Friday, February 29, 2008

Winter Tree

that I gesture
away from myself,
upward and out,
making you raise
your eyes.

(EMP, 2/29/08)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kindergarten: The New "Harvard"?

Wow. I just read this story from the Chicago Tribune. It left me sort of speechless, and also very grateful that we're not putting ourselves or our daughter under the sort of pressure that would make a family vie for admissions in competitive kindergarten programs that cost 18,000 dollars per year. 18,000!

The idea of parents actually crafting resumes for their 4 and 5 year olds (talking up their terrific cognitive and fine motor skills) would be laughable if it wasn't so sobering. What kind of culture are we creating (have we created) that puts this kind of "learning pressure" on parents and families? Let them be children! Please!

Early learning should be a joy! And I'm sure many of the teachers in the prestigious schools talked about in that article know that, and make it so. But how sad that we can't find simpler, better ways of offering real teaching and learning options to parents and families, ones that are affordable and readily available to all. I honestly cannot see why early learning has to cost so much. Good public libraries, apples, colored pencils...those have been some of the main things we've used this year. Okay, I'm exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. We've been blessed with other things as well, such as internet access and some good books and curriculum. But it has not cost us an arm and a leg. And it's been a great kindergarten year.

And I empathize deeply, I truly do, with parents wanting to do what's best for their children, even when they don't always know what that is. I know homeschooling isn't for everyone, and for some folks really does not seem like an option even if they want to do it. I do not for a moment take for granted the blessing of our homeschooling efforts. They've cost us: not huge amounts of money, but huge amounts of effort to make this work as a family. It's not easy for us either, given our vocations, location, and financial struggles, to make homeschooling a priority. We've managed so far by the grace of God, who has provided the work we've needed and the flexibility in work schedules, and we're going to keep trusting that He will continue to see us through in those areas.

And in the meantime, I'm just going to be grateful for the joy of teaching and learning together, and the relief that I don't feel the pressure to craft a resume for my five year old.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Poetry Stretch: Rhyming Chant

Not long ago I discovered a wonderful blog called The Miss Rumphius Effect. In case you couldn't tell from the title, the blogger loves children's literature. She blogs from my old hometown of Richmond, Virginia. And she also loves poetry. What a great trio of things to learn about a blog!

About once a week, she posts a new "poetry stretch." The one for this last Monday, which I didn't happen to see until yesterday, suggested trying a "rhyming chant." Here was the wording of the original stretch, which she posted from another blog:

"How's this for a poetry stretch -- could you take the names of a group of, say, 10-20 rodents, or mammals (or even poets, authors or bloggers) and make them into a rhyming chant? I'm heading over to Miss Rumphius right now to suggest it!"

I've had Harry Potter on the brain again lately, probably because I've been spending time listening to the last two beautiful film scores (Goblet of Fire composed by the marvelous Patrick Doyle, and the surprisingly moving and energetic score for Order of the Phoenix composed by Nicholas Hooper). So when I considered this challenge, what popped into my head almost right away was the beginning of a Harry Potter rhyming chant.

My rhythmic inspiration comes from Tonio K's old song/chant "Impressed."

Hermione and red haired Ron,
Harry James, the orphaned son,
James and Lily, Sirius, Remus,
Neville, Dean and their friend Seamus.
Arthur, Molly, George and Fred,
Severus whose class we dread,
Hagrid and his huge dog Fang,
Ginny Weasley and Cho Chang!

Hogwarts...we love Hogwarts!

Wormtail, Padfoot, Prongs and Moony,
Luna Lovegood (sometimes "Loony"),
Pushy Peeves and Ghostly Nick,
Filch who doesn't miss a trick.
Feline Crookshanks, Mrs. Norris,
Centaur herds out in the forest,
McGonagall and Dumbledore,
Victor Krum, Fleur Delacour!

Hogwarts...we love Hogwarts!

This was great fun...even if it did keep waking my brain up in the middle of the night!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Poignant Little Post

It's been a busy month, in part because I've been trying to write more reviews for Epinions than usual. They're having another "promotional" month where they guarantee a certain payment per review on top of the usual income share our writing garners from the site. It's hard to resist when I'm trying to stash away dollars in the Epi-account that will help pay for books and curriculum (Lord willing) for the sweet girl's first grade year here at home.

I do enjoy writing reviews, however, especially of books and movies. I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it (the money is not that good, even with the promotional, believe me!). One thing I've discovered, however, during this month of trying to write and post at a much faster than usual pace, is that I have certain "fall back" words. When something really moves me, I tend to run toward a certain handful of adjectives and use them over and over, if not in one review, then at least consistently throughout several reviews.

I think my major clutch-hitting adjective is "poignant." I just love this little word. It's a good one. For one thing, it sounds so lovely, so much smoother than it looks like it would sound with that middle 'g.' It's got Anglo-French roots, which is probably why the 'g' doesn't get a typical English pronunciation. Its "pointed" look as a word, yet its somehow more beautiful and smooth sound than you expected, all relate to its meaning. Here's a look at its etymology and definition from

Middle English poynaunt, from Anglo-French poinant, poignant, present participle of poindre to prick, sting, from Latin pungere — more at pungent
14th century

1: pungently pervasive (a poignant perfume) 2 a (1): painfully affecting the feelings : piercing (2): deeply affecting : touching b: designed to make an impression : cutting 3 a: pleasurably stimulating b: being to the point : apt

As wonderful a word as it is, I think I need some new ones. A quick look around provided a handful of synonyms. Synonyms of poignant's cousin "eloquent" provided this verbal bouquet:

witty, affecting, ardent, articulate, expressive, facund, fervent, fervid, fluent, forceful, glib, grandiloquent, graphic, impassioned, impressive, indicative, magniloquent, meaningful, moving, outspoken, passionate, persuasive, poignant, potent, powerful, revealing, rhetorical, sententious, significant, silver-tongued*, smooth-spoken*, stirring, suggestive, telling, touching, vivid, vocal, voluble, well-expressed
Antonyms: inarticulate, tongue-tied

Source: Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.3.1)
Copyright © 2008 by Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
* = informal or slang

I'm hoping all this research will inspire me to dig a little deeper in my grab-bag of words the next time I decide that a book has really moved me profoundly. Although I still plan to use "poignant" in my next review...

What are some of your favorite fall back adjectives?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tiny Little Flowers, Crooked Little Stitches

Lent is one of those seasons that I've never found particularly easy to navigate. Advent always seems too short -- we love the ritual of lighting candles and singing Advent hymns. Even Epiphany, though it doesn't have many traditional rituals associated with it, feels festive and hopeful.

Lent is all about wilderness time, preparation time, cleaning time. And while all of those things are good, none of them is easy. I've been realizing this Lent how hard it can be to "de-clutter" inwardly, and to focus strength and heart and eyes. I know what we're moving toward is important: the path to the cross, and then to the empty tomb.

Our Monday night fellowship group is helping me focus. We're reading Sarah Parsons' book A Clearing Season, which invites you to "map your wilderness" -- the particular inner wilderness of your own heart. Guess what? Going there can be overwhelming, even frightening. But it's a place we're called to go, remembering that Jesus was called into the wilderness, and that God was with him in his deepest temptations and hungers. God will be with us too.

I'm finding that very small practices are helping me journey this year. The patience of looking each morning at the tiny little "greenhouse" that the sweet girl and I sowed impatiens seeds in at the beginning of February. It sits on her windowsill, where it can get the light from the east. Just a few days ago, several of the seeds finally sprouted. They are tiny, I mean tiny! But green.

The patience of trying to learn to crochet. I am just about the least crafty person on the planet, and why I have had a yen to learn to crochet in the past year is beyond me. I am clumsy with my fingers, and even simple instructions take me a while to figure out. But today I did a good-sized foundation row (no, haven't figured out how to do the actual stitch to connect rows yet, but I'll get there) and those crooked little green yarn stitches spoke to my heart too. They took time, patience, focus of a sort that I don't often give to anything these days that I don't have to give focus to. Trying to learn to crochet is teaching me stillness, not to mention humility.

Sips, small sips, of my Lenten reading. I am loving Allen Ross' book on Biblical Worship, which I mentioned here several days ago. But I have resisted any urge to speed through it, as is my normal reading speed. I am sipping, trying to taste and to contemplate what I'm tasting.

This Lent I am trying to slow down. It's a lost art. As a friend in the fellowship group last night commented, the word "idle" can be found in the middle of the word "wilderness." I had been focusing on the word "wild" but hadn't even seen the word "idle." We talked about how wild a thing it is, in our day and age, to just be idle. I think it's something I need to re-learn.

Monday, February 18, 2008

And A Whole World Opens Up

It's been amazing recently to see how the whole world is opening up for the sweet girl as she gains reading confidence. Suddenly she is seeing words everywhere. Not just random collections of letters, but words. And she reads them, or tries to, wanting to know what everything means and why certain words are found in certain places (on book covers, cash registers, and bathtub faucets, just to name a few).

But yesterday at church was one of the most powerful moments for me, one of those "a-ha" moments that come from time to time. It's one thing to know with my mind that new horizons are opening up for her as she begins to unlock the mysteries of written language. It's another thing entirely to begin to see that bear fruit.

It happened during a time of praise and worship. The congregation was singing. We were singing the ballad "Here I am to worship/Here I am to bow down/Here I am to say that you're my God/You're altogether lovely/altogether worthy/altogether wonderful to me..." It's a lovely song we've sung a few times in church in the past year, but not often or repeatedly, either in church or at home.

I was singing, and suddenly I was arrested by the look on the sweet girl's face. Her Daddy was holding her. First of all, I noted that her lips were moving...she was actually singing (not something she does all that often, joining in and singing with a group). Then I noticed the deep listening look she had on her face, as though she was really listening to the music. And then I noticed her eyes. They were riveted to the overhead screen where the lyrics were posted, and her eyes were following along. When I write this, it sounds as though I consciously noticed these things step by step but really it all broke over me at once. I watched her for a few more seconds and realized, with awe, that she was following along with the written words and singing as she read them.

And I just wanted to jump for joy. Sometimes when you're caught up in the mechanics of teaching reading (sojourning long in the land of "Hop on Pop") you can lose sight of the ultimate goal. You teach someone to read, not just so they can decode those little marks on the page, but so whole words of story, song, and Scripture can be opened up to them, to their hearts, minds and imaginations. Just as we prayed and worked in order to help our late-talking daughter obtain speech, reminding ourselves that speech would help her to communicate and to praise, so we teach her to read knowing that reading provides a key that unlocks so much that is beautiful, meaningful and rich.

Thank you, Lord!

Friday, February 15, 2008

One More Note on Lincoln and Some Musings on Teaching American History

It's been a "Licoln-ish" week for us. Not only have we been reading the D'Aulaire biography, but D. brought home Lincoln Logs as a special present for the sweet girl. Hooray, our own Kentucky cabins, right on the living room rug!

I felt like I should add a caveat to my previous post about the D'Aulaire biography of Lincoln. We finished it today, and I must say that the sweet girl really enjoyed it. She was especially taken with a few of the illustrations, most notably the one of baby Abraham on a bearskin rug in a log cabin, surrounded by his parents and older sister Sally (anything to do with babies is a complete fascination for her right now). We also liked the end paper maps which showed Lincoln's geographical journeyings from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, with appropriate markers showing the direction of New Orleans (where he spent some time ferrying boats) and Washington, D.C., where he obviously spent a good deal of time as president of the U.S.

But I ended up with mixed feelings about the book. My minor concern was that it painted Lincoln in such glowing, ideal terms that he seemed more "saint-like" than I expected (and let's face it, even 'saints' are real, every-day people who sometimes make mistakes). I do find him a deeply admirable man, and I want S. to learn to value what's worthy and lasting in a person's life. I also found it odd that the book ended with the reunion of the North and South, but didn't go on to tell about the very sad ending of Lincoln's own life. Considering the book started with his birth, I expected it to move all the way through the story and onto his death. Yes, it's tragic and sad and hard to understand, but it's an important part of Lincoln's story and of our country's history. His death also highlights the cost of some of the work people do for justice. I can't fathom why the authors didn't include at least a mention of his death, in an afterword if not in the text itself, unless they were so concerned about having a "happy ending" in a children's book. Tell the truth, tell it simply, tell it well. I think that would be my approach here.

The other major concern I had was some of the later illustrations. When Lincoln first encounters a slave market in New Orleans, and then later when he meets some black citizens thanking him for what he did to free the slaves, the African-Americans are portrayed very stereotypically. This seems painfully shameful given the excellent details in the drawings of Lincoln himself and of his family and friends. The African-American faces reminded me of black dolls that children might have played with back when this story was written, each of them round and simple and dark without the wonderful details of character we see in Lincoln's face. It made me want to cry out to the artists (long gone, I'm sure) that they should have looked long and observed better so they could have drawn the beautiful humanity in their brothers and sisters of other races (the one Native American character doesn't fare much better).

What an odd and strange legacy we Americans have, so mixed. So much of our history is rich and worth studying, and yet it seems in all corners, even in children's books (we've encountered it here, we've encountered it in Laura Ingalls Wilder) you see the early and lasting effects of racism on people's thoughts and imaginations. I'm NOT (please hear me here) calling Wilder a racist. Her books do report some painful words and actions of some of the adults in her life when she was a child in ways that recall those times truthfully, and yet so many other scenes in her books (which were, after all, written many years later) seem to poignantly undermine them. One thinks of the long, sad trail of "Indians" that the Ingalls watch leaving the Praire, and the way Laura can't take her eyes off of the face of the little baby riding on his mother's back. We are made to feel the sadness and yes, the injustice of that moment, even if the squatting of white settlers like Pa and Ma were part of the problem, and part of what forced the Indians out of their land. The books are worth reading, not only for their ability to capture the pioneer experience of European settlers in this country, but for the very uncomfortable truths they point to about the fact that other people were here first and we pushed them out.

Well, I've wandered far afield...though perhaps not too far, as we celebrate Wilder's birthday in February as well (it was the 7th!).

But I need to keep thinking and wrestling and thinking some more about how to present American history, in all its wonders and all its mess, to the sweet girl. If I wonder aloud here from time to time, don't be surprised.

In the meantime, does anyone know of a more recent biography of Lincoln for young people in the 5-10 age range? I'd love to hear recommendations.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

In honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday (and by the way, next year will mark the 200th anniversary of his birth) we're reading Ingri and Perin D'Aulaire's biography, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1940.

So far I've been impressed. The D'Aulaires apparently wrote and illustrated a number of well-received biographies of American figures, most of which are still in print (or have been brought back into print). You can find many of them for sale here, but I'd bet you can also find a number of them in your public library, which is where we found this.

We're definitely enjoying it...the sweet girl is learning a lot, but I am too. And the illustrations are wonderful: colorful, eye-catching, evoking another time and sometimes comically capturing the personality of the tall, gawky boy and adolescent who would grow up be the 16th president of the United States.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lenten Reading

Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation by Allen P. Ross.

I had the privilege of taking a class with Allen Ross about a decade ago, during my first semester of seminary. It was a course called "Background to the Gospels."

This book on Biblical Worship was published in 2006, and we got it soon after (I think I bought it at the sem bookstore as a gift for my dear husband). I've read the introduction a couple of times in the past year, and have been moved by the way the language (both scholarly and beautiful) points way past it itself and helps you to keep your eyes focused on God: his essential nature, his character and attributes, his uniqueness.

For Lent this year, I'm reading just a bit each day. I have no grand plans to finish this book any time soon (it's big) but am letting myself sip. Another professor I studied under at Trinity, Arnie Klukas, helped me see the difference between reading for "information" and reading for "formation." A few paragraphs per day of this weighty and contemplative book is how I'm attempting to read for formation during the lenten season.

It also ties in well with another much smaller book I've been working through in recent weeks: Teaching Kids Authentic Worship by Kathleen Chapman. It's a simple and practical little book about the importance of helping children to love and worship God -- because (as she helpfully points out) we all worship something. We're wired for devotion, kids no less than adults. Now is the time to gently lead children into a deeper knowledge of who God is so that they will know his excellence, his beauty, his holiness.

Our fellowship group at church is beginning a few-week Lenten study using a book called A Clearing Season by Sarah Parsons. It's published by the Upper Room. I've only skimmed the first few pages so I'll have to revisit that one here another time. Essentially it looks like a guide to "clearing space" in the wilderness of our lives so that we can better hear and love God. What obstacles are in our way? What spiritual practices and disciplines might help us hear his voice better? Always timely questions, and not just at lent.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

Hebrews 12: 1-3 (ESV)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Hmm. I Guess I've Finally Persuaded Myself...

After all, I do re-read Persuasion every year!

I am Anne Elliot!

Take the Quiz here!

Making Herbariums With Betsy, Tacy and Tib

“Yoo-hoo, Betsy!”

As a child, I always wanted to yell that. That’s because I always longed to be friends with Betsy Ray, the protagonist of the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Like me, Betsy read books in maple trees. How much fun it would have been if we could have shared a tree!

There are many fictional landscapes of my heart, places I’ve visited far more times than some actual geographic locations you can pinpoint on a paper map. Deep Valley, Minnesota, at the turn of the century, is one of the best.

I wished I could join Betsy, Tacy and Tib on so many of their escapades. Most of all, I always wanted to join them on the “Big Hill” behind Tacy’s house, where they liked to picnic and gather wildflowers. Their picnic food was the best. If I close my eyes, I can practically smell the cocoa made in a pail over an open fire, or imagine the taste of Tacy’s mother’s plain, unfrosted cake.

I recently discovered a wonderful blog (just right for my winter-weary self) called Wildflower Morning. The lady who has created this beautiful space has issued a call for photos and artwork inspired by wildflowers. I knew I would enjoy looking at the lovely entries, especially as winter cold rages on here in my part of the country. I didn’t realize I would post, but how could I resist this week’s call for “literary wildflowers”?

Because one of the funniest scenes in all the Betsy-Tacy books comes in the seventh book, Betsy Was a Junior. Betsy, Tacy and Tib are high school juniors (Deep Valley High, class of 1910) and for most of the book they’ve been having such a fun time that they’ve neglected their studies a bit. (Rabbit trail I won’t pursue: how uninspiring some public education already seemed by this time…these books were based on Maud Hart Lovelace’s real high school experiences in Mankato, Minnesota during the same years.)

The little girls who used to gather wildflowers have now grown up (at least somewhat) and have discovered, to their dismay, that they are all about to fail Mr. Gaston’s Botany class. And why? Because the herbariums he assigned them to create at year’s beginning are due the next day, and none of them has worked on them all year.

”A herbarium,” said Betsy, “is a collection of dried and pressed specimens of plants, usually mounted or otherwise prepared for permanent preservation and systematically arranged in paper covers placed in boxes or cases.”

“You know the definition all right,” said Tib. “But you can’t turn in a definition tomorrow.”

“How many flowers did he say we had to have?”


Thus begins the girl’s merry and manic attempt to create herbariums of fifty flowers each, during the seventeen hours remaining before they need to leave for school the next morning.

”Only nine,” said Tib. “We’re supposed to spend eight of them sleeping.”

“Supposed to spend!...There’s no law about going to bed the night before you have to make a herbarium for botany.”

They do a pretty good job finding flowers in the spring sunshine before the sun sets that evening. Remember, it’s near the end of the school year, so days are long. They find “clover and dandelions, and strawberry blossoms and buttercups, and wild geranium and lupine, and columbine and false Solomon’s-seal.” Hurrying back and forth, they scour across the grass and find “purple violets…(and) the dog-tooth kind…spring beauties and wake robins…bloodroots…Dutchman’s breeches…hepaticas…jacks-in-the-pulpit.”

So many of these flowers I’d never heard of before I came across them in Maud Hart Lovelace’s prose. Some of them I’m still not familiar with entirely, but just typing their names intrigues me and makes me think I should spend some time looking them up!

In the end, of course, Betsy, Tacy and Tib can’t quite find fifty kinds of flowers each, even in Deep Valley in the springtime. But they have a great time trying. They dry them in batches in the oven and stay up almost all night at Tib’s house. They sneak out before the sun is up, cleverly thinking they’ll find more, only to realize to their chagrin that the flowers aren’t open yet. ”Fine botany students we are!” cried Tacy and went off into laughter which made the robins, thrashers, meadowlarks and warblers redouble their efforts at vocal supremacy.

They also finally realize that they could have made good herbariums (at least Tacy and Tib think so) and that they all would have enjoyed it if they’d taken their time and spent the year working on them. They even pass the class...barely, though I always start laughing when I reach that part of the chapter:

”Never, never in my whole life,” said Mr. Gaston (he was twenty-four), “never in my whole career as a teacher,” (he had taught for three years), “have I seen such herbariums! Not a fall flower included!”

But he felt a little guilty, perhaps because he could not identify all the specimens they had presented. At any rate, for whatever reason, he passed them.

So there you have of my favorite literary passages about wildflowers!