Thursday, March 26, 2015

George Herbert, Jane Austen, and My Forty-Seventh Birthday

It's my forty-seventh birthday, and I woke up thinking about people who have died young.

Heh. Don't worry. I am not feeling terribly morose (far from it...it's been a lovely day) and that comment is not nearly as somber as it sounds. I just found myself reflecting on the Scriptural admonition "teach us to number our days," and thinking about people who gifted the world even during very brief sojourns.

This has been on my mind since I read Timothy George's essay "George Herbert in Lent," the other day at First Things. I either didn't know or at least didn't recall that George Herbert, the extraordinary Anglican poet and priest, died in March of 1633, just short of his 40th birthday. I'm pretty sure that I never realized before now that he never saw any of his poems published. He left them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar; they were all published after his death.

I suspect that both George Herbert and Jane Austen, who died at the age of 41, would be astounded at the strength of their legacies so long after their deaths. They were quiet people whose influence, during their lifetimes, was in relatively small spheres. And yet their influence, their creative power, has spread to so many others, in ever widening circles as the years pass. While it's true that not all of us have the creative genius of these two, I think that the imprint they left behind doesn't have to do only with their words, but with the faithful lives they lived and the quiet but faithful ways they used the gifts they were given. I love the Richard Baxter quote that Timothy George provided regarding Herbert: he was "“a man who speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God.”

The older I get, the more I begin to realize that it's the quiet but loving moments that may have the most staying power in my own life, and the most influence for good on people I'll eventually leave behind. Those circles of quiet and loving influence feel so big in my own life. I know, I know. Sober sounding reflections for a 47th birthday. But right now I'm not feeling particularly glum about how old I am, just tremendously grateful for the years I've been given so far and hopeful that in the years ahead, I can stay a faithful course and love even more deeply. I'd like someone to be able to say about me one day that she is "a woman who speaks to God like someone who really believes in God, and her business in the world is most with God."  That's a legacy worth having.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella (Book Review)

This past Friday, we treated ourselves to a rare event: a movie in the theater. My daughter's love of Cinderella and my love of Kenneth Branagh directed films, not to mention my upcoming birthday, all combined to compel the family to the new Disney version of the classic fairy-tale. It was a stunningly lovely movie, so very well-made, and I hope to still find time to write a real review! (The short version: if you love fairy-tales, see it. If you love Kenneth Branagh movies, see it.)

Seeing the familiar story play out got me thinking about the film's source material, not only the 1950 Disney animated film but the classic Perrault and Grimm versions. That got me thinking about other versions of the tale too, which took me into my book review archives. I dug up a review I wrote over seven years ago and decided to dust it off and give it a rewrite.

Without further ado, here's my slightly revamped review of Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella, a beautiful picture book written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. It was published in 2007 by Henry Holt.

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Almost everyone knows and loves the story of Cinderella. We can easily sketch the tale because we know its images and contours so well. There's poor lonely Cinderella, abused by stepmother and stepsisters, clad in rags and sweeping up the ashes, overworked almost to death. Look! Here comes her fairy godmother! Away Cinderella rolls to the ball in her pumpkin coach, glass slippers on her feet. She loses one at the stroke of midnight, but her beloved prince picks it up and vows to find the woman who has lost that tiny sparkling shoe and stolen his heart in the bargain. And so he does find her. The stepsisters are aghast. Wedding bells ring. Happily ever after.

Am I close? Is that just about the way you know and remember it?

Maybe...or maybe not.

What author Paul Fleischman has given us in the lovely and unusual picture book Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal is not just a familiar re-telling of Cinderella as many of us in the West have growing up hearing it told. His Cinderella has gone global. Fleischman's fascination with the Cinderella story led him to look for it in other cultures than our own. What he discovered was that people the world over love to tell this story. And while the main shape remains the same, the details change in wonderful ways from culture to culture. His book is an attempt to weave those varied details together into one rich tapestry. He calls it "a worldwide Cinderella."

Fleishman chooses to tell the worldwide Cinderella as one story, with the different versions woven together. An easier route, less creatively challenging to author and reader, might have been to simply tell the story several times over and let the versions stand side by side for comparison. Instead, Fleischman has woven various cultural strands together and attempted to tell one coherent story.

He is helped in this task by the vibrantly colored gouache paintings of illustrator Julie Paschkis. Her illustrations have a definite "folk art" feel. The main pictures and text are bordered but appear on colorful, busy backgrounds of motifs and patterns that arise in the story. The backgrounds reminded me of batik cloths or other bright textiles.  If you look carefully at each background, you will see the name of a country printed. It almost looks like a little tag "sewed" into the backdrop. That little tag lets you know, on each page, what country's folk-tale tradition is being pulled on for the particular details.

So you move from the way the story is told in Mexico (where the potential stepmother appears kind at first, offering sweets like pan dulce for little Cinderella to eat) to the story as told in Korea  (where poor Cinderella learns what a hard taskmaster her new stepmother can be, and has to spend long days weeding in the rice fields) and then on to Iraq (where Cinderella remembers how she'd wanted her father to remarry and laments "I picked up the scorpion with my own hand").

Although the story often devotes one whole page or a two-page spread to a certain country's telling, there are some pages on which you shift cultures more rapidly. This is set off visually by background color changes, and by setting the text off in smaller boxes (and always with the name of the country near the appropriate text, embedded in the background). The rapid shift is a fun way for the author/compiler to pile up a lot of details and to quickly show readers the plethora of storytelling choices available when one reaches important parts of the story. For instance, when it's time for Cinderella to be clothed in something beautiful for the ball, you might be expecting a fairy godmother, but you won't find one here. In Laos, she simply reaches into her mother's sewing basket. In Russia, she finds clothing in a hole in a birch tree. In Indonesia, a crocodile swims up to her, and in its mouth was a sarong made of gold... or if you prefer the Chinese and Japanese versions, presented immediately afterwards, a cloak sewn of kingfisher feathers or a kimono red as sunset.

It's fun to see the different ways people around the world tell one story. The pages where the details come quickest remind me of those old "choose your own adventure" books! You and your young reader may find yourself wondering about the missing details you don’t hear from the different cultural versions, which might inspire you to go looking.

Another strength: the book introduces different cultural traditions and expressions, especially from cultures that we're not as familiar with in the West. The only nods to North America are the few places where the story moves into a folk telling from Appalachia. It’s an intriguing way to illustrate how different places in the world have different ways of telling stories, different expressions, and different ideas of what's beautiful to wear or delicious to eat, as the varied menu at the  wedding feast near the book's end so amply illustrates.

The literal jumping from place to place and the piling up of different cultural details is both the book's strength and a potential weakness. The story doesn't quite work as one coherent story. There's still a rags to riches storyline and we get to the happy ending, but Cinderella (never named in the actual text, just the title) changes so rapidly in the text and in the accompanying illustrations. As she morphs from culture to culture, it might present a visual and creative challenge to very young readers or listeners, who could struggle to keep up or to comprehend all the changes. For that reason, I think I would recommend the book primarily for children 7 and up, who will likely have an easier time grasping the concept and probably have a deeper interest in comparing the different versions.

As an adult with a real love of fairy-tales, I found this weaving of global tellings of Cinderella quite enchanting. If you know a child who loves fairy-tales, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal could be a lovely way to introduce them to the way stories are told and changed as they move from culture to culture.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tired But Blessed

Tired I am (says this mom in Yoda-speak). It's been an incredibly busy month filled with more work than I've been able to handle well, though I've given it a good try, and plenty of other stresses too. And yet today....

  • I am super grateful for the fact that spring is almost here! Despite today's 40 degree temperature that felt colder in the wind, we are really and truly out of single digit temperatures. The sunshine is strengthening, the days are lengthening, there's a mess of purple crocuses blooming down the road, and I've seen two robins this week.

  • I am deeply blessed to have mailed two cards today: one for my parents' 61st wedding anniversary (this Friday) and the other for my mom's 83 birthday (Saturday). 

  • And I am thankful for the gifts and blessings of the Lenten season.

Friday, February 27, 2015

What Makes a Hero a Hero?



My 12 year old has been in major Star Wars mode this month, which means we recently watched the original trilogy in all of its original theatrical release glory. (Tonight we get the special release of the first film, complete with all its extras…longer Death Star run! Greedo shot first! Slithery CGI Jabba! It will be her first time to see Episode IV with all of Lucas’ changes.)

Watching these films has gotten us thinking about heroes and villains. Her fascination with Luke and Darth got me pondering, and I decided to pop over to the American Film Institute’s Hero and Villains list to see where they showed up. AFI, in case you don’t know, presents a list of the top 50 American film heroes and villains (along with lists of many other things connected to American film).

Here’s the interesting thing: Darth Vader shows up at #3 on the all-time villain list. And Luke Skywalker…doesn’t make the cut.

I was not surprised to see Han Solo come in at #14 on the hero list – we love scoundrels-turned-heroes. But Obi-Wan Kenobi at #37? Really? I mean, I love Alec Guinness and the gravitas he brings to the role, which ups the whole tone of the first film especially. I’m not sure anyone else could have brought the weight needed to lines like “You must learn the ways of the Force…”

And yes, of course he sacrifices himself in battle, another mark of heroism. But his role in really more of mentor-to-hero than hero; it’s his exit from the land of the living (though he continues to show up in ghostly form in the next movies) that allows Luke the room he needs to grow and come to grips with his destiny.

Luke is the one who has the classic hero journey. He not only ends up besting the #3 movie villain of all time in battle, but that villain is his father, and his continued reaching out in love and forgiveness to that villainous wreck of a father is what eventually enables Darth to do the right thing and find redemption. And he blew up the Death Star! How much more heroic can Luke be?

Of course, he doesn’t get the girl (primarily since the only girl for miles around in this galaxy turns out to be his twin sister, hidden from their dastardly father at birth) and one wonders if that factors in. Of course, it’s also a teensy bit frustrating to consider that Leia herself does not make it to the hero list (there are women on the list) since she seems to be at least as heroic as Han, both of them in supporting role kind of ways.

So what do you think? Should Luke have made the list?

In case you’re curious, here’s how AFI defines hero:


“For voting purposes, a "hero" was defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.”


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Consider Him...(Pondering Hebrews 12:3)

Except for a lovely worship service and church school class this morning, followed by a great lunch at church, I have been working all day. This is not my usual kind of Sunday, but this particular semester, I've discovered that I often have to work on Sundays because of my class schedule and my deadline schedule with Spirit & Truth. Reminder to self: must find some sabbath time to take the place of what I'm not able to have on Sundays!

Because I've been working for several hours....work of the really needing to concentrate and think and write creatively type...I'm too tired to write the post I've been planning in the back of my head since this morning. That would be a post on John Newton, author of Amazing Grace. (I mention it here in hopes that it will spur me to actually come back sometime this week and write it...we shall see.)

For now, I just had to share this verse, which has also been running around in my mind and heart much of the day (it's been a crammed full to bursting mind and heart day)....

"Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted." (Hebrews 12:3)

This is a bit of Scripture that's been engrained in me for so long it nearly took my breath this morning in worship when I felt like I heard it "anew." I think I heard it back to front -- the words "weary" and "fainthearted" smacked me in between the eyes, because I must confess I've been feeling a lot of both lately. Then I backed up to the beginning of the verse, and the remedy for weariness and faintheartedness: "Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself..." jumped up for my attention. The enduring of hostility, going all the way to the cross, to restore us in love while we were yet sinners (yes, Romans 5 still singing through my head...thank you, Paul) -- what an amazing God we have.

But it was the "CONSIDER HIM" that really lodged in my heart today. It's an active verb. It's something we are to *do* so that will not grow weary or fainthearted....which suggests that the writer of Hebrews knows all to well how easy it is for us to become those things in this world.

Consider him...or as some other translations have it....
"just think of him"
"keep your mind on him"
"go over that story again"
"think constantly of him"
"think of what he went through"

Sounds like an important spiritual discipline, not just for Lent, but for any season!

Praying that I will find real and loving ways to consider him this week. 
 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thankful for the Apostle Paul (and Romans 5:1-11, and the Scriptures, and Grace)

I'm home on this Ash Wednesday evening, working on writing a lesson plan for Romans 5:1-11. This is part of the freelance curriculum writing job I've had since late fall, a job for which I continue to be so thankful, in part because it's such a joy to be able to spend time in the Scriptures, thinking and writing about them for youth and their teachers.

This is my fifth project for the publisher, and only my second New Testament lesson. It's also the first time I've had to tackle Paul for this curriculum. I use the word "tackle" on purpose, because as usual, I find Paul a challenge for my mind and heart.

In general, my story-loving self finds it ever so much easier to write lesson plans and activity guides for narrative or poetic/prophetic passages. Narratives give us characters we can hang our hats on, and poetry gives us concrete visual images. To be fair, Paul sometimes gives us both of those things -- he loves to re-tell Old Testament stories (often with a new twist) and he sometimes provides rich imagery ("clanging cymbal" and the parts of the body talking to one another come to mind right away). But sometimes he's the Paul I tend to think of when his name comes to mind: the pastoral, teaching Paul whose complex sentences can pack what feels like dozens of deeply rich theological words into a very, very small space.

These eleven verses I've been sitting with for the past couple of weeks contain a lot of the biggies: reconciliation, justification, grace, hope, peace, faith, endurance, suffering, rejoicing, wrath. They're all there, and the first few times I read through the passage, as I thought about trying to help teachers unpack it for youth, I found myself wanting to bite my nails. It was hard to pick one over-arching "big idea" because, quite frankly, every single idea in it is big.

So I just kept reading. I'd pick it up at odd moments and read it again. I read it in the ESV (my study Bible of choice these days), in the NIV along with some commentary notes, in the NRSV (which is the translation I need to use for my work). I read it in the Message (thank you, Eugene) and in the wonderfully expanded Amplified version, which interestingly enough, really helped me this time, because with its parenthetical comments expanding on some of those big theological words, it somehow captured the exuberance of Paul.

I think that's what I was missing for a while, as I read the passage with my mind (not a bad thing to do, of course, and needed) trying to understand the import of what Paul was saying well enough to begin to put it into simpler and more concrete terms for kids. I needed to read it with my heart too, to hear the excitement in Paul's voice as he builds and builds and repeats himself...and he does...about the amazing love of God. A love poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. A love shown to us through the death of Jesus on the cross, a death he died while we were yet sinners. While we were a helpless mess and could do nothing on our behalf, reminds Paul, God did it all.

And we who have been reconciled through that act have hope. Real, living, true, confident hope that will never disappoint us, no matter what kind of suffering may come our way. Hope that allows us to rejoice no matter what comes, because HE HAS DONE IT. When we turn to him in trust, when we put our hope in this great good news, he makes us new and sets us right, forever healing our relationship to God which was once so irrevocably broken.

All the big words Paul uses? He's not using them to impress or confuse, he's using them because they're the only ones he can come up with that are rich and deep and brilliant enough to capture at least a little bit of the truth he's trying to sing for us here, preaching it so it can sink deep down into our bones and enflame our hearts and remind us anew of who God is and what he has done.

I am so thankful for the apostle Paul, so thankful for these words and the gift of the Scriptures.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Meet Flavia de Luce: Diminutive Sherlock



Every once in a while, I come across a quote in a novel that grabs my attention – either because it strikes me as profound, or it stirs up tears or laughter. The stirring up laughter kind of quote is the one I usually run across in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries. Today it was this one, said by a rather batty (but inspiring) maiden aunt to her brilliant eleven year old niece:


“If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self if like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.” (~The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bones)


I’m reading the second novel in this delightfully quirky series, and enjoying myself for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is Bradley’s ability to disprove critics who think a child can’t be a suitable protagonist in a story mostly intended for adults. To be sure, I think Flavia’s mysteries would play well with a young adult audience too – though I wonder if young adults (more than older ones) might be put off the eleven year old heroine. But maybe not. Maybe they’d embrace her even more wholeheartedly!

Like Ender of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novels, Flavia never quite seems her age – except on the rare occasions that she has to. The limits of an eleven year old’s world set interesting parameters for mystery solving. Flavia may compare herself to the “swarming clerics in Anthony Trollope who seemed to spend their days buzzing from cloister to vicarage and from village to the bishop’s palace like black clockwork beetles scuttling to and fro in a green maze” but our diminutive Sherlock has to make her way in pursuit of clues on her bicycle -- which she’s named Gladys.

I think that may be the genius of Flavia: she’s precocious enough to have read Trollope (okay, she confesses she “skimmed bits” of it, and that she’s not terribly into the books because there’s no one her age in them) but she’s still child enough to name her bicycle. She’s brilliant enough to perform incredible forensic chemistry experiments in her lab, but still insecure and immature enough to use her scientific brilliance in the pursuit of petty revenge on her older sisters (beware lipsticks and chocolates at the de Luce home…you never know what Flavia might have syringed inside them).

Between the genius of Flavia’s character and the lively humor of Bradley’s similes, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself with this series. I just might need to start collecting Bradley’s similes, like one collects bright beetles in a jar. He can’t seem to go more than a page or two without indulging in one. They’re often laugh-aloud funny at the same time they’re surprisingly evocative.

Did I mention the mysteries are pretty good too? There’s even a real police inspector, the amiable and smart Inspector Hewitt, who welcomes Flavia’s brilliance even if he’s not too sure what to do about her poking her nose into his cases.