Monday, June 19, 2017

Advertisers as Guides

“The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides,” says Eugene Peterson.

I recently felt the pressure myself as we were driving the ad-saturated route to the tourist town of Myrtle Beach. We decided to count the billboards advertising a single “attraction,” a dinner-and-show experience called Pirates Voyage (“The Most Fun Place to Eat! TM).”

We counted 57 billboards. Our hotel lobby also had brochures, and “Pirates” had provided the little sleeves for the hotel key cards.

Is it any wonder I picked up the message, “a trip to Myrtle Beach would not be complete without going to ‘Pirates’!”?

Nevertheless, we did not go there.

We also failed to visit almost all of the hundreds of beach supply stores, despite their loud fluorescent signage, as well as the many all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and pancake houses. We did not play a single round of miniature golf. We never made it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (Believe it or not.)

I don’t say this with an air of superiority, as if I am above such things, but one of acknowledgement. Though I am not a person interested in fun (per se) I still felt the strong tug to check them out.

Advertising. It's powerful stuff.

Image source

Monday, April 24, 2017

Songs, stories and poems

I once heard writer, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson point out that in our baby babbling, we sing before we talk and before we walk. Our parents sing to us, sometimes wordless hums like the way an animal will croon to its young. Soon moms and dads are reading or telling us stories, often sing-songy ones that give way to verse and full-fledged poems. I remember a lot of Dr. Seuss to start with, soon Shel Silverstein and A Child’s Garden of Verses and a much-thumbed volume we had called The Family Book of Best Loved Poems.

Maybe some outgrow all this at a fairly young age, but the bookworm I was, I gobbled up stories of young heroines like Anne of Green Gables who always seemed to be quoting poetry (when they weren't writing it) and performing recitations. I guess this must have been part of our culture back in the day their authors grew up or set their tales (and characters who love to read and write seem over-represented in fiction, for reasons that may be obvious).

Elementary school and later language arts teachers encouraged any bent I had in that direction. A sixth-grade math teacher would give us a break from equations by reading from his favorite poet, Robert W. Service; though this was usually the sort of behavior more expected from English teachers. Me, I learned Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Madeleine L’Engle poems by heart, memorized Shakespeare speeches, and even composed a few poems and stories of my own (though I am afraid they were pretty awful).

After a seventh grade assignment to choose a favorite topic and put together our own book of collected poems, I was hooked on curating. I started assembling scrapbooks of poems, songs, and quotations, starting with those I already loved and poems about the sea (my chosen topic for that seventh-grade project).

The older I've become, the sillier and more babyish this all looked. I tucked my scrapbooks away and added to them less and less often. I still copy scriptures and moving passages from books into my journals at times. Now and again I'll share something around the campfire, in the letter, or in an impromptu talent show. And on a long drive, I’ll sing songs and recite poetry from the treasure trove I’ve committed to memory over the years.

These days it’s very rare and only with trusted friends whom I hope understand and accept my quirks that I will share a short poem or part of a poem I know by heart... maybe Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, or Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, and hope people don't look at me weird.

I seldom go for long drives now, at least not alone. My husband would probably not appreciate me practicing poetry in the car for no particular reason. But now that I’m older I am more likely to wake in the night. Lying awake in the wee hours, well, it seems the perfect time to tell myself a Best Loved Poem.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Recently Written

Here's some of what I've been doing this week.

Pioneering Prayer - Trolling missionary newsletters to create an issue or two of this weekly email publication from Pioneers. (Scheming ways to tell longer versions of some of these stories)

Missions Catalyst News Briefs - Working with Pat, our news sleuth, to serve up stories from across the globe - including a report that Christianity is exploding in Bangladesh and how a prison guard in the Middle East had visions of Christ and was discipled by imprisoned pastors. Newsletter - Struggled to find something fresh to say about preparing for a mission trip, until I realized I could tap into a childhood experience for a useful metaphor.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Based on a True Story: Memoir, Truth, and Ethics

A beloved third-grade teacher introduced me to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, with her outrageous cures for children’s bad habits, and Nancy and Plum, orphaned sisters who fight to survive under the cruel Mrs. Monday. These stories (and others) nurtured a love of fiction for me and many other students in Mrs. E’s classes over the years. They helped make me the reader and writer I am today.

Part of the appeal of was that the author, Betty MacDonald, had written these stories from our very own Vashon Island. Later I’d learn that she had also produced four adult memoirs. The Egg and I, the first and most famous of them, recounts her experiences on a chicken farm across the water on the Olympic Peninsula. In Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty writes about her family, particularly her sister Mary (who also authored both children’s books and memoirs); it focuses on the lengths to which they went to get and keep work during the Great Depression. I  read and enjoyed Onions in the Stew, which was about life on our island. My favorite Betty MacDonald memoir may be The Plague and I. This humorous look at a grim topic describes Betty’s year in a sanatorium near Seattle after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

The books vary somewhat in tone and characterization. I didn’t realize how much until reading Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I, by Paula Becker and published last year by the University of Washington Press. Becker is not only a fan but also a careful researcher. In this book she explores the differences between the real Betty MacDonald and the fictionalized version of herself put forth in her books.

The Egg and I sold more than a million copies in its first year. It was made into a film starring some of Hollywood’s most popular stars and made Betty into a Hollywood celebrity herself. It’s based on Betty’s actual experiences, but they were originally reframed to entertain her friends and salvage her sense of self-worth as she recovered from the very painful period, then further adapted to attract and please a literary agent, publishers, and the public. If nothing else, Betty knew how to tell a story.
The Egg and I revealed Betty’s fundamental irreverence, a Bard family quality. Exaggeration was encouraged and expected. Telling a good story outranked following the Golden Rule” (Becker, p. 74).
In “Egg,” Betty glossed over the fact that her husband Bob was viciously abusive and that their life on the farm ended when she left him. She presents a version of herself that is more self-assured and less of a victim. And, although she changed names and identifying details of her location and other characters, when both the book and movie became hits, residents of the community where Betty had lived (decades before, at this point) were happy to direct people to the farm and other sites mentioned in the book, sometimes profiting from the connection. One neighbor family who recognized themselves in outrageous characters Betty hoped would be considered composites eventually took her to court for libel, and although the case was settled in her favor, it seems clear that their clan and the family ridiculed in Egg were one and the same.
“Caught in the truth in court, Betty had lied. More than one relative of Betty’s laughed at questions that tried to parse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. ‘Nobody in this family ever let the truth get in the way of a good story!’ they explained” (Becker, p. 125).
Readers loved the book anyway. The timing of the 1945 publication had been perfect.
The Egg and I hit the war-numbed public as a comforting tale of survival: one woman’s successful effort to just keep getting up each morning in spite of challenges and discomfort.” (Becker, p. 73). 
Later cultural shifts also played a part in how Betty’s books presented their content and how they were received. Though Onions in the Stew describes events that took place between 1942 and 1945, it’s published in the conservative 1950s. As one of Betty’s editors wrote to her agent,
“Public taste has changed pretty radically in the nine years since The Egg and I was published. A sort of Puritanism has made great progress, and some things that would go without question in the late 1940s will now tend to alienate a large segment of the reading public” (quoted in Becker, p. 146).
Betty responded by toning down the language, cleaning the manuscript of bitterness and snarkiness, and presenting a more traditional patriarchal household than she actually had (and rather different from what we saw in the other books). Some modern readers consider this book the “bland” one.

The editor responsible for Onions also wanted to avoid more libel suits. He made a list of every character in the book who was not a member of Betty’s family and asked for assurance that their names and identities had been changed. Betty responded that many of the characters were entirely made up and most of the others were composites. “How true to life Betty’s nonfiction book really was seems to have mattered little,” remarks Becker (p. 146).

All this raises some questions about the whole genre of memoir, then and now. What does it mean to write one’s story in an ethical manner?

1. Is it more ethical to change your story than to tell it in such a way that others might be hurt? Readers may love tell-all stories, but publishers and their lawyers don't. At what point do stories about events involving other people become libel?

2. In fiction, if you use material from real life, you have to change it. But when you’re writing non-fiction, is there some kind of responsibility to your reader to uphold certain standards of accuracy? Is there a difference between what we can expect in a biography (like Becker's) and a memoir (like Betty's)?

Occasionally, these days, there is a big scandal about a blockbuster autobiography that succeeds on the basis of claims that turn out to be untrue. To what extent is fictionalizing one's life a normal and expected part of this genre? Or does an author defraud the public by making things up and calling it a memoir?

Image: Dust jacket from 1946 edition

Sunday, February 05, 2017

More about Lilias Trotter: newsletters, show and tell, and single women on short-term teams

As I mentioned briefly in The Legacy of Lilias Trotter, Lilias served in and around Algiers, on the coast of North Africa, with easy access to Europe. In contrast with some other pioneering missionaries (say, David Livingstone, who famously dropped off the radar and refused to go back to England when he was finally found) Lilias made time for public speaking tours, refreshing vacations in the Alps, mission conferences, and Keswick conventions. Keeping up with her contacts in Europe does not seem to have dampened her commitment to Africa or her appreciation of Arab ways and mindsets. And the ministry seems to have benefited a great deal through her connections.

The growth and support of the ministry may have owed something to her faithfulness in sending what we now call prayer letters:
“At the beginning of 1907 Lilias started the habit of sending out a bi-monthly prayer circular to a large group of friends in England and France. They were beautifully written and illustrated and, no doubt, greatly increased the volume of believing prayer that ascended to God at that time; and all this tied in with what she had been learning the past few months, for God was about to send new workers and open new doors of opportunity in a remarkable way” (Patricia St. John, Until the Day Breaks, p. 118).
Around that time, Lily got a letter from a friend letting her know that a two ships carrying some 600 American delegates to Rome for an international Sunday School convention would be stopping in Algiers for a few hours. The leader was hoping they could stop in and meet with missionaries in Algiers and learn about the work. Sounds like Lilias was felt pressured to sum up her work in such a short visit, and embarrassed that they didn’t have schools, hospitals, and what she calls "the ordinary outworks of a Mission Station to show,” but she told them they could have the chance to see a work just at its beginnings and carefully prepared an engaging, hands-on exhibition that introduced the visitors to some of those they were serving among and showed their work at its best advantage.

When an offering was later taken, that short shore excursion would bring in full funding for five women who arrived to begin work in that year (Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible, p. 199; St. John, p. 119).

A few years later, in 1911, Lily used a summer visit to England to recruit short-term missionaries, “educated girls who could ‘come on a self-supporting basis for a time of service in all the countless ways in which such can be rendered with a small knowledge of the language, if hands and hearts are ready.’”

The short-term mission movement would not take off for another 50 years or more and I’m not sure what other early models may have existed. But a steady stream of young ladies-of-leisure came to Algiers for periods of different lengths until World War I interfered. Lilias, who would have been in her late fifties at this point, seems to have enjoyed having the young people around (Rockness, p. 200).

The tributes that came in after Lily’s 1928 death claim “she never lost her enthusiasm or her capacity for wonder,” that she was “always interested in new points of view, or new methods, even though she might not agree with them,” and never failed to offer mercy and encouragement to her younger coworkers (Rockness, p. 274-5).

Sending out engaging reports, inviting fans and supporters to see the ministry up close, hosting short-term teams, and committing oneself to benefiting from the fresh wind of new people and ideas also characterize many of the healthier ministries I know today... just as they did in Lily’s day.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Legacy of Lilias Trotter (1853-1928)

Isabelle Lilias Trotter:
Missionary, artist, writer,
and mission leader
Life in England

Lilias Trotter grew up in the golden age of Victorian England, educated at home by governesses but encouraged to develop her potential and use her gifts. These included an unusual appreciation of beauty and facility for drawing and painting. Her early life was punctuated by family trips to Europe where she reveled in the natural beauty she found at every turn and was seldom without a sketchbook. Lily kept illustrated journals through every phase of her life and left behind a wealth of published materials as well as letters and diaries capturing her thoughts and experiences.

But the real focus of her life wasn't art, it was God. Her faith was kindled through the Holiness movement which swept through England in the 1870's, led in part by Quaker and Methodist revivalists from America, including the popular Dwight L. Moody. Throughout her life Lilias would attend "Keswick Convention" events which grew out of their revival meetings whenever she could. And through these meetings, Lilias and her friends surrendered their lives to Christ and his service. Her writings make clear that relationship with God was of primary importance.

Lilias gave more and more of her time to serving the needy in the slums of London through the YWCA, then in its infancy. When she was 35, she felt a call to ministry in North Africa.

Life in Algeria

Lilias and two friends, all well-educated single women, traveled to Algeria to make a home for themselves there. They moved into the Arab section of the casbah, amid narrow winding streets, hoping to be used by God. Rejected by mission agencies, they were not discouraged, apparently, from going out on their own. As Lilias later wrote:
"None of us would have been passed by a doctor for any missionary society. We did not know a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, nor had we a clue as to how to begin work on such untouched ground. We only knew we had to come. If God needed weakness, he had it! We were on a fool’s errand, so it seemed, and we are on it still, and glory in it.”
Algiers may seem far away and exotic to us, but for Lilias, it was not really that far from home; Britons who wished to visit North Africa need only take a train across France and board a ship for a relatively short journey from Marseilles to Algiers. She seems to have initially expected to live there six months of the year, keeping a commitment to come home and nurse an invalid sister the other six. The sister died unexpectedly. In the years to come, though, Lilias (whose own health was shaky) took frequent and sometimes extended breaks to rest in England, Switzerland, or other parts of Europe.

For 40 years Lilias lived and served in North Africa, sacrificing the comfortable life and promising art career she might have had in England with what she called “the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep.” She and her coworkers learned Arabic, taught the Bible, set up classes of all kinds of men, women, and children, traveled extensively, and pioneered all kinds of strategies for connecting with the lives and hearts of their Arab friends in culturally appropriate ways.

No mention is made, in anything I've read, about giving up marriage and family; perhaps she had no desire to pursue that path. I'm not sure. Maybe nobody thought that was a sacrifice. At her death she left behind only relationships, a wealth of devotional material that spoke to the hearts of the people, and a band of 30 missionaries, mostly women, who looked to her as their leader and continued reaching out to the people of North Africa years before breakthrough came to the region.

Learning about Lilias: Three Books

The "Algiers Mission Band" eventually became part of the North Africa Mission (renamed Arab World Ministries) which merged with Pioneers in 2010... not long after I came into Pioneers, also through a merger, so I guess that gives me a tie to Lilias Trotter.

I wonder what she would think if she peered into the new Pioneers building in Orlando and saw signs directing visitors to the Trotter Conference Center, named in her honor? It was in writing some material to describe her legacy (and perhaps explain why we were using her name) that I decided I needed to learn more about her.

Decided to start at the school library. CIU was founded by Robertson McQuilkin, a holiness movement leader in America and an avid supporter of world missions. Both streams are still a strong part of the CIU culture. Some students major in "Muslim Studies" and take classes from the "Zwemer Center," named after another pioneering missionary who was a friend and colleague of our friend Lilias. With that many connections, I should not have been surprised to find a collection of Lilias Trotter biographies in the school library. I checked out three and read them through, one after the other.

I started with Patricia St. John's 1990 biography. It follows the conventions of missionary biography, providing an easy to read, inspirational narrative strong on devotion but sometimes weak on details, explanation, or analysis. I was surprised to realize it was a 1990 book, as it felt as if it were written for an earlier time.

I then picked up a more modern work by Miriam Rockness (2003) which has some of the same flavor as St. John's book but is written for a contemporary audience. It is stronger academically. Rockness cites her sources more carefully and fills in some of the gaps with background or analysis. It's harder to read, though; I can see where someone who wasn't determined to finish it might not make it through. Long, unedited quotes are formatted somewhat awkwardly (double-spaced italics with original spelling and punctuation). In reviews, some readers were quite critical of Rockness, calling her a poor writer compared to Trotter. I don't think I'd agree. But the tone slips back and forth between devotional and scholarly, and one looking for one or the other might struggle with that.

Finally, I skimmed a 1929 book primarily made up of Trotter's letters and journal entries, edited and published shortly after her death by her friend and coworker Blanche Pigott. I suspect Lilias, who often reworked her journal entries for publication, would appreciate Blanche's efforts to clean up her work. But it does mean we're not getting quite the real deal; I can see why Rockness went back to the archives. This one reads as more a collection of pieces than a narrative. If you didn't know who Lilias Trotter was or why she's considered significant, you'd be at a disadvantage in navigating this book and might be turned off by the language and some of the emphases.

Looking for Legacy

All three works covered many different stages and aspects of Trotter's life. I was most interested in her ministry strategy and experience in North Africa, her leadership of the Algiers Mission Band, her connections with other mission leaders of the time like Samuel Zwemer and Amy Carmichael, and her legacy as a missiologist focused on reaching Arabs. She was an accomplished leader of people, both a visionary and a detail-oriented administrator. Missiologist Christy Wilson said Lily's evangelism approaches were "one hundred years ahead of her time." The book she wrote for Sufi mystics introducing them to Christ through the "I Am" statements in the Gospel of John sounds like a masterpiece, one rooted in a great deal of study and sympathy for the Sufi "talebs" she met during her travels in the south of the country.

Judging from the biographical sketches I've found, however, what most people know and emphasize about Lilias Trotter (if they know anything) is that she was an artist who put aside a potentially great career in the arts, for ministry, but who left behind a number of devotional booklets illustrated by her own drawing and paintings.

I don't think art is her real legacy.

Rockness explains that her interest in Lilias came through friends who gave her their collection of those booklets, one by one, and enlisted her in their quest to save them from disappearing. That may be why she puts the "artist" narrative front and center, though her chapter on legacy is much more balanced.

The documentary Many Beautiful Things focuses in on the art v. God narrative, though. I haven't seen it, but here's the IMDB description:
From Executive Producer Hisao Kurosawa, (Dreams, Ran), comes the untold story of one of the world's greatest women artists and why her name was nearly lost to history. Many Beautiful Things plunges viewers into the complex age of Victorian England to meet Lilias Trotter, a daring young woman who defied all norms by winning the favor of England's top art critic, John Ruskin. In an era when women were thought incapable of producing high art, Ruskin promised that her work could be "immortal." But with her legacy on the line, Lilias made a stunning decision that bids us to question the limits of sacrifice. As Lilias journeys to French Algeria in the late 1800's to pioneer work with women and children, viewers are left to wonder, "Could you abandon a dream to pursue your true calling?" Featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones).
So, like Chariots of Fire, it seems to paints a picture of a Christian "sacrificing" remarkable skills by putting their faith first (appealing to evangelicals, though perhaps bewildering to others).

After soaking up enough Lilias Trotter, I'm having a hard time seeing where someone would question whether she "wasted" her gifts as an artist by becoming a missionary. Likely Ruskin was right that if she wanted to be a great artist, she would have to put art first. She turned away from that, saying she didn't think she could devote herself to art and still "seek first Christ and his kingdom." Some Christians find ways to pursue both simultaneously. They serve God through their gifts as artists, athletes, musicians, writers, or whatever. But to live a life surrendered to God, even if that means not following gifts that might demand more of you than you can give... well, that is better, isn't it?

Lilias would say her duty is not to her gifts, but to her God. Lilias Trotter had a wonderful life, and if she wasn't one of the world's greatest artists because she thought seeking to save souls was more important, it didn't stop her from seeing the world's beauty and from the joy of painting and drawing most every day, alongside writing, teaching, and investing in her coworkers and the Arab communities in which they served.

(Continued in More About Lilias Trotter.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Taxonomy of Clutter

The article, found on Facebook, was titled 11 Things in Your Home That Are Making You Unhappy, and I couldn't resist clicking through. Though flawed (inevitably) by the "how to be more like me" bias, I thought the conclusions seemed pretty helpful.

(Remember, "All models are wrong, but some of them are useful.")

It also introduced me to several kinds of clutter. Do you, or people you love, pile up stuff for these reasons?
  1. Sentimental clutter: Do you have furniture, knickknacks, or other "treasures" that were once important to you, received as a gift, or passed down through your family? And do you feel bad whenever you see them because they no longer have the magic and you feel guilty getting rid of them or giving them away? Your heirlooms may have become sentimental clutter.
  2. Bargain clutter: Who can resist when stuff is free or on sale? Swag from conferences, great deals, and things that seem to good to pass up but don't look so good as time goes by may have morphed into bargain clutter.
  3. Abundance clutter: And what about those extra items that you might need someday? If you are so fully stocked, with backups for your backups, that you can't find things or forget what you already have, you might be amassing abundance clutter.
  4. Aspirational clutter: A stash of books or magazines you mean to read or an excess of tools or hobby supplies that triggers guilty feelings may be reminding you of the time you thought you'd have (but don't) or the person you thought you'd become (but haven't). It could be aspirational clutter.
What do you think of this taxonomy? "When we understand why we are holding onto clutter, it makes it easier to get rid of it," says one author.

Image found at