Living a Better Story

Every day is its own story; with the rising of the sun comes conflict, twists, turns, and, if we’re paying attention, character development. The ultimate author of each day is God, but within our individual spheres, we are the ones at the keyboard. It is our will that shapes our days, filling them with something meaningful and interesting or with whatever happens to happen to us.

In college, one of my least favorite writing exercises was writing about whatever happened to be closest to me. This was assigned by one of my professors as a week-long project in a writing for publication class; the theory being writers should be able to take the boring and infuse it with meaning. Now that I’m almost 40, I can understand the exercise and even practice it on a regular basis (as anyone who’s read my blogs can attest). But in college, all the exercise produced were pained descriptions of Coke cans, beer bottles, empty Chinese cartons and the ennui of people who weren’t old enough to navel gaze but didn’t let lack of experience get in their way.

Sadly, the stories many people tell with their lives are similar to those college writing exercises. There’s a lot of detail, a lot of observation, but very little in the way of meaning. So many people just drift from day to day.


I walk with my kids to the bus stop almost every morning. We talk about a lot of things, mostly stuff that I consider inane but means everything to them in the moment. Whether it’s the recreational habits of squirrels, the strangely friendly cat that roams around our house, or the odd pink thing with veins lying in the middle of the road, my kids are intentional about asking questions that help them understand the world they inhabit.

As an adult, I occasionally (okay, frequently) find this incessant questioning of the world to be uncomfortable. Not because I don’t want my kids asking questions, but rather because I don’t want them asking questions of me at 7:15 in the morning before the coffee kicks in.

But in my more lucid moments (or when I’ve gotten enough coffee) I appreciate and marvel at their curiosity. In those times, I enjoy hearing how their brains work, enjoy hearing their made up hypotheses and fairy tales, enjoy the fact that they choose not to live in a world of drudgery but rather a world of magic and wonder. My morning is made better by the visits of their fairies and robots and heroes and horses, but it only lasts until they get on the bus.

Then, all too often, my world turns back into mindless detail: bills, work, chores, worries. The magic disappears with my children.

It’s my own fault, naturally, because I too often choose to see the world as drudgery. I’m just as capable as my children of seeing magic in the world but I don’t give myself permission to do so. I resign myself to living a boring story instead of a better story, because that’s the grown up thing to do. Grown up people don’t daydream, don’t have imaginary conversations in their heads, don’t invent different worlds where things are not as they seem.

But we do. Ashley Madison. Fantasty Football. Facebook. TMZ.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it’s not that we shouldn’t have stories; it’s that we settle for crappy ones.


I read a quote this morning that struck me, and I want to share it as a way of encouraging you to live a better story, to choose something beyond the dull sheen of a standard life.

“The story of our past cannot be rewritten.”

That’s from J. Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership. And while Sanders’ context was different than my own application, the idea remains true–we cannot rewrite our stories. We may go back into our yesterdays and try to infuse them with meaning posthumously, but we cannot change the events, cannot change the outcomes, cannot change the words on the eternal page (depending on your view of time travel, that is).

Instead, we have only one option if we want better stories. We must live them today. We must live our lives with eyes open, ears attuned, hearts prepared for the magic that comes even from something as simple as a trip to the bus stop in the morning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s to keep writing, to stay at the keyboard with discipline and persistence. Not everything will be gold, mind you, but if you don’t write junk you’ll never get to something worthwhile. Inaction doesn’t prevent bad work; it prevents good work from developing.

So today, make a choice to do things differently. To have a better attitude. To see a different perspective. To imagine another outcome. The power is in your hands to make magic happen anywhere.

Live a better story.

It’s possible, today.

A Love That Will Dance in Heaven

My grandparents.

They met because his grandmother broke her hip, and Granny McCart being the neighborhood sympathy cook, she naturally needed help taking the collards, corn, beans and biscuits the two-and-a-half-mile walk down Lenora Road. And that’s how my grandmother walked into a little farm house one Tuesday evening and saw my grandfather, sleeves rolled up and apron on, helping his mother dry dishes.

MawMaw tells the story in as little detail as possible, as if she were reciting the Periodic Table. Details, after 62 years, don’t mean what they used to.

As she tells it, Pop followed her and her mother outside. He was a drinker, and a bit of a mischief-maker, and he was only recently returned from a stint in the Army. His black hair was swept up and to the side, and his crooked grin told her that he would not be easy to shake.

He stared at her playfully then said, “I need to get a date with you.”

“No chance,” she said, and she grabbed her mother’s arm. Together they hit the dirt road.

He didn’t take no for an answer, as a matter of fact. Pop pulled into her driveway on Friday evening, walked to the front door and asked for her. When she came he said, “How bout we go get something to eat or go see a movie?”

The story gets fuzzy here. Either she didn’t give me good details or I didn’t half pay attention – and honestly, it’s probably a mixture of both. When you don’t fill me in on the gaps in a story, I tend to imagine them myself, so I was probably lost in my own mind, trying to see this story playing out.

A veteran soldier, heady with the thrill of victory. A no-nonsense brunette, weary of so forceful a man.

The odd couple, indeed.

At some point, she said yes to the movie, and together they made the trek to downtown Atlanta to see Gone With The Wind. They began dating, and became regulars at the Sports Arena, an old school gymnasium that stood on Memorial Drive, not too far from the refrigeration plant where Pop was working. They would get dressed up and drive out to the Arena on Fridays, where Pop’s boss from the plant would slip them “complimentary” tickets for the fun. Then, the two would head inside and dance for hours, spinning endlessly on the dance floor, young and alive and falling in love.

Pop, like almost every man returning from war, drank a lot. He would be wild and carefree and howling at the moon, intent on showing his girl a good time, until the end of the dance came and the assemblage squared off for the finishing dance. Then, the booze that filled his belly gave way to powerful fits of jealousy as he watched his date swing around the floor with other men. More than once he offered to fight these “suitors” and more than once MawMaw had to tell him to calm down, reassure him that she was there with him and him alone.

“He just got too jealous,” she said, recalling the memory. “It was the drinking.”

Nights of dancing, dining, and the course of courtship gave way to a courthouse marriage on afternoon. A 3:00 PM ceremony with the Justice of the Peace, and Mr. and Mrs. Harold Brooks were home in time for supper with her sister Lucille. Ebullient, filled with passion and love and all of the accompanying joys of the wedding day, they went to the VFW in Loganville to celebrate with dancing.

But even their wedding night would see Pop’s jealously get the best of him, and he drew his fist back to hit a fellow who had asked MawMaw to dance. Once again she stepped in and talked him down, only this time as his wife.

“We’re going home,” she said, “and we’re never dancing again. I will not start off our home with this mess. It’s not worth the trouble.”

At this point, she looked at me, sober as a judge. “And Jason,” she said, “we’ve never been dancing since. Not once in 62 years.”


I’d not asked to hear that story before Friday night. Not once in all my life had it occurred to me to ask how my grandparents met and fell in love. I certainly never would have figured that dancing played any part in their tale (my grandmother has never struck me as a dancer) and I still kind of marvel at the fact that she took a chance on someone who was obviously not her type.

I would give anything, really, to go back even a few years and ask Pop for his version. In fact, I think I would like to go all the way back to 2001, right before Rachel and I got married. He was in prime health, and with my own impending nuptials stretching out before us, he would dearly have loved telling me his side of the tale. I can see his blue eyes twinkling, and I know he would’ve at least mimicked some of the old dance moves while laughing and telling me what a “grand ole time” he and MawMaw had.

But in a strange way, I’ve gotten the better end of their story. It’s no secret that these two people, this pair who started out so different, have occasionally butted heads over differences in opinion. In fact, there was a time when the drinking threatened to get in the way for good. But when Pop came to Christ in 1969, he became, in her words “a different man.”

She laughed at the memory. “My mother never would hug Harold, because she was afraid he’d hurt her – not because he was violent, but because he just wanted to love on everybody when he was drinking. She’d said, ‘Harold Brooks! Don’t you come near me!’ But once he got saved, she weren’t scared of him anymore. She loved to let him hug her then.”

It was that turn in Pop’s life, and in their marriage, that made the last 40 years of their life so much richer. While their personalities have always been opposite one another – MawMaw with her ferocity and Pop with his goofiness – they were great together. She’s always been the one who had to pull him back from being the life of the party, always had to remind him to watch his language or not tell a certain story, and he’s always been the one to remind her that life is there for the living, even in times of sadness or pain.

Like so many good relationships, it was the antithetical nature of their personalities – his yin to her yang, or vice-versa – that made them work so well together. A marriage requires balance, and you either need two people who are completely balanced within themselves and thus balanced together, or you need two people who are so off-balance as individuals that together they bring the scale even. I’ve seen it in my own marriage – where I am weak, Rachel excels, and where she needs a hand, I’ve got more than enough to offer her assistance. And anytime you put two people together whose parts make a better whole, you’ll get the eventual disagreement of one sort or another.

But those disagreements are part of the balancing, part of the harmonizing of two souls, and MawMaw and Pop went together better than peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. They were always like the best Mexican food – satisfying and filling, but with enough kick to make you come back for seconds. I remember them as the straight grandparents because they were so rooted in church and farming, but in thinking back on it these past few months, they could be more fun than a weekend in Vegas.

They were never more at their best than when they were in church together. MawMaw, ever the organizer, ever the hostess, and Pop, ever the life of the party. Together, they could take a dry Baptist picnic and turn it into Rumspringa-meets-Mardi-Gras without anyone having to take a sip. God, I’m tearing up just thinking about the countless dinners-on-the-ground or mountain retreats they hosted when everyone involved would fill up on food and laughter. I always thought that they went along with other people to these events; it never occurred to me that they were really the driving force behind them, the heartbeat that kept so many people – so many families – alive.


My grandparents.

Perspective offers so much, it’s a shame that it only comes when the time for experiencing something is past. Tonight, we went to MawMaw and Pop’s for a visit, and the end is inching ever nearer for him. He sleeps almost constantly, and has practically given up on food. His kidneys are failing him. He’s just vanishing, minute by minute.

MawMaw, as she has for 62 years, stands ever vigilant by his side. She’s a wreck, in part because it goes against her nature to stand by idly and not make things right. Only this is something that can’t be made right; there’s no meal, no service, no words of wisdom that can turn back the clock and give him back to her like she wants. And so she sits, watching half of herself slowly die, her eyes dark with worry and helplessness and probably some small part of guilt. She fusses with her hands and mutters to herself, “I wish there was something I could do, but what?”

His hair is gone now, along with his teeth. He’s as close as you can come to looking like a baby as a fully-grown man. His breathing is sometimes loud and ruptured by snores, but usually it’s soft, like a fleece blanket pulled around him. She’ll walk to him every so often and stroke the skin atop his head, skin that she used to fuss at him to slather with sunblock or else don’t bother coming to her to complain, and then lean down to see if he needs anything.

His eyes usually don’t open. His mouth, like a hatchling’s, will open only enough for her to pour in some water or maybe a nutritional shake. His jaw will go up and down and he’ll say something that only she can understand; it’s the unspoken language of a shared heart, the silent communication between lifetime lovers and friends. She’ll nod and fix his pillow, or just kiss the top of his head, and then she’ll sit down for another ten minutes until she rises to check on him again.

There is so much pain in watching all of this, so much that makes your nose snot and eyes burn, but they do so out of beauty, out of the sheer magnificence of it all. MawMaw, so gentle, so obviously in love; my mind goes back to that Tuesday afternoon, his sleeves rolled up, his hair fixed just so, and I wonder if she knew then that the love of her life was only a few feet away, across a table of food and dirty dishes? And Pop, so frail, so completely dependent upon her mercy and kindness; I wonder if on that same day he knew that the dark-eyed, stiff-backed woman carrying a pot of collard greens would one day be the person who changed his clothes when he could no longer do so for himself?

I’ll never know, not absolutely, because to know the answers to those questions as fact, I would have to be them, to have lived their lives and seen the world through their eyes. I can only come close via their words and my own observations, and really only the latter; Pop cannot share with me anymore, and MawMaw is too busy, too aggrieved, to really want to share.

But all I need to know about their love, about the possibility of love for anyone, is on display whenever she leans down to kiss his head and he turns toward the warmth of her touch. One day, there will be no more warmth, no more soft bald head to kiss; there will only be memories, and the bittersweet offering of our Christian faith – that one day, in a world far better than this one, he and she, in perfect bodies, will be reunited with no fear of aging, no fear of death. Perhaps he will be wearing an apron, his sleeves rolled up so his big arms can show, and maybe she’ll be wearing a cotton skirt that stops just short of her ankles and compliments her cream-colored blouse. Maybe they’ll take in Gone With The Wind, or maybe, if God is as good as I believe Him to be, he’ll take her into his arms and swing her around to music that only they can hear, dancing to the beat of their own hearts, never to be separated again.

I hope they dance. And I hope that I, and all of my family, get to stand in awe of the love that gave all of us our lives.

Until then, we’ll stand in awe of it here.

Revenge of the Flush-o-Matic…

I have to get this out there. I Tweeted it earlier, but it doesn’t do the story justice.

So I’m in Walmart today purchasing needed supplies for our youth mission trip that I’m leading here in Brunswick, Georgia. This seaport city ain’t what she used to be, but she does have a fairly nice Wally-World. It’s not top of the line, mind you, but some of that has to do with the fact that the store is so busy they have to restock most all of the grocery shelves every night. Now, I know most restocking is done at night, but when you have whole sections of shelves that are cleaned out – and I mean not a thing left on them – every single day, that’s some major work.

I feel as though I’ve developed a mystical bond with the Walmart, I’ve been in it so frequently. So much so that I know one of the cashiers by name (Deleane), and she knows that I’m “working like a crazy man to keep them kids happy.” (A pretty succinct summation of my job, actually…especially as a father!) I feel pretty comfortable there.

So comfortable, in fact, that when nature dialed my number this morning, I had no reservations about using the facilities.

I mean, after all – this is now my second home.

Anyway, I head to the head to take care of things, and I’m joined by an elderly gentleman with some bladder shyness issues. After more stops and starts than a Narcoleptic’s Convention, the gentlemen finally gets things going. We pass the time silently, until we both are ready to step away from the urinal.

Now, call me inured to the merits of modern society, but I truly didn’t expect what happened next. Well, I expected part of it, because that’s what you expect when you stand in front of an automatic-flush toilet.

What I didn’t expect was for the old man to jump three feet backwards and exclaim, “Sakes alive! That johnny flushed itself!”

I didn’t laugh. I didn’t want to embarrass the old man. Turns out, I could’ve laughed all I wanted to, because he left so fast, he didn’t even wash his hands. I guess he thought the toilet might try to flush him next.

Anyway, just wanted to tell that story with some more meat on the bones. And also to let you know I posted another blog on the student ministry site.

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.”

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…