Why I Took Jacob to a Wedding

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photo by Andre Hunter via Unsplash

I brought Jacob to a wedding last weekend.  You know, Jacob the biblical heel-grabber, trickster, tent-dwelling, mama’s boy?  Not usually thought of as a model for 21st century marriage ceremonies.

Particularly since his own marriage history is so strange: Boy meets Girl.  Boy falls in love with Girl.  Boy talks to her father.  Father agrees to a marriage if Boy will work for him for seven years.  Boy marries Girl…but its the wrong girl because Father has slipped Older Sister into the service under the veil of darkness.  Boy makes second bargain with Father.  Boy marries Girl—the right one this time.

You see what I mean.  Officiating ministers don’t tell this story at weddings.  Unless they’re me.

But what I really wanted to talk about was not Jacob’s marriages but his encounter with Esau on the road back home.  Esau, his twin.  Esau, whom he had tricked out of blessing and birthright.  Esau, who when last Jacob heard of him, was muttering murderous threats against him.

On the night before his reunion with his brother, Jacob sat alone on the banks of the Jabbok.  He had heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 armed men…and that didn’t sound good.  So Jacob split up his family and his cattle and his servants and sent them across the river in two parties so that maybe some of them would survive.

IMG_6354Jacob spent the night wrestling with God.  And that’s not just a figure of speech.  He threw down with a man who turned out to be God.  So much so that he left the match with a limp.  He renamed the spot Peniel, which means, “the face of God,” because he had seen God face to face.

The next morning he’s across the river and he meets Esau on the road.  Burly, hairy, huntsman, aggrieved Esau.  Jacob falls at his feet and begs mercy…only to look up in his brother’s face to see tears.  Esau embraces him and for the second time Jacob says that he has seen the face of God.  “To see your face,” he tells his brother, “is truly like seeing the face of God.”

It’s a beautiful wedding story.  Really!  Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once offered a wonderful interpretation of the wedding tradition of unveiling in his book A Ray of Darkness.  The couple, he says, in that act:

“are promising to look at each other for the rest of their lives, and to be looked at by each other, lovingly, faithfully, and, above all, truly and honestly.  The married man or woman has opened the doors to let another person in.”

It is an echo of God’s unveiling in the incarnation and crucifixion.  “There can be no reconciliation between God and humanity,” Williams says, “until they see one another face to face.”

IMG_6348What I’m saying is that marriage is a disarming.  In that act, both partners say, “I am taking down all my walls.  I am taking down all those things I do for self-protection.  I am laying aside all my defenses and all my weapons.  I am making myself absolutely vulnerable to you.  I am giving you everything I’ve got to give – the good and the bad, the richer and the poorer, the sickness and in health.  And all I have to offer is that I will receive the same from you.  All of you.”

It’s what Jacob has to offer Esau.  It’s what Jesus offers.  That’s so much more than the unicorn and rainbow promises of unending bliss.  It’s the risk of being unalterably wounded and yet the potential for being absolutely known.  It’s the chance to see the the face of God.

It’s the risk of being unalterably wounded and yet the potential for being absolutely known.

Jacob.  Totally appropriate for a wedding.  Totally.

[with best wishes and blessings for Brian & Jennifer Stern Schollhammer.  It was a beautiful night.]

Grant’s Migraine – Tuesday Poetry

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photo by Malik Earnest via Unsplash

I know what caused

Grant’s Appomattox migraine,

not death

nor politics

or Sheridan’s whereabouts.

It was the slant light of April

nigh to the equinox.

The same light troubling my eyes

on this slatted porch.

It should fall gentle in this season

or so I advise the Crafter

but instead it blotches my retina

sears into my brain

wanders off with a morning

condemns me to dark.

I’ve no armies to command

but I fight the light like Ulysses.

In these seasons of change

the sun sneaks through the cracks

needles through the trees

flares even off this pen I use

to describe its dangers.

We live with an excess of light

and, when it is not high overhead,

an excess of shadow,

And if you raise your eyes

to look at it

if you go unshielded into the bright,

you will be felled

as sure as any furnace can fell.

You will await in some darkened, fetid room

the return of your senses

Or you will soldier on

anticipating that even in the cruel light of the world

some good news must come.

–Alex Joyner

Guest Blogger – C. Christopher Smith: Stirring the Economic Imaginations of Churches

 

I’ve learned a lot about books from C. Christopher Smith.  Chris is not only the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, to which I occasionally contribute.  His press is also the publisher of my book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine

He’s a great observer and interpreter of where the church is and what it could be in the 21st century.  He’s also charting new paths by caring about books and the people who write them, or as he puts it: “We review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.”  Today he’s guest blogger on Heartlands:

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C. Christopher Smith

As I’ve traveled across the US talking with churches about my recent book Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison), I’ve found that many mainline churches and some evangelical ones – largely in urban or rural places – are struggling with shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets. Many leaders of these churches are bordering on despair, because like most people in the Western world they have been formed by an economics of scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around.

A careful reading of the scriptural story, however, reveals a God who abundantly provides for the health and flourishing of creation. Maybe we can no longer fully rely on meeting our budgets by passing the offering plate, but this economic reality in many churches does not mean that we have to despair.  Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us. Specifically, our churches should reflect on the assets God has provided in our people, our buildings, and our land.

Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us.

I’ve been fortunate to see and hear stories of churches across North America that are thinking creatively about these resources and drawing upon them as a means of sustaining themselves economically. In order to get your own imagination moving, I wanted to briefly share some of the creative economic activity that churches are doing.  (I don’t expect that all of these ideas will be applicable to every church situation, but hopefully there might be an idea or two here that might have potential for adaptation in your church.)

Human Resources: What has God provided in the gifts and skills of your congregation (and/or your neighbors)?

And how can these gifts be leveraged in a way that benefits the church, the neighborhood or both? Many churches are starting businesses that draw upon skills in their congregation or neighborhood to bring in additional income.  Some churches start coffeehouses, restaurants or gathering places. University Christian Church in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, for instance, has started the very successful Roh’s Street Café.

61DJ2UqrooL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, we have started half-a-dozen businesses over the last two decades, each of which began on a very small scale with the intersection of a gift that we had in our congregation and an opportunity to serve others in our neighborhood (or beyond).  Our businesses include an early childhood education center, an affordable housing operation, a hydroponic farm, and our magazine The Englewood Review of Books. Other churches have started businesses in catering, cleaning, and painting among other things.

Building Resources: What has God provided in the building(s) that we own?

While there are many missional advantages to owning a building, we should always be mindful that many churches through the ages – including most in the New Testament stories – have flourished without owning a building. Selling your building may be the most extreme case, and may not even be possible for some churches, given their denominational arrangements, but it is good to be reminded that churches can survive without owning a building.

Many churches are finding creative ways of sharing their buildings, and the cost of their operation. Sometimes these creative uses intersect with businesses that the church has started (such as Roh’s Street Café mentioned above). With careful coordination of schedules, some churches share their buildings with other churches. Other churches make space in their building available for rent: for office or co-working space for non-profits or entrepreneurs; for studio space for artists; for meeting space for neighborhood groups; or if they have a commercial kitchen, for catering or other food-based entrepreneurs.

And building assets might include more than just the traditional church building. Some churches own parsonages or other residential buildings. If these residences are empty or under-utilized, they could be sold, rented out through a traditional lease, or even operated on a short-term rental basis through services like AIRBNB.  Here at Englewood Christian Church, we have a former 5-bedroom parsonage that we have renovated and use as a hospitality house for retreats, for people who are visiting us from other places, and for other situations where friends need a short-term place to stay.

Land Resources: What are the assets God has provided us in our land? 

Many churches are starting community gardens that provide good, home-grown food for church members or neighbors.  Community gardens may not be the most profitable venture, but there are ways to generate small profits from them.  In addition to selling some of the produce, there are many grants available for community gardens, and some of these may allow for a portion of the grant to go to the personnel who administrate the grant, or for a minimal lease of the land being used for the garden.

Some churches like Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta have allocated part of their land as a nature preserve. Under-utilized portions of church land could be developed or sold, particularly if doing so would benefit their neighborhood. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver, BC realized several years ago that it had more parking lot than it needed, and in one of the highest cost housing markets in the world, they are in the process of developing affordable housing on this land, which will be affordable because the land – the most expensive part of any development in Vancouver – was already owned by the congregation.

———-

God has indeed provided abundantly for us, and for the flourishing of our neighbors in this place! 

May we have eyes of gratitude that see the riches God has provided for us, and imaginative minds that discern how to use these resources in ways that sustain and bless our congregation and our neighbors. As our eyes and minds are opened to God’s provision, we will be led out of despair and into hope.

C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He and his family are members of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Chris’s most recent book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016).

Writing: “A Blessed Unrest” – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 3 of 3

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Trudy Hale

Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine, and owner of The Porches writing retreat, has talked in previous segments of this interview about her love affair with the retreat house and the writing life.  In this segment we continue the conversation about the compulsions of writing and the forms it takes in her life.  And we come back to something dear to this site as well – the importance of place.

So, you’ve got that quote on your welcome sheet from Martha Graham.  That’s one of my favorite quotes, and I saw it for the first time on your sheet.  That last line: “There’s only a clear, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching, and makes us more alive than the others.”  You know, the fidelity to that process.  I know why that speaks to me.  Why does it speak to you?

It goes back to that idea that if you’ve been given a gift–the writing.  It’s like the biblical thing, the person with talent.  We all have different degrees of talent, but if you don’t use that talent in some way, you’re not going to feel fulfillment.  There’s some dis-ease; something’s not right.

But there’s another part of the quote that I really like: “It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.”  There’s always going to be others writers infinitely more brilliant, and you can’t get in there and do these comparisons.  It’s your job to let your expression come out, and that’s your purpose.  You’re always going to feel as an artist, that gift, and it gnaws if it’s neglected–it’s kind of that thing.  It’s a gift, but also somewhat of a curse; you can’t just sit around and not use it.  You’re troubled by not using it.

It’s the fire in your bones.

IMG_2930Yeah.  It’s gonna give you unrest.  It’s a gift, but it’s gonna…what is it?  Prickle, and poke, and holler at you if you’re neglecting it for too long.  And [the quote] also gives you permission to express, to have your expression, and not–  There’s something writers have, that overly self-critical voice.

Yes.

Their editor comes in before you’ve allowed the expression to get out on the page.  You can always go back and make it better.  That’s why I love that Annie Lamott quote: you just gotta get it down.  It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

It’s so easy to get discouraged.  A writer once told me, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”

The whole thing about honoring the time, too.  The thing I fight in myself is the feeling that, “Oh, well, that’s the frivolous side.  That’s the frivolous thing to do.”  Rather than see it as the most essential thing to do.

That’s exactly it.  That’s another thought–“I’m wasting my time.”  Those are little demons, you know?  You gotta shut them up.  But that’s that voice, that self-condemnation that’s trying to prevent you from expressing yourself and getting the work done.

There’s nothing like tapping into the creative.  William Blake wrote a lot about the creative and the artist, and that artistic expression and that act of creation, no matter what medium or form, is the closest that we get to the divine.

So, all those little thoughts like, “Oh, I’m wasting my time,” I’ve had–everyone has that, like, “Oh, what’s the point?”  And that’s a little demon.  You gotta chase that one out with a broom.

Absolutely.  And then, seven more will come in, right?

I know.  It can happen. You’ve written a scene and it’s not alive in some way.  It’s flat on the page.  And just to think, “Okay, I’m just going to keep working on it,” and not pass any judgment on it, and not beat yourself up.  There’s a lot of interior work that has to be done in the writing and the process of creation.

A lot of times in my writing, I would seek distraction, and not sit down and do it; something to distract me from writing.  We do something else, and we try to feel virtuous.  You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

You sit down and write, and you go, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.”  But then, I’ll get up and make up a bed and feel like I’m virtuous.  But I’m not fooling myself.  I know what I’m doing.

That’s right.  Wherever you go, there you are.  So, how does Streetlight fit into all this for you?

When I first moved to Charlottesville, I met a writer who was involved with Streetlight, a literature and arts journal, and they needed an editor.  At the time, it was a hard copy magazine  Then, in 2008 with the crash, the printer who was donating fell through.  For a while, we went on a hiatus.

Then, (and this is where the old house once again came to the rescue), I had a writer in residency at Porches who was a web designer.  I said, “Hey, I’ll trade you some time at The Porches if you can set Streetlight up on a digital platform.” So, that’s how the magazine was able to reinvent itself.

Then, our editor-in-chief moved out of town and I was asked to step into the position. “Temporarily,” I said.  Well, cut to three/four years later, I’m still the editor-in-chief and loving it. We have a talented, dedicated volunteer staff.  Just recently we’ve added podcasts and we’re publishing an anthology of 2016.  You’ll be able to download it as an ebook or a hard copy.

hneader-imageThe magazine, I realize, shares a similarity to what we’ve been talking about with the retreat. And to Heartlands.  It’s about place. The power of place. The magazine especially likes pieces that have a strong sense of place. We are excited by writing with an emphasis on the interaction of place and one’s personal relationship to it.

This same idea is what I try to keep reminding myself in the writing of my memoir.  When I describe the three flights of steep stairs, the rattling hand-blown glass in the windows, the groans of the heart-pine floors, I struggle to make it like the material equivalent of my inner being, and how fixing what’s broken in the house, fixes what’s broken in me.

Fidget Spinners, Coffee Mugs, and the Hope of the Church 

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photo by Alzinous

What the church really needs for revival is to be socially relevant.  No, it all starts with a great music program.  Wait, we need a mission statement that’s clever and quippy.  How about a Bible study that offers applicable principles for everyday living?  Don’t forget the giveaway mugs!

There’s no end to prescriptions for turning around churches.  And there’s an element of truth to most of them (although I wouldn’t build a revival around coffee mugs!).  But if the main actor in the proposal isn’t God, then you haven’t started in the right place.

I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of advice that churches are given, (I’m sometimes the giver!), and usually underwhelmed by the amount of actual turn-around that happens as a result.  Most of our advice for church renewal stems from both an unwarranted belief in the quick fix and a deep anxiety about institutional survival.  But God knows we are called to something different.

Most of our advice for church renewal stems from both an unwarranted belief in the quick fix and a deep anxiety about institutional survival.  But God knows we are called to something different.

Our emphasis, as Virginia United Methodists, on deepening our practice of spiritual disciplines, begun under Bishop Cho, and Bishop Lewis’ current invitation to engage in daily Bible reading points in another direction.  God doesn’t need new techniques or slogans – God desires a people who have been claimed by Jesus Christ and whose identities are now inseparable form his.

God’s work is to transform us and the world.  The good news is that we get to participate in what God is doing.  If that’s true, there’s no room for our frenetic, anxious activity.  That’s what fidget spinners are for.

The good news is that we get to participate in what God is doing.  If that’s true, there’s no room for our frenetic, anxious activity.  That’s what fidget spinners are for.

Instead, we get to embody hope.  In a recent article in Faith and Leadership magazine, Allen T. Stanton says that’s something rural churches can offer to their communities – not because it’s a niche to be exploited, but because it’s who we are.  Churches should stand out because their identity is not grounded in the narratives of decay that afflict so many of our rural communities.

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Alex with Bishop Sharma Lewis

“In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural,” Stanton says. “While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.”

Why?  Because we know a risen Savior who has conquered sin and death.  Plus…somewhere around here I’ve got a mug that says that.

Writing at The Porches – An interview with Trudy Hale – part 2 of 3

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

In the first part of my interview with Trudy Hale, editor of Streetlight magazine and owner of The Porches writing retreat, we discussed the relationship she developed with a neglected farmhouse in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  In this segment, we talk about the writing.  (And all the ways we contrive not to.)

The Porches is such a healing place.  How has living there changed your writing?

Oh, that’s a great question.  Well, first of all, I have written more descriptively, or taken more time with description.  You have different craft elements, and writing descriptions for me is the most–I hate to use the word tedious—but there are other parts of the craft that I like, like the dialogue.  Just to stop and linger descriptively about the physical aspect of where the characters are, I find that I’m able to slow down more as I’ve been writing here, and to linger more, and to flesh out the bones of the story.  I have a tendency to kind of speed along the story, keep the pace going.  I’ve been able to, once I’ve been writing here, to say, “I need to linger here,” and be more concrete and let all the senses play out; taste, touch, smell.

IMG_6054But one thing that’s happened to my writing, too, is, because I’m so involved with the retreat, I sometimes find it harder to take longer periods of time to write, and this is something I’ve got to work on.  I enjoy doing the retreat so much, but sometimes I’d rather make up a writer’s bed–and I hated housework when I was growing up.  I hated domestic stuff.

I never enjoyed doing any kind of housework before, but making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams; and that’s an attitude that’s definitely changed in me.  But it also is something that I will–because I enjoy it–I’d rather do that sometimes than sit down and write.  You know how we do with writing–Resist it when it’s the very thing that sutures our soul back together.

Making up a writer’s bed brings me a certain amount of joy; turning the sheet down, and making the room up.  It’s almost like I’m making this room for someone who’s going to come here and create, dream dreams.

Yes.  You need a retreat other than yours.

I need a retreat from my retreat or better writing habits.  I have met so many wonderful writers and people.  It’s really enriched my life to have conversations about writing.  I used to socialize a lot more at the beginning of the retreat.  I’d have a glass of wine and hang out, but I realized, as time goes on, I have to focus on my writing.

Yes.  So, when you’re in your rhythm, what does that look like for you?  What does your writing process look like?

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Trudy Hale

I have to write in the morning.  I have to honor that time, and I’ve had to really fight, because there’s a part of me that wants to take care of the retreat first, or check all the emails.  And I have to become conscious–okay, you’re going to sit down and do the writing–because if you start checking the emails, you fall down the rabbit hole.  When I have that first cup of coffee, I say, “It’s not going to make any difference to whose ever email that you don’t get back to it ’til 11 o’clock instead of 9 o’clock.”

I have to have a very direct conversation with myself.  I go through runs.  I’ll establish a habit when it becomes easy because it’s a habit–like you get up, and exercise, and brush your teeth.  But then, I’ll have these times where I have taken a trip and it’s broken my rhythm, or I have some family crisis.  So, it’s a constant rededication to honoring that sitting down, and also not being judgmental, and keeping the faith, like, “Okay, maybe this morning I’m going to write a lot of stuff that’s not going to be used, or won’t be as good as I’d like it, and just put that aside and say ‘That’s okay.’”

So, a lot of it’s an inner dialogue with the self about the writing and the relationship with the writing, and it’s an ongoing relationship.  And there’s good days and there’s bad days.

But there’s nothing like it; that feeling when you’ve really gotten into it, and time…  I guess it’s like a musician or any artist.  It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there.  That feeling—there’s nothing like it; and it nourishes, it restores, it centers.  It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s like there’s no time.  It’s like you go in what they call the zone.  You know when you’ve gone there…It feels like I’m a stringed instrument and someone’s tuned me.

It’s great.  And if I go for too long a time without really honoring that writing time and writing, I get really kind of grumpy…just a little out of plumb.

In the third part of this interview we talk more writing and Trudy’s ongoing projects – Streetlight magazine and writing workshops.

 

What can the Rural Church Offer a Declining Community? Hope!

From the Faith & Leadership newsletter, an article by Allen T. Stanton:

“In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural. While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.”

https://www.faithandleadership.com/allen-t-stanton-what-can-rural-church-offer-declining-community-hope?utm_source=FL_newsletter&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=FL_feature

An Osage Mirror: A Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

 

Two-thirds of the way through this book [Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI] and I was fixing to get very disappointed.  Sure, David Grann had done what his title said that he was going to do.  He had thrown us into the strange wave of murders that plagued Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s.  Native people, newly enriched from headright sales of mineral rights, were dying mysteriously, violently, in great numbers.  Some nefarious plot was brewing and people were poisoned, shot, bombed, and thrown from trains.

Enter Agent Tom White and the new Bureau of Investigation, soon to be the FBI.  The upstanding law men, using a mix of Western savvy and modern scientific methods, cracked the case, identified the culprits, and brought them in.  By the end of the second part, or “chronicle” as this book has it, the climactic courtroom scene has happened and we are well into the wrap-up stories of where the principals ended up.  J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation has been solidified and he goes on to be a Washington institution.  Tom White becomes the warden of Leavenworth and later writes a book.  Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman at the center of the story, goes on to remarry.  “We’re clearly winding things up here,” I thought.

51Gk++yHGHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_So we had the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, as promised.  But, wait—did we really get that much about the Osage people and their culture?  And compelling as the storyline was, did it really end so cleanly?  What about all the loose ends?  The doctors who seemed not only incompetent but complicit?  The other deaths that seemed to have nothing to do with the man who was fingered?

It was then that I noticed that some 70 pages still remained and yet a third chronicle.  The story was about to get much better and much worse.

David Grann doesn’t linger over the big questions.  Like the Bureau men he clearly admires, Grann sticks to the facts.  Sometimes they are evocative facts, like the way the sun “floated above the rim of the earth—a perfect orange sphere that soon became half a sun, then a quarter, before dying off with a burst of dazzling light.”  But most of the time they are much more prosaic.

It keeps his story simple, which is a relief because there are a lot of characters to keep up with here.  The oil boom that made the Osage millionaires brought a lot of interests to Oklahoma.  The way that the Osage story fits into the larger narrative of how white America dealt with native peoples was complicated enough and full of prejudice and exploitation.  The system of guardianships that left mostly white men in charge of the wealth of the Osage (because the Osage were deemed incapable of managing it on their own) only compounded the problems.

So when the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.  Grann uses a Faulkner quote from Absalom! Absalom! to send us down into the abyss: “We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.”

When the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.

Maybe it’s because Grann really does feel that the people whose lives he is exploring are inexplicable that he lets Faulkner carry all the weight of what this all means.  He can’t fathom the horrors of a story that is not about one bad actor but a whole society.  He can’t begin to get at the psychological scars such a history produces.  He doesn’t have answers for the desolation he sees out on the depopulated prairie where this story unfolded.

So he does the responsible thing and just points.  Look at this.  Behold.  See if you can keep your innocence in the face of this story.  And all those facts from early in the book that seemed distant and quaint and made you think of the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s?  How distant and quaint do they seem now?  I helped you look at this.  You’ve got to look at us.

Grann does what he can and it is considerable.  This is historical journalism that resonates.

This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale, part 1 of 3

PorchesSummer500pxThere’s a great love story going on up in the Virginia foothills rolling up to the Blue Ridge.  Actually, there’s a bunch of them.  Every writer that finds his or her way to Trudy Hale’s writing retreat in the little village of Norwood discovers something to love.

I’ve got my list: The big stony bluff over the James River with the eagle circling overhead.  The regular hum and ring of coal cars carting West Virginia down to Newport News one trainload at a time.  The silence of a long hike along the Tye River where you can feel free to work out your deepest thoughts by hollering at the top of your lungs.

But I haven’t even mentioned the house, The Porches, with its double deck of porches overlooking the James.  The Porches–with its creaking wood, laden with memory and books, adorned with Trudy’s treasures from a life in Hollywood, the South, and points far beyond.  The Porches–which welcomes writers to days of silence and the holy struggle of finding words.  Or not.

Trudy

Trudy Hale

The real love story here is between Trudy Hale and the house.  Something I discovered when I asked her for some time to talk.  Trudy is a writer, teacher, and editor of Streetlight magazine, who also happens to own and love The Porches.  Trudy, in addition to being a great and generous conversationalist, has inspired me to keep this writing life alive.  In this 3-part interview we explore the house, the craft of writing, and how a place can change you.

[This post is a little longer than normal, but settle in.  It’s a wonderful story…]

So, Trudy, what possessed you to buy a farmhouse in Virginia off the Internet [and leave behind a writing life in Hollywood]?

Well, it wasn’t me that bought it originally.  It was my former husband who bought it in a manic episode.  He shot a miniseries in Richmond, and we always liked Virginia, and we were both from the South.  He was from Georgia and I was from Memphis.  But because of his bipolar, slowly the scripts stopped arriving at the door.

So, we thought, well, we really like the South.  You can get a lot for your money.  And while we were thinking, (we were selling our house in Topanga Canyon), he had a manic episode, and a very severe one.  He found this house at 3 a.m on the Internet, and I knew right away that it was not right for us.

But he was convinced.  He was determined to buy it.  And so, my daughter and I said, “We’ll fly down to Richmond, and we’ll go see it.”  We were sure that he would come to his senses and see that it was just very dilapidated and way out in the country, and wasn’t in Richmond or Charlottesville.  I really love Charlottesville, and that’s where I was trying to push him — west to Charlottesville from Richmond.

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Where the Tye meets the James

We come out here and look at the house, and he’s still manic.  At one point, he went out on the upstairs porch, and my daughter was filming him.  He has a big Panama hat and his plaid pajama pants that he was wearing.  Behind him, there’s this post with these black holes of rot.  He’s coming towards her, and she says, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?”  These tears came in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve come home.”

So, my daughter and I sat out on the porch, and when I looked out across the river valley, all of a sudden I just felt this…where my whole spine relaxed.  And there were different depths of the view — you had the foreground with the trees and then you had the river bottom and the river bluff.

It was something about the land that just drew me out of myself and calmed me.  And I thought, “Well, it’s not a bad place to land ’til I figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”  Because I had decided I could not live–we’d been married 25 years, and by the way, we’re very good friends.  I couldn’t just continue to go through these episodes.

So, he bought the house and I told him that I would move him and all the furniture to the house, and then I was going to look for me a place in Charlottesville.  We packed the dogs up and we moved.

Then, we get here and he is now in a full-blown clinical depression; and he sees the house, and he sees the holes in the wall.  We had bought it from this French artist, and she had put all these armoires and art posters to cover the big holes in the plaster.

She was an artist.  She never fixed the porch and she never did any renovation or maintenance to the house.  It was falling down around her ears.  In fact, they wouldn’t let the people go out on the porch for fear it would collapse, because it was in such bad shape.

But she painted murals.  She wouldn’t fix the porch or anything, but she would go around and paint the knobs of things, like little bird nests on knobs and little sunflowers.

We arrive, and my husband totally freaks out when he sees what he’s bought; and his wife is leaving him…threatening to leave.  He puts his bed in the dining room with all his boxes, and I put my bed upstairs in this room with this crazy wallpaper.  I think, ferns and plumes and…  Did you ever read the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?

No.

Okay.  What’s her name?  Perkins.  That’s it.  [Charlotte] Perkins Gilman.

Anyway, I slept in that room, but as he was lying in his bed and not getting out, I began to walk around.  I was so conflicted, because I would look at things and say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that was just painted?”  And the porch, and the being out in the country, the birdsong, and the river, and I’d take walks.  The house began to speak and she said, “I used to be beautiful.” To me.

I was really conflicted for many months.  I looked at other places. I got a real estate agent.  But I would think, “Well, we just need to paint, and we just need to…”  The house began to really cast a spell on me and seduce me.

The bottom line was I couldn’t live with him anymore.  So, instead of me moving, I said, “Let’s find you an apartment.  I would like to stay here and fix the house up.”  At some point along this thing of me being seduced and falling in love with the house, I said, “I’d like to start an artist colony.”  Because I thought I really couldn’t justify living in such a big house by myself, or afford it, really, and all the repairs.  So, that’s the birth of The Porches.

Wow.

old barn_thru_windowSo, he moved to Charlottesville, and we saw friends and went out.  And after five years, he moved back to California to be closer to our kids.  So, Alex, what’s interesting is—it was a curse.  I thought, “Oh, my God.  My life is just falling apart.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was walking around in this ruin, way out in the country, totally isolated, no friends out here, all my friends and my kids back in California, and I was a wreck for a long time.

I was in tremendous torment, and the house seemed like a curse.  And even when I’d walk up to the third floor and all the plaster was falling down, and I was cursing the fact that there was a third floor, because that meant more rooms that we had to fix up or block off…ultimately, it became the greatest gift, because I would have never had the courage, being in California, to think, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this antebellum house down on the James and start a writer’s’ retreat.”  What seemingly were the ruin of a marriage and a financial disaster just turned into the greatest gift for me.

What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a memoir that focuses on how I ended up coming to this house.  But it’s really about living and loving a person who has bipolar and that relationship—how much it gives you and how hard it is.  All the pain, and all the joy, too.  And oftentimes, people who do have that illness are very creative people.

And the house does become a character, in a way.  I mean, it’s like as I began to love this house back to life, I was able to love myself and reinvent myself after this very difficult marriage.  And it’s like a house becomes this–I wouldn’t say an alter ego—but it’s like a friend or mentor to me.

And we were able to restore ourselves together.

Wow.

You see it’s like a pebble in a pond, because it starts to reverberate.  And first, you land in this place, it’s like you’ve landed on the moon.  And then, part of gaining my sanity was to reach out and see who was in the land, what was the community; make connections, because I felt so untethered.  When I began to write about that–now, this is the irony–it’s like I got too far away from the house in the writing.  And somehow–here come the villagers–and the energy kind of went–

You were diluting the love story between you and the house.

That’s great!   That’s what happened!  That is what happened.  I left the love story, and the love story of me and the house.

[Part 2 – Writing at the Porches]

 

Dismantle Confederate Memorials? Let’s Build Some Different Ones

16301481_BG1A Robert E. Lee monument is dismantled in New Orleans.  A torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protect another one.  A lieutenant governor candidate in Virginia calls for removing all Confederate memorials and renaming all highways and buildings named for Confederate leaders.

William Faulkner had it right.  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

But the effort to erase the memorials to a shameful part of our history may not be as helpful as its supporters imagine.  A past submerged is not a past resolved.  What we need is more memory – not less.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu got a lot of deserved attention this week for his eloquent defense of the decision to remove four memorials.  He said:

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

Landrieu lamented the prominent place that these memorials had in the city, the way they defined the city’s landscape and imposed a narrative about who was in control.

All of this is true.  My white ancestors, who no doubt were part of the masses who contributed to the erection of these memorials in courthouse lawns and city squares across the South, felt a need to honor the sacrifice of the dead and to give meaning to the senseless suffering of the Civil War.  But there was a lot left unsaid – ugly things about the senseless suffering of enslaved people and the continuing ideology of white supremacy.

And yet…have we really moved to a new level of discussion and engagement if we simply move the stones?  That’s the easy part and it is functionally destructive.  Where is the constructive counterpart?

Landrieu noted this:

Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

I know the Lee monument in Charlottesville.  It stands in front of the downtown United Methodist Church and we used to gather around it for the Palm Sunday celebration – something that always seemed like a perversion of the message of the day.  Unless the waving palms were an act of defiance of death-dealing powers, a connection we never openly made.

I imagine a new act of art in such places.  What if, lining the looming boxwoods that surround that memorial, there were new statues turned toward the general on his horse in various stages of reaction?  White and black, 19th century and 21st century, stunned, appalled, weeping, wondering, saluting, casting stones?  What if we commissioned a flurry of such works that would transform these old works from hagiography to conversation?

Perhaps the work of Michael Mergen, a photographer reflecting on memory and place, should get more prominence.

These old monuments deserve our attention because they are offensive.  Some of them should go.  But I can’t help feeling there should be more.