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.