Two-Part Invention

Today I cried at the playground.

Moms don’t have a lot of space for tears, and so they break their way through – unexpected, at undesirable times. I stand there, with Sage firming resting in the wrap at my hip, kids playing all around, mom’s chatting casually on the other side of the slide. And I turn another page.

It seems that I have cried with each page of this book. The more I get into it the harder it is to fight back the tears. You’d think I’d give up reading it, but these aren’t bad tears and somehow this book is woven from the fabric of my very being. I can’t stop.

I see in the writing my own hopes and dreams. My own tendencies and loves,

“The thought that I must, that I ought to write, never leaves me for an instant.” And I add: Nor me.

And I add: Nor me.

I read:

“I was struggling to write, to keep house, help in the store, be a good mother, and yet improve my skills as a storyteller. And that decade was one of rejection slips. I would mutter as I cleaned house, ‘Emily Bronte didn’t have to run the vacuum cleaner. Jane Austin didn’t do the cooking.’… In my journal I wrote: ‘There is a gap in understanding between me and my friends and acquaintances. I can’t quite understand a life without books and study and music and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand, can’t understand why I have to write, why I am a writer.”

And again flip the pages back to the first page I earmarked in the book:

“We do not know and cannot tell when the spirit is with us. Great talent or small, it makes no difference. We are caught within our own skins, our own sensibilities; we never know if our technique has been adequate to the vision. Without doubt this is true of my own work, too. I never know, when I have finished a book, how much of what has been in my mind and heart has come through my fingers and onto the page. This inability truly to assess one’s own accomplishment is what makes rejections so bitter. When I was receiving rejections from publisher after publisher, I wondered sadly if the book I had conceived in my mind had failed utterly in getting onto the page. This lack of knowing makes the artist terribly vulnerable. When I hand in a manuscript to agent or editor I am filled with anxiety until I hear: Yes, the book is there. It needs work, but it is there.”

And I think of my first attempt at a novel, which I only just days ago sent off to friends for editing.

So much of the life I want to lead is portrayed in these pages.

But so much also of the life I feel creeping up on me and hope never to be mine.

The struggle to write and become a writer are interwoven with the story of her marriage and ultimately the story of her husbands cancer. My own fears swell up as I turn the page.

I read:

“I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when the good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.”

As I read this book I feel it. It lodges itself deep in my heart on so many levels. It is as if it was written for me and as if it was written for me at such a time as this.

I’ve been drawn to Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention for years. I remember as quite a young woman seeing it on my parent’s shelf and wanting to read it. And yet, somehow, I never did. I must have picked it up to read a dozen times and yet as much as I wanted to read it, as much as I knew that I should read it and would one day read it, I also knew that it wasn’t time yet.

After Sage was born, when we were packing to move up to Seattle, our boxes were stuffed full and yet somehow I managed to squeeze it in – stollen off my parent’s book shelf.

When we moved into our apartment in the small town of Bothell, just north and east of the sprawling metropolis that is Seattle, I carefully looked at each book and then promptly packed almost all of them back up in boxes to store in our small attached storage. I didn’t pack Two-Part Invention back up. It was one of only about a dozen books that have sat on my shelves over the past year, and yet despite that I have never picked it up to read, until this week.

I feel almost as if it audibly called out to me. “Read me. Read me. Now.” It whispered.

And so I did. And it feels serendipitous to have picked up this book at this time and not before.

If I had read it when I was younger, I do not believe that it would have been anything more to me than a touching story book and a good book. If I had read it last year in the midst of Bryan’s melanoma diagnosis I do not think I would have been able to finish. It would have hit too close to home.

But, now, at this season, when my heart is still largely filled with thoughts of cancer and what that terrible foe might hold for us in the future, and when I am more firm in my identity as a writer than I have ever been before, this book comes as a God send. One of those rare books that I know I will look back on as formative, even life changing.

I turn another page:

“Prayer. What about prayer? A friend wrote to me in genuine concern about Hugh, saying that she didn’t understand much about intercessory prayer. I don’t, either. Perhaps the greatest saints do. Most of us don’t, and that is all right. We don’t have to understand to know that prayer is love, and love is never wasted.
Ellis Peters, in A Morbid Taste for Bones, one of her delightful medieval whodunits, gives a beautiful descriptions of what I believe to be intercessory prayer: ‘He prayed as he breathed, forming no words and making no specific requests, only holding in his heart, like broken birds in cupped hands, all those people who were in stress or grief.’
And George MacDonald asks, ‘And why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another? I can only reply, Why should my love be powerless to help another?’
I do not believe that our love is powerless, though I am less and less specific in my prayers, simply holding out to God those for whom I am praying.

What happens to all those prayers when not only are they not ‘answered’ but things get far worse than anyone ever anticipated? What about prayer?

Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hand outstretched to receive them like precious pearls.”

And I cry.

Each tear drop a separate prayer escaping up to heaven.

A prayer without words, a prayer deeper than words.

I cry for my friends, Jane and Martin, fighting cancer far across the ocean. I cry for friends whose aching wombs have lost babies. I cry for friends who are struggling with job loss and financial crisis. I cry for my daughter, Sage, who may never walk or talk. I cry for myself for the threatening loss I fear. I cry for Madeleine and the battle her husband, Hugh, fought with cancer all those many years ago.

 

And tears become prayers. And the prayers echo.

 

And I turn back a few pages:

 

“I do not want ever to be indifferent to the joys and beauties of this life. For through these, as through pain, we are enabled to see purpose in randomness, pattern in chaos. We do not have to understand in order to believe that behind the mystery and the fascination there is love.
In the midst of what we are going through this summer I have to hold on to this, to return to the eternal questions without demanding an answer. The questions worth asking are not answerable. Could we be fascinated by a Maker who was completely explained and understood? The mystery is tremendous, and the fascination that keeps me returning to the questions affirms that they are worth asking, and that any God worth believing in is the God not only of the immensities of the galaxies I rejoice in at night when I walk the dogs, but also the God of love who cares about sufferings of us human brings and is here, with us, for us, in our pain and in our joy.”

 

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

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The Giving Tree

My husband and I both have very fond memories of reading the book The Giving Tree as children. I always thought it was a wonderful book and it was one of the first children’s books that we put on our wish list. We were very excited to receive a beautiful hard cover copy of it as a gift for our baby. So, a few nights ago I decided to open it up and read it aloud to my stomach. Ever since then I have sort of been thinking about it off and on. Something about it really bothered me when I read it the other night and it continued to bother me throughout the last few days. Today thoughts started to form around this vague bothered feeling and I want to share them here.

I’m guessing that many of you have read this book as it is a very popular children’s story, but if you haven’t here is a short recap of the story from Amazon:

“In Shel Silverstein’s popular tale of few words and simple line drawings, a tree starts out as a leafy playground, shade provider, and apple bearer for a rambunctious little boy. Making the boy happy makes the tree happy, but with time it becomes more challenging for the generous tree to meet his needs. When he asks for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches for lumber. When the boy is old, too old and sad to play in the tree, he asks the tree for a boat. She suggests that he cut her down to a stump so he can craft a boat out of her trunk. He unthinkingly does it. At this point in the story, the double-page spread shows a pathetic solitary stump, poignantly cut down to the heart the boy once carved into the tree as a child that said “M.E. + T.” “And then the tree was happy… but not really.” When there’s nothing left of her, the boy returns again as an old man, needing a quiet place to sit and rest. The stump offers up her services, and he sits on it. “And the tree was happy.”

Ok, so I have always thought that this story was a great example of selflessness and generous giving, but as I read it again as an adult I found a whole different story within it and it was honestly unsettling.

Let’s talk about the boy first. The little boy, who grows into an old man through the course of the story, is definitely not someone I want my son to be like. He’s selfish and an incessant consumer. He takes, and takes and takes. He knows the tree loves him and he uses that love to his own advantage to get what he wants. He has no thought for the destructive force of his actions. I do not want my son to manipulate others love for him in the way this boy did. I don’t want him to selfishly walk all over people the way this little boy did. I don’t want him to endlessly consume from others and from the natural resources around him the way this little boy did with no thought of consequences. The boy is not a character I want my son to emulate.

So, how about the tree? When I was younger I felt that the tree was the real hero in the story, the character that should be emulated. I thought the tree’s selfless giving was beautiful and fulfilling, but now I see a different story and a different side of things. It’s true the tree is selfless and giving, generous and loving and these are all characteristics that I want my son to have and strive after. But, as I read the story this time, I felt uncomfortable with the tree’s giving. It seemed unhealthy. The relationship that the tree has with the boy seems abusive and the tree seems to be victimized in the story. The tree allows herself to be walked all over and taken advantage of time and time again. As I read it I felt uncomfortable with the way that the tree enabled and sustained the little boys consumption and selfishness. I do want my son to be giving, I do want him to pour himself out on behalf of others and love others generously, but I do not want my son to become as weak as this tree and allow himself to be abused and taken advantage of like that. As I look more closely at this story I don’t think that the tree is really worthy of emulating either.

I think the story actually shows us how messed up two good things can become in a relationship. Here’s what I mean… Giving selflessly to another is incredibly beautiful and valuable. And I personally also believe that allowing ourselves to accept and receive and take from another what they freely offer us is also incredibly beautiful and valuable. Relationships need and should have both these things. We should be able to give freely and receive freely in relationships. But, I think there needs to be balance. The problem comes when the balance is lost and it becomes all giving or all taking – it’s then that the relationship can become unhealthy like that of the little boy and the tree. At least that’s what I think at this stage in my life as I read this story. Anyone else have any other thoughts on this classic children’s book??

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany

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Outliers

Today I finished reading Outliersby Malcolm Gladwell. I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it. I have really enjoyed all of Gladwell’s books (The Tipping Pointand Blink) and find his writing style to be clear and intriguing and his topics to be highly interesting.

This book is about “The Story of Success” – basically he talks about how many of the things that we think make people successful aren’t necessarily the whole story. He argues that much of what makes someone successful are the opportunities they are given and the culture they are born into. He writes:

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

This is not a book to help you learn how you can pull yourself up by the boot straps and be successful. It’s much broader and bigger than that. It’s more about how we as a larger group of people can understand success culturally and instead of blocking success for people can extend the boundaries and give more opportunities for more people to be successful.

“The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsoft’s would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.”

I found this book to be incredibly intriguing and I encourage you to read it as well.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany

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Vampires, Myths, Mystery and Stories

Ok, so I’m going to admit it… I’ve been sucked into the Edward and Bella vampire hysteria. Well, maybe not hysteria. But, in the past week I read all four of the Twilight series books and I have to admit I really liked them (clearly if I read all of them in a week I more than liked them, but I’m trying to not to sound too ridiculous or fanatical). Hehe.

So, if you know anything about me you know that I love stories. I enjoy reading non-fiction books, I can enjoy watching stand up comedy occasionally, and I do enjoy shows like John Stewart and Steven Colbert, but none of those forms of entertainment can really capture my attention and after a while they bore me. But, stories… that’s another story. I get caught up in stories. You could even say that I get a little bit addicted to stories. Not too long ago I was so wrapped up in a show that Bryan and I were watching that I started hyperventilating when one of the characters died – seriously, no exaggeration – hyperventilating. I know, pathetic, right?

Anyway, Twilight and the books that followed didn’t cause me to hyperventilate or anything, but they did sweep me away into another world for a time and any story that does that get’s my recommendation. I can’t say that Twilight was really an exquisite piece of literary work or anything, but I can say that it was well written, in a fun and relatable tone that made it a enchanting account of young love, desire, temptation, heart break, free will, choice, good vs. evil and the sometimes not so clear distinctions between the two.

Maybe part of why I loved it wasn’t just that it was an appealing story, but also because secretly (or maybe not so secretly) I really love stories about magic and myths and all that. I was first introduced to magic and fantasy and fairy tales through George MacDonald and JRR Tolkien when I was probably no more than 7 and I’ve loved anything having to do with that sort of thing ever since. I’ve always been intrigued by stories of fairies, and elves, and witches, and dwarves, and goblins, and vampires and even aliens. As proven by many of my book choices throughout the years, and the many hours I’ve spent watching Star Trek with my dad, and X-files with friends, and vampire movies with my brother, and on and on. Yes, I admit it, I’m really a geek.

I think some of why I liked that sort of story was that I grew up in a modern scientific age, and a modern church – there was very little mystery, mysticism, or ritual in my normal life, but I always knew that there was something “other” in the world, that not everything could be explained clearly and concisely and I longed for that which was “other” and mysterious. What’s someone who’s a bit of a mystic at heart to do in an age where mysticism is generally shunned?? Turn to good fantasy stories, what else? Hehe.

So, if you like me, are intrigued by magic, myths, superstitions, fairy tales, and the paranormal… or if you just take a little guilty pleasure in sappy romance at times… then I recommend that you check out Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn – the story of a girl and a vampire who fall in love and the drama that follows.

On a side note, it’s pretty impressive that Twilight was the author, Stephenie Meyer’s first book. She started writing it in 2003 after having a dream about the idea. Now just a few years later she has four books that are top sellers and a movie made from the first book – pretty impressive.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

PS – Alan Knox has an interesting post about Twilight here.

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Book Review: The Shack

I just finished reading The Shack by William P. Young. I’m not sure where to start in writing about this book. I guess I’ll start by saying that I’ve never cried so much during a book. I found myself almost constantly fighting back tears while reading this book especially the whole second half of it.

When I started reading The Shack I was on an airplane nearing Prague, I felt excited and joyful. I read the foreword and the first chapter of the book and knew right away that I couldn’t continue. I was getting choked up already.

I picked it up again about 2 days ago and continued reading knowing a little more of what I was getting into this time. This second time I picked it up I really struggled with it. The writing style felt a little clunking (which is understandable since this is the authors first book), but really the sometimes awkwardness of the writing just added to the rawness of the story. It felt painful to read – the hurt was so raw and real. Then God showed up and I could feel myself really fighting the picture of intimate love that the author used to portray God – I found myself asking what about justice? What about wrath? What about holiness? And otherness? And an appropriate distance between the God who is other and sinful creation? But, slowly I was drawn in… I was touched and moved, often to tears, at the picture of God I saw here.

I am still processing this book. I’m not really sure what I thought of some parts of it, but I know that overall it really touched me. I would be very curious to know what others thought of this book. If you’ve read it please feel free to tell me about your thoughts on it and your experience with it in the comments.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Beth Stedman

A lot of other people are writing about this book. Here are a few other reviews of the book that you might find interesting:

Here is a review about the Shack which I thought made some great points and raised some good concerns.

Mark Peterson wrote his thoughts on The Shack here and here.

There’s a review on Promomusings here with a lot of interesting comments as well.

Andrew Jones writes his thoughts about the book here.

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