Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I've been contemplating how to capture our recent Christmas trip in words. It's difficult, because some of the words I might choose (including exhausting and stressful) might indicate a lack of gratitude on my part, and I really do feel grateful in so many ways for the gifts of this past year, and even of this somewhat odd holiday season.

Christmas is a very important day for my husband's family. Unless dire circumstances prevent it, they always celebrate it together, though in recent years they've floundered a bit to find new ways to ground their celebration and new traditions to replace old and beloved ones in the wake of my husband's grandparents' death six years ago. Grandma and Granddad were the literal glue that held their family celebrations, especially Christmas, together. Everything spun round in their orbit and took place in their home. I sometimes feel as though we're attempting to embroider around a very large hole on Christmas day. There's still a level of grief there that I, as an in-law (who nevertheless loved those two people dearly) can only fathom in part. And of course every family deals with such things differently. I know how my family of origin would likely work through that kind of grief, but every family has its own way, its own dance.

So I confess I always feel a little bit of displacement on at least a couple of levels on Christmas day. We live through the advent season as prayerfully and well as we can here, but right at the end of it, there's a flurry of activity (ministry, school and work related) and then we pack in what feels like a frenzy and head out for several days on the road. When we lived further east, we were a close enough drive to extended family that we could still do our small family celebration at home in the morning, then head to Maryland or Northern Virginia for a late lunch and a couple days' visit with family. That's not possible now: we have to leave at least a couple of days before Christmas to make the trip work, which means we often don't do our family present opening here until somewhere well into the 12 days of Christmas (often around new year's). We take a few small gifts for the sweet girl to open and spend most of the actual day traveling to and from D's mother's house and his sister's house, with lots of time spent with nine of the sweet girl's cousins and other relatives.

So there's always a bit of stress involved (even in the midst of the fun parts) and this year there was a good bit more stress than usual. I don't feel free to write about much of it here, since those stories aren't mine to share, but various members of D's family are going through a very hard time right now. The "holes in the fabric" felt a lot more ragged than usual in the family celebration this year. More than ever I felt mindful of how very much we all need Jesus, and how deeply grateful that he came to us as one of us to share our burdens and our sorrows!

I got sick when we traveled, which didn't help matters a lot from my perspective. Congestion, cough and fever (which began to hit in earnest on Christmas Adam as we headed down, then got a lot worse on Christmas Eve and the Day itself) kept me at a lower ebb of energy than usual. Still there were blessings: candlelight and tree-light in the sanctuary of D's mom's church on Christmas Eve and many beautiful Christmas carols; the sweet girl waking up Christmas morning and wanting to hear the Christmas story from Luke as soon as we'd finished breakfast; watching the sweet girl's face light up when she received the gift of a baby doll (what she most wanted) from her daddy and me (she named her Noelle). We traveled onto my parents' home the day after Christmas. It was wonderful to see them and there was a remarkable feeling of relief in my tired, middle-aged, displaced self to see some of the familiar sights and sounds of Christmases from my own childhood, especially the wooden barrel where we always kept the tree ornaments (and Mom and Dad still do).

I think the moment most tinged with grace, however, was one I could never have planned nor even imagined. It happened on Sunday as we were leaving. We'd gotten up early and met D's aunt for breakfast at a local IHOP. As we pulled out of the parking area, after saying our good-byes, I slid a quieting CD into the player (David Klinkenberg's "The Carol of Emmanuel," a recording my sister gave me last year) hoping we could settle into a peaceful beginning of the long 5 plus hour journey back home. We found ourselves at a very long red light at a busy intersection on an overcast morning. A group of dark birds was flying nearby in a "V" formation. While we watched, they swooped past and then settled onto some telephone wires. But not for long -- they suddenly all dived again together, in perfect formation. They continued to swoop and swirl in perfect loops and dives, fluttering from place to place as though in a choreographed ballet. D. and I both had that same thought in an instant: "choreographed." He said the word out loud, laughing, but then we just sat there in awe watching them continue their amazing dance. They seemed to flutter and swoop in time to a perfect music. Of course, they couldn't hear the music we were listening to...a gentle, rolling, piano/violin version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" but they clearly could hear something. Their flight was as beautiful and easy as though they'd practiced it hundreds of times before, just casual loops and rolls and dives, sometimes landing on the wires, but often swooping in an unseen shape as though riding the waves of air current to some planned but hidden-to-our-eyes destination before they paused, turned with stunning precision, and flew to the next place.

Sheer beauty. Sheer grace. I watched them as long as I could, until they became tiny dots in the small patch of sky reflected in my rear-view mirror. Despite the aches in my body and heart, I felt calmed, like a child at rest. I think it was one of the best Christmas gifts a loving Abba could have sent this particular daughter.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Favorite Christmas Pageant Rehearsal Moments

We rehearsed this morning for tomorrow's Christmas pageant. The older children (fourth grade and up) have all the speaking parts this year. One of our high schoolers has ambitiously adapted a play based on a short story by Tolstoy. In the middle of that story, there's an opportunity for a telling of the nativity, and the younger kids, pre-k through third, have non-speaking roles in that.

The sweet girl is a shepherd this year, and looks precious (like a miniature monk) in her grayish-brown shepherding outfit. She is, of course, carrying her woolly stuffed sheep!

The five year old daughter of dear friends is at last getting to play Mary after longing for the part last year (when a much older girl played the role). We were so delighted that she's getting to do it, as this will be the family's last pageant at our church (they're going on the mission field next year). When we first offered her the role, earlier this week, she got nervous and said no; she thought she'd rather be a sheep after all and stick with her big brother, who's playing a shepherd. I suspect the real Mary might have had moments when she wouldn't have minded being an ordinary sheep either! But today, like the other Mary, this tiny girl said yes. She looked luminous in her little blue veil, and smiled with true delight when my dear husband (who's directing the pageant) asked her if she could hide the baby Jesus doll in the folds of her robe when she first came out, then bring the doll out and place him in the manger at the appropriate time. Her mom had a baby recently, so I suspect this all feels very close to home!

Other favorite moments: when I asked the oldest girl playing an angel if she would mind taking on the role of Gabriel. Hesitation. "Will I still get to be a girl?" Clearly important to her! I hesitated only a fraction (and decided in that instant that this was not the time to discuss angel gender or lack thereof) and then just said "of course!" "Okay then," she said.

Our Joseph got a little bossy. He kept asking "who's playing Mary? which one is playing Mary?" and then when we told him, he marched up to her and took her hand. "Come on!"

And after the rehearsal, that tiny little Mary, whose dad will be teaching theology next year, showed she has perhaps been reading comic books, while also perhaps giving some thought to the idea of kenosis (Jesus emptying himself when he took on flesh) when she commented on Jesus waking up in the manager. "He must've said 'hey, look! What happened to my powers?!'"

Even as I laugh, I think how strange and mysterious it must have seemed to all the heavenly host to proclaim the God of heaven and earth was lying swaddled in a feed box! "One born in a manger commands the beauteous files..." as Henry Vaughn reminds us.

Sometimes we just have to sit at Jesus' feet in gratitude and awe because there's no other appropriate response.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Still Time To Give Thanks

We've had what has felt like a busier and more stressed advent season this year for a number of reasons. We've also been blessed with many moments of grace and joy, but for some reason I have (in particular) been feeling overwhelmed with too much "to do" and too much "to think about" and having a harder time than usual letting go and finding places to sink deep down into stillness and expectancy.

For the past couple of years I've posted a list of what we're thankful for, usually right around thanksgiving. This year I didn't, and despite the fact that thanksgiving is far behind us and Christmas is now literally just around the corner, I keep feeling a nagging need to come here and count my blessings anyway. Any time of year can be a time to give thanks, and I seem to be in more need than usual of taking a deep breath and doing just that!

I missed our annual tradition of writing blessings/what we're grateful for on leaves for the thanksgiving tree. We didn't do it at home, and despite the fact that it was just the three of us and my parents in Virginia on thanksgiving day, we just forgot to do it there. I definitely want to reinstate this tradition next year, wherever we find ourselves.

While walking earlier today to run some errands, I asked the sweet girl to think of three blessings she was thankful for. She decided on these three: "that we have a Christmas tree; that I have crayons I can color with; and you, Mommy." I liked the simplicity of that list, and of course was rather partial to that last one!

My own "list" today included how well S. is doing in school and how much she enjoys learning; the kindness and sweetness of her daddy; and all the blessings of the autumn season this year. That included yet another trip to Virginia to spend time with my parents and D's aunt, mom and mom's husband. I'm especially grateful for my parents' continued good health (they're both 76 now) and for the wonderful afternoon we got to spend with them at Maymont Park, a beautiful park we used to go to when I was a child. I hadn't been there in years and loved how much it hadn't changed: the barn with animals for petting, the long trail through ivy-covered tree-lined paths filled with stops to ooh and ahh over various North American animals like gray foxes, black bears, and even hawks and eagles in the aviary.

Better perhaps even that our time at the park was the precious time spent by the sweet girl in the back yard with my Dad, feeding the birds and squirrels.
For a city-dwelling child who loves trees and animals, this was sheerly heaven. I watched her dancing around sprinkling corn on the ground and putting seeds in the feeders and realized how dearly she would enjoy doing this every day. I've had to work since then on my contentment levels and not feeling a renewed sense of resignation that we're called to where we're called. There are blessings here too. May I do a better job of remembering that and "counting them" each day!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Of Jesse's Lineage

After a couple of weeks of playing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" during our Advent devotional time, the sweet girl asked if we could do another Advent song as we began our third week. I chose "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming." I love this beautiful hymn, and it seemed especially appropriate today as we lit the rose colored candle for the third Sunday.

Everything seemed to dovetail beautifully (and unexpectedly, totally unplanned by us!) for our evening devotions tonight. First we had an unexpected hour together beforehand as a family, just the three of us, and spent it watching some old home videos of Christmases past, including the sweet girl's very first Christmas. That video includes some footage that's very special to us, of what turned out to be our last visit with both of my husband's grandparents. They were nearing 90 that Christmas and both of them passed away the following spring, within a few months of each other. It's so lovely to have this recording of them opening their Christmas gifts in their living room, with Great-Grandma Lucille smiling and talking with our dear baby girl. And wonderful now for S. to be able to see that she really did meet her great-grandparents.

Then the little Advent paper chain we've been putting together, which has a different name or title for Jesus each evening, had the title "Son of David." We talked about what it means for Jesus to be called the Son of David. The sweet girl and I have been studying ancient Israel in school this autumn, so we've gone over David's line a few times, especially when we were reading the book of Ruth. She knows that David was the son of Jesse who was the son of Obed who was the son of Boaz who was the husband of Ruth. Talking about our own family trees as well as David's fit in beautifully with the line in "Lo How a Rose" which reminds us that the promised one was "Of Jesse's lineage coming..." We discussed what the word lineage meant and tied it back into our talking/celebrating/remembering of our own family as well.

I love such fruitful heart-shaping moments, especially the ones that feel like sheer gift. You couldn't plan them this well if you tried!

And as usual, I found myself soaking all of this up in my own heart. It dawned on me as we listened to the song and reflected together on Jesus' lineage that I often focus on the amazing blessing of Jesus' royal heritage and the joy and beauty of God's fulfilled promise...but how seldom do I just ponder the power of the simple fact that Jesus had a lineage. Like you and like me, he had a family tree. The one who made real trees! The one who made people and all the families of the earth! The eternal Word who has always existed, who has always been with God and is God, who made everything in heaven and on earth! He had no beginning (there was never a time when he was not) and yet he chose to be born of a woman, to place himself within a human family, to carve his name in a line of human beings. The root of everything, the blossom that grows from a stump, chose to humble himself and be born here on earth, to place himself within the confines of a particular family tree. It's breathtaking. He had a lineage. It makes me want to go back to all those "begats" I usually skim over in Matthew and Luke and read them with a newly thankful heart. In fact, I think I will do just that this week.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

B is for Bethlehem

We've started pulling our favorite Christmas books off the shelves for family reading. Tonight at bedtime we read B is for Bethlehem, a book we first found when the sweet girl was just an infant.

I loved this book from the first time I laid eyes on it. The beautiful, vibrant colors of the illustrations, reminiscent somehow of folk art or patchwork quilts, work in lovely tandem with the rhyming couplets that take you through the alphabet and through the nativity story.

And I love the book for the memories I have of reading it over and over to S. when she was a baby and a toddler. Several of the pages glisten with tape because we couldn't bear to take it away from her determined baby grip and some of the pages ripped. She loved looking at it, long before she could have been fully conscious of what it was about. And we loved that her little eyes (and heart, we hoped!) were already drinking in the glorious news of Jesus' birth.

It was fun tonight to read through it together and hear her new observations. She realized that, even though it was an alphabet book, giving you words that represented each letter, it was also going through the story. She loved how it talked about light (it mentions that "R" is for radiance): "that's neat," she said, "because God is Light, and Jesus is God's Son."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I've hardly caught my breath from thanksgiving travels (and I've not yet caught up with all the posts I wanted to do here, especially my annual "giving thanks" list) but we've already plunged into Advent and Christmas festivities. It seems like most of the things we traditionally do as a family, in terms of local celebrations, all got scheduled this past weekend! That meant our county's festival of the trees, where I captured this lovely photo, as well as the Christmas events at Old Economy (our nearby historic site) and the live nativity at the church down the street.

After all that, we went ahead and put up our Christmas tree and lights too. As much as I enjoyed it all, I'm hoping this coming weekend will feel much more relaxed! Before you know it, it will time to light the rose candle on our advent wreath...

I hope you're all finding time to rest, to breathe, to pray, to contemplate, in this busy season (yes, I've got papers to grade...)

We hear the Christmas angels, their great, glad tidings tell...Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Just Because I Don't Want to Forget This

The sweet girl was sound asleep when I went in to get her up this morning. I gently woke her and then, after giving a few stretches and yawns, she crawled sleepily onto my lap. We don't seem to have quite as many of these cuddly moments (now that she's a big girl of almost six and a half) as we used to, so I treasure every second of warm little girl in white kitty-cat pajamas scrunched up under fleece blankets and resting on my lap that I can get.

I asked her if she slept well and she said yes. Then, still bleary-eyed, but clearly beginning to wake up, she announced the following tale. I'll write it as clearly as I can remember it...there were a few pauses where I prompted her with general "and then what" kinds of questions. But here it is, complete and unabridged.

"Last night before I fell asleep, I made up a story about a family named the Thursdays. They have three children, twin girls and a baby boy. And they went to the park and the store and ran some errands. They had a picnic at the park. There were two slides there, and they were the same length. The twin girls slid down the slides and the one that got to the bottom of her slide first won. And then they bought a watermelon at the store. The post office and the store just took a few minutes, so after that they went to a restaurant to eat some dinner and then they came home."

Wow. So I'm not the only one in this household who makes up stories before I fall asleep! Kind of nice to know.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Is Aslan Going To Be In This Story?"

We were traveling on November 29, so I missed my opportunity to post what's becoming my annual tribute to three writers who have been very important in my life's journey. November 29 marks the birthdays of C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, and Louisa May Alcott.

Madeleine would have turned 90 this year, and her daughter and granddaughter created a blog to post some special memories in her honor. They are beautiful and bring grateful tears to my eyes.

This Lewis-ian birthday happened to find us reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to our six year old while we traveled. On Sunday we were so thankful to find ourselves at a particularly riveting place in the story (Eustace's transformation from boy to dragon and back to boy) right as we got stuck in the worst of traffic near the entrance to the Pennsylvania turnpike on a cold, dark and rainy late afternoon.

It's been a few months since we read Prince Caspian, so I was wondering how well the sweet girl would remember Narnia. I should have known better. These stories have always captured her imagination, and she was eager to step back through the doors (okay, through a framed painting this time out) into Lewis' magical world again. And her sense of the story is so sound...right as we got to the part where Eustace turned into a dragon, she suddenly piped up from the back seat: "Is Aslan going to be in this story?" I almost laughed for joy, both at her ability to recognize that if there was ever a time for him to show up, it was now! and for the fact that he was indeed just about to arrive and provide the needful transformation that Eustace simply could not provide for himself.

Oh yes, sweetie, Aslan is going to be in this story. In fact, he's been here all along, quiet, beautiful, incognito, just waiting to be recognized as always.

Lord, give us eyes to see.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Harry Potter & Imagination

A quick shout-out this afternoon (we just got in late last night from our thanksgiving travels and I'm still unpacking, getting back into routine and trying to sort/shape my busy upcoming week!). But I wanted to post the news that Travis Prinzi's book Harry Potter & Imagination is now available for pre-order from Zossima.com. You can go here to check out Travis' posting at the Hogshead about his marvelous sounding book and find the click through to actually place an order.

The promotional blurb reads, in part, "Prinzi explores how fairy stories in general, and Harry Potter in specific, are not merely tales that are read to 'escape from the real world,' but stories with the power to transform by teaching us to imagine better." Sounds terrific, yes?

I first came across Travis' blog via John Granger. And John, astute and creative engager of all things HP, calls Travis' book a "trail-blazing guide into the world of Harry Potter." That recommendation alone will probably make you want to read it, but I suspect that the intriguing peek Travis gives into the table of contents will make most Christians who love to think about literature and imagination sit up and take notice too.

And I confess I have a slightly selfish motive in posting this recommendation today. Travis is giving all those who help publicize his book an opportunity to win a free copy. Since I'd love to curl up with this book during Christmastime, I thought I'd give it a try. And now you know about it too. As my six year old would probably say: "that's cool!"

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

I've had several posts percolating for the past week, but it doesn't look as though any of them are actually going to see the light of day before we head out for our annual thanksgiving travels (tomorrow morning, Lord willing).

So you'll have to wait for that poem I promised to post (I really meant to post it this week, Erin!) and my glowing report on the Saturday evening lecture by John Granger that D. and I got to attend this past weekend. What a gift that was! Not to mention ruminations on Andy Crouch's excellent book Culture-Making, which I just finished up last week. I also hope to do my annual list of thanksgiving blessings after we return. Those are a few of things in the pipeline...

In the meantime, check out this beautiful version of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree sung by a cathedral boys' choir. I found it a few days ago and have been playing it often as food for meditation in these hectic days. It's one of my favorite songs in all the world (I first learned it from a Bob Bennett album). It feeds my soul. I've needed to hear it in this season of thanksgiving as we move toward advent, and I hope it blesses you too.

Happy thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Great Moments in Homeschool History

There are so many things I love about teaching. High on the list are those moments when all cylinders are firing, communication is clear, and your student goes above and beyond what what you're asking them to think about or do!

The sweet girl and I had one of those moments this morning. On Fridays we do art and music appreciation...i.e. we listen to music by a certain composer and look at a painting by a certain artist. Today we were going into a new four week segment on Beethoven and Cezanne. Today was our first day with both.

Our daughter is becoming an artist. She's really amazing us lately with her ability to draw, her eye for color and design, and her desire to "do art" as much as possible. But she also loves to look at paintings. This morning she was sitting at the computer zooming in and out on Still Life With Compotier on the artchive site (great website). I was several feet away, jotting down some notes on our art worksheet/narration page as we talked about the painting together.

As usual, I asked her "What do you notice in this painting? What do you see?" I confess I was expecting her to say something like "apples" or "I see some fruit in a bowl." Instead she gestured at the painting and said, oh so enthusiastically, "What I notice are the bright fruit colors against the darker background."

Seriously. My six year old said this. Yes, I am beaming. What made it even more fun (besides the very astute observation) was how she really found excitement in this. She went on to talk about the different colors and to make sure that I really "saw" what she was getting at about the bright and dark.

Lest one think that our homeschool mornings are always full of non-whining (ha!) enthusiasm and clever answers, let me hasten to tell you about the other moment this morning that made me laugh in a different way.

We'd moved on to listening to some Beethoven. Our loud, exciting piece this morning was the Allegro movement from symphony no. 5. As a good contrast, I thought we'd play the quiet "adagio" from the Moonlight Sonata.

I should mention that the sweet girl truly enjoys music, but it doesn't seem to come close to her passion for visual art right now. Which is fine! I often let her color while she listens to music as it helps her to focus. She was coloring when I moved to the Moonlight Sonata track. I thought I would introduce it briefly, since I love it so much. So I explained what it was called and then (getting a bit misty) mentioned that it was one of my very favorite pieces of music in the world.

At which point she looked up a bit vaguely from her drawing and, without missing a beat, mused "I wonder how llamas get water? You know, when they're up in the Andes..."

Hee. All I could think of was that old Gary Larson cartoon "what we say to dogs" and "what dogs hear." Remember that? "Blah, blah, blah, Ginger..."

Yes, teaching is full of those moments too. Which doesn't make it any less fun or rewarding.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Advent Devotional Reading

I usually try to do some focused Advent devotional reading each year in addition to reading from the Scriptures. While I haven't yet decided what I'm reading this year (and I need to figure that out soon...first Advent arrives Sunday, November 30!) I thought I'd post a list of some titles that I've loved and enjoyed over the years.

Madeleine L'Engle's The Irrational Season was the book where I first really learned about Advent. As an eighteen year old who had not grown up in a liturgically rich church tradition, I was immediately taken by her descriptions of the rhythms of the church year, and fascinated by the thought of ordering time differently from the rest of the world. The book journeys through the whole church year, so not every chapter will be apt for advent, but there are several chapters that could nourish your heart between here and the new year. The first four chapters contain reflections on Advent, Christmas, Holy Innocents and Epiphany, and the final chapter of the book goes full circle back around to Advent.

WinterSong, another book by Madeleine L'Engle but co-authored by her good friend Luci Shaw, is another gem for the entire Advent and Christmas seasons. During their writing careers, Madeleine and Luci both wrote a lot (prose and poetry) about the incarnation. This book is a wonderful "sampler" of some of what they've written. Good bite-sized reflections, snippets and poems. Really lovely.

The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ's Coming by Wendy Wright. This is part of a trio of devotional/meditational books Wright has written on the church year (the other two are called The Rising and The Time Between) but in my humble opinion, this is the best one. It's certainly the one I go back to most. I appreciate Wright's thoughtful prose style and I love the fact that she steeps this book deeply in the words of the church down through the ages. You'll find many, many hymns, poems and prayers from the ancient church onward included here. Just writing about it makes me want to go back and dip into it again. I discovered one of my favorite prayers by Catherine of Siena while reading this book.

God With Us is an advent devotional book that was just published last year. I was blessed to find it in our local library and it became my main book for meditation last advent. The contributing writers are Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson (just the introduction) and Luci Shaw. Absolutely beautiful, chock full of artwork as well as devotionals and poems. It follows the lectionary and it goes all the way through the entire Christmas season (all twelve days). You can go here for a longer review I posted last year after I finished it.

Last year I also found a marvelous blog, called O Night Divine. It draws on mostly Catholic resources and is filled with creative ideas to help individuals and families make Advent more meaningful and prayerful.

Do you have a tradition of reading or meditating during Advent? Are there books, paintings, poems, or hymns that have meant a lot to you in your personal and family Advent traditions? Do share!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Things To Do To Get Ready for Winter

The Monday poetry stretch over at Miss Rumphius inspired this poem, although now that I've finished it, I've decided it's probably not a true list poem. Not sure I'll post the link over there after all, but thought it would be fun to post it here anyway. If you're a fan of to-do lists, I hope you'll enjoy it!

Virtual gold-stars to anyone who gets the picture book allusion about mid-way through, or what poem I'm echoing a bit in the final line.

Things To Do To Get Ready for Winter

Since I can’t hibernate,
resign myself to hunkering.
Check my tea stash in the cupboard
by the stove. Adjust the thermostat
and pile on the fleece blankets.
Pray for those still out in the cold.
Plan what we’ll read on the
Thanksgiving trip, dig out the
Advent and Christmas music.
Be grateful for a little girl
who likes snow, but be prepared
for her to flit from window to window
like a wind-driven flake whenever
we see a flurry or a squall.
Enjoy the holiday catalogs,
but think “make” and “do” not buy.
Rearrange the Austen movies;
double-check my list of books
to put on hold at the library.
Try to find the Advent candles
I bought last year and promised
myself I wouldn’t lose.
Store summer colors like Frederick
but take note of industrious squirrels
who scramble through piles
of copper covered leaves,
looking for just the right place
to hide one more acorn treasure.
Find gloves, hats, scarves
and see if Sarah has outgrown
her boots. Tighten loose
buttons and replace lost ones.
Treasure small things, small
deeds, small kindnesses.
Hug my husband more often.
Stand in awe before bare branches
lit like moonlit candelabra.
Make my mother’s winter
vegetable soup. Don’t forget
to wear socks to bed, even though
I know I’ll kick them off
and lose them under the covers.
Practice lying still and dormant like a seed.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cherry Ames Back In Print

I just found out that the Cherry Ames books are all being brought back into print. If you were a fan of girls' series/formula fiction when you were growing up, you might have known Cherry...but maybe not, given how old the earlier books were even in my childhood. They were written by Helen Wells; the first one was published in 1943.

I've always thought of Cherry Ames as Nancy Drew with more to do. Like Nancy, Cherry was bright, attractive, intelligent and pretty good at sleuthing. Unlike Nancy, Cherry had an actual profession, one that meant more to her than her amateur detective work (which was clearly just a hobby on the side). Cherry Ames was a registered nurse. In the first book in the series: Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, she's eighteen, fresh out of high school, and headed to nursing school at Spencer Hospital. That was the only Cherry Ames book I actually owned for many years (I think it was a hand-me-down from my older sister) though I eventually picked up a couple more at yard sales and read a few more I found in libraries.

Those early books are steeped in American patriotism. Given their publication dates, it's not surprising. Cherry goes to nursing school in the first place because she wants to help out in the war effort. Her twin brother Charlie becomes a fighter pilot.

I always liked the earliest books best because of the camaraderie between Cherry and her fellow students (and almost all of the really good characters you come to love in book 1 end up enlisting as army nurses) and because the war lends a certain urgency to what Cherry's doing. In the later books, she hops around from job to job. Her resume must have been pages long...and amazingly, she never seems to lose a job or get fired, just makes the change of her own free will! She ends up nursing in all sorts of locales such as nursing homes, boarding schools, dude ranches, clinics, department stores, camps and doctors' offices. Oh, and I think a jungle and a ski lodge, just for good measure. Along the way she meets up with various good-looking young men. She dates but never marries anyone (unless that happens in a later book I never read) with the implied reason being that she's happily "married" to her profession. Hee.

Not great literature by any means, but an interesting slice of Americana and, at least in the early part of the series, some memorable characters and intriguing story lines. Not bad bits of detective work either. I actually preferred these to Nancy Drew, which I generally read only when nothing else was available. The boxed set of the first four volumes (Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Army Nurse, Chief Nurse) looks lovely; the Springer Publishing Company is putting them out in "facsimile hardcover editions" that look just like the originals, selling them individually but also as five boxed sets of four, reprinting the entire 20-book run.

I confess I also love Cherry Ames because she reminds me so much of my mom. Yes, my mom was Cherry Ames...or rather, my mom was a registered nurse. She would have been just a bit too young to train with Cherry during WWII (I never asked her if she read the early books as a teenager...I should!) but she went to nursing school and trained at a mission hospital in the early 1950s, just a few years after the fictional Cherry and friends. She still has very fond memories of that time, and of the few years she worked as a nurse before she began having children. Just the other day, in fact, she emailed the family to let us know she'd been back in touch with a fellow student she hadn't seen in years. They spent time reminiscing, she wrote, about the days they had spent:

"clad in our blue & white stripes underneath the stiff white aprons, taking care of not only patients with "everyday" ailments, but patients with polio, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, how we made the patients' beds ourselves and actually had to wash and sterilize our own needles & syringes (something totally unheard-of today), and how a note in our mailbox saying, "Please see me. ELC" ("ELC" being Esther L. Creasman, the Director of Nursing) meant we had either goofed up somewhere and needed correction, or we had done something commendable deserving of praise (and ELC was lavish with both, which really kept us on our toes!)"

And I read that description and thought "yep! My mom was Cherry Ames!" She even looks a bit like her, doesn't she? Yes, that's my mom on the top right in this nursing class photo from 1951.

I'm proud of my mom, and delighted that books that capture a little bit about the nursing era she experienced are back in print.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Poetry Break: Emily Dickinson

He ate and drank the precious Words--
His spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust--

He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book--What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings--

~Emily Dickinson

Monday, November 10, 2008

When Storied Words Make Their Way Into The World

I was reading an online article from TIME magazine a few days ago, a political article written post-election. It was one of those articles attempting to analyze how the election went and why. It was fairly interesting, but I confess I was sort of skimming along. Suddenly, a phrase jumped out at me. The author of the article was describing what she considered to be one of the more important facets of the election, the "youth vote." And what did she call it? "The golden snitch of politics..."

The golden snitch of politics. I couldn't help it: I started chuckling. It's not as though this is a highly creative or even necessarily unique use of the phrase...I've applied "golden snitch" myself when writing about the Harry Potter phenomenon (in a review I once referred to the wonderful themes of the stories, especially the ones that are so rich and ripe for fruitful conversation with children, as the "golden snitch" of the series). I daresay other people have used the phrase already in all sorts of other contexts, because it's a (literally) colorful phrase, and such delightfully handy short-hand. One knows immediately what any author who uses these words means: the big prize, the goal someone seeks or longs for the most, the elusive thing everybody is after.

Still, this was the first time I'd really noticed a Harry Potter phrase or word so casually applied in a mainstream journal dealing with a topic that was completely non-literary, so I thought I would make note of it. Because it's fascinating, isn't it, when "storied words" cross over into other areas of writing and discourse.

It got me thinking about Tolkien and Lewis, both such important writers in the 20th century. Have any of their phrases or words hopped over into common parlance? (Of course they published long enough ago now that some of their phrases might have done so and already faded from fashion...)

Not long ago I was making a written comment to a student in an online church history class. I can't remember the precise context, but I think we must have been discussing the marvelous unexpectedness and greatness of God at a certain time in history. And I wrote the phrase "Not exactly a tame lion!" fully expecting that an anglican seminarian would get that context without me having to spell it out. I don't know how easily one could use a similar phrase in mainstream culture and expect people to understand it, though given the ongoing popularity of the Narnia stories perhaps more than I think. (I do think they've tried to tame the lion considerably in the movies...though that's "a horse of a different color". Hmmm...there's another one....)

So I'm curious. Can you think of an instance where you've heard someone use language from a beloved story (Harry Potter, Tolkien, Lewis, or any other) in a completely different context? Did it surprise you to find it where you found it? Or...to make this even more fun...are there certain words or phrases from stories you know and love that haven't crossed over into common usage but you think they could...or wish they would?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"Biblical" Voting

Don't hesitate to read this post because of the title: I promise you that I am not going to pressure you about the "right" person to vote for in this election, or even the "right way" to vote! (Of course, at 3:48 EST on election day, you've already voted anyway, yes? If not, don't forget to go the polls later today!)

I've just been reflecting a bit on the passions and anxieties that have permeated this particular election cycle. That always seems to be the case in presidential years in the U.S., but perhaps this year more so than ever, for all sorts of reasons.

And I've been reflecting on the stressful rhetoric from both sides about doing the "right thing" and voting the "right way." That's true in all kinds of communities, perhaps most of all in communities of faith.

I still remember the first presidential election I could ever vote in. The year was 1988 and I was an earnest 20 year old who really wanted to "make a difference" and "do the right thing." I was at a Christian liberal arts college with a history of social and political activism, and talk about the campaign felt almost constant. Somewhere along the way I picked up a little pamphlet, or was given one, entitled "Can My Vote Be Biblical?"

I don't remember the pamphlet very well, beyond the fact that the writers seemed to think that the answer was yes. They provided me with a little check-off list of issues. I very carefully went down the list, putting check marks in various columns, seeing where one candidate did better than the other (or so I thought) in certain areas. I was surprised to find that the line of check-marks looked kind of ragged: no one candidate had a lock on the issues I happened to care most about, and I'm pretty sure at least some of the issues I cared about hadn't even made it onto the pamphlet.

In despair, I threw up my hands. Can my vote be biblical? I thought. And I decided the answer was no! Not if "biblical" meant: does any one candidate adhere absolutely and perfectly to the values that I feel Jesus would think are most important.

20 years later I have to smile at my earnest youthful idealism. I still resonate with my own youthful anguish over the realization that politicians (then and still now) will never be perfect, or even anywhere close to it. But my idealism is tempered by the realizations that 1) I'm not sure I even know what "perfect" means, 2) we've got an impaired and in many ways corrupted political system that in many ways promotes awfulness between people of good ideals who should know better, and 3) as U2 once sang, "kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but you (God) go on and on..."

I now think that my vote can be "biblical" but not at all in the way the writer of that pamphlet two decades ago thought. Voting is, after all, an action like any other, though seemingly fraught with more weight and importance than some others. It's a verb. I vote, just like I hug my child or cook dinner or have a conversation with a neighbor or write a story. (And hmmm...I have days when I am pretty sure that most of the latter actions and how I do them will have deeper ripples and repercussions than the button I pushed on the voting screen today.)

Voting is something I do, and because it's an action, a choice, it's rooted in who I am. In other words, it comes out of how I'm shaped at the deepest core. If I'm shaped by a biblical vision, the one that sees the big story from creation to revelation, the vision whereby I understand that the whole world is held together and sustained by a passionate, loving God who was willing to empty himself to win humanity back from the power of sin and death, if I'm shaped by a vision of God's kingdom as the everlasting kingdom, humanity's call to create and cultivate in a broken world, the hope of Jesus that anchors the soul in the midst of any storm (even financial and cultural ones!) and the reminder that this world is not our home...well, all those things and more will shape the way I think and do a lot of things. Including, but not limited to, voting.

Kind of hard to put all that in a pamphlet though.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Living Word

The sweet girl seemed especially attentive during our morning Bible reading today. We spent a longer time than usually really talking about the reading, which happened to be from the end of Joshua. She was very excited about Joshua's recounting of the story of the people of Israel, from Abraham onwards to that very moment. We've read many of those stories together since September. I think she is beginning to really grasp the bigger picture, the full story of the Scriptures.

She had that "lit up" and interested look when she suddenly exclaimed "Mommy!" in a tone that usually precludes the announcement of a new insight. And then she said this, in a very excited tone: "The Bible has an ending. But Jesus doesn't!"

Wow. Just wow. I love it when the light goes on for her, because so often, in God's gracious providence, it makes lights go on for me too. I love that she's grasped the preciousness and wonder of God's written story, but that she can discern the difference between the story itself and the author behind it. The written Word, as we have it, does indeed have an "ending" -- we can turn the last page and close the book. But the Holy Spirit invites us to step into the ongoing story that doesn't stop with the last page and began long before the first one was ever penned. And the Author of the Story himself, the Alpha and Omega, the Word that spoke all into existence, has no ending. Amen and Amen!

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Break for Poetry

October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came -
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.

~~George Cooper

I've been meaning to post this all month. Happy end of October!
(And happy Halloween, and happy eve of All Saints!)

Worth Noting, Worth Quoting

"A bad day of parenting is better than a good day of not parenting."

Tip of the hat to Antique Mommy. Was I ever grateful for this reminder today!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Young Mozart

During this first grade year I'm using Harmony Fine Art's Arts and Music Appreciation program. One of the many things I appreciate about the program is that it provides various options for picture and music study. Although some require use or purchase of various books and materials, there are plenty of options available so that even the most budget-conscious (read: budget-strapped!) parent/teacher can find all sorts of ideas. In the arts appreciation area, the program offers one option that relies almost exclusively on picture study online. They provide links to websites where you can find pictures and artist biographies as needed. We've utilized these extensively, along with materials we've found at our library to supplement what we're learning.

One of the things I've enjoyed is finding picture books to accompany our studies. We're a picture book loving family, and picture books provide yet another creative entrance into thinking about the lives of artists and musicians. There have been some lovely ones published in recent years, though I've been amused to see that we have a good selection to choose from for some artists (perhaps those considered more "kid-appropriate" or fascinating) and almost no choices for others. Case in point: finding any picture books or biographies of Manet for a first grader seems to be a nigh unto impossible task. But writers and illustrators for young children LOVE Mary Cassatt!

This month we're learning about Cassatt in art and Mozart in music. I thought I would briefly review the picture book Young Mozart, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora.

We've known some of Isadora's other picture books about the ballet, and have always been impressed by her artwork. The pictures here are beautiful, as you can probably tell from the cover. I'm guessing they're watercolor: at any rate, she appears to use washes of color, a very light, almost pastel palette. The visual details of clothes, hairstyles, rooms and instruments do a wonderful job of evoking Mozart's time period (the latter half of the 18th century: 1756-1791).

The text is also well-written. What I like most about this as a book for young children (say, 4-8 years old) is how much the text concentrates on Mozart's early childhood. Of course it continues the story into his adulthood and shares about how great a composer he becomes, but the emphasis stays consistently on details that would interest a young child. Isadora highlights how Mozart learned to write music before he could write words (a concept that fascinated my daughter) and how he and his father would play singing games at night before bedtime. She relays a wonderful scene in which little Mozart, with his child-sized violin, wants to join in and play with his father and some of his father's friends, who are making music on harpsichord and violin. Since Wolfgang had not yet taken any violin lessons, his father discouraged him, but one of the other adults, moved by the little boy's tears, invited him to go on and play. And of course he shocked them all by being able to play beautifully. He'd taught himself how to play the violin!

Since Mozart was a child prodigy, composing and performing before audiences (even royal ones!) before he was seven, his story lends itself well to a children's biography. Not that most children will be able to relate personally to Mozart's genius, but they can relate to his growing love of music and to his desire to play it and write it. Most children have at least one special thing they too love to do (for my daughter right now, it's drawing). This book gave me an opportunity to introduce the words "prodigy" and "genius" to my six year old, but also to talk about giftedness in general...and how gifts are meant to be developed and shared.

Anyone who has ever watched the film Amadeus knows that Mozart's personal life, as he grew older, was quite troubled and troubling. Isadora doesn't gloss over the fact that Mozart struggled with personal discipline (she mentions that he spends too much money, hence his need to keep teaching, giving concerts and composing) but she doesn't keep our focus there or on anything that would be inappropriate for young children. I don't see this as revising history as much as knowing one's audience. There will be time enough later for children to grow in their understanding that not all artists, even those endowed with tremendous gifts, are always morally upright or mistake free. My daughter already knows that all of us are sinners; she's beginning to learn that even people (and characters in stories) that we admire are not always perfect or necessarily good role models. Human struggles don't have to negate someone's gifts or our appreciation for how those gifts have touched us. And thankfully Mozart's gift of beautiful music has lasted long -- long after his very short life (he died at 35) came to an end.

Young Mozart is a thoughtful book to help a young child get to know more about Mozart's life and work. It's also a book that can open up fruitful conversations about gifts and giftedness.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Just Curious...

but can anyone out there NOT see my regular sidebars? For some reason the last couple of times I've clicked to my blog via the standard URL, without actually signing into blogspot, I'm seeing posts but no sidebars...not my profile blurb, archives, blog roll, list of read-alouds, lunar calendar or anything else. The only way I can view sidebars is by signing in, which makes me really curious to know if visitors are unable to see my regular lay-out.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vocabulary Builders

I've been enjoying the Free Rice website a lot lately. Lots of fun brain-teasers, but I especially like the vocabulary quizzes. Check it out: you can learn new words, and for every answer you get right, they donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program! (Note: the vocabulary quiz is somewhat addictive. As you answer more questions correctly, your "level" increases and the words get harder. If you miss a word, pay attention to the correct answer they give you, as you'll get a second chance on down the line when that word recirculates back to your quiz!)

On the topic of vocabulary building: I just found this enjoyable vocabulary quiz created from C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy. The author of the article hasn't provided answers yet, but I'm guessing you can check back to find them later. Or maybe he just wants us to look up the ones we're not sure about. I'm fairly certain I got most of these, but it made me wonder...how many of them did I actually learn from context, and from reading Lewis? A great vocabulary builder for a young Lewis fan.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shannon Hale on Story

Shannon Hale is becoming one of my favorite writers. The YA fantasy writer (who has also written one book for adults, Austenland) continues to delight me with courageous coming-of-age tales. They're deeply satisfying stories and also contain beautifully crafted prose. I reviewed her 2006 Newbery award winning Princess Academy last year, and just recently finished reading and reviewing The Goose Girl, her first novel published in 2003.

I've also become a visitor to Hale's blog Squeetus, a refreshing place to visit. She not only shares with great enthusiasm about her life as a published author, but generously offers peeks into her creative process.

This week she posted a link to a piece she wrote for School Library Journal. Called "How Reader Girl Got Her Groove Back", it's an autobiographical essay in which she reflects on how being force fed the classics, then taught a completely analytical approach to studying literature in college, then taught how to write literary fiction in grad school, almost killed her love of reading. She speaks candidly of how she rediscovered the joyful "reader girl" inside her, the one that used to read with a light under the covers until her eyes gave out, and then fell asleep splayed over a book. (Been there, done that!)

I mention it here not only because it's worth reading in full, but because I found myself needing/wanting to muse aloud about some of what she wrote.

I resonated with much of what she says. I went through a long period of time where I felt like the reading and writing I loved most was always considered "secondary" or somehow less than profound, primarily because much of it could be found on children's or young adult's shelves. I got over that a while ago, especially after trying and failing to read (with any real engagement or passion) a number of contemporary "adult" novelists. I'm not saying that I couldn't find any contemporary novelists writing stories that gripped me, but the ones I usually loved either wrote some form of genre fiction (read: 'non-serious' or 'non-literary') or else straddled the worlds of adult and young adult or children's fiction -- writers like Madeleine L'Engle or Jon Hassler. In the case of the latter two, there were other red flags showing they wouldn't pass muster as "serious literature" in many colleges -- they were both steeped in faith-based worldviews and, in Madeleine's case at least, dabbled in fantasy.

For a long time I had difficulty putting my finger on why I didn't "fit in" with the MFA program I attended for two weeks the year I turned 24 (just several months before I got married). I had been accepted as a potential candidate: in other words, I was there on trial. And what a trial. Fresh out of college, at least a handful of years younger than the other students in the program, I went thinking I'd spend two weeks writing and reading and getting excited about stories with other people who loved stories too. There were pockets of that passion there, and I did learn, but mostly what I found were rather jaded literary type folks who liked to smoke, sip cocktails, network with published authors, write depressing stories, and talk about postmodernism, a concept that I had barely even heard of at the time (which is funny to think about now)! I still remember sitting dumbfounded through a workshop in which we analyzed a short story made up entirely of one sentence (one very, very long, rambling sentence). My faith life and the fact that I sometimes wrote stories with child protagonists didn't get me very far either. The mentor assigned to me seemed bored with my child-likeness. In my closing meeting with her, she simply urged me to find "my voice" and handed me a pre-printed list of all the things I should read if I ever seriously wanted to be a writer. I'd hardly read any of them.

I do think there can be a place for what's termed literary fiction. It can even be written well. But beautiful words that don't lead anywhere are, in the end, just beautiful words, no matter how nicely put together. I long ago realized those are not usually the stories that set my heart pounding, make me laugh or cry, or keep me turning pages, the kind of story worth reading again and again and again the way I kept returning to Alcott, Lewis, Lovelace and L'Engle as a child, the way I began to return also to Tolkien, Austen and others in my young adulthood.

Today I've simply come to accept the fact that most of the best contemporary literature is being written for children and young adults. Perhaps because the writers for those audiences know that the audiences still care deeply about story (take a look at my Epinions profile sometime if you want to see more of my musings on the subject) and expect a good one. And I'm profoundly grateful for writers like Hale who care passionately about delivering a good, cathartic story with a beginning, middle and end and yet also care passionately about beautiful language.

And YET...there always has to be an "and yet" doesn't there?

I am not ready to give up on classical literature. I believe passionately in the value of reading old books as well as new ones (I've imbibed too much Lewisian thought not to value that!). Although I'm sure that my daughter will gobble up many good, contemporary books on the children's and YA shelves as she grows older (and I'm compiling a list now of some of the best ones...Hale's on it) I don't want that to be her only fare. We need a good diet of old and new to nourish our hearts, minds and imaginations.

I think it's very true that being force-fed books you aren't ready for, or being taught to read classics primarily as a lesson in how to analyze and tear apart a story for symbols and themes can kill a love of reading. I don't want that to happen to my daughter: I want her "reader girl" personality to still be shining through at 10, 13, and 16, just as it shines through now at 6 when she trips excitedly into the kitchen to read me a Richard Scarry story while I'm loading the dishwasher. But I don't think it necessarily follows that being given the classics, even some of the so-called great books of the western canon, must dampen a reader's enthusiasm. (It's one reason I'm excited about John Granger's work with the English literary tradition and its influence/connection to JK Rowling's Harry Potter stories...John is truly excited about the idea that with Harry Potter as a "shared text," this generation has a unique and wonderful springboard into understanding and appreciating the great books in a new way.)

Of course I'm not saying Hale doesn't value old stories. That would be silly indeed, given the fact that her novel The Goose Girl, for instance, is based on the Grimm fairytale of the same name. What excites me no end is the way the best stories draw on the stories that come before them, continuing a conversation or engaging in a dance that started long before. So let's give our daughters Hale's marvelous novel, and then let's turn them loose (if they haven't encountered it already) with Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book. Old and new, together.

No, in this thoughtful essay, Hale is simply relating her own experiences regarding what helped bring her back to a passionate love of reading. I resonate with those experiences: in fact, they feel so familiar to me that I found myself inwardly nodding. But I would say that teachers and teaching methodology are often more at fault than the books any of us were given. Classics are, by definition, old, books that have stood the test of time. Most of them have stood the test of time for a reason, but the very fact of their age means that most of us don't find them easy reading, we need keys to help us unlock their joys. Not all classics are created equal (if it's true now that not every writer writes good stories, it's certainly always been true). But there are plenty of "old stories" that we can give to our children in ways that will help nourish that "reader girl" (or "reader boy") inside them. At least that's my hope!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Flower Art

The sweet girl and I went walking and photo-taking on this beautiful autumn day. I snapped a picture of some purple flowers and then came home and played with the image with my rudimentary photo software. I actually have some lovelier ones than this -- I tried it in regular color, grayscale, and this "solarized effect" -- but they're too high resolution to upload on my ancient computer. Thus the tiny postage stamp size (I needed to save it in a much lower resolution and then also crop for the close-up.) Some days I long for a better camera and computer, but mostly I'm just grateful for all that we have, including transient and tiny beauties like roadside flowers.

And I thought this was a rather nice effect, even in miniature! For me, looking at flowers in such detail is an exercise in contemplation and awe. I realize anew the intricate and amazing amount of design included in even very small living things. What an artist our God is!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Good Listening

We're grateful for our public library. We've been mining its riches (especially the children's library) for years now, but we always seem to find new treasures.

This month we've been getting into audio books. They've turned into an enjoyable listening opportunity during the sweet girl's afternoon rest time...which once in a great while is my rest time too, but most likely turns into lesson planning or reading or writing time!

The favorite two thus far, and ones I highly recommend:

The original Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, unabridged, read by Jim Broadbent. I especially like his Piglet voice.

Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss, read by Michael McKean, Jason Alexander, and David Hyde Pierce. They're all good readers, but my very favorite is Fox in Socks as read by David Hyde Pierce.

I've also been very much enjoying a lovely CD my husband found for me at the library last week: Joshua Bell playing the West Side Story Suite based on Leonard Bernstein's wonderful West Side Story music. For some reason, I'm not finding a link to this anywhere online (it's late and I'm tired) but I still recommend it if you can find it or borrow it. I've always loved the West Side Story music, and this suite is filled with heart-rending and creative riffs on the West Side musical themes. The CD also includes some of Bernstein's concert work and music from On the Town and Candide.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

100 Species Challenge (#2): Mophead Hydrangeas

2. Hydrangea Macrophylla: also known as "Mophead Hydrangeas." We see these in a lot of yards in the summer here; I especially love the rich blue ones.

These always fascinated me as a child because they change color depending on the soil composition (the amount of aluminum in the soil determines the color). Even though I know it has to do with soil composition, I still find myself thinking of these flowers as ladies who like to change the color of their dress depending on their moods (and the "mophead" designation for some varieties makes me think of ladies with curly hair!). Sometimes you see shades of both pink and blue on the same plant.

Note: I didn't get off to a roaring start with my cataloged list of 100 local species this past summer. I took a lot of photos but haven't had time to identify and/or write about most of them. Hoping to have some time to take some autumnal photos soon, but thought I would add this one culled from pictures I took in July.

Who Do You Write For?

Or perhaps that should actually be "For Whom Do You Write..." my choice of title might change depending on my intended audience!

I've been thinking about this question a good bit lately, without even realizing at first that I was thinking about it. I'm in one of those seasons where I find creativity sneaking up on me when I least expect it: I keep stumbling onto stories that want to be written, and (thankfully!) am locating the time to sit down and actually do some of the writing. Not a whole lot yet, but some.

But as always, creative seasons surprise me. I have a lot of stories in the mental garage that I've been ready to pull out and work on for ages, including some already written that I long to rework. Instead, I find myself writing some things I didn't expect, stories that are "calling out to me" at this particular moment.

One story I began working on last night is a real surprise: it's a story (for children, I think?) about a cheetah. The sweet girl and I have been studying mammals during the first eight weeks of school, and during our "feline" studies, I found myself absolutely fascinated by cheetahs. The bare outline of an African legend was mentioned in one of the books we were reading: it intersected in my head with some of the fascinating facts we were reading and then intersected again with Kipling, and suddenly I found myself starting a story. I love the mysterious ways stories come to us; it's really impossible to track the full path they travel!

But I am curious to know about others' approaches to story-writing. For me, my respect for the mysterious process of how a story-idea (or perhaps it would be better to call it a story-seed) gets born (or blows into my consciousness like a milkweed seed) means that I find myself thinking less about any intended hearers when I first sit down to write. I think I am so busy listening myself to what this particular story is trying to say that I'm not yet thinking too far ahead about who else might ever hear it. My consciousness of crafting it for other people does hover somewhere pretty close by: often I think about how certain lines would sound when read aloud, and sometimes the very way a story starts to come to me gives me an indication of who the audience might be. Hence my deep feeling as I began to write last night that the story I was writing was quite probably one "for children" (which isn't to say that adults might not enjoy it too).

I've heard a number of authors say, in various ways, that they primarily write "for themselves." If the story doesn't please them, keep them interested, or make sense to them -- how will it do any of those things for someone else? I think that makes more intuitive sense to me than the kinds of writing advice you sometimes see that you ask you to picture a very specific audience: say, seven year old girls or ten year old boys. I am shaped by more specific thoughts of audience when I set out to revise, but in the opening draft, I am primarily just trying to listen well and get down, as truly as I can, what I'm hearing and imagining.

Maybe the more true answer is that I write stories because I love stories, and I write stories in the hopes that one day those stories might find their way to other people who love them too. As Madeleine L'Engle used to say, when asked who her stories were for, "they're for people."

All of this is somehow tied up for me in the "where does the meaning of a story reside" question as well. But that's probably a post for another day.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading Harry With 20/20 Hindsight

When the final Harry Potter book was published last year, I knew I'd be in for a bit of a let-down once I finished reading it. I actually read it twice in a row, as I've done with all the HP books: first to myself, then out loud to my husband. In the case of Deathly Hallows, I kept the book out for a while longer so I could continue to follow along with some book discussions online, though I found myself needing to quietly lurk rather than diving in head-first the way I had after Half-Blood Prince was published. (The online discussions following that book were just golden: some of the best literary talk I've ever enjoyed.) It wasn't that I didn't have anything to say, but I just found myself needing some space to think it all through and assimilate the ending.

I put DH aside at the end of last year, and somehow I've mostly resisted the occasional urge to pick it back up. I just kept sensing that it wasn't time to read the final book again, and that when I got around to it, I'd probably want to start at the beginning and read the whole series: a huge time investment. I sensed I needed a breather from Harry, even though I continued to check in with discussions from time to time.

And I've not regretted the break. It's been a terrific reading year filled with lots of other books (I'm already getting excited about writing my end of the year "favorites" list, and it's only October!).

Still, just lately I've found myself pulled back, oh so gently, to Harry. I'm in the midst of reading John Granger's Deathly Hallow Lectures (great read so far!) and I also recently began to re-read Sorcerer's Stone, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the first U.S. edition.

I've been reading along slowly, savoring and enjoying those first few chapters of Sorcerer's Stone that introduce us to Harry and his worlds, both muggle and magical. It's been a delight for all the reasons it was originally a delight (what a good story!) but it's been extra fun because I suddenly find myself having "a-ha" moments every few pages. I feel like a cartoon character with light bulbs going off overhead.

How delicious to see the seeds of so many important parts of the story planted right here in the very beginning. One of the elements I enjoyed most about DH was that terrific sense of coming "full circle" -- all the echoes from the early books (especially book 1) resounding through book 7. But it's fun to pick up on them as I read along in the opening. Some of those seeds are so obvious, and others are tiny, barely noticeable.

And it all makes me wonder about Rowling's creative process, especially the fascinating question of how her story's beginning shaped its ending, or how its ending shaped its beginning (I know, it sounds a bit like "which came first, the chicken or the egg?"). But one does have to wonder, noticing all these marvelous seeds in the first book, if Rowling had any clue what a garden she'd planted. We know she plotted all seven books from the start, but it's also clear (from things she said and just from common sense knowledge of human creativity) that the overall epic changed and grew, staying fresh for her as she wrote -- there were moments when characters surprised her, or when she veered away from one path and chose another. So how many of these seeds were purposefully planted, ones she knew would bloom into important moments later? How many of them just flowed out as she wrote that first draft (and what an imaginative rush that first draft must have been!) and then jumped out at her later as moments she knew she could dig down deeper and draw attention to?

There are all the important "artifacts" of course, that make their first appearances here, like Dumbledore's deluminator and Sirius' motorbike. But what I love are the sentences that leap out at you from the page as though you're wearing magical post-seventh-book glasses:

"You-Know-Who killed 'em. An' then -- and this is the real myst'ry of the thing -- he tried to kill you too." (Hagrid to Harry, when telling him about his parents' deaths)

"But what happened to Vol-, sorry, I mean, You-Know-Who?" (Harry, asking Hagrid an important question, and already showing a penchant for just saying Voldemort's name right out!)

"Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die." (Good on you, Hagrid. You're smarter than you look!)

"Never mess with goblins, Harry...Like I said, yeh'd be mad ter try an' rob it..." (Hagrid, telling Harry about Gringotts, right before they go there the first time. Little does Harry know he's actually going to be mad enough to try it someday! And isn't it fun that right here in the opening chapters of book 1 we see dragon fire in the tunnels, and it's Griphook who opens the vaults for them!)

"I really don't think they should let the other sort in, do you?...I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families..." (Draco, telling Harry about Hogwarts at Madame Malkin's robe shop, before they've been properly introduced.)

"Well, I say your father favored it...it's really the wand that chooses the wizard, of course...And of course, you will never get such good results with another wizard's wand." (Ollivander to Harry, when Harry goes into his shop to buy his wand. These lines just feel fraught with weight now, don't they?)

All bolds are mine, of course! I'll stop for now, as Ollivander's is about as far as I've gotten. But I'm thoroughly enjoying my read-through of Sorcerer's Stone, aided by the magic of 20/20 hindsight.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mary Ann Hoberman, New Children's Poet Laureate

Exciting news! Mary Ann Hoberman, one of our family's very favorite poets, has been named the new children's poet laureate.

We love Mary Ann Hoberman's writing. Especially The Seven Silly Eaters, Whose Garden Is It?, and The Llama Who Had No Pajama. That last is an anthology of 100 wonderful poems; the title one is the sweet girl's favorite poem and is also the main reason why she declared last year that Mary Ann Hoberman was her favorite writer. Last spring, we took an opportunity to write to Ms. Hoberman and tell her that; I posted about the lovely reply we received here.

What a great day for children's poetry. We're so excited! Congratulations, Mary Ann Hoberman!

"Coming Home"

An article I recently wrote for our diocesan newsletter, entitled Coming Home, is up on their website (the title will link you to the article). I hope this reflection will offer blessing and hope to others about the deep communion of the church worldwide, no matter what your church tradition happens to be. These thoughts were born out of my reflections on the recent realignment of our diocese with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. I know there's still a long way to go, but I'm grateful we've taken this very important step.

And if anyone who reads this blog has been praying for the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Anglican Communion in the past months, thank you.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Generational Perspectives

My wise husband made a very interesting observation the other evening, following the second of the more "traditional" (i.e. non town-hall style) debates.

Have you noticed that the pundits afterwards are always swift to point out which debater was best at looking into the camera (meaning "into the faces of the American people") and which spent too much time looking down at the moderator? At least, that's how it always sounds to me, as though all the brownie points and gold stars go the ones who look straight into the camera.

My husband's careful observation is that, in both debates, at least at the beginning, the candidates who most naturally talked to the camera were the younger ones, the 40-something candidates. And in both debates, the older candidates were the ones whose natural, first tendency was to look at the moderator, the actual living human being in the room with them, the one asking the questions.

We got to talking about this and we agreed that it seems like a big difference in generational perspective. And in many ways, we empathized with the older candidates (despite the fact that we're closer in age to the younger ones). Yes, I know in the age of televised debates how one looks means a lot, and I know that it's important that potential presidents and vice presidents of the United States understand how to use visual mediums and technology. But it still seems a shame that we can't take a moment to reflect on the fact that it's not necessarily a character flaw or a mark of stupidity that one's first response is to actually look at the real person who is speaking to you, rather than into a camera lens that represents a general group of unseen people "out there."

Of course, I say all this by way of a blog. Hmm.

I think there's an obvious reason, beyond all the other obvious reasons given, why an older candidate would pick a younger or a younger candidate would pick an older one. It's not just about the older candidate needing someone with vitality and energy and hip-ness (for lack of a better term) and the older candidate needing someone with gravitas and experience. It's the blending of two whole different perspectives. Youth and age both have their advantages and even wisdom, but they're very different kinds. And they need each other. Maybe that's one reason so many families are struggling today to stay healthy and whole, because so many times the generations are isolated from one another when they need to live and work together.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Have I mentioned that I love fall?

Despite the melancholy feeling I get in my bones knowing that autumn signals the approach of winter, I still love this season.

The maple in the gazebo park is turning orange from the top down again.

The smell of baking apples mixed with brown sugar and cinnamon...and the way that apple crisp bubbles and browns.

Pumpkins and mums on the sidewalk by the grocery store.

Warm jackets.

A walk in the woods with my beloved husband yesterday. Just the two of us. Holding hands, watching the sun dapple down through the leaves. Remembering the autumn eighteen years ago when we first realized our friendship had moved to an even deeper kind of love.

And tonight, not long past twilight, my daughter running in joyous circles on the seminary lawn. An almost perfect half-moon (waxing) and one very bright star in a field of almost royal blue. Blue, silver and white. A beautiful night.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Laughter Is The Best Medicine

For about the past five weeks, we've been reading through Genesis during morning Bible reading. The sweet girl has been intrigued by the longevity of some of the people we've read about.

Earlier this week we finished Genesis by reading about the deaths of Jacob and then Joseph. Jacob lived "only" to the age of 147, and Joseph only made it to 110! Impressive, but not nearly as long-lived as their ancestors like Noah and Methuselah.

This morning I was making breakfast when the sweet girl popped up with a question.

"Mommy, why didn't Jacob live as long as his ancestors?"

I pondered for a moment, then replied in much the same vein I had yesterday. "Well, we don't really know. But some people think it's because when the earth was very young, there was less pollution and fewer germs, so perhaps people lived longer."

She seemed to find no fault with this, but added wisely: "Or maybe Abraham and Sarah lived longer...because they liked to laugh A LOT!"

Hmm...makes sense to me! Can you imagine the patriarch and matriarch being interviewed for some senior magazine? "And what's the secret to your long life, Mr. and Mrs. Abraham?...Oh, well, we long ago learned that it's important to laugh a lot. Even at ourselves. We even named our kid laughter!"

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Reading Roundup (Overdue End of Summer Edition!)

Happy October!

It would have made much more sense to post this before I posted my reading list for fall, but I got eager to look ahead!

My "third quarter" reading this year was surprisingly good. Though I must admit, some of it was unplanned. I did read a few gems I'd been planning to read, but I also stumbled onto some excellent books I hadn't even heard about.

Here's the list. Where appropriate, links are to my longer reviews on Epinions.

~~Betsy-Tacy in Deep Valley by Caroline Frisch ~~
A tiny book with more pictures than words, more a scrap-book of photos from Maud Hart Lovelace's life than anything else. I also read "at" a number of other essays and books about Lovelace this summer, most of them courtesy of ILL. I still harbor hopes of being able to write a companion book based on the Betsy-Tacy series someday.

~~Planet Narnia by Michael Ward~~
The most elegant book of literary criticism and engagement I have perhaps ever read. Just brilliant.

~~ A Visit to Highbury (Another View of Emma ~~ by Joan Austen-Leigh
What summer would be complete with a good dose of Austen sequel-izing? I took this one to the beach, and found (much to my delight) that it was one of the best such things I've ever read. A very plausible take-off on Emma, from a completely minor point of view. A pleasure. I'm pretty sure it's out of print...

~~Out of the Wild~~ by Sarah Beth Durst
A mostly satisfying sequel to the original, though I struggled with some of the underlying story choices.

~~Heidi by Johanna Spyri~~
How wonderful to finally read a classic and discover it deserves to be one!

~~Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe edited by Michael Ward and Ben Quash~~
Very fine collection of essays on orthodoxy and heresy. Like any such collection, a bit uneven in places, but the first four essays on Christological heresies in the early church are especially solid...I'd like to use them sometime in a theology class. Great epilogue by Ward.

~~March by Geraldine Brooks~~
This one blew me away. Not for the fainthearted. But Little Women fans should rejoice over the intelligence of this novel. I blogged about it in September.

~~Water My Soul~~ by Luci Shaw
A lovely devotional book from one of my favorite poets. She spends most of the time unpacking the metaphor of gardening/growing things as she looks out our spiritual lives and growth.

~~ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Fiery Shaffer and Annie Barrows~~
What a delight, just an utter delight. I needed to find this novel right when I did. I'm reading it again, aloud to my husband. Always a mark of a book I love.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"This Old World's Tawdry Voices"

Continuing my ruminations on faith and culture...

My friend David Mills has written this very thoughtful piece about raising children in a world that often tells them seductive lies.

The world lies to my children, and I cannot always keep them from hearing the lies of the world and believing some of them. I have but one voice, and the world has many. It not only preaches with attractive confidence but seduces with flattery and false promises. It has vast resources for bribery.

Worse, it makes the wicked, the cheap, the mediocre, and the tawdry all feel normal.

He goes on to reflect on the importance not only of giving our children good gifts, a "good life" (good art, music, books, values) but on the importance of showing them the encompassing love that leads us to value such good things in the first place. A love that helps us to resist those worldly voices when they try to allure us into believing things about ourselves and about the world that aren't true.

Well-worth reading. I keep going back to the final three paragraphs.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Realization Dawns...

The sweet girl was clearing things off the table Friday night. "Mommy," she said, in her very thoughtful voice, "a lot of the things I do that you call my jobs, like clearing the table and making my bed? They're not the same as the kinds of jobs you get paid for."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Creating Culture"

In my "Fall Into Reading" post, I mentioned that I'm looking forward to reading Andy Crouch's book Culture Making. That's because I read this wonderful excerpt of the book at Christianity Today's website. What a terrific essay on faith and culture! It got my thinking-about-culture and creative juices flowing! He not only says important things about our attitude toward and engagement with culture (things that resonated with my heart and mind) but he says them so well that it's just a pleasure to read. Articulate, organized and thought-provoking. Check it out.

I'm due to write another "faith and arts talk" post soon. Our weekly youth gathering is still reflecting together on faith and art. This week we're reading Makoto Fujimura. I chose the particular essay before I knew (oh happy coincidence) that he was featured on the cover of the same CT magazine that's carrying Crouch's article. So stayed tuned.

All this reflecting, plus the commenting Erin and I are beginning to do on our Madeleine L'Engle blog (we're reading her wonderful Walking on Water together) actually has me writing again. Not just reviews and assigned newspaper articles. I wrote two poems today and have begun looking with real hope at possible revisions of a story I originally wrote 15 years ago. 15 years ago! It's a story I finished that has nonetheless never left me alone, and it seems to be crying out for a re-write. I'm excited but nervous about diving back into story-writing...it's been a while.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fall Into Reading 2008

I'm a bit late joining in on this communal reading adventure, hosted over at callapidderdays. (That link will take you directly to a page where you can join the reading fun or check out dozens of reading lists!) But I decided to take the plunge.

I've been going back and forth on whether or not I wanted to commit publicly to a reading list. I've got such a popcorn mind! One idea pops and then another one pops and then another, and before you know it, I've connected new dots and wandered far afield from any original reading list (how's that for mixed metaphors!!?) though I usually discover myself reading plenty of good books, just not the ones I originally intended to read. Other books I know I likely will not get to or finish this fall (life happens, and sometimes I realize it's more important to savor a book slowly than to rush to finish it by a self-imposed deadline). But thankfully, there's always winter. Hush. You didn't hear me say that here! Grin.

Without further ado, here's my proposed reading list for autumn 2008.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Having read Hale's Austenland (which I liked) and Princess Academy (which I loved) I'm eager to dip into another of her books. This happened to be the one I spotted first on our library's shelves and I'm looking forward to it.

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card

When I first read Ender's Shadow (sequel to Ender's Game) several years ago, I was blown away that Card could turn what essentially felt like a creative writing exercise (write an alternative story based on another character's POV) into yet another brilliant novel. So I went on and read Shadow of the Hegemon, the next in the series. It left me vaguely disappointed and I decided to give myself a break from Card for a while. But I've been poking about on his website again, enjoying his writing advice, and I just finished Shadow Puppets. While it wasn't Card's best, it was still a riveting read. Darn it, I care about these characters now, especially Bean and Petra. And he left me completely hanging. So onward to Shadow of the Giant.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mostly because I'd like to see the BBC film adaptation, but I really don't like watching films made from books before I've read the books themselves. And because a fellow reviewer on Epinions has reviewed Gaskell's work favorably. I've heard her described as a cross between Austen and Dickens. I'm intrigued!

That's probably it for fiction on my own. We're still doing plenty of fiction for family read-alouds (scroll down to sidebar on the left if you want to see a list of the things I'm reading with my six year old). I'm also re-reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society...I just read it myself a couple of weeks ago and LOVED it, and now am re-reading it out loud to my husband. Thanks to my dear sister, we no longer have to wait months on the library's hold list to finish it!


The Deathly Hallow Lectures by John Granger

Assuming I can afford a copy. My book buying budget is non-existent right now, and the book is so very new I'm sure I won't be able to find it in a library system for some time. But I do plan to read these as soon as I'm able. John's work on Harry Potter is so rich; just his work on the influence of Dante on the HP series (and Deathly Hallows in particular) will make this book a very worthwhile read. (You can still probably find his original Dante essays up at Hogwarts Professor...so good!) I'm sure there are other gems in this book too. I'm very glad he's published these lectures for those of us who haven't been able to hear him deliver such lectures in person.

Incidentally, I'm re-reading Sorcerer's Stone right now so I can take part in discussions celebrating the book's 10th anniversary in the U.S.

Miniatures and Morals by Peter Leithart

I've read parts of this book on Austen, but never finished it. I was only able to find it via ILL and wasn't given much time (or ability to renew) the book. I recently discovered it's available (in full) via Google reader, and have been trying to read it that way, though the slowness of this old computer and my old-fashioned predilection for holding an actual bound book in my hands makes it slow-going. I plan to keep at it though!

Culture Making by Andrew Crouch

I've got the hold request on this one already, and am very excited. The excerpt I've read is spectacular and really speaks to both my heart and mind.

History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer

I love this huge book, though it's taking me forever to read it. I think I'm somewhere around chapter 53. I've been allowing myself to sip from it as I can.

I usually try to read some church history and/or theology as well. Since I'm teaching a course on Anglican history this fall, I will probably pass on any "extra" church history reading beyond what I feel I need to re-read for that. I'm not sure if I'm ready to dive into another theology book right now or not. I've begun The Cruelty of Heresy, but am sensing a need to take a break. I'd love a simple, practical (classical?) devotional book right now. Any suggestions?

Also thinking of going back to Athanasius' "On the Incarnation." I was discussing it with a friend this morning (whose classicaly homeschooled 11 year old is going to read this in 7th grade next year!) and realizing I have never read it in its entirety. Time to remedy that perhaps. I also would love to re-read C.S. Lewis' introduction to it, where he talks about our need for old books (and how they keep the sea breezes of the centuries blowing through our minds). Athanasius would qualify as my "old book" for this fall, I think!