Happy Ending: There’s A Story Behind All Good Play

I’ll never forget how they came raffishly crashing out of the woods—bits of sticks and leaves poking out of their hair. My sister all wild-eyed and flushed. My little brother trailing dutifully behind.

“We found a man!” Chris said, eyes darting from my face to the hills behind me as if said man would appear at any moment.

“What?” I asked, not fully understanding. I had only just come outside, curious as to what my siblings were up to. My stomach twisted in disappointment at the thought of missing out on their obvious adventure. These were the things lost to me when I spent my mornings with my nose buried in a book.

My sister and brother proceeded to tell about an old hermit they stumbled upon in the woods. He lived in a giant oak tree just beyond the border of the woods, they said. Chris had talked to him for a while and the man told her his name was Hermrette. He said he didn’t much care for people; that’s why he lived in the woods—trying to get away from the prying eyes of others.

“What did he look like?” I asked her.

He was old, she said. With a long white beard. An image of Rip Van Wrinkle floated around in my mind. “Did you talk to him?” I asked my little brother. Benji suddenly looked shifty. “I just saw a little bit of him,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “I was across the creek when Chris found him.”

“But you saw him, right?” My sister prodded.

“Yeah, I think so,” Benji responded, smiling convincingly at both of his big sisters.

We were in elementary school when this grand adventure unfolded, the precise ages now fuzzy in my mind. But we’re all two years apart, so it’s likely we were five, seven, and nine. Or maybe six, eight, and ten. Who knows? We were young enough to practice expansion of belief—to open our minds wide enough to allow the possibility of the story to take root in our hearts. The story is the thing that sticks. We had our very own wood hermit, and though none of the rest of us ever saw him, he was as real to us as the trees. Many follow-up expeditions ensued, with my sister trying to retrace her steps back to Hermrette’s tree-house.

We never found him again, of course, and our young minds surmised he had moved on to another tree—chagrined at being discovered. To this day my siblings and I smile in warm remembrance of that elusive recluse.

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When I was young I found my greatest adventures in books. I couldn’t string two words together without tripping over them in conversation, but I grew up hiding behind the words of others. Tucked under the pages of books, I felt safe. Maybe this was one reason why—when I was 12 and my parents divorced— for a little while I carried my Bible with me everywhere I went. My world was falling apart, but I would cling to this: the One Thing I knew would not change. It was the first time I would read those words cover to cover—not understanding much of them, but clinging, breathing in their life. They were real. Concrete. Stories to live by.

Children know intuitively that stories help us make sense of the world. Stories have a way of opening us up to deeper truths hidden in our experiences. Children always weave a narrative around their play—whether inner or outer. It might be the tale of a wood hermit, or the girl who wants to be known as the fastest bicyclist ever, or the boy who finally scores more points than his big brother. Children use stories to name themselves; they use stories to learn about their world—to work through complex questions that are so deeply buried in their unconscious they cannot articulate them.

Isn’t this still true in our grown-up lives? Don’t we still weave our living around stories? It’s the running dialogue in our heads, the words that lead the moving toward the big goal, the idea of the happily ever after…We live out the stories we tell ourselves. This is what I tell my patients every day I see them: It matters what we say to ourselves. My field of psychology has a technique called cognitive restructuring in which we teach people to identify maladaptive thoughts and restructure them into more beneficial ones. We teach them to rewrite their internal narrative—their story.

Why is that internal narrative so important?

In an article called The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, Leo Widrich says, “A story can put our whole brain to work.” He says:

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

But when a story is added, everything changes.

“Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.” (Widrich, 2012)

Chip and Dan Heath, those writing-partner brothers, call this “a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear.”

[W]e cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story … studies suggest there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it … (Heath, 2008)

This simulation in our minds gets us ready for action. When more of our brain is drawn into the story, it reaches beyond an intellectual level…it reaches the heart. If you feel skeptical as you read this, go spend some time with the kids. The unselfconscious way they immerse themselves in pretend play will open your eyes. Stories have a way of engaging the whole self.

This reminds me of an ancient Jewish teaching story that I read in Annette Simmons’ book The Story Factor. It goes like this:

Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire. (Simmons, 2001)

Story is a thin place. Writer Mary DeMuth says this about such a place:

The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a piece of vellum, where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal—not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond. (DeMuth, 2010)

When we hear a good story—one that reveals Truth with a capital “T”, the holy comes close. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? After reading a good book, seeing a movie that makes you cry, or watching someone you know live a courageous story. It touches a place deep inside. And God is there.

 

The above is a modified excerpt from my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts on play and featuring excerpts from my book in honor of Play it Forward, the workshop Laura Brown and I will be teaching this spring and summer. If you want to rev up your creative life, play is one tool that works! Read more about our workshop here, and feel free to ask me any questions you might have. 

Garden Notes: Rough Drafts

Every spring when time comes to weed my flower beds, the good work of it nearly kills me. And every spring, in response to my complaints about the honest work of garden tending, my husband threatens to sow grass over all my lovely blooms. I believe him just enough to find the inner fortitude required to finish the job.

I have stirred ant armies, awakened the curled grub in her buried bed, inadvertently found the source of the poison ivy, and pried the roots of wild violets from beneath my butterfly bush. Yesterday, I killed a Black Widow spider I found clinging to a daylily stalk. Every year, after bug bites, skin rashes, suffering amazingly obscure aches and pains, and consuming copious amounts of ibuprofen, I survey the work of my hands and dream a better way. I imagine planting miraculous ground covers to choke out the weeds, eye-catching perennials that require little attention, or even evergreens to lend a simpler style. Trouble is, I usually only get around to implementing a small portion of these dream-plantings, and they never quite work out as I hoped.  Come the next spring, things are a little better, but—you guessed it—I’m still on my hands and knees far longer than this aging body should be.

But when the blooms unfold one-by-one and the garden becomes a thing of beauty? I know all that time and diligence and love for the soil was worth it.

I try to fertilize the garden of my writing through careful reading and recently, I read this:

 As you start out in rough drafts, writing down stories as clearly as you can, there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page—no matter how shameful those revelations may as first seem—the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.” ~Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Certain things can immobilize me in an instant: a glimpse of a red-bellied woodpecker on the trunk of my Maple tree, sunlight rippling on water, a solitary cloud rolling across crystal blue, and a phrase that ambushes me with apt precision.

Mary Karr’s words seemed to breathe a deep exhale in my soul: “…there begins to burble up on the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being.”

Those words, stark and black against the white of the page, fell heavy over me and I realized how life mirrors this statement. With each passing year we hammer out rough drafts of this life we craft—meticulously honing in on what is best to keep and what must be cast aside, letting what is “exclusively” ours “burple up” from the moments. And just as my garden takes shape over the long stretch of years, none of these seasons we sift through are ever perfected—it’s a constantly shifting landscape. But if we are true to the draft-writing—or draft living, in this case—we keep what is best and let go of the rest. The next season may be a little better for the pruning, but chances are, it will still have its fair share of  bending and tending to  push through.

I’ve never written a memoir, though the world of blogging bestows plenty of opportunity to offer up bits of my life for the perusal of others. This kind of voyeurism can leave one feeling vulnerable and small at times. Isn’t each life worthy of memoir? When we live through each the days, don’t the moments tell a story? What if I could think of each season of life as a rough draft, trusting in the truth enough to keep unveiling myself, to keep growing and learning and reaching for more? Letting time and diligence and love shape something that becomes more beautiful with each passing year.

Play it Forward: A Workshop to Improve Your Writing through Play

Mama always said I was an old soul.

“You were always so serious,” she said. “Even when you were a baby.”

When I was six months old her mother—my maternal grandmother—was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she had to wean me from her breast for the struggle of it—the hard work of balancing the care of a newborn and that of her dying mother.

This is the world I was born to: one of hunger, poverty, addiction, complicated parent-love. Play was always a serious business for little girl me. I went inside the world of imagination to escape the reality of life. It was a solitary task, a quiet thing. Something in my makeup resisted the kind of play lived out loud.

It’s taken me almost fifty years to understand that this is okay. Yes, this is okay, but there is so much more to play. And I have only just begun.

Play looks different for different kinds of people. When we understand this and accept this, it opens us to new ways. New ways of playing, new ways of seeing, new avenues of creativity, new ways of being.

Play is a powerful thing.

Will you come along on a play journey with me? Sometimes these things are best undertaken with a guide. How about two guides? My friend (and fellow writer) Laura Brown and I are embarking upon an exploration of all things play. Over the course of eight or twelve weeks (you choose), we will lead an adventurous few through an odyssey of play—sampling different ways of play that might enliven our creative lives, enrich our writing and hopefully, add beauty to our everyday living.

Read more about it over at TSPoetry. It’s going to be a grand adventure. It may be just the thing to breathe new life into your writing practice. It may be just the thing to awaken the old soul in you to a fresh view of this tired world. After all, writing is a form of play—a way of seeing. To write well requires opening the eyes in new and different ways. We’re going to have so much fun finding playful ways to achieve this.

Photo by Samuel David Rinehart, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Eucatastrophe: More Than A Happy Ending

We’ve been living the thang, friends, and time hasn’t waited for me to pause, even for a quick hello. So, here’s a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and an excerpt from my book Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown Up World. Enjoy, and may 2017 hold many wonders for you and your loved ones!

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On the day after New Year’s Day I strip all the beds in the house. The laundry room floor is covered with sheets and pillowcases and mattress pads and I am thinking about the clean slate. Somehow I can’t stand to think of our dreaming being done in last year’s dirt—little bits of skin and dog hair and lint littering up the sleeping.

I stand in the doorway with bedclothes billowing and I see that the dirt of life—the dirt of my life—is a very robust thing. We do what we can to write our stories well, to live a good dream, but there is always the stuff of life—the unforeseen interruptions, the distractions, the dirt of everyday necessities.

No matter what I dream, the sheets will still need washing.

Yesterday was J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday and in honor of one of our favorite storytellers, I wanted to have a party. But our youngest had percussion practice after school and his brother had to tutor some classmates and it was cold and night came early and my body hurt from the New Year’s resolutions and a fall down some stairs. So my firstborn and I took Lucy Mae for a walk in the dark instead and I dressed her in a leopard print sweater. At least the dog would be dressed for celebration.

The evening walk is a heart exercise and especially in the cover of night it seems our senses are tuned to the eternal. Each step has a way of loosing the strings that knot us up in what we can see. I feel around inside of him with questions and he smiles more readily than usual and we walk slowly—even in the cold. On this night, I am thinking about how we enjoyed The Hobbit recently and I remember how Tolkien coined this term eucatastrophe.

Wikipedia tells me that he “formed the word by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot.

To me, eucatastrophe sounds like the happy ending, but to Tolkien, it meant more. It’s the way the hero’s fate is tied up in the entire story—it’s redemption in the end that the telling was building up to. It’s the happy ending only deeper.

Tolkien saw “the Incarnation as the eucatastrophe of human history and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation,” Wikipedia goes on to say.

And I think about the stories he wrote, how they embodied this term eucatastrophe, and I wonder how my life can do the same. How am I living my life that leads this story to the great Eucatastrophe?

I am likely never to face trolls, or orcs, or goblins. I probably won’t be on a quest upon which rests the fate of earth as we know it. But there is always the dirt of life that rears up against me—threatens to waylay this hero from the happy ending.

Am I able to carry this ring?

I smooth down the edges of sheets and fluff pillows into plump resting places. It feels good, this clean slate. But one thing I know—one thing I’ve learned from Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf and life … the journey is a continuous series of stops and starts. There are joy days and dream days and good storytelling. But there are also interruptions, frustrations, and the dirt of life. I must choose which parts of the story will define me. What makes a good story?

Andrew Stanton, the writer of the three “Toy Story” movies and other animated masterpieces, says it well in his TED talk The Clues to a Great Story:

I walked out of there [the movie Bambi at age five] wide-eyed with wonder. And that’s what I think the magic ingredient is—the secret sauce—can you invoke wonder? Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent, it can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling. To hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder. When it’s tapped, the affirmation of being alive, it reaches you almost at a cellular level…the best stories invoke wonder.”

Isn’t the best play the one that tells a good story? The play that evokes wonder? And shouldn’t we be doing this with our lives?

I will keep pressing forward, writing these pages. Because I already know how that eucatastrophe will unfold. I already know the happy ending. And it is steeped in wonder.

::

The above is a modified excerpt from Laura’s book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved.

I Went to Nest Fest and All I Bought was a Bunch of Books (so I’m giving them away!)

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We drove five hours down I-77, outrunning the rain, driving between mountains, watching the leaves go from patchwork back to green again, then landing where the sun shone bright on a field-full of artisans and musicians and writers and creatives of all types. We went to the big white barn. I knew my friend Shelly would be there, and Lisa, and Emily. That’s why I went—to see some friends. And before I even walked the grounds I ran out of cash because I bought so. many. books. My only regret? I didn’t buy more books. I wish I had bought Tim’s newest book—a beautiful Christmas story that seems to celebrate his love for his three “pixie” daughters, because amazon tells me they are out of stock. And I wanted Edie’s book too—I loved her Lenten devotional this year. And Logan was there and Myquillyn, of course, and so much loveliness!

Sometimes, I need to run away to find my way back home. You? Autumn fills me with the wanderlust and a road trip always cures the ill. Jeff came along with me—my favorite travel companion. He sees a lot, that man. Just sits back and watches. You know what he said to me after watching me hug on Shelly for a time, then sit at Lisa’s feet to catch up, and soak up some wisdom from Tim? “You need to write more,” he said. “It’s clear how happy this makes you.” He knows I’ve been struggling with words lately. We’ve been wrestling with the question of time and I’ve gradually arrived at a place of acceptance. Acceptance that my time needs to be invested in other things for a season. But he knows it makes me sad. Because, writers gotta write, right?

The next best thing to writing is rubbing shoulders with some special writers. So that’s what I did this weekend. And because writers need readers, to celebrate beautiful YOU, my dear reader, I’m giving away some books. I have a signed copy of Lisa Whittle’s newest book I Want God, a signed copy of Emily P. Freeman’s book Simply Tuesday (my favorite go-to book when I’m feeling very small), and a book that Shelly Miller was supposed to sign for you but didn’t. I discovered too late that she forgot to sign it.  But … her sweet hands held this book, I promise. So that’s a copy of Rhythms of Rest, not signed, but touched by the author. One lucky reader will win this awesome stack of books. Just leave a comment for a chance to win. If you share on social media, let me know and you’ll get extra entries for each way you share. Winner will be announced on Friday, 10/28. I’ll leave you with a few random shots from Nest Fest. xo

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