Plot Twists and Story Snares

God has a sense of humor. We call it “coincidence.”

Yesterday it took the form of a hair brush that my eighteen-month-old accidentally left at church. I happened to notice it missing two hours after church, which then sent me walking back to retrieve it, which ended with a rendezvous with someone I needed to talk to but wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to.

But lately most of the coincidences in my life have to do with a mouse.

I’ve been thinking about the moment in a story when you recognize a plot twist: how sometimes it’s obvious in an instant because of a major coincidence, and how other times coincidences are inconsequential enough that the plot twist sneaks up on you until all the small coincidences start to compile and you realize that something big is happening.

The mouse thing, which might also be called a cat thing, was the latter kind.

I should begin by saying that I have never wanted a cat and don’t even particularly want a pet at all. If if I did, I’d lean toward a dog, hands down. Hubby is the same way.

But a couple of months ago we went to a neighbor’s house to pick up our kids after date night. We have been doing a babysitting swap with these neighbors for two years now, so when a beautiful cream-colored cat greeted us by rubbing against my leg, I asked, “When did you guys get a cat?”

The swap hostess laughed and said, “About three years ago.”

“Why have I never seen it?”

“It hides a lot. We hardly saw it ourselves the first four months it lived here. I only knew it was alive because it ate the food.”

This idea intrigued me. Could a pet really be that easy and unobtrusive?

That same month I also bought house plants for the first time in my life after reading about the health benefits (purifies the indoor air), and I happened to also read health benefits about having a pet (fewer allergies, colds, etc). But I still didn’t want one.

Then, last week, I heard nibbling sounds from behind the wall in the kitchen late one night. I froze, thinking, “Oh crap! What am I supposed to do about a mouse??” But then the corresponding thought was “I guess I’ll get a cat after all,” and that satisfied me enough.

Until I actually saw the mouse.

Two nights later my sister and I were at the kitchen table when a dark furry thing scurried across the floor and darted under the fridge. I called my parents, my in-laws, my hubby — asking everybody for advice. But the more they described poison and various traps, the more sick I became over the whole idea.

That’s when the other coincidences became noticeable. My kids had been watching Dumbo for like a week straight, and suddenly I pictured those stupid elephants freaking out about a mouse and felt dumb about doing the same. My eighteen-month-old has been in love with a lift-the-flap book called Follow the Prophet by Val Chadwick Bagley and his favorite page, about the boy Samuel in the Bible, has three or four cute little mice on it. Then my sister joked about “Gus Gus” from Cinderella and how we should give our mouse shoes and a shirt.

Snares! All of them!

Stories have this way of catching and changing us, don’t they? And it’s like we need only be reminded of them and suddenly they change our course: a story snare and a plot twist.

The next plot twist was the husband.

See, by this time I’d become pretty convinced that these coincidences and thoughts and feelings were adding up to the idea that God is suggesting, in His ever-so-humorous way, that we need a cat. So I prayed and told God, “Um, I actually don’t want a cat. I don’t want an extra living creature to take care of. I have three kids! But, if we’re really supposed to get a cat, and if it would be a good idea” — because I’ve noticed that God’s plans generally work out better for me than stubbornly opposing them (note the picture of the elephants above) — “then, God, you’re going to have to convince my husband. I’ll do the research and get ready for an extra family member; you use your coincidences on Hubby.”

The husband’s initial response: “Hell no!”

We talked about it. I explained my position. I gave him my reasons and plenty of concessions, like the fact that I agree with him and I didn’t actually want a cat either, but that I feel good about it for whatever reason. But though the conversation went well, nothing I said made him budge at all.

“No cats. No pets.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I won’t get one until we’re both agreed on it because that wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’ll be never. We’re never getting a cat. God would have to send a whole army of rats to convince me to get a cat.”

Amusingly, a few hours later, after I’d already gone upstairs for the night, Hubby happened to be the last one in the kitchen. He heard/saw the mouse scurry from under the fridge to under the oven. When he came up, his eyes were a little bit wide as he said, “I just met Ralph. I’m going to get traps.”

I had to explain that I can’t kill the mouse because all the story snares — now including his reference to Beverly Cleary — had gotten me thinking of it as an innocent creature we can’t kill for no reason.

“But you’re okay with a cat killing it?”

“Or chasing it away. A cat fits into the natural order of things. Poison and traps do not.” (Though four years ago, the last time we had a mouse, I poisoned it without blinking. Again, those darn story snares! Those plot twists that change our course!)

Before I knew it, Hubby was talking about naming the cat after the Yankees, how he wants a black-and-white cat he could call Pinstripe, and we were discussing where to put a litter box and a scratching post.

Funny enough, the person I talked to thanks to the hair brush yesterday mentioned something about choosing to see God in the coincidences — the plot twists — of our lives.

I totally agree.

Nice work, God. I’m impressed. 😉

The Best Way to Learn Is to Teach

I spent this morning writing something that might seem odd to people outside of my own religion. Basically, I was preparing a “sermon” for Sunday, even though I am not any kind of pastor. In the LDS church, we have a “lay ministry,” meaning that everyone volunteers their time to serve the church rather than being paid. Instead of a professional pastor giving a weekly address, the bishop of the congregation (who usually serves only about three or four years until a new person is asked to be bishop) doesn’t speak every Sunday or even all that often, delegating to the church members instead. This week I was asked to be one of the speakers and deliver a ten-minute talk on the atonement.

Every time I’m asked to speak, I marvel at how much it feels like it’s for me more than those I’ll speak to. Ten minutes isn’t much time compared to the hours I’ve spent reading and studying the topic and carefully choosing the best of it to present. I gain so much from the opportunity to teach others.

It reminds me of the retention pyramid I learned as an education major in college. On average, we remember only 5% of what we hear, 10% of what we read, 20% of audio/visual material, 30% of a demonstration, 50% of a discussion, 75% of what we do ourselves, and 90% of what we teach.

I know from experience how true the pyramid is. There are so many things — like punctuation usage, for example — that I didn’t fully grasp until I both used it myself and taught it.

Sometimes the pyramid haunts me as a teacher. I can find lots of ways to create activities so that students are participating and thereby hopefully retaining 75% of the material. But I’ve had a harder time thinking up opportunities to let them teach.

Maybe that’s why being asked to teach something at church always feels like a huge blessing to me — a chance to really integrate some concept into my life that wouldn’t stick with me as well if I were on the other side of the podium.

And today it’s renewed my determination to find more ways to give that opportunity to others. I can let my older children teach the younger ones to do things. I can give my students more time for peer reviews and other activities that allow them to teach each other.

If we are all teachers, everyone gains more.

What do you think? What concepts have you been able to teach someone else and understand better yourself? What ideas do you have for letting students teach each other in a writing class?

Leave a comment!

Video Messages

I’m not a big video watcher. If given the choice, such as with news stories online, I prefer to read the article.

Maybe it’s so that I can skim, maybe so I can interpret the story for myself instead of having the newscaster do that, and maybe just because reading feels more private whereas turning on a video immediately attracts the attention of my children.

But I use video a lot when I teach. It’s such a powerful medium, hitting us with both sight and sound, able to add color and images and music to words.

With some scenes in my novel, I’ve been thinking how much easier they would be to show in a movie. If you want tension in a movie, you have lighting you can dim, sets you can creepify, music you can make ominous, glimpses you can give of movement in the shadows. In the novel, I have to do all that with nothing but words.

Last week my sister-in-law shared a video message from our church on her blog, which got me thinking about videos as rhetoric rather than just storytelling. And yesterday I stumbled across this one below that appeals so well to my personality.

I love her message of individuality within religion, of how she says she thought God wanted her to be a certain way and then she realized she “totally made that up.” And I love the way it’s paired with a green bird on her finger, a painting of a female matador, and all these other visual glimpses of the unique individual she is.

If I were to create a video expressing my perspective on being a Latter-day Saint (LDS), or Mormon, I’d want it to be a lot like this. (Except different, obviously, since the point here is uniqueness.) And I’d want to share it not just with those who aren’t Mormon but with other Mormon women too.

Sometimes we do get wrong ideas, interpreting words the wrong way. Sometimes we get stuck by those wrong ideas, like the LDS women I sometimes meet who feel like they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” have their own pursuits, etc. Sometimes the simple yet powerful medium of video is perfect for providing new perception.

But it’s also great for someone like me who teaches two evenings a week and writes novels at home during the day, trying to balance my own ambitions with raising young kids. The message I take from the video is reassurance that I’m okay.

What video messages have you seen that used the medium well? When do you think the audio and visual components of video are necessary to help words mean more?

Leave a comment!

Earth Day, Good Friday, and the Intersections of Bettering Yourself

Spring! Easter! Rebirth! Earth Day! Blossoms! Seedlings! Green and growing things!

I’m not sure I can even express my enthusiasm for nature right now. The photo above is my tiny little peach tree in gorgeous bloom. The seeds that I planted April 1st are poking up out of the ground, turning into romaine and spinach and mesclun and swiss chard. My tulips are opening. The sun is shining as I write this, and it feels like a perfect coincidence that it’s Good Friday and Earth Day.

Maybe not everyone would agree on that. I’m sure that Good Friday means different things to different people. To me, the most important thing about Good Friday and Easter are remembering God’s ultimate gift to us — the sacrifice of His Son. He died that we can all be renewed (reborn, changed, bettered), the way we experience the renewal of spring, and to me Earth Day fits.

My kids are out of school yesterday, today, and Monday for a long weekend around Easter, and on Wednesday when my oldest came home from kindergarten, I asked if they’d done anything in class about Earth Day.

“Earth Day?” he asked. (Evidently the answer to my question was no.) “What’s Earth Day?”

“Well,” I said, thinking through how to put it in six-year-old terms (because Parenting 101 teaches you to translate all answers to age-level lingo), “Earth Day is when we celebrate all the beautiful things God put on the earth, like flowers and trees and animals.”

In my head I knew that wasn’t quite PC. Earth Day isn’t a religious holiday. But sometimes the kid translation of things comes out even better than the adult version. Why shouldn’t environmentalism and religion go together?

BUT . . . here’s my big confession. Up until recently I feel like I just paid lip service to both. I mean, I believed in both, and I did all the basic things that were asked of me, like recycling and going to church, but I didn’t have as strong of a conviction as I wanted to. I wasn’t going “above and beyond” with either one — just sort of meeting the minimum requirements, you know?

What’s amazed me the past few months is discovering how once you begin striving to improve one aspect of your life, it runs over into so many other aspects as well.

Six months ago when I suddenly became hyper-aware of how much everything I put in or on my body affects my health, I started to learn as much as I could about nutrition. I soon gravitated toward “whole foods,” “real foods,” and “traditional foods” — my gut instinct telling me that if God created us, He probably also created perfect sources of food for us.

And what I’ve found in this “real food” community has been nothing short of beautiful. I read blogs by people of various religious denominations who all want the same goals: health, sustainability, and spirituality.

I had never realized how absolutely intertwined the three could be and are until I started down this nutrition journey and ended up feeling  “above and beyond” in all three.

For example, by striving to eat the produce that’s currently in season where I live, for the health benefits of its freshness, I cut down on the fossil fuels necessary to drive my meals to my city, but I also find my thoughts turning to God more as I contemplate how my food is grown, astonished at the intricacies of the nutrients in each vegetable and fruit and the way they harmonize.

Instead of just recycling, I’m now also reusing and reducing: I use glass jars that come from marinara sauce and coconut oil and so on, wash them out, and use them for homemade yogurt and other products that I now make myself instead of buying, thus reducing the amount of plastic containers I buy and recycle while also cutting out preservatives.

A neighbor of mine mentioned that she prays over her seeds in her garden, and I’ve started to do that too, feeling that absolute connection between the seed, the earth, and the God who watches over all — and my own connectedness to all of it.

What’s more, I find that as my dependence grows on all three — nutrition, the environment, and God — my conviction of each is so much stronger. I depend on wholesome, toxin-free food, which has increased my awareness of the farmers around me and taught me that a big part of sustainability is supporting them and encouraging them to grow organically. I’m no longer just doing the minimum by wheeling my recycling can to the curb each week; I’m seeking out more ways to buy locally and protect the foods and the land and the animals God created. And as I continue to try and work through my health issues via nutrition, I find myself praying more fervently for God to give me direction, and noticing more constantly how much He does.

Today we remember God’s ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. It was His biggest gift of all, and I believe it’s a fitting time to remember His other gifts as well. As my appreciation for the wonders of nature increases, so does my remembrance of God.

Earth Day, at least at our house, is going to be a religious holiday from now on.

How did you celebrate Earth Day or honor Good Friday? What are your feelings about nutrition, environmentalism, and religion?

Leave a comment!

p.s. some awesome related reading for those interested:


School is out! The past two evenings have been wonderful. Instead of rushing off to campus, on Wednesday we took the kids downtown for dinner and then a walk around Temple Square to see the Christmas lights, and last night we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with them.

I’d forgotten a lot of it. I probably haven’t seen Charlie Brown since I was a kid, and it’s so different watching it as an adult. I definitely sympathize with Charlie Brown when he rants about being depressed around the holidays, hating the commercialism, and wishing he could find the spirit of Christmas.

And wow, how moving is it when Linus steps into the spotlight and recites Luke 2? There’s something so powerful about those words that even when a cartoon character is speaking them, they’re absolutely beautiful:

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

All scripture is beautiful to me — whether from the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, etc — and I wonder why that is. Is it the richness of how language was used in those time periods? Is it the archaic syntax, like “unto you is” and “ye shall,” that makes the words impressive in the same way calligraphy does, dressed in their formal finest? Is it that those who wrote the scriptures felt so inspired by a love of God that they penned only the best words to express it?

What is it about the words of scripture just as words — setting aside whether you believe they were authored by God or men — that makes them so inspiring?

Sunday night I went with my sister to a Christmas concert in a beautiful old church building called the Provo Tabernacle*. Inside, the long pews are made of wood carved more than a century ago, the ones up on the sides of the balcony slanting down toward the large pipe organ in the front so that you feel as though you’ll slide into the person next to you if you’re not careful to lean the other way. The organizers of the event had created a stage for the orchestra by building a platform over ten or so of the pews in the center of the tabernacle, and the choir stood above them in front of the organ.

My brother plays the viola in this concert every year, which is the main reason we go, but I admit that I also go for the selfish reason that I love it. Like Charlie Brown, I have trouble getting in the Christmas spirit each year, and I go to this concert specifically to find that spirit. The music is always gorgeous, the talks simple and profound at the same time, and I love to sit in the balcony observing it all from above and marvelling at the feeling that pervades.

By far the best part is when the orchestra plays the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end and everyone stands to join them. My sister and I were both choir geeks in high school and know our part in that piece well, and how heavenly it is to stand next to her and sing those words loud:

“Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah! The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever, King of kings . . .”

I read that it was the words that inspired Handel to compose the music of The Messiah. Of course it was. But I didn’t know that the verses of scripture he used were compiled from so many various books in the Bible. I guess I’d always assumed it was just from Isaiah, but the “Hallelujah Chorus” comes from Revelation, for example. So it wasn’t just that Isaiah was an incredible writer (though I think he was); it’s something about most scripture.

Maybe I’m biased because I grew up with the King James version of the Bible, but I love the –eths and shalls, the untos and beholds. When I pray, I use words like thee and thy to invoke a sense of reverence, and maybe that’s what happens in scripture, too. The language isn’t clipped and truncated and hurried the way we speak now; it’s profound and hallowed in its antiquity, beautiful because of its age — much like the Provo Tabernacle or the buildings on Temple Square. It’s a little curious, too, like the slanting benches, but the oddities make it all the more wonderful, glorious in its distinctiveness.

Isaiah 9: 6 “For unto Us a Child is born, unto Us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

I came home from that concert so excited to pass on the language of it. The late-teen-or-early-twenties guy standing on the other side of my sister (down from us on the slant of the bench) had looked at us strangely as we sang out. It was like you could read his mind on his face: How do they know all the words to this? And I determined right then that my kids are going to grow up familiar with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” They’re going to grow up with Luke 2 and all the other beautiful passages of King James. I’ll be okay with them texting chiseled-down monstrosities of words if they can also read verses of scripture without stumbling on the syntax.

Some things that are old are beautiful and worth keeping. They’re also as fragile as old books, in danger of crumbling apart if we neglect them, but I think the fragility is part of what prompts our reverence for them. Old languages are dying out at a sickening rate, but the language of scripture needs to be preserved and passed down, at least in my opinion. It loses part of its fulness when it’s changed into modern terms.

 Maybe all of these thoughts are why this scripture verse leapt out at me this week:

2 Nephi 9:51 “Hearken diligently unto me, and remember the words which I have spoken; and come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness.” 

Isn’t it awesome? Feasting on words and delighting in the fatness of them. The syntax and semantics — the form, feel and meaning snug together, fuller and fatter and deeper than either syntax or semantics would be alone. And feeding our souls with the richness of the words of scripture seems to be exactly how we find the spirit of Christmas, just like Charlie Brown and George Frideric Handel.

It’s no wonder he has us repeating “Hallelujah!” twenty-three times through that chorus. “Hallelujah” itself is the epitome of it all, a beautiful old word that means “praise God” but has so much more feeling to it than “praise” alone suggests. “Hallelujah” is a word you want to shout. It’s a word you want to sing out loud and strong.

What do you think? What is it that makes some words more beautiful and powerful than others? What is it about Luke 2 and other Christmas scripture that inspires you?

Leave a comment!

*UPDATE: a friend of mine emailed me right after I posted to share this horrible news about the Provo Tabernacle; I loved that building and am ready to cry right now. Apparently buildings are fragile, too.

What Baseball Fields and Blow-drying Have to Do with Brainstorming

Okay, so I’m a sucker for picking things apart. When my brain latches onto something interesting — especially something with lots of intricacies, complications and contradictions — I love to explore it as deep as I can.

Here’s what my head’s been mulling over since this weekend.

Religion fascinates me — and not even just other, potentially exotic religions. I’m often fascinated by my own religion that I’ve belonged to all my life. And as an apprentice storyteller, I’m particularly fascinated by how religion uses stories to teach behavior.

(Hubby insisted Yankee Stadium be the image)

For example, my religion advises refraining from work on Sunday, and while I have no memory of when I heard the following story or most of its details, what always comes to mind about Sunday is some fable about a baseball field that had the greenest, lushest, thickest grass.  It so happened that they didn’t play Sunday games on that particular field. Then, the schedule became more hectic and they decided it was necessary to play on the field every day of the week. You can guess where this is going, right? Because the grass didn’t have a “day of rest,” it was no longer as green and healthy.

I know that this isn’t really how it works in baseball. When a team goes on the road, obviously the field gets a break while they’re gone and the grass gets a rest from being trampled, regardless of whether or not that time happens to fall on a Sunday.

But obviously it was an effective story, because it’s stuck with me for years. And I’m okay with absorbing the principle of it despite the questionable facts because I think the moral is true: we are much happier and healthier, mentally and physically, if we give ourselves at least one day off each week.

(And Hubby the Baseball Fanatic added, when I mentioned what I was writing about, that we also all need “away games”: vacations. He must have missed that post.)

For me, taking Sunday “off” means specifically that I try to refrain from working on my writing or my grading. But the other thing that fascinates me about religion is examining the internal side of it. I should be thrilled to give myself a day off from work. But because I’ve told myself I shouldn’t grade or write, there are many Sundays that grading and writing are all I seem to think about. Human nature is so weird, isn’t it?

And then, what’s even more interesting is the way we bargain with ourselves. I say, “Well, I’m absolutely not going to open my manuscript and work on that, but if an idea happens to come to me, I think it’s okay to jot it down on note paper.”

What I’ve discovered is this: while at first skipping Sundays seemed like a huge sacrifice (takes longer to get back into the swing of the story on Monday, etc), I’ve come to realize that Sunday is often when the “grass” of my story does the most growing. I trample it all week as I try to get the most use out of my story ideas, and then on Sunday it gets the chance to grow wild.

Yesterday once I finished getting dressed for church, Hubby commented on how long it had taken me. The reason was that I kept getting interrupted. I would blow-dry one section of my hair and some great line or idea for my novel would hit me, and I’d have to put down the blow-dryer and write down the idea.

I wasn’t doing it on purpose! I swear! But the ideas just kept coming, the way really healthy grass seems to grow faster than you can mow it.

Specifically, yesterday what kept popping into my head were ideas on how to improve my query letter blurb. My goal is 150 words or less, like my friend Brodi Ashton’s awesome example that I often refer back to. My previous best was 243 words; with the free flow of blow-dry brainstorming, it got down to 167.

If I can hit my 150-word goal by Thursday, I’ll post the query blurb to get opinions on how well it entices you to read the book.

On a side note, I have to end this with one last fascinating thing about religion that you can take or leave. It’s just my brain exploring even deeper.

I can imagine some readers thinking, “What’s the point in the restriction at all? Why shouldn’t you be able to write on Sunday if you want to write on Sunday? You could choose to ‘take a day off’ on another day when you don’t feel like writing.”

After all, that was where the baseball field fable failed: it didn’t prove that it had to be a particular day.

For me, it’s a combination of factors. One, I like the principle of sacrifice and the idea that I give up one thing in order to gain another — as well as the notion that for it to be a sacrifice it shouldn’t be just whenever it’s convenient for me. If I took a day off when I didn’t feel like writing, I very much doubt ideas would rush at me while blow-drying. The sacrifice is what creates the reward.

Two, I like adhering to a religion that I can think through. Since I’m not asked to follow blindly but rather I’m given stories (however flawed) and experiences (however unique), etc, that help me see the logic behind the guidelines, there’s always plenty of room to expand the way I understand each principle. The more I test it out, doing whatever it is with varying degrees of insight, the more I come to appreciate the religion as a whole.

Three, see the entire novel Life of Pi, though specifically Part One and Part Three. I fell in love with that book when I read this on page nineteen:

“I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

I believe that. I believe that religious restrictions grant a freedom that those who’ve never experienced it can’t understand, the same way my ideas spring up freely on Sundays. It’s just one of those crazy, fascinating paradoxes of life.

End side note. 😉

Anyhow, what do you think of days off, religion, baseball, fables, blow-drying, grass, vacations, zoos, freedom, and ideas growing wild? When do spontaneous ideas show up for you?

Leave a comment!