“There was a time when I knew everything about God. I was young (you’re not surprised) and relatively arrogant (now you’re really not surprised). My team always won when we played Bible trivia games in my church youth group. I knew the stories of Jonah and Daniel and Saul like they were my own family stories; I could quote the most popular Bible verses; I memorized the order of the biblical books and could spell all their names. . . . Somewhere along the way, I lost all that knowledge about God—or at least I began to realize how much there was to learn. Each day that I was a Christian seemed to be a step backward in understanding my faith. I started acknowledging the questions in my heart, began discussing those questions with friends and fellow saints, as those in the church are called, however undeserving the label may sometimes seem. And I discovered, after whining about how difficult all of this Christian stuff was, that the mystery of not knowing was also absolutely, undeniably wonderful.”
—Excerpt from pages 1–2
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Grace in the Maybe
what to expect when (you have no idea what) you are expecting
Some days, especially in early spring and late fall, the wind in Kansas can’t decide on a direction. It whips around tall grasses, girls’ skirts, and strands of hair, flings them skyward and lets go just as fast, dances with dried leaves and felled blossoms, skips across dirt and concrete. If it’s warm outside, I love these days. Perhaps it comes from growing up near the Pacific Ocean, where wind belongs to the coastlines and smells like water, even if you’re an hour’s drive from the sea. Perhaps it is just the feel of moving air against bare skin, the unfathomable idea that that same air was miles away only moments before.
Most of my friends find this love for the wind odd; they fear tornadoes and bad hair days, and they hate not being able to read their newspapers outside. They like days that are still, and I can’t blame them. The wind mixes things up, gets dirt in your eyes, makes your umbrella flip inside out, causes you to yank at the bottom of your dress so you don’t unintentionally flash passersby. It is inconvenient, but for me, it is powerful and alive. It makes me think of God and the stories that parents tell their children about how God is in the weather: crying when it rains, smiling through miles of sky in rays of sunshine, moving the clouds around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In the wind, He must be whispering down to us, reminding us that He is out there, powerful, unpredictable, profoundly and utterly mysterious.
• • •
When I was pregnant with my first child, the term expecting never really sat well with me; it may have even added to the morning sickness.
“Just call me pregnant,” I told people, “or maybe full with child.” Those descriptions seemed more apt. I would even rather have been referred to as having a bun in the oven, and because I am a writer and ardent hater of clichés, that should tell you something. The term expecting suggests to me a sort of certainty or knowledge about what is coming, and since this was my first bun in said oven, I had little of either.
I suppose there are a few things I expected, like having to buy bigger pants, but most of the time I felt ill prepared to expect anything at all. The only baby books I had in my house were borrowed because purchasing one—the right one—seemed too daunting. (The sole exception was the newest edition of Baby Bargains, which was not frightening because it involves only shopping.) On the rare occasion that I did crack open one of those borrowed books, I got only as far as how big the kid was that week, what sort of fruit or vegetable was comparable to it in size. When the author started getting too specific, describing things like how developed the baby’s lungs are, for instance, I freaked out and moved on to Martha Stewart Living. Keeping hydrangeas alive seemed much simpler than building lungs, even though I had killed the last two plants I owned before the season was over.
Perhaps the overwhelming nature of what it means to be carrying a child plunged me into a state of denial. It was strange, for instance, to call what used to be my stomach—or sometimes, when I am in a Pilates phase, my abs—a “belly.” (As far as I know, only Santa Claus, beer guzzlers, and pregnant women have bellies.) Little bits of change at a time are all I can handle. That’s why, when the sonogram technician asked my husband, Scott, and me if we’d like to know the sex of the baby, I said no. We asked, instead, that she write it down and put it in a sealed envelope. She did, and that envelope was then tucked away in a safe place. Contrary to my dad’s belief that I peeked and was just refusing to tell anybody, I wasn’t even tempted to look. Knowing there would be a little human around in just a few months, an actual living, breathing, crying, growing-up human, was enough information for me at that point. I was still struggling with the big pants.
i suppose there are a few things i expected, like having to buy bigger pants, but most of the time i felt ill prepared to expect anything.
Some women try to tell you what to expect. In fact, once your belly is of the size that even strangers feel comfortable in asking your due date, anyone who answers to the name “mom” will give you advice, solicited or not, on how to get rid of morning sickness, what kind of stroller works best on rough terrain, and how to deal with nipple chafing. They want to know all about your birth plan, if you are getting the epidural, and whether or not you want to breast-feed. Then, they will offer their opinions regarding (usually) why you are wrong. Although I can acknowledge their good intentions, I mostly ignored their advice.
My birth plan, at that point, was dreadfully incomplete anyway. The work sheet my midwife gave me asked questions ranging from “When (if ever) would you like your health care professional to instigate a C-section?” to “Would you like background music?” and “What sort of lighting is most comfortable for you?” Pardon me for being unable to decide if I’d like James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” or Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” playing while I’m pushing, groaning, and sweating out a tiny person. I just didn’t know.
who expects preposterous?
• • •
It really makes me feel for the Virgin Mary when I think about all the news she got at once: (1) You’re pregnant; (2) He’s the Son of God; (3) I know you haven’t had sex yet. We’re calling you “Immaculate”; (4) His name will be Jesus, which means “God with Us”; and (5) You’ll have to buy bigger pants.
It seems ironic to me that Advent, the first season of the church calendar, the season celebrating the events leading up to Christ’s birth, is a time of expectation. What, exactly, was Mary to expect? What was Israel to expect? They had been promised a conquering Savior—and now here was this kid. This kid, born to a virgin, destined to die a ridiculous death on a cross before his thirty-fifth birthday. It was preposterous. It is preposterous. Who expects preposterous?
The acceptance of the preposterous, the irrational, the unexplainable, the unexpected, shows up frequently in the Bible: when Abraham and Sarah are told to expect a child in the (very) late years of their lives, or when Joseph is sent to prison after being promised that he will be made a leader, or when Saul, a well-known persecutor of Jews, becomes a convert and eventually a major contributor to the New Testament.
It’s difficult to name the baffling and the uncertain as part of the Christian experience, especially when so much of American fundamentalism is based upon being absolutely certain of its tenets of faith. I remember seeing a T-shirt in a Christian-bookstore catalog many years ago that read: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I wanted that shirt. I cut the picture out of the catalog and hung it up on my bulletin board with other inspirational phrases and verses. It was such a wonderful mantra: confident, bold, assured. It meant that I knew exactly what I was doing in this world, and that is quite a feat to have accomplished by high school. I lived that way, too. I told other people, like my Mormon prom date, that they were going to hell if they didn’t change their ways. I argued with my biology teacher about coming from monkeys. I prayed at the flagpole that American schools wouldn’t continue to keep God out of the classroom. I felt 100 percent sure that I was right. After all, God said it.
As years went by, the “it” that God said began to feel a bit murkier. After all, God didn’t really say anything specific about Mormons or monkeys or flagpoles. I started wondering, in the smallest, darkest parts of my mind and heart, whether I was right to have believed it and settled it so easily. I couldn’t pretend that God was speaking to me audibly, giving me insight into exactly who could be expected in heaven and how they were formed and created without the help of evolution or school boards. He was only whispering.
• • •
From the beginning of time, when the waters covered the great expanse of the earth, God has been whispering:
And the earth was waste and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep:
and the RUACH of God moved upon the face of the waters.1
The Hebrew word ruach is used more than 375 times in the Bible, beginning with the reference in Genesis 1:2. Its root means “moving air,” whether in the form of breath, storm winds, or gentle breezes, and it is usually translated in English as “wind.” Ruach is used when God breathes first life into Adam, when he separates the Red Sea so Moses and the Israelites can pass safely through, and when Jesus breathes his last on the cross. Breath is tied closely to a person’s creation of words, so it’s not too much of a jump to say that ruach, in each of these references, might also indicate the state of God’s heart and mind. It is God’s presence, felt and witnessed in winds great enough to separate a sea and weak enough to be expelled as one’s last gasp as he suffocates during crucifixion.
• • •
My friend Maria, who was pregnant the same time I was, used to get mad at me because my breasts weren’t expanding as rapidly as hers. I was just as mad. She had to buy two new bras within the first couple months of her pregnancy, while I was just beginning to fill out my old one. My pregnant breasts were as dainty as my regular breasts, and my delusions of bountiful cleavage—even cleavage that lasted only a few months—rapidly faded. As we compared things like who had worse morning sickness, whose lower back hurt more, and whose belly button looked less like an actual belly button, we both ended up feeling as though we’d gotten the short end of the pregnancy stick. We shouldn’t have subjected ourselves to these endless comparisons, but all I could expect of pregnancy was what I had seen happen to other women who were, or who had been, pregnant. This isn’t really expectation. Especially considering that every book I read or woman I spoke to summed it up this way: every woman is different.
Although I prepared for pregnancy by reading the books, filling out birth-plan work sheets, comparing my belly button to anyone else’s who would let me, I couldn’t know how to explain or imagine the feel of tiny fists and elbows nudging me from inside my abdomen. And I couldn’t even begin to understand how it would feel to hold my son or daughter for the first time. My expectations of motherhood were astoundingly small and shortsighted, but who could blame me? How could I possibly expect what was in store?
• • •
“Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being,”2 writes Daniel Taylor in The Myth of Certainty. “Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists, but only in situations where doubt is possible, even present.” When I read this in college, an almost physical sense of relief came over me. I highlighted the sentence, along with most of the other sentences on the page, and went to bed happy that I didn’t have to decide anymore whether any of my former prom dates or the indigenous, un-churched people of the Australian outback would go to heaven. I didn’t even have to be constantly certain that there is a God.
Since then, doubt has been more a solidification of my faith than a hindrance to it. It seems only logical that a God—a God—would far surpass any of my expectations about who He is and how He should behave. If He wants to be preposterous, who am I to tell Him otherwise?
I have never felt God’s presence more completely than I did at the very end of my labor. The baby had crowned (and apparently wanted to stay in that uncomfortable position longer than I’d have liked), and I breathed deeply in the short times between contractions.
In the back of my mind, I remembered stories of other women’s labors I’d heard of or seen. Most of them were on television sitcoms, where women cursed at their husbands for getting them into “this mess” and screamed at the tops of their lungs because some intern had flubbed the epidural. Labor was not as frightening for me. In fact, while it wasn’t a feeling I was anxious to repeat when my second child came along, labor was the best kind of pain because it was not just pain, but work.
“That’s right,” my midwife said, “just breathe that baby out.” This was one of Debbie’s favorite pieces of encouragement. Though it was mildly offensive to my prelabor self who was certain, after being indoctrinated by enough Friends episodes, that I could expect dramatic pain during (and perfect makeup and hair after) the labor. But the phrase soothed me in the end stages of giving birth. Of course, calling the moaning and puffing I was doing “breathing” is a bit liberal, but the methodic ins and outs of breath did help the baby down the birth canal. Soon, the same tiny fists and elbows I’d felt for months inside me emerged, brand-new, and I felt each one give a final prod before the midwife laid a gasping baby boy on my naked chest. I could feel his heartbeat on mine; both of them were fast with effort, relief, delight.
doubt has been more a solidification of my faith than a hindrance to it.
That moment must be similar to the first few seconds of a free fall, or maybe how Mozart felt when he finished a particularly astonishing sonata: I can’t believe I just did that. The nurses smiled, massaged the blood into his limbs, and worked quickly to suction the gunk out of his air passages so he could breathe.
I’ve heard before that in ancient times, very devout men and women respected the word Yahweh, the name of the Lord, so deeply that they did not speak it or write it; they chose instead a good substitute like Elohim or Adonai. I’ve also heard that those who needed to write it did a cleansing ritual every time they did. (I did not cleanse just then, I confess.) I’ve reminded myself of this serious sacredness whenever I use God’s name in an under-my-breath, offhand way. Although I am impressed by this respect for God’s holiness, I probably will never understand it well enough to emulate it. I’m not even sure what the cleansing entailed or if there was, perhaps, a limit on the number of times you could physically write it. But Franciscan priest Richard Rohr notes that the Hebrew spelling of God’s name, YHVH, is literally an unspeakable word for the Jewish people. He writes: “Formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed! Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God.”3 And this I can understand, especially now, after hearing Miles’s voice for the first time, in an inhalation and wail that resonated and bounced off the walls of the birthing room. It was pure magic, and the closest I have come to audibly hearing God.
Even as I write this, I realize how hopeless it is to attempt to describe the indescribable. It makes me feel like turning in my laptop for good—just get out of this whole writing debacle before people realize what a hack I am. But my complete inadequacy in describing my son’s birth also reconvinces me of God’s presence, because there must be something out there bigger than me, than us, if there are moments like these. And there are. All the time. Inordinate surprises that, most often, are wrapped up in so much love that we wonder where it all came from.
• • •
I used to know a little boy named Jackson who loved to play in the backyard, but never near a big, scary red bush that dominated one side of it. Although he wanted nothing to do with the bush and would cry if I tried to carry him near it, he did not completely avoid it. Instead, he would orbit it at a distance he’d deemed “safe.” One day, out of bravery or perhaps boredom, he picked up a seed pod that had dropped from a nearby tree, approached the bush, and threw it into the bush’s dark center. Then he waited. His body tense, his face drawn and serious, he could have been gazing down at an army of thousands, daring them to approach. Of course, the bush swallowed up the pod and spat nothing back at the little warrior.
Jackson felt encouraged by the victory and made throwing the prickly seed pods part of his daily routine. It was his encounter with mystery. I still smile at his fascination with the unknown depths of the bush, the way he’d finally given up being afraid but still hadn’t lost the curious wonder regarding that which he didn’t understand.
Perhaps expectation is as much about opening ourselves up to surprise as it is about knowing, or even preparing for, what’s next. As Mary waited for the birth of her son, I’m sure she was scared—no matter how many visits she got from explanatory angels. There probably was no book titled Mothering the Christ Child for Dummies, so she had to trust God even when He did wonky things like using a really bright star as a GPS system. But it all seemed to work out fine for her.
• • •
It’s easier for me to imagine God’s power on windy days, and I’ll often find myself breathing his name, in and out, as I listen for whatever it is he might be whispering. Usually, I have no idea, but even that has become less a means of frustration and more a means of grace. It seems that we all try to harness the wind in small ways—in hair dryers and leaf blowers and pellet guns. These devices give us a feeling of power for a moment, the ability to put hair and leaves and tin-can targets in their places. Then we turn them off, and even that fragment of the wind is no longer under our control. We leave it up to God again, as we must.
I like it better that way. I much prefer the wind in quantities and strengths larger than the blow-dryer; but I think, on some level, everyone does. How else do you explain the popularity of things like the convertible, the Harley-Davidson, the roller coaster, the bungee jump? The wind whips at us as we barrel along, taking us straight on, hitting us on our faces, giving us a feeling of freedom that is both totally surprising and something we’ve all somehow come to expect.
Table of Contents
what to expect when (you have no idea what) you are expecting 9
leaning in 21
in your presents 33
making space 47
how to play 63
the second week 81
getting it out 95
out, damned spot! or the day i discovered my oven knobs come off 105
but dairy cows already knew this 119
a sprinkling 135
Ordinary Time 167
the preacher's wife 169
on being nice 185
an evangelism tool 195
What People are Saying About This
“Katie Savage is smart, funny, and a little bit sassy. She writes with a feminine voice… vibrant, earthy, and honest enough to appeal to both genders. When I read her work I find myself hoping that if I don’t take myself too seriously, maybe even I can see God. ”
“Although I myself am not religious, I found this wonderful collection to be thought provoking and often hilarious—Katie writes with humility, warmth, and complete candor. She knows how to tell a story, and I have no doubt that her smart observations and searching honesty will soon make her the favorite writer of many readers.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Katie Savage. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
For many people, going to church is routine, much like going to school or work, and often it seemingly has no connection with the other six days of the week or “real life.” In Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times, Katie Savage connects the reality (and humor) of her life with the seasons of the church calendar and reflects on how these seasons provide a big-picture framework for living each day. Whether readers have grown up in a liturgical tradition or not, Whirlybirds is a collection of delightful personal reflections on the intersection of real life and faith.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Did you grow up in a faith tradition that was ordered around the liturgical church calendar? If so, how did it impact you? If not, what is your initial response to reading about life within the church calendar?
2. Do you relate more to a faith rooted in certainty or mystery? Describe what factors and influences in your life have contributed to your preference.
3. Read the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary in Luke 2:26-38 and the subsequent appearance to Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25. How do surprise and doubt factor into the season of Advent based upon these stories of the first Advent? What surprises or doubts have you encountered on your journey of faith and how have you responded to them?
4. In Chapter 2 (“Leaning In”), the author describes Christmas as “the culmination of the Christian season of Advent.” How does this view of Christmas differ from cultural and even many “Christian” views of Christmas? Has reading about Advent spurred your imagination to engage with the season differently this year? Describe.
5. What are your favorite kinds of gifts to receive? On pg. 39, the author says: “The gift of Jesus is so personal that it cuts to the very interior of our hearts…we are known.” How does this description of Jesus compare to your experience with Him? How does it impact you when you reflect on being known by Jesus?
6. In the chapter “Making Space,” the author describes her journey to see the high school their church meets in as “sacred space.” How does she describe “sacred space”? (pp. 50-51) How is this different from or similar to how you have thought about sacred space? Are there any places that are especially significant for you in nurturing your faith and life with God?
7. Reflect on a favorite memory of time spent with friends or family. How does this kind of time connect with your experience of church? How does the author’s definition of church on MS-pg. 63— “His people, living life alongside one another, giving the best of themselves to each other and to God as often as they can”—challenge and/or inspire you?
8. When you hear the word “Lent” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? How does this compare with the author’s reflections on Lent?
9. In Chapter 6 (“The Second Week”), the author discusses the gift of seasons. She says, “In the deepest parts of our souls, I think, we long for seasons.” (MS-pg. 75) Is this true for you? Why or why not? Drawing upon the metaphor of seasons in the year, how would you describe the current season of your life with God?
10. On pg. 74, the author reflects on spring flowers following a hard winter: “new life looks much better after a cold, hard, long bout with death and freeze.” Has there been a time in your life when you experienced “new life” after a difficult season? What sustained you during the difficult season?
11. Did you grow up with a view of life being more like a straight line up (i.e. one “graduation” after another) or a collection of seasons and cycles? How has your perspective (linear or cyclical) impacted how you respond to the reality of everyday life?
12. Do you agree with the author’s commentary that our culture is drawn to seasonless living? (pg. 75) What are some of the visible “unnatural measures we go through to make sure we’re always comfortable”? What are the ways that trying to live a seasonless life is costly to our humanity?
13. What do you think the purpose is of a season (like Lent or Advent) that is focused on reflecting on sin and repentance? What is the role of confession of sin in your faith tradition? Read Luke 15:11-24. What does this parable say about God’s heart toward us when we sin? How does this affect how you see yourself when you fail or sin?
14. On pg. 115, the author says: “our primary human longing is for nearness—to each other—to God.” Do you relate to this longing? How does the notion of being dependent on God and living in community with people impact you? What is the difference between co-dependence and interdependence? In what ways have you experienced the gifts of living in dependence on God and in community with others?
15. The author quotes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who said: “Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial” (pg. 102) Have you ever been the recipient of someone else’s sacrifice on your behalf? How did it impact you? For what are you willing to sacrifice your time, money, or energy?
16. What are some of your favorite Easter traditions? How would you describe the good news of Easter? How is the symbol of baptism related to the good news of Easter? Do you relate to the author’s commentary on pp. 113-114 that Christians aren’t as good at celebrating the feast of Easter as we are at talking about sin and repentance during Lent? What do you think would be necessary for Easter to be more celebrated?
17. Do you identify with the author’s reflection on pg. 125: “The problem is no longer that we merely love our stuff, but that we find our meaning in it, our being”? What “things” or “stuff” are you tempted to trust instead of God? What is the difference between enjoying the “things” in our life and trusting them?
18. Does it surprise you to know that the word “nice” isn’t used anywhere in most translations of the Bible? Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets with the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) How does love contrast with niceness?
19. In the last chapter, the author discusses watching whirlybirds fall from trees and describes the experience as a miracle. How does this use of the word “miracle” impact you? From this perspective, think about some of the miracles in your life each day. How could this perspective transform “ordinary time”?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pick one season from the church calendar and do some research on the historical practices or feasts observed during this season. Discuss what you learned about the season during your book club meetings and consider collectively implementing some of the practices or observances this year during the season.
2. Consider attending a liturgical church service as a group. Pay attention to the visual symbols and physical movement throughout the service. Notice how you are impacted by the various parts of the service and take note of what aspects either draw you closer or move you away from connecting with God. Go to lunch afterward to discuss your various experiences.
3. A related practice to the liturgical church calendar is liturgical prayer. Select a prayer book like The Book of Common Prayer, The Divine Hours, or the Celtic Daily Prayer and use it to “pray the hours” or choose one of the prayer times each day for one month. Discuss your experience with this way of praying at your next book club.
A Conversation with Katie Savage
What was the inspiration for writing this book?
In my very first graduate writing course, I wanted to write about the experience with the chin whisker—it was a funny story, but for me, it needed to be more than that; so, for a very long time, I thought about how the story might be significant. The church I was attending at the time was pretty faithful to the liturgical readings, and since it was the first time I had participated in using the church calendar, I was very interested to learn as much as I could. Somehow, the whisker and the church calendar were mingling together in my mind. (Is it weird that a whisker was the inspiration for this book? I know what you’re thinking: “Absolutely. Yes.”) I remember talking to my friend Emily during our hour-long commute to school about how I wanted to do a whole book of essays about Advent. So it began there, but it was a tad limiting to write within only one season—so I expanded it.
When did you first encounter the liturgical church calendar? Do you have a favorite season? If so, what makes it your favorite?
I’ve gotten familiar with the church calendar only recently—maybe within the past five years. But even though I couldn’t necessarily name the church seasons or tell you much about them, belonging to the church for so long has helped me feel that I’ve been experiencing the seasons my whole life. Last year, my cousin Ayme said that she’d decided to celebrate Advent with her family for the first time and was looking for ideas about how to do that. I told her she’d been celebrating Advent for years—she was teaching her boys the stories and living in the reality of what Jesus’ birth meant. Maybe she was naming it for the first time, like I have been, but that’s only secondary to knowing deep within yourself the truth behind each of these seasons.
My favorite season changes all the time. I can’t choose just one. It’s like asking if I like Billy Madison or Shakespeare in Love better. I can’t choose! They’re both favorites. (Sorry that you now know about my somewhat questionable taste in movies. But I would rather watch Adam Sandler draw a blue duck fifty times than pop in The Godfather. It is a character flaw. I know.) I will tell you that I’m generally more drawn to the seasons in which we’re to celebrate: Easter, Christmas.
You talk about the expectations often placed on preacher’s wives. What practices or guidance have been influential in helping you maintain your own identity, apart from your role as the wife of a pastor?
My mother-in-law is such a great example of what a pastor’s wife should be. I just try to do whatever she does—although I never sing “specials,” which I’m sure my church appreciates. I also owe a great debt to my parents for never letting me believe there was something I couldn’t do. They sometimes balk at the word “feminist,” but they raised me in such a way that I never felt constrained to gender expectations.
Beyond that, I think I have begun to feel comfortable in a very honest sort of faith. By that I mean that I know I’ve written things and feel things and do things that other people will disagree with. Sometimes they will disagree with me because they don’t think the ideas or the actions or the feelings are holy enough. Lots of times, they will be right. But I don’t think it helps anyone to pretend that we don’t all struggle with how to live up to the name “Christian.” It’s unhelpful. I have learned the most about how to better love God and humanity from people who try to live transparently and humbly. Even (or perhaps especially) in positions of prominence in the church.
Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times is a collection of stories and at various points throughout the book you talk about the importance of storytelling. What have been some significant influences in your formation as a storyteller?
We are all storytellers. I just happen to write mine down because telling them to actual people who are actually listening to me actually move my mouth is not really my thing. My comedic timing and sense of detail and pace is much better when I get weeks to agonize over it all.
That being said, I think there have been a few people who have strongly influenced the way I think about the art of story. When I first read Anne Lamott, for instance, I felt this incredible light bulb moment. This was a way that I could talk about God, which is something I’ve felt called to do for a very long time. It’s in a style that is not necessarily formal or trained. It’s definitely not platitude-filled or false sounding. It’s brave and deep and pulled from experiences that are so normal.
One of my first writing teachers, Dean Nelson, once said this (well, probably more than once): “Nothing kills your writing faster than thinking you’re writing big, grand ideas. Just tell the story.”
Scott’s grandpa was a wonderful storyteller, too. He was a preacher, and during his “retirement years” he filled the pulpit at many different churches in California. After he died, we found a little book with a list of what stories he told when to which congregations. He didn’t want to retell a story he’d already used—even though he never had the same respect for his family. We heard the same family stories over and over and over. I loved his repertoire of stories. Everybody knew which story he was about to start in on. Nobody, not even his wife, tired of hearing them. He showed me what the Scriptures must have been like for your average ancient Israelite: Nothing to read, just stories to tell and retell, to love and hold in your heart, to help you understand God.
How did you make the shift from high school teacher to author? Do you miss anything about being in the classroom?
Oh yes. I miss the classroom. My first year, I taught seventh grade English. Most people say something along the lines of “Bless your heart” when they hear that, but it was so rewarding. Middle school kids are crazy cool—they are funny without meaning to be, they still think their teachers know something, they let you mold their ideas about literature and life a little. Sometimes they smell bad because they haven’t yet figured out the benefits of deodorant, but that’s a small thing.
The transition to writing as a career (it still feels strange writing that!) did come at a perfect time for me, though. Miles and Genevieve are so young—I love not having to teach during these years. Teaching English is more than a full-time job—it is a lifestyle. If you’ve never done it, you don’t realize how much time and energy grading essays and planning lessons takes. (I don’t miss grading essays, by the way. Not ever.) I feel very lucky to have gotten to teach, and I feel very lucky to have gotten to write.
You talk about life as a mom in various places throughout the book. Has becoming a mother impacted your life with God and your writing? If so, how?
Motherhood has taught me how difficult it is to love someone well. The kind of love that sacrifices everything: the last bite of ice cream, the morning shower, the time to yourself, the sanity during grocery shopping, the safety and well-being of yourself above anyone else, the pride that comes with being able to “handle” everything. I would do anything for my kids—I feel that in the deepest parts of my soul. And yet, I come so short of loving my kids perfectly. I do things wrong daily. It makes me so grateful to know that God loves me perfectly. And them perfectly. It is a wonderful gift to be able to realize that in a new way.
As far as in writing, that’s sort of a double-edged sword. Miles and Genevieve give me tons and tons of material—they have helped give me another perspective with which to look at life and God. But they also give me very little time to actually write that material down. So I’ve had to learn to “protect,” as they say, the writing time. I’m not very good at that.
There seems to be a movement among the current generation toward liturgical church traditions. What factors do you think are influencing this trend?
While I can’t speak for the whole generation, for me the liturgical church traditions offer a sense of structure that I love. I mean, I enjoy the willy-nilly on occasion, and I enjoy babbling to God in whatever honest, free way that I want to pray some days. Other days, however, I find that I don’t have the words, or maybe the energy to find the words, to say to God what I am feeling. The Book of Common Prayer does. The church seasons help me contemplate different aspects of Christ’s life, they challenge me to reflect on sorrow and repentance as much as victory and gladness, they give me the gift of movement when I feel stuck. There’s also the added bonus of solidarity with other Christians of all sorts of backgrounds from all different time periods. There’s room for these practices in my faith journey, and I like learning from all sorts of denominations of Christians.
When did you begin to know that you were a writer? What do you enjoy most about the writing process? Is there anything you don’t enjoy?
I think I have known my whole life. In fifth grade or so, I decided to write a novel on our family’s first computer. It was a terrible story. Really, really bad. I still remember the first line, of which I was quite proud: “Maxine walked slowly in her big, bulky jacket.” I don’t know why I was so proud of that line, but every time I read it over, I thought, This is going to be so good! I got eleven pages in—it seemed like a huge accomplishment, like I’d just written War and Peace. I never finished it and never let anyone read it, I don’t think. (Although I did print out one copy for myself, so it’s highly likely that at least one of my parents saw it.) Since then, I always had, in the back of my mind, the dream of writing for a living.
I pursued it quietly, doing a complex little dance of avoidance, not even really admitting it to myself because that would be scary. I majored in English education in college…and then decided to add another major in creative writing. But just because I liked it, not because it was practical. A few years later, I went to graduate school in English Literature and had to be almost forced by my friend Maria to sign up for a writing workshop. I wasn’t brave enough to do that on my own, and I owe her a lot for helping me sign up for that class, then for encouraging me to change my course and get my MFA. I still get very nervous showing someone my work. So you can bet the publishing process has been a bit of a roller coaster of emotions for me.
The thing I love most about writing is most certainly having written. The process is difficult, and I try to avoid difficult things whenever possible. I hate how difficult it is coming up with an idea. I hate feeling stuck and watching that damn cursor just blink and blink and blink at me. I hate the perfectionist streak in me that makes each paragraph take agonizingly long to get “just right.” I hate that things are usually not “just right” enough. But there is a moment within each essay or chapter when something clicks, and I realize I might actually have something important to say. That moment makes all the rest of it worth it. So the longer I do this, the more I’m learning to trust that that moment will, eventually, after approximately 1,809,111 cursor blinks, happen.
What is one of the main things you hope readers take away from Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times?
A deeper love for God. A deeper sense of grace for ourselves and one another. What a gift, if I’m able to be even a small part of making that happen.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Ian McEwan, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frederick Buechner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Now that Whirlybirds is completed, do you have plans for another book?
I do. But I’m also still swept up in the whirlwind of having this book published, so I haven’t really been working on anything new like I should be. I also feel like I might have told all my good stories already. Damn. What if I did that? (Of course that’s a big lie, but it’s a lie I tend to believe on some days.) Grace for creating new stories, I suppose!