Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Writing Life – Solitary or Communal?

What a solitary journey the writing life can be.  We create alone.  Only we as individuals can put pen to paper or fingers to keys to share the ideas that are in our minds.  We need time away from everything and everyone to reach the deep waters of creativity within.  Consider the image of a writer with well-worn clothes and crumpled paper at his feet, furiously working in an empty garret.  Or, within the walls of a beach house on an island looking out at the sea, typing away on the novel that has been welling up within her for years.

But do we have to be alone?  When working on individual projects it is necessary to spend time apart from others – sometimes many hours.  However, that does not mean that we are by ourselves.  We are surrounded by many who have gone before us – authors, teachers, family, or friends.  They are part of the community that has shaped and continues to shape us.  I can’t sit down to write without feeling a sense of the joy of reading.  That little girl who loved to hear her mother read books before bed is grown, but the comfort of those stories and of the people who shared them with me continues.

Walden Pond

In addition, as I write I am in the worlds of Jane Eyre and Heidi, Walden Pond and the Bible.  Books have and continue to be an essential part of my being.  I am drawn to the words and to the characters.  Sometimes I remember the plots and settings as if I had lived them.  I can return to them intentionally.  Along with their works, authors’ lives influence me as I learn about their inspirations, practices, and trials.  They are all part of this creative community.

Then there are those who are actively part of my writing today: teachers, writing groups, readers of blogs.  We sharpen each other’s art as we see how ideas play among a group.  To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to engage with such a community.  It’s safe to keep writing for myself and only dream about sending it into the world.  However, I’m more and more aware that writing is not only about putting words on a page in solitude.  It is also about engaging others with those words – and engaging with the words of others. The small writing group I’m involved with keeps me honest, provides thoughtful encouragement, and keeps me writing.  Through this blog I’m learning that there may be even more who are part of this community and who can hone this work.

Ultimately, that lone artist image isn’t so ideal or even true.  Writing and other creative endeavors do not need to be solitary practices. Why should they be?  The ultimate creator – God – created the earth in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and continues to even involve his ultimate creation, humanity, in this project.

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Live Your One Creative Life Fully

During the seven years I worked with Notre Dame AmeriCorps, Sister Judy Tensing would always admonish AmeriCorps members to live their one life fully – their one precious life.   The eleven months they were serving a local non-profit were not merely a time to get through, it was a part of the limited years we all have.  How we choose to live them, no matter the circumstances that surround us, shapes our character.  As I listened to her, I would sit back and continue to be amazed that people would give a year of their lives for such work.  Since I was a staff member, I saw myself looking from the outside, not really catching that this statement was also for me.

Three years after moving on from this job, I heard echoes of this sentiment in the words of Ann Voskamp – we should live our one creative life fully, making it a gift back to God.  Later in the week I heard the words of Shane Claiborne that we should engage the broken world with the creativity of our lives.  Throughout the time at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing other speakers would say similar things.  Our creativity is not something to take out only when time allows, or only for those appropriately gifted, or once all the real work is done.  No, creativity is a response to life.  This one life that God has given us.

This creative life implies each person has her own response to creation in her life – not something to be copied.  It’s part of being made in God’s image, the ultimate creator.  Not a cog in a wheel or a nameless part of an assembly line.  Not something to be saved up for special moments.  However, it’s so easy to do the opposite. When I have time I’ll be creative.  When the space is available.  When I am sitting on the edge of the ocean.  Always later I will be creative.  But the perfect time and place don’t seem to present themselves.  Often I just want to get through the next hours.  I can’t imagine another path.

Yet, as these words of living our full lives weave through my mind, I realize that most days I’m not looking at this path fully or seeing the person in front of me as an image of God.  Usually I’m thinking about the next thing on my to-do list. With such a limited vision, how is it possible to access that creative part of self?

There is more to life than the narrow images before me. It is possible to look up and out and view a new way.  It may start with a simple practice of taking time between activities to breathe and acknowledge the reality around me in a given moment.  Eventually I may see the beauty in the lines of numbers on a spreadsheet, in the flower growing out of a cracked sidewalk, and in a crying child.

Where does this spark of creativity lie in you?  In six days God created the world.  He imagined and spoke it into being – filling it with life and creating humans to be a central part of it.  We can carry a bit of this creativity in the midst of our own worlds – no matter what they look like now.

 

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Returning to Summer Days

Streets are quiet at 7 am, school parking lots are empty, families are on vacation, offices clear out early.  Summer seems like a different dimension of space and time.  During June and July – months holding most the daylight hours – there is a palpable drive for people to get the most out of each day.  A sense of freedom and possibility surrounds these hours.

During these months a part of me is back in elementary school, eager to begin summer break.  In those years I saw before me endless days to to play, explore, hang out.  No more running around to lessons or being confined by the needs of school requirements.  Instead I could read a book, have lunch on the deck, or play with friends.  I was free to set my own schedule – mostly.  With this freedom I ventured into new activities and learning.  As I think back, there are some practices that still help me prepare for summer.

Cleaning my room.  At the end of the school year I would often thoroughly clean my bedroom.  Throw away papers, reorganize drawers, dust all surfaces.  I wanted to start summer afresh without any remnants of the past year.

Gathering friends.  As a child it was for the Nancy Drew Lemon Yellow Club – if I remember correctly.  I couldn’t wait to bring friends together around common interests.  Sometimes they came, sometimes not.  But I was out there looking for community.

Reading, reading, reading.  Summer was a time to read more books.  I would go to the library and select books – pulling them off the shelves eager to dive into their stories.  Then throughout the summer months I would escape into these new worlds.

As another academic year has wound down I am breathing a little more easily and finding myself again at another summer.  With a freer schedule I can finally take time to consider long term plans for campus ministry instead of just focusing on the next day’s activity.  I can also take time off and explore other avenues of life – have evening meals with family, take some short vacations.  What had been a series of weeks of planning, preparations, long days, is now an opportunity to re-vision.

I’ve already done the preparatory cleaning – now it’s time to gather, read, and enjoy.  What rituals indicate to you that summer has begun?  Let’s not waste these days, this extra daylight.

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Searching for Atonement in Re-written Stories

I recently finished listening to Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement as I drove to and from several long distance meetings.  Over the miles I was drawn into what I thought was merely a novel about a budding writer, Briony Tallis, who is learning to see life as a story through her writing of plays and novels.  With this perspective, she wants to more actively construct the storyline of her life.  [Spoiler Alert.  The rest of this post contains descriptions that reveal the novel’s ending.]

In the span of one day she attempts to involve her cousins in a new play, without much success and happens upon a moment of sexual tension between her older sister, Cecelia, and a childhood friend, Robbie Turner. Her way of understanding these and other actions of the day evolve into a narrative in which she is the protagonist who steps in to right situations.  This seems to be a harmless method of growing up until one of the constructions becomes a crime – claiming that she saw Robbie leave the scene of her cousin’s assault.

Continually I’m fascinated with the idea of story and how we interact with the narratives surrounding us.  How much agency do any of us really have to change the stories before us?  Whatever the real answer, the possibility of change gives me hope.  I don’t feel weighted down with the oughts in life when the possibility of tweaking my story is before me.  I can choose to reorient my life – take more time to write, create a strategy for ministry, plan vacations, and reach out to friends.  This is all part of writing a living story.    We can even seek to right wrongs by seeking forgiveness for the ‘crimes’ we enact, as Briony attempts.

In the novel, all seems to progress toward a redemptive ending as the story moves forward.  Briony eventually seeks to atone for the actions that led to Robbie ending up in prison and being injured while fighting in France at the beginning of World World II. The writing of a novel explaining her part in the original crime is part of this attempt to make amends.  In hearing the retelling of this story, I knew I was in the midst of a powerful time of atonement.  While training to serve as a nurse, Briony takes a day off to visit her estranged sister and finally take responsibility for what she did.  Unexpectedly, Robbie is with Cecelia, just having returned from France.  Briony can now ask for forgiveness from both.  She leaves the pair, if not with unconditional forgiveness, at least with a list of actions that will move towards making amends.  It seems she has successfully rewritten her story.

At this point in my listening I was thinking of stories I needed to attempt to rewrite.  Perhaps reconnecting with lost friends or reaching out to family members.  Whatever the situation, it could be possible to make corrections.

However, as the novel moves to the present day something doesn’t feel right.  Briony is at a birthday celebration.  But the lovers, where are they?  It turns out the the novel she had written, though supposedly based on finally telling the truth, is more about the truth she would have liked to have shared.  Yes, she does fully concede her role in the crime.  However, the lovers were never reunited, both were killed in the war – one the result of a battle wound and the other of a bombing.  The actual story could not be rewritten,  atonement never truly made.  A deep chasm was and would always be present.

I was on my way home from work when the story reached this point and even when I was in the driveway I could not turn off the car.  What?  That story of reunion was made up?  It wouldn’t be possible to right the wrong?  Although this story of many layers was fiction, it rang truer than I would have liked.  I started thinking about the story lines on which I am working.  Are there any I need to rewrite before it’s too late?  What chasms in my own stories will never be closed?  My optimism for loose ends finally being worked out one day was appropriately crushed.  It was clear that I even as I work to re-write stories, atonement will often have to come from outside of my efforts.

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Grabbing for Grace . . . and Keeping it to Ourselves

A grab for grace is going on in many churches and Christian groups.  We as individuals want to be assured that we aren’t on the line for our failings.  That God’s grace, through Jesus Christ, is the means of salvation.  This is truly amazing news and something we should grab onto – and invite in others to share.

How bizarre, then, that people both within and outside often perceive the church as interacting without grace.  Yelling down people who don’t agree, keeping out people who don’t fit in, judging without looking at the heart.  Throughout history the Christian church has indeed shown gracious mercy when few others would.  We have gone into the darkest places of Calcutta, provided meals for the homeless, and lived with lepers.  Yet, our ungracious responses both to those within and outside the church are getting more and more airplay.

Even in small, personal interactions gracelessness emerges.  A member of a worship team thinks another is singing out of key, shares this with a third person, and the team is irreparably split.  The property care team is spending all of its time trying to appease members as a fight brews over the color of carpeting.  A long-time member is shunned because of a pending divorce.  And these examples don’t even begin to look at the conflicts on denominational and church levels.

In my own life I sense that I am expending a lot of energy fighting with others or ideas and not offering a lot of grace.  My way of doing campus ministry must be defended – whether it’s how I’m leading an English class or naming the group.  As a church member I look for things to fix and problems to critique instead of listening to others needs and wants. Sometimes these personal and group stances are needed – especially as we stand up for the rights of others.  However, many times they reflect how much we don’t really understand God’s grace to us.

It is difficult to walk that line between grace and truth.  How is it possible to more readily share the grace God showers on us with others?  For starters, God promises that he will fight for us.  He will be our shield and defender.  If this is true, why do we act as if we must be our own saviors?   We don’t need to win all the battles and prove our ‘rightness’ before we step out in grace.  Furthermore, we can meet people with Jesus as our example on the night he was betrayed.  Listening to others.  Speaking wisely and with concern instead of defense.  Seeing the image of God before us.  Not that this is at all easy or natural, but what a difference this would make as we show graciousness to all, especially with those with whom we disagree.

 

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Seeds of a Novel – Uncle Tom’s Cabin

A two-story, white house, the only building left of what had been the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, is dedicated to telling the story of the seminary president’s daughter – Harriet Beecher Stowe.  It seems out of place now with a gas station across the street and a highway overpass just a stone’s throw away.  Still, it provides a sense of a story that grew to encompass much more than a small corner of this city on the Ohio River.

Four years after moving to Cincinnati, Harriet started her married life.  Eventually she moved back to New England with her husband and children.  However, the experience of living on the edge of the North/South divide remained with her.  Around the seminary and in her home she heard about and likely participated in the growing abolitionist movement.  Down the river in Washington, Kentucky she saw a slave auction and in Ripley, Ohio she heard first-hand accounts of escapes.  She learned from  friends and acquaintances how the Underground Railroad kept running.

However, this city inspired more than her stance against slavery, it provided her a place to practice writing.  During her time here she was part of a literary society – the Semi-Colon Club.  Within this group she and others shared their writing projects and found encouragement.  She honed her skills and early in her marriage published articles and stories to supplement the family’s income.  At some level this group likely planted and helped nurture the seeds that would grow into Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a novel that moved a nation to read and to act.  She wrote this novel after the family returned to New England, but it certainly had some roots in Cincinnati.

Who would have thought that the buildings of the seminary would be torn down, yet one house remains because of a book written by a woman?  Some of its views may appear dated and sentimental 150 years later, but it continues to draw readers into the story of slavery and its effects on the human spirit and larger community. This is the story that the volunteers at the house tell – of a family, a woman, a book – engaged with the world around them as they struggle to live out their deep belief that God created all humans to be free.

Together the abolitionist activity and the literary society created just the place Stowe needed to conceive and write this book.  I wonder what writing groups in Cincinnati are even now providing encouragement for the next Harriet.  What areas of town are housing young men and women that are stirred to tell a story?

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Words of Writing Encouragement

I’ve made many new resolutions to change my writing habits this past year: waking up early, committing to blog twice a week, and seeking out places of writing and reading. Still I fight the practice.  It’s easy to put it on the back burner for the day as I stay in bed for another hour, prioritize other activities, and even find myself wondering what to write.  If everything else in my life aligns for the day, then I will write.  Otherwise, it may or may not happen.

Even though I have this adversarial relationship to writing, I go to bed feeling something is missing if I don’t take time for it.  A deep desire exists to express myself and the world around me through words.  Part of my problem is hearing my inner self and others saying that writing is just a hobby, it’s not important.  However, recently several words about writing have encouraged me to take it seriously again.

Words of covenant.  Walter Wangerin, Jr. talks about his relationship to writing – and subsequently the readers – as a covenant.  This is not an insignificant word.  It reflects a serious intention related to writing.  An ethical response to this work.  It’s a bond of trust with the writer and herself, her writing, her readers.  A voice in me whispers that maybe Wangerin can get away with this because he’s a real, published writer.  But does that make my work any less respectable?  Probably the first person who needs to take my writing seriously is me.

Words of spiritual practice.  Often I have thought about writing as a spiritual practice.  I journal during my quiet times and find myself in a cathedral recording thoughts about God’s work in my life.  However, I’m learning that the content or place of the writing doesn’t necessarily make it more or less spiritual.  As we see Jesus as God incarnate – that mysterious intersection of God and human, spirit and material – we can catch a glimpse of what spiritual writing may be.  Not writing that is only about spiritual topics, but writing that comes out of an ever more incarnationally lived life.

Words of platform.  Suggestions related to getting published may not at first seem the best way to be inspired to write.  Often such things can even squelch creativity.  Yet, concrete ideas to develop a more focused means of getting my work to others is helping me to develop that writing self.  So often I allow the random currents of life to dictate what I write – or not write.  A little bit here, a little bit there.  Constructing a platform (or maybe a canoe) can help me ride these currents better and even provide a better way for readers to understand what’s coming.

These words of covenant, spiritual discipline, and platform, along with others connecting writing to play and as a means of forming and sharing stories are starting to pull me out of bed and to the computer, one day, one hour at a time.

What words and prompts get you to write?

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Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places – Including Graduate Research Projects

Faulkner, eco aesthetics, supercomputers, lizards, solar energy, trade routes, North Korean prison camps, water colors.  What could these subjects have to do with one another?  For one evening this unnatural list came together as a group of graduate students gathered to share their research projects.  In an academic world that is often separated by discrete colleges and disciplines, it was a treat to see these individuals talk about their work, and even make interdisciplinary connections.

I didn’t expect a student studying trade routes in and out of the ancient city of Antioch to make a connection with a student studying solar energy use today.  However, she immediately connected his discussion of passive solar energy use with practices in the ancient world.  Every presenter received similar comments relating their work to those in other fields.

However, this wasn’t merely an academic exercise.  Within the sharing it was possible to sense something larger – God reflected in his marvelous tapestry of creation.  This was a picture of God as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes in his poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire.  

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
 
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

How often do we see the many faces of God before us?  This research fair was a great opportunity to see that God is at work on, through, with, and connecting many planes – whether directly or indirectly.  There is something about seeing God in all of our work – not just at church and or in Bible studies  – that breathes life into this faith we profess.  I can’t wait to see next semester’s unnatural list reveal even more.

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