Friday, July 27, 2007

Incarnational Mission

A little while ago, I added a quote to this month's newsletter at our church, which I edit. It's a quote from the Rev. Dr. John Stott, who recently retired. Well-worth pondering and keeping to ponder again.

"We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation...It was unique, in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to himself in Jesus of Nazareth, but the amazing grace of God in the Incarnation of Christ is to be followed by all of us. We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation...Entering into other people's worlds is exactly what we mean by incarnational evangelism. All authentic mission is incarnational mission." Rev. Dr. John Stott

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Butterbeers All Around!

And an especially cool, tall, frothy one for J.K. Rowling, who has brought such beauty into the world with the marvelous Harry Potter books.

I finished Deathly Hallows at 2 am on Sunday. Since then, I've been spending all the time I can re-reading favorite scenes, starting the read-aloud with my dear husband, thinking, writing, and finally beginning to check in at some favorite sites. I also posted my review of the book (written for a fairly general audience and without any real spoilers) over at Epinions.

That the series is over is still hard to believe, except that this book really felt like and ending. Well, an ending and a beginning. Although there were a few places where I found myself wishing the story didn't have to be so rushed, overall I am amazed at what Rowling delivered here. The themes that I think of as the "golden snitch" of these stories were all powerfully present: the reality of sin, evil, death, but the fact that they never have the final word; self-sacrifice; mercy; reliance on grace; the need for community; the power of love; the reality and importance of the soul, and so much more. All there, all working on so many levels. And just a powerful, cathartic ending!

Friday, July 20, 2007

"See You on the Flipside!"

Those were the words my friend Erin wrote to me last night, as we drew our pre-Deathly Hallows conversation to a close. She and I have been blogging and emailing our way through a re-read of the first six Harry Potter books since February, and it's been a marvelous conversation. I found myself feeling a bit jolted as I read her excited, oh-so-appropriate words. "See you on the flipside" captured all the jaunty, child-like pre-birthday-present opening excitement I'm feeling today, and also all the trepidation of knowing that in a couple more days, we will know the end of the story. I trust that the end of the story will be wonderful, but also deeply bittersweet.

Janet Batchler has summed up what I'm feeling better than anyone at the moment, in her final pre-release post over at Quoth the Maven. Read all of it, if these books and the wonderful discussions they have nourished over the past couple of years have meant something to you. I especially resonated with these words:

"But I know the power of the Harry Potter books, the way they touched me so deeply, will remain. And I will always be grateful that I lived at the right time to experience what no one after us will ever experience again -- the chance to dive into the Wizarding World, to be part of Harry's story, without knowing the ending. The anticipation has been truly a wonderful thing, and I am so glad to have been able to enjoy it."

Janet's blog (long a favorite) was my last pre-release stop. I've given myself extra time to read and think about the books this week, because I knew it would be the last time we could do that "without knowing the ending" as Janet says. (Is this a bit how people felt before Tolkien's final installment of Lord of the Rings, I wonder? Perhaps now we can imagine what it was like to live in that fictional interlude when folks thought Frodo was dead.)

But now my ruminating is done. I've made my last comments on the various sites I most love to visit (thank you Janet, John, Travis, and so many others); exchanged my final emails with friends Erin and Kari (thanks to both of you for such wonderful conversations) and now I'm just going to wait.

My wait will be slightly longer than some...I'm not going to a midnight release party. I made that decision for various reasons, and I think it's the right choice for me (especially as the mom of a little one who will need my attention on the morrow, as always). If I stayed up reading...and I would stay up, no matter how tired I got! then I would likely be a mess for the rest of the weekend. So tonight I rest up, and in the morning we'll have our Saturday family breakfast as always (and possibly even our weekly library trip) before I head to the mall to pick up my pre-ordered copy. And then my dear husband, bless him, has promised me as much of the afternoon as possible so I can go somewhere and hide and read. By this time tomorrow, I should be (I hope) at least several chapters into the story...

Sigh. I really miss my butterfly bush and my maple tree. They were the two places I most loved to hide in and read when I was a child. This book feels like it deserves a special quiet reading place and I hope lots of children (and adults!) find such a place tomorrow. I'm sure I will find a good place to curl up too. For now, I'm off to do completely non-Potter things for the next half-day or so. The arts camp our church has been sponsoring for neighborhood kids has their mural unveiling tonight, followed by a missions night back at our church. Real life goes on, and I'm going to enjoy it to the fullest.

And then I'm going to enjoy the book (also a very real and wonderful part of my real life) to the fullest tomorrow.

"See you on the flipside!"

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer Bounty

July 19 was always one of my favorite summer days when I was growing up. That's because it's my Dad's birthday, and we always had fun celebrating his special day. Dad always, always! has the same cake, every angel food cake with sky blue icing. Because of that blue icing, and his beautiful blue eyes, and the fact that he often wore blue shirts to work, AND the wonderful time he spent doing art and number and word games with me in a big blue notebook when I was very small, I will always associate the color blue in its various shades with my father. (It's taken me all these years to figure it out...when I made his card the other evening, I did a collage in all different shades of blue and then had to sit back and think for a while about why I chose the color!). And as I sit here and type, I keep coming up with more things....Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is one of his favorite pieces of music...he introduced me to Van Gogh's "Starry Night" painting, awash in gold swirls in a dark blue sky.

Anyway, happy 75th birthday, Dad! I so wish I could be with you to celebrate on your special day. This is a day made for angel food cake, lemonade and tiger lilies in the garden.

I couldn't quite manage all those things today, but the sweet girl and I did have a lovely walk to and from the little library in a gentle, summer rain. And on our way home, we stopped off at our neighbor's yard. She and her family are out of town for a few weeks, and she encouraged me before she left to go there and pick anything that was ripe in her garden. She's also been tending the garden two doors down, of some old friends of our's who moved away several months ago but whose house hasn't yet sold. So both gardens were "up for grabs."

This is heady summer stuff for us, having lived for so many years as apartment dwellers. I never imagined we would be without land or a yard for this long. Even though I know that, for now, we are where God has called us, I still struggle mightily in such an urban setting sometimes (as the Lord knows...I've tried to be honest about sharing that particular ache of my heart with him, as nothing is too small to escape his loving attention). It hurts sometimes to think that, when I was my daughter's age, I spent so much of these warm, summery days running around barefoot outside, climbing trees, grubbing in sand, inventing games with leaves and grass and sticks. She loves the outdoors, but doesn't get much time in it...she's far more familiar with sidewalks than grass.

So to spend a while poking around in wet, growing gardens was sheer bliss. We saw a butterfly; we were just a couple of feet from a rabbit, whose ears and nose quivered when we got close and who went bounding away when we tried to get closer. We picked raspberries (only five ripe so far, but so delicious!). We picked green peppers, and a small tomato, and two more huge zuchinni -- my family is going to be zuchinnied out soon, as we've been eating it steamed and also in bread for quite a while. The grass was wet; everything smelled fresh and clean; and we even saw a tiger-lily blooming in someone else's yard. Not quite the same variety that grew in my parents' yard when I was little, but close enough. Today, I'll take it. With gratitude!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Wonderful Booklist

I'm becoming something of a booklist fanatic these days. So I was very happy to find this great list over at Mere Comments. It's a list of books for kindergartners through 12th graders, compiled a few years ago by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Even more helpful: scroll down and read the terrific comments people left, amending, revising, and adding to the list from their own favorites. Definitely a post to keep and refer back to!

Constant Vigilance!

Be warned. The wonderful and trustworthy Sword of Gryffindor site has let it be known that there is a good possibility that major plot has actually been leaked from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. According to them, the leak doesn't appear to be a hoax, though we can always hope. Even a hoax would be a terrible ethical breach, but at least people wouldn't be stumbling across actual story in advance.

According to SoG, it appears that someone stole a copy from a library (librarians were allowed to catalog the books early) and posted major portions of the book (actual scanned pages) to the internet.

Just posting this for all you who love HP books and have no desire whatsoever to find out in advance what will happen. Be very vigilant about what websites you visit over the next few days. Hogwarts Professor, Sword of Gryffindor, Mugglenet and Leaky Cauldron are all trustworthy -- no one there is going to allow spoilers. (Edited to add: someone who left a comment at SoG indicated it would be good to extra vigilant if you're visiting Mugglenet, because they don't seem to be editing comments very carefully. And someone indicated they saw possible spoilers on Wikipedia. Bizarre!)

If this turns out to be true, it's such a shame, a violation of both author and readers. I'm sorry it had to mar what should have been (and hopefully will still be, in some respects) a fun final week of communal anticipation and expectation.

My friend Erin says it's too bad Hermione's "SNEAK" hex isn't in effect here, and I agree. And oh, wouldn't it be nice if Madame Pince (patron dragon lady of all librarians) could get hold of whoever it was who decided to do this and give them about a hundred years of detention with Argus Filch.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Books in Boxes, Books on Shelves

I've been feeling slightly book crazy these past couple of days. Yesterday, two of the three orders I'd placed for homeschooling books and supplies arrived. I tried very hard to order only the things that I felt sure we'd use, things we might want to keep, and those things that I thought would be difficult for us to find via the library, but that still ended up being a number of books. I kept pretty close to our budget, though I'm still hoping I might win the epinions sweepstake this month, which would cover it all!

S. was excited and curious as we opened the box, but once she realized packing peanuts were available to be played with, her enthusiasm switched gears. She headed off to create a styrofoam snowstorm for her dolls, leaving her Mom to revel in the actual books and notebooks.

One of the things I decided we could not afford to do this year was to buy the "recommended read-alouds" from Sonlight (the company whose curriculum we are primarily using, though I'm mixing and matching and doing some of my own supplementing...not following their science curriculum at all, for instance). One reason I love Sonlight's approach, especially for these early years, is because they believe so many things can be learned just through reading good books aloud. I love perusing their catalog and I've made myself a list of all their "recommended reads" for the kindergarten year. I plan to use a lot of them. A few we already have, but I figure I will get many of them from our library. That can get a bit tricky, especially if we end up having to wait patiently for inter-library loans, but hey, waiting is all part of the learning process.

We spent most of the day shopping for a pirate costume for D. (he's coordinating our church's VBS, which has a pirate theme) which meant we got to spend some time in the city. And it also meant we got to swing by my favorite used bookstore, HalfPrice Books. I am still wondering how on earth I used to find books without this store. We've gotten spoiled in the past decade, living near two of them. I took my recommended Sonlight list with me into the store (yes, I'm a book geek!). And I am thrilled to say that, as I quickly scanned the shelves, I managed to find THREE books from the list, each of them costing $1.98 or less. (The Boxcar Children; Wizard of Oz; Family Under the Bridge). I also found some incredible bargains in the 50 cent and $1 bins, including some lovely picture books.

So now I'm on a bit of a quest to see what else I can find used. I'm still looking for The Apple and the Arrow (Buff) --though I know our library has that one; The Light at Tern Rock (Sauer); Johnny Appleseed (Holland); In Grandma's Attic (Richardson); A Grain of Rice (Pittman); Five True Dog Stories (Davidson)...and several others. It's going to be fun looking. It's going to be even more fun reading!

Edited to add: I needed to re-read this post today (Sunday) to remind myself to have patience and to not want more than we can reasonably afford or than we actually need. It turns out that I forgot something in my original order (I ordered a time-line book, very cool, but forgot to order the figures for it). The figures are only a few dollars, but when I went back to order them, I realized I would have to pay more in shipping than I would for the actual figures. So I kept adding things to my cart, seeing what else I could get that would get me up to "free shipping." This was dangerous because I'd spent part of the afternoon looking through the instructor's guide I'd ordered with some of our books. I ended up getting all excited about a few other books that I had cut out of my original list (a Bible storybook and some other things). Then I looked at the total in my cart (over $50!) gulped, looked at our situation realistically, double-gulped, remembered the spending figure we'd set, and thought long and hard about my original enthusiasm for keeping kindergarten year as simple and focused on the "basics" as possible.

Then I clicked out of the website without ordering anything. I'm not saying that in a bragging way. At least I hope not. Actually I felt really frustrated and disappointed as I did it, not at all patient and flexible and all those other traits I keep trying to teach my daughter. I can't shake the feeling that not placing this order is the right thing. You know, I can teach Bible the way I've been doing. And I can hold off on using the timeline for a while, or create my own figures for it. Mostly right now I'm feeling thankful not to have been mesmerized by the seeming ease of online shopping, and praying for strength of resolve not to give in on this.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Obedient Feet

The sweet girl has been learning the ten commandments. Several months ago I created a little box covered in gold paper (echoes of the Ark of the Covenant) and put ten cards inside it, each bearing one of the commandments. I typed the commandment on one side, and on the other I wrote out a simplified version with some phrases that would help her to understand more fully what each commandment really meant. I also put a small picture of Jesus in the box (one I photocopied from an illustration in one of her favorite children's Bibles). Yes, God's law is a gift, but Jesus is the greatest gift...and when we get to the end of of all our human efforts and realize we truly can't keep the law, we realize we need his grace.

From time to time, we take the cards out and go over them. During the spring we hadn't done it much, but during the summer she's asked to bring them back out again. She likes to line them up in order on the floor. One day recently, when she did that, I commented on how it looked like a path, and how God gave us his laws to help us know how we should live, how we should walk. She hasn't forgotten that, and now she sometimes takes them out and makes a "path" across the carpet on purpose, walking on it as we talk or sing together.

She did that tonight. I watched her dancing feet prancing over the gray cards that almost looked like small stones on our living room rug. "You're walking on the path!" I called out.

And she grinned and replied, "Walking on the commandment path so my feet will obey!"

What Makes Them Tremble: A Look at Two Tiny but Telling Moments

Note: I don't usually post my own essays, or anything else this long. But I'm getting so excited as the release date for Deathly Hallows approaches that I thought I would share this essay (previously only shared with a couple of friends) that I finished a couple of weeks ago. Nothing brilliant or speculative here, just a bit of marvelling over Rowling's thematic and aesthetic coherence and her use of even the tiniest details to show her readers some significant things.

The full title of the essay is below: it was too long for blogger to accept in the title heading!


What Makes Them Tremble: A Look at Two Tiny but Telling Moments in Sorcerer’s Stone and Half-Blood Prince

There’s a very small moment toward the end of Jane Eyre that I always remember. Jane has returned to Thornfield and to the now-blind Mr. Rochester, and is about to reveal her identity to him. The maid has prepared a tray with a water glass and Jane decides to take it into the room instead, thus surprising the complex and tortured man she loves with her presence. She has not yet seen him in his new condition; she is full of deep emotions and is unsure how he will respond to her. The usually calm, decorous Jane picks up the tray and heads into the room. And – here’s the unforgettable moment – her hands shake and the water spills, leaving only half a glass to give to her wondering beloved.

The tiny detail of the shaking hands and the spilled water never ceases to move me. It is indeed a very small moment in a novel packed with emotionally laden moments, large and small. But the very smallness of it, and the unexpectedness of shaking hands from a character whose reserve and calmness we’ve come to take as a bedrock part of her character, makes the entire scene cry out for our attention. The detail reminds us that there is far more to Jane than meets the eye, far more going on inside her heart than our privileged narrator-led glimpses have led us to know and allowed us to understand. In a moment of shaking hands and spilled water, Charlotte Bronte forever captured the depths of our heroine’s heart.

What moves characters? What motivates them and makes them do what they do, long what they long for? It’s often the tiniest of details that reveal to us, or at least hint at, the deepest longings of a character’s heart. It may be important to listen to what a character says, but even more important is looking at what they do – even (or especially) in those “throwaway” moments, seemingly small and tangential to the main action.

J.K. Rowling is a master at providing us such small moments. Two such moments stand out to me in particular and not just because they too happen to center around shaking/trembling movements. They stand out because they tellingly reveal the inner emotions and heart motivations of the two characters around whose opposition the entire series has been built: Harry and Voldemort.

“Harry – Yer a Wizard.”

In Chapter Four, “The Keeper of the Keys” in Sorcerer’s Stone, eleven year old Harry Potter discovers who he is.

Up until the moment when Hagrid bursts into the hut-on-a-rock where Vernon Dudley has fled with Petunia, Dudley and Harry in his futile efforts to outrun magic, Harry has no clue that he is actually a wizard. Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, has sent his most trusted employee, Hagrid (the half-giant groundskeeper of the school) to make certain that Harry gets his letter of invitation to the school. It turns out that Hagrid has to do much more than deliver the letter; he ends up delivering Harry the news of his wizarding identity. While Hagrid is appalled that the Dursleys kept this truth from their nephew, Harry is stunned to find out that he’s a wizard (though it certainly makes sense of some things in his life he’s never quite understood).

This is an important early moment in the Harry Potter saga, not only because Harry gets his introduction to the magical world, but because the entire series becomes an epic of continuing revelations. Essentially these are books about a boy coming to understand who he is, who he has been shaped to be from the start, and who he is called to be on behalf of his community.

Of course, even before Hagrid bursts onto the scene, we do have some knowledge of who Harry is. We – and Harry, whose eyes we see most of the story through – know that he is an orphan. That is perhaps the most important fact of his existence up until that eleventh birthday, as far as he knows.

We also know that Harry has suffered ten years, almost his entire lifetime, of neglect and abuse at the hands of his Uncle, Aunt and cousin. He’s never known love, at least not that he can remember. We do come to find out, as our story progresses, that Harry was actually shaped early on by the deep, sacrificial love of his mother, who died to save him and whose blood remains an ancient magical refuge. But although that is a fact, and that love is actually operating in his life in tangible, protective ways, Harry doesn’t yet know about it.

I love that Rowling has Hagrid deliver something else to Harry. Before he delivers the shocking revelation that Harry is a wizard, before he makes sure Harry has his letter from Hogwarts, before he tells Harry the truth about his parents’ death (which had been covered up by the Dursley’s lame attempts to revise and ignore history), Hagrid gives Harry a birthday cake.

When you think about it, this couldn’t be a more touching gift. Rowling has already made it clear to us that the Dursleys could care less about Harry’s birthday, if they even remember it. Because they really don’t want him to be part of their family, they don’t include him in normal family activities: there are no pictures of Harry around the house, for instance, and he’s not allowed to go on excursions to restaurants or parks. The Dursleys spoil their own son rotten, but Harry they pretty much ignore except when they’re forcing him (Cinderella-like) to do chores.

But Hagrid, a member of the community to which Harry really belongs, who knew Harry’s parents and helped rescue Harry from the ruined house the night the Potters died…Hagrid who really does love Harry, remembers his birthday. And he does one of the most natural, ordinary, family things that anyone can do: he gives Harry a cake.

“Anyway – Harry,” said the giant, turning his back on the Dursleys, “a very happy birthday to yeh. Got summat fer yeh here – I mighta sat on it at some point, but it’ll taste all right.”

From an inside pocket of his black overcoat he pulled a slightly squashed box. Harry opened it with trembling fingers. Inside was a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it in green icing.

Harry looked up at the giant. He meant to say thank you, but the words got lost on the way to his mouth… (pp. 47-48, SS, emphasis mine)

The trembling fingers give Harry’s heart away here. We don’t even see him shake or tremble (though we do hear his stunned gasp) when he finds out he’s a wizard. But we see him tremble when bumbling, clumsy Hagrid shows him ordinary human kindness and gives him a squashed chocolate birthday cake with his name on it. In that tiny moment, Jo Rowling reveals to us, many pages before the more overt revealing when Harry stands in front of the Mirror of Erised, Harry’s deepest desire and heart hunger: to have a family and to be loved.

“I Knew I Was Different…I Knew I Was Special.”

It’s not until five books (and hundreds of pages) later that we get an oddly parallel though antithetical scene. In Chapter Thirteen, “The Secret Riddle,” in Half-Blood Prince, we’re treated to a flashback scene via Dumbledore’s memory-collecting pensieve. In this memory, which Dumbledore shares with Harry, eleven year old Tom Riddle, who will grow up to become Lord Voldemort, finds out that he is a wizard.

Like Harry, Riddle had grown up an orphan, though unlike Harry he had no relatives, not even mean and nasty ones who would grudgingly take him in. So he grew up in a muggle orphanage, where no one would ever guess that he had wizarding blood or magical powers.

Tom himself wondered about his own ability to do things that “normal” people couldn’t, however. It’s clear early on, both in the way the story is recounted and through the emphasis Dumbledore places upon this fact as he unpacks the memory with Harry later, that Tom Riddle had strong magical powers from the beginning, and some rudimentary ways of controlling those powers, even before he knew what they were.

Contrast this with Harry whose few bouts of childhood magic came about completely unexpectedly, not out of any conscious sense of “making things happen.” Harry’s latent magical abilities usually sprang forth in situations where he found himself in trouble or feeling very strong feelings. His aunt gives him a horrible, embarrassing haircut he doesn’t want his schoolmates to see, and his hair grows back magically overnight. Dudley and his bullying friends chase him on the schoolyard and in his panic and fear, he finds himself suddenly up on a rooftop out of their reach. (And note that magic didn’t always spontaneously happen even in these kinds of situations. In the occlumency lessons he has with Snape in Order of the Phoenix, we see Harry’s humiliating memory of being chased up a tree by his Aunt Marge’s bulldog – and nothing magical seems to happen there, either to save Harry or to inflict punishment on the dog.)

In chapter 2, “The Vanishing Glass” in Sorcerer’s Stone, we even see Harry’s as yet unconscious magical abilities blossom out of his feelings of compassion and empathy for a fellow creature who has been just as locked up and misunderstood in his cage at the zoo as Harry has been in his cupboard under the stairs. Although we’re still so early in the saga at that point that we don’t full know what we’re seeing, with hindsight we realize that Harry’s magical abilities were already, in a sense, revealing who he was at the heart: a wall-melter, a liberator, someone who could empathize with overlooked creatures and those who lived in exile from their native home and identity.

Just as Harry’s burgeoning magical abilities and his reactions or responses to them (usually surprise and wonder) reveal who he is, so do the young Tom Riddle’s first magical experiments. I say “experiments” because Tom, unlike Harry, recognizes that he is somehow involved in making odd things happen. He begins to play around with controlling and manipulating these events, even if he has no real clue how to do so. Within Rowling’s subcreation, what most matters about magical abilities is what one does with them. That is one reason why Dumbledore thinks it important for young wizards, perhaps especially one with Riddle’s powerful potential, to be trained carefully and properly within the context of the Hogwarts community. That may be why Dumbledore himself goes to see Tom at the orphanage to tell him that he is a wizard and to invite him to Hogwarts, a task he willingly gives over to Hagrid in Harry’s case. (If the Ministry of Magic can trace magical activity in muggle areas, my guess is that they were getting rather “high readings” of such activity from the vicinity of Tom’s orphanage.)

The need for care in shaping Riddle’s abilities becomes more clear to Dumbledore as his initial interview with Tom wears on. The excitement of power, the desire to control and manipulate, runs thick in Riddle even at the age of eleven. He has already been using his powers to break rules and to hurt others. Dumbledore’s benign affability gives way to a wary and watchful intensity as they speak together in the privacy of Tom’s room:

“Magic?” he repeated in a whisper.

“That’s right,” said Dumbledore.

“It’s…it’s magic, what I can do?”

“What is it that you can do?”

“All sorts,” breathed Riddle. A flush of excitement was rising up his neck into his hollow cheeks; he looked fevered. “I can make things move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.”

His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer.

“I knew I was different,” he whispered to his own quivering fingers. “I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something.”

“Well, you were quite right,” said Dumbledore, who was no longer smiling, but watching Riddle intently. “You are a wizard.” (p. 271, HBP, emphases mine)

What a difference in these two revealing scenes! In these scenes where two very similar but so very different eleven year old boys are given essentially the same information, the same important knowledge about their identities and gifts, we see such contrasting responses. Note what it is that makes Tom Riddle tremble and quiver. Not ordinary kindness and love, as in Harry’s case, but the knowledge of power, power he can wield to control his environment and hurt others.

Rowling won’t let us miss this point. She drives it home like a hammer driving a nail. Notice how many times Tom Riddle uses the word “I” or “me” within this very short conversation: he repeats “I can make” four times and “I knew” three times. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that these phrases intimate that Riddle already has unhealthy, idolatrous leanings (“I can make” even seems to usurp creative powers). Less we miss that point, Rowling actually tells us that he looks like he’s in a prayerful posture, but that he’s only speaking to himself. He’s not even really speaking to Dumbledore here, though the wizard sits just a few feet away from him. He speaks to “his own quivering fingers,” a phrase that should rightfully make our skin crawl, especially as we consider those inhuman looking fingers he will grow up to have and all the terror and havoc his hands will wreak.

In just a few short words and phrases, and in two scenes hundreds of pages apart and yet powerfully parallel, J K Rowling gives us a picture of two very different boys. They may look alike; their destinies are intertwined, and their wands have the same core. But at the core of their own beings, they are radically different. They are radically different even before Tom makes all the tragic choices that will lead him to split his soul and embrace inhumanity in pursuit of an earthly immortality.

We know this because we know what makes them tremble. The young Riddle wants power and knowledge surpassing what a created being should have. And he’s thrilled – not at the prospect of finding a home, family, or community at Hogwarts (all things Harry longs for) – but at the idea of belonging to an elite, secret club. At the age of eleven, Riddle already has the makings of a definite gnostic.

Harry, on the other hand, is moved by incarnated love. He trembles when he is touched by love, by the ordinary, homespun gesture of a kind gift from someone who cares about him. When first told he is magical, he doubts it, not because he hasn’t realized on some level that he’s different, but because he is grounded in humility. He cares more about learning the story of his family than in exploring his newfound “powers,” and more about the possibility of finding a home than in making any sort of name for himself (which is ironic, because most people in the wizarding world already know his name).

What marks the difference in Harry and Tom? Certainly both are free to make choices, but it seems to me that each was shaped, almost from birth, by certain experiences. Rowling loves to emphasize choice; I am not advocating some kind of fatalism here. We do have choices, but we are also shaped by choices made by those who come before us – we enter a story already in progress. Riddle’s unconscious understanding of himself seemed to be “I am alone and have always been alone. I was not worth living for.” Harry’s deepest memory, on the other hand, helped form his core identity of “beloved son, worth dying for.” No wonder the power of love is what makes our hero tremble.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Writing to the Grandparents

My dad turns seventy-five next week. My mom already turned seventy-five this past spring. If I stop to think about that for very long, I get a decidedly odd feeling. After all, aren't they perpetually forty-five in my memory? (Never mind that my husband is now forty-six, and all three of my siblings are forty-five and above! There's a stubborn little slice of me that's still nine, and still pictures my parents at that same age!)

For a long time now, I've been wishing rather wistfully for two things: more time to spend with my parents (who live several hundred miles from us and don't travel) and for the opportunity to get my parents to share more of their stories with us -- stories from their childhoods and family history especially. We've always been good about sharing such things in our family, with the result that I have a lot of it already in my mind and heart. But rarely have we written things down. As my parents age, I find myself wanting, more and more, to capture their stories -- in audio, on video, on paper. I want to be able to share these stories with my own daughter as she gets older. And even more, I long for her to get to know them now, in her own childhood, as much as she possibly can, despite distance.

My Mom loves to e-mail, so that's a plus. And though Dad doesn't email often, I know he's usually right there, in the background, reading what we send, sharing his thoughts with Mom. Sometimes I have the sweet girl write to them too, not just thank you notes and birthday cards, but little notes via e-mail.

Today I had a fun idea: why not involve them in some of what we're reading? I thought of this because this afternoon we were finishing up Carolyn Haywood's book Betsy and the Boys. This is the fourth in a series of books written in the 1930s and 1940s. Although they are not of the same artistic caliber and therefore have not worn as timelessly or classically as Wilder's Little House books or Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy stories, they are still enjoyable stories that make fine family read-alouds when you have young children. The sweet girl has thoroughly enjoyed them so far, as I did too in my childhood.

But some of the references in these books, which made fine sense in their day, are becoming a bit obscure when read aloud to a five year old today. As we wrapped up the final couple of chapters this afternoon, Betsy made a penwiper. And she also saw milk bottles on her porch, delivered by a milkman.

"What's a penwiper?" S. wanted to know, and you know, I couldn't help her out very much there. I told her I thought it was something you could use to blot ink in fountain pens or ink pens, the kinds of pens people used to write with, pens that could get kind of messy. (Is that right? Am I mixing them up with the even more old-fashioned item called a blotter, which I learned about as a kid reading Little Women?)

At least I could help her out with the milk bottles. And with great enthusiasm too, as I was able to relay to her that her great-grandfather, my mother's daddy, used to be a milkman.

After we finished reading, we went to the computer. She sat on my lap and helped me type (she has utter fascination with the backspace key at present, so likes to hold down letter keys for a long time on purpose so too many letters get printed and she has to delete some). We wrote an e-mail to my parents, telling them what we were reading, asking them whether or not they ever used penwipers, and asking Grandma to tell us about when her Daddy was a milkman.

I come honestly by my love of history, stories, and family. So I am looking forward to reading my parents' answer! And looking forward to finding other ways I can connect them to the things that S. and I read and study and talk about in the coming year.

Psychologists and Novelists

I just recently came across this quote which, at first, made me chuckle. And then in the middle of my chuckling, I found myself saying..."Hmmm...""

"Theories lie more readily than stories. That is why our psychologists tell us we are good but our novelists tell us we are evil." (Peter Kreeft)

I love the "over the top-ness" of this thought. Of course the contrast is an exaggeration. But within the exaggeration you'll find some truth. So many psychologists (and others involved in similar professions) seem to rely on an anthropology that tries to tell us all we're bascially OK, if perhaps a bit victimized. But our greatest storytellers seem to understand the fundamental truth that we're broken and bent and sinful. Of course, I would also argue (and I don't know where the rest of this quote goes, so perhaps Kreeft would too) that our very greatest novelists and storytellers also see our capacity for goodness. Not that we can dredge up goodness. But if we realize we are loved and that grace and help are available, that love and grace and help can begin to shape us into people who can then respond even more fully to that grace. And so we can sometimes do things -- even heroic things -- which seem to go beyond our human limitations.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

4th of July Learning Project

I hadn't planned any major sort of project with the sweet girl over July 4th. But with a day off from the office and a little girl clamoring to do something fun with Mommy during a gift-morning at home, I decided to see what I could come up with on short notice.

Within the past year I've definitely learned that my daughter's best learning seems to take place through hands-on art projects and something auditory (listening to a story or music). As I reflect on her learning style, I think I am coming to grasp that she learns best with her hands and her ears, even more than visually. It's a good thing for me to know.

Here's what we ended up doing for an hour or so yesterday morning:

*Making a paper flag. We used cardstock, construction paper (red, white and blue) and white poster paints. I measured stripes on the red paper with a pencil and ruler, and she cut them out. We pasted them together on a white page (I helped with spacing, and we made sure that there were seven red stripes and six white). Then we cut and pasted the blue field on the left and dabbed white paint spots, fifty of them, to resemble stars (a lesson in impressionism...and much easier than trying to draw or cut tiny white stars!...if we'd had stickers, maybe we would have used those, but this worked well).

*While we made our flag, we listened again to a "Songs About America" a CD we borrowed from the library last week. It's a CD of American folk songs produced by Kimbo (the folks who did the Moving With Mozart CD we liked so much a while ago). This CD has all sorts of things on it, from a kids' choral rendition of Neil Diamond's "America" (cheesy but fun) to the Star-Spangled Banner, The Yellow Rose of Texas, the Wabash Cannonball, Erie Canal, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and several other songs. It even includes snippets of Emma Lazarus' poem "Colossus," and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And it ends with "This Land is Your Land..." which definitely casts me back upon my own grade school days!

*While listening, cutting and pasting, we talked about why the flag had thirteen stripes and fifty stars. We got out the sweet girl's wonderful U.S. puzzle map and pulled out the pieces for the 13 colonies. Quiz time -- can you name them all? I wasn't positive I could anymore, so printed a list from an online source. It was eye-opening for S. to see the small little bit of east coast that was the original U.S. She ended up asking some interesting questions about when some of the other states, in the west, became states.

*I also found a great project (at the "Enchanted Learning" website) where you could learn to fold and snip five-pointed stars, just like Betsy Ross! We had just read a book about Betsy Ross (called A Flag for Our Country) the night before, and it had mentioned the story of her showing General Washington how she could make a five-pointed star with just one snip of the scissors, so this was fun to try. The first set of instructions I found, on another website, were way too complex, but the other set worked great. I made several big five-pointed stars and S. painted one of them with lots of beautiful, swirly colors.

How we came to be reading a book about Betsy Ross at almost 10 pm on July 3rd is a story unto itself. Our town always does their fireworks display on the 3rd. This year we had intended to go down the street to the h.s. stadium to watch them, and the sweet girl had been excited all day about getting to stay up late and go out. But she had a panic attack (no other word will do) as we walked down the sidewalk a little after 9 pm and she began hearing some of the fireworks being set off just in the neighborhood, even before the big ones were due to start. Loud noises have always frightened her, sometimes excessively. That's been getting so much better of late that it didn't even occur to us to worry, but she was so freaked by the loud booms and pops that she simply planted herself and began screaming and crying. No amount of comforting or assurances could seem to assuage her fears (and I think she was over-tired anyway, being up past bedtime). Rather than ruin the fireworks for anyone nearby who might have to endure her wailing, we opted to come home and watch them from the windows, even though we knew our view would be partially obstructed by the sycamores across the road.

Were we wise in that decision? I have no idea. But I do know how much fun we had, turning out all the lights, hunkering down on the living room floor with blankets and quilts and a big flashlight, swirling the light on the ceiling (making our own "fireworks!"), making shadows, reading the Betsy Ross book, and hiding under the blankets whenever we felt scared. The sweet girl's daddy was especially wonderful over this last, getting her to act out her fears and even giggle about them. And I have to confess there was an odd sort of beauty about seeing the fireworks from a distance, with the colorful sparks almost seeming to swim through the sycamore leaves. We got a wonderful view of the planet Jupiter too.

Happy day after the 4th!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Poem: Just Because

I've never read much poetry by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), but found this one today and thought it was lovely. Highly steeped in romanticism, yes, but there are some truths here nonetheless. I especially love the last part of the first stanza...


Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Sara Teasdale

Monday, July 02, 2007

"My Harry Potter Ending"

I was scrolling through some old documents in one of my Word folders the other day, and came across one entitled this: "My Harry Potter Ending." I got a sudden gleam in my eye and opened it up right away.

It had been a while since I thought of this little piece, which I wrote a few years ago after first reading Order of the Phoenix. This is the only piece of fan-fiction I have ever written about Harry, unless you count the two not-very-good poems I wrote a year or so ago, trying to get into Snape's mind during the scene on the tower. I shared those with some friends, but I'm not sure anyone (but my husband, bless him) has ever read this piece.

This particular piece was my attempt to write the final book 7 confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, years before it would actually take place. I was driven to the creative exercise out of sheer worry over our good friend Harry (yes, it's funny to admit that I can worry about fictional characters, but there you go) in light of the prophecy we'd all just learned about. What was specifically on my mind, as I can tell as I re-read the piece, is the concern that Harry, in fulfilling his calling, would have to kill. What would it look like for Harry to defeat Voldemort with love, or the power of love? In what way could Harry win the victory and still be Harry, the boy we know and love, and not give into the temptation to use tactics similar to Voldemort's?

I'm not sure how well I succeeded in answering/portraying an answer to that question, but I certainly had fun trying, and the exercise was quite cathartic. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for Rowling's writing prowess, both in providing a glimpse of the enormous task she'd set herself for the finale, and in helping me realize how absurdly easy it felt to step into her created world and write out of it with ease -- we really know her settings, her characters, the trappings of this fictional world she's created.

With all that said, I also got some good chuckles over the places in the story where I was obviously wide of the mark -- not at all on the same "wavelength" as Rowling. Since this story of mine was written before the events of Half-Blood Prince, some of the things I posit could not possibly happen in the finale because the events of HBP make them impossible. As the biggest "for instance" -- in my finale, Dumbledore is still alive, or at least was alive up until the final battle. I have him missing in action (and possibly presumed dead) as the action heats up in the final battle at Hogwarts. Yes, I placed the final battle at Hogwarts, with the penultimate meeting between Harry and Voldemort on the astronomy tower (now that's kind of interesting, isn't it?) and the ultimate match-up, of all places, in the Gryffindor Common Room.

I allude to Snape, and it's clear from my allusion that he's on the right side, and that Harry now recognizes he's on the right side. Hmmm. Interesting...

Ginny and Fawkes both have major roles in my ending. The Ginny sub-plot, which I actually think I handled pretty well, is now totally moot given the fact that Harry and Ginny have already declared their feelings to each other in Half-Blood Prince. In my version, that doesn't happen until right before Harry's final battle with Voldemort.

Well, so much for my smarts as an HP prognosticator. Still, I'm glad to have found this story as we approach the end of our wait for the actual, final book. It gives me hope that, although I obviously had the details wrong, the general contours for a victory of love over the powers of death and darkness has been set-up for us for a long time (witness my longing to think that through even a few years ago) and will likely come in a deeply satisfying and cathartic way as Rowling at last completes her creative vision for this story. 19 days to go!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Laying Down Burdens

Last week, though it had some wonderful moments, particularly the sweet girl's birthday, was also (for various reasons I won't go into here) incredibly tiring and stressful. I'm feeling pretty exhausted as we turn the corner into a new week and a new month, but hopeful that the load will get lightened in new ways during July.

And I'm feeling blessed because the Lord has been encouraging me to "lay down my burdens" at his feet. Those are the words I keep hearing in my heart. I actually woke up with the words "lay them down" on my mind...those words were my first conscious thought this morning. Then at church, following our opening time of singing and worship, I felt the words whispered again into my heart. Only clearer this time, and even more explicitly: "Lay your burdens down. Lay them down. You are not meant to carry them, for I have borne them already. Lay them down at my feet, and while you are laying them down, stay there and worship."

As I strive to remember the words I felt so deeply, that's how they come. And I am thankful, beyond words, to have received those words right now.