Dear Adventures in Odyssey: I Love You, But It’s Complicated

“Did you know that Lizzie used to work for Focus on the Family?” he said, she said, with a gleam in their eyes.

It’s not a secret, my internship from last decade, but it doesn’t come up often. When it does, though, it’s a conversation starter, a newsworthy item for my friends to pass along. I don’t fit their picture of someone who once worked there, you see.

Even at the time, I didn’t really think of myself as working for Focus on the Family (FOTF). I was there for Adventures in Odyssey; nothing else at the organization held much appeal.

With the Odyssey crew
With the Odyssey crew at the end of my internship (2009).

Adventures in Odyssey (AIO or Odyssey for short), Focus on the Family’s seminal children’s radio drama, turns 30 this year – today, in fact. On this day in 1987, a 25-minute episode aired about a boy named Davey who feels like a failure until kindly shop owner John Avery Whittaker (“Whit”) helps him realize his worth as they invent something that goes wrong before it goes right. The story, set in the small, Midwestern town of Odyssey, is bookended by a skit with the show’s host, Chris, who tells a story about Abraham Lincoln to reinforce the theme. “Whit’s Flop,” that very first episode, aired one year and four days before I was born, and all my life the show and I have been moving in tandem toward our own milestones.

Can I say I like Odyssey but not Focus on the Family, as I would say I like Jesus but not Christianity?

No, I didn’t think so.

It’s a poor comparison anyway. Odyssey was birthed from Focus on the Family and, like it or not, is a product of its parent organization. Jesus, however, wasn’t always entangled in Christianity, especially not Christianity as we know it today. But that’s another topic for another time.

I do know that I’m not the only one who has been able to partition the two, approving the one and rejecting or ignoring the other. A college roommate was vocal about her dislike for Focus on the Family, but made an exception for AIO.

Even when I was jumping at the chance to be an intern for my beloved radio drama, back in the day when I believed what everyone I knew growing up believed, I was still taken aback by the interview question asking “what my opinions were on the five major issues most important to Focus on the Family.” I bumbled through the answers I knew they expected of me, without much thought as to whether they were really my answers.

Lately, it’s gotten harder to separate the AIO from the FOTF. But once upon a time, it was just Odyssey tapes, Odyssey at 4:30 on the radio, Odyssey before bed and on car rides, and, later, Odyssey on message boards and at events. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From its earliest days, Adventures in Odyssey has employed some of the best and most versatile voice actors in the business. This is not hyperbole. The show’s main actors include (or have included) Hal Smith from the Andy Griffith Show, who also lent his voice to Beauty and the Beast and An American Tale; Alan Young, best known as Wilbur in Mister Ed and as Disney’s Scrooge McDuck; Will Ryan, featured on The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin; Katie Leigh of Totally Spies; Chris Anthony, the former voice of Barbie; and Jess Harnell with his hundreds of film credits, including Wakko Warner in Animaniacs. These actors and many others have or had extensive careers, spanning decades, and it still chokes me up how many of these people have passed away since I first “visited” Odyssey. I have met many of the actors as an adult, but I was too late for some of them.

Me and Will Ryan
Meeting Will Ryan, voice of Eugene Meltsner (and writer Paul McCusker, in the background), at the 20th anniversary live show (2008).
Me and Katie Leigh
Spending time with Katie Leigh, voice of Connie Kendall, when she came to speak at my college (2011). Photo by Cara Strickland.

I once joined a Facebook group that probably doesn’t exist anymore, about how “Adventures in Odyssey was the soundtrack of my childhood.” I didn’t grow up with Saturday morning cartoons or Boy Meets World or whatever else my peers were watching in the ‘90s. Odyssey was a cozy backdrop to my life, but it was just a backdrop in many ways, piping from the tape deck on the dining room windowsill while I would color and make lists and watch fat squirrels eat birdseed from the feeder in the backyard, filling my long-term memory and stealing my heart.

Later, I would discover Odyssey’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat, I would get up early on Saturdays to catch the new shows, I would pull out my old cassettes with stronger feelings, I would catch the pop culture references that had once eluded me. Still later, on the verge of college and the verge of leaving Odyssey behind me, I found a fan message board, and everything dormant and untapped in me found its home and sprang to life.

AIO live show
At the 20th anniversary live show (2008). Pictured from left to right (on the stage): Chuck Bolte, Will Ryan, Katie Leigh, Dave Madden, and Jess Harnell.

In 2008, my first visit to Colorado for the 20th anniversary live show became one of the best weekends of my life. I met the actors, the writers, and fellow fans, many of whom I’m still in touch with. In 2009, I spent my summer interning for Odyssey and administrating the above-mentioned message board, and then returned to college and promptly started a club for fellow fans. We made video reenactments and went on a road trip to Colorado and even brought one of the main actors to our Indiana campus to speak in chapel.

This was the zenith of my love for the show, and my nostalgia for that time of my life is matched only by my nostalgia for the show itself.

I was never on fire for Jesus, not really, but I was on fire for Adventures in Odyssey.

Life seems a simpler place when you know what you love and you have ways of expressing that love.

I wouldn’t go by “Lizzie” now if it weren’t for the show, and I might not be living in Colorado. I might not have changed my major to media communication or worked in radio or spent three months in China or done a whole host of other things. Adventures in Odyssey helped me keep my head above water in times of deep depression. It brought about friendships that never would’ve formed otherwise, leadership roles I never would’ve accepted. Directly and indirectly, I have Odyssey to thank for so much joy in my young adult life. I will never forget this. To me, Adventures in Odyssey is much more than the sum of its dialogue.

Adventures in Odyssey Club party
The Adventures in Odyssey Club at our first Christmas party (2009).
Club with AIO showrunners
The AIO Club meeting showrunners Dave Arnold and Paul McCusker (2011).

And it was a dream come true to meet the people behind the voices and the people who wrote and directed and made magic with sound, to work with them in some cases, to go behind the scenes, to know and be known. They are lovely people, thoughtful and professional and funny.

As for the episodes themselves, the writing quality ebbs and flows, as it does in any long-running production, but I’ve found a lot to appreciate: How to craft a story arc, how to tell a story with sound, how to move forward when the actor who plays the main character dies suddenly.

I haven’t listened to any new episodes for a few years. This is partly because the aura of nostalgia is missing with the newer shows. Every semi-reboot has sawed off more of the glue binding my fate to the fate of the show, which I suppose is only natural when the child grows up but the show does not. I am also skeptical about any program’s ability to carry on indefinitely and still remain a high-quality production. The longer I listen, the more déjà vu I experience.

When I was younger, I hoped Odyssey would still be producing new episodes if and when I had kids. Now, if I ever have kids, I would want them to listen to some episodes but not others.

You see, I am not only out of the target age range, I am also out of the target ideology range. The segment of Christianity that AIO is a spokesperson for is one I am no longer a spokesperson for. I used to think Odyssey was good at avoiding denominational squabbles and sticking to the basics of the faith. However, because this show and its parent organization focus on conservative evangelicals and conservative evangelicals focus on them, it’s a narrow list of squabbles that are avoided, a narrow list of “basics” that are adhered to. Christianity has many different expressions, interpretations, and practices, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the show.

In this make-believe world, the conservative Christian worldview and its applications have no baggage, no side effects, and no viable alternatives. All the characters are so nice and well-meaning, their faith clean and tidy and straightforward. There are some episodes that show a cognizance of the things we do not know and that hold certainty loosely, but the farther I get from my “on fire” days, the fewer stories I see, past or present, that do a good job managing that tension. More often than not, it’s oversimplifications and assumptions, and even though I find it’s usually lines here and there that trouble me rather than whole storylines or episodes, those lines add up.

This is not an “open letter” or a rant. I am not going line by line through episodes to point out everything that makes me cringe now. I know everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Odyssey has gotten better over the years at portraying more diverse characters, more diverse families, but I still see room for improvement.

I have deeper problems with Focus on the Family as a whole, of the choices they make politically and the ways they choose to engage culture and the world. Their pictures of the ideal world or family or culture are not my pictures. When I listen to AIO now, I notice things I didn’t notice before.

Sometimes, though, I am noticing good things. I recognize how a three-part mystery from the mid-90s is all about championing differently-abled people. I am moved by unflinching stories about the Underground Railroad and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I appreciate the nuanced handling of subjects such as forgiveness, doubt, and grief. I go on everyday adventures with the characters as they take vacations and learn how to drive and fall in love. I go on extraordinary adventures with them as they solve decades-old mysteries and foil the bad guys who want to take over the world. And the best of the Bible story adaptations capture a glimmer of why Jesus is so appealing to so many people.

I can’t help it. I will always love Adventures in Odyssey, even when I have trouble liking it. Whit and Connie and Eugene, Tom and Bernard, Jack and Jason, Jimmy and Donna and George and Mary, they all feel like real people, real friends and family members, even when they fight, or maybe especially when they fight. I’ve seen the same warmth and camaraderie in the recording studios as I see in what comes out of those studios, that sense of connection that we all long for, and this is perhaps the epicenter of my nostalgia.

I would like to think that if these characters became living and breathing people, they would not fall prey to the us-versus-them polarization rampant in our country today. I would like to think that I could have a conversation with Whit or Jack, that, despite our differences, we could sit down over milkshakes for a heart-to-heart, and they would really listen, and by understanding more of the Other with our heads and our hearts, we could change the world a little at a time.

Happy birthday, Adventures in Odyssey.

 

All my Odyssey possessions
Posing with all of my Adventures in Odyssey gear for a contest (2008).

Gratitude & Asia & Colorado

Asia group
Some of my Asia people (Photo by Gonzalo Santillan, 2012).

I once lived in Asia. I remember the night we arrived, how we all trooped into the first apartment at midnight, how we took in every bright and dusty and unusual detail. How we had a few names and phone numbers, but we didn’t know anyone, not really, and we didn’t know this city.

Three months later, we didn’t just have our favorite restaurants and transportation success stories and the ability to navigate any dish with a pair of chopsticks; we also had friends. We wrote down the names of these people, the ones we spent time with in living rooms and cafeterias and zoos, the people we ate chicken feet and watermelon and birds-on-a-stick with, the people we invited over and out, the people who understood a little of what we said and those who understood a lot. We filled three sheets of paper with their names. We had them, and we had each other.

So much can happen between spring and summer.

So much can happen between one winter and the next.

I now live in Colorado. I remember the day I arrived, driving all the way up that narrow street and then tiptoeing around the patches of ice, how I lay on the floor and stared at the wood paneling of my ceiling. How I had a few names and phone numbers, but I didn’t know anyone, not really, and I didn’t know this city.

I think I will remember this first year in Colorado as I remember those three months in Asia, as a time bursting with color.

Not that there weren’t blue-tinged weeks. Not that there weren’t red-faced days and wet-faced days. But there were also more names than I expected. I wrote down the names of these people, the ones I have spent time with in living rooms and coffee shops and on city streets, the people I prayed with and played games with and had hours-long conversations with. The people I saw, and who saw me.

Even though I am so very much a work in progress, even though there are a thousand ways I can and have attached narratives of separation and disconnection to my interactions with other humans, I am grateful when my stubborn eyes are clear enough to see the good as well as the bad.

For those of you who made room for others this year, who decided that your lives weren’t too full to admit another, who were generous with your smiles and invitations and hearts: Thank you!

And for those of you who have been searching for your people, for a place at the table, for someone who will listen: Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. There are more of us out there than you know. Maybe we will find each other.

Some of my Colorado people
Some of my Colorado people (2015).

Of Magic and Memory

Trains

Six months ago, she hugged her family goodbye, and the page turned as they went upstairs and she stayed downstairs.

The night before, the first night, she lay on the blue-and-white rug looking up at the ceiling, knees pulled to her chest. She won’t remember most of her thoughts from those early days, but she’ll remember these:

There are so many memories waiting to happen in this little house, in this big city. I know there will be days when I’m lying on the floor looking at the ceiling and I won’t be able to stop laughing. Other days, that view will be blurry with tears. Now, though, everything’s a blank slate. Anything could happen!

That slate is full of colors now, some sparkling and some dull, and when she has eyes to see, they blink back at her from every surface she passes.

In some of these new memories, there is déjà vu: Riding the bus again, but this time without Mandarin coming out of the PA system. Running again, but in parks and on trails and along city streets, not around and around a sleepy Midwestern school.

She counts the cyclists who fly past, she pulls yet another book out of her backpack, she walks in the rain and in the night. And on some of those nights, she sprawls into the welcoming grass outside the house, hair sweaty and soul at peace and stars twinkling.

Oh the joy of solitude. Oh the pain of solitude.

She’s seen whole weeks swallowed up in loneliness, in which the darkest rooms have been the most crowded ones. She’s longed to link arms with people, but has often recoiled in fear, scratching out spaces just big enough for one and crawling into them.

That sort of darkness, though, is fading into dawn. Her box of treasures is filling, filling, filling with the gems found in moments and evenings, found in people: That time she stopped to pick up tickets and stayed for four hours; that night walking almost aimlessly through downtown Denver after the game; the many times of sitting around dining room tables and coffee shop tables and restaurant tables. In short, those moments of truly seeing and being seen, of freedom and flung-open doors and hands that reach back.

But how do you know when you’ve woven your story too deeply into someone else’s? When you don’t know what your purpose is apart from them?

Nine hours in the office Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Three days of structure and spontaneity, static and movement, but all with an undercurrent of restlessness.

In the quest to uncover the truest, oldest imprints in the clay of herself, she keeps coming back to three words. Sometimes they seem to drip with magic; sometimes they seem like just words:

Write. Speak. Teach.

And behind those, behind everything, beats the most mysterious, frustrating, and confusing word of all … but the word that just might hold the deepest magic:

Jesus.

When You Say Goodbye

You hold out your autograph book, the one with the multicolored pages and the dinosaur cover, the one you got when you were a child. You hold it out with pride, not embarrassment, for the decade and a half of memories it carries — of names and notes, of crossed-out words and hard-to-read cursive. You’ve taken this book overseas twice, and you safeguard it in ever-increasing ways after each pen or pencil addition.

*****

More than twenty people come to your goodbye party. You and your family aren’t used to hosting parties, so you call it an informal open house. But you’re still nervous and rushing around as the first few guests trickle in. Not everything’s ready, but you quickly relax and realize that that’s okay. Even though Christmas was two days ago and you live half an hour outside of town, people still come.

Larry and Dona bring Ozzie, the border collie/Australian shepherd mix that leaped and licked and chased his way into your heart last year. You rush outside and crouch next to him in your dress. He remembers you.

You are not an extrovert, but you feel like one today. You spend the afternoon playing Taboo with teenagers and twentysomethings, parents and grandparents, jumping up occasionally to hug someone hello or goodbye, or to mingle with those who are still here.

You’re tired later, but in the best possible way.

*****

You don’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas, so you wait until the 26th to start saying goodbye to your radio listeners. Or at least that’s when those comments go out over the airwaves. Because of the gap between the recording and the airing, you don’t hear from listeners until after your last day of work.

Before that, though, before the questions and best wishes and Bible verses from people you don’t know, you have to come to terms with leaving. It was your own choice, and you know it’s right, but that doesn’t make it easy. You were invited in, once, and now friendliness has turned into love, and the force of it staggers you and sweetens everything in that old building.

When the time comes to record your final voice tracks, you feel it, and anyone listening will probably be able to hear it. That’s okay. You don’t feign emotion for radio, but when it’s there, you don’t try to stifle it. You are as real as you can be. You’ve read whole books of the Bible over the last year and a half, and now instinct causes you to reach one last time for the passages you hold most dear. As the last song in the last hour comes to an end, you say goodbye, you read Philippians 2:1-11, and even though you are in a room by yourself, you feel the pain of parting.

You are so glad you’re still in town for the 45th anniversary open house. Some people know by now; others find out partway through their tour of the station. You meet people, you hug them, you explain as best you can (though it sounds feeble to your own ears) why you’re leaving. You eat cake and drink sparkling cider, and then, before year 46 can begin, you’ve gone.

*****

You know you will always treasure the memory of this Sunday morning, the day of the youth group Christmas party but separate from it. They are sitting down in a circle, and there you are, on the inside of the circle holding your journal and a bundle of cards. You are uncharacteristically nervous as you stand in front of these teens and preteens and adults you love so much. You’re tempted to take the easy route and simply hand out the cards with a smile, but you know, you know, that you will always regret it if you miss this chance to speak truth and beauty from your vantage point of two years … to speak publicly these words you believe, these words of hope. So you slowly move around the circle, looking into their eyes and delivering love the best way you know how.

And then everyone takes a gel pen and it becomes an exchange of encouragements. Here are the picture frames all holding fancy paper, one for every person, and look at the beautiful calligraphy printed at the top of each one! Yours says Lizzie. The room is quiet now, frames dancing from table to laps until their contents are covered in words and color.

Your idea was just for words and simple paper; Luba brought the elegance, the lettering, the frames with the glass. You are so grateful for her. You have so many wonderful words hidden away in boxes and folders and books, but to have words you can prop up on a table, a shelf, a dresser — oh the joy! That’s what you do with your frame, later, after holding it your heart and weeping.

Two weeks after the Day of Encouragements, it’s time for final goodbyes. You show pictures of your new house in Colorado and write your contact information on the white board. You have a few words to say, not as a leader, but as a friend. And so you read them clumsily, these words you wrote with tears but are saying without them. You repeat certain words, words like belong and friend and thank you. The tears will come again later, but there’s too much laughter in the room for that now.

As you hug them, you remember gift exchanges and Capture the Flag, Guardians of the Galaxy and the Star Wars marathon, the Super Bowl parties and Winter Camp 2014. You remember the conversations over ice creams and lunches, over drives from here to there and while sitting and standing all around the church. You remember sleepovers, desperate prayers, oh-so-much laughter, and sitting in front of the sanctuary baring your soul.

You’ve woven together your life with theirs over the last two years, and you’re so glad you did. Your life is richer because of them. You love them.

*****

This autograph book with the dinosaurs on it, it’s gone with you everywhere lately: to work, to church, to your own parties, carried in your purse just in case you see that one person or two who hasn’t written in it yet. Fourteen years ago, it was just a fun birthday present. Today, it’s a reminder of the people you love, many of whom you just left behind in the mountains and forests of northern California.

These last two weeks have been so rich and full, but most importantly, they’ve been reminder after reminder that all of the words and little moments and ordinary choices and all those daily battles have mattered, have built these edifices thick with meaning and friendship, have made it possible for such goodbyes as these.