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).

Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

Day 2: All the Good Feelings

This is day 2 of 31 Days in the Word.

road close-upI want the good feelings, all of them.

I want the romance of exhaustion melting away and eyes that drink in words that fly off the page and make perfect sense. I want epiphanies and whispers and nudges and the always sense of more.

From what I’ve heard, though, marriage isn’t like that all the time.

Lately, I’ve thought a lot about how I want to find God in the grit and routine of everyday life, not just in the detours and the journeys beyond. I don’t want to think of God as my own personal inciting incident, come to save me from the boring normal. Isn’t it just as likely that he’s coming down to join me in driving the same roads, eating the same foods, talking to the same people, sitting behind the same microphone where I say the same sorts of things?

This is hard for me because I love stories and I want my life to be one. I want to be the protagonist who lives on the tightrope of life and changes the world. I want movement.

I forget that books skip past the boring parts in the characters’ lives. I forget that the exciting people in history probably didn’t think they were that exciting. I forget that the grand narrative of the Kingdom took thousands of years to unfold, and is still unfolding.

I forget that it’s okay to be in the middle of something.

Don’t get me wrong, I think life is supposed to contain movement, plenty of it. Life is a story, we just have a warped sense of how that story should be paced. Sometimes, we discount subtle changes as nothing, and we think all of life should look like an end or a beginning instead of the middle it probably is. We forget to be and love right where we are. Sometimes moving looks a lot like standing still.

Sometimes reading the Bible feels a lot like standing still.

You want it to be grand and glorious and intimate, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe half the time you feel dry or tired or disconnected, and you wonder if you’re doing something wrong. Spending time with God shouldn’t be like this!

So you try to fix yourself and get yourself in the right frame of mind and emotion and get more sleep and listen to more worship music. You’re searching for the formula.

But the thing is, there isn’t a formula.

I want to find God in the grit and routine of everyday moments, not just in the ones that feel super-spiritual. I come to the Bible and to times of prayer with so many expectations. I want to let them go and just be who I am today, whether it’s tired or burdened or over-the-moon or sensitive or clever. If he is the God of the here as well as the God of the beyond, then he’s with me whether my eyelids are light or heavy; whether Isaiah’s prophecies resonate with me or seem a long, long way off; whether I’m lost in my own thoughts or God’s thoughts or no thoughts.

During these 31 days, I don’t want to simply summarize whatever Bible passages I read, or force myself to write devotionals about them. That isn’t the purpose of this series. The purpose is to read the Bible and engage with it in whatever ways seem natural for me. Maybe some days it will be specific and direct; maybe others it will be indirect and more about the-girl-who-is-reading rather than the-God-she-is-reading-about. That’s okay. I give myself permission to read about Jesus turning the water into wine and cleansing the temple and then write nothing about those events.

A final thought: Maybe there are emotional or physiological or external reasons why connecting with God seems harder or easier on a given day. Let’s bravely play the cards we find ourselves with today and be real. God can meet us, regardless.

Here Comes Spring?

I had known for a while that I preferred my England journal with the swirls and the pretty birds to the smaller red one, all neat and prim with the typed KJV Bible verses on each page and “Christian art gifts” stamped on the back. For the longest time, though, I thought it was mostly an aesthetic thing: The first journal does look so much better.

But it’s more than that.

I have five journals on my shelf, and each of the five tells a story that has nothing to do with its outward appearance.

Lizzie's five journalsThe first one, after all, is arguably the most beautiful of the three, with its velvety paneling and pink flowers and soft cursive. But its insides are the darkest, full of loneliness and false lights and never finding a way out. It’s my college journal. I wrote in it between 2006 and 2011, and it personifies everything I wish I could change about those years, that winter.

And then spring came in 2012. The second and third journals tell this story, of the awakening of hope. A dear friend gave me the first of the two as a going-away/Christmas present shortly before I left home for my Discipleship Training School (DTS) with YWAM. She lovingly wrote Bible verses on every other page, verses that felt warmer and closer than the staid printed ones on journal #5. (But more on that later.)

This is where it started, I think, as I look at them both … but especially at the second one, the one I picked up in Asia. It was the cheapest journal I could find, and it shows. But I think part of its bedraggled appearance has to do with the fact that I took it everywhere in all kinds of weather. In these journals, descriptions of memorable days and what the lectures were about and oh-isn’t-this-great lists gradually gave way to dialoguing with God in the deepest spiritual intimacy I had ever known. Even when I felt like I had to fight for it, I wrestled honestly through what I knew and what I felt and what I wasn’t sure about. I grew accustomed to going to God first and often — not just with the highest highs and lowest lows — and working through things with him. Even now, knowing how many questions I asked, I know there were plenty of answers too, plenty of epiphanies about him and myself and life.

Spring matured into a summer (journal #4) where the conversations continued as I returned to familiarity — but not to hopelessness! My favorite memories of those first months at home were of my prayer walks. I would talk with God about whatever was on my mind, and I reveled in the ways those walks increased the knowing, lightened my soul, and united my mind and heart in the most joyous of ways.

And then, somewhere along the way, I lost my way.

I miss spring and summer.

For most of this year, I’ve been floundering in autumn. In that fancy, soulless red journal that thinks it knows best. But that’s unkind. I can’t blame the journal for the season. As a matter of fact, I scarcely know this journal. My rate of journaling has noticeably decreased this year. I don’t want to say that how much or how little I write in these precious-or-distant books is a direct reflection of how I’m doing spiritually, but … that does seem to be the pattern.

In making the connection between my life and the seasons, I’m not saying that another winter is inevitable. Or am I? After all, people do go through seasons that, though not as evenly spaced out as the seasons of the year, involve ups and downs, ends and beginnings, and flat middles between all the extremes. Maybe another winter is inevitable, but it won’t be what last winter was. Or maybe what I’ve been calling “autumn” has actually been quite a mild winter, comparatively speaking, and spring is peeking out from behind ice-encrusted leaves and cumulonimbus clouds.

Icy leaf

It certainly feels like spring.

To be writing again feels like spring. To be stepping back into grace feels like spring. To be writing this blog post feels like spring.

I don’t know how I feel about God right now, or where we’re at, or what it will take to get back to a place of intimacy and trust. But I want that. I’m remembering what it was like before, even though it seems so long ago now, and I miss it.

But I can’t go back. This may be a new spring, but it isn’t and can’t be last year’s spring.

Bring me to a new place, and soften me for that bringing.

Sun shining in winter