Friday, December 6, 2013

NaNoWriMo: I Did That is an organization that runs writing workshops for youth. Their title event is the National Novel Writing Month, run every November. You sign up and commit to churning out a 50,000 word first draft of a brand-new, never-before-worked-on novel.

So, I did that. I did it for the reason I put down in my NaNo Author Info page:

When I was small, I thought that authors were like gods, generating full-fledged books straight from their minds, like Athena born from the head of Zeus. Then I noticed that some books are very very badly written, and while it shattered my worldview, it meant that authors are human and with hard work and luck, I too could be an author someday.

I'm participating this year because I have a fear that hitting 30 without seriously working on a novel will mean that I'm not actually a writer but just an ordinary working stiff. I turn 30 in December. The challenge is on.

It was not difficult. I created an outline in October, bought a battery-powered word processor for $10 on eBay, and typed like a lunatic during my commute to and from work every day in November. I wrote on the computer while the baby was napping on the weekends. I wrote by hand in the bathtub. And on November 28th, I hit the 50k mark, and paused for a breather.

Emotionally, it's been a little difficult. In the wake of a sudden death in the family, things are strained at home. Revisting many of the lowest points of my childhood for this writing project left me drained, and struggling to keep upbeat and to maintain order in household containing a grieving spouse and tantruming toddler.

But it's satisfying. This is a creative process that parallels my work as an interior designer, from concept to design development to revision and documentation. The pace and phases are familiar and I'm confident that, writing skills and experience aside, the process itself is something I can go through. And five years as a designer has taught me that nearly all the work is revision, and that it's so, so much better to delete the things you loved last week than to hang onto them when they no longer fit your design purpose.

Writing fiction for anyone else's viewing is terrifying to me. A friend who knew about NaNo demanded an elevator pitch, and I froze in place. It's too embarrassing. Everyone has a very bad novel kicking around in her head. I don't want anyone to know I'm one of the everyones. I come up with concepts, create outlines, start writing, tell no one, and get nowhere. NaNo's community and public accountability swept me up and carried me to the first goal.

So I'm putting my synopsis here, because it's time for accountability and concrete commitment, instead of crawling inside of a closet or dresser drawer to write. Don't worry; I won't be posting excerpts here. But I am going to put my goals and progress out for the world to see. The first goal: reach the end of December fully prepped to begin the first revision on January 1st.

"Corey, Someplace Else" takes place in a re-imagined Appalachia, charting the emergence of the title character from his family's cycle of abuse and his exploration of the beautiful and complex world beyond the gates of his trailer park. This YA novel is in the magical realism genre, with a Southern Gothic sensibility.

In the rural town of Culmore Cove, 17-year-old Corey Ellison leaves his mentally ill father and moves in with a pair of austere great-aunts. He explores their century-old farmhouse and finds ghosts and memories inside. When he takes a summer job with a renovation company, Corey puts his second sight to use, identifying properties that carry good memories and those that are haunted by a bad past. He spends his days with a ghost and turns a critical eye on his old friends. As his abilities increasingly disconnect him from the world, Corey reevaluates family roles and the happiness and suffering that are part of living with others. In this hot, lush Tennessee summer, Corey will encounter deadbeat gods, monster catfish, ghosts of the Cherokee, and the night-stalking Wampus cat, and come to terms with the probability that he won't make it to autumn alive.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Montgomery County Public Schools, Eid, and Religious Expression

My grandmother told me how, growing up in Augusta, GA in the '30s and '40s, school was extended to Saturday mornings. She said that it was done to make the Jewish students truant. I don't know the accuracy of this, but it's not implausible motivation for a school system that started each day with a chorus of "Dixie" while saluting the Confederate flag.

Her story was about a system that was created in order to exclude a special population. This week, there's a story making the rounds about a request to change an existing system to accommodate a special population. Parents of Muslim children in Montgomery County Public Schools would like the school system to recognize the holy day of Eid in the same way that the most important Christian and Jewish holy days are recognized: by shutting the schools so that families can perform religious observances together. Read the story here:

The Montgomery Village Patch
WAMU coverage
ABC coverage

WAMU states that while standardized tests are not administered in Montgomery County schools while Muslim students are home observing Eid, other routine exams and quizzes are given.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Writing Exercise Generators

I'll be a world-famous novelist some day. Got a story kicking around. I'll get it down on paper eventually. It's a million-dollar story, and if it weren't for this writer's block it would be done by now. Going to be the next Harry Potter, I tell you. There just hasn't been enough time to get it written, is all. But one day!


Okay, I'm not holding my breath for a movie deal. But I'm knocking the rust off of the cogs in my brain and using the bits of time I do have free to write like a maniac. I spent five minutes staring at a blank page last week, got mad, and made up a list of topics. Then I used a random number generator to select which topics I'd write on. I find I get into the swing of it about forty-five seconds before running out of time.

Update: I've committed to NaNoWriMo and split the generator into two. The outline/plot generator is to help you tinker with your ideas and look at them from a new direction. The scene generator consists of unspecific prompts that can be interpreted in many different ways, to suit your novel. Keep mashing the button until you come up with relevant prompts, or make up your own list. If you leave a comment with a good suggestion, I'll update the list!

Here is the outline/plot generator list:

1. Outline of the story in 15 lines
2. Outline of the story in 7 lines
3. Summary of the story in 3 lines
4. Summary of the story in 10 words or fewer
5. A description of the most critical setting, and why it is critical
6. A description of the most significant physical object in the story
7. The (emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) takeaway
8. The method you will use to communicate the (emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) takeaway
9. How you are worried that the (emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) takeaway might be missed or misinterpreted by the reader, or contradicted by your own writing
10. A description of the main character's biggest obstacle to overcome (or be overcome by), in 1 line
11. A description of the main character's biggest obstacle to overcome (or be overcome by), in 4 lines
12. A list of five events, characters, or themes that you had planned on putting into the story, but which don't fit seamlessly right now
13. Something you know, but which your main character doesn't know
14. The most unpleasant thing that happens in the story
15. The most pleasant thing that happens in the story
16. What the main character wants most at the beginning and at the end of the story
17. What someone else wants most for the main character
18. Describe the kind of reader who would like this story
19. Describe the tone of the story
20. How does it all end? Summarize the conclusion in 2 lines

Here is the scene generator list:

1. The opening paragraph (an alternate opening paragraph if you've already written one)
2. The closing paragraph (an alternate closing paragraph if you've already written one)
3. Introduction of a primary character
4. Introduction of a minor character
5. A character finds something funny
6. A scene that contains an animal
7. Something that happens late at night
8. A near miss
9. A conversation in which the truth is not being told
10. A character's desires are fulfilled
11. Something is not as expected
12. A character performs a new task
13. A character enters a new environment
14. A character settles into something comfortable
15. Something is given up on
16. There is a new plan
17. There is a lost temper
18. Something familiar is different
19. Something is broken
20. Something is found

The Way of Light Wreath

We just received our Way of Light Wreath. This is a spiral candle holder that holds 24 candles, one for each day of Advent. There is a figurine of Mary on a donkey that winds to the center of the wreath as each day is marked.

There are two extension pieces that transform the spiral into a holder for 40 candles. There is a figurine of Jesus to mark the journey from the beginning of Lent to the cross.

 The wreathes are handmade in Canada by a young man named Caleb Voskamp. His mother blogs here. And the wreath can be ordered here.
The wood is beautiful and aromatic. The piece is warm and organic, made with care by human hands.

This is Sophia's second Christmas, but the first one she'll be really aware of. We are looking forward to introducing our daughter for the first time to the cycle of the Church: Anticipation, longing, waiting, following Christ as he moves to the center of our lives.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Madonna and Child and Me: Breastfeeding in Church

It was a lovely sanctuary, golden and glittering, and Sophia charmed the people sitting around us by bouncing up and down in the pew to get a view of the altar. She gabbled during the Creed and crowed during the Alleluia. At the Passing of the Peace, all the little old ladies smiled and told us she was sweet. We kept the hymnal out of reach, but the family in front of us wasn't as quick, and their little one removed #631 and tried to eat it before they could pry the book from her hands. When Mass ended, a middle-aged man came up from where he'd been sitting far behind us.

"Are you new here?" he asked. Ah! How familiar. At Memorial, this is the point where we would be asked if we had just moved to town, and did we have a church, and would we like to grab lunch somewhere, and just say the word if we need anything, anything at all.

"We're from out of town," my mother-in-law said. "We're visiting."

"I have to tell you I was shocked by what I saw today," the man said. "Just shocked. You know, there are women's rooms for that kind of thing." He breathed heavily, huffing and puffing with rage. After a moment of silent confusion, we all realized that he was talking about how, during the homily, when Sophia started to cry, I took out a giant wrap and fed her beneath it. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

I Can't Blame the Schools

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Czech minister had to explain that Czechs and Chechens are not the same people.

Boy, whatta buncha maroons, I thought, and chalked it up to public education. But then I remembered a conversation I had with a Border Patrol agent who I may or may not be related to, and who may or may not have received the same education from the same person that I did. Here's a rough recreation of that conversation:

“Most of the people who cross the border are coming up from Mexico or from countries south of Mexico, but we get people from all over the world who cross here because it’s the least-secure border. Last month we had to process a Roma, and that was really hard because none of us speak Romanian.”

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Voyage of the SBC Galley

All the Baptists were bobbing along in rickety little rowboats, paddling toward Heaven. The folks in some of the rowboats looked around and said,

"We could get to Heaven more efficiently if we got together in a bigger, stronger boat."

So they built a galley ship and called it the Southern Baptist Convention. The leaders of the new group fitted out a first-class section where they held meetings and planned the course of their voyage. For a while, women and slaves sat in chains below and rowed, but then a Union ship overtook the SBC, fought a bloody battle with the crew, and set the slaves loose. The women kept rowing and the ship made good time, until it passed by the Isle of Secular Society during an election year and got caught in a swirling eddy. Round and round the SBC went in a great slow circle, and more and more of the women rowing the boat got fed up with sitting in bilge water and jumped ship.

Just when the crew of the SBC had gotten used to the eddy, the eddy got sick of them and spat them back into the open seas. So they looked out over the rails and watched the other boats, some big and some small, some sailing alone and some in fleets, some taking on water and some zipping ahead. "We'll make better time if we hoist our sails and catch the wind," the crew said, so they pulled out the rigging and untangled it. But they had tossed the Boy Scouts overboard, and no one who remained could tie a knot.

And the ship rowed slowly on.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Mute Button

The minister of music was waiting impatiently and he let me know it. He wondered how long it would take for God to send him his wife, his helpmate, the woman who would support him for the rest of his life. This is the kind of small talk young people engage in at church mixers. I was at a reception following a crummy lecture on Gnosticism and Dan Brown, a lecture preceded by fifteen minutes of slick, percussion-heavy praise and worship before the presenter came out, adjusted his casual button-down shirt, and opened with the line "Leonardo da Vinci was this guy who lived about a thousand years ago."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Our Mother Understands Children

A joint post by Ouisi & Dave

Hey. You didn't respond to my text.

You sent a text? Hang on. . . oh crap. "Send response by noon." Well, that didn't happen.

Help me out here. I'm going to write about some of the things that makes Mom such a great parent.

Um, panic. My brain just went completely blank.

Okay, I'll start. One thing our home was defined by was a lack of electronic clutter. I grew up without constant TV and radio and other entertainment. Patrick grew up with that: all the time, at least two things turned up loud, and with nobody really paying attention to it. The multimedia was background noise. We both wanted to create a quiet home for our family where it's easy to focus and feel peaceful.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I'm Not Listening to You

I know I get on your nerves. From where you're sitting, I'm an inexperienced, impractical, unbiblical bleeding-heart liberal, yes? I reckon I know just how I look to you, because twelve years and 600 miles ago that chair you're sitting in was mine.

You are brave. I'll give you that. Or maybe "brash" is a better term. You know that your opinions are unpopular around here and you keep sharing them with pride. Not me. I sit and keep my mouth shut, for "Christian unity" and for that feeling of enlightened superiority I get when I just smile and cock my head at you. Each of us thinks that the other is concerned with the wrong thing.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Friday, April 26, 2013

Stuck at the Kids' Table

We are planning a family vacation to Virginia Beach. Patrick and I have gone twice before as a couple, and once on the Marymount Campus Ministry retreat. I remember two big houses up on stilts, the men in one with the priests, the women in the other: a giggling house full of unsupervised undergrads piled up on couches and spilling across the floor, doing each other's nails and yelling about sand in the bathtub.

The ministry leaders scheduled a full weekend of discussion. The sexes were split up so that they would have a safe forum-- so that they would feel like they could speak freely. The men's discussions were led by priests and the women's discussions were led by students. The women’s group talked about how hard it was not to gossip, and the men’s group talked about how hard it was not to masturbate. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Annoying Song of the Week: fun. "Some Nights"

Okay, new feature: we share our most hated earworms with you, because malice is more fun than misery.

The band: fun. 
The song: "Some Nights" 
The part that is currently playing in an endless loop in our brains:
"Oh-oh! Oh oh whoa-oh! Oh oh whoa-oh oh-oh!"

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Egg and He

For six years I worked as a sales associate at Agape Bears, a small business owned by my good friend Betty. She curated a wonderful collection of stuffed toys and artist bears, and now that the storefront is closed, she continues to sell down the inventory from her website and plans on spending more time working on her own bears.
This is a story about a strange encounter that I had when Patrick and I had just moved into an apartment at Ballston, a few blocks from the bear store. I never did adjust to the new commute to work; I would think "it’s only six blocks" and then dawdle at home, instead of thinking "I have to walk six blocks instead of getting dropped off at the mall by the bus."

It got worse a couple of years later, when I didn’t adjust to the extra time needed when I was pregnant, and couldn’t walk quickly because of the ligament pain in my sides. But this morning I told myself "it’s only six blocks," and stayed home long enough to boil a couple of eggs instead of grabbing my usual packet of instant oatmeal.

I had just discovered soft-boiled eggs. My mother’s cooking method is to put something on the stove, wander away, and come back when the smoke alarm goes off, so I didn’t have an egg that had boiled less than fifteen minutes until I was in my twenties. This morning I soft-boiled two eggs, ate one, and considered the other for a moment before wrapping it in a paper towel, stowing it in my backpack, and trotting down the road.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Godwin's Writing Assignment

A high school teacher in Albany, NY gave 10th grade students the assignment to write an argument paper, using Nazi propaganda, describing why Jews were evil and to blame for German social problems. Here's the conversation my husband and I had about the assignment.

Ouisi: Okay, I think what's happening here is that this is a college-style thought assignment. In college people learn how to think. But this assignment was given to high school students in a public school, where people are used to the teachers telling them what to think. They aren't expecting to have to think critically and examine deep moral problems. Maybe it's the right assignment and the wrong group of people.

Patrick: This is an English class. It would make more sense in a History class, but this may be part of the teacher's attempt to draw connections between the different disciplines.

Ouisi: If we don't examine things like German nationalism closely, we can keep evil far away from us, foreign and alien, and not learn to recognize it in our own culture and in ourselves. So it is a good assignment.

Patrick: It's too close. Nazi Germany is too recent. The teacher should have picked something from further back in time--

Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Child, the Existential Philosopher

Mommy: What are we going to wear for our play date with Mr. Elias, Sophia?

Sophia: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

Mommy: How about this polka dotty pant and bodysuit set?

Sophia: "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit."

Mommy: Hey, what's this? It's the Ralph Lauren romper we found at the thrift store for five dollars! It's classic! It's adorable! Does it still fit? Hang on--

Sophia: "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun."

Mommy: It does fit! Ruffled tights. . . and a cotton Janie & Jack shirt with gathered cuffs. . . Look at you! You are so cute!

Sophia: Hrrrrrrrrrrrng.

Mommy: Oh, look. You just shot poop right out the back of your diaper and four inches up your back.

Sophia: "The best laid schemes of mice and men/ Go often awry,/ And leave us nothing but grief and pain,/ For promised joy!"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Rowan County Defense of Religion Act

On Tuesday, April 2nd, Carl Ford and Harry Warren, North Carolina representatives for Rowan County, put forth House Joint Resolution 494, the "Rowan County Defense of Religion Act." Here is the pertinant portion of the resolution:

SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

Cue the hysterics. National news agencies report this as an attempt to establish a state religion, but according to Charlotte news site, this bill is a bit of braggadocio, a reaction against an ACLU lawsuit that attempts to bar the Rowan County commissioners from starting their meetings with a prayer to Dear Lord Baby Jesus.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Enemy Lines

It means a lot that he called. I missed it-- left my cell phone at home, and Patrick picked up, which is a relief. It's not a conversation I was ready to have.

There wouldn't have been an apology if he was a fundamentalist preacher instead of a Catholic priest, I'm certain. There wouldn't have been an "I used words I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry." There would have been an "I'm sorry you interpreted what I said other than the way I meant it. I'm sorry your feelings were hurt, but I was only speaking the truth."

I think that fundamentalists don't understand how words work.

If I'd been home to answer the phone, I would have gulped and said that it was a poor choice of words, and that I was glad that afterward he thought of us, sitting halfway down the huge sanctuary at the cathedral, and that yes, it did upset me to hear those things said about non-Catholic Christians, and that while I know we'll never agree on the matter, if he wants to sit down informally some time, as a friend and a mentor instead of as the priest at the pulpit, and try to tease the idea apart, maybe we would both learn something that we needed to know.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Saturday Living, Part III

At the Easter Vigil, people will gather after sunset and stand with candles in the dark. They will sing the Litany of the Saints. They will call the names of the dead and ask them, "Pray for us." It's a call for help: we aren't enough on our own. It's a profession of love: we don't want to be without you. It's a statement of faith: we know that you are not lost.

There at the tipping point between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, between darkness and light, decay and rebirth, abandonment and adoption, people will gather together in faith that it's about to get better. People will gather in faith that God changes everything. They will read each other the story of how God threw God's own self down from Heaven, took on a messy, breakable human life, and set to work rescuing us. 

The story of how Christ chose the rough and loudmouthed and greedy to spread his way of gentleness and meekness and contentment.

The story of how Christ saw that our Scripture and Laws needed to be cleaned like an old rug, and he brought them out into the light and beat the grit and the bugs out of them, and gave them back to us bright and beautiful and useful. 

The story of how Christ looked at things they way they are, and it made him cry.

The story of how Christ loved us so much that he became one of us. And how it didn't work out.

Just like it doesn't work out for us. 

And it had a sad ending.

Just like our stories do.

But after the ending, the story kept going. How strange is that? The God who left us showed up and promised that he would never leave. It's not a story with a happy ending-- it's a story that doesn't end.

So every year we loop back around, following the cycle of promise, of birth, of ministry, of betrayal, of death, and of resurrection. Somewhere in there, we believe, the world is getting fixed. Somehow, we believe, our loop of birth and death gets broken and straightened out, and the lost are found, and the hungry are full, and the people who were gone so long before we were born are right next to us.

Someday, Saturday tips over into Sunday and we never go back.

Saturday Living, Part II

In the National Gallery of Art, there is a series of five panels by Benvenuto di Giovanni, showing the events of Holy Week. The fourth depicts Christ in Limbo, that extra place where early Christian philosophers felt it necessary to stick the dead who couldn't reach Heaven but didn't deserve Hell. According to Peter, on Holy Saturday Christ was liberating the dead from the underworld. All the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, all the holy pagans and those faithful who died without seeing the fulfillment of God's Kingdom, lay waiting for Christ to come to their rescue, smash down the gates of Hades, and lead them out into the light of Heaven. So here, di Giovanni shows Christ at the opening of a cavern, the waiting dead crowded up at the entrance, eagerly reaching out to touch their savior. The gates of Limbo have been torn down, and, in a nice touch, Christ is standing atop the gate while a squashed demon lies spread-eagle below it, Looney Tunes-style. Christ is carrying a flag, bringing the dominion of God into the unreachable, hopeless places.

From the National Gallery website

So that's Saturday. Back above ground, the disciples huddle together, abandoned and afraid. Salvation is happening somewhere on Saturday, but it's not yet apparent in the world. On the other side there is rejoicing, the upending of death, the victory of the cross, but for people living in the everyday, death and fear and oppression are still the winners. On Saturday, Caeser still reigns.

I saw this painting on Holy Saturday last year, midway through my pregnancy, confused and lonely. Four blocks from home after leaving the Gallery, I was approached by a women with a preteen daughter. I'm homeless, she said. We need some money for food. Great, I thought, I can buy them lunch, chit-chat, ask them if they've tried to get help through ASPAN, see if there's anyone I can get them in touch with.

Sure, I said; I can take you to one of these restaurants for lunch.

We need money for food, she repeated. We're hungry.