Sunday, March 16, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day 28: Character Sketches

Later today I will take a train to New Orleans and fly early tomorrow to Miami and then on to Haiti, but for now I am sitting in this coffee shoppe watching people. Listening to their conversations. Learning, painting little character sketches, trying to understand what it is that makes people in a story believable. The way they interact with strangers, the cadence of their speech, their tics and superfluous movements. The way the boy in plaid stops moving his lips but doesn't lower his voice when he wants to tell his girlfriend a secret. As if lip-readers alone will use this private knowledge against him. Why would he do this? And why does the college guy sitting behind him hunch over his meal like he has done hard time in jail? Protecting his plate with one arm and keeping his face real low, real close to the plate so he can shovel the food in with his spoon. And the man with the rectangular glasses. He has nodded his head in agreement with every conversation at his table and yet not spoken up once. Is he this much of a people pleaser or is he plotting silently the whole time to financially defraud them all? His shirt would suggest as much. That shade of purple. 

But then there are the ones, enigmatic or odd, that capture my attention most.

For instance that man there. He barks when he laughs, like a dog with a cough, like a dog with a deep, rattling smoker's cough. And everything seems to make him laugh. The barista dropping a spoon. His tablemate mispronouncing a former soviet bloc country's name. Always barking his lung hacking laughter. I imagine he does it at the most inappropriate times. The priest with a lisp at his father's funeral, the sloshed champagne of solemn wedding toast. And always, always into a vacuum of silence, he alone finding hilarity in the most mundane of things.

Then, across the room, is this study in mismatched aztec prints who sits perched on her chair like a nervous little cat. The dog-cough laughter keeps making her jump. I imagine she is startled by shadows and sneezes on the subway. That she is always fumbling her keys in locks. "Sticky-tricky locks" she would say, half growl half whisper, never amused that so many doorknobs in so many diverse locations would for so long continue to conspire against her. 

Now they are in line, coffee refills we'll say. And she is fumbling again, through her wallet. She is apologetic, she is out of cash (a conspiracy!) and there is a five dollar minimum on credit transactions. He offers to pay but she declines. He insists and out of deference for the long line forming behind them she mumbles yes. He pays and she smiles gratefully. He smiles sheepishly. She blushes, but this full body sunburn blush and he smiles again, more confident, very warmly and it seems, to me anyway, their eyes hold a second too long. 

So I imagine their life together. 

They are married on a Friday, because Friday is a payday and Monday a holiday. Their house will be affordable. No other consideration will be made before its purchase. They'll move the left-over, left behind furniture from his first marriage and the emotionally neutral furniture from her last bad break-up into the two bedroom one bath fixer-upper. His western trade paperbacks will be placed next to her Faulkner and Hemingway and she will try her best to forgive him but it will keep her up nights. He will always, as if for sport, ask her grand hypotheticals, none that she can answer truthfully without betraying his fragile sense of loyalty. He will ask, "If you had one day left to live, who would you want to spend it with?" To which she will feel she must say, "You, honey."  But being a bad liar she might try and put him off with some non-answer, or some gentle bite back. She will of course spend it reading. He can be there too if he prefers. Instead she will say, "I love you". And they will both know she doesn't mean it, but for the first time, in a really, really long time, she'll wish she did. 
Yep. This is what I am doing when I am awkwardly staring at you in a coffee shoppe. I am living out your other possible lives for you. I just write it down, see what the characters might do, what they might say. And when there is someone or something deeply authentic or universally true in some new way, well I'll hold on to those things for some story sometime. Or it's all rubbish and I'll erase it but I will hopefully have learned a little more about human nature. And every once in a while I'll fall madly in love with someone's imaginary self, and then I'll send them away to some far off locale, and when they get back, if there are still sparks, well then I'll write whatever they say. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

This In-Between Month, (Later On) Day 25: Heals As It Cuts

I got up earlier than I wanted to go to the DMV as my driver's license will expire while I am in Haiti. The line was wrapped around the back of the building when I arrived and I braced myself for a long morning of waiting. Waiting without coffee. But the entire process is now automated. It took me 3 minutes. I got back to my rental car before my coffee cooled. Winning!

But yet, for whatever reason, I was one of two people to use the automated machine. The waiting room was to overflowing capacity with disgruntled drivers, faces contorted in disgust. One man ranted how all this technology was some conspiracy of paper conservation at taxpayer expense. He said this, holding ticket number one million forty-five out of about a billion and was still mumbling under his breath as I danced joyfully out the door. Well, I felt like dancing.

Now at a coffee shoppe I am lost in the words of Flannery O'Connor. If I have never mentioned her to you before I am sorry. I would quote her here but everything she said or wrote should be quoted. Get thee to a bookstore, a computer, or the library and read her. The Habit of Being is a collection of her letters. That's a good place to start. And Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose is great too. Her fiction is the best of American Southern gothic. Full of freaks and Jesus and deep mystery and eternal truth. She has the kind of razor wit and effortless grace that heals as it cuts. I seriously want to just quote her for an hour. I cannot find one phrase that rises above the rest when they all fly so high. For every writer out there, please, please read what she has to say about writing. She is a master and her wisdom is invaluable to your craft. To the Christian and the truth seeker she speaks with a clarity and a poetry that seers into the soul. To the reader and lover of fiction she captures in both narrative and dialogue that which is elementally human having been twisted by misery, wrung through the ringer of life and having resisted all their days Grace. She shows us the grotesque we will become without Christ. Wow. 

My driver's license will be mailed to my parents in 14 days. I will have been in Haiti for a week and a half by then. Some of the people in line with me this morning may still be sitting in the purgatory of the DMV waiting room. God help them.

Anyway, I finally found some quotes by the irrepressible Miss O'Connor that I'd like to share. Quotes about writing. Enjoy!

“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn't write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. ” 

― Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored."  

― Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

This In-Between Month, Day 25: Our Own Shadows

Sometimes I can be my own worst enemy. I am certainly my hardest, most unrelenting critic. If I took the tone with you that my inner voice takes with me, well you would not be my friend. Blame personality type or order of birth but I hold myself to an impossible standard. And when I fail, as I always do, as I always will in light of unattainable perfection, I have a hard time forgiving myself. 

Don't get me wrong, there are many things I fail at that are your garden variety failures. Ones so common and ordinary as to be too pathetically boring to admit here, but even those things, maybe especially those things, raise my inner voice's ire and I take a good tongue lashing.

And what I have found, wherever I go, is that most of us, in one way or another, are the same way. And what is worse is that we put our critical voice into God's mouth. And many times in my experience, people don't even realize it.

As I lay in bed last night, sleepless, restless, melancholy to the point of morose, a little bird of thought flew headlong into the little window of my soul. "When we face the sunlight we cannot see our own shadows." And in the darkness of that room, with darker thoughts, that little flash of light fluttering, that little thud and shudder and chirp of a truth reminded me this:

I must stare into the face of Jesus whose beautiful radiance will devour my shadows. And the more I am consumed by His loveliness and His light the less I will think of me, my darkness, my ugliness. And the more I bathe in the glow of His perfection the more I realize I need not even try to be something I am not and cannot ever be. What I can be, is a vessel, or maybe a cup, or probably more likely a shot glass to carry His light and His love and His utter perfection to the world. Anything else will leave me mired in self-loathing and failure. So I give up (again) on being perfect. And though I may be found muttering "shut up" to myself, or even screaming it now and then, well, I refuse to listen to that voice of condemnation any longer, for in Christ there is no more of that nastiness. I choose to believe what scripture says about me, namely that I am unconditionally loved and that His grace is made perfect in my weakness, not in my mock perfection.

Yup. Amen.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This In-Between Month, Day Twenty-Something: Time's a Revelator

Today River and I rode through the mountains. We turned Gillian Welch way up and drove real slow, winding in and out of endless curves cut from sheer rock faces. She sang "Time's a revelator" and as she did it seemed time slowed, our surroundings coming into such sharp focus. The trees, except for a few evergreens, were bare and covered the old round hills in great gray bristles. There were tall slender symmetrical ones that looked like flightless feathers (for what are trees if not the earth's feathers, and forests her many wings). And there were huge white writhing ones too that looked like the skeletons of great lumbering beasts. And the ground, the trees and it seemed every stone was covered in a thick green fur.

After a week of rain the sun gilded the surface of streams and glowed rocks until they burned like coals. The endless bare branches, the sun cutting through with no canopy of leaves to obscure its light meant shadows criss crossing at every odd angle and making a maze on the forest floor. No photo could capture the stillness and the magic of those few moments any more than you can be warmed by a sketch of the sun. We just kept saying "wow, wow, wooooow". Our words, our breath, our movements slowed too. We stopped and stood on a giant rock in a river bend and my son, my own wild River broke the spell by quoting Coleridge which only served to put us back under the spell deeper still:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Now, in our hotel room, River strums his guitar and I am thinking about time, this short interval of eternity scaled for human reference. Time is a revelator and I suppose we agree, "only time will tell" goes our prediction. We comfort ourselves and promise one another that "time is a healer". The ancient greeks in all their wisdom defer to time as the "wisest counselor of all". But we only have so much of it, and like Dave Perkins sings, "we lean against time with heels dug in". How many on their deathbed beg and barter with time? All my possessions for just a few more days. 

Not much else to say I guess. I hope these scriptures about the time we have now and the time we have left will encourage you, and especially me to trust God more, drink down each day with great breathless gulps, and to get busy about kingdom business, mainly loving on widows and orphans and the lonely and the crushed in spirit. 

“But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand.” – Psalm 31:14-15, ESV

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1, KJV

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” -Psalm 90:12, ESV

“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered – how fleeting my life is.” – Psalm 39:4, NLT

“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:8-9, ESV

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” – Psalm 9:9, ESV

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” – James 4:13-15, ESV

And the one that seems to stay in my mind these last few weeks...

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This In-Between Month, Days 13-16: The Ones Left Behind

The days run together a bit, I could separate them, but the overlapping, the bleeding of thoughts one day to the next; life is more fluid than "x"s on a calendar. The last four days have been marked all the same, by conversations with a diverse cast of characters, by images with the edges blurred, by honest if not impatient prayers and what seems is heaven's silence. But then heaven will, promises to, make all things beautiful in its time.

At a little coffee shoppe in Ocean Springs I met Jack and Genevieve who are cycling across the South, from Savannah, Ga and then up to Alaska. They are warm and generous with smiles and conversation. They call Montreal home, although they have sold their belongings, quit their job and have no home to go back to. In fact, they are worried that when they do return to Canada a few months from now, everything will be so different and they will feel like strangers. I assure them it will probably be so. That they will see things they'd never seen before, the obnoxiousness of ads built to prey upon our deepest needs and fears. Selling community in a lite beer, acceptance in a new shirt, a sense of greater well being in a fragrance. They laugh when I tell them to be easy on their friends, the ones left behind.

Later, as I walk along the beach, the seagulls huddle on the sandbars, except for one.  He is riding a cold wind current, tunneling and spinning, diving and rolling and then straight up, like he was shot from a cannon. I always think of Richard Bach's little book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the brave bird of the same name. Every time there is a solitary gull I am taken back to highschool and 16 years old. I picked the book because it was shortest but it left me buzzing for days, not at the philosophy Bach was intoning but the beauty of the story, the gentle defiance, the bravery and humility. If nothing else I learned that to live a life less ordinary, there are always the things and again, the ones left behind. 

A lighthouse in Biloxi and below a plaque commemorating "wade-ins" during the civil rights movement. Black and white activists would walk into the water together on Mississippi's segregated beaches. It took over 8 years after the first wade-in for a legal ruling to allow God's children of different colors to laugh and play together in the ocean He created for all of them.

I am reading a book called "Neighbors," by Jan Tomasz Gross about the Polish town of Jedwabne where all of the Jews were locked in a barn and burned to death on July 10, 1941, not by Nazis, but by their neighbors, fellow Poles. Gross writes that the Nazis moved into the little town, they "easily reached agreement" with local officials on what to do about the Jews. Hundreds, including women and children, were soon brought to the town square. They were taunted, tortured, brutally desecrated and beaten with clubs and stones, herded into a barn, which was locked and set ablaze. Gross recounts other acts of demonic cruelty that surely made the Nazis proud. Stories such as of Jedwabne, Dachau, the 27 million enslaved today and even the Biloxi wade-ins remind me that for any great act of evil or injustice there is always a majority of complicit bystanders. 

There was to my knowledge only one brave woman in Jedwabne, Antonina Wyrzykowski, 25 years old then, who In 1942 hid seven Jews on her farm while the Jews of Jedwabne were being massacred by her Polish neighbors. She had a husband and two children, all of whom were threatened with death if caught by the Nazis. Much later she would write: “It's not about your religion, but about whether a man needs your help”. Those rescued Jews hid on her farm until 1945, despite regular searches of the property by Nazis and a very “aggressive attitude from Polish neighbours”. When the Nazis were driven out of Poland by the advancing Red Army, she and her family were beaten by locals for hiding the Jews. Her bravery is recounted in Anna Bikont's 2004 book My z Jedwabnego (We from Jedwabne).

Antonina Wyrzykowski died in 2011 at the age of 95.

Today is grey again and how I've always imagined Poland. And that on a day as grey as today Antonia would have bundled up her children to leave Jedwabne for the last time. Maybe she limped a little, maybe her husband's face was still swollen from the beatings. They could no longer stay but what were they leaving behind, and who? Was it a family farm, a house her grandfather had built with his bare hands? Were her neighbors also her cousins? Maybe even her siblings? Sometimes bravery costs you everything but your own life, and sometimes of course, that too.

Our stories, the ones we live, maybe the ones we write, they are for ones left behind. Cautionary tales like Antonia's or hopefully like Bach's parable, to spur others on to great heights. It could be as simple as a bike ride away from corporate Canada, or as society shifting as a short civil rights march across a hundred foot stretch of sand. Every act of gentle defiance, every act of humble bravery is someone's story to be read of others. Stories that don't just deny convention, but destroy it. Like Em told me, there are those who live inside the box, those that live outside the box, and those that ask "What box?". It seems that in society, in church, in politics even, it is very fashionable to be iconoclastic, to live outside the box. But in truth those lives are still defined by that box. I want to live by that "What Box?" view. That reality for me that is inherent in the gospel, where Jesus is constantly destroying all convention, turning the world upside down with radical selfless behavior. Where foolish extravagant love is law and all things are possible, the highest heights, and the end of injustice and cruelty, if we will only let Christ destroy those boxes within boxes that hem in our brains and hearts. 

Here's to a gentler, braver future (raises coffee cup). To loving, serving, and defying with foolish extravagance and radical sacrifice. To you! And the story your life will tell!