Thursday, October 19, 2017
Every heart longs to be seen and understood. Yet most of our lives are unwitnessed. We spend our days working, driving, parenting. We sometimes spend whole seasons feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. So how do we find contentment when we feel so hidden?
In Unseen, Sara Hagerty suggests that this is exactly what God intended. He is the only One who truly knows us. He is the only One who understands the value of the unseen in our lives. When this truth seeps into our souls, we realize that only when we hide ourselves in God can we give ourselves to others in true freedom—and know the joy of a deeper relationship with the God who sees us.
Our culture applauds what we can produce, what we can show, what we can upload to social media. Only when we give all of ourselves to God—unedited, abandoned, apparently wasteful in its lack of productivity—can we live out who God created us to be. As Hagerty writes, “Maybe my seemingly unproductive, looking-up-at-Him life produces awe among the angels.”
This book has a beautiful cover, matched with one of my favourite themes, the blessedness of being unseen. Sara Hagerty helps us develop a new way to approach being un-applauded, unnoticed and unrecognised. Instead of regarding it as falling short of our potential, she invites us to see that being hidden from sight is often the best place to be.
Hagerty starts off explaining how she was sucked into the trap of thinking the way society prompts us to. When a friend spotted her working in a gift shop, she felt embarrassed to be caught doing something with no scope for impact in her own opinion. Only when Hagerty stepped back to reconsider did she realise the hidden, personal growth she'd experienced in that place had been phenomenal. The quiet gift shop turned out to be the ideal hothouse to nurture her.
Our era reminds me of a garden in which every flower cranes forward for attention, notoriety and applause, and the fact that there are millions of them makes it seem crazy. Well, Hagerty reminds us that we feel this urge for light because God has made us with a desire to be seen and celebrated. We do like to hear our own names and enjoy the flush of satisfaction that follows a flash of attention. It reinforces that we matter in the grand scheme of things, so we needn't feel guilty. Trying to extinguish our desire for praise and recognition isn't the answer, because it isn't a bad thing. Where we err is most often in the direction we tend to look for praise and accolades.
Instead of craving the eyes, opinions and applause of other people, she suggests we simply remember to look to God instead, who knew us from the start, and His kind eye is always upon us. The switch of focus may be enough to relieve us instantly.
But to keep the garden analogy going, Hagerty's book makes it clear that we often tend the wrong plants. We carefully watch the growth of our reputations, success and achievements, and forget about nurturing a good heart - while this, in fact, is the only shoot that really matters. It's a great reminder that God doesn't look at things humans look at, and if we nurture loving hearts, well, that's all we really need to worry about.
Sara Hagerty offers frequent botanical analogies herself, urging us to shift our attention from our showy, leafy branches, where it's so easy to focus our attention, to our hidden roots instead. In other words, we could change the emphasis from our visible work for God to our secret, unseen life in Him. And she has a number of examples where this sort of thinking has played out in own life, with her husband and several adopted children.
Overall, the book left me with the feeling that while some of us may be born to God's showpiece, others are born to be His secrets, and both are equally significant.
Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for my review copy.
Monday, October 16, 2017
In "The Great Divorce, " C.S. Lewis's classic vision of the Afterworld, the narrator boards a bus on a drizzly English afternoon and embarks on an incredible voyage through Heaven and Hell. He meets a host of supernatural beings far removed from his expectations, and comes to some significant realizations about the nature of good and evil.
This is a convicting parable about the next world, beginning with a flying bus trip.
The departure point is a huge, empty grey city that keeps spreading its borders because quarrelsome people only need to imagine a new house, and it's theirs. Some folk are happy to stay there, since they don't recognise it as a type of hell.
For those who do jump on the bus, their choice to settle in heaven depends on their willingness to give up whatever holds the greatest grip on their hearts. It's really all about our idols, and the passengers are filled with all sorts of attitudes and hang-ups which they're loath to relinquish. There's always something they insist on clutching tight, even at the price of misery.
There's 'Ikey' the businessman, who's determined to take plunder from the heavenly realm back down to the grey city, where he thinks he'll make a killing. He only manages to lift one tiny fallen apple through the sheer force of his will.
There's a pathetic society woman whose earthly finery, which she was so proud of, appeared like rags in heaven. She was devastated, because she felt it was her whole identity, which she'd devoted her life to maintaining.
There's a learned man who believes that the grey hell city could really be heaven, for its 'continual hope of morning and field for indefinite progress.' He's an ex-bishop who has written a book. In fact, libraries on earth turn out to be some of the most haunted places, filled with the ghosts of authors who keep wondering if people are still reading their books.
The plight of creative people in this story is interesting. One artist was stressed because he saw no need to paint anymore, since everything was so annoyingly perfect. It's Lewis' warning to creative folk of the trap of being sucked in to pay more attention to their own work and reputation, rather than what it's all about. 'Every poet, musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to the love of telling.' Wow, I guess our world does have a way of honouring the conduit, until it's hard for them to stay humble.
One fascinating person in the new land is Sarah Smith of Golders Green, a lady of 'unbearable beauty and grace' with a procession in her honour. The narrator is anxious to learn her identity, but she turns out to be nobody he would have ever heard of. Just a humble person faithfully doing small things in her supposedly ordinary life. But people are regarded differently in heaven to how they ever were on earth. Great news for anyone who's ever felt overworked, unnoticed and under-appreciated.
The narrator, who presumably represents Lewis himself, gets to meet his hero, George MacDonald, who becomes his guide around heaven. I knew Lewis was a fanboy of MacDonald's (see my review of Phantastes) but what a tribute this is, as he tries to find words to tell him all his writing has meant to him, since his teens.
Overall, it's a great read for anyone who'd like a bite-sized, but meaty bit of C.S. Lewis, for it's short enough to read in one day. It leaves me with the impression that I would've liked being a witness when Lewis actually did meet MacDonald.
Here are some quotes.
'What can be called 'the Sulks' in children, has 100 different names in adults, such as injured merit, self-respect, tragic greatness and proper pride.'
'There are only two kinds of people. Those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."'
'Joy on earth is defenceless against those who would rather be miserable. But in heaven, our light can swallow up your darkness, but your darkness can't affect our life.'
Monday, October 9, 2017
The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
Welcome to Weep.
I saw this lovely cover several times on my Instagram feed, and then spotted it at BigW for a great price. It's one of those times an impulse buy pays off. I'd hoped for something beautiful and surreal with such a title and cover, and that's just what I got.
The first thing I wanted to know was the sense in which the main character was a dreamer. Does the title refer to Lazlo Strange's hopes and ambitions, or his actual, nocturnal dreams when he's asleep? It turns out to include both, in a very fantastic, colourful, and eventually dangerous way.
Lazlo starts off as a war orphan in the kingdom of Zosma, who is apprenticed to work at the library. He's always been intrigued by tales of the lost city of Weep, although after two hundred years of broken contact, everyone else has dismissed the place as a legend. Lazlo is laughed at and treated like a quirky nerd, until a mighty warrior named Eril-Fane arrives, seeking recruits to help restore his city to its former glory.
He enlists mathematicians, metallurgists, engineers, an explosives handler, and Thyon Nero, the gorgeous but arrogant young alchemist. Even though structural experts seem to be in demand, bashful Lazlo is eager to get himself included in the expedition. He must find a way to convince Eril-Fane that his extensive knowledge of folklore and fairy tales might come in handy.
The quest to dismantle a menacing structure and restore daylight to the city is fraught with more peril than anyone imagined, including the offspring of former enemies who were believed purged. When recent history is revealed, it becomes more unclear whether or not Eril-Fane was a hero or a scourge, since both cases can be argued convincingly. And Lazlo meets the love of his life, who has appeared in his dreams before he even knows she exists.
Part of the plot is the most otherworldly Romeo and Juliet re-telling you could imagine. Shakespeare, eat your heart out. It's all so very romantic, and tied in with the tension between acceptance and rejection, mercy or vengeance.
Many things get turned upside down and prove to be their opposite, including Lazlo's status, since his modesty, gentleness and humility make him truly great. I really love all the scenes between him and Thyon Nero. Suspicious Thyon can't comprehend how a person could willingly offer a bully a helping hand with no strings attached. His thinking reflects our own world of ulterior motives. The young men are a fascinating study of opposites. Thyon has by far the most desirable outward appearance, but Lazlo's inner life is far more enviable. Would you rather look good to other people, or stay humble and enjoy your own good company?
A major theme is how war happens when both sides believe they are good people who were in the right. Hate happens when people close their minds and don't allow themselves to see the other side. 'Good people do the sames things bad people do, but call it justice,' says a character who's in the position to know this as fact.
The book ends at a crucial spot, and I'll be snatching up the sequel as soon as I know it's available. Talk about being backed into a corner! The concept of death was a bit disturbing at times. You seem to either dissipate into the ether or... you'll find out. But a third sort of heavenly alternative, 'Dreamer's Weep' is presented, from Lazlo's own head, and I'd love to visit it.
I hope we see more of Thyon Nero too, in the next story. He's seems to have the 'total package' that gives anti-heroes charisma. It includes looks, intelligence, a grudge, a troubled past, and lots of scope for change.
Here's some of my favourite quotes.
Lazlo Strange is referred to as 'the antidote to vile' which is a perfect tribute for a guy whose dreams become an oasis.
'The rules were different in Lazlo's mind. The truth was different. It was nicer.'
'The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy, we let it keep him.'
'Fairy tales are reflections of the people who had spun them and flecked them with little truths, intrusions of reality into fantasy, like toast crumbs on a wizard's beard.'
'The library had seemed sentient enough to love him back. It bewitched him and drew him in and gave him everything he needed to become himself.'
I once wrote that I find it hard to get into fantasy novels which are set in a different world from start to finish, but this is one of those great exceptions. I'm beginning to think there may be more than I'd imagined. Although I don't read a huge amount of fantasy, many of my favourite novels happen to be fantasies. See that post here. You might also enjoy my thoughts about stories which lie hidden deep within other stories.
Friday, October 6, 2017
I've been a homeschooling mother for a very long time now, but still remember the great sense of relief and freedom when we first started. Sometimes friends would say, 'It would never work for us, because we're not disciplined enough. We'd probably wear our nightclothes all day.' I would reply, 'Yeah, it's great. That's one of the best things about this lifestyle.' The occasional day of not getting changed is a pleasure rather than a sign of slackness. Even now, I find it hard to think of a nicer, more refreshing treat than being able to sit in bed in my night clothes reading books past lunch time.
If you want to give it a try, consider these stories of heroes who wore pyjamas. Some had very eventful things happen to them. One thing they didn't seem to do much of was sleep. Even though they were wearing their pyjamas, they didn't let life pass them by. Some even managed to make their pyjamas their trademark and fashion statement. If you want to be a rebel and stay in your night attire, you're in good company.
I'll start with some kids' classics, since children probably spend longer in their pyjamas than adults. (This is no doubt because many parents send them to bed at early hours.)
Bananas in Pyjamas
Any Aussie kid from the nineties would remember these two instantly. They were based on an old poem by Carey Blyton, and took on a life of their own in the form of B1 and B2, who lived on Cuddles Avenue along with their neighbours, the teddies, and Rat in a Hat. Nobody ever divulged why they chose blue and white striped pyjamas as their everyday clothes. I assume it was for comfort and style. They were certainly snazzy pieces of fruit.
Wee Willy Winky
He's an eerie little chap if ever there was one. In the old nursery rhyme written by William Miller in 1841, he runs through the town after 10 o'clock in his nightgown, tapping at the windows and crying at the locks to make sure all little children are in bed. I guess it stands to reason that he considers the nightgown his uniform, given the nature of his work.
The Night Before Christmas
The dad who narrates this famous poem from the 1820s was wearing his night attire because he'd been in bed, and sprang out in time to witness a visit from Saint Nicholas. They even wore head gear, because 'Mamma in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap.' I'm glad we've moved on from wearing hats to bed because it sounds like a pointless exercise. One thing that hasn't changed though, is the image of jolly old Santa Claus in his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Almost 200 years later, I doubt the author, Clement Moore, had a clue that his concept of Christmas Eve night would become traditional.
The Darling children, Wendy, John and Michael, wore their nightclothes at crucial parts of the story, because darkness was when Peter Pan, the amazing magical boy, would fly through their nursery window to visit. They were supposed to be asleep. When Peter manages to convince them to fly away with him to his home in Neverland, it's a spur of the moment decision. They leave in what they're already wearing, which of course is their night clothes.
Tom's Midnight Garden
There is a time portal in the old Victorian house where Tom is staying with his aunt and uncle, and he just happens to discover it because he's creeping around after dark. So whenever he lands himself in the Victorian era, he's always in his pyjamas, which doesn't stop him having adventures with his new friend, Hatty. In fact, since she's never seen pyjamas before, she assumes that boys from the twentieth century wear strange, stripey flannel clothes, with shirts and pants that match. My review is here.
OK, the children don't get to have all the fun. Here's some pyjama wearers who have made their way into general folklore and classics.
The Sound of Music
It's got to be one of the twentieth century's most famous movies, and gives us one of the cosiest, loveliest pyjama scenes. When Maria first joins the VonTrapp family as their governess, the seven children are wary, stand-offish and cheeky with her. But when a loud thunderstorm scares them on her first night, they all rush into her bedroom in their nighties and pyjamas. Not only does Maria ease their fear, but also wins them over by singing, 'These are a Few of my Favourite Things.' Who can forget 'raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens'?
Poor Ron Weasley has a really rough day on his seventeenth birthday, all before he even changes out of his pyjamas. First, he accidentally eats a chocolate that's been filled with love potion, and intended for Harry. The antidote turns out to be laced with poison which almost kills him. Harry manages to cram a bezoar down his throat in the nick of time, and Ron ends up in hospital on what should be his special day when he comes of age. And all this accidental consumption happens before he even gets dressed. Some days are just not worth waking up.
This is a sad and eerie coming of age story, set in an Australian country town in the 1960s. Two boys, Jasper and Charlie, discover the body of one their classmates, Laura Wishart, hanging from a tree in her nightie. It's that nightie which adds the finishing touches to the horror and mystery of her death, as it seems whoever killed her managed to somehow lure her out of bed. Jasper's afraid he himself will be blamed for the crime, and the boys set out to do some quiet sleuthing of their own, to discover who really did it. My review is here.
In this charming novel by L.M. Montgomery, Emily's friend Perry decides to give her a gratitude kiss during a late night visit. At that exact moment, bossy Aunt Ruth snaps on the light and stands gaping at them in her nightgown. Emily has a lot of explaining to do, to make her suspicious aunt believe that the incident was more innocent than it looked. When Aunt Ruth finds out the wonderful things Perry had been up to that night, she's suddenly mortified that he saw her in her nightgown.
The Pickwick Papers
One of Mr Pickwick's young companions, poor Nathaniel Winkle, finds himself accidentally shut out of their lodging place in his nightshirt. It's not only embarrassing but dangerous, since the British winter cold has the potential to freeze anyone who isn't dressed appropriately. But Winkle, for all the impressive images he wishes to project, is accident prone, and just the person something like this would happen to. My review is here.
The story is one of the great Victorian mysteries by Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder's magnificent birthday diamond has been stolen on its first night in the house, and the detective proves that the thief must surely have a bit of scuffed paint on his clothing. While he's busy demanding a look at everyone's wardrobe, the maid Rosanna Spearman hides a nightgown belonging to Mr Franklin Blake, her crush. It turns out to have the paint mark on it, but he's mystified, because he knows he's innocent, yet nobody else was wearing it! My review is here.
The Fountain Overflows
This Edwardian family story takes place when fashionable men were just making the transition from nightshirts to the new fad, pyjamas. The Aubrey children visited an old lady who thought PJs were emasculating. Her opinion was shared by many others from the old school. They couldn't imagine anything sillier than fellows wearing a shirt and pants to bed, just to look trendy, when nobody would even see them. How horrified they might have been to imagine this would be more than a passing craze. My review is here.
So there you have them. If you can think of any others, please let me know, so I can add them to the list. You might also like to check out Intriguing Stories about Insomnia, since it sort of goes together with this post. Many of those characters are wearing their pyjamas too, for obvious reasons :)
Monday, October 2, 2017
They were a group of eighteenth century poets who earned themselves this nickname because of their favourite subject. They liked to write about guys who sat around in cemeteries, mulling over how the power of death will someday sweep away everything they've worked hard for. Or they liked to be those guys who sat around thinking that.
You might think they had morbid taste. Does it have the potential to make you feel a bit depressed just thinking about them? Why waste your living moments musing about death? Well, according to Alain de Botton who wrote about them in Status Anxiety, they were an incredibly joyful mob. It's because they kept things in the right perspective, allowing themselves not to be sucked into the traps of their average, happiness-seeking peer group.
But first a sample of some of their work. I remember studying Andrew Marvel's 'To His Coy Mistress' at school and uni. He was a bit of an opportunist, using their inevitable demise to convince the fair lady to seize the day.
At my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near.
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
The grave's a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace.
The next is from Edward Young's 'Night Thoughts' written in 1742,
The sage, peer, potentate, king, conqueror,
Death humbles these.
Why all this toil for triumphs of an hour?
What though we wade in wealth or soar in fame?
Earth's highest station ends in 'Here he lies.'
Then there's this one, 'The Grave', by Robert Blair in 1743.
When self-esteem, or others' adulation,
Would cunningly persuade us we are something
Above the common level of our kind
The grave gainsays the smooth-complexioned flattery
And with blunt truth acquaints us with what we are.
And this one, 'Elegy written in a Country Churchyard' by Thomas Gray, in 1751.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Perhaps all these chaps got their original inspiration from thousands of years back, when King Solomon wrote the following words in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
'No-one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1:11)
Time is the greatest power, changing our identities with steady force. Any individual can turn from a tiny toddler to a senior citizen in a flash. If life is like a wheel, I guess mine might have spun somewhere near the halfway point of a typical soul. De Botton adds his own eloquent line to the thoughts expressed by the graveyard school. 'We all end up as that democratic substance - dust.'
It used to give me the chills, but now that my 'second half' is looming, I decided it might be wise to try to embrace it with their spirit. I'm no poet, but I went strolling through our local cemetery on a gorgeous spring day by myself, armed with a book or two. It was one of those sunny days with long shadows and soft breezes that gives the illusion that time is a tortoise instead of a hare. The world seemed slow and leisurely, but I now know it's really hurtling through space at breakneck speed, turning my hair grey and forming those fine lines around my eyes and mouth. It has to be, because just a moment ago, I was the same age as my kids. Twenty odd years really is a blink.
Basically, those old graveyard poets knew what de Botton extracted from their work. 'The power of time makes a mockery of all our claims to earthly greatness and distinction.' So it's sort of silly and tiring to go jumping through society's hoops just to get nods of approval from people on the same trajectory as us. Those old timers whose bones lay deep beneath the stones were no doubt the same as we are now; attaching exaggerated significance to their own fleeting purposes and concerns, because they were the centre of their own experience of the world. It's a world they're no longer part of, and one which has simply gone whizzing on without them. One day it'll leave each of us behind too.
At my stage, I do get their point. It is liberating and happy-making to think of the graveyard school, sitting in those cemeteries in their frock coats with their fountain pens so long ago. It gives me mental clarity to stand back and remember that in a short time, all my issues won't matter a bit. Here's how Alain de Botton puts it. 'Before a skeleton, the repressive aspect of others' opinions have a habit of shedding their power of intimidation.' That's not sad, it's great news, in a stark sort of way. Also a good reminder to set our hearts on things above, where we'll spend far longer than our brief time down here.
Maybe I'll let Sir Thomas Browne, another of the graveyard school, have the last word. 'The duty of an honest Christian is to make an impression not in the record of man but rather in the register of God.' Take that as you will, to me it's a tip to get my white-knuckled grip off impression management, self-promotion, social media stats and all those things which can tie us in knots. I did come home from the cemetery feeling refreshed, in an ironic sort of way.