They Called Him Jack

One of my all-time favorite writers is Clive Staples Lewis.

I well remember November 22, 1963. I was riding in the car on my way home from an after-school party that had been unexpectedly cancelled due to the Kennedy assassination. Of course, the radio was on; the aftermath of Kennedy’s death demanded our unceasing attention.

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During a break from the minute-by-minute coverage, I remember hearing a radio reporter announce, in an almost casual aside, the death of C. S. Lewis. (Writer Aldous Huxley also died that day.)

Just weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I mourned more for Lewis than for JFK or Huxley. As best I can recall from that time, I’d only read one of Lewis’ books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Though I could not have predicted the impact his oeuvre would exert in my adult life, that day I knew in my heart of hearts the world had lost someone very special.

Fast forward fifty years … the works of C. S. Lewis remain, continuing to offer us incisive commentary and observations about the here-and-now shadowland we inhabit. Whether fiction, non-fiction or sermons, his works are prescient reminders of eternal verities.

(While I accurately describe myself as a C.S. Lewis devotee, my devotion shouldn’t be mistaken as expertise. I leave that to people who knew the man as well as the academics who’ve seriously studied and taught from his writings. It is prudent to view my posts as the devoted musings of an admirer.)

A Google search garners almost 27 million results for C. S. Lewis, most of which I have yet to investigate. Imagine then, my delight to come across a series by Professor Lou Markos from Houston Baptist University (HBU). Entitled A to Z with C.S. Lewis, Prof. Markos explored the legacy of C.S. Lewis in classes at HBU for the Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 semesters. (May I say I’m jealous of his students?!)

The insights Markos offered in this 26-part series led me to purchase two of his books … and then a third, as if my night table isn’t already stacked with books! I had high expectations for the first book, Restoring Beauty:  The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis, and this volume exceeded those expectations by a mile!511xDYRecyL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

Markos drew me in with his proposition for restoring beauty. He observes (in the Preface) that today’s “world of art … embraces an aesthetic that privileges ugliness over beauty, nihilism over form, and radical self-expression over the pursuit of higher truth.” (To borrow a phrase from Jerry McGuire, “You had me at hello!“) Each chapter highlights characters, scenes and insights from Lewis’ work in stark contrast to today’s cultural pallor. Now that I’ve read the book once, I intend to return, pausing at the end of each chapter to re-read the specific Lewis book (or books) from which Markos has drawn.

I started on another Markos book, On the Shoulders of Hobbits, but found another smaller volume I thought could be easily devoured first. Literature, A Student’s Guide runs 143 pages − once through for a quick read, right? I thought to myself, how difficult could that be? While not a difficult volume, Markos’ presentation of familiar topics (including the Resources for Further Study) brings me to frequent reflection and further study. Hence, I have two Markos books partially read, still on my night table.

All this talk of literature … forgive me if I’ve lost anyone in the weeds! Don’t let this (or any) talk of literature dampen your interest in reading books written by C.S. Lewis. As a masterful story-teller, he has few peers. Enjoy!

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The Quest for Perfect

In my email inbox every day, I find several emails from America’s Digital Goddess, Kim Komando. The emails inform me of great apps, helpful downloads, cool websites and must-see videos. I like these emails because they include what Komando considers the best-of-the-best. When I can benefit from her top-notch recommendations, I don’t have to spend time combing the internet for myself. I depend on her expertise.

Sometimes, though, my inbox bulges from too much information. As the emails pile up and digitally overflow, I’m prone to delete many without reading, often without a second glance. (I’m just glad I didn’t do that today.) Komando’s must-see video was absolutely priceless, a must-see that trumps all must-sees (in my view). (You can click the Komando link above or watch the video directly from YouTube below.)

With medical procedures and techniques advancing at a steady pace, screening of infants in utero has become commonplace. Screen for this, screen for that, no nook or cranny unexamined, every child scrutinized and lab-tested for risk assessment before ever inhaling its first breath.

I recall several years ago when one of my daughters told me she’d expressly forbidden her OB from performing a diagnostic test for Down syndrome. The test would’ve been irrelevant; whatever the result, no abortion would occur. Further, my daughter had a friend whose doctor had predicted a DS baby, but notwithstanding weeks of preparation, the child was born without the condition. (Doctors aren’t infallible! Testing errs.)

Many individuals don’t share my daughter’s point of view (also my POV). Upon hearing a Down syndrome diagnosis, more and more prospective parents (as well as the doctors who advise them) decide to abort.

A 2009 study revealed a 25% decline in DS after the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) became law in 1990. This article from Harvard Law asks the pertinent question, why? Why, when more resources suddenly become available, are parents destroying unborn children based on a possible Down syndrome test result? And I would add a second question:  what will the world look like when all babies are born “perfect”, when the gene pool as it were has been purged of all other possible outcomes?

This is a subject about which I care deeply, though my personal experience is sorely limited. My niece was born with Down syndrome. This lovely young lady turned 25 earlier this year. Take a look at the video below. It’s immediately evident that Charlotte lives a rich and purposeful life!

The road for Charlotte and for her family hasn’t been an easy one. I think in her first year of life she endured two or three heart surgeries. She has other health issues now that present challenges for her, but she has an irrepressible spirit that brings joy to so many! I have huge respect for her and admiration for her family.

The turnaround in Heath White’s life is surely confirmation:  All life is precious. All life is a gift and God is good … all the time.

Unscheduled Rendezvous

When I was a little girl, I frequently had bad dreams. I even had a recurring dream; thankfully, it’s been so long since the last occurrence, I no longer remember that dream, but it’s hard to forget the fright that usually woke me up.

Sometime during those young years, I remember hearing a hymn in church called He Holds My Hand. The song begins:  He holds my hand, Jesus holds my hand. Safely and gently He leads the way, He is my keeper from day to day. (There’s an instrumental rendition of this hymn on YouTube. The video includes captioned lyrics as well as music.)

The truth conveyed by that hymn was comfort I needed in the dark hours of night. When the bad dreams came, words from that hymn gave me courage. I could lie awake in my bed with a mental image of God’s ample hand holding me, just as the very solid substance of mattress and foundation did. I had confidence God would fold his fingers around me before any imagined harm could snatch me away!

One of the lifetime goals I’ve set for myself is to complete 100 sonnets, as a means of moving closer to mastery of this lovely poetic form. (I’m under no illusion of reaching Shakespearean expertise, but my hope is to achieve a satisfactory level of competency… for me.) In two previous posts (here and here), I’ve shared sonnets. This is my latest installment.

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Sonnet: A Nighttime Meditation

Night terrors and bad dreams don’t affect me as they once did. However, the image from Psalm 63 of David, the shepherd and king, meditating in the night watches provided the inspiration for this sonnet. The last phrase “thy right hand upholds me” certainly carries the idea I found so comforting during the bad dreams of my childhood.

God Bless Our Vets!

My dad served in World War II. (Read a bit of his story in this post.) With the World War II Memorial (an open-air venue in Washington DC) barricaded (purportedly due to the government shutdown), I’ve had cause to think about my dad’s service many times over the eight days of the shutdown.Norman_Grandma1

Dad was twenty years old when he enlisted in the Army in December 1942. (Picture to the left shows him in uniform standing with his mother.) Dad’s older brother joined the same day; his younger brother enlisted the following April. Their eldest brother had family responsibilities and begrudgingly remained in St. Louis. Thankfully, all three brothers survived their service to country and returned home to resume civilian lives after the war ended.

Dad and his unit were part of the D-Day assault force at Normandy. (I can only imagine how that must have been for him. It wasn’t a subject he readily talked about.) Being transported toward Utah Beach in a flat-bottomed, amphibious assault vehicle, my dad (who didn’t know how to swim) carried a full pack on his back and, as soon as the ramp was lowered, he and his mates disembarked into water over their heads. The soldiers who didn’t drown worked their way slowly toward the beach where others of their number were navigating around obstacles on the fortified beach. Some had already entered the intense fray against German occupiers.Norm_Military_3

After my dad retired, he returned with my mother to France. I seem to recall my mother said it was a particularly difficult visit and as it turned out, he chose not to actually go back to the beach, preferring the nearby towns. From the distance of so many years, I know Dad needed to go but hauling himself back to that beach was truly A Bridge Too Far. As with most of the soldiers involved in WWII, a part of my dad died on that beach.

Were Dad alive today, he’d be 91. He died in February 1994, just months shy of the 50th Anniversary commemoration. Had he lived long enough to attend, I think he still would’ve stayed away. Most of the men with whom he’d served predeceased him, and being there previously with my mom was simply too painful.

Each time I’ve viewed the film Saving Private Ryan, I’ve wept. I can’t help it. The film centers around rescuing the one remaining brother in a family of brothers. So much of the action feels desperately familiar to me. And several years ago, when I visited the World War II Memorial in Washington DC, I was similarly moved, struck with awe at the beauty and solemnity of what the memorial represents.

When I heard about the National Park Service shutting out elderly WWII veterans due to the government shutdown, the news was terribly disturbing. So few of these heroes are still living. Fewer still will be able to make a return trip to DC. Denying them access (and the precious time for meditation) at this open-air structure dedicated to their heroism is an insult that confounds reasonable explanation. I grieve for them. (I’ve read various reports that veterans later received a special dispensation to enter, but I haven’t been able to confirm that.)

My daddy didn’t live long enough to raise his voice in unity with these blessed elderly men. I feel like I must do it on his behalf. Without raging at any particular person or organization, I firmly believe whoever gave the order to close the Memorial should be relieved of duty immediately … and air-flighted into the nearest combat zone for recompense.

Love In Search

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is said to have once observed “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Author J. K. Rowling (in her book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), speaking through her character Dumbledore, says it’s “a magic beyond all we do here.”

Music and poetry share some of the same rich and universal qualities. My recent post Music: Best Gift Ever quotes the last four lines from Sidney Lanier’s lengthy poem The Symphony. The four lines from Lanier’s work were my inspiration for a poem about music that is reproduced below.

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Poem: Love In Search

DNA: Following the Evidence

When genealogy research migrated from the cumbersome (often deteriorating) media of microfiche, county record ledger books and newspapers into the electronic age, it was welcome forward progress. (In yesterday’s post, I mentioned wrestling with microfiche.)

Accurately inputting hard copy records to digital files took time. For me, testing multiple software packages over a ten to fifteen year odyssey finally ended at the Ancestry Online platform. Why not? I can access my account from almost anywhere, any time.

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The innovations of online resources like Ancestry, FamilySearch, Rootsweb, Cyndi’s List and a host of state and local databases continue apace and deliver high value for researchers from around the world.

Today, the emergence of a genomic age portends another forward leap on the horizon. Genetic data services are readily available (for an introductory price of $99) to assist in a variety of applications (among them, health, fertility and even curiosity).

For genealogy researchers, technology promises potential answers for baffling questions. Ancestry.com proffers: One simple DNA test. A world of discoveries. Multiple other vendors are capitalizing on this expanding market and offering similar testing.

Though science has never been my bailiwick, nascent technology captivates my imagination. My inquiring mind wants to delve into the microscopic world of DNA. I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise. What mysteries are hidden in the smallest of places? And, thanks most often to DNA, the detectives on these shows were always able to wrap things up in quick order!

A couple years ago, I watched a video that wasn’t just captivating; it was an elegant miniature display of such beauty and grace and order, words fail description. Before I share the video, a couple comments are helpful. This video is part of a series called Unlocking the Mystery of Life produced by Illustra Media. This (and all the videos from Illustra) present a scientific – but unapologetically Christian – point of view.

To me, this particular video reinforces (as few things might) evidence of a Designer. If that’s not your personal persuasion, don’t let my perspective (or the video’s) dissuade you from watching. About 30 seconds into the video, you’ll see an amazing computer animation of what goes on every second of every day within our bodies. Toward the end, Biophysicist Dean H. Kenyon says it’s “mind-boggling!” I totally agree!

 

Will I spend the $99 to test my DNA? I can’t deny I’ve considered it. More on that in future posts.

Going West

Long before the popularity of genealogy website, ancestry.com, family history was one of my favorite pursuits. Some might call me a devotee, but the honest truth is it’s more of an obsession, a positive (though time-consuming) addiction.

Why genealogy, you may ask? How will I write the “great American novel” when I’m distracted with genealogy?

Well, I’ve already wrestled with many of life’s burning questions:  who am I? where am I headed? who is John Galt? And I’ve managed satisfactory answers for myself. The single nagging unanswered question persists:  from where have I come? My compulsion has been to develop an understanding of who my ancestors were.

I grew up in St. Louis, my dad’s hometown. My mother hailed from Philadelphia and after WWII moved to St. Louis to marry my dad and raise their family. A post relating to my Stricker origins is here.

The unattainable was, of course, what captivated me. My mom’s the last survivor in her family. (Read more about Ruthe here, here, and here.) She had one sibling (who died before Mom was born). Mom was five years old when her dad died (he suffered mustard gas poisoning in WWI). She was twenty-four when her mother died.

In the days before Ancestry, I’d visit my local library laboriously combing census records on microfiche to uncover whatever I could find about Mom’s Philadelphia West forebears. She’d grown up knowing scant details about her dad; from the 1910 Census we discovered he had a sister (long since deceased) whom Mom had never known existed!

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One of my fascinations with genealogy is a quest to discover the unique experiences of these real (though departed) individuals. They’re more than names on a family tree and the summary of their vital statistics is hardly a start. Yes, a gravestone gives evidence of a life once lived, yet rarely provides more than a hint (if any) of that person’s totality. Did he like to joke? Was she witty or plain? What were their struggles?

Here’s my great-grandfather Franklin Pierce West (1853-1935) whose story illustrates how this puzzle presents itself. Some of my mother’s early recollections include Frank serving briefly as a father figure to her. (He died when she was nine.)

To get some perspective on who Frank was, the backstory is crucial. Frank’s father (Samuel P. West, 1832-1864) died at Spotsylvania Courthouse (VA) when Frank was barely eleven. In time, Frank, his two brothers and a sister, grew up and went on to have families of their own. But there’s an underlying turmoil that the various census records fail to expose.

Frank married Julia Boyle (1857-1903) in 1876 and they had four children, two of whom died as infants. The 1880 US Census shows the couple together, having already buried their firstborn. No 1890 US Census information is available for them. In 1900, I’ve been unable to find a census listing for Julia, though she didn’t die until 1903. Frank is listed living with his younger brother (and family).

Where are their two remaining children? Bethesda Home (a charitable institution?) in Springfield, Pennsylvania lists two children who are close matches, but that information is far from conclusive. The 1910 US Census shows Frank and his now adult children are reunited in the same household; under Frank’s marital status, there’s a “D” for divorced.

Did Frank and Julia legally divorce? I’ve found no records to support it. I can surmise there must have been a serious rift though. After Julia died on New Year’s Eve 1903, she was buried in the same burial plot as her parents.

Even when records exist, they’re often incomplete. Relations who might have fleshed out the frame have gone to their graves with the answers. Nevertheless, the mystery motivates more exploration, not less. As I research, I find new possibilities and eliminate others. It is (I hate to admit it) a quest without end.

So far, though, I haven’t discovered a connection to John Galt. I’ll let you know if that changes!

Music: Best Gift Ever

In his poem The Symphony, Sidney Lanier concludes the poem with these four lines:

And yet shall Love himself be heard,
Though long deferred, though long deferred:
O’er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word.

Please forgive me for wandering into theology here (though I hope if this discussion bothers you, you’ll forgive and keep reading). Lanier’s astute observation − Music is Love in search of a word − expresses my own closely-held conviction of the sacred connection between music, love, words and the Logos (Word) of John 1. Non-religious people are certainly able to enjoy and connect to music; for me as a believer, music penetrates deep into my being, stirring my soul to worship. 

I’ve always been passionate about music. As a toddler, the sounds of music percolated within my head and poured from my mouth. Before I entered kindergarten, I appeared on stage. In fifth grade, I played the lead in a school adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel. A junior high speech teacher told me he expected I’d make it to Broadway one day. Before entering college, I thought I’d probably major in music. (It’s actually a huge blessing I didn’t.)

The first time I watched this a cappella rendition of the once-familiar hymn I Need Thee Every Hour, my heart soared. You may have seen it already. Since first viewing it, I’ve played it multiple times and continues to be amazed. I’ve now discovered Sam Robson, the young vocalist/one-man choir, has a YouTube channel to showcase his vocal ability.

 

If you’ve watched this video before, enjoy it again! Whether you’re religious or not doesn’t matter. His technical mastery alone is outstanding. One commenter on his YouTube page says:  “Sam, just found out you exist today from a Facebook share. Feel like I’m unwrapping the best gift ever given.”

I agree. I’m in love.

The Little Birdie

Back in the early 80s when my house seemed to overflow with small children, I participated in a writer’s group. It was valuable experience, as well as a welcome diversion from some of my mundane household tasks. (This was before we began educating our children at home; with that transition, any focus on writing − out of necessity − was shuffled to the periphery.)

This group met once a month. At the start, we were small enough to gather around a kitchen table sharing and critiquing our latest compositions (sometimes poetry, sometimes prose). We studied a variety of poetic forms, discussed key elements of good fiction and non-fiction, and fine-tuned projects for future publication. Members recommended useful resources, essential tools and possible markets. We laughed (and sometimes cried) together, celebrating achievements and commiserating whenever the rejection letters arrived, as they so often did.StrunkWhite

Anyone who’s been involved in a worthwhile writer’s group knows the value of having other writers critique your work. If it’s a sensible writer’s group, the criticism will be measured and merciful, never unkind. Not only will you receive honest and helpful pointers; the process toughens your literary skin. Writers need a strong hide to keep the discouragement at bay, because even the best writers are known to collect rejection letters.

One of the invaluable tools regularly mentioned during our meetings was the incisive work of William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. This volume is surprisingly taut; my yellowed copy (pictured) runs a slender 92 pages. If you’re not familiar with this book, I’ve linked the Wikipedia entry. And if you’re a writer who doesn’t know this work, shame on you! Buy it! Read it and then read it again yearly!

For my specific writer’s group, the Omit needless words dictum (rule #17) was oft-repeated and the just basis for many a critique. Seared into our brains, this rule helped make us better editors of our own compositions. Yes, we nagged each other with it, but the application of this principle was mostly undeniable!

Ha! All these years later, my Twitter profile − with lighthearted affection − scorns Strunk & White as “amateurs.” What did they know? In the case of social media (with Twitter designed around 140 characters), whole words become extravagant! Tweets lend themselves to the shortest of shorthand. Omitting needless words? That’s so yesterday!

I’m a fairly late convert to the wonders of Twitter, and for a time, I worried it was a huge time-waster, another distraction in the long line of distractions. Posting regular tweets does take time and attention, no question. Depending on the tweeters you’ve chosen to follow, the interaction can be enlightening, entertaining, maddening, inspiring, etc.twitter_chubb-100012107-gallery

However, for the intentional writer, Twitter demands precise language (at least if your goal is to actually communicate − and that should be the goal of every writer). Precise language is what we strive to achieve; what better training than the rigor of distilling your thoughts into 140 characters or less? The instant feedback usually reveals whether or not you’ve communicated.

Economy of characters is the ultimate challenge to sharpen a writer’s skill. You’re probably not going to compose a novel on Twitter though I suppose you could if you were patient enough to portion it out in 140 character bites. Decent (and often dreadful) poetry appears on Twitter. The medium is open to multiple forms and you’re free to experiment.

By no means abandon your other writing projects! But take a flight through the Twitter-verse. I think you’ll agree the sustained effort enhances your writing ability as well as honing your writing instincts. Tweet! Tweet!

It’s Complicated

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My mother-in-law (MIL) celebrated her 91st birthday today.

She’s a widow who for six years has lived in a semi-independent senior-living complex near us. (Her husband of almost 66 years died in 2008.) She’s the mother of four sons, ten grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren, to date.

Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with dementia. It’s a condition for which members of her family haven’t needed the affirmative nod from doctor or hospital. The symptoms were already obvious.

When I married her son in 1969, I’d heard all the notorious mother-in-law jokes. I made a commitment from my heart to dismiss the jokes and work at being a “perfect” daughter-in-law (DIL), always kind, helpful and cooperative. Knowing my MIL had never given birth to daughters with whom to share her life, I could be the next best thing! Thinking she might have felt isolated in a house full of men, I empathized. Besides, we already shared common ground — a deep love for the son she’d borne, the man I’d married!

My relationship with my mother has always been delightful, so I was prepared to like (and eventually love) my MIL, to embrace her with good will and anticipation for a blossoming friendship. (For some of my mother’s story, see other posts on this blog.)

Unfortunately, even when we lived in close proximity with my in-laws for a three-month period (in the third year of my marriage), the friendship I’d hoped for failed to take root. It didn’t prevent me from striving, respecting her as my husband’s mother, believing she contributed to the man he became and being grateful for her contribution.

Some twenty years into my marriage, I finally took the hint. (Yeah, my optimism occasionally interferes with clear-headed judgment.) I didn’t give in to belligerence though it might have been justified; I simply admitted DIL “perfection” was doomed to fail. Even a lessor level of harmony appeared illusive. I was disappointed, to be sure, but as years passed, the six-hour drive that separated us became a welcome distance.

After her husband’s death, my husband and I agreed moving her closer would be the right thing to do. (Never in our home, but close by.) There was considerable trepidation, but we’ve always been committed to honoring (and taking care of) our elders. Long distance was no longer an acceptable option.

In the time she’s lived nearby, we think she’s mellowed — probably due in part to her dementia. Certainly, that’s enhanced our times together. Once or twice, I’ve even felt a rare warmth extended toward me. But the emotions have become less important since I’ve made the conscious choice to love her unconditionally. Whatever the previous relational barrier was (before her dementia set in), it’s inconsequential. What matters is she bears in her humanness the image of the Creator. Since He loves me (and her) unconditionally, how can I do otherwise?

Earlier this year, she burst into a sudden fury such as I’d experienced from her in the distant past. Stunned, I was momentarily overcome by a dizzying flashback of emotions long forgotten. Her rage vanished just as suddenly as it had come, but such an unpleasant reminder. How thankful I am God’s grace is ever abundant!

The bright side of this tale of woe? Three of my offspring are married. I’ve made doubly sure to embrace and establish good rapport with each of the spouses. I’m hardly a “perfect” MIL, but I can say with confidence we enjoy positive (and growing) friendships.

As for my MIL? I honor her on this, her 91st birthday. The dynamics that have marked our relationship are part of a larger tapestry that connects us and beyond that, two words must suffice:  it’s complicated.