Monday, June 20, 2005

New Car

Well, I've done it. I've switched to a minivan.

My 1988 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale died on me last Wednesday (with five boys and myself inside, on a busy boulevard). We (all of us) made our way through streams of traffic to an IHOP across the street and made an S.O.S. phone call.

On Saturday, Scott and I drove away from the Toyota dealership with a 3 year lease on a 2005 Toyota Sienna.

I hate having a car payment. Actually, I've never had one. And actually, we can't afford one. Afford is a relative word. But getting this car is part of a shift in thinking I've been going through for a long time.

I used to think anyone driving a new car was irresponsible and greedy, not to mention wasteful, what with all those perfectly good used cars out there. I've never paid more for a car than my first one, which I bought in 1992 for around $1,800.

What I've realised is that I've had a rather upside-down (not to mention hypocritical) view of money-management. I forego all the big-ticket purchases and squander my money on cigarettes or late-fees or drinks and an evening on the town.

Last year when we decided to put our boys in a private school, we fretted over tuition expenses, knowing we didn't have any extra $ to squeeze out (nor any place to squeeze it out from). But we faithfully (if not punctually) wrote out our check to the school each month and, strangely, our standard of living never really changed.

That's when it hit me: We were typical, American consumers, spending everything we took in. Unlike typical American families, we don't have any of the toys or even the necesary ingredients in the "American Dream". No new car, big house, boat, fitness club membership, not even a home stereo system. But, since our seminary days, during which we really were poor (I got dairy and juice and peanut-butter vouchers through a government program, for Marshall, and for myself, because I was pregnant with Micah) I've never felt significantly less "strapped", financially. We just sort of increased our spending on pacifying ourselves, without increasing our living standard.

So here I am with a spanking new vehicle, fretting a bit about the payments. I've had a little bit of post-buyer's panic. But I'm not really questioning the rightness of the decision. This monthly payment affords me the ability to drive my kids and their friends places, help drive for school, and mostly, it affords us (Scott was very particular and insistent on this) the reassurance that, if we must expose our children to dangers of the road every day, we're at least protecting them as well as we can. (Ten years ago cars didn't even have air bags, and in the more recent past, minivans have been rather collapsible). To be honest, I couldn't care less what I drive or how old it is or what it looks like. Which is probably why I've driven a paint-peeling, rusting, crashed-up, falling apart 1988 Oldsmobile for so long. But it occured to me at some point along the way that, every day, I was putting my entire life (my kids) into an unreliable, unsafe box of metal and driving at inhuman speeds, alongside other speeding boxes of metal.

Now that I've got all the obligatory (for me) reflections out of the way, let me be happy about it... It sure is nice to drive! I've got all the comfort and convenience I could ever want (in a car or in life!), even without all the bells and whistles (we went low-end options/high- end safety). It's silver in color and looks less like a minivan than the typical one (sort of a station-wagon/van/SUV hybrid). I feel a little bit out-of-place, like Cinderella at the ball.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Relevance of Elephants: rambling thoughts on eternity and storytelling

The first job of the writer is to captivate the reader.

It helps to have something to say. It’s even better if you have something important or exciting or inherently fascinating to say. In this respect, some writers clearly have an advantage over others: no matter how exceptional your imagination or keen your insight, there is no getting around the fact that we write what we know. And some of us have more, well, interesting lives than others.

That said, even the most intriguing subject can be made irrelevant, like too many elephants. Similarly, there is always (and I mean always) an angle which, if the writer takes it up, will make the dullest slice of life, enchanting. A good writer can make pork and beans relevant.

I think this is why we need writers and storytellers. Like magic, they toss a handful of eternity into the temporal salad. And, as aggravating as it is, most of us sense that we are eternal souls in temporary encasements.

Our temporal self only half recognizes eternity when the two bump shoulders, because we are too busy being part of our own story. It’s hard, for example, to know when you are being heroic (and when you think you are, you probably aren’t). It’s difficult to grasp that loss can morph itself into redemption or that a “series of unfortunate events” is actually funny. But writers, and stories, give us truth and beauty in whole form and coax us to hunt for traces of it in the flesh. By this means, other people’s stories (actual or imagined) – many of which have long since seen the curtain call – serve us in the fashioning of our own story.

Several years ago I read Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. One night I tossed the book into my leather satchel, along with a pen or two, several notebooks, and enough cigarettes to chain smoke (with coffee breaks) for 4 or 5 hours. I drove to Discussions, a downtown coffee-house, where you can sit for hours chain-smoking (with coffee breaks) and no one will look at you crossways.

My intent to spend the evening reading dwindled, as I read. Heaviness settled on me, like oil settling on coffee. It wasn’t a problem with the book; not exactly. My life was the problem, inasmuch as I compared it to Annie Dillard’s own, presented in the book.

“How,” I thought, “can I presume to be a writer, when I have nothing of interest to say?”

I shut the book dramatically, took a resentful last drag on my cigarette, rubbed it out and rummaged around in my bag for a pen and paper. And then I started writing.

It began as a diatribe of my less than glamorous, less than cultured, less than eventful life. But just at that point, something curious happened. In order to portray my lackluster childhood, I had to choose appropriate descriptors. I had to scan my memory for examples. I had to add some biting sarcasm and self-effacing humor. I imagined my pencil going up in flames (difficult, since it was a pen). I paused to read over my last paragraph, chuckled under my breath and lit up another cigarette.

By night’s end I had six or seven pages of something funny, poignant, descriptive, sad, reflective, and - very accurately - my life. What’s more it was interesting. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

I’ve thought for a long time now that, as a writer, I can’t do fiction. By that I really mean that I can’t write stories. I can write essays or papers or letters or emails. But story requires something more- imagination and a deep well of experience from which to draw. As for that, I figure I’ve got pretty darn near the same amount of experience as your average thirty-year-old. I’m starting to think it just needs an angle. And an angle is something I might be able to find.

There’s a relatively new genre of writing called Creative Non-fiction. I’d like to have a go at it. If I can’t spin tales of Middle Earth, I can at least tell you what it’s like here in Middle America, in the middle of my head. And who knows but that my efforts to infuse my temporal existence with eternity will act as a weird, self-referential means of grace, helping me to fashion my story.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Story of My Life

I've been reading a book of essays by C.S.Lewis and came on a remarkable bit of insight in one called, "On Stories". As with most remarkable bits of insight, once voiced, it seems ridiculously obvious. Probably my brain is a bit slower than most. I can almost feel the thick sludge ideas have to wade through, across synapses, to the relevant quadrant and particular neurons. What I take in usually makes it to the right place, it's just a long time in getting there.

In any case, what was a minor epiphany for me, or a key to unlocking a major, problematic theme in my life, was this: that life is linear and time-bound and we, therefore, can never experience the fullness of it in any one moment, but only isolated scenes within the larger plot of it.

This is important for me because, for as long as I can remember, I've had grand aspirations for my life, coinciding with relative dissatisfaction in my current position. I've imagined that if I could just learn to keep my house clean or be "Mother of the Year" or get an education or ascend to the level of spiritual guru, THEN I would be content, rich, full: like the ideal in my mind. But the problem with a dream of the future is that the picturing of it isn't the picturing of real life at all, but of a state of being. Here is how Lewis puts it:

In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the jouney has once begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. ...Suppose there is no disappointment; even so- well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? ...In real life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.

This isn't to say that I can't create a measurably better or worse life for myself by tangible acts. But note this: that even if I am someday living a very good life, by all standards, I can only experience it in little snippets, moment by moment. The sadness that I feel in reaction to loss will not be fundamentally different than it is when I feel it now. And conversely, my moments of great joy will be moments very like ones I experience now.

When I think of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, I think of the whole book, the themes and characters which, together, say something true and profound. No one character or one scene, though there are brilliant ones and ones which stand quite well on their own, embodies the novel as a whole. So with life, each scene develops key aspects of my character, the significance of which will only come to light when the plot is seen as a whole. So maybe now, thanks to Lewis, I will relax a bit, sit back and enjoy the read.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Making Maps

I know it gets tedious for everybody if I keep talking about my kids. And I won't. But I just have to get down what Eliot said the other day, because this kid is seriously strange.

He's 5, he's never bored, he never stops talking, he's very obscure, and he's lately into cartography (map-making).

So he made a map the other day (two pieces of printing paper taped together, with the map extending over both) and proceeded to tell Scott and me all about it. Apparently every place on the map had a corresponding story. And apparently Eliot has been to places and seen things of which I have no idea. But that's not really surprising.

What was a little bit surprising (or funny, anyway) was part of one of his stories. He pointed to a place on the map and told us it was a "Book-tionary", which is a place like a library, but also a kitchen with dining tables. He said,

"I didn't know what a book-tionary was, but then I went in and 'book-tionary' was written on the blackboard and there was a table and I said, "Oh, now I know what it is! Because a 'nary' is a place that you eat, so a book-tionary is a place you eat where there are books."

hmmm. But it gets weirder. He entered a room at one of his buildings (I think it was a school) and, well, here is how Eliot told it:

"I went in and there was someone named Lean there. And I said, 'No way! Your name can't be Lean! I was just trying to invent someone named Lean before I came here!'"

When I asked him what he meant, "trying to invent", he said,

"Well, I wanted to make up someone named Lean, but I just couldn't. Then I went in the room and there was someone named Lean! So I told him he had to change his name to Stick."

Should I be worried???

Friday, June 03, 2005

Fair Play

I was folding laundry the other day when something my 10 year old son said caught my ear. He sat on the floor, playing with LEGO "Knight's Kingdom" figures and, while I don't know exactly what dark plot was ensuing, I was glad to find that he knew just how to handle it. I heard,
"...whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government...."

-The Declaration of Independence

I wish I'd had that kind of trumping power available to me as a child. About the best I could do is clench my fists, screw up my face and whine, "No fair!"