A Picture Worth 1000 Words

The more graphic novels I read, the more gems I find. I’m eclectic in my reading tastes. I’ve dabbled in everything from superheroes to fairytales.

Some of my favorite graphic reads have been memoirs. I’ve found several middle grade pallet cleansers, like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, which I loved just as much for its sweet story as its artwork. The character’s expressions reminded me of Calvin and Hobbes, a style that I love.

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Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir, Relish, had a similar brightness to its story and artwork, but added a more literal sweetness by putting recipes at the end of every chapter. When I showed this to my mother-in-law, a fantastic cook, she loved it too, and my copy passed on to several other reader-cook family members.

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Utterly different but still excellent, Lies in the Dust by Jakob Crane depicted the story of Ann Putnam, the only girl to apologize for her part in over twenty deaths during the Salem Witch Trials. Timothy Deker’s use of black and white for the illustrations emphasized the dark history that inspired this book with its lack of color.

It was shortly after this that I read the March trilogy by John Lewis. This too was illustrated entirely in black and white, an ideal choice for this moving graphic memoir.

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Congressman John Lewis tells the story of his role in the Civil Rights movement juxtaposed against the inauguration of President Barack Obama. These were beautiful not only for of the history they tell, but also for of the way it’s told. The black and white illustrations take on an almost symbolic nature since the book is all about racism and the fight for equality. Also, the lack of color softened the violence depicted in the novel, allowing it to remain historically accurate in its intensity but muted enough for younger readers. It’s hard to know what to show when the history being told includes so many murders, but I thought they did an excellent job.

I loved all of these books, but March was one of those reading experiences that I want to share with everyone. It’s a true story of bravery in the face of death and torture, of people standing firm for truth, of a people’s fight for freedom.

It’s an account of real American heroes.

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John Lewis speaking at Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963
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“It’s Braver to Have Climbed…”

Flushed from my successful six-hour road trip to Williamsburg, I decided to tackle the next fear on my list, driving alone. I used to be able to drive by myself for an hour, so that’s all I’m really shooting for. I figure an hour is enough to get me to my parents house or to visit the friends I left behind after our recent move.

I’ve been working on it in stages. I began with driving myself to the library, which is about 20 minutes away. I lengthened that by ten minutes when I started taking the long way home. It was two days since we got home from VA, and I was on my way home from the library. I’m not usually spontaneous, but as I passed the turn off for route 80 I thought of the scenic overlook three minutes down the highway. I imagined myself pulling in, taking a picture of the valley and texting it to my husband with the words:

Guess where I am! 😉 ❤

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I pulled off onto the highway. Pride flushed in my cheeks as I easily merged into traffic. I turned up ABBA and looked for my turn off. It came quickly. I slowed and began the circular assent to the parking lot. It wasn’t until I pulled in that I began to regret my decision. I felt alone and exposed, like standing naked in a den of convicts. I quickly snapped a photo of the view and ran back to my car. I locked the doors (presumably to keep out the invisible convicts), dialed my husband, then hung up after several rings because my GPS wouldn’t tell me which way home was if I was calling someone at the same time. My GPS connected. My vision blurred, and my heart melted and dripped into my stomach, making it churn.

Home was 22 minutes away. 22 minutes of highway driving. The kind I most despise. 22 minutes after I had already been alone in the car for over 30.

I exploded.

My husband called me back at about this moment. I told him I was stranded. That I was a fool. That I needed him to come get me and to stay on the phone with me the whole time until he got there. I cried and shook. Adrenaline surged through me, making me feel simultaneously chilled and hot.

The first panic attack passed as soon as Timothy was on the way. I decided to start driving, knowing that he would only be about 5 minutes behind me and I could always pull over if I needed to. He made me describe the scenery I passed, mostly wet barren trees and massive tractor trailers thundering around me at 70 miles per hour, leaving my little white Honda shuddering in their wake. When I pulled off at the next exit, my GPS decided it would be better not to turn around and get back on the highway, but to go home via strange back roads.

I exploded again.

“Pull into the shoprite,” Tim said. “I’m right behind you. Just wait for me.”

So I did. He pulled in and I threw myself into his arms, pressing my jittering adrenaline fueled hands against his chest. I let him kiss the top of my head and shush me for a minute, then I stuttered, “Do you need anything from shoprite?”

Tim laughed. We went in and picked up potatoes and apples. I was still trembling when we got out of the store and my heart was full of tears. I squeezed his hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?” he asked.

“For failing.”

Without pausing for thought, he replied, “A man who climbs a mountain and needs to be rescued, is braver than the one who never even tried to climb.”

I stopped and pressed his lips to mine, kissing him hard and long in the middle of the parking lot, not caring who saw or whose way we were in.

He’s so kind and patient and wise.

Living with anxiety and depression can utterly demoralizing at times. But I’m so thankful that God gave me this man as my copilot. Even on days like this one, when I have to fly solo,  it’s nice to know he’s in the control tower with gentle words of wisdom to help me navigate home.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015

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

A Love Letter to “Beloved”

I recently read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” for the first time. I expected to be made uncomfortable, because facing the real life horrors of American slavery should make everyone uncomfortable. What I didn’t expect was a tangible reminder of why I love reading and writing as an art form.

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I had previously read about the horrific treatment of black slaves and been sickened by it. I had read before about the desperation of runaways on the underground railroad. I have read about segregation, seen its modern day equivalents, and lamented how long it is taking us to truly love and treat one another as equals. But as far as the past goes, I always kept those things separate. There was slavery in the South and freedom in the North. “Beloved” opened my eyes.

The quote below comes directly from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece. The character speaking is Baby Suggs, a freed slave living among other free blacks in the free state of Ohio. In the face of all that “freedom”, she still says this:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream out of it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

I read this passage twice before I had to take a break and absorb the meaning of what I had just read. Most of the book took place in Ohio, and still the blacks were only given low level jobs, denied education, made to wait outside the store until the white customers left and forced to walk on the opposite side of the street when white pedestrians passed. This was their reality. They escaped slavery but the self-righteous-anti-slavery northerners still treated them like lesser beings. Essentially, they left worse for bad. I closed this book with my eyes and heart opened a little wider.

This is why I love to read. This is why I love to write. This art form, like many others, is not just about entertainment, it’s about pulling back the curtain to show truth, making people stop to consider their beliefs or actions, leaving behind people with eyes, minds, and hearts opened a little wider.

Thank you Toni Morrison, and not just for prose that smelled like poetry, but for writing something that made me uncomfortable, that made me think, and, ultimately, changed me forever.

Quote from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” published by Alfred Knopf Publishing in 1987

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

My Song

You would never tell a bird what song to sing.
It’s theirs by nature
It’s unique
Beautiful
So why must you write the music to my life?
It’s mine by nature
Unique
Beautiful
And mine
My story
My soundtrack
My symphony
I want to sing it solo and let the notes
Flat
Sharp
Harmonic
Dissonant
Sound from my trembling lips as I soar

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Pen and Paper

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Pen and paper help me,
For I am at a loss.
The world around me seems so hateful,
Spiteful, angry, lost, ungrateful.
Help me to convey,
The things that I can never say.

Words so often fail me.
My voice runs out of sound.
The others all can talk around me.
Their flowing words so often drown me.
Help me now to speak,
For my mouth is far too weak.

I write until it soothes me,
This soft and subtle art.
My heart heals when my feelings leak,
And bleed onto an empty sheet.
Help me to express,
My aching hurt and loneliness.

I must fold my paper,
And turn back towards the world.
I know I can run back inside,
To vent my worry, cry, and hide.
The sky is overcast.
I’ll write until the storm has passed.

© Rachel Svendsen 2014

Time to Fly

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I’ve heard a million times that life will bring you to a crossroads.  I always assumed I could turn right or left, that I would have a choice.  Now I know life isn’t always like that.  Sometimes your path in life ends with a cliff.  That’s what mine was.  I stood on the precipice looking down.

“It’s an awful long drop,” I said.

“You’re not going to drop.  You’re going to fly.”  I could hear the smile in his voice.  He reached down and lifted up my arms.  “Go ahead.”  His hands slipped from me as he took a step backwards.

I looked down again.  It was dark, cold, and unknown.  Even the horizon seemed like an endless sea of blue, no place to land, nowhere to rest.  It shouldn’t have frightened me.  It should have bewitched me with its beauty.  So why was my stomach turning?

“What if I can’t find a place to land?”

“Of course you will,” he replied gently.  “Everyone who’s gone before you has.”

“But that was them.  This is me.  What if…”

I would try to list the endless circle of “what if’s” that poured from my fumbling lips, but I barely remember them myself now.  I just remember the panic.  What started with a fluttery sensation in my stomach, mutated into a violent seizure of fear.  I dropped to the ground, digging my fingers into the solid earth.  My throat grew raw from my terrified screams.  I gasped and choked on my tears.

His hands took hold of my trembling body.  He pulled me up.  I can’t tell you how embarrassed I was.  I felt weak, needy, and helpless.  I looked up into his kind eyes.  They smiled at me.

“I want to do it,” I murmured.  “But I can’t.”

He squeezed my hand.  “You will.  But not right now.  Sit back.  We’ll talk.”

I wiped my leaking eyes on my sleeve before I awkwardly acquiesced.  It was hard to look at him at first while he talked, but his gentle voice broke through to me.  He told me about his own hardships.  He told me about how he learned to fly.  I told him all about me.  I told him all my deepest fears.  He listened.  Laughed.  Cried.

I don’t know how long we sat there.  I can’t put a finger on the moment it happened.  The realization came as a gentle, slow awakening in my heart. The truth was that I was born with wings.  I was created to fly.

I ran out of words.  He didn’t speak either.  We listened to the wind blow down off the cliff into the unknown.  I fingered the familiar cool green grass for the last time.

“You’re ready aren’t you?” he said softly.

I looked up at him.  His gentle eyes were smiling again.

“I think I am,” I said.

We stood together.  I turned to face the cliff.  It wasn’t less scary, just less daunting.  I felt him fade away.  I knew if I turned he would no longer be there.  But the whisper of his kind wisdom was a part of me now.  It gave me the courage I lacked.

I spread my wings.  Time to fly.

© Rachel Svendsen 2014