Talk to Strangers

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when the time for social distancing is over, they’re going to do a lot more hugging. I don’t know how much hugging I’ll do, but I do plan to talk to a lot more strangers. As I have written elsewhere, talking to strangers opens up whole new vistas for a storyteller. Everybody has a story–many stories, actually.

For me, talking to strangers comes pretty naturally. What doesn’t come naturally is writing down what they say. Something remarkable happens, or I hear a remarkable story, and I think, “I’ll remember this for as long as I live.” But it’s not true. I’m amazed at what remarkable things I manage to forget when I don’t write them down.

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Don’t Waste Your Quarantine!

In this time of social distancing, I am exceedingly grateful for social media and videoconferencing and other online technologies that allow us to have some human contact without, you know, human contact. Nevertheless, I hope you’re using this time to root down, to connect more fully with the life you actually live in the flesh (and not just on the computer).

I have loved looking out my front window and seeing families and couples and individuals walking and biking and scootering up and down our quiet street. These people have been here all along, but they’ve always had more pressing things to do. Those kids, I imagine, were running from school to sports to chess lessons to violin lessons. Now they’re riding their bikes and scooters.

My wife and I went for a walk a few days ago with our neighbors (we in the left lane, they in the right lane). We’ve lived three houses apart for ten years, and it was the first time we had ever taken a walk together. We found a walking path none of us even knew about. It’s one street over! We saw bluebirds and an American redstart, just back from Mexico. I’ve been saying for a while now that I need to get more serious about my “local life,” since my paying work doesn’t require much in the way of locality. Things have gotten a little more local than I was imagining, but this limiting of scope has been doing good work in me. 

Over at The Habit Membership forums, I asked folks what they were doing to redeem the time during their quarantine, and I got some great answers. People are going outside more, writing letters by hand, journaling, home-improving (you should see our closets!), praying, going out on the porch to sing the Doxology with neighbors (who are on their own porches), reading “someday books,” doing crafts and puzzles with their kids. 

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Walking Around in Other People’s Skins

I’ve been re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my upcoming Writing With Atticus class. A well-known line from Atticus seems especially relevant in these unusual times: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The ability to see things from other another person’s perspective is Atticus’s superpower. It keeps him from despising his opponents, or even his enemies. Just as importantly, the ability to walk around inside another person’s skin gives him (and the rest of us) a way to strike a balance between the individual liberty that we value and the common good, which we also value.

I thought about that line from Atticus last week when I read an Atlantic article called “A Trick to Stop Touching Your Face” (subtitle: “Instead of thinking about your health, think about the well-being of your community”). The gist of the article is this: when it comes to getting people to change their health-related behaviors it turns out an appeal to self-interest (“Wash your hands or you might get sick and die”) isn’t as effective as an appeal to altruism (“Wash your hands or the people around you might get sick and die.”)

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On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen

I once sat next to a writer at a school concert. I knew she was a writer because she had her notebook and pen and was actually writing during the concert. She looked to be about ten or eleven, and she was essentially live-blogging the event, writing down everything she noticed. I could hardly watch the concert for looking over to see what my neighbor was writing. It was this kind of thing:

  • After the violin players are finished, some singers come up and sing a song about the red river valley.
  • Then a band comes and sings a rock and roll song. They all have glasses except for the drummer.
  • Two boys come up to play a song, but one of them forgets his guitar and has to go back to his seat and get it. Everybody laughs, but not in a mean way.

I love the fact that this young writer wasn’t waiting for something fabulous to happen before she started writing. She just gave an account of what she saw. There’s a whole worldview there: she believed that the things she saw in the world around her were sufficiently meaningful to be worth writing about. And in writing about them, she dignified those seemingly mundane events.

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On Love Letters: Start With Memory, Not Emotion

In August of 1988 I went to a watermelon social on the back porch of Furman University’s dining hall. I was more or less minding my own business when across the way I saw a girl who was so beautiful I could hardly believe she existed in the same world where I lived and moved and had my being. I don’t even know how to talk about this without sounding like the worst sort of Hallmark card, so I’ll spare you.

I didn’t speak to the aforementioned girl at the watermelon social, but I spoke to her eventually, and eventually we got married and raised six children together. That face that was such a marvel to me in August of 1988 is now more familiar to me than my own face.

But every now and then, when we arrive separately at a party or a school event or church, I’ll catch a glimpse of my wife from across the room, and I’m astonished all over again. I’m that nineteen-year-old boy, and she’s that eighteen-year-old girl. The amazement that such a creature exists at all is compounded by the amazement that she’s the most familiar thing in the world to me.

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“You don’t have to monetize your joy.”

Have you given any thought to the possibility of turning your love of writing (or some other creative pursuit) into a source of income? Of course you have. It’s the spirit of the age. The Internet makes it easy (supposedly) to monetize your talents and interests and creative output. But more than that, somehow it has become an expectation that you will turn your avocations into money-making schemes. 

I recently ran across an article by Molly Conway titled “The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles.” She tells about a time she discovered that an acquaintance had actually made the beautiful dress she was wearing:

“Wow!” I said. “It’s gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop or…?” And suddenly, it was like all the light went out of the room. She looked down despairingly. “No,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me I should, but I just wouldn’t know where to start.” I recognized the look of a woman suddenly overwhelmed by people’s expectations of her.

Isn’t that the way? “I like what you’ve done” becomes “So you should sell it.” “I loved your Christmas letter” becomes “You should write a book.” For that matter, “You’ve had some interesting experiences” becomes “You should write a book.”

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The Walmart Heron

Not far from my house is a Walmart. In front of the Walmart is a little wet-weather creek where the oily runoff from the parking lot drains between concrete retaining walls toward a big culvert where misguided youth sometimes smoke cigarettes. The little apron of grass beside the stream is littered with Walmart detritus and wrappers flung from the cars whooshing past on their way to the Home Depot. It is not a scenic stream.

One day I visited the Walmart after a few days’ rain had swollen the creek. Water chuckled over the rocks and discarded antifreeze jugs. And there in the water stood a great blue heron with his long, snaky stretched forward, gazing into the water, as still as if he had been a painted heron.

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Gratitude is a greedy kind of love

I bet you’ve done this before: you’re standing alone in the kitchen eating something good–pie, banana pudding, boiled peanuts, whatever. And you enjoy it so much that you say to nobody, “Mmmm….that’s good.”

Why do you do that? You’re not congratulating or thanking the cook. You’re not recommending this delicious food to another person who might enjoy it. You’re right by yourself.

You say “Mmmm…” when you’re alone, I think, because putting words to your pleasure amplifies the pleasure. Indeed, your enjoyment of a thing can’t be complete if you don’t say something about it.

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Mordor, Then Mowing

A couple of weeks ago my friend John Hendrix posted this excerpt from JRR Tolkien’s journal:

Friday 14 April: I managed to get an hour or two’s writing and have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon mowing.

Books like The Lord of the Rings, take us to other worlds. But they aren’t written in other worlds. They’re written in this world, where grass still has to be mowed.

The next entry is just as good:

Tuesday 18 April: I hope to see C.S.L. [C.S. Lewis] and Charles W. [Charles Williams] tomorrow morning and read my next chapter — on the passage of the Dead Marshes and the approach to the Gates of Mordor, which I have now practically finished. Term has almost begun: I tutored Miss Salu for an hour. The afternoon was squandered on plumbing (stopping overflow) and cleaning out fowls. The are laying generously (9 again yesterday). Leaves are out: the white-grey of the quince, the grey-green of young apples, the full green of hawthorn, the tassels of flower even on the sluggard poplars.

We remember Tolkien the writer, but he was also Tolkien the friend, the teacher, the amateur plumber, the poultry-keeper. He was also Tolkien the observer of the actual world around him–the world God made, not just the one in his head. 

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The Fondue Pot Principle Continued: More Practical Applications

In last week’s episode of The Habit Weekly I introduced The Fondue Pot Principle, which states that you can only give what you have—and that’s just fine. I discovered The Fondue Pot Principle when I put out a call on Facebook asking to borrow a fondue pot. Only one friend was able to come through for me…and yet that was enough. My delight at the one friend’s having what I needed was unsullied by the fact that a hundred or more friends didn’t have what I needed.

At the end of last week’s episode I promised to apply The Fondue Pot Principle to two specific writing-related questions that recently arose in my Writing with Flannery O’Connor online class. Three seemingly unrelated question elicited the same response from me. So either I’m a one-trick pony, or there’s a principle at work here. 

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