Entering Through the Back Door

entering-through-the-back-door

The two-story farmhouse where I grew up had a back door that faced west. Visitors and family members entering the house through that door found themselves in the mud room, where boots could be removed to leave puddles on the linoleum and coats could be hung in what was aptly named The Coat Closet. (Note: Minnesota Norwegians aren’t known for complicated labels.)

Before my parents remodeled, the front entrance consisted of four cement steps that opened into the room known as the Play Room. (See previous comment about Norwegians.) Within that room’s walls my sisters and I orchestrated fashion shows for our Barbies and my brother and I fought wars with little green army men. The piano and various other musical instruments took up residence in that corner of the house, giving an entirely different meaning to the word play as we dutifully plunked out thirty minutes until a ringing alarm released us.

One house. Two doors. I have no memory of ever entering the house through the front door. The front door was used only by people who didn’t know us: delivery services and door-to-door salesmen. 

For those who knew us–neighbors, friends, relatives and family–they all used the back door. Perhaps because the kitchen–the heart of the home–was the next room after you hung up your coat. The back door was the fastest way to getting a cup of coffee and a little lunch, which in a farming community had nothing to do with “little.”

Recently, I taught a writing workshop to participants who wanted to record their cancer stories. As a seven-year breast cancer survivor, I understand the value of capturing a difficult story on paper and sharing it with others. I also knew that unburying the deep parts of a cancer journey can be difficult. Memories are often stuffed as patients have had to deal with the chaos of living in the overwhelming now. It is sometimes difficult to bring those stories out into the light of day.

The class began with the typical questions:

  1. What day were you told that you had cancer?
  2. What was your diagnosis?
  3. What treatment plan did your doctor recommend?

People shared the facts, the analytical details. Breast cancer. Skin cancer. A parent with three cancers. Chemo. Radiation. The participants shared important details, but the questions were lacking. The inquiries didn’t invite the telling of a story, the intimate details of a life. 

Rather, the class invited others into the front door. A place for strangers.

For the second round of writing, I read a story from my journal about a day I was swimming laps at the gym after my diagnosis, a day I decided that I was going to beat the woman swimming next to me to the wall. She didn’t even know it was a competition, but on that day I decided that cancer would not win. I talked to the class about the smell of the chlorine. The feel of the water on my skin. The exaltation of touching my fingers to the wall.

Then I said, “We all have those moments when we decide that cancer will not win. I want to know about yours. Maybe it was wearing a certain outfit to treatment. Maybe it was going religiously to chemo. Maybe it was doing something that was physically challenging. Tell me about a time when you determined that cancer would not win.”

People picked up pencils or typed on their laptops. One man told about wearing purple–the color for cancer survivors–to treatment. A woman told a story about putting on lipstick and a wig to feel beautiful. Another told about training to run a marathon. 

One by one, people shared hard things, but with smiles on their faces. In the midst of a difficult diagnosis, at that moment in their story, they were victorious. 

I realized something important. By asking a question tied to an emotion, I invited people into the heart of their story, a task, we, as writers, attempt to do every day. We don’t spout facts and figures about relationships, conflicts, and belief systems.

No, we pick up our pencils and we invite people to enter through the back door, where they can hang up their coats and leave their boots to leave puddles on the linoleum.

Lynne Hartke’s first book: Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty and Faith in the Hardest Places is coming out with Revell/Baker in May 2017. She blogs at http://www.lynnehartke.com.

A Library Located in a Village of Stilted Houses by the Sea

library-story

I loved going to the library as a girl. In the summer, after chores were done, we would go to town once a week, a trip that included a stop at the library.

I would always get the allowed quota–four books. 

At home I would sit in the tire swing under the elm tree and escape to faraway places in the pages.

I never imagined in the shadow of cornfields, alfalfa, and soy beans, that one day I would travel to a library in a village of stilted houses by the sea:

Our driver parked the van at the curve of a road on the mainland, near a dirt entrance across the bay to a smaller village of sea gypsies, the gypsy part of the name being a misnomer because they don’t move from place to place. They live there, a few hundred yards from the mainland in their simple stilted homes, because the lore of their people states that if they would leave, their skin would become diseased; they would grow sick and die.

sea library 1

“Where’s the library?” we asked our host as we passed a group of boys listening to a boombox, while laundry dried outside a simple house with a satellite dish in the backyard. As part of a literacy program we had been invited to check out the library in this small fishing village in Indonesia.

sea library 7

Our host pointed in the distance, to a destination I could not see, because all I saw in front of me was a series of rough wooden planks, nailed together in a single, rickety path above the water.

Walking the plank suddenly had an entirely new meaning as the boards weaved side to side as I shuffled across one and then another. I peered at the water six feet below as it flowed back and forth with the current. What happens when cell phones get wet? I wondered, as I took step after cautious step, on planks number three, four and five.

What happens when library visitors get wet?

My husband comes across

I was thankful for the years I spent as a child balancing on railroad tracks as I imagined being a tightrope walker on my way to our no-boys-allowed fort in a culvert under the tracks, never imagining I would need those high-wire skills four decades later.

Eventually all six of us made it across, some uttering not-very-silent prayers for God’s deliverance.

When we arrived at the library in the village school, we discovered the building was closed. School testing happened that week and the kids had a half day, an education reality that is common around the world. We stood around in the 85-degree heat with 90% humidity. The circle of sweat on my cotton t-shirt widened exponentially with each ticking minute.

“We can come into this home,” our host said, motioning us into a blue house with a corrugated metal roof across from the school.

sea library 4

“Have a seat, have a seat.” The woman and homeowner directed me to a far corner. Our group of six and a dozen children trooped in behind. Candies and other snacks hung down from the ceiling. The home was also a store.

We were invited to tell a story while the woman served crackers and bottled water. My husband told a tale of another stilted house with a boy, his noisy sisters, and their cows. It was a story about gratitude. Our interpreter echoed my husband’s hand motions and side effects, adding a few of his own, while the children listened, entranced.

The homeowner smiled as the children sang a song, moving with the tempo. More children arrived on the front porch, but there was no more room inside. 

In our culture, I hear arguments about the relevance of libraries in a digital world, but those debates were silenced for me in a stilted village where children pressed against the metal screen covering the front window in hopes of getting closer to the words, while the sea and the people swayed.

Do you have a library story?

Lynne Hartke’s first book: Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty and Faith in the Hardest Places is coming out with Revell/Baker in May 2017. She blogs at http://www.lynnehartke.com.

Writing for a Superlative Culture

We are an -est society.

Happiest. Saddest. Loneliest. Hardest.

I recently returned from a trip overseas and I was asked, by various people:

“What was your hardest time?” “Give me your happiest vacation memory.”

I had to stop and ponder.

Was the happiest moment when my husband captured a photo of a monkey trying to find another banana under my hat? Was it scuba diving in the waters of Nirwana Beach off the coast of Indonesia? Or climbing the slopes of Mt. Batur for the sunrise and being served tea heated in the steam vents from this still-active volcano?

Monkey Forest

Was the hardest moment going days and days on limited sleep as my body refused to adjust to the fourteen-hour time difference? Or when a person on our team was diagnosed with dengue fever? Or the humbling moment when I realized our young guide didn’t read or write?

I found myself in a quandary as I sifted through my mind to try to come up with the -est story. Not sure if the tale I was contemplating qualified for the perimeters or was just an average, good story, I found myself silent.

We live in a culture of superlatives. Highest. Lowest. Hottest. Fastest.

Yet, as writers, the challenge remains to take what has been written a thousand times before and make it fresh. To take the mundane and ordinary and breathe new life into the sentences. To find a new way to write about a sunrise. Or washing the dishes. Or camping out under the stars.  Skill is necessary to take the images and everyday events and draw the reader into deeper emotions. To tell again the story of love. Of grief. Of redemption. Of faith.

I have lived for over thirty years in Arizona. Same house. Same church. Same husband. 

Same desert.

I have hiked the trails surrounding Phoenix and beyond. This permanence allows me to write from a deep sense of place, yet I am still discovering new things in this desert home.

Earlier this summer I was working on a piece about palo verde trees and needed a photo. The palo verde tree has green bark with each twig terminating in a thorn. The palo verde lives up to its Spanish translation of “green stick,” as the tree tosses aside all its leaves during times of drought. The tree sprouts tiny leaves after rain, but can perform photosynthesis through its green bark, even when leaves are absent.

I needed a photo of the tree after rain. I didn’t have one. Thirty years of hiking in the desert and I didn’t have a photo of a palo verde, one of the most common trees in our area. I had sunsets. Sunrises. Mountain peaks. Cactus. Wildflowers in abundance.

I had photos of the driest. The tallest. The orangest (this should be a word).  But not one picture of the ordinary palo verde with its amazing green bark. (A fact I remedied the next day.)

trunk of a palo verde tree

Thoreau once said that because he could not afford to travel, he was “Made to study and love this spot of earth more and more.” 

Ah, this is our challenge. As our readers settle into the pages, can we–through our words–make them love and study the spot we describe more and more? This story of reunion? This story of loss? This story of returning to God? 

This story of the ordinary and mundane? A story that has nothing to do with volcanoes or monkeys or strange tropical diseases.

A simple story of a tree that sprouts tiny leaves after the rain.

palo verde after rain

palo verde after rain

Lynne Hartke writes stories of courage, beauty and belonging at www.lynnehartke.com. Her first book about the faithfulness of God in the hardest places is coming out with Revell in 2017. She lives in Chandler, Arizona in the Sonoran Desert with her husband, Kevin. Their 4 grown children and 3 grandchildren live nearby.

Life on the Blank Page: Why I Keep 3 Journals

Life on the Blank Page- Why I Keep 3 Journals

This is a life-as-a-writer post. Or I could say, the life of a creative — that word that encompasses all types of folks who are constantly creating and inventing and pouring out, whose job it is to fill the blank page, the blank screen, or empty air space.

I am in the middle of edits on a project that takes a lot out of me — that turns my brain to mush by the end of the day. I have disciplines that I do to keep the creative part of me exercised and stretched — similar to the months of short hikes I do to prepare for a longer hike in the Grand Canyon. Being in shape doesn’t just happen. Being creative doesn’t just happen either.

Last week I went journal shopping. I’m a three-journal gal. I used to keep one journal, but as my writing life expanded, it became too difficult to find things all crammed in one notebook. These journals each represent a creative discipline for me as a writer.

First, I use a pocket-size journal for hiking that doesn’t weigh a lot or take up much space. It’s about the size of my cell phone. I added some more sketches to the pages this week as I am exploring nature journaling as a way of alert attentiveness.  I don’t consider myself an artist, so drawing stretches my creative muscles in new directions and makes me look at the desert — which I have seen for 30 years — in a new way.

Boojum Tree nature journaling page

Def need work on the birds. The poor white-winged dove looks so very sad. But I like the boojum tree! I like the fact that boojum is from a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. What writer wouldn’t want a tree named from their work?

Second, I have a writing journal that is only used for writing prompts — questions that stir creativity. The prompt might be about mashed potatoes, but soon I find myself writing about my grandmother in her kitchen with a pot in her lap filled with spuds and a conversation we had about heaven when I was twelve years old. Writing prompts have a way of bringing me in through the back door of my brain. I am currently using the book Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. Questions in that book include:

  • Tell me everything you know about jello. Ten minutes. Go. (Can’t wait to do that one!!)
  • Tell me a memory associated with a bicycle. The spokes, the wheels, the narrow seat. Go for ten.
  • Tell me about how a relationship ended. Go. Ten minutes.

My final journal is the one I use during quiet times with God and to explore future writing posts and projects. This is the one I was shopping for last week. I wanted the journal lined, bound, and large. None of those wimpy diary-size journals! I had to go to three stores to find something large enough and I found it at Walmart of all places.

Life is wonderfull journal

Note: the flowers are there for photo purposes only.

I love the front: Life is Wonder-full and Beauty-full.  In life’s hard seasons, having my eyes and heart focused on wonder and beauty has proven essential.

So, now you know all about my three journals. 

Even for you non-writers out there, we all need places that fill our souls with wonder and beauty. We all need practices and disciplines that feed the creative side of us.

What are yours?

 

 

Lynne Hartke has her first book coming out with Revell in 2017. This post first appeared on her blog at http://www.lynnehartke.com where she writes about courage, beauty, and belonging to a loving God. She and her husband live in Chandler, Arizona, located in the Sonoran Desert, a place where she lugs around at least one journal.

Of Brussel Sprouts, Broccoli, and Disappointments

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My mother and I didn’t know anything about brussel sprouts the spring we decided to plant them in the family garden, back when I was a girl. We planted an entire row in between the rows of peas and green beans. In the back of the garden we added several rows of tomatoes and pushed cucumber seeds into rounded mounds in the black earth. Mom bordered the garden with zinnias and marigolds and we waited for the fruit of our labors.

We expected the obvious–for the brussel sprouts to appear like broccoli crowns, right up top for all to see.  And because we expected the obvious, we missed the fact that the sprouts were growing.

And growing.

And growing–there under the protecting leaves, hidden from sight.

We finally found them, no longer tender and sweet, but old and bitter. Mom grew up in the Depression, so there was no thought of throwing the brussel sprouts into the compost pit. She boiled them for dinner, where we kids gagged them down with large gulps of fresh milk and tears.

Mom never planted brussel sprouts again.

Which is the danger of disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.

It wasn’t until I moved away from home that I enjoyed the deliciousness of brussel sprouts bathed in olive oil and roasted garlic, an experience I almost missed because of the garden mishap.

This summer I had the grand idea of offering giveaways on my blog during the month of July. I anticipated interest, increased blog traffic, and multiple shares of the posts. Unfortunately broccoli results have yet to materialize. 

But today I boxed up one of the giveaways to mail to a little girl who has brain cancer. I sent another gift to a woman whose husband recently died. She was nominated by a friend for the giveaway. 

Brussel sprouts are growing this summer among the leaves of social media.

So let me ask you:

When things don’t turn out as you hoped, will you continue to plant new ideas? Try new things?

Or will you concentrate so hard looking for broccoli that you miss what may be growing in secret?

 

 

Lynne Hartke has her first book coming out with Revell in 2017. She writes about courage, beauty, and belonging to a loving God at http://www.lynnehartke.com. And brussel sprouts. Sometimes she writes about brussel sprouts. She and her husband live in Chandler, Arizona, located in the Sonoran Desert.

What Are You Afraid to Write?

Fear-Woman

I stumbled into the creative writing class fresh out of cancer treatment, a 48-year-old woman uncertain of her future. I had vague ideas about writing, but I was not even sure who I was anymore.

Cancer had taken all my sentences and scrambled my story.

I didn’t introduce myself as a pastor’s wife. I was Lynne (with an e) on a level playing field with the other college students.

I soon discovered that wearing jeans and a t-shirt like everyone else in the room couldn’t quite cover my wounds. The students wrote of true love and vampires and distant galaxies far, far away and I stared at blank pages. They were 18 and 19. All passion and future.

I was scars. Battle-fatigued. Dried up. Old.

The college professor—a reader of dark stories—disliked pat phrases, cliches, and the status quo. As he stood in front of the class one day, he said:

“The purpose of writing is to put on paper what people cannot say… or are afraid to say.”

Suddenly I discovered I had words. There were lots of things I was afraid to say.

Would the cancer come back? Would I live to see my children grow up? What is the purpose of it all anyway? Where is God?

Maybe that is why I didn’t introduce myself as the pastor’s wife, a careful woman, who would never admit the tumult of doubt, pain, and questions.

So many questions.

I soon realized other students were busy writing too. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with things she was afraid to say.

After writing for ten minutes, we were invited to share what was on our pages.

A heavy-set young man offered to go first and shared about his heroin addiction. A young woman shared about a sexual assault. Another shared about a miscarriage. Another the death of her brother. Another his parents’ divorce.

The readers stepped cautiously into the full noonday sun, all squinty-eyed, with scrunched up faces, unsure, after living in silence for so long, of the reception in the light of day.

As we each emerged, we discovered something unexpected: we were no longer alone. 

Writing is not about life in the suburbs and two perfect children and happily ever after. Ho hum. Pass the butter.

Writing—even from a Christian perspective—is about scars. Questions. Pain. Fear. Redemption is there, but not without struggle.

What are you afraid to write?

Lynne Hartke has a memoir coming out with Revell in 2017. She writes about courage, beauty and belonging at http://www.lynnehartke.com.

Why Marriage (and writing) Needs a Third

Why Marriage(and writing)Need a Third

“Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” we are told. But sometimes that is not true. Both in marriage and in writing.

Writers can’t just write about writing. It’s tedious. Not to mention boring to the non-writer.

Nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases can only interest a person for so long, but put those same words in a story, and a writer has the ability to capture imagination.

Writers need a third thing–something “to gaze out at” according to author Natalie Goldberg in her book, Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.

Sometimes the writer has no plan or control of what that third thing will be.

“We must find the third thing,” Goldberg writes. “And we cannot afford to be fussy. How a pothole is formed holds our interest. A kind of cheese, a license to own a beauty parlor, a felt slipper, someone’s toothache, all are fodder for our pen….”

Or staples. Staples can be the third.

This week I decided to re-do my kitchen chairs. I can’t remember what fabric originally covered the chairs when my grandmother owned them. After my mom inherited the chairs, she covered them in a cream-colored fabric, material that was now showing years of stains:

  • Stains from family dinners of scalloped potatoes, ham, frozen peas, and orange jello served in goblets Mom and Dad received as gifts at their wedding in 1957.
  • Stains from years of grandchildren learning to eat cheerios with a spoon, but invariably milk dripped down toddler chins and pooled on the fabric.
  • Stains from card games around the table, with fingers needing to be wiped of popcorn grease, and the cushion serving as a giant napkin.

Decades of stains.

I flipped over the first chair, a testament to the importance of life around the table, to begin removing the material from the cushion. I encountered staples.

Many, many staples.

As I pulled them out, I began counting. Twenty…thirty…forty.

The kitchen table was soon covered with flying metal projectiles. Sixty…seventy…eighty.

recovering a kitchen chair

I began to laugh. I knew, without being told, that although my mom selected the fabric, my dad was the one who stapled the material in place. Although neither was alive to ask, the unseen surface of the bottom of the cushion told the tale of a man who was legendary for taping the wrapping paper around Christmas presents so securely, that a knife or scissors was needed to open the package.

Mom was the project idea person. Dad was the implementer of the plan. 

Like writers, Goldberg contends, couples also need something “to gaze out at” for time cannot always be spent looking face to face, but rather, also, side by side.

Projects were my parents’ third. As was family. And faith.

I pulled out the last remaining staples holding the dingy cream fabric. Eighty-five. Did the chair cushion really need eight-five staples to hold the material in place?

“What are you doing?” my husband asked, walking into the kitchen.

“I’m re-counting the staples,” I replied, a bit distracted as I remembered yesterday moments around a Christmas tree. (To his credit, he did not ask why I was re-counting staples.) “I wonder if I can write a blog about staples?”

“I think you have proven that you can write a blog about anything,” he said.

I smiled at the compliment, from a man who has lived with my writing third, not an interest he shares, but a gifting he gives me space to pursue–which in itself is one of our thirds.

Family. Faith. And applauding one another’s dreams. Each has given us something “to gaze out at.”

Eighty-five staples do not hold us, yet we walk side by side.

What is your third?