Wednesday, June 25, 2014

From Marmee's Library: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll loved wordplay so much that even his pen name was playful. Born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, he created his pseudonym by dropping off his last name, coming up with Latin translations of his first and middle names (“Carolus Lodovicus”), bringing those translations back into English as Carroll Lewis, and reversing their order. If that sounds convoluted, just wait until you read his books!

I first tried reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a little girl, without any guidance from adults. Sometimes that’s a happy thing. In this case, I could have used a little help. With no one to tell me it was supposed to be nonsense, I just thought I somehow wasn’t “getting it” and reluctantly closed the book and put it back on the shelf for many years. I think had my early diet of nonsense been richer, I might have realized more quickly that this story was supposed to be fantastical and funny. A college Victorian literature class taught me to appreciate many of the enjoyable puns and plays on words, but truly, this isn’t a book to encounter initially in a literature class as much as a book that should be read-aloud, preferably with others, some of them young, and enjoyed for its absurdity.

That’s what my family and I recently did, and it proved to be a delightful exercise. After all these years, I finally feel that I “get” Alice, not because of any sudden “a-ha!” moments, but because I just flat out enjoyed it along with my husband and eleven year old daughter.

As a teacher and a parent, I enjoyed being able to introduce my daughter to a classic book that has become such an engrained part of literary and popular culture. The lack of coherent story-line in Alice hasn’t given it the narrative staying power of some classics, but its images and turns of phrase are iconic. Given the fact that the story is an unfolding dream sequence, it’s perhaps not surprising that the images stick with you as they do. Even if you’ve never read the book, you’re likely to have some inkling that it includes a fall down a rabbit hole, the grinning Cheshire cat, Alice swimming in a pool of her own tears, the Queen of Hearts and all the playing cards who attend her, and the Hatter (often referred to as the Mad Hatter) at the tea-party.

Alice was originally published in 1865; it’s been adapted, retold, and illustrated countless times on stage, screen, and page. My best early associations with it were a ballet adaptation I saw in grade school, and the 1951 Disney film. Though John Tenniel’s original illustrations are themselves iconic, my daughter loved the brightly colored, whimsical work of Alison Jay in the 2006 reprint we picked up at the library. They were a big part of her enjoyment. 

Alice provides a great introduction to the concept of parody, though many of the poems that Carroll parodies are unknown to modern audiences.  That might decrease their humor to one level but the humor is definitely still there, and in the places where the source material is still familiar – such as when he turns “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” into “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat” – the double pleasure in the nonsense shines through.

As a reader and writer, I appreciated the way Carroll keeps you off balance. I mean that in the most charitable way. We don’t often think of 19th century children’s literature as quickly paced, which makes Alice’s madcap adventures all the more interesting. She moves from one adventure and fantastical encounter to the next with nary a place to breathe, and it’s all the more confusing because her own perspective (hence ours) keeps changing.

Our family had some interesting discussions about how old we thought Alice was supposed to be. In Through the Looking Glass, she claims she’s seven and a half, which surprised us all – though as my daughter pointed out, there’s no reason to assume it’s a sequel; it could just as well be a prequel. I think we all thought, during our reading in Wonderland, that she was a few years older, primarily because her experience of feeling either too small or too big for everything, as she grows and shrinks, captures that “tween” sensibility so perfectly.

The learning resources for such a treasured classic are numerous. You might want to start at the Resources page for the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. There’s so much there, you might not need to look anywhere else. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Thankful Heart

 There are times when I am very hard on myself as a parent. When you have a dear child who struggles, sometimes intensely, with anxiety of all sorts, it's very easy to second-guess yourself at every turn. My daughter struggles hard every day to come to terms with brokenness and uncertainty, and the older she gets, the more she becomes aware how much life is full of both. I have an internal dialogue that goes something like this "Am I pushing her too hard? Am I not pushing her enough? Is she ever going to reach a place of enough healing on some of these issues that she will be able to make it through this life, which is filled with uncertainty, with more joy and peace than anxiety?" I can have those kinds of thoughts even in the midst of a relatively good day or week, when I realize how far she's come, but they especially whack me on the hard days.

So sometimes I just need to sit back, take a deep, trusting, cleansing breath, and remember what a delightful person she is and how hard she is trying to engage life with courage and creativity.

I love it that my almost twelve year old is coming up with creative ways to spend her summer, even in the face of disappointment over changes to long-standing summer plans. I love that she

  • is boldly taking a art class at a local art center, where she's never taken a class before
  • has an eighteen book TBR stack in her room
  • has begun reading Moby Dick just to see if she can 
  • is learning new embroidery stitches
  • wants to begin daily drawing times again with me in July
  • is looking forward to the celebration of her birthday
  • is gardening with me again in the community gardens
  • is excited about building a model bridge with her dad (they've been measuring things to make it to scale)
  • will be taking workshops later this summer to keep her Irish Dance skills fresh
  • is loving our family read-aloud of Lord of the Rings
  • thinks it's cool that we're learning about the Lord's Prayer from a book by Kenneth Bailey
  • is working on an entry for the county library picture book contest
Thank you, Lord, for all the ways you're growing her to be the young lady you want her to be. Thank you for giving me grace as a parent, and for filling up all the places where I know I lack strength, patience, and skill.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tolkien Summer

I've begun blogging about our family's summer reading of The Lord of the Rings. We began reading Fellowship of the Ring on Sunday night, and I've gotten a couple of posts up since! If you'd enjoy following along, you can find what I hope will be a daily (or at least regular) log here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stones That Bear a Witness

Last week, I posed a discussion starter question to my church history students, one which has turned out to be a thought-provoking one for me as well. I asked them to ponder the “visual books” of Gothic cathedrals and how they represented the medieval synthesis that was so much a part of Christendom, and then to think about modern structures or spaces and what they might be communicating about our particular time and place.

The students did some good thinking, and their reflections ranged far and wide over a number of modern spaces, from movie theaters to shopping malls to church buildings to houses and skyscrapers. I was especially intrigued with their thoughts on shopping malls, because I’ve been reading the beginning of James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, in which he talks about “cultural liturgies.” He provides a fascinating several- page description of a shopping mall, not chiefly as a functional place of commerce, but as a space that shapes our desires and evokes a religious response in us (more on this another time, I hope…I had the chance to hear him lecture the other evening, and I’ve been chewing on it since).

In our discussion of church buildings, I found several of my students confessing that they found many modern worship spaces sterile and uninviting, built primarily to spare expense and to be able to maintain multi-purpose functions. I agree with them, but I also confessed to some inner wrestling on this very subject over the years.

On the one hand, I see the practical value of meeting in spaces that are more functional and less “obvious” in their churchiness. From my perspective, this is less about making people feel at home in the “familiar” and more about reminding ourselves that the church is not primarily a building, but a community of people. When we invest oodles of money and time into maintaining a space, then we run the risk of investing less time and money in the work and joy of being the church. We also run the risk of tying ourselves so firmly to a beloved space (and space really can be beloved) that we forget how to travel light. So church buildings, even beautiful ones, can sometimes detract us from mission.

On the other hand, I see a real value in creating a space that is beautiful. When our churches invite people into a sacred space that looks different from the everyday, it can remind us all of the true beauty and holiness of God and his kingdom. Such spaces, in their very beauty and creativity, can glorify God who has made us people of creativity with a longing to worship and a longing to know the ultimate beauties of his presence and his realm. Such beauty can even help usher us into a deeper sense of his presence, becoming an incarnational aid and reminding us that God speaks through ordinary stuff, and that we are encultured people called to sing his praise and manifest his goodness in a material world.

If you have doubts about that last line, think for a minute about the church you knew first as a child. You may not remember a word that got preached from the pulpit or a program that you attended. Chances are, however, that you do have an impression of something physical that has stayed with you through the years  – a window, a pew, a cross, a communion table, a candle. And no doubt you have a memory of someone in that church who loved you, taught you, prayed for you, sang with you. We remember love, and we remember physical places. And those physical places often give us some of our first understanding of who God is and what he is like, understandings that can stay with us for a lifetime.

I wonder if this is not something we see running through Scripture, a sort of tension between a worshipping people of God who “travel light” and stay on the move (the moveable, portable tabernacle) and a people of God who plant themselves solidly in one place and build something tangible to witness to his glory (the amazing temple). Clearly there is a place and time in the vision of God for both. And I’m not sure it’s as easy as saying “well, once the people entered the land, they could build” or “once the building was destroyed, it was a signal to disperse and move again.” There are God’s words to David about not needing a house built by human hands, even though he realized how much David longed to build such a space. And yet there is the fact that God did allow Solomon to build the space, and that he envisioned such a space being a place of prayer for all peoples. The lack of permanency of such a space – it gets built and destroyed, built and destroyed again – does say something to us about the finiteness of any human cultural project, no matter how grand and worthy and real. But clearly there was a time and place for the people of God to stay put and be an inviting light, a call that I think sometimes resonates with us more deeply in our modern times when so many people are transient and so many home spaces are broken.

But then (there keeps being another “on the other hand” moment…I’m starting to feel like Tevye) it strikes me with force that where we see the most detailed instructions about building and beauty come in the wilderness. It is there that we see God’s detailed instructions – right down to music, colors, decorative scheme, measurements, clothing, and candlesticks – about the beauty and majesty of the portable, moveable worship space the people were to build and carry with them as they journeyed. Maybe there is something for us to glean here? That we can build spaces that are both beautiful and inviting and yet are spaces that we can “take with us” as we mission forth? That we could even somehow build spaces that witness to the glories of a God who travels with us in the desert and disperses us to the nations?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Half Dollar and a Whole Lot of Love

The sweet girl and I were cleaning through a drawer earlier today and found some coins I’d put away. I’ve always had a penchant for coin collecting, and my daughter now has quite a collection, including most of the odds and ends I’ve laid aside over the years. In among the Canadian coins and wheat pennies today we found a couple of Kennedy half-dollars.

“Didn’t you once tell me a story about a fifty cent piece?” she asked, and I smiled.

Imagine, if you will, a small and shy first grade girl who was sent to school with lunch money. This little girl didn’t often buy her lunch, preferring her mom’s homemade stuff in the lunchbox. But once in a while, on a special occasion, she would take fifty cents to school to buy the meal on the menu.

On this particular day, when it came time to get in line, she looked in her little coin purse for the two quarters her daddy generally gave her…and only saw one coin.

I don’t know if it hit her that the coin was bigger and looked different. She certainly didn’t notice that it had the word fifty on it. All that struck her was that she had only one coin when she thought she needed two, and so…she didn’t buy lunch.

That shy first grader was me, of course. I only vaguely recall the disappointment I felt over missing lunch. What I remember, with gratitude, is my father’s loving response when I confessed that I hadn’t bought lunch because he hadn’t given me enough money.

I don’t know if I can remember the exact words, but here’s what has replayed in my mind and heart for years, which leads me to believe it must be pretty close.

“Oh honey,” he said to me (at least in my memory it’s honey, though it may have been some other term of endearment, like his favorite, Lizzie-Ru) “didn’t you know that I’d always give you enough?” He showed me the fifty cent piece in comparison with the quarter then, and explained.

Missing one lunch, even a special lunch, turned out to be no big deal. But my daddy’s tenderhearted response has stayed with me for years. I’m grateful that he helped me, even when I was so little, to trust him, and in so doing, helped prepare me to trust the always faithful Father-heart of God.

 “Didn’t you know that I’d always give you enough?” could be words from God’s heart, because what our heavenly Abba is the very best at doing is giving us himself.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Lostness of Mad Men

We’ve recently been watching the second season of Mad Men. I find myself fascinated by the writing and acting (and yes, costumes and sets) of this show, while not necessarily always enjoying the stories. It’s probably a mark of how well written and acted it is that I care about the characters as much as I do, even while gritting my teeth over many of their actions and choices. For instance, I honestly can’t understand how I remain sympathetic to Don Draper, whose sometimes despicable choices make me wince (or make me want to smack him) and yet for the most part, my main feeling for him is pity.

It’s the loneliness of the characters that keeps stabbing me to the heart. The way they strive after success, prestige, youth, beauty, or what have you is sometimes funny, sometimes awful, sometimes pitiable, but you realize how many of them are just truly lonely. It’s particularly painful to watch the scenes between the married couples, like Don and Betty and Pete and Trudy, who seem to spin along like isolated tops, never orbiting close enough to one another (even when they’re touching) to make a real connection.

A scene that took my breath in almost painful intensity the other evening came in an episode when Betty had been yelling a lot at Bobby, the youngest Draper child. It became clear midway through that her frustration with Bobby was really misplaced frustration at her unfaithful and distant husband. She kept snapping at Don, telling him he should discipline Bobby for various minor infractions, and finally Don snapped and threw one of Bobby’s toys against the wall (a toy the child had been playing with at the table) and stormed out.

The boy, about five years old, came trailing forlornly after his angry and frustrated father and lisped out a quiet “I’m sorry.” Don’s angry face looked like it was about to melt. Quite frankly, melting would be a good thing for Don, but he always seems to master whatever emotion threatens to engulf him without surrendering to it. You could practically see him take a deep, inward breath and pull himself together. “Sometimes dads get mad,” he said, kindly and calmly and inadequately, but at least it was an admission of sorts that he’d lost his cool. “Did your dad get mad?” asked Bobby curiously, and Don nodded and told him lots of times. “And your daddy’s dead?” asked Bobby then, and Don responded, “He died a long time ago.” To which the child replied, his face completely somber, “We need to find you a new daddy.”

This heart wrenching scene actually ends in Don hugging his son close, a tenderness we don’t often get to see. Talk about a beautifully played and written one. That one childish remark cuts to the heart of Don’s lostness, and the lostness of all the other characters too. 

Everybody needs a loving father. We may especially feel it when we’ve lost our earthly fathers or are estranged from them, but it’s just an underlying truth for us all, regardless of what we've experienced with our human parents. Yet another reason to be deeply thankful for the loving Abba heart of God.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Blessings at the Beginning of June

It's been a while since I've been in a regular writing rhythm here, but with the turn into June and our summer schedules, I hope to change that!

We had a beautiful...and I do mean BEAUTIFUL...(note the bold letters!) time celebrating the marriage of our dear friends Erin and Will this past weekend. We've known Will for the better part of three decades and love him dearly, and Erin has been a kindred spirit for close to a decade now too. Witnessing them pledge to live their lives and love together was a lovely moment of grace, and celebrating with them was just plain fun. I think the sweet girl told me it was her "best weekend ever."

Following on the heels of two days of preparation and celebration, we decided to meander our way home rather than to bolt...and it was a good decision. We took Sunday just to rest and enjoy the day and each other. We slept till we felt like getting up, breakfasted at the hotel, packed up, and headed to the peninsula for several hours of sun, wind, sand, and birdsong. We love Presque Isle.

We might have stayed a tad bit too long, but days like that are so rare and precious, it was hard to want to rush anywhere. Plus we all knew we'd sleep well whenever we finally did make it home to turn in. It was a bit hard to hit the ground running again yesterday, but we're moving into gentler summer schedules anyway, and that helped. We're still in transition regarding ministry this summer, which is making us all feel a little bit up in the air, but we're somehow even managing to weather uncertainty with more grace than usual. Thanks be to God! I think the beauty of the wedding has had lingering good effects.

And I can't get Mark Heard out of my head (he serenaded us much of the way up and back): "Love is not the only thing...but it's the best thing."