Sunday, February 27, 2005

mid-air love

I've told you about Luke. He's my two and a half-year old playmate, my fellow ruffian and cuddle bunny all rolled into a sweaty, mischievous pile of boy. He also happens to be Madison's youngest brother.

Our game of "catch me; catch what I throw at you; come and find me" has been ongoing for two months now. Of course, we have to stop here and there for short breaks. I mean, he lives in one house and I live in another, and there are all those naps to take and meals to eat and family obligations to fulfill. But the moment we're in the same room together, play resumes right where we left off.

This morning, after church, I was trying to have an adult conversation with another tall person, when I looked down the aisle and caught Luke advancing toward me. As soon as he saw me looking at him, the gig was up. He tossed stealth to the side and came running straight at me. I didn't even have time to apologize to Heidi, because before I could say a word, Luke had leapt in the air--a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--and attached his little octopus suction cups to my arms and legs.

Heidi recognized defeat. She got the rest of her sentence out all in a rush: "OkaythenI'llseeyouattheYtomorrowat8:30," and wisely backstepped out of the play arena.

I held Luke close and tickled him. He pretended to want me to stop. I grabbed his chunky little legs and poked my finger under his armpits and blew raspberries on his exposed side, just under the edge of his t-shirt. At one point, I couldn't help myself--he'd thrown his head back to laugh and there was all this neck skin just begging to be bitten, so I did. I took a very mild, very polite nibble. And Luke, well-trained, listens-to-his-mama Luke, said, "Hey! No biting." But he said it between giggles.

He decided we ought to spend a little time throwing his red Matchbox car back and forth at each other. He tossed it toward me, I sent it skittering across the floor, then he threw it back to me the way you'd skip a rock across the lake. This went on for about 90 seconds, and then Luke, obeying a stopwatch seen only by him, decided some hand-holding and dragging was in order. So he grabbed my hand and tugged me in and out of the rows of chairs, until another silent ding went off and he switched us back to tickle.

That boy tuckered us both out. Laughing, we stopped for a moment to catch our breath. He hooked his hands around my forearms and smiled up at me. I looked down at his hot little face and thought, I love you. So I said it. And right at the exact moment those words came out of my mouth, Luke said, "I love you."

Our love for each other passed in mid air. It made me say, "Oh!" and it made Luke grin. And then he decided he wanted to prove his affection. With a rather stern, commanding voice, he said, "Stay here." He then walked over to the refreshment table, grabbed a quarter of a banana nut muffin, and walked back to me. With great flourish, he broke off a miniscule section of that muffin, held both pieces up, surveyed them both carefully, and handed the smallest piece to me. I knew he really meant it, then.

I took a tiny bite and handed the rest back to him. Then he knew I meant it too.

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brains and brows

I woke up this morning humming “Moon River.” When I caught myself, I thought, What on earth are you doing? It kind of startled me, but I suppose it’s par for the course. It seems I’ve had moon-on-the-brain lately. (See my previous post, moon songs.) If you got an eyeful of the full moon over Seattle this last week—and yes, our moon is different than yours—then you’d understand. It ‘s been so full it’s looked like a caricature of itself, so big it seems like a giant white china plate hanging over your head. Maybe my awe of that moon wiggled itself to the “oldies” filing cabinet in my memory and yanked that song out its slot.

It’s so odd the way our minds work. Take dreams, for instance. I dream every single night and wake up with fragments of those dreams clinging to my memory. Very often--usually, in fact--I dream something along the lines of big-money movies. Generally, I’m involved in some kind of international spy-ring caper, complete with trench coats and nearly-missed flights and smashing cars and soundtrack. I sometimes wake exhausted.

But the other night, I had a different kind of dream. I dreamt that my sister and I had flown down to Arizona to watch the Mariners in spring training. When the particular training session we watched ended, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by thousands of baseball fans, with a television reporter waving a microphone at the two of us. I could see myself (from outside my body) while I responded to questions from the reporter—almost as if I were watching the events on TV. Near the end of the interview, the camera panned in close. I was nodding at something my sister said, and all of a sudden, the camera zoomed in ultra-close, right on my eyes . . . and then right to my eyebrows, and I could see that they really, really, really needed plucking. I don’t mean the eruption of a few new brow recruits. This was a call for serious plucking, as in “how did you enjoy your six months in a cave with nothing but a canteen” plucking.

I’d like to think my love of the Mariners and anticipation of the coming season caused that dream. But I’m afraid the real provocation was the fact that the other day, my friend Denise, who gave me a gift certificate to a nail salon for my birthday last August, said, “If you haven’t used that gift certificate yet, I think it’s time. And I recommend you use it to get your eyebrows shaped.”

For those of you who don’t know me, let’s just say I’m gifted in the eyebrow department (thanks Dad). And for those of you who do know me, please stop pointing and staring.

So I left Denise’s, went out to my car, pulled the mirror down, and inspected. By the much-brighter-than-my-bathroom light, I could see that she was right. Nothing major, but I did notice a few strays. Unfortunately, I forgot to do anything about it when I got home. Hence, I believe, the dream.

I have no real point in telling you this, except that I’ve been pondering the workings of the mind this morning and thought you might be interested. I may have been wrong about that.

Off now to write ... or maybe groom.


Friday, February 25, 2005

true words vs. safe

“The farther writing strays from its deepest sources, the more sterile it becomes. Words skimmed from the surface grow tiresome. Subliminally the reader senses that the writer isn’t saying what he most wants to say. He’s protecting himself; being prudent. Writers realize this more consciously. One of the worst things they can say about a colleague is that he played it safe." ~ Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write

I don't know about the rest of you, but the last words I want others to use when describing my writing are "sterile," "tiresome," and "prudent." I'd rather hear that my writing is gritty, or invigorating, or, perhaps best of all--risky.

But writing isn't risky if something isn't on the line. And most of us don't like offering body parts on the altar. Most of us prefer to write while wearing head gear and shoulder pads and lots of padding over the heart. That way, no one (meaning us) gets hurt.

What are the risks of writing true words? Here's a partial list:
--We might reveal too much of ourselves
--Our attempts at being "fresh and new" might draw ridicule
--Strongly expressed opinions might bring an antagonistic response
--What we expose about ourselves might alienate our readers

No one willingly sets out to expose their tender parts or draw scorn from complete strangers. But if you don't take a chance, if you don't grit your teeth and set your jaw and open that vein, your writing will forever be sterile and tiresome and prudent ... and bland.

I settled for bland in a chapter of my first book--but only in the first draft. The next day, when I went back and checked the chapter, my words were so pleasantly vanilla that I made myself sick.

I was trying to describe the apprehension I felt when my seminary-student husband came home and announced he'd been asked to pastor in a retirement home. I didn't save my exact words--why would I?--but I remember I wrote something very, very safe; something like:

Even though I believed God had called my husband to minister in the retirement center, I didn’t want to have to go with him. I preferred that he went alone. As a child, I’d gone to nursing homes frequently with my grandmother, and the memories were unpleasant. Everything about those places frightened me.

Yawn-worthy, isn't it? But it was prudent. When you skim like that, you keep your readers a nice, safe distance away. (Sometimes they return the favor and keep a nice, safe distance away from your book.) The way I wrote that first draft, no one would ever know my real memories and my true fears. No one could get offended at my description of the nursing homes of my past; no one could think me horrible for noticing details that polite people would ignore.

But I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave that passage in my book. I had clear memories in my mind and knew my readers deserved to know the truth about those memories. So this is what I wrote instead:

Bethany Home had a woman with long silver hair who always sat in the same chair near the front door, holding a box of tissues and cleaning a section of the adjacent wall. There were no smudges on that wall, but she scrubbed them anyway.

On other Saturdays our destination was the Josephine Home, or “Josie,” as my grandmother called it. Crazy Bill lived there. He was a diabetic man in a rusty wheelchair who thought I was his little sister. He’d see me coming from the top of the ramp, where he perched most afternoons to watch the goings-on up and down the connecting hallways.

“Bettina!” he’d call, latching eyes with mine. “Come and play with me, Bettina!”

I’d clutch Grandma’s hand tightly as our footsteps crossed the distance between us and the wheelchair.

Grandma would pat his shoulder and greet him cheerfully. “Gorgeous day, isn’t it, Bill?”

Crazy Bill, I’d correct her silently. He scared the life out of me. His legs were gone, but his arms were strong. He pulled himself along the rail that threaded the walls from one end of the nursing home to the other, back and forth, never seeming to tire. Whenever he paused in his travels, he’d pluck at the front of his bathrobe with nails that were long, chipped, and yellowed—trying, like the silver-haired woman at Bethany, to remove something that wasn’t there. I would stare at his hands with a mixture of fascination and dread, fearing that one day those hands might clutch my arm and pull me into his embrace.

No matter how kind Grandma was, Bill found a way to yell at her. I didn’t understand how she kept it up.

“Your blanket slipped a bit. Can I straighten it for you, Bill?”

He’d scowl and begin barking in that raspy voice. “I’ll do it myself! Let me do it myself!”

Grandma just kept smiling, but I shrank from his voice.

She tried to help me understand. “People don’t like to lose control, honey. That’s all it is.”

Every once in awhile, she’d tell me Bill’s story in an effort to alleviate my fear. “He was in the war, you know. I’ve seen pictures of Bill in his uniform. He was quite handsome. It’s a shame his mind gave out on him.”

It didn’t help. No stories about the war could cover the aroma of urine and pain and fear that permeated the corridors of that nursing home and all the others we visited. We’d step through those doorways into a world of haunted eyes and shrieks and grimaces. And the whole thing terrified me.*

I didn't want my readers to hate me, but neither did I want to bore them to sleep. I was willing to risk the former to prevent the latter.

The next time you sit down to write, take a hard look at your work-in-progress and see if you can spot tiny pieces of your heart interspersed between the words. If the work is pristine, sweet and tidy--I challenge you to try again. Your readers deserve better ... don't you think?

*Excerpted from A Whisper in Winter: Stories of Hearing God’s Voice in Every Season of Life, Shannon Woodward (New Hope Publishers, October 2004).

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

no secrets

The other day, in my "of clocks and chicks" post, I mentioned a girl named Madison and said I'd be writing about her at some point. Today's the day.

Madison is something else. Often, when I arrive at church, before I even see her coming I'll feel her arms around my waist, hugging me hello. When she talks to you, you sometimes forget she's a kidlet. She's serious (like her mother) and has an old soul (like her mother), and she's as comfortable with adults as she is with her peers. She never fails to make me laugh.

I think the best way to give you a good picture of this child is to post a devotional I wrote about her a few years ago:

Five-year-old Madison is a born leader. You can see it in the impatient stamp of her foot or in the exasperated toss of her Shirley Temple curls when you don’t quite understand her demands. She’s all business--all the time--and always in control. And no one knows it better than her four-year old brother, Gabriel.

On a recent summer day, when temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest rose beyond their usually mild level and caused us all to reach for the iced tea, Madison and Gabriel stood in the backyard kiddie pool. The water wasn’t deep, but it was straight out of the hose and freezing cold. They’d been wading for ten minutes or so, trying to get enough courage to sit down.

Madison sighed and pushed a curl out of her eyes. “It’s hotter than Africa out here.”

She had no idea at the time, but her parents were just on the other side of the screened window, listening (and by now, laughing).

“Yep,” Gabriel agreed, although it’s a good bet he has no idea where, or even what, Africa is.

Madison swirled the water with her toe, thinking. In a moment she came up with a plan. “Know what, Gabe? We should see if Luke likes the water.”

Luke is the youngest sibling, the baby--and not quite one year old.

“Let’s bring ‘im out,” she suggested.

Gabriel nodded.

“Here’s what you do,” Madison directed. “Go in the house and tell Mom and Dad the water’s really, really, really warm. Ya got that? Tell ‘em it's really warm and Luke will love it.”

Gabriel nodded again and started for the house.

“Remember, Gabe--really, really, really warm.”

He kept nodding and kept walking.

But she had one last instruction. “And Gabe--whatever you do, DON’T SHIVER!”

My friends, Scott and Diana, have kept me in fresh supply of Madison stories over the years. They made sure to repeat this one to me, too, and I laughed for a good five minutes. I could just picture that confident little girl instructing her brother on how to pull the wool over their parents’ eyes.

The truth is, we’ve all got a little Madison in us. Just because God isn’t standing right in front of us--visibly--we think we can fool Him, too. We forget that He sees through walls and hearts, knows all the details, and understands the motive behind everything we do.

That shouldn’t frighten us. That should comfort us. Because just like Madison’s parents, our Father loves us despite our mischievous ways. When we grasp that fact, we gain the freedom to be honest with Him--and that's when our relationship really takes off.

Those secrets you've been trying to keep from Him? Might as well hand them over. He knows anyway. And the amazing thing is, He loves you in spite of it all.

"I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night--but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day.
Ps 139:11-12 (NLT)



Wednesday, February 23, 2005

a writer's entitlement

Just above my desk, stuck through to a corkboard with a red, square-headed tack, is this quote by Amy Hempel:

"I am entitled to tell this particular story in a way no one else can."

I drew strength from that quote many times while working on my first book; it served to chase away the always-hovering fear that perhaps I was missing it, perhaps I had failed to find the one right-and-true, acceptable version of whatever I was working on at the moment.

I don't know if any of you ever crumbled beneath the weight of that lie, but that was my big writing foe. Just settled in my chair, with my fingers barely touching the keyboard, the lie would rise up, enfold its massive self around me, and start squeezing the creativity right out of me. If it could speak out loud, it would have said, "You're going to blow it. Any second now, when you write the first word of the first sentence of the first page of this chapter, you're going to blow it. You'll choose the wrong word--right from the get-go--and you'll take this story in an entirely wrong direction."

I heard the message. Not verbally, of course. Perhaps it was through osmosis. With a weight that big resting on you, something's bound to seep between its pores and yours. The unspoken message froze my fingers--sometimes for long stretches at a time. When I could finally put a word to the screen, my heart would sink. Of the thousands and thousands of words I could have chosen, what chance, really, did I have of picking the one correct word? I lived for a long time believing that my job as a writer was to somehow stumble across the one true version of my story.

Over time, a handful of little truths joined forces and agreed to stand guard over me while I wrote. One of these little truths was the realization that all writing--with one exception--is flawed. The only perfect piece of literature ever put to paper was Scripture. By default, therefore, all the rest of us are just trying our best. When I'd feel a finger of the lie wrap itself around my wrist and try to pull itself to its feet with that death-grip, I'd chop it down by repeating to myself, over and over, I'm not writing Scripture ... I'm not writing Scripture ... . Somehow, just knowing that perfection wasn't expected of me made me loosen up.

It helped, too, to realize that other writers felt the same way. In Ralph Keyes' book, The Courage to Write, he makes this statement:

"The writing that shows up on paper is rarely as good as the writing in one's head. Anthony Burgess thought every book was a failure from the moment its first sentence was written, because this sentence destroyed forever the dream of what that book might be. 'The awful thing about the first sentence of any book, agreed Tom Wolfe, 'is that as soon as you've written it you realize this piece of work is not going to be the great thing that you envision. It can't be.' The page has a mind of its own."

Some may read those observations and think How fatalistic. How defeating. But for me, those words refilled my lungs. I'd been deflated by my fear of failing; discovering that others shared my fear made me feel sane. It made me look down at my feet and realize that I'm walking the right path.

Need a few more?

"All my life, I've been frightened at the moment I sit down to write." Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one." John Steinbeck

I like lumping myself with Marquez and Steinbeck.

Yesterday I worked on a difficult chapter of my work-in-progress. I silenced the mass, ignored the Inner Eyore (my moniker for the critical, left-brain editor within), and opened a fissure. What poured out on paper was not at all what I had anticipated. It defied my tidy outline and flew in a direction quite opposite that in which I had intended it to go. But it worked. And when I reread the words, at the end of my purging, I cried.

Just as I'm entitled to tell this particular story in a way no one else can, I'm also entitled to tell it in twenty different right ways. Had I written that chapter the day before, it probably would have shot off in an entirely different direction.

We capture a sliver of time with our writing. Like dipping a cup in a fast-moving stream, the contents we pull to the surface and examine this moment will differ from the contents we might collect with the next scoop.

Enjoy the process of writing today, and dip deeply. I pray you find something new and startling and wonderful to share through your words.


Monday, February 21, 2005

of clocks and chicks

Lately, Tera has developed a not-so-precious habit.

Whenever we're readying ourselves to go somewhere, and she beats me to it, she takes it upon herself to push me along.

"I’ll be in the car," she'll say. Those may be the words that come out of her mouth, but I can read the subtext in her tone. She's really saying, Boots and saddles, Mother. Put the brush down.

Maybe I'm the only parent on the planet to react the way I do, but I'm not easily motivated by the pushing of nine-year old children. In fact, I have a tendency to dig my heels in whenever they try that tactic.

Yesterday morning I was locked in the bathroom, hating my hair and urging one of my flips to behave. Tera decide I'd been in there long enough and it was Go Time.

"I’ll be in the car," she announced through the closed bathroom door. I pictured those little lips all pursed and irritated.

I felt a beginning twinge of annoyance myself. "Did I tell you to go to the car?" I asked.


"Then why do you feel you need to go to the car?"

She couldn't very well say, "Because it's time to hit the road, already. And I'm hoping to set an example for you." So she thought for a quick second, and came up with a safer answer. "Because I have to put my suitcase out there."

She’d been invited to a sleepover after church at Madison's house. (Madison is a quirky, funny friend I’ll most definitely be writing about in the future.) Tera and I had already had an altercation about the suitcase; she wanted to bring her clothes and pillow and blanket in a series of recycled plastic grocery bags; I argued that we bought her that mini red suitcase-on-wheels for occasions such as this and she didn’t need to show up at Madison’s looking like a hobo.

She took the suitcase to the car and came back. I heard her pacing in the hall, her footsteps screaming out, Your hair looks as good as it's possibly going to get.

After two minutes of loudly walking the three-foot square area outside my door, she asked, with poorly hidden exasperation, "Can I go out to the car?"

I decided to grant permission. Sometimes I'm benevolent like that. If the child wanted to sit out in the frost-covered car and wait, I’d let her. Now, if I thought she was in any danger out there--if I thought she might lose a toe to frostbite or slip into a hypothermic coma--I would have denied her request. But this is not Alaska in January. This is the Northwest in late February. My lilacs are budding. Just five feet from the very car in question, petunias are popping up. She'd be chilly, all right, but she'd live.

"You can if you want," I said. That's what my mouth said, but I had my own subtext, and it went something like, I'm the mother here, little missy, and the keeper of all clocks and timetables. I'll saddle up when I'm good and ready.

She doesn't always catch the hidden meaning in my tone. I just know, as Tera stomped her way down the walkway, she thought she’d won.

Oh, when will they learn?

I am a rock, a fortress of determination, a wall of bigger-than-yours stubbornness. My children should know this. But it's uncanny how often they forget.

I finished my hair. She'd been right; it was as good as it was going to get. And then, looking at the clock and realizing we didn't have to leave for another forty minutes, I made myself some Orange Chamomile green tea and drank the whole cup while checking my email and reading the obituaries. Then while putting my cup and tea bag-squeeze thingy in the dishwasher, I noticed the kitchen table needed a good swiping, so I cleaned that. And then, with a good twenty minutes to go, I picked up my knitting.

She was remarkably contrite when she finally walked back in. "Let me know whenever you're ready to go," she said, trying to squelch a shiver.

"Ten minutes, Hon." I said.

Right on time--with a whole 45 seconds to spare, in fact--we locked the door and walked to the car. I was sliding into the front seat when I heard a surprising sound. I heard a peep.

I knew the sound. I'd heard it a hundred times before, but never in February.

"It can't be," I said to Tera. But it was. We stood together in front of the chicken coop and watched a tiny yellow wing wave at us from under the bottom boards of the coop.

I bent down and moved some dirt, freeing the chick from his prison. He shot out--right into my hand.

It's far too early for chicks. They need warm sun and bugs and water without ice floating in it. But apparently one of the hens had her own schedule.

I cupped the little guy close and breathed slowly on his feathers to warm him. He thanked me with a kiss right on my lips. Sure, some would call it a peck--but isn't that just another word for kiss?

We brought him some water, which he politely scooped into his pencil lead-sized beak and swallowed. We crushed some layer pellets for him and scattered them on the ground, then set him down nearby and waited to see if he'd eat.

I worried about him all the way to church, because it's a cat-eat-chick world out there, and our cat Kipper, pacing outside the chicken yard, had looked just a little too interested in the new tenant.

We ended up arriving at church five minutes late. If I'm not mistaken, God was teaching me a lesson. I think He used that little chicklet to remind me Who really keeps all the clocks and timetables. It would seem it's not me after all.

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

moon songs

"The heart knows its own bitterness ..." Proverbs 14:10

Craig was only twelve, but that was two years more living than I had under my belt, so naturally I believed him.

"I know why that old German lady is crazy," he told my cousin and me, gesturing to the house next to his. His was the in-between farm, flanked on one side by my grandparents and on the other by the lady in question.

I didn't doubt Craig. He knew just enough more about everything else that we never thought to question his facts.

He paused to check our privacy, glancing discreetly to the right and left. "Yep, I know the reason." His voice dropped to a hushed, conspiratorial tone--as if he had to hold himself back; as if there was such power in his twelve-year old vocal chords that the wind might carry his gossip across the fields and right into the woman's kitchen.

We leaned in close to catch the details and block a little of that betraying breeze.

"Her heart is broken," he said. He sat back and looked at our faces, waiting for the full effect of his words to settle over us before explaining. When satisfied we were sufficiently awed, he continued. "Her son died in the war, and her husband couldn't take it. One day he went out back to the barn ... "

We turned as one to look at the weathered red building at the far end of the woman's pasture.

" ... tied a rope to the rafters ... "

Our eyes widened.

" ... and hung himself."

I shivered, and stole another quick glance at the barn that had once contained a dead, swinging-from-the-rafters body. Craig's story was a doozy, all right, and I supposed that explained things fairly well. I supposed that would be heartache enough to account for the woman standing on her porch on windless nights and singing at the moon in German. But for some reason, even hearing that story, I wasn't nearly as afraid of the barn and its ghost as I was of the living corpse in the farm house.

I'd heard her night songs myself over the years. Safely tucked in Grandma's back bedroom, my heart would lurch at the first notes of grief. Even with the fields and walls between us and my grandparents in the other room and a hound dog out back who I was pretty sure could chomp a leg in two with one focused bite, my blood still froze at the sound of all those foreign words. I'd listen without breathing until she finished her wailing, and I'd pray every time that she wouldn't get a sudden notion to take her show on the road and make an unappreciated appearance at the back bedroom window.

Late that same summer--the summer of Craig's enlightenment--I saw the woman for the first time. One warm night, while seven of us girls (sisters, cousins, and a girl from down the road) camped out in a big yellow gazebo on Grandma's patio, I unzipped the tent to run in the house and check on the bathroom. Just as I shoved my feet into my barn boots and began to cross the twenty feet to the house, I heard the first of her plaintive, ghosty notes hit the air. I stopped in my tracks, turned, and caught a glimpse of the old woman leaning on the railing of her back deck, staring toward the barn. The moon was so startling bright that night that it lit up the fields and the fences and everything in my line of vision; so bright I could see her upturned face and gaping mouth from two farms over. Her dirge drifted over the corn stalks, straight to me.

This time, I knew the story behind the song. Craig's whispers rose in my memory like a mournful violin and played between her words, buoying her notes, holding her melody, dropping away at all the right parts so her soul could be heard unhindered.

I could almost speak German that night.

Of course, I never understood exactly what she sang. I only heard the heart behind the notes. And as the years have gone by and I've found my own railings to lean against and my own grief songs to sing, I've come to realize how alone we really are, in the end. You can hold my hand or hold me in your arms; you can pull me close enough to feel my heartbeat, but you'll never really know the deep-down language of my pain--nor I yours.

When we've had a loss so big that no one else can touch it, that's when we most need God. He speaks German, and Anguish, and Regret, and all the other languages of the heart.

I hope she learned that. I hope on one of those lonely nights, with her heart wrung out and her face turned up toward heaven, that woman stopped her song long enough to hear Him sing back.

"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." Psalm 147:3


Thursday, February 17, 2005


Larry loves me.

Dave's not threatened, of course, because Larry's a dog. He's 120 pounds of fur covered, coiled up energy. He's a sniff and a wiggle and a shiver of "touch me," all bound up in a big black bundle. I love him right back.

He's not quite two, but he thinks he's a man-dog. When Dave leaves the house, and I'm home alone, Larry walks the fence. He circles the house, scans the trees, barks at the wind, and lets our little corner of the world know that he's on duty, and he's not playing games.

He waits for the slightest sound from me. If I turn the knob on the front door, he's on the porch in two seconds flat. If I move the slider an inch, he gallops around the corner and stands at attention. If I try to sneak out the back door to bring in a pile of firewood, he shadows me. Last week, I decided to split some of the larger pieces so they'd fit in the stove easier. Larry didn't like that. He whimpered as I lifted the splitting mall above my head and dropped it on the upturned chunk, and when I missed my aim a few pieces later, knocking the wood off the block and almost cutting my leg, he slid over and stood between me and the chopping block. I think he would have taken that axe out of my hand if he could've figured a way to do it.

When the four of us return home after a time away and crest the hill leading down our driveway, we can look past the Centennial Trail, across the creek and up the pasture, and watch Larry doing his loop. We don't know how or why it started, but he has a route he runs whenever he hears us coming home. He gallops through the fruit trees, rounds the holly tree, then flies past the large pine near the chicken coop, jumps the fence surrounding the goat barn, circles the pasture twice in a big, boisterous loop, and then dashes back just in time to meet our approaching car. It's his joy run. We're home--and he has to release some of that pent-up ecstasy.

I'm not sure if we taught him to do so, or if love compels him, but when we all pile out of the car and walk up the porch steps and open the door, he waits. He lets all four of us go inside first, and then he cocks his head to one side and waits to see "yes" in our eyes. Only when we say it, only when we give a nod and say, "Go to your mat, Larry," will he burst through the door.

He's almost always inside with me when I'm alone. And when I do invite him in, he follows me from room to room. Though he's supposed to stay on his cedar-stuffed mat in the tiled area of our dining room, he knows the rules don't apply when we're home alone. He knows I can't deny him the right to follow me to the kitchen, where he lays across the floor like a speed bump. "Move, Larry," I say, but he knows by my tone that I really mean, "You're the best dog ever." As I type this, he's laid out on the carpet right near my feet, with his head so near-to-touching that I can feel the warmth of him.

Yesterday, the kids and I were home together. Zac was in the dining room digging through the fruit bowl for a ripe-enough pear, when I heard him say, "Looks like we have company." I looked out the dining room window and saw two huge dogs in the big grassy area below our patio. Larry must've figured that with Zac home, he could afford to take a short break, because he wasn't alarmed at all by the intruders. In fact, as I watched, he wagged his tail in an I'm-so-glad-you-stopped-by manner, traversed the slope leading down to the lawn, and trotted over for a friendly sniff-and-greet.

I don't want strange dogs on the premises. They won't love our cats the way Larry does, and they'll chase the ducks right out of their feathers. So I went outside, hoping my presence would shoo the dogs away. The brown one took the hint and headed for the woods, but the bigger, older-looking dog looked merely intrigued. Larry glanced up at me and then back at his new friend, tail still swishing.

"Get!" I yelled, in the sternest voice I could muster. And in the fraction of a second it took for my word to ride the wind, Larry transformed. My displeasure curled his lip and released a snarl from somewhere deep. He rose up, pounced, and bit a warning in the side of the other dog's neck. The dog responded, and for about thirty seconds, they fought.

I had to call him off. The other dog took a few nonchalant steps toward the woods; I encouraged him the rest of the way with a few poorly-tossed rocks. And then I called my protector to my side and let him know how much he meant to me.

Larry loves me. When I want to walk, he walks. When I prefer to sit by the fire, he joins me there. He loves what I love and hates what I hate. His ears are ever tuned to catch the slightest whisper from my lips, and I'm convinced he'd fight to the death to protect me. He's devoted to his master.

Oh, that I might be as devoted to mine.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005


I stood on the porch a short time ago and waved goodbye to my family. Dave will meet the school shuttle and drop the kids off before driving over to the church office for a day of studying.

Just as I turned to go back inside, I glanced down at the crack between the house and the porch swing and saw a blip on the lawn, a little out-of-place bump. I couldn't see what it was at first because the grass and everything else is covered by a thin layer of frost. I've always loved the color created by white-over-green. It reminds me of old Coke bottles, or the color of the sea when the ferry is backing up from the dock and the water foams and churns in its wake.

I looked harder, though, and saw what it was: a black knit hat. And for some inexplicable reason, that discovery made me sad. That hat was made to warm a head; instead, it's lying stiff and frozen and useless on the ground.

(At this point, you may be thinking the last of yesterday's Valium has yet to leave my system . . . but bear with me.)

One of my favorite quotes is by Alan Redpath, who said this: "There's some task which the God of the Universe, the great Creator, your Redeemer in Christ Jesus has for you to do -- and which will remain undone and incomplete until by faith and obedience you step into the will of God."

Scripture puts it this way: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."
Eph 2:10 (NKJV)

I'm both comforted and challenged to realize that God has created me for a purpose. It's comforting because I understand that I'm perfectly suited, perfectly enabled and equipped, to perform whatever He asks of me. I'm challenged, because I know myself, and I know that I'm my own worst enemy. I'm not always the best steward of my free will. I allow distractions, temptations, and lesser things to pull me from my God-ordained tasks.

I honestly don't know how God's sovereignty and man's free will co-exist. I don't know if God allows me just enough rope that I'm free to wander from His embrace far enough to miss Him, or if He's too much of a Gentleman to override my choices. I only know I don't want to make Him sad. I don't want to be another frozen black hat lying stiff on the ground. I want my life to count.

Today, I'm going to take that verse to heart and live purposefully. I'm going to filter my choices through those divine words, and see what drops away.

Today, I aim to warm His heart.



Monday, February 14, 2005


Earlier today, I said to Dave, "Check on me tonight, will you? When you get home, say, 'How's that chapter coming? Did you get it finished?' I need the accountability."

Dave gave me that look, the expression husbands the world over don whenever they find themselves being soft-spoken into a no-win situation. I saw fear in his eyes. I tried to erase it.

"I won't get snappish or crabby or defensive when you ask. I promise."

He stood there thinking, remembering. I have a feeling I've made that promise before. I have a feeling I've broken it. Without commiting to anything, he left the house--quickly, and without looking back.

When he returned awhile ago, he didn't ask. So I offered. "You know, I'm going to need a little grace on that chapter," I began.

He scoffed. Not a bad, mean, hostile scoff. Actually, it was a tad on the timid side; just enough to hint "I told you so," but undefined enough that he might be able to pretend he was only coughing, should I call him on it.

"No--I really do have a good reason," I said.

He looked at me, waiting.

"Well, first off, I was asked to do an edit. Quick turn-around. They needed the article right away . . . as in today."

He didn't blink.

"And I spent the afternoon at the school helping with Tera's party. And after we got home, Zac needed a ride to the Y."


"And . . . and it took me a loooong time to form the meatloaf into a perfect heart shape."

Know what? That one worked. He loves meatloaf, and he's not averse to heart-shaped food, if that food happens to be served on, say, Valentine's Day.

I'll put in an hour or so on that chapter after I'm finished here. Honest. You can check with me later, if you feel brave.

For now, I feel like blogging. I'm just too full not to. I've had a perfect day, and it has to come out somehow. So here goes:

--I awoke to snow on my car. Not much, but enough that the air smelled winterish and wonderful.
--My husband took me to lunch; at the conclusion, I had the most perfect puff-pastry swan filled with light-as-air cream.
--Clouds rolled in.
--Clouds rolled back out.
--I heard from an old friend.
--I heard from some new friends.
--I found what I was looking for at the library.
--My meatloaf came out perfectly; the potatoes had just enough cream cheese and butter; the peas tasted like I'd just released them from their pods.
--Zac's working on his third plateful and making appreciative, gluttonous noises, Larry's laid out like a bear skin rug near the wood stove, Tera's doing homework on the hearth, and Dave's sitting next to me on the couch, not holding me accountable.
--There's just enough breeze that every so often, the wind chimes on the porch tinkle.
--I'm loved.

I hope you know you're loved, too, tonight. I hope your day was wonderful, and you spent time with someone you care about.

Happy Valentine's Day

A program note: tomorrow I'm having a biopsy (nothing I'm too worried about.) If you should come to this site and see ANY posting of ANY kind, please do not read. I've never had Valium before and I'm concerned that it may cause me to write something incriminating and/or embarrassing. Your cooperation is appreciated.

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

the gift

"How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?"
~ poet unknown

Some losses are, to borrow a phrase from my grandfather, "no bigger than a minute." These small absences are insignificant in the scheme of things, and easy to measure. You work your tongue up into the gap in your mouth and probe the space your tooth once occupied. You plunge your hand into the pocket where your wallet should be. In those "no bigger than a minute" cases, the loss is really no larger than the space it inhabited.

But when the loss is the size and shape of love, it defies measurement.

My mother committed suicide when I was twenty-six. If a detail is needed, it's this: she suffered from manic depression. The whys and hows of her death don't alter the pain we suffered; they don't buffer our hearts or close the book. We've been walking this loss for seventeen years and we've yet to spy the end of it. It's so dense we can't punch our way through, so high we can't see the sun.

I've marked my grief by the milestones I pass. She wasn't there when my doctor told me I was infertile. She wasn't there when I went shopping alone for our soon-to-be-adopted son, and followed a mother and pregnant daughter from rack to rack, eavesdropping on a conversation that should have be mine. Nor was she there the day Zachary was born, or the day he took his first steps, or the day he became a brother to Tera. At each of those milestones, her absence thickened the room and dulled the light.

Every milestone hurt but for some reason the most recent had a disproportional sting. In September of last year, four boxes of books arrived on my front porch. I yanked open the first and pulled out a book--a book with my name on the cover. There's no explaining the thoughts and feelings that rush over you when you hold that first book in your hands, when you realize the task is truly finished. I'm not sure even a writer can put words to that moment. But even while I sat there holding that book, a shadow fell across the moment and stole a piece of my joy. She wasn't there to share this milestone.

I grieved anew for weeks. What would she think? What would she say? I knew of course, and yet I wanted to hear it straight from her. I thought again of the selfishness of her death, and how the ripple of that one moment has yet to strike a shore. My frustration was palpable. I couldn't remedy this lack. I couldn't take a single action that could pry the words I needed from my mother's lips.

Early one Sunday morning, still stinging, I went out to my office (a separate building behind our house) to search my files. I was teaching the 3-4 year olds at church that morning and needed a particular item for our craft. I had a notion that deep in the back of my files, I'd stored--for some unknown reason--an old report from college. For my required special needs course, I'd written a fictional account of my nonexistent, vision-impaired son, Alex. I'd had to create a diary of his daily activities for an imaginary week in our lives. The cover to this report was what I was after on this morning--it was transparent blue plastic, just what I needed for our Sunday school craft.

I smiled when I saw it. How had I remembered that? I flipped the report over and released the tabs, pulled the pages out and tossed them in the garbage. I didn't need the report. I didn't even know why I'd kept it all that time. But I was glad I'd kept the plastic cover.

Later that afternoon I went back out to my office to find a book and noticed the garbage needed emptying--especially with the added pages I'd thrown in that morning. Walking over to pick it up, I glanced down and saw that the report had separated itself into two halves, one flopping forward and one flopping back. And right in the center, tucked down deep, I saw just the edge of a half-sheet of paper. An inexplicable nudge made me reach down into that shadowy spot and pull out the page. Holding it up, I saw familiar, lovely handwriting, and read this:

Dad and I really thought you did a terrific job on your story. You sure write well. Love you much,

Her words held me like a hug. I cried, and reread her note over and over. And then I found a frame for it, and placed it near my desk where I can see it easily. I can't count the times my eyes have drifted to her words. God brought me a gift--a whisper across the years, a nod of approval, a touch from a hand I long to hold. He brought me what my mother couldn't, on her own.

I will never stop missing her. But I've realized something odd: I know my mother better today than the day we buried her. I suppose that's because I'm a mother myself now, so I understand the pride she felt for us and her gladly-made sacrifices. I recognize, now, those times when she gave her portion to us and lied about not being hungry. I understand the odd combination of love and anger and fear that filled her heart those nights she waited up to hear my key turn in the door. I know the questions she had about the future, and her place in it. I know her better, and if she were alive now, she'd be my friend.

I know my Father better, too.

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

restraining arm

I inherited my mother’s arm.

The three of us girls each received unique qualities and character traits from our mother. One sister got her gracefulness. The other inherited her decorating skills. But me? I have her restraining arm.

You know the arm I’m talking about. It’s your right arm, the one that pops out to save your child’s life when you have to brake suddenly. The traffic light turns yellow, or the car in front of you swerves or screeches to a halt. You don’t even think in situations like that. Your response is automatic: out pops the arm—and, voila! Another life is saved.

My children don’t appreciate the arm.

“You scare me when you do that!’ my 15 year-old son complained one afternoon right after I saved his life.

“Can’t help it,” I responded. “I’m a mom.”

“I’m wearing my seatbelt, you know,” he said.

I glanced at the strap across his chest. It did a semi-adequate job, I supposed. But without the added layer of protection afforded by my appendage, who knew what calamity might befall my child?

I didn’t like the arm either, as a child. But now that I’m on the other side of the limb—now that I’m the one actually operating the tool—I understand better what it’s all about.

It’s about loving someone enough that you’ll stop them mid-flight. It’s about not wanting to see that loved one go through pain. It’s about protection.

God has a restraining arm, too. It shot out last week and saved my step-sister’s life. Nancy was driving home late and came to a series of stop lights. As it’s her usual route, she knows that series well. She knows those lights always turn green simultaneously. But on this night—for some odd reason—though the first and third lights turned green, the second one turned red. So Nancy had to sit, irritated, and wait for that middle light to turn green. But as she sat there fuming, she looked up to see an out-of-control car careen through the third intersection. The driver had run a red light and bolted straight across the path Nancy would have taken if she’d been able to proceed ahead. As she watched the car skid and strike the guard rail, Nancy knew exactly what had just happened--and she thanked Him on the spot.

God shows that mighty arm in a variety of ways, ways not always popular with His children. He ends a job, or a project, or a relationship. He closes a door. He sends us on a detour. We don’t always appreciate when our Father stops us in our tracks, bars the door, blocks the entrance, or says “no.” But we should appreciate it. It’s just more proof that He loves and protects His children—whether we’re 5 or 15 or 105.

The next time you’re halted or detoured, stop for a moment and remind yourself how much you’re loved. Remember, too, that you don’t share the same view of the future as God does. Instead of complaining or arguing about the course of things, trust that He's taller and sees farther. Trust His foresight, rest in His sovereignty—and thank Him for that restraining arm.

“He acted with a strong hand and powerful arm. His faithful love endures forever.” Ps 136:12 (NLT)


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

resting still

Apparently, God had more rest in store for me today.

I began the morning sitting for an hour in a radiology office, waiting to be called back for an MRI. I was on time--a few minutes early, even--but I've learned that carries little weight with doctors and radiologists and the like. About a year and a half ago, I hyper-extended my right knee while playing racquetball at the Y. Since then, I've reinjured it twice more during subsequent racquetball games, twice while hiking, at least three times while playing volleyball, and once while skidding in my slippers across my sister's hardwood floor. Both my sisters and my mother injured their knees in similar ways and all three had knee surgery, so I guess it was inevitable that my turn would come. We'll see what the doctor says.

If you've never had an MRI, let me describe it for you. If you're 5'5 and 3/4", like me, the fun begins when you attempt to hoist yourself up on the slick, too-tall table. I put a tad too much energy into my hoist and nearly catapulted to the other side. Once I centered myself appropriately, my right knee was locked in a metal ring and padded with what looked exactly like the ripped and chewed pieces of yellow foam my dog Larry leaves all over the yard. My other knee was wedged upwards into a flattish "A" shape with a large piece of what looked exactly like the ripped and chewed swatches of black speaker fabric my dog Larry leaves all over the yard.

Once I was sufficiently harnessed and wedged, the radiologist--a lovely woman who spoke English only sparingly--slid my table under the massive round xray machine and began directing me as to what I could and could not do during the next forty-five minutes. I had trouble deciphering her instructions, and apparently missed the one in which she granted me freedom to move my arms in the event of an emergency. I really wish I'd caught that, because my nose began itching five minutes into the procedure and I spent the next forty minutes willing the room's one lone fly to land on my nose and wipe his feet, or tap dance, or do any number of other movements that would scratch my itch. The only direction I heard clearly from the radiologist was "Do not move a muscle." I am disgustingly obedient.

So I endured an hour of sitting in the lobby followed by forty-five minutes of lying trapped and still under the clicks and knocks and rumbles of the MRI machine. By the time I was released, I did not feel well. I think it had something to do with the suppression of my itch. That can't be good for you. I drove home and got in bed--and stayed there until my children came home from school.

The day did not go as I'd planned, but I've accepted the fact that now and again, God will ask me to take a detour. To my way of thinking, this would have been a good day to get good and productive, but He had another plan. Today, I had an extended time out. But who knows? Tomorrow I may accomplish twice as much as I would have without my forced day off.

Today's reminder: When you need to rest . . . rest.


Monday, February 07, 2005

a writer's need for refilling

We're home, and I'm sitting in my usual spot in the living room--laptop humming, wood stove blazing, tea at the ready. We had ourselves a wonderful mini vacation on the other side of the mountains, in Winthrop, Washington, but I'm home now--refilled and strengthened.

I can't pin my sense of rejuvenation on any one moment. Rather, it was the cumulative effect that stirred me. It was snowfall on my face, a fuzzy black puppy in my lap, and a circle of family and friends clustered around a campfire. It was two hours of window shopping along the boardwalk in Winthrop, and laughing with my husband at the sign in one window that said, "Closed . . . see you in the spring." It was the smell of the soy milk lotion I spotted in one shop and tested on the back of my hand, and the taste of a latte, and the bone-warming heat from a homemade wood stove, and the sounds of a blacksmith hammering beauty out of a hunk of metal. It was standing on the edge of the river, counting the deer on the other side. It was dust on the mountains, a crunch beneath my feet, and icicles frozen in mid-drop over the falls.

I tried to write while in Winthrop, but I couldn't concentrate. Chapter thirteen wouldn't come--not with a nudge or a kick or a whine. It refused my pleas as easily as my threats; in the end, I surrendered. I shut my laptop and went for another walk. And I found myself downtown in a bookstore, reading a children's picture book, the subject of which was as far from my work-in-progress as you could get. But I'd been led there--to that store, and that chair, and that picture book. For after I'd skimmed the front matter and skipped the dedication and settled on the first page, I read a single phrase that released my pent-up creativity. I read, "He saw darkness in the dog's eyes," and I suddenly knew how I was to write chapter thirteen. I can't even explain how that convinced me--I can only tell you that it did. I shut the book and left the store, and before I'd gone two blocks, I had the opening scene of that stubborn chapter written in my head.

On the quotes page of my website, you'll find the following bit of wisdom by Sir John Lubbock: "Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time." Sir John was correct. Writing empties us, and what is emptied must be filled again if it's to continue flowing outward.

Perhaps you can't trot over the mountains for a bit of winter-coated rejuvenation, but you can take a walk. You can find a quiet corner in a favorite cafe and search the faces of oblivious strangers. You can stare at the sky and think grand thoughts and give your ambition the afternoon off. And then when you've refilled yourself, you can return to your art with fresh eyes and a new heart for the work.

That's all for today. I feel a burst of "want to" coming on. I'm going to go with that--and open chapter thirteen.



Saturday, February 05, 2005


Last summer, I endured a five-week low-carb diet. I’d planned to stay on it much longer, but my doctor decided otherwise. I went to see him about a staph infection--something I’d been struggling with for about six years--and he warned me that my body couldn’t fight the infection if I didn't provide it with a varied enough diet.

I pretended to be disappointed. I think I said something like, “Well, wise Doctor, since you know best . . . I’ll do what you say.” I slumped my shoulders, gave a reluctant nod of my head and even sighed, just for show. But actually, inside, I was jumping for joy. I missed fruit. I missed vegetables. I missed bread and potatoes and rice and noodles. And I just loved my doctor for telling me to start eating those things again.

As I was leaving his office, Dr. Sun gave me a last little lecture. “Moderation. Don’t starve yourself and don’t eat too much. A little of all of it, okay?”

I ran to my car and raced to the grocery store. I believe I entered the parking lot on two wheels. Once inside, I made a bee-line for the produce section. And then I screeched to a halt, frozen by the magnificent sight before me. The roof parted, an angelic choir made that "Ah . . . ah!" sound, and a shaft of heavenly light shot down and illuminated the stuff of my dreams: mangos and grapes, peaches, nectarines and Brussels sprouts. Yes, Brussels sprouts. I just stood for a moment and stared at the luscious bounty. And while I stood gaping, God gave me an interesting analogy.

My diet had been the law. Do this, but don’t you dare do that. Don’t even think that. No touching, no tasting. I obeyed those rules. I stayed faithfully within the parameters of my diet, but I didn't do so with any kind of joy. Heavily shackled, I obeyed strictly under compulsion.

And now, suddenly, with a few beautiful words from one who knew much more than I would ever know about such matters, I was free--free to enjoy everything my eyes landed on.

That's similar to what happens when we give up the law of being good and switch to the law of grace. Because of Jesus, it’s not about “don’t do this and don’t taste that” anymore. It’s about freedom to enjoy life, enjoy others, and especially, to enjoy God. With that freedom, however, comes responsibility. Not everything is good for us. And contrary to what we'd like to believe, we don't have all the answers about that. All the trouble starts when we think otherwise. If we want spiritual health, if we want to grow and mature, then we need to come to God daily for guidance. He knows more than we ever could about these matters. He'll help us choose wisely and live in moderation.

Take a moment to absorb this fact: Because of Jesus, you have a free will. Look around you--life is there for the taking. He’s cut your chains and freed you. That means you've been given the ability to choose the manner in which you will live and love and serve. The only question remaining is, what will you do today with your freedom?

"I can do anything I want to if Christ has not said no, but some of these things aren't good for me. Even if I am allowed to do them, I'll refuse to if I think they might get such a grip on me that I can't easily stop when I want to."
1 Cor. 6:12 (TLB)



Thursday, February 03, 2005

an invitation

My friend Ken (see yesterday's post and his comment below) is an artist. I've been aware of his abilities since high school; I used to watch him hunker over a sheet of newsprint and produce uncanny likenesses of himself, or me, or any number of unknowing subjects in the halls and classrooms of Cascade High. I didn't know how he did it, but I suspected it wasn't at all hard for him. I assumed he'd reached out a tiny finger as a three-week old and been met with a touch from God, just like the reclining naked man in Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam. My suspicion seemed confirmed after high school when he mastered "pointillism," which, loosely translated means, "the creation of dot art by one with crazy-fast wrists." My own wrists ached as I watched him slap those miniscule dots on the page. The images that emerged seemed to arise from nothing--and they were beautiful.

I didn't attempt anything close to art until Dave's Christmas gift in 1995. I was 34 years old by then. The reason I never tried before that is because I never received The Invitation. You know the one. It's the gold-embossed invitation; the one printed on ivory parchment with the deckle-edge; the one with a single line centered inside in script letters: "Congratulations . . . you're one of us." These are given to art teachers the world over, along with strict instructions to horde them faithfully and dole them out sparingly. Ken had received one; I was sure of it. And when an errand sent me to the far end of "that hall," the one which housed the high school art classroom, I'd slow my steps and grab a wide-eyeful of the honored few on the other side of that door. These finger-of-God touched few were Artists. You either had it, or you didn't. And I didn't, so I kept obediently to my side of the door.

Imagine how startled I was, all those years later, when no one barred my entrance to the art classroom in the back of my local craft store. I wasn't asked to produce credentials or references or a portfolio. And no one mentioned The Invitation--not even once. So I stuck a canvas on my easel, pulled the crinkly wrapper off one of my brand new brushes, squirted a big glob of cobalt blue on my palette--and started painting.

On Terry Whalin's site there's an article by James Scott Bell entitled Putting the Big Lie to Sleep. In it, he tells a similar story. After reading that article this week, and then recalling my own initiation into the art world, I wondered how many of you believed that same lie. I wonder if you're tiptoeing down a hall somewhere, slowing as you pass that open door and fearful you'll be called out for staring. Are you convinced you can't write--or create anything artistic at all--simply because no one has yet told you you could? If that's the case, let me be the first. Let me put that big lie to sleep, once and for all.

Artists are not born. A few, I'm convinced, do stick their little fingers out of the crib to meet the finger of God. I'll always believe that, if only for the fact that I know a boy who, at eight, drew pictures that looked purposefully Picasso. He hadn't had time in his young life to develop that ability, so it had to be a gift. But what does that mean for the rest of us would-be artists? It means we need to put pen to paper or brush to canvas. We need to enter the classroom, find our seat, and start the journey.

You can learn to write. I promise. You'll need to develop your craft; I won't lie. You'll need to read books about writing and attend conferences and allow other people to lay eyes on your work. You'll have to toughen up and accept rejection. You'll have to toughen up even more and listen to the inner editor when you hear, "Change. Slash. Rework." But if you do all that, and you keep on doing all that, eventually you'll look down one day and find that good writing has emerged from beneath your pen.

If you have even a spark of desire toward writing, and you're just waiting to hear the words, let me be the one to tell you: You're one of us.

Now get busy.



Wednesday, February 02, 2005

writer ears

"There are joys which long to be ours. God sends ten thousand truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away."
~ Henry Ward Beecher

In 1995, with nary a hint or a nudge from me, my husband presented me with an unusual and wonderful gift. On Christmas morning, I found beneath the tree an easel, an empty canvas, a painter's bucket filled with brushes and paints, and a note telling me when and where my first oil painting class would be held. Such a move would never have crossed my own mind, but my husband knew that. And he knew I needed an outlet at that particular time of my life.

I loved his gift. I adored everything about painting: the smell of the linseed oil, the sensual swirls of color blending into one another under my palette knife, the soft whisper of my brush as it conjured a sky across a pristine canvas. And the names of those colors! Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Indigo, Moss and Ochre. A previously hidden world sprang to life before my startled gaze, just like all those secret Magic Eye pictures of a decade ago. I could suddenly see what had been there all along. My hearing altered, too. Words that had drifted silently past my ears in my former life suddenly rooted in my conscience and bore meaning. The newborn, artsy me began to understand concepts once foreign--concepts of foreshortening and shadowing, perspective and contrast.

Shortly after I began lessons, we took a family vacation to Phoenix to visit our friends, Dan and Lisa. I hadn't been to Arizona since the sixth grade, but the memories that lingered from that previous trip weren't pleasant. I recalled that everything was brown and dead and hot, and that I'd spent half our trip throwing up from heat stroke. I'm not a big fan of blistering heat or scorpions or treeless hills, so I wasn't sure what to expect this go-round.

I must confess that Arizona's beauty won me over this time. It's a different sort of beauty from the blue and green variety that wakes me every morning in the Pacific Northwest, but it was there. It's a world of hovering pinks and salmons and warm terra cotta hues. I appreciated the uniformity of all those earth tones, right down to the agreed-upon roof tiles of my friend's housing development. Those earthy pastels billowed and rolled in a soothing tile sea from one end of her street to the other.

Early one morning, while sipping iced tea and reading the Phoenix morning paper, I glanced up and noticed the way the rising sun struck the tiles of the neighbor’s roof. From my perch, I had a clear view of the sharp contrast between the lit and shadowed sides of the tile. As I sat there, I experienced a sudden flash of understanding. My instructor had tried--unsuccessfully--to explain the impact of light source on a subject and how the brightness of that source affects color. I hadn't been able to track with him in class, but I got it now. I saw in 3-D what his words had been unable to paint for me. And I also saw, in my mind's eye, the exact proportion of white I'd add to my base color to duplicate the left side of those tiles, were I to try to paint them.

Lisa walked into the kitchen, looked at me looking out the window, joined me in staring for a second or two, and then said, "What? Is the cat on the roof again?” She wasn’t quite as taken with the color variation on the tiles as I was. We may have looked at the same thing, but we didn't see the same thing.

That's a writer's reality, too. We can be in a gathering of some sort, surrounded by normal-looking, two-eared people, and somehow manage to be the only one in the room who hears the whisper. A truth will rise from the conversation, drift overhead in slow, lazy circles, and choose to settle itself in our eager ears. No one else notices, no one else hears. Perhaps that's because no one else listens.

I’ve often felt that our job as writers--most definitely as Christian writers--is to hear and interpret and share truth with a world that for whatever reason, doesn’t stop to hear those truths for themselves. We’ve been called by God to be His scribes to this generation. He’s equipped us to minister in this way--with an ability to arrange words in a pleasing pattern, with a knack for communicating, and with spanking-new ears.

Hone your earing. Cock your head to one side, if that helps; aim your ear toward heaven and invite the sound. Wait. It won't take long. From a distant place, but closer with every step, you'll begin to hear the heartbeat of God. And when you have it, when you can not only hear but feel the very timbre of His pulse, gather your words and paint a picture.

God's glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.
Their words aren't heard,
Their voices aren't recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
Unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.

Psalm 19:1-4, The Message