The sun came up on a day without a deadline, the first day of that kind I’ve seen in a long, long time.
As if he wanted to be first in line for my attention, my cat Mardukas perched on my chest, purring madly, as I woke up.
I opened the front door and gasped at the extravagant golds and reds of our Crimson Glory display—leaves the size of dinner plates, each ablaze with burgundy, rust, and yellow. It was as though their autumn exhibition, all by itself, was renouncing the ocean of fog that had engulfed the neighborhood. White clouds billowed and roiled in bewilderment, ready to surrender.
The house began to smell like coffee as Anne sleepily started her day.
I realized that, as I’ve been focused on finishing the latest book project over the last several months, I’ve become too distracted to enjoy my immeasurable treasure… the treasure that burns like a forest fire on the vine in my front yard. The treasure of morning fog that erases and then reveals. Two feline treasures who bless my routine with their affection (when they’re in the right mood). The rich treasure of coffee’s irresistible aroma. The treasure of a poet who wears a green bathrobe and prepares quietly for a day of writing and gardening.
I won’t ever need a bestselling novel to know that I am extravagantly wealthy. I just need to stop, open “the eyes of my eyes,” and see the signs that remind me that I am not beyond the reach of grace and love.
Last night, I answered the final plea for corrections, fixing one last spelling error in Raven’s Ladder. In recent days, I’ve begun to feel a persistent ache in my neck and shoulders from the relentless tension of revising, reimagining, refining. A draft that was once 215,000 words was boiled down to a thick soup of 125,000. And then that draft was taken apart, so that I could sew the scenes back together in a better order. It’s been several months of frantic revisions, corrections, and all-night writing sessions at my laptop in my study (or, alas, in bed). The story’s become a jumble in my head, and I’m depending on others to tell me that, yes, the final draft really does hold together and make sense. I’m grateful for their reports.
In fact, I think my favorite page of the book right now is the one labeled “Acknowledgments.” It might be my name on the cover, and it may be my responsibility if you decide The Auralia Thread isn’t your kind of story. But really, if you enjoy the book, and want to know who made Raven’s Ladder… and any of these stories… possible, read that Acknowledgments page. A lot of names, from a lot of encouraging, supportive people. No less than four editors who were patient with me. A team of publishers who gave me the time to finish telling the story. An agent who watches out for my work and my well-being. And many, many others who have inspired and helped along the way.
I’m so grateful to be free of assignments, at least for now. I’m not overdue on anything at the moment. At long last… (to borrow a line from my favorite new U2 song)… I can breathe.
Well, okay, I’m not exactly free. There are deadlines on the horizon. I have bills to pay that even my day-job, my books, and Anne’s two jobs won’t cover. So, twice a month, I’ll continue to contribute a commentary on a movie to the blog at Image. Starting in November, with a review of The Road, I’ll be offering thoughts on movies six times in the next year at a site that I haven’t announced yet. And by this time next year, if God doesn’t change his mind, I’ll be recovering from the completion of the fourth and final book in The Auralia Thread.
But at least I’m not playing catch-up anymore.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to relax. All over the country, reviewers and writers are reading the uncorrected proof of Raven’s Ladder, and I’m waiting to hear what they think of it. Like a parent who’s just sent a strong-willed, temperamental kid off to college, I keep thinking, “If I’d just had six more months, I could have done so much better!”
I’ve got to stop that. Those thoughts aren’t helpful. I need long walks. Full nights of sleep. Friends. Hot tea. Some inspirational reading. Great music. Movies that feed my spirit and fill me with joy.
Speaking of movies, I’ve begun to catch up, and those that I’ve seen have been fantastic. I have another film review due to Image on November 1st, and I haven’t decided which to review first:
- Where the Wild Things Are? (Oh, how I loved it. If you didn’t, I’m sorry. But I haven’t read a single gripe or complaint that made sense to me; it moved me powerfully.)
- A Serious Man? (An especially thought-provoking film from the Coens. Don’t miss it.)
- Ponyo? (One of Miyazaki’s simplest films, but it also contains some of his most exhilarating animation.)
- Goodbye Solo? (This year’s The Station Agent, focusing on two characters you won’t soon forget.)
- Still Walking? (This year’s memorable tribute to Ozu — they just keep coming.)
- Duplicity? (Probably my favorite “Hollywood movie” of the year; it’s nostalgic for the right things: it recalls the days when spy-game films were intelligently written.)
- In the Loop? (Hilariously brash British political satire that earns its references to Dr. Strangelove.)
These movies have provided the boosts of inspiration I needed to reach the finish line on my project. I have a lot to say about each of them, but where to start?
And that’s to say nothing of the great music I’ve heard in recent months. I can’t get enough of Joe Henry’s Blood from Stars, or the album he produced for Allen Toussaint, and I’m grateful that I had an opportunity to tell him so this week. I’m also thoroughly enjoying Sam Phillips’ latest recordings, which are available to subscribers at The Long Play. And when I just need to turn it up loud, The Dead Weather, St. Vincent, Aaron Strumpel, The Ragbirds, and Dave Perkins, have been good therapy.
I’m also eager to start work on the final Auralia Thread book. My head is full of scenes I can’t wait to write, scenes that I’ve been excited about since I started the series. I want this volume to be everybody’s favorite, because as it’s playing out in my imagination, it’s certainly mine.
What is more—I also want to start new projects. I have four books in progress, and one of them is already rough-drafted on my desk. Three of them are fiction, one is another “memoir of dangerous moviegoing,” a sort of sequel to Through a Screen Darkly. The impulse to launch myself into some wild new adventure is intense.
But I don’t plan to quit my day-job at Seattle Pacific anytime soon, so there isn’t a lot of time for writing. I have to choose very carefully what to do during my lunch breaks and evening hours every day. Writing four books in three years — all during coffee breaks, late nights, and weekends — has been exhausting and dispiriting, and I’m eager to develop new disciplines that are both healthier and more productive. In an ideal world, I’d spend at least two years on a book, not nine months. But I’m determined to do the best I can with the opportunities I’ve been given.
I’m learning as I go.
On October 28, I’ll be in Vancouver B.C., hoping to find a good place to stand in order to take in the sound and the spectacle of the last show in U2’s 360 tour in North America.
The timing couldn’t be better. Few things lift my spirits like U2’s live shows. Their critics can go on moaning about how they’ve “sold out” or “lost their minds” or whatever… what I hear are four inspired Irishmen who, having gained worldly success beyond their wildest dreams, are still doing the best they can to invest their time and money in songs worth singing and ideas worth celebrating.
In a recent article, one of them noted that Bono has to “play Father Christmas to 70,000 people every night” on this tour. And even so, people write whole columns complaining that the concert wasn’t the one they’d wanted. Nostalgia can kill our appreciation of what’s actually happening in front of us. And our eagerness for an artist to be what they once were, or what we want them to be, can blind us to the revelation of what they are actually doing. U2’s four longsuffering blokes joke about their own ego and success, but their music and even their concert spectacle keeps directing our attention heavenward. They know that their success is a gift, and they haven’t forgotten who gave it to them. They know that their success brings with it responsibility, and they’re doing their best to fulfill those responsibilities, no matter what criticism they’re given by people who want U2 to conform to *their* preferences.
I want to learn from them.
When I stood in the front of the crowd during U2’s Elevation concert in 2001, as the opening strains of “Where the Streets Have No Name” simmered in the dark, Bono took the microphone and shouted out words from Psalm 116. Are you familiar with it? “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation — A toast to God! I’ll pray in the name of God; I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, And I’ll do it together with his people.”
I’ll never have U2’s level of success. I hope I never do… the pressure that comes with that would be unbearable. I’m content with my audience, however small, and grateful when anybody shares their thoughts about the stories. But I want to learn to get up in the morning and go about my own small work with humility, joy, and a keen awareness of the responsibility that comes with these opportunities. I want to give back to God something beautiful, something that reflects the glory of all he’s shown me.
Something as mysterious as the fog swirling down my street. Something as bright as those leaves of Crimson Glory that shone this morning of October 22, 2009. At first I thought they were shining for me. But I think what really moved me was that they were shining for their Maker.
Lord, help me to work in such a way that it pleases you, as I’m sure these colors please you. Amen.