Keeping Up with the Writing Joneses

By the time this post runs, I’ll be in Grand Rapids at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. Since I am now a mid-careerish, spiritually mature woman attending the event for the fourth time, I will certainly not embarrass myself by committing the following rookie atrocities*:

Forgetting Michigan is on Eastern Standard Time and becoming self-righteously flustered when I find out I’m late for the opening session because who does Michigan think she is, New York?

Introducing myself with “Vander” in front of my decidedly unDutch surname to get a laugh from all those Reformed folk.

Standing in line to talk to Greg Wolfe while trying to look like I’m not really standing in line, and when I get my turn, renewing my subscription to Image because I don’t know what else to say. Realizing that because of similar conference encounters, my issues should safely arrive through 2025.

Walking up to an editor busily unpacking boxes at her publisher’s table and thrusting a manuscript in her face because editors are hard up for manuscripts, desperately seek ways to fill their down time, and thrive on surprises.

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Fear Factor

For a young woman beset with all manner of insecurities, the early nineties in southern California were the perfect storm. Or fire. Or fault.

During my college years at the University of California, Riverside, I often felt my center could not hold. But because I didn’t know how to deal with the center, I focused on everything outside it—the more explosive, the better: Desert Storm, the LA Riots, fires, and, of course, earthquakes.

I walked dutifully to class amidst yelling protestors and swirling ashes from one disaster to another, nerves on edge. But when the Landers quake hit one hundred miles east of campus in the summer of 1992, my anxiety went wild. For years, we’d been told the Big One was coming, and coming soon. I convinced myself Landers harbingered the coming California apocalypse.

I’d heard about liquefaction, when an earthquake turns the ground into quicksand swallowing buildings and cars. I saw myself pinned under five floors of books at my library job with no one to hear my cries. I recalled the harrowing stories of the Nimitz Freeway collapse in the San Francisco quake of 1989, how rescue workers had to saw through a dead woman to get to a living child, how the whimpers of dying people haunted the night. That summer, I panicked when traffic kept me under a bridge for more than a second, and I scanned every building I entered for ominous shelves and chandeliers. My imagination shook the floor several times a day.

Like Anne Lamott and her “butt mind,” described in Traveling Mercies as her monitoring, evaluating, and comparing other’s asses to her own at a daily, obsessive level, I had “quake mind” through and through.

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Chrysalis, Catacomb, Cloud Part 2

R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi (1617)

Guest Post
Jen Hinst-White

Continued from yesterday


Rob goes to bed; I go to my desk and light white candles. Someone I know makes a yearly Lenten project of holding a poetry contest, soliciting translations of psalms from friends. The timing is good; I need a quiet task. Which psalm, then?

Years ago I memorized Psalm 25, and it’s become my favorite ground to walk in the book of Psalms. It’s the one I return to, a beggar’s song of waiting and yearning and aloneness.

Plus—it’s got tricks built in. In Hebrew, this psalm is an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling out the Hebrew alphabet. Why the acrostic? Maybe for easy recall when you have no presence of mind. Ache and longing made manageable by mnemonics. [Read more...]

Spiritual Counsel Part 1: Barking Dogs

“It’s good that you see spiritual direction in terms of a dog, instead of only as a matter of prayer methods.” This was my spiritual director’s response when, early in our twenty-five years together, I told him about a neighbor’s dog barking all night, keeping me awake. I’d been agonizing over my soul’s relation to this constant distress. How could I accept this trial in grace?

“You’re not meant to simply accept it,” Bill said. (Bill was Fr. William Shannon. Previously I wrote about how I started going to him, and the soul friendship we developed. “Your neighbor is being inconsiderate by leaving his dog outside all night. You must talk to him about it: tell him the barking is keeping you from sleeping.”

Wow, I thought, such utterly practical advice. So this wasn’t a matter of my spiritual inadequacies after all.

Over the twenty-five years of monthly meetings with Bill, this kind of experience would recur. (I’m a slow learner, I guess.) I’d come to him with a trial that was distressing me, assuming that my spiritual immaturity was the problem. Bill would respond by asking lots of practical questions about the issue. [Read more...]

Isaac Unbound

Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away. [Read more...]