8 Late Updates

The updates aren’t particularly late, I guess. But it rhymes!

Interesting how nothing bloggable has happened since November, huh? Well, the truth is, too much has happened — many things that made me think, “I should post about that.” You know what they say about good intentions and how they’re ideal for diabolical road maintenance. I’m just giving up and writing out a list of updates.

1. I’m writing a novel. Yes, the same one I’ve mentioned over the past (sigh) two years. Two or three times, I thought the end was in sight. I got really excited. And then I’d run into a snag that required me to go several chapters back and rewrite. Which is where I am now, having to write in an entirely new event to justify the climax.

2. It’s going to be a good novel! My problem is that I tend to write stories that are similar to existing genres, but don’t quite fit in one. They’re too lighthearted for drama and too serious for beach reads. So in my current novel, I’ve got a young librarian in a small town who has two love interests; but at the same time she’s dealing with the ongoing effects of racism and abuse. So definitely not an easy fit into one particular category.

3. I’m putting this item third, but I really ought to put it first, last, and in between all other points. In January, my kids’ best friend, a 13-year-old boy who was like a nephew to me, died suddenly of a previously unsuspected brain clot. He and his family have lived directly across from us for sixteen years, and he spent hours at our house. His loss is inexpressible. My kids are still pretty numb, and my husband is able to compartmentalize a broken heart. But I go through every day with my brain repeating, over and over, that our favorite friend is gone. It’s very difficult to watch his family grieve, and to try not looking too far ahead at all the years that he won’t be here. It’s hard, and sad, and I wish we could rewind and get another chance.

4. But life goes on, weirdly enough. I can switch from flooding tears to figuring out the day’s schedule in a moment.

5. Some stuff has been happening in the Toxic Christian Patriarchy world. A lot of it happened around the time we lost our friend, and I just couldn’t dredge up enough spirit to care. Fortunately, others have covered it better than I could anyway.

Go here to read about how Bill Gothard of IBLP/ATI had to face his accusers in court. The suit was dismissed due to the statute of limitations, but the judge allowed each woman to speak and validated them afterward.

Here’s the Joy frequently covers the various implosions among long-entrenched church leaders.

You know how Christians are always looking at “our country” and shaking their heads and praying for revival? If you ask me, those prayers are being answered. Powerful men are finding that they can’t squash their victims’ voices like  generations of men before them could.

6. We’re finishing up another year of homeschooling, but this year is different — this year we’re graduating our oldest daughter. I wrote an open letter to her to commemorate the occasion. It’s odd to be writing to an almost-adult, when I still clearly remember her as a newborn baby with her nose smashed sideways from the birth.

7. I’m seriously excited about this novel I’m writing. (It’s still untitled since I can’t title my works until I’m done.) I’m finding space to allow my characters to be that confusing mix of good and bad that everyone is. It’s especially important in this novel, I think, because it’s set in a little Southern town with the usual history of racism. It would be all too easy to write it as “bad guys racist, good guys not.” But I strive to write real, human characters — and none of us possess all of the approved virtues that would make us a full-fledged “good guy.”  If only I could keep the plot from tangling up, I’d get this thing done!

8. (The fact that there’s a plot at all is a dramatic improvement from my earlier attempts at novels.)

Summer is coming. Writing is on the docket. That looks pretty good to me.

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Dear ____, Love Sara.

Dear Blog,

I’m so sorry. Between homeschooling, writing a new novel, and — you know — living, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

I don’t understand how you can say, “I’m working on a new novel, and here’s my first chapter!” Everything I write is in a state of flux until its final edit. I mean, I just changed the main character’s name and her bike’s name. Just not ready to share anything yet.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear AOL Instant Messenger,

I read recently that you have officially passed away. My friends and I don’t use you anymore, but we mourned your passing. You were the social savior for all of us cult kids in the 90s. I’m not even sure I would have gotten married without AIM access to keep in touch with DJ.

I will wave a sad farewell as that little door-closing sound makes it final slam.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

It’s going to be an excellent story when I’m done. A friendly white girl learns how racial injustice in the not-too-distant past still affects our lives today. So far I have two love interests, a narcissistic grandmother, and at least three Jane Austen references. Ha, I see you baring your teeth in jealousy. That’s right. It’s going to be good.

The bike’s new name is Imogene, by the way.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Enya,

I found out that you released an album as recently as 2015. You were my guilty indulgence in the 90s, along with AIM. I was supposed to be listening to “godly” music, defined by our Revered Leader as any music that emphasized beats 2 and 4 in the rhythm line. (I didn’t make that up.) But you usually didn’t have a driving rhythm line, so I could justify listening to you — despite fears that you were spewing New Age spiritism all over my fragile Christian soul. Thank you for giving me some relief from choral hymns and harp music.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Misguided Readers,

What do you mean, does my  main character run a cute little shop and interact with colorful characters? Do you really expect me to write cute little bumbling romantic scenes? Do you even need a final piece of folksy feminine wisdom to wrap everything up? Oh horrors, I’m not the women’s fiction you’re looking for.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Grammar Nerd,

Okay, yes, I know. The second sentence of this post should begin with “among,” not “between,” because I listed more than two reasons. Thank you for your contribution. Nerd.

Love, Sara.

The Fable of the Two Game Players

The other day while playing the game Castles of Mad King Ludwig, I decided to challenge myself by playing what I guess could be called a Phantom Double Solitaire version. (The official rules don’t actually spell this one out.) I set up a second “player” to build a castle against mine, and we’d see who won.

I, Player Green, always gave myself the first choice for which room tiles I wanted to buy. I also got to choose my own bonus cards (the bonuses at the end often decide the winner). Player Yellow got to buy whatever she wanted to, but only after I did. She also got bonus cards, but I didn’t look at them so I didn’t know which tiles would actually maximize her points.

Other than those two conventions, we both stuck to the rules. I played Yellow’s turn with as much dedication to winning as I played Green’s.

In the end, Player Yellow (the second-choice player) finished in the high 80s. That’s a very respectable solitaire score. As for me, Player Green, I scored one of my highest scores ever, 130.

In my mind, Player Yellow was dissatisfied with our game. But why should she complain? She could start by being grateful she was even allowed to play. Secondly, both of them played the game by the same rules. Thirdly, she got a decent score — not as high as Green’s, sure, but nothing to complain about.

Green didn’t cheat, didn’t do anything to sabotage Yellow. She just played the best she could.

Well, okay, because she always got first choice and got to choose her bonuses — it was easier for Green to get ahead and stay there. Good decisions paid off better, good luck went farther. Bad decisions didn’t set her back quite as far.

Put simply, Green had an advantage — a privilege — that Yellow didn’t. And Green won by 50 points.

There’s a not-very-subtle social justice moral to this tale, if you wish to see it.

White Oblivion

stocksnap_q621it4pyjThis past Monday night, we listened to an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound and poetic “I Have a Dream” speech, read in a raspy Batman-like rumble. (DJ has a cold.)

Most of it went right over the kids’ heads (although Bookgirl probably caught a lot of it this time around). I’m glad that DJ makes a point to read it every year anyway. He and I need to hear it and understand where we’ve come from.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in South Mississippi. We were a lower middle-class white family, somewhere between belle and redneck. The “desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” that King references in his speech wasn’t the Mississippi I knew. I was vaguely aware that things had been bad “back then,” but it wasn’t anything I recognized in my world. The white community didn’t teach its next generation hate and anger.

It taught us oblivion.

We — my white friends and I — didn’t understand how recently segregation had been the order of the day. It simply wasn’t discussed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dismissed with a slight shrug of distaste. I didn’t know anything about Rosa Parks until my sixth grade English teacher, a black woman, dedicated a day of class to her. Thanks to Norman Rockwell’s painting, I knew about Ruby Bridges and integration, but not the seething hate that surrounded her. I was married before I learned about the Detroit race riots (thank you, Dreamgirls). It was last year while researching for a story that I looked up “race relations 1972” and discovered that things were still really nasty in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand a lot of things. And as I got older, none of these facts were concealed from me. The white community simply didn’t bring them up.

Later in the evening of MLK Day, I got myself some ice cream and sat down with what I consider leisure reading — a 1963 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. At first the significance of the publication year didn’t occur to me. But I began reading an article about how families could make the most of their money, and King’s words came back to me.

I read, “It’s sad but true that a great many homes in America today are below the standard of what their owners should have and can afford.” And a thought crept in, You don’t mean the “the negro’s basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” do you?

I read, “A packaged weekend ski trip that includes bus transportation, four meals and two night’s lodging, rental of ski equipment and tow charges, costs only $37 per person…” Assuming you aren’t denied those meals and lodging.

I read, “Traveling by car offers the advantage of convenience and savings on transportation costs for a large family… Motels and hotels charge about $9.50 a night for two…” Two WHITE PEOPLE. The words were a roar in my head.

This magazine, a “family magazine” for “Americans today,” was written only for white people. And I’d never really thought much about it, because I’m part of the club, so it’s easy to assume that everybody gets the same benefit.

Outright black oppression at the hands of white supremacy isn’t really history. It’s still living memory. It’s a charred field barely covered over with new growth. More and more I realize that we can’t expect our nation to “move on” from a catastrophe that’s still hot to the touch.

I want healing. I want to see things change. And I’m trying to start with myself. I never singled out other races for hate and disgust. I’ve worked hard to shed some toxic ingrained attitudes of white supremacy.

But I can honestly say that what I’m mostly guilty of is something that’s harder to see in the first place. I’m guilty of oblivion.

So this year especially, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m glad that we still have his words that make us stop and acknowledge the truth we’d been taught to ignore. May oblivion not blind us to the plight of our neighbors and fellow humans.

What To Do About That Rapey Song

This is a post about Christmas songs. And Shel Silverstein. And sex. And good wholesome naughtiness. All, I hope, without the side effect of sermonizing too much. Guess we’ll just have to see how this goes.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, who performed it with his wife at parties, according to Wikipedia. In 1949, it was featured in the movie Neptune’s Daughter starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. You know this song, of course. It’s a duet, a clever weaving of two monologues: a woman who says she has to leave, and a man who is seducing her to stay.

Lately it’s gained a bit of notoriety. Not because it’s about sex, because that’s actually a recurring theme in winter songs. Let It Snow celebrates the fact that the weather outside is frightful, so good thing we’re inside and together and hey, how about it? Walking in a Winter Wonderland is a little tamer, but even then they’re looking forward to a little necking in front of the fire. Evidently the human response to cold weather is to have sex (which makes sense; at least it’s warm).

But Baby It’s Cold Outside, while pretty much the same theme as Let It Snow, is quite a bit edgier. It’s known as “the date-rape song” thanks to lines such as:

The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)

I’ve disliked the song for years for that exact reason. It makes me anxious, not cozy.

I’m not alone in this feeling. Seems like we could just let it die a quick death, but it’s hard to kill Christmas songs. Last Christmas by Wham!, anyone? Instead, several people are scrambling around doing damage control.

This article from the Washington Post is an example of one perspective. It maintains that at the time the song was written, it was all about women’s empowerment because a woman staying overnight with her lover could expect to come under fire from society. And that is a point. The woman in the song is obviously reluctant to leave, and keeps pointing out all the people who are going to be scandalized if she doesn’t go.

The problem with this patch-up is twofold:

  1. He never offers to protect her from any of the vicious fallout she’ll receive for staying the night with him.
  2. Lady, please. If you don’t want to go, grow a vagina (as the egalitarian saying goes) and say Yes. Stop saying No if you don’t mean it. That confuses good men. (Men unlike your lover who—if you ask me—will ditch you as soon as the family pressure comes bearing down for him to make you an honest woman.)

Others, finding that explanation insufficient, have decided that the song is a total loss as-is. They’ve rewritten it to illustrate proper sexual consent. One version features lyrics like this:

I really can’t stay (Baby I’m fine with that)
I’ve got to go away (Baby I’m cool with that)

My mother will start to worry (Call her so she knows you’re fine)

I ought to say no no no (You reserve the right to say no)

 

Okay, so I admire the effort… but it’s like drinking flat root beer. Instead of a predatory lover, now you’ve got somebody who:

  1. Doesn’t want her to stay at all but is too nice to say it outright
  2. Is missing all of her flirty hints by earnestly supporting her rights

Either way, the song gets increasingly awkward as it goes. At least in the original song, you’ve got some sizzle and fun.

That’s the problem with sanctifying things. They’re unobjectionable and a good example, but boring. Like characters in kids’ shows, who always make the right choices. Sometimes you’ve just got to be a little naughty for interest.

Shel Silverstein, for example, was a master at writing funny, somewhat macabre, poetry. Kids like them because, well, they’re so wrong.

For instance, Abigail who loved the beautiful pony, but her parents wouldn’t buy it for her. She said she’d die if they didn’t, and they said that nobody ever died from not getting a pony, but guess what? She did die. And her parents were very sorry. The author’s note at the end said, “Show this to your parents if they won’t buy you something you want.”

Or Clarence, who bought new parents. And if your parents nag you or get tired or yell at you, it’s because they’re wearing out and you need to buy new ones too.

Obviously these poems teach a terrible moral. But the kids know it’s wrong and enjoy it.

One reason why the original Baby It’s Cold Outside is (was?) fun is because of the tension of “I must go” and “I want to stay.” It’s naughty.

But that brings us back to why it’s a toxic song for our culture. Even today, sexual consent is widely misunderstood. Several times after Trump’s infamous description of sexual assault, I saw people (men and women both) defend it by saying that women bought Fifty Shades of Grey (the extremely horribly written trilogy about a dominant/submissive sexual relationship), so how can they complain about what Trump said? It’s like people don’t get the difference between consenting sex and sexual assault.

It’s not sex that’s the problem. It’s sex that’s forced on someone who doesn’t want it.

Baby It’s Cold Outside is about someone who wants capitulation, not consent. I don’t trust the man and his dismissive answers to her concerns, his smooth compliments, and his pleas for her not to disappoint him. I’m not convinced he’s going to let her leave if she insists.

Since this song is played over and over every single year to a society that can’t keep sex separated from sexual assault—well, I think it’s a problem. Explaining it away just justifies to all its listeners that its okay for a man to “wear a girl down” (another lyric in the song). Merely rewriting it to “clean it up” kills the thrill.

I see two options:

  1. Rewrite it creatively, so that there’s still tension but not that of a predatory male and a wavering female. Good luck with that.
  2. Just stop playing the dang song already.

And the second option is, really, the best option. Glad we had this discussion.

Now, since it’s cold outside, I think I’ll turn the lights down low and see if my man and I can warm things up. I’m pretty sure he’ll consent.

Speaking of Spiders: Some Marriage Advice

spider-macro-zebra-spider-insect-40795.jpeg

This past weekend, my husband and I got away for an hours-long date. As we were driving home sometime after midnight, I gazed at the stars over the Blue Ridge Mountains. We talked about spiders.

It was wonderful.

We’d driven two hours, eaten Indian together, enjoyed a two-hour show by my favorite indie band (all hail Carbon Leaf), and were on our way back home. We’d discussed his work, my writing, kids, school stuff, plans for holidays, church obligations, an article I read about teaching boys about sexual consent, the 24-disc Eisenhower biography he just finished listening to, the food we ate, the parts of the show we liked, and the boy named Wayne who was generous enough to ask gawky me to slow dance at my last middle school dance.

We still had an hour of driving time to go. So DJ told me about the radio program he’d listened to about some highly-developed spiders. It was interesting—part of the reason I fell in love with DJ was that he knows something about everything—and while he talked, I looked out the window at Orion and thought how happy I was.

If you’re married with little kids, you might be trying to smile and say how great that is that we could get away for all that time. Meanwhile, you’re lucky to get a couple of hours out every three months or so. Assuming the babysitter plans don’t fall through.

Yeah, don’t bother to be nice. Go ahead and bare your teeth. I know the feeling. We had our first child nine months after we got married, and have never lived close enough to family to have any of them pick up babysitting for us. Our dates for years consisted of hiring a teenage girl, eating out, then driving up and down Rt. 11 until after bedtime so we at least didn’t have to put kids to bed. Weekend getaway? Never done it. A week away? Unheard of.

But now I can see something we did right.

During those closed-in years when we had little kids, we could hardly even finish three sentences without interruption. We kept trying anyway. In among kids and work and spiritual meltdowns, we talked about books we read, thoughts we had, opinions we were chewing on. We’d lie in bed at night, sleepy, and talk about theology. While driving up and down Rt. 11, we’d play each other songs we’d discovered, or relate a funny conversation with a distant friend. We didn’t have time for long, leisurely conversations, but we filled what time we had.

And one day, we didn’t have such little kids anymore. This Friday, we left the house at 4 in the afternoon and didn’t get back till 1 in the morning.* We didn’t have to spend any of that time getting reacquainted. The connection we’d shared before life got so intense—that connection was still alive.

So my point isn’t that to keep your love alive, you need to get away without kids, because that’s not really an option for some of us. My point is to fill up the spaces of busy life with conversation, staying connected, never losing sight of each other.

And maybe some night, you’ll be driving together with your love. Maybe you too will gaze out the window as he talks, and see a shooting star trail down the sky. Meanwhile, he’ll tell you about highly-developed spiders.

And you too will be happy.

*Plan assumes you have generous friends who will pick up pizza for your kids’ supper, and neighbors who are always willing to be on call if necessary.

Inviting In the Blacks

love-1-1314956-1280x1920Up until two or three years ago, I thought racism had pretty much died out.

It was an easy assumption for me. I, a lower-middle-class white girl, grew up in a small Mississippi town only a generation or two removed from segregation. I attended junior high in the “old black school,” and teachers rode us hard to eradicate any use of racial epithets (black or white). The KKK was a thing of the past, and generally deplored among the people I knew. I vaguely knew there had been bad times “back then,” but in my growing up, I heard of only a few incidents that seemed to stem from racial tensions.

I was friendly with several of the black kids, but not close enough that we went to each other’s houses. White girls still didn’t date black boys (I do remember a mild furor when a white friend accepted a black friend’s invitation to a school dance). The churches were divided down pretty straight racial lines; I just always thought it was because blacks worshiped much different than whites did (which actually is true) so we just all preferred our own style.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how separated our world was. The more I see the disdain that my social class held for “them.” But among my parents and other adults, no one taught me malice or hate.

So I took the example of my teachers and parents and went farther. I taught myself to ignore skin color. My kids grew up without hearing anything about how “black people are like that.” Further, I assumed that all the whites of my generation were doing the same thing. We wanted to move beyond the horrors of the past, right?

My first clue that racism was a still big issue should have been when I was writing my novel. When I was sketching out its early drafts, I looked at my cast of characters and realized that they were all white. That’s standard in Christian fiction, and it annoys me. I really wanted to include non-white characters, but immediately ran into a problem.

The Fellowship is a highly insular Southern church founded and run by a white family. This type of church hardly ever includes black families. If I introduced a non-white character, I had to have a good backstory to justify it. But I wanted to avoid the issue of racism because that’s not what my book focuses on.

So I cheated.

I wrote into the story that by the late 80s, black families were admitted into the church and even allowed to marry into the white families. My heroine, Bekah, grew up under these conditions so is basically colorblind. It made me sigh that the only way I could deal with all characters on an equal footing, with only a hint of racism, was to create a utopia that doesn’t actually exist.

I knew it was a stretch. But I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch; we were already well on our way to that point, right? Especially among Christians whose very theology taught us that God looked on the heart, not the outward appearance?

The internet has broadened my circle to take in the black community and what they have to say. The ugly truth filtered in, one heartbreaking bit at a time. It’s easy to “get past” racism when you don’t really live under it.

I’ve changed a lot of my thinking and I’m paying attention to the discussion raging around us. I’m not taking sides except to acknowledge that for generations, whites have enjoyed power and privileges far above their non-white fellow citizens. In a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom, we were wrong. I’m sad for my friends whose skin color eclipses their personhood, and regret how oblivious I was (and am).

But do I regret my decision to make the Fellowship a slightly implausible haven of racial equality? Not at all. Because just like my story gives hope of recovery from spiritual abuse, I like its picture of a world where a person’s skin color is merely another physical trait, not an indication of character.

Here’s to the future.

The Fellowship is available in paperback and Kindle.