Lies of Poets, Child, Lies of Poets

I like fairy tales. I like hero stories. I like them because, as G.K. Chesterton points out, they teach us something about reality. It teaches us that good and evil exist, really and truly, and that good can conquer evil, really and truly. Fairy tales are a tell-tale hymn of hope back of all our imaginations. We believe in the hero at high noon, we believe in the champion standing in the gap. We believe in dark nights giving way to bright dawns because everywhere we look the blueprint of such a story is staring us in the face.

I like fairy tales and hero stories, but when I write them I learn something. It's hard to write the hero. It's hard to write the fairy. I know. My hero, my fairy, they have to be looked at from the outside because what goes on inside them is so inscrutable. But is it? Is it really impossible for us to look inside?

I hear boys talk of the army and war like it's a grand thing. I hear people talk of police work like it's glory. And something inside of me aches when I hear their words because I know the hero, I know the fairy. I've written them. I've walked with them. I've stared in their eyes and seen the haunted looks, the half-conscious bitterness about their smiles. It isn't glory. It isn't grand. It's hard. Everything depends on the hero, the fate of the day hangs in the hands of the fairy, and that weighs. It isn't all backlight and modeling snapshots. It's hard. It's real.

From a distance we see them uplifted like some kind of pantheon, perfect, capable of taking anything on and winning the day. They always look strong. They never cry. We're not even sure if they can bleed. They seem to pass through the midst of this world without anything seeming to brush them. But if you get close, if you look into their eyes, you realize that isn't true. We write about the glory of a hero's victory and the courage of the fairy, but do we ever write about the pain? Do we ever write about the weight of responsibility, of the fear, of the heartache? Do we write those moments when despair gets its claws into the hero's heart and presses on his lungs like Apollyon's knee? Do we ever write about those moments when it is almost all the hero can do not to run and hide and cry like a child because everything depends on him, and because everything seems so impossible?

It's hard to write that kind of thing. It's almost indecent to bare someone's heart like that, even though it is just a character. But sometimes we need to know. Sometimes we need to hear that a hero believes, only he needs help in his unbelief. Sometimes we need to know that Jesus wept. Sometimes we need to know that life hurts the heroes too. We need to know that victory comes at a cost, and that cost leaves scars. Sometimes the struggle isn't for a world, or a people; sometimes it is for a family, for a single day, for the day after that, and the day after that. I know heroes, heroes that aren't made of ink but of flesh and blood, and they do bleed, and they do cry, and they hide it all away behind their faces that seem to be untouched by the winds of this world. But I know. I know they have heartache. I know they break and tear and unravel in their insides while they try to hold their world together around them. I know my heroes hurt, and somehow...somehow that makes them better heroes than before.

Do we know that? Being a hero isn't glory, it's guts. Being a hero isn't triumph, it's toil. Being a hero is hurting, being a hero is dying. It's written in the blueprint of the fairy tale, of the hero story, if only we look deep enough to see it. And after that we can remember that it is glory and triumph and healing and living, because that is written in the blueprint too.

truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone
but if it dies, it bears much fruit

Salt and Pepper Words: Scribble Samples

I'm a little dazed. We had our annual Thanksgiving dinner with the church family yesterday, and my husband and I signed up to tackle a turkey. Which means we didn't get any rest on Sunday. So I'm a little dazed. Today is technically laundry day, which means doing laundry, but so far I have managed only to wrap some Christmas presents and read in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Add a nap to that, and I have not had a very productive Monday, but since I missed Sunday's rest and I have elbow-room to take Monday off(ish), I'm going to think nothing of it.

So I'm going to take this opportunity to give you a peppering dosage of what I have been up to and what I have been writing, and what I have written. As Katie said about her own dosage (and she my inspiration), "they're Something, at least - and that is a good sight better than nothing."

scribbles at a glance

The second in command stiffened by his commanding officer. The wind kicked the commander's plume to one side, streaming it out like the tail of a horse in full gallop. Rhodri was silent. A sound, an irregular clink and rattle, drew Adamant's gaze upward. Over the central building flew the flag of Faerie: a great red banner, tattered at the edges, but still blood-red, with a black, hollow-eyed raven rampant on the crimson. The metal weight of its sheet was swaying in the wind and banging an uneven tattoo against its pole. They must listen, she thought. Then, I am so hungry.

He shook his head, and her words seemed to have only driven him farther away than ever. "It is uncommon grace that Eikin needs, and God has not given me any sort."

Rupert’s image was all sleepy power and there was a light laugh in his voice when he replied. “I know full well where I stand in your heart, Skander. Did you not throw down this obstacle of a wife in front of me because of it? But though you may dislike me, take me not for a blackguard.”

“I’ll take you as you are,” said Skander coldly.

Behind them on the sidewise-blowing wind came the sound of Skander’s hunter and the two dogs coming back to them; with them on the wind came the thin, high scent of late-blooming heather. Down there in that garth that two years ago and for three years had been Rupert de la Mare’s Manor, thought Margaret with a sudden and inexplicable touch of sadness, they would be making perry out of the little brown half-rotten pears of the little brown half-wild pear trees.

How poorly you have sketched my nature!” she said with a flippant and caustic tone. “I have no objection to balls and parties. What is the point of shining if there is no sky to shine in?”

He appeared that morning, not in grim costume to reflect the fate of Plenilune laid out on the blade of a sword, but in a jacket of sparkling white, pristine, supple, comfortable, and stitched with bravado.

and lastly, a quote which is not mine

Christians are not distinct from the rest of men in country or language or customs. For neither do they dwell anywhere in special cities of their own nor do they use a different language, nor practice a conspicuous manner of life. . . But dwelling as they do in Hellenic and in barbaric cities, as each man's lot is, and following the customs of the country in dress and food and the rest of life, the manner of conduct which they display is wonderful and confessedly beyond belief. They inhabit their own fatherland, but as sojourners; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is to them a fatherland and every fatherland is foreign.
The Epistle to Diognetus

Like a Merchant Seeking Pearls

Noble and well-educated souls have no such high opinion of riches, beauty, strength, and other such like advantages, as to value themselves for them, or despise those that want them: and as for inward worth and real goodness, the sense they have of the divine perfections makes them think very meanly of any thing they have hitherto attained, and be still endeavouring to surmount themselves, and make nearer approaches to those infinite excellencies which they admire.
The Life of God in the Soul of Man,
Henry Scougal

I came to this particular passage rather providentially in my reading of The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Henry Scougal puts it as eloquently as Paul puts it bluntly: that all our temporal achievements, whether physical or intellectual, are passing, shallow, thin, and unworthy of praise when compared to the solid perfection of God. I think any one of us would readily, and heartily, admit to that, and I think any one of us would also admit to the infrequency with which we acknowledge the inferiority of our conquests.

Because I am published, and plan to be published again, I will occasionally look around publishing house websites to get an idea of who the authors are out there, what is going in the market, etc. Not that I have been much in the habit of catering to crowds, but I like to know, you know. But as I was perusing a site the other day, a site geared exclusively to publishing works under the heading of "Christian," I discovered something rather appalling and sadly common. As I read the author biography blurbs, who they are, where they came from, what they do, I realized that only one mentioned God. Only one mentioned God in a capacity of singular devotion. Only one author's blurb addressed his purpose as unveiling the Word of God. All the others were full of credentials (he studied here, he has preached to so many people, she runs this organization, she is a founder of this group). Each one so full of man-oriented, inferior conquests.

I could understand, and I would readily forgive, this if it were found on a secular website, or a publishing house that went both ways, "secular" as well as "Christian." But for a site that so ardently sketches itself out as catering to the Christian public, my poor little gullible mind could scarcely believe it. The characters on the screen spelled out the marketing mantras of this world. The credentials of these authors were all about their worldly aspirations and achievements.

Let's not down-play the good of some of these achievements. It's a good thing to have gone through the structure of seminary training, or to have the rigors of fostering a congregation under one's belt. But when it comes to speaking and writing the truth (which is, I assume, what writers who adhere to Christ mean to do) do these credentials hold a candle to a knowledge of the inward worth and real goodness of the divine perfections? Tell me, what really matters in the Kingdom of Heaven? Wealth? Eloquence? The best training seminaries have to offer? When you are called to give an account for the deeds done in the flesh, will you find that you hung out your shingle on the basis of your worldly triumphs ("Lord! Lord! we did all these things in your name!"), or will you find that your credentials were in accordance with the pursuit of holiness?

My father tells the story of his sojourn, like Dante in The Inferno, into a Christian bookstore. In his perusal of the shelves he heard two gentlemen speaking behind him. The first asked how he would know a good book, and the second replied, "Look for this symbol." As my father tells the story he says, "Of course at that point I had to turn around." It was the colophon of the publishing house Banner of Truth, an image of the preacher George Whitfield. In such a simple image, stalwart and be-robed, the publishing house conveys a grim, joyful adherence not to large congregations or stellar education, but to men through the ages who have clung to the truth of God's word above all else. Those are their credentials. That is their eloquence. That is their wealth. Not any station this world has to offer, but the lasting knowledge and growth in knowledge of a truth which outlasts all.

When I am asked "What makes you think that you can write?" I hope my credentials are simply that:

"I know what is valuable in the Kingdom of Heaven."

Completely Mental

For Anna - because, well, she can dance.

The music was Mozart and, though instrumental, was far too fast. I resisted the urge to get up and pace, an urge I have found to plague me strongly in the past few hours. It was really pathetic, I told myself, how worked up I was getting about something so simple. It wasn't as if there was anyone about to laugh at me. The things one does, I told myself, for research!


My heart froze in my chest. Irreproachably dressed, as if this were serious, he stood in the doorway, leaning a little on the frame to get the most of his weight off his legs. Good-naturedly he had protested the endeavour at first - the advancing cold made him ache - but I had been stupidly persistent and in the end he had given in. I wished now I had not been so forward.

I frowned. "You didn't tell me you were getting all dressed up for this," I said with a touch of irritation in my tone. "I can't possibly stand up in my jeans with you."

"I reserve my views on jeans," he said ominously. Then, with a little sideways twist of the shoulders, he added, "Your hair went up so nicely this morning, I thought it a shame to have you wrestle into your gown. I know you get so very mithered about that. Now, are you serious or aren't you?"

"I - hmm," I said intelligently, and kept my seat.

He held out his left hand imperiously. "Come along, Half-pint."

He had the way about him. I found it impossible to refuse. With a prodigious sigh I rose, my heart still uncomfortably where my throat should be; in three steps I was across the room. A moment later, with my eyes shut as though I were expecting it to sting a little - maybe I did - I put my hand in his. When he made no move, I cracked one eye open. That light, mocking smile of his that had more to do with his eyes than his mouth was flashing at me. "Honestly."

I pulled myself together. "Should I put on shoes for this?"

"I will try not to step on your toes."

Hand in hand, he led me into the next room where there was more area to move about. Pathetically I was shaking a little, from embarrassment and excitement. In reflection, I thought it perfect. She would be feeling much the same feelings herself, under her own circumstances. Thus far, research was going well.

If only I had thought to put on a gown.

My companion took his position and wrestled me gently into my own. The music from the other room was faint now; I only heard little snatches of it. For a moment the sheer, stark reality of the room jostled with my imagination: sofas refused to give way to polished mahogany tables and a piano; the carpet refused to give way to a polished ballroom floor. With grim determination I took a heavy intake of breath and conjured them up for all I was worth, afraid all the while that even the slightest movement of mine would shatter them.

My companion maneuvered my hand onto his arm and took a firm but gentle hold of me. We were ready. I felt him pause, as if listening to the beat in his own head. I kept my eyes fixed on his as if I were grasping a life-line. He counted silently, then suddenly broke off with a splutter, which was very unlike him.

"You look like a cornered rabbit. Relax. I can't dance across from a face like that. Just relax. Think of your feet making patterns in ink, the way your fingers do. With me, now."

And suddenly we were moving. I was half a heartbeat behind him, which made for an awkward beginning. He stepped forward - which foot was mine? - and I stepped backward just as he was gliding to the side. Hurriedly I caught up with him, still as stiff as a poker, my eyes instantly glued on our feet. I began to worry now that he would step on my feet. Unexpectedly he pulled me forward, to the side again, and even turned about in step. I always seemed that half-heartbeat behind; my stomach was beginning to knot.

"Look at me," he said. With a painful hesitation I tore my eyes from our feet. My gaze trembled on his own. "Look at me. Dancing to ink, Half-pint. This is what you do every day. It's just like that. Look at me. Let me guide you."

He was wearing his gloves, his black doeskin gloves, and for that I was thankful; my hands were growing rather sweaty with all this strain. But I cared. Hadn't I told Uncle Raymond that once? If I cared, I stuck to it. For all I felt like an idiot, I was going to stick to it. Obediently I kept my eyes on his, moved when he moved, stiffly, stupidly, my heart in my throat...and then I felt it. It was beginning to flow. Over and over, backward and forward, gliding and turning, backward and forward, gliding and turning. Like Ben-Hur and his horses, altogether one with the lives of themselves flowing in the reins, he and I somehow managed to grasp the genius of the dance. A smile cracked my pensive lips. Dancing to ink, he had said: patterns of ink. Oh, the sofas were gone. The carpet vanished. I was in a Lookinglass ballroom, in a gorgeous red gown, and everywhere there were lights and laughter and the clinking of glass on glass - and perhaps even, if I listened hard (though I did not have much leisure to), the accompaniment of music. I knew, in that annoying back part of my mind which had a way of hem-hemming reality at my elbow, that I was dancing truly horribly in a rather small enclosure, but somehow that did not matter at all. I had ink in my veins. I could feel it rushing through with the beat of my heart.

Dancing to ink. Patterns in ink.

Just at the right moment he stopped, giving me one last turn while the realness of the carpet flashed hot-red into my bare feet, and we stood apart, panting a little. The tables and glass and music were gone. It was just the living room now, oddly bleak after the colour of my imagination. But even now that did not matter either.

My companion gave a little philosophical sniff and pulled at the hem of his coat, adjusting it back into position. "Well, amphibious girl," he asked, "was the research satisfactory?"

"Yes," I gasped, hands on knees. "I think I have the pattern for the scene now. What I do for my stories! I'm completely mental."

"Don't flatter yourself." He wilted gracefully into a chair and leaned his head back against the wall. "We knew that already."

"Ppthbt," I said childishly.

Spacers Between Kingdom Tiles

A little over a week ago Megan, on a Sunday's whim, scribbled down a few of the small, fleeting things that are the delicate pattern of beauty in her life. Little things: little things that somehow matter. Indi, the main character of my published work The Shadow Things, reflects on the problem of the little things:

"Surely there is something that brings the rain and the dry," he said to a little ant toiling by his foot. "Look, even you find food to eat. Who watches over you? Surely not the gods. They are almost too busy and unfeeling to care for us, and when they touch us, it is to kill us."

Who cares about the little things? Who makes the little things that are the exquisite backdrop of our lives? God does, whose power keeps the paradox of the atom from flying all to pieces, whose finger inscribes the invisible lines between the stars. God does, and Megan took the time on a Sunday's whim to chart out some of the little things in her life. It was a treat to read, as I am sure it was a treat to write; she invited others to scribble down a list of their own little things as well. I thought...well, perhaps I might.

Perhaps I might. I felt uneasy, as though I were borrowing her thunder. But I kept thinking about it, dutiful, ever anxious to enjoy myself since I thought this would be an enjoyable exercise of the mind. And then a strange revelation broke slowly over me. Do you remember, as a child, how large everything seemed to you? A single turkey seemed to me a positive ostrich, towering and grotesque, intent on running me off the dirty tract of farm and pecking my hair out. Dogs were like ponies. Ponies were like elephants (I remember the horrified twist in my gut when I was made to trot in my first horse-back riding lesson). When you are a child, everything breaks on your vision as enormous.

And it still does that to me.

I almost hate to do this exercise because it will peel back all my cool, demure layers (which really are a part of me) and get down to that inner core where, let's face it, I'm still just a child. Andrew Peterson sings about the window in the world: have you ever wondered what the window itself feels? Maybe like being run through, run through and broken up on and rattled and overwhelmed and at the same time trying to channel all that goodness... I look at autumn like a man newly stepped onto an undiscovered planet. Every autumn. Every autumn a new planet. Nothing is little. Every cup of tea is a fresh cup of amber. Everything is like living stained glass through which the genius of Christ's light is shining around me. Nothing is little. So how do I remember the little things? Every sharp detail, every piece of mosaic, every thread I can pinch between my fingers that is woven into my life, is enormous. I'm such a child. Here are some of my enormous little things.

  • catching a fresh breeze in my face
  • the Kingdom
  • seeing the sunset rays streaming over the clouds
  • my sister telling me "I love you" when I am upset
  • the hello-goodbye kisses from my mother and father
  • my husband kissing my hand, or ruffling my hair
  • writing a passage so that it rings true
  • discovering the narratives of the Scriptures coming to life before my mind's eye
  • my father's teaching
  • holding a conversation in quotes from books and movies with my family
  • my mother's cooking
  • my sister-in-law's desserts
  • wearing my husband's sweaters
  • finding letters in the mailbox from my friends
  • Uncle Raymond laughing at me
  • the worlds inside my head - fells and dales, downs, river valleys, seashores, farms and quiet streets...
  • Rhodri
  • candle-flame
  • the colour of a blue jay's coat
  • the autumn cry of Canadian geese
  • the little red light that lives far down in a glass of wine
  • the surf-sound of the wind in the trees
  • the giddiness and sudden seriousness of the Tenth Doctor
  • the sound of waves falling, lulling me to sleep
  • Sunday
  • going to cut down and put up my parents' Christmas tree
  • apple-picking
  • when only my husband 'gets' what I mean (fiery horses)
  • the pile of coats on my parent's coat-rack Saturday evenings when we all visit
  • feeling the living throb of my church through my spirit
  • opening Christmas presents with my throwing-knife
  • lying awake Christmas morning, as much a child as ever with excitement
  • seeing a constellation I know
  • smelling woodsmoke
  • Wednesday afternoon walks
  • my morning cup of tea

These are the colours and brush-strokes that make up my world.