Sunday, September 18, 2011

Imagine Nation

So I asked myself, am I an Exodus woman? Exodus 35: The artists of Israel came together to build a dwelling place for God. They carved poles, fashioned gold, and constructed curtains with cherubim woven into them by expert hands. Their job was to envision the kingdom of God and use their gifts to heighten people's spiritual imaginations.

Has God planted, in my heart, any spiritual truth that I can pour out onto the written page? Is my imagination, in fact, His imagination? I was hoping for some answers in Chicago, and I was not disappointed.

Ben Arment, creator of Story, pulled together a creative team, which pulled together a creative team, to help the creative team learn about the creative arts. Film, music, worship, short film, social media, dramatic arts, writing, authorship, and environmental staging were showcased and explored. I wondered, can I, should I, would I, sign up for this creative compendium of sorts? I asked God for direction, and heard that I can, I shall, and I will go...I was like a sponge.

Through song and story, a block or two from one of the meanest ghettos in the second city, country folks and town folks and folks from all over the world shared their journeys. I felt a little out of place, but quickly decided to let go of my inhibitions and let God. Who knew this 56 year old librarian would really fall for the drummer in Daniel Bashta's band...his immediate and passionate song on the drums hammered a mantra into my urgent, be real, be present. And a very intense guy named Dan Smith told his story with more drama than I thought possible. I winced when he minced no words, an unusual storyteller with a head cold and a higher calling.

The first guy to bring me to tears was Ed Dobson. He just finished a series of short films called Ed's Story. As a master storyteller he had us all in the palm of his hand. Ed pastored a church for many years, and was named Pastor of the Year by Moody Bible Institute. He also wrote a beautiful journal of sorts--The Year of Living Like Jesus. But ten years ago, he was given a life sentence. ALS. And the prognosis was not good--doctors gave him 2-5 years left on this earth. Ed told us "it began with twitches...twitches in my muscles..." and compared his diagnosis to being in Lazarus's tomb. He was cold, isolated, and lonely. But this rare man heard from Moses, who told him, "Choose life that you may live." Ed showed up. In his short film, Consider the Birds, he brought me to tears with the story of his farewell to his son when he departed for the Iraq war. The unsung hero in Ed's story is his wife-- devoted, silent, beloved. Between battling ALS and sending his son into battle, Ed shared this lesson: We don't control squat. I loved Ed. And I will pray for him. If you want to fall in love with Hope, go to

Next we heard a very different kind of story from Tom Ryan, who founded a community-based web crowd-sourcing business called Threadless. Using the internet to rally public opinion, he doesn't conjure up a wireless crowd but rather has built and maintained an online community of 1.5 million artisans through an ongoing t-shirt design strategy/company. He has a BA from Dartmouth and an MBA from INSEAD in France, and he has mastered the art of harvesting creatives.

A beautiful young lady named Esther Havens, humanitarian/photographer, shared her story and it was not unlike the Esther we already know. She says her journey was a selfish one as it began...she had interior ambitions, desires, goals that prevented her from seeing and understanding her calling. Through her photographs, we see the ancient calling of Esther, and the cry of our Old Testament Esther's heart when she asked, "For how could I bear to see the evil that would come on my people? How could I bear to see the destruction of my relatives?" For Esther Havens, the camera lens bears witness to the joy of Jesus in the midst of poverty. She's pretty amazing.

Sean Astin showed up; he has appeared in over 70 films including one I love- Rudy. His portrayal of this walk-on football player was a moving testament to the power of the human spirit, and how a family impacts the choices we make. He also starred in Goonies, and Lord of the Rings...he's made his mark in film-making as well, but I was most excited to learn he's going to produce a new film called Number the Stars. One person clapped when he announced it (me) as most of the audience was too young to remember the book. He's promised to do a great job telling the story first brought to us by Lois Lowry, so I'm really looking forward to this story of friendship and courage.

For artists like Bethany Hoang, she uses the gift of her intellect to reach victims of slavery and sexual exploitation. She took us to the ragged back alleys of darkness to demonstrate that Light is a weapon and a tool against oppression. By understanding sexual deviation, human deprivation, and cruelty against women in our world, she directs and delivers for International Justice Mission. For more on this redemptive, restorative, legal ministry go to

I guess one of the weirdest guys I heard during Story 2011 was Kyle Cooper. He's a Yale graduate with a long, distinguished resume in film-making and storytelling--from Final Destination to the Walking Dead, Iron Man to Flubber, Godzilla to Seven. Perhaps the message I understood first and foremost in listening to him is the idea that people who are creative must guard their hearts from the weights, whims, and restlessness of the world we live in. Here was a man who has everything to lose and everything to gain. His life's work reminds me that discernment is a gift, but we have to ask for it.

Day one was quirky, whimsical, riveting, and fascinating to me. Sitting in that smokey room all day, peeking my head out only occasionally for fresh air or fresh insight, I felt hit from all sides, and just wanted so badly for time to process and understand all I'd experienced. What did all this mean to me as a writer? What did all this mean to me as a woman of faith? What did all this mean to me as a part of the creative collective?

I write, so I was especially expectant about Day Two's key storyteller, Ann Voskamp. Ann writes lyrically, sparsely, and speaks likewise. She is a woman of conviction and a spokesperson for Compassion International. I felt so strongly that here was a woman I could hear out loud or on the page with equal peace. She lives on a farm in Canada, and is first and foremost a wife and mother. It just so happens that she can't keep from sharing the delights, dilemmas, and difficulties of life on this earth. She shared that during a writer's workshop in Texas, the group leader told her that her writing was too lyrical, too lovely to publish, and that it resembled poetry. He quantified that poetry was a bad thing. But she used that criticism as fuel, and her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Life Fully Right Where You Are, has been on the NY Times Bestseller List for over a dozen weeks. I really can't share her heart without having you look at her video.

Please don't skip this's the best I have to share with you today:

Figuring Life Out - One Thousand Gifts (720) from Jacob Forrest on Vimeo.

Then I did something I've been wanting to do for a long time. I decided to change someone else's story. Through Compassion International, you can sponsor a child. I chose a little farmer boy in Kenya named Martin. He's only 11, so I hope this support will enable him to dream a little bigger, figure this thing called life out before he decides not to do that...and then I chose a little girl named Karen from Peru. I wanted my daughter Michelle, who is fluent in Spanish, to share a relationship with Karen and my granddaughter, Avery, because these two precious little girls are the same age. I think a little girl in Pearland can learn a lot from a little girl in Peru, and I'm praying for both of their futures.

Featured preacher teacher Skye Jethani approached us next. Who knew that such wisdom could come from a kid named Skye Jethani...sounds more like a flower child than a leader, but he has a gift for teaching and I listened well to all he had to share. His ideas are not radical or new, but his message is relevant and necessary--we are called to life with God. He challenged us to check our posture...check yourself before you wreck yourself, if you will. He said God's not a vendor; we're not consumers. He said we're called to a relationship with God, not just God's word. He says we have to figure out free will versus divine will, activism versus servanthood. I was really compelled to examine my own posture...and that's a good thing, not in a ponder-your-navel kind of way but in a ponder-your-eternity kind of way.

Just when I thought I could relax a bit and quit feeling so pressed and perplexed, along came Matthew West and Angela Thomas. Matt has been on the Billboard charts more often than not, and Angela has walked the walk of a good girl who was broken by divorce and life as a single mother before God healed her under the shelter of His wings. Together, they collected 10,000 hard stories that became 10,000 tales of hope, courage, and grace. Their music was just off the charts.

Imagination brings out such strange and vexing images and ideas. It's hard to understand how a Christian can go to the dark side and return unscathed. But Ed Saxon, producer of Silence of the Lambs, talked about his journey. It seems he detaches himself from the content by going into a Hollywood state of mind. Some of his work has been very provocative--Philadelphia, Adaptation--but at the end of the day, he goes home a devoted husband and father to a family he cherishes. He did share that he puts his own image into his films, and this was rather off-putting when he described that one of the heads in the jars in Silence of the Lambs was his own. Hope that doesn't keep his kids up at night...the movie is an amplification of the evil in the world.

If you're reading this blog, you might be following another one, The MChandlers, who have experienced the lamentgracepeace of Christ as they've battled against brain cancer. Lauren shared her very private story in this public forum, trusting in the ability of their tragedy to offer hope to others. Who knew that the ladies restroom would be the place I'd end up discussing the meaning of Lauren's story with a woman who'd just lost her mother and was trying to find a way through her own grief? It was a precious moment, to look eye to eye with another person who'd gone through the same kind of sorrow as me. And I think that was a big part of the Story message for me...we are each on this earth for a time, for a string of seasons, and if we cannot turn to each other for hope, solace, wisdom, then what good are we really? Do we do anything that pleases our God, if we turn away from each other? He is calling us to turn in, to turn to Him, to be His hands and His feet as we share His heart. Sharing my heart saves no one. But sharing His heart means the difference between life and death.

It's kind of funny that the most meaningful thing I heard, and perhaps the thing I needed to hear the most, came at the end of the day. I'm not really ready to share it yet. I'm still meditating on this piece of news, perhaps what you'd call a brilliant glimpse of the obvious. But Ian Cron, author of a beautiful book about St. Francis of Assisi and a rather cool memoir called Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me, shared his life with us. It's been a cool life, but a selfish one. It's been a cruel life, but a redemptive one. Ian challenged my intellect, and I love when that happens. Ian's story was like a chisel to that God can use to get me where He wants me to be. He convinced me that I have a story to tell...that I have a gift that is not mine...that I've been entrusted with something--a message, a tale, a vision...and that if I play my cards right, I will end up doing exactly what I've been called to do.

So Story 2011 was about Imagine Nation, and imagination, but so much more. It was about 'a closer walk with Thee...and thee and thee...' It was about using the handful of flour and oil I've been given to go beyond words...I hope I can do that...and I hope you'll be with me on the journey. I don't want to leave without you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Story 2011

There's an age we all reach when we begin to sort out our dreams from our reality. For me, I think it hit me at about 16. I wanted to be a forest ranger, and I believed the life would suit me. I consumed Thoreau, Emerson, and every naturalist poet I could find to fuel my dreams. When I got to Florida State University, I couldn't pass chemistry to save my life. My roomie, Pam, used to coach me through each week's lessons, and it began to dawn on me that I might have chosen the wrong path. I chose Journalism, but in my first class, one of the essays the professor read aloud was mine, and he mocked my imagery and my anthropomorphism, saying I was completely ill-equipped to be a serious writer. So I went back to my default dream, education, because deep in my heart was a child who wanted acceptance, and I knew that as a teacher I could give children what I needed for myself. I don't regret that decision. I am a good teacher, and I understand how to reach and teach children. I value a child's innocence and spirit, and have guarded many kids from the harsh realities of the world around them, while trying to equip them with the skills they need to live their lives.

But something in me never let go of the writer within, and I have spent my free time writingwritingwriting, trying to make it work. Trying to make something meaningful, relevant, and worthwhile out of my words. So this week, I'm going to Chicago. A group called Story 2011 is meeting, and I'm going to try to pass muster within this "creative collective." I actually have my friend from Hobby, Laurel, to thank. She shared her blog with me --From Snowflakes to Hotcakes. Laurel kind of explores various topics that are a part of her life, and she wrote about a book she was following called A Thousand Gifts. Laurel's writing encouraged me to start my own blog; I felt compelled to get started on reading A Thousand Gifts as well. The author, Ann Voskamp, shares her life through A Holy Experience. Ann writes with very few words. In a whisper, she can share a shout. In a handful of words, she can express a heartful of desire, desperation, delight. Over time, I've been learning that I can let God define my time and talents, and then refine me to fulfill the purpose He has for my life.

So wish me luck, would you? I'm going to learn from Ann and other Christian writers and artists who have dreams similar but much larger than my own. Let me take this writing and commit it to Him, and then see what happens next. I am excited...ready...and very hopeful that I can learn to yield, surrender, and follow, and that my reality can finally match His dreams for me.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Let's Just Close the Library

First the unthinkable happened- our district decided that in order to save money, they were going to lay off all of our certified, qualified librarians from their professional positions in school libraries. Each librarian was offered the opportunity to return to the classroom. Because we are required to have a master's degree in library science, current school librarian state certification, a current teaching certificate in our grade level, and a bachelor's degree in education, we can be classroom teachers. Most librarians believe the library is the largest classroom in every school. But the news was hard to hear, and harder to accept. Some of our librarians retired before they wanted to do so, others left the teaching profession, some left the state, and a handful returned to the classroom. With this one school board decision, we lost a wealth of expertise, dedication, and talent in our schools. The hole left by these wonderful, gifted educators is huge, and they are missed every single day.

I didn't think it could get any worse, but I was wrong.

Now there is a dangerous trend underway in our local school libraries to close the library in order to use the aide who was hired to run the library to provide coverage for teachers who need to participate in planning meetings. Our aides are pulled to provide study hall, silent reading time, lunch duty, recess duty, etc. which requires hanging a CLOSED sign on our library doors. Most of our library aides are currently serving students for half the number of hours previously served by full-time librarians because they are being tasked with other duties. Some of our libraries are closed half-the-week, if you look at the total number of hours available to serve our students. This trend negates the fact that open, accessible libraries staffed with full-time certified librarians is one of the most influential factors in accelerating student achievement.

Imagine you are 6 years old, and you're in a vibrant, active first grade classroom. You read books every day. You enjoy browsing for them, choosing them, checking them out, reading them, and repeating that process day after day. But you can't. Because it's Tuesday and the library's closed. So you have your heart set on getting a chance to go to the library on Wednesday, but you can't. Because the library's closed again. You have to wait until Thursday to get a new book, but by then you've waited a long time for another opportunity to fulfill your need for new books. On Thursday, you check out two more books, and you read them Thursday, take them home to read with your family, and bring them back to school on Monday. You want to take your books back for new ones, but you can't. They've closed the library so the library aide can cover a class for a teacher who's in a meeting. So you wait until Tuesday, but it's closed again for teacher meetings. And it's closed again on Wednesday, so you can't go back for new books until Thursday. Some folks will say, So What?? But what research tells us (proven, in-depth research) is that children who have flexible access to books through their open libraries are outscoring and outreading children with limited access. It's not rocket science--when we read more, we achieve more. And maybe it IS rocket science, because children who read more and achieve more become rocket scientists, and doctors, and technicians, and educators.

Our schools are under a lot of pressure to make things happen. When librarians were in our school libraries, they could provide instruction for students as part of the collaborative team on each campus. By replacing them with library aides, you're asking paraprofessionals to fill some awfully big shoes, and you're not compensating them in terms of salary or preparation for their duties. By eliminating full-time librarians in all of our schools, there is no professional librarian managing the operational budget of the library, which includes time, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in assets (both print, non-print, and equipment). So we're losing ground academically, as well as fiscally. Where is the public in all of this? Where is the outcry? There should be many loud objections, conscientious objectors if you will, but instead there seems to be an apathetic acquiescence to the inevitable.

I hope every educator I know will stand firm when they see their library closing again and again. It makes no sense to misappropriate library resources. It's not what's best for kids, and that is supposed to be the bottom line. I'm going to Be the One to speak up, and to protect and defend our libraries for all users-- children, parents, and teachers. Please join me!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Birthday Girls

Everything I ever needed to learn about birthdays, I learned from my mother. She had a gift for making our celebrations unique, and there was something we knew for sure: our mother was happy we were born. I wish every child had that same gift. I meet children every day who have not been given that belief...and I fear they will spend their lives trying to find out if their existence matters to any one or anyone. Perhaps this is why my brothers and I each have tender hearts for children...we treasure what we were given.

The first birthday party I can remember happened when I turned 5. We were moving to Okinawa, and spent a few days at my uncle's house in California before taking a bus to Seattle and then a long flight through Alaska and on to Japan. My uncle was one of Merrill's Marauders, and had suffered through the Bataan Death March. He had the courage of a giant even though malaria left him nearly crippled. He lived in a little trailer park, and we stayed with him until our father sent for us from Okinawa. My mom said I could invite some of the kids in the trailer park, so I invited every single one. She was flabbergasted when 30 children showed up, and somehow she made that little pink cake stretch to feed the gang I'd invited. That was perhaps my first experience with loaves and fishes! My mom was a talented seamstress, and made all of my clothes. On my 7th birthday, she sewed my bedspread, dust ruffle, vanity and stool skirt, etc. out of pink dotted swiss cotton, and I was awash in girlhood. She believed in homemade parties, homemade cakes, homemade lemonade, homemade games...she coached us through pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs. I remember her proud, happy smile when we managed to blow out each candle, making each secret wish. I'm afraid in our Chuck E. Cheese world, today's little birthday girl might be unimpressed with my mom's parties, but she made each of us the center of attention on our special day. As my children came into the world, I tried to follow my mother's footsteps. We didn't always have a big budget, but it was not about the presents, it was about the presence of people who loved and adored you, and were happy to celebrate your birth.

My mom told me she remembered only one of her birthdays. She hadn't seen her father for many years after her parent's divorce, and he showed up in Minneapolis with a little yellow dress and matching overcoat. The father she'd lost remembered little Ginny's birthday that year, but he stayed only long enough to give his gift. It was the last time she ever saw him.

A few days ago I came across the last birthday card my mother gave to me, three weeks before she died. I used to do her shopping for her, which included a trip to the store for birthday cards as she was strictly a Hallmark girl. She used a little flowered notecard for my birthday and wrote: "Dear Rob, I couldn't make it to Hallmark to pick out your card this year, but I want you to know that I could not be more proud of the woman you are today. We have become more than mothers and daughters, we are best friends. I love you 60,000,000 ways. Use this check to buy yourself something special--and you're not allowed to buy milk or eggs. Love, Mom"

Last weekend I went to Houston to help Avery celebrate her 9th birthday. Christi's got my mom's knack for creating special occasions. Avery had requested monster fingers for dinner, so after the Children's Museum, we picked up a couple dozen crab claws and steamed them up for supper. She'd requested an ice cream cake, so we had that ready for her, all 9 candles reminding me of the generosity of this life I've grown to love as a grandmother. I carried on our little tradition, buying a new charm for the silver bracelet I started for Avery a couple of years ago. Each of us made her the center of our attention...surrounding her with the love and laughter she so deserves. My mom's legacy is with us...I hear her voice in my head and my heart as I celebrate the blessings of grandchildren. I watch our little birthday girl fill her cheeks with one big breath, eager to extinguish all 9 candles in one attempt. Her eyes are sparkling, dancing, as she giggles and laughs with all of us. Watching my little birthday girl makes my heart ache for my mom, but I'm grateful, ever so grateful, for a mother who loved me so well.