Tuesday, November 29, 2016

25 Ways You Can Celebrate C.S. Lewis

It's the Literary Day of Days! That's what I call November 29, the day we celebrate the birthdays of Louisa May Alcott (1832), C.S. Lewis (1898), and Madeleine L'Engle (1918).

In keeping with a list of ways to celebrate Alcott, which I first posted four years ago, I thought I would have fun posting a similar list in honor of Lewis. With Alcott, all ideas were inspired by Little Women and Little Men. With Lewis, I decided to keep my inspiration to the Chronicles of Narnia, though I certainly could have widened the field through many of his other writings. Narnia felt like the best place to be today though.

So without further ado, here are 25 ways you can celebrate C.S. Lewis:

Explore an old house.
Quibble with your siblings (but make sure you make up).
Open a wardrobe door and peek inside. You never know…
Take a walk in the woods, preferably a snowy woods if you can find one. (Don a warm fur coat if you have one; let it remind you that you’re royalty.)
Lean up against a lamppost.
Carry someone’s packages.
Have a splendid tea. Or enjoy a fish and potatoes supper.
Learn how beavers build their dams.
Remember you’re a daughter of Eve or a son of Adam.
Stay on the lookout for Father Christmas.
Don’t forget to clean your sword.
Don’t be afraid to anoint someone with a bit of healing cordial.
Let your mind and heart linger on Aslan.
Let out a ROAR!
Romp with a cat.
Recall the beauties of a blossoming spring.
Hang out at a railway station. (Listen for the sound of a beautiful horn.)
Set up an archery contest with friends.
Enjoy time with a pet mouse. You might want to name him Reepicheep.
Imagine climbing inside a favorite painting.
Take a long boat trip.
Recite some of Aslan’s instructions from memory.
Gallop across a desert on a horse.
Plant an apple tree.
Climb a mountain – go further up and further in!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reading Round-Up: Beginning of Advent

I haven't done a normal "reading round-up" post in so long. The beginning of Advent (my favorite season of the year in many ways) feels like a good time to do so, especially since my headaches, while still present, are getting better enough for me to be able to focus more on reading again. I'm still struggling with staying awake when reading (mostly because higher doses of pain meds make me sleepy) but I am finding I am able to read more again, and that's always a blessing.

Here's a peek at what I've been working on in recent days and weeks....

Andy Crouch's Strong and Weak is a beautiful little book that's all about what it means to flourish. Crouch (whom I've had the blessing of hearing speak) talks about embracing both our authority and vulnerability as image-bearers of God. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, who embraced both of those better than any human being before or since, we can find our way into true flourishing instead of falling into the traps and sins of exploiting others or withdrawing from suffering into safety. It's a really good book, one that I think has plenty of insights for anyone, but maybe especially for those who are leaders or serving in ministry.

I'm about half-way through Majestic is Your Name: A 40-Day Journey in the Company of Teresa of Avila. These "40 Day" journey books came out in the early 1990s, I think, and I don't know if they're all still in print, but I like the concept -- you get excerpts from the saint's writing, accompanied by daily Scripture readings and prayers. I am enjoying what I am learning from Teresa and feeling especially comforted by her picture of the soul as a castle. How good it is to remember that our hearts are throne rooms for Jesus!

I've been reading essays in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity with the sweet girl for school. It's been a while since I've revisited the book (such a classic) and I am loving doing so with her, especially as we talk our way through Lewis' ideas. I have her reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for literature right now (she's heard it read more than once, but this is the first time she's really studied it as literature) and the essays are helping us think through some of Lewis' "big ideas" that come through in all his writing, children's stories as well as essays. We've talked about forgiveness, pride, and charity -- important virtues and vices.

November is a Lewisian month, so I am also enjoying Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis's Chronicles (bits of which I am assigning to the sweet girl as well). Some lovely essays here by Joe Rigney, who really loves and understands the Chronicles well.

I've discovered a new-to-me poet: Philip Terman. He's a Jewish writer that I stumbled across a few weeks ago on the Writer's Almanac. I put his collection Our Portion on hold, and it's been wonderful to have it on nights when I am too tired to keep my eyes open with longer work.

I actually finished a novel -- yes, I managed a bit of fluff! -- from the new book shelves at the library. I picked up Nina Stibbe's Paradise Lodge on a total whim, and I'm glad I did. It was funny and acerbic and incredibly British. It's set in the 1970s and stars Lizzie Vogel, a teenager whose first person narration was so funny and strong that it carried me through even though reading novels has not been easy for me for a while. I think I probably picked it up because I saw that Lizzie was learning about life working in a nursing home, something that sounded interesting to me (having grown up with my grandmother living with us for several years, and having spent a lot of volunteer hours in a nursing home as a young adult). Those scenes in the nursing home, as she works with the elderly, are some of the best -- the most homespun, poignant, and funniest.

Natalie Babbitt's recent passing (she was the author of the well-known middle grade novel Tuck Everlasting) sent me to the library shelves to read her first picture book: Nellie, A Cat on Her Own. A sweet fantasy with especially sweet pictures...and Babbitt herself was the illustrator. It was neat to find out that she was an accomplished artist as well as writer.

Other books I'm starting or hoping to start soon: Ann Voskamp's The Broken Way, a couple of older prayer resources -- Praying in Color and Prayer and Temperament, and Joanne Fluke's Christmas Caramel Murder (more fluff...you know how much I love to think about how I would re-write or edit Fluke's books!). I've got some Advent resources on hold, but I don't think they're in yet...though I need to re-check my library bag. I was so tired when we went to the library on Saturday that I might have missed some of what we picked up on hold.

It's good to be reading again.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Creativity Comes Knocking

I've always thought that creativity comes knocking at the most unusual times. I've written about this on my blog before (although where and when my tired mind doesn't remember at the moment!) and I stand by it. When you're a writer, it doesn't always seem to matter what's going on in your life, how busy or sick you are, or how you're feeling. Sometimes creativity just waltzes up to the front door, rings the bell zestfully, and slides right in as soon as you open the door even a tiny crack.

That's what happened to me in the wee small hours of the morning last night. Yes, another night when, exhausted as I was, I still woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. Not even quiet music or soporific reading can get me back to sleep right now once I'm up, probably because some part of me is usually aching or hurting. So I give into the wakefulness for a while and see where it leads before I finally begin to nod off again.

Last night it led me to an unexpected place: a children's book idea I had quite a while ago. I should say it was a book idea that the sweet girl and I had together. I came up with it first, but she and I talked about it one morning. It was quite a long while ago, before I got sick -- I would say at least a year and a half ago? Maybe two? Who knows. But here it was again.

I'm not going to share the idea right now because it's in that brimming, simmering, almost vaporous stage where I feel like if I share too much about it, it could pop like a bubble and disappear. Well, okay, I shared about it with my dear husband at lunch (in between my final radiation appointment and our next visit with Erin in the hospital). He liked it, and being the creative guy he is (one reason I married him was because I knew he would forever be my writing partner!) bounced some ideas around about it with me, which made me even more interested in pursuing it. I feel like I'm in that stage where I sit up like an attentive puppy with my ears cocked and my head turned sideways, eyes on whatever might happen next so I can jump.

Part of the reason I brought it up with him at lunch is because the ideas, which started coming between one and two a.m. last night, started falling like a gentle rain again during the first part of my radiation treatment. In some ways, that didn't surprise me. I always try to arm myself with things to think about before those start, so I can begin to meditate as soon as the treatment starts. I have a small piece of oval foam I have to hold onto while I am lying on the table and the treatment goes on (to keep my arms and shoulders in place). My legs are bent over another piece of foam. The mask goes on over my face, and my head is bent back on a sort of neck brace. My kind radiologist brings a blanket to cover me. (They didn't stock them today becase it was Sunday, but he knew I'd want one and nabbed me the last one!)

Once I am in position, I stay in that position for about forty-five minutes, listening to meditative music. If I choose to keep my eyes open, then I am looking at an image of green trees against a blue sky (which they keep on the ceiling). Most of the time, however, I choose to keep them closed, especially because there are times when the arm of the radiation machine (what I have referred to as the "robot" all week) zooms over right in front of my face, and it's a little alarming to have it so close. I tend to breathe better and relax more with my eyes closed. And then I begin to think about whatever I've chosen to fix my mind on, often a verse.

I did that today, pondering my morning devotions from Jeremiah 16 and 17, but then I let my mind wheel to the idea for the children's book. And sure enough, the ideas began to flow. And I really, really like these ideas! They are coming together in ways that just make creative and beautiful sense.

Although there have been many times in my life when I have been surprised by creativity's visits, I think this may take the top spot. I am exhausted right now on every level, particularly physically and emotionally. I don't know if I have the strength to do much with these ideas as they come, but I confess I've begun doing a bit of jotting in my journal, and that some of the actual possible writing is starting to flow through my mind. I am also discovering that the ideas are feeling a bit like crepe paper streamers -- you know the ones you get and twist together to decorate a wall or ceiling for a child's party? You unroll them and weave them together and there is just something very satisfying about it when they start to come together and look the way you want them to.

Maybe it's time to throw a party -- even if it needs to be a small, quiet one for a while -- for creativity, my unexpected but still very welcome guest.

Friday, November 18, 2016

God's Beautiful Design

Today was a long, hard, but in many ways good day. I am exhausted this evening and know this will be short, but I did feel like writing.

I spent the day downtown: first, visiting with my dear friend Erin, who went through surgery yesterday where she had a number of cancerous tumors removed; second, getting my second of three brain radiation treatments; and third, having an appointment with an ENT about the terrible pain, pressure, and fluid in my ear.

All of that put together, with a lunch in there somewhere with my precious husband, was wonderful in some ways, sad in others, and just plain tiring overall to this very tired body. I spent most of our way into town this morning crying because the bright sunlight, so beautiful on the autumn trees, was triggering headaches (which can happen sometimes right now). I spent other parts of the day smiling: over Erin's sweet grogginess and the chance we had to hug each other and the opportunity I had to pray for her; over my radiologist Anthony's kind chuckle and pleasant spirit; over the kindness of my husband every time I melted into tears after this hard week in my own cancer journey; over the compassion and care of various doctors and nurses and restaurant workers along the way; over the beauty of red leaves on bushes; and yes, over the beautiful photograph of a butterfly in the exam room at my ENT's office.

I was in the room for quite a while since they were trying to get in touch with my neurosurgeon, and I spent that time looking at the photo and contemplating the beauty of the butterfly. I'm not sure what kind if was, but it was mostly black with teal spots on its wings. As I meditated on this lovely creature, I found myself looking back and forth between the two wings and noticing the symmetry between the patterns on each side of its body. I found myself realizing how much they looked like a painter's carefully composed strokes. And I found myself wondering, not for the first time in my life, "How can someone look at a creature like this and not see grand design?"

Even in the midst of the worst pain and suffering of my life this year, I am grateful to find moments where I am reminded of the beauty and grace of God's loving design. I felt it today in notes from friends, in the butterfly's wings, in the words God sent to me on the radiation table when I was praying for protection from the radiation (asking him to help it do all it needed to do but not to harm me in any way) -- that last was kind of comical, because Anthony had spent a while needing to tip my head up to get the mask set right around my chin, and when I asked the Lord for words to meditate on as I prayed for protection, what did he send me? "Thou oh Lord, art a shield about me, you're my glory and the lifter of my head!" (Psalm 3:3) I saw his design in the craft tables set out in the hospital cafe space, where I ran across a craftswoman who had created a beautiful card and key chain with the EXACT verse that the Lord gave me when I first discovered I had cancer last February: "The Lord will fight for you -- you need only to be still" (Exodus 14:14). I needed that word again today; I truly needed it.

There are times, I will confess, when right now I feel like my life is filled with chaos. I do not understand why I am so sick, or why others I love are so sick, and why our nation and world are in such pain. I do not understand why all these things are allowed by the God I love. I do not understand everything he is teaching me through it.

But I know he is keeping me upright. And I know his design is beautiful, loving, and true, even if right now all I see are the tangled threads on the back side of the tapestry. One day it will be flipped over for me, and I will see it in the light of his countenance, the whole beautiful, glowing, golden design. Until then, I will just keep trusting him and holding his hand. And I will keep looking for grace notes.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"With Nothing on My Tongue But Hallelujah"

I haven't posted anything here on my blog for almost a month. That's because it's been a very difficult month.

The cancer I have been battling since my diagnosis in February took an unexpected turn we had not ever foreseen. It decided to move to my brain. The terrible headaches I was experiencing for a few weeks, along with the memory issues, were a result of that. They discovered it in an MRI on October 17 (just  a couple of days after my last post). I was immediately checked into the hospital and I had brain surgery on the 20th. The amazing neurosurgeon was able to get it all, and thank the Lord, there were no repercussions affecting my speech or my memory (which was my biggest fear).

This year has been the most exhausting road I've ever walked. It started with my mother's unexpected death last December, and it's moved along since then with every exhausting twist and turn you could imagine. My original symptoms and hospital visits in late January. My initial bladder surgery and my late stage/metastasized cancer diagnosis in February. The pain in my bone (where the cancer first moved) for months and months. My radiation and intensive chemo treatments in February, March, and April. Immunotherapy since May, still ongoing every two to three weeks. The neuropathy that began in my hands and feet in June and has gotten worse since. The good news in August that the cancer in the original site was gone, and that it had decreased -- miraculously -- in the bone by 20-30 percent, and that there was even some unexpected new bone growth (and yes, even good news of this magnitude can be exhausting in a different way...there are just so many emotions one goes through on a journey of this kind). The beginning of the headaches and other issues in the fall. The realization that our building was being sold and that we would need to move from the apartments where we've lived for nearly twenty years. A hunt for a house we could rent and move into that we could actually afford. Fundraising my family has done for us, which has blessed us so much. The diagnosis of the brain cancer and the surgery to remove it in October. The beginning of our packing and moving in the past two weeks. The painful national election and its even more painful aftermath so far.

Even typing the list of what I've gone through makes me tired, but I don't think the words can easily convey how hard this all has been.

But words do help me through it. Words from the Scriptures that speak the Lord's heart to me. Words from friends who send love and encouragement. Words I use to process the pain. Words from poetry, songs, and stories that mean so much to me and help me find some order in the midst of disorder. Words from my old journals (which I've been looking through late in the night when I can't sleep) which show me ways in which God was preparing me for this walk, even years ago.

The song that's been making the rounds on social media this week is "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, the poetic song writer who died last Monday at the age of 82. It's a song I've heard before, of course, but I find myself listening to it with new ears. Today I just spent some time crying my way through it, especially the final verse:

"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"

I think what gets me about this stanza is the idea that even when it seems as though everything has gone wrong, when we are spent and broken and exhausted, we can still stand before the Lord of Song (what a wonderful name for God) and offer praise.  That's what I hope to do...today, tomorrow, for the rest of my life, however long it may be, and for eternity.

I have scans again tomorrow, on the original areas of the cancer (bladder and bone). These will be the first ones since August. It's been nine months since my diagnosis. Nine months feels significant to me, maybe because I'm a mama who remembers carrying my daughter for nine months as she was knit together. I am praying for signs of healing tomorrow, healing and new life. But no matter what the scans reveal, even if they all go wrong, "I'll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."