Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Postcard Project

What: The Postcard Project--50 cards in 100 days (deadline June 6)
Who: 50 people I know
Where: All over, even international
Why: Because I've watched Julie & Julia too many times and wanted a project
What else?: Send me your address and you'll get one

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Cup of Stars

"Eleanor looked up, surprised; the little girl was sliding back in her chair, sullenly refusing her milk, while her father frowned and her brother giggled and her mother said calmly, 'She wants her cup of stars.'

Indeed yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.

'Her little cup,' the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill's good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. 'It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.' The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, 'You'll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from this glass?'

Don't do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don't do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl."*

— Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House)

Every time I take a trip I try to do something that I've never done before.

Until a few weeks ago, I had never read a scary book. So knowing that I'd be, for better or for worse, with my parents 'round the clock for 10 days seemed the perfect opportunity to try to scare the pants of myself because, no matter how old you are, parents make monsters go away.

I went to A Novel Idea Bookstore and bought a used copy of The Haunting of Hill House. It met my criteria, it is: short, the premise to one of the greatest scary movies of all time, and by an author I trust implicitly to unnerve but not scare me out of my wits.

I wasn't disappointed. The book is character driven, psychological, and beautifully written. It's a work of terror, not horror. Horror relies on an external element to spook you, terror creeps innocuously and works from the inside out to make you afraid. Horror is a hand suddenly reaching from off screen to grab you, terror makes you inexplicably afraid of your own hand.

Jackson gives us Eleanor as our unreliable narrator. She is dull and pathologically insecure to the extent that, having no hue of its own, her personality takes on the color of all the other characters in the story. Indeed, Jackson takes her from the one-dimensional character we first meet all the way to a compendium of the experiences, events, and other characters—perhaps even the house itself—by the conclusion of the book.

Perhaps Jackson's success lies in the fact that she elevates the typical haunted house genre and makes it unique unto itself. To elaborate on the plot would be to spoil the fun; suffice it to say that this is a good book that becomes great as it gradually imbeds itself in your imagination.

*The passage at the beginning of this post is my favorite part of the book. Eleanor is a causal observer of this incident at a diner. The line, "Indeed yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course," is amazing.
Without any context whatsoever, Eleanor childishly agrees that she too wants a cup of stars. Because of her suppressed and sheltered upbringing, Eleanor forgets herself and subconsciously reaches for her lost childhood. By the end of this excerpt, Eleanor is adamant that the little girl exhibit stubbornness and strength. It's a wish more for the little girl Eleanor harbors inside than for the little girl she is witnessing in this scene.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Donald Miller

Friends warned me to set aside a lot of time when I started this book because I'd read it in two days; they were wrong. I read it in one.

The book is about how Miller gets an offer to turn his bestseller Blue Like Jazz into a movie and the process of writing the screenplay. In writing an autobiographical screenplay, Miller is asked to present a cinema-worthy version of himself and discovers that his "story" is just not that compelling.

Miller realizes that he is being called to "write a better story" for himself. Somewhere between riding his bike across the U.S., hiking Machu Picchu, and starting The Mentoring Project, Miller lets the Author write him into a better character.

"You can call it God or a conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness."

Miller talks about overcoming fear and addresses the problem of having over-elevated expectations about people, possessions, and even God: "When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. And when you stop expecting material possessions to complete you, you'd be surprised at how much pleasure you get in material possessions. And when you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you'd be surprised how much you like spending time with God."

Like me (and countless other people), Miller had to unlearn about the God he knew growing up—a god that inspires guilt and fear—in order to trust Him to write a better story. "As a kid, the only sense I got from God was guilt...The real Voice is stiller and smaller and seems to know, without confusion, the difference between right and wrong and the subtle delineation between the beautiful and profane. It's not an agitated Voice, but ever patient as though it approves a million false starts."

Miller doesn't treat God as a fearsome ruler or swing too far the other way, thinking of God as a fairy godfather; he treats God with as much respect as he does familiarity. Miller acknowledges that while God can help write a better story, He does not promise a perfect one: "Growing up in church, we were taught that Jesus was the answer to all our problems. We were taught that there was a circle-shaped hole in our heart and that we had tried to fill it with the square pegs of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; but only the circle peg of Jesus could fill our hole. I became a Christian based, in part, on this promise, but the hole never really went away. To be sure, I like Jesus and I still follow him, but the idea that Jesus will make everything better is a lie. It's basically biblical theology translated into the language of infomercials. The truth is, the apostles never really promise Jesus is going to make everything better here on earth...I think Jesus can make things better but I don't think he's going to make things perfect. Not here, not now."

"It's interesting that in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes, the only practical advice given about living a meaningful life is to find job you like, enjoy your marriage, and obey God. It' as though God is saying, write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help."

My fear of writing a better story is obvious: I'm worried where God will ask me to go and what He'll ask me to do. Also, I worry proximity to God will mean losing too much of myself. I'm not that great or anything, but at least I know who I am.

I worry that if I get too close to the source of all good that somehow I'll be absorbed; I'll never swear, or drink, or think about sex again. I'll become this Jesus drone—that God will steer me back to the Lutheran bubble, ask me to preach apologetics, and cause me to inexplicably volunteer to bring ambrosia salads for the church potlucks.

But what if it's not like that at all—what if proximity to God meant that I could be more myself than ever? Perhaps closeness to God would mean I could love more and judge less, have confidence to approach my Christian community with my biggest doubts and hardest questions, and read the Bible less for platitudes and more because it's full of stories about people even more messed up than me. What if it meant that, overall, I could live a better story?

I guess there's only one way to find out. I don't have a good conclusion for this post but I think I've at least got an inciting incident for my story.