Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Creamy Turnip Soup

I realized I never put this recipe up here, though I'd planned to. I made this yesterday on the second coldest night of the year. Pureed soup like this is the only way to get the Boy really enthusiastic about eating vegetables; he calls this one "turn-up soup."

Turnips, yum (yes really)

To me, turnips are the true winter soup vegetable. Sweet white turnips cut up in a stew of venison or beef along with carrots and potatoes (add the turnips last, they cook quickest) add a hint of sweetness that ties the other flavors together. If they're cooked long enough to fall apart a little, they also thicken the stew. Turnips in a thick, pureed winter soup offer a powerfully comforting mix of savory and sweet.

Do make sure you get sweet white turnips; I made this once with the purple-top kind and it had a bitter aftertaste that made me understand much better why turnips have a bad reputation. If you're in a position to know or choose plant varieties, the best white turnips are Oasis or Hakurei.

Creamy Turnip Soup

Serves 5

2 T butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
8 medium-size turnips (2 ½ pounds), peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, chopped
6 cups broth (bouillon cubes and water work fine, I add a cup or two of frozen bone broth for nutrition)
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup milk (or half-and-half, or for a thicker soup 1/2 cup of sour cream)

Brown the butter on medium-high heat in the bottom of your soup pot (a Dutch oven is ideal), then turn the heat down to medium and saute the onions till they're almost done. Add the garlic and saute for about half a minute more.

Put in the turnips and potatoes and stir for a minute, then add the broth. Bring to a boil and simmer till the turnips and potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Puree the soup (you can pour it into a blender in batches, or use a wand or immersion blender), then add the milk, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The gifts of the dragon

Every night I tell my son a bedtime story. We turn out the lights and for twenty minutes we lie there and he listens. I've told him stories from my childhood, fairy tales, ancient stories both Greek and Native American, Bible stories, history, even appropriately softened scenes from my WWII novels. I run out of material… often. I've told versions of the Three Bears involving Three Boomicorns (it's, uh, a unicorn that shoots rainbow balls out of its mouth?) or Three Sea Anemones. I've told the A New Hope episode of Star Wars (the parts I could remember!), without planning to, because I couldn't think of anything and randomly began “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...”

But occasionally I make something up.

Here's the story I told my son last night. It's not the most original, being made up on the spot. But still. I thought it was worth sharing.


Once upon a time, there was a dragon. He lived on a mountain which he claimed as his own. But on top of that mountain was the only place where the starflowers grew, and everyone knew starflowers made the best medicine in the world. They could cure many diseases. But the dragon let no-one pick them. He said it was his mountain and he had a right to drive off tresspassers. He didn't owe anybody anything. Anyone who came seeking starflowers could expect a faceful of flame.

In a village nearby lived a young man whose mother had fallen desperately ill. Though she tried to pretend she was all right, he could see she could barely get out of bed and was failing fast. He decided to seek the starflowers—but how could he? He was no trained knight, warrior, or hunter. Only a peasant, an unarmed, inexperienced young man. What could he do?

He went to the old man of the forest with his question. He feared he would never be able to help his mother, because even the dark forest scared him. The old man of the forest listened to him, and said, “I have no sword to give you. I cannot train you in the art of battle. I have only two small gifts for you, and a story.”

He knelt by his wooden chest and got out a stone ball on which many tiny, curious characters were carved, and a small earthenware bottle out of which, when it was unstoppered, the most beautiful fragrance rose. He said, “You must let the dragon smell this, and you must show him the ball. I give these to you as gifts.”

Then he said, “The dragon was not always as we know him now. There was a time, long ago, when he allowed people in need to come and pick the healing flowers. It was only later that he began refusing and driving us away with flame. It happened this way.

“One day a man came to the mountain and asked to pick starflowers, and the dragon allowed it. The man picked what he needed, and then picked more. He picked so many flowers the dragon became afraid. He saw in his mind his mountain gone barren, with too few flowers to make seed for more. He told the man to stop. The man became angry and refused. They say the dragon's roar could be heard for miles. The man returned empty-handed and with terrible burns.

“Since that day no-one has been allowed up the mountain,” said the old man of the forest, “no matter their need. This is all I know and all that I can tell you, but I pray you great blessing as you go on your way.”

And the young man went. He crossed the deep chasm that lay between his village and the mountain, and he walked up and up through the dark woods on the lower slopes. He saw ahead of him the light & green grass above the tree-line, and was afraid. But he kept going. He walked out into the open, and within less than a minute he saw a shadow above him, swift and huge. On the grass the shadow made the shape of great wings.

He stood and waited, and the dragon landed in front of him. He looked up, afraid, but not moving, and the dragon hesitated too. He had expected the young man to fight, run, or hide, and he didn't understand this stillness.

The young man, not knowing what else to do, unstoppered the bottle and held it out.

The dragon's eyes changed. They widened, and his face did not seem so ugly or frightening. “What is that?” he asked, and his booming voice held delight.

“I don't know,” said the young man. “The old man of the forest gave it to me.”

“By the Sun,” said the dragon. “I believe it is essence of fireflower. I have only smelled it once in my life, when I visited the Queen of Dragons. I will never forget it. There is nothing like it in the world, and very little that brings dragons greater joy.”

For a moment the young man thought to offer it as a trade for the starflowers he needed. But something held him back. He felt it was somehow the wrong move. After a moment he said, “You may have it. It's a gift.”

The dragon's eyes grew wider with delight. He reached out his claws and with surprising tenderness received the young man's gift.

They stood silent for a moment. Then the young man took a deep breath, and looked to the summit of the mountain. The dragon followed his gaze, and his great brows drew down. He had seen so many humans, grasping, wanting, stealing. He had thought this one was different.

“You came for my starflowers,” he growled deep in his chest. Smoke curled out from between his teeth. There was nothing good now in his face, and the young man trembled, and forced himself not to cower. He regretted deeply his choice not to offer a trade. He had given his only treasure away and gained nothing.

He didn't know what else to do. So he brought out the stone ball.

The dragon's face changed again. His eyes widened in surprise. “Why,” he said, “this is our language. These characters, can you read them?”

“No,” said the young man. “Can you?”

“Yes! This is a copy of the ancient Sphere of Law of the eldest dragons. I studied it when I was young. A small copy, but a dragon's eyes can read it. Yes, there they are, the twelve laws and the five injunctions… and…”

And the dragon began to weep.

The young man stared, and did not step back as the hot tears splashed in front of his feet. He could not imagine what was happening.

“… and the Rule of Flame,” whispered the dragon, and his whisper was loud as the voice of a man. “The Rule of Flame: share with those in need, and do not think only of your rights.”

“I am so sorry,” said the dragon. “Will you accept to let me fly you to the summit? And back to your home with the flowers? You must be in terrible need, to have come here and risked my flame, and perhaps it cannot wait.”

“Thank you,” whispered the young man. “Thank you.”

After his mother recovered they went often to the mountain, to visit their friend.


Image credits:

- Bronze dragon image from, public domain.

- Edelweiss in the Écrins range, photo by Giettois, CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikipedia

- The Meteora rock formation, located in central Greece, is host to six Eastern Orthodox monasteries and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Stathis floros, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Rescue by fraud: the true story of the Vénissieux sorting camp

Today in church I was reflecting on this story--the true story I'm about to tell you, the story of how a little ecumenical group of priests and aid workers stole a Vichy telegram and used it, and their best fraud skills, to snatch a hundred children out of the jaws of the Nazis.

I think it may have literally changed my life.

I remember the days I spent studying it for the first time in someone's history thesis, in between nursing my infant son. I remember walking along a road with my husband in the sunlight, telling him how small I felt, like I could do nothing real from where I was against the terrible tides of the world that sweep the meek away like sand, but that somehow I felt this small call--useful or not--to keep the memory of these people alive, the ones who quietly stepped in and rescued. That I was starting to understand the passion of these historians--I kept meeting the same ones in my research, this small circle of people visibly dedicated to making sure the story of the rescuers of Jews in Vichy France were not forgotten. (Some of them had been rescuers themselves. Some of them had been rescued.)

And then I wrote my next novel so hard I ruined my hands doing it. Couldn't use them for almost three months, and not all that much for the two months after that. And it was so hard and I never regretted the novel. Never. Because I was doing my life's work and I knew I was--useful or not--and you can't regret that. But when did I stop seeing writing about such things as something I did because you do what you're good at and start seeing it as--useful or not--the small yet all-demanding service God had asked of me? I don't know when. One thing led to another, like a plant finding its way up to the sun.

But the seed was planted when I read this story.

Thank God.

So here's the story of how, during the worst round-up of Jews in Vichy France, French Catholic and Protestant aid workers rescued almost all of the Jewish children who had been arrested in the city of Lyon.

In August 1942, the collaborationist French government in Vichy planned a nationwide round-up of foreign Jews, to happen on the 26th. The Germans, who had recently shifted their policy toward Jews from expelling them to gathering them in camps and murdering them, had given Vichy a quota to fill, and Vichy was trying to fill it.

What the Germans had not asked for—but Vichy decided to give them anyway—was the children.

On August 19th, Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval sent new orders to the French police who were to carry out the job: the children were to be deported too. Previously there had been a policy in place that they could be left behind if the parents agreed to sign over custody to someone who was staying in France. That was now changed, for the simple reason that Laval didn't want them on his hands. I'm pretty sure this qualifies as the worst crime France committed during World War II.

On the morning of August 26th, thousands of Jewish families in cities and towns across the country found police at their doors, come to arrest them all—men, women, children. They weren't put on trains right away; there was some bureaucracy to do first. They were taken to sorting camps, places where they would be kept a few days while officials figured out if any of them were French citizens or otherwise didn't meet the conditions for deportation. In Lyon, where our story is, they were taken to a disused army camp in a suburb called Vénissieux.

Inside the Vénissieux camp it was chaos. People were having their fates decided and they knew it, but no-one really knew what was going on. The level of trauma it must have been, I won't even try to describe. Though I have tried in my novel, from one young character's point of view, and I hope it won't put too many readers off. It was also chaos from the point of view of the French police. (I'm not asking you to feel sorry for them, this has bearing on the story.) They were supposed to pull out people who were exempt from deportation—pregnant women, people too sick to travel, veterans of French or Allied armies, etc—and the rules had recently been changed and they were not clear on them. This is where the rescuers saw their chance.

The rescuers were the Amitié Chrétienne, a network of Catholic and Protestant aid groups (the name means “Christian friendship,” after the fact that it was ecumenical.) There was also a Jewish group, the OSE (their name translates to “Children's Aid Network”) that worked with them. But unofficially, of course. It was the Christians who had political access. (And that should be food for thought for any Christian looking at the Holocaust. Maybe I'll write my thoughts on that sometime.)

And they had a truly surprising amount of access. Believe it or not, the Amitié Chrétienne actually convinced the police to let them help with the sorting process.

And they immediately set about undermining it just as hard as they could.

They got several of their members onto the “sorting committee.” They performed bureaucratic ju-jitsu I don't begin to understand, to try to prove basically every single detainee exempt from deportation. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes they failed. The camp doctor, a young man who had decided in the moment to throw his career on the line and do everything he could, helped over a hundred people fake serious illnesses in order to be declared “untransportable,” unsure until the last minute whether they would be deported anyway. Hundreds of adults were saved—almost half of the people in the camp (though it's hard to sort out from the numbers I've read who was actually exempt in the first place and who was saved by the efforts of the A.C.) Then the Amitié Chrétienne got the chance to do what they'd come for in the first place—save the children.

One of the spearheads of the operation was a Catholic priest, the Abbé Glasberg, who was also Jewish, the son of parents who had converted. (He wasn't under threat for his ethnicity at this point because he was a French citizen.) He had already been working for two years getting people out of the Vichy internment camps, ostensibly on a temporary basis, and then making them “disappear.” He had obtained the support of the archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Gerlier, whose name gave him the clout he needed to get government officials to listen to him. And he had a contact in Pierre Laval's office, a secret résistante, through whom he'd been able to find out that the children were going to be deported. Saving them had been his goal from the start.

He got his real chance when he was somehow able to steal the telegram ordering the Lyon police to have the children deported. (My source is maddeningly unclear on just how he managed this.) I think he must have stolen it from an office, because he apparently stole a whole folder of papers as well. Between the telegram—which they soon realized had not yet been read—and the papers, which contained the old orders about allowing the parents to sign over custody and leave their kids behind, the Amitié Chrétienne began to see their way clear.

They also realized they had absolutely no time to lose. The detainees had now been in the camp for the better part of two days and deportation was imminent. And they couldn't expect the news blackout Glasberg had created by stealing the telegram to last very long.

Thus began what people who know the story call “la nuit de Vénissieux,” the long night of the Vénissieux camp. The night when, from dusk to the wee hours of the morning, aid workers went through every barrack, in the dark because the lights had failed, and tried to explain to every family, in French or German or Yiddish or whatever they spoke, that there was a chance for their children—and that it meant saying good-bye. The only assurance they could give them for their children was their word, and the word of Cardinal Gerlier.

Again, I won't try to describe here what that must have been like. Maybe you can imagine. Maybe parents, especially, can imagine. I wrote a scene about this night in my book, from the point of view of a teenage girl. But I wouldn't have dared write it from the point of view of the parents.

All the parents but one parted from their children, in order to give them a chance to survive.

There's a story that near the end of the night, when the children were being put in the buses, a police official heard women screaming and weeping aloud in the barracks and asked the Abbé Glasberg, “What are they yelling about?” Glasberg said, “If someone took your children, wouldn't you yell?” The official was silent for a moment. “...I suppose so,” he said.

And so in the dark before dawn, with permission of the authorities, the Amitié Chrétienne drove three buses full of children out of the Vénissieux camp.

Now they had to make them disappear. Fast.

They drove them all to a huge building owned by some allies (specifically a French Jewish scouting organization, yes really), an almost empty place that used to be a Carmelite convent. The scouts brought food and tried to help the kids, some of them tiny, make sense of what had just happened to them, while every single worker of every group in the Amitié Chrétienne called on every single contact she or he had in order to find swift and secret placements for the kids. By midmorning a young woman from the prefecture (regional government office) showed up with a warning: the préfet, who knew about the new orders, had got wind of what they'd done. He wanted the kids back. He was going to carry out his orders.

They moved the kids through the huge convent to another entrance on a different street at least a block away. None of them would be seen going out the door they'd come in. They kept a watch at the front door and dispersed the children with frantic care: a group to a convent here, two or three siblings to a private home there, twenty teen boys off into the wilderness where they would camp disguised in scout uniforms till placements could be found for them. A handful of the children went to Le Chambon, the town I write about.

They were lucky; the police didn't come to the convent till the next morning. All they found there was Madeleine Dreyfus, a French Jewish psychologist and social worker, a Jew who saved Jews and whom I've got to write about sometime. Every question they asked, she answered with “Ask Cardinal Gerlier.” The préfet himself called him up and asked him. He didn't know; he was just the backer. He had not been on the ground with the others, he had never had the addresses. And although he wavered when given the personal word of Marshal Pétain that they would not be used to deport the children (he and Pétain were old friends), he soon firmed and let the authorities know that he would neither give the addresses nor ask his colleagues to do so; the parents had entrusted their children to him and that was that.

The préfet attached an extra train car to the deportation train and called again. The cardinal refused. The préfet invalidated the Amitié Chrétienne's custody of the children, but that didn't provide him with their whereabouts. Prime Minister Pierre Laval himself—the same man who'd signed the deportation order, and I refrain from profanity only because there's none strong enough—told the préfet that if the cardinal cared so much they'd better make him happy.

And the case was closed.

They got away with it. They got away with it because they were French Christians dealing with other French Christians, or nominal Christians, or cultural Christians, or people embedded in a culture, in a country, that had respected the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for well over a thousand years. They got away with it because they were people the authorities deemed respectable—as they had deemed others disposable.

They got away with it for the same reasons a Christian in America today would get away with it. The same reasons I would get away with it.

And that's the story of Vénissieux.


Source: Août 1942, Lyon Contre Vichy: le sauvetage de tous les enfants juifs du camp de Vénissieux (August 1942, Lyon Versus Vichy: the rescue of all the Jewish children from the camp at Vénissieux), by Valérie Perthuis-Portheret

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Grieving, weakness, God, and my friend Rich

I am re-running this, because I know that my publisher put my blog URL on the back of Flame in the Night, and if anyone new here shows up because of that, I want them to know about the person I dedicated the book to.

I wrote this in March 2017.


I've been realizing, as I recover from finishing my manuscript, just how many things I put on hold as I raced toward the finish line. (And then limped over it, having gotten a nasty chest cold in the last week of the work; between the book and my 3-year-old I managed to ration out just enough energy to finish.) One of those things, naturally, was cleaning the house. (You should've seen it.)

But I think another may have been grieving.

My dear friend Rich Foss died in January. I think it was January. It's been so surreal. It was expected, in a way; his health was bad at the best of times, and was getting worse. Then the blow came suddenly: he was newly diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder, when his immune system's continual fight against his chronic lung condition was all that was keeping him alive.

Rich was always a brave and honest man. He could barely walk; he'd had rheumatoid arthritis since he was seventeen, and by the time I met him his feet literally pointed in opposite directions. He spent the bulk of his time in a mechanized recliner, hooking himself up, with his wife Sarah's help, to three or four medical machines daily to stay alive. And I'd venture to say he spent the bulk of that time facing things head-on. (Not just his own things. All the things. But that's too long a story for today.) He had been talking openly about his own death for over a year, even when the rest of us felt that social impulse to tiptoe round it. He had known a long time that he wasn't going to live to a ripe old age. When the last diagnosis came, he accepted that it was the end. He went on hospice care.

But we did think he was going to live longer than two weeks.

When it happened, one level of my soul accepted it, in a stunned sort of way: this is happening, this is real. But for weeks afterward when I woke up, at the moment of coming back to consciousness, it would hit me with shock: Rich is dead. There was a part of me, down inside sleep, that still had no idea.

I used to visit Rich every Thursday evening, for years. We'd talk about this or that. But in the past two years we'd started to talk almost exclusively about the book I was writing. After the first few weeks of mostly talking about myself and my work I started to get uncomfortable: clearly I was monopolizing these conversations. I loved being able to talk about my writing--it's not easy to do so in a way people can even understand, when you're still in process, and Rich did--and Rich was always generous with his listening, but I needed to rein it in; even the most patient person would get tired of this week after week. I kept checking in with him about it, first in subtle ways, then asking him outright. Finally he managed to convince me: he was genuinely enjoying himself.

It felt like a miracle to me. That I could get what I so badly needed without having another person generously sacrifice their time for me; that I could get it while actually adding something good to someone else's day. Rich was a writer himself--if you can find a copy of his beautiful novel Jonas and Sally, I recommend it very heartily--and interested in Story, in the travails and dilemmas and emotions of human beings and how we resolve them, how we make the big choices, which is what fiction is about. As I went deeper into the book, themes developed in it that were very dear to his heart. He would tell me stories from his own life that re-echoed the themes, we would talk about what those things meant to us. Sometimes I would come to him with my latest thorny problem and he would give advice. Sometimes I would simply tell him the scene I wrote that day, and watch him react, and see that it was right. Sometimes what I was writing would lead into profound stories from memories he was sifting through and processing, knowing he was at the end of life. Sometimes he would cry.

(I think he would be all right with my telling you this. He was a very open person.)

Then came the time it became a miracle for him.

He used to be a leader, a writer, a mentor, a counselor. He was profoundly respected, it was clear at his funeral. But in his last few years he had no energy for the contributions he used to make; all his energy was spent in the sheer work of staying alive, managing his medical conditions--and that took work all right, a day-long routine of medical machines. One hour of conversation a day was pretty much what he had the energy for after that. And he needed more and more help--someone to come over & warm up his supper, for instance, which he could do but getting up and walking would wear him out. I did that often, I loved doing it, it meant a chance to talk with him, even if briefly. As things went more in that direction, I was stunned by how much that meant to him--that I wanted to.

It was getting harder and harder for him, being helped. He'd been helped all his life, of course, but he'd also been a leader. Now he talked about being an "outsider." Now most of the interactions in his day were someone coming over and doing him a favor. One that he wasn't able to return.

But with me he was. With me he had the energy (on a good day) to have at least a little bit of deeply meaningful conversation, because Story energized him; with me he was a mentor giving deeply valued advice and understanding, giving me something I needed very much. With me he was not just a receiver but also a giver, and he needed that. His soul needed that. We came to understand this end-of-life friendship as a deep gift of God to us both.

There was something about it that was very hard to understand, for me. It's this: God's power is made perfect in weakness. To receive, to be helped, isn't this a connection that has God in it? Simone Weil says "Compassion and gratitude come down from God, and when they are exchanged in a glance, God is present at the point where the eyes of those who give and the eyes of those who receive meet." I think that's beautiful. And true. I knew Rich agreed with me on this. And I knew Rich was deeply connected to God. But to see just how much it hurt him, this profoundly respected man, just wondering if he was a burden to the friends who stopped by to hook up his oxygen or microwave his pizza--I don't want to go into detail, honestly, I don't want to make you picture this, that might be a bridge too far in terms of openness--well, I couldn't parse it. What about the power of God?

What I learned from his feelings at the end of his life was this: oh Lord, Heather, it is so much harder than you think.

I have not been tested on this. But I will be. Except for those of us who die very, very suddenly, every single one of us will be. And that is the other thing I have learned: in the face of someone who is in that place of vulnerability, when you have to help and yet helping is painful, that is the one response that brings connection and relief: I will be in your place someday.

(It's ironic. It's one of the themes in my book. The Jewish characters and the pain of their vulnerability, the way the non-Jewish characters have a profound "I had no idea" shock when they finally come to understand--due to the threat their rescue efforts end up placing them under--what their friends have really been experiencing this whole time.)

Why? Why does weakness, plain material weakness, hurt us so much? Why does dependence on other people hurt us so much? Why are we ashamed of it? It's one of those places where all I've been taught about God seems so right and so good, and yet it is so hard for it to come to birth in our daily world. (What Simone Weil said is beautiful, and I still believe it, but I love her all the more because, though the quote doesn't show it, if you read the whole essay you will see that she fully understands the pain involved, and the difficulty; what she is describing in the quote is literally a miracle.)

Why? I don't know. I don't know. There are only two things I know: It is much harder than I think. And I will face it someday.

Oh, and one more thing: I still believe. And Rich knows. Rich knows all of it now.

So here is the thing I can say at the end of this story, that I would not have dared to say at the beginning, because I fear so much to sound selfish about my friend's death. Ever since I finished the book I have been mourning what I used to think this time would hold. I was recording the book for Rich to listen to. I had just recorded Chapter 15 when he died. I went ahead and recorded Chapter 16, because I had other reasons for wanting a recording. It broke me up hard, to read it into the microphone, to feel no-one on the other end. I always believed he was going to read this book. I want him to read it, I want to put it in his hands. But they're gone.

And yes, I mourn the help he could have given me. There are very specific questions I want to ask him: should I change this? Is this over the top? And I don't dare tell people that part, out of context. But the help he gave me was the connection, the friendship, the gift, it was the help I gave him too. It was the help God gave us. It was the miracle.

In my head, he was going to live till spring came. We would talk. He would listen to the book and we would talk about it, talk about it. I would bring him the first spring flowers. And then I would be ready to let go. That was how it was going to be, in my head.

Oh Lord, Heather. It is so much harder than you think.

Monday, August 20, 2018

A 400-year tradition of welcoming refugees

So this week someone sent me a Smithsonian magazine, with this story in it (please do read it! I can't do it justice.) A story about the little place in France which I write about, where during World War II the local plateau farmers and townspeople went about sheltering and saving thousands of Jewish refugees as if it was the obvious thing to do. You run across stories about it here and there online, often on Holocaust memorial sites (the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a good one,) telling what they did during the war.

Well, this one isn't about what they did during the war.

It's about what they're doing now.

Now, they are taking in refugees. Now during the worst refugee crisis since World War II, they are simply doing what it is their towns' and their region's tradition to do: offer shelter to those who need it.

If you don't know yet about the story of this place, I'll offer you here the summary I put into the historical note in Flame in the Night:


In south central France there is a high, cold plateau, a hard place to farm, a hard place to keep warm through the long, bitter winters. Hundreds of years ago the Huguenots—French Protestants fiercely persecuted by Catholic kings—fled to that cold plateau and made it their own, built their homes out of the rocks, and learned to till the stony soil. For hundreds of years their descendants kept their traditions: their worship, their independence, their distrust of the government. Their memory of persecution.
And then France fell to the Nazis, and the new French government in Vichy began arresting Jews.

Writers still debate why the people of the Vivarais-­Lignon plateau hid so many Jews during World War II, but one thing is clear: they did, and it seemed normal to them. It’s said by people with memory of that time that there was a Jewish refugee in every farmhouse. They saved thousands of lives at the risk of their own, saying afterward that it was only the decent thing to do. And across the plateau, in its eleven villages, a network of pastors worked with each other and with their congregations and their neighbors to welcome refugees, hide them, feed them, provide them with false papers, and eventually (with the aid of allies Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, French and Swiss) smuggle many of them across the border into Switzerland.


And they continue that tradition—local families taking in families from Congo, from South Sudan, from Syria. Teaching them French, giving them a place to breathe, to taste peace and normal life again. It's remarkably similar to what was going on there during WWII, even in that—it's not always said, but there was a huge emphasis on not only hiding the Jewish refugees but giving them (especially the children, many of them separated from their parents) enough peace and normality and hope to help them carry on. They're really doing the exact same thing they did during WWII—I've said it before and I'll say it again, they would never have saved the lives they did if they'd done it for the sake of being heroes, if they'd waited till they knew the mortal danger before taking people in—no, they weren't trying to be heroes then and they aren't now. They are simply continuing their tradition. Simply giving their neighbor what they would wish for themselves, what we all wish for: a roof over our heads, a table with friendly faces around it, a place where our children can play in peace.

It seemed normal to them then, it seems normal to them now.

God grant us such normality in our own country, in our own communities. God grant us such traditions.

It's not just a matter of granting, of course. But man, God grant us the chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Flame in the Night is at my house!

When I was a kid, my mental image of being an author was this: you get a big package in the mail, you open it, and there it is! Your book--dozens of it! Your author copies have arrived! You're an author!

So yeah, that's one day in an author's life (the most filmable, of course, which is why it was my mental picture!), out of approximately one thousand and thirty-six. But it is one day--and it has come!

Here's a little video of my son playing with them, facilitated by my husband (and the Boy's rather interesting notions of how libraries work!)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Healing "tendinitis"

See end for an important update to this post.

I thought it was time for a post about what I've learned due to my injuries—but not what I've learned about life, the woods, and God this time. Just what I've learned about tendons.

This does mean that if your tendons are fine, you could skip this one—but maybe don't? I'm writing this in hopes of being useful to a few beleaguered people out there, and one of them just may be someone you know. And maybe you could point them to this post, today or sometime down the road. I hope so. Because as I've learned, injuries like mine—repetitive stress injuries of all kinds—can be truly horrible for people whose livelihoods depend on the very muscles and tendons they've been stressing. It can be extremely hard to recover, and extremely hard to find answers as to what, if anything, can truly be done.

And the truth is, there are answers now. They're new (in a way at least), and not very well-known yet. But if I can help spread the word, I may help restore strength to a few people who desperately need it, and I want to. I don't want anybody else to have to go through this.

1. It's not tendinitis, exactly

It's tendinosis.

This has actually been accepted medical doctrine for a while, but most people don't realize it because doctors have tended to use the familiar term tendinitis with patients, while officially diagnosing tendinosis.

So is this just semantics? Not quite.

The suffix "-itis" denotes inflammation. Tendinitis basically means an inflamed tendon. This does happen, but the newer medical research suggests that it's less common and much briefer than the condition I've got, and is usually caused by a sudden strain or injury—not by repetitive stress. Chronic tendon pain like mine, they now believe, is almost always tendinosis.

Now "-osis" suggests, not inflammation, but degeneration—actual changes to the tissue. That's why complete rest and anti-inflammatories were not enough to heal me. Something was wrong in the tissue itself, something that needed active physical treatment. I can't give a full explanation of exactly what was wrong (although if you have lots of time you can get one here) but here are the main things I understand: the repetitive stress I imposed on my hands & forearms caused scar tissue to form in my tendons. This scar tissue is matted and tangled whereas normal tendon tissue lies straight and smooth, and so it impedes function. This scar tissue also is far more sensitive to pain than normal tissue—and so using my tendon causes pain.

The scar tissue will never go away. I'll always have it. But there are ways to change it, re-align it into a healthier configuration that—though I'll always have to be a little careful with it—will allow me to work pretty much as I did before without pain.

Actually, there are almost too many ways…

2. Scar tissue treatments

The first time I ever heard of a therapy that could actively begin to reverse my condition was on the website of Dr. Schierling down in Missouri—and let me tell you, within an hour or two of finally deciding he was for real, I was on Google Maps looking for campgrounds in the Ozarks. (Fortunately, since our only option for travel to a rural area in another state would have been someone else's car, that didn't prove to be necessary.) It did take me a little while to decide he was for real—if you have a look around his website, you'll notice a few of his opinions are a little far out—but I do think that he is, and I think his distrust of the medical establishment is understandable in light of the fact that for years he's been using a therapy they didn't recognize but which did wonders for at least certain of his patients. He doesn't have to be right about everything—just as long as he's right about scar tissue, and how to change it.

Because that's the key. There are quite a few different versions of the technique by now, but the fundamental thing is this: what this type of condition needs is a direct therapy to break up the scar tissue that has formed in the tendon and remodel or recondition it. The scar tissue doesn't go away, but it can be changed enough by the therapy—and the stretches prescribed alongside it, which help the tissue to heal in the right configuration—to turn the tendon back into something that's usable without pain.

Like I said, there are different versions. And they're practiced by different types of practitioners. The first clue I ever had about scar tissue therapy, weirdly enough, was a guy telling in a forum how the only thing could ever heal his "tendinitis" was a strange balm bought in a little Chinese store in Chinatown and rubbed into his tendon by the seller, painfully hard (an extremely important part of the process, he was told.) Immediately following this story, someone else chimed in to say his chronic tendinitis never went away until he visited a bodyworker/massage therapist who gave him a similar painful massage.

I've learned since then that scar tissue work is indeed something that many massage therapists are trained in, though it's not well known to the public. (I have one story of a massage therapist who chose not to pursue training in it because she realized most massage clients don't want painful therapies. They want massage to feel good—it's seen as a luxury, not as therapy.) Which is too bad! It seems to me that in their not-officially-scientific way, they've held out answers for a long time, and science has only recently caught up. As many of us learned in math class, just because you're not able to show your work doesn't necessarily mean you got the answer wrong…

But like I say, science has caught up. There are now scar tissue therapies done by physical and occupational therapists, covered by insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

There are so many different versions of this, you guys. I don't know everything about them—I don't even know the names of all of them, most likely—but I want to give people a starting point for exploring and choosing. Most likely some of them are more effective than others, but it probably depends heavily on both the skill of your practitioner and how their technique connects with your condition. You can do your own research starting with the links here. So here's a quick overview with links.

Massage therapists:

Massage therapists tend to use manual techniques (as opposed to instrument-assisted techniques, which involve some type of metal or plastic instrument.) It seems to me there are advantages to this, and from my reading it seems a really skilled and experienced practitioner can feel how much scar tissue you have and where, as well as feel it breaking down. I gather that these manual techniques are sometimes painful and sometimes not—if you have concerns about that you'll probably want to ask your practitioner.

Here is an example of an apparently very skilled and experienced practitioner. She's in Australia:

And an article by her about her technique, which she calls scar tissue release therapy:

You'll find an abundance of different names in this business. These folks call it scar tissue massage:

It's also called scar tissue remodeling—a particularly accurate name, if I understand correctly, because the scar tissue is not destroyed but rather reshaped by the therapy. If I were still searching among different practitioners to find someone who knows some version of it, I would probably use the generic term "some form of scar tissue therapy" and maybe add "some therapy that can break down and remodel scar tissue." (I might also mention some of the names in the PT section further down, especially if I was talking to a PT.)


Like I said, the first place I ran across this kind of technique (scar tissue remodeling, in this particular case) was on a chiropractor's website. One interesting thing about this guy is that he learned of the technique (years and years ago) from another chiropractor who successfully treated him with it for the exact condition I have—tendinosis in both elbows. It seems to me that here is another very skilled and experienced practitioner—that does seem to count for a great deal in this business—and I can vouch that he responded to me promptly and helpfully when I inquired about coming down to see him about my elbows.

There are some other scar tissue therapy techniques practiced by chiropractors—I don't know many details about most of these.

Here's one called Active Release Therapy:

Another, called Rapid Release Therapy, which seems quite new and assisted by a type of instrument I've never seen before:

And another, apparently more widespread, called the Graston Technique. The Graston Technique is a type of instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization therapy (IASTM) using metal instruments. More on that in a minute.

But first I want to give a shout out to a somewhat local chiropractic practice, in Peoria. I spoke on the phone with a man named Carl (I unfortunately can't find his last name) who works there—I believe his official title was as a massage therapist. He was so extremely knowledgeable and helpful—completely familiar with the different techniques, clarified things for me, gave me excellent advice—that I very much wished he was nearer (and that chiropractic was covered for me!), as I would have felt I was entirely in good hands. Believe me, that was not the case with everyone I questioned on the phone! Only one other therapist even came close.

So if you have tendinosis or other chronic pain and are in or near Peoria, go to Benningfield Associates and ask for Carl.

Physical and occupational therapists

And now we get to the therapy that I actually ended up going with. But first let me mention the generic term usually used by physical therapists: soft tissue mobilization. There are manual versions of this technique, as seen below:

But one version that seems to be catching on and becoming more widespread—and of course the advantage of this is that you're likelier to find it near you, and covered—is called ASTYM. That acronym is a different version of the other that you saw before, standing for instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization. (This is important to note because due to the "stim" sound in the word, people tend to assume it's some kind of electrical stimulation therapy like an EMS unit.) It's an instrument assisted scar tissue therapy similar to the Graston Technique—I don't know the details, of course, but the obvious difference is that it uses plastic instruments, somewhat different in shape.

It seems like one of the advantages of an instrument assisted therapy is that it can be more generic—easier to teach a wide range of people, more replicable. This is probably why it's more widespread, and it solves the problem of finding a deeply skilled and experienced practitioner—you can be pretty sure of getting good therapy as long as someone has had the official training. And, of course, unlike massage therapy, it's more universally recognized by the medical community, and more likely to be covered.

And here it is:

Along with a more scholarly article about IASTM techniques in general:

My therapist—she is technically an occupational therapist, because apparently, at my hospital, occupational therapists work on hands and arms—has been in the field for 12 years but was only trained in ASTYM a year-and-a-half ago. She says it's given her better results than anything else she's ever done. She spreads cocoa butter on my arms and works them with various shaped plastic instruments, covering the whole forearm but with special focus on the elbow tendons and also a few particular areas of the wrists, hands, and shoulders (just one tiny place on the shoulder, actually, which is apparently a trigger point for certain forearm or hand muscles.)

It doesn't hurt—in fact it feels pretty nice. She and I can both feel a certain roughness or "grindiness" under the skin when she hits an area that has a lot of scar tissue in it—that's actually the feeling of the scar tissue breaking up. It's not a painful feeling, it's actually rather subtle, and she can feel it better than I can. It takes maybe half an hour for both arms—she follows it with a short ultrasound treatment on each arm to stimulate healing—and she says it takes 8 to 12 treatments for full healing. (I expect in my case it'll take the full 12!) I've felt a huge amount of improvement. This week she instructed me to try weeding half an hour each day—carefully, wearing braces and icing my elbows afterwards—and I did it with no ill effects. This would have been completely impossible before we started the treatment.

Yes, I would like it to work faster. It's still possible (I mean very easy) for me to overdo and set myself back, and I did so this week—but so mildly. I didn't get pain, just a bit of warning discomfort, and I skipped the half-hour of weeding for a couple of days and am back where I was.

It's working. Lord willing—and accordingly to the usual progression for ASTYM—I'll be better by the end of the month.

And that's amazing.

Important update for the sake of anyone who visits this post for tendinitis/tendinosis information:

Boy, I'm a bit incorrigible in my wish to tie a nice bow on things before they're finished, aren't I? Here's the truth:

ASTYM didn't end up fixing me. It did a lot, and I suspect that in people with lighter repetitive-stress injuries (OK, people who hadn't injured themselves as relentlessly as I did), ASTYM would have done the trick. But as it was, my therapist told me we seemed to have reached a "plateau" where the ASTYM treatment seemed to be merely maintaining the status quo rather than improving me further, especially as we gently introduced more freedom to use my hands for both light and heavy work into my daily routine. Insurance doesn't like "maintenance" treatments and, frankly, I'm not crazy about them either. I wasn't even working that hard yet! And pretty soon some of the pain even came back...

So we went with what for us had seemed like the nuclear option. (A day's travel to the boonies is NBD compared to losing the use of your hands, I know, but we don't own a car.) Hungry World Farm kindly let us use their farm car and we drove to Missouri to Dr. Schierling, who was exactly as he appeared to be on his website--friendly, professional, and wildly experienced with, & interested in, scar tissue. He explained that in his experience, though the more widely-accepted therapies are very gradual, breaking up scar tissue is frankly "the harder, the better." It's perfectly understandable why the medical establishment would find this a hard kind of therapy to sell people on--Dr. Schierling is very upfront about how much it hurts and what you look like afterward, and that is why what he tends to get (including from out of state and even overseas) is desperate cases like me.

It hurt. A lot. I'd do it again tomorrow if I needed to, though that would mean hopping in a car this instant to get there by then. The fun thing is that Dr. Schierling turned out to be a World War II buff, and explaining to him the history behind Flame in the Night was very effective in taking my mind off the pain while he worked! (I also gave him a copy.) I looked head-turningly terrible on the drive home--as Schierling explained to me, scar tissue contains capillary blood vessels and you're not really breaking it up hard enough if you don't see bruising. A very unusual kind of bruising--just beneath the skin and bright red. I had it on my shoulders, the sides of my neck, and all down the inner sides of both arms.

(Whereas the official ASTYM treatment for elbow tendinosis basically restricts itself to the arms only. That's one reason I now strongly lean toward relying on a practitioner's experience rather than official training: you may need someone who knows where & how to look for something slightly out of the norm. Schierling relied on testing my range-of-motion and pinpointing places where he found it restricted, and also on his process--a rubbing/scraping similar to other instrument-assisted therapies but a lot harder--by which he can feel the presence of scar tissue and see the bruising as it breaks up. I watched him do my forearms, where we found very little scar tissue--the skin got red just as it would if I rubbed it hard, but there was practically no bruising.)

And here's the incredible thing: one session. (And three very intensive days of all-important stretching exercises--every half hour except sleep time!--afterward. That counts, oh it counts, especially as I was hosting a family reunion during them. Ah, timing.) One session! I had two or three months of trepidation afterward, gently introducing myself back up to a full working schedule, but especially as I began to prune fruit trees and do other farmwork and my arm strength renewed, it was clear--I was completely well. I'll never be as much of a fool as I was before, pushing and pushing myself with no break, but I've relaxed. I type, I scroll, I work--I feel fine.

Thank God.