Years ago, another writer composed a poem about the four seasons, and how grief is the other season. It will last as long or as short as is needed, and then it must end so the mourner can live. She had experienced great grief in her life, but the ones she expected to come alongside and help her through that time were anxious that she stop mourning, stop making them uncomfortable.
Around the same time, I battled depression, and the main advice from Christians was “pray,” and from others was “be happy” or “stop wallowing.” In essence, just get over it. People weren’t really interested in listening. That was inconvenient, boring, and uncomfortable. I just needed to paste on that smile so no one would feel guilty for not caring.
The depression lifted after I dug in to Scripture and stopped trying to escape the wilderness, but learned to walk beside God, trusting Him to know the way out.
After my parents’ marriage broke apart, the refrain became “forgive”. I was angry, hurt, shocked. Forgiveness was a bridge too soon. Besides, other people were pouring their own complaints and hurts and angers into my ears, and were too absorbed in their own pain to hear mine.
When forgiveness came, it was after much prayer, many filled pages in my journal, and after much honesty with myself and God.
So, what’s the point of this whiny list of troubles?
A traveler in Dallas needs to go to Paris — that’s his end goal — but there are many miles and an ocean in between where he is now and where he eventually must be. He might agree that, yes, he needs to take a particular route from Lisbon to Paris, but that part of the map is irrelevant at the moment. He’s not in Lisbon yet.
And there are other stops he must make first: from Dallas to Denver, from Denver to Memphis, from Memphis to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, and so on. Once he arrives in Lisbon, then he can make the final journey to Paris.
It’s that way with life. People may think we need to hurry up and arrive somewhere — arrive at forgiveness, arrive at physical fitness, arrive at a buoyant outlook — but those are end goals, destinations that often come only after long journeys.
Although God may provide instant answers, as He sometimes does, most often the noblest things come after hard work. In the journey is where we learn, where we hear His instruction, where we face truths and look in mirrors and come to new understandings.
Oh, what we would miss if God allowed us to nod our heads or wiggle our noses and “genii” our way out of our troubles.
People may dismiss our problems as not worthy of their time and attention, but don’t let pride or bitterness make us react in kind whenever we encounter someone else who, like us, needs more than a peppy motto or a “just pray about it” pat answer or a neat package of memorized Bible verses.
Just as the Word and the Spirit will heal, so too will love and listening, and honest words spoken in kindness.
Comments from an online discussion after this article was originally written and posted elsewhere (April 15, 2015):
Grief is a strange thing. and people handle it differently. Some need to share and some of us need to hide it. Who can say which way is right–I think it depends on the person. It is often impossible to share someone else’s burden when you are full of your own. (Nancy P.)
I don’t always speak what I feel or think — either it’s not the right time or the right listener, or maybe I don’t know yet what I’m thinking or feeling, so speaking about it may be of little use.
That’s why I keep journals. I can work things out on the page, and often God reveals the truth as I write. That’s one reason I write out my prayers, too: I sometimes, when I go back and read them after weeks or even years, I see and understand the words in a new light. Journaling is long-term effective therapy for grief, depression, mood disorders, and more.
Something I (wrote) in my prayer journal today:
There is a difference between showing someone compassion, and allowing that person to feed off of you like an emotional, mental, or spiritual vampire.
There are people in genuine need who simply want you to hear them, to stand beside them, to give them wise words but not to preach at them or scold or be superior. On the other hand, there are people who take advantage of kindness and the desire to help, and they drain you dry. They suck away your joy, your energy, your very substance, and they refuse to stand on their own feet, to seek God for themselves, to find joy where they may.
From such, turn away (2 Timothy 3:5, slightly out of context). There is a time to kill, and a time to heal (Ecclesiastes 3:3). In this case, “kill” means pulling out the weeds that can choke the vine of your life. (Elizabeth E.)
Some of my most calming, curiosity-piquing, wonder-filled memories are of libraries and bookstores. Even the smallest or dimmest or least organized are magical places, perhaps made more so by their imperfections and the sense of exploring a cavern of delights.
Years ago, I used to spend my lunch breaks atThe Snooper’s Barnon Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, poking through the dusty stackes in the back where history books and old volumes — some antique — were shelved higgledy-piggledy, sometimes in precarious Jenga-like towers.
I recently introduced my eldest niece to an excellent independent bookstore in Oklahoma City. When we entered Full Circle Books — serving readers for more than three decades — we stepped not through the looking glass, nor through a wardrobe, but through a modern glass and metal door, yet the magic still welcomed us.
She fell in love with the rambling space filled with hidden rooms and cozy nooks, and the old-fashioned ladders that travel back and forth on metal tracks in need of oiling.
The children’s rooms are well-stocked with old friends and new, including a French copy of Dr. Seuss’sOne Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish— my niece’s first excuse to climb a ladder, but I don’t think she really needed a reason. 😉
Same spaces have the atmosphere of a comfortable corner of someone’s home, and every doorway welcomes.
I came around the corner and encountered mysteries. There’s a metaphor there, I’m sure.
My niece later found another reason to climb a ladder — various collections of Edgar Allen Poe, to which she coined a pun: “If one is perusing the works of Edgar Allen, one could be said to be reading Poe-etry.”
We are a silly lot.
On the mantel of one of the fireplaces stands this whimsical fellow:
If you ever visit Oklahoma City, try to carve out time to visit Full Circle Books, especially if you’re an independent author. The staff are friendly and professional, and the store supports indie and local authors, and the variety of books is vast.
I didn’t know there was any past kerfuffle over the Nobel committee’s tendency to be Euro-centric in its selections for the literary prize, but I don’t mind getting to know about excellent writers outside my own country.
(K)eep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.
What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”
That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”
Time has speeded up since then and moves forward in fits and starts–explaining the difference between the towering literary edifices of the past, with their cathedral-like architectures, and the disjointed and fragmented works of today. From this point of view, my own generation is a transitional one, and I would be curious to know how the next generations, born with the Internet, mobile phones, e-mails and tweets, will express through literature this world in which everyone is permanently ‘connected’ and where ‘social networks’ are eating into that part of intimacy and secrecy that was still our own domain until quite recently–the secrecy that gave depth to individuals and could become a major theme in a novel. But I will remain optimistic about the future of literature and I am convinced that the writers of the future will safeguard the succession just as every generation has done since Homer.
I can identify with that need to put up a shield against the noise and the constant connection that eats at the soul.
Although I won a few prizes for speech-giving while in school, I dislike standing before crowds because my hands and voice shake and my thoughts scatter. Modiano, too, expresses his discomfort:
Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.
Ah, yes. The need to constantly edit and revise. That explains my current profession.
Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French writer whose work ethic and precision with words one might well admire and imitate, even if his personal activities were best left behind the curtain, once wrote, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”
And, I might add, it is in the act of writing that you realize not only do you have something to say, it is worth saying.
I also belong to a generation in which children were seen and not heard except on certain rare occasions and only after asking permission. But no one ever listened and people would often talk across them. That explains the difficulty that some of us have when speaking – sometimes hesitant, sometimes too fast as if we expect to be interrupted at any moment. This is perhaps why the desire to write came over me, like so many others, at the end of childhood. You hope that the adults will read what you write. That way, they will have to listen to you without interrupting and they will jolly well know what it is you have on your chest.
Listening — truly listening — is a great gift.
We may not understand all we hear, we may not agree with all we hear, but if we listen, we will learn, we will build bridges, we will encourage.
I was a child whose early, stumbling, terrible writings were listened to with patience and encouraged by adults. It was my peers who made me mute. They mocked, they misunderstood, they shrugged. Without the listening ears of a few grownups I respected and loved, I might not be a writer today.
Akin to truly listening is truly reading. There are few things more encouraging to a writer than knowing his words are being read. And not just read. Loved.
The announcement of this award seemed unreal to me and I was eager to know why you chose me. On that day I do not think I had ever been more acutely aware of how blind a novelist is when it comes to his own books, and how much more the readers know about what he has written than he does. A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole…
So yes, the reader knows more about a book than the author himself. Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place. But for such harmony to exist between the author and his reader, it is important never to overextend the reader – in the sense that we talk about singers overextending their voice – but to coax him imperceptibly, leaving enough space for the book to permeate him little by little, by means of an art resembling acupuncture, in which the needle merely has to be inserted in exactly the right spot to release the flow in the nervous system.
A certain short story comes to mind, one in which I purposely included certain themes but in which readers found other connections, better connections, than I intended. That was, I think, the first time I realized that a writer and a reader encounter different stories, though the words are the same.
The rest of Modiano’s excellent speech is dense with historical and literary references, and is literature itself. I highly recommend it to every writer, and to every reader who wonders where writers find their stories.
When it comes to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, I’m not interested in being stirred up or pooh-poohed, in being lectured or being scolded, in being told what to think or feel or be or do.
I worked many years with youth and families of various ethnicities, and found that the vitriol coming at me — a person of European and Native American descent — was much more aggressive and bitter than I could have ever expected. All manner of prejudices and evil-doings were assigned to me by people who didn’t know me, but who accused me, verbally abused me, and called some creative names because I had to discipline their children or make judgement calls in disputes among their children.
I can’t recall the number of times I was told that only white people can be prejudiced. The irony of that statement never seemed to strike my accusers.
For me, race was never an issue. I looked on everyone as one race — the human race — and all capable of failure and folly. Right was right, wrong was wrong, and iffy needed some finesse. Sometimes wrongs were corrected, but many times wrongs were allowed to continue because someone might be or currently was offended. Offense and fear prevented good from being done.
Offense, anger, fear, and pride are burdens too heavy for me to carry. They hobble my steps, bow my back, and rob my vision. I may not be able to solve the ills of the world, nor may I be able to make my voice heard above the shouting, but I can shed my own blighted thinking, skewed perspective, and shackled living.
Friday, I took a walk, a reward to myself for completing a freelance project, and a chance to be away from the computer and revel in the sunlight. (Aaaaaah! My eyes! My eyes!) When I returned home, however, I didn’t want to return to work. If there is an autumn equivalent of spring fever, I have it.
There’s not much story there, other than the old one: brain takes a walk while the body struggles to complete tasks by itself. Not very literary, eh?
How ’bout this: Little kids know a good story when they meet one.
A few days ago, four-year-old Sunny ran through the house, narrating as she went: “…and then there’s a tree…Oh, no! Watch out!…but Sky swoops in…”
She complicated her play by introducing obstacles and problems, but also enabled her pretend self and other characters to overcome those blocks by imbuing herself and her imaginary friends with creative skills or tools to deal with whatever occurred.
Last night, while re-watching a Korean television series that a friend had not yet seen, I saw specific points where — if the characters had been wiser, had been less ruled by fear or grief or anger or greed, had been quicker or stronger or less driven, the story would have ended much sooner than it does.
I was frustrated by the ugly motives that led to unnecessary tragedy, but acknowledged that — without them — the rest of the story would not only lose its power but its purpose. An intriguing, funny, poignant, suspenseful series would not exist.
To borrow from another post on this blog, stories are interesting because bad things happen.
Or, to borrow from the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse, not a blessing, the most interesting times being those with wars and natural disasters. Kinda the ancient Asian version of “Go to hell.”
I’m close to wrapping up edits on a client’s fictionalized autobiography…although I like this book, the ending is thin…
I headed downstairs this afternoon to fill my cup with fresh, hot tea, and that’s when I saw the problem: There’s a positive change in the lead character’s life, but there’s no transcendence.
Sure, the guy overcomes a crappy childhood, a weak and aimless youth, and a bout with addiction and alcoholism, and he’s definitely in a better place now, but–
And why did he finally decide that addiction was not the life for him?
Even in true-to-life stories, characters need a reason, a motive, and then action to back it up.
Otherwise, it’s not just the editor who’s falling asleep, but the audience is, too.
A horror story is playing out in the Middle East — not only there, but around the world — as adherents to a violent ideology behead, crucify, rape, torture, hang, beat, and exile anyone weaker or who doesn’t believe the same way or to the same extent as they. Similar atrocities have occurred throughout history, perpetrated by different groups in different places. Mankind conjures insane evil against itself and calls it good and justified.
And yet from this darkness arises life-changing, life-affirming stories.
One such is the recent travails of Miriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman accused of apostasy and adultery, and imprisoned in chains, because she married a Christian man, an American citizen. She even gave birth while in chains. She and her family were rescued and brought to the US in summer 2014.
Another such story can be read in The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, which recently became a banned book in some libraries. It details how the ten Boom family hid Jews from the Nazis, how Corrie endured and survived a concentration camp, and how faith sustained her.
Powerful stories will be born of the current horror, as well. Tales will be told of pointless tragedy and humbling self-sacrifice, crushing dominance and inexplicable mercy, breath-stealing loss and unexpected gifts. Violence so vile it can scarce be imagined, let alone described, and yet compassion so kind one cannot help but weep.
Stories need something to overcome, and they need a reason to overcome it.
A candle is lost in the sunlight, but shines like a star in the dark.
In Part 1 of “Telling Our Stories”, an adaptation of a presentation given to a female group of non-writers, I discussed editing, faith, and how and why God is a storyteller. In this half, I discuss why we need to tell our stories, and then I’ll share a bit of my own.
My favorite Bible stories teach and encourage me:
Mary, the mother of Jesus
Elizabeth, her wise cousin
David and Goliath
Elijah and Elisha
the Acts of the Apostles
and many, many more.
Jesus told parables involving women (the lost coin, the ten virgins), and there are several stories in the Gospels of His interaction with women:
woman taken in adultery
woman at the well
woman with the issue of blood
Mary at the wedding in Cana
the Syro-Phoenician woman
the women among His followers
The Old Testament is also full of strong female role-models: Esther and Ruth, of course, as well as Deborah the judge and Rahab who—even though she was a prostitute—came to trust God and was an ancestor of Jesus. The stories of Abigail and other women not only captured my imagination, but planted truths in my soul that helped me grow in my faith, even as a child.
God invites us to be storytellers.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy
Psalm 107:2 (NKJV)
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe
Psalm 107:2 (NIV)
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (NKJV)
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14-15 (NKJV)
So, why don’t we share our stories?
Pride? Fear? Distrust?
Perhaps we think people will judge us or won’t care.
Maybe we don’t know that our stories matter.
Maybe our stories are difficult—not just difficult to hear, but difficult to tell.
If so, here’s a secret:
Stories are only interesting if something bad happens.
If the hero never faces a challenge, never has an obstacle to overcome or an enemy to defeat, what’s the point? If Goliath was a wimpy little fella, why tell the story?
If it were a movie, people would fall asleep in the theater. If a book, it would never be read.
I’m not saying we should be happy when trouble enters our lives, but we can recognize it for what it is: another twist in the plot, another event in the story of our lives.
We’ll tell others about it later—how we faced down death, came back from the brink of financial disaster, survived homelessness or alcoholism or physical abuse. Stories are bridges between hopelessness and purpose, failure and perseverance, darkness and light.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:1-5 (NKJV)
THAT’s why we tell our story.
I always wanted to be brave, but knew I was a coward.
I loved to read stories of heroes from history, heroes of the faith, everyday people who were strong and stood for what was right.
However, I wouldn’t tell the truth when I should, out of fear of the consequences.
In childhood and even into my twenties, I attended churches with intensely evangelistic environments that could be compared to high-pressure sales: no one was getting away without hearing our pitch.
I hid from that by—ironically enough—carrying my Bible on top of all my schoolbooks, hoping other kids would ask me about it without me having to approach them first.
I’d stand up for my friends, but mock my faith, my overweight appearance, my bookish ways, and I’d back down and hide.
At age four, a huge fear entered my life, and with it came nightmares.
In the early 70s, my cousin DJ and I witnessed a fatal accident while playing in our grandparents’ front yard. We’d wanted to play in the ditch, but the grownups wouldn’t let us because 1) it was muddy, and 2) it was outside the fence.
We heard a screeching crash, and looked up to see what looked like one car with two back ends. A drunk driver in a Thunderbird had rounded the corner and veered into the inside lane, crashing head-on into a family’s station wagon.
He was thrown into a blackberry bramble on the far side of the road, and survived with only scratches and a broken collar bone. As I recall, only the father and one child survived in the station wagon.
In the confusion to help the victims, someone handed me a blanket, and I did what everyone else was doing, and toddled out to the ditch so I could give one of the rescuers a blanket. Recall, I was only four, and this was before the days of 911 and rescue vehicles being coordinated in their response times.
I reached the ditch, and saw my father straddling a body with no face. Whenever he would push down on the chest, air bubbles formed in the blood where the face should have been. I held out the blanket. He reached for it, and then he realized who was standing there. He yelled at me to get away, and I thought he was angry with me. Only later did I understand he was trying to protect me.
From that day onward, I had a fear of accidents, of wearing my seatbelt or not wearing it, of being cut by glass or being thrown out the window or hitting face-first against the seat in front of me. Riding in cars was stressful for a good long while.
Much later, in late teens and early twenties, I lived in a long dark tunnel of depression. The first time, I was suicidal. The second depression was shorter, I recognized it for what it was, and came out of it stronger than before.
I’ve survived automobile accidents, workplace bullies, foolish choices, church gossip, and even my own family.
Shortly before my twelfth birthday, my maternal grandfather and my uncle resorted to violence to settle a problem so minor it could have been resolved with a conversation. It didn’t even bear mentioning.
And yet they held a knife to my eight-year-old brother’s throat, and guns to our heads.
They threatened to kill our parents if anyone came to get us. They disowned my mother, and said many other things best forgotten. Peace I cannot describe came over me, and I knew God was in charge. We were going to come out of there alive.
There’s more to that story, but I’ll tell you later.
In my twenties, a suicidal woman named Carol pointed a gun at me and my friend, intending to kill us and then herself. I didn’t move, didn’t speak, but just continued leaning against the window A/C unit and sent up a silent prayer. I didn’t know what else to do. Again, I was strangely calm in that moment. I was ready to die.
Carol put down her gun and wept. Many nights later, she was drunk and met me in the church parking lot, but wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She said the reason she couldn’t pull the trigger the first night, and why she couldn’t look at me now, was because of the person she saw with me, the person looking out of my eyes. Not me. Someone else was looking at her. She wanted the love she saw, but felt unworthy of it. Could I help her?
In my thirties, I hit an icy patch on the road and rolled my truck. The man who helped me get out expected to find a dead body. Instead, I blacked out only briefly. Although I had a concussion and strained muscles, I was cognizant and fully able to move.
When I look back on the events of my life—the miracles, the healings, the long troubles that seemed never to end—I can see the story God has been telling.
But only when I look back. It’s hard in the moment to see the story.
Stories are powerful.
They convey truth often better than a lecture, an advice column, or even a sermon.
And how are sermons illustrated? By scriptures and by stories.
Jesus used stories to point to the kingdom of heaven, to show people how to live, to show how much God loves us. However, to do so, He also showed us ourselves in our imperfections. In the parables of Jesus, people make mistakes or wrong decisions:
a rebellious son squanders his inheritance
a man forgiven his debt refuses to forgive someone else
bridesmaids arrive unprepared
wedding guests refuse to accept a generous invitation
For centuries, histories were kept alive by storytelling. Now we write history in books.
Strong stories often contain Biblical truths or concepts,
although they may not outright preach them.
I reiterate, stories are powerful.
People who might never pick up a Bible will pick up a novel.
Stories can reveal truth in ways that will capture the minds and hearts of readers who otherwise might never come into a church to hear the sermons.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [overcome] it. John 1:4-5 (NKJV)
Stories spark the imagination.
They ask questions and rouse curiosity. They engage the mind.
Remember the disciples asking Jesus what His parables meant? The disciples were interacting with the stories. They were engaged.
Stories are why novels, role-playing games, stage plays, television shows, and movies are so influential in our culture.
To further answer the question, “Why stories?” read Dan Allender’s excellent book, To Be Told. In it, he shows how God uses our stories to guide, heal, and direct us, and to help us minster to others.
Remember when I said there was more to the story involving my grandparents and my uncle?
The police took my brother and me away from the house in the wee hours of the morning. The grownups said everything was my fault.
My parents considered pressing charges, or at least getting a restraining order, but because of what my grandparents and uncle told the police, I was afraid they would lie in court. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I just wanted everything to quiet down and be normal again.
About a year or so later, my grandparents announced that my grandfather’s heart was failing, and begged to come see us. I tried to be cool about it, but I couldn’t wait for them to leave.
A couple years after that, near Thanksgiving, my grandfather died. Mom mourned him, but I couldn’t understand. Yeah, he was her father, but he’d been abusive to her, and he’d tried to kill me and my brother. I was relieved he was dead.
This August, nearly thirty years later, Mom and I traveled out west to see my grandmother and uncle. I didn’t want to, but I knew it mattered to Mom, and we’d had a trip to the West Coast planned for several years.
I’d forgiven my grandmother and uncle a long, long time ago. Yet, rather than accept the responsibility for their actions, they continued to blame me.
But when we walked into the rehab center, Grandma was sitting in her wheelchair near the door, and the first thing she said to me, tears running down her face, was “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” No blame, no lies, just repentance.
Life is messy.
It’s also full of blessing.
Life is hard, but God is good.
And that’s my story.