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.

Spelunking and Writing in the Deep Dark

When my husband was in college, he and a group of friends went spelunking in an undeveloped cave called Devil’s Icebox near Columbia, Missouri .

Unbeknownst to them, while they spent hours exploring the 6.25 miles of underground passages, it had started raining. When they attempted to return to the entrance, through a narrow tunnel so low they had to meander like snakes on their bellies, they noticed the water was rising. Forced to grope for breaks in the rocks in the tunnel’s ceiling, they were able to gasp for breath in the air pockets.

All the flames in their carbide headlamps became drenched in their scramble to get out of the narrow section and save their lives.

Their lights extinguished.

spelunking

Carbide headlamps or acetylene gas lights were popular with cavers at the time for the bright white light they produced. Unfortunately the flint system–like a lighter–needed to be kept dry.

My husband and his friends, having survived the narrow section, found themselves stranded in utter blackness.

And the water was rising.

Eventually one of the girls in the group found one dry corner on her shirt collar. They dried the flint, lit the lamps and exited to safety.

Despite that experience, my husband still enjoys exploring deep underground caves, corkscrewing his body through narrow passages and entering the unknown.

Me? Not so much.

But I have been in the Deep Dark. My Deep Dark has been cancer.

Perhaps you have your own difficult place.

In the Deep Dark we find ourselves in unknown passageways wondering how in the world we are going to turn on our lights and find our way home.

In the meantime we wrestle in darkness.

Darkness of the unknown. Darkness of our deepest fears. Dark nights of the soul.

Where we wonder where God is in it all.

I have waited on a doctor’s examining table and known the deep darkness. I have sat at a dining room table holding hands with my parents after hearing the diagnosis of my mom’s stage four and heard Dad pray to “our God who is in control.” And I wanted to shout, “God is in control?”

The Deep Dark is a place for shouting. A place for questioning. A place of fumbling for the light.

As writers, one of our challenges is to explore the Deep Dark and take our readers with us as we plunge the depths. One of our most difficult responsibilities is to put into words what people are afraid to whisper in the shadows.

But we don’t leave our readers there.

With our pens … with our pencils … with our keyboards … we craft light in the passages to lead our readers home, home to a God who sees in the dark.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,’
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.”  Psalm 139:11-12 NASB

So grab your carbide headlamps. It’s time to go spelunking!