Reporting Live from Martin, Slovakia

Here I sit in a small dormitory room 5000 miles from home. How did I get here and what’s it all about, you may ask. The how-I-got-here question is easily answered: Delta Airlines. North  to Canada, east to the North Atlantic, across the southern tip of Greenland, then south to Amsterdam. A 2-hour hop on KLM to Budapest, then 4 hours by bus to Martin. The WHY of it is even less complicated. A door opened and it seemed the right thing to go through it.

Doors that open and lead to adventure is a recurring literary theme, and vitally important in two of my favorite books. In one story, there is a great need to hide and an old wardrobe, with its door opened just a crack, beckons. In the other, an uncle tells his nephew “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

This is the second time I’ve let myself be swept off to this seemingly insignificant country in central Europe. I’m with a church group and we’re tasked with teaching conversational English to whomever wants to learn it. 25 years past communism, Slovakia is eager to find its place in the world market and English is seen as a necessary step. Well, if there’s one thing I can do, it’s talk. In English, even. A perfect fit, then.

But English is only the beginning of the story, I think. I just returned from an evening spent looking out over rolling green hills that could well have been part of a Narnian or Middle Earth landscape. I ate and drank with people–some of whom I’d just met–who are already good friends. Earlier in the evening, we had a church service in a tiny, circular building from the 13th-century where the music was so pure and the acoustics so  perfect, all I could do was weep.

When I came to Slovakia two years ago, I thought it was so that I could be of help to others. I learned then and I’m sensing again this time that these visits may be even more about me than about what I can do for others. Yes, it’s a dangerous business, but I don’t want to keep my feet, anymore. I have gone through the door and stepped out onto the road, because, I’m pretty sure, there’s something I need here in Slovakia.

 

 

 

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What Are You Reading?

We’ve been talking about reading and the books we’ve loved, lately. So, what about now? What’s everyone been reading lately? Why those books? What have you loved most? Not everything you’ve read, mind you. Just, say, in the last couple months?

For me, it’s been “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett. Sir Terry (knighted for his ‘contribution to literature’) is an insanely imaginative, irreverent chap who never fails to entertain and yet make you consider your most strongly-held beliefs. I’ve only recently discovered him and hope to make up for lost time by reading everything by him I can get a hold of. “Dodger” is about a character who lives in London’s seemy side during the reign of Queen Victoria. He is a ‘tosher;’ making his living by searching the sewers for anything and everything of value he might find. In Dodger’s adventures, he rescues a damsel in distress, becomes friends with a newspaper writer called Charley Dickens, and has his hair cut by a barber named Sweeny Todd. And the story goes on. Highly recommended.

I continue to read the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. Brother Cadfael is a 12th-century Benedictine monk who spent his early years as a Crusader. Now he minds the herb garden at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, and helps solve crime. A sort of medieval CSI, if you will. Lots of detail about life during that time by a historian who really knew her stuff. And Brother Cadfael is such an endearing character; it’s great how bits of his notorious past find their way into his current placid life in the abbey.

I also recently read a YA book called “Seraphina,” by Rachel Hartman. A world in which dragons and humans (attempt to) peacefully co-exist. I didn’t think I’d like it much, but I did. Enough so that I’ve been checking to see if Ms. Hartman has anything else out (she doesn’t), but I’ll keep my eyes open. Seraphina herself was a strong character, doing her best to hide secrets that could cost her life, if discovered. And of course, she falls in love with a prince, while she was at it (which is always a plus in my view!).

And I also got through “The Secret Garden.” What a sweet story. I had such fun learning Yorkshire (speech).  And I’ll never look at robins or gardens the same again, or forget Mary or Dickon or Colin. Or the wisdom shared about the power of thoughts. They’re “as powerful as electric batteries,” the author said. Change your thoughts, change your life. Once again, a children’s classic that oozes with truth and is a lot more entertaining than any self-help book. Oh, the power of fiction!

So now it’s your turn. What are you reading? Why?

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What Your Reading Says About You

Recently, I listened to a CD on which a literary agent spoke about how writers discover their core story, the thing that fires their passion, the thing they care most about. The thing they want, somehow, to communicate to others.

She had some fascinating theories. The agent told her listeners to go back to the earliest book they could remember, the one they begged their parents to read aloud…over and over and over. Then, to think about what it was about that book they so liked. She used her own example of loving the book “Robin Hood,” and laughingly wondered if her role now, as an agent, was to speak up for  the “poor” starving author before the “big, bad” publishers. She also had her listeners answer several questions about books they’d read: Which book do you wish you could read again…for the first time? Which book created a world you wish you could live in? Which book is on your nightstand right now? Which book are you an ‘evangelist’ for?

I decided to make lists of all the books I’ve loved over the years and then to look for the common denominator.  Sadly, I don’t remember my parents reading anything to me. As soon as I could read for myself, it was all the horse stories the school library held, but it wasn’t a horse story that made the biggest impact on Dawn as a child. It was a dog story, but not really. Kinda like “Moby Dick” being a story about a whale…Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” is only on-the-surface about a dog. When I discovered that book, my eyes were opened to a world so completely outside of myself that I would never be the same. Coldness and cruelty, savagery and survival, darkness and death. And at the end, a larger-than-life story emerges, a story that becomes a legend that haunts the native tribes of the north (and a 12-year-old girl in Vancouver) for generations.

“The Call of the Wild” was just the first. There were all the horse books, then “Little Women” and Alcott’s other lovely girl tales. (I cried when Beth died, and I cried when Ginger, in “Black Beauty” died. but, my theory is, if it’s not worth crying over, what’s the point of reading it??) Later it would be Narnia and Middle Earth, A Wrinkle in Time and Harry Potter, Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games. And so many others.

So what has my reading taught me about me? That I’m always looking for that ‘something more,’ sacrifice, nobility, and redemption. If there isn’t actually magic in a story, I want the hint of it, that ‘larger-than-life’ something that stays in my heart long after I put the book down. A good number of the books that make my list are supposedly for children or teens. All of them have amazing, memorable characters and most all of them exist in a story-world I’ve never experienced.

So all I need to do is create an incredible story world, peopled by characters of strength and valor, who defeat evil against great odds, and save the world. That’s all…

What about you? What books do YOU love? What books changed your life? In what way? Tell us about them–we really want to know!

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Wish I could find a good book to live in (and write!)

I am a writer. Most people who know me, know this about me. Shortly after being exposed to the glories of the printed word, I understood that someONE, some person, out there somewhere in the world, sat down with pen in hand, and out of the fullness of that person’s imagination, they created a world. And put people (or animals) into that world. And let things happen to them. And it was amazing. The first book I stayed up all night long reading was “Man O’War” by Walter Farley (of the Black Stallion series fame). I was 10. I had school the next day. But I couldn’t stop. Decades later, spouse and teenage children would get up at 3:30 in the a.m., head for the ‘water closet’ and stop dead in their tracks when they saw me, ensconced on the couch, nose in my book, eyes (almost) being held up with tooth picks. They’d try reasoning with me: You’ve got to get up in the morning. You’ll be tired. Can’t you just quit? To which I’d always answer–oh, just a minute–I’m almost done. Just gotta finish another chapter…and then the chapter after that. Finally, they just gave up. They’d see me; I’d give ’em my best ‘mom’s big smile–not to worry! And they’d just shake their heads and go about their business. There was no hope.

And they were right. For a true bibliophile, there pretty much is no hope to breaking the…addiction. I choose that word carefully, just so you know. Remember that song back in the ’60s, 70’s maybe. Kinda dreary, lilting, one of those girl bands, I think. Ive found her Melanie Safka; don’t know if she ever did anything else again, but this one was unforgettable. “Look what they done to my song, Mom, look what they’ve done to my song…” It was very sad, but being a feeling-heavy teen, I was pulled in. The second verse was the best “Wish I could find a good book to live in! Which I could find a good book. If I could find a real good book, I’d never have to come out and look at….what they’ve done to my song.”

Okay, pretty smarmy, but to a teenager fascinated with the writing life, it was just the right mix of maudlin  melodrama and heroic quest. And I still remember it. I’ve never had a song that I lost, but I’ve had books I wanted to live in. Haven’t we all? Come on? Narnia? Middle Earth, Wonderland, Dune, Lilliput. Or worlds in books where Vampires are vegetarians and don’t drink human blood. but are beautiful beyond human imagination (“Looking like Zeus’s younger and better-looking brother!”), and who love for eternity. Yes, I’ve given myself away here, but I don’t care. The true power of a book is its ability to take you to new places, so you can become the hero/oine who will fight the giants, slay the orcs, climb the mountains. Ride the fastest horse that ever ran on an American track.

That’s the book I want to write. And you know what? It’s a lot harder than those who’ve gone before us make it look, but by golly, I’m not quitting! I’m gonna write a good book and people are gonna want to live there! The RainCountryWriter girl is Back!

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More on C.S. Lewis

Just a short one tonight on my tribute to C.S. Lewis.

In my mid-twenties I came across a book called “A Severe Mercy,” written by a man named Sheldon Vanauken. I’d never heard of Mr. Vanauken, but his book caught my eye because, below the title, the cover said “With 18 Letters by C.S. Lewis.” I had to pick it up. “A Severe Mercy” is the true story of a young man and his wife during the 1940s and 50s who were, by their admission “pagans,” but “high pagans,” whose love of beauty and mystery, order and reason, was their ‘god.’ Then they went to Oxford and met Lewis. Here, they found a man whose intellect challenged that of anyone they’d ever met or read, who oddly enough, believed that an “obscure crucified Jew” was truly God, and that Christianity was far more than “a mere local religion of earth, quite inadequate for the immensities of the far-flung galaxies.” They met with Lewis personally, had many discussions, where Lewis never told them they ‘shouldn’t ask such questions.’ Eventually (and it’s a beautiful story–I highly recommend “A Severe Mercy”), they, too, believed.

This poem was written by a fellow Oxford student and friend of the Vanaukens sometime after Lewis’s death, reminiscing about the time they had at Oxford and the conversations that changed all of their lives. (“Studio” in the first line is what they called the flat the Vanaukens lived in at the time, actually “St. Udo’s. “Jack,” is what Lewis’s friends called him.).

Ah Studio! We’ll meet again.

In won’t be gaslight in the lane,

But just as gentle, only brighter.

And Jack, on Aslan’s back.

We’ll sing His glory

around those two: One Love-Truth.

Old world will give one final ‘crack!’

Our hearts could not be lighter.

(Dom Julian, OSB)

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C.S. Lewis on Heaven

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, I’m going to be posting a few of my thoughts about him and some of his more memorable quotes.

This man has affected my life and thinking in a way few other authors have. A brilliant thinker and Oxford don, Lewis (called “Jack” by his friends) lost his mother when he was five years old. He prayed for her healing and when she died anyway, the child turned away from the God who didn’t seem to hear him, and went full-on into atheism for the next twenty-five-plus years. He never did anything by halves and his anti-God sentiment was known by all who knew him. But he couldn’t get away from one thing. He called it ‘joy,’ and what he meant by that was the call in his heart that told him Something was out there–something full and deep and wonderful that was not explained by anything he found in the world around him.  It was this longing that ultimately turned him back to God. Later, he would write: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”(Read his autobiography “Surprised by Joy” for the whole story).

He went on to write volumes on poetry, literary criticism, children’s works, and Christian apologetics. During WW2, he had a weekly radio program–from which his book “Mere Christianity” would later be derived–and was considered the second most recognizable voice on British radio–after Winston Churchill.

I’ve never, before or since, read anyone who’s made heaven seem more real to me,  so today, want to share this passage, taken from “The Last Battle,” the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia.

‘Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. You have sent us back into our own world so often.” “No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” Their hearts leapt and a wild hope rose within them. “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead. The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended; this is the morning.” And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us, this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say, that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.’

I can’t wait for that day–when the school term is finally over and I awake from the dream that was this life.

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The Bike Ride–with Jesus

I love this poem–wish I’d written it. Or that I knew who HAD written it, so I could give credit where credit’s due. A FB friend posted it recently and I was reminded that I had it hidden away in my documents. Anyway, read and enjoy, all you have ridden* on scary paths with Jesus–wondering just where in the world you were going to end up! It’s all good–just keep going! 🙂

*In my case, I usually ride a horse, rather than a bike, but either way…

The Road of Life

At first I saw God as my observer, my judge,

Keeping track of the things I did wrong,

So as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die.

He was out there, sort of like a president.

I recognized His picture when I saw it,

But I really didn’t know Him.

But later on, when I met Christ,

It seemed as though life were rather like a bike ride,

But it was a tandem bike,

and I noticed that Christ was in the back,

helping me pedal.

I don’t know just when it was

that He suggested we change places,

but life has not been the same since.

When I had control, I knew the way—

It was rather boring, but predictable…

It was the shortest distance between two points.

But when He took the lead,

He knew delightful long cuts,

Up mountains,

And through rocky places

At breakneck speeds,

It was all I could do to hang on!

Even though it looked like madness,

He said, “Pedal!”

I worried and was anxious and asked

“Where are you taking me?”

He laughed and didn’t answer,

And I started to learn to trust.

I forgot my boring life

And entered into the adventure.

And when I’d say, “I’m scared,”

He’d lean back and touch my hand.

He took me to people with gifts that I needed,

Gifts of healing, acceptance, and joy.

They gave me gifts to take on my journey,

My Lord’s and mine.

And we were off again.

He said, “Give the gifts away;

They’re extra baggage, too much weight.”

So I did, to the people we met,

And I found that in giving, I received,

And still our burden was light.

I did not trust Him, at first,

In control of my life.

I thought He’d wreck it;

But He knows bike secrets!

Knows how to make it bend to take sharp corners,

Knows how to jump to clear high rocks,

Knows how to fly to shorten scary passages.

And I am learning to shut up and pedal

In the strangest places,

And I’m beginning to enjoy the view

And the cool breeze on my face

With my delightful constant companion,

Jesus Christ.

And when I’m sure I just can’t do anymore,

He just smiles and says…”pedal!”

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