Anne With an E and Me

a still image from the opening credits to Anne With an E

It’s the dream of many a historical fiction writer to send their readers back to the source material, and that’s what the series known in the States as Anne with an E (out on 5/12 on Netflix) did for me: it sent me right to the original Anne of Green Gables* to dig out the hints and suggestions that the TV writers ran with.

You see, my friend Lorilee Craker, author of the moving and marvellous Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me, has friends nearby with access to Canadian television and sent me into raptures (to put it in an Anne-like way) when she invited me to watch the new Anne series with her as they aired on the CBC. So I’ve seen them all. And I have some reactions.

My first reaction was pure love.

a still image of Anne waiting for Matthew at the train stationThis CBC version was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, who was a writer and producer on Breaking Bad, so it isn’t surprising that her Anne is darker than the one we were used to seeing in the 1985 miniseries, and who we may have seen in high school musicals. This Anne has flashbacks about life as an overworked child taking care of children in poor households with drunken husbands creating havoc. This version of Anne is definitely informed by our contemporary understanding of what it means for a child to live for 11 years being unwanted, unloved, treated like a servant, and probably physically abused–but it is at the same time the true Anne.

Great historical fiction sucks us into the story so intensely that we forget we already know how the story ends, and that’s what Anne With an E does. I forgot that things work out for Anne and she soon will get all the love she’d ever missed from Matthew and that Marilla would soften and grow because of her and she’d have wonderful friends and a town that embraced her. I couldn’t take my eyes off the skinny intense little girl with the big eyes that showed the entire stormy spectrum of her emotions.

When I went back to L.M. Montgomery’s work, I saw that all the pain and isolation the new series highlights was in the source. In the book, it’s easy to skim over the reality of Anne’s life before Green Gables because the painful information comes in an avalanche of Anne’s words about a dozen different things in one speech. But the new series pauses and lets us see the effects of her life on her, and it’s so good and right. Our Anne is a survivor of a traumatic childhood. She gets flashbacks. She disassociates from her reality through her agile imagination. She doesn’t understand the expectations of regular society because she’s never been part of it.

Here are some quotes from the book that could not be plainer about the darkness Anne lived with, and I’m going to present them without the chatter about the Lake of Shining Waters and kindred spirits so we are not distracted by her charm.

Oh, it seems so wonderful that I’m going to live with you and belong to you. I’ve never belonged to anybody–not really. (p.12)

“You don’t want me!” she cried…”I might have expected it. Nobody ever did want me.” (p.24)

And upstairs in the east gable, a lonely, heart-hungry, friendless child cried herself to sleep. (p.29)

[On being orphaned at 3 months] “You see, nobody wanted me even then. It seems to be my fate.” (p.39)

[On the 2nd place she lived, at age 8, taking care of 8 children] “It was a very lonesome place. I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination.” (p.40)

[When Marilla asks whether the women were good to her] “O-o-o-h,” faltered Anne. Her sensitive little face flushed scarlet and embarrassment set on her brown. “Oh, they meant to be–I know they meant to be just as good and kind as possible. And when people mean to be good to you, you don’t mind very much when they’re not quite–always. They had a good deal to worry them, you know. It’s very trying to have a drunken husband, you see; and it must be very trying to have twins three times in succession, don’t you think?” (p.41)

Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had–a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth. (p.41)

It feels like that’s what Walley-Beckett, and AmyBeth McNulty, who inhabits Anne, have done: read between the lines of Anne’s history and divined the truth.

Like in real life, the truth often makes us uncomfortable.

On the trip from the train station to Green Gables, Anne tells Matthew, “Do you know, my arm must be black and blue from the elbow up, for I’ve pinched myself so many times today. Every little while a horrible sickening feeling would come over me and I’d be so afraid it was all a dream, then I’d pinch myself to see it if was real” (p.21). She presents as a charming anecdote, but the CBC series shows us the pinching and the giant deep bruise it causes–and it looks like what we now call self-harm.

In one episode, Anne has intense conversations with herself in her reflection that felt odd and disquieting to me as I watched, but then I went back to the book and there it is, from the first place she lived:

I used to pretend that my reflection in it was another little girl who lived in it. I called her Katie Maurice, and we were very intimate. I used to talk to her by the hour, especially on Sundays, and tell her everything. Katie was the comfort and consolation of my life. (p.58)

The comfort and consolation of her life was a wavy reflection in a bookcase with only one pane of glass because the other had been smashed by a drunken husband; this felt more like a dissociation response than a developmentally appropriate imaginary friend.

There is a scene in the CBC series that doesn’t appear in the book, and it got a lot of press and outrage in Canada, and it probably will here, too. Anne is at school, and is gossiping with the girls about the romantic feelings their teacher has for one of the students (this was also openly discussed by the girls in the book). She winds up spinning this tale about a mouse in the male teacher’s pocket that she knows all about from the place she lived in where they had 8 kids. The girls eventually figure out that mouse refers to his penis and to sex and they go from being impressed to horrified. As does Avonlea.

While this doesn’t appear in the book, it is entirely consistent with it. Anne is constantly saying things she doesn’t know are considered wicked. She tell us this from the beginning:

[About the asylum] “It’s worse than anything you could imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn’t mean to be wicked. It’s so easy to be wicked without knowing it.” (p.12)

And Marilla admits more than once that she has to make allowances for Anne because she’d never been properly taught. So it is entirely plausible that Anne would talk openly about things that were normal for her life experience, but were not the sort of thing nice girls talked about. This scene also gives us a satisfying mama-bear moment and speech from Marilla, so that takes some of the off-book sting out of it.

Because the off-book portions sting. They are substantial, with three or four episodes being mostly pure invention.

Yes, I know it’s funny to be complaining about the creators inventing things about a character who is a pure invention, but Anne is such an icon, such a well-known and loved fixture, that this treatment feels like historical fiction, or even speculative fiction. It feels like the show is playing with reality and experimenting with facts, even though both the original reality and facts are, themselves, fictional.

Many of those off-book portions had character revealing moments that were gorgeous, and worth my vague discomfort. Others puzzled me, although I could see what the show was going for. But there were also moments when the series got the characters wrong, and had them do things that were so out of line for who I know they are that I got upset. I might even have gotten a little rage-y. Even so, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling all the feels, much like Anne does.

All the actors are stellar, with the new family of McNulty’s Anne, R.H. Thomson’s Matthew, and Geraldine James’s Marilla being absolute stand-outs. Each of these actors is able to deeply move me with just their faces, without dialogue. The new Gilbert, Lucas Jade Zumann, is adorable and honorable (although not as playful as the book version) and I would have found him dreamy back when I was a girl.

Anne puts her head on Marilla's shoulderI haven’t re-read Anne since I became a mother, and I was astonished to see how much the book is the story of Marilla adjusting to parenthood and coming to love Anne, and to laugh–and that’s something Anne With an E highlights really well. The new series is very much the story of this emerging family, and how keeping Anne changes Matthew and Marilla. We also get to see snippets of how they may have wound up unmarried siblings: they have pasts in this series, pasts that affect their present. Just like Anne.

My love of the series is not as pure as it was after the first show, but it’s still there. The show a polarizing experience, but, I believe, worth it. Please watch it so I have more people to talk about it with. Because there must be talking!

** Quotes are taken from the 1998 Bantam edition.

Open windows and scope for imagination

a picture of me, on my stomach on my bed, right next to an open window, reading

Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr (two L.M. Montgomery heroines who dominated my childhood reading) never met a bedroom window they didn’t want to open.

Anne’s first morning in Green Gables:

With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash–it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.
Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning, her eyes glistening with delight. (Anne of Green Gables, p.30)

And after the last conversation she’ll have with Matthew, right after he tells her, “Well, now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys”:

He smiled his shy smile at her as he went into the yard. Anne took the memory of it with her when she went to her room that night and sat for a long while at her open window, thinking of the past and dreaming of the future. (p.293)

Emily (of Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest) is a young orphan whose future is decided when relatives she hadn’t heard of until just before her father died make her draw lots for who will be forced to take her. She and her father had always slept with an open window–even during Prince Edward Island winters. But at New Moon she must share a bed with her austere Aunt Elizabeth, who believes that night air is poison.

When she’s finally given her mother’s old room, high in the house:

Emily, very glad that there was an Emily, opened her lookout window as high as it would go, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, feeling a happiness that was so deep as to be almost pain as she listened to the sonorous sweep of the night wind among the great trees in Lofty John’s bush. (Emily of New Moon, p.286)

Even when she’s an old lady of 24:

This afternoon I sat at my window and alternately wrote at my new serial and watched a couple of dear, amusing, youngish maple-trees at the foot of the garden. They whispered secrete to each other all the afternoon. They would bend together and talk earnestly for a few moments, then spring back and look at each other, throwing up their hands comically in horror and amazement over their mutual revelations. I wonder what new scandal is afoot in Treeland. (Emily’s Quest, p.151)

I, too, have a room all my own with a window that opens; my bed nestles right next to it. It thrills my romantic girl-soul to sit or lie on my bed and read while the evening air drifts over me. Breezes come from the West, and my new window is one of only two Western windows in the entire house that open. Those evening breezes feel like a benediction.

A few months ago, my daughter and I switched rooms. It was mostly for her, so she’d have more space for her growing collection of musical instruments, and her growing group of friends. But it also meant that I could escape the marital bedroom and its painful reminders. I am not exaggerating when I say that my bed takes up between 1/3 and 1/2 of my new room: it is tiny. But I’ve got that Western window that opens. And south-facing light, so I can grow some plants. And a little porch off the closet that overlooks the back yard and is so cozy in the late afternoon and early evening, with just the right amount of dappled shade.

the view from my porch of the backyard and the forsythia in bright bloom
In a couple of weeks, the lilacs that span the back yard will be in full bloom. After all this L.M. Montgomery I’ve been re-reading, I may have to give them a name–both Anne and Emily give romantic names to groupings of trees.

For Anne and Emily, these are their very first own-rooms, the first places they’d ever had where they could go to be alone and exercise their imaginations and express the full range of their emotions however they wanted without commentary or disdain. Although I’ve had several own-rooms, this is the first in 25 years, and it’s helping me feel like I’m both coming back to who I was and forging forward into who I truly am.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. The carpet is old and dotted in my daughter’s make-up and nail polish stains; the walls need to be painted; and to address either of those would mean taking everything out of the room when I’d only just moved everything in a couple of months ago.

But there’s scope for imagination. Which in Anne’s eyes, and mine, makes it a very great place, indeed.

*****

What do you love about a space you’ve carved out for yourself?
Where do you like to read?
Are you doing anything that thrills your child-soul?

*****

You may also like:

Diaries: Should They Stay or Should They Go? I’m going to sift through them here, with an audience. Let’s start with my earliest entries, age 9:

10/1/1977: That afternoon there was a bazzar to raise money for my school. There were cartoons pie’s cookie’s & juice. I bought a couple of plants. That night after supper my father gave me my punishment. It was to stay in my room after our talk. I think now it was a good one, because while I was reading Higher Than the Arrow, when Francie thought about her bad feelings, I thought about mine. Showery all day miserable and dull.

The Sanity BagOne memory per country 
The Dominican Republic
Sanity, sweet sanity We went to a resort during Christmas of my freshman year of college. Nothing can beat the Sanity Bag I found in a dresser drawer. As the mother of teenagers, I might need it now more than ever.

Let the children lead

seven nails are hammered in a meandering line along a board

The nails in this board have been hammered in by the 3rd – 5th graders of my church during their children’s worship time — the worship group that, even though I have other leaders lined up, I’m having to force myself to make the schedule, because I love being with them so much.

Before this past January, my church was like a lot of others: we ended the children’s worship program at 2nd grade. I’d been wanting to expand it for a couple of years, partially because many kids that age don’t want to be in the big service and I was the one who’d see their crestfallen faces at being told they have to go back downstairs. Partially because kids that age are not necessarily developmentally ready to listen and take in a sermon; I say “not necessarily” because I was one of those kids who listened to sermons from a ridiculously young age, but I know that makes me unusual. And partially because of a unique demographic we started seeing more of: kids coming with their grandparents.

A number of these kids don’t attend church with their parents, and might not have any Christian practices in their home, so Sunday morning with their grandparent is the only time we have them. I felt like I was failing them by not offering them faith formation aimed at their developmental level. For a few years, we only had one or two of these kids at a time, which makes it difficult to have a program for them. But we’ve grown, and now there are over a dozen regularly-attending kids between 3rd and 5th grade. And then I got hired as Children’s Ministries Coordinator, and things that were overwhelming to me as a volunteer, became possible. #HolySpiritTiming

So in January we started the group even though we didn’t have a program. I lead every Sunday and searched for a curriculum. I found one, but it was too extensive to put into effect quickly, so I found an interim that I love so much that I’m going to combine it with the other curriculum in the fall.

I won’t give it up because the kids lead almost the whole thing.

We use a book on family worship, Teach Us To Pray, by Lora A. Copley and Elizabeth Vander Haagen. It has a Scripture-based liturgy for every day of the year, but we mostly use the Sunday ones. The liturgy is broken down into 7 or 8 moments, most of which the kids lead. When we first sit down together, we decide who’s going to do what, and then we go through it.

The first thing is a physical act that brings us into a worship mindset and is a representation of something about the liturgical season.This is an important moment, not only because they are good reminders, but also because it gives kids who aren’t as confident reading aloud a way to lead.

Before Lent, one child lit a candle and led us on a stroll around the room to remind us that Christ is the light and we are to follow him. And some of those kids led us around and around and around until Miss Natalie had to whisper, “I’m getting dizzy. Are we going to sit down soon?” During Lent, one (or sometimes more) kid hammered a nail into a piece of wood to remind us that Jesus died for our sins.

I’ll be honest, the first session was a nightmare of questions and interruptions and interjections and we didn’t even make it past the Bible reading. And I usually had to whack the nail one more time so it wouldn’t be wobbly enough to tempt twitchy little fingers. And we wind up on some crazy tangents during the discussion portion. But when I recently ended the prayer without transitioning to the kid-led portion, they let me know, and I corrected my error. There’s something very right about this program if kids are objecting when we don’t go through the whole thing properly. It makes me glad.

It also makes me sneaky. You see, we’re also training kids to be involved in leading worship from a young age, so that when the time comes to lead the wider church, they’ll already have practice. Which is good, because the worship committee wants to have 5th Sundays as youth emphasis services, and I think those work better when there’s regular leadership development.

This past Sunday, I got to see all that in action in a minor way. I wound up being double-scheduled with my preschool and 3rd-5th grade worship rooms; there weren’t a lot of kids on that last Sunday of Spring Break, so I combined them. The two older kids hammered the nails into the board and did a reading in the middle of my felt board story, and it felt really good. I got to watch the little kids looking up to the big kids, and I got to watch the big kids showing the little ones how it’s done.

And it was well with my soul.

 

 

 

Forgiveness is unnatural. I did it anyway.

a toddler boy is yelling and has his hands over his ears

Someone wrongs you, hurts you, not just once but over the course of many years, causing you serious pain and trauma, and you’re supposed to forgive them?

God says, yes.

Because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love Jesus or when I didn’t want to follow him, that idea didn’t feel strange or unnatural until I recently tried to explain it to a 4th grade boy. He looked at me like the whole idea of forgiveness was flat out nuts and I was crazy for suggesting it.

I didn’t manage to convince him (although I hope I planted a seed), but his flat-out rejection of the idea of forgiveness helped me. Focussing on it as a strange, crazy, un-intuitive act made sense of the struggle I was having with forgiving my ex-husband.

For many months after the implosion of our marriage, I didn’t even want to want to forgive him, so my prayer was, “Lord, you’re going to have to do the work to make me want to want to forgive him, because I’m fighting it.” The Lord was silent on that particular issue, but He began bombarding me with the message:

You are my beloved. And my desire is for you.

I’ve written before about the grief and the glory of that message, and how much I needed it (Beloved). It carried me through many waves of sadness and anger, and even brought me to want to forgive my ex–but no farther.

This winter, I was swamped by grief that I wasn’t a married person. I’d worked so hard for so long to remain so; it was a big part of my identity. I was proud of being married for over 20 years. And now I wasn’t. This wasn’t about my ex, because I most certainly didn’t want to be married to him, but about me and adjusting to my new reality.

And I got angry at him all over again. I liked my anger. It was satisfying to rehearse the wrongs, to re-argue my point of view, to tend to the nugget of ill-will in a corner of my heart, to write diatribes in my mind that I knew I’d never publish but that I relished. I didn’t want to forgive if it meant I’d have to give up my right to be angry about the wrongs done to me.

But the issue of forgiveness wouldn’t go away–in part because of two pastors and my counselor, who kept asking about it. In part because I want to be a faithful child of God, and that means:

If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive. (Luke 17:3-4)

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-21)

No matter how right my anger felt, I couldn’t escape the clear call of God for me to forgive the one who’d caused me serious pain and trauma. My prayers on this matter were brief requests for God to bring me to the point where I could do it.

He was getting me closer when my minister preached a great sermon on forgiveness that was also about anger. He unpacked Ephesians 4:26a: “don’t sin by letting anger control you” (NLT), “Be angry but do not sin” (NRSV), and “In your anger do not sin” (NIV). He pointed out that the anger is not the sin, that there is a difference between being angry and sinning–that sometimes anger is the right response.

Sometimes anger is the right response.

But I would be sinning if I let that anger control me and turn my heart towards bitterness, which I was.

My minister put it this way,

“Bitterness is a sin because it’s a failure to forgive as God, in Christ, forgave you. An unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart. And if you can’t forgive it’s because you haven’t sensed His forgiveness of you.”

That worked through the final knot of resistance.

I am beloved. I am forgiven. I mustn’t let my anger control me.

So I forgave my ex.

Even so, I didn’t rush into it. I’ve lived with my forgiveness of him for a week, and, as with so much, writing it through helped cement it.

In case this makes me sound like I was thinking all these things through like reasonable person, you should know that I was not. I was like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, digging my heels in, going slack like a noodle, putting my hands over my ears and screaming. The ability to forgive my ex is a gift from God, and one that I am immeasurably grateful for.

So if you have a nugget of ill will and bitterness against someone who’s wronged you, I shouldn’t recommend acting like a toddler, but I will anyway. Toddlers rail and kick and scream against the thing their parent wants them to do that they don’t want to–and then run to that same parent for comfort at the state the tantrum has put them in. So kick and scream and run to your heavenly Father. He’ll know what you need and give it to you (even if it comes  very slooooowly).

My Obamacare Story

my child in the E.R.

My Obamacare story starts with the end of my marriage. In August 2015, my 21-year marriage ended and my then-husband lost both his jobs and his health insurance, which meant that the kids and I lost our health insurance, as well. I was a stay-at-home mom who’d worked freelance jobs from home for most of my years as a parent, so I didn’t have a job outside the home at that time.

Without warning, we had nothing.

My ex’s company was generous with giving us a little time to work out our medical coverage situation, which was good, because it took a while to get the bureaucracy going. I applied for the Affordable Care Act immediately, but was rejected — because we qualified for the Medicaid expansion that Michigan made as part of the Obamacare deal.

So we went on Medicaid.

It was a godsend. To have everything ripped away and everything in my life upended, but to know that if something were to happen, the kids and I had medical coverage, was a bone-deep relief. This system that I’d paid into, that you’d paid into, was the lifeline we needed in our desperate moment.

The system worked.

Within a year, and the finding of three part-time jobs, I was earning (just barely) too much for me to qualify for Medicaid, so I went to the Marketplace. But the kids are still covered. It is still a relief. The coverage is pretty basic, but when our doctor told me to take my daughter to the E.R. for her third bout of vomiting and diarrhea in three weeks, I could go with only the worry of her condition, not how I was going to pay for it.

There are so many more dramatic Obamacare stories, and don’t get me started on the demonizing of the poor who use Medicaid (when our love of cheap goods requires that some people make barely any money and need government assistance to get basic services, which we should really call a corporate entitlement system, because they’re the ones who are feeling entitled to not pay a living wage or supply benefits, not to mention the economy’s switch away from full-time benefits-paying work to contract non-benefits-paying work). But this is my story of a government program that helped me when I’d suddenly lost everything.

Thanks, Obama.

And thanks, Governor Snyder, for making sure Michigan did the Medicaid expansion when many of your fellow Republicans were dead-set against it.

If the current administration’s changes to the health care law go through, I don’t know that someone in my situation would get help, that the system their taxes helped pay for would be there in their temporary hour of need. I don’t even want to imagine what the stress of that would have done to me and my kids.

Writing, writing everywhere

a fountain pen sits atop an open notebook

Except here 🙂

But I will not moan about it, and I will not give you lengthy justifications and explanations. I will, however, share some of the writing I’ve done recently, everywhere but here.

Other ministries

I love talking with pastors about the work they’re doing, about the passions that drive their ministry choices–which is good, because that’s a big part of the writing I do for Gatherings of Hope, a non-profit aimed at helping pastors and congregations in Grand Rapids. It’s extra good because I recently got paid to talk with a friend who had pastored me well for 9 years.

The Gift of The Ask: Deepening Ministry by Growing Connections is my profile of Pastor Denise Evans, and her work with the Kingdom Life Ministries Community Development Corporation, in particular, about her work as the community liaison for The Deborah Project and The Deborah House. She’s the connector who finds organizations and people who want to help her church provide temporary housing and services to young single mothers and their kids. It was such a thrill to talk with her about her important and necessary work.

And to talk with one of her conspirators, Pastor Doriane Parker-Sims, the visionary behind those projects. She is doing deeply good work in Grand Rapids, and I was so glad she took the time to talk with me about it. When the Needs Are Deep, the Vision Gets Deeper: How one Grand Rapids church went from giving away backpacks to providing housing.

Favorite analogy

This isn’t terribly recent, but it’s a piece of writing I love: Leading From the Middle: Pastor as Shepherd. I got to take the research I did about shepherding for The Giant Slayer and apply it to the image of the pastor as shepherd. I highlighted how the image of the sheep streaming after the shepherd and respectfully following him in a neat line was lovely and romantic … but it doesn’t reflect the ministry reality. Rather, shepherds lead from the middle, they do intimate, one-on-one work that gets messy, but they also provide direction and take the long view. I even like my ending, mostly because I’d been trying to write an article that the quote from Khary would work in for close to a year.

So why would anyone take this on? Especially for the bi-vocational pastors who do this all-consuming work during their non-paid-work hours.

Of course, as pastors, you are called and equipped to this work by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But Khary Bridgewater, Senior Program Officer for Gatherings of Hope, points out that something else is true of you:

“Let’s start with you not being normal because you like sheep and most people think sheep stink.”

You love those sheep.

That doesn’t make the job any easier or less messy, but it does help explain how you can not only keep going, but even long to be with those messy, wandering creatures. You’re not normal — and we thank God for that.

My Writer Unboxed debut

I’ve been reading Writer Unboxed in a daily basis for close to ten years. I’ve been part of their Facebook group from the beginning, I’ve gone to their two Unconferences, and I’m a moderator of the WU Breakout Novelist Book Dissection group. I admire all the writing gurus, published and unpublished, who I read there. And last week, I got to join them–not as a writing guru, but as a reporter for the novel dissection group. I got to write about a book I loved, and about a discussion I loved being part of, for a site that is a crucial part of my life as a writer. It was a big deal. Dissecting A Man Called Ove:

Don’t worry, no men called Ove will be harmed and no physical guts revealed in this post, but we will expose some of the techniques Frederik Backman used to craft his breakout novel, A Man Called Ove:
* he told a compelling “domestic” story without An Antagonist
* he made omniscient point of view feel as intimate as first person.
* he masterfully wove past and present.

Getting political without getting nasty

I’m doing something new: writing about politics. I’ve normally steered clear of that, but I am concerned about my adopted country of the U.S. of A. So I’ve joined a group blog called Letters to Trump. Once a month, I’ll write a letter directly to our current President. Here are my first two attempts at getting political without getting nasty:

Day 3

Dear Mr. President,

I am worried about you. Not for your personal safety—the Secret Service will protect your body. I am worried about you. As a person.

You seem obsessed, not with doing the best, but with being seen as The Best Ever. Those are very different things.

Needing others to laud you as The Best Ever gives them the power to determine your worth and value as a person, which is a very insecure position to be in. Even though millions of people think you are great, it’ll never be enough—your need is a swirling beast that will never be satisfied.

Day 38 — Remember what you said about Flint?

…You’re doing what you said you would. I wish you were [not], but I have to give you credit for being a man of your word.

So I’d like to remind you of something else you said on the campaign trail, in hopes that you’ll follow through on it.

On September 14, 2016, you came to Flint, Michigan, and you said this: “We will get it fixed and it will be fixed and effectively and Flint will come back. Most importantly, we’ll bring jobs back.” Later, at a rally in Canton, Ohio, you said, “I’m running to bring hope to Flint.”

Well, Flint still needs hope.

Obnoxious?

Hopefully this link-y post all about me wasn’t too obnoxious. It’s been more challenging than I’d thought to combine fiction writing, paid freelance writing and editing, two paid mini-jobs, and keeping up with my blog. But I’m working it out.

And I hope you keep working out what you need to work out, and that you don’t give up on things you enjoy doing, even if how you do it winds up changing. We’re in this together!

My to-do list. And my dilemmas.

a monkey lays on its side, clearly overwhelmed
My poor monkey brain is tired of going around and around these issues. Take pity on it.

Here are the things I need to do in order to (finally!) finish The Giant Slayer:

  1. Hire someone to do a few fussy fixes on the cover and add some things once I make decision #2.
  2. Decide what the series will be called.
  3. Finish formatting the print version (and finish making fussy little changes to the text).
  4. Transfer the final version from InDesign back into Word, and format it for the ebook.
  5. Decide on what the second book will be called (so I can insert a teaser first chapter, and include a “hey, if you want to find out when Name of Book 2 publishes, sign up here” kind of page on my website).
  6. Get another author photo done, since I look very different from the current one taken a year and a half ago.

Since two of these are decisions with no clear answers, I’m stuck. But I’m putting the list and the dilemmas out here, both for accountability and to solicit input.

2. Name of series.

My instinct is to call the series “First Kings,” so The Giant Slayer would be First Kings, Book One. But my issue is two-fold.

You can only have one First of anything. My dad was particularly nonplussed by how both Saul and David could both be a first king. My explanation is that Saul is the literal first king of Israel, but David was the first king in terms of what we think of as a king: he established a political, cultural, and religious center that wasn’t attached to any one tribe, lived in a grand place and had wealth (sometimes from conquered countries) that Saul could only have imagined, organized the military and developed Israel’s first permanent fighting force, brought back the Ark of the Covenant, and unified the country. If I explain that somewhere in the book, in a charming, sort of amusing way, is that enough to justify both the two firsts problem, and the slight confusion some readers may get that I am not, in fact using any material from the biblical book also called First Kings?

If not First Kings, then what else could it be?!? Feel free to brainstorm in the comments. I’ll give you credit if yours is chosen.

5. Name of second book.

The first book is The Giant Slayer, and the third book will be The Shepherd King. The second book is about David’s years on the run in the wilderness, building the men who come to him into a unit yet refusing to enter into any kind of fight with King Saul (who is hunting him down). He’s attempting to solidify support among the people, and he winds up as a mercenary for Israel’s arch-enemies, the Philistines. The one title I can’t let go of is The Reluctant Rebel. But that’s too many syllables compared to the other two books, and reluctant is too complicated of a word. But I like what it gets at. Yes, David became a rebel, but only because Saul treated him like one by constantly trying to kill him. So to survive, he had to act like one (although he drew the line at fighting fellow Israelites and killing Saul). So he was reluctant.

What else can I call it?!? Please brainstorm in the comments. I’ll give you the glory of a shout-out in my acknowledgments if your title is chosen.

So there you have it. My to-do list and my dilemmas. I really do hope someone who is better at names than I am can hook me up.

sometimes you are wrong

The words "I'm sorry" have been typed on paper in a typewriter

Or, more to the point, recently I was wrong.

I was talking with some friends and I said something that stereotyped a group of people, and one friend called me on it. Did I handle it well? Not in that moment. The hot flush of shame rose up my neck and I defended myself. Because I knew my intentions, and I knew my love and respect for the people I’d stereotyped. My words hadn’t been mean-spirited. So I justified my behavior. And the friend and I parted for the evening.

It took all of 10 minutes for me to realize that I’d been wrong.

I immediately sent her an apology for bungling what I’d been trying to say, but by the time I saw her the next day, I was grateful to her for calling me on my words. It would’ve been so easy to just get mad and leave the conversation and then express her frustration to other people. But she didn’t, and because of that, I was given the opportunity to hear my words from another’s point of view: I couldn’t hear the stereotyping until she revealed it to me. I asked for her forgiveness, she gave it, and our friendship deepened.

So why am I sharing this story that doesn’t put me in the best light?

I am concerned about my Christian brothers and sisters, both as individuals and as institutions: we are too concerned with justifying ourselves, our words, our actions. When other people point out how wrong, how hurtful, how against our own principles our words or actions are, we don’t get past the initial flush of shame and self-defense. We do not take the prayerful time to see whether God might be telling us something through the critic, something we need to pay attention to. We seem to have lost the inclination and ability to ask for forgiveness from people we’ve hurt and wronged. And seeing that we’ve been wrong and asking forgiveness is basic to our faith.

There is biblical precedence for God using someone else to tell us what we need to hear. There is the famous story of the prophet Nathan getting David to see the wrongness of his behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah, causing David to confess his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-13). There’s another interesting story about David. After he’d been king of Israel for some time, he chose to flee Jerusalem when his son Absalom staged a coup. This happened when they were on the run (2 Samuel 16:5-13):

As King David came to Bahurim, a man came out of the village cursing them. It was Shimei son of Gera, from the same clan as Saul’s family. He threw stones at the king and the king’s officers and all the mighty warriors who surrounded him. “Get out of here, you murderer, you scoundrel!” he shouted at David. “The Lord is paying you back for all the bloodshed in Saul’s clan. You stole his throne, and now the Lord has given it to your son Absalom. At last you will taste some of your own medicine, for you are a murderer!”

“Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?” Abishai son of Zeruiah demanded. “Let me go over and cut off his head!”

“No!” the king said. “Who asked your opinion, you sons of Zeruiah! If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?”

Then David said to Abishai and to all his servants, “My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.” So David and his men continued down the road, and Shimei kept pace with them on a nearby hillside, cursing and throwing stones and dirt at David.

It would certainly have been within the culture of kingship to give his nephew, Abishai, the nod to cut off Shimei’s head–the man was insulting and lobbing weapons at him. It might even have satisfied a frustrated urge to lash out, since David was choosing not to fight against his son. But David didn’t choose that. He was a man after God’s own heart, and he recognized that God’s way is not always the comfortable way, that sometimes God is in the person telling you that you did wrong things. Now, David didn’t repent of taking over the kingship of Israel, but he did accept it when God told him that he wouldn’t be the one to build the Temple because he had shed much blood (1 Chronicles 28:3). Perhaps Shimei’s actions prepared him to hear that message.

And then there’s the story about David’s first attempt to bring the recovered Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark was carried on an oxen-drawn cart amid a grand parade of soldiers and people, with singing and playing of musical instruments.

But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand and steadied the Ark of God. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him dead because of this. So Uzzah died right there beside the Ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

I don’t really get this story. I don’t like it. Uzzah was just trying to make sure the Ark didn’t wind up in the dirt. Surely that was a good thing to do. But God’s earlier directions to the Israelites were clear: only certain people could carry the Ark, but even they could not touch it, and the penalty for doing so was death (Numbers 4:15).

The only way I can approach this story is to hear this message in it: our good intentions do not excuse the action. If our actions or words are wrong, that is more important to God than our intentions being right.

Our belief in our good intentions keeps us from being open to the idea that we may have said or done something wrong, something sinful. It keeps us from moving beyond the hot flush of shame and self-defense. It blocks us from the blessing of forgiveness.

It’s my prayer that we lovers of Jesus grow ever more able to move past our good intentions and towards the ability to not only see when we’ve been wrong, but also to admit it, and even to ask forgiveness for it. It would be a glorious witness.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes you have to toss the curriculum

a little boy is stretched out on his stomach, reading a big Bible

This past Sunday was one of those days. Instead of talking about the Apostle Paul, I taught my Sunday school class (4-year-olds through 5th-graders) about lament and then we wrote our own.

Here’s what I said:

Normally in Children’s Worship and Sunday school we tell stories about great things God has done and great things people have done because they had faith in God, but there are other parts of the Bible. In some parts of the Bible people are really angry, and really sad, and they’re even angry and sad at God. And they wrote about it. There are a bunch of what we call Psalms of Lament, where people tell all their strong feelings to God.

Now, I may have made a tactical error in the psalms I read. The kids (6 boys, 1 girl) were a little too enamored with Psalm 3:7:

Arise, O Lord!
Rescue me, my God!
Slap all my enemies in the face!
Shatter the teeth of the wicked!

Not to mention Psalm 58:

Justice–do you rulers know the meaning of the word?
Do you judge the people fairly?
No, all your dealings are crooked;
you hand out violence instead of justice…
They spit poison like deadly snakes;
they are like cobras that refuse to listen…
Break off their fangs, O God!
Smash the jaws of these lions, O Lord!

I apologize to any parents who were wondering where their kids got those images from. I did attempt to point out that the writers were asking God to do these things, not giving them license to, but one never knows how much that sinks in compared to the high drama of slapping faces and breaking off fangs.

After I read a few Psalms, I unrolled a big piece of paper and told them that we’d write our own Psalm of Lament about what was going on in their lives. There is a general structure among many laments:

This is what’s going on in the world and in my life
It makes me feel
AND YET, I know this is true about you, God
BECAUSE OF THAT, I will
O God, please

We followed that structure, and amid silliness and kid squirminess, they were vulnerable and wise and dear, even those who sat quietly, watching with wide eyes. When they were answering what they would do, they got on a roll talking about what they’d eat (strawberries and sandwiches featured heavily), so I interpreted that as taking care of themselves–since we often forget to do that when we’re mad and sad. And the teacher in me couldn’t stop from contributing the last line.

Here’s what was on these kids’ minds and hearts this weekend:

PSALM OF LAMENT

This is what’s going on in the world and in my life
Donald Trump became President
Somebody got in a car accident
Cancer
My friends get me in trouble
Diseases–they are strong
Blustery winds that made trees fall down
Hurricanes
Ungrateful people

It makes me feel
mad
sad
angry
angry at people
sick
scared
like moving to Canada
not happy

AND YET, I know this is true
God be helpful
God is caring
God loves other people
God carries you
God can help people become better people
God helps people get through hard things
God has helped me learn
God has a son named Jesus

BECAUSE OF THAT, I will
Help stop cancer
Help people get through what they’re going through even though I’m going through something bad, too
Keep taking care of myself
Get out and vote
Tell my friends to stop busting me for no reason

O God, please
help stop hurricanes
convince people to go out and vote
help us to love each other better

From troubles with friends to health issues to natural disasters to troubles in our country, kids have a lot going on. It was a privilege to help them put it into words and express it to God and to each other.

Tomochichi Mico and the Georgia Trustees

 

Painting by William Verelst of Chief Tomochichi and a delegation of Native Americans with James Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees, London, 1734.
Painting by William Verelst of Chief Tomochichi and a delegation of Native Americans with James Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees, London, 1734.

[This is a story I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write 1,000 words of historical fiction that took place at a book signing and involved a pumpkin. I don’t think it’s a great story, but I learned some interesting stuff about American history that I didn’t know before, so I’m sharing it and the painting that inspired the story.]

***

“Oh, they call me Tomochichi Mico, or Chief, but like they are humoring a child who has declared himself to be a rabbit for the day. There is a different tone than when they say My Lord or Your Grace to each other.”

“But you are not theirs and they are not yours.” Scenawki smoothed the ends of the deerskin cord against my chest.

As usual, my wife was right.

Her eyes crinkled with affection. “Was it only a few moons ago that Toonahowi insisted on being called Sir Hare?”

I snorted. “And now look at him, in his white stockings and blue silk coat, prancing like an English horse.”

“It’s fun to put on another’s skin.” She swished her skirts so they sounded like dry leaves.

“What do they call that color?”

“Orange.”

“It suits you. But I miss seeing your beautiful brown legs.”

She laughed. “Ever the diplomat, Tomo. Ever the diplomat.”

“Better than constant war.”

“With me or with the English?”

But I couldn’t answer her teasing, because it was time to pose for the painting. The men of the Georgia Trustees were in place, most of them on the stairs, higher than us by several heads. Oglethorpe was in the center, of course, holding my nephew’s hand, putting Toonahowi in a position of greater honor than his chief. They would never have treated their King George that way, and he would never have allowed it, but for the sake of my people, I bore it with dignity.

And a little one-upmanship.

I could see them cutting glances at our bare shoulders and legs. Jealous. Their bodies were like puffball mushrooms. It was laughable how they tried to show off their legs or square their padded coats at us. I had seen at least ninety summers, and I could’ve run them all into the ground.

Was it petty to make sure my right leg was visible up to the top of my thigh? To reach out my arm so the muscles were in relief? Yes. But I do not apologize for it. Neither do I apologize for Lamochattee, who turned his back to the painter and looked over his massive shoulder. Or Yaholo, who fanned out his eagle feather stick and turned his leg so his knee tassel showed.

None of that would derail my diplomacy. Still, Scenawki looked in the opposite direction. Whether she disapproved or was trying not to giggle, I don’t know.

I could wait in perfect stillness from sunup to sundown while hunting, but posing for the painting almost did me in. And after that, making my mark on all those books. But tonight’s event was why we came. I would suffer through anything to hold up the seedling of my dreams for my people and for theirs, and see whether it would get watered or get scorched.

**

My clothes were those the English would like: garments that covered my skin and were, themselves, covered in tassels, shell embroidery, and bone inlays. I wore sprays of feathers and quills in my hair. I was ready.

Oglethorpe brought me to the front of the room. “Esteemed Georgia Trustees, and friends of exploration and trade, thank you for coming to meet my friend, Tomochichi Mico. We have worked well together in the year since we settled southern Georgia in February of 1733, and unlike some other areas, we have peace. It is our hope that we always do. The Chief gave this speech in his language to our colleague Mary Musgrove, who translated it and taught it to him in English. I trust that you will find him as eloquent and as compelling as I do.”

“Friends of General Oglethorpe, and, I hope, friends of the Yamacraw, thank you. We are not so different, you and I.”

Oglethorpe looked back and forth between us, and the people laughed.

“I was born in the Isti nation, who you call the Creek, but I gathered together some Creek and some Yamasee and settled new land as a new people, the Yamacraw. So I understand the impulse of your people to settle new lands. We are pleased to share our mutual new home, but I do not want my people and your people to merely survive. I want us to grow in strength—together.

“We left to come here in the time you call June, and my people were planting a food that has gotten us through many a hard winter: the Pumpkin.”

My family moved through the crowd, offering them strips of roasted and dried pumpkin, and Toonahowi tossed me a whole, dried one—a deep clay colored beauty with dark green streaks. I rattled the seeds in a circle dance rhythm until I felt like myself again.

“After all your hospitality, please accept this gift. But it is more than a gift for now. I know that you have received reports of struggling crops from your settlers. Accept our offer to share the seeds and the knowledge of local growing conditions that have sustained my people for generations. In return, may I confess my deepest desire? It is for my people to learn your language and to learn to read. We can do so much more trade in goods, in knowledge, and in sustained peace when we know the same tongue. Will you help us, friends?”

Then it was Oglethorpe’s turn to convince the Trustees to buy a signed chapbook of the speech I just gave, to support what he called an Indian school.

So many wrong names they gave us, but to keep their favor I bit my tongue.

Again.

I lifted a book above my head. “It is too late for this old warrior to learn to read these chicken scratches you call words, but it is not too late for my nephew. You have grown to love him during these days. Please love his future, as well.”

**

Two summers later, we had our school. And the Yamacraw had a chance at fair trade.