Happy Birthday to Mom

ImageToday is my mother’s birthday. I won’t tell you how old she is, but if you take my age and add 20, you’ll have an idea. We celebrated last Saturday by taking her out for lunch at a local restaurant, and she enjoyed eating with her two boys, two daughters-in-law, and four grandkids. It was a nice afternoon.

See, we haven’t really celebrated my mom’s birthday in years. Her birthday is May 30; my first daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn on May 31, 2004. We were in the hospital on my mom’s birthday that year, struggling to comprehend what was happening. I’ve written about Ruthanne before, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged that her birthday sort of stole the thunder from my mom. If she had lived, it would’ve been a dual celebration. But since she didn’t, it kind of killed our desire to do much of anything around this time of year.

Not that my mom minded too much; if there’s one thing she doesn’t really like, it’s being the center of attention. It’s kind of funny – both my brother and I ended up being people who don’t mind being on stage, performing or speaking, and our being wired that way sort of pulled mom along into the spotlight. She would deflect it, of course, but people would seek her out to commend her on raising two “fine boys” and she would have to spend a few minutes being the focus of conversation.

Sometimes people ask her what her secret is; usually, she tells them to just trust God and let the kids be themselves. From my vantage point, that’s a true enough statement, but there were other things that helped shape my brother and I, things that aren’t intuitive to some parents. She let us be ourselves, but she also drew us firm boundary lines. She surrounded us with good friends and tried to make even the bad ones welcome. Our home was never closed off to the other kids in the neighborhood – everyone within five miles knew the Brooks household was always open, and the fridge was usually full.

In fact, some of my friends liked my parents better than me. I didn’t mind; their respect for my parents kept them from inviting me to do some truly stupid things. They knew my parents wouldn’t approve and they didn’t want to break their hearts by inviting me along. As a kid, that was kind of annoying; but as an adult, it’s touching in a way. 

Touching too is the fact that I have sort of grown up with my parents. They got married young, and had me when they were barely into their twenties. They never tried to be my friend, but they never treated me as if I weren’t a friend. Like I said, I knew where the boundaries were, and as long as I stayed within them, things were fine. My parents allowed me to follow my passion for reading and drawing; they encouraged me to write; they let me play baseball and basketball and become an Eagle Scout. And while they were together in philosophy, they often weren’t together in presence. My dad traveled a lot, which meant it was mom and her boys against the world.

It probably also means that we were closer than other kids and their mothers. I learned sarcasm from my mom (who learned it from her dad). I learned how to be gracious in the face of struggle and how to be authentic with the people you love. I saw firsthand that parenting could be overwhelming, but I never knew just how deeply some of our troubles were. I was thirty-five before I learned that some years my Christmas presents came from garage sales. To borrow a phrase from my grandparents’ generation, I never knew we were poor.

I also never knew the absence of laughter. If you could say one thing about my mother, it’s that laughter runs through her veins as surely as blood. You can’t spend more than five minutes with my mom before someone is laughing hysterically. Occasionally the jokes are even clean. Growing up that way made humor my default language – I always knew the power of humor, it’s ability to infect people and become a conduit for ideas. Even now when I speak, I try to use humor as much as possible to help get my point across. And if my mom is in the audience, I know exactly where the loudest laughs will come from.

Case in point: my senior year of high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical, “The Boyfriend.” In the third act, my character had to make a grand entrance at a costume ball dressed as Pierrot from the Comedia dell’Arte – essentially, I came onstage dressed in a satin clown costume that included a tiny satin dunce cap with black poofy balls affixed to the side. As soon as I made my entrance, a hoot arose from the audience, a single, uncontrolled guffaw at my appearance that reverberated through the otherwise silent hall.

It was my mom.

In her defense, I did look ridiculous (a fellow student suggested that I looked very much like a contraceptive device). And it seems wholly appropriate that of all the people in the audience who could’ve laughed at me, it was my mother that did. After all, we’d been laughing together our whole lives. We still are.

So happy birthday, mom, even though you’ll hate that I wrote about you, even though you’ll think that some of these stories are embarrassing or not worth telling. Whether you like it or not, these stories are worth telling, because they show how much you’ve influenced me, and Ryan, and our wives and children. They’re worth telling because they help us understand and appreciate you all the more, something that a good mother is due.

I love you, mom. Hope you have a great day.

My Daughter and An Untamed Lion

Over the weekend, Rachel got a wild hair of an idea for something she wanted to do with Ella, and asked me what I thought about it.

“Do you think she would like it?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “She might. Of course, she might also get the fool scared out of her.”

“Well, I think she’ll love it,” Rachel said.

I nodded. “Then let’s see what happens.”

Rachel was right – Ella loved it. Loved so much, in fact, that she became obsessed with it over the course of the weekend. It took the arrival of Halloween and the prospect of 7,000 lbs. of candy to actually derail her train of thought. But I fully expect that she’ll be asking for an encore sometime in the future.

What exactly was this magical thing to which we exposed our daughter?

I love this story.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. You know, the good one from 2005.

Ella loved it, and I was genuinely surprised. I shouldn’t have been, but I was afraid that the story might be a little too slow for her, what with the back and forth between reality and Narnia. I was also concerned that Ella wouldn’t grasp that Narnia was an independent place that existed outside of time and reality (and to be honest, there were a couple of headache-inducing discussions on that topic). So it was with much delight that I watched as my daughter settled into the movie with rapt attention and thoroughly enjoyed it.

And I know she enjoyed it because she asked questions throughout the entire thing. All 3 times she watched it.

I’ve written before of Ella’s movie questioning habits, and how I hope that they lead to a career as a writer or other such weaver of imaginary realms. Her questions with TLTWTW were no less interesting, and a great deal more insightful. With human actors, she was much more empathetic with each character (indeed, she even felt sorry for Edmund at the beginning because he was obviously “a very sad and mean little boy”), and she seemed even more attuned to the nuances of the story.

“Why is it always winter but never Christmas?”

“Why does the White Witch treat Edmund nice?”

“Why does Mr. Tumnus get turned into stone for being good?”

“Why does Santa Claus give them swords and weapons?”

“Will Lucy use her magic stuff to heal everyone?”

But my favorite exchange came at what should’ve been the movie’s climax (and, movie critic hat on for a moment, that this scene is treated a little too mutedly is my biggest gripe with the film). Aslan, the Great Lion of Narnia, has voluntarily given himself up as a sacrifice to the Deep Magic of Narnia, in the place of the human traitor Edmund. Brutally beaten by those creatures who serve the White Witch (and a hideous imaginarium of creatures it is), Aslan is finally shaved of his majestic mane, tied down like a helpless house cat, and tossed onto the Stone Table at the feet of the Witch (played by Tilda Swinton with some seriously malicious joy). After gloating over the deposed cat’s figure, the Witch plunges a dagger into the lion with near ecstatic abandon and the great cat’s eyes close in death.

Ella turned to me, her eyes wide with horror, and said, “Daddy, why did Aslan have to die?”

“Because he loved Edmund and was willing to take his place.”

Her eyes rimmed red. “But that’s not fair. Aslan didn’t deserve to die.”

“No he didn’t,” I said, “but that’s what sacrifice is all about.”

“But why did Aslan have to die?”

“To satisfy the law.”

“But why?”

“Just think of it this way, Ella: Aslan is like Jesus, who died for our sins, even though he didn’t deserve to. That’s who Aslan represents: Jesus.”

She went mute for the next few minutes as the story turned. The forces of evil seemed poised to take Narnia for themselves. The forces of good seemed deflated (if still courageous) with the news of Aslan’s death. The opposing armies marched to face each other on the field of battle and suddenly Ella turned to me.

“Is Aslan going to come back to life?”

“Do what?” I asked.

“If Aslan is like Jesus, is he going to come back to life?”

“Just watch and see.”

“Please? Just tell me.”

“Nope,” I said. “You’ll just have to watch and see.”

Now, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that they do a good job of building up the tension to the big reveal: at sunrise, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan does indeed rise from the dead (personally, it was hard for the movie to capture my favorite part of the book; Lewis writes of the resurrected Lion, “There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again), stood Aslan himself” I just love that small detail that communicates so much!).

And as the camera reveals the Living Lion, Ella turns to me and says, “He’s alive, daddy! Just like Jesus!”

Now, plenty of people before and after me will better communicate the importance of Aslan in fiction, and there have certainly been plenty of essayists who have debated whether or not Aslan was really intended to represent the Christian Savior (personally, I say yes). All I can add to the discussion is merely this:

Sitting there, watching one of my childhood’s favorite stories played out onscreen, accompanied by my daughter, I was able to use the magnificence of art and imagination to communicate something deeply held and more deeply felt with my daughter. In a way that my mere words could never do, the character of Aslan told my daughter of the unfathomable love of Jesus for humanity and made that love live inside her heart. Her eyes when she said, “He’s alive, daddy!” were lit in a way that I’ve never seen them before, as if something greater than she’d ever known had taken root inside of her heart.

I won’t tell you that Ella Tebowed right there and made a profession of faith. I won’t even tell you that one glorious moment stuck with her the rest of the weekend (it didn’t; as usual, Ella was more concerned with why the White Witch was such a bad person). But for that one moment, the central truth to which I’ve dedicated my life to proclaim was as clearly and powerfully communicated as I’ve ever seen it. I will never, with mere words of theology or inspiration, accomplish what Lewis’ little fiction did. And as a writer, reader, and father, I couldn’t be more pleased to have shared that moment with Ella.

I’ll end with one of the more famous passages from the entire book. I think it sums up quite nicely some things that many preachers could never say in a lifetime.

“Is–is he a man?” asked Susan.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Of Better Stories

A friend of mine, Jason Young, gave me a box of books lately, and one of the treasures I unearthed as I emptied my Huggies box-o-goodness (the official packing box of all parents) was Donald Miller‘s most recent title, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. I was excited to see the cover, if not completely overwhelmed; I like Miller, dating all the way back to Blue Like Jazz, but I had grown a bit dim on him after reading To Own a Dragon (I probably should go back and re-read that one, though).

I picked this one up with some enthusiasm and started to read.

Good choice.

Miller, like all writers (including me), has a certain side that can border on what another writer friend of mine, Kevin Wray, calls “whiney” – a little too introspective, a little too self-absorbed, a little too-personal in a way that makes you want to throw your hands up and say, “Enough already!” The first couple of pages of A Million Miles struck me in that way – in fact, it wasn’t until Miller writes about taking a class from one Robert McKee on Story (a book that I’ve read in part, but not yet in full, thanks to Matt Friesch) that the book actually got interesting. Miller discovers that what makes a fictional story work – a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it – is essentially what makes a life work – as Miller later writes, “we [are] designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we [are] meant to live through is designed to change us” (70).

As a writer, it resonated. The more Miller delves into the elements of a story as theory, and brings those elements to play on the story of his life (also the story of the book), the more I find myself fascinated by the comparisons. I know not everyone will go for this metaphor, but I really like the idea of God as Author.

Is it a flawless metaphor? Absolutely not. Authors, for one thing, tend to be a bit neurotic and controlling. And ultimately, an author is creating something that isn’t real – something that exists only in a person’s mental universe and ceases to exist when the book is put away.

Also, God is perfect and omnipotent, so He’s never tossed an entire manuscript into the trash can and wept for an hour over the futility of it all.

But there are some startling discoveries within the metaphor of God as Author that can help make sense of the world around us, such as characters that write themselves. If you’ve ever heard an author describe the writing process, you’ve undoubtedly heard him or her say something along the lines of, “Well, such-and-such character really surprised me. I didn’t expect him to do what he did.” The idea being that good characters, whole characters, characters with a feeling of reality to them, often express themselves within the Author’s larger story. The author planned for the heroine to go left, but she went right, did a forward roll and pulled out an Uzi. When an author creates characters that feel real, the characters begin to act real in the author’s imagination and often surprise the author with their choices.

Now, this isn’t a perfect metaphor for the free will of mankind, seeing as how we don’t catch God by surprise, but we do exert our will on the story. We choose certain goals and ends and actions and sometimes corrupt what God intended (Garden of Eden, anyone?).

Miller brings this out in his book, so I won’t pretend that the idea is mine. But as a writer, the view of life as a narrative, one with plot and structure and good and evil and struggle and victory makes certain days a lot more palatable – I know that my story is part of a much grander narrative, like a character in a Franzen novel, and that the overall story gives shape to my own experiences. I don’t drown in self-absorption when I think like this. My sufferings, somehow, make more sense.

I’m not done with Miller’s book, but I’m more than halfway through. I’ll post something when I’m finished. For now, I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“I privately wondered if I was a protagonist telling an exciting story who happened to live in a nice condo, or whether I was a protagonist telling a boring story about trying to pay off his nice condo. Looking over my bank statements, I feared the latter might be true.

My only consolation was I wasn’t alone. Most Americans aren’t living very good stories. It’s not our fault, I don’t think. We are suckered into it. We are brainwashed, I think.

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, then we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.”

What Do I Do?

So I keep saying I’m going to publish something, by hook or by crook. I write blog posts about it, start folders on my computer, move essays here and short stories there, and at the end of the day, I find myself staring into space mumbling: “Where do I start?”

Today I turn 35. I’m tired of posting “I’m a gonna do it” blogs. By the end of March of this year, I want to have at the very least one electronic book done and available for purchase somewhere. And I’m going to ask for your help in deciding what book it will be.

Here’s a poll – normally you people don’t vote in these things, so help a brother out and do it for once – where you get to choose what my first e-book will be. Please feel free to peruse my archives to re-acquaint yourself with some of my older stories and essays, and don’t forget to visit my old blog, The Southern Gentleman, for some good stuff there as well. If you have an alternate suggestion for an E-book, feel free to post it in the comments.

Just don’t let me down. I’m counting on you.

The Evolution of an Idea

I was driving home today, lamenting the fact that I have so many writing projects in process, but none really complete. I mean, sure, I have about 35 short stories that I’m satisfied with, but the big guns, the book-length works, are nowhere near being finished.

There’s the vampire church story that’s 3/4 of the way home. But I’ve not touched it in dang near a year.

Then there’s the memoir on my first child. It’s pretty well finished, but it needs some real revision to shine. Haven’t opened the file in six months.

Oh! Don’t forget about the novel I started here on the site, the one that I published serially during National Novel Writing Month in November to make sure I met my deadline and really finished a book…yeah, well, not so much. Two-thirds complete and just hanging out collecting whatever kind of dust an electronic file collects.

I completely forgot about the one that’s about 14 pages of a beginning, featuring Bence Little, my Athens detective and quite possibly my most favorite character to write. Last I left Bence, he was sitting in his car outside a funeral home. He’s probably out of gas by now…

Naturally, with so many unfinished projects in my queue, I get a flash of inspiration this afternoon on the way home from work for a completely new novel featuring Bence. Only, this novel is almost entirely complete, despite the fact that I’ve not even written word one.

That’s because the novel will take all of the Bence stories I’ve already written and blend them into one tale. An introductory novel that will explore how a man redeems himself after a fall. I’ve jotted down several ideas on how to tie the stories together, the thread that will connect them if you will, and I’m excited to start working on the book. I think I’m going to call it “Bulldog.”

Of course, I won’t be starting right away – with so much of the book already complete, I can afford to put it next to my other ones and let it get to the know the family. Chances are, it might take me a while to get it done…