The General fiction category for the Whitney Awards has always been one that seems to spark a lot of controversy. Sometimes, the category seems dominated by inspirational, feel-good stories that might sell a lot of copies but night not be well-respected by fans of literary fiction. Some years, audiences and publishers raise the outcry– “But how could <<Insert book name here>> not be a finalist? It was far and away the best book of the year!” This year, the pendulum seems to have swung away from the inspirational novels, and toward, well, death. Protagonists in four of the five novels have recently been uncoupled, and in the fifth, an aunt’s death starts the action of the story in motion. And with that common thread running through the stories, I know you’re just dying to dive in, right? Continue reading
It must have been how high above the world I was sitting. One minute I’m in my mid-thirties, dressed for a hot summer day, on a train into the city and see a cement pipe down low -
- then I’m thirteen or fourteen staring stiffly out of the school bus window at the farmed hills and valleys trundling past. Below in a paddock is a fallen tree trunk, and something’s in the end of it. The bus groans down another gear to take the corner, and from my raised perch, I can see there’s something (a cat?) curled up in the rotted out end -
-then I’m back on the train, gulping air. I can feel the loneliness and dejection of my old self as thick as a tidal rip around me, and I’m lifting my face upwards as I fight the pull of the sudden time lurch. The memory of how miserable and forlorn I was back then swamps me; I can feel the itch of my winter uniform, see my breath condensing on the window, as I ignore the taunts and backstabbing going on elsewhere in the bus while I work out how many days until I can leave home…
The train waddles through another couple of stations as I’m considering how much intense feeling has crashed down all because of elevation over industrial plumbing. Oh, you poor, bewildered thing, I think back in time to Me-Then – to the little glimpse of that girl unknowingly still riding a bus inside my forgotten years – oh, life gets so much better! I pause, wince a little, And, admittedly, at times terribly more awful too. But you have so many brilliant things to look forward to: books and boys (yes, someone will eventually kiss you of their own volition) and perfect glass water-skiing mornings. Seeing that cat again, smiling every single time deep down in your hopefulness. Desserts you don’t even know exist and a change in faith which will set fire to your heart. You’ll swim in the Atlantic Ocean one day, and will call it your boyfriend because it so joyously feels you up as you laugh. You will have children, and ideas, and see your name in print. You will be incredible. Really. You absolutely will. You are the most stubborn person I know, and that will take you to the life waiting for you.
I remember, dimly, a letter I wrote to my older self at the time, demanding that I be a journalist and visit Paris and live in Sydney – to be far, far away from the warped country town and family I was suffering through. I remember so much detail and the vehemence I felt in writing that letter, and I’m still sitting on a train decades and states away from who I was then, while also being a weird redheaded girl nobody understood or liked, sitting on a school bus in winter.
Last week I read a book where the main character writes letters to himself (now) from his future self, to help him survive the present and make it beyond the next week/month and (hopefully) year. While Future-Him states the world’s been decimated by nuclear war, He-Yet-To-Be also lives on a lighthouse, with his wife and family doing a job he loves, and scuba dives for fun to the cities far beneath the ocean. He builds himself a loving relationship, a pet animal, purpose and direction far beyond what he currently experiences. It’s a scraggly, whisper-thin thread connecting him to a better place and time, even if it is (at least temporarily) imaginary. It’s a beautiful, wrenching and hopeful exercise all at once.
The tide recedes down my chest, until I am yet again a thirty-plus year old woman on my way to the city, looking through the scratched windows to the landscape rolling past. But I’m also composing a letter to my decade-older self (You’ve been to Paris, right?), and composing a love note (on thick, imaginary, silken paper, scrawled loopily in rich blue ink, because why not?) from Me-Yet-To-Be to the woman on the train biting her lip and smiling as she wonders what the future’s going to hold this time.
Stay stubborn. Just wait – it’s going to be AMAZING.
What has shoved you hard back into a memory? Which memory? What would you say to your past self? What would you write to your future self? What would you want your future self to tell you about You-Yet-To-Be?
As a student of rhetoric and an aspiring writer, I worry about words. I worry about the way they sound or don’t sound. I worry about nuance and assonance and consonance and rhythm. But mostly, I worry about the meanings (intentional or not) that we send with our words.
Currently, I’m serving as the first counselor in my ward Young Women’s organization. Which means, not surprisingly, that I spend a lot of time thinking about the messages that get sent to our youth, both inside and outside of the church.
One of the messages we send to our youth concerns their exceptionalism–the idea that they are, to borrow Peter’s words, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood.” This message isn’t particularly new: I heard it 20 years ago. And there’s nothing implicitly wrong with the message–as a church, we believe that the current generation(s) were held back in the pre-existence to come to earth today.
What concerns me, however, is how this (and similar messages) may get taken up and misinterpreted. One of the difficulties with chosenness is that it only happens in opposition–one is only chosen if another is not. Exceptionalism works the same way. To be exceptional, one has to be an exception. One has to be better than others. (The Free Dictionary defines it as “well above average; extraordinary.”)
Don’t get me wrong. I love the youth I work with. They are smart, strong, vibrant young women full of integrity and faith. But exceptional? I find myself increasingly resisting that concept. The moral standards our youth (and adults) hold themselves to are exceptional. But I’m not sure it’s healthy to extrapolate from this that we ourselves are exceptional. I think it sets a dangerous precedence and expectation. Continue reading
Teresa Bruce edits and writes as a freelancer. For fun (and food) she gardens year-round in her chemical-free Florida backyard, yielding more produce divvied with uninvited critters than with neighbors and family. She’s proudest of raising three dynamic daughters—and taming the family’s odd (but beloved) shelter-rescued dog. Based on experiences of young widowhood, she shares “What to Say When Someone Dies” on her blog at TealAshes.com.
Be wary, I’d heard, when backing any wounded creature into a corner. Now I stood trapped at the Relief Society room exit, my hackles rising from crown to coccyx and my fingertips clawing crescents into clenched palms. Fight or flight? I’d have foamed at the mouth—if it hadn’t gone dry. My voice croaked, “No, thank you. I’m not coming.”
“Teresa, it’s your duty to support the activities. It’s not right to keep away.”
If I’d had enough saliva to spit venom, I might have used it. Instead, I bit my catty tongue. Give me credit, woman. I’m here now, aren’t I? For the first Sabbath in uncountable months (if not years), I’d remained at church from the Sacrament prelude through the end of RS. (Sure, I’d stalked through the foyer weeping through one talk, hibernated in the bathroom half of Sunday school, and played possum from the touchy third-hour topic by hunching over crosswords. But—today—I hadn’t burrowed into the car, migrated around the block, or gone home to roost during the entire three hours.) It was progress, and I’d been proud of myself—until now. I fervently wished I’d fled earlier.
“You should come! It’s been, what, a whole year?” She still impeded my departure. “You need to get out. Have fun.”
“I do. I did. Birthday. Last night.” Inside I snarled. Why am I defending myself? I’d laughed and sung during the all-women party (my first widowed foray into social fun for fun’s sake) with my dear evangelical friend’s close-knit sister-herd.
“There’s no excuse for you not to come this Thursday.”
Instinct demanded I bare my fangs. I shed the vestigial Sunday smile I’d evolved to camouflage me (from some fellow saints’ lectures on how my grieving disappointed their expectations). “I’m. Not. Going,” I hissed, drawing strength from my frustration. “I don’t want to hear about the history of Valentine’s Day, and I’m not making Valentine cards.”
“Why not? It’ll be fun.”
I gasped and retreated a step, but she closed the distance between predator and prey. Why not? My eyes felt feral boring into hers, and I growled. “My husband died. I have no Valentine.”
“You should come anyway. Make some for your girls.”
“HAH!” All pretense of tame communication stampeded. I swelled with unrighteous pleasure in the shock my bark drew from the woman—and from the heads swiveling our way. I knew Valentine’s Day was the last thing my daughters wanted acknowledged—Single Awareness Day, perhaps, but likely not even that. “No, they wouldn’t like Valentines. I’m not coming.”
I’d defended my territory and my cubs. Confident once more, I gripped my bag more tightly, preening to leave. Then the sister kicked me below the collar. “You’re not the only person who’s lost someone.”
I’d admit I agree—if you hadn’t knocked the wind from me.
“You should stop feeling sorry for yourself. I lost my mother! Do you know how hard that was?”
Yes, I do. I licked my wounds. Mine’s been gone longer. It still hurts.
“I miss her, but I keep going for my husband and family.”
Should I point out that your husband’s still here and your kids are all married?
“You have to start getting involved with life again.”
Sister, you have no idea how “involved” I am. Overwrought chameleon skin burned, frantically trying to mask my inabilities over the responsibilities of I’d all become “involved with” since his death: solo-parenting a grieving teenager and two college kids, earning a living, regularly attending professional organizations (and the soul-restoring book club that had kept me sane through his illness), tending my house, yard, and nonagenarian great-aunt . . .
“It’s selfish to just sit around crying—”
My creature self howled, then keened. You see me Sundays, and yes, I cry all through church—because I feel the Spirit closest here—except under attack like this! After decades attending services alongside my husband, you—accompanied by yours—cannot imagine the agony of his absence.
“—when you should be serving others.”
The latest blow cut my lament to a whimper so low I heard another voice. Turn away contention. Soft answer. Knows not what she says. I took a deep breath (and another sidestep), pulled a regenerated smile from my pouch, and fastened it in place. Alms in secret. Do thou likewise. I wouldn’t tell this sister how often prayers from despair’s deepest corners brought promptings to serve solitary souls in sweet, sacred anonymity.
“You really need to show up this time . . .”
Do unto others. Tamed into humility, I backed farther away, retreating to the room’s other exit. My voice almost purred as I turned toward the outdoor light of noon. “Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your husband. And have fun Thursday.”
Have whispered promptings to love tamed your raging beast?
Sometimes I daydream about having my own office. Right now, I use a hutch in the kitchen, which doesn’t allow enough square footage to personalize this space. When I have an empty nest, I can convert one of the kids’ rooms into my office.
As I thumb through magazines, I think about selecting all new furniture and cabinets for a cutting-edge, modern feel. My shiny office might be adorned with chrome and glass furnishings. I’d populate them with black office accessories and add a splash of color—maybe turquoise. But if everything is straight from the factory, my office will not project depth, complexity, warmth or wisdom.
Sometimes I fantasize about selecting furniture, rugs, cabinets, shelves and objets d’art that will give my office a traditional feel, something along the lines of a library in a Victorian mansion. Maybe I could even find a sliding ladder for my bookshelves? Then I worry that my office will feel inflexible, stuffy, musty and entrenched in tradition for the sake of tradition.
The better option might be to find a way to combine tradition with innovation. This way I can acknowledge the strength of tried-and true designs while at the same time showing the willingness to try out new ideas, to respond to the present moment, but in ways that draw on the wisdom of experience. Maybe choosing the theme “four seasons” and mixing old items with new would express the value of continuity amid constant change.