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Breaking the ice

December 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

My maternal grandmother, Edna Johansen Wistrom, was the child of Danish immigrants. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten.

She grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, on the cold flat prairie. She had farm chores, and she told me once that she would rush to get her chores done so that she could go back inside to finish whatever book she was reading. A woman after my own heart.

After high school she attended nursing school, met my grandfather in her mid-20s, and got married.

Grandma Edna held strong opinions, could be stubborn, but was very compassionate to those around her who were needy. She and my grandfather hosted a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. By hosted, I mean the family lived with them until they could get on their feet. I now realize what a huge commitment that was. She read voraciously, had a knack for decorating her house with an elegant and sophisticated flair, and traveled to the Holy Lands when she retired.

She was a good grandma. She taught me how to embroider dishtowels. She took me shopping for my birthday. We spent many holidays at her house, which always smelled of coffee.

But there are so many things I don’t know about her.

She was a typical stoic Midwesterner of northern European descent who didn’t talk much about herself. It probably didn’t help that my grandfather was often verbally abusive and demeaning. That had to have affected her over the years….made her feel that she didn’t have a voice.

Shortly before she died, I took a tape recorder to her small apartment to document her life stories. Time was running out, I realized, and I wanted to know more about her before those stories would be lost forever.

By this time, my grandfather had died, and she lived in a retirement village. She remained independent, but the shroud of death was hanging in the air. Friends she knew from around the village, blue-haired women she played cards with or went to church with, would die and she would never speak of them again. She and the other survivors would pragmatically move on. They wouldn’t even attend the funerals. After a while, so many of her cohorts had died that she seemed so alone.

The day I took my tape recorder to her house, I had high hopes. I was finally going to learn all about my grandmother. I imagined an afternoon spent talking about her childhood, learning stories that would fill all of the gaps of my understanding this important woman in my life. It would be an afternoon of connecting with my grandmother, learning more about her and maybe understanding more about myself.

I am a trained journalist – so I know how to ask questions to coax answers out of the most difficult interviewee. But my journalistic skills were no match for my grandmother. She shyly answered my questions, but barely. I would ask questions, and she gave me short, one-sentence answers.

I wanted stories, history, deep understanding. But she was as closed off and hard as the cold flat prairie where she was raised.

When I asked her “What was the most important day of your life?” She answered, “Oh, when my children were born, I suppose.”

But that was it.

At first I was frustrated, exasperated, and a little embarrassed. I realized my afternoon of listening to my grandmother’s stories would actually only take about 15 minutes due to her one-word or one-sentence answers.

I tried asking the questions in different ways, coming at it from different angles. Nothing.

Slowly, it dawned on me that she felt that her story didn’t matter. That she didn’t have anything worth telling. That she didn’t matter.

After awhile, I gave up, turned off the tape recorder, and we ate coffee cake and talked about my cousins and her flower planters on her patio…skating along the icy hard surface of shallow conversation. Grandma was more comfortable there.

My grandmother died a few years later, at age 89.

The tape of our conversation that day is in my desk drawer. I haven’t listened to it since that day.  But sometimes I want to listen to it just to hear her voice again.

Lately, I’ve felt myself frozen too….just skating on the surface. I wrote a book and it was published, and now I wonder if I’ve run out of stories to tell. I sit down to write and can barely eek out one sentence. I feel that my stories don’t matter. That everyone else has more to say. That I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve to have my voice heard.

But then I think of my grandmother. I remember that day, sitting on the floor at her feet, as she sat in a gold, velour chair. I sat by her feet like Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, craving wisdom and grace and love.

That is why I will sit down every morning and write – even if it’s that one sentence that I can barely eek out  –  to find the stories of my family that my grandmother, and my mother, and probably scores of my ancestors believed weren’t worth telling. I will hack at the frozen surface and chop through the ice until I can dip my fingers into the rich, flowing water below.


More on home…

May 11, 2007 — Leave a comment

I just re-read parts of “Gilead” by Marliynne Robinson and found this:

“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might as well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

“To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. … This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here is a last wild gesture of love — I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.”

Whew. I just finished judging 22 Christian novels for an Evangelical publishers association. Lots of reading. Lots of reading baaad writing, but with a few pleasant surprises. Here’s my take. Keep in mind I respect anyone who actually completes a novel. So whether it’s actually pulitzer prize material or not, they’re way ahead of me in the writing department.

First, I never read Christian fiction. And to be honest, I don’t know anyone who does. But someone must be reading it — because Christian publishers keep cranking them out and so there’s a market out there somewhere. I just don’t know where. If anyone knows someone who reads this stuff, let me know. I’m just curious.

Second, when I was at Moody magazine, I served as the book review editor. This was way back in the early 90s, when “Christian fiction” was new. It was bad. Really, really bad. And I’m encouraged that there has been some progress made on the quality of Christian novels. Characters that are more than 2-dimensional. Nice descriptive details, etc.

Third, most of it is “genre” fiction — mystery, romance, science fiction, historical, etc. which I typically don’t read. So it was difficult for me to get excited about any of it. But after I got over my initial prejudices, there were a few novels which stood out and I could appreciate them for what they were. My question is, though, will any Christian publisher produce literary fiction (with the exception of Paraclete Press, I don’t know of any that come close).

Fourth, most of the books had either 1) a conversion story. 2) a nice, tidy ending, 3) stereotypes of genders (i.e. there were some strong career women, but in the end they saw the error of their ways and returned to hearth and home). 4) if it didn’t have a conversion story, there was some other “evanglistic” message….solving the mystery of an empty toomb, or an apologetics conversation on an airplane. I was pleasantly surprised at a few that touched on themes like doubt, forgiveness, etc. But I wish I had seen more of real life, the nitty gritty wrestling with one’s faith, and less propaganda.

Okay, about the evangelistic messages / conversion stories. Once again, who are the readers? My guess is that the majority of readers are evangelical Christians, who are already converted. So why do they need to read a conversion story? To affirm their decision? I can’t quit figure it out. Or maybe Christians are buying them and handing them out to their non-Christian neighbors? Is this effective evangelism? Again, I’m not trying to criticize, I’m just confused.

Well, at any rate I just spent two months reading these books and it has inspired me to get back into the game. Not to write “Christian” novels, necessarily, but to write about things that aren’t neat and tidy, that deal with doubt and real life. More on my journey into the Christian publishing world in my next post…..

Winter’s back. Finally. The high today should reach only 25 degrees, there are 2 inches of snow on the ground, the sun came out. David revels in this type of weather. He likes it so cold it takes your breath away, with white icy snow crunching beneath his hiking boots. I don’t particularly like being cold, but I have to admit this is much better than a 40 degree, overcast, drizzly days we’ve been getting most of this winter. If I wanted drizzle and clouds, I’d live in Seattle. Give us snow, sub-zero temps, crystal clear days, a fire in the fireplace, long underwear. At least for a month or two. So when spring finally rolls around, we’ll actually appreciate it.

I’m sitting in a warm, charming coffee shop listening to fellow coffee shop patrons buzzing about Barak Obama. Yep, he’s taken the first step to running for president in 2008. Read about it on the front page of today’s NY Times. Go, Barak!

And after I get a bit of work done, I’m going to crack open Alice McDermott’s new novel “After This.” I heard her speak/read at the Festival of Faith and Writing last April at Calvin College and was blown away by her reading from “After This”. So I shelled out $24 for the hard cover and am on page 89. Reading great writing is a spiritual experience for me. I feel a bit guilty about this…being the former Fundamentalist Christian that I am….but I find God more often in the pages of great literature than I do in church. Why am I more drawn to reading novels than Scripture?

Apparently, I’m not alone. There’s an interview with McDermott in the current issue of Image Journal. She left the Catholic church for a while, and then returned. Here’s an excerpt:

“…for me, the transition away from the church was accompanied by a discovery of literature. The questions that the church taught me to ask and, it seemed, was refusing to answer, or was giving answers that did not satisfy — I discovered that these same questions were being asked in more complex ways in literature. And not necessarily faith-based literature. There was a time in my life when I would have run for the hills if anyone had asked me to read faith-based literature. But the great writers were talking about death, suffering, the meaning of life, and how we get through and live. They were also reiterating the sacredness of the individual, and the individual mind. Great literature allows you to forget your own mind and enter into the life of another human being, to recognize our common humanity and hear their inner voice, to glimpse their soul. It wasn’t that I rejected one and found the other. The church only took me so far, and literature itself was addressing all these same things.”

Why write?

December 25, 2006 — 2 Comments

From Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel lecture 2006 (printed in the December 25, 2006, New Yorker):

“The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to konw what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, In Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, andi n the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but — as in a dream — can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.”

In search of the perfect cafe

September 22, 2006 — 1 Comment

Since David and I both work at home, I’ve been on the hunt for a perfect coffee shop to be used as a “second office”. Starbucks is out. They charge for internet access and it’s a revolving door — too distracting. Although “MY” Starbucks on Main street in Evanston has the coolest baristas — John and Jake, who are 20-something cuties. They have my drink — an iced grande no water Americano — ready before I’m even to the cash register. I have crushes on both of them. When someone knows your “drink” before you even have to order it, you know you’ve made too many visits to Starbucks. Occassionally I’ll order a Pumpkin Spiced Latte in the fall, or some other hot drink. Whenever I do, I think John and Jake get a little nervous. They think they have me all figured out and then ,boom, i order a hot drink and they get rattled. So I love the place. It’s not filled with smug yuppie types, like some Starbucks. The people in my Starbucks are cool. But still, I can’t get any work done there.

I often go to what David and I call “The Bad Coffee Cafe” in Evanston. He kept telling me that it had bad coffee, and I didn’t believe him. But then one day I went there to work. The atmosphere is great for working. A tall bar with comfy stools lines the windows. It’s great for laptop use. They have free internet. And there’s a little self-employed community there. I see the same people all the time — one woman is working on her dissertation, I think. Another guy is a computer software salesman. There’s a homeless guy who sits drinking coffee in the back and everyone is nice to him. He’s just one of the community. I like that. But, the coffee is BAD! The first time I ordered an iced Americano, and added my milk and half and half, and took a sip, it tasted like mud. That’s the only way I can describe it. How can you mess up coffee? Is something wrong with their esspresso machine? Is it the brand of coffee? How they grind the beans? David and I speculate…but we haven’t yet figured it out. So each time I go there I have to grin and bear the coffee, because I get a lot done.

Today I’m sitting in a cafe in Roger’s Park called “Charmers”. It is….charming. Cool tables, art deco wall sculpures, and really good coffee. I’m sitting at a corner table in a comfy chair. The only problem is the stereo speaker is right above my head, so I’m having a hard time concentrating. But, hey, good coffee, cool decor, comfy chair. Close. Maybe I’ll give it a few more chances and see if this is the real deal. The perfect home for my second office. Heck…anything’s better than sitting in a gray cubicle in corporate America. So i’ll deal with bad coffee or too-loud music anytime.