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A Blessing

May joy pursue you, undeterred by doubt

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May joy pursue you, undeterred by doubt,
unswayed by downturned eyes
or disappointed heart.
May it press in,
as if it saw the end,
as if each failure were the start
of something new.

May joy stand, patient, by the door,
while you, reluctant, wait on pain,
play silent host to fear and also grief.
May it be there to enter when you ask it,
take an adjacent chair,
leave space for tears,
and be content in nearness.

May joy strike down in light shafts after rain;
drift in quiet kitchens, in the hiss of escaped steam;
wander with you when you go
star seeking in blue evening fields;
and catch you, flickering, in the eyes of friends.

May joy bloom out in corners of your mind still
unexplored, in wild future places of yet knowing,
sharp to flood perception, deep and warm.
May, even when it ebbs, still everywhere
its scent, like lavender, linger in the air.

© 2018 Deborah King

Babbling Like an Idiot

Maybe beauty is not enough. Maybe it’s a lot of babbling like an idiot.

I found these beauties on my run this evening.

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They reminded me of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one I love for its turn of phrase, and one whose deep yearning I understand even as I push back against its hopelessness.

Spring

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Perhaps the poet herself did not really mean it; perhaps she saw life as “an empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs” only in the shadow of some personal sorrow.

I hope so.

Maybe she couldn’t see it, but her poetry was a kind of ostentatiously excessive strewing of beauty not that much unlike the flowers of April. I like to think that of the gifts God has given me. They are not particularly useful, in the way the crafting of houses is useful, or the growing of food, or the engineering of technology, or the education of children are useful. I craft words. I create images. You cannot eat them. You cannot live in them.

Sometimes it’s easy to think these things are less important. Maybe this beauty is not enough. Maybe it’s a lot of babbling like an idiot.

But in my sanest, clearest moments, I know this is where I differ with St. Vincent Millay. I know for sure that beauty, where we find it, isn’t meaningless.

It’s a promise that one day all things will be renewed.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:5, ESV

Signs of Spring

Can you smell it in the air—spring coming? Can you feel it coming?

20170322_181222Can you smell it in the air—spring coming? Can you feel it on its way? It’s in the extra bit of light, bit upon bit, we get now each evening; it’s in the small green buds swelling on the branches. It’s in the forsythia blossoms I discovered this afternoon while tramping along the woodsy path near my apartment.

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I love spring’s promise, its hope of life renewed, of joy rekindled. I’ve been yearning for it, all this long, dark, cold Illinois winter. Some days it seemed so far away I thought it would never come.

Six months ago I took a leap to leave a place I loved dearly to step through a door God opened in an unexpected way. To walk a path that felt uncertain and unclear. Lots of days, lots of moments, it still feels that way.

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I don’t know what’s at the end of this path. I don’t understand all the reasons God chose to bring me here. Sometimes it’s tough and I don’t like it.  Sometimes I feel dried up inside with the loneliness of being unknown, chattering in the wind like a dead leaf or an empty seed pod.

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Lots of days, I kind of want run away. To stop, to turn around and go back the way I came, or to plop down in the middle of the trail and just go on strike.

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But also, there are little hints of joy along the way—like gifts, or surprises, God leaves to remind me he planned this.

An unexpected smile. Someone who takes time to care. A hug when I need it.

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And there are signs of new growth. In my heart. In friendships. In opportunities.

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Sometimes, I need a reminder that life is an adventure with God, and adventures take courage. Sometimes, I need to open my eyes and look for signs that spring is coming.

“This is no thaw,” said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 

The Grim

Something was following Conrad.

Something was following Conrad.Grim Wolf - Inktober 01 by Mad-Scissors

He smelled it first—a faint whiff of burning on the chill autumn air. His nostrils flared and his scalp prickled—it smelled like the worst day of his life.

Like the smoke of a funeral pyre.

Conrad sniffed the air and scanned the horizon, searching for a source—a bonfire, or a thin trickle of smoke from a friendly cottage. But there were no fires nearby. Even the light of the manor , where he worked as a stable boy, was hidden by the hills behind him, and only the faint glow of starshine lit his way home over the moor.

The night was dark, cold, and still.

A breath of chilly air teased Conrad’s hair, and he shivered and wished he were back by the manor’s roaring hearth, listening to the bard strum his harp and tell tales. The stories had seemed exciting and noble then—Beowulf destroying fierce Grendel! Faraway heroes battling fantastic beasts with their wits and courage. Conrad and his friends had laughed and boasted they could kill a dozen monsters each.

But now the stories filled his mind with images he wanted to shut out: a hairy creature taller than a bear, hungry for blood; a seven-headed snake with poisonous breath; a demon woman with eyes that turned you to stone.

Conrad’s chest began to ache from holding his breath.

Nothing, he told himself, sucking icy night air through his nose. It’s nothing. But he fingered the bow slung over his shoulder. He was a hunter, like his father had been. He knew what tracking—and being tracked—felt like.

In the darkness, a stick cracked.

Conrad wrenched an arrow from his quiver and notched it to his bow. He peered across the hills, but the black night revealed nothing. No yellow gleam of eyes shone through the dense tangle of weeds. No whisper of smooth, powerful haunches crouching to spring—

Yet something darker than darkness slid toward him.

Conrad drew back the bowstring. His fingers itched to send a shaft into the void—but he didn’t shoot. He wasn’t a little kid, panicky, like his brother Eadric. It was foolish to waste an arrow on some nameless, unseen fear. Instead, he relaxed his arm and turned back toward home, pulling his cloak tighter against the autumn cold, walking a bit faster as he headed down the hill.

He did not return his arrow to its quiver.

Down in the valley, tendrils of mist swirled around Conrad’s knees. Mist—or smoke? The bard’s voice echoed in his ears: Beware the fell beast that haunts the moors—the demon hound with breath of fire. It’s made of shadow and fear, that one, smoke and terror in goblin form.

Conrad stopped and looked back up the hill. The slope was black against the star-sprinkled sky; the long moor grasses bent gently in the wind.

And then he saw it: first a gathering and thickening smoke, then a black mass, a shaggy body eating up the stars with its dark silhouette, bigger than a dog, bigger even than a horse.

Conrad stared at the shape. It’s one of the oxen the thane uses to draw the plows—that’s it. Escaped from its pen is all. If Eadric were with him, that’s what Conrad would tell him.

But the thing lifted its muzzle and stared at Conrad, and it snarled, white canines bared against dark lips. Blood-red eyes, each the size of Conrad’s palm, shone from its grotesque and unearthly head.

It was no ox.

It was the grim.

Conrad’s knees grew weak, and his fingers trembled as he fitted his arrow to the bow. The beast raised its nose to the sky and let out a wail that was cold, shrill, and bloodless as earth and stone. The baying of the grim.

It meant his death.

But Conrad would not go down without a fight. The arrow flew from his fingers, straight and true.

It passed through the beast like a wisp of smoke.

Conrad ran.

Doomed. Doomed. Doomed. Conrad’s heart beat out the death knoll against his chest. His legs shook, but fear pushed him forward up the grassy hill. The tall, tangled weeds snagged at his leather slippers and grabbed at his ankles. His ears strained for the sound of padding paws, the swish of fur through the rushes, the sound of death on his heels.

Something flashed in the corner of his eye, and Conrad glanced left. The beast was loping along beside him, grinning from its hideous goblin face. It veered closer, then away, teasing him. Like a cat with a field mouse. It shook its head and dissipated in a cloud of mist.

Conrad swerved right, but a dark figure pushed him back. The grim was herding him, like a sheepdog herds the dumb wooly beasts. He ran blindly, terror giving his heels speed, senseless of where he was going, smashing through waist-high grasses and billows of chilling mist.

Close behind him, the cold, bloodless wail sounded again. Twice now he’d heard it. If he did not reach home before the third—

Conrad broke out of the fog, splashing ankle-deep in freezing water. It was the mere—how could he have forgotten! He was trapped—water curved around him on a thin peninsula. Before him the water stretched out like polished silver in the starlight, a crescent moon just tipping over the edge of the horizon. The beauty of it hit Conrad like a blow. What a rare place to die, he thought.

He heard footsteps behind him and stepped forward. Water swirled around his calf. Another step. Thick mud sucked at his foot. No, Conrad thought. I can’t go this way! What about Eadric? What will he do without a big brother to teach him? He is only just learning to draw a bow.

Conrad wrenched his foot from the mud and turned. The mist swirled and billowed, and again he tasted the acrid burning in the air. He shut his eyes, wishing he could also shut his nose to the smell—the smell and the memory it brought, the memory he could not shove away.

He was standing beside his mother, her hand—strong and gentle—holding his, her eyes full of tears, but her face set. They were watching his father’s funeral pyre, its smoke rising to the sky.

“How could he leave us?” Conrad had whispered. He’d been young then, Eadric’s age.

“He was afraid,” his mother had said, drawing Conrad close against her side. “Fear ate him up inside.”

Afraid of what? Conrad had wanted to ask, but didn’t, because he knew. There were many things to be afraid of on the moors. The wolves that hunted you even while you hunted. The hunger you felt every day. The lawless men that hid in the hills. The thane himself if you crossed him.

They’d found Father’s lifeless body on the moor. Some said it was the grim that did it.

Running from his fears hadn’t kept him safe.

The grass rustled, and Conrad’s eyes flew open. The mist parted and the grim emerged, its ghastly face and huge shoulders taller than Conrad’s head. The beast did not growl, but its blood-red eyes never wavered from Conrad.

Its mouse. Its sheep. Its prey.

Conrad jerked a foot out of the mud and lurched forward until his feet found solid ground. He felt it beneath him, hard and real.

The grim shook its shaggy head and bared its gleaming fangs. It paced left, then right, each time coming closer, closer, closer. With every step it seemed to grow bigger and more terrible.

Conrad swallowed hard, but he forced his trembling legs forward, one after the other, until he stood nose-to-nose with the beast. His heart hammered in his chest, but he didn’t back away. Not even when the grim opened its mouth and breathed into Conrad’s face.

The smell of burning. Of death.

It’s only a shadow. A thing of the night, Conrad thought, clenching his fists.

But he couldn’t stop shaking.

The beast grinned a long, slow grin. It threw back its head and lifted its muzzle to cast one last wail to the night sky.

“Enough!” Conrad said.

The beast lowered its head and growled. But it did not attack.

“You can’t hurt me,” Conrad said. “You can only frighten and terrify those who let you. Your power is all in fear.” Conrad stood tall and made his voice strong. “I master you,” he said. “I am not your prey. Go away, and never return.”

The grim narrowed its eyes, and the fire drained out of them. Its shaggy coat softened and melted and drifted away into the night air, the burning smell lingering for just a little longer before the wind carried it away.

“So late?” Conrad’s mother asked. She slammed the door shut behind Conrad, and clutched him to her. “I thought—I heard the howl of the grim on the moor, and I feared for you, my son.”

Conrad let her hold him, letting the warmth and solid feel of her soak into his body. “It was only the wind, Mother,” he said. “There is no grim in these parts.”

I Stalk Words

I stalk words
Like the tiger slow-stalks,
Hungry-prowls, the green-glow jungle—

I stalk words
Like the tiger slow-stalks,
Hungry-prowls, the green-glow jungle—
Sun shafts shimmer on stripe-stripe skin—
He slinks through the swish-tall grass.
I hunt wary words, tense-jawed, lithe-shouldered—
Creep. Crawl. Crouch.
And spring.

I catch words
Like the criss-cross leaves
Catch the tumble-fall rain;
Splitter-splatter drops drip-drip-slip
In the curve of a fresh green whorl—
I trap wet words in the valleys of my palms,
Lift my hands to my lips;
I sip.
And swallow.

I mine words
From the rough dark rock—
My pick sweet-sticks,
Smooth-finds, the half-hid crack.
Fingers hard-gripped and one-wrong-stroke missed—
I find, keen-eyed, the silver-thin vein,
And follow.

© 2015 Deborah King

Ditch Your Muse, and Other Truths to Build Writing Stamina

When I began applying for MFA programs in Creative Writing, I knew I needed a serious kick in the pants.

Originally posted at Breathe Writer’s Conference:
http://breatheconference.com/home/featured-articles/ditch-your-muse-and-other-truths-to-build-writing-stamina.html

When I began applying for MFA programs in Creative Writing, I knew I needed a serious kick in the pants. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but my output came in pitiful spurts and dribbles. I was that kid who daydreams of winning an Olympic medal, but stumbles gasping and wheezing through the first mile.

Stamina. I needed to build some writing stamina.

Now, a semester into this MFA writing deal, I feel stronger as a writer, more prepared for the marathon of the writing life. Here are three writing truths that are moving from head knowledge to muscle-memory for me.

1.Your muse is a fickle creature who shows up for work like once in a blue moon. So ditch her.

Too many times I’ve waited for inspiration to strike before beginning a project. Too often I’ve left a project unfinished when inspiration ran dry. But that doesn’t work when professors and classmates are expecting new material. Over the course of the semester, I’ve written and revised three chapters of a novel, two short stories, and a picture book. Much of the time, I was already tired from a day of prepping lesson plans, grading essays, or editing documents. I didn’t have the luxury of writing only when I felt mentally in the groove—I had deadlines to meet!

You may not have teachers to give you deadlines, but give yourself some or ask others to. (Hint: Find a venue for publication and see what their submission deadlines are.) Because good writing can and must happen with or without your muse.

2. It’s okay to write a big messy pile of words.

I haven’t yet reached the point where words flow confidently from my fingertips to the page in lyrical sentences. My first drafts are like middle schoolers—awkward and badly dressed. This means revising will involve painful chopping of large chunks of prose (Hey, I spent a lot of time writing that!) plus a lot of reshaping and polishing of what’s left. The final product will look very unlike the sentences I first typed.

Give yourself permission to write a lot of ugly sentences. Because good writing only happens after you write a truckload of stuff that would make you blush to admit it was yours.

3. Good feedback is worth its weight in gold.

One of my favorite parts of being a student is the writing community. As I’ve interacted with my classmates and professors, opening myself to their critique, I’ve broadened my ideas of what is possible in my writing. They point out confusion where I thought I was clear, tell me where more tension is needed, and suggest plot twists. It’s painful sometimes to be critiqued, especially when trying something new, but it stimulates my mind to find previously unconsidered solutions.

Find people to share with and glean from. An MFA’s not for everyone, but do attend conferences and seek out a writer’s group to join! Because good writing happens within a sharing community.

So ditch your muse, write a sloppy first draft, and go get some feedback! There’s no better way to build stamina in your writing journey.

Growing Into Christ

I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but I’m still a baby in some ways.

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—” (I Peter. 2:2, ESV)

I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but I’m still a baby in some ways. Like my five-month-old niece Madison, when I feel needy, crying is frequently the first thing that comes naturally. Parents of newborns talk a lot about teaching the baby to self-soothe; this seems to be what David references in the beautifully minimalistic Psalm 131 (ESV):

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

I am learning in my needy moments to calm and quiet my soul, remembering that God has never let me down yet. Remembering that that thing I’m so anxious about is perhaps not something God intends for me to fix. Remembering that God is the hero of the story, not me.

Those who share my perfectionist tendencies will understand when I say that my life has been a turbulent pursuit of excellence. Good grades. Artistic achievement. Meticulous attention to detail. And “Being Good.” It’s ironic that even the praise-worthy pursuit of holiness can become a toxic thing in the heart of a perfectionist. At first, I was energized by my goals because I really believed I could achieve them. I just needed to try a little harder.

A few years ago, I crashed when ten years’ worth of life goals crumbled around me. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I cried out to God, “Why did you let this happen? I only ever tried to please you!” And at the bottom of that mental pit, I became very aware that I would never, ever, ever be beautiful enough to please God. As I limped (crawled?) out of that pit (not by way of a rescue rope, as I hoped, but by a long, circuitous, gently-sloping path), something became horribly clear:

I had been dressing up a dead body. I had been feverishly painting make-up on a rotting corpse.

This is a mystery of faith to me, that it took me 30-some years of believing to really see that every day I must get up and dress myself in Jesus. It’s my only hope of being beautiful. It’s absolutely no good for me to start each day with good resolutions: “Today I will be kind to so-and-so. Today I will trust God for the future.” It’s no good for me to make checklists of the progress I am going to make or to memorize chapter after chapter of the Bible. (Though this is certainly an admirable and beneficial thing to do!)

None of it’s any good unless I throw out any idea of my own beauty to become totally mesmerized by His. None of it means a thing unless I come confidently to God wearing Jesus. This is what it means when it says “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (I Pet. 2:6, ESV). Because what is more shameful than having the all the decorative glitter stripped away and finding out you are dead inside?

Speaking of long, circuitous routes, all this brings me to the verse I shared at the beginning, the reason for this post in the first place.

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—” (I Peter. 2:2, ESV)

I can’t stop thinking about that phrase, “grow up into salvation.” This is perhaps the first time I’ve read this verse it in my ESV-reading years. (Other versions have slightly different renderings.) But I keep picturing it like this: Me, a tiny newborn baby, or maybe I’m a toddler perhaps, dressing up in Jesus. And He’s so gloriously beautiful and amazing that I don’t fit Him. He falls in waves of extra fabric around me. The salvation He offers is totally mine; I’m wearing it already. But there’s abundant room for me to grow into it.

And I am so the little kid who wants to fit her parent’s shoes.

Open Water

In 2015, I am seriously considering competing in a triathlon.

Originally posted at the Breathe Writer’s Conference site: http://breatheconference.com/home/featured-articles/open-water.html

150213 Open Water

In 2015, I am seriously considering competing in a triathlon.

Even a few years ago, I would never have thought of doing this, because, quite honestly, I am terrified of drowning. (Pretty much not an exaggeration.)

Since I can currently hardly swim the length of a pool, some of you may feel concerned that my life might actually be in danger. I assure you: I won’t attempt a tri without training. And even with training, well— Swimming in open water? With no pool edge nearby? Pretty sure there will be a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dose of adrenaline going on.

So why do it? Because we only know the joy of overcoming when we face the things we fear.

In 2015, I’m doing another thing that scares me: starting an MFA in Creative Writing. I think it’s going to be awesome. And hard. I may have to cut some things in my life that I enjoy. Like sleep.

It’s worth it to me because I think it will help me become a stronger writer.

The beautiful—and terrifying—thing about 2015 is that it is still unknown. It is a page yet unwritten, one that may bring joy like we’ve never known—or one that may undo us. We launch out into the open water of 2015 with no edges to grab on to. Facing unknowns, knowing our own insufficiency. Maybe the waters of 2015 will take us under.

When I feel uncertain about the challenges ahead, I think of someone who had a different perspective about the future:

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future (Proverbs 31:25, NASB).

Here’s a woman (and men, you can learn from her too!) who looks with courage at the unknown and smiles in anticipation of success. She’s dignified, strong, self-assured.

I want to face 2015 that way.

A few verses earlier, we get a clue about how she can feel so confident.

She girds herself with strength
And makes her arms strong (Proverbs 31:17, NASB).

She’s doesn’t just plunge in, willy-nilly. She took time to look ahead and to prepare. She gets strong for whatever is coming.

There’s another piece to the puzzle. This person is confident, but not self-reliant. She trusts in God.

… a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30, NASB).

At we start into 2015, take some time to reset your internal perspective. What are your writing goals for the new year? How can you prepare yourself? What unknowns do you need to commit to God?

For me, I want 2015 will be a year to remember: a year where I strengthen my arms, trusting God for the outcome. A year where I smile at the future, anticipating the joy of overcoming.

Give her the product of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates (Proverbs 31:31, NASB).

May it be a year full of writing successes for each of you!

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What do you hope to achieve this year (writing or non-writing)? How are you preparing to succeed? Where do you need to trust God for the unknowns?