Me, a homeless guy, and a library (where two worlds collided)

Photo by DuBoix

Photo by DuBoix,

As a teenager, I spent hours at the local library. The huge building reminded me of a castle or tiny fortified city as it stood, solid and intimidating, against the background of run-down buildings and awkwardly paved streets circling it. It only needed a drawbridge and moat with alligators to complete my mental picture. (Heck, throw in a few knights-in-shining-armor, too.)

Part of what lent it that fortified-refuge look was the nearby homeless shelter. This was not the best part of town. Whenever I visited my mother at her library job, I parked close to the door and walked as quickly as I could to the front door. There, I stopped to catch my breath. I can’t tell you how many times someone begged me for money between my car and the door. They weren’t supposed to, but they did.

The homeless—usually men, scruffy-bearded and clothed in mismatched castoffs—were regulars at the library. I often spied one of them, lounging in an arm chair, eyes closed, as I wandered the stacks of books. Sometimes I smelled before I saw him.

I was looking for books on writing fiction.

He was looking for air conditioning or heat or safety.

I never made eye contact. I fixed my gaze on the book spines, ignoring him but acutely aware of his presence a few feet away.

They didn’t use the library only as a temporary residence. Some used the library’s computers or other free resources, just like I did.

My mother, who worked in the reference department, came home with stories about their “regulars” who always wanted the same types of materials: business, for example. Or whatever topic held their interest that day: JFK’s assassination or government conspiracies or the space program or . . . the list went on.

They all had stories: some of them were heartbreaking, while others were delusions of a mentally ill person without proper medication. Some had been bums their entire lives. Others had been promising, well-educated people who suffered a fall, often for reasons beyond their control.

One regular patron wrapped himself in tin foil and paraded down a main street of our town. He was arrested. Later, he killed himself.

Another regular patron had a doctorate in some scientific field, but mental illness had left him jobless. I don’t remember if he was homeless or if some relative had taken him in, but he came often, asking bizarre questions of the librarians and frantically researching some obscure thing for the government (or a university, or think-tank of some importance. I don’t remember.)

I remember wondering why he’d lost his job—if he was that brilliant, couldn’t the employer have kept him in some capacity?—and wondering at the devastation wrought by imbalanced brain chemicals–couldn’t he take some medication? Couldn’t someone else just pay for his medication? 

On the chance he’s survived these last twenty years and reads this:

Forgive me, sir: for never knowing your name. For not understanding what I understand now. For not seeing you as a person, and not seeing how alike we are.

In my wanderings, I came across John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It was the first book on writing that I encountered that treated novel-writing as serious business, and I devoured his ideas. (Other books treated the various elements of fiction as formulas, connect-the-dots exercises that I resisted, and still resist.) Toward the end of the book, he writes,

Every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death.

(. . .)

They should think, always, of what harm they might inadvertently do and not do it. If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”

Gardner’s words resonated in me. They’ve followed me.

Here I was, a teenager with dreams of writing and glory and Pulitzer prizes, surrounded by those on the brink: on the edge of sanity, the choice between continuing a difficult life and dying, hungry for something other than food. Hungry for hope.

And we were both surrounded by books.

And in those books were words.

And in those words were the power to do good or do evil.

I didn’t see this connection then. But I sensed it as one smells a perfume, or touches an object in a dark room. It was there, hovering at the edges of my understanding, whispering, remember this.

In my fortress, two worlds collided.

The first was the world of a naive, book-loving teen, where the future held college and career. Depression was there, but covered with good acting and good behavior and good friendships.

The second was the world of the homeless men, where the past ravaged the futures, ripping life from their bones. Depression was there, sitting alone in a beat-up chair, clothed in castoffs from a do-gooder’s closet.

Between the stacks of books, these two worlds came together. I couldn’t have foreseen how, a few years later, my own life would be devastated by mental illness, nor how this darkness would rip hope from me, nor how alone one person could feel.

Our lives were fragile. Even though I looked different on the outside, I wasn’t all that different from the homeless men in that building and outside on the streets. We needed love. We needed respect. We needed hope.

We still do.

Categories: hope, humanity, mental illness, writing | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

Dostoyevsky on the possibility of redemption

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov murders two women and then suffers immense mental anguish as the police trace the crimes to him. (Spoiler alert!) He is justly convicted. But instead of being sentenced to death (as he had expected), he is sentenced to seven years in Siberia.

At the end of the novel, he is serving his time in Siberia, and is joined by his beloved Sonia.

Under his pillow lay the New Testament. He picked it up mechanically; it belonged to (Sonia), the one from which she had read him the resurrection of Lazarus. At the beginning of his exile he had suspected she would bother him with religion, keep talking to him about the Gospels, and shove books at him. To his great surprise she did not mention such a thing once and never even offered him the Gospels. He had asked her for the New Testament himself, not long before his illness, and silently she had brought it to him. Since then he had not even opened it.

Nor did he open it now, but he thought: “Can her beliefs not be mine, too? Her feelings and aspirations, at least . . .”

–Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. by Sidney Monas

I’ve always loved the sense of hope in this ending: the murderer who deserved to die is given a chance for a new life and a new beginning. There’s a sense of wonder on his part: could Sonia’s Christian beliefs be his, too? Is redemption possible even for the likes of him . . . and us?

Categories: Christianity, hope, quotations | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Stage fright, literary love, and why I never ran for student council

by monosodium,

by monosodium,

I’m encouraging my daughter to run for class representative for SGA. She’s hesitant; I understand. But I regret not running for SGA in high school when I had the opportunity. I might’ve been a decent student council rep, but I hesitated and lost the chance. Can you guess why I hesitated?


Of course. This time it wasn’t a fear of failure. It was a fear of public speaking. As fears go, this is a common one. But the student council reps didn’t have to speak publicly; they only had to perform silly skits at the annual homecoming banquet. Once a year. Once.

And it wasn’t as if anyone in high school expected an Oscar-winning performance or Meryl Streep accents or Tom Cruise good looks. We only had to be in front of the other high schoolers for a few minutes, say almost-funny things, and entertain the banquet goers. Seriously. That terrified me enough that I refused to run for class rep when someone nominated me.

Silly. But it didn’t feel silly then.

At some point during college, I realized that few people are comfortable with public speaking. That meant many listeners were sympathetic, even if I displayed signs of nervousness.

(If they knew that their presentation was next on the class agenda, they were sweating, gulping, and squirming in their seats, and not thinking about me.)

As a college pal told me, the soloists during a chapel service received standing ovations in two scenarios: outstanding performance or total failure. I guess we felt admiration for the rock star in training and sympathy for the singer who should never have a microphone near her mouth again.

But all through school, teachers forced students to speak publicly, usually on safe, boring topics.

Give a persuasive speech, our communications professor told us. (As long as it’s uncontroversial and in keeping with our conservative Christian ideas.)

Give step-by-step instructions for a project, our junior high teacher told us. (As if every project has easily numbered, consecutive steps.)

Tell about your summer reading book, all our English teachers said. (As if we had really wanted to read that book, and not one of our own choosing.)

And the instructions:

Three to four minutes. (You’ll be timed. I have a stopwatch, and I’ll know if you end at 2:59 or at 4:01.)

Have five to seven index cards with your notes. (You’ll turn them in. No, a piece of paper won’t work. It must be index cards. 3 by 5 index cards, not 5 by 7s.)

Use expression, make eye contact, stand up straight, and don’t you dare lean on the podium. (You might break it, and we don’t have enough funding for a new podium. Private schools don’t get tax payer money, you know.)

Was it any wonder that I was terrified?

I finally figured out that I was okay with public speaking if I was an expert on the topic. If I was surrounded by people who knew more than I did, I was incoherent. If I had researched and written and thought on the subject more than my audience, I was calm, cool, and collected.

  • Besotted by Impressionism and Post-impressionism, I babbled about French painters to my high school French class. (My classmates had never heard me speak so many words at one time.)
  • Fascinated by Antigone and gender roles in the ancient Greek tragedy, I was calm, unfazed by questions from classmates and professors.
  • Enthralled with Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos, I enjoyed my presentation to my Elizabethan poetry and prose class.

I didn’t even mind doing “current events” for my high school Biblical worldview class, assignments that most students found tedious.

I chose articles that related to our topic of study. Deep, meaty news articles or thoughtful editorials—I pulled quite a few from Christianity Today magazine—gave me things to ponder and ideas to wrestle.

So when the teacher asked me to present mine to the class, I had something of substance to say. I wanted my classmates to hear it, too. I wasn’t afraid, not so much because I knew something, but because I wanted to deal with the questions rolling in my head.

It wasn’t so much knowledge and expertise that made the difference between fear and confidence.

It was love.

I loved the art and literature, and that love drove away my worries. I loved the questions and wrangling with issues, and that love made me set aside my qualms and express those questions to my classmates.


Perfect love casts out fear. It’s something I’m learning and relearning right now, in so many areas of my life. Probably it’s a lesson I’ll be learning my entire life. 

If you’ve experienced something like this, I’d love to hear about it! 


(Ironically, shortly after I wrote this post, I ran across a Writer Unboxed post about writers speaking in public, along with tips on how to handle stage fright. For writers, it’s worth reading, and so are the comments.)

Categories: attitude, Christianity, freedom | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from the soccer field

My older daughter plays soccer for her school. Despite my self-image as a definitely un-soccer-mom-ish person, I sat through a game on Saturday morning and learned a few things.

by wax115,

by wax115,

  • The goal has to be anchored to the ground.

The ref walked onto the field, ten minutes before the start time, and tugged on the goal post. It wobbled. The ref (a bellowing, barking sort of guy) told the team coach, “No anchors, no game.”

It’s a safety thing. The ground is unyielding; by comparison, the goal posts are flimsy. They may look stable, but if enough force is applied, the entire structure might fall and hurt someone. The posts need those anchors to keep them standing no matter what happens.

I may look stable from the outside, but am I anchored to something—or someone—who is always firm and unshakable?

by cohdra,

by cohdra,

  • Rest and water breaks are vital.

At 9 a.m., the heat was unrelenting. The goalies were wearing long-sleeved shirts and gloves. Our team’s goalie traded the long sleeves for a jersey and penny. We had a substitute for the goalie, and the players—particularly the offense—traded positions so no one had to play the entire game. Still, the girls needed frequent water breaks. (The ref was merciful and allowed this.)

The other team had one less player, so everyone had to play the entire game. I watched their goalie struggle. We were concerned that she might pass out or vomit; we were closer to her goal, so we saw her distress more clearly than her coaches did.

At one point, she begged for a water break. Her coach told her that she was getting a break, standing in the goal while the other players ran around the field. (Ouch.) But she was still wearing the long sleeved shirt and gloves.

She needed a break.

(In the end, the ref allowed the teams to play 7 on 7, rather than the required 8 on 8, to give her the chance to rest.)

Everyone need a break. Some people seem to suffer onslaught after onslaught of horrible things. Or, sometimes their lives have one giant thing that affects their entire existence.

(I think of a fellow church member who has a teenage son with severe special needs. He’s sweet, but very energetic and needs 24/7 hands-on care. She admitted that it takes a toll on she and her husband, the boy’s stepfather, because they can’t come to church together; one has to stay home and care for the boy. Life is exhausting.)

Some others seem to have relatively easier lives, but suffer from debilitating conditions inside themselves. (Think of someone who has fibromyalgia. She may look physically well but is in chronic pain. Life is a struggle.)

And a few others have easier lives, though not without the usual ups and downs.

What we all have in common is this: we need refreshment and we need rest. We also need each other to help provide that refreshment and rest. My church friend needs trained nurses to help with her son. A woman with fibromyalgia may need someone to bring a meal. We all need others who will speak truth and demonstrate love to us.

by gracey,

by gracey,

  • Teamwork is vital.

Don’t just kick the ball away from the opponent, kick it to someone else on your team. In other words, delegate to trustworthy people; find wise people for counsel. Easier said than done.

by bosela,

by bosela,

  • When the ball comes close to the line, the players have a choice.

What’s the best decision depends on perspective. There were several times during the game that I, a spectator, believed a ball was out-of-bounds.

Sometimes it was. The players let it roll over the line, or sometimes they kicked it over themselves rather than allowing the other team to score.

It’s like admitting defeat in the pursuit of a particular goal. But knowing when this is right takes wisdom. Is that goal actually unreachable, or does it only seem unreachable?

At other times, the ball raced toward the line. A player sprinted forward. The ball looked unplayable to the spectators, but the player knew better. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone, gave it her all, and kept that ball inside the lines.

Sometimes you have a choice: quit or keep going.

A few of those times, it’s better to quit. If it’s something obviously destructive in your life—bad habits, for example—quitting is good. If it’s not so obvious, get an outside perspective from a wise source. (Choose carefully.)

But many times, we need to keep going because it’s the right thing to do.

We need to keep living.

Keep fighting wrong.

Keep doing the right thing.

Keep pressing on to the goal, no matter how many obstacles arise.

Our team won. The other team lost. But neither team gave up. They played hard until the final seconds of the game.

Keep playing, my friends. I’m cheering for you.

Categories: attitude, hope | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Confronting my inner racist

different races

by jdurham,

Where: Chaucer class.

When: Spring 2002

Who: Me, my buddy Richard, and the middle-aged classmate whose name escapes my memory.

What: Richard, always a wild card, had decided to share with us about the time he was thrown in the slammer for DUI. Not the typical intro into a graduate-level discussion of The Canterbury Tales. But somehow, between bipolar disorder and PTSD from Vietnam, his social filter had disappeared, and so we got the unfiltered version of him, somewhat like the unfiltered cigarettes he rolled during Elizabethan Poetry and Prose class.

The tale was in full swing, complete with Richard’s descriptions of being drunk and his jail cell. I sharpened my elbows, prepared to jab Richard’s ribs if he got too out of control. (This happened frequently.)

Our classmate was a serious man. He dressed in suits, behaved properly, and was as completely unlike a criminal as I could imagine. He shook his head slowly. “I hope I am never jailed,” he said soberly. “I pray I never have to go through that.”

He said it as if jailtime was a distinct possibility. Why, I wondered, would he worry about that?

A series of realizations tumbled through my mind:

He’s black.

He’s afraid he’ll go to jail, even if he’s innocent.

I know nothing about being non-white in America. Nothing.


My own ignorance hadn’t gone unnoticed. Two years before, I had had a similar revelation while reading The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I read Douglass’s description of a whipping and had a physical reaction: my body hurt.

I flinched, paused to take in my surroundings—blue sky outside, glass window beside me, cold to the touch—before I forced myself to continue reading.

A second awakening happened at Walmart. As I walked in, I looked around and noticed the skin color of almost everyone else here wasn’t the same as mine. I’m the only white person here, I thought, and felt apprehension fill me. Then I was shocked. Why would I be apprehensive about being the only white at the entrance of Walmart?

A second question: Was this how many African-Americans felt when they were the only black in a room of white people?

Then a third question: Was I racist if I felt uncomfortable around people of a different race?

The answer made me ache.

Racism had torn apart my extended family when I was young. I remember sitting on the kitchen floor, crying, because I knew that it was wrong for anyone to hate another person for their skin color, wrong for family to be split in this way, wrong because God loves all people.

“Jesus loves the little children,” my little girl self sang in Sunday school, “all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight . . .”

Was it possible that a deep-rooted prejudice against minorities was planted in my own heart?


All of us are capable of prejudice.

When this ugly beast raises its head in my heart, it’s shocking and repulsive because it tells me how hateful I am capable of being. It is tempting to look away from this uncomfortable truth (like looking in a mirror and then forgetting my appearance when the reflection disappears from view.)

But it’s also an opportunity.

  1. First, it’s a chance to admit the depth of my sin and my need for Christ.
  2. Second, it’s a chance to struggle against this sin. Learning more about the people I am prejudiced against is a good start. (It’s not a guaranteed way of dispelling racism; it’s possible to hate someone even when we know them well.)

I signed up for African-American literature that fall. Maybe this wasn’t the most effective method, but I respond to literature, and this class seemed as good a start as any.

For the first time, I saw my own behavior as a white American reflected back at me from a non-white perspective. Some of my thought patters were racist, even when I didn’t intend them to be. It would be hard not to see that while I read books like Native Son or Their Eyes Were Watching God. It would be hard not to be uncomfortable in my white skin while I read the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, Imanu Amiri Baraka, or Countee Cullen.

Even when I meant well, I still might be doing something wrong. I might be trying to “speak” for the black community. (As if I understood the experience of being non-white—which I didn’t—and as if no one else could speak for him/herself—which wasn’t true.)

For example, during this time I went to a church (predominately white) where I knew several people who were racist. Some made remarks that blatantly misunderstood the African-American community. The remarks made me cringe; the appropriation of Bible verses to defend their stances against interracial marriage made me angry.

I wanted to say something because I didn’t want silence to be seen as agreement. But how could I correct the racist statements without trying to speak “for” other people who weren’t present? Also, these church people were my only “friends”; I desperately wanted them to accept me, and I was afraid that if I disagreed, they would reject me.

Sadly, I let my fear of rejection stop up my mouth. I let my fear of saying the wrong thing keep me from saying anything. I was afraid. I was silent.

My silence hurt me as much as anyone else. I lost the chance to confront the ugliness in my own heart—of racism and fear—and lost the chance to be honest with my fellow believers about the sin in their lives, too. I don’t have contact with any of them now.

If I did and if that conversation occurred again, I hope I would say:

You’re wrong. Look at the Bible. Look at how Jesus treats others. Do your attitudes reflect Jesus? Do mine?

I can’t speak for other people. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to have a different skin color.

But I can tell you this: Jesus loves us. He loves people of every race. He loves us when we’re racist and prejudiced and hateful.

But he loves us too much to let us to remain comfortable in that prejudice. He gives us the power to change so we learn to love others the way he does.

That’s what he’s teaching me. I hope that’s what he’s teaching you, too.

Categories: attitude, relationships | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Is he safe? (a quote from C.S. Lewis)

This morning, my pastor referenced this passage from The Chronicles of Narnia. (Let me tell you, it feels great to call someone “my” pastor after a year-and-a-half of church visiting!) In it, the Beavers are telling the children about Aslan:

 “‘Is — is he a man?’ asked Lucy.

‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion.’

‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’

‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, their either braver than most or else just silly.’

‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.

‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.'”

–C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Categories: Christianity, quotations | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

The Boundaries of Love

A while ago, I read a historical novel about an insane asylum during the Civil War. One of the minor characters, Eleanor, imagines the pain and suffering of every creature on the planet:

“She would not eat breakfast, as the slab of bacon was once a pig who cringed at a falling ax, and the eggs evoked a vision of the creshfallen hen, her future chicks stolen right out from under her. At night Eleanor imagined kittens calling to her from the bottom of imaginary wells; (. . . ) Dr. Henry Cowell, the head psychiatrist at the Sanibel Asylum, had worked with her patiently and had made considerable progress. But now she was back on the subject of that patient horse she used to see in Baltimore, pulling a carriage full of rowdy tourists in the heat of the summer. ( . . .)

‘The horse was doing its job,’ [Dr. Cowell] said. ‘Horses have roles, just like people. Men have roles. And so do women. You have a role, Mrs. Beacon. Your role is back home at your husband’s side.’

‘My husband is cruel. He kills spiders that are minding their own business.’”

–from Blue Asylum, by Kathy Hepinstall

Sometimes, I feel a little like this woman.

It’ll start off innocently enough. Usually, I’ll be depressed (or otherwise slightly “off”). I’ll have sat in the house—not writing or reading, not talking, not wanting to do anything good for me, a sloth draped over the edge of the sofa, as intelligent as a sofa pillow—and I’ll feel the need to leave the house. Pronto. Or else I’ll scream, and need to throw pillows at no one, and have to be carted off to Bedlam forever. (Never mind that it’s in Britain.)

So I’ll leave the house, conscious that I’ve been Very Self Centered. Maybe if I start focusing on other people, I’ll realize that my life isn’t anything to be depressed about. So I’ll hit a fast food place (nothing like fried chicken fingers and french fries to help depression, right?) and look at everyone else. Think hard about them.

They are people, I chant to myself, people just like me. Maybe they’re feeling pain, too. Maybe their lives are really awful . . . horrible . . . they need prayer, they need someone to empathize, they need ME to notice how much pain they’re in and help shoulder that burden.

Like that sad, sad story I heard about somebody at church . . . or that friend who shared her horrible abusive past . . . or . . . and, oh, what if that had been ME that had that happen, how horrible I would feel, how horrible I feel right now, identifying with her pain . . . and so on.

Now, it’s not bad to empathize with others or help carry their burdens; those are good things, and there’s a ton of Bible verses to back that up. But somewhere along the way, my mind shifted from a healthy desire to love others to something entirely different.

It’s like the lady in the asylum, who identifies with and feels the pain of very creature on the planet. (Or thinks she does.) It’s an over-identification with another person’s pain. In a sense, it’s just as self-centered as the plain Jane version of self-centeredness, because it’s trying to feel the other person’s pain as MINE and forgetting that I am a different person.

It’s not empathetic. It’s unhealthy.

The insane woman hasn’t pulled a carriage of rowdy tourists; why should she identify so much with this horse that she cannot function?

I haven’t experienced horrible abuse; why should I imagine it to the extent that I feel it DID happen to me or even become non-functional over this pain?

It still centers on me, rather than the other person’s need. It’s not terribly helpful for the other person, either; what support can I offer if I’m wallowing in imagined pain?

It also forgets that when God told us to help carry each other’s burdens, we weren’t supposed to make it all about my effort, what I can do to help. Some things only God can do.

Loving others strikes a balance of sorts. We neither identify with other’s pain to the point of being incapacitated (forgetting that we’re separate people) nor do we callously disregard it (forgetting that we are both people, though separate).

It’s like the neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” says:

Good fences make good neighbors.

Forgetting that I’m a separate person and that my emotions are mine and no one else’s isn’t healthy. I’d do well to remember that.

Copy of wall photo

by kirk10kirk,

Categories: attitude, mental illness, relationships | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Self-respect, appearance, and looking for potential beauty in unlikely places

by pentacs,


“Dress like you respect yourself.”

I read this on a blog post recently, and I reiterated it to my tween daughter this morning. Little Esmeralda is the opposite of the Disney princess-type; she’d wear baggy t-shirts and jean shorts 4/7 if I let her. No ballgowns or tiaras for her, thank you. She has a uniform for school (thankfully!) but today was “wear-a-normal-shirt” day. She choose her P.E. uniform shirt.

“No,” I said, and explained my reasoning.

People judge others by their physical appearance, including their clothes. (Unfair but true.)

What we choose to cover our bodies sends a message about how we view ourselves.

Therefore we need to dress, not to impress, but to convey the idea that we have self-respect, and want to be treated respectfully by those around us. It shows that we’re sensitive to what’s appropriate behavior and appearance in any given environment. (School demands a different “look” than yard work does, and the swimming pool or a church or dinner at the White House demand yet even more varied looks. No bikinis at church, no ballgowns at the neighborhood pool.)

Look at celebrities, I pointed out. A celeb who walks around in super-revealing clothing looks A) desperate for attention, and B) as if she doesn’t know when enough is enough. To quote P.G. Wodehouse, “She looked like she’d been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say when.”

But it’s not just the skimpy outfits that are an issue. Wearing sloppy, unflattering clothes conveys that you don’t care about yourself or take care of yourself. (In certain contexts, you might look depressed or homeless.) A college friend of mine is a good example. Unkempt hair in an unflattering style. Clothes from a decade ago. No effort to look nice. This told me, long before I knew her background, that she didn’t have respect for herself, had been dumped on by men, and was generally at odds with the world.

Appearance is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, people are judged and judge others in ways that can be accurate or inaccurate, charitable or snarky, and superficial or perceptive.

A woman dressed in sloppy clothes, hiding behind a ragged-edged mane of hair, may be depressed. She may even be frightened of looking beautiful because of past abuse. Or she may really not have a clue how unflattering her appearance is (and need a little help from friends). But without knowing anything else about her, it’s easy to stick with the shallow interpretation.

On the other hand, beauty isn’t evil. A pleasant appearance isn’t bad. A healthy, beautiful body isn’t something to shun. Wanting to wear well-fitting, flattering clothes isn’t sinful. There’s no virtue in deliberately looking one’s worst just because “people shouldn’t judge me on how I look!”

People do judge, and it’s easy for the object of the judgement to lose self-respect because of that judgement.

Here’s where we need to step in. A few ways:

For anyone and everyone: Giving a word of encouragement. (“You look nice today.”)

For those who know about fashion: Nudging in the right direction. (“That’s color really brings out the blue in your eyes! Have you ever thought about buying a shirt in that color?”)

And then there are some people who have the gift of seeing potential beauty, even when the rest of us cringe at someone’s appearance.

Recently, I read about two people who have that gift. The first, Mark Bustos, is a hair stylist in New York City who gives free haircuts to the homeless. On his day off, he wanders the streets, looking for potential clients. One man looked at his mirrored image and had one question.

Do you know anyone that’s hiring?” –Jemar Banks, client of Mark Bustos

This small act of kindness helped restore a man’s self-respect and dignity. He no longer looked like stereotypical homeless bum but like a man who was capable of hard work and taking responsibility. The hair stylist looked beyond the stubble and overgrown hair and saw this man’s potential. He used his skills and talents (and scissors!) to reveal it to the rest of us.

The second man is a photographer in India. Rahul Saharan, a professional photographer, took a series of fashion portraits with women who have survived acid attacks. Their faces are scarred. Their souls are hurt. Many have been afraid to leave their homes because of their facial deformities. But they dressed in beautiful clothes (designed by Rupa, one of the survivors) and posed for him. The result is more powerful than any glamorous photospread in a fashion magazine.

“. . . I want to go out meet more people.” –Rupa, acid attack survivor, clothing designer, model

Through the photographer’s talents and her own courage, she’s been given freedom to rejoin the world. (She hopes to open a boutique to sell clothing she designs.) And we’re given the freedom to reconsider what physical beauty is.

Physical beauty, whether that’s in our bodies or art or the world around us, helps point us to a God who delights in the creation of beauty. As a Christian, I need to open my eyes and look. There is potential beauty all around us. Let’s look for it, even in the unlikeliest places.

Categories: appearance, freedom, hope | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I write (art, fear, and Picasso on lies that tell the truth)


Copy of 45y

by milza,

Last week, I wrote about struggling with fear about submitting an application for a part time, volunteer job. I was afraid of failing. But it was more than that. I was also afraid of succeeding, because what if I got the job and then blew it? I’d feel stripped bare, revealed to the world as an incompetent person who didn’t know her own limitations. It’d be like trying out to be a Victoria’s Secret model, certain that I had the body the VS people wanted, only to strip down to my undies and have them laugh at me. Humiliating.

So I was struggling even after I sweated blood for two hours and wrote the cover letter, stressed out for a few more hours and tidied up my resume, and swallowed hard and clicked “submit.”

At some point, I stopped myself. Why was I doing this? I thought. Outwardly, I was fixing dinner or doing laundry, but I was thinking and muttering to myself, why?

It wasn’t just the question “why do you want to have this position?” There are several answers for that one: wanting to connect with the gifted writers of this journal, wanting to use my skills, wanting to help this journal in its mission, wanting to read great writing and learn from it. But those are on the surface. The real question digs deeper.

Why do I write?

In novelist-talk, it’s the inner conflict, the heart of the story, rather than the outward conflict in the plot. Why do I write? Why tell stories? Why create art?

It’s rather like the question I frequently heard in college. I’d be talking to someone (usually an engineer or computer person), and they would ask, “What’s your major?”


“Eww. I hated English.” (As if I’d asked for his opinion.) “Have you ever heard the joke about what an English major asks an engineer?” (As if I was simply dying to hear it.) “‘Would you like fries with that order?’” He cracked up.

I stayed silent; what was there to say? I had no definite plans for using my English degree or art history minor. I knew this wasn’t practical, but I couldn’t force myself to major in some other, practical field that I had no aptitude for learning and no desire to learn. By that point in college, I was trying to survive my depression and sickness.

The stories in my textbooks were a lifeline to hope. Somewhere, at some time, there was a person who wrote this, I would think, and that person lived long enough to write it down on paper: expressed his thoughts, her dreams, revealed the world as they understood it, and even when they got everything else wrong in their view of the world, many still revealed truth.

“Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Picasso

I’ve always been intrigued by this Picasso quote. It’s taken years of mulling over it to find out what he was saying and how it applies to novel writing.

Novelists traffic in lies. It’s our currency, what we exchange as we create stories that tap the truth beneath the story. Not all novels do, of course; some are fluff or smut or propaganda pieces for the author’s pet issues. They’re just lies, but they don’t tell the truth; they aren’t art.

A truly excellent novel tells the truth, just as a good sermon does, but in the guise of fiction. The fictional people are just like us (if only we lived on paper and not on a planet) and whose problems are like ours. Through their story, we are put in their place, their shoes cover our feet, their problems are ours while we read.

And at the end of the very best novels, we are changed: thinking deeply, mulling continually, perceiving other people differently in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Maybe, just maybe, other people benefit—

the enslaved are unchained, given dignity and respect . . .

the grieved are comforted, knowing they aren’t alone . . .

the despairing are given hope, pointed toward life when their circumstances point to death . . .

They benefit because we perceive others in the light of our changed selves. The truth does that, even when it wears the clothes of story and slips on the shoes of various characters and accessorizes with heart-stopping suspense or romance or witty dialogue. A lie, but one that tells the truth.

That’s what I search for as I write. That’s why I tell stories. That’s why I am passionate about literature and its ability to change the world, one person at a time, as I have been changed.


Question for you, my readers: If you’re a writer or artist (or create anything), why do you do it? 

Categories: attitude, fiction, writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Dickens on the two classes of charitable people

“We observed that the wind always changed when Mrs. Pardiggle became the subject of conversation: and it invariably interrupted Mr. Jarndyce, and prevented his going any farther, when he had remarked that there were two classes of charitable people; one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” 

Charles Dickens, Bleak House.

Two questions for you: 

One, what type of charitable person are you, and is that the type you want to be?

Two, doesn’t Mrs. Pardiggle’s name tell you what type she is?!


Categories: attitude, quotations, relationships | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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