Hutchmoot, Pie Making, and the World Moving On…

I spent four rich days in Nashville last week. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, as I’ve been expecting a major transition for awhile now. I usually sense when the switch is about to flip and the world is creeping forward to move on (obligatory hat tip to Roland Deschain). Sometimes this can feel a little ominous, like the change that is coming should evoke a little dread in me. But sometimes it’s a simple as me recognizing the bare flesh made from stone.

I went to Hutchmoot this year.  And at some point while I was there, the switch flipped, I was made more flesh, and the world moved on.

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This was my second year to convene with all of the other nerdy, pipe-smoking, socially-awkward-in-the-best-way Rabbits that generally huddle around The Rabbit Room. I knew a little of what to expect. I knew just how high the hurdles of intimidation were going to stand. I knew the kind of effort it was going to take on my part to throw my body over them and hope to land on my feet.

I’m not sure I always did. But point is that I tried, right?

It’s okay to be bad at something on your way to begin good at it.
Hutchmoot Session 2: A Case for Craft

So, I was asked when a few familiar faces arrived why I thought I had been brought to Hutchmoot this year. What did I think I was going to hear? Or find? Or receive?

What am I doing here?

Others around me seemed to have some direction in what they were specifically seeking. Or even what they were expecting to hear from God. But I didn’t have an answer.

I don’t know what I’m doing here. I just know I’m supposed to stand here in front of this proverbial fire hydrant with my Dixie cup and do my best to leave with some water. Maybe try not to get my face too distorted by the pressure.  

Let me back up. I spent the greater part of the last two years sick with what could’ve quickly and easily turned into a pretty serious chronic illness involving a digestive tract that wasn’t really interested in digesting anything but itself. I was bombarded with stress — both physically and emotionally — beginning with an ugly stint in the hospital just after the first of the year.  Suddenly, I was becoming aware of how, for 29 years, I’ve been wearing myself out. Stretching myself to keep together what may very well have been destined to be torn apart. My crippling [and ultimately ridiculous] messiah complex is another story for another day.

Still, this all involved mourning my own mortality and the painfully tedious and pragmatic tragedy of my rebellious heart. I have spent the greater part of this year feeling tired and nauseated and heartbroken and emotionally rubbed raw. But you know, in the spirit of my personal theme of 2013 so far, you’ll be surprised what won’t actually kill you. I kept asking myself what the story was here. What am I going to make of this whole experience? I worked hard to dig around and bring some depth to the death that had been hunting me all year — lurking in every available space and laughing at me at every available opportunity. What am I going to make this mean?

Fast forward to October and the question at hand.

I’m standing at the hydrant. I have a few extra Dixie cups with me. I’m not sure how I’m going to travel with them all. Hell, maybe I’ll just drink as much as I can in the moment and hope it nourishes something I can take with me. The one thing I know for sure is that we, the nerdy rabbits, gather to receive as much as we gather to make something happen. 

And something happened.

I soaked up such grace and wisdom in session and in personal conversations about writing and publishing and being a person and calming down. These things have had more impact on me than I have time to express. But there was a moment that the sky opened up and the whole of the earth turned to whisper to me the thing I had been drawn here to hear.

++++

Andrew Peterson and Jonathan Rogers presented the final session I attended for the weekend entitled Writing Close to the Earth. They promptly engaged me in an intellectual cage fight about coming down from my lofty, abstract one-line-focused writing [as in, setting up an entire scene just to get one abstract message across, not that I’m guilty of this at all *ah hem] and digging my literal hands into the literal earth to find what already exists. All of this was so true of me both in my writing and in my personal life. Jonathan even mentioned a wild character in one of his books that he debated even leaving in because he seemed to just come out of nowhere with one-line abstract wisdom and disappear again into the wilderness.

I’m basically this character in my actual life. Sans locusts and animal furs, abstract vaguery isn’t just my first language, it’s my spiritual gift.

But then he said it. The thing I had come all this way to hear. The thing that unveiled the 29 years and 10 months so far:

It's not your job...

There I had been, exhausting myself in God knows how many ways for God knows how long, trying desperately to give meaning to stories that didn’t really need my help to mean anything at all.

And just in case I didn’t get to catch all of that in my tattered up Dixie Cup during the session, the blasting hydrant let up again in the form of a conversation I had with Nate Wilson, where he reminded me that cream rises, and my only job is to excel in my craft [which I believe was given several different metaphors including duck hunting and pie making]. To see. And to say. There is a God. He is better at this than I am. And no matter how unfocused and overwhelmed I am, He’s going to get what He wants. There will be meaning. Every time.

I could say so much more about the weekend. And I may take some time to post about each session individually. For now, suffice it to say I walked in to Hutchmoot one version of myself and walked out another entirely — taken, again, [ever so gently this time] from one degree of glory to the next.

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the girl in the pit.

I know about the girl in the pit.

The one who sometimes rises up out of you, responding out of irreparable wounds, shooting a soul-flushing white fire from her eyes, speaking hatred without words. I know how you feel about her. And I know how she makes you feel. You hate that girl.  You have banished her as often as you could. Denied her as any part of the real you. You have functioned under the delusion that she has no attachment to you at all. She’s just that ugly, mean, troubled, disturbing, embarrassing jerk that lives in the pit you dug for her.

And she just…

won’t…

die.

You truly hate her.

I know. I hated her, too.

I dug pit after pit for her. I beat and banished her in ways that would make your skin crawl. I said terrible things to her. I joined in the ranks of demons whispering around her… constantly validating the lies that were told so many times they began to distort her skin and her face and change the color of her hair. She was becoming those lies. And I was letting her. I thought she deserved it.

But there came a time that she came out of that pit and I had to look at her — really look at her, in the face and the eyes. She was like a wild, mangy, wounded cat that I couldn’t touch without getting clawed and hissed at. And when she finally calmed down — when I finally saw the blood and gore of what had been done to her — I could scarcely face her.

Because she wasn’t her.

She was me.

I had joined the war against myself. My actual self. And I had lost. Either way.

Child, listen to me. I’m going to tell you the whole truth. And when I say you, I mean you. All of you. You and the girl in the pit. Not the whole world —  not all the peoples of all nations past, present or future. I’m talking to you, so stop subconsciously looking for an excuse to only halfway listen (and therefore halfway believe) what I’m about to say to you. Look at me right here on this screen behind those little black symbols. And do not look away until we are finished.

You were always intended to be this girl — however many pieces of you are lying around or being punished right now. Maybe slightly impulsive and reactionary. Angry about being angry. Bright and fast and brave and sensitive and deep. You were always going to be this girl with this story — regardless of how your experience has dictated it you. Every moment has been and will continue to be on purpose. And you will see, when it is all said and done and restored, that it was all for your good. Every thread was weaved out of the great love housed for you at the turn of every invisible corner. If you sit still and quiet enough, you will know it’s there — soaking through your pores, turning your hair into gold, adoring you with a power that probably terrifies you even now. Because it is the Truth, child — the Truth who has a name. And He will never stop pursuing you. All of you. Even the one in the pit.

I know these things because He told me. And when I asked how to save her — how to save us — He told me she was already saved. He had already rescued her.

She was already a hero.

He gave me a story for her — a story to show me what kind of hero she really is. It’s not all glitz and glamour. It’s not all chocolates and true love. But it’s not that pit, either. And for some reason, while my sweet friend and I have been telling the story of this and other heroes we have been digging out from various other pits, we were told to bring that story to you.

So.

We are.

In the meantime, stop beating the tired girl in the pit. Stop joining the raging, merciless, malicious battle against yourself. Get up, beloved. Grab the scarred hand of Truth that has been reaching down there for you this entire time. Take the outrageous risk of believing Him when He says “you belong.” And let Him bind you together again — as it was in the beginning with Him, before you ever drew breath on this planet. I repeat, lest I forget:

He will never stop pursuing you.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.

(Psalms 139:15-16)

else. (a story)

She felt the edges of the paper crumpling in her warm hands. It seemed to mean less to her now that she had it. Now that she was officially an educated woman.

“Still want to go?” he mumbled, almost grunting gently and waving to the old woman in the front room as the screen door creaked and slammed behind them.

“I’m going, Frank. We’ve been through this.” Though she spoke gently, she didn’t even look up at him this time. She could hear him heave a sigh that seemed to fill the state of Louisiana with the smell of chewing tobacco and last night’s whiskey.

But Claire breathed deep anyway. The wind like a heater on the side of her already glistening forehead, she inhaled a millisecond of panic that evaporated before exhaling again. Frank picked up two of her suitcases with one hand. She watched him turn her hatbox on its side, place it firmly between his waist and his left elbow and reach for a third suitcase.

“Well, let’s get going.” He spoke with no emotion, which was nothing new to her. Still, it stirred her inside, and she missed him already. She knew he was not emotionally unavailable. She had seen him with his wife, warm and sincere. There was a feeling person in there somewhere…

She unbuckled one of her bags and placed her sheet of paper inside of it carefully, straightening out the edges she had previously crumpled up without care and remembering why it had mattered to her again. Putting on her flimsy straw hat and picking up the two remaining bags, she followed him down the front steps of her now former teacher’s home. And without looking back, she and Frank started the long mile to the train station, kicking up dust the whole way.

“How long before you come back?” he asked after a long enough silence for their slightly strained breath to become consistent noise.

She looked up at him, feeling that second of panic in the pit of her stomach again. She swallowed quickly and widened her eyes so the sneaking tears would retreat back into their fortresses and said, “I don’t know, Frank.”

He let out a wheezy chuckle, “And why do you end every statement with my name?”

“I guess I’ve determined that if we’re going to continue in the same conversations over and over again I might reciprocate the repetitive nature –” she took a deep calming breath, knowing her tendency to easily lose her temper. It was quiet again for a millisecond before Frank let out a burst of yet more wheezing laughter and said,

“You funny creature! Was I supposed to catch a single word you just said to me –”

She kept her smile at bay as long as she could before letting her laughter loose into the trees on either side of the dirt road where they were walking. The sound of both of their laughter filling to the brim some unknowable void seemed to glisten shortly, then disappear into the woods. And just as she’d suspected, as the laughter died down, she felt her throat tighten, closed her eyes and turned her face away from Frank. The newly risen sun warmed her already flushing cheeks and her liquid grief, marbled with nostalgia and a strange sense of moving on rose in waves and trickled down either side of her face quietly. It was odd not to be overwhelmed by it. She almost welcomed the relief of each wave, though she’d been irritably avoiding it all morning. Out of the corner of her left eye, she could see Frank watching her and let another wave roll. Taking a deep breath, she turned her head and found him, though not smiling, surprisingly pleasant-faced. She imagined that’s exactly how John would’ve looked if he were with them. He and Frank so easily took on the same expressions.

If John were with them, none of this would be going on.

She wouldn’t be going anywhere this morning but that old oak tree in front of the Methodist church, wearing her young grandmother’s white lace gown, newly altered to fit her, and the dark sapphire ring that belonged to John’s grandmother — Frank’s mother — on her left hand.

But Claire was wearing a blue dress that belonged to her grandmother’s housemaid, Eloise, who was the last of her family to pass away when she was fourteen. Her flimsy straw gardening hat covered her anything but glamorous hair. She was not dressed for the beginning of the rest of her life. She was dressed for the rest of her day on a train.

And John was not here.

“He would want you to go,” Frank said gruffly, clearing his throat and furrowing his eyebrows as he looked at her. His eyes relaxed for a second before he looked back at the road and picked up the pace a little. She watched his face for awhile. His patchy black beard was speckled with silver and white. His eyes were round like John’s, but darker, deeper brown. Almost black. And in one magical second, she could see John’s face, should he have lived to grow old, in his father’s.

“Yes,“ she heard her voice saying before she’d really prepared herself. “You’re right. He would want me to go. He would — he’d want me to do something with my life.”

“No,” said Frank quickly, stopping in the road. “Your life is….something.”  His voice cracked slightly and he was starting to stutter, which was more than she could take, as Frank was never emotional. She had stopped and turned slightly to watch him search for what he wanted to say while keeping a grip on the luggage he was carrying. “He would want — he’d want you to go, yes – and… he’d want you to go.” They walked on.

********

They were silent until they’d gotten right up to the station. Frank placed all of her luggage carefully beside her and went to speak with the attendant at the window. She let her hair down — turning wavy in the early morning humidity — and pulled it back into a low loose bun, putting her hat perfectly on top just in time for a gust of hot wind and dust to blow it off her head. Immediately, Frank chased it shortly down the dirt lot in front of the station and yelled back at her laughing, “Sure you want to wear this today?” She feigned a small grin and began moving her luggage around to find somewhere to put it for the ride. With her back to him, Frank saw her reach for the top of the hatbox, her shoulders lifting slowly and releasing as she raised her head, staring forward.

She let her hand rest on the top of the box before she looked down and carefully reached around the rim to open it. Once she did, she looked forward again, her face stoic as ever. Frank had moved close enough to see the sun sparkling off of something small on the top of a messy pile of folded papers. He inched closer quietly and with an unintentional limp — her hat looking minuscule in his large hands as he folded and twisted it.

They stood there, frozen as a picture, for what seemed an eternity. Frank wondered if she’d take that ring out or touch it at all.

Before they left that morning, Frank’s wife, Molly, had told Claire that this would be good for her, that this is something hopeful. Something more. But Claire was feeling the frustration of that all over again standing there in the blazing morning sun, the embroidery on her dress scratching her shoulders and her heated hair starting to burn her scalp. John wanted something more for his life. For their life together. And she was perfectly satisfied to have the life that Frank and Molly have. Frank at the sugar mill. Molly teaching Sunday School and organizing home visits with the Methodist church. Two kids. Modest living. It was beautiful to Claire. Normal, even.

But John was only working at the mill to pay for the wedding. They were going to move to Baton Rouge so he could go back to school. He wanted to teach history. He wanted to travel. He wanted to show Claire all the things a “girl like her” could have and be in the world.

“This just isn’t it for us,” he had said. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be something more than my parents have… just — just something else.”

This was it. This was going to be her something else. And she wasn’t sure she could call it good. Yet. She would, however, call it expensive. Because so far this good, this hope, was the most demanding thing she had ever come to know. It cost her John. And it cost Frank and Molly, John. And it better damn well be worth it.

“I’m not going to cry anymore, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said decidedly, startling Frank a bit with her sudden voice. “I just — I haven’t figured out what I’m supposed to do with it.” He moved closer in, handing her the runaway hat. She thanked him before looking up, unsure of what kind of emotion, if any, his pregnant silence was holding. He made no noise at all. “Do you want it back?” she asked, finally, barely sure she would even be able to get the question out at all. “I mean, I know it was your mother’s. Maybe Liza would want it when she’s older or Molly might –”

Frank was looking at the ground, one hand pressing the crease of his nose and furrowed brows, the other held up to indicate it was time for her to stop talking.

“I’m sorry, I just–”

“I’m only gonna say this once,” his deep voice interrupted. “So listen sharp, right?”

She nodded, waiting for him to look up at her with reproach and scold in his eyes. The same way he’d looked at her and his son when John announced their engagement at the birthday dinner Frank and Molly had thrown when she turned seventeen last year. She remembered helping Molly wash the dishes in silence after dinner, and watching Frank and John having a serious conversation on the front porch — both without fighting but certainly stern from both sides. She’d never been more entranced by the dynamic of a normal family. And she’d never seen the two of them look more alike.

The way Frank’s face looked just then, as she’d been opening up that hat box — he looked just like John, again. And she felt the edges of her heart start to crumple and rip, as if someone was cutting open and peeling back tissue around a healing wound.

Frank’s eyes grew less harsh immediately upon seeing her expression turn from a guarded inquisition to something more young and vulnerable. She felt her face flushing again and with all attempts to the opposite, her eyes were welling up with tears as her left hand slipped into the hat box and ran her fingers across the ring that was still sitting atop the pile of papers.

He reached out, stepping closer to her quickly, and took hold of her hand inside that hat box. Bringing the ring out with it, he took her hand in front of his chest and took in a fast, deep breath, trying to keep his tears from overwhelming her. But it was already done. They were already streaming down his face. She’d never seen Frank cry. Not at the funeral. Not even when he told her what happened to John at the mill.

“This,” he said between sobs, “was John’s gift for you.” He placed the ring carefully on her right ring finger. It felt heavy on the opposite hand, and she was overwhelmed. No one had ever been particularly affectionate with her except for John. And he had barrier after barrier to overcome. But when he did, when he held her or did so much as brush her hair out of her face, she could feel her heart exploding a little, as if it was something she would never admit to desperately wanting to feel. And it made her all the more afraid of losing it. She wondered if Frank could tell how her heart felt from where he was standing. She wondered if it would be safe to show him, if she could figure out how.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tube of lipstick, which made her laugh and reach up with her left hand, as he was still holding her right, to wipe tears from her face. “This –” he held it up in front of his face trying to read the label on the side. “Well, I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean, but it’s your gift from Molly.” He handed it to her, letting go of her right hand, and they both laughed a little as she took the top off and twisted the bottom until a bright red column appeared. “She said it’s for good luck. She wore it on her wedding day,” he took a quick breath in again and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “She uh,– she said she wanted you to have it on yours.”

Claire looked up at Frank, smiling brightly with the last few tears trickling down her face. His eyes were tired, and for the first time she felt like they were the same. Their grief, their hope, their determination to move on. It really was the same. He reached out and put both of his giant callused hands on either side of her face, catching some of her loose hair around her ears.

“This is your gift from me,” he smiled suddenly, leaning in to meet her eye to eye. “You, Claire Walker, are the bravest that there is.” She let another sound burst all the way from her chest and what she felt sure was the overflow of her tired, filled-up heart. Not quite a laugh, not quite a cry, though it came with tears, she reached up and took each of his wrists with her hands. The sun was sparkling off of the ring on her right hand and washing the picture of them with a bright white. “Now,” he said in a near whisper, squinting slightly then kissed her on the forehead. “Now you go find out why.”

A fresh breath filled her lungs and rather than swallow a lump in her throat, she sighed deeply with relief. With an air of unburdening, she nodded at him.

“Molly’s sister will be waiting on you at the station once you get to Chicago. She’ll know you by your dress,” he put the top back on the hat box and patted it gently. “And by this.”

“Okay,” she whispered. She straightened up, ready to take back on the aura of independence that she’d been mastering for four years now, despite John’s best efforts to crack her. She would never be given the opportunity to let him know how he had.

But Frank knew. He laughed as he pushed her hair back behind her ears and said, “You are a funny little creature.”

He winked, waved slightly to the attendant at the window of the station and turned back to the dirt road. She looked down at the ring on her right hand, twisting it with her thumb and fingers on either side. Watching Frank kick dust up behind him as he walked back towards town, she remembered the night John had brought her in to the birthday dinner his family was giving her. She knew he was going to announce their engagement, and she remembered the panic of not really knowing how to behave around families that seem to stay living together. Or stay alive at all. John had called her a “funny little creature” that night, too. And she could see Frank and Molly in the kitchen as they’d gotten to the porch of John’s house. Molly was straightening Frank’s bow tie, and his face was soft as he looked at her.

She smiled, watching Frank walk away. She took the top off of Molly’s lipstick, smeared the bright red onto her lips and straightened her shoulders again.

“It starts with you,” John had whispered to her that night on the front porch, before opening the front door. He’d soaked her heart with all of his dreams for their future — for their something else — “It starts with you for me, Claire. Because you are not afraid.”

And she wasn’t.