Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Random Poetry

I'd be the first to admit how much I hate e-mail spam. In spite of trying to keep my "filters" set fairly high, I seem to get more than my fair share of the stuff, and I grumble about life being too short as I clean it out every day.

However, lately I've been getting a kick out of the randomly generated subject lines on some of the spam in my inbox. You know the ones I mean, the subject lines that string together three or four words that appear to have been randomly generated and have no apparent connection to each other in any way (all in an attempt to get their noxious virus-y advertisements through to my mailbox). Most of the time I don't give these a second glance as I send them to the trash bin for emptying, but once in a while a combination of words will jump out at me and...well...
almost look like poetry (she says sheepishly). Sometimes they remind me of those poetry magnets people put on their refrigerator!

This morning there was an interesting one. The subject line read "sing as reflex." I almost took a double-take when I saw that, because I had just read the following in a meditation by Amy Carmichael:

"His anxious thoughts said: 'Terrific powers are set in array against me!' ... His Father said: 'And you are as a little child, who knows not how to meet them. But with you, there is one stronger than they. Do not forget to sing!'"

Do not forget to sing! When trouble comes, when you seem surrounded by terrible pressures, fears and troubles, look up, realize who is on your side, and sing! Sing praises! Sing thanks! And, as the wise and witty spam-poetry in my inbox put it, "sing as reflex"! I love that idea -- that I could so train my responses to life's problems, that my trust in God's loving power and goodness could be so strong, that even in the darkest and most anxious moments of the day, my first instinct would be to sing. It would be like a reflex action, something I would do almost without thinking.
I'm going to try to remember this insight: do not forget to sing/sing as reflex. And I'm going to see if I can't keep my eyes open for more instances of unexpected poetry, poems that ambush me from ordinary places. What Annie Dillard calls "found poetry."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Quacking and Kerplunking

I don’t want this journal to turn into a pseudo-list: in other words, just because it’s an online journal I don’t want to waste time trying to make my reading list look more impressive or “academic” than it is. In truth, I do a lot of reading, and not all of it is “big and important” (whatever that means!) -- at least by the world’s standards.

So what have I been reading this week? Well, a lot of Robert McCloskey. Yes, that’s right, Robert McCloskey, author of Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal, both of which I’ve read numerous times in the past several days. McCloskey wrote and illustrated children’s books in the 1940s and 1950s, wonderful books that have stood the test of time and still delight both me and my three year old. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the whimsy of reading (or quacking!) out the ducklings’ names: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, and of course I also love the chance to do the sounds of the blueberries hitting little Sal’s tin pail: Kerplink, Kerplank, Kerplunk. There’s something deeply satisfying about these stories, especially the terrific symmetry of the adventures of the mother/little child and mother bear/little bear in Blueberries for Sal.

I want to reflect from time to time on reading I’m doing with my daughter, because frankly it makes up a good portion of this season of my life! Part of the reason I began this journal was to get myself in the habit of reflecting on what I’m actually reading from day to day, whatever that might be. In the process, I may learn more about my own reading habits, and of course I may need to decide somewhere down the road that it would be a good idea to shape my reading habits differently. In general, I don’t set reading plans, in part because I’ve always had what I describe as a “popcorn mind.” One idea puts another idea into my head, and then another comes and then another… pop pop pop! My reading seasons tend to go the same way. I begin to read something and find that I feel passionate about what I’m reading – the form, the content, the author, the themes – and I begin to read other things that connect to it in some way. So you may notice where I go through times where I read heavily from and about one or more authors (Austen and Lewis at the moment, who tend to cycle back around pretty often). I don’t always do this consciously, but when I look back I can see what or who shaped a particular reading season.

One exception to my popcorn pattern is my more intentional spiritual reading. I don’t mean that I haven’t been spiritually formed by reading I’ve done spontaneously. I believe that the Holy Spirit sometimes moves me to read things that I didn’t consciously plan to be reading. One example I shared not long ago was how the Lord led me to the Amy Carmichael meditations that I didn’t even realize were on my shelves. Those are providing much food for my heart, but I certainly didn’t plan to read them right now.

But at least with my Scripture reading, I try to be more disciplined…though I often fail. I have not been good about reading through the daily lectionary lately, but it’s there for me like a scaffolding and I can return to that pattern. Sometimes I choose a certain book of the Bible – at the moment, it’s 2 Corinthians – and try to read through it a little bit each day, often trying a chapter per day, but not allowing myself to get hung up if I end up reading a little less or more.

I guess you could say there are several distinct kinds of reading I find myself doing these days:

Scripture reading
Other spiritual reading
Literary reading
Reading to my daughter
Informational reading (news/articles)

“Literary reading” is a kind of catch-all category. It doesn’t necessarily mean great or classic literature (though it can). It can also overlap with spiritual reading. In fact, most of these categories overlap in some way, in part because I find myself making connections or finding insights in one area based on reading and reflecting in another area. And all of these kinds of reading, with the possible exception of the last, is reading that feeds my “story-hunger” -- hunger for stories that reflect the Great Story found in the Scriptures.

My three and a half year old has a pretty insatiable story hunger of her own (I think she was born with it, but I’m sure we’ve fueled it too!). It would be silly and dishonest for me never to reflect in my journal about the books I’m reading with and to her, not only because they’re a big part of my diet, but because they’re good literature. I know for a fact that my own reading and writing have been shaped by the children’s literature I’ve been blessed to read since she was born. In fact, I have begun to write more stories and poems with children in mind, and I’m finding that I love this kind of work.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Beautiful, and Yet...

I finally finished Ron Hansen's novel Atticus. I say finally because I've attempted to read this book on and off for about a year. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get into it. I bought a used copy of it a year or so ago, with part of a gift certificate, and it's been lying on top of various book piles (often in the bathroom) ever since.

I must have started it half a dozen times. The writing is beautiful, so I really can't figure out why it didn't "hook" me more immediately. Once it did, I read the whole thing in just a few days. I'm still trying to sort out my reaction to it...or to be more precise, why my reaction wasn't stronger.

Because the writing is beautiful, and the themes of the novel very close to my heart. In many ways, it's a contemporary retelling of the "prodigal son" story with some very cool twists. It reads like rich, literary fiction and also a compelling mystery/suspense novel at the same time -- in some ways it reminded me of Dorothy Sayers (not at all in tone or language, but in the way it used a contemporary "murder mystery" type genre to explore big moral questions).

Is it possible that the writing was too beautiful? What a strange question. But I sometimes felt as though all the language was getting in the way. Almost every sentence seemed so well crafted -- and there were a lot of them. This novel is dense on description and light on dialogue. I'd be interested to know if that's typical of Hansen (this was my introduction to his work) or if it's somewhat unique to this novel given that Atticus, our main character (and POV for a good portion of the story) is taciturn and immensely private. A man of few words, but lots of thoughts -- he observes everything very carefully. One guess that's his nature, but it's also partly driven by the needs of the story, since he spends much of it investigating his son Scott's suspicious suicide in Mexico.

I often found myself pausing to admire lines like: Horizontal snow was flying through the halo of the green yard light and carrots of ice were hanging from the roof's iron gutters. Carrots of ice! Isn't that a perfect description for icicles? Hansen's wonderful at looking and naming the tiny details that bring a landscape or a face to life. Green and pink buildings were high above them on both sides and hot sunlight glared like snow off the walls. I like that one. The mixing of temperatures, the hot sun glaring, not just white, but "like snow." Startles you. Good stuff.

But for some reason, all this good stuff seemed to jump up and ask to be noticed. It felt distracting. So while I admired the book on technical levels, I didn't find myself connecting as much emotionally to the characters, and given what they were going through, and the themes of love, guilt and forgiveness that he so skillfully wove together, that seemed strange.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe it just wasn't the right time for this book. Some books don't "grab you" right away, but they can stay with you, deeper than you realize, and when you go back to them at a later time you find more of the story lodged in your heart than you knew. And you're ready for it the second time around. Maybe that's the case here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Still Wild About Harry

I've begun re-reading the entire Harry Potter series, trying to trace anything to do with the theme of memory/memories. I had an idea -- months ago, when I was in an inspiring online reading group at Barnes and Noble University following the publication of Half-Blood Prince -- to work up an essay around that theme and its importance to the overall series. Lately I dug the idea out again and started my re-read, tiny notebook and pen next to me so I can jot page numbers and quotes as I go.

Of course, it's mostly just a good excuse to revisit the wonderful Harry Potter stories, which I have enjoyed numerous times in the past few years. I am an unabashed Harry Potter fan, and have discovered, to my joy, many like-minded adults who are also crazy about these books. I still read and post (at least somewhat regularly) in an online HP forum. It's an unusual one and a wonderful one too, because it's moderated by my friend John Granger, whose brilliant books The Hidden Key to Harry Potter and Looking for God in Harry Potter have helped many of us to explore the Christian symbolism and themes of the stories (not to mention we like to kick around exciting topics like Rowling's use of "narrative misdirection"). John manages to attract wonderfully thoughtful people. Lots of writers and teachers in this group, and numerous Austen, Dickens and Inklings fans! No wonder I enjoy my time there.

At any rate, I'm having a hard time concentrating on my notetaking because, in spite of the fact that I've read most of the books in the series a handful of times, I find myself getting caught up in them again. Hanging out with Harry, Ron and Hermione is like hanging out with old friends. I had forgotten how funny Sorcerer's Stone is -- laugh out loud funny, in some parts. It's so delightful to be so delighted while rejoicing in a story that skewers the blatant materialism of our times, and does a wonderful job of emphasizing the power of sacrificial love. And those are just two things Rowling does so well.

At any rate, I'll keep reading and note-taking and see if I actually get anywhere with the essay later this spring. (I know it's not spring yet -- but I still think on an academic schedule.) It's not exactly priority right now admist all the other work I need to do, not to mention other reading and writing projects, but it's wonderful "background" reading...I know I can always take a holiday with Harry.

And in the spirit of holiday, here are a few observations I've made while reading Sorcerer's Stone... observations of the "isn't that interesting?" variety or the "hmm...wonder if that might be important in the final book" variety. I find that last especially interesting, as I fully believe Rowling is going to come full circle in book 7 with many of the ideas, themes and plotlines introduced in book 1. Still, these are not my most serious reflections about where the story is going...I'm mostly having fun here.
  • Wouldn't it be funny if the boa constrictor that Harry accidentally set free in the zoo came back to help him out in the final battle? He owes Harry, so maybe he could duke it out with Nagini. (This is a joke. I'm counting on a Fawkes/Nagini encounter actually.)
  • Has Harry inherited Sirius Black's flying motorcycle? And would he enjoy flying on that as much as he loves flying on his Firebolt?
  • Have we seen the last of Hagrid's pink umbrella? Remember it's his wand (the one that got snapped in pieces when he was expelled from Hogwarts). We haven't seen Hagrid attempt much magic, but he's capable of some feats. And if John Granger is right about the pattern of the alchemical symbolism (and I'm willing to bet he is!) then Hagrid has a very important role to play in the final book.
  • What wand is it that Ollivander keeps in his window (the one in the display case)? Is anyone running Ollivander's now that he's disappeared? (and whose side is he really on? I have my theories about that one...)
  • Snape's saving of Harry during the first Quidditch match...major foreshadowing?
More to come later...I'm only a bit over half-way through.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dragon Skin

Do you ever have Eustace Scrubb moments? Moments when you feel, like the character of the 'unfortunately named' Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that you've layers and layers of accumulated dragon skin (made up of all sorts of sins and selfishness) that you long to peel away and can't?

I have moments like that sometimes. The other night I was feeling all "stuffed with self" -- full of impatience, uncharitable feelings, sharp tones -- and then feeling guilty because I knew that perhaps the worst part of all was how focused I was on my own sense of failure and self-pity. It was only after a time of prayer and confession that I felt stripped clean, made "real" again, reminded I was a beloved daughter, redeemed and whole.

I've always loved the scene in Dawn Treader and the marvelous transformation of dragon-Eustace back into human (but perhaps truly human for the first time) Eustace. But I have a deeper appreciation for the scene now, having read Alan Jacobs' beautiful reflections on it, woven skillfully into his reflections on C.S. Lewis' own gradual transformation as he moved from an atheistic materialism, to recognition that there was "a" God, to a final recongition of and surrender to the triune God. Lewis himself described part of that transformation (in Surprised by Joy) as the feeling that he was a lobster who had lost his hard shell. But somehow I never made the obvious connection between that description and the scene he wrote about Eustace.

Jacobs writes:

"It is especially noteworthy that Eustace's own attempts to remove his scaly skin are ineffectual. To peel off his skin is 'a most lovely feeling,' but he is just the same after doing so
-- just as Lewis himself had been exactly the same after 'breaking the neck' of a prideful thought, or several prideful thoughts. Eustace skins himself three times before realizing that his best efforts are inadequate. It is only Aslan who has the strength (and the love) to do the job properly -- that is, to turn Eustace back into a boy again -- and Eustace welcomes the gift, even if 'the very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.'

But then it is characteristic of Aslan, as Lord of Narnia, to do for his people what they cannot do for themselves. He heals, he saves -- he even dies for them when there is no other remedy. But it is not clear that when Lewis was discovering his 'depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration' he yet understood the deepest character of the God in whom he now believed. He was still trying to strip away his own skin, but every day, whether he knew it or not, he was moving closer to the recognition that it was not just any God but the God of Jesus Christ into whose hands he had fallen, and that if any radical change in him were ever to happen, his own powers of insight and determination would not be adequate to the task. Only the claws of that God could penetrate to his very heart."
(~~The Narnian, pp. 134-135)

Besides the insight this gave me into Lewis' transformation, it also gives me much to ponder about myself and about the Lord. What makes me most grateful is the realization that once we've been transformed by Jesus into our real human selves, we can't really ever go back to being dragons again. Like Eustace, we may still have dragonish moments (or even days!) when we lapse into old ways and sins and thought-habits, or when we listen to lies about who we are. In those times we may begin to feel the scaly skin trying to creep back. But we can turn to the Lord and ask him to peel it away again before it can thicken and grow. We can trust that he will, and that he will, when necessary, "velvet his paws" (to use another wonderful image from Lewis' Aslan). For the Lord is both strong and gentle, and in his grace he longs to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Earth and Heaven

Continuing to read Amy Carmichael, and am struggling through a few thoughts this evening. In one of the meditations, she speaks of "trivial" things in our lives that we sometimes let sidetrack us from the real purpose of our lives, serving God. Essentially she is saying that there's nothing wrong with "recreation" or various pastimes in our lives, as long as they will not cause a leakage of spiritual power. She also adds that certain things that might be fine for one person (would not cause them to be distracted, or led astray, or lead to addiction...these are my words here, not her's, but I think they capture the gist of what she means) might not be fine for another person in a different situation or with a different temperament. Again, I'm paraphrasing and extrapolating, but I think this is what she's getting at.

And I appreciate that insight. In fact, I think it's a good one to ponder, to use for reflection when we're involving ourselves in a lot of time and effort in any kind of activity -- does this help or hinder my spiritual growth? My relationship with God? My "gladness and singleness of heart" to quote the Book of Common Prayer?

At the same time, I wrestled a bit with her continued reflections on keeping ourselves separate from the world. She writes "Those of us who are God's emissaries are to treat the world (not just its corruptions, but its legitimate joys, its priveleges and blessings also), as a thing to be touched at a distance...It is not that He forbids us this or that indulgence or comfort; not that He is stern, calling us to a life of harsh asceticism, as if that would make Him more pleased with us. No, it is that we who love our Lord, and we whose affections are set on the things that are heaven for us today -- we voluntarily and gladly lay aside things that charm the world, so that we may be charmed and ravished with the things of heaven."

What she is saying, I think, is that our allegiance is to a "higher Kingdom" (as she calls it later on) and my heart resonates so deeply with that. My heart also resonates with the reality that as the people of God, made for eternity, we will always in some sense be wanderers and exiles on earth, with no permanent home. On the other hand, and this is where my more sacramental understanding of life comes into play, I am a created creature living in a good (though fallen) creation, and I am an encultured being. All that I know and understand and can meditate on concerning heaven and ultimate things and the Kingdom (and what all that is like) is mediated to me through the "stuff" of this world -- creation, yes, but also words and pictures (especially the inspired words and pictures of the Scriptures). Earth and heaven are deeply connected, made by the same good God, and though "sundered" now deeply connected again by the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. I keep thinking of Jesus telling Nathanael how he would see heaven open, and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (a passage I heard a sermon on last week). Jesus came to earth to open heaven, and to himself be that "ladder," that "bridge" between the two. And because He came, we know that there will be times and places in our lives, even here in exile on earth, where we will know, like Jacob who had that first vision of the ladder of angels in Genesis, that "surely God was here in this place and I did not know it."

Not that I think Amy Carmichael would have any problem with what I'm saying. And I've wandered far afield. I think her general point is very sound; she's clearly not advocating a full retreat from the world, nor an ascetic kind of withdrawal from the world, simply a cautious and careful drawing back from the "vain things that charm (us) most" and threaten to pull our attention from the ultimate realities that really do matter most. It's probably a word I need to hear more than I realize, living in such a deeply materialistic culture, a culture that spends all its time and energy worrying about and worshipping the things we can see, and either ignoring, debasing, or deciding that the things which we can't see are simply "not there."

In the world, but not of it. Just passing through, and yet called to passionately love. Walking carefully, and yet trusting lavishly. Loving the gifts, but never satisfied fully with anything less than the Giver. That seems to be our call.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

"...More Than Seven Stars"

I can't remember when I first learned about Amy Carmichael. Probably in a missionary story time during a Good News Club when I was a little girl. Born in Northern Ireland (like C.S. Lewis!), she lived 1867-1951, and was a missionary in India for fifty-six years. Faithful to sharing the Gospel in word and deed, she is perhaps best known for providing refuge to countless children who'd been dedicated to "service" in Hindu temples as prostitutes.

I read some of her devotional writings when I was in college, and for a long time, I kept these words of her's up on my wall: Guard Against Depression. Bear Evenly With All That Is Uneven. Never Be Shocked Out of Loving. I think they were her words of advice to a new missionary. I have recalled those words so many times over the years, needing to heed them again and again. I was thinking about them the other night, during a time of some tears when I found I was both struggling with some depression, and also feeling very "uneven" in many places in my life. I went to the shelf to pull down the one book I knew we had by Amy Carmichael, and to my surprise, found we had another one I'd never read (probably picked up in one of the countless seminary library sales we enjoyed during our six years as students and staff). I love it when God brings a book to my attention in ways like this -- to find a gem sitting quietly on your own shelf, and to realize it's a book you really need right now, is a beautiful thing.

It's called You Are My Hiding Place: A 40-Day Journey in the Company of Amy Carmichael. These are devotional readings arranged by an author named David Hazard, and apparently he had a lot to choose from. Carmichael was ill and bedridden for almost the final 20 years of her life, as he explains in his introduction, and her writings were both prolific and profound.

I've read a handful of the meditations, and a few of them have jumped out at me, but the one that's perhaps spoken the most comfort to my heart is Day 3, "No Insignificant People." In this meditation, Amy Carmichael speaks of God's lovingkindness, and how the Bible is full of stories that show how God in his great love for us speaks to our fears of insignificance. One of her examples is John on Patmos, in the book of Revelation:

"John, looking through the thin veil of time into eternity, saw his Lord --the Lord he had seen pierced -- now holding in His hand seven stars. John declares, 'I fell at His feet as though dead.' Immediately -- just as though this fallen one mattered more than seven stars, as though there were no stars -- 'He placed His right hand upon me.' (Revelation 1: 16-17) ...Isn't it beautiful that there was no rebuke at all for [his] human weakness?...He comforts. He lays His right hand on the soul wounded by weariness, or fear, or any kind of weakness at all. And he says, as if that one were the only soul in all the universe: 'O man, greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee. Be strong -- yea, be strong!' (Daniel 10:19, Rotherham)"

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Happy Birthday, A.A. Milne!

Yes, it's the anniversary of A.A. Milne's birthday. He was born 124 years ago today, January 18, 1882. We celebrated this morning by reading some of his wonderful poems in Now We Are Six. I also posted a review of that book on the epinions website, where I'm an active reviewer. If you want to check it out, it's entitled "Now We Are Six (Or Perhaps One Hundred and Twenty-Four)" and can be found at http://www.epinions.com/content_217924275844

I think Booper's favorite poem in the collection is "Sneezles" but then it's hard not to get the giggles over lines like: They said, "If you teazle/A sneezle/Or wheezle,/A measle/May easily grow./But humour or pleazle/The wheezle/Or sneezle,/The measle/Will certainly go."

I checked out a couple of websites on Milne as I was writing my review, and discovered something interesting: he studied under H.G. Wells! There's a literary connection I would have never made. (I wonder if there's a literary version of the movie game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon..."!)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Spending Time With C.S. Lewis

If my posts seem somewhat "Lewisian" for a while, blame Alan Jacobs! On Friday I finished his wonderful book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. This is a new scholarly biography of Lewis published by HarperSanFrancisco in 2005. Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. I don't think it's going out on much of a limb to say this will become, for many people, one of the (if not "the") definitive biographies of Lewis' life and work.

I'm not really qualified to say that, having mostly read bits and pieces of other biographies and articles about Lewis' life over the years. Of course I've read Lewis' own Surprised by Joy, and I've also really enjoyed Humphrey Carpenter's reflections on Lewis in his book on The Inklings. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of at least the outline of Lewis' journey to faith, and his life work as teacher, apologist and storyteller.

But Jacobs' book just overwhelmed me by giving me a powerful sense of Lewis as a person. It's written in beautiful, clear prose; it paints a portrait of Lewis that is, on the one hand, highly respectful of his amazing imagination, mind and heart, and on the other, doesn't try to gloss over his real human foibles and struggles (pre OR post conversion). There's a tendency in some circles, especially among those of us who share the same Christian faith as Lewis (and anywhere near his Christian tradition, as I do since I'm Episcopalian) to make Lewis into a bit of a plaster saint. In fact, when I was in seminary he was affectionately referred to as "Saint Jack" most of the time. How Lewis himself would have chuckled to have known he would be lauded for any particular sanctity. I think he would have seen himself a "saint" only in the humble sense of one of a communion of many fellow-travellers, walking in the way of Jesus.

I do plan to post some notes and reflections on a few of the specific passages that moved me -- though it's hard to know where to begin. I cried most of the way through the last chapter and the afterword, both because they were written with such heart, and because I felt as though I had spent several days in Lewis' company, and would miss him. Biographies don't usually have this kind of effect on me!

I think Jacobs has done a real service to literature about Lewis too, in that he is at great pains to look at his life (from start to finish) through that lens of "imagination." The main question he tries to keep front and center for most of the book, either explicitly or implicitly, is what caused Lewis, late in his life, to write stories for children? And not just any stories, but works of such depth and imagination and love that they have become for many children, over generations, some of our very favorite stories, books we want to inhabit again and again? When you think about it, it does seem somewhat unlikely, at least on the surface, that an Oxford tutor, later Cambridge professor of medieval and renaissance studies, a bachelor for most of his life (with relatively few contacts with young children) would "suddenly" in the decade of his 50s, start writing the Narnia stories. Some biographers, like the controversial A.N. Wilson, have apparently postulated rather eccentric theories for it. But Jacobs' take seems true at its heart, and true to a careful reading of the best sources about Lewis' life (including his own books and letters). When you really begin to trace his love of story, of fantasy and faerie -- when you begin to see what most profoundly shaped Lewis in his life choices, his turn to faith, his sense of himself -- then the fact that he began to write the Narnia stories doesn't seem odd at all, only oddly satisfying and somehow obvious.

I followed up The Narnian with a very quick read through of C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children. It's a very slim volume, but worth its weight in gold, and it gave me at least one more day of time "with" Lewis. A few of the letters are oft-quoted in biographies but it was enjoyable to read them in full and in the context of other letters he wrote to children over the years. What struck me, beyond Lewis' warmth and humour, is how patient he was -- how much time he really gave to answering the same kinds of questions over and over again from young readers. Clearly too, they often sent him their own stories and poems, as well as drawings and paintings they had made based on his stories. He didn't just thank them for these gifts, but commented on them -- charitably but also thoughtfully, sometimes even offering helpful artistic critiques of the poems. There's not a condescending note anywhere. He respected these children and their growing imagination, and one feels he understands them in part because like him, they love stories. He also encouraged children in their faith lives in beautiful ways. One of my favorite lines comes in a letter he wrote to a girl named Ruth less than a month before he died:

"If you continue to love Jesus, nothing much can go wrong with you, and I hope you always do so," he wrote. And then added, "I'm so thankful that you realized [the] "hidden story" in the Narnia books. It is odd, children nearly always do, grown-ups hardly ever."

May I always stay child-like enough to realize the "hidden story" wherever it peeks out at us.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Invisible Friends

Dana and I finally got back to reading more of The Godbearing Life today. This is a book by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster; its subtitle is The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry. We started reading it months ago (in August, I think) when we were really excited about the Christian Education position we were jointly interviewing for at a church in Virginia. (We had thought there was a possibility we would be hired to do youth and children's ministry as a team.) The interview turned out to be a difficult experience -- communication problems, the church in a big transition period and not very clear about what they wanted (beyond what we weren't). Maybe our disappointment over that door not opening is part of the reason we bogged down in the book this fall, although we really liked it from the start. Lots of good food for thought, and as pertinent as ever (if not more so) now that D. is working part-time as the youth minister for our church here again.

We were in chapter 7: "A Circle of Friends: Inviting Spiritual Friendship" for just about forever, I think, but we finally pushed on and read the rest of it together today. And the final part of the chapter turned out to be worth the wait. Dean and Foster talk about the different kinds of friends we need/cultivate/long for in our lives: companions (ordinary folk who share faith with us, and daily life and help); mentors (spiritual advisors who who pass their wisdom on to us, and help us discern where we're going); soul friends (or anmchara, deeply special friends who help us pay attention to what's going on in our souls); invisible friends (the saints who have gone before, and people who inspire us/nourish us from a distance, such as writers, former pastors/teachers, etc.); and finally, outsiders who are inside your circle (people from outside the Christian community who help us experience the diversity of God's world, and who keep us challenged to be faithful doers and sharers of the Word).

I think I need to keep reflecting on this list. What struck me as I read it is that I can claim a fair amount of general companions, invisible friends, and even outsiders on the inside. But I feel woefully deficient in mentors or soul-friends. It also really hit me that I've not been very good at mentoring others recently, and once upon a time that seemed to be a big part of my life and calling (especially mentoring younger Christian women). The past several years have had many seasons of loneliness; I used to pray with great longing for God to send a soul-friend my way here in Ambridge, but I've not prayed that way in a long time. Perhaps it's time to start again, and to add prayers for someone that I too can "mentor."

I do love reflecting on the notion of "invisible friends" -- in part because I've been teaching church history for the past couple of years, and I've come more and more to value the lives and witness of Christians who have walked before us. I also think with gratefulness of writers and poets (both ancient and contemporary) who have nourished me. It excites me to think that the great "cloud of witnesses" described in Scripture now includes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien! I'm continuing my almost breakneck readthrough of Alan Jacobs' incredible biography of Lewis: The Narnian. I didn't mean to gulp it down, but some books just ask to be read that way and this is one of them. Very hard to put down. It deserves a post (or more than one post) of its own. I think I will finish it in the next few days...

Booper asked for the lovely picture book Hoot for bedtime story tonight. We've read it a lot lately. She's so delighted to have a "new Jane Hissey book" (as she says with great delight almost every time we pick it up). Thank the Lord for public libraries! Hoot is an owl who lives on top of the nursery cupboard in the same nursery that Old Bear and his friends live in. She's a very tidy owl -- likes to sort socks. Boop gets great satisfaction out of the end when Hoot leaves all the matched socks in pairs on the bedpost before she goes to bed (in the morning, because owls go to bed in the morning, of course). Yesterday when I went in to get her up from her nap, I saw that she had taken off her purple socks and hung them on the side of her bed just like in the book! Life imitating art once again.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

As If I Needed More Persuading...

Jane Austen is definitely near the top of the list of my favorite writers. There are only a few writers whose work I read over and over, and she's quickly become one of them. I say "quickly" because until about six years ago, I had not read much Austen at all. (How I got through an English Literature major without reading a single one of her novels I'll never guess.)

Oddly enough, it was a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that compelled me to really dive in and read Austen. I'm one of those literary purists who usually gripes about movies not being nearly as good as beloved books, but this was one case when a movie actually inspired me to read the source material again. I had read Pride and Prejudice once, maybe a year before I saw the A&E/BBC five-hour version. I liked it, but for some reason it didn't fully capture me -- at least not enough for me to go reading other books by Austen. Then I spent a week in Connecticut in January 2000, helping to care for my sister when she was recuperating from surgery, and she and I spent five wonderful hours together watching that faithfully adapted P&P movie starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I was amazed by how funny it was, and how romantic. I went back to the book, and suddenly it was as though I knew how to read Austen. The dialogue seemed to jump off the page.

From then on, I was hooked. I went on to read everything I could find -- all six of the finished novels (I haven't read Sanditon, in part because I know it's incomplete, and in part because I like knowing there's still some Austen fiction in the world I've yet to read). And since that winter, I've gone back numerous times to the novels, re-reading most of them in full, some of them more than once.

For some reason, winter tends to be the time I go back to Jane Austen. I'm still trying to figure out why her novels seem so perfectly suited to my reading tastes during the cold, bleak, grey months of winter here in the Ohio River Valley. Perhaps because they lend color and beauty and romance to prosaic, grey days. Perhaps because, living as I do in a very small town, where my sphere of experience is also quite small, these tiny "bits of ivory" (as Austen liked to call them) just make satisfying sense.

This January is no exception. I found myself going back to the shelf to read Austen's last completed novel, Persuasion. I just finished it a few days ago; I think it's only my second complete read-through of the book. I had forgotten how much I loved it. As if I needed any more "persuading" regarding how wonderful a writer this woman was!

Anne Elliot is a very different kind of heroine than Lizzie Bennett or Emma (probably my two favorite heroines, though I think Anne might be creeping her way up the list...I like Elinor Dashwood too). She lacks the "witty sparkle" of Lizzie or Emma, but what she lacks in sparkle, she makes up for in solidity and maturity. She is, of course, the oldest of all of them -- and has learned many of life and love's most difficult lessons before the novel starts. There's a warmth and elegance to this book, and a deeper dignity to the romance.

After I finished reading it, I popped in a library copy of the 1995 film -- mostly because I wanted to see Sophie Thompson play Anne's hypochondriac sister Mary Musgrove. She didn't have tons of screen time, but what she had she made the most of! Great performance, and a nice film all the way around, though it felt a bit rushed toward the end.

A Bookworm's Journal

Almost every year I resolve to keep my daily journal updated with a list of what I'm currently reading, along with brief thoughts and reflections on that reading. And almost every year, I discover that by February or March, such journal entries have become sporadic at best.

So this year, 2006, I've decided to go out on a limb and start a blog. Whether or not anyone beyond a few close friends and family members will ever see it, I don't know. The purpose of this blog is simple: to keep a record of what I'm reading (books, articles, online material) and to give myself some creative space to reflect on what I'm reading. I hope the novelty of keeping a blog (though I've plenty of favorite blogs that I read at least semi-regularly, I'm a novice blogger myself) might keep me invested in the discipline of more regular reflection.

Reading is one of the delights of my life! I read for information, but much more commonly for formation. Reading keeps me grounded in a lifetime of learning, loving, dreaming...and it connects me to the learning, loving, dreaming conversations of others both in the present and the past.

I chose the title of this blog, "Endless Books" from a quote by C.S. Lewis. I placed it in its entirety in my profile, but will repeat it here. Lewis wrote: "I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books." It's true, my own list of influences would be slightly different (for starters, I'd have to include rainy afternoons on the stair landing, and countless hours spent in trees) but would most likely end on the same note. "Endless books."