#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis, @DarickR, and #TheBoys: not all #heroes want to seek redemption.

When we read stories of good vs. evil, we often see a clear demarcation between heroes and villains. One aspires to protect and save, the other to destroy and waste.

Then there’s stories like The Boys that come along and shatter that demarcation into nothing.

Now I’ve discussed this series in a few other posts about character: about inserting trauma into backstory, providing a moment of vulnerability so readers see layers, and making characters face Monsters readers know all too well.

But now it’s time to define the, well, indefinable. The hero who’s beyond all redemption.

The antihero.

Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, a government-backed group created to keep the corporate-backed super-heroes from taking over the world. Butcher meets all the marks of a tragic hero. His wife Becky was raped by Homelander, the most powerful of all the superheroes (aka “supes”), and died when his unborn baby tore its way out of her stomach. The baby nearly killed Butcher with laser vision, forcing Butcher to beat this baby to death while his wife bleeds out in front of him.

Tragic backstory doesn’t get much darker than that.

From a writer’s standpoint, it’s shocking that we learn this much about Butcher by the sixth issue of the series–six out of seventy-two.

Why do we get this monumental information so early? Isn’t this the sort of thing that’s dropped further on down the plot, when reader engagement is high and they want to know more about where the characters come from? After all, we don’t get the backstories of M.M., Frenchie, or The Female until Issue 35.

Frenchie, Mother’s Milk (M.M.), Wee Hughie, Butcher. The Female’s sitting in front.

First, Butcher’s using the information to motivate Hughie, the protagonist readers follow through this series, to join The Boys. Hughie himself lost his girlfriend when the hero A-Train crushed her against a wall during his fight with a villain. Mutual loss bonds the two characters.

Loss isn’t all that drives Butcher. There’s a reasoning–a philosophy, if you will, or a code. It takes me back back to the stories of the “lawless” West, or even the classic Robin Hood; just because a man is lawless doesn’t mean he’s rule-less. It only means his rules and society’s laws don’t sync up. Now whether his rules benefit others outside himself could be up for debate, I’d say–Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name comes to mind. He’s clearly out for personal gain in For a Fistful of Dollars. Sure, he helps a kidnapped woman and her family escape, but that’s only to screw around with two warring families whom he’s scamming for all they’re worth.

Butcher, too, has his own set of rules, and he doesn’t care if they jive with anyone else. He tells the CIA director in Issue 1:

Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth. There’s more an’more of’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.

Butcher to Dir. Rayner, “The Name of the Game” Part 1

A lot happens to prove Butcher right. The Boys fight a huge number of supes who rape and kill for fun, their atrocities almost always covered up by the Vought Corporation. The public goes right on devouring the stories told in Vought’s comic books like they’re the truth of the world. One by one, Butcher marks The Boys’ targets and plans how to take that team of supes down.

Everything he does or says serves whatever it is he got planned. He don’t waste nothing’–not time, not words, not effort. Not even a goddamn smile, Hughie.

Mother’s Milk to Hughie, “Get Some” Part 2

The Boys maim and kill a number of supes, be they street teams or a Nazi disguised as a Norse god. So long as they’re just killing bad guys justice won’t touch, then everything’s okay, right?

Right?

This is what we tell ourselves. As readers, we escape into stories to see comeuppance served because so often the justice served in reality is unsatisfactory. In fiction, the detectives catch the bad guy. The villain’s plot to take over the world is thwarted. The bad guys, the really bad guys, pay for the crimes.

Characters can be antiheroes who do horrible things because they’re still heroes, if only just. We’re sure there’s something good in them, and we’re willing to wait out the horrible things in order to see that goodness come to light.

And we see Butcher with that goodness, if only just. The miniseries Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker takes readers into Billy Butcher’s past. We meet Becky. We see her and Billy Butcher fall in love, get married. We see the charming side of this antihero, and his heart.

We see Becky die, and the aftermath.

Loss rarely breeds good things. Strange, how often we look for tragedy in our heroes–the loss that drives them to fight for justice, for making things right. We forget that revenge and ambition do not always lead to bettering the world. Clint Eastwood comes to mind again, this time as Dirty Harry in the film Dirty Harry: Magnum Force. There’s a crew of cops out to take justice into their own hands, and they want Harry to join them.

It’s the Point of No Return. Harry is invited to cross it, but he refuses.

Butcher, on the other hand…well. He crossed it long, long ago.

Readers get a preview of Butcher’s true nature in Issue 14, when he sets off a genetic detonation device that kills 150 supes who did took money to help start a coup in Russia. In Issue 28 (The G-Men series I’ve written about before) Butcher is fine killing a supe team of teen boys; later, if not for Hughie, Butcher would have killed a team of mentally challenged superheroes simply for cussing in front of him. These two teams weren’t trying to overthrow any government. Heck, some were genuinely trying to help the citizens of their town.

Where is this antihero’s rules, his personal code? Butcher gives one version of his code to Hughie after the G-Men slaughter:

But we ain’t here to make things better, are we, Hughie? We’re here to stop’em from gettin’ worse.

Butcher to Hughie, “We Gotta Go Now” Conclusion

Okay, that sounds somewhat justifiable. There are many problems in the world that can’t be eradicated. Sometimes containment’s the best one can hope for.

But a flashback with Butcher’s mentor Col. Mallory sheds a brighter, nastier light on the true rule Butcher lives by no matter what the rest of the world says. When Butcher and Mallory discover a convention of supe children have all been gassed to death, Butcher doesn’t care. To Butcher, the only good supe is a dead supe.

I’ll tell you how you neutralize the potential threats: you f***in’ drop the lot o’ them. Every single arsehole in tights, you do’em…No one should be allowed to walk around with what they’ve got, it’s just too much of a risk.

Butcher to Mallory, Issue 55

As far as Butcher’s concerned, any super-human of any kind must die. It doesn’t matter what he/she did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter who that person is, if they were born with the powers, or if Vought injected them with the DNA-altering chemical Compound V to create those powers. If a person has powers, they deserve to die. Mallory even warns Hughie to watch his back around Butcher, because for Butcher, this personal war with the supes is never going to end.

There is no one on earth who hates like that man does.

Mallory to Hughie, Issue 55

I’m not going to tell you how far Butcher will go in his personal war–I’ll let you find out via the comic series or the upcoming TV show.

(Warning: the trailer’s pretty true to form with the comic, so carnage and cussing abound. Only watch if you can handle that sort of thing.)

Antiheroes are compelling because we really, honestly, truly do not know what they’re willing to do in order to fulfill their code. There’s a level of wretchedness we expect heroes will not sink to; there’s a level of goodness we expect villains will not aspire to.

But antiheroes don’t give a shit about reader expectations or presumptions. They will do whatever it takes to reach their goal.

And readers cannot help but follow, compelled to discover what goal could be worth such a path taken through the shattered demarcation between good and evil. With every step taken readers’ feet will bleed upon the shards, and like the antihero, readers will complete the journey…but will never be the same.

~Stay Tuned Next Week!~

More interviews with authors both indie and award-winning are lined up for your enjoyment, as well as a journey with Bo and me into the mysterious North Woods where a ghost stands, lonely and waiting. On top of all that, I’ll be taking you into the Wild West for some fantasy adventure. Bullets and magic will fly…just not to the Will Smith song. Pleeeease not to the Will Smith song

Oh, and just to toot my own horn for a second, I’ve written my own batch of flawed characters with their own Points of No Return to cross…or not.

You can check out my novel here.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

A letter to my #father of #grief, #family, #Easter, and #StarTrek

Dear Dad,

Another Holy Week is almost over. Another Easter on the horizon.

Another Easter without you.

This time of year the stores are overloaded with Easter lilies, the scent of their beautiful white blooms permeating every aisle. Of all your allergies, Easter lilies were the worst, especially because the old ladies of the church flower guilds never really took it seriously.

Oh, you’d tell them, and I’m sure they nodded politely, but what did they do on Saturday? STUFF the altar with lilies for the Easter service Sunday morning.

So where are you during those two, sometimes three services Easter morning? Not in the pulpit, that’s for damn sure. Down in the pews, as far from the altar as you can get, silently praying you can at least speak your way through the service without passing out because your throat’s so constricted. Singing Easter hymns was not even an option, which sucked, because I know how much you loved them. Even if the flower guilds used a mix of fake and real lilies, it made no difference–your voice would always be so hoarse anyone would have thought you’d spent the last six hours cheering for William Shatner’s arrival at a Star Trek convention.

Honestly, that’s what initially got me writing this. Not Easter, but Star Trek.

All my listening to James Horner put Bo in a mood for Star Trek; one clip with the kids later, and Biff is hooked.

Oh, Dad. Biff’s so into Star Trek right now it’s hilarious and sad all at once. He stares at the ships, absorbing every detail. He’s transforming boxes into his own Enterprise, Excelsior, Reliant–the kid’s got the entire Starfleet parked on the end of his bed, manned by the brave comfies from Planet Teeny Ty. I can’t imagine what a conversation between you and Biff would have been like, especially when the little guy’d insist Excelsior is cooler than Enterprise.

And because I can’t imagine that conversation, I’ve been pretty damn sad.

My last picture of you and Biff–his first birthday, 2013. Probably can’t see it, but you’re wearing your Dr. Who-Harry Potter scarf fight shirt. I have a pillow with that shirt’s image now.

Bash shows me the first book he made about the Wall-E and Eve robots, and I can’t help but remember when I’d show my own stories to you, how’d we spend ages going over the stories I’d type on that goliath of an IBM computer.

How is this the only picture I have of you and Bash? Where are the others? I asked Bo, and he’s pretty sure our sister-in-law was the camera-holic at that time. I’ll have to get those pictures from her somehow.

I hear Blondie sing in church, and can’t help but remember those toddler years when she’d run up the aisle at your own church at the end of a service. You would pause the announcements, and just stand there, grinning, until she reached out for you with her little hands. You’d hold each other all through the announcements, recessional, and greeting, so happy to be together.

You and Blondie in Door County, Wisconsin, 2013

Blondie turns nine next month.

Bash, Blondie, & Biff, 2019

How you’d laugh with these guys now, sharing goofy faces and terrible puns. How you’d run after them at the park, caught up in epic battles of dragons and space ships. How you’d throw your hands up in exasperation when facing the latest generation of family stubbornness I know I got from you and have passed on to all three of my little B’s.

How I miss the memories that never were.

But this Easter, I’m doing my damndest not to let love known in the past prevent me from seeing the hope of a happy future.

Awake, my heart, with gladness,
See what today is done,
Now after gloom and sadness
Comes forth the glorious Sun!
My Savior there was laid
Where our bed must be made
When to the realms of light
Our spirit wings its flight.

From the lutheran hymn “awake my heart with gladness”

Despite those lilies, you loved Easter. You loved sharing its joy, its hope, its miraculous nature. If not for Easter, there would be no hope for us beyond these few years of mortal coils. Through Christ, death can only keep us apart for a little while; through Christ, we know that when our time on earth is done we will be joined together in Heaven, where we can share all the songs and smiles, stories and laughter we’ve gathered over the years.

Happy Easter, Dad. For once I can put a lily next to you and it won’t kill you, let alone keep you from singing the Easter hymns you loved so much.

The Easter hymns I still cannot sing, too choked with tears.

But no tears will ever choke my hope of seeing you again in Heaven.

Happy Easter, everyone.

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 6

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Ugh, I got to apologize in advance. My writing brain is NOT with me right now.

Not because of my kids (for once). No, Biff and Bash’s concert went swimmingly. The boys knew their recitations and songs. Bash got over his stage fright that brought him to tears that morning, and Biff made himself emcee the event by naming every child about to recite and every song about to be sung. He even said, “It’s time for applause!” whenever a song finished. It was both embarrassing and awesome all at once. xxxx

(It figures the one picture I took is blurry. Gah! Still, if you look in the back row, you can see Bash at the end of the row on the right wearing a striped sweater. Biff is four kids after Bash, towards the middle of the back row.)

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I’m hoping Blondie gets her rear in gear on her big Science Fair project (“I know what I’m doing, Mom.” “Why don’t you start, then?” (insert dark stare and curt shrug here)), but that’s not what threw me off my game today, either.

Nope, it was the refrigerator.

Damn thing near broke on us this morning.

Since this August we’ve had the air conditioner die, the basement flood, both cars’ windshields’ get cracked, the furnace almost die aaaaaand the stove almost die, so the fridge almost dying just made me want to scream ARE YOU FRICKIN’ KIDDING ME?!?!

Thankfully the repairman managed to get things situated without costing a car payment. Discovering we’re both parenting twin boys (only his are applying for college), we spent a good half hour after the repair talking about parenthood and college. By the time he left it was afternoon, which is the time I grade stuff.

Hooray for a fixed fridge!

Boo to a morning taken from writing.

As I stare at all our food boxed up on the frozen deck waiting for the fridge to be cold, it’s hitting me that I’m going to have to imbibe more of the Whole30 stuff sooner than later. My good creamer’s going to run out this week. Even if Bo liked the cashew milk, I don’t think he can finish it by himself before the expiration date.

Damn. Damnity damn damn McDamners.

Oh well. At least you can read the stuff I’ve already written while I lock myself away tomorrow to write more new stuff! There’s free stories here and here, and my novel’s on sale. Please be awesome and spread the word!

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 4

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

More mist today. A spring-like humidity clings to winter coats: still too much snow to be outside without them, yet the freak warmth makes one feel like it’s April, not February. That’s Wisconsin for you.

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Bash, Hoppy, and I on a happier day.

If only the mist didn’t seem to fit so perfectly with Bash’s constant talk of death.

“Noooo, I have to wear my mittens so I don’t get frostbite and die!”

“Can choking make me die?”

“Mom, how does Jesus get me after I die?”

Where this fixation came from, I don’t know. I’m surely responsible, at least in part, what with my Stop wrestling on the stairs before  you kill each other! kinds of threats. Bo’s not helping, either.

“Mommy and Daddy are on a diet so that our coffins don’t break pallbearers’ backs.”

Y-yeah, that’s a great thing to tell the kids.

Yet I can’t bring myself to be angry, or even annoyed. See, not only did my father die suddenly in February–Bo’s, did, too, just three years before Dad.

“Mom, your mom is Grandma. Grandma is still alive, but your dad’s dead. How did he die?” Bash asks while playing with Transformers, like this is a normal question during a normal day, like this is a thing to ask right before “What’s for lunch? Do we have string cheese?”

His heart stopped working,” I say quietly.

“And then he went to heaven?”

“Yup.”

“Where is heaven?”

“On top of the universe.”

“Ooooh,” Bash whines, and finds my lap without looking up from Optimus Prime mid-transformation. “That’s far away from you.”

I wrap my arms tight around my baby Bash, no longer so little,, but always my youngest, my snuggler, my storyteller. “Not that far, Bash. Never that far.”

~*~*~*~

Snuggle with your loved ones today. Give’em a kiss, show them what they mean to you.

Of course, I’m going to plug my novel here, too. but seriously, share your heart today. Life is too short not to fill it with love and hope.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writerproblems: #technology #grief

Picture1

I stand in line at Geek Squad. Again.

The staff has grown accustomed to me over the past year, after my old workhorse of a Toshiba laptop died. Bo and I had just gotten a new desktop to replace the dead one; the budget for yet another technology expense was not there. But Bo couldn’t deny the need for a laptop–if I couldn’t, I couldn’t keep my job.

So when the staff, already astonished my Toshiba lived eight years, pointed to a Lenovo on sale for under 200 bucks, I bolted for a box and checked out. It’s not like I needed anything more than bare bones.

Silly me that “bare bones” meant a computer screen that turns off when I have more than four tabs open online. “Bare bones” meant a power cord port that breaks after six months. “Bare bones” meant a memory card that’s soldered onto the hard drive, so I couldn’t get a bigger memory card. “Bare bones” meant a memory that’s so shitty it couldn’t even function with Microsoft Office downloaded because Office is too big and I couldn’t delete the Office programs like OneNote or Access because Office is a UNIT. You want a taste of Word? Then you swallow Office whole and like it, bitches!

Barely a year owning the laptop–yes, just after the warranty expires–and I’m in line at Geek Squad because no power cord of any kind will work on the laptop now. It’s down to its last ten percent of battery. Windows 10 refuses to properly update due to lack of memory.

I put the Lenovo on the table. Again.

The Geek tries my cord. Goes into the back. Tries one of their cords. Then shrugs. “Yeah, you’re not gonna find anything. It’s a cheap computer. You need to spend at least five hundred to get a good one.”

End of service.

Fuuuuuck.

Just having the money to get the kids shoes is a problem. All three needed new sneakers this spring. That’s a hundred bucks right there.  The boys shredded half a dozen pairs of jeans this winter.

At least they’ll have cutoffs galore for summer.

I’m happy to wear stuff until the holes are so prominent I could be arrested for indecent exposure. I’ll eat what everyone else hates, what’s expired. Hell, I’m starting to give plasma to help cover the grocery bills.

Where the hell’s five hundred bucks going to come from?

~*~

If your only knowledge of pastors comes from the televised evangelists, you might assume pastors are quite the affluent folk.

If you know what a rural church is like, you know how that’s utter bullshit.

Every dollar counted at home. We lived on the hand-me-downs of relatives, on rummage sales, on gifts from farmers. Christmas meant presents from the elderly of our church, rarely from our parents.

So the useful going unused always stings me. All the more for my mother, as much of my father’s things still stand, sit, lay about. His books on doctrine. His comics. His carefully gathered Dr. Who canonized novels. His thousands of recorded sermons, bible studies, coloring pages for Sunday School. All just…sitting.

But today we’re not looking at those things. Today Mom’s pointing to a little Lego display Dad had in his study of Lex Luther in his robot fighting Superman and Wonder Woman. “Think Blondie would like this for her birthday?” she asks.

“Of course!” I say, happy every time Mom’s able to let something go without tears. I glance at Dad’s crown, wishing I could ask for it, but I know Mom still uses it with her own students.

I spot something else.

Dad’s computer backpack.

“I thought Pierce took Dad’s laptop.” Dad had bought a Sony Vaio the year before he died. Spent at least a thousand on a top model, knowing he’d need it for producing services for local broadcasts, bible study presentations, liturgy projections, the lot. Thankfully the church covered a chunk of the cost. That’s probably what kept Mom from going crazy about the price tag.

“He did. He tried to use it, but, you know. It’s hard for him.” Mom sighs and moves a few preschool assessments across the desk. Dad’s old desk.

Yeah, it’s hard.

But sometimes we don’t get to leave something untouched just because it’s hard.

“Are you using it?”

~*~

The first thing I do is change the picture: Dad and Mom outside their mission church in the Dakotas. That much I must do, because seeing him laughing there and knowing my kids have forgotten what his laugh sounds like turns the skin beneath my eyes hot.

Much of the software’s out of date, but Office still works, everything still works. The battery’s not much, but an hour of work time in the car is better than nothing.

I scroll through the files.

There’s so many.

Pictures. God, the pictures.

Pictures of my childhood, of his. I’m seeing more relations here on a dead man’s computer than I have since his funeral.

Hymns he wrote. Sermons. Notes for come-and-gone weddings and funerals.

A newsletter he was working on for Mom’s preschool to be handed out the month he died.

So many writings, begun.

Unfinished.

~*~

“Dad’s computer working okay for you?”

“Great. It’s really helped a lot.” I don’t tell Mom about the scraps of Dad I found in the backpack: post-it notes about contacting Grandma’s doctor. An old bulletin with bio stats and hospital info, all in Dad’s thin, clipped scrawl. I doubt Mom ever looked inside his backpack. I wonder if Pierce even made it so far as to open the laptop itself, with Dad’s highlighters and notes still jumbled up in the power cord.

“Good. It just seemed so wasteful, sitting here.”

I don’t tell Mom I still feel like I’m borrowing this technology with the intent to return it to Dad, say thanks. Share the struggles I’ve had with parenting, faith, maybe even writing.

But Dad’s heart broke a few months shy of his 60th birthday. Despite repair after repair to his throat, his stomach, his legs, one bad break rendered the whole lifeless.

End of service.

~*~

“Ooo, Mommy, you got a new computer!” Blondie peers over from her sketch of the Nautilus. After reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Bo, she’s fascinated with technology altered by fiction–especially if it involves a church organ. “What’s the sticker for?”

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I’ve put such a sticker on every laptop I own, A) because I love the coffee, and B) because it separates this one thing from all the other stuff in the house. I’m the only coffee drinker. Bo hates laptop-sized keyboards. Blondie wants a mouse when she plays computer games. Don’t ask what the boys do with a working piece of anything.

Now Dad’s good and faithful servant holds chunks of my own fiction, analyses, and interviews. It keeps me connected to my students. Right now it’s letting me type this post while “attending” a meeting about cornerstone projects in liberal arts education while also pulling Bash off of Biff in a fight over worms and dump trucks.

My words may not be poetic hymns or thoughtful sermons, but they are filled with study, feeling, and imagination. And now they share a space, however small, with the words of my father.

I think Dad would like that.

Hard #Blessings

 

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Not my family. Too expressive, don’tcha know.

Summer sweat is always sweetest for the mosquitos on a Wisconsin farm. They grow fat on the lot of us, sitting in the tents my mother’s cousins constructed for the 80th H- Family Reunion. Gone are the days of riverboat races, volleyball tournaments, grill talk, and smoke-rimmed cackles. Many of the original siblings–11 in all–have become one with the Rock River farmland they so dearly loved. Yet still the cousins come together this one weekend in the year, dozens upon dozens of them, to meander through the past and catch up on the new generations. In the pauses between socializing, families tend to regroup: restock their coolers, check on their casseroles for the dinner, mind the children dumping bubble solution everywhere, nap under the maple trees, and so on. During one such pause I sit next to Mom and her boyfriend, sharing cookies and lemonade with Blondie, listening to the drawls and old laughter, when my elder brother Pierce speaks:

“Did you know Grant hasn’t made up his mind about The Call to Milwaukee yet?”

I flick an ant off Blondie’s cup and purse my lips. I do not want to be the first to answer.

Thankfully, Mom complies. “I know, I talked to him last night.” She reaches for James’ hand. Some walks into the past require a strong hand to hold. “Figuring out where God wants you to go. And it’s not just you, it’s your whole family, even though The Call is for you. It’s…it’s hard.” Blondie leans in on the pause to make a silly face at her grandma–she can sense Grammy’s sad voice from across the picnic table. “Every time your dad took a Call, I thought, ‘Okay, where does Bea fit this time?’ Like I was boxed up with the rest of his books. Unpacked at his church office.” White Christmas lights in the shape of an “80th” flicker behind her. “It’s hard,” she says again.

I kiss Blondie’s head, and wonder how she’d have handled it: to find out she has to leave her home, school, and friends because a church Called Daddy to be their pastor and Daddy said yes, so it’s time to box everything up again, won’t a new school be exciting again. To do that all, just, again.

It’s hard.

~*~

When Grant was old enough to say he wanted to be a pastor, and not be answered with a “That’s so cute!” from old ladies, Dad reminded him, and all of us: “Your family has to be a part of it. You can’t just make these decisions on your own. Any time your mother stayed quiet and insisted I had to decide, and I decided to accept, she’d be so angry she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. One time it lasted a whole year.”

Pierce had little to say on the matter, being undecided about college and life yet again. My own direction in English, writing, and teaching outside the ministry had been grudgingly accepted by this point. Grant was still in high school. He still had a choice.

Are you sure you want to get into all this? I’d say in those rare moments the two of us were alone. Always working. Practically no time off. Almost always broke. Never really sure where you’ll be in five years. And what if you have kids and stuff? You know how damn hard it is. You, of all people, know how they’re almost never home, and even when they are home, they’re working on shit.

Grant’s face was often quiet in these times: his forehead smooth, mouth a line, brown eyes not quite in focus on the present. Facial hair struggled to frame his baby face, but to no avail.

I know. But it’s important, too. I want to help people. And there’s a lot of people who need help.

I did my damndest not to call him crazy.

~*~

Today, a few days before Thanksgiving, I write without fear of mosquitos. I write without my father, who’s last Call came from God Himself three years ago. I write without my kid brother, a pastor himself with a wife, kids, and a mission in Arizona. The possibility of seeing him more than once in summer is always impossible. Too much to do with outreach in the town, and don’t forget the special services, the bible studies, and now his firstborn’s in school, just so much to do…

Some blessings sure as Hell don’t feel like blessings. Pierce and Mom were both deeply disappointed Grant didn’t take The Call to join a team of pastors in a mega church here in Wisconsin. No more running everything solo. No more 80+ hour weeks. Surrounded by family and friends. Perfect, right?

Yet Grant said no.

Because some blessings are meant to be hard. Yeah, Grant’s on his own in a mission, but the church has blossomed under him and his family. Yeah, we moved around a lot, but every time, we connected with at least a few others who were feeling just as cut off, just as unsure of things. Such friendships would never have been made if not for these Calls to pack up, move forward. Yeah, I struggled for years with abuse and postpartum depression. But I’m still here. I now know what disguises monsters wear among us. I now know what it means to fight oneself, and win.

These blessings are the forge of the soul. They are what burn us, bend us, beat us down again, and again, and again, until that moment we think that surely we are too brittle, we shall break, we cannot take anymore–it is then we realize:

We are unbreakable.

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Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

In the hours before my in-laws arrived for Blondie’s Christmas service, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is  talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

Markers

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This lovely emerald isle was my Narnia whenever we visited my mother’s parents in Watertown.

Yeah, I know. Not much when I think about the camp that truly felt like Narnia to me. But my grandparents had no yard of which to speak, and the park  of the forgotten portal was off-limits without a grown-up. Something about drowning, or strangers, or, you know, those boring things grown-ups think about when there’s adventure to find!

Beyond the emerald isle, you can see a fenced-off cemetery. It’s very old–clearly once the outskirts of the town, until they built around it. It covers the entire hillside, a mile if not more. We always drove past it to go into town, and every time, my eyes fixated on this:

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Hard to catch, but I wanted you to see what my kiddie eyes saw: a stone tree.

I didn’t understand it. Why did someone build a stone tree in a cemetery? What’s it mean? Who’s it for? I imagined other strange creatures of stone, a whole land captured in a moment, eternally asleep until the right magic could wake it.

“No, Jean, you can’t play there. Good girls don’t go and play in cemeteries. NO, we are NOT going in there.” Neither my grandparents nor my mother seemed to remember that we used to live smack-dab next to a cemetery up north until I was 4, where our yard WAS the cemetery. So, was I evil for playing in it then?

Anyway.

Years passed before I finally dared to go it alone. Living at boarding school, free of sports and off of work. My grandmother in heaven, my grandfather in another part of town. We were told that GOOD students don’t go to this side of town, too much seedy behavior from the public children, keep OUT of there–

–until finally: “Fuck you, this is MY hometown, so I’M GOING,” I thought quietly and respectfully to myself. For I did think of Watertown as mine. It’s been the only place I’ve really known all my life. So to be told a precious piece of my little years was tainted by others’ sin…well. Note the aforementioned thought.

After visiting the park, I looked down the road, and remembered the hill. The cemetery.

Years of looking through the fence. Of a stone tree through a car window.

I had to see.

~*~

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No, these pictures aren’t from the 90s, sorry. 🙂 And I’m sorry to report the cemetery wasn’t the magical world trapped in reality as I had dreamt back then. What I found was the past entombed in the present.

At last.

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Rusted spikes run round the graves. I see old hoops for a chain to run across the opening. Someone did not want these places touched by strangers. I am sorry, but…I need to see.

Two books: one so faded I cannot read, and I have nothing with which to trace. Words lost to time and sight, but not to my fingers. If only I had the tools…. The other book marks names and dates. A hummingbird forever flying, vines forever climbing. But the tree has no top. A tree with no branches cannot live.

Why such small pieces of stone life? Surely a stone tree, branches and all, would symbolize life eternal, right out of Eden.

Perhaps the one who commissioned this was not thinking of life eternal. Perhaps all he, or she, wanted was some bit of hope clawing up through the ground. A flicker of life that darts in and out of the corner of one’s eye. One that could never be caught.

Whoever it was, this person wanted to sit with those laid to rest, and be with them. The difference in tombs, though…why but a trunk face for one, while a formal tomb with book for the other?

No inscription of any kind could be found on the trunk. Perhaps…not the one really loved? And yet this one was allowed inside the compound. Curious.

It made me think of another grave in another town.

I looked to the sky, to my empty hands. I had no flowers to give, but…

~*~

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No works of art marking where the dead rest this time. For every plaque embedded into the ground, you can instead see a bouquet of artificial flowers, courtesy of the memorial park.

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A small yellow and white collection of fibers and plastic mark my father’s place. It might wave about in the wind for weeks, months even, like the artificial Christmas wreath I once found on my grandfather’s grave in June. Faded, broken.

Sad.

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The closest thing to statue work is here: a tower with each side portraying a Gospel writer. Dad got St. Luke. He’d have liked that, I think: the practical doctor who saw Jesus better the lives of others’ through His Words and Actions.  Dad referred to Luke in more sermons than any other book of the Bible.He worked among all, gave them hope and faith, just as he learned from his Savior.

Do I wish we had given my father more of a marker? Good Lord, no…well, maybe a walk-in stone Tardis, but that’s besides the point. No, Dad, and me, and all of my family, are firm believers that death is but a chapter break, and that the bones and ashes placed in the earth are simply that–bones, ashes. The soul is not in that box, but in the heavens, beautiful as a star, and far, far happier. The last thing Dad would have wanted was for everyone to fixate on this rectangle with his name on it, and think that’s all it comes to.

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I get into the car as thunder bordered on the edge of the air. Grab a random burned CD and turned it up so I wouldn’t be lost to tears. And on comes “Journey of the Sorcerer” orchestrated by Joby Talbot. It just so happens to be the theme for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a favorite author of my father’s. Banjo and piano meets with raindrops, drops turned to streams as the brass swells to the that rebellious staccato up and down, down and up. Set to repeat, I feel the build and dance every minute of that drive home, awash in memory of  Dad’s eager talks about childhood adventures in Milwaukee, how Douglas Adams wrote the best Doctor Who stories in the Baker years–

–and hope to God this downpour smites the plastic flowers.

 

#Lessons Learned from #UmbertoEco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. JamesEllis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman II

91ufkP71uyL._SY355_Long, long ago, one of my mother’s favorite stories was turned into a film (again): LITTLE WOMEN. She and my father decided to do a family movie outing, where he, my uncle, and my brother would attend one film, and my mother, aunt, and I would attend another.

I never did get to see Highlander III, so I don’t know whether or not I came out ahead. (Yes, I’ve been told I have, many times over.) No matter what I thought of the Little Women story or film, one element stuck with me, hard: the music.

Newman’s theme to Little Women still surprises me with its versatility. The opening sequence shines brightly through the brass and strings. Splendor, light, joy–all this comes through in “Orchard House.”

The theme depicts a strength you can’t help but associate with Jo and her sisters. They’re a source of life for the brooding and sick surrounding them.

But then they grow up, part ways. It takes a death to bring them back together.

Now Newman could have written a special sorrowful theme. He could have devised something simple for the period, with, say, a violin or a flute. Lord knows I was familiar enough with the lone violin playing “Shenandoah’s Theme” every time an important person died in Ken Burns’ documentary THE CIVIL WAR. But Newman didn’t. He used his life-light theme again, but not with an orchestra. This time, the theme comes to us on piano in “Valley of the Shadow.”

A piano still has the feel of the period. It was the beloved instrument of the character who died. The theme comes to us in chords, without fluid arpeggios or connections: the notes move together, as these sisters must now move forward together.

I cannot think of another score where the main theme moves from triumph to mourning with a mere change of instrument.

Stories, at least the good ones, do not follow the easy journeys. They take the mountain trails, pass through all those shadowed valleys. Face the monsters all around.

Within.

Only then can a light of triumph shine upon that final page.

Click here for more on Thomas Newman.

Click here for more on LITTLE WOMEN.