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Archive for November, 2011

The Briar Patch

Do you ever feel as if when the Bible says “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision” that it’s talking about you?   And not as the one sitting in the heavens either.

Sometimes it seems as if we’re missing the joke; I thought about this as I dragged myself home from work.  “Home” being a relative term here, intended to signify the dwelling in which I live- otherwise known as my in-laws’ home.  Located on the other side of the tracks, over a bridge of 67 steps- one way.  I was dragging because I had spent Sunday mousily playing while my mother-in-law took her feline tendencies elsewhere- and playing in this instance means cleaning the house, getting rid of clutter and using the kitchen, so that I have spent the last two days recovering.

Which is ridiculous.  When you cannot even clean your house without having to recuperate, and you are only 32, something is rotten, and it’s not in Denmark.  And when this infirmity is joined by joint and muscle pain, hormonal imbalances, thyroid wierdness and insulin resistance- you haven’t got a thorn in the flesh, you’ve jumped into the briar patch.  And the really pitiful thing is that minor chronic illnesses don’t even have the dignity to be respected, so in addition to being a mild basketcase, you appear to be a sluggard.

And they keep multiplying… and you wonder who’s getting a belly laugh out of this, and what’s so funny?  And are the details of living with your in-laws, in a half-convenienced house, on the other side of the tracks, on a rapidly shrinking paycheck really necessary to the punchline?

Misery loves company.  And I am not miserable, because I am not dying of cancer and leaving 5 children behind; I am not sitting in an Islamic prison for touching the Koran with unwashed hands, while my children fend for themselves outside; I do not live in a famine zone, watching my children die one after another; I am not awaiting the next bomb on the East Bank; I am not waiting for someone to pull my husband’s body from a collapsed mine shaft.  And forgive me, but I do not want to be a part of that company; oh, I’m sure it’s commendable, and character-building, and ultimately rewarding to eke out your pain-wracked days in a prison cell, but- in that lovely Southern phrase, I have enough to say grace over.

Not that I’m saying it.  I’m sitting hunched over, kicking at the pricks, and wondering how I got here and how to get out.  But was it really ol’ Brer Fox who threw me in here?  Yes, I’ve gotten my hands tarred often enough in this life; but was I tossed into the briar patch, or was this where I was born? 

Why do I keep thinking that I’m supposed to have a happy (read “easy”) life?  What makes me any different than any other rabbit?  Why should my corner of the briar patch be the hybrid, thornless corner?  And why was Brer Rabbit so happy to come back to this vale of sorrows?

We could hope that Brer Rabbit was glad to escape the tar baby and sin and temptation, but I suspect it was more likely the safety in the thorns- because when the thorns are so thick, the enemy can’t reach you- unless you take off running into his claws.  And the size of the thorn- prison, leprosy or aches and pains- makes the difference in how well one is protected.  You’ll excuse me if I’m not so eager for protection as to claim longest, sharpest thorns… but if hiding within the thorns is what keeps me near to our thorn-crowned King, maybe I need to see things a little differently.  And maybe I need to be saying grace a little more fervently…

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Thanks and Giving

I downloaded a pdf file with two trees (“Thanks” and “Giving”) and a collection of leaves for us to keep track of our thanks for the month of November.  Okay, so today is already the 6th… time and organization are not among the items on my gratitude list.  We managed to find 5 things to be thankful for today- with a little prompting, Sofia was thankful for her preschool class, and playing with the neighbor girls, and having cake with her tea, and I was thankful for coffee (after a week without) and getting in touch with old friends on facebook.   But neither of us could think of anything kind we had done to hang on the “Giving” tree.

Being thankful is certainly a start, and a good thing- but if we only hang leaves on our Thanks tree what does that say about us?  I know that after months of criticism from my mother-in-law, and then losing our daughter, and finally, having some serious health issues, I have pulled back into my shell; I know that I am not open with people, and I tend to choose the side of caution; but do I actually go an entire day without doing one kind thing I could hang on a Giving tree? 

I suppose it’s a natural reaction; people seem to react to trials as ostriches, ignoring them, or turtles,disappearing for protection, porcupines, sending out stay-back messages, or the good old skunk, who proactivelys sends everyone scurrying.  But it’s wrong .  That isn’t why God sends trials.  We’re supposed to stay open and trusting through them- sometimes even that’s why He sends them, to open our hearts to those around us. 

Humanly speaking, that’s unnatural.    It just doesn’t seem normal to open yourself up to possible hurt and pain.  Not when you have enough already. 

I’m not even sure how you go about it- being open to those around you.  Not being afraid, or still more, knowing you could face a rebuff, or just totally flunk- and volunteering yourself anyway.   

I do know that just having “feelings” does nothing at all; oh, I have certainly developed a heightened sense of understanding and empathy, but if I’m keeping it to myself, is there any point?  It’s sort of like the old women praying at church in tears, and then walking out the door and turning them off.  I’m sure they feel that they have prayed with zeal and sincerity, but if it’s only a momentary emotion I don’t think it has much value.  (I’m not going to say it hasn’t any, because I’m not God, I don’t know, and I’m sure that even a momentary softening does something good in our hearts.)

And I really don’t know how you start; there are millions of people in incredible pain in our world, but I can’t help all of them- and even those I “can” help, I may not actually be able to help.  I remember the two little boys last spring who were starving, literally, with their alcoholic parents.  We bought them groceries,we kept an eye on them, called their aunt, planned to call Child Services but somebody beat us to it.  I know they are far from the only children starving in Birobidzhan- but what’s the next step?

Remembering the Good Samaritan, I suppose we just take in stride the next person in trouble we meet.  The sad thing is, I know that we can’t always help people.  That the woman who begs on Gorkova St. and whom I buy bread for is actually mentally disturbed; that the gypsy children have more money than I do; that the man we got into the rehab center is taking advantage of an easy life, and will go back to drinking when he leaves.

On the other hand, the charity that begins at home is harder; it’s harder to take the time and patience to talk to my mother-in-law- and yes, that does make me ashamed.  That’s why I couldn’t put my lame efforts at a few conversational phrases on the Giving tree.  Keeping my mouth shut about the mess and clutter also seems to fall more under an obligation than a kindness.

So how am I going to fill my Giving tree?  And how am I going to teach my daughter to fill the Giving tree? Do I want her to grow up to be as cold as I am?  I don’t even want me to grow up as cold as I am.  Today I read a phrase, “loving God has to be more than hating evil- because love is a verb” on Ann Voskamp’s blog.  I don’t suppose I am the only person for whom love is not a verb, but I did feel that among sinners, I am chief.

So back to what seems to be only solution available to any question- praying.  Praying to be open, to be brave, to be foolish, tobe less cautious, to be kinder, to live my life in verbs- and active verbs at that.  And not forgetting to give while I’m thanking.

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Recently I was re-reading “The Secret Garden”- something I’ve done fairly frequently since I was eight.  To be honest, I can’t explain why I love this book so much- there are a lot of wonderful children’s books, but this is the one I’ve read the most.  I like the reality of the characters, the romance of the garden, the “coming of age”, “voyage of discovery” theme- and the descriptions of the food, second only to Laura Ingalls Wilder in flavour.

But in this particular re-reading, I paid attention to the whole “Magic” theme- which of course has nothing to do with magic, or even meditation as so many panicked Christian homeschoolers wrote about 15 years or so ago.  It’s really more along the lines of the power of positive thinking; very forward-looking of Francis Hodgson Burnett, since the power of positive thinking hadn’t even been invented yet!

This is her comment on thoughts and words:  “To let a sad thought or a bad thought get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body.  If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never over it as long as you live.  So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored, and wretched child… So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness and his detestation of people who looked at him and reflected hourly on humps and early death, he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing about sunshine and the spring and who did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it…There was a man wandering about… beautiful places…a man who for ten years had kept his mind filled with dark and heart-broken thinking.  He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in place of the dark ones…”

Of course, “circumstances” interfered in all three cases- and “Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time, and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one.”

I read this coming up to my birthday- a birthday I had already refused to celebrate because, officially, we didn’t have the time or money, and I’m not a child any more, and unofficially, because I was, quite frankly, sulking.  Why celebrate my birthday if I’m not happy, if I’m dissatisfied with certain key aspects of my life?  (If I’m living 1. with my in-laws, 2. in a house I hate, 3. on the other side of the tracks and I could continue my complaining.)

I read this simple little story about the rebirth of these three miserable people, and I felt very foolish and childish.  I don’t actually have much to complain about- no, my life does not fall in with the way I might have planned it.  But does anybody’s?  People live lives a hundred times worse than mine- and I have a thousand reasons to be grateful.  And a great part of my problem is an overindulged imagination, a heightened sense of importance, and a bad case of self-pity.  Too many bad thoughts; too many internal discussions; too little courage in refusing to sulk.

I have developed over the last few years a tendency toward negative thoughts; something that has definitely influenced a tendency to depression; and it’s not only foolish and self-destructive- it’s a sin.  F.H. Burnett  says “Two things cannot be in one place: ‘If you plant a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.'”  The Bible puts it more revealingly-“The eye is the lamp of the whole body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22-23) and ” If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it will be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.” (Luke 11:36)

Life is not perfect, and it would be foolish to insist that it is.  Happy endings are not a given.  Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.  But indulging in dismal Eeyore thoughts and self-pity do not relieve the situation.  They only intensify it.  I see no reason to pretend everything is wonderful- that is silly, too, and I think the American tendency to pretend  (does anyone ever answer “how are you?” honestly?) explains the explosion of analysts, therapists, and psychologists.    But we do have a choice: we can choose to dwell on our ills- or to be grateful for the good that we can find even in the worst situation.

A colleague recently said that pessimism and optimism are almost the same thing- the pessimist says, “Well, it’s about time.”  The optimist says, “It’s about  time!”  I think both pessimism and optimism can be self-indulgent and self-deceptive.  I think the main thing I want to focus on is being grateful for what I have instead of mourning what I haven’t.  I suppose some negative emotion is inevitable, and someone has said that suppressed emotion leads to cancer- but I intend to allow myself a strict amount of time to journal my frustrations (10 minutes? 5? )  and to discipline myself to follow that with a list of what I’m thankful for.  Words have power… words are- magic.  (Don’t tell any Christian homeschoolers I used the m-word.)

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Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

 

Magic doesn’t appeal to everyone; some children love fairies and fairytales and some are disinterested or even annoyed. And fantasy only emphasizes that divide. Of course, within our Christian circle the situation is intensified by those who consider anything magic-like to be sin.

The pertinent point is that there is no such thing as magic; oh, I know, there are witch doctors, and shamen- or is it shamans?- and as many variations on that theme as there are peoples, but they aren’t , strictly speaking, using magic. Magic is some kind of mumbo-jumbo power that allows you to do things other people cannot do, which I think we can all agree is nonexistant. Witch doctors and shamans might do some weird things, but in the rare instances that their tomfoolery pays off it’s more a case of demonism than magic.

Of course the problem with magic is that its pursuit can lead to demonism, and that’s where its opponents have their best point. And within our world, there is no doubt that magic is not Christian; that is, not literally, and not philosophically. Philosophically, magic is an attempt to control one’s environment (not my thought, I read it in Trevethan’s Beauty of God’s Holiness), and “inevitable when divine reality is immanent but not transcendant”. To believe in magic, you can’t believe in God- or at least not in God as He is. And you have to step out of our created order as creatures under a Creator, and control your own destiny.

And that’s where the temptation comes in, for those of us magic-minded. Because the struggle since Adam and Eve has been whether we would will or submit to God’s higher will. There is an inborn desire for control in each of us- we want to be the captains of our fate, whether for good or ill. I think the difference in whether one is drawn to fantasy is merely in the level of drive for control in our outer lives, and the self-confidence to achieve it.

Personally, my self-confidence fluctuates, as does my self-image, and I am not particularly extrovert- so I tend to enjoy a vicarious or voyeuristic “control”; whereas those who are more forceful physically may not need to prove themselves in this way. Then again, those who may be more physical probably just tend to read books about physically forceful people. And if magic were an option, I doubt I would use it; it raises too many philosophical questions about free will, self-determination and equality.

Mother has noticed that people with higher IQs in general seem to be more fantasy-minded, and she equates it with those people having more grey tones in their moral code. (Black and white people almost never like fairytales.) I agree, but I do think it’s odd, because in fact, most fairytales and even fantasy have a strong moral code. Of course, at the same time, they raise new questions about morality that may just be beyond the imagination of moral zebras.

But as an aficionado of fantasy (though one does have to be careful with a lot of modern fantasy, which isn’t so much fantasy as harlequin romance with a dragon or two) I’ve noticed that there are certain themes that repeat themselves. Interesting, because I remember what C.S. Lewis said about certain ideas in mythology repeating themselves so often that you had to recognise they were twistings of a truth.

One of the most commonly repeated themes is the power of words.  This isn’t original to fantasy, of course.  Classic Cabala literature speaks of words as the origin and definer of reality; but before Cabala, the Bible tells that the Word was with God, and the Word was God- all things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made which was made (quoting from memory, I might have the order wrong.) 

So there’s biblical authority on the subject.   But what is the significance?  I am not a philosopher, and only a bit of a philologist, but I know that words are very significant.  Speaking two languages, it’s very frustrating when you can’t express something in one, because there is no word.  And there is a great comfort in finding a word- I treasure them up, when I find them, like the Russian word for “neat” which I finally found in a children’s story book, after searching the dictionary in vain.

Speaking something tends to make it true; to define something we feel, but may not understand; to bring catharsis or sometimes to create something that wasn’t.  One of the best books on essay writing I’ve read stressed that you have to think BEFORE you write (something not many people actually do, apparently); I’ve found that writing is thinking for me- when I speak the words, I understand them, or keep speaking till I do.

I suppose, in a way, words are magic- the one magic available to us.  In words we do create our destiny; we change things; perform illusions and transformations- curse and bless.

It’s a scary power.  And one we rarely respect.  If Harry Potter used his wand as carelessly as we use our words he’d be worse than Lord Voldemort ever thought of being.  We quote “the pen is mightier than the sword” but do we ever really think about it? 

If we consider our words to be a magic wand, and their power equivalent- what will we say, what won’t we say?  Our one chance to play with fate- which fairytale character do we wear?

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