Sunday, November 29, 2015

Happy Birthday, C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle!

Sometimes, in a smaller library, I find these two "L" authors next to each other on the shelf: C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle. That tickles me because they are two of my favorite writers of all time.

  • But these two share more than shelf space. A birthday, for one. Both were born on November 29th -- Lewis in 1898 and L'Engle in 1918. And they share other similarities as well.
  • Both developed a love of books and reading early in life.
  • Neither one did very well in the early years of school. Madeleine's teachers often thought her dull-witted. She sometimes had trouble fitting in at the boarding schools where her parents sent her. Lewis was sometimes bullied in grade school, scarring him with terrible memories.
  • They shared a common faith. Both were Christians--and Anglican (Lewis) /  Episcopalian (L'Engle).

Madeleine as librarian at the library of St. John's Cathedral,
now known as the Madeleine L'Engle Library

  • They share celebrity and popularity. Madeleine's A Wrinkle in Time has sold more than 14,000,000 copies and counting. Jack's The Chronicles of Narnia (seven books), more than 100 million copies in 47 languages. And these titles represent only a fraction of their prolific output. Both were popular speakers as well as authors.

  • They also share some genres. Both wrote fantasy about space travel and both wrote poetry and nonfiction reflections on life and faith. Both wrote about pain and grief. Both were heavily influenced by the writings of George McDonald.

George MacDonald and his fantasy work, Phantastes

  • Both Lewis and L'Engle had keen and penetrating minds. I would dearly love to hear the two of them in a debate. Wits would clash like swords and words would fly like sparks! 
Magnum Photos
C. S. Lewis was a British academic, a novelist, and a lay theologian. Starting in his teen years, he was entranced by "Northerness" and the Icelandic sagas. He also grew to love nature and taking long walks through the English countryside. Although a confirmed atheist in his youth, his later discussions with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien helped to persuade him to become a Christian and started him down the road to becoming the foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century.

Publicity photo
for Square Fish Books
Madeleine L'Engle was an American writer, best known for her young adult works -- the Chronos books (the fantasy A Wrinkle in Time and other books in the Time Quintet) and the Kairos Books (the more realistic O'Keefe and Austin family stories). Ironically, some readers found her books "too religious," while some Christian bookstores refused to carry her books because of her controversial views. I had the privilege of hearing Madeleine L'Engle speak many times, and I always noticed that during question and answer sessions, people seemed to look to her to answer the hard questions, to explain the meaning of pain and suffering.

What a joy that today we celebrate two amazing writers who left a great body of meaningful work. One blog post is far too short a space to tell of their accomplishments and of the impact they have made on my life and on so many others.

Photo by Joey Gannon
Thank you, Jack and Madeleine, for being true to your callings, for telling your stories, for wrestling with hard questions. Happy, happy birthday to you both!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Photographs

Today I am thankful for the gift of life. Pronounced dead by the doctor before birth, I nonetheless made an appearance on one November 22nd during the Jurasic Era, very much alive. 

I suppose things were different then. Not everybody had a camera, and I don't think baby books were a big thing yet.

One night after Mom had died, I was sitting on the couch at Daddy's house, looking though tins of old photos. 

My great-grandfather, Tom Howard
with his wife (seated) and daughter

People in old photographs always look profound. They seem to have stories to tell and secrets to keep. If only we could talk to those people, if we could reach right through the photograph and ask them questions. What was your life like? What did you learn here on Earth? I saw pictures of aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews and total strangers who were probably dead relatives.

I found a sepia-tone picture of a baby and wondered who it might be. Daddy? Mama? One of my brothers? Given the disarray of these pictures, it could be anybody. (Apparently I inherited my photo management ability from my mom.)

Then I saw the baby's hands.

Piano hands with long thin fingers. I looked first at the picture and then at my hands. Then back to the picture again. It was a shock to realize that I was looking at a picture of myself as a baby. I'm not sure I had ever seen one.

My start in life was a bit shaky, and my parents probably didn't have a camera until later. But there I was, a baby girl looking up at my grown up self.

We regarded each other, the baby and I, and then each returned to her own part in the story of my life.

Me at about two years old

Three years old?
Me in kindergarten
Me, playing the piano at church.
putting those piano hands to work

Sunday, November 15, 2015

No Shoes

I thought the navy blue dress would look nice.

No dice. My two sisters-in-law didn't like that idea. Even though I was grown and living on my own, they were older and still thought of me as a child. Apparently that meant they were in charge.

But I wanted to participate. "What about shoes?" 

Photo by Josh Bluntschli

An awful, awkward pause.

"I don't think she'll need shoes," one of them said.

No shoes.

My mother had been dead for only twelve hours, and I was still adjusting to the idea.

But no shoes?  It had never occurred to me that dead people don't wear shoes inside their metal boxes. Not only was my mother dead, but she was barefoot. My mom loved shoes and purses and now she had neither. Not now. Not ever. 

Photo by THOR

I knew it was silly. I knew this whole line of thought was ridiculous, but somehow it made her seem a little more dead. 

A person you love, I was learning, doesn't die all at once--but day by day, piece by piece.

The night after the burial it rained. I imagined the raindrops falling on her casket there in the cemetery. Raindrops pounding and pounding with cruel force. Of course, that was also absurd because she was already underground. The rain was only falling on a mound of dirt and the many containers of flowers.

Photo by Juni

I couldn't cry that week. I don't know why, except I guess I'm more of a let's-get-through-this-and-cry-later kind of person. My relatives kept saying, "You need to cry." But even though they were in charge, I couldn't oblige. Maybe that night the clouds were shedding tears I couldn't seem to conjure.

In grief, I think it's really the little details that stab you in the heart. The milk jug in the frig. My mother bought that milk this week, I thought. Now it's still here, but she's gone. My father's mournful voice as he paced in the yard praying aloud. The new hairstyle the morticians gave my mom. It was nice, but it wasn't the way she wore it. It wasn't the way I wanted to remember her.

And no shoes. 

Just little things. Little things that keep pounding, pounding -- killing and rekilling the one you love.

Thinking back to that morning when they told me my mother didn't need shoes, I remember a spiritual we used to sing in grade school music class.

I got shoes. You got shoes.
All God's children got shoes.
When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes,
Gonna walk all over God's Heaven, Heaven--
Gonna walk all over God's Heaven.

Photo by Thomas Steiner

No shoes? 

I read an article in the Poughkeepsie Journal that said shoes tell the story of your life. Every stain or scuff mark tells about where you walked and what you were doing.  Shoes are a diary we keep unconsciously.

Photo by SoHome Jacaranda Lilau

My mom had only two kinds of shoes--house shoes and church shoes. The black leather moccasins were for cooking, cleaning, and chasing after children and grandchildren. The church shoes were for services at the Baptist church--at least three a week--and for weddings, parties, and funerals. My mom wore out her shoes taking care of her family, visiting friends, walking to the store to get groceries or down to the school for a PTA meeting. Since she didn't drive, she did more walking than most.

I guess my mother really had no more use for the shoes in her closet. They were worn out anyway. They told the story of her life on earth, but that story was over. It was time for a new life, new shoes. And someday I too will put on sparkly celestial shoes, and hand in hand, my mom and I will walk all over God's Heaven.

Heaven, Heaven. Gonna walk all over God's Heaven.

My mom, about the time I was born

Monday, November 9, 2015

Beauty and Brains: Hedy Lamarr

Who says a girl can't have beauty and brains? Just look at yours truly. Well, actually--don't look too hard!

But an actress from the Golden Years of Hollywood really did pull it off. Her husband--Louis B. Mayer--called her "the most beautiful woman in the world." The U. S. military discovered she was also one of the most brilliant.

Hedy Lamarr (borm Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler--yes, Hedwig!) was an Austrian and American film actress. She played opposite a stellar array of leading men: Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, John Garfield, Victor Mature, and even Bob Hope. 

But Lamarr had other interests as well. At the onset of World War II, she was told that she could help the war effort by selling war bonds--and she did. But Hedy wanted to help in other ways. With her Hollywood neighbor, composer George Antheil, Hedy devised a plan to help the Navy.

Inside a player piano, showing the rolls
Author: Tim Walker, UK
One of the problems with radio-controlled torpedoes was that the frequency could be easily jammed. Drawing inspiration from a player piano, they created a system where the controlling frequency would hop around among 88 different frequencies, like the 88 keys on a piano. This frequency-hopping was impossible for the enemy to jam, since it would take too much power to jam all 88 frequencies.

USS Arizona, torpedoed at Pearl Harbor

Sadly, the Navy did not adopt the Lamarr-Antheil plan during WWII. However, their plan was reviewed and implemented by the Navy in the Bay of Pigs blockade of 1962--after their patent had expired.

Fidel Castro
photo produced by AgĂȘncia Brasil

This frequency-hopping concept became the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology, used in GPS and Blue Tooth and Wi-Fi connections. 

Free WiFi Hub in Minneapolis
Author: Ed Kohler

Today, November 9th, is Hedy's birthday, and we can celebrate her epic contributions--not only in the entertainment industry but also in technology. 

Sometimes real life stories are stranger--and even more fascinating--than fiction.