Monday, September 28, 2009

Breath and Death

Bette Midler says she wakes up every morning and asks her husband for a divorce.

“It clears the air,” explains the Divine Miss M.

For sort of the same reason, I wake up every morning and run through the local cemetery. It’s a small field near my house with several dozen graves on a mountainside overlooking the valley below. Green and lush, still as death, the cemetery puts my day in perspective. Glancing at the names and dates -- and sometimes fresh dirt beside a waiting cavity -- I have to wonder, “If this is my last day, how am I going to live it?”

Over time, I’ve come to regard the graves as distant neighbors. Not people I know but folks I feel somewhat acquainted with, like that family one street over from my house with the barking white dog and green jeep who are repainting their porch. Though I've never seen them, the people who loved the deceased visit the graveyard often. Flowers are fresh, always. One grave gets decorated with black-and-white checkered flags -- the NASCAR finish flags -- to announce the race was won. And occasionally somebody leaves an open bottle of Crown Royal (which disappears by the next day) at a grave near the center. This week, for the first time, I saw balloons bobbing in the wind under an oak tree.

The balloons were so striking that I stopped running to look more closely. A bottle of Nesquick chocolate milk stood on the stone with a toy car. The car was blue. I read the name and the numbers. He died young, this boy named Jacob. That same day was the anniversary of his death.

Staring down at the offerings, my heart hurt. But there was another inscription on the stone, carved at the bottom under the dates for life and death. It was from Psalms 135:4.

For the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself.

When I ran toward home, I had a new question. If today was my last, would I understand that it's a celebration, worthy of balloons?

Would you?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Guys and Cars and God

On our way back from the amazing bookstore, we pulled into an Olive Garden for dinner. Just as we sat down, two girls appeared at our table. They looked frantic.

"A guy just hit your car!" exclaimed the first girl.

"We saw the whole thing," said the second girl. "He didn't leave a note or anything. So we took down his license number."

Turns out, they had seen us walk into the restaurant. Moments later, our car got hit. My husband's car.

"Did the guy drive away?" my husband asked.

"No, he walked into Popeye's Chicken."

My husband is a total sweetie but he grew up in Queens, New York. If you know what's good for you, don't mess with him. Don't mess with his family. And do not mess with his car.

He stormed across the parking lot into Popeye's Chicken. Standing in the middle of the place, he asked who was driving the white Cadillac.

Dead silence.

So he asked again, this time with every ounce of growling paisan. "Who . . . owns . . . the . . . Caddy?"

Realizing the man with NYC-accent was serious, a guy in baggy jeans and braids stood up. "That's my car."

"You just hit my car," my husband said.

"No, I didn't."

"We're takin' a walk," my husband growled.

Outside in the parking lot, my husband pointed out the damage: White scar on husband's black bumper; black scar on Caddy's white bumper. Both fresh as daisies. And two sweet girls who saw the whole thing and now identified the guy as the driver.

"Well," the guy said, "maybe I did hit your car, but I don't remember doing it."

My husband looked at him. "What're you -- a comedian?"

The guy kept going. The lies got more extravagant. Finally all my husband wanted was proof of insurance. Yes, the guy said, he did have insurance -- he just wasn't sure of the company name. He wrote something down on a piece of paper. My husband took his driver's license number and demanded he sign and date a statement that his Caddy did indeed hit our car -- even if he couldn't remember the accident five minutes after it happened.

We drove away. A long silence enveloped the ride home.

Finally, my husband said, "What gets me is the lying. He lied from start to finish."

Sometimes you meet really unlikeable people and the last thing you want to do is pray for them. They wronged you; why ask God to help them? But the weird fact is, life's better parts are counter-intuitive. This goes for Christianity.

So while my husband fumed about the damage, my kids and I secretly started praying for this guy. Don't get the idea we're holy and our head of household isn't. It was easy for us: It wasn't our favorite car. We decided to pray specifically. We wanted this guy to stop lying and turn his life around, and we asked that Daddy would get to the point of being okay with the damage, eventually.

The next day, Sunday, we prayed the same thing but early Monday morning it wasn't even a thought in my head. One kid had projectile vomiting, the other was grouchy, and due to a busy weekend the house looked like an IED went off. When the phone rang, it wasn't even breakfast time. I almost didn't pick up.

But it was the guy who hit our car.

"I didn't give your husband the true insurance information," he said, as my son hurled into the waste bucket. "I feel bad about it. I wanted to make it right."

He went on from there, his voice contrite and apologetic. Then he spoke to my husband.

"Thank you," my husband said. "I really appreciate your apology. I've decided to let the whole thing go."

There was a long pause. "No," the guy insisted. "I want to give you the insurance stuff."

"Thank you, but I thought about it and prayed about it a long time. I want to let it go."

The guy was stunned. He kept asking, "Are you sure? Are you sure?"

As I get older, I'm more and more certain that an overwhelming amount of life goes on behind the scenes, with the invisible parts being the most crucial. People will insist prayer had nothing to do with this tectonic shift. They'll say it was Tough Guy Hubby. Threat of a lawsuit. Whatever. I know because once upon a time I was one of those people.

But not only did prayer help the principal players, it showed me how there's no room for judging here. Each of us does stupid and mean things. We think nobody's watching, and skulk away into some hideout. Then God rolls in at some inopportune moment and announces in a loud voice, "You hurt somebody."

Do we fess up?

No way. We said, "I did? I don't remember."

God says, "What're you -- a comedian?"

The good news is God isn't human. He doesn't need to stew before forgiving a repentant heart. He's right there, waiting, forever. And every single thing can be forgiven -- not just that one moronic episode, but every last bit of your life. Paid in full. No insurance claims, no visits to the body shop. Done. Amen.

(P.S. I should clarify something, given the parallels above. I do not think my husband is God.
My husband thinks he's God, but that's a story for another time.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When people say life is stranger than fiction, they're right by half. Life is strange, but so is the best fiction. Dedicated book people enjoy both worlds.

You can see it when you meet them.

By any measure, Saturday's USO benefit and book signing at "A Cup of Cold Water" was a smashing success. But what really put it over the top were the people.

Book people.

*There was a woman named Claudette, a church librarian, who loves her job except when space requires the removal of some old books. Claudette gets so upset she has to call her husband. He comes and takes them off the shelves. "I can't bear to watch," she said, as if witnessing executions.

* Donna, an artist wearing a dashing chapeau, stopped by on her way to pick up some missionaries from India. Donna had never met the missionaries but heard they needed a place to stay. Ten years ago, Donna heard about a girl who was driving along when a tree fell on her car. The limbs crashed through the windshield, impaling her head. Donna didn't know the girl, who was 16 and brilliant and headed to early admission at college, but Donna started praying. The girl slipped into a deep coma. Several months later, she woke up with an empty mind; she didn't remember her own mother. Today, ten years later, that same girl has published a book and home schools four bright children. Of course, all that happened after she married Donna's son, who didn't know her until this terrible accident happened. And best of all: That girl became a Christian.

* A family of five drove all the way from Centralia to this little bookstore. They were one of those families where you could feel love flowing around them. The parents brought their 11-year-old daughter because she wants to be a writer. She was the sweetest girl, with great intuitive gifts, and she humbled me.

On it went throughout the day, tender and funny folks coming through the door of this little book store. Moms of Marine soldiers, football moms, a Libertarian gadfly and his red-headed girlfriend and a boy deeply damaged at birth and his glowing mother who loved him to his core.

The bookstore’s owner, LouAnn Miller, welcomed them all as though they were coming home.

In fact, the place was so welcoming that my son asked me, "Where's her bed?"

"Excuse me?" I said.

"The owner. Doesn't she live here?"

Her highly-trained unpaid assistant with the great sense of humor brought coffee and pastry and took pictures and asked people to write Bible verses in a small book for a young girl facing difficult surgery. The book would be something she could read in the hospital to encourage her good fight. Nobody knew the girl; everybody wrote to her.

This is the thing about book people: They're interesting. The people walking into this store live on the faithful edge, trusting in something other than themselves. They trust in words and the remarkable story of life. Most importantly, the trust The Word.

While I can understand the attraction of a Kindle, I can’t imagine life without bookstores like “A Cup of Cold Water” and the people they attract.

If you know about a book store like this, tell me about it.

Maybe we can start a fan club.

Coming next: The trip home from “A Cup of Cold Water” when my husband’s car gets hit.

(Believe me: You don’t want to miss any Tales of the Italian Stallion.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bless the Troops

If you're in the Olympia/Lacey area on Saturday, come by and bless the troops! On September 12, I'll be signing books at one of the coolest Christian bookstores in Western Washington, "A Cup of Cold Water."

Check out the store here. Cutest place to buy books. Thousands of titles, new and used, including "The Rivers Run Dry" and "The Stones Cry Out."
The signing will benefit the U.S.O. We want to bless the people sacrificing so much for our freedom, including bookstore owner LouAnn Miller's son, who recently enlisted. Do you know a serviceman or woman? Bring a photo. We want to hear about the people behind the uniform.

I'm looking forward to meeting you all. I'll bring the chocolate.

Below is one room in this adorable book heaven.

See you there!

Monday, September 7, 2009

How is life?

The boy who lives across the street stopped by the house last week. I hadn’t seen him in awhile and asked how life was.

“Things were bad," he said, "but they got good. Does that ever happened to you?”

To me, life seems like a long series of hills and valleys and not much flat in between. Once upon a time, the hilltops made me giddy and over-confident but I’ve decided their true purpose is encouragement because -- heads up -- another valley is straight ahead.

I’ve also learned to appreciate the valleys. It's where I learn the most. For instance, a recent valley cratered around completing a novel. After writing five books (three published and two that if God loves me will never see the light of day), I thought the process would get easier.

It didn't. In fact, writing grew increasingly more difficult until finishing one page felt like a trek across the world's longest valley, without food, water or gossip. First, I blamed my temperament. I'm always ready for a new challenge right after completing the last one. Then I blamed burnout. Three books in three years plus homeschooling equals hard work. Right? When neither of those proved to be the problem, I contemplated asking my wonderful publisher, Thomas Nelson, if they would accept a check. Paying back the advance would give me crucial time to mope around the house, trying to figure out why writing had become an experience similar to dental work without the benefit of anesthetics.

But, as I said, valleys are places to learn. Eventually. I spent way more time on my knees, begging God for answers, and he graciously sent a small book that packed the explosive power of an incendiary device: “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.

It's one of those books you wish you'd come across years ago.

Author of “The Legend of Bagger Vance" and some highly praised historical fiction about the ancient Greeks, Pressfield spent twenty years in the writer’s wilderness, staring snow-blind at blank white pages, wondering how somebody could want to write so badly yet never finish one novel.

His disclosures have produced a handbook not only for writers but any creative soul beginning a new adventure -- artists, entrepreneurs, even homeschoolers. His point is that creativity will always face a head-wind. In fact, the sign that you’re walking in the right direction is that you feel that wind in your face, trying to impede your progress.

Pressfield calls this force resistance.

“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled,” he writes. “But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”

Like C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” Pressfield’s book reveals the enemy’s strategic objectives (nothing short of killing your soul), the cheap shots (“What makes you think you can write?”) and the more subtle and devious tactics that sound really good when you hear them (“Instead of writing a book nobody wants to read, wouldn’t you be helping the planet more as a missionary in Africa?”)

“Resistance is protean,” Pressfield writes. “It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you . . . . Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

Based on his personal experience, he offerrs some excellent methods for beating back the repelling force --what worked for him, what didn’t, and why.

I have only two caveats about this wonderful little book. One, if you’re offended by a few coarse words, this isn’t your message. Two, Pressfield mulls some metaphysical ideas about muses, angels and an unnamed God. As a Christian, I wasn’t offended as much as bored. I already know who's my comforter, my sword, my ever-present help in times of trouble.

If you’re living with a book in your head instead of putting it on paper -- for reasons you can’t even articulate -- read “The War of Art.” Let me know what you think. I’ll be interested to hear your opinion, above the roar of wind in my face.

"The War of Art" Steven Pressfield.
Highest rating: Five shiny diamonds.