Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for January, 2019

Water, Light, Spirit…BEGIN!


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Water is essential for life.

Image result for water is life

Without water, we die. Without water, there is no life. Period.

Look around the world right now and you’ll notice that there are far too many people who struggle to survive…because they don’t have access to drinking water.

844 million people don’t have clean water.
(WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2017)

31% of schools don’t have clean water.
(UNICEF, Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring, 2015)

Every minute a newborn dies from infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
(WHO, 2015)

Worldwide, 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is due to a water-related disease.

And here’s the thing—access to water affects a person’s whole life. If a kid, for example, has access to clean water, he/she does not need to travel miles to fetch water. That kid can then stay in school and get an education. Also, with clean water, disease and sickness is lessened, and the child can grow up healthy with access to more opportunities. And, with clean water access comes better food security and reduction of hunger. Access to water can break the cycle of poverty.

Now for many living in the U.S., water scarcity is not a thing. Many of us used to think that that kind of thing happened in far away places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Flint, Michigan happened. You remember that? Also, as recently as last year, there were a few days in certain Philadelphia suburbs when the water was unsafe to drink due to septic issues. Imagine if that problem were to last weeks, months, even a year?

Many of us take water for granted. It’s coming out of our faucets, shower heads, flushing our toilets, and making our coffee. But what if you had to travel miles on foot just to have access to water? How would that change your view of it? Water would become precious to you. Water would become life for you. Water would be more valuable than money.

We ought to view water in this way—as a precious treasure, and something that all people [and all living things] deserve access to. For without it, life is no more.

I hope that you can embrace water as a tangible thing but also as a symbol of life, of wholeness. For that is what a small story found in all four canonical Gospels is all about—water.

You may have heard of this tale. Jesus of Nazareth, now a grownup, heads to the river Jordan in the middle of nowhere to meet up with this crazy preacher named John. Now, there’s context here, right? John is Elizabeth’s kid, and Elizabeth is somehow related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Were they cousins? Very possible. But the Gospels seem to point out that John and Jesus didn’t know each other yet. How could that be? Well, it’s possible that when King Herod was trying to kill all the first-born sons of Judah back in the day that while Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt, maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah and John went somewhere else to hide. Perhaps Jesus and John grew up apart from each other. And then, it’s possible that Jesus heard about this crazy preacher by the river Jordan and wanted to meet him. It’s possible. But we really don’t know. What we do know is that the first version of this story, in Mark, is shorter and just says that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to where John was and got baptized, i.e. submerged in the water of the river. Then, the heavens opened [I’ve always taken this to mean that it may have rained], and then the Spirit came down [fluttering like a bird] and a voice told Jesus that he was a pretty good dude.

But the later Gospel writers added some commentary, because honestly, this story is problematic. I mean, think about it—many people believed [and still believe] that Jesus of Nazareth was without sin. So, why in the world would a sinless Jesus need to be baptized by John, who was doing that so as to forgive people’s sins? Um, yeah. So the later Gospels try to explain it away and in my opinion, they fail at it. I actually think this whole “sin” thing isn’t the point of the story at all.

The point is the water.

Image result for water

See, John and Jesus were doing the same thing, in their own ways. They were preaching and teaching what the ancient Hebrew prophets did, like Isaiah, telling anyone who would listen that the world was messed up, out of balance, and injust [especially to the vulnerable and marginalized], and that Yahweh had just about had it. Time to repent [which means turn around], time for a 180 and the water was a symbol of that. You submerge yourself in that river, you make a decision to move forward in a new way. You leave behind whatever was dragging you down. You commit to being just and compassionate to others. You decide to be just and compassionate with yourself.

The water is the tangible element in nature that everyone needs to survive. There is not one single living thing on this earth that doesn’t know about water. Every day water is part of our lives. So it’s the perfect, universal, tangible symbol for something that may seem not so universal or tangible—the Spirit.

See, many read this story as Jesus’ big moment when God pretty much certifies Jesus as the Messiah and some type of demi-god. In fact, that’s what most people wanted. Truth be told, if you read the whole story in the Gospels, John had his own views about who the Messiah would be. We have NO IDEA how John really reacted to meeting Jesus. We just know from the earlier story in Mark that John baptized Jesus. And then they went their separate ways. So make your own conclusions.

But what resonates for me is what is consistent in the story—the water. The water changes the people who are baptized in the Jordan river. The water changes Jesus of Nazareth. After the water, Jesus launches a movement of ragtag, poor, marginalized people who promote justice, peace, and love. They go from town to town, and eventually make it to the epicenter, Jerusalem.  The water-spirit drives them there, keeps them together, motivates them when they lose momentum, fills them when they feel empty.

The last thing I’ll say about this story is that the voice coming from heaven was mostly likely heard by lots of people. In other words, don’t take the story so literally that you see these events as happening all in the same linear time frame. The voice was meant for Jesus, yes, but was also meant to be heard by others, and was also meant to be heard by you and me in 2019, reading this story.

Because we’re invited to the water ourselves.

We’re invited there no matter how long it takes us to get there, or where we come from, or who we call ourselves. We are invited to the water, invited to submerge ourselves in it, to feel its drops trickle down our face, to feel the sensation of cool water in the middle of a hot desert. Yes, we’re invited to the water and we NEED this water to live. It turns us around, it reminds us of who we are and who we are becoming, and then we just might have a chance to embrace this Spirit-thing that is sometimes hard to understand or accept. The voice is also for you and for me, for all of us, telling us that we are just fine as we are made, we are beloved as-is, but that also at any time we can go back to this water and make a change.

We can turn around. We can do a 180. We can keep becoming.

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Interview with Lucas Mangum, Author

I recently had a conversation with my friend, Lucas Mangum, the author of FLESH AND FIRE, MANIA, ENGINES OF RUIN, GODS OF THE DARK WEB, and WE ARE THE ACCUSED. The collection, Engines of Ruin, was just released in paperback on January 5 (the Kindle edition has been out since December).

Lucas’ newest novel We Are the Accused was released on January 15th.

You can find the rest of his books on Amazon and you can also follow his blog Cranky but Cultured.

[Our conversation was transcribed and not edited so as to capture the true spirit of it]

JOSH:
Lucas, I’m curious to know if there is a book that you can remember—not necessarily the first one you read, but a book that definitely made you cry.

LUCAS:
I will mention two—I don’t remember if I actually cried but I do remember being deeply affected by first The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and also by another called Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. First, O’Dell’s book I think primarily affected me because of the violence and because it was my first exposure to real tragedy and stuff like that. Stepping on the Cracks was a book that really affected me because it was the first time I really experienced the magic of storytelling, the way she sets things up. There are these expectations early on this book and then she kind of turns them on their head, but it doesn’t happen in a way that makes it seem like it comes out of nowhere. She surprised me, but it makes sense.  

JOSH:
I’m wondering–I’m not a writer but I’m an actor and a performer and so, I know for me that when I’m doing stage work it definitely energizes me. So I’m wondering if for you the writing practice gives you energy or, when you’re finished writing, are you exhausted?

LUCAS:
You know, lately it’s been doing nothing but energizing me. It’s weird, but now I want to write more. I don’t know if it’s because I finally like got my voice or hit my stride or whatever you want to call it; it’s been like this for the last 6 months. I’ve been very, very productive always wanting to continue doing things. For example, I started doing this new thing just after I finished another piece. I’m ready to move on to another one and I’ve never done that before; I’m just compelled to do it.

JOSH:
So this is the first time that you have felt that type of energy when you finish a project, i.e. you are ready for another.

LUCAS:
Yeah, before I would get this temporary high, but I would definitely have crashes as well. But this doesn’t feel like that now, it’s different.

JOSH:
Your writing obviously crosses over some genres. How did you get to that point? When you started writing, were you attracted to horror typically or was it just kind of writing in general?

LUCAS:
I guess it was always writing in general, though I definitely was into the spookier things in life. I actually recently chronicled my long-standing relationship with horror in a poem called Halloween Poem and it was featured on the Heavy Feather Review last October. tI’ve definitely been expanding to other genres and I recently wrote a romance novel. I’ve been trying my hand with a few other genres like short story form as well, but horror is definitely something I come back to.

JOSH:
You get this question a lot but it’s worth mentioning: who are some strong influences for you?

LUCAS:
So I guess you know Stephen King would be the obvious one of course, but there’s this movie from the eighties called Killer Klowns from Outer Space and it made me incredibly happy. I actually just recently re-watched it and I still absolutely love it.

JOSH:
That reveals a lot about you, Lucas [laughter].

LUCAS:
There is a lot of stuff that I like that isn’t, you know, spooky. I also like stuff that has a sense of humor as well. I’ve only recently started to incorporate more of a sense of humor into my work. Indeed, a lot of my stuff tends more towards the bleak side of things but some of the last few pieces I’ve done have been–I don’t want to say lighter–but definitely there has been a bit more humor providing some comic relief.  

JOSH:
So all your different writings, are they pretty much stand-alone pieces or are there connections between the stuff you’ve written?

LUCAS:
You know I often toy with the idea of tying them all together but the idea of trying to compile an expansive work like the Labyrinth stories or JRR Tolkien’s work is really intimidating for me. But I kind of end up doing it on the subconscious level anyway you know, coming from my head of course these stories exist in some sort of connected way I would imagine.

JOSH:
So you don’t intentionally do that.

LUCAS:
No, not really, no.

JOSH:
Now that you’re older [you’re still young], but if you could think back as far as you can when you first started writing, what would you tell that younger Lucas about writing?

LUCAS:
I’m tempted to tell him to get a bit more serious about learning the craft a little earlier but at the same time I don’t think I really regret anything. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll leave time traveling to the guy from Quantum Leap then.

JOSH:
So you’re probably more of a process-oriented person. And having no regrets is also a good thing.

LUCAS:
I don’t recommend some of the choices I made but I don’t regret them either.

JOSH:
After your first work was published, did that change things for you in terms of the way that you carried out your process?

LUCAS:
You know, after my first publication, Flesh and Fire–

After that I started second-guessing myself a little bit more. I thought it was a pretty good novel but I sort of built it up in my mind so much that I started thinking that I’d never be able to repeat that success.

JOSH:
What is one of the novels that people should know about?

LUCAS:
That’s easy. Come Closer by Sara Gran is absolutely frightening. It’s about a woman who may be possessed, and it’s all told in first-person from her point of view. You kind of get the impression that there’s a chance she might not be possessed and that she is just kind of losing her mind. I don’t know the author managed to capture that in such a visceral way but it had an impact on me.

JOSH:
How do you balance asking the reader to do something and also caring for the reader? How does that factor into your process?

LUCAS:
I mean it definitely used to. I guess when you’re a new writer you really do get concerned about  the notes you have to hit in this particular genre. I don’t know, now I kind of feel like if I’m having fun running with a piece, regardless of what I do with the genre’s tropes, I think that will show through and hopefully the reader will have fun in turn.

JOSH:
Now that you are a published author, obviously you are hitting a different stride. How do you define success? I mean, success is such a weird word, because there is such a thing as commercial success or monetary success. But as a writer in general, how do you view success? Is it about your own personal satisfaction?

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean I certainly would like to make a lot more money. I figure people in every profession kind of feel that way. But really, if I take a step back, I have to appreciate the fact that I’ve done a lot. Come Tuesday my 5th book will be published. I’ve done lots of public readings and I’ve done two panels at Austin Comic-Con. I don’t know, I mean kind of just have to appreciate each degree of success, I think

JOSH:
When you write, do you do research at all, and if you do, how much time would you say you spend on that?

LUCAS:
Yeah, I mean I guess it really depends on the project. If I’m writing an intense, personal piece then all the research I need is already there in my life experiences. But if I’m doing something in another time period or something that involves, I don’t know, police work or something, I’ll have to do some actual research. I guess the short answer is it really depends on the project.

JOSH:
Has most of your work been more personal and so it doesn’t require as much research?

LUCAS:
For someone my age I think I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of things. I’ve got this well that I can draw from without doing a tremendous amount of research.

JOSH:
Now, you mentioned that you do have this really strong energy to write. On average, how many hours a day are you writing?

LUCAS:
You know, I don’t usually count in hours. I shoot for a minimum of 800 words a day but usually I end up doing anywhere from 1500 to 2500 words a day.

JOSH:
Looking over the synopsis of some of your short stories and other stuff you done, I’m intrigued by whether you tend to focus on different periods in life, like childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.  

LUCAS:
A lot of times I do end up focusing on the present, though I’ve definitely written all over the place; I have kind of been all over the map as far as stages of life go. I haven’t done much about the elderly, so maybe that’s my next novel.

JOSH:
Those of us with interesting vocations like writing or acting or religious work tend to be less commercially successful in many ways, though we put a lot of work, energy, and passion and love into it. Do you think that writing for you is a spiritual practice? And I give you full freedom to define spiritual however you wish.

LUCAS:
Yes, I mean, at the risk of sounding corny or something like that, I really don’t think ideas come out of thin air. I think all artists are definitely channeling something. I don’t know if that’s humanity’s collective unconscious or chaos or something else. I don’t really think that is for me to say. But I think you would imagine a story is coming from somewhere and life experiences are only a piece of the puzzle. You’re in a type of zone when you write and you almost kind of have to hypnotize yourself into getting into that place because otherwise you know you’re worried about making a mistake or doing the dishes or paying your rent or whatever. And if you’re focused on something like that then you’re not going to be able to bring it and put it on the page.

JOSH:
Certain elements of isolation can be good if we were able to break free from some of those day-to-day routines and get into that creative space, one many people have compared to meditation in other spiritual practices.

LUCAS:
Definitely. I usually spend a tremendous amount of time meditating on what I want my first line to be because for some reason that first line is like a doorway. Once I get that first line down I can pretty much just go. It is interesting, but that’s how I used to write song lyrics back in my early twenties and then I kind of got away from that practice when I started writing prose. But then about 6 months ago I started reincorporating that practice into my prose and it’s actually worked out really well. I did something like a hundred and fifty thousand words during last year.

JOSH:
Let’s talk about Engines of Ruin, the collection of stories.

They all look really interesting. Were there particular stories in that group that really just came easy for you?

LUCAS:
Yeah, Occupy Babylon was probably the easiest one. And, in the case of Ghost Music, I got the idea, I had a title in my head for a while, I didn’t really have a story. Once I got a story idea I was actually writing it on my phone. At the time I was walking to class and I just basically wrote the whole thing on the phone, during these trips to class. So there there was an immediacy to it—to get the idea to the page quickly instead of filing it away in my brain, which you know can be hazardous because if you file it away like that by the time you sit down and write it you may not see it as that exciting to you anymore. I’ve got to get it on the page, even if it’s just a few sentences or just a general outline of the idea. This seems to further my enthusiasm for the project, so I can maintain it over the course of writing.

JOSH:
Were there other stories in this collection that were actually more of a slow burn, you know, in terms of getting them done?

LUCAS:
Video Inferno, I guess. I wrote the first draft in about a week and then it took me four years of really poking at it to get it into the form that it is now. I went through so many revisions. It’s a very surreal story, so when you’re playing with the surrealism, on the surface what you know is happening might not make sense. That requires a little bit more calculation and attention to detail.

JOSH:
What were some of your favorite characters in these stories?

LUCAS:
Definitely the rock star. I mean, I’ve entertained becoming a rock star at least once in my life. Also, the bartending preacher. Actually, this came out of a conversation I had with somebody. She was somebody I used to work with at a previous job. She was like a fundamentalist or whatever and she said it would be a total fall from grace if a preacher were you know, to quit his job and start bartending. I actually disagreed with her because I thought, you know, being a bartender is almost like being a preacher.

JOSH:
You mention that The Last Easy Rider is more of a manifesto than a story?

LUCAS:
That goes back to the spiritual question you asked earlier. Basically, the main character is a version of me who is driving in this beat up camper van, you know, across the American highways, and encountering ghosts and demons and other shady characters. I thought it was essentially an interesting metaphor for me navigating my subconscious, even down to the van.

JOSH:
Let’s shift to your new book, We Are the Accused.

Image result for we are the accused lucas mangum

I was reading through the synopsis and wow–there’s some interesting stuff there. I also wonder what didn’t make the final manuscript. Were there certain things you had to edit out?

LUCAS:
Yeah, it just had a lot of characters and a subplot to glue together in the initial draft. Then I got further along and I didn’t think that they fit together as much as I would have liked them to. So I ended up deleting 20,000 words, more or less, in the original work.

JOSH:
How do you feel when you delete that much?

LUCAS:
It was difficult. I mean, there’s definitely a sense of loss or a grieving process involved. But I should say that I deleted it from the manuscript but I still have the text available; I didn’t destroy them forever.

JOSH:
How do you select names for characters?

LUCAS:
Usually friends. Specifically for this one I just went through my Facebook friends and picked out names I thought were interesting. I would take some person’s first name and another person’s last name and combine them for one character.

JOSH:
Any significance to the setting, Blue Brook, Pennsylvania?

LUCAS:
Yes, it’s basically Bristol Township and Bensalem with a little bit of Levittown, but all is one town. I think even Doylestown gets a mention in this book.

JOSH:
Do you have any hidden secrets that only a few people will catch?

LUCAS:
Of course, yeah, definitely. I’ll put stuff in there that will be there for people to catch. There’s this character in Gods of the Dark Web, and one of my friends called me immediately after reading it as and was just like: “Oh, thanks for turning me into a [devious character] in the book.” Sorry.

JOSH:
I’m sure that was a great phone call.
So how long did it take you to write this novel?

LUCAS:
The first half of the novel took me a ridiculously long time, like I’m talking a year-and-a-half just writing the first half. It was because I was going back and rewriting and fixing things as I went along. And because I was able to write the first half in this way, the second half was quick and pretty much set up for me; I didn’t really need to second-guess myself at all.  

JOSH:
What do you hope the readers will experience when they read this and what type of journey do you hope they go on?

LUCAS:
I hope they have fun, first and foremost. I hope that some readers will maybe, you know, look a little deeper into it and hopefully notice the spiritual questions raised in the book and the social ones as well. I think if you know what you’re looking for you’ll find it and I would hope that people would kind of read beyond the surface.

JOSH:
In your work you often include a sense that each individual has a darkness inside, for lack of a better term, and that this darkness manifests itself outside. It’s a universal idea, right? We have the sort of Yin and Yang thing inside of us: light and dark. Do your characters tend to constantly live in that struggle or is there any sort of resolution, or better said, a realization of that struggle?

LUCAS:
I mean, my work does sometimes end on a hopeful note, though the more recent book might be considered a tragedy, but there are certainly moments of revelation.

JOSH:
Thanks, Lucas, this had been great. Anything else to add about We Are the Accused?

LUCAS:
It’s out on January 15th and on Kindle as well. I believe the paperback will be along shortly after that.

Interested in checking out Lucas’ new novel? Click HERE.

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