Wednesday Writing Prompt: “And Og, King of the Land of Bashan” — Whom Did You Overcome?

King Og’s Bed

At St. Seraphim Camp a few years ago, some old friends and I sat around talking about all the various groups and charismatic men that had tried, and failed, to hijack our church and use it for their own ends, some nefarious. As we listed name after name, I thought of the Psalm that we sometimes sing before Communion, Psalm 135 in the Septuagint and 136 in the King James Version. “Oh give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, Alleluia, for His mercy endureth forever, Alleluia.” In the Psalm, we sing of first of the wonders of God:

5 To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.

6 To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.

7 To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:

8 The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:

9 The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

But then follows a list of everyone who ever tried to overtake God’s people, and who failed, either at once or eventually:

10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:

11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:

12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.

13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:

14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.

16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.

17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:

20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:

21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:

22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.

23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:

24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

All of us could make such a list, and perhaps it’s time that we did.

The writing component:

When I started writing my MFA thesis, a memoir that I’m still not ready to share with the world, my advisor, Carol Ann Davis, was only half joking when she said, “The nice thing about writing nonfiction is that you already know that you survived.

Poetry

From ancient war songs to modern songs of triumph, whether you reach for the sacred or the profane, the lists are there. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Death, be not proud” rebukes death itself, while Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” addresses those who would oppress her:

“You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

Edwin Markhan’s “Outwitted” takes on an unnamed “he” tries to exclude the speaker:

“He drew a circle that shut me out—

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Victory takes many forms — some of them just look like survival.

“But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!”

Prose:

Fiction is full of tales of survival — in young adult fiction, see the Hunger Games trilogy. Science Fiction offers “Enders Game.” In nonfiction, there are moving books like Da Chen’s “Colors of the Mountain,” John McCain’s “Six Years at the Hanoi Hilton,” or, more Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

There are also fictionalized versions of true stories. Eugenia Kim’s “The Calligraphers’ Daughter” tells a relative’s story in the first person, while Solzhenitsyn fictionalizes his own illness in the “Cancer Ward” and time in the Gulag in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”


What this means to you:

Maybe you’re not ready to write a whole book. But you can write an essay, a poem, or a scene.

In fiction you can have one character give another a pep talk listing the things they’ve already overcome. Your speaker can be reliable or unreliable. A reliable speaker who never-the-less is lying would be Wesley in “The Princess Bride” (on Hulu this month) telling Buttercup how they’ve already overcome the dangers of the Fire Swamp. But it could also be a coach giving a half-time talk or a parent trying to reassure a child about a new situation that is not what either expected.

Poetry and Nonfiction lend themselves to lists. Like the Psalmist, you could make a list of people or situations that almost killed you, and put a lyrical twist on it. It may be comical to alphabetize your tormentors, or informative, to list them chronologically.

Thanksgiving The psalm that came to mind is one of thanksgiving rather than complaint. Without giving it away, the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy has much the same feel. You might write (or have your character write) a list of the strengths that came from each assault. Because you believed the first person who lied to you, you were protected slightly against the second. You never would have taken the self defense class where you met your best friend if you hadn’t had your purse stolen as you walked down the street. Look at your own life or the adventures of your characters, and trace the Hand of God.

What did you win? We know about King Og’s bed because Moses captured it. And told us about it!

“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.”

Deut. 3:11

Did you win a job? A boyfriend? Something intangible? Something very tangible? Take some time to reflect upon it in writing. Look, describe, appreciate. Think of your nephew describing his new Transformer and all the things it can do. Look at your own prizes with child-like appreciation.

How do you express your joy at winning? Trust me, not all of us can or should, like Maya Angelou, “dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs.” But there should be a follow-up to each revelation. The pain that you or your character overcomes should lead to a virtue (generativity, compassion, a little healthy self-doubt). Overflowing joy should spill on someone else. You might look at something kind you’ve done and ask who taught you how to do that, and what you were going through at the time.

We’ve all overcome some serious dangers and craziness in the past year. Write it down and see where it has led, and where it could lead, and what you can build with it. What did you not know that you could endure? But through the mercy of God, here you are!

Write! And enjoy!

Wednesday Writing Prompt — Cicadas

The cicadas which are emerging from underground all over North America are a great gift to writers. Their life cycle offers so many metaphors. They leave their shells behind, as so many of us do in June when people graduate, marry, or move. They travel in large numbers to thwart predators. Their shells repulse some people while others find the translucent wings, their struggle to arise from the earth, and their flight from the ground a thing of beauty. But also, they offer the canny writer a new angle for writing about the passage of time.

A generation, in the Bible, is fourteen years. Cicadas emerge every seventeen years. This year, I am fifty-eight and living in Ohio with my semi-retired husband. Seventeen years ago, I was 41. We had arrived in Connecticut just four years before; the oldest of our children was about to graduate high school and start college in another State. Seventeen years before that, we were newlyweds with two children, living in Boston. I had not yet had a miscarriage. My husband’s ordination to the priesthood, our life in Texas, and the birth of half our children took place while the cicadas were growing underground. And the cicada season before that, I was only seven. I have no memory of the insects themselves, but I remember being horrified by the sporadic empty shell still clinging to the tree like one of the frozen figures in Pompeii after the volcano. (I came from a family that would have told me more about Pompeii than about cicadas.)

Projecting time forward puts a new twist on the phenomenon. If I live to see the cicadas emerge again, I will be seventy-five. Will I have written That Book yet or not?

Rich soil here for planting ideas. The existence, life span, structure, and perception of cicadas offer a variety of frameworks for writers. Here are some prompts:

  1. Write a piece in which two people stumble across a cicada (alive or a shell) and show their different reactions to it.

Comparing and contrasting two people works across all writing genres — Natalia Ginzburg does it brilliantly in her essay “He and I.” Pearl S. Buck masterfully handles this in “A Pavilion of Women” when she contrasts what the heroine, Madame Wu, knows about her best friend’s husband vs. what Mr. Kang knows about her. Borges does this in “Borges and I.” Parents know that two children can have very different reactions to something. A poet may write on one side of the page about being repulsed and on the other about being touched by beauty.

2) Look closely at a cicada shell and write your own response to it.

3) What were you doing last time the cicadas emerged? Were you alive yet? Did you see them? How old will you be when you see them again?

4) Make a list of concrete nouns about cicadas. Now make a list of abstract nouns. Now use them both in an essay, poem, or story.

5) Scientific writers could write about some aspect of the life of cicadas that has been overlooked — their environmental impact, the chasm between how people perceive cicadas and what they actually do. Make a list according to your specialty, then compare and contrast — cicadas have no teeth, but cicadas slice holes in plants in which they lay their eggs. Cicadas are not poisonous, but their shells are hard for dogs to digest.

6) Cicadas are noisy. Write a piece in which the hero is trying to concentrate on one thing and the sound of the cicadas is a distraction. (Bonus points if you can make the character relate this to the last time he or she heard the cicadas.)

Once you’ve done this with cicadas, you might try it with other insects — contrast cicadas with earthworms, write an “ant and grasshopper” type story about cicadas during their frolic, write a story about edible insects and the recipes people have created for cicadas… make it your own.

But write fast, because when they’re hidden, they won’t be back for another seventeen years.

In Search of Light

I was glad to be up early enough to see the sunrise this morning, because it’s the shortest day of the year; we need all the light we can get. Sometimes the darkness goes beyond the physical.

In my capacity as a teacher, I have encountered some truly wonderful literature, books I wouldn’t have read otherwise because my children are too old for them and my granddaughter is too young. I would never have discovered Sharon Creech’s “Love That Dog” (which I later bought for my poetry loving father-in-law)  or Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy.” I would have missed the ungrammatical and annoying but funny “Junie B. Jones,” and I might have heard of “The Hunger Games” but I surely would have missed the “Gregor the Overlander” series that preceded it. But not all discoveries are happy. I recently encountered a book called “How to Catch an Elf.” I won’t provide a link; that book hurt my heart.

Let me digress: I have always found elves to be creepy. The idea that Santa exploits unpaid labor bothered me when I was younger. The elves in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” did nothing to alleviate my unease, and more recent phenomenon like Will Farrell’s movie or the “Elf on the Shelf” have made it worse. This book, though, is worse, because it’s geared toward early readers, many of whom know nothing else about Christmas.

The book is narrated by an elf. The verses are sloppy and the content is worse. The premise is that children who wanted to catch Santa have given up and have decided, instead, to capture the elf instead. Children on Santa’s route have devised traps involving tinsel, candy canes, laser beams and an ornament who, the elf reports, “zapped my tushy” with something resembling a branding iron.  It’s not just that it celebrates greed and violence. It’s that this book defines all that, for children, as what Christmas is. And real Christmas has nothing to do with elves.

Christmas is a miracle of light in darkness, teaching man, who didn’t know how to live, how to turn toward God. God shows us how.

When I was learning how to make the Sign of the Cross the Orthodox way, the priest teaching us didn’t understand why we were still going from left to right instead of right to left. Then he realized that he was facing us. Our hands did what we saw, now what he did. “Watch,” he said, “I’ll stand with you.” He came down among us and faced as we did. “I’m holding up my RIGHT hand,” he said. “UP to my forehead, down, but not below my belly button! RIGHT shoulder! Then LEFT shoulder!” That’s when we got it. That’s when we learned what to do.

Christ did something similar, only, better. He came down to live among us, to show us how to live. He came without rank or wealth, without so much as a room at the inn. He lived as a step-sibling and a refugee, an outcast. And He called to himself similar people, the poor, the fishermen, those who were wounded by illness, happenstance, or their own series of bad choices, and showed them how to turn to God in repentance, not just to be healed, but to become a source of healing unto others.

Light among darkness. In the darkest days and the coldest part of the year, we gather together and celebrate Him, with lights and gifts that we give to each other as He gives to us.

In the physical world of my hemisphere, tomorrow will be longer than today, and the next day even longer than that. And in the spiritual realm, each of us can embrace a little more light tomorrow than we did today. We live in hope. We walk in the light. It’s a gift. And we share it.

 

Meet the Author — 9/7/2017

I am excited to be one of eight or so writers reading at the Bellarmine Hall Galleries at the Fairfield University Museum of Art on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 6:15 p.m. This is my first venture into ekphrastic poetry, basically a response to a work of art.

For details, and to make a reservation, please click on the link.

I met and spoke to the artist, Michael Gallagher. He is giving a lecture before the reading, and that should be fascinating.

While there, I will ask about sharing the poem and artwork.