On the coldest day of the year, the temperature struggling to maintain a high of negative digits, the mail coming in like paper ice chunks at lunchtime, the fuzzy blanket wrapped around my shivering knees, the two younger brothers turn the living room fan on high.
"It's not too cold, is it?" Joshua asks.
I glance up from penciling notes in the margins of C.S. Lewis's book and say no, of course not. They turn the fan on high to make a tornado for their paper airplanes, leftovers of a homeschool physics experiment. They provide the appropriate crashing and zooming sounds while tossing up mangled paper crushed into plane shapes. Every crash landing evokes a scream, every glide prompts shrieking cheers.
I ran upstairs to write this down not because I couldn't handle the living room fan blasting cold air in the already cold living room on the coldest day of the year. I wrote it down because it reminds me of what I just read about in Surprised by Joy: homeliness.
Lewis had a friend, Arthur, who loved homeliness as much as Lewis loved Norse mythology and wild, strange, fantastic landscapes. He introduced Austen and Bronte to Lewis. The kitchen scenes, the schoolroom scenes -- those were his delight.
I used to write the next epic trilogy of adventures in another world that birthed fantastical creatures and heroes and apocalyptic final battles. (The downside is, of course, that I had to figure out such details as how long a girl would survive in a blizzard after falling into an underground sewer or the distance a normal horse could run before tiring out or how battles actually went down. By the way, how do battles with swords and arrows work? It always amazes me that the one side doesn't kill off just as many of their own comrades with all the crazy chopping and shooting. I mean, they can't all be great sword fighters and sharpshooters, right?) But I left that world of tiger-riding warrior women and a colony of tall, bearded men living in perpetual autumn in a heated lodge. And I started writing about, well, ordinary things. Not real life, because there's something equally real about fantasy as there is about blue collar workers. But the homely things. Husband and wife spats, and the trouble in finding true love at college, and gossip, and a teacher's hypocrisy. Ideas came to me no longer in rolling, epic storylines but in little scenes and bits of dialogue that demanded to be written down.
Even in my reading habits, I found more interest in novels set in the American South, close to home, with details I could read about in history books or Sears catalogs archived online. Lord of the Rings became laughable to me, its epicness fake. I liked seeing the Cratchits celebrate Christmas with a goose and a God bless us everyone, and Skeeter writing up about segregated toilets in the ladies' auxiliary newsletter, and Scout Finch drumming through the dog days of summer. The homely things.
Not the poetic attempts at making homely things seem epic, turning every normal thing into an interplay of light and stillness and hidden mystery that makes you view the stove as something other-worldly. Not vague, dreamy reminiscence. Not sentimentality, not "homeyness."
Homeliness. Hearty prose, witty anecdotes, the smallest details that open your eyes to the world as it really is in its bare, material existence that's far more spiritual than any allegory. The kind of writing that reminds you of the coffee stain that magically appears by the coffee pot every single morning in the same shape, or the kerfuffle over the church's bathroom tile color, or the long-lost, ratty-haired, snub-nosed kid you used to call your best friend many years ago. The stuff that makes you realize you're part of this world, that you're made up of peanut butter and homemade jam sandwiches, and Mom's good night lullabies, and stolen, gross first kisses from the pale boy next door that you never respected. The homeliness where the woods in the backyard is described more accurately by the skinned knee you got trying to climb a fallen tree in snow boots than by mystical, magical language borrowed from Narnia. The vivid, true facts -- not the romantic retelling of them.
Give me a grumpy-faced tiger cat who attacks your legs every time you walk past over a white horse of magnificent speed, a bunch of raw-nosed kids sledding down the driveway instead of an epic winter trek, boredom over climax, anecdotes of the first few summer dates over a tale of true love.
The stuff that makes the statement, "Truth is stranger than fiction" very true indeed.