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).

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark {a review & giveaway}

Me and the book

How do you know God is real?

Because you’ve felt him.

Until you don’t anymore.

Addie Zierman’s second book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, officially came into the world one week ago Tuesday. It arrived on my doorstep that night, and as I absorbed myself into it, I found myself within its pages. Like her first book, When We Were On Fire, it took me to familiar places, hard places, true places.

Like Addie’s debut, Night Driving is a memoir. This one chronicles a spontaneous road trip she took two winters ago with her two young boys, to escape the darkness of her even-colder-than-usual Minnesota home for Florida light … to escape the darkness and emptiness inside her to maybe, just maybe, find a Light she could take back with her.

The book flits between past and present, and I was carried along on interstates and into strangers’ homes. I was carried to beaches of yesteryear where fire lit the sky, lit the heart, and to beaches where the rain thundered down, where nothing was as simple as it used to be. Night Driving is achingly beautiful; Night Driving is achingly real.

It seems fitting to be writing about this book in the cold of a Colorado blizzard, in the darkness of Holy Week, in the sparseness of my own soul.

The morning after I finished the book, I found myself flipping back, a few chapters at first and then all the way to the beginning, filling three pages deep with quote after quote. I was going to share a few of my favorites, interspersed with reflections on why these particular words are meaningful to me … but then I realized that you don’t need my words right now, that what you need are Addie’s words, full stop. And so, here they are:

“In the dark kitchen, I feel as if my eyes are finally beginning to adjust. And I’d forgotten that this is how sight works. We move from someplace very bright to someplace very dark, and for several minutes it’s very hard to see. But then the pupil expands and the rod cells engage, and the whole eye is flooded with rhodopsin, and we can finally absorb photos, perceive light. I’d forgotten that we are made like this. We are equipped to see not only in the light … but also in the darkness. It just takes time to switch between the two.

And maybe this has all been nothing more than part of the natural process of things. I spent the formative years of my life, my faith, looking straight into the Light. It only makes sense that it would take my eyes a while to heal from that burning and to adjust to a world that so often is dark. But now I’m sitting at the kitchen table, blinking in the darkness, and God’s presence doesn’t feel at all like fog lights or romance or smoke or fire. It is as steady and commonplace as the wooden farm table between us, at the floor my feet brush against, the slant of the oven light barely illuminating the table. It’s almost pitch-black. I’ve never seen so clearly.”

Night Driving, pages 195-196

“I feel like I’ve spent the last several years twisting and turning the puzzle pieces of my faith, trying to get them to plug up that ‘God-shaped hole’ that is still throbbing like an abscess in my heart. But it never seems to go away – no matter how long I sit there, Bible in my lap, staring out the patio door of my kitchen, waiting. … ‘All sins are attempts to fill voids,’ Simone Weil said, and at some crucial point that I can’t actually remember, I figured out that burning down your own life felt strikingly similar to being on fire. That if I couldn’t shoot the gap via that bridge which is the empty cross, at least I could pour wine down into it. Such an easy shortcut. Such a simply fix to get tipsy on cheap cabernet and smile at some guy on some street and feel myself float to the top of that gaping, empty space in me – at least for a little while.”

Night Driving, pages 126-127

“It’s like this: Once upon a time, I learned that God came like light. I spent a long time, head against the window, peering into the darkness, praying for God to come like a spotlight, like a fire, like some wild laser show in the pitch-black sky. I learned to fear the darkness, and when it came, I struck myself against everything around me trying to make sparks.”

Night Driving, page 208

“I hadn’t understood, then, that love doesn’t always look like romance and faith doesn’t look like fire and light doesn’t always look like the sun – and that this matters.”

Night Driving, page 209

You can find out more Addie and her book at addiezierman.com, and you can find Night Driving on Amazon (or wherever you buy books).

Also, a GIVEAWAY! I have a copy of Night Driving that I’d like to give to one of you. If this book sounds like it’s for you, simply post a comment on this blog post, and you will be entered in the giveaway. On Easter Monday, I will randomly select one winner (so make sure you include your email address in your comment, so I can contact you if you win).

UPDATE: The giveaway has ended. Thank you to everyone who participated!

Packing Light (a book review)

Packing Light coverAfter reading her book, I feel like I know Ally Vesterfelt.

Even though I know she has a blog (and that I’ve been following said blog for months now) I was sad when the book-story ended, and I wanted to know more of what happened in her life between the end of book-story and now.

But this blog is for you as much as it’s for me, so I need to start at the beginning and say that this is a book review, of sorts, of Allison Vesterfelt’s first book, Packing Light, that came out 10 days ago. In a nutshell, the book tells the story of her 50-state road trip (yes, even to Alaska and Hawaii), and what she learned along the way.

At its core, Packing Light is a book about the things in life you need to leave behind. The rest of the title says it all: Thoughts on living life with less baggage. And she isn’t just talking about physical possessions, though that is a part of it, but the emotional baggage as well, the attitudes and relationships and all the assorted “stuff” we cling to that holds us back from being the people God created us to be. The person God created her to be.

I’d been looking forward to this book for months, and it didn’t disappoint. I loved going on this journey with Ally, almost forgetting it wasn’t a novel as I wondered what would happen next with this character or that conflict. But I never forgot it was a true story, not really. Not when I “know” Ally through her blog, and now know her better still through this book.

It’s easy to get drawn into her stories from the road — of the memorable moments, the people she met, the places she visited — but the heart of the book is the heart of Ally. Without mincing words, without painting the best possible picture of herself, she lets us see herself in all her fears, insecurities, and heartaches. She’s vulnerable. And so when she explains what she learned through a particular experience, you know these aren’t platitudes and “all the right answers,” but rather the hard-won gems of one who has sought and wrestled and shed many tears.

So many times I found myself nodding in agreement, marveling at her way of putting words together with such clarity and eloquence. I’m not well read in the travel memoir genre, but this one was deep, exploring topics such as whether or not to be a “Christian writer,” the people we leave behind, the rules that can misdirect us, learning to live the life we’ve always dreamed of, letting go of fear, and so much more.

Packing Light is fun and friendly, personal and thought provoking. It may be a quick read, but it has a lot to say. I highly recommend it.

****

Ally Vesterfelt

In addition to writing, Ally is also the managing editor of Prodigal Magazine. Check out Ally’s website at http://www.allisonvesterfelt.com, and read more about her book at http://packinglightbook.com

The License Plate Game

license plate mapThe License Plate Game (if that be its official title) is a legend of road trips, right up there with the Alphabet Game. At least it’s a legend on my road trips, as I try to catch definitive glimpses at the cars whizzing by in the opposite direction — or, if I’m lucky, at the ones  creeping past me in the left lane, slow enough for me to get a good, long look at their markings without endangering anyone’s life.

Years ago, I adapted the Alphabet Game for the dentist’s chair. Now, I’ve turned the License Plate Game into a month-long adventure. How many states, I wondered, would I see in 31 days while simply living my life in the town I grew up in?

Forty states and counting.

Granted, I did go on a weekend trip to Washington, and once I drove slowly around the Bethel Church parking lot, but still. I’m amazed at how many out-of-staters I see on a regular basis. Every day I see between five and ten different states represented on the backs of cars and trucks, and not just border states (well, obviously not just border states, as California only has three of those), but some from rather far-flung locations.

Here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve kept my eyes open: Adventure is all around me.

My one year of being back at home is stretching into two. The trees and mountains look the same, the streets and buildings look mostly the same. When you don’t expect much, you won’t see or seek out much. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know people who are new to my town and excited to be here, and it’s made a world of difference. There’s so much I didn’t know about this place and still don’t know. No, I will never be able to view my town through the fresh eyes of a newcomer, but I don’t have to view it as the place where dreams and adventures go to die. Because it’s not that place.

No place holds that power, unless you give that power to it.

I want my life — wherever I am — to be like a License Plate Game. I want to be straining and slowing to see if there might be a hidden opportunity at that event, a potential friend in that person, unwrapped joy in that stepping out and starting something. Maybe there won’t be. Maybe it will just be another California and I’ll purse my lips and turn back to the road. But I will keep going, and I will keep looking, because there are more cars. There’s always more. And anyway, there is a time and place for Californias, and Oregons, and Washingtons, and I can learn a lot from them.

But one day I’ll just be driving along, ever-watchful and ever-present and ever-hopeful, and New York will appear and my heart will beat faster and I’ll realize that this, this is what life is about. Life doesn’t just happen out there on the road on set adventures. Life happens here. It’s full of routines and it’s full of familiarity, but it’s also full of surprises and newness and unexpected blessings. It’s full of people and its full of God, and that’s enough.

Wherever you’re doing life can be a place of adventure, if you let it.