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Postmarked: Dear Shawn (3)

Blog

These are just a few of my musings about faith, formation, culture, and life.

 

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (3)

Jen Michel

Postmarked.jpg

Dear Shawn,

As you mentioned in your last letter, like you, I absolutely love this long-form conversation. There’s something deeply good about this sharing of our lives, even the sharing of our lives publicly, and I love remembering how letter-writing was central to the ministry of the Apostle Paul. 

It’s fun to discover some of the similarities of our stories: that we both attended Christian colleges; that we both met our spouses our junior year of college; that we’ve both celebrated two decades of marriage; that we both have a brood of children. I imagine that you and Maile, like Ryan and I, have understood something of why Madeleine L’Engle called the thirties “the tired years.” (I’m not, however, finding much reprieve in my forties. How about you?) 

I loved learning how you and Maile began your shared life together with shared dreams, both of you wanting to weave stories and make something of words. Differently, I fell in love with a man who makes sense of the world less by words and more by numbers. When I’d recently gushed to him about the stunning beauty of Robert Alter’s translation of Deuteronomy 32:5 (“Did He act ruinously? No, his sons’ the fault—a perverse and twisted brood.”), he’d looked half-interested. Similarly, whenever he recounts the thrill of building a mathematical model at work to solve a problem, my eyes glaze over slightly. Let me put it this way: you can imagine the clumsy growth that’s been recently taking place in our marriage because I have been managing the budget for a recent house renovation. I’m sure Ryan wishes I had the attentiveness to numbers that I do to literary translations of the Bible. 

You put it perfectly in your last letter when you asked this: How can you ever possibly know who this person you marry will turn into as the years go by? When Ryan and I married at 22, we certainly didn’t understand how deep our differences ran, he oriented to the world by numbers and me by words. Moreover,inthose early years of marriage, when Ryan was moving swiftly along in his own career, I wasn’t laying claim to any real desire to write. I was teaching high school, going to graduate school, then having babies. As it happened in real time—the occasional writing at 20, at 30, even at 40—it always tended to feel exceptional: the dot lying outside the field of normal; the data point that didn’t fit the trend. Even though I started to get paid to write occasional devotional projects for Moody Bible Institute in 2004, it was a long time before I could say with any confidence, “I’m a writer. This is what I do. This is what I love.”

Imagine, then, Ryan’s own learning curve when it came to my writing life. He married a woman who’d studied to be a teacher, who’d happily quit that work to raise his babies, who did occasional editing and freelance writing, then suddenly, at the age of 38, mused aloud on a long walk in the neighborhood ravine if God weren’t calling her to start a blog. Then, almost as if on a lark, she wrote her first book. I think Ryan thought it was all wonderful at first—wonderful in a kind of wonderful “hobby” sort of way. I was writing, but I might also have been gardening, mastering my scone recipe, tinkering at automotive repair, improving my tennis serve. Truthfully, both of us, at that point, thought of my writing as something elective, something to be done when the time could be spared. 

We all know that hobbies are made for discretionary Saturday afternoons and the hours after the kids are in bed. And when you have a brood of kids, as we both do, and the family pool of resources is stretched thin and taut, what time and money can be made for a hobby? Because there is limited value in a hobby, especially when it drains resources from the family, it becomes one’s own responsibility to squirrel away time for pursuing it. Hobbies must be weightless, invisible, nearly free.  

And of course you can probably guess at the terrible place where this is all headed, this carelessness about my writing. I might have one particular scene in my head, when I’d tried claiming more value for this thing—this thing I no longer wanted to call a hobby—and Ryan had, in his very mathematical way, found it difficult to name it something else. What was quantifiable about it? How could he make sense of the value proposition apart from the numbers? There was an argument, and I went to bed without him, leaving his pillow outside our closed bedroom door. 

That was more than five years ago. We are, thank God, at a much different place—and sleeping together happily. But it is not a perfect place, as I wouldn’t expect in marriage that it would be. If I could lay my finger on the ongoing challenge, it’s this question of value, which you’ve already named. What value is there in writing when it fails to “earn” and “contribute”? To answer these questions, I know that Ryan and I have needed a different model, a different lexicon. Because as my writing life has continued to grow and expand, with new challenges and assignments, it’s become less and less possible to write invisibly, even if the kids are older and I do write primarily during the school year between the hours of 9 and 4. There is a taking from the family that this writing is now costing, and I can feel terribly selfish to ask for what’s required. There is an implicit permission I find myself seeking, and sometimes I just want Ryan to throw aside financial sensibility and all sense of caution and say just what you said in your last letter: “Write! Not because it earns but because it does you and the world good.” 

If I could dream a little about that extravagance, I’d hear Ryan tell me to book that writing retreat to Tuscany that I have been invited to. I’d hear him say, “Are you kidding me? There is so much valuein what you’re doing. I can’t think of better way to spend our family’s time and money. We’re committed together to making this work because your words matter.” He’d push me out the door on the day of my flight, the kids crowded around him, and tell me not to worry about the food and the laundry and the carpool schedule because they had it covered. I’d see joyin their eyes, this committed sharing together of the burdens of mom’s calling, work, ministry—whatever they wanted to call it. And if I could dream a little bit more, I’d come home to a clean house and a stocked fridge and nearly empty laundry hampers. They would have incurred the cost of sending me as well as the cost of my absence, and I’d be able to re-enter life on the other side of the writing without the crushing anxiety that all the chores had patiently waited for me. 

“Maile, write!” My breath caught when I read how urgently you regretted not having insisted your wife stay home and write your first two years of marriage. I hate regret, hate the paralysis of it, so I hope for more for you two than wistfulness of what could’ve, should’ve been. I hope for you two to cheer each other on in the days ahead, calling out from behind, “Write!” Because maybe we’re all looking for permission to do some good, even when it can’t be quantified and easily named. 

I’m so looking forward to hearing from you. 

Write on, friend.

Jen  

P.S. I blame you for feeling a bit bleary-eyed this morning. I was up late reading your most recent novel, Light From Distant Stars. It’s so gripping! I am absolutely envious of the power of your imagination.

P.P.S.  Someday I hope you and Maile will pile the kids in the car and visit us in Toronto. I imagine the four of us sitting long around the dinner table, the kids running wild in the basement. 

//

What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers has become an exchange of letters. Here is a list of our prior letters for Postmarked:

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)

Postmarked: Dear Jen (2)