes to travel with me and steal from the rest of my life. Feeling insecure at work? Great! Let's put that in the character portraits. Listening to an interesting accent? That will go well in the conversation nook. Reading the story of Jacob's ladder to heaven? Fantastic! Let's make that into a lovely metaphor for the coffee table.

Soon the idea has filled its room in my brain so full we can't see each other through all the stuff. The idea suddenly discovers something. It is claustrophobic.

There is a frenzy to organize. We go through all the idea's junk, trying to find patterns in the piles and piles of objects it has collected. I try to take notes, to categorize, to plot out a diagram of the room as it should look. I write on post-its, 3x5 cards, spreadsheets, but the lists are just as messy as the room itself.

"That's it!" I say. "Let's just start working and see what happens."

The process moves slowly, and my friendly idea refuses to help. All it does is sit there looking sulky. It doesn't shine. It doesn't glow. Every day it begins to look more and more like the proverbial pebble in the proverbial shoe. I match feats with Psyche's mythic moving of the sand pile one grain at a time.

Finally I make the room appear a bit more like a room, and less like an overflowing storage unit. There are picture frames on the wall, empty, but on the wall. I place two mismatched chairs in the corner for a conversation nook. I find the coffee table--no metaphor, though. Where is that blasted metaphor?

Giving up seems like the best option. My brain's a disaster. That stupid idea stole all the best parts of me and jumbled them all up. The idea itself has lost all its luster. I wonder if it was ever shiny at all. The story room is worse than ever. At least the piles of junk held more potential than this. What a waste of time.

I leave the room. Pulling the door shut behind me, I say a soft goodbye to my idea. Then I see it. On the floor, by my shoe. My idea, all dull and tarnished, is carrying the metaphor. The idea holds the metaphor up to the light of the blinking fluorescent bulb. They melt together. They merge. The hallway fills with light as my idea shines again--brighter than before.

Smiling, I pick it up and go back into the room. We have work to do.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Bard Queen - Part 3

The doors opened to a dank hallway that smelled strongly of moldy socks. One of the dingy yellow florescent lights flickered from a bad connection. A tilted direction sign in front of the elevator showed a faded left arrow and the words "Incantation Technology."

Office Wench raced through the halls. The air seemed lighter in the dungeons, but she was still panting when she reached the Helpdesk. Reception Witch didn't look up when Office Wench gripped the edge of the desk and asked, "I need to see the Sage."

"The who?"

"The Sage. He's from Truth. I need his help to..." Office Wench stopped when Reception Witch glared at her over purple-rimmed reading glasses. "To look at my Mail Merge Magic. It's not working right."

"The Sage, huh?" She tapped a button on her phone, "Brown Noser, you know of any IT Guy called the Sage?"

"That's the crack pot in D875. He's a real piece of work! Always got his head in the clouds!"

Office Wench didn't stop to listen to the platitudes Brown Noser was venting. She knocked an IT Guy and his stack of laptops into the wall as she passed. Finally she reached the door to D875. She pushed open the door.

Office Wench expected the Sage's office to be filled with a glowing green haze and flashes of purple light. But instead, she found a clean, well-lit room with the lightest scent of vanilla latte.

"Hello." The Sage sat upright in his chair. "May I help you?"

Office Wench stared at her shoes. "Um, I need some help getting my Mail Merge right."

He backed away from his desk and stood."Sure, what's the problem?"

Office Wench looked up as he walked toward her. His deep brown eyes held her gaze firmly.

"I want to go to Truth."

He smiled. "You are already in it."

Office Wench glanced around the room. It was true that the air felt a little fresher, a little lighter, in the room, but she couldn't see how this could be Truth.

"Not just here. We are all in Truth." Office Wench furrowed her brow and he continued, "Reality is only a country, Truth is the world. You need to get your head out of the clouds."

Office Wench moved for the door. "I should have known."

He grabbed her arm. "Wait. Listen to me. The clouds in Reality are what keep you here. The air is thick with enchantments. Wicked spells that keep you trapped inside your slavery, trapped inside your own head. Getting your head out of the clouds is exactly what you need to do. Then you will see Truth all around you."

Office Wench stared at his hand gripping her elbow. "How?"

"You have to remember." He looked wildly around the room. "You have to remember who you are. Let me see..." He walked over to a wall of bookshelves. "Have a seat. I need to find the right spell."

Office Wench positioned herself on the edge of the Sage's vinyl couch. He rifled through several books before carrying one as thick as a dictionary back to the couch. He sat next to her, their knees almost touching.

"All right. Close your eyes."

Office Wench obeyed. But as soon as she did a feeling came over her that Brown Noser or Reception Witch would burst through the open door at any moment and send her back to her cube. Why was she here? Why humiliate herself in front of this crazy dude with the deep eyes? She should go back.

"Repeat after me, 'Once upon a time...'"

Office Wench stood and moved toward the door. Her heart pulsed rapidly against her lungs.

"You have to fight it!" The Sage stood with her. "Reality is still in your lungs. You have to resist it."

"I'm not like you. I'm not strong!"

"Do you think that I don't feel it? That I don't gasp as my lungs close with the heaviness and despair. I'm as much a slave to Reality as you are. But I fight with everything that is in me to remember who I am."

Office Wench stood very still, her head hung low.

"You have to fight it, or you will never find freedom."

She lifted her eyes to his. "Once..." The haze before her seemed to melt in curling wisps before her breath. "Upon a time." She could see his clear, bright smile before her. No fog separated them now. "I was royalty. I was a story-weaver. My life was lived to speak counter-spells into the haze. My life was lived to free the slaves of Reality. I am a Bard Queen. "