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.

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…]

Living a Sonnet

I’ll never forget my first encounter with the sonnet.  While adequate, my schooling was not typical, and as I have settled into adulthood I have decided to fill in some of the blanks on my own.  Poetry as a whole was rather overlooked, unless one was reading the Psalms or Old Testament Prophets.  I didn’t know what a sonnet was until I was 28, and it took me another year to learn the distinction between English, Italian, and Spenserian sonnets.

That first glimpse of 14 lines of iambic pentameter was entirely by accident.

I was catching up in another arena of literature altogether: children’s fiction.  Throughout my childhood, reading fiction was discouraged.  Though I read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, and Marguerite Henry by the time I was 10 without much fuss, beyond that my reading tastes were directed more towards the “reality” of history, biographies, and non-fiction.  Fortunately, the realization that I was in control of my own reading diet came when I was surrounded by serious bibliophile friends.  Their suggested reading lists in the form of off-hand recommendations and group excursions to used book stores have opened my eyes to delights heretofore unknown.

So it was that I found myself reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Award-Winning classic, “A Wrinkle in Time.”

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A single afternoon was all the time I needed to devour the grace I found in that book.  My journal entry from that day says “my eyes weren’t dry at all” as I drank deeply of the beauty I found.  Fear had kept me away from L’Engle for a long time, but as I read I encountered only grace and beauty.

“We want nothing from you that you do without grace, or that you do without understanding,” Mrs Whatsit says to Meg, the young heroine of this sci-fi/fantasy series for children.  It was theology and physics mixed up in a way that made sense to me, though I had never studied either.  And then a glimpse of something I could have never guessed: perfect freedom within strict form, free will within predestination, art illustrating life.  The Sonnet.  “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  What you write is completely up to you,” Mrs Whatsit says.  She’s talking about living life well without knowing how things turn out.  Somehow, the words got through to my heart.

And so I began to live my sonnet.

I don’t know what it says yet.  I’m not even sure I know the theme.  But I am listening, and I am writing, and I am learning to rest and wait and pause until the right words come.

Hurt, Healing, and Writing

Pain is one of those human experiences that is universally feared and avoided.  Yet I have never met a human who has successfully dodged any kind of pain – physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.  I know I have experienced all four, and my response has been anything but gracious.  Instead, in my pain, I am far more likely to hurt someone else – whether or not I realize it.

Healing, by its very nature, requires feeling the hurt.

So there is a very fine balance between accepting enough of the hurt to heal and feeling so overwhelmed by the pain that I lash out or withdraw, thereby causing pain to someone else.

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I have tipped the scales multiple times in both directions over the past several years.  Though it is never my intent to hurt another, it is nearly impossible for my wounds to scab over without someone else feeling the heat of my emotions.  Thus, in chronicling my own journey of healing, I enter a treacherous land, where offense may be given or taken inadvertently and in my own quest to become whole I take the holes of others into my hands.  There is no exact science to guide me here: “Do this, but don’t do that.”  I am flawed and fallible and often do not know my own strength.  Though I journal almost constantly, it is only in front of a wider audience that I am forced to make my thoughts coherent (and thus concrete).  How then can I seek healing without causing more hurt?

Last summer, I found Lucy Maud Montgomery had put into words what I wanted to achieve.  Emily Byrd Starr is Montgomery’s heroine with whom I most closely identify, and in Emily Climbs I found words strung together that opened the windows of Faërie to me.  Here is what Emily says about writing and healing: “It is better to heal than to hurt… But here and now I record this vow, most solemnly, in my diary: My pen shall heal, not hurt” (p. 22).

That is my desire.  That is my goal in writing: to heal, not hurt.  It has taken time — time and grace and love and mercy — to get to this place.  I want more than anything to share that grace and love and mercy with others.