Monthly Archives: October 2013

Mark Strand interview

I have mentioned that I am a feminist critic when it comes to literature; that is the school of criticism that most resonated with me as an undergrad. I did an independent study with my favorite professor in which we researched early children’s lit and approached it from a feminist perspective for a class she taught the next semester. In graduate school, I continued my research; however, for my English elective courses, I took creative writing classes. And instead of doing a research paper for my graduate thesis, I did a creative thesis instead, at the encouragement of my poetry professor.

Poetry has a special place in my heart, and while I consider myself a poet, I do not consider myself a profound poet or even a good one. But I can steer you in the direction of good, profound poets, one of my favorites being Mark Strand. Here is an old interview of his in which he explains the purpose of poetry and what he considers good poetry.

“…you have to be willing to read poetry; you have to be willing to meet it halfway—because it won’t go any further than that if it’s any good. A poem has its dignity, after all. I mean, a poem shouldn’t beg you to read it; it’s pathetic, if that’s the case. Some poets fear that they won’t be heard unless they flatter the reader, go ninety percent of the way, do it all for the reader. But that’s pathetic.”

“There is no master here.”

If you have any interest in Russian culture, enjoy Russian lit, or are curious about the country simply because of the 2014 Olympics, you’ll certainly appreciate and be intrigued by this article. It is quite long, so give yourself some time. There are lots of pictures and even some video as well.

 

October 26

October 26 is a special day for me. First of all, it’s the birthday of a very near and dear friend of mine–we go back 20 years, and every year I am more and more thankful that God gifted me with her.

Secondly, it’s the anniversary of the day in 2006 when Colorado Springs got a huge snow storm that basically shut the city down. That morning, I woke up, saw the huge amount of snow, and called work to find out that the organization would not open that day. I happily went back to sleep but was awakened soon after by my phone ringing–it was my guitar teacher. I had a lesson that evening, so I assumed he was calling to cancel due to the weather. I let him go to voicemail, and then I listened to it just to make sure (don’t judge me–I’m an introvert). To my surprise, he was actually calling to tell me that his grandmother died.

My guitar teacher and I volunteered together with the college group at our church, which is how we knew each other, so while it was a little strange for him to call me first thing in the morning to give me this news, it wasn’t totally weird–after all, we were part of the same church community. Maybe he felt most comfortable with me and wanted me to pass the word on to the other leaders so we could be praying for him. I called him back to offer my condolences, and I didn’t hang up the phone for eight hours. Yes, eight hours. We started off talking about his grandmother but quickly moved on to other subjects until we had filled our free snowday off work with conversation with each other.

From that point on, we often talked eight hours a day, but in person. I frequently didn’t get home until the middle of the night. No subject went undiscussed, no topic was off limits. Eventually and painfully, he confessed his love for me, and the rest is history for another blog post.

But every year on this date, I fondly remember the beginning of my love story–how Aaron went from guitar teacher to personal rock star and soul-mate-lover.

photo shoot

My first five

I recently read an article about five essential books every “lady” should read. I put lady in quotes because the article was not clear what the author meant by that word. Visions of fancy, white gloves with buttons and feathered hats and Vera Bradley bags fluttered through my head when I saw the word, and I expected books like Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch to be on her list; however, it was actually quite a diverse little list, even including feminist titles (gasp!). It got me thinking…

People ask me for book recommendations all the time. I mean, all the time. Even strangers–when the lamp suitcase for our daughter’s jaundice was delivered a couple of weeks ago, the delivery man saw our living room bookcase and started conversation about reading, which ended in his asking me for recommendations. To me, it was an impossible question: “Even though I’m a perfect stranger, can you recommend a book that you enjoyed on a personal level that you think I would like?” All I knew about him was that he was in his 50s, he had been delivering these lamps for more than 30 years, and he had a killer beard. The pressure to recommend a title that would change his life and add some spice to the monotony of delivering lamp suitcases to new babies caused me to fold: “Oh…I don’t know…there are so many good books out there…”

Thankfully, he didn’t pursue it and instead he started talking about Don Quixote; I muttered a feeble reference to “Man of La Mancha” and then he cordially took his leave.

I find the task of recommending books nearly impossible; to me, books are so personal. They are like friends (but not in a weird Brick Heck kind of way) in that I form a specific relationship to each one depending on what’s going on in my life, and a certain attachment develops for whatever personal reason. I recently recommended a book to my own sister–I just KNEW she’d love it–only to find out her response was, “meh.” I felt lame and like I had no discernment–much like when you make a new friend that you adore only to have none of your other friends like her and then you find out that she really only befriended you to recruit you to sell Amway.

Anyway, I liked the idea of a list of must-read books for ladies, but before I get to that point, I thought maybe I’d simply post a list of five books that ignited and encouraged my love of reading–books that made me want to read them again and pick up other books as well.

ramonaThe first is Ramona the Pest. My older sister recommended the Ramona books when I was in first grade; I was not interested in reading, and she couldn’t understand that. She made it her mission to help me find something I loved, and she did. I gobbled up all the Ramona books–she was the first character I could relate to on a deep, personal level. When Ramona raised her hand in school and asked about Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel going to the bathroom, I felt like I had met my soulmate.

margaretIn fifth grade after reading the Fudge books, I came across Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I am sure that a huge percentage of women of a, ahem, certain age would include this on their lists of influential books. Having a mother who laughed at me when she read my note asking for a “braw” and thinking that maxi pads were for women who couldn’t control their bladders, I needed Margaret. Everything I know about increasing my bust and strapping on a menstrual belt comes from Judy Blume.

jane eyreWhen I was 13 and bored and too cool for school, I picked up my sister’s copy of Jane Eyre and read it while on family vacation. It was not the first grownup book I had read, but it was the first grownup book that thrilled me to my toes–it appealed to me on many levels. There was the sad orphan story, the scary woman in the attic story, the passionate love story, the tragic fire story. Etc. This book gave me the confidence to move from books such as Anne of Green Gables to books with more mature themes.

beloved2In college the first time around, I had a professor who was mean. Super mean–like, write-nasty-comments-on-your-paper or make-fun-of-your-poetry-in-front-of-the-entire-class mean. She was so mean and nasty that a couple of years ago when I heard she was dying of pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t send a get-well note–everything I composed in my head was mocking and included the word “Pulitzer,” which she pronounced “Pooooo-lit-ser.” But other than scar me for life, the other thing she did was introduce me to Toni Morrison. Never before (and maybe never again) had I read such a powerful book as Beloved, and that summer I read everything that Morrison had written to that point. I can’t possibly recap the book, much less my feelings about the book, in one sentence, so instead I’ll tell you to read it if you haven’t.

The-House-of-the-Seven-Gables madI realize I’m listing two books here, but they lent to the same purpose at the same time. I was 23 or 24 and had gone back to college to finish my degree. I was learning how to truly critique literature–not just finding symbolism and foreshadowing, etc.–under the teaching of a challenging professor who was never impressed by anyone or anything. I trembled each Wednesday as I turned in my papers on whatever book we had read that week–they always came back marked in red. Then one week, not only did I actually get an A, but the professor had made copies of my paper on The House of the Seven Gables to hand out and discuss with the class. That was the moment I knew I had found my calling as a critical reader. I knew for the first time that I had something intelligent to say and maybe I could have new ideas. That’s the same semester that I started reading literary criticism and rather than being confused or bored, I felt my brain light up with appreciation of critics’ insight, and I started having more and more original ideas of my own when critiquing pieces of literature. And The Madwoman in the Attic was the first essay I read that excited me. I went on to write three senior theses in college (one on Jane Eyre) and then continue my research in feminist criticism in graduate school.

I HAVE to ask–what are the books that turned you into a reader?? What books influenced you the most and made you love reading??

Remembering the littlest ones

Something about autumn makes me sentimental. I think it’s the chilly weather forcing me inside where I light holiday candles, pull out the afghans, beg the mister to build fires, and sit on my comfy chair, which has a perfect view of the changing leaves. From this spot, I can hear Baby Boy in his room playing in his crib, and as I cuddle Baby Girl, I reminisce to 2 years ago when we were experiencing our first fall in this bungalow and I was pregnant with our son. Our sister in law was also pregnant with a little boy, and we loved texting back and forth, dreaming of these children being best friends, wondering if they’d look alike, planning when we could all get together.

Six weeks after our son was born, I was feeding him one night when Aaron’s phone rang. It was his brother. I knew from Aaron’s tone of voice something was not right; in fact, something sounded very wrong. Our sister-in-law had gone in for her routine OB appointment right before her due date, and there was no baby heartbeat—their son had died. The doctors couldn’t explain exactly what happened; no answers could make sense of this horrific loss. As I nursed my own son in that moment, tears fell onto his small body for the boy who wouldn’t feel his mama’s embrace until she joined him in Heaven. For months, we cried over this death. We knew that Timothy was with Jesus, and for that we were grateful. But we loved him and missed him, and more than that, we hurt for his mama and daddy, whose pain we knew was a hundred times deeper than our own.

That was in the midst of a strange and difficult season for us. Many people we loved were suffering the loss of their children. One friend, a woman I’ve known since she was 7, left me a voicemail saying she had something very important and exciting to tell me. I knew in my heart of hearts that she was pregnant, but I never got her return call sharing the good news; instead, I got news that yes, she had been pregnant, but she had subsequently suffered a miscarriage. I was devastated for her—I knew how much she wanted that baby, how loved that baby was already. The next Sunday in church my shoulders shook with uncontrollable gulping sobs. I couldn’t process this loss or the pain that this woman—someone I love so dearly—was experiencing.

Friends of ours who were in our wedding suffered two miscarriages during this time. More tears were shed as I read the blog of a cousin who is a missionary across the world. She described delivering her stillborn baby in the bathtub with her husband’s brave and compassionate assistance, and the grace of God that never left their hearts. Another friend also wrote about her loss on her blog; I have read this post countless times and marveled at my her faith in the Lord right in the middle of awful. She wrote in the midst of her grieving process, which struck me as brave and trusting. Another friend describes her miscarriage and offering up her suffering while her child passed from this life—a beautiful testimony to God’s sovereign and compassionate hand. I tried to imagine her in the ER alone, praying for her friend giving birth, dealing with this compassionate, mysterious God who gives and takes away.

I know God is in the business of redemption. One part of that for many of our friends has been the babies God has blessed them with, including a set of twins due in the spring. But the arrival of new life doesn’t erase the pain of loss. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, and October 15 is a specific day set aside for parents and families to light a candle in memory of these little lives lost. I never knew this day even existed until Timothy died. We prayerfully, sadly light a candle for our little nephew and shed big crocodile tears. I pray for mamas and daddies who have lost a baby, especially my sister-in-law and her empty arms. I praise God for the story he is writing, even when it hurts. I thank him that someday we will all get to meet Timothy and spend eternity with each other, never having to part again. This year my sister-in-law and I texted back and forth a bit; she assured me that she was doing well and been able to celebrate Timothy. She is blessed in that she has friends who engage her in conversation about her loss, but I know a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about this subject.

Friends, it’s an ugly and unbearable loss. It’s an awkward subject to talk about. It’s something we wish couldn’t exist in our world, much less happen to someone we love (or ourselves!). But please don’t let the pain keep you from asking a parent how they’re doing in their grief; don’t pretend like everything is okay when it’s not. Honor the short, tiny lives; reach out to parents no matter how long it has—or hasn’t—been. Ask questions about their baby if that would be encouraging. Ask to see pictures if they exist. Lend dignity to the babies’ lives and comfort their parents. Let’s remember together the littlest ones.

Learning to listen

If you didn’t already know, I am a piano teacher. My first student was my little sister more than 20 years ago. My parents paid me $20 a month, and I took my responsibility very seriously. I’m not sure if I did any good or laid any kind of foundation for her, but I can say with confidence that she is a gifted pianist with diverse musical ability. She uses her music to serve others–most notably, her family.

I recently read this story in the New York Times. We’ve all heard the studies that correlate taking music lessons to better math skills, increased self-discipline, good grades, etc. But this article emphasizes the connection between very successful people and their musical abilities; who could forget President Clinton playing his saxophone on “Arsenio Hall”?

I just have a handful of students. I teach for the simple love of teaching (oh, and to pay my student loan payment…). My students’ abilities and potentials have a vast range, and yet each student has his/her own specific strengths. It amazes and awes me to see their little brains figure out theory, chords, intervals. One is particularly good at rhythm while another has a truly musical ear. I strive to find these areas in each student so we can cultivate what they’re good at and not simply work on what they’re not. I’m all about helping them not only succeed but feel like they’re succeeding.

I realize that a small percentage of students take lessons as long as my sisters and I did. One of my kids was shocked to hear that I actually took lessons as an adult–he figured once I had grown up I should have arrived somehow. I reassured him that he wouldn’t have to take lessons that long. I don’t require my students to compete like I had to growing up, and I don’t know how many will be on music scholarships like I was. My goal for each student is simple, regardless of how long they take lessons or how talented they are: to become quality listeners of music. Even if they don’t grow up to be President or Secretary of State, oh, how their lives will be enriched if they learn to listen well!

Birthing trust

The birth of our son last year was a joyous, tremendous occasion; however, it was a difficult birth and left me with a bit of emotional trauma from which I’m not sure I’ve recovered. That was an eye-opener for me—while I’ve had some suffering in my life, I had never physically suffered like that. During the aftermath, I didn’t respond in a way that pleased my heart, and I realized I just didn’t have a good theological foundation of suffering that I could fall back on when needed. So I started intentionally trying to build that foundation. I read books and created a file where I’ve stored more than 50 articles on suffering that have taught and encouraged me. And because I have a tendency to distrust happiness and to always be wondering when the other shoe will drop, I wondered and sometimes worried that God was preparing me for suffering in some way. Different horrible scenarios would run through my head, and I’d try to figure out how I would respond and if I were in a place of trusting God in the midst of each situation.

When we got pregnant again, I struggled with trusting my fears to the Lord—was my baby the other shoe? Was I going to be asked to suffer as a result of something happening to her? I couldn’t answer that question, so I started preparing myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for another difficult birth. I desired a birth experience where I could draw near to God during the labor but also trust him and trust his goodness in the days that followed.

The pregnancy was high risk, and I knew the doctor would want to induce like he did last time. At my 39-week appointment, he communicated that he wouldn’t allow me to go much longer, so I anticipated that he would schedule an induction at my next appointment. An appointment that was scheduled for the exact time that my friend Kara would be in surgery in which the doctors would remove the tumors that held Kara’s fate. I had a difficult time focusing on my doctor that morning. Thankfully, Auntie Polly took care of Von so I didn’t have to worry about him as well. But several minutes into my appointment, the doctor had my attention—his concerns about our daughter were elevated and he was scheduling my induction for that day.

That afternoon as I made preparations to leave the baby and go to the hospital, my mind kept wandering to Kara. I prayed and prayed and prayed—for a miracle, for Jason’s peace of mind, for healing, for Kara’s heart. I had heard no news by the time we left for the hospital. I remarked to Aaron that was a bad sign—surely if the news were good, we would have heard, right?

As the nurse checked me in to the hospital, she asked if I would like them to contact my clergyman in the case of an emergency. I opened my mouth to answer, but instead, sobs just poured out, imagining Jason trying to comfort us while his own heart was broken.

The next day as labor was getting intense, my thoughts were on our son. I had never been away from him and I missed his little body, hearing his inquisitive “Oh this?” a thousand times a day, watching him “reading” his books in his crib, cuddling him before bed. With each contraction every two or three minutes for hours, tears would come. Even though he was in trusted hands, I couldn’t bear the separation and knowing that as wonderful as his aunties are, no one can replace mommy.

I think my attendants thought I was crying from pain (which I did indeed do later!) during those hours, but I was crying for the brokenness of our world. I was crying for my little boy. I was crying for mommies separated from their children. I was crying for the news about Kara I was sure would come. I was crying for her heart and the hearts of her babies. With my contractions, I prayed. Because of the physical exhaustion, my prayers were simple and childlike, but as I surrendered my physical pain to the Lord, I surrendered my fears over Kara’s situation. I surrendered her, trusting God’s love for her and her family.

We were in the hospital for two more days, during which I did not have internet access. I heard from Kara from her hospital room across the city, and still she was silent about her news. Aaron and I talked about the paradox of bringing life into this world just as Kara was finding out the providence of her own. I didn’t have the courage to check her blog until almost two days after I had been home; my fears and suspicions were confirmed. I looked up at Aaron from my laptop and couldn’t speak—the tears were coming too furiously.

When I started asking God about how to handle suffering biblically last year, I assumed I was headed for direct suffering. And I realize I am headed there eventually and inevitably. But short term, I didn’t realize that I would be asked to trust God with the suffering of someone I love. I didn’t know my suffering would be the painful result of watching a friend’s heart and body break. I was ignorant of the fact that my first battle would be one of fighting for faith, praying for mercy, and begging for hope.

I don’t know Kara’s story. I don’t know my children’s stories or even my own story. I have no way of writing a happy ending for all of us; and yet, my heart understands a peace that trumps my worst fears. For despite all I don’t know, I do know a God who loves passionately and who creates beauty and goodness from ugliness and brokenness, who will redeem his children from the excruciating pains of this failing world, and who promises his children blessings that will make our trials somehow worth it. He works miracles, extends mercies, and never leaves us alone. That is enough for me to cling to.

Isaiah 43:1-3

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.