On the evening of Wednesday, February 21, 2018, I asked my brother, Andrew Beal, to ask me questions over the phone about my writing and my life for this page. He had just finished a hard day’s work on a construction site, won his rounds of Texas Hold ’Em poker at the small cash tables at a Los Angeles casino, and was about to eat a chicken sandwich. I was at home, sitting in my living room with my beloved miniature dachshund Joyful nestled by my side, having returned recently from a fiction reading. Earlier in the day, I had taught about the life of Joseph in Genesis in my “Literature of the Bible” course and about the thirteenth-century, Old French Roman de Silence in my early English literature survey course at the University of La Verne.
Inspiration and Writing
Q: So what inspired you to become a writer?
A: When I was six years old, my first-grade teacher taught my class a little bit about haiku. I wrote one and then pasted my paper with my verses on brown and orange construction paper. Later I saw that my teacher hung up my poem with other poems on the cabinet doors at the back of the classroom.
Old tree, sleepy tree
sleepy in the older ground –
branches up, roots down!
So that was special. Another time, I wrote a poem for our mom for Mother’s Day in a Sunday school class. When I was a bit older, I found a book of poems our dad and our aunt Cheryl had written together as teenagers. That was inspiring. By the time I was eleven, I was writing constantly – poetry, letters, journal entries, a young adult fantasy novel. I knew I wanted to be a poet and a writer.
Q: What are qualities from your favorite writers that you emulate and that enhance your writing? Why do you like those qualities?
Clarity and audience awareness – or maybe editor awareness! Editors choose what to publish from writers. It’s important to know what they expect and write and edit accordingly. Even this week, I realized I misunderstood what a group of editors wanted, and I am busy revising.
Q: If you could spend the day with a writer who is no longer with us, who would it be and why?
Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series – he died in 1986. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read his series, but I often read it when I’m sick. I love the way he shifts between the perspectives of multiple characters and gives us so much insight into the way their minds work. He also works with complex religious, ecological, and political ideas. He’s a science fiction writer who understands cultural anthropology. I greatly admire him. I admire how he worked with memory, trauma, and prophecy in his novels.
Q: What music and musicians inspire you to write?
You do, Andrew! You are without a doubt the single most influential musician in my life. Our collaborations on “The Jazz Bird” were phenomenal, and I love the songs we made. I’m really glad that your son, my nephew, Elijah, has listened to those songs since before he was born. We finished the project before he was born – before he was conceived, in fact – and we didn’t know that he would be part of our audience! But I do feel in retrospect like we made it for him.
I didn’t know when we made “The Jazz Bird” that I would take the sound files with me to Uganda and be able to give them to an Acholi midwife, my friend Laker Christine. She listens to them on her phone, out in rural northern Uganda, at a birth center. You just never know where music can travel. Or poetry!
I also like Sting. I really think his music is beautiful and his lyrics are literary.
Journey and Memory
Q: Where have you traveled to? What were your favorite traveling experiences?
O wow! This is kind of a big question. I started traveling along the west coast of the United States when I was little, between California and Oregon and Washington, with our parents to see extended family. I always wanted to travel because I had imagined faraway places from my childhood reading, but there was no money for it. I did get to go on a missions trip to Mexico when I was fourteen. That was a very formative experience.
When I got to graduate school, I figured out how to apply to academic conferences and get grants from my university so I could go places. It was great! The first place I went was Hawaii for the Medieval Association of the Pacific (MAP) meeting. Then I went to Alaska for a friend’s wedding. I started my almost annual trips to Kalamazoo, Michigan to attend the International Congress on Medieval Studies at this time. Then I went to England and Europe one summer, and I went back next year. That was absolutely fabulous.
Paris took the cake, which I never expected. Looking back, I guess I was kind of a snob about Paris – didn’t want to be the cliché American girl in Paris! I only went by accident when my plans changed. Glad I did! Loved it. I loved Paris. It was helpful that I could speak and understand French. Paris is my favorite European city.
While I was in grad school, I lived half a year in Virginia and worked in Washington, D.C.. I visited New York after 9/11. I went to Ghana, West Africa for my friend Kate’s wedding one year and then, a few years later, I went back with her following the birth of her twin daughters, my goddaughters. Going to Africa was a very big deal for me, especially the first time!
After grad school, I moved from California to Illinois, where I lived for seven years just outside Chicago, my favorite American city. From there, I traveled to British Columbia in Canada for a conference and around the States for job interviews. I also went on my “medieval pilgrimage”: started in Rome (Italy), on my way back from Moldova, where I was doing work in the prevention of human trafficking for Wheaton College; then went to Jerusalem (Israel) the next year, after coming back from my third trip to Ghana, where I was doing more work to intervene in situations of human trafficking; and finally visited Santiago de Compostela (Spain) the year after that. Amazing. I wrote a series of poems about the experience, published in New Crops from Old Fields.
Later on, I lived in Colorado and taught at Colorado Christian University near Denver. One Thanskgiving, while I was living in Colorado, I visited our sister Alice in Costa Rica when she was there with YWAM (Youth with a Mission). I went there to visit her, but I also got to go zip lining for the first (and only!) time. In the St. Helena Cloud Rainforest, I saw a great diversity of hummingbirds that brought me to tears because they were so beautiful.
After Colorado, I went to Uganda to serve as a midwife to the Acholi people. That was an extraordinary experience – some of the greatest highlights of my life happened while I was there. I later went to the Philippines, where I also served as a midwife. The babies and mothers and families there were very dear to my heart because we have Filipino family. (Big smile!)
I moved back to California and lived in Davis again for a couple of years before relocating to La Verne here in the Los Angeles area. So I guess you can kind of follow the adventure of my life through all of these travels!
Q: Where would you travel to next? Why?
For some time now I’ve wanted to take a cruise in the Mediterranean in order to see Greece and the islands that were influenced both by the Apostle Paul and, of course, by the religious and mythological beliefs of the ancient Greeks. The Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian literary traditions have profoundly shaped my interest in the Middle Ages, its literatures and its cultures.
I also want to go back to Central America. I really want to serve as a midwife there as I have in Africa and southeast Asia. I’ve actually had a dream-vision about it. So I’m waiting for the Lord to show me the right time and give me a good opportunity.
But most likely I will be going to England again next. There’s a conference in Leeds where I’ve been invited to present a paper. While I’m there, I hope to have a good day or two in London, go to Oxford University, maybe visit the Lake District. I’ve been teaching the poetry of the Lake District this past year. I might also like to go up to Yorkshire. You just showed me that website that traces our last name to northern England! I know we’re mostly Irish, but it would be interesting to see the York Minster and sort of look around the places where our ancestors might’ve lived.
Q: In your travels, who were the most memorable people that you met? Please describe them. Why were they so significant?
Hands down, the most memorable people I’ve met internationally were the midwives in Uganda. They were my dear friends, especially Lanyero Karamela, Laker Christine, and my dear midwife-friend from New York, Kate Prendergast.
These women were so significant because we delivered babies together! We actually helped save lives together, stopping hemorrhages and giving good prenatal care and reviving little babies. I love my midwife-sisters for their sacrifices. Going through so many things together with them made for tremendous friendships.
Q: If you could meet anyone tomorrow, who would it be?
My husband! Or Jesus. It’s a tie. (laughter)
Learning and Knowledge
Q: In all your studies and research, what have you learned that has proven most valuable to making decisions?
Keep on asking questions until you learn what you need to know to make wise decisions.
Q: If you could teach one thing to everyone, and know that they learned it, what would it be and why?
Listen. Listening is how you learn.
Q: How do you relate to the words “knowledge,” “understanding,” and “experience”?
When I was a little girl, our mom wrote out a verse in calligraphy and put it right next to my bed, on the wall where I would see it when I turned my head to the right. It was at my eye-level. It said, “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.” From Proverbs. Whenever I think of the word “knowledge,” I think of that verse.
The Proverbs also say “get wisdom” and “get understanding” – even if it costs you all that you have. So I’ve always felt like those verses basically endorse investing all of my resources in a good education, in continuing to learn. Of course, it’s possible to get an education and not get wisdom. But that’s not the point of a real, true, good education. If you’re ever getting “educated” without getting wiser, move on.
Experience? Sometimes I still feel naïve.
Q: What experience in your life changed your way of thinking the most? Give an example of a time when you discovered there was an alternate way of approaching the situation or many better ways to approach it.
As a young adult, it was loving someone who used to believe in God but lost faith. Later on, when my friends were becoming mothers, it was the experience of trying to help a woman before and after she had an abortion. As a midwife, after every birth, I think about what I could do to make things better for the mother and baby– especially if there’ve been any complications.
Fear and Glory
Q: What was one of the most frightening experiences you had as a midwife? How did you respond to the fear?
Any time the life of a mother or baby is at risk, there is a certain amount of fear involved. In Uganda, I remember when a teenager had a long labor and then gave birth to a blue, floppy baby who wasn’t breathing. Another nurse midwife and I had to do neonatal resuscitation on the baby to bring her around. She did come around, thank God! In that case, I relied on my training and what I had learned to press through my fear to help the baby breathe.
Afterward, the mother and I talked about what to name the baby – because Acholi women ask their native midwives to give names to their babies, actually. This was such a big responsibility for me! So to follow the cultural practice as expected, I would pray and ask God for a name, then suggest the name to the mother and ask her what she thought of it. In this case, we chose to name the baby girl “Stacey,” from Anastasia, which means resurrection.
That’s also the name of my dear friend, Stacey, whom I’ve known since I was five years old! (Another big smile!)
Q: On the bright side, what was the most glorious moment that you have had as a midwife?
Honestly, there are too many to count! But a very special birth happened one Christmas night. I had a wonderful Christmas day, and then a mother called me in labor. I drove to her house in Sacramento from the Bay Area. About a minute after I got there, she felt like pushing, and about five minutes later, she had the baby! She wasn’t even planning on having a home birth. We all thought she was going to have a waterbirth at the hospital. But you never know what is going to happen with babies. They come faster than you expect sometimes. A Christmas baby is very special. That little baby is very special.
Q: When were you most compelled to pray? What was the circumstance? What was happening?
Well, honestly there was this time in graduate school when I had very little money, and my friend Kate came from Ghana, West Africa to stay with me. She was pregnant and planning to have a baby. I had some roommates, but several of them decided to move out. Unexpectedly. I didn’t know how we were going to pay the rent.
I remember getting down on the ground and laying on my face before God and praying for him to provide. I felt so much responsibility because of the baby that was coming. I know that God heard my prayer because he did provide. It was very easy for him. The first month the landlords reduced the rent for us, and the next month we had new roommates! When the baby was born, everything worked out well, and the new roommates were very blessed and happy to be around the new baby, my beloved godchild – who has my first name as one of her middle names.
That experience increased my faith in God.
The Shape of Your Heart
Q: As each decade of your life goes by – from age 0 to 10 and 10 to 20, from 20 to 30 and 30 to 40 – how has your heart been shaped?
Well, this is a really well-phrased question, Andrew. Because I think that God is the heart-shaper. He has shaped my heart over time.
I think when I was really young, he put a desire inside of me to seek him and know him and have experiences of intimacy with him through reading the Bible and worshiping. I accepted Jesus when I was five years old, I was baptized in the Spirit when I was eight years old, and I was baptized in water when I was ten. And I prayed a lot, even when I was just a kid.
I think the Lord gave me some experiences of hardship and suffering that made it impossible for me to oversimplify the journey of faith for myself or for others. Through a lot of healing, he showed me his power to redeem – to turn things around that were evil, even though he never wanted the evil to happen, and bring good out of it. Only God can do that. Only God can do that. Nothing is impossible with God.
I think as I have grown older, I’ve gained a greater and greater desire to serve others in ways that make a big difference in their life, whether that’s in childbirth or in education. I want to help people with their spiritually formative moments. I want to serve them. I know I didn’t always want to be a servant, but now I think of about most everything that I do that has a purpose as an act of service. I often think about how Jesus said that the one who would be the greatest among you must be the servant of all. Martin Luther King, Jr. kind of paraphrased that idea when he said, “Anyone can be great because anyone can serve.”
Q: What quality do find to be most essential in a friendship? And why?
Love. Love is the most essential quality in friendship. Love enables people to forgive each other. Love makes them want to understand each other. Love works against our fallen nature and our selfishness. It works for us so that we can truly care for each other, over time, in a complex world that has so much suffering and pain. A friend who truly loves is wonderful!
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next season of your life?
I have a really bad habit of trying to predict where my life is going. I almost always have one idea in January, after looking over the past year and sitting down to imagine the next year, especially because of the way I make my New Year’s resolutions. But the next year, when I look back and read what I wrote in that reflective time at the turn of the year, I always find I am totally, totally in a new place that I never expected. That’s because you never know what God is going to do unless he reveals it to you.
There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “No one knows where the wind is coming from or where it is going. So it is with all who are born of the Spirit.” That’s how my life is. I really think that’s how my life is!
So even though I don’t know where I will be in the next season of my life, I will trust God wherever I am.