Of Bach, Chopin, and Emotions

It’s strange to think of something as a lifelong pursuit when I am only in my early thirties, but I suppose at least two pastimes fall into such a category today: reading and music.  I’ve been enjoying both for the better part of three decades, and they are still the first place I turn when attempting to sort out uncertainty.  Beloved authors extol the virtues of the great classical composers, and familiar classical music routinely shows up in my favorite screen adaptations of excellent literature.  And when I am feeling particularly unsettled, I know I can turn to the mathematical predictability of music for reassurance that order and meaning do exist in the universe – if not in my life.

When I am feeling particularly anxious, sitting down at my piano with a bit of Bach tends to ground me both physically and emotionally.  My brain must be completely focused on the notes in front of me as my fingers remove a fine layer of dust from the keys I touch.  There’s a subtle shift – in my posture, my breathing, even my personality – as the reins of control are handed from my left hemisphere to my right.  When I am lost in the music I am creating, I become a very different version of myself.  Nothing matters outside the moment – nothing interferes with the sound produced as my brain and body interact with wood and ivory.

There is a difference between the type of routine playing I use each week to accompany hymns for a small group at my church and the type of intense concentration required to play the masters well.  My brain can essentially check out when it comes to hymns – I’ve played so many for so long that a fair number are cemented into my memory, requiring no thought beyond whether or not I’ve played all the verses the congregation will sing.  My mind wanders, I observe colors and patterns and people around me, I sing along as I lead, and I lengthen my ever-present mental to-do list.  It’s a game of multi-tasking that I usually win because every aspect can occur independent of my conscious engagement.  But classical music presents an opportunity that I indulge far less frequently: the challenge of singular focus.

This morning I found Emotions crowding in on me, so I took to the one route that has always served as a catalyst for expression.  I sat down with Bach’s Inventions.  The vast majority of music is comprised of three elements: the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm.  In general, the harmony and rhythm are in place to accentuate the melody, which tells the primary story in the music.  When it comes to the piano, a solo piece usually has the melody voiced by higher notes, or the right hand.  This is excellent for those of us who are left-brain dominant (i.e. right-handed), because our more dextrous upper extremity is responsible for the most important component of the music.  But Bach’s Inventions are different, in that each voice is, in itself, both melody and harmony.  The simplest Inventions are two-part, meaning two equal voices, or one for each hand.  Three- and four-part Inventions also exist, but I often find I have neither the patience nor the proficiency to attempt such challenges.

Bach is fascinating.  The music is mathematically precise, predictably developed, and satisfyingly complete.  But it can also feel rigidly controlled and measurably cold.  Though Bach’s music can both express and evoke a magnificent variety of emotions, it does not so easily offer the experience of feelings.  That is better left to more recent composers, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries.  And so today, when I found myself yearning for a tad more leeway, I turned to Chopin.  This is unusual, since Rachmaninoff has been my go-to since high school.  Rachmaninoff is sweepingly forceful when it comes to the emotional experience of music, and there have been many times I needed the big, bold sounds of his preludes and concertos to work through difficulty.  But I needed something more pensive, more melancholic, more nuanced today.

In both high school and college I loathed Chopin; he didn’t follow “the rules” and I couldn’t stand the seeming lack of structure displayed by his compositions.  “The rules” were simply my flawed understanding of controlled emotion, and Chopin aired his joys and grievances alike with what I perceived as little reverence for propriety.  What I have been gradually learning (thanks at least in part to seven years in therapy) is that the ability to express emotion is a gift – and that there is no such thing as a “bad” emotion.  With such a gradual realization, Chopin and I have had a chance to become better acquainted.  His music is providing me with a place to “try on” emotions that are unfamiliar to me.

This morning’s soul-searching ended, fittingly, with a half-hour of concentration on Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 15, more commonly known as the “Raindrop Prelude.”  I think I shall be returning to this work repeatedly as I become more adept at recognizing and expressing the array of emotions I find within myself.  I may not yet be able to name these emotions, but I am practicing the surrender of feeling.  And I am ever so grateful for the incredible minds that make such practice possible.  The translation of emotion into art – musical, visual, kinesthetic, or otherwise – is one way God makes his presence known to me.

Breaking the Silence

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It’s been a long time since I had the wherewithal to think about blogging.  Not much has changed in two years of silence, except I bought a home so I won’t have to worry about moving my books for the foreseeable future.  But everything else – work, church, car, family, relationship status – is unchanged.  At least it appears to be unchanged on the macro level.  Minute shifts have taken root over the past two years, and it may yet be a while before the new shoots bear fruit.

All that is not to say the past few years have been straightforward.  The healing process is never linear, and the twists and turns that have surfaced as I wrestle towards freedom have changed me profoundly – even if I cannot articulate how exactly I’ve changed.  I have tried (repeatedly) to get away, to leave my past behind, to start fresh, to begin again.  Every attempt to accomplish something I want has been thwarted, and thus I find myself working the same job, living in the same city, and wondering if this is, in fact, all there is to life.  Unfulfilled dreams have a way of forcing you to ask the hard questions, and the struggles I’ve encountered only piled on more uncertainty and doubt.

Doubt and darkness seem to go hand in hand, so naturally winter affords me many opportunities to contemplate existential and ontological questions.  My life wasn’t supposed to look like this – according to my plan, anyhow.  And though I recognize the goodness of what I have found (namely stability, independence, and an occasional sense of purpose), my heart still cries out with longing for that which I do not have.  Good things I do not have.

My entire adult life has been characterized by a mismatch in what people can see of me and what I’m really feeling.  Where others saw a young woman eager to pour her life out to further Christ’s kingdom, my soul was frantically bargaining with God – “If I go overseas, Lord, please give me at least this compensation!”  Where others saw courage in the face of danger, my heart could only see its own worthlessness.  While I always had a ready smile and quick laugh for others, my mind was always tormented by depression and despair.  I lived in invisible melancholy.  I still don’t know if the fight for life is worth it.

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living.  I’ve spent the last seven years pondering life – who I am, how I got here, why I’m here, and what it all means.  I don’t have answers.  Medication helps, at least insofar as it clears mental space that can be used for wrestling.  Beloved authors provide respite from the hard work of learning, stretching, and growing, both mentally and emotionally.  Friends and counselors willingly offer themselves as sounding boards and fellow wayfarers.  Occasional glimpses of truth remind me that there are worlds beyond the small, dark cave of my mind.  And so I press on.  I keep walking.  And I pray each day brings me closer to wholeness, to healing, to hope.  But I still don’t know if the struggle is worth it…

Waiting

Advent began yesterday.  This season of celebrating the waiting and awaiting the celebration is one I have often passed over, choosing instead to get caught up in the hurry and rush and whirlwind that so frequently characterizes our experience of “the holidays.”  Rather than muddling through and hoping for the best, this year I am setting aside time each week to ponder the mystery and immensity of the Incarnation, the eucatastrophe of humanity.

Last evening my sister invited several friends to share in a simple Advent liturgy – prayer, scripture, and song in the comfort of our living room.  My heart was stirred as we took turns reading from the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter, the Prophets, and the Gospels.  I was reminded how easily I spend all of life waiting and hoping, rather than living each day fully as it comes.  There was a moment of silent prayer, and I found myself asking the Lord yet again for something that has been my deepest desire for many years.  It has not come, despite anguish and tears and trying and years and years of prayer.

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I was glad to be sitting with a friend who has been by my side through nine years of life – a woman who has faced her share of mountains and still clings to Christ.  She knows my prayer, even as I know hers.  Our individual struggles for wholeness have run on parallel paths, and by God’s grace we have been present to uphold, strengthen, and encourage one another at significant points in our respective histories.  Four years ago we were housemates, putting the very fiber of our friendship to the test.  Liturgy was an important part of our routine, one that strengthened our faith as well as our relationship.  In addition to using the Morning and Evening Prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, we composed several of our own to reflect our callings – present and (hopefully) future.  Recently I asked her if she still had those prayers we wrote, and together we marveled at how appropriate they still are for both of us.

One of those prayers has again become part of my routine.  I pray to remind myself that although I cannot see God’s hand at work, I still trust that He is working things out for my good and His glory.  I pray to remember the prayers He has answered, the wonderful things He has done in my life, the way He has cared for, led, and protected me.  But I also pray because I still hope, I still wait.  And time and circumstance have not altered this desire – though gratefulness has tempered the sense of urgency that used to accompany it.  Petitioning for the future helps me remain in the present.

So then, here is our prayer – one that many others share, I am sure.

Lord, we know that all things are in your hands.  We want your will a whole lot more than we want our own.  Yet you have created us with these desires: husband, home, family.  So we want to be honest: Lord, we do want these things.  We humbly ask for them.  Father, would you give us husbands we can honor – men after your own heart.  Men who will match, fit, and balance us.  Lord, we ask for this sooner rather than later – but we want your best, no matter what the timing is.  And Father, we know your best may include singleness.  If that is the case, give us grace to live full lives in singleness.  God, keep us from planning, scheming, or searching this out as you ask us to wait.  Keep our hearts pure in our relationships with our brothers.  Lord, we submit our desires – our whole lives – to you.  Married or single, may we honor and glorify you in ALL that we are, by the grace and mercy of your precious Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Enchanted Dragons

Last week I realized it had been quite a while since I had ventured into the enchantment known as Narnia.  The discovery and subsequent exploration of Tolkien’s Middle-earth has taken precedence over the known world of Lewis’ Narnia for three years now, and though I am constantly finding new books to delight my soul, I know I also need to draw comfort from the familiar at times.  And certainly Narnia is familiar – and beloved.

Unlike my introduction to Middle-earth, I do not remember when I first encountered Narnia. I do remember hearing several of the Chronicles read aloud by my dad during my childhood bedtimes – his favorite was The Horse and His Boy, and the most memorable was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (thank you, Eustace Clarence Scrubb – “who almost deserved it”).  I know that “Aslan!” was a part of my vocabulary from a young age.  The idea of beautiful clothes that are also comfortable is a Narnian concept that I unconsciously attempt to put into practice in my daily life, and the image of Aslan (or Christ) as not safe and yet good has informed my thoughts on theology since well before I could label them as such.

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At various stages of my healing journey, I have repeatedly turned to one particular metaphor from the Chronicles.  It is the one I find most hopeful when I grapple with pain and change and the ugliness I face in the dark places of my heart.  It has to do, of course, with Eustace.  Early in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is a spoiled prig who wants nothing to do with magic, Narnia, or sailing – or his cousins (King) Edmund and (Queen) Lucy, for that matter.  His presence aboard the Dawn Treader is most unwelcome simply because he does everything he can to make a nuisance of himself.  Yet his actions ultimately bear fruit that causes even Eustace to rethink everything: he becomes a dragon.  Naturally, it is not a comfortable thing to become a dragon (who cannot speak) when one’s whole company is either human or of the Talking Beast variety.

In the lonesomeness of dragon-ness, Eustace begins to change for the better.  But his own efforts are insufficient, and the dissolution of the dragon-spell must come from one far mightier than Eustace himself.  In the dark of night, Eustace-the-dragon finds himself led to a mountaintop bathing-well by Aslan.  The desire to be clean – and rid of his dragon-ness – launches a process much like peeling an onion.  Laboriously, Eustace attempts to shed his dragon skin by peeling one layer at a time.  He soon recognizes that his efforts are getting him nowhere, and the only way to be truly free is to allow the Lion to rip the scales off.  Though the pain is excruciating, Eustace willingly submits to the ordeal because he yearns for both mental and physical relief.  Once he steps into the pool stripped of the external dragon, he becomes human again.

I am the same way.  Obviously, I have not assumed the physical form of a dragon, but there have been times when my behavior or mental state is best described as dragon-ish.  Only when I come to the end of myself do I have any hope of finding relief.  Only One who is mightier than I can peel away layers of dirt, fear, pain, and brokenness to reveal His creation of humanity beneath.  So each time I despair of moving forward, of making progress, of healing, I remember Eustace and the dragon.  And my hope is renewed.

Rebuilding Forgotten Mountains

If there’s one passage of Scripture I could avoid for the rest of my life, it would probably be Matthew 5-7 – the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters were the shape of my early life, and my existence now very often includes undoing damage that was done in the name of “education” or “character” in those days. “And seeing the multitudes…” used to launch a rapid-pace recital of the Beatitudes and all that follows, complete with memory-aiding hand motions. I knew every word, because every word had been carefully dismantled for me, torn asunder from context, and presented as the answer to any problem I would ever encounter in life. Over a dozen years of hyper-in-depth study of one passage proved to be a sure-fire way to kill truth. Because I was taught the passage meant everything, it came to mean nothing.

So when my pastor announced last month that he was taking a hiatus from a multi-year exposition on the book of Isaiah for a “brief” series on the Sermon on the Mount, I was not enthused. Although I have put some distance between myself and the years of Scripture-by-rote, there are still a few nerves that are easily exposed – and Matthew 5-7 was one of those nerves. Spending ten weeks in my least-favorite passage of Scripture seemed like a perfect setup for yet another spiritual crash.

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While I knew in theory that my experience of the Sermon on the Mount was not mainstream, I still feared revisiting the passage that had formed the roots of my old life. I am not alone on this particular journey; the community of Recovering Grace has proven that to me. Yet even though I could give mental assent to the idea of “Post-It Notes on a Work of Art,” I did not think I was capable of finding healing in wounds that went so deep.

How easy it is to forget God’s grace.

From that first sermon six weeks ago, I have been captivated anew by truth – and how truth brings freedom. There are many things in my life that have met a dividing line at my church; I shouldn’t be surprised that the Sermon on the Mount is now on that list. Yet I am surprised, again and again and again, that things I took for granted – under which I groaned in anguish – these things were not truth! How amazing it is to me, week in and week out, that Christ does not bring drudgery nor despair, but rather joy and peace! The law that bound and gagged me had already been fulfilled!

It will take time – time and love and patience – to find the truth and let it settle in my life, ousting doubt and fear. But I am unspeakably grateful to be in a place where I am encouraged to seek answers outside the four walls of a particular building, outside the mental walls of a particular idea, even outside the bounds of specific teachers. I am encouraged to question, to read on my own, to discuss and form my own opinions of what is presented to me. I need not agree simply to keep the peace. There is truth to be had for the asking!

Thinking and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Learning to think was not a process that came naturally or quickly for me.  In fact, thinking for oneself was tacitly discouraged throughout my growing up – mostly because thinking would inevitably lead to disagreement, but also (and this was never said in so many words) because I was a girl.  Oddly enough, whenever I exhibited a tendency to reason logically, my dad would reprimand me and point out that “logic doesn’t work on people.”

So I spent the first 21 years of my life blindly trusting those “God put in authority” over me.  I trusted them to think for me, protect me, and direct my every decision.  Though my parents were passive about the authority they exerted over my life, I was determined to live by the rules – to earn God’s blessing, naturally – and thus wholeheartedly “gave up my right” to think for myself.  I was raised in a culture where this was the “godly” thing to do.

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I still remember the day when the first real fissure appeared in my mind.  It was, fittingly, a bright, hot summer day, and I was sitting in the membership class of the church my family had been attending for just a few short months.  I had my green membership notebook and my Bible open on my lap, and I remember soaking up the discussion of Reformed Theology as if I’d been handed the moon.  In an unconscious effort to protect us from overtaxing our minds, my parents never discussed theology, philosophy, literature, psychology, or major portions of world history, so I had never been exposed to the idea that theology is actually the study of God – and how belief in and about God affects everyday life.  It was the first time I had encountered theology outside of a male argument (I had overheard enough to know that theology was a reason to fight about God), and I was enthralled.  Theology was for me, too?  And it wasn’t about fighting?!

Oh, and my pastor said that grace was a free gift – unmerited favor, he called it.

I had never heard of such a thing.

Until that day, all my information and instruction about faith had come from essentially one source.  And I had believed all of it.  And – until that day – I had never questioned it.

One shaft of light, and suddenly my entire existence shifted.  Once darkness had been banished and sight had come, it was impossible for me to envision a world where one person had all the answers.  My beginning may have been slow and it may have been “late” by contemporary standards (I was 21 and had finished my junior year of college – and college, incidentally, had nothing to do with learning how to think, though both in and out of the classroom I encountered plenty of “new” ideas), but I took the concept of using my own brain quite seriously once I had begun.

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.”   ~ Tim Keller

I’m developing my voice, and I do not intend to stop.

 

Light like Dolphins

I love the beach.

There’s something about crashing surf, the pungent scent of saltwater marshes, and constant wind tangling my hair that feels more like home to me than any other place on earth.  I am alive here in a way that eludes me during ordinary life, and I am grateful the shore has always been such a sweet place for me.  This week I am on vacation with my parents and most of my siblings, and I am in my favorite place on earth.

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This island holds many wonderful memories: my first time behind the wheel (of a car), my first time at the helm (of a sailboat), the worst sunburns I’ve had in my life, jumping waves and getting mouthfuls of sand and saltwater when I got tumbled by waves, late night games of Cancellation Hearts or Tripoley, feeling ravenously hungry for my Mom’s meat sauce on spaghetti after a long day on the beach, and a few epic sand castles.  But most of all, when I think of the beach, I think of Granddad.

Granddad was my rock growing up.  A brilliant scientist with degrees in engineering from Drexel and MIT, Granddad’s life was one of problem-solving.  During my lifetime (his retirement), he was fascinated by the potential of personal computing – and is solely responsible for my lifelong attachment to all things Apple.

Among many other things, Granddad taught me to love the beach.  When he died – suddenly, at the age of 80 – I was devastated.  I decided that loving people cost too much.  I was 18, and I resolved to never again feel such anguish.  So I bottled my emotions and determined not to feel.  It was an act of self-preservation, or so I thought.

Last summer, I began to wonder what life would have been like if I’d had Madeleine L’Engle beside me – at least in spirit – as I learned about grief.  I’d read her Wrinkle in Time quintet and decided to keep going with Meet the Austins and subsequent books.  I have enjoyed L’Engle’s writing quite a bit, and often found certain passages to be particularly moving.  However, I was totally unprepared for the emotions that would be unleashed by the fourth book in the Austin Chronicles: A Ring of Endless Light.

It’s summertime on an island in New England, and the entire Austin family knows this will be their last summer with their beloved, wise Grandfather.  In addition to quoting John Donne, Henry Vaughan, and Elie Wiesel, L’Engle skillfully deals with the myriad emotions surrounding death.  How do you love someone you know you’re going to lose?  How do you continue living when you’ve lost someone you love?  Why are love and pain so very intermixed?!

Grandfather summarizes the message of the book in one simple sentence: “When one tries to avoid death, it’s impossible to affirm life.”  I finally recognized that in my own life, I had taken to avoiding anything that seemed painful – which meant that I was living a life affirming nothing. I was living a life of negatives instead of a life of positives.  And I was reaping the consequences; life was heaviness and darkness to me.

Gradually I have begun allowing life to illumine my emotions – my hopes, dreams, and desires.  It is a frightening but exhilarating process to admit that life has been lived in fear rather than faith.  My pastor regularly encourages faith as the antidote to fear – a new experience for me.  I had been taught to fear nearly everything in my life, and to come out the other side and find the brightness of faith is a little unnerving at times.

That first crack of light was the hardest.  Medication helped, as did good friends and a wonderful counselor.  A year has passed since I first read about the dolphins and Grandfather and sorting out mixed-up emotions.  A pod of dolphins swam by our beach early in this vacation, reminding me that my own sorting-out has actually progressed quite a bit since last reading L’Engle.  So I have spent my spare moments this week re-reading A Ring of Endless Light – grateful for grace that has shown me that light.  I think I will always need reminders that personal transformation comes about slowly.

Let the light continue growing!

The Birth of Adventure

Over the past few years, I have explored many new worlds through fiction, poetry, and my own special brand of doubt.  My personal library has more than tripled in size, and I copy long, important passages from beloved books into my journals to capture the beauty of perfectly-turned phrases.  But I must place credit where credit is due: this personal revolution was launched by movies.

It was October 2011, and I was in Colorado with others who were, like me, planning to spend a significant amount of time overseas as missionaries.  My five weeks did not get off to a stellar start: my plane sat on the tarmac in my home city for over two hours before finally taxiing to the runway, and I subsequently missed my connecting flight AND all the introductions as the training got underway.  When I entered the classroom the next morning, everybody else already knew each other – and that only served to feed my already-heightened introvert sense of intimidation.  The first two weeks passed in a blur – mostly of watching my mouth in a mirror as I attempted to form sounds completely foreign to one born and raised with American English.  Not everyone who attended the first two weeks would be staying on for the last three, so after goodbyes, the 15 of us remaining found ourselves looking at each other with a whole weekend of uninterrupted “bonding” ahead of us.

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After lunch, a walk to the lake, and a trip to Walmart, we decided on a group activity: a movie marathon.  But not just any movie marathon.  We had three nights before the newbies arrived for the next phase of our training, so a series of three made sense.  And so it was that The Lord of the Rings entered my life.

I always remembered my dad saying he’d had nightmares after reading The Lord of the Rings, and that was all the explanation given for why J. R. R. Tolkien was not even permitted in the house.  Since the rest of my companions had already seen the movies – multiple times – they kindly agreed to tell me when it would be wise to cover my eyes.  Looking back, I see just how much love and grace went into that movie marathon.  I see how I must have looked to my friends: I was frightened of my own shadow, finding demons where none existed, and fearful that I might forfeit my soul to the occult by watching the wrong movie.

How little I knew of grace.

But in a show of amazing love, not only did we watch all three movies together, but my dear friends managed to watch without giving away what was going to happen!  They let me experience The Lord of the Rings with brand-new eyes.  They laughed with me, cried with me, and rejoiced with me as I experienced a true eucatastrophe.

I found hope.  I found grace.  I met the Real Jesus in The Lord of the Rings.

It would be another six months before I managed to read the complete Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but since then I have not stopped reading Tolkien’s work, each time finding anew the promises of life beyond hope, victory against all odds, and the joy of good triumphing over evil.  I became a fan overnight, and the deeper I delve into Middle-earth, the more Truth I find to sustain me through dark nights and grey days.  The power of story literally changed my life.

 

On Becoming a Rebel [II]

[…continued from part I…]

I did not intend to become a rebel that day.

It was summertime, and I wanted a book to enjoy in the spare moments I found between responsibilities.  I remember sitting at a picnic table in the shade at our swim club, oblivious to life around me.  I stumbled upon Faërie for the very first time, but had no words to describe what was happening to me.  Though I had “escaped” into books before, nothing came close to the magic I felt as I read The Blue Castle.  I had discovered a new world.

Perhaps it was simply because I had never found words that bared my soul before.  And piercing words I found in abundance.  From the very first page, I knew Valency and I were kindred spirits.  Though she lived within a book and my existence involved more oxygen, I could see the world through her eyes – because they were like mine.  I had never met a heroine as honest as she.

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The first chapter of The Blue Castle was saturated with experiences I thought were unique to my life.  It was as though L. M. Montgomery had a window into my being and had simply changed a few details to protect my identity.  Her name was Valency, not Susanna. She was 29, not 15.  She had no siblings, whereas I had more than a handful.  But both Valency and I felt we had the same lot in life: an insignificant existence in which the primary ruling factor was fear of offending someone in authority.  I never dreamed I would someday be, as Valency was, “twenty-nine and unsought by any man.”  Yet I shared her tears then as I do now.

With Valency’s transformation, however, I met someone who found the freedom to be herself – and found love and meaning and purpose in the process.

And I wondered if freedom might be possible for me, too, someday.

I could easily relate to Valency’s hopelessness; her thwarted desire to enjoy a good book or simply be alone with her thoughts.  I understand, now more than ever, the longing she had to be desired, loved, and cherished, yet autonomous and purposeful in and of herself.  I felt her heart’s cry, for it was mine.  It is mine.

Though I was only fifteen and could not hope to foretell the future, I did hope that my future would be akin to Valency’s.  So though The Blue Castle was quickly black-listed and I was forbidden to read it, the memory of that hope stayed with me through the years.  When I rediscovered the enchantment of Valency’s story ten years later, it was in the throes of discovering true freedom for myself.  The rebellion had come full circle.  I will never stop reading her story.  I can never stop living mine.

On Becoming a Rebel [I]

I have always loved to read.  My Mom taught me to read when I was five years old – by opening a large-print King James Bible to Matthew 5 and showing me how to add sounds together.  Something clicked, and I’ve been spinning words around ever since. As I’ve mentioned before, my reading choices were somewhat limited growing up.  My parents wanted to raise a “wholesome” family, and anything that could possibly undermine “wholesomeness” (for example, magic, romance, violence, Faërie, or anything that went against the Christian Tradition) was off-limits.  This is how I found the world outside.

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During my teen years I moved from surreptitiously borrowing church library books to reading real library books on the sly.  Since I started volunteering at our public library when I was 11, I had read all the “easy” non-fiction (juvenile and adult alike) that piqued my interest even the slightest by the time I was 16.  I think half of what I read in James Herriot’s books went straight over my head, but they were non-fiction stories from a rural English vet that were too medical for my Dad to screen and too thick for my Mom to screen.  And I loved them.

In eighth grade, I became something of a World War II nerd.  I ploughed through tomes by Stephen Ambrose and watched documentaries on the Pacific Theatre’s major battles with my Dad.  My specialty was the Allied Invasion of occupied Normandy, France, or, as it’s more commonly known, D-Day – June 6, 1944.  I could rattle off places and names and landing gear and divisions at the slightest provocation.  My Grandfather was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and though he never talked about it, I learned as much as I could from his written reminisces on life.

Though I read constantly, I was always hungry for more story, more mystery, more possibilities, more deep beauty than what I found in the “reality” of non-fiction.

The fiction I found in the church library – Ben Hur, The Big Fisherman, The Robe, Christy – was a good start, but usually left me wanting more.  Jane Austen was predictable, though witty and clever.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was brilliantly frightening.  I had repeatedly read the five Chronicles of Narnia (out of seven) that were approved; C. S. Lewis’ non-fiction had not yet commanded my attention.  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was memorable, not least because when I finally closed the book and switched off my flashlight, the pre-dawn darkness revealed an April snowstorm outside my window.

Though fiction was generally restricted, my parents understood that a decent education involved reading some “classics” and so carefully steered me towards conservative, “safe” books.  But then one day I discovered the YA Fiction section in the library.  Before that day, I had not much thought about L. M. Montgomery’s work aside from the six Anne books I owned.  Before that day, every book I’d ever read had gone on my reading list as proof that education was indeed taking place.  My parents had approved – explicitly or implicitly – all my reading choices up to that point.

I did not intend to become a rebel that day.

[…to be continued…]