Pen-Pals

Almost exactly twenty years ago, when I was eight years old, my father put an advertisement in a Christian newspaper requesting pen-pals for me and my brother. We received a couple of replies, including one from a girl with blonde hair and glasses, who had the same name as me and was only four days apart in age. Sarah’s family didn’t subscribe to this particular magazine, but for some reason they received this copy at their red-brick house in Michigan, and the ad caught someone’s eye. So a letter winged its way over the Atlantic, and twenty years later we’re still writing letters.

I owe her a letter, I thought last week, as I caught up on some correspondence. And then I realised that this letter I needed to write would be the last I would ever send her under her current name, because Sarah is on the brink of getting married, and I’ll have the privilege of standing in the bridal party with her as she makes her vows.

And I wonder, who’d have thought, all those years ago, that we’d still be friends now? So many childhood friendships are outgrown or simply fade away. Ours could easily have done so: perhaps we would discover, as we grew older, that we had little in common other than our name and our age. Or we might realise, when we met in person, that the flesh-and-blood versions of each other were less appealing than the paper ones.

But in God’s kindness, neither of those things happened. Sarah and I share a love for the Lord, a love of literature, a love of beauty. We’ve visited each other over half a dozen times in the last two decades, and have become friends in “real life” too. She’s taken me to the sand dunes of Michigan, the windy city of Chicago, and through the streets of Paris and Dresden. I’ve shown her English gems like Oxford and Bath. We’ve prayed for each other in the hard times, and rejoiced with each other in the good times. And we’ve written lots of letters.

Hers are all there in the pine chest in the corner of my room, as mine are tucked away somewhere on her side of the pond. On one of her visits, she brought some of my old letters, and I dug out some of hers, and we had a fine time laughing at our old selves. Twenty years is a long time, after all, and the little girls we were then seem very different from the women we are now.

But through all the changes we both underwent, through all the hard times and the good times we’ve both experienced, through all the times we moved house (and between the two of us, we’ve moved house a lot), we never failed to take time to sit down, pen in hand, and write to each other, however slow our replies might sometimes be in coming. And in the age of Twitter and Snapchat, I think it’s rather nice that we’ve never entirely given up on a more tangible, treasure-able method of communication.

Here’s to another twenty years!

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Just Write

Autumn is here. I’m wearing long-sleeved tops now. Here in the living room we have our first fire of the season. Red, yellow, and orange sheens are appearing on the trees, signs that another year is about to die a gloriously vibrant death.

Yet autumn, that season of endings, is also a season of beginnings, at least for students. Pre-schoolers, sixth formers, undergraduates—they’re all sharpening pencils and hauling around books again. This year, I’m back in their number, embarking on a new beginning of my own: an MA in English Studies. Who’d have thought?

As I’ve been wrestling with my first piece of writing, I’ve been reminded again of how crucial it is for writers to just write. It’s not an original dictum, but it’s certainly one that’s proved true in my own experience. Do you feel that you have nothing to say? Write, and you will discover what to say. You will discover what you think. Do you cringe as you read that first paragraph, tempted to hit delete and start again, and then again, so that the screen in front of you is always white, pristine, perfect, empty? Write. What you write isn’t meant to be good yet. The time for pruning, for editing, for self-criticism, will come, but you cannot polish something until you have something to polish. Just write.

As an undergraduate, I could begin with a topic that made me groan, a topic about which I felt I had nothing to say, yet by forcing myself to write, however unpleasant the process, and then by shaping and editing, I would end up with an essay I was satisfied with. I know I’ll find that again as a postgraduate. I’ve had to tell it to myself already: just write.

My friend Sarah and I send each other weekly writing prompts. We wrestle, sometimes (often?), with our topics, produce pieces late and with apologies (“It’s not very good, I know”), but we make ourselves do it. We’re learning the importance of humbly embracing the fact that we’re not always very good writers—that we may never be the kind of writers we’d like to be—but that this writing process is good for us all the same. I believe it was Jennifer Trafton who spoke of how writing teaches you humility, and it’s true. It’s painful to see the disconnect between what your writing is and what you want it to be.

“If I can’t win, I won’t run!”, says Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire. “If you won’t run, you can’t win”, his girlfriend retorts. It’s the same with writing. The temptation can be to say that if we can’t write something amazing, we won’t write at all. But if we don’t write anything, we can’t write anything good. So let’s shut out the voices that shame us as we sit in front of our blank screens and just write.

 

Night: A Roundel

I’d been wanting to try my hand at a roundel ever since encountering one in Malcolm Guite‘s latest poetry collection. When I was pondering the writing prompt “night” from my friend Sarah earlier this month, I thought about the beautiful evening prayer in the Anglican prayer book and based a roundel on that.

This is the prayer:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

And this is my roundel:

 

Lord, give us light and shatter by your word

The thick black darkness of this dreadful night.

The gloom is hovering like a deadly sword:

Lord, give us light.

 

For in the night, our fears take form. The sight

Of walking horrors chills our souls. The world

Has lost her smile. We look around in fright.

 

Yet in the night, we cling to what we’ve heard:

That you are good, that all you do is right.

Lighten our darkness, we beseech you, Lord.

Lord, give us light.

Someone at the Door

I know, I know. I’ve expressed my antipathy for free verse more than once on this blog. And it’s true: I tend to have a strong distaste for it. I recognise there are exceptions, however. Some free verse poetry is wonderful. And when I set about to write a poem for the prompt Sarah sent me, “Someone at the Door”, a fixed form didn’t seem to work, while free verse did. So, here goes….

 

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes,

I stumbled towards the door.

I’d been scrubbing all day, my body now one vast ache.

But I couldn’t go to bed yet,

Not yet.

Not with Peter’s life in the balance.

 

We’d prayed and pleaded together,

But weary with work and woe

I’d fallen asleep to the sounds of prayer.

Until the bell rang, bringing me to my senses, rousing me from my dreams,

And I had to tiptoe out

To answer the door.

 

I peered into the darkness, and suddenly my body jarred awake,

Life tingling in every fingertip.

Peter!

I was so happy that I ran to tell them–

Ran like a child.

I couldn’t wait to see the joy that would

Fill the faces of my master and his friends.

Couldn’t even wait

To open the door

And let Peter

In.

 

You can laugh.

I laugh now,

To think that for joy

I left him standing in the cold and dark. Fine welcome, that!

But I did.

 

Bursting into the room,

I shouted over James’ “Lord, we beseech you….”

“He’s here! Stop your beseeching! Peter’s outside!”

They looked at me blankly.

“Can’t you see? You don’t need to pray any more. You’ve been answered!”

Silence.

 

And then,

“Rhoda, you’re mad,” said Andrew.

“Mad”, they echoed.

“But he’s alive! He’s outside!”

My eagerness made me stumble over my words.

“Perhaps it’s his angel, child”, came Mary’s gentle voice.

“No”, I said, polite but firm.

 

Why I didn’t

Dash back to that door and drag Peter inside and shout “See!”,

I don’t know.

Maybe I was mad.

 

Meanwhile, the banging continued.

Someone (I don’t know who)

Slowly got up and stepped to the door.

I heard a gasp, laughter and exclamations, and Peter was ushered in.

 

And in my joy at their joy, I forgot to feel smug that I’d been proved right.

And really, the joke’s on me, as much as on them.

Surely Luke must have smiled as he wrote his second book,

Smile as you and many others have smiled too,

At my thoughtless eagerness,

My careless joy.

 

Village Church

My friend Sarah gave me the prompt “church” for my writing last week, and I decided to go down to the local village church, which has stood there for about eight hundred years (though naturally little of what is there today has survived all that time), and write about what I saw there. I’m not very good at describing what I see, so it was a good discipline for me to sit, observe and write. Needless to say, I hope, description of what one sees does not necessarily equate with endorsement of everything described! That being said, it was a lovely place to write in, with the weight of years of worship hanging over it.

***

I turn the heavy metal handle both ways before the outer door opens. Stepping in, I survey the small foyer and close the door behind me. A spring bouquet is in one corner. There are two boards full of church notices: weekly events, contact details for the vicar, the heartbeat of a village church summed up in pieces of paper. Another, heavier door is in front of me, and grasping its handle in turn, I step in and then push my way through the thick, green velvety curtains. I am inside.

I glance around. It’s empty. Good.  I walk under the ceiling striped by dark wooden beams towards the central aisle, which is flanked by grey stone columns so thick I don’t think I could wrap my arms around them. I make my way down the thin red carpet, my eye catching the bright blue sky visible through the tiny panes of glass in the windows to the left. Spring flowers are on the sill: daffodils in yellow, white, and orange. The sun shines brighter through the windows on the right, but the sky is partially obscured by the tall trees in the graveyard.

The red aisle leads to two stone steps, which in turn lead to the chancel, with its seating for the choir to the left and the right. To one side, a stand-alone cross with a crown of thorns is a clue that Easter hasn’t long passed.  The floor here is tiled in black, red, and creamy-yellow squares. I only notice that later, however, because the focus of the chancel is a chestnut-covered altar with a small cross in the middle, flanked by two candles. What really draws my eye is above and behind that, though: a stained glass window in vivid yellow, blue, red, and purple. The middle picture appears to be of Jesus ascending to heaven, watched by his disciples. There are two larger pictures to the left and right, each of a single man, but I don’t know whom they represent.

I turn and take a seat on one of the low, hard pews—pews covered by innumerable scrapes and gashes, scarred by years of worshippers. My footsteps, and the rustle of my bright orange bag, sound unusually loud. Apart from the ticking of a clock somewhere, there are no other sounds.

I write in silence. To my disappointment, however, the silence doesn’t last long. I hear voices somewhere behind me: two ladies and a small child. The older lady comes to the front. I think she checks the daffodils in the chancel. No, they don’t need watering. We say hello. She leaves.

Silence. The clock ticks. I write. On the wall to my right is a marble plaque in memory of Mr Henry Dench, who died in 1803. Similar plaques line the rest of that wall, and the wall on the other side.

My heart sinks when I hear the door open again. Another elderly lady. She doesn’t see me till she gets to the front of the church, and she gasps when she does. I smile again. Hello. She goes out to the back somewhere and returns carrying a red Henry vacuum cleaner. I’m afraid your silence is going to be disturbed, she says. That’s okay, I reply, but inwardly I sigh. I suppose even little village churches have to be cleaned, but why just now? I wanted the silence.

In the porch, the woman vacuums. Then the hum stops, but she is still there. Her work isn’t done yet. As for me, I know when I’m beaten. I close my notebook and leave the sanctuary for the world, walking into the sunshine and leaving the church standing as it has stood for eight hundred years.

Red

(Sorry for the hiatus. I’ll try not to let it go so long next time! In the meantime, here’s another piece I wrote for a writing prompt from my friend Sarah.)

When I was about five years old, I started ballet lessons. When my first lesson took place, I didn’t yet have the pale pink leotard and tights that the other girls had. I decided to dress as closely as I could to pink by wearing red, but when I stood in line with my bright red cardigan and skirt, in the midst of all the other little girls in their delicate pink, I felt the shame of being the odd one out, a shame which burned as bright a red as my clothes.

It wasn’t my first time to feel shame or embarrassment, and it certainly wasn’t my last. I’ve made silly mistakes. Been laughed at. Displayed my ignorance. I’ve sinned, or been caught out in sin. One way or the other, I’ve felt shame again and again.

Memory is kind: to my relief, many of the times in my life that have embarrassed me have been long forgotten. Others will stay with me always. Souls blush much longer than cheeks do.

But ashamed as I often am of myself, what a surprise it is to think that Jesus is not ashamed of me–not ashamed to call us brethren, as the Bible says. He won’t blush when He introduces me to the Father. He won’t need to. The red of His blood has cancelled out the red of all my shame. Because red on red actually makes white.

Laughter

(A lightly edited version of the piece I wrote for the weekly writing challenge my friend Sarah and I set each other.)

She’d laughed a lot in the early days. She was young and she was beautiful—the sort of woman men would gaze at, unable to help themselves. Then they’d realise what they were doing, and turn away, embarrassed. That was one of the things that made her laugh, but only a little, because she was tender-hearted, after all. Mostly she laughed for the sheer joy of life. Her husband was rich, and he adored her. Fortune had smiled on her in every way since she had been born, and so she laughed–the carefree, delighted laugh of a child–in return.

As she grew older, however, she laughed less. Worry buried itself ever deeper inside her as another year left her figure as lithe and slim as it had always been. She saw the expanding stomachs of other women, and then their radiant faces as they held their babies in their arms, and she could no longer laugh. With each grey hair she grew a little sadder, and a little more bitter.

And then one day, she did laugh again, but not for joy. Three strangers had come to visit, and as she sat in the tent, she listened as hard as she could to the conversation outside, curious as to who these men were and what they had to say to her husband. “Soon,” one of the strangers confidently pronounced, “your wife will have a son.” And she thought of her wrinkled breasts and the flow of blood that never came any more and of her elderly husband and she laughed in sheer astonishment at the stranger’s audacity. And she thought of the years of promises—empty promises—that had been made to her husband and she laughed in bitterness. That old tale again.

But when, the following year, she held her tiny son in her arms, after she’d stared at him with tear-filled eyes for what seemed like forever, she threw back her head and laughed in peals more beautiful and joyous than even those of her happy youth.

And she named her baby Laughter.

Paper Memories

The dining room table has been loaded with boxes of letters this week: letters from years ago, decades ago that have been unearthed from our loft. Most of them are Mum’s, but as she sorts through them, she picks out any addressed to me. I already have most of my own letters, of course, in the pine chest in my bedroom, but she discovers a few of mine mixed in with hers.

I sift through these pieces of my past. There’s a handful of birth cards, in which pink features predominantly. “A Baby GIRL!””, one proclaims, while another begins “To Welcome Your Daughter.” There’s even a telegram my aunt sent—to think that I was born in the days when people sent telegrams! My younger brothers had never seen one until I showed it to them.

I don’t know most of these people, though, so I am less interested in the birth cards than I am in a few more personal items. There’s a letter my grandmother wrote when I was three years old. She included some photos of me from a recent visit I’d paid. In one of them I give a small, shy smile as I stand on a chair drying a plate with a tea towel. My hair is quite short and looks, perhaps, a little unusual. It must have been taken after I had cut my hair, Mum points out. I remember the hair-cutting incident, although I don’t remember my visit to my grandparents. “Won’t Dad be surprised to see you drying the dishes for Granny?”, my grandmother wrote.

There’s also a letter my dad wrote me when I was almost six. He was away, and apparently I had sent him a letter and a picture. “I really liked your little letter and picture—once I could find it in the envelope”, he wrote. I must have sent a tiny missive or a huge envelope, or both. “I love and miss you very much,” he finished. I don’t remember getting this letter either, but now? It’s something special to have and to keep.

As we rediscovered these mementos from the past, it made me think again about how meaningful it is to have real, physical letters that last. Will we be able to look back on old tweets, Facebook messages, or even emails in twenty or thirty years’ time? And even if we can, we’ll be missing something of the writer’s character that we can find in a handwritten message—the handwriting, the choice of card or paper, adds a layer of meaning and personal interest that pixels just can’t mimic.

“If I get a guy,” I announce to Mum, “I’m going to make him write letters to me.”

A Dash of Style

“Punctuation is the music of language.”

So proclaims Noah Lukeman in his book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, and it is punctuation as an art which is the focus of his book. As Lukeman says himself, he’s not interested in re-hashing all the rules about punctuation. He’s interested in showing you how using punctuation skilfully can improve your writing. It’s a book for creative writers, writers who “want to know how punctuation can serve them—not how they can serve punctuation.”

Although there are certainly punctuation rights and wrongs, what is clear in A Dash of Style is that the key to punctuating well is not memorising a list of rules and following them slavishly. Rather, it is becoming aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it. It is asking yourself if the use of this mark rather than that one enhances your content or detracts from it. Lukeman shows what each mark is designed to do: it is perhaps “the speed bump” (the comma) or “the magician” (the colon). Armed with this knowledge, it is then up to you decide whether its use is appropriate and effective in any given context.

The book is enhanced by Lukeman’s illustrating many of his points with extracts from works of literature. He also includes exercises at the end of each chapter which provide ideas for playing with a piece of punctuation in your writing and discovering how its addition (or removal) affects that work.

Given that Lukeman uses the same format for each significant punctuation mark (examining use, misuse, and so forth) the book does feel somewhat repetitive, perhaps unavoidably so. But for writers who are keen to go beyond simply avoiding egregious punctuation errors and instead use punctuation to actively enhance their writing, A Dash of Style is an excellent tool.

Caretakers of the Past

We’re over halfway through August already. A few days ago, I noticed that there were some leaves scattered on the ground underneath the large tree near the top of our lawn. That particular tree does shake off its leaves in rather more of a hurry than more sedate trees tend to do, but still, it made me realise that we’re on the downhill of the year. Where has it gone?

Before I began writing this, I dipped into a handful of posts that I’d written here over the last two years or so. Looking at them again, I was grateful for the memories I’d recorded: roses, a rainbow, strangers on trains with books. Things too easily forgotten in the blur of life. And I was grateful for the thoughts that I’d shared about books I’d read—glad that I’d taken the time to process my thoughts rather than simply rushing on to the next thing.

I wrote a little piece about Bro5 for my creative writing class at the beginning of the year. I didn’t publish it on my blog, but re-reading it today after all these months, I was thankful to have stored away that that sketch of him as he is now, since it is not him as he will be in five or ten years’ time. I wish I’d written more pieces like that. Although I love him as he is, and although I’ll love him as he will be, I also loved him as he was. What a treasure it would have been to have had those vignettes of his three-year-old self and his six-year-old self too. There’s so much I’ve forgotten.

Time really does go by so fast. I can’t hold my days hostage, but if I can use words to sketch a face here, a form there, as they glide past, I’ll be able to retain something of their beauty long after they themselves have departed.

Don’t trust what you love to that traitor, memory. Words are more faithful caretakers. Entrust a little to your pen or your keyboard—a happy day, an answered prayer, an amusing story—and I think that, like me, you’ll be glad that you did.