Love the One(s) You're With

2013 is fast approaching, and with it the recollection that resolutions are in order. Who doesn't hope that each new year might bring with it some kind of change, however insignificant? I have a few ideas for new year's resolutions, one of which would go something like "read the books you already own."

Most years I make some resolution regarding books. This past year was 1) to read more and frivolously, and 2) to blog about it. I have a very bad habit of buying more books than I can read, and then going out and getting even more at the library. 2012 has been a year of reading as much as possible, however ridiculous the material - and in the first part of the year I took that very seriously, reading through about thirty young adult novels, among other things, at a remarkable pace, on top of my usual editing load. I flagged off a good deal this fall, and I'm now about ten books behind my goal for the year. But this is not a resolution to get anxious about.

Now I'm looking about me at all of the thicker volumes I've collected that I didn't attend to this year because they would, quite simply, take too long. I think 2013 is the year for them. This means (ideally) finishing Les Miserables (and not just because of the film), War and Peace, and Joseph and His Brothers, as well as the Umberto Eco novel I recently (five months ago) borrowed from some friends, the China Mieville that's been sitting by my bed for too long, and the large stack of non-fiction that has been crying out to me since that ancient age, 2011.

I'll also be leading a few more reading groups in which we'll tackle three or four Madeleine L'Engle titles and C. S. Lewis' space trilogy. I'm looking forward to those, because they're books I love to reread and never, ever tire of. Lastly, I began several series' in 2012 that I will continue reading as the sequels come out. I suspect they will be the only books, at least in the first part of the year, I put on my to-be-read pile that I don't already own.


Happy Day After Christmas

And on a completely unrelated note, there's an interview with Madeleine L'Engle biographer Leonard S. Marcus on Omnivoracious. Whatever you think or feel of Amazon, you gotta love their book bloggers.


"The good news of Christmas is that the atmosphere of fear and hostility isn’t the natural climate for human beings, and it can be changed." - Rowan Williamscourtesy of Ayjay


Freedom or Safety

If blog posts were articles, I'd wait to write this till I'd done some research. But I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and that will have to do for now. The topic being, as the title suggests, the relationship between freedom and safety.

I was thinking about this a lot during the election, as I tried to mentally sift the different parties into their fundamental ideals. There being so little harmony between parties, it seemed like a helpful exercise. Why is it that we are so divided? What values are so conflicting that they can create such dissension?

Recent events have brought the two to mind again. I'm not going to give any space here to the massacre at Sandy Hook, because enough has been said and enough can never be said, and that's the way it is with tragedy. I am not ready to attempt to do justice to it.

So, moving slightly through that, I was struck by how quickly people responded to the horror with a call to metaphorical arms against...well, arms. I suppose they would have claimed that there's no better time to discuss gun control than after a violent shooting. I would claim the opposite. Dear people, your politics are in bad taste. And no matter how personal the issue, it's still politics.

But this is not a post about gun control. It's about the choice between freedom and safety. I suspect that choice is at the heart of most political conversation. Do we choose more freedom even though it will put the weak at risk? Or do we choose to protect ourselves and others even if it means sacrificing our freedom? Back in the day, the political theorists who fashioned the building blocks of this country felt that freedom within and safety from without was the best policy. This is an almost ridiculous summary, of course, but it's still pretty accurate.

I bring this up not because I'm feeling political, but because I think this has something to do with us as human beings, at our core. We want to be free! We fear for ourselves! And our attempts to deal with both of these urges are at the heart of our political structures, our personal ideals, our sins and our salvation.

The two will be at odds until the Kingdom of God is realized on earth, or within us. Perhaps that is part of what it means to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" - the reconciliation of the freedom found in our identity as children of God and the safety that is realized in trusting in his providence. 



Featured this morning in our church bulletin, a recent Advent poem of mine. Though the version for the service had one line adjustment for the sake of its context; this is the original.

More often than not they arrived on foot, 
like travelers come a long distance.
Think of the three at which Sarah laughed.
Think of the one standing in Balaam’s path.

The shepherds, aghast at the one,
then suddenly surrounded face to face with a host, 
looked angels in the eyes. Scattered among the sheep—
not suspended—stalking toward them purposefully 
with peace to those on whom.

The shepherds were not the first.
All of Israel followed the angel to Canaan,
and it was the angels who brought fire to Sodom.
An angel alone led the ram to Abraham.
And we haven’t yet mentioned the cherubim,
divine dragons, guardians of the throne, strange beasts.
This is the company the angels keep.

The messengers say do not be afraid,
and often lift men from prostrate praise.
More often than harps they hold swords in hand,
and sometimes the Lord of all looks the part.
Jacob wrestled the angel, but he wrestled his God.
And the rod of justice, and the feet of bronze,
sometimes the angel is the Son of God.

Where the image of infants with tiny wings?
What the prayers for guardians of easy things?
If an angel appears, something’s worthy of fear.
You’re called to change, to move. Your heart is laid bare.

Zechariah in the temple faced the angel and said,
“I am old; I need proof.” And he was struck mute.
When Mary faced the angel with his promise of favor,
she said, “I am young; how can this be done?”

So the angel, regardless of wings, robe, harp strings, halo, 
heard much the same from each, but knew the hearts.
In her was born the King of all kings.


from Madeleine L'Engle's "Walking on Water"

"What if—the basis of all story. The small child asks all the what ifs. All of life is a story, story unravelling and revealing meaning. Despite our inability to control circumstances, we are given the gift of being free to respond to them in our own way, creatively or destructively."



Grace Bonney over at DesignSponge posted Sugru's "Fixer's Manifesto" on the blog today. Which got me thinking about manifestos in general, and resolutions, especially as we're nearing a new year. The blurry weeks of late December and early January are when so many people make resolutions they fail to keep and (usually) fail to try to keep.

But there's value in developing a set of guideposts for each season of your life, standards if you will, to help you develop yourself, your work, or your relationships in ways that are important to you. Bonney also linked to 99U's 5 Manifestos for Art, Life & Business, which include such notable resolvers as Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

All this is leading to the obvious questions: What is your manifesto? What are your resolutions? What is your set of standards for the season?


This One's About Music

I've come across a few new musical experiences lately I thought I'd share. What with holidays and all, it's a good time to be introduced to new songs - and singers.

Maggie Ritchie and I went to college together, but I'd buy her album Something Wonderful whether I knew her or not. I don't know the first thing about reviewing music, though, so I won't tell you much about it. Just sample the songs yourself and tell me what you think.

Several musical people from my church put together an album of songs we sing a lot. Which is a lame introduction to a beautiful collection, Songs of Grace. If you like what you hear, the doors are open at 9:30 every Sunday.


The Holy Parents

Both—one at the oven in the square,
one at the sawhorse—
build from the warm earth,
shaping with calloused hands.

Joseph in the woodshop, 
always a quiet man, now grave
in upturned admiration,
guides the hands of the boy 
(the one who caused such a stir
and set the town fathers talking
and the unwise wives clucking)
bearing the sharp blade over the wood.

The boy says, ‘teach me,’
and the quiet father steps back in fear.

The man has lost a finger in his day—
and almost lost a hand.
There was a Sabbath when the boy
returned from the Rabbi
(the unleavened bread sat cold in the corner).
The father thought to ask the son for healing—
it had been a helpful finger.
But by the time the sun had set,
the father had forgot the need—
and though his faith 
(hidden as it was on the edge of Nazareth)
was firm and sure,
he was a man of simple plans
and could better bear the weight of a cedar branch
than aspire to miracle.

Not so with Mary.
For though she knows the honor of the warmth of wheat,
and though her stitch is short, her soap is strong,
still—she dreams many dreams.
Long nights would she spend at the fireside
with her sleepless son,
singing the Hebrew hymns
and snatching prayers from priests.

And when she sleeps, she mumbles prophecies,
and in her dreams she speaks in tongues.

Joseph sees the years behind 
a long stretch of dusty roads
yawning between Egypt and Bethlehem,
Bethlehem and Nazareth.
He knows the currencies of the Bedouin.
He has learned to find a room
where no room is to find.

Mary recalls the wind in her face
the hot, rich scent of the tents in the Negev.
The songs of the Egyptian nannies
washing their babies in the Nile.
She recalls the scents, the sounds,
every time a far-flung insult catches her ear,
reminding her of the mysterious parentage 
of her mysterious son,
the one she calls in whispers
when sending him to sleep,


Preparing for Advent

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent. Every year I try to take Advent as seriously as possible, and every year that seems to look a little different. I'm posting a few resources here for the similarly serious. Please let me know if any of them are particularly helpful to you.

Creighton University's Praying Advent 2012 (This has almost everything you could want in terms of understanding the schedule of the season and praying through it.)

The Advent Conspiracy (Please check this one out - and share it!)

Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach sermons from 2011 (Advent series at the top)

Catholic Scripture readings for each day of Advent

If you know of any others that have been helpful to you, please send them my way. I'm also "curating" a list of some good music for Advent, so let me know if there's anything you appreciate out of the cacophony of the season.

To finish us off, here's every other Advent post I've shared in the past few years.



Thanksgiving is a strange holiday. We talk about being grateful, but the day seems devoted to gorging ourselves on more food than we need followed by shopping for as much stuff as we can get for as little money as possible. We complain about family, travel, and weight gain. What we do not do, it seems, is find ways to be grateful.

I say "find ways to be," because gratitude ought to be an activity, not just a feeling. It's perhaps because we treat it like a feeling that it holds so little influence over us. I don't know. What I do know is that it is an opportunity to shed, however briefly, our sense of entitlement, our resentments over things we don't have, and to redefine what it is we want during this season. More things? Newer things? Better things? Or something more?

Image from Dishing
Having said this, I do want to mention that food traditions are among my favorite of all traditions. There's a comfort to the consistency of Thanksgiving. The trouble comes when appreciating the flavors of the season becomes an exercise in gluttony. I, for one, plan on exerting a little self control this year. Not for the sake of restraint (I'm not very good at that), but to appreciate flavor. Both on the table and - at the risk of sounding cheesy - in life.



It's election day; I voted and so should you.

As I was walking out of the polling place earlier, I thought, "There, now I'm responsible for what comes next." I took another step and corrected myself. "I'd be just as responsible if I hadn't voted at all."

I was also thinking about responsibility yesterday, but in a different context. I was thinking about the difference between The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural (bear with me). In TVD, whenever something horrible happens, Elena (the main character) does a lot of stupid things and carries a lot of unnecessary burdens because this or that trauma is somehow supposedly her fault. In Supernatural, Sam and Dean do a lot of stupid things too, but rarely from a sense of guilt. They act out of a sense of responsibility for one another and they live (or die) with the consequences. Take a guess which characters are more compelling.

So today, after my little responsibility thoughts, I was driving back to the house thinking about how much living in a democracy is like being in love. In both situations, you are fully responsible for your circumstances though you have limited control over them.

I think a lot of people are afraid of their democratic responsibilities because they don't want the consequences of their choices to be their fault. And lately it seems as though every democratic choice we're offered results in pretty grim consequences. We're tired of choosing between two evils, but not choosing is its own choice, so we're responsible either way.

I would like to suggest a few things. First, I'd like to suggest that we care about our communities wholeheartedly whether it's an election year or not, so that when divisive issues are put on the table, we remember to love our neighbors. I will say it again, we ought to love our neighbors more than we do our politics.

Second, I would like to suggest that we be brave. You can take responsibility for something whether it's your fault or not, and you can take responsibility for something whether you are in control of it or not. If you don't take responsibility, you will end up bitter, angry, and divisive. Among other things.

Of those other things, the worst, perhaps, is pride. It is a proud heart that refuses to take responsibility - proud and fearful. I do not want to be either of those things.

I made some choices today which may or may not affect the future. But regardless, I will take responsibility for what comes as though it were my own, because it is my own. And because I love my neighbors, I will do my best with what they choose for me, even as I hope they will do the same with what I choose for them.

I mention all this here because I think the principle of taking responsibility for your circumstances applies to many things outside of politics as well. I suspect it's one of the most fundamental differences between a hero and a sidekick. And we are called to heroism every day. We only have one life to live, after all. It's ourselves alone we can know, ourselves alone we are called to know. "About chief of sinners I don't know," Neuhaus wrote*, "but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me."

Whatever you choose, at the polls, in your kitchen, or while balancing your bank account, let us own the consequences.

* Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon


On All Hallow's Eve

on all hallow’s eve
when the spirits of saints
rise with a whisper and a rap on your door,
we gather, we children
who are not afraid,
we gather to send them all home.
we send them all home with fire and song,
we send them all home
with dancing.


Open Mic

A week ago I went to an open mic night at a local coffeeshop with a friend of mine. She sang along with a dozen or more other performers for about three hours, and I listened. The mic was open for poetry as well - or "spoken word," as it's apparently called now - but I didn't have anything with me, and I wasn't really in the mood to get up on stage.

Sometimes developing your creativity requires stepping back and listening. Setting aside the urge to be heard, and opening your own ears. This is why the most oft repeated rule for writers is "read more." Because you do not develop an ear or an eye for your own work if you do not exercise that same ear and eye with other people's works. 

I learned a few things last week. First, that it's a good thing to cheer loudly for everyone, whether they were any good or not. At the very least, you are cheering on their bravery. Second, that imitation really is an excellent starting point for any work (though it would be a pity if you stayed there). Third, that artists, though often shy, are strongest in community with one another. 


Some Words for Writers

1. Stop measuring your work by word or page count. Write until you've said something and said it well.

2. Study grammar in your spare time. Put down the Sunday morning crossword and start diagramming sentences.

3. Only steal ideas from the Greeks.

4. Write with a fine pen on beautiful paper. Your words will be better. Guaranteed.

5. Don't sacrifice good storytelling for accuracy. Unless you're writing non-fiction, of course.

6. There are few books (The Idiot, the Bible) that can get away with a protagonist who has no flaws. Your book probably isn't one of them.

7. There is no substitute for reading a good book. If you write but do not read, you're doing something wrong.

8. Be nice to people.

9. If everyone followed the rule "write what you know," our libraries would be very small indeed.

10. Every writer starts with people-watching.

11. Be careful pulling stories from your past. You may begin to confuse your memories with your manuscript.

12. Know your calling. Just because Flannery O'Conner changed your life doesn't mean you're meant to follow in her footsteps. (Though it might.)

13. There's nothing wrong with writing a rip-off*. There's something very wrong with publishing it.

14. There's no shame in following a paradigm. In other words, please do.

15. Never publicly criticize another author. Unless you review books for a living, in which case, you might want to write your novels under a pen name.

16. There's nothing like the realization, after you've spent your college years writing dozens of short stories, that you have no idea how a novel works.

17. All writing should happen with hot tea or coffee and warm butter croissants at the ready.

18. Keep pen and paper on your person at all times. This is a life requirement.

19. Don't set your story in Beaumont just because you happen to live there. Setting should be as necessary as character. If your setting doesn't influence your story, something's off.

20. If you just want to write about yourself, forget the novel and keep a journal. Though...keep a journal anyway.

21. When in doubt, involve a phoenix, an old woman in the woods, or Pandora's box.

22. Learn to portray conflict through setting alone.

23. Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and Leonard Cohen do more to inspire than all the Bird by Birds and MFA programs combined.

*Yes, fan fiction, I'm talking to you.



Vaguely considering compiling Advent-related poetry here as we approach that season. Thoughts?


I've been hearing this in my head today.

Designed by Tim Easley.

Politics?...or Not.

Here's a slight derivation from the norm...

I've been thinking lately what a pity it is that caring for the environment is so often associated with political inclination. There's nothing inherently politically liberal about wanting nature to be right and healthy, yet we frequently assume there's some necessary connection between preferring big government and collecting reusable shopping bags.

I prefer small government because I love communities. And I believe that change begins on a local level, because you have to change a culture to change behavior. Also, I'm stubborn. I'd rather my neighbor and I partnered together to clean the streets than have someone in a city on the other side of the country telling me I have to.

The danger for me is in assuming that because I prefer small government, I shouldn't care for all the causes the big government people care about. Saving the whales and lowering carbon emissions isn't actually just for democrats. In fact, the idea behind small government thinking is that individuals should take these issues on themselves instead of leaving it to policy makers.

Compassion and consideration should never be left to one side of the political divide or another. Being fully human means caring for the world you've been given - not just as a gift, but as a responsibility. And I do think we can do more for it if we start doing things ourselves.

Regardless of who you're voting for and what you think people should be doing in Washington, I think we should take this voting season to seriously consider what it is that we are passionate about changing - whether it's damage to the environment, the rights of animals who cannot care for themselves, or human beings in need of basic necessities. There are concrete, practical things that we can do for change - most of which have nothing to do with who's in office.

I'll be thinking about what I want to do this month. Let me know if you want to do something, too.


from David Wright

"To be a faithful writer is to contend with so many forces tugging on our fidelities. We can be faithful to experience, to language, to communities, to audiences, to the self, to forms, to traditions, to innovation, to family, to moral, political or spiritual convictions. But more often than we'd like, we cannot keep all these faiths at once."

- by David Wright, from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom, for Poet's Quarterly 


T.S. Eliot, from Anatomy of Inspiration

An excerpt from an excerpt:

"To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden."

T. S. Eliot, from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, cited in Anatomy of Inspiration



A few posts ago, I wrote that the one project both the creative person and the person of faith is involved in is the ministry of reconciliation. It's worth it to revisit the origin of that phrase. It comes from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. He writes:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

The words here recall the story of Eden, when God looked at all he had made and said "It is good." The creation story* is a narrative of drawing order out of chaos. "The earth was without form and void." But from this nothing came every living thing. The nothing did not make something. The Spirit of God made something from the nothing. 

Then we messed it up, of course, and the ministry of reconciliation is - among other things - about dealing with that chaos again. About drawing order and making something out of these shards of our lives and the lives of others. It's about becoming right with God - and in so doing, becoming right with the world.

Plenty of artists will tell you that art is about destruction. I find it odd that they leave it at that. Yes, there's destruction in art, the way there's destruction in any exercise. You have to tear a muscle to build it. It's not always pretty. But the end goal is not destruction. We don't destroy for destruction's sake. We tear down that we might rebuild. It's the same principle behind the log in the eye. You deal with yourself before you deal with someone else. You tear down that you might build up. You dig in so that you can refill. These aren't cliches. This is the work of the man and woman of faith. This is also the work of the artist.

They work together, too. I suspect it is easier to reconcile your interior life to the life you were created for if you've made an exercise of such things with paint or pen. And one's creative work can only benefit from order within. It simply isn't true that the best artists are the crazy ones. You don't have to be self-destructive to be creative. But there's something to the suggestion that those who are most aware of their own need, most open at the seams, are also the most willing to be used by the creative spirit. I suggest that you can be both open and aware without falling apart, and that both faith and creativity - especially together - serve as a powerful means to heal the breaches within us. 

Vague? Not really. When it comes down to it, this is about being aware of brokenness in the world around us, and responding with both our art and our prayers. In the end, it looks very practical indeed. 

*If it's hard to think in these terms because of an objection to the science of Genesis 1, we can talk later. But seriously, if you can't appreciate the book of Genesis because of your middle school biology class, you've got some personal hang-ups to deal with.


He Whom Chance Favors

It was Louis Pasteur who famously said, "Chance favours only the prepared mind." I've been thinking of that recently. This past Saturday, I moderated a panel discussion on screenwriting and novel writing at Stan Lee's Comikaze. Vanessa Fewings and Mark Wheaton were on the panel, both with distinct perspectives based on significant experience in both camps of writing.

One of the audience members asked about breaking in to the industry, a question which every hopeful screenwriter who doesn't have an "in" with Hollywood is desperate to hear an answer to. Mark's answer was not necessarily encouraging, but it was certainly a call to arms. Basically, he said to write, write more, and keep writing. The more material you have across a variety of fronts, the more prepared you are when an opportunity arises.

I was reminded of this again when watching the Paley Center's Vampire Diaries panel from this year. Don't judge! It was playing in the background, the cast maintaining a stream of comic dialogue with each other as moderator and audience threw questions at them, when I heard it again. Ian Somerhalder answered a serious question with a suddenly serious answer, explaining that for actors and showrunners alike to find success, there's a degree of luck that must be involved. And "luck," he reminds us, "is when opportunity meets preparation."

There are all sorts of blogs, books, websites, conferences, and conventions that will guide you through the process of getting discovered. And all those things have their place. But when it comes to being an artist - whether a writer, actor, painter, or musician - the most fundamental project is your art. Not your platform.

With that in mind, pick up the pen or the paintbrush. And when you are done, pick it up again. A writer is one who writes. An actor is one who acts. There's no other way to become what you want to be than to do it, and when you are done, to do it again. 


Community Bible Experience

This fall I'll be hosting a reading group through my church in which we go through through the books of the New Testament using an edition from Community Bible Experience. There's nothing sneaky about the edition; it's NIV. But the books are arranged in a unique reading order, and the chapter and verse markings are removed.

Obviously since this is something we're starting at the end of the month, I don't have anything specific to say about the reading itself. But the concept is a good reminder that some things we've grown very accustomed to occasionally require a fresh look. We don't need to make them new - there's nothing wrong with familiarity. But to readjust our vision, to remind ourselves that our perspective has been limited by any number of factors - that's important.

I hope that the premise of "a fresh look" doesn't inspire everyone to throw out their knowledge and experience. But there should be a way to acknowledge that we have blind spots without assuming our own past is untrustworthy.

These are somewhat disconnected thoughts, but consider it a heads-up as to what I'll be doing for the next couple months. And if some of the thoughts and conversations that come out of it land here, you'll know why.


Escape from Hat, by Adam Kline and Brian Taylor

This past week my lovely company launched a brand new children's book, Escape from Hat, by Adam Kline. The book is scattered with illustrations from Brian Taylor, some in color and some in black and white.

The book tells the story of a brave rabbit, Leek, who is determined to do whatever it takes to return to his boy, Cecil. Aided by a warrior she-rabbit, Morel, the pair travel through a perilous land without a sun, a place replete with monsters, dimmer-dammers, and the rabbits' arch-enemies - the black cats.

I love all of ZOVA's book releases equally, but some involve a more unique vision than others. Escape from Hat is not like other books. It's incredibly hard to categorize, being most accurately described as a "fanciful epic." It stands on its own in a number of ways, not least for the artistry of its words, the strange fusion of its language and illustrations, and the tongue-in-cheek allusions peppered throughout the text.

You may have noticed that I don't write very often about ZOVA's book releases here, and that's in large measure because I try to separate my work from my personal life. But this is a book that has seeped into the cracks between my two worlds. It's one I continue to read for pleasure as well as vocation. I recommend it to everyone with abandon, not because I had a hand in its development, but because it's a book that everyone will love.

And because this is a personal blog, filled with personal thoughts and feelings and experiences, I'm going to say this from the bottom of my most personal heart: You, too, should read this book. And you, too, should share it with friends.

Here's how:

1. Buy it on Amazon*. The print book is beautiful, but the digital book is lovely too. The color illustrations look incredible on a Kindle Fire screen. I have seen them.
2. Review it on Amazon, agree with the tags you see there, and copy your review over on Goodreads as well.
3. Share the book with your local elementary school, middle school, or library. They will appreciate it. If they want more, tell them to contact the publisher (you know who) directly. I love those people.
4. Post one of the above links on Facebook or Twitter, or pin the cover to your "favorite books" board on Pinterest. If you tweet about it, hashtag #escapefromhat so we can find you and share in the conversation.
5. I see you are now an avid fan. You can follow the author on Facebook, and the illustrator on Twitter and Pinterest.
6. Still wondering what to do with your love? Buy more copies and ask for them to be gift wrapped. Stow them away for Christmas, or let the cat out of the bag early.

And please drop me a note. I would love to hear your thoughts.

*I know most of you personally, so if you can't afford to buy a copy, let me know. You can borrow mine. No, really.


What Movement Can Mean

While watching "Dead Enders" on Friday, I was reminded of something Jonathan Rhys Meyers said of his Tudors co-star Natalie Dormer. He said that more than any other actor he'd worked with, she knew how to use her whole body in a performance.

I mentioned before that one thing I was struck by in watching the play was the investment stage actors have in every movement of their performance. They are aware of their slightest motion. Everything is intentional.

No part of my work or play requires this. I am not an actor, dancer, or mime. But I can see a different reason why it would be helpful to practice such intentionality.

The body is often referred to as an instrument. This is not a flippant acknowledgement of the difference between your head and your hands. Instruments are meant to be used. And if there is one project that the creative person and the person of faith is perpetually engaged in, it is the ministry of reconciliation.

I'll talk about that more later, but here it is in brief: The work of the artist is to bring order out of chaos. To reconcile the way things ought to be with the way things are. This happens on the page, on the canvas, on the screen. But it also happens in conversation, at the cash register, and while riding the bus.  This is why the work of the artist is so similar to the work of the hopeful saint. If you are trying to develop your creative self, you cannot help but develop your humanity as well. It is the same project.

What does this have to do with a stage performer's physicality? Remember how we got here. The stage performer has learned to use his body as an instrument for his craft, which is to tell the story of the moment at every moment.

Imagine what you could communicate in your conversations with friends and family, or your interactions with strangers, if you used not only your words, but your whole body. I'm not talking about the kind of body language you read about in self help books. That's a small part of it, but I'm talking about something more.

If I'm fully engaged in another person's life and presence, it should show in my movement and posture. I say "should," but it may not be natural. And that's okay. I take time and I give attention to the tone of my voice when I want to encourage someone who's shy or affirm my friend's story of their long and painful day at work. I interject with "mhmm's" and "I see's" to let them know I'm tracking every word. But there is so much I can say, so many ways I can care, if I turn my whole self to them.

What could we accomplish as ministers of reconciliation - in our art and in our lives - if we treated our movements the way we treat our words? If we were gentle with them the way we can be gentle with our voices? Or energetic? Or thoughtful? What work would being aware, from our fingers to our toes, do toward loving others? Or being generous with them? 


"Dead Enders" - a play in two acts

Last night, I saw "Dead Enders" (also titled "Orphans") at the Hudson Theatres in Hollywood. I brought my journal, a pen, my smartphone (which I tried not to use much), money for parking and a beverage at intermission, lip gloss, and sunglasses that I didn't need (the play was at 8PM).  

I arrived early, which is unusual for me, and sat by myself on the edge of the audience, a position which quickly became metaphoric for my feelings about the audience in general. "Dead Enders" stars three amazing actors: Michael Connors (who also directed), Jesse Allis, and Beau Mirchoff. Since most audience members came to see the latter, they were comprised almost exclusively of teenage girls. I felt old, and in feeling old, also felt a little creepy. 

The performance began with the stage manager reading the audience instructions about turning off our cell phones during the performance. She read these instructions straight from her iPhone, and I did not miss the irony. 

The lights went down, then up again, and Jesse Allis was on stage as Phillip - a homebound orphan suffocatingly but carefully sheltered by his brother, Treat (Mirchoff). Within a few scenes, their scrappy, dysfunctional routine is interrupted by Harold (Connors), a man of sketchy means whom Treat intends to milk for all he's worth. But Treat is not in control - nor is he ever, it seems - and Harold takes the boys under his wing for better or worse. 

The trouble I've always had with stage performances is that I'm very aware of what I'm watching and that I'm watching it. Something has to happen on stage, something magical, to make me careless of my surroundings. I was never, not even in the most poignant moments of the play, unaware that I was sitting in a room full of teenage girls. Mostly this was because they seemed to laugh at all the wrong parts (like, shall we say, a death scene) or not laugh at all the right parts (like, shall we say, an intentional joke), but perhaps I'm being fussy. And it didn't help that my people-watching before the performance began turned the audience itself into a kind of character.

Ultimately, though, my awareness was none of the performers' faults. The magic did happen. I saw it. During the second act, from the time Treat climbs through the window and on, I believed every word and gesture. 

More than with film or television, there's an immediacy to theater that inspires unparalleled delight. You are completely invested in the success of the performance as well as the progression of the story. You are rooting for actor and character both, and I'm not convinced that's just because they are standing right in front of you. I think it's something endemic to that type of performance itself. It has to do with the investment the actors have in every cell of their characters, in every slight movement. Your eyes can rove the whole stage. The camera of the audience is never out of focus. Every motion is charged. 

Aware as I was of the audience, I was more aware of the characters on stage. I forgot to think about how the one actor balanced performing and directing the piece. Or how the other actor managed to prepare his posture behind the scenes before stepping out. They became their characters and the characters became the play. Theater won.

I've been thinking about stage performance in general ever since (which, granted, hasn't been that much time), and I've also been thinking about how depressing and weird is celebrity culture (for reasons). But most of my thoughts on those will wait for another day. For now, I'd encourage you to take advantage of the last few performances of "Dead Enders" this month. Bring your brother, your father, or your neighbor-who's-a-boy, and you'll make for a welcome variation in the audience. After all, it really is a piece about fathers and brothers more than anything. Ticket sales/donations go to a worthy cause. If you need any other excuses, let me know. I used them all.


Creative Excursions

One of the things Julia Cameron advocates in The Artist's Way is weekly artist dates. These are one to two hour excursions with your inner artist to do or see something creative or inspiring. I tend to roll my eyes at talk of an inner anything. So rather than talk about my inner artist, I'll talk about my creative self.

Ideally, the creative self would be the same as the regular self. The one that washes the dishes and puts gas in the car should still be the creative self, because even - and perhaps especially - in these mundane things, the creative mind should be at work. Of course, this is hardly ever the case. We tend to move through the mundane world on autopilot, and it often takes a very intentional transition to shift from that frame of mind to one of creative vision.

The goal of the creative excursion (like "inner artist," I'm also not a fan of the term "artist date" - but feel free to call them whatever you like) is to make it a regular habit to seek places, events, and experiences of inspiration. To be aware not only of what you're seeing and doing, but of how you're seeing and doing.

As mentioned before, I've been pretty haphazard about my trek through Julia Cameron's book. Because of that, I've not yet done one of these excursions. Part of the problem is that they're meant to be done alone, and I feel a little rude running off to do something fun without inviting someone along. I don't mind being by myself, but there's a certain expectation with any expedition that it be shared.

Tonight I'm going to see a play in LA. I haven't invited anyone along, so it will be me and a pen. I have very skeptical feelings about plays in general. I generally feel they're designed more for the performers than the audience. I am hoping to be converted into a theater-goer tonight. I am hoping to learn to be a little more brave in my choice of creative outings. I am hoping to enjoy the performance and discover something about Los Angeles I didn't know before.

I'll let you know how it goes.


Love Does, by Bob Goff

I promised at the beginning of the summer that I'd write about Bob Goff's darling book Love Does. I finished it a while ago, but I'm not sure that I want to say much about its content. The purpose of the book is to encourage and inspire you to live more fully, and it works toward that purpose by telling stories of Bob Goff's own life doing exactly that. The title says a lot, reminding us that love is more than an ideal or a feeling, but an epic motivator. The book provides countless reasons to love humanity, and countless inspirations to turn that love into action. I'd say more, but the stories speak for themselves, and they are worth sitting in for a while. Each chapter tells its own story, and you could - if you felt like it - hop haphazardly between chapters, sampling whatever you have time for.

I called the book "darling" a moment ago, not to be dismissive of its significance (and there are moments of great significance within), but because reading the book is like meeting a dear friend for coffee. Nothing frivolous, just minute by minute conversation of health and wholeness. If you need something to remind you that there is, as George MacDonald daringly wrote once, "more love in the world than anything else," this is a book to pick up.

As an aside, one chapter is devoted to discussing the book's own writing process and how Bob's friend Don helped him with his craft. Don is the well-known Donald Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame. And if you are familiar with his writing, you will not need this chapter to know that he had a hand in the book. Love Does could cozy up next to Donald Miller's canon on your bookshelf and feel right at home. If you are not a fan of Don's writing style (not sure who would feel that way, but I'm sure someone will), Love Does might not be super fun to read. But the stories stand on their own regardless of comparison. Enjoy.


In which we mark a turn.

At the spontaneous suggestion of a dear friend, I've started haphazardly going through Julia Cameron's "creative counseling" program (my own term), The Artist's Way. If anyone else feels like joining me in the venture, the book's on Amazon and in most libraries. I'd seen it before, sitting on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, and considered going through it. But the vague spirituality in the book's premise made me go squinty-eyed, and it took the aforementioned friendly suggestion for me to remember my first moment of curiosity and take the plunge.

I say I'm going through it haphazardly, because I'm not remotely faithful to the most basic dictates of the program. I generally journal pretty regularly, but turning what's always been a natural impulse into a daily and regulated practice hasn't worked out as precisely as I'd hoped. If I look at my journal, though, I can see that I've written much more frequently, meaningfully, and helpfully since I started. And I've definitely found myself being more actively creative and internally aware than I was before.

A few other things have coincided with this program. I was introduced to the Enneagram Institute, which might best be described as a holistic approach to understanding personalities. I have always been wary of personality tests for a number of reasons. For one thing, putting yourself into the box of a four-letter typology seems unhelpful at best (and they're easy to manipulate so that you score as the kind of person you think you are rather than the kind of person you are - defeating the whole purpose). Human beings are complex creatures, and naming your personality in such an impersonal way seems to do more harm than good. Especially as it offers self-justifications, creates blind spots, and ignores fundamental aspects of human behavior and feeling.

I'm not suggesting that the enneagram test has somehow overcome all of these limitations, but for the first time after taking it, I felt like a personality test helped me understand myself better. Not in terms of offering excuses or pat explanations, but in reminding me of the ways I tend to err, and offering suggestions for what the reasons for those errors might be in order that I might approach them differently in the future.

This is not meant to be an advertisement for a personality test - or a book, for that matter. What I'm leading toward is the realization that in the last few weeks I've become a lot more introspective than usual. I am introspective by nature, but the last few years have been mentally cluttered with work concerns, and I've let a lot of things slide. I'm also reading another book that I'll hopefully talk about a bit later. It discusses self-accusation, in contrast to self-righteousness and self-hate, as a practice of spiritual maturity. There's a lot more there, but as I said, I'm hoping to talk more about that book at a later date.

Ultimately, I'm realizing more and more that the process of developing the creative self - which is the goal of Julia Cameron's book - is a similar process to the spiritual journey. To develop your creativity, you have to be fundamentally aware of yourself - of your strengths and limitations. You have to be honest about your motivations and impulses. Honest about your failures and successes. About what success means to you. It's a process of honing your vision, not just toward the world around you, but first toward yourself. And this is not a selfish process, because it's a process of honesty and healthfulness - which is ultimately a process of entering the world without blinders. And this is good for relationships, for reaching out to others, for acknowledging brokenness and your own willingness to heal. It's the process between that oft-misquoted verse about removing the log from your own eye. Clear out your junk so that you can help others with theirs.

It's this whole process of thought which has led me to the rather sudden decision to define the purpose of this blog a bit more precisely. I have always written here about my random observations of life, art, and faith, but never with much intentionality. Forgive the length of this post, but it marks the beginning of what I hope will be a clarification. At least for the rest of the year - and hopefully beyond - the purpose here will be exploring the development of the creative self. Both internally and in practice. If that means walking through some of the activities I'm doing from Julia Cameron, or reviewing and article or book on the subject, or whatever - so long as it's directly related to that theme - then you'll see it here.


in brief

This article has got me wondering - how many people who should be keeping journals are keeping blogs instead. And how that might be unhelpful to them. Thoughts?


On Favorite Books

People have been making a great deal of Republican VP nominee, Paul Ryan's favorite book choice, Atlas Shrugged. Which is understandable, given that it's a political book with such a wide influence that no one bothers to actually read it (myself included). A few moments ago, I read a brief article/post asserting that Ryan now claims his favorite author is Thomas Aquinas, as though trying to cover up the highly controversial Ayn Rand business.

I understand that a politician claiming a political book as a favorite is a certain statement about his own political persuasions. I get that. But I'd like to point out that if someone asked me who my favorite author was, I'd likely say "Dostoevsky," and I'd mean it. But if you asked me what book I have read more often than any other, it would probably be Cynthia Voigt's On Fortune's Wheel. Which, considering what that whole series has to say about magic, fantasy, and cultural narratives of belief, would be very deceptive as an indicator of my personal feelings about such things. Or if you asked which author's canon I was most familiar with, I suppose that would be C. S. Lewis. Who is lovely, but not quite the same as Dostoevsky. Or perhaps it would be Madeleine L'Engle. Both would say very flattering things about my discernment, I'm sure, but when you consider the wide array of readers who could make the same claim of authorial familiarity with these folks, it becomes harder and harder to see a real connection between the books I most love and the sort of person that I am.

This is very different than the influence of a mentor or a pastor or a teacher. Books are our teachers, certainly. But we have more agency with them than we do individuals. The same article mentioned above likened Ryan's Ayn Rand to another major political figure's erstwhile pastor. I like comparisons. I often find them to be helpful. But this one seems more than a little misguided.

That's all I have to say about the politics of things, though I'll continue to mull over my reading choices and what they have to say about me. Because I'm sure they say something, but I'm less sure that what they say is particularly relevant . . . or honest.


Things I've Made Lately

Here are some photos of recent kitchen experiments, replete with links to the original recipes. All but one, I found on Pinterest over the course of the last few years, and have waited till now to attempt them. The board features many prettier pictures of future cooking attempts for you to explore.

Rustic Plum Tart

Brown Sugar Cookies with Browned Butter Glaze

Spaghetti with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Chili Peppers

Lemon and Sage Chicken

Leek and Parmesan Risotto

Lemon Spaghetti

Cream Cheese Chocolate Cookie



If I had a bookstore...

...these are some things I'd do.

source unknown, thanks to tumblr's perpetual ambiguity

Taken from Apartment Therapy

Not sure where this is, but photo taken by R. Brad Knipstein


The Vast Los Angeles

Thought I'd share this. I don't know where this infographic map is from (I know, I hate not citing sources), but I saw it on Facebook today and it made me chuckle.


I recently finished reading Love Does, by Bob Goff, and as promised will be delivering a post on my thoughts and impressions as soon as possible. Which is, unfortunately, not today. But soon.

I also just got back from a roadtrip to Chicago, with stops in Oklahoma and Missouri along the way. I might post some photos of grass and stuff pretty soon, too.

In other words, I might soon post something interesting.


Things I did not tweet about the super moon.

1. How much of the world gets to see this? Is this exclusive to my hemisphere? Must look at globe. Or Google.

2. No, I don't see the man in the moon more clearly because I now have 20/20 vision (Thank you, LASIK). It's just bigger.

3. I love a full moon against the slender stalk of a palm tree.

4. Half of me watches the moon. Half of me watches Twitter on my smartphone for tweets about said moon. Both halves half hate myself.

5. Walking the neighborhood a few days ago, I described the moon as an asymmetrical tissue against the afternoon sky. Then told myself to remember that description for future novel.

6. Hi there, pedestrians. Yes, I'm watching the moon in my pajamas. On Ocean Boulevard. With a bottle of booze.

7. I can see the moon! Without glasses on! It's a miracle! (Thank you, LASIK.)

8. The moon is not a god. You should stop praying in its general direction. Maybe.

9. Which do I love more: Strongbow or the super moon?

10. Wow, it's big.


Love Does

Love Does, by Bob Goff, was highly praised from the pulpit yesterday. Many in our church will be reading it in the coming weeks, myself included. It comes out on Tuesday. I'll try to share some thoughts, either on the book itself or how it relates to whatever it's supposed to relate to regarding our community. In part, I will try to share these thoughts because it's been a long time since I've shared anything over here. But also because I suspect this is going to be one of those relevant books that either hits us or it doesn't. Also, there are colorful balloons on the cover. And that's just fun.


for Easter

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

- e.e. cummings
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