Giving up giving up

Ooooh, it’s Lent.

And today it’s also the Feast of St Valentine, which conveniently has Lent right there in the middle of it.

Or, if you like, A loveseat tent sniff, which is a useful anagram for the day.

Not often that Lent starts on Valentine’s Day, and as Easter Sunday falls on 1st April, this year Lent is bookended with love and joy.

I like that.

Image result for psalm 90 14

A lot of people I know try and discipline themselves over the season of Lent by giving something up. While their efforts are laudable, sensible and often far too health-conscious for regular humans like me, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of refraining from something I enjoy and feel nourished or sustained by, unless I feel convicted by God to do it (i.e. fasting, from food, drink, social media or the like). There are times when God asserts his place by insisting on our attentions. Food, drink, even facebook, are not to become more important than God. But neither are those other precious things in life: partners, children or oxygen. And while I put God ahead of my husband, my children and the air I breathe, I don’t honestly think he is asking me to forgo them for six weeks. The family may be a little confused and upset, for a start.

Fasting has its place. Giving something up for Lent often has its place when God convicts us, but if it is about a personal detox, it is not a spiritual endeavour. Perhaps some people, in their earnest desires to improve themselves, have made ‘giving up’ a bigger deal than ‘getting close to God’. They want to see whether they can manage to accomplish something valuable but difficult. Great. For me though, I want a closer relationship with God. Sometimes he will want me to give something up. Sometimes he will want me to take something up.

For me, Jesus took up human flesh and frailty. For me, he took up the cross. In my experience, God has been wonderfully generous through the many ups and downs of life; multiplying grace and love over and over. He has sometimes put barriers up, but these have been wise and reasonable, even when I did not like them. He has sometimes allowed times of pain, but his presence has been close and his promises have endured.

In Jewish thought, the idea of stopping on the Sabbath and not working is not viewed as negative, but positive. The Sabbath rest is a proactive feasting and renewing time. Our best celebrations do the same.

So I will give up giving up. This Lent I am going to try finishing a few tasks.

  • I want to finish sorting the children’s artwork from the past ten years.
  • I want to finish getting the garage in order.
  • I want to complete several books I am in the middle of. And get promised book reviews to Amazon.

I am a great starter of tasks. Now I am going to learn to be a great finisher of tasks too. God has shown me that he continues with me, though I am still a work in progress. He will complete the task and what he starts, he finishes.

What about you? Have you got any tasks you are hoping to complete over Lent? Or any interesting Lent activities or fasts you are taking part in? Do comment below!

 

Friday 500 -Babel

‘Hot, today, innit?’ said Nim to Ard one Monday morning as the white sun started baking the ground, their backs, their thoughts.

‘Very hot. Pass me those bricks mate, don’t hang about!’ Ard replied. ‘Any plans for this evening then?’

‘Not a lot, eat a few onions, drink my beer, usual stuff.’

‘Your wife burn the bread again today then?’ Ard joked. Nim rolled his eyes and dropped the bricks at his feet.

‘Watch it! I don’t want to have them falling off the scaffold at this height!

‘Next lot’s coming up. Get a move on!’

And there was evening. And there was morning.

‘Hoot, today, onnit?’ said Nim to Ard that Tuesday morning as the white sun started baking the ladders, their foreheads, their minds.

‘What?’ replied Ard. ‘Hoot? Hetta, doncha mean? Hetta dayday no-yes? Givvit me claycakes.’

‘Comcom?’

‘Claycakes, look there!’

‘Oh.’

‘Twilighting you foodalls dayday?’

‘Foodalls?’

‘Beer?’

‘Oh, beer! Beer happytum, laughyes. Here claycakes.’

‘Ow! You get blackbread dayday? Ha!’

‘Blackbread?’

‘Oi, watchdrop please. Not clever dropping here now. You strange dayday.’

‘Nexty nexty.’

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Wednesday morning the white sun rose above the mountains, baking the bricks, the tools, the flies, before Nim and Ard arrived at the building site. Ard was hobbling and leaning on a crutch. Nim had hardly slept. His wife had been talking nonsense to him all evening.

‘Hoot, onnit?’ Nim said to Ard.

‘Hetta,’ Ard growled back.

‘Lookit yours leghand. Whatisit?’ Nim pointed to Ard’s foot, wrapped in rags.

Ard glared at him.

‘Claycakes me foot givvit, dimboy!’

‘Oh.’

‘Leghand yours paingreat if it now?’

Ard glared again. Nim turned and picked up a brick.

‘Up now woodroad to tippytoppy, mate.’

Ard growled again and started climbing. Nim followed, his bag of burnt bread swinging from his back. He would have to have words with his wife again. What was she thinking letting his bread burn every day this week?

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Thursday the white sun rose high in the sky, baking the sand, the roofs, the snakes, before Nim got to the building site. Ard was nowhere to be seen. Nim loaded bricks on to the pulley and started climbing the ladder. As he reached the top he stopped for a rest and a quick drink. Nim opened his bag and looked inside. His flask of beer was getting warm. And something else was wrong. There was a stone instead of a loaf of bread. A large white stone. At least it wasn’t burnt, he thought. He took it out, scratched his head and dropped it over the side of the scaffold.

Far below, a cry of pain and indignation rang out.

meister_der_weltenchronik_001

 

‘Donkeybread!’ said Nim to himself.He stayed up the scaffold for the rest of the day.

And there was evening. And there was morning.

On Friday, the white sun climbed again and hung, baking the stones, the fields, the dry mouths.

Nim packed his bag.

 

Friday 500 -Wrestling with an Idea all Night

Because his wife had fallen for them, he had bought the two kittens. One a ginger tom, the second his smaller, scrawny grey-white tabby brother.

roof-kittens

And, because he was a writer and insisted on naming them, they became Esau and Jacob. So, when Esau began bringing home kills and expecting more attention, he found the humour and tickled his chin and forgot to chide him. And when Jacob tried to assert himself he laughed and let them chase and playfight under his feet in his messy writing den. Invariably Esau would end up with the reading chair, licking his tail and turning to stare, while Jakey rolled on his back and teased the curtain with his claws.

The nights were always the best time to write. The cats kept him company too, occasionally curling on his lap or nosing into empty mugs. Deep in the quiet dark, the rattling purr of a happy cat kept him going when the ideas were thin. His wife was far better than he was at the feeding and cleaning out, but he was the first to notice that Jakey had gone missing. Esau of course wasn’t for telling why. He’d always been that more aloof and hated sharing in any case. So when, one night in the winter, only four ginger paws crept into the warmth of the den, he looked over his glasses and scratched his head.

The ideas didn’t come so well that night. Even in the morning there was no sign of Jakey and the writer’s wife said she’d ask around.

There was nothing.

Missing Jakey impacted on him more than he thought it could. Esau grew fatter, and redder. The words he wrote each night weren’t funny any longer. The muse had gone and his imagination started playing tricks on him. Could he have been hit by a car? The nights were not as friendly, not as productive, sometimes even painful, so he considered stopping.

His wife encouraged him. They hadn’t heard anything or seen a body. Sometimes cats just go off wandering. Perhaps he should write about it. Or go for a walk. Or have a nice hot bowl of soup.

The soup was tempting.

It was some time later, during a night of slow words, that he heard the brawling, the breeowling, the hhhreow of the brother cats in the garden. The ideas he had been wrestling over for hours were gone in a moment as he rushed to open the back door, looking out to see exactly what was going on. Esau had his back to him. Jacob was there, alert, devious. Both were singing now, arching and staring at each other, tails flickering. Claws were out, paws extended. The writer stepped out, called out. A moment of contact, a chase, and then Jacob ran through the open door, straight into the den and on to the chair. It was his. He sat licking his hip as the writer returned with a chuckle and sat to write.

Research Threads

My work in progress is set in an ancient culture, around the time the Bronze Age was transitioning to the Iron Age.

This has rather significant implications for me as a researcher. Unlike writing a chick lit set in the immediate future or a dragonfest in an alternative fantasy world, I cannot look around me for facts or set my imagination free. Both of these would be far quicker, and those who write historical fiction of any sort are known to take longer over it. Instead, I’ve been keen to show real discipline in what I’m doing, having a firm idea about what is known and what isn’t about this particular place and time.

Today on the BBC news website you can see an example of genuine Bronze Age material. This stuff really happened and it’s someone’s handiwork from some 150 generations ago. Great quality fabric too, apparently. The finds on site are remarkable.

whittleseyfabric

There are elements of the world of 3000 years ago which have not survived, but I need to know enough in order not to leave gaping holes. Much of the time it feels like we have tiny pieces of the bigger jigsaw. We may have some writings, or shards of pottery, or fragments from archaeological digs, or contemporaneous evidence, but we don’t know everything. It’s tantalising. I would love to know more about the human side of the stories: the secrets, the unrecorded folklore, the family recipes, even the patterns on the clothing. What of the everyday stories of the people too unimportant to feature in the bigger scene? I think a lot of readers of historical fiction want to know details about those who never got recorded. Perhaps it validates all of us. All of us have a story, however little. When did our ancestors wake, and what did they do all day? How structured were their taskseat and how much did that vary in practice? Did people think outside the box much? How brutal were the battles, the seasons, the relationships, in comparison to the safe and settled life I lead? I have so little in common with them, and yet I want to find enough common ground to feel a connection. When did people usually eat? How often did they wash? What wooden or cloth items did they own? These organic details don’t usually leave clues, despite finds like those at Must Farm, above. Sometimes there is some great research to put you in the picture, such as Nathan MacDonald’s What Did Ancient Israelites Eat?  which is a readable academic assessment of the food of land of Israel (going to show it really wasn’t flowing with milk or honey).

This is how I see my task:

Known facts Unknowns
Can I invent details? Cannot invent details if they contradict known facts Justified, in context, after researching well
Can I ignore details? Ignore irrelevant data which doesn’t move the story along

I have to do my research well (and there’s no excuse when you live near Cambridge).

The other extreme of course is to riddle a story with unnecessary archaeological facts, just to prove I did my homework. I’ve seen this done in various books and it looks weak. ‘Aha,’ cries Main Character to Antagonist, ‘I see you have modified the profile of your clay pots; are you in cahoots with the local slightly-more-advanced tribe now, or are you just feeling especially creative?’

It’s not just Facts. I am deeply interested in Words. You can’t, of course, use a modern idea or term like ‘cahoots’ in a piece of imagined ancient dialogue unless your creativity is particularly free and your readers either forgiving or ignorant. I’ve set myself the task of wanting to communicate well about the way ancient people lived, including the kinds of things that they would naturally have been talking about and the range of vocabulary they would have used. Modern ways of thinking don’t belong in an ancient mindset, so I am immersing myself in the details I do have. As well as re-reading the Old Testament for clues (Leviticus suddenly shows itself useful regarding fabrics and rituals, for example), I am working through a list I compiled of all the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament (actually lemmas, to be precise). It is not as long as you might think – only a few thousand different word roots, and many of them interesting in their connections or their clues about ancient living.

So: words and facts. Much to read, think over, write about. To write as a fictitious story, because I believe fiction tells truth so much better than any other genre. Story works.

But how many lies, to tell the truth? There are also things it is reasonable to extrapolate, and things it is unreasonable to extrapolate. The human body works in certain ways and that hasn’t changed in that time. Seasons and geography are reasonably similar thousands of years on, though crops have changed. The way we think certainly has changed; we are impacted and influenced today by generations of Enlightenment, Modernism, Post-Modernism, international travel, historical understanding, instant communication. We are still as greedy and self-righteous as our ancient counterparts were recorded as being in the Bible. We also still see life through the lens of our own experiences. Is it fair to extrapolate back? Can one make assumptions, or do books about the past necessarily end up reflecting the writer’s time period or personal attitudes more than they do the real era in question?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this. I want a readable and genuinely interesting story. I also need to use my imagination a fair deal, in as informed a way as I possibly can.

If my book is aiming to be an Historical Fiction my research needs to be meticulous. Even the best historical fictions have limits and anachronisms. Writers disagree on how much creative licence they should have, but readers aren’t stupid. Perhaps it will be better suited as Literary Fiction in an historical setting; equally as demanding to write, but better suited to introspection, characters and style. I don’t want it to be categorised as Biblical Historical Fiction even though it is informed by, and ought to be able to inform, biblical reading. Genre does matter, and I have some thoughts on where it is heading, but for now I still have quite a fair bit of reading to do.

Multiple Codas

‘The End,’ my son began.

‘OK, that’s all then,’ I smiled. He had only just started reading the next section of his school book.

‘It’s not really the end, mummy,’ he told me with all the authority  of One Who Is Six. ‘Not The End. It’s just the end of the dinosaurs, silly.’

dinoend

And the end of the dinosaurs was not the end of the story. It never is. There is usually some preamble in books about dinosaurs concerning Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic, the odd Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Diplodocus or two, Pterasaurs and similar words designed to frighten parents of children learning to read. But The End doesn’t come at the end. In Joe’s book this week it came about three-quarters of the way in. The End turned out to be the obligatory picture of a massive meteor bouncing violently against Earth some 65 million years ago. After The End there were several more pages: pictures of how fossils are formed, how they are discovered, and what dinosaur skeletons look like in museums. And it got me thinking again.

I was taught that a story has a Beginning, a Middle and an End.

But sometimes, it has a Beginning, a Middle, an End and Another End.

This is called a Multiple Coda. An extra little something. Jesus used it when telling the well-known story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The story ends when the wayward son returns home and his father puts on a party, ‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’… all done; great. But not everything in the plot has been resolved. There is another brother who reacts and the story continues. He also gets a coda and a word from his father: ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours’. Scholars debated whether both endings belonged here, but once you study it you realise they do; it is a convention familiar to Jesus from many Old Testament narratives. Where there is more than one lack that needs liquidating the story takes more than one event to resolve it all at the end. For more on this, see Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (p.107), or more generally on the topic, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative

I’ve noticed this convention more as I am made aware of it. On The Big Bang Theory episodes usually end with more than one final scene. It gives you warning that the ending is coming (brace yourself!) and uses the opportunity to resolve the storylines running in that particular show without having to do it all in one scene.

bbt

The work I’m doing and the way I am writing takes into account Old Testament narrative devices, so from time to time I will put more up on this blog about this. The conventions in OT narrative are rich and sometimes quite eye-opening.They will become part of my mid-week updates which serve to counter the 500 word short stories on Fridays I’m doing for fun. After some time working on the idea of writing, I’m now taking the plunge and getting on with it.

It is an exciting beginning.

One Tale to the Tune of Another

The Sons of Ham

The sons of Ham departed from the tents of their father and kissed their mothers and left to build cities in the land of the sons of Canine.

And the first son of Ham built a city in the fields of the sons of Canine.

With walls of straw he built it;

With barley and wheat he established it.

And the sons of Canine came to him and asked to trade but the firstborn son of Ham swore by his beard and by the beard of his father Ham that he would not trade or even allow the sons of Canine to enter his city. And so the sons of Canine cursed the son of Ham, saying,

“Though your settlement be strong in your eyes,

With our voices we will shout,

With the breath of our lungs we will cry out,

And your city will be utterly destroyed!”

At nightfall there was a violent wind and the city of the firstborn son of Ham was swept away, so that not even one bundle of straw remained on another.

And the second son of Ham built a city for himself in the forests of the sons of Canine.

With walls of wood he built it;

With cedar and oak he established it.

And the sons of Canine came to him and asked to trade but the son of Ham swore by his beard and by the beard of his father Ham that he would not trade or even allow the sons of Canine to enter his city. And so the sons of Canine cursed the son of Ham, saying,

“Though your settlement be strong in your eyes,

With our voices we will shout,

With the breath of our lungs we will cry out,

And your city will be utterly destroyed!”

At nightfall there was a great fire and a violent wind and the city of the son of Ham was utterly destroyed, so that not even one stick remained in place.

And the youngest son of Ham, seeing the destruction, wept for his brothers for three days and three nights. And he built a city in the mountains of the sons of Canine.

With walls of stone he built it;

With dressed stone he established it.

And the sons of Canine came to him and asked to trade but the son of Ham swore by his beard and by the beard of his father Ham that he would not trade or even allow the sons of Canine to enter his city. And so the sons of Canine cursed the son of Ham, saying,

“Though your settlement be strong in your eyes,

With our voices we will shout,

With the breath of our lungs we will cry out,

And your city will be utterly destroyed!”

At nightfall there was a mighty earthquake and a great fire and a violent wind and a storm of storms. But the city of the son of Ham remained.

And so the sons of Canine planned together, saying, “we will not let this son of Ham dwell on our mountain” and they built ladders and scaled the walls of the city and crept into the kitchens. But the youngest son of Ham was preparing stew, and the sons of Canine fell in to the stew pot and were destroyed. And the stew was ruined.

But the city of the son of Ham was saved, and there was rejoicing throughout the land.

Pig

(c) Lucy Marfleet 2015