Monday, August 16, 2010

A Million Miles: Chapters 1-3

Happy Monday! And what a wonderful Monday it is... We celebrated our baby's baptism yesterday, my in-laws are in town from British Columbia, and the weather is gorgeous. Life is so good. And to make it even better, I get to kick off an on-line discussion today. Oh, I've been looking forward to this. :)

Have you started reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years? Yay if you have, no problem if you haven't. The cool part about this book is you can be a part of the conversation whether or not you've read the chapters. And there are so many levels of application--from personal to professional (i.e. lots of neat insight into creating memorable characters, scenes, and stories), there's something for everyone.

So, here's how we're going to do this. Every Monday I'll blog about whatever struck me in the readings for the day. At the end of the post I'll invite you to answer two questions: one related to my own musings, and one soliciting your responses to the chapters we've read. To be perfectly honest, I'm far more interested in what you guys have to say. Then, throughout the week we'll keep the dialogue going. I promise to respond to every comment. In fact, I can't wait to do so. Without further ado...

Chapters 1-3

From the Author's Note:
"... Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend our lives living these stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful. The truth is, if what we chose to do with our lives won't make a story meaningful, it won't make a life meaningful either."

I'm cheating a bit today by launching our discussion with a quote from the Author's Note instead of one of the chapters we read. But if I had to sum up the book in a couple of sentences, this would be my summary. The first time I read this book those lines floored me. I'm sad to say that I have spent much of my life chasing Volvos. Well, not Volvos exactly, but clothes, home decor, vacations... things. And Miller is right. That makes a crappy story.

There are entire weeks and months and years of my life that would make a terrible story and an even worse movie. I'm convinced that nobody, not even my loving God, would be much interested in my teenage quest for a boyfriend, my college self-absorption, and the almost hedonistic indulgence of my twenties. That's not to say that my life story is entirely meaningless--it's definitely peppered with moments that transcend my own selfishness--but I want more than just a great scene or two. I want to live an epic.

But epics don't happen overnight. They develop slowly, age like fine wine. And they begin long before anyone realizes that they're in the midst of a grand narrative... Which leads us to Random Scenes. In the first chapter Miller laments that his life is little more than a collection of random scenes. And yet, I believe that what we remember about our lives (about ourselves) says something about who we are. What do you remember?

Looking way back, to my childhood and young adulthood in particular, there are two types of memories that stand out. The first is a collection of all the imaginary worlds I inhabited. My cousin and I were best friends and confidantes, and we created vibrant imaginary landscapes that we spent years of our lives perfecting and playing in. From Ancient Egypt to the Midwestern prairies, we lived as queens and handmaidens, explorers and adventure-seekers. It's funny how those memories are crisp in my mind's eye and yet I can't remember the name of my third-grade teacher. The second type of memory is not quite so fond... For some reason, I very clearly remember everything I have done wrong. Every time someone yelled at me or I got in trouble, every time that I was made fun of or teased or hurt. You'd think that those sorts of memories would be repressed, or at least relegated to some far-flung and cobwebby corner of the filing cabinet that is my brain, but instead each incident is meticulously cataloged and made available at the slightest provocation. Anything can bring back those feelings, those ugly scenes. Sometimes it's a scent, a scene in a movie, or a sideways glance. Whatever triggers the memory, the end result is always the same: I'm left feeling exposed, naked. Like one of those dreams when you show up at a party and realize you've forgotten to put on clothes. Yuck.

Okay, so we've begun... This feels like a strange place to stop, but we're building something here. It's going to come a piece at a time. So, I'm going to sign off and leave it to you. It's your turn. Here are my questions for you. Answer one, answer them both, or ask one of your own. It's up to you!

1.) What in these chapters stood out to you? Why? 
2.) What are some random scenes from your life? What do you think they say about you? (In fairness, I haven't answered the second half of this question. I will, in the comment section... But I'd like to hear from a few of you first.)


  1. Nicole,

    I thought of you while ironing today (not sure why during ironing but I wanted you to know). Been wondering how you've been. So cool to see you're reading this book. I loved this book. I think there's a tie between a keen memory and an ability to write. Here's a random scene. I remember living in Germany and getting tired of not being able to understand everyone so I made up my own language and tried it on fellow elevator riders. My mom must have loved that. I think if my kids did what I on earth would I react? Makes me love my mom all the more.

    ~ Wendy

  2. First, I'm so excited to be taking part in this book discussion with you! Great idea! :)

    1. So, the part that really has stood out so far, was definitely the author's note. Not only the quote that you used, but all of Miller's descriptions as to what does not make an exciting life...and how must of us are truly living our lives in a completely unexciting way.

    It struck me as so true. And when he started writing about the choosing of memories and how a few things stick, but the big picture is blank, it definitely made me a bit sad. It's true in my life and his manner of boldly presenting it is both appealing and a way of scolding.

    2. The random scenes that immediately pop into my head are a mixture of happiness and sadness in my past. When I first read the question, the first thing that popped into my head was my mom, brother, and I at Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL when I was 9. We were having so much fun together, our first amusement park trip (and my first airplane ride). But, the reason we were there is because my father had passed away a few months before, very unexpectedly, and we were there to spread his ashes in the Everglades, where he had grown up. Such a joyful time for a child being in a park reserved just for fun, but I had just lost my daddy. And my mom had just lost her husband. Happiness mixed with sadness.

    And I think I'm okay with that...I like that God helps me to remember, through these memories, that He gives and takes away. And overall, I think that's how I define my life now. Don't take simple things, even an amusement park with family, for granted.

    Great discussion post, Nicole!

  3. Nicole,

    I haven't had a chance to start reading this book - major crunch time at work and I've been forced to work nights and weekends to meet deadlines. However, I can answer question #2. A random scene from my life would be me at about five years old. We're leaving my grandma's house on Christmas Eve and heading home for the night. I am in the front seat with my head on my mom's lap (this was the 70s and pre seatbelt laws). She stroked my hair and we listened to The Little Drummer Boy on the radio. What does that say about me? Probably that I love family and I crave safety and security. I hope my son grows up feeling as loved as I did.


  4. Hi, Nicole! I have enjoyed reading your musings about motherhood lately, and am now looking forward to delving further into this book with you and others. I apologize that I have so much to say, I have to include it in two posts.

    I have this insatiable ardor to create or pull meaning out of things that might have no significance otherwise. Just ask my husband. If he only had a penny for every conversation we've had that has started with, "Now what do you think this is supposed to mean?" And if I would just listen to him, perhaps his frequent answer, "It is what it is," would reverberate in my head instead of landing with a thud like a bowling ball in the base of my brain.

    I found myself relating a lot to the author's friend, Bob. Miller says that he "captures memories, because if he forgets them, it's as though they didn't happen; it's as though he hadn't lived the parts he doesn't remember." Somehow, there's something a little disconcerting to me about an experience (especially one that seemed quite significant at the time) becoming extinct. I relate well to Miller's thoughts that "life has a peculiar feel when you look back on it that it doesn't have when you're actually living it," and that life's scenes "have a sentimental quality that gets you believing we are all poems coming out of the mud."

    Then I am reminded that what God wants me and others to learn from my existence likely differs considerably from the collection of fables and fairytales I have played out in my head. Or perhaps God has something cooking behind the scenes that could be distorted by old memories I'm not meant to keep. Either way, I am trying to learn to work with the memories and experiences I have had to help me shape an intentional story out of my life. As you so eloquently put it, Nicole, "I want to live an epic." I also have to remember that some stories are true that never happen. Who I am is not just a reflection of what I've experienced, but also of what I want to be.

  5. I tend to remember scenes from my youth that involve music, traveling and family tradition. My father was (and still is) the king of random road trips we liked to call excursions. Dad, Mom, my sister and I would often head off into the unknown for the weekend, usually to some small Tennessee mountain town that wasn't even on the map. My sister and I would get incredibly bored watching the trees go by and listening to my Dad's sappy collection of mellow oldies. Dad would drive us through towns with names like Bellbuckle, Nantipoo and Bucksnort. My sister and I would get silly and start writing ballads about every locale we discovered.

    Last weekend, my husband and the girls had a daddy-daughter weekend while I went to Tennessee to visit my sister. She and I visited my parents and ended up on a very nostalgic, almost literal "trip" down Memory Lane (although "Memory Lane" took the form of roads like Skullbone Curve and Bumpus Mills Bend). My sister and I began singing every word of every song we had once written about the whimsical places we'd visited on road trips past.

    I also seem to have a lot of memories (embarrassingly so) about crushes and boyfriends. Give me a specific age or point in my life (past the age of about 10), and I will tell you who I had a crush on or who I was dating. I remember scenes from run-ins with crushes, and I specifically remember the vulnerability that came along with them, as well as the gushing, emotional drama I created for myself.

    I think my memories reflect the importance of nostalgia in my life. I think sometimes I subconsciously use it as an antidote to feeling afraid, sad or worried. Other times, I think I just like the magic and mysiticism of a positive memory. Recalling my younger self (whether intentionally or via a "pop-up" memory) who once dreamt of the future enhances my outlook on the life I have now. Recalling anticipation spices the moment.

    For me, I think I naturally remember these types of moments because my being longs to breathe life from something supernatural. And I guess sometimes reliving the beauty of some memories keeps that mysticism alive.

    So far, this book has me thinking about the story I have to tell and whether the way I am living right now would give a reader or movie-goer much to chew on or derive inspiration from. I certainly wouldn't want them "stabbing each other in the necks with drinking straws." :O)

  6. Nicole,
    Although I am not reading the book your words and questions made me think of the imaginary world that friends and I made up in junior high. I hadn't thought of that in years and yet it is such a vivid memory. The imaginary places of children. WOW I only pray that my children (any of the 5) or all would have fond memories of making and playing in imaginary places. Wonder how one checks on that as a mother Ha or how we begin to foster that. I too can go back to ugly scenes and remember them, the feelings, and the thoughts at the time. The rawness of the hurt I have one vivid memory of such a time and it is brought to the forefront alot. I have often wondered why after giving it to Jesus it hasn't been thrown as far as the east is from the west and I remember it no more. Praise God He doesn't do what I am doing. I wonder if I truly haven't forgiven the people or what and it was such a silly thing but the words cut so deep. Crazy how that can stay with you for 20 plus years after high school. Well blessings to you today and thanks again for the discussion. Will try to check in next monday after the kiddos start school ugg here comes the chaos. :)

  7. Hi, Wendy. I'm honored that you thought of me while ironing! Maybe some of your ability with an iron will magically rub off on me since my husband now has a job that requires a spiffy wardrobe and I'm hopeless with wrinkled shirts... :)

    I think you're right. There is a tie between a keen memory and the ability to write. And not just a factual or archival memory--we have to remember (vividly) sounds, scents, and subtleties that many would miss. Maybe that's why writers spend so much time in imaginary worlds!

  8. Hi, Amanda. I totally agree--there is something a little scolding about this whole book. But I like to be reprimanded when it's warranted. Either I'm masochistic, or I love a chance to better myself. :)

    Your random memory made me tear up. Mostly because I can't help thinking that most of the memorable moments in life are a mixture of bitter and sweet. The sweet isn't quite so lovely without the bitter to remind us of what we've lost or how far we've come. Just like the resurrection, I suppose. It's not so miraculous without the crucifixion. Anyway, thanks for the reminder to savor... It's something I'm trying to learn to do more and more every day.

  9. Hi, Tracy. Your memory belongs in a book! It's a gorgeous scene, maybe a little melancholy somehow... Like your mom was realizing how quickly you would grow up--how little time she had with you as a child on her lap. Maybe she was (like Amanda exhorts us) not taking a single moment with her precious daughter for granted.

    Your memory spurred one of my own... My parents checking on me after a night out. I remember waking up just enough to smell my mom's perfume and feel the scratch of my dad's goatee as he bent to kiss my cheek. And now we're the parents! What a responsibility. We're the ones that our children will have memories of. Feelings of safety, security, and love. Wow.

  10. Sherry, you highlighted one of my absolute favorite lines in these chapters: life's scenes "have a sentimental quality that gets you believing we are all poems coming out of the mud." Even when I was a little girl, I felt that deep in my heart. I couldn't express it at the time, but I believed that our lives were filled with purpose and meaning. We were each a poem, a song, something deep and wonderful and beloved even when we felt hopeless and ugly and lost. I think that in many ways my desire to write was born out of this longing to communicate that one truth. I don't always do it well, but I love to hold up the juxtaposition of the poem and the mud, the beauty and the muck and say: "Look at this! Isn't it true and lovely and sad and ultimately the most wonderful thing you've ever seen?!?" The contradiction of our depravity and God's grace gets me every time. Even if God's grace is not acknowledged, it's there in anything good and true. I love recognizing it for what it is.

    I love what you said about using memories as an antidote. I've never thought of it that way, but as soon as I read your words I realized that I do the exact same thing. Unfortunately for me, I'm not 100% sure I can always trust my memories... I have vivid recollections of certain events that I have no business knowing. Like the day my little brother came home from the hospital. I was 2 1/2 years old--there's no way I could remember that. And this "false memory" sometimes makes me question what I consider to be my real memories. Was that person really looking at me with love in their eyes? Or was it a speck of dust? I guess I just have to claim the things that are good and beautiful as true. Maybe messing with our memories (and the feelings they evoke) is just another way that Satan tries to trip us up. Hmmm... You've got me thinking, Sherry.

  11. Cindy, I'm glad you commented even if you're not reading the book! I think the nature of the conversation makes it accessible to anyone. :)

    I'm struck by your recollection of a traumatic event that keeps cropping up even though you've given it to God. I think we can all relate to that--and I have to believe that if it isn't removed as far as the east is from the west than it must have some significance. Not that I'm trying to analyze your experiences or how God is working in you, but I know that there are things in my life that God asks me to remember for reasons that I may not understand. Sometimes I get to know his purposes, sometimes not. Either way... opps! I have more to write but my baby is crying! I'd better go. More later. :)

  12. I can't answer question 1 yet because this book is on my list to get or borrow but as for question 2...I remember dressing up as a professor/teacher. I would put on big plastic red and blue glasses, grab a stack of papers, put my initials on them, and then walk around pretending I was a professor. I would sometimes even go to Catechism like that. Another person that I would pretend to be was a pastor. I would devote all of my Sunday afternoons to making up three paragraph sermons and organizing the whole service. My friend and I would get together, and we would even sing songs from a hymnal. To this day I still have some of my church service outlines saved on my computer. I guess these memories show me that I wanted to be like my dad. My dad was a professor and a pastor, and I was sort of a Daddy's Girl to some extent. I looked up to him and wanted to be like him in all aspects - from his job to his faith. It makes me think about how I impact the kids I babysit. I'm obviously not a mother yet, but little kids really do search for someone to look up to, somebody to model. I babysit quite a bit, and when I do I have to be careful about my attitude and things I say. Even throughout the period when my dad has not had a job, he's still been able to keep a pretty positive attitude and not get too discouraged. He doesn't let the hardships that face him make his faith shake. It stands firm. And, honestly, if I ever have children, I want to be a person that they can look up to and trust - just like my dad.

  13. Hey there,

    Too many awesome questions to answer in a single comment, but let's see. I loved the author's note - i thought it was an incredibly powerful piece of writing. A real challenge. A perfect way to start the book. Someone else on this thread has also mentioned the other line I adored - about poems coming out of mud.

    As for childhood memories:

    When I was first starting to get to know Mike, via letter, he asked me early on to tell him something about childhood. First off, I wrote scores about how I used to read books everywhere we went. Then I wrote this: "When I wasn't reading, Michelle and I used to take all the socks in our drawers (and probably our undies too, come to think of it, since I'm not sure we would have had many socks on hand when the average temperature in Bangladesh hovered near 100) and toss them up so that they hung over the ceiling fan. When it was properly festooned we'd turn it on and watch with glee as the socks flew all over the room. Then we'd pick them all up and do it again. Mum hated this because everything ended up with dirty dust stripes on them."

    I'm not quite sure what this says about me, except that given half a chance I can and will write to near strangers about the most random things. I guess it could also say we didn't have enough games to play in Bangladesh, or that we were skilled at creating our own fun.

    Oooh, construction people here to install toilets. Many toilet dramas over here in Laos. Gotta go.


  14. Hi, Cindy. Say, I never finished responding to you and I've lost my train of thought! I don't remember what I was going to say... Sorry. I'm sure it was profound and life-changing, though. ;)

    Monica, I'm a daddy's girl, too. So much of my personality came from him (Because I want to imitate him or because I was programmed that way??? Who knows...), and I spent my younger years emulating him in every way I could. I think it's awesome to have a role model who is both godly and full of integrity. And it's absolutely adorable that you made mini-sermons and acted out church services! I'm all for women church leaders. ;)

  15. Lisa, Lisa. I think of you often, friend, and love your posts on life in Laos! You're too funny. :)

    As for childhood memories, I love the socks on the ceiling fan. Believe it or not, I think I'll actually encourage my boys to do so... Sounds like a fun (safe) winter diversion. :) Thanks for the parenting tip!

    I have a question for you... I have to admit that when I first read this book, a number of people who are "living the dream" popped into my mind. You know what I mean--people who live this risky, wonderful, filled-with-meaning life. And one of them was YOU. Growing up in a missionary family, traveling the world, becoming a forensic psychologist, marrying the guy of your dreams in record time (and under such unusual circumstances!), and finally returning to the mission field (more or less) in such an exotic locale... Aren't you doing everything Miller exhorts us to do in his book? Your life would make a fascinating movie. So... here's my question: Is this book more like a confirmation of the life you are already leading? Or does it still challenge you?

  16. Some memories I have of childhood: falling sleep on Dad's lap during supper, and being carried to bed and tucked between cool sheets. Sitting on the floor, cross-legged, begging my mom to play just one more song on the piano "and please please please the Fairytale Wedding song!" (Sometimes I still ask her to play that for me.) I also remember a time when me and all of my siblings got in trouble at the same time (there's six of us in total, and I'm the fourth) and we were lined up against the dresser in my parents' bedroom waiting to be spanked. That memory still makes me laugh, though I'm sure I was terrified at the time. I'm not sure what these say about me. Maybe that I was, and still am, close to my parents and my siblings. And that my family is at the centre of my life. Maybe that I've learned so much from my mom that goes beyond playing Fairytale Wedding on the piano (although I learned that too.)

    As to the first three chapters, I agree that the author's note really stood out. I often wonder, though, people always talk about living lives filled with adventure and meaning and risk. And I often talk about that myself - I want to live a life like that. But I think there's a difference between living a life of meaning and a life full of adventure. Miller seems to imply that the two go hand-in-hand, and without one, you can't have the other. But adventure isn't for everyone. I know I want to squeeze every last drop from my life that I possibly can, but I know others who are perfectly content to live more peaceful, "ordinary" (if you can call it that) lives. Does this mean their lives have less meaning? Sure, they might not make as good as a story... It's one of the things I think about a lot and debate in my head. I'm not sure what to think.

    I love the part about poems coming out of mud. So powerful.

  17. Gosh, wow. OK, here's a late at night answer from someone who may look like they're living the dream, but who is downstairs at 10:30 at night by themselves in the empty kitchen, listening to the barking geckos. Mike is fast asleep, absolutely conked out, and I'm so awake. Late at night. Alone. Pondering the sort of meaningful life that brings Mike home too tired to do anything more than walk down to the corner stall and buy chicken noodle soup for dinner.

    I know my life can look to others like the very prototype for what Miller's talking about, but this book still really challenged me. And comforted me, too. But, challenged first. Tonight, anyway, I think it primarily challenged me in my attitude. Even doing things that look like they're big stories (e.g., going to Kenya to teach stress management workshops, slogging through the heat to walk to a village in Laos) it's so easy to get into the habit of not really caring about what you're doing in the moment, or wishing it away. In an earlier comment Heidi talks about not equating adventure with meaning, and I think that's a really good point. I think it's easy to live adventure. And adventure may be good raw material for meaning, but it doesn't always quite make it there. And, perhaps, if you have too much adventure you actually get less meaning out of the whole thing because you're too busy rushing around having adventure.

    But parts of the book comforted me too - the part later about being in the middle of the Lake. And what you said about rarely feeling like you're in the middle of an epic in the making. OK, i could go on. But that's enough for one gecko serenaded session, and I'm jumping ahead in the book anyway. Until next time.

    PS. Your book recs post today made me very sad that I'm out of the reach of Amazon at the moment. Boo.

  18. What elements of life need to be present for it to have meaning? I guess that's what I wonder about the most. Adventure is great, but I know what you mean, Lisa, when you say that sometimes you get less meaning out of life that way because you're too busy rushing around having an adventure. But then again, could that just be due to what Nicole mentioned? That we never realize the epic moments until later? Last year I was traveling through Europe with two friends, and now, looking back on it, the moments that have the most meaning are not the ones that I would have thought at the time. Again, depends what Miller means when he refers to "meaning."

    My thoughts are a little scattered right now, sorry.

    Monica, you mentioned that you couldn't get your hands on a copy of the book yet. Neither could I, but Google Books has the first seven or so chapters online as a preview.

  19. I know that I am really late on this, and it's going to be even harder for me to keep up now that school has started. What initially hooked me was the the anecdote about the Volvo, and I realized just how trivial my life was to me much less anyone else. I know that I'm still growing as, not only a human, but a Christian as well, but I tend to dwell on the things that I've done wrong. Whether it was getting into trouble, getting away with something bad that I did, making someone upset with me, etc. I rarely dwell on the good, and I think that's actually hurt me more than anything. This book has already helped me realize that life is a growing process, people make mistakes, and there are ways to get something meaningful out of your time on Earth.

  20. I'm way behind on my commenting but I have to chime in before we head on to new chapters...

    Heidi, I think you bring up such an important point: there's a difference between living a life of meaning and a life full of adventure. One of the most meaningful things I can do is sit with my 89 year old grandmother and listen to her spin stories about her childhood, her mothering years, and her current escapades. Is sitting in her plush living room adventurous? Hardly. But I feel richer somehow, even closer to God, just by being in her presence. And, of course, my baby references are getting old, but there is nothing quite so mysterious and eternal as holding your infant child in your arms. Though I suppose labor and delivery could be called an adventure... Though I might choke the person who calls it that. ;)

    Lisa, I love what you said... "it's so easy to get into the habit of not really caring about what you're doing in the moment." Unfortunately that's true about anything in life--even the not so adventurous stuff. And I can't help thinking that it's an insult to God (and a disservice to ourselves) when we take for granted the moments that we've been given. Every once in a while I think I truly grasp how fleeting this life really is and I get sick, almost physically sick at the thought that I'm letting it pass me by... Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the horrible thought that I haven't even kissed my husband that day. I bury my face in his back and hold him as he sleeps because I'm so angry that I let a day go by without loving him the way I should. Crazy, eh?

    Lauren, thanks for joining the conversation in spite of your hectic schedule! I'm glad the book is meaningful for you. Life is a growing process... Amen. :)