Beauty from Chaos (Ros' Blog)
I’m writing this four days before my wedding. I’ve been going round my house getting everything ready for my new husband to move in after we’re married, as we’re going to be living here temporarily. I’ve lived here on my own for most of the last nine years, and everything in the house has been decorated to my liking. I’ve been trying to look at it through his eyes and judge how he might see it and whether it will suit his taste!
There’s one theme that recurs in several parts of the house. Over the stairs is a photo of a poppy field. In the garden the last of this summer’s poppies are still flowering. In the bedroom, the curtains have poppies on them, and there’s another photo which a friend gave me when I moved in with a close-up of poppies and the caption, “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God. Job 37.14”
I’ve always had a great fondness for poppies. It’s not just their stunning beauty, the way they brighten up a roadside verge, or that their name in French is so delightful – coquelicots! But I love the way they rise out of chaos, imposing order and beauty on it.
They are cultivated as garden ornamentals, and some varieties as a source of the drug opium. In fact humans have been cultivating poppies for 7,000 years, going right back to Mesopotamia in the early days of the Bible. They have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and doctors of that time would use their seeds as a painkiller. But it’s the wild varieties that fascinate me. Although modern methods of agriculture are causing a decline in the common poppy, in Roman times it was seen as a symbol of fertility because it grew in the crop fields and it was used to celebrate the gods.
Poppy seeds lie dormant in the ground for a long time and often germinate only after a sudden disturbance of the soil. This is why they are seen springing up along the verges of newly built roads. The best known example of this is of course the poppies that sprang up all over the battlefields of the Somme, their poignant red colour a stark reminder of what had taken place on that soil.
But to me this is also a beautiful parable of the way God so often works in our lives. How often is it a sudden trauma – an accident or sudden illness resulting in disability, for example, or, as in my case, giving birth to a disabled child, which becomes the very area of our lives where God brings beauty and flourishing? While we are going through the experience, it can seem painful, disruptive and even hopeless. One of my friends has a word for this – she calls it a lifequake. It’s a good description of the disturbance these events cause in our lives. I look back at the distress of the early days of my daughter’s life, the daily struggle to keep her alive when she first came home from hospital, the despair at the gloomy prognosis we were given by doctors who didn’t tell us (or perhaps had never noticed) how much joy and delight such a child also brings to their family.
Yet it was out of that explosive disruption to the soil of my life that seeds of spiritual growth began to germinate and I started to put my roots down into God. The blooms that came from it – a depth of relationship with God I had never previously known; the deflection from the previous self-centredness of my life; the desire to use my experiences to help other people; the testimony I have of God’s wonderful grace and joy in hard times – all came directly as a result of those troubled times and have made my life so much richer.
So here’s the main reason why I love poppies – not simply for their beauty and the rich colour they add to our countryside, but because they are a reminder of how God uses even the hardest of times to bring glory, richness and beauty into our lives. Maybe you have a testimony you’d like to share with us of how God has worked in your life through hard times. You can do so by emailing it to email@example.com. But don’t expect an immediate reply; I’m going on honeymoon for a while.
Writing Disability (Ros' Blog)
This week’s blog is a guest post by Fiona Veitch Smith. Fiona is a Christian novelist who writes fiction for the general market. She writes of how her third book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series (murder mysteries set in the 1920s) received a review criticising her for including ‘too many disabled characters’. The reviewer prefaced the jibe with ‘now it’s not as if I’m against diversity, but…’ then said the author was just trying to be politically correct. Fiona writes:
I went back to the book (The Death Beat) and counted the characters who had some form of disability – it turned out to be 20% of the cast. This included someone who has his leg amputated after being pushed into a machine, someone who was recovering from a stroke, someone with a learning disability, a character with dwarfism and a paraplegic character.
I had a mutter about this on an Association of Christian Writers forum and was told by Ros Dakin (regular contributor to Through the Roof blog) that people with disability make up around 20% of the general population, so my cast ratio simply reflected reality. The thing is, I never counted. I never thought to myself: right, I need to put in some more disabled characters to get up to 20%. I never thought: I need to be politically correct and inclusive. You see, for me, people living with a disability or neurodiversity are just part of the fabric of life. My mother became disabled when I was 11, so it is something I have grown up with. My daughter is autistic. My dad became disabled after a stroke two years ago. In my world – real and fictional – some people just happen to be disabled and some don’t. Just like some are of different ethnicities, gender or sexuality.
Some of my characters ‘need’ to be disabled for the purposes of the plot (like the poor chap who loses his leg, and the paraplegic Aunt Dot, a suffragette who was run down by a police horse during a protest). But some of them just happen to be like that when they introduce themselves to me. I hadn’t realised Poppy Denby’s editor, Rollo Rolandson, was a dwarf until I wrote their first encounter: when he stood up Poppy saw that he only came up to her chest. I was as surprised as Poppy! Rollo doesn’t ‘need’ to be disabled, but he is. However, he is not a victim. He is the most assertive and go-getter character in the entire series. I do, at times, note some of the challenges and abuse he faces as a small person, but my main focus is on his skills and personality – as it would be with any of my characters.
However, Rollo is a secondary protagonist, not the main character. I would be reluctant to write a primary protagonist with a disability from the ‘inside’ because I do not know what it is like to personally be disabled. But I do know what it’s like to live with variously abled people – and that is reflected in my novels.
Why then, don’t more conventionally abled novelists include variously abled characters in their books? I think there are two reasons. The first is fear of getting it wrong or accused of insulting or patronising disabled people. An example is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which has an autistic boy as the central character. Haddon received both praise and criticism for his portrayal of autism – and some of the criticism was intense. Authors (and publishers) see that and it makes them nervous. The second reason is that many authors simply don’t ‘see’ disabled people as potential characters – unless, perhaps, as victims. This I hope will change. And I hope that my books in their small way will contribute to that.
Editor’s note: We would love our readers to contact us and tell us their favourite novels that feature disabled characters. Top of my list would be Skallagrigg by William Horwood.
Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. Book 5, The Art Fiasco, is coming out in October 2020. www.poppydenby.com