Thank you all so very, very much for your encouragement and prayers. I know I left things on a bit of a cliffhanger yesterday, so I’ll just pick up from there.
We got the kids from school and fed them an early supper. I tried laying down to see if that helped, but it only made me so damn dizzy to go to the bathroom that I refused to lay down again. I tried eating a little in case I was just lightheaded from not eating–nope. My chest continued to hurt, and my limbs started to feel weird.
Now that, well, that freaked me out.
One look to Bo is all it takes. Short of shoveling food into the kids’ mouths, he gets their coats and says we’re all going NOW. I keep counting my breaths and holding Bo’s hand while we drive. The kids are quiet. Not scared, I don’t think. Probably a little disappointed, actually, considering when I had my first severe panic attack they got to meet firefighters and climb all over the firetruck while the ambulance took me to the hospital. They still recall that as being “a fun day,” the turds.
This time we’re at a clinic, and I’m going to see a doctor. My kids are in the waiting room with their little video games, and Bo has my hand. I’m going to be okay. I’m going to be okay.
And I think because I was there, and knowing I was there to get answers, the panic began to subside.
Figures I calm down just in time to see the doctor.
But it was still a good visit. A professional who knows how hearts and lungs should work is telling me everything’s working as it should. She recommends investing in a wrist FitBit (Pffft, like I have money for that) so I have a visual realization whenever it feels like my heart’s racing, it really isn’t. She does go through various medications, and that I could start taking antidepressants if I so chose.
I squirm a little. Why am I squirming? Didn’t I want an answer like this, a pill that will make everything better?
What IS wrong, Jean? Seriously, what’s wrong?
This month marks 5 years since Dad died, eight years since Bo’s dad died.
You’re in the running for a full-time faculty position at the university.
You got named keynote speaker, so the pressure’s on to stand out during the lit conference.
Your sons got suspended from school again, and now you need to work out their neuro-evals for the sensory integration disorder.
You’re wondering how the hell you’ll write if you do land that full-time gig.
You’re worried about your daughter. Are you pushing her too hard, or not enough? Are you spending enough time with her, or not enough?
Money. Always money issues.
Some other family issues I promised not to write about but have been weighing damn hard on me.
Bo’s finally caring about his health, but is it too late?
And the bloody cherry on top of aaaaaall of this is that my Aunt Flo came this morning. (sorry male readers)
With all that on you and then the monthly hormonal chaos, is it any wonder a panic attack slammed you in the chest again, Jean?
The doctor’s still talking. Not about meds any more, but sensory distractions: essential oils, for instance, working more with music. Drinking a calming tea. Taking a Vitamin D supplement to counter the severe D-deficiency we all experience in these dark winter months.
I take my notes, thank her for her time. The kids are starting to go nuts in the waiting room, but Bo is there. His hand finds mine.
It’s going to be okay.
Maybe I’ll still need those meds, but I’d like to try the tea and the D and the smelly stuff first. No matter what, I’m gonna keep fighting this. Anxiety doesn’t own me. It won’t break me from my family or what I want to do. If I need Zoloft or something to help me fight back, then that’s what I’ll take.
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.
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?”
Reverend Wesley Allen is a delightful friend and fellow indie writer with a new book,In the Land of the Penny Gnomes.Today we discuss our mutual love of writing fantasy, balancing family and the writing life, and more.
I love this line from your “about” page on your site, Painfully Hopeful: “I hope that I can be a decent pastor, geek, father, and husband. It’s just sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not quite all that I want to be.” Let’s address your family first. You have a wife, two teenagers, and a baby. Just…I cannot fathom having a baby at this point, let alone with teenagers in the house. Do you manage to squeak a little writing time in every day, or just on Sunday afternoons, or when? Does your family root you on in the writing process, or do you keep your stories to yourself?
I am also unable to fathom having an infant in the house. Still, he’s pretty cool and I’ve raised kids through adolescence so poopy diapers and crying isn’t as daunting as it used to be. When Bump doesn’t want to sleep at night, though, I get a bit cranky.
I do write a bit most days, but I’ve managed to write only one short fiction piece for my blog since Bump’s been born. I need to get into a mindset to write, and it’s been hard to find the space to get there. My imagination is still going strong, though, and I’ve got stories running around in my head. I also have to write a sermon every week, so there’s that.
And Sunday afternoons are not good writing days. My introverted brain is basically a bowl of oatmeal by Sunday afternoon. It’s all I can do to scream at the Eagles when they’re playing. (1)
My family really isn’t involved in my projects. My wife isn’t a fantasy fan, my daughter likes to pretend she doesn’t care (2), and my older son just kinda grunts at me when I mention I wrote something. Bump drools on my keyboard. I’m sure if I pushed things a bit more they’d show more interest, but I don’t feel compelled to do so. When I was growing up my family referred to my daydreaming state as “Wes World.” I could dive so deep into my imagination people could be screaming at me and I would barely notice — it was my place to be one my own with my thoughts. As my writing basically emerges from that space it continues to be a solitary endeavor.
As a child of a preacher m’self, I know how one’s life merges to be one with the church sometimes. Personally, I like when storytelling allows me to separate from that environment, but there are ways when faith weaves itself into the fantasy world-building whether intended or not. Do you consider your faith to be a major or minor influence in your writing? How so?
I’m not sure I’d categorized it as “major or minor,” as that would imply faith was merely a component of who I am. Faith is the core of my being, it’s who I am.
But, because I’m quite comfortable with faith being who I am I do not set out to write “Christian stories.” In fact, using the word “Christian” as an adjective to describe a particular set of pop-culture media makes me want to throw up. I guess I’m with Tolkien — too much of what I see in “Christian” pop-culture is reduced to a blunt allegory which has deluded itself into believing it’s subtle. It’s icky.
At the same time, because faith is what I am, of course there are aspects of my faith which can’t help but be seen in my writing. But I try to evoke them as applicable expressions. The idea that good exists, that there is always a larger narrative, and that a people’s story matters all spring into my work though my faith. But I hope they resonate with any reader, and not just “religious” ones.
Having said all that, I am working on a devotional which works around short fiction pieces, but even then the pieces are there to provoke thought and not just telling people what to believe.
About the Pictures
On top of all this, you still find time to get out with your camera! Do you find the images you capture to inspire your storytelling, or do you enjoy time with your camera as a break form words?
Since I love to take Bump for walks, I’ve been able to keep up my photography hobby throughout his early months. I don’t know if photography is a break from words so much as it is permission to pay attention. I live in my head, photography gives me a window to see the world. At the same time, I hate photographing people. I love landscape, as they don’t look at you funny.
And, yes, photography has inspired me to write. When I share photos on my blog they are accompanied by a short meditation, which helps me process what I’m seeing. And the third world I’ve created, The Kingdom of Parallel, was inspired by a photo I took at Sunset. The story has evolved away from the inspiration that photo provided, but the world wouldn’t exist without it.
You’re also keen on using technological resources. I’m hoping to finally start using a program or two m’self, such as Scrivener. As a writer with multiple devices and obligations, which program do you find most useful for building and writing a fantasy world and why?
As you mentioned, Scrivener is huge. I’d be lost without that program, and version 3 on the Mac is superb. All my writing is done inside Scrivener.
For world-building Aeon Timeline is an application which helps me give context to my writing. I love visuals, and the character creation tools inside Aeon Timeline help me visualize how old the characters are at the time of the story. I have to imagine ahead of time, which takes out a lot of the guess work.
And then, interestingly enough, I love minecraft as a world builder. In fact, the first novel I completed, Welcome To The Valleys, was started because I wanted to write the story for the world I’d both explored and created. As I explored villages, terrain, and roadways I could visualize the world as a living space, which made it fun to write.
About the Book
Now let’s talk about your book, In the Land of the Penny Gnomes. Not only do you have an omniscient narrator to tell the story, but the Narrator himself is a character that interacts with the young hero, Will. Can you explain the process that brought you to this writing choice? What have been the challenges of such a choice? The payoffs?
The Narrator is a combination of techniques both Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde use in their work. Pratchett is famous for his footnotes, in which the Narrator issues an aside to the audience. So my use of footnotes is an homage to him. At the same time, Jasper Fforde uses footnotes so characters can communicate with one another (3). These two techniques became the genesis of the Narrator, a literal bridge between the reader and the characters in the story.
The main challenge was to not have the Narrator appear to fix everything on every other page. I’m not sure he’s Omniscient in the usual sense, because he’s on the journey with Will. He knows things, but there’s still things for him to discover, which is unusual for the Narrator. The biggest payoff is what Pratchett discovered, breaking the fourth wall to have the Narrator speak with the reader is a great way to add some weight to the connection.
One of my favorite elements in your book are the unique traits that go into the characters, like Professor Nobody, the gnome fixed upon the creation of the perfect snack chip. What on earth (or elsewhere, of course) did you find the inspiration to gather up such traits, let alone names?
Professor Nobody was named because I loved the gag his name creates. The Narrator can say things like “Nobody smiled,” and every time he did it would make me laugh. Nobody is my favorite character to write, there’s a lot of depth in that mad scientist.
Bug was named just because I wanted a name to match his personality. His last name is really bad Koine Greek, and means, “Not of me.” So Bug’s name, though Bug is actually a nickname, basically means, “Don’t bother me.” He’s unhelpful, grumpy, and points out the foibles of his own people group — which is something we are not supposed to do. Bug’s my hero.
Other names just… came to be. Though Grimby’s name is easy to confuse with “grimey,” which I enjoy.
The snack chip thing. I have no idea. I think Nobody pointed it out to me, if I’m honest, because it makes zero sense. I remember I liked the slogan “Snack Like Nobody’s Business,” which is a great pun on a number of levels, and ran with it.
While I have no idea how I came up with the whole snack chip think, their presence became a sign that he wasn’t giving up on The Realm. Nobody needed something to work toward, and what more ecould a deranged professor of Applied Imagination want than great snack chips?
Now I know you’ve got big plans for Realmian, what with saving imagination–and snack chip creation, and coffee, and Will–from pesky camouflaged lawyers in The Realm. Is there a sequel in the works with Bug, Professor Nobody, and the rest of the Penny Gnomes?
Yes, and I have you to thank for it, as you were the one who told me to keep exploring this world. In the second book the story will center around two the supporting characters I really enjoyed from the first book. It’ll follow Grimby the Dwarf and Fineflen the Darned Elf as they investigate a conspiracy to corrupt the Penny supply. The other characters will shift to supporting roles, with the exception of Sills.
Right now I’m mapping out the story in Aeon Timeline ahead of time, which will allow me to keep two separate story arcs in sync. This is fun, because it’ll be the first time I’ve tried to do this!
This is going to take a while. In the last six months I’ve managed to map out exactly two chapters!
If anyone wants to follow updates on The Realmian Adventures I encourage folks to follow @PennyGnomes on twitter. This is where I’ll be sharing updates, and where the characters sometimes decide they want to hijack the feed to add their own commentary.
1. And that’s if they’re winning. If they’re losing I get downright grumpy.
2. Which she sometimes forgets. She once told me she thinks Penny Gnomes should be a movie, but then remembered herself and shrugged with feigned nonchalance.
3. It’s complicated.
I love giving books for Christmas: they engage and inspire over and over again. My kids are getting books, my husband’s getting books–words for everyone!
Feel free to give my book to people, too, nudge nudge. 😉
Know what? Authors would love to receive YOUR words for Christmas, too. Book reviews help writers reach new readers on Amazon and Goodreads. So spread some cheer this season by sharing your love of your favorite stories online. We authors will love every word you say!
Because it’s hard to write a few thousand words of novel every day when you get called into the principal’s office, called into the classroom, or simply called to take a particular child home several times over the past couple of weeks (seriously, Bash!?), I need to take a minute, and breathe.
We’ve all known these rough patches. We trip and sprain an ankle, tear the sole in our boot and step in a muddy puddle. Slow to a halt when a gaggle (herd? pack? hay bale?) of farmers turn their tractors off to chew gossip. And don’t get me started on those roads diverging in yellow woods.
Now’s the time for camaraderie and thankfulness for the authors who have walked with me in the blogosphere these past three years, and those who move me to keep on walking. Sci-fi writer J.I. Rogers‘ kind nomination provides me the chance to do just that.
Rogers is author of the sci-fi novel The Korpes Files, co-writer of Last Horizon: Collapse, and contributor to the speculative fiction adventure anthology On the Horizon.Do check them all out!
“According to Okoto Enigma, ‘Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.’ ”
Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
Tell your readers three things about yourself.
Nominate bloggers you feel deserve the award.
Answer questions from the person who nominated you.
Ask your nominees 5 questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.
Notify your nominees by commenting on their blogs.
SJ Higbee—Because she shares so many wonderful stories, and keeps me inspired to get my own stories out there, too.
Anne Clare—Because she’s one of my oldest friends, whose faith so often helps me center my own.
Callum Stanford—Because his drive to overcome all obstacles professional and personal stirs new strength in me every time I read his story.
Questions for my nominees
Think back to the first story you ever wrote/drew. What was it about?
Does your creativity spread into other skills?
If there’s one book you wish you could UN-read, which would it be?
Favorite tea or wine? (I’m always looking for recommendations)
If you could visit one location on this lovely earth to study it for a story’s setting, which would it be?
Now me I decided to approach J.I. Rogers’ questions in a more nontraditional manner. Her questions came at a time when I was fretting in and out of prayer, and for some reason the gifts of the Holy Spirit fell into the mix, too.
Gifts of the Writing Spirit
First and foremost, there is this awe, this legit fear of the power in imagination. My memory sucks–you ask me about a major childhood event, or high school shenanigans, or what we even spoke about yesterday, and I’ll blink at you blank. But I can recall nightmares that are decades old, and haunt me still. Nightmares from the age of four, when I dreamed my parents and a man with a handlebar mustache stood talking before a gothic cathedral while unseen arms picked me up and stuck me in a station wagon’s backseat. My folks’ heads never moved as I pounded my little fists on the window. Their bodies shrunk as the gothic cathedral’s stone infested the world. I can describe the nightmare of being trapped in a house, gagged, with walls peeling open to pink, translucent tentacles. I can tell you the dream of the shadow that chased me through a dark church, flattening against the walls and then popping out, always in front of me, its bright blue eyes never blinking. And those are just the nightmares of imagination, not real life.
If we want readers to respect our imaginations, to be trapped in our worlds past 3am, talking to the the typed letters like they’re real people–“Don’t go in there! Yeah, you tell’em! Wait, you can’t walk out on her now!”–then we need to treat our imaginations and all that live in them as real.
We all know we need to read well to write well. Sure, I’ll bust out the Shakespeare and the Austen every now and again, but I’ve always found more pleasure in reading books by Diana Wynne Jones. Her worlds never feel slipshod or half-done. The characters always have a bit of snarky wit about them, and they never do anything that feels out of sorts. The pacing, too, is a great thing to watch; just when you think she may be giving too much exposition, you find out quite a bit of plot’s been moving along right under your nose. One of the best guilty pleasures is re-reading Howl’s Moving Castle for fun. It’s a beautiful example of two real characters, complete with stubborn streaks and conceited airs, still somehow falling for one another in the midst of working magic errands for a kingdom at war.
Must have coffee. Sometimes tea.
And peanut butter. Lots, and lots, of creamy peanut butter.
Ever watch or read something to learn what not to do? I find riffing shows quite useful in this department. Robot Co-Op,Rifftrax, or old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000always teach me something as they roast games and films into hilarious remains because many of their jokes are rooted in the lousy writing. They give Writer Me a Reader’s reaction to the poor character development, lame dialogue, or muddled plots a half-assed story uses. If you don’t want your story to become infamous like Manos: The Hands of Fate,then do the story RIGHT!
We all of us have talents outside of writing. Anne Clare can make stained glass windows, for instance. Shehanne Moore‘s an actor and director. We have these extra channels that help us pull our creativity out of a rut, even renew it.
Music is mine. At one point I was learning piano, violin, clarinet, and even organ. Fourteen years of lessons are going to leave their mark; that’s why I write so avidly about music, and listen to music whenever I write. It’s another realm of creation and adventure we have only to hear to believe. Even my heroine in Fallen Princeborn: Stolenis a pianist because I know how music mends the torn soul.
It’s not just about the reverence, it’s about the belief. You need to know it, feel it in the furthest reaches of your gut, in the callused skin of your fingertips. You have to move forward with the faith that you will succeed, that you will get your stories to readers. I kept that faith for thirty years: doodling stories, recording stories on cassettes, writing stories, going to school to learn about stories, hating school for what they said about stories, and then finally saying piss off to everyone and writing what I wanted to write.
And now here I am, signed on with Aionios Books, with plans to publish my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus.
When I was checking the list of what constitutes gifts of the spirit, I came across this notation for “Understanding”:
“To grasp faith’s mysteries.”
So it goes for writing.
As much as we may stand in awe of our imagination’s power, we must also journey through it to find its roots, and learn how it grows. As a child raised in a minister’s family, I was baptized in Word and Spirit: the water, the Bible passages, dove symbolizing God, etc. I was raised to believe that which the world deemed impossible: walking on water? Feeding thousands with scraps? Rising from the dead? Bah. Fairy tales.
Perhaps it was my father’s study, where Dr. Who figurines stood in front of Hebrew texts and Dragonriders of Pern sat shelved alongside doctrine commentaries. Somehow, my father’s love of fantasy and science fiction grew right alongside my faith. I accepted all the impossible: the wardrobes, the fairies, the dragons, the Highlanders–all felt as proper and real to me as Scripture.
And it’s this sense of realness, of trueness, that keeps my hope alive. There are so, so many worlds out there. Can’t you feel them? Found on a flight of whirligig seeds, hidden beneath the floorboards of the long-forgotten school outside of town. We have been baptized in imagination: we are the ones who see these places, feel their life force humming in the air. We have been baptized in hope, the hope that in our story-telling we will bring sight to the eyes that cannot see these worlds. We hope to find kindred souls who search, like us, behind the crumbling walls and through the old photographs to rediscover mysteries long forgotten.
We are blessed with such gifts to tell our stories. It is our power.
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.
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.
My grandparents as I remember them.
My hip folks pre-me.
Dad and I in North Dakota.
Pioneer days in town and in church. Yes, I’m the tiny one.
Dad, his elder brothers, parents, and Tippy.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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:
Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story
Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”
We adjuncts hear “do this or ELSE.”
Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Storyinto my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development OR ELSE, and I was tired of “how to keep students focused” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.
I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.
At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)
“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”
“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”
The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.
I was stymied, and conflicted. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.
“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”
May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.
And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:
How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need
I. Needed. Out.
So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Unlike Kaag, I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.
Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)
I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)
Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.
When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once.Not going back there.
I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:
Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)
I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.
I’m familiar with such a moment.
But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)
Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.
A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.
Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.
And then I remembered. And knew.
I watched the tractors work before driving on.
Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.
I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.
I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.
I walked on.
The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)
You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?
I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.
I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.
And it occurred to me: I was breathing.
For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.
Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.
February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.
The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.
I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…
I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.
Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.
Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.
The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.
Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.
The railway lines of Wisconsin are old and fragile, like the veins on a grandfather’s hand. Few are used for freight, even fewer for people. One runs parallel to the county highway I drive weekly to take Biff and Bash to school. Unable to work with a dead laptop, I milled about, catching a few lousy photos on that lousy grey day.
When Bo had decided to take a few days off, I told him I needed him to do more with the kids so I could work. I expected swathes of time to revise the website, write several chapters of Middler’s Pride, and establish realistic writing goals with essay revisions and book proposals. “I need BIG chunks of the day. Six to eight hours, at least,” I said. “Okay,” he said.
Well, guess what didn’t happen. Did I let Bo know it? You bet your ass I did. Every night: “I needed to get that done.” “You’ve got to handle the kids more.” “Can’t you take them out? I need to get stuff done.” “Dammit that should have been done by now.” The days sped by, and what happened? A little bit of reading, barely any writing. And of course, if lack of time wasn’t enough, both computers had to up and die.
Enough pictures. The wind hurt my cheeks like matchbox cars wielded by angry sons. Where was I even going to put these? It could be a week before we have a computer running properly at home. Never mind writing, how the hell was I going to teach?
Fuck never mind. Who was I kidding? Even when Bo had off of work, I couldn’t accomplish shit because the boys hoisted everything at me. How in Heaven and Hell did I think I could make a writer’s life for myself when my family needs ME, and needs me NOW. I may as well have picked up the rails at my feet, slung them over my shoulder, and plopped them by the Rock River to make a fun little bridge, perfect for a child’s adventure into another…
Stop it. The Motherhood Line never veers from its goal. Any car that runs its rails better be Mother-related, or it gets left on a siding to rot.
The lousy day turned to a lousy night. My black mood put Blondie on edge. She hovered on some invisible border, watching for an in. “Mommy, can I do the dishes?”
“No.” I didn’t even look at her as I clanked a new pile into the sink. “They’re fragile.”
“But I wanna help.”
Clank. Rinse. “You can help by keeping your brothers out of my hair.” Clank. Rinse.
She slid back to her chair, face down.
Bo came over from laundry. “I can do that,” he said with a hand full of clothes.
“What are you–” I snatched what was in his hand. “These can’t go together. This is a delicate, and this needs to go in a bag first.” Back to the clanking, rinsing. Thoughts washed in gunk that stuck fast: He PROMISED to help and he fucking DIDN’T, HE failed me, it’s HIS fault, I could have done more if Bo would have fucking stepped the fuck UP
Everything grew so rank inside I couldn’t even read to Biff and Bash. Instead, I complained about what never got done, what has to get done tomorrow by some miracle of God, that I was stupid to think I could even do this writing shit in the first place–
Bo rushed the kids to bed, hardly closing Blondie’s door before hauling me into the living room, kicking the boys’ Thomas trains aside to make room for my ass. “Stop. That. NOW.”
I rolled my eyes at him. He didn’t get it, of course.
“For the love of GOD, dear…look. Just…why don’t you go somewhere tomorrow and work. Do your website,” he practically growled the words, “do your writing. Get out and do it.”
Huh? He had wanted his last day off to be for the two of us. Mom was taking all three kids for the day–no small offer, I promise you.
I could just see it: me in a silent place, new computer all set to go, hours for my work…but…”Don’t you want to go out tomorrow?”
“YES! Of course I want to go out with you! We haven’t gone on a date since what, July? But…fuck you’ll think me an asshole…but why should we bother?” He tossed a piece of train track into the bin, such a loud THWACK would surely wake the kids, if they’re not up anyway. “All you’re going to think about is what you didn’t get done. That’s all you’re on.” THWACK. “It’s like you can’t see how far you’ve come in one year. I mean, you got the blessing of Pete Townshend. You get to use songs by The FUCKING Who for your story.” THWACK THWACK. “You’ve got thousands of people on both sides of the planet”–THWACK–“reading your stuff but all you look at is what you should have done by now. Like nothing you do is ever good enough.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeves as he shoved the bin of train tracks aside. “I believe in you, Jean. But it’s fucking hard when you don’t even believe in yourself.”
My mind and lungs froze on the formation of those words from his lips: I believe in you.
Never had Bo said those words. When I started this all in 2015 he saw it as something to quiet my whines about not writing. Whenever my motherhood/teacherhood/depression threatened to quash it, he would go silent, blink it off, wait for the threat to solve itself, or for me to solve it.
But today, Bo believes in my writing. My writing, and of all crazy things: me.
I had always thought this writer’s path, muddy, cold, and unknown, to be a lonely one. The further I’ve gone, the more I’ve met on this same path: others struggling against the elements of their lives to still press on and discover the treasured language we know is hidden up ahead.
That night, I found a hand I could hold, physically hold, on that path. I grabbed it then. It grabbed me back. And for a good long while we held ourselves together, glued by love, tears, and snot.
I’d given up long ago on finding support for my writing from within my family. I was faith-less, and without that faith, I was blind to the growing support Bo wanted to give me. He may never understand my stories, but faith isn’t built on logic, is it? It comes from Hope. Love. Joy. Sacrifice.
Jesus once said that if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.
The first of October was meant to be The Day: the day which I met with The Monster, and talked to him face-to-face about the past, and how we needed to be in the present for the sake of a civil future.
He was sick.
Not that the meeting was the only item on the day’s agenda: an old friend from church was getting married that afternoon, so we had already arranged with my in-laws to watch our brood.
“What about Holy Hill?” Bo asked as he stroked my hair. I lay curled up against him, still choked up from crying (again). “You’ve talked about going there. For pictures, right?”
I nodded. Another booger streaked his shirt. Oops.
But it was true: I’ve always wanted to have a photo post dedicated to Holy Hill. As a child, I occasionally caught site of Holy Hill from the highway on our way to various relations. On a clear day you can see the steeples from dozens of miles away, vice versa for standing in its observation tower: my first time was in autumn, and all of Wisconsin’s countryside was firey bright, a patchwork of crops, city spires off among the clouds–
And October began tomorrow! We’d be able to see the color changes! I could feel my despair shift. No, the day would not be what I had wanted, but it would most certainly be a day worth having.
We dressed the kids as they fought over banana bread (“NO, I HAVE THE MOST CHOCOLATE CHIPS!”) and drove to Milwaukee with minimal toy-throwing.
I hated the dimness of the day, the lack of definition to the expanse overhead. Hell, it wasn’t even dramatic, like The Nothing from The Neverending Story. It was just…there. Cold and misty and there.
We passed circus-size tents where Christian rock thrummed in celebration of the St. John Bosco Youth Festival (Catholics, you’ll have to help me on this one. Lutherans don’t get the saint-fest stuff.). This was supposed to be a quiet autumn day. Colors. Sun. Life. Not a desperate summer green shivering beneath the gathered mist-drops.
Why the HELL did we come today? I can’t even see past the hillside!
And yet. Yet there’s something rather cool about the crosses atop the spires being lost in the clouds. Of losing the world to the mist, and finding oneself in a place of faith. Of soul.
Bo and I eat in the monks’ dining area (yes, there are still monks there) and head for the main basilica…only to get befuddled by all the visitors, and wind up in a strange concrete atrium with a utility door fit for a moving truck. Through what looks like a chapel door, and we find ourselves in a sort of basement sanctuary. Small, bright windows, and a very pain-filled Christ. Where was everyone?
Aha! The scenic tower, where I could touch low-hanging heaven…
Nope. Closed due to fog. (And youth, I bet. They keep throwing things like apples for some reason. Rowdy Catholic teenagers.)
On the main terrace, I struggle to get what shots I could. Having but a meager camera phone, I couldn’t possibly capture the basilica in one shot, but I tried anyway.
Families abounded. I found…huh. I found I didn’t mind. A church should feel this kind of life, what with toddlers whining, fathers chiding, and old ladies kissing. Yes, there was goofery about, but a respect, too, even from the teens, when one reached that entrance.
We stepped through, only to find the main doors shut. Mass.
“Do we wait?” I couldn’t bear to get this far only to be forced back into the mists.
Bo checked his watch, shrugged. “We’ve got time.”
So we watched the closing pageantry. Listened to the choir, so light, so in tune (we Lutherans are not known for our singing.). Watched an older lady stick her water bottle in the holy water to…um…save some for later? Should one be drinking that stuff, or was she preparing for a showdown with a vampire?
Mass over at last, we go in.
I can’t do this place justice, of course, nor its parishoners. Arguments of religion being the opiate of the masses have no sway in such a place, where crutches and braces are left by the miraculously healed, and light itself sings as it passes through the colored glass. Where saints and God mingle with the incense. I looked into the eyes of those here, and saw faith. When a priest can speak to the struggling, and ignite a hope another can sense even at a distance…that’s true faith.
A new church…well, for you. An old church for me.
This was my father’s childhood church. Even his kindergarten teacher still attended in a wheelchair. Decades later, while Dad was serving in central Wisconsin, she wrote to him in delicate cursive, begging him to come and heal their church before it was too late. After a formal Call from the church’s council and weeks of deliberation, Dad felt Milwaukee’s north side, full of poverty and racial tension, was where God wanted him to be. He served here eight years, even officiated my marriage to Bo here, then moved where God called him, and called him…until He called him to his heavenly home.
I sat in a pew my father likely used as a child, and wanted to cry.
Dad would never be in that pulpit, or any pulpit. Loss, so much fucking loss. I clutched Bo’s hand, desperate to sense a soul again.
A pause in music. Now a delicate melody. My friend, radiant in lace and pearls. She’d gone through her own thorny trials with love. Today marked her triumph over all.
I cried, clapped. Pretty sure I whooped at one point. By God, did it feel good to cry for something other than pain.
These past several weeks have seen me struggling with boxes of old memories. The Monster’s presence inside those boxes had finally leaked through, and turned all they touched black-green with rot. I couldn’t experience anything in the present without that taint.
At last, I found something new: A box of memories The Monster couldn’t wreck. It took physically stepping into the past to open it, but once there, the painful anxiety of moving into that which I had feared dispersed like mist in the sun.
The world glistened for the first time in ever, and I found I could not stop smiling as I held those memories to my cheek and remembered their loving touch.