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

 

Filtering by Tag: Shawn Smucker

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)

 

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)

Jen Michel

Postmarked.jpg

Dear Shawn,

I’m writing this from Toronto in the middle of a summer afternoon. As to the conditions that allow for such an indulgence (!), two of my children are away at camp, two are busily occupied with replacing the batteries to their armory of nerf guns, and one is, as my husband, Ryan, likes to say, “tooting her horn.” (We have a musician in the family. She’ll be off to McGill University in the fall to study clarinet performance.) I am guaranteed, at the very least, another uninterrupted hour in my office.

In terms of finding time for creative work, this summer is easier than previous ones, easier still than the many early years of parenting. I won’t assume that you know much about my family life, so I’ll give you some of the background. Ryan and I married right after we graduated from Wheaton College, and we had our first child when we were almost 27. After Audrey was born, I made the decision to leave my high school teaching job to stay home with her; Ryan continued to study for (and pass) his actuarial exams. Soon, I had another baby. By thirty, Ryan was finished with his exams and hoping to go to graduate school for an MBA. Generously, I said: “Absolutely not.” It wasn’t that I begrudged him the opportunity. I’d already pursued my own graduate degree in my twenties. It wasn’t even that I was nurturing private ambitions of my own. But it had been 8 years that he’d been dividing his time between work and studying, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I really wanted to share him.

To abbreviate a little, that initial refusal eventually gave way to willingness. When Ryan was accepted at the University of Chicago, we moved back to Illinois from Ohio when I was 36 weeks pregnant. We lived almost two months with my in-laws (two young children and a brand new baby) before moving, without much furniture, into a rental house. Ten months later, we finally settled into something more permanent. 

It was a lonely year. I was home with three children three and younger; Ryan was working fulltime and spending evenings either at class or on homework, sometimes also leaving on Saturdays to meet up with classmates for group projects. I can remember a few tearful moments when resentment would bubble up, and Ryan would remind me that “we” had decided together that this was the right next step for our family. And he was absolutely right. Throughout our almost 23 years of marriage, by God’s grace, there has always been this indivisible “we.” 

Still, the pattern had been decided early on: the indivisible “we” was Ryan at the bow, Jen at the stern. “We” were making strides to what God was calling Ryan to vocationally. (It may have looked like a corporate climb, but, we’ve never really seen it that way.) It felt absolutely right, in those years, to support Ryan’s ambitions, and I remember the encouragement I took when, after he’d been assigned to read Katharine Graham’s Personal Historyfor one of his classes, that I’d read it for myself. Graham had been a housewife and a mother before suddenly being thrown into the role of publisher of the Washington Post. I remember reading how she credited her ability to run a newspaper with her experience of running a household. These weren’t wasted years, I told myself—not for the sake of my children, of course—but also not for me.

And soon enough, life with three children eased a bit. It wasn’t long before I was considering a return to graduate school for a ministry degree. In the summer of 2007, I was in the office with a Wheaton professor discussing a plan for meeting the Greek prerequisites for the program; two months later, I learned I was pregnant with twins. 

It’s funny how this story is, quite by its own will, writing itself. It’s marking its seasons—for my husband—by career transitions; it’s marking mine by the birth of babies. As I’ve thought often about the difference between men and women’s lives, it’s this that I notice, that the lives of mothers seem to be more seasonal than the lives of fathers. Perhaps that would have been less true for me if I’d continued in a traditional work role, and I’d be curious to know if you agree with this observation and if that’s been your experience. 

Admittedly, if there’s something I’ve been envious of in Ryan’s life, it’s the luxury he seems to have enjoyed of being “uninterrupted.” I means the hours, of course—especially the summer ones. But I also mean the years. However much he has committed to being present with our family, because of our traditional division of household labor (he to the bread, me to the baking it), I’ve been tasked with absorbing the contingencies of family life. It’s the contingencies that make life fitful, that make plans a bit tenuous. It’s the contingencies that present the challenge to creative work. (Even to finishing this letter, quite honestly. I’ve been interrupted several times, once by a child insistent to exact promises from the tooth fairy that she will repay her debt.) 

Anyways, Shawn, I’m so glad for the chance to begin this correspondence, an idea which came to me by a good friend who recently wrote about a friendship he formed through letters. I realize that I’ve only sketched my story according to its faintest outlines, that I haven’t even begun to recount how and when my writing life began in earnest. But I guess that’s the good thing about letters like these and the good thing about friendship. It never needs to be hurried. 

I look forward to your letter and to getting to know you better. Among other things, tell me how you and Maile met, how old your children are now, and how you sit back down to your computer after ten hours of driving for Uber. (You know that I’m cheating a bit: I’m reading your wonderful companion journal to your most recent novel, Light From Distant Stars.)

Warmly,

Jen 


If you’re interested to receive regular updates to this series of letters, you can subscribe to my blog here and can find Shawn’s blog here.