Sunday, November 13, 2011
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 sarakelm.com will lead you there.
See you on the other side!
Sunday, October 30, 2011
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
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
"'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
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
(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,
Photo courtesy of http://www.childrensmn.org/
Sunday, October 9, 2011
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: http://www.droid-life.com/
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
My co-worker Patrick likes to make poems from the magnetic words in my office. Recently, he asked me whether I like to plan things before I go on vacation. I said yes, which to me seemed the only logical answer. He then said, “We’re complete opposites. But we can still be friends.”
Patrick is an extrovert.
He also laughed at me when I showed him the book The Introvert Advantage and said, “Only an introvert would need a self-help book about being an introvert.”
He doesn’t understand. You see, our culture is oriented toward high-achieving extroverts. A successful person is someone who is a) rich, b) popular, and c) charismatic – and being rich is optional. She is bubbly and vibrant with lots of friends, and these things make her irresistibly charming and beautiful. She loves to do things and be with people, never slowing down, always busy.
Most of my closest friends are this way. Extroverts. Which makes sense, I suppose, since apparently there are three extroverts to every one introvert. But having friends who are so busy and need stimulation and need to be going going going impacts how I see my own life.
Often I’ve felt lazy. Boring. Overlooked and unseen. Something’s wrong with me. I’ll never make anything of myself. I’m unambitious. Lack self-control. I’m just wrong.
No, I’m not. I’m an introvert.
I knew that. I was a psychology minor, for goodness sake. I’ve taken the quizzes; I know them by heart. I was certain I was an introvert. But I didn’t really know what that means or how to manage it.
Well, The Introvert Advantage is pretty helpful in that regard. It starts out defining introversion: what it is and what it isn’t.
Introversion doesn’t mean that a person is shy or hates people (though I’ve joked about that plenty). It just means that introverts draw energy from their internal world, from being alone. The outer world can just get a tad overwhelming at times.
Another characteristic of introversion involves liking to know a lot about things one experiences and feeling them deeply. Sometimes it takes longer for introverts to process and be moved to speak because 1) they haven’t fully exhausted the issue yet mentally, and 2) they want to be sure to speak correctly.
The chapter on socializing and what to do at parties made me laugh, but it was quite helpful. I find I’m most out of my depth in large group gatherings where I can get lost in the crowd. I struggle with creating and maintaining conversation. I can do it, but it’s incredibly exhausting. I chuckled to read things like “Many introverts tend to foreshadow. They think ahead about what could go wrong…” and the whole section on eye contact. It’s so silly but it’s so true.
Some of the tips were far too specific or basic to be helpful, but I also realized I am a fairly outgoing introvert – if that makes sense. I know myself, my limits, and I work around those easily (after years of breaking myself). Some of the examples are for far more extreme introverts than I – though I could see myself in some of them more than I realized.
Side note: A downside I must mention is that, as a literature person, I felt the tone of this book was occasionally condescending and repetitive. I didn’t like the writing, but I’m a snob.
Regardless, I honestly feel like this book is important – especially if you’re an extrovert and you love someone who is an introvert, but you cannot understand him. Even if you think you do understand him, read this book. I mean, I learned loads of stuff, and I’m a self-aware, well-educated introvert.
This book didn’t fix me, but I don’t need to be fixed. I need to be me, I need to mellow out my extroverted friends, I need to think about things long and deep. It freed me to be myself and to think about why I do things in new ways.
At the very least, The Introvert Advantage highlights the quiet ones, and maybe the louder ones could slow down to listen a while. There’s always room to understand each other a bit better.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
I will never forget sitting on the sidewalk by the side of a Portland street with a bunch of other music lovers, late at night. Jon Foreman, the frontman of the band Switchfoot, leaned up against the windows of the Real Mother Goose, a furniture import store right next to the MAX tracks. He had just played the hottest concert I’ve ever been to (temperature hot – it had been blazing), a 45-minute set in the extreme dripping heat. Still he got his guitar from the tour bus, walked down the street like the Pied Piper, and we all followed. It was just us, him, and his guitar for nearly an hour.
It was pure Jesus magic.
I had been a longtime fan of Switchfoot, ever since the early days of “You Already Take Me There” and the skydiving music video, but that night bred a die-hard loyalty. It’s like when you’re friends with someone for so long that it doesn’t matter how often you see her or even what she does. That friendship bond, strengthened by shared experiences, will never break and you can always pick up where you left off.
I’m serious when I say I don’t care what the band does – they could release a CD of cows mooing, and I’d pre-order the special edition.
They choose a different artistic direction. My friends in Switchfoot released their eighth studio album yesterday. It’s called Vice Verses.
I first heard the title track “Vice Verses” over two years ago via the internet, thanks to some thoughtful person who recorded an acoustic session that Jon did. He was sitting in a folding chair with people all around him. And he sang this song I had never heard before. “Vice Verses.”
The song started out musing upon the ocean, but quickly delved into questions about the nature of life and eventually built into a plaintive cry. “Where is God in the city lights? Where is God in the genocide?”
And on this particular bootleg recording, Jon’s voice cracked with emotion when he sang, “Where are you in my broken heart?” and the rest of the song came out through a choked voice.
It was the cry of my own heart.
“Everything seems rusted over, show me that you’re there.”
I’ve come back to this song over and over, and I think it’s my favorite of theirs – which is saying a lot with songs like “Shadows Prove the Sunshine,” “Sing it Out,” and “Your Love is a Song.” I also became extremely pretentious, just for the fact that my favorite song wasn’t even released on an album yet. Win.
In preparation for this album, the band launched a Twitter campaign, asking people what their Vice Verses were. I didn’t enter, because I didn’t know what that phrase meant. What are vice verses? I know what vices are, I know what verses are, but what are they together?
“I’ve got my vices, I’ve got my vice verses.”
I think I’ve figured it out now.
“I know that there’s a meaning to it all, a little resurrection every time I fall.”
To me, Vice Verses are those things which redeem our vices. We all know our own vices, we all know what we do wrong, what makes us bad and wrong and not good enough. We recite them like a liturgy, clinging to our own failures. We are the screw-ups, holding close those mean things little boys said to us on the bus or lies our teacher told us about who we were. Bad things.
We know our vices.
But do we know our vice verses?
I find that I struggle telling you what I’m good at, or what I truly love, or what gives me the greatest joy. I can bluff if asked outright, but it’s not usually the truest answer. What truly are the things that make my life worthwhile? That keep me moving forward even though my vices sometimes scream so loudly that I can’t even hear myself?
I believe this wholeheartedly: until we can name those things that give us true joy and meaning, we cannot escape the trap of our vices and we cannot move in the correct direction. How do we know where to go if we have not stopped to identify the tools we have to get there?
As for our vice verses, you can’t just say God or Jesus or any of those canned Sunday School answers. Yes, God and Jesus are good, but they are not your vice verses. These things are what were formed by the Creator to show us Himself and to give us purpose. They are gifts.
Most of the band shared their Vice Verses on their YouTube page. Maybe my definition is incorrect, but that’s what I’m working from to give you my own:
My vice verses are the deepest belly-laughter with deep friends, the joy of being known, the hope of something more, and beautiful words creating a beautiful story that tells of the beautiful possibility we humans have of redemption,
Vice Verses. What are yours?
Buy the new album here: www.switchfoot.com
Photo credit: Sara Kelm, Copyright 2009
Thursday, September 22, 2011
This is a story about bravery.
I have two friends who had a dream. They wanted to tell stories that matter. This dream sounds simple, but it was a dream, and so it was hard. Because it was a dream, many people believed it couldn’t happen.
I don’t know if they ever thought that too. But because they dream in stories and they know that stories are important, they worked hard and they started a theatre company. That sounds easy, but it involved money from their bank accounts, and painting ceilings black, and casting their friends, and walking all over town hanging up posters. They had to ask for help. A lot. That is really hard to do. And I’m sure sometimes they were scared and sometimes they thought this might be a bad idea. But they did it anyway.
They are brave.
Most people are too afraid to follow their passions. Because failing would break their hearts and they’re not sure they could ever mend again. So they never try. And the saddest thing is that they will never know the joy of what could have been.
My friends’ first ever show that belonged just to them opened last Thursday night. They wrote it and staged it. It tells the stories of seven ordinary people.
By ordinary people, I actually mean just regular old ordinary people who live in the small city of Newberg, OR. They weren’t chosen because they’ve done anything exciting – they were chosen because they call Newberg their home. And my friends wanted to tell the stories of Newberg.
Newberg is a college town, a dry campus in the middle of wine country. It is proud of its history, but the population is also very transient. There is great disparity between the richness of a five-star resort and the muddy fields filled with migrant workers and the treatment center that boasts celebrities hiding away from life.
These seven people have lived in Newberg for a while. Three speak Spanish, four speak English. One lives with autism. One is a teacher. Another owns a restaurant. Two came over illegally. And one died only a few weeks after being interviewed.
These seven people were extremely brave.
They told the stories of their lives. They are all normal people who live and work in a small town, feed their families from the local grocery store, go to movies at the old movie theatre. But they have the most intricate and beautiful stories.
Very few people think their own stories are beautiful. Boring, yes. Quiet. Maybe occasionally interesting. But rarely beautiful.
But there is beauty in the simplicity. And there is beauty in the act of bravery, of saying, “I will tell you my story because maybe you need to hear it.”
In being brave enough to share their stories, their stories were given such exquisite significance. They were made into art; they were made into meaning. They were given a beginning, a middle, an end – even as it continues forward. They were given life.
Those seven real-life people put their own lives onstage for others to see. The pain and anguish of reality, the pleasures of living – it was all there.
And we, the audience, were amazed. We learned we don’t know our own neighbors. In our rush to update our Facebook statuses, to share photos of our food via Twitter, to be somehow known, we are losing the dearest part of human existence: engaging in someone else’s life. Touching it, hearing it in ways that are more than 140 characters, that allow deep connection.
Because that requires bravery.
And my culture is not – I am not – brave.
Can we change this? Can we share our lives with those around us? Can we ask people about their stories? Can we ask someone about her dreams? And then answer truthfully when asked those questions back?
It requires something that we’re not used to: hard work. Challenge. And it requires pain and tears and just the slightest possibility of true, pure, untarnished joy.
Let’s be brave together, you and me.
See the Show!
Walk a Mile: Stories of Newberg
Thursday-Saturday, September 22-24 at 7:30 pm. Sunday matinee September 25 at 2 pm.
Monday, September 12, 2011
My grandma is a terrific seamstress. I don’t know how that talent didn’t get passed down to me, but it absolutely didn’t. The one time I used a sewing machine, I scratched my coffee table. Yes, the two are related, and obviously, things didn’t go well.
I know it requires practice, and honestly, that’s not something I’m good at: practicing. As I grow older, I’m starting to think that those with a “knack” for something are just willing to put the time into something and learn it. The rest of us then chalk it up to intrinsic talent.
Grandma is also one computer savvy lady. She always has been; she worked at a law-firm, creating documents that made other people look good. Now she works at a online high school. She gets technology in a way few of my peers’ grandparents do.
So, we’ve established that Grandma is hip in certain ways. But she is my grandma. She’s a great cook and fiercely protective of her family. She wears pastel tops and khaki pants. Her hair is always carefully dyed and coiffed. She’s a grandma.
She’s not a rock star.
In comparison, John Paul White is legitimately a rock star. Every article mentions his visual similarity to Johnny Depp. It’s not just his hair length, color, type, beard, mustache, or eyes that force you to come to that conclusion. It’s more so White’s demeanor onstage – mellow, cool, deep. The vibe you get from Depp as he walks the red carpet. Rock star vibe.
White is one-half of the Civil Wars, a band that’s erupted onto the world stage in the last year to rapturous applause (and not just by me). They put out a live album for free online, and before they or anyone else knew it, their music was being played on Grey’s Anatomy and MTV, and their gigs were selling out concert halls.
They deserve every accolade, and yet it’s hard to explain the alchemy. White is a southern boy from Alabama. His counterpart, Joy Williams, is a sunny girl from California. The duo sings about love and broken lives in voices that blend like strawberries and crème, so smooth and effortless that you’d assume either a) they’ve been singing together for years, or b) their emotional intensity is produced and amplified by a romantic attachment to each other. Not so, not so, as they’re both married to other people. But the musical marriage is something to be commended. Musical soulmates.
I was privileged enough to see them in concert, sitting in the second row of the old Aladdin Theatre in downtown Portland. It was a memorable experience, fully enjoyable, beyond entertaining. The pair are actually better live than recorded, which is saying something.
Afterwards, I did what everyone does: gushed about it over Facebook. Two days later, I get a Facebook comment. From my grandma. It said this:
Grandpa and I have been to a Civil Wars concert too!! They were thank-you tickets, for I stitched up the male singer's pants so he could appear on stage that afternoon! REALLY, I did!!
Let me just rephrase this for you, just in case you missed it. My grandmother stitched up John Paul White’s pants.
She made me wait for the whole story until the next weekend when I saw her at a family reunion. Until then, I just entertained marvelous, hilarious images of Mr. White standing in red heart boxers, chagrined, while my grandmother sewed up his pants and gave him a firm talking-to about ripping his nice work clothes.
When I did hear the story, it was basically what the comment said. The pastor’s wife at Grandma’s church is a cousin of Joy Williams’s husband. The Civil Wars were coming through Minneapolis. JPW ripped his performing pants earlier that week, apparently performing the previous gig with them torn, poor fellow. So Grandma came to the rescue. She grabbed her sewing machine and her husband, and both of them met the duo at the theater, where she set up shop before whipping through the repairs.
In the words of my grandmother, “Apparently he travels with only one pair??” She's still incredulous about that.
I get incredibly starstruck with anyone I admire: tongue-tied, red-faced, the whole nine yards. Hearing this story nearly put me over the edge, because this story was just what I needed. An “in.” A topic of conversation to lead me into a meaningful encounter with someone I find amazing.
You see, before the Civil Wars concert I attended, my friend Martha and I went to the bar next door for dinner. We were seated in a solo booth by the entrance. The bar was a dumpy little place with cheap food and none of the classic glamour of the venue. We were sitting, eating too much, getting excited, when I got up to use the restroom. Returning, I was able to see the booth behind us against the wall on the other side of the door. Sitting there were John Paul White, Joy Williams, the incomparable opener James Vincent McMorrow, and a few other folks.
My eyes grew wide. I froze. A million thoughts ran through my head. Should I say something? They were eating. What would I say? “I like your work?” No, uber lame. “Welcome to Portland.” Dull. “What’s up?” Not a chance.
What would I have done if I had known the story relayed to me after the fact? That my grandma hangs out with rock stars? Probably exactly what I did when I didn’t know: sit down in my booth, eyes wide, stuttering. I’m not good with rock stars.
If only my grandma had been there.
Check out the Civil Wars and their debut album, Barton Hollow, at www.thecivilwars.com.
Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
We all have our stories. My grandparents remember when JFK was shot. My parents remember the Challenger's explosion. They can picture the very spot they were standing in as the colors grew more vibrant before dimming, an entire country changed in a moment.
And I have mine, 14 years old, first period of eighth grade. My history teacher - but mostly a wrestling coach - met another teacher at the door of the classroom a few minutes past the bell, swore loudly, and wheeled in the first television he could find. We didn't know what was happening then, only that people were walking through a city I had only dreamed about, covered in the dust of building and people, eyes wide and gaping in broken faces.
Everyone was an American then. It was easy to love American, to revert back to the patriotism our country had fallen away from in the disillusionment of the 90s. We were one, unified. We gathered around New York and Washington D.C., crying and raising our candles high.
In 2006, my family visited the Pentagon. It's easy to forget that a plane flew into the Pentagon that same September day. There is a memorial wing, with photos and flowers. I looked at our uniformed guide, stiff-backed, leading us around with hawk-like eyes, and I knew that he had known people who died that day in that building.
Ten years isn't a long time. Wounds can still be incredibly fresh. And at the same time, there are small humans, thinking and rational humans, who were not alive then. Even high schoolers now have very little memories of that day. I read an article about how teachers are now teaching the attacks as history instead of reality.
Time marches on. And we mark anniversaries. Soon it will not be ten years, but twenty, then thirty, and then it will be ancient history, a page in the history book that most history teachers don't get to because they run out of time before summer vacation.
But what is there to say? What is there to do? We were attacked. We lost people. We were angry. We went to war. We were misled? We lost more people. And so it goes. And so it goes.
A decade later, it's easy to be cynical. To focus on the fact that the truth is not so cut and dry, that we were perhaps lied to so that we would support military action. It's easy to see the negatives of this country: the blatant overindulgence, the loud bombastic American way, the small-minded ethnocentrism, the wastefulness of resources. My generation has raised this type of cynicism - especially in humor - to an art form.
But so easily my generation forgets the beauty of this country. The variety of landforms and people, languages and cultures. The art that is produced. The kindness of people who care. For every closed-minded bigot, there is a person seeking conversation and understanding. For every angry war-hungry individual, there is another who wants peace and contentment.
The bottom line is that I am so thankful that I am allowed to be a strong woman. I can work at a job. I can live by myself. I can enjoy art and culture. And most importantly, I can pray aloud to a God without fearing for my life. I know I have these things because of brave people who gave their lives to their beliefs, and I am in their debt.
And I will pray for those who have none of these things, whose lives are marked each day by terrorists and relegated to minor news stories. Because we were the victims then, but they are the victims now. We lost mothers and sons then, but they are losing them now. It's not over for them; they remember the anniversaries daily without television specials or tribute concerts. They do the washing, fix the meals, try to get by without starving to death or breaking down with grief.
On this September 11th, I will remember that day that I cannot forget. And in doing so, I will be grateful for what I have. Be hopeful for what I may have. And pray that all will someday have what is denied them.
I will remember. And be grateful.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
For one who enjoys eating, I don’t pay much attention to food. I have friends who are excellent cooks and can taste different spices, real foodies. Me, I’m rather a goat. I don’t care much what I eat, as long as my blood sugar stays up and my tummy doesn’t start growling. I’ve been known to eat chips and salsa for dinner and pizza for three straight meals. Part of that is immaturity, part laziness, and part just apathy.
Great Britain isn’t necessarily known for fine cuisine. The food of the homeland is comfort food – beef, potatoes, veggies. Nothing exotic, nothing even that tasty. I mean, they eat Marmite over there. Dear Scotland is known for haggis, an odd concoction of animal entrails stuffed in a casing. Rather like hot dogs, but more disgusting for those of us who didn’t grow up with it.
The food of Great Britain is a changing landscape though, due to immigration. A huge population of the island hails from India and comes to Great Britain because of proximity as well as England’s tumultuous past in that nation. For that reason, there are quite a few Indian food restaurants on the streets of cities, and the smell of curry can occasionally be caught as it wafts over the British streets.
But I thought of none of that. I was focused on two things: tea and scones.
In preparation for my trip, I was determined to become a tea and scone connoisseur. I am from the Pacific Northwest. We adore coffee here, the smell permeated through our culture. My small town of 22,000 has no fewer than four permanent coffee shops, five coffee stands, and coffee served at every café in town. The economic troubles have caused a few to close down, but somehow, there is still plenty of business to go around.
I don’t drink coffee. I’ve never liked it, not even when my grandmother came and visited, the coffee grounds peppering the air heralding her arrival. The bitterness sticks at the back of my throat, making my eyes squint and the corners of my mouth to draw back, an unintentional grimace. Even when friends swear to me that in this certain coffee drink “you can barely taste the coffee,” it’s always there, hiding behind much-loved flavors of milk and chocolate, rushing out to linger in my mouth far after the liquid has gone down my throat.
So, when I moved to Oregon, I had to find something to drink at coffee shops. Smoothies are expensive and rather cold in the winter. And I did need something with caffeine, once I hit college and the late-night studying that seemed so necessary at the time. That left tea.
The problem was that I didn’t like tea either. I wanted to like it. The romantic academic in me desperately wanted to sit by a cozy fire, drinking tea with a lovely book. But the tea was too bitter for my tender palate, and while it was immensely preferable to coffee, I still couldn’t enjoy it.
Enough was enough. I was going to Great Britain. I would like tea by the time I got there. I started soft, with green teas and herbal, decaffeinated teas that smelled of potpourri and tasted of fruits. Weak sauce. I just couldn’t work up to black tea, English breakfast or Earl Gray like I wanted to.
Regardless of previous (American) attempts, on my first full (coherent) day in Great Britain, I wanted tea. Koh took me to a much-loved local café in St. Andrews called Janetta’s. It was probably around 9:30, and we were the only patrons in the shop, a bright and airy shop with white walls and orange-red and green accents. The whole feel of the place was open, comfortable, the sort of place I’d feel comfortable in regardless of the language spoken.
We ordered at the counter, Koh able to translate the woman’s thick Scottish accent for me when I got stuck. I ordered tea, because I was in Great Britain. I needed to have tea. And a fruit scone, which is what they call scones with raisins. We went and sat down near the window, where I could survey the outside world of Scotland.
I was still in disbelief in this magical land. Outside the window were buildings, all shoulder to shoulder with little alleyways cutting through them to streets beyond. The streets were cobblestone, grey and smooth. The cars and trucks were all smaller than the enormous SUVs of America, and they drove not knowing they were on the wrong side of the road. The sky was the bluest-blue, with puffy clouds – a sky that didn’t show how chilly it was and mislead you into thinking the entire day would be marked with sun.
The woman brought our breakfasts, and I surveyed it with delight. The fruit scone was fluffy and high, peppered with raisins. Biting into it, spread with butter and raspberry jam, I gushed over how the scone was just the proper flakiness, the jam giving the pastry a little sweetness. It wasn’t too crumbly like our American biscuits or too cakey like our American everything else. It was perfect.
And the tea, brought in a metal teapot, was the most wonderful drink in the world. Of course, it was a nice dark English Breakfast tea – what else are you going to have in Great Britain in the morning? Once laden with copious amounts of milk and sugar and poured into the provided large white mug, it was the sweetest and most comforting liquid, exactly what I needed in a still-strange time zone in a foreign country. I could have had gallons of it.
I know in my rational mind that Janetta’s doesn’t make the world’s best tea and scones. The whole thing was 3.80 pounds – a mere pittance. And yet, it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had. It wasn’t just that the scone was delicious and the tea just right – it was the setting, the company, the wonder I had of being in Scotland that filled the experience with the most pleasurable tastes.
And that’s what food is, really. A way to create and hold onto memories. To spur conversation, to have an excuse to stop and sit and take care of yourself. To be thankful for having the ability to fill your belly and take pleasure in tastes and feelings. To be content.
I am content with fruit scones with raspberry jam and breakfast tea, milk and sugar added, and a friend to eat those delicious things with. Scotland taught me that.
5/9/11 (Day 3) - St. Andrews, Scotland, Great Britain
Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
I’m on book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s arguably the best of the seven (emphasis on arguably). The third book is my favorite for a few reasons. The characters aren’t in their angsty phase yet. It has Quiddich, but also classroom work. You delve into the stories of Harry’s parents. Hermione slaps Malfoy. And Harry finally has people on his side, adult-people who loved his father and love him. They’re happy for the moment.
We also meet one of my favorite characters: Professor Lupin. He reminds me of every teacher I ever admired. There are some slight differences (you know, having to do with the moon), but Lupin engages his students, expects them to do well, and gives them practical training that turns out to be very useful. He inspires respect, gets involved in their lives, and allows them to be children while at the same time helping them mature. He’s an educator – a shabby, prematurely-gray educator.
In one of Lupin’s classes, he brings a boggart to the students. What? You say you don’t know what a boggart is? Shame on you, Muggle. Shame. In Rowling's world, it is a creature that hides in the dark, and when forced to emerge, takes the shape of whatever scares you most. The students have to literally face their worst fears – giant spiders, failing grades, mean professors, zombies – and laugh at them. The counter curse is “Riddikulus,” which turns the feared item in something humorous. It changes fear into silliness.
We all have boggarts in our life. They are the things that take the shape of our biggest fears. It is that person who implies that we cannot accomplish our dreams. Or someone we are afraid to lose in order to pursue passion. It is our reasons, our excuses for not moving ahead.
The fear is always real – that emotion that stops us in our tracks, that feeling that drains our face of blood and our stomach of buoyancy. But the thing causing our fear? It is most often unfounded. If he loves you, he will love your dreams and stay. If she tells you it cannot be done, she does not know you or what you are trying to do. And if the reasons to not seem bigger than the reasons to do…laugh at them.
They don’t seem so scary now.
I fear to try, because I fear to fail. My boggart would simply berate me for being foolish, afraid, alone, and a failure – none of which are fair, honest, or true. I would prefer a severed hand, I think. When we grow up, our fears become less external and more internal.
I struggle to laugh at them because they feel so real. The boggart speaks in a voice I know all too well – the voice of my friends and family, the voice of myself. And yet, put some helium in that boggart’s voice, and all of a sudden, a cartoon is telling me I am not good enough. I can’t believe that.
We all have our boggarts. Are we brave enough to face them? To laugh at them? To call them “riddikkulus” to their faces and carry on anyway?
When all else fails, think of Snape in that dress. That’s funny enough for anyone.
What’s your boggart? And how can you laugh at it today?
Image from: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/
Saturday, August 13, 2011
No, I mean that for however I'm feeling, there is a Switchfoot/Fiction Family/Solo EP song that covers it. It helps that Jon seems to write songs on meaningful days. Significant days. Like birthdays.
I had a birthday recently. Monday, in fact. I turned 24.
People at work kept asking me how old I was turning. I hope I never become that person who is ashamed of the years that she's seen, but it still struck me as odd. When I answered, the person asking me nearly always scoffed at me with a tiny little laugh of derision or a bemused glance. Both spoke volumes; they said on the surface, "You're so young," and underneath, "I'm so insecure" or "I'm so old" or "I feel like so many years have gone by."
I think it annoyed me, because I feel like those laughs and glances stole from me the validity of getting older. I should be allowed to feel the years pass. I'm allowed to feel old, because, as I mentioned to a few of them, this is the oldest I've ever been. And just that gives me the opportunity to stop and reflect, to not dismiss this age.
I am the oldest of most of my friends. I am the youngest in my office. And I am this age, right now.
Any milestone is significant for me. If I am ever a mother, I am going to be one who commemorates every little thing. I can't help it! Dates and markers are how I measure time, places I can pause to look back and look forward all at once. I need those markers.
I am 24.
23 was significantly insignificant. Most of it was quiet. I stayed in the same job, the same apartment. I went to concerts, read books, saw plays. I watched a lot of television and movies. I went to the gym some, ran some. Ate a lot of ice cream and scones.
People shifted around me. I had a roommate come and go, celebrated her wedding to another friend. I celebrated the engagement of a friend.
And there were some big events. I saw new places. I went abroad and traveled by myself. I traveled with a friend. I lost a grandparent - one who had already been lost for many years.
This is what life is like, a whole lot of little things surrounding some big things. This year has flown by, and I'm not guaranteed any more. Do I feel like I have done all I can with what I have been given? Would God look at the log of my time and be pleased?
I don't know. I don't think so. Not fully. Good thing I don't think he keeps a time-log, and his Grace is new every morning.
Three days after my birthday, a baby was born. I know and love his parents. 24 years ago, I was that baby, with the entire planet just waiting for me. And in some years, maybe I will be the parent, waiting to open up the entire planet for my child.
But right now I am 24. My world is ever changing, shifting in tiny ways. It is growing bigger and closing in smaller. I am seeing God and maybe at 24, I won't be afraid to let him in. Not to be afraid, that is what 2011 is about. That is what 24 is about. I'm singing, Spirit, take me up in arms with you.
Take it away, Jon.
Twenty-four finds me
In twenty-fourth place
At the end of the day
Life is not what I thought it was
Twenty-four hours ago
Still I'm singing, Spirit, take me up in arms with You
And I'm not who I thought I was twenty-four hours ago
Still I'm singing, Spirit, take me up in arms with You
Twenty-four reasons to admit that I'm wrong
With all my excuses still twenty-four strong
See, I'm not copping out, not copping out, not copping out
When You're raising the dead in me
Oh, oh, I am the second man
Oh, oh, I am the second man now
Oh, oh, I am the second man now
And You're raising these twenty-four voices
With twenty-four hearts
With all of my symphonies
In twenty-four parts
But I want to be one today
Centered and true
I'm singing, Spirit, take me up in arms with You
You're raising the dead in me
Oh, oh, I am the second man
Oh, oh, I am the second man now
Oh, oh, I am the second man now
And You're raising the dead in me
I want to see miracles, see the world change
Wrestle the angel, for more than a name
For more than a feeling
For more than a cause
I'm singing, Spirit, take me up in arms with You
And You're raising the dead in me
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Anyway, I always like to give a more extensive rundown on the books I read. I'll do so in a shortened way, since it's been a little while since July ended and who knows how much I can remember from alllllllll the way last month.
Hallelujah! the Welcome Table - Maya Angelou: I'm going to admit something that I'm not proud of. I've never read any Maya Angelou. I've probably read a poem here or there, but I've not read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and all of those other famous books. I know, I know; I'm horrified too. Anyway, I listened to this book on tape (which is silly, because it was on CD which I converted into mp3 files - why do we still say book on tape?), and it was perfect. This collection - read by the author, who has a lovely deep wise old woman voice - is composed of short stories revolving around food memories. Angelou starts at her childhood and works her way through young adulthood into success and power. But the food is the star, and not just what she ate but how she felt and what it meant to her. Her grandmother is a beautiful figure at the beginning of her life, and Angelou herself seems to turn into her, taking over the role of cook and protector as she becomes a woman. I highly recommend this book - lovely reading, even if you're a terrible cook (such as myself).
Catching Fire/ Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins: These books are what I imagine ... well, I was going to make a drug addiction reference, but 1) it may be bad form, and 2) I'd have to google drugs and their effects, as I'm incredibly naive when it comes to drugs. Regardless, these books are addicting to the max. Since getting hooked, I've gotten three of my friends on the drug, and one read the trilogy in as little as a week. The books are not mind-blowingly well-written or impressive; they're just engaging, suspenseful, and intense. People die in incredibly gruesome ways, but that's balanced by an epic love triangle that puts Edward, Bella, and Jacob to shame (in my opinion - don't murder me, Twihards!) so these novels have a little something for everyone. They're just SO GREAT. I must say that as a writer, I'm quite impressed by Collins's openness to letting her characters change. Not to let them do so would be dishonest and false, and the books would fall flat. The reader knows when she's being lied to. But it can be scary for the author - and the reader. In these books, the characters are changed irreparably, and sometimes not for the better. A bold writer allows this to happen, and these books are popular because of the engaging and realistic characters.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J. K. Rowling: After the initial devastation following the realization that Stephen Fry does not narrate the U.S. Harry Potter audiobooks, I've settled in quite nicely, listening to a bit of magic on my morning commute. While I miss Mr. Fry, I enjoy the many voices of Jim Dale. The book itself is brilliant. Certainly, Rowling grows in her understanding of her characters and her world as she goes along, thus making the latter books of the series more rich, complex (sometimes convoluted), and dark, but this is where it all began. Privet Drive. A cat that turns into a woman. A kindly old wizard. And a flying motorcycle. I'm an old softey, but two parts almost forced me into tears (this recent tendency is going to be unpacked very soon). The first was when Hagrid speaks those famous lines: "You're a wizard, Harry." Especially with the saga ending and just seeing the final movie, that line is where it all began. The second part was when (SPOILER ALERT) Griffindor wins the House Cup. It makes me want to go to boarding school in Scotland. Preferably a wizarding one.
Divine Right's Trip - Gurney Norman: I've wrote on this book so many times during college, and yet I can't in good faith recommend it. If you, dear readers, are not disturbed by f-bombs, incessant drug use, some strange hippie worldviews, and a scene of nudity/sex, then please read this book. If you are disturbed by them, well, still read this book. Don't blame me, though, if it all gets to be too much. The first half is too much. It's dark and sad, confused and lost, spiraling down and down as our friends D.R. and Estelle keep stepping back from each other and into other things. But in all of the times I read this book, I never realized how utterly beautiful the second half of the story is. I don't want to give it away, but it is about a man finding himself in the land, hard work, and a community. Maybe it's just the age I am, but it resonated with me, deep within my chest. We're all looking for something. The trick is to find it in beautiful things.
There you have it! Now, on to August books! What are YOU reading?
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
A little West Side Story for your evening. Classic musical theatre is useful for everyday situations.
But this lame post is here to whet your appetite for more literary goodies from my newly 24-year-old mind.
The plan is that 0nce I stop feeling like my stomach is eating itself (i.e. tomorrow), I will post again.
On the docket:
Birthdays. Books. John Paul White and my grandma. SG[B]A Day 3. Lists.
"Aren't you all excited now? ... No, I don't want your money, sir." (Name that musical! I told you that musicals are applicable to life!)
So, until tomorrow, when hopefully my entrails will behave and my mind will be sharp!
Sunday, August 7, 2011
Dear Alfie Boe, Britain’s Favourite Tenor,
Hello, my name is Sara. We’ve never met, and we’re not likely to, but I have a few things that I want to tell you, openly, on the Internet.
1) Congratulations on having an amazing name. It has a great number of syllables. It has many pleasant consonant sounds – L, F, B – with plenty of vowels. My regards to your mother, who made an excellent choice.
When (if) I ever get a dog, cat, or child, I’m naming him Alfie. If it’s just a dog or cat, his whole name will be Alfie Boe. I assume the child will have a different last name, though middle name is still open for discussion.
2) You grow a really great beard. Not a lot of men can do what you can do. I’m sure you keep it nicely trimmed for the show, but seriously, from the photos, it’s excellent. It doesn’t look patchy; it’s a great thickness and color. It might be one of the best beards I’ve ever seen (save for Bill Jolliff, a former professor who plays the banjo – don’t worry about it).
3) You reignited my love for Les Miserables. And you made my mother cry.
My love for the musical Les Mis came about long before you even existed in my life, but not nearly as far back as my friend Karith, who used to listen to the whole show every night before her childhood bedtime. She is a true lover (and defender - don't even try to cross her) of the show.
I don’t fit into Karith’s category. How I made it through a childhood of classic movie musicals and three years of obsessive musical theatre classes without knowing this show is beyond me. I did see the school version when I was a freshman in high school. My high school's chief rival put it on, and all I remember is being in love with the boy playing Valjean. He was a senior, a redhead, and had played Jesus in Godspell. (A side note to any men reading this: if you play both Jesus and Valjean, I will love you.) The show itself was lost on me.
It's no surprise then that I first became truly acquainted to Les Miserables because of a boy.
My first year of college, I was in love (again, and almost for real this time) with a gangly theatre major who was roommates with my best friend. He was focused, passionate, and artistic – everything I loved and desired. And his favorite musical was Les Miserables. He had a poster in his dorm room, he regularly referenced Colm Wilkinson, and he had even read the Victor Hugo novel. I needed to impress him, and Les Mis was my chance.
So, over Christmas break, I bought the Complete Symphonic Recording from iTunes, 2.7 hours of pure musical goodness. Downside: it didn’t star the original Broadway cast, instead pulling stars from performances all over the world. Michael Ball made it on, but no Colm. I also started reading the book, nearly 1500 pages of descriptions of sewers and wagon wheels.
Suffice to say, it didn’t impress him as much as I had hoped, but I started to shift my affections from this gangly kid onto the story and the sound of Les Mis. It is an epic production, three hours of love and loss, betrayal and second chances, revolution and commitment. The opening chords and repeated musical themes drew me in again and again until I had the whole thing memorized.
It’s not just that the music is amazing and the story is amazing, but it’s that both complement each other and create meaning and hope. The story itself contains all of the best plot points: a flawed protagonist, an overzealous antagonist, a love triangle, near-misses, delightfully grungy and seedy comic relief, battles, martyrdom, and prostitutes. What more could you ask for?
More than that, it is a story about redemption, about the goodness of God and how His goodness can flow through His people. It’s about the dangers of legalism, of becoming the judge and jury for the world. And it’s about seeing the little, the downtrodden, the broken and loving them, no matter what it costs. In that way, you can change the world and redeem it through the sweet love of God, even as this place is broken, dirty, and heart-wrenching. Valjean is saved by grace, and he extends grace to others, shaming some and lifting others out of their own horrors.
The story ends with death and with life, as every good story should. But you already know this, Alfie Boe. Because you live it eight times a week.
Over the next few years, other musicals came to the forefront and Les Mis got pushed to the back. I remained close friends with this gangly kid who introduced me to Les Mis. He, of course, was the first one I called when I found out there would be a 25th anniversary concert shown on OPB. Filmed at the O2 in London, it was bound to be a magical experience, even over the television.
Alfie, oh Alfie, it was. From the first time I saw your magical beard and your crinkly eyes and heard your undeniably beautiful voice, you rocked my world. Colm was – and continues to be – incredible, of course, as he proved in the concert’s epilogue. He originated the role, but you – with your opera training and rock-and-roll heart – made the role different and stronger, giving the notes a different sort of power that moved me to emotion. And even as you did not move about the stage, your eyes acted for you, with the milky brown warmth of pain and grace.
It wasn’t just me. All of us watching that O2 concert gasped when you hit the “2-4-6-0-1,” and we closed our eyes to bask in the final note of “Bring Him Home” that rang out clear and pure like a tinkling of crystal. All you did was stand behind a microphone, and it was powerful beyond belief.
When I went to my parents' home a few months later, I saw that they had the concert saved on their DVR. My grandparents were there too, and during a lazy afternoon, I fast-forwarded the show to “Bring Him Home” – I just wanted to listen to it once. As soon as the orchestra started and you sang the first phrase, I looked over at my mother, and tears were running down her cheeks. She’s a crier, but not about music. The combination of the song and your mad pipes and just everything overcame her.
That’s what you do. That’s what Les Mis does. It overcomes and it is about overcoming. And so, as you are doing a show tonight over in London at the Queen’s Theatre, I’ll be heading downtown to see the U. S. touring group's final performance in Portland. And I’ll be thinking of you and wishing you well, that your voice is strong and you bring Valjean to life on the stage as you did over a television screen.
It’s a story that is worth being told.
P.S. The beard is great. Keep the beard.
Image from alfieboe.com
Friday, August 5, 2011
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
This was the part of the trip I had been dreading. Somehow, I needed to find my way from the airport in Edinburgh to the bus station in Leuchars, where my friend Koh would pick me up and take me on another bus to St. Andrews. But until I saw her smiling face in Leuchars –pronounced “Lukers,” like the name I like to tease my brother Luke with – I was alone in Scotland.
I had planned as much as I could. I printed off copies of train tables, maps, and bus routes. But it was the little things: where is the bus stop? How do I know when to get off the bus? Will there be an ATM machine? What does their money even look like?
Mind you, I had never ridden public transportation before. I live in Oregon. We have trees here; we don’t have good public transport. You could say that about most places in the U.S.: unless you live in a large metropolitan area, you’re pretty much on your own. Maybe it’s part of the American dream – “use your own feet.” By feet, I mean car. I got pretty comfortable riding the MAX train into the city of Portland, but even so, I had never been on a bus, save for the charter bus we used on our sixth grade field trip to the Omaha zoo, and maybe another one in high school when we traveled to Northern California on choir tour. Those weren’t real buses – they stopped where you wanted them to, and you didn’t pay a fare.
Well, I was about to figure it out: in a foreign country. Extremely jet-lagged. We landed at 8:00 am, Edinburgh time. That’s roughly midnight back in Portland. And the sun was up (assumedly, behind the dismal clouds), and my day was just beginning. Not that it had ever really ended.
I walked through customs confidently and grabbed my hiking backpack full of things, saying a quick prayer of thanks that it arrived in Scotland along with me, and then standing in the middle of the terminal, I started my list.
Money. ATM by the wall, check. Bathroom, check. Bus stop. Praise the Lord and the lovely Scot who designed the airport. The bus stop was literally steps away from the doors of the airport. Life was good. Now to figure out the bus system.
I looked at a timetable. There sure were a lot of numbers on it. Numbers for buses, numbers for times. As a lover of literature, I do my best to stay away from numbers as much as possible. Luckily, I had written down the times for the buses before I came. I knew I would be confused.
So I knew the bus was coming at 8:30. But what bus? How was I to know where I was going? That was a little easier than I thought, once I saw the bus. Apparently, they have both numbers and words on them. Great – I can deal with that.
Once on the bus, I allowed myself one moment of gloating. Anyone who looked at me may have thought I had a mental disability, because I was grinning at no one and nothing in particular. I was in Scotland.
Once the bus started moving – driving on the “wrong side” of the road, of course, which delighted me as a first-time tourist – I was glued to the window. If I could have peered out with my nose touching the glass and my fingers pressed against the window like a small child at a toy store, I would have. Instead, I tried to maintain my composure.
I wasn’t done yet. My guard couldn’t be down. I still had to catch my train. Each stop, I craned my neck to look. Finally we reached Inverkeithing, which I only knew because someone else on the bus asked the driver. It was pretty deserted. I had gotten off with four other individuals, and we were the only ones there, looking down at the tracks. I had forgotten it was Sunday, what with the multiple time zones and missing nighttime completely. That meant the station wasn’t open until midmorning. I didn’t even know which side of the track to be on.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only confused one. I hovered by the other people I got off the train with. They were my only source of information. There were two younger teenagers and two adults. I finally mustered up my courage to say hello to the teenagers, but they ducked their heads and didn’t respond. The adults were speaking French to each other, a gray-haired man of about 50 and a thin, stylish woman with short-cropped hair. Just my luck – I’m stranded, and I don’t speak French or Scottish. I knew I shouldn’t have taken Spanish in high school. Spanish is more practical? Not where I am.
The man eventually came over to me and we started up a conversation. Mostly, he eagerly peppered me with questions in heavily accented English, and I answered as best as I could. I described to him where Oregon was, described to him George Fox University. He was immensely interested in the school systems of America, as he was teacher, along with the woman. The teens were his students, and they didn’t know English very well. The lot of them were going to visit another school in Dundee. Dundee! I knew where that was. It was in the same direction as Leuchars. These people were to be my lifeboat. It’s amazing how attached you can get with strangers.
An older couple came, Americans. From the South. They asked us how to get to a city I had never heard of. People were already asking me directions, and I had only been in Scotland for an hour. I told them I had no idea and they wandered away. Perhaps they’re still wandering, for all I know.
And then I saw it coming. The train. In the window, it said Dundee. Praise the heavenly host, I was getting on this train.
I followed the four French folks onto the train, and they quickly moved up cars. The French are more familiar with trains than I am, apparently. I lost sight of the French angels who calmed my fears, while I figure out what to do with my backpack. Apparently you just leave your luggage at the back of the train in a holding area. It didn’t seem safe to me – someone could grab my bag, or switch it out with something that has cocaine in it. Or maybe I watch too many heist movies set in Europe. Regardless, wanting to blend in with the locals (not much of a chance of that, given my wide eyes), I dropped my backpack and grabbed a seat. Facing backwards next to a table.
Rookie mistake. Instant churning stomach. So I switched seats so that I was facing forwards. I could see out the window and relax for the first time. I was on the right train going the right direction to the right stop where I will meet my American friend and then I will sleep. But until then, I looked at Scotland.
Besotted with Scotland. That’s what I wrote in my journal, and I meant it. This place was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and yet, it seemed so familiar. The sky was a light gray, and from my Oregon experience, I knew those weren’t rain clouds. No, they just blocked the sky, filtering the light to a soft haze. The grass was green and wide, broken by wide fields of the most vibrantly bright yellow. Sitting in it would be like sitting in the middle of the sun, light bounding around you. They’re rapesweed, good for ethanol and some mustard. And they’re everywhere.
Everywhere, like the old stone houses and walls, wooden fences, crooked churches with crooked cemeteries. Communities that looked old and grave, telling you with their windows and roofs that they have been here for hundreds of years, outliving generations and they plan to outlive you too. And I respected them for that. The whole land breathed out a history of impermanent permanence, the feeling that everything always changes but some things are here to stay, like the stone wall separating fields and that giant sprawling tree in the pasture. It seemed tired yet forebearing and ever so warm. It felt like the strangest home I’d ever been welcome to, and I wanted to know it.
The train took me north, and I leaned my head against the window and breathed out my own history, my own travel-weary sigh of permanent impermanence, because I was not here to stay but I would never forget it. This land had already made its mark on me in a few short hours.
5/8/11 (Day 2) - Edinburgh to Inverkeithing to Luchars to St. Andrews, Scotland, Great Britain
Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011