Searching with Shelly Miller, part 3

I said in part 1 that I took Shelly Miller’s new book Searching for Certainty with me to the beach.

I had lost my father only a month before and was worn out from caregiving. I don’t often write in books, but I couldn’t stop writing in Shelly’s. About halfway through, I flipped to the Acknowledgments and read this:

“Mom, even though we haven’t talked in more than twenty years, I’m thankful that you raised me to love beauty, express creativity, and be resilient despite adversity. Our shared struggles in the early years made me who I am today.” Acknowledgments, Searching for Certainty

I was stunned. The book had already covered some painful memories, but I assumed there would be some reconciliation between Shelly and her mother before the last page. But no.

Shelly is the best person I’ve ever known — period. I believe she was in the center of God’s will. Yet, there was this broken relationship. And that gave me hope.

I have broken relationships in my family too. I have grieved and prayed and schemed and questioned. Maybe all will not be repaired before my last day. Maybe God already knows this. 

If I had gotten the chance to interview Shelly about her new book, I would have asked her how she ever managed to get through my book, which is all about my mostly-good-but-sometimes-hard relationship with my mother. How did she not throw the book across the room? I’m ashamed to admit I might have done exactly that.

I suspect Shelly had dealt with her pain. I suspect friendship and a desire to learn more about poetry overcame any parts of my book that might have stung.

As open and teachable as Shelly was to my poetry feedback, I want to be open and teachable to her book’s challenging lessons.

In chapter 3 of Searching for Certainty, she explores still life photography and invites us to “allow God to reframe what you are currently experiencing with the lens of Truth and being known by him. That same chapter includes my favorite sentence from the book: “Resurrection is free and it costs you something.” 

When I read those words, I thought about a teapot I brought along on my beach trip. It was my mom’s, and it looks like Drummond plaid (my maiden name). I used to have my own teapot just like it, but it broke. My dad let me have this one when he moved next door, since he mostly drank coffee.

Reframing looked like this: Some things break; new things come.

The teapot was free to me. It cost breaking the other to receive a new one — one that is not just a cute vessel but a reminder of the last three years with my dad. I’m certain my mother would be very happy to know about the teapot’s new life.

I only wish Shelly were still here too, so I could tell her.

Searching with Shelly Miller, part 2

I am privileged to be in the Acknowledgements for Shelly Miller’s Searching for Certainty. She writes, “Thanks to Megan Willome for your stellar poetry critiques on the poems I included.”

Oh, Shelly, it was all joy.

She contacted me this spring:

My editor is allowing me to include some short poems as epigraphs for chapters in the new book I’m releasing in October. To be honest, I read them and think are they even well written? I know that sounds funny but I really have no clue as to what I’m doing, just following my instincts when it comes to poetry.

Of course I said yes. She responded:

I’m totally open and teachable. This is helpful for me and I want to get better. Honored to have your help!I’m sitting outside, resting in my walled garden, sipping tea. It’s our first sunny warm day in London—feels heavenly.

Shelly brought her photographer’s eye and her writer’s heart to her poems. And she was as open and teachable as she claimed.

After I sent my feedback, she asked great questions:

I would love to learn why you broke up verses as you did on each of them. And how did you decide to break it up into three stanzas? I don’t have the poetry intelligence to create architecture in that way but want to learn. No rush. Just my random thoughts. I’m wondering if this is something intuitive for poets or learned by experience.

No, it’s not intuitive. We all learn by doing. And Shelly learned quickly.

I have taught several workshops and helped many people with poetry, but I always enter with trepidation. Poetry is such a personal art. Shelly was taking a big risk, sharing with me. How would she respond to my feedback?

I had to laugh when I read your sweet encouragement about coming into my voice and shorter being what I need to lean into. Laughing with God because your words were a sacred echo.I feel like being concise and clear has been God’s choice of spiritual discipline for me for at least a decade. It’s all leading somewhere and I’m grateful to be a student, but sometimes it can also be frustrating. Thanks for being part of that process. I am learning a lot each time we have these exchanges.

I learned a lot too. Writing about spiritual topics is hard to do well and definitely not my area of expertise. Shelly showed me how it might be done with full faith and love and without sentimentality.

She came later to poetry, but after reading my book, The Joy of Poetry, she began incorporating it into her life, especially on her Sunday sabbaths. She deeply loved the poems of Wendell Berry.

When Shelly told me my book helped get her into poetry, I started sending her poems. She always responded.

But when she was diagnosed with a massive sarcoma, I debated what poem to send her. Finally I chose one from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us, “For a Friend, on the Arrival of Illness.” At Chronic Joy, I wrote about choosing the poem and Shelly’s response. (Although I didn’t say it was Shelly. Somehow I hoped she’d get better.) 

There is one stanza of O’Donohue’s poem that makes me think of Shelly’s brief and intense journey with illness:

May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.

Shelly found that “courageous hospitality” and shared it with everyone she knew. Yes, the news that her cancer was terminal hit her hard. But when asked for prayer requests, she asked for simple things, like to be able to enjoy her food, to sleep well, to share good moments with family and friends. She went quickly. She went in peace.

Shelly Miller — our rest mentor — is now at rest.

Next week, what Shelly’s book meant to me. And to read last week’s post on my visits from a Shelly-bird, click here.

Searching with Shelly Miller, part 1

This is not how a book review is supposed to go.

The day I joined Shelly Miller’s launch team for Searching for Certainty, my father passed away. I did what I could to help promote the book over the next few weeks, but didn’t have the mental space to read more than the first couple of chapters.

Shortly after publication, I took her book with me on vacation and started again at the beginning. I did nothing that week but walk and read and rest. I was searching for answers, or at least direction. Shelly delivered.

Back at home, I sent her an email to thank her and broach the idea of doing an interview, but she never responded. She passed away only days later, on November 1, All Saints Day.

That Sunday I was cantoring at church and both excited and nervous to sing the Litany of the Saints. I’d recorded my pianist playing the first minute of the song and then drove to a secluded street where I could park and practice. Normally I drive while I warm up, but I needed stillness to hit replay while reading from the long list of saints. 

Enter: Disruption.

A small bird, possible a titmouse, accosted my parked car. I wish I could say what kind, but I wasn’t paying attention. I had holy work to do. 

The bird dropped from nowhere and started pecking at my side mirror. Then it pecked at my passenger window. Then back to the side mirror, and so on. I sang on, and it pecked on, almost violently: Look at me! Let me in to your Litany! 

I ignored it. When I drove off, it finally flew away.

When I learned that Shelly had died that very day, I felt sure that the bird was somehow sent from her, trying desperately to get my attention. Look at me! Let me in to your Litany!  

That Sunday was not the first time I’d encountered a Shelly-bird. On the day of her massive surgery to address her sarcoma, I went to a garden to pray for her, because Shelly loved gardens. In between the sanctuary and the Holy Family Center at St. Mary’s is Cynthia’s garden, named for Cynthia Collins Pedregon, who passed away from cancer. She and my mother were friends, so I feel close to both of them when I am in that garden. It was May, and the magnolia tree was in bloom. And an unseen bird, maybe a titmouse, was singing.

I sent a recording of the bird to Shelly, so she could listen while she was in the hospital, secluded from chirpy things. When she redid her website, in preparation for Searching for Certainty, she added a robin. In our interview, I planned to ask why. 

Because poets don’t just post random birds. And Shelly was a poet.

More about her journey into poetry and how I got to be part of it, next week.

Glynn Young’s ‘Dancing Prince’

It begins and ends with an open door. 

“The first line of the book and the last line. It’s so subtle,” said Glynn Young, author of Dancing Prince, the fifth and final in the Dancing Priest series.  

“They are very different kinds of doors and implications. I would like to say I plotted it out, but I did not. As I was finishing, I knew, ‘That’s how it has to end, just before they walk into the room.’ Then it hit me, ‘That’s how it begins.’”

I had not noticed this symmetry, although I liked the first sentence so much I did a sacred reading on it. Just a little lectio divina on these seven words:

She must have left the door ajar.”

At first I assumed the POV was Michael’s, as most of the books are, in that close third-person way. But this is book is different. This book is not about the father but about the son, Tommy. What happens when Tommy walks through that “ajar” door and when Michael walks through that same door, left “slightly open,” those events set up the whole book. 

“What none of them understood was how the incident in the studio would reverberate for the next twenty years.”

When I think of a door ajar, I think of the wardrobe door in Narnia. In Glynn’s book the characters don’t walk into a fantasy world but into a new destiny. The plot changes because of that open door. And when the book ends with someone opening a door, it is an opening into a new life.

For such a short sentence, the individual words do a lot of heavy lifting.

left—There are leavings in this story. There is the leaving of death, the leaving of moving, the leaving that is a deep conflict in relationship.

door—One of the key plot points concerns two paintings, hidden behind doors.

ajar—Something can be left ajar on purpose or by accident. In leaving this door ajar, Sarah is making an opening where one did not exist before. It’s messy, but fundamentally, she’s right, and her rightness will be proved later. Her studio is always where she’s right.

The unexpectedness of the book’s opening — it surprised Glynn too. 

“It wasn’t planned this way at all. Book number 8 or 9, that was going to be the Tommy book. But this kid kept sticking his head in. It got pretty annoying. It’s hard to describe that, but he kept sticking his face in everything,” Glynn said. Then he decided, “if this is the last story, [Tommy] is the one it’s going to be about.” 

What happens behind the open door is conflict, both momentary and lasting.

“What I had running through my head as I wrote that section was the idea of what happens when a work responsibility — in Michael’s case it was greater because it’s who he is, he is Government — what happens when the demands become so great that things suffer, things you don’t want to have suffer. It was his relationship with Sarah, with the family, that’s what suffered.,” he said. “It’s a small thing that triggers that conflict. But it was not a small thing that was being triggered, and [Michael and Sarah] both recognized it. Tommy becomes the reminder of that.”

Near the end of the book is a scene when Michael and Tommy are sitting together, confronting all the water beneath their mutual bridge. 

“It was inspired by a sermon that our pastor told a couple years ago. It so rocked me that I wrote down a line that he used and put it in the scene,” Glynn said. “Some of it, too, is personal. I had something of a similar relationship with my father, although of course not exactly that. I understood what was happening with Michael. Blow-ups happen for absolutely ridiculous reasons.”

I think my favorite part of the book is the epilogue, a novella titled “Island.” Again, this part of the story was a departure for Glynn.

“When I sent it to the publisher, he said, ‘Did you write this? This is so different from the Michael and Sarah stories.’ I said, ‘It is.’ The idea goes back years. I’d been reading off and on about Viking history and the Orkney Islands and the Celtic and Viking history that saturated the Orkneys. It’s true that there were Irish monks who were missionaries to Vikings. So I created this fictitious island. I wrote it in present tense, which was a different thing to do. It just seemed like it made the story a lot more immediate. I tried writing it the traditional way, but it didn’t read well. I thought, ‘Present tense, this works better,’” Glynn said, adding, “And it’s the transition because I think want to write other things. This was a way for me to sort of get there.” 

I also think “Island” is the entire five-book series, in miniature. It’s got the hallmarks of the story Glynn has been telling all along — an international setting, violence, royalty in unexpected places, the “far love” of parent-child estrangement, kindness and respect for society’s outcasts, and of course, true love.

 “When I think about it, although this has been published over an eight-year period, it was written over an 18-year period. I’d reached a point where I thought there were three or four more books, but I then I thought it might be the time to bring it to a close. Nothing prompted that, just my own sense of five is probably sufficient. I felt comfortable ending it like this. There wasn’t anything significant being omitted or overlooked,” Glynn said.

My friend Callie Feyen says that love stories are inherently adventure stories. This book and this series are full of adventures, some chosen and some thrust upon the characters. There have been moments that broke my heart, moments that terrified me, moments that thrilled me. A kiss can be as momentous as a gold medal. I would gladly have read 16 books about this family, but I think Glynn wrapped it up at exactly the right spot:

… and then he opened the door.”

Hiking Lake Dorothy, Colorado

Published August 16 ,2019

‘Dancing Prophet’ by Glynn Young

It began on a regular bike ride, along Grant’s Trail in St. Louis County, Missouri.

“I’d ride past this apartment complex. You don’t think anything about it,” said Glynn Young, author of the Dancing Priest series.

Book 4, Dancing Prophet, came out in October, but the story began in 2007, when Glynn learned that two young boys had been kidnapped and were being held in that apartment complex. 

“It was profoundly unsettling to me. You ride by a place for years and don’t think twice about it — they’re right there. Fifty feet away there’s this horror going on. There was only one way for me to deal with this, so I wrote the heart of that story, about 35,000-40,000 words,” he said. “It’s not a personal story, and yet you don’t write a novel without it being a personal story.”

Glynn Young

Glynn wrote within the larger story he was already writing, which primarily takes place in the UK. By then, the worldwide sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church had been revealed. As he finished working his original story into Dancing Prophet, more reports about the depth of the scandal emerged.

“It got really freaky this fall, when the stuff came out in Philadelphia. My publisher said, ‘They’re following your script,’” Glynn said.

Not a how-to script; more of a how-not-to one. In the novel the Church of England takes a defensive stance as accusations and evidence and confessions mount. The how-to example for handling horrific abuse of children comes from the series’ protagonist, Michael.

Fiction opens possibilities, and in Michael, Glynn has created a version of the three-fold office of Jesus Christ In book 1, Michael becomes a priest, and is assigned his first church in book 2. In book 3, he becomes king and starts popping in to preach the gospel in a way that displeases the Church of England’s high command. Those sermons are Michael’s first turn at speaking prophetically, but in book 4, when he discovers widespread corruption, he goes full prophet on the CofE. 

The interconnectedness of these roles gives Michael remarkable power to effect change. If he were a king and not a priest, he wouldn’t have the spiritual authority that comes from ordination and being a pastor. If he were a priest and not a king, he wouldn’t have any legal or civil authority. Although prophets can be found in the unlikeliest of people, a person who has both civil and spiritual authority and who speaks truth to power can change things. Because this story takes place in the UK, Michael can make changes he couldn’t make as the president of the United States; in England, the monarch is the official head of the church. (If you watch The Crown, you already know this.)

“I started with the question of what would it look like if someone, as soon as they learned what was going on, took responsibility to stop it and change it. That never seems to happen,” Glynn said. “What would it look like if someone said, ‘This has to stop. It can’t be allowed to continue,’ and took responsibility? I have [Michael] in a position that he can do something dramatic and important.”

Even though in book 3, Michael senses that he is king for a reason, he thinks it’s smaller — you know, just whole-scale reformation of the Church of England. But in Dancing Prophet, he learns his role in the church is re-creation.

“In the beginning of third book, Dancing King, he’s on the plane flying to London, thinking about doing some sermons. That was the message he was bringing was need for reformation of church, personal reformation. He’s continued to do that, but it becomes very clear that was too small and God had something much bigger in mind,” Glynn said. “I had this idea in my head that we’re given enough information to respond and start doing what we think we should be doing, but there’s always this much larger picture that we’re a part of.”

There is a cost to doing the right thing: It means getting involved with hard stuff. We can be like the novel’s character Jane, who turns away from her boyfriend when she realizes his background included sexual abuse. She’s not sure about the whole thing. Her boyfriend seems okay, but is he really okay? Maybe it’s not worth the risk. So she breaks up with him.

Like her, we readers may put the book down when it gets hard. But we should learn from Jane, who reconsiders when she realizes the abuse is much closer to home. Glynn calls that moment The Sunday Night Scene. 

“It was almost like the whole thing in microcosm. It’s a short scene, a pivot point. She begins to realize that things can happen but that doesn’t mean you’re beyond redemption or you’re worthless,” Glynn said. “That’s what turns the story.” 

It’s a moment we need to have — as readers, as citizens, as church members (no matter what denomination). What safer place to examine our world and ourselves than in a story? 

Because we never know who around us has been affected.

“These are people we live with and work with and are friends with, and they’ve been damaged. And yet they’re still functional, successful members of society. It’s around us, whether it’s a male or a female, Me Too, whatever,” Glynn said. “You don’t look at people as less than people because they’ve gone through these experiences.”

The cover’s image tells a thousand stories. It’s a photo of Whitby Abbey, in Yorkshire. Established in 657 AD, the abbey flourished until 1538, when King Henry VIII issued the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Glynn considered several images of British cathedrals, some taken at night or with poor lighting. This one stood out.

“That one is the story right there. It’s a church that’s a shell of itself. There’s also an element of blue sky, an element of hope about it,” he said.

_______________

Dancing Prophet is available in paperback and ebook formats. If you haven’t read the Dancing Priest series, you’re fortunate to be able to binge all four books together.

‘Dancing King’ by Glynn Young

The third book in Glynn Young’s Dancing Priest series — Dancing King — released in December. Last month I read all three books (the first two were a blessed opportunity to reread).

The stories haunt you, and not in a scary way. They serve as almost an alternate history: What if the Athens Olympics unfolded like that? What if England had a king on the throne instead of a queen? Like any good alternate history, it has enough true details to make it seem real. So real that I find myself thinking The Violence from book 2, A Light Shining, was as real as The Troubles.

Last month I also finished the The Aeneid, and these words tell you everything you need to know about the main character of the series, Michael Kent-Hughes:

I am here before you, myself in my own body,
I am here as I am and here as what I have done.

Who is Michael? Look at what he does. Michael is always fully himself, whether he’s on a bicycle, preaching a sermon in an Anglican church, or preparing to take the throne.

In Dancing King, a significant scene happens at the Victoria Memorial. Wikipedia says that the central bronze is titled Winged Victory, above representations of Courage and Constancy. Those three sum up Michael Kent: victory, on the “wings” of a bicycle; constancy, his compass pointing to the true north of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and courage, but his club is a royal scepter.

I met Glynn several years ago when he was an editor for The High Calling. We learned then that we both enjoy cycling, so our conversation started there. He talked about the scenes that snuck up on him, like the one at the Victoria Memorial. He also discussed tentative plans for upcoming books in the series, but I won’t go into any details. Who knows what Michael and Sarah and their children and England and America and the world might do next.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity and to make it a bit less spoiler-y.)

Megan: How often do you get a chance to get on your bike?

Glynn: If I can, I get out a couple times a week. I’m about a mile and a half north of a biking trail, and it takes me on about a 10-mile trail. I can go back and forth — there’s a side shoot off of it, mostly in one direction, which is up. It’s a hill. You’ve gotta go up about a 1/4-mile, then up a steep grade, then make a left.

In London, I like to watch people bike to work. They don’t think twice about the traffic. One afternoon it was about 5:15 [p.m.] We stopped by Wellington [Arch], near Hyde Park Corner, and watched the bicyclers come — they come in wave after wave after wave. They cut through the parks, particularly on the way to north London. Hundreds and hundreds of bikers. The traffic in central London is just ferocious. They’re braver than I am or more foolhardy or both.

Megan: I have to tell you a funny story. I’m so into these characters that while buying a Valentine’s card for my husband, I set one aside thinking, ‘Sarah should give this one to Michael.’

Glynn: [Laughs.] I sometimes forget that it’s a fictional character myself. You go through three books with essentially the same cast of characters. I did know from the very beginning where this story was headed. As I was inventing this narrative, at some point I knew [Michael] would land where he landed. It kind of had this sense of this is what it’s rolling toward.

This third one, some funny things happened with this one. I had a lot of trouble writing it. It’s been five years since the last one — the reason being I did that nonfiction, Poetry at Work, in 2013, a year after the second novel, while going through intense period at work that I thought was never going to end. My mother, her physical condition was deteriorating. She died in February ’14. I was wiped, totally exhausted, thought, ‘I just can’t write anymore.’

Then came retirement, 2015. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten the story, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my head around what had to happen. It was getting frustrating.

Then one day I just turned the computer off and went for a walk. I was about a mile into a 4 1/2 -mile walk, when I heard that voice. It was the funniest thing, and it’s the quote that opens the book: ‘I wrote this down because that first year, those first six months, explained everything that came after. — Josh Gittings.’ And I thought, ‘I know how to write this.’

I came back, and I sat down and started writing. Nothing significantly new came — I had pretty much mapped out the key elements — but there were a couple things that developed. Scenes in particular that didn’t exist. A lot of this story has existed for over a decade in one form or another.

One new one was when they’re on the plane, Michael tells Josh that he’s thinking of giving sermons. That was new. That scene at Southwark Cathedral, the first place he speaks — that was brand new. The scene, it just rolled right out of my fingers as I’m typing.

The scene around the Victoria Memorial, that scene was brand new. That one still gets me. The Victoria Memorial scene came from — it just started happening and there it was on the page. It’s part of what happens and who he is and is particularly important for what happens later.

A scene that I wrote that was also new, right after Southwark, the scene of Michael and Ian in the barn, mucking out the hay, from Ian’s perspective.

[Dancing King] is sort of episodic. It’s not Michael telling the story anymore — he’s become something else. It’s about him. It’s the elevation of him [being king]. You get these different perspectives. It sort of pushed Michael up, that people are talking about him — they’re telling his story now.

Megan: Since I read the series over two weeks, I kind of have the whole story in my mind at once. This book is different than the other two.

Glynn: My wife was saying the other night, ‘I could see it.’ It had gotten a lot more precise. The first two [books] were essentially written before we went to London the first time. We’ve been five times since 2012. The biggest change was things got much more precise and I could speak with more authority about scenes and locations and directions. I think it helped. Of the three of them, I like the third one the best. I think there’s more knowledge and understanding and research. It’s a better book in a way.

Megan: Back in book 2, A Light Shining, one of the plot points was that The Violence didn’t reach Northern Ireland. I went there in 2012 to cover the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, and our guide, a native of Belfast, said that when the city rebuilt, they used glass because now they had nothing to hide.

Glynn: You said in a Tweet that The Violence was prescient. My wife said, ‘You need to stop writing about some of these topics.’ That whole original was written in 2005-2006, before the big terrorist attack in London in 2007, before a lot of terrorist activity on the Continent. I don’t think I was predicting the future, but there was some sense of something. These kinds of things happen when society and culture becomes very stressed. It’s how people act out their own anxieties and fears and ideologies. You think back to the Bible, the New Testament, a lot of upheaval in the Roman Empire. I think I’m trying to make sense of it in these books.

Megan: On your Dancing Priest blog, you mentioned that it’s in the crowd scenes where a lot of the emotion happens. The thing I noticed is that there are different types of crowds in your books. If it’s a small crowd, like the size of a gang or even in the hundreds, then be afraid. But when you get into the large crowds, thousands and millions, it brings out the best in people. There’s goodness. That was unexpected.

Glynn: That’s interesting.

The motorcade in Dancing Priest, and all the crowds, millions of people lining the way. The crowds [in Dancing King] around the Victoria Memorial. They’re in the second book too.

Michael will be known as the People’s King. His background is the strangest of any king England has ever had. He’s a priest — the first priest, I think. He’s been brought up in a middle- to upper-middle-class home. He connects with people better than he might otherwise. We first see it in Dancing King, the relationship between him and the people that supersedes everything. [They say,] ‘He’s not in this for himself, he’s in this for us, he can be trusted.’

Megan: I’ve been bingeing on lectures by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is a philosophy professor and a C.S. Lewis scholar, and one of the things he says is remarkable about the Chronicles of Narnia is that Lewis makes goodness attractive. I see you doing something similar in your series, and it’s hard to do, as a writer.

Glynn: A woman who read the first book, she loaned the book to a friend and came back and said, ‘If I wasn’t already a Christian, I think I would want to be.’ It’s a very different picture that’s being painted here. There is something attractive about goodness. It’s so easy to stereotype it and make it clichéd, and I will tell you there were things I cut out because it was getting too clichéd.

After the first book there was a man who worked for Microsoft in Seattle and sent me an email that said, ‘This needs to be required reading in every high school in this country because it’s about a young man who’s got nobility of purpose. You don’t see that anymore — in fiction or anywhere else. What a role model!’

A pastor from Lexington, Kentucky, a 25,000-member megachurch, he had ordered the book for his staff and elder board. He said he’d never seen a better description of lifestyle evangelism. I thought, ‘I need to go back and read my own book!’ But I know what he was talking about. It’s how Sarah accepts faith. It’s got different details, but it’s based on my own experience. Unlike her, I wasn’t romantically involved. Other than that, I almost lifted off my own experience.

These things always surprise me. There’s so much of your own self that a lot of times it’s so close you don’t even realize what you’re writing, You’re just telling this story. I didn’t write the story with the thought in mind. That’s how the story developed.

[Michael] has flaws. He makes mistakes, but there’s something that speaks to the idea that this is what we’re supposed to be like, the direction. It’s about goodness. You can see elements of Christ in Michael, that desire to do what’s right even if it’s the hard thing. That’s who he is, and that’s going to continue to shape him going forward.

Megan: Unlike a lot of Christian fiction, faith is certainly part of the story, but it’s not the point of the story. The story is the point of the story. But these main characters are people of faith, and so they live that out as their lives unfold. It’s not a happily ever after fairy tale.

Glynn: These books don’t fit neatly into what most people think of as Christian fiction. My own experience has been that the audience is more non-Christian than it is Christian. Christians get impatient with these books because they’re not what they expect them to be.

The Josh Gittings character, he’s got a lot of baggage. He’s done things he’s not proud of. He’s accepted faith and is now having to understand what that means. He’s having to realize and make decisions that he never really thought about. Behavior has to change, and yet this is not easy.

It’s not a fairy tale. It’s life — in some ways it gets harder. He’s a political operative. He doesn’t fully understand it yet but he knows the way he has to go. I didn’t plan that.

One of my personal favorites is the PR guy for the king, Jay. He’s a cultural Christian — this is what he was raised in. But something attracts him to Michael. Getting to know Michael and Sarah attracted Josh [to faith] too.

Megan: You mentioned going to England five times since 2012. What other research have you done?

Glynn: I took an online course on how Parliament works, just to understand. It’s very, very different from our system. I learned where the pressure points are, where the system could break. You get some glimpse of it in Dancing King with the actions of the prime minister.

I’ve taken several courses. It’s a service, FutureLearn.com, all free, based out of the UK. It’s different universities that coordinate it. They have every subject imaginable. I’ve taken one on [William] Wordsworth, Richard III. None of is a terribly onerous way of doing research.

Megan: On the Dancing Priest blog, you said you have ideas for a total of 14 books.

Glynn: The publisher and I sat down before I wrote the third one. He wanted to get an understanding of where my head was because there was a gap. I walked him through the main things that happen in books 4 and 5. This story arc is in my head. We’ll see how far the arc actually gets.

One of my favorite scenes is in the first one [Dancing Priest], at the Olympics, when Michael and the British team are called into the stadium. A friend sat in my office after he read the book. ‘That scene,’ he just kept repeating, ‘I totally lost it. I had to explain why I was crying over a book.’ It’s so emotion packed, but the scene flowed naturally.

Also, in book 2 [A Light Shining] Sarah’s press conference. Scenes packed with emotion, those are critical scenes. They’re in all three of the books. Some kind of transformation happens with those scenes — the characters are becoming bigger than themselves or something is happening that is bigger.

When I read the proof copy of Dancing King, I couldn’t put it down. It was like forgetting you wrote it. I didn’t change anything. You gotta step back and make sure it’s holding together and feels accurate. I’d get wrapped back up in the story.

Megan: That’s about all I have. Anything else?

Glynn: When I wrote the first two books, I had a spaniel sitting on my feet. Writing, it’s such a solitary occupation. When you start thinking about what you’ve done, you think, ‘That’s kinda cool.’ I never thought I could do something like this.

I could talk about this all day.

‘Living the Season Well’ by Jody Collins

I started reading Jody Collins’ book, Living the Season Well: Reclaiming Christmas, shortly after Labor Day. I wish you could have started it then too. It was the perfect time — summer was over, it actually felt like fall (even in Texas), and there were still three turns of the calendar before Advent.

“Start small. Start now,” Jody says in each chapter. This is a book to sit with and ponder and pray through. That’s how I read it and how I think I’ll still be interacting with it as Advent begins and all the way through Epiphany.

This Christmas will be different because it will be our first one in a new home and our first as empty-nesters. This past December 26 at 6 a.m., we bought an artificial tree on clearance — a tall, pre-lit one — knowing we would finally be in a house with tall enough ceilings to accommodate it. I have purchased only one new ornament, from the city where our daughter is in college. It will be the first to go up. I’m considering decorating more slowly, like Jody suggested, “Add the ornaments a little at a time — there’s an Advent practice.” When we moved, we purged a lot of stuff (including Christmas stuff) so simply opening boxes will be an adventure.

“Start small. Start now.”

Unlike Jody, I was raised with the church calendar. I grew up Episcopal and became Catholic a few years ago. Advent is my favorite church season, and although I’ve been observing it for years, I’m always looking for ways to make it new. One thing I have not incorporated into those four weeks is any type of fast. In chapter 3, “Getting Ready: Preparing Our Homes, Heads, and Hearts,” Jody talks about fasting’s traditional role in Advent.

“Start small. Start now.”

I’m still sorting and praying through all that, but I like that Jody did her research and incorporated thoughts of others on this subject, including Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb: “He works through any crosses He can find. In a time of affluence, fasting may well be the simplest one of all.”

I don’t know what we will be doing on Christmas Eve and Day, but they will likely be hard. There have already been two family funerals this year. Another loved one is going through an unwanted divorce. But guess what? I’ve lived through hard holidays before. The Christ Child always comes. What will we do this year?

“Start small. Start now.”

Frankly, I have never known what to do after December 25, so I loved chapter 6 on Twelvetide and chapter 7 on Epiphany. For the first time in a couple of decades I do not have a child on the K-12 calendar. (Some years the kids have gone back to school as early as January 2.) This year my daughter does not need to back at school until mid-January. That leaves plenty of time to play with those 12 days. How will I do that?

“Start small. Start now.”

Living the Season Well is for everyone — for those who have never known such a thing as Advent existed and for those who have always loved it. Because getting ready for Christmas is truly about preparing for Christ to “be born in us today,” as the carol says. And no matter what happens in our lives and whether or not those days are HGTV-worthy, the spell of darkness and winter always breaks.

Jody ends with a Narnia quote, from the last paragraph of The Last Battle. I’ll add one of my own, from when Father Christmas arrives in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The chapter is called “The Spell Begins to Break”:

It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, those you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

“I’ve come at last,” said he.

Check out Living the Season Well and ponder how you might prepare for His coming this year.

 

über alles

One of the best things about living where I do is the cycling—routes and routes and routes along one-lane roads, up and down hills steep enough to receive categorization.

During July and August I did several rides along a loop that passes the old Pecan Creek rural school. (Most of my bike routes pass at least one of these schools.) There’s a spot on Weinheimer where the road curves around a bluff, next to something between a puddle and a proper tank. It was at that spot on a Friday morning, the last Friday of summer, where I had a Battlin Billie moment.

As in billy goats. As in the Fredericksburg High School mascot. Dave Campbell’s Texas Football readers named it the winner of the Mascot Madness contest. The district’s tagline is über alles, “above all.” My daughter attended through ninth grade and then graduated from somewhere else, an entire hour away. Moving her into that dorm was daunting, but looking back, it was the right decision for all of us.

I was thinking about that move as I traveled downhill, headed into the curve, when all of a sudden I saw movement on the private road coming down the side of the bluff. It was about two dozen goats, and they were making a run for it.

They charged down the unpaved road: Free at last! They moved as one bleating mass, bolting up the hill I was riding down.

So I slowed. Some of those fellas had horns.

Just as I braked, they saw me. They stopped too, right in the middle of the hill.

It was a small standoff.

I’m sure they’ve never seen anything less threatening than me—a middle-aged woman on a hybrid Trek bicycle. But that bright headlight? That black helmet? You never know. Might mean trouble, right here in River City.

When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike all over the neighborhood during the summer. I’d meet my best friend, and we’d go over every road, up and down hills. Even riding with someone, I always felt independent, as in control as any 11-year-old could. Although I could have left the neighborhood, I never did. Where would I go? I wouldn’t have known what to do with complete autonomy.

After a few uneasy moments, the goats scattered, their untidy monolith dispersing in at least three directions, along with their dreams of wanton consumption of paper goods. Still, I admired their gumption. They saw their chance and took it. Those goats were more daring than I’d ever been.

I resumed pedaling, not looking back. The feeling at that point on that particular ride, the hardest hills behind me, is pure freedom. The rains had made the Russian sage pop out, and the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds while mourning doves whinnied. I felt 11 again, unrestrained within my confined space.

Four days later my daughter and I boarded a plane. Unlike her first move into a dorm, in which we filled the bed of my husband’s pickup truck with everything under the sun, this time she was moving by airplane, and we had only the allotted number of bags. But unlike those goats, she knows where she’s going. Above all, she wants the chance to explore outside the neighborhood/state she’s always known.

At the end of our journey, I left her in a dorm at the top of a hill. As I walked back down, toward the hotel, I did not look back.

‘The Turquoise Table’ by Kristin Schell

I’ve watched Kristin Schell’s Turquoise Table journey from afar (not that far — we only live 75 miles apart), and I was inspired. I wrote a column about her turquoise table and my neighbor, Smokey Joe for the WACOAN. Then my husband built our own table, and I painted it turquoise .

Kristin and me, summer 2015.

Sadly, we had to leave the table when we moved. But I knew was in good hands when the new owner saw it and said, “Front Yard People!” (I checked on the table, btw, and it looks great.)

In June, Kristin released her book, The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard. This book isn’t one I’m setting aside or passing on to a friend. No, this one is going on my cookbook shelf, so I can grab it often. The shelf already has many, many printouts of Kristin’s recipes from her blog.

The book isn’t just about a picnic table. It’s about hospitality — from Kristin’s F in high school French to the Front Yard People movement.

Hospitality is one of those things: You know it when you see it. If you ever meet Kristin, you’ll see it.

There are two women in my family who consistently show hospitality. One is my Aunt Fayma. For years she hosted Drummond Christmas at her house in Hamlin, Texas. Her motto was, “Come early, stay late,” and we did. She never knew exactly how many people to expect, but she welcomed everyone. Throughout the year, when she found snacks or drinks on sale, she’d stock up. The person who bought her old house is extremely blessed.

The other person I think of when I think of hospitality is my sister-in-law, Amy. She has hosted many a Christmas as well, also to an unknown number of guests. But I think the moment she captured my heart was when she made her house the go-to destination during my mom’s funeral. One day she served everyone lunch, from both sides of the family. Family from Wyoming met family from Oklahoma and Alabama. She especially showed hospitality to me the week my mom passed away, as I wrote about in The Joy of Poetry.

“Amy is my sister-in-law, who did treat me like a sister that day and also that night, when she took me out to dinner and ordered exactly what I like because I was too upset to make sense of a menu. A week later, before my mother’s funeral, she arranged a mani-pedi, complete with a glass of white wine.”

Unlike Aunt Fayma and Amy, hospitality doesn’t come easily to me. (It does to my husband.) There was a time when I not only lost my few welcoming shreds of decency but also the entire ability to cook.

That’s why Kristin’s chapter “The Broken Table” was so meaningful to me. She describes when her turquoise table broke during an interview/photo shoot. One friend thought the picture of the broken table wasn’t suitable for the newspaper.

“No!” I jumped in. “Make sure to put the picture of the broken table in the paper. This isn’t a table for the perfect: this is a table for people with trials and flaws.” 

I told the photographer about the Turquoise Table. “It’s when we come to the table, broken and vulnerable, not hiding behind our perfection, that the realness happens . . . when we’re really human we connect.” (page 138)

For a long time our table was empty. Food became a weapon; the table, a battleground. The best I could do was to keep separate food stocked for each separate member of the family. Then there was the night we dared to order Domino’s and share it as a family. We survived. Finally, with Kristin’s recipes in hand, I braved the stove, the oven, the CrockPot. I wore an apron and played music in the kitchen. The table stayed broken, but the food began to build connection. Like Kristin’s broken picnic table.

Truthfully, I needed the visual reminder of the broken table. The cracked wood and splintered bench was hard-earned — weathering the hot Texas summers and two years of carrying the emotional and physical weight of those who gathered. 

Eventually the wood had to be fixed, but I know the table is stronger and more beautiful having been broken. And so are we all. (page 147)

We joined a small group at our church. We gather once a month for prayer and study … and a meal. Whatever my assignment was — salad, bread, appetizer — I’d bring a Kristin recipe. People started looking forward to my dishes, even to my desserts, which I rarely make.

Then we moved to a new house, one with space to actually put a leaf in our dining room table, and we started inviting people over. John loves to grill, so I cede the meat to him, and I make the sides. It’s kinda fun. (shhh!)

And it’s kinda vulnerable. When we make the table a place to, as Kristin says, Gather Small, Love Deep, we find out hospitality isn’t about matchy-matchy and Instagram-worthy dishes. It’s about a space where we can talk about our lives.

… the fragile marriage, the volatile temper, the compulsion to shop, the binge on Fritos, the loss of trust in a child.`(page 139)

Our new yard won’t support a turquoise table, but it will accommodate turquoise Adirondack chairs. They are built but not yet painted. On our new street, neighbors actually do come out and visit in the evenings.

But I think the bigger story is our table inside, the one we bought for our first home, 21 years ago. The one at which no one sat for a long time. The one that got broken but is again becoming a space where hospitality can happen.

I made the Turquoise Table M&M Cookies, recipe from Colleen Enos, for our family. No table was involved — I just placed them on cooling racks, and they got eaten up. Baking them was hospitality for us, to celebrate our new convection oven and the start of summer, perhaps our last one together because our youngest leaves for college this month. I told Kristin the cookies were a hit, and like all good hosts, she was gracious.

“It’s the shortening,” she said.

Colleen said this recipe was given to her years ago by her mother-in-law, who is remembered for her genuine hospitality.  (page 87)

If you want to check out other spots where Kristin’s been taking her turquoise message, check out the Turquoise Table Collection at Tuesday Morning, and the variety of outlets where she has done interviews, including the Today show.