As Real As It Gets: A Picture Book Announcement

I met Amanda Barton in New York City in the mid-1990s. She stood up at a gathering at All Angels Episcopal Church and claimed that nobody there would’ve heard of where she was from in Michigan. Challenge accepted. My husband and I totally knew her hometown, although it was, indeed, super-tiny. Together with two other couples who were, like us, under 30 and married (and therefore felt like exotic zoo animals), we became fast friends. Amanda and I and our husbands even moved back to Michigan within a month of each other in 1998.

So when she said, “I’m looking for someone to help me achieve this dream I’ve had,” I wanted to help her. Her dream was that kids who’d been adopted when they were older might have picture books that reflected their reality — their reality of remembering their previous lives, previous families, of the not-so-smooth parts of adjusting to a new family.

I remembered when she and her husband welcomed a sibling group of three from the foster care system. Now I really wanted to help her.

Out of our discussions came a story about a young boy who feels something monstrous growing inside him (like a cobra, a T Rex, a gas bubble), growing until it comes slithering, roaring, exploding out: “You’re not my real mother!” His mother reassures him: “I’m as real as it gets and I’m not giving up. I’m your mother in truth. Your mother. Forever.” A warm glow spreads inside him (like a flower in June, a cookie out of the oven, a hug). But the feeling doesn’t last. The monster is soon lurking again. One day, the T Rex is only as fierce as a 2-inch tall rubber toy, and it taunts him, “How long is forever, anyway?” The story ends on an “okay for now” moment of love and silliness: “Well, T Rex. Here’s the bad news. Forever for you means that you’ll always have those silly short arms, too short to pick your nose and too short to tickle your son.”

We loved this story. It’s vibrant and silly, frank and loving. So we tried to find agents and publishers who might be interested. None were. But we were not ready to give up on it. We decided to find ourselves an illustrator and publish it ourselves (the story of my life). Because Amanda will ask anything of anyone, she contacted an illustrator who is well-known in our area: Joel Schoon-Tanis.

He said yes. We started West Olive Press.

And here are his first illustrations.

a boy yells at his mother
“You’re not my real mother!”
a mother comforts her son after he's lost his temper
“I’m as real as it gets and I’m not giving up.”

I think Joel totally nailed it. The monster is monstrous but not overly scary. In the top one with the son saying, “You’re not my real mother,” the boy looks angry, but the monster doesn’t. And then in the one with the mother delivering her “I’m as real as it gets” line, the monster looks like he wants to believe it more than the boy does. I can’t wait to see what else Joel comes up with.

Right around Labor Day weekend, we will be opening the Kickstarter campaign. You may become weary of me talking about this in September. But I believe in this project, both because I think it will be beautiful and fun to read, and because there is an underserved group of kids out there, and seeing yourself in a story is a powerful, powerful thing.

I’ll announce here and on Facebook and on Twitter when the Kickstarter goes live, but if you’re concerned that you won’t get the message, let me know via my Contact Me page, and I’ll make sure you are notified.

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Exorcising High School

My daughter started high school today — obsessing about her clothes, her hair, her make-up, the friends she’d made the night before, the plan for lunch, whether she’d get lost, whether it was actually true that she wouldn’t need her textbooks on the first day and that teachers are lenient about getting to class on time the first week, and probably a host of other things she wouldn’t admit out loud.

As a wordsmith, I chose my words of encouragement with care:
Set the bar low. Just live to the end of the day!

Because I know she’ll do fine. She is her mother’s daughter, freaking out about stuff ahead of time so she’s ready for it when it comes (whatever “it” is).

me at 13; Natalie Hart - Exorcising High School

But I’m remembering the thirteen-year-old from 1981 who started high school without the benefit of a launch day that would take her to all her classes before that high-pressure first day, without the benefit of seeing all the kids and what they were wearing and carrying. That poor sweet girl, coming from a weird and tiny Christian school with its graduating class of seven, all girls, two cousin pairs, four of from the same church. Whose grade had been the oldest one in the school for three years. Who only knew two other kids in this school of hundreds. Who knew no boys her own age. Who bought her own clothes with her own money from the local consignment shop, with a very experimental fashion sense, except for jeans, which (according to the weird school’s subculture) had to be boys’ jeans. Who still wore pigtails in her hair. Who went to high school that first day with a doubled Loblaw’s bag (plastic grocery store bag) in which to carry her books.

Should I mention that she went to a public school that had a reputation as the snobbiest school in the city, even worse than the private schools?

She certainly considered it a victory to live to the end of the first day of high school.

Of course, this sweet girl was me. My daughter starting grade nine is bringing it all back.

I’m having flashbacks to that first day, standing stock still in the central hall, students streaming around me, jostling me, my nerdy Loblaw’s bags (while everyone else had backpacks or school bags — oh, the horror) cutting into my fingers, on the verge of tears because I had no idea where the science wing was and I was too terrified and mortified to ask anyone.

To that day when my choir teacher made an appointment for me with a guidance counselor because the altos had been making such obvious and loud fun of me in class that he’d heard it. I hadn’t wanted to deal with it at all, so I said it didn’t bother me. It did.

To that day when a boy who smoked a wide variety of things in what we called Cancer Alley turned my entire desk around in history class so I had to face him while he told me a made-up and obscene dream he’d had about me.

To that day when someone complained about me being at a party because it brought the stature of the party down — to my face. And I had neither the confidence nor the social capital to laugh it off. Because in the hideousness of high school, it was true.

To that day when someone yelled to me, “Nice ass. Shame about the face.”

Other people had it worse, I know. I was never physically threatened, and I’m grateful I didn’t grow up in the digital age with cyber bullying. But oh, did I hate high school.

Now, I had friends, and I was on the swim team and in clubs (nerdy clubs), and I laughed, and I skipped school to go for bike rides or to the mall a block away. There was my birthday buddy who took me to her house once for an authentic Chinese dinner. There was the girl whose uncle was in the mob in New York City (he really was). There was the druggie girl who liked to tell me stories of her exploits (probably because I had no competing stories). There were the two boys who would practice with the girls’ swim team, so I got to know them enough to flirt with them. There was the girl who would invite me to her cottage in the summer. High school wasn’t all skin that felt permanently red from blushing, and clenched teeth.

I’ll still occasionally dip into a daydream in which I get famous enough to be invited back to NTCI to be a graduation speaker, and I speak exclusively to those kids who had a bad time. Which, now that I’m an adult and I’ve talked to more people, I realize was most of the kids; even if someone looked like they had it all together, inside they felt just as awkward and terrified and self-absorbed as I did. Ah, perspective.

Thank you for indulging me while I got all that out in the open. I feel better now.

Want to engage in a little high school horror story one-up-manship? The comments are yours.

 

 

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Cloaks and slings and the siren song of authenticity

Or, the pleasures and perils of writing about three thousand years ago.

As the publication date for The Giant Slayer gets closer and closer (I’ve declared it to be October 1), I’ve been taking care of what seem like thousands of details. Besides all the super-fussy stuff like registering ISBNs, I’ve written a glossary and a discussion guide, and started a Facebook author page (insert craven plea to head over and “like” it).

I knew I had to do a Facebook author page eventually, but I’d been dragging my feet. What would I do on such a page? I didn’t want to just repeat my regular Facebook posts, and, despite my recent posts here, I don’t want to talk about the process of publishing or even about writing (not because I think the latter is bad, but because there are already so many people who do it so well). And then I read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work! and had my aha moment.

What better to do with my hundreds of pages of research and dozens of pins on Pinterest, than share them?

So that’s what I do. Every day, I share one tidbit about ancient Israel. So far, I’ve covered ovens, the unique properties of the white broom and white squill plants (particularly when one might be on the run in the wilderness), and how the clothing did not resemble Jedi robes.

I’ve been jazzing up my research tidbit with a photo, which has meant more research. Which has meant making adjustments in my manuscript. While there’s still time.

replica of ancient sling
sling from http://celticclans.oakandacorn.com/

For example, I’d been thinking of the sling as an open leather pouch with four lead strings, but it’s far more likely that it was a leather (or “skin” as David would have referred to it) pouch with two leads, one of which had a loop at one end to slip over a finger, and the other with a knot at the end, to hold onto during the revolution and then let go of in the launch. Here’s a video that demonstrates it quite nicely.

From Biblical Archeology Daily, photo by Seung Ho Bang
From Biblical Archeology Daily, photo by Seung Ho Bang

Ovens were totally different than I’d been imagining: they looked more like open volcanoes than like a wood-fired pizza oven. I’d had a soldier sitting on an oven while he watched David’s front door (while David escaped out the back), so I had to change it.

a homespun cloak/cape
The closest image I could find for how I now imagine a farmer or shepherd’s cloak to be.

And despite my research, I’d had firmly planted in my mind that tunics had sleeves and cloaks looked like Jedi robes — probably because I’d sewn too many costumes for church Christmas pageants. Also, in my defense, the few contemporary illustrations I found were of kings delivering tributes to other conquering kings, so there were sleeves and full-length garments. But people living subsistence lives didn’t have fabric to waste for sleeves, and a full-length garment would only get in the way during lambing or plowing. So I had to change the text again to make sure I removed any references to sleeves, and to ensure that cloaks were wrapped or draped around a person, not put on like a bathrobe.

So these are the perils of writing about 3,000 years ago: nobody really knows about daily life for sure, but we have enough hints that we can figure things out. Which means I can still get it wrong. Since one of my goals in writing this story has been to put the reader into 1,000 BCE, I need to get as much right as I can, with as many details as possible to make it feel like an authentic, fully-fleshed-out world.

Join me on my Facebook page or Pinterest board and keep me honest!

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Excerebration

** This is a story that I wrote for a NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write a 1,000-word horror story that took place at a crime scene and involved a straw. I don’t like horror, so I’m not creeping myself out by looking for an image that works with the story — you’ll have to use your imagination. **

There it was: a hot pink, wide-mouthed milkshake straw sticking one and a quarter inches out of my boss’s right nostril.

We’d been hoping to find a victim with the straw still in place, but it looked like a joke. I pressed my fingers against my lips to stifle the hysterical noise that was equal parts giggle, guilt, and grief. To remind myself of the stakes, I slid my hands under his head and lifted; its relative lightness was obscene.

Each click of my camera shutter was like a socket wrench tightening a band around my chest. At least Frank looked as peaceful as the others had. Something viscous pooled under his nose and trailed onto his lip. I swabbed, bagged, and catalogued it without letting myself think about what it was.

While I worked, every current and past public safety official arrived and compassed around me and Frank. They stood at parade rest, forming an impenetrable line that held back the press jackals and silenced the crowd. It was how crime scenes should feel, but usually didn’t: solemn, momentous.

Careful not to disturb any part of the exposed straw and the DNA that was hopefully still there, I insinuated the tips of my finest tweezers between the plastic and Frank’s nose until they were up there a bit. The straw didn’t slide out easily, but required tugging and yanking and the strength of both my hands in order to extract all nine inches of it.

Once it was bagged, I looked down and, for a moment, saw him as a person and not a job. My hand cupped the top of his head, like a benediction.

And then everything and everyone froze. I wasn’t surprised when the eyeballs of one of the on-duty officers facing me briefly glowed electric orange – unnerved, but not surprised. It had happened every time. Not even an hour and a half ago, at the crime scene for the fourth victim, Frank had seen the victim’s mother’s eyes do the orange thing. He was the only person other than me who’d seen it. And now he was dead.

When I could move again, I finished the rest of my duties and sidled through the police line. “I am Hannah Smit, deputy medical examiner. I can confirm that Chief Frank Turner is dead. He did not die of natural causes. His homicide is connected to the four other deaths this week. Cause of—” I flinched as the ambulance door slammed shut behind his body. “Cause of death: brain extraction.”

Almost instantly, someone shouted, “Brains,” and then the question I’d dreaded: “Is this the zombie apocalypse?” Of course people laughed.

“This is not a joke! Five people have died.” I shut my eyes until I was calmer. “In each victim, a straw was inserted into the right nostril, pushed through the nasal cavity and into the base of the brain, and excerebrationoccurred. No other trauma. No signs of struggle.”

“A straw?”

“Yes.”

“Can a straw do that?”

“Not normally.”

“Then how—”

“I don’t know.”

“How did the brains get out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were they alive when it happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have any leads?”

“No.” This wasn’t going well. “The Chief is the first victim with the straw still in place. The others’ straws had been removed and wiped down. I am hopeful there will be something recoverable on what we found tonight.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

I’m guessing a demon that possesses us and makes us kill each other. But they barely believed me about the straw. There was no way I was trotting out that theory.

“What are we supposed to do now?”

“Destroy all the straws in town and pray.” There were more questions, but I shook my head. “Go and be with the ones you love. I’m going home to hug my daughter.”

 

When I finally got home, the sitter didn’t say a word before bolting home, hand covering her nose. My daughter sat on the kitchen floor, her back to me, so engrossed in her task that she didn’t look up. I kissed the top of her head.

Then I noticed what she was doing.

She was fitting our cut-in-half straws together.

At two and a half, she shouldn’t be able to pinch the end of a cheap skinny straw and insert it without fumbling into another one; she could hardly put together Duplos.

Lucy looked up. I saw a flash of orange in the glass of the oven door.

I fled, slamming the front door behind me.

No. She’s too young. I didn’t need to run from her.

The demon only possessed those other people for a few seconds. What if it did that this time? What if she needs me? What if her diaper is full? What if she’s playing with the stove? What if she’s hungry?

I cracked open the door. She was crying. Oh, my baby. “Mommy’s here. Mommy loves you.”

She ran to the door, but I had to keep it mostly closed. I had to. “Not yet, honey. Mommy just has to see you. Look through the door crack for Mommy.”

She looked betrayed and scared, but her eyes were their usual beautiful brown.

I rushed in and knelt on the floor with her in my arms, rocking her until we’d soothed each other.

And then I couldn’t move.

Lucy’s eyeballs were orange.

In her dimpled fist was a long straw made of three short straws.

Those chubby fingers that fumbled through itsy-bitsy spider jammed and twisted the straw up my nose, which hurt, but, thankfully, the brain has no pain receptors.

She leaned close like she was going to give me sloppy toddler kisses, but her mouth closed around the straw and she sucked.

So that’s how it was done.

When my brain gave way, it felt similar to my milk letting down when I’d nursed her.

Her pigtails tickled my cheeks. How would she survive until they found me?

 

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Decision Fatigue

Right about now is when I’m thinking longingly of being traditionally published. Going indie and choosing myself and all that is fine and good, but now I’m down to the final 10% of work, the final 10% of decisions to be made. And anyone who’s ever moved knows that the final 10% is the worst.

Twilight gif: I can't do this anymore

I am generally so decisive that it’s a discipline for me to curb it so the less decisive don’t feel railroaded. But there’s a limit. And I’ve hit it. I didn’t understand half of what I had to fill in to fully register my ISBN with my title. In fact, I may have abandoned it half-way through, which means I have to go back to it.

This is too much

And I haven’t even started trying to upload my novel yet. Asking for help doesn’t always solve things; I accidentally started a ridiculous argument between two fellow indie publishers after I asked a technical question in a Facebook group.

I was going to talk about how good traditionally published authors have it, but they have to deal with constant changes in their publishing house and editors leaving and the new editor not liking your work, not the mention feeling like you should be getting help with marketing but you’re not, which is probably akin to my getting an epidural 28 hours into labor with my son and still being able to feel everything. Not cool.

So all authors have it tough, just in different ways.

The lesson there is a good one: it’s a fiction that that person over there who looks like they have it all together, actually has an easy life. Don’t let yourself believe that lie.

Mona Lisa oh no you didn't

That woman with the sweet voice and temperament had to leave her abusive family at seventeen and figure out how to make it on her own. That man with the great career and adorable family was sexually abused as a child. And cancer eventually hits every family and friend group — talk about decision fatigue. At least I’m not having to decide what treatment to pursue against something in my own body that’s trying to kill me. Or my child’s body.

I started out this post, admittedly, whiny. And now I have that glorious thing: perspective. Which means I have energy to go forth and make ever fussier decisions.

But not yet. I’ll be spending most of the morning thinking about someone I love who is getting a mastectomy today. Which, for all the kidding around we’ve done lately about being one-boobed, is too serious for a gif.

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Big City Sidewalk

I’ve got a fun guest post up today at the always interesting You Are Here Stories — a site for stories centered around Place, around those places that have been important to us, to our communities. Please click on the last words of the excerpt to join me over there, even if all you want to see is a photo of me at age 12 (sweetly earnest and awkward).

 In my forty-seven years, I’ve been all over the world, but all it takes are a few cues to haul me back to my childhood.

A certain sharp and damp and lumber-ish smell brings me to my grandparents’ farmhouse in Michigan (a smell it retains years after their deaths and despite my cousin’s attempts to eradicate it). Outcrops of red, grey, and black veins of Great Canadian Shield rock bring me back to camping trips and weeks at the cottage.

But the capital-P Place where I feel the instant settling of my spirit that says “home” is the big city sidewalk.

Settling the spirit might be an odd response to a place that’s loud and busy and can be crowded and chaotic, but that’s where I grew up: in the middle of the great city of Toronto, Canada. Truly in the middle: one block from the main north-south thoroughfare of Yonge Street, and two-thirds of the way up our subway line.

I was taking the subway by myself…

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This is my punishment

The Stocks, by Steve Knight

A skilled and generous writer and teacher, John Vorhaus, sent me his soon-to-be-published book (How to Live Life) for me to read and spread the word about. I’d really been looking forward to this book, because he’s funny, and in his more recent essays for Writer Unboxed, he’s brought some moving truths, not just about writing but about life. Which is my favorite way to receive truth: wrapped up in something that makes me smile. I’m all disarmed from the smiling and then WHAMMO. Truth.

cover of how to live life, by John VorhausVorhaus was a workshop leader at the Writer Unboxed UnConference I went to last November. He led the session on Failing Big (my notes for it are 1/3 of the way down the page here) and what he said there finally kicked me out of the disappointment spiral I’d been wallowing in for a couple of years. He also taught me how to play poker (a kind of poker I can’t remember the name of anymore, which is rather par for the course — in our first conversation he teased me for not knowing the make of car I’d just driven halfway across the country). He’s funny in person and he’s funny in writing and I knew that this life advice book would make me smile. And it did.

But even before breaking into Hollywood, I knew that teaching something was a great way to learn it. I’ve used this strategy many times in my life to increase my understanding of songwriting, poker, comedy, creativity, sailing (that was dangerous), archery (that was worse) and more. I have come to believe that an inspired learner makes a good teacher. So that’s the real source of my authority, such as it is: my gape-mouthed wonder at the fact of my existence, and my desire to know it more fully.

This book, then, is an intensely selfish exercise.

But I don’t think it’s all that pretentious, not really. No more than life itself is pretentious. I mean, here we are in the midst of this incredible, unbelievable experience, and something tells us that it should be even more incredible and more unbelievable. We should be… I don’t know… painting pictures, writing poems, staring at the stars, communing with God, digging life’s mysteries, getting down to the isness of it all.

I love that attitude (particularly because this is a non-religiously-affiliated book, but there’s room in here for people, like me, who are communers with God). But then he did something that made me feel crabby and rebellious: he left spaces for me to write my responses to the questions he was asking. Many spaces. Many questions.

Make a list.

You’ll hear me say that a lot, make a list. I’m a huge fan of lists because lists…

Let us create without consequence
Give us hard data we can use right away
Are emotionally neutral; they don’t judge
Yield much information for little effort
Put things where we can see them 

This was not going to be a book that was both funny and deep and that I could enjoy reading and adding to the general thoughts in my mind. This book was going to make me actually do the work. I know myself. I know my process. I know that I have to write things down to truly work through them. Which is why I didn’t want to.

So, as punishment, I’m going to do it here, in public.

[Just so you know, I did absolutely everything else possible before doing this: the laundry, the household filing and bill paying, the dinner making, the nagging of children, the ferrying of children, the buying of toner, the returning of the video (yes, we are pleasantly old fashioned enough to still rent DVDs sometimes). I did filing, people.]

1. What wouldn’t I do if I had six months to live:

  • clean my house
  • cut down on beer or cookies
  • play so much online Boggle
  • go to “mandatory” mass parent meetings at school

2. There was a question about externalizing motivation to help one overcome inertia. I’ve tried some — I like Jerry Seinfeld’s method of X-ing off each day he’s written, and seeing the line of Xs motivates him to keep the line going. That works okay. For awhile. I think I need another person to hold me to a timeline. I’ve been working on a collaborative project and we have meetings, and I need to have things done for our meetings, and I do them. I don’t get stuck in freak-out mode or find other things to do. Like filing.

At this point, Vorhaus brings out some big guns: the centrality of acceptance to this process of growth.

Acceptance is called for here, the sense that whatever emotions we experience are fine, completely allowable, totally cool, no matter what they are. Without acceptance, we are afraid to approach ourselves. With it, we can appraise ourselves openly and honestly, without freaking out. …

I see me, and it’s all okay. 

Just to be clear, acceptance doesn’t mean surrender. To accept means to process information with emotional neutrality. Acceptance provides an objective perspective where nothing is made worse by the editorial judgment that this really sucks. 

How wonderful to be free from the feeling of this really sucks. You can be. It’s a choice you get to make. Simply seek to acquire the habit of saying, and thinking, “I accept.”

3. Pick something on your list above and dive deeper — if you tell yourself nasty things about yourself because of that thing, try to push past them with acceptance.

  • I wouldn’t play so much online Boggle because it doesn’t add anything to my life — it doesn’t add connection or knowledge or feed my imagination. I’m hiding and anesthetizing. If I had 6 mos to live, I’d dive in, I wouldn’t space out so much. I like the word games, I really do. There is a real satisfaction to them. But I go for the easy rush and choose it way too often and then don’t do things I actually like better.

4. “Got any questions you’d like to ask yourself? Just ask. Just answer. Explore. Don’t judge.”

  • Why do I keep falling into mindless activity? I used to be a horrible slob. Impressively messy. Every fall, when one mouse would come into our house, it would come to my teenage bedroom because there were so many piles of things for it to hide into. As I got older, I liked it when I made things clean and neat, but didn’t care to do the daily practices to keep things that way. And then I had children. There was so much chaos and overwhelm in my mind and in my life that I couldn’t stand a chaotic home environment, and presto: I am now very neat. So I know I can go from non-effort to regular-effort. Why won’t I do so for the practices I care so much about (writing, prayer, dance)? It’s like I’m still in teenage-mode: occasional and impressive outbursts followed by accidental ignoring followed by guilty ignoring. That is a question I imagine it’ll take me this entire book to figure out. So I’m not going to try now.

5. Name some things you know you want, but rarely dare to say out loud.

  • I never, ever, ever say this out loud, but I’d like to drop a little weight to make dancing easier.
  • I want people to read my books.
  • I want to be a better mother.

THERE. That’s chapter one. I’m not saying I’m going to blog my way through every chapter of the book. In fact, I won’t. But I will finish the book and I’ll make my lists and I’ll report back to you. I’d thought that declaring my word of the year to be PRACTICE meant that I’d improve my practices. Instead, it’s shaping up to be about exploring why I resist doing just that. Which may be more helpful in the long run.

 

 

 

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What if you’re the one in the ditch?

 One day an expert in religious law … wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. [A priest and a Temple assistant crossed the road to avoid the man.] Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him….
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The Good Samaritan. We often read this famous story as a call for religious people not to be so self-important that they refuse to help those in need, even when it’s inconvenient.

But that’s only one way to read it.

* * * *

Our expert in the law understands the use of stories in making a theological point, so as he’s listening, he’s figuring out:

  • Who is the hero of this story?
  • Who am I in this story?

Although Jesus’s first two examples (the priest and the temple assistant who pass by the man in the ditch) are the ones most culturally allied to our expert, they are definitely not the heroes. The hero is clearly the Samaritan — the despised one, the one our legal expert crosses to the other side of the road to avoid even being near. This might make our expert uncomfortable enough.

But “Who is my neighbor?” is the question that started the story.

Who is the neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

“The one who showed him mercy.”

Which makes the answer to the original question: “Your neighbor is the Samaritan.”

Our expert is the man in the ditch, broken, bruised, in need of help. He is not the hero, but the one who needs saving. That is probably not who he was expecting to be.

That’s not who many of us expect to be in the story, either. But what if we are?

What if you are the one who is hurt and broken and needy? 

A painting of The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall
The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall

Then your neighbor is the one you think is gross, the one you think you are morally superior to, the one who is the butt of your jokes. That neighbor is the one who will help you, the who will show you mercy and make it possible for you to receive the healing you need.

Which makes the story of The Good Samaritan a whole lot more uncomfortable to live out — but then, Jesus doesn’t tell these stories to help us justify our actions. He tells them to challenge our self-justifications.

 

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The Spiritual Discipline of Apathetic Prayer

Finally, a spiritual discipline I can conquer in one easy step.

RDJ and Jimmy Fallon slouching

Apathy and discipline don’t normally go together — apathy meaning “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern,” and discipline meaning “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior.”

How could lack of enthusiasm or concern be a code of behavior? Let alone a beneficial code of behavior. Don’t they each repel the other?

Jimmy Fall ew

But think of the people you know who radiate peace.

Might they have a lack of concern about specific outcomes, or about plans? Aren’t they difficult to get riled up?

Many of my best parenting days were those when I didn’t have an agenda of any kind, and we let the day unspool as it did, so I tried to be agenda-free as often as I could (at least until I had to start making dinner).

mom trying to cook

Let’s go to my favorite word resource, the Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828):

Want of feeling; an utter privation of passion, or insensibility to pain; applied either to the body or the mind. As applied to the mind, it is stoicism, a calmness of mind incapable of being ruffled by pleasure, pain or passion. In the first ages of the church, the christians adopted the term to express a contempt of earthly concerns.

Ew.

Okay, here’s where I have to confess that I misheard a friend. I heard apathetic prayer, but she’d said apophatic prayer, and the mishearing stuck in my head as kind of funny.

Truth is, I couldn’t be apathetic if you paid me.

Amy Poehler dancing

While I seek increased calmness and rootedness in my mind and in my life, I have no desire to be incapable of being ruffled by pleasure, plain, or passion. This earth is what I have — I am concerned about it and about its citizens. I’m glad I can easily laugh with people, cry with people, cheer them on, get bothered about things. My passionate nature keeps me connected to the people around me and to God.

So while there’s something that sounds good about coming to God in prayer and not being attached to the outcome, it really would have to be a discipline for me. In some ways, I do that already: I’ll often just lift people up in prayer, or ask for blessings, or for love to wrap around someone. That way, I’m not telling God how to do the job. But I’m always passionate about those people and those prayers, I always have my own hopes and desires for that person and that situation, and I’ll probably cry about it, whether it goes well or poorly.

So no apathetic prayer for me.

Apophatic prayer, though… “‘Apophatic’ prayer has no content. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God.” 

That sounds appealingly experiential; I think I get there sometimes when I dance in church, or on those rare occasions when I’ve danced a prayer. That’s something I could try to practice (assuming that I will do it poorly for a good long time).

* * * * *

If you want to listen to the conversation in which my friend Lisa Delay does not say apathetic prayer, here it is. It’s in the second part of the podcast, in her interview with Ed Cyzewski.

Also, I had a lot of fun with http://giphy.com/ for this post.

 

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A family legacy of words

At my recent family reunion, my second-oldest uncle talked about the work he’d been doing to clear out his house in anticipation of downsizing. He said he had all his father’s letters and poems. And then he said the most glorious words:

Would you like them?

I don’t know what made him think of me for such a treasure, but I am so grateful that he did.

the poetry files
Opa’s poems, both original and translations

These are the files of poems and songs, both his own and his many, many translations of other Dutch poets and songwriters. And in the middle, a chapbook of his poems from the 1920s — all in Dutch.

There are some materials in English, though. So far, I’ve found benedictions, poems written for friends’ wedding anniversaries, a limerick, a rewriting of a hymn so it’s about a man watching hockey, a very silly poem (half in English and half in Dutch) written for his young daughter, and his copy of one of my favorite things: a poem he wrote for me when I was a baby.

For Nataly, by Klaas Hart, 1968
For Nataly, by Klaas Hart, 1968

He had stayed in our house in Toronto some night when we were all gone, and this was the gift he’d left. His poems often had elements of what was in the news, hence the reference to David Lewis, who was a politician at the time. The “cardboard cellar” was where I was sleeping at the time: in a refrigerator box with a mattress in the bottom. My dad had used it as a prototype for the beautiful mahogany crib he’d later build me, so the cardboard had stylish curved cutouts, but I rather love that my box bed is immortalized in verse.

But wait, there’s more.

Opa's letters and assorted documents
Opa’s letters and assorted documents

There are liturgies for church services, articles for religious publications, notes on Synod meetings. And letters. Oh, the letters! They start from before the war, and I’m sure there are some from during the war, when he worked in the Resistance, and was often separated from his young family. All in Dutch. Which I don’t understand. I’m hoping either to hit it big enough some day to pay for someone to translate them all, or to entice a Dutch professor to turn translating some of them into a class project. (Any leads, send them my way!)

Tucked way in the back was a file labeled 1953. The year they emigrated to Canada.

ticket to Canada

This is my father’s ticket to his new life.

I don’t know whether I have any more words to describe the gift my uncle has given me.

Okay, I do have more words. Does anyone out there know how anything about how to archivally store a two-foot-high stack of papers? I want these to be around for a good long time, so I can root around and see what all there is to discover.

 

 

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