When I’m reading a book, I often daydream about how I would teach it. If I were teaching Girl Meets God, I would make sure to read the chapter “Albermarle Pilgrimage” out loud. I would suggest my students pair up and read it interpretively because the trip Winner and her mother take in an attempt to locate Jan Karon is delightful and hilarious. It would be fun to watch one of my students be the mother, explaining to Lauren how impossible it is to locate Karon’s home while another student plays Winner jumping up and down screaming, “I know! I know! We can go on a drive and find her farm! It’ll be like a pilgrimage!” (262) We would discuss why this is so funny: the mother calmly explaining why this is a ridiculous idea while her graduate school daughter exuberantly ignores her; the use of explanation points (you can hear the screaming); the confession that Winner regresses when she’s at her mom’s.
I’d have my students make tour guide pamphlets of Albermarle County using only what they read from Winner’s chapter in order to show them how well she knows the area: They could draw pictures of Thomas Jefferson, William Faulkner, and maybe Rita Mae Brown’s “feline sleuth, ‘Sneaky Pie Brown.” (261) They could put an ad or coupon in the brochure for Toliver House, one of Winner’s mom’s favorite restaurants, or Spudnuts, “the locally famed establishment that makes doughnuts from potato flour.” (264) I would point out how Winner’s ability to bring the reader into the setting enhances the story. We are not just looking for Jan Karon with Winner and her mother. We are wondering about Grace Episcopal Church and it’s Blessing of Hounds service. We are looking out the window from the car at “the estate from which Benjamin Franklin’s grandson executed his short-lived Virginia medical career.” (265)
I’d point out that this story isn’t really about Jan Karon, rather, it’s about Winner and her mother. We’d talk about what we learn from the quick rhythm of the dialogue: the two are funny, and they riff off each other’s quirks. I’d point out Winner’s last sentences; that being with her mom driving through Albermarle County was what this trip was really about.
I’d give my students a writing assignment: write about a time you and a parent set out to do something, but reveal character through setting and dialogue so that the story ends up not really being about the thing you set out to do.
Finally, if I were teaching today, I’d tell them the story of the time I met Lauren Winner. It was at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. I was sitting in a lounge chair by the fireplace eating a chocolate chip cookie, and making doodles in the margins a piece of paper that listed the names of speakers and sessions for the day, when Winner sat down next to me. She sort of plopped down, actually, and looked my way because I was staring at her.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said back. And then I walked away to call my dad and tell him I just talked to Lauren Winner.
Nobody would ever know from looking at him or even talking to him that my dad is a Big Important Guy at a medical university in Chicago. I’m not even sure he knows this about himself. He is not charismatic. He’s not aggressive or loud. He’s slow to speak and has a quiet confidence that people assume is timidity and docility. But he is a Big Important Guy and you can’t just call him at work in the middle of the day and expect he’ll answer. He won’t. His secretary answers all his calls and rarely puts people through. Unless you are his daughter, a title I loved claiming when she answered.
“This is Callie,” I sort of whispered into the phone. I was outside, crouched behind some bushes. I must’ve thought I was relaying top-secret information.
When he answered, I shot up from behind the bushes like a groundhog, or mole, or one of those squirrely critters. “Dad!” I said breathlessly, and then realized I was standing and sank back down behind the bushes. Apparently none of those other writers and readers walking around Calvin College’s campus could know of the words that Lauren Winner and I exchanged.
“I just talked to Lauren Winner!”
“Ha! That’s great! What’d you talk about?”
“Nothing!” Admitting this did not squash my excitement at all. “She said, ‘hey,’ and then I said, ‘hey.”
“And then what happened?”
“I came out here and called you!”
We both laughed. I, at the ridiculousness of my non-anecdote, and probably my dad was laughing at that, too. But he knew my enthusiasm for Girl Meets God and he knew how much I wanted to write. I think he was laughing because he knew I was enjoying myself.
The tickets to the Festival were a Christmas present from him along with Frederick Buechner’s book, Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith. On the receipt for the tickets, he wrote, “Have fun listening to your friends.” He always called the writers I loved my friends, a joke, I knew, but I also think he understood that their stories became a part of, grew with, and changed me, as the best of friends can do.
“You should stop by the IMAGE table and see if they have information on their MFA program,” my dad suggested.
I told him OK but I’d never consider applying for an MFA.
I would call my dad three more times at work over the next eight years. Two of those phone calls would be to tell him that his granddaughters, first Hadley and then Harper, had been born. And one of them would be to tell him that I’d been accepted to Seattle Pacific University’s MFA program, where I’d be working with Lauren Winner.
“Maybe you’ll say more to her than, ‘hey,” he said, laughing.