Notes for Writers Young and Old

Annie Dillard, besides being a fine writer (think Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) has some wonderful suggestions for writers:

“Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go.” I’d add that you have to read everything you write out loud. Can you dance to it? If so, you have a keeper.

“Learn grammar. Get a grammar book and read it two or three times a year. (Struck and White is a classic.)” I’d add that the illustrated version is best.  See Spot run. Illustrated grammar. Omit needless words.

“Always locate the reader in time and space — again and again.” On August 7th she sat at her desk high in her room above campus, a single lined page in front of her, one ink blue word on the paper. She put down her pen, placed her palm on the window, savoring its cold, and watched the traffic light at the intersection beat out time as she remembered. Well, you get the point.

“Don’t write about yourself.” Bang. Annie get your gun. I second this. If you find yourself endlessly interesting, please don’t write about it. If you are that interesting, someone else will write about you. Wait for it.

“Never, never get yourself into a situation where you have nothing to do but write and read. You’ll go into a depression. You have to do something good for the world, something undeniably useful; you need exercise, too, and people.” Life is your research. Steal your experiences. Ride the bus sometime so you can write about it. Walk a different way home, so you can write about it. Meet someone. Learn something. So you can write about it. If you don’t live, you have nothing to say.

So that’s just five of the many Annie Dillard aphorisms. In her essay, “Notes for Young Writers,” there are many more. But here’s a few of my own. You can do them even if you don’t write.

Hold something. You have to use some discretion here. A smooth stone, a leaf, a gray cat, tree bark — holding something reminds you that writing starts with the particular, not the universal, with the concrete, not the abstract. Invert that rule and you become pedantic, boring.

End with a pithy sentence. My son rebelled against this exhortation, yet “pithy,” in addition to being a fun word to say (if you don’t spit with it), leaves the reader with a place to go without telling them what to think. I recommend it.

Don’t worry about what you going to say before you say it. Just begin. Begin with where you are, what you saw, what you heard, or what you read. Let it take you where it will. You can always back up and rework it.

Use round words. I mean words that you can swim around in. All thinking, Dorothy Sayers reminds us, is analogic, that is, we know the word’s meaning by reference to something else, but good writers use words that provide vivid or even multiple analogies. Renovate. Refuge. Pluperfect. Pimpernel. Scarlet. Scaffolding. Free associate. It’s fun.

And one more: Write something every day, even if it’s terrible. I mean really terrible. We need the discipline. You don’t have to (please don’t) share it.

So maybe you don’t write and don’t care to. Still, there’s one thing you can take to heart. Step away from the monitor, television screen, tablet, or smartphone and take something or someone in hand. Remind yourself what’s real. Whether writer, reader, or just human, we all need to wake up to life, need to savor the incarnate.

That's all.


The Speech of the Oh So Wise

I’m mildly interested in politics and yet feel incompetent to say anything about it. The politicians themselves and pundits seem to say enough, or more than enough. What I am interested in The Word and words.

Thomas Franks' recent essay in Harper’s Weekly, entitled “Broken English,” tackles the worn out cliches of political speech — words often divorced from a context that has been forgotten, making them seem oddly misplaced if you know their original context. He also attacks contingent-speak, as when a commentator or politician says “one might argue” such and such, a distancing effect, “an extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject.” He concludes that this oh so wise usage is “a kind of shortcut to objectivity, and suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere.” This kind of roundabout speech, always with an escape hatch, is, he says, intended to cue the audience to the presence of a professional, or an elite if you will, one undoubtedly “complicated.” Right.

Do me a favor: If you hear me talk like this, call me on it. This ranks on my list of barely tolerable speech, like that of publicists and music business A&R people who always tell you what you want to hear, and then quietly act otherwise. Or people who seem unable to commit to a date (dinner, Friday?) because something better may come along and they may be left out (FOMO). Say what you mean people! Say it with love, if you can, but say it.

My parents didn’t speak like this. They never said “It might be a good idea if you cleaned your room.” It was just “Clean your room.” They also never said “one might argue that doing your homework is a good idea.” Just “Sit down and do your homework.” Their directives were few (actually, clean your room was not on the list) but. . . well. . . direct, meant to be obeyed. Indeed, words were often unnecessary; the code was written on my heart. (Ok, so I didn’t always obey, but there was no contingency.)

Which brings me to cliches, the refuge of the pundit and politician: Stop. Like “lay down a marker.” Heard that enough? Users of the phrase, Franks notes, have no idea that it originated in gambling parlance, likely popularized by a famous line from a musical, Guys and Dolls, where “the gambler Nathan Detroit utters this famous line: ‘A marker is the one pledge a guy cannot welsh on, never.'” All of which gives enhanced meaning to the statement that “voting for such and such politician may be quite a gamble.” Or how about when pundits talk about one politician “eviscerating” another? Really? Disembowelment? It’s an over-the-top husk of a phrase that should be consigned to the word dump. Somewhat tongue in cheek Franks concludes that all of “[t]his lingo is the jittery patter of a would-be democratic aristocracy, utterly incapable of introspection and yet better than the rest of us in every way.” I can't listen.

There. I’ve said nothing about politics and something about words. But I leave you with the unstated biblical truth of what Franks is saying: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37). Simple-speak is disarming and refreshing. Indeed, one might argue that this biblical exhortation is good advice.


Keeping, Not Keeping

The story is told that William Strunk, the author of what later became a classic guide to grammar and style, The Elements of Style, once entered the classroom at Cornell, opened his briefcase, drew out his notes, and looked up at his expectant students.  After a dramatic pause for effect, he loudly said “Omit needless words!”  He paused, and then he said it again:  “Omit needless words!”  He paused, and then said it again.  Then he placed his notes back in his briefcase, closed it, and taking it in hand walked out of the classroom.  Class dismissed.  I guess he had made his point, not only by what he said but by what he did.

In another classic work, On Writing Well, William Zinsser makes the same point, albeit in a few more words.  He says “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.  Reexamine each sentence that you put on paper.  Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?  Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”  Reading these exhortations, I’ve always marveled at their broader application, the excesses and surplusage of my life, not just my words.

I just lifted a stack of 40 cards sitting on my bookshelf that expressed sympathy on the death of my mother nearly four years ago.  I wondered if I should throw them out. Yet as I read them, I could not.  They are still doing a good work in my heart, reminding me of the treasure of family and friends, of my mother’s qualities, and of how to express sympathy in such a way that the recipient is ministered to.  The best of these cards are neither rote nor dutiful, but heartfelt and particular.  Even those who did not know my mother had read an obituary or knew of her and could say something specific.  Virtually all reminded me of the hope of new life and reunion.  I’ll keep them.  They are still doing a good work.

But I suspect that not all of my possessions are doing any new work.  Some are faddish (like the CD I had to have to complete my collection of all of The Byrds recordings) or the beautiful book without a soul.  Or maybe it’s a vain dream that I hold onto that is doing me no good (Am I really going to be a rock ’n roll star?), or an interest that is not needful (like Beatles trivia).  “Omit,” says Strunk. “Simplify, simplify,” says Zinsser.  But it hurts.  Pruning hurts.  Yet a pruned life flourishes.

I did throw away 50 ink pens of various persuasions.  That was easy.  I kept the wind-up toy dog.  Don't judge me.

Love Trumps the Comma Queen

Last week I had a bit of required at-work writing I had to do.  When I completed it, I had 14 pages of text, double-spaced. Only thing is, there was a page limit of ten pages.  So, I began cutting.  I rewrote sentences.  I deleted redundancies.  I dropped paragraphs or, when I could not live with throwing away the words, I judiciously consigned them to footnotes. I eliminated articles of speech, giving the text a more immediate, punchy feel.  The word "certainly" and phrase ”in conclusion" had to go.  After three revisions, I pared it to exactly ten pages.  I smiled, enjoying the quiet delight of a pruned argument, hit "print," pulled the paper off the printer, felt its warmth, smelled its ink, laid it out on my desk like a new set of clothes. Sad, isn't it?

I don't have a lot in common with Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, who spent more than three decades in The New Yorker magazine copy department. But I did identify with her glee in finding a spelling error as a foundry proofreader.  The writer of a Christmas shopping column (the kind of thing you read in The New Yorker back then) was in the basement of Bloomingdales shopping for food staples and had included in the list sacks of sugar and "flower."  Bingo!  That's what a proofreader lives for.  The error had slipped by two readers, and she was the last before publication.  She was thrilled and went across the street for a lunch of beer and peanuts at The Alonguin to celebrate.  I can identify. . . with her glee, not he beer and peanuts.  Later, Norris received a note via inter office mail that said "I thank you, Eleanor Gould thanks you, the proofreader thanks you, the fact checker thanks you, we all thank you for doing what we in all our numbers could not do: catch the flower for flour in the Christmas list on food."  Signed by Gardner Botsford, an imposing name for a man she described as a "regal editor," she said "It elated me. I had made my first catch."

If you love words, you take delight in such findings, in the precision of language and the pruning away of excess.  However, the far better words are those of a friend, a child, or a mother who write with excess and inexactitude but say words like “I’m sorry” or “I love.”  Those sloppy letters deserve no red pen but can be riddled with redundancy, grammatically off, and verbose.  It’s OK.  Love and forgiveness allow for that, are even better for it.  Even the Comma Queen might agree.

Dropping a Pin

In the opening of her beautiful memoir, West With the Night, Beryl Markham coined one of the most memorable beginnings to a book that I have ever read: “How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other.’ But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names — Mwanza, Serengeti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru.”

Perhaps the names of these African places are memorable because they sound exotic, and yet Markham was only being particular, only naming as a way of rooting us in reality, like dropping a pin on a map.  It’s something to hold onto.  I like to say those names aloud, as when I hear them I dream about them.

My memoir would have different names, but they are no less memorable. There were streets named Gracewood, Fernwood, Pender, Cornwallis, and others I can’t pin down where I grew up.  The houses weren’t thatch but colonial brick.  Pines grew instead of thorn trees.  And while I smile at the names picked by our suburban developer, names made for selling houses to middle-class families, for marketing a way of life, they nonetheless adhere to memory, exotic in their own way.  

All to say, we don’t remember in abstract.  We remember in particulars.  I don’t remember some abstract “childhood” but a particular house on a particular street.  God came to us enfleshed, incarnate, particular.  So do our memories.  Just name them.  Pin them down and dream on them.

Entertaining Angels

Today’s Listening: Entertaining Angels, by Jimmy A (1991) and Harvest Moon, Neil Young (1992).

In May 1992 my son was 5 months old and I left home, reluctantly (as I always do, in the end), to attend The Writing Institute at Glen Eyrie, a castle-like conference center near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Monte Unger led about six of us in “Magazine Article Writing for Christians.” I hadn’t written anything much by then, so I needed help, and Monte obliged in his fatherly way.

One of the first things he asked us to write, even before we came, was 200 words on the subject “Why I want to be a writer,” along with a headline and a subhead.  I still have it.  Next he had us revise these pain-stakeningly chosen words down to 100 words.  Oh, the hatch marks, the pain of the censor!  Then, we had to condense it to 25 words.  It was painful, giving up so much. Make every word count, he said. Spend them wisely. He could have taken us down to one single word. He spared us. I wish more attorneys did that.

There’s some pretty poor writing in my notebook from 23 years ago.  But Monte was encouraging.  “Very Clever” he writes in brackets beside what to me sounds like an awkward title.  “Great conclusion.”  “Pique.”  

Jimmy A is singing “I’ll Meet You In Heaven,” Pastor Scotty Smith in the background, preaching, Charlie Peacock, Phil Madeira, Phil Keaggy, the late Vince Ebo.   It’s good. It’s creative.  

In the notebook pocket from that weekend, behind a copy of The Independent, a local zine, is a program from Poetry 1997: Voices of Vision, March 11, 1997.  It has my name as a Finalist in the Poetry 1997 contest.  I read “In My Room, a poem about Brian Wilson.  My friend Pete drove 25 miles to the Regulator Bookshop in Durham to hear me read.  

Five years after Monte’s workshop I scraped up a few words from the soil littered with sentimental, lame words.  “Right,” scrawls Monte across my paper.  Poor guy.  To have to read this stuff.  

Eject Jimmy A. Insert Neil Young. “From Hank to Hendrix.”  Wonderful.  Effortless.  “Right,” I say.  In Glen Eyrie, I would go back to my room, alone, no internet, no phone, no TV.  I’d sweat out a few words.  Walk around the grounds.  Tear up what I wrote.  Write some more.  Read my Bible.  Pray.  And wish I was home.  Wish I had words for what I felt.  Wish I had names like Harvest Moon or Entertaining Angels.  I was just looking for me, for my own words.


Round Words

"I keep on speaking the language of the Christian faith because, although the words themselves may well be mostly dead, the longer I use them, the more convinced I become that the realities that the words point to are very real and un-dead, and because I do not happen to know any other language that for me points to these realities so well."  (Frederick Buechner)

For the unbeliever, words like redemption or salvation are either flat and lifeless or, worst, have some negative connotation, as in intolerance or self-righteousness. Yet for the believer, these words are round, having depth and breath, like a well that never ceases giving water. At times they are flat to me too; other times they rise up on the page and shout at me and then I think that the realities to which they point are ones you can never really fully explore.

Inventing the Truth

Does a snippet of an author's personal story really help you understand and interpret the author's words?  Does it make you more interested in what the author writes?  Apparently publishers think so, for they keep pumping out nonfiction books that, whatever the ostensible subject, are light on serious research and heavy on Me.  This is a regrettable trend on two accounts.  It conflates experience with understanding, as if dropping by for a visit or meeting a local were all it took to become an expert.  And it produces book as ephemeral as magazine articles, hardly worth keeping on the shelf.

(Marc Levinson, in "Casting Copper As Victim," in The Wall Street Journal, October 13-14, 2012)

Levinson's comment about a book he was reviewing echoes with a sentiment expressed several years ago by Garrison Keillor.  Asked to be a poetry judge, and after reading piles of bad poetry about mostly bad experiences, Keillor concludes that "Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether it's true or not."  That is to say, the story is told so well that no one cares if it's really true.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said of a work of nonfiction, as we expect nonfiction to be true.  At least we ought to.

And yet the lines are increasingly blurred in a world that has lost the sense of a truth that is true, of True Truth, that is, of a truth that corresponds to reality.  People believe everything, and nothing at all, and even have no difficulty holding logically inconsistent positions.

Take memoir, what you might call perspectival truth.  Reading it we understand its limitations, that we are hearing one perspective on a situation, on a life.  And yet as much as I enjoy the genre I often have the sense that I am being deceived for the sake of a good story, that the details of a life are embellished.  I feel cheated, as I want it to be true.  Given that there are some notable examples of bestsellers that turned out to be blatant falsehoods spun well, I am suspicious.  I want the truth.  It may be a truth limited by the author's limited experience, yet still I want the truth as far as the author knows it.  

But that's not the only problem.  The greater problem is when people no longer care if the memoir is really true, when it doesn't really matter.  Memoir becomes fiction, and we don't care because maybe we want it to be true or need it to be true.

 The best memoirs are the synoptic gospels.  In them, Hebrew men tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, a truth superintended by the Holy Spirit and yet not dictated, a truth shaped perspectivally by their own unique personalities and yet nonetheless true.  The Spirit tells the story of Jesus --- gives a memoir of His life, death, and resurrection --- and uses mere men in the telling, condescends in a fashion to their own limitations of perspective, and yet makes sure that the message is true.

While our own memoirs are not so perfect, that is, God is not so involved in creating an authoritative, inerrant account of our lives, allowing our imperfections to affect the telling, we can pray we tell it straight, that God will inhabit our telling so the truth we tell is True Truth.

The fact is, I want to get it straight, but I love a good story.  When I'm tempted to slant the truth, to write the memoir I think I wish I had, I pray God would help me write the one I in fact have, the one He gave me.  It can't get any better than that.

"Jesus wept," says John, because he saw it.

Cleopas saw a resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and said "did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road," because he saw Him and Luke set it down.

I'm glad that's really, really true.  Because if He can weep over a world gone wrong, then so can we. And if Cleopas can see a resurrected Christ, then He lives and so do we who can rejoice in our tears.

Pray God we tell it straight.

Doing the Work of Love: An Afternoon with Jane Kenyon

260px-Jane_KenyonWhile I did not know of the poetry of the late Jane Kenyon until after her death in 1995, I am glad I found her when I did.  A kindred spirit to Mary Oliver, who is one of my favorite poets, her poetry also has a rich simplicity --- is accessible, delicate, and yet profound.  Images of home and nature abound, and a subtle faith and hope permeates the air of her poems, even if they often allude to her lifelong struggle with depression.

Take this one, for example, entitled "Afternoon in the House:"

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I know that sprawl, those favored places, that quiet that settles on the house, that hyper-consciousness bred of aloneness that makes you sense that the very walls are listening, leaning in, waiting to hear.  It's all so ordinary, and yet under her economic pen, buffered by considerable white space, it becomes extraordinary, each word so carefully chosen.

She goes on:

I turn on the radio.  Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

And that makes me look up The Meadow Mouse since, after all, no poem about a cat can be bad, can it?  And yet I realize, in the reading, that the cats enjoyed it like we might anticipate a scrumptious meal, licking their chops.  Reading "Do I imagine he no longer trembles/ When I come close to him?/ He seems no longer to tremble," I fear it's not empathy they feel for the poor mouse but something more elemental, and base, and so my instinct about cats is confirmed: they are out for themselves, won't ever be accused of saving children from burning houses or lying down on their master's (if that word is ever accurate) graves.  And so I wonder if Kenyon granted the request.  I doubt it.  Rather, it demonstrates her sense perhaps that not only cats but her own species might not be generous.  And that, for Kenyon, might have fed her depression.

I was surprised to read the first line of the final stanza, where she says

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze 

because, inexplicably, I just wrote a line nearly like that in a blog post just a couple days ago when, awake in the middle of the night, I said that the listening you do at that wee hour is "like you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired."  You know it's bad when you take to quoting yourself, and yet why did I channel a phrase uttered by Jane Kenyon when I had not read her poem in perhaps six years?

The ending of that stanza, and of the poem, is key to understanding her mental anguish in the midst of this idyllic setting of the familiar.  Cats dozing.  Plants leaning.  A settled home. She says

I know you are with me, plants,
and cats --- and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

Are they with her?  For Kenyon even a good day held within it the seed of a bad one, a sense that the shoe had to fall at some point and the world would come crashing down.  Who knows what else frightened her, when even the cats are full of malevolent possibility?  I don't mean to be hard on cats.  They figure prominently in Kenyon's poems, often dozing, sometimes providing humor, and yet for her nothing could be taken at face value, the sinister lurking beyond the benign.

One phrase, repeated in her poem, "Otherwise," the title to a collection of her work, tells me of her commitment to live even when she felt otherwise: "All morning I did the work of love."  More than fear or sadness, her poems tell of hope and faith and love, and that trilogy is worth hearing about over and over and over.

Want to read Jane Kenyon?  Start with "Otherwise."  You'll find much to love in her descriptions of the ordinary.  You might even make your own poem.

[The photo of Kenyon at her typewriter is publicly available via her publisher's website.  Does anyone type anymore?  Yes.  It's good to see.]

The Signature of Place and Time

What if the Postal Service's resurrection was found in a renewed conversation of places --- letters between Christians exploring what it means to be Christ's church in their own places? What if we could discipline our language and create a common formational practice among our young people by encouraging personal, meaningful writing from one place to another?"

("Slow Mail: The Discipline and Joy of Handwritten Letters," by Ragan Sutterfield, in Englewood Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 1)

 In the concluding paragraph of his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul says "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand" (1 Cor. 16:21).  He does it again when writing the church at Colossae (Col. 4:18) and Thessalonica (2 Thess. 3:17a) and, in respect to the latter, adds that "[t]his is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17b).  No other letter of an apostle bears these words, though John's second two letters each add "[t]hough I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink.  Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 13-14).  Paul's writing the conclusion of his letters or, at least, signing them, is a mark of authenticity.  His unique signature bears witness to the genuineness of his words, present, like an etching, even when he cannot be.  What John adds is his preference for physical presence over pen and ink, a letter being no match for face to face conversation.  John recognizd that physical presence was superior to a letter, Paul that a letter written in his own hand superior to that written by what Matthew Henry called an amanuensis (an assistant who takes dictation).  And both are superior to modern-day digital media.

What have we lost by this cultural drift?  And who will remember what is lost when the generation that remembers a non-digital and internet age is gone?  A digital book will never have the substantiality of a hardcover book, an MP3 file the tactility of a recording, or an email the weight of a letter.  And none of them will have the presence of a person --- whether storyteller, musician, or friend.  We may settle for less than presence and must do so much of the time, but to consider such accommodation progress is sad, a product of a disincarnate culture.  In one of his many prescient comments, the late Marshal McLuhan said that "[d]iscarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate Church."  It may have been his way of saying that the Body of Christ requires presence, requires embodiment, and cannot live in a people who seem to prefer disembodied connections.  Tweets, status posts, and text messages are a poor substitute for face to face life together.

One path back for me has been letters. . . not many thus far, and perhaps not as substantial as what Ragan Sutterfield suggests, but it's a start. Here I am, on vacation, and in the drawer of our hotel room is stationary embossed with the hotel name, with envelope, and I wonder what was the last time someone wrote a letter on a sheet of it, and if I could, if I would take the time to do so.  Who will I write?

When I read Sutterfield's article on letter-writing, the cynic in me said "get real."  How in the world do we discipline ourselves much less young people who may never have written a letter nor communicated in much more than 140 characters or less than instantaneously to write a letter?  Why would they do that?  Why would they take the time?  There are reasons to do so, but the case for it is so subtle that it would not be compelling.  It is a pleasure to be discovered, not commanded.

Maybe, just maybe, the best way is to take the time to write them a letter, to invite a conversation.  They may just take you up on it.


The Urge for Going

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

(Oh, The Places You'll Go!, by Dr. Suess)

"Uncle Clarence, I think you missed a turn."

"Are you saying I'm lost?"

"No sir.  Back there, I just think you needed to turn on US 1 South.  There was a sign.  That's our road.  It says here on the map."

I was no more than seven.  I sat on the front bench seat between my uncle and aunt, a Rand McNally map open in front of me.  He pulled over.  He took the map and peered at it, as he took another drag on his cigarette.

"Where the heck are we?"

"Right here."  I pointed to the intersection of a black line and a slightly thicker red line.

"So you got us lost?"

"No sir.  Just go back to that road and take a right."

"You're the boss."  He handed the map back to me, swung the wheel around, and threw some gravel as he left the roadside turnout for the road.

I have always loved maps and roads.  Even now, over 45 years later, very little is as exciting to me as the sense of adventure prompted by a black line of asphalt unwinding in front of me, signs rolling by suggesting other adventures, roads not taken, every farmstead or small town prompting inquiry:  Who lives here?  What is it like?  What do they do?

I'm not alone in this wanderlust.  In Earl Swift's historical survey of the development of our highway system, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (take a breath), he tells how in the mid-Twenties Americans took to the roads, such as they were, striking out from the cities "in search of elbow room, fresh air, a closer acquaintance with nature."  He describes early tent camps for travelers, then "motor courts" (one room efficiency cottages), and then the ubiquitous mo-tels --- roadside strips of rooms where you could pull your car right up to the door of your room,  drag the luggage in, get a bucket of ice and a cold Coke, and plop on the bed and spread out the map and dream about the next day, and the next, and the next.

My parents slept.  I never could fathom how, after a great day behind the wheel, windows down, taking in the heat and wind, the humidity or dust, they could reach a motel, with all its invitation to explore its passageways, parking lots, playgrounds, and pool, and then just go horizonal and snooze.  What do these people do to get so tired?  What's wrong with them?  

Our car overheated once.  We pulled over, let it cool, popped the hood and pulled off the radiator hose (holy smoke it was hot!), removed the thermostat until we could get to the next filling station, put some water in from the jugs we carried with us, and pressed on.  We drank Dr. Peppers while a laconic sole filling station attendant named Chester or something like that helped us out betwixt running back and forth to the pump.  It must have been  a hundred and forty degrees as I sat on the bench in front of the station office, listening to the ding-ding when cars pulled in and Chester mumbling about the difficulty with Olds, their lack of dependability, watching sweat roll off my Daddy's face.  

Later, when we had air conditioning, it failed on us, right outside of Yuma, Arizona, a wickedly hot place unfit for human habitation.  We cruised I-8, where it was completed, that is, at a ferocius 65 mph, wndows down, like being inside a furnace with a fan.  Lovely.

But it was lovely. A "ribbon of highway," someone sang (Woody Guthrie, I think), a big sky, a flat expanse of cacti and brush and roadrunners, towns with foreign, imagination-inciting names like Gila Bend, Payson, Winslow ("I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see," said the Eagles, later, and I was, at a corner diner, filled with weathered, sun-caked people from somewhere else, only no "girl my lord on a flatbed Ford" that day, anyway), Joseph City (the biblical Joseph?),  and off across the Painted Desert.  Did I mention it was hot?  It was hellishly hot.  My mother's bouffant hairdo had fallen, and she wrapped her head in a scarf.  I rode shotgun, my peon siblings and friends sweltering in the backseat, fooling around, getting in trouble, until my Mom reaches back and starts smacking anything that moves that she can reach.  It was such fun, and I say that with no sense of irony.  My Mom.  My Dad.  A windshield on tomorrow.  And Rand McNally, the godfather of road navigation, of highwayneering, the certainty of his red and blue and black lines giving comfort to our wanderings.

I didn't realize until much later that there was no Rand McNally, no reconnoitering road man, cruising America, copiously noting all the roads, actually traveling all the roads, making neat and tidy and reducing to paper a jumble of dirt and gravel and concrete and asphalt that was not always so --- just William Rand, and then Andrew McNally, publishers is all.  In The Big Roads, Swift documents just what a mess our highways were --- rutted dirt roads, mired in mud when wet, a storm of dust when dry, going nowhere, and everywhere, disconnected, confusing, lacking signage, just one great adventure for the hardy and mechanically able wanderers.  That's America.  That's us.  Oh, how we wander.

I was an early adopter.  My aunt taught me to steer the car when I was five, drive the car when I was eight, and plow with a tractor shortly thereafter.  After I mowed down five rows of precious tobbacco when I could not locate the brake, my informal license was rescinded.  I am, after all, a city boy who merely visited the country.  Imagine the lives I saved by running over that tobacco.

Try this sometime: Forget signage, maps, and GPS.  Just let the car go where it will.  Navigate by compass.  Out West, this is easy.  In Tucson, Arizona, a place I count as my neighborhood once removed, familiar as home, I can see 50 miles from the back patio of the room in which we customarily stay, counting four mountain ranges --- Catalina, Santa Rita, Tucson, Rincon --- and streets like Oracle and Campbell that just go on and on and on, vanishing into the distance.   I set sight on where I want to go.  Compass it.  Steer by intuition.  Get lost, temporarily, because no man is permanently lost and never lost enough to ask directions.  Sooner or later, something familiar will register on the screen of consciousness and nay-sayers will be put to shame.  Lost?  That's a TV show, that's all, or a mere failure of faith.  I am a wanderer, a man lost with purpose.

But I digress, I wander. . . The wheat-fields of Kansas are absolutely gorgeous, the Flint Hills, the tall-grass, just miles and miles of flat to rolling swells of hills.  Well, for a while, at least.  Astounding points of interest like "The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, says Rand and McNally, a town called "Zook," and counties so desolate as to have only two towns, no stoplights, and miles and miles between farms.  I'm not even sure there really are towns in these places but mere crossroads, the names plotted by Rand and McNally to dignify and give definition to what is merely a long continuous wheat-field punctuated by a tenuous telephone line, like thread between toothpicks.  What do these people do for fun, I think?  In Wichita we stay in a round hotel.  There was a thing about round hotels with pie-shaped rooms in the Sixties, I guess.  Disconcerting to be in a place with no 90 degree angles.  That and a bratty sister and her girlfriend, all stuffed in one motel room.

It's deeply satisfying to be back on the open road, behind the wheel, parents and siblings and friend sleeping, crossing the Mississippi at 1:00 AM.  Hello Memphis, Cuba (yes, Cuba), Atoka, Brighton, Covington, Ripley.  Believe it or not.  Believe it or not we are off-interstate, off the beaten path, wandering, and I am 17 and mighty behind the wheel, plowing through the night, a dark and mysterious river off to the West, ominous in the early morning hours.  I imagine Huck and Tom floating down the river with Jim, water lapping over the sides of their raft.  Flippin.  Curve.  Gates.  Who named these places?  What goes on here?  Oh, what sights a sleeping family miss!

But is there a point to this wandering?  I suspect so.  I know the urge to go is an echo of something deeper, something built into our frail human frame, a longing for something more, to see the other side, infecting me from the time I took my first steps until today when I drove tree-lined streets in an uncharted midwest city, navigating by intution, and not well.  

At our worst, we are a little like Lamech, "restless wanderer[s] on the earth" (Gen. 3:12b).  At our best, we have to see around the next curve, our curiosity eating at us until we give in (just one more mile, we say, our addiction to the "next thing" confirmed.)  And yet, whether I am seven, or 17, or even 53, when I get to my destination, or even when on the way, I am also like an Israelite in Babylon, standing by the river and mourning what I left behind, longing for Zion (Ps. 137:1) --- out here in a foreign land, wanting to be where I belong.  In the end, after all curves have been rounded, I close a dog-eared Rand McNally and look longingly in the rear view mirror.  I think about my room, my friends, the very particular place in all the world where I rest and play, that I know like no other.  It's the place that neither my little seven-year old mind nor my over-confident 17-year old mind realize is but a shadow of my real longings.  And yet at 53, I can say with T.S. Eliot, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  And maybe, just maybe, we will know what we long for --- the Home beyond home --- even there. 

"Let's go home, Uncle Clarence."

"Yeah, no place like home, right?"

 Sure.  And yet somehow I know that when I get there, I'll feel the tug of somewhere new, the road, a red line out of here, numbered lines and odd-named towns that somehow speak of hope.



Living With Style (Rule Nine): Don't Be Breezy

"9. Do not affect a breezy manner."

("An Approach to Style," in The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White)

Pomposity and longwindedness is not limited to attorneys who employ an oxymoron like "brief" to describe a lengthy and sometimes verbose collection of words to make a few points.  That's what education can do for you.

And yet attorneys do often deserve that description.  Once, during a phone conversation with a fellow advocate, I fell asleep.  I awoke, some minutes later.  He was still rattling on and never missed me.

Writing, like speech, should never draw attention to self, should be as spare as necessary to convey the point.  E.B. White says it well: "The breezy style is often the work of the egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."  Back then (1957), he was right in saying that "[t]he volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it. . . ."  So much written, so little said.  These days, with the advent of social networking, we might say the same about the largely empty bytes one reads.  What you just ate, watched, or clearly remarked is of doubtful interest.  Give me 140 characters I will remember.  How many can do that?

Scripture advises us to "let another praise us," another way of saying (as White does), that we write (and speak) well by "staying out of the act."  I'll add that when we are in the act, it must be when we become a particular for the universal, as when a friend tweeted "I am sitting in the dark by my window watching traffic pass," and it wasn't just her but me watching life go by while I sit in the darkness or quietness of a moment of sorrow, loss, or thought, wrapped in a cocoon while the world rushes by at its normal business .  My life stops, momentarily, and I see what has passed and imagine what will come.  Those are words worth spending, calm not breezy, full of humanity.

Avoid breezy people and prose.  Don't spend a precious word, spoken or written, unless it is is "to encourage one another and build one another up" (I Thess. 5:11).  After all, "[a] man finds joy in giving an apt reply --- and how good is a timely word!" (Prov. 15:23).

[The foregoing is a part of a little (as yet, unfinished) series based on E.B. White's "An Approach to Style," the fifth chapter of Strunk and White's classic work, The Elements of Style.  I found his guide to "style" relevant not only to writing but to life in general, as well as consistent, though not explicitly, with Scripture.  To read more in that series, go here.]




"I should be able to describe a patch of ground so faithfully that you would know it if you came upon it. . . and could traverse it if you had to, with no hazard to your life.  To do less for the interior landscape of a woman or man or child, or the pitfalls the world presents to them, is irresponsible."

(Larry Woiwode, in "Homeplace: Heaven or Hell," collected in Words Made Fresh)

Elsewhere Woiwode writes that writers "should expect to give an account, according to a teaching of Jesus, for every idle word that comes out of our mouths" (his emphasis).  It makes you want to stop writing, for that matter, when you begin to think of the responsibility attached to words --- for that matter, stop preaching, stop teaching, stop talking.  In an economy where words are cheap, where expression is profligate, Woiwide's scary words are a good wake up call to responsibility, and I am convicted.

Until I was about four I lived in a small, one story, cookie cutter house in a Greensboro suburb thrown up in the boom following World War II.  There was a patch of rutted grass in the front and a small hill, and then another patch of fescue and crabgrass and dandelions in the back, and then another hill, with a chain link fence at our property line and a swimming pool manufacturer on the other side.  I looked longingly through that fence at a concrete-lined and empty demonstration pool.  The fence represented the edge of my world; the pool, adventure.  I could not leave my yard, play in the street, go unescorted to a neighbor's house.  My life was bounded, carefully controlled, limited by loving parents who held me responsible for where my feet took me.  That was my patch of ground.  It was a topography shaped by love.  It was a frame in which a settled longing developed: I loved home, I wondered, I longed to push past the boundaries, I loved home --- an ever-widening circle of longing.  It was my patch of ground, but I was looking out, full of hope for what was to come.

Woiwode says our hope of the heavenly city, the place we long for, should not "dislocate us from our homework on earth."  Never has homework been given such a positive and yet sober connotation.  We have things to do, good things.

At yet at four my homework was simple.  Play here, not there; brush your teeth; keep your hands to yourself; don't talk to strangers; do look at people's eyes when you speak to them; go to sleep; say your prayers; use a napkin.  Behave.

But at 53, homework is a challenge.   I try and say a faithful word, and I sense the tug of ego.  Self rears its head, and even here, as I try and speak of it, I wonder if my even naming it will accrue to my benefit.  It's laughable!  Garrison Keillor, a frustrated poetry judge at one juncture, said "self expression is not what it's about, people!"  What he went on to say was that writers should write about the universals, about the particulars that might actually resonate with people --- not to emote on paper, try to impress, call attention to yourself, show off.

I'm a long way from the cookie-cutter house, leagues from the clarity of my parents' rules.  The homework is complicated, full of permutations and combinations, thorny word problems and moral dilemmas.  Full of too much me.  When Woiwode speaks of idle words I first point the finger at politicians, talk-show hosts, news commentators, and even (sadly) some preachers, but the wagging finger ultimately points back at me, accuses me of thoughtless words, puffed up words, carefully constructed sounds that only say "Look at me.  Aren't I clever?"

But we don't have time to navel-gaze about motive, to question every turn of phrase and every good deed.  Let's face it: We are people of impure motives.  But we have our homework that must be done, nonetheless, for love or for duty.  I have my patch of ground, and I have to describe it.  It's part of my homework, and there are no crib notes.

The name of the street I lived on?  I have to laugh.  It was Idlewood.  A warning, a challenge, a promise --- to the me to come.  To the day when no word will be impure or idle.

The Christmas Gift (A Story)

When Scott and Buddy delivered our new washer and dryer, they pulled their white delivery truck right up to the tippy top of our driveway and stopped, front wheels perched over the grassy sideyard.  Watching from the window, I noticed neither of them got out of the cab.  They sat there.  A little gas or oil dripped from the underside of the truck, making a sheen on the concrete, and I was momentarily distracted by the thought of a fiery ball of flame as the truck blew, ignited by a spark.  Someone was smoking inside, but it was too hazy to see.

I opened the door and stepped out on the porch.  "Hey, come on in." I waved.  I walked about halfway to the cab on the truck.  "You can come on in."

The window cracked just a sliver, about a tongue's breadth, and Scott said "Is that yor dog?"  He pointed toward the backyard where my German Shepherd, Jake, stood, fully extended, paws casually draped over the fence, tongue out, face lit up.

"Yeah.  She's harmless.  She likes people."

Buddy leaned forward.  "Do he bite?"  His eyes were wide.

"Nah, he don't bite"  I had lapsed into the vernacular.  "I mean, she won't bite you.  Might lick you, but she won't bite.'" 

Scott and Buddy sat there.  Smoke curled from the cracked window.

"He got teeth, don't he?," said Buddy.  Jake was smiling at Scott and Buddy, quivering with excitement.  She let out a welp of impatience.

"Put yor dog up or we ain't getting out."  Scott cranked the window up.  They sat there. The substance continued to drip from the truck, pooling on the driveway.  The motor ticked like motors tick when they're settling into a new place.

"Really, she's OK.  Don't worry about her."  I said "don't worry about her," raising my voice a tad.  The window creaked open.

"Ain't coming.  Put the dog up."

"Hang on."  I walked around the truck and went over to Jake, who by this time was trying to crawl over the fence, barking and pawing at the wood fence boards.

"Jake!  Jake!  Calm down, girl, calm down." She plopped down.  I unlatched the gate, grabbed her by the collar, picked up some rope I kept by the gate for times like this. I dragged her over to a small maple tree in the center of the back yard.  She tugged at the rope.  Resolute, stiffened paws dug into the soft earth where the grass had given up due to Jake's constant treading.

"Don't look back there, Jake.  You can't play with them.  Sit down.  Behave yourself." I gave her a bone to play with.  She didn't sit.  Didn't want the bone.  She strained at the rope and whimpered. I walked back to the gate, latched it, and went up to the window where Scott sat.  The widow creaked down, this time wider.

"He gone?"

"Yeah, I tied her up.  You guys come on out.  Don't worry about Jake."

The door opened and a hulking man dropped from the cab to the driveway.  "I'm Scott," he said, "and that there's Billy." Billy came around the back of the truck at that point.  It looked like he weighed about 275, broad shouldered with a stomach wrapped in a white t-shirt lapping over green army dungarees secured by a rope belt.  I'd never seen a rope used for a belt and mused on why anyone would do such a thing until he spoke.

"Billy," he said.  He extended his hand. 

I was amused by the sight of lanky Scott and sumo-wrestler Billy, but I snapped out of it quickly.

"I'm glad you guys showed up so soon. I need you to get the washer and dryer in the house and hooked up before my wife returns.  It's her Christmas present.  I want to surprise her."

Billy popped the latch on the trailer and the door rolled up with snap.  A blast of air rolled out that smelled like oil and cardboard and pizza. . . pizza? I sniffed.

"Yeah, sorry, Billy and I had a little lunch before we came."

"Hey, no problem."

"Scott, I can't tote that washer."

"Get the hand truck, stupid. . . . oh, sorry Mr. . . Mr. Woglenaut. Woglenaut?"

"German.  Polish.  Something, I don't know.  Just call me Rob."

"Mr. Rob, where we headin' with this thing?"

"Right in the front door."

Scott unlatched and extended the ramp from the back of the trailer.  Billy lumbered up the ramp and bent over.  I looked away, suddenly very interested in the gutters on my house.

"Jeez, Billy, get some suspenders, will ya?," Scott said.  "You can see China from here."  Scott hacked and spit on the driveway.  On my driveway.  I turned around and noted that Billy had repositioned himself, now had the hand truck belt wrapped around the washer.  He began to back it down the ramp, as Scott watched.  Maybe it was my imagination, but the ramp seemed to buckle a bit, straining under the weight.  Once down, he dragged it toward the front door.

"Hang on, let me get the door."  I ran around Billy, up the front steps, and opened the door.  By this time, Scott was pulling on the handles of the hand truck, backing up the steps, while Billy pushed.  I heard a sound from the back door.  Jake!   I went to the back door.  Jake had broken the rope, was scratching at the back door window, barking and throwing himself against the door.  I opened the door, intent on grabbing his collar and then retying him to the tree before Scott or Billy noticed.

But Jake would have none of it.  He bounded through the door, knocked me to the floor, and ran toward the front door where Scott was just cresting the top step.  On the way, what was left of his chain caught on the carefully-decorated Christmas tree we had set in the den.  Down when the tree!  Ornaments burst and rolled across the floor.  It all excited Jake.  He kept going, making a beeline for the front door.

Just then, Scott looked around.  "What the. . .?"  He dropped the washer.  Billy rolled to the side, his fall cushioned by a bed of pine straw.  The washer thudded down the steps, began rolling down the hill towards the street.  Pulling the entire Christmas tree, the stand screeching across our hardwood floor, Jake ran out the front door, leaped from the front step, and was caught in mid-air by the tree --- which had lodged in the front door.  He  fell back.

Scott was in the cab of the truck.  The window cracked.  "Hey, Billy, get in here."  Billy sloshed toward the truck, Jake barking  and straining at the leash, bound by the tree.

"Hey, come on back, you guys.  I'll put Jake up."

The truck fired.  Scott backed it down the driveway, narrowly missing the fire hydrant at the street.  Jake continued to bark.  Blocked by the tree, I went around to the side door.  By the time I opened it, the truck was gone.  The washer had rolled down the hill, still on the hand-truck, lodged in some azaleas in the natural area.  I walked over to where the truck had been parked.  A greasy spot remained.  I looked up just in time to see my wife's car pull into our driveway.



Why Old Words Matter

One of the values of old, even archaic words is that their very strangeness helps us hear them.  If, as Pablo Picasso said, "art is the lie that tells the truth," then the indirection of those strange old words has a way of telling the truth even more fully than the ones with which we are so familiar.  In fact, the very familiarity of so-called modern words can render them cliche and render us numb to their meaning.

I noticed this recently when I had opportunity to compare both the updated modern and classic language editions of Oswald Chambers' classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.  In the selection for August 20th in the classic edition, for example, Chambers contrasts the self-conscious life with the Christ-conscious life, noting that "Jesus says 'Come unto Me. . . and I will give you rest,' that is, Christ-consciousness will take the place of self-consciousness."  In the hands of the updater, self-consciousness  turns into "self-awareness," a word that may have a similar denotation but has an unfortunate (and distracting) pop psychology connotation.  For me, to say "Christ-awareness will take the place of self-awareness" doesn't quite carry the full meaning.

Or take the entry from June 2nd.  Chambers repeatedly uses the word "haunted" to refer to a life completely taken up in God, and yet, as the updater renders it, we are merely "obsessed" with God.  First of all, to say we are obsessed with God gets it backwards: What Chambers is saying is that it is God who is obsessed with us.  And to say He haunts us is thrilling, really, as it makes me think of the mystery of His continual presence and the relentless way in which He pursues us, that "hound of Heaven."  Spooky, and good, isn't it?  It's not that old is always better.  But the burden should be on the updater to justify a change.

Older words require more of us.  And yet these elder words are ripe for reflection.  Winston Churchill said that "short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."  He may have been focusing on the simplicity and not the fullsomeness of old words, but I imagine he would agree that an older word is often better than a newer one.

So forget the updated editions.  Stick to classics. Wade in and stop on an old word.  Ponder it until it gives up its full meaning.  Let it speak across time to you.

Only Eighteen Inches: Why We Need New York

IMG_0136 "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."  
(E.B. White)

Do not stumble over the language.  In the Summer of 1948, when E.B. White wrote these words, "queer" meant simply strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint.  And it's true, isn't it, that most of us would not regard loneliness (as opposed to privacy) as a gift.  Nor would we naturally associate loneliness or privacy with a teeming city like New York.  Yet it can be a gift and can often be more easily found in the city than the suburb, in the city rather than the small town.  New York is, in its own way, a Zion, a place to look and listen and soak up a world through which God is speaking, its canyon-like streets, mountainous buildings, and rippling streams of humanity every bit as revelatory as those of the natural world.  It is a place to prize the gifts of loneliness and privacy as a vista from which to see things one may not see as easily elsewhere.

I do not always eat alone.  I do have friends, some I even enjoy having a meal with.  Yet eating alone in a large city permits observation.  About seven years ago (I always say "seven years when I cannot really remember how long it has been but know it's been quite some time), I was eating alone in Milwaukee.  The food in the cafe was inconsequential, neither so good nor so bad as to be memorable.  Its acceptable nature allowed me to do what I had come for: watching and listening.  What I heard and saw became part of a poem.  I looked out the window and saw, for example, a bum passing by, and he became "santa claus looking worn &/ frail, an overdressed rabble of a/man, bearded, half-blind, under-/nourished, with a sack of treasure/on his back."  Seeing him I realized that what separated me from him was not only eighteen inches of glass and sidewalk but the grace of birth, place, and family circumstance that put me here and him there, that but for eighteen inches of grace he and I were much the same.  

Turning to my side, however slightly so as not to arouse attention, a man and woman --- lovers, friends, or associates --- were engaged in conversation, and the "woman sips, motions, shrugs,/dismisses, her upturned laugh/rippling through the air."  Did I detect under the laughter and banter a darker current, a deep pool in the city's canyon?  Only 18 inches away, maybe I did, maybe I didn't.  Observations are often tentative.

In his short essay, White describes a phenomenon many of us likely know from eating alone in the city.  Taking his lunch one day in an inevitably crowded cafe, perhaps the now-closed Schrafft's on Fifth Avenue that my wife may remember from New York excursions with her mother (not to say that she is much older than me!), no doubt at a little table by a little table by a little table, with conversations heeped one upon another, he found himself inches away from an actor he recognized though did not personally know. It bears telling:

When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches away along the wall) was Fred Stone.  The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.  My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in The Wizard of Oz around the beginning of the century.  But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to a man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) just arrived in this country and before he could speak a word of English, he had taken his girl for their theater date to The Wizard of Oz.  It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled --- a man of straw, a man of tin.  Wonderful!  (And still only eighteen inches away.)  "Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater," said the waiter thoughtfully, content with this fragile participation in destiny, this link with Oz.

I know exactly what he means, the connection and separation of that eighteen inches, the slight and yet profound rubbing of one life against another in the city.  It's possible to feel both a deep loneliness and yet a deep participation in the life of a city, both a continuity and discontinuity of existence.  Mostly, I like it.  It's a place of great revelation, for "fragile participation in destiny."

In another reflection from his walk around New York, White falls to simile to describe the city: "A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.  The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines."  I think I know about those internal engines, the labyrinth of tunnels, power lines, water and sewer pipes, and who knows what else that lie underneath the city streets.  Pause at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway and feel the subway train pass beneath, and it's as if the city lives, its internal engines droning.  Stand outside the Amsterdam Theatre and ponder the feet that have moved through its doors, sense the community of saints and sinners that stretch backwards and forwards in time --- the communion of humanity.

But there is something deeper still.  An eternal engine powers all the activity here, and when I stop and listen I hear it: the bruised glory of humanity, the sometimes misdirected creativity and ingenuity of a people made in the image of a Builder of worlds.  Walking down Seventh Avenue, past the shops and restaurants spilling life onto the streets, I sense there's faith and love and hope --- eighteen inches away.  In the car horns and drone of traffic and jumble of conversations, I'm hearing life, and it is glorious and sad all at the same time, both a hymn of praise and a lament of loss.

It'd be easy to avoid the city.  I could light out for The Rambles of Central Park and lose myself in a relative wilderness.  I could stick to the vast emptiness of the West, hole up in my home, retreat to a hotel room.  But the city is my destiny.  It's where the people of God live, where a distance of eighteen inches will, soon and very soon, mean nothing.  Where even the gifts of loneliness and privacy will be swallowed up in love, remembered, if at all, as mere shadows of the Real.












Saturday Afternoon, Review.

While I don't expect you to be interested in how I spent my Saturday afternoon, sometimes we write ("we" may sound expansive, as most people do not write) about things as a form of inner dialogue.  In this case, it's my way of deciding if the time reading the Review Section of the Wall Street Journal for two hours was worthwhile or merely an escape from other more mundane and taxing needs which beckon, like cleaning the attic, organizing the garage, or paying the bills, none of which excite me and all of which require endless difficult decisions, like what to keep, what to throw out, and how to organize what is kept, or, in the case of bills, remind me how distressingly quickly money earned becomes money spent, my pocket a mere conduit, an overflowing Mississippi for interstate commerce.  I tire even to speak of these tasks.

So, let me tell you about what I read.  This caveat first: While I am not stupid, I am lacking in genius and not particularly well-schooled in literature or books, for all my supposed learning.  I'm not telling you of what I read to impress you.  I read because I am (a) lazy (I don't want to do menial work), (b) can sit down while I am doing it, (c) like to associate with smarter people in print, though I doubt I would be able to carry on a satisfying conversation with any of them in person, and (d) will likely never read most of the books reviewed but can act like I have as I have read them by virtue of having read the Cliffnote version of them (the review, that is).

Seriously, while all the above is true, there are good reasons for spending two hours with a review of books, particularly one as good as the WSJ Review.  Here are a few:

Diversity is a hot topic in workplaces, in politics, and on college campuses.  But that's a shadow of the kind of intellectual diversity represented here in different topic, tone, and style, all in a concentrated two hours.  It's stimulating, like spending 10 minutes listening to 12 different speakers, each an expert on their topic. I moved from how temperature influences behavior to a book on the passing of the WWII generation to Davy Crockett to Berlin in 1961 to the historic MGM movie studios to liberal David Mamet's explanation of his conversion to conservatism.  Dazzled, I wonder at the breadth and depth of what there is to know, the thimble-sized grip I have on reality, and the reassuring knowledge of and hold on God has of me.

Humanity.  Reading is also deeply humanizing.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, narrative history or fantasy, books are primarily about people.  Even when describing the history of water ("Any Drop to Drink"), the story still revolves around humans and water, their personalities and decisions, both bad and good.  Even the Berlin Wall may have come about because John F. Kennedy had a bad day (seriously) ("When Kennedy Blinked").  And the personal stories of some the last WWII veterans recounted by author James Hornfischer let me peer into a world of which I know nothing.  They make me ask "what would I do in such circumstances," or "would I have made a better decision?"  They make me appreciate the deeply human nature of life and remind me that every generalization or objectification of reality will inevitably obscure the individual.  Sometimes we see better when we focus on one life, on one person made in the image of God.

Sound.  I don't read with any music on, even instrumental background music, as I do not want to mask the sound of the words I am reading.  Not that I read aloud.  I once read the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud to my then seven-year old son, 30 minutes at a time, and while there are definite benefits to hearing the spoken words, I want to hear the words internally.  Every good writer (and there are many in the WSJ Review) has an inimitable style, and I enjoy hearing all these voices end-to-end like an IPod on shuffle (to use a crude analogy).  In fact, it's interesting just to compare the way in which different writers end their essays, from Andrew Klaven's quip that conservative convert David Mamet's book "might make an amusingly irritating present for a liberal friend," to Joe Queenan's closer to a humorous article about cheapskates ("We are puzzled by these people.  We are chagrined by these people.  We'd like to stick a stamp on their butts and ship them to Timbuktu or the South Pole or Hell. . . I'll cover the postage.")  Don't you like the way that sounds?  Quite beyond or in spite of content, reading can simply be pleasurable, and the great thing about a review, like the World Book Encyclopedia I perused as a kid, is that if a topic grows tedious or tiresome (which I confess is rarely the case), there's always another voice in the room.  Move on.

Touch.  Oh, the tactile pull of newsprint!  I won't belabor the book/e-reader argument, but undoubtedly there is something lost in not having newsprint.  Someone actually thought enough of these writers to PRINT them.  Holding it in my hands, it seems more substantial than anything on internet or e-reader.  After all, anyone (even me) can write on the internet.  And where can you find an e-reader as large as newspaper?  Nowhere, of course.  The world of print is getting smaller and less substantial, a picture of a book rather than a book (literally and metaphorically).  Also, think of what you can do with newsprint, like wash windows, wrap presents, start fires, and beat fearsome dogs over the head.  Try any of that with an e-reader!

Well, so much for another Saturday afternoon.  I just walked downstairs and threw my copy of the WSJ Review in the recycle bin.  I feel a tad bad about that, like I have dishonored the authors.  And yet they can feel good about the fact that my carbon footprint is a little smaller by this act, I'm told.

Maybe I should have cleaned the attic.


A Universe in a Grain of Sand

"To change the world we must first change the way we see it; we must see it from a different perspective.  A cultivated mind can see the universe in a falling leaf, an orchard in a seed, an ocean in a drop of water, eternity in a grain of sand."  

(Joshua Choonmin Kang, in Scripture By Heart)

When my children were young, we would go for strolls and then walks through the neighborhood, parks, and woods, stopping to touch and handle and talk about everything.  A twig or leaf would be a reason to talk about a tree, a rock about the earth, the water in a stream about lakes and rivers and faraway places.  We would move from the particular to the whole, effortlessly it seemed, as natural as any conversation.  We were like amateur ecologists, seeing connections in everything, a web of life.

Back in the house, we'd turn on a spigot and talk about where water came from, the pipes that wound under the city and into the house, and to where the water swirling down the bathtub drain disappeared.  Turning a light switch on and off and on and off we would marvel at the power we had, and a power outage would give us new things to talk about, new connections to explore.  The curiosity of young children made us consider things we took for granted, marvel at the wonder of life right outside our door, the complicated and wondrous workings of a home, a city, and a world.  Nothing was to be taken for granted.  Nothing stood alone.

Perhaps it was all that talking, that wondering about connections and origins, or maybe it is the schooling in ecology or planning that I received in urban design school, or then again maybe it is innate, a God-implanted DNA that drives me (and all of us) to move from particular to universal, from a grain of sand to eternity.  Or maybe it is all of that.  But what I know is that I can't stop thinking about those connections, about how the leaf crunched up in my young son's hand is connected to a twig, a branch, a limb, a trunk, a tree --- to soil, water, and sun, to a Creator who breathes life into and upholds and sustains all things by the power of His word, by His very life.

 What Joshua Kang is saying in Scripture By Heart is that meditating on scripture enlarges our perceptivity of reality.  We begin to see connections within scripture, great themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, and then looking out at the world we see how it resonates with those very same themes.  Peering into the landscape of Creation we reflect back on God's words and appreciate anew what once we may have taken for granted.  We weep over tragic loss of life to tsunami and we better appreciate that shortest of scripture verses, "Jesus wept."  We hold a leaf and marvel at the power of the sun in photosynthesis and better appreciate the phrase "In Him was life, and that life was the light of man."  We begin to see things whole, looking out at a world through the prism of His breath, His word.

 I am not the first reader to remark on the amazing propinquities that often occur when reading more than one thing at a time.  At the same time that I was working through Kang's mediations on memorizing scripture, I was nearing completion of Roy Peter Clark's "meditations" on grammar, The Glamour of Grammaran infectious (and instructive) guide to language by a man obviously in love with words, at play in in a life of language.  Near the end of the book Clark hints at a divine mystery behind language:

Language is a gift, a treasure of evolution but also a spark of the divine.  The ancient Hebrew word dabar describes the power of a personal God to speak directly to men and women.  In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus is Logos, the Greek form of Word.  The word spirit comes from the word meaning "to breathe," and breath gives us life and something more, the ability to turn air into language.  

Clark goes on to contrast the babble of confusion in language after Babel to the clarity of language at Pentecost, concluding that "[i]t is the power of the written and spoken word within us, a power so great it can feel --- when used for a good purpose --- like magic."  It reminds me the too rare feeling I have when I write or say something that seems too good to originate with me, too perceptive, and I sense a grace at work, a Babel-wrecking Spirit that fills me with language, speaking and writing through me.  It's quite unbidden.  It's grace.

Like a smooth pebble in my young son's hand, a crumpled leaf clasped by my little girl, I am holding onto a few scriptures, rolling them over and over in my mind.  And sometimes I see connections, perceive that behind the rooms of the words are larger rooms of meaning, deeper connections to other words, grander themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. I pull the thread of one verse and find it reaches back into a tapestry of words, of life itself, back to a God who holds all things in His hand, pull until taut I realize Who has hold of the other end and is pulling me in.  Just as I can't imagine not pausing with my young son to watch the water in a stream flow, to wonder from where it comes and to where it rushes, I can't brush by scripture and not ponder its meaning, its connection to the whole, to the Writer who set it down.  At least I better not.

A universe in a grain of sand?  You bet.  It's all there, full of magic and mystery.  You just have to stop, take hold of it, and listen.



Why You Should Read "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" (Or Any Fiction, For That Matter)

A77693316bout halfway through Helen Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I felt the tug of a voice I thought I had silenced long ago.  "Why are you wasting your time on a story," it said, and "Fiction is a waste of precious time" --- old questions that continue to taunt.  After all, I should be learning something, right?  I should be reading my Bible, right?  Right. . . and wrong.

I pulled Leland Ryken's The Liberated Imagination off the bookshelf, a dogeared book worth every cent I spent on it and one that excels at answering these questions.  There it is: "The function of the arts is to heighten our awareness and perception of life by making us vicariously live it."  Ryken goes on to say that art partly functions as revelation, giving us a heightened "awareness of ourselves, of people, of the world, of God."  It gives shape to our experiences.  It posits universals of human experience in particulars of time and place that may not be familiar to us.  Yes, I need to read my Bible but even more I need to read life through the lens of my Bible, its light refracted through the panes of stories told by others, stories in which I find myself and sometimes more powerfully by His hiddenness, God.

That's what happens in a good, true, and beautiful story like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.  A contemporary novel set in a small village in the south of England, it masterfully portrays the sights, sounds, and manners of an English village.  The first unusual thing is that this is a novel that tells of a growing friendship and love between two elderly people. Not only that, they are from different social groups.  Major Pettigrew is a retired military officer, widowed, a man with a sense of duty and obligation, and yet one wounded and left lonely by the deaths of his only brother and his wife, as well as by a son who seems to care only for money and status.  Jasmina Ali is a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper, an outsider in a community that tolerates her and yet is increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship that threatens to test the social conventions of the community.

It's a slow build, as you might expect, and yet a rewarding one.  In the process, we see the Major confront prejudice, his own and that of the community, and we watch him change, dropping a petty grudge he held against his father, learning to forgive his son, and reaching out to those in need.  In what he learns, we learn too.  We see ourselves.  And that's what a good story can do.

The only unrealistic part of the story is the apparent ease with which Mrs. Ali and Major Pettigrew dispense with their significantly different religious backgrounds.  They do not even have one significant discussion of the very different religious traditions they apparently hold to --- I say apparently because the depths of their convictions are unclear.  There is mention of God and serious conversation about meaning that would seem to lead to discussion of the competing claims of Christianity and Islam.  And yet it doesn't.  This could reflect a naivety on the part of the author, a hope or belief that there's really not too much difference between the two religions at the end of the day.  Or it could be that religion just isn't very important to the author and so she can't posit a story where it's important to the characters (unless you are an extreme believer, like Mrs. Ali's son.)  For me, this the one unrealistic chord in an otherwise very believable story.

In the end, though, this doesn't mar a story that shows that no matter what deep-rooted prejudices you may have, no matter how you think your life is laid out for you, and no matter how set in your ways you may be, there is always hope.  There can always be a "last stand."  So when that voice begins to taunt again and argue the frivolity of reading fiction, I have an answer: It's helping me better understand myself, God, and others.  It's building a better me.  That's enough for me.

My Morning With E.B. White

One thing about Saturday mornings that is enjoyable is the fact that I do not have to get out of bed at any particular time.  It doesn't mean I sleep later, though.  I awoke at 5:45, as usual, my biological clock ringing and the gray cat complaining that there was no water in the sink to drink.  And yet, I lay there thinking of everything and nothing in particular.  Draped one leg out of the bed so the gray cat, who has a foot fetish, could make multiple passes at it, claiming me, I suppose, which is undoubtedly the case.  I lay there longer, conscious but not willing to move, until 7:45, actually, at which point I realized that perhaps by some miracle I had gone back to sleep.  I sat up. I reconsidered and lay back down.  I sat back up, noting the rain on the roof and the grayness seeping in the windows, and I reconsidered yet again, and yet I got up nonetheless, there being some smug satisfaction prized only by the small-minded at rising before the rest of the household, that is if you do not include the gray cats, and I certainly do not include them for this purpose.

Mounting the recumbent bike I busied myself at going nowhere fast.  Listening to a sermon by Tim Keller.  Exploring tangents like what to eat for lunch set off by something Keller said, no doubt.  I seem to associate sermons with food, as they typically precede a time or constitute a time of perceived hunger. Keller finished just short of my finish.  I went downstairs and considered breakfast.  I started the bread toasting first, because there is nothing better than the waft of toasting bread.  I scrambled egg whites and then lay them in a plate, anemic.  Salted them even though salt is bad for you and yet justified it to myself in that my blood pressure was a bit low last time I checked and could use some stimulus, so the salt was actually healthy I reasoned.  Toast, scrambled egg whites. . . oh yes, some yogurt, and grapes, and a huge cinnamon roll.  Actually, I dreamed the last item.  I sat down at the table by the window and prepared to dive in, prayer said, picked up the latest copy of The Pesdestrian, and set to reading E.B. White's essay, "My Day," circa 1941, not a bit concerned about the poor birds outside who had been without bird seed for days now, who undoubtedly were weak and falling from the trees and sky by fatigue brought on my undernourishment.

But I tell you all this just to say that E.B. White can write about his day of ordinary things and it sounds quite better than my morning of ordinary things, and you need to read it.  He essays in a way that is so ordinary and yet which infuses the ordinary with humor (because it is humorous), insight, and humanity.  He reminds me that even my ordinary morning is all of those things and more.  And when I hold it up to the refracted light of his prose, it has a faint light of its own.

But back to White.  Here he is on the eve of WWII writing about an ordinary day as if nothing else important is going on in the world, as if there is nothing serious he needs to be doing, and on numerous moments he makes me smile, inside at times and sometimes slightly outside, at nothing that would be very funny to my kids or my wife if I were to describe it and yet which is funny becuase life is funny when you think about it, when you think about the things that happen and the things that people say and the thoughts you may have.  Take this colloquy between White and the plowman neighbor:

        The plowman mentioned the smoke pall when I was talking with him in the afternoon, and I asked if he knew where the fire was.

        "Canada," he replied.

        "What part of Canada?" I asked.

        "The whole of it," he said.  "They tell me the whole of Canada is ablaze."

        "That's a big fire then," I answered.  "Canada is a large place, larger than the United States even."

        The plowman considered this distasteful pronouncement a moment.  "Well then," he said, "it is a big fire."  But he added cheerfully, "Anyways, it'll have to cross a pile of water 'fore it gits to us."

        I nodded in perfect agreement, for this seemed a spiritual rather than a geographical discussion, and I felt instructed and renewed.

There's more, of course, much more than I can say.  White returns home to the farm "and settled down to work, and worked diligently for about four minutes and then remembered that I was to call for some children, this being the last day of school and a picnic having been arranged."  And that's funny too, and oh so ordinary.  He "worked diligently for about four minutes.'  Life intervenes.

I learned two new words reading White's essay, not that he bandies unknown words about to impress us.  One was "sartorial," meaning "of or pertaining to clothing or style and manner of dress," a word I doubt I'll try out as I do not know anyone who uses it.  But it was, after all, 1941.  The other word was "integument," a covering or coating, White referring to the smell of lilacs that covered the farm while out doing is evening chores.  Probably won't use that one, either.  And yet those maybe useless words are enriching and will probably come back to me at some time, and I'll smile that I know them even if I don't use them.

Insights come to you in the ordinariness of a day, but only with reflection and only with time.  White picks up a neighbor for help and heads to an abandoned farmstead near him to pick up a farm implement with which to roll his field, a place described by him as remote and quiet.  In the midst of his work, he began to dream about what it would be like to start life over again in the old Harrick place, free of all responsibilities, fresh, and alone, and he says this:

        A Man sometimes gets homesick for the loneliness that he has at one time or another         experienced in his life and that is a part of all life in some degree, and sometimes a secluded or         half-mournful yet beautiful place will suddenly revive the sensation of pain and melancholy         and unfulfillment that are associated with that loneliness, and will make him want to seize it         and recapture it; but I know with me it is a passing want and not to be compared with my taste         for domesticity, which is most of the time so strong as to be overpowering. 

And I find myself nodding slightly, because I know what he is speaking of.

The gray cat has taken to joining me on my desk as I write, winding back and forth with the goal of distraction, and so I write her in right here,  make he a part of what I'm saying.  

When I went to the wild bird store to get feed for the poor helpless birds that inhabit my backyard, the lady who chirped a greeting to me said "nasty day, outside, isn't it? and I allowed as to how it was.  One of those sissy dogs that forgot it was a dog, that surrendered its dog-card, lay curled up in a blue basket behind the counter, red sweater on.  I bought the bird seed.  The fat birds who visit my yard, who have perpetrated this racket on all my neighbors, will not die today, anyway.

After E.B. White, I found it all mildly humorous.  The bird-like woman in the bird store.  The pathetic dog,  The largesse of the Yukon Denali whose hindquarters had lapped over into my under-occupied parking space. The gray cat with the foot fetish.  The other gray cat who just knocked my book with White's essay on the floor, who just activated the voice control on my cellphone, as if she were intelligent life.

And the surprising intervention of the profound in all this comedy.  A sense of homesickness for something that, as with White, is not even describable.   A nodding agreement of shared domesticity, of ordinary loveliness.

I like to think of the late E.B. White as the prophet of the ordinary, a truth-teller of the mundane. Reading him enriched my morning.  Reading him brought a little shine to the day.

[I highly recommend White's essays, many of which you will find collected in the Essays of E.B. White.  For an excellent journal of essays, both modern and classic, check out The Pedestrian: Explore the Ordinary.  And of course, you can write your own.]



Wandering Aim-fully

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering in large public libraries.  Other than books or records, I am not fond of shopping and after a time can be a nuisance and drag on my wife (though she is too kind to ever say that).  I need something else to do, and she needs me to find something else to do other than dreamily murmuring my way through clothing stores with her.  Libraries afford great relief, at least the traditional ones, great halls like the New York Public Library or Boston Public Library or even the quiet not so dignified stacks of North Carolina State University's D.H. Hill Library, a place where I have spent many hours running my fingers down musty smelling pages, alone with words and yet strangely warmed, one of a long line of perusers or borrowers, a community across time.

The new libraries seem too noisy and media driven.  I prefer perusing the shelves or losing myself deep in the book stacks.  It requires time and suspending the need to accomplish a task, find a certain book even, or entertain oneself.  One question frames my wandering: what here is good, true, and beautiful?  Such times of wandering aim-fully are the precursor to serendipity, the good soil in which words might take root and give new insight.

I like wandering, though much like play it is a preoccupation given over to children and retirees, an idleness viewed as the province of those with little else to do but wake up and wander about, tolerated but only amusing to those with important work to do.  In a society that values time management, productivity, and intensity even in recreation, pure wandering is viewed as akin to idleness, a lazy indulgence.  

Writer Alan Jacobs doesn't think it is.  In his recent collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, he calls such wandering aim-fully "wayfaring," an orientation fundamental to our nature as Christians.  According to Jacobs,

An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim.  Wayfarers know in a general way where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City --- but we aren't altogether certain of the way.  We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair.  We can even become discouraged --- but we don't, ultimately and finally, give up.  And we don't think we have arrived.

What Jacobs applies to the writing of essays --- those meanderings of the mind --- is equally applicable to life --- part of his point, of course.  Reading essays, like wandering the library, like walking around a town like I have many times with no particular destination in mind, is a meandering pregnant with possibilities and hope.  I still remember the African-American man leaning out of the open window of a brownstone in Milwaukee on one of my walks many years ago now, his face lit up in a smile, just taking in the world.  Or the ravaged inner city of St. Louis, where flowers bloomed amid weeds and rubble --- three-dimensional essays, worlds pleasant and unpleasant and yet not without hope.  As Jacobs says, "Hope comes from knowing that there is a way --- and that we didn't make it.  That is why the road's unexpected turnings need not alarm us; this is why it is possible to enjoy even the unpredictable, whether it comes from without or within."

That observation hints at another virtue to wandering aim-fully: it requires trust in a God who will superintend our wanderings, provided we aim for Him.  Holding lightly to my to-do list, my calendar, and my time requires giving up control --- a control I never really had anyway.  Here's the instructions for such a day, ones I would like to heed more regularly:  Wake up.  Aim for God.  And set out.  Watch what happens.  Keep your eyes open.  Take hold of the unexpected and wrest the good, true, and beautiful from it.

When you wander aim-fully in life as in words, you never know what will happen. But it will make you wonder at a God who is behind every turn in the road, who hems you in at every side, who occupies the interstices of your every lapse in thought --- the Guide for Wayfarers.  May you wander well as you seek Him.

 [After a month off, I am glad to be back to the more regular and aim-ful wandering of this blog.  In the interim, I did redeem the time.  I wandered through various books.  I took walks.  I completed an outline for a book.  I did something.  I also did nothing, you might say, and it was very good. Very good.]

At Connemara, Slashes of Light

IMG_0606 Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

("Windows," by Carl Sandburg, in Carl Sandburg: Collected Poems, Paul Berman, ed.) 

Tiger is the name of the barn cat that lives at Connemara, the home of Carl and Lillian Sandburg for the last 22 years of the poet and writer's life.  A hospitable cat, welcoming guests easily from the red barn she scouts, she makes us feel at home, as if we have come to visit the Sandburgs, see Lillian's prize goats with their soft and docile faces, peruse the 14,000 volumes of books in the Sandburg home, or sit on the front porch and think and talk and think some more, enjoying the view of the lake and the mountains beyond.  And we do feel at home.

My first experience with the American journalist, poet, folk singer, and hobo Cal Sandburg was as a child.  His six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln contained in my mother's library of mostly devotional books (many of which I read at some point) intrigued me but proved too fulsome a history for a tween to crack.  But I remember its heft, the feel of it in my hands, and the weightiness of its many words.  I wondered at a man who could write so many words about one single man.  I looked at his picture, his shock of white hair, and thought him a word-god, transcendent.

He wasn't, of course.  Walking through his house, left much as it was the day he died, I sense his ordinariness, his humility, his modesty.  I can imagine sitting in his front room visiting, the furnishings plain and simple, the man unpretentious.  He might read me a new poem or even sing me a song.  The only thing unusual about his home was his sharing of it with 14,000 books.  Everywhere you bump into words, rub up against history.  There he sits, I imagine, in a cluttered study, banging out the words to a new poem, typewriter on an upended orange crate, because "if such was good enough for General Grant it's good enough for me."  Pulitzers are relegated to a hidden cabinet, no "how great thou art" wall of commendations and awards to be found.  No car in the garage either, as he said that a car would keep him from walking, and in walking you get to meet people.  And people were his stock and trade, the very voices of his poems.

On a granite outcropping beside his home, there is a single bench chair, and I imagine him sitting there, paper and pen in hand, thinking over his life and the life of others he knew.  He said once that "[i]t is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'"  There, at the bottom of Little Glassy Mountain, I might ask myself that too and, turning back to the house, ask myself what I will leave behind.

I would like to have known the man.  I doubt our politics would align (as he was a socialist of sorts), and yet he championed the rights of the ordinary folk and seemed to live his life with some modesty and humility, a voice for the common man.  He also held to no organized religion and, though it was not a major theme of his work, did at times rail against those he thought misappropriated Jesus, as in his vituperative lambasting of the evangelist Billy Sunday in his poem of the same name, saying "I won't take my religion from a man who never works/except with his mouth and never cherishes a/ memory except the face of the woman on the/ American silver dollar."  Surely, had he read the poem to me on the porch of Connemara, I may have nodded in agreement to parts of it, because much has been said and done in God's name with which He may not be pleased.

Nature had a way of smoothing over his rare venom.  Even in many of his poems not geared toward children, a gentleness is evident, as in "The fog comes/ on little cat feet./ It sits looking/ over harbor and city/ on silent haunches/ and then moves on."  I imagine him playing with grandchildren, watching Edward R. Murrow on television (the only thing he ever watched), sitting at a modest table having breakfast with Lillian and his girls, watching birds out the window, and retiring to his office upstairs, cluttered and discomfiting to me, anyway.

Here, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I wonder if he knew the One who came for him, for every man, the one of whom he wrote

I've been out to this suburb of Jerusalem they call
          Golgotha, where they nailed him, and I know if
          the story is straight it was real blood ran from his
          hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
          spurted out where the spear of the Roman soldier
          rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of

Was he a friend of this man?  Did he know the One who haunted all the lives of the people he met, the places he saw, the words he wrote?  At Connemara, I can hope that he knew more than the dark, dark night from a rail car window, with only slashes of light.  I can hope he knew the God-Man who came to save. 

A Pedestrian Empathy

Tp-Issue-Image-1_0 Tp-Issue-Image-1_0 I spent a little time today reading a new journal that intrigued me.  I'm an early adopter when it comes to such new magazines or journals, particularly when (as is often) you cannot find them online or in the library.  

The Pedestrian is an unpretentious entry into what has to be a limited market.  It bills itself as a journal "that seeks to explore the ordinary," that, as the editors explain, "the people and things that are familiar – or have become too familiar – might be allowed to enchant."  In it you'l find a collection of classic essays from the past as well as new contributions that carry on the conversation, each issue exploring a common theme --- this one, empathy.

I'm holding Issue One --- yes, holding, because this is not primarily an online journal, though selected pieces from each journal are posted online.  Holding, because holding is believing for me, words having extra weight when they are etched in paper and touched and smelled.  Yes, smelled --- the ink on paper, newness, the aroma of ideas.

That it seeks to explore the ordinary doesn't mean that it is elementary.  Some of the entries take concentration, like the excerpt from C.S. Lewis' classic exploration of how to read literature or how to view visual art, "An Experiment in Criticism."  Like always, I find myself rereading Lewis' sentences, either because I am slow-witted, easily distracted, or simply overwhelmed by the profundity of his words.  Plus, some entries are simply longish, at least by today's standards, like Virginia Woolf's "Memories of a Working Women's Guild," her preface to a collection of letters written by working women in 1893, interesting but somewhat difficult to plow through, and oh so long.  But then there are concise pieces like that of actor Anthony Lawton's "A Book for My Son," where in less than four pages he manages to make a valid point: "To the extent that we use empathy as a first step in self-advancement, our hearts will be a savage place.  To the extent that we use empathy as the first step to charity, our hearts will be civilized." As he explains, it's just a little bit of the book he's writing to his son, a book about "everything," a book he believes will be about 900 pages in length.  Let's hope the world still reads such tomes when his son is of age.

G.K. Chesterton (on lamp-posts, of all things), Madeleine L'Engle (from A Circle of Quiet), and even Adam Smith. . . well, you see the variety of what lies here.  If you don't find an essay valuable, there is always another perspective, personality, or style --- just keep turning. I enjoy the mixture of old and new, the opportunity to focus on a single theme, the sense of wisdom imparted by the life experiences represented here, from authors of renown who speak to us from the grave to authors known and unknown who speak out of or into our time.

I recommend The Pedestrian, if you are willing to make the effort and take the time to absorb the words, if you're not seeking just information or titillation but, as I said, an opportunity to grow a little wiser from the reflections of others. For this pedestrian, just an ordinary guy, it was a good walk in words.  I can see my way just a little better now in their light.

Why I Like "Z"

One of the unusual things that grammar guru Roy Peter Clark suggests in his wonderfully fun book, The Glamour of Grammar, is that the reader "adopt" a favorite letter of the alphabet.  What an odd suggestion, I thought, as I read that.  One adopts children, philosophies, and bad habits (just to name a few things), but letters?

I asked my wife and children if they had a favorite letter and "no" was all I got.  Never thought about it. Well, maybe there was a mild insinuation that I had too much time on my hands if I needed to ask such a question.  My daughter may have said "that's dumb," in her delicate way.  So I dropped it.  Until today, that is, when I picked the book up again. How, after all, would you begin to select a favorite letter, and what criteria would you use?

I thought about shape.  Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and I decided I couldn't tolerate the sharp lines of "A" or "E" or "T" or other such angular characters, as it suggested rigidity and, frankly, they seemed more masculine to me, projecting strength.  I also don't like "B" and "D," as they seem overweight, bulging midriffs, not that I don't like overweight people, just the tendency I have to eat too much (and don't want to be reminded of, and these letters may be nags).  While my eye is attracted to the comeliness of the feminine form, the flowing lines of "S," I decided on "Z."  Why?  There's something just fun about writing a "Z," as I always think of Zorro's emblazoned signature "Z" every time I write it.  The flourish.  The style.  The wildness.  I also like beginnings and endings. Being last has it's advantages. Often, you are the one remembered.

So that's it too; letters aren't just pretty faces but immediately suggest things. Quick: think of every word that begins with "Z" without the aid of a dictionary. OK, so there's Zorro (there he is again), zipper (an amazing invention, when it works, and as proper noun, a terrifying midway ride), Zoroastrian (some kind of weird religion, I think), zinc (mettalurgy, anyone?), zilch (as in "I got zilch, man," the response Sam my fellow furniture moving employee always had), zone (think "Twilight Zone" or "zoned out," like my 9th grade friend Wade), Zimmy (short for Robert Zimmerman a/k/a Bob Dylan), Zagat (is that a game??), Zach (good kid who is uncannily like Igor on Winnie the Pooh)), zinnia (planted some of these when I was a kid), zenith (the peak of something and a one time TV manufacturer), Zulu (mean African dudes), Zondervan (a book publisher), zapped (as in "Mommy, sister got zapped when she stuck her finger in the electrical outlet"), zeppelin (still a fascination of my son), zeitgeist (hmmm. . . now I need a dictionary), and. . . well, I'll stop here.  This is actually fun, though, and I'm beginning to think that "Z" is really good to hang out with, as he/she (I think Z is a he, but don't ask me why) seems to have a good time.

Clark isn't the only one to suggest that letters have personality.  Listen to what Alain de Botton says in The Architecture of Happiness, a book I read a couple years ago and hadn't thought about until now:

Even in something as diminutive as the letters of a typeface, we may detect well-developed personalities, about whose lives and daydreams we could without difficulty write a a short story. The straight back and alert upright bearing of a Helvetican "f" hint at a punctual, clean and optimistic protagonist, whereas his Poliphilus cousin, with a droopy head and soft features, strikes a sleepier, more sheepish and more pensive tone.  The story may not end well for him.

So de Botton brings up something I had not considered: typeface.  My "Z" is only one of a family of diverse Zs. I don't want to play favorites.

Now that I think about it, maybe I won't think about de Botton's book anymore. (That he writes such books must mean he is independently wealthy and can think about such things all the time.)

Oh, a Zoroastrian is a follower of Zoroaster (is that akin to a slow roaster? tiny, tiny joke - don't be offended you Zoroastrians).  It is perhaps telling that the grand poo-pah of the religion's name means "whose camels are old."

This has been fun, but it's late and I need to go.  What's the point of all this?  I'm not sure.  I guess just simply to suggest that letters are more and mean more and suggest more than what they are.  And to think: I've been taking them for granted all these years, fascinated as I am by words, those suck-ups to letters.

I'm sorry "Z."

The Beat Goes On

"Try listening to a lecture or sermon as if you had never heard English before.  Listen for the flow of syllables --- some strong, some weak.  What do we mean by an accented syllable?  Is it louder?  Does it take longer to pronounce than its neighboring syllable does?"

(Suzanne U. Clark, in The Roar on the Other Side)

If, as I do, you sometimes have a difficult time staying awake during the sermon on Sunday morning, try something different.  Forget about the content for the time being and assume that the three points will in some way prick you nonetheless and provide inspiration and provocation later, when you've shaken off the slippery slope of Sunday sleep. (Say that ten times quickly, will you?)

Pretend the pastor is not speaking English, a not far stretch of the imagination with some pastors, I know. Listen not to what they say but how they say it.  Why stress what they stress?  Why pause where they pause?  What accent the syllable they accent?

Speech is poetry, really, with a musical quality about it.  Poet Suzanne Clark reminds us "that the most prominent sound pattern in English is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.  When used as a deliberate pattern in a poem, it is called an iamb. . . . Of course in speech the pattern is random and inconsistent."  In poetry, she says, order is brought to the randomness: "The iambic meter --- presenting the pattern at regular intervals --- has historically been the prevailing one."

Even when random and inconsistent, the intriguing thing about the iamb's prevalence in speech is that it always surfaces.  Just listen to the sermon.  You'll hear it, the rising and falling of stress, the rising and falling of voice.  What it is, I believe, is our unconscious imitation of the "THUMP-thump" of our own heartbeat, the music we effortlessly make, our own internal rhythm.  And that, I suspect, is a rhythm built into Creation itself --- "there was evening, and there was morning --- an iamb placed in Creation by a God who some believed even put in Creation a "music of the spheres."  Hmmm.

And then, perhaps all this is a lot of rubbish.  Nevertheless, listen to the sound of the sermon anyway. You may just wake up to more than its iambs.  "Beautiful words have interesting sounds with value quite apart from sense," says Clark (once again, a good thing in respect to some pastors).  So listen.  And then when you bow for prayer, put your hand to your heart and realize that there is a reason you sound like you do. And let a small word of praise escape your mouth that that beat goes on, and on.

Of Journals

Though I did not blog during most of the Summer (exactly two months, that is), I could not help but write in a journal.  Journals are different than blogs, or at least they should be.  When you are not writing for publication, even the most modest of publishing on a little read blog, you truly have no reason to write but for the love of writing itself, or perhaps some tidy sense of the self-improvement that may follow from attending to your life.

You don’t have to use good punctuation . . . .  and if you want to SCREAM AND SHOUT AND BE RUDE, you can.  You can wonder about all the things you'd like to ponder and yet don't in good company because they might think you'd gone soft on doctrine or had gone to the dark side politically.  (Now you're wondering about me, aren't you?)

Ideas percolate in journals.  You can be extreme, make rash statements, set out ill-formed and incomplete thoughts, and in general gush and dribble and stumble your way through a string of words.  There is no one to impress.  No one is listening.  It's just me. . . and Him of course.  And I'm not worried about Him, you see, as He knows well and good what I would write if I could write the perfect truth about me, could peel away all the self-deceptions I foist on myself.  So I just drone on, trying not to clean it up, just letting the words flow out in a flood of disorder.  It's humbling.  It's a bit like prayer: I'm not going to be rewarded for my pearls of wisdom, my wonderful phrasing.  No one is listening.  I say what I want to say.

And yet, in the middle of journaling one day, I had the ridiculous and egotistical sense that if (just if, and this is a big if) I get to be a famous writer and die in my prime, then the almost certain posthumous publication of my journals that is sure to follow will expose what a poor writer and sorry human being I am.  So, I tidy it up.  It is the bane of my existence, to self-censor.  Wait a minute: Journals are places of freedom, and that means the writer must be free of any concern that they will see the light of day.

I like what Madeleine L'Engle says about journals: "No thing is inappropriate for a journal.  God can take our grumpiness, our anger, our fear; and our fumbling words can suddenly be given a new meaning and we glimpse a new understanding of redemption."  She says our journal is "[o]ur own unique story between us and God, and God knows all our emotions, including those we may have been taught to repress."  In other words, they are private, not public, despite what some blogs appear to be nowadays.  I recommend them to all, even if it's just a post-it note you jot a word or two on, or those gilded journals you buy at uppity booksellers or the cheap black and white theme books I used until recently.  But write it down.  Just write it down.  And keep it to yourself, OK?

Nevertheless, I worry about privacy.  So, people near and dear, if you have anything to do with the settling of my modest estate, please bury me with my journals. OK?  The world will be better off, or at least not worse off, without them.

But just in case. . . I better fix a few things.

The "Magic" in Words

Glamour"Language and magic.  Where is the connection?  Think about it this way: when we form letters to write words, we create something out of nothing, so that the still air or the empty space on a page fills with meaning, as if a wizard created a blizzard from a clear blue sky."

(Roy Peter Clark, in The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English)

Granted, Roy Peter Clark's new book on grammar does not contain the pithiness of that classic by Strunk and White, The Elements of Grammar, but the point is not so much instruction as it is romance.  Clark loves words, and he wants to share those words with us, to woo us with punctuation, pronouns, and apostrophes, to, in a way that the more staid William Strunk and E.B. White might not countenance, to give us a sense of the magic that lies in grammar.

Magic?  I cannot comment on the book as a whole quite yet, as I am only slowly making my way through it, but the phrase quoted above did jump off the page when I read it --- "when we form letters to create words, we create something out of nothing" --- and I thought immediately of the way God creates, creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), and how He spoke by word nonetheless into being all that exists.  Surely he could have just thought it, and yet he spoke it into being.  That's deep magic, to use Aslan's words in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In making words there truly is magic.

In A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver says that there is a "part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to a mystical document, which of course the poem is also."  When you read Oliver's poetry, the words are quite simple and accessible, and yet the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  Perhaps that is what she intended to say, that somehow words on a page point to realities beyond our full experience, hinting at but not plumbing (indeed, unable to fully plumb) their depths.  Word are iconic, meaning they tend to represent something else to us, work only by way of analogy.

All that is true, but there is more to it.  Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, says that in our creating, in our word-making even, we are imaging the Creator.  Because He created, we create.  And even though we cannot create ex nihilo as could He, still we image that kind of creation faintly when we scratch words on a page, when we set them down in a way not exactly like any way set down before.  There may be nothing new under the sun, and yet there are new ways of combining the raw stuff of words into poetry and prose to make what seems new, to make what is fresh.  When we do that we participate in something divine, imitating the Creator, icons if you will (images, or likenesses) of that Creator.  Sayers even breaks it down further, seeing the full Godhead in the act of creating, the perfect idea representing the Father, the incarnation of that perfect idea the Son, and the movement of that idea and response by the reader as akin to the work of the Spirit.

Seeing words in this way gives them dignity.  Even a little word like "it," one common and ubiquitous in writing and speech, is important and can stand up to the boasts of a word like "irenic" or the headiness of a word like "ecclesiology," a word not bandied about by most construction workers in Taco Bell.  "It" has much more utility.  And yet, they are all important, all full of dignity.  And of course so are their makers.

You didn't know all that was going on when you open your mouth to utter a word or typed a word on the keyboard, did you?

Magic?  Certainly.  Glamour?  It's much more than glamour.  When we make words, skillfully or awkwardly, we represent a word-full Creator to the world.  We're all word-makers; the best handlers of words (like Tolkien) are world-makers; and God. . . well He cannot stop making worlds.  It's who He is.

So next time you open your mouth to speak or set pen to paper or finger to keypad to dash off an email, consider the weightiness of what you do. What Mary Oliver said of poetry can be true of anything well-written or said: "[They are] not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." Let's spend them well.

"The Little Book"

[I first published this post in January 2006, and I still love this book, particularly in its illustrated edition.  It is a testament to the power of brevity, the timelessness of wit and good humor, and the importance of good grammar (no matter what the post-moderns say).  You should get a copy and read it, just for fun first, then for grammar, then as a model of good writing.]

Language is a gift, no doubt, but one that is much abused.  Few heed the admonitions of scripture or good sense to be "quick to listen, and slow to speak" (Js. 1:19) or remember the reward of an apt word over an inept pronouncement.  How many times I have spoken, or written, only to realize what dribble hangs in air or rests on paper?  Not so with E.B. White.

You'll recognize White's name as the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, two children's classics that were much loved in our home, but his prose ranged beyond children's stories.  He wrote a daily column or essay for The New Yorker for many years (before my time).  However, before I knew any of these other accomplishments and before I had children to read to, I knew him as the apparent co-author of the bible of English usage, The Elements of Style.   The 'little book," as White's Cornell professor William Strunk affectionately called it, was originally written by Strunk and privately published for his students and years later revised and modestly enlarged by White at his publisher's request, after Strunk had died.

The book is a model of brevity.  It says things like "Do not overstate," or "Do not explain too much," "Omit needless words," "Avoid fancy words," or simply "Be clear.  All are issued in just such commanding tones, and the writer, properly chastened, returns to his craft -- whether letter, article, or novel -- with renewed vigor.  I know I do.

The injunction "be clear" could not be more clear, and yet the authors' three-paragraph rationale is both fun and informative to read.  Listen:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded highway sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railway station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!  When you say something, make sure you have said it.  The chances of your having said it are only fair.

Oh, the pitfalls of language, the litter of unclarity.  "Be obscure clearly," he says, if obscure is what you want.  Say what you want to say. Say it well.  Language matters.

Knowingly or unknowingly, in fashioning rules, in emphasizing clarity and brevity, Strunk and White were mimicking the Author of Life, whose first recorded words over creation were simply "Let there be light."  No flowery or fanciful language.  Simply that: "Let there be light."  In contrast, in Eve's first recorded words, she actually adds words to what God had so clearly said (as in, ". . . and you must not touch it, or you will die"), and so is born the news commentator.  And still we go on.  One wonders if God sometimes regrets having given us language, and yet, even that he must have called "good."

Remembering Strunk, his college professor, White says this:

In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed to be in the position of having shortchanged himself --- a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.  Will Strunk got out of the predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times.  When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said,"Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!"

At that, I can imagine him packing his briefcase and leaving the classroom, a visible demonstration of his three-word point.  Politicians, pundits, and pastors take heed! Omit needless words!  And as Strunk often said, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"  Better to be wrong than irresolute or inaudible, he would say.

I recommend The Elements if Style, as well as The Essays of E.B. White (an immensely pleasurable read on various topics)or, failing that, Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little.  They are models of clarity, brevity, and style, and full of life and humor -- like hearing God talk.

Not I Alone: A Poem

Not I Alone

"A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all."

(Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life)

What is it that I alone love at all?

Maybe the fact that here is here and
     there is there, even the vast difference between
     life inside and life outside, the separation by only a pane of glass.

Perhaps the obscure corner, the very cornerness of corners,
     the vantage point they offer on life, the
     fact that they have our back.

The shape of a word, its sound in my mouth, not
     only its height and width but it depth, its
     roundness, its shapeliness, the way its sound hangs in the air.

Maybe the particular slant of sunlight through the window,
     the universe of dust revealed in its glare, the 
     thought of what worlds I am breathing in.

Perhaps the hope that memories of yesterday,
     redeemed and shorn of all that is hurtful, will
     live on in heightened color, sound, and smell in eternity.

The sound of the library, the aroma of its bindings,
    the hope of new discoveries, the smile of 7-year old Betsy Pendergraph,
    the sound of God walking among the words, His words, His world.

But then, maybe you love this too.  Maybe it's not mine alone.


At the Scholarship Interview

Huge.25.126565 How's it going buddy?  Mind if I sit here?

Man it's cold out there, like the friggin' North Pole.  Ha, ha.  I knew I shoulda stayed in Florida. Had a nice house in Naples, too.  No air.  Open to the breeze.  Had big fans in every room.  Man, you could smell the sea breeze even ten miles inland.

No, I shoulda stayed in Florida.

What's that?  You like cold weather?  Are you insane?  Ha, ha.  Just kidding man.  Where you from anyway?

INDIA?  It's hot there, isn't it?  They got mountains?  Really?  It gets cold?  I thought Africa was hot everywhere, either desert or jungle.  Asia?  Yeah, that's what I meant.   Sure.  Asia.  Africa, Asia. . . Hey, what's the difference anyway, right?  

Yeah, my kid, he's like Einstein on steroids.  One uptight kid.  A walking brain.  I don't know where it comes from.  I can't even understand him sometimes.  I wouldn't know a calculus from my. . . well you know what I mean.

But I can hear that money talking to me, you know what I mean.  Ha, ha.  They wanna give him money I'm all for it.  Ha, ha.  I'm hoping he becomes a millionaire, take care of me in my old age.

What do you do anyway, for a living, I mean?   You're what?  A PASTOR?  An Indian pastor?  You got a church and all?  

Ah, no man.  No, I'm not the religious type.  I'm just trying to keep it in the road, you know. Keeping it together. Ha, ha. You know what I mean?  Nobody'd confuse me and Billy Graham, that's for sure.  Ha, ha.  I figure there's something to it, you know.  Hey --- don't get all touchy-feely, none of that stuff.  Don't go gettin' weird and all.  Ha, ha.

Yeah, yeah, I see your point on that.  He wants to be a missionary, huh?  That's great.  That's just great. No, I don't know what my son wants to do.  I never asked him that.  He don't talk to me much, really. Ah, teenagers, go figure.  Ha, ha.  Yeah, yeah, good idea,  Maybe I will.  Maybe I'll ask him.  I'll say "look, kid, what's it gonna be, brain surgeon, rocket scientist, take your pick."  I don't tell him what to do, you know.  He'll figure it out.

Jeez.  Look at this place.  That guy musta given them a boatload of gold to build this.

Oh, hey.  Here he comes.  Looks beat up.  Looks like a hound dog lost his bird.  Ha, ha.  Good talking with you man.  Hey, you too.  God bless you too.

[I'm waiting for my son while he's in an interview for a scholarship.  I imagined this unlikely conversation.  Pure fiction.]

Living with Style (Rule 16): Be Clear

Babel I wouldn't nominate the Apostle Paul as the apostle of brevity, or even clarity. Romans is a longish book full of longish sentences, and the Apostle, while a masterful logistician, could have been clearer. He was, after all, human, and while his words were divinely superintended, he could not but be himself, a longwinded lawyer. Would that he had the brevity of old Chief Judge Murdock of the United States Tax Court. Confronted by a taxpayer who testified, "As God is my judge, I do not owe this tax," he simply said, "He's not. I am. You do." What he said is perfectly clear, if terse.

Once I took a week long writing class. Our first assignment was to write a two-page essay on "why I want to be a writer." I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the two pages to one page while preserving its essence. I did. I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the one page to one paragraph. I did that too, though at this point it was getting painful. Cherished phrases had to be abandoned, wonderful adjectives axed, pithy quips parlayed. I begin to wonder if the essence of what I had said was being preserved. Finally, the instructor asked us to distill the essence of why we want to be a writer to one sentence, like a twit before tweeter. It was not quite possible, of course, as it was like you telling me to describe why I am a Christian in one sentence. Something can be said, of course, but then there's the rest of the story. We got the point, though: Every word must have a reason to exist. We were to avoid unnecessary words. We were to be clear. Whatever the value of ambiguity (and there is a place for it), it does not help communication, being more suited to trying to capture the inexpressible, like poetry, like doctrine, like God.

Clarity is a better candidate for godliness than cleanliness. As Strunk and White point out in The Elements of Style, it's also a matter of life and death:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on a highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

In a broader sense, Strunk and White's maxim to "be clear" means something like integrity, living in such a way that our words match our actions, that we are who we say we are and need say little about who we are because who we are is evident to all. A companion virtue is humility, as many words, whether my own or that of others, usually connote some attempt to justify, promote, or excuse myself. After all, "[w]hen words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19). (I often remind folks that a person who holds his tongue may in fact be a fool in most other respects, but at least he is a silent fool.) And finally, I think of focus, and I am reminded of the admonition to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). People of clarity know who they are and where they are going. That's style.

If God is my judge, I will be clear from now on.

He is. I'm not. By His grace, I will.

Reverie on My Back Pages


Flip, flip. Now there's a lifesaver. Brad Bulla. Meanest kid in ninth grade, always in a fight, always getting kicked out of school. However, he liked me for some reason. Ever since 5th grade glee club (where there was not so much glee), when he and I were the only two boys left in the soprano section, he was my shadowy protector. Because of Brad, no one messed with me. Not that we hung out together, because he didn't hang with anyone, but I guess you could say he was my friend. Yeah, he's probably in prison somewhere, serving out time for armed bank robbery.

Flip, flip. Cynthia Jones. I remember her. She had a sneeze that would bring a class to a standstill, kind of like a cross between a sneeze and a scream and a laugh, all at the same time. When she let go, there would be a couple seconds of dead silence, presumably while everyone would draw in breath, followed by peels of laughter. She was probably damaged for life by all the attention. But Cynthia had a good sense of humor, even laughing at herself.

Flip, flip. Now there's an interesting guy. David Raven. It's likely that David is rich and famous somewhere in America, I mused. However, in his fading picture in my high school yearbook he looked like a kinder, gentler Charles Manson, his dark eyelashes and long hair suggesting an older soul in his young body. As I recall, he was a sweet guy, never cross, always willing to share his drugs (though I never took him up on it). He made appearances in class, but mostly I saw him wandering the halls, shuffling along in his ragged jeans, hip and cool but never condescending. He was the only ninth-grader I knew who was reading Karl Marx's Das Kapital or Robrt Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , or who listened to jazz played by the likes of Chick Corea. One day in art class David told us he was "expanding his cosmic consciousness," and we had no idea what he was talking about. He was operating on another plane of existence while we languished in the mundane. He disappeared after that year. I think he moved.

Flip, flip. What's this? There's a hole in the page, a neatly cut square right between Drew Slater and Abby Turner. Hmm. An enemy? An old girlfriend who dropped me? There was some girl in Spanish class. . . what was her name? I can't remember.

Flip, flip. Regina Vance. She wrote beside her headshot in neat letters, "For a white dude you're not bad." Hmm.

Flip, flip. Linda Wagoner. Oh. I don't want to talk about her.

Flip, flip. For the life of me I can't remember most of these faces, boys with pimples and longish unkempt hair or buzz cuts (depending on parents' tolerance) staring out at me, girls with long stringy hair and impish smiles. It's not an attractive age. Nope, neither Alan Weatherspoon, Chuck Whitley, or Diane Whitson ring a bell. I take my finger and run it along every row, searching for a familiar face, but there's no one --- no one, that is, except for a youthful me, a faint smile on my face, pained almost, as if it's a prison mug shot. Just for a moment, I muse on what the state of my mind would have been then, what preoccupied me, how small my world was, how seemingly monumental were my problems and deeply important was my appearance.

Then I close my yearbook, reverie over.

Living With Style (Rule Eight): Don’t Be a Qualifier


"Avoid the use of qualifiers." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style)

Let me put it like this: I'm rather tired of this little series, and I'm pretty sure you may be also. While that sentence is meant to illustrate the rule, there is truth to it as well. I'm weary of even William Strunk's simple rules, of his "little" book, and yet just when my zeal is flagging, his vivid metaphors as well as wit and humor come to the rescue.

Try this for metaphor: "Rather, very, little, pretty --- these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words." Yeech! It's an effective way to convey his abhorrence for qualifiers. And he even manages to insert a bit of alliteration as well, with his "pond of prose." I'd stop reading his rules if they weren't such a delight to read. That's a mark of good writing: you so enjoy the prose that it matters not what the content may be.

Or try this for humor: "The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." Strunk is having fun with us.

But I digress. The point of this helpful rule is that we should simply say what we mean and mean what we say. As the Bible says, "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." So qualifying our words is serious business!

Qualifiers are people who either lack confidence in what they are saying, lack the courage to stand on a "yes" or "no," or are always leaving themselves a path of retreat from any commitment --- whether from a position on an issue or a commitment to a dinner date. Some other option may present itself. Something better may come along. They may change positions because they sense the wind of opinion is against them. They don't want to be tied down. They don't want to disappoint. They are rather tiresome, aren't they, particularly when they are us.

Jesus was not a qualifier. "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt. 4:8). "I am willing. Be clean," he said to the leper (Mk. 1:41). "Go in peace." "Come, follow me." "Take courage, don't be afraid." "Go, sell everything you have." "Are you so dull?" (Yes, we can be.) We can be confident that Jesus said exactly what he meant, that nothing he said was unqualified because he had no doubt of either its truth or appropriateness or any concern as to how it would be perceived. Politicians take heed!

So the next time you hear me say a qualifying word, have a little word with me, OK? A simple "Yes" or 'No' should do.

Till Twitter Does Us Part (A Short, Sad Story)


Larry knew that the world he once knew was gone when he received the divorce papers from his wife. Ripping open the envelope he found a sheet of heavy bond paper with a single paragraph headed by the word "Complaint" and a single, succinct paragraph: "She no longer loves you. She wants out. Irreconcilable. You can have the children. She wants money. See you in court. Signed, M. Kabinski, Esq." He did a quick count. 138 characters. Technically correct, but a bit cold, he thought.

He was having dinner alone, his PDA on the table beside him as he scrolled through the constantly updated feeds. Nothing from Cindy. Not one word.

He couldn't remember the last time he had a real conversation with Cindy anyway. He vaguely remembered lingering over meals and discussing all matters of things until the wee hours of morning, but as time went on and Twittering caught on, they began to simply tweet each other. "I'm enjoying the dinner." "Your mother tweeted me yesterday and said your father is ill. I'm sorry." As time went by the tweets got shorter and shorter. "More" was enough to send Cindy to the stove for seconds, or "Enough" meant change the channel on the TV. "Omit needless words," said Strunck and White in that archaic guide to the written word, and yet their words became hauntingly prophetic.

He had to admit that the Twittered world in which he now lived wasn't all bad. When politicians' stump speeches were limited to 140 characters, they could be endured. All their tweets went something like "Lower taxes. More spending on you. Actions, not words. Change. Hope. Vote for me." And by subscribing to their feed, it was able to pick up on the really important things, like what TV shows they watched, or what restaurant or cuisine they preferred. The constant connection made him feel like he. . . well. . . like he knew them, that they cared about him.

Even church was almost a drive-through affair. Let's see. . . there was a song, something like a revised doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, all creatures you know, Father, Son, and Ghost, heavenly host. Amen." And then a sermon tweet. The last one was refreshingly concise: "God made it all. We screwed up. He came down and fixed it. Trust Him and you can make it Home." He could chew on that for a week.

There were complaints, of course, when Twitter was made the national means of communication. Mostly from old folks who liked to go on and on and on about things. Talk about needless words! But most people bowed to progress. A quiet descended over homes and public places. About all you heard were the tapping of keys on PDAs, cell phones, and laptops, the people permanently bent over their screens, their bodies adapting to a new way of living.

Pushing back from the table, Larry threw the remainder of his TV dinner into the trash. He had lost his appetite. He went to bed, turning over and over in his mind that one phrase from the divorce papers: "She no longer loves you." "She no longer loves you." He fell into a fitful sleep, his Twitter still on, the feeds updating even as he slept. "I'm going to bed. Letterman is lame tonight."

In the morning when Larry woke up, he stretched his arm across the vacant half of the bed where Cindy used to sleep, and for a moment he held that vacantness. He stumbled to the bathroom. Seeing his face in the mirror, he mouthed the first word that came to his lips, "Cindy," but nothing came out. Was it possible he had lost his ability to speak? He tried again, harder, and this time heard the faint sound of his voice saying "Cindy," and yet it sounded like the voice of a stranger. He couldn't recall the last time he had spoken. He set down in front of his Twitter screen and reviewed his tweets. 648 overnight. The CEO of his company. Oh, he bought a new razor. The President. "Told Sec. of State not to wear that tie again. LOL." And then, scanning down the list, digesting the entries quickly, as he had trained himself to do, his eyes fell on the last entry. Cindy. Simply, "Jesus wept."

A tear rolled down Larry's cheek.

All A-Twitter


I'm listening to Bruce Hornsby's song, "The Valley Road."

I'm looking out my window at a beautiful maple tree covered in yellow and red Fall leaves.

Right now I'm wondering what I will eat for lunch, and how soon it will come.

I'm watching a hilarious spoof done by Tina Fey on SNL.

Do you really care that I am doing any of these things right now, at the moment I tell you? Does it matter? And isn't it presumptuous and even a frivolous waste of your time and mine for me to tell you?

That's the trouble with Twitter, that web-based application that asks the simple question, "What are you doing," and requires you to answer it in 140 words or less. What does it matter to someone else what I am doing, particularly if I can't elaborate on it? Twitter, a word that means "nervous excitement," is now used by over a million people who daily, or even hourly, post their answer (or "tweet") to that simple question, and by even more people who subscribe to their feed and receive updates on what they are doing via the web, by text message, or by email. It's a dynamic, ever-updating feed rolled out with a stream of consciousness ease, and many people seem to love using it.

Proponents tout how Twitter builds participatory community. A recent World magazine article recited the case of one evangelical church that had a "Twitter Sunday," projecting a feed from churchgoers onto auditorium screens throughout the entirety of their three services. Isn't that sort of like everyone talking at once? Is that what church is about? I'm not sure I want to attend a Twitter Sunday, with everyone hunched over their PDA or cell phone, immediately (and perhaps thoughtlessly) reacting to the music or sermon. Immediacy is the enemy of reflection, and in an increasingly distracted society, we don't need another diversion, another concession to our cultural attention deficit disorder.

Twitter may also pander to our exhibitionist and egotistical tendencies, in that we assume others will want to know what we are doing all the time, letting them see into our thought processes and daily activities. And for those who enjoy reading such mundanities, it can be vouyeristic, allowing people some satisfaction in peeking into the thoughts and habits of others. Furthermore, knowing that you are being "fed on," would you not have a tendency to play to that audience, perhaps passing yourself off as someone more engaged or thoughtful or whatever you perceive as positive when you are not. Is this kind of chatter really helpful? Do we really want to be a party to a person's deliberative process if we don't even know them? I thik the verdicts out on whether that kind of twittering is a cultural good, simply innocuous, or even damaging to real community.

All these are concerns, and yet I'm not a Luddite. Most, maybe even practically all, technology offers something useful. So how can Twitter be sued to stimulate thoughtful reflection? If it is a distraction, how can it be redeemed and made a holy distraction, something that would provoke us to think more deeply about something, that doesn't give us answers but makes us reflect on the questions life presents?

Along these lines, I'm trying a 30 day experiment. For 30 days I'll be twittering at least once, maybe more, each day. Only you won't be bothered with the mundane events of my day but will be receiving tweets with a provocative, Godward quote, a question about a Scripture, or a question about life. I'll also tweet you when I have posted a new blog entry that you may find interesting. Maybe it'll make you reflect for a minute about something more, about how the holy lurks in all the mundane events of your day. Only I can't quite call it Twitter. A better name would be Provocations --- prompts to thoughtfulness. Care to sign up? You can subscribe to my feed here. Let me know what you think!

[For more on how and why to use Twitter, check out Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt's "12 Reasons to Start Twittering," here. He makes a reasonably good case for its use, though I always wonder about its unintended consequences. I also believe you could come up with "12 Reasons Not to Twitter," if you thought about it long enough, but I'll leave that to another day.]

Living with Style (Rule Five): Be Open to Change


"Revise and rewrite." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

If you think your life is going well, that while you may not be perfect you may be "practically perfect," as Mary Poppins said, think again. We are not a finished manuscript. The story of our life is being constantly revised and even rewritten, thank God, an often painful process but one in good hands and for good purpose.

Writers know all about this pain, and Strunk and White are right on mark in saying that "it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery." In a time before word processors, they used more vivid imagery to convey the seriousness of what had to be done: "Do not be afraid to seize what has been written and cut it to ribbons. . . . [S]cissors should be brought into play." Ouch! Sometimes, the writer is even taken back to one good page, one good paragraph, or one good sentence, cutting away everything that he worked so hard for, had invested so much in. And yet it's not wasted work. Sometimes a writer has to set out on a path, committing himself to a particular story or theme, before he can discover the better path.

Jeremiah reports the Lord as saying "See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?" (Jer. 9:7). Just as a writer must bring judgment on his writing, cutting away what is dross, so God brings a refining judgment on His people. Sometimes the change is incremental, some specific sin, for example, that besets us. But sometimes, as with the Apostle Paul, we realize that we have spent our whole life serving a God of our on construct and, thus, God reveals how deeply flawed we are and gives us a new place to start from.

A friend of mine recently shared with me how as a teenager he had an image as a Christian youth leader, one he knew was false but one he also tired to carefully maintain. When God revealed his hypocrisy, it was difficult for him to confess it publically, because it meant starting over, confessing that what he had seemed to be was not what he actually was. But he did. He's never regretted that, and his holding on to that image seems ridiculous now, like insisting on writing pulp fiction when you could write a story like "To Kill a Mockingbird." Like him, I have to let go everyday of what I think I am and be open to God's reordering and rewriting of my life.

For Christians, revising and rewriting is really just being open to God's conviction and then responding, being willing to set aside our image of ourselves, our own constructs, and be open to change, even serious change. "Scissors should be brought into play," say Strunk and White. The scissors may cut, but the comfort is that what's given back to us is so much better than what we so tenaciously held on to. He is, after all, the Author of Life. He writes the best stories.


Living with Style (Rule Four): Have Substance

style “Write with nouns and verbs.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

Admittedly, this is one rule I had to think about before making a broader application of it to life in general. Times like this make me wonder if I’m stretching the analogy. But I don’t think so. A good life is surely like good writing, and so why shouldn’t every rule of writing apply?

Good writing is rooted in the particulars of place and time. Nouns and verbs, and not airy adjectives, are what “give to good writing its toughness and color.” Similarly, we all know when we are speaking to someone who has many words, even some that sound quite impressive, but which mean absolutely nothing because they are not rooted in more substantial particulars. You can fill my head with what you plan to do, your ideals, and so on, but until you actually tell me exactly what you will do and when you will do it and how you will do it, it’s fluff, mere prefatory language that leaves me shaking my head and wondering “what was that all about?” Say what you will, but “[t]he adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Nor can grand promises and expressions of hope pull a noncommittal person out of a tight spot.

Having worked in the music business at one time, I know all about this. Label A&R reps are adept at stroking the client, flattering egos hungry for praise, loving every idea, hopeful about all things, sure that this record will launch a career, only to fail to deliver. When they tire of talking, they simply stop returning your call. Many a day I would have preferred being told “We don’t like the record, and we don’t want to sell it.” The Bible does say, after all, to “let your yes be yes and your no be no. . .” (Mt. 5:37a). The simple truth, nouns and verbs, is so much clearer, so much tougher, than all the wasted adjectives.

Sometime, listen to children speak. They use nouns and verbs. They speak plainly. They may offend by their frankness, but they offend plainly, not subtlety. Strunk once said “if you’re going to be obscure, be obscure clearly.”  Similarly, he might have said, “if you are going to offend, offend clearly.” Have substance, in other words. Say what you mean. Make it concrete.

In its often spare sentences, Scripture is a reminder that plain speak is commended.  “Come, follow me.” “Take, eat.”  “Feed my lambs.”  Even, “Come and have breakfast.”  Jesus himself spoke directly and simply, most often with strong nouns and verbs.  When you know who you are and what you are about, your conversation is not cluttered with needless adjectives, endless qualifications.  Would that politicians would learn such directness!

The bottom line:  Have substance.  Speak plainly and directly.  Qualify only when necessary.

Living with Style (Rule Three): Aim for Something


"Work from a suitable design." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

There are people who plan and others who don't. In the most endearing of times, we call the latter "free spirits;" in their most frustrating times, "irresponsible." A suitable design for life is not so much whether to plan or not to plan, however, as whether there is a specific vision that animates our day. The abundant life requires that we aim for something worthy of aspiration, that we envision an end. Slavish adherence to a set of rules or principles is deadening and inflexible and makes us difficult to live with because we are moribund legalists. In contrast, living in the moment and doing as we please, however, is rank antinomianism and gets us nowhere fast --- a slave to our passions of the moment. A suitable design, or vision, keeps us pointed in the right direction and yet malleable in regard to means. We are free within bounds, more free, really, than the free-spirit.

Strunk informs writers that "[d]esign informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose." By extension, we might say that no one really lives without design, without an underlying presuppositional structure for their life, though the design may be subconsciously adhered to, a body of assumptions about life's purpose that have taken root experientially and unnoticed. Both the carpenter and accountant live out of a design. Yet while the design may be subconscious, the point is not that it should be a detailed regimen. Strunk again: "This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into. To compose a laundry list, a writer can work directly from the pile of soiled garments, ticking them off one by one. But to write a biography the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors." I feel that way sometimes. At the end of the day there have been no end to my labors, and yet all I have to look back on is a list of ticked off items with no sense of the larger design they fit into.

Suitable design acknowledges the moving of the Spirit. Take the Apostle Paul, for example. His overriding design or vision was to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-16, NIV), and yet while he planned certain things he was often led by circumstances to change his plan. He advises the saints in Rome "that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now). . . (Rom. 1:13, NIV). One imagines that the logical, methodical mind of Paul would be frustrated at plans gone awry, and yet his larger vision was intact: he preached the Gospel wherever he was to whomever would listen.

In the end, unlike the mere task of writing, Christians acknowledge a design and Designer behind their own temporal designs, a Story behind our stories. Our designs are imitative of a greater design. We have the assurance that even our detours, even the frustrating rabbit-trails we find ourselves on all lead back to the main road, the road Home, and that a good and perfect Author has us in hand.

C.S. Lewis said "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." What is it that you are aiming at? Do you have a suitable design? Strunk says that "even the kind of writing [or, life] that is essentially adventurous and impetuous will on examination be found to have a secret plan: Columbus didn't just sail, he sailed west, and the New World took shape from this simple and, we now think, sensible design." So what direction will you sail?


Living With Style (Rule Two): Act Naturally

Style_3"Write in a way that comes naturally." (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

To be yourself must be one of the most often said maxims and most difficult to enact principle of all. "All you gotta do is act naturally," sang Beatle Ringo Starr in 1965, and I'm sure it was taken to heart by the Beat generation, but what after all is it to act naturally? It's sometimes difficult to discern who you are when so much of your life is spent in imitation of others. And yet there is something appealing about being comfortable in your own skin, about being uniquely who you are.

Writers struggle with trying to find their own "voice," to sound like themselves and not someone else. Christians struggle with not imitating the world, with being who God intended them to be and no one else. As Paul tells Gaius, "do not imitate what is evil but what is good" (3 John 11). But neither the call to imitation nor the many others admonitions in Scripture to a holy lifestyle conflict with being who we are, with being unique individuals before God.

Strunk reminds writers that "[t]he use of language begins with imitation," reminding us that the imitative life, which begins in childhood, continues long after, because it is almost impossible not to imitate what one admires. And yet the right kind of imitation is a key to being yourself. Strunk again: "Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Brother Lawrence, the poor monk in charge of sandals, the self-described "great awkward fellow who broke everything," practiced God's presence by continually conversing with Him.  I have no doubt that the man was comfortable in his skin, that he acted naturally.  The monk practiced the presence of God by, as he put it, "keeping the soul's gaze fixed on God in faith --- calmly, humbly and lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude."  He would not quit the conversation.  He habitually looked to God.  He didn't say it was easy but, rather, was a habit formed by trying and failing, trying and failing.  He wasn't at all into imitation, but was focused on God.

Maybe Luther had it right when he summarized our duty as to "love God and do as you please." Or we might rephrase it as "love God and act naturally." If we focus on God, if we practice His presence, we will be on the way to being ourselves, the selves that God created us to be. There's nothing wrong with learning from the lives of other Christians, of seeing the habits of holiness in their life and being inspired to holiness in your own life, just as young writers learn the styles of great writers before they develop their own voice. That unique voice or life is, in the end, a product of many imitations, until unconsciously it becomes the unique person we are. The ironic conclusion is that you don't become yourself or become natural by trying. Rather, aim at God and find yourself. Then your life will "echo the halloos that bear repeating."

Living With Style (Rule One): Lose Yourself

Style_2“Place yourself in the background.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

One of the books on my bookshelf at work and at home is the revised edition of Cornell professor William Strunk’s “little book” of grammar and style, as later revised by his student, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and a regular essayist in the Saturday Post before his death. I’ve written about Strunk and White before, but suffice it to say I’m a devotee and read The Elements of Style devotionally. That is, I often pick it up and read a page to encourage a greater devotion to the English language, to grammar, syntax, and style, to, above all, economy of words. Only today, however, I realized that Strunk and White’s maxims on style in written expression are also excellent provocations for living “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2), for, if you will, living with style.

How can we not see these maxims as guides for Christian living? I have no idea what, if any, religious persuasion Strunk or White had, but I have to smile at the most assuredly unintended second meanings that their “reminders” of style have, of how they connote a far greater mystery than they imagined. Their “mystery story, thinly disguised,” is more mysterious and fulsome than they could have imagined.

“Place yourself in the background,” they say right off. And here I could quote chapter and verse of all of what they briefly say, but won’t. Suffice it to say that “the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none --- that is, place yourself in the background.” What they mean is that good writers should focus on “sense and substance,” not their own “mood and temper.” When you focus your energy on the task at hand, proficiency in the use of language, the “mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed.” Get out of the way. Stop worrying how you will appear, or how you will sound, or what impact you will have. Stop trying to find yourself and simply pay attention to the task at hand, to writing well, and who you are will emerge. Lose yourself.  Paradoxically, you don’t find yourself by focusing on yourself.

Good writers of fiction learn the craft. They serve the characters that beg to be written. They write not to sell books or impress people but because it is what they want to write, feel called to write, or must write. Good writers love the word.

The Apostle with the argumentative style of a lawyer said that we were to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but [must] in humility consider others better than [ourselves]” (Phil. 4:3). He said we were to “conduct [ourselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), not worthy of the opinions of others. We are commended to live in Christ, to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13). It’s a life lived coram deo, not coram mano, a life lived out before God and not before others. In fact, the only work I have to do is that of continually resting on the finished work Christ has done for me. If I do that, everything else follows. But if I try to do everything else for everyone else, I will not get there. The “mood and temperament” that is revealed will not be my own as shaped by Christ but that of others shaped in me. Thus, one of the mysteries of style is not focusing on style at all but on that which brings style. For writers, that’s word and craft --- the work of writing well. For Christians, that’s Word and craft --- the work of resting on Christ, of living out of an identity shaped by the Word who always accomplishes His work in us.

It’s not easy. Strunk said that “[w]riting is, for the most part, laborious and slow.” And so is the Christian life. It requires that we “cultivate patience,” that we wait for God who wills and works in us. Place yourself in the background. Lose yourself. Live with style.

[By the way, I highly recommend the beautifully illustrated hardback edition of Strunk and White’s classic.  Check out the book and the video preview by its illustrator here.]

Festival of Faith & Writing (Day Three Addendum): The Importance of Beauty

The festival ended tonight in a fitting way, with Katherine Paterson's encouragement to create stories of beauty.  Paterson said that "The stories that a culture creates will shape the worldview of that culture."  She used Thomas Aquinas's definition of beauty as that which has integrity (simplicity), harmony (elegant symmetry), and brilliance (clarity).  She feels that we have confused beauty with moral aphorisms, made literature of value only in service of moral education.  The Bible, she said, is full of moral guidance but its theme is beauty. She read Genesis 1 and noted the "good" referred to by God is the beauty of what is made.  Rolo May said "Beauty is born in play."  She encouraged not to go home burdened by duty, but ready for play.

It was really a beautiful contrast to the opening conference address by Mary Gordon, a rather sad perspective that beauty (or stories) has little to do with making us better people.  Katherine Paterson would not agree.  She encouraged me.  I had the sense after all I heard today that writing was too much work, meaning too much toil; really, it's a playground, something to delight in.  Play hard, yes, but play.  Just play.

Festival of Faith & Writing (Day Three): Tools

Some people come to the Festival of Faith & Writing just to meet writers.  They don't write; they read.  They want to see the shape of the person who actually crafted the story.  I'm a little like that.  Today, Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy and, more recently, The Used World, which I read, was signing books in the campus store.  I like Haven's books, but I was too self-conscious to get in a line with 30 other women to get my book signed.  But I did get a look at her, and Zippy doesn't look like I thought!

Far from just listening to authors, today was a day of mechanics, of tools for writing.  A morning session on editing featuring writer Shauna Niequest and Zondervan editor Angela Scheff was humorous but of limited utility.  It was like the banter of two Valley girls.  Yet I did glean four important truths: write vocationally (set a time and do it); edit everything; find a structure (outline your book, even if you do it last); and never write and edit at the same time.

A literary agent, Chip McGregor, gave a very informative talk on developing a book proposal:  big idea, great writing, and a platform.  It was full of details, humorous anecdotes, and good tips.  Crucial: include a sample table of contents to show scope and sequence.

In the afternoon, I listened to Eric Taylor, a historian who wrote a book called The Last Duel, tell how he did historical research.  I figured it might be helpful to a project I'm working on.  It was.  He said that determining how much research was necessary was a continuous process, circular, as he would write some and then determine what he needed to know more about.  Later, he also discussed how to make historical narrative interesting, how to build suspense and create excitement.

But the best of the day for pure inspiration was Daniel Taylor, who told us how to find and tell our master stories, the stories that define who we are and tell us how to live.  He moved me to tears with a story he told about dancing with a girl who had polio when he was a kid, of how that moment defined how he came to view human beings as valuable.  I bought the book from which the story came, Letters to My Children, and had Daniel Taylor sign it.  I love that story.

And that is just about the end of the Festival of Faith & Writing for 2008.  Yes, there is a lecture by Katherine Peterson tonight called "Stories of Beauty," and I'm sure there will be insights from that, but I have reached saturation level.  It's time to do something.  It's time to write.  In the end, it is, after all, just work.

Festival of Faith & Writing: Day Two (An Earthquake)

I didn't exercise this morning, but I was awakened by an earthquake.  I didn't know it at the time of course, but I sleepily noted the time of 5:39 a.m. on my bedside clock, filed it away and rolled over and back to sleep, and later, finding out about the quake in southern Illinois, realized that I had been gently rocked awake by a readjusting earth.  It brought to mind one other time, in the late Sixties.  I was sitting with my family in our small country church at Wednesday night prayer meeting when the lights began shaking, the pews vibrating, and awe came over us.  I thought it was the rapture.  I thought it was our ticket home.  But not yet.

There's been a bit of rapture here in Grand Rapids, here at the Festival of Faith and Writing.  There's been the gentle nudge from God's hand, a tremulous awakening.  To what?  To the idea that I can actually write, might actually write something worth reading, that people do it all the time, and yet to the hard, cold truth that it's not sexy, not grand, but just plain hard work or, as Rob Bell said tonight, just "pure, undiluted slog."  It requires "constant, pragmatic attention" someone said.  I'd have to say that after 23 years of practice that being an attorney is a lot, lot easier than being a writer.  The only reason to do it is because you love words, or because there's something you have to say that you must say or you think you'll go crazy, or maybe something you just find so interesting that you have to think that maybe someone else should be interested in it as well.

This morning Mischa Berlinski, a journalist turned novelist, author of Fieldwork, told us a fascinating tale of a zombie in Haiti, an absolutely true story and one so compelling that he is writing about it.  Brian Doyle, in an engaging talk in which he made us deliberatively laugh as loud as we could and later sing Amazing Grace, whose "small, true stories" made us laugh and cry, drew us into the genre of the personal essayist, telling us that "there are an ocean of stories all around you."  You just have to listen.

Just before lunch, Yale historian Carlos Eire told us of his memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, a story of his childhood in Cuba just before Castro came to power and just before and after the 14,000 children were airlifted out of Cuba to the United States.  He wrote for four months, unedited, from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00-3:00 a.m., and sometimes all night, until it was completed.  He is a soft-spoken man who never saw his father again after the airlift, who was seared by injustice but spoke of it with grace.  I bought his book.  He signed it.  It's like blood on the page.

After lunch we listening to a dialogue between two essayists, Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian, and Robert Finch, who wrote The Iambics of Newfoundland, a book I did read and admire but which I had a hard time staying awake for.  This was a different take on essaying than that of Brian Doyle, saying that it's not the place to tell your story (like memoir) but a place to communicate about a shared interest, that there is "a displacement of the personal in the service of the essay."  They said the essay is the antidote to the soundbyte; it cultivates the habit of mindfulness.  You write in essay not to tell about yourself but to tell about something you are interested in and think others must be too.  That all sounds too dispassionate to me.

Did I say that it was a beautiful, sunny day of 75 degrees here in Michigan?  We walked to the chapel talking about architecture, me from ignorance, Andy from knowledge.  We want to write a book on faith and architecture and place, or something like that, and we talk this way every now and then.  Maybe we'll do something about it one day but. . . I don't know, it's more fun to talk about doing it.

In the chapel is a special service of music by the Calvin College concert choir, Capella, singing the words of poets, interspersed with the readings of poets.  I think they were burning incense for the experience.  Could that be? Or was it just the overwrought perfume of the woman in front of me?  Never mind.  It was effective.  The voices were amazing, the poems musical though not often immediately accessible (except for George Herbert), and the visual images projected on the screens useful for contemplation.

In the evening we drove out to the mega Sunshine Community Church for a lecture by Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, a Canadian from Quebec, a uber-secular place.  Martel wrote his novel in India about a character who seemed to be Hindu, Muslim, and Christian.  He moved from being a believer in reason alone to being fascinated by faith, and yet we concluded that it was an immature faith, one that could say things like "how could all these Hindus be wrong?"  and "the word 'truth' should not be used when referring to things that are not empirically verifiable."  You have to hope that he will grow in his understanding of the important, exclusive claims of faith in Christ and not forever live in some kind of syncretistic limbo.

At 9:15 I begin listening to a very engaging Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, a pastor of the emerging church.  By this time my tank is full and I slip out, realizing that I can't hold another thought.  But this I took out, a quote from Theolonius Monk: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." 

Enough talk about writing.  Just do it.  Just write something.  Feel the quake?  Feel that gentle nudge?  My surface is being realigned.

Festival of Faith and Writing: Day One

Never, ever, ever again will I take the 6:00 AM flight.  This morning my friend Andy and I left for three days at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing, a bi-annual fest for readers and writers of literary fiction in Grand Rapids.  I've always wanted to go to this eclectic gathering, but flying out at 6:00 AM is ridiculous.  I set my alarm for 4:00.  However, my body deemed it wise to wake me at 3:00.  I suffered the effects of my foolishness all day --- and yet it was a good day.

Grand Rapids turned out to be surprisingly warm.  By the time we arrived at registration, I had shed my coat and was wishing I had brought shorts.  It was sunny and warm at nearly 70 degrees.  Over 1900 people are registered for this conference.  Looking over the crowd, it was abundantly clear I was among writers and bookish folk.  Many wore glasses.  They looked studious.  Many looked like the folks you meet in used book stores.  They probably smell like old books, speak in flowing prose, and can wax eloquently on contemporary writers such as Updike, Chabon, and Strout, their latest book names bandied about like familiar friends.  I felt somewhat at home among people who love words.

The opening session was by Mary Gordon.  It was not an upbeat start.  Gordon is obviously not a Christian, at least does not profess to be, and is somewhat conflicted about her Catholic upbringing.  The best she could admit to was not faith but "hope in the possibility of possibilities."  She took issue with John Gardiner's view that good fiction makes us more moral people, and yet she admitted that good writing may help us become more compassionate as we grow more attentive to the people and world around us, realizing some of its complexity.

Later in the day, I attended a humorous and yet instructive seminar by David Athey, author of the forthcoming Danny Gospel, about the lessons he learned from writing his book.  It took him 18 years.  He became fascinated with the idea of the "holy fool," the believer who is almost (or perhaps is) mad in his belief.  In the end, I was awed by the amount of revising he did, literally ripping up his work at times to try and get at what needed to be said.  I was struck by his sense that this was the book that God had called him to write, no matter what, and the persevering nature of his quest.  I bought the book, had him sign it, and told him he gave me hope and faith.

Then I attended a dialogue with Davis Bunn and Francine Rivers, both enormously successful writers, Bunn in the genre of the thriller novel, Rivers in the retelling of biblical narratives.  Both have written for the Christian market and mainstream market and discussed the differences.  Bunn said that his goal in writing for the mainstream market was to bridge the gap --- to bring Christian truth to the nonbeliever without any preachiness.  Rivers is, in contrast, firmly rooted in the Christian market, but I found her purpose more message-laden (and thus suspect) I really liked her emphasis on being rooted in scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit, as well as how all her stories begin with a question she has about faith.  There's hope for the Christian novelist!

Finally, the main lecture Thursday night was by Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish Policeman's Union.  Chabon is an articulate Jewish writer, funny, witty, and thoughtful.  I really identified with his sense of exile, of not having a homeland.  Whereas Chabon created a homeland of his imagination, as Christians we are exiles seeking our homeland in heaven.  Andy and I mused on what the language of heaven would be --- Yiddish?

We skipped the poetry slam, the movie, and the late night discussion.  We opted for sleep.  We'll discuss the language of heaven later --- or not.

On the Edge of Memory: A Short Conversation

"She's not too pretty.  And she's so old."

"Mama, how old is old?  You're 80."

"I'm talking about feeble, so ditsy you don't even know your own mother.  That's what I mean.  I'm not old like Velma is, Jeanine.  I know who my mother is.  I know who you are.  Old is like. . . like him."  She pointed to her husband, rocked back in the recliner watching football, oblivious to our conversation.

"He's 79, Mama, younger than you."

"Well, if he's so all-fired young he oughta get outa that chair and do something.  Don't you think?

I didn't answer.  It wouldn't make any difference anyway.

"What day is it, Jeanine?"

"Wednesday, Mama."

"Don't I have my Bible study group today?"

"No, that's Tuesday, Mama.  You went yesterday."

"I don't think so.  I don't remember going yesterday."

"I took you, Mama."

"Oh, yeah.  I guess so.  They took my license away, you know.  I don't understand why they did that."

"You had an accident, Mama."

"I don't remember any accident.  I never had a speeding ticket in my life.  I just don't understand it.  I can't drive and yet half the fools out on the road drive worse than I ever did.  That's not right. . . Get my reading glasses, will you Jeanine?"  She picked up the TV Guide. "What day is it Jeanine?"

"Wednesday, Mama."

"Be quiet and turn the TV to Channel 6.  Magnum PI is on.  I like Magnum PI.  One of the only decent things on TV.  Don't worry --- he's asleep.  Look at him over there, drooling on himself.  He'll never miss the game."

We watched TV for awhile, the volume deafening, my mother mouthing the words of Magnum, leaning forward in her chair at rapt attention, slumping back only when the commercial came on.

She shook her head.  "That Velma, she's gettin' old and feeble, you know.  Probably even forgot who her Mama is."

"I know Mama, I know.  It happens."

What Buechner Gives Us

b For many years I've been an unabashed fan of pastor, teacher, and writer Frederick Beuchner.  Sometimes I even find that things I have written are stylistically like what he writes.  I'd like to think so, but the fact is he is simply an inspiration for me and his writing is something I aspire to.

I was pleased recently to discover that a Frederick Buechner Institute has been founded at King College In Bristol, Tennessee, the initial Director being former Calvin College professor Dale Brown.  A number of years ago Brown wrote a book entitled Of Faith and Fiction: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work, interviewing writers like Doris Betts, Garrison Keillor, Walter Wangerin, Clyde Edgerton, and, of course Frederick Buechner, and his survey of Buechner's fiction,  The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings, has just been released.  Although the Institute has only begun its work, already it has posted various articles, sermons, and essays by Buechner, as well as a video of Buechner reading three of his sermons at National Cathedral in 2006.  It's the only time I have ever seen a video of him.

If you have never read Buechner, I suggest for fiction that you begin with Godric, his Pulitzer prize winning novel of a very human and yet godly Irish monk.  For memoir, I suggest The Sacred Journey, particularly the first few pages.  I love Buechner's earthy and yet spiritually-charged writing, his attention to the world around him, and his great mining of memory for meaning.  Reading his memoirs is an education in paying attention to your life and, really, seeing Providence at work.  Theologically, he is imprecise; although I believe him largely orthodox in his mere Christianity, he would not consider himself an evangelical, and his opinions on homosexuality would cause a stir in conservative Christian circles (and also illustrate the squishy nature of his theology).  That aside, there's no one quite like Buechner.

I believe what he says is true: "There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, al the more compellingly and hauntingly."  So that's what he has taught me --- to look for God in every memory, every face, every tree and field and place. . . to listen to my life and the life of the world.  For that I'll always be thankful.

The Matter of Why Space Matters

space God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it (God must love space even more.) 

(Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World)

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were hurtling through space toward the moon in Apollo 11, they had no idea what they were hurtling  through.  We still don't.  At least we don't know much. In fact, my cats may know just as much for all I know.

I think of space as emptiness, as the absence of things, or matter, and yet scientists say that's not really the case.  As I understand them, outer space is not completely empty (that is, a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dark matter and dark energy --- mostly the latter two "dark" twins, except we really don't know what they are or if they're really there (kind of like imaginary playmates).  For instance, dark matter is said to be a mysterious substance which scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe but that is invisible to current instruments.  We don't really know for sure that it's there, and yet this stuff we can't see accounts for 96% of the universe.  But you know scientists; they positively live to postulate.

But enough of that.  I think of space more in the sense of spaciousness, an openness filling the yawning gaps between good solid things like trees, stars, and people.  There's a lot of it around.  God made it, so he must love it (says Plantinga), and given how much of it there is, he must love it a lot.

God does love space --- the sparseness of it, the roominess of it, the solitude of it, the wonder of it, the silence of it, and the noise of it.  And so should we, or so do we, but for sin's curse.  Because of sin, some of us can't abide being alone in the solitude of space. Agoraphobics, those who fear open places, hide in their rooms, undone by the expanse of space and place.  And some of us, like nettling bureaucrats, rush to fill every interstice of human experience with a regulation, rule, or command --- legalists to the core who can't abide the inevitable space in our codifications of appropriate behavior.  And yet it was not to be this way.

Our distant ancestor, Job, marveled at the emptiness of space, wondering that "he spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job 26:7) and later concluding that "these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!" (26:14).  The Psalmist kicks back on the grass outside Jerusalem and wonders aloud: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:3-4).  Part of what he considers in those heavens is the juxtaposition of visible objects like stars with the vast spaciousness of space, the separation of what is from what is not.  Kant said space is relationship, a way to order our experience of reality; Newton, that it was absolute, a part of reality.  I think it's both.  Sitting in my office, I enjoy space as something real I can move around in and also the sense of space as a juxtaposition of the empty with definite objects like walls and desks and windows.

I love space.  When I open Scripture to the Creation account of Genesis 1-3, I'm thankful for the vast spaciousness of the Word that made it all.  Behind the words "God made" lies a rich and infinite domain of interpretation, of room for human exploration.  And when I hear the reassuring words of "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path," (Ps 119:105), I'm glad the Word is the lamp and not the path, that I have a sure guide but a vast landscape through which to find my way.  That's space. That's the kind of space God gives us.

Leaving the space of outer space and the vastness of the landscape of life, I'm thankful for the simple yet profound space of a poem.  No one better illustrates the fulsome nature of space with poetic verse than the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(The Red Wheelbarrow).  Writing about the poem in Understanding Poetry, poet Robery Penn Warren said that "[r]eading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation."  In other words, more is said by what is unsaid than by what is said. 

And consider the short story, the poor stepchild of the literary world.  (Evidence: The Atlantic Monthly, which published short stories by our finest writers for 150 years, abruptly stopped publishing stories in 2005.)  A story like Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium," which touches in a concrete way on racism, radiates outward into the unknown.  Who was Old Dudley?  What was his early life like?  What will happen to him?  We don't know.  We can imagine.  We can place this snapshot of life in a greater context we supply -- in space.

We may not know if space is matter, but we know it matters.  If we love it, like God does, if we wonder at it and relish its existence, life will open.  We won't be afraid, but free.

Waves can't break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can't dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can't you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named "existence"
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what's in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Bruce Cockburn, "Life Will Open," from Sunwheel Dance, 1971)

Beyond Passable Writing


When I was 10 years old, at most, I was a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction Book Club.  Those days I seemed to read all the time, at least in this genre of fiction --- greats like Ray Bradbury, Robert Henlein, and Issac Asimov were a steady diet.  There was a floral pattern set of soft chairs in my mother's living room (still there but much faded now) in which I would recline, sometimes for as much as four or five hours at a stretch, ignoring calls for dinner, deep into other worlds, dreamily lazing my way through long afternoons.  When I finally put the books down --- because, finally, my mother could not be ignored, or bedtime was nigh, or a friend came calling --- I sometimes couldn't wrench myself from the imaginary world and into this world.  I didn't hear what people said to me sometimes.  Or I walked around for a half hour or so feeling profoundly alienated, voices sounding strange to me, muffled, and the houses and streets pale and mundane, a great let down after where I had been.  Sometime around then I happened to read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, a tale of a twelve-year old boy's coming to life one summer, discovering the wonder of the world around him.  I was disappointed it was not science fiction, and yet reading it I knew I had stumbled on something grand.  And perhaps it was a part of my own coming alive.

After that, I don't remember reading fiction again, that is, merely for my own pleasure and not as an assignment, until I read a series of Christian novels by Bodie Thoene sometime after higher education.  They were entertaining and certainly passable writing, but looking back at them, I realize that they were not great literature.  I read them because I found them in a Christian bookstore, the same place I found much of the music I listened to at the time.  The message music and message books I trafficked in at the time seemed like sanitized versions of other popular novels.  Thoene's historical fiction reminded me of James Michener's heavily-researched historical fiction, for example.  I didn't really know good literature from bad literature.  But the books in the Christian bookstore seemed safe.  There were no sex scenes and not a trace of profanity.  Furthermore, they had neat resolutions --- perhaps a conversion, a reconciliation, or a new understanding of and reliance on God.  They were not bad, but they were not good enough, not nearly good enough.  So, with few exceptions, I stopped reading Christian lit and took up with better literature by pagans and Catholics and theologically suspect Christians, people like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, and J.R.R. Tolkien (who I read, enjoyed, and really didn't understand back in high school).  I can't settle for merely passable writing any longer when there are greats to be read, masters of storytelling, authors who capture the human story in their fiction.

I am reminded of this because of the excellent article by Donald T. Williams in the most recent Touchstone Magazine entitled Writers Cramped.  His question is where are the evangelical Christian writers who are of the caliber of T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O'Connor, just to name a few.  O'Connor provides the substance of his analysis of their absence, in her observation that "[t]he sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate human reality" and her conclusion that "[y]our beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing."  As Williams notes, when this distinction is not understood, "Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda."  O'Connor was nourished by a worldview which was orthodox and true and which informed all she wrote, by a church that recognized and appreciated her vocation as an artist, and by the sense of mystery that the sacramental focus of Catholicism provided and which carried forward into the mysteries that writers explore.

Williams concludes with a challenge for evangelicals to recover biblical emphases that nurture the arts and artists:

Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failure to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.  They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that we think we have been right about.

Next time I visit my mother I may take along a copy of Dandelion Wine, sink my middle-aged body in that seemingly shrunken chair, and remember what it was like to be twelve, so I can better remember what it's like to be 49, to be human, to have a sense of wonder at life.  I'm done with passable writing; I want the best, I want the ones who can truly see.

Where Stories Live


"There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story.  You can never quite tell where they'll take you.  Mine took me here."  (Beatrix Potter, in the movie, Miss Potter)

These first words spoken by Beatrix Potter in the opening scenes of the movie of her life, Miss Potter, so aptly sum up the excitement of telling a story, of not knowing the end in the beginning.  That's part of the joy of writing, the sense of discovery along the way.

I have read that some successful novelists map it all out in the beginning --- the characters, the background, the conflict or point of tension, and the resolution (conclusion).  I'm sure it works, but how boring it seems.  I haven't written a novel, yet, but I'd much prefer to begin someplace, perhaps with a character in a particular scene, and see where it goes.  You can never quite tell where they'll take you.  Characters take on a life of their own and seem to propel a story.  It's not that you never look ahead, as you must see something of what is coming in order to write, but maybe you only see the next step and not the whole life.  After all, a writer is creator, not Creator; not omniscient nor omnipotent.  And characters are free, aren't they, to be who they are?

I'm struggling with this now.  I began a story just this way several months ago.  There's Henry, and Babette, each of whom I'm following and whose lives have not yet intersected.  I stopped writing because I'm not sure I know who they are, or at least I don't sufficiently know who they are.  I have some sense that they will meet, but how, and when?  Do I just begin again, going day by day and seeing what happens?  Do I plan it out?  A little of both?

Perhaps it isn't either/or but both/and.  I think of our own lives under God's rule: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" (Pr. 16:9).  Like us, characters live and have free will in their story, and yet the writer is sovereign and has a purpose that will prevail, incorporating all their plans into his one plan.  Or maybe its like Paul said, that we are to "continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:12-13).  Characters have a life of their own, and yet they are forever guided by our good purpose; all their diversions can be worked into that good purpose, in the end.

There's tension in any writing.  That's where stories live.  I just want to get to the point where I can say Mine took me here.

(Please Don't Stop Me, I'm) Metaphorming

Door"With similes, our delight comes from the containment of seeing only the images given us by the poet and no others. . . ; [w]ith metaphor, we range farther." (Suzanne Clark, in The Roar On the Other Side)

Scripture is full of metaphors. Jesus says he is the door, the good shepherd, the light, the cornerstone, and so on, enough to confound any literalist on Scripture! In fact, there are more metaphors than similes: the gospel is not fenced in but runs wild, uncontained. We ask how is he the good shepherd, how is he the door, and our minds run free with the associations, bounded only by other portions of Scripture as impressed on our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit.

I am a blade of grass, you a grain of sand among many, and yet we are stars that shine, a little lower than the angels -- friends of God. The same door that opens to the Kingdom of God, the one that bears such a positve image in our minds of a welcoming knock, an invitaton to come in, will one day slam tightly shut and bar the way to those who reject God. But who slams it? The ones who reject God.

Clark says that "[t]he ability to make associations, to think in metaphors and similes, is evidence of God's image in us. We think analogically, instinctively, because that is who we are. We read of God as Father, and associations with earthly fathers spring to mind. We say God is good and must immediately associate the abstraction of that word with, say, a father's love, a selfless person like Mother Teresa or Aunt Flora on your father's side once removed who never, never thinks of herself. Or maybe even the faithful, loving dog who always returns though neglected and mistreated by his master. That word "good" is unfenced, set free, encompassing everything that is the antithesis of bad.

There's another thing she notes about such imaginative language: "Imaginative language --- poetry --- trains the mind in faith. For what is faith but divine realities we can only imagine, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen' (Heb. 11:1)." I never thought of it that way. Metaphorming --- the ability to make associations between things --- is essential to a growing faith, a realization of the richness and otherworldly and fulsome character of the Good News.

Suzanne again:

"When Jesus proclaims, 'I am the Bread of life,' he removes all our fences of seeing. He is entirely bread --- nourishing, flavorful, essential. Rising and resurrection are in the loaf, too. It is bread enough for the whole world, and of this Bread we must eat or perish. 'Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.' (John 6:53). Is this metaphor? Is this not mystery? Let us keep silent."