Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Truth of Fiction

Occasionally I will pick up a book and feel transported, this was the second book I have read this year that I have had this experience.  The first was Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.  This latest book was Jane Eyre.  How have I gone 34 years before reading this beautiful book?

There was so much that moved me in the book . . . the enduring, unlikely and tragically romantic love story, of course . . . and then the way that faith and morality, sacrifice, was so much a part of the story, but in a way that only gave the story it's foundation, and not in a cheesy kind of way.  I loved the long, descriptive sentences of the subtlest expressions or emotions.  I loved to read about the way that the arts and learning were so much a part of their lives, so that their free time in the evenings was spent in rich artistic pursuits, like learning new languages, reading or sketching by the fire.  I enjoyed her reflections on nature and the senses, the way that it gave a sense of the supernatural, and the slightly mystical tone of the story . . .

And I close the book and find myself in a world of OMG and LOL; mind-numbing television, cheap sex, coarse humor, endless, meaningless distractions.  I know the 19th century was far from perfect, but after reading Jane Eyre this world we live in feels base and shameless.  We feed our cravings and urges, feel entitled to everything, know little of what it means to sacrifice or to deeply love another.  Our technology can fix our bodies and take us anywhere, but we have forgotten how to nurture our soul.


Last week Jim and I got a date night to hear Elizabeth Strout at the Cleveland Playhouse.  She spoke about the truth of fiction, of how we read to identify our human experience, to know we are not alone.  She referred to people who think of fiction as a lie (how often we hear or sense this in the church!  If Jesus taught in stories, why are there so few storytellers?).  It was a wonderful talk on the power of fiction, and I thought about it often as I read Jane Eyre; how powerful this book was for me because of the truth I find there, the truth that only the heart can tell.  This is the grace and comfort, the nourishment and necessity of fiction. This is why I read.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I am crazy-rich

I have these amazing friends . . .

Brave, strong women who are doing generous, amazing work in places like Mali, Haiti, Indonesia, Central African Republic . . . they make me want to be strong and brave.

I have these kind, generous friends who have this amazing ability to sense a need and meet it while the rest of us are only talking about it.   

I have this wonderful, sweet, kind friend who is sincerely sweet and kind to every single person she ever meets.  She has never met a stranger.  She gives to anyone who asks her, and many who don't.

I have this authentic, strong, wise friend who sincerely walks with God, and every morning she sends a text with the verses and honest things that God is teaching her.  Every morning it speaks to me, too.

I have this creative, enterprising, godly friend who decided to do something more than just weep for Somalia.  She and her kids are setting up a Lemonade stand for Africa this weekend . .. maybe you would, too?

I have this friend with such a pure, childlike heart who is one of the safest people I have ever known.

I have this beautiful, peaceful, humble friend who would never suspect how she carries peace and beauty with her wherever she goes.

I have this funny, independent, crazy-smart and adventurous friend who lives this admirable balance of humor, adventure and contentment; and because of her my life is more of these too.

I have this wise friend who thinks about things- really thinks about them- and then lives with sincere compassion and authenticity and this is who I think of when I hear the word integrity.

And as I write my brain is flooding with faces, so many people I could list here but however I may try to describe them to you- to really tell you about the greatness that is in the soul of these friends I have known- this post would only become sentimental and sappy and eventually you would not believe me . .. though they are true.  Every single story I could tell.

When I count my richest blessings it has always been and will always be the people I know or have known.  I am crazy-rich.

I have been thinking about how much these friends have blessed and continue to bless my life, of the ways that they unknowingly make me better or stronger . .. quiet, unsuspecting people who are simply living authentically and humbly, the best they can, before God . . . I have seen God and love Him more because of them.

And then I think about how afraid we are, how reluctant to think of ourselves as someone God can use . . . . we only see our failures and just maybe that is because our failures are all that has been shown to us.  There are plenty of critics in the world.  Plenty of cynics and scorners, plenty of people who feel they need to correct and advise, who have an opinion about everything.  Who can survive those voices?

Nope, no one is perfect, it is true.  But everyone is great, I am convinced.

Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself.  But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be.

I hate orthodox criticism. . . . the small niggling, fussy-mussy criticism, which thinks it can improve people by telling them where they are wrong, and results only in putting them in straightjackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness, and weazening all vision and bravery. . . .  And because the most modest and sensitive people are the most talented, having the most imagination and sympathy, these are the very first ones to get killed off.  It is the brutal egotists that survive.  

-Brenda Ueland

(I got to see some friends this weekend . .. beautiful, amazing women whose paths I crossed years ago . .. and it has me thinking about how blessed I am by the people I have known).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Summer Reading

Due to Kindergarten Orientation today was actually only the second day of school for us, Sami's first "real day."  The first day was hard, we both cried, and over the weekend she said a few times that she didn't want to go to Kindergarten.  This morning she was happy again to be going to school.  I am eager to pick her up this afternoon and learn how her day went.

One thing I like about school (trying to stay positive here) is being able to walk to drop off and pick Sami up. It is a great start to our day, and I am finally finding a way work a little bit of exercise into my day with the two littles in the wagon.

We are enjoying these cozy days as the season changes all of a sudden.  Sipping lots of tea and reading books!  I didn't read a whole lot over the summer, but here is what I did read:

19.  Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

This is my favorite kind of novel in several ways.  First, Abraham Verghese is an accomplished medical doctor, as well as an expat Indian born in Ethiopia, so the book is semi-autobiographical.  I am amazed by people who are successful in their occupations and also manage to find the time and energy to write books, and I love to read a book written by an author passionate and knowledgeable of his subject.  This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Cutting for Stone so much, it was a fascinating window into medicine, especially surgery and the complexities of practicing medicine in a struggling mission hospital in an underdeveloped country.

Second, I enjoyed the setting- a Catholic mission hospital run by Indian doctors in Ethiopia.  It was an intriguing meeting of cultures, and also interesting to understand the motivations and desires of those who felt called to this mission hospital, and the community that creates.

Finally, Cutting for Stone is a brilliant story- tragic, tender, and keeping you guessing until the very end. I loved this book and did not want it to end!

20.  Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry

This book is excellent.  It is Berry's critical response to Edward Wilson's book "Consilience," explaining why the priorities of science have led to a time of despair, and our need to accept life's beauty and miracles.  To be honest I was a little bogged down and it took me a while to get through this- it is the kind of book I would have enjoyed reading for discussion.

21.  Half the Sky by Nicholas Krostof
Hard to read and I had to read it in small doses- I don't think that I read every page.  It is heartbreaking and overwhelming.  I was glad he ended the book with a chapter titled "Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes."  One still can't help but be left feeling profoundly humbled by our wealth and freedoms, and that any little good we can do is so, so small.  I have been challenged to pray, when I wake up in the night to think of my sisters who are in awful, horrible bondage and pray for them.

22.  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

This is a collection of short stories all somehow related to a woman named Olive living in Crosby, Maine.  Olive is a complex character, giving a harsh impression but the reader is able to understand the ways that she grieves and the people she helps and loves.  I found her character so believable, and a wonderful portrayal of the beauty and ugliness, generosity and greed, regret and hope in all of us.

23.  Writers Workshop in a Book, The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction

A collection of essays about writing, this was for the most part helpful and interesting.  My favorite essay from the book is by Janet Fitch, called Coming to Your Senses, about how sensory-starved we are: 
We get up to the sound of an electronic alarm, wolf down some unappetizing packaged food, get into the car, and drive to work.  We park in an underground lot, take an elevator up to the office, where we work all day in a gray- or beige- toned, soundproofed, carpeted, air-conditioned space, with windows that don’t open . . .  
We were not born to live like this . . . We crave the richness of the world, its smells and textures and unedited sounds.  We are biological organisms who have evolved ways of processing the richness of physical life, and yet, because we have been so successful at controlling our environment, we have eliminated just that life. . . 
. . As writers, our task is to remind people what it is to be human.  Through all the lenses that we embody, we seek to explore and re-create the experiences of being alive on this earth.  And especially now, in our denatured times, we are in a position to give the reader back the sensual world- restore to him something fundamental which has been taken away from him, something he craves, the smells and textures of physical reality.
This really made me think about the kinds of tangible experiences I allow my kids, (and myself), how important it is that they experience drippy fruits and mud puddles, subtle sounds, nourishing smells, and that I give them plenty of opportunities to "please touch!"

So, first, as writers, we ourselves must reconnect to the life of the sense.  To give the reader back the blue of the sky, the heat of the day, the softness of the wind, the smell of newly turned earth, to bring him back to his senses, restoring him to his full humanity, so that he might even think to go outside and look at those stars, smell that earth for himself, we must first get ourselves out of the jar.  We ourselves must adopt a more experimental and experiential attitude  toward physical existence, and be willing to experience the whole sensual piano, not just certain predictably pleasant chords.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A New Day

It is quiet.  First day of school today.  The kindergartener?  She slept fine.  I've been awake since four.

Mornings like this I can't let myself get sentimental.  Not going to think about what all this means.  Not going to wonder if I've done everything right these first almost six years, not going to berate myself because I haven't.

Six years ago right now I finished sewing her baby blanket, and in my same sloppy manner last night I stitched her a little pocket heart from the same leftover material.  It's supposed to look like this but it doesn't.  Kind of like the mother I have tried to be, but always seem to come out sloppier and more frayed than I would like.  The loving intention is the same.

To be honest my heart is not settled, I will not breathe a sigh of relief when I drop her off at kindergarten today but rather a breath-held pause of "we'll see."  To be honest a little part of me may be relieved if there happens to be some honest reason why we should keep her home for school.

But there is this new thing budding in her, colors I've not seen before; a startling new confidence grown over the summer.  I sense it reaching out in new directions, peeking around and over us to get a better view.  She is so happy.  I am absorbing her confidence for now.  We'll see.