Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Who Was President When You Were Twelve?

As 2014 draws to a close, I'm enjoying David McCullough's masterful biography of Truman, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1993.

Since Truman was president well before I was born, most of what I've learned about him over the years, prior to now, came in conversations with my dad. My father loves to talk history and politics, especially presidential politics, which is likely where I get some of my fascination with the subject.

One of the things I remember my dad telling me most clearly was how strange it felt for him at first to think of Harry S. Truman as president. When Truman became president in April 1945, on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, my father had no memory of any other president ever. FDR had been elected to an unprecedented and never to be repeated four terms (though he would serve only three months of the fourth term). He was first elected in 1932, the year both of my parents were born. Mom was a newly turned 13 and Dad 12 almost 13 when FDR died and Truman became president. No wonder he had a hard time fathoming that anybody else could have the job! That little anecdote has been  lodged in my memory for years. Interestingly, McCullough spends a lot of time explaining how Truman himself (in his first dazed reaction) had a hard time thinking of himself as president too.

Maybe because my own daughter is now 12, I've found myself thinking through other "12s" in our family history. It's interesting and revealing to think about U.S. presidential history in terms of the youth of different generations. My daughter, of course, is 12 during the second term of Barack Obama, the first African American president. When I was 12, Ronald Regan had just been elected for the first time (he would be president my entire adolescence), though Jimmy Carter was actually in office through the end of the year I turned 12. When my husband was 12, Richard Nixon had just been inaugurated for his second term, a year prior to his resignation of the presidency (a political environment to which my husband still attributes much of his own attitudes toward and ideas about politics). My middle sister turned 12 the year Nixon resigned. My oldest sister turned 12 less than half a year before Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, and my brother turned 12 the next year, just two months before Nixon was first elected.

My mother-in-law, five years younger than my parents, would have been 12 the year that Harry S. Truman was inaugurated for his first full term (but essentially his second) following his improbable election victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. My husband's aunt, ten years his junior, was 12 the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

My maternal grandmother turned 12 in 1921, the year that Warren G. Harding was inaugurated (in March, as they did back then). My maternal grandfather turned 12 in 1924, the year that Calvin Coolidge delivered the first radio broadcast from the White House. My paternal grandmother would have turned 12 in 1917, the year Woodrow Wilson was elected for his second term and the U.S. went to war (for the first time) with Germany (a war in which Harry Truman would serve as an artillery captain.) My paternal grandfather turned 12 in 1913, the year Wilson was inaugurated for the first time, succeeding William Howard Taft.

I find this so interesting that I may go back even further and figure out who was president when my great-grandparents were 12!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Advent Conjugation

A very merry Christmas! I thought I would share my annual advent poem here as one more way of celebrating today. Blessings to all!

Advent Conjugation

He came.
It was a journey
long and far.
  The One
who made the light
and every star
stepped into darkness
that we might see
his shining glory here.
He wrapped himself
  in flesh
that we might behold
the face of God
and hold his gentle
love within our hands.
He made himself
  so small
we could embrace
eternity in swaddling bands.

He comes
  each day.
He understands
our longest journeys.
The baby refugee
whose parents fled,
the man who had
no place to lay his head,
he knows the way
  we wander,
the borders we cross,
and all the places
where we hide
when we’re afraid
  and lost.
The courage he sends
through the strength
of his name gives light .
when we’re down
to the barest of flame.

He will come
  once more.
The long journey
will be made again
and all our stories
brought to their
  rightful end
in the love story
begun before
the world began.
Both joy and fears
enfolded in his grace
and every step
of every weary race
We will be whole.
He promises
to make it so.

And this is the
advent conjugation
that’s true for every
tongue and tribe
 and nation –
that we can trust
  the One
  who came,
  who comes,
  who will come
  once again,
to lead us into
joyous life
that never ends.

            ~EMP, Advent 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Teach Us to Number Our Days: A Few Thoughts on Aging

“Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

This advent season I’m thinking about aging. It’s not just because my middle-aged body and mind are both tired these days (I find myself getting really excited about sleep, in ways I never used to!) but because we recently visited our parents.

My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this year, a diagnosis we’re still not entirely sure about, though one thing is clear: her memory and physical strength have both plummeted alarmingly in the past year and a half. Although she is a little stronger now than she was in late summer, before the family had her current care situation in place, it is still very difficult to see her so frail and easily confused.

My own mother, five years older than my mother-in-law but always constitutionally more vigorous, fell two days before Thanksgiving and broke her hip. We spent our time there mostly in hospital, as she was recovering from surgery. She’s spent the weeks since in a rehab facility, learning to walk and carefully handle stairs with her new hip, and Lord willing, she’ll be home in just a couple more days. She’s worked hard, determined to get back on her feet, but she’s battled anxiety, depression, and loneliness too. This has been the longest time my folks, married for 60 years, have been separated from each other for many years. Probably the last time they spent this much time apart was over 50 years ago, when they made a move from Tennessee to Virginia with two little ones in tow, and my father had to move ahead of the rest of the family to find a place for them to live and to start his job. He’s visiting her every day, of course, but they still miss each other a lot.

Observing all three of these people (so dear to me) handle huge challenges has been encouraging, worrying, thought-provoking – and more besides. I am amazed by their courage. I don’t use that word lightly. Just getting into your 70s and 80s with the will to get up each morning, to keep moving in spite of pain and discomfort, to keep a sense of humor in the midst of growing daily frustrations, takes a tremendous amount of courage.

I love these people. They have so much wisdom and experience, and they’ve poured so much of their lives into ours. And right now, they all face so many daily challenges. Physical faculties have begun to fail them. Mom doesn’t hear as well as she used to, Dad’s eyesight is challenging him (night driving has become a real anxiety, reading more of a chore) and my mother-in-law’s vocal strength is failing her, so it’s almost impossible for her to be heard. Both moms struggle with balance issues. My dad has to monitor his pace or his blood-pressure drops significantly (he has congestive heart failure, from which he has recovered wonderfully, but still). They have more aches and pains and their bodies need more rest.

The friends and loved ones of their youth have begun to die, and there are fewer people left who share their memories and can connect with them on deep levels of heart and soul. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget my mom flourishing a newspaper open to the obituary section (while she lay in her hospital bed) and saying with total snark: “Every once in a while we like to check in to make sure we haven’t died yet.” Then my dad, a few minutes later, in a much more sober frame of mind, telling me that “some days when I read the obituaries, everyone listed there is younger than I am.”

I’m sure there are times when they feel overlooked or dismissed because they can’t “keep up the pace.” They’re slower on their feet. New technology passes them by. Popular cultural trends seem more inane and faddish and lightweight to them (I already get that, and I’m only 46). Yet they’re still susceptible to the fear and anxiety pumped regularly through the media, just like everyone else.

I appreciate seeing the ways they handle their growing infirmities and frustrations: sometimes with panache, sometimes with humor, sometimes with anger and defiance. I’ve begun to realize that no two people handle the arduous hills of aging quite the same way. And I’ve begun to see that there are certain things I not only hope and pray I have in place if I ever attain to eight or nine decades of living, but certain things I want to actively work to have in place if and when I get there. Not that I’m banking on these attitudes or attributes necessarily and always making things easier – unexpected challenges will arise, and the likelihood of D & I ever having the level of care our parents are experiencing is slim.

Still, here are a few things I want to begin to put into place for myself now as I think about those years to come. They are good life skills and attitudes to have in the here and now, not just investments for old age.

·        I want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, the kind of gratitude I see in my dad when he tells me that every day he still enjoys is a gift.
·        I want to keep my mind as active as possible for as long as possible: with reading (including slow, thoughtful reading of material that challenges me), with prayer, music, creativity, and even occasionally tackling new skills. I want to try to be open to the new as well as the old for as long as I can.
·        I want to remember that “activity” does not equal value. A ministry of presence – even if it means, in the end, simply being kind and loving to caregivers (who may or may not always be kind themselves) is still of value. A ministry of prayer matters. There may even be times when I feel I have nothing left to give at all, but I pray that I will still somehow know, deep down inside, that I am always a beloved daughter of God. That starts with me remembering it now, and treating others with the respect and dignity and care with which I hope to be treated one day.
·        I don’t want to be afraid to ask for help or to show I don’t have it all together. I want to stay open to receive. To me, this is huge. My parents have been givers, do-ers, caregivers, their whole lives. It has sometimes been very hard for them to be on the receiving end of care. I think this is a tough one for all of us actually. We all like to be the strong ones who give. But it’s been dawning on me lately that as Christians, our whole (healed, whole, saved!) lives are due to having received grace upon grace we couldn’t have ever earned or scraped up or managed on our own, and that needs to mark our inner disposition in other ways. We need to be open to receive what we can’t possibly do for ourselves, and to see it not as a sign of weakness, but a blessed part of God’s economy and the communion of the saints.
·        I want to view even the really, really hard stuff in life as part of the adventure God has me on, remembering that I am in his hands and in his care.
·        I want to savor simple gifts. And laugh more.  
·        I want to get to and maintain a healthy weight, as well as maintain better exercise routines and healthier eating habits. I’d like to stay as flexible and limber as possible for as long I can!

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:4

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Blessings of the Yearly Advent Poem

My mysterious disappearance from the blog has not been all that mysterious really. Between an incredible amount of work and our recent Thanksgiving travels, I've not had any time to post here. And I miss it.

I've been thankful to have managed some scribbles in my journal during this time, which have helped to keep me sane. Most of all, I'm thankful for the blessings of Advent.

In years past, I've done a number of posts about Advent. I love to share poems, prayers, snippets of what I'm reading, thoughts about the season. This year I am living at such a flat-out work pace, and our extended families are going through so much stress, Advent had taken on a much more raw and urgent feeling...less about making our way toward the Christmas celebration (though that's still a layer) and more about clinging to the very real hope we have in Jesus. (Which is, of course, a big part of making our way toward the Christmas celebration...but I'm meandering here, and I only have a couple of minutes to write!)

One of the biggest blessings this Advent has been my yearly discipline of writing a poem. This is the twenty-third year I have done so, which means I have been writing an annual Advent poem for half my life. There are years the poem comes easily and years it's a struggle, but this is one of the first years I seriously thought I might just not be able to do it at all. It's not just the work pace right now, but the exhausted inner space. I am spending a lot of my writing working days plowing through work-a-day prose -- poetry has not been a regular part of my diet (reading or writing) for a little while, yet another thing I miss. And yet there's the mysterious blessing of having stored up so much over the years that it's there to draw on when I need it, even in lean seasons.

So when the poem started to do its push and pull inside my heart last week, I wasn't as surprised as I might've been. I found myself smiling at its approach like I would smile at the coming of an old friend -- "really? you decided to come this year too?" The poem never seems to mind how cluttered my house is, how worn out my body, how tired my spirit. So I got up early this morning, tired as I was, to work at a draft.

I am so thankful for the gift of creativity, even or especially when I'm convinced there's none left in the storehouse. Proof once again that it pours into us from the Creator whose well never runs dry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Emily Dickinson: Autumn

I always think of Emily's autumn poem this time of year. You know the one, which ends:

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.

Can't you just picture her in her long white dress, primping before the mirror with a mischievous smile? Not to be outdone by the dazzling colors of the New England autumn landscape, she reaches into her jewelry box for a favorite pin. I always imagine it as ruby red or golden amber. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

We Get To Love One Another

I've been on a long marching road of work, more work, and a little more work recently. I've given up trying to disentangle the thread of the kinds of "work" I do, some of it paid, a lot of it not, some of it fulfilling and satisfying, the kind of work that can almost feel like play, and some of it just one foot in front of the other duty. I've been trying instead to remember some of the many blessings involved in work, such as: I've been given it to do, and as long as I have health and life I get the chance to do it faithfully and lovingly, even the parts of it that can feel like sheer drudgery.

One of the things that blesses my heart no end is that we've been put on this earth not just to breathe and exist, not just to eat and live and love and laugh and worship (though I'm so thankful we get to do all of those things) but so we can love each other. Isn't that amazing? We get to love one another. Some days it's easy, some days it's hard, but it's part of God's call to us, God's gift to us. We get to love one another. Wow.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Daybook: J.I. Packer ("Mercy from first to last")

Just came across this quote I jotted in my journal a couple of months ago, and thought I would take a page out of the daybook to share it here:

"Even when (the Christian) cannot see the why and wherefore of God's dealings, he knows that there is love in and behind them and so he can rejoice always; even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong, he knows that the true story of his life, when known, will prove to be 'mercy from first to last' -- and he is content."  ~J.I.Packer

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Elephants and Pluto and November....oh my!

It's been a crazy-busy few weeks of regular work and school with some new things coming down the pike in our schedules.

Last week the sweet girl finished up her fall Irish dance class and thoroughly enjoyed trick or treating, dressed up as our town (complete with clock tower hat). This week she's finishing up a paper on Pluto (to her great surprise, after doing all her reading and research, she discovered she agrees with its "demotion" to dwarf planet status).

I've been working on an article proposal for a children's magazine which has had me reading about the fascinating world of elephants, most specifically elephant intelligence. The books have intrigued S. to the point that she thinks elephants may be her next learning craze, the Apollo space mission craze having momentarily died down. Hooray for learning trails!

In writing life news: I'm continuing to do a lot of web content writing, and I'm grateful it's there, but I'm really excited because I've just been offered a contract as a youth curriculum writer with a Sunday School publishing company. I'll be contracted to write lesson plans for teaching various Bible passages to 7-12th graders. It's a neat looking approach to teaching the Scriptures (incorporating interactive and kinesthetic approaches) and I'm happy that the company has brought me on board to do some projects. Right now I am praying for the time and creativity to do the lesson planning justice -- my first two deadlines are in December.

And in teaching life news: I just started working with my Old Testament class (online, for an adult ed. institute I sometimes teach for) and have contracted to teach the Anglican Ethos course I used to teach online at the sem this spring. That last was a happy and unexpected surprise, as the course hasn't been offered in quite a while -- I've only taught it as an independent study for the past several years.

Throw in homeschooling, afterschool arts, church school, missions committee work, and several other things I'm not immediately remembering, and this has turned out to be one of the busiest autumns I can remember in years. It's all good, but sometimes tiring.

We're struggling mightily with an income shortfall this month (we've had months it's been tight, and things have finally caught up with us, most especially my lack of steady work this fall) so while I am praising God for new work opportunities in winter and spring, I know it's going to be a while (January - March) before most of my work outside of web content writing generates anything. We are trying to find ways to continue to pay down our debt without defaulting while still doing things like eating, keeping the lights on and gas in the car, and finding ways to pay for D's meds. All of this would be tremendously anxiety producing if I let myself stop and focus on it, but it's so much easier to keep opening my hands and looking up and saying thank you. Plus there's only so much you can do....when you really can't pay bills, you just can't pay them, and you move on and keep working as best you can. You keep your eyes on Jesus and trust him for what you lack. You also trust that you will meet patience and understanding and kindness even in places where you don't expect it, and that somehow there will be enough for the day. And not just "enough" materially, but "enough" in all the ways that matter.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Time for a Lovely Stop

The sweet girl and I were taking a walk the other day when she came to a sudden halt on the sidewalk. "Mom, stop! Look at that!" she exclaimed.

I looked, and realized that a beautiful autumn tree, a brightly colored maple, is what had brought her to a standstill.  I stopped too, and stood there for a moment just gazing at its beauty.

She sighed. "Sometimes," she said, "you just need to make a lovely stop."

Amen to that! 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Failure is Not an Option. But It's Also a Necessity...

I didn't meant to disappear off the blog for so long, but it's been a busy few weeks. School and ministry schedules have resumed their full autumn pace, and I've been working much longer hours than usual doing web content writing. What that means is that I'm usually so tired when bedtime comes (and it seems to come later and later!) that all I want to do is fall over. More time at the computer is usually not something I relish!

I see my last post was about Apollo 13, which makes me smile. The space geekiness has continued at our house since then. I ended up reading Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger's book Apollo 13 (formerly called Lost Moon, the book on which the film was based) and passed it on to my eager 12 year old. She is about two-thirds of the way through it now. It's turned out to be a good, challenging read for her -- it's worked as supplemental science reading but also provided some good examples of various types of writing she's been analyzing and working on in her Writing With Skill curriculum in the past 1 plus years. Biographical sketches, descriptions of scientific processes, different types of history writing -- it's all there.

Since we've all been in NASA mode, I've found myself drifting back to the space shelves at the library, and I'm currently reading Gene Kranz' Failure is Not an Option. Kranz was the flight director during Apollo 13, but this book contains his memoirs from the Mercury missions onward. It's an interesting read, intelligent and fascinating, though a little less finely crafted than the Lovell/Kluger collaboration. Kluger was able to bring a journalistic sensibility to the Apollo 13 narrative that gives it a more edge-of-your-seat readability. Kranz, while a good writer, doesn't always have the ability to shape a narrative quite as smoothly, and he sometimes falls into a lot of techno-speak (though there's a helpful glossary) and flights of fond memory over fellow co-workers. Still, it's an interesting behind the scenes look at NASA's early days.

One of the things that has interested me the most in the first few chapters is what could feel like a discrepancy (but I don't think is) between his title and the reality of those early missions. "Failure is not an option..." is a line associated with Kranz; his character says it in the film. In fact, he never said those words exactly that we know of, but adopted it as the title of his book after the film because he thought it summed up NASA's approach to space flight so well. And it does, in a sense. Ultimate failure certainly never felt like an option. The hundreds and thousands of people who dedicated their time and talents to the American space program of the 1960s were good at keeping their ultimate goal in view; they were courageous and persevered, sometimes under great odds, to accomplish that goal.

On the other hand, they did sometimes fail. A lot. Especially in the early years. Sometimes they didn't know precisely what they were doing. Sometimes they knew a little of what they needed to know, but had to figure out the rest the hard way.  By failing, at least in the short term, they were able to learn what they needed to learn to go forward, little by little. Sometimes small failures lead to creativity, problem-solving, and renewed determination.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Storyteller's Workshop: Apollo 13

Last night I decided to watch the Ron Howard directed film Apollo 13. I think it was the first time I’d seen it since it opened in theaters back in 1995. I’ve wanted to see it again, partly to preview for our twelve year old. She has a great love of all things connected to outer space and a fascination with the Apollo missions especially, but I wanted to check out the film’s intensity level.

I’m not sure why I chose to watch it late last night. I think I just needed to tumble into a good story, and I remembered this was a good one. And indeed it was.

The Story

If you’re not familiar with the film, Apollo 13 is based on the real life story of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970. Two missions had already landed men on the moon, and by 1970, strangely enough, the space program’s success was becoming “old hat” for the American people. So much so that when Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks in the film) and his crewmates Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) transmitted their first broadcast back to earth, on day three in space, none of the networks even bothered to show it.

However, newscasters were soon showing everything about the mission they possibly could. That’s because when they were 173,000 miles from earth (let that number sink in) one of their oxygen tanks exploded, crippling the command module and forcing the men to move to the lunar landing module. They used it as a “lifeboat” until they could find a way, in conjunction with a lot of help from mission control back on earth, to get home. This proved highly problematic in all sorts of ways, as the film dramatically presents.

Story-telling takeaways:

A true story of near catastrophe and ultimate triumph would seem to present you with a dramatic story-shape that you don’t need to tinker with very much. Still, I think the writers and director did a great job of bringing out the dramatic tension in some very creative ways.

We all know the tried and true shape of a dramatic narrative, where someone starts in one direction toward a goal and then gets thwarted. There’s an obstacle in their way, and they have to find out a way around it (or under it or over it!) to accomplish their goal. One thing I love about Apollo 13 is that the highly worthy goal that our heroes start toward is never accomplished, and yet the goal they do end up accomplishing, which seems so much more ordinary, turns out to pull on their strength and heroism in even deeper ways.

The change of their trajectory – from moonward to homeward – marks a major shift in the goal of the story and in the inner orientation of the main characters. Up until now, we’ve been with them as they’ve excitedly trained to fly this spacecraft and land on the moon. When it becomes clear that “we’ve lost the moon,” as Lovell says rather bleakly, when they realize that they can no longer pursue the lunar landing because they will need every ounce of their power to turn around and get home, we are momentarily deflated. The film pays tribute to that by giving Lovell a moment as he looks down at the lunar surface and imagines what it would be like to step out and fulfill his dream. Then we can practically see the dawning realization on all of their faces as it occurs to them that surviving and returning to earth is the new goal, and it’s going to be much harder than anything they ever anticipated about the flight.

Sometimes your character’s original goal does not turn out to be what really needs accomplishing. The heart of your story, and your character’s deepest desires, may not be revealed until deep into the plot.

As storytellers, we don’t have to jump up and down and point when this happens. We can find small but profound ways to indicate the “turn” that is taking place in the outward and inner narratives. Again, I love how Apollo 13 does this. Early in the film, it showed us Lovell looking up at the night sky. He sees the moon, a place he has already orbited (on an earlier flight) so a place he’s begun to know, but one that still fascinates him. He longs to go there again and this time to step out on it surface. He holds his thumb up and moves it back and forth so that it blots out the moon. So tiny really, so far away, yet real, and a place he longs to be.

The visual sticks with us because we see him do the same thing again, but this time in reverse. When they are in the spacecraft near the moon, he looks out the window and sees the earth. He holds up his thumb and blots it out and then moves his thumb and reveals it again. So tiny really, so far away, yet real, and a place he longs to be. In fact, the longing to get back to earth suddenly feels far deeper and more urgent than the push for the moon (it helps that we’ve seen him in the context of his loving family). And the fact that he can so easily block out the earth with his thumb heightens the tension, because we realize just how faraway it is.

A tiny picture, a small repeated gesture – that’s all it takes. We know without words (though the script writers give him some words about it later) that we’re now focusing on the homeward goal. Plan A is gone. Plan B is what matters. And it turns out that Plan B is the heart of our story.

Besides the change in story trajectory, Apollo 13 also does a great job of providing us with glimpses of secondary characters and their motivations and longings. One of my favorite ways it does this is through the character of Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the command module pilot who trained for the mission and then was scratched from the first string just a few days prior to lift-off because he’d been exposed to the measles and they couldn’t risk him getting sick while in space. The irony of and perhaps the providence behind that decision unfolds as the film progresses. This is, interestingly, one of the places where the filmmakers used creative license by creating an even larger role for Mattingly than he had in real-life. While he was an important member of the ground crew that figured out how to get the astronauts home, the film played up his contribution (conflating several real life people’s contributions into one) to emphasize how deeply a part of this mission he still felt, and how invested in the outcome. The choice to strengthen and use his character in that way was a terrific choice.

Creative prompts and exercises:

  • Think of a story idea where the initial goal or quest seems very straightforward. Create an obstacle that blocks your character from that goal. Then instead of the character getting around the obstacle and proceeding toward the original goal, thwart them entirely and provide them with a new goal.

Note: your mission, as a writer, is to change the story trajectory entirely, not in a way that feels like it’s cheating (as though you’re not delivering on what the story initially appeared to be about) but in a way that deepens our understanding of the main character and what he really wants. It may be that the character himself does not realize what he really wants until that moment, or realizes that his first goal, no matter how worthy, is still of secondary importance to this new goal. Lovell really wanted to get to the moon. I’m sure it broke his heart, in some ways, that he never achieved that dream. But in a moment of crisis, he realized he wanted other things more: to continue to live, to get back to the life and family he loved and to the earth that was his home.

You can try this exercise with a dramatic or heroic quest or you can try it on a smaller, more domestic canvas. Lots of characters in literature, even the ones who aren’t heading out on big outward adventures, come to a deeper realization of what they really desire. Lizzy Bennett thinks she wants to make a “good” marriage, but her understanding of what a good marriage constitutes changes and deepens as Pride and Prejudice unfolds. So much so that we see her turn down two marriage proposals, seemingly thwarted in her desire to wed, before she finally gets to a place where she is ready to accept one!

Your story may cover vast outer distances or small inner ones, but in either case, changing the character’s direction and goal can add layers of richness to the story.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

Offering (An Original Poem)

This morning
I awoke
wanting to give you roses --
wanting to lay beauty
at your feet
in thanksgiving
and awe
for all you've given me.

it strikes me as strange
that I long to give
to the One
who made the fields
but then I realize --
you also made me
and made my heart
long to give
and made my eyes
for drinking beauty.

May my life
be filled
with giving moments
and with roses --
may each small act
of patience, kindness,
be a stem,
each loving,
forgiving moment
a smooth petal,
each bend in the road
I meet with joy
and hope and peace
a chance to bend
and fling
another tiny,
lovely offering
to the King of everything.

~EMP (2012/2014) 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sometimes Specificity Matters

“Name the Tudors we’ve been discussing,” I asked S., my hand hovering over the white board to record the names she gave me.

Quickly she responded with, “Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth, Edward.”

“Great!” I said. “Now put them in order.”

“I did.”

I started to correct her, then realized that she had named Henry’s three children in order…by age.

“Ah,” I said. “Put them in order of their reigns.”

She chuckled and said “Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth.” Right again, and a great reminder to me that specificity can be important when asking questions.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Roar on the Other Side

The seventh day of school found me wanting to shake things up a bit by adding some poetry into the mix. I’m pretty much always wanting to add in poetry (reading it, writing it) but these days S’ schedule is so packed, it can be hard to do. I hit upon the idea of tying a writing exercise into eating, and we did it over lunch.

I’ve long been excited about Suzanne U. Clark’s book The Roar on the Other Side: A Guide for Student Poets. I didn’t buy it, originally, as a homeschool book. I bought it because I consider myself a student poet. I’ve read it and enjoyed its prompts, meditations on the poetic arts, and great collection of poems for several years. When it dawned on me that it might be a good year to incorporate some of it into our home learning, I got quite excited.

One of the first “stepping stone” exercises that Clark includes in her first chapter, which has to do with the importance of noticing/seeing, is to write a journal entry describing an ordinary piece of fruit. I love these kinds of exercises that compel you to look at something “common” that you’ve seen a thousand times, but to look at it thoughtfully, slowly, and carefully, using all your senses. That’s what S. and I did at the lunch table with a peach today. We called it “mindful eating,” and by the time we were done, we not only each had a journal entry and a poem draft (S. really wanted to go on and play with writing a poem based on her descriptive notes) but we’d thoroughly and completely enjoyed all the juicy slices of that peach.

I’d almost forgotten that we had a small peach tree in my backyard for a number of years when I was growing up. Smelling and holding the peach, I let my mind wander to associations, and suddenly I recalled the golden color of the knobby bark and the smell of ripened peaches in the grass (we never seemed to harvest many, since the squirrels beat us to them).

I love how such a thoughtful exercise can be so many things at once: a break for hearts and minds in the middle of a busy day, a lesson in observing and writing, nourishing time spent together, food for the soul.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Patchwork Post (Homesick for Charis, Loving LOTR)

I'm tired. D. is traveling yet again regarding care issues for his mom, something that continues to weigh on our hearts and minds. S. is struggling some in ways she hasn't in a long time. School is taking up more time than I remembered it did, and while that's not a bad thing, I'm having a hard time remembering how to fit everything else I do into the cracks and crevices of our schooling life. I also seem to be coming down with something that is making me feel miserable and draggy.

In the midst of all this, I am missing Charis, the central country of my fictional work-in-progress. D. and I spent a lot of time this summer, sometimes even during our most tired times, working on history and geography. He's marvelous at helping me world-build, and if I wasn't feeling so tired, I think I would be writing a lot right now. Charis and its neighboring kingdoms and their complex history certainly are a big part of my thoughts at the moment. It's finding time and creativity and just plain energy to try to convert those thoughts to paper that's feeling difficult.

Most of my writing time at the moment is taken up with web content, and while I am thankful that writing educational/job profiles and product descriptions (as I can get them) are helping to bring in some necessary income, I am beginning to feel like if I write one more detailed description of a pair of hiking boots or explain one more time how one moves from an RN to BSN degree, I am going to either burst into laughter or tears. My push to accomplish more web content work came in a week when I discovered I wasn't going to be doing teaching assistant work for the seminary this fall (due to low enrollment) and when I had an essay I worked on in the summer turned down by a journal that I had real hopes might want to publish it. So I know some of the frustration level I'm feeling about the "floor mopping" kinds of writing I'm doing (and trying to do with love, since it's part of the way God provides) is part of a larger piece of frustration over a lack of opportunity to do more of the kinds of work that I feel more passionate about.

Mostly I am feeling grumpy and inept. There. That's honest! 

Lots of good things to be thankful for right now, including a good Sunday School kickoff yesterday, plus the ordinary blessings which are never all that ordinary really. Not to mention the fact that we're less than a hundred pages from the end of The Lord of the Rings, our first read-through as a family, and a powerful re-read for me this time through. Thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien, for the fortifying nourishment of your narrative.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Arrow Prayers

This has been my day for finding things I wrote quite awhile ago. Besides the poem snippet from seven years ago (see below) this afternoon I also found a collection of arrow prayers I put together sometime last year.

I wrote these thinking they might encourage S., who often struggles with thinking she's not "really" praying because she's so easily distracted during prayer (no matter how often I tell her that distraction is sometimes just part of prayer, and the Lord graciously understands that!).I don't remember if I ever introduced these to her or not, though it may be time to try that again, as she is struggling a lot again with the notion of what prayer really is and if God is really there and really hears us.

At any rate, in the midst of some of my own tired discouragement (the last couple of weeks have been very up and down for me, and the last couple of days particularly hard) I was very glad to find these and read through them again.

Tonight my heart was especially drawn to these two arrow prayers:

"Help me to want you more than I want anything else, God."


"Thank you, Jesus, that in you, everything holds together." 


Old Poem, Old Photo

S. was cleaning her room this afternoon and needed a magazine holder for her many copies of Nature Friends and Pockets. I didn’t have a new one, but obligingly moved some homeschooling magazines and old Vegetarian Times to give her one of my old holders. In the process, I discovered a tiny notebook where I’d jotted some rough drafts of poems in 2007.

It’s fun to come across snippets of verse you jotted seven plus years ago. I remembered none of these poems and pieces of poems clearly, though the genesis of the ideas or a turn of phrase occasionally came back to me as I glanced through the pages. Most of them are in nowhere near sharing stage, but one of them made me smile (for a reason I think you’ll see in a moment) and I thought I’d share it here. It’s untitled.

I found my grandfather
at twenty-three.
Twenty-three, both him and me.
I that young in bone and skin,
he that young inside, within
a small glass frame, a photo gray.
He still is twenty-three today,
smiling, so serene and fine,
while I’ve moved on to thirty-nine.

                                    EMP (1/9/07)

What makes me smile about this little poem are all the layers. I really did find a small photograph of my grandfather, aged 23, when I was 23 myself. I was at my aunt’s house, looking through boxes of old pictures, and I remember how wonderful that felt, to have that kind of “connection” with a man who was so important in our family, but whom I never had the chance to meet. He died six years before I was born.

I keep that photo of my 23 year old grandfather on my bureau. And I do recall the day I picked it up and realized that the smiling face in the photo was still as young as the day I’d put it in the frame, while I’d aged sixteen years in the meantime. Now another seven years have gone by, and the layers continue. I’ve passed on to the age of 46, and my young and smiling grandfather is still peering out at me from the frame. He was born in 1901, so it’s been 90 years since that photograph was taken.

Monday, September 01, 2014

First Day of Seventh Grade!

Year Eight in the homeschool journey begins! Yes, I know it's Labor Day, but we're starting late this year due to travel, and D. planned to be working today anyway. The sweet girl and I agreed we'd rather get a jump on things and get in a whole week, so here we are on a Monday morning.

I love the first day of school traditions we've put in place over the years: first day muffins, pictures, hand print (such a laugh now to see those little hand prints from earlier years!), new Scripture verse CD. For the first time ever this year, we listened to a Scripture CD that wasn't from the Harrow family, as we finished all the volumes in Sing the Word. Our first listen to the first verse in "Songs of Courage" earned a thumbs up from us: we liked the music a lot. And of course Jeremiah 33:3 is a wonderful verse: "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." Seems like a very appropriate verse for the beginning of a new season of our lives!

Let's not forget the new Ticonderoga pencils, one of which is being used even as I write. The sweet girl is tackling language arts this morning with great gusto.

The years seem to pass more swiftly the older I grow, and one way I know that's true is how quickly this day seems to roll around each year. Thank you, Lord, for another new beginning.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Teach Us to Number Our Days..."

Home yet again. This past journey was very different than last week's relaxing time, and if we could have ordered the two trips differently, we surely would have. But life has a way of happening unscheduled! And it was very important that we got to Virginia to see D's mom before fall schedules are upon us in full.

I am so thankful for so many things as I look back on those exhausting few days. Most of all, I am thankful that D's mom is currently in the respite section (being moved to rehab soon) of the assisted living area, and that she is being more fully evaluated. She was in need of care and attention, even more than we realized. Her physical, mental, and emotional decline have continued at a frightening pace. I had not seen her since last November, and even with the knowledge of her difficulties and with what D. shared with me after her saw her a few weeks ago, I was shocked at how much she had aged in those relatively few months. On the other hand, there are still a lot of moments when she is perfectly cogent and very much herself, with that mischievous smile peeking through and even a bit of what I think I would term healthy snark over her current situation. She's not terribly happy about being where she is, but she also seems to recognize on some level that she really needs the care.

I spent most of the days there working my way through the piles of paperwork that had accumulated over the past few weeks and months -- junk mail, bills, notices from the retirement community, etc. It was my self-appointed task to find and sort all that I could so that it all made some sense for my dear husband, who is her medical and financial power of attorney. He and his sister were in various meetings with the lawyer, social worker, accountant, etc., and it seemed to be the best way I could help. Since Grandma has sometimes taken to putting papers and cards and keys in places where you least expect to find them, I discovered that the sweet girl's keen eyes were very helpful. She prowled the shelves and some small drawers and discovered some things that were missing or that we otherwise needed to know about, so I was thankful for that. We also had a few moments of just sheer grace in terms of things "showing up" right when they needed to.

I was also thankful for how beautifully the sweet girl handled the trip. It was not easy for any of us to see D's mother struggling so much, and there were lots of times of stressful waiting, missed signals, places we needed to be, sitting around and talking through things ("boring adult talk" as she terms it) and paper shuffling. S. was a trooper. She had a few times where her stress got the better of her, but then we all did. Mostly it was good, growing trip which she handled with much grace. Even under the circumstances, she was so glad for time with her grandmother, aunt, and great aunt, as were we all.

I find myself not just tired and grateful today, as I play catch-up on a host of household chores and try to think my way through organizing for the new school year (that should have started this week but instead will start next week) but realizing anew how precious our lives are. Even if we're given threescore and ten years of relatively good health and sound mind, it's such a short amount of time really. I found myself renewing my heart's commitment to living as healthfully, fully, and passionately as I can in whatever years I'm allotted. So much living, loving, kingdom work, creative work, I still long to do. As Psalm 90:12 reminds us, "teach us to number our days," dear Lord, "that we may gain a heart of wisdom."  Or as it says in the Message: "Oh! Teach us to live well! Teach us to live wisely and well!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of Cottonwoods and Mallorn Trees

We had a beautiful long weekend in Erie. We spent almost every moment we could outdoors, from drives on the peninsula to shore time by the lake to playtime on the sweet girl's favorite sandy playground to s'mores around our trailer-side firepit at the campgrounds in the evening. We also got to see wonderful friends for dinner on two successive nights. Despite some stressed moments (we continue to be very concerned about D's mom's deteriorating health and will be making another trip soon to see her) and our usual sparse accommodations in the trailer (made even more rustic this year since they'd opted to improve the bathroom facilities but take out the shower) we really had a lovely time.

One of my favorite parts of the beautiful flora and fauna on Presque Isle are the cottonwood trees that seem to grow everywhere. These are tall, beautiful trees that rustle with a hushed music in the frequently strong winds. It was the sweet girl who pointed out that the back of the green leaves seemed to shimmer with silver -- the leaves are a kind of greenish-gray. Coupled with the few eager leaves already turning yellow in anticipation of the autumn, there was a lovely silver-gold quality to some of the trees. It made us think of the Mallorn trees of Lothlorien, and S. and I ended up calling them Lothlorien trees every time we traipsed under another stand of them near the beach.

I love seeing S. learn to love Tolkien. We're nearing the end of The Two Towers, and every time Tolkien stops to describe the phase of the moon and the quality/timing of its light, she practically shivers with delight. I love that our daughter, so like us and yet so uniquely her own self, loves him as much for his scientific accuracy as she does for his poetry. She is so impressed that here, at last, is an author who cares about those kinds of details!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reading Round-Up: August (and the "Slim Little Volumes")

I’ve been reading a lot of small books lately. The smallness describes their physical size, not necessarily their content. It’s interesting how reviewers often pick up on a book’s diminutive size as if surprised that a book with relatively few pages and a thin spine can contain something of worth. During my ten years of regular reviewing, I know I sometimes lapsed into the phrase “slim little volume,” which I now recognize as lazy writing, a sort of shorthand to express surprise that writing gems can be found in such little packages. It’s a strange sort of assessment. All we have to do is look to the world of humanity to understand how strange it is, since sometimes absolute dynamos (William Wilberforce, Mother Theresa, just to name two) are small in stature.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m drifting to smaller books in my non-fiction reading time because in fiction-world, I am still enamored of the work of P.D. James. My twelve year old sometimes gets an almost pained look on her face when she sees me bring home another James novel from the library. “Another P.D. James?” she’ll say a little skeptically, or sometimes just “that’s a loooonng book.” They are long books, full of slow, detailed prose, but I’m enjoying them immensely. I haven’t raced through James’ canon the way I raced through Deborah Crombie’s a couple of years ago. I seem to need breaks, sometimes of a few months or more, between outings. But when I get onto a P.D. James kick, I usually don’t stop with one. And I’m starting to prematurely mourn that I only have a few volumes left before I run out. I’m up to The Murder Room, which means that her detective Adam Dalgleish has actually embarked upon a romance, something I’m still a bit ambivalent about.

Whether or not I am moving toward smaller books because my brain needs a break from hefty mystery novels, the fact remains that the books on my nightstand (or rather in the unwieldy floor pile by the bed) are all fairly short right now. I’ve mentioned two of them here recently: I’m re-reading Justo Gonzalez’ The Changing Shape of Church History and I’m reading Macrina Wiederkehr’s A Tree Full of Angels.

Both of these books take me back to earlier seasons in my life. Gonzalez is the author of The Story of Christianity, my first real foray into the study of church history seventeen years ago. I will always feel indebted that he was my introduction to the discipline; he writes beautiful, readable historical chronicles. I was introduced to Wiederkehr even longer ago, when I worked for the Cabrini sisters (it’s been over 21 years now since I started my four and a half year stint with Cabrini, and I’m still learning from the time I spent with them). I’m pretty sure most of the Wiederkehr I’ve read was in excerpt, brought to prayer rooms on photocopied pages – the sisters and lay people I worked with there always brought beautiful poems and snippets of prose to prayer and meditation time. I’ve had one line floating in my head for two decades now, which I’m fairly certain is Wiederkehr’s, though I’m not sure of the context: “This is a trust song, Lord. I am in your hands like clay.” (If anybody knows where she says this, I’d love to be reminded.)

I’m also reading – or maybe it’s re-reading, I’m not quite sure – C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. I would have told you that of the five essays included in that volume, I had definitely read two or maybe three of them. I go back to the title essay, “The Weight of Glory,” probably once a year. This summer I decided to move straight on from there and read everything else in order, and so far I’m remembering them all, so perhaps this is a re-read. No matter. Everything Lewis wrote is worth reading and then chewing on again.

Lewis is one of the few writers in my life that I actually sometimes wake up feeling I need to read. It happened again this morning. I find myself thinking “it sure would be nice to spend some time with Jack this morning,” and I reach for whatever book happens to be handy (I’m blessed we have a lot of his books on our shelves, and there are a lot more right down the road at the seminary library). This morning, Jack wanted to talk with me about “Learning in War-Time,” and I was happy to listen again. The slightly browning edges of the page and the note underneath the title “A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939,” gave me a moment’s pause, as it suddenly occurred to me that this voice that feels so fresh first spoke these words seventy-five years ago. It’s strange that a mere one-line description of the sermon itself could move me so much, but it somehow made the whole thing feel more rich and real as I sat there on my bed and the morning sun slanted silver through the blinds. As I read, I found myself feeling like I’d slipped into a pew of the church, right behind a lady wearing a WWII era hat. When I left the pages, no doubt I would find myself traipsing down an English road lined with trees whose leaves were turning red and gold. 
In the “slim little volume” category (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I’m also reading More Baths Less Talking, Nick Hornby’s witty collection of literary columns. This was a Christmas gift from my sister last year, and it’s been mostly sitting on my desk intriguing me with its title. Not long ago I found myself drawn to it on the new non-fiction shelves at the library (“what a funny title!”) and then realized that I’d thought that before and the book was at home on my desk. It’s my first dip into Hornby’s work and it’s delightful. He has a droll sense of humor and an insightful way of cutting right to the heart of a book and what it meant to him.

I’m re-reading Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School. I decided recently that I wanted to get back to my literary devotional project, and saw that I had broken off (sometime last year) in the midst of ideas for a devotional based on this book. At that time it was fresh in my mind because I’d just read it aloud, for the second time, to the sweet girl. I thought I’d better give it a quick re-read to refresh my memory, since my notes were not entirely jogging my brain. But it’s such a beautiful story that reading it quickly feels almost impossible. I’m also having that interesting experience of realizing how different it is to read a book silently (and just to yourself) after having gotten to know it while reading it aloud.

My quest to read everything Gary D. Schmidt has written continues with his early novel Anson’s Way. I’m not very far into it yet, so I will probably take this one (along with the new P.D. James) to the peninsula when we head out on our few-day vacation soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Tree Full of Angels

Something made me open up Macrina Wiederkehr's A Tree Full of Angels earlier today.  Her prayerful insights seemed like balm to my tired heart today.

I've read bits of this book before, but not for a long time, and so I decided to begin at the beginning. In just a few pages, she has already reminded me of several things:

  • that we need to open our eyes to unwrap the gifts of the ordinary (xiv)
  • that "Glory comes streaming from the table of daily life" (xiv)
  • to remember to ask the important question: "Am I too busy with my own agenda to let God's agenda bless me?" (xiv)
  • that reading the saints can sometimes speak to the ache in our hearts (xv)
  • that we are "poor storm-tossed creatures, yet precious stones" (2)
  • that we are creatures of both "littleness and greatness...frailty and...splendor...poverty and...wealth" (2)
  • that home is the place where our name "becomes precious" (2)
  • that the "hearts of friends" can become home places for us (4)
  • that "the Church is that home into which I have been initiated, in which I have been anointed, healed, forgiven, nourished, and nurtured" (4)
  • that the Church is broken home because you and I are broken, and we make up the church: "we have to accept both the burden and the grace of being Church" (5) 
 So thankful to have picked up this book today.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

"Let There Be Light..."

“Let there be light in all the nightmare places,
in the millrace of license, in the stifled room;
let there be joy in starved and leaden faces,
in charred or sodden furrows, where no tears bloom.”

That’s the first stanza of a poem called “Benediction” by William R. Mitchell. I read it for the first time several days ago, and can’t get it (the whole poem, but that first line especially) out of my mind and heart.

This week has been a week of prayer for our broken and hurting world. Everywhere we turn there is news of violence. The radio and my Facebook feed keep sending me to the only places where I can begin to make any sense of the suffering and madness in the world: the Scriptures, and my knees. Yesterday I prayed my way through Isaiah 49, feeling every verse so powerfully and personally on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters that it almost felt like the ink on my Bible pages must still be wet.

I was working yesterday morning when S. woke up late (summer tired, and dealing with allergies and an antihistamine that makes her drowsy) and stumbled into the living room. We settled on the couch together to begin our usual morning prayers. Our first words in prayer together every morning are “Lord Jesus Christ, be with us today. Help us in all we think, and do, and say” followed by the singing together of “This is the day that the Lord has made.”

We were into the line “we will rejoice and be glad in it” when I glanced up and saw, a few feet away on my computer screen, a news headline about children being killed in Iraq. I averted my eyes (not to block out the reality, but to try to stay in the moment with S.) and returned to our prayer and song with a lump in my throat. Part of me wanted to scream out: “How can I rejoice and be glad in THIS day, Lord! How can I rejoice when your children are dying?”

Yet we are still called to rejoice, even as we are called to mourn and lament. And the two are not always so far apart.

Later in the day (after talking and prayer as a family) S. confessed something that I appreciated for its honesty. She said, “sometimes it’s hard to feel like all of this is real and happening when it’s not happening here.” She’s right, though most of us aren’t nearly so honest. It’s hard to feel someone else’s suffering when we are safe and secure. It’s hard to feel someone else’s suffering because when we let ourselves feel it, it hurts. It’s hard to feel it, because we don’t know what we can do, and we feel powerless.

But we’re not powerless. We have prayer.

So we pray for ourselves, that we would properly mourn, lament, and rejoice in this broken but still-blessed world, and we pray for those who suffer, that they might find release, deliverance, comfort, courage, strength, and whatever else that God knows they need.
“Thy kingdom come” takes on more urgency in our prayers in times like these. Truly, Lord Jesus, come and make your presence known. Come and take your throne.

We pray today for Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan – and so many other places.

The final stanza in the Mitchell poem:

“Say for me, God, their blessing I am seeking;
Lord, decree for them the sun, and Jesus speak aright
my scattered syllables – for past my yearning, past
  my speaking,
I have been stammering, let there be light.”

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Changing Shape of Church History (Notes on Intro)

Several years ago I read a little book by Justo Gonzalez that felt like a real conversation changer for me. It was called The Changing Shape of Church History. Conversation changers are what I call those books that shape my thinking enough that I begin to talk about things differently than I used to. This book has not just changed the way I've thought about church history, and the church in the world today, but how I've taught it.

I have gone back to parts of this book so many times that I've decided to re-read it, but this time through I want to take notes. Yesterday I dove back into the introduction, so thought I would post my notes on that today. I'm summarizing, but also adding some of my own thoughts and glosses as I go.

  • In the introduction, Gonzalez makes the claim that "the entire field of church history is changing" (2) and then says, someone is bound to ask, "how is it possible for the past to change?" (2)
  • He makes the obvious but important (and I think often overlooked) point that "history is not the same as the past. The past is never directly accessible to us. The past comes to us through the mediation of interpretation. And that interpreted past is history." (2)
  • He provides the useful image of a dialogue. When we speak with another person, that person is not directly accessible to us. We have their "words, gestures, and tones" (2) and we receive those things and interpret what they are attempting to communicate. When we are in an authentic dialogue, we do our best to respect the "givenness" of the other person's words. But we also have no choice but to "hear and interpret those words" from our own perspective, which is shaped and colored by our own unique experiences. Dialogue is really impossible, he points out, and yet we engage in it all the time -- and it forms the basis of our social life. (Just think about the last time you tried to have a meaningful "conversation" on Facebook, minus all the visual and body language clues he just referenced, and think about how hard real dialogue can be!)
  • Now that you have the image of a dialogue firmly in mind, "think about history as a dialogue. It is a dialogue in which it is not only the past that addresses us, but also we who address the past." (2) In other words, we're not passive observers -- we speak with the past, we ask it questions. And the answers we get from it depend in large part on what we're asking. 
  • So it makes sense to realize that church history changes, as the church itself changes.
  • History is pertinent "not that it is what happened in the past, but rather that it is what happened in the past as seen from our present and toward the future we imagine." (3) (Keep that one in mind -- and think how, as the people of God, we're called to live faithfully in the present, inspired and encouraged and deeply connected to the past, as we walk boldly into the future that God has not only imagined for us, but the future he can actually bring to pass.)
  • So why is the history of the church changing? You might think it's just because "scholars have new sources" (3) but there's more to it than that. It's because "the church and the world are changing. And these are changes that we can only begin to understand as we look at them in historical perspective." (3)
  • He goes on to highlight changes seen in the world around the time of 9/11 (which happened a few months before he penned this intro...the book was published in 2002). 9/11 reminded us the map of the world was changing. 9/11 revealed to us the shared vulnerability of humankind, even in places/centers of power which we might have thought were invulnerable. As we reflected on what happened, we also became aware "that the world is not really as secular as Western modernity had thought, that many nations are no longer culturally or religiously homogeneous, that events in the past that many of us did not consider important still have great power to shape the future" (4).
  • And changes in the way world history is perceived and written about will also have an impact on how we think and write about the history of the church. 
More notes to come.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Annual "Happy Birthday, JKR and Harry!" Post

It's the birthday of author JK Rowling and her beloved fictional wizard Harry Potter! Jo Rowling is 49 (in real life) and Harry would be 34 today.

In honor of the day, I thought I would re-post a reflection from my archives. I'm cheating just a tiny bit -- or rather, double-dipping -- in that the post is just as much about Tolkien as it is about Harry Potter. Given that we're in the midst of The Two Towers right now as a family, however, I've had Tolkien very much on my mind, and happened to be revisiting this post today. It's an oldie but a goodie.

I hope Harry and Jo both gets lots of owl post today!

Saturday, July 19, 2014


My precious father turned 82 today. I am so thankful for him in so many ways, and so thankful for all the ways the Lord has sustained his health in recent years. As he often says, he feels like he is living on gift time!

In honor of the day, I thought I would post a poem I wrote for him two years ago, when he turned 80. It still sings true.

My father turns eighty today.
I know without asking
that he will celebrate
with an angel-food cake
topped with blue icing –
the same cake my mother
has faithfully made
for as many of his birthdays
as I can remember
and beyond.

Blue is my father’s color.
His eyes sparkle with it,
clear and bright, true blue
eyes my mother fell in love
with and still loves.
I picture him in blue,
the pale coarse fabric of
his long-sleeved work shirts,
the lighter, slicker blue of
dress shirts under suit coats.
One of those shirts is always
draped on the ironing board
of my memory, its white
buttons resting hard against
my cheek when we hug.

Blue is my father’s color –
The paint I see spilling
from the tubes next to his palette,
the hue of the musical notes
that flow from Gershwin’s Rhapsody,
the chipped sky blue of seats
at old Parker Field where we
watched minor league games
every endless summer, the slow
spread of July sky where I can
see him now, silhouetted against
the neighbor’s yard, hands cupped
to imitate the coo of mourning doves.

My father turns eighty today.
And I picture my mother
spilling drops of pure color
from a small bottle
into the white cream ocean of frosting,
swirling the spatters with her quick spoon
till they intermingle into a lovely
robin’s egg blue, festive and ready.

And it strikes me anew
that love is never just
the icing on the cake,
but that it decorates our days
in whorls and peaks
of ordinary brilliance.

                        ~EMP 7/19/12

Monday, July 07, 2014

School Books Beginning to Arrive!

We spent the weekend resting and playing, including a day-trip to an historic French and Indian War site a couple of hours away. Though the end of the first week of July is really way too early to be thinking about school again, we have occasional happy blips when boxes of books arrive. I suppose that's one good thing about having to order things a bit at a time, as I'm paid for various writing and teaching projects...the books trickle in rather than crashing down on us like a waterfall!

Today made me smile because the grammar books arrived. (I know. I'm a geek.) The sweet girl struggled with grammar last year, not because it was too difficult, but because it was too easy. Her grammar skills are strong, and it turned out that Saxon and Hake 6 did a lot of review, too much for a student who didn't need it. Having invested in the books, and still wanting her to keep her hand in with some skill practice, I tried my best to steward the resources we had and utilize them for drill as needed. But I knew we needed something different this year, something that would be less rigorous and more supplemental. I also knew that I didn't want to purchase a full grammar curricula because those tend to be tied to writing programs which we don't need, since we already have a rigorous and fully-formed writing program (Writing With Skill) that really, really works for us.

What I ended up ordering was Exercises in English (grade 7) from Loyola Press. It's a supplemental workbook set to their larger curricula Voyages in English. S. wanted to take a look at it as soon as it came out of the box, and her assessment of it made me smile. She noted right away that it had a bit of color (it's printed as a one-color workbook, green, rather than just black and white) and that the quality of the paper felt and looked great. (Saxon uses a rather gritty and grayish newsprint, probably to cut costs, which I appreciate, but it's quite flimsy and tears easily. And it just doesn't feel substantial enough somehow.)  She also noted that it had graphics, and that the lessons looked short enough that she really can use it as a daily drill. So my visual learner was really happy with the choice. All the things she noted were a big part of the reason I chose it! I've slowly learned over the years that the way information is presented really matters.

I noted the various sections were well-organized and seemed to cover grade-appropriate concepts, both some review and some newer concepts. I also liked the fact that many of the sections involving practice sentences cover good, appropriate topics or themes which I know she'll find interesting. Three topics that I happened to note at random involved outer space, Helen Keller, and the Chronicles of Narnia. It even concludes with a unit on sentence diagramming, something I find valuable and she finds enjoyable and not every curricula includes. All of this bodes well for less frustration and more actual grammar practice in the coming year. Yay.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

In Review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa (A Novel)

I just finished reading a novel with the intriguing title of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Its title and size make it look like an actual field guide, but in fact it's a fictional story about a man living in Kenya who happens to love birds and bird-watching.

(Book image from Goodreads)

It turns out that Kenya, with over 1,000 species of birds, is a great place to be an ornithologist. Novelist Nicholas Drayson has a wonderful time describing many of the birds that protagonist Mr. Malik spots. He spots a lot of them because he's in a competition with an old school frenemy named Harry. Harry is a wealthy ex-pat who has recently come back to Nairobi for a visit. He decides he likes Rose Mbikwa, the lady who leads the weekly bird-walk at the local museum, and wants to ask her to the annual Hunt Club Ball.

When Mr. Malik overhears this, at his club, he almost despairs, because he is smitten with Rose and has been planning to ask her himself. Rather than put her in the quandary of having to decide between them, the two gents decide to have a bird-watching contest to decide who gets to ask her first/have the right of first refusal. (The other can only ask her if she's turned the winner down.)

The rules for the contest are very specific, as spelled out by three other gentlemen at the club. And it comes down to this: whoever has seen the most species by the end of the week wins.

The reader is set up to sympathize with widower Mr. Malik from the start. Harry, while not precisely a villain, seems light-weight in comparison with Mr. Malik, whom we get to know quite well as the week progresses. Harry is not above enlisting a lot of help and throwing around a lot of money to try to win the contest, but Mr. Malik, who happens to be having a not-very-easy-week (among other thigns, his car gets stolen) is also ambivalent about taking time away from some of the things he does regularly in his everyday life. We begin to realize how important his volunteer work is, both to his own soul and to his local community, and we feel torn with him as he tries to decide the best way to spend his days. The fact that he really seems to be in love with Rose, who is oblivious to the contest being held in her honor, also ups the stakes.

Drayson does a lovely job of painting the vibrant city of Nairobi and other areas of Kenya (since Harry hops some charter planes and heads to various parks). From the sewage area where Mr. Malik spots a lot of his birds to a local village where he finds surprising support on a difficult day, we feel like we get a real glimpse of this culturally diverse area. Most of all, we get multiple glimpses of beautiful birds, most of which I'd never heard of, all of which sound fascinating.  Chapter headings include simple line drawings of some of the birds, but I found myself wishing I had a real field guide to East African birds while I read, just so I could see some of them in living color.  Drayson does a good job, however, of painting their colors for us in words. It turned out to be a lovely summer-time read with an ending that didn't feel as predictable as you might expect.