Monday, October 15, 2018

October 2018 Quick Lit: What I've been reading

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle by Sarah Arthur. 
This recently-released book reflects on the life and work of Madeleine L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time and over 50 other works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Arthur organizes her material according to paired concepts like Sacred and Secular, Faith and Science, Fact and Fiction, etc. L'Engle was both a revered and a controversial writer; while A Light So Lovely reveals aspects of her life that many of us may be unaware of, it also reinforces her influence as a writer of deep faith, intelligence, and imagination. Excellent book.

Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer by Jason Hague. 
In this memoir, released just a couple of weeks ago, Hague shares his journey as a dad coming to terms with his son Jack's autism diagnosis and learning more about prayer, dreams, and hope. So good and so real. You can read my full review HERE.

Only Dead On the Inside: A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse by James Breakwell.
I follow Breakwell (a.k.a. @XplodingUnicorn) on Twitter and enjoy his funny tweets about life with his wife, four young daughters, and pet pig*. Amazon has this to say about the book: "This step-by-step manual teaches you how to raise happy, healthy children in a world overrun by the undead." Just as silly and fun as it sounds. 
(*By the way, one of Jonathan's favourite things to do while we wait for the school bus is to watch a video Breakwell posted of his family singing Happy Birthday to their pig, Gilly, as it eats a watermelon birthday cake they've placed ceremoniously in the middle of their living room carpet.) 

  Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan.
If you picked this up thinking you were getting Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life, I have great news: this is not that book! I stumbled upon Tell Me More, which I'd never heard of, at the library this summer and it looked intriguing, so I took it out. Corrigan shares stories from her family life and friendships, focusing on 12 key phrases that are important in relationships -- phrases like "I was wrong," "I don't know," and of course "Tell me more." This book is a quick, enjoyable read with some profound takeaways. Some of the stories took a little long to get going, but overall I liked it a lot.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. 
This is the only piece of fiction I read since my last Quick Lit post, and it's an unusual one. In the first scene, Greek gods Hermes and Apollos make a bet over whether dogs would be happier or less happy than humans if they could speak and think like humans. They happen to be passing by a Toronto vet clinic, so they give human consciousness to the fifteen dogs inside. The rest of the book explores how this change affects the dogs as individuals and as a group. I read this for a book club, and it was certainly interesting to discuss issues the novel raises like what is happiness? how do we react to change? how do we experience time? etc. It is intriguing and original, but I can't actually say I enjoyed it: it felt choppy, and the overall atmosphere of the book was pretty bleak. 


I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or on anything you've been reading. Please comment! 


Friday, October 12, 2018

Five Minute Friday: PRAISE ("Excellent job!")

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, where we write for five minutes about a given prompt.

This week's word: PRAISE.

This morning I took Jonathan to the dentist for a checkup and cleaning.

Dentist visits with an autistic child can be challenging, but now that we've been going to this clinic for several years, Jonathan seems very comfortable with it. He actually looks forward to going, maybe in part because he likes being fussed over by all the women on staff. They also make sure to schedule him for the first appointment of the day, which ensures that our wait will be minimal.

One of his favourite people in the office is Erica, one of the dental hygienists. They greeted each other enthusiastically this morning. 

Erica knows about Jonathan's interest in garbage and recycling, and she knows that his favourite part of the appointment is throwing away all the trash: wrappers, gauze, used gloves and masks. 

So while Jonathan was lying in the chair, Erica said, "Look, I'll pile everything up here for you, and when we're all finished you can throw it away."

To Erica's great amusement, Jonathan replied, "Excellent job!"

He uses this expression when he sees someone shoveling a driveway or sweeping a floor or raking leaves.

He compliments fast food workers, janitors, garbage truck drivers, and construction workers.

Everyone needs praise.

Everyone needs to know they're appreciated for what they do.

Everyone needs, now and then, to be told they're doing an excellent job.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

A review of Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer (by Jason Hague)

Parents of autistic children are always looking for companions on the autism journey. Jason Hague's newly released book Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer provides that kind of companionship.

Jason writes in a vulnerable, honest way about his struggle to accept his son Jack's autism diagnosis and to form a real connection with Jack. But beyond the specific details of the Hague family's life, the book is really about deeper issues that we can all relate to:

  • how to balance hope and realism
  • how to accept the what-is without sinking into dull resignation
  • how to acknowledge struggle without trying to fix, escape, or seek pity
  • how to foster the potential in our children without making their achievements all about us. 

For Jason, faith in God is what helps resolve these tensions. However, faith is not presented as a panacea or a source of glib inspirational quotes (Jason specifically mentions the cliche so many of us love to hate: "God never gives you more than you can handle"), but as an anchor in times of real challenge and wrestling.

It's also clear throughout the book that autism is not an enemy. Jason doesn't talk about finding cures or reasons or about "fixing" Jack; rather, he emphasizes over and over the need to connect with autistic people, to participate in how they see the world (something he and his family do consistently, in beautiful and often funny ways), and to foster inclusion and acceptance. I have to say I just LOVED getting to know Jack in these pages. He is such an interesting boy, and I could see so much of Jonathan in him.

Toward the end of the book, Jason says, "My story was a messy one ... [but] if I can help other parents -- especially dads -- identify what they are feeling instead of telling them the way they ought to feel, they might, in the end, be better equipped to love their children the way they ought to. They might, in other words, become better fathers." 

I have little doubt that those who read this book will come away with new information, new insights, and a renewed sense of what we all share, regardless of the unique circumstances we face.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Whispering our stories

This Friday, it will be four years since my mom died.

This week I am reliving her last days. 

I had traveled from Ontario to PEI to spend a week with Mom and Dad in their apartment. Mom had been diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer several weeks earlier, and her prognosis (made tentatively, as all prognoses must be in cases like this) was 3-6 months.

The days started early: Dad is an early riser, and Mom would often be stirring before 7 a.m. Dad and I would help Mom to the bathroom, help her dress if she wanted to, help her to the breakfast table. Early in that week she would spend hours in the recliner chair in the living room, drifting in and out of sleep, sometimes making clear-yet-confused remarks.

"I wonder when this whole process is going to be over. I wish they'd just decide what day it's going to be."

"What, Mom?"

"The funeral, and all that."

"God will tell you when it's time," Dad said.

If the days started early, they ended early too -- at least for Mom and Dad. Often we would get Mom ready for bed right after supper; then Dad might decide to turn in as well, and soon I'd hear the two of them snoring away. I spent long hours in the evenings, reading, writing emails to my brothers, answering the phone, giving updates to relatives and friends.

It was mid-week when the shift to the next phase took place. Dad and I got up on the Wednesday morning, but Mom was deep in sleep. "Let's just let her be," I said, and Dad agreed -- as did the home care nurse when she arrived for her morning visit. "I think we are looking at days, not weeks, at this point," she said. "We may want to have the palliative team come."

That afternoon, while my mom slept, my dad and I, my brother, my aunts and uncle and cousin sat around the living room as the palliative care doctor and nurse explained what we could expect over the next few days and what options we had. Dad wanted to keep Mom home instead of having her admitted to the palliative unit. The doctor, who was warm and gentle, said that was fine and that we could change our minds at any time. The nurse, who was straightforward and a bit crusty, handed us her card and said, "If she's doing very poorly or you can't cope, don't call 911. Call me." There was a feeling of both apprehension and peacefulness in the room: we all realized the end was coming quickly, but we knew we were surrounded with people who would support Mom and us through the final stage.

The doctor told us about the medications they would prescribe to keep Mom comfortable over the last days; then she went into Mom's room and examined her. This was the first and last time they would see one another. "How are you feeling, Meredith?" the doctor asked kindly, taking Mom's hands.

"I think I just want to go," Mom said.

Four days after that, she died. I wasn't there for her last moments: I flew home the morning of the 28th, and she died that night. It had been a difficult decision, because I was needed in two places, but it was the right decision, and I knew she would agree. I had to let go of the desire to be there at the last. And when I said goodbye to her, she could no longer talk to me. Her eyes were wide and she moved her mouth, trying to speak, but she couldn't say any words. I had to let go of the wish for one last meaningful, mutual conversation. Perhaps she did, too: perhaps on some level she knew the moment was slipping away and couldn't be recaptured.

Over the past few days as I've been reliving and writing about these details, these moments, I found myself wondering why I am holding on to them so tightly -- why I have saved the emails and the Facebook messages and have read them over and over.

Before bed I sometimes like to read poetry to relax my mind. Last night I picked up John Blase's beautiful book of poems, The Jubilee, and opened it at random -- to this poem.

I Don't Believe I've Ever Told You

Are you ever afraid of dying?
I'm not talking about
the dying that will deposit you
directly into the Lord's presence (as some hold).
But the dying that will tear
you from the fabric of here,
here where you've seen wonders.
I don't believe I've ever told you I fear
that second kind of dying. But I do.
I'm telling you now because I've recently
seen how life changes in an ordinary instant,
reminds us we live in a game of gossip,
whispering our stories to the next in line.
We die. Then we're passed along in
another's tongue, and I'm afraid they'll
edit a crucial detail.

And instantly I understood. Yes. I want those details kept and known, exactly as they are. These are the words she used. This is what the room felt like. This is how she looked as I said goodbye.

But those are just my "crucial details." Maybe Mom had her own details that she hoped, at the end, wouldn't be edited out. I remember a couple of times in her last years she said to me, "Do you remember me yelling at you kids?" I was a mom myself by then, and each time I just laughed and said, "Oh, not at all -- I must have blocked it out." I realize now she was asking me, "Was I a good mother?" and I evaded the question with a joke. Now I wish I had answered a little more pointedly: "I do remember that -- but I also remember what a wonderful, caring, involved, sacrificial mom you've been. A little yelling can't change that." When I sat at her bedside for the last time, I told her she had been the best mom. I'm honestly not certain she understood me, but I choose to believe she did. And I have to let go, too, of my regret over not giving her more heartfelt reassurance back in those times when she was so obviously seeking it.

And maybe that's kind of the point. At the end of his poem, John Blase leaves his fears unresolved -- and I'm glad. I'm glad he doesn't tie the poem up neatly with platitudes like "But we can't worry about that because it's in God's hands" or "But what seems significant to us is nothing in the larger scheme of things." The details do matter. It's natural to want to be known and seen, to have our story "passed along" in a truthful way -- a way that acknowledges both our simplicity and our complexity. Yet because we're all human, we don't always do that perfectly for one another.

But we can do our best to honour the details, the memories, the words. After we've given them the attention they deserve, then maybe we can decide what needs keeping ... and what needs letting go.

Top photo by Richard Prinsen, 2012.
Bottom photo by unknown - Mom in the meadow, 1935.
Poem "I Don't Believe I've Ever Told You" by John Blase, from The Jubilee (published 2017).


I'm adding this post to Addie Zierman's "Let Go" linkup. Addie is one of my favourite bloggers -- and as I wrote my own post, the theme of her linkup became a source of inspiration.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Super sixteen

Today Jonathan is sixteen years old. He has changed so much in the past year; he is at least thirty pounds heavier and several inches taller.

Jonathan takes so much pleasure in the simple things of life: seagulls, geese, garbage and recycling, buses, and brooms. He still loves the Wiggles and Barney. He enjoys going to watch Dad play soccer or softball, and he likes going with Dad to watch a Queen's football game or a Frontenacs hockey game.

And he loves to go to the beach. Here he is at Canoe Cove, our favourite beach in PEI.

Happy Birthday, Jonathan! We love you!

Friday, September 07, 2018

Five Minute Friday: RAIN

Today (after a bit of a hiatus) I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. 

This week's word: RAIN.

One of the best openings in literature, I think, is the first page of  Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The first paragraph (spoken from Jane's point of view) goes like this:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

In a mere 62 words, Bronte shows us just how gloomy and tedious Jane's situation is:

"no possibility"; "out of the question"
"wandering ... in the leafless shrubbery"
"cold winter wind"
"a rain so penetrating" 

Then further down the page she goes on,

At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon.  Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast. 

Can't you just see the rain, beating down on an angle, relentlessly battering the bushes, while all that can be seen beyond the lawn is gray mist? This is not a refreshing summer shower that cools after a heat wave, or a invigorating spring rainfall that fosters new growth -- it's icy cold winter rain. What could be more depressing? What could more perfectly depict Jane's hopeless situation as the orphaned, unwanted relative of Mrs. Reed and her children?

 The best novelists draw us into the world of the novel so that we can feel, see, and hear just what the characters feel, see, and hear. 

Now that I think about it, another great writer also began one of his most famous works with vivid, atmospheric words about rain:

The sun did not shine. 
 It was too wet to play. 
So we sat in the house 
All that cold, cold, wet day.
 - from The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

Maybe this fiction writing thing isn't so hard after all. Just look out the window on a rainy day and start writing!

(By the way, if you're interested in reading my version of Jane Eyre, written Cat-in-the-Hat style, just click here.)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

August 2018 Quick Lit: what I've been reading

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for Quick Lit, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading. This month I read two recently-released nonfiction books, both of which I'd highly recommend.

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown.  

In the past year or two I have been trying to read more fiction and nonfiction by people of colour. This memoir, released just three months ago, was excellent. As a child, the author learned that her parents had deliberately named her Austin so that future employers/interviewers might think she was a white man and be more likely to give her a chance. This sense that a black girl was not an advantageous thing to be in America pressed up against Brown's desire to explore, claim, and celebrate her blackness. In the book she chronicles her experiences as a black girl and woman navigating the unconscious biases and even open hostilities of white (and often fellow Christian) friends, colleagues, and strangers.

Brown asserts, "My story is not about condemning white people but about rejecting the assumption ... that white is right: closer to God, holy, chosen, the epitome of being.... I offer this story in hopes that we will embody a community eager to name whiteness, celebrate Blackness, and, in a world still governed by systems of racial oppression, begin to see that there's another way." 

The most powerful part for me was the final chapter, where Brown rejects white people's wish that she and other black Americans would be more positive and hopeful, declaring instead that she dwells "in the shadow of hope." 

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. 

I've read and thoroughly enjoyed  Evans' previous books (Faith Unraveled, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Searching for Sunday), and this one may be her best yet. In Inspired, she explores the Bible's structure, its different genres, even its apparent contradictions -- showing that the Bible is not just a straightforward instruction manual but is far richer and even more meaningful than we may have realized.

She divides the book into sections with titles like "Origin Stories," "War Stories," and "Church Stories." In each section she talks about particular Bible passages/stories that challenge our assumptions and that reveal something interesting -- and perhaps new -- about God's workings on the world and His relationship with His people. Also, at the start of each section is a short imaginative piece (a brief story about Hagar, a modern-day play about Job, etc.) that sets the stage for our thinking about each of these sets of stories.

I love Evans' engaging, often funny, often self-deprecating style as well as her strong scholarship. Paradoxically, in this book she both demystifies and complicates the Bible for us: she gives background detail that enriches our understanding and knowledge, yet she also assures us that it's OK to ask questions, to not have everything perfectly figured out, to read a passage and feel that it just doesn't make sense or contradicts another passage. As she puts it, "Renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright compared Scripture to a five-act play, full of drama and surprise, wherein the people of God are invited into the story to improvise the unfinished, final act. Our ability to faithfully execute our roles in the drama depends on our willingness to enter the narrative ... to see how our own stories intersect with the grander epic of God's redemption of the world. Every page of scripture serves as an invitation -- to wonder, to wrestle, to surrender to the adventure." 

Evans' book shows how she has responded to that invitation and how we can, too. I loved it.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Twenty years ago today

Twenty years ago today, this beautiful girl was born. 

In this post I'm going to share Allison's birth story. It's a good story -- and I love hearing other women describe the delivery of their babies, so maybe someone out there is interested in reading this. But if that's not your thing, feel free to scroll on by.

My due date was August 16, 1998. We didn't know if our baby was a boy or a girl -- we had deliberately chosen not to find out in advance -- but we had names ready.

I had a good, uneventful pregnancy. I gained a lot of weight (40+ pounds), and Richard teased me a bit about the fact that for a brief window of time, I weighed more than he did: 172 to his 170. I certainly felt huge, and there was a big "bump" pressing against my rib cage on the left side; my doctor said it was probably the baby's bottom or foot.

In late July, my blood pressure was a bit elevated, so the doctor suggested I go to the clinic at the hospital for some blood work, just so they'd have a baseline in case there were any problems closer to my delivery time. 

So on Tuesday morning, August 4 (the Monday had been a holiday or I would have gone then), I went with Richard to have some blood drawn.

Afterward, as we were walking back down the hall toward the lobby, my water broke and fluid gushed all over the floor. Rich ran to get me a wheelchair, got me to the car and home, and I took a shower and changed clothes.

I was having some contractions, but they were fairly mild at that point. Richard and I had some lunch and then decided to play a game of Scrabble.

Partway through our game -- this was probably around 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon -- I said, "I think we should go to the hospital." The contractions were 5-10 minutes apart by that point, and I was having trouble concentrating on Scrabble words. It's true what they say: as labour progresses, you start to have tunnel vision so that the only things you can focus on are what you're feeling and what your body's doing.

We drove to the hospital and went up to the delivery floor. (Interestingly, this is a different hospital from the one I had to go to for the blood work; the two hospitals handle different clinics and procedures, but they are both a five-minute drive from our house.) 

I told the staff at the nursing station that my water had broken hours earlier and contractions were coming closer together. A nurse -- I remember she had a lovely French accent -- helped me on to a bed so she could check me out. The contractions were beginning to be quite strong by then.

The nurse looked me over and said, "Hmm ... I can really see the outline of the baby. You've lost a lot of fluid. We may have to do an amnioinfusion to replace the fluid so the baby's heart rate is stable during delivery."

"O-kay," I said. (Whoa. They never mentioned THAT in prenatal class.)

Suddenly a huge contraction overwhelmed me. "All right, she's got the urge to push," the nurse called out. A doctor and (I think) a resident came over. 

The doctor was African; he said something to me, and I was embarrassed that I had to ask him to repeat what he'd said because I couldn't understand him. "Has your amniotic sac ruptured?" he said again.

"OH YES," I said, "several hours ago."

The resident did an internal exam. "I feel a small part," she said. "Maybe a hand?"

The doctor checked. "That is a foot," he said.

(No wonder there was so much fluid loss: the baby's head wasn't downward, so there was no cork effect to slow down the flow. And that funny bump that had been knocking against my ribs for the last few weeks: that had been the baby's head.)

After the doctor said that, everything was a blur of activity. Another doctor appeared and they all talked about me and around me. The doctor who had arrived last handed me a clipboard with a release to sign. He told us the baby appeared to be in a footling breech position and that delivering vaginally would likely be quite difficult, and they were recommending an immediate c-section. I signed.

I was wheeled into surgery, contractions coming fast and hard, and was given an epidural. The doctor kept pricking my feet and asking me if I could feel anything -- and just like that, I couldn't. I wasn't able to see anything because of the drape they'd put up, but I felt a lot of pushing and pulling. Richard was sitting by my head with a surgical gown and mask on.

At last the doctor said, "It's a girl!"

"It's Allison!" I said.

At 5:41 p.m. on August 4, 1998 -- twelve days early -- our baby was here.

The details still feel so fresh even after twenty years. Allison's birth wasn't anything like I expected it to be: I didn't listen to calming music or pant through contractions or struggle through exhausting hours of labour. It was intense, fast, and a bit frightening, and the six-week recovery from major surgery was not at all what I had been anticipating. 

But Allison arrived, safe and sound and SO cute with her huge blue eyes.

Today we look back on that day with joy because it was the day a beautiful soul entered this world. She has grown into an intelligent, kind, and gifted young woman. We can't wait to see where the coming years will take her.

Happy 20th Birthday, Allison!