I survived a plane crash

In the icebreaker game, “Tell us something about yourself that you don’t think is true of anyone else here,” I have an ace: I’ve been in a plane crash.

It was January, 1986. I was 18 and I traveling from Toronto to Grand Rapids, Michigan (via Pittsburgh), to visit a friend at Calvin College. The weather was cold and icy, but that’s normal for winters in both places. We were scheduled to have a brief touchdown in Erie, Pennsylvania, but as the time for that drew close, the pilot told us that we wouldn’t be making it. Shortly after that, the pilot came on again: something was cleared up and we were going to go there.

You know that heavy rushing sound that lasts for maybe 20 seconds when a plane is first landing? It never ebbed. The whine just got louder. That was the first clue that something wasn’t right. Such a subtle clue, but enough that I tensed my legs and pushed myself back into my seat. There was a thud and snow flew back, obscuring the view out of the windows, so none of us knew what was happening, other than, “we hit something” and “we’re not stopping.”

And then silence and stillness.

The flight attendants were just as calm as you’d hope they’d be, guiding us to the front of the plane, telling us not to worry about our stuff, but to keep moving forward. To the slide.

Yes, I got to go down the slide, and yes, I did have the thought, “I get to go down the slide.” And then I turned around.

USAir Flight 499

USAir Flight 499

That was when I started shaking.

“The DC-9 went off the runway at about 9 a.m., rumbled down an embankment and came to rest straddling a local road” (from the AP story). It might be the embellishment of imagination that I saw a car pass under the front of the plane, but I know I watched a car stop on the side of the road (how could you not!?!), and another newspaper article said that the plane blocked the road.

airplane straddling a road

airplane straddling a road

There was only one injury: a woman bumped her head when she stood to evacuate the plane. We were bussed to the airport and put in a bright and airy room where several men ordered whiskey — at 9:30 in the morning. I kept it together very well. There was a gospel singer whose work I was familiar with on the plane, and I sat at her table.

When it was my turn for the phone, I called home first, although I was pretty sure my mother was teaching. So then I called my dad at the office. I was working for him at the time, taking a year off between high school and college. I even knew he was having an important meeting with huge clients, but I had to talk to someone. So when I got the secretary and she told me in an irritated tone that he was in a meeting, I was just petty enough to take a little satisfaction in saying, “Well, then tell him when he gets out of the meeting that I was just in a plane crash,” and having her rush off the phone to get my dad. My official reason for calling him was to let him know that I was okay, in case the plane crash made the news. But it wasn’t going to make the news. I just needed to hear my dad. And take the opportunity to not handle it like a grownup, and cry like a kid.

Writing about that phone call has made me cry all over again.

So what is your go-to story for that ice breaker game? Please share in the comments.

My favorite one (other than my own) is from the older student in my college freshman composition class: “I have 5 kids.” 


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Always replenishing. Never stagnant: a devotional.

Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”

“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water?…

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:10-11,13-14).

To our modern ears, Jesus takes this conversation to a spiritual level right away, and we chuckle a bit because the Samaritan woman doesn’t get that Jesus isn’t talking about physical water anymore.

But we’re the ones who don’t get it.

Living water was a category of water.

image of Ein Prat from http://www.tiuli.com/

image of Ein Prat from http://www.tiuli.com/

Still water referred to open pools fed by seasonal rains, or by springs. Those fed by seasonal rains would eventually dry up.

Cistern water came from seasonal rains directed into chambers dug out of the rock and sealed with plaster. As people used it and the water level went down, the remaining water often became stagnant and bitter.

Well water was groundwater accessed by a tunnel and brought up with a rope and jar. Wells could go dry during a drought.

Streams (aka nahals and wadis) were natural water courses fed by seasonal rains, so they varied, depending on the season, from rampaging to trickling to dry.

Rivers flowed constantly but had seasonal changes as run off from winter rains made its way down the mountains. Depending on the size of the river, it might dry up during a drought.

But a spring was different. Its water was always running or bubbling or gushing at regular intervals. Always replenishing. Never getting stagnant. Providing fresh, living water.

In normal times, access to a spring meant the difference between subsisting and thriving; in times of drought, it was the difference between life and death.

All of these associations would have run through the Samaritan woman’s mind when Jesus took the conversation to a spiritual level — he is the source that never stops giving life.

 Whether you are diving in, scooping out one handful, or staring at it, this living water is always there. Ready for you.

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Three storytelling take-aways from Selma

Let’s ignore the fact that I saw the movie Selma with 60 6th graders who giggled inappropriately and got up incessantly and tossed a gummy bear into my lap. Let’s just talk about the phenomenal storytelling of the movie.

Because whatever else people might be saying about it, the storytelling was amazing.

still from the movie Selma

Here are three things I’m taking away for my own writing.

1. Every single person behaved like he or she was the star of his or her own drama.

It’s common writing advice to make sure that each character thinks he or she is the star, especially villains, who shouldn’t behave as if they are in the hero’s story. But it’s hard to do. And Ava DuVernay is a master at layering points of view.

Three specifics:

I loved how President Johnson was clearly respectful of Dr. King and of his purposes, and sympathetic, but he had his own list of priorities, and, if he had his way, civil rights was not high on it. His line late in the movie (paraphrased here) rang so true to what I imagine is an issue for every president: You’ve got one huge issue, I’ve got a hundred and one. It made me imagine being the president and having all these people with one big issue coming into your office all the time and having to negotiate and juggle and placate — all day long. It made the result of his conversation with the slimy George Wallace feel like such a hard-fought personal victory, and not just a victory for the movement and for the nation.

And it wasn’t like life within the Civil Rights movement was less complicated. There were so many layers of conflict in every interaction between “the adults” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and “the kids” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and between the two leaders of “the kids.” I confess that I fell a little in love with John Lewis as he was portrayed. SNCC was unhappy that, after two years of living among and working with the people of Selma, the SCLC was going to waltz in and take over and then leave all the people hanging when they decamped. King has a great little speech about how what SCLC does is very specific, and while it builds on SNCC’s work, it isn’t meant to be the same. The two leaders of SNCC, John Lewis and James Forman, argue repeatedly throughout the movie about tactics, about how they should involved themselves in the SCLC purpose, about John’s hero-worship of MLK. It costs Lewis his position with SNCC, and he gets brutally beaten by the state police, but he does get to deliver MLK’s own words back to him when he needs encouragement.

Even Coretta Scott King gets her own point of view. We see her struggle with being married to someone who’s gone so much. There’s a telling little moment when King takes the garbage out and doesn’t know where the roll of replacement garbage bags are kept. Scott King hands him the roll with only a little smirk. It was so subtle; it happens in the midst of a conversation. But it was a deep moment of showing that showed her isolation. We see her get nasty phone calls, at least some of which would’ve been planted by Hoover’s FBI in an attempt to weaken their marriage and thereby discredit King. We see a number of conversations between them, both tender and tough. She was her own person with her own take, and I was glad for it.

2. Showing vs. Telling.

This is an oft-repeated nugget of writing advice: don’t just tell the reader your character is happy/sad/frustrated/angry/etc. Show the reader.

This movie masters showing. I already mentioned one moment: the not knowing where the garbage bags are. Later, a ways into the movie, one of the SCLC leaders jokes about the jail cell being bugged, and other characters talk about their phones being bugged. But the audience knew that long before the character says it, because DuVernay superimposes lines from logged FBI reports that demonstrate how closely the FBI kept tabs on King — down to logging the fact that he’d called Mahalia Jackson late at night so she could sing “Precious Lord” to him to encourage him. The result is haunting and heavy for the viewer, much more so than merely hearing the characters talk about it would be.

3. Portrait of a Leader

This one will help my characterization of David as reluctant rebel on the run and then as king: the leader is almost never alone, and when he does manage to steal away, his thoughts are not pleasant (I use “he” because both King and David were male, not because I think all leaders must be male). While the movie isn’t about King, he’s often the focus. And he’s almost always in a group, if not a crowd, either of supporters or of opponents. The few times he’s alone, his thoughts are heavy. He thinks of the cost of his work, both in terms of his marriage and family life, and in terms of those who have lost their lives and those who will, because of what he’s leading them to do. He knows how difficult things are and also how much more difficult they will likely become.

I have to remember to portray the weight of being a leader — trying to escape it, to share it, to grapple with it, to express it, and trying not to give in to it.

Can you tell that I really loved this movie? I hope so.

If you’ve seen Selma, what did you think?


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Self-righteousness is always gross

extending the olive branch

extending the olive branch

Some people may blame the fact that I’m Canadian, but I apologize easily. If I’ve messed up, and I realize that I’ve messed up (not always immediately apparent), I will say that I’m sorry. I will take ownership for having hurt or wronged or flaked out, whatever it is.

One of my most freeing moments on Facebook was accepting a friend request from someone I went to school with in grade 6, and then apologizing to her publicly for something mean I’d done to her. We were playing hide and seek, and she was “it.” She’d found one of my friends, and they were both racing to the tree, and I ran out and pushed the girl who was “it,” thereby preventing her from beating my friend to the tree; my friend was, therefore, safe. That bothered me for years. Saying sorry to her, and hearing that we were good, was marvelous.

I’ve written here about another time I apologized — profusely, even — in a church setting to people I’d wronged.

I feel an apology coming on, and a big one, but it’s tough.

How to apologize without also defending myself?

Three years ago at this exact time we were struggling over whether to leave the church we were deeply involved in. The church we loved. It was going through a difficult time (which I will not detail), just barely holding things together. Deciding to leave was heartbreaking; I was sad for months.

Several months ago, we saw our old pastor at an event. Things were friendly; we hugged and we talked, and it was nice. He gave a tribute to a mutual friend, and in his speech, mentioned that this friend had stood by him at a difficult time when everyone else had abandoned him.

We were part of that “everyone else.”

His voice and his demeanor revealed both how hurtful it was to be abandoned and how much it meant to him that his friend had stuck by him. He revealed how vulnerable that left him.

I’ve been there while it felt like others kicked a member of my family when he was down, and it was terrible. And I wound up doing the same thing to someone who was very important to me. I had my reasons, but I can’t deny that that was the result.

So I want to say that I’m sorry. I feel bad for hurting him when he was down. But how do I do that without trying to re-explain why we left? Without trying to re-justify our decision? It’s sooooo tempting. Because I still think we made the right decision.

But an apology in which I defend my position is not a true apology.

I remember how meaningful it was to me when a friend who’d left the same church, and had left me in the lurch at the time, apologized to me — without reservation, although she wouldn’t have changed her decision, and I wouldn’t have asked her to. Her simple apology, her acknowledgment that her decision made things harder for me, set free a little nub of resentment I’d been nurturing.

Now that I’ve thought it through, it’s not all that tough. I care more that he knows that I’m sorry than that I defend my rightness — self-righteousness is always gross. I wish we could’ve figured out how to remain his friend while leaving that church, but we didn’t. I wish I’d negotiated it better. But I didn’t. I’m just plain sorry.

How are you with apologies? Have you given some that set you free? Received an apology you weren’t expecting?




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A limerick for a mythical visitor

Evidence of the unicorn mouse that visited the preschool children's worship room last weekend.

Evidence of the unicorn mouse that visited the preschool children’s worship room last weekend.

There once was a unicorn mouse,

That refused to stay in its house.

It left rainbow poop

(Enough to scoop)

That’s so cute, I can’t even grouse.

Close-up of rainbow poop.

Close-up of rainbow poop.

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She was a survivor: A devotional

“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (John 4:5, NLT)

Jesus is sitting at a well in Samaria (modern-day northern West Bank) when a woman comes to draw her water. It is noon. The heat of the day. No clouds anywhere. Usually, people filled their water jugs first thing in the morning, before it got hot.

So why is this woman getting to the well so late?

Jesus gives us a hint during their conversation:

you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now (v.18).

Now it makes sense. Why invite the judgment of other people, with their nasty looks or their refusal to look at her at all, if she didn’t have to? Perhaps she was also ashamed. Perhaps she was afraid people might stone her for her sins.

So when Jesus brings up living water, water that could take away her thirst, she jumps at it. No need for water would mean no need to see any of those people: problem solved.

Of course, Jesus is talking about the kind of thirst that she has been trying to satisfy with all those husbands — thirst for love, for acceptance, for security.

But let’s not slut-shame her like her fellow villagers did. Perhaps she was raped and her rapist paid her father rather than marry her, and then people treated her like she was a prostitute. Perhaps she was widowed young and then married a couple of her dead husband’s brothers, and then his family rejected her when she didn’t have children and her own family wouldn’t take her back. Women then had few options.

Whatever else she was, she was a survivor.

What was her reaction to Jesus’s frankness?

The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (v.27-28)

She ran towards the very people she’d been working so hard to avoid. Towards. And didn’t shy away from her reputation.

Jesus didn’t add to her shame — he gave her the living water of perfect love and acceptance.

What are you avoiding? What are you ashamed of? What are you thirsty for?

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Buh-bye high school locker notes

Here’s something I assume has gone the way of the rotary-dial phone and the dashboard cassette player: notes written to a friend during class and shoved through the vents of her locker. (I’m saying “her” here because my brief and unscientific survey determined that guys didn’t do this.)

piles of notes from one friend in high school

piles of notes from one friend in high school

Last January, when I went through every single piece of paper I’d saved for sentimental purposes, I set this pile aside. I didn’t want to keep it, but I wanted to go through it. These were all from Shelley (who I’ve written about before), who lied to me and everyone for much of a year.

She was dying of cancer. This might be the last note I ever get from her. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were Satanists who kept trying to rope Shelley into their rites. They wrote “Satan” on her arm in permanent marker. Her mother’s boyfriend hit Shelley. Shelley had anemia. And a kidney infection. And nosebleeds at skating practice. And her mother was kicking her out in favor of the boyfriend. And she met her real father who wanted her to live with him. She had to go to a funeral for four family members in one day. She was moving to the country with her mother and the boyfriend. She was a Christian. She wasn’t a Christian. She was a Christian. She wasn’t. Someone was leaving nasty notes to her and writing my name on them — did she believe me when I said I didn’t leave them? Her friend thinks I’m nice. Her other friend thinks I’m using her. Am I mad at her? Is Carol mad at her? I’m head of a clique in a school club we both belonged to. The club is lame under my leadership. Why do I sometimes act like I don’t want her around? She can always talk to me. I’m such a good listener. She doesn’t mean to always unload on me. She’s sorry she made me upset. How did I manage to forgive her for lying? Do I still think of her as a liar? Am I really still her friend? I needed to choose now.

I’m exhausted just typing that.

Not really. More like bemused and grateful. Bemused, because she gets all wrapped up in telling me everything her other friends say about me, and references big blow-ups, none of which I remember; I don’t even remember these other girls. At all. And grateful because I do not have people like that in my life anymore, people who constantly manipulate their friends and try to keep them off-balance and entranced by the constant drama and conflict. At the time, I forgave her and remained her friend (as much as anyone could be her friend) because I figured the lying came from deep insecurity and neediness, and she was still insecure and needy, so I couldn’t abandon her. Which makes me wonder:

Are all teenage girls emotional adrenaline junkies?

Probably, to some degree. Which is making me dread the coming few years. I’d thought my daughter might be inoculated from that after two little girl bullies “fought over” her in second grade, but I see entrancement with drama coming back. Sigh. I’m sure there are good developmental purposes to it, maybe practicing in preparation for real difficulties in later life. I don’t have to like it, though.

There are so many more venues for drama and conflict now: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, texting, and whatever new platforms develop between now and May, when we are finally nice enough to get the dear daughter her own phone. Now that makes me nostalgic for notes shoved in my locker.

But not nostalgic enough to keep them. I’m not even keeping them in the name of writing research.

I will choose to be free. Both of these notes and of people who seek to manipulate through emotional drama. There is enough real pain and suffering in my world — I need all my energy for that.

So what will you choose to be free of this year? This month? Any little papers you’ve been holding on to that you really should let go of?



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Sometimes you’ve got to thank God in front of the great assembly

Here is the prayer I’ve written into my prayer journal more times than I care to count (this particular one is from 2/13/14):

“Please, Lord, may we get out of credit card debt this year. Help us. Keep after us. Let us not give up tithing, Lord. Let us not give up recognizing that our good things come from you. Help us dig out of this hole we’ve gotten ourselves into. Forgive me for the stupid way I’ve often handled our resources.”

Here is something else I wrote in this space (What Is and Is Not a Tool) a little more than a year ago:

Money is not a tool for happiness, but it is a tool for food, clothes, housing, transportation, entertainment, doing good (aka, giving), but also for facilitating creative expression, even mine; I need to stop feeling guilty when I spend money on my creative expression and stop finding excuses not to spend on my creative expression….

I want to dance on stage again, in a group, doing choreography that is not my own. I want to be in class again. Which costs money, and means that I will have a schedule that other family members will have to work around. I’ve been making every excuse for why it wouldn’t work for years. But I can’t do that much longer. I’ve still got a reasonable amount of flexibility and strength, so I think now might be the time. This might be the year it will not be denied. That I will not deny myself.

I wrote that post on July 3, 2013. In August, I got one writing and one editing freelance gig. I found out about a new dance studio that was run by a friend and offered free — yes, free! — dance classes. And I got a temporary job digitizing sermons for a retired minister whose career was being archived by Grand Valley State University. This year, other freelance gigs have come my way. I have attended three writer’s conferences. The dance studio continues to be free and I continue to love dancing and performing again. I confess that we haven’t been quite as regular with tithing as we’ve been in the past, but we added a couple of organizations to our giving.

Best of all, as of this morning, we are free of credit card debt.

1195767_36244650Psalm 9:1-2

I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;
    I will tell of all the marvelous things you have done.
I will be filled with joy because of you.
    I will sing praises to your name, O Most High.

Psalm 35:18

Then I will thank you in front of the great assembly.
    I will praise you before all the people.

This blog is the only great assembly I’ve got, so I’m thanking God here.

Faith is a thousand little decisions, like the decision to believe good things in my life come from God.

I haven’t gone out and looked for work: work has found me. Once work has found me, I work hard, I do the very best job I can, I learn new things, I take risks. And, if I haven’t mentioned it before, I work hard.

You might think that I finally prayed “hard enough” or was “obedient enough” so that God granted my request — people do love to speculate why your prayer was granted, mostly so they can get a guarantor for how their prayer might “work.”

You might credit the power of positive thinking. You might say it was one of those Oprah/Iyanla moments of me attracting the good things the universe is waiting to send my way; you might call it coincidence.

As for me, it’s enough to say that God has been working in my life and I have, as of this moment, no credit card debt. Can I get an “Alleluiah!”

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Acts of Creation: A Devotional

formless mass cloaked in darkness

image courtesy of duchessa, freeimages.com

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was excellent in every way. (Genesis 1:31)

The beginning of a new year is a good time to look at the beginning of everything.

Whatever length of time you think creation took, most of us can agree that in the beginning there was “a formless mass cloaked in darkness” (Gen. 1:2) and out of that, God created our world and made men and women in His image. However it happened, God had His creative hand in everything from massive hulking mountains to delicate designs etched inside seedpods to the complex system that is a human being.

God said the same thing about each thing: It is good. Until the moment when He looked back on it all and He said it was excellent in every way.

Excellent here doesn’t mean perfect, flawless, or the best of its kind. It doesn’t mean that each thing met a high artistic standard. It doesn’t mean each thing was a model of efficiency. It doesn’t mean someone else with more authority or knowledge looked at each thing and approved of it. Those are things we mean by excellent.

I think it’s something more basic: both the work of creation and the things He created gave God a deep sense of satisfaction, of rightness. Of joy. And because we are made in the image of a Creator God, satisfaction, rightness, and joy are available to us when we create.

Creative acts don’t only belong to what we call “the arts.” Even if we don’t ever do anything someone else would call “artistic,” we create our lives.

Thinking differently than the culture you grew up in or that you live in now is a creative act. Making an unexpected connection between things that seem unrelated is a creative act. Trying something new to you is a creative act. Finding a solution to a problem is a creative act. Working out how to be a follower of God is a creative act.

They’re creative acts because they require imagination. Any time you can imagine yourself and your life as different than they are at this moment, that’s profoundly creative – an image-of-God act.

So create a life that’s satisfying, right, and joyful. It may not look like the lives your family members or childhood friends build. It may not be approved of by everyone you know. At times, it may feel like a formless mass cloaked in darkness. But follow God’s creative spark and it can be excellent in every way.

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Obligatory end-of-year musings

bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess

bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess

My theme word for 2014 was soft-hearted, which came on the heels of the not-on-purpose 2013 theme of compassion. A soft heart is a spiritual condition, which means that my heart should be softer/more open towards God, and because of God, which should come out in how I am with others. And you know what, I think my heart is softer.

I know I’ve been listening more than talking; my sporadic presence here on the blog reflects that. I’ve been more alive to the fears that lie behind so much human behavior, which has made me less judgmental. I’ve been slower to anger. My starting an anti-depressant this spring has something to do with that, but I’ve also been using my imagination in a disciplined manner, creating backstories for people who annoy me, until I reach the point at which I’m no longer annoyed. Mostly I’m not perfect at it, but I’m sure better than I was a year ago. I’ve been less irritable and more gentle with my family. I no longer try to compete in my mind with my husband on who has more stress, on who has it tougher.

There has been a related sub-theme that emerged throughout the year: acceptance.

In January, I went through all the family boxes of papers, including every letter and card ever sent to me, including notes left in my locker in high school. As I sorted and categorized (and tossed some stuff), I read what people have written me over the years. It was a revelation. Normally, I think of myself as kind of a bad friend. I rarely reach out and make contact. I’m too much of a hermit. I so frequently fail to follow through on things I’d like to do for my friends (most of which they don’t know about because I didn’t do them). I’ve let people I loved just fall through the cracks until I’ve entirely lost contact. All of those things are true, but the letters and cards let me round out that picture: I am an accepting friend. Over and over in these letters, friends from across my life said some version of the words, “I can always talk to you about things and know you won’t judge me, that you’ll still accept me.”

That was huge. It took awhile, but I let those words wash over me and seep into my heart. Because they’re true. I may not be a great friend, but I am an accepting one. So I took that on as an important part of my self image, and my life became crazy rich with variety of people to love this year. I am now friends with a woman who survived years of drug addiction and sex trafficking. I have more non-religious friends than I’ve had, possibly, ever. I stood on a sidewalk and talked with strangers about praying for girls and women who’ve survived abuse and trauma. And I’ve been more real, more courageous, more risk-taking than ever before. Which has only brought about more connection with people. It’s been a glorious cycle. And one I intend to keep going.

So what is this year’s word?


It was going to be show up. But as I was writing my prayer this morning as I prayed it (for only the second time this month, tsk, tsk, tsk) it morphed into practice. Both in the sense of the things I want to work on: prayer practice, writing practice, dance practice. And in the sense that “we call it practice because we’re not that good at it yet” (something a dear friend who is a spiritual director said once, a couple of years ago, and I can’t get out of my head). So I will both go harder after my various practices, and be accepting of myself when I’m not that good at it. I will practice both patience and impatience, simultaneously (something one of the presenters at my November writing conference said).

Because this is going to be a big year.

  • I am independently publishing my David and Saul novel series this year — all three of them!
  • I am going to work on two series for my blog that I’ve been wanting to do but have avoided: my diaries project (which I abandoned right before I got to the long-form diaries of high school), and an interview project. Through a few writing jobs I had this year, I discovered that I love doing interviews. I want to interview people about times of unsticking, times of pivoting in their lives. So be warned, I do not plan to talk to famous people. I plan to talk to my friends and ask all the deep questions we don’t normally ask of each other in our brief interactions. So be warned: I may contact you (you can always say “no” and know that I’ll accept you ;-)
  • Within a month, my husband and I will be credit card debt-free. I cannot fully express how much I’m looking forward to having that burden lifted.

So how about you? Any musings, either looking back or looking forward, that you want to share? Do you do the word of the year thing? If so, what’s your word?

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