Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Unabashed: Five Shopping Days to Go

My birthday is a day when I unabashedly receive all sorts of love and attention and presents from my minions, as well as from my friends and family.

Actually, now that I think about it, I'm unabashed about receiving love and attention and presents every day of the year. But especially so on my birthday, and during my birth-week and birth-month.
Aidan in costume. Can you guess who he is?

Last year was the first year since 2008 that I did not post a birthday wish list. I only wanted one thing last year. I still want Aidan back. But now, after spending a year and a half figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other--which is essentially what grief is--I have found that I can find moments here and there of peace and joy and contentment, even while my heart is broken.

So, with no further ado, and with a mere five shopping days to go, here's my 2014 birthday wish list:

1. Say Aidan's name to me. This is very simple. You don't have to have a script. I was texting my friend Soap about some assorted topics, and then suddenly I get a text from her that just read "Aidan today." I texted back "Aidan today what?", and she said, "I am thinking about him and wanted to say his name to you." I loved this. 

2. The recovery of the 200+ Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorists more than a month ago. I just heard that they've been located.

3. Diet Coke. I know, I know--it's bad for me. So is pollution, but I'm still gonna breathe.

4. A hanging flower pot for the backyard. It doesn't have to be this elaborate.

5. An agent or publisher for my almost-finished novel.

6. Good Lord Bird by James McBride. I despise and eschew our selfie culture, but I took a selfie anyway with my friend The Generous Listener (TGL) at #FFWgr because James McBride was signing autographs in the background. His book sounds like a delightful and completely new take on the John Brown story.

OK, that'll do it for this year. Happy shopping!

[Update: Apparently James McBride's people do not allow unauthorized use of James McBride's image on wildly popular personal blogs with upwards of seven loyal followers. OK, whatever.] 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hashtag FFWgr, Part Two: The Reading List

In case you missed part one, you can read it here.

I promised to put together a reading list based upon the books and authors I heard cited at the Festival of Faith and Writing 2014. I've organized the list list into four categories: books about writing, works of fiction, books about faith, other non-fiction, and poetry and poets.  The list that follows is only partially annotated because there were SERIOUSLY a LOT of books and authors mentioned. I got tired of annotating and linking. Sorry.

Books about writing

Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction
--This is a college textbook. Interestingly, Amazon only offers an option to rent the book for a semester; it's not available for purchase new. You can buy a used copy on Amazon for $43.98, or on EBay for $52.89.

Kenneth Burke, Permanence and ChangeA Grammar of Motives.
--the latter work offers the dramatistic pentad, a model for analyzing narratives to understand human motivations and predict behavior. The five rhetorical elements include act, scene, agent, agency (or method or means), and purpose (or motive). 

A]ny complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)." -Kenneth Burke

Annie Dillard*
--Mr. Peevie presciently gave me The Writing Life for Christmas, so I will be starting there.

Sol Stein, On Writing
Just reading the description of On Writing from Stein's own website makes me want to drop everything and read it, and while I'm reading it, start revising my novel-in-progress.

Works of fiction

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
--I think I need to read more Margaret Atwood.

Raymond Carver*, Cathedral Stories,*, especially the short story A Small Good Thing; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
--Carver's name was invoked at least three times during FFW.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
--I'm embarrassed that I have not read this yet, and I just downloaded it to my Kindle for zero dollars and zero cents.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
--If it took Harold Bloom three times to make it all the way through Blood Meridian, I don't hold much hope for my own ability to do so any time in the next century. But it's on the list anyway, because Bloom says McCarthy "has attained genius with that book."

Flannery O'Connor*, the short stories Good Country People and Revelation
--I have the complete short stories downloaded to my Kindle and ready for my summer beach reading; and I just read Good Country People for free here. Read Revelation for free here.

William Faulkner, Barn Burning, A Rose for Emily
Read Barn Burning for free here. Read A Rose for Emily for free here.

Ernest Hemingway, The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber

Khaleid Hosseini, The Mountains Echoed

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
--Here's a switch: instead of reading it, listen to it!

Barbara Kingsolver

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Guy de Maupassant, The Necklace
--You probably read this one in high school, but in case you want to refresh your memory, you can read it online here.

John Steinbeck, The Chrysanthemums

Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

Mark Twain

Anne Tyler, The Beginner's Goodbye

Books about faith

Walter Brueggemann
--There are 68 publications listed on his Wikipedia page; where is a beginner to begin? That's not a rhetorical question, Internet.

George Herbert

--You can (sort of) read The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations online--but you may need a stronger prescription in your glasses when you're done. It might be worth it. 

Julian of Norwich
--Read the complete Revelations of Divine Love online here, as well as excerpts from the Revelations.

Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism
--From the Amazon book description: Turner "argues that the distinctiveness and contemporary relevance of medieval mysticism lies precisely in its rejection of 'mystical experience,' and locates the mystical firmly within the grasp of the ordinary and the everyday." A quick look tells me I'll need to read it with my dictionary at hand.

Karth Barth

Frederic Buechner

Andrew Krivak, A Long Retreat

C. S. Lewis*, The Screwtape Letters

Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

Walker Percy*, The Second Coming

Eugene Peterson

Jan Richardson

Teresa of Avila

Other non-fiction

Henry David Thoreau
--I read Thoreau's essay The Last Days of John Brown because FFW speaker James McBride's new book, National Book Award Winner The Good Lord Bird tells John Brown's story from a brand-new perspective. I was delighted to see Thoreau refer to his neighbors as pachydermatous--which he used in reference to the thickness of their heads, not their skin. Awesome.

Mary Karr, Lit, The Liar's Club
--Stephen King wrote this about Mary Karr's writing: "I was stunned by Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club. Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality--she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years."

Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Rural Life
--Interesting. The Rural Life is a weekly column in the New York Times about life on a farm and boots getting stuck in mud and stuff. Some people think it's a little pretentious and condescending.

Michael Perry

Poetry and Poets

Maya Angelou

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Mary Oliver

Ron Padgett, Center of Gravity 

Lucy Shaw, The Crime of Living Cautiously


So now we have a reading list for the next two years--until FFW 2016 gives us another one.

Which of these books and authors have you already read? Which are you going to look for the next time you head to Myopic? (Shout out to M. Peevie--that's her favorite bookstore.)

I'm starting with Flannery O'Connor.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


I had a dream that I got to church and suddenly found out that I was supposed to get up front and give a testimony. I was not prepared, and I wondered, "What would my testimony even be?" 

A testimony is supposed to tell the story of God's work in your life. If you google "Christian testimony" you will get almost 17 million hits. You'll encounter a page called Christian Testimonies on the official King James Bible online website, or "Amazing Stories, Christian Testimonies, Healing Miracles, and Inspirational Stories" on the 700 Club website. (I'm not linking to that one. Sorry.) 

All of them, if the sample I read is representative, tell stories of healing and forgiveness and change. They all come from the perspective of having been through the fire, and come out on the other side in a place of transcendental hope and joy.

"...the Lord took my dad dying, took my worst nightmare and showed me how he can make it into the best thing that's happened to me."
"All the chains that held me captive for so long have been shattered!"
"J. surrendered to God and hasn't touched drugs or alcohol since."
"All I have to do is live and love in the grace God has given me, and I just stand there and let him do what he loves best--and that is make my life perfect."

After I woke up, I kept thinking about this testimony business. I am in such a broken, desperate spiritual place--I definitely don't have a 700 Club-type testimony. I mostly can't worship; I can only grieve. I can barely praise; sometimes it's hard to be thankful. I can only grieve. 

I can't sing the words to hymns that proclaim 

"I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, tears lose their bitterness.Where is thy sting, death? Where grave thy victory?"

...because I do most definitely feel the "sting" of Aidan's death, and the grave has an excruciating, if temporary, victory. 

I especially can't confess, because my only sorrow is the constant presence of Aidan's absence. I can, however, sing the parts that ask God's help: "In life, in death, Lord, abide with me." This is the only part of worship that I can do these days, most of the time. 

But maybe we need more testimonies that don't have a happy, feel-good conclusion, in which the believer testifies from the other side of suffering. We need testimonies that come from right in the middle of pain and suffering and inadequacy and sin and despair--because that's where we live. 

Even if you're on the other side of your own worst troubles, you are still in this world, and the people around you are suffering; so you must, if you walk with Jesus, feel their sorrow and pain. That should be the place where every testimony begins and ends--rather than beginning with sin and sorrow and ending with the theme song from The Lego Movie.

The wife of a person I know suffered from a dangerous, life-threatening health condition; he was by her side for more than a week, watching the doctors try to diagnose and treat her, watching her sometimes seem like she was getting better, sometimes seem like she was dying.

I emailed him, "You must be exhausted and scared. Hope you get a restful sleep."

He replied: "I'm NOT scared. Why would I be scared? God is in control of space, time, and place. He is in charge; and I and my bride have placed our trust and lives in Him. Because He Lives, I can face tomorrow."

All I can see when I read that are huge flashing red letters: D E N I A L.

It doesn't ring true. If he had said that he did feel fear, but he prayed, and now feels comfort and peace--that would be more believable. But to not even admit the presence, ever, of fear? I'm not buying it. It's definitely not the kind of testimony that buttresses my own feeble faith because it is so far from my own experience.

We need to hear stories from people who are STILL struggling with sin, who are STILL afraid, who are STILL sad, even though they are believers. Trusting in Jesus does not mean we no longer feel normal human emotions like fear and sadness. It doesn't mean we no longer experience the hold of sin on our lives. Rather,the beauty of Jesus is that we are invited to bring these normal human experiences and feelings and struggles to Him, and He will meet us right where we are.

That's my testimony. I mostly can't worship or confess because I don't have it in me. I guess that's Gospel 101. I don't have it in me. But if I do have moments when I can worship, moments of faith or joy or thankfulness, it is very clear to me that those moments come directly from the hand of God. God supplies grace to allow me to cling tenuously to faith and hope; and God provides comfort from other sufferers, other doubters, others who don't have all the answers.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Poem in Your Pocket Day

For Poem In Your Pocket Day, here is my selection:

A Warning To My Readers:

Do not think me gentle 
because I speak in praise of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace 
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I 
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

--Wendell Berry

It's not too late for you to grab a poem, print it, and put it in your pocket. Then it's ready for you to pull out during the day and read to a friend or to a stranger on the train.

What poem did you put in your pocket today?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hashtag FFWgr

Ninety-nine percent of you won't know what that title means--which is sort of the epitome of bad communication. Nonetheless, I'm starting there, because I ended there--at #FFWgr. 

#FFWgr, the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a biannual conference of writers and readers of faith: about finding faith, leaving faith, and returning to faith; about the connection between faith and writing. I make my pilgrimage there to find inspiration and motivation. I'm completely positive (in the ironic sense of those words) that I will eventually be one of the speakers there, talking to the little people about getting up at four a.m. and sitting down in front of the computer and waiting for God to show up.

Actually--that was James McBride's line. My perspective will be more of a p.m. perspective, because mornings give me hives; and my topic will be Why I Keep Writing Even Though I've Never Been Published; And As A Matter of Fact, Why Would You Even Listen To Me?

I'm going to give you two kinds of #FFWgr candy: motivational and/or interesting quotes from some of the talks I went to; and a reading list. I kept notes as I listened, and wrote down the names of books and authors that the speakers mentioned. I may have missed a few, but I've still got a pretty good list.

So first, the quotes, in order of their appearance:

Daniel Taylor:

"Everyone should write their own apologetics--how do you tell this story of faith to yourself?" This is a riff, he said, on Milton's idea that everyone should write his own theology. I tried to confirm that Milton actually said or wrote something like this, but could not. Internet, could you do me a solid and let me know a) did Milton ever say/write anything like that and b) what's the source?

The topic of Taylor's talk was The Use of Story in Apologetics. He said, "stories defend faith by making it desirable, powerful, winsome. Stories don't just tell truth. Truth can be a sledgehammer. Stories can make faith not just reasonable and believable, but also attractive."

"Stories are convincing; they require us to change, and tell us how to do it."

"Stories don't prove anything, but stories prove everything that's important."

"Don't just tell anecdotes, tell stories. Anecdotes are reduced; they lack personal experience and emotion." I'd like to learn more about this distinction.

"Look for evidence of the divine in the mundane and even in the profane." 

John Suk talked about something called "perspective by incongruity," an idea of Kenneth Burke's which I didn't quite get but will add to my growing list of Things I Want to Know More About.

(Sigh. #FFWgr always leaves me with the existential exhaustion of realizing ever more clearly how much I don't know.)

From James McBride

"Most of what I do fails. Learn to fail. Fail--then forget it." I'm not sure I believe this. Maybe it's hyperbole? I would like to know, operationally, what that looks like.

"I wake up at 4 a.m. and just sit there waiting for God to come into the room." Many speakers at the conference mentioned the productivity of the early morning hours, which discourages me a tiny bit.

"Skepticism is good, but cynicism is a killer of dreams." Ooooh, this was good. (And by the way, how do you spell "ooo" that rhymes with "mood" rather than ooooh that rhymes with "road"? Because I was aiming for the oo in mood sound there, but it just didn't look right without the h.)

Shannon Huffman Polson

"Grief and loss are lonely, but they connect you to humanity." I think this is why suffering is such a useful tool for an artist, writer, musician. Dammit.

"I wanted to suffer, wanted the pain of grief--because it would keep me closer to those I had lost." This certainly resonated with me, even though I remember when I said it to a friend, she looked at me strangely. I saw other heads nodding--and I was glad to see that this counter-intuitive feeling of wanting to hold on to the pain of grief was not merely a glitch in my otherwise well-adjusted persona, but that it had universal resonance.

"If the grief ebbed, did it mean that the love and connection were not that great? There is a lot of guilt in grief." This, too; both the question and the statement.

Andrew Krivak:

"Take small acts--actions outside of the interior life of grief and loss--and write them into your story." This is actually a paraphrase, but I like the notion that small acts have great value. I think he was making a reference to the book Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World. 
Peter Marty

Peter Marty (whose appearance reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer):

"If you want to be a better writer, become a deeper person." I wish he had offered Seven Steps to Becoming a Deeper Person.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"We keep on outsourcing our brains--we know and remember less. We externalize our knowledge, our taste, our experience, and our faith. We reference and rely on the faith and experience of others. In Genesis, by chapter three they stop talking with God and start talking about God."

"Is it possible for some people to miss their lives in the way that they miss a plane?"

"Tell me what you love, and I can tell you what you believe." Oof.

"We identify our center through suffering." More on this, please.

Anne Lamott:

"Life and writing are very, very hard. I don't think we're here to figure things out."

"There is perfect healing, but people die anyway. Frankly, if I were God, I would have a completely different system."

"I think if there is a God, he probably looks a lot like Isaac Stern. Or Bette Midler."

"We were taught to stay one step ahead of the abyss. If the abyss opens up at your feet, go to Ikea. Get an area rug."

"It's OK to admit that you're crazy and damaged. All the better people are."

Hugh Cook offered practical advice about writing fiction:

"Your character must desperately want something; but something thwarts her. She must make specific, decisive actions."

"Use dialogue not for narration or description, but to show your characters."

"Reveal your character's age early on."

Brett Lott:

Start a story with what you know, and head into "what if"--what if this happened, or that?"

Suzanne Woods Fisher:

"Answer the call to write; keep the calling at the forefront of your vision all the time."

"Living for the opinions of others is seductive; don't do it. Remember who you are."

I have no quotes from James Vanden Bosch, but his presentation on corpus linguistics was one of my top three sessions. Who knew. I might even sign up for the eight-week MOOC in September.

Miroslav Volf:

"Atheists point to ways that religion and Christians have failed and malfunctioned."

"We must listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters from around the world to penetrate our own self-deception. We must listen to the wisdom of saints and critics."

"We are restless for God; we reach for the transcendent. The orientation of our selves to the Divine is the primary function of faith."

This next quote is from an audience member who might have been quoting someone else, but it struck me as worthy of inclusion: "Christianity has become so sentimental and shallow that we can't even produce good atheists anymore!" This was connected to the part of the interview in which Volf said something to the effect that he'd take Nietzsche over Dawkins any day.

"I don't bemoan the marginalization of the Christian faith. There are strengths in the margins. When Christians were in the center of power we were used, and the faith was abused. Like the band of twelve followers on the outskirts of Jerusalem, we can testify to the beauty of Jesus Christ from the margins."

Rachel Held Evans:

"Every challenge--the challenge of writer's block, distraction, discouragement, fear, lack of ideas--is solved by getting back to work. In writing, that work is paying attention, naming things, telling stories." 

"Remember that God is generous, and grace is scandalous. God has called us to this work. There is no scarcity principle at work in writing--there's plenty of work to do, plenty of stories to tell."

Now, I bet you can't wait until #FFWgr2016! I know I can't.

Stay tuned for Hashtag FFWgr, Part Two: Reading List.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

God Is Good...Right?

A friend took a trip overseas, and was surprised and pleased to see that her bags had not gotten caught up in customs, but had arrived with her. She posted her happiness on Facebook, and noted, "God is good."

Another friend asked for prayer for her sick relative. When he recovered, she posted, "God is good. My dad is well. Prayer really does work!!!"

It's good to be grateful, and to thank God for the things in our lives that go right. But it bothers me when people of faith connect God's goodness to things going right. God is still good even if our luggage gets lost or dad is still sick. God is still good, even when the worst possible thing happens. 

Right? I believe this. I want to believe it. But in the middle of loss, grief, and sorrow, sometimes I struggle to believe it. "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief."

If we only declare the goodness of God when things go our way, what are we saying about God? And about ourselves, and our faith? We seem to be saying that God's goodness is somehow connected to good outcomes. Of course this isn't what we believe--or at least, it's not what we say we believe, nor what the Bible says about the character of God. "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136:1). 

We believe that God is good all the time, that it is one of His immutable characteristics, like holiness, justice and omniscience. But we tend to only declare it when we feel it--and this tendency has two negative effects: number one, we are testifying to other believers that this is the primary way we know that God is good--by the good things that happen to us. And number two, the watching world might interpret our belief to be tied to or dependent upon positive outcomes.

I am a believer who struggles daily with outcomes that are disappointing, unsatisfying, painful, and sometimes downright evil. If I thought that God's goodness was tied to good outcomes, I would cease to believe in God. In fact, I suppose I would discover that I wasn't really believing in God at all--but rather, a made-up, Pollyanna version of God that exists to make people feel good about themselves and the world. This is not God at all--or at least not the God that reveals Himself in the Bible.

If I only see God's goodness in good outcomes on this earth, then when horrible things happen, I start to think that God has failed me or forgotten me, or that God has not kept his promises to me. But God does not promise us health, or happiness, or good-looking children, or financial security, or freedom from persecution. 

In fact, the Bible indicates that believers can be guaranteed that they will have trouble, hardship, sorrow, and persecution in this life. Jesus plainly said this: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33)--but the rest of that verse gives us the promise: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

I propose that we stop saying "God is good" when we feel grateful for a positive outcome, because it sends the wrong message and minimizes the actual goodness of God, which is the apogee of goodness, far grander and more awesome than on-time luggage or physical healing or any other positive outcome we encounter. 

Instead, when we experience the joy of a good outcome, we could say "I'm grateful for this good thing that God allowed," or just "Thanks be to God." And that might give us the freedom and strength when we face ineluctable suffering to continue to know and trust in God's unchanging goodness. 

In the wake of losing Aidan, I am re-learning how to be grateful. It is a painfully slow process, but in this moment, in the middle of relentless grief, I choose to believe that God is good. "Help Thou my unbelief."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hashtag Chiberia

Dining room ceilings across Chicago protest the
Narnian winter.
First it looked like this.

Frustrating. Water drip, drip, dripping through bubbling paint on the dining room ceiling.

I poked holes in the puffed out layer of paint, and yellow water streamed out. We positioned buckets under the leaks, and pressed on the separated paint layers to push the remaining water out.

But releasing the water did not solve the problem, and a few days later, we heard a loud PHHHHHLLLUUMMMPHHHHH. Mr. Peevie and I ran out to the dining room to see layers of plaster and insulation coating the table and floor. 

It was quite impressive. For a little while the hole looked like this: 

But Mr. Peevie kept looking at that uncollapsed corner and saying, "I think this is gonna go, too. Stay away from this corner, guys. It's gonna go." 

I admit I made fun of him for his pessimism--and then about a half hour later--PHHHHHLLLUUMMMPHHHHH! Down it came. Sometimes pessimism is another word for "I told you so."

Fortunately, Mr. Peevie did not listen to my Pollyanna outlook, and he had prepped for the second collapse by putting down tarps and bins, which caught a lot of the debris. We have made the first-ever claim against our homeowners' insurance policy since we bought our first house about twenty years ago.

We went through a similar experience with the water dripping through the dining room ceiling five years ago-- And guess what?

The last time Chicago recorded a high temperature below zero was Jan. 15, 2009 -- exactly five years ago. 

"The bitter temperatures follow several days of snowfall," the article reports. Almost twelve inches of snow fell at O'Hare that week--and almost nine of them in one day, breaking the record from 2005.

Apparently, this phenomenon is caused by ice dams that form on the edge of the roof, forcing melting snow back under the shingles, where it creeps in and leaks out inside the house. And it's not just happening at the Peevie homestead, either. It's happening all over Chiberia.

Five years ago, though, the winter was less Narnian than this interminable, tenacious, entrenched season that continues to break records. When I started writing this post, we had marked 75.5 inches of snow so far this season. then later that day we received another batch. To date, our snowfall totals have exceeded 80 inches--80.6 to be exact-- which obliterates the '69-'70 record (77 inches) and wags a warning finger at the '77-'78 second place record (82.3 inches).

I don't think we're going to hit the all-time snowfall record of 89.7 inches in 1978-79, which is a little bit sad since we've come so far. All we'd need would be another 9.2 inches of snow. 

Come on, snow gods! Sock it to us! Let's crush that record!

(BTW, in light of my previous post, the source for these snowy stats is the NBC-5 weather blog.)