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I’ve moved…

I set up a new blog as a page on my website: www.mandybrownhouk.com. Come see!

Write on the Ledge

I’ve got a new column up on the Pikes Peak Writers Blog. Enjoy!

Comparisons. Aren’t they fun? As soon as I get excited about whatever new dress size I’ve fit into after months of dieting, I overhear someone bemoaning the fact that they’ve just sized up to the very same number.

I’ve spent years perfecting my apple pie recipe, and it’s a keeper. So why do I get jittery when someone says they never use shortening in their crust, or a certain type of apple, or whatever it is that I have always used and my family has always loved?

I can be perfectly happy with my circumstances one moment—my dress size, my baking skills—and in the next moment I’m crestfallen, just because I noticed someone else has things or does things a little differently.

Constantly comparing and measuring myself against others is immature, whiny, and depressing. When it comes to my marriage, though, comparisons are dangerous.

Let’s say my husband has done something sweet and romantic, and I’m reveling in it. Until I hear about some other grand gesture by some other husband. Then the bloom starts to droop off the rose.

What changed? My husband was thoughtful and kind, and he showed his love for me in his own, unique way. It was more than enough for me until my greedy eyes drifted elsewhere. When I take my eyes off of my own relationship, and let my gaze wander over to someone else’s husband…well, it’s rather obvious that I’m on a slippery slope that leads nowhere good.

Even though I don’t consciously think, “I wonder what it would be like to be married to that guy,” I am still allowing myself to wish my husband were more like “that guy.” I’m taking my focus off of the blessing I have in my own husband and marriage, and I’m coveting the blessings that belong to someone else. I’m also cheating my husband of the credit and gratitude and affectionate feelings that he has every right to expect from me as his biblically-ordained other half: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31).

Ultimately, it comes down to contentment, which the dictionary defines as “ease of mind.” My mind isn’t taking it easy when it’s casting about looking for comparisons—checking to see if I’m justified in being happy with the way things are.

When I learned that a friend of ours gives his wife roses every anniversary – one for every year they’ve been married, plus an extra for the year to come – I felt a brief rush of happiness for them. It was quickly followed by a sour feeling in my stomach: after eighteen years, it’s too late for us to start that tradition now.

I hope you’re disgusted with me, because I certainly am. Especially since my husband has his own tradition for each of our anniversaries (which I shall not share with you because it’s my blessing, and I want you to think about yours).

Another friend of mine has the stereotypical husband who completely forgets every anniversary. Not only that: he forgets her birthday. And Valentine’s Day. This was a serious source of argument for the first several years of their marriage. One day, she was grumbling about the situation to God, and she felt Him prodding her: have you ever doubted his love for you? There was no hesitation—the answer was an emphatic no. That realization helped her stop expecting her husband to show his love the way other husbands show theirs. She does like celebrations, though, and gifts. So she leaves post-it notes on the bathroom mirror and on his steering wheel for several days leading up to each special occasion. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work. In that case, she goes shopping and gets something gift-wrapped for herself. Later, she gives him the box so he can present it to her (and he is ever-so relieved and grateful). After forty-some-odd years together, they are one of the happiest couples I have ever known.

What’s the formula? Simple: she’s got “ease of mind.” She doesn’t stew and pout and dwell on his forgetfulness, chalking it up to insensitivity and lack of love. She’s clear-eyed when she looks at him, seeing exactly who he is and refusing to compare him to other men (or that mythical creature known as the Ideal Husband).

Is your husband romantic? Wonderful.

Is he less romantic than “that guy”? Too bad—you already said he was romantic, so be grateful for that.

Is he about as romantic as a fencepost? You still chose him and married him, so take a minute to focus like a laser beam on the blessing that he is.

Pete and I just spent a morning clearing out weeds, trimming trees and bushes, picking up trash, filling dumpsters and pickups. We were part of the “exterior team,” which included maybe a dozen of our fellow church members. Others on our team were removing unusable fence boards, chopping out stumps, whacking weeds.

There were at least a dozen more of us inside the house. They were removing carpet, clearing out debris, disinfecting floors, fixtures, and appliances.

We were at the home of a woman that most of us had never met. In fact, we did not even meet her today. We received word that she needed our help through our church‘s ministry, the Colorado Springs Project. Her friends, neighbors, even family had gone for years without any knowledge of what was going on inside her house.

The details are personal, but my point is this: this woman–this loved, precious child of God–believed that she was beyond help, so she never asked for it. She lived her life as if everything were normal, but she never allowed anyone inside her home, inside her struggles.

It is absolutely heart-breaking to think that she lived in such an isolated state, apparently convinced that others could not–or would not want to–help her. As if nobody else had problems approaching the level of hers. As if everyone else’s facades are actually true, and problems are best dealt with by hiding them, pretending, just going along.

My house is probably messier than yours. I have three animals as an excuse. But let’s forget about house messes for a minute. How many of us have a heart, even a corner of it, that’s just as hidden and broken and debris-filled as this woman’s house? And how many of us refuse to let anyone else see it, not even a glimpse, because we’re sure it would frighten people away?

I updated my “about me” page with this in mind, and here is what I added:

Here’s the thing: I am deeply flawed and broken, and I believe that to hide that from others is to be deceitful. Too many of us are sold on one another’s facades, and it leads us to hide our own struggles, withdraw, and isolate ourselves. Most of my nonfiction writing reveals some kind of goofy, stupid, selfish, sinful thing I have done. If you find me horrible, that’s okay. You’re supposed to, because I am. The only good in me comes from Christ, and if I hide my flaws from others, I’m robbing them of the opportunity to seek help for flaws of their own…to know that He is gracious and merciful and loving. He loves us the way we are — and will not leave us that way.

Please know that your struggles, your sins, your debris–none of it ought to be hidden. Open the blinds, open the door, and let others step into your life. Your real life. God created us for community because we need it. I know it’s scary. But the alternative is…well, it’s terrifying. It’s too much for you to carry alone, so stop trying.

Dear Daddies

This Father’s Day will be the twelfth I have spent without my daddy, since he passed away in December, 1999. It will be the fourth without my father-in-law–in the fall of 2007, Pete lost his daddy, too.

And yet I still find myself searching through the Father’s Day cards at the store, hunting down the perfect one for each of them. For the first few seconds, it really is absent-mindedness. A blissful state of half-thinking that momentarily blocks my consciousness from the truth–that I will not see them again this side of Heaven.

It is an odd, paralyzing feeling to hold so much love for a person and yet find it impossible to express that love. To feel the tangible pressure of inexpressible gratitude for all those years of guidance, provision, affection.

For motorcycle rides, settled into Daddy’s generous stomach, his thick, strong arms hemming me in at each side.

For soft-spoken encouragement from Pete’s father, especially in regard to my writing.

For the joy of making Daddy laugh, sometimes so hard that his face turned pink and bright tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes.

There were rough years between my daddy and me. Years that I thought would leave irreversible scars. Phone conversations that ended abruptly with hang-ups. Misunderstandings. Harsh words. Tears of sorrow and of anger. Years that Father’s Day cards were particularly hard to read, to choose, to buy.

But then there was grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and miraculous restoration. And one year, I had to buy two cards because it was too hard to choose only one.

When reality hits and I pause in the card aisle, my hand in midair as I reach toward a card that looks promising, it takes me a minute to absorb the blow. Then, when I’ve taken a few breaths and settled my heart, I look through the cards anyway. And I don’t stop until I’ve found the perfect one for my daddy, and the perfect one for Pete’s. And I smile, and I hurt, and I say a silent prayer of gratitude to my Heavenly Father for the gift of earthly years with those strong, gentle, loving, wonderful daddies.

Then I slip the cards back into their places and let them go.

Begin Again

A common problem with first novels is the saggy, flabby middle. But it seems that the portion most often tackled by writing books and workshops is the beginning. The first five pages; the first page; the first line.

This is crucial, of course, because readers (agents, editors, or Joe Schmo browsing at Borders) generally begin…um…at the beginning. Your middle can have the literary equivalent of six-pack abs, but your readers won’t know it if they never turn a page.

The classic prescriptions for fixing a slow first page have a common theme: get things moving.

Begin with action.
Start with the moment that everything changes.
Put your character in jeopardy on the very first page.

Here’s the rub: my writing leans toward literary. (Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that nothing happens.) How do I begin my work-in-progress with “the moment that everything changes” when I want the reader to care that it happens before it does? This requires some understanding of the complicated attachment my brother and sister protagonists have with their father, and the distance they feel from rest of the family. I don’t want to resort to flashbacks since my novel-in-a-drawer was crawling with them (hence the drawer).

When I’ve ignored my own instincts and followed the “rules” anyway, I’ve hated my beginning and found myself utterly disinterested in working on the thing at all. So, what’s the solution?

One afternoon, after again trying to rework my first page and getting nowhere good, I turned to my bookshelves and grabbed a few of my favorite novels to do some research.

I was delighted to find that all my favorite beginnings share something in common: they start with the central longing, or at least preoccupation, of the main character. In just the first few lines, the reader sees what the main character most desires, regrets, fears, loves, or hates.

Sometimes it’s concrete and stated outright, as in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century.

The main character, Reuben, is a young boy with severe asthma whose father just happens to work miracles—one of which was bringing Reuben back to life after he was born dead: “a clay boy.” Reuben’s battle for breath and his father’s miracles are central to several pivotal moments in the book, and both are introduced within the first three pages.

In other examples, the desire is more abstract, but still gripping. Anne Tyler is the master here. From Back When We Were Grownups: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” And Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant:

While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her. It twitched her lips and rustled her breath, and she felt her son lean forward from where he kept watch by her bed. “Get…” she told him. “You should have got…”

You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill.

This kind of opening is a powerful way to reveal character immediately (it’s pretty obvious that Pearl is not the cuddly sort). It’s especially clear when comparing the first lines of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons with those of The Secret Life of Beesby Sue Monk Kidd. Both are first-person stories told by young girls who are abused and neglected by their fathers.

Ellen begins: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.”

Lily of Bees is more introspective and a wee bit less vengeful:

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

The fact that Ellen savors the notion of murder while Lily envies the freedom of insects tells you straight away that you’re being introduced to two vastly different girls.

Once I found the similarities between my favorite literary novels, I wanted to see if I could find the same in other genres. So I cracked open a book I had read recently—Down River, the Edgar Award-winning mystery by John Hart (one of PPWC 2011’s featured speakers). It positively oozes with both longing and regret.

The river is my earliest memory. The front porch of my father’s house looks down on it from a low knoll, and I have pictures, faded yellow, of my first days on that porch. I slept in my mother’s arms as she rocked there, played in the dust while my father fished, and I know the feel of that river even now: the slow churn of red clay, the back eddies under cut banks, the secrets it whispered to the hard, pink granite of Rowan County. Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of it, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on the day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul, and I thought I’d lost it forever.

But things can change, that’s what I told myself. Mistakes can be undone, wrongs righted. That’s what brought me home.

Not only is there overlap between genres. The advice itself—the classic ideas and this “longing” thing—can intersect. Pearl and Reuben are both in jeopardy as they face death on their respective first pages. In Back When We Were Grownups, Rebecca’s realization that she’s “the wrong person” leads her to change everything about herself.

And look at this beginning from the thriller The Oath by Frank Peretti: “She ran, tree limbs and brambles scratching, grabbing, tripping, and slapping her as if they were bony hands, reaching for her out of the darkness.” This one’s got all the tried-and-true elements: action, jeopardy—and everything seems to be changing. But it’s got longing, too, as the character tries desperately to escape from something or someone.

What it boils down to is that there are different ways to tackle those all-important first lines. If you’ve struggled with your beginning, or if you want to make sure it’s everything you want it to be, then pull out your own favorite books. Find the openings that grab you and see what they have in common. Action? Longing? A bit of both? Something else entirely? Whatever it is, go with that. You’ll be on your way to crafting the kind of story that you’ll love writing—and readers will keep reading.

Originally published on Writing From the Peak: Pikes Peak Writers Blog, 02/14/11

Giving Ourselves Away

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend from church whose family recently took in three foster children (a sibling group, ages 2, 6, and 10). She and her husband are one year away from sending their youngest child off to college. Their oldest three are all either finishing college or already out in the working world. Her husband is just a year or two away from retirement.

She shared with me the day-to-day struggles of caring for a toddler at her age, and dealing with the six-year-old calling her “Mommy” from the first day they met, and the palpable anger of the ten-year-old boy when he doesn’t get his way. She said she ends each day completely exhausted. Looking into her weary eyes, I believed it.

Then she said, “You know, we were really looking forward to our retirement years, and they’re so close now. We talked about how we would travel, and relax, and spend time together. And sometimes I feel like we’ve sacrificed our lives for these kids.”

She paused, leaned back in her chair with a smile, and said, “But that’s what it’s all about: giving ourselves away. What’s our life for, if not that?”

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