Baffled

Posted April 26th, 2014
Roommate and Tawfiqa

In my college dorm with a special room-mate,
my daughter, Tawfiqa

I just got back home from seeing the movie, “Heaven is for Real” and I’m baffled.

“Heaven is For Real,” based on a book of the same name, is the story of a four-year old boy who has a near-death experience. Once he returns to his body, he begins relating anecdotes of his visit to heaven. He’s quite matter-of-fact about it all. Sadly, no one else is. Not the members of the church board, who prayed fiercely for his recovery; not his mother who leads the church choir; not even his father, who is the church’s pastor. And that’s what’s baffling. A man acquainted with the holy scriptures, which declare the existence of heaven, in no uncertain terms; a man who has read about, and, I’m sure, preached on the promise that, when a believer dies, he or she will enter heaven and be greeted by loved ones who passed on, before—this man does not actually believe that his son has seen heaven, or that heaven physically, literally—not metaphorically—exists.

What is such a man doing in the pulpit? What exactly is his wife singing about every Sunday morning? Why do members of the church board bother to gather, at all? That is what baffles me. After all, when it comes to the Nicene Creed, Heaven and Hell, death, resurrection and eternal life are pretty basic.

In May of 1974, I rocked back and forth over the grave of my daughter, Tawfiqa, my one and only child. She died just before her fourth birthday. As a poet and author, it’s fair to say that I am quite the wordsmith. However, believe me when I say this: I do not possess the language to make you understand the depth of the pain I felt at the loss of my child. The pain I feel. The pain I will continue to feel until the day I die. What makes it possible for me to stand, let alone laugh and know joy in my life, is the certainly that I will one day see my precious child again. The Bible has taught me that. The Spirit of God has impressed that upon my heart. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who died on Calvary, then conquered death by rising again, did so, in part, to make that very reunion possible. If you believe that, as I do, you live your life with power. If you don’t, as the pastor in this film did not, then you live within the constraints of your own human power, which is to say, with no power at all. Let’s face it, human power is, at the end of the day, an illusion. I’m not interested in living with the limitations of man. Are you? But I digress.

My central question, here, is why anyone would pour himself into the work of the church universal if he doesn’t even believe in its most basic doctrines. And when he, for a moment, began to consider that maybe heaven actually was real, why did he care that people made fun of him for it? If, in fact, he’s going to heaven, he will most certainly have the last laugh. When people mock my faith, that’s what I hold onto. But then, he is not me.

Maybe the gentleman in this story was placed near the Light so that his own son could lead him fully into it. Yeah. That could be it. Of course, what this particular man was doing in that particular church pulpit is really none of my business. It’s God’s. Better I should direct my time and energy into feeling grateful—grateful that I believe in the Christ who died so that I could live for him here on earth, and with him some day in heaven; grateful that I can look forward to seeing my beautiful daughter, again, as well as my foster brother, and many others whom I’ve lost along the way; grateful that my belief in such things is matter-of-fact—not because such things aren’t miraculous, but because the God of the Universe has shown me miracles time and time again.

What about you? Have you run into any angels lately? Have you experienced the miraculous? Do you even want to? The one great power we humans have is choice.

What a Word is Worth

Posted January 27th, 2014

letter writingLetter writing has become a lost art. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. I wish it wasn’t true. Beyond simply languishing in a sea of despond over the matter, though, I do my best to hold the line. I write letters, at least randomly, if not routinely. No matter how much time I need to set aside for the task, I’m never sorry that I did.

In recent months, a dear friend of mine lost his partner of over 30 years. Her death was both sudden and grisly. As you might imagine, her passing left my friend spinning. I’ve buried enough loved-ones to more than empathize.

I was rocked by the news when it reached me, one time-zone and hundreds of miles away. Immediately, I wanted to cover the crack in my friend’s heart with my own two hands, but I couldn’t. I wanted to offer my shoulder for those unutterable moments when he could no longer hold back the tears, but I couldn’t. I wanted to hop on the next plane and, literally, fly to his side. But, for a host of reasons, I couldn’t. And yet, I was desperate to be present for my friend.

I sat down to write him a letter, one of the things I had it in my power to do. I’ve written several letters since, penned a poem just for him, and sent a collection of verse that might bring him a little healing, a little light. I sent each with the appropriate postage, and something more: I sent each with a prayer, and I hoped. I hoped that my meager attempts at being present, from a great distance, would, in some small way, matter.

The other day, I received a card from this friend, with a carefully worded, handwritten note. The first words made my heart leap:

“Dearest Nikki,

Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

In the body of the note, my friend let me know that my words on paper had spoken hope to his heart; that they had given him glimpses of a future in which he would, once again, be able to step into the light; that my simple words of encouragement and connection had mattered to him in this extraordinary time of need, and had mattered deeply.

When was the last time you wrote a letter? I’m not talking about a hastily dashed-off email, sent between sips of coffee, or bites of a hamburger during lunch. I’m talking about an old-fashioned, carefully considered, handwritten or typed letter. When?

I know you’re busy. Who isn’t? But when did we become so busy that we don’t make time for a friend who hungers for the words of encouragement, hope, advice—or even humor—that only we, as friends, can offer? Yes, finding the time to write a letter can be difficult. However, when those words matter as deeply as they do, isn’t it worth the l sacrifice?

Maybe one day, you trade the time you’d spend hanging out on Facebook, or checking your Twitter feed, to compose a letter instead. Or maybe you give up one episode of that half-hour sitcom to do the deed. The fact is, time can always be found for the things that matter. All I’m saying is, this is one of them.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say on the subject, except this: What are you waiting for? Somebody needs to hear from your heart, and a letter can be the perfect package in which to send it.

A Question of Perspective

Posted November 14th, 2013

AwardNovember has come crashing in, with advertisers’ early and relentless push for Christmas. I, on the other hand, am struggling to stave off the end-of-year book award season blues that follow on the heels of this holiday. I love Christmas but, for now, I’m corralling my thoughts to keep them focused on, say, Thanksgiving. Besides, I’ve plenty to hold my attention between now and the end of December. There are conference presentations to compose, interview questions to answer, guest blogs to write, fan mail to respond to, and, of course, scads of work to be done on various works-in-progress. Still, it’s hard to ignore the lure of those best book lists. If only I didn’t care.

At the ripe old age of 63 (63 is the new—what?), I’m facing the hard fact that I may never achieve some of my career goals. I may never win that certain award, receive that particular accolade, attain a lasting place in the children’s book literary canon. It occurs to me, at long last, that my work may not be as worthy as I have imagined, that I have, perhaps, thought of my talent more highly than I ought. Ouch. Whether or not that’s true, another thought has begun to creep in. What if the work was worthy, and what if I did win those certain awards or accolades? How much would it really matter, in the end?

I’ve had a number of elderly friends in the business who, at the top of their game, were acclaimed, established, even “hot.” But, in their final years, they were fairly unremarked, largely unrecognized, and—saddest of all—their works were mostly out-of-print. I used to sympathize with them. Now, however, as I approach a good old age myself, sympathy has turned to empathy. I realize I’ll be lucky to be remarked upon a generation from now. Heck, even ten years from now, as fast as things are moving, these days. Not exactly the immortality most authors imagine! What is that line from Ecclesiastes? Vanity, vanity. All is vanity.

At my church, we’ve been studying the Book of Daniel lately. There’s a lot in this book about vainglory, particularly towards the end. In Chapter 11, there’s a compressed report of nations rising to power, often by virtue of intrigue, deceit, and hastily arranged alliances, only to be supplanted by the next conquer who comes along with visions of empire dancing in his head. None of the kingdoms ever last, of course. In fact, many are lost to the annals of history forever. Like I said: vainglory.

As I read Daniel, I realized nations aren’t the only entities guilty of vainglory. I’ve been wrestling with a case of my own. I’m hardly prepared to employ intrigue, deceit, or political alliances to climb to the top of the literary ladder, but what if I did? I would all-too-soon be pushed from my perch by the very next hot author to come along. And she or he, in turn, would only enjoy the limelight until the next hot author emerged, and so on, and so on. Don’t get me wrong: literary honors are lovely. The more, the merrier, I say. But, here’s the kicker: They simply don’t last. If that’s true, and it is, why consume precious amounts of time in their pursuit?

I know. It seems so obvious, but it’s hard not to be ambitious in this world. We’re constantly bombarded with messages that we deserve more, need more, should strive for more. The least little ember of dissatisfaction in us is feverishly stoked—by advertisers, talking heads, and, often, well-meaning friends and family. The notion that acclaim is something to rightly aspire to is whispered in our ears, day and night. Forget the need for speed. We lust after legitimacy, recognition, applause! And, for me, the desire for acclaim is also wrapped up with the need to make a living at my craft. There is always the hope, misplaced or not, that greater awards will lead to greater earnings.

Sigh.

It’s hard not to get sucked in.

There is a way, though. What if I stopped listening to the whispers of the world? What if I shut out all the voices except God’s and my own? Could it really be that simple?

Years ago, I gave up my subscription to Publishers Weekly because every time I read an article about a random author who closed a deal on a six-figure contract, it gnawed my insides. Why not me? I moaned. It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that wasn’t healthy. So, I cancelled my subscription and ended the insanity, which helped. A little.

In the years since, I have found myself cringing at the approach of book award season. Hard as I’d try not to, I’d read the list of winners each year, and whine, why not me? Why not my book? (Remember, that was before I came to the realization that I might not be all that and a bag of chips!). Thankfully, as the years have progressed, I’ve spent less time bellyaching about imagined slights, and have learned to move on rather quickly to congratulating that year’s winners and honorees. I may not be new and improved, but I am getting better.

The other day, I read a post about a young author who was recently honored with an opportunity that has never come my way, and probably never will. And I suddenly realized that’s okay. That’s his story, not mine. I can be happy for him and wish him well without feeling any sense of loss. He is doing good work, and he is being faithful to the stories he has to tell. That’s as it should be.

Friends occasionally remind me that there are those who view my story with a hint of envy. Of course, I never see things from that perspective, because my attention is on what I haven’t yet acquired, or achieved, or done. Enough!

Last week, I cancelled my cable subscription. It may seem like a small, unrelated step, but it is one in the right direction. There’s less static coming into my home, now. There are fewer voices telling me what I need, or deserve, or should want. After just one week, I’m already beginning to recognize the sound of my own thoughts, again. I’ve made space for my brain to breathe, cleared room for my inner self to reemerge, created quiet in which I can examine my own heart. In the quiet, I can remember what truly matters, can reconnect with the pure joy of working with words. In this third act, I can focus on making the deepest impact I can, here and now, with the generation of readers I’ve been given. That’s the job. That’s the one goal completely within my grasp. If I stick to it before, during and after book-award season, I’ll have no time to worry about singing the blues.

I can already feel a sense of peace descending.