What Were You Made To Do?

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.

To you.

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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.

  • What are you working on?

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.

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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?

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 “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”

(Psalm 98:1)

I Have Written No Essay Today

And I am sorry. I wanted to give you metaphors that sing, but I have only this empty page and a blinking cursor. This is doubly unfortunate because today’s essay was intended for the column at Living the Story. In other words, today’s essay had a deadline.

I feel embarrassed by this blank page, as if it exposes something of which I am deeply ashamed. It seems to matter more than a blank page should.

This page is my life, I think. I rush and worry, trying to fill it up with words. I am terrified that I might run out of words.

 

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Typically, I fill my empty pages quickly. So quickly, in fact, I rarely notice their emptiness. That this page has stayed blank longer than most, I blame on my ragged throat and tissue-burned nose. I blame it on my flexible work-from-home husband who was not, this week at least, able to work from home. I blame it on the baby girl whose cough matches my own.

She knows the baby signs for “milk” and “more” and “banana” but not for “sick.” I have to read it in the way she clings to me, the way she asks for food then tosses it down, the way she makes it impossible for me to live. Because isn’t my life composed of tasks ticked off, essays written, deadlines met? Which means today my life is not being lived. It means today this essay is not being written.

Or is it?

Perhaps even our blank pages have stories to tell?

I hope you’ll click through to read the rest of this one for the Living the Story column at the website BibleDude.

While you’re there, I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know you stopped by.

These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Friends, a confession: I read some books this summer.

The bad news is that I forgot to start dinner, I never noticed when the baby ate cat food, and I forced all four children to endure 90 minutes of daily “quiet time.”

The good news is that I have so many books to tell you about. Let’s talk books, again, shall we?

(If you’re new to this Saturday series you can browse my previous recommendations right here and read more about my use of affiliate links.)

 

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Summer, for me, was over the top in every way. Heat, humidity, rain, noise, activity, zucchini. Just Over The Top. I survived by reading novels.

One of my favorites was Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple.

After reading the first few pages, my expectations were not high. The storytelling is unconventional. Rather than a seamless narrative, you’ll find fragments of communication: emails, texts, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. I worried the book would be some sort of postmodern experiment, more taken with its construction than the story it tells. I have nothing against experiments (Joyce’s Ulysses is one of my favorite books), but, this summer, I wanted something thoughtful and enjoyable.

If Semple’s book is an experiment, it succeeds beautifully. Yes, the form is unusual, but it turns out to be integral to a story that is deeply, warmly human. This is a fun, funny novel, but it makes a serious point: first impressions, even second impressions, might give us entirely flawed ideas about other people.

I loved the hope inherent in this story. I loved knowing that even villains might turn out to be lovable.

Hovering over me was the Chihuly chandelier. Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They’re everywhere and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them. – Maria Semple

Over the summer, I spent more time gardening than reading, a first for me. Of course, when I wasn’t gardening I was often reading about gardening. I’d read this memoir years ago, but when I found it on the shelf of my local used bookstore, I was happy to read it again.

William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden is funny, self-deprecating, and surprisingly informative. Reading about battles with garden pests and plagues should be discouraging, but Alexander’s honesty (and his recipes!) allow us to see just how rewarding life in the garden can be, whether we’re winning those battles or not.

With the kitchen garden established, I decided – in an act of horticultural hubris perhaps not seen since, well, since Yahweh designed the Garden of Eden – to Build a Meadow. – William Alexander

This new book by award-winning memoirist Beth Kephart was one of my great finds of the summer: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. If you have even the tiniest dream to write memoir (or even a blog post based on personal experience) this book will be your Bible. It is inspiring, it is instructive, and it is beautifully written.

I think this book deserves a much wider audience than only writers and writers-in-the-making, however. First, Kephart offers lists of must-read memoirs. Some were familiar to me, but many were not. Her descriptions of what makes each memoir valuable would make this book worth its purchase price even if that’s all it offered. But it offers a great deal more.

This is a book to wake us up to our own lives. This is a book to reveal the treasure that is our own experience. This is a book to help us shape the stories that must be shared.

If all your memoir does is deliver story – no sediments, no tidewater, no ambiguity – readers have no reason to return. If you cannot embrace the messy tug of yourself, the inescapable contradictions, the ugly and the lovely, then you are not ready yet. If you can’t make room for us, then please don’t expect us to start making room for you. – Beth Kephart

And you? Read any good books this summer?

These Farmhouse Bookshelves

I think this is the first Friday evening when I have not been excited to sit down and give you another peak at my bookshelves. The reason? I’m in the middle of a new book, and I would really rather be reading.

My internet connection was out all day, and I was secretly thrilled. It meant I felt a little less guilty propping the baby in her bouncy seat and getting back to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

However, since I have one of you to thank for this book recommendation, and I want to keep the good times rolling, here are three more books for your reading pleasure.

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Today, I’m giving you characters.

When I read novels what I want more than anything – more than a great plot or beautiful language – is character. I want human beings who are so fully realized, so perfectly flawed yet sympathetic, that I struggle to believe they have been created out of nothing more than the alphabet.

Cassandra Mortmain is a marvel of a narrator. She is the wonderfully awkward heroine of Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel I Capture the Castle. The incredible thing about this novel is that the narrator, who hovers somewhere between childhood and adulthood, does not know herself and yet she fully reveals herself to us. We have only her words, but we know things she is only slowly discovering.

This novel is sweet, funny, and over-the-top in so many good ways. We have a crumbling English castle, first love, eccentrics around every corner, and poverty that is a little worse than genteel. Cassandra, like the story she tells, is a gem.

And no bathroom on earth will will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate. – Dodie Smith

Next, I give you a character who is much darker and more mysterious. He is a young, Irish police detective, and he is the narrator of In the Woods by Tana French.

French writes what some have called “literary mystery thrillers.” Literary is a rather inadequate word, but what it should tell you is that French is an incredible writer. In particular, she has a gift for characters.

Although the plot will keep you turning pages late at night (my life pretty much comes to a standstill whenever French publishes a new book), if you value plot (especially those of the neat and tidy variety) you may be disappointed.

I think I love French’s books because, though they are atmospheric and wildly creative, I find them to be more honest than most mysteries. French gives us compelling characters and page-turning stories, but she does not pretend that all mysteries can be solved, that all questions can be answered, or that the past can always be known.

What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie. – Tana French

I am always amazed that one small island can produce so many gifted writers. Here is another: the Irish writer Colm Toibin. Brooklyn: A Novel is told by Eilis Lacey. She is a young woman who has grown up in a small Irish town just after the second world war. Sponsored by a priest, Lacey leaves her family and goes, alone, to make a new life in America.

This is a quiet book. Beginning it, you may find it too easy to put it down and forget to pick it up again. Don’t do this: you are in the hands of a master. Turning pages you will begin to care for Eilis, you will see the world through her naive but curious eyes, and you will know, having turned the last page, that you have been richly rewarded.

‘She has gone back to Brooklyn,’ her mother would say. – Colm Toibin

Tell me, who are the characters you especially love?

 

You can find earlier recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, week six, week seven, and week eight.

 

Your Favorite Posts and a Thank You

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Happy New Year, my friends.

Recently, someone I love sat at my kitchen table while I fiddled with pots and pans. She asked me if I love to cook. I told her that despite evidence to the contrary (shelves of cookbooks, dozens of kitchen gadgets), I don’t really enjoy cooking. I’m usually in a hurry to get it over with. But here is the truth: I love food, and I love feeding people.

This blog is like that for me. I love stories, and I love sharing them with you. Without you, there would be little point to all the hours I’ve spent tapping away at this keyboard.

Thank you. I’m so grateful for your presence here in 2012.

For those of you still in the mood for looking back, here are a few of the most popular stories from the past year at There is a River.

When my daughter’s young classmate was murdered, I wanted her to know that darkness does not get the last word. The last word is Shalom.

Half-way through 2012 we went searching for a new home. This is how we knew we’d found it.

This was the year when God led me out of the desert I had wandered in for two years. Now I know that deserts are terrible, beautiful places. God brought me to the desert because he loves me.

In 2012 I received a great gift. Her name is Elsa Spring.

I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a new year as much as I look forward to 2013. God has shown his goodness, and I can’t wait to discover what’s next.

 

“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”
– Corrie ten Boom

Tunnel Vision

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Most evenings, after dinner, you’ll find us piling into the car. We drive because it’s so beautiful here, we drive to put the three-year-old to sleep, we drive because we’re worn out and we want to fill the time between feeding and bathing in the easiest way.

I’ve never been very adept at keeping my mind tucked inside my body. It’s always floating off, connecting imagined dots somewhere up in the clouds, which makes me (I’m well aware) a real danger on the road. With Jonathan behind the wheel, I’m free to tell stories in my head, so I do. So many stories.

They’re meant for you; I’m sure of it. Someday (soon, I hope) I’ll share them. But for now … well, I’ve entered a kind of nine-months-pregnant tunnel.

It’s a strange, foggy place. Most of the things I normally value in life seem lost in the general grayness. Like writing for this blog or returning phone calls. Other seemingly unimportant things loom inexplicably large. Like painting my bedroom furniture.

Yes, the baby’s room is a mess of odds and ends, and the bassinet I recently ordered through the mail is still sitting in its unopened box exactly where the UPS man left it last week. But I can’t tell you how vitally, vitally important it has been to attack my bed with white paint.

Please, baby girl, just hold on till the paint dries.

I’m not sure if I’ll be in this space much before she arrives. I do promise I’ll be back before long.

There is so much here (in this new place and season) worth noticing, and I don’t think these things are meant only for me. Things like a full moon rising over a quilt-square patch of corn. Things like driving the same country road night after night until the night when one wrong (right?) turn takes you through a field of sunflowers.

Those things must mean something. They must be a part of some very good story.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I discover. Once the fog recedes.

 

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