Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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Book Review: “Where the Woods Grow Wild” by Nate Philbrick

It doesn’t surprise me that Nate Philbrick is a fan of Lloyd Alexander. I noticed similarities to The Book of Three as soon as I started reading Where the Woods Grow Wild. But the pig keepers and runaway barnyard animals in Philbrick’s tale carried me into another forest for a new adventure I was glad to take.

Nate Philbrick’s YA fantasy novel is the story of Martin and Elodie’s adventure in the dark and fantastic wood that grows across the river from their village. A dangerous wood that most villagers keep at a safe distance. But a terrible accident draws Martin and Elodie closer to its borders until eventually, they find themselves lost in the dark, wild wood.

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Three reasons I loved this book.

First, the characters. There were so many fun and quirky characters that just made me smile. I love having what I call “gentle” reads to help me wind down at night, and even though there were some high energy scenes in this story, the characters made it warm enough to qualify for my night read category. Along with fun and quirky, the story also had some steady, mature characters who elevated the flow of the story with their wisdom.

Second, setting. Philbrick has a great ability to paint a scene, and with a book that takes place in such a fantastic world, it was especially fun to be drawn deep into the forest while the author’s pen hemmed me in with trees.

Third, and most important, themes. I loved how Philbrick’s story included a character with a physical handicap, and how he showed the character’s struggles to cope with the everyday hardships that came along with it. The story talked about supporting one another through suffering, overcoming trials, and honesty in relationships.

I highly suggest scooting over to his website to check out his novels, as well as his fantastic artwork (he designed the cover of his novel himself!). He’s also pretty fun to follow on Twitter.

Book Review: “The Reckless Way of Love” by Dorothy Day

Since giving birth I’ve had trouble fitting reading into my daily schedule. But now with such luxuries as the baby’s regular bedtime, I’m finally able to sneak in a chapter here and there. I look for short, easy reads that I can pick up and put down at a moments notice. You know, in case the baby decides she’s going to dig some chokeable substance from deep underneath the sofa or crawl towards the ledge that leads down into the hallway.

The Reckless Way of Love is a lovely collection of thoughts from Dorothy Day’s letters and writings. Because each reflection is usually no more than four paragraphs long, it met my need for something I could pick up and put down without ever losing my place. An added bonus was that the content is spiritually encouraging, something I am in dire need of these days. I could grab a paragraph before minding the baby, and carry the thought of it with me as I went.

The book covered topics of Christian love, suffering, sacrifice and what it means to follow Christ. A writer herself, her book even contained a poignant quote about writing.

“Writing a book is hard, because you’re ‘giving yourself away.’ But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems, his relation to God and his fellows. You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his human needs of sustenance and love.”
– Dorothy Day

While I didn’t agree with everything she said, I think it’s important to be able to read books from other perspectives, so you can understand other beliefs. I really appreciated her thoughts on suffering and about living in community with other Christians. With my husband still in seminary, we would be lost without the generosity of family and friends who have opened their homes to give us a place to live.

One of the nicest things to do with a pleasant read is to pass it on to another. After sharing a passage of this book with my sister in Texas, I offered to mail her my copy when I finished reading it. I’m glad that I continued to underline my favorite passages as I read, because every time I took out my pencil, I knew it would be there when she read it. It felt like I was sharing thoughts and reflections with my sister who is so far away.

“It is not filth and ugliness, drugs and drink and perversion he is asking us to prefer him to. He is asking us to prefer him to all beauty and loveliness. To all other love.”
~ Dorothy Day ❤

Book Review: The God Who Heals by Johann & Christoph Blumhardt

First off, thank you again Plough Publishing for sending me another lovely book! There are few things more pleasing than receiving unexpected packages with free books inside. ❤

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The most recent book they sent me was The God Who Heals, a collection of devotional thoughts from  Johann and Christoph Blumhardt. They were a Lutheran father/son pastor team from 19th century Germany. The book is a collection of their thoughts on topics related to healing and patience through suffering. The book is divided into six sections: Turning to Jesus, Trusting Jesus, God Hears, God Promises to Heal, See What God Can Do, and The Hope That is Ours. Within the sections are short devotional-like thoughts on the topic, nice bite sized readings to chew and meditate on, all opening with a passage from scripture.

It’s a short book, and also sweet in that it is full of encouraging thoughts. The lessons within did not only apply to those who have life threatening or long lasting illnesses, but were applicable to suffering in general and encouraged you to hold fast in faith to Christ no matter what the outward circumstances. Here is a quote from the chapter entitled, “You Are Not Alone”:

If you can’t feel the Savior, than the more believe in him. Those to whom God’s love is nearest are precisely those who don’t see and yet believe (John 20:29). The same is true of those who don’t feel and yet believe. The enemy often wreaks havoc on our feelings; but he can’t touch your faith. The devil cannot own your faith – unless you give in.

~Johann Christoph Blumhardt

Thank you again Plough Publishing for giving me the joy of reading this book.

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If you want to read it yourself, you can get your copy here!

Falling in Love with Pooh

My mother has always claimed to be a bookworm from her youth, but sometimes I wonder10572249_10153375877852963_645569118810842334_o how it can be possible. The only childhood book she’s told me she loved was Charlotte’s Web. She once told me she read Flowers in the Attic, I know she used to read Nicholas Sparks, and she has this horror story she sometimes tells me about possibly throwing away some first edition Dickens novels because she couldn’t read Great Expectations due to the use of old English *cocks head in confusion, then shudders and hugs the nearest book*.

Along with these coflicting anti-booklover traits, for we all know a true book lover NEVER throws away a book, I can’t recall her shedding much light onto my reading 51Pr1yvjS9L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_pathway. Once she’d recommended Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, I’m fairly certain it was school librarians and my Grandmother who did the rest, hooking me on Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and even poor Mister Dickens *shudders again and kisses the nearest book*. My mother read to us a lot growing up, but the books I remember were Hank the Cowdog, Bible story picture books, and What Would Jesus Do?. Never the classics like Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows, or even Charlottes Web. Mind you, we saw all the movies, but never read the books.

About three years ago, I started picking up children’s books on my own. It was just last year that I read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for the first time. It was so much better than I’d anticipated. I thought it would just be a collection of sweet stories about a mismatched group of stuffed animals living in the Hundred Acre Wood, like the Disney movies I’d watched as a child, and never imagined how witty and hilarious they’d be. Even my husband was surprised when I began to read passages to him, and we ended by reading the last three chapters aloud together.
776407I just got the second book The House at Pooh Corner from the library and love it as much as the first. Some of the humor is almost reminiscent of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s a sample passage, where Piglet is imagining a conversation he’d have with a Heffalump.

HEFFALUMP (gloatingly): “Ho-ho !”
PIGLET (carelessly): “Tra-la-la, tra-la-la”
HEFFALUMP (surprised, and not quite sure of himself)“Ho-ho !”
PIGLET 
(more carelessly still): “Tiddle-um-tum, tiddle-um-tum.”
HEFFALUMP (beginning to say Ho-ho then turning it awkwardly into a cough): “H’r’m! What’s all this?”
PIGLET (surprised): “Hullo! This is a trap I’ve made, and I’m waiting for a Heffalump to fall into it.”
HEFFALUMP (greatly disappointed): “Oh?” (after a long silence) “Are you sure?”
PIGLET: “Yes.”
HEFFALUMP: “Oh!” (nervously) “I – I thought it was a trap I’d made to catch Piglets.”
PIGLET (surprised): “Oh, no!”
HEFFALUMP: “Oh!” (apologetically) “I – I must have got it wrong then.”
PIGLET: “I’m afraid so.” (politely) “I’m sorry.” (He goes on humming.)
HEFFALUMP: “Well – well – I – well. I suppose I’d better be getting back?
PIGLET (looking up carelessly): “Must you? Well, if you see Christopher Robin anywhere, you might tell him I want him.”
HEFFALUMP (eager to please): “Certainly! Certainly!” (he hurries off.)
POOH (who wasn’t going to be there, but we find we can’t do without him): “Oh, Piglet, how very brave and clever you are!”

The entire chapter had me giggling aloud, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to get the rest. Honestly, I don’t care what your age is, these books are a treat that you should not deny yourself. Along with the humor, he has a gift for making poignant moments of tenderness that warm your heart.

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Every writer has authors they idolize and dreams of what they could one day become. One of my dreams is to be able to write like that. To be able to make people laugh, smile, and cry all at once. Yeah, yeah that would be fantastic. ❤

Text ©Rachel Svendsen 2016
Quotes from Winnie-the-Pooh The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

A Road Trip with Neil and Charlotte

A few weeks ago, I posted about my struggle with anxiety disorder and depression. After which, I mentioned how I’ve been  pushing my boundaries, forcing myself to stand against the things that most frighten me

On this list is the gradual expansion of my forty-five minute radius safety bubble. I was sitting at about two and a half hours when my in-laws invited us to ride with them to Williamsburg, Virginia, six hours from home.

I’ve always wanted to see Colonial Williamsburg. I love history and museums and I’ve heard that it is super pretty. Another bonus incentive was that the first days’ drive ended after 4 hours, in an overnight at my brother-in-law Ben’s house, to visit with him, Chelsea, and the kids. They have invited Timothy and me down to see them many times, but I was wasn’t ready for the drive. I hated myself each time I said no, especially since I could see how badly Timothy wanted to go. So this time, I took a deep breath, swallowed, and said, “Sure, why not.”

Driving through Pennsylvania
Driving through Pennsylvania

I spent the next few days just blocking the whole thing out of my mind. And on Friday morning, I hopped into the car with my laptop and sat there tapping away on my project for NaNoWriMo, knowing that I would probably only manage a few hundred words for the next 3 to 4 days. The ride was fairly easy, simply because I refused to think about it. I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs in my earbuds and before I knew it, we were sitting in front of Ben and Chelsea’s beautiful Yellow house.

Then I exploded.

I feel bad, because we were only there overnight, and I was like a zombie. I felt like Bilbo Baggins when he said, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I hardly interacted with anyone and spent much of the time alone in our room. I stole away my husband for a while and wet his teeshirt with my tears of exhaustion. He kissed my forehead and whispered to me about how brave I was. I was so gone I barely heard him; all I could think about was the 2 to 3 hour drive we had tomorrow.

Though numb and frightened, I managed to begin a chronicle of my journey. That night, my journal entry began with this quote from Neil Gaiman’s, “Coraline.”

Because, she said. when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.

I was not relaxed when I got in the car Saturday morning. I managed to reject Ben and Chelsea’s sweet offer to end my journey there, and wait until Mom and Dad came back through on their way home. I dropped deep down inside my head, to that place where I didn’t think about what was happening. It was harder to find it this time. I held to Tim with my right hand and had my friend Steve in my left, who I texted on and off the whole trip discussing distracting nonsense like what edicts he would pass as the first global dictator. Mom and Dad were off to a wedding, so they left us at the hotel. Tim and I dropped our things and walked a half mile to Colonial Williamsburg.

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Path from the hotel to Colonial Williamsburg

I lived in each individual second, busying myself with the joy of being in a place I’d never seen before. We had a lovely walk together and ate at one of the pubs, before we went back to the hotel room. That was when it got hard. Honestly, that nice little room was the hardest place to be the whole trip. It felt like I was in the waiting room of a hospital, cold and half naked in my dressing gown, waiting for the beginning of major surgery; that surgery being the six hour ride home on Monday.

That night I opened my journal entry with another Neil Gaiman quote. This time from, “The Graveyard Book.”

Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, Leave no path untaken.”

Sunday was the hardest day. I didn’t sleep Saturday night. I was too anxious. And this is not meant to imply that Sunday wasn’t fun; it was lovely. But once daylight faded to nighttime, I fell into pieces in that hotel bed. I cried and shook and paced the floor. Timothy held me and my friend Steve threw me occasional texts, asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I just wasn’t. What little sleep I got was filled with nightmares about car accidents and eternal loneliness. That night I was too screwed up to write anything in my journal.

Monday morning came. I made my journal entry early that morning, mixing quotes from Neil Gaiman and Charlotte Brontë. A fitting mixture of past and present. I read Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” about a year ago, and since then my love for his writing has bordered precariously on obsession (Not in a creepy stalker way, but in a buy-all-the-books-in-multiple-copies kind of way. The way most authors want to be loved. 😉 ). I can’t help it really. He’s a genius. He has a way of making me laugh and cry and want to be brave all at once. I’ve had that experience with other books, but he is one of the only authors that gives me that experience so consistently. And as for dear Charlotte, I often attribute my love of fiction and literature back to when she blew open my literary world at 9 years old with, “Jane Eyre.”

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Page from my journal

I did not know when we drove away at 10:45 that I we would not get home until 8:30. And it wasn’t until Tuesday that I really had the energy to fully comprehend what I’d done. I’d driven further from home than I’ve been since I was fourteen. I finally saw Colonial Williamsburg. I’d finally seen Ben and Chelsea’s house. It made me feel strong, like a warrior who cleared a battlefield of the enemy and now, weak and bloodied from the effort, silently absorbs her victory from a distant hilltop. I survived and I feel more alive than ever.

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Text Timothy sent me on Monday after I fell asleep in the car. It was a nice thing to wake up to.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015