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By the time I was a freshman in college, my Dad had been dismissed from the position of Senior Pastor at four separate churches. This is a hard fact for me to admit. It was even harder living through it. But I did, and miraculously, so did my faith. A few years ago, I started trying to write a book about how it all happened but it’s turned out to be much harder writing than I ever expected. And yet I believe I’m called to do it. Saying it that way sounds so pious to me, but I know no other way to say it. I don’t always believe it either, but there have been a few holy awakenings scattered along the path which help remind me of the truth.
The most recent began on a weekend last September, during Hutchmoot.
John and I were sharing a vacation house with three other couples and ended up sleeping in the kids’ room on separate twin beds. There was a skylight directly above my head, and just before the sun rose that morning, it began raining. I’m a light sleeper, so the steady drizzle woke me up. I lay on the bed watching raindrops splash, scurry, and drag down the glass, and I thought about an assignment we’d been given the day before, during a planning meeting with the rest of the Hutchmoot staff.
We were discussing an upcoming storytelling session. The idea was to open up the floor and let people share their stories, but in case everyone shied away from the microphone, a few of us were to have a tale in our back-pockets ready to go. To stay casual, the stories were supposed to be lighthearted and funny. Well, that certainly limits my participation, I thought to myself, and in my head the voice of Anne Shirley concurred, “I prefer to make people cry.”
Though I knew I wouldn’t be participating in the storytelling session, it was early morning and I was in a house full of sleeping friends with nothing else to do, so I silently readied a familiar sad story knowing that for the time being it would go no further than the walls of our room. An hour passed while I thought of two more stories and a way to connect all three pieces together. Hmm, I thought, maybe that’ll be an essay someday. Then, right before I got out of bed and started the day, a possible title, originating from a familiar Bible passage, popped into my head.
A few weeks after Hutchmoot, I was working on my memoir in a burst of inspiration. I’d finished a couple of chapters when that germ of a title, no longer content to stay in its essay jar, popped up its head again. It gradually floated to the top of the page where my book outline lived, and I decided it might work as the title for my book, but I never shared it with a soul. Later on, I typed out the Bible verses containing the title, which I envisioned as the epigraph, onto a fresh, blank page.
Months passed and my initial writing fervor began to wane. The stories I’ve shared in the book can be emotionally taxing to revisit, so there are times when I’ve had to step back from it for a while. Then there are other times when the writing seems to be going well, but my family needs my attention, so I have to climb down from the mountains of my memory, and it can take a few days to gather the time and energy required for a return trek.
When I back away for too long, I begin questioning the value of the writing. I sometimes see myself as an archaeologist and wonder what I it is I’m hoping to find underneath all the dirt from my past. What if there’s really nothing down there, I ask myself. What if you dig and dig and dig and still come up empty-handed? Isn’t it best to leave some things buried? Part of me wants to say yes, and lay this shovel down, but on Memorial Day, God reminded me that my life is his story and he wants me to understand it as much as possible. Even if no one else ever reads it, even if I dig up the same old bones as every other writer, he’s put the shovel in my hand, so the best thing I can do is keep digging.
It was Memorial Day weekend when God woke me up again, quite literally this time, and called me back to the writing of my book. I was staying with my parents while my husband and eldest child had gone to Beach Camp. It was Sunday. No one had to rush off to work, and the kids were sleeping in. Though my awakening was startled and sudden, the house was completely quiet. I awoke with a vivid memory that I felt compelled to write down. The timing of this particular memory didn’t make sense to me, but the compulsion to write about it was familiar enough that I obeyed and pulled out my laptop. The scene in my head was a sad one: I was barely fourteen and we were moving to a new church in a new town. I didn’t want to relive it, but I knew it was a scene that belonged in my book, so I took it down as best I could. I mourned as I wrote; twenty-year-old tears rose to the surface, anxious for release. It was cathartic, but it also left me feeling raw.
I got ready for church, hoping the feeling would fade, but as I put on my sundress, I began to feel self-conscious about the tattoos it made visible, which would be seen by everyone in Mom and Dad’s small Baptist church. An old, familiar need—impressing church people so they would like Daddy—resurfaced. To make matters worse, it was the Sunday before Memorial Day; Dad was sure to pull out his patriotic script, and I was sure to feel twelve years old again. Then there were my kids, who aren’t exactly used to traditional Sunday mornings and were acting whiney. Honestly, I can’t believe we even made it to the church without having a major fight on the way.
We sang hymns I didn’t remember, and for the most part the kids sat quietly. No one stared at my tattoos, at least not that I could see. Then the kids were dismissed and Dad took the stage. His liturgy continued in its usual manner for about fifteen minutes, and then it happened. It was an aside, not part of the main message at all, perhaps even thrown in on the fly, but Dad alluded to my passage, the one I’d written down months before as my epigraph, and then he actually spoke aloud the three words I’d chosen for the title of my book.
I’m not ready to share that title yet, but what Dad said next was just as wonderful. “It’s good to remember things,” he told the small crowd, and my eyes filled with tears. It was one of those rare moments when none of the tears spilled over and onto my cheeks, but their very presence served as witness, to me, of a holy encounter.
“We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…” says Annie Dillard in the first essay of her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and I’m struck by the possibility that I spend most days wakened only in the physical aspect of my being, while my spirit slumbers on inside me. What does it take for these Lazarus ears to hear? How many times must Jesus call out my name, and why can’t I make it through the rest of my days, without doubting the reality of his voice? Behold my microscopic faith.
Yet, God mercifully continues to call. May the eyes of my heart flutter open just in time; may the full weight of his gaze falling directly onto me be itself the sun that wakes my spirit for eternity.