This is a question I get asked more and more lately. Who are you? How did you get here? Why are people listening to you? One retreat director, who—based on multiple recommendations—was engaging me as the lead speaker at a week-long event for 2017, actually spelled out the confusion,” I mean, you’re not a pastor or a professor or a worship leader or a director of Christian Education.” In other words, how did you become a credible figure without any of the traditional credentials?
I get the confusion. In the Lutheran world where God called me to faith (and out of which He has not yet shown any inclination to move me), I am an anomaly. Not of the German Lutheran culture. Not a lifelong Christian. And, perhaps most confounding, a woman who talks about theology and culture—both inside and outside of church walls.
When I was working on my MA thesis, I discovered a non-Lutheran, Luther scholar named Gordon Rupp, who said this about a pivotal season in Luther’s development: “you could almost hear him growing in the night, so plain is the growth in maturity, independence and coherence in a few months.”
This idea that a person’s public writing might reveal the fingerprints of God in her life stayed with me, until I came to see that the answer to the question “who are you?” might be hidden in plain sight, in the blogs, books, and talks I’d written over the past five years.
Soon I will be releasing an e-book that will endeavor to retrace the steps of the Living God in my life over a period of profound transformation. It is my hope that in sharing my story, others will be encouraged to pray, listen, and follow His Spirit with boldness and great joy.
Soli Deo Gloria
“Surely, God’s love includes people who can’t bear it.”
It arrived in a Facebook message from my husband this morning. I saw that it was a link. Clicking thru I had the surreal experience of reading about a murder-suicide—the sort of thing that happens somewhere else, to people with lives you can’t quite imagine. But this was the story of a man I knew. We had all worked together in advertising years before. I hadn’t heard from him in 20 years until my husband forwarded me a message in December of 2014. It seems he had picked up my book Elijah & the SAT and it was speaking deeply to him. I share this in the hopes that we may begin to open our eyes to the silent pain all around us.
He wrote “It’s 12:30 at night here, and in one sitting I’ve consumed about 33% of the book on Kindle. Now I can’t sleep. Two sleeping pills and a stiff one haven’t knocked me out. I gotta keep reading. I even went up to our library upstairs and pulled out a Bible.”
We exchanged a few emails after that. I suggested he try reading The Psalms. I think I might have sent him a Taize song or two to soothe his soul and help him learn to open his heart to the Living God, the God who brings the peace that passes all human understanding.
The last time I wrote him was to thank him for a lovely review on amazon. He had ended it with these words “I’m glad I’m reviewing it during the holiday season because it’s very motivating. In fact, I plan to go to church for the first time this Christmas in a long, long time.”
I don’t know if he ever showed up at a church, or if anyone would have been able to sense his pain if he did. It’s not always an easy thing to spot, or to heal.
We have finally begun to recognize the epidemic in this country of early death from drug and alcohol abuse, illness, and suicide in working class men, but his was of a strain we don’t talk much about: despair in those who have been successful in media professions and then find that the new world order somehow doesn’t include them.
And now a husband and wife are dead, leaving behind a legacy of violence and despair.
What are we to do with stories like this? With pain like this?
At the very least I hope these tragedies serve to make us more mindful of how misleading a nice house or a car or a smile can be. Of how little we actually know the neighbors we long to love.
May the God this man hungered to reconnect with pour down his mercy on the family, and all those who are crushed by the lie that says we are only as good as our job title, our degree, or our net worth.
Lord have mercy.
This was the title of my second book—my first novel— which was supposed to be published 17 years ago. It wasn’t. After the success of Baptism by Fire, my agent was eager to have me write, “more books like that.” I wasn’t clear on how I was supposed to write more books about my daughter being diagnosed with a brain tumor and my coming to faith in the process. “Just write about family crisis stuff. You have a great voice for that. I can sell that.”
To me, this was not an option. Many writers do a beautiful job making their own family life their craft, but I could not. I just knew that if the everyday ups and downs of raising a family became wholly intertwined with my writing career that someone was going to come up short in the deal—and that the consequences would be irreversible. And so I decided then and there that I’d write fiction.
My agent, as it turned out, loved this book. He quickly put together an auction with a dozen or so of the top New York publishing houses. The clock was ticking. The bids were coming in by the day. Some dropped out, but others doubled down. Just a few months before there had been a movie (which I’d never seen) starring Gwyneth Paltrow called Sliding Doors that had used a similar device. This made people even more excited about Kissing Babies ; originality is great, but familiarity is even better, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned.
Then, in the final days of the bidding war, the publishers narrowed to four, then two, and finally—to none. “What does that mean?” I asked, still very new to the book world. I thought my agent would say we’d do another auction, with another list. But he did not. “Those were the best houses for you, so, I think that’s it for now. Maybe we’ll try again later. In the meantime, just keep writing.”
What else could I do. I didn’t want to make a career out of submitting a single manuscript— as if my life depended on that one story, that one idea. Maybe it wasn’t the right book. Maybe it wasn’t the right time. So, I figured I’d just write something else. Which I did. A lot of something elses.
During those years the publishing world changed pretty dramatically. Where once there was no self publishing, and then just an embarrassing strand of “vanity” publishing, finally, there started to be a real and viable self-publishing option. And so it was, in February of 2012, I got one of my divine nudges. It wasn’t about Kissing Babies, but rather The Pitcher’s Mom, a novel I had written a good five years earlier.
The Pitcher’s Mom had also had its share of close calls with big name publishers: but, in the end they all said the same thing: Women don’t read books about sports.
“Maybe that’s because you don’t publish books about sports from the woman’s point of view,” I’d tell them. But to no avail. So I published it myself, and now, four years later, The Pitcher’s Mom sells steadily, and to increasing numbers of both woman and men each year.
This past weekend I got one of those nudges again. I had to dig around a bit just to find an old paper copy stored in a box. I was afraid to read it at first: what did my writing voice even sound like back then? And the voices of characters I didn’t ever remember the names of. I opened the manuscript slowly and begin to weep. I read and I laughed and I held my chest for the beauty and the pain of it all, and I remembered why I had loved this book, and why I thought the world would, too.
So now I’m praying about whether to go back to the big NYC houses and start again, or just put it out through Stewart Press, and trust it to find its way. Here are the opening pages of the first novel I ever wrote, Kissing Babies. Please join me in praying that its time has finally come.
Josie Elizabeth Baird hasn’t slept all night. Two in a bunk is tight, but that isn’t it. They’d slept in the same slim, university-issued bed many nights before and perfectly, like teaspoons, her pale skin pressed against his pinto-colored flesh, the curve of her bottom pressed against his thick dark hair and more—no, it is not close quarters that keeps her awake, but him. The thought of him forever. The thought of him gone forever. The thought of a person walking the earth forever who was some part him and some part her and the thought of that gone forever, too.
Josie Baird is not a religious person; she was raised to claim her prizes in this lifetime. From the day she recited the alphabet at seventeen months, Bob Baird began laying out his firstborn’s life like a AAA road map from nursery school to the Ivy League. All Josie had to do was tilt her straight brown bangs into the designated task—spelling bees, swim meets, debate contests—and give it everything she had. There were no bride or princess costumes for young Josie Baird. When she was seven she went trick-or-treating as a barrister. Her sister, Shelly, on the other hand, was held back in first grade and was allowed to go as a bride both Halloweens.
Erik Emmanuel Martinez proposed to Josie three months ago. It was not in response to her news, but in the wake of three cans of treacly peach margaritas they had shared at an outdoor concert along The Charles on the occasion of their seven-month anniversary as boyfriend and girlfriend. In his heart he had meant it. But the way it came out felt like kids playing dress-up and they both laughed it off and went back to the soft folds of their blanket. Last week, when she told him, Erik did not repeat his proposal as she assumed he would. He simply pressed his hands around her waist and said that it was up to her.
At the first hint of dawn, Josie tiptoes down the bunk ladder oblivious to the fact that Erik is no more asleep now than he had been all night, he, too, tormented, as if by a sliver of glass gored in his eye by the word conceive. It is conceivable, is it not, that young people can have babies and love each other and life can be good? His mom and dad were only seventeen when they had him he could offer as evidence, leaving out the part that they had spent a lifetime working double and triple shifts so that Erik would not have their life, so that Erik would get an education, a real one, a college degree from “the best university in America” his parents had said almost every day of his naturalized life.
From the bed Erik hears the swish of parka sleeves, the jangle of keys. He has watched Josie getting ready to leave so many times he can recreate each movement in his mind. Next, she will pat her pockets to check for the telltale lump of mittens.
Josie reaches for the door. The brass clank makes Erik’s heart beat so hard and so fast he is certain it is audible. “Yo te quiero, Jos,” he mouths from the bed where still he feigns sleep. Josie stops, holds the door ajar, unsure if she has heard something. Erik fixes his eye on the cinder block wall and prays a single word: please.
Josie Elizabeth Baird takes one last look around the room and quietly shuts the door. In less than three hours, the clinic will open. Still, she is uncertain of what she will say when she gets there, and of who she will be when she returns.
A coltish young woman with straight brown hair and turquoise eyes fills out a card in the waiting room of the Back Bay Woman’s Clinic. It reads J. Baird. She writes it for anonymity, but finds herself enamored of how the blunted moniker looks on the page—the lean, corporate androgyny of it —and decides then and there to keep it that way. Lean. Corporate. Androgynous. J. Baird. Termination.
As night falls on the dorm rooms of Dunster House, J. Baird and Erik Martinez stare blankly at a cooking program on their 7″ TV; J. finds herself regretting, suddenly, that they’d gone in on it together. She rolls over, bending at the middle in such a way as to require far more width. Erik accommodates, draping his arm across her waist. He waits for her to take his hand. He waits several minutes before withdrawing it.
“Maybe I should go sleep downstairs tonight,” he offers.
“It was kindof a major day, alright,” J. responds defensively.
“I know, I just—” Erik stops, waits for her to meet him halfway. J. provides nothing.
“Alright, well,” Erik says hurdling down off the top, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I have a lot a work to do tomorrow,” J. says too quickly.
Erik kisses his fingertips and presses them to her furrowed brow. “Well, let’s just see how it goes then.” As he speaks, J. fixates on his thick, black, unkempt brows. They strike her, now, as alien.
A coltish young woman with straight brown hair and turquoise eyes leaves the Back Bay Woman’s clinic with a prescription for pre-natal vitamins. It is made out to Josie Martinez, a name she takes on faith. The early morning chill behind her, Josie hails a cab as if waving to a passing parade float. Erik’s first class is not until 11:00. If she hurries she can catch him.
As the noon bell peals through the quad, Josie and Erik nestle against the trunk of a liquid ambar tree. Eyes shut, lips together and crinkled upwards slightly at the corners, Josie rests in the split of her future husband’s jeans. She nuzzles her cheek to his flanneled chest, reassured by the wax and cumin scent of his warm skin.
“My parents are going to kill me, you know,” Josie says unafraid.
“Because of me, or the baby?” Erik says through unfazed eyes.
“Both,” she says, then falls silent. When she speaks again it is to make a confession.
“Ricky?” Josie says sitting up nervously.
“I’ve never even babysat before.”
Erik smiles and kisses the crown of her hair. “That’s okay,” he replies, and with boyish confidence adds, “I have.”