You were made for the impossible thing.
You were made for the goal you cannot conceivably achieve. You were made for the task you are ill-equipped to manage. The high bar you can never reach.
You were made for the thing that terrifies you the most. The thing those others can do but never you.
You were made for the dream too good even to dream.
Some of you know this. You have already seen that the impossible thing slowly, gradually becomes more than just an impossible thing. It becomes a prayer. In other words, impossibility is shot through with cruel desire. You hardly know how it happens, but somehow you begin to want this impossible thing.
Until, one day (but truly it is never one day; it is always slowly over many days) the prayer is answered. The promise inherent in prayer is fulfilled. And the impossible thing becomes a gift, given freely.
Writing is my impossible thing. It is the dream I buried in a million books. Books I was convinced I could never write.
My friend Cara Strickland, a writer of delicious details, sent a few questions my way. They are questions meant for writers, but I’ve been considering them with all our many impossible dreams in mind.
I am working on noticing.
The more I notice, the more convinced I become that our lives, and the world in which we live them, are not the chaotic, meaningless jumbles they often appear to be.
When I notice the connections among a few dots, I write out those connections here on this blog. I try to do this once per week, but dots do not always obey our commands (pleas, bribes, etc.) to reveal their associations.
But I keep showing up and, sometimes, I am rewarded.
Slowly (very slowly), I am also writing out the connections among some bigger dots. Dots like homesickness and desire and kingdom come. I am gathering up these bits in a file called “My Book.” We shall see whether the title of this computer file proves itself prophetic.
- How does your work differ from others of its genre?
One of my greatest fears is that it does not. That, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. But I find in the Psalms a command that has also become my prayer: “sing to the Lord a new song.”
I think this is why we are here on this planet. To sing to our God a new song. But, like most commands we find in the Bible, it is impossible. It asks too much. Every word I write rings in my ears like an echo of some other, better writer.
But I am learning to stand in the river that is the source of every new thing. I am learning to recognize the new when it bubbles up like a spring. New words, new stories, new beauties, new mercies. New is the keyword of the kingdom of God, and we are Christ’s own. We hold the keys to the kingdom.
- Why do you write what you do?
I write because the world holds so much beauty my heart would break if I couldn’t pause and gather some of it up.
I write because there is a river, and it has filled me with good news. Somehow I, the quiet one, the cautious one, want only to “go up on a high mountain” and shout “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).
- How does your writing process work?
It works like this: I stand near a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, a paper calendar in hand. I carve out quiet time. This is exhausting, difficult work. My knife is never sharp enough. And then, typically, I must let go of the time I have so carefully cut away. The baby does not nap, or the preschooler will not fulfill the “quiet” portion of his afternoon quiet-time obligation, or school is canceled, or I get sick, and on and on it goes.
Until, while wiping the counters or raking leaves or changing a diaper, I am visited by an image. Maybe two. The beginnings of a story.
My friend Laura Lynn Brown sings beautiful songs. She sings with words (you can find her award-winning essay “Fifty Things About My Mother” at Slate). She sings with paintbrush and pencil. She sings with an Irish flute. I’m passing the baton of these questions on to her. Look for her own thoughts on writing and the writing process at her website in the coming weeks.
Now tell me. How do you sing your own new song?
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
– James Joyce, “The Dead”
I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.
And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.
I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.
But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.
And this place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.
After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.
Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.
The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.
But I do not think we are always given that choice.
I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.
This is suffering unfinished.
I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.
And I wanted it finished.
As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.
We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.
This place is snow-covered.
And Easter is still a long way off.
When my daughter was small, she scribbled on paper like it was a paying gig. We hung her mini masterpieces on the refrigerator. We strung them on a line across the window with teeny, tiny clothespins.
We even framed a few of the accidentally stunning watercolors.
I say accidental because I am not a stage mother. Where some may have seen pint-sized talent and dreamed of art school, I assumed any child of mine would grow up to claim her share of my decidedly average artistic ability.
But it goes beyond the question of talent. I’ll be honest and admit that I am a mother of the dream-squashing kind.
I may not always voice my negativity, but when she said she would be President someday, I said “Hmmm.”
When she said she’d be famous, I said, “Well, I don’t know.”
When she said she’d have a picture hanging in a museum when she grew older, I didn’t say anything at all. Just felt a little sad. Because we all know that these sorts of dreams don’t come true. And isn’t it my job, as her mother, to teach her to dream a little more realistically?
I consider my own life. I am not the President. I am not famous. I will never have a painting in a museum.
But then I consider it some more. If I could have seen my today twenty years ago, what would it have looked like to me?
I have no doubt it would have looked too good to be true.
This husband, these children, our home. That garden, this book, my perch by the window, and even the mug of tea at my feet. I could have imagined a life with fewer shadows, but I don’t think I could have imagined a life more beautiful and more perfectly suited to me than this one I’ve been given.
Who is the wise one, and who is the fool?
The six of us join the crowd in the museum. This is Wyeth country, and the museum on the river is home to N.C.’s pirates, Andrew’s farmhouses, Jamie’s haystacks.
For the next few weeks, it is also home to an exhibit of local student art.
It is all so normal, so everyday. The reception with apple juice and cookies. The proud parents and grandparents filing past the wall of identical black frames.
I actually stand in front of that wall for a full ten minutes before I realize my daughter’s dream came true.
Here is her portrait of a pumpkin. One bright light in a constellation of black frames.
It is hanging in a museum.
It is an impossible dream. A wish upon a star.
An ordinary day.
We don’t read poetry any longer, do we?
Oh, a bit here and there, and some of us more than others, but we’re much more likely to end our days with reality television than The Oxford Book of English Verse, aren’t we?
I often wonder why this is. Is it because we are so accustomed to the easy and comfortable we avoid using our spare time for anything that requires real effort? And I won’t fool you. Poetry requires effort. It asks that we meet it at least halfway.
We must quiet our minds (and our stereo speakers). We must slow down (no one ever speed-read a poem). We must re-read (a good poem can’t ever be checked as “read” on our reading lists and tracking apps; poetry happens in the re-reading).
All I really know is that I’ve hesitated to recommend poetry books in this space. I want to make you happy, and I’ve decided happiness means novels, memoirs, cookbooks, and picture books.
I read this article and realized that poetry is worth more than life to some people. They will risk everything for what it gives.
The least I can do is share a few recommendations with you.
Also, I can make this promise – tonight, when my children are (finally) asleep, I will not turn on my television. I will not pick up my big, fat novel. Instead, I will re-read, and I will remember. I will remember that my life is something different, something better, because I have read Yeats and Auden, Bishop and Heaney.
And these. I have read these:
I have read George Herbert.
One of the great English metaphysical poets (poets known for their elaborate imagery), Herbert was a priest in the Church of England and a friend of John Donne. His religious poetry is beautiful, desperate, and honest. But this is not confession (or not merely); it is art. It is art that dramatizes and explores the encounter between the flawed, sinful self and a God who is Love.
Herbert’s poems are intricately crafted. They reward the time we spend with them.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice. – George Herbert
I have read Eavan Boland.
I can’t recommend poetry without recommending the work of this contemporary Irish poet. Boland writes about home, about motherhood, about what it means to create beautiful art out of the raw materials of violence, loss, and the various troubles of history. Her work is accessible, but it is not superficial. It rewards our first reading, but it gives more with subsequent readings.
I suggest picking up a single volume of her work (rather than a collection or the few poems you might find in an anthology). Reading poetry is like music in this regard – poets write poems the way musicians create albums. It is one thing to know a hit single in isolation; it is entirely another to know what has been created when the artist gathers their work into a whole.
I often return to her volume In a Time of Violence. You might start there.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in. – Eavan Boland
I have read everything ever published by T. S. Eliot. But, always and especially, I have read Four Quartets.
Eliot was the first poet who ever made me love poetry. I was a teenager, and I was mesmerized by the rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Now I don’t often go back to Prufrock and his coffee spoons (though the first lines of that poem are impossible for me to forget), but I return, more and more often, in fact, to Four Quartets.
There are times when an imperfect little art (like a quirky little poem) will suffice. It is like us: small yet precious, strange but lovely. There are other times when we need an art that hints at something much bigger and more perfect. Four Quartets is like that for me. It is big enough to move in, big enough to dream in, big enough to inspire your own creativity. It is Art-with-a-capital-A, and some days that is what my own little life needs most of all.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot
Do you read poetry? Why? Why not? I’d love to know.
I began this Saturday series, this weekly glimpse of my over-stuffed bookshelves, because it seemed like fun. Just fun.
But now I’ve read House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home by Mark Richard, and the word fun doesn’t come close. To share a book like this is something far beyond fun. It is serious. It is sacred. It almost feels like worship, and what can I possibly say to convince you to read this book? I don’t know what to say, but I feel desperate to say it.
This is a writer’s memoir. It is the story of a life, of a boy sinned against and sinning, and it is the story of God’s grace for this broken world. It is a work of art.
Unlike almost every other memoir you will read, Richard never uses the first person singular, never writes the word I. He refers to himself as you, and that choice draws his reader in and propels us through the pages.
It is as if a drowning man has lured us into the chaos of deep water. With him we are nearly overcome by the Southern Gothic horrors of his childhood, the wandering waste of his young adulthood, and, with him, we are saved. We are pulled from the water just as his father once pulled him from a swirling stream, and we see God.
By the end of this book we, like Richard, have long stopped believing in coincidence. Instead, through the words of an artist we are able to see the work of that Artist who takes the broken pieces of our lives, our bodies, our stories and fits them perfectly together. The result is something beautiful.
Richard’s memoir reminds me of the memoir trilogy by the poet Mary Karr, a series that began with The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. These are not easy books to read. Karr’s story takes Richard’s horrific Southern Gothic childhood and kicks it up a few notches. However, like Richard’s, this is memoir as poetry. Both books make me think that maybe the surest path to God is to run as hard and fast as you can in the opposite direction. Just maybe.
Next to memoirs by writers, I most enjoy memoirs by midwives. Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent is the best I’ve found. Each birth story she shares could stand alone, but there’s an overarching narrative that will make you catch your breath. Organized with brief quotations from The Book of Common Prayer, Vincent’s story prompts me to believe there may be no work more holy than that of a midwife.
I only wish we had a memoir from those heroic Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, women brave enough to deliver babies and tell tales to Pharaoh himself.
If books get written in heaven (and why not?), then no doubt we’ll read their stories someday. I, for one, can’t wait.
Find earlier book recommendations here, here, and here.
I watched these old, old maples bend in the wind of that hurricane. Because they yielded, they are still standing.
That is how I want to live. I am more and more sure that art and beauty and love grow best not by raging against the wind (or the storm, the dark day, the hard, unasked-for circumstance). They come through yielding.
To yield is not to give up. It is not throwing up my hands in defeat. This yielding is more like being carried. It is moving with what moves and watching – always watching – for the One who does the moving.
And then singing of what I see.
The need to work this land to fit my wants
I yield. I vow no more to walk with plans
like gossip falling from my mouth. I choose
to go in silence, learning, in my sure
refusal, the truth that yields to yielding.
At Equinox, before the flood of light
sets water loose, I covenant to give
the downward rush beneath the grass its head.
I’ll dam no stream. I’ll dig no pond. Nor will
I plant willows to suck the wet spots dry.
My work shall be to say the nature
of Creation’s slow unfolding, to name what
becoming new has always been, to praise
what lives without my praise unto itself.
– John Leax