What is Narrative?

Narrative plays at the forefront of my life as a writer.  I googled the definition of narrative yesterday because the extent of my definition was “story”.

nar·ra·tive
ˈnerədiv/
  1. 1.
    a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
    “the hero of his modest narrative”
    1. the narrated part or parts of a literary work, as distinct from dialogue.
    2. the practice or art of telling stories.
  2. a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.

I noticed a handy graph below the definition. It told me the use of the word “narrative” doubled in the past 60 years. My skills of deduction aren’t awesome, but I know this means narrative is an important word today.

Dan Allender writes in his book To Be Told, “We grow up in a sea of stories told in a way that fits what we want others to know about us.” Whether we know it or not, I believe we often fashion our lives to “reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.” To build a narrative.

Maybe our narrative is the religion we practice, the philosophy of life we hold, or even the nickname given to us in childhood. Whatever it is, it is a system of beliefs and we live accordingly.

Narrative, like this cross-stitch piece, is one story with all elements serving the theme.
Narrative, like this cross-stitch piece, is one story with all elements serving the theme.

YOLO. The bucket list. Original sin. Science. Angst. Goth. Fame.

In my life I’ve discover my narrative acutely when I’m disappointed, angry, or sad. When things don’t turn out they way they should, I’m left with puzzle pieces. Sometimes it seems like I have pieces from different puzzles jumbled together.

I think I believe one thing, but I act according to a different assumption. Crisis, pain, transition, betrayal. They open my eyes.

Sometimes the crisis is minor like speeding around to get my errands done. Why do I feel anxious about time? Does time run out? Obviously, I think it does. My actions portray it.

Perhaps its a little deeper. I like Keurig machines for convenience but the sheer square footage of shelf space bugs me. Then, I read that none of those little cups are recyclable. Yikes. Why do we save the environment? Do we only live once? Is earth and all it holds all that ever will be?

We parent our kids. It’s easy to want to avoid pain in their lives, to shield them from heartache. Yet, I also think that pain builds muscle. Are the highest goals in life safety, happiness, well-adjusted kids, kindness, generosity, or productivity.

Often evil leads me to the deepest questions. War rages and I despair about the state of the world. Are people basically good? What do I do when people who share the same faith die for their beliefs? Does my narrative answer the questions that arise from the atrocities and apparent blessings visible in the state of the world today? Are the other narratives out there as benign as the news seems to want me to believe? Or is there something at their core that leads them down a violent path?

I’m still thinking about this concept of narrative and how “story” plays out in our lives. It’s a popular word these days. Just listen to the latest Presidential address. It’s what drove me to look up the definition. I’ve heard it too many times to not know what it means.

What’s your story? Do you live by a certain narrative? How does it affect your life? Do you see inconsistencies? What do you do with them?

Here is a link to the usage graph for narrative:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=7&case_insensitive=on&content=narrative&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cnarrative%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bnarrative%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BNarrative%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BNARRATIVE%3B%2Cc0

Doors and Tigers and Reading to Children

DSC_0169 One thing about home school I despaired giving up was reading to my kids…until my husband reminded me it just might be possible to still read to them before bed every night.  I love reading to my kids maybe because I love reading.  I also love how good literature sparks conversations we might never have otherwise.

Like the time our home school curriculum told us to read The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli a month after we learned two of the families we were closest to would move…and we would stay.  The Door in the Wall is the tale of a crippled and abandoned boy rescued and taken in by a priest in the Middle Ages.  This boy with real suffering both emotional and physical must find a way.  The guidance from the priest?  “Thou has only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.”

My kids, one in particular, looked at their future and saw a big wall.  Life as they’d known it would change and the future contained real challenges.  The encouragement to hope and to keep following the wall…to run your hand down the wall…to stay close to, even touch, the challenge, suffering, and pain while looking for a way through resounded inside us.   I had no good vocabulary to draw their hearts into the light of conversation about all this transition in our lives but this book provided the means to talk and I am grateful.  For the other child, the wall is what keeps us from God and the door is Jesus.  Needless to say, I recommend this book often.

After sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, my daughter recently discovered and devoured Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.  Having received the book as a gift from a thoughtful friend, it sat on our adult bookshelf (by the way, what do you call places that you store things for adults but that are not profane…I really wonder this!) after I read and pondered it.  When she pulled it down and began raving and telling me to read it to her brothers I felt compelled to understand what touched her so deeply.

The first chapter describes a boy with tremendous loss in his life that he will not allow himself to grieve.  He stuffs his thoughts into an imaginary suitcase and mentally sits on them so they won’t escape.  He has every reason to cry buckets but not even the mean bullies at school can squeeze a tear out of him.  Hmmm.

As we continue to grieve losses, I see what my daughter sees.  It is the time in grief where it is tempting to just stuff in the sadness and pain and just not remember what Halloween was like last year and the year before that and the year before that.  It would be so easy to not talk about our old friends even as we make and deepen new friendships.  It seems it would be easier to not remember but the need to avoid the pain begins to need something bigger and fiercer to keep all of it in.

In a way, we all as a family need these books to talk about the doors and the walls and the memories and the tigers in our lives.  The books mediate our conversation better sometimes than a one-on-one coffee date.  Something about dialoguing our struggles through the lens of someone else brings up what’s underneath in a way my efforts at direct assault fail.

So, we keep reading and we keep talking.  I don’t know what my kids will treasure about their childhood but this is one aspect I will treasure.

I Was Here…

What is it about our names that we feel the need to carve them in things?  Wet concrete.  Bathroom stalls. Trees.  The Luxor temple .  Names etched all over the world prove the reality of our experience and existence.  At least we hope they do.

I carved my name on the world one time.  After my first two years overseas I wandered my campus, the campus where I learned to speak an incredibly difficult language, and remembered the moments of my presence.  I purposely journeyed and recalled first days in class, first friends, and my purpose in undergoing such trying two years.

Towards the end of the journey I used my key to carve my name in a bamboo grove near a favorite meeting spot on campus.  A key is an unwieldy tool for carving a name.  My name etched in a particularly fat bamboo pole stared at me in all its amateur ugly but it stuck in there solidly white in a background of green.  I took no picture of my name but it looked worse than this one.DSC_0128

Carving my name felt permanent.  I know now that bamboo is grass.  Bamboo grows fast.  Super fast.  People cut it down to use as scaffolding or to hang laundry on to dry.  It floors houses because of its eco-friendliness which rests in its ability to replace itself and fast.  Did I say it grew fast?  Bamboo can grow a few feet a day which is why people feel not the least sad to hack it down.  Hardly the kind of media to use when one tries to make a permanent mark in the world.

But bamboo possesses a strength which makes it suitable for many tasks.  Asians love bamboo.  They sleep on it, eat it, eat from it, hang clothes on it, paint on it, paint it, carve it, write poems about it, feed it to pandas, and build walls using it.   If ever a perfect plant existed for such a numerous people, this might be it.  After 12 years in Asia I understand the Asian love for bamboo.

My name long since grew up and out and over that bamboo grove.  My permanent mark proved anything but permanent.  But the task of marking my name on something stays with me.  The fact that I chose bamboo of all things seems significant.

It reminds me of the strength that comes not from being brittle and hard and tough but from growing from a strong network of roots connected to the Source.

I think about the way it grows so fast and hope that I, too, grow in season.

Bamboo sways and whispers and sings.  I hope my life also sings a melody of God’s grace as I live among others.

Have you carved your name on something?  What significance does it have for you?

Escape to Ikea

ikeaI go to Ikea for a cultural break.  The blue and yellow bastion of  order speaks my language in the midst of a chaotic culture.  At Ikea I know how life works.  I understand the products that sit on the shelves.  The model apartments reflect the dream I dream of one day achieving order in my own home.  The prices allow me to take home a little piece of Swedish brilliance.  And, they take care of some of my kids for an hour so I can browse in self-centered silence!  What’s not to love?

Ikea surrounds me in western-conceived orderliness.  I understand the world for the time I walk their halls.  I relish the way I know how things work for once and it’s not just a knowledge gained over time but a deep-seated knowing rooted in the basics of my identity and western upbringing.  For an hour or two I retreat from Eastern thought and indulge the part of myself that will never quite be put to rest overseas.  I vacate in the walls of a store where I need no passport or expensive ticket to feel more at home.

Now that my daughter exceeds the play area age limit, Ikea means mother daughter time.  She finally appreciates shopping and she understands that our family mostly looks.  We laugh at the 5 aunties chatting it up on a model king-sized bed while the baby in the middle sleeps.  We exchange ideas about style–good style, not-our-style, bad style.  We notice some furniture is very, very inexpensive and some quite expensive.  We define quality.

We pick up the few things we came to buy and try our hardest to resist the intriguing but unnecessary items.  We fail…often.  The arrows on the floor herd us along.  We note the items we might purchase next time if they receive approval when discussed at home.  We never miss the “as is” section.  I still wonder who buys the mattresses no one wanted after their 90 day trial period!  We purchase and pick up the boys and follow the path to get hot dogs and an ice cream cones that are too cheap to refuse.  Everyone wins at Ikea.

At Ikea I embrace a part of myself that I can never put aside completely no matter how long I live in a foreign land.  I speak the language, grasp some of the mindsets, eat the food, survive, and often thrive but I am foreign and always will be a foreigner.  Escaping to Ikea for a few hours a month used to feel like a personal weakness.  Now I just enjoy Ikea for what it is…a break and an acknowledgement of my identity.

What escapes exist within your host culture?  Do you take advantage of them?  Why or why not?

Why Do I Blog?

I write because choosing just the right word to describe my daily life in light of God’s grace energizes me.  I understand who I am and my life more deeply when I put words to it.  I crystallize those feelings, that insight, these experiences with words.  I digest God’s truth from the Bible when I write.

My journal pages fill up with private concerns.  Newsletters serve a different purpose.  Occasionally I receive a grade on a paper.  I longed for an outlet for the thoughts that rattled in my head.

I write on a blog because I write when I blog and a few people told me they wanted to hear my voice.

Why do you write?

Teaching My Boy to Read

I’m teaching my boy to read these days.  Reading is a passion of mine.  If I was not so responsible I’d be up late with the light on to finish a book.  Who am I kidding? I’m not very responsible.

Luxury these days would be reading as long as I wanted rather than only as long as I could manage to put off other things.  I dream of the day when I will be the one at the pool with a book instead of the one with the bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But my boy, he seems oblivious to reading. He’s compliant so he sits and participates in the lessons and he’s learning.  He’s also the one who told me quite clearly from the beginning that “some people read and some people build things.  I am the kind that builds things.” He thought that would get me off his back.  It did not though I’m pretty sure he will pursue a Bachelor of Science degree if he goes to college.

So, I sit five mornings a week and wait patiently for him to remember the sounds, figure out ways to help him blend sounds together, offer encouragement and correction, flash through cards.  It’s exhausting!  He even tells me to back off and not say “good!” after every successfully sounded out word.  Fair enough.  A guy’s got to maintain his dignity. I get it.

Recently, I noticed my son looking at some words and then trying to sound them out in his spare time. Up until that point, he’d been content to just see a jumble of words and let it be. Why try when Legos beckoned? Now, he looks, he assumes meaning can be found and he tries to unlock the code. I smile. It’s clicking. I’ve been waiting for it to click all year.

Perseverance.  That’s what it is my son does with such constancy in his learning that speaks to my spiritual life. Persevere. Keep sounding out what needs sounding out.  Keep reading the next word on the page even if I read it poorly and someone corrects me.  Even if I read it well and someone says “good!” in a way that makes me feel like a child.  Keep going until something about God, grace, and life clicks. Celebrate.  Then, move on to the next word and keep going.

Persevere.

When Boundaries Get Crossed

Picture me standing in line for the lady’s room at a coffee shop with my daughter mentally pondering my spiritual growth.  Just a year before at the same shop I’d struggled with impatience.  Women in our host culture seem to take eons in the restroom. Eons.

Maybe its just that personal spaces are few and when privacy comes, it must be enjoyed…for awhile.  Now, look at me waiting patiently! I felt thankful to be in such a place and be able to recognize this growth. I mentally patted myself on the back.

A few minutes later, after stepping in to have our moment, an older women enters the restroom and waits about 2 seconds before she starts pounding on our doors.  Literally, pounding.  The locks rattled, the door shook.  It was a shocker!  She loudly complained of how long we are taking and asks us to get out so she can have her moment.  She continued to grumble and berate us loudly and did not cease to pound.

I know enough language to be sassy.  I can express things I wish I could not.  What proceeded to transpire still fills me with a mixture of pride and shame.  Pride at the fluency and shame at my use of my fluency.  We conversed…ok…spoke loudly…ok…argued.  I suggested she find other places to have her moment.  She asked me to show her one.  I replied I could not do that at this moment.  She continued to loudly complain and urge me to hurry up.  I offered to learn from her vast experience about how best to do that.  And it went on. It was a charged conversation.

Ten minutes later when the adrenaline dissipated in my veins, I doubled over in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of what transpired in that restroom. To have someone literally try their level best to evict you from a bathroom stall, well, it just crosses a boundary.  Apparently, it’s a boundary I did not want crossed.  Isn’t that how it is with boundaries?  We realize their importance to us when they are crossed.

I’ve heard it called “Hulking Out”, what I did.  It’s not pleasant, attractive, or in the slightest bit useful.  I had to explain and apologize to my daughter.  Actual repentance in my heart occurred later that day.  I realized just how short my fuse can be…so very short…which humbled me.  All that pride of how I learned so much patience?  Gone. Back to square one, I stood there with a truer picture of who I was and it was not who I wanted to be!  I hulked out, tried to force my right and win by argument…by power. It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve hulked out.

A crossed boundary often kicks in my survival instincts. I try on being dangerous. But that’s not the dangerous God wants for me.  His power came in His laying aside His life and rights for others…not claiming them for Himself.  He gave everything.  Am I willing to forgo survival?  To pass on using my strength which is no strength at all?  To be truly dangerous God’s way is to be the right kind of dangerous.

I think being dangerous for God’s kingdom that day would have been using my 10 minutes of language ability on my captive audience toward a much different end than protecting my right to a bathroom stall!