Thursday, July 5, 2012

Athena's Son

Athena's Son by Jeryl Schoenbeck is a brand new book by a brand new author that exemplifies one of the reasons I love the Kindle: this book is self-published by a 6th grade history teacher who knows his material and loves his students enough to produce a remarkable work of historical fiction. Thanks to the democratic revolution that e-readers have brought to the publishing industry, Mr. Schoenbeck was able to offer this book to all of us, without the obstacles that stood between readers and writers in the past.

When I assigned Athena's Son as part of our ancient history studies, it was based on nothing but the preview on Amazon. When I was able to borrow it for free through Amazon Prime, that was an added bonus. But my 11-year-old son loved it so much, he spent his own money to buy a copy "so I can come back to it again and again." Then he asked if he could write a paper.

Without any plot details, I'm sold on a book that makes my writing-phobic son volunteer a paper! When that was followed up with a personal reply from the author, offering a signed copy of the book to my son, I decided to move Athena's Son from the middle of my to-be-read pile to the top.

It's been a busy two weeks, so I'm only halfway through, but I can already tell you: this book should be required reading for everyone studying ancient history.

You know how we study the Egyptians, take a test, and then study the Greeks? Each civilization, from the Phoenicians to the Romans occupies its own space on the academic calendar, rarely crossing these artificial lines that we've constructed. As an adult, I remember being startled to discover that Cleopatra was a Greek queen, not an Egyptian, and later that the Greeks had been fascinated with the Egyptians in much the same way that the Romans were fascinated with the Greeks.

I know trading happened. But I'd never thought about encounters between these civilizations, their customs, their gods. Athena's Son vividly illustrates just that, bringing the cultures and civilizations of the ancient world together and centering them around the childhood of Archimedes, whose intelligence earns him the title, "Athena's Son."

My aspiring engineer/inventor reveled in the story of a boy who would have been a fascinating friend, and I am likewise enjoying the very palatable and provocative history lesson.

Maybe if enough of us buy a copy of Athena's Son, Mr. Schoenbeck will give us the happy privilege of reading his next book!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Battle Between Good & Evil

We think of the battle between good and evil as something epic, something for the comic books or history books. A great hero fights a monster to the death. A great alliance fights a great evil and barely wins. We think Tolkien and WW II.

But I think the battle is fought, lost or won, in a much quieter place, a place where glory lives only in disguise, if it lives there at all.

The bad guys of history and literature are made, not born. They start out as warm and bright-eyed as the baby I'm rocking now. Bad guys are made when the weak are not defended, when no one runs to the aid of a helpless child who is being bullied or beaten. The difference between a hero and a villain is often a single friend.

So the work you're doing now? The long talks over cocoa more than the Latin, the stories told in the dark more than the grammar—these acts do more to win the Battle than an army ever will. Raising your children is an act of fortification, and when they have grown into Defenders of the Good, your work is multiplied. Every lonely person they befriend, every child they raise, every good deed they do is a victory, a flag raised, ground taken.

The epic battle between good and evil? It's fought at the dinner table, in the locker room, offices, homes, and quiet corners of the world where one person is willing to reach out with human hands to touch the hurting.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My Jo'

Where do you turn when things are hard? Chocolate, right? Except those very wise (if fleeting) moments when we turn to Scripture.

Right after my husband started seminary, I painted three words BIG on a scrap piece of canvas and hung them in our tiny apartment: "Thy kingdom come." It summarized the Lord's prayer for me, reminded me what my focus should be during the daily struggle with laundry and a very fussy baby—especially when I found out she would be followed very quickly by a little brother.

Later, I heard a lady speak on a half-verse taken (out of context) from James. It spoke to me, and I painted it on another piece of that canvas I was slowly butchering for inspiration: "Count it all joy." That one, especially, I've spoken to myself over and over in the hard years that followed. No matter the loss, no matter the trials—count it all joy.

I've reached a point where...that's hard. It's harder to laugh away the pain and the trials. One night this week, I locked myself in the bathroom and wondered, What now? I remembered the verse—count it all joy. It had lost some of its mystery and started to sound a little insane. I thought about digging through the boxes in the garage to find my little canvas scraps of inspiration, but I was just too tired, and "counting it all joy" sounded like one more thing to do. I'd had enough to do.

But inside the house, not packed in the garage, I have a Norton Anthology of Poetry. I decided to kill another piece of canvas, but this time with a poem.

One of my favorites is T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. When I think of the line about kneeling in the place where prayer has been valid—I think of so many people—monks, poets, mothers, men—who have gone before me, who have run with the banner of faith and not let life or trials bear them down, who have held that banner for me, all these centuries behind, to still have something to look to.

I love everything by Gerard Manley Hopkins—most of all To the Windhover and  God's Grandeur. The idea of the world being smeared and bleared with man's trade and smell, that we are blind to God, and yet the Holy Spirit is brooding over us with ah! bright wings—the meter alone is filled with hope.

I turned the pages of the Norton Anthology, one at a time, two, five, ten, and one again. Slowly—like you never do in college when you have to gulp down 100 pages of reading per night. And I remembered a poem by Robert Burns that I'd discovered on St. Patrick's day two years ago, when the internet said Burns was Irish, and I believed the internet. My Scottish husband has since set me right.

It's an obscure poem about John Anderson, "my jo"—my joy. It's a poem about two old men, their youth together, their memories, friendship, and at last the final "tottering" down the hill of life, where Burns expects to be buried beside his friend. The poem has the bittersweet tang of truth and for some reason has always made me think of my husband. And I realized that despite Shakespeare's sonnets and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's beautiful turn of phrase, this is the one poem in the world I would give to my husband, if I were to choose a poem someone else wrote, and give it to my best friend, my dearest love.

So I copied Burns' poem—onto a big sheet of art paper, because as it turns out, my canvas scraps are in the garage, too—and I turned my piles of frustration and pain onto a canvas where I didn't have to find the words, just write them. And I gave my husband a love poem like only I would pick—about two old men tottering down a hill "thigether."

And once again I found the healing power of words, remembered the joy of my husband, my kids, and my life, and lay down that night in peace—to do it all again in the morning.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Submission

I made the mistake of saying to my husband recently, "I think I've been relatively submissive throughout our marriage." It's been 13 years this summer. I was met with awkward silence.

"I'd call you independent-minded," he answered at last. I began scrubbing counter tops. I know he doesn't like these conversations. He has said that I'm accountable to God, not to him. I appreciate that about him, and I know better than to ask, but I hadn't realized I was asking a question. I hadn't realized there was more than one answer. Which is a mistake indeed, but now I was scrubbing counter tops feeling as if all of my sacrifices were for naught.

If I'm independent-minded, doesn't that make any act of submission all the more valuable, all the more an act of love? Again, the sound of crickets. I found coffee splatters down the cabinet doors that needed attention and grumbled inwardly that even this was submissive and that he just couldn't see it.

He didn't like the conversation, to his credit, and he continued gently, saying that if he were to deliver an ultimatum, it would trigger a "Hell, NO!" response from me.

Perhaps. But we don't know that for certain because he's never delivered such an ultimatum. The Bible nowhere suggests that a woman should submit to all men, only her husband. So an argument that a different kind of leadership would not result in submission from me is about as valid as saying a different kind of submission would result in more or less or different leadership from him.

We married who we married. He leads the way he does in part because of his love for me and who I am. And my ideas about submission have changed over the years as I've seen his sacrificial love for me. Submission is not humiliating or low; it is simply mirroring his love and honor toward me back to him. It is the highest honor I can imagine to be the woman who receives and imitates his love.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Chesterton For Easter

I was raised in a denomination that did not celebrate Easter. The older people thought it was a sin to celebrate at all; by the time I was a kid, it was acceptable to hunt Easter eggs and talk about the Easter bunny, but any religious overtones were still the utmost sin.

We began going to various inter- and non-denominational churches when I was a little older. It was sometimes confusing and uncomfortable to worship with people who'd come from backgrounds which viewed Easter as deeply religious, so I naturally gravitated toward the view that our Christian religious holidays have been adapted from pagan holidays, that we should instead get in touch with our Jewish roots and celebrate holidays like Passover instead of Easter. The older I got, the more I felt compelled to abandon the culture of my childhood.

We've tried to celebrate Christian versions of Passover many times with more or less success. The feast IS a wonderful picture of Christ's sacrifice and of salvation,'s like living in a foreign land. There are no childhood memories for me. When you have to look up how to celebrate in a book, it feels more like a history lesson than a holiday.

I've been rereading the Old Testament this year. The thing I've seen most clearly in that endeavor is that I am not Jewish. My religion is starkly different from what I see there. Yes, Jesus was Jewish. Sure, He came to fulfill the Law, but what does that mean to us, today, on a practical level? Honestly? I've never seen more clearly that He started a new religion, that He was a revolutionary.

The words of G. K. Chesterton, posted on a friend's Facebook wall, most clearly resonate with this idea:

           "And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god       from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable            recurrence and of unalterable power. Nay, but let the atheists themselves                  choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation;          only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist."

Easter still makes me uncomfortable. I can't just embrace the bunny while everyone I know is celebrating Christ's victory over sin and death; neither can I fully turn from the discomfort I have with the religious aspect of a pagan holiday. It's not so much its pagan origins that bother me any more, either—it's something much more sinister, something in my own heart.

To cry with my friends, "He is risen!" feels insincere. To rejoice in his rising because it is Easter feels like going along with what's popular because it's popular, like jumping off a cliff because my friends do. And so, in typical fashion, I find myself holding back, even from something that might give life, because popularity breeds suspicion in me.

And I notice, shamefully—for I don't think it's right to watch other people's worship, but watching seems to be what I do best—that those who most decry the pagan origins of the day are the ones who most participate, who wear the new dresses, curl their hair, paint their nails. While the ones who are accused of creating the deceit, of "converting" the holiday for Christian purposes, are the ones most focused on the actual resurrection of Christ.

I don't think there's anything wrong with Easter bunnies or painted nails or pretty dresses, only with my own judgmental soul. In short, the pastel-colored children help me to turn my eyes to Jesus because they help me see what a Pharisee I can be, even when I'm not sure what I think is right.

I want to be alone today, to nurse my wounded sense of clarity, to comb a toupee back over this pride, to feel the darkness of the world, my heart, and try once again to figure out what is "right" to do about Easter. Instead, I have five children and friends and happily-colored eggs and candy to dutifully distribute and smile about.

Even that reminds me of the resurrection. I imagine some of the apostles probably wanted to be alone, to nurse their disappointment and doubt, not to congregate together, not to look into each others' faces and be sociable. And in the midst of their sorrow came a Savior, whose presence and life demanded that all the earth rejoice. I'd probably be the lone figure in the corner pouting that my emotions had been wrung inside out and I couldn't handle the grief and the joy. I'd probably be worried that rejoicing in the presence of the risen Christ was too popular in a room full of disciples, worry that it would seem put-on, like a lemming running over a cliff.

Hopefully the secret sincerity of my heart will suffice. And since I can't be alone and dark-faced today, at least I can tuck Chesterton under my arm and keep his twisted sense of humor and ironic reverence close by.

Easter eggs or high church, my dark thoughts are with you today in all sincerity and love, even if they are not as orthodox as I would like them to be. Happy Easter.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Savor the Moment

So the old ladies at the supermarket—they look at your kids and they tell you how time flies. You nod because of course you've heard this before. And you try to savor every moment.

But ten years pass, and those old ladies in the supermarket seem apocalyptic: WHY did they tell you time flies without telling you how to catch it and hang on? Time isn't an escaped bird flying crazily around the house until it finds the door and gets away; it's water. You had no hope of hanging on to it with your hands in the first place.

That's what they meant, of course. And they can tell you what they wish they'd done differently. But they don't know if it would have made a difference.

Don't focus too much on life's worries, or you'll miss them—they'll be grown. But those worries? They're the pot that, if you can get it woven tightly enough, fast enough, will catch the water that is time.

But sometimes the pot unravels. Sometimes it takes too long to weave.

We do the best we can, and sometimes the best we can do is to dance in the rain while it falls, knowing that all we can save are the drops that soak us through.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Lieu of Flowers

You know that school assignment where you have to write your own epitaph? I was thinking of that tonight as I was going to sleep. When I die, what do I want to have done well? What do I want to have done at all?

Mothering, of course. Nobody wants to be a bad mother. My kids are awesome for a magnum opus, a great work, but if that's all—?

So writing is really right up there with things I've got to do. I'm writing a time travel novel right now, but that's not exactly what you want on your tombstone. Then I imagined a stack of books I'd written, and that seemed much better than any particular one. Maybe they could dip them in bronze like baby shoes & stick that on my tombstone.

Then I wondered if the written stack would be taller or shorter than the stack of books I've read (if they were stacked up, too), & I realized what a schmutz I'd look like if the reading stack was shorter.

Next I tried to decide which book I'd like to be buried with. Then I decided maybe it would be a good idea to have mourners bring copies of their favorite books—you know, instead of flowers. And I could be buried with all of those, for something good to read in the afterlife. (I've been reading too much Egyptian history.)

Once I'd settled on this comforting image of being buried in books, I realized that I'd be leaving behind the library I am building now for my kids, in a weird sort of life-cycle motif. I was about to happily drift off, thinking of death and books, when the baby woke up. Again.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Coping Well I

I moved from Texas to Colorado in August, seven months pregnant. My husband’s health had declined to the point that there were days when he could not walk from the bedroom to the living room—he couldn’t breathe well enough for that much exertion.

Finally, a week and a half overdue, I gave birth to my fifth baby, 9lb 14oz, 23 inches long, no drugs. The hardest part? He was my first hospital birth. I’m unreasonably averse to needles, doctors, hospitals, and “procedures,” but a hospital birth was the only thing covered by our Colorado insurance.

I went in armed with a birth plan but scared to use it—afraid that having one would offend someone. Tension between myself and a medical professional is worse than a needle. So I brought the plan, but I hid it.

Then I encountered Nurse Bulldog. She was stern and abrupt. She demanded information rather than asking questions. And then she asked if I had a birth plan. I stuttered. I stammered. I reasoned with myself that if I didn’t want to give it to her, I didn’t have to. If I didn’t want to use it, I didn’t have one. Technically. But I can’t lie. I finally told her that I’d brought a birth plan, and I’d hidden it.

She stopped typing and looked at me to see if I was serious. Perhaps my husband cracking up in the corner was what gave me away. She wanted to see this birth plan, to see what was so awful about it. She was amused, intrigued, human.

I gave it to her, still withholding the fact that I’d brought three copies, just in case. She read it and agreed to it, insisting that none of it was too demanding, insisting that they were there to help me.
From there, things got stranger. I’d written that I didn’t want continuous fetal monitoring so that I’d be free to walk around, get labor going, all the things I was taught in my natural childbirth classes. I’d only ever given birth in a standing position, after all.

But the monitor at the hospital was a lot of fun. It was a great game to have a visual representation of my contractions. It was empowering and affirming. I didn’t want to take it off. And while it did somewhat limit my ability to walk around, walking around got pretty boring anyway. My labors have always been short, so when this one dragged on…I was happy to just sit in the bed and chat with my husband and the nurse.

She’d been skeptical about the likelihood I’d make it through the whole thing without an epidural, but she would come to check on me, and find me walking around listening to my husband read or arguing with him about literature. She’d stay to talk, and as labor progressed, she commented, “You’re coping well.”

I liked that comment—a lot. I was coping well. I repeated it to myself with delight, thinking about cleaning the garage and packing by myself at 3AM two months ago because the temps didn’t get below 100 until after midnight and because my husband was too sick to help. Thinking about the drive, also by myself with four kids and a turtle because my husband was driving the moving truck. Thinking about all we had left behind, and that I really had coped pretty well through all of it. Thinking how nice it was to have someone notice. Thinking that this birth, by comparison, was really not so bad. And thinking that I really, really loved this nurse.

Then the room got hot and crowded and I couldn’t breathe and the continuous fetal monitor that I’d liked so much said there was a problem. The baby was in distress and had to get out NOW. There was a giant knot in the cord, but Levi was fine.

The next twenty-four hours were newborn hours—nothing unusual. He had some trouble eating, but I’ve dealt with that before. He spit up a little more than I’d prefer, but I’ve dealt with that, too. They demanded that he get his heel pricked to have his blood sugar tested an unreasonable number of times because he was a big baby, despite the fact that it was fine when he was born and the men in my husband’s family are all built to play football. He was my biggest baby, but not by much.

But he hadn’t had a wet diaper. The lactation nurse kept asking me when he’d eaten, but he was sleepy that first day. That’s normal. Someone decided that he needed to have his belly suctioned out—that he’d gulped down too much fluid on his way out.

But once the sleepiness started to be superseded by hunger, I had a fussy baby. And he still wouldn’t eat. I let her show me different nursing positions. I was a little grumpy about it, but I was also grateful not to be dealing with nursing problems alone—they’d driven me to tears with two of my previous four.

He still wouldn’t eat. She noticed green spit-up on his burp cloth, and he was off to have his belly suctioned again. They didn’t bring him back.

After about an hour, my husband went to check on him, and an hour later, neither of them had come back. Three hours after that, I was checked out of the hospital, and Levi was in an ambulance being transferred to a children’s hospital downtown. His intestines weren’t working. He was dehydrated and had lost nearly a pound. They needed to do further testing and possibly surgery.

I had to walk away from my 48-hour-old baby while he was carted in a warmer into the back of the ambulance, into NICU. I had to run down the hallways of the new hospital to keep up with the nurses who were taking him to be tested. I watched as they sent dye through his intestines and looked for malformations.

I sat on the fold-out sofa the hospital had for parents of NICU babies that night and cried. My husband had had to go home at last to take care of our other kids, and once again, I was alone. I was afraid. I was exhausted. But I heard my labor nurse in my head—“You’re coping well.”

The next day, the report said Levi was fine. He had meconium plugs, and the dye test had cleared those out. He was kept for observation for one more night, but next to the other babies in NICU, my 10lb baby looked very out of place. I began to breathe again.

My NICU babe is three months old now, 20lb last time I checked, 27 inches long, healthy as can be. Now I have laundry to worry about, a three-year-old who cries every time he has to go to bed, a four-year-old who thinks she should be the boss of us all, an eight-year-old who’s probably giving herself an ulcer trying to keep up with her big brother, and an eleven-year-old who is discovering his sense of humor in ways that are sometimes so painful.

The baby’s diaper explodes, and he won’t sleep. The three-year-old cries in that sharp, ear-splitting, piercing way that means they’re dying when actually they’re just not ready to get out of the bath. The four-year-old won’t do anything I ask without ten thousand objections and explanations. Everybody needs a haircut; nobody has clean socks.

And then I have to breathe into a bag because I realize that high school starts in three years for my oldest, and I can’t figure out science for next year. My little ones are starting to read, and if I don’t work on reading with them, they bring me a pile of magnetic letters and ask me how to spell ‘supersede.’ (And now spellcheck tells me I told them wrong!)

But every once in a while, in the midst of the paper airplanes that are part of this year’s physics project and the crying and arguing that are part of this year’s emotional development and the snow-shoveling and unpacking that are part of last year’s move and this year’s weather, I remember my labor nurse, who told me I was coping well, and I breathe deeply, throw back my shoulders, and tackle today.