Monday, April 20, 2015

Life is like a puzzle (without the box)

Anyone who knows Jonathan knows that he is a jigsaw-puzzle fanatic.

300-piece fish puzzle

Our house is full of puzzles.  There are puzzles Jonathan's done 500 times, and ones that haven't come out of the package yet.  There are plastic tubs with five or ten puzzles dumped into them. (Some day we may find time to sort the pieces, but that day hasn't come yet.)  There are favourite puzzles, like the "Toy Story" and "Cars" puzzles from Dollarama, that are on their third or fourth version because he's worn them out.  And of course, there are the two puzzles that survived the chocolate-syrup incident:  who knew you could wash puzzles in a tub of water, dry them in the sun, and use them for two more years?

Doing two puzzles at once?  No sweat!

It's really been only in the past five or six years that Jonathan's realized the joy of puzzling.  Because he is on the autism spectrum he has some difficulty with imaginative use of toys, so at first he just saw puzzle pieces as objects:  he liked to dump them out and put them in a container, but he didn't really see much further purpose for them.  But when he suddenly discovered that you could put them all together to make something -- well, life as he knew it was transformed!  Puzzles became his obsession.

 working hard with Grandpa

Watching Jonathan do a jigsaw puzzle is quite eye-opening.  The most interesting thing is that he doesn't need to use the picture on the box as a guide.  When I'm helping him with a puzzle, I have to keep looking at the picture to see what shape or colour goes where; otherwise it feels completely random.  But Jonathan's mind processes the puzzle differently.  He observes the pieces in relation to one another, not to a preconceived picture, and after doing the same puzzle a few times he knows it so well that he can often select the right piece when it's facing down in a pile of other facing-down pieces.  It's humbling to be sitting there with a puzzle piece in my hand, trying to figure out where it goes, only to have him grab it away and put it right where it belongs.

  Jonathan is an equal-opportunity puzzler:
"The Little Mermaid" suits him just fine.

In some ways our lives are like a puzzle.  Those of us who believe in God believe that there's a plan and purpose for each one of us:  the things that happen to us, the people we meet, and the experiences we have all come together to make up our life and the person we become.  But our life doesn't come in a box with a picture on the front.  We don't have things all set out for us ahead of time so that we can confidently place every piece of our life exactly where it belongs, with no doubts or mistakes or regrets.  And that's a disconcerting way to live.  We can start having thoughts like this:  Maybe I'll never get this puzzle done right.  Maybe there was a mistake at the manufacturer's and this piece actually belongs in a different box.  Maybe this event wasn't supposed to happen.  Maybe I'll never become who I'm meant to be without more information about the big picture.

Grandma loved her crossword puzzles;
Jonathan's all about the jigsaw puzzles.

There's a word for living life without having a picture on a box to go by:  faith.  In Hebrews 11 in the Bible, it says that "faith gives us assurance about what we do not see" and that "without faith it is impossible to please God."  If we knew the whole picture ahead of time, we wouldn't need faith -- and according to those verses, we do need it if we're going to have a relationship with God.  Living in faith means trusting even when we don't have a clear picture to work from -- trusting that the episodes in the story of our lives are part of God's bigger, better story.

So when he sits down to do a puzzle, Jonathan is practicing faith -- and teaching the rest of us in the process. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post, where we talk about what we've been reading.  It's been a slow reading month for me, but I have two books to share:

Not My Father's Son - Alan Cumming.  This engaging memoir explores two interesting threads of actor Alan Cumming's family history.  The first is the mystery of his maternal grandfather's disappearance and death during World War II; the second is Cumming's own upbringing as the victim of his father's physical and emotional abuse.  When his father, whom he hasn't spoken to in years, reconnects to share a secret from the past, Cumming is forced to confront that past, and his father, in order to heal and move on.

This book has some dark, tough parts, yet what comes through most is Cumming's joyful, almost childlike personality.  The fact that that was preserved in spite of the suffering he endured as a child is a testament to the support and love of his brother, mother, partner, and friends, and his own determination to become more than just "his father's son."


Bold Love - Dan Allender.  I took this book out of our church library because it looked intriguing.  Published in the 1980's, Bold Love unpacks many of our Christian misconceptions about what love really is and explores how to love courageously and redemptively even in the midst of conflict.  I found much of this book helpful and thought-provoking.  Allender's style is idiosynratic, though:  he is a passionate writer who uses a lot of metaphors.  When he talks about loving "an evil person," "a fool," and "a simpleton," I find the distinctions contrived, and sometimes his logic seems a bit convoluted.  Yet the honest, un-airbrushed examples are great, and the ending of the book is moving and inspiring.


What have you read this past month?  Please share in the comments!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Birthday poem

Today is my birthday, and my daughter Allison presented me with this beautiful poem that she'd written for me.  I want to share it here because it's the loveliest gift I could possibly have received.


From the very first day
when I opened my tiny eyes
and saw the sun for the first time
you were there
holding me
smiling down on me.

When I took my first steps
wobbling unsteadily
hanging tightly on to the wall
you were there
watching me
catching me if I fell.

Every day when I came out of school
running and skipping
rosy-cheeked from the sun
you were there
waiting for me
ready to play with me.

Those times I couldn’t hold it together
and tears drenched my cheeks
as I choked and gasped for air
you were there
holding my hand
telling me it would be okay.

When I was sick
and my weak body wanted to give in
as pain flowed through me
you were there
caring for me
praying for me.

Even when I was mad
and my harsh words pierced the air
and we turned our backs on each other
you were there
still loving me
ready to forgive me.

And in the happiest of times
when love swelled inside me
and I wanted to dance and shout
you were there
strumming your guitar
singing the joy I felt.

Through my whole life
through good times and bad times
peaceful times and fearful times
you’ve been there
strong and secure
always looking out for me.

And I know
that as I move on in life
onto uncertain, unmapped roads
you will still be there
believing in me
telling me you love me.

Happy Birthday, Mom! There’s no way to express how much you mean to me, but I hope this poem will at least crack the surface. Love Allison XOXOXO

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Not just a scone: remembering, waiting, hoping

(photo courtesy of Dancing Goat Cafe, Margaree, NS - used by permission)

Today marks six months since my mom died.  Although this may seem like a strange way to commemorate this milestone, I'm posting a picture of a cranberry-almond scone from the Dancing Goat Cafe in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  Mom and Dad went to Cape Breton a couple of times in the past few years with their close friend Linda.  This cafe, and these scones in particular, were a special favourite of Mom's.

Last summer when Mom became sick, and before we knew just how sick she really was, one of her most significant symptoms was that she lost all interest in food.  We spent a lot of time trying to think of things she might like to eat, but with little success.  She would say wryly, "Dad thinks if I just start eating again everything will be fine."  And I guess he did think that.  We all did:  we thought -- hoped --  that Mom's illness was something relatively minor like an infection, or tiredness due to stress, and that when her appetite returned, so would her strength and health.

One day during that time Linda's daughter Deb, who is also a close friend of my parents, dropped by the house.  She had been in Cape Breton and brought back a box of cranberry-almond scones from the Dancing Goat Cafe.  We asked Mom if she'd like one, and she thought she might.  She ate a quarter of a scone, and we practically celebrated.  We defaulted to those scones many times over the next few days when no other food seemed to interest Mom; she would eat a few bites and seemed to enjoy it.

But her appetite never really returned.  Not long after this, she was hospitalized; a few days after that we received her cancer diagnosis; and she lived only six more weeks.

I spent the last week of Mom's life at the apartment with her and Dad.  Many other relatives and friends came in and out during that time.  One day Deb visited again with her friend Dorothy, whom Mom also knew.  Mom's face lit up enthusiastically when the girls came into her room, and she asked Dorothy how things were in Cape Breton; then she quickly drifted back into unresponsiveness.  I stepped out to let them have some time with her, and I marvelled at my almost-80-year-old mom being visited by two young women in their twenties, to whom she was a beloved friend.

Later that week I answered the door and there was Deb again, this time with another friend named Saskia.  (She had gone to my parents' church for several years, and her parents were friends of Mom and Dad's as well.)  Both girls were carrying two big white bakery boxes, and each box contained six cranberry-almond scones.

Mom couldn't eat anything more at that point, and she died just a couple of days later -- so she never did taste one of those scones. But really, that didn't matter.  What mattered was what they symbolized:  love.  Not just a stingy little crumb, but love in all its extravagance.  The message was, "You love these.  We love you.  So we'll bless you with them, lavishly, because we can.  While we can."

A famous quote by the writer Marcel Proust, in which he meditates on the memories that the mere taste and smell of a cookie evoke, says this:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.   

- Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time)

Having been through this experience with my mom, I've been reminded that the smallest thing can have great significance.  A scone can be more than just a scone.  It can be a symbol of love -- one that remains, persistent and faithful, long after the breaking and scattering.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Quick Lit" for March: great fiction and non-fiction

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly "Quick Lit" post to share what I've been reading.  I didn't participate last month, so this post contains two months' worth of books.

 All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr).  I was surprised and excited to receive this book as a gift from a generous, thoughtful online friend.  It's such a great book that I know I won't be able to do justice to it in a couple of paragraphs, but I'll try.  

The novel focuses on two young people:  Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who flees to the walled citadel of St-Malo with her father (a locksmith at a natural history museum) to escape Nazi occupation; and Werner, a German boy who, because of his mechanical skills -- particularly with radios -- ends up in a brutal training school for Hitler youth.  Their parallel stories are told in short, alternating chapters that steadily build suspense.  Werner slowly succumbs to being a cog in the Nazi machine, and Marie-Laure is wrenched away from the safe world her father has shaped for her  -- until their two stories converge in 1944 and they each seize the opportunity to act with courage and heroism.  

Doerr is an amazing writer who can show us a scene and make us feel it using just a few words:  for example,  "A vault of stars hangs overhead; the collective breath of the cadets mingles slowly, nightmarishly above the courtyard."  Although there is dread and horror in both Werner's and Marie-Laure's stories, there is magic threaded through the whole book as well.  Part of that magic has to do with a myth about a rare and coveted jewel, but beyond that fairy-tale element there are also themes of music, science, adventure, and the power of radio to communicate and connect (something we may not be able to fully appreciate in 2015).  It's a sad book, yet it's also beautiful; and it uses an original style and two unique characters to give a fresh portrayal of a time period that's already been widely written about.


Fierce Convictions:  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More -- Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Karen Swallow Prior).  Although Hannah More's name is not well known today, this biography may change that.  In 18th/19th-century England, More was an influential writer, teacher, social reformer, and participant in the battle to end the slave trade.  Although her upbringing as a schoolmaster's daughter was modest, as an adult she moved in elite literary, social, and political circles and was a friend of William Wilberforce, Samuel Johnson, and John Newton, among others.  More had the ability not only to see a need but also to use her energy, connections, and other resources at her disposal to meet it.  It is inspiring to read how More, her sisters, and her friends mentored and exhorted one another in their efforts to do God's work in practical ways such as teaching the poor to read, writing edifying books and tracts to encourage virtuous living, and advocating for the humane treatment of animals.  Swallow Prior is an engaging writer, striking the perfect balance of scholarly detail and good storytelling to bring the "winsome" More to life for the reader.  And while the hilarious foreword by Eric Metaxas will make you want to  -- ahem -- "read more," Hannah More's life and accomplishments will keep you reading.


 Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Leslie Leyland Fields).  I won this book in a draw on the author's website.  While I don't identify directly with the specific issues it addresses, I read Fields' blog regularly and always appreciate her writing.  (I was also interested in the subject matter in more general terms, having read Fields' rebuttal of a particular aspect of Desmond Tutu's writings on forgiveness.)

Drawing on her own experience with an emotionally and physically distant father, and on the stories of others, Fields explores the process of forgiving parents and moving into healing and freedom.  The book focuses on themes like honouring the dishonourable, acknowledging our common humanity, and reclaiming the past.  I appreciate how honest Fields is in sharing the messiness and uncertainty of this process:  her anger and helplessness when visiting her father, her uncertainties about what to say and how, and her regrets around her father's death.  These admissions remind us that real life is rarely tidy like the movies.  Yet the book is also empowering because it shows us that even if "they didn't" or "she can't" or "he won't," maybe we can.  Maybe we can reach out, forgive, be present, and speak words of healing -- not just to free and heal ourselves, but also to help bring restoration and hope into seemingly hopeless situations.


The Center Cannot Hold:  My Journey Through Madness (Elyn R. Saks).  I saw this book mentioned in a post on Laura Droege's blog and was intrigued enough to get it from the library and read it.  Saks, a successful law and psychiatry professor, has lived with schizophrenia since she was about eight years old.  This engrossing memoir deals with her struggles to achieve academic and professional success, her experiences with therapists, her love-hate relationship with medication, and her social and personal challenges.  A tough book, but triumphant.


The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes).  The narrator, Tony, looks back on his youthful friendship with Adrian, whom he admired, and his relationship with Veronica, whom he could never figure out.  After his breakup with Veronica and the death of Adrian, Tony moves on and, in effect, writes them out of his life for over 40 years.  But then a lawyer's letter about an unexpected inheritance brings the past back, forcing Tony to look at who he was back then and who he has become.  This novel isn't totally satisfying in terms of how it ties up plot threads; many questions are left unanswered.  But how Tony reflects on the passage of time, guilt and remorse, and the imperfection of memory is fascinating.  I read this book for my book study group; it's an excellent novel for discussion.