Sunday, November 19, 2017

On writing Christian Holocaust novels aka Thank God for my worst reviews, Part II


So I was saying last week why I wanted to continue with the series and write Flame in the Night, despite coming to understand (and sympathize with) why some Jewish people feel so queasy about Christian Holocaust fiction. Because the story of Le Chambon is a story of Christians getting it right for once, and it's a story all of us (very much including me) desperately need to hear in our time. So I wanted to keep telling it—but to get it right, to get every part of it right this time, to draw my Jewish characters with as much depth and texture and vitality and respect as I could possibly muster. And I knew I had a lot to learn before I could.

I started online. I wish I could have walked into a big-city library and started there, but I live in rural Illinois. I went to a writers' forum I frequent, got up my courage and put out a query asking if anyone could tell me about Judaism in the mid-20th century. I confessed to my past half-baked approach, I admitted that I barely knew what questions to ask, and then I asked a long list of questions anyway. Some very kind people answered me almost right away. They went above and beyond for me, writing long posts again and again, coming back and back to answer my gradually less stupid questions; they told me they were glad I was taking the time to try and represent Judaism right.

You know, I've seen a lot of arguments online about representation of minorities or the “Other” in fiction, about cultural appropriation, exploitation, all the rest. The conversation goes like a sort of pendulum, back and forth: complex discussions of the subtle, uncomfortable shadings that push a work over the line from representation to exploitation, then suddenly writers throwing up their hands in despair, feeling judged, their best efforts judged, wondering if it's even possible to get it right or if they should give up—either by abandoning their manuscript or by deciding this whole cultural sensitivity thing is a crock. Because you do feel judged, in a discussion like that. As a writer representing the majority culture, all the pressure is on you to walk that tightrope, neither to exclude nor misrepresent people whose experience you do not share. But—it's amazing, it's amazing how different it feels to have this other discussion: tell me about your experience. Tell me about your culture. I don't know much about your religion. I want to learn.

It's walking in as a learner, I guess. We're so scared of being judged for being ignorant. But learners are supposed to be ignorant. If you confess your ignorance, it turns out people are kind.

And eager to teach you. It surprised me, and yet I should have known it. It's been when someone on the forum has asked a question like “So what is a Baptist church service like anyway?” that I've thrown out the rest of my afternoon plans and written them 1000 words on the subject. Of course it feels good to teach.

(I mean, it doesn't always. I know some people get asked the same questions a million times about their background and that can drive you nuts. You have to be polite and roll with where people are. But I was grateful to find people who were there in the forum ready to teach.)

We had a long, fascinating discussion—mostly me and two Jewish writers. I read the resources they pointed me to, I summarized scenes for them and asked them if a detail made sense; they were incredibly kind and generous with their time, and—simply kind. Not once did I feel judged. They shared family history, stories they had heard or read, links, basic knowledge about prayers and services, nitty-gritty details of keeping kosher. (And oh my word it is hard, if you don't have your own kitchen—as Elisa, my Jewish character in Flame, does not. Very hard. But she's a determined young woman. I can't wait to introduce you to her.) And I learned.

It turns out that I find Judaism fascinating. And, frankly, impressive. Naturally, growing up Christian, I received the impression that Judaism was legalistic; that notion didn't survive the first few days of research. A far more appropriate word than legalism, it seemed, would be loyalty. A loyalty that they've held onto for millennia. I got absolutely no sense of (as Christians generally define legalism) anyone trying to earn their way into Heaven (which by the way is explicitly de-emphasized in Judaism.) Rather, that the commandments are obeyed because they are commanded. By God. That's impressive. I'm not saying I want to convert. But—basing your whole daily life, big and small, around loyalty to God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. How can I, or any theist, not respect that?

Frankly, it's been a privilege to write about this. It's been a privilege to write Elisa Schulmann, her courage and her loyalty. She doesn't make every choice as I would make it—because she's a person in her own right. And she's a person I respect.

The other week I finally got my first response from a Jewish fellow writer who's read the book. He pointed out a small inaccurate detail, suggested I put in a little more about holidays, and then told me this: that many non-Jewish authors get the details right but miss the “feel,” but that I had grasped it, that Elisa's Judaism felt real. I can't tell you how my heart expanded in happiness and relief.

Of course, it's only one person's response, and an incredibly nice guy at that. I am seeking more opinions, as I said last week. But I'm seeking them much more happily now.

Still it's for each person who reads the book to judge how I have done. As it always is. As the song says, it's not me, it's not my family—other people have far more right over this story than I do. But I'm deeply grateful to the people who were kind to my ignorance.

And I want to say this to my fellow writers. I know what it's like to feel judged. When I enter a new writers' forum I hint so carefully, so nervously, that I write Christian fiction. I ask myself what will be the consequences if I choose to claim the label evangelical—because I remember what happened last time I failed to ask myself that. I know what it is to have people assume I'm coming in ready to trample everybody—because others with the same labels on them really did do that. But still, here in my white evangelical Christian-fiction-writing skin—people were kind to me. I came in as a learner, and they thanked me. I learned that it's all right to be ignorant, as long as you listen rather than speak. I want to tell my fellow writers—it's all right, or at least it may be all right, I haven't read your book, but it really just might be all right if you step into the skin of a learner, if you take that leap and confess what you don't know. If you sit down at someone's feet and listen hard.

It really might.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On writing Christian Holocaust novels, a.k.a. Thank God for my worst reviews

I dialed the number, then hesitated before pushing “call.” I was calling a friend of a friend—in other words, a total stranger. I've always hated calling strangers since I was a child more mortally scared of embarrassment than of any actual danger. But this might help my work. My friend had referred me to this lady, saying she was Jewish and had very worthwhile constructive criticism for me about my first book, How Huge the Night. I pushed the button. I stammered my way through my inquiry about her feedback. Lay it on me, I didn't quite smoothly say.

“The French boy's story was a very fresh look at World War II for me,” the lady told me. “And I appreciated that your book wasn't trying to convert me. But it's your Jewish characters. They're a little… generic.”

Let me make this clear right now: she was 100% right--and being nice about it.

Honestly? Seven or eight years later, I kind of squirm thinking about it. Gustav and Nina, the Jewish brother and sister, in their very first scene have packed to flee Austria and are about to go out the door, and I have them pause to say the Shema together. Why?

Um. It's what Jews say, right?

I'm actually not positive it wasn't something they would do. It probably is in the realm of the possible; my kind critic didn't mention it as a ridiculous moment. What embarrasses me is that I didn't check. I didn't make even the slightest attempt to find out whether this was considered an appropriate prayer for the circumstance. Nope. I just blithely sailed on.

“I couldn't tell what kind of Jews any of them were, what their backgrounds would be.” Well of course you couldn't, lady. Judaism has only three major denominations, to my own religion's approximately one gazillion, and at the time I couldn't have told them to you. I'm just lucky she didn't ask me where I got off—I couldn't have told her!

Now some people may be nodding along to this and some people may be asking why I'm beating myself up for being a little vague in a novel. For the latter, I'll give the answer in three words.

Christian Holocaust fiction.

I didn't realize at the time that this was even an issue. It took me awhile to figure it out, even after my phone conversation. It snuck up on me slowly. Then a Christian romance between a Jewish woman and a concentration camp commandant made finalist for a major romance award, and it started sneaking up on me very fast.

There were rants all over the internet about it for awhile. (Why a concentration camp commandant? Well, it was supposed to be a retelling of Esther—he was King Xerxes, her love changed him, he liberated everybody. There were issues on all kinds of levels, all the way down—click on the links if you're interested.) People were furious. I was down that rabbit-hole for days, following link after link. Yes, there was some morbid fascination there, but I could tell there were things here I needed to know.

I hadn't made most of the mistakes that author made—casting a Nazi as the romantic lead, trying to spin a concentration camp commandant as “not a real Nazi,” etc. But I saw that I had made her first mistake, the one all the others came from. I had failed to realize I was rushing in where angels feared to tread.

My narrow escape took my breath away.

Allow me to link you to my two worst reviews.

My first reaction to both of these was just what you'd think. What the heck? The Tablet magazine one in particular confused me. The man's brief remarks about my book (one of many in a themed multi-book review) boiled down to “It's a Christian Holocaust novel for Christian teens and also it's Christian,” to which he affixed the verdict: creepy. Creepy?

The other review, when I finally stopped focusing on its couple of errors (nobody forces any Jews to go to church in the book, but I do understand how she might have gotten that impression,) actually put the heart of the issue really well. There was the “generic” quality—my Jewish characters sounded, she said, like “Christians who spoke a different language”—there was the lack of any genuinely researched Jewish worship or practice (there were reasons, but they weren't good reasons)—and finally there was the worst part. The reviewer accused me of “using the background setting of a people being persecuted, tortured, and killed for their religion to glorify another religion”—i.e. Christianity.

I certainly didn't intend to do that. I didn't set out to use my Jewish characters only to glorify the faith of my Christian ones. But it's true that I understood my Christian characters' backgrounds far more than those of my Jewish characters, and that I was not uncomfortable enough with that to fix it. Intentions are not the only thing.

How much I did or didn't exploit my Jewish characters, I will leave it to each person who reads How Huge the Night to decide. I know I didn't do it nearly as much as others have, I know I didn't do it enough to spark a viral series of internet rants. But let me put it this way: I'm no longer saying What the heck? I hear what these people are saying now. I don't think that writing a Christian Holocaust novel is inherently, automatically wrong or creepy (or I would have stopped) but I don't think the Tablet reviewer was a lunatic, either. I understand now why he could make that judgment without taking the time (or the wordcount) to back it up, and expect his reader to agree.

I understand two things I should never have gone into this series without understanding. My two worst reviews started to teach them to me. Someone else's thirty worst reviews hammered them home.

The first was simply what the Holocaust still means to some people alive today. If you click one link in this post, click this one. Fair warning, it's a rant. There's no language, though. Just raw, intensely personal emotion and truth. The part I have never forgotten is the writer's description of visiting the nursing home week after week as an eleven-year-old, hearing people's stories, seeing the faded numbers on their arms, running her shaking arm up and down an old lady's back as she sobbed and relived the terror of thinking she was going to die in a camp. Reading that, and other posts—but mostly that—I heard the voice of reality whispering in my ear what I'll repeat to any author who's treading where I'm still treading today: this is not a story, okay? World War II is not your fiction background—or playground—it's not “instant drama, just add water.” Write with respect for the real people it happened to, or go somewhere else and make your own drama.

For some of us, it's a terrible historical event; for others, it's the reason why their parents don't have any older relatives. Once I started interacting with Jews online about this, one of them made the simple statement, in a discussion of the culture of Jewish communities in the mid-20th century, that she didn't know much about her mother's side of the family because “none of them made it out.”

None of them made it out.

I knew the Holocaust was terrible, right? But there's knowing and there's knowing.

Here's another story one of the same people told me. We were discussing the experience of Jewish children hidden during the Holocaust, and what they remembered. The (true) story is this: there was a rabbi who was tasked, after WWII ended, with finding Jewish children who had been hidden in monasteries during the Holocaust. Why finding? Well, sometimes the monasteries didn't want to give them back—in fact, some denied having any Jewish children there. To verify, he would call out the Shema—and any Jewish children who were there would run to him, their deepest memories stirred by the words.

Why didn't the monasteries want to give them back? They wanted to raise them as Christians.

I was shocked by this story. But I also felt something else, something—shall we say creepy? I felt recognition.

I'm a Christian. So I understood why they wanted that.

But hearing it from a Jewish person, I also understood how she would feel about it. How the children's relatives would feel about it. How anyone Jewish would feel about it.

That was the second thing I learned.

Anti-Semitic medieval art
We American Protestants, we don't feel that the Middle Ages has anything to do with us. There's the early church, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and then there's all that Catholic stuff, which is not our stuff. But Catholics were simply Christians, the only Christians there were, when the Spanish Inquisition coerced tens of thousands of Jews into converting. Make no mistake: they remember. The old, cold history of medieval Christian Europe making it clear to the Jews they were really not very welcome—but they could be! If they converted! (or maybe not depending on the country…)—is one the Jews have not forgotten, even if we have. The slanders about poisoned wells, the murders, the pogroms, they haven't forgotten those either. They don't consider the Holocaust to be an inexplicable exception. Simply the climax of a terrible story. I haven't heard many of them online blaming Christians for the Holocaust. It's generous of them, or perhaps polite. But we should be the first to admit, at the very least, that it happened on our watch. On our turf. That if every Christian had risen up, it would not remotely have been possible.

And then we have the good Christians. The ones who hid and rescued Jews. Some of whom also went ahead and used the power they'd been given over Jewish children—given, remember, indirectly but most surely by the Nazis—to obtain conversions that stank of coercion. The good ones.

So yeah. Christian Holocaust fiction.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

Now at least I've got the first clue. Thank God.

Now, none of this made me want to stop writing the “Night” series. No way.
Because if there's anything that the story of Le Chambon has to say to all of what I've written above, it's that it is not inevitable. Le Chambon, and what happened there during the war, stands as a proof that it doesn't have to be this way, that all the bone-bleak history between Christians and Jews, the awful dynamics, the excellent reasons for people's suspicion about what I do, were not inevitable then and they are not inevitable now—that we can obey our God much better than that, and we must.

Children arriving in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
The people of Le Chambon did not use the people they rescued to prove their own virtue—they considered their own virtue little more than common decency, what “anybody would do.” They did not use their position of power, with desperate, hunted refugees and children utterly dependent on them for survival, to put pressure on them to listen to the message of Christianity. They respected them too much for that. They quite simply acted toward them according to both the Torah and the Gospels: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. They lived the kingdom of God in their here and now—not the supremacy of Christianity, but the kingdom of God.

I knew in my bones that was still the story I wanted to tell—more than ever. But I wanted to do it right this time.

But this is far too long already… so, Part II next week.

__________________________


But—I have a query for you all. Part of the end of the process by which I hope to be doing it right: consulting Jewish sensitivity readers. I still need one or two more. If you are Jewish, willing to read my book, and able to advise on whether I've rendered the experience of a devout young Jewish woman, and the Jewish experience in my book in general, accurately and respectfully, I would be very grateful and glad to reciprocate with any writing feedback or editing work you might need. You can contact me at heatheremunn@gmail.com.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

It's okay to be white

So I got lured into interacting online with a white supremacist. Real smart, I know, I know. He responded to an anti-racist tweet I was looking at with a link to an article on a site whose actual URL proclaimed "white privilege isn't real." I gave in to temptation and made a sarcastic comment about how "real news" his website sounded. With a magnificient break in logic he responded with this macro:

I said "Sure is. Your point?" He never replied.

But since then 100% of my notifications on Twitter are to helpfully let me know how many people liked and retweeted this reply to me.

Thanks, Twitter. Thanks for reminding me what I did.

Well, I wish I hadn't done it. I suppose giving them chances to argue in public is what they want, though I still don't see what it is about what I said that inspired that particular response. But what on earth does it mean? They think anti-racists are saying it's not okay to be white?

I've seen this before. It's a very, very common aspect of the public face of these people--it seems like it's the first facet you see. I've written about this before, because whenever I run across it I can't seem to get it off my brain.

We see them in a heroic defensive posture, protecting whiteness. "It's okay to be white!" they say. "White people do have a culture that's worthy of preservation!" (Yes, yes we do. At least if you remove the ridiculous "a" and add an S to "culture," because no genuine tribe or culture in the world has ever been defined by its skin color--cultures come from places. Generations, tradition. And whose cultures are being preserved? In the U.S. I've been to a Swedish heritage festival, I've been to a Celtic festival, I've walked through a Ukrainian neighborhood filled with very interesting bakeries; I've never been to an Ibo festival nor walked through a Hausa neighborhood. There's a reason for that. Africans were the only ones to have their cultures deliberately destroyed in the process of being brought to this country. From the moment they were imprisoned on the slave-trading ships, enslaved Africans were never allowed to be near people who spoke their own language if the masters could help it, lest they organize, rise up and escape.)

Apparently we have shamed people for being white. Apparently by telling people that white people are still privileged in this country--likelier to be hired for jobs, less likely to be shot by the police--we have told them that it's not OK to be who they are, that they should not exist. Out of the pain of the shame we have imposed about whiteness has come a new generation of white supremacists. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

That's what they want us to think.

But it's a tactic. I know. I've used a very similar one myself. Not that I'm proud of it.

First, here is why I don't believe people are genuinely feeling shamed for being white. (For one thing, these people's whole demeanor shows it, but that's another story.) I'm a fiction writer. Human nature is my whole study, the instincts and desires and responses of human beings. We lie to ourselves about human nature a lot. We lie to ourselves about the role of pride.

I'm afraid nobody is ashamed of being on top.

Which is worse--to know that your ancestors were respected by their society and committed great wrongs, or to know that your ancestors were put in chains and forced against their will their entire lives, forced to swallow their pride and their rage if they wanted to live? Which is worse, to be told that your inheritance was not acquired justly, or to inherit a culture and a literature written by people who simply assume you are a lower species of human being?

Throughout history, tribes and nations have made war. Throughout history, it has been the conquered, not the conquerors, who were ashamed. We say we love justice, we say we love the good and the right and the true. But our first love is power and always has been. That is human nature ever since the Fall.

I know that my ancestors, or at least their relatives, participated in the system of slavery, in the great wrongs of their time that have done so much evil. Does it keep me up at night?

I'm afraid not.

I know what shame is. It's a burning behind your breastbone. It's a restless pain, never gone, driving you, burning you till you can run to someone who will put it out--someone who will tell you it's not true. I remember when I felt it. I felt it when books I read, pastors I heard, people I met, told me I was a lesser species of human being and should not be allowed power. Because I was a woman.

(I am not trying to say that all who hold to non-egalitarian views of gender are saying this exact thing. But you know, old books are still around, or quoted. I knew Augustine believed women are not made in the image of God. Which was going to affect my feelings more--that, or the polite hedgings of the complementarians?)

(I believe now that Jesus calls us to renounce power. But the difference between renouncing it and having it taken from you is night and day.)

That is why I don't believe these people are, or have ever been, ashamed of being white. They may be ashamed of other things in their lives. They may feel forced into disrespected roles as low-wage workers, they may feel looked down on by cultural elites or simply by the people in their lives. So they seek a different source of pride. No-one has ever been ashamed of whiteness in this country. But many have been proud of it, actively proud of the color of their skin. These people are looking to restore that time.

And they're using this tactic to get it out there, to give it appeal--this heroic defensive posture, loud and dramatic: NO! YOU WILL NOT ABUSE US ANYMORE! It's an effective one. I've seen it in other places: respond dramatically, emotionally, to a thing that has not been said--and every listener will assume that it was said. Even, sometimes, the speaker himself--the one who didn't say it.

I remember once when someone came to visit me, for the stated purpose of discussing a certain volunteer job I was doing. I knew they were coming to criticize me. I knew that while I put great effort into it and did it well, my work didn't suit their notions and they were coming to tell me how to do it better. I was angry, but I didn't want a fight. I wanted the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. I picked my tactic: I would go into the meeting actively, energetically responding as if (though I knew it wasn't true) they had come to offer actual help with the work. I would thank them for their kind offer, ask how much experience they had, explain my approach, ask what role they were interested in--I would interview them. Nothing would, of course, come of this. But at least the interaction would not become irritating enough to me that I'd be tempted to say things I should not.

In a word--it went great.

Like I said, I'm not proud of this particular interaction. (Or am I? I told you all about it, didn't I? Oh, human nature.) But it works. It works well. Break the logic of the conversation, make your response a rushing torrent going in the direction you want the dialogue to go, and people are wrong-footed, they find it very hard to go back to their original intent. Or taking the tactic to an extreme, as the white supremacists do--shout in the street at some poor unsuspecting friend or stranger to stop insulting, abusing, or hitting you, and who will believe whatever they say in their defense?

Why am I writing about this again? I know you all aren't going to fall for this kind of thing--not from these people. I guess I just couldn't get it off my brain.

But just in case anyone shows up who might think these people have a point, here is the thing.

It's okay to be white. No-one ever doubted it. It's okay to be black. It's okay to be Hmong, it's okay to be Inuit, it's okay to be Italian, it's okay to be Rukuba. (Rukuba? That's the Nigerian tribe a friend is from.) It's okay to be half black, a quarter white and a quarter Native American. All cultures are precious and worth preserving. You are precious and worth preserving.

But if you are telling other people that they are lesser human beings (which this guy was, in so many words, I visited his site)--if you are doing that, don't go taking a defensive posture, don't cry oppression, don't yell in the street or on the internet that you are the one being shamed.

We won't believe you. Because it isn't true.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The harvest is over, the summer is gone

I just got the official title for my book yesterday. I'd been calling it A Flame in the Night; the publisher decided to go with just Flame in the Night. It'll also have a subtitle, which they say is important now for making it more findable in internet searches: A Novel of Resistance in Vichy France.

I also have a release date--well, not a date but a season: Fall 2018.

It's awhile (thankfully, because there's still plenty of work to do to make the book perfect) but I'm already excited...

I had a whole complicated post planned for today, but I don't have time to write it, because the weather finally remembered it's almost the end of October and we're finally getting frost. Followed (allegedly) by an actual hard freeze tonight, so it's time to get everything in. I spent Thursday morning gathering my squash and digging most of my sweet potatoes, and yesterday afternoon pulling turnips, digging carrots, and picking my little handful of late-planted pumpkins, still mottled green and orange, in hopes they'll ripen up further inside.

The soil is moist and soft and cold, and clings to the roots as they come out. In the woods in the distance you can hear the chattering of a couple hundred migrating grackles. This has been my favorite time of year since I started farming--especially in the two or three years I ran the CSA section of our now defunct communal farm. The last couple weeks of the CSA, packing boxes filled with squash and potatoes and onions and garlic, hearing those birds chatter with hundreds of voices in the bright woods. They'd fly up in black clouds from one section of woods to another. I'd watch them, relishing the nip of cold air after pouring so much sweat all summer into the land, relishing down to my toes the sensation of slowing down, the anticipation of a warm fireside and immobility. Sweet, sweet immobility.

We used to work so hard, you guys.

I remember the first year I did that job. It was a year of upheaval, the farm manager quitting before the season was half done; I had to take over the CSA garden in mid-season as well. The CSA shares had been paid already. My job was to make sure we didn't have to refund the money. I was theoretically a half-time worker. I remember working eleven hours one day. I worked till my vision was blurry, till I was literally stumbling with weariness. It's hard to explain that sheer bodily exhaustion, in a world where work is mostly made of mental labor and coffee and stress. Which I know is hard too. But that draining of your body, it's different, because you can reach a point (and I routinely did, that year) when there is literally nothing left. You can't do anything more.

I mean maybe if a bear came out of the woods. Maybe then.

And I used to get through it by dreaming about fall. The last CSA share, the first big freeze, were my continual daydream. Something about that combination: abundance and rest. I used to sing the hymn to myself all through September: "All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin..." That was the key, safely gathered. Everything neatly in the fridge, in the root cellar, in the pantry--then you could relax. It wasn't a tidy process. The weather people would announce a freeze and we'd scramble--the potatoes aren't all dug, quick, the squash are still in bins outside the barn and also we need to empty the hoses so the freeze doesn't burst them--we'd scramble, check the temperatures, make our calculations whether we had time to get things up to a heated building, or whether the temperatures meant our produce would be all right if we just shut the doors of the barn. Once during a scramble--a really hard freeze was coming, I guess--I carried fifty pounds of garlic up our steep woods trail, in two very inconveniently sized bags. Which kept slipping. I weighed them when I got to the top; I wanted to at least have some bragging rights to show for that. I don't remember why I couldn't use the truck.

There was something about it, though. The years I worked so hard, by fall I felt this sensation of power in my body, even alongside the tiredness; going up the trail carrying nothing was so easy as to be a pleasure, feeling that extra energy coursing through your veins. Like a runner's high or something. And the weariness lent such a sweetness to the anticipation of being able to stop, to rest. Even thinking about it was lovely. How could simply not moving possibly seem so sweet? The way a warm and lighted house seems sweet from outside in the cold and the dark. You take it for granted, when you've been inside it for hours and hours. Not so much, out on the road.

What was I working for, pouring my sweat into the land for, those years? I was working to save the farm. I knew I had done my part, a distinctly measurable part, to save the farm that year. I was proud of that. I also knew the saving was temporary: we don't go under this year. But it seemed hopeful. The new farm manager was making good changes, sensible ones--and he was a guy you could work with, too. It makes a difference. But what can you do in a system completely stacked against the small farmer--what can you do when Mother Nature decides to get in a few licks as well? Disease reduced the yield of the strawberries. The bitter, bitter cold winter my son was born half-killed the blueberry bushes. The raspberry canes started dying the year after that, from a combination of an aggressive fruit fly and disease. There's a verse from Isaiah that I learned from our farm, that I never would have understood without it: The harvest is over, the summer is gone, and we are not saved.

What was I working for? I'm not even sure. The farm went under. Almost everyone is gone. But the land is still here. The garden I tilled for the CSA, I still grow food in it, for anyone who can use it. The soil is moist and soft and cold, and clings to the roots as I pull them out of the ground. Big lumpy sweet potatoes, flattened and bulging in odd places, like flexed muscles, out of that soil I've come to love. Because I do love it. Having your hands in it till they're drawn to it, rootlike, pouring your sweat into it day after day, will do that. I know that soil. It's my friend.

It could be that I worked for. I'm not sure.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Nets

When he called us, we had just spent two days repairing our nets.

Not storm days, either; we had just spent two good fishing days sitting on the shore tying knots. We had to. Our last net had torn the day before, the big one; we'd been trying to make it through on that one till the next chance to make repairs, and then it caught on a rock deep under the lake and tore a long gash all through it. Simon claimed we'd caught some strange creature that had thrashed its way loose through our net; I told him we were lucky that rock hadn't been any higher, and he'd better remember the place so we could avoid it from now on. We had plenty of time to argue on it, sitting there tying hundreds of little knots, watching Zebedee and his sons out there on the water hauling up gleaming loads of fish.

And I have to say Simon never stopped tying, even to gesture about that creature of his, though anyone who's met him knows Simon scarcely has the patience for a job like that. But he'll do what he has to do. And if there's one thing a fisherman has to do, it's care for his boat and his nets. A fisherman's roof can leak, his door can hang broken for months, but his nets and his boat, they're his life. He depends on those to fill the bellies under that roof.

So as I say, we were fishing that evening with our new-mended nets; an early start, out on the water as soon as the sky'd grown dark enough so you couldn't see a shadow. Fish'll flee from the shadow of a boat, and we couldn't afford to go without a catch after two days mending. We had just found a good place and were laying out our biggest net, spreading it through the water in as wide a circle as we could get with just the two of us. It's delicate work; you can't let the net fold down over itself, or it'll tangle instead of spreading, and the fish will flee while you haul the thing out to start again. We were almost done, and a neat job too, when Simon turns and looks at the shore.

“Simon!” I say. “Look to what you're doing!”

“It's him,” he says. “Over there.”

Him? I glanced over. And it was him, and my hand lost all sense of how the net was meant to go, and Simon dropped his end, and the net folded instantly and tangled. Because it was the man himself, Jesus, out on the shore in the dusk light, and his hands were cupped around his mouth, calling, and it was plainer every second he was calling to us.

I hadn't even been certain we'd see him again. John the Baptizer had pointed to him and told us he was the Messiah, and we'd thought the time was at hand, and then he'd left and gone home to Galilee and John had been killed for a stupid king's pride. So Simon and I had gone home to Galilee too, because what else do you do when things fall apart? We came home and found our nets still there where we'd stored them. When nets fall apart, you can mend them with your own two hands.

Simon turned the sail and tacked into the wind, trying to get near enough to hear what the man—the Messiah!—was saying. He was making broad gestures now, beckoning us in. I pulled on the net, trying to set right the tangle, but the sudden turn made it worse. It was in such a snarl now it was all I could hope to haul it up without another tear. I could see another hour wasted, sitting on the shore untangling the thing. I got most of it in the boat, till something snagged down near the waterline; then I turned again to the shore, where the wind was carrying Jesus' words to us over the water.

“Come with me!”

With him? I looked at Simon, who didn't look back at me, his hand on the tiller and his gaze locked on the man. Did he really mean come with him—not just—
“Come with me, and I will make you fishers of people!”

He did mean come with him. Him. Us to be disciples of the Messiah? Fishing for people. To bring people in to follow him, did he mean—the Messiah—
Simon didn't take his eyes off him, but me, I looked back at the nets. This wasn't like going off to the Jordan for a time to be baptized and hear what John had to teach. If the Messiah wanted us—the Messiah!—well, then we'd mended our nets for nothing, that's what.

The boat beached in a crunch of sand and slap of waves, and Simon jumped out into the shallow water and began to run up the sand. I gave another tug on the nets, my eyes picking out the mended places, all those knots we'd tied. The end of the net still trailed in the water, and I couldn't bring it up over the side. What was going to happen to our boat? Who would take it—would they care for it? Would they scrape the hull over rocks and fail to mend it? What would we live on without our nets to pull fish from the lake? We had no other skill. Only fishing.

And fishing for people—perhaps we had that skill. He seemed to think so. He himself!

“Should we come with you now, Teacher?” Simon was saying. “Where are you staying? What are you doing?”

“Yes, come with me. I am going round Galilee preaching the good news. The kingdom of God is among us now.”

The kingdom of God. The Messiah wanted us, to join him, to fish people into the kingdom of God. If his kingdom was among us, God must have these things in hand. What are you so afraid of, Andrew? Do you still think it will all fall apart? So many things do, in this world. For a moment I thought of God's hands tying knots. Hundreds of knots.

Millions of knots.

I left the end of the net trailing in the water, and jumped out of the boat.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A different kind of hard

So I was talking on the phone with a dear friend the other day, and I found myself saying this: "When you're doing the work you're called to do, it is hard--very hard sometimes--but it's a different kind of hard."

It made sense in the context of what we were discussing--work that's driven by guilt, or the guilt of not doing it, work that crushes rather than fulfills. But afterward I kept thinking about it. What did I really mean? How could I explain it better?

See... I'm lucky. I get to do the work I choose to do. Due to some choices I'll discuss sometime, I live an extremely quiet life where I stay on the same land basically all the time because I can't afford a car. In the same bargain (so to speak, and leaving out a lot) I also received three or four quiet hours a day in which to write. I think I got the good end of the deal. But I didn't realize just how true that was till halfway through writing this book.

It's a long story. Maybe I'll tell it to you sometime. But in writing this book I found my calling. Found that I'd been writing, not because it was my skill, but because I was supposed to. It came out of nowhere. It was... really hard to explain.

But here's the thing. It was hard. Very hard. When I entered the phase of the book where I was truly doing my real work, here was my routine: Sit at computer playing digital Mahjongg, trying to force myself to get up and go to my writing room. (A small bare room in the empty apartment next door. While our friends still lived in the upstairs part, I got my husband to sabotage my computer's connection with their wireless. No internet.) Go over to my writing room, berating myself for not going sooner. Sit down at the desk, open my laptop.

Stare at the screen for twenty minutes, scared to death.

Start writing.

The writing wrung me out, mentally and physically, exhausted me. I felt the story in my body, my characters' tension and fear, the hard spiritual work of making choices that they could never step back from, choices in the dark. It was like wrestling. In my mind I stopped calling the little bare cave my writing room. I called it my battle room.

If I was saying it now, after thinking about it, I would add this: it's a different kind of hard. Like battle, or surviving in the wilderness. Not hard like being abused. It's completely different. Work you're not called to, done out of guilt, can crush you. Beat you down with your inadequacy, your failure to ever measure up. Because how can you measure up, when it's not your work?

(I mean, when we're failing to do our true work, when we're procrastinating past the point of shame, when we've let that beat us, we can feel like that sometimes. But when we're doing it--never.)

I think of the descriptions of wilderness survival in Hatchet and its sequels. You're very rarely comfortable. (Mosquitoes. Everywhere.) You have to put your whole strength, your whole mind, into what you're doing. There's hard work and discomfort and pain and fear and sudden danger. There are continual small joys, the deep, ever-fresh pleasure of food for real hunger. There are also breathtaking, transcendent moments of beauty and awe that you wouldn't trade for anything. And you can't decide when those moments will come--you have absolutely no control. They are given you--by a hushed lake under the stars, by a sunrise, even by a wild animal leading you on your path. They come from outside--from God.

And the whole time, in the good moments and the bad, you are alive.

It's like that.

There's something else it's not like, too. I've been listening to the Story Grid podcast recently, and Tim Grahl, who's starting a nonfiction book on how not to let procrastination and shame overcome you in creative work, describes a terrible moment in his life. It was the moment when he had gained everything he'd been working toward. He'd struck out on his own as a writer and book marketer, he'd built his business, he'd marketed a book into bestsellerdom, he had made it.

And it turned out he was completely miserable.

Now I've already made this pretty long, so I'll cut to the chase here. Doing the work you're called to do is also not like being on drugs.

"Success" is a drug. And what I mean by that is fame is a drug. I mean, I wouldn't know, but I can darned well guess. Because I know that even attention is a drug, at least in the form of "likes" and upvotes--anonymous attention, not flowing back and forth face-to-face, just a little signal in a vacuum that says you are now a little bit more worthy.

You get a "hit." It feels incredible. It fades.

You want another.

I read an article on Cracked.com (just so you know there's language & stuff) about stupid things we believe about rich people. The writer says money doesn't make rich people happy, which we all know and few of us believe. To make her point, she gives us a sentence about "Rich people never have to worry about money, they have so much money they don't have any real problems," etc, and suggests we replace the word "money" with "cocaine."

Because money, in that kind of quantity, is also a drug.

And what do drugs do? Weaken you. Destroy you.

I know it in myself. The mood in which I go to the internet looking for a hit is a terrible thing. I can well imagine why Tim Grahl wasn't happy. You work and you work towards success, and you think that you will make it and then you can bask. But you can't bask. The hit fades. And you feel miserable.

Human beings weren't made to bask.

I don't know everything about how, not having read the book he's just starting, but I gather Tim fought his way through from that bad place. One of the things he says he wants to tell everyone is that meaning and joy are found in the work itself. In the doing, in the struggle. And that's what I find too.

You're rarely comfortable. There's hard work and fear and failure and having to start all over again. And there are transcendent moments, unforgettable, unexplainable moments.

And in the good and the bad times, you are alive.

(But at least there aren't any mosquitoes.)

Makes me think of G.K. Chesterton's poem The Hunting of the Dragon, about how beautiful the world is in the midst of the struggle, and how it fades in our eyes when we've been too long at rest:

Beauty on beauty called us back
When we could rise and ride,
And a woman looked out of every window
As wonderful as a bride...

...For the hunting of the Dragon,
That is the life of a man.


There is no heaven on earth, no nirvana-like state of resting, unchanging bliss. There is only the struggle. But if we are blessed to be given the good struggle, in which the work itself is its reward, let's not flee it. It is the good. It's a gift to us, a gift of meaning. It is the kindness of God.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Being small and not despising

You know, I work pretty hard on blog posts. Some weeks. If I have the energy. Some weeks I'm just too worn out, so I post something previously-written, or just kind of run my mouth a little. Last week was one of those. I was really just running my mouth.

I'm... kind of surprised how many people felt it was something worth reading, and worth sharing.

I wonder--is it maybe that we all feel like we're making applesauce in a world falling apart?

That it's so awful, and we don't know what to do, what will make a difference, and pray and we send some money, and the crisis just keeps on going and maybe our money helped a little but it was only a little and the appeals keep rolling in and it's all still awful. And we don't know what to do but do the work that's put in front of us, we don't know what to do but make applesauce.

And we also feel somewhere deep down--in our hearts? in the earth beneath our feet?--that applesauce is worth something. That putting our roots down and holding on is worth something. That in spite of it all there's a future and we need to be ready to survive and to share.

Are any of those how you feel?

I don't really know what to say, again, today. I'm tired again. I've made a lot of applesauce and a fair amount of apple butter, and Paul and I between the two of us even managed to clean the kitchen floor afterward. (Ever boiled applesauce? It goes "Splat. Splat." and spits itself at you. And the floor. Protective gear is in order.) The world is still an awful mess. It doesn't clean up so easy.

My cat killed another chipmunk yesterday. I wish she'd stop. She doesn't eat them, doesn't even try. I love her, but she is quite frankly a clueless, overbred lap cat whose entire goal in life is to get people to pet her. She's beautiful and appealing, with big eyes and big paws and incredibly soft, long gray fur, and whoever bred her for these qualities managed to get rid of almost all the common sense. If I'm forced to walk anywhere in her company I'm sure I look ridiculous; I adopt this wide-set waddle, my boots swinging far around to each side, to avoid kicking her as she continually positions herself right in front of my feet no matter which way I turn. In hopes I'll pet her. Good luck, kitty. (The Boy & I call her Love Cat. She has a theme song.)

I saved the chipmunk. Not in the sense I would have liked--it was fully dead, limp and warm in my hand. No, I hesitate to admit this, but I saved it in the fridge.

Is it strange that I didn't want it to go to waste?

There are three barn cats in what we call the Valley, where the barns are and where the farm section of the communal land begins. They're two brothers and a sister, all ginger; their mother was a wiry little feral cat and a great hunter, but they grew up under someone's porch with food available, and they've had some trouble resigning themselves to barn cat status. (My cat came from under that porch herself--just showed up one day, no clues as to where she came from, rail-thin under her long fur, like a mangy gray lion. We were catless at the time and adopted her--the owners of the porch couldn't possibly handle one more cat, and the idea of her surviving on her own is just laughable.) They're healthy but on the thin side, always thinking about where their next meal will come from--and asking that exact question, quite loudly, to any humans they see. The Boy and I always wish, when we go down to the Valley, that we had brought something for them.

So I'll be bringing them something today.

I'm raising the Boy to believe you should never kill anything unless you have to. It just seemed the best thing. I don't like to see kids stepping on bugs just because they can, and he doesn't do that. Yet I still feel a little odd sometimes at how comfortable he actually seems with the idea of death and killing--he switches back and forth, now at almost four years old, between the point of view of the hunter and the hunted, between detachment and empathy. Sometimes even in the same game. But I couldn't teach him hunting was bad. Not when I was trying to teach him the animals in our woods here, half of whom live by it; not when he opened one of my National Geographics to a picture of an Amazon tribesman, wiry and smiling, his very long bow held loosely and alertly in his hand. "Where that man lives, there isn't any store," I told him. "They can't buy food. He knows how to hunt animals with his bow to get meat for his family." We played hunting for days. We pretended to make a little fire and cook the meat. He loved feeding his "family." I think he'll fully understand giving the chipmunk to the barn cats. I think he'll approve.

I even believe, to some extent, in never killing plants you don't have to. I know, it's nuts. But I have a notion, which I've never been able to carry out, that to truly respect the woods as God's creation, maybe you should never kill a tree you can't identify--even a sapling, even a seedling. What if it's something needed, something beautiful and rare? (Yesterday I had five actual living mature American chestnuts pointed out to me, standing around an isolated farmhouse. I wouldn't have known them.) I can't identify all the saplings. Maybe someday. I'm working on it. But at least I know enough to hold off a bit. When Paul and I moved here, we decided we wanted a redbud in the backyard. We almost pulled out the scrubby little sapling that was there instead, to make room. But we waited a year. And it bloomed.

It was a redbud.

When I weeded my inherited flowerbeds after arriving here, I was careful, knowing just how much I didn't know. I took out only weeds I recognized. Everything else I waited to see bloom. One odd dark-green vine--in my herb garden of all places, which I broke ground for myself--I left for years, simply because I'd never seen its like anywhere in the woods. Last year it bloomed. It was clematis, hundreds of little white star-flowers. I've seen the same one for sale at a nursery. This year I built it a trellis for it, and it brightened my garden, in the fall when all else began to fade.

I think it's worth something, being careful with things. A lot of the time I do it simply because I have to, because I live a small life with little money, but it's become a habit partly because I've found such nourishment in it. Waiting for the gift rather than taking it, it feels more like a gift. It's been that way more and more for me, as I've grown into this life.

It's about not despising things, I guess. It's about seeing the gift, even when the gift is small. It's about being okay with being small yourself, and not despising yourself for it. We have been taught for so long, in our culture, that we are either great or worthless.

It's a lie.

The chipmunk was not worthless. I respect it by not wasting its death. The small things that grow out of the earth are not worthless. I respect them by not uprooting without need. I am small, and give small gifts, and rejoice in small gifts, and am not worthless.

Same to you.