On Being PennyBurnside Sells Out, Essays, Featured — By Penny Carothers on April 13, 2012 at 7:00 am
(Note: Penny Carothers is the Social Justice Editor here at Burnside Writers Collective.)
“Wow – you make me look like hot shit!”
This is the text message I sent to Don Miller, in 2007, after I read through the screenplay of the film adaptation of
his best-selling memoir, Blue Like Jazz. The screenwriters had created a character based on me, who Don was telling me was “the hero” of the film. Less than a minute later, his reply popped up on my phone.
“Pensive! You think I made you look like shit? I’m so sorry!!!! Not my intention!! Let’s talk!” (Don uses lots of exclamation marks in his texts.)
I called his same old number from back in the day (no, you can’t have it) and he picked up immediately.
“Pen-wah, how are you? Are you mad?”
“Of course I’m not mad, you dork. I said you made me look like HOT shit. Like, wow, I’m really awesome. I mean, I’m practically Mother Teresa.”
“Oh.” He laughed his same throaty laugh, his relief apparent. “I’m so glad.”
Tonight, five years on, Blue Like Jazz the movie is opening in theaters. And Hot Shit Penny is about to be viewed by a lot of people – which I am thrilled about. It’s a great movie, and I’m so proud of the people behind it. Above all, I feel incredibly honored that the screenwriters chose to put God’s concern for justice in a character named after me. But how I feel about the film is complex, mostly because of the further notoriety and the impression the film gives that I’m some kind of social justice superstar.
Here’s the thing: I’m really not hot shit. I’m ordinary. I had a lot of passion (and a lot of self-righteousness) when I
was twenty-one, but these days I’m a mom with two kids trying to figure out how to live a meaningful, generous life as a person of privilege — complicated by a mortgage and college savings accounts. I’m no Shane Claiborne, no matter how much I wish I could be. The answers aren’t easy anymore, and sometimes I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve sold out or just grown up.
There’s also the simple fact that I feel ambivalent being in the spotlight. I don’t quite know what to do with the notoriety, especially since I’ve not worked for it at all. I still haven’t gotten used to the “Oh, you’re the Penny?” look I get from time to time. I usually mumble something like, “I know, it’s weird, isn’t it?” and fumble with my hands. Even though I’m sure I would like whomever I am talking to, I find it difficult to be normal. I wonder if they’ll go home and tell their friends, and especially whether they want to talk to me only because I’m notorious by association. It brings back all the insecurities about friendship I’ve had since I was a kid. Once again I’m a little girl in a new school trying to make friends. Only, somehow, now I am the person people want to talk to…and that just feels strange.
When I saw the movie last week during the pre-release tour Don mentioned that I was in the audience and I just barely lifted my hand above my head to say hello to everyone. As I thought it over, I realized there is a certain pride in my reaction. Why can’t I be generous with my “Penny-ness?” Personally, I’ve always wanted to meet Sam Lamott, Anne Lamott’s adorable baby boy featured in her book, Operating Instructions. He’s a beloved character, but he’s also a person — and no longer a baby. All the same, wouldn’t it be cool if he embraced it and made all the Lamott fans happy by letting us get a glimpse of who he is (and he may well do so…I haven’t got the chance to meet him yet)? The fact is, I do enjoy knowing that people like me, or at least the paper and now film version of me. From time to time when I feel nervous about a big gathering I think, “If these people knew I was Penny from Blue Like Jazz they would think I am cool.” And I feel better. I have to ask myself: what does it hurt to acknowledge that God has a ridiculous sense of humor and enjoy it? And….what if by focusing on my own reaction I am missing what God is offering? What if we all have the chance to grab onto even the uncomfortable parts of the life we’ve been given and choose to enjoy the ride?
Over the last decade my reaction to being a part of the Blue Like Jazz phenomenon has gone to both extremes: from obsessively googling “Penny Blue Like Jazz” to hear if people like me or not to feeling grateful that God has used my story. I’m starting to land on the grateful bit now (finally…I’m almost half-way into my thirties) and I can’t help but feel awed to think that if Blue Like Jazz has sold 1.5 million copies, then at least 1.5 million people have read the words that God said to me in the dark of a French dorm room: “I have a better life for you, not only now, but forever.” I hope they know that these are words for them, too.
Now, the movie “Penny” sends a different message than the book: live your live and your faith for the least of these. This is the person I want to be. And so I’ve been wondering…what if we could capture the energy around the film to motivate people to embrace the kind of un-flashy, unglamorous work that justice is built on? What if we spent (at least some of) our resources not on flying to exotic locales to do justice work, but on the ground here at home? I know there are many people out there, like me, who yearn (at least theoretically) for a Simple Way faith, but find themselves in a Middle-Class Way, trying to live differently, but getting distracted by the many, many things vying for our attention. I find myself wanting to use the Blue Like Jazz bandwagon to further the conversation about being the hands and feet of Jesus, right where we are.
And so I wonder…what if that’s what God is offering? Don Miller may have given me some kind of notoriety, but above all he has offered me the chance to say to the people who see the film, I am like you. I struggle to know how to make a difference. Yes, I yearn for security, but above all I want Jesus, and I want to be a blessing. I want to know how to love and sacrifice in God’s way, not out of self-righteousness or to be able to show off, but to do it for the love of God and love of people. What would that look like? It might be time I (we) found out – together.
If you haven’t had enough of Don Miller or Blue Like Jazz after you see the film, look out for the piece I wrote for this month’s RELEVANT magazine on Don, the movie, and turning real life into fiction.
One final note: I love the portrayal of doing good far away in Blue Like Jazz….my point is simply that it’s not the only way. Going to India changed my life – but I’m not going anytime soon, and I’ve had to figure out how to be a blessing right here.