There’s a stack of papers on my desk needing my attention while I type this out – the edits on the next novel, Christian Bend (note name change, formerly Rain). When you read the book the name change will become apparent.
Twenty years ago this very day, I walked into the local newspaper office and began my first job as a reporter. It was my 40th birthday. I knew even that very day that I would always remember it as a significant life change. I had been writing already, having been prompted to take up writing when professor & poet George Venn called forth the skill dormant within. He saw it long before I even realized it was something I might enjoy doing. I consider him part wizard, actually, this ability he had to speak a gifting into life. I hadn’t known that was even possible at such a late age in life.
I thought I might teach one day, but never once in any of my imaginings prior did I even consider writing an option, much less a career path. My people weren’t the literary sort. The only books around our house growing up was a set of World Books and a handful of Condensed Readers Digest. The only magazines were True Detective. Oh. Yeah. And more than one Bible. The Bible was always present, though I never saw many people other than Granny Leona crack one.
By the time I started working in that newspaper office on my 40th birthday, I had my first book under contract. The editor at the newspaper was a friend. He needed help, asked me to come in and write. I told him I didn’t know a thing about reporting. He said he’d teach me.
And that’s how I became a journalist.
The same way I became an author.
Through the generosity of mentors who believed I had a gift and the dedication to develop that gift. All my life I have been surrounded by good people who poured into my life.
As I sit here knowing that this next book awaits my attention, I can’t help but marvel over the journey. I never expected to get one book published, much less eight of them, with more in the works. Some would call my life fortunate, blessed even.
I would not dispute that. But it’s not like the books, or the thousands of articles and essays and opinion pieces just happen into being.
I do have to sit at a keyboard and go to deep places. Writing is like coal mining, Kingsolver says. Messy, dark, laborious work. Not like that image of a woman floating around with a wine glass half-full, blowing smoke from red lips. No, more like yanking on coveralls and boots and being wiling to go in blind to the darkest of places in order to shed just a trickle of light, in hopes of finding something of value to others.
That’s what writing is like for me.
They either love your or they hate you, an exasperated publisher once told me after getting what was most assuredly another annoying phone call complaining about something I wrote. He fielded those often enough.
And I’ve always known it was true, not only about the writing but about me in general. I used to wish I were someone else but by the time you turn 40, you grow weary of trying to please everybody else. So I was lucky that way, by the time I became a writer, I had developed “my voice”. Granted, ask anyone who knew me back in my Sarah Palin days, I have changed and grown and become, I pray, a much more compassionate soul.
Some family members would term that a “more liberal” soul. And you know what? There was a time when being called a liberal would have wounded me terribly. Now, I’m proud of the things Jesus has done, that he saw fit to stick with me through all that, and found ways to make me see beyond myself, beyond my family, beyond being an American.
I am downright giddy about being considered a liberal. I hope to the Brown-faced, sandal-footed Jesus everyone considers me so. Marginalizing people is so much work. I was exhausted with the list of people I needed to stay away from: Muslims, Mexicans, Gays, Lesbians, Transgenders, Whores, Drunks, etc. During my Palin days, I was supposed to keep company with white, gun-toting survivalists who could quote Apocalyptic Scripture like it was the ingredients on the side of a cereal box.
Those folks? They became some of the most miserable people I ever met. They could talk a good Jesus line but my lands, the world they inhabited, inhabit still some of them, was such a scary evil place. Their world didn’t possess wonder or curiosity or gratitude. People who believe themselves certain never marvel or ponder over anything.
The more I wrote, the more questions I had about everything. The gift of writing for me has always been about marveling, pondering, thinking. Asking that eternal question that would tire my poor mama out, and no doubt God, plumb out: But Why?
Prior to becoming a journalist, I had begun to realize that I was living the cloistered life of the Religious Right (an oxymoron if there ever was one). I prayed and asked God to make my world bigger.
Oh, by golly, did He ever answer that prayer.
I have crisscrossed this nation so many times, I’ve lost count. There isn’t a town in America I can’t go to and find a friend, either in the literary world, the veteran world, the Gold Star family world, the political world, the journalism world. So many people have invited me into their homes and embraced me. Many of my readers have become the sweetest of friends.
This weekend one of the dearest of those friends will be memorialized.
I met Ellen Tew while working as an editorial writer for the FayObserver in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Some of the best people I have ever encountered, I met while working that job. Short-lived as it was due to the economic collapse of 2008, from which the paper never fully recovered, it was still the best newspaper gig I ever had.
Ellen started off by sending me emails. It was not unusual as a columnist to get emails from readers like Ellen. I have always answered my own emails (still do). So our “friendship” began first in that small way. Her sending me a note about some column I wrote. Me responding.
Then she invited me to dinner one night at a favorite Italian Restaurant there in Fayetteville. She invited her pastor along, and some others. Ellen was the Music Director at her church there in Clinton, North Carolina. My mother was always horrified over that part of my job as a writer – how I could just meet people willy-nilly that I had never met before. I’ve always considered it such a grand adventure, getting to meet people, hear their stories, learn about them.
Mining for diamonds.
Oh, the friendship grew from that moment on, between Ellen and me. She stayed in touch after I moved back to Oregon and invited me back to Clinton on numerous occasions. We had us some grand adventures, Ellen and me, and the women she introduced me to. (Who could forget that early morning adventure to Wilmington to appear sans make-up on a TV show that I was sure was just radio?). Many of those women are friends, still. One of them, Linda, contacted me not long ago to tell me Ellen was having some medical problems and had been hospitalized.
I called Ellen soon as she got home. We talked for a good while. Her sister was there, helping to see after her. Ellen was cheery as usual, and her laughter filled the space between Oregon and North Carolina, drawing me in. Ellen and her son Michael had come into Columbus, Georgia in April to see the stage adaptation of MOTHER OF RAIN. Ellen had loved it, the music especially.
The handbell choir will be playing at Ellen’s service on Sunday. I wish I could be there. I wish I could hold every one of those ladies Ellen introduced me to close and tell them again how grateful I am that they welcomed me so lovingly into their homes and into their lives simply because Ellen loved me first.
I am hurting this week, as I know many of you are. The hurt is real and deep and it can be scary at times. My friend Paul Young reminded me this week in a caring conversation that we don’t need anything but grace for this day. We only have to go on the adventure that God has planned for us this day. And some days, that may not even involve going anywhere more than a soft chair to read a good book.
Or to write one.
I want you to know I am glad you are here.
I am thankful our paths have crossed, however they have crossed. God has put us in each other’s lives.
Hold each other close.
Remind me to do the same.
I need you to speak truths into my life as well.
To my friends in North Carolina this weekend, much love and prayers as you send our sweet friend off to meet God.
Hug one another for me.
I share in your weeping from afar.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-wide? ’cause I need more room for my plasma TV. A book Ellen loved, in part because I went to Tarboro to interview a Turkey man.