The Journal of S. Roberts J.

20180814_112204-1

The problem with my old journals is… well, me.

As I explain over at Legacy Leather Books today, my younger self was on a mission to make my mundane life as interesting as possible. I also read a lot of Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. The result is this weird mix of rural Southern life and strained British wit. But hey. It’s not boring!

More seriously, not all of the memories I wrote down are pleasant for me to revisit. Those were my “Fellowship” days, when even my private thoughts had to conform to what I thought were God’s standards. I can see it at work in how I wrote spiritual phrases that I didn’t really say naturally; or how I was careful not to mention any “young man” in a way that suggested I thought he was attractive; or how I emphasized the many positives of my life, but didn’t explore the struggles and conflicts that I was going through.

Many of you who read my blog will understand this kind of internally-imposed control, which is why I mention it here. I didn’t get into all that over at Legacy. Over there, you can just laugh at my overly bright and sparkling prose.

Then linger to look at the handmade, family-heirloom-quality leather notebooks

I love these books. My first thought is that nothing I write is actually worthy of a book like this. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that anytime I write down my thoughts and memories, I’m preserving something priceless. Memories that don’t fade — those belong in a book that will last almost forever.

And besides, just look at this book. Or this one. Or this one. 

Oh. Are you still here? Sorry, I was browsing and dreaming.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy a few laughs at my 20-year-old pretentious self, and find a cut-above gift for a loved one… or, you know, for yourself.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

Hymns Revisited

Part of me loves the hymns I grew up with. Part of me tries to escape them, scrambling backwards and knocking stuff over.

I’ve got reasons for my reaction, which possibly isn’t as measured and reasonable as it could be.

For one thing, some of the words of these “hymns” are incredibly insipid. For instance, the bouncy little song  “At the Cross,” which took a weighty Isaac Watts poem:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And stuck a catchy gospel chorus to it:
At the cross!
At the cross!
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart was rolled away!
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day!

Yeah, so, you know — the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless God to save wretched sinners… it sure does make me happy all the day!

For another thing, I can’t stand some of the tunes. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has fantastic words. But good heavens, who wrote that tune and thought, “Yeah! This is IT! Congregational singing, HERE WE COME!”? You start off at a full run and don’t even get to pause for breath between the first and second phrases:

“AmightyfortressisourGodabulkwarneverfailing!”

It’s like an entire hymn in hashtag form.

Other tunes are so locked in their nineteenth- and twentieth-century sound that they’re almost painful to twenty-first century ears. Sweet Hour of Prayer, Blessed Be the Tie, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Softly and Tenderly. They drag. They whine. I cannot stand those tunes.

But so what? Big deal. Everybody who ever attended church likes some songs and not others. Why does that qualify me to run in the other direction?

Well, because for years I was taught by a now-discredited teacher that these hymns were the only acceptable music to listen to. He did allow some classical music (except for Stravinksy, and Debussy was suspect too, and if he’d ever heard of Gershwin then that would have been off-limits as well). Some Celtic and bluegrass slipped under the line, too. (I practically overdosed on Ungar&Mason’s album, The Lover’s Waltz.) But mostly my available music consisted of hymns arranged in an approved style.

So my life was filled with these hymns. The beautiful (Praise to the Lord the Almighty; Holy, Holy, Holy); the fluffy (Victory in Jesus; Lily of the Valley); and the insipid or annoying (see above).

I couldn’t pick and choose to like them because my options were so limited.Besides, there’s no room in a Godly life to say that you don’t like Godly music.

Once I realized that I could step beyond those artificial boundaries, I walked away from hymns. I liked listening to DJ play and sing at the piano, but I was angry that they had been forced on me as “the only good” music when some of it was patently not good.

Yet part of me still loves many of those songs.

A few months ago, I discovered Chris Rice’s song “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)”. It’s written in the style of an old mountain hymn, very simple words* and tune; but all the verses together trace a thread through the life of a Christian, from “sing to Jesus” to “fall on Jesus” to “dance for Jesus,” and finally death — “fly to Jesus.” It’s surprisingly touching, especially since Rice doesn’t try to make it fancy. He just sings.

When I found a 2007 album by Rice called “The Hymns Project,” I thought maybe he could salvage some of those old songs I really want to love. He didn’t disappoint me.

He liberates a couple of hymns from their swingy-slidey rhythm (“Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”). He takes one song that drags like a toddler going to bed, and gives it energy (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”). And he included one hymn that I love almost no matter how it’s arranged, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

I used to dislike this verse — that whole thing about the “fetter.” But now I deeply appreciate the idea that I can’t wander away from God. He lets me walk away, but never so far that I can’t find him again.

The best thing about this album is that Rice just sings. He doesn’t try to make the hymns more than they are. That’s when I realized there’s actually a lot to them.

I didn’t like every song (even Rice couldn’t mellow out A Mighty Fortress). That made me happy, too, since it reminded me that I’m free to pick and choose.

So if you’re like me and wary of hymns, give this one a try.

Source: Amazon.com: Peace Like A River: The Hymns Project: Chris Rice: MP3 Downloads

*The lyrics “Like a newborn baby/Don’t be afraid to crawl” is a slight jar, I admit. Newborn babies don’t crawl, and the only thing they’re afraid of is starving to death immediately right now even while a nipple is being inserted into their screaming mouths. But it’s minor. Just go with it.

 

 

 

Watch Your Mouth, There Are Men Present!

Once, during the years I was part of my own real-life “Fellowship,” I and several others were being trained to teach a children’s class.

The leader asked if anyone knew a particular story from the Old Testament. I volunteered to tell it, and it was a great moment in my life. I made everyone laugh, then sigh, then grow quiet at the heartbreaking ending. The leader was really impressed, and said so.

The next day, he asked for another story. I volunteered again. The leader gave me a brief smile, then asked, “Any guys want to try?”

Not “anyone else,” but “any guys.”

It was a subtle rebuke to all those guys who didn’t volunteer.

Hang on. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the leader just wanted participation from the guys as well as the girls?

Not in the world of Christian patriarchy.

Everyone there had been schooled in the same teachings. We all knew that the guys were supposed to be taking the lead — in spiritual matters, in teaching, in marriage, and in life. Girls were supposed to submit to their fathers’ or husbands’ authority. In practice, they were taught to defer to men in general as well.

I was once told, “Where women move in, men move out.” The speaker was talking about the real estate business, which in the late 90s was heavily populated by women. That was why you didn’t want to let women move into professions like piloting, politics, and military. Because men would move away to something else, leaving women in charge. And you know what a disaster that would be.

Wait, you don’t know?

We were assured it was the worst thing that could happen to our churches and our nation. God didn’t want women in charge. All kinds of (unspecified) calamities would result as soon as “feminists” got control.

(Nobody addressed the fact that the world was already in pretty rotten shape with men in charge.)

Every female character in the Bible was forced through the grid of “submissive to authority” or not. One day I’ll devote a post to explaining how Abigail was bad, Esther a compromiser, and Deborah a reluctant leader. Ruth generally came out okay if you glossed over the story enough. But for here, I’ll just say that all of us young people understood the same “truth”: that a woman was always second place to a man.

So when a young woman stood up and did a top-notch job telling a Bible story, the young men in the audience couldn’t just say, “Good job!” and let it go. No, she’d laid down a challenge: someone had to get up there and do it too. Preferably better.

And not just “someone,” either. Some guy.

And please, woman, from now on — keep your gifts and your voice in check when men are present.

O the Deep, Deep Love of Journals

Recently I found out that my friend Toni at RedPenTravelers.com “made journals.”

I love pretty much all journals. It was a a mark of virtue in my own “Fellowship” to keep a regular diary, and it was something I could actually do, unlike sew my own clothes or get up early to meditate on Scripture.

At some point, our Venerated Teacher came up with the idea that we shouldn’t keep “diaries” that recorded personal stories and weren’t meant to be read; we instead should keep “journals” that were written for the edification of others. So much for my natural advantage; I was being all worldly and sinful after all.

Although I struggled to conform to this godly (ahem, ridiculous) standard, and still managed to fill up several books. And all these years later, I don’t know anybody who would want to slog through the overblown prose of a Southern girl who read too much Jane Austen and developed crushes on her own fictional heroes.

All that to say that when I found out about Toni’s journals, I rushed over to see them. Because, you know, journals. What I found was absolute fabulousness.

A handmade leather journal cover, customized according to my choice of color and state. My hometown marked with a heart, and the front cover stamped with my initials. It all fit in my purse. It fit in my life. I needed that journal cover like my teenage self needed a real boyfriend.

The travel journals are designed to accommodate inserts that you can buy. I folded and trimmed paper to fit mine. You might notice that the paper is blank. These days I don’t fill up journals like I used to. But my love for them is undiminished.

Toni and I weren’t exactly at school together, but we were in the same cult, which makes a way better story. She and I met as teenagers at the big annual conference, when we both wore long skirts and she had long hair (I never could grow my hair to a godly length). We wrote letters for years, then fell out of touch until Facebook dawned, Recovering Grace was launched, and we all worked through the tangles of our past together.

As Miss Red Pen, Toni proofread my novel. As RedPenTravelers, she’s offering a discount for everyone who shows up saying I sent them.

So, be ye sent. Click here to check out her site. Use the coupon code FELLOWSHIP for 10% off your order through this December.

Seriously, why are you even still here? You could be a few minutes closer to holding your own handmade customized leather journal in your hand. And say hi to Toni for me while you’re over there.

*****

The Fellowship is available on Kindle and in print.