We just returned from a four-day trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan and my alma mater, Calvin College. Calvin hosted the Festival of Faith and Writing and invited me to come as a guest speaker. I felt so humbled and honored to be included on a list of such exemplary writers, poets, publishers and editors. These four days were the "shot in the arm" I needed to drive me back to my craft - writing children's and young adult books. Admittedly, over the last few months the busyness of mothering an almost 2-year-old, coaching a high school track team, serving as wife, daughter and friend, have consumed my time. I embrace all of these roles as well but I've often pushed my writing to the back burner. The Festival gave me a space to talk about writing and faith, to reflect on my journey and glean knowledge and inspiration from writers who have gone before me.
After a grueling red eye with two layovers in the middle of the night and two delays, Ericlee, Meilani and I arrived in Grand Rapids. The shuttle picked us up at the airport and our adventures began. During our shuttle ride, we met writer Lawrence Dorr and his dear wife. They adopted us right away as family. We were all staying at Calvin's Prince Conference Center on campus. Last time I was at Calvin, the space where this beautiful hotel sits today was only a field I passed on the way to my (junior year) apartment. Needless to say, the campus has changed immensely in the nine years (gasp!) I've been away. The Prince Center lobby was buzzing with excitement when we entered. People were drinking coffee, chatting, buying books and souvenirs from the vendors and checking in. We were greeted right away by my journalism professor and mentor Don Hettinga, who asked for my autograph (Yikes!). He introduced us to the Festival coordinator Shelly and helped us with our bags. Talk about red carpet treatment. I've never really experienced it like this before. Ericlee and Meilani unpacked and took a nap while I showered and dashed over to a session in the chapel by children's and young adult writer Gary Schmidt.
If there's one thing I regret from my days at Calvin it's that I never took a class from Gary Schmidt. How did I know I would one day be publishing children's picture books and reading this Newbery-award-winning Calvin prof for my graduate classes. His talk was "Writing for the Middle School Reader: War, Trouble and Calamity." What a way to kickstart my weekend. The most memorable part of Schmidt's talk (besides his stellar storytelling and wry humor) was this statement: "Adolescent and young adult literature is about the decisions that cause us to look away from childhood and turn toward adulthood." Since I'm writing a young adult novel right now for my MFA thesis, I was intrigued by this. It's what "coming of age" is all about. He concluded by challenging us writers to "give them joy and beauty that overwhelms the darkness." For me, this is where my faith and my writing truly do intersect. I've never been the type of journalist or writer to hit someone over the head with a moral. Didactic literature may have its place but it's never been my style. I do see an opportunity to share my faith in God and his redemptive power simply by giving my readers a glimpse of that joy and beauty. "We are on deck already," he said. "Our readers are headed there. Let us show them how to get there."
Outside of the inspiring panels and conference lectures, this trip to Grand Rapids was a great excuse to catch up with old friends. Thursday night we had dinner with my friend Christy Carlin now Knetsch. She and her hubby Brad just got married in March and it was fun to meet him for the first time. We reminisced about our days in college, especially our Interim in Hawaii Senior year. Friday morning we caught up with my friend Doug Roede and his three adorable little boys. The kids had fun together as we tooled around campus and checked out some of the construction projects. Friday afternoon I participated in two panels, sharing about what it's like "Writing for Children" and my journey "From Student to Writer." Calvin hosted a book signing for me in the bookstore. I signed a few copies of my latest children's book and saw some old friends from the Mosaic Community (where I was a Resident Assistant) and a few other Class of '99ers. To sign books in the bookstore was a surreal experience.
Saturday morning Ericlee and I joined a group of writer-runners for a 10K run through campus and Grand Rapids. The weather was surprisingly gorgeous - sunny and 70s - contrary to the cold Michigan has come to represent for me. We were ill-equipped for the run but we managed to push Meilani in our portable stroller. The best part about this run was getting to catch up with a friend, Jane (Knol) Schwartz, from my class, who teaches in Calvin's English department now. I also got to meet Nancy Hull, another Calvin prof and young adult writer. She was, indeed, the energizer bunny who inspired this Saturday run.
While I participated in a Young Adult Literature Circle and spoke on a panel of journalists called "To Tell the Truth," Ericlee and Meilani joined up with Ericlee's cousins for a trip to the Grand Rapids zoo. They joined all the other incredulous families who wanted to take advantage of the beautiful (California) weather. Meilani, the little monkey that she is, practiced hanging on anything she could find. (It's a wonder Daddy didn't leave her at the zoo!) I enjoyed meeting Christianity Today editor Edward Gilbreath, and Bruce Umpstead of the Amy Foundation Awards and Chicago Sun Times Religion columnist Cathleen Falsani.
My favorite lecture was Saturday afternoon - an interview with pastor, author and filmmaker Rob Bell of Mars Hill church. (In case you don't recognize the name, he's the NOOMA guy. Extraodinary artist.) I sent Ericlee to hear him Friday night and I saw him Saturday. He really challenged me to think about faith and writing in some new ways. He said, "If everything is going to be produced and pragmatic, you'll never have room to create." This was liberation for me. So often I have a hard time actually sitting down and writing because I'm paralyzed by the need to be profound. Or worse yet, I feel I don't have time to really complete anything so why bother? The interviewer asked Rob what he fears as a writer and pastor. His response really stuck with me: "My fears center around not risking...I fear resting on what worked in the past." I was reminded how important it is to step outside the box. It's so easy to get caught up in the feeling that I must write what a publisher or editor or my mother would want me to write.
Saturday evening I needed some real food (besides deli sandwiches and salads from Johnny's Coffeeshop) and we headed to dinner with Ericlee's cousins. This was a fun chance to turn off my brain and just be. We dined at an old college favorite - Arnie's Bakery. Ericlee enjoyed this abundant house salad with strawberries, rivera dressing and pecans while I scarfed a nice steak and mashed potatoes. I remembered the good old days when my parents would visit from Chicago and take me out here for a Sunday lunch or dinner.
After a great cappuccinno, which I haven't had in a long time, we headed for the Saturday night poetry slam, hosted by Patricia Johnson, an award-winning slam poet from Virginia. Let's just say that I have never actually competed in a poetry slam before even though I've attended several. I did timidly add my name to the list and quickly started rummaging through my folder of poems to find a few to read. A poetry slam is competitive performance poetry. Quiet, coffee shop poetry readings are more my style but this one was great fun. I started out with my "Chicago" poem and advanced to the next round. Then I read a poem called "Braids" about getting my hair braided in Haiti. In the end, I pulled out third place and met some great new poet-friends in the process. What a way to end the festival.
Sunday morning we went to my old church, Madison Square CRC, where my friend Christy is now the youth pastor. This truly multicultural congregation has grown since my college days and it was fun to show Ericlee and Meilani the place. Our student host for the weekend, Janelle, took us to lunch with her fiance at a vegetarian place in Eastown Grand Rapids called Gaia. We had a fabulous lunch and then headed for the airport very full in so many regards.