Sunday, November 13, 2011


If there's one thing in life that I love, it's change.

HA! Completely untrue.

But sometimes change is good. And that's why...

Ta-Da! I'm changing blog providers. Blog hosts? Blog sites?

Anyway, I've been MIA because I've been setting that up and getting it all fancy.

So please change your bookmarks and subscribe to my new blog.

Here's the link:
OR will lead you there.

See you on the other side!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

84 Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road is smack dab in the middle of the theatre district of London. It has at least four major theatres on it, including Wyndham's and the Palace. The street runs right next to Leicester Square and into the mad roundabout that borders Trafalgar Square.

I couldn't escape the street while I was there as I spent a lot of time in that area, going to shows and galleries. It's insanely busy with cars, buses, and pedestrians at all hours of the day. Frazzled tourists speaking any number of languages bump into impeccably dressed locals on their way to or from work.

One afternoon I had some time to spare so I wandered up and down Charing Cross, taking photos of the theatres and the shops. To be fair, I was looking for one shop in particular. I knew it wouldn't be there, but I had to look.

84 Charing Cross Road. The former site of Marks & Co., Booksellers.

See, the address is also the title of one of my most favorite books. It's just a little book, less than 100 pages, but immensely charming and spunky. The book - or letters, actually, as it is entirely composed of real-life correspondence - tells the true tale of a struggling New York City writer and book lover who is looking for some real books, not the shabby editions we make over here in the U.S. She sees an ad for a British bookseller and starts requesting books in 1949. Her main communicator on the other end is FPD, who becomes Frank Doel, and then just Frank as they write back and forth for 20 years. She sends the shop care packages during the rationing following the Second World War, and they send her the books her heart desires. They become a community: her and Frank, Cecily, Megan, Frank's wife Nora. But they do not meet.

I'm not going to tell you how it ends. I will tell you this: it is bittersweet. But it makes me want to run out and find a British bookseller to correspond with for twenty years.

One of the reasons I love the story so much though is that it is a snapshot of that time of life. The experience could never happen today, not in the days of Amazon pushing out all small - and large - booksellers. Not in the days of e-mails and IMs and instant international correspondence (Heck, I emailed my mother in Canada from Papua New Guinea - Papua New Guinea!). And not in the days of impersonal business, eBay, and etsy, where no contact with the seller is necessary or even encouraged. We are left on our own to trudge through the murky waters of commerce, wanting everything instantly and entirely to our satisfaction.

This can be a good thing. But it doesn't make for a good book and it makes for a somewhat sad life.

In this book, there are letters, letters, written on typewriters. Helene yells in ALL CAPS at Frank for being slow, and he writes back, wry in his British sort of way. You get to know all of their personalities through their words - Helene and Frank and Nora - and their affection for each other. You see their love for books and the written word.

There are still a few small bookshops on Charing Cross Road. They are tiny and dingy, everything a bookshop should be, old books piled floor to ceiling on sagging shelves. You are more likely to find a mid-nineteenth century cloth-bound edition more than a mass market paperback.

But 84 Charing Cross Road is a Pizza Hut. Either that or a Subway - I can't remember now. I really couldn't believe it. I mean, I knew the shop had gone out of business, but now it's something so ... grotesquely American? There is a plaque that I vaguely remember seeing, but I didn't even take a photo; it was too sad.

Even so, we still have the book. We still have the thoughts and literary desires of Helene and Frank in their own words. And we have a snapshot of a post-World War lifestyle and friendship fostered by the love of books

That'll have to do. But please, read this book. And write a letter while you're at it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Community and the "What If" Game

In my opinion, Community is one of the best shows on television right now. You might think I’m overrating such a low-rated and non-awarded show, but I assure you, I am not. At its worst, the show is “meh.” At its best, it is brilliant. What other show has had two epic paintball showdowns, a zombie invasion, and a claymation adventure in the span of two seasons?

Last year, I wrote about Community’s meta episode when Abed becomes a messiah-like figure. I think Abed is the character I’m most intrigued by, because he’s so unique. He is unable to communicate with the other members of the group on an emotional level, so he attempts to engage through pop culture and logic. The group treats him as their idiot savant, the amusing unknowing jester who turns into a sage at a moment’s notice.

Community’s most recent episode was one of those brilliant ones. It explores multiple timelines, that story-telling construct where the audience sees the same situation from multiple vantage points. And by the way, I was really hoping that Vantage Point was going to be a good movie. It wasn’t.

At Abed and Troy’s housewarming party, the group tosses a dice to see who goes downstairs to tip the pizza guy. With each toss of the dice, six different scenarios are played out. There are ties through all of them: pies, Eartha Kitt, marijuana, The Police’s “Roxanne.” But because certain characters are removed from the situation, other things happen. At least one ends in total utter disaster. But I won’t ruin the ending.

The episode was a massive hit by everyone who watched it, both normal folks and television folks. It was clever, funny, and dark. But I think that everyone liked it because we all do that. We all wonder “what if.” We all try to imagine what life would be like if we had chosen differently. If we hadn’t gone there at that time. Or if we hadn’t swapped those two events.

It’s been termed “the Butterfly Effect,” the interrelatedness of all things. And I believe in it – I believe in the tumbling effect of our domino lives. Nothing is isolated; nothing is simple. Everything has to do with everything else.

It’s natural. Our brains reason and feel very deeply. We can recognize the impact of our decisions; we understand cause and effect. We see that if we act on something, there is a reaction. Because of that, we wonder if we acted rightly.

I always come back to whether or not I chose the right college. Or if I made the right choice working at school over the summer instead of going home. Or not studying abroad. These things are little compared to some of the “what ifs” that people live through: what if I had checked on her earlier and seen that she had stopped breathing? What if I had left five minutes earlier and not run that red light? What if I had said yes instead of no?

When “what ifs” turn into “if onlys” – that’s when things get dangerous. That’s when the game can destroy you. “If onlys” steal your life. They rob you of your joy and your perspective. They set up a glittering mirage of your world as it could have been, a mirage that you might chase but you cannot grasp. Because it doesn’t exist.

That’s the problem with the worlds of “what if” and “if only.” They do not exist. They never were. They cannot be. In Abed’s mind, the toss of the dice created six alternate worlds with six different outcomes. But in real life, there is only one outcome. Only one world. This one.

I do believe that there is a God who holds this world in his hands. I believe he knows the future and the past and all of time and space. I believe that he interacts with this world through a variety of ways. And I believe that he’s given us the faculties to make decisions.

Sometimes things happen to us. Sometimes they are not a decision we made. In my Harry Potter book, Voldemort just came back. Harry didn’t cause that. And on Downton Abbey, World War I just started. The Grantham family didn’t decide that. But now they have decisions. Now they have to decide what to do, how to react, what comes next. Sometimes that means fighting back. Sometimes that means turning your home into a hospital. And sometimes that just simply means acknowledging your life will never be the same and moving forward.

A girl I know lost her brother a few weeks ago. I’m sure that she wishes a different butterfly had flapped its wings, or the dice had rolled a different number. And I wish that too, for her and her family. Her world is now altered in every way. And now she has to figure out what to do with that.

I’m no theologian. I’m not going to debate predestination or free will or how God intervenes or why bad things happen to good people. Remember? I was a baby who had a tumor removed from her abdomen before she was two years old. I don’t know why these things happen.

All I know is that we cannot play the games of “what if” and “if only.” Because while we do, real life is happening all around us. The leaves are turning colors. Babies are learning to speak. Wise elderly folk are losing their memories. Time doesn’t wait for you while you wish for that alternate timeline.

This is life. This is now. These are the choices that you have to make. Make them, using those brain cells in your head, the wisdom of those around you, and God’s gentle nudging. Make them and walk forward, looking ahead and not back. Because there is no “what if.” There is only what is.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

True Quote of the Day : Someone Who Believes in You

(Yes, I'm bringing this feature back! You know you missed it...)

"'I don't know how you manage this, Mr. Holmes, but it seems to me that all the detectives of fact and of fancy would be children in your hands. That's your line of life, sir, and you may take the word of a man who has seen something of the world.'
"And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of my ability with which he prefaced it, was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby."

--Sherlock Holmes, "The Gloria Scott," The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I'm still on my Sherlock Holmes kick. Each night before bed, I read a mystery or two. It shouldn't relax me, but it does. I let Holmes do all of the work. He never lets me down.

Holmes is recounting his first mystery, which happened when he was at university. It comes about that he doesn't really solve the case at all, but he does find the key in which the solution is laid before him. In telling this tale, Holmes reveals this little gem about himself and about, indeed, the rest of us.

Holmes does his thing to the father of his school friend, that thing where he tells a person everything about himself due to clues that the normal person misses. The father is so shocked he nearly faints. Once recovered, he tells Holmes that this is what he should do with his life.

And young Holmes, who has never thought it possible, suddenly begins to believe he could.

We think of Holmes as being one of the most self-assured and confident character in existence. There is truth in that, as he knows what he can do and never doubts his skills. But as a young man, even he needed some guidance, some prodding, someone who believed in him. Someone to tell him, "This is what you are good at. Continue doing it."

The power of a simple statement. The power of a phrase to define and encourage or destroy. It goes both ways. So be careful what you say. There are plenty of folks who have been told painful things, and they carry that with them for the rest of their lives.

Encourage people in what they do well. Tell them! It is likely that they do not know, and if they do, they will not mind hearing it again. The world - and our own minds - tell us over and over again what we do wrong. But the acknowledgment of talents and skills does wonders. Need proof? Tell someone that you believe in her.

Are there people who told you that they believed in you? If so, why not shoot them a thank you? Because those encouragers, the ones who are always telling others how beautiful they are, they need to be told the same thing.

Wouldn't it be a lovely world if we told people that we see them and their gifts? And wouldn't it be lovely if they told us the same in return?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

SG(B)A - May 10, 2011 - The Dress

I said the first thing that came to mind when we emerged onto Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

“This is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.”

I guess it helps that I’ve never really been to an old city. I’ve only ever lived in the Midwest and West Coast of one of the newest countries in the world. The only time I’ve been to the East Coast was to Washington D.C., and while those monuments and buildings were beautifully constructed, they were built yesterday compared to the churches and palaces and shops of Great Britain.

The bus station in Edinburgh was down below the city. To get to the Royal Mile, Koh and I had to travel up through narrow passages, winding streets walled in by old stone buildings. All I had was a little map that hinted we were going the correct direction, but we had no way of knowing.

We mounted a few more steps and we suddenly emerged onto the Royal Mile where at one end, up a hill, is Edinburgh Castle and down at the other in a valley is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Scottish residence. Risiding the middle are the Cathedral of St. Giles, the Parliament building, John Knox’s home, and an old man wearing a kilt yelling at tourists.

I could just feel the history closing in on me like a mighty rush, voices clamoring to tell me tales. Every element of Edinburgh breathes out the past, and I loved to hear it. It was magical and romantic and everything I dreamed it would be.

And it wasn’t just that things were old. It’s that things were beautiful. The shops were housed in buildings that had seen many shops before and would see many shops after. In America, we make any space work for us and our intentions. In Scotland and other places I saw in Great Britain, there’s this overriding sense of understanding that humanity’s current whims ought to be secondary to what is already. It’s more of a lifestyle, a value placed on what has come before, shifting it to make room for the new instead of demolishing it entirely.

Koh and I walked all day, up and down the Royal Mile, putting up our hoods when it started sprinkling, pulling them down and opening our jackets when the sun warmed our backs. We mastered the art of the audio tour guide, walking into each room of the palace. We got scones at The Elephant Café, where J. K. Rowling dreamed up a land of magic. And we walked and walked, up and down the cobblestone streets.

I wanted to get a little something from every place I visited. I’m a big collector (some might say “pre-hoarder”), and so it could have been as little as a map or a napkin of a meaningful place. I wanted to capture the wonder and the beauty that I experienced that first moment I stepped onto the Royal Mile and actually felt like I was in Scotland.

There are two problems with buying things while on vacation, or vacation as I was doing it. 1) My luggage was an already stuffed–to-the-brim hiking backpack. There was no room for anything big, bulky, breakable, or expensive. 2) I have major buyer’s anxiety. I can never decide what to get and when and if this is the best thing or if I’ll find something I like better tomorrow.

Edinburgh is a lovely old city, but it’s got some funky undertones. It’s artsy and cutting edge in certain ways, especially artistically, so it had to have some fun shops, right? Luckily, I had the right book: Let’s Go, written especially for students so it has the cheapest restaurants, the most fun you can have without paying too much, and thrift stores.

One such thrift store was called Armstrong and Sons Vintage Emporium, and walking in, I felt completely out of my depth. It was more of a costume shop, with crazy mannequins and outfits hanging from the ceiling: sparkling, vintage, specialty outfits. It was a bit too much, too stylized and not cheap enough for me. Mostly, I just felt overwhelmed. The employees looked like cool Scots who looked disdainfully at my day-pack and half-wet hair, mussed from the day of sightseeing. I wanted to say, Yeah, I’m a tourist. So what? We can’t all live in the most beautiful city in the world! Some of us have to travel thousands of miles, okay?

I’m sure I was mentally overreacting.

Nothing spoke to me in that shop, but I wasn’t expecting to find anything. I was actually looking for a book or something intellectual to mark my time in Scotland. Something unique.

We were about to head up one of those quaint Scottish side streets that rise at a steep incline while parked cars line the narrow streets and no one know where it leads. I had read in my book that there would be a bookstore up there. Suddenly, Koh stops and says, “Oh! Look! A charity shop.”

She was pointing to a very inconspicuous shop that had the name of a saint on it or something. A charity shop is a thrift store, but for a good cause. We ducked inside, just to check it out.

This shop was teeny, like most Scottish stores. It was manned by a bored-looking young man and woman. They said an impassive “Hiya” as we entered. Compared to the last store, things were a little dingier, not as impressive. A little more my style.

And then I saw something purple and floral out of the corner of my eye. I think purple and floral is my love language. So of course, I gravitated toward it. It was a dress, a dark fuchsia with small lilac and red-orange flowers and blue-grey leaves. The yellowed tag marked the garment as obviously vintage, a yellowed tag displaying a size that means nothing and huge letters that boast it was “MADE IN ENGLAND” and “100% POLYESTER.” The dress was short-sleeved and scoop-necked, boxy and long with matching string-belt and a large ruffle on the bottom. I thought I’d try it on for fun.

And it was great. It fit like a polyester glove, once sinched in at the waist with the little belt. It made me feel hip and old and vintage and fun all at the same time. I tortured over it for a few moments, but the price was right – only 15 quid ($23). I knew I’d never find anything else like it.

Now it hangs in my closet. My grandmother, the expert seamstress who saves rock star’s pants and also helps me out, took it up a bit so it hits me right at the knee.

It is my Scottish dress, made in England, bought in a charity shop.

For me, it reflects the uniqueness of Edinburgh, the people there, the tie to the past and the tie to the future. It speaks to the relationship with England, and the need for having old things in our lives.

It also reminds me of the beauty and strength I felt while traveling in Edinburgh, especially the second day when I was by myself. When I wear this dress, I feel notable, I feel off-kilter, I feel different and I feel beautiful.

I feel old and stately and small and large and new and messy and unpredictable. I think I feel Scottish.

5/10/11 (Day 4) - Edinburgh, Scotland, Great Britain

Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dear Doctor Bostrom: Cancer, Part Two

(A Real Letter)

Dear Doctor Bostrom,

Hello. You probably don’t remember me, and that’s just fine. It’s been a while. There have been lots of babies and young adults and children since you knew me, likely hundreds of them.

I don’t remember you much either. You’re a character in a fairy tale, one that I’ve been told since childhood. While you weren’t endowed with any magical powers or amazing physical attributes, you became this mythical creature who I met once a year and asked me to walk down the hallway, made me get my blood drawn, gave me a tender smile behind round glasses.

Even though I love stories and have studied them for many years, my memory is rather faulty. It’s both a gift and a curse. I can watch movies over and over again, read books that I’ve read before, and be surprised every time. The ending is always familiar, but never remembered.

That’s how I feel about this fairy tale that my parents have told me my whole life. Like I should remember details, but they escape me. Most days I forget that the fairy tale was real, that I’m too a magical creature in this story with extraordinary powers of life.

The story is about how I got sick. How I was probably sick when I was born. How when my cells divided and divided and grew into a baby, some cells decided to grow faster and faster and push the proper inside organs out of the way. In the real world, they call such misguided cells tumors.

When I was nine months old, an old woman in the church held me and felt my spongy baby tummy that was hard in the wrong places, saw my sour and unhappy face, and asked my young mother – only a few years older than I am now – if she’d asked the doctor about that.

And so I went to a doctor, and then to another doctor, and finally to Children’s of Minnesota, where you were, Dr. Bostrom. Your online biography says you started in 1988; that’s the same year that I came to you. So I was one of your first patients, one of your first babies.

Have you heard about that movie that just came out, 50/50, the one with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogan, the one about cancer? I saw it recently. You might not like it – the doctor in it isn’t very nice. It's a comedy, but it affected me more than I thought it would.

I don’t often cry at movies, but I did at this one, just a little bit. I cried at the end, when he goes into surgery and he finally breaks down in fear. But I also cried when he sat stunned, across from the mean doctor, getting what could be his death sentence. I cried not because I could remember being in those situations – I can’t – but because I imagined my beautiful mother and strong father sitting stunned across the desk from you, hearing those words. And my strong mother and beautiful father holding my hand as I was wheeled to surgery. It’s the darkest part of the fairy tale.

I have been given an amazing gift. I am a cancer survivor with no memories of the chemotherapy sickness or the pain of surgery recovery. I didn’t have to deal with bandages or hospital stays – I was there, but I was an uncooperative and unappreciative participant. I could barely speak, much less comprehend what was happening to me. And so I am a lucky one, and I am forever thankful for that.

But I feel like I have this legacy of cancer survival that I struggle to own because I haven’t been put through my paces. I have the physical scars, a few subconscious emotional ones, but no memories. I am blessed but feel like my scars are nothing more than a “two truths and a lie” misdirect or a way to check if I have too much cleavage showing.

Trying to grasp this “cancer survivor legacy” has taken many forms. When I was in elementary school, I modified my science fair project to show how a Hickman catheter worked. I consumed Lurlene McDaniel books, sentimental young adult fictions that always have a child with a fatal disease in them. Depressing, I know, but I felt a need to be connected to this world of pediatric cancer. And yet, I don’t really belong there.

I was in remission by the time I was three years old, thanks to you: the mystical healer, the witch doctor, the apothecary in my little tale. You saw it all, and you fixed it with your herbs and syringes and IVs. You and the nurses who put bows in my hair, played with me in the middle of the night, watched Sesame Street with me. You are my legacy of healing. I do not so much have a legacy of cancer, but I do have a legacy of healing, of being touched by gifted hands, yours and many others.

So, Dr. Bostrom, this note is just to say thank you. I’ve been in remission for 21 years. My one remaining kidney works just fine. And I have plenty of thick, long blonde hair.

I graduated from university almost two years ago and work full-time in higher education. I am pondering graduate school. I work out semi-frequently, and the only problems I have are running in a straight line and losing interest once my television program is over. My parents are still well, having recently sent their youngest child off to college. We have had a good life – a healthy life – and I am very well.

I hope you are well too, well in every sense of the word.

Please continue in the good work. There are babies who need you to help them so that they can grow into girls who love books and young women who love words and grown women who thank their pediatric oncologists with the words they love so much.

Sincerely and with great love and thankfulness,

Sara Kelm

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kicked in the Face: Cancer, Part One

On Wednesday, cancer kicked me in the face.

Not literally, obviously. Cancer does not have legs. But suddenly and unexpectedly, it was everywhere I looked, sobering reminders of the reality that many folks live with daily.

Steve Jobs died, age 56. Cancer.

I saw the movie 50/50. A dark comedy about cancer.

A friend posted on Facebook about a pastor friend of his, recently diagnosed with cancer.

My friends and I joke about our smartphones and laptops and microwaving Tupperware. We say, “Everything’s going to give us cancer,” and carry on, doing what we are doing, denying the fact that it scares us, how it’s everywhere and affecting everyone and we don’t know what to do about it.

I mean, we can live our lives in fear, stay ridiculously fit, never microwave plastics, and still be sitting in front of a stoic doctor who takes a deep breath. Sometimes, people just get cancer.

It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or brilliant, a millionaire because of your innovative mind. It doesn’t matter if you changed the world of technology forever.

It doesn’t matter if you’re only 27, a runner who never smokes or drinks. It doesn’t matter if you have your whole life ahead of you.

And it doesn’t matter if you love God with all of your heart and serve Him with all of your life, in vocational ministry or otherwise.

Sometimes minuscule cells just divide and divide and divide again, never stopping, Attempt to take over all that is good and well within your body. Change your life quietly and then – once named – with a big noise.

It just happens.

In a split second, with the careful and horrible words of a doctor, you are labeled. You know for certain what you had only guessed, or maybe what you had only feared, or maybe even what you hadn’t thought possible.

Our bodies are born broken. Yes, they grow and mature and become stronger, but they are incredibly fragile, and like any living thing, they eventually die. That is how life works, whether you have a faith in something or you don’t.

It’s why I get so angry when I hear those “preachers” telling folks that if they just have more faith, if they just pray harder, they will be healed. That sickness is a sign of spiritual failing. That God would just fix it all if they asked hard enough.

I don’t know much, but I know that’s not true.

I do believe that God answers prayers cried out by those in need. I also believe that God is crazy as only the Ultimate Being can be – crazy by our own stupid standards, much like a dog begs for chocolate, not knowing it’ll kill him, or a baby is horrified by getting her shots, not knowing it may save her.

I believe cancer – and bad things in general – happen to lovely, decent, intelligent, wonderful people. Nothing will stop that from happening.

And yet…my faith gives me hope. Hope for beauty in this world, and hope for joy in the next and maybe for beauty in the next and joy in this one. I have to have hope.

You see, because babies with cancer die. But also, babies with cancer live.

To be continued…

Image credits: