Of Saints, Freaks, and Weird-Looking Lizard Guys

In speculative fiction as in all art, it’s important to balance realism with fantasy. Your characters may have physiologies unlike those of any creature on this planet, they may live in floating cities or carry on photosynthesis with their antennae, but their behavior and emotional lives had better ring true, and the internal logic of the secondary world had better remain consistent, or your story is sunk.

I’ve written fantasy stories for most of my adult life, and once I had kids I started taking a professional interest in the world-crafting they did through play. My son was a stickler for accuracy from a young age, especially regarding his pet subject, dinosaurs. He demanded strict realism from dino models; the sight of a poorly executed plastic lizard with a random crest or horn irritated him as badly as the word “Brontosaurus.” Once approved and in his possession, though, Daniel’s models led lives of a sort unknown to any taxonomical order or family of Reptilia, building fortresses, forming alliances, and holding feasts to rival those of the Geats and Jutes.

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We got rid of our TV when Daniel was around three and rarely saw movies; my kids’ first exposure to comic books happened in their teens. Their imaginative lives, therefore, were largely unaffected by franchises directed to children. They had to make up origin stories and sometimes names for many of the random action figures we acquired from yard sales. These included a maroon Batman, a Goliath (his back story, at least, was easy to verify), and a Riddler who sported a backpack with a capturing loop thing that could be launched over victims. Some action figure personas were mysteries to Greg and myself as well as to the kids—like Wrench Man, who wore big clamping wrench things on his shoulders for I know not what purpose, and Chief, an armor-suited guy equipped with a jet pack, a hook, and a bubble mask that could have indicated a life in space or the deep sea, or both. Most bafflingly of all, pushing a button on Chief’s back made his head flip around, changing his face to a visage only vaguely humanoid, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed with rage. To this day I have no idea what this character was supposed to be.

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Goliath has no pants. Goliath needs no pants.

It was the nineties, so Beanie Babies and their knockoffs abounded. My kids had lots of beanies and other stuffed animals, including the pragmatically-named Beanie Cow, a fox, an anteater, a mouse, and a kangaroo inexplicably called Peter in spite of the pouch he possessed. Lots of the animals had accessories or clothing; Peter the kangaroo wore a red cape I’d made from a fabric scrap, and a frog who came to us minus one eye was soon supplied with an eye patch, which had to be connected to a matching vest because an eye patch is not an easy thing to strap to the head of a frog. The eclectic stuffed animal tribe included such members as a little fabric crow from a craft store with jointed legs held on by buttons; Gwendolyn, a sassy biped of indeterminate species who wore a gold-embroidered coat; and Cuddly Chameleon, a plush, rainbow-hued fellow with a curled tail, a crested neck, and an inscrutable heavy-lidded facial expression. Cuddly was a sort of patriarch in the stuffed animal community, whimsical but wise, and always stirring things up. He was the sort of character I think of in my own writing as a catalyst. He made things happen.

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LEGO bricks and accompanying figures presented special suspension-of-disbelief problems. Daniel had lots of minifigs, including characters from the Rock Raiders, Johnny Thunder, and King Leo’s Castle storylines. He didn’t have a complete Star Wars set, but Anna had a random Chewbacca who ran around with the other characters. Anna and Emilie also had lots of Belville sets, featuring princesses, a prince, a king and queen, a couple of infants, and assorted fauna. In my daughters’ storyverse, most of the Belville humans were either stupid or evil, as suggested by their facial expressions; the only sympathetic characters were princesses Flora and Elena, the horses, the cats, and a carrot-clutching rabbit. The difference in scale between Belville figures and standard minifigs is substantial; even the rabbit towered over Johnny Thunder. This had to be accounted for when the worlds met.

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And meet they did—not just Belville and minifigs, but dinos, Beanie babies, everyone. The handling of the crossover stories interested me greatly. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith”; J.R.R. Tolkien preferred the paradigm of secondary belief based on the inner consistency of the fictional reality. Whatever we call this aesthetic action, we can agree that certain conditions have to be met in order for it to occur, and that credibility can only be stretched so far. An audience or reader may suspend disbelief for ghosts, or aliens, or leprechauns, but ordinarily not for all three in the same story.

My children’s toy collections formed a system of worlds, each equipped with a complex history and mythos, discrete and independent but able to meet and interact through special circumstances. For the most part, conflicting fantastic elements in crossover stories were handled with the breezy nonchalance that made Joss Whedon’s Avengers so much fun. Discrepancies between worlds were cheerfully acknowledged and remarked on but not belabored with heavy-handed explanations.

The stories concerning these characters were long and intricate. Often Daniel and Anna would “play” without actually having the toys present, just by talking through a story scenario. The two of them would go outside and sit on the swings and just talk. They didn’t swing or run around or multitask in any way. They were story-crafting, and that took concentration.

One day while out and about, we happened upon some likely additions to the stuffed animal ’verse. I don’t remember whether they were real Beanie Babies or knockoffs, but I seem to recall some of them being smaller than standard beanies, real micro-guys of three inches or so. They were all reptilian, and—oh, the joy!—one of them had the same rainbow pelt as Cuddly Chameleon! He wasn’t a chameleon himself; he was more of an iguana-type guy. There were some quasi-chameleons in the group, but their pelts had blue and green splotches. Still, these animals were clearly meant to go home with the Midkiffs.

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On the way home I listened to the sounds of play coming from the back seat of the Suburban. I heard this sort of thing all the time but always found it interesting. With only three young actors to voice a multitude of characters, much had to be done in the way of tone, timbre, syntax, and so on, and new dialogue had to be consistent with a character’s history.

These efforts were collaborative and somewhat spontaneous, but usually Daniel directed things. He was doing that now, and his vision was clear. The gist of the story was that the little reptiles were worried about going to their new home. They knew their bodily configurations did not conform to those of any factual animals. They knew they were about to meet a community of toys awaiting them. And they were afraid.

“Look at us!” one little reptile wailed in Daniel’s voice. “We’re freaks!”

I don’t know what made Daniel deal head-on with the realism issue that day, but I do think the decision marked a leap in his maturation as a storyteller. He actually had a bunch of self-aware stuffed animals pondering the nature of their existence. What species are we, exactly? Are we iguanas? Chameleons? Geckos? Why do some of us have these serrated sail things running down our backs while others do not? And what’s up with these weird colors? What’s the matter with us?

Of course we don’t want to get carried away with realism in storytelling. Give it too much weight and you will soon be observing that in the real world you do not see rabbits taller than Chewbacca, or kangaroos taller than that, or Chewbacca at all, or any animals that talk or willingly wear capes, and soon after that you will be giving up play altogether. Daniel didn’t take things that far. What I found so interesting was that in his exploration of the realism problem, he focused on the freakish reptiles’ fear of rejection.

Social conformity is a soul-crushing thing. I’m not talking about natural law, which is here to stay whether people like it or not and is disregarded only at great peril. Social conformity might be likened to what C.S. Lewis referred to as belonging to a collective. Some people are pretty good at it. I never have been. That sounds self-congratulatory, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just true.

One of my most painful childhood memories involves an ill-advised slam book fad in sixth grade. These slam books were spiral notebooks in which friends and classmates could record their opinions about various topics, including teachers, music, and each other. There was a thin veneer of anonymity but in reality everyone knew who said what. And the page topped with my name was covered with one word over and over in all the different handwritings of my peers. That word was weird. Variations included nice but weird, weird but nice, and smart but weird, but this did little to mitigate the sting. I had been socially marginalized in the pages of my very own slam book. It still makes me feel a little sick to think about it.

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Wouldn’t it be great to belong to a community where 1) everyone is a freak and 2) no one cares? If everyone is a freak, then no one is. The word has no more power. We are all just individuals. We don’t have to conform to some standard we can never attain and only dimly understand. We can stop striving and simply be.

In his wonderful essay “Membership,” C.S. Lewis writes,

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and the grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.

Isn’t this what everyone wants? Not to conform, but to organically belong? To be irreplaceably, inescapably oneself, and to have one’s unique identity recognized and treasured?

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The end of the story for the little reptiles, which of course Daniel was purposely building up to all along, is that they arrived home full of dread, expecting rejection and scorn, only to find that the members of their adoptive family were as outlandish-looking as they were, and also warm and welcoming and fun—exactly the family they would have chosen for themselves if they had even known to imagine something so marvelous.

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If acceptance is so great and makes everyone feel so good, why not just abandon all standards of behavior and accept everything? Because human morality is not an artificial construct. Some behaviors are abhorrent and ugly, and it is natural and just for us to want to cast them out. Tolerating them might make people feel good in the short term (well, some people, anyway) but will ultimately destroy the community we are trying to nurture.

And what are we supposed to do about that? We’ve all got ugly things about ourselves—not just weirdly colored pelts and odd neck frills, but things like malice, lust, perversion, greed. We can’t make these things go away by ignoring them, and we can’t just stop doing them. Our problem with sin is systemic.

The good news is that Christ has dealt with sin, thoroughly and permanently. He hasn’t just made temporary amends or hidden it from view. It’s gone. We who believe in him have a new identity. His blood has paid our debts, his righteousness has been given to us freely, and through him we have the power to walk in the light. We know this because he says so. We might not feel particularly righteous or victorious at any given moment, but his word is more trustworthy than our temporal experience. We can rest in his faithfulness.

And just like the disparate collection of toys in the Midkiff household, we are united to each other by virtue of whose we are. We belong to him, and by extension we belong to each other. With all our defects of mind, character, and person, our weird back-stories and inconsistencies, we can be assured that we have our place, and a very good place it is. We’re free to love and help each other, to think and rest and play and be. The striving is over. We’re home.

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Control is Just an Illusion, Friend.

Lots of people sneer at the Control Freak archetype. I do not understand these people. They seem to think loss of control would be a good time—like a roller coaster, perhaps, which is actually a tightly controlled construct when functioning correctly and not killing people. Also people choose whether or not to get on the thing, thereby exercising control; so this is not the best illustration, though I see it used a lot.

Loss of control is not an amusement park ride, friend. It is death, dismemberment, famine, enmity, destruction, financial loss, and horrifying social situations that make you wish to God you’d stayed home with a cat on your lap instead of venturing into the greater world. It is falling asleep at the wheel and having the trailer of a semi sheer off the top of your car, along with your head. It is coming home from vacation to find one of the last of your child’s unexpected litter of gerbils dead in the cage because they started fighting and the house-sitters couldn’t spare the time to make a damn phone call to ask you what to do. The root of the desire for control is fear. And fear in this world is not without cause.

My own usual response to fear is to put a lot of energy into creating an airtight system that eliminates risk. But this is not without cost. Go too far with this sort of thing and you will find yourself desiring secrecy even when there’s no need for it. You’ll want to check things all the time and make sure all is well. You’ll suppress emotion, because emotion must be regulated by reason in order for the system to function, and then when it’s time for emotion to have its say, you won’t be able to find it.

I don’t really have a grip on this problem. I honestly don’t. I believe it is right for reason to regulate emotion, for cause and effect to be understood and managed, and for risk to be taken seriously. But I have lived forty-four years, and I see now that I have feared too much and modeled some not-so-healthy behaviors to my kids. I’ve been too quick to circle the wagons when things got rough. There were friendships I didn’t nurture, hospitality I didn’t show, and unasked-for advice I didn’t give but should have. I meant well. I wanted to keep from making mistakes. But fear of making mistakes can lead to sins of omission. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

The sad irony is that the point of control is to protect something, but too much control is destructive. To eliminate all risk is to smother life itself.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” That’s our friend C.S. Lewis talking, and he knew.

The assumption behind a preoccupation with control is that I can in fact control everything, that it all depends on me. To this unspeakable hubris I can only plead guilty.

And therein lies the system’s flaw. I can’t control everything, and even if I could control half the things I’d like to control, I wouldn’t have the wisdom to manage them properly. That’s how supervillains are made.

Three nights ago, I saw Frozen with my youngest child. This is a story about a princess, Elsa, who has the power to create ice at will and sculpt it into whatever formations she chooses—crystals, pillars, flurries, drifts. Her creations are beautiful, and great fun for Elsa and her younger sister, Anna.

But as the opening song warns, ice is beautiful! powerful! dangerous! cold! Elsa loses control over her power and hurts Anna. The aftermath is a nightmare of shock, trauma, fear, and guilt. Elsa’s parents sternly warn her that this must never happen again. From that day forward, Elsa’s life is terribly altered.

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The words fear, love, power, and control all occur in the opening song, and these forces dominate the story. Power carries risk; risk leads to fear; and the response to fear is to try to exercise more control. After Anna’s accident, Elsa focuses all her energy into maintaining control over her power. Because the manifestations have emotional triggers, this involves severe emotional suppression. Her efforts leave her mentally exhausted and socially isolated. Worst of all, Anna, formerly her closest companion, has had her memory wiped of the knowledge of Elsa’s power, leaving her confused and hurt by her sister’s rejection. So a construct designed to keep Anna from being hurt just ends up hurting her in a different way.

Eventually things come to a head, as they are wont to do in Disney movies and in life. After Elsa loses control again and unwittingly freezes the entire kingdom, she flees to a mountain where she thinks she can do no further damage. But Anna follows, refusing to be kept at bay any longer. Cornered and pressured, Elsa struggles to maintain control; but in trying to stifle her emotion, she only warps it, and it breaks out in unwanted and terrifying manifestations. The more she panics, the worse things get.

Watching Elsa’s frantic and futile efforts, I thought, This is exactly like living by the law. Legalism is all about damage control. It can never produce any active good, despite what those who live by it think. It seeks to quell sin, but it only produces rebellion.

Control proves a failure, and Anna is hurt again, this time apparently fatally. Only then does Elsa learn that the true protection, the only force capable of managing her potentially deadly power, is not control at all, but love.

This changes everything. Anna is healed, the kingdom is restored, and Elsa’s entire existence blossoms into a thing of glorious possibility. Transformations abound: death into life, conformity into freedom, fear into love. Elsa is able to not only be near people again, but to relax, to laugh, to play.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

I don’t mean to be flippant by quoting the apostle John in connection with a Disney movie. To be clear, John is speaking of the very reasonable fear of a just judgment–a guilty fear, not the fear of ordinary pain or loss. And the perfect love that’s capable of casting out that fear is the love of God demonstrated in Christ’s propitiation. This is wonderful news for the world, and my friend Jim gives an excellent treatment of the subject here.

But I think I do not go too far in saying that fear, when brooded over too long by an overstimulated mind, is the enemy of love. It cripples relationships, poisons joy, steals hope, and confuses emotion to the point where you honestly don’t know what you feel.

So what is the solution? Some sort of let-love-have-its-way scenario? Bursting into song and dance on a mountaintop like a Disney princess? Maybe it’s just recognizing that the supreme level of control sought by those of “freak” status is just an illusion anyway. Terrible things will happen, despite your best efforts to secure yourself against all shock and alarm. You will be blindsided–if not by the thing you’re guarding against, then by something else. That’s what “blindsided” means: you don’t see it coming. And the energy you’re spending on maintaining a defensive system would be better spent on loving the people around you before they’re taken, which they most certainly will be at some point unless you’re taken from them first. Yes, it’s risky. But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. They’re worth the fear and discomfort and uncertainty and vulnerability–wonderfully worth all this and more.

My Better Half

I nearly lost my temper the other day. Someone got under my skin with a thoughtless question arising from false assumptions, and within seconds I was ready to fire back a terse, cutting response. A few well-placed keystrokes would teach my questioner to choose her words a little more carefully in the future—or possibly even avoid asking me anything again, at all, ever.

Some small restraining influence whispered that maybe a full artillery barrage wasn’t called for here, that maybe I ought to be less of a hard-nose and exercise a little patience. But I did need to make some sort of response, and soon.

So I went to my husband and asked for his help.

Greg immediately stopped what he was doing, listened to the facts of the case, and guided me away from the biting retort that was fomenting just behind my fingertips and toward a thoughtful, well-reasoned reply. He even came up with a couple of sample sentences to get me going. He was completely right, and I told him so.

He brushed off my thanks. “You’d have seen it yourself by morning,” he said.

That, of course, was the whole point. Once past the heat of the moment, I’d have understood what sort of response was really needed. But I didn’t have time to wait to calm down. Asking Greg’s help was like taking a shortcut through the future.

When I submit a manuscript to my writers’ group for critique, I don’t give equal weight to every comment from every person. I sift and consider, keep and discard, taking into account what I know about the individual making the suggestion. Some writers have irrational hang-ups about commas; some eschew past perfect tense with maniacal zeal; some just don’t “get” certain genres. My estimation of a given critiquer’s sense, taste, and judgment is a function of my history with him. Is he a good, seasoned, experienced writer? Does he understand the demands of the marketplace? Have I agreed in the past with his critiques of other people’s work? If so, I’m likely to take his advice.

A lot of the edits I end up keeping are things I would have caught myself if I’d let the story rest a couple of weeks and returned to it with fresh eyes. But the rushed nature of magazine work often makes the cool-down period a luxury I can’t afford. And sometimes a good critiquing partner will make a brilliant suggestion for something I never would have come up with no matter how much time I took.

When you think about it, trust is an amazing thing. It involves placing yourself in the hands of another, giving up control, often acting contrary to your own instincts, all on the strength of a personal association. It’s risky. The decision you make based on a friend’s advice could go south, leaving you embarrassed, frustrated, and wishing you’d kept your own counsel. But risk is the gateway to adventure, opening up possibilities which would otherwise remain forever closed.

Surrender is frightening but exhilarating, and, if your trust is well-founded, sweet indeed. A lifelong companion, close as your own skin, a worthy guardian of your sacred trust, one who shares your vision and your experience, is the finest blessing this side of heaven. Such a one might rightly be called your “better half.” In your weaker moments, he steers you toward that which your own better self—your calm, objective, rational self—would choose. But he is no mere doppelganger or shadow-twin, existing only to complete or validate you. He is himself, distinct and matchless.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant—in a word, real.

~C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

That’s Not Logic, It’s Just Equivocation

If you’re well acquainted with me or my blog, you know I take words and their meanings very seriously. A new friend recently made my day by calling me a philologist; I suspect I’ve had less favorable epithets uttered behind my back. I’ve been guilty of nailing many an unsuspecting person’s hide to the wall for crimes of equivocation or sloppy usage, and no doubt my tendency to do this is not my most endearing personality trait. But darn it, truth and accuracy matter. Words are the vehicles of rational thought and communication. If someone misunderstands a word’s meaning—or, worse, subtly alters it and then tries to have it both ways—then discourse becomes a train wreck.

In his preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addressed this subject more clearly than I ever could. The long passage is worth quoting in full.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A “nice” meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

People hurl these linguistic monstrosities at us every day. “Everyone’s a winner,” they say. Seriously? Then I guess “winner” is just a synonym for “human being.” Or, “Death doesn’t matter. As long as you keep his memory alive, he hasn’t really gone.” No kidding?! Then where the heck is he? I never forgot him, but I haven’t seen him around in years.

Then there’s this one: “That’s not love, it’s just infatuation.” Teenagers are the target group here. The idea is that you have to reach a certain maturity level before what you think is love is worthy of the name. A Christian might further muddy the water by bringing in the Greek word agape, insisting that the only true love is the disinterested self-sacrificial sort, and ignoring the other Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “love” in English Bibles. (And if that be the case, if love doesn’t count until it attains some uber-level of Christlikeness, then God help us all.) Interestingly, it’s only romantic love that’s dealt with this way. I’ve never heard anyone suggest a teenager is incapable of filial or fraternal love.

Why the equivocation? As Lewis says, these people mean well. Maybe they’re trying to guard against youthful rashness, or reacting against our culture’s oversexualization of the very young. But it’s no good avoiding one error by falling into another.

Do young people sometimes use the word “love” carelessly or erroneously? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love. Truth is, people love according to their stature: wisely or foolishly, sacrificially or selfishly, fleetingly or enduringly. But even an imperfect love is still there. It’s wrong to denigrate the emotions of a person of any age by calling them by another name. And age is not the only or best indicator of emotional maturity. Over my years of giving premarital counseling and of just quietly observing folks around me, I’ve seen some who are more ready for the demands of marriage at eighteen than others are at thirty-five. It depends entirely on the individual.

“But who cares?” an impatient reader may ask. “What possible difference could it make which word is used?” I say it makes a big difference. I dislike the protracted childhood that’s become the norm for young adults in our society; we suppress their natural drives, ply them with amusements, then wonder why they implode. I’m not suggesting anything odd, like allowing fourteen-year-olds to marry and buy property. Teenagers need guidance and protection, in some ways even more than young children. But let us at least pay them the compliment of taking them and their emotions seriously.