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28
Mar

Howling At The Moon

[Deep breath.]

WhenwillIhavetimetoworkontheideasthatI’vestockpiledImeanIhavesomanyprojectsbutIdon’thave thetimetodevotetothem,letalonetheenergy,becauseIhaveadayjobthatstretchesmytemperament beyondrecognitionwithcoworkersforwhom,shortofdivineintervention,Ifeellittlebutantipathy, andeventhoughIhavedivineinterventiontogetmethroughtheday,Istillcomehomecompletely wipedoutattheendofeveryworkdayandthatshootsholesinthetimeIdohaveforworkingonmywriting, notthatitmattersbecauseIdon’thavethefirstideahowtosellmyworkeffectivelysothatIcancreatea footholdformyself,whichiswhatitwilltakebecausewhatIwritedoesn’tquitefitthebasicpigeonholesofits genrewhichisalsothestoryofmylife,really,andI’veneverbeenabletoshakefreeofthatperpetualoddness that,true,somepeoplelearntoenjoyanyway,meincluded,butthefrustrationstillsometimesbuildsup becauseaslongasI’maliteraryoddityI’llneverbeabletoestablishacareerthatenablesmetodedicatemy timetodoingwhatIlove(writing,ofcourse)whilestillmakingaliving,andthatdiscouragesmenoend, whenwritingissupposedtocheermeupafteraharddayamongequallydifficultpeople.

[Deep breath.] Okay. Rant completed. I feel a little better now. Back to spring cleaning.

21
Mar

“Slowly I Turned”: I Dream of Bacon

Once upon a time, when my doctor decided to try out a certain medication on me, she warned me of potential side effects. One of them: unusually vivid dreams. Naturally, my inward reaction was, How will I know the difference? Virtually all my dreams are unusually vivid. In fact, I know I’m under too much stress when I dream “normal” dreams, like being at work where people tread on me like a sidewalk.

I have, at various times, dreamed of such things as a mountain of embryonic monsters and a large neon tie-dye frog in a puddle. In dreams I have parachuted on horseback from the hatch of a low-flying spacecraft, taken my five-year-old self to the park and then to an ice cream parlor, and fallen down a chute hidden inside a dining room table’s leg. Just a couple of days ago, in the same dream I saw dragons and deli counters, French horns and mazes, haunted ruins and pre-packaged bacon trimmings. (Yes, I dream of bacon. Take that to Freud and analyze it.) My dreams sometimes include commercial breaks—I can wake up in the midst of one, lie back down (“This dream has been brought to you by Reality”) and resume the same dream again. Very rarely am I involved in my own dreams. Most of the time, I view the action in the third person or from the viewpoint of one of the characters involved in the dream.

My unconscious mind tells me stories while I sleep. That’s the only conclusion I have been able to draw. This has proven to be a useful trait, since a number of these dreams have ended up as writing projects. My second novel, The King’s Brother, began in just such a way. Giles and Colin were imprisoned with Owen in cell with one small window, giving a rat’s-eye view of a wooded area; Maia ran away to look for help and found it in a mysterious stranger in those very woods. Now, this is really something when you consider that none of these characters (except Owen, of course) existed prior to the dream.

I like dreaming. I like sleeping, naturally, because that’s when I dream. Dreams are comfortable. I can’t remember the last time I had a nightmare. Even when I dream of violent or spooky stories, they are always just that: stories. They don’t frighten me. Mob shootouts, monsters, freefalls from great heights—none of it frightens me. Third-person POV does help in that regard, I suppose, but sometimes I do wonder if my dreams have become my psychological safe place. Heaven knows I often need one—my sole means of support is a day job involving frequent verbal abuse from strangers, constant negative emotions from coworkers, and bureaucratic indifference from the ones ultimately in charge. The trouble is, I can only sleep for so long. Eventually I need to go back and face the world again.

Writing began as a safe place for me. I was thinking about this last week when I was on vacation in my old home town. There’s really nothing there. It occurred to me that, when one is surrounded by nothing, all that remains is potential. (What an unusually optimistic thing for me to think.) I created my own worlds out of dissatisfaction with the one I was given. For a child, I think that’s okay. For an adult… not so much. I can enjoy the escape of building my own world, just as I can enjoy the occasional dream, but I no longer have the luxury of keeping at arm’s length the world that I have been given. The two keep bumping into one another. The collision is called marketing. Ugh. Marketing. I can’t avoid it.

But dreams still come, and I still write. The collision involves bringing others into the worlds I make. That’s a good thing. No, that’s an excellent thing. I love sharing my worlds with others. I can’t share dreams—so the next time I dream of being taken hostage by a group of outlaws and being forced to create an exact replica of a Wild West mining office, I can’t bring you with me—but I can share stories. Welcome to my world! (No, bacon is not provided. Bring your own.)

14
Mar

“Slowly I Turned”: How to Recognize Love from a Very Long Distance

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP * THE FOLLOWING IS A TEST OF THE MORAL EMERGENCY SYSTEM. THIS IS NOT A RHETORICAL QUERY. IF THIS WERE A REAL RHETORICAL QUERY, THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS WOULD NOT REQUIRE ANSWERS.* BEEEEEEEEEEEP *

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Fair enough. How? What does it look like? For instance:

  • How do you love a chronic (not to say, terminal) whiner?
  • How do you love an adolescent soul in a middle-aged body, whose habit of leeching off of anyone and everyone with demands of incessant validation leads to the utter loss of everyone’s respect?
  • How do you love a champion grudge-holder who lives as though cheap vengeance is THE path to happiness?
  • How do you love the “tolerant” person who yet regards everyone else with much the same look as you might give to the traces of the dog’s latest deposit clinging to the sole of your shoe?
  • How do you love the human locomotive who splatters everyone else on the tracks en route, with no more reaction than a deafening toot on the whistle?
  • How do you love a five-story-building’s worth of neglected, violent-tempered, entitled, and/or conceited teenage children—half-baked adults forever leaping out of the oven before the timer goes off?
  • How do you love someone you may only meet once, someone who has effectively destroyed his/her own child’s life without regret through his/her own severe personal deficits?

I’ll tell you why these aren’t rhetorical questions. I have been on vacation for a few days, but very soon I must return to my day job. I work with all the people described above, ranging from elite crowned heads of Petty Martyrdom to some genuinely needy and yet just as genuinely unlikeable souls. These questions hover just behind my eyes and just inside my ears every day at work, and I can’t say I can answer them. I’m thinking out loud here. (In print, then. Nitpicker. You know what I meant.)

I think another bullet list is in order here. I’ll title it “Things I Know,” and lay it out as follows:

  • First: love is not an emotion. Affection is an emotion; camaraderie is a reciprocal response to others’ actions; lust is a chemical reaction run amok. Love is something else—a decision.
  • The second is a logical offshoot: it must be possible to decide to love someone for whom one does not actually feel affection or any other natural inclination. I know it must be possible, because I am instructed to do exactly this. (Review the opening quotation from Luke 6, if you have forgotten so easily during the interim.)

It is forced to my attention that this list is much shorter than the last one. Therein lies my quandary. One can hold the theory of a thing easily enough without possessing a specific strategy for proving that theory. All this to say, what should this sort of love look like?

As a writer, it doesn’t surprise me that I also find this question pressing on me in my work. I have a character who cannot forgive the considerable offenses of his parents. He hates them, and he has good reasons to do so. He is surrounded by people who are determined to bring about a reconciliation, for the good of his psyche if for no other reason. But only love can forgive and mean it. Any writer knows that a resolution cannot be forced. The whole story goes cockeyed if you force it to do what it isn’t prepared to do. So the matter comes back around to love as a choice, undeserved and in some cases unwanted. What does it look like, loving someone who is intrinsically unlikeable and yet convinced of his/her own merit? In the case of a rancorous spirit, what must love look like in order to encourage forgiveness and not merely bow to the desire for payback?

Oh, I suppose there’s another item I could add to the “Things I Know” list:

  • Love is gentle and kind, yes, but also truthful… which may cause spontaneous combustion.

People generally don’t like facing the truth, I find. They want to hear what they want to hear, and nothing else, on pain of death. What does love look like when the truth is declared out of bounds, yet the essence of love is truth?

I still have all these questions. It reminds me of a comment that the professor made on my senior paper on the epistle to the Romans: You bring up a lot of good questions. Maybe, in ten years or so, you will have found some answers. Come to think about it, it has been more than ten years since then. I taught Romans to my Sunday morning study group a few months ago, and I was the one answering the questions. (Good call, Brother Bowland.)

I hope the same is true of these questions I’ve trotted out for your benefit here. I suppose this is another of those things that can’t be reasoned into submission—it must be lived to be understood.

 

7
Mar

“Slowly I Turned”: Scars of a Clown

I wake up in the morning at five. Lights on, sweats on—time for morning exercise. I beat the air with my fists as if it were my enemy, all to prepare myself for the real fight ahead of me. Punch, punch, block, dodge, kick, ha! Thank goodness that’s over. Now I can shower and put on my loose-fitting work clothes, except for socks. I always forget the socks until it’s time to put on my shoes. I never pay much attention to my hair, because I always wear a hat. Who cares what’s underneath a hat, anyway?

 

Eat breakfast next, so I don’t have to worry about ruining my makeup or having to scrub red lip-prints off my milk glass. Feed the body with Cheerios, fruit, and instant breakfast. Feed the soul, too—and wouldn’t you know it, today I open the page to read, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.* Fitting, that quote. I make note of it just before I rinse my dishes and leave them in the sink to wash after work.

 

Now it’s time for makeup. Time is running short; I haven’t packed my lunch yet. I paint my face with a somewhat hurried, careless hand guided by habit. But I don’t forget to overdraw my lips. That’s important, they always say. Deep red, as if I have just come from feeding on fresh prey. That’s a disturbing thought. Why red? It looks so aggressive. But it’s traditional, so there’s no use pondering it when I still have a lunch to pack and three minutes to be out the door.

 

Socks… I told you I always forget. Now I can pull on my large floppy shoes. On with the slightly oversized jacket with the swallow tail that flutters behind my knees when I walk. The choice of hats always causes me a little trouble, but I have just thirty seconds left. The bowler with the large plastic flower will have to do for today. I grab an extra bottle of seltzer water, just in case. Ten seconds: just enough time to lock my front door, waddle down the steps, and climb into my tiny car. The shoes always slow me up.

 

Who am I? I’m a clown. Why am I a clown? I’ll tell you: because the world around me is full of grumbling ingratitude, for one thing, and people don’t take care of one another as they ought. I have gazed across the surrounding landscape and seen it littered with the abandoned, the depressed, the burdened, and the abused. I can’t fix these things on a large enough scale to change the world at large. I don’t have the money, and there isn’t enough time in the day. But one thing I decided that I could do: wield joy that the world cannot overcome, so that perhaps I can shine light into a world that might otherwise sink into darkness.

 

Okay, the bit about the greasepaint, seltzer water, and floppy shoes was just a gag. On the outside, I’m extremely ordinary. But on the inside, I shall be a fool for God, if that’s what it takes to carry the fight to the darkness. When Paul said, For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh,** he wasn’t kidding. The Pentagon will never attempt this.

 

It’s anything but easy, fighting a battle like this. In my workplace, I find that the culture of complaining has an undertow so strong that, if it catches you, it’s almost sure to suck you under, never to be seen again in this life. Oftentimes my attempts to brighten people’s day are met with brick-wall resistance. Strange as it sounds, some people like being miserable. I suppose it’s easier than fighting the pull, especially when you have no real foundation in joy. At other times, I’m met with outright hostility and suspicion, as if my humor is meant as criticism in disguise. Honestly, when I want to criticize you, you’ll know it.

 

Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing any good. Sometimes the undertow gets me, and I need to pull back and regroup. However, the occasional smiles I get from some of the people around me are sufficient to tell me that my ongoing struggle is not in vain. I draw my strength from a source that cannot be exhausted, no matter how exhausted I may feel. So stitch up my wounds, give me a couple of aspirin, and let me take a quick nap before I head back out to the battlefield. Oh, and freshen my custard pie. The whipped cream has lost its peaks.

 

Always remember: most clowns are more afraid of you than you are of them.

 

 

*1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV

**2 Corinthians 10:3-4 ESV

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