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Wonder Woman, For Real

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WONDER WOMAN, FOR REAL

I met a remarkable woman yesterday, fittingly just after seeing the new Wonder Woman movie. I was standing in front of her in the checkout line when my great niece and nephew jostled past her, trying to get their last-minute acquisitions of peanut butter and jelly on the conveyer belt with the rest of our groceries.

“You guys, you’re being rude — apologize!” I demanded to no effect. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning to her.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I raised twenty-six foster children.”

“What??” I stopped arranging groceries and gave her my full attention.

“Yup, imagine having nine teenaged girls in the house at the same time. I was a single mom, too.”

I glanced at my nephew’s four teens, who always seem to generate a slight cloud of dust and a not-so-slight barrage of noise wherever they are, especially if food is in any way involved.

“Oh my God,” seemed the only appropriate response.

Me, after an average day with four teenagers

“Yup, I had a nasty divorce and I moved my three girls to a big farm in Maine with all kinds of animals and then started getting bonus children — I don’t call them ‘foster,’ I call them ‘bonus.’”

Twenty-six in all, she said, over five years. “Animals are the best therapy for abused kids,” she declared. “I had each each child choose one animal as their own. They had to do everything to care for it. It was great for them and great for the animals.”

I asked if she still heard from her grown “bonus” children.

“Yup, I’m a grandmother many times over,” she boasted. She was quiet for a few moments and then said, “Course, I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t have the energy. I’m seventy-eight now.” She brightened. “I’m cooking for an assisted living group now and I love it. Best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had plenty: I retired six times! Got the cooking job on my way home the same day I retired from my hospital job.”

I think at this point I was probably just gaping at her, wondering if she was about to shed her grey fleece jacket and reveal a Wonder Woman outfit underneath.

“I like to keep busy,” she said unnecessarily, and followed that with, “Someone told me I should write a book, so I did. Poems and rhymes, but every word of it is true.”

Surprisingly, I did not resent this as I often do when someone just tosses out, “Yeah, I wrote a book.” For an aspiring author who has spent years cycling through random ideas for a first memoir but has yet to land on a framework or theme, these can be hard words to hear. But from this woman, it was OK. If anyone deserves to have her name on a book, it’s her.

Meddlesome Voices

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MEDDLESOME VOICES

I know a few folks for whom meddling in other’s lives is a full-time endeavor. They are certain that they know best, and they become frustrated or angry when their targets don’t follow their wise guidance on everything from the best butter substitute to a choice of careers to what one’s relationship with the Divine should look like.

You know these people, too. Perhaps you are one them. You may think you are being helpful or kind or even a martyr on someone else’s behalf. But if you are doing for someone else what they could do for themselves or trying to influence choices that are not yours to make, you are meddling.

Manipulating, even.

Ouch! Isn’t that an awful word? When I discovered that many of my interactions with others could easily fall under the category of manipulation — trying to get someone to believe or act in a way that might make me more comfortable — I cringed. I’ve worked hard to overcome this trait, which I learned from my family. I now have a permanent groove in my tongue where I bite it. This practice will remain necessary unless and until I finally believe that I do not, in fact, know best.

I have enough challenges managing my own life. I do not need “extra credit” for managing the lives of others. Even if they seem willing or eager for me to make their decisions for them.

Which brings me to something that can be even more destructive than those who meddle in other people’s lives: those who allow others to meddle in their own lives.

Letting Your Life Speak

I’m in the midst of making an important decision that could affect me heavily for the next few years at least. It’s a vocational type of decision: how do I spend my daily-dwindling time here on earth? Where do I invest my emotional energy? How do I employ the expertise and experience I’ve garnered thus far?

As Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer writes, “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding, ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’”

Whenever I’m faced with a major decision in this realm, I re-read Parker’s book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. There’s an astonishing amount of wisdom in this little hundred-page book, and it’s one of those reads that offers deeper and different wisdom with each visit.

One of Parker’s main points is that we are all born with a true self, a true nature, and then sadly, “From our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everybody but ourselves,” gleaning who we are  “. . . from the people and powers around us.” Meddlesome voices. 

All of our institutions train us “away from true self towards images of acceptability . . . we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

This is a great weakness of mine, a painful “thorn in my flesh.” I know I’m not the only one with this need to please and a burdensome desire for recognition and esteem. Millions of true selves are being trampled by stampeding egos chasing the values of others rather than discerning and honoring their own.

My first inclination when faced with a big decision is to read books, talk to friends, and ponder possible scenarios to imagine how they might appear to others. In other words, to look outside myself. That’s all fine. It’s raw material.

But I must be careful that I don’t end up using another’s navigational system rather than my own inner compass. My “inner light,” as the Quakers call it. I need to get down to the business of prayer, meditation, journaling, and connecting with God in nature, because those are my channels for a voice that is “different than the ‘I’ of daily consciousness, a life that is trying to live through the ‘I’ who is its vessel,” as Parker describes it.

This means tuning out all the well-meaning (or not) meddlesome voices — past, present, and imagined future — and letting your own life speak.

 

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”  — Parker Palmer

A Writer’s Attention Deficit Disorder At Play

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A WRITER’S ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER AT PLAY

Multi-day writing conferences are bad for my Attention Deficit Disorder. Or maybe I should say they’re good for it. They feed it, encourage it, even celebrate it.

“Rejoice!” such venues declare. So many ideas! So many stories! So many topics and characters to be enthusiastic about! And most of all: so many directions I could go!

Since I was diagnosed with ADD a few years ago, I’m more patient with myself in such situations. I don’t mind letting my mind out to play, to imagine, to dream. No harm done.

I know this hyper-excitement and bouncy brain syndrome will lessen within a few days of the closing session tomorrow. I’ll lose the business cards I’ve collected and forget all my new writerly best-friends.

The passions that are real and meant for me will stick, and the rest are harmless mental entertainment.

The time I’ve spent sitting in this quiet seminary library researching the possibility of a Princeton Continuing Education Certificate in Ministry and Theology will blend into one of countless similar memories.

Seminary Musings

Whenever I spend time with a bunch of pastors as I have at this Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop, I suffer from a mild case of WannaBe, even though I am technically already a pastor at my church. I feel like a pretend pastor, because although I’ve taken a few seminary classes and am a “certified” Spiritual Director, I’ve not done the real stuff, the painful stuff — the heavy duty Christian History and Comparative Theologies and Advanced Homiletics and Old and New Testament I & II.

Why would I? Life is short, and I’m fairly certain my studies wouldn’t help anybody. Nobody cares what I know or think about theology, it doesn’t help suffering people, and I’m sure I’d find some other reason to judge myself “not good enough.”

I never know where the Holy Spirit might lead me, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be to these hallowed grounds. Never say never, though.

Forget the Christians!

I did get some important clarity and focus today, which is, as any ADD-addled person knows, a nugget of pure gold.

Drum roll, please:

I think that I may have decided on the “audience” for my writing. Actually, if this sticks, it will be a huge step forward in my meandering wander towards an intentional, serious writing project.

Surprisingly, the clarity came during a ridiculously brief fifteen-minute meeting with a former editor of Christianity Today magazine. This teensy time slot came with my registration for the conference — time with an editor or publisher or author of your choice — so why not?

I went into the meeting with my usual random scattered thoughts and a page of notes that involved a number of question marks and read: outlets, publishers, trends, niche, spiritual, de-mystify, different kind of Christianity, CIA, environment, drug addict, pastor, memoir, audience.

Somehow in all that, my new best publisher-friend found a way to help me through my confusion.

“You are writing for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, and there are a lot of them. Not Christians. You’re not writing for Christians.” 

The relief and certainty I felt about this “not Christians” directive bordered on euphoria. I hadn’t realized it, but the thought of writing for Christians makes me tense, like I have to quote the Bible a lot and throw around names and phrases like Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and orthodoxy and reformation.

Christians have historically believed that they have the answers to all of life’s big questions right in their big book. They tend to like certainty. I got nothin’ for folks like that. No answers, no resounding Message.

Gratefully, I think an increasing number of Jesus’s followers are moving away from that fixed mindset. As Anne Lamott said on the opening night of this conference, “I don’t want to read ‘message stuff.’ I want to know who are you and what have you figured out here?”

That, I can write about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Words

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Frederick Buechner wrote in one of his memoirs that “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”

Or as Anne Lamott said last night, we want to say, “Me, too!”

The power of words to connect us seems to be a theme at this third annual Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Seminary. At this morning’s keynote, author Diana Butler Bass referenced “the tender power of I,” suggesting that the word “I” connects us to one another and to God. When Moses said, “Here I am,” and God said, “I AM,” it connected them and placed them on sacred ground.

Dogwood on sacred grounds of Princeton Theological Seminary

Many times as Diana told her personal story, I found myself thinking, “Me, too!” Her journey along “the road to an unexpected vocation” resonated with me and made me feel just a little less crazy for chasing this writing dream.

“Writing is a spiritual path,” she said. “Cherish your own path . . . Who are you? To me, that is the central question writers must struggle with.”

Writing Good Into the World

As intimate and personal as writing can be — especially memoir writing — there is also a strong communal element to it. Who am I in the world? What is my calling? How can I be of help?

I don’t know if it’s the spiritual nature of this conference or the dire times we live in or both, but this sense of mission and calling seems to be another big theme this week. 

Like Anne Lamott, Diana expressed “deep distress” over what’s going on in America. She thinks it’s a critical time for people of faith to “write for the world” as a way to counteract evil and inspire people.

“We are living in the age of the anti-word,” she said. “There is evil surrounding words right now . . . amazing technology that could spread beauty is instead being used to spread evil. Words are being purposefully used to undermine truth and beauty and wholeness . . . Malevolent forces are taking words and using them for oppression.”

Diana urged the two hundred-plus people crammed into the auditorium this morning to “write to reach people’s hearts” and to “engage intentionally to build goodness and beauty and to embody the Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1

Writing Wisdom

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I’m just back from listening to my literary hero talk about writing and faith. Of course she ended up talking about Donald Trump, because this is 2017 and that’s what we talk about, no matter where we start out.

Anne Lamott says that she is still stunned, shaken to her core. “I wake up every morning and think, ‘this can’t be what’s happening.’”

Ditto.

She says she is just starting to get her sense of humor back and I’m awfully glad to hear it. Most of us are holding our collective breath much of the time these days, but it’s hard to hold your breath and laugh at the same time. So spending an hour with Anne Lamott was good medicine.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep it simple,” she advises. “Grace will bat last; it always does. And in the meantime we’re going to take care of the poor.”

Anne says that in writing as in life, “failure, messes and mistakes are where it all happens.” I wonder if that might be true for politics as well? Might the new grassroots energy and determination engendered by our massive electoral failure invigorate America’s progressive base so that we can care for the poor and the planet again?

I hope so. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t want to talk about President Tweet. He takes up too much of my mental space already.

Writers Write

I’ve come to the third annual Frederick Buechner Writing Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary to remind myself that life goes on. I need to focus on my writing again.

Last year at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, I committed to blogging every night. It was too much. I hardly slept. I will not promise that from Princeton.

For tonight, I’ll just share some of Anne’s wisdom about writing:

My favorite line of the night: “The first thing you do is to stop not doing it.”

She says everyone wants to write, but only “down the road” after they sort themselves out. “There is no as-soon-as: as soon as you retire, as soon as your kid graduates, as soon as you move. You don’t want to wake up in three years, that much nearer to the end of your life, and not have written . . . And don’t wait till you think you have something to say — you’ll never write a thing.”

“Start where you are, and assume it will be go badly.” In her book Bird By Bird, there’s a whole chapter called Shitty First Drafts. Expect your first draft to be too long and too detailed. “Taking stuff out is one-third of creativity. Get a good eraser.”

“Perfectionism,” Anne says, “is about terror. Terror of not being enough. We evaluate ourselves as objects.” Ouch. Clanging bell of truth.

Anne often ends her talks with a quote from Frederick Buechner, even when she’s not at the Buechner Writing Conference. And so she did:

“From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein. . .”

Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary

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