The Priest on a Moped: A Vignette

Today I was walking through our apartment’s parking lot towards the street when a moped whizzed past.

On it perched a priest, grinning even in today’s toasty 88 degrees. His mostly bald head shone in the sun. He squinted through his glasses and clutched the handlebars tightly. The black shirt and white collar he wore were nothing out of the ordinary, but shiny plastic flapped wildly on both sides of him because he held a dry cleaning bag on his lap.

He was there. He was gone.

But if he were one of my characters he’d have a gentle, steady, enduring name, like Graham or Elliot. And he’d be going to a luncheon on Marybelle Winslow’s estate. Marybelle’s late husband Charles was a wealthy parishioner who’d left his 82-year-old widow wealthy. Rumors spread that she’d be announcing something important about his money today.

Father had been preparing a small speech for days. This morning the speech papers fell into his kitchen sink full of water and the ink ran, leaving him with three pages of indiscernible words. Trying to recreate it for two hours cost him breakfast. Hungry, he sighed at the knock on the door. A parishioner wanted his advice about her son.

He knocked a glass to the floor in his hurry to usher her out when she finally stood to leave, and broke a window pane with the broom handle while sweeping the glass. Spending half an hour trying to remove a stain from his formal collar was unsuccessful and he relented to his dingy everyday off-white. Last and worst, his 1988 station wagon spluttered and wouldn’t start.

The phone rang as he was pulling the door closed, stressed and already twenty minutes late. He paused, frowned, and reluctantly answered.

“Hello, Graham? Yes, this is Marybelle. Would you be a dear and pick up my dry-cleaning? Nancy’s taking the day off and I’m just desolate without her and I need it for a special event this evening and I don’t think I’ll be able to make it before then. You will? Thank you. So sweet of you.”

Dry cleaning in tow, he appeared at Marybelle’s flustered, sweaty, and trying not to wrinkle any clothes—only to find himself at to her grandson’s surprise birthday party, arriving with the clown.

* * *

Five Ways Writing is Like Gardening

Today Curtis (he’s very wonderful) took me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which reaffirmed that if I ever quit writing I’ll be a career gardener. That’s a horticulturalist, and yes, I would switch partially because it sounds much more pretentious.

Is it too far of a stretch if I apply lessons from gardening to writing? Probably.

Will I anyways? Yes.

Well-weeded, pruned gardens are more visually appealing. In 385 acres of garden, I didn’t see a single weed. It was breathtaking. I’m sure there’s an army of weeders. Good, clean writing takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Excessive words muddy the main point.

There’s not just one good writing style. We walked through more than two dozen different styles of gardens—Japanese, evening, prairie, native, vegetable, rose, sensory—and every one is gorgeous because it’s unique. You don’t have to write like Anne Lamott or Victor Hugo to be a good writer. Your voice, your style, your you-ness makes you special.

Composition is key. Plants are organized by height, color, texture, sometimes even smell, for aesthetic appeal. Arrange your words carefully in sentences, your sentences in paragraphs, and your paragraphs in pages. Organize your writing. Your reader doesn’t want to order your scattered thoughts (realistically will stop reading instead).

There’s a place for everything. Cabbage and corn stalks may not be as visually exquisite as dahlias and heliotropes, but there’s a place for both in gardening. And writing. There are heavyweight words and fluffy terms—use both for good rhythmic balance.

People enjoy quality. Hundreds of people were enjoying the gardens today. If you practice-practice-practice and always work to get better, people will enjoy reading you (and your mom and grandma always will, regardless of whether or not you improve—yes, telling my own story here).

On the blog tomorrow: Lessons I Learned about Writing at the Trash Dump.

Kidding, kidding.

 
 Apparently this is an Inspiration Passion Flower. I would have called it a Purple Squiggly Guy.

Apparently this is an Inspiration Passion Flower. I would have called it a Purple Squiggly Guy.

 

Writing: Almost like Talking to a Friend

Often when I sit down to write I have nothing to say. Yet I have few friends who I’d voluntarily engage in conversation then sit in silence with, from lack of stuff to talk about.

That’s because if it was a friend, I’d know them and we’d already have common ground to cover: work, family, friends, the GIGANTIC groundhog living in their backyard, etc.

Conversely, a lot of what you do as a writer is like a one-way conversation. Chances are you’ll never get to speak personally to many of the strangers who read a lot of your work (I don’t even talk daily to you kind, considerate folks who skim my blog to see if I mention you by name).

But if you disassociate your writing from your audience because “Why would I write to people who I’ll never meet,” everything you write becomes boring and robotic, much like a computer manual. It’s not appealing because it’s not personal or personable. People want to read things they can relate to.

For instance, embarrassing things.

  • Today I sat through a whole meeting with a big black mark on my face that I only saw after. I think it might have been dirt. No, I don’t know where it came from. Yes, I’m too old to have dirt on my face.

  • Earlier this week I walked half-way across the street in front of a line of traffic, realized my mistake, and turned around.

  • I trip at awkward times, sometimes laugh with food in my teeth, and frequently turn BEET red and splotchy. People have been telling me I’m loud since I was . . . well, I can’t remember when they haven’t. I’m about as subtle as a peacock.

But there’s danger in trying to be the kind of personal I would be with a friend. You’re tapping your fingers waiting for me to finish talking about myself. I’m not really all that interesting, and why should you care what dumb thing I did when what happened to you yesterday at the drinking fountain was oh-so-mortifying.

Good writing then becomes the balance of using your life experiences for your reader’s benefit. You’ve got (at least) two goals, to help your reader:

a) grow without experiencing the pain/pleasure/confusion you’ve had and they haven’t
or
b) cope with a circumstance
they can’t escape

For example . . .

Our family dog died unexpectedly the day before my 13th birthday. We were on a business trip with my dad, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. The call came from our kind, dog-sitting neighbors. You know when the pit of your stomach becomes solid rock, and you want to turn your face toward a wall to hide your tears so no one thinks you’re a butter-hearted baby who can’t handle the facts? Me too. It feels awkward and uncomfortable.

But it’s okay to be that butter-hearted baby, sometimes. Some things are too sudden to prepare for, too complex to understand, and too hard to express with anything other than tears.

It’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s okay to cry, fume a little, not understand.

Years later (I’m long past 13, you see), I still think of our dog. She was a golden retriever, only nominally obedient, and staunchly defensive about her food bowl (our chocolate lab learned that the hard way—again and again. his learning curve was a pretty straight line). And while her dying certainly is not the hardest thing that’s happened in life around these parts (for Jesus knew what He meant, In this world you will have trouble . . .), it’s what I think of when something hard or sad or bad happens.

I still have fond memories of her. While I wish she hadn’t died the way she did, I no longer cringe at the memory of her death—I think of the happiness of her life.

And I remember one more thing: trouble isn’t where Jesus stopped.

In this world you will have trouble . . . But I will give you peace.

Sometimes, you just have to wait for the peace. Sometimes, it takes a long time. It’s okay to be sad in the waiting.

How to Do What You . . . Love?

One of these days, I’ll start writing my posts in Word. That way, when my computer crashes (which is does at least once a night, maybe twice) or I accidentally press the wrong button and delete 45 minutes of work *cringe and sigh*, it won’t be lost forever.

Until then, I’ll just be learning patience and mourning over the nice things I say that you never get to read (and you’re breathing a sigh of relief, thinking, I didn’t really have time today to read something that took 45 minutes to write).

So, the gist of it . . .

Do something you love for work? Having trouble staying motivated to do it for yourself? Follow this list when the potato chips and Amazing Race reruns are looking particularly irresistible, compared to practicing your talent for yourself.

  • Do a personal project that you love. Then you’ll want to work on it.

  • Schedule time to work on it. Because time is a sneaky little booger that slips through the crevices of the day if you’re not careful.

  • And to not work on it. Rest and physical activity reinvigorates the mind.

  • When you get discouraged, definitely don’t quit. ‘Nuff said.

  • Join a group of people with common interests. Peer pressure and synergy go a long way.

  • Build careful boundaries around your relationship with work. It’s a job. Not your identity.

The post I just accidentally deleted (yes, go ahead and ask yourself how I can be a millennial in the 21st century and still be so bad at technology) had lots more words, but maybe it wasn’t really any better.

Because what do I really know? I’m just trying to figure it out myself.

The Tiny Kind Moments

Monday morning, 8:07 a.m.
My ID holder extender doohickey (officially called a ‘badge holder’ for you types who care about that sort of thing) snapped. The company ID I’m not supposed to lose went flying up and then straight to the ground. Both of my arms were full. I was sweaty, wet-haired, and already uncomfortable (you’re familiar with my relationship with elevators?), and there were four other people on the elevator.

Before I’d formed a plan of action a nice gentleman pitied and saved me. He picked my ID up and handed it back.

I think I thanked him fervently? But I’m not really sure because he was mid-conversation with the lady to my left who had wide-set, sparkly eyes, light brown eyebrows, and a straight, pretty nose. They were discussing her carpal tunnel.

By the time I got to my desk I’d almost already forgotten about the small kindness and gone on to the next thing. But as I think over the past 16 hours that’s the 45-second moment that stands out.

There are lots of “most important” lessons here, things such as:

  • pick things up for people who drop them

  • just because someone might not say thank you doesn’t mean they’re not grateful

  • it’s the different moments in life that we remember

But it’s really a reflection of how life is a compilation of the tiny kind moments: smiling at someone in the hallway (even a weird-looking stranger). Thanking your cashier (genuinely). Asking a person how their day is going (and listening when they tell you).

God’s ultimate kindness toward us (yes, giving His Son to conquer the black-evil-torture of death for us) paves the way for our tiny kindnesses toward others.

That means being unselfish when you don’t feel like it, patient when you’re in a rush, cheerful when you’re tired and your foot hurts and you’re in a black humor because someone cut you off on your way to the dentist.

It means treating people like you’d want to be treated, every time.

It may feel like a series of small and insignificant moments—but your influence is broader than you think.

Short 05

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.—Ernest Hemingway

You Gotta Keep at It

A basic truth about creating (or teaching or nursing or painting) is that you'll only get better if you keep at it. Longterm practice breeds longterm expertise.

It's unfortunate for twelve-year-olds learning to play the piano and seventy-year-olds who've never thrown a baseball—but it's true. You don't get to be an expert without perseverance, and hours and hours of saying no to EVERYTHING so you can get good at one thing.

This ability to keep going requires keeping your mentality healthy, which takes intentionality and grit.

What if someone tells you that you're not really great at this, you're not going to make a longterm difference, and your best work is something else—like labelling cans?

There's a whole lot of things you can do: weep, yell, slam doors, break bottles, lock yourself in your room, mope, try harder, got more opinions, set the painting on fire and try again.

But you must not stop trying.

Because if you do, your work won't make a difference.

Because nobody ever changed anything by quitting.

 

The Old Man: A Vignette

Walking in Chicago means looking in windows—I do this all the time, which stresses Curtis (he's very wonderful) out because sometimes I don't look where I'm going and occasionally I walk in front of people and very rarely I bump into them and then they're upset and I'm flustered and Curtis is shaking his head. Today, following my usual pattern, I was looking in the window of a jewelry store and just sometimes looking at the sidewalk in front of me. The building had indents about every eight feet, forming natural benches.

In one of the benches a little ahead of me still, I saw a man sitting.

He wore dark dress shoes, navy slacks, a tan shirt, and a dark brown felt fedora. Thoroughly unremarkable attire. But his bulbous nose held up actual bottle-rimmed glasses with small, almost opaque lenses—the biggest nose and the thickest glasses I've ever seen. I couldn't even see his eyes through them. He sat there hugging his deep brown leather briefcase in his lap and rocking back and forth slowly. On the sidewalk in front of him was a bus stop with several young regular type people waiting for the bus. Presumably he sat there waiting for it too.

That's all. I walked twenty feet past him, and turned to look again just to cement his picture in my mind, but all I could see were his shoes and the pant legs.

If he was one of my characters, I would give him a mildly eccentric but very solid name—like Abner or Eldridge or Quint Schable. He'd be waiting for the bus to take him back to his one-bedroom apartment in Roger's Park, where he'd eat the same thing for dinner that he's eaten for the last 19 years: a slice of bread, a chunk of cheese, and a can of tuna fish. While eating, he'd pull the newspaper inches from his nose to read. But it would still be hard for him to see under the feeble light of the kitchen tiffany lamp.

After eating dinner, he'd retire to a deep burgundy wingback chair in front of the window of his second floor apartment, to watch the young couples walk dogs and the children jump rope and the old couples hobble slowly, hand in hand. Once or three times during the evening, a single tear would slip down his wrinkled face and leave a dark splotch on his tan shirt. And after a very long time he'd pour himself the smallest glass of port, and drink it very, very slowly.

Then, when his miniature grandfather clock struck eleven, he would take his glasses off and lean his head back in his chair and go to sleep—because he hasn't slept in his bed since his wife drifted off in it and never woke up, 19 years ago.

* * *

Creative People Are . . .

Know someone creative who you can't quite understand? David Ogilvy (in Confessions of an Advertising Man) cites research from a study done by Frank Barron about creative people. 

Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do.

They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognized; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved.

They see things as other do, but also as others do not.

They are born with greater brain capacity; they have more ability to hold many ideas at once, and to compare more ideas with one another—hence to make a richer synthesis.

They are by constitution more vigorous, and have available to them an exceptional fund of psychic and physical energy.

Their universe is more complex, and in addition they usually lead more complex lives.

They have more contact than most people do with the life of the unconscious—with fantasy, reverie, the world of imagination.

Biking and Fear

Yesterday it was almost a hundred degrees in Chicago—the kind of heavy, humid heat that hits you like a rolling wave when you step outside. The cicadas were crazy buzzing, the beach was mobbed by high schoolers and mothers and babies escaping stuffy apartments, and Curtis (he's very wonderful) spent the day drinking gallons of water and sweating more while he worked at a picnic in the park.

I set out to ride my bike to the store. Put aside the granular details about context (do you really care how high the curb was or how busy the road was or how it seemed like THERE WAS BROKEN GLASS EVERY 20 FEET?).

About three minutes into the ride I started regretting it—but by then it was too late to turn around. I continued along the narrow street with too much traffic and not enough space for me and my pretty red bike.

A metallic grey Audi whizzed past me, notable only because it was going a little too fast. Moments later, after I'd passed the line of traffic in the constant ebb and flow of biking patterns, the Audi reappeared. The driver, a well dressed, manicured woman, had rolled down her window in preparation for the moment when she would pass me again, so she could give me 

a
piece
of
her
mind.

I still don't understand what she thought I was doing wrong—something about me being on the sidewalk or not. It's probably hard to be articulate while yelling expletives and instructions at a biker out of your passenger side window as you're driving 30 miles per hour.

I spent the rest of my afternoon thinking about what would prompt someone to react in that way, and had a few ideas:

  • A past offense. The biking culture in Chicago is startlingly arrogant. Bikes do whatever they want, wherever they want to, with little regard to rules of the road and other cars. An accident or two and about a half dozen close calls later, I try not to ride this way—but when there aren't any cars at a four-way stop, yes. It's very hard to want to obey the law on a bicycle.

Maybe the nice lady hit a biker the day before and was still upset about it. Maybe she was a biker once and got hit and was trying to help me. Maybe her husband works in the emergency room and always tells her about the bike accident patients he has to stitch up, and she's secretly trying to put her husband out of a job by preventing bike accidents. Maybe she just hates Chicago bikers.

Your guess is as good as mine.

  • A bad day. She could have just been fired. Maybe her teenage daughter got a tattoo that says, "My mom's breath smells awful in the morning" and she was upset about it. Her husband could have walked out on her, her neighbor could be stealing her mail, her father could have told her he was disappointed in who she's become.

If these are the case, I'm happy to help her out, though I'd rather do it by expressing sympathy for her than by being a human punching bag.

  • Fear. It's likely that the first time she whizzed around me, she was closer to my shiny red bike than she wanted to be. In some combination of being afraid to wreck her car and not wanting to hurt me, she decided to express how she felt about me (which wasn't great).

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I think her fear motivated her. If you have any experience with fear (if you say you don't, I'm moving into your house and taking your job and stuff and hoping that works for me too), you know it's a strong motivator—unfortunately, often it motivates us to make poor decisions.

David Ogilvy, in Confessions of an Advertising Man, lays out ground rules for clients to keep a good relationship with an advertising agency. One of them is to "emancipate your agency from fear."

Most agencies run scared, most of the time. This is partly because many of the people who gravitate to the agency business are naturally insecure, and partly because many clients make it unmistakably plain that they are always on the lookout for a new agency. Frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising.

After I resigned the Rolls-Royce account, I invited myself to visit the Ford Motor Company, "to get acquainted." To his everlasting credit, the advertising manager of Ford refused to receive me. He said: "Detroit is a small town. If you come to visit me, you would be seen. Our present agencies would hear about it, and they might be alarmed. I don't want to alarm them."

It's not that fear automatically makes people make the worst decision (i.e., agency sees client with other agency and all copywriters automatically commit suicide). It's more of a chain reaction: fear often brings out the worst in people as they scrape around for a shred of protection (e.g., agency sees client with other agency and everybody assumes they'll lose jobs so stop trying to write ads and start looking for other jobs). When I'm operating at my worst and seeking protection, I don't think about the implications of my actions. I become reactionary, lash out, and hurt the people who are closest to me, all for my own safety.

I used to think I was the only one responsible for being afraid—if I'm scared of the dark, of war, of death, of insignificance it's up to me to get over. But I think there are two parts.

One part is the story I'm telling myself. Do I believe there's a monster in my closet that only comes out at night? Is death going to be eternal separation from all that I love? Is war coming over Lake Michigan at every second? Will my grandma and my mom be the only ones in the world who ever read any of my books?

The stories you tell yourself become your reality, so work to keep your reality grounded in the truth.

Look in the closet.
Know the truth about death and eternity—that while we yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Read the news, pray for the authorities, trust God's plan to do good to those who love Him.
Remember that your significance doesn't hinge on the number of people you impact, it hinges on Who you're doing things for.

But the second part is new to me. As far as you are able, surround yourself with people who help bring you freedom from fear. Make friends who tell you the truth—both when it's hard, and when it's easy. Don't jump to conclusions when people say something, ask for clarity. Find colleagues, associates, and relationships that care enough about you to work on protecting you from fear. Know too, that in His very nature Jesus is freedom from fear. Find refuge in that.

I'm still learning to do both, and it's not easy. But it is healthy.

That way I don't go out and scream at an innocent biker on the side of the road.