Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Novel in Thirty Days? Or Three?!

I stayed home from work today with a miserable sinus infection. When I get walloped with one of these, it can really stop me in my tracks...bad sinus pain and pressure, congestion, a cough (which moved rapidly toward my chest overnight), and body aches. I've spent most of the day, whenever possible, on the couch.

And I've enjoyed perusing my first issue of Poets & Writers, a writing magazine sent to me as a gift from my good friend Sheila. I so appreciate her encouragement, and I appreciate having the chance to look over this fine magazine for the first time in many years. I used to pick it up on the newsstand at Gene's Books, my favorite independent bookstore in King of Prussia, PA (alas, Gene's is no more). And over the years I've checked in from time to time with the P&W website, especially to look through their excellent classified section. But this is the first time I've read a hard copy of the magazine in probably a decade.

The first article that caught my eye was one entitled "Writing a Novel in Three Days." I started to chuckle almost immediately. Erin in Erie, my good friend and faithful blog reader, recently reviewed the film Alex & Emma, and made the very good point (I thought) that one of the biggest elements of disbelief suspension in the plot was the idea that anyone could seriously be expected to crank out a novel in thirty days. So when I saw an article that actually cut that time down to three days, I had to check it out!

And the article was intriguing. Apparently there really is an annual "3 Day Novel" competition each Labor Day weekend. The writers who participate (after paying a 50-dollar fee) have exactly three days to write a novel sized manuscript and then postmark it by the day after. They can research and even outline all they want beforehand, but they can do the actual writing only in those 72 hours.

My first thought was: "who would live my life during those 72 hours?" I don't mean eating and sleeping -- but working and child-tending and errand-running? Just finding three days, let alone three days stipulated by someone else, would be a herculean feat! Beyond that immediate thought though, I confess I found the story interesting. The author, Patricia Chao, reflected on the process and the kind of writing and thinking it forced her to do in a short time period -- she participated in the contest this past year. As she put it:

"One of the contest organizers maintains that the judges know if you cheat because all 3-Day novels have a certain tone, that of prose written under extreme duress. That tone of the furious first draft is what we gradually temper when we revise, when we make the manuscript truly our own. What critics call style is the result of painstaking, patient labor."

Chao claims she actually enjoyed the process, though it was exhausting, and that it did what she hoped -- jumpstart her writing juices. I certainly don't think I can find three days to devote solely to writing right now, but I do find myself feeling inspired to try to dedicate at least a few minutes a day to fiction and poetry again. I can remember the exhiliration of a "furious first draft" but it's been too long since I've really experienced that.

Friday, January 26, 2007

I Walked Seventy Miles...

We have a new expression of love at our house. "I walked seventy miles for this..." said with a laugh.

This comes out of our recent experience of watching parts of March of the Penguins. I say "parts" because we kept watching it in ten or twelve minute segments in the evening as a family, and eventually had to return it to the video store (they just don't give as much time as the library!). So we never quite saw the whole thing, but were very taken with what we saw. In fact, I think we're planning to purchase this at some point and add it to our movie library.

One of the things we were most taken with is the long, cold, seventy-mile trek the Mommy penguins make to the ocean to get food while the Daddy penguins sit patiently on the eggs. And then, of course, once the Mommy penguins get back with the food, after the babies have hatched, the small penguin is transferred from one set of parental feet to the other and the Daddys (some of whom have lost half their body weight and not eaten for four months!) begin the long seventy mile trek themselves.

Watching that slow waddle/march/slide across the frozen landscape was breathtaking. What a beautiful picture of devotion! We were all a little in awe of it. The sweet girl has been pretending to be an emperor penguin all week and has been acting out the whole wonderful story again and again. She even stands on her Daddy's feet and gets him to cover her with his overcoat, which she calls his "brood pouch"!

And when she asked one of us to get something for her the other day -- a snack or a second helping at dinner or a cup of water (don't recall exactly) -- I can't remember which one of us said jokingly "I'll have to walk seventy miles for this!." I think it was Dana. But the sweet girl thinks it's very funny and now she'll ask us, if we give her something, "did you walk seventy miles for this?" and just giggle. It's actually a wonderful new way of telling each other how much we love each other. Because, you know, I would cross seventy miles of frozen tundra for either one of them if I had to, and I'm pretty sure they would do the same for me.

Newbery and Caldecott Awards

I've got some catching up to do. The Newbery and Caldecott awards were announced earlier this week, the prime annual awards in American children's literature, and I haven't yet read any of this year's winners!

Here's a rundown:

Newbery Medal: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Simon & Schuster/Jackson)

Newbery Honors: Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House); Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (Delacorte Press); Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic)

I was disappointed to see that The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane didn't make the list this year, but I suppose the ALA awards committee thought (perhaps?) that Kate DiCamillo has been honored enough in recent years. I think we'll see her again on this list in years to come though. And I did notice that her book for younger readers, Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride won a Geisel Honor award (in a category for beginning readers, named for the late Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss).

David Weisner won the Caldecott Medal (for artistic excellence) with his book Flotsam published by Clarion. This is his third Caldecott medal. The Caldecott honors went to Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet by David McLimans (Walker & Co.) and Moses, illustrated by Kadir Nelson and written by Carole Boston Weatherford (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun).

One of my favorite children's poets, Nikki Grimes, won a Coretta Scott King author honor with her book The Road to Paris (Putnam).

Lots of books for the reading list!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Maternal Instincts

The sweet girl has been in a very "mothering" season with her baby dolls lately. This is very sweet to see. She's a lovely little girl (I'm not at all biased, am I?) but she's never been one of those little girls who just mothered every doll and every real baby in sight, the way some little girls do. And that's just fine. Still, I must confess it's been precious to see and hear her doing instinctively maternal things with her current favorite baby doll...feeding her in the doll high chair she got for Christmas, dressing her, rocking her, wrapping her in blankets, even pretending to nurse her!

A couple of nights ago she really touched my heart when she announced that she was going to sing to her baby at bedtime. She had already put the doll in the little tiny travel doll bed which she keeps next to her own bed. I watched her squat down next to the doll bed, bend low over the doll, and begin to croon, in her wavery, warbly, not-quite-in-tune way, a made-up lullaby. She's done it two nights in a row now. The song goes something like this:

Shut your eyes, shut your eyes,
Shut your eyes, my baby.
I am singing you a song.

She even tenderly closes the doll's eyes (it's one of those babydolls with eyes that can open and shut) while she sings it.

And if I wasn't feeling tender and teary enough last enough, after she finished this rendition, she clambered on into bed and I tucked her in. "Would you like me to sing to you?" I asked her with a smile. (I usually do sing to her, most nights.) "Yes," she said promptly. "You sang to your baby, and now I'll sing to mine," I teased. She smiled up at me and then said simply, "Can you sing the song I just sang to my baby?"

So of course I did. I tried to follow her words, and as near as I could make it out, her tune. She loved it, and asked me to make up more words. I sang two or three verses, just making it up off the top of my head (well, all the top of my heart) as I moved along. It was a lovely moment I'll not soon forget.

I've been thinking a lot about mothering lately...what it means to be a mother, how being a mother has changed the way I do and think about so many things. I've been realizing, for instance, that I read books very differently than I used to, pre-motherhood. That's one reason why I am finding the reading of David Laskin's book, The Children's Blizzard, so poignant and heart-rending, especially these early scenes (so far) about immigrant pioneer mothers travelling with their babies and young children to the prairies. Yeees, I would have had similar reactions to the book several years ago, but not to quite the same degree and depth, and without such intense identification.

"Seeing like a mother" isn't something that I can put on and take off, like eyeglasses. It's not as though I can choose to take off the lenses for a while and look through some other kind of lens. My vision has sharpened, changed from the inside out, has added an extra layer of seeing to the other ways I already had learned to see. I am still the same person that I was almost six years ago (when I got pregnant for the first time, which is really when I date the beginning of my journey as a mother) I am still me, a Christian woman who has a lot of different roles: daughter, wife, sister, friend (among others). But becoming a mother has changed me more deeply than I ever would have expected, so that it feels far deeper than just adding another "role" at the bottom of a list of roles I play. People talk about ontological changes at ordinations...but I wonder sometimes about ontological changes when one conceives a child. If I had to choose the key deepening events of my life thus far, I think I would have to say they are: birth....conversion (baptism, re-birth)...marriage...and motherhood.

I think God uses those last two, marriage and motherhood, to shape my sanctification, and to re-shape my life in completely different ways than it would be shaped otherwise. Which is not to say that he doesn't shape other lives beautifully and well without either of those two events! Only that those have been very significant in the ongoing shaping of my life in recent years and that sometimes it's hard for me to fathom what I would be like, look like, see like, if he'd taken me down another path.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Reading Round-Up: The Post-It Version

I'm going to start "post-it" versions of my old reading-round-up. In other words, once in a while I'm just going to jot down laundry lists of things I'm reading and thinking about...what's just been read, what's in progress.

I'm also adding lists of books we've been reading with the sweet girl, either in story times or family reading times. And I'm adding a list of current schooling resources.

Recently read...

*Jackie and Me by Dan Gutman
*Murder in the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (this and The Body in the Library currently in progress are both re-reads; I'm comparing them to the recent Miss Marple films starring Geraldine McEwan which we've been watching on DVD
*The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke
*The Strawberry Shortcake Murder (ditto...what can I say? It's winter!)

And a couple of interesting articles: Anthony Esolen's essay "Davey's Song" (On the Divine Music of an Autistic Son) in the recent issue of Touchstone, and Deanna Overstreet's "The Gospel According to Jane" (yes, Austen) in the current issue of Theology Today

Currently reading...

*Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner
*The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne (almost done...really!)
*A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason
*The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
*What Will Harry Do? by Janet Batchler (reflections on Book 7 of the Harry Potter series)

On the Sweet Girl's bookshelf...

Her Current favorites:
*The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter
*The Ruth Ainsworth Book (great find, and with Shirley Hughes illustrations!)
*The Trouble With Baby by Marisabina Russo
*One Hundred Ways to Count to 100
*The Snow Globe Family (book's in her room, and she's sleeping, so I'll have to check the author later...)

And we just finished 'B' is for Betsy by Carolyn Heywood

Schooling resources I'm working with or preparing to work with: Handwriting Without Tears; Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons; Math-U-See Primer

Verse we've been working on this week: Proverbs 3:5&6

Stirring Up Some "Chocolat"

Forgive the pun, but I'm still trying to digest Chocolat, the film Dana and I watched the other evening after we'd put the little one to bed.

The movie, made in 2000, was directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starred Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp, among a few other stand-out names. We saw a preview of it not long ago on another DVD we rented, and thought it looked interesting. And our library just happened to have a copy...

This is one of those films I just don't know what to do with. It's pleasant to look at and is well-acted. But the story at its heart is so out of tune with my worldview that I struggled almost every step of the way as a viewer. I don't think this is a film I can review on epinions, mostly because I don't feel like engaging it as a *film* (technical excellence, etc.) as much as I feel like engaging it as a story...and looking at the story's underpinnings from the specific standpoint of the Christian Story.

Although there's romance in this film, the interesting drama really isn't the romance. It's the conflict the filmmakers set up between the mayor of the small French town (Comte Paul de Reynaud, played by Molina) and the newcomer to town, a woman named Vianne (played by Binoche).

We see Comte de Reynaud first, the most prominent member of the congregation at Sunday Mass during the first Sunday in Lent in this very religious, traditionalist town. I actually thought, for the first few minutes, that he was the priest -- and he may as well have been, for all intents and purposes. He controls the church services, morally polices the town, and keeps the young bumbling just-out-of- seminary priest firmly under his thumb, even re-writing most of the poor guy's sermons. Molina's character is an insider. He's lived in this town forever and has the respect (read: fear) of most of the townspeople. He wields power and abuses it. He's into acesticism and denial, and takes his Lenten fast to major extremes.

It's no wonder a man like this would practically have apoplexy when a stunningly beautiful young woman, a single mother with a young daughter in tow, blows into town with a mystical north wind. She's gorgeous, she's sensuous, she wears bright colors, and she's kind and loving to everyone, a good humanist through and through. She won't step foot in the Comte's church. And she has the appalling nerve to open up a chocolate shop in the middle of lent. She makes chocolate delicacies from exotic ingredients shipped in from mysterious places, and her culinary skills show real artistry.

The opposition of these characters is set up so starkly and with such a heavy hand that of course our sympathies are with Vianne the whole way. Which is troubling, because as the movie wears on you realize more and more that the film is really defining their opposite approaches to life with rather clear and obvious tags. The Comte's life denying, rigid and unloving behavior is linked with religion, specifically Catholicism. And Vianne's life affirming, seeing-the-beauty-in-everything and siding with the poor, the least and the lost (as she does repeatedly, befriending and helping several outcasts in the town that have been nothing but brow-beaten or ignored by the religious community) is gradually shown to grow out of a mystical (magical and somewhat fatalistic) paganism. It turns out that she's learned her culinary/medicinal talents from parents who had contacts with exotic, pagan cultures. And she's now fated, or so she believes, to continue the wandering, nomadic existence bequeathed to her by her mother, travelling from town to town dispensing wisdom and kindness and chocolate, but never really finding a home for herself.

If you think I exaggerate, consider a scene in the film which juxtaposes images of the village priest offering eucharist to a man in town who has been beating his wife (we've already seen the Comte forcing the reluctant man through all sorts of seemingly empty religious exercises to push him to repentance) and images of Vianne offering a piece of chocolate to the woman who's been beaten, a woman she simply loves and accepts and takes in like a member of the family. That's another key opposition: the church is shown as cold and academic institution, and the chocolate shop as a vital and loving familial community. An indictment of the church? Perhaps -- and perhaps sometimes one that the church deserves. But it's hard not to wince here and see this as an indictment of a caricature of the church, the church at its worst. And it's hard not to worry about the poor outcasts and wretches sitting at the chocolate counter who really need more substantial and nourishing food for body and spirit.

Binoche and Molina are such fine performers that both sometimes rise above, I think, the heavy-handed simplicity of their scripted characters. And there are actually honest moments in the film that show the two characters have more in common than either might be able to see or willing to admit. Both are lost, emotionally and spiritually in exile, though both would deny that vehemenently. And it's harder to see with Vianne's character, because I'm not sure the filmmakers *wanted* us to see it, or even fully realized it was there -- we're clearly being set up to view her tolerant, loving, open-handed approach to life as the better philosophy to live by. But she is indeed lost. She longs for a home and a place to belong and someone to love and be loved by. She knows she is putting her young daughter through pain and loneliness as they travel from place to place, though she lies about that repeatedly (until she finally comes clean to her lover, played by Johnny Depp). She's essentially in bondage to the power of death, a point brought home quite vividly when she only finds the power to break away from the "wandering life" after her daughter accidentally breaks the urn containing her mother's ashes.

Of course, in the end -- Vianne wins. She wins over the townspeople, even the Comte, whose life-denying religion explodes in his face on Easter eve. He gives in to temptation and gorges and indulges his apetites, making himself sick on the chocolates in the shop. And such indulgence, in the story of the film, finally brings him peace. He even gets to give up on his marriage vows and the wife who left him (she's not coming back after all!) so he can finally romance his secretary.

The ending of the film feels particularly dishonest and frustrating. We're given the easy ending: see! Vianne was right! Indulgence and tolerance and embracing anything you want to embrace and doing whatever feels right to you in a given moment is all that counts! And it will bring you joy! The sprightly bright happy ending makes us forget a few things: what about the lives lost in the wake of all this indulging and embracing? (I haven't gone into the stories of the more minor characters, but believe me, this is a question worth asking.)

And worst of all, the namby-pamby priest who has been under the Comte's thumb and preaching the Comte's sermons finally stands up for himself on Easter morning -- and -- and... can't find a text! He doesn't preach the resurrection, doesn't preach the most wonderful, brilliant, life-altering, radical, beautiful, poor-least-lost embracing Gospel -- the REAL Gospel that would send the Comte to his knees and then dancing in the streets if he'd ever really heard it and received it. Instead the priest preaches an amorphous liberal theology that looks like a pale imitation of the more vivid life Vianne has been living. He basically says "we should all try being kinder to one another" and "we should embrace and include, not deny and exclude" and then they all head out to the pagan fesitval (I'm not exaggerating, I promise) that Vianne had planned for that afternoon.

Please don't think I'm saying that grace doesn't show up in unexpected places. I've learned lots of loving lessons from people who don't call themselves Christians. And I've met people who call themselves Christians who don't seem to have much joy in their lives. But it just made me so sad to watch a story like this, a story whose ultimate message is that we can find joy and meaning and purpose ultimately apart from God, that what life is essentially about is our own happiness regardless of what it may cost us or others. (There's a character, played by Judi Dench, who dies from complications to her diabetes -- she's been eating too much chocolate, of course. But hey, she was happy and that's all that counted.)

The questions this film poses are interesting, but the answers are just too easy. For one thing, I think most of us would agree that life can't be simply defined as either pure denial or pure indulgence. I'd like to think that most of us would realize that, even on our worst days, we do sometimes deny ourselves for the greater good of others. That's not bondage or rigidity. It's freedom -- freedom to obey God, freedom to live a life that honors God who is larger than ourselves and our pleasures and desires and all the little false gods we try to set up. Freedom to follow the Lord of heaven and earth who for our sakes became poor, who denied himself and took up a cross -- and yet who knew life and humanity more abundantly than anyone who has ever walked this earth.

I'll stop rambling now, except to say that I have a feeling I should re-watch Babette's Feast. That's also a film about richness and beauty and goodness being brought to a spiritually dying community, but if I remember correctly (it's been several years since I've seen it) the feasting is grounded in a Christian context and resonates wonderfully with images of the euchasistic feast and the heavenly banquet.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I Feel Really, Really Cold...

It's not just the temperatures outside, though today's high was only about 28 degrees, I think. It's mostly what I've been watching and reading this evening.

For video-time with the sweet girl, we saw about another 10 minutes of March of the Penguins, that epic lovesong about the beauty and devotion of emperor penguins. (Or "Peng-Juans" as S. has taken to calling them...her Daddy thinks such birds sound quite diverse!) Tonight was the segment where the Daddy Emperors all stood huddled together in minus-eighty degree weather, while the winds swirled snow all around them. Steadfast, they struggled for communal warmth against the cold (their "Daddy hug" as S. calls it) in a fight to keep their eggs warm against their feet. I think I was shivering before the scene was over.

Then again I might have been shivering already. After kitchen clean-up and before candle-lighting, I had a few minutes to rest on the couch and read the introduction to my latest inter-library loan gem: David Laskin's 2004 book The Children's Blizzard. It's the story of a blizzard in 1888, one of the most sudden and violent blizzards to ever hit the American prairies, at least since we immigrants to this land have been here and noticing. Laskin seems to write with great interest in and understanding of weather, history and humanity. The introduction to the book was mesmerizing; I can tell I'm going to have a hard time putting it down.

Even as I write this, my brother is making his way from his old home in Georgia to his new home in Nebraska (he starts a new job next week; his wife and daughter will follow him out there soon). And I think I feel cold!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The "Long Joy" of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today I've been reading an article posted at the online Books and Culture by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is the Wheaton English professor who wrote the wonderful biography of C.S. Lewis called The Narnian, which made my personal "best of" book list for last year. It's a marvelous book and Jacobs is always worth reading.

This article, entitled "The Politics of Long Joy" is the first of what promises to be a regular (and if this first is any indication, excellent) column. Jacobs is calling the column "Rumours of Glory," a name he takes from the Bruce Cockburn song of the same name.

Part of the point of Jacob's article, very much worth reading, is the importance of obedience, our conformity to God's will, our lasting trust in God who is in charge of events and outcomes that we cannot control ourselves. Jacobs unpacks for us the phrase "the politics of long joy" which he explains was coined by Stanley Fish in his studies of Milton's Paradise Lost. Without going into the entire reference/explanation, let me just mention that Fish coined the phrase following a scene where Milton has the archangel Michael rebuke Adam for mis-judging a vision. Adam thinks the vision speaks of joy, when in reality the beauty and pleasure of the vision is only a surface pleasure. If Adam had discerned to the heart of the vision, he would have seen that it was not in conformity with God's will. Adam is judging by appearances rather than the deeper realities (which admittedly can be hard for we human beings to discern). Milton then explains that Adam, hearing Michael's words, is "of short joy bereft."

Jacobs goes on to say:

"Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call "outcomes," is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God's is long.

Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, 'It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being -- the politics of long joy -- is not quietism. Its relative indifferences to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and history are not in man's control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one's resolve.' Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan's forces that 'each on himself relied' as though 'only in his arm the moment lay/Of victory.' Or, in Fish's summary 'each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn't.'"

Bear with me...I know I am quoting third-hand (Jacobs says that Fish says that Milton says!) but I really think this whole reflection is worth our rumination. I know I often feel caught between the necessity of action, the desire to "do something" in a given situation (especially a situation where there is a wrong to right or an injustice to address) and my own limitations. I know any action I am likely to take will be partial and imperfect at best, perhaps effective, perhaps not, and I also know that in the long-run, the outcome does not (thankfully) rest with me. This is true of smaller, more local and specific ongoing endeavors (the teaching of my daughter, my own spiritual disciplines) as well. I can plant seeds, I can speak a word in season, I can attempt to do what I think needs to be done, I can listen to God and seek to obey what he is calling me to do. Sometimes I will "succeed" and sometimes I will "fail" (seemingly fail, or really fail) but always the final results are really and truly out of my hands.

Does this excuse me from activity? It shouldn't. But I'm sure I have days, as all Christians must, when we can use the notion of trusting in God's sovereignty over final outcomes as a lame excuse for not putting forth effort and energy. We forget perhaps that God calls us to act (though sometimes also to wait and to watch) and that God calls us to pestering, nagging prayer, and that God calls us to sometimes do bold and courageous and even strange looking things in the journey of obedience. I guess the extremes we can fall into, as sinful human beings, are the extremes of empty activism -- an activism that we engage in a desperate, frantic attempt to fix things and make things better, an activism where we begin to think that the outcome *does* depend on us -- and what Jacob calls "quietism" but which I sometimes think more of as fatalism or apathy. "God will take care of things" is not a phrase which should allow us then to sit back and dis-engage from the very things that God may be doing in this world. Perhaps, amazingly, he may even do a few of them through us.

I kept reading Jacobs through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. We just commemorated his legacy yesterday, and I spent part of the day reviewing a video D. and I watched this weekend, called The Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.. It was an amazing profile of King's life and work. Hearing the things he said, and watching his strong and consistent resolve, brought tears to my eyes. I told D. that I noticed something as the video progressed through the 13 years of King's leadership in the civil rights movement. As you watched him grow older, you also watched him grow as a leader, as a man of faith. You could see the expression of shock, perhaps even a little bit of fear, on the young King's face when he was arrested and jailed. But as you watched him, firm in his resolve, always active, and and clearly trusting in God for any and all outcomes, you could see his serenity grow. In his final speech "I Have Been to the Mountaintop," given the day before he died, he radiates peace. He exemplifies that "long joy" that Jacob talks of here. He knew that nothing ultimately depended on him ("I may not get there with you" he said to the gathered crowd, when speaking of the promised land of peace and solidarity he had so long envisioned, but he assured them that one day they would get there whether he was the one leading them in or not.) And yet he worked tirelessly for years, doing all he could, working as if it depended on him, trusting and knowing that it did not. That is why he could say, and clearly mean it, that the threats to his life didn't really matter, that he had no fear of any man. He had discovered the resting activity of long joy, the joy of "long obedience in the same direction."

"It's God's work," Sr. Lucille used to say to me, when I worked for her at Cabrini Mission Corps. And she believed it. Lucille is another shining example of someone who works harder than almost anyone I know the do the things God calls her to, to make a difference in the lives of others. And yet she knows, deep down, that the "results," the "outcomes," in the end belong to God. It always made her able to weather seeming success and seeming failure or hardship with equanimity and peace.

She rests in the long joy. Martin Luther King Jr. rested in that. I want to learn to rest in that too.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Maybe It's a Good Thing...

I have days when I really wish that the sweet girl had a little sister or brother. It's not just my own heart wishing for another little one, but I think sometimes how much a brother or sister, simply by existing, would teach her flexibility and patience (lessons she has a hard time learning, as do I!) far better perhaps than her Daddy and I can teach them alone. Still, I know for now that it's not to be.

And some days that's OK. Take this evening, for instance. We were having family devotions and our dear daughter tenderly cradled her latest baby doll in her arms. I looked over at her and felt my insides go all misty as I watched her loving care for this little doll. (Cue above wistful thoughts...)

"Oh sweetie," I said, "it's so nice to see you taking such good care of your baby!" The words still hung in mid-air when she turned more towards me, so I could see her more directly. She still cuddled that little doll close, but what I hadn't been able to see until that moment was the huge mischievous grin on her face. And her mouth, opened wide, as she attempted to bite the doll's foot.

Cue inner hysterical laughter!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

God Stoops

I've been thinking today about the huge generosity of God. His love isn't just magnanimous, isn't just generous...there really aren't words big enough to describe the love God has for the world and for his people. When we try to put it into words, we borrow from the language of the Scriptures and the language of hymnody and poetry, and we still fall short. His love is lavish, extravagant, prodigal, amazing, so divine.

It's all right that our language falls short; so do we. And God knows that. He remembers that we are but dust. Still he desires our worship and praise, and still he desires to be our sun and shield and the glory and the lifter of our heads.

This morning in our small, faithful, remnant, basement dwelling windowless church in a broken mostly forgotten little town, the music and the prayers swelled and lifted our congregation heavenwards even as the Holy Spirit descended with a resounding and beautiful power. For just a few moments, I think we all felt suspended, suspended in the beauty and majesty and awe of God's presence. Some people lifted their hands, others bowed their heads, some people wept, a few people, I think, fell to their knees. I've been caught up in moments like this before, but rarely had I felt the intense presence of God with such sharp clarity. It's hard to describe, in part because it passed so quickly, but I had a feeling that if that awareness had lasted just a little longer that my sight, my sense of smell, my hearing, my sense of taste, would all have been sharpened.

How can this happen? I felt genuninely dumbfounded. It's one thing, perhaps, to sense a "thin place" (a place where the earthly and heavenly seem so closely connected that you only need to part through a mist or a thin cloud to cross over) where there is color, light, beauty, inspiring iconography. It's another thing to discover a "thin place" or a thin moment in a utilitarian basement room with pipes on the ceiling and bad lighting, and dirty tiles on the floor. It made me realize anew (and I felt washed in gratitude) that place and time and condition really make no difference. The love of God can descend, can stoop where it will, at all times and in all places, in all seasons. God inhabits the praises of his people.

I can't get the words "descend" and "stoop" out of my mind. We're in Epiphany now, not Christmas, but no matter, the Christmas truths stay good year round, day in and day out. Especially the essential truth of God become man, God descending from heaven to earth to be born in a lowly stable (where no doubt the lighting was bad and the straw stank) and to grow up like we do, in a world of brokenness and sin.

That is love...vast as the ocean.

That is peace. As Henry Vaughan says, in his wonderful poem entitled "Peace":

He is thy gracious Friend
And -- O my soul awake! --
Did in pure love descend
To die here for thy sake.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Some Encouragement for my Inner Struggling Writer

I've still been "taking stock" of the reading and writing I did last year. Yes, I know we're nearly two full weeks into the new year, but I'm slow. :-) Plus I really didn't have much time in December for such reflection.

I've been feeling somewhat discouraged that I did so little writing last year beyond the review-writing I did for Epinions. Not that I don't enjoy writing those (if I didn't, I wouldn't keep writing them!) but I've made myself a goal this year to spend less time on those reviews and more time writing other things (poems, stories, essays, articles) in an attempt to get some pieces published. I think every writer longs for a wider audience, and every writer longs to really write about the things we care about most.

While still in my "taking stock" mode, I decided to look over all the reviews I wrote for Epinions last year and see which ones had the most visits, or "hits" as they're called in epi-parlance. That number is tracked on the site and can be accessed via your personal account, so you can see the relative popularity of your reviews, how many people are accessing them (and then hopefully reading them). Because I write book reviews, mostly (though not all) children's book reviews, my number of visits or hits is not usually very large. It's unusual for me to tally 100 hits on most of my reviews. My movie reviews (which I write less often) fare better, as do my occasional forays into toys, music or health products. With those latter categories, I've always suspected its the "practicality" of the reviews that garners more visits. After all, one can rate certain things in terms of productivity, how well they work, how they live up to product claims, etc. And consumers on a site like Epinions may well be looking for those kinds of information before they make a purchase.

With book reviews (and to a lesser extent perhaps? movies) I think the reviews are much more subjective. When reviewing a work of art, rather than a product, one can't help but bring more subjective impressions to it, and there are less utilitarian concerns. Yes, there's still some element of subjectivity when it comes to assessing a shampoo -- a shampoo might work well for one person and yet dry out another person's hair -- but there's still an element there of assessing "performance" that I think is very different than the complex interaction one has with a book or a film.

At any rate, I was scrolling somewhat rapidly through my list of reviews, seeing lots of numbers like "58" and "79" and "92" and once in while "141" but realizing that most of my reviews really do probably fall within the 50-80 visit range, at least in the first year of their posting. And that's all right. So I was suddenly startled when I saw the number "352" posted next to a review, especially because this was something I posted in November. It's only been posted for two months, and it has 352 visits!

I looked eagerly to see what it was and felt even more astounded. It wasn't even a review at all, strictly speaking, but an essay I wrote for the "writer's corner" called 10 Wonderful Poems to Share With a Young Child. From time to time, I write reflections or essays, usually on children's literature or parenting topics. I was astounded that it had been accessed that many times, and frankly bewildered as to know how that might have happened. (I hardly ever remember to check writer's corner content myself when I'm on the site.) Only 33 of the visits were "member visits" which means somehow, someway, this little essay has been "visited" (dare I hope, "read"?) by 319 non-members, i.e. regular people.

Is this possible? Could it be a miscalculation? I don't know. But I felt really encouraged. No matter that writer's corner pieces make no money (ah well) it still warmed my heart to think that 300 some people might actually have accessed and read this little piece I wrote about the importance of sharing poetry with a child. It gives me a little dose of hope that I should keep writing about the things that I really care about. Maybe other people care about them too!

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Bringing in the Sheep"

A few weeks ago I posted a bit about our church's Christmas pageant where the sweet girl played a sheep. In addition to the children dressed as sheep, the kids dressed as shepherds also had a soft, stuffed sheep that one of them carried.

The sheep belonged to us, though I'd forgotten that. My creative husband has a seemingly endless (or bottomless) supply of interesting props and costume pieces from his years in drama, and also just out of habit (if he's at a thrift store, he can't help just never know when you might *need* a toy castle or a pair of sparkly sunglasses or red suspenders get the idea). At heart, he's a big kid and also something of a collector. He can think of a million uses for common, ordinary things that other people would never consider saving or keeping.

But I digress. The sheep was from our closet, even though I didn't remember it was ours, and after the peformance D. left it in my office at the church. He planned to pick it up later and wrap it and give it to the sweet girl, who loved it (but who also hadn't quite cottoned on to the fact that it belonged to our

With one thing and another, especially holiday travel, we forgot about it. So there it sat in my office, where various people noted and admired it. But finally, this week, D. decided it was time we went ahead and brought it home. When he and S. came to pick me up at work yesterday, he gave it to her. She was thrilled, and insisted on carrying it to the car and then once she got out of the car again at home. It was very funny to see her trundling up the sidewalk in her purple winter coat with the furry hood, this cumbersome (but cute) large stuffed sheep in her arms.

And even funnier when her Daddy (did I mention he's funny too?) began to sing a rousing rendition of "Bringing in the Sheep" to the tune of the old hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves." As in: "Bringing in the sheep, bringing in the sheep, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheep!" Even S., who didn't entirely get the joke, thought this was funny. We all giggled our way up the steps.

I really do love the wonderful guy I've been married to for almost fifteen years!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Before I tucked her in under the warm covers for her nap this afternoon, the sweet girl declared:

"You are a mommy butterfly reading a butterfly story to your baby caterpillar who will get into a chrysalis and turn into a butterfly."

I just loved that sentence!

And speaking of wonderful speech moments, last night S. actually said the word "metamorphosis." Sometimes when I think back to all those months of agonizing worry and frustration when she wasn't speaking at all or when she was making only a few sounds, I am just in awe of how far she's come in such a short period of time. She said the word so clearly too, slowly and precisely, broken into its syllables: "met-a-mor-pho-sis." Even as her Daddy and I exclaimed over how well she said the word, he and I just looked at each other with one of those silent celebratory exchanges -- the wordless thanks, that quick moment of quiet shared gratitude to God.

Sometimes I feel like there really has been a metamorphosis around my daughter!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Wearing the Homeschooling Hat: Reflecting on the "Rule of Six"

I've been giving more intentional thought to homeschooling again. It's a subject that's not really left my mind now (at least it simmers in the background) for many months. I've done some reading and thinking about it here and there, but life has been so full I've not been able to give it the attention and thought I've really wanted to.

Now that I'm no longer teaching a course for the seminary, I have a bit more time in the evenings. Yes, I'm still very tired after a day of office work (all morning) and parenting and household tasks (early morning, all afternoon and evening) but it's time. Past time to begin doing more sustained and intentional thinking, praying, and reflecting I'd like to do about how we're raising the sweet girl, and the ways in which I (we) would like to see her continue to learn.

I was realizing today that we've been teaching her at home for such a long time -- her whole life, really. So much of what we do naturally is teaching, and we've been very intentional about some of the ways we've been training her (behavior-wise, character-wise) as well choosing what we provide for her enrichment and learning. Some of this is probably due to our natural inclination -- both D. and I have spent a lot of our adult lives in teaching and/or student situations, and we love learning, reading and talking about what we're learning. Some of our natural inclination intensified during the very challenging year when the sweet girl was 2 and struggling with a major speech delay and all the subsequent delays that accompanied that (some of which still linger; we're still working in some of those areas). That year happened to be a year when we were both out of work almost all of the time (talk about stress!) which turned out, oddly enough, to be a blessing in that we got to spend a lot of time working with S. on developmental activities and speech work.

I think it was during that year that I felt it confirmed in my heart that I wanted to teach her at home. I began to realize that I'd been put in a unique position to understand and appreciate her particular learning challenges and quirks. I also began to realize how exciting teaching her at home could be, especially when you can draw on the expertise, help and creativity of others to supplement your own skills.

Although I've been lurking on homeschool blogs and reading at homeschooling and education articles for years (actually read some books even before I ever had my baby!) I've mostly felt like a bit of a homeschooling imposter. Partly this is due to the fact that D. has had such reservations about it, and (more recently) because I know I cannot claim that "SAHM" title ("stay-at-home-mom"). We don't look like a traditional homeschooling family. So many of the homeschoolers I read can really concentrate all their attention and energy on doing just that. At the moment, being faithful to God's call for our family means that I must work outside of the home at least twenty hours per week. And doing what's best for my daughter and her ongoing speech needs has also meant enrolling her in a public integrated-classroom preschool two mornings per week. I know we don't fit the "profile" (though I'm beginning to learn the profile, at least in some circles, is stretchier than I realized, thankfully).

All this to say, wearing the homeschooling hat still makes me feel very self-conscious. Can I call myself a homeschooler? Much as I'd like to, I don't know. Does it mean anything that I spent the afternoon helping my preschooler learn the life stages of a butterfly (egg, larva, chrysalis, butterfly) through a coloring, cutting, pasting, sequencing project? And then she got scarves and flew around the kitchen, being a "painted lady butterfly" while I made dinner?

At any rate, whether or not I can comfortably wear the hat or not, I plan to put it on from time to time here at my blog, and to comment on some of the things I'm reading.

One of my favorite things I've come across in my meandering through the homeschool world online has been this marvelous "Rule of Six." It was developed by author, mom and homeschooler Melissa Wiley as she reflected on the educational philosopy of Charlotte Mason and then adapted it into a kind of "rule" for her family.

I love this...

"Six Things to Include in Your Child's Day"

• meaningful work
• imaginative play
• good books
• beauty (art, music, nature)
• ideas to ponder and discuss
• prayer

In one of her excellent posts, she reflects on how this rule developed. When her children were younger, she actually called it a "Rule of Five" because she recognized that work was play for young children (an insight with which I agree). She added the "meaningful work" when the oldest turned six.

She also uses a kind of "fingerplay" to reflect on the rule with the children from time to time. They have a time at the end of the day when they take stock of the day and reflect on the different parts of the rule. They end with prayer because it's the most important, and because once they've gone through one finger for each of the other five things, they can clasp their hands and pray. Beautiful. And a great way of reflecting on the day, either on your own or with your little one.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

My Personal "Best of..." Books List for 2006

I've been scrolling through the 2006 archives here to pull together a list of what I read in 2006. One thing I realized almost right away was that I was much better about recording books I read in the early months of the year. As the year wore on, a number of things I read either didn't get mentioned here, or only got mentioned briefly but not really reflected on. To get at least a somewhat more complete list, I've also been going through all the book reviews I wrote for epinions during 2006 (more than I realized!).

I realized several things, good and bad (or perhaps positive and challenging) about my reading habits last year. The first is that I read more than I realized, even during busy seasons (good) but that the busier I get the less I read with depth (bad). By that last I mean a couple of things: I have good intentions about reading a book and start it, but don't always finish it. Sometimes that's fine -- not every book one picks up will be the "right book" for a certain season, and some books are meant to be sipped at slowly and savored over a long period. But there were some books (Dickens, anyone?) that I gave up on too early, mostly because I didn't have the energy to keep plowing through until I turned the magical corner that suddenly makes a book you're reading a book you love to read.

But I also mean that I read fewer books of substance and depth than I supposed. I can chalk this up to a lot of things, and some of them would even be justified -- I worked two jobs most of last year, while writing and parenting and doing about a million other things. I know my mental energy is not always what it should be, or what it used to be, and so it's easy for me to say "oh I'll just read something light right now" -- until the "light" books pile up. Again, nothing wrong with reading for entertainment and enjoyment, but I want to read for formation and understanding and deepening as well. And I think I need to get more intentional about that.

I was also realizing that I read a lot of children's literature last year. I think that's a good thing -- not something I feel a need to apologize for at all. In fact, the older I get the more I seem to enjoy children's literature. Some of that is due to the fact that I'm a mother, enjoying a season of life with a young child who loves books. Some is due to my hope that in reading so much good children's literature, I will learn to better write really good children's literature. But some of it stems from the plain realization that many of the world's best writers, in all times and I would say most assuredly our time, are writing stories specifically for children. Children's stories almost always still have a story shape, and something to teach. One can't always assume either of those things about more "sophisticated" (urgh) books for adults.

Without further ado, here's my personal "best of" list for 2006. I plan to post another post (sometime this week?) with some thoughts on a few of these and why they made the list.

Biography of the year: Alan Jacobs’ The Narnian

Picture book author of the year: a tie between Robert McCloskey and Jane Hissey

Best Devotional Book: You Are My Hiding Place, compilations of devotional writings by Amy Carmichel

Best Novel I Read This Year: C.S. Lewis' Till’ We Have Faces

Best Novel I Re-Read This Year: Jane Austen's Persuasion

Best "pop culture" Book: Samuel Crowl's The Films of Kenneth Branagh

Favorite "new to me" children’s book (8-12 year old category): Kate DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Favorite "new to me" young adult book (12-15 year old): Polly Shulman's Enthusiasm

Favorite "new to me" picture book: Anna Dewdney's Llama, Llama, Red Pajama

Best Children’s Book I Re-Read This Year: E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web

Book I Wish I Hadn’t Wasted My Time Reading: Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones’ Diary

Book I Should Have Finished (and still plan to): Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution

The Book That Most Surprised Me: Melissa Wiley's Little House in the Highlands

The Book That Made Me Laugh the Most: Ron Hansen's Isn’t it Romantic?

Book That Challenged Me the Most: The Bible

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Teach Us to Number Our Days...

Did you know...

-- that January has seven letters, but December has eight?
-- that both January and December have 31 days in them?
-- that today is January 3rd, so that means we have 28 days left before the beginning of February? (And 28 days equals four weeks.)
-- that the first day of spring is March 20?

Well, you probably did know all those things, though I doubt you've spent a lot of time thinking and talking about them lately. But these are the kinds of questions and reflections on the sweet girl's mind these days as we've hung up our new calendar and continued to spell out the month, day, year and day of the week with refrigerator magnets each morning.

Once again we let S. choose the calendar for the kitchen wall. That's been a tradition since she was two. For two years running, she picked a dog calendar, and last year it was all chocolate labs all the time! So I was delighted when she chose owls this year (delighted though not surprised, given her ongoing fascination with them) especially because each month features a different species. January's owl is the great gray owl, and the photograph is stunning -- the beautiful, somber-faced bird with his huge wingspan swooping over a snowy field, the blue shadow of his wings trailing along behind, as massive and beautiful as he is himself.

We're numbering our days...which should help us gain hearts of wisdom. And owls make great mascots for wisdom-seekers!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy 2007!

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)