All posts by SonWorshiper

Husband, father, worshiper, gamer, writer, singer, pianist, coffee fiend

One More Round

BlogBattle is back, and so are Grant and Teagan, the fearless duo whose fortunes and foibles in the 1930s comprise most of my entries to the competition. 

There’s plenty of time left in August’s contest, with the theme word of “Moon.” Check the link above and pen your own tale of luna-cy. 

Note: I write these as if they’re disjointed episodes of some ’50s radio show because it’s silly and amuses me to do so. 

—-

After a long hiatus, we proudly return to The Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hunter of the Horrific, Vanquisher of the Vile, and Doer of Daring Deeds! (Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

In this episode, howl with delight as–armed with only one silver bullet–Grant faces down betrayal in… “The Werewolves of Wyoming.”

Mountain Moonset, by Jessie Eastland. From Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Grant leaned against the broken stump of a felled tree, his arm propped on his knee, the dented flask in his hand reflecting the dancing firelight. His eyes glinted like gunmetal as he stared at the corpse on the other side of the fire. His other hand rested on the ground, bloodied but clutching his Magnum revolver. The normally spry man now looked like the mountains surrounding the camp—ancient, weathered, too weary to move.

Brushing back her locks of Irish red with a crimson hand, Teagan dug through the contents of her rucksack. He’s losing blood. So am I. There had to be something they could use…

She tried to ignore the fur-covered limbs and the torn waistcoat stretched across the creature’s frame. Blood soaked through the bleached shirt beneath its vest, the result of a single shot to the heart from Grant’s gun.

Unfortunately, it had taken five attempts to hit the mark. The bullets work. At least we know that. We just need more of them. 

The fire in Teagan’s calf blazed and waned with her heartbeat. A jagged hole in her trousers revealed several puncture wounds in a line. She focused on Grant and pushed her pain aside.

Grant shook the flask and the contents sloshed. “Enough for one more round, if you ladies want some Tennessee warmth.”

Teagan glared across the campfire’s radiance as Grant handed the flask to Da-Re, the meddlesome and far too fetching agent of the Empire of Japan. She brushed a hand through her raven hair and smiled. He handed it to her because she’s the closest, Teagan told herself, trying to quench the jealousy flaring in her chest. Why is she sitting so close? 

The wind picked up again, a mournful wail that tore through the pass. The next gust carried what sounded like answering voices in the dark. Thick clouds rolled low in the sky, as if the moon played peekaboo with the creatures of the night.

Da-Re took a swig and gave a hissing grimace at the alcohol’s burn. “Sorry you had to kill your friend, Mister McSwain.” She handed the flask back to Grant and pointedly avoided acknowledging Teagan’s existence.

Grant shook his head. “Roquefort was always more of a patron, wanting this or that recovered, some mystery answered.” His voice slurred, more from fatigue than the whiskey. “The wire demanding an urgent meeting to ‘renegotiate the contract’ should’ve tipped me off.”

The world lurched and Teagan’s vision spun, but she shook off the sensation and rifled through her supplies. Bandages were easy enough… she could make a number of fabric strips out of Grant’s tattered shirt from their first encounter with the beasts. If I can get my head to clear, at least… but we need something to fight off infection…

More howls reverberated through the mountains, each distinct. The pack sorting out their numbers, searching for their missing member, closing in on where they’d last heard his call.

Each voice stirred the depths of Teagan’s being, some primeval yearning for the open plains, the freedom of the wilderness, the thrill of the hunt. The ache of the wound on her calf throbbed with the resounding echoes.

Eyes closed and body drained of strength, Teagan felt her head loll forward as she fell to her hands and knees.

“They’ll be here soon,” Da-Re muttered, drawing Teagan’s attention. The slender Asian rose to her feet—with Grant’s Magnum in hand—then stooped over the furry corpse. She reached into her vest and drew forth a long metal syringe from between two vials filled with a glimmering metallic solution. Colloidal silver… a possible defense or antidote to lycanthropy?

Teagan looked at Grant, eyes blurry as if underwater. He lay on his side, unconscious but breathing. She could almost hear his heartbeat. “What did you do to him,” she asked, her voice a harsh growl.

Da-Re chuckled. “I waited. Nothing more.” She plunged the syringe into Roquefort’s corpse and pulled the slider. A line of dark red shone through the slot in the metal as the empty glass within filled with blood.

“What are you doing?”

“So many questions, Miss O’Daire.” Da-Re checked the vial, wrapped the syringe in fabric, and slid it back into her vest pocket. “The Emperor wants an army that is ready to withstand all opposition… and you’ve seen these creatures’ ferocity. If we can discover a way to harness that power without the unpleasant side effects…”

“Too dangerous,” Teagan rumbled. Talking felt so difficult. Staying lucid seemed impossible. Why was the moon so bright? “You’ve seen what it does to the victims… surely you won’t do that to your own people.”

Da-Re smirked. “We have plenty of test subjects in the lands we’ve conquered.” She tossed her pack over her shoulder. “Sayonara, Miss O’Daire. I trust I will not see you again.”

Teagan ignored the treacherous woman and crawled toward Grant. His shallow breaths sounded like rushing winds to her over-sensitive ears. He still lived. She could smell the tang of iron in his blood—far more bearable than the stink of those metallic vials Da-Re carried in her vest pouch.

“You should leave him be,” Da-Re said. “More peaceful this way. When the werewolves come, they’ll come for prey.”

Teagan’s muscles tensed, and sudden rage coursed through her. Her back arched, bones popped, and fabric tore as she turned her gaze to Da-Re. The woman looked like a silhouette with the moon—so blazingly bright and full—behind her in the sky.

Bhitseach,” Teagan growled, “they’re already here.”

She lunged across the fire, claws extended for the kill.

 

Tune in next time for Da-Re Versus O’Daire, and the Beast Within!

 

Right Privilege

It’s another Sunday morning… with another service in a nice church building where sunlight streams in through the stained-glass or colored-plastic windows…

A crowd of people shuffles in, some awkwardly mingling, others choosing spots for solitude, while some popular praise song plays through the speakers.

The band has another set of songs we’re about to play, with a lot of familiar words like “amazing” and “unfailing” and references to the usual miracles, et cetera, and so on.

Another sermon is prepped, with another take on a well-known passage, with a few solid points, some clever anecdotes or cultural references, and maybe a decent invitation to respond. It’s the Good News or whatever… but more like the Good Olds, because we’ve heard it all before.

Oh, it’s Communion Sunday too, so there’s another stack of serving trays with another round of thumb-sized disposable plastic cups of grape juice and another batch of white fibrous wafers.

Another week in the house of God.

Not just any god… THAT God. You know the One… the “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life john three sixteen” God.

Yep.

The first song on the list is “This is Amazing Grace” by… well, I didn’t check, but no one’s going to care. It’s upbeat. It’s a perfect
“get the blood pumping” song. It’s familiar to the congregation. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and all that.

The second song is “Do It Again” from Elevation Worship. Some people probably don’t like it because Steven Furtick says some questionable things, and good on them, because you should test all things and throw out anything that isn’t one hundred percent of God. But it’s a song about how “Your promise still stands, great is Your faithfulness” and that sort of thing, and that’s pretty good. Reminds me of the old hymn and stuff.

The third song is “Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)” with its pretentious two titles thing going on. Artsy songwriters know that two titles means the song has depth. As the second title implies, the John Newton refrain figures in, with only the 900th alteration to the melody, 890 of which are probably Chris Tomlin songs.

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that I’m not going to bother typing because we both know you know the words and stopped reading already.”

Sermon is preached. Elements are distributed. Do this in remembrance of Me. Sing the closing song. The Lord bless you and keep you. You’re dismissed.

Church services as spiritual shampoo: lather, rinse, repeat a week later.

They say familiarity breeds contempt, but I think familiarity breeds complacency and presumption. It feels like we’re singing, “This is the same old grace… this is expected love…”

We might as well be, if we’re just going through the motions because ‘this is what Christians do.’

In preparing for this particular service, I thought about how ho-hum my heart can get about the Gospel. Growing up in church, being a part of worship teams for years, there’s a risk that I am so accustomed to the good news that it’s no longer good nor new. It’s just “what it is.”

In Luke 7, Jesus has dinner with some religious leaders as they’re trying to sort out who this upstart is and what is He really preaching. A woman with a bad reputation bursts into the scene, falls at His feet, weeps over her sinful state, washes His feet with her tears, and wipes His feet with her hair… and all the while, the
religious folk are like, “Dude, doesn’t He know what kind of nasty skank is touching Him?”

Jesus talks about two debtors, both of whom had their debts forgiven. One owed twenty bucks, the other five hundred. (Yeah, I’m paraphrasing. If you’re getting hung up on “well actually He said” then I implore you to stick with me and consider my point, not the particular unimportant details.)

“Which one do you think would be more grateful,” Jesus asks. Well duh, obviously the person who owed five hundred. Jesus agrees, and explains that “whoever has been forgiven much, loves much.” He also calls out the religious folk, as usual, and reaches out to the outcast, as usual.

(In fact, it strikes me that the forgiveness goes in reverse compared to what Jesus describes. He forgives the woman AFTER she expresses all this passionate brokenness and worship.)

I think on any given Sunday, I tend to come in feeling fat, dumb, and happy spiritually – if I’m feeling anything spiritual at all. Most often, I’m probably just distracted and ready to get on with the rest of the day. I’m so used to the fact that God loves us, and has a plan to prosper us, and works all things together for our good, and… yeah,
all those promises that still stand, according to the song. I don’t need to know what they are or think about them, I’ll just sing that they still stand, and that’s pretty good, right?

No.

Paul calls me out when he writes to the Ephesians (Eph 2:1-4) and says, “Hey, remember? You were DEAD in your trespasses and sins, walking or even being carried along with the current of the world,
under the power of darkness. We all lived according to the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling our desires, being in our very nature children of wrath, doomed to punishment.”

Remember?

“BUT GOD, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love…”

We’ve been bought out of slavery, saved from condemnation, given a new life and a new hope, all our garbage and filth and sin exchanged for the pure, clean, stainless, righteousness of Christ before God… and yet all those words sound like more of the same-old.

Without getting too political, I think of the concept of “white privilege” and discussions of race relations. I don’t come from a culture that has a strong, recent history of slavery or past prejudice
affecting my current situation. I’ve got it pretty good where I live… both culturally and spiritually.

How often do I show up to church and enjoy my “Right Privilege” as a
Christian? Am I so accustomed to the message of the Gospel that it’s no longer amazing? Just kind of accepted, just assumed? Is the grace of God expected? Is the love God shows deserved? If I’m honest with myself, is that where I’m at?

Is it even a thought in our minds that the God of the Universe made provision for us, coming down to intervene in our wayward path, redirecting us from the course of sin and death on which we walked? Is that something we consider, or something we’ve heard so many times that our reaction and reception becomes empty and hollow?

“I love you.” Yeah yeah I know.

“I love you.” Right.

“I love you.” Got it.

“I love you.” Haha, are you just going to keep saying that?

“But I love you.” I mean, as well you should.

“But I love you.” But we kind of knew that already. That’s who You
are, isn’t it? God IS love. It says so.

We act like our grace is earned and no response is required. That’s
woefully mistaken.

“I love you.”  Ugh. Thanks, but I’m busy. I’ll get back to you.

How about same time next week?

Tune Out

Another spoken word, emotional venting piece as I think about the accomplishments I’ve done and the things I should be proud of but I’m not.

People say nice things, and I assume they’re just being polite, or they don’t know the “real” me. When people express even the smallest hints of frustration or disappointment, part of me gets defensive like they’re calling my whole life into question, and part of me agrees with them that I’m the worst.

I know none of those voices are really true, nor do they capture all the complexities of interpersonal relationships, but it’s hard not to believe the stories that emotion and fear try to tell.

For example: Since the head librarian of the base library is a friend in the local writing group and a NaNoWriMo participant, she was happy to take a copy of each of my self-published novels to put on the shelf. I assumed they’d be lost in the back somewhere, but then a co-worker told me, “Hey, my wife saw your books on the shelf at the library today!” The staff put them with new releases on display near the front of the library.

Which SHOULD be “Oh wow, that’s cool.” Not everyone can say that… but instead, it feels like, “That’s nice, but give it a month, and then they will actually disappear into the back, just like I thought.”

A fellow writer and friend has also self-published, and we both talk about how it feels like something “less than a real writer,” like a video game achievement unlocked with an asterisk noting that you were cheating while playing.

People can find us on Amazon. How many people can say that? Surely that counts for something, doesn’t it? “But anyone can upload a pile of word-vomit onto Kindle Direct Publishing and have a so-called ‘book,’ so…”

I know I shouldn’t listen to those thoughts. But they’re my thoughts.

I might record this like I did with The Basement.  If you’d like that, let me know in a comment, and since I’m a sucker for external validation, I’ll probably do it.

Tune Out 

How do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

Got a couple books sitting up on the library shelf
That’s really tight oh right I just published myself
Got a check that they pay me to come to the chapel and play
Takin money to do a job I’d do for free any day
Just a sub, just a fill in, just doin’ a couple months’ stay
Doesn’t matter, I kill it ’til they come and take it away
Got a job where I got to the top of the intel op game
But it’s just an additional duty I do on the plane
Who I am and who big Air Force wants, well it isn’t the same
And I’m not gonna grind myself down ’til I end up insane
Any more than I already am, if you know what I mean
Which you do if you’re seein these words that I type on the screen
I’m not tryna pretend I belong to some emo rap scene
I’m just tryin’ to square up my feelings and intervene
‘Cause I know that nobody can change me or fix all my mess
And I say that I want to be changed when I pause to confess
All the garbage and failure and choices that causin’ me stress
Guess I’d think that if I didn’t like this, be doin’ it less
All the things that I do for which people may even applaud
Serve the highlight the ways that I feel like my life is a fraud
Like I’m not who they think, like I’m not what I try to portray
Heck, I’m not even living up to all the rules of the game
If I can’t even live out the truth of the words that I say
Then what have I got in the way of a valuable name?
Everything that I’m doing runs counter to what I proclaim

So how do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

All the things I wanna see
All the things I’ll never be
All the praise they say of me
Should be cause for revelry
But because I don’t believe
It’s a joy I don’t receive
It’s a faded memory
Like a haunting melody
Of an opportunity
That’s forever out of reach
And the voices whisperin’
Like a spreading malady
I don’t think I can be free
From the voice inside of me
From the weak and desperate plea
For a lifeline on this sea
Of shifting anxiety
Crippling fears and then worry
What if everyone could see
What I keep inside of me
What I never will release
All the truth I won’t repeat
All the doubts that never cease
All the foes I can’t defeat
No one knows this side of me
But it shows up when I sleep
Voices rising from the deep
All the secrets that I keep
All the darkness starts to creep
Up in my soul into a heap
Of regrets that make me weep
Choking out the air I breathe
Keeping out the Voice I need
While doubt plants another seed
Of depression over deeds
And mistakes that make me bleed
In a way you’ll never see
Pouring out internally
Over all the parts of me

Tell me
How do I tune out the voices when I’m the one speaking?
How do I push out these thoughts when I’m the one thinking?
How do I find the peace I say that I’m seeking
When I keep diving into the pit, now it feels like I’m sinking
Got a comf’table spot sitting pretty up under this shade
That I throw at myself, I don’t need you to pile on the hate
Got enough of my own, Poured a full glass of haterade
Gonna drink it on down, there’s a whole ‘nother pitcher I made

Tomatoes and Cretins

I hate tomatoes.

I always have. I don’t know why.

They’re disgusting. They’re wet, nasty chunks of blegh. They pollute everything with their slimy seeds, so that even if you pluck them off your burger or salad, you still end up tasting them.

Farmer’s Market I, by Karl Thomas Moore, shared under Creative Commons license

Actually, tasting the flavor isn’t the problem. I love ketchup and
pizza sauce; I even like tomato soup so long as it’s smooth liquid
instead of being filled with pieces.

I used to hate peppers the same way I hate tomatoes—for as long as I
can remember. I would find diced green peppers in an omelet or larger slices in some oriental dish then set them to the side of the plate in revulsion. Tabasco sauce? How about Tabasc-NO. Peppers, I felt certain, were the worst… almost as bad as tomatoes.

Salsa was pure hell, chunky style.

Then one day I tried some Tabasco sauce on a bit of meat cooked on a campfire, and it was amazing. A few years later, I had no option but
to eat a meal with diced green peppers mixed all throughout. They
added a great flavor to one of my favorite dishes, and I had to
reconsider my ridiculous food aversions.

Sometimes the things we “know” with absolute certainty from a young age are actually false. Sometimes, we’re just reinforcing mistakes we’ve made or bad beliefs we’ve accepted as fact–to the extent that we’ll actually argue with people about them.

It’s pretty stupid, but it feels so sensible at the time.

I found myself in that position (yet again) last week when a friend
used the word, “cretin” in a way I thought didn’t quite fit. “That’s
not what that word means,” I proclaimed.

(As a writer, of course I know all manner of important things about
words and their meanings, both subjective and literal.)

Maybe from context clues, kid’s cartoons, or childhood assumptions, I took “cretin” to mean something along the lines of “villain” or
“troublemaker.”

“Is that what it means?” my friend asked. “I thought it meant ‘idiot.’”

To the Google-machines!

He was right. The answer flashed onto the screen.

Cretin. Noun. 1. (informal, offensive) a stupid person (used as a
general term of abuse).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines our modern use of ‘cretin’ as:
“(informal) a stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person: clod, lout”

Google also showed us the Urban Dictionary definition: “A person that is: brainless, stupid, child-like, and full of pointless information
that makes no sense and appeals only to other cretins.”

Now, I won’t recommend Urban Dictionary as the go-to for defining
words—especially while at work, where your network usage might be monitored or scrutinized. That said, their definition struck home for me in an unexpected way.

How often does my faith get wrapped up in child-like arguments and
pointless information? How much do I get wrapped up in nit-pick
debates about politics and living out the Christian faith? How many
discussions quibbling over theological details have I dived into on
Facebook? How many tweets have I fired back in response to a
disagreement over something that doesn’t matter?

In the Church, we find so many reasons to disagree and dispute, to
decide and deride and divide. We split into denominations as often as we split hairs. We say nice things about how “those believers are
pretty good and all,” but we know deep down that they’re missing out on so much (which, thankfully, God has revealed to none other than us).

I wonder at the division over politics and other issues in our
country, and then I realize how often we have the same mentality and spirit operating within the Church. At worst, we demonize the other denominations, highlighting all their faults and flaws while hiding our own. At best, we engage in lengthy dialogues about minor details – which method is best, what style is ideal, what personal subjective preference should everyone take as objectively superior, and so on.

As I considered how wrong I was—while feeling absolutely convinced I was correct–about the meaning of ‘cretin,’ I wrote the following in my journal:

Am I a cretin about the things of God? Do I focus my attention on the little details that matter nothing in the grand scheme of eternity? Do I focus on whether tongues is this or that, whether one can say or sing “Reckless Love” and be theologically sound, whether the Trinity is best described in this or that complex explanation instead of a simple albeit imperfect analogy? Do I get wrapped around these silly details while missing the point of the much greater matters?

I think of the Pharisees and their tithing of mint, cumin, rosemary, and whatever else… And Jesus looks at them like, “Yeah, ok, you do those things, and that’s great. But how about justice, mercy, compassion? Have you thought about doing THOSE things?”

Are we a bunch of religious cretins today?

Are we missing out on something God has provided for us to enjoy or called us to do?

Are we standing around debating which is the proper oil to use in our lanterns, while the Bridegroom passes by?

He sets a table for us, a wonderful feast to which we’ve been invited.
Am I in a tizzy over how the silverware is placed or the quality and
color of the tablecloth?

Am I pushing away the plate like a child, scrunching up my face
because I just KNOW that I hate tomatoes?

Headphones

Here’s another spoken word style poem I wrote over the last few days… thinking of the tape or the playlist that often goes on in the back of our minds, calling out our failures and playing off our doubts. This one has a decidedly Christian bent — while acknowledging the negative thoughts that sparked the idea for the poem, I didn’t want to wallow in them.

HEADPHONES

Shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the sound I don’t mind the prison
And the feeling of coming unbound like light in a prism
When the beat is starting to pound against the system
I feel like I can rebound –  I will not be a victim

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put the phones in, Try to home in
On the feelings and the voices that keep dronin’
All the echoing whispers condoning
Condemning thoughts I’m alone in
Awash in a well of emotion
Where I wade with the weight of the burden
And the heaviness hurts ‘til I’m groaning
But I keep it inside like I’m owning
All the pain that I hide when I’m hurtin’

So many voices, so many words
So many streams of empty air
Saying the same old things that I’ve heard
There ain’t nothin’ new out there
Under the sun, feel like I’m done
Broken down in disrepair
Thoughts that I shun come back and run
All through my head and leave me bare
Without a prayer,
Carry the care you wouldn’t dare reveal and share
All that you bear, ditch the despair
Don’t let ‘em see the wear and tear
Don’t let it scare the unaware
Wouldn’t be fair—not their nightmare

Just turn up the music and sway to the beat
Try to confuse all the voices that speak
Drown them in tunes that you put on repeat
Try to refuse to believe their deceit
All the abuse ‘cause they see you as weak
All the excuses you make for defeat
All the regrets leaving you incomplete
All of the fears from which you retreat

We’re all listenin’ to our own playlist
S’posed to listen more, try to say less,
But the voice in my head is a sadist
And the man in the mirror’s a menace
So I walk with my head down dejected
When my life goes to hell as expected
All the chances I dodged and deflected
And the burdens and shame that I’m left with
Tried to pass off the blame, got rejected
By the masses my game disrespected
And I’m groping for hope resurrected
But my options remain unaffected
‘Cause I’m leaving the efforts neglected
That would cure all my sickness—infected
By the ego that won’t be corrected
So I keep to myself, disconnected
While I’m tellin’ myself I’m protected
By the stories and lies I’ve collected
‘Cause the liar inside misdirected
And my purpose has been intercepted

Shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the sound I don’t mind the prison
And the feeling of coming unbound like light in a prism
When the beat is starting to pound against the system
I feel like I can rebound –  I will not be a victim

But the playlist just keeps on repeatin’
All the ways that my sin’s got me beaten
All the failures and falls got me bleedin’
All the hopes and the dreams are receding
‘Til the song and the voices I’m hearin’
With their mocking and laughing and jeering
They get lost in the sudden appearing
Of a radiant Champion clearing
All of the fog and the doubt and depression
Turning my eyes from my inward obsession
Toward the prize beyond any possession
That He purchased for us through redemption
Every sin every failure—you name it
It’s been stamped with His Name ‘cause He paid it
The whole list is now His, He forgave it
Powerless to condemn ‘cause He nailed it
To the cross where He bought our salvation
And I need to get this revelation
That the God who says “No condemnation”
Is rejoicing in celebration
Over us and our consecration
As He’s working toward sanctification
Now that we are His brand new creation
And the echoes that kept up their whisp’rin’
Kept on pickin’ on me and all my sin
Well He shut off those tunes and He put in
A playlist called “Fully forgiven”
His mercies – they’re new every sunrise
His love – you’re the apple of His eyes
His grace – it cannot be diminished
His work on the cross – it is finished
‘Cause along with the song that He’s singin’
There’s a message of hope that He’s bringin’

So shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the voice that freed me from prison
And the glory in which I rejoice like light in a prism
When Your mercy and grace overpower my limited vision
And Your Spirit alive in me shouts that this corpse is now risen
When the power of love You have shown has shattered the system
Through the favor and grace You bestowed
When You took my place and embraced the disgrace as a victim

So I take out the earbud a minute
And I think about what’s playin’ in it
And I know it’s not for me alone
That’s why I pick up this microphone

 

Writing for Non-Writers

Last week, I facilitated a discussion on Writing for Non-Writers as part of our base library’s summer reading program. Our librarian knew I had been published in a couple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul and thought I might have a few lessons learned or tips for folks who would never call themselves writers, but might have interesting stories to tell. Thanks to a few eager participants, we enjoyed an energetic discussion and exercised our creative muscles.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

(Quote boxes are composed of inputs others offered as we discussed the topic.)

Intro: You may not feel like a writer, but chances are you’re a story-teller. Story is the vehicle for how we communicate our lives and share our experiences with one another. What if you put some of those stories in writing instead of merely sharing them in person?

Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT STORIES?

“Stories validate you and help you connect. Our stories can help others find their way or enjoy new experiences.”

Power of Story: We process random circumstance into narratives. We tell people stories about ourselves and create stories to explain life. It’s why conspiracy theories have so much strength.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw the other day…”  Yeah? Tell me about it. “So there I was, minding my own business, nursing my cup of coffee, when this crazy guy comes in…”

“I have to tell you about my trip to the store, oh my gosh—UNBELIEVABLE!” But it’s totally believable, depending on the skill or the passion of the story-teller. We expect a hilarious and unexpected ride on the struggle bus… so we lean forward, smile, and wait for the laughs.

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY BAD?

Not tragic / dark, but “turn off Netflix / put the book in the bin” bad?

“A story is bad when there’s too much or too little detail. If it’s too complex, with pages of description…  and on the other hand, if there’s not enough information, it’s hard to relate.”

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD?

“When we can see it happen, when we feel the buildup and climax, when we can apply our story to the story or feel ourselves being IN the story.”

Does a good story mean having an interesting character? Often, WE are the characters; we can’t help if we’re interesting or not.

What about an interesting event? Not necessarily; a good story can be about a mundane event told in an interesting way.

How about a relatable event? At the very least, something that connects to the specific message or point, like an analogy.

Good stories often show how someone grew or changed as a result.

Interesting telling. No rambling, side jaunts, or rabbit trails. Stories usually have direction and purpose. Think of a testimony at church, or a blog post with a life lesson. These often have a three-part structure:

  1. How things were (I didn’t think of myself as creative, or worth listening to)
  2. What happened (I met some folks who showed me how to write well)
  3. How things changed (I ended up submitting to Chicken Soup and got published!)

Tell it with your voice. Write what you might speak. How would you tell a friend? Tell that same story to the paper or screen.

“You can always revise! It might be trash but it can become better.”

Q: HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?

Have you ever asked a kid to tell you a scene in a movie?

“So the bad guy did this, but then the hero came in, but wait–so before that, there was this one guy, and he said to the lady–um, she is the friend of this other dude who shows up at the beginning of the movie but then the shark eats him–the shark is the one from the aquarium but it got out because the bad guy opened up the doors on the tank so that he could–wait, so there is this secret message…”

“What is relevant to the story? That’s all you need.” 

Concrete = convincing… to a point.

Which sounds better?

“A hot cup of coffee” or “a steaming cup of Sumatra dark roast”?

“A Dachshund the color of cinnamon,” or “a brown dog”?

Only the most important adjectives, not all possible descriptors. Convey the point, not the entire movie.

“Seventeen long-forgotten, cheap, thin, old, wet, dog-eared, ink-smudged, blue-and-white-speckled Composition-style notebooks…”

While it paints a clear picture, that might be too much–certainly far more than is necessary unless the story hinges on all those details.

Use all five senses. We focus on the eyes and ears like we’re describing the movie in our heads. We’re used to the cinema, but the world has smells, feelings, textures, tastes…

Someone might say, “Well, I’m not a writer.”

“I’m not going to make up stories and worlds and stuff like that.”

Great!

Q: HAS ANYONE TRIED JOURNALING?

A journal gives us a place for processing the junk in our lives… A chance to be “honest” in a way we may not in public. Pour out the words onto a page and tell it like it is. Keep it private so you can unload and release. If you want to go deeper, try exploring what comes up when you ask yourself a series of “why” questions like a three-year-old.

I feel like they took advantage of me. Why?
Because they didn’t say thank you and that bothers me. Why?
I want to know that what I do has value. Why?
I don’t want to waste my time on things that don’t matter. Why?
I feel like there are too many things I don’t have time for which matter to me, and if I’m wasting my time on people that don’t care about the effort I put in, then I don’t want to do those things…

“A journal is a perfect place for the ‘bad’ emotions – we can vent our hate or anger.”

Q: ANYONE HAVE PERSONAL / FAMILY MEMORIES THEY STRUGGLE TO RECALL?

What about keeping a family journal? How many times have we lost important memories? “Grandad had all these great stories, but I didn’t pay attention back then, and I don’t remember them now…”

We can write down important details to keep for ourselves or pass down to our kids.

Mom? How did you meet Dad?

What was it like before the Internet?

The day I got the good news about…

I remember where I was when…

Kadena AB, 2012
This was a story worth telling.

The day I got an F-15 incentive ride, I went home and wrote down all the details I could in order to capture the memory. I knew I would forget details over the years, even though it’s one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in my life. (Full disclosure, I actually wrote things down later in the week. That detail doesn’t matter to the story so we can fudge it a bit without losing anything.)

What about hilarious conversations with kids? How about the silly things they say when they first start speaking?

We think we’ll have these moments forever in our minds, but the hard drives in our brains get corrupted and fragmented pretty easily, and time passes quick.

(I made an Avengers: Infinity War reference at the workshop, talking about our memories flaking into ash and fading away… and not one of the participants had seen the movie. What a wasted analogy!!!)

These ideas and writings may not lead to a book deal, but they may prove satisfying in a way we didn’t expect, meeting a need we didn’t realize we had.

EXERCISE

(I put on some soft instrumental music and read the following directions and questions.)

Close your eyes for a minute and think of a happy memory. Relive it for a moment. Pay attention to the details.

Where are you?

What’s happening?

What objects do you see?

Who is with you?

What does it sound like?

What does it smell like?

How do you feel in that moment?

Why is this glimpse so special?

The Basement

I’ve been listening to too much NF (lies! I love all his music) and the Mansion reference at the beginning of this is aimed at his first big album. All his albums and singles are great, and worth checking out.

I am also a fan of spoken-word style poetry with loose structure, soft rhymes, and rhythmic phrasing. I occasionally write such pieces as the lyrical equivalent of emotional venting on a given subject or feeling.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the human condition and the “bad wolf” in the popular analogy about two wolves. Really, I wrote it to ensure I sent something in for our critique group, but it led to some conversation and deeper thoughts after the meeting.

We talked about whether there was something “more” in the proverbial basement, psychologically speaking. While I can’t claim any significant trauma or tragedy in my past, I do habitually shove my frustrations and emotions down to shut them up–partly because I try to pick battles worth fighting, and partly because I try too hard to avoid conflict.

All that stuff festers and builds up, if not checked or dealt with. Contemplating that led to this bit of “poetry.”

The Basement

To borrow from Mansion, maybe build an expansion

I’m considering action toward the house that I’m trapped in,

all these feelings I’ve wrapped in the lines that I’ve crapped in

to documents tapping the keys like I’m rapping

but I know I’m lacking—-Lotsa talk but no backing,

lotsa thoughts but still slacking, lotsa dreams but they’re stacking

like firewood packed in a shack getting racked up

for hacking to kindling I’m axing the questions

I’m tracking the lessons but passing up chances

amassing like cancer, outlasting the answer

by lapsing in trances and grasping at fancies

and fables and falsehoods in fashion

like all of the lies that I cash in

when I choose to live out excuses

and act satisfied when I know that I tried

with far less than the best of my passion

 

I know there’s something in the basement, but I thought I boarded that door,

Did I make a mistake in the placement, did I open a hole in the floor?

Don’t you think that’s some kind of statement, do you wanna know what came before?

Maybe this goes beyond entertainment, we ain’t creative writing no more

When the fear or the pain or the hatred rears its head through the holes that it tore

I don’t know if I can restrain it if I open up down to my core

If I can’t even start to explain it, how could I hope to win such a war

All these white-washed walls’ll be painted blood-red with emotional gore

some kind of lore, some kind of more that I’ve held back in store,

some kind of knowledge encountered before,

maybe I took a mental detour,

maybe I turned something painful I learned,

some experience earned,

some life lesson I spurned,

like a victim got burned,

a prisoner blamed and unnamed,

restrained and contained

 

Like a blur that you see for a minute

at the edge of peripheral vision

but when you turn your eye to look in it

what you thought was right there—now it isn’t

and the hairs on your neck start to raisin’

like there’s someone behind you appraising

all the weakness in you, like he’s gazing

at the prey that he’s planning on tasting

And those holes in the floor are his ceiling,

when he’s looking at them I start feeling

like he’s reaching up through it and stealing

all the joy and the possible healing

all the good things I say, he rewrites em,

all the good deeds I do, redefines em,

absolution? he keeps it behind him

in the dark where he knows I won’t find him,

and his voice echoes up from the stairwell

with a challenge he knows I won’t bear well,

“Wanna come down and play Show and Don’t Tell?”

‘cause he tells me confession won’t fare well

all the pain in my heart, I will hold it,

try to trap it, collapse it, enfold it

in a poem or song where I’ve told it,

in a part but never the full bit,

that would take recognizing the whole of role

of the beast that retreats to my soul pit

and I’d rather just give it the bullet,

got my hand on the trigger—can’t pull it,

so it stays in the place where I placed it,

I guess it’s the guest in the basement

Crawl Space Inside, by Newell Post. (Public Domain)

Human Con Diction

They say to channel your anger, don’t keep it inside,

just like a plane in the hangar, when it’s meant to fly,

but I think there’s a danger, I might be that guy

who acts all nice to the stranger and makes the ones I love cry

But hey I’ll deal with it later, apologize,

‘cuz that makes it all better, so I rationalize

My temperament is unstable, my excuses are lies,

my lack of discipline fatal, so opportunity dies

My hopes and dreams are pre-natal,

and they end up aborted;

my discernment and wisdom is vision distorted,

I can’t afford to reward it,

my sins and tormentors lord it

over issues unsorted,

all my pain transported

in the feelings I’ve hoarded

in these phrases I’ve worded

to call out all the failings

with hostility nailing

all the ill in me trailing

through the wake of debris

of my life that I’m trying not to see

never looking back

that works out well for me

never have regrets, I can’t tell—

are they just buried?

I don’t know what’s wrong with me

Who or what am I supposed to be?

Where’s the results that I wanna see, can’t achieve

Unless I change and gain maturity, it’s hurting me,

Here I am still struggling

It’s the same old stuff I’m fighting with

past 40, still a kid how I live

the attention I should give leaking out like water through a sieve

feeling drained because of this, how it is

purposefully purposeless,

watch it slip, like a dress,

I can’t cover all my mess

all the flaws I should address,

All the junk I should correct,

All the stuff inside collects

Until it’s piled high I guess, I confess,

It’s easier to focus less

Try to medicate the stress and not regress

But then I fail again, can’t get any rest

No reprieve, no relief from no good me,

I’m becoming my worst enemy,

I can see that who I am on the daily

Can easily defeat the man I say I wanna be

taking it on the chin from within,

it’s my own weakness that does me in

selfishness and lack of discipline

I let the bad wolf win and take him in

Pour a bowl full of kibbles out for him

For a bit, just to get me through today

While the good wolf starves and wastes away

Like a stray, like prey, he’s kept at bay

By the way that I stay inside and play

To escape all the things that call my name

All the needs and the deeds that I proclaim

Are my hopes and my dreams that I’ll one day claim

But my efforts and actions remain the same

Like the game is about the fear and doubt

And they’re winning every inning, every round, every bout,

Grinning as I’m sinning and they’re pinning me – I’m knocked out

Rocked back, blocked out, cock my fist and try to shout

but I’m not fighting back,

Once again, I’m way off track,

Like a rope with too much slack,

Slouching like a sack of burdens on my back

That’s the luggage that I pack,

Learning that I have a knack for leaning on the thing I lack

Day Fourteen: Supporting Actors

Day Fourteen in the “30 Days of D&D” challenge is Favorite NPC.

Players are the heroes, the stars of the epic adventure, upon whom the spotlight shines and about whom the story is meant to be told.

Non-Player Characters are supporting actors filling up the world, the “everybody else,” almost always played by the DM. Whether it’s the innkeeper or the salty guard captain or the evil necromancer raising an undead army, the NPCs are there to spice up the game and create interaction, but they’re not meant to steal the show.

When played well, some NPCs can still garner significant attention and affection from the group–either as a trusted ally or a hated foe.

I know I’ve done something right when the party keeps bringing up the name of someone they’ve encountered, and several have achieved that status.

Faelynn, the washed-up, binge-drinking former leader of a band of rival heroes, is one my players reference for laughs.

The leader of a small quest-hub town is a guy whose Pathfinder miniature figurine is like fantasy Nick Fury holding two axes over his shoulders. My daughter threatened to disown me for not calling him “Samuel El-Axen” from the moment he entered the scene… and that is now his name.

I wrote about Fleuris the good necromancer and Asslya the mentally scarred spirit-talker, both of which I love to add to the mix.

Right now, my favorite NPC is a little male goblin no wait male halfling no wait female elf sorcerer who has a knack for getting reincarnations off that Wild Magic surge table.

Early on in the game, the low-level heroes found out that some goblins were sneaking into the town and filching supplies. The PCs followed the tunnel to the goblins’ lair and had a good fight with some ranged magic users and archers. I took advantage of the description of “booyahg” as the goblins’ limited understanding of magic in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and so I really wanted to bring that out in the game.

One of the goblin casters got a fumble. Yes, I’ve been using fumbles on nat 1s and crits on nat 20s, combined with a crit hit deck and fumble deck which are unfortunately designed around 3.5 rules. The fumble card I drew said “Wild Magic surge,” and had some minor bad effect… but that seemed like perfect justification to roll on the surge table for the goblin.

Come to think of it, unless I misread it, Volo’s says that you roll every time the goblins cast, because they suck at magic. Or maybe that’s how I wanted to read it. 

I rolled the effect that grants an immediate cast of reincarnation if the creature dies within one minute. Needless to say, the PCs knew that caster = bad, and my poor goblin wasn’t long for this world.

They flipped out when suddenly a cloud of light enveloped the dead goblin and it got up as a halfling, then ran to hide in a secluded room of the cavern. The bloodthirsty players charged toward the hiding goblin halfling, ready to strike… until a pathetic attempt I made at distracting them actually made them feel pity for this little guy.

Cue role-playing, lengthy discussions of “Are you REALLY going to try to change and not be evil?” and warnings that they would be watching his every move. Based on the cloud of light, we named the halfling “Brightborn,” and he guided the PCs through the rest of the cave.

Well… he also accidentally dropped a fireball on top of himself and the party, then played it off as a sign of power from the chaotic evil gods, shouting, “I AM THE EMISSARY OF KURNN!”

He popped up a few more times over the course of many sessions, most recently via a handwritten note to come to the Laughing Mountain Inn and “look for the elf.”

They enter and find a blonde female who waves them over. “Hey guys, it’s me,” she whispers with a nervous grin. “I’m the emissary of Kurnn and all that. So… um… you won’t believe what happened…”

Day Thirteen: Sum of the Parts

Day Thirteen of “30 Days of D&D” is Favorite Trap / Puzzle.

I’ve clearly fallen victim to the traps of life and distractions since I’m a few days behind. Time to fix this! Sleep? Who needs sleep?

Favorite trap… you mean, other than the mimic chest to catch the greedy PC who loots the bodies and the treasure in the middle of a battle?

I’m going to extend “trap” to “potentially harmful terrain features” rather than the by-the-book definition. One of my favorite moments involved a dungeon with conduits of power pumping magical energies into something deep below.

I used some of a Dungeon Tiles set, and found a long straight one, with a hall maybe six squares wide. Two rows of four pillars filled the space, each with enough room to maneuver between them.

I figured this would make for a narrow chokepoint that might force the players to be in a little danger… especially when one or two of the columns randomly flared with damaging magical energy, zapping anyone around it. A d8 roll would tell me which pillars to flare, keeping it random and chaotic.

It didn’t all go the way I planned. The players used smart tactics to minimize their exposure to the area effect, and they tore down the monsters in the encounter quite easily.

The best moment came when the Tiefling cleric studied those pillars.

“Ok… I know I don’t have a prehensile tail, but… can I maybe wrap my tail around a pillar and use Arcana and my skill with magic to maybe channel the energy into something harmful? I know it’ll hurt me some…”

Uhh, YES. Gimme a roll…

I’m not saying it was an effective trap, just a fun one.

Puzzles on the other hand… I’ve included a few along the way. I gave one of my players the equivalent of a cryptoquiz, where a message was scrambled by using a simple cipher using a special font full of strange runes.

In the course of running a few campaigns over the years, I’ve always wanted to include a puzzle item related to a major quest, where the players start finding pieces with little to no explanation other than whatever they get from Arcana or History checks and such…

Some of these would do nicely.

And then more of the bad guys end up having these things which are clearly connected, and some bad guys are searching for the pieces lost deep in ancient ruins and flooded dungeons, or taken by tribes of feral, cannibal gnomes…

Of course, the idea is that piecing the puzzle together is the key to stopping the Big Bad and the evil plan that threatens the realm. Players being players, I suppose it could also be the key to becoming the Big Bad and threatening the realm.

By the way, if you haven’t seen this or don’t really know what D&D is about, this video explains it really well. Also, if you’re looking for a way to explain D&D to a newbie, or to try to convince your religious friend that you’re not summoning demons in the basement, this might help: