Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

Apple

My son asked for a snack, an everyday happenstance not worthy of blogging, but this time when I gave him permission, he asked for a piece of candy. Also, not out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, I told him, “No, buddy, how about something healthy?”

Not only did Asher understand my flippant answer, he responded with excitement. The boy, at four years of age, went to the refrigerator, pulled out an apple, and asked me to cut it up for him. This is the kid who, up to a few months ago, would eat nothing but protein and carbs. I have never been more eager to remove the flesh of an apple from its core.

I too am an apple, at least that’s what my family calls me, for not too long ago, Asher overheard his mother using her special term of endearment for me, which he interpreted as a source of cider. In reality, her pet name marked me as a source of bullshit. Now due to Asher’s mistake, when Laura refers to me as “Apple,” it’s not because I’m so sweet, it’s because I’m a jerk.

Despite the new appellation, my flesh is not easily divided from my core. I mean, you could, but the knife would have to be super-sharp and my juices would literally go everywhere. Figuratively, I get stuck when trying to write about my grandfather, for his story is the story of my family, and my understanding of family history contains the seeds from which my identity grew, so every time I try to write about my grandfather, it feels like a knife slicing too close to my core.

I’ve got wounds inside that need healed. Anger seethes within as I consider the pain my grandfather’s abandonment inflicted upon my aunts and uncles. I bleed, and writing is the iodine that’ll prevent festering, but I know it’ll hurt, so I continue leaking onto the carpet. Meanwhile years go by, and I’ve made no headway either on paper or with becoming whole.

I am an apple. Holding back on the writing means I’m not becoming the husband Laura needs me to be, and I’m not the father my kids deserve. The reason I don’t write is because I’m selfish.

Not only will I be healed through the telling of why my grandfather left his family and what became because of it, others who grew up in the cult my grandfather helped create may find solace as well. Geez, Apple, get to work.

Improvisational Story

Friends, I want to build a story from original snippets of text contributed by you. They can be sentences, paragraphs, or even a word or two.

Simply scroll down to the end of this post, click “Leave a Comment,” post your contribution, and I’ll do the rest. Hurry though, I want to get this bad boy written before week’s end. 

The Dutch Kid

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Philip Wiegratz, 2005, (c) Warner brothers

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Philip Wiegratz, 2005, (c) Warner brothers

I almost named this post Finger in the Dike, then Pluggin’ the Dike sounded better but still seemed to convey the wrong idea. Anyway…

On with the post!

You remember that story they told us as children where this kid’s walking home from school, admiring the windmills of his native Holland until he notices a crack in the earthen dike? Knowing he stands below sea level and the failure of the dike spells deluge for all, this little scrapper takes action, plugging the hole with the one thing he’s got on hand: his finger. It’s only then that he realizes the consequences of his actions. Going to get help means inviting the ocean to come on in, so he stands there as his finger loses feeling and hopes someone wanders by. Eventually help comes, and the nation lauds the boy as a hero for his perseverance and selflessness. Good story. Inspirational.

I have a similar Dutch kid living in a corner of my brain. Think Augustus Gloop, but instead of that turtleneck, he’s rockin’ a pair of wooden clogs and a blue, pointed cap. When he’s not swaying back and forth in a hammock made from my grey matter and chomping on an oversized chocolate bar, he perseveres with trouble in mind.

My overactive imagination produces so much thought, I experience difficulty sorting each idea and storing them away for further use. Instead of a meticulous filing system, I imagine my brain contains a huge reservoir of thoughts swirling about, held at bay by a gargantuan dam. There’s a built-in sluice to direct these ideas, allowing them to flow naturally in the right direction.

Writing opens this gate for me, organizing my thoughts and relieving the internal pressure, but the Dutch kid gets in the way. When I need to open the sluice, he slams it shut, convincing me there are far more important things to do like laundry or scrolling through internet feeds, slack-jawed.

Over time, ideas build one on top of the other and the dam wall starts to creak. Dutch Kid throws his weight behind his efforts, pushing back against the dam and forcing one thought to surface, “There’s not enough time to write right now.” Convinced, I go on with life as though all is well, but the pressure continues to increase.

Days, weeks, and months go by. Running and sharing life with close friends helps me manage external stressors, but the metric tons of accumulated thought bear down on my shoulders, knotting them up. Just as the dam’s about to unleash all that pent-up creativity like a starved tiger let loose in a butcher shop, Dutch Kid finds the cracks in the dam wall and corks them with his chubby digits.

Why subject myself to this? I know Dutch Kid exists as a personification of my psyche copping excuses to my detriment. He prevents my writing, because practicing that art may cause me to dredge up the things I fear to face. A multitude of scuttled memories lays at rest in the aphotic zone of my memory, and a prior project exposing my middle school self and all his insecurity was no joke. During that time of growth, I was raw and anguished, my identity shaken.

Better for it now, I have to choose. Do I continue allowing the thoughts and ideas to amalgamate, further submerging memories I fear to face? Or do I go mano a mano with Dutch Kid, eliminate his position, and evict him from his hammock? With him absent, the dam would burst, releasing torrents of thought to thunder forth and reveal barnacle-encrusted memories. With my grey matter dripping, I’d have no choice but to write, sorting through what the flood uncovered, cleansing me.

“Dutch Kid! Stop fingering that! You and I gotta discuss a thing or two!”

I’ve Been Published

If you go here, you’ll find my essay, “Battle of Hoth,” the seed of which I wrote as a writing sample to get into Ashland University’s MFA program nearly five years ago.

It’s crazy to think how one weird moment serves as the impetus to set you on a path you dreamt about as a kid but never expected to find yourself walking down. Let’s answer some imaginary FAQs:

Now that you’ve been published by an online journal, what will you do?

Knowing there’s at least one person who likes my work encourages me to produce more of it and continue to submit for publication.

Why publish at a place called Burlesque Press? Doesn’t that have something to do with adult entertainment?

I published there because they asked me to, and any opportunity I have to get my work out to be seen, I’ll take. The website shares similarities with a burlesque show in name only. The word is synonymous with ‘parody’ or ‘travesty’ which means they publish work that’s not what one expects, elevating the mundane and subverting the exalted.

Now that you’re rich and famous, can I borrow 20 bucks?

Though some publications pay for original work, Burlesque Press does not. I’m super-stoked just because they picked my piece. Actually, if you want to borrow 20 bucks, talk to someone else. I parked in front of somebody’s driveway last night and almost had my car impounded, so between the cost of the ticket and the fee for the tow truck, I’m not flush with cash.

If it takes five years of work to get published without even getting paid for it, why do it?

This I’ve asked myself many times. I do it because I love it, and because of my pursuit of writing, I now get to teach English to 8th graders, which is pretty special.

Will you ever get published again?

How would I know that? Actually, Burlesque Press accepted two of my pieces, so I’ll be published again on Tuesday.

What are you writing now?

Aside from this blog post, nothing. I can’t write two things at once.

Alright, smart-aleck, answer the question.

I have many writing projects, all in various states of disrepair. There’s the collection of essays I want to convert into Programming the Robotic Soul: A Nerd’s Memoir. There’s the story of how my maternal grandfather abandoned his family in the early ’60s to lead the Undergrounders, a cult that built a church, houses, and bomb shelters out in Benson, Arizona, believing nuclear war was imminent and they’d be the only ones to survive. I’m also writing a sci-fi piece about a genetically-modified creature who becomes self-aware to see where it goes.

What’s it feel like to create something and have someone who also creates that same sort of thing deem it worthy of sharing with the world?

It feels like the time I defended my thesis and realized the English professors saw me as a writer. It feels like affirmation.