August 10, 2014 (A week after my novel officially entered the world)
I just took a nap and woke up wanting to comment on Nadia Bolz Weber’s sermon about the five loaves and two fishes. I wanted to ask could she, would she, possibly read my novel, because I this story was part of my call to write. But when sleep faded, I got reticent, eased away from asking for anything in her thread.
Since The Feeding of the 5,000 was the gospel reading for the week, I’ve been coming across people’s meditations. I suppose “nap” is my mental connector to this because I nap in church and last Saturday evening I closed my eyes to Pastor Kinnear’s voice. In my dream state, my stomach gurgled with chips and salsa were at least an hour away, and my butt was crinkled by grass and the sun was finding the horizon. I wanted to reach up with my hands and hold his words, both Pastor’s and Jesus’.
My phone dinged, and dinged again, a mute sound that I have set for when someone is sending me a message. I reached over and took a look. Rachel Simon wrote that she’d received The River Caught Sunlight and would treasure the signed copy. She had bought her own copy and would find someone talkative to give it to. I slipped the phone back in my purse to pay attention, pleased Rachel took the time to let me know she’d recieved my book and that she’d even bought a copy. She has been a long time friend and encouragement, since we started corresponding when I taught Riding the Bus with My Sister, which asked what does it mean to live a life? Do we have to live a big one for it to be fulfilling? These are questions I was asking then, that I’m asking now.
My pastor’s voice sounded like footsteps on gravel. “Don’t you know, all these parables we’re studying are about God’s extravagance? In the parable of the sower he spreads the seeds everywhere, whether the soil is good soil or barren. In this parable everyone is fed and there are baskets of leftovers. God is a God of abundance.”
Years ago a verse in Isaiah shook me when I first read it, “He longs to bless you” because this was a different view of God than I knew as a kid, where preachers thundered about our lack and dangled us over fire. Guilt was how I connected with God; often I repeated, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Even to people I say, “I am sorry” when it’s not my fault, when I had nothing to do with their trouble but I drew their guilt to me anyway. Even now the ancient Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” anchors me.
I opened my eyes and felt the pew against my back because I was called to be a poet under this parable of loaves and fish.
My classes spring semester of my freshman year at Wheaton college seemed to merge into one class about creativity and writing. Dr. McClatchey did a brilliant explication of “The Windover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I can hear his voice now, “Buckle!” The hawk, the lover, Jesus, the poet, must all fall to earth, must all yield their glorious flight to this great fall, this great giving of oneself. He explained how the world turned radiant in that moment “gash gold vermillion..”
The world turned radiant for me. I was tossed into an exhausting ecstasy where a Rottweiller crossing campus looked like a king and Madeleine L’engle who came to visit, radiated regal glory. (I walked with her back to her guest room and told her I was called to be a poet. I don’t remember what she said but it had to be kind or I would have pushed back some way. I want to remember her response was “and so you are” because I believe anyone who writes as a practice is a writer. In later years L’Engle did affirm my gift by saying, “These poems are strong and tender and beautiful. She is a poet.”)
That semester Dr. Lorentzen played a recording where the author quoted Rilke, “Ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” I answered, “Yes I must write.”
(An answer I return to, even now, because my thoughts back up like so much water, pushing against me, so I can’t think, if I don’t release them onto the page. This is something I forgot in the relief of not writing anything more than Facebook statuses, since we moved to the farm. )
I worked late into the night on a poem, the lack of sleep an easy sacrifice for my art. Dr. Lorentzen cleared his throat and said, “Your talent is like the loaves and two fishes that the Lord will use.” I could hear in his voice that what I had was pretty humble but I also heard that God would use my gift–something little, broken, to feed a whole hillside full of people. My belly was lit. I had to write, so I designed my life around this desire.
As I walked out of church I shook Pastor’s hand how I wasn’t sure much would come of my novel. (I’d looked at my stats on Author Central.) Pastor Kinnear said, “Remember, what I said, God is a God of abundance.” But that abundance might not mean that The River Caught Sunlight will be a bestseller. We were told at Wheaton to strive to be the best, and for me, that meant publishing in The Atlantic or The New Yorker. It meant hitting the bestseller list hard, otherwise you haven’t served.
It’s taken years to let that go, to bless this small, quiet work. L.L.Barkat in Rumors of Water offers a very wise insight, When she asks “Can you find a small audience?” She notes that many young writers want to be published in a big way before they have written for their grandmother. She says, “I did not realize that these small audiences were preparing me for my professional writing life. It’s probably better that I didn’t. I was free to use the casual, red-checkered cloth of my life and my thoughts without making something ‘important’ happen. ”
God’s idea of abundance reminds me of Annie Dillard writing about the fecundity of the world in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “If an aphid lays a million eggs, several might survive.” If I spend years writing a book, if I spend money publishing and promoting that book and even more hours trying to find readers, God’s idea of abundance might mean that I only sell a few copies but those copies might find their way to readers who take heart from my words, and that might be all its meant to do. But still, after years of writing for polite rejection slips, the readers I’ve found here and through my novel, are reading my words, well that feels like deep, clean breaths that reach down and satisfy.
This is linked at Kelli Woodford’s place.