Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Over My Head: Beauty in the Waiting

"Come and do
whatever You want to..."

I wrote out those lyrics the night before this little neurological adventure began, so it was with more than a wink at God as I wrote them out again the last week, hours before my mom and I would head out into the dark morning for my biopsy.

There have been days already in this process where I've prayed for the surface things--calming fear, granting peace--and there will, in not too long, come days when I just plead for it all to go away. But so far, I've tried to let this song define and hedge my prayers in this direction: that whatever the bigger-plan, higher-calling, God-sized dream of this is, let it be that. Because my version is purposeless, and pretty boring: Chandra has a brain tumor, Chandra gets brain tumor treated and removed, tumorless Chandra returns to Chandra's normal life.

That's a terrible story. I would never read that story. Why I would choose to live it (and I would) is beyond me.

God's version is a much better story--it will be. I know this, because He has written my story far better than I could have, right from the beginning. And right from the beginning, there were things that *shouldn't* have happened, had I been the editor: a father wouldn't have left, I would have fit in with the crowd, I wouldn't have wrestled with depression and suicide. But those things shaped me, and drove me into a life that is better not in spite but because of the pain and struggle.

So that's how this will be, too. I've decided. No turning back, no turning back.

Many people were praying for me Tuesday morning and, if we're being honest, some of those prayers weren't answered as requested. If you prayed for a lack of pain or stress, for a smooth transition to recovery, for a quick process, for rest, none of those things happened. The pain was otherworldly. The stress was more than slight. The process less than smooth.

"This isn't exactly what you described," I breathed as the screws cinched the metal frame tighter around my head, and I repeated to myself that it wasn't actually going to split me in twain like a horror movie. "I know," my neurosurgeon replied, and I understood his wisdom: that sometimes it's better to go in blind. Even with my immense trust in him, my stress whirred my heart like a strange instrument that my lungs couldn't match. Pain and stress were my compatriots all morning.

I had the earliest surgery slot, with the plan to move me to a room as soon as the 4-hour recovery watch ended. Four hours became ten before I was moved upstairs. Everyone who has heard this has sighed and frowned, and growled of hospital organization, and apologized. Those who prayed for swiftness and speed were given a no.

But I didn't pray for painlessness or total calm or speed. I prayed that He would come and do whatever He wanted to.*

To say that I floated in a calm state of godly quiet for the day would be the greatest of inaccuracies. I was frequently frustrated, in pain, exhausted. But there were moments--sometimes seconds, sometimes hours--when He showed up in me, and everything else paled in comparison, as it always does.

There was Gwen, the wonder-woman nurse who could find a vein even when there wasn't one to find. This was her introduction, and as she petted and swatted at my hands looking for a blue line, I prayed it was true. She found one, but no dice. As she found a second, she met my eyes with seriousness: "Sometimes, all you can do is pray." I squeezed her hand as the needle slipped in, painful but fruitful. "Prayer works," I sighed back, and she smiled and nodded and pressed the gauze firmly to my hand.

The next was Casey, who was calm and sweet but I initially dismissed her as flighty. Until my neurosurgeon told me to close my eyes and I began to feel first needles and then screws, and nothing in the world existed but that pain--and her hand, which was holding mine, petting it lightly like you would a bird. Every ounce of me went into that corner, and I only distantly heard my neuro surgeon say, "You're refusing to say, 'Ouch,' so I'll say it for you?" When they wheeled me to Recovery, she came around to look at me, and brushed my hair away from the clotting blood on my forehead. I don't remember what she said--"You'll be pretty again soon," or something like it. One of those weird things that's exactly what you needed to hear.

There was Liddy and Amanda, both friendly and, as the hours ticked by, increasingly compassionately frustrated for me. They brought ginger ale and saltines, and apologized for not being able to do anything more. They agreed that I should be Miss Congeniality for putting up with such a wait, listening over and over to other patients wake up, groggy and confused, and hear the explanations of surgery going well, wives waiting to see them, timeframes of going home.

But my favorite is what kept me from writing this for a week, because it doesn't suit my writing needs. She was the nurse I bonded with the most, the one I would never have seen (let alone had multiple real conversations with) had I not been stuck in Recovery so long. She was the one who brought me mac & cheese and green jello, and a real bed to replace the sweat-inducing gurney. She bore a reasonable resemblance to Belle, but in scrubs. And the problem is, I never knew her name.

Her tag was flipped, and we were always too busy talking for me to ask. And I didn't want to list everyone else and miss her.

But yesterday, I started thinking about the number of interactions I'll have in this journey that are momentary, or that I won't remember at all. Those are still people who can be affected--by my being pissed off at lying prostrate for ten hours, or by me being kind, talkative, interested, real. In short, I think her name is supposed to be blank for me, to remind me that I won't see all the pieces fall into place, and that the unknown doesn't make its own excuse. There are dozens--hundreds?--of people I will interact with only because I have a tumor, only because I needed that test or this treatment.

I can sigh through the wait. I can whimper and post on Facebook and growl and be pitiful in every sense of the word. And there will doubtless be times when I do.

But I'm glad I prayed what I prayed last week. I'm glad He came and did whatever He wanted to, because it meant Gwen and Casey and Liddy and Amanda and two dozen other nameless nurses and residents and the like. I'm glad it hurt, because it meant the ease of pain was another wall down, another thing to be thankful for. I'm glad I couldn't wash my hair for three days, because every time it ticked me off I reminded myself that its time on my head might be short, and to breathe thanks. A week later, I'm still occasionally woozy, and still have to half-dry my hair in order not to upset stitches, but still I'm glad.

He's doing what He wants to.

Let's do this.

* Please don't take this to mean my prayers count more than others--only, as one of our pastors reminded us on Sunday, "When you pray with boldness, brace yourself. Adventure is coming."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Over My Head: My Mother, Knitting

My mother has been sitting in chairs on the porch, in the kitchen, knitting. It is August and we are in a beach house and she is knitting--thick, cable-knit, gradually narrowing and cinching. It is bright red, almost unnaturally red, something out of a children's book, the one that is all sepia tones and this single red thing. It is history and symbol and other things bigger than itself, the pattering scrape of wooden needles singing a song over and through it.

She has not said the words, but I knew before I saw its shape that it was a hat. I knew before she tossed it across the table, halfway-done, to check the sizing, that it was for me. It is soft and the yarn is thick and she says it's acrylic so it won't bleed or shrink.

What hangs like humidity over our heads is what this hat is for. Winter holds no real mysteries for us, and Alaskan-born and Maine-living, the snows and winds don't frighten me anymore. But I am not acrylic. A different season, less defined and not to be easily outsmarted, hangs before us. Now, it is still summer, and this perfect place meant for vacating our troubles has tried to protect us as it has before, but real life is not escaped so easily as it was when I was a child. I still let out the usual sigh as we crossed the Cape Cod Canal, but some burdens refuse to be left at the bridge. Summer soon fades, and there will be pills and infusions, poisons meant to save me, plots of myths and fairy tales twisted in on themselves. And in an effort not to lose my life, I will bleed and shrink, and I will lose my hair.

And here in this vacation place of history and rest, in this small way my mother does what she can to save me in all this unknown. This is no knit hat but a helmet straight from those myths and stories I love, surged and bound in the burning forge-heart of a woman whose child is out past her in the storm. It is prayer and love, each ring of knits and purls its own hedge of protection rounded in soft bright red.

I am sweating from the heat of the kitchen when she puts it in my hand, complete, a blessing in cabled cord. But it is too hot, and I hold it and press it to the table, at first unable to contemplate more layers but also in acknowledgment that this season isn't here yet. In months, maybe weeks, my head will be shiny and smooth and vulnerable, and I will slide this unnaturally vibrant guard over my ears and let it hold me together. It will cover scars and evidences, and will force the cold and pain and weakness that waits for me to stand off just a little more because This Is a Woman Whose Mother Loves Her, and she will not be easily taken. 

"God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles
and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas,
though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil. Selah...
'Stop your fighting—and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.'
Yahweh of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah."
Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11

Friday, August 7, 2015

Book Review: Pray Like a Gourmet

In a hard contrast to my previous review, I really wasn't expecting to like this one, I don't even remember why I requested it, other than maybe a vague "Jesus is your jam, food is your jam, you can't not request this book" knee-jerk.

For one thing, the title. It rhymes! What's that about?? Also, book-long metaphors hardly ever hold up: they look good for two chapters, and by the halfway point you're ready to throw the book through the nearest window. The book arrived, and there were all these colors and different fonts... Oh, it was going to be a mess. I sat down and prepared myself to be annoyed and underwhelmed by Pray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul by David Brazzeal.

My first heart in the margin (shorthand for "love this") is on the second page. My first exclamation point (good point/review note) is on the fifth, and it just never stopped: I loved this book. Brazzeal expertly uses his meal metaphor, drawing lines between lingering over or rushing through food or prayer, repetition versus exploration, alone or with friends, simple or elaborate. (It bears mentioning, he also knows when the metaphor doesn't stretch, and doesn't force it.) "Does your prayer life feel like you're eating the same food over and over every day--mixing the same ingredients but hoping for a new, more enticing dish? ... We, too, can push back and engage in seeking authentic, calm, and refreshing nourishment for our soul--each one of us, of course, with our own flair" (7, 8).

My initial reaction to the look of the book has fully turned on itself, too. Like a simple but carefully assembled meal, it is organized and beautiful but not distracting from the content. Swaths of watercolor highlight specific prayer ideas, while brief shifts in typeface and color draw attention to particular moments without overdoing it. (My only real issue is that a font color frequently used is a soft golden yellow on white paper, difficult to see even with my reasonably unaged eyes. Possibly purposeful, meaning to slow you down to notice, but potentially problematic for some readers.)

With a brief intro on how he came to ponder and experiment in prayer so much, and a closing couple chapters on using these practices even when rushed, and bringing them into a group ("Eating on the Run" and "Dining with Friends," of course), the majority of the book is organized by "courses" or types of prayer. Some are old standards, others equally established but less commonly practiced, but for all Brazzeal makes a solid case for the purpose and use of each. The weakest chapters--Confessing and Asking--are understandably so. Confession is a complicated thing to get into, especially trying to be as open to a potential reader as possible; Asking is, as he points out, what most people think of first when it comes to prayer, but his downplayi of it comes off a little too strong--just because it's an automatic response doesn't make it a bad one. But while the finer points of our theologies differ occasionally, it's never off-putting--his ideas, like good recipes, are made to be adapted.

As I was thinking on this review, I could see two potential non-ideal reactions from a reader, both of which I started to have as I read:
   1) This Is Too Much. In the same way that few of us have time to prepare a seven-course meal every day for our loved ones, who has the time and energy for all of this? While Brazzeal hints at this, I wish he was a little more blunt with it in both introduction and epilogue: to continue the metaphor, no, you rarely make a seven-course meal. But, in an effort to keep things interesting, to learn and stretch and experience, you might have soup and a sandwich one night, a salad the next, steak and potatoes and pie after that. You do a little of this and a little of that. You have your favorites, and you have those that you don't always like, but you explore every once in a while just to play. You try something new with an open mind. You vary.
   2) This Is a Bunch of Eastern Religion Hippie Dippie Hoohah. With chapters like Observing (primarily but not exclusively nature) and Meditating, I found myself starting to have a predictably American Christian reaction of "ehhhhhhh this doesn't feel like me." Here, Brazzeal does confront the issue head-on, and well. He gives brief examples of meditation from Scripture, and points out that "meditation is a spiritual human activity like mourning, fasting, or praying, and is not limited to one religious group while remaining unavailable to others" (103). Well done, well said.

I'm looking forward to keeping Pray Like a Gourmet on my night stand with my prayer journal. And turning to it frequently to stretch myself, to find new ways of communing with my God, since, as Brazzeal speaks for Him in his intro, "Wasn't this supposed to be a relationship, just you and me--not a group project?" (13). I look forward to using it to break me out of the routine, to step up and sit down at the table with my God and snack, share, feast.

I'll wrap up with a blessing of sorts, from me and from David:
"I highly encourage you to experiment and find out what works for you, but also to leave your comfort zone, to be open to trying things you never thought you were good at or even associated with prayer before" (40).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through  the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Fedral Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: Abandon

I have very mixed feelings writing this review. Its official rating from me on GoodReads and Amazon will be 2 out of 5, though it's really more like a 2.8 (but no, that doesn't round up). I have no doubts that Tim's heart is in the right place, and that he means very well, and that this is only a beginning step in all he has been gifted to share, but Abandon falls just enough short that I can't roll that into a it's-the-thought-that-counts kind of review.

Abandon: Laying Aside Your Plan for God's Purpose is meant to be a primer for stepping out into full faith, leaving behind worldly and selfish plans and walking into the mystery God has in store for your life, whatever that may turn out to mean. While it's not a new concept for a book, there's nothing wrong with new voices for new generations--there wasn't actually much revolutionary in Blue Like Jazz when we read it ten years ago, but it was someone speaking these things for us, for my generation, and there is real value to that. But what opens with solid points and minimal distractions begins to slump, and by the last few chapters my margin notes included "What is the purpose of this?" and "No idea why this chapter is in here."

The most frustrating angle of this is Tim has the bones of a really solid book here. He makes some nice points in his first chapters about stepping away from formulaic religion and lip service, but [similar to my last reviewed book, The Esther Blessing] the problems come with tying in the story of Jacob. While there are a handful of solid connections between Jacob's story and where Tim's going, it's not enough to keep us bouncing back and forth, and ends up being a stumbling block. 

Amid, and gradually outpacing, Tim's strong points are distractions and issues:
- Brevity can be a strength, but here it comes off as rushed, as nearly an outline with a plan to return and fill in the gaps later. My paperback clocks at 172 pages, but the word count would reveal it to be much shorter, between large type, heavy spacing, frequent bullets, and nearly-every-page callouts (a tweetable quote from the page, complete with #Abandon).
- There's a consistent feel of being hurried, like Tim only had so much paper on which to write: "I've taken the time to list a few [ideas on prayer] that stick out to me" introduces a page and a half...on the Lord's prayer (114-116); after giving two examples for a point, "I could continue with this list for a long time but I won't. I think the point has been made" (121). This isn't helped by the frequency of typos, including in one of the tweetable callouts, p. 82.
- Audience questions: most of the time, Tim sticks to the pretty standard examples of sacrifice and fear: money (job/house/possessions) and marriage. This is fine, but personalizing and getting specific can do a lot. There are also some weird moments that beg the question, Who is your audience? "You're scared you won't be able to live on a five-figure instead of a six-figure salary" (54). ...I've never met these people you're talking to, Tim.

Overall, the book is more disorganized than problematic. While there are many books I'd point to before this one, I wouldn't pull it from someone's hands. That said, when dealing with an entry-level book like this, odd phrasing and throwaway sentences can find places to burn and breed in a new or reignited believer's head. One example: "The time is right to stop listening to the if onlys and start understanding that God has made many difficult sacrifices to give you your unique identity" (45). A hang-up many of us work through in our early years as a Christian is clarifying the God-as-parent metaphor, separating the inevitable human brokenness of our parents from His perfection. But here, Tim doesn't seems to be detailing God as sacrificing himself for love, but as a guilt trip. [Frustration point: On the very next page, a very well-done clarification on giving up your life.]

The marketing copy and front blurbs clearly set this as a book that will provide easy steps to follow to find "your secret to living the life beyond your wildest dreams!" (back cover). In Tim's efforts to tie in his life experience, the story of Jacob, and some generic "this is what you need to do" language, he gets lost somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, Abandon suffers too much from these hang-ups and stumbles shy of being what it could.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.