A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats — I Hope

forthcoming October 6, 2015
forthcoming October 6, 2015

Last week, I found out something that gave me both hope and dread: Geraldine Brooks, a bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is publishing a novel about Israel’s second king, David, this year. So am I.

Oh, the stew of reactions I had.

Dread. She will suck all the potential attention my book(s) could potentially get.

Vindication. I was right that the time is ripe for fictional treatments of biblical people.

Curiosity. Her retelling will be different from mine. Here’s the blurb:

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans.

I am aiming my book at young adults and she’s aiming hers at adults, which is my way of saying that she writes gorgeously, for a literary fiction audience; I don’t. I am using fewer points of view, just David and Saul, to her possible six. I am using Western English spellings. But I loved her novel, People of the Book, and I kind of can’t wait to see what she does with David and all those people in his life. Will her characterizations be similar to any of mine? Will any be polar opposite?

Hope. If people are interested in her book and they look it up on Amazon, maybe they will sometimes find mine, as well. Discoverability is a big issue when independently publishing, so this might bring a few more eyes to my project than it would otherwise have gotten.

Which brings me to:

Determination. Brooks’s publication is as good a reason as any to try to get all three of the books in my series published this year. Which would be crazy. But I’m going to try. So it will be crazy.

Right now, The Giant Slayer (Book One) is with an Old Testament expert to make sure I get matters of culture at least plausible. Then it goes to the final proofreader, and then to the book and cover designer. The Giant Slayer could be out by summer. Contact me to be put on the list of those who will find out first!



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The Power of the Gaze

I recently took myself out on an artist’s date — something Julia Cameron recommends in her book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. My city is having a festival of art by people who have disabilities, so for my artist’s date, I went to the galleries to see the static visual art, and found myself compelled by the choices the artists made regarding where their subject (when their art included a subject) was looking.

  • Is the subject looking away from the viewer If so, how? Demurely? Fearfully? Disdainfully? Heroically?
  • If the subject has closed eyes, is the subject hiding? Or is it a symbol of willing vulnerability?
  • Is the subject looking straight at the viewer? If so, how? Is it a challenge? An invitation? A plea? A statement of fact with little emotion?

* * * * *

At the Grand Rapids Art Museum, there were two paired portraits by David Lock. The watercolors (or, watercolours, since Lock is from the UK) are portraits of the head of a cobbled together person. The eyes are different from each other, there are different jawlines, different ears, different skin colors and textures, all in the same face. It’s like a cubist-style painting run amok. In each of the pairs (as they were hung here, at least), one subject looks away from the viewer, and the other looks right at the viewer — each in a different way.

Misfit (Smoke), 2012, had an averted gaze that felt like the gaze had slid away, as if the subject didn’t want to be looking at you looking at him. Misfit (Unwanted), 2012, looked right at you, and it felt like a challenge, probably because of the lifted angle of half of the chin and jawline. The other pair was quite different. In Misfit (Shadow), 2013, the subject looked slightly up into the middle distance, a classic hero pose. While its partner, Misfit (Slice), 2012, looked right at the viewer, but without much emotional content; the gaze didn’t feel like a plea or a challenge, it just was.

It made me think about all the varying expectations people who do not have physical disabilities (or at least, people whose bodies do not broadcast their disability) have when looking at someone with a disability. Do we think of them as embarrassed? As noble? As intrusive? As a blank?

And from the point of view of the person with a disability. Are they tired of everyone always looking at them? Do they feel pressure to be The Heroic Representative? Do they reject that pressure with an “F.U.” to those applying it? Do they just want to be, without worrying about how you see them?

You can see images of all four of these watercolours at Lock’s website.

* * * * *

My favorite venue was the 250 Monroe Street Gallery, which had pieces by West Michigan artists. Deb Dieppa showed Outsider Art-style pieces, bright and energetic works that incorporated lots of words. Marylu Dykstra had a number of paintings, including a series of waterfalls (water as both an image of crushing and of solace), and a painting called, Hope Emerges (2012), that had a tiny face of a woman surrounded by a highly textured, dark surface that reminded me of Great Canadian Shield rock.

But the other two artists there gave me more to think about in terms of this “gaze” question: Reyna Garcia and Robert Andy Coombs. Garcia had a number of works in the show, including a large installation of painting and photography, Ayotzinapa We All, her “reflections on her work as a community organizer to support the case of the disappearance of the 43 Normalista students last September 29, 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico” (from her artist statement). But for these purposes, I want to talk about her series of three large paintings, “Voces de Esperanza (Voices of Hope), 2011-2013,” that focus on the immigrant experience. These looked very different from her protest paintings, which were full of heavy, saturated colors, and textured paints. The immigrant works had rich colors that I think of as clear — not in terms of being see-through, but not muddied. The paint is applied in a flatter style, using more sweeping strokes. (As a Canadian, they reminded me of Group of Seven, Lawren Harris’s work.)

And there are almost no distinguishable faces. Faces are plain ovals.

She doesn’t mention why in her artist statement. Was it to make the figures more universal? To make the story she tells less personal and more socio-cultural? I don’t know, but they were beautiful and striking, especially the blue female figure of hope rising out of the water, with the wind blowing her hair around coalescing into wings.

You can find images of the Voices of Hope series here; they were 2011 Art Prize entries.

* * * * *

But it was Robert Andy Coombs’s series of nude portraits that drew my attention the longest. First of all, they are beautiful bodies, beautifully lit, intriguingly lit even, with lots of interesting plays of light and shadow.

There were three shots of each subject: one close-up of the head and shoulders with the subject looking away, a full-body shot, and another close-up with the subject looking right at the viewer. Before I talk about the experience of looking at these photos, let me include Coombs’s words about the Disability and Sexuality Series, 2011-2012:

Having a disability myself, I am interested in photographing various types of physical disabilities, showing each individual as a sexual person. Despite having disabilities, the subjects are still human, therefore having sexual needs and desires. Photographing each subject nude allows the viewer to look at what goes on beneath clothing, showing scars, tattoos, and adaptations in order to lead functional lives. The subject’s gaze is an invitation to look, confronting the viewer, making each subject come to life.

An invitation and a confrontation, indeed! The first two subjects, especially so, because in order to even see that they were fully nude, you had to look right at their adaptations. You had to look right at the places their disabilities manifested themselves, which most people really don’t do. Or at least try not to do overtly. I admit, the first time, my gaze slid over the first one without looking closely enough to realize the man was fully nude. I had to go back to it when I saw the second subject’s full body shot. Just for that alone, this was a striking experience.

There were other things to think about in these photos. The first subject had a tattoo of folded hands on his chest, above them the words, “Pray for me.” Was that a sincere request? A bit of an “F.U.”? Both? Something else? Coombs has a tattoo on his collarbone, “Giving up is the ultimate tragedy,” that you’d be able to see if he wore a T-shirt, but he was dressed to the nines every time I saw him, so I never did.

Coombs was entirely successful in his desire to portray people with disabilities as sexual, but it wasn’t primarily because they were naked. It was in their eyes (whether closed or open), in the challenging lift of the chin (in Coombs’s full-body shot, in particular), in the softer mouth (an almost-smile?) of the third man that gave his final shot a come-hither invitation.

These were my favorites of the festival, for both the challenge and the invitation, as well as the sheer beauty of the images.

You can find images of the Disability and Sexuality series on Coombs’s website.

* * * * *

So lots to think about. Lots of questions to ask. Lots of beautiful and challenging images. In other words, an entirely successful artist’s date. If you are in the West Michigan area, the DisArt Festival continues through April 25, 2015, although some galleries will keep their works up longer. If not, I encourage you to take yourself on an artist’s date — fill that creative well for once, instead of just drawing from it.

If you’re interested in the other art forms on display at the festival, here are my reports on the Fashion Show and Poetry and Comedy Night.

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Spark My Muse: I’m on a podcast!

This is a brief post to alert my readers to my appearance on Lisa Colon DeLay’s podcast: Spark My Muse. (Click on the title of the podcast to be led to it; you will have to crank the sound on your listening device when the podcast gets to the interview.)

We talk about my upcoming book, The Giant Slayer, and I do a brief reading from the opening scene. We also talk about how we forget that the people in Bible stories don’t know the endings of their stories, and how reading the Bible with that lens can help us see ourselves in the stories. Lisa also asked me how I spark my creative muse, and I quite like my answer: listening both broadly and deeply. In the podcast, I confess that I relate much more to Saul’s struggles than I do David’s, although David is a much better example for me, especially in his response to his own failures.

To you, I will also confess that I do way too much practicing being interviewed when I’m driving around in my minivan, but I think it paid off. It was fun to do and I don’t think I sound either like a lunatic or like a bore, so I count it as a success.

I hope that you find something you can count as success (whether or not someone else would) today.

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“It’s true. It’s still funny.”

DisArt Comedy and Poetry Night

That’s a quote by Liz Carr, the British comedian and actress who was the final performer in DisArt’s Poetry and Comedy night, and who was so funny about true things that pushed the boundaries of what isn’t funny, that I was exhausted by the end of her performance. It was a cathartic exhaustion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The evening started with West Michigan poet, and founder and leader of the organization, Compassionate Connection, Randy Smit. I’ve taken creativity classes with Randy and he’s a great facilitator and encourager and taker of the discussion to a deeper level, except when he occasionally takes it to a sillier level — all of which are wonderful. He’s also a poet who juxtaposes the mundane and the sublime and throws in some killer analogies which manage to make me laugh, make me think, and break my heart, often at the same time.

The poem titled “February 29″ was a perfect example of that dynamic. It started out so ordinary, with, “Where would I be without toast?” But then, while eating a square of buttery toast, he thinks about a friend who’d driven his wheelchair off a pier, and how and why “they” said it happened (an accident), and wound up at his own conclusion, “he must just have gotten tired.” Devastating.

He started off with a rant poem inspired by a man who had driven illegally on a bike path, when Randy was wheeling down the path one sunny afternoon, to ask him whether he needed any help. Here are some of my favorite responses (direct quotes as I heard them, but probably not as set on the page):

Do I need help? Yeah.
I’ve been trying like crazy to pay down my credit card.
I’ve been dying to learn some Hebrew.
I could use some insight into my 401K.
I’ve got a new pair of jeans; I can’t get them soft.

He, of course, doesn’t need help to continue riding down the path. From a poem called “Inspiration,” I loved this line:

The deep abyss you call the present.

In a poem about his brother Chris’s dog, he made me laugh with, “The white fur between your toes smells like Fritos,” and then got me teary with the adjective, “omni-benevolent.” I did find a link for one of my favorites of the night, “Toilet Talk,” so I’m able to include this great analogy in its fullness:

I think I’m all set is what I’ll
say to the student nurse in just a few minutes, I

hope. But first − Even my sense
of God being in control seems to
be changing, I say, it’s much more like
a director of a musical, I mean certainly in charge
of what might… but then, I guess
more as a maestro, a muse, thrilled with
harmony, the soaring of hearts out
in the seats, the flautist, third chair
bassoonist, stagehands and soloists each rapt in
their singular, lustrous offerings, the conductor
at the center of the grand production − yeah, maybe
that’s who, that’s how.

I’m just crazy about the maestro leading the musicians who are “rapt in their singular, lustrous offerings.” Lustrous. Great word. His final poem started out talking to and about his younger brother and it was so big brotherly in funny and dear ways. Then he expanded it to his family, “I’d like to thank my family for being who they are and never quite telling me to my face.” And then he expanded it again to his “brothers panhandling in Cairo,” and wound up wondering what he could’ve done if he’d lived from end to beginning.

* * * * *

The next performer of the evening was poet Jim Ferris, Chair of the Disabilities Studies Program at University of Toledo (in OH). We got a hint of how he’d be right away from his shirt, which had stick-figure illustrations of people, one of whom used a wheelchair, engaged in a variety of sexual positions. I sure hope there was nobody in the audience who was uncomfortable with people with disabilities talking about sex; if so, they were in for a rough night. Ferris also talks faster than Randy, so I was able to jot down fewer of his exact words.

His first poem was the very funny, “High Concept,” about calling the Screen Actor’s Guild on a lark to see whether there’s already a Jim Ferris registered, and being put through to Jim Ferris’s agent and getting acting work although he tried to argue with them:

No movie star wears a brace or walks like I do unless they’re trying to win an Oscar.

The poem, “Fear at Thirteen,” was about being prepped for surgery. The images were sharp and often disturbing: one leg shaved to the hip, doctors and nurses hovering over him “showing only bandit eyes,”

and what you fear most is that you’ll pop a boner and die embarrassed….

He wrote a poem to a critic who kept being asked to evaluate Ferris’s work despite the fact that he always trashed it:

The crackle of pity tenses the electric air. He wants to see me limp …. He’s publicly disappointed when I don’t dance his way.

Besides other poems about being and knowing and sex, he read two poems that could also be characterized as rants. One for all the people who want to tell him what to wear and how to be so he’ll appear “normal,” that powerfully included the repeated line, “I won’t cover my stumps.” And another, “Tell Aristotle,” inspired by philosophers and thinkers over the centuries who think disabled children are not fully human: “tell them I lived…

Tell them all, we thrive.

* * * * *

And then Liz Carr came to the stage. She’s a British actress and comedian (she plays a forensics expert on a TV show there) who was able to make us howl with laughter at her stories of indignities she’s endured as other people try to deal with her disability, as well as what she gets away with because people don’t know how to deal with her disability (including her freedom to reach the Mile High Club because the flight attendants don’t dare question how long she’s been in the bathroom with her partner).

She started out with describing her experience at a comedy competition. The building was accessible, but the stage wasn’t, so the organizers came up with the solution of lifting her up to the stage at the beginning of the competition. That worked, but it meant she had to sit there while all the other comedians performed, but

it’s okay. They put a drop sheet over me. It reminded me of Christmas at home.

Somehow, she got us to laugh at the medical interview she was given before they’d let her on the plane to come here: “Do you think you’ll die during the flight?” She lamented how rich people got Disney to take away “the gold card of crippledom”: “We can’t go to first in the queue.” Said rich people were hiring people in wheelchairs to wait in line on their behalf so they could skip ahead of everyone else.

There’s another story that I can’t even begin to describe, just to say that it started with Amsterdam, went to the Anne Frank house, and then wound up with the audience screaming at the punchline, “Schindler’s lift.”

So many of her stories were like this. Her observations about her life and the lives of other folks who are disabled pushed the boundaries of what should be funny, but she made us laugh at them, laugh at our own earnest ridiculousness, laugh at the humanness of her condition and of ours. So she, indeed, had to say, “It’s true. It’s true. It’s still funny.”

It sure was on Friday night. I’m so glad I went.

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The Mother of Invention

My husband and I went to our first fashion show this weekend. We dressed in black; I wore my steampunk-inspired earrings; we practiced our high fashion attitudes.

silly fashion shot

Happily, this attitude was more appropriate to the event, the first ever DisArt Festival Fashion Show.

mohawk dude

From their website:

DisArt is a multi-venue Disability Arts Festival scheduled for April 10-25, 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Through several world-renowned exhibits of Disability Arts from all over the world, DisArt Festival 2015 will challenge its audiences to reconsider the importance of community, identity, and difference.

Which sounds all fine and good, but let me tell you what it meant for the Fashion Show: every model was a person with a disability. Each was given the full hair and makeup treatment. Each got to strut their stuff on a professionally lit runway, accompanied by the musical stylings of a professional DJ and the raucous cheers of the audience — except when the sleeping baby came out and we all tried to clap quietly. Many of the designers were people with disabilities.

It was one of the most joyful events I’ve ever been to.

Unlike most fashion shows that make the press, this was a family event, full of children and grandparents. Maybe a quarter of the crowd dressed for a fashion show, but the rest could have been going to any event their offspring were involved in. There were lots of kid volunteers, with whole families in blue DisArt T-shirts. The organizers kept having to bring in more chairs, and still, people wound up standing. Room 217 in the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building of Kendall College of Art and Design practically vibrated with excitement.

Robert Andy Coombs, photographer (see his work at the DisArt Hub) and DisArt Fashion Coordinator, welcomed us to the event, and then the fun began.

Robert Andy Coombs

The first three items of clothing were made by open style lab, a nonprofit enterprise out of MIT that designs and manufactures accessible garments. First was a black quilted jacket with grey detail just under the shoulder that was so cool-looking I forgot to notice what made it particularly great for those with disabilities. I talked to the model afterwards, and he said he’d buy that jacket in a heartbeat; some of the garments will be for sale in May, so hopefully he’ll get the chance.

cool jacket

Next was a rain jacket (RAYN) designed for those who use wheelchairs. It has a section that, when unzipped, folds out to cover the wearer’s lap, and has a hood that lays softly against the back, yet when it’s flipped up, forms a brim that funnels rain away from the wearer’s face. I talked with this model afterwards, as well, and he enjoyed the whole process — even his own America’s-Next-Top-Model-makeover-day experience, when one of the stylists didn’t like his hair and wanted to cut it. The model agreed, and loves his new haircut.

The final garment from open style lab was a gorgeous asymmetrical white jacket for women that featured magnetic closings that made it easier to put on and take off. Underneath it, model Jessica Poll wore a white pleated, goddess-style top (that I may have coveted just a tiny bit). Ms. Poll beamed her entire time on the runway.

gorgeous white jacket

The next group of garments were T-shirts and boots designed by military veterans who had been wounded during their service, many during combat in Iraq. A local organization, Fashion Has Heart, pairs designers with veterans to create a T-shirt that represents their journey, as well as boots that are then manufactured by Wolverine. The first model pictured here, the guy with the awesome multicolored mohawk who is totally working the crowd, is wearing a shirt designed by a man with burns over 90% of his body after his vehicle was hit by an IED. The design shows a man in the middle of flames, rising like a phoenix.

The young woman below is modeling a shirt designed by an Iraq war veteran who lost her sight. The tagline on the shirt: “When life gives you lemons, you make the best damn lemonade.” The design is also textural, so a person with visual impairments can enjoy the different design elements.

Fashion Has Heart t-shirt

There were several more T-shirts — one with a gold medal to symbolize the veteran’s hope of becoming a Paralympian, another with many doors, another with an image of the designer standing on his bionic legs. All the T-shirts from Fashion Has Heart are for sale for $25 each.

The final group of garments were designed by students in a class at the Kendall College of Art and Design and in partnership with Spectrum Health Innovations. Each student was paired with a child with a disability and tasked with creating clothing that would be supportive, that would be able to accommodate diapers and leg braces, that would have seams that lie flat. AND that a kid would want to wear — these functional garments had to be fun and attractive. They totally were.

There was a Mickey Mouse-themed outfit with a cape for a toddler who wasn’t quite as excited about the bright lights as some of the other models. An outfit that looked like it could be Green Bay Packers practice gear. One of the models was clearly having so much fun, zooming with his walker, but taking his moment in the spotlight at the beginning and end of the runway, that I forgot to notice what he was wearing, except that it had a cape, too. The garments took advantage of cutting-edge fabrics, with 4-way stretch, and with compression capabilities to support the kids’ muscle development and placement. The pants all had really cool-looking seaming that had functional purposes, but they managed to make it look and feel great for the kids wearing them. It was such a great experience that the instructor of the class hopes they’ll be able to run it again.

When Robert Andy Coombs came out again, he got a standing ovation. He called out festival director, Chris Smit, who also got the standing ovation treatment, and then made many people cry with these words:

We wanted to flip things on their heads, and I think we just did it. There are opportunities for this to happen all over. But it didn’t happen in New York. It didn’t happen in Chicago. It didn’t happen in L.A. It happened right here in Grand Rapids!

Now that it’s happened here, I hope it happens all over.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the DisArt Fashion Show demonstrated that designers and fabric technologists are more than up to the task of designing beautiful garments that fill some real needs in the world — whether the need is for more functional garments for those with disabilities, or for self-expression, or for beauty. Or all three.

* The festival continues all week, with exhibitions, films, round tables, family days, dance performances. All for free. Check out the schedule. *

** I apologize for not being a proper reporter and not getting the names of all the models. If anyone who reads this knows their names, send me a message and I’ll add them. All photographs were taken by Michael Van Houten on his iPhone from our seats. If you want to see professional photos and news reports, you can check out MLive and WZZM. **



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Champion is also a verb

thumb's up

When my family and I were on a (rare!) spring break trip to Nashville we took a walking tour with a musician friend of my husband: Walkin’ Nashville Music City Legends Tour, with Bill DeMain. It’s a great tour, even if (like me) you don’t love country music, there’s great storytelling about some real characters.

Two of my favorite stories were about champions. Yes, Bill talked about award-winners, like Chet Atkins and Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, people who have been or still are on top of the country echelon. But for me, the best stories were about people who championed others.

Tootsie, of Tootsie’s Wild Orchid Lounge, loved her young songwriters so much that she built a room for them in the back of the bar and made demo records of their songs and stocked them in her jukebox — young guys like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson. When Patsy Cline’s husband heard a demo of “Crazy” on the jukebox one night, he asked about the songwriter; Tootsie went in the back and brought out Willie. The connection was made, as was a hit record.

Skull Schulman, of The Rainbow Room, a music venue and burlesque club, loved to wear Hee-Haw merchandise, like overalls with the laughing donkey all over them, accessorized with a belt with a dinner-plate-sized belt buckle. He was known for giving young folks their first chance in Nashville — they’d play with the house band, who’d stay on the stage when the song set was done so they could accompany the stripper. Skull was also known for slipping some money to kids he believed in, something that may have kept Tim McGraw in town when he was close to giving up.

It got me thinking: very, very few of us will be world-famous for what we do, but it’s not hard to champion others. We don’t even need to own a music club. If we know someone who makes art, we can buy some or go to a show, and talk about it. We can support the passions of our friends by giving money to their organizations or volunteering for their events (or both!). We can read our friends’ books (either purchased or borrowed from the library) and leave a review or just talk about it. It’s that simple. And that fun.

Now, I’m not saying that one day a tour guide will tell stories about you, but you never know…

Here are some things I’m championing lately:

  • DisArts Festival: going on right now in downtown Grand Rapids, events and exhibits every day until Saturday, April 25, with special family activities on Saturdays. Let’s use our imaginations to bust through stereotypes of people with disabilities while celebrating their creativity. I can’t wait to get downtown.
  • Writer Unboxed: They’re a popular writing group blog, so they don’t exactly need any championing, but I’ve been making an effort to read books by the people I met there. So far I’ve read Poole’s Paradise and Lucy in the Sky by John Vorhaus (who taught me how to play poker), The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles by Ray Rhamey, Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff (which is that rarest of rare birds, a novel both I and my 13-year-old daughter loved), and a project by Lancelot Schaubert and his friends. And I’ve only just begun.
  • I.H. Laking: He’s a young writer from New Zealand whose Twitter presence I really enjoy — charming, positive without being smarmy, funny without being rude. He’s also a writer of steampunkish detective stories. I downloaded two of his stories for free and then paid for the third. They are charming. A fun way to spend an hour or so.
  • airbnb: Our place in Nashville was one of the coolest houses ever, in a neighborhood with great food, and a host who steered us right. It’s great to have spaces each family member (particularly the teenagers) can retreat to at times, which is almost impossible to do in a hotel room. And I’m no longer stuck having to twiddle my thumbs when I wake up 2-3 hours before everyone else. Seriously, I may almost never stay in a hotel again.

How about you? What are you championing these days?


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Perspective, Shmerspective: A Devotional

When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.    (John 11:33-35, NRSV)

crying yogi statue

This exchange takes place near the end of the story about Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Jesus had known Lazarus was sick, but had chosen to delay traveling to his friends for two days. In fact, before he set out, Jesus already knew Lazarus was dead.

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” (v.11)

Jesus has travelled to Bethany for the specific purpose of raising Lazarus from the dead. He’s already spoken with Lazarus’s sister Martha about resurrection of the dead, and hinted at what he’s about to do, but now he’s confronted by a sobbing Mary, as well as the people who’ve been mourning with her.

Jesus, here, has the ultimate in perspective: he knows that Lazarus will not be dead much longer. He’s known it for days. Yet Jesus still weeps.

Does he weep out of compassion for Mary and Martha and the grief they’ve suffered? Does he weep because he’s had an intellectual understanding of what he’s about to do, but the reality of his friend being dead truly hits him when he’s about to go to the tomb? Does he weep out of compassion for Lazarus, who died, sick and in pain, thinking that Jesus didn’t care enough to come to him?

We can’t know exactly why Jesus weeps; we just know that he does.

Well-meaning Christians often try to give grieving people perspective too soon, by talking about the person who died being in heaven, or dancing with angels, as if that would (or should) make the sadness go away. But if even Jesus honored grief by weeping, we should feel free to do so, too. Eternal perspective does not negate grief.

So let’s follow our Lord’s example, and feel free to grieve, to cry, to weep, to be deeply moved by the death of a loved one, by the sadness of a friend. 


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Ministry of Rides and Snacks

Or, How a Drudge Becomes a Calling, Part II (you can see Part I here)

It is time for girls soccer at my daughter’s school, which means many things — smelly socks, mad scrambles for hair ties, more dinners at Subway than I can stand. Did I mention the unholy stench of the feet? But the thing any middle school sports season always means for me is heavy use of the Ministry of Rides and Snacks.

I haven’t written about this before, because it smacks a little too much of, “I am awesome!” for my tastes, but I was telling some friends about it, and they insisted. (So if you think I’m being too self-congratulatory, let me know, and I’ll tell you who to blame.)

Here’s the situation. At my kids’ elementary and middle school, over 80% of the students qualify for free or reduced hot lunch; many also get free breakfast and a free bag lunch from a local organization. There are kids there from over 50 countries, and when I say “from” I mean actually from; there are recent immigrants who don’t speak much English and children whose families came over when they were very young, so the kids’ English is good, but the parents, not so much.

It’s always easy to find my kids in a school crowd; all I have to do is look for the blonde heads. But there aren’t many stay-at-home parents to come and volunteer in the school. There aren’t many families who have two vehicles, or who can take time off work to watch their children play a sport.

And kids love to play sports. Whether it’s for the love of a particular game or a chance to hang out with their friends or an opportunity to shine at something you’re good at, there is no shortage of kids who want to participate. There is, however, a shortage of rides.

I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, or at least a freelance-at-home mom for most of my years at the school, so I’ve done a lot of volunteering. From class parties and field trips to my regular gig in the library to guest editor stints for a couple of classrooms, I am a regular face at the school. And then my kids entered middle school and sports eligibility.

boys soccer 2012
boys soccer 2012

The year my son played soccer, two boys, both recent immigrants from Africa (different parts), one of whom spoke almost no English, needed rides. One lived near us, so we drove him home after practices and to and from games. The other became a regular rider on game days. Soon, the van was full of kids who needed rides.

girls volleyball 2013
girls volleyball 2013

I could’ve grumbled. But I chose to think of it as a way to be of service to these kids who otherwise couldn’t participate, and to their parents. Of course, I couldn’t let kids play hungry or thirsty, so I bought extra snacks and cases of water, and made sure they had something in their stomachs before game time. And, often, after.

Hence, the Ministry of Rides and Snacks.

You may be unsurprised to learn that the kids love riding in my van. There are benefits for me. The kids kind of forget that I’m there, and I get a great window into how my kids are with their friends, and what the school scuttlebutt is. I learn new slang (that my daughter forbids me to use). The girls give me hugs when they see me at school.

I won’t lie; it’s exhausting. It can add close to an hour after the game to bring everyone home. But I love this school and I love these kids. It’s so thrilling to see a Muslim girl wearing a head scarf charge up the basketball court. Or to hear dads yell soccer instructions in four different languages. The variety of kids we know from all over the world and from different backgrounds here in our same city is just … beautiful. I will miss that gorgeous diversity when my daughter graduates in June.

But, for now, I will drive. I will buy way too many bags of Cheez-Its and boxes of granola bars. And probably Krispy Kreme for the last game. And love every minute of it.

So let me encourage you: if there is something you do that you feel a little grumbly about it, think of it as a ministry. Give it a fun name. It might help you feel differently about it. (Sadly, this doesn’t seem to apply to the doing of laundry or dishes.)


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Spiritual Leprosy: A Devotional

St. Francis and the leper

The person who has the leprous disease shall . . . remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.          Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

Skin diseases were serious business for the ancient Israelites, but what could it have to do with us today? We’ve conquered most ailments that plagued them, including Hansen’s disease, aka leprosy.

Beyond offering thanks, we can take it to a spiritual level.

Leprosy is an infectious disease that, besides causing skin sores, also causes nerve damage in the sufferer’s arms and legs. This nerve damage means that people with leprosy do not feel pain in those areas. People with leprosy often lose fingers, ears, even feet because of serious injuries they couldn’t prevent because the pain didn’t register.

What, then, is spiritual leprosy?

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ . . . we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.     2 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NLT)

We have spiritual leprosy when we do not feel or acknowledge the pain in (what we see as) our body-of-Christ extremities: fellow believers who are different from us (whoever the majority “us” is in your part of the kingdom), either in looks, upbringing, worship style, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, developmental ability, country of origin.

Spiritual leprosy looks like dismissing a fellow believer’s experience out of hand. It looks like turning a blind eye to injustice. It looks like self-justification for our lack of compassion or action. It looks like blaming the victim. It looks like glee at the downfall of Christian leaders. It looks like that favorite term of the prophets: hardheartedness.

It’s dangerous for the same reason physical leprosy was so harshly dealt with in ancient times: because it spreads. And the more it spreads, the more disfigured our Christian communities become: less hospitable to the widow, the orphan, the stranger at our gate, not to mention the hungry, the jailed, the immigrant, the broken.

Plow up the hard soil of our hearts. Help us to listen wholeheartedly. Help us to not see our part of the body of believers as more important than another part. And thank you, Lord, for Jesus. He was not afraid of lepers. He touched them. He healed them. May he heal us, too.



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The Summer of Big Sid

photo by Stacy Braswell, used with permission
photo by Stacy Braswell, used with permission

Saturday, June 24, 1978

“I’m not telling you the big news until I get a ‘Hi, Dad.’”

I swallowed my half-chewed hotdog and said it. Jenny and Brian muttered it around their food.

“I guess that’s good enough.” He took his time stabbing two hotdogs from the pan and letting them drip before putting them on his plate and joining us at the kitchen table.

“Is this going to be like that time your big news was that Mrs. Rzepka needed some kids to shovel her driveway?” Jenny crossed her arms. “For free.”

“Nope.” He loaded up his hotdogs. “Big Sid escaped.”

Brian glared at me like it was my fault. “The Jacobowskis are going to lord it over us all summer.”

“Who’s Big Sid?” Jenny never remembered the important stuff.

“Not who,” Dad said. “What.”

She rolled her eyes, which she did a lot since she turned twelve.

“It’s that sixteen-foot python at the Wonderful World Circus,” Brian told her.

Dad nodded. “I’m disappointed in you guys.”

“What did we do?” Since Brian’s mouth was full, it sounded more like, “Wad we dough?”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Dad leaned his chair back. “When I was your age, I—”

Mom tipped her untouched food onto Dad’s plate. We watched her drift over to the garbage can, throw away her barely-dirty paper plate, and then shuffle back to the living room.

Dad leaned forward. “Doesn’t it make you want to look for him?”

I was as shocked as Mikey’s brothers in the Life cereal commercial.

“He was only staying about a mile from here and it’s not like he could fly.”

I bolted the rest of my food and gulped down my Tang. “I’m ready.”

Brian was already at the front door. “Can Jimmy come along?”

“Bring anyone you like.”

I dashed to the living room. “Mom. Mom. Big Sid escaped and we’re going to look for him!”

“With me,” Dad shouted from the kitchen. “No going off on your own.”

But I was already outside, running to my best friend’s house. By the time Dad joined us, the whole Cummings Avenue pack had piled into the Kingswood. Jenny rode shotgun with two friends. Brian shared the back seat with three buddies. And all five of us seven-year-olds got the way back.

When we got to O’Brien Road, there were lots of serious-looking grownups there, so Dad drove past. He turned onto Maynard and slowed to a crawl. The station wagon growled like a lion on the hunt.

He hit the button to lower the way back window and the five of us scooted to the end, stuck our heads and shoulders out, and scanned the scrub for any unexpected movement. Every time someone said they saw something, Dad slammed on the brakes, and the way back crew tumbled backwards onto our butts, laughing.

All we spotted were three squirrels and two dogs.

“You’d think a sixteen-foot snake’d stick out more,” Dad said. “Time to head back.” To make it up to us, he gunned the station wagon when the road was clear. The Kingswood might be a dinged-up ’69, but its engine roared like a brand new Chevy. I leaned back over the top of the door, closed my eyes, and pretended I was Luke Skywalker on his X-34 landspeeder.

When we got home, I popped inside to stand in the doorway of the living room to tell Mom about our adventure.

She actually smiled a little.

Day 5

Jenny had made me pinky-swear that I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad what we were up to. The official story was that we were biking around with our friends, like we always did. To avoid the living room, I only used the side door.

It was easy to not talk at dinner. Dad brought Mr. Burger home two nights in a row and we ate on tray tables in the living room so we could watch the latest news on Big Sid. It was my job to sit next to the console and change the channel. Our TV was pretty old, so sometimes it took both my hands to crank the dial.

And then I forgot, and came in the front door. I tried to not look, but I couldn’t help it. Mom was sitting in her armchair, in her bathrobe, one wrist perched on the arm of the chair. The pale underside of her arm faced up, and her fingers curled around her cigarette.


It was just a whisper, but I heard it.

She tilted her head, which meant, come closer, so I took two steps in.

“What’s happening on the Big Sid front?”

I concentrated on the lit end of her cigarette. “Nothing much.”

At first, she didn’t say anything, and I almost left, but then she said, “I won’t snitch,” and it all came tumbling out. How Jenny had made a map and how we were searching in a scientific way. How half my friends couldn’t bike around anymore because their parents were afraid the snake would eat them. How weird it was to have no dogs or cats loose anywhere anymore.

And then the biggest news of all: we’d met the guy who lost Big Sid.

“We were behind the De Vrieses who live on Maynard. Freddie was there, but his grandma wouldn’t let him go past the raspberry bushes, so he stayed there and kept yelling to ask whether we’d found anything. Once, Brian told him we had, even though we hadn’t, and he about peed his pants. Anyway, we were in the low part where the ground is always squishy, and that’s where the guy was, because pythons like streams and damp areas. The best thing of all was he told us that Big Sid wasn’t dangerous to kids or dogs because he only ate rats. He said, ‘Sid’s real mellow.’ Did you know he used to curl around the necks of the circus girls? But now he’s too big. And then the best, best thing was that he said, ‘May the Force be with you,” when he left. Isn’t that cool-city?”

She smiled again.

I gave her a snake report every day.

Day 14

“Any signs of him?”

“None. None at all.” I was finally all the way in the room, standing next to the ashtray, close enough for her to pat my arm and comfort me or something, but she didn’t. “We were in the far corner of our territory, near Maynard and Lake Michigan Drive when some other kids came zooming past, saying that some lady had found him in her pool, so we went with.”

I paused for effect.

“It was a long skinny tree branch. Jenny thinks someone threw it into the pool on purpose because it hasn’t been near windy enough for a branch like that to come down on its own, and there were no big trees by the pool. What do you think?”

Mom shrugged.

“Today was an easier day biking because me and Jimmy did a trade. I got his silver Huffy from last year and his little brother got my bike from last year that I was still riding. It was great to not have to pedal so much to keep up with everyone.”

“I’m glad you guys figured something out.”

But she didn’t sound glad. She sounded sad.

“We’ll trade back at the end of the summer.”

Now she patted my arm.

 Day 20

“Is Big Sid still free?”

The Big Sid Roll sat on its plate on the side table, untouched from that morning when I’d gotten up extra early and biked to the bakery and bought one for everyone and put it on a plate and left it for her with a note. The note wasn’t there, but the snake-shaped donut still was.

“You think he’s free?”

“He spent his whole life in a little plywood box with no choice when he eats, what he eats, when he gets taken out, and where he goes.”

That was the longest thing she’d said all summer.

“I think he’s scared. He only knew one way his whole life and now he’s in a giant world, and he doesn’t know what’s safe, or where his owner is, or whether he’ll ever get food again.”

She gave a weird smile. “You think of him as you, and I think of him as me.”

What was I supposed to say to that?

 Day 28

We were trying to be quiet in case Mom was already asleep, but we could see her cigarette end moving and flaring.

I turned on the light and sat on the arm of the chair. “Star Wars was even better at the drive-in because me and my friends were outside doing lightsaber fights and driving our landspeeders. And in the intermission, some man yelled, ‘Big Sid, where are you?’ and everyone laughed, and then in the quiet parts of the next movie, which wasn’t nearly as good as Star Wars, people yelled it some more. I wish you’d come with us.”

Day 30

I was out, searching alone, when I saw the crowd on Maynard. I stood up to pedal faster, but my legs got heavier and heavier the closer I got. The crowd was so huge that I couldn’t get close enough to see anything. But I heard.

Grand Rapids Press File Photo of the crowd watching them carry the captured Big Sid away
Grand Rapids Press File Photo of the crowd watching them carry the captured Big Sid away

They’d found Big Sid.

When I got home, I put my bike away properly and didn’t cut across the lawn, but I made it to the house eventually.

The final snake report.

I hovered in the doorway until she turned her blank face to me and blinked once, and then again before she clued in that it was me.

“They got him.”

For once, she did exactly the right thing. She stubbed out her cigarette and opened her arms. I ducked my head and ran to her, burrowing into her lap.

33 Days

Somehow, Mom found out exactly when and where they were unveiling Sid at the Standale Sid-walk Sale. It was our secret. Just like the snake reports had been.

Jenny and Brian had already biked there with friends. I waited for Mom in the Kingswood, finally getting to ride shotgun. She’d gotten up extra early to drive Dad to work so we could have the car. When she walked up, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was wearing a jean skirt and some kind of flowy white top. She’d done her hair and put makeup on.

“You look like Sissy Spacek.”

“I used to look like Jane Fonda.” She checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “But thank you.”

I pointed out everything I’d been telling her about. The sign spray-painted on a pallet and nailed to a tree that said, “STANDALE HOME OF BIG SID.” The pizza place that made a special python pizza. The bakery that did the Big Sid Roll that she didn’t eat.

Grand Rapids Press File Photo
Grand Rapids Press File Photo

Even though it was 9 a.m., we stationed ourselves outside the ice cream shop with a couple of cones and counted how many people wore LaVeen Hardware’s “Standale Home of Big Sid” T-shirts. It took four men to carry Sid’s aquarium out. Mom’s hand was cold when I slipped my hand into hers.

The man from LaVeen’s stepped up and made fun of the mayor of Walker trying to call in the National Guard and said some other stuff that made other people laugh. But not me and Mom.

And then, like a magician flipping his cape, he threw off the cover. Big Sid was unveiled. His markings looked like gold in the sunshine.

I hated him.

“Poor guy,” Mom whispered.

I talked to him with my mind, like Obi Wan. Why did you have to go and get caught? Your escape was the only thing Mom liked. Now I’ve got nothing.

Mom squeezed my hand tighter for a second, but then she let go.

Stupid snake.


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