Stories Stir the Soul

We landed back in the U.S. late at night, like always. What was not like always was that my brother and his family, who normally reside in Europe, were also in the U.S. Christmas in the U.S. was the goal. All of us. Together. Our trip was to last a month.

Ha. It lasted about 3 or 4 months. A blur of doctor appointments, eye surgery, and stress.

In the late night hours of collapsing back in to bed after a day of it, whatever it was that day, I cracked the pages of a book with a black cover and a bird on the front. I was transported to another world and lost all track of time. It only took me a few days to finish the Hunger Games.

I was enthralled with the story Suzanne Collins wove, reportedly coming up with the idea as she toggled between reality TV survival shows and war coverage. That made sense to me during our re-entry. Her story captured my mind in a period of my life when it was hard to switch off all the details surrounding a one month trip turned 3 month medical leave.

Our daughter wore glasses from the age of 3 1/2 after she woke up one morning with one eye looking directly at her nose. We went to the ER and then a opthalmologist. We patched, we saw doctors, and it was working.

Until it wasn’t working. I hadn’t really noticed how her eyes drifted during our extended time away from the US and US doctors. Looking at pictures now is painful because it is so obvious. But, I didn’t know then.

In Asia, surgery was not as successful so not suggested as an option by the doctors we visited. When our doctor in the US saw us for a routine check up about a week after we landed, he was blunt. Surgery. In a month or two. We left shocked trying to figure out if our friend would let us extend our stay by, oh say, a few months! He did, because he is incredibly generous.

Then, a routine check up for our son got us a 2 day turn around follow-up with a pulmonologist. That’s usually not a good sign. Didn’t expect that or the cystic fibrosis test he did a little while later. It came back negative. Our nerves were a bit shot and our management of his asthma revealed we needed to learn much more. Again, there was a bit of a difference between Asian (manage symptoms) and American (slam that asthma to the ground!) methods.

Then, our youngest kept getting ear infection after ear infection until he got a series of three high-powered and very painful antibiotic shots. He would glow when he was done, our pediatrician told us. He didn’t really glow, but it was a very long time before he got sick again. His persistent baby acne disappeared.

The Hunger Games books were my series in all this, an escape and also an explanation for a rough bout of cross cultural living problems.  I identified with Katniss, feeling disoriented in a world where everyone seemed tatted, colored, or highly styled. Asia was a grey district. America felt like the Capitol.

I’ve read the series through another time or too and still refer to it when I talk about re-entry issues.

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Our shelves contain a dozen or so books on crossing cultures, raising third culture kids, and re-entry. They directly address great things and I refer to them and learn from them. We own many stellar books on spiritual growth and parenting kids too. I read them and recommend them.

But, my secret, which is now not so secret, is a good story. Good fiction, allegory, or memoir makes me feel and discover truth in a way a direct dealing just can’t. Stories let us discover ourselves through others. A good allegory like Hinds Feet on Hind Places can pull together half a dozen spiritual truths lurking in the sidelines of my conscious mind and connect my emotions too.

I just finished a weird selection even for me, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. It’s cool. I feel cooler because I read it. My vocabulary now holds the option of some surf jargon if I want to look like a complete idiot. I still don’t understand surfing.

img_6782But the book was about surfing as much as it was about life, writing, and facing ourselves. The waves he described and his experience with them transcend surfing. It was a fascinatingly well written memoir and got me motivated to keep living my life and keep writing.

Not bad for a story. Now I need to find another one. My bedside table is never empty, but it doesn’t always have a truly good book to turn to when the sun goes down and that’s a pity.

 

 

Recent Good Reads

I’m a reader. Most people who know me know this about me. I read every night before turning out the light. When I’m not reading, I wane in creativity. I have trouble switching off my thoughts at the end of the day and reading helps me turn the page to a new day.

Haha. I punned.

Seriously, reading is awesome and I love sharing a good book with someone. I’ve read fiction for enjoyment. Non-fiction for education. Biography. Fantasy. Young Adult. Children’s literature. It’s great.

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Most books I read on my kindle, but I needed a photo. I’ll tell you what, 1917 encyclopedias make for interesting reading. 

These are my favorites of the last year.

A Gentleman in Moscow. Wow. So creative and smart. A joy to read and especially rich if you’ve read any of the Russian authors of the past. My personal take away was the challenge to live fully the life I’m given with all the parameters I face.

An added bonus is that you’ll feel smarter after you read this one.

Little Women. I ran out of books one night and trolled my Kindle for something to read or reread and found Little Women. I’d read it before but I read it again. This time, I came away with a renewed value for my role as a mother. She’s not the main character in the book in some ways, but Marmie is always there waiting, watching, knowing, and loving her girls.

I also identified with each sister in some ways and gained much from how they resisted their personal temptations. It gave me insight on my own road to maturity.

A Man Called Ove. I don’t want to give anything away, but this book is a must read. Do not watch the movie before you read it or you will lose the amazing experience the author unfolds in the way he tells this story. Be warned, there are some dark themes and some language.

In the end, it opened my eyes a bit wider to the importance of community in some very real and good ways. It’ll make you cry, so grab the tissues!

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. I read this because I read A Man Called Ove. This is by the same author. Its a bittersweet story of the loss of a grandparent from the eyes of a child.

In so many ways, we see our lives like children too. Maybe that’s why I liked the story. Again, Backman writes a strong theme of community. And, the writing is just great too.

Jane Eyre. Those Bronte sisters. So dark and gothic! I read Jane Eyre recently and was stunned. I’d read it before and the big thing I got was old, obsessive man. Young woman. Weird love story. Crazy lady in the attic.

Reading it again, I saw so much more. An orphan girl who never, ever had a place or belonged. No family. No love. No respect. She then faces the ultimate temptation. A family, a kind of love, belonging… but at a price. Loss of dignity.

Read it!

To Kill a Mockingbird. I recently read this book again as an adult. It is a literary and cultural goldmine. Told from the perspective of an 8 year old daughter, it challenged my soul to feel the pain of those around me who suffer under the heavy weight of prejudice and have for centuries.

I need to have a book club so I can process it. My brain is full of thoughts and questions!

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This is getting long, so I’ll stop here for now. Another post is bouncing around in my mind of those books that have mentored me more directly in ministry. Its kind of a silly division of lists, though. In some ways, both fiction and non-fiction alike are taken, evaluated, and incorporated into my life in some way.

So, don’t put down fiction because you think you’ll get more from a christian living or self-help book. Literature has a unique way of leading us too.

And, definitely never put down your Bible. Its at the top of all my lists.

Embracing Another New Year

One minute it was 2016, then it was 2017 sometime in the middle of 10 Things I Hate About You, probably when Heath Ledger sings in the bleachers. Or maybe when Julia Stiles reads her poem to Heath in class. Great moments.

Anyway, 2016 passed to 2017 and I’m still surprised, trying to find my footing in a new year.

Last New Year’s surprised me too. It was the first of many markers that came and went without my dad. Christmas came and went rather uneventfully, but the new year brought more sadness than anticipated. Another year different from the one he died. Another year more of him not here with us. Something about that number change drove reality in deeper.

This year seems to be similar. Christmas came and went and I missed my dad in so many ways. But a new year put another year in between then and now and it just feels like a really, really long time. Too long without his presence in my life and the lives of all who loved him.

It’s a dissonant note in a season of  resolutions, moving on, organizing, cleaning, looking forward, gaining control. It’s weird to feel a stuck in the past. If I could just make a resolution, a plan, or buy a container for the mess, I’d be moving forward and that would feel good.

There are some things in our lives, though, that can’t be contained neatly. Like grief. And, there is so, so much I cannot control. Like my dad not being here with us. So much I must respond to when I wish I could just change it.

It reminds me of the woman in the wonderful book The Help who slip covered everything in her house in a desperate effort to be more than she was in reality, to cover the pain of what she felt was less than. Instead of face herself, she controlled everything and everyone around her to conform to her desired image. It cost her so much.

The dangers of slip-covering the reality of life are real. Even the sadness of something like losing a father.

So, today, with children back in school and the house quiet, I am endeavoring to respond to the life God has graciously given me before moving on. It means counting the joy and also counting the grief, resisting the urge to slipcover things that need stripping, and loving what needs to be embraced in its current state.

The really ugly chair that inspires parts of this post, a craigslist find that must be loved a while longer in its current state.

There are things I want from this year for sure, but to rush into those feels like building on sand. For today, I survey the terrain…and write because that’s how I do this reflection business.

 

 

Priming the Pump

My husband is a mechanical sort. So was my dad. I know just enough from listening to them talk to make wild assumptions on what is wrong with machines. Most often I jump directly to worst case scenario. I get the feeling that is not particularly endearing to some, ahem, my husband.

Like the time we returned to our assignment in Asia after a 6 month absence. Our cute orange car waited 6 months for us parked outside. Friends cleaned it a time or two and started it a time or two, but it was lonely.

Our first morning back I headed to the car to go and stock our bare fridge and cupboards. The engine turned over, and over, and over, and over…and didn’t start. I gassed it and tried again and again. Our car was dead, I knew it. Stone cold dead.

I also knew just enough to know that maybe stepping on the gas repeatedly could flood the engine and undermine my efforts to bring Orangey back to life. I laid off, took a breath, and eventually got to the grocery store.

So, here I am years later trying to write again after months of upheaval and absence from my blog and not writing. I primed the pump last week at the library by checking out books on writing like Stephen King’s book On Writing which I stumbled across in the stacks.

I took it as a sign that it was time to try and begin again.

 Plus, I heard it was good. Stephen King’s writing is not my genre by a long stretch. But, his book On Writing is more my style and quite a fascinating and humorous read so far.

I checked out another on the craft of memoir writing. I haven’t cracked it yet. It sounds too serious, a little more ambitious than I’m ready to read.

My library trip and a couple short editing projects, and I felt a bit of the spark of desire to write again. It felt good. Like a visit with an old, familiar friend. Like unpacking a box and remembering a beloved object not seen for years.

I started to feel ready to write again.

Plus, an automated woman from wordpress called and warned me to pay up or I’d lose my domain. I didn’t pay up soon enough. I lost it and now must pay a fine for my procrastination. But, something about a call from wordpress made me think about writing again.

Like a kick in the pants.

I remember paying for my domain name last year. It was a huge step for me to put money towards writing. I was so serious about it. I realize I don’t want to pack up my love for writing.

So, here I am writing…

 

 

 

 

 

Held Hands

I ran across a piece of art a few years ago and I regret I didn’t walk home with it.  Art is hard for me that way, it strikes when I’m not expecting it and my pragmatic side takes over. I loved it and I walked away empty handed that day but the image stays with me.

The sculpture was a wood carving of a muscled arm and hand reaching down open and ready to grasp the out stretched hand of a small child.  It was beautiful, detailed, smooth.

It fascinates me that a simple gesture holds so much meaning and so many meanings.DSC_0351

Support, comfort, love, discipline, warmth, protection, guidance…all in a simple contact.  There’s the interlocked fingers of a first crush, the handshake of an introduction, the wrist hold when a toddler attempts to break free on a busy street, the help up a step for the elderly, guidance for the blind, comfort on a steep mountain trail, prayer, comfort.

In the chaos of our current transition back to the U.S. of A. I’ve wanted to reach out and hold something, anything, steady.  I’d love to reach up and be a dependent again…cede all decisions and provision to someone greater and more capable. But, I’m the adult and other hands reach to me now.

It is a challenge. Every morning I stumble out of bed and thank my Lord for programmable coffee makers while I attempt to make myself available to His hand. As much as I say I want dependence, I don’t do it very well…at all!

I read my Bible for a while and then start planning…not praying…planning.  If I hadn’t jettisoned my almost-used-up planner before we left Asia it would reveal over the top efforts to stabilize my life.

In the last days overseas I discovered the held hand picture in the Bible again.  Passages in Psalms about not being hurled headlong because He holds our hand.

This last week I latched onto the image of the sculpture again, an image to reflect on as I seek to depend on Him more. In the New Testament I guess you’d call it the abiding life from John 15, the grapevine.  Another picture.

I do so love the common real-life images that fill the Bible with images of life with God.  Constant reminders of His presence.  Alas, I regret anew passing over that beautiful wood carving!

What common images remind you of God?

Doors and Tigers and Reading to Children

DSC_0169 One thing about home school I despaired giving up was reading to my kids…until my husband reminded me it just might be possible to still read to them before bed every night.  I love reading to my kids maybe because I love reading.  I also love how good literature sparks conversations we might never have otherwise.

Like the time our home school curriculum told us to read The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli a month after we learned two of the families we were closest to would move…and we would stay.  The Door in the Wall is the tale of a crippled and abandoned boy rescued and taken in by a priest in the Middle Ages.  This boy with real suffering both emotional and physical must find a way.  The guidance from the priest?  “Thou has only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.”

My kids, one in particular, looked at their future and saw a big wall.  Life as they’d known it would change and the future contained real challenges.  The encouragement to hope and to keep following the wall…to run your hand down the wall…to stay close to, even touch, the challenge, suffering, and pain while looking for a way through resounded inside us.   I had no good vocabulary to draw their hearts into the light of conversation about all this transition in our lives but this book provided the means to talk and I am grateful.  For the other child, the wall is what keeps us from God and the door is Jesus.  Needless to say, I recommend this book often.

After sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, my daughter recently discovered and devoured Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.  Having received the book as a gift from a thoughtful friend, it sat on our adult bookshelf (by the way, what do you call places that you store things for adults but that are not profane…I really wonder this!) after I read and pondered it.  When she pulled it down and began raving and telling me to read it to her brothers I felt compelled to understand what touched her so deeply.

The first chapter describes a boy with tremendous loss in his life that he will not allow himself to grieve.  He stuffs his thoughts into an imaginary suitcase and mentally sits on them so they won’t escape.  He has every reason to cry buckets but not even the mean bullies at school can squeeze a tear out of him.  Hmmm.

As we continue to grieve losses, I see what my daughter sees.  It is the time in grief where it is tempting to just stuff in the sadness and pain and just not remember what Halloween was like last year and the year before that and the year before that.  It would be so easy to not talk about our old friends even as we make and deepen new friendships.  It seems it would be easier to not remember but the need to avoid the pain begins to need something bigger and fiercer to keep all of it in.

In a way, we all as a family need these books to talk about the doors and the walls and the memories and the tigers in our lives.  The books mediate our conversation better sometimes than a one-on-one coffee date.  Something about dialoguing our struggles through the lens of someone else brings up what’s underneath in a way my efforts at direct assault fail.

So, we keep reading and we keep talking.  I don’t know what my kids will treasure about their childhood but this is one aspect I will treasure.

Reading Elisabeth Elliot

I remember hearing Elisabeth Elliot speak in college.  The packed room filled with women and a few men as I sat towards the back with a few friends.  Passion and Purity ranked high among the must-reads of my college crowd at the time.  I thought it a strange book…a bit over the top.  Now, she stood telling me she thought girls should wear skirts.  I’m sure I smirked.

Now, 16 years later I still hold to a different view on skirts but I sit more and more often at the literary feet of Elisabeth Elliot.  I liken her to a spiritual grandmother, a little old-fashioned in some areas but consistently delivering piercing truth.  Truth pierces the heart and draws me into closer fellowship with the Lord…when I listen well…I, the young granddaughter of the faith.

These Strange Ashes, A Chance to Die, and now The Path of Loneliness rank at the tops of my list for the beginning Elisabeth Elliot mentee.  Meat for the soul I call them.

These Strange Ashes recounts Elisabeth’s first year on the field and it still speaks to what one can expect the first year on the field.  I lend my copy out and make it clear I expect it back!

A Chance to Die takes a thorough look at the life of Amy Carmichael.  Elisabeth doesn’t shy away from Amy’s strengths and weaknesses.  Wrestling with the complexity of Amy’s character and her service give me great hope for what the Lord can do through me with all my “complexity.”

DSC_0241The Path of Loneliness required me to choke down a destructive mental barrier as I saw it on a friend’s shelf this past week pondering what book to borrow.  I don’t like to tell people when I am lonely.  I even wanted to hide this book while I read it instead of leaving it on my side table!  Ahh…pride!  Today I finished the book and I just might start at the front and read it again copying down favorite passages.  I might end up copying the whole book.  I do plan to buy a copy… plus a few to give away as I feel led.

Passion and Purity…well…I still need to go back and pick that one up again and rethink it.

I read Elisabeth Elliot now expecting to feel the rub and pull involved in taking a vigorous hike towards greater trust and obedience to the Lord.

As with any hike, the anticipation and joy of the summit compels more strongly the farther I get on the hike.

What author or book challenged you lately?