A Staff, a Sling, and Five Rocks

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Who else takes pride in their individuality? I know I do. Being something Other, going against the flow, has always been important to me for reasons I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Being unique is important to me, although it used to be moreso. Nowadays I don’t think about it nearly as much; I don’t feel the need to let other people know when I have a specific Quirk. It’s not urgent for me to let anyone know.

That said, the Christian community often has a problem with individuality. Not everyone is ‘out to get anyone different,’ but there’s a common mindset that claims things like You must do everything like X Great Person or, You must have these habits or, You must walk/talk/eat/dress like/sound a certain way.

These ways aren’t usually bad, of course; that’s not what I’m saying. They’re perfectly fine – for some people. But not for everyone. ‘God wants Unity in his children,’ I hear, and that’s true. It’s a common theme throughout the New Testament. One thing I don’t read, however, is ‘God wants all his children to be the same.’

How do I know this? Because He created us all in vastly different ways. He made us individuals. He made us unique; and the beauty of unity doesn’t lie in a bunch of perfectly cookie-cutter people being perfectly cookie-cutter, but in unique and multi-faceted individuals coming together because their goal is God. Their reason is God. Their work is God.

My favorite illustration of this is in 1 Samuel 17.

David, after he goes up to give his brothers lunch, finds a Philistine giant laughing at the terrified Israelites. David decides hey, nobody else is killing him, so I will; and then one of my favorite things happens – Saul puts his own armor on David. He gives him his own sword. Both are honors; but David walks around in them for a minute and says, “I can’t wear these; I’m not used to them.” And he takes the king’s armor off. He picks up a staff and a sling and some rocks – because he’s used to those. He’s grown up with those.

You all know how the story ends; David defeats Goliath with the first stone. He does it without armor and without a sword, with no real protection except God and the tools he already had. God wants us to do things our own unique ways. He doesn’t want us sitting around trying to mimic someone else; putting on their armor. He wants you to use your staffs and slings and pens and pencils and music and crafting and whatever it is you are called to do; the things you love doing, the things you’re good at. God doesn’t want you wielding someone else’s weapon.

Saul said to David, Go; and the Lord be with you.

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//angels in the wilderness

There are many good ways to start off a weekend, but waking up with severe pain, unable to use my right leg, wasn’t one of them. As I hobbled on crutches from the car to the emergency room, I found it almost funny – and if my leg hadn’t been hurting so badly, I might actually have laughed. The situation was almost absurd – I’ve used the phrase ‘one thing after another’ to describe 2016 for me, and each time I think What’s the worst that could happen now? The question is answered in the form of another blow. Like finding out you have some kind of arthritis in your right knee, and needing to take anti-inflammatory painkillers while you prop your leg up at home and wait for the bloodwork results.

I mean really, on top of everything else, now I’m laid up and unable to be physically comfortable? WHAT DID I DO? Granted, I would rather handle some physical pain than another emotional whammy, but this was insult to injury. Or rather injury to insult.

I find myself asking why fairly often these days. Why me? Why us? Why now? But in the midst of all the questions, I found an unexpected response. The other night when I couldn’t sleep, I finished reading Matthew and began reading Mark – and three verses struck a very relevant chord.

And there came a voice from heaven saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

Talk about one thing after another. Jesus hadn’t ‘done anything’ to deserve this, but it happened anyway. His father was pleased with him – pleased enough to send a physical envoy from heaven to tell him just how pleased – but he didn’t say ‘Now you can rest for a while.’  No – immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, where he was tested and tempted for forty days. There’s no human sense of ‘fairness’ about it. And yet, moving on, we read, ‘…and the angels ministered unto him.’

God sent his son into the wilderness for forty days in a seemingly unfair move, but he didn’t leave him alone. I believe we, too, are cared for by angels when driven into our deserts. This ministering comes in the form of encouragement from family, from friends. Of unexpected little good things happening – of a good book, or an excellent idea, or finding a great new song, or a surprise letter. I think sometimes we’re so busy waiting for a ‘Sign’ of God’s presence to hit us between the eyes that we forget he’s a still, small voice – and sometimes he ministers in still, small ways.

It’s been a rough year, and the last few months have been even rougher than the rest; and the desert may be dry and vast, but I am still alive, I am still breathing, and I am still working. Nobody said life was fair, but his eye is on the sparrow, and so it is on you. And me. And I’m learning to see the touch of ministering angels, whatever the disguise.

 

//in which I am a dropout

I hate quitting. Even when I pile my metaphorical plate higher than Vesuvius, I hate to remove even a single thing from that plate. It feels like giving up. It feels like failure.

Which is why it took me two weeks to realize I had to strategically retreat from quit NaNo.

The setup was perfect – I was raring to go, my heart was 100% in the novel. I’ve done it many times before and only ever intentionally dropped out once, in 2014, when I realized the subject matter was too heavy to rush in a month.

Well, Mirriam, psychopaths aren’t exactly a fluffy subject either. You probably should have guessed this would happen.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the subject matter this time around that caused the problem. It was several factors.

  • I wrote 17k+ words in The Dying of the Light – and subsequently finished my year-long project – in the three days before I started another novel. Having never done this before, I can safely tell you now – with experience – that it’s a terrible idea. You can’t just dive from one novel right into the next and expect it to work out – or at least I can’t. My mind was still in another world, along with most of my emotions. Not to mention I’d all but burnt out – which is a terrible way to start NaNo
  • Sometimes I take firm hold of a novel, only for it to change on me. Several times. Nihilum forced me to re-start it twice. (If I have to re-start a novel three days after I start it, it’s usually a good sign the novel isn’t ready.) I could have forced it, I could have wrung the words out for a month and struggled the whole way – but the novel would have been a sad, deformed shadow of itself. It deserves to percolate and be born as healthy as possible. Is it shelved? Not in the least. Is it still growing? Yes. And it will continue to grow until it’s ready.
  • This year has been a series of unfortunate events; some big, some small, all amounting to a very large pile. Every time I think things are evening out…they aren’t. And when something becomes a stress factor I can actually remove, I have to take it. This month that meant dropping NaNo.

So now what? I need to focus on the art commissions at hand, so that’s mostly what I’ll be doing for the rest of the month. I have a stack of books to finish, and I have a novel I can toy with (only plotting, at least until the month is out) on the side. Soon I’ll need to read back over and revise The Dying of the Light, and then find an editor, as it’s the next book I’d like to publish. (Although it may be harder than most, since it’s….long.)

So that’s my update – and I’ll keep telling myself that quitting NaNo isn’t failure. It’s the equivalent of retiring before your boss can fire you.

//I choose to be the moon

Tired. Exhausted. Worn out. These are the adjectives I would use to describe my soul right now – and not just mine, but the collective soul of everyone around me. Everyone is stressed, everyone wishes they could just rest somewhere until they felt energized and inspired again. Nothing is easy, and each day seems to add on more weight. My social media feed is filled with angry political arguments, or those desperately attempting to make peace. I start out the day feeling fine and halfway through the day I just want to curl up in a blanket fort and watch every Studio Ghibli movie consecutively.

My family is here for me. My spirit-wife Arielle and my best friend Lauren are here for me. But I’m used to being there for others, too, and lately I’ve felt, more or less, like I wasn’t ‘doing my job.’ I’m supposed to be the one helping other people, uplifting other people, encouraging other people. Instead, I’m tired. I’m struggling with my confidence in writing, although my novel is coming along well (and I’m even enjoying it). I’m struggling with my confidence in art, in my ability to be a kind person under pressure.

Last night, after all the lights were out, sat down on my bed and I prayed. It wasn’t much of a prayer, but I confessed I wasn’t feeling like I was doing my job. Whatever light I have that I’m supposed to share was too dim, and a dim light equals a useless me. As I sat there in the dark, a single phrase came to me – I am the light of the world. And I blinked in surprise, because wait just a diddly-darn second.

That was the problem, and the answer. I had been relying on myself and my own light, but the trouble with personal light is there’s only so much of it. Personal light can flicker out when the oil runs low. Personal light can be depleted. And yet here I was, exhausted with my seeming inability to do the work I feel like I’m supposed to do, because I was doing it all wrong.

I remember a tacky glow-in-the-dark tee shirt that was all the rage in Christian stores back when I was thirteen or fourteen. (It might still be all the rage; I wouldn’t know.) It was one of those itchy, thick cotton tees and on the front it proclaimed ‘be the moon’ and on the back it finished, ‘reflect the Son.’ Cheesy, right? Very. And if you’re going to make a ‘Christian statement’ you might put it on soft cotton, I’m just saying.

But as tacky as the shirt was, the statement was one that stuck with me.

I am not the light of the world, He is. I am only one person; He is the God of the universe. I’ve been relying on my meager flame to ‘light thousands’ and wondering why I felt so drained and used-up.

And so my prayer to get me through the current climate isn’t grand or complicated – it’s only a request to reflect. To stop relying on myself, to stop thinking I can light up the world alone, because I can’t. Nobody can. So I choose to be a conductor, to reflect Him and not myself. I choose to be the moon.

//what makes us who we are

“You make so much more sense now!”

I’ve heard this joke many times over the years, and it never fails to make me laugh. I say something random – about what I loved as a kid, or what scared me, or something my dad or mom did when they were my age. The older I get, the more it amazes me just how much those little, seemingly insignificant things from childhood mold who we become. They plant seeds that continue to blossom and grow, higher and higher, bean stocks reaching to who-knows-where. I can look back a long list of things in my childhood that helped shape who I am today (for better or weirder) and I thought, why not write about it? It’s a list, isn’t it?

Instead of writing the whole thing down (because logically that could take years) I’m just going to highlight a handful of the things that I can see influenced me the most.

What made me, in no particular order:

  • the battered paperback copies of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings my mom would leave lying around the house. I personally think this was her way of indoctrinating me from a young age. I can even remember the first time I picked one up and tried to muddle my way through a chapter – it was in The Two Towers, when Gollum first attacked Frodo and Sam. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued.
  • a heavy book with a green spine called The Book of Virtues. We had another, slightly smaller, companion book but it was ‘the green one’ that held my attention. Stories and poems and myths and tales of good men and bad men and magnificent feats and arduous quests – I spent (literally) countless hours with that book in hand. It was my reading material of choice.
  • we had another book, an illustrated collection of myths, from the minotaur to the sphinx. This is probably where I first became enamored with fantastic beasts of the Greek sort, which led to being enamored with fantastic beasts of any sort – not to mention the idea that trickery and cleverness can get you out of all kinds of life-threatening situations. And sometimes win you a spouse or a weapon or both.
  • which is probably why the illustrations of Apollyon in a little copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress fascinated me so much (a lion’s head?? Scales?? Dragon wings??), not to mention the other fanciful illustrations of giants and huge monsters and terrifying people who would most definitely 100% kill me if they could.
  • sea monsters. I’m fairly sure the Apollyon illustrations (I know this wasn’t the intention of the book I’m so sorry to everyone, I promise the story did sink in) led me to create my own oddly cobbled-together sea monsters, and I would fill page after page after page of hideous underwater creatures with huge teeth and multiple eyes and various fins. Usually I would give these pictures to my dad. (I’m surprised he didn’t drown in them.) (The Apollyon illustrations also led to my creating a fantastic hero called Amanda, with long blonde hair and a sword, who would kill monsters like those Christian faced. Giant serpents, sometimes dragons, etc. and I remember once distinctly asking my mother for permission to draw Amanda chopping a giant cobra in half. Those were the days.)
  • my sister Maralie listened to many, many soundtracks before she married and moved out, and I would sit on her floor and listen to the soundtrack for Zorro or French Kiss or Ever After and I would ask, ‘What’s happening right here? And what’s happening right here?’ ‘This is where they kiss for the first time,’ she would say. Or, ‘This is where he’s running away from the police.’ Or, ‘This is where she tells the prince who she really is.’ This is why I have difficulty writing without music most of the time – to me, music is almost necessary to the act of creation. I need music to fully create the scene I have in mind.
  • mimes + puppets. When I was young, I had two favorite things to watch: the puppet scene from the Sound of Music (and, being way back in the misty past, I had to call somebody to come re-wind it for me over and over and over and over because it was only so long, you know) and a kid’s video featuring Arpeggio, a mime. Now, Arpeggio scared me. He scared me a lot. What kind of person paints their face white, grimaces all the time, and never says a word? Who DOES THAT?? Nevertheless, I did want to watch him. I wanted to watch him frequently, but I couldn’t do it by myself, so I would beg somebody into watching it with me. (Also, I once punched a good friend of mom’s in the face because she was wearing makeup that reminded me so much of Arpeggio, I literally remember Arpeggio in this situation and not said friend. I was only a few years old, but I did get reprimanded for this.)
  • when my dad was in college, he slept in a coffin instead of a bed. If you think I’m joking, you can head over to said college, where we recently discovered they still talk about this. Also, my dad went spelunking and brought a pet bat home. This is the one story that makes people say, “Ohhhh, I get you now” more than any other. In case you were wondering. (Dad also answered the phone as a kid once and said, ‘Neal’s Mortuary, you stab ’em we slab ’em!’ But when your father, who happens to be a pastor, is the one calling – it doesn’t go over as well as you think it might.)
  • my mom fell in love with my dad at first sight, and then had to set about chasing him so he could catch her. Once she laid outside in her swimsuit while it was raining, and when dad ‘happened along’ (she knew his routes) she told him she was rainbathing. I’ve always loved this story, ever since I was small. Don’t ask me how this shaped who I am today, but it did. It’s probably why I’m a sap.
  • the Twilight Zone. This didn’t come along until I was twelve or so, but it had a huge impact on my desire to write and my desire to write unexpected, creepy, poignant things. (Nobody did unexpected + poignant + creepy like Rod Sterling.)
  • Alice in Wonderland. This was the Disney movie I could watch over and over and over. My small soul reached out to Wonderland and whispered, ‘This is my aesthetic’ before I knew what ‘aesthetic’ was. Peter Pan (book + movie + play) was a close runner-up.
  • Riders in the Sky. I loved this song. I still love this song. When I was very little, my baby sister and I had a tape of cowboy songs we would play on repeat. (Yes. A tape. Ask somebody to explain this device to you.) This song was by far my favorite – I don’t really remember the others, but I would listen to this song as often as I could. There was something so sweepingly sad and haunting about it, but also something so urgent and nostalgic. It gave me feels, ok.
  • Robin Hood + King Arthur. I grew up reading stories about these two legends – reading stories, watching stories, listening to stories on audiobook. I’m fairly sure this is where my love for ‘motley crews + gangs of diverse people Doing Things’ came from. I am pretty sure.
  • when I was a little girl, I got sick and had difficulty breathing what felt like /constantly/. I’m not sure how often it really happened, but it felt frequent. Dad would take a rocking chair outside (it was always at night) and wrap me up in a blanket, and together we would rock and I would look at the night sky. He told me that when birds began to sing, that meant dawn was almost here. He would rock me until dawn sometimes, too. I’m fairly sure this is why the night sky means so much to me, and always has. It is, quite literally, connected with my ability to breathe, and connected to a strong sense of love and home.

There are more – many more – things that influenced me as a young bean (Beatrix Potter, Labyrinth, Edgar Allen Poe), but this is a list jotted down on a Sunday morning before I’ve had a second cup of coffee. It might be lacking in more areas than I realize, but writing it down was a bit of a revelation for me as well – a way to put pieces together and better understand the full picture.

If this idea was fun to read, I encourage you to write your own post about what influenced who you are today! I’d love to read it.