Sitting Beneath the Michigan Tree: Back at the Festival of Faith & Writing

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Kwame Alexander opening the Festival of Faith & Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.

Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.

His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”

I needed that.

This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.

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 The Michigan Tree & Me

I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.

I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.

So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.

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Downtown Grand Rapids

I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.

The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.

There is power in words. And beauty. And life.

And God.

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Coming Off Leave(s)

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photo by Scott Webb via Unsplash

Leaves don’t so much change color in the fall as they become what they’ve always been.  The chlorophyll that gives all deciduous trees their summer uniform of green begins to break down in the cooling days of autumn.  The carotenoids in the leaves remain, lending trees their brilliant yellows and oranges.  Those colors have always been there, they are just revealed in the retreat  of the chlorophyll.

I believe I have experienced a little of the wisdom of trees in my own leave, which comes to an end with October’s arrival.  Over this time, I have allowed the identity of my role as a clergy person to draw back and underneath I discovered colors I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Of course, that clergy role is not like a coat that is shed.  In fact, it’s more like a brand burned in by an iron.  But it’s not all that I am.

Who I discovered on this journey is a little of the boy who used to follow his instincts with a nagging sense that they made him somewhat strange and unfit for normal society.  Lo, these many years since, I found that boy charming and needlessly burdened.  He was on to something that I still need.

fullsizeoutput_18a2So, on this renewal leave, I wrote like that boy, who would come home each day and tap fantastical stories at his father’s Selectric typewriter.  I wandered the small town of Archer City, Texas like that boy wandered his own home town, fascinated by the people whom he met and wanting to get the mystery and wonder of the place somehow into words.

I sang along to Tennessee Ernie Ford gospel songs with a 70-something cowgirl late into the night in her West Texas garden festooned with strings of light and a bright pink rifle.  I ate dinners with friends who, amazingly, are still good friends years after leaving Dallas.  I took a road trip with Suzanne back through the heart of the country staying ahead of a hurricane.  I explored the desert and the prairie.  I stayed with a cousin who told me family history I had never heard.  I heard more from my father as we shared a few nights in his hospital room.  I worshipped in a Latino church, a cowboy church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  I talked with shop owners in East Jerusalem, walked miles through Bethlehem, and floated in the Dead Sea.

The boy loved such adventures and moments as these.

But about that wisdom of trees…

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photo by Matthew Payne via Unsplash

Once I had a revelation under a tree.  I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I had just attended a session with the great poet and memoirist Mary Karr.  She told about a spiritual director who got her out of a stuck place by asking the question, “What would you write about if you weren’t afraid?”

I left the session and went out to sit under a spruce in the April sun.  I opened my journal and asked the same question.  As clearly as I have ever heard God speak in my life I heard three things: “Be free.  Tell the truth.  Don’t do it alone.”

I strive for these things, but I tasted them more fully in the leave.  I glimpsed the colors that had been muted by the drive to produce and the wholly worthy work of turning energy into sustenance, which is the work of chlorophyll.

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr talks about the journey into the second half of life as a kind of search for authenticity.  He sees our stumbling forward to understand life as “a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves,’ for something more, or what I will call ‘homesickness.’”  I understand that desire and it is a kind of rediscovery with acceptance—a knowing that the people we have been in the past are the people God has made us to be, but we have never fully received that gift.  I trust, as I return, that the colors will remain and that the boy will flourish yet.

How to write with words you use all the dang time – a review of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir

51YojI74IoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_“At the nadir of my confidence as a writer, I despaired of ever finishing Lit. I considered selling my apartment to give the advance money back. Then a Jesuit pal asked me, quite simply, What would you write if you weren’t afraid? I honestly didn’t know at first. But I knew finding the answer would unlock the writing for me.”

When I heard Mary Karr tell this story at a writing festival in 2008 it marked a turning point for me.  I left the session where she said this, went straight out to sit under a tree on the Calvin College campus, and wrote that question on a page of my journal – What would you write if your weren’t afraid?  I’m not ashamed to say that it was God’s voice that I was transcribing on those pages for the next two hours.  It’s still the most important question I’ve ever been asked.

Now Mary Karr has put the question to paper herself in 2015’s The Art of Memoir to help other writers hoping to find a more honest, authentic voice.  Critics have accused Karr of just slapping together notes from her MFA classes at Syracuse to produce this book, but I found it to be a very useful deep dive into the craft of writing and the process of coming to know oneself.  Plus, she’s one of the funniest writers I know, so the ride was great.

Karr was one of the progenitors of the modern memoir trend with her 1995 book, The Liar’s Club.  She followed that one up with two more memoirs — Cherry and Lit.  Each of them is rich with detail and heart, chronicling her journey from a hard-scrabble childhood in an East Texas oil town with a artistic but unbalanced mother and a somewhat distant father to her unlikely emergence from alcoholism to Roman Catholicism.  Every one was a gem.

Those books made memoir-writing look easy, almost too easy.  But this book reveals the really difficult work that produced them.  Karr pushes for a voice that is unconcerned for appearances and willing to go into the midst of tragedy.  “Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened,” she says, “there’s suffering involved.”

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Mary Karr

Karr also helped me understand why some memoirs just don’t work.  “A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else—nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s.”  Take note, Bill Clinton!  “For the vast majority of writers, we’re better off with simpler vocabulary—the shorter, often monosyllabic ”  OK.  That one’s for me.

Karr has convinced me that there are treasures to be mined in our stories, (not that I needed much convincing).  “I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking [of a memory] to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk,” she says, “how did so much fit into such a small space?” Lately, I’ve been using a memoir exercise as a way to feel my into other writing.  It’s a time-consuming, emotionally-exhausting exercise.  But rich.

I highly recommend this one.  It’s practical, deep, and very easy to read.  And I’m thanking Mary once again for opening the door to more.

Humor & Theology at the Chemo Pump – A Review of Cancer is Funny

My review of Jason Micheli’s Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo [Fortress Press, 2016] is now up on the great Englewood Review of Books.  Full disclosure: Jason is one of the pastors I work with in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and I was on one of his recent podcasts of Crackers & Grape Juice – a real labor of love by pastors who love theology. Jason also maintains the Tamed Cynic blog.

But on to the review:

Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know.  The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny.  Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix)  This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.  Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive.  Plus, too, he’s funny.

417jI57h4TLI can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press.  Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting.  Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men).  A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.

This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.

A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer.  She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding itjason-briscoe-223974—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework.  In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated.  “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)

“The assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power…Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”

In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book.  Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines.  (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value.  When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.

The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here.  He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch.  The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.

Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body.  I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional.  But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.

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Jason Micheli

Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era.  In Karr’s The Art of  Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice.  “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.”  And this means digging down beneath the pretty.

Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book.  But he values the rawness he has experienced.  His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)

This is a searing book.  The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain.  But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto.  Not ‘ha ha’ joy.  But life for sure.  It’s a journey worth taking with him.