Saturday, March 31, 2012

Triumph from Tragedy

As the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advance Response Team helicopter lifted from the highway with their injured daughter strapped inside, a dazed Gary and Cindy Besaw clung to the knowledge that she was alive and stabilized. Even when cautioned by one of the EMTs that his daughter Chrissy had sustained a head injury, Gary's first thoughts were of how that would affect her future, not her death.

It was a miracle she was alive, they said. And God was in the miracle.

He had left his signs of assurance all along the way, hadn’t he?

First of all, Gary and Cindy had planned to stop on their way from Michigan to visit a brother, but unable to reach him, continued home where they were that Sunday morning in May when the phone rang.

A nurse was following right behind the truck that struck the car Chrissy was riding in. She climbed in the crushed car, saw that Chrissy wasn’t breathing, and performed CPR, reviving her.

The reasons to believe God’s hand of intervention continued.

It normally would have taken the Dartmouth helicopter twenty to thirty minutes to get from Lebanon, New Hampshire to the crash site, but “miraculously” it was taking part in a field day event minutes away.

Desperate to reach their son as well as their pastor, Cindy called the number of the cell phone their son had called from the night before, although certain that the woman would have turned it off during the church service.  But the phone was on vibrate, not off, and the woman made the unusual decision to step out of the service and answer it.

With groups of people gathered for prayer and one of the finest pediatric neurosurgeons in the country working on their daughter, the Besaws read the signs and relaxed as best they could: God was in control.

They didn’t expect that within the next few hours their daughter would die.

Had they misinterpreted the signs? Was not God not in each of them? Why then, this outcome?

In seeking to understand God, so many of us delight in the “good” things as indications of his favor and presence, but get totally baffled by the “bad.” God tells us repeatedly that he desires that we know him, and yet when his ways are not our ways, when the situation is contrary to what our human reasoning concludes, we wonder what went wrong.

As did the two on the road to Emmaus who “were hoping that it was He [Jesus] who was going to redeem Israel.”—Luke 24:21, and yet witnessed his death as an ordinary man.

But does he not show us, as we are remembering this Easter/Passover season that it took a death to bring life? That it took the blood of a lamb, painted on a doorpost, applied to a sinful heart, to bring redemption?

That sometimes the signs are not what they seem, as God showed the Besaws.

Gary and Cindy never imagined the triumphs that followed the tragedy of their daughter’s death. Triumphs that that brought glory to God and salvation to many. In retrospect, seeing through the lens of God's love, they saw he was indeed in the signs. Anchored on the unshakeable foundation of God’s love, Gary was able to say, “Since I know that what happened was motivated by His love, I am satisfied.”
Heartfelt thanks to the Besaws who allowed me to read Gary’s manuscript, A Peanut Learns to Dance: How one girl’s tragedy transformed the Christian community. I will keep you posted if this makes its way to publication.

 Vivacious Chris Besaw died in a violent car crash weeks at the end of her junior year in high school. She was one of my students—the one who could make me laugh even in the middle of a lesson on the SAT essay.

I pray for you stopping here, may your hope be skewered strongly on the promise that regardless of what the situation may look like, He is the One who overturns death and makes triumphs out of tragedies.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The boathouse: Memoir gives way to devotion

In keeping with the series I’m doing on memoir, I wanted to discuss how pictures, places,and  moments can stimulate memories. I was going to give an example of how this boat scene generated the memory of a rite-of-passage moment for me: the time when my father handed me a slender knife and took me around the back of the shed by the public boat landing.

“It’s time you learned to clean the fish you catch,” he said, and without further ado made a clean slit along the back of the head, detaching it from the body.

But that story wouldn’t come; I hear your collective sighs of relief.

What comes instead is an insistence of a reminder of His Presence—His undeniably real Presence in solitary places as well as stormy seas. Maybe someone needs it today.  Maybe just me.
I slipped inside the door of the boathouse and absorbed the cool quiet of the shadows. Boats purposed to carry fishermen, and kids, and lovers bumped gently against their moorings, silent beyond the reach of the day’s brilliance. For a moment, I stood, anchored in the well-being of a soul alone in the presence of the Lord.

A few minutes later, a car full with family, fishing gear, and large dog, pulled up. They, energetic with the prospect of an outing, transferred their loads from car to boat. The shadows scattered in the activity, and I turned to join my own husband and hyper pup.

The memory of the moment won’t leave me. I stare at the picture I took and try to hold in my hand the longing for oneness, the conviction to feel, not just say, that it is absolutely well with my soul, even when I’m frustrated, or annoyed, or fearful.

Two nights in a row I dream about being in little boats inadequate for the seas. In one dream, I’m thrown overboard into dark tumultuous waters. There is a man treading water with me, and although I see the danger, I am not afraid.

The next night, I dream the waves on each side are higher than the boat that flounders in the deep trough.  Again, there is a man with me, and although the situation looks frightful, I am concerned but not afraid.

Now I realize the stuff of dreams isn’t something to hang your theology on, nor fill your memoirs with, but two in a row with the same theme get my attention. My first thought is that since I am not consciously aware of any present fear or danger of wave-size magnitude, maybe the dreams are a warning.

This, of course, makes me fearful. My eyes fixed on the waves overlook the Presence.

Then, on Sunday, the pastor directs our attention to John 6. The part where Jesus withdraws to a solitary place to be alone with his Father.  

The part where He walks on a stormy night sea to reach his disciples who are straining against the waves.

The part where He says: “It is I; stop fearing.”

My boathouse, dreams, and sermon meld into a heart offering.

Lord, I pray you would fill this feeble faith with the knowledge of you, in my solitary places of worship, in the bustle of daylight, in the dark and danger- filled waves against which no one can stand in his own strength.  May I not doubt that I AM is with me.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elephant Trails: Memoir Meanderings

Do you belong to the goal-setting, daily planning, outlining tribe or to the other one—you know, the one that does have a plan and does get there in the end, but whose path in between resembles that of a pack of pee wee soccer players?

About four hours ago I sat down to write another segment of Carolyn’s (From trashcans to table cloths) story. But first I checked some of my favorite writers’ sites, just in case there was a nugget to be had. Of course one link led to another and I had to stop and buy a book (Will Love 4 Crumbs) and check out the author’s website (where there is a call for submissions you might want to check out).

Along the way, I gathered notes for a class in memoir/personal essay that I will be teaching next month which led to the book Writing about your Life by William Zinsser. Just as I was about to berate myself for taking such a circuitous route to the keyboard, (my students used to call my meanderings, “elephant trails”) I read Zinsser’s words, “Go with what interests and amuses you, even if it’s not as planned.”

Whew! A man of my own tribe.

Zinsser tells about the time he sat to write about writing, but first had to return a phone call. It was from a woman who wanted to know if she could shellac the fence that she had come to realize her husband was never going to paint. Zinsser knew all about shellac because it had been his family’s business for years, and he often received wrong-number calls from people looking for the company. Turns out the woman’s shellac can had a NY address on it—an address the Zinsser company had moved from fifteen years earlier.

One thing led to another as one-things do and the conversation covered everything from how time flies, to husbands who don’t paint fences, to grandfather’s shellac business.Instead of bemoaning time lost, Zinsser enjoyed his interruption, then wrote a thousand-word piece about it, and published in the New York Times.

His comfort with exploring interruptions is evidenced in his advice to memoirists: Don’t be locked in to what it is about, at least not at first. But, “be ready to be surprised by what comes out when you start stirring memory.”

I can feel the organizer tribe trembling. Not to fret. Sooner or later, you will have to root around in those memories and see what story is begging to come out, and then every pleasant elephant trail that doesn’t belong will have to go, and the outlines and story curves will have their time.

But when you’re starting out, even if you do have a firm idea in mind, be willing to relax and let the life of the story take form.

And remember—you are the storytellers for the next generation. As Zinsser says:Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owners. One of the saddest sentences I know is: “I wish I had asked my mother about that.”
You, my God, have put your words in my mouth and covered me with the shadow of your hand—you who have set the heavens in place, and laid the foundations of the earth . . . Isaiah 51

Lord, be glorified in the lives of those stopping here today. And Lord, you are the memory keeper. I pray that whatever surfaces be covered with healing and hope.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Memoir: Stumbling into a story

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On my way to writing this blog I stumbled into another story. Sitting there in my inbox was an invitation to “tell your first car story” to Click and Clack the Tappet brothers, who host the outrageously funny radio talk show, Car Talk.

I just wanted to get the link to post here for you, but already the memory of our 1956 baby blue Ford Fairlane convertible was floating before my eyes. So I had to stop a while and join in their fun. You can too; check it out. I’m sure you’re already remembering your first car.

I tell you. It’s the little stuff that makes the stories.

You don’t have to waste time trying to come up with the spectacular or something that’s never been said because there really isn’t anything new under the sun. According to Anne Lamott, “Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before (Bird by Bird).

So what makes your story—your childhood, your loss, your adventure, or discovery inviting enough for someone to want to open the book?

Lots of people have had appalling childhoods (The Glass Castle) or lovely childhoods (An American Childhood) or suffered divorce and abandonment, or addiction, or the sudden death of a spouse (A Three Dog Life) and yet each one tells a whole new story.

Makes you marvel at the greatness of the Creator, doesn’t it—(presently) four billion differently shaped and outfitted people, four billion stories.

Whether you start out to craft a story with a specific theme, or you unfold a specific memory and discover the seed within, in the telling, you must get up close and personal. Draw your readers into your moment. No keeping them at arm’s length while you safely tell about the doctor who walked into the waiting room and told you your son was dying.  

You have to open up that wound as you looked into the doctor’s eyes and knew your life would never be the same. And we, your readers, will hold our breath with you as we look into his eyes also.

This is not to say memoir is one big Saturday night confessional. But for your first draft, at least, pull off the masks and write from your heart. “If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.”—Anne Lamott

Next time we’ll explore What is it about? Marion Roach Smith helps to put this in perspective with the idea : “You are not the story. You are the illustration.” And by then I hope to have a list of recommended books for you to download.

Meanwhile, the best way to learn is to read good writing.

May the Lord bless the meditations of your heart and the works of your hands this week.
                             Smith, Marion Roach. The Memoir Project
                             Lamott, Ann. Bird by Bird.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What’s Your Story? The Power of Memoir

 Now, I’ve never been a fan of throwing the baby overboard to teach him to swim, but I do think there comes a time when we simply have to get off our duffs and dive in and do.

So for the next few posts, we’re going to look at something we ALL have in common, and many of us long to share but don’t know how—our stories. Important stories. Stories of life lived, lost, redeemed, and learned.

I’m going to arm you with tips and resources I’ve gleaned from others who have ventured in these waters, and pass them along in hopes you will be inspired to don your floaties and dive in.

The importance of memoir: connectedness. Lee Gutkind, in Keep it Real,* puts it this way: “The telling of tales does more than entertain. It transmits important information between generations, making important events of the past relevant.  The memoir . . . creates a million little connections threading an otherwise fragmented postmodern world with the narrative of human meaning” (112).

 “Story is how we figure things out. We need to know . . . the rest of the story.”—John Eldredge. Epic 

“Stories travel on their own, and they have a better chance sticking with people.”—Kyle Matthews

And if you are a Christian story teller, and you don’t tell your stories, who will? Consider this: the next generation after Joshua “did not know the LORD, nor the work which He had done for Israel”—Judges 6:10.

But if you are not the illegitimate daughter of the wealthiest man alive, or the lone survivor of plane crash; if you’ve lived a simple life within one hundred square miles and eaten Cheerios every morning for the past ten years, what do you have to say?

 According to Flannery O’Connor, “Anyone who has lived to the age of 18 has enough stories to last a lifetime.” And that means you.

The secret? You don’t need the spectacular to have something to say. A good memoir discovers the “mysterious in the familiar” (Vivian Gornick), transcends the personal, and touches the universal in the heart of us all. Rather than delivering a serious case of navel-gazing, it gives us a glimpse into what it means to be human. That is what we long for in the stories we seek.

And that can be discovered on the most ordinary of days.

So start sifting through some of the images, snapshot scenes that stick in your mind, aha moments of insight or change, people or places that have affected you, things you’ve gained and things you’ve lost. Once you have a handful of memories, we’ll talk about the next question a memoirist has to ask: So what?
  We will not conceal them from their children, but tell to the generation to come the          praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done. Psalm 78:4

                *Gutkind, Lee, and Hattie Fletcher, editors. Keep it Real (W.W. Norton &Company, 2008).