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.