Behold, I tell you a mystery

I.

1:55, Wednesday, August 29, A. D. 2018

I was coming around the corner between the bakery I worked at and the place I’d parked my car, to get my lunch. As I turned, I saw a certain truck coming down the hill, and as it slowed to turn onto Main Street, Levi stuck his long arm out of the window and waved at me, grinning. I waved back with all the enthusiasm I could put into my own arm, and then the truck turned and was gone.

   Thirty-two hours later, he was dead by his own hand.

   I didn’t know, when I waved and smiled to him, that I was saying goodbye.

II.

   No matter how often I listened to Brahms’ Requiem (and I listened to it almost every day for a couple of months, the first half on the half-hour drive down to work in Granite and the second half on the way home), I can never quite remember the place in the first and last parts where the turn from sorrow to joy comes in. Life, too, seems to make it easy to escape noticing the moment you come out of the shadow into the light, even if for only a little while before things go downhill once more. I would notice, halfway through a day, that it had been a good one, but not remember when that had started or what had brought about the change. Or I would catch myself noticing the little good things around me without having to prompt myself to do it, and wonder when I had begun. Grief goes in cycles, but eventually good days — truly good days, not just neutral ones — become part of the cycles too.

    Always, said St Benedict in his Rule for the monastic order he founded, we begin again. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

   Things never go back to the way they were before. That holds true whether “before” is before the Fall of Man, or the fall of Levi. But the fortunate fall means things can be better than they were before. Perhaps when we come back around, as here we are now, we can be a little higher on the spiral. For some of us the bad days begin to be farther apart, or aren’t as bad when they do come. For some. —

   This time of year, we can focus on his last moments, or our loss, or the fact that he’s happy now in Heaven — or we can focus on how God has orchestrated everything, taking advantage of a/our lengthened perspective to notice all the small ways he has provided: in food (especially that first weekend), in comfort, in physical needs, using people to give each other his word when they needed it [most]. This is what “God is in control” means, not that he’s a power-hungry bully. He is wise enough and good enough to use his control well, not the way people always make a mess of it — like Levi, thinking he was in control of his life, thinking it was his to take, whereas it never was. “God is in control” means (as Mrs Mary reflected over and over again in those first days) that Levi’s death did not somehow surprise him or not fit in with his plan: it was in a way Levi’s appointed time, as much as when a ninety-year-old dies after a life well spent, or even the death of Caleb and Jenn’s baby at the same time. 

    “But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned,” says Aslan, speaking of the White Witch who had killed him the night before, “she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Most Christians’ deaths glorify God, martyrdom not required; Levi’s death was definitely evil. Because he willed his own death, good does not automatically come from it, as it did from, for example, Mr Dale’s mother’s. God working in us, it is our responsibility now to make Death work backwards. Every single day someone gets up and refuses to let Satan win him for another victim, every single day, is a victory. That Mr Seth, for example, seeing all he has seen and suffering all he has suffered, still gets up every morning and continues in his faith, is one in the eye for Satan. 

III.

1:55, Wednesday, August 28, A. D. 2019

I was coming around the corner between the bakery I work at and the place I’d parked my car, to get my lunch. As I turned, I saw a certain truck coming down the hill, and as it slowed to turn onto Main Street, the driver regarded me. Though I didn’t know him — Always wave when you get the chance — I waved, and he tentatively waved back.

IV.

But this is not the last line of the book, because things never go back to the way they were before.

V.

What is the last line of the book?  I have a guess, but it will be at least next week before I know for sure. I can’t wait till I find out. But for now it’s a secret.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Ordinary life, snippet, So That Others May Live, work in progress, Writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

More recent reading, and other things

We have now moved my sister to her college, five hours away, which meant a lot of things, among them lots of time for reading in the car (and elsewhere).

The Dream Peddler, Martine Fournier Watson. The parts of it I got were okay, and it was good at setting up atmospheres and paying attention to the bigger meaning of the little details. But perhaps it was that I read most of it while sleep-deprived, or perhaps it needed more concentration generally, but the parts I didn’t get were kind of large. I don’t know that I liked it enough to try it again right away. It might be one of those books you understand if you read it at the right time, and I didn’t. From library 1’s new releases.

Nest, Esther Ehrlich. Library 1’s Juvenile section. (Most of these — unless otherwise stated — will be J’s.) Similar thoughts to those above, actually. Coffee stain on the outside edge of the lower corner, quite pretty.

Word After Word After Word, Patricia MacLachlan, read aloud to Olivia on the drive. A class of fourth graders learns things about writing that most of us would do well to learn. I like Hen. Olivia likes Ollie. We are predictable.

Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt. I read Kneeknock Rise a long time ago and the mood of it has stuck with me, though I couldn’t tell you much else; this one I think will do the same. Good kids’ books are good reading for grown-ups too, as C. S. Lewis says, and this one is. Kids can appreciate a good book about immortality as well as the next one.

Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett. So I’ve recently discovered the Night Watch series, which is for grown-ups, and I like his writing style, and when I was shelving and discovered he had books in the J’s too, I thought, Why not? This one does the same thing I’m discovering seems characteristic of him — for four-fifths of the book you think you’re getting a lighthearted fantasy that pokes fun at fantasy tropes (and drops the occasional innuendo) and teaches you a thing or two about good metaphors, and then the last fifth of the book ties together things you didn’t see coming — though hints were dropped all the way back — and hits you over the side with something profound about human nature. In this case it was about Story. Would recommend, if only because I want someone to talk with, instead of to, about it.

Rowan of Rin, Emily Rodda. Last day of work before the trip, I was collecting interesting-looking books for the trip, and this one caught my eye. Not bad. If a kid has serious fears to fight (as who doesn’t), I’d recommend it.

Ariana lent me Death Be Not Proud (Rowntree, Suzannah, probably not J), but I was saving for the last something I could count on to be good, and I haven’t gotten to it yet. Given what I think is in store for the next couple of weeks, I may not get to it for a bit longer.

And at a used book store on the other side of the state, I found some interesting things, like a book of poetry by an SMSU professor, now dead, or a book about the Minnesota Orchestra on their centennial. But I only bought two: a book of George Herbert, containing quite a lot of his poems; and the Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 1a, The Middle Ages, which is the one I didn’t buy back at the end of the term and have kicked myself for not doing ever after. Both together were under ten dollars.

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Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax

You know, I still stand by this.

Of Dreams and Swords

This is going to be a long post. This “artist’s statement” was supposed to be a lot shorter, but you know how that goes. I even tried to abridge it and then found too many gaps in the argument that way. It is about 3,300 words, so if you haven’t got time, go and come back later. Maybe it’s nothing you haven’t already read here, but it’ll be more complete, and hopefully the thread of the argument is pulled tight.

Feel free to poke holes in it, though. It was written for an audience which I already knew disagreed with me, but that doesn’t mean any of you are obligated to pat me on the back. Or if I wrote a sentence so winding you still can’t figure out what it means, you can ask.

What is the value of Story? Why do I devote so much time and effort…

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Recent reading (II)

In spite of working forty hours a week with at least an hour a day spent driving, and STOML waving its tentacles in the air and doing other odd things, I’ve actually gotten quite a bit of leisure reading done in the last couple of months.

The Very Nearly Honourable League of Pirates, books one and two (apparently the series has three, but the library only had those two). Piratical fun and fluff and wordplay, and setting up tropes (esp. with regard to character types) to be played with later.

After the War is Over: a novel about life in Britain after the Great War, with occasional chapters set before it, a device which was a little. . . obvious the way the authour handled it. Follows a former war nurse and a man with severe shellshock, though, lest this begin to sound too familiar to readers of the Two-Legged League, they’re in love with each other, not relatives. I read it more for a comparison to the TLL than anything else, so it has its uses, but it’s not great.

The Dust that Falls from Dreams: another novel about Britain around the time of the Great War. Very well-written, follows three interlinked families from when the kids are growing up to when they come of age and go off to war (all of them, in some capacity, including the girls), and then trying to adjust to life afterward (those who survive), in a society that’s falling apart, with spiritual doubts, trying to make life bearable for spouses and so on. Ends on a cheerful note in spite of all, which I appreciate, but it felt like something was missing to make the cheerful note make everything slide into place just right. (I think I know what it is and it makes me feel better about the TLL, cos the TLL’s got it.)

There was one whose title I don’t remember, but it was about a bookshop, mostly, and it was pretty good, so I include it because I did read it recently, even if I can’t say anything helpful about it. 

Lisette’s List: about World War II this time, a Parisienne moved to southern France — a lot about art and what makes a painting great and why art matters, and food, and the resilience of the human spirit. My favourite of the ones with wars in them. As in, I would probably buy it. (With the money I make working at a library, where you get books for free. I am aware of the irony.)

Children of the Desolate, a novella by Suzannah Rowntree, very good, of course.

Leave it to Psmith: not finished yet, but it’s funny and so very well plotted. It takes a lot of work to make so many twists seem so effortless and also make sense.

Loads of picture books — if anyone wants a list of book recommendations in a very specific niche, for kids who like cute-but-not-cutesy illustrations and also monsters, let me know.

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On being a Chronicler

I didn’t intend the blog to go silent for so long — at first I couldn’t think of anything to follow up the most recent post without being anticlimactic, and then things got hectic and working hours got longer and I had no time. But here’s an essay I discovered in a document kept for such a time as this. It overlaps with some previous posts, from a couple of years ago; I don’t know the exact date for this one. It’s from more than a year ago, is all I know for sure.

   There’s a difference between writing fiction and non-fiction which may not be apparent to the reader of the finished product, but which the authour can’t escape. In writing non-fiction I become a chronicler: I live the story at the same time I write it. This involves a necessary difference in perspective, as well as a certain added burden to get things true to life (remembering to write details of atmosphere, setting, etc. because you may take them for granted or not notice them because you’re used to living with them, but readers someday won’t have had that, so you need to work extra hard at noticing). But often people respond rather differently.

   Often, of course, people will think fiction is useless or false, and think you’re wasting your time reading or writing it when you could be doing biographies and journalism instead. These will be glad that you turn to any kind of non-fiction at all, until they find out that it’s humourous stories from your own life, and then the question of use will come up again.

   Another kind of people will be fine with you writing fiction, but when you mention nonfiction, as in stories from your own life and not biographies of famous people or journalism, they’ll say “What’s the point? Why are you wasting time on that? Real life isn’t a story.” 

    The questions sting, but often have a grain of truth worked into the assumptions behind them. After all, in the long run, in the bigger picture, in the grand scheme of things — whatever figure of speech you like — what’s the good of trying to capture those little funny things, those inside jokes? How does telling the world, or the few who will listen, about David and the jar of crushed pineapple help heal any of the world’s wounds, help restrain the madness? How can this light ephemeral train of incidents, strung together by the common thread of the characters involved (not even a plot), bring any good to the world? What makes it worth spending all this time on? Is it that people like to read them? Is the worth of a story in how popular it is? What a silly, childish, yet dangerous motive. 

    As writers, we have a duty to use our power well. This often means writing serious books, because things like the Lord of the Rings or Pendragon’s Heir are so full of hope for the future and give us so many weapons against the dark. We may find an essay on morality convincing us of the value in living a rightly-ordered life, but those essays often fall short of showing us what that looks like, let alone making us want to put forth the necessary effort. Stories, in their appeal to our affections, and the numerous examples they give of poetic justice attending characters, have a lot of power to change lives. They’re an excellent way of fighting back against any bad thing (as long as the message or moral of the story is not forced or there at the expense of the story. Authours must remember that a story is not a sermon, nor should it be).

    But once in a while we need a change from the stories which show us the evil in the world and its eventual overthrow. Sometimes we need a story that reminds us not all life is a struggle against evil. Good, clean people and conversations do exist. Not everything is high-stakes with the fate of the world depending on it. Once in a while life is a bit simpler and even happy. It’s easy to show just the bad days in a story because it’s through hardship we mostly grow, but sometimes we risk forgetting life isn’t always like that. Characters may have good days, or weeks, or even years. Yes, we need to be honest about the struggles of life, but we need to remember that’s not all there is

   If the purpose of literature, of any kind, is to teach and delight, both working together, then nonfiction can be just as good as fiction in fulfilling this. You can learn things from nonfiction and you can find it delightful — people tend to forget the latter — and it can be just as much of a story, with plot, characters, themes, and all. 

   So there’s that slight difference in the way you look at your work in nonfiction, but there are others. You have to be careful not to focus so much on remembering what happens in order to write things down later that you forget to live as a part of it. With fiction, often, the authour can afford to be an observer, staying on the outside, looking in with notebook and pencil in hand. With nonfiction, if you do that, I notice people tend to freeze up and start getting self-conscious, which is bad for the writing; also, you are a character in this story and you have to take part. A passive or merely reactive narrator is not going to get people very engaged in the story, especially in first person, because she’s not engaged herself. Writing things from memory later is all right. Forgetting that while things are going on you should be living, being human, and all that, eventually means neglecting the rare chance to spend time with characters in “real life” whose existence others acknowledge (even if not their worth to be in a story). It’s a rare gift. Don’t neglect it. You can write later, in the humdrum days after the excitement has settled down, and when all the people are gone you can invite them back inside your mind, as it were, and select the important parts (out of the bits you remember — so much always happens that you’re guaranteed to forget about half) and think of clever wording to not only convey the action but make it shine. 

   You also have to remember these self-same people have lives outside the story, and people who know them may someday read it (if it’s ever published). So you have to be careful to show different sides of their characters, remembering and reminding your readers of the wonders walking under the sun.

(I promise I don’t spill all the inside jokes to the world.)

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Where, O death, is now thy sting?

It has been nine months since the event I introduced some of my readers to in this post, and Levi’s story has crossed 50,000 words. As we have come further and things have developed, I thought it would be good to bring you also up to the present day, not so much in terms of events but of how I have begun to put together some of the puzzle pieces.

I began with a question, taken from the way Mr Dale framed things when he spoke at the funeral: If Christianity is a message of hope in the midst of ultimate suffering, what happens to a church when a Christian commits the ultimate hopeless act?

I’ll tell you what happens. His siblings sing Be Still My Soul at the funeral.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,

And all is darkened in the vale of tears,

Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,

Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.

Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay

From His own fullness all He takes away.

Don’t rationalize our displays of faith as “you cling to this story because it makes things easier for you, and you hope it will soothe other people’s pain so you tell it to them”.  It makes nothing easier. It’s a whole added weight to deal with because with it we’ve got so many more reasons suicide is wrong. It means if we are to be honest we must say he sinned in his death even as we say he died redeemed. It means we say “rejoice in glorious hope” and it is not a platitude but the way we live, those of us whose lives continue beyond that point, because joy isn’t being happy-clappy. The story is not a nice comforting thing in moments of sadness. It is the foundation for everything we do, and it gives us hope that even this suffering will be worth it. Flannery O’Connor says, “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

This story doesn’t say life will be easy and bad things won’t happen to you: it says in this world you will have tribulation (but take heart I have overcome the world). It begins “out of the depths I cry to you” but ends “hope in the Lord, for he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities”. True Christianity does not deny the darkness; it denies that the darkness will last forever. We confess that the light does not always appear to shine; others deny that the light shines at all. It’s not a pair of blinders to keep us from having to see grief and pain; it only helps us see the grief and pain are not all there is. It’s not a pill to mask the pain, it’s a weapon to fight the ill.

Easter is like the Lord of the Rings: the only thing that seems certain, almost the whole way through, is that the evil will win. No matter what people do, no matter all the brave foolish glorious things they do that are worth singing about but that there probably won’t be anyone left to sing about them — the only certainty is that (as Tolkien himself said) “Evil is”.

And then! And then! This certainty is turned right on its head! The one thing that has happened by the end of the book is that the good won. The evil lost — defeated, in fact, by all the things it had thought too small and weak and insignificant to be a threat. (He has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong…)

Death is not the last word.

(Obviously it’s a little simplistic to equate suffering and evil, because thanks to this we can turn suffering into good, but.)

All the suffering we focused on on Friday isn’t only over — it’s not only that Christ’s Passion is over, although for his sake we’d still be glad it was — but it’s been turned upside down and had its pockets shaken out. It’s been turned into the opposite of what the evil meant it to be.

But even if the Resurrection were out of the picture — even if we were still in our sins and this story would do us no good eternally (think of when Christ’s resurrection seemed so distant in the past that it felt like no comfort, and our own resurrection so far future that it felt like no hope) — at the very leasteven if Christianity is just another myth, we’ve got a myth about a woman named Mary whose son dies, and she gets him back from the dead. At least we’ve got a myth about someone who understands “griefs and torments numberless, and sweat of agony”. We aren’t alone in our suffering. We have a woman named Mary whose son has died, and she has mourned him nine months, and that mourning is not small and is nothing to be brushed under the rug. For many of us it has been the most of our lives since then. But we are not alone in our grief. 

And after we’ve suffered, after we’ve felt our closest kinship to Christ in his Passion, the greeting we say becomes so full of meaning that at it I’ve cried a couple of times. Because it isn’t only a myth. Because it was all worth it in the end.

Christus surrexit hodie!

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TLL update

I’m aware that I have said comparatively little about the Two-Legged League on here, despite having finished its first draft at the end of the first week of Easter. A fortunate few have gotten to read that draft already, and Ariana in particular has teased some of its secrets out and helped me see it in new ways which are going to be helpful for revision. The ending fell slightly flat due to certain ideas not having enough time to develop, and part of that may be because when I started the story, in July, I thought it was going to be a romp through history, taking full advantage of all the fun possible when Chesterton’s still writing every day. I still maintain there’s nothing wrong with that kind of story — like the Melendy Quartet, and E. Nesbit’s books, or Edward Eager’s, only with slightly older protagonists. Fun and games aren’t all of life, but they are a part of it, and a view of the world which leaves them out while pretending to “realism” is in fact unrealistic.

However, with the turn that came nine months ago, the story itself (when I picked it up again) took a parallel turn, and the things which were supposed to be in there as background details — Poppy’s having been a war nurse, Blair’s shellshock, the younger two’s lack of a foundation — took on much greater significance and I found myself sitting down to one scene in particular with a feeling of inevitability, yet it was a scene which I had not imagined possible when I first cast about for plot ideas. (It’s also major spoilers, so unless you’re one of the few who’s gotten past That Part, this is all you’re getting for explanation.) So the two parts of the story — the part I did before and the part I did after — kind of get put next to each other but sometimes don’t connect.

Ariana and I have had a good conversation about that problem; the other thing I’m going to really have to work on is the antagonist, which is a knotty problem indeed, but what with one thing and another we haven’t hashed that out yet.

Maybe it’ll be ready for beta-reading soonish. I dunno.

Well, it’s time I went to the libraries (both of them today), so maybe later this week I’ll do a post about my favourite characters in the TLL.

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