Today, Like Queen Anne’s Lace

Today, Like Queen Anne’s Lace

Today I wanted to claw out of my skin,

To wriggle from my flesh holding

me in like gooey plaster

and crawl raw and exposed

into the sun as flesh and bone.

For I am my body,

and it is me,

but my bones ache from the

ill in my skin and my blood

and my brain.

My brain scares me. I think,

I do, but the world is a

shattered case of butterflies

that never stay still enough to

let me see what they are up to.

The paradox:

I want time.

I have time,

but my body breaks beneath

the pressure.

So I went outside—I feel colder

these days, colder than I have

before.

I watched Autumn leaves in a

Spring wind, travel whole in

their own time, over their

shattered brethren on the

damp earth below.

And I looked up at the

Maples, and saw them sway

as the Queen Anne’s lace do

in the summer wind.

And I understood it—that the

naked trees like unbloomed

flowers were there for me to

see.

Today I saw the Queen Anne’s

Lace battered in the early

Spring.

_

A few days ago I decided that I should spend the month of April reflecting on how God has worked in my life since I got Lyme’s disease. I contracted it—probably—about two years ago and did not feel its effects until several months after having it. (I had none of the typical warning symptoms or illnesses.) I mentioned in my previous post how having Lyme changed my perspective on a lot of things. It is easy for me to count how many things it stole from me, but it takes time to think of what I have gained.

I woke up this morning and got ready for the day when I considered what notebook to journal in (I have several for different purposes). For whatever reason I decide not to use my devotional journal and use my unfiltered one. (It is the one I rage and ponder in without fear of what others will think—it is quite freeing.)

I opened to the last entry and found the poem above. I had written it when my Lyme was really killing me.

After reading the poem I walked around, doing my morning routine and I thought,

“Maybe I should simply begin with thanking God on how much I have improved.”

It seemed like a good idea so I took up a pen to begin to write.

Then I thought, I wonder when I wrote that poem.

The date was 4/1/2014.

I started sobbing, the wailing kind when I am relieved and overcome all at once. I was almost laughing.

Recently I have been antsy at home. I want to find a job in my career and try to live on my own, but I can’t find the right job to fit with my current health issues. My Lyme also acts up in cold weather, so I have also been considering looking to move to a more moderate climate.

I grow impatient. I went through a similar experience post undergrad when most of everyone I knew got married, started families and careers while I was doing grad school and working retail. I am thankful for that now, but at the time it felt like God was keeping me locked in a box while everyone else was released into the world.

And then, when I was planning my future post grad school, I got Lyme. Now I am really in a slower place than everyone else. I had one woman give me a word through prayer that said God had put me in a separate kind of time zone, and that he was using it to develop me in specific ways he could not have had I been able to run off and start a career.

This last Sunday I went up for prayer on wisdom about where to go. Should I wait to recover more? Should I try to look for a job locally or someplace where the weather is nicer to my body?

When I read the poem’s date today it was God’s quiet affirmation that he was moving, though slower than I wished, but that he was healing me and forming me into who he wanted me to be.

I can remember the day I wrote the poem, and I remember that after I wrote it I considered it one of the best descriptions of my ailment I had written. I was in terrible pain and everything was a chore, even though I was at least able to walk on my own.

Today I still deal with aches. My head will hurt, my leg will go numb, and my heart will race without a reason, but I am better. I am so much better.

It is one of the simplest, unnoticed, yet grandest answers to my prayers.

And that is my first gem.

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Screaming Hope

“I do not like it when stories are too preachy,” I said to my college roommate. We were in a conversation about storytelling while cleaning our room. I remember she paused then returned to rummage through her backpack. “See, I never liked it when people called stories too preachy. I think that telling others about God is the most important thing you can do with a story.” Her simple but honest response left me scrambling to find the way to say what I really meant. I did think that communicating God’s hope was the best thing I could do with a story. But the generic Christian sub-culture stories I was used to hearing were still…preachy? The message was good, I thought, But the method of telling the message? Was that the problem? My response was one of my sprawling cognitive rambles that my roommate always listened to with the utmost patience. After some time I finally concluded, “It just seems that since God is the most wonderful thing we can talk about that we should talk about him in the most beautiful way possible.” At least, my conclusion went something like that. I remember my roommate nodded and we went onto a different topic, but she would go to reference the conversation later when talking with others, casting a knowing smile toward me. That simple conversation, though it only took ten minutes at most, was one of the most important dialogues I had in college. I managed to solidify something that had started to eat away at me since I began to pursue my writing as an art. It was not that I doubted God could use what media I grew up hearing called “Christian”, but that I understood that there could be something better. I went through a funny sort of whiplash. Some of the Christian music and films I had seen I could not stand anymore, or at least not watch without utter scrutiny. Today I try to approach them more thoughtfully, not always jumping to see their faults (though certain faults drive me more nuts than others). The issue is not that I doubt the sincerity of the creators’ faith or think that God is unable to use them. By deciding what people God can use and will not use we can create our own religion where we are center and God is, at best, a doer of the wishes of our limited imaginations. Though I think that some of my frustrations with Christian media are well placed, I have to watch my own snobbery, usually reminding myself that if God could speak to a prophet through an ass he can more surely share his goodness through a fellow human being who is worth far more than donkeys or sparrows. But that does not change the fact that there are vibrant and grand pieces of art like Handel’s Messiah that are far more beautiful and artful and deeper than the majority of the music produced by Christians today. I know some people might say that Messiah is a classical piece and not everyone’s daily dose of melody in a cup. I understand that. I could not listen to Messiah every day. And honestly, I do not think I could always listen/read/watch only artful pieces. It would exhaust me. The best of art is a dialogue and, like the introvert that I am, I have to be rested and ready before I partake of a long conversation.

Finding Holy Spaces

I do believe God encourages us to have deep discussions and take the time to make good art. In Exodus (chapters 25-40) when God gave the directions to build the Tabernacle he did not tell Preschoolers to take up welding tools and make the Statue of Liberty. He put the people under the guidance of skilled artists who were divinely inspired to create what God had envisioned. God gave them instructions that took time and patience to follow. Building something beautiful was not quick or easy. God’s commands concerning the Tabernacle are contrasted with the following section that tells of the forging of the golden calf. Unlike the Tabernacle this god stand-in was made at the spur of the moment as an emotional eruption. The people assumed that because Aaron the high priest had spiritual responsibilities that he could create a manifestation of God on earth, but spiritual knowledge was (and is) not the same as craftsmanship. Most children’s illustrated Bibles show a very pretty gold calf that is perfectly drawn and formed, but when you think about it the idol probably looked like a heap of molten junk. Besides breaking God’s command the creation of the gold calf was a finite representation of divinity, placing God on an inanimate physical level lesser than man. Consider the commands of the Tabernacle. When God relayed directions for a place of worship the people were not charged with recreating God on earth, but to build a place for him to dwell in. It was not human responsibility to make God manifest on earth. God would later manifest in physical form, of course, but as a fellow human that was able to be far more intimate and vulnerable than a hunk of gold. The Israelites were simply charged with making their space and hearts ready for his presence. Creating the golden calf was impatience and the compulsion to make a physical God they wanted in their lives at that moment (Exodus 32:1). I think that Christians still hold this battle in art today. While they are not making idols there are times it feels that Christians are making their art to make God on earth rather than creating a space for his spirit to work and dwell. I am not saying that Christians should not try to show God or discuss his character, but that we should be careful so our portrayal of God is not a one stop pit shop where he gives us what we need (which is sometimes more of a want) and we move on our way. In our honest and heartfelt desire to see the world healed and whole again we can try to make God a band-aid to cover up a deep infection that requires the innermost dwelling of his presence and peace rather than the repeated truths of his word. I still struggle with this. When I have a friend who has gone through pain I want them to be happy again. I want them to understand that God is taking care of them though he seems absent. Most times I end up saying this plainly, but it still does not address the core of what they are experiencing. While God’s word is powerful, it is not a spell or incantation. The words do not magically make pain go away. When we suffer we experience it in our mind, soul, and body, and addressing one part does not automatically heal the rest. That is what makes Christ’s ministry so beautiful, he healed the physical body, he spoke intellectually about the law and teachings to show himself, and he lastly created a path for full spiritual restoration, and ultimately a future restoration of the full person. The golden calf was created as a mere physical substitute for God’s glory while the Tabernacle was an intersection of the earth and God’s glory. In the same way, I think that the best art (whether secular or Christian) is not the recreation of God on earth, but showing God’s connection and communication with the earth by creating spaces for people to dwell. The greatest art has a way of speaking to the physical, spiritual, and intellectual in the same way God showed himself to humanity through Christ.

Speaking Of Suffering

I have suffered from Lyme’s disease for over a year now, and when it first hit, it stole everything away from me. I was bedridden and had to crawl to get anywhere. I was finishing up a semester in grad school and out of an entire week I often only had two hours where my head was clear to work on homework. For the first time in my life I really suffered. I mean, truly, deeply suffered. I had experienced bad things before, but this was a far different level of suffering that stole away much of my life. I felt more like a slab of meat than anything living or breathing. The bacteria hurting my body had more life than me. I have never questioned God’s motives more than that time. While I now suffer a milder form of the disease I still wonder why God allowed it to happen. I trust him, I really do, but I have yet to see all of the healing and fullness he will bring from having this disease. I have learned a great deal about my own desire to do things for myself. I have learned a deep truth about thanksgiving (which is a post for another time), and I have come to understand and feel for those who suffer like I have. There is a particular Christian song on the radio that when I hear the opening verse I usually change the station. It describes the singer seeing a person suffering, and later goes into speaking about God’s promise to restore them and that they should give up their situation to him. And this is all good. Let me say that again. This is all good. It is well intentioned, and very true. God does promise that he “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), though the definition of the “good” I believe is often misunderstood for what we want to see, rather than part of the way God is conforming us to be like Christ (v. 29). But, having gone through intense suffering, this does not do much to comfort me. Though I know this singer has gone through a great tragedy the lyrics are very general and not personal. The singer sees another person in anguish and with a peppy tune tells them that all they need to do is hand the issue over to God to watch him make it into something good. Rather than drawing from the singer’s own past of suffering to bring out the miraculous ways of God’s healing the singer simply lays out a basic step-by-step guide without discussion on how to survive the time spent waiting for God to transform the situation. The song goes to reference how everyone is stuck in the aftermath of Adam’s sin, but reminds of the hope of heaven. The singer does seem to indicate that part of the beauty of our life on earth is seeing God’s restoration, but in the context of the tune and chorus the earthly results sound like they are bound to be on the happier side. And that is where the problem lies. Not everyone is going to have the happy ending we all want, but God can turn the situation to make use more like Christ and give us joy in our experiences. Christians do have the ultimate end of heaven and full restoration to anticipate, but in the meantime God’s use of suffering is not promised to be what we would ideally like. God uses suffering as a space where he can come fill us to transform us—he is the comforter after all, not our circumstances. I think that the idea that God dwells in us should mean a lot to artists who are Christians (though at the same time, like the Tabernacle, we dwell in him). It should encourage us to create little Tabernacles of human experience where people can enter and get a sense of God. Even if the gospel is not presented God can still move in spirit. Oftentimes the greatest works that speak to me are those that do not simply state God’s truth, but reveal the beauty of it and draw me back to the truth’s original source. In the gospel of John he uses “the Word” as a metaphor for Christ. If the language we speak can be used as a metaphor for the most wonderful being in existence, should that not drive us to roll our words into the most beautiful landscapes of lines and sounds that we can form? Should we not be bold enough to speak of our personal stories in more than general words and clichés that oversimplify our faith? When we are creating art God gives us permission to drink deep. We can dip our glasses into his wonder and pull out a fragment of himself and show it as best as we can to the world. In the same way Christ took the cup at the last supper we are asked to partake and remember. The Psalms are an example of this deep drinking, displaying the many sides of God shown in the facets of life through the words of laments, praises, prayers, and observations. The God in the Psalms shows kindness and mercy, but shows justice and wrath as well. If someone were to write about their experiences knowing me I doubt they would only show one part of my self. I am a person, and so is God, so should we not write about his complexities and mysteries the same we do with one another?

A Light For the Lost Ones

Despite my expressed scrutiny for parts of Christian media, I still have a deep love for art that reflects my faith. One of my favorite artists is Andrew Peterson. While a singer and songwriter and author (he writes children’s fantasy novels) he has one of the most honest and faith-filled voices I have heard from any Christian songwriter. Most other artists I find are cliché-ridden, unoriginal, or even extremely vague, holding their faith with their right pinky while singing about other topics with an occasional message of Jesus. Peterson talks blatantly about his faith and life, which for him works very well. I have heard other artists who have done beautiful work while talking about it very little. But Peterson’s dialogues about faith (which on occasion can sound like the overused and cliché patterns of mainstream Christian music) have a deeper draw and process to them so that in some cases an entire album works as a long and beautiful narrative about his faith. Counting Stars is a beautiful album of stories about himself, his friends, and family and the faith that runs through all their experiences. Light For The Lost Boy is a more intricate narrative, telling personal stories while paralleling his experience to that of Adam and to the human race and nature all at once. Part my draw to Peterson is his unashamed talks about his faith and honesty about his life while acknowledging God’s mystery and truth all the while tying it in to the larger redemptive movement of God that started with Adam and will end with the Second Coming. If Peterson is going to talk about the works of God he is going to talk about it while holding hands with the grand line of saints that have gone before and grasping the hands of those who will live beyond him. He talks about some things that Christians do not often like to talk about in music, but never to be edgy. He is simply singing about life, which is so simply reflected in musical style. He is not a well-known singer in the Christian world—I have only heard a few songs on the radio in my entire life—but he serves out meat where others serve milk. I think that his work serves as a good example of what Christian art could be. I am not a musician, so I cannot give any sort of deep artistic summary of his musical sound, but I know my words and he is a good writer. Here is the opening song to his album Light For The Lost Boy, and probably one of my favorite songs by him. Take a listen here. Click here for the lyrics. I printed myself a copy of the lyrics to analyze for this post and it is run with red lines. I am only going to make major points here. I could write pages on it if I could there is so much depth between this song and the rest of the album Afterward if you have the time you can go later to read Romans 8:18-30 and listen to the full album. The passage illuminates the entire scope of the album and holds some of the material for this first song. If you have ever listened to Christian radio or music (at least in America) you can tell how different his song sounds. Most Christian genre songs about suffering are either dramatically mellow piano or painfully upbeat. Peterson’s sound strikes somewhere in the middle, featuring the quieter, rhythmic, almost rippling sounds that build up to the pound of deep drums. It creates a serious mood that is somewhat unsure, ready to go one way or another. This is the setting he constructs to talk about death. He begins first with a vivid but short description of a memory of death. It is not his first experience with death, but it appears that it could be one of his son’s first experiences (“The sound of the scream”), and he is moved to say, “Come back soon.” This experience is set in a time and place where nature is in upheaval, the flood, the running river, and one animal falling prey to another. We do not see any person physically suffering here, but we understand the distress of those who saw the event. The next verse jumps into a fictional setting that parallels what was shared in the first verse. In this story we learn that “the boy grew up and the yearling was dead,” which, two lines later, is explained as “the death of his little boy heart.” There is an idea that a first death experience is a loss of childhood innocence and a step into adulthood, paralleling Peterson’s son in the first verse. (These lines are also one of the album’s many references to Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling.) I read the third line’s “He stood at the gate with the angel on guard” as a reference to the fall in Genesis 3:24. The fact that this boy is also Adam—the cause of the Fall—brings a new understanding of the boy’s grief, that there is a separation between what was once perfect and what is now waiting to be healed. The chorus changes music and it is sung like the beginning of a cry. Rather than portraying people as dying, Peterson puts us “in the womb of the world.” This metaphor works at multiple levels. In once sense, while in a fallen world we suffer and in our experiences with death we age (as he says in the second verse), in that way we are in a womb, growing. We are also in the fallen world for a temporary time before we are reborn with restored bodies at the return of Christ. In a sense, we are waiting for our real lives to start. It is also a reference to creation itself being in pain from the fall of the world like pregnant mother in Romans 8:22. The rest of the chorus draws from what came previous. We “bang our fists on the door” perhaps referring to the garden gate in the second verse and the desire to escape the world’s womb. The inability to breathe can refer in some sense to the idea of being within the womb and body of the world, but also hints again that our bodies were not made for the environment they are living in. He ends it with a quiet request for deliverance. The third verse puts Peterson on a path where he is unable to see the end. It is autumn, but rather than focus on the beauty he sees it (as many people do) as the approach of death (“the final exhale” and “leaves making a funeral band”). He again puts nature in distress, having the falling leaves be the trees wringing their hands. He repeats the chorus again, but instead of giving a request for deliverance he asks, “Are we alone in this great darkness?” as if the request made at the end of the first chorus has gone unanswered. What follows is a mounting combination of the verse and chorus that sounds a bit like a bridge, but is not quite (again, I am not sure of all musical definitions so I cannot give an actual name of the part). Rather than portray nature as a victim of death she becomes an instigator of death. She ends lives suddenly without proper explanation or reason. He says human lives are “the book of a beating heart” that are completed records of a life yet absent of the answers a book is expected to provide. The music climbs as he turns the focus skyward, looking for the answer “scrawled in the silent dark/On the dome of the sky in a billion stars” not only creating the sense of not receiving an answer to ones pleas but that the idea of trying to read a billion stars is impossible for human comprehension. The reading of stars seems to draw from Genesis 15:5 with the covenant of Abraham and God when God asks him to count the stars. In this case, rather than a promise of life it is an answer to the question of death—the stars are not promised lives but deceased ones. His voice raises and begins to form a cry as he sings the final lines, which indicate our separation from a spiritual understanding (“read these angel’s tongues”), puts us in a place where we cannot physically take or comprehend something so complex and heavenly (“stare at the burning sun”), leaves us too weak to do what we were meant to do in full joy (“sing with these broken lungs”), and finally leaves us fighting to be free of the world and restored (“we kick in the womb and beg to be born”). The last few words are repeated from the first chorus, but rather than a request it has escaladed to a cry and plea for deliverance from suffering. The cry is repeated four times before it fades into the opening music again and allows the sounds to complete the song. This song has been a huge encouragement to me in places of suffering. I hear in it the human cry about suffering, that I am not alone, and that, yes, I will not always hear God’s answer right away—I might not ever receive a clear answer while I am here. In these lyrics my suffering is never discredited, in fact, it is acknowledged as something universally experienced. I am not encouraged to downplay or ignore my pain, I can face it and call it what it is. Part of the reason for my issue with the song I mentioned earlier is that I am told I just need to hand it over to God and watch him make something good come out of it. And that is true, and no doubt a comforting message to many people. But what about the pain I suffer in the meantime? When I hand things over and pray God does not resolve an issue right away, and though I rely on him I will still have to live on in my pain until he takes it away or I die.

Lifting Cries, Screaming Hope

Many times it is easy to talk about the restoration or answer to suffering rather than to talk about its lingering questions. But we must remember that there was more to Christ’s life than just the Resurrection. Christ suffered and died and walked the earth to experience what we have. If God spent 33 years living our experiences should we not spend more than a five-line chorus talking about the period of our suffering? Christ’s time of suffering is what made his Resurrection so great—and if God is using our suffering to make us more like Christ like it seems that it would be right for us to talk about it plainly. For me “Come Back Soon” encourages me to look the world in a deeper way. It is not provide a simple reason for my problems…the answer is truly written in the monstrous display of stars that I shall never understand until I am new and whole again. I am waiting to be born. I am screaming for hope. And you know, it is okay to scream for hope. Christ cried out on the cross when he felt God turn away from him, so we too can cry out in our suffering. It is my hope that as more Christians become invested in the arts that we seek to communicate the deeper truths through what we create. I hope that we can speak like Peterson’s song where the cry for hope is at the same time a cry of hope, a recognition of suffering while looking for its reconciliation. For while we might be unable to sing with our broken lungs we can certainly try.

A Bedroom of Demons

In 2008 I had the privilege of traveling to India and Nepal with some members of my church. I was a year out of high school and invested in leadership work at my community college, so I was asked to speak on time management and rest at some small leadership conferences for church builders. For two weeks we had the joy of experiencing their hospitality and passion for God.

When I returned to America there were moments I realized my view of the world was forever changed, but much of the impact came in subtle memories that surfaced for years afterward. I spent more time in India, but the weekend spent in Nepal holds some of the most powerful moments of the trip. Two particular experiences stand out, though for opposite reasons.

One day I went far out into the country to farm fields where the grass was unashamed to show its colors and the sky insisted it look its best for the glassy pools scattered among the grass. We walked narrow mud paths that served as bridges between sky and earth while listening to the liberated wind laugh and fleck our arms with tickles.

Walking to the most peaceful place on earth.

Walking to the most peaceful place on earth.

We walked out in the middle of nowhere to a church. It was a skeleton of skinny boards with a roof half covered by plastic sheets. Its length was no more than people standing side by side. The church leaders had so little…and the church was the best they could make.

I am sure the wind was still touching us when we arrived, but I remember that even the air seemed to fade away. The voice of the grass became a silent dance and peace ruminated from that place. It was rich with it, but not a gaudy, thick type of wealth we associate with greed or mountainous treasure troves. This was a gathering wealth that invited you over and drew you in with warm and gentle arms. It invited you to stay and breathe its presence through your body.

It was a sacred space that deserved reverence, but never asked for it. It was the humblest of spaces, but the grandest of abodes. There are only a few places from my past that I have ever missed, and that was one of them.

My other memory in Nepal is far stranger and unpleasant.

The street where our hotel was located.

The street where our hotel was located.

The small hotel we stayed at sat near the building where we held our leadership conferences. By most standards, it was nicer than some of the other places we stayed while traveling. In this building there was less chance of bugs, and the bathroom was attached to the room. I did not expect anything different when I went to put my suitcase upstairs.

The bedroom felt strange when I entered. It was a bit like the environment was shifted and rubbed up and apart like bunched and clumpy fabric. My stomach felt like it was emptied and stuffed in my bowels and I recognized the feeling. I had felt it many times before.

I mentioned to the woman from my team that I thought there was a demon in our room.

As an important aside, this was not that cheap “Let us go hunt demons or supernatural creatures” stuff you see in the movies. This is not to say that all supernatural dosed stories are cheaply done or that you cannot like it without me thinking you are a tasteless idiot. Please, like what stories you want and use what creative elements you like in your stories. I have no desire to decide that for you. I say cheap because a lot of supernatural stuff can be made out to be prettier, sexier, more sensational, or fun, than it actually is. I know that part of this is a product of the genres that traditionally frame supernatural story elements, but seeing demons is neither sexy nor thrilling.

I had seen demons wander around before. They were not like ghosts or shadows on walls but actual beings with bodies sometimes like humans, but much taller, which sometimes required them to bend over to enter through doorways. Others would somehow make it inside places, solidifying out of nowhere. Some I saw following behind people. Others seemed to like particular spaces. Whatever way I saw them I was checking and double-checking my senses. No matter how many times I tested them, it came out that I was seeing clearly.

In the hotel room I saw nothing, but I could feel something…unusual. I confessed that I felt a demon in the room and my other church members prayed with me. We prayed over the room and left it at that. The feeling was not completely gone, but I did not want to bother anyone else and thought that, perhaps, it might leave while we were out.

I do not remember if it was that night or the one following when it happened. I was getting ready for bed when a thunderstorm started outside. Electricity is a unsteady luxury in India and Nepal, calling in absent at the most inopportune times and failing when most predictable. I thought that it was the best opportunity for a storm, since the power would probably go out. It was evening and the lights would be out anyways. The storm would pass and the next day would probably be clear.

I slept.

I do not know what specifically woke me up, maybe it was a crack of thunder, but when I opened my eyes there was an eight-foot tall grey shrouded demon looming over my bed.

I sat up and looked around, checking a clock and the window for a sense of time. The window was black except for momentary white lightning. There were no working lights. The thunderstorm drummed.

In normal circumstances I have the leisurely convenience of lucid dreaming and waking up before things go bad. I thought that maybe it was a dream, but after a few moments I was sure it was not a dream, and that I could not imagine the thing away.

It was not that it looked particularly frightening, but the way it stood, purposely still, staring at me with invisible eyes. I had seen faces of demons before, but this was cloaked in tight wrinkled grey and a hood that covered its face. A hushed and isolating presence seeped into the room.

I commanded it to go away in Jesus’ name. It stayed.

I panicked. I fumbled for words, for prayers. I remember asking God why the storm, power outage, and the demon would happen at once. It was perfect accidental irony, and I knew it.  Irony was the last thing I wanted to think about. I wanted the storm to go away. I wanted a light to turn on. I grabbed the flashlight beside my bed, turned it on, but it did nothing to the demon. The thing was still there, the only clear thing in the dark.

It moved from the foot of my bed and stood near the corner of the bed. Other demons bubbled from the space near the door. They were smaller crawling creatures hissing and chattering at me. They would not go away no matter how many times I commanded them.

I woke up the other woman from the team who slept in the bed beside me.

“There is a demon in the room,” is all I managed to say. At that point my heart lugged and my body trembled. I kept repeating it to leave. A stiffening terror wormed its way through me. I curled up in the bed and begged it to go away.

The woman sat up and prayed. She said that she felt God was saying to focus on him, rather than the demon. She continued to pray.

I tried praying again, and somewhere in the prayer I started to sing. It was probably something silly or simple, some worship song chorus without much deep artistic merit but written from an honest and well-intentioned heart. I think I said the 23 Psalm, somewhere toward the end. Or maybe I prayed it. It hides my favorite verse, the one about walking the valley of the shadow of death without fear because God is with me—a somewhat subtle theme of my life. I stood up and danced slowly while I meditated on the words I spoke.

When I looked over the grey demon was still there, standing alone. Maybe I gave it one last command, but I seem to remember simply looking at it and it faded away.

I sat back down on the bed to check the room. The power was still out, but as I looked up at the curtained window I could see the faint blue lights of the early morning slipping its thin fingers along its folds. The thunderstorm rumbled, but gradually rolled away into a low moan and dissipated in a quiet sigh.

I lay down, curled up in my sheets and slept straight until morning.

The other member from my church asked me about it at breakfast that morning.

“She told me you had a hard time last night,” he said.

“I am all right now,” I said. I felt guilty for such a straightforward and unconcerned response. I could see the worry on their faces, but I felt nothing anymore.

It was gone.

I have not shared this story much. It is a story that I have mentioned briefly to close friends, and usually people of the same faith and beliefs. It is a difficult story for some people to believe, if they believe it at all, and I understand that. It is not something you hear often. It will probably be dismissed or reasoned off. I tried to determine its root in my imagination, but I never arrive at an imaginary end.

Why tell this story now? Last week I wrote a part of my novel where a girl experiences something similar to what I did. It was a small sample of vulnerability on my part that was both difficult and healing, but I realized it was one step. Though my story takes place in an imaginary world I needed to say that some of what the character experienced was very real. She shares a part of my story.

A sprightly teenage me with my Sunbrella walking to the church.

A sprightly teenage me with my Sunbrella walking to the church.

This story is, in many ways, one of the scariest things for me to write. If anyone knows Meyers-Briggs types I am an INTJ, the epitome of logic and analytical brainpower. I am smart and have succeeded very well academically, just missing a 4.0 in my undergrad by a sliver and attending the top school for my master’s studies. My brain is, in many ways, the pillar of my skills and livelihood. I was picked on and isolated quite a bit growing up, and my eventual fall back was to present my intelligence as a front, that way, even if people did not like me, they could at least think something good about me. I might not be cool or pretty, but I was, at the very least, smart.

So saying something like this is not flattering to me…at all.

But it is honest. And that is what I hope it to be. I don’t mean this story as a guilt trip or any sort of philosophical argument. It is not a story to convert or win over. This telling is not even meant to be eloquent—I poured my creativity into my novel where it was easier for me to write.

This story is a young woman being vulnerable and honest in her writing and her telling. It is the story of an author who is growing, changing, and drawing from the earth around her to understand and see it better.

Most of all, this is a story of faith. I did not only feel the demon in that room. I felt God there too. He was warm and golden. It was a presence like the peace at the church in the farm fields that wrapped around me. I looked over at the demons and realized that there was a space between us that they had never crossed and would not cross. I had been protected before I ever woke up. It was God’s presence that sent the demon away. I fell asleep consumed by peace, for I saw the shallow reaches of the physical and spiritual world reflected in a drop of God’s infinity.

And that is my story. Though you might agree or disagree, my hope is that you might grow somehow, because, at its core, I believe the best writing grows others and the author herself.

Writing Old Friends

Back in Junior High I had a small group of creative arts friends. We had met in a local theater group, and while each of us had our affinities to different artistic mediums (singing, acting, words) there was an inevitable point where the writers (and non-writers) got the brilliant idea to not only write novels (though two of us were already working on that), but finding some way of interconnecting the worlds in a series of books.

What promptly followed was not only an attempt to connect our universes, but also to put our group of friends within our respective novels as characters (preferably main ones).

This rested fine with me for about three days, until I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to honor our pact. First, my idea of worlds and universes was unique enough from the others that I realized I would have to completely redo it for it to work. (Fortunately others felt the same, so we dropped that effort.) Equally problematic was the attempt to squeeze five people I knew within the confines of a universe and story that I had already settled.

It is rather a comfort to know that from my early writing days when I had no instruction or rules, but wrote by my own fancy, that I was very focused on characters being the driving force of the story. (Of course, this sometimes meant that I had no plot, which caused its own share of problems.) I have always excelled at understanding a character, picking a point in their life and riding from there. My writing is very organic. If a character makes a choice that completely changes the rest of the novel, I do it. I would rather have honest characters tell the tale than my own fancies.

This honesty was what caused my problem. Shortly into inserting my friends into the novel, I determined that not only would the novel not go in the direction it should go, but that it would turn stagnant and stale. I also realized that one friend would be killed off very quickly, and a few more in the progress of the story, and while some people will pay thousands of dollars to be killed off in a G.R.R. Martin novel, my friendships were too rare and precious to risk at the tip of my pen.

I am not sure how I told them I had changed my mind; maybe it was the world coherency excuse. Whatever the method, it worked, and I was no longer bound to a frighteningly short narrative that spouted my friends into oblivion.

Whew, I thought when it was all over. I am glad I do not have to deal with that again.

Ha.

I have said before that writing is not for the faint of heart, and the act of writing only firms this principle as time continues.

I just finished writing one of three flashback chapters in my current novel, Colors. (Yes, the name might have influenced my blog title.) The chapters work to reveal the spiritual upbringing of a lead character, while comparing and contrasting it to his present choices and circumstances.

I will be honest, I hid from writing the chapter, writing it in bite sized pieces while using job searching and cleaning and organizing as excuses not to work on it. (Which are all important things I had to do, by the way, but I overindulged.)

Why hide? I had already written the first chapter and it was frightening and absorbing, so I knew what was coming. Though our experiences differ I have paralleled his belief system to my own, and for that reason there are many places for affirmation and encouragement, but also lying and cynicism.

I have grown up in the church my whole life. I love it, and I plan to never leave it. That does not mean it has always been easy. While I have no received the cruelty or oppression that some people have received at the hands of fellow believers, I was still subject to their humanness (and my own, for that matter). I have experienced rejection, as well as heaps of praise. I have been welcomed, and pushed away. I have judged, been judged, and loved and been loved all at once.

And there is the problem. Though Christians have the salvation of Christ our humanness still touches everything we do. We do much good. But we also hate and hurt. We get all confused about when to love, when to wait, how to act, what to say…at least I do. And I do not think I am the only one. I have been hop-reading through A Severe Mercy over the last two months and came across a passage that summed up some of my feelings on this topic.

“If there is anything that I have learned living in the church for over twenty-five years, it is that humans and beautiful, broken creatures that will never be perfect while on earth. And while some people try to live right, others do not. It is a confusing mess. A Christian pulled off the street cannot possibly represent the diversity of people in the church. We are all very different, in different stages of life and love and to heap us under one big tent to determine our character is possible and impractical. The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians–when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths. But, though it is just to condemn some Christians for these things, perhaps, after all, it is not just, though very easy, to condemn Christianity itself for them. Indeed, there are impressive indications that the positive quality of joy is in Christianity–and possibly nowhere else. If that were certain, it would be proof of a very high order.” -Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy

I have two fears when writing about the church. Actually three, with the first being to whitewash and candy coat the gospel to shove it down someone’s throat like a half-finished cough drop. (To say it more clearly, to write in a simple and cheap way about the most marvelous thing I believe.) The other two wrestle on another; that I paint all Christian goodness with no recognition of fault, or, that I speak only offenses and criticism looking only to the human faults of my fellow man without any eye or mention of their redemption.

I visited an old friend today, when I wrote that chapter. I visited the church. I saw two people interact with a young man to tell him two very different things about the world and his spirituality. I would say one was the worse side, and the other was good, but I do not want it to be that. I wanted to show two people in places where God could use them to help another, whom came out with varying results. I do not want this to be embracive. I do not want to blindly make everyone alike to accept or rebuke. There are people who do wrong and I want to point them out, but I want to edify the good as well.

It is the complexity of being human and being Christian. You are on the way to greater knowing of God, and already redeemed with him, but still prone to wander and stumble in your selfishness and pride. We are redeemed of our wrongdoings but living wrongs everyday. It is a complex and humbling place that is not static or religious. Life in the Christian faith in constant, once I am in there is no opting out. I cannot decide to step out of the complications and hide in my closet, pretending that the bad does not happen. I need to face it and discuss it, as equally as the good. How much more good could we do in edifying one another for when we get it right than speaking with sharp words when one another has lived wrong?

Christianity is not for the cowardly or prideful. Living out your faith is hard and complicated. I have been hurt many times by people in the church, but I have not abandoned it. I know that the church is more than just the faces of those who hurt me, but also those who loved me. If I can understand and accept the world with all its diversity, cannot I not also accept the church?

Yes, I visited an old friend today. It was hard. It was encouraging. It was honest. And no, I did not kill anyone off. But writing another chapter will not make the next chapter simpler or easier to write. When you write about a beautiful and complex thing, it is rarely easy to write.

So I write in faith and prayer, out of love for God and my fellow saints in the faith, no matter how broken or far ahead they be, might I love them today as strongly as to the day I am joined with them at last for eternity.

Stuff No One Tells You How To Write – Part I

Writing the fantastical—and the major identifying parts of speculative fiction—is underappreciated. It is far more difficult to write fantasy than most people realize.

“But you make it all up! How can that be hard?” people say.

I think if you are slapping together a fantastical world, it is not that hard. But if you want to make a sincere and believable imaginary work, you must find a way to conjoin and expand from the knowledge in the real world.

This is not to say that every fantasy or science fiction work is equal or of magnificent quality, but neither is all “literary fiction.” (Seriously, how many dysfunctional families can you write about?)

There are ten million facets one must consider when they create a new world. But unlike the field of science, where questioning boundaries and trying to create the things of imaginary worlds are considered legitimate uses of time, building worlds in our imagination to tell in stories are not considered “real enough”. I will save the discussion of speculative fiction’s ability to talk about the real world for a later time. Instead, I want to talk about some of the aspects of fantasy and science fiction writing that make creating a new world so complex.

I have written fantasy since I first started writing stories, or, at least, imagining them. I have quite a list of topics and tropes no one seems to tell you how to write. While some require some serious thoughts, many also have a highly humorous side to them.

I present to you two fantastical discussions of imaginary world development.


Mind Reading

Yes, it appears in probably half the imaginary world books ever written, but why do we refer to the phenomenon as “reading”? Similarly, using the term “hearing” as a way to receive peoples’ thoughts is probably also insufficient in some instances. The brain’s inner-workings are a mix of maintaining bodily functions, thoughts, and memories that involve all five senses. While it might seem “reading” is the best description of this act (I think everyone thinks in a language) it assumes that the person’s thoughts are the physical forms of words floating around in someone’s head. The truth is that the language they speak in their head could be either visual or auditory (or both)!

How might this concept play out in an alternate world? Well, if one were to delve into the mind of a people who had not yet invented a written language and their communication was primarily oral, one would probably not be able to “see” their thoughts, as they would not translate sounds into visual symbols. And what if someone tried to enter the mind of a person who could not hear? The thoughts might be visual, or built of another sense.

Either way, depending on the sociological and cultural background on the mind-reading individual, he might not have a problem hearing/reading/etc someone’s thoughts, but interpreting them might not work. You can go even further and consider the complications of memories and thoughts that are a mix of all five senses.

Perhaps the first problem is deciding how exactly someone is able to detect another person’s thoughts in the first place. If it were some sort of emitted waved retrieved between minds maybe it would translate a holistic message of thoughts. But how would someone be able to distinguish between the brain’s automatic functions and a person’s thoughts?

Or maybe, the thoughts come from the soul or spirit, and the mind reading is not really related to the brain at all. This could prove problematic for completely naturalistic worlds, though they usually stick to the special brain waves theory or sensitivity to alien life forms option.

If all else fails and you find this too complex to think about you can blame thought sensing on technology, mutation, space invaders, organ transplants, gods, creatures, magic, failed sciences experiments, or possession…or simply because you are the “chosen one.”

Dragons, Griffins, and other Large Flying Creatures (And of giant creatures in general)
The question is not of the creatures themselves, (those are questions for the bestiary), but how the heck society functions with creatures big enough to drop a wad of poop the size of a house. (Of course, you can always elect for all large flying creatures to be trained for litter boxes or wearing diapers but seriously what respectable dragon would wear one? The wild ones certainly would not.)

Anyway, I have always had several issues with any creatures the size of mountains.

First, how did the creature get so big? (Time is a sufficient but equally dull answer.) Was the creature alive before man? Is it the last of its kind? (If so, it should probably get a book or at least subplot of its own.) Also, why does it live where it live? Do giant creatures want something massive to talk to? If so, it would make sense why they would live in mountains or underground or in the ocean, there are plenty of large things to pour out your problems to there.

Second, (depending on the answer to the first question) is there a mate left? Can it reproduce? Please tell me this so I can move my family and livelihood before my cows become beefy poppers at the mountain dragon’s family dinner table. And what about massive eggs shells? Maybe they eat the stuff because they are resourceful, or hungry for food bigger than their tooth.

Third, poop…and everything that goes with it. My guess is that living in a giant flying beast’s general territory probably hikes up insurance by 400%. Also, do they have publicly funded staff to clean up after them, or is it every house on its own? Of course, if they are reptilian creatures, their eating times would be significantly less, and maybe droppings would not be a frequent problem. But birds on the other hand…

Fourth, what other reason does a giant creature play in the story other than to stand there and…be big? Is it the monster the hero or heroine must defeat? Is it the wise Sage? Are it and its legend substitutes for the impression that the author has developed an intricate history of the land? It is simply there for the awesome factor? If there is a giant creature in your world, unless you are writing absurdist you should come up with at least some purpose for its “I am using 25% of the world’s resources” existence…unless it is a very selfish creature. Dragons tend to be that way.

I imagine insurance in a land with flying creatures would work a little bit like car insurance in the real world. Except in this case your steed might eat someone else’s steed if they were hungry enough, and replacements might be hard to come by.

Then there is the problem of falling, weather, oxygen levels, general riding safety, what to do if your steed gets a broken wing, etc. Also, how are air traffic laws enforced? Are there any laws, or does everyone go whatever speed they want whenever they want? It would make smuggling ten times easier.

How have flying and giant creatures shaped the settlement of humanity? Do they settle in higher regions without fear? Do people avoid the dens of the large beasts or make it a goal to wipe them out? What kind of lore and fables have the people developed from their experiences with the creatures? How has it influenced the social and economic statuses of different peoples?
And lastly, can giant eagles solve all the world’s problems? No. But they could make plenty of things a whole lot easier.

 

I chose these two topics because I had to deal with a portion of it in my novel revision these last couple of weeks. There are others, such as seers and prophecies, racial traits, and the magical mystical Chosen One, which I might cover at a later time. I tend to like taking tropes and setting them askew on a plotline and see how people react, so not all of my conclusions are listed here. I like to keep some things secret.

Of Dragons

I have stared more at empty text these past two weeks than fixed words.

I wish I could revise faster, but I cannot. It is not that the prose needs major fixes (though portions do) or that I need to drastically rework the plot or characters (though those need work too). There are portions where the story is about exactly what I imagined.

The trouble is in the revision, but not revision in the way I must scratch out a sentence and rescrawl it a thousand times over before I produce words that are what should be.

Overall, the revision process seems entirely misunderstood. Yes, you put it through readers. Yes, you review it for grammar. Yes, you read it aloud and over and over again until you forget whether or not it is even of any quality at all. But revision is another form of writing. Revision is looking back not just at what you did wrong, or what you did right, but what you did not say.

The chapter I am revising involves conflict, and new information that impacts a lead character’s future, but neither of those things slowed my process. Instead, I found myself caught in the backstory of the man who raised the chapter’s antagonist. This man is a named character, but he does not speak in this part, and does not appear in the novel much at all, yet, I knew to understand the character in this chapter I would have to travel back through his story. I found myself in a rather grim place, roaming around a life that had hope, but was slowed by the constant ache shame.

I do not know how it is that some people whip out novels in months (or anything less than three years for that matter). This story has been a work in progress for about eleven years and I still find myself surprised by my characters. Though I dialogue with them a thousand times it seems that every one has its own day where they are in such desperate need to share there story they shuffle over to me and mumble or moan or fidget until I invite them over to my desk (which is really the dining room table in my parent’s house), make us some cups of coffee (which is both a miracle and a sacrifice, as I neither make nor drink coffee), and ask them to simply talk. Some days I get tomes, other days I get hardly more than flitted whispers.

This particular character is very removed, and I am always carful about speaking with him. I am afraid his battle with grief and shame of his wrongdoings will make me vulnerable to my own despair. Yes, he is imaginary, but I have come to learn that the imagination is just one of the tools we use to try and understand what we do not know. When I write and dialogue with characters in places of pain or joy I am not doing so for fun. Yes, there is enjoyment in writing, and I think it should be fun. But I know that writing, as much as reading, is a development of myself. I am exploring people who deal with the same hurts and blessings that myself and others have experienced. Story-writing is an expansion of the soul to see the world in its many facets.

I suppose many people will argue that if I want to learn more about people I should focus more on the real world. Part of that might be my built up defenses against the skepticism of writing significant and serious fantasy stories as literature, but I know that some people take issues with stories, viewing them as escapism, rather than confronting the issues of the world.

Facing the world is why I write with the imagination. There is no way I could meet every person in my lifetime. I doubt I could ever even meet a person from all the different classifications and types we like to slap on one another. I am human, and I can only travel so far. When I am writing, I am looking back at those I have met and to those I will meet in the future, attempting to understand, relish, and reconcile the events in my life. I also want to learn. I want to see more than what I could possibly see if I just lived what is set in front of me.

When I write, I see people better. Not just as individuals, but in the way God sees them. Even the most unlovable individuals become someone like me—lonely and in need of grace.

As I revised this chapter I had stared at the pages of text again and again, opening the pages and staring until I would admit that I could not write the part just yet. When I finally could, it came after I had realized what I saw of that character in myself. I was afraid to explore him because of my own times of shame over what I have done in the past—both petty and large. I saw that the periods of my inability to accept my past wrongs as wiped clear by God was putting me in fear of conversing with someone who struggled with something like me. My fear was not as crippling as the character’s, but I recognized that it was something I can sometimes struggle with, even when I am unaware.

I have moved on in my revisions, and though this chapter is coming slow, it is no longer bogged by the confusion I felt before. I am unafraid less afraid to poke sticks at beasts that might snarl at me, or awake dragons in their den. To take all fear and risk out of writing is to lie. I will always face darkness and bleakness, whether in my imagination or in the real world. Much like babies’ laughs are said to birth fairies, our creativity rouses monsters. This is not a new observation by any means, but one I must remember as I write. As harmless or as grammatical a revision might seem it is as much a peeling back of the soul’s layers as the first words of a written tale.

So I press on, awaiting the final form of the tale. Its completion will bring a whole other adventure that I cannot guess. But while I write, I must not be afraid to rouse monsters, for I have the greatest Creator on my side.

I will tread on dragons, and be unafraid.

 

Written on 6 July 2014

Primaries

I was not on this planet very long before I realized I was different.

I am not speaking of general differences, such as the variations of noses that grace our faces, or the quality of our voices in song and speech. I refer to a social trait of a distinct quality. My peers—and most everyone else—seemed to have a particular sameness to them, but I never quite fit into that sameness.

During my undergraduate studies I wrote that a kiddie pool predicted my future, and I still think that story holds true.

It happened at a church gathering, when the now half-calf high kiddie pools were a decent depth for a belly-dragging swim. There were two kiddie pools, one for the girls and one for the boys, or so we children separated (whether by the prompting of our parents or peers, I do not know). I am not sure what went on in those first few minutes in the pool. I think we swam around, but the other girls mostly sat around and talked.

Now, I did not mind talking—I could talk a person to drink—but when I saw the boys splashing around in their pool I realized that we were missing out on a really good time. My brilliant response was to turn to my friend Megan and flick water at her. Her eyes squinted tight in her freckled face as she flinched from the flying droplets. Sad that she did not want to join me, but not wanting to hurt her feelings—she was my friend after all—I decided to swim about the pool and splash by myself.

The rest of the girls let out a burst of terrified squeals that prompted mothers to hurry over and check on their darlings. This was a no splashing pool, I was told as I sunk back to the edge of the pool. Once the girls were settled and the mothers left, I sat and stared at the other girls, who stared at one another. Then I looked at the boys splashing. That was the moment when my face said what my mouth did not know how to say:

Heck with this.

I climbed out of the pool with a saggy suit and walked over to the boy’s pool. Though I had no invitation I jumped into the fray. I made one particular boy stop and stare at me. He might have been a little terrified, though it was probably not the first time I had scared someone from doing something like this, (and definitely not the last), so I ignored him and held my own in the water battalion.

Sometime later I found Megan splashing beside me. Soon the other girls crept out of the pool, a couple at a time, and wandered over.

At this point the memories blur and manifest again only at the recollection of sorrow at having to go home. I loved my friends. I loved using my imagination. I also loved to be daring. That day I was myself, and everyone else did not mind. I had no clue how what ended so well in the kiddie pools would burn and scar me in the later years.

Growing up I was banished from many circles of people, for whatever reasons, and left on my own to wander and adventure with outcasts like me. I think that it is part of the reason I started writing. It is from the memories of those outside places that I write, looking for the outcasts and the tiny lost voices of souls who were driven away.

When I relive those days in my mind I understand more of where I came from and who I am because of it. I have never listened perfectly to the lost voices of others, at least, none as well as my own, but I want to hear them better. This is where I am seeing colors, looking for the differences in everyone, and seeing the places where lost persons hide. The more I watch and listen the more I see people, broken, and oftentimes unknowingly beautiful.

It is from these glinted understandings that I draw the seeds for my stories. I hope to preserve the lost and little ones and make their voices grow loud in a world that would keep them silent.

As for my own voice, at twenty-five years I have learned how to exist as myself, but living out still has its challenges. I have completed a master’s degree, and am searching to start a career. I am also recovering from a disease that could very well haunt me the rest of my life. Despite all this I find myself drawn to my writing, urged by an inexplicable moving of my spirit to press forward even though the rest of the world will think that I am mad.

But when has that ever been unusual?

So as I sit and wait, I write, working the past to see my future as I should, divinely guided, and loving all the same.

At this point, I wait in silence. I listen for the voices and watch the colors grow.