Confinement of truly unnecessarily opalescent lasagna

          or “what we learn from our mistakes” … or “those durn spelling bees!”

Last week, our daughters got to take part in the exciting fifth grade event of the spring: the school spelling bee.  With many students competing, several of them older than Rachel and Emily, our expectations weren’t too high, but we hoped they would have a good experience.  It’s funny the memories that a spelling bee can stir up… you know, I remember the words I missed on a stage (cinnamon and ancient), but the words I answered correctly don’t immediately come to mind.  This created a fun little discussion on Facebook, where word-geeks like myself left fun little notes about the words they missed many years ago.  I asked the girls the next day, and they, too, couldn’t spell opalescent, lasagna, effervescible or truly.  (In the spelling bee, Rach missed “confinement,” though when she spelled it later, she knew it should have had a silent E, and Em missed “unnecessarily,” as the six syllables were just too much for her head to keep track of… but hers was also the only six-syllable word used, if that was any consolation.)

Two years ago, as I was helping the girls study for a spelling test, I wrote a fun blog vignette that I’ll repost here (since the old blog site was deleted, I’ll just share those here periodically).

Cinnamon (not cinimin)

Which of life’s lessons do you remember best?  For me, I know that the test questions I remember aren’t usually the ones I get correct, but the ones I miss.  One particular lesson is one I recall whenever I look in the spice cabinet or help my daughters study for a spelling test.  I remember the school spelling bee when I was in fifth grade, and I was one of the final three spellers on stage.  I don’t recall the words that had led up to that point, as I had obviously known how to spell those, or at least I guessed correctly.  But then came a word I didn’t remember – I knew I had seen it, I loved it with sugar and butter on toast, but spelling… I took a stab.  C-I-N…..I-M-I-N  ??  Nope.  As I learned quite quickly, when the following student was correct, what I needed was C-I-N-N-A-M-O-N.  And I haven’t had a hard time spelling cinnamon since that day.

Life contains all kinds of spice, much more than cinnamon, but it’s not always what we would choose, is it?  Even if we can spell life’s lessons, they can still be hard to experience.  A car accident, an unexpected illness, a death in the family… even struggles we’ve gotten used to can still be just that – struggles.  But why are they there?  Maybe it’s so we can learn to comfort, to depend, to understand, to demonstrate what it means to experience defeat gracefully.  It is tempting to ask God, “Why me?” when difficulties strike, but what can we learn by simply asking God to show us how this can be used …used to comfort, to teach, to do something we may never realize.

You know, I went to college to become a teacher.  My error was that I thought this meant I would have a classroom, a place where I would present lessons to students in creative, engaging ways at particular times on set days.  For three years, I was able to teach within this definition, but after we moved to this area, I had a little change in course.  To make a long story short, I am still a teacher, but often, the lesson is this thing called “life.”  There isn’t a college degree in life, and it’s not always spelled the same way, but it can teach, whether we want it to or not.  We each have our own spelling bees, and my hope for each of us is that when we miss our own “cinnamon,” we’ll remember how to spell it next time it comes our way.  And maybe we can even give others a spelling lesson in the process.

Reasons we don’t always see

My parents are a part of an amazing adventure right now!  The fact that their group of fifteen was able to fly to Brazil Tuesday afternoon, though, almost didn’t happen.  To explain, I’ll have to turn the clock back a few months…

Last fall, the trip’s planners were getting the trip rolling.  What exactly was the purpose of the said trip?  A boat would travel down the Amazon River, stopping at villages along the way to offer medical and dental care to people who live in these remote areas.  And for these individuals, this boat, with examining rooms and volunteers on board, is likely the only care of this kind they ever receive.  This is a wonderful ministry, and Dad and Mom were excited to help encourage others to be a part of this group, as they had a wonderful experience here in Brazil two years ago.  But the biggest problem with sign-ups?  …This thing called a recession, with economic uncertainty plaguing society, placed more limits on availability of individuals who might otherwise be interested in this type of opportunity.

Ultimately, enough people, some from other areas, did sign up, get passports, receive immunizations, and apply for visas.  (And of course, they all prayed!!)  Next came the plane tickets: the travel agent was asked to schedule tickets from Indianapolis for Monday, February 22.  But once all of the tickets and plans came back through the travel agent, it was discovered that the tickets were booked – and purchased – for Tuesday, February 23.  It was too late to change the tickets, and this simply meant there was one less day the group would be in South America, one less day to prepare once they were there… it was a little frustrating, but it was just the way it would be.  And that was actually nothing compared to what was coming…

The visas.  My daughters have learned that “visa” is not just a credit card brand, but this is as important as a passport for entering some countries, as the country has to give its permission for you to come (a ticket of sorts from their country, not just one from ours).  The visa applications were submitted when they were supposed to be, and two of the group members received theirs by early January.  Then the other thirteen were denied – they needed to fill out one more paper to answer more questions before receiving government approval.  I don’t really understand what the problem was, but the group members paid necessary fees again and resubmitted the necessary information, then they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  They called the numbers they could, talked to individuals they could, visited the necessary website to check on the progress… and finally, on Thursday, February 18 they found out that the visas had been approved!  They were scheduled to be sent the next day.  <whew!>  But… on Saturday, they weren’t yet there, they were to have been sent overnight mail, but Monday, they still weren’t here. 

Then finally, at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, February 23, the visas arrived!!!  At least twelve of them arrived.  Where was number thirteen??  It had been sent with the others… and this time, it was the US Postal Service that took the blame.  Visa number 13 had been mistakenly mailed to Ohio rather than Indiana.  So here is where I give credit to the USPS – somebody from Dayton, Ohio drove the visa to Richmond, Indiana, where the next relay member delivered the special package to the airport in Indianapolis.  So all fifteen group members had their passports and visas and luggage and plane tickets… at just the right time.  Now remember the plans for the Monday tickets?  I have to think that God had the travel agent order tickets for Tuesday… if she had followed the initial instructions, the group would not have been able to go.

This reminded me a tiny bit of November, when T.R. and I were traveling to a retreat at a camp in Michigan.  I was dealing with a cough that was growing worse, but I hadn’t packed extra cough drops, and I knew the few I had wouldn’t last more than a day.  So as we neared the camp, we stopped at a gas station and purchased a pack of Hall’s.  Then we were back on the road, but there was a sudden stop… traffic was backed up quite a bit.  We found that there had been an accident – it had involved a large truck, and the other car was basically totaled.  We saw at least one ambulance pass as we made it to our destination.  If we hadn’t stopped to get cough drops, that car could have been ours… a sobering thought.

I have one more story, this one again about my wonderful parents.  Dad is a doctor and Mom a nurse, so in late October, they had gone to Haiti with FAME (Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism) to work at a clinic where they had been before.  When traveling with FAME, they filled a number of pieces of luggage with donated medication: vitamins, pain relief medications, antibiotics and the like, enough to help stock the clinic for several weeks.  This time, the group brought more medication than usual – the leader at the clinic in Haiti was surprised when they left so much behind – that were twice as many antibiotics as those usually brought by the team!  …they didn’t see themselves needing that much in the weeks to come, but they were sure it could be put to use.  I don’t need to say much more here… we know why God helped those extra antibiotics to travel to Haiti.  When the capital city of Port-au-Prince was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake on January 12, this clinic was still standing… and for at least a bit of time, they had much-needed antibiotics.   The clinic, in fact, was near enough to the quake site that it ended up being a major medical support site for earthquake victims.

I’m telling these three stores as a reminder: sometimes, things that seem like small annoyances or unnecessary burdens actually have a bigger purpose than we might imagine.  A seemingly incorrect ticket could be just what you needed, and a little voice that tells you to go ahead and stop for cough drops might have another bigger purpose.  Or packing that extra bit of something… well, there could be a reason a little voice told you to stick those in.  So often, we don’t see the story behind the story, but isn’t it nice to see these small examples of how God can work?  If I was more tuned in to hear His voice, I sometimes wonder how much more He could do.  But how much is He already doing that I don’t even recognize?  A staggering thought…

Behind a legacy…

or “remembering Jason”…

I will admit that there are times I wonder… when the day comes for me to leave this world, what will I leave behind?  What will people think of, or will it even matter?  And why am I even thinking about this on a somewhat dreary, rather chilly winter day?

I must wander a bit to Facebook, that all-encompassing social network tool that has put me back in contact with folks from college, high school, and around the world.  When I bop over to this online spot, I often see faces and hear names I haven’t thought of for a bit, and it can be fun to get back in touch.  One of those “Facebook friends” was a college friend, a very talented young man (okay, about my age, but that’s still young) with whom I was blessed to be in a singing group my sophomore year of college.  “Salt and Light” was a part of Taylor Christian Artists, and Jason helped make our trips and concerts more polished and memorable.

Jason Francis was always dramatic and almost poetic in his outlook on life, and as he went on to act on Taylor’s stage in many a role (and to sing in “Taylor Sounds”), it was a pleasure to see him light up a stage.  My first year of teaching at Frankfort Middle School, I was the assistant director of Tom Sawyer, a middle school version of a musical that was fun, but stressful (for this first-year teacher who was also teaching science and trying to keep her head above water).  That was also the fall that the new theater was opening at Taylor, and their first production was to be the musical “Big River,” the story of Huck Finn (the continuation of the Tom Sawyer story).  So I contacted Jason (I’m sure not via email, as this was 1994), and he agreed to meet a group of my “Tom Sawyer” cast when we took a field trip to Taylor one evening to see the musical together… and though Jason’s part on stage wasn’t big, his small role was a fun one, and I know his behind-the-scenes role was larger, as he helped the director, Ollie Hubbard, with the production.  But he came out and chatted with our young cast, encouraging them and answering questions, a big deal to middle schoolers who weren’t always shown so much respect.  (Due to student teaching and early teaching schedules, I never saw Jason’s lead role in Macbeth or The Imaginary Invalid, but I heard wonderful things.  Of course.)

I did wonder where Jason was and what he was up to, and it was a treat to see photos of his wife and daughter, and see that he was working on a theater degree and teaching at a university in Nebraska.  In fact, he was preparing this fall for the role of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a performance that would help culminate his degree, if I understood correctly.  What a full life!  I’d glance at Jason’s page every now and then to see how things were going… then in mid-October 2009, he shared the unexpected.  Jason had been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer.  (In Stage IV, at that.)

After his initial announcement, Jason started a blog of sorts through the “Care Pages” system at his hospital.  Like a private blog, this was a place where Jason could share his thoughts and experiences along his journey.  The name of his page is “Jason Recovery,” as Jason shared quite vehemently that recovering was what would happen.  God had made it very clear to Jason that He had big plans for Jason’s life, something that had not yet been completed.

This was a rectal cancer, first discovered with a large tumor that was causing pain… well, in the rear.  So Jason experienced pain like I’m sure I never have (at least childbirth had a happy ending).  Through it all, Jason’s faith was evident and didn’t waver – he demonstrated how one can look death in the face and retain sanity, humor, and love.

Through all of this, Jason and his family (one by his mother, three by his brother Matt) left more than 60 updates.  Looking at this page, there are more than 725 registered visitors, and more than 2500 messages that have been left in total (so far).  When reading through the messages, I saw some of his college friends, high school classmates, relatives, coworkers, students, fellow performers… and many shared the special part Jason had been in their lives.  It was obvious that Jason was loved and appreciated, but time and time again, I saw people mentioning the wonderful model Jason had been for them.  He was a prime example of living life to its fullest, of performing tremendously, but the example that he didn’t plan to be was how to die: to do so with dignity and grace, reaching out to those who loved him.  Jason said earlier that his purpose wasn’t yet fulfilled… and I have to wonder if this was indeed part of that purpose, now complete.

On January 11, early in the morning, Jason left his pain behind, going to be with his Lord.  Jason’s loving brother Matt has been blogging, at Jason’s previous request, things about those last days.  I would have to say that a part of Jason’s legacy is that of his loving family, the message they continue to share.

So back to my original question: what legacy will I leave?  One of faith, hope, love, and perseverance?  …that’s what I hope.  And how will I extend that message?  As for now, I know that I need to listen more acutely for the voice of our Lord, guiding what He would have me do as we face life’s “invisible issues.”  Thank you, Jason for bringing things to life that we hadn’t expected, for helping us as an example of how to encounter the Valley mentioned in Psalm 23.  And I have to thank those who love Jason for sharing these very personal moments – and lessons – with his friends from near and far.  His is a beautiful legacy indeed.

Truth in fiction

One of my favorite types of literature is “juvenile literature,” that which is intended for older children.  I read some of my favorite books as a child, and Madeleine L’Engle still remains on my favorite list, not just because I enjoy fantasy, but because of the truth and beauty that can be found between those pages.  Why?  I think L’Engle explained this well in her autobiographical A Circle of Quiet: “lf it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children.  If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books.  And words.”

In July, my older brother introduced me to a new author to add to my “favorite” list.  I am glad that I hadn’t read Andrew Peterson’s work before July, as the first book of The Wingfeather Saga left me wanting more, and I have been able to experience book two, North! Or Be Eaten less than two months after the first.  Though these are considered juvenile literature, I found beautiful truth and imagery within.  And one truth within was a truth that is missing from too many of the books that crowd our shelves: our Maker has a plan for our lives.  On page 143 of this work, a bookseller states this well.  “Whether crushed or sheltered by the Maker’s hand, ‘tis beneath it we go, from breath to death.”  (warning: if you have not yet read these books, the review below does contain spoilers of the first one.  Not the second, though… how fair would that be?  It would be like a certain older brother of mine who used to give away the ending of a book as I was starting it.  Not nice.)

Lest this story sound simple, allow me to explain.  Here is a little synopsis of the book:

Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby thought they were normal children with normal lives and a normal past. But now they know they’re really the Lost Jewels of Anniera, heirs to a legendary kingdom across the sea, and suddenly everyone wants to kill them.

Their escape brings readers to the very brink of Fingap Falls, over the Stony Mountains, and across the Ice Prairies, while villains galore try to stop the Igibys permanently. Fearsome toothy cows and horned hounds return, along with new dangers: a mad man running a fork factory, a den of rockroaches, and majestic talking sea dragons.

Finding they’re royalty, as wonderful as this may sound, did bring on responsibility, not all of it welcome.  12-year-old Janner, the oldest of the Igiby children, faced this question as they started their escape.  “Is it worth it? he asked himself.  Was it worth his losing his own life in order to learn the truth about who he was and who he was becoming?  Yes.” (p 79)  Among other things, this book was the story of Janner and his very unusual coming of age.

In the first book, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, the Igiby children were told their roles, intended since birth.  Janner, the throne warden, was not to be king – that was his younger brother Tink.  No, Janner’s role was to act as protector of the king, to keep him safe. Reading how Janner acted as caregiver to an unwilling brother and how the weakest of the three children, their young sister who needed a crutch to walk, overcame the largest of their physical obstacles … these aspects spoke to me personally, falling into the “Invisible Issues” theme of this blog.  And yes, I needed a few tissues along the way.

Andrew Peterson’s storytelling was gripping, his style engaging, and his characters memorable.  The story is one of love, redemption, family, responsibility, honor, and so much more.  And you know what?  I think Madeleine L’Engle would have liked it.