What’s Your Superpower?

What if you were normal and all your friends were superheroes? And at your wedding reception, your superhero wife’s superhero ex-boyfriend (the Hypnotist) hypnotized her into not being able to see or hear you. He went a step further: when you tried to touch her, her reactions ranged between muscle spasms all the way to stopping breathing if you tried to hold her in her sleep. How would you get her to see you? To know that you didn’t abandon her?

This is a different take on the issue of invisibility in relationships than I’ve written about here and here, more malicious and focused (because everyone else can see the main character except his wife), but just as devastating. Thank you to a blog reader for alerting me to Andrew Kaufman’s marvelous novella, All My Friends Are Superheroes.

Woes of the newly married

The situation in the novella is unlikely, but it got me thinking. How common is it, shortly after being married, to stop truly seeing our spouse? Maybe the rest of you had a glorious honeymoon period, but I did not have a smooth transition to the married state. The actual living with another person was fine. The having someone there to send out to the store when I had an ice cream craving at 10 p.m. (we were living in the Bronx without a car, and I didn’t walk around by myself much after dark) was great, although I gained back the weight I’d lost my first year of graduate school. And other stuff was … enjoyable.

The tough part was the mental adjustment to being married. Being married put me in a different category than my fellow graduate students, none of whom were married. Professors were married. Students lived together or had long distance relationships, or none at all. I was a feminist studying to be a philosophy professor. What was I doing, under 30 and married?

The conventionality of being a wife bothered me. I didn’t think of myself as a conventional person, but there I was, doing the conventional thing. It was odd to feel simultaneously unusual and conventional. I was a little embarrassed to be married. That changed in time and as we got to know other young married couples. But it was an adjustment.

My poor husband. I burst into tears once because he bought whole milk. Was he trying to kill me? Didn’t he care about my family’s history of high cholesterol? How could he be so insensitive? I became obsessed with what patterns of behavior we might be establishing, inflexible about him doing the dishes when I cooked and folding the laundry when I washed, about me never ironing his shirts (back when he still wore ironed shirts), not even to act “wifely” in a self-aware yet ironic way.

All this is to say that I spent much of the first year of marriage wrapped up in my own internal drama (deciding to quit graduate school during that year didn’t help). I don’t know how much I truly “saw” my husband, how much I thought about his experience of our marriage. After 18 years, I think I’m better about that now. And I’ve come to terms with my conventionality — for goodness’ sake, I’m a Midwestern stay at home mom who drives a minivan.

Unusual superpowers 

Even though All My Friends Are Superheroes got me thinking about the heavier stuff above, it isn’t a heavy story. It’s warm-hearted, and charming, and sweet and funny. I loved the superhero names and descriptions. Most of these superheroes can’t fly, and they don’t have superstrength. Their superpowers are ordinary things magnified. Here are a few of my favorites:

If you arrive at a party and suddenly find yourself completely relaxed, there’s a good chance the Stress Bunny is there. Blessed with the ability to absorb the stress of everyone in a fifty-foot radius, the Stress Bunny is invited to every party, every outing.
Her power originates from her strict Catholic upbringing (p.33).

All through her youth, the Battery had two things: an overpowering father and an over-rebellious mind. In combination, these forces gave her the ability to store great amounts of emotional energy and release it in one blinding bolt. But beware: the Battery’s allegiances aren’t to good or evil, but simply against whatever stands in her way. Friend, foe or innocent bystander — the Battery’s emotional energy bursts are unpredictable and she will strike at will (p.32)

Mr. Opportunity knocks on doors and stands there. You’d be surprised how few doors get answered (p.75).

The main character even talks about the difficulties this style of superhero has:

Try it, right now; boil down your personality and abilities to a single phrase or image. If you can do that, you’re probably a superhero already.

Part of the problem with finding your superhero name is that it may refer to something you don’t like about yourself. It may actually be the part of yourself you hate the most, would pay money to get rid of (p.71).

The Big Question

What is your superpower? What is mine? It’s easier to come up with someone else’s superpower first, so I’ll do my husband.

I’d call him Mr. It’ll Work Out, because he lives as if things are going to work out. This superpower only works in ordinary life situations; i.e. it doesn’t prevent people around him from getting or dying from cancer. But he doesn’t get stressed or anxious, not even about new things or experiences. And the thing is, things usually work out. It makes him a great person to have around, and a great leader. I both rely on this calmness and security, and get irritated by it (because it makes my anxiety seem so meaningless).

As for myself, I could be some combination of some superheroes in the book: Mistress Cleanasyougo, the Dancer, with a bit of the Battery thrown in. But I’m going to go on a limb and call myself The Presence. I have a strong physical presence; people always think I’m taller than I am. I have a strong presence on stage when I’m dancing. My face and entire body will radiate my emotional state, which will affect those around me. If you’ve known me awhile, I reveal myself as very passionate about many things, and I can express myself quite forcefully. I’ve got an effective “don’t you even think about doing that” parenting look I can put on. I don’t know if it’s as true these days, but people used to find me intimidating. A few people have told me that, before they knew me, they were scared of me.

There are mitigating factors, of course, but if I’m looking for a trait that has both positives and negatives, I think that’s it.

So, sharing time. What is your superhero name?

Somewhere Between a Whine and a Rant

Here’s what I want to know: what I can give up being consistent on. Seriously. Some adult function that I can let slide and not have horrible consequences. I’ve done a bunch of blog posts about things it’s better to pay continual attention to: people in your family and around you, pride and fear, and choosing to be miserable. Every week, if not every day, I read posts on writing like this, Day After Day After Day–Showing Up At The Page No Matter What, a post I actually find encouraging, but there again is the consistency thing. There is so much information whizzing past me, every piece saying, “pay attention to me and follow up on this because this is important!”

What can I give up?

Money

I have to keep up with the bills because otherwise I’d be wasting money on late fees and ruining my credit, credit that we’re going to have to use this Spring to buy one, if not two, vehicles. I’m not going to drop tithing, either. Money is definitely not the place to drop the ball.

House

I’m already as minimal as I can get with house cleaning — neat in the public areas of the house, but clean, not so much. I couldn’t get much less clean without getting into health hazard levels. To keep it real, while there are no clothes on my bedroom floor, here is my “chairdrobe” this morning.

Body

I exercise several times a week, not so much for the long term good of it, but because I love to move and Zumba and Pilates and the like make me happy. Also, they make it possible for me to dance in church with control and without injury, and I promised God that I would dance more if I got back in shape. I’ve broken enough promises to God that I want to keep at least this one.

I could give up dying my hair, but then I’d be less attractive, and I’m not giving that up until I’m forced to. Besides, that costs less than $8 and takes only 45 minutes every 6 or so weeks. Not a burden.

Can’t give up washing my face twice a day or I’ll break out like a teenager; I’ve done that already and I’m not going back.

Can’t give up brushing my teeth and I floss some. Of course, I really should floss more. So now I’ve added to my list of things I should be consistent on but aren’t. My terrible teeth have cost us at least $1,000 out of pocket, over insurance, every year for the last four years. Gotta take care of the teeth.

Cooking

I am weary of cooking, and looking up recipes in Pinterest or wherever is not inspiring. Yet I am committed to making home cooked food whenever possible and sitting down all four of us for dinner as often as possible (which is pretty much every day). So I shop and cook and try to get the people in my life to eat a variety of foods with food value. This is often not a joy. Despite my nonsensical answers and my snapped retort of, “food,” to the question, “What’s for dinner?” my people insist on asking my least favorite question every day. I should be more consistent (there it is again!) about teaching the kids to cook so they can share this burden with me. This category is also affiliated with the Money category: the less I cook, the more we eat out, the more money we spend on food, the more crap we eat, the more weight we gain, etc. So for money, health, and family togetherness, I can’t give up or cut down on cooking.

Kids

I will admit to you fine people that I don’t freeform play with my kids anymore. That said, I do concrete things with them: play tennis or racquetball, go for a bike ride, go to the book store, watch a movie, do my daughter’s hair, talk about books with my son, etc. I will play a board game once a year, at most. More often than not, I’m the one who encourages them to be in charge of themselves, to determine their own entertainment — skills that are necessary in this life.

I help with homework, as well as insist that it be done before dinner and before screen time. I’m the monitor of screen time. I’m the policer of snacks, but also the provider of baked goods and periodic junk that I find disgusting but that makes them shout for joy. I’m the facilitator of lessons and teams, the chauffeur to and from friends’ houses, the one who teaches them skills they’ll need to become independent members of society while making sure they take those steps of independence (even when I must nag a bit to accomplish it). That’s my job: I’m the stay-at-home mom. There’s nothing to give up here.

Reading

I read somewhere between 85 and 100 books a years. Most of these are quick-read middle grade/young adult fiction and romance novels, with a bunch of nonfiction, memoir, and serious-minded book club fiction thrown in. This is both for pleasure and escape and for “work”: I want to be a published novelist, so I need to read. I need to know what’s being published in my chosen area. I need to be inspired by good books to remind myself why I do what I do. So no slacking off there, either.

Blogs, though. I could cut down on those, even the ones I read for professional writerly development. Some are encouraging and galvanizing, but they can easily be a time suck and made my brain all foggy and unable to be consistent about the things that matter.

Word Games

Okay, here’s something I could give up, not easily, but I could. However, I need a little nonsense. I’d be giving up word games so I could be more consistent and efficient in other areas, which is the point of these complaints: I’m tired of being consistent and efficient. It’s so good to say, every day, “I’m going to play for awhile.” But the truth is that I play too much. I’m too oddly committed to doing nothing after the kids are in bed. There’s no reason to do nothing every night. It’s pure laziness, which I support now and then, but I know I’m crossing the line into sloth.

Screeeeech.

Here’s where I screech to a halt. I’m sick of myself before I even get to the biggies: marriage, family, friends, writing.

I have a perfectly ordinary middle class life. I don’t overschedule my children or myself, but I have a nice mix of responsibilities and aspirational activities to keep me engaged in the world. I don’t see my friends or family enough, but that’s mostly because of my strong hermit tendencies. I may have a secret desire to get a gold medal in getting the kids to school on time with everything they need for their day including a hug and kiss, but that’s just silly. I have nothing to complain about and everything to be on-my-knees grateful about.

What I’m sensing here is my old friend Resistance. It isn’t that I’m doing too much. It’s that I’m not doing enough of the things that matter. I’m not writing enough. I’m not being consistent enough in dozens of areas. I was all impressed with my consistency and efficiency pre-whine, but then I read an article called 5 Ways Your Brain Tricks You Into Sticking with Bad Habits, by Dennis Hong, that included this nugget:

It’s not because your brain hates you; it’s because your brain likes efficiency, and mindless habits are efficient. See, what your brain really wants is to shift into autopilot, to turn your life into repetitive patterns and create heuristics — mental shortcuts that help you get through the day using the least amount of brain power necessary.

Which, in turn, reminds me of my recent research on the Judean desert for the middle book about David and Saul. In an amazing book, Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage, Nogah Hareuveni talks how desert paths are formed by grazing sheep, goats, ibex and deer, hundreds of narrow tracks crisscrossing hills that often all look the same. They can lead you to the best way to get to your destination or to likely water holes, but at the same time, they themselves can mislead and confuse you.

“Yet these grazing tracks, so typical of the desert, are a hazard to the wayfarer. Sometimes the trail traverses a steep slope and becomes ever narrower until it reaches the edge of an abyss. Above and below it numerous light-colored tracks glimmer, some of them broad and conspicuous, so that the track followed gets lost in the proliferation. Are you still on the right path or have you lost your way without noticing the intersections?” (p.96)

I’m trudging along a path that I have created in my brain, and which my brain desperately wants to remain on, whether it’s leading me where I want to go or not. I am Resisting mightily the development of new habits that would be better than some comfortable old ones. And when I manage to head out on a new path, I drift back to the old one way too soon.

The bad habits article says that it takes 10 weeks (not the old 6 I was taught) to develop a solid, new habit. That would take me to Dec. 4, the week before my birthday. Now that I have all this new insight, I’m going to go for it. Last year at exactly this time, I managed to add the new habit of regular exercise, which messed up the writing habits I’d been cruising on before that, and which I’ve never fully recovered from.

I’ve got to make it specific, though.

** No turning on the tv to catch just a bit of the news after husband and kids leave the house in the morning. Also, no trolling the internet. None. Save that for lunch. After delivering departing hugs and kisses, go straight upstairs, get dressed, do your Bible reading and prayer, have breakfast (still watch the previous day’s Live with Kelly and Michael while eating — I can’t get rid of ALL my silly habits at once). If I do that, I can get in an hour of work when my brain is most lively before it’s time to head to the gym. **

That’s it for now. I’m not going to try to revolutionize my entire schedule in one fell swoop. If making that change doesn’t bleed over into my bad evening habits, I’ll revisit this process in the new year.

I started this post whining and wound up ranting against my own Resistance. I’m really glad I let myself wallow in the whine. Without that, I’d still be thinking “too much” was my problem and I wouldn’t be any closer to making a difference.

 

Cures for Invisibility?

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I had a nap today. This may sound like a lovely way to spend an afternoon, but when I nap, I wake up queasy and (there is no better way to put it) bitchy. In other words, a terrible time to write a thoughtful blog post, but it’s been over a week since my last one, and that’s way too long.

But I want to put the invisibility thing to bed (since I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight, something needs to go to bed).

Not so fast

I was talking about Calling Invisible Women with a woman in her 70s, who was surprised by one of the themes of the novel (that women in their 50s feel invisible and powerless), because in her experience, women in their 50s were often at the height of their career, powerful in their organizations, courageous in speaking out.

True. I can think of lots of women who fit that description. And that’s part of the solution for the women in the book. They treat their invisibility as a superpower, making life better around them, but at least Clover’s family still doesn’t notice. At the end of the novel, one invisible woman (a Russian mail order bride) travels far to meet Clover and deliver one of the best pep talks ever. I had to bring the book back to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote, but it essentially goes like this: we’ve been acting like we’re Chechnya, but we’re not little victims to be squashed by big, bad Russia (aka pharmaceutical company). With the power of our voices, our stories, our media savvy (or that of our children), our insistence on being heard, we are Russia.

And, indeed, the invisible women get cracking and the ensuing media blitz brings the pharmaceutical company to its knees, many women get their jobs back, and they have lives more vibrant than before they became invisible.

So the woman at the height of her courage and powers is one part of the story of women in their 50s. But so is the woman who drifted along, cutting everyone else slack, making excuses for everyone, and found herself doing all the drudge work and getting no recognition for everything she gave up for the sake of others.

Maybe this is a particularly lively fear for me since I’ve mostly been a stay-at-home mom for 14 years. Yes, I’ve done freelance work, and in-office work for a couple of years, not to mention the novel writing. But it’s so easy to make excuses for everyone else’s stress and not insist on things I might’ve insisted on in the past. To let things slide. Sometimes, this is a kind thing to do, but it can get to be a nasty habit that I can see leading to accepting invisibility.

Invisibility might not always be so bad

My older friend also remembered when men in general stopped noticing her — it was a relief. Freeing, even.

I can see that, and celebrate that, eve. But it’s complicated for me. I no longer get catcalls and rude suggestions from idiots driving by, and I don’t miss them one bit. I no longer have the internal debate: am I in a public enough place to be safe to give that guy the finger? I don’t have to think about what I’m wearing to try to minimize attention. But I’d miss the occasional moment of recognition of me as an attractive woman by cashiers, waiters, etc. Those are nice little moments.

However, I can’t stop myself from growing older. Those moments will go away and I’ll have to rely on my friends to tell me how amazing I look in my turtleneck (which we’re all wearing because we feel bad about our necks). When it happens, I’m sure it’ll be fine. It already is fine. I’ll remember to treat it as something freeing.

We’re back to seeing

I’ve written about seeing before, both the power of being seen and allowing yourself to be seen. I’ve even thrown God into the mix. That’s what this book comes down to: seeing. Making sure that I pay attention, both to my own life and to the people around me. Looking cashiers in the eye when I thank them. Making sure I keep handing over household chores to the kids. Nudging the grandkids to help with dinnertime chores (even though my mother slips up the stairs from the beach so quietly and does almost all the work before we get up to the house). Thanking my husband for doing his regular stuff around the house. Not giving up so easily on relationship issues. Showing what’s really behind the mirage of omni-competence. Paying attention.

Real invisibility

While anyone of any racial or socio-economic group can be taken for granted in their family unit, the novel mostly focuses on middle class, mostly white women. They are a couple of nods to women who the characters recognize are possibly more invisible than they are: hotel maids. Hotel maids here stand for all those people, mostly minorities, often immigrants, who do the crappiest, most thankless jobs, who work long hours for low pay, who are easy to ignore, who many people often prefer to ignore. If I decry invisibility for myself, I have to decry it for them, too. If I pay attention to my own life and my friends’ and families’ lives, I have to pay attention to their lives, too.

One more person to pay attention to

Thank you, Jeanne Ray, for writing this dystopian novel for the middle-aged woman. I don’t think it’ll take off as a subgenre like the YA dystopian novel has, and I’m not sure I’d get into it if it did, but Calling Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about while entertaining me. And that’s always a good thing.

 

Are You Testing Your Invisibility?

I’ve been avoiding writing about this book (Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray), but there’s too much in there that hits too close to home. Clover is a fiftysomething mother of two (1 college student, 1 recent college graduate), married to a crazy-busy pediatrician, a dog owner, and writer of a gardening column for the local newspaper. She has one little brief blip of invisibility before becoming completely invisible: voice still there, body still there, but she cannot be seen. Her family doesn’t notice. For several weeks. As long as she does all her regular tasks (including sex with her husband), they don’t know anything is seriously amiss.

I picked up the novel in the library because of the cover and title, read the blurb and put it back. “No,” I thought, “that’s way too depressing to be as funny as the blurb implies.” I walked two steps away, pivoted, and picked it up again. Read the first line: “I first noticed I was missing on a Thursday.” Loved the off-hand tone of it, so I gritted my teeth and got it. I was going to read it like it was medicine.

And it was. The book is truly funny and the tone is comic throughout, yet I was on the verge of tears, if not actually crying, almost the entire time. Luckily, it’s a fairly short book (246 pages), and a fast read, so it wasn’t a terribly long time. But still.

The best parts of the book were when we meet the other invisible women and go along as they discover how to use their invisibility like a superpower. An ex-teacher goes to school on the bus (naked, so nobody can tell there’s a person there), whispering in the ears of bullies as their conscience, making sure shunned kids have a place to sit in the lunch room, interrupting cheaters, and generally making life at school better, fairer. Another slips off her clothes in the middle of a bank robbery and foils it. They hold naked meetings so they don’t have to pay for the hotel conference room. They learn how this happened to them (there is a physical reason, it isn’t magic), band together, confront the problem, and achieve a pretty good level of victory.

But Clover’s interactions with her family and the world at large made me so sad. Even a little panicky. I’ve got tears pressuring behind my eyes right now just thinking about it. As long as she’s wearing clothes, the vast majority of people don’t notice that the clothes are floating in midair. Even her doctor responds to her statement, “I am invisible,” with a bland, “We get a lot of that in here,” not even looking up at her from her chart as he talks. The only one who notices and didn’t know other invisible women first, was her best friend.

This is a nightmare that is too easy for me to imagine being real. The first time it happens, Clover panics and wakes up her son to ask whether he sees her. There’s some silly back and forth, including this nugget, “If you feel like I don’t appreciate you, well…it’s because I don’t. I will again, but not until at least ten, okay?” She’s visible by the end of the conversation. Next time, it’s permanent. She didn’t plan on testing her family, but the first time, when she stood in front of her husband as just a nightgown floating in air, and he didn’t notice, but kept up an ordinary conversation, she dismissed it as her own mental illness. And then it becomes a test, a dare.

Aren’t there tons of ways you test the people who love you? If I don’t change the toilet paper roll, how long will it take for someone else to do it? Will anyone notice that I cut/dyed/changed my hair? If I do job X that person Y usually does, will they thank me for it if I don’t mention it? If I don’t plan a night out with the husband, how long before he suggests it? If I don’t hand the camera to someone else and ask to have my picture taken, will anyone notice that there’s little evidence that I’m part of the family? Or that I’m sometimes part of the fun? Maybe it’s just me, but I bet I’m not alone.

What does it mean when they fail the test? It might mean that they don’t love you, but not necessarily. It might mean that they’re wrapped up in their own dramas and anxieties, with some tendency to take you for granted on the side. No matter what, it sucks for you. You feel crappy when they fail. After the first interaction with her husband, Clover cries out, “‘He didn’t notice!’ A pure grief washed through me. It was bigger than the problem at hand” (p.27).

But you also feel kind of crappy when they pass, because you’ve expended time and energy scheming and imagining both scenarios and every one of your interactions is fraught with suspense and expectation. And all the negotiating with yourself to explain every nuance. Clover does this, too: “The next morning when he leaned in and kissed my shoulder, my neck, I started to think about it all another way. Maybe Arthur didn’t see me because he knew me so well and his vision automatically filled in all the things I was, based on the slightest hint of shape or scent. Maybe when you’ve been with someone so long you don’t so much see them as you project them onto things. Arthur could have been making love to my twenty-year-old self, my forty-year-old self…Anyway, this morning, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt” (p.48).

But it’s also kind of irresistible. Another character asks Clover why she doesn’t just tell her family. She admits that it would be better if they knew, “But after awhile it just becomes a point of pride. You start to wonder just how far it can go” (p.151).

Yet it isn’t only pride, it’s also fear. Fear of being unloved. Fear of being unlovable. And hurt. Hurt from all the times your loved ones have failed you in the past. Not to mention humiliation. It’s humiliating to feel like you’re begging for attention. Clover puts this messy soup together this way: “Maybe because we were timid and hurt, having already spend so many years feeling invisible before the truth of the matter kicked in. If we didn’t have the starch to tell our own families that no one could see us, then how could we be ready to tell the world?” (p.157).

Not to mention the mingled guilt and anger in those who’ve been tested. Anger at the person for putting them in that position, but also guilt at being neglectful and clueless. Hurt that the tester didn’t trust them.

It ends pretty well for the characters in the book, and Clover does apologize for testing them, but reading this has convinced me of the stupidity of testing. I’m going to stop it. In fact, I already have stopped it. I changed a door in our kitchen yesterday, and instead of waiting to see who’d notice, I told everyone that I did something big in the kitchen. My daughter wanted to know so she could anticipate it. My son didn’t want me to tell him what, so he could see whether he noticed right away — he did. And I tagged my husband in the Facebook post that had the picture of what I did. When I see that the toilet paper roll needs changing, I’m going to change it. I’m going to open curtains (while teasing my family about really being vampires). When we’re having people over for brunch and I’m busy cooking, I’m going to ask my husband to make the bed instead of wishing that he’d notice that the bed needed making and being hurt when he doesn’t. There’s more, some silly, some deeper, but you get the picture.

And there are more convictions to come because of this book, but I’ll save that for a future post.

 

How Do You Feel About Sarcasm?

In two YA/MG books I’ve read this summer, the female protagonist is sarcastic, both in her own head and with others: Hourglass, by Myra McEntire, and Kepler’s Dream, by Juliet Bell. (Gorgeous covers, both.)

They are very different novels, but Emerson (from Hourglass) and Ella (from Kepler) both use sarcasm as a protective shield. In Emerson’s case, she’s 17, so she self-consciously uses it to keep people distant from her because she sees dead people, spent time in a psych ward, and has secretly gone off her meds — she wants to protect others from her crazy.

Ella has been stuck at what she calls Broken Family Camp with her severe grandmother (who she’s never met) in New Mexico while her mother undergoes a stem cell transplant for leukemia in Seattle. She takes refuge in her sarcastic observations about the people and the place she’s stuck in.

Wisecracking, sarcastic, kick-butt heroines are “in” now. I support the trend to have strong female protagonists, but I wish they didn’t always have to be so sarcastic. Because the thing the character does to keep everyone else at arm’s length or as a sign of her disaffection, keeps me feeling distant from the character I’m supposed to be attaching to. It does to me what it does to everyone else in the story. Being party to the character’s interior talk rarely helps, because they seem so distant from their own emotions. And in the 11-year-old character, it made her seem a little old for her age.

I kept reading both those books, despite feeling an initial disconnect with the point of view characters, and they turned into wonderful stories. Emerson and Ella grew on me as their situations got both better and worse, and as they showed more vulnerability and connected to the people around them. Hourglass is a fast-moving story with loads of tension and strange stuff happening and secrets and paranormal business. Kepler’s Dream is a quieter story, not as flashy and not at all paranormal. But as Ella got to know the people and the landscape at her grandmother’s, the sarcastic names she gave them became more affectionate. At the end of the book, when she slyly clues her grandmother (Violet Von Stern, which is an awesome name) in to the nickname she calls Violet — the GM, for General Major of the Good Grammar Correctional Facility — I got teary, because it was a sign of comfort and security in their relationship, especially when Violet gets the joke on herself.

Another book I read this summer, The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, had multiple characters who were sarcastic and disaffected and kept everyone at a distance, and I could barely finish it. I found almost all the characters unpleasant, distasteful, whiney, bratty, and mean. I have not picked up the sequel, and I won’t. I don’t want to spend any more time with those people.

But it’s an interesting thing to think about as a writer: what do you do when your character’s coping mechanism keeps the reader distant as well? How do you keep them reading until your character starts to mature? Do you show a core of sincerity behind the sarcasm to tide the reader over until the character grows? Some other positive character trait? It brings home to me how difficult sarcasm is, as a voice, to balance. How much is too much?

I tried it, once, in a romance manuscript. I love a wisecracking romance heroine, and I’m pretty snarky in my own head, so I thought I could pull it off, but it didn’t work for me, didn’t sound right. I had to rewrite it with the character generally being more sincere and only very occasionally sarcastic (and even then, the ms. isn’t seeing the light of day). Now that I think of it, there aren’t any sarcastic characters in the first David and Saul manuscript: David is made fun of for being so honest and upright, Saul is sometimes cruel and closed-up and sometimes open, Samuel can be cryptic but with a sense of humor, David’s oldest brother doesn’t hide his meanness. So they certainly aren’t all pleasant, but no sarcastic wisecrackers.

As David matures through the next two books, he won’t be able to remain so honest and upright: he lies to priests, pretends to be crazy, has to figure out how to survive on the run, becomes a mercenary while lying to his host king. He has to learn how to be diplomatic, which is all about maintaining an aura of sincerity while twisting the truth to your purposes. But no sarcasm. I seem to have a problem with it.

How do you respond to a sarcastic main character?

Revisiting the “I Wonders”

I’ve had the writing blahs. More accurately, the revision blahs. The first book in my planned trilogy (imaginative retelling of the biblical story of David and Saul in young adult novels) is finished. It’s been read by close to a dozen people and is in the hands of a publisher that will hopefully look at it some time this year. That means I move on to the second novel, which is complete in messy draft 1 form.

In late spring, I dutifully read the draft and noted where I needed to “show not tell,” where I needed more information, where I’d gotten the emotional tenor wrong. To the left are 3 of the 8 pages of notes I have — two lines of teeny chicken-scratches per line on the page, not to mention the stuff scribbled in margins, added in post-its, and written on the manuscript pages.

It hasn’t been as bad as pulling teeth. I had 11 of those pulled as a child, one of which had to be broken apart in my mouth and taken out in chunks, at a time when pain management wasn’t as good as it is now (or Australian dentists just thought we needed to be tougher). So revising this ms. hasn’t gone to that level.

But close.

In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes about what he calls Resistance (and, yes, it’s always capitalized): whatever it is within you that blocks you from living your fullest life, from doing whatever creative thing you feel the pull to do. The following is from the excerpt that appears on the book’s page on his website:

“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. It is experienced as a force field emanating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its intention is to shove the creator away, distract him, sap his energy, incapacitate him.

If Resistance wins, the work doesn’t get written.”

I’ve got Resistance bad, in a way I never did for the first book. I called it any number of things over the summer.

1. My usual summer ADD when the kids are home and extra kids are here and I’m ferrying people about to have their fun.
2. The heat. The first half of the summer was so hot it sapped all my drive.
3. Anxiety over the fate of book 1 (aka It Is You) at the publisher, because the submission did not come about in a normal way and they didn’t get it in the format their website says they prefer, but when the president of the company asks for it in his own way, that’s how you send it, and isn’t it good that the president asked for it and apparently read it and apparently sent it along to the young readers section, but I didn’t get the postcard that they typically send saying that they’ve received the manuscript, and does that mean they don’t have it, do I dare be obnoxious enough to send them a letter asking to confirm whether they have it and whether it contains what they need from me, or should I just trust the wheels that have already been set it motion….
4. Health issues, none of which are lastingly serious, but two of which did interrupt my life for a bit (pleurisy and some kind of neck something that had me moving like a robot).

But now the kids are in school, it’s not so hot, and my neck is mostly okay. The anxiety over It Is You is still there, but I’m working on trusting the process, and on recognizing that, publishing being what it is, when a publisher says I’ll hear from them, “very soon,” two months is well within that timeframe. And so I’ve been beating myself into the chair and choking my way through a few notes, which might cover one page. Ninety minutes of work a day, tops. This is the mark of an amateur, not a pro.

Giving myself serious talking-tos helps a bit. Bible reading and prayer helps. Reading inspiring, butt-kicking words from other writers, such as Justine Musk, Steven Pressfield, and Robin LeFever helps, too.

But none of that took hold until today. You know what it was? What got me into this project in the first place: the “I wonders.” The questions about all those details the Bible doesn’t think are interesting enough to include.

Where did David get water from before he settled in the caves at Adullam? Could he devise a dew catcher out of materials available to him? If he passed by Jebus, could he access the Gihon Spring? Would the Jebusites let a random traveler get water there? What is the landscape like from Gibeah to Nob? What kind of vegetation is around there? Would there be any shade for him? Any caves? What would the evening and day temperatures be?

So I’m obsessing again, one question leading to another leading to another leading my to visiting the Calvin College library again. And browsing through the stacks leads me to finds I didn’t search for. Which will lead me to more specificity in the world I write about, which will hopefully lead to a richer reader experience.

This is good. This is beating back Resistance. For now.

If you have any techniques for beating back your Resistance, I’d love to hear about it.

Anybody Else Need a Hand Slap?

No, I don’t mean a “you’ve been naughty” slap. Or a “stop that” slap. I’m talking about the practice of volleyball teams to slap hands with each other when a point doesn’t go their way. (Of course, nobody else finds it interesting, so I have no photo to go along with this.)

I have a hard time tearing myself away from Olympics coverage, which means I wind up seeing sports I’d never watched for any length of time before. I’ve been struck by how supportive volleyball teams are. After every point that goes their way, they huddle and clap each other on the back or shoulder. After points they lose, they make a point of going around to almost every player and slapping palms with them, as if saying, “alright, next one,” “we’re still good.” No matter what, they affirm that they are in it together.

It’s part of the rhythm of every point, with every team that I’ve seen.

Which makes me think about failure and disappointment in my life. I tend to make a big deal out of them. I stew about them for a while before I say anything, and when I do say something, I’m rather emotional (this may be an understatement). And then I mull it over afterwards. This takes a lot of time and way too much energy. Maybe that’s why the matter-of-fact hand slap looks so appealing: no emotion, no recrimination. Just an understanding that failure happens, it’ll happen to all of us, we have another chance to not fail in 30 seconds, meanwhile, I’m here for you.

I’m focusing here on those hundreds of little failures: anger and irritation flaming out, saying something that unintentionally hurts someone you care for, not doing something you say you’re going to do. I need to work on being more matter-of-fact about these. On giving myself or my loved ones the equivalent of a simple clap of palms together to acknowledge that this whatever didn’t work out the way we’d hoped, but we’re in it together, let’s get ready for the next thing.

There have been times I’ve done this well with the kids, when I’d send us all to our rooms without a big fuss when it was clear we weren’t working well together. But I didn’t do so well yesterday, when both my kids sprung sudden school activities on me that required outlays of money and time and which they’d never done before, so I let my irritation and anxiety get the better of me. Not horribly, and things will work out fine with both things, but I don’t like how I handled it. I need to give myself and the kids the hand slap and move on.

I might try to cultivate this for bigger things, too. As regular readers know, my family left our longtime church two months ago. It still makes me very emotional; I still cry during every church service we aren’t at our old church. It’s not a crime to cry in church, of course, but I’d like to stop being so actively sad so I can better get ready for the next thing. Because the next thing is upon me. We start at a new church soon, my husband in an official capacity, and I don’t want to give the new people the impression that I’m not happy to be there — because I am glad to be there, I’m still just sad about the other.

Do I need to work on the volleyball hand slap approach? Or is that impossible while I’m still grieving the place I left?

Let me throw in another analogy, just to keep things interesting. In my favorite summer TV show (other than the Olympics), So You Think You Can Dance, dancers are put in partnerships that last about half the season (unless one of them leaves the show and partnerships get shuffled). Some of those pairings have amazing chemistry from the beginning, some pairs have to work up to it. But then, when they reach the top 10, partnerships get switched every week, and every week they have to do their best with someone new. The winners are those who can make any partnership, any style of dance look good.

I had great and immediate chemistry with my prior church partner, but I can’t be with them anymore. I have a new partner. It isn’t the same as the old one, but it’s got its own style. It’ll do some things better, other things not as well. I need to give myself fully to this partnership, learn its strengths, and do everything I can to make this successful, which, in my terms, means that I serve God’s people and bring glory to God’s kingdom.

We’ll see on Sunday whether I managed to analogize myself out of crying.

 

 

 

Sputtin’ on Wisdom

Spotten is a great word from my youth. It’s a warning that the joking you’re doing about church/God/the Bible is teetering on the line between affectionate and offensive. The line, of course, is subjective, but I’ll try not to go too far. [finally got the correct spelling from my father: a Dutch word meaning blasphemy]

In late 2010, I started reading at Genesis 1:1 with the intention to read the Bible all the way through from beginning to end. I had no timetable. Which was good, because two and a half years later, I’m only at Proverbs 9. There were a few hiccups, a few months-long pauses, but with the kids back in school this week, it’s my chance to get back into routine. Sometimes, it’s a pleasure; it was this project that got me going on reimagining the story of David and Saul. And sometimes it’s a struggle to find “the personal application.”

Like yesterday. Proverbs 6 & 7 are all about keeping away from the immoral woman, on and on about the immoral woman. Sure, I turned this into a warning to keep away from ideas or people who will try to seduce me away from what I know to be right and good, but there was a nagging voice in my head, “As if the man would be pure as the driven snow if only the bad woman didn’t thrust herself right up in his face and offer herself to him.” Hmph.

And then today’s selection (Prov. 8-9) had wisdom as a woman standing at the crossroads and city gates yelling at people. I grew up in Toronto and lived in NYC for several years and this description made me think of homeless people I’d see on the street — dirty, smelly, hair matted, ranting. For someone whose fourth sentence is, “Let me give you common sense” (8:3), screaming at passersby doesn’t seem like the most common-sense way to get your point across.

So I’m not starting off in a terribly holy mental place. It didn’t get much better with, “Good advice and success belong to me. Insight and strength are mine. Because of me, kings reign, and rules make just laws. Rulers lead with my help, and nobles make righteous judgments” (8:14-16). This is fine when about wisdom generally, but put in the mouth of my mentally imbalanced woman ranting on the corner, not so much.

How about our crazy lady coming out with this? “Unending riches, honor, wealth and justice are mine to distribute. My gifts are better than the purest gold, my wages better than sterling silver!” (8:17-19). And then she gets all trippy: “I was born before the oceans were created, before the springs bubbled forth their waters….I was there when [God] established the heavens, when he drew the horizon on the oceans. I was there when he established the deep fountains of the earth….And when he marked off the earth’s foundations, I was the architect at his side” (8:27-31).

So I was constantly fighting with myself, smirking at my mental images and trying to rein them in so I could find the message in there.

And then came this, which smacked me between the eyes. “But the wise, when rebuked, will love you all the more. Teach the wise, and they will be wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn more” (9:8-9).

The typical image of the wise person, or the person with the gift of wisdom, is of someone with something to say that you need to listen to. The person may come across as haranguing (see above) or as gentle, but he or she always has a message to improve your life. This is utterly different. This is the wise person as the one who is teachable, the one who is open to correction.

Someone recently told me that I had the gift of wisdom, which really surprised me. I think of myself as having an analytic and occasionally perceptive mind. Now and then, there’s a flash of insight or connection and I do have something to say. But my faults are ever before me. The things say are not always well-thought-out and are sometimes hurtful in ways in didn’t intend. My desires and plans so far outstrip my actions that it’s embarrassing. I have so much to learn.

And that’s where the 9:9 passage gets me: I can pursue wisdom by being teachable. And Christianity being what it is, it won’t be information I’ll be seeking. It’ll be my way of life, my ability to follow through, my regular practice of opening myself up to what I read in the Bible and what I hear from God in all the ways He communicates with me.

So even when my snarkiness gets in the way of what I’m reading, God can still sneak in and teach me.

My Men In Black Image of God

Here is something I missed during the recent heat wave: thinking random and occasionally deep thoughts while my brain was occupied with the domestic task of making dinner. The oppressive heat has broken, so I cooked last night. And my random and possibly deep thoughts revolved around God and a character in Men In Black 3 and the future.

Griffin (in the center) is an alien who can see the future: all of them at the same time. There are many possible futures, each one affected by the choices the characters make. He is a sweet, sweet character, wanting the good futures to happen, wanting people to make the choices that lead to the good futures, but he sees all the negative consequences of various actions, as well. He helps the Will Smith character, guides him as much as possible, and gives him a very important gift that could save the world, but it’s up to the players to act and react and make the good future happen.

At a couple of points in the film, he stands outside the action, saying, “I hope this is the one where this happens.”

While grating cheese to go over the mushroom ravioli, I realized that this is my image of God and God’s plan for my life. I can totally imagine God watching me, seeing my various futures arrayed in front of me, hoping I choose a particular path, but prepared to work with me no matter what I choose.

There are a lot of Christians who are earnestly searching for God’s Plan/Will For My Life, as if it were one official plan that each of us had to figure out and then just go along with. This is certainly the point of view of the devotional we’ve been reading with the kids at night (Jesus Calling for kids). As if God has a planner, and if we miss an appointment, we could miss the entire plan. There is an expectation that God’s plan is detailed and specific: you need to find the one right college God wants you to go to, the one right career path, the one right spouse, the one right church, etc. If you ask my best friend, Mr. Google, how to “find God’s plan for my life,” you will find millions of posts with authoritative directions and multi-step processes.

I don’t see it that way, but I can see how people get there. After all, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘They are plans for good and not disaster, plans to give you hope and a future.'”

I was going to go into a paragraph about my understanding of Hebrew ideas, that they are less fixed than Western ideas of the same term, but Skip Moen already did it for me, and much better. He says the Hebrew word for plans in the above passage means, “thought, plan, or invention”:

“I know the new ideas I have for you.”  God’s plans are never cast in concrete.  They are flexible, adjusting to our lives as our circumstances change.  It is easy to think that God has only one perfect plan for your life and that if you make a mistake or sin, the plan will be forever destroyed.  Then you will have to live with second best, then third best and so on each time you fail to meet expectations.  But God does not have one perfect plan for you.  He has one purpose – one goal – that you become all that you were meant to be through conformity to the image of the Messiah.  The goal never changes.  But the plans are new ideas every day.  God is full of surprises.  An eternal inventor.

This makes me grin. The questions about “what should I do” become not, “Am I following God’s Plan for Me?” but “Will this help me conform to Christ’s image?” and “Can I be a faithful follower and servant here?” maybe even “Can I learn more about serving God here?” It could even be, “Which choice will bring me the most joy?”

My family is facing a church decision. We left our previous congregation a month ago, and while we’d prefer to wander around a variety of churches this summer and make a leisurely decision, that doesn’t seem to be where things are heading. My husband is being courted for a possible part-time job at one church. It feels too soon, but we’re pursuing it, praying about it, not putting up any roadblocks yet. Letting this surprise play out.

With my Griffin from MIB3 image of God, God is watching us on the cusp of this new direction, giving us bits of guidance and encouragement, and hoping we will make the decision that will bring about the most glory for God’s kingdom. For some people, God will give them very direct instructions: turn here, go there. give that person a specific amount of money. For others, it will be a piling on of circumstances, a layering of “coincidences” that all point in a specific direction.

The most direct message God has sent me is “Serve where you are planted,” which could mean a few different things: serve in the neighborhood you live in, no matter where you are you will serve, I will plant you somewhere and you will serve there, stay where you are and serve. It wasn’t a clear answer to the anguished prayer I had at the time, but I have served wherever it was that I was planted, and I’ll continue to do so.

However, the Griffin analogy breaks down, because he doesn’t make this promise: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom. 8:28).

Whatever we decide about this church, God will work it for good. Not necessarily for pleasant or for perfect, not always for fun, but for good. And God is with me however this plays out. My favorite promise of the three I’m quoting here is this one from Jesus: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Of course, we can choose wrong. We are sinful and often stupid, selfish and self-justifying. We can make cascading bad decisions. But God will keep throwing new ideas at us, plopping some miracles in our path, giving us chances, trying to nudge us into better decisions and more faithful futures.

In this way of looking at it, God doesn’t send us bad things, either. It might just be the spiritual toddler in me, but I can’t think that God “sends” cancer, rape, pulmonary embolisms, drowning, etc. These things happen and God works with them to wring as much good as can come. From this point of view, God didn’t give my cousin cancer so she could be more secure in her father’s love and esteem than she ever was when she was healthy. But she got cancer and that was one of the goods God wrung out of it before she died.

So those were my deep thoughts over the stove last night. And I didn’t even burn anything. What are you thinking about these days?

 

 

 

Wherein I Win at Relaxing

A couple of months ago, the family and I took a trip to Chicago, to the Museum of Science and Industry for the fantastic MythBusters exhibit. While there, we played Mindball. In this game, two opponents wearing headbands sit opposite each other. Sensors in the headbands detect each person’s brainwaves, and the most relaxed person moves a little ball towards the less relaxed person. As the MSI says, “Compete to Relax … Relax to Compete.”

This is how NOW Magazine describes it:

Mindball is “an experience product.” Players use their alpha and theta brainwaves (two of four major brainwave types) to control the rubber-coated steel ball and move it across the 4-foot-long game table. Each player wears a headband equipped with electrodes that act as biosensors to measure their brain’s electrical activity as recorded from the scalp – similar to how a neurophysiologic electroencephalogram(EEG) machine is used to assess brain damage and epilepsy.

The person with the stronger alpha and theta brainwaves will be able to “push” a magnetic carriage under the table (visible to players and audience as a ball on the surface) into their opponent’s goal and score a point.

On the face of it, this isn’t a game I should win, especially against my husband. One of the major ways we complement each other is that his steadiness and general relaxedness balances out my excitability and general high-strungedness. If you were to try to give him a neck/shoulder massage, you’d find the area pliable; he never needs a massage. I’m always in need of one; the area between my neck and shoulders is constantly tense.

Yet I beat him in the game of relaxing. This was even more odd because I was not relaxed. My heart was pounding and there was a small crowd around us, watching, so I also felt like I was performing. I love to perform, but it makes me tense and nervous, especially when I could hear them comment on our competition.

So how did I win?

Alpha brainwaves are strongest when a person is relaxing, when the brain is neither actively working through something nor engaged in an activity that requires thought. Meditation or yoga often brings on alpha waves. Theta waves are slower than alpha, and can occur when a person is daydreaming, or when engaged in an automatic and repetitive activity, such as driving on the freeway (all those times you can’t remember the last few miles) or exercising outdoors.

My husband was trying to empty his mind, which is what the MSI worker told us to do. I couldn’t empty my mind if you paid me serious money, so I closed my eyes, worked to control my breathing to a steady four beats in and four out (no matter how shaky those breaths were), and I mentally counted those 4 in and 4 out.

I won, not because I was the most relaxed, but because I was concentrating on something utterly repetitive. One line in the NOW Magazine article allows for this: “What adds an unusual and exciting twist to the game is the fact that alpha and theta waves are strongest when a person is calm and relaxed, or concentrating intently.”

It’s no surprise that my powers of concentration are stronger than my brain’s ability to relax, but I sure was amazed that I beat my husband in this game.

It should also be noted that he made the mistake of opening his eyes and peeking at where the ball was. Maybe all the above is hogwash and he defeated himself. But every now and then, I like to gloat that I won at relaxing.