Why You Should Read Books

When I was a kid I hated reading. It was largely because I hated the books our school was making us read. While parents and kids are kind of losing their minds over the homeschooling situation, and this quarantine in general, I think this is actually an opportunity. Reading is obviously important. Books are our window into history, science, mythology, philosophy, and speculation, not to mention God’s revealed Truth, in a way that things like movies, documentaries, and YouTube can’t be.

As I said, I hated the books we were reading in school. All through elementary and at least through middle school, we read something every year about slavery in America. While it was unjust and cruel, by the time I was ten I just didn’t care any more. Homeschooling, I think, is an opportunity to teach kids once that slavery happened in America, but more importantly, it still happens all over the world. Use this as an opportunity to read together about different countries, different religious, and different cultures.

For history class, download some books on your computers, tablets or whatever, and read historical fiction about stuff your kids actually find interesting. For English class, read a couple of books, and have your kids compare stuff they actually enjoy reading to a piece written in the 1920’s that might be in the same or a similar genre. Have them write about what it might be like to have lived in the year 1020, or to live in 3020. Obviously scale these ideas to what is age appropriate.

I think, though, that traditional forms of teaching just won’t work. If your kid doesn’t like reading, but he/she is super interested in mythology or black holes, read books about mythology or black holes. I suggest all of this because I love to read, and I love stories, yes, but also because I think right now, reading and learning together is a good way to keep everyone a little closer together and a little more sane. I honestly do think that book club has been great for my family. I hated Pride and Prejudice, but I love seeing my extended family once a week, discussing the book for ten minutes (which was what happened, at least with the last book), and then complaining and joking for an hour.

I think it also gave us a sense of having a task to complete. We knew that it would take us six weeks to complete Pride, so we could think about those six weeks in terms of finishing a book instead of an indefinite abyss of “what’s next?” This summer, even when the official school year ends, I’d pick out two or three books, or one longer one, just for fun, that will be the kids’ summer reading, but will also be a time keeper. If you and your kids really honestly dislike reading, though, I saw that Harry Potter is on Spotify to listen to, and you can’t go wrong with that.

The Battle Of Helm’s Deep

Church is sometimes awkward. This past weekend was the celebration of Christ the King. Our priest is really good at making things plain and simple. He said we all had to just stop and ask ourselves who or what is, or is going to be our king in the end. He said there are ultimately two questions one needs to ask in deciding who or what our king is going to be: 1) can this person or thing love me unconditionally, and 2), can this person or thing protect me? The choice is ours. That’s a complicated choice, and it’s one we often have to make more than once. I’ve made my choice, and I’ll continue to make the same choice. Jesus is my king. The reason our priest’s homily was awkward for me was that it brought something else to mind. I have to trust my king.

I have made my choice, and I will continue to make the same choice, as I said. Jesus is my king, and I trust Him. The problem is that I’m having trouble trusting the church hierarchy. He’s pointed out to me that He has allowed those in charge to have the power they have. That kind of means I have trouble trusting His patience and wisdom. I’m reminded of a scene from Lord of the Rings. It’s before the battle at Helm’s Deep. The people of Rohan are drastically outnumbered, and the king asks one of his servants, “Who am I gambling?” The servant, who is arming him for battle says, “You are our king, Sire,” To which the king responds, “And do you trust your king?” The servant says, “Your men, my Lord, will follow you to whatever end.”

Right now, I kind of feel like one of the soldiers of Rohan. I kind of feel like we’re outnumbered. In the end, Rohan won that battle, and I know we’ll win this one. I do trust my King, but I want to trust Him more. That was my awkward prayer at church yesterday. There is no other person or thing–not my parents, not my brother, and not my bird–who can love me absolutely unconditionally. Everyone has a breaking point. That’s a fact. My family can protect me from most things, but not everything; not death, and certainly not the consequences of sin. Only Jesus can do that, and I will worship only Him.

I wrote a while ago about the wedding at Cana when Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to. I hadn’t thought about it then, partly because it wasn’t related to the point I was making, but they do exactly what He tells them, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. “They’re out of wine? Okay, you guys, fill those empty jars with water.” There’s no indication that the servants know what He intends to do, or even what He’s capable of. They just do it. Maybe it’s simply because they are servants and are used to just doing what they’re told, whether it makes sense or not. I think those servants are actually an excellent model for how we are supposed to relate to the Lord. Things get messed up. That’s okay. He can fix it, and He wants us to help. That’s actually pretty simple.

Despite the often strange and extreme lengths Jesus goes to to show us His love, we’re pretty slow to recognize it. When I became Christian, I didn’t have any really serious Christian friends. Luckily, when God made me, he made a stubborn woman, so I prayed. I prayed for years about this. It did take years, but now I do have faithful Catholic friends, and though it took me a little while to recognize it, I really am grateful. If we are facing the Battle of Helm’s Deep, then this is my declaration, “I will follow my King to whatever end.”

Idols And Heroes

Last night, my dad and I ended up laughing at a musician we heard on a Spotify playlist who was trying to be a poignant country singer, but really just came across as whiney and corny. His lyrics were really quite terrible. Then, of course, because I’m a musician, we ended up talking about songwriters who are actually good at what they do. A songwriter I admire very much is Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam. My dad agreed that Pearl Jam was a really good, original band, but, he said, Eddie can try to hard to “be his idols” when it comes to his own side projects. I know, for example, that he “idolizes” Neil Young. I don’t know that I totally agree with my dad because I love Eddie’s music, especially the weird stuff, but I also love Neil Young, so there’s that.

Our conversation then moved to an idea my dad had for our house in Maine. He said we should have a bookshelf with work from all of our “Idols.” He started listing off people he admired, and I noticed, he stopped using the word “Idol,” and switched to “Hero.” It’s an interesting distinction. Our God commanded that we are not supposed to have idols because there is only one God, and only He is worthy of worship. Another interesting question is: when does one cross the line from admiration to worship? I have a very long list of people I admire, but I don’t worship any of them. I don’t worship them because I know my God, and I know what worship is, and how to worship. I had to be taught, though.

I think worship invariably has to be taught, whether it is worship of God, or worship of some other human or thing. Catholics, for example, have specific religious practices that are forms of worship. Perhaps worship of a certain musician, for example, would involve getting a guitar and learning to play all of their songs, playing them at open mic nights, and listening to their songs all the time, and seeing them live whenever they’re in the area.

This is not to say one cannot do all these things and be an avid fan without worshiping them. A better example than Pearl Jam for me might be Tenth Avenue North. I know and love almost every one of their songs. I’m more of a singer than a guitarist, and I can harmonize on plenty of them. I recently went to see Mercy Me just because Tenth Avenue North was opening for them. I’ve seen them several times by now. Still, they’re just dudes, and I don’t worship them.

In the end, whether it comes to awesome humans or awesome things, I think everyone at one time or another needs a reality check. Everything and everyone in the world, whether it’s a black hole, or a baby has an ultimate Source, and if the effort is taken to find that Source, there’s not much that can be done but to worship Him. The uncreated God created this universe and everything in it out of love because He wanted it–wanted us–to exist.

Truthfully, I think that’s why I love mythology and I admire good fantasy writers so much. If there is any writer I aspire to be like, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and the universe it takes place in is genius. Right now I’m rereading the four books of the Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini. I admire this writer, too, not because his universe is genius, but because his style is eloquent, but easy to follow, and his story is enjoyable.

I loved my dad’s bookshelf idea because I do have heroes. I have a long list of heroes. Some of those heroes are Catholic, some are non-Catholic Christians, and many are not Christian at all. In fact, I have no idea what they believe, or believed, but they are or were admirable. There are still more whose names I don’t even know, but whom I consider heroes. With all this in mind, I submit to you all my list of heroes. These are in no particular order, and are not separated into categories. It’s also probably not exhaustive, but these are the people who come to mind as heroic.

-J.R.R. Tolkien
-Seamus Heaney
-William Wallace
-The Astronauts of the first Apollo mission
-J.K. Rowling
-C.S. Lewis
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky
-Christopher Paolini
-Eddie Vedder
-The members of U2
-The members of Tenth Avenue North
-Neil Young
-The Indigo Girls
-Any martyr of any faith
-Anyone who stands up to injustice in any way
-Saint Faustina
-Saint Dismas
-James Gallagher, the first person to fly nonstop around the world
-The crew of the HMS Challenger

NOTE: Jesus and His Mother are not on this list simply because they’re too obvious and I didn’t think I needed to put them on here.

Who Are You?

One day this past weekend I hung out with a twelve-year-old kid who lives on our street. He was playing in his driveway with his six-year-old brother and their five-year-old friend. I was going for a walk and I heard U2 playing. The two little kids left after a little while, and one thing led to another. The kid in question plays, as far as I know, four different instruments, and is a much better guitarist than I am. He also knows how to use protools, which is an audio engineering software that professionals use. I can’t decide if it’s laughable or annoying or scary or what. Anyway, we had fun. He’s a really polite, pretty mature kid, for his age. After the little kids left I actually scurried back to my house and got my guitar so we could mess around for a while. I have no rules about who I’ll hang out with, as long as they’re cool.

I didn’t used to be like that. When I was in high school especially, I hated kids. I don’t think that’s an understatement. Kids were annoying and stupid, and that was it. Of course, at that time, a “kid” was anyone under the age of eight. Now I refer to the high school freshmen I teach as “kids.” It’s kind of disturbing. I think I used to have a much higher view of myself. I used to think I was the queen of the universe. It was entirely undignified to associate with such plebeians as children.

I think I understand kids better now as a writer, too. Kids are much more willing to believe things, so long as their capacity to listen holds up. I think you have to be able to believe something in order to enjoy it. You have to be able to pretend, and be willing to enter into a different universe.

A friend of mine who is older with kids once asked me what I thought about allowing his kids to read the Harry Potter books. He’s Christian, and he wasn’t totally inclined to let them because magic is seen as the highest power, and the battle between good and evil is entirely up to human ability. There is no mention of any kind of God (though the Christian holidays are mentioned offhandedly), and though there is a general sense of morality, like in any fantasy story, it isn’t directly spelled out. For example, I’m re-reading the series now, and I’m actually surprised at just how much the characters lie. Ultimately I advised my friend to let his kids read the books because it’s simply another universe that isn’t governed by the same rules as this one.

As I reread the Harry Potter books, I find myself laughing a lot. I’ve seen the movies a thousand times, but they’re not nearly as good as the books, and I’m finding they cut out a lot of humor. Maybe my sense of humor has changed too, but I think the movies tried to make the story too dark in places where it didn’t need to be, and not dark enough where it’s really creepy. I’m excited because I’m almost halfway through the fourth one now, and it’s after this one that things get serious, and in my opinion, the series gets more cohesive from book to book.

I don’t want this to turn into an analysis of the Harry Potter series, so I’ll make my point. I like these books. They’re meant for a younger audience, but I don’t care. My dad taught me a rule when I was in high school, and I have faithfully lived by it: growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional. I used to get thoroughly annoyed with myself when I did something embarrassing. I used to think I was so dignified. I have no idea why. I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’m clumsy and silly. I spell things wrong and say ridiculous things. I make dumb mistakes. My friends laugh at me about this stuff, and that’s okay.

Mistakes are part of life. Messing up is part of life. Silliness is part of life, and being wrong is part of life. I’m writing this down because kids used to annoy me for the same reasons that my friends laugh at me (not in a mean way). In the past several months my mom and I have been listening to audio books in the car. We started doing mostly contemporary realistic fiction and moved, really by accident, into science fiction. We went for a few weeks without a story because I know she’s not a huge fan of sci-fi, and we couldn’t think of what to listen to. Finally I suggested The Brothers Karamazov. We just started it yesterday.

My point is that it’s okay to love Dostoevski and Rowling. It’s okay that my favorite foods are fancy pasta dishes and fried buffalo chicken wraps (for the record, yes, I also eat healthy food). I’m getting comfortable joining in events at my church where most other people are at least in their fifties, and hanging out with kids on my street who are under ten. The teenagers I teach think I’m kind of weird, which is probably at least a little true, but that’s okay. Lately I’m becoming more comfortable in my own skin. Weird is more fun, anyway.

Because in my world guinea pigs can fly!

The Intensity Of Head-Space

Today is Star Wars Day, so of course I have to write about it. There’s so much I could write about. Realistically, it’s an absolutely amazing story. It has so much longevity, and as far as I know, it’s the closest we’ve got to a parallel universe. What I mean by that is, for one thing, it exists in several genres. Regardless of the quality, one can read, watch, and play Star Wars. This has been true since the very beginning. The universe exploded with A New Hope, and it’s still expanding. What is also significant is that is the amount of contributions from fans. The people who love this story shape what happens in its future and in the parts of the galaxy we wouldn’t otherwise see.

The latest RPG I’ve been a part of is a Star Wars rendition of Dark Heresy. We decided to go this route because we understood and cared about that universe. The time period our game takes place in is the height of the Empire (between Revenge of the Sith, and A New Hope), far away from where the “main story” is taking place. Before this, I had been part of two Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. I hastily threw together my characters, not thinking too much about who they really were, what they cared about, or where they came from. This time I took time.

My character’s name is Sky Turin. Before becoming a Jedi padawan she lived with her father on the lowest level of a planet similar to Coruscant, though this was not where she was originally from. Her parents were from the Sky, which was the wealthiest part of the planet. Think of Cloud City. The Surface, where she lived for most of her early life was the poorest. Her parents were what would probably be the Star Wars version of missionaries, working to empower the poorest people on the planet. When Sky was nineteen she rescued a Jedi, not much older than herself, who crash-landed in her neighborhood while in pursuit of a Dark Jedi. Dark Jedi, if you don’t know, were force-users who were not directly allied with the Jedi or the Sith. They generally minded their own business, but the few Jedi who remained after the Empire took most of them out pursued them, either to bring them over to their side or detain them if they could.

While Sky was helping Val escape, Val discovered that Sky could use the Force, though she didn’t know what she was doing at the time. Sky went with Val to the remaining Jedi–none of them officially masters–and was permitted to learn the Force and become a Jedi herself, as the Jedi were desperate for recruits. After some preliminary training with a light saber, Sky and Val went to a planet similar to Earth to investigate a possible meeting of Dark Jedi in a mountainous area, similar to the Rocky Mountains. While they were there they were ambushed and captured. Their captivity didn’t last long, however, because Val was extremely powerful with the Force. They were able to escape, but had to leave in separate ships. When Sky returned to the Jedi council, she discovered that Val had not returned. The council would not permit her to look for Val, so she left and began searching against their will. This is where I entered our campaign. While I don’t know the specifics of where the story is going, I do know that Sky is assertive, hates the Dark Jedi, hates the Empire, and mistrusts the Jedi themselves. She has been taught that the Dark Side is evil, and will lead to her own destruction, but she’s so obsessed with finding Val that she will most likely not always stick to the Code entirely. She’s also impulsive and will probably make some stupid decisions.

I considered writing Sky’s story in full detail. In fact, I tried, but she’s too distant from me, for lack of a better way to say it. Ironically, I think I have trouble creating a story in an already existent universe. My novel takes place in a future version of the U.S., but almost everything about that world is my own. It feels awkward to me to write about a universe that someone else made, even if I’m inventing most of the details of a story that is otherwise original. It feels weird to talk about the Force and the Empire and the Jedi as if they were my own. It feels invasive in a way, like I’m invading someone else’s creative space. At the same time, the Star Wars universe has always seemed very inviting when it comes to original ideas. I think what this ultimately comes back to is that I’m much better at coming up with characters than I am at coming up with plot. I’m great at writing their past, but when it comes to writing their present, I often get stuck.

I’ve written two hundred pages of my novel thus far, and I’m about fifty pages into Part 2. Part 1 was a lot easier to write. So far I’ve had to write two battle scenes. I think they were both okay, but they both need work. I have trouble with timing and intensity. Right now I’m working on a captivity situation. I have to deal with the head-space of a character who has just been captured and is about to be interrogated by an evil government. This kind of scene is slower, but I think, just as intense, and I’m much better at writing this kind of thing. I think Star Wars is a very action-oriented story, and maybe this is why I have trouble writing in that universe.

One of the greatest stories I’ve ever read is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Most of that story takes place in dialogue and internal thoughts, which one might assume would be boring, but it’s anything but. Solitude, in particular, can make for some seriously intense character and plot development. Head-space, while mostly metaphorical, is still space, and in that space, anything can happen. In that space, a character can go insane or overcome impossible odds. A person’s psychology makes them who they are, and plot can’t exist without characters. A world without people in it doesn’t matter.

I’ve seen some great and some terrible post-apocalyptic movies. I’ve noticed two things regarding these, and regarding my story. First, the movies that are good have more people in them. It’s hard for a story to maintain its momentum when no one is around to keep things going. Second, what I’ve noticed, and sometimes want to smack myself for, is that I keep creating more characters. My story takes place over a very large area–basically the entire United States. I’ve noticed that the space in which a story takes place tends to correspond with the number of characters that are needed to keep the story going. Sometimes great movies or great stories take place in one house, or even one room. Sometimes there are only two or three characters involved, and these stories can be great. Some of the most intense scenes in my story are conversations or even internal monologues.

Interestingly, in the case of Star Wars, we really don’t get to see too much of the characters’ head-space, at least not directly. Their personalities come out in how they react and adapt to various situations. This is clearly effective because we know and love characters like R2D2 and Chewbacca, who never even speak a word of English. However, I think to get to know characters in this way, there needs to be constant action. There isn’t a lot of time, or even good reason to slow down. Finding a happy medium is definitely difficult. I think the few exceptions are the exchanges between Luke and Vader in Return of the Jedi, but even these are short and almost invariably turn into light saber fights. The thing about dialogue is that it has to be executed well. There are far more longer exchanges in The Phantom Menace-Revenge of the Sith, but they’re often not well written. They’re either boring or cheesey. If there had been less talk and more action, I think they would have been better movies.

Because in my world guinea pigs can fly!

Write Your Story

 

Over the weekend I went absolutely Star Wars crazy. I’ve already seen the movie three times. I’ve done more than my fair share of theorizing about the next one already. My friends and I have all been very nostalgic about the old movies, and are now super excited about where the story is going. I’ve imagined what it would be like to be a Star Wars character (Jedi or not), and I’ve wondered whether I would turn to the dark side. At the same time, I began to feel a strange, increasing feeling of seemingly misplaced guilt, or something like it.

Eventually I thought, “What gives?”

Then it came to me. “You don’t want to live in that universe. You may feel like you would have more agency; you might have more of a chance of being a hero, but planets get blown up in that universe. Billions upon billions of people die in a matter of minutes or hours.”

Still, this whole thought process wasn’t normal. I’ve done this before–the whole “what if” thing. I’ve imagined myself as another character in another world, living a different story and thought nothing of it.

So I argued. “I’m just having fun. Star Wars is just such a good, fun story. It’s obviously fictional, and no, I probably wouldn’t want to live in that universe. It’s just fun to think about.”

At this point I was convinced I was arguing with God. I probably shouldn’t do that, but it happens. He said, “Your story’s fun, too.”

Me: Yeah, but it’s not as fun as Star Wars.

Him: Make it as fun as Star Wars. It’s your story. You can make it whatever you want it to be.

Me: You mean my novel, right?

Him: Yes.

Me: I’ll try, but I need your help. It’s your story, too.

Him: I know. So you’ve told me. I’ll help you when you get stuck. I want you to write an amazing story, and I want you to use it for good. I know you can.

This is an actual conversation I had. Maybe it was with God, maybe it wasn’t, but answers were coming back to me in a way that made it seem like I wasn’t just talking to myself, and I’m convinced. On top of that, I ended up writing for around four hours straight yesterday, and I finally finished a scene that I was really nervous about writing. I’ve been agonizing and procrastinating because of it for at least a couple of weeks now. Yesterday it just seemed to come to me.

There are going to be two parts to my novel, and I’m very close to finishing Part One. I’m going to have a couple trustworthy people read it before moving on to Part Two, and I’m probably going to have to do a lot of editing, but especially in the past few weeks, for one thing, my style has been improving quite a bit. I seem to be getting back into the groove. I started writing this novel over the summer, and there was a time where I could write ten pages in a day. Then in October (I think) I hit a brick wall and went for several weeks without writing at all. Then my mommy yelled at me. Both my parents, but she especially seem to be convinced that it’s my destiny to write the next great Science Fiction novel. I hope they’re right. I’m falling in love with this story again, and yesterday, as I said, I wrote a lot. I’m going to try and finish Part One by next Monday because I’d like people to read it while they’re on vacation.

For reference, I’ve written almost 120 pages. That’s the most I’ve written ever, at least on one project. I’ve invented a futuristic drug trade. I’ve invented an alphabet. I’ve developed an evil, corrupt government plot (the details of which you’ll just have to wait for). In retrospect, I’m darn proud of this story. If nothing else, it’s complicated. Admittedly, there’s a part of me that wants to use this story to legitimize Science Fiction as a genre in the literary world. At school I took every creative writing class that was offered, but of course, that did not include fantasy or Sci-Fi. In many ways, realistic fiction lost its charm for me a long time ago. It has to be a really freaking compelling story for it to hold my interest. I live in this universe. Why would I want to read about it? If there’s no magic, no dragons, no space ships, no “what if,” then it’s no fun.

The argument, or so I’ve heard, is that sci-fi and fantasy are nothing more than entertainment because they are not relevant to real-world issues. That’s only the case if you let it be. You can absolutely use alternate universes to address issues of morality, power, politics, and spirituality, among other things, all of which come up in my story. What happens if religion is taken out of the equation entirely? What happens when the military has the most political power? What would happen if you brought magic into the equation? A friend of mine said something that i thought was quite interesting and true. She said that a miracle is something that we just aren’t able to explain yet. I’d like to explore that as well.

Anyway, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons later, so I should get back to work.

Because in my world guinea pigs can fly!

 

Insomnia Induced Idea

I went to bed uncharacteristically early last night because my epilepsy wasn’t behaving, which of course meant I woke up at some unreasonable hour. I wanted to get up and read, but that would have been a pain for my parents, so I decided to invent a story instead. Somehow that got me thinking about the story line I’ve been following in Oblivion, which turned out to be entirely unhelpful since I’m presently stuck in that game (I’ve been playing Minecraft instead).

Eventually, because my mind is a tangential lunatic, and because insomnia is particularly conducive to intellectual meandering, I got to thinking about Christmas. Christmas is about celebrating how God came among us as a human, and I realized something interesting. The Gospel is not the only story in which a god becomes human, but it is unique in that, as far as I know, it’s the only story in which a god becoming human has a good outcome for humanity in general. It is also the only story in which, again, as far as I know, a god comes among humans as someone vulnerable and helpless. Lastly, it is the only story in which his humanity is permanent, and has a permanent outcome.

We hear all the time how amazing it is that God came among us in human form, but compare it to other stories. Last fall I took a class about ancient literature–namely Greek and Roman mythology. It was a ton of fun because those stories are absolutely insane. I love the insanity, and I realized that a lot of what those gods did made no sense, but a lot the things the Christian God does don’t seem to make a ton of sense either (to me at least). The difference is that God does everything out of love, while in most other stories involving deities, the gods are largely self-serving. Furthermore, those stories are episodic, and while some of the stories in the Bible are episodic, it is professed that God has an overarching plan for humanity.

This is what happens when you study literature and theology together.

Because in my world guinea pigs can fly