A Thanksgiving Prayer for the Starving Artist

Father,

Thank you for today, for the clouds that cover the sun, filling us with longing for all that is yet to come. Thank you for the cold that blows in through our air conditioner, leaving us shivering under the covers, so we remember how much we need each other. Thank you for the snow flurries that fill the air with magic. Thank you for the snowflakes’ exquisite shapes, reminding us that you are The Artist, sculpting molecules with haunting perfection. Thank you for reminders that I need not compete in art, insisting that my work is much better that so-and-so’s, because you have surpassed all of us, setting an unachievable standard. Thank you for removing the pressure.

Thank you for a roof over our heads, for so much more space than most of the world. Thank you that I have room for all my books and wall space for the paintings of our friends. Thank you for computers that work so I can write and edit easily. Thank you for inspiring Dropbox, so I know my books are safe even if the laptop dies. Thank you for a husband who knows about things like Dropbox, so that my work is safe. Thank you for a husband who wants to protect my work and cares about what I do.

Thank you for a refrigerator, an oven, and enough counter space to fit a cutting board. Thank you for our generous family and friends, who gave us baking dishes, cookie sheets, cutting boards, and the checks that bought our knives. Thank you for exactly the money we need to eat well. Thank you for Meijer, that it’s sometimes cheaper than Wal-Mart and is so much healthier and better quality. Thank you that we have an option. Thank you also for the exotic fruit we always laugh at…for buddha’s hand and dragon fruit, pictures again of your Art. Thank you that there are so many beautiful things that are not symmetrical, that perfection is not a perfect pattern.

Thank you for a job with a company that treats me like a human being made in your image that wants me to acknowledge your image in others, to serve them. Thank you for teaching me the joy of being a servant. Please help me to forgive those who treat me like a slave. Thank you that even though my hours have been cut, I still seem to manage more than twenty hours a week. Thank you that I have a job at all when unemployment for women entering the work force is at twenty-five percent. Thank you for parents and mentors who have taught us to save, tithe, and pay our credit card bills in full, on time. Thank you for the mercy of the widow at Zarephath, that even though my paycheck keeps dropping, we still have leftover money in our budget.

Thank you for libraries, where we can enjoy books and movies for free. Thank you for books at all, for the wonder for falling into the written words. Thank you that your Book is filled with many types of writing: history, poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic words, biography, letters. Thank you that words are sacred, that this world exists because you spoke it so. Thank you for the honor of using my crude craft to tell stories with hope. Thank you for films, for stories told with pictures. Thank you that you still shine in an industry consumed with itself. Thank you for the people brave enough to make art even when it pays more to make merchandise. Thank you for music, and how your voice pours through strings, winds, brass, and chorus. Thank you for giving me a voice that people fall back on spiritual words to describe. May I learn how to point it to you. Thank you for the new genre of video games, for the excitement of stepping out in an immersive medium in your name, learning more and more what it means to play for your glory.

Thank you that we are not alone. Thank you for giving us communities of Christians and connections with other artists. Thank you for those who have gone before us, teaching us how to live and how to create. Thank you for families who have supported us, listening to our ideas and encouraging us to dream. Thank you, God, that you are a community of artists: Creator Father, Story-teller Son, and Inspiration Spirit. Thank you for pulling us into your holy artist’s colony.

Thank you for creating many different kinds of people, scientists, logicians, pragmatists, communicators, and naturists, as well as those who dream and create. Thank you that you are the God of both the right-brain and the left-brain. Thank you that you make us all live together, so we can learn more about who you are and how to serve you.

Most of all, thank you for your son: his death that killed pain and discord, his resurrection that brought life, and the coming restoration where those promises will be fulfilled, all will be made whole, and your grand story will really start.

In Jesus’ name,
Amen

I Stand with Katniss

This Friday, Catching Fire, the second film in The Hunger Games franchise, will be released in American theaters. I, like many, have been looking forward to the film for quite some time, although my anticipation has been tempered with caution. As a writer of young adult novels, I have a vested interest in how the public views the genre. Although the switch to film changes a story, it can greatly influence how audiences read other books. How this film handles the source material could effect my own writing, especially as one of my main characters is very similar to Katniss (although I finished my first draft in 2007, a full year before the release of the first book in the series). While the first film was extremely popular, it also birthed a cultural phenomenon I find disturbing.

The series takes place in a future, dystopic version of the US called Panem. A young woman from an area racked with poverty finds herself wrestling with the oppressive ruling district known as The Capitol. She is subjected to terrible, violent circumstances through which she becomes a symbol of rebellion and freedom.

For those of you familiar with the story, my description seems vague and leaves out the most important plot point. Which is true. But the story as it is being marketed and as it is perceived by popular culture is one of action, gritty adventure, freedom, and a love story. The problem is that none of those things are what make the book series important. What sets The Hunger Games apart from the million and one young adult novels written about rebellion and romance against the backdrop of a dystopia is that the novel is actually a pretty sharp social criticism on violence in entertainment, reality TV, and pop culture obsessions. The thing I left out of my description is the titular Hunger Games, a gladiatorial challenge imposed by The Capitol where children must fight and kill each other for the televised entertainment of the elite and televised horror of the general populace. We are not meant to find the Hunger Games entertaining. We are meant to find them sick. They are to be objects of shock by which the reader and the audience realize what direction our society is headed. Unfortunately, like The Truman Show, the audience was already too close the the story’s conclusion.

Instead of provoking discussions over how reality TV objectifies human beings, the film has created a pop culture movement talking about how slick and stylized the world of Panem is. Instead of thinking about the effect of violent entertainment on our culture, students at the university I attended decided it would be fun to create a mock Hunger Games where teams had to compete in challenges. Instead of realizing the excess and blindness of The Capitol, makeup companies are selling themed makeup to imitate the over-the-top look of this perpetrator of evil. Instead of championing Katniss for not wanting to have to choose a lover from her two best friends, the general culture thinks she’s in a saucy love triangle.

In the book and the first film (which caught the spirit of social criticism brilliantly), it is made very clear that the people of The Capitol love the Hunger Games. They find them interesting, exciting, and suspenseful. They even get sad when the tribute they’re rooting for dies, rather like how people get upset when their sports team loses. They love the ‘romance’ between Katniss and Peeta and make it even more entrancing than it actually is. They imitate Katniss’s look and use her mockingjay pin, a symbol of rebellion, as a fashion statement.

Katniss rejects and detests this culture. She cannot forget the terrible things these people have done to human beings. This is what keeps her angry, symbolically leading the rebellion.

If you can’t wait for how exciting and cool the new movie is going to be, you’re not with Katniss, you’re with The Capitol.

If you think Katniss shouldn’t bother with Peeta because of how attractive Gale is, you’re not with Katniss, you’re with The Capitol.

If you imitate Katniss’s braid and wear extreme makeup because you think the style of The Hunger Games is awesome, you’re not with Katniss, you’re with The Capitol.

And, if you feel a little sad when Rue dies, but don’t think that her death is disturbing and wrong, you’re not with Katniss, you’re with The Capitol.

Suzanne Collins’ book deserves more than to be a stand in for Twilight. (For one thing, Katniss refuses to be manipulated by the boys vying for her attention.) When I read this book, I found myself thinking about the TV we watch. (It’s horrible that human beings who think they’re good at singing find themselves promoted just so judges and viewers can laugh at them.) I found myself thinking about how entertainment affects politics. (Did you notice how SNL never made fun of Obama’s re-election campaign, while Romney was parodied weekly?) I found myself evaluating my own celebrity interest. I even had to wrestle with why I like this book. And if I go to see the movie, am I perpetuating violence in entertainment, or am I raising awareness? I was pleased that the first movie understood that we are meant to be horrified by the violence, without being desensitized. Gary Ross kept a perfect balance, neither glossing over nor making gratuitous.

I’m worried about the new film because the director changed. I care that the message of these books is not lost in the pop culture cheers and marketing campaigns. And I’m sorry Subway. However bold your subs are, there’s something very wrong with using The Hunger Games to sell food.

Walking on in the Dark

Last Wednesday evening, something in my head broke. I was working on an email answering the question “What is God doing in your life right now?” and suddenly lost my words. This is a question I have been avoiding for quite some time. The simple answer is, “I don’t know.” That, however, does not communicate any kind of specificity. The actually answer is closer to, “I’m not sure, but it’s frustrating and confusing,” or “I’m twenty-two. I’ve just left college, gotten married, and gotten a job in fast-food. My frame of reference busted somewhere along there.”

I moved to Muncie looking forward to life as a grown-up. I thought I would finally be able to write. I looked forward to having a job. I planned out ways to be involved in ministry (since I didn’t have college to pin me down).I thought I might be able to do some acting on the side. I started this blog hoping to chart all of my brilliant ideas as I moved ahead in my writing career. None of these things have happened. In one of the psychology classes I took in college, I heard the statistic that one in ten brides suffers from depression in the first year of marriage. The reasons tend to be that a)  she has spent so much time looking forward to the wedding that she feels lost in the marriage or b) she has too many unreasonable expectations for the marriage. My expectations for my married life were pretty accurate. My expectations for adult life sucked.

Instead of “living the artist’s life”, I’ve found myself struggling to be creative or contribute to society (as evidenced in multiple posts in this blog). I work in a job where I am daily treated like an imbecile. I’ve failed to explain what I want to do as a writer to multiple co-workers. My explanations of faith and art left blank faces and the response, “But you can’t write a book with hope that doesn’t have Jesus. He’s the only real hope.” (How do you explain sensucht without a cursory knowledge of Lewis’s essays?)

So last Wednesday, something inside me broke. I’ve gotten by so far by avoiding explanations. Having to give one left me with a severe identity crisis. Am I a writer if I don’t even know what that means anymore? I’ve never doubted my artistic calling before. I found myself stumbling in the dark, not sure what to do.

So I wrote a blog and tried to keep it as positive as possible. Thursday I went to work, came home, worked on a crocheting project, dutifully attended Caleb’s big presentation, came home, and melted on the couch. Friday I went to work, came home, sobbed, took Caleb to a party, filled up our water jugs, sobbed, crocheted, and had a meltdown on the way to bed. Saturday I went to work, came home, crocheted, realized I wouldn’t finish the project on time, made dinner, sobbed, and melted into the living room floor. Caleb did his best every night to scrape up the Lydia ooze and reform it into a person. I got a cold from crying. My throat hurt terribly. Then Sunday came.

I moped out of bed and to church. I found myself unable to sing during worship. What did I have to sing about? And then God said, “Lydia, snap out of it and listen to me.” The sermon was about God’s purpose for us. The text was Matthew 28, which begins in Jesus’ death, tells of his Resurrection, and ends with the Great Commission:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28: 18b-20

It is not often that a sermon applies precisely to one’s spiritual crisis. It is even rarer that such sermons still leave me unsoothed. I have a purpose, and writing is connected to it. But why is this transition so hard?

I don’t know.

I do know that on Monday, I went to work, came home, made dinner, and crocheted. Tuesday, I washed all of the dishes that crowded the counter, made dinner, folded most of the laundry, and hung up the wet laundry from Sunday night. Today, I folded the last of the laundry, put it away, cooked a pumpkin, went grocery shopping, made dinner, and baked a pumpkin pie. I wanted to try and write. This blog is all I’ve mustered so far. It’s not much. I don’t have any answers to my soul-seeking. But I’m moving. I’m making Caleb’s life easier and I’m creating with food and unfinished yarn projects. It’s horribly far from the meaning I sought. Still, I’m reminded of a quote from George Macdonald’s novel Paul Faber–Surgeon, hidden in a description of a minor character’s deceased wife.

She was rather melancholy, but hoped as much as she could, and when she could not hope did not stand still, but walked on in the dark. I think when the sun rises upon them, some people will be astonished to find how far they have got in the dark.

Mulan and I

For the last three months, I have been trying to create a Pandora channel that plays show tunes. This is much more difficult than it sounds. Imagine The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, and The Sound of Music on an endless loop (plus “Seasons of Love” and “All that Jazz”). I had to scrap my first attempt. Now I have a channel that mostly plays Disney. (No, Pandora. When I start the channel using Stephen Sondheim, I want to hear something Sondheim wrote, not the film score to “Sweeney Todd” and orchestrations of “West Side Story.”) It’s not terrible. I love Alan Menken music. It also means I get to hear the soundtrack to Mulan, of which I can’t complain. Caleb likes to sing along with “To Be a Man”, which makes me laugh. Only recently has it started making me feel empty.

The point of the song is two fold. First, it describes the hardening of Yao, Lin, and Chien-Po from scappy recruits to soldiers. Second, it describes Mulan’s education in the ways of manhood. By the end of the song, she has learned how to take part in a male community. Her knowledge of this code enables her later to team up with her friends to save the emperor. At the end of the film, she has brought her family honor and earned the respect, friendship, and possible romantic interest of her commanding officer. We are meant to think her ending happy. Only, Mulan never gets a song called “To Be a Woman.” We see her in the beginning of the film attempting to memorize the characteristics of a good wife and failing to recall them. We see her attempt to fit the physical specifications of womanhood. We never see her learn how to communicate with other women, even though they fit different models. Now, happily married as I am, I question the satisfaction of her happy ending.

I’ve never fit the picture of femininity. I’ve never liked pink. I had a really hard time making friends with girls until I turned ten. I don’t like chocolate. I didn’t have crushes in middle school. I lost interest in painting my nails at age twelve. I don’t really like romantic comedies. I hate going shopping, especially for shoes. I like Guinness and don’t like Margaritas. I don’t like wearing dresses or heels. The list goes on and on. The difficulty is that I’m in a new city wishing I could make friends with other women. This is impossible to do when “girls nights out” involve chick flicks, chocolate, and pedicures or cute outfits, bars, and flirting, depending on which subculture I’m involved in. I could go and end up standing awkwardly in the corner wishing for something better to do, or I could stay at home wishing for more people like me.

This is not to say that I don’t have women friends like me. On the night before my wedding, when I came home from the rehearsal dinner dizzy and exhausted, two of my bridesmaids suggested we spend the evening watching Thor. Best idea ever. Shakespearean Vikings demolishing a contemporary New Mexican hamlet with mythical weapons in order to save innocent lives? Yes, please. I also know I’m not the only one to struggle with “womenhood.” One of those bridesmaids is a very strong thinker on the Meyers-Briggs scale and has a hard time dealing with the stereotype of women being emotional. I know women who loathe hosting and planning events. I know women who love sports more than their husbands/boyfriends. I know women who never cared about doing each others hair. So here’s my question.

How do we find each other if the only way to get to know women at work or at church is to comply with a stereotypical image of womanhood? How does Mulan find female friends if the only way is to attend the ancient Chinese equivalent of a baby shower? How does she learn to speak the language of femininity if it rejects her?

I’ve been in discussion with one of my friends on the merits of the Bechdel test (a measure for how male-centric films are). I’m all for films with multiple named female characters who have conversations that don’t involve men, just like I’m all for films with strong female characters. But maybe the truth is just that women can’t find friends who aren’t willing to talk about something other than boys/husbands (or pinterest projects, outfits, and event planning) outside of academia.

On the flipside, maybe women can’t find other these kinds of friends in real life because the artistic media don’t portray enough women who fit different ideas of womanhood. Maybe if different schemas of womanhood filled our culture, Mulan and I wouldn’t feel so lonely.

Maybe.