Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I Will Write

I will write.

I will write because it is in me to write, because writing reaches an unreachable part of me. I will write because it is more important to me than almost anything else.

I will write because I can.

I will write because I am a good writer and because words matter to me. I will write because words are full of mystery and potential and magic. I will write because I am a good writer and there is nothing wrong with understanding and doing what I love. I will write because I have been given the gift of wanting to write.

I will write because my heart breaks for writing.

I will write this image: me at seventeen, sitting on the floor of my room in my parents’ house. It is an early evening in August and I am packing my room, packing for college. My girlfriend is there with me, helping me decide what pieces of my life I should take with me and she is restless because she doesn’t really care and because she will break up with me in a week and wishes she could do it right at that moment. She is pretty: full lips and dark eyes and the lithe, toned body of a diver and swimmer, but right now her dusky face is bored and she looks around at anything but me. I understand all this, now, but at the time I only know that I am dissatisfied and broken in some way that I am at a loss to explain. I put something in a box: a photo or book or CD – I don’t remember what. My breath catches in my throat and, inexplicably, tears begin to fall into the box, splashing on the photo or book or CD. She is still silent and I want her to ask, I want her to ask why I’m crying, but she looks away and doesn’t want to notice.

And I don’t know why I’m crying so I don’t know what I’d tell her if she did ask, so I sit and weep as silently as I can for a minute, two, three. Finally she asks what is bothering me. I want to write, I tell her. She is puzzled. You want to write? But she doesn’t follow up the question and so it hangs in the air between us until I finally say: I don’t want to study Broadcast Journalism or History or Education or anything like that. I want to write – I just want to write and be a writer. She is still puzzled. You don’t want to go to college? But that’s not it at all: college sounds good and interesting and worthwhile, but I want to write. I want to be a writer but I can’t, I can’t. She looks at me and smiles a little. It is a good smile. Her eyes come into focus and she isn’t bored anymore. For the last time before she breaks up with me, she is fully present and she wants me to see what I need to see: You should write, then. You’re seventeen. It’s not too late.

And yet I went to college and majored in Broadcast Journalism for a semester. Then Pastoral Ministries. Then Secondary Education and a brief flirtation with Business and then I wanted to major in English, but it was too late and I needed to graduate and I majored in Interdisciplinary Studies. Writing still tugged at me, but it never broke through again like it did in my room the week before college. I went to grad school and studied English and this was a good thing. I found Faulkner and his was prose intoxicating and writing awoke and said this is good, you know. Write, Jack. And to hide from writing I studied medieval English romances and Chaucerian dream visions and I wrote about that because that was not the kind of writing that I needed to do. The writing I needed to do was terrifying and shapeless: a void that needed expression. I finished my M.A. and wrote my thesis and that writing was good, but it was safe and the writing inside me never stirred as I toiled over Chaucer and medieval symbolism and poetic limitations and Troilus and Crisede.

And I went on to doctoral work and I read and wrote and loved every moment, even the moments when I thought I might not make it. I wrote seminar papers and taught classes and passed qualifying exams and began a dissertation on the history of the novel because this, too, was hiding from writing. I studied rhetorical theory, especially the belles lettres rhetoric of eighteenth-century Scotland and I loved my research and I felt that teaching and research and writing about research and teaching was good and good enough and writing might just be ignored.

But what I’ve come to realize is this: the writing I need to do, but have almost never done, is the voice of God in me. To run from writing is to run from God. Or maybe the voice inside that I’ve silenced through idleness and other interests, through research and theory and teaching is really the voice of God calling me to be who I’m meant to be. To not write makes me not me. To put it another way: I am most fully myself when I write and wrestle with the deep mystery of story. To avoid writing is to avoid God, who is saying, I will meet you here, in the words and shapes of words, in the complexity of meaning, in the tangled patterns of story and in this writing you will discover who you are meant to be.

And so I will write because I want to be.

I will write because I want to be who God calls me to be, and I won’t worry about what I know about writing and theory and criticism and aesthetic appreciation of writing. I won’t worry about publishing or success or an audience. The call to write is, for me, a Holy call, a call to completeness and fulfillment and I don’t give a damn if anyone ever reads or cares about what I write. I will write for my seventeen-year old self, weeping on the floor. I will write because writing is how I touch the divine; it is how I experience the holy. I will write because my writing is a sacrament and my blood is transubstantiated, becoming ink on the page.

And so, I will write.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

But then Elijah

I posted this a while ago on Myspace, but I was down at the Tarrant County Courthouse the other day and it reminded me of this story.

Tonight, I went to visit a friend at Tarrant County Jail.

On the way in, a man stepped up to me and asked for help: "My name is Elijah and I jest got outta this place. Damn! Sweet Jesus I need to get home to Waco!"

I wasn't sure what to say. I told him that I needed to go in to see a friend and that maybe we could talk on my way out. I don't know why I said it. But I did and I thought nothing more of it.

I've never been to jail. I've never visited anyone in jail. I checked in and eventually they called my name and I was given a sign with a number on it. I was told to step into an elevator with no buttons and hold up the sign to a camera in the elevator. The elevator let me off at the right floor, I stepped up to the plexiglass window, and picked up the phone.

We talked for twenty minutes or so. He asked about Lorri and the girls and I asked how he was doing. He said jail was like the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" but much less funny. We laughed. He said he was going to be out in a few days and that the charges against him would most likely be dropped. I was glad for him and when I left I felt pretty good. Much better than I thought I would when I went in.

I didn't see Elijah on my way out. But he saw me.

"So can ya help me? I jest wanna get back to Waco." I just wanted to go home. I had been at school since 8:30. I conferenced with 20 students, taught my lit class, worked on my job apps, and wrote some more dissertation. I had been on campus for about 11 hours when I packed my stuff up and headed for Tarrant County Jail. But then Elijah.

But then Elijah, something whispered.

But I'm exhausted.

But then Elijah.

I turned and really looked at Elijah for the first time. He was about my age, a little shorter, African-American, sunglasses, t-shirt. It was a chilly night and Elijah wrapped his arms around his chest and shivered.
"I can't take you to Waco," I found myself saying. But then Elijah. "But I can take you to the Greyhound Station." Part of my brain was yelling at the rest of me: "This isn't a good idea. He might be dangerous. You don't know his story. What if he's violent? What if . . ."

But then Elijah . . .

"C'mon. I'll drive you to the station and buy you a ticket."

Elijah climbed into the passenger seat and we took off. I drove to the station and Elijah talked about his arrest. He said he was taken in for having outstanding traffic tickets. He had a construction job and an apartment in Waco, but he had come to Fort Worth to visit his sister. His car had been impounded for ten days and he couldn't afford to pay the impound fees. He was afraid his job would be gone when he got back to Waco. He was worried because he was two weeks behind on his rent. He was thankful to be out of jail.

I went into the station with him and bought his ticket. He had a four hour lay-over in Dallas so I gave him all the cash in my pocket -- seven dollars and change -- so he could buy some breakfast in the morning. "My name is Elijah," he said. "I thank you." His voice was low and serious. I had nothing to say so I stood there for a second. Elijah awkwardly hugged me and went back inside.

"Thank you Jesus!" His voice echoed down the empty street.

I crossed the street, climbed into my Jeep, and began the drive home. And as I drove, I began to shrink. I felt small. I felt like the roof of my Jeep was gone, replaced with emptiness. Space. I couldn't look up for fear that I would fall out. I drove home with the universe trailing from the top of my car.

But then Elijah.

But then Elijah.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Kaua'i Part II

The next morning, the children woke up much too early. At six-fifteen, the baby began to stir. By six-thirty, the three-year-old was up. So we got up too. We should go for a drive, I thought. Lorri gave me a playful shove, saying, "Hey, the kids are up. We should go for a drive."

So we did.

The morning was surprisingly brisk and the sun hadn't quite made it up out of the Pacific. We piled into the convertible, put the top down, and took off, heading back down the Kuhio Highway that we had driven in the dark the night before. It was a quiet morning and all we could hear was the rush of the wind as our car wandered down the road. In the morning light, we could see what we had missed on our drive up to Princeville. To the right, the land rose steadily to the foot of impossibly green mountains. The mountains were wrapped in clouds that shifted and swirled, always revealing and concealing different pieces of the mountainside. On the right, the island fell away quickly and as we drove over small ridges and shallow valleys we caught glimpses of the ocean that disappeared around the next bend. At one point the road dropped into a deep ravine and the trees crowded overhead, creating a canopy of leaves that tinted the early morning sunlight with shades of green and yellow.

"Where should we go?" I asked. As I said, I'd never been to Hawai'i. Lorri had been before, but she had visited other islands, Oahu and the Big Island. She shrugged and I drove. Ella chattered in the back seat, pointing out trees and clouds. I could see her in the rearview mirror, long blond hair flying out behind her, eyes half-closed with wonder. Ours was the only car on the road and we seemed to have the island to ourselves.

I saw a sign: "Kilauea Lighthouse." On a whim, I took the turn. I followed the signs away from the highway, secretly hoping for any sign of coffee. Beautiful tropical island or not, I was in dire need of coffee. On our right we saw a cluster of businesses: real estate, local art, a restaurant called the Lighthouse Bistro. And, to my great satisfaction, we saw a sign for the Kilauea Bakery. But I kept driving toward the lighthouse, promising myself that there would be coffee very soon. The road wound through some hills, finally coming to a stop at a small parking lot. There was a gated drive on one side, leading into what signs identified as the Kilauea National Wildlife Preserve. We were three hours ahead of the park's opening, so we parked the car and walked to the fence that stretched across one end of the parking lot. The land fell sharply, down cliffs where tenacious trees and scrub bushes clung to creases in the rock of the cliff. The sun was still coming up and we could see the lighthouse ahead and to the left, perched at the top of a cliff at the end of a penninsula. And below us the surf crashed madly in a rocky bay: the water was all foam and froth as wave after wave pounded the black volcanic shore. The water was a deep indigo color that exploded into white spray as the surf slammed into the sides of the cliffs. Sea birds circled overhead and roosted in nests built pell mell on the sides of the cliffs. Beyond the rocks and the bay and the surf, the Pacific Ocean stretched northwards, sparkling into infinity as the sun began to crest the horizon.

We stood at the edge of the cliff for a few minutes, not talking much. Another family was there as well and we took turns with each other's cameras. The other family left and we were alone again at the cliff's edge. Ella saw everything: the birds overhead and on the cliff face, the waves crashing below, the few wispy clouds in the pale blue morning sky. The sun continued to rise and I picked Ella up and set her on my shoulder. We watched the sun glide over the horizon, hearing the faint calls of birds above us and feeling the rhythm of the surf far below. The moment stretched out and I felt, as I had felt standing on the lanai the night before, a sense of ancientness, of time stretching back over millenia. At the condo my laptop waited, student papers to grade, research to follow up. But here I was, standing on the edge of the Pacific as eternity washed over my senses. There were no thoughts about work or writing or teaching, only the ebb and flow of time as the waves completed their journey across the vastness of the Pacifc Ocean.

A minute later -- or ten -- we walked back to the car.

We drove back toward the main highway and stopped at the bakery we'd seen on our way down to the lighthouse. When we opened the door, U2's Where the Streets Have No Name was playing inside. I considered this a very good sign. Ella wanted a cinnamon roll and Lorri and I ordered coffee and pastries. Lorri took the girls outside to find a table and I gathered our drinks as Bono sang. I've seen U2 live twice and both times, Where the Streets Have No Name is one of the concert highlights. The band goes silent for a few moments, a minute, two. The audience becomes still with expectation and then, ever so subtly, the music starts. The organ builds slowly and is joined by the Edge's chiming guitar, the notes familiar and full of expectation and hope and promise. Then the drums and bass begin filling the spaces around the guitar and organ and then the song really takes off and in concert the sound hits you like a rush of wind. Every light in the stadium comes on and for a moment, everything is illuminated and you can see it all: the band, the stage, and the audience, 35,000 strong. Everything is clear for that moment and then the lights fall and once again you can only see the band, the spotlight hovering on Bono as he stalks the edge of the stage. But for that one moment, you can see how you are part of the concert, how you fit in to the music and the audience and the simultaneous sense of community and individuality is almost overwhelming. The cliff at the lighthouse was revelatory in a similar way: the surf, the cliffs, the ocean were all waiting, with us, for the sun to come over the horizon. We were part of that morning, almost as if that place and that moment had been prepared just for us. There was an incomprehensible sense of perspective on the cliff that morning and I grasped, for a moment, an indescribable insight. As the sun came up I felt as if I could step back and see everything: I could see how all the pieces fit and I felt the distance between myself and eternity shrink. For a moment I could reach out and touch time. Then the lights fell again and I was standing on the cliffside with a sense of hope and expectation that rose and fell with the morning tide.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kaua'i, Part I

I didn't want to go to Hawai'i.

I'm not much for the sun and the beach. The beautiful people who usually inhabit the beach often make me acutely aware of my pale flabbiness, a situation of which I am already aware and need no reminding. I dislike the way sand gets into everything: hair, ears, nose, between the toes. Sand seems to have a special ability to work its way into the bits and parts of your anatomy where you least want to have sand. I wasn't sure what I would be doing for a week in Kaua'i.

Let me back up for a moment. My sister-in-law was getting married and she decided that the best place for it would be in Hawai'i, specifically on Tunnels Beach on Kaua'i's northern coast. My wife and her sister are really close so there was very little discussion about whether she would go. But I thought I could weasel out of it on very reasonable grounds: the plane ticket would cost too much; I would fall behind with my dissertation; someone would need to watch the dogs; I had no interest in the tropics. I ended up going anyway, even though the plane ticket did cost too much and I did fall behind on the dissertation and we had to pay someone to watch the dogs.

Sitting on the beach was just not my idea of fun. I mean, when I was a kid, I travelled pretty widely with my family. My parents were big believers in the summer road trip and we drove everywhere. We drove all over the Pacific Northwest and up and down the west coast, camping and seeing stuff. I visited the Redwoods and Crater Lake and the Olympic Rainforest and the Oregon coast. Mount Rainier National Park was my back yard and I hiked and climbed all over the smaller peaks and valleys. We drove to the family farm in Iowa every summer and along the way we'd stop in Yellowstone, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug (the capital of American road trip kitsch), ending at my grandparents' beautiful farm tucked in a valley near the Mississippi River. We tried different routes some years: one year we headed south through California, stopped for a couple days at Disneyland, trekked across Death Valley, visited the pueblos at Mesa Verde, looked at the Four Corners (there's really not much else to do there), and gaped at the mind-erasing vastness of the Grand Canyon. From the farm we'd take side trips up to the Wisconsin Dells or to Chicago. Once or twice we drove back to Washington by way of Missouri, taking in the Ozarks and driving across the empty expanse of Kansas into Colorado, skirting the edge of the Rockies and stopping in the Grand Tetons. We took trips to British Columbia, riding the ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island and having high tea at the Empress Hotel. When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to Barcelona, Spain, for the 1992 Summer Olympics and when I was a sophomore in college, Mom and Dad took the whole family to London for the ten days after Christmas.

Travelling has been a priority for my wife and I: since we've been married, we've gone to London and New York and Washington, D.C. and we've taken multiple road trips to Southern California, Las Vegas, British Columbia, and western Montana. The point -- if there is one -- is that I've travelled and all my travels had convinced me that I had no desire to go to Hawai'i. It seemed overpriced and cliched. It seemed . . . boring?

Nonetheless, we went. A friend of mine scored us a great deal on a convertible rental car and for once, our horrible timeshare ownership worked in our favor: we were going to stay in a condo at a lovely resort in Princeville. I still didn't really want to go. When I was a kid, bouncing around the backseat of my parents' Ford Tempo as we meandered across the American West, I had always thought it would be cool to visit every state in the country some day. So as I finalized our plans for Kauai'i, this childhood goal seemed to be the best reason for going to Hawai'i: I could mark one more state off my list (only 23 more to go!).

Our flight took us from Dallas / Fort Worth to Phoenix to Honolulu to Lihue. Seriously. We were going to do this twelve hour marathon with a three month old baby, a three year old toddler, ourselves, and all of our stuff. And we really have never learned how to travel light. Somehow we managed with our sanities intact and found ourselves, finally, in our rental car at the Lihue airport on Kauai'i. It was dark, everyone was exhausted, and we just wanted to get to the condo. We drove north on the Kuhio Highway and soon the lights of Lihue faded behind us. Or more accurately, the darkness enveloped our car, erasing the man-made lights of Lihue as if they had never existed. I knew this kind of darkness because I grew up so far out in the Cascade foothills. I understood the way darkness is different when it is completely natural: not so much the absence of light, but the presence of night. I couldn't hear them, but I could imagine the night sounds of the island: insects, night birds, rustling leaves, and the faint surge of the surf on the beaches and rocks. Perhaps, I thought, this may be ok.

We arrived at the condo and unloaded all of our stuff as quickly as possible. The girls barely stirred and my wife and I fell asleep almost as soon as we hit the bed. I woke up a few hours later and went out to get a drink of water. I took my glass and stepped out onto the lanai on the back of the condo. The lanai faced the ocean (so I had read on the condo website) and there were no manmade lights on this side of the building. The landscape was indistinguishable from the inky black sky. There was no moon, but there were thousands of stars, burning fiercely in the night sky. I couldn't see the ocean, but I could hear the surf and I felt something in the night air, something primal and ancient and more real than any night sky I could remember.

This may be ok.

Monday, December 22, 2008


I live in Texas and I'd rather not.

It's not that Texas is a terrible place. It's fine, I guess. There are a lot of people who think Texas is the greatest place on earth. Mostly Texans think this way and they can't understand why everyone doesn't agree with them. I've tried to explain, but they just don't understand. I tell them that Texas is the only state in the country where school children pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag and their state flag. Texas is the only state where people drive around with bumperstickers on their vehicles that proclaim: "Native Texan" or "Wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could" or "Texas Proud"


I'm from the Pacific Northwest and no one is driving around with "Native Oregonian" or "Idaho Proud" on their cars. When I point this out to Texans they just shake their heads. Don't you have any pride? they ask, usually with a mixture of shock and condescension in their voices. The thing is, I am proud of the state I grew up in and identify with -- Washington -- and anyone who listens to me talk for five minutes can figure that out pretty quickly. It's just that my feelings about Washington can't be summed up on a bumper sticker. It's a little more complex than that.

I talk to my students about this stuff. I teach at a four year university and in my sophomore composition class, I focus our writing and discussion around our conception of place and how that affects the way we think and act and respond to our experiences. When I ask my students why they think Texas is so great, most of their answers focus on size and scope: Texas is so big, Texas has so many people, Texas produces so much oil, Texas was its own country. Then I point out that Texas is the second biggest state (Alaska), with the second largest population (California), the second highest oil output (Alaska), and that there was at least one other state (California again) that was its own country before joining the United States.

They're never quite sure what to do with that information. Quite often they are incredulous about California and the Bear Flag Republic. So I ask again: what is so great about Texas? And they usually don't have much to say.

Now, I'm not trying to bash Texas. I'm sure it's a wonderful place and I have met some really great people during my four and a half years here. But I have a problem with Texas. I just can't get my bearings here.

I grew up in the mountains of western Washington. I mean, my little town is right up in the foothills of the Cascades, nine miles (if you could drive straight over the hills) from Mount Rainier National Park. The mountain looms over the northeast corner of our lake, dwarfing everything. Growing up, I found my way around in relation to that mountain: if I could figure out where the mountain was, I could figure out how to get where I wanted to go. I attended college in the Seattle metro area, and in Seattle, everything is between the mountains and Puget Sound. A person can figure out how to get around pretty easily: just find the mountains (east) and the ocean (west) and everything else is fairly simple.

But not in Texas. There are no landmarks in Texas, not that are visible in the way I was used to. I think I have a pretty good sense of direction, but I spent my first year or so in Texas in a constant confusion. I couldn't figure out how to get around because I couldn't find my bearings. There was no 14,000 foot tall mountain to focus on, no wall of mountains or expanse of ocean to orient from. I was frequently lost.

I think this is part of the reason that Texas feels so foreign to me, even after living here for almost five years. In Washington, the orientation is vertical: tall mountains, tall trees. Like the architecture of a gothic cathedral, the very landscape of the Pacific Northwest encourages the eyes to move upward and outward, to contemplate nature and time and the intimate relationship of rock and tree. There is a sense of time in the forests and mountains of Washington that is beyon human comprehension; there is an ancientness to the moss and the fir trees and the lichen crusted rocks that jut out from the green skin of the mountains that cannot be understood. This is a landscape that demands contemplation and reflection.

Texas, on the other hand, is oriented downward. The heat and sun are often so oppressive that there is no recourse but to look down. The landscape is so flat that there is no reason to look out. Dallas and Fort Worth often seem consist of a never-ending repetition of housing developments, chain retailers, and strip malls, stamped out of the dusty prairie in an ever-expanding circle of concrete and glass. Rather than encouraging contemplation, Texas fosters a shallow understanding of the self, focusing on material accumulation in place of personal growth.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe. But I've been here for almost half a decade and I still can't seem to find my bearings.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I just finished reading Donald Miller's Through Painted Deserts. Reading Donald Miller always puts me in a contemplative frame of mind and so I started thinking: I should to be more thoughtful. I need to develop better writing habits. I really should find a more productive way to waste time.

Productively wasting time. Perhaps that statement needs a little clarification.

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in English (I won't bore anyone with the details of my research with the necessary exception of my committee) and all that's left is the pesky dissertation. I've written most of my introductory chapter and the majority of the research is out of the way. I'm in the home stretch, I guess. But the closer I get to finishing, the more I look for ways to avoid writing. It's not that I don't want to finish. I mean, I've been in college for fifteen years (give or take) and I want to move on. But when I run into trouble with the dissertation, it seems easier to just surf the web or take a nap or just stare at the ceiling than work my way through the problem. None of these are very productive options.

Thus the need to productively waste time. Maybe writing about something other than British Literature will help me write about British Literature. Maybe not. But if I waste time blogging, I think I'll feel better about myself than if I waste time doing almost anything else. At least if I blog, I'm writing. And writing something -- anything -- is better than writing nothing at all.

Oh yeah -- the blog title. I stole it from a friend of mine who once described his effort level in life as "aiming to try." Well, sometimes that's all any of us can manage: all we can do is aim to try.

Global Wanderings . . .