Friday, December 29, 2006

O Holy Night (revisited)

When I posted the lyrics to the first stanza of O Holy Night the other evening, I quickly checked an online source and listed the author of the stanza as Adolphe Adams. In fact, that was not correct.

According to (a great site, and one far more thorough than whatever I checked originally) Adams actually composed the music to the carol. He was a French born Jewish composer best known for his ballet Giselle in 1841.

The words were penned by another Frenchman, Placide Cappeau (1808-1877) and then translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), an American whose strong anti-slavery perspective shines forth in the later stanza: "Truly He taught us to love one another/His law is love and His gospel is peace/Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,/And in His name all oppression shall cease."

Happily it sounds as though Cappeau was also against slavery; it would be interesting to compare the translation to the original and see if Dwight's rendering is fairly literal or if his own feelings were just more passionately expressed. I wonder if either or both was influenced at all by the evangelical fervor of the Clapham Sect in England that worked so hard to abolish slavery in Great Britain. The Slavery Abolition Act passed in Britain in 1833 (after William Wilberforce's tireless and repeated efforts to get it passed) a good thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation here in the U.S.

Cappeau, who wrote the song originally, was a wine merchant. The story goes that his parish priest asked him to write a Christmas poem, and this is what he came up with. Would that more priests would challenge their parishoners with such a creative task!

There's another story that "O Holy Night" was sung during a truce in the Franco-Prussian War, much as "Silent Night" was sung during the impromptu Christmas truce in the trenches called by the soliders in WWI. I knew the latter story (and it almost always moves me to tears) but not the first.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Of Presents and Paperclips...

It's sometimes a good thing that our four year old has what I call a "narrow focus." When she's thinking about or concentrating on something, she is really and completely "all there" -- her attention fully focused on whatever it is she's trying to do.

Take yesterday, for example. Her Daddy was calling for her, trying to figure out where she was, and she called back from the study. Now I use the term "study" loosely. We've not really had a study since we moved a desk and hundreds of books out of the room that used to be the study and is now the sweet girl's bedroom. Almost five years ago we crammed them all into a little cave made of bookcases that takes up half our bedroom and is one of the most cluttered unusable spaces you've ever seen. (Someday, yes, we will manage to make it functional...but let's save those thoughts for another day.)

Anyway, the sweet girl doesn't often trek into the study area. It's not officially and utterly off-limits, but it's so crowded with rather boring looking "grown-up junk" that it doesn't usually entice her in. Which is why we've put most of her unwrapped Christmas presents there.

Yes, it's true...we've not yet wrapped or opened presents. We took a couple with us to Virginia, where the sweet girl also received some lovely things from Grandma and her cousins, but we save our official family "Christmas morning" until we're home from travels. We always have that time sometime within the 12 days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Although this tradition has taken some getting used to, we do enjoy it. (And we can also wait until after Christmas to do most of our shopping for one another, which is so relaxing -- the stores are so much emptier and the prices are almost always discounted!)

But back to yesterday. When D. realized that S. was in the study, he hurried in there, realizing of course that there are a handful of bags and boxes (most of them loosely closed at best) containing her yet-to-be-wrapped presents. I think he rightly expected that she would be getting into them, or at least looking at them and wanting to get into them.

Instead she was busy with the case of paperclips, completely focused on getting some out. "I just need a couple of these," she told her Daddy, who gave her some paperclips of course, and then casually guided our one-track girl out of the room, still totally oblivious to the gifts that surrounded her!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bishop Duncan Reflecting on Christmas Carols

After my tired ramblings about Christmas carols and how much I am loving the passing on of them to my daughter, I was blessed to find these reflections from my Bishop, Robert Duncan, in his Christmas sermon (posted on the diocese of Pittsburgh's website):

The hymns and carols of Christmas are one of the greatest treasures of Christian theology – simply stated – anywhere to be found. Over and over they capture the whole truth about Jesus and about us, about the stunning redemption God has worked through His one and only Son, and about the present and the future that God has opened to all of us willing to accept this unmerited gift.

In the culture in which I was raised I was blessed in a manner that few children are today. Over and over again I heard the carols, even the obscure ones, with all their verses and stanzas, and I came to know many of them by heart. They are my rudimentary theological foundation. When I went off to college and to life they went with me as much a part of me as my physical frame or emotional make-up, a spiritual grounding that has proved unshakeable through all the trials and challenges of human life in this world. A pastoral question that haunts me is this: How might we re-immerse ourselves and our children and our society in these carols? But that matter is for another sermon. Today – tonight – I would have us just focus on the “good news of great joy” of which the angel to the shepherds speaks. (Luke 2:10)

The rest of this brief sermon is also wonderful: he meditates on merriment and joy, the true joy of this season and the joy that only the Lord can bring to our hearts, even in the midst of real suffering. If you'd like to read it in its entirety, it can be found here: "God Rest You Merry". This is a sermon that really resonates with my own heart this season!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Second Day of Christmas

The sweet girl is enchanted that there are actually 12 days of Christmas. Me too.

Last night as she was finally getting into her little cot bed at Grandma's -- very late, after a long day with Grandma, Aunts, Uncle, and numerous cousins -- her Daddy gave her a kiss and said "sleep well...Merry Christmas." He slipped out of the room, leaving me to sit by her bed and sing a few Christmas carols, as has been our recent tradition.

Before I could begin singing though, she announced: "I want Daddy to say Merry Christmas again in the morning when he wakes me up, and I'll say it back." "Okay," I agreed. "I'll make sure to tell him to say it." And then she added enthusiastically, "And I want him to say it to me every morning for all twelve days!"

We're home again, a bit road-weary after such a whirlwind trip but grateful to have spent some time with the extended family. Every year I'm grateful we do it, even though I know it's exhausting, especially years like this one when we barely had any time off from work and have to go immediately back into the rush and busyness of our offices and schedules tomorrow. I hope I can still find time to rejoice and reflect over the next ten days of Christmas. That's my plan!

Some of my most joyous and meditative times this Advent and Christmas have been those nightly carol singing sessions with my little girl. It's only been in the past several months that she's begun to try to sing. I think because she began to talk so late, singing just didn't occur to her for a long time, though she has always loved and responded to music.

I've always sung carols to her at this time of year -- and admittedly sometimes at other times of the year too. When she was a baby, I must have sung "Silent Night" as as a lullaby in the evening for a few months in a row. It's one of the most lovely and quieting songs I know, and she has always "rested" in it, as a little bird might snuggle down under a mother's wing in a round, warm nest.

But it's been a particular joy this month to hear her begin to sing along with me. She tends to warble and not always quite catch the tune (though sometimes she does!) but she has a wonderful sense of rhythm and meter, knowing when to hold a note and when to keep it short. Her joyous staccato sounds on "heaven and nature sing" are terrific but my heart has really melted when I hear her soft, tiny voice winding its way determindedly through lines like "God and sinners rec-on-ciled." I've been amazed at how many of the carol lyrics she knows, if not word for word, then very close. Clearly she's been paying attention to the words all these years, even if she's just now beginning to sing them. I know she doesn't fully understand what they all mean yet, but how grateful I am that they're there in her heart and mind, like the Bible verses she has begun to learn.

The words of verses, hymns and carols were given to me when I was very little, and I am still so grateful that they are there for me to call upon in times of joy and sorrow.

And there have been sorrowful times of late too. On this second day of Christmas, I got word about a dear friend in New England whose ninety-two year old father passed away this morning, almost nine years to the day since the death of her thirteen year old son (who was named for her father).

And while we were in Virginia, we saw television news for the first time in months. It made me grateful for no t.v. as a general rule; it was a strange time of year to suddenly find oneself bombarded by news reports (whose frenzied and dramatized tenor is so different than reading the news in the paper or online...and admittedly I've been so busy lately I've not done much of that). So much of the news was hard and painful. One story in particular, about the mother of two teenaged autistic sons, had me in tears. (One of the boys had accidentally set a fire and the other died.) Seeing the raw grief of that mother and seeing the news of other hard things -- killings and accidents and fires -- made me want to fall on my knees in recognition of our world's continuing deep need for a Savior, and in gratitude that Jesus came and continues to come in this world.

It rained most of the trip back, as well as the trip down. Early this evening, the Christmas lights through the fog and rain, especially as we came over the mountains, were stark and beautiful and almost somber. I'm glad I'm home...glad to journal here...glad to rest.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

O Holy Night!

Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night, Oh night divine, Oh night Divine.

(Adolphe Adam, 1847)

A blessed Christmastide to all.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

HP 7: Wait, I Don't Have to Call it That Anymore!

Yes, it's true! The long-awaited title of Harry Potter 7 has been released. Hat tip to faithful-blog-reader Erin for letting me know the big news. I scurried over to some HP sites to check out the official word.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

What does it mean? And will the acronym used in discussion boards simply be DH? (which will always make me think of "designated hitter...")

I'd about given up thinking we might get a book title this Christmas. I remembered that JKR gave that as a "present" with Half-Blood Prince a couple of years ago, but the last we'd heard, she was still debating between three potential titles on this one. Plus I thought the tid-bit about her writing process (on her blog the other evening) might turn out to be the only nugget she tossed to fans this season. Glad I was wrong!

I find the use of "hallows" as a noun quite interesting. The most usual uses that come to my mind are "hallowed" or "hallows'" (posessive). My first thought was the "saints who have gone before" who showed up at the end of GOF in the graveyard scene to help Harry. But I could be way off.

And why are they deathly? And are we supposed to make a connection with the word "Hollow" -- as in Godric's hollow?

Maybe it's a place! The Deathly Hallows! Like a dude ranch for ghosts....

Um. Okay. Now I'm getting silly. I'm curious though. Mighty curious.

Does it worry me that deathly is in the title? A wee bit, yes.

Questions, questions....

Edited to add: this may be a weird coincidence, but when I went looking online for etymology (and other information) on the word "hallows" (as I'm sure many people are tonight) I found a reference to Tolkien. Apparently there is a place called the "Hallows" in Minas Tirith, a burial place. I need to go straight to Tolkien to confirm this (and who know when I'll have time) but it's interesting, isn't it?

All earlier joking aside, perhaps Hallows are not primarily referring to people here, but to a place. Specifically a graveyard or a burial ground. "The Deathly Hallows." Makes sense, doesn't it? And "Hallows" gives it a sense of being a holy place.

We've seen the death and resurrection motif in Harry Potter so many times. It's part of the enduring power of the books. Methinks we shall be seeing it again (and that bodes well).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

HP 7 Update: JKR hard at work

Hooray! An update from author JK Rowling at her official website yesterday assures all HP fans that she's hard at work on book 7. I think most of us had a feeling that was the case...

The long lack of updates has been due to some very hard work. I'm now writing scenes that have been planned, in some cases, for a dozen years or even more. I don't think anyone who has not been in a similar situation can possibly know how this feels: I am alternately elated and overwrought. I both want, and don't want, to finish this book (don't worry, I will.)

She then goes on to relate a funny, somewhat bizarre dream she had -- the first (she claims) that she's ever had in "Harry's world." In the dream she was both Harry and the narrator, and was hunting for a horcrux. Very interesting....

Luci Shaw on the Annunciation

Luci Shaw has visited and re-visited the annunciation and the incarnation in her poems over the years.

I love these final lines from her poem "The Announcement."

The teen head tilted in light, the hand
trembling a little at the throat, the candid
eyes, wide with acquiescence to shame and glory –
“Be it unto me as you have said.”

Trying to still myself in the wonder of this moment. Christmas is almost here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Radical Idea

I'm considering a radical idea for next Christmas -- sending old-fashioned Christmas cards via the post office.

A few years ago, we still did that, even though we usually included a family letter as well. Gradually we stopped sending the card and just sent the letter, and in the past couple of years, we've usually sent the letter via e-mail only (except for the few people on our list who don't have email).

Part of my original reason for switching to email letter only was time. It took so much time, I reasoned, to hand address cards. E-mail is much faster and more efficient.

But tonight, as I struggled to format photos in our annual letter, only to discover (non-tech me) that I've somehow not compressed them enough and the letter's too big to be sent easily, it occurred to me that I'm probably spending just as much time creating and formatting and sending a letter by email as I ever did hand-addressing envelopes. And it's a whole lot less personal feeling.

There's something magical about Christmas cards. The bright colors, the shiny pictures, the beautiful green or red or creamy or even gold-foil lined envelopes. I used to use green or red pens to address them. And when you address a card to someone, you can add a note that's just for them -- and you can pray for the person/ family while you address the card as well. And then there's the beautiful Christmas stamp.

I miss Christmas cards, sending them as well as receiving them. Like us, many people have dropped the card-sending habit entirely. We used to receive lots -- I still have the cards we've received during each year of our marriage (though I've been going through some of the oldest ones and pulling out some to use for craft/ornament projects with the sweet reason I kept them all those years ago, for just such a time as this!). I remember how my parents used to tape the Christmas cards we got on the stair railings. I've had years when I put them up on the wall. But now, each year, we seem to receive fewer and fewer of them. We still get a number of Christmas letters, often by email, and we've even gotten some Christmas e-cards. But we've only gotten a very few in the mail.

I miss the expectancy of opening the mailbox during advent and looking eagerly for green and red envelopes. I miss the slow care it takes to write someone's address and to think about them while I write it. I miss Christmas cards.

Remind me of this next year...around the first of November!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Happy Birthday, dear Jane!

Yes, it's Jane Austen's birthday, though I've blogged so much about her recently that I wasn't quite sure what I should post in honor of the day. I decided on this wonderful quote, which made me realize how much I need to re-read Mansfield Park.

If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.

Jane Austen was born in 1775, the seventh child and second daughter of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen.

In honor of the day, I've begun reading Josephine Ross' Jane Austen: A Companion.

'Tis the season to read Austen! Happy Birthday, dear Jane!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chesterton on Austen

Love this.

"Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from the truth were burst by the Brontes or elaborately untied by George Eliot...Jane Austen may have been protected from truth; but it was precious little of truth that was protected from her."
~G.K. Chesterton

This is quoted in the book of essays I've been reading on Austen, but I've yet to find exactly where Chesterton says it. Will keep looking. Wonderful quote!

Poetic Challenges

This year's advent poem is coming very slowly and painfully. Maybe it seems strange to use a word like "painful" when describing poetic/creative process, but this year at least it seems apt.

I'm not sure I would term this "writer's block" exactly...a phrase I've never quite thought captures the dryest moments in the wilderness of writing. But certainly I am struggling to write my annual offering in ways I can't quite recall before. When I'm honest about it, I realize that it's probably a culmination of several things (plus more I haven't been able to name).

It's been a prosaic kind of year. I don't mean that badly, it's just a fact. We've had to work a lot of hours this year to keep food on the table and bill-collecting-wolves at the door. I seem to spend most of my days succumbing to the tyranny of the urgent -- and that *is* a problem. There's always laundry to fold and sort, a dishwasher to unload, books to read, papers to grade, junk mail to sort, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to make, ballet class to get to, a little girl to bathe, e-mails to answer, meetings to attend, etc, etc. I know...that's just life! And we all do this kind of thing all the time! I'm not complaining as much as I am realizing and commenting that this year, more than any other I can remember, has just felt *crammed* with details and daily-ness. Perhaps because this has really been the first time since my little one was born that I've combined so many work-outside-and-inside the home hours with parenting. I don't know. All I know is that I'm tired, a lot, and that I'm not sure how to better order my days and my living space in order to find more time to be. To listen. Among other things, to sit (without panic) in front of a blank page.

Because when it comes down to it, writing is not just about writing. Poems and stories especially start by incubating in a deep place inside, a place of quiet and stillness and openness. If I'm too cluttered to be still, too revved inside with loud lists of detailed things to do, then when I finally manage to scrape together fifteen minutes to sit down with pen and paper, why am I surprised when nothing comes quickly? Without time to formatively, read thoughtfully, read for the love of words and reading...without more time in prayer, open to God and open to what he has to say and to teach me...well, if I don't actively cultivate that kind of quiet, listening stance, then my own responsive voice in the conversation is not going to be a very deep voice.

Maybe it doesn't work this way for everybody. I suspect it doesn't -- creative process, writing process, seems like one those mysterious gifts that are given to each person a little bit differently. I'm just pretty sure that it's how it works for me. If I'm going to be able to tap into a well of images, words, sounds, love, life -- then I need to make sure that I am plugged into the source of all those things. If I'm going to be able to write (and not at all incidentally: pray, love and live) with more fullness, then I need to make the time to sit still, to listen and contemplate. To not be afraid of stillness. To keep my ears tuned for what I've usually called the "gift lines" -- those words that just fall on you like a sudden rainshower, unexpected and completely outside the realm of your own power, or like feathers or milkweed seeds, drift down past your cheek with the lightest of brushes. Sometimes I almost feel like I heard the gift words whispered. Sometimes when they're given I have no clue what to do with them yet -- how to connect them to the next line, whether they're to be the first words of a poem, or the last, or somewhere in the middle. But when the gift words come, I know I am in the right place, a place of openness to receive.

I do have a rough poem more or less complete. I'm letting it sit, and trying to decide if it's really two poems or one poem that switches tone and style somewhat abruptly toward the end. I'm trying to not get hung up on notions of goodness: as in, "this is not a good poem." I'd rather write a true, honest poem (awkward and clunky though it may be because of my lack of poetic practice and rhythm right now) than a poem devoid of any of the struggle I'm feeling.

It's not just the advent poem. I've been attempting some other poems during this time as well, and none is coming easily, which I'll confess has caused a few tears. I feel a little bit like a singer who's got laryngitis, or a painter with a broken arm. This frustrating feeling that the words won't come reminds me forcefully of how I felt during all those hours of pushing in labor when the sweet girl was born. The exhaustion, the feeling of failure, the difficulty I had staying focused when that phase before birth turned unexpectedly long. The blessed relief of surrender and joy when at last, after so many hours, she was delivered (even though the delivery came in a way I'd never wanted or expected, via c-section).

For now, I'm feeling grateful that at least I've made some time to reflect on the whole process, and to realize the kind of contemplative attitude I'd love to nourish in myself in the coming year.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Austen Names

I've had Jane Austen on the brain (per usual as we move into winter) so naturally that's the first thing I thought of when I recently saw the name "Emma" at the very top of the listing of the 2006 "most popular baby names."

I confess I usually check these lists out when I become aware of them. Sometimes it's because there's still a little part of me (broke, tired and with that biological clock ticking) dreaming about what we would name a second child, should we ever be so blessed. Other times I mostly look the list over out of curiosity, and to get a feel for potential character names. The lists need to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. I'm pretty sure the list I saw was only for the U.S.

Still, with "Emma" coming in at #1 in girls' names, I couldn't help but cast an eye out for other Austen character names, good Janeite that I am. Here's what I found:

Emma #1

Anna #32 (I figure Anna is close enough to Anne, as in Anne Elliot of Persuasion, to count)

Elizabeth #33 (spelled the way Elizabeth Bennet spells it, not the way I spell it)

Katherine #44 (which I'm fairly certain must be the full name of Kitty Bennet -- is that confirmed in the text anywhere? Kitty's not a very common nickname anymore!)

Caroline #68 (the snarky Miss Bingley!)

Charlotte #75 (I found that very has a very old-fashioned feel to it. I've always liked Charlotte Lucas from P&P)

Lucy #83 (as in Lucy Steele in S&S, another snarky gal)

What's more interesting, perhaps, than what's on the list is what's left off: no Jane, Mary, Lydia, Elinor, Marianne, or Harriet. And (hmmm...) no Fanny. Perhaps not too surprising, that one.

The boys' side of the column wasn't quite as interesting. A lot of mens' names seem to stay in fashion for a long time (John's at #42, Robert #71, Henry #86 -- although no Edward or George, I noticed). No Fitzwilliam, of course, but yes indeed, Colin came in at #58!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sheep or Angel....Decisions, Decisions

Well, we've survived two ballet performances and one preschool holiday program. The latter was last night and was great fun. Especially fun seeing sweet girl, front and center on the stage, looking oh so confident in her creamy skirt, red tights and red sweater, sparkly Christmas barrette, and oh yes, reindeer antlers! They sang several songs but we especially liked the "reindeer pokey." ("You put your antlers in, you take your antlers out...") We didn't get pictures but we did get some great video.

Next up, the church Christmas pageant. It almost didn't come together at all this year -- I think the season snuk up on the church school volunteers just like it did everyone else -- but in the end, there will be some brief tableaux with narrations from the Scriptures. D. has been helping the kids pull this together, so has been able to report on rehearsals.

The big decision for the sweet girl came when she was asked whether she wanted to be an angel or a sheep. Can you guess what she chose?

Baaaa baaa baaa....

I wasn't at all surprised. She loves angels, especially the beautiful ones in the creche, but when it comes to playing pretend or dress-up, she'd always rather pretend to be an animal than, say, a princess. Wings are exciting, but fluffy sheep ears even moreso.

Then again, she might have been a tad bit influenced by our recent reading of the chapter "Ramona and the Three Wisepersons" from Beverly Cleary's wonderful book Ramona and Her Father. I hadn't planned to do any Christmas readings from Cleary -- in fact, hadn't thought of this scene in a while (though I love it). But at a library sale a few weeks ago I picked up an amazing $2 find called "The Family Read-Aloud Christmas Treasury," a great collection of poems, stories, folktales and chapters from longer works. Ramona makes a terrific sheep, and I'm sure my little girl will too -- even if we don't put mascara on her nose!

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Post About Books...What a Novel Concept!

I've been so busy during the past couple of weeks that I've hardly had time to take a deep breath and write...anywhere, including here. It's finals for my class, which means papers to grade. It's advent, which means more time in prayer and more time with family. It's moving toward Christmas, which means extra work in my morning job at church.

To cap everything off, the website I write book and movie reviews for ( has decided that in lieu of a end-of-year bonus this year, they are having a huge holiday write-off sweepstakes. Anything I review that is a first review (has not been reviewed by anyone else on the site) can be registered in the sweepstakes and has a chance to be drawn. I was really hoping for a bonus this year (could use it!) so I'm a bit disappointed that it's a write-off instead. December is a generally so full of other more important things (see paragraph above) that review-writing takes a deserved back seat. Still, we need the income and I have won something in two sweepstakes with epinions before, so it seems silly not to give this a go, especially by writing several children's book reviews which don't take a huge amount of time to be done well. The prizes are generous. Winning any of them would be a real encouragement. So a few late nights of reading and writing reviews have been (and will continue to be) in order. Though I think I may have to give myself some down time in January on that front.

Despite the fact that I began this blog almost a year ago with the express intent of writing about books I was reading, I realized the other day that it's been a while since I've done a "bookish" post. This rambling catch-up post isn't going to be much of one, but I thought I would at least provide a brief list of "current" and "recent" reads, since I haven't for a while. I've been scrolling back through my archives here in the interest of compiling a list of what I've read/commented on all through 2006 (and if I get a chance, I plan to post my personal "best of..." or favorites list before year's end). One thing that's jumped out at me is that I was much better at keeping track of books I was reading in the first few months of the year. Then this lapsed into a more general journal and place of reflection. I don't think there's anything wrong with fact, I've really enjoyed using the space for reflections on a variety of topics, including motherhood. But I'd like to try to be more intentional about reflecting on books here, especially as we round the corner toward 2007.

Currently reading....

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Flirting With Pride and Prejudice Essays edited by Jennifer Crusie

Recently finished reading...
Engaging God's World by Cornelius Plantinga
Suspense and Sensibility: A Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery by Carrie Bebris
I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This, a memoir by Bob Newhart (that one was my husband's fault...he was reading it and it kept on just sitting there in the bathroom!) :-)
Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Siegfried Engelmann
The Films of Kenneth Branagh by Simon Crowl

And on the children's book front:
Little House in the Highlands by Melissa Wiley
Cassie Loves Beethoven by Alan Arkin (yes, the actor)
Countless Christmas pictures books
Ditto lots of picture and encyclopedic books about penguins (the sweet girl's current obsession)

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but it's the best I can come up with for now. Running on tired fumes this evening!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Beautiful Tears

For a long time, we've been trying to help our little girl understand the difference between what we simply call "sad tears" and "happy tears." She's got a very sensitive heart, and it always distresses her when she sees someone crying. She usually assumes (understandably) that it means they're sad. So we've tried to explain the concept of being happy enough to cry for joy. She's tried to comprehend it, but you can tell that one's still a learning curve for her, which is just fine. :-)

The other evening I unintentionally nuanced the whole discussion even further. D. had to work late so it was just me and the sweet girl at advent devotions. We were praying together at the end, and as I prayed and thanked God for the gift of Jesus, I found myself getting really choked up. When I finished, the sweet girl looked at me with a little alarm and asked, "Mommy, why did you sound like that?" I explained that sometimes when I think about how good God is and how Jesus came as a tiny baby to show us how much he loved us, that it's just so beautiful that I end up crying some happy tears. "Sometimes beautiful things can move us and make us have tears," I think was how I said it.

Last night I realized how much those words had sunk in when we got to prayer time again. We were just about to start when I looked over and saw how my daughter had arranged the creche while we were singing and reading. She's been allowed to get out two new figures each night, so the little stable is getting quite crowded. Last night she finally had to move some of the figures outside rather than crowding them all in. But she made sure that baby Jesus in the manger was in the corner, and the rest of the figures, every single one, was turned toward him. She pointed this out to me so I wouldn't miss it. "Look Mommy, I turned them all this way so they can all see Jesus."

Guess what? More tears sprang to my eyes. I couldn't help it. I looked at that crowd of little creche figures, all bunched up together and all turned toward the baby and my heart just felt so touched and warmed. I didn't sniffle or anything, but I think the sweet girl could hear the catch in my voice when I responded. She cast me a suspicious look and then glanced more closely at my eyes and saw the tears. "Mommy, why do you look beautiful?" she asked suddenly. "Because of Jesus?"

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Snow is Snowing All Around

The snow is snowing all around,
It's in the air, it's on the ground.
The snow is snowing everywhere!
It's on the ground, it's in the air.

See those flakes flutter and fly,
See them falling from the sky.
They look like angels bright,
dancing in the morning light.
Or like frosty fireflies,
here to brighten winter skies.

I wrote this little snow song during the sweet girl's very first winter, and we've sung it every snow since. It will always have a special place in my heart because I remember writing it as I held her, just a tiny baby, cradled against me, while I looked out the window at a gently falling snow.

I'm so glad she still likes this song! At one point it did have other verses (and I'm sure I could dig them up somewhere, as I did put it all down on paper) but it's this first verse that's really stuck. Now here we are singing it at the almost-beginning of her fifth winter. The time is flying about as fast as the snowflakes outside...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"No Crib for a Bed..."

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:9

"Mommy, why didn't Jesus have a crib?" asked my daughter just the other day.

She asked it from the confines of her own warm and comfy bed, where she was resting on two pillows and covered with several blankets, most of them made with love by family and friends.

We'd been singing Christmas carols, and she'd clued into the line from "Away in a Manger" -- "No crib for a bed/The little Lord Jesus/lay down his sweet head..."

"Well," I said slowly. "Mary and Joseph, Jesus' Mommy and Daddy, were very poor. And remember they were travelling and couldn't find any room in the inn the night Jesus was born. So Jesus was born in a stable, and there aren't any cribs in a stable. That's why they used a manger for his bed. A manger is like a wooden box for animal food. Mary and Joseph filled it with hay and used that for Jesus' bed."

"But why were they poor?" she persisted.

A good question. From any perspective, not just the perspective of a four year old who has been learning, her whole young life, that Jesus is God's Son, the King of the world, the "King of everything!" (as she likes to say).

I can't recall exactly how I answered the question right now. But I've been reflecting on it since, and it seems to me the best answer comes in 2 Corinthians. Jesus willingly gave up glory to come live here, and to live as a poor man who would grow up to still have no place to lay his head.

Jesus chose to come in the time and place and way he did. God the Father could have sent him to a different kind of family. But he gave him to Mary and Joseph, a young lady and her espoused husband, a carpenter, from a small, rural village. A young exhausted couple that couldn't find a bed for him the night he was born, so managed with what they had.

He was rich, but for our sakes he became poor. For our sakes.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Those Days Before Christmas...

One of my favorite books to read during the Advent season is Madeleine L'Engle's The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas. I can't remember the first time I read it, but I think I must have been in college. For many years, I had a tradition of reading it sometime before Christmas, often on Christmas Eve (when the climax of the story takes place).

I used to tell myself that when I "grew up" :-) and had a family of my own, I would attempt my own version of the Austin family Advent tradition of doing "one special thing for each day of December." Of course, little did I know how much creativity and energy such a commitment takes!

This year I'm actually trying it, but quietly. In other words, I'm not announcing to my hubby (though I may mention it soon...he loves the book too) or to my four year old that we're trying to do something special and different each day. The sweet girl tends to have something of an obsessive nature at this point, partly her age and partly her temperament, and I don't want her hung up on the concept. But without fanfare, I'm trying to make sure that we do at least something small each day that marks the movement of our hearts toward the celebration of Christmas. It's actually been a help to me, since I've been having a hard time finding time to slow down and reflect this year.

On the 1st, we put up our Christmas stockings. I didn't plan to do that so early, but the sweet girl saw them in one of the boxes I'd taken down from the closet and she got so excited!

On the 2nd, we made our usual Saturday trek to the library, but we checked out Christmas books. One of them is an annual tradition for us: Nikki Grimes' beautiful poetry collection Under the Christmas Tree. We also went to the mall, not really to Christmas shop, but because the sweet girl and I both needed socks! She was more excited about "sock-shopping" than you can imagine. I hope she will always stay so enthused and grateful for necessities! (And yes, we went to the candy store and bought some things for her Daddy's stocking too...with a special Hershey's kiss treat for the sweet girl.)

Yesterday, the 3rd, really could count for several days of "special things." It was the first day of Advent, so we brought out our Advent wreath. We had a special Advent devotional and songs. And all of that was after we went to our county's festival of Christmas trees. We went for the first time last year and loved it; we just barely made it this year as yesterday was the last day of the exhibit. (They auction off the trees and use the proceeds for youth and childrens' programs in the county.) This year was really exciting because the sweet girl really got into picking "her favorite" tree.

Today, the 4th, is Monday...and a busy one at that. I had to work in the morning, D. had to work in the afternoon, and this evening I'm proctoring an exam (which is why I have computer time this early in the evening). The only thing I managed today was to hang the Christmas wreath on our front door.

I'm enjoying this practice though! It reminds me that each day can be festive and beautiful, even in small ways.

She's Onto Me...!

I've been struggling a lot with losing things lately. I think because life has been so rushed and hurried, and I am getting very little time to keep our little home space organized. Thus it gets cluttered; and the outward clutter unfortunately sometimes seems to reflect (or exacerbate) an inward clutter.

Whatever the deeper problem, the immediate outward problem is that I keep misplacing things. Often. It seems as though I spend an inordinate amount of time looking for things when I thought I knew "right where they were."

Thankfully, I've now found all the Christmas music. I won't tell you how long it took me to find the tapes, nor how snarly I got at one point when I couldn't (I'm embarrassed to say that Scrooge sometimes has nothing on me!). But I did feel properly humbled and grateful to finally find the beloved music, after all my frustrated attempts. And yes, it wasn't at all far from where I was sure I'd put it. Now if I will just heed the beautiful message of much of this music, and really find the space and time and energy to prepare and keep preparing my heart for the coming King!

Then there was Saturday morning, when I was gathering all the library books that were due. Our library schedule is usually like clockwork, but we made one unusual mid-week visit not long before our Thanksgiving travels. I checked out Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit that day, because the sweet girl (who was, as you might remember, very sick) had been sad that she couldn't keep on "being a bunny" if she was sick and in bed. I had the inspired memory that Peter Rabbit himself had to spend some time in bed, and then went to our shelves only to discover, to my astonishment, that we didn't own this classic tale. So we got it from the library and enjoyed it over and over.

It's due mid-week this week, but rather than make a special library trip, I planned to take it back early with the regular Saturday load. And wouldn't you know it? I couldn't find it. It's a tiny book (one from the miniature jacketed set of Beatrix Potter books, which I would so love to own!) and easy to misplace. I spent a few minutes looking on Saturday morning, and the sweet girl finally heard my various sighings and mutterings because she came in and asked what I was doing.

"Mommy can't find a book we need to take back to the library," I said. "Have you seen it? It's Peter Rabbit."

She didn't know where it was either, but I couldn't help but laugh when she trailed out of the room a few minutes later, calling back "If you can't find the book, Mommy, just renew it a lot of times!"

Zing! She's onto me!

The good news...I found Peter Rabbit too. Safe and sound. Still tucked up in bed with his chamomile tea. And nowhere near the Christmas music.

Friday, December 01, 2006

December and the Dance

It's ten minutes past three and I'm just sitting down to have some lunch. That's fairly indicative of how this day, and my whole week, has gone!

In fact, last night I never really ate dinner at all. My dear husband had to work, so around five o'clock, the Sweet Girl and I headed over the seminary's annual Christmas party for faculty, students and spouses.

Back when I was on staff, and before that, when I was a student, this party used to be a looked-forward to event at the end of each semester. One year, D. and I were even instrumental in planning the evening entertainment. But it's been a few years since we've been to one of these. Technically, since I teach online for the seminary, I am considered adjunct faculty, but (even though it's just three blocks away) I am rarely on campus anymore except for an ocassional run into the library or to take sweet girl to her ballet class at the family center.

That's the whole reason I went last night: the ballet class was going to perform the dance number they've been practicing for several weeks. My little one got a new red sweater and yes, some silky dance shoes just for the event. She was excited...until we got there, and she realized how many people were in the room and how loud it all was. Stage fright struck and she refused, absolutely and point blank, to go up front to do the dance. So of course I said that was OK (and so did her very understanding teacher) and I held her on my lap about ten yards away from the dance space. I know how prone she is to change her mind, so I checked with her several more times, in a kind and understanding voice: "Honey, are you sure you don't want to go up there? Do you want to, or not?" etc. and she kept saying emphatically "I do NOT" as if her life depended on it.

And then of course half way through the dance she began to sob because she wasn't doing it. I had to hustle her out of the room so she wouldn't completely disrupt things. Poor boo-boo!

I can empathize, really, not only because I've always gotten terrible stage fright whenever I've had to do anything in public. I can also emphathize with the desire to do something at war with a desire not to. It's sort of how I felt about going to the party actually. Being at the seminary is never an easy thing for me because it feels like it's a place that belongs to a completely different season of my life. I always miss people who aren't there -- friends who have graduated, teachers who have retired -- and as the years wear on, I know fewer and fewer of the people in the room. So there's one sadness. There are other personal factors that also make such times difficult (too hard to go into here) but those came into play last night too.

So...between the stress of a little girl freaking out about a dance recital, and the stress I felt about being there in the first place, and the fact that I haven't eaten red meat in almost 20 years and the main course was beef brisket...well, you get the idea. I had a couple of bites of cole slaw and a few Christmas cookies. And when D. got home from work around 11, we sat down and had pop tarts.

And right now I'm enjoying a bowl of broccoli soup and just trying to catch my breath. It's been a long week, especially with work at church. I managed to finish up a Sunday bulletin with something like seven inserts today, AND the first ever issue of newly-revitalized-and-produced church newsletter (it's been a long time since we've had one). I was up till 1 a.m. last night editing newsletter articles, writing checks for our family's first of the month bills, and trying to work out what I need to do still with the class I'm teaching as we head quickly into finals. My house is a wreck and I STILL can't find the rest of the Christmas music, which is frustrating me no end.

Ready for December? Ready for Advent? :-) But here it comes, and in spite of myself, I'm glad. And I will try to throw myself into the dance, though I think I need to keep the dance very simple this year...perhaps as simple as the 2 minute performance by my daughter's young ballet class. I don't want to find, half-way through, that I'm crying on the sidelines wishing I'd gotten up and joined in!

Oh...and don't worry. Sweet Girl will have another chance to join her dance too. They're scheduled to do it again several days from now for the local nursing home residents right across the street. She's been there before, and I'm hoping the smaller and quieter environment, plus the idea of doing something kind for others, will give her the courage and impetus to try again.