Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Surviving With Grace

I Survived Cancer But Never Won the Tour de France
by Jim Chastain

I happened on this book by chance, actually through Facebook. I have never met Jim Chastain, but he is married to a friend of mine from high school. After reconnecting with L. on Facebook after more than 20 years, I learned that her husband had written this book about his experience with cancer. Jim writes with extraordinary honesty, clarity, pathos and (incredibly) humor about the aggressive cancer that attacked his tricep muscle seven years ago. Doctors performed three surgeries trying to save his arm, but eventually had to amputate his arm at the shoulder.

Jim wrote his book after the third surgery, and then an epilogue shares the news that the cancer returned yet again and the doctors at M.D. Anderson believed that their only choice was to amputate the arm. After Jim lost his arm, he was cancer free for about three years. Sadly, there is now another postscript that is even more grim. About a year and a half ago, the cancer came back - this time in Jim's liver. Stage IV. He has been given months, not years, to live. I knew this later information by the time I read the book, which I think made his strength and courage all the more apparent and touching to me.

I Survived Cancer... is excellent reading for people who have cancer, people who work with cancer patients, and people who love a cancer patient. Jim brings in the spiritual perspective without being overly pious or expecting God to just swoop in and cure him. With compassion and good humor, he talks about the wacky things some people say in their efforts to be helpful; but he also appreciates the heartfelt concern behind those efforts and recognizes that people often stick their feet in their mouth because they just do not know WHAT to say. Without resorting to platitudes, Jim puts out there for our benefit what he has learned about living life to the fullest, savoring the small details of life, and accepting what we cannot control. At the same time, he lets us in to his own times of despair, depression, and regret, demonstrating that he is not some kind of super cancer dude - he is a real person coping with fear and loss and grief.

For those who are interested in following Jim's situation, he has started a blog called "Life is Real," in which he shares with us his experiences during this process of facing cancer and, in all probability, the end of his earthly life. My heart goes out to Jim, his wife L., and to their two beautiful children, and I keep them in my prayers daily. I thank him for writing a beautiful book. His wise and courageous words are a wonderful legacy that he leaves and from which we all can benefit.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Week in Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis

Hello, reading friends. No, I have not dropped off the face of the earth, nor have I stopped reading. I hurt my back and have been in bed for most of the past week. Things are looking up now, but my back is still stiff and sore and I can tell it will be awhile before I move through the day with my usual vigor. By coincidence, I started reading The Magician's Nephew the same day I injured myself. I've been aware of the Narnia books for years, but had never read them. My husband E. likes them a lot, but I had resisted them largely because I have never been able to get into Tolkein's Lord of the Rings series (try as I might), and I mistakenly thought that the Narnia books would be the same.

However, I recently got interested in reading The Magician's Book, which is one woman's memoir about what the Narnia books meant to her and how they continue to affect her life and perspective. T. and S. sent me The Magician's Book for my birthday, and I had decided that before reading it I would read at least a couple of the Narnia books to get a sense of them. But, I found myself captivated by the Narnia books themselves. Because I was laid up for several days, I just kept reading them, and plowed through the whole series in a week. I am glad to have read them all, but think I will probably have to go back at some point and read them more slowly. The combination of pain meds and the speed with which I read them is causing some of the details to get a little fuzzy already.

I found the Chronicles of Narnia to be thoroughly enchanting (isn't that a Narnia-esque word?) and cannot wait to share them with my two boys. I love how the world of Narnia is created by Aslan's singing, and how the children are the leaders there. One of my favorite quotes from the books comes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy asks her new friends the beavers if Aslan is safe. The male beaver responds:

"Safe? Of course he's not safe. He's the king! But he's good." Isn't that how we feel (or should feel) about the God who created us and who is (or should be) Lord of our lives?

I also liked in the final book, The Last Battle, when a repentant Calormene, a worshipper of Tash, asks Aslan for mercy. Aslan responds "Any good you have done, whether you realize it or not, you did in my name and for me. Likewise, anyone who does evil to another in my name is no true servant of mine." Lewis made a pretty fair attempt there to deal with the issue of religious pluralism. It's not a "all religions are the same" letting us off the hook, but a way to begin creeping through the maze of acknowledging and proclaiming our truth while acknowledging that there is truth to be found in other traditions.

Something that bothered me about the books was that the human Narnians were always described as "fair haired" and "light skinned" and the Southern enemies, the Calormenes, are "dark" and "swarthy," "savage and barbaric." The books were written in the 1950s and I guess Lewis (whether he was aware of it or not) played into the racial stereotypes that prevailed at the time. Now, 50 years later, I find those stereotypes disconcerting and offensive, but tried to keep in mind the times in which the stories were written. The books also have more violence in them than I am typically comfortable with, with children fighting with swords and arrows. I believe, though, that Lewis intended the fights to be metaphorical for the ongoing cosmic struggle between good and evil. I can deal with contextual, metaphorical violence better than I can the gratuitous and the gory.

So, are there any Narnia-philes out there? E. and I have been talking about the books a lot around our house. Here are some questions for discussion (with my responses in italics) - jump in!

What is your favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia?
Either "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" or "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." I was also very moved by the ending of "The Last Battle," but did not find it as fun to read as the other ones.

Who is your favorite human character in the books?

Who is your favorite non-human character? (Just to be fair, let's exclude Aslan).
Reepicheep or Puddleglum

What character seems the most transformed by what he/she experiences in Narnia?
Edmund. Or wait. Maybe Eustace.

Aslan is clearly a representation of both God and Christ. Were there characters or events that seemed like a representation of the Holy Spirit?
For me, the glorious music as Aslan created Narnia in "The Magician's Nephew" and Aslan's breath blowing Eustace and Jill to Narnia in "The Silver Chair."

There is gentle humor in the Narnia Chronicles, but I would not call them side-splittingly funny. Were there any parts that were more overtly humorous?
I laughed out loud at the Monopods in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

I had intended to jump right into The Magician's Book after finishing the series, but find I need to process the books a little more, and also need to get immersed in another world for awhile. However, I will probably read it and post on it fairly soon, so stay tuned!
Oh - what IS Turkish Delight, anyway?

By the Lion's Mane,

Reverent Reader

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Still Searching...

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68
by Taylor Branch

Taylor branch's trilogy is a must for history buffs, especially people who are fascinated with the 1960s, as I am. His detail work and scholarship are exemplary, yet the books read smoothly and their flow is logical. I am endlessly fascinated with the Civil Rights Movement - if I were ever to pursue formal education again, it would likely be in some study of that time period. At Canaan's Edge is the third of the series and focuses on the years 1965-68 (the trilogy starts in 1955, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, often seen as the kickoff to the movement itself). Not only does Branch take us inside the leadership of the movement and the personalities who shaped it (Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Lyndon Johnson, and so many others), he also explains the intricate tensions between the Civil Rights activists and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Eventually the two causes found themselves inextricably intertwined, but at the time there was much angst over whether or not the civil rights leaders should even take a position on Vietnam - they were already suspected Communists (thanks mostly to false smears leaked by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI), and feared that speaking out against the war would lose support for black people's tenuous gains in voting, education, and jobs.

At Canaan's Edge also describes the breaking away of some of the early civil rights leaders (notably James Bevel and Stokely Carmichael) from Martin Luther King's commitment to the Ghandian principle of nonviolence, the rise of the Black Power Movement, and King's isolation and loneliness in the waning days of his life. An often forgotten development in King's thought is his realization in his final years of all the ways that poverty is linked to racial injustice. At the time of his death, he was designing a cross racial poor people's campaign to raise awareness of the issue and press federal and state governments to do more to create jobs. The King years (defined by Branch as 1955-68) were a turbulent time for our country, but clearly necessary. It is the steadfastness of so many visionaries, including (but not limited to) King in the face of violence, jail, harassment and death threats that inspires me. I am so grateful for the women and men of that era who put themselves in harm's way so that my generation could live in a better, fairer, nation. Branch's descriptions of King's struggles with exhaustion and depression are telling. Many people paid a terribly high price so that we could be where we are today.

In King's last speech, delivered in Memphis the night before his assassination, he described having seen the "promised land." In some eerie foreshadowing, he said to the city sanitation workers struggling to unionize that "I may not get there with you, but that's okay, because I have seen it and I know we will reach it." Branch's books show us how far we have come, but anyone who is paying any attention knows that we are not all the way there yet. Reading about these courageous yet flawed human beings who put their lives in jeopardy for justice is inspiring for any of us who are trying to figure out our purpose in the 21st century. So many - including King, in spite of his well-known sexual adventures) were motivated by faith and grounded in scripture. I wonder what our generation could do if we internalized the promises and commands of the Bible in the way that these people did?

Branch's books do not read fast. They are long and call for about a two-week investment of reading time. However, they are well worth the effort and are as clear a window into the King years as I have ever read.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hard to Make this Funny

The Wordy Shipmates
by Sarah Vowell

Any of you who have followed Ex Libris Fides for awhile know that I am a Sarah Vowell fan. She is hilarious and she knows her stuff. She presents history in a way that brings out the characters' personalities and makes them real people instead of dry words on a page about people who lived three and a half centuries ago (in the case of the first Puritans). Nevertheless, The Wordy Shipmates, while worth reading, is not my favorite of Sarah's books. That would be Assassination Vacation.

The Wordy Shipmates is a helpful read, because it clearly outlines the differences between the Pilgrims (1620, Mayflower, Separatists) and the Puritans (1630, Arbella, Purifiers). Her focus is on the latter group, and she presents the distinctions between the two groups in a way that is readable and engaging. To the extent that it is possible, Vowell has fun writing about the Puritans and their interesting worldview. That's the problem, though - this is a disturbingly uptight group of people. Talk about humor impaired. There is not a lot that's funny about people who burn women suspected of being witches, banish those who deviate from doctrine in the slightest bit, and commit genocide against the Indians. Where Sarah Vowell's quirky humor is a wonderful antidote for boredom when reading about presidential history, there is something about the rigid piousness (that word is awfully close to "poisonous" isn't it? hmmmm) of the Puritans that does not lend itself to a lighthearted outlook. Not Vowell's fault, she does the best she can. It's the material itself.

From seminary courses in Church History, I am aware of the links between those early Puritans and the Presbyterians as we know them today. I wonder what Calvin would have thought about the ways his ideas were applied by his early adherents. Come to think of it, he was not exactly known as a fun guy either. However, Calvin is like any other theologian - his works have to be consistently reread and reinterpreted for the context in which they exist, whether that was then or today. I guess we have to give the Puritans that same courtesy, difficult as it is. I suppose they were doing the best they could in their time to be faithful, just as we are in ours. The changes that have taken place in our country since the Puritan heyday does give us some hope in human capacity to learn and change. Thanks be to God.

Sometimes it is harder to picture being alive 400 years ago than 2,000. I'm glad I'm living when I am. Even though it is not my favorite of her books, The Wordy Shipmates is worth the time it takes to read it. It gives us another glimpse of our heritage as Americans and (in some of our cases) as Christians and Presbyterians. If it is true that those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it, then everyone should read this book. The second half of the 1600s is not a place to which we want to return.

Reverent Reader

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unconditional Love

Lark and Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips

This. Is. A. Beautiful. Book. There really is no way I can do it justice. I'm envious of someone who can write as evocatively and tenderly as Jayne Anne Phillips. Lark and Termite will break your heart. Several times over. Its symbolism is provocative without being in your face. The descriptions are thorough without being draggy. The characters are people we know.

Termite is a profoundly handicapped child, being raised by his Aunt Nonie and his sister Lark. The cause of Termite's condition is never specifically given, but it is clear that his ability to communicate is compromised and that he will never live independently. Nonie cares for both her niece and nephew (their parents are dead) with a gruffness that occasionally belies her fierce loyalty and deep love. Nonie's boyfriend Charlie and the sadness of the lost years between them add another layer of melancholy to a story that is already steeped in sadness.

As sad as it is, though, Lark and Termite is no downer. Lark's total acceptance of Termite as he is, her utter conviction that Termite is the way God intended him to be and that he is a gift from God, informs every decision that she makes. The reader falls in love with her and roots for her every step of the way. Her determination to do the right thing for her little brother, her determination to advocate for this one who cannot speak for himself, is Christ's sacrificial love embodied in the life of a human teenager (not a group normally known for their empathy and caring, but I think we often underestimate them). Even when she has a chance to escape the depressed West Virginia town where she has grown up, Lark will not put her own needs first, and she refuses to leave until she finds a way to take Termite with her.

Phillips does a tremendous job depicting Termite. It is so hard to permeate the exterior of people who cannot communicate, but Phillips lets us in just enough to help us perceive his specialness while still letting the ambiguities concerning exactly what he is feeling and thinking remain. As a writer, it must be so difficult to create a character like Termite, but we all have known people like him. She is able to express the truth that people like Termite have spirits that seek to be loved and hearts that need to feel secure and cared for. In that respect, they are not so different from the rest of us.

Lark's sacrifice is paralleled with the death of Termite's father, told in flashbacks, as he saves the lives of two children in the midst of a battle in the Korean War. Various characters throughout the narrative, which spans about a 10 year period, show that there are some things, be they principles or people, for which it is worth surrendering our lives. That's a good thing to remember during Lent. Get this book. It is a must read.

Oh, and how about that flood scene? The rats? Shudder.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Reputation: Portraits in Power
by Marjorie Williams
edited by Timothy Noah

Marjorie Williams was a political writer for the Washington Post and Vanity Fair magazine until her premature death in 2005 of liver cancer. She was well-known in this area, and to have her write one of her tough but fair biographical profiles was a sort of rite of passage for people who aspired to be among the real players on the national government scene. After her death, at the request of many of her friends and admirers, Williams' husband Timothy Noah published The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of several of her best political profiles plus some much more personal essays having to do with marriage, parenting, and (especially moving), her own thoughts about cancer and the tragedy of her own life being cut way too short.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo made Williams posthumously famous on a much more national scale, and deservedly so. Her political profiles are detailed, insightful, and often gently funny without being mean. I love the first line of her profile of one of our former First Ladies: "Even her stepmother is afraid of Barbara Bush." Zing. However, it was her personal essays that stuck with me and that I find myself going back to in my mind. She dealt with her own circumstances with an uncommon dose of grace and humor. She never specifically said if she practiced any kind of religious faith or was part of a spiritual community, but I learned a lot from her about coping with the unexpected, enjoying life in the present, and preparing her children for life without her. She was clearly an amazing woman, a gifted writer, and a thoughtful parent.

Reputation is a follow up publication to Zoo. It is a compilation of about a dozen more of her political portraits, including James Baker, George H.W. Bush, Clark Clifford, Patricia Duff, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Terry McAuliffe, Laura Ingraham, and Lee Atwater. The essays are interesting, juicy without being salacious or sensationalist, and (overused as the word may be) balanced. She did her homework and knew her subjects well. She was able to synthesize and present a lot of material in a readable way. I especially liked her essay about Lee Atwater - frankly I have always thought of him as pretty much a dirt bag. I still think that, but she humanized him and reminded me that people are complicated. The same person who plays dirty political tricks often believes that his or her ends justify the means, that they are working toward a higher ideal. We may disagree with his methods, but there was a straightforwardness about Atwater that one cannot help but grudgingly respect. There also were times when Atwater felt genuine remorse about ugly remarks he made in the heat of the political moment. He was a scoundrel, but he was honest about it, if that makes sense. Williams wrote the piece shortly before he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that killed him - considering what happened to her the foreshadowing seems eerie.

Reputation is a fun read, especially for people who live in the Washington area and frequently see these people on the news. However, if you have not read any of Williams' work, I recommend starting with The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Her personal essays are semi-hidden treasures, made all the more special because there will be no more of them. Many thanks to her husband for sharing both of these volumes with us.

Reverent Reader