Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some Favorite Moments

This week has been full of fun moments. Here are just a few...

First, I'd forgotten how wonderful it feels to get dirt under your fingernails. The sweet girl and I have begun planting in our raised bed in the community gardens. We did a few potted flowering plants, and plan to do a few other potted/seedling sorts of transplants (some herbs, maybe a tomato plant or two, or some green peppers) but even though it's late in the season to start, we thought we'd give some seeds a try. We'll see how it goes. I'd almost forgotten the wonderful absurdity of seeds. So tiny they're almost not there -- hard to hold onto when the wind is blowing -- paper thin -- easy to lose -- and YET. We plant them with this cheerful expectation that something real and living will emerge from them, maybe even grow beautiful and fruitful. No wonder Jesus loved seeds as kingdom metaphors.

Then there's the joy of finishing a task, and finishing it well! After the great computer crash of late May/early June, I finally got the homeschool portfolio completely finished. Had a blessedly graced evaluation time with the official evaluator yesterday (sweet girl read to her from "Ramona's World") and today I handed the portfolio with official evaluator letter over to the district office. Hey, 24 hours to spare! The regular secretary wasn't there, but the helpful person in the office filled out the receipt for me. And I wish you could have seen my face when she asked, "So, do you have your affidavit for the 2011-2012 school year yet?" Um. Oh...right...I have to do this *all over again*.... She quickly assured me I still had time, but added some folks just turn them in when they bring the portfolio for the year just finishing. Which is really smart, but far more together than I can manage to be at the moment!

Finally, in the little gifts are sometimes the best gifts category, I've been thoroughly enjoying how much the sweet girl is loving one of her simplest birthday presents. I picked up a new sketch diary for her, along with a set of Crayola "pipsqueak" markers (little ones, brightly colored). They've gotten tons of use, and she's completely enthusiastic. Yes, the big present (a lovely doll she's named Emily Susanah Madeleine) was also a hit, but it's a good reminder to me that a small gift, lovingly chosen, is sometimes the best gift of all.

And without realizing it, I think I just added three things to my ongoing gratitude list. (#s 137-139)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Nine Years Ago...

It's rare that you know exactly what you were doing a given number of years ago on a certain day and time. But when you're commemorating the birth of your first born (and only) daughter, it's pretty easy to recall with great clarity!

Nine years ago right now I was exhausted and marveling over the miracle of the sweet girl's birth. I remember so much of that long day (following a very long night) with great clarity, including the thunderstorm outside the hospital window. Most of all, I just remember being utterly grateful for how the Lord had brought us through a difficult labor and delivery ~ and how precious that little baby in my arms (so tiny!) truly was.

And now I look at my long-legged, slender, twirling, laughing, fancy-dress wearing, short hair-cut sporting, doll hugging, brussels sprouts eating, punny, artistic, loving and creative nine year old...and I marvel even more.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Books About Books

Lately I seem to be on a tear of reading books about books. It started a couple of weeks back when I found A Jane Austen Education on the new book shelves at our little library. No sooner had I finished that than my copy of The Wilder Life hit the hold shelves two towns over.

I'm working on reviews of both, but I found myself wanting to jot a few thoughts here. These were both fascinating reads...highly different from one another in some essential ways, and yet similar too. They both seem to fall into the genre I'm coming to think of as literary memoir, or maybe "book lover's confessional" would be more appropriate.

A Jane Austen Education is subtitled "How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter." (In other words, "everything I need to know I learned from Jane...")

The Wilder Life (a title which could probably lead one into unintended trouble if googled indiscriminately) is subtitled "My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie."

Both books are written by highly literate and liberal folks -- good writers, very educated, with a deep love of story. William Deresiewicz, who used to teach at Yale, has the honor of being perhaps the most interesting male writer I've ever read on Austen. His book is about two-thirds thought-provoking literary criticism (he gives readings of all six of Austen's novels) and one-third memoir/confessional. What fascinates me most about this book, written from the perspective of a Jewish academic who seems mostly secular, is that his main thesis boils down to this: reading Jane Austen helped him to be a kinder, more compassionate, deeper human being. In fact, I think you could actually argue persuasively from his arguments that what he learned from Austen is the need for Christian virtues (and the beauty of holiness).

Wendy McClure, the author of the Wilder book, sounds even younger and hipper than Deresiewicz, whom I gather is about my age (hence not so young and hip anymore, though certainly not decrepit). She's also a lot less academic...though her impressive writer credentials include an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her prose style reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott, if one could ever imagine Anne Lamott wearing a sunbonnet and trekking across the prairie in an obsessive search for some elusive...something. That is, something that has to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her story, something that somehow might connect to the trekker's own story.

I have to admit I laughed out loud multiple times while reading The Wilder Life. I love (love, love) all the Little House books. I've loved them since childhood, and I've loved reading them all to my daughter (except for the First Four Years, which I've not been able to bring myself to put her through yet). McClure knows the books backwards and forwards, and it was easy to fall into a deep kinship with her experience of inhabiting the world of the books so deeply. I too inhabited Laura's story in my childhood. And whenever I enter the books again, I still feel like I do ~ an experience I've had many a time, not just with Wilder's work, but with other writers too, including Austen.

McClure talks about religion more overtly than Deresiewicz, though in a way that shows her discomfort with zealous people who take it too seriously ~ and while one can easily empathize with that, I found it interesting that she was scared off by religious zeal/passion when she was so good at showing so much of her own -- when it came to literature! She tries to be charitable, but she clearly feels ambiguous about how "Christian homeschoolers" (a group she tends to lump together without much differentiation) have approached Wilder's work. That made me chuckle, partly because I'm both a Christian and a homeschooler, and I would likely have some of the same concerns/critiques she has. Wilder has definitely been embraced by the wider homeschooling community, but not always for the reasons McClure assumes and most highlights. There's a tremendous diversity among homeschoolers, even faith-based ones, that she hasn't quite grasped...though it's hard to fault her for that since it's a common misperception.

What Deresiewicz and McClure have in common, despite their different voices and approaches, is that ability to fall completely into stories, to let stories change and shape them. They are passionate readers who have found not just artistry in the pages of books, but themselves. And they're passionate about sharing their insights about what they've learned in the process. Deresiewicz' journey is much more interior/cerebral, though the book takes a surprisingly personal turn in the final chapter as he relates his own story of courtship/love/marriage and gives it an Austen spin. McClure's journey is exterior as well as interior as she sets out on an actual pilgrimage to see as many Laura Ingalls Wilder "places" as she can, and as she tries to sort out the tensions between truth/fiction and the connections (and disconnects) between Laura's life and her own.

Both books also put me in mind of C.S. Lewis. Okay...a lot of books put me in mind of C.S. Lewis, who has helped me learn how to read and think more deeply. (I sometimes feel like Jack hovers between the lines of most things I read, whispering encouragement and pointing out insights.) His words on "sehnsucht" (that deep yearning or craving for something beyond ourselves, something that often feels just out of reach) kept playing through my mind as I read these two authors. And they both seem to be living examples of Lewis' wonderful quote: "We read to know that we are not alone."

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Kaboosh!" The Sounds of Creativity

I spent the afternoon at Arts Camp doing brainstorming/wordplay sessions with three groups of kids. I was there to try to prime the creative pump for the rest of the week's song writing sessions, which Dana will doing with them.

Despite some craziness (not an easy working space, some rambunctious kids in second group, and some VERY rambunctious kids in the third group) it was a lot of fun. I wanted to get them thinking concretely and metaphorically, without telling them that's what we were doing. I used one of my favorite group writing starters, where I have the kids think about a particular season ~ summer, of course, for today ~ but to think about it in terms of what it looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, and feels like. I also threw in color associations and got them to think about what the season would look like and wear if it was a person. For one group, when things were petering out, I tried to get them thinking about how they'd sell summer if they could put it in a bottle. (One little girl said she'd put lots of grass and flowers in the bottle.)

It's always interesting to see where children's minds go. Their creative and imaginative leaps are fascinating. But sometimes equally fascinating is how pedestrian kids can be (and adults too, this is an equal opportunity challenge) when you ask them to try to come up with descriptors, one reason I like to push it back into the realm of the concrete whenever possible. Even after we brainstormed a whole page full of rainbow colored words and images -- most of them highly specific and related to various senses -- when we got to the part where we were putting lines down, there were kids who wanted me to write things down like "summer is fun" or "summer is pretty." How is it fun? I pressed them. What makes it look pretty?

Like I said, this is an equal opportunity challenge. Left to ourselves, we often run straight toward the easy, vague words that mean so much they don't mean much at all. The kinds of words that balloon over you like a tent, covering a lot of ground. I'd rather hear the snap of the tent as it's unfolded and the banging of the hammer as the tent pegs get smacked into the ground. And I use that image purposefully, because one of the kids, when I asked him what summer sounded like, answered "bang! bang! bang!" When I said, "what makes that noise?" he said "the hammer when you hammer tent pegs in when you go camping!"

Sound words were a definite hit with the younger kids. If I'd had more time, I would have played more with onomatopoeia. One of the sounds of summer that kept coming up was fireworks. So with the youngest group, I asked them to make fireworks sounds. They came up with "kaboosh!" which worked its way into their poem. "Summer says 'kaboosh!' like fireworks."

A fun day. Or maybe I should say a day that sizzled like sparklers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summertime...and the Livin' is...Busy?

I know, I know, it's supposed to be easy!

Our summertime schedules rolled into town with a vengeance this week. Beginning of AYI Arts Camp (D. directing, S. attending), seminary homecoming (time with friends old and new), and the Ancient Wisdom Anglican Futures conference (check it out here). Our brains, hearts, and bodies are all on overload, but in a good way.

I'm far too scattered this morning to do a cohesive post (heck, it took me three tries to spell cohesive) so I'll just jot a couple of random links and thoughts.

I found myself quite thoughtful this morning over this piece by Timothy Keller. I'm really coming to love his writing. This article seems to get at something I've been thinking toward for years, but have never quite found a way to articulate: how the way of Jesus offers us a "third way" of being in the world and understanding family, one which isn't fully defined or understood through either a conservative/traditional or liberal/secular lens. Good food for thought.

Having an opportunity to hear William Harmless, SJ yesterday on Augustine of Hippo and the ancient catechumenate -- what a delight! Since D. and I are tag teaming the conference this week, he heard part 1 of the lecture and I heard part 2. We agreed we didn't have time to exchange notes last night, but ended up talking about it for twenty minutes anyway, as tired as we were.

Listen to this wonderful quote from Augustine's De doctrina christiana, on the "three aims of preaching":

"A certain man of eloquence has said -- and said rightly -- that an eloquent person should speak in such a way that he 'teaches, delights, and persuades,' adding: 'To teach is a necessity, to delight makes it enjoyable, and to persuade is a triumph' (Cicero, Orator 69). Of these three aims, the one mentioned first, that is, the necessity of teaching, shapes what we say; the other two shape how we say it. So the one who speaks with the aim of teaching should not think he has spoken to the person he wishes to teach so long as he has not been understood. Although he has verbalized what he himself understands, he should not consider that he has really spoken -- really communicated -- if the one listening to him has not really understood."

And on the "Evangelist as Tour Guide" (love this thought) Augustine writes:

"Now if we feel disgusted because we are so often repeating things geared to the little ones, familiar things, let us equip ourselves with a brother's or a father's or a mother's love, and by linking our hearts to theirs, those things will again seem new to us. For so great is this feeling of compassion that when people are touched by us as we speak and we by them as they learn, we each dwell in the other, and so it is as if they speak in us what they hear while we, in some way, learn in them what it is we teach. Isn't it quite common that when we show certain beautiful, spacious locales, whether in town or out in the countryside, to those who have never seen them before, we who have been in the habit of passing them by without any enjoyment find our own delight renewed by their delight at the novelty of it all? And how much more enjoyable the closer our friendship, because as we come together more and more through this bond of love, what had gotten old becomes new to us all over again. But if we have some progress in contemplative matters, we do not wish those who are learning from us simply to enjoy and be amazed when they gaze upon human handiwork, but we want them to enjoy and be amazed by the deeper design and underlying purpose of the Artist himself and, from there, soar up in admiration and in praise of the All-creating God, where the richest fruitfulness of his love finds its endpoint. How much more ought we to rejoice when people now approach to learn of God Himself, for whatever things we learn, we learn to learn of God; and how much more ought we to be renewed in their newness, so that if our preaching, now a routine, has cooled off, it may again catch fire because of our hearers."

Amazingly good stuff (all from Fr. Harmless translation Augustine in His Own Words published last year by Catholic University of America Press). My teacher heart needs this, on all sorts of levels...I hope to have time to ruminate and write more about it later. For now, just passing on a little bit of ancient treasure.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

"Things That Fascinate Me When I Read and Write Fiction..."

Our main computer crashed this week. While I'm waiting for its healing (we have a good friend who is working to recover the data this week) I'm on another computer, the one that soon *will* be my main computer. It's also the one I used the last time our other computer crashed. Diving into documents, I found a few things I wrote and saved last summer, including this meme.

I can't remember where I found it, but I liked the idea. It was fun to revisit the list today too!


Things That Fascinate Me When I Read and Write Fiction

Moments of decision. I am always at my deepest attention when I get to a place in a story where a character faces a moment of clear decision. Forks in the road excite me.

Names. Character names, place names, explanations for why something or someone is named what they’re named. People who live up to their names, and those who don’t.

Quirky little towns with a cast of somewhat eccentric characters.

Descriptions of landscapes, especially specific flora and fauna.

Train rides, or other moments where people can contemplate the world passing by.

Physical journeying, especially through forests or mountains.

Music or poetry, especially when they’re woven seamlessly into a story.

Interesting collections (and characters who collect things).

American history, particularly interesting tidbits involving presidential or pioneering history.

Descriptions involving color.

People sitting around talking…just talking…the way real people do.

Sudden epiphanies.

Mysteries, especially ones involving the past.

Unlikely groups of people becoming friends, forging a team, or becoming a community. The more misfits the merrier.

Meals. I’ve already mentioned that I love it when people sit and talk, or have sudden epiphanies, or forge community. Even better if those things happen over food, especially if it’s described so well I can practically smell it or taste it.

Lost things becoming found. Lost people ditto.

Allusions to other books I’ve read and loved. I always feel much closer to a character if s/he has read and enjoyed the same books I have.

Biblical themes, allusions or names.

Two characters who showcase contrasting traits.

Characters who make me laugh because they’re ridiculous and pretentious but don’t realize they are.

Time travel. It drives me crazy, especially when not handled well, but it also thoroughly intrigues me…and always has. I’ve been nibbling at writing time travel stories since I was about seventeen, but I’ve never fully taken the dive.

Narrators whose voices feel so real and authentic I can hear them in my head.

Romance, especially when it’s completely subsidiary to other issues in the books, and when it sneaks up on the characters themselves. Good, believable obstacles (emotional or otherwise) that need to be resolved before two characters can come together.

Family history.

Family jokes and sayings.

Allusions to world history or church history, especially if it’s an era I’m especially interested in.

Ancient times.

Celtic saints.

Grandmothers. Grandfathers.

Old and young generations needing to learn how to communicate.

Medieval ethos, especially if there are going to be battles.

Talking animals. They’re often so much wiser than we are.

Stars/astronomy. Characters who like to stargaze.

Wise mentor figures.

Moments of pity and charity for fellow creatures, especially when you least expect it.



Puns and wordplay.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

One of Those Moments

I had "one of those moments" during yesterday's morning quiet time with the sweet girl. We were doing our prayers and Bible reading before breakfast, and were talking about the morning's readings. I can't even recall the exact passage or story under discussion -- we often jump around quite a bit in these morning conversations -- it may have been triggered by the Pharisees. But the sweet girl had one of those "a-ha" moments that gave me an "a-ha" moment too.

"Mommy," she said, "you know how sometimes people can act all good on the outside but not be right on the inside?"

I nodded.

"Well," she said sagely, "it's like 'believer is as believer does.'"

It took me just a second to catch on to her train of thought. We sometimes remind her that "pretty is as pretty does," especially on mornings when she's dawdling over something very girlish (like choosing clothes or playing with a "hairstyle") but is struggling with attitude and behavior. I think we learned the expression from Ma Ingalls, that sage dispenser of practical parental wisdom. And it's a good saying. What you look like on the outside is one thing, but your heart attitude is the most important of all.

But the sweet girl's observation took it a step further. "Believer is as believer does." Who we are in the deepest core of us is reflected in what we do. Jesus wasn't ever faked out by seemingly pious actions by folks like the Pharisees (and he's still not fooled when we try it too). He could see to their heart motivations. But real fruit, real righteousness, real acts of mercy and peace and goodness, are important. What we do matters. It's inextricably linked to who we are and what our heart situation is. We can't grow fruit if our roots don't go deep into good soil. We can't bear fruit if we're not attached to the vine. But if we are, then the fruit will come. And people will know us by that fruit.

Or to put it more simply, in the sage words of a growing, learning, ever-root-deepening (thank you, God) eight year old girl: "believer is as believer does."

Friday, June 03, 2011

Poetry Friday: Jessica Powers

Not long ago I came across a gorgeous photo on the Facebook page for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I don't have permission to post it here, so a verbal sketch will have to suffice: imagine an indigo bunting perched on a branch, his body startlingly blue against a misty purple blur of mountains, his mouth wide open in a song you can practically hear. He's alone against a backdrop of beauty and majesty, just singing and singing.

Though it's not about an indigo bunting, the picture made me think of one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, "Robin at Dusk" by Jessica Powers. Jessica Powers was a Carmelite nun who lived from 1905-1988. My copy of her Selected Poetry is thumbed over, paged through, spilled on...sort of the Velveteen Rabbit equivalent of a well-loved book.

I thought I'd send the poem winging and let it perch here. Imagine the little bird singing for all he's worth...

I can go starved the whole day long,
draining a stone, eating a husk,
and never hunger till a song
breaks from a robin's throat at dusk.

I am reminded only then
how far from day and human speech,
how far from the loud world of men
lies the bright dream I strain to reach.

You can go here to read the final two (and amazing) stanzas. You'll need to scroll to the middle of the page.

Happy Poetry Friday! The roundup is at The Writer's Armchair.