Monday, September 28, 2015

Why They Matter: Four Short & Highly Impacting Books

If you love to read, you know that some stories grab onto your heart and don't let go. Below are four fairly quick reads which took hold of me from the first time I sat down with them and have been just as meaningful with each reread. I decided to explore the reasons for not just why I believe they are worthy of being read, but are important, meaningful pieces of literature.

"The Diving Bell And The Butterfly", by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Bauby was a man who loved travel, food, life, and his prestigious job as the editor of the French edition of Elle magazine. Until a freak stroke while he was only in his forties left him with Locked-in Syndrome. A quadriplegic whose only means of movement and communication was to blink his left eye, he painstakingly created a story of purpose and hope even while suffering pain and lack of dignity. His paralyzed body was the diving bell which entrapped him, yet his mind was as free as a butterfly, able to remember and dream. 

Why it matters:
Because in a man's darkest time, when he has lost absolutely everything except the use of his mind, he is still able to fly away to places of vitality and beauty. While films such as "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Sea Inside" make heroes out of protagonists who are also paralyzed and wish to end their lives, Bauby's writing shows abundant thankfulness for the life he was given, along with being honest about the man he was and the mistakes he made. In return, he gives the world an astounding work of strength and hope.

"Treasures Of The Snow", by Patricia St. John
(Youth Adult)
Set in the alps of Switzerland, a young girl named Annette looses her mother the same night she gains a baby brother. One day a terrible accident happens, the fault of a boy named Lucien who has become a bully as the result of being bullied. Annette vows to never forgive Lucien, beginning a cycle of hate and cruelty for both of them. Until Lucien begins to change, dropping the bitterness which has begun to harden Annette. I probably read it first when I was about 10 and still love it, even still holding my breath during a treacherous journey in a snow storm, and crying at a final reveal.
Why it matters:
True forgiveness and change can't happen overnight.The characters experience very justifiable anger and must choose again and again if they will hold onto their fury or begin to forgive. It explores the cycle of bullying and how children are quick to chose peers to honor and to loathe. Few books tackle these topics in such a true and timeless way.

                                           "A Little Princess", by Francis Hodgeson Burnett
(Children's Literature)
Young Sara has had a lovely life living in India with her doting father. When he decides Sara needs a formal English education, he sends her to a boarding school along with opulent clothes and gifts. Everything is turned upside down when the school receives word that Sara's father is dead and her riches are gone. Without any family to claim her, she becomes a servant at the school. Grieving her father, Sara maintains her sweet spirit and generous nature, befriending those even worse off than herself and keeping a royal, untouchable dignity no matter her circumstances.

Why it matters:
Readers are challenged that instead of feeling sorry for Sara, they should instead pity the boarding school mistress who mistreats her out of envy and spite. It was never Sara's wealth which made her seem like a princess: it was her grace, and her practice of believing that everyone matters.

"Harrison Bergeron", by Kurt Vonnegut
(Short Story / Dystopian Fiction)
So short and concise it can be read through in minutes, this dystopian tale of a world with forced equality is quietly spectacular. There, everyone is forced to be average, until one man challenges the system and shows why talent, strength, beauty and intelligence shouldn't be masked or handicapped.

Why it matters:
Every child has likely whined, "That's not fair", at some point. But what if we lived in a world where 'fair' was defined by sameness and sameness equaled restrictions? Decades after being written, this short story continues to ignite questions of justice and the benefit or harm of government regulations on society.

Notes and links:

"The Diving Bell And The Butterfly" was also made into a beautiful French film.

Patricia St. John wrote a number of books for young readers set in various places around the world.

Francis Hodgeson Burnett is, of course, the author of a number of books, including the beloved classic "The Secret Garden". I highly recommend trying to find both in the editions featuring the gorgeous illustrations of Graham Rust.

"Harrison Bergeron" can be found in the short story collection "Welcome To The Monkey House". It was also adapted into a very moving 20-minute film titled "2081"

Monday, September 21, 2015


"You must do something to make the world more beautiful."
 - from the book "Miss Rumphius", by Barbara Cooney


When I was a little girl, I dreamed of someday building a greenhouse made from all different types of glass. The glass would be recycled from old windows and doors. Here and there would be old latches and doorknobs, combining with panes of all sizes to create one lovely and perfectly unique glass house.

On winter days, I would walk into the greenhouse to find it bursting with color and warmth. There would be Christmas poinsettias and tropical plants. I would shake off the cold and walk among the flowers and leaves which exuded life and vibrance in the midst of frost and chill. A glass garden made from antique things, supporting brand-new life.

It was my parents who first came up with the idea. They are both creative. My Dad designs homes and my Mom is talented at always making something beautiful and useful from nothing. The idea of creating a greenhouse from recycled glass latched onto my mind and grew into a vision. I can see the carefully collected panes of glass. I can see the skeleton going up, and each pane being fitted into place like pieces in a puzzle. Finally the door - green, with a brass knob - will be installed. Slowly I will fill the house with plants. It will be functional and yet full of whimsy. My whimsical glass greenhouse dream.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"The Skeleton Twins" and Conversations About Suicide

 "It always starts like this

A harmless and simple thing to fix
Contagious and spreading quick
Like cracks in ice
Wholly claiming our lives
While we sleep"

- "Heaven Breaks", by Sleeping At Last

September 10th is National Suicide Day. The organization "To Write Love On Her Arms" encourages people to talk about depression, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness; everything leading up to and surrounding suicide. This year, they led with  the message "We'll see you tomorrow". A simple statement, yet one burgeoning with hopeful confidence.

Early this year I watched the movie "The Skeleton Twins", a 2014 film which slipped quietly past the public eye. It's a comedy-drama about adult twins who are reunited after both attempting suicide on the same day. Obviously the difficult subject matter did not compel good box office sales, yet it is so well handled, so thoughtful, I fell in love with it.

The film opens with Kristin Wiig giving a voice-over to a scene with her character and her twin brother as children. She muses on their friendship, ending with a sad, "God. What happened to us?" In the next scene we see the adult version of her twin brother Milo, played by Bill Hader, who is writing a note, blasting 80's music, and slipping into a bathtub which slowly fills with blood. Cut to Maggie (Wiig), who is also in a bathroom, breathing hard and staring down at the pile of pills in her hand. Before she can swallow them, her phone rings. She is at first annoyed to hear a stranger on the other end, until she hears that Milo was just admitted to the hospital for attempted suicide. She glances down at the pills in shock.
"He's okay," the caller from the hospital states.
"Good. Thank you," Maggie says.

As the twins reunite in the hospital, Maggie says nothing about her own attempt at ending her life. Instead she acts like the one who has it all together, inviting Milo - gay and lonely, trying to become an actor, yet funny and caring - to come stay with her and her husband. Despite not having spoken in a decade, the two have an instant, easy bond, understanding each other and picking up where they left off. The reason for the separation, and for the darkness they each carry, is explained and explored. As they begin to confront their darkness, the question hovers: Will their friendship and love be enough to save them, or is it all too much? The acting is remarkable and the story is vividly layered. I've watched it again and again.

I think one reason I love the film is because it starts a conversation many people don't want to have. The need for counseling and medication is real and is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. God created us to need one other, to support and help with listening ears, truthful words, and even to give medicine which can balance out chemicals in the brain. After all, we don't tell someone with a broken leg, "Get rid of that crutch! Have more faith!" Or a blind person, "Walk by faith! You don't need that cane."

Relevant magazine recently published an article titled "Why Churches Need To Talk About Suicide"
 and "12 Stats You Need To Know On Suicide Prevention Day".  So - let's talk. Let's talk about depression and self-harm and mental health and loneliness. Likely you know someone who has attempted or committed suicide or struggles with one of the issues above. I do. I've been to the funeral of a friend's husband who took his life. I've sat down with a shy college student who wears long sleeves to cover the cuts on her arms, and the girl at Casa Adalia whose wrists are so lined with razor-blade cuts it's like running your finger across the pages of a book. I've knelt beside a girl shaking and crying from a panic attack. So many things which aren't pretty, but are instead messy and painful. So many things which must be acknowledged and talked about.

Whether it's a film or a friend which gets the conversation going, it's worth it. It's my conviction that saying, "Well, it doesn't effect me, I'm okay, so I don't need to talk about it," is not acceptable. One day I could have a sibling or close friend come to me and say, "I'm struggling with ..." and I need to be ready to respond with love. Or much, much, worse, to find that that person did not go to anyone, but simply took their life because they were too afraid of having a conversation in which they'd be judged, in which the person didn't know how to react and thus made them feel even more desperately alone. I'm not willing to wait and see what will happen. I'm here to talk about it. I'm here to say, "You are loved. There is hope." Together let's say, "Maybe we all have skeletons in our closets, but that's okay. We can talk about them. We'll see you tomorrow."

We'll pray for Heaven's floor to break,
Pour the brightest white on blackest space,
Come bleeding gloriously through
The clouds and the blue.
Forcing on place from two,
Filling formulaic views,
Only love proves to be the truth"