Friday, May 23, 2014

Pass the Spoon

I realized this week that sometimes all God is asking me to do is pass a spoon.  You know, like when you are making dinner and hoisting a heavy pot over a serving dish and pouring out the contents; you need a spoon to scrape out the pot but, inevitably, none are within reach.  Then, someone else walks into the kitchen.

"Can you grab me a spoon, please?"

"Sure, here you go."

(Nota Bene: If you ever read this kind of dialogue in fiction you need to close the book and seek out a better usage of your time.)

This is not a monumental request with a prerequisite self-sacrificing response.  Neither the spoon passer or the pass-ee would even think the exchange worth mentioning if asked what they did with their day.  It wouldn't be worth recording in your life annals.

May 23, 2014

Dear Diary,

Today I fetched a spoon for someone who needed it.  I know.  This stuff just keeps happening.  

Stay lovin',

P.S  Also, the next Christian who uses the phrase: 'do life together',--so help me--gets the aforementioned spoon up their nose.  

Literal spoon passing is a nothing in the grand scheme of the day, let alone the Grand Scheme of Things.  But the pot did need scraping out and the spoon needed to be passed.  Someone--anyone nearby could have done it.  But I get all caught up in myself and thinking that maybe God means for me to be this generation's Wilberforce, instead of the girl who moves stuff around when asked.  And, honestly, when you are the one holding that heavy dutch oven aloft, you just want someone to step in and lend you the help you are looking for.

The great thing is that after I've passed that spoon to the person who needed it, I have no bearing upon the outcome of the utensil's usage.  I passed the spoon.  What the person scraping out the pot does with it is their affair.  They know what they wanted it for--what the intended purpose was.  In fact, I might hand over the spoon expecting it to be used for scraping out the pot; only to see that the cook was looking to taste test their creation instead.  It really doesn't matter.  I am the spoon passer--not the cook.  I may get a 'thank you' for my assistance, but that is really all there is to it.  I did my job and moved on.  I left the outcome to the one in charge.

I think we get hung up on the idea of outcomes.   We go into this self-involved thinking that only results in misery for us.  If God is asking me to do something, it's probably critical and therefore of paramount importance that I make a success of it…'  This is only sort of true.  And by sort of, I mean that I think the focus is all wrong.  Yes.  If God is asking you to do something, it's important.  But, in my experience, it hasn't been for the reason that I envisioned ahead of time.  Sometimes I think He's just asking to see if I am listening and willing to be obedient to His request.  Turns out, God has bigger things going on than I can imagine.  So, instead of wasting my time feeling responsible for outcomes that God never intends--I think I'll just hand over the nearest spoon and move on.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Advice from the Fridge

At risk of being too inspired by the banal platitudes inscribed on fridge magnets and erroneously attributed to Oscar Wilde, I put forth the following statement:

“Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.”

An obvious assertion, or a profound one, depending on how long you think about it; sort of like the way that words go weird when repeated several times. 

We’ve all worn various masquerades in our lives.  Some costumes might have sufficed for an evening or maybe even a season while others have become such a comfortable second skin that is is almost indistinguishable from the real flesh beneath; the true self that has never seen the light of day.  No one starts out in life intending to stay hidden.   But like those heavily made up women who have become drag queen-like caricatures of their real femininity, we keep accenting the disguise instead of revealing the truth about ourselves.  The disguise grows coral-like, until the artifice is a ponderous mass; the result of a thousand concealing decisions made day in, day out, for decades.

We wear our personality disguises because we’re afraid of being seen--and yet, we cannot bear not to be seen--so we stage manage ourselves, trying to present just the right version of ME so that no one will have cause to reject us.  Maybe it is humour.  Maybe it is brains.  Maybe it is strength or stoicism.  Maybe it is selfishness or selflessness.  We wrap ourselves up in the banners that make us feel safe--ramparts that we can defend. 

This is a rampart.  I know.  The connection is flimsy.

If you’ve ever read any advice about the “craft” of Writing, you will quickly encounter the discussion of Voice.  All writers are urged to find their Voice but no one can tell you what yours looks or sounds like.  Voice is an ineffable quality and defies concrete explanation.  You can’t describe someone else’s voice with any real efficacy.   You can talk about pitch and timbre and rhythm and tone; but such things have to be heard to be heard.  It isn’t so much what is said but the way that it is said.  As a writer looking for professional development help, this is super irritating advice.  Sort of like Obi Wan telling Luke to use the Force when he just found out there was a Force ten minutes previous, not to mention there is now a little spinning droid shooting sparks at him.  

Voice is the indescribable quality that causes you to read on because there is just something about it.  Readers know when they’ve encountered it; although they might not articulate it as such.  Voice is the soul of the storyteller that lets you, as the reader, know who you can trust.  Sometimes you may not like the Voice.  You may disagree with the things that it says.  But you know when you’ve encountered a real Voice--instead of a masquerade--because the real is memorable and phony forgettable.

It sounds like finding it should be simple, but it isn’t.  It sounds simple because everyone has one.  It sounds simple because individuals can’t really help but be unique despite our best efforts to be the same.  It sounds simple, but it isn’t.  It isn’t simple because we’re all such good actors that we’re even able to fool ourselves about who we are and what our voices sound like.   We forget that we put on a costume to protect ourselves from criticism and rejection.  We buried our true voices--and, we probably did it fairly early in life.

Unmasking your voice in writing is a herculean challenge. It takes a lot of practice.  A lot of misfires.  A lot of words spilled onto endless pages that never seem to amount to anything worth reading over again.  It is only after a lot of time has passed and a lot of words pass through your fingers that you start to recognize Your Voice.  It pops up like a yellow thread running through a tapestry and you probably hated the sight of it at first.  Like it was a bubble of rust appearing unwelcome under the paint of your car. “That shouldn’t be there,” you think.  “That doesn’t look anything like Dorothy Parker or Pat Conroy or Jane Austen,” or whatever other heroic Voice you’ve been aping in your writing.  “I don’t like the sound of that,” you think to yourself.  I don’t like the sound of that because it feels … unnerving; too close to something that might be painful.  Besides, I know that everyone likes Jane Austen.  Writing like Jane Austen probably won’t cost me anything (although, I guarantee you, it cost her everything.)

Why else would every writer be tempted to write their own version of Pride and Prejudice, even adding zombies or murders in order to justify having their name included on the book jacket? We want to wrap ourselves in the mantle of someone else. Someone wiser.  Someone stronger.  Someone better.  A voice we value.  The problem remains, though.   The imitation is only ever a covering--a wrapper--that hides and protects the substance within.  It’s always cut too small though, and the words spoken in our own voices show up like feet sticking out from underneath a blanket.  Feet that must be amputated--erased-- in order to keep up the act of mimicry.  But mimicry has only ever been a cute parlor trick. It’s entertaining to see someone do an impression of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, but mostly because it allows you to pretend for a moment that you are in the presence of a fascinating person you don’t know.  It is only an ephemeral impression of their voice.  But the mimic can’t tell you who De Niro or Pacino really are or what they think about things.  It’s only a magician’s illusion.

One of my favourite novels is Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone With The Wind.  I have read it several times, but I remember my initial vexation at the lack of certainty at the end over Rhett and Scarlett’s future.  Did he really not give a damn anymore? Or, was that just his wounds talking?  Would Scarlett’s formidable will be able to win him back, just as she had clawed her way back from utter destitution?  Was it actually too late?  Margaret Mitchell never tells.

I’m not the only one who wonders about what happened to the Butlers, because in 1991 Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley was published to harsh criticism and great sales.  It isn’t the only ‘sequel’ out there, either.  If you’ve ever had the misfortune to pick up fan fiction, you know that it is an unappetizing substitute for the real thing.  While Ripley may have imagined Scarlett and Rhett and Mammy and Ashley in great detail, she was not their creator.  She can’t know what Mitchell knew.  Everyone else in the world can only play pretend with characters named Rhett and Scarlett.  Only Margaret Mitchell can make them live. Even the greatest mimic can never produce anything more than an imitation of the real thing.  Painting like Da Vinci, doesn’t make you Da Vinci.

So--given all this--why do we think that it is okay to hide ourselves, to ape others while denying our own Voice that runs a stubborn yellow thread through our portion of this tapestried world?   Why dye the yellow thread red or blue or black when yellow is what is required?  What good is someone else’s voice? If someone else could do it or say it better, God would have likely sent someone else instead.  Your voice is important.  Your true Voice, that is. Your authentic self.  A masquerade just won’t do.

But unmasking is stomach churning stuff.  You feel exposed.  Vulnerable. Open to criticism without defense because there you are, on display for all to see.  But I think the reward is greater than the cost of unmasking. While criticism may be leveled at you, not at the disguise, praise will be real.  That will be genuine.  That is worth something mighty.  

I realized not too long ago that if I what I wrote didn’t frighten me at least a little bit--make me feel exposed in some way--then it probably wasn’t worth too much because didn’t cost me anything.  It was just opinions without any heart.  It was just the noise of my brain without the value of me.  And, if there isn’t anything of me on the page--then what, really, is the point of writing at all?  When we receive something phony from someone, we, like Holden Caulfield, resent it. “I was surrounded by phonies--they were coming in the windows…”  We’re starving for real connections; for eye contact and soul contact.  No one hungers for the PR managed highlight reel of social media. We just don’t know how else to be; how else to connect.  We keep gilding the lily of our disguise instead of taking the risk of making the small, but monumental choices to be our real selves day in and day out.  

You were created with a purpose.  The Bible says so.   You were created to speak into this time and place.  The World needs your voice.  Besides, I understand that everyone else’s is already taken.

Friday, May 2, 2014

"Who told you that you were naked?"

Who told you that you were naked?
Who told you that you were exposed?

Who told you what shame is?

Who told you that you were naked?

“I --

I did--

I did.”

Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?

“I --
I did.

I didn’t know what I was doing; 
though I thought that I did.”

Who told you that you were naked?

The answer is always the same.

"I did."

I used to think that the answer was the serpent.  He was the deceiver.  He was the one that set up Eve and Adam to fall like dominoes with just the right push. But it wasn’t him, though I am sure he was pleased with the result.  He knew he was making a mess.  He was crafty.  But he probably couldn’t anticipate all the outcomes of Mankind’s eyes being opened.  No one else seems to know our weaknesses like we do. The serpent wasn’t the one that told them that they were naked.  It was the knowledge of Good and of Evil.  It was Adam. It was Eve.  They grasped it.  Their eyes were opened.

They knew.

And shame was born--

And fear.

"You won’t die.  You’ll be like God."

Not a lie exactly, but certainly not the whole truth.  A partial truth that implies a lie.  Implies that you can’t trust that God who walks with you every day.  That He’s keeping something good from you.  Knowledge.  The ability to distinguish between Good and Evil.  Wisdom--after all--shouldn’t we all be seeking it?

"You’ll be like God." 

Like God.  

Equal with God.  

The serpent’s own grasping--his downfall-- became our own.  Because misery loves company, maybe.  Because evil defies containment.  Because destroying someone else’s creation is the outcome of jealousy; sparked by a desire to wound.

The Knowledge of Good and of Evil opens eyes and kills innocence.  It revealed who they were in relation to God.  How small.  How exposed. How wrongful their disobedience.   Fear and shame and horror came flooding into their consciousness like a tidal wave and instead of being able to enjoy fellowship with God as they had in their innocence, the urge to hide overwhelmed them.  Their ease and confidence in their relationship with God and one with another had been childlike and free of confusion and doubt.  Now everything was different and it could never go back to the way it had been.  


This tree is innocent.

Why did God put the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden at all?  Is He some horrible cosmic tease?  It wasn’t even hidden away as some gnarled old tree that produced anemic-looking, unappealing fruit.  It was in the middle of the Garden.  It was pleasing to the eye and good for eating.  Why do that?  Or at the very least, why not explain a little further? 

“Listen up, newly created ones, I know this looks good to eat, but seriously, this is poison for you.  You are made in the image of Me.  You aren’t actually able to be Me.  You can’t handle the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  ‘You can’t handle the truth!’  And when I say, ‘when you eat of it, you will die’; I’m talking about more than just your physical life.  I’m talking about a loss of innocence which can never be recovered.  I’m talking about a whole lot of truth you aren’t able to comprehend...”  

Maybe it was because they couldn’t understand the explanation. They just needed to trust.  

It is tempting to blame everyone else for the way that things don’t go our way.  Or when we are awash with the fear of our own blame.

It is other people. “This woman you put here with me…”

It is the devil. “The serpent deceived me…”

It is God.  “Why did you put the Tree in the Garden in the first place?” 

When I was a kid, my mom told me about this creepy dream that she had about bad guys in the house and she only had seconds to get all of us out.  But my siblings and I kept arguing with her and asking why she was telling us to do the things that she told us to do and we wasted the precious moments when we could have escaped unharmed.  Now, if this wasn’t a real dream, my mom has a genius for manipulation that might be unparalleled in the annals of motherhood, because I certainly learned the lesson she was teaching on the importance of unquestioning obedience to trusted authorities.  She freaked me the hell out because I could believe it.  I could believe that I would disobey, that I would argue; that I could endanger everyone.

I think God put the tree in the Garden because He values freedom.  Obedience means little if there is no choice.  Love means little if there is no choice.  The intangibles that we value highly mean nothing if they don’t cost something.  God, who can do anything, binds Himself by the promises He makes.  He has given us the same freedom.  The freedom to choose or reject. Marriage vows place limits on freedom in exchange for something greater.  He gave us the freedom to obey His trustworthy authority or to rebel.  

He knew what was going to happen.  

He knew what we were going to cost Him.  

He did it, anyway.  

How do I hate thee, Hair Salons? Let me count the ways.

(I published a previous version of this article earlier this week in which I tried to be measured and composed. Turns out, it did not nearly...