Monday, March 31, 2014

Callback: Part 3 of 4

When the bus doors folded open at the Harrington stop, Sara hoisted herself to her feet, one hand gripping the seat in front of her. She stepped off the bus and stood there for a moment under the lurid yellow lamp, beside the bus schedule, gathering the energy to walk home. Behind her she heard the muted clatter of the other passengers rearranging themselves on the bus, then the doors shut with a hiss, the bus moved off, and she was alone.

Sara turned to the right, along the main street of the little London suburb where she lived with her aunt. At the far end of the street rose the sharp church steeple, barely visible under the new moon. Clustered about the church steeple were the gabled roofs of the town: brick houses in rows, identical with their white doors and little gardens; specialty clothing shops and pharmacies and grocers and the occasional Indian takeaway; the empty park with two benches and a swingset. Now, long past midnight, all the windows along the street were darkened. Only a few dim lamps shone in attic windows – aspiring writers, perhaps; in a few upper windows, the neon blue-and-purple lights of televisions flickered.

Sara yawned. When she reached home, she thought, she’d cut herself a thick slice of bread, then have it toasted with butter and jam and a glass of wine. Maybe two glasses of wine. Sara started calculating how late she could set her alarm clock and still make her audition tomorrow – when suddenly behind her she heard a tapping, footsteps keeping time with her own.

Even in broad daylight, Harrington was a quiet stop. Almost no one ever got off the bus. Still, Sara thought, the footpad could be nothing more than a local, coming home late and somewhat tanked up from pub night with his friends. Nevertheless, Sara quickened her pace.

The footsteps behind her quickened too.

Sara took a left-hand turn, heading up the street towards the tiny park, and just on the other side, her flat. Still the footpad followed her.

Sara glanced behind her. Perhaps a quarter-mile behind her was a tall and lanky shadow, striding purposefully after her. She whipped back around, and hands suddenly clammy with sweat, tightened her grip on her bag and broke into a trot.

By the time she reached the park Sara was running flat-out, heeled boots clattering on the cobblestones and then on the paved walkway through the park. Only a few blocks past the park, and she’d be safe at home –

Someone grabbed her shoulder, twisted her about so hard she nearly fell, and pressed long white fingers over her mouth. “Hello, beautiful.”

With a shock Sara recognized the dark-eyed young man from the bus. She squirmed beneath his firm grip, tried to cry out, but he simply pressed his long fingers even more tightly against her mouth. “Sh – sh – sh, my darling. Don’t struggle. I have you.”

He bent close to whisper in her ear. “You looked so lonely at the bar tonight. Such a shame for a beautiful girl like you to be alone.” His breath smelled sticky sweet, like candy stored too long in a hot place – some kind of drug, Sara guessed. Again she struggled against his grip, but he simply twisted her shoulders backwards, so that she had to arch her back to stay on her feet and look into his face.

“Do you fancy anyone?” he breathed. “Do you fancy me?” In the dim orange light Sara could just make out his eye cheekbones and bright eyes – bright, crazed. “I’m a handsome man. See?” Though still holding her, he leaned back into the park light.

Sara seized her chance. She shoved her body forwards, then raised her right boot and smashed it down on his foot. Again she raised her right leg. This time, she crashed her knee upwards into his crotch. With a howl of pain he released her, hands cupping at his pants.

Sara spun away, somehow still holding her purse, and bolted across the park.

In a few seconds she left her assailant’s groans behind her, but she didn’t stop running. Past the quiet houses, past a pharmacy, past a block of flats, Sara ran. Not even when she reached the white gate to her house did she stop. She flung open the gate, leaving it unlatched behind her, darted up the steps to the house, fumbling for her key as she went. She jammed the key into the lock, twisted it, pulled the door open, and flung herself inside.

Then she was safe, her back to the locked door, breathing hard. The house was quiet and dark, and there was no one outside.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Story: Callback: Part 2

This is Part 2 of "Callback." Find Part 1 here. Parts 3 and 4 to come.

When Sara at last stepped outside it was nearly half-past one. The night air was crisp and cool. From the narrow cobblestones of the alleway up to the bar door led a flight of six worn wooden steps; Sara stood for a moment on the landing, gazing into the night. Across the street from the bar rose a block of flats, five stories high; someone had left their window open even in the cold October weather, and the white damask curtains fluttered in the cool breeze. On one side of the bar was a shop that offered psychic readings; on the other, a bookstore. Every morning at nine the bookstore’s owner rolled out metal racks filled with dusty books, pages dog-earned, rounded with use. When Sara first started working at the bar, she sometimes stopped on her way to work and purchased a book. After work, she carried her treasures all unopened back to the flat she shared with her maiden aunt. There, she would brew a cup of lemon ginger tea, open a pack of digiestive biscuits, and open her book, drinking in the British spellings, the yellowed pages, the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee that the books carried. Recently, her budget had tightened (life in London was so very expensive!) and even the cheapest of books was a luxury.

Of course, the book shop was long since closed for the night. Sara descended the stairs, turned right past Rachel’s Psychic Readings and headed for the main road, heels snapping on the cobblestones, faint echoes behind her in the narrow alleyway.

She reached the main road as the night bus rolled up. With a hiss of escaping air pressure, its doors folded open; Sara stepped on, swiped her Oyster Card, and found a seat. A forty-minute ride, a ten-minute walk, and she’d be safe at home, in her tiny suburban flat, just before 3.00 – fairly early. Some nights she staggered home, bone-weary, at 5.00 or 6.00. She dragged herself in as the sun rose over the shingled roofs and church spire of Harrington, dragged herself back out four hours later for an audition. No wonder she hadn’t had a callback in months.

Only when the bus doors closed with a snap and the bus jumped forwards did Sara notice among the passengers the young man from the bar. Clearly he had climbed into the bus behind her, since he was just sitting down among the shadows at the back, though staring forwards – in fact, Sara realized with a shock, staring at her. She quickly glanced away, fixing her eyes on the grimy bus windows and the dazzling lights of London passing by outside.

Within minutes the bus had passed into the darkened streets of the suburbs. As they rolled past quiet houses, Sara’s thoughts turned to Ivy, likely at a party somewhere in Piccadilly. By now her friend was probably half-drunk, just enough to be sociable, celebrating her upcoming play. Sullivan would be there too of course, not drinking, ever watchful. His hand on the small of her back, he would guide her from theater director to stage manager to seasoned actor, making sure that Ivy met all the right people to advance her career. Together, Sara was sure, they would go far.

Unexpectedly, the picture of Ivy and Sullivan made Sara think of Brandon. In Atlanta Brandon was probably just arriving home after a long day at the clinic. Sara imagined him laying aside his medical notes and charts, washing up, eating a sandwich and drinking a beer with his reading (a physicians’ journal, maybe, or a three-day-old newspaper) propped against a stack of napkins. Later, perhaps, he would check his email. Maybe even send her an email.

With a jerk the bus stopped and its doors swung open. She shook herself in the sudden blast of cold air, gulped back the lump in her throat. Restlessly she shifted in the red vinyl seat, trying to ease the pressure on her aching legs and forget her growling stomach. Only two more stops, then she’d be home.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Story: Callback

My students in Creative Writing are working on stories - so I wrote one too. I thought I'd share it with you. Here's the first part (there are three more after this):


When the clock above the bar read 11.45, Sara’s evening took a turn for the worse.

Already the evening had been a bad one: nearly six hours on her feet on a creaky wood floor, only a handful of customers. She stood there behind the counter, paging listlessly through the gleaming advertising inserts, her elbow leaning on the countertop.

From time to time she looked up, but nothing changed. At the table near the window sat an aspiring writer, hot toddy cooling in front of him as he stared at his laptop. Stretched out on the leather couch in the back, kissing every now and then, was a lesbian couple. In the corner sat a dark young man Sara had never seen before. Though he held a book in his lap, she could not see that he was making much progress. Mostly he watched the other customers, watched her. She noticed his high, sharp cheekbones, pale skin and long fingers wound about the beer glass he held. His dark eyes made her shiver, so with a longsuffering sigh she shifted her aching feet and turned back to her twice-read newspaper.

That was when Sullivan and Ivy walked in.

Sara’s heart sank. Of course, they were here to talk about Ivy’s play and Sullivan’s. They’d ask about Brandon.

Even offstage, Ivy was an excellent actress, with a knack for filling any room she walked into. As Sara watched, the aspiring writer turned from his laptop and the lesbians from their kiss to stare at Ivy. With a shiver she slid her navy wool coat from her shoulders, baring her tea-length black dress and shining silver jewelry. Sullivan bent down and with a smile whispered in Ivy’s ear, and her laughter sounded like a bell throughout the little bar; when Ivy clapped with delight, Sara saw her red-painted nails flash in the dim light.

In a moment, they were at the bar themselves, Ivy tucking her billowy skirt around her as she slid gracefully onto a stool. Sullivan, tall, blonde, impeccably dressed, stood beside her, his hand protectively cupping her shoulder.

“So?” Sara asked. “How was the rehearsal?”

“Horrid.” Ivy grinned. “You know what they say, though: Bad rehearsal, good performance. Next week we open, and we are going to astonish all of London.”

“All London?” Sara snorted as she dropped two olives into the glass and slid it across the bar. “It’s a local theater. Seats 200.”

“Next week the performance will be standing-room only.” Ivy promised. “Wait and see, darling.” She sipped at her margarita. “Too dry. Still haven’t got the knack, have you? Well, keep practicing.”

“Speaking of practicing,” Sullivan asked, “have you received any callbacks lately?”

Sara just shook her head, not meeting Sullivan’s eyes, looking over his shoulder to where the young man with slender fingers and high cheekbones still sat in the corner.

“When was the last one?” Sullivan asked, oblivious. “Two months ago?”

“Three.” Sara responded.

“That long?” Sullivan raised his eyebrows. “Three months? And you haven’t even had a role in – ”

“Nearly a year.” Ivy chimed in. “You have to get out more, darling. Audition more. More than just once or twice a week.” She went on, jabbing at Sara’s chest with one finger. “And while you’re at it, maybe gain a little weight. Just look at that flat chest. Nothing to see for anyone more than three rows back. And your clothes practically hang off you. It’s not nice.”

Sara didn’t answer, just kept looking over Sullivan’s shoulder. The young man was still watching her, but staring at him was preferable to looking Ivy or Sullivan in the eye. Any moment now, they’d ask.

Ivy asked, “Is that country boy of yours still sending you emails? The one in the States?”

“I’d hardly call him a country boy,” Sara protested. “He lives in a big city. Also, he’s not mine.”  

“Oh?” Ivy asked.

“It’s been nearly two years since I left the States,” Sara said. “Nearly two years since I’ve seen Brandon. He knows my acting is important to me.”

“So important you haven’t had a callback in three months?” asked Ivy, tilting her head. “I wonder.”

Sara was silent. She still auditioned occasionally, but more and more she seemed to find herself as far as possible from the stuffy underground backstages of London: listless in front of her computer, stretched out in the sunshine on a park bench, walking along London’s narrow streets where, above her, men leaned from open windows to smoke their pipes.

“Really, sweetheart.” Ivy put in. “You simply must put an end to this foolishness. Email Brandon and tell him not to contact you anymore. You know your future is here.”

“I know.” Sara said. “He knows. I broke up with him two years ago, when I first came here.”

“Hmph.” Ivy tipped the last drops of the margarita into her mouth, then turned to Sullivan and put one hand on his chest. “Time to go, I think. The Stevensons’ party is starting, and it is the place to be tonight.” She hopped lightly to her feet, and Sullivan slid his hand downwards to rest in the small of her back, guiding her away from the bar towards the door. With practiced hands he helped her on with her coat, and helped her over the doorstep. They disappeared into the night, and the heavy door swung shut behind them.

For a moment, Sara just stared at the closed door. As she watched, the young man from the corner rose and went out as well. Then Sara, with a deep-drawn breath and a shudder, roused herself, and went to lock up. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Am Blessed

I'd like to thank my two years of graduate education for a complete inability to start a post without the context of an ongoing public conversation - in other words, without relating my post to some idea that a lot of people are talking about and which lends weight and interest to my writing. To my academic mind, without such context I fear my writing would be pointless. Not true, I know - but I love me some context.

This post has a double context: personal and public.

On the personal side, today has been a grey day, literally and figuratively. After two days of glorious sunshine and fifty-degree weather, the skies clouded over. I paid a $90+ gas bill today. I realized I actually have to pay to file my taxes (this is on top of the $50 I shelled out for tax software).

On the public side, have you seen this article that Christians should stop designating the material, physical comforts they enjoy as divine blessings? It's a good article. By and large I agree: Christianity is not meant to bring us closer to physical stuff; it's meant to bring us closer to Jesus Christ.

And yet.

And yet, wouldn't it be Pharisaical to neglect thankfulness for the material blessings? Would we not be straining out the gnat of a precise, theologically-accurate definition of divine blessings to swallow the camel of ingratitude?

Indeed, on days like today, remembering God's material blessings is a good exercise. Sure, my wallet is a little thin right now, and my spirit is a little low, but God, good shepherd that He is, knows what His sheep need. (This doesn't mean, of course, that I think those who are in dire straits physically are forgotten by God. Why they suffer we cannot know in this life, but we do know they are no less loved by God.)

Theological precision can only go so far. Sometimes, obedience and love are most important of all.

To that end, I want to make a list of things (both material and spiritual) that I am thankful for. God is taking care of me, regardless of how down I feel, and it's time to remember.

A note: I've adjusted the comment settings, so hopefully some of you will find it easier to comment. I think that thankfulness is a good exercise, so I'd love to have you comment, and to pass the blog along to your friends as you desire.

A second note: As I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps someone could read this as me, gloating about how lucky I am compared to others. This is not my intention. If life is mega-hard for you right now, you have my sympathy. I want to tell what good things God has done for me, but I also want to weep with those who weep.

A third note: I have a few readers who aren't religious. You're welcome to comment as well. While I am grateful to God for what I believe he has given me, surely it is a good exercise for any of us to count up the pennies that we find in our muddy lives, to remember that "even the darkest night shall end / and the sun shall rise."

My List: I am thankful that
  • I have a job. I like my job. My job requires me to think and to be creative.
  • I've been able to use my work computer while I save for a new one (My personal computer died three months ago.)
  • I enjoyed a five-mile run in fifty-degree weather yesterday. The base layer that my parents gave me for Christmas kept me warm in thirty-degree weather this morning.
  • When I accidentally drained my car battery earlier this semester (long story), I was able to recharge it with a 90-minute drive through rural Iowa, instead of paying $100 for a new one.
  • So far the driver's door on my car is still shutting (again, long story).
  • I made a new friend over the last week, a visiting speaker at the school where I work, and had money enough to go out for a meal with her several times.
  • I have loving parents who will let me call them repeatedly with questions about my taxes.
  • I have a kind friend who is willing to take time out of her busy schedule to read and comment on professional projects for me. Another friend regales me with Tennyson's religious underpinnings.
  • I got a coupon in the mail for a free travel-sized shower gel from Bath & Body Works.
  • I am reading two good books right now, Fabricating Jesus and Middlemarch. Thank God for reading.
  • The warmer weather in March means my next gas bill will probably not be $90.
  • Also, the warmer weather means that I am generally happier.
  • The school librarian keeps peanut M&Ms in his office.
  • I've started a beautiful new knitting project, a blanket.
What are you thankful for?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Patience and Grace

Today I am procrastinating.


Partly because Spring Break started for me this week. Partly because I have a weird chest cold, and sitting at home browsing my computer, or reading a book, or knitting, is about the best thing I can do for it (that, and plenty of tea of course!). 

Yet there is one more reason: I am procrastinating because I am between projects. 

Last night I finished a short story I've been working on lately. My literary paper, on the mystic Julian of Norwich and C.S. Lewis, is between revisions and waiting for a friend's feedback. 

The only current projects I have are those I have not yet started: a planned interview with evangelical singles, a planned series on books evangelicals ought to read, a planned series on women of faith. I have the ideas, and I like to think they're good ideas, but I don't want to actually start the project. 

There are two reasons, I think, why I don't want to start these projects. 

First, to start a new project is to court failure. Just because I sit down and make a list of books I think Christians should read doesn't mean I'll ever get around to writing a blog post on it. Even if the blog post is written, there's no guarantee that anyone will read it. It's awfully tempting to simply not start, and never fail. 

Second, the first part of any project is often the hardest and most discouraging. Planning, developing, reworking ideas - all these things take lots of time. If I decide to write a new story, I can't simply sit down and start writing. I spend hours thinking through the story, changing my mind about the characters, writing and rewriting the beginning. If I start a series of blog posts on women of faith, I pour hours into choosing women, and more hours into researching women, long before I actually hit "Publish" on the blog. Planning is hard work, but planning means I have almost nothing to actually show for my progress. 

In other words, starting a new project means I have to have lots of patience. Like a gardener, I need to be willing to sow the seeds, then wait without growing weary for the fruit. 

I do not have much patience. Yet good writing demands patience. Life demands patience, the willingness to wait and work for good things. 

This semester in literature, I am privileged to teach bright, insightful students. Yet I notice they seem frustrated sometimes when they don't understand the poem on the first read, when they come to class still not understanding the poem. I tell them, That's not the way it works. I tell them, It takes time, and a lot of work, to understand literature, I tell them. It's okay to come to class not knowing what the poem means. 

I'm not always sure they believe me. My students are not in the wrong here, simply caught up in the lie that society tells us: real success happens instantly, not gradually. If something is good, it will simply "click". That's not true, but we believe it anyway.

By no means are my students the only ones who fall victim to this lie. I do too, as the fact that I am procrastinating on my writing projects indicates. Teachers and leaders do too. A friend of mine recently told me that years ago when she was in college, only one of her teachers really seemed to have faith that she'd accomplish much in life. She showed up at her conservative college with short, spiky hair. She never fit in with the cool kids. No one knew what to make of her. Certainly no one predicted that she'd be where she is today: a leader in a flourishing urban ministry overseas. 

As a teacher, her story is a challenge to me: I must remember that there are no "bad" students, no students incapable of learning or success. Every single student I teach is simply developing, and if I have patience, I may see her make progress, beautifully. The grace of God is slow, but certain.  

More broadly, I am reassured that patience is the key to life. It is oh-so-easy to get frustrated or discouraged when life doesn't look the way we want it to. When our plans fall through, when family members give us hell or sleepless nights, when we goof up big time again, we think we've failed, that life is a shambles. 

Not true. With time, and patience, and grace, all we find so frustrating now we will find transformed. 

Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.*

*Behovely: Necessary. This quotation comes from Lady Julian of Norwich, a mystic Christian writing in 1300s England.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What Do We Do With People?

People drive me nuts.

I know, I know. Hardly a Christian thing to say, right? Probably the fact that I am so often annoyed by other human beings is one of my biggest failings (Which of the Seven Deadly Sins is that? Maybe Pride?) 

In any case, I only mention this because yesterday morning, nearly everyone around me drove me particularly nuts. Yesterday morning did not start out with a bang, since within fifteen minutes of waking up I slipped and fell - hard! - on my icy driveway. People problems just made my day worse: I got stuck behind slow drivers on my way into work, I got criticized, I found my students not following my directions. 

By the time I got home, the most glorious thing I could imagine was spending two hours reading a book, exactly what I did.

But sometimes, people are wonderful. 

When I got up this morning, the sun was shining. I did not slip on the icy sidewalks on my way to the gym. Then I got home, went to make coffee, and discovered that my roommate had left a Dove chocolate in the (empty and dry) coffeepot for me, with the note, Hope today is sweeter! 

Indeed it was: My students in Intro to Literature had a great, thoughtful discussion about colonialism; my students in Creative Writing invented some truly fine ideas for their short stories. The people driving in front of me drove at a normal speed. 

The Atlantic published an article tracking murder and suicide rates in large cities. Murder rates go up in big cities, but suicide rates go down. Their conclusion? Sure, people drive us nuts sometimes, but they're also there to pick us up when we fall, help us dust off our knees and carry on with life. 

This, I think, rings true at least with my experience. I am made angry, and disappointed, and upset, and frustrated with other people, but I am also comforted and encouraged by other people. They have sent me notes when I needed them; they have encouraged me when I needed it; they have been honest about what my faults are. (Where would we be without best friends who trust us enough to be honest with us?) My life may be more complicated because other people are in it, but it is also richer and sweeter because other people are in it. 

That got me thinking: I wonder what I can do to make other people's lives richer and sweeter? I am absolutely certain that I annoy other people; surely I can contribute something positive as well? 

When I was in youth group, we had nights that we called RAK: Random Acts of Kindness. Usually these involved picking up someone that hadn't been attending youth group for a while and taking them out for ice cream, hardly the kind of sacrificial love spelled out in the Bible. 

Yet the idea of RAK is a good one: showing kindness to other people, showing them the love of Christ, especially when their life (and the other people around them) might be everything but loving. 

The only question is, how? Putting chocolate in a student's mailbox seems a bit trite, but it's a start. Perhaps I'll try that this weekend. I have a note that I should write to a friend. Perhaps I'll do that. I sponsor a child in India through Compassion International. Perhaps I'll go through the rigmarole of figuring out what the heck my password is on Compassion's website and actually write her a letter. None of these are earth-shattering, but then, neither was the piece of chocolate I found in the coffee pot this morning. It was still very much appreciated. 

At least while we're here on this earth, we're never going to get to the point where people don't annoy us. The question is not, How can we get less annoyed? The question  is, How can we, though annoyed, show love to others?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Least of These

Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you really looked for the needs around you? When was the last time you saw the needy?

Honestly, I can't answer that question. I am far too blind to the real needs of my friends, far too likely to give offense instead of aid. I hesitated before writing this blog post.

But something needs to be said about how we talk about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, specifically about how much we're talking about his death.

On Sunday, I checked the New York Times and found it thoroughly covering Hoffman's death. On Monday and Tuesday The Atlantic covered concerns surrounding heroin addition. Today is Thursday, and at the gym this morning two separate channels had an announcement about the ongoing investigation; there was also a (presumably related) announcement about the rise of heroin. I hit my breaking point when I logged onto one of my favourite blogs, written by a pastor in Oklahoma who usually shows good sense, and found a post on the tragedy of Hoffman's death, as well as the deaths of other rich-and-famous from drug addiction.

You know what frustrates me about this? I'm not actually frustrated that the media is talking about Hoffman. After all, Hoffman's death was tragic. I'm frustrated that we're showering attention on Hoffman and sparing almost none for those who are not famous, and yet still suffer.

We are doing the very thing St James warned us against, lavishing attention on the needy rich and overlooking the needy poor, the ones whom Jesus remembers.

I write this post from New Beginnings, a center for moms in poverty where I volunteer. Some of our clients are facing the burden of an unexpected pregnancy. Some of them have only a few hundred dollars every month to feed a family of four. Some can't get a job.

Just down the street from us, the Maria House shelters women from abusive situations.

Last week, a colleague of mine lost a close friend and mentor late last week.

Last week, one of my students returned home to be with a deathly ill family member.

A few days ago, an elderly relative of mine had emergency heart surgery.

My point is, all around us real people are facing real troubles. Do we pay attention? Or can we not hear their cries, drowned out by the media hubbub of Hoffman's death?

Henri Nouwen, a world-renowned theologian and lecturer, lived out his final years caring for a mentally- and physically-disabled man named Adam. Adam was not famous; he was not rich. Yet in caring for Adam, Nouwen exemplified Christ. To Adam, Nouwen's caring hands were the hands of Christ, and Nouwen's love was the love of Christ, which reaches from heaven to the very humblest of earth's creatures.

Our Lord was not born in a palace, but a stable; he did not call the wealthy to himself, but the impoverished; he did not choose the Pharisees for his disciples, but uneducated fishermen. St Paul wrote that the very thing which believers were called to do was remember the poor.

Do we really remember the poor? Do we pay any attention to suffering, make any effort to relive it? Or do we only pull our heads out of the sand when the person who is suffering was wealthy?

To our shame, I think we have forgotten the poor. This is to my shame, as well: to my shame that I get more upset when I am stuck behind a slow car on the way to work than when one of my students is hurting, more concerned about how icy weather will affect my heating bill than about the people who are cold and hungry and homeless this winter. I do not write this as someone who has caring for the poor mastered, only as someone who is frustrated by our failure - by my failure - to care for the real poor.

Let us mourn Hoffman, by all means.

But let those of us who are Christians remember that he was rich and powerful, and that around us there are those who are poor, who are marginalized, who are powerless, and that it is these people who desperately need us to bear the light of Christ for them.