From the Basement

May 2, 2010

Acts of Service/Love

Today’s post is in honor of my friend Jenelle, who today will be driving 6+ hours to come visit me in the northwoods of Wisconsin. After spending time with both of my respective parents, we’ll then head back down to the tiny town that is home to my Alma Mater. I’ll be spending 8 days there, joyous days with friends; I’ll also be preparing for a big interview. But, today, I’m grateful to have a friend willing to come up to Wisconsin to get me.

It’s an act of service – an act of love.

I hope that you all have people in your lives who love you. I’ve talked about the love languages before, and let me tell you, acts of service is not one of mine. Just this morning, my mom said that there was a chore she wanted me to do before I went to bed last night. I looked at her blankly and she said, “Well, I just wanted you to feel inspired to do it.” I’m getting better at anticipating her needs, but that sort of inspiration does not come naturally!

I have developed relationships with so many awesome people over the last four years. And a lot of them give through acts of service. There’s the boyfriend, who gives foot rubs whenever he’s asked. Anna, who always gives me a neck/shoulder/head rub if I have a migraine (the first time, she just showed up in my room with lotion, said she’d heard I was sick, and told me to lay down – okay!). Laura and Kayla, who graciously leant me their cars almost every Sunday so I could go to the church where I felt most connected. Emily, Brittany, Mikelle, Annie, Em, Audrey, Chris – and a myriad of other friends who have offered services with or without prompting.

So here’s to the people in our lives who have loved us and been there to do things we didn’t even know we needed. I’m so grateful to God for placing each of those friends in my life, whether or not this is their primary love language, and I can only hope that I love them back as much as they’ve loved me.

Matthew 22:36-40: 36″Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

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April 30, 2010

Freedom & Family

It is the greatest longing of my heart to walk every day fully in the loving freedom that Christ so generously gives. Freedom to love, freedom to write, freedom to express, freedom to move, freedom to live without condemnation. For there is no condemnation for those who walk in Christ Jesus – who the son sets free is free indeed! His love and mercy covers all of our sin; he offers us the chance to come cleanly before God.

It’s such an awesome gift. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I’m grateful for it. The struggle – mine, at least – is living it out day by day.

There are a lot of things in this world that can cramp the freedom that Jesus gives. Fear, anger, loneliness, bitterness, mistrust, anxiety, and a variety of other sins can leave us feeling less than free – we walk in the shadow of sin rather than the shadow of His wing. And that is no place for anyone to walk. But sometimes, those shadows feel so powerful.

I think one of the most difficult shadows we can live under is that of our family, be it our family history, our past mistakes, our family members’ past mistakes, or just difficulties in general. Heck, it could even be under the pressure of having to live up to your family! And for every Cleaver family, I bet you that any one of us can point to dozens and dozens of “broken homes” and, of course, the people who come from them.

Quick aside: I’ve never much liked the term “broken homes.” First off, it sounds like it can’t be fixed. And I don’t like that. Love covers a multitude of sins, and our faith guarantees us a redeeming love, a redeeming power – the love that can cast out bitterness and brokenness, love that can heal. So I don’t much care for the term “broken home.” Also, there’s the simple fact that it puts homes in a binary opposition: they’re either broken or whole, and it seems to be a naive assumption that there’s such thing as a totally-broken or totally-whole home. As an old pastor of mine once said, “Everybody’s walking on broken floors.” Everybody – even the Cleavers – has some issue they have dealt with or are dealing with that has affected their family. So no, I don’t much care for the word “broken” in this application, but seeing as it’s so prevalent in our culture, you all get what I mean when I say it.

This was one of my greatest spiritual struggles during my freshman year of college. I was away from my family for the first time, away from the pain and the fights and the grievances. Basically, I felt a lot of guilt: guilt and pain at being separated from my then-15-year-old sister, who was still in the middle of everything; guilt for not being able to be there for my mom, as I had been for so many years; and guilt for feeling, above all, a sense of relief and freedom, that I was finally out from under my parents’ roof.

But I continued to carry my family’s burdens with me. I’d been carrying them for so long that it was normal. I had lengthy conversations with my mom, listening to her, and there was one particularly vitriolic argument I had with my dad on the phone. My sister started to say things like, “You don’t understand. You don’t live here anymore.” And all the while, I was trying to form a new life with new habits, better habits, cleaner habits. But I was still parked firmly under my family’s shadow. Even away from them, I did not feel free. I was relieved, yes, but not free.

During second semester, God started to pull out all the stops. There were these tiny study booths at the end of the hall (we called ’em phone booths since people only used them to talk on the phone). One night, I was in a phone booth with my friend Laura, a source of great spiritual strength and comfort, and I was bawling my eyes out about my family, railing on about abuse and addiction and awful marriages and all those things I was sure I was never going to get away from. I can’t remember our whole conversation, but I do remember that at one point, she looked me square in the eye and said, “God is bigger than family history.”

It felt like a slap in the face, but that was one of the first moments where I remember being forced to reckon with the fact that God is bigger, and that if I wasn’t letting him in, that meant that I didn’t think he was who he said he was. It meant I was proud. It meant I was refusing healing from Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals. … Ouch.

Soon after, I was talking with a senior, Jessika, who really mentored me that year. She gave me a copy of Do You Think I’m Beautiful? by Angela Thomas. I’ve mentioned the book in this blog before, and I even think I mentioned the thing that most spoke to me. Her discussion of our sacks of ashes – how we carry those sacks around for so long, bent over so far, not knowing what way is up, just knowing that we’re very, very comfortable carrying it around. I realized the extent to which I’d been carrying my family’s ashes around and that – wow – I didn’t have to. Those burdens can be laid at Christ’s feet, a fact I knew but hadn’t grasped.

And then the women’s bible study went to the Women of Faith conference, and that year’s theme was Amazing Freedom. go figure. So yes – God did wonders in my life that semester. Wonders that started me on the path to freedom.

Four years later, I have been freed in so many ways, but, living at home, I find myself in a different struggle. It’s the struggle of having had everything change – your perspective as well as the family itself (divorce) – and yet still being surrounded by… is the ghosts of yesteryear too Dickensian? Without going into too much detail, it’s become a struggle for me to try and love on my family and remain free from taking on the burdens. Whenever I do, fights happen. And there have been fights this month, with my parents and my sister. I’m trying to figure out how to live with them, love them, and move forward without falling into those old traps, those old places where I’d pick up a sack of mom’s and a sack of dad’s and start walking with it.

I wrote recently on the struggle to be honest in my writing – how to cull details and themes from my childhood and adolescence without causing pain to my family. A part of me is very afraid of hurting them, upsetting them.

But I can’t go back under that shadow. I love my family, but I love my Creator more. And He loves my family so much! I’m learning how to honor and respect my parents (perhaps for the first time, honestly) and how to love my sister while remaining free – free from what they think of me, free from their opinion, free even from their own personal struggles. I cannot take on their pain. I can only deal with mine, and the best way to do that is to lay it all before the throne of Jesus and say “Here! Take it! I don’t want it!”

And then he takes it, and he gives beauty for ashes. How cool is that? How blessed we are to have such a loving, loving God!

It seems that the sources of struggle in our lives can evolve in their nature just as we mature and evolve in our faith. The good news is that Jesus is right there with us – and who the Son sets free is free indeed. Freedom, beauty, joy, contentment, peace … I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

April 25, 2010

Writing What You Know (& family)

“Write what you know” is one of the “classic” bits of writing advice that I feel pretty okay about disregarding. If people only wrote what they literally knew, we wouldn’t have fantasy, sci-fi, or most of the mysteries and thrillers that dominate the market. Hell, we probably wouldn’t have most romances, either, let alone your stand-alone bestsellers like The Lovely Bones (which I still haven’t read and don’t think I could handle). Not to mention one of my favorite genres, the dystopian novel. 1984, Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale – gone.

Emotional honesty, though – now, that’s something else entirely. In On Writing, Steven King tells us, “The heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for the heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.”

If we take “write what you know” literally (as too many writing instructors do, especially in those formative years), we cripple ourselves. But if we are to take it as a mandate to write from the heart, to be as emotionally honest as possible, to write with the integrity necessary to telling a truly good story – well then. Write what you know, indeed.

I think there comes a point in time where most writers understand this. We say, yeah! I can write whatever I want! Boo-yah! (or whatever you yell in moments like that)

But then comes the Oh, Shit Moment when you realize that writing from your heart is freaking hard. To write honestly, you have to be honest with yourself, and not only about yourself, but about your relationships and your job or your classes and, most of all, your family.

I’m writing about this because I’m struggling with this. Today, on this grey, wet Sunday morning, I got an idea for a novel. A big novel. It would be big, that is, in size. I’m thinking about the characters, the arcs, the complexity, and – well, it’s inspired in part by my family. Not based on my family, but some of the themes are ones I’m taking from personal experience.

And the struggle is – okay, I can write it. But what if my mom ever finds out? – which she would, if she was alive when it was published (though a heavenly confrontation is not above her, I’m telling you). Not because I based a character on her, because I’m not about to do that – characters should walk and breathe and become and be their own people – but I know that if certain situations or themes or emotions made it into the novel that relate to my family (as they’re bound to at some point in my writing career)… well, of course she’ll recognize it and know where it comes from, even if Jane Smith on the street is reading going, “Oh my gosh, that’s my family!” having absolutely no idea where I got the inspiration.

You see the dilemma? So, on this business of writing what you know. How the hell do you write what you know when you’re afraid of hurting the people you love? I’ve read the writing manuals on disguising characters, making them physically and geographically as separated from the person (people) you’re basing them on as possible. Also, according to Anne Lamott, you’re supposed to make them anti-Semitic and give them a tiny penis so that they will never recognize themselves.

But let’s face it. The people we’re closest to, the people who live with us, the people who raise us – they know where themes come from. Ideas. Certain scenes, and whatever else you decide to plop in there.

Everyone says you have to free yourself from the fear of hurting your loved ones. You can be honest and respectful at the same time. I get that. But in the back of my mind, there’s still this nagging sense of “what if?”

That’s just something I’ll have to work on. And I’ll start writing the story anyway. Because really, if you don’t write the story you want to tell, why are you writing in the first place?

April 20, 2010

Why do we watch television?

Now that I’m no longer bound by the chains of homework, I have time during the week to actually watch the one show I enjoy. Castle airs on Mondays on ABC at 9 p.m. sharp. I love the show – witty banter, engaging characters, and (usually) great story writing. It rarely disappoints.

This week was no different. But I realized that I found myself looking forward to this new episode days in advance. I have never been like that with a television show before.

Is it Castle? No. Pleasurable though the show may be, it’s not the show. Rather, it’s where I’m at in life right now. I’m usually up to my eyeballs in homework, lunch dates, meetings, and the pleasanter obligations of life (spending time with those I care about). Being at home, though, is a very isolated place to be. I occasionally talk on the phone with girlfriends and Skype with my boyfriend; I sometimes see my old girlfriends who are still around my hometown – but not much. Mostly, I’m by myself during the day. And so the books I read, the stories I write, and the television I watch become the relationships I’m most engaged in. And my guess is that there are plenty of people who are in the same boat – who may not be in my situation but who mark their lives by the passage of other people’s stories.

How does this happen? Are there characters we connect with? Or do we gravitate to the predictability of certain plots and devices? As the author Tom Clancy said, “What’s the difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” There’s a predictability to, say, a love plot.  For instance, the will-they-or-won’t-they set-up that has been driving the show Bones for so long. While the relationship between Bones and Booth has been painfully drawn out (I hear from whinging fans), I’m betting that the show will end in a satisfactory way. See, the writers have made an implicit promise to their audience: we will put you through hell for X amount of seasons, but you will ultimately be rewarded by having the couple come together.

(How TV writers fail to realize that audiences can handle the story post-getting together is beyond me. TV is sorely in need of a decent, mature adult love story that goes beyond the first “I love you.”)

We mark our lives with stories, but sometimes it seems uncertain where that boundary is – does fiction reflect life or vice versa? I once had a girlfriend who, in telling me that she was leaving school, said that she realized she’d learned everything she knew about relationships from television. I thought she was over-exaggerating at the time (still do), but the point is made. We are greatly, greatly influenced by the stories we absorb. We may begin to act them out in our own lives. Or perhaps we fall deeper and deeper into the show, into the fantasy.

I don’t know where or what the answer is. I don’t know why stories hold such a power over us. And to any of my worried friends who are reading this, trust me, I’m not deeply into the fantasy that is the show Castle (though the mystery writer in me would really, really like to land a gig like that). But I do enjoy it, and there’s something about having a story to come back to at the same time every week that is soothing. It’s a structure that’s predictable, entertaining, reassuring: at this time, you will sit down and encounter a new and intriguing story that these characters who you’ve come to know and love will be embarking on. Hang on for the ride.

Two hundred years ago, this form of entertainment came via the serial novels that were published in newspapers. Now classic writers like Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas amassed cult followings, a mass of readers who would pick up a paper every week to read what antics Pip or d’Artagnan were up to this time. Where reading was once a public activity (any period movie will have a scene where one character reads aloud to a group, I guarantee it), it is now solitary, individual, isolated, solo. Entertainment has evolved from the text to the screen, and so now we go in groups to the theater to watch the latest film, or we gather around the television set in the dorm to watch Grey’s Anatomy (to my great shame, I did that freshman year). Movies and television are the stories we experience with other people, which is perhaps part of their allure.

A history of Western storytelling may go something like this: oral tales evolved into texts which evolved into recorded entertainment, which is oral storytelling of a sort. The visual, scripted, lighting-enhanced sort.

I enjoy a good television show, and Lord knows my movie collection is constantly growing. I love stories, and a good story can impact me in a powerful way. I don’t know why, but it does. I just want to remember to stay grounded, to not become so absorbed in the relationships I am seeing, reading, or writing that I forget to nurture and nourish the ones in my life.

Ultimately, I want to write my own life story, and I don’t want it to read like a summary of other people’s lives. I’ve got my own to make. So I’d best keep making it.

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