Friday, June 30, 2006

Talking About Their Generation

I’m reading Marjorie Corbman’s A Tiny Step Away From Deepest Faith (Paraclete Press, 2005). Marjorie was 17 when she wrote the book (she’s now about 18). She speaks eloquently of her own spiritual journey and reflects on the longings of her generation. “We aren’t happy,” she says. “We take Zoloft and cut open our flesh and do anything to assure us that we’re here, that we feel, that our experience is valid and tangible. There’ something sick in a culture where prosperity is chased by suicide. We’re bored and lonely and we don’t care about anything anymore, while we still worship everything. Our emotions are not silly and they are not immature. On the contrary, they are surprisingly mature, and though not all of us have the eloquence to describe the depth of our feelings, nevertheless we feel strongly and in pure concentrations. The problem is not, as has been posited, that we are shallow, but that we cannot be shallow, that our inner experience is too strong to deny; too loud and too demanding.”

Many I’ve talked to who have read the book have a hard time believing it was actually written by a teen. I’m sure Marjorie has been hearing this a lot from readers. She is remarkably well-read. She is able to “hit the nail on the head,” approaching her questions without the superficiality I so often hear in media and in movements. Her depth comes, I think, from a willingness to stand alone, to disagree, to find what is really true for her, not just what is “supposed” to be true.

And like me, she ended up in the Orthodox Church. She wound up there through a route that is at once completely different from my own and achingly similar – a desire to dispense with the superficial and with posing and to immerse myself in the real and authentic.

But I wanted to talk about teenagers. I’ve got three now, my third child having just become 13. I’ve named my daughter Jane for this blog. She’s 18. My 16-year-old son could be Maverick. (Sometimes I’m filled with pain when I think of him – yet he’s so amazing, compassionate, kind and brilliant. He’s choosing a path that would not be my path for him. Really, he’s only trying to figure out who he is, and what his place is in the world.)

My youngest teen I’ll call Taran. He always strikes me as a visionary, mulling things over, drawing about them. He used to mumble all the time, but now he’s beginning to speak out, to talk back to me even. I call him on it, but I also like it.

My 9-year-old I’ll name later. He’s got his own personality and story, but today I’m talking about the teens.

Jane is with me today as we’re in Canada on a trip. She’s waiting patiently for me to finish so we can go shopping. (We went shopping yesterday and I concluded that I don’t need new clothes; I need a new body.)

The problem is that a teen is at a crossroads where he or she must separate from his parents. It makes me wish I was more shallow so that my teens could separate from that.

Now that I’ve written that, I see a bit of what’s wrong here: I think I’ve arrived. I think I’ve reached the pinnacle of spiritual understanding and that if my teens would simply follow what I’ve learned, they’d be all right for the rest of their lives. I’m afraid that if my teens do not simply listen to what I say and do it, they’ll wind up with a superficial understanding of the world. I’m afraid they’ll reject searching for meaning because it’s what I’m doing all the time. And they want to be less like me, not more.

Somehow I haven’t got it quite right here and I think it has something to do with trust. But sitting here with my daughter waiting for some actual time with me, I think I need to just go shopping and talk about the shampoo we just bought and the new skirt and the shoes. There’s something there that I am missing.

More later.

Friday, June 09, 2006


Yesterday I finally put together a gi-normous 2006-7 “Preview Mailing” for author visits. I’d put it off as long as I could. I must say I’m rather pleased with it: it’s got a bookmark with “teacher” poems on either side, a cover letter, a list of workshops, a flyer about my summer classes for teens, a flyer about free book talks and a return postcard. It’s spiffy. At the moment I am having printer problems, so I’m going to reflect on a conversation with Mom this AM.

Mom: Not to give you advice, dear, but couldn’t you get into trouble trying to sell your books in the schools?

Me (with great patience): No, actually, that’s the way it’s done. Authors take their books into schools and sell them. It’s not much different from the Scholastic book order.

Mom (persisting, kindergarten-teacher style): But what if the children can’t afford the book? Won’t they feel bad?

Me (still patient): Yes, probably.

Mom (moving in for the kill): I’ve always thought this book should be donated to some cause.

Me (what can I say? How could I argue with that?): Yes, I think that’s true.

I fought valiantly my tendency to pat her on the head. The fact is she hits on my core dilemma and that of most female artists: selling art feels like selling out. And, as Mom pointed out, what if the little children feel bad?

And the answer is, yes. They will feel bad. I will feel bad. I should never, ever sell something that was intended to bring peace and love to the world.

But the fact is my book went out of print a few months back. I have 1600 of them sitting in a storage unit, which represents a chunk of Lancelot’s retirement money (yes, authors pay for their own books). If I don’t sell them, I will have to do something else to contribute financially to this family.

But instead of being defensive, I feel like Mom provided me with an opportunity. I’ve donated books before, but I’ve always wanted to donate some of the proceeds to some organization. And when I find it, that could be the very thing that gets me up off the couch and into the schools again with this book. It is unmotivating just to do this for myself. It’s fun to do once I’m out there, and I feel like things are happening in the hearts of the kids – and in mine. But gearing up to do it is always an act of steely resolve because, bottom line, it feels selfish. It feels like “Look at me! I write books!”

I once admitted this to Frederica Mathewes-Green and this was her response:

The problem I think is that there is a huge sticky ego squatting in the
middle of all this. It makes you excited and ineffective and confused. The thrill of possibility, of ego-stoking, elates you so that you lose touch with the simple ditch-digging work that needs to be done. This is of the evil one. It's an important distinction. The gift is from God, and meant to draw praise and glory to Him. The evil one throws sand in your eyes to elate and confuse you, and ultimately cause your work to be impaired, less effective than it could be in drawing others to Christ.

That's the part to overcome. Not just a matter of "growing up" but of true struggle, to wrestle with and defeat a temptation, a dazzling lifelong temptation that you have caressed since childhood, the vision of yourself as a star.

But we are meant to be the "fragrance of Christ" in every place.

When you are near, people will start thinking of the goodness of God and desiring him, and they might not notice you at all. But because you were there, their hearts will turn toward the light like a sunflower. "Did you smell that fragrance? Where did that come from?" "I don't know, but it was wonderful." That will be Him, and He will be there because you carried Him into the room.

There's an old story that goes: in London in the 19th century there were two great preachers. On Sunday mornings, as you went by the church of one of them, you would see people on the steps saying "What a wonderful preacher." If you went by the other, they would be saying, "What a wonderful God."

God bless you, dear sister. This is the "die to self" part and it is hard. On the other side, you will accomplish great things, because he has planted great talent in you.

I was secretly irritated at the time. That part about “caressing the vision of myself as a star.” Ouch! It was true, true, true. I’d wanted her to say… I don’t know what, but not that. But now, a few years later, looking back at her words I find tremendous comfort. I love the idea of being the “fragrance of Christ.” In fact, if I could just keep my nose on that, I’d quit getting distracted by all this other stuff and just do the work I need to do day after day.

And I’m going to begin looking for that cause. It will need to be a group doing work in the area of peace and especially racial reconciliation. Let’s see what happens.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


I’ve been spinning for the last couple of weeks. Spinning round the region, spinning my wheels, spinning tales. Spinning. And it makes my head spin as well. So many little bits of things to do – French class, editing, novel-writing class, kids – and I’m distracted, every time, by the written word. Or by words in general.

Now I need to edit, but I’ve been chatting in an online forum about Troubling Things. Troubling Things are convincing me that I am in a crisis and can’t work.

I tried to finish my chapter at Starbucks yesterday. I really did. But Starbucks is loaded with people: a friend walked in and we began a conversation. After she left, a teenage girl who knew me as her brother’s writing teacher asked for a ride home. She seemed sad. I asked if she wrote, too, and she said yes, that she writes poems and stories and things about “life.” It helps her figure things out. Me, too, I told her. It’s why I write, too. To figure things out. Even Troubling Things, though I can’t write about them. I write fiction instead and probably come at it slant.

I invited her to the poetry reading. Don’t know if she’ll come. And all I could think of was, how can I reach more teenagers? The only thing I have to offer them is their own, beautiful souls – and hope. I want to give them hope. But there’s only so much of me and I’ve got four children of my own who need me and who I mother spottily, either lavishing them with attention or, more often, being off in my word cloud. So maybe I need to reach fewer teenagers and just mother better.

We went to the library and I tried to write there, really I did. But (as my daughter once pointed out to me when she was small and I wanted her to sit at the library window and watch for her father), “the library is full of books!” So I didn’t write there, either, but pulled the volumes off the shelves, thumbed them, checked a few out.

The teenage girl got another ride home and I went into a room and tried to write, but all I could think was that I wanted to write in a glass-enclosed gazebo in the woods. And where would I find a glass-enclosed gazebo? (Glass to protect from wind, and to keep bugs away.)

Finally, I went home. I skipped critique group and I took my computer and a deck chair out into the woods, using the chair as a kind of shield to push through thimbleberry vines and downed maple branches. I sat in the woods for an hour or two. The birds were noisy. Things smelled good. The mosquitoes bit me. I fingered the thimbleberry leaves and ate a thimbleberry. I finished my chapter!!

Now I want to live in the woods. I mean, I do live in the woods, but I want to live in the woods – like a redwing blackbird or a raccoon – only with opposable thumbs.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jesus Obsession

I taught French today and once again we degenerated into theology. I let the girls derail me because I'd actually rather talk about God than conjugate verbs and they know it. (I also rather enjoy conjugating verbs). Morgaine wants to know why her next door neighbor believed Morgaine would burn for all eternity if she didn't believe Jesus was divine. Sabrina says Jesus claimed to be God and rose from the dead. And that you have to accept Him to be saved. She says it cheerily and with great certainty. My daughter, Jane, (have I given her a name before now?) tries to change the subject by talking about vampires.

And I ask them, What is 'divine,' what is 'saved,' what is 'God?' What do we mean? I think that evangelical Christian culture is hoping to bring people to wholeness by asking them to accept Jesus into their brains: to assent intellectually to a set of propositions about him with no context and no particular reason to desire connection with him.

Morgaine says she thinks Jesus was a "really great guy, very wise, a good teacher." And I think of how many youth group talks I used to hear telling me how to debunk the 'wise teacher' argument. But for Morgaine, all this is irrelevent. She did not grow up being told Bible stories (except by me, whenever she came to my house), does not have any particular emotional connection with Jesus. To her he is an historical figure. Why on earth would she decide that 1)there is a hell 2) she's going there if she can't figure out the proper Christian understanding of Jesus? That's absurd.

We've got to back way up, I tell them. We have to think what we mean when we say "God" and "soul" and "heaven." We've got to back up even further than that, because this is about our lives now -- how we treat one another, how we go about being good.
And then I think, but it's possible to just fall in love with Jesus, the man, by reading stories about him -- to just hear the stories and think, "I want that." So maybe it doesn't start with questioning the meaning of the word divine. Maybe Jesus could just trump all of that if we told the story.

I want to just talk and talk and talk about this stuff. That's how obsessed I am. The girls know it; my kids know it. And I'm trying to figure out why I'm so restless tonight. I tried to talk about this at the dinner table, but the kids kept interrupting. And I need to let them talk. It can't just be Mom and her Jesus obsession again. Could they ever long for this as much as I do? I can't make it important to them. And I'm afraid I wear them out with it.

Am I saying this just because being obsessed with Jesus somehow makes me a good person? Will I read this back to myself and say, 'Ah, how holy you are, Tess!'
Yes. That's what I'll do. I'll think that anyone that obsessed with Jesus is a really good sort. She's got her priorities in order, I'll think. She's focused. Jesus is undoubtedly pleased, too.

But I'm thinking I want to go out on a limb someday. I want to get out of my comfort zone and make my life mean something -- not by becoming a famous author, but by dying to myself. I haven't the foggiest notion how to do that. I think that if I could figure it out, I might be able to accept a future as a "famous author." Maybe it wouldn't seem so frightening then.

This isn't quite what I mean. It has something to do with going out into the world in an inescapable way and risking being publicly flawed. No, it doesn't. It's not about flawed it's about failed. If I just tried to feed the hungry each day -- physically, spiritually, emotionally -- maybe I'd begin to know.

I think I need to approach every word I write, every verb I conjugate, every kid I listen to as an offering to Christ. No, really! I've got to do that not thinking it's something monumental and I'll be able to tell this fabulous story about it later so that I can be a saint in my own mind. I hoard my moments and my words. I do not love. Not really. Or if I do, I love only me -- the idea of me as a great, romantic heroine poet, penning her words to the dying masses.

But if they really are dying, just as I am dying, don't we all need those words?

I'm editing a manuscript this evening by a man who lost his wife to cancer. I'm allowing myself to love this woman I never met and I am grieving his loss and it is changing me. The author had never written a book before; he doesn't know how. But he did it anyway and I'm charged with the task of taking his words and bringing them to greater clarity. And we all get changed because someone decided to take a risk, to write down his pain for others to be healed and supported.

Does it matter if I tell my students about Jesus? Yes, it matters so much, but not because I think they'll be punished eternally if I don't. I'm not just wanting them all to believe properly. The idea of the creative force, the origin of the Universe, incarnating as a human being, teaching, healing and struggling with and defeating death is like a poem. It's also a hard story to incorporate with day to day life for most people. Why would Morgaine even care?

She's curious, and I don't say that in a gleeful, anticipatory way. Her mom is a dear friend of mine and has serious issues with Christianity. I think Morgaine would feel disloyal if she took too great an interest in the Bible. I don't want to undermine my friend's parenting, but maybe that's not the issue. The issue is that I still can't articulate my love for Jesus in a way that it makes sense to anybody else. Do they long for Him? I just don't know.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sin and the Art of Cosmic Maintenance

My dad has mental illness – which is a sin.

I’m not at church this morning, so I think I’ll talk about sin. The Orthodox concept of sin is not juridical. It is not the breaking of a law. The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark,” an archery term. (I’ve probably talked about this before here.)

Dad was here this weekend. He looks terrible – so frail and bony, with a constant smoker’s cough. He seems even more unsteady on his feet than he was a month ago. He’s been sick with a cold he says he can’t shake. This, also, we could call sin.

My back aches this morning – a sin. My son wants my full attention while I am writing this and I’m not giving it to him – another sin. I have more things on my list to do than I can possibly do this week – more sin.

In Romans Paul says, “…for all sinned and are coming short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) In context, he’s talking about all people: Jews and non-Jews in his way of viewing the world. Paul goes on to say that “the creation itself shall be freed from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth together and travaileth together until now.” (Romans 8: 21-22) The idea is that we have lost Eden – that even the physical world has become subject to decay and death, which are not the original order of things.

So what am I trying to say? Perhaps it is that the entire model of sin that I’ve held for most of my life must be rebuilt. Perhaps sin is both inevitable and not inevitable.

Orthodoxy understands that we are capable of divinization – becoming like God. St. Athanasius said, “God became man so that man could become God.” That is returning to our original state in complete union with God.

At the same time, “falling short” of God is not just a matter of deliberate destructiveness – as I’ve always seen it before – but of things over which we seem to have no earthly control: illness, ageing, miscarriage, mental illness. These are challenges that are organic and which we have accepted as part of our creatureliness. We are called on to have patience with ourselves and others when we or they are subject to such things.

So what of deliberate destructiveness? Might it also be a form of mental illness? The man who killed all those teenagers at a rave in Seattle last week – surely he was not in his “right” mind. The mother who beats her child – surely her mind is not functioning the way it was designed to function. The friend who says something cutting or is “not there” when we needed comfort – if her mind had all the clarity of God, would things not be different? In fact, if she were not constrained also by the limits of time, would things not be different?

If we were not burdened by the weakness of our bodies, by time, by the fluctuations in our emotions, the polluted state of the planet, the machinations of dynasties, the limits of physical space, the fear of others’ cruelty – would we not be able to fully see one another, embrace one another and the cosmos, to truly and completely love?

And yet what we have here in this life is what we have. We’re born into a world that is not whole. A beautiful and holy world.

If sin is the “falling short” with which we are surrounded, then divinity is also that which surrounds and infuses us. This is the paradox: that our very struggle with the effects of fallenness is holy. And perhaps we would not find the holiness without the fallenness.

What if we were to see no difference between our bodies’ uncontrollable “falling short” and the deliberate destructive actions of another (since that’s the sin we seem to recognize first)? Would we be so quick to mete out condemnation and punishment? Would we be so eager to see the perpetrator suffer? Would we continue to hate him?

We all live in this condition. All of us. And rather than condemn ourselves we would do well to have self-compassion which could then extend to compassion towards the entire beautiful, fallen cosmos.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Madonna of Gloom

Look here. Don’t you see?
I am depressed tonight. I slept for two hours after work
And now am out on the couch beside you checking
Email while our son asks what’s for dinner. I don’t want to make
Dinner. But I do want to eat dinner.
People need to know that I get a pass
When I feel this dull, smotheredness of tasks.
People need to understand that I get to sit on the couch,
Watch a movie,
Not smile.

This morning I went to a parent meeting and it was there
I began to feel this way:
I am a meager mother
Too little time to read
All the books the teacher held up
Our daughter a mirror of me
In both her brilliance and perplexity
I left the meeting without smiling
And nobody even chased me down in the parking lot
To sympathize.

Last night
Our dog bit another dog
Who I took to the vet and crooned to
While she whimpered.
I felt noble
And then I didn’t feel noble
Because it was my dog who attacked her
And she was hurt.

Here on the couch I wrap myself
In the soft muslin of discouragement.
You are doing a project I asked you to do
But it’s quiet here,

I want the house fairy to walk
Into my living room and vacuum the floors,
Answer my email,
Make spaghetti.

When people act around me
The way I am acting now
I find it supremely annoying.

All they need to do is act
All they need to do is decide
All they need to do is not be a black hole
Sucking in every bit of light
To feed their passive, lump-like souls.

But tonight it’s me and all I want
Is for you to say,
“Oh, my tulip, my buttercup,
My sweet mint julep baby,
Whatever could be wrong?”

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Big Rocks

I won’t repeat the Big Rocks story, because it’s all over the internet. Today I’m trying to figure out my big rocks.
They are:

  • Lancelot

  • Kids # 1, 2, 3 & 4

  • Writing novels

  • Writing poetry

  • Writing essay

  • Prayer

  • Order in my physical environment

  • Financial peace

  • Friends

  • Extended family

  • Mentoring

  • Conversation about meaning

  • Reading/learning

  • Internal/spiritual growth

I think that getting outside and having some exercise would also be a good thing to put on there, though I’m not really doing it now. The sun has finally come out after about four months of gray and I’m eager to get out in it.

If I have the above things in my life, I can feel really alive.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Order of Sir Lancelot

My husband needs a blog name, so I think I’ll call him Lancelot. I always thought he kind of rode in on a white horse and rescued me when I was a struggling teenage girl (and he was a hormonal almost-twenty boy).
I taught novel-writing last night and when I got home Lancelot had made this great spreadsheet budget. It has columns for us to subtract every time we spend in a particular category so we’ll know automatically how much is left. This does not = death.
I actually love order and could sit and look at it for hours. When I get busy, I think I’m unable to maintain order despite having as my home page. (Check it out.)
Order – financial, time and physical environment – is a gift, not a shutdown on my creativity. I’m happier living in order. I’m happier living in just a little order. This spreadsheet puts me over the moon. Now I’m realizing what makes boring people happy. I could be boring myself if it meant being happy more often. Then I could layer all the wildness over the boring order.

This does not mean I’d no longer be spontaneous
spon·ta·ne·ous P Pronunciation Key adj.
  1. Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.

  2. Arising from a natural inclination or impulse and not from external incitement or constraint.

  3. Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior.

  4. Growing without cultivation or human labor.
[From Late Latin spont neus, of one's own accord, from Latin sponte. See (s)pen- in Indo-European Roots.]

I could do spontaneous planning. I could spontaneously plan what we will be having for dinner all month and then spontaneously eat it. I could spontaneously clean the house.
I don’t know if I want to spontaneously do everything, though. Chaos makes me tired.
This week we’re easing into the Lenten fast. I like fasting because it makes Pascha so much more fun. Last year I didn’t fast during Lent and during the Vigil I felt jealous of the people who had. They were soooo excited about that feast: meat and milk and cheese and eggs and wine and oil! Whooooie!
I thought, “It’s a feast. I like eating.”
So this year, I will fast. Maybe it makes me feel like I’ve got a little control over my life. And that’s a good thing.

Monday, February 27, 2006


Got child #4 to school at 9:45. School starts at 9:30. District specialist met me in parking lot, scowling, as she had been there at 9:30, sharp, to test him and he wasn't there. New secretary remarked, out of her earshot, that specialist *could* smile. I told her that punctuality was very important to specialist. And that a year ago I'd have seen this as evidence of my being a complete failure as a mother. But not now. I signed him in, and in the spot where you're supposed to write the reason for the tardy, I wrote, "Late: Mother horribly depressed."
It's the first time I've ever filled in that log honestly.
Made the secretary peal with laughter. A good moment.
Got a latte. Feel better. Now have 30 minutes to make this manuscript perfect before turning it in. Ciao.

I've got ten minutes

I’ve got ten minutes in which I ought to be making phone calls, editing, looking at my checking account. Today is Mom’s 80th birthday. We were at her house yesterday celebrating her birthday and mine. I’m taking her somewhere today but there is not enough money this week for me to do that. I’m sure this is all symbolic somehow, but I feel too tired to think about it.
The manuscript I’m editing is taking me way too long. I wish I worked faster than I do, but I’m very particular about how things look in a manuscript. Unless it’s this blog. Here I just write.
I want to have something hopeful to say today, but my house is a mess, I’m low on cash and I’m feeling sort of silly and incompetent.
I’m taking Mom and Dad to child #2’s play this weekend only neither of them knows the other will be there. I’ll have to tell them and then they may make other plans. I’ll have to tell Mom today so that she can make other plans – plans to which she will want me to drive her.
I am such a bitch.
It is not helping me to talk this way or to think this way. Sometimes I think this kind of hopelessness is “real” and we need to write what’s “real.” But how is hopelessness any more real than hope? It’s all “real.” I do know that it’s temporary. It just never feels temporary at the time that I’m feeling hopeless.
The antidote for this is action. I will get into my day. I will drive child #4 to school, do the final edit on the manuscript, go to the appointment and meet the next client, take my mother out. Then I’ll come home and host the poetry reading in town. And I’ll be alive when I do that.
All of this, ALL of it has to do with my life with God. Everything I do is spiritual. Life is spiritual. So what does that mean when I am feeling like shit?
It means I am majorly feeling sorry for myself. There is redemption even in this, but it seems like I’m in the pre-redemptive phase of my cycle.
80 is probably older than Mom thought she’d ever be. I love Mom. And I get so irritated with her when she calls five times a day and says, “I have a suggestion…” I don’t pick up the phone unless I want to.
So what if she leaves this life when I am being rude or irritable with her? What if I’m not being a loving daughter when she dies? I’m only sometimes a loving daughter and she’s pretty tolerant, though I know she wishes it were different. She used to say I was selfish, but that was in high school. She used to say she was afraid she’d get very sick and I wouldn’t take care of her, but she doesn’t say that anymore. She’s got her husband to take care of and that has changed her. She was born to be a nurturer and she’s good at it. It can also be a little suffocating if I let it. But it’s my choice to be suffocated or not.
I want to find my balance with Mom and enjoy her. She’s really a lot of fun. This morning I am not a lot of fun.
Time to take child #4 to school. I’ll dive into my day and then I’ll be fun.
Gotta back up; gotta see the big picture. My son is watching me type, wondering whether I’m putting any bad words in my writing. When I stop, he says, “What?”
Good question.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Things I Am Afraid Of

So a couple of things have occurred to me since my last post.
  1. If lack of money = death, then a budget is constant lack of money. I mean, if you have $500 to buy groceries, then you have to stop buying them when the $500 is gone. You RUN OUT of the $500 and this means you lack money and this, in my very sick logic, means death.

  2. I’m not actually afraid of death.

Sooooo, what does all THAT mean? What the hell am I afraid of? Pain. Definitely pain. Though I did pretty well in the childbirth department. Can’t say it was enjoyable, but I didn’t beg for drugs. So it’s not even pain I’m afraid of.
Cruelty. I am afraid of cruelty and cruel people. That’s why I don’t watch horror films, nor do I want anyone to describe them to me. Someone once told me about a scene from Hannibal and I couldn’t sleep after that. And I do find suicide to be cruel. It’s like, “Watch me take myself out and you can’t do anything about it, nyaa, nyaa, nyaa.” It’s the ultimate “fuck you.” That’s why it pisses me off.

Okay, so where am I going with this? I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe there is any. I mean, there’s a transition from this life to the next one and you do leave your body behind, but I don’t believe we cease to exist. If I did believe that, I might find it frightening. I’m not sure. But I don’t have anything but curiosity about my own transition to the next life. I expect to be in a fierce and loving presence. I expect it to be exciting. But I’m not afraid about that. I have a feeling of trust about it even if I’m not sure how all the logistics work.

So. I am afraid of lovelessness. I told my husband I was feeling a little haunted lately and that when he’s depressed I’m anxious. He said, “You know, I may get depressed, but I’m not your dad. I’d never kill myself.” And I said, “I know.” But I was crying.
I never thought I was afraid of that. But I was filled with a ridiculous sense of relief.

The frightening thing about cruelty and about suicide is its seeming coldness. What has happened to the person who will do violence to himself and others? That’s what frightens me – that thing, whatever it is, that separates a person from his god-ness.
But is it coldness, really? Or is it heat, rage, a howl of despair? Is it actually love?

When child #2 was a baby, we went on a camping trip with Dad. He and I got into a discussion on abortion, which he is against – or so he says. My friend Annie had a Down Syndrome son. I mentioned him and said, “Those are the kids people say should be aborted. “They should be,” said Dad.

There are days I find his cruelty stunning, and this was one of them. We got into an argument as soon as my husband joined in. Dad was against retarded people, black people, gay people. I can’t remember the whole list, but he said he was sick of my husband’s sanctimonious crap. Whereupon, my husband told Dad we weren’t raising our children with Dad’s kind of values and that Dad needed to read the Bible and get to know God. (This is a rather atypical statement for my husband, but he was ticked.) Needless to say, this did not produce a sunlight-from-heaven kind of moment. Instead Dad walked out of the campsite and said he was going to hitchhike the 100 or so miles home.

Child #1 was two at the time. Dad had tied a string to a little wooden boat of hers and she was pulling it along in the dirt. She looked after him with these big, green eyes and said forlornly, “Where’d Granddaddy go?”

I chased him down with the station wagon. I rolled down the window and said, “Get in the car.”
He said, “I don’t have to take that.”
I said, “You’ve walked out on me for the last time. GET IN THE CAR.”
He said, “Oh, well in that case…” He got in the car.
I told him, “Every time things don’t go your way, you leave. You’ve been leaving me since I was born. And when you don’t get what you want, you threaten to leave permanently.”
He said, “You don’t understand the mind of a suicide.”

And now, I almost do. A year or two later, I was in a job that was taking everything I had, chewing it up and spitting it out. I felt like a failure in my chosen profession (teaching), and my children were with babysitters all day, missing me. My daughter would play with her dolls and the dolls would say that the mommy was dead. And for the first time, I wanted to. For the first time I thought, “This is how people feel who want to kill themselves.” I didn’t have a plan. I wasn’t longing to pull the trigger. But for the first time, I understood what it was to have all my hope drained away, as if some vampire had come in the night and sucked me dry. That’s what my dad felt, I think. He couldn’t have known how valuable he was to me. He couldn’t see it himself.

So it isn’t even cruelty I fear, because Dad isn’t really cruel – not when he stops and thinks about individuals. His cruelty is just a forgetting. Anyone’s is. And suicide is not coldness, but a void, an ache, a temporary seduction by hopelessness. It’s just that something irrevocable can happen in that moment of despair.

And then you miss that person. You miss them like I miss my grandmother, who didn’t kill herself, but died in her 80’s of pneumonia after a series of strokes. I miss her because we didn’t get to finish being together. I didn’t get to see her off. I got busy with my life and hid from her illness instead of flying out to see her. I’ve no doubt I’ll see her in the next life; I even talk to her sometimes now. But death changes everything you thought was permanent.

So it’s separation I fear. I love the physical you-are-here-now-I-can-hold-you world. And while I don’t believe we really die, I can’t get my mind around the reality that is beyond these three (four) dimensions.

I’m beginning to when I kiss the icons every day. Those people have become real to me in their own way: St. Brigid of Kildare, St. Katherine the Greatmartyr, St. Andrew, St. John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus. I love their faces looking at me while I pray. And even though it’s only wood and paint, it reminds me that the people I love are with me in this extra-dimensional reality. The string theorists say there are 12 dimensions (or is it 11? 13? A bunch, anyway). I find that incredibly inspiring. All these dimensions we can’t see. If “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” as Jesus said, it’s a close as your hand.

The night I decided to convert to Orthodoxy, I didn’t decide. I blurted it out to my husband in a restaurant line, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll convert.”
I spent the meal reassuring him that I was not doing this for him, even though I knew it gave him joy, but for me. But I still couldn’t believe I’d said that.

That night I went down to the river and clung to a tree. I looked across the river at the moon and I talked to my grandmother. “Should I do this? Am I crazy? Another church? I was through with churches. What if they try to own me? Tell me how to think? What if I can’t squeeze myself into a box that small? Am I climbing into a box or can my God stay big and full of wonder? Should I really do this? Should I?”
And the answer came back across the river and in the bark of the tree, “It’s all right. You’ll be all right. You don’t need to be afraid. It’s bigger than you think; it’s bigger than they think. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.”

It was so good to hear from her.

We think we are alone. We think we are separated. But we’re not. The air is full of souls calling out their love to us. They loved imperfectly, perhaps, on earth, but love they did and love they do. I think I am afraid of hopelessness, of cruelty, of despair. But love is stronger, love is stronger, love is stronger.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fear of Finance

Fear of Finance

I wish I could be funny about this. I feel like writing something funny. I’m really funny when I want to be. But today I’m scared again. I’m scared, but I will whistle in the dark. I think sometimes that fear is detached from actual events. Fear is in the mind, not in the event. Or it is attached to a fearful event by association. It may be an outdated association.
So here I am. My husband is depressed this week because there is a hole in our budget. He will have to borrow from savings again. (Having savings at all is a novelty). So here is my thought process, which has its own logic:
Money = incompetence
Money = lack of money
Lack of money = death

Oh, I am so dramatic. I even majored in drama. Metaphorically, I major in drama. For God’s sake, calm down, Tess!
All right. I’m calm, I’m calm. And here are my Rorschach ink blots – my associations that cause money to equal death:
  • Mom & Dad = bills in shoeboxes
  • Bills in shoeboxes = bills in collection
  • Bills in collection = angry Dad
  • Angry Dad = suicidal Dad

This is so pathetic. I am, as I have mentioned, forty-three (had a birthday this month). So you’d think I could unhook from this by now.

16 months ago we had a bankruptcy; last year we left our house behind. Now we’re in the hole again. And all because I am afraid to look at finances consistently enough to stay on a budget. And probably, my husband is, too. But he certainly looks at them more than I do. I just buy things – groceries and lattes mostly – and deposit money into my business account when I earn it.

I’d like to write something now that will show how competent I am…
  • Last night my novel-writing class started. I have eight students. We talked about plotting. I really enjoyed it. It was at the community college.

  • Today I am editing a book for a client. It’s his memoir. It’s interesting work.

  • Next week I have a story due. It’s an assignment. That means they asked me to write it. The editor said they wanted me because I’m good at capturing kids’ feelings and getting into a kid’s mind.

  • I have four kids. They like me.

  • I have a husband. He likes me, too.

  • God likes me.

  • Ummmmmm.

I don’t believe this is insurmountable. I’m just not getting past the discomfort of the fear. I’ve got to be willing to walk through it like it’s one of those bead curtains we used to divide rooms with in the 70’s.

There’s this verse in the Bible that goes “Perfect love casts out fear.” Just a sec, I’m going to look it up…Okay, I John 4:18. Here’s the parallel Bible site. Cool! Still no Orthodox translations, but cool, nonetheless.
Basically, it says that God is love and that perfect love casts out fear and that fear has to do with punishment, so that if we are fearful, we have not been perfected in love. Which says to me that I haven’t grasped and understood fully the presence of God in me, which is love and that when I can do that I will no longer be afraid.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Betraying My Father?

I did the unthinkable two weeks ago by completing and submitting a series of poems about me, Dad and suicide. “Are you just going to let him read it when it’s published? With no warning?” my friend, Isabelle asked me.

And I don’t know. When I see him lately and I think about what I’ve done, I try not to think about it. I’ve still got an out: the poems may not win the competition; I may not decide to publish them this summer under my own small press, as I’d planned to do. But it’s what I want to do. I want to publish them. I want to read them in public. I’m ready for that now. I’m ready for it not to be a shameful, secret thing about me that I bring out every once in a while and then think I’m doing it for dramatic effect.

The next step is to turn this into a YA novel in verse. Yes. I am going to do that. And I am going to focus on my first year of college, when Dad lived in his office and I called in the mental health people to confront him after I found his suicide note. I’m going to telescope the next four years and include his suicide attempt and hospitalization and how that was for me. Only I won’t be me, I’ll be “her” the main character. I’ll be the 18-year-old. I’m telling myself this will help people. But really, it’s just that I selfishly want to do this. This is what the “writer’s conference stomachache” is about. It’s about my hunger to tell the real story, to strip away all the falseness and embarrassment I have about it and to just tell it. If it makes me a drama queen, so be it.

I had a rejection when I was in the middle of working on the adult poetry collection. It was for a children’s story I wrote about two first-century saints. It wasn’t a bad story, but the editor felt it was a bit “dry.” This is the first time my work has ever been called “dry” and I wrote to thank the editor. It was such a confirmation that I need to be writing what is most real to me. I’ve had a number of friendly emails with her since. I may sometime write more stories about saints and make them into more picture books. I may publish my children’s story about good manners and republish the one about the little boy lost in the woods who comes across a Sunday school class discussing the Good Shepherd. I may do that. And they may sell. And little children may find Christ when their mothers read my stories aloud. I have about 150 published stories, many of which may lead children to be better Christians. I hope they do.

But the most redemptive thing I can think of for me is to write about betrayal; to write about the cliff walk of not knowing whether your father will jump and how the jagged rocks will slice him when he lands; I want to write that there is terror and there is relief from terror; I want to write how important it is to speak and speak and speak until someone listens, until you listen to yourself and save your own life because it is God inside of you that you are speaking to – it is Christ Himself who will answer back across the bleakness if you just keep grabbing and grabbing for Him, daring Him to try and leave you. I want to write that because it is a scream that so many of us share and I have to join my scream to that scream. I have to say I AM HERE. I AM ALIVE. YOU STAY ALIVE, TOO. WE’LL BE ALIVE TOGETHER.

This is not polite writing and it doesn’t have a good Sunday school lesson to it. But I think that Jesus is wild and fierce and the fire that rages within me is His fire, too. So for awhile I’m not going to write about saints.

But my father – am I betraying him? I don’t know. I haven’t showed him the poems. I may not. I may publish them and he may never see them and I may keep writing and writing about this and if he ever stumbled across it, he may be hurt though that is not what I intend. All I want to say to him is

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Opera Night

Some days I feel the ground shifting beneath me, the revelations bursting like fireworks over my head. I’ve thought that too much introspection was keeping me from my work. But I’m noticing that I’m suddenly finishing things and embarking on new ones: I graded all my papers yesterday, wrote to an editor about some work, took an assignment from another one, nailed down dates for my spring classes, got my open mic poets lined up. It’s as if sending this locked-up part of me into the illusory world of cyberspace has opened me. It’s still terrifying as hell. A new novel is forming, a series of linked poems for the children of suicide.

I talked to one of them the other day: Gina. I was waxing passionate about my thoughts on this confederacy of children – that I had decided to do a free workshop for them, where we would tell our stories and write poetry. “Good luck with it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to participate. I’ve worked through that part of my life. I’m dealing with a sick child now.”

She has – so much as any of us can. And her son has cancer. And I was immediately caught, rabbit-in-the-high-beam style with my desire to distance myself from my own pain by being an expert.

Isn’t that interesting?

I think what I’m trying to do is simultaneously climb into myself and climb out of myself. I don’t want to live cocooned in my pain. I don’t even know if it is pain. It is a story that has brought intense emotion with it. Really, it is a love story. It is the story of love for life, for resurrection, for resilience -- love for my father.

I took him to the opera the other night. Always, these outings with him are so rich and full of stories. Neither of us had been to the opera in at least 20 years. He used to go with my mother and, surprisingly, he said almost nothing negative about her the entire evening. He was full of fond memories of “being among the swells.”

When I was 18 I worked for the opera. The offices were near where Dad worked. He was living in his office, one step from homelessness at the time. He slept on his desk, washed up in the sink. The other lawyers pretended not to know, I think. He was so proud of me, working for the opera. I’d get him free tickets and we’d go together. We saw lots of Wagner that year. I haven’t been back since. Until last Wednesday.

*     *     *     *     *

He yells at me all the way from his apartment to the bank. “Turn here. No! Not there! Change lanes. Now! Now! Gun it! God, Tess, you drive like an old woman.”

“It’s like old times,” I say. “Just like when you taught me to drive.”

He stops yelling, slightly chagrined.

Dad just does what he does and usually I get in a kind of Zen state with it. It’s just his way.
He wants to go to the Chinese restaurant across town. I wonder if we’ll get to the opera in time, but decide to go with his lead. He always has the #2 with fried rice and can say to the waiter, “I’ll have my usual,” and they know.

He drives from the passenger seat all the way to the restaurant and all the way back to the opera end of town. Six blocks from the parking garage we hit a lot of traffic. With the opera beginning at 7:30, it is now 7:09, then 7:12, 7:15. “We’re fine,” I keep saying smoothly, feeling his anxiety. “We’ll make it just fine.”

His vision of this area of town is 30 years old. He knows just where he used to park when he went with Mom, just how to get to the cheap seats. But the opera house has been knocked down and rebuilt since then. And the parking garage has some new entrances. It is 7:17. I turn left. “No!” yells Dad. “No! Not there!”

And my Zen state leaves me. “DO not” I holler, “DRIVE for me! ESPECIALLY with so little time left! I know what I’m doing; I am FORTY-TWO YEARS OLD!”

He is immediately contrite. “I didn’t realize there was an entrance here,” he says quietly. “Here, I’ll pay for the parking.”

Damn straight you will, I think, accepting the money. “I love you,” I tell him a second later. “And you drive me crazy.”

He directs me, albeit with less volume, to just the right parking place. I feel victorious over letting him have it. Certainly he deserved it. But he looks a little stunned as we pull into our spot. As if being yelled at made him feel small.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” I say. “Sometimes my temper gets the better of me.”

Yes. My temper. How I’ve enjoyed being the all-powerful victim. Perhaps she is leaving me now. I am, after all, forty-two years old.

How he loves the opera! Up in the nosebleed seats, we’ve made sure to bring binoculars, which we trade back and forth. I remember how I used to read the libretto by the light of the exit sign. Now they put the words up on a screen over the stage. I imagine they’ve been doing that for awhile, but for me it is a new marvel.

He walks with a cane now and I keep reaching a hand out to catch him. But he doesn’t want to be caught. The cane makes a handy weapon with which he could ward off would-be attackers of his daughter.

At intermission I reapply my lipstick and brush my hair in the ladies room. When I rejoin him, he starts fussing with my collar. “It’s sticking up,” he says, though it isn’t. A pause and then, “You’ve still got that fine hair.”

Mom will plunge her hands into my hair and play with it. Just like I do with my daughter.
“It’s gotten long,” he says meditatively. Then, “I’ve got a picture of you with it short; I liked it better short.”

How long did I not hear his tenderness because he’d hidden it so well?

It is nearly 11:00 when we leave the opera house. “What is all this traffic?” he says.
“A concert,” I tell him. “Cold Play.”

“Cold Play,” he says, as if the words make an unpleasant taste in his mouth. “That’s Rock and Roll.” (The Scourge of Decency, Music for Morons.)

“It’s what people have been listening to, Dad,” I say, “For the last forty years.” I think I’m very clever to have pointed this out. “Didn’t you have music that made your parents crazy?”

“No,” he says. “But Budd Raymond sure found it amusing in high school when I suggested 'Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair' for choir class.”

“Because it was Irish?”

“No!” he yells. “It’s Stephen Foster!”

“Oh,” I say, sure I heard my first rendition of it on an old John McCormick album.

“He wanted some old hillbilly music like, ‘Chicken Crowing on Sourwood Mountain.’” He sings a few bars. I join him. “My true love lives up the holler, hey de-ding-dang-diddle-eye-day. She won’t come and I won't foller, hey de-ding-dang-diddle-eye-day.”

We are a couple of secret hillbillies, he and I.

As we near his apartment he makes an uncommon speech. “I wish we’d had more time to talk about your family,” he says. “The last time we talked you sounded so down. I was afraid you had clinical depression.”

He names it. We never used to name it. I thought it was because he didn’t want to.

“Sometimes I do,” I say. “But I’m finding my way out more quickly now.”

I can’t tell him what’s been eating me at home. One of my kids. Things I fear. Things Dad fears. Too painful for both of us. “Things are moving in a positive direction,” I say. Which is true. “Things” are.

“I’m glad to hear that,” he says. We stop at the light. We’re a block from his place. He goes on. “Because I love you so much. You’re my flesh and blood – my cast into the future. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Sometimes, he stuns me with such words -- a string of pearls handed to me unexpectedly.
He didn’t used to be able to say things like this. Does he want to make sure it’s said? Is there anything he’s not telling me?

Do not drive for me -- especially when there’s so little time left. What do I mean by this? How much time is there?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Living in Your Head

Yesterday when I talked to Tara I went into all this clinical mumbo-jumbo about people who go through trauma learning to live in their heads because the emotions are just too painful. I told her I had done this.

“But the tears are right there,” Tara said, gesturing just behind her eyes.

“No, I said. Not really.”

And I think I lied.

Perhaps I can keep tears at bay by keeping people at bay. We learn to laugh, to be clinical and intellectual about things. “My father put a gun in his mouth.”

Yeah, that still catches at my lungs if I let it. So I take two steps back. “My father suffers from bipolar disorder. Or perhaps it’s unipolar with some paranoia. Certainly, the diagnosis has changed over the years.”

How does someone do this whose father left this world with his head in fragments? I have only the imagination of this. The Children of Suicide Club has the reality, the stunned, “Oh, God” moment when they got the news. The thing that was unfathomable to their spouses and friends, who didn’t know what to say and responded awkwardly with warped theology or silence.

My husband had to be that spouse, after the attempt. He had to sit down and explain to me what had happened. I don’t remember any of it except, “Your dad,” and “he took a gun.”

After that we visited him in the hospital for six weeks. I had so much I wanted to say to him. One day he was so looped out on lithium I didn’t recognize him. Another day he made me a cross in the craft workshop. He painted it green. I think it was in honor of all my attempts to convert him. Jesus would make him better, I was sure. He’d be a whole person and the demons would torment him no longer.

And all he could say was, “Why would I worship a monster?”

Why, indeed?

I don’t know if I ever could make Jesus not a monster for him. Sometimes we can succeed in that, sometimes not. But he did make me a cross.

Here’s the thing I’ve never gotten my head around. My father CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD. He was in the cold basement of the Arctic Building with a gun in his mouth at five o’clock in the morning and he heard someone in the building and did not pull the trigger. Instead he put the gun down and took a bus to the hospital.

Tonight we are going to the opera. I don’t think I’ve been at the opera in twenty years. I know Dad hasn’t. It’s his Christmas present. We’re going to the opera and I have all these thoughts banging around in my head.

Usually Dad and I get to the real stuff pretty quickly. I like that about him. He’s harsh and critical and bigoted and fearful. But he’s as honest as he’s able to be and he doesn’t insist on talking about trivia. He doesn’t change the subject when I bring up something that means a lot to me. Lately, I keep wondering if “this time” will be the last time I see him. I wonder that every time the phone rings and he doesn’t answer. I definitely wonder it every time he gets sick.

So why don’t I try harder to spend every remaining second with him? What is wrong with me?

Children of Suicide Club

I am an adjunct member of a sober confederacy. I’ll call it “Children of Suicide.” My father is still living, which is why mine is an associate membership. But the members of this club come to me, one or two a year. I don’t know what I do to draw them except that this is something no one can ever put to rest.

My friend, Tara, shared with me today that her father had killed himself several years ago. Wendy’s father shot himself in the backyard, Kevin’s on the stairs, Gina’s father hanged himself, Mark’s dad blew himself away. (Note: I change the names of all my friends on this blog, unless I am promoting their work.) At a writing conference a woman at my table read, for the first time, her “why?” poem, written to her late father. I wanted to find her later and introduce her to Wendy, who was also at the conference. But how do you start a conversation like that? Would either of them have wanted one? (I’d have asked first.)

The first time I wrote about this in my own life, my critique group had to hold my hands so I could get through the story without falling apart. I realized that it was as if my father had killed himself, even though he ultimately didn’t pull the trigger.

I’m so grateful to have him still, but I’m wary around him. I don’t talk to him or visit him as much as I feel I should. I’ve been steeling myself against his death since I was sixteen. I share a link with the suicide club because of the shame we all feel in talking about this. No one knows what to do with it. Maybe people talk to me because I am not shocked when they tell me. I’m only sad. I want to heal all their fathers – to take the guns and the ropes away and to sit them all down together to talk about it and know that they’re not alone, they’re not the only ones who ever hit their wives or drank too much or failed in business. I want them to know that inside of them is goodness – it’s still there, if covered over in pain. I want to raise them up out of hell if that is where they are still.

But my friends, their children, have not even begun to express their rage. Instead they get sick, they fight depression, they get scared. Not all the time. These are amazing and resilient people -- every one of them a creative artist – writers, actors, painters. But how does one begin? How does one trust? How do you love the person who murdered your father?

But you do. Even hate is a kind of love. And my father? I adore him, though I neglect him. Every few months when I can’t reach him on the phone, I make the mad hour-long drive to the city, get myself into his secured apartment building and let myself into his unit, ready to find a body. He’s not directly threatened suicide for years now, but his health is failing and he’s letting it go. “Death’s not so bad,” he says. “It’s a natural process.” And if it were anyone else, I’d agree. But he’s been trying to die I was sixteen and since I was sixteen, I’ve been talking him out of it. That’s the story, anyway: that my heroic words have saved him every time. It’s why I wear a big W on my chest: WordWoman Saves the World Again.

Maybe someday I’ll talk to him about Tara and Wendy and Kevin and Gina and Mark, about the lady at the poetry table and my classmate, Fran, who found her father’s brains spattered on the walls when she was in high school. I don’t think I’d phrase it like that. Not this time. I’ve tried to shock him out of his lethargy, but shock treatments didn’t work for him in college, so I don’t know why I’d think they work now.

I’m to the point of compassion now and maybe my father has something to pass on to my friends. Maybe he knows some secret their fathers never told them. Or some secret he never told me. And there is some secret I’ve never told myself. Maybe I’ll write my way to it. Maybe my friends will teach me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Just went to a really great author website . This guy knows how to market. He’s FUNNY and even though I’d never heard of any of his books, I’m going to run out and get one right away. Anyone who can make me laugh until I cry is worth a read. And he’s not trying to be anonymous.
I’ll get through this phase, really I will. For now, I just need to be mysterious, as if my career is some big freaking deal.
Now, if I actually did widespread marketing like this Pete Hautman guy, I could maybe pull off the mysterious anonymous author thing. Someday maybe I will and I’ll continue posting until then. BTW, his National Book Award book is called Godless. Once I read it, I may blog about it. Stay tuned.
In the meantime… I’ve begun wearing my editor hat more frequently and got a bunch of submissions today. At the moment this is fun. Check back in a few months and see whether I run screaming every time I see the word “submission” in an email. But for the record, I am currently at the “fun” stage.
Other fun was listening to Cristien Storm perform her amazing, compassionate spokenword. She gives me courage to write what is real.  

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Gospel of Death

Yesterday I read Donna Farley’s Jan 9th blog entry in which she referenced Christianity Today’s report on the child soldiers of Uganda: children forced to hack each other to pieces, to murder even their siblings. They are commanded by grown-up soldiers who, themselves, were once children just like this: abducted, raped and brutalized and forced to kill.  This is the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” led by one Joseph Kony, who, according to accounts, mixes language from Christianity, Islam and Witchcraft into a deadly brew.
Any resemblance to these religions is superficial: While the army observes rituals such as praying the rosary and bowing toward Mecca, there is no prescribed theology in the conventional sense. Kony's beliefs are a haphazard mix from the Bible and the Qur'an, tailored around his wishful thinking, personal desires, and practical needs of the moment. Jesus is the Son of God. But instead of saving the world from sin through his sacrificial love on the Cross, he is a source of power employed for killing those who oppose Kony. The Holy Spirit is not the Divine Comforter, but one who directs Kony's tactical military decisions.
Despite dabbling in the Bible and the Qur'an, Kony's real spiritual obsession is witchcraft. He burns toy military vehicles and figurines to predict the course of battles from their burn patterns. He uses reptiles in magic rituals to sicken those who anger him or to detect traitors in his midst. He claims to receive military direction from spirits of dead men from different countries, including Americans. He teaches that an impending apocalypse will usher in "The Silent World," where only primitive weapons, such as machetes and clubs, will bring victory.
--from “Deliver Us From Kony,” by J. Carter Johnson, Christianity Today 12/30/05
My reaction, as I sit comfortably at my computer, is similar to Matushka Donna’s uneasiness. “Our affluent Western society encourages a perpetual adolescence,” she remarks, “devoted to our own ‘self-discovery’ and pleasure on the most shallow level.
I am guilty as charged.
My computer has a filter that will not allow me to post the word “death,” that is d*e*a*t*h onto my blog or into an email. Or at least, it will not let me read that word. I’m not sure how it appears on other people’s computers. Even a post about meeting a publishing d___line was censored. So if the title of this post is “Gospel of,” you know what happened. “La Mort” has been deleted.
Perhaps that’s what I do. I delete atrocities from my radar because I simply cannot fathom them. It is because I am comfortable, but it’s more than that. I don’t encounter such things in my daily life, so I haven’t found any kind of framework for them. I wonder if part of becoming spiritually “awake” is to find the framework for evil so that we can fight it.
One reason I became Orthodox is that the Orthodox do not believe, as do the Calvinists, that humans are inherently depraved. We believe instead that humans are inherently good, created in the image of God. The very breath of God blows through us. God is energy and essence and the energies of God infuse us, as they infuse every particle in creation. Our destiny is to return to this original image, to become “divinized” – to have union with God that is so electric it is like iron placed in the fire. The iron remains, in essence, iron, but it becomes completely fire. It is transformed by the energies of God.
Sin for the Orthodox Christian is “missing the mark,” an archery term. We aim for, but do not always hit the target. The degree to which we miss is sin. Therefore, sin is not the breaking of a law, it is simply the missing of our potential to be the self we were created to be, the Self with God.
When I think of this, I think of it in the context of all the guilt I used to feel over trivial imperfections. Because I used to think of every flaw as the breaking of God’s holy law and hence, His heart, I lived in a morass of self-condemnation. Ironically, this shielded me from true remorse. If everything we do is wrong, we are unable to examine the ways we’ve truly wounded others and take steps to restore those relationships. When we can have self-compassion, we can see the potential for goodness in ourselves. And we can see perhaps more clearly when we are not being our truest selves.
But what about the kind of evil that defies imagining? Do we go back to the old model? Can we have God be the wrathful judge who will hurl these monsters into the pit they undoubtedly came from and torture them for eternity? Isn’t it inadequate to say that Joseph Kony has “missed the mark” when clearly, he wasn’t even aiming? Has Joseph Kony ever desired goodness? Did he desire it as a little child? Who knows?
What we do know is that little children have been tortured into butchery. A whole army of tortured souls perpetuates terror so that terror becomes a force unto itself. But terror is not a force, it is a void. Terror is the cold absence of love.
Is it? How can this be? If God, who is love, permeates every particle of creation, then there is never an absence of love. There is only blindness to it. And cruelty is an effective method of blinding. A wrathful God, who flung his creatures into Hell would be, himself, blind to love. And this is impossible. Hell is here on Earth in towns where children come with machetes and cut off people’s lips. God does not put people there. And they are not there because they deserved it.
And where am I? Here in the paradise of rural America with the rabbits munching quietly in their hutches, a cougar or two that rarely shows itself, healthy children, loving spouse, food on the table. I am supposed to do something from paradise to mitigate life in hell. J. Carter Johnson did something. He went to Uganda. He talked to those children. He told their story. I am sure he will never be the same.
How can I let this change me?


I am being disingenuous when I talk about assiduously avoiding readers. Realized this as soon as I listed my favorite movies, books and music and saw that this offered me lists of everyone who shared my favorite books, music and movies. I noticed that I was checking every day to see if I had replies. Hmm. Doesn’t sound like someone who is trying to avoid readers.
Several years ago, before my first book came, out I went into this funny panic.  I was afraid the book would be successful and that I would become obnoxious. I went to this woman at my church and asked her to pray for me. She said something like “send your writing up in balloons; send it around on the Internet,” and I was very irritated and felt she knew nothing about writing professionally. This was probably true. How interesting that I’d be doing this now.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Busty Sphinx

Oh, my. Yes, I am glad this blog is anonymous. And that nobody reads it. Here I am, relaxing with a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels while my husband reads me funny stuff from Wired.  I did a couple school visits today, I’ve been reading Miss Snark’s blog, I finished my novel outline yesterday. In short, times are good. Clever people are out there to say sharp, witty things.

And then, I happen across this blog written by some whiney writer who talks about despair demons and quotes people who say you ought to belittle yourself.

This is not good, I think. This writer needs to get a grip. She needs some chocolate pretzels, some Monty Python. She needs a big box from her friend Mandy in Texas containing a Christmas Ornament in the shape of a rather busty sphinx with stumps for legs. (Yes, such a package did arrive two days ago. It also contained chocolate pretzels. And I have not yet written to thank Mandy.)
If this blog ever gets readers – an event I am assiduously trying to avoid – it is doubtful they will want to read angsty post after angsty post.

I sometimes read blogs by teenagers who undoubtedly wear a great deal of eyeliner and I want to post replies so that I can keep them from killing themselves. They’ve all got such terrible relationships with their mothers and I could be there. I could fix it all. I’m nice.

But then I don’t post replies.

It is a very odd phenomenon that has people posting essentially private thoughts for others to read. It reminds me of that movie, My First Mister, where the girl writes obituaries for herself and then makes them into paper airplanes and flies them out the window.

Well, I am not writing obituaries today. I could post some angsty poetry, but I think I’ll pass.
The point of this post, is that there is no point. “Have a focus in your writing,” I tell my students. I put little cards on my computer with pithy statements on them to focus my stories. I look for a good lead. I never start a sentence with “there is.” I avoid using the word “I” over and over again. Except here.

Here, I will write wildly bad content. I will ramble and foam at the mouth. I will feel sorry for myself. I will write things that seem, at the time, so very beautiful that I weep all over the keyboard. I will quote monks who lived in caves and I’ll offer apologies for George W. Bush (Okay. Not any more. I’ve reformed. Even if he hugs me and prays for me.)

And why, dear reader, is this so? Because I’m using a medium that requires nothing of me. I can break all the rules. I can bore people. I can even misspell things and make up words like “angsty.” Yes, I understand, I am using bandwidth for this drivel. But people use bandwidth for worse.
All of us need to do a little pretend-audience writing. It’s like journaling, only better. It allows one to be grandiose, to preen, to shoot off one’s mouth. But the trick is NOT to go looking for readers.

When I was first published, everyone who came into my house had to look at my byline. In fact, the most telling comment I got about this process was from a woman at church, at whom I elatedly waved my first story. “Look! Look!” I cackled. “Wow,” she said, “someone with your same name.”

So this is the equivalent of writing a journal and then leaving it, enticingly, in a coffee-shop. You go home and fantasize about all the people reading your despair. Someone will find it. They will care. They will search for you across the void. They will buy you a latte and some chocolate pretzels.
The next week you return to the coffee shop in your black trench coat. You glance around covertly and spot the journal. It’s exactly where you left it. When you pick it up, there is a nice rectangular shiny spot underneath – the only place the dust hasn’t settled.

But perhaps all writing is like that. We’re all trying to have the conversation. And sometimes we do have it. More often, we don’t.

But I know I’d be writing if I was the last person breathing on the planet. I’d write it for the cockroaches. And they’d think it was just beautiful and cry little, cockroachy tears.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Demon of Despair

I woke up this morning already in a state of defeat: tired, flu-ish, resentful of the lesson planning and correcting I need to do, which will keep me from my novel. Child #4 could not find his shoes and almost missed the bus. I made him pancakes and sausage, but he only had time to eat a few bites. I’m afraid I’m teaching him negative self-talk every time I express my exasperation. I’m trying to hold it in check and speak positively to him. He’s just a little boy and he’s certainly just as scattered as I can be. I should be working with Child #3 (homeschooled) on grammar or spelling. The math tutor will be here in 40 minutes. Ah! He tells me he is working on his math assignment. He has spent the last several days working on a novel and I’ve let the basic stuff slide. It’s good that he’s working on a novel. And I’ve been depressed.

When we struggle against demonic thoughts, the struggle will be considered as a martyrdom. This is because one suffers a great deal when evil thoughts attack, and God, seeing the toil and pain of his soul, considers it to be a martyrdom.
—Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain

Depression, despair and despondency can only be demonic. They do not carry with them any impulse towards the good, rather, they slow the mind, cloud the thinking. There is a prayer to the Theotokos that I used to pray every day. It goes:

O my most holy lady Theotokos, through thy holy and all-powerful prayers, banish from me, thy lowly and wretched servant, despondency, forgetfulness, folly, carelessness and all filthy, evil and blasphemous thoughts from my wretched heart and my darkened mind. And quench the flame of my passions, for I am poor and wretched, and deliver me from many and cruel memories and deeds, and free me from all their evil effects. For blessed art thou by all generations, and glorified is thy most honorable name unto the ages of ages. Amen

That’s a lot of “wretcheds” and I may talk about that later, but what struck me was that I was praying against despondency. I think I gave despondency an almost holy glow when I was younger. It was such a constant companion and it seemed to remind me of what a miserable, sinful creature I was and how much I needed God.

What salt is for any food, humility is for every virtue. To acquire it, a man must always think of himself with contrition, self-belittlement, and painful self-judgment. But if we acquire it, it will make us sons of God.
—Isaac the Syrian

To be fair, I should read about Isaac the Syrian before I say this. Perhaps he struggled with grandiosity and arrogance and so needed to balance himself in this way. But for me, finding ways to belittle myself has never been a problem. And painful self-judgment has come as naturally as breathing. In fact, self-belittlement and self-judgment can become a form of pride. A person who walks around belittling himself will find that his friends eventually become less patient.

What I’m trying to get at is that I cannot let despair sink its teeth into me. I cannot live in a state of defeat. If struggling against this is a form of prayer or martyrdom, let it be my prayer. It is a heavy weight that bears down on me, a demon on my back I must throw off. It is a gray mist that comes in the night so that I am completely enveloped by morning. I will not give in to it. I will not.

Blessed art thou o Lord our God, King of the Universe who hallows this day, who hallows our work, who hallows our minds and bodies, who hallows each minute.

I am living in holy time. Time, even though God is outside of it, is holy. If God is outside of time, he also permeates each moment. If each moment is a drop of God then I can be drenched in them and not be afraid. The time does not slip away as we think it does.

But I do think it does! That’s what is bothering me today. My friend has cancer. I can’t even go see him because I’ll make him sick with my flu. His cancer has moved from his lungs into his bones and it was only diagnosed last week. Whenever someone gets cancer I am immobile. I slip quietly away. It is too huge for me. I can’t avoid my friend’s cancer. I can’t pretend someone else will take care of him and be a sister to him because he wants me to be that sister and if I turn away he will know.

How can God be in each minute and there be so few of them! Why do we live in this seeming finity? Why were we called to exist inside of time during this life? What could be good about that?

I don’t know how to throw the demon off my back unless I scratch and kick and fight. I will pulverize this demon of despair, but I will not be able to do so without facing the finite. I will never get to the infinite until I have come to terms with the finite. And I can’t come to terms with the finite without facing death: my own, my friend’s, my parents’, my husband’s, my children’s.

And if I face death, how will I live? How will it change me? How will it affect the moments I live within? I am afraid.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I’m sitting at my computer, attempting to get my mind around my next task, which is one of the following:
  • Continue emailing people until I have enough signups for my novel class to make it go

  • Correct French assignments

  • Plan French class

  • Work on my novel

  • Plan my novel writing class
  • I seem to have a cold, which is making me dopey and unfocused.

  • Child #4 is doing a math worksheet and asking me questions about it

  • Child #3 needs to be reminded about chores

Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art says,

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.

The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

A good rule of thumb. Of the above list, the work I most want to do is my novel. (The thing I least want to do is have a cold.) I have half an hour until dinner. (Which has been prepared already by child #3. What a blessing.) I wonder if I will feel less defeated if I use it to work on the novel. The classes must be planned, the work must be corrected, the children must be mothered.

Thirty minutes of not being a martyr. Ready, set…

Extremity and Silence

Poet Tory Dent died last week of complications from AIDS. I heard Adrienne Rich speak about it on NPR as I was driving across the Floating Bridge.

She teaches us that poetry is not only is not equal to, but must speak out of extremity. And that in all extremity: AIDS, disaster, human disaster such as we’re seeing around us constantly — that silence, if it’s not death, it is defeat.

Hearing this, I burst inexplicably into tears. Silence, if it is not death, is defeat. What do I do? I work with words. I use them all the time. I make a little money at it writing stories with biblical themes. Books for children that receive reviews like, “sure to become a classic.” I do love those stories. But most of my real writing is poetry -- the rawest of it read only at gatherings of other poets who’ve seen some trench warfare of their own. Or it’s emails, sparked off by some egroup discussion that got me going. Or it goes into my journal.

“I’ll be the first to buy your journal when you publish it,” another author teased me when he signed his umpteenth novel for me at a conference several years ago. I’d told him I got up and journaled every morning. He doesn’t journal. He cuts to the chase and begins working on his novels immediately after his teeth are brushed. And the man is a marketing machine: novels, magazine work, reprints. I’d asked him how he did it and that was his answer. Write.

And write I do. But. I was listening to Jane Yolen at a conference one time (probably the same conference). She said, “You have to fall through the words and into the story,” and I immediately got what I’ve since identified as the “writers’ conference stomachache.” It was that longing to dive deeply enough into a piece of work that I can get lost there and forget everything: my kids, my friends, my responsibilities – and live just in that story for awhile. Yes, yes, I do this with the children’s stories. I struggle through them at two a.m. and meet the deadline (sort of). The check that comes in the mail afterwards pays for some groceries. The work arrives with illustrations and I say, “Yup, I’m still a writer.” But.

What would satisfy me? I’m not silent. I’m not. If anything I tell too much and then creep away to hide. Writing is about more than self-expression. It is a conversation, a link with the lonely world. Writing brings solace just as reading brings solace. Words leap from the mind to the page and then from the page to the mind of the reader and there is a bond. We hold each other in that moment.

My life is so full. It is loaded with children, teenagers, friends, my husband, my mother, dad, students, colleagues. I can never give them enough. The phone rings all day long. It is not ringing now because it is quarter to one and I’m here with a glass of pear cider unable to sleep. I love these people. I love them so much and I want to give them my time, my attention, my words. And I can’t always. Some days, some weeks, I hibernate. I don’t answer the phone at all. I don’t check my messages or my email. I hide in my house or in a coffee shop with my laptop. What am I thinking writing more words and inviting more people into my life who I cannot take care of?

And what am I being silent about? What will I NOT write about, except in my journal? Is my silence defeat? If I write the last year into poems or essays, would it make the frightening things stay? Words have that power, I’m afraid. That is, I’m afraid that they do. If someone asked me about this I would tell them, “Write! Write all of it!” But I’ve learned these last twelve months that you reach a saturation point in which you simply can’t think about the thing anymore. I used to probe people to get to their deeper pain, thinking that I was a kind of surgeon conducting the necessary lancing of a wound. Perhaps I helped them, but now I understand: some pain requires silence, at least for awhile.

The telling of the story can become a kind of act. You are a trained bear, balancing the ball on your head. The story is full of pathos, of intrigue, of confusion. It elicits comforting words from the listener. You become disconnected from it. Which is what you really want anyway. I’ve developed a story about the last year, and it goes like this: when you experience the things you’ve feared for so long, you discover that the fear was the real pain – the sleepless nights, the pit-of-the-stomach dread. The actual happening is almost a relief. And that’s true. And I’m awake tonight with my pear cider revisiting the unknown future. It is better than the fear, it really is. The pain is almost sweet. You know that you are real if you can lie awake and feel that ache.

Perhaps this is like birthing. I never knew, until I went through labor, how physically strong I was – what I could endure. Now I know. There is hope in all of it.