Falling

IMG_0762-1Over the past two weeks, with suicides front-page news, I have thought of that woman waiting for the MAX train and the question she asked. “Is sadness a sin?” Long ago, I was taught that sadness robs us of gratitude. I was taught that sadness could lead to despair, and despair robs us of hope. To give up on God’s Providence was the one unforgivable sin. Now that teaching seems to me not only harsh but unforgiving. I believe that for every fall into depression or melancholy, there is a foothold leading upwards. Each of us climbs toward relief in ways that can be confounding, individual, and sometimes incredibly sad.

yin-yangSadness—no matter what form it takes—is never a sin and remains inescapable. There is sorrow linking me to another’s pain; melancholy coming from a world where cruelty and greed seem pervasive. Sadness slips in, reminding me that I am limited, and that I am mortal. Sadness is also the flip side of joy, the quality Carl Jung describes: “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Weariness of soul has the power to throw us off-kilter, yet Jung talks about the balance of happiness and sadness, like walking a tightrope with these two aspects offering equilibrium.

As a child I devoured books like Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved Polyanna, that bright creature sure of a rainbow in the downpour. Noble, confident characters were the people with whom I wanted to play and happy endings were where I wanted to be. Scurry away from sadness and skip into the meadow.

IMG_0844 (1)I still prefer to breathe in Pollyanna’s world of flowers and color. I’m that character Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote about in the song, “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Even if it means a ruptured relationship, tell me goodbye (“no long faces, no long looks”) in a place of trees, a loving spot for chimpanzees, or a ride on a flying trapeze.

Yet there are six other days besides Sunday, and so I return to the fact that sadness is an integral part of the work-week, and part of being human. My task is to recognize gloom, and then find ways to release its grip.

Recently I attended Broadway Books’ party for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s new Poet Laureate. Wise and funny, he is a man in love both with words and his audience. What I left with, though, was Stafford’s invitation to bring light wherever there is darkness.

IMG_0690 (2)I cannot go back to that MAX experience and replay what I could have said to the woman who asked, “Is sadness a sin?” But I have a partial answer, one I found in Stafford’s elegant little book, Take What You Need. So many of his poems issue the challenge to bring a small flashlight on the journey. Stafford’s words in the poem “Dear America,” can keep me company on any bus or train platform:

If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep . . .
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.

Undercover

After reading Cullen Murphy’s delicious Cartoon CountryMy Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, I was once again in the good company of “Prince Valiant” and “Calvin and Hobbes.” One cartoon I do not want to forget is that of Calvin trying to convince a skeptical Hobbes that his flimsy report will be a winner. Calvin’s secret weapon is what no teacher can resist: a clear plastic binder cover.

Oh, how I would have longed for such a simple solution to my cover dilemma for Far from Home. Sure that I had a designer eye, I notified my awesome FUZE editor Molly Best Tinsley that I would be sending sample covers. I looked at photos of roads leading away into the distance, of a cross far away in a meadow. I experimented with symbols for God, for flight, for adventure, and for redemption. What resulted was a product which I was sure, like Calvin and his plastic cover, no one browsing Powell’s or Barnes & Noble, could resist.

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I sent it first to a writer friend, sure of her accolades. She was quick to respond. “Toni, this cover has every possible cliche: bird, spire, sun. I would immediately summarize the plot: ‘Errant Woman Returns to the Faith.’ I would never buy this book.”

I read her email and laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I still chuckle each time I think of that response. My friend possesses the gifts an aspiring writer needs: humor, honesty, and wisdom—a Hobbes to my Calvin. Crossing that cover off my list, I looked critically at my other etchings and admitted I was out of my depth.

Enter Ray Rhamey from “Flogging the Quill.” He works with FUZE authors and is a designer, teacher, and author. With utmost patience, he sent me numerous designs of woodland paths, an open window, a door and garden gate ajar. None of these seemed to fit the memoir.

When he asked, “What do you envision as the central theme of the book?” I thought immediately of my childhood and of the Lindberg’s Heilege Schutzengel painting that had hung above my bed.

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Ray liked the theme of youthful adventurers but thought the image too childlike. What he did send were five more designs of “on the move,” but it was the woman stepping across river stones that caught my attention. Ray, creative man, shaped the title to mirror the reflection, and he extended the rocks into a wrap-around affect from front to back.

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Calvin wanted his teachers to say “Wow!” That is the factor which generous, noted authors Shirley Abbott and Kim Stafford lent. Their words of praise not only complete the cover story, but begin the tale contained inside.

The book jacket is more than Calvin’s plastic cover. What I am hoping for is not to fool a reader, but to offer an invitation. Pick up the book, hold it in your hand. Like Abbott and Stafford, move beyond the jacket’s limited tale and travel undercover into where a new story, mysterious and slippery as river stones, awaits.