Friday, August 28, 2009

Identity Theft--it's not just about money anymore

Before I got the kids off to school this morning I received a phone call. My friend said, "Shawna, you need to check your Facebook page, NOW!"

As it turned out, my identity had been stolen on Facebook by some random, vile hacker. Since we are in the middle of a move between homes, I had no internet access available, so I had no idea of the degree of deviousness this person was perpetrating in my name.

Luckily, the people who know me got busy online and defended me. Thank You. You know who you are. In a very short period of time this person hacked into my Facebook page and sent malicious, profane, and hurtful messages to friends, family, and acquaintances, changed my profile (including maritial status and sexual preference), and posted a "story" about my husband and me which was not only badly written, but sick.

The hacker then got into my gmail account and sent a disgusting message to a friend of mine. Luckily, this friend is both intelligent and stocked with a good sense of humor, so that mess was cleared up easily. What I don't know is whether or not my email address list was taken, if publishers and other industry contacts were contacted in my name (which could affect the future of my career--no one wants to be blacklisted!) or if anyone else has been contacted maliciously and unaware of the hack. The hacker also found his/her way into my page on the Edgy Christian Fiction Lovers website and changed my profile and posted a comment which was not only derogatory toward Christianity, but offensive to the Christian publishing community.

Now it's up to me to clean up the mess. It's been a busy day.

I encourage you to change your passwords often, and not from public access computers/networks. Using the public library's computer was, apparently, the root of this evil. (Okay, not the original root, but we know who that is.) So far my bank accounts are without damage and I pray that remains the same. But money comes and goes--you only get one reputation, and all it takes is a few words in the wrong ear (or across the wrong screen, as the case may be) before your character is called into question and your testimony is damaged.

Thanks, again, to everyone who stood up for me on Facebook, Edgy Christian Fiction Lovers, and in my community. It's not over yet.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Duking it out--through Self-editing and Revision

I do not want to go backwards--on... on... please, let me move forward!!!! But, alas...

Time to go back.

Ugh. Just when I've got my momentum going steady on my new novel I get three professional critiques back on the last one and... looks like I have to do some rewriting. What wonderful critics, though! Their attagirls outweighed their suggestions, bless their hearts. And Heaven knows I needed an attagirl! But EXCELLENCE is the name of the game, boys and girls and, since I'm heading to a conference in September to try and sell the darn thing, I guess I'd best get on it. Sigh.

But I don't wanna. (insert whining tone here). Stick a fork in me, baby (as an old DJ friend of mine used to say) 'cuz I'm done.

Except that... I'm not. I know I've blogged before about rewrites; stated how much "I love this part." And I do... it's just the diving into it that I'm not all that flipped out about at the moment. I'm so involved in my new characters, my new story, that going back feels like some sort of dream-sequence/deja vu. On past projects I've always edited in a fluid "finished with draft 46 and now moving right into draft number 47 now" sort of way. Now I've got to open up that closed book (which, by the way, was at draft number 317 or there about before I even sent it off to be critiqued) and dive in brain first.

But I want it to be excellent. Really, I do. I'm studying the craft, getting better, asking the questions, and sending it out there FOR CRITICISM--and now it has come; so get after it, I will.

Subjects and characters in this about-to-be-overhauled novel, Suspended in Disbelief, push the envelope of what is acceptable in Christian fiction. And I want it to. I don't want to pander to the legalistic, plastic, and just plain ICK pollyanna stereotype of the post-salvation feminine believer in Christ. I wanna show the blood and guts of duking it out--and sometimes losing a battle--with temptation. And the consequences. I truly feel called to show that side of life. Cuz it's my side of life.

So now I'm going to get in there and make it BETTER for them-- for the other Christian women out there who need a fresh picture of what Mercy looks like after Grace has been received. I'm gonna make that first scene pull them in and grab them harder. I'm going to make my conflict stalk through the story like a lion--roaring, sneaking, pouncing, and roaring some more. I'm going to take scenes which were little more than vehicles and turn them into device-obliterating MAGIC. And when I'm done with that, I'm going to take an ending that might just be too "neat" and make it a little messier. The gloves are coming off, baby--so stand back!

So there is my rambling blog for the day. Now I'm going to go beat the tar out of my manuscript and see who survives the day.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Obsessive Compulsive Mood Music Disorder

My kids are so sick of George and Ira Gershwin. And they don't even know it.

With every bit of fiction I write some sort of music speaks to me and fuels my creative process. For The Ryn it was a combo of Etta James, Celtic new age, Chris Tomlin, and movie soundtracks. For Suspended in Disbelief it was Barlow Girl, specifically the acoustic version of "On My Own", and SuperChick. Now as I write a flashback-heavy saga coming-of-age heartbreak I'm listening to the 1993 Sheena Easton album of classics (several by one or both of the Gershwin boys) entitled No Strings.

The album chronicles the birth, life, and, ultimately, the death of a romantic relationship. Particularly, the poignant lyric and haunting arrangement of the French ballad, If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas) written by Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen rips at my heartstrings. I play the song over and over as I write certain scenes. The song has taken on the life of a Muse; its practically writing its own scenes, just within my more contemporary-ish setting and with my characters. Former pop-princess Easton croons like a 1930s chanteuse, emoting the grief, pleading, and acceptance of the lyric so perfectly. I only wish I spoke French to be able to translate the remaining portion of the lyric.

My Amazon cart also includes a compilation album or two I plan to draw from--songs from the 80s which were such a huge part of my own heartbreaks. And Daughtry--oh, Daughtry. Loss, fear, and hope wrapped up in a song.

I know a lot of other authors depend upon music to fuel their writing. Stephenie Meyer loves the band Muse, James Scott Bell writes to instrumental movie soundtracks. I don't know if other authors are as obsessive about particular songs as I am... but I also don't know if other people are generally as obsessive about ANYTHING as I, in my warped state of mind, am.

Did I mention that Sheena is crooning "How Deep is The Ocean" through my laptop speakers right now????? It is a sickness, I know.

But the sun is shining, my girls just got home from school... 45 minutes ago... so I'm going to go outside and enjoy this new turn in Iowa's bipolar weather.

But I'll probably take my MP3 player out with me. You never can tell what new scenes the Muse will sing to mind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dreams from Atop a Dry Waterfall

I love to travel--so much so that a part of me is always planning my next escape... or the escapes that are so far in the future that I can put no date upon them. I dream about that cruise through the Mediterranean, stopping at several Greek Isles, the two-week sojourn through Ireland, the learn-to-sail vacation in the Florida Keys. I want to swim in the phosphorescently glowing sea at night just off the coast of that little island (Viejes?) near Puerto Rico. I love to dream of travel... new places, new people, new beaches, new seas.

But I also dream of traveling to places I've visited before.

I took a trip on Easter Sunday. It was a short trip. I got there by foot... and by memory. I went to THE WATERFALL just up the road from my parents' farm.

I was first taken to The Waterfall by my Grandma Vi. My Grandma was an adventurer--oh, I wish I had coaxed more stories of her youth from her when I had the chance. The youthful escapades which embarrassed her in her dotage would likely have spawned many a 1930s coming-of-age novel. But I digress... allowable in a blog; not so much in a novel...

Grandma took me to The Waterfall when I was a preschooler and she lived in the big white farm house just down the road from the creek. Later she and Grandpa John retired to Texas, though she often took me back to The Waterfall in the summer to catch tadpoles in the creek.

I was almost fifteen when my family moved into the old house on the farm. Without a driver's license, and eight miles from town, my social life was a random hit-or-miss at the whim of my older (and quite generous) brother. When he and his Camaro were unavailable, I was often found walking through the woods or sitting on the ledge of The Waterfall (somewhat of a misnomer for the ledge--the creek rarely ran with enough force water to push the water beyond the deep pool several yards behind the cliff.)

On that regularly dry ledge I discovered a stage; my personal, private amphitheatre. The trees were my audience as I acted out scenes from musicals and sang the myriad ballads composed within my own imagination. I had no real desire to be an actress, though I loved performing--but had nursed high hopes of a career as a singer/songwriter since I'd been given my first Olivia Newton-John 8-track at the age of 3.--so any vocal performance on stage captured my imagination.

Though some might think it juvenile of a girl in her mid teens to make-believe, my drive to create--to perform-- was not necessarily sanctioned by my family. My dreams of a career in the entertainment business was thought of as child's play and nonsense. And so I sought the relative privacy of The Waterfall to be the person I thought I was--or should be--and to talk to God about my dreams. At The Waterfall I would sing to Him... and let down the implied pretenses of my honor-student existence and pretend I could achieve the spotlight I yearned to capture.

Poetry and song lyrics poured from my heart to the page much more reliably than water from that oft-dry cascade. I often had pen and paper with me upon that ledge. I wrote stories for fun--songs were my future... or so I thought.

Things got a little crazy midway through my freshman year. Half a year later my heart was broken for the first time--and The Waterfall carried many of my tears to God. At a time when speculation and untruth tore my heart and changed the course of my life I found solace and sanctuary at The Waterfall. It become my Cathedral.

It still seems a sacred place to me.

As I grew older I was accompanied to The Waterfall by my dog, Babe--aka: The Best Dog Who Ever Lived. A champion-blood-line German Shepherd, Babe was my confidante, friend, companion, and protector on those walks. Babe chased snakes from their rocky perches and warning me of GIANT wolf spiders before my phobic self could be surprised by The Waterfall's creepier creatures. She listened to me rave against the injustices of life and panted that tongue-lolling smile when I belted Amy Grant's "Thy Word" to the sky. When I cried on the ledge, she leaned into my side as if she could absorb some of my grief. Oh, I miss that dog. For anyone who has never had a furry soul mate, the thought of sharing your hopes and dreams with a dog might seem silly, but for those of you who have been blessed with such a friend, you can understand the subtle reticence and certain bittersweetness I have at the thought of returning to The Waterfall without her now.

Due to a random line of inspiration which came to me recently while reading my Bible one morning (I tend to take those random moments a bit more seriously than others) I began fictionalizing My Waterfall. The story is taking shape as a young adult romance novel; though experience tells me it may evolve to something else before its done. I guess you could say I'm a "method writer" to borrow a term from The Actor's Studio. To write this novel I'm pulling out old scrapbooks, listening to old music, opening old wounds, and examining old heartbreaks--but all the while I am reveling in the hindsight which reveals the loving, sovereign hand of my God upon my life.

But with all my methodology, something was missing. Something only a 25 minute drive away.

I wanted... no needed to go to My Waterfall--to climb down the slippery clay creek bank and dangle my legs over that sacred ledge.

The memories pulled at my desire like the full moon grabs the tide.

So I returned there on Easter Sunday--with my camera and my daughter. I needed to see, feel, smell, & hear again that place so that I can better express it--almost as its own character--within this novel-in-progress. Although the sentimental side of me wished for no other companion but a long-gone dog, another part of me longed to share this special place with my almost-12-year-old Delaney.

Like me, Delaney loves to sing, loves to write, loves to create. Over the past several months she has become enamored with the story and music of the Broadway musical Wicked, spending hours upon hours blocking scenes to go along with the soundtrack she listens to incessantly. Along with her long-held dream of becoming a small animal vet, Delaney has become suddenly enraptured with the idea of being in a Broadway Musical someday.

I don't care what path she chooses--but I fully intend to support her dreams regardless--which is something my teen years lacked. My close friends will tell you that I didn't NEED any more daring--that when I headed off to Nashville on my own at eighteen that it showed my inner drive outweighed my family's opposition to my chosen field... but they also know how I struggled once I arrived. But that is neither here nor there... and we were at The Waterfall., now... weren't we?

Showing Delaney my amphitheater, singing with her there, I was taken back in time. The ledge was dry--as it so often was when I danced upon it. Delaney, in her adolescent self-consciousness, seemed a bit embarrassed by my performance, but she helped me sing "Defying Gravity" from Wicked--correcting me when I got the words wrong. Before the song was over, however, she'd slung her arm around a tree and pulled herself up the bank... away from the crazy Elphaba-ish woman on top of the Waterfall. Honestly, I think she was afraid for a minute that I was going to try to fly off the ledge, even without a proper broom!

So my little trip took me a bit farther than I originally planned--in two directions. All at once I visited both the past--and a possible future.

Who knows what dreams Delaney will dream before she strikes out on her own. Doctor? Baker? Candlestick Maker? It matters not. Even though it thrills me to see little pieces of the girl I was appear in this amazing, unique child, I refuse to be one of those mothers who lives vicariously through her daughters. Why should I? God gave me my own dreams and then, like the creative potter he is, reshaped them beyond my limited view. And I'm LIVING THEM now.

But, unlike my own background--my own well-meaning family-- I refuse to compromise my child's self-confidence by telling her she needs to have "something to fall back on" in case she's not good enough to make it on the path of her dreams.

I learned something in Music City and I intend to share it with my daughters as I encourage them to take risks, to go for it--whatever "it" turns out to be:

If you have something to fall back on... you will fall.

And it hurts to fall. It hurts so much... regardless of the cushion you've set below your backside.

But I will also admit to them that, regardless of confidence or success or failure-- God is still in the business of painting fresh dreams; of sculpting old dreams into shapes that fit more snugly around your ever-evolving heart.

I'll go back soon... maybe with Delaney... maybe on my own. Because God is sculpting a new dream upon the pages of my imagination... a dream he laid the foundations for twenty-one years ago...

Atop a dry waterfall.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Howling at the Moon: And Other Conspiracy Theories

DSFD: Daylight Savings Fatigue Disorder

The switch to Daylight Savings Time has totally messed with my groove. Honestly.

Rather than retreating to the safe harbor of my writing cave this morning, or the endorphin-producing activities associated with a trip to the gym, I headed back to bed as soon as I got child #2 on the big yellow bus. When I awoke, only moderately refreshed, I headed out to my back yard with long, yellow rubber gloves and a plastic bag.

Yes, I spent my first wakeful hours scooping dog poo into the bag. Our vet says it is the best digging deterrent for our dog. So I picked up the poo and placed stinky, rain-mushed clumps of it amidst the trenches my sweet Aussie Shepherd/Lab mix has dug in our newly landscaped back yard on her eternal quest for the MOLE. Wow. What a run-on sentence.

She's a great mole-hunter, our Vivvi. Last year she unearthed and rid our yard of more than fifteen of the creepy little critters. But while Vivvi's tactics are both effective and enthusiastic, they are also somewhat, ahem, destructive. It was Vivvi's digging which necessitated the new landscaping, the expensive grass seed mix, and the hours of planning which resulted in last Autumn's verdant carpet in our back yard. But alas, the moles have returned. And Vivvi is determined to annihilate them.

And I am determined to save my yard. So onward my gloved hands!

And really, why not? Since Saturday night's dreaded clock switcharoo, my creative juices haven't start officially flowing until around noon, anyway. I figure may as well scoop poop as write it, eh?

Maybe it's the full moon. Maybe it's PMS. Maybe it's a conspiracy between governmental calendar dudes, the lunar cycle, and the Greater Council of Pituitary Hormones; a conspiracy of evil intent engineered specifically to freak me out.

Or not.

The good news is, while I'm not getting my writing groove on until afternoon, my reading groove is going steady. Dean Koontz's No Fear is excellent--I'm almost finished. Read it. I can't believe it took me so long to discover Mr. Koontz--so thanks to James Scott Bell for pointing me in a master storyteller's direction.

I'm also about half way through digesting Sailing Between the Stars by Steven James and about a third of the way into I'm Fine with God... It's Christians I Can't Stand by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz. Both nonfiction titles. Both funny and thought-provoking, even in my brain-mushed state of DSFD.

And my kitchen floor still needs a significant amount of scrubbing. And there are dirty dishes in the sink. And every bed in my house is yet unmade. Have I even showered today? Hmmm....

It must be a funk of the moon--although I'm still not convinced against the conspiracy theory idea.

How is it that just one lost hour on Sunday morning has turned me into an ADHD reader and a poo-scooping vigilante against moles and digging dogs alike?

It must be the full moon. It's tonight. But I'm too tired to howl. maybe I'll go take a nap.

Wait... I already did that.

Coffee time! And nothing goes better with a cup of coffee than a little bit of fiction. Maybe my coffee break will be just long enough to finish No Fear... if not, I may just have to stay up late enough tonight to howl at that blasted moon.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Reading Your Way to Fitness

Stick with me, I've been fighting with this post for an hour trying to get spaces between paragraphs. I'm losing AT LEAST HALFthe battle, however, so I think I'll just throw this baby up on the board and hope for the best. here goes...

I joined a gym in November. I've started drinking more water (one large glass for every cup of coffee. Believe me, the carpet on the stairs between my writing cave and my bathroom is wearing thin.) and lifting weights and downloading upbeat music onto my MP3 so I can get my groove on. But the greatest thing I've discovered at the gym is the recumbant, stationary bike.

Because I'm not going anywhere, I don't have to keep my eyes on the road. I'm sitting comfortably enough that I can hold a book in my hands and be exercising my body as well as my mind. Since I rediscovered this amazing piece of fitness machinery, (the last time I was on one was back in my days at Belmont University in Miss Betty's Lifetime Fitness class) I have looked forward to my workouts more than ever before.

Together, the unseen Dean Koontz and I have pedaled through Intensity. While I held my elbows up to keep the book from bouncing, James Scott Bell taught me some interesting writing techniques in Plot and Structure. Christa Parrish helped me forget about the burn in my thighs while I went Home Another Way (a CBA title with a snarly, realistically messed up protagonist! Go Christa!)' and later today I'm taking Dean with me again, but this time I'm starting No Fear. Truly, this is exercise a bookworm could get used to!

Yesterday I pedaled for 30 minutes and sweated 10 whole miles while reading a bit from Steven James's musings in his poetry-filled/anecdotal/thoughtful rant Sailing Between the Stars. This is a great book that I picked up from the (wince) bargain bin of my local Christian book store. (sorry, Steven.) One of my favorite lines (and there are many which I've highlighted in neon yellow) is:

"Imagination dwells at the heart of Christianity.
It's a worldview of wonder."
This of course hits my "YES! Preach it!" button like the strong man mallet at the county fair.
I love wonder. I love mystery. I love that God can't fit in a neat little box, no matter how many bullet points make it into tracts and sermons and books and talkshows and songs. I love that he's wild and uncontainable. As Steven James writes,
"Theology is our attempt to capture God in the butterfly net of our minds. But, of course, he's too wild for that....Christians all too often try to break him down into bite-sized pieces that fit neatly into one-page doctrinal statements and three-point sermons. We call it systematic theology, but the problem is, theology isn't systematic. It's narrative. God isn't a subject to be studied; he's a Person to be encountered. That's why the Bible is the story of God and not the lesson about God.... You can never experience the full flavor of a story by dissecting it; you experience it only by devouring it with the wide-open mouth of your soul."
So yesterday, when I heard of a friend whose experience in reading William P. Young's novel The Shack was subtly dimmed by a fellow Christian who has "serious theological issues" with the story, I just wanted to SCREAM, "Yo! It's fiction! Don't get your knickers in a bunch--just see what God has for you within the story and lift your face to see if you can sense his breath on the page! Save your theological criticism for nonfiction expository writing and just enjoy the freaking story already--what he has for you might open up a new picture of Himself in your heart!"
Okay, I'll admit it. Those are not the words I screamed in my internal monologue. But this is a family show.
As a writer I'm continually amazed at the amount of criticism lobbied against fiction, both secular and Christian. Some things I've heard recently:
"Don't read Twilight, because Vampires are demonic."
Um, last time I checked, vampires were, ahem, make-believe.
Or (run on sentence alert) the other critical comment about the Meyer series that makes me laugh with the ridiculousness of it's postulation by people who probably promote those bonnet-driven CBA titles with vomitously perfect Christian men as their romantic leads:
"Twilight gives young girls an unrealistically high expectation of male behavior."
He-llo-oh! I want my daughters to have an unrealistically high expectation of male behavior--I want them to date guys (when they're 25, of course) whose hearts are filled with romantic thoughtfulness! Puh-leeze! Since we've already established that vampires are fictional creatures, I have to say that if my daughter brought home a young man with the upstanding moral fiber of Edward Cullen I would most heartily give my blessing! Granted, Meyer's books aren't timeless classics or great literary wonders--but they've captured the hearts of a generation (and some of that generation's mothers!) with a sweet love story overlaid with strong moral themes defining the story's core (like the importance of family, waiting for sex until marriage, loyalty, friendship... the list goes on.)
But I digress. I was talking about criticism, wasn't I?
Or how about the old standby of the Mouthy Moral Police which is sure to come back into play this summer when Movie Number Six makes its way to the theatres: "Harry Potter is a wizard teaching children to be disrespectful occultists!" (um, right. Give me a break. Unless someone has made it through Platform 9-3/4 and hasn't told me yet, I believe Harry is, also, fiction.)
Sometimes I'm just so grossed out by religion-biased criticism... (notice I said 'religion' which, to me, is a life emboldened only by rules and regulations and fingerpointing rather than a relationship that interacts with both the Divine and the Culture in which they've been placed.) I wish religious critics would remember and value the beauty of mystery; the beauty of story. I wish they would remember that a mirror shows only one dimension of an object while the object itself is multidimensional.
Fiction Mirrors Truth.
So, as I finish my second cup of coffee today, I'm thinking of this afternoon's workout; wondering if No Fear will have the same can't-put-it-down intensity as, well, Koontz's Intensity. I'll have to let you know. Or if instead, I'll get so into my writing project that my visit to the gym will fade into the "oops, time's up!" category of my day.
So next time you go to the gym and get on some demon treadmill (long story--involves me going through a wall. I no longer use treadmills.) go ahead and check out the recumbant bikes. And while you're there, look in the mirror--not the muscle-boy flexing mirror, dear; the mirror of fiction. Breathe in, breathe out... and fog up the glass--then use your finger not to point, but to carve your intials on some piece of the story. Because Fiction Mirrors Truth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"CLEAR!" kah-chuhnk!

That's my version of an E.R. doctor using a defibrillator. (Hang in there; you'll get it later. maybe.)

On Sunday the sermon touched briefly upon the meaning of "inspiration", referencing the literal application as "God breathed"--a sentiment I have always adored.

Using 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the concept was expanded upon.

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

What struck me later was that as Paul was writing these words, he wasn't thinking of them as "scripture." He was just writing a letter to his buddy, Tim. When Paul spoke of Holy Scripture, he was speaking of the Old Testament.

I've often wondered what Paul would have thought at the time if someone told him his letter to Timothy would end up being considered "Scripture." The same goes for all his other letters, and the writers of the Gospels. Would they be shocked? Maybe; maybe not. Maybe the Spirit compelling them to write was so profoundly clear in His intentions that they just knew.

Regardless of the writers' reactions to the present-day placement of their accounts and letters, these books are, indeed, books of Holy Scripture. They are books written--inspired-- by the Breath of God.

The beautiful thing about the New Testament is how it can be held up to the prophesies in the Old Testament and proven true. This is how it is Holy Scripture. And because of that proof, we can hold our own writing and reading up to the glass and test it for the breath of God.

But so often we forget that God is still breathing. God did not breathe out a revelation to the disciple that Jesus loved and then cease inspirating and expirating His heart into the hearts of His people. Our Omnipotent Lord, the Creative Force who originated this epic saga we call 'life' does not need CPR or a crash cart. God is still breathing.

As a writer, there have been priceless moments when my fingers fly over the keys and my imagination explodes with such ferocity that I know it is from another Source--because I don't have the ability to store that sort of passionate imagery within me. It's those moments that I see the fog of God's breath upon the page and I go back and reread what I barely remember imagining--and I weep--because He has revealed to me something new and fresh about Himself. He loves me so much!

Don't get me wrong here, I've no desire to blaspheme! I'm not at all saying that what I write is anything close to something which would be considered "Scripture" --heavens, no. Honestly, I write a lot of useless crap; my best editing efforts still carry an aftertaste labeled with the imperfect flavor and scent of words filtered through my weak human brain. Everything I write still has too much of me in it to ever be considered so TRUE. However, there are rare, golden moments when a single line, a scene, or a paragraph carries within it the pure, sweet overscent of Truth like a reflection in a pond on a windy day.

I smell this aroma upon the pages of so many of my favorite authors, many of whom claim no faith in Christ but who are being used of Him just the same. When it's great, fiction writing contains a clear picture of humanity's core need for a Hero; and without our admittance of that fundamental need, we are lost.

Although often in our stories we allow human or fantastic heroes to serve the purpose of that "little h" character of the hero, it's the "BIG H" Hero who breathes through the little hero's actions; it's the Big H Hero who shows Himself as a whisper following the wind. It's this perfect, sacrificial lamb; this flame-eyed, sword-mouthed, undefeatable Hero who saves the day, whether we acknowledge Him or not--when Fiction Mirrors Truth.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Heroin, Molasses, & Mirrors

This morning Ellerie and I listened to the radio while we waited for the school bus to come to the end of our road. In between songs, Air 1’s Scott and Kelly took a call from a Dad whose daughter is a heroin addict now serving time in a local jail.

I expected to hear the usual story about a “lost” daughter who needed Jesus; instead, a grateful father told how God used an awful, destructive addiction in one of His kids to bring about change in the life of someone else.

This man’s daughter—the heroin addict-- was a born again Christian—before heroin (and during and even now); yes, she is SAVED, but “got caught up in the ways of the world” to the point of drug abuse, theft, and incarceration. After getting clean, this man’s daughter read her Bible everyday in jail and ended up witnessing to and sharing Christ with her cellmate. When her father visited her in jail recently, she shared a letter she’d received from her former cellmate who had been transferred to a state prison. In the letter, the woman thanked this man’s daughter for reading her Bible every day and for sharing the love of Christ with her; the cellmate is now a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

We are so quick to judge, aren’t we? So quick to assume that God could never use something so hideous and awful as heroin addiction to further His purpose. Would that cellmate have come to Christ without the benefit of having that man's daughter's witness? Maybe--but probably much later. Who would have guessed when she heated up her first spoon or opened her first vein that that act would lead to a moment where the angels of heaven rejoiced? It's truly awful and truly awesome. It makes me want to jump up and joyfully scream out the word "HOPE" as if it were one of the names of God. Maybe it is.

When I hear stories like this—true stories—I hold them up against the Christian fiction that is out there; stories of such perfection in the saved; stories of messed up lives which miraculously align when Christ is added to the picture; and I wonder if the mirror of truth is cracked in the CBA arena of the publishing industry—or just blurred by layers of molasses.

Lately I’ve been a three-five chapter puker over most of the Christian titles I’ve checked out from my local library. What I mean by that is: after 3-5 chapters of the book, I take it to the “returns” slot, disgusted; no, appalled that the “church” end of the publishing empire is pandering such syrupy sludge off as relevant fiction. And these aren’t obscure titles from little-old-lady authors, either; these are new releases from bestselling Christian authors; authors writing stories which are so coated with saccharin that I need an MRI after reading them.

That being said, I have read a couple of good ones, too. See my Shelfari shelf for more info on those.

No wonder more and more Christian readers are turning to secular fiction. Fiction mirrors truth, but honestly: who wants to have to scrape molasses off a mirror when it’s this cold outside?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Praying vs. Posturing

I’ve come a long way toward “acceptable evangelical prayer posturing” since uttering that child’s prayer for salvation twenty-five years ago. I've come a long way in the same way Virginia Slims smokers were told, "You've come a long way, baby” – just a few puffs away from the Iron Lung.

Should I have set off the “sarcasm alert” siren? Oops; I forgot. My bad.

Since joining up with the traditionally acceptable “church” of American evangelicalism in my late teens, I’ve towed the line to become a champion pray-er of sub-culturally acceptable prayers. I’ve prayed from formulas and acronyms and wish lists; I’ve prayed to a tyrant, a bureaucrat, and a Santa Claus who’d traded in his flashy red suit for Gandalf’s more acceptable white robe. While holding hands in a circle, I’ve attempted to set a world record for most creative uses of the word “just”; and after phone calls I've pledged to pray for people I promptly forgot about five minutes later.

So sorry if that was you.

As a responsible Christian parent I’ve taught my children to recite meaningless rubbish at the table so our food doesn’t poison us; but quickly, so it doesn’t get cold! Like any “good Christian mom”, I’ve prayed “over them” at bedtime for their good night’s sleep. At one recent bedtime I asked my 7-year-old daughter if she would like to pray instead of me. To my shame she said, “I only know how to pray for food.”

My heart landed somewhere near my feet. Suddenly I was the world’s biggest loser mom; a huge failure as a parent. How could I have screwed up something so basic; so vital to her Christian growth? She had no idea how to proceed. And it was my fault. My fault because I’d let bedtime prayers become nothing more than a slightly-extended exaggeration of the rhyming ditty I had recited at bedtime when I was little. And I’d been so proud that I prayed with my kids every night. Shudder. It turns my stomach.

So, in a moment of utter panic for the deficit I’d implanted in my children’s spiritual walk, I fell back on my trusty acronym, the ACTS prayer I learned at a ladies’ Bible study years ago. I thought it was as good a place to start as any; and maybe it is. We all need to learn how to ADORE our Father/Savior/Friend; how to CONFESS our sin; the importance of giving THANKS.

Supplication, of course, comes easily once the word is defined in kidspeak; I mean, it’s the fun, American one, right? As my daughter interpreted my definition of that last word, she reiterated with a smile, “So... you mean it’s when you get to ask for STUFF.” Gulp.

Although I’m sure the developer of the ACTS prayer never intended for his big, scary word to be replaced with something so… um… uncomfortably accurate (most of the time), when I pray the ACTS prayer—and this is a reflection upon my heart, not the developer of the ACTS prayer or the hundreds of thousands of ACTS devotees—it always seems to be heavily weighted toward the “S” end of the scale; it’s like I’m going through the motions to get on God’s good side so I can ask Him to provide all the stuff I feel like he should be shelling out to me anyway. Just like our family’s slightly varied mealtime recitations are no more an exercise of relating to God than setting the table is, I’ve found the ACTS prayer to rarely serve as more than a vain attempt at checking prayer off on my daily to-do list and reminding God of his promises for my abundant life.

I’m not bashing the ACTS prayer… not maliciously, anyway. I think it’s a great tool for learning prayer—which is why, even after my moment of guilt-induced panic subsided, I decided to teach it to my daughters—I just think it’s a mistake to dwell on it too long. Formulaic prayer can easily become just one more legalistic ritual that we’ve painted a modern, evangelically acceptable face on. Much like our “orders of worship”, our “unwritten dress codes” our “tea taking/pie baking/nursery-working roles for women within the church”, and our “politically conservative (read that Republican) worldview”, we evangelicals have practically made an art form out of putting new spins on old-world legalisms.

Women who have longed for intimacy with God—a good thing—have grasped onto the ACTS prayer as a way of finding it. Maybe men have too; I don’t know. I really don’t know many men who are willing to have deep discussions about their prayer lives/spiritual hunger with women. I think it makes them feel icky and might mess with that whole “roles in the church” thing—but that’s another blog post for another day. So, due to my lack of expertise on glimpsing the intricacies of the male soul/psyche, I’ll just talk about us girls.

I’ve known some Godly women who’ve had great success with using the formula of the ACTS prayer. From time to time, I’ve even identified with that success; sometimes the formula is all I’ve got going for me because I’m just not in a God-sorta-mood—but after ADORING HIM, I find that my attention may shift in his direction. Sometimes. Sometimes my heart is so gross that I can’t even imagine adoring Him until I’ve puked out all the poison within me through confession. But most of the time, it’s a shortcut; it’s spiritual time-efficiency, baby. It’s like emailing a friend one line of greeting, a terse apology for not having time to get together, and a joke to keep it light and butter them up before asking them to babysit your kid: four quick steps to getting what you want cuz you don’t have time to meet your friend for lunch.

That’s the problem between me and formulaic prayer: lack of intimacy.

Humans just don’t like structure, whatever all the other writers say we secretly yearn for. Humans appreciate structure, we even envy it sometimes when we see it in the lives of others; but deep down inside I think we humans are much more comfortable with messy. Well, American Humans, anyway. That’s why we celebrate Sydney Pollack and Liszt, Jazz Fusion, and those weird metal sculpture thingies on university campuses. It’s why we loved painting with chocolate pudding when we were preschoolers and t-p-ing the town at Homecoming. Messy, messy, messy!!!! Why would we think it should be any different with God?

I know, I know: “Because our God is a God of Order, not chaos.” (My inner voice put on a black suit and spoke with a deep timbre while thumping a big, black KJV just then.) But, I would argue (in my normal voice) that our God also ordered the giggle, the babbling brook, the tornado, and the swarm of gnats. He pruned the roses and then blew the dandelion fluff all around them. He’s totally cool that way without slipping into chaos; but even cooler—sometimes it looks chaotic to my human eyes and that is awesome, cuz I just loved painting with chocolate pudding and I can sling a roll of toilet paper like a quarterback--when nobody’s looking.

Sigh. Unfortunately, we evangelicals always seem to be concerned about “who is looking” – we say it’s because we don’t want to cause the sinner to sin more, but it might just be because we’re afraid of our church friends seeing our mess. Our evangelical desire to be godly without being legalistic has led us toward creating fresher, hipper new ways in which to be legalistic.

Hey, don’t be offended: if I’m pointing a finger, you can bet I’m standing in front of a mirror.

Most the time, formulaic prayer seems to slide around the messy relational aspect of conversing with God and more toward the tidy spreadsheet aspect we strive to escape from in all our other agenda-producing activities.

Funny, isn’t it: my most memorable “prayers” were not born from the observation of a formula or from using the “right” words or tone of voice: they were born from agony and grief and anger; from the appreciation of beauty, and art, and love. My most intimate moments with God have come when I have allowed myself to just let go of all the pretty words and the perfectly reverent bodily positioning and just gush out my guts at Him from the core of where I am so absolutely, irrevocably overwhelmed with WHO HE IS that I just can’t hold it in. And that is where He meets me—not at the bottom of some checklist.

So it’s funny I would post this after writing a glowing recommendation on a book like The PAPA Prayer—another prayer guide based on an acronym. I’m not trying to be hypocritical (honestly—I don’t have to try; I come off that way with very little effort at all!) I'm just trying to be real.

I love the PAPA Prayer and I love praying bits and pieces of it throughout my day; it has made me aware of God—and the condition of my own heart—in a new and awesome way. But I don’t believe it is the have-all-end-all of my praying education any more than the ACTS prayer was. I’m gonna keep working at learning it and, when I feel like the girls understand the elements of the ACTS prayer-- and that they don’t always have to pray all of them—and they NEVER have to pray them in the “right” order—I’m going to teach Delaney and Ellerie the fundamentals of the PAPA prayer because I want them to get comfortable talking to God—and being real with God—in as many ways as I can nudge them toward. Go ahead, call me a hypocrite. You'll only be echoing my own inner monologue.

The PAPA prayer is a self-revealer in its first three steps—and as they hear Mom PRESENTING herself to God, ATTENDING to the way she’s thinking about who He is, and PURGING herself of anything which comes between her and Him, they are going to see the joy of APPROACHING the Throne of Grace with confidence. And then it will be their turn to try it out; experiment with it; blend what is new with what is old and find their own, ever-evolving, messy way of conversing with God.

But I don't know how to apply any of this to mealtime prayers.

About a week ago I expressed dissatisfaction with the meaningless drivel we and our children mindlessly and ritually recite at the supper table (okay, I suck at diplomacy; apparently moreso at the dinner table) and now the beginnings of our meals are laced with hostility, mocking, and uncomfortableness; with Mom to blame. I'm not sure how to get past that. I'm thinking of boycotting mealtime prayer entirely; I don't want to teach my kids that talking to God is a ritual to be observed at specific times and places--I want them to ache and hunger to talk to God because they are so completely stoked at having that privilege.

I'm still a baby learning how to speak and I’m too hungry to be satisfied with a formula or a ritual. I’m completely ill-equipped for teaching anyone anything about prayer—but for some reason, God gifted me with the honor of being a Mom and I won’t take that responsibility lightly even though I know I’ll mess it up over and over and over and over…

Lately I feel like God is using the PAPA prayer to prep me for heart surgery. (Or training in familial diplomacy?) Soon, he’s probably going to crack my cynical chest open to pour more of himself into my veins. I won’t kid myself. It’s probably going to hurt. A lot.

Tonight, I’m subdued, but expectant; hurting, but trusting; lonely, but bathed in His love.

Tonight, I just want to grab hold of God and melt into the searing heat of who He is and however He may choose to reveal himself to me moment by moment, day by day, and word by word until I am so absorbed in His presence that mine becomes the nonessential in the equation; the invisible, silent variable when the perfection of chaotic beauty explodes within a relational Deity who calls me “His.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Speared by the Lightning Eyes!

I’m usually a book-a-day reader; always have been. But I’ve been digesting a book over the past month or so called The PAPA Prayer by Larry Crabb (yes! a nonfiction book! A rarity for me and odd to appear on a blog called "fiction mirrors truth"--) The PAPA Prayer is definitely NOT a one-day read… in fact, it is revolutionizing the way I pray and the way I see myself.

P.A.P.A is the acronym Crabb uses to illustrate his 4-step process to relational prayer. (yes, an acronym. I know.)

The first step of Crabb’s prayer is to “Present yourself to God.” This is the no-holds-barred “Hey, man… this is how I’m feeling about me and about you right now” place where I whine a while before I realize I’m whining. (LOL) The next step is to “Attend to how you’re thinking about God.” Crabb suggests picturing the Revelation Christ—the scary Holy warrior with lightning-fire eyes and a sword coming out of his mouth.

“But that isn’t very comforting!” you’re thinking, "I like Jesus with the children and stuff!"

Yep. Exactly.

So today, I pictured that particular, slightly frightening view of God while I read Psalm 139; a highlighted Psalm which, in the past, has always been a sweet sort-of passage of comforting Abba-Daddy time for me. Well, Psalm 139 comes off a little differently when you’re faced with the Lightening-fire Eyes and Sword mouth of the Revelation Christ.

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. (uh-oh.) You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. (Oh, crap.) You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. (um-hm. right. Darn.) Before a word is on my tongue (stop, stop, already!) you know it completely, O LORD. (sigh) You hem me in—behind and before; (could someone show me the exit, please?) you have laid your hand upon me." (Like it wasn’t hot enough with those eyes staring me down!)
(taken from NIV, parenthetical interjections mine)

That reminds me of a time when my Papa Eric was having a dementia moment about a year ago and, as was his habit, gave his usual Lutheran blessing to me. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” he began as always; but then, he decided to crank it up a notch and change the meaning a bit. His tone darkened, his eyes piercing me as he continued, “Make his face stare right at you...”

AAAHHHHHHG! He must’ve been thinking about the Revelation Christ, too.

In step three, you “Purge yourself of anything that blocks your relationship with God” – which is a lot easier to see after you've been run-through with that sword a couple of times. Anyway, Crabb spends a lot of time focusing on relational sin with our human counterparts because how we behave/think within those relationships shows us who we really are and what is truly blocking us from enjoying the fullness of God. I thought looking at the Revelation Christ was uncomfortable—looking at my own heart was downright, well… disheartening!

As it turns out, I’m completely self-obsessed. Sure, I knew this before I read the book, but now, knowing what I’ve learned from reading it, I have to see that ugliness for what it is each time I approach the throne of God. Ouch.

So after all this nastiness is attended to, you get to move to step four, which I’ve paraphrased: “Approach God with confidence as the first thing in your life and stand before God as a loved child.” Now this, this is where another couple of Papas helped me out. The character of “Papa” in William P. Young’s book, The Shack (see post further down) and my own Papa Eric have made the second part of that step a breeze for me because I know what it feels like to approach an authority figure completely confident in that person’s love for you. It’s the first part I stumble on. So many things vie for that first place; my family, my writing, especially; not to mention all those nasty other areas of self-obsession which mutate and renew themselves each day as I experience Step 3 of the PAPA prayer.

But it’s a process, isn’t it? I’m just a 36 year old kid out here trying to figure it out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Condolence Stupidity

"He looks good."

How many times did I have to hear that over the course of Papa Eric's visitation Thursday night?

Luckily, I still contain a modicum of self-control, so the sailor's vocabulary of my inner voice did not give in to outward expression, because, seriously, it was in full-on, make-your-mama-blush mode.
Honestly, "He looks good." ?!?
Give me a freaking break!

No, he doesn't look good.

He looks dead, yes; he looks nothing like the man I remember, yes. but he doesn't look "good." He barely looks human.

I sat near the back of the funeral home with Dana most of the night, because I think my control could have very easily snapped if one more person walked through the line, past that empty shell of flesh and bone and mortuary make-up told me "He looks good" --

How do you tactfully respond to such an inane comment? I bit my tongue and nodded, digging my fingernails into my palms to keep from causing a scene. But inside, I was screaming like a banshee, "If you want me to pull your tongue out and wrap it around your neck, say that one more time. I dare you. "

Okay, so now I sound like a Sopranos episode. I'm a little defensive when it comes to my Papa. Sue me. Or leave a comment below telling me how wrong I am to feel this way, I don't care. This is my blog; deal.

The body in that box is NOT my Papa. Except for my pictures and my memories, Papa is gone. And that unmistakable fact made it easy to walk by that box. I never saw that expression on his face in life; not even when he was in pain and close to death. No, that was not the Eric Gustav Gustafson I knew; not the man born in Ulrika, Sweden in 1915; the little boy who watched from the ship as his grandfather soaked his shirt with tears on the dock as he watched his son's family sail away; the same little Swedish boy who later saw a shipmate buried at sea, the body devoured by sharks, before finally reaching Ellis Island. No, that lifeless form in the box is not the boy who struggled to learn English as a child, the young man who met a girl behind the candy counter at the Capitol Theatre and told his buddy, "That's the girl I'm going to marry." And married her three years later; not the man who raised two daughters and unreservedly loved three grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. The man who sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "Peace in the Valley" and "Yes sir, that's my baby" when he saw his wife of 68 years. That wasn't the almost-94 year-old man with the nearly flawless complexion and beautiful, wavy white hair who said "Tack sa myket" (thank you very much in Swedish) to everyone. No; the shell in that box was not my Papa. Not remotely.

How could anyone walk past the bulletin board of scenes from his full, generous life; see the sparkling, often ornery smile within the snapshots and portraits; view the lovingly, painstakingly hand-crafted wooden items his scarred carpenter's hands had fashioned; then proceed to the frowning shell in the coffin and say, "He looks good." Puh-leeeeze.

Visitations are uncomfortable events. I appreciate that. I know people don't know what to say at a time of loss, but, honestly; "He looks good" ?? that is the dumbest thing ever. and not in the least bit comforting. How about, "Those are great pictures." or "You obviously loved him very much." or "Wow, this really sucks."

That, I could appreciate. Maybe. Later. When the yawning hole in my chest doesn't seem quite so raw; when the swelling has gone down around my eyes, and that scene from my dream the morning he died doesn't make my heart ache quite so much.

I miss him so much.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mocha Madness (and other coping mechanisms)

Dana and I are sitting at Motos, trying to Mocha our way through the numb void of losing the last remaining tie to our childhood. The coffee is (hopefully) counteracting the bottle of wine we shared from 11pm-1am as we waited for the call.

As it was with Grandma in October, we decided Papa should leave with only his daughters by his side. he didn't wait long. After warming up from the cold with the wine, the call came and we shivered; some sort of primeval form of shock, I guess. We had to face the fact that we have to grow up now. We're both 36; she grew up on the east coast, I grew up in Iowa, but she's more my sister than my cousin and our loss is keen... and dulled by disbelief that a chapter in our existence is closed.

We reminisced. We cried. We laughed. We mourned something that cannot be put into words because its bigger than words; bigger than death; bigger than a person. We never had to prove ourselves to Papa and Grandma; there was acceptance that never had to be earned and it never wavered. No matter what we did, we were "good kids" and loved unconditionally; accepted without restraint or strings attached; no behavioral modification necessary.

Early this morning, after I got the kids off to school; when sleep finally came for a brief 45 minutes, I dreamed that I looked out my window and saw a blanket-fort. Under the hanging sheets, was an outdoor glider rocker holding 2 people. In my dream I ran to the door and I rushed outside and they asked, "What do you need, honey?" And I sat down at their feet and I looked up at them and said, "I just need to see your faces one more time."

I woke up sobbing; and there was no blanket fort outside my bedroom window.

Now I have to grow up. This mocha is good.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Life is Messy (and so is this post)

It’s about a quarter to midnight, but I’m not sleepy. I’m sitting by my Papa Eric Gustafson’s bedside at the Great River Hospice House. He’s nearly ninety-four years old, so it seems silly to say “he’s terminal.” I mean, really; he’s ninety-four.

But still…

This is my second experience with Hospice care in just over two months. In late October, Papa’s wife of 68 years, my Grandma Betty Gustafson, went to be with Jesus after a short battle with lymphoma. She was “with it” until nearly the end, surrounded by her family and the music she loved and she barely felt any pain.

Not so with Papa.

We’ve been “losing him” for several years to progressive dementia, although until recently he was physically healthy (for someone in his 90s!) The moments he’s understood who I am and how I’m related to him have been few and far between, but he knows my face and my voice are familiar and I think my presence gives him comfort.

A few short evenings ago, my cousin was here and we helped Papa eat a meal of pancakes and coffee, which he enjoyed. We received the usual blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine at you… I forget the rest” without knowing that Papa had just had his last cup of coffee; or that his last sparkling word would be, “Coffee?” In that tone that could have just as easily said, “Manna?” or “A Million Dollars?”

This, as a last word, may not be monumental for your average American, but for our Papa Eric, still a citizen of his native Sweden, coffee was more a part of his life than that the combined residents of Seattle could even dream. He has since tried to speak, but his throat is dry, words don’t work. The hand that helped bring those syrupy bites to his mouth is too weak to even make the trip from his side to his chest.

Papa’s condition has progressively worsened; instead of black coffee, morphine is now an ever-half-hourly requirement, as well as some other periodic pain med which I can’t remember its name. He tries to communicate with his eyebrows and his smile muscles-- the words don’t work and the smile never quite appears. His eyes have dimmed and only one seems to really open, and it a sliver. But I wonder…

They say that some of our senses, especially hearing, sharpen near the end; and the skin can become so sensitive that all but the lightest of touches is excruciating. I wonder if God has given Papa the gift of knowing who I am again for these few hours, to get the comfort which comes from the company of a much-loved family member. I hope so, but I’ll never know till heaven. He can’t tell me now. But he squeezes my hand, he uses his eyebrows… he opens that one eye just a slit when I tell him I love him.

I spent the night with him. Just he and I and the morphine drip. I told him about the two books I’ve written; I’d never mentioned them before… and for good reason. By time I started writing in earnest, Papa rarely knew who I was; but all of a sudden, it seemed as if he did. That could have been God’s gift to him… or maybe God’s gift from me. or both. Either way, God is good. When I told Papa my dream of seeing my books on a bookstore shelf someday, the look that crossed his face in that moment will stay in my mind forever. With only his eyebrows and his chin, he gave me affirmation; it was almost as if he was saying, “And won’t that be something!”

It is not easy to see him in pain… and it’s getting worse.

I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff in this blog before today; it’s a safety issue. Not that I’m all that worried about cyber-stalkers (let’s face it: this blog doesn’t get that many hits!) But so few people know me well enough to “roll with it” that I just hesitate before vomiting my personal life out into the world because life stuff gets messy and ugly and painful; because I can’t cut and paste my personal pain in succinct little edits or flowing literary prose. Case in point: the former sentence: a complete run-on; an English teacher’s nightmare. But that’s life; it’s either so messy that it’s breaking all the rules, and quite possibly ripping your heart out, or so boring that nobody even cares.

Right now, it’s breaking all the rules of order. It’s a run-on sentence with too many ellipses. (The dot, dot, dot which leaves a thought hanging); at this moment, as death approaches a loving fixture in my life, my mind is littered with poor punctuation, randomness, and inconsistent time-jumping through a fog of memory vs. “the now.”

So, unlike other posts, which I’ve been careful to edit and spell-check and de-clutter, I’m leaving this one as-is: in all its vomitous glory. Because, most of the time, the mirror of fiction is kind to its more imperfect reflector. Truth can get pretty messy and you can't even get a window between yourself and it's ugliness; let alone a detached reflective surface…

This whole losing-a-generation-of-your-family-in-the-space-of-two-months stuff really sucks. The end.