What will you do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Edgy God.

So many of our great fiction writers have described God in ways that are quite moving. Frederick Buechner has done a fantastic job, as have many southern writers of fiction. I love Wendell Berry. Whenever I need a boost out of a rut, I read Berry's poetry, or scan one of his novels for passages that I have marked. The other day I was looking for a narrative section on what God is like. These words jar me from my complacency and begin my thought processes anew. I found it . . . by Wendell Berry: The speaker is Jayber Crow in Berry's wonderful novel of the same name:

"For a while again I couldn't pray. I didn't dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal himself in power. I wanted to tell him that it was time for his coming. If there was anything at all to what he had promised, why didn't he come in glory with angels and lay his hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land? Why didn't he cow our arrogance?... But thinking such things was as dangerous as praying them. I knew who had thought such things before: "Let Christ the king of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Where in my own arrogance was I going to hide? Where did I get my knack for being a fool? If I could advise God, why didn't I just advise him (like our great preachers and politicians) to be on our side and give us victory? I had to turn around and wade out of the mire myself. Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn't it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment he had come down in power and glory? Why didn't he do it? Why hasn't he done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now? I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn't, he hasn't, because from the moment he did, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be his slaves. Even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended. And so, I thought, he must forebear to reveal his power and glory by presenting himself as himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of his creatures. Those who wish to see him must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world."

That God is present in the "ordinary miracle of the existence of his creatures" gives me comfort. Where is God present for you?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

We all have those days.

My friend Susan Cushman posted that she has had a visit from her old friend "Acedia". I had to do a little research on the word Acedia. I was familiar with the word, but not its exact meaning. I though it might be some sort of skin rash. (My attempt at humor) But not so. Acedia ... "describes a state of listlessness or torpor [inactivity], of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one's duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression. Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life." (Wikipedia).

Such an interesting state of being. I suppose we all have a visit from that state of being from time to time. And it's not always a bad thing. in the West, we tend to think that we need to constantly be on the move, we are human doings instead of human beings. But perhaps Acedia is God's way of slowing us down, of forcing us to meditate on the moment. This has given me some sermon material - this Sunday the Gospel is about the Kyphotic woman, and her healing. She had become a spiritual "pretzel". I'm thinking that's what aceticism can do to one - bend us in ways we don't think we can go, but we do. Susan had lots more to say on this matter. Check out her other blog posts above.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Gravy. Gotta Have the Gravy.

"Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids--all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through." - Garrison Keillor

I received another rejection of one of my short stories. It sat out there for the longest time as "under consideration" at Narrative Magazine, and I was hoping it would be at least a finalist; but no, got the rejection this morning in an email. The positive sign is that this story did outlast the last one, which was rejected much sooner. So, now to look the story over again, perhaps change the name and refine it a little and send out again. And again. And again.

In this quadrant of my life I have more resolve and tenacity than I had when I was younger. These days I take the "no's" as part of life, and not as a definition of who I am. That may sound rather fatalistic to some who had higher self-esteem than I had when I was a child, but when I was just a small child I did allow quick judgments to sink and and applied the defining words of others to who I thought I was. When I was in my teens and 20s it was easy for me to just give up on something when I received the first "no". Now I look for ways to get a "yes". And, if the "yes" does not come, that is okay too. I move on.

As part of moving on, I have been asked to write an essay on how dreams influence my writing for an online publication. This will come easily for me. This is like the gravy that Keillor talks about. Gravy, like a dream, soaks into our unconscious and appears in surprising ways.

Dreams have influenced writers throughout history and continue to influence writers, including Stephen King and Anne Rice and William Styron. Having completed about 35 short stories, I would guess that more than half of those were influenced by an event or a character that appeared in my dreams.

Where have interesting characters appeared in your own dreams, and have you written about them?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lessons from a Tennessee Volunteer

If I had the time, I would spend all day writing. But sometimes things get in the way and take so much energy that I am diverted for hours from what I love into what is necessary.

This morning I eliminated the volunteer that had taken over my life. I hated to do it at first, but as I ripped and tugged and hacked at this invasive varmint, I showed no mercy. I sweated profusely, powered by my anger, as I yanked it up by its roots and cast it out of my life. This pesky thing had taken over. It entwined its skinny fingers around my okra, gripped my wonderful and prolific grape tomato plants at their necks and nearly choked the life out of them. Six bell pepper plants never had a chance. Oh, they started off healthy, with large dark green leaves, but once the vine got aholt (acceptable in the south as a real word) of them, they were stifled into puny sprouts never to even produce their first flower.

Not to mention what this thing did to my cherished eggplants. But the eggplant bush was determined, growing above the vine to tower over it and bravely produce a few lovely aubergine fruits on its few spindly arms.

I was tolerant at first. Gleeful even, that this new little vine was so healthy. I watched the abundant gigantic yellow flowers bloom. Are you a squash? A melon? No indication of which variety of fruit to expect. I nurtured the little thing, propping it up on my garden fence to protect it from snails, every day guiding it along. Then, when the vine was maybe 75’ in length, wrapped around and around my garden fence, a small oblong yellow fruit appeared. First a lone little baby something, then another and another. In all, perhaps 5 of these fruits appeared. I let them grow, thinking for sure this is a spaghetti squash. The fruits grew large, perhaps 8-10” in length, and were fat, like a spaghetti squash. But different somehow. I left them alone to grow.

Every night the vine grew. The leaves were huge. Each morning there appeared tendrils grabbing onto grass, invading now my back yard. This is the healthiest plant I’ve ever seen, I marveled! Is this how Jack and the Beanstalk began?

One must discern the motives of volunteers early on, before they take over. I always think they have good intentions, they will be fruitful, and will contribute to the good of all. They pop up and say I’m here, and I welcome then. I expect them to be surprising, as I cannot always tell what type they are in the beginning, those things that sprout up where you did not ask them to grow. Where you did not plant them.

But always always I start off loving them, smiling at their new little faces, marveling at their capacity to grow several inches in a day, and waiting, with much anticipation, what the fruit of the vine will be. These volunteers are eternally the most energetic, charismatic plants in the garden, usually coming from some composted plant consumed perhaps years ago, or dropped by birds, and just waiting until the precise moment in time to burst forth its seed and devour everything in its way.

Don’t trust them. No matter how they try to seduce you, no matter how smart they say you are. They are a clever lot. But I implore you, cut them down in their infancy. Grab your hoe and chop unmercifully until you get them at the very roots of their lives. Pull them up, throw them in a heap, or, better yet, burn them to ashes!

Today, my tomato plants are free at last from the vine’s strangle hold. As are my peppers, my eggplant, my okra. And do they appreciate it? I cannot tell. It is 100 degrees outside and they wilt if I look at them. Parched. They enjoyed being in the shade of those big leaves, even if that vine stifled their growth. But they are trying to recover in their newfound freedom. They are blooming, leaning toward the sun as if they are happy to at last see the light. Free to grow into what they were created to be.

Free at last.

I just hope it’s not too late.
Sometimes I feel like this is how some of my characters take over my writing. I develop small characters with great potential, then someone else eases in my mind's eye, and suddenly it's all about them and the other characters get lost in the excitement. I have to then put forth loads of time and energy clearing out the fluff to get back to the original idea.

Have you had anything that took over your life, slowly, before you knew what happened? Please share your experience with me.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Poise and Personality?

I've been reading Gail Bruce's book Literacies, Lies & Silences: Girls Writing Lives in the Classroom, about her being a participating observer in her work of writing with adolescent girls. In her lengthy introduction she takes the time necessary to explore the history of why a shift occurs in the lives of most girls as they move from childhood to adolescence. A shift from being the 'subject' to becoming the 'object'. I find this fascinating on so many levels. More about this later.

On a recent flight I am sitting in an aisle seat on that beloved exit row next to an attractive young woman with long billowing black hair, dangly earrings, silver sandals, and those trendy "skinny jeans". I admire anyone who can wear those things with class - of course they show off one's body, however much or little of it there is. Here I am, a healthy middle-aged female, taking up much of that little airplane seat. And there she is, like a limber grasshopper, taking up about half her seat, legs folded up and she is writing thank you notes, one after the other. She is in the center seat. A mildly obese man occupies the window seat. He sleeps. I continue reading my book.

Miss skinny jeans reaches under the seat in front, stashes the stack of thank you cards, and retrieves a folder. I cannot help but notice there is a golden mark of some sort on the cover as she flips it open. She pulls out a stack of papers. On the letterhead I read, Mrs. America: We are Family. I slyly eavesdrop for a while as she ponders each question and fills in the answer. Then I have to ask: "Are you a contestant?"

She turns, flips her beautiful hair, and answers, "Yes. I am the state pageant winner and I will compete in the pageant in Tucson in a few weeks." Her earrings shimmy as she flashes perfect white teeth. Congratulations, I say, you have a good chance. She thanks me, with demure humility, then tells me she is writing notes to her sponsors and continues talking about all the opportunities the pageant has afforded her. She is a wonderful cheerleader and has what they look for in those pageants, plenty of poise and personality. And her hips are no wider than her head.

I think how synchronistic it is that she is seated next to me as I continue to read Bruce's book, and I have to compare and contrast Bruce's findings against the world of beauty pageants. My mind began to wander to Bruce's stories in her book, and how the world of adolescent girls is so fragile. And to the media, which is another fantasy world.

My intention here is not to bash pageants or the media, as pageants are useful to those who enter them and to those whose business it is to promote them and those are arguments I will not pursue. My intention is to explore the complex dynamics in the lives of young girls and not the world of poise and personality. However, contrasting this is attractive to me.

I once worked with a young woman who put herself through college and graduate school on scholarships from such pageants. She lauded them and encouraged younger women to make use of the opportunity. But I think everyone will admit that pageants are not for everyone. Some women have the qualifications for them and some don't. Most of us are called to different lives and to pursue different opportunities.

Which brings me back to Bruce's book, and her experiences of writing with girls, and her descriptions of the period in girls' lives when they begin to get 'lost'. Most of the girls in my creative writing classes seem to feel as if they dwell in an alternate universe, yet they yearn to feel normal whatever that may be. I remember the time in my own life when I felt 'lost' - when I watched the Miss America pageant on TV and heard over and over that this was the dream of every little girl, to hear Bert Parks sing There She Is. Every little girl's dream. I believed that. But it was never my dream. So how odd was I, I wondered then. What are the various fantasy worlds of adolescent girls, and how do these fit in with their reality? How do you think the world of pageants affects little girls?

I watch the Facebook posts of some of the girls in my writing classes and am embarrassed at their language, their abbreviated words, and realize it is an entirely new language. But at least they are writing! Even if some of those posts are full of misspelled words and anger. Mostly directed at their parents.

What a Character!

In her post, Memoir: Turning Yourself into a Character, author Nanci Panuccio says, “Memoir is character-based non-fiction. As obvious as this might sound, what’s often missing in an early draft of memoir is the narrator’s engagement with his or her own story. Observers by nature, writers sometimes tell their story as witness rather than participant.”

In my fiction writing, my characters are composites of real people as well as people that I imagine in my head. I can lay on anyone certain hand gestures, the way they may smoke a cigarette, or sip their coffee. The way someone speaks to another, how they inflect their voice, can tell the reader a lot about that character. The clothes they wear, internal thoughts. But how do we create ourselves as characters? Is it much the same process?

In thinking about this, I realize that my own self-perception is different than others' perception of me, and I am in a sense a 'witness' to my own life. How observant, how involved am I really in being conscious of the minute details of my own mannerisms, my own voice tone, my own way of walking? Perhaps I should ask others about their memories and interpretations of my hand gestures, my speaking voice, or what my movements might infer. How do you create yourself as a character, and how real can "you" be?