“The Apocalypse Has Been Postponed Until Gym”: My Last Year of High School & the End of the World, Part I

ahs“But which is more important:

To comfort an old woman

Or see visions of the heavens

In the stumps of fallen trees?”

            — The Handsome Family, “Lake Geneva”

 My last year in high school was a strange time in my life.

 

It’s a year that I haven’t talked much about since I left the dangerous group a few years ago because it’s hard to describe what happened without sounding a little insane. But I’ll try.

 

Eric Booth had been my best friend for about three or four years. To the rest of our friends, we were an inseparable duo, one of the classic teams, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Boze and Booth. We were always getting into trouble and wreaking havoc.

 

And we were a great match. Booth was tall, outgoing, and good with women. I was quiet, bookish, a little awkward, and spent most of my time writing down entire conversations in a notebook I carried around everywhere. And while I was whimsical, romantic, and full of weird ideas, Booth was rational, pragmatic, and rigorously logical. (Once when a friend boasted that she was “one in a million,” Booth did the math and pointed out that there were at least 6,000 of her.)

 

Young Boze

Me, my senior year of high school

Booth and I had a teacher I’ll call Mr. McGowan. Mr. McGowan was our European History teacher, but he seemed to view himself as an entertainer first and teacher second. On the first day of my last year in Alvin in 2003, the day our story begins, he delivered a ten-minute monologue on the day’s news. “My Middle Eastern friend hasn’t been happy ever since we had that talk about Allah,” he said. “You know, Allah this, Allah that…”

 

(“Welcome to Mr. McGowan’s stand-up comedy class,” whispered Booth.)

 

I’d been feeling sort of anxious about going back to school. So, to alleviate my concerns, Booth tried to think of the worst things that could possibly happen. “Watch, you’ll get put in the Criminal Law class!” he teased me. To our friend *Brandon he said, “Your counselors will mess up your schedule so bad, you won’t be able to fix it. And, you’ll get put in Child Development with all the pregnant chicks!”

 

So our whole first day back at school was interesting, because yes, I did get put in Criminal Law, even though I hadn’t signed up for it. When Brandon went to the counselor that afternoon to complain about his schedule, she tried to put him in Child Development. By the end of the day Booth had also correctly predicted that *Lauren, a girl I was interested in, would call me, even though she hadn’t done so in almost two years.

 

But we thought it was all just an incredibly weird string of coincidences—until the next day.

 

New England was experiencing a tremendous electrical shortage. The night before, over 45 million Americans had lost power in eight northeastern states. Mr. McGowan decided to begin his daily monologue by plugging the virtues of the Texas electrical system when compared to the infrastructures of New York and California (which was currently going through a recall election in which actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was the clear frontrunner).

           

“See, here we have a superior electrical system,” said Mr. McGowan, slowly warming up to his audience. “On the East coast, their facilities are sixty and seventy years old, and no one even knows how to fix ‘em anymore. Whenever a generator blows, they have to call out these really old men to take care of it. That’s why the New York electrical system sucks!”

 

Booth leaned over and whispered, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!”

 

“Oh, and Ah-nold!” said Mr. McGowan, shaking his head and grinning slightly. “Can you imagine? ‘Governor Schwarzenegger, we have a problem with immigration!’” He held up an imaginary gun. “‘I VILL TAKE CARE OF IT!’”

 

But at that moment the laughter of the class was interrupted by the lights going out. There’d been a power spike across the entire east side of Alvin and over a thousand homes had lost power.

 

Booth denied it as best he could, but I could no longer doubt it: he was a prophet. Something strange and uncanny was happening in Alvin, and him and me and Brandon were about to be swept up in it.

 

*           *           *

 

Brandon and I became convinced that tragedy was going to strike our campus. In the swirl and haze of late summer, omens were all around us. Thirteen ravens sitting on a power line, the mysterious imprint of a child’s hand on the window of a car, the continual recurrence of the number 42. One Sunday the Houston Chronicle’s daily Bible verse was Isaiah 13:13, in which God warns that judgment is about to fall on the land.

 

On the thirteenth day of school the three of us took a walk around campus during our last class, and we saw some strange things. Total strangers who looked just like people we knew (“Doppelgangers,” I explained to Brandon. “Omens of death”). Two ambulances flashing their sirens in the exact same place. (We fled when we heard a third one coming).

 

The whole day had a weird, uncanny quality about it. Booth and I spent most of the evening on the phone, speculating about what it all could mean. But then at about a quarter to nine, Brandon called and explained everything. The parents of a good friend of ours had just been caught up in a high-speed police chase. A man had rammed their car, and the three of them had been life-flighted to a hospital.

 

“Do you need me to spell it out for you, Boze?” said Brandon darkly. “We know two of the three people in that accident. Just like we saw three ambulances, but only heard the third one.”

 

“We saw it,” I said quietly, my eyes brimming with sudden awareness. “We saw the whole thing.”

 

“Yes,” said Brandon. “And this is only the beginning. Whoever is behind this is trying to warn us of something. Something big that’s about to happen. Someone is going to die, unless we can stop it.”

 

*           *           *

 

The whole world had become a secret code begging to be deciphered by us. At first it was an exhilarating feeling, being privy to secrets that were hidden from the rest of our classmates and teachers. Mr. McGowan, the only person who seemed willing to listen, encouraged us to stay alert and pay attention to the numbers and patterns all around us.

 

He urged me to keep journaling our encounters, but he also advised caution. “Your senses are keen and you’re making connections; you just may not be correct about them. That’s the strength of a novel: it’s fun.”

 

And it was, at first. But the longer it went on, the lonelier I felt. I was getting trapped in the maze of my own connections, and I wanted out, but there was no way back. Sometimes when I went into the cafeteria at lunch I would see four people I knew in succession, and the order in which I saw them would show me, with uncanny precision, how my relationships would unfold going into the next semester: which of my friends would suddenly betray me, which one would make an unexpected return to my life. And I was never wrong, and it was scary, in a way, because I felt sure I could see the future but I didn’t have anyone else except Brandon and Booth who believed me, and increasingly I felt isolated even from them.

 

And sometimes I wondered if I really was crazy, like that woman in the old song “who wrote poems to Jimmy Carter but forgot to feed her kids.” Though, as the first trimester of school wore on, a lot of strange things were happening and people were beginning to notice. Booth and our friend *Adriana had the same dream on the same night. I heard the exact words Brandon was thinking, as though he had said them aloud, as I lay on the floor half-asleep. Mr. McGowan’s wife saw an angel in their house.

 

*           *           *

 

In November I reconnected with *Blazes O’Reilly, a friend who had recently left Alvin to attend an advanced school for mathematics in north Texas. Blazes had been in love with Booth for a long time. (Those were his two major temptations, he had once told me: homosexuality and witchcraft). Before we’d been on the phone for more than a minute I asked if anything strange had happened to him lately.

 

“Funny you should ask,” he said. He told me that since the middle of August demons had tried to possess him on ten different occasions. He would start cursing and throw his promise ring across the room. “It’s like Satan and the angels are fighting a war over my body,” he explained matter-of-factly.

 

“And what do you think it all means?” I asked.

 

“Well, I was going to say, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but after the story you just told me, I’d be very surprised. I think we’re heading into a major spiritual battle, possibly the final battle, and both sides are gathering their key forces for a major offensive.”

 

Blazes O’Reilly seemed to think I had a major role to play in the final end-times battle. That was insane, crazy. I told no one what he had said to me on the phone that night, because my reputation had already suffered enough.

 

A few weeks later, on a cool, sunny Saturday, Adriana came and sat down next to me at a UIL competition in San Antonio. She was a thin, quiet girl with short black hair and blue, sprightly eyes, and every time she watched the trailer for The Return of the King she wept, because it reminded her “of the great battle that is coming for us all.”

 

“What would you say if I told you that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime,” she asked me, “and that I will be one of his closest followers?”

 

I was too polite to tell Adriana what I really thought, which is that it sounded like Satan was preparing her heart to receive the Antichrist.

 

But apparently Adriana had similar feelings. Feeling encouraged by our conversation, she wrote me a letter that weekend. In it she revealed the horrible truth about her life. In dreams and visions God had shown her that she was soon going to meet the Antichrist. She would fall hopelessly in love with him, and the fall of men would begin.

 

“In a battle,” she wrote, “my love will be wounded and killed, though not by my hand, and he rises again. In the last battle, I am able to get past his defenses and, in the most horrifying moment of my life, kill the darkest love in the universe. And though I realize that I have saved my life and my fellow men, I know that my life will never be normal. I will never again feel the all-powerful passion of that love or the security of that touch. Though I know it was worth it, I can’t help but hate the loneliness that will accompany me for the rest of my life.

 

“Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else? And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”

To be concluded tomorrow in Part 2.

Thirty Days of Poems: The Fiddler of Abilene (Day 5)

lrg_fiddle-on-lap There are tales they tell in Texas that’d make your blood run cold

 Tales of vagabonds and outlaw men with a burning lust for gold

 But of all those men with all their sins the worst there’s ever been

 Was a man in white who showed up one night in the town of Abilene.

 

            For Fernando McGraw of Statler Hall, it was the best day of his life

            He’d waited six years and now through tears he made Marie his wife

            Two hundred guests merrily processed behind the bride and groom

            With hurrying feet through the rain-filled street to Winchester’s Saloon. Continue reading

“I Just Have To Write What’s on My Heart”: A Conversation with Teryn O’Brien

TerynOBrien_full

Teryn O’Brien

Today I’m thrilled to be hosting a discussion with friend and fellow writer Teryn O’Brien. In addition to blogging, Teryn is a social media consultant who works in online marketing at various imprints of Penguin Random House, LLC, and also does social media, online marketing, and writing / editing consultations for a fee. She’s pursuing publication of a fantasy trilogy.

 

Last year Teryn’s blog, Identity Renewed, placed number 36 out of over 400 blogs nominated in an online survey at Patheos. In November her post 15 Things I Wish I’d Known About Grief went viral and was read by over a million people. However, Teryn has written prolifically on a wide variety of topics, including relationships, fantasy, feminism, self-acceptance, spiritual abuse, and her own Celtic heritage.

 

On Friday I sat down with Teryn to discuss her views on blogging, social media, and finding the courage to do the things you feel most passionately about. The following is a partial transcript of our insightful and inspiring conversation.

 

Tell me a little about the history of your blog. How did you get started?

I personally started blogging at Identity Renewed almost three years ago this month. I started it right after college to work through some of my pain and brokenness. I was only posting twice a month, basically once every other week. I had a list of topics to write about, and then I was going to end it after a year. Honestly, I think it was just a time of experimentation and trying to find my voice. It really wasn’t until getting into the second year that I started blogging really regularly, posting three times a week. The main thing about blogging is consistency, because if you’re not blogging consistently, no one is going to come back to your blog. I kind of just played with a whole bunch of different schedules and ideas.

Then one of my best friends died in October 2012. She was in an abusive relationship inside a cult, and I realized that I had been fighting abusive tendencies in my own life, too. Suddenly, all the brokenness, pain, and struggles toward healing I’d been through began to make sense. So it was probably only after she died that I truly found my voice. And people started listening more. So I started getting a little more traffic and meeting more bloggers. The very first year I blogged, I think I got about 1,000 views. The second year, about 3,000-4,000 views. My goal in 2013 was to get 25,000 views.

The thing you have to realize is this: Blogging is a community, so no one is going to come to your site unless you go to their sites. Especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re not a famous blogger or pastor or speaker or whatever, no one is going to listen to your voice. So just starting out blogging, that’s one of the most important things you can do: Put yourself out there, meet other bloggers, comment on other sites, show a genuine interest in what others have to say. I’ve made some great friends through the blogging world, and we’ve never met in real life (yet!).

So then, in November 2013, I wrote this post about grief, and it got a million views. The thing about going viral is—you can’t control it. There are certain rules you can kind of try, and there’s research about what makes a post go viral, but honestly, at the end of the day, you can’t predict that. It was one of the posts I had spent the least amount of time on. I usually spend hours poring over my posts, and I’m like, “This one will surely go viral!”—but nope! The foundation is just blogging, finding your voice, and not being afraid to be passionate. It’s just finding that unique you, or those topics you feel like you can write completely and utterly passionately about.

Honestly, most bloggers blog for years before they make it big. It’s very rare for someone to have success overnight. Social media takes time, because you’re building trust with an audience. Social media isn’t about selling things; it’s about connecting with people. As soon as you start thinking too much about numbers, you’ve lost what social media truly is about.

 

So how successful do you consider yourself on your own social media platforms? And how do you define success?

You know, it means different things for different people. When you’re just starting out blogging, it’s really easy to look at people who are really, really popular and get discouraged. So it’s important to set your own goals. The goals should be goals that you personally define as successful and not necessarily what other people define as successful. Because people are really obsessed with large numbers. It’s a sickness in our society—even I do it! But the thing about it is, you can’t really control large numbers (unless you pay for it or already have a huge platform to begin with). You can’t make thousands and thousands follow you right away. It builds over time. A lot of it is about the work you put in.

For example: Last year, I decided I wanted to have 800 Twitter followers by the end of the year! So I started following people and engaging more, and I got at least 800. I just set another goal last week, “I want to get over a thousand Twitter followers!” So I just followed more than 200 people in two days’ time. So it’s just little goals like that, and hopefully over time those goals will add up. Honestly, probably none of us are going to be the next Rachel Held Evans, and it’s kind of hard to reconcile yourself to that fact. But making measurable goals that you know you can achieve, setting new and higher goals next time, is the way to go. 

 

When you look at the Christian market, the people who are doing the reading and blogging and tweeting, what are they looking for?

Social Media

Photo credit: Dusit

Well, it honestly depends on the type of Christian you’re trying to reach. Because there are different tribes within Christianity. And there are lots of messy people in between. But I really see—especially in younger Christians—a real desire for genuineness and authenticity and vulnerability. Just honesty about the Christian faith. So not necessarily just saying, “This is the right answer!” but a truly honest exploration of faith.

Of course, again, that depends on the tribe. The more conservative groups, they want more answers. They like to have things tied up in nice theological boxes. The more liberal, kind of progressive religious people, they want more of a dialogue. They don’t want people to tell them, “This is exactly how God is!” They want more vulnerable, real stories about people who have been in hard places, and who don’t sugarcoat things, but who can give hope in the midst of that.

But again, there’s a lot who are falling into the middle right now. And they just want hope. Hope that in some way, we can love each other even when we disagree. That Jesus is bigger than political and theological debates.

 

Are there topics you’ve forbidden yourself from blogging about because you were afraid it might offend your target audience? Have you lost followers because of things you’ve written or posted?

That’s a really interesting question, because I have been wrestling with that lately. The downside to success is that your people, your fans, your followers tend to have certain expectations for you. When you have more of an audience, you are called out more, or you feel their wrath more.

So yes, ever since I launched my new website, I’ve been losing subscribers. I think the reason is because a lot of followers thought they were subscribing to a grief blog. Once my blog post on grief went viral, everyone thought all I should talk about was grief. So after it went viral, I felt all this pressure to blog about grief all the time, since this is where I found success. Success can be stifling.

But this year, I’ve been in a place where I just haven’t had words to talk about grief. The grief has been much too deep, too angry, too volatile. I’ve written one post about grief, and it got quite a few shares, but ultimately, I’m not just a grief blogger! Recently, I came to the realization that I might lose all subscribers I had gained during my viral post success. I think I’m in a weird spot right now. I’m always really struggling about what to write about and share. When it starts becoming about success and numbers, you start to lose who you really are. I just have to write what’s on my heart, and it’s been a struggle lately.

 

If you could consult with your younger self, just starting out in social media, what advice would you give to her and why?

I think I would’ve just told myself: “Don’t be afraid. You will not have any regrets two, three years down the road.” When I first started down this road, I was terrified. I would spend hours agonizing over a post, because it was the first time I was being honest publicly. There were many times I almost quit blogging. I mean, I almost quit blogging a few weeks ago. It’s always a struggle.

But that’s the main thing I’d say to my younger self: “Don’t be afraid, and it’s going to be worth it. Pouring your heart out is going to be worth it. Not even that you’re necessarily going to be popular, but you are going to find your voice. God is preparing you for things in the future.”

If I hadn’t already had things set up when my friend died in October 2012, I wouldn’t have had that small voice to express all the things I felt and learned in the months following her death. Then again, if I hadn’t had everything else set up in November 2013, that post wouldn’t have gone viral. So I don’t regret anything. It’s hard sometimes, because social media is draining, but I don’t regret it. So that’s what I’ll continue to tell myself: “Keep doing it! Trust that God is going to use your voice. Just jump in.”

Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.

 

It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

 

In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:

 

  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey

 

  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her

 

  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered

 

  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces

 

  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.

 

Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.

 

The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;

 

the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;

 

the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;

 

the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;

 

and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.

 

Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:

 

Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;

 

He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;

 

He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;

 

He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.

 

The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).

 

So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:

 

the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;

 

the first pinch point would occur on page 113;

 

the mid-point would occur on page 150;

 

the second pinch point would occur on page 188;

 

and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).

 

I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.

 

How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.

Jesus & J. K. Rowling: Imperfect Matchmakers

640Well, it finally happened. Fans have speculated for years over the actual suitability of the series’ main characters for one another, but today Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling affirmed the contentious musings of Harry / Hermione shippers when she allegedly told Emma Watson, in a forthcoming issue of Wonderland Magazine, that the famous boy wizard should have married his best friend. Continue reading

The Riddles of Tom Bombadil

[ Because The Hobbit comes out this week and I can’t think about anything else, all week long on my blog I’ll be posting meditations on some of my favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings, both novel and film. Today we venture into the Old Forest. ]

In September 2002, as I was beginning my junior year of high school, my best friend called me up on the phone.

“Boze, I have the most amazing movie,” he said. “You have to see it.”

I was immediately skeptical. Eric Booth and I had vastly different taste in movies. I preferred mystery-thrillers from the 1950s and ‘60s, which put him to sleep. And his one attempt to show me The Matrix hadn’t gone over well.

“What’s it called?” I asked, more out of politeness than genuine curiosity.

Fellowship of the Ring,” he said in a tone of wonder. Continue reading