On Creativity and Home Improvement

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. I thought that a year in Cameroon would have loosened my pen and that the words would jump onto the page of their own accord. The opposite was true. Living in a developing country for the first time was overwhelming. There was so much to take in, I found that I could barely process all the events myself, much less write about them.

I was searching for the big picture, but I ended up only seeing the minutiae, the details that weave themselves into my subconscious until they no longer stand out. Perhaps the big picture will come after years of experience, or maybe it won’t. Until that point, better to describe the small things, and then—perhaps—we can arrive at the larger whole.

I’m still learning, but a couple of things have changed. I’m in a different central African country, one I think is a better fit for me in a lot of ways. I’ve also had some time and space to process, recovering from the cultural whiplash of living in three countries last year and four this year. Two were repeats (so five countries in two years), but it isn’t something I would recommend.

So now I’m trying a new thing: settling. It’s an odd word to me, perhaps because I haven’t done it in so long, but I’ve moved in to a new place and am learning how to make a house a home.

It’s not always easy. In Cameroon I was spoiled, having a housing department to prepare a furnished apartment with a fridge, stove, electricity and running water. Here, apartments are rarely furnished, and tenets are responsible for figuring out their own water and electricity. Thankfully, I had help from my team in installing a water tank outside to collect rainwater. Although we’ve had one storm since I got here, I am praying for more rain so that my tank can fill up. [Update: it rained all night last night and we got more than 12 inches of rain. My tank is now almost full!] It’s amazing how much water we use every day: washing our dishes, ourselves, cooking, cleaning, drinking, and even flushing the toilet. Here, we learn how to conserve.

Working on a house here requires a good measure of creativity. Like using string in a crisscross pattern to hang a shower curtain, since curtain rods aren’t sold in stores. Or running extension cords from your one outlet by the front door through the wall to your kitchen, so that your fridge can be plugged in until a more permanent electricity solution is found.

Or being Kelly Moore for a day, mixing your own paint colors. Here, paint chips are rare, but white paint and dye are fairly cheap, and you can see a plethora of bright colors on the buildings throughout the city. To paint my house, my friend and I experimented with blue and yellow dye. (Everything I know I learned in kindergarten: Primary Color Paint Mixing 101!) I was looking for a seafoam green for the main room and a sunshiny yellow for the kitchen. For the green, we undertook the process scientifically, measuring drops and determining the perfect ratio for a nice pale green (a 3:1 yellow to blue ratio, in case you’re curious). For the yellow, I just dumped the remaining dye in the paint and hoped for the best. They both turned out great, and I enjoyed the process a lot more than choosing from paint chips and not having it meet expectations.

Bottom line: life is so different here, and some things may even seem unbelievable to people back home. But this constant state of disequilibrium keeps me open, open to new ideas, people, and experiences. In the West we think of creativity as something artistic, to be used in leisure time. Here, creativity helps us all get by in day to day life. A house is formed not only with cement, but with ideas, creating solutions to problems.

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Villablino

In January I had the privilege of traveling to Spain to teach a linguistics course in Villablino, León. I lived in Granada for one year while I was studying Spanish in university, and being in Spain felt like being home again. Nevertheless, Northern Spain has a very different culture from the South.

Villablino is a smaller mining town, nestled in the mountains and practically forgotten except by those who know it’s there. Skiing is the main attraction for outsiders; there are no must-see historic sites or ancient cathedrals. When I was there I couldn’t even find a postcard.

Yes dismissing the town would be a mistake. It’s a special mix of city and country; there are about four main streets with plenty of shops and stores, but it’s easy to wander out of the town and into the hills. Stone walls guard horses and donkeys, but I’ve seen sheep wandering freely on a deserted hillside road. A stork nests on top of the stone bell tower of a church. A particularly warm year, winter was an interesting mix of damp rainy days, warm sunshine, and heavy snowfall. The fate of backyard gardens would look grim if it were not for the hearty kale plants growing everywhere, their thick leaves a splash of green peeking out from under the snow.

When I was in university, I learned that Spain was home to four languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. The reality is far more complex with obscure little Romance languages scattered throughout the Northern mountains, isolation and time creating a perfect recipe for linguistic variation. The Laciana valley (where Villablino is located) is home to a language called Pachueso. Essentially moribund (linguistic speak for “practically dead”), there are next to no native speakers, only those who attempt to keep it alive through classes, public readings, songs, and conversations. It is sometimes sprinkled into the Spanish here in surprising ways. The majority of the cafés in Villablino have their open/closed signs in Pachueso instead of Spanish. My upstairs neighbor speaks it, and I had the privilege of listening to him read a story in the language. The story had a particularly rustic theme; it was about a boy who got chased up a tree by a wild boar and ended up arriving home late at night and being locked out. When my neighbor read the story, it seemed similar to Spanish, but not quite intelligible. It sounded as old as the mountains, a forgotten language that rolled off his tongue like water from a hidden spring.

Although the weather was unpredictable, it was generally cold and I was grateful for our heating system in the apartment. We had a coal stove. That’s right. Coal. Since Villablino is a mining town, coal is a relatively cheap resource and has been used to heat houses in the Laciana valley for years. It takes some maintenance. Hauling coal from the basement to the apartment in buckets every couple of days, scraping the grate from below daily so that it wouldn’t get clogged with ashes, emptying the fallen ashes once a week, and—if the fire happened to die—restarting it with newspaper and wood before adding more coal. It was labor-intensive, but I liked it. I felt like I was taking part of a tradition far more interesting and rich than simply pushing a button on a thermostat.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes Spain feel like home to me. I have lived abroad in other places for just as long or longer without having the same feeling. And despite having never been to Villablino and knowing no one before arriving, it still felt like home right away.

I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching linguistics in Spanish. It was a small class, but the students were eager to learn. I taught an introductory grammar course, covering the basics of morphology and syntax. The best part for me was investing in the students and seeing them grow in their linguistic skills. At the beginning of the course they did not know what morphemes were, and by the end they were writing grammar descriptions. These are students who are interested in serving across the world in linguistics, literacy and Bible translation. It will be exciting to see where they end up. I like thinking about how God brings people together for a certain time or season and then scatters them across the world. Yet the connection and the impact everyone has had on each other remain.

It was an intense time, as it was my first time teaching my own class. There was a steep learning curve for preparing materials and exercises, outlining lesson plans, writing and grading exams, and balancing all of that with day-to-day life. I taught three hours a day, five days a week, and did all my prep work and grading in the afternoons and evenings. Add processing everything in my second language to the mix, and it’s no wonder I was tired at the end of the day. But at no point during the course was I so stressed that I regretted coming, and although I was exhausted after several weeks of this rhythm, I always felt like it was worth the effort. I lit up when I got to explain complex ideas or when I tried to show how beautiful language could be. It was a great fit, and I hope to be back.

And now my life seems full of contrasts. There was snow on the ground when I left, but now I am sticky from the humidity in Cameroon. I felt so comfortable and confident in Spanish, and now I am speaking halting French, trying to remember the syllables that have become rusty from disuse. There are more transitions down the road, but I will enjoy the bright moments and thank God for His provision and His dreams for me, far better than what I could think up on my own.

The Violence of Spring

I originally wrote this one month ago when we had snow flurries on Easter.

We talk about spring as if it were a gentle season–all warmth and sunshine, sweet showers and flowers blooming everywhere. But spring is strong–not gentle. We never seem to focus on the violence of spring, the epic battle taking place with windy storms, snow flurries and wildly fluctuating temperatures as spring attempts to usurp winter and wrest from his icy claws the dominance over the length of our days and the warmth of our nights. No, spring is not gentle. If it consistently puts an end to the tyranny of winter’s reign, then spring is the strongest of them all.

Music on the Page

I appreciate music in a way that extends beyond a symphony or concert. For me, each language has its own specific music, made up of a unique rhythm, different sounds, cadence and intonation. It is the music of a language that allows us to identify languages we hear but don’t speak; we know the people at the next table over in the restaurant are speaking Spanish, Russian or Mandarin, even if we don’t recognize the words.

I love learning things by ear, whether it be languages or music, because I feel like there is something that clicks when I can hear it in my head. Reading, on the other hand, is often more visual than auditory. However, this is not always the case.

A few months ago, I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If genius could be contained between two covers, I think I found it. The characters leapt off the page as the plot wound its way through hundreds of pages in a mere three days. A three day timeline in which we can live our whole lives. Aside from it being a brilliantly crafted novel, I think one aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the dialogue. The book takes place in Spain, and although one  character is American, he speaks fluent Spanish with the other characters. Although the book is written in English, Hemingway gives the dialogue a Spanish flavor by taking common expressions from Spanish and translating them literally. This gives a somewhat awkward drift to the dialogue, but allows it to flow in a different way, a way that works perfectly in another language. Thus, the reader feels as if they are reading in Spanish when they are actually reading in English. The melodies of two languages blend together.

My other music-moment came reading a French play called Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. It was the first full length book I’ve read in French that I actually enjoyed. The plot was daring and bold–a lackey in love with the queen! Revenge, intrigue, l’amour…the characters were complex and it was amazing to follow them through their trials and triumphs. But what I really loved was the language–written in Alexandrain (12 syllables per verse) with rhyming couplets, I could hear the music of the language, the sonority, the cadence and rhythms. I could hear it, even though it was written down. Reading a play such as Ruy Blas instead of a novel was easier for me because the form and structure were just as much a part of the beauty of the work as the words that were chosen. But now I am encouraged to start reading more in French; an entire body of literature has become just a little more accessible.

Looking at the written word abstractly, we see squiggles on page. Yet with each stroke of the keys, there is a sound attached to the letters, meaning linked to the words, syncopated, staccato or legato. Sometimes we read banalities; words are cheap and silence is golden.

Other times the melody breaks through the fog and we hear the beginnings of a symphony.

“At either of those places…”

“At either of those places you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at León and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you part of something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, Ch. 18

Reflections on the November Project

When I decided at the end of October that I would be writing in my blog every day for November, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the content would be and how it would take shape.

I think the hardest part was there were some days when I just did not feel like writing at all. It was tough to come up with something on those days and to overcome the temptation to quit.

The best part was seeing the writing process become easier. After about three weeks, I felt like I got into a groove, and posting every day didn’t seem too hard. I loved watching my writing evolve too.

The most regrettable part was that in writing every day, I let some other things fall through the cracks…like keeping in touch with far away friends. That may be December’s Project.

The most surprising part was that I didn’t always write what I had intended to write. I would sometimes make plans about something I wanted to write about, but then events from the day would take over and put themselves down on the page. (For example, I know that I need to take time to reflect on the past month’s writing process, but I actually want to tell a story about a young boy I met at a family’s house at lunch. They made baskets of tiny crêpes and all sorts of toppings could be found on the two tables joined together to accommodate the guests. At the end of the meal, the young boy announced that he had eaten 12 crêpes. When I remarked on how that was impressive, he proudly told me that his record was 18. The End. You see? Voilà! An embedded story.)

To revisit the goals from November 1, I wanted to

1) Overcome the trepidation I felt when posting in my blog. I think publishing something every day took care of that.

2) Unleash my creativity. The fact that I wanted to write about topics that came to mind that day instead of pre-determined prompts showed me that I was thinking creatively. I think that in addition to putting words on a page, writing is also a kind of mindset, a way of looking at the world for inspiration, and filtering life’s events to form a story.

3) Find my voice. This one is tricky, since a writer’s voice doesn’t just develop in thirty days. But seeing a progression in the style and form of my posts made me feel like something was beginning to take shape.

4) Find a clearer picture of my blog’s identity. I’ve determined that there may not be a clear genre for the types of things I want to write, but I am ok sitting in that uncertainty for now. I have ideas about overarching categories and themes, and we’ll see where that goes in the coming weeks.

Thank you to those who have been tuning in faithfully to this month’s musings. Now that November is over, don’t fret! You can go back to read what you missed, or check out the new pictures in the Gallery. I will be back in December, not every day, but more regularly than I have been in the past.

And finally, the question remains: would I do this again? Ask me in October…

Storyteller

What makes a good storyteller?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people, but for me, there are several factors that set a truly good storyteller apart.

1) They are believable.

I know this is a personal preference, but I hate unreliable narrators. I know they are supposedly great for analyzing and for their social commentary, but I find myself shying away from a narrator that steps on the toes of their own story. I want a narrator who stays out of the way, doesn’t muddle the facts with their own opinions, but who can still give me an accurate view of what’s going on. I find myself drawn to third person omniscient narrators and remained unconvinced by most stories told in first person.

2) They evoke a strong sense of place and can portray deep characters.

Nobody wants a generic setting. If I am being transported to another place, I want that place to come alive, with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies. In good stories, place is just as much as character as people. And people are hard to capture, filled with emotions and desires. But people often run deeper than their desires, and sometimes even the best characters don’t know what they want. A good storyteller can portray the complexity of the human condition without overly-simplifying or sounding trite.

3) They have a few tricks up their sleeve.

Whether it’s the plot twist of a favorite novel, the lack of a clear denouement, or the sound effects and repetition one might hear in an oral story, a good storyteller knows that some surprises keep the reader or listener attentive and wanting more.

4) What they tell stays with you.

We all have a collection of stories that have never left us, and no matter how long we go without reading or hearing them, we can still remember them. The characters are old friends and their misadventures are our own mistakes, their successes our triumphs. The story has gripped our hearts in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

I was…but then…

I have a list of prompts that I created at the end of October to help with the creativity process and to prevent myself from running out of ideas during the November Project. It has been pretty helpful, and I was going to write about one of those prompts tonight…but then I realized I didn’t want to.

I don’t just want to be writing random posts, even if that is what has ended up happening for most of November. It’s very good practice, but I want to eventually be writing something more cohesive. I am still searching for a genre, and maybe the genre I’m looking for doesn’t exist.

No person is one-dimensional. Yet many genres are, with fixed guidelines and formats already in place that are difficult to rearrange. I love to travel, but travel blogs are sometimes trite, as if travel were all that mattered. I am religious, but think that “secular” things can point us to God just as easily as those that are sacred. I love language and the written word, but is that all I want to write about?

But far be it from me to go all existential on you. I know a little bit about what I want to write; I just don’t know how to make it happen in a cohesive way. I want to write creative non-fiction, taking stories and characters from real life and capturing the soul of places and people onto the page. I want to make place come alive in a way that makes it feel like the reader is really there. I want to hear the cadence of languages and the rhythm of music, to smell the spices in the market, to see deep colors, wild expressions of beauty, and the views from the edge of the cliff. I want to wake people up from the torpid indolence of daily routines to show that life is beautiful and worth living. I want to see and write about the Kingdom of God in action, because I truly believe that if more people were excited about this revolution, that the world would be a better place. I want to write about courage and light, beauty, love and adventure. I want to be a life-long learner and share the lessons. I want to treat everyone as a teacher, to ask good questions, to discover new cultures, new languages, new ways of life. I want to wander the world with a notebook and a camera and have it mean something.

Is there a genre for that?

“Words, words, words.”

If I were a character in a dystopian novel, I would find out where the books are. This would be a wise move for several reasons. Books are knowledge, and knowledge is power. Power can overthrow systems, and it is ideas that change the world. A collected library would tell of how the world was in the past and how that past wrought the uncertain present. There would most likely be bans on reading (à la Fahrenheit 451), but I think what societies ban tells a lot about their values.

Growing up I always loved reading. I loved being able to enter another world as easily as walking through a wardrobe into Narnia. Rather than make real life dull in comparison to books, I think the books I read gave real life an extra touch of adventure, a tiny bit of magic.

I don’t know what happened exactly, but I somehow got out of the habit of reading. I blame university in part; with all the mounds of required reading, there was always something academic to be working on, making pleasure reading…well…a guilty pleasure. After graduation, the habit never really came back on a permanent basis. My other culprit is the Internet. I have become so accustomed to instantaneous responses to my questions that reading a more slowly paced, albeit well developed, story sometimes tries my patience.

But these two are scapegoats only, because the real culprit is myself. Habits can be relearned, attention spans can stretch. I know that I have lost something valuable and I want to gain it back. I still believe in the power of the written word. I still believe in the beauty of stories. And I fear that by not reading, I am not thinking. I worry that I have turned off my brain to blindly swallow the lies the media spoon-feeds us every day. Reading creates better critical thinking skills and a better understanding of how words are used…or manipulated. It preserves our minds.

I know it can’t happen all at once, but I want to learn how to read again, to consume a story like a fine glass of wine, slowly and with anticipation. I want to regain the part of myself that I have lost.

Readers, what are some of your favorite stories?

Solitude

The cemetery was quiet, with fresh flowers in tidy bundles. I saw a lone man with a stooped back gazing at the cathedral before slowly turning toward the dying light. He put on his hat and leaned on his cane as he started his descent. I felt an urge to talk to him, to hear his story, and to know where he was going. It seemed terribly important at the time. But he was already gone.