Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"This Old World's Tawdry Voices"

Continuing my ruminations on faith and culture...

My friend David Mills has written this very thoughtful piece about raising children in a world that often tells them seductive lies.

The world lies to my children, and I cannot always keep them from hearing the lies of the world and believing some of them. I have but one voice, and the world has many. It not only preaches with attractive confidence but seduces with flattery and false promises. It has vast resources for bribery.

Worse, it makes the wicked, the cheap, the mediocre, and the tawdry all feel normal.

He goes on to reflect on the importance not only of giving our children good gifts, a "good life" (good art, music, books, values) but on the importance of showing them the encompassing love that leads us to value such good things in the first place. A love that helps us to resist those worldly voices when they try to allure us into believing things about ourselves and about the world that aren't true.

Well-worth reading. I keep going back to the final three paragraphs.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Realization Dawns...

The sweet girl was clearing things off the table Friday night. "Mommy," she said, in her very thoughtful voice, "a lot of the things I do that you call my jobs, like clearing the table and making my bed? They're not the same as the kinds of jobs you get paid for."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Creating Culture"

In my "Fall Into Reading" post, I mentioned that I'm looking forward to reading Andy Crouch's book Culture Making. That's because I read this wonderful excerpt of the book at Christianity Today's website. What a terrific essay on faith and culture! It got my thinking-about-culture and creative juices flowing! He not only says important things about our attitude toward and engagement with culture (things that resonated with my heart and mind) but he says them so well that it's just a pleasure to read. Articulate, organized and thought-provoking. Check it out.

I'm due to write another "faith and arts talk" post soon. Our weekly youth gathering is still reflecting together on faith and art. This week we're reading Makoto Fujimura. I chose the particular essay before I knew (oh happy coincidence) that he was featured on the cover of the same CT magazine that's carrying Crouch's article. So stayed tuned.

All this reflecting, plus the commenting Erin and I are beginning to do on our Madeleine L'Engle blog (we're reading her wonderful Walking on Water together) actually has me writing again. Not just reviews and assigned newspaper articles. I wrote two poems today and have begun looking with real hope at possible revisions of a story I originally wrote 15 years ago. 15 years ago! It's a story I finished that has nonetheless never left me alone, and it seems to be crying out for a re-write. I'm excited but nervous about diving back into story-writing...it's been a while.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fall Into Reading 2008

I'm a bit late joining in on this communal reading adventure, hosted over at callapidderdays. (That link will take you directly to a page where you can join the reading fun or check out dozens of reading lists!) But I decided to take the plunge.

I've been going back and forth on whether or not I wanted to commit publicly to a reading list. I've got such a popcorn mind! One idea pops and then another one pops and then another, and before you know it, I've connected new dots and wandered far afield from any original reading list (how's that for mixed metaphors!!?) though I usually discover myself reading plenty of good books, just not the ones I originally intended to read. Other books I know I likely will not get to or finish this fall (life happens, and sometimes I realize it's more important to savor a book slowly than to rush to finish it by a self-imposed deadline). But thankfully, there's always winter. Hush. You didn't hear me say that here! Grin.

Without further ado, here's my proposed reading list for autumn 2008.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Having read Hale's Austenland (which I liked) and Princess Academy (which I loved) I'm eager to dip into another of her books. This happened to be the one I spotted first on our library's shelves and I'm looking forward to it.

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card

When I first read Ender's Shadow (sequel to Ender's Game) several years ago, I was blown away that Card could turn what essentially felt like a creative writing exercise (write an alternative story based on another character's POV) into yet another brilliant novel. So I went on and read Shadow of the Hegemon, the next in the series. It left me vaguely disappointed and I decided to give myself a break from Card for a while. But I've been poking about on his website again, enjoying his writing advice, and I just finished Shadow Puppets. While it wasn't Card's best, it was still a riveting read. Darn it, I care about these characters now, especially Bean and Petra. And he left me completely hanging. So onward to Shadow of the Giant.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mostly because I'd like to see the BBC film adaptation, but I really don't like watching films made from books before I've read the books themselves. And because a fellow reviewer on Epinions has reviewed Gaskell's work favorably. I've heard her described as a cross between Austen and Dickens. I'm intrigued!

That's probably it for fiction on my own. We're still doing plenty of fiction for family read-alouds (scroll down to sidebar on the left if you want to see a list of the things I'm reading with my six year old). I'm also re-reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society...I just read it myself a couple of weeks ago and LOVED it, and now am re-reading it out loud to my husband. Thanks to my dear sister, we no longer have to wait months on the library's hold list to finish it!


The Deathly Hallow Lectures by John Granger

Assuming I can afford a copy. My book buying budget is non-existent right now, and the book is so very new I'm sure I won't be able to find it in a library system for some time. But I do plan to read these as soon as I'm able. John's work on Harry Potter is so rich; just his work on the influence of Dante on the HP series (and Deathly Hallows in particular) will make this book a very worthwhile read. (You can still probably find his original Dante essays up at Hogwarts Professor...so good!) I'm sure there are other gems in this book too. I'm very glad he's published these lectures for those of us who haven't been able to hear him deliver such lectures in person.

Incidentally, I'm re-reading Sorcerer's Stone right now so I can take part in discussions celebrating the book's 10th anniversary in the U.S.

Miniatures and Morals by Peter Leithart

I've read parts of this book on Austen, but never finished it. I was only able to find it via ILL and wasn't given much time (or ability to renew) the book. I recently discovered it's available (in full) via Google reader, and have been trying to read it that way, though the slowness of this old computer and my old-fashioned predilection for holding an actual bound book in my hands makes it slow-going. I plan to keep at it though!

Culture Making by Andrew Crouch

I've got the hold request on this one already, and am very excited. The excerpt I've read is spectacular and really speaks to both my heart and mind.

History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer

I love this huge book, though it's taking me forever to read it. I think I'm somewhere around chapter 53. I've been allowing myself to sip from it as I can.

I usually try to read some church history and/or theology as well. Since I'm teaching a course on Anglican history this fall, I will probably pass on any "extra" church history reading beyond what I feel I need to re-read for that. I'm not sure if I'm ready to dive into another theology book right now or not. I've begun The Cruelty of Heresy, but am sensing a need to take a break. I'd love a simple, practical (classical?) devotional book right now. Any suggestions?

Also thinking of going back to Athanasius' "On the Incarnation." I was discussing it with a friend this morning (whose classicaly homeschooled 11 year old is going to read this in 7th grade next year!) and realizing I have never read it in its entirety. Time to remedy that perhaps. I also would love to re-read C.S. Lewis' introduction to it, where he talks about our need for old books (and how they keep the sea breezes of the centuries blowing through our minds). Athanasius would qualify as my "old book" for this fall, I think!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Still Here

I'm still here, though my dearth of blogging and reviewing in the past week might indicate otherwise. I've just needed a break. My dear sister was here for much of the past week, blessing us with her loving presence...and what a rare treat to have a 3+ day visit (I'm so glad she got her sabbatical, for that and so many other reasons!). I loved watching my big sis bond with her precious niece. It did my heart good. And it was important just to take some days to be...to laugh, talk, stay up way too late, and enjoy the wonderful company of my sister.

We still did school this past week, though with Aunt M here, days took on a different color and flavor. Our Wednesday morning routine morphed into showing Aunt M all the fun things we've done so far this year. Thursday, the sweet girl's Daddy took the day off and all four of us headed to the Carnegie Science Center for a field trip day. We got to see their IMAX movie on Egyptian mummies, giving us a great visual introduction to the work we're going to be doing on ancient Egypt in the coming weeks.

Yesterday we showed Aunt M a little bit of what a relaxed Friday morning looks like in our home school. Art, poetry, music, puzzles, fun math. We took her to the airport around noon and said our tearful goodbyes on the sidewalk at the the departing flights area of the airport terminal. The sweet girl was so sad that her beloved aunt was leaving, but per usual, managed a bit of transference. After final hugs and kisses, she would hardly look at my sister but began crying because she wasn't going to be able to go into the airport and walk on the moving sidewalk like she did when we picked her up. "But I was looking forward to the moving sidewalk!" she sobbed, and of course her tears had very little to do with the moving sidewalk and almost everything to do with the saying goodbyes. But I understood that.

We went to Taco Bell on the way home. Felt better after a rest-time in the afternoon. And all got an earlier to bed than usual last night.

But today I just feel restless. It's a beautiful Saturday, and we spent the morning doing a leisurely family pancake breakfast (D. is a pancake artiste of true excellence...he can actually make pancakes that look like a wolf howling at the moon!) and a trip to the library. I've been trying to settle down to lesson plans for the next few weeks of school, but am mostly poking about looking at blogs, doing laundry, reading some bits of poetry, and pondering what's happening in the Episcopal Church. Our beloved and respected Bishop was deposed on Thursday, and there is much to pray about and through and for, not least for him and for his family and for our diocese in the wake of that unjust action.

Stumbled across this beautiful poem (hat tip to Karen Edmisten, whose blog I've been enjoying catching up with today). It spoke to my heart in the midst of all the church is going through.

If Everything is lost

If everything is lost, thanks be to God
If I must see it go, watch it go,
Watch it fade away, die
Thanks be to God that He is all I have.
And if I have Him not, I have nothing at all.
Nothing at all, only a farewell to the wind
Farewell to the grey sky
Goodbye, God be with you, evening October sky.
If all is lost, thanks be to God,
For He is He, and I, I am only I.

-- Dom Julian

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Good Timing

Earlier this afternoon, I found the sweet girl in front of the bathroom mirror. She had just finished brushing her teeth, and was preening a bit, admiring her brand new two front lower teeth. The two permanent teeth have come in about half-way now.

"Look at those teeth," she said admiringly. "They're getting big! They're not baby teeth!"

A pause.

"And I'm a not a baby any more. So this is good timing!"

Upcoming "Sorcerer's Stone 10th Anniversary" Week

Good news for all of us who still love to talk Harry Potter (you know who you are!). Travis Prinzi and his crew over at the Hogshead.org are hosting a special Sorcerer's Stone 10th Anniversary Week September 23-30. The 10th anniversary edition will be out by then, and they plan plenty of opportunities for folks to read and discuss the book. It should be a wonderful (nostalgic, insightful) conversation!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching Nouns With Beverly Cleary

During the past couple of weeks, I've been teaching the sweet girl about nouns: what a noun is, and the difference between common and proper nouns. I discovered she could readily chant along with the definition "a noun is a person, place, thing or idea" (we 70s' era kids are all humming to Schoolhouse Rock now, aren't we?) and she seemed to grasp the concept of common and proper nouns pretty well. But it was all feeling a bit...well...ho-hum.

Then I got inspired. One day last week, when trying to devise a good lesson on the difference between common and proper nouns, I hit upon the idea of utilizing Beverly Cleary.

You have to understand that we're in major Cleary mode around here. That's mostly because we inadvertently ended up reading two Cleary books back to back. S. seems to vaguely recall the time when her Daddy and I read the Ramona books aloud, back when she was a toddler/early pre-schooler. So she'd been wanting a Ramona book and I promised her we'd read one during the summer. With one thing and another, and so many books to read, we didn't get to Ramona the Pest until late August, right before it was time to start school. And then I remembered, part-way through, that I'd already decided to kick-off our school-time read-alouds with Henry Huggins.

I briefly thought of switching and starting with something else, taking a little break in-between two books by the same author. But she'd adored Ramona, and I really wanted to start the year with a light, easy, fun read, one I knew she'd love to listen to. Plus I must confess I've always associated Beverly Cleary with autumn and back to school time, for whatever reason. (Do other people do this? Have certain books and/or authors they associate with certain seasons or times of year?)

By the time we'd gotten through Henry, Cleary's fictional world had totally inspired the sweet girl's imagination. "Call me Ramona," she'll say loftily, and more than once in recent weeks I've heard her talking to herself. When I stop to ask what she's saying, she says quickly, "Nothing. I mean, I'm just making up a Ramona story." She renamed her favorite stuffed bear Henry, another favorite bear Beezus, and has even designated which dolls get to play the minor roles of Scooter and Mary Jane. Best of all, she pulled out a stuffed brown and white dog she hadn't played with in a long time and re-christened him Ribsy. (Well, he used to be a she named Lucy, but...) In addition to undergoing a gender change, the poor doggie has undergone a bit of a color change as well since the sweet girl tied a piece of yarn around his neck for a leash and dragged him around on the sidewalk outdoors till I realized said dog had turned gray and put a stop to it. (Still trying to decide how washable the thing is!)

So imagine the delight when I wrote the following words on our white board: Ramona, Henry, dog, girl, Beezus, boy. She perked up right away: now we were having fun! And it was as easy as pie to read through those words and names together and to talk about the difference between the common nouns and proper nouns in the list. She completely got it, right away, and it's been her learning touchstone on the subject ever since.

Seems to me this could be a fun and easy way of teaching children many parts of speech. Pick a favorite story or poem, something they already love, and teach them the concept they need to learn by offering examples from it.

It's wonderful to have Beverly Cleary on our side...

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Vote for Your Favorite Literary Character!

September is National Literacy Month. In honor of that, and because it's also a political season, my favorite bookstore Half-Price Books has launched a fun promotion called Vote For Your Favorite Literary Character. Check it out at the link just provided. If, like me, you already have a touch of election year blues, it's an especially good picker-upper. The profiles they've written for the "candidates" make for amusing reading, and I love the creative campaign buttons, complete with slogans, they've created for each. My two favorite slogans are probably: "Seeker of Equal Rights" (Potter 08') and "Winds of Change" (Poppins 08').

You can vote for one of the six literary characters they profile or write-in your favorite character. I thought it would be more fun to choose one they provided, mostly because coming up with a short-list of my favorite literary characters as possible write-ins would be no easy task! So I confess, I cast my vote for Potter...though I almost changed my mind at the last minute and voted for Atticus Finch. Yep, "In a Pinch, Vote Finch" as the slogan says!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Insect Adventure!

A few minutes ago the sweet girl and I were heading back inside after our read-aloud time (chapter 4 of Robert McCloskey's Homer Price, if anyone is interested!). I crossed the sidewalk and started to reach out to open the door at the bottom of our stairs when I suddenly stopped in my tracks and let out a tiny screech.

There was a giant praying mantis on our front door!

Seriously, he was huge. Easily 6-8 inches long, all pointy legs and gangly neck (I never realized what adolescent looking bugs they were before) and a beautiful hue of green with some brown accents. You could tell he would blend in really well on most trees, but on our white painted door, he definitely stood out.

I confess I wasn't sure what to do. The sweet girl, despite her totally fearless stance toward insects we see in books, was understandably a bit nervous when she came face to face with this very large insect in our path. I was a bit nervous too, mostly because I didn't relish him flying straight at me when I tried to open the door. I assured S. that he didn't bite or sting, but I also thought it would be prudent to pick up a lengthy stick and tap at the door to try to get him to move before we got too much closer.

We found a sycamore twig of a few inches (the kind of twig S. used to call her "sycamore wand") and I made a couple of futile jabs near the door glass a few inches from its head. He shuffled an inch or two the the right, as though huffily annoyed that I would disturb his residence in the crack of our building's front door. A truck from the lumber yard rumbled past us at that moment, and the driver braked rather suddenly, making a loud, squeaking noise which seemed to startle the praying mantis as much as it did us. He dropped a few more inches, but caught himself right on our doorknob and clung to the gold metal surface for dear life.

Turned out the truck driver had braked so he could get out and see what I was half-heartedly jabbing at on our front door. He laughed when he saw the huge insect, and we marveled over it together. "I thought you must be looking at a bug!" he said, and helpfully headed toward the door with cupped hands (he had on huge, leathery work gloves). The thing buzzed off in indignation, lumbered its way into the sky (it almost looked too heavy to fly) wheeled around (making me jump a bit and S. give a tiny shriek) and then landed on the upper window of the apartment next door. The nice truck driver stayed around for a minute or two more so we could all marvel at the size of the insect and the rarity of seeing one around here (yes indeed, we are an urban family for whom this is a major event) though he told me his brother has rural property and they see them there all the time. He pointed out kindly that he thinks it's against the law to kill them, and I assured him I'd just been trying to make him fly away. "They're amazing, aren't they?" I said.

And indeed they are. Absurdly strange, and yet bizarrely beautiful. It made me think of the G.K. Chesterton quote, which I've quoted here before: "A thing may be too sad to be believed or too wicked to be believed or too good to be believed; but it cannot be too absurd to be believed in this planet of frogs and elephants, of crocodiles and cuttle-fish."

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Thinking About War

I'm doing a lot of thinking about war at the moment. That's because I've been watching this:

and reading this:

The film is My Boy Jack, the story of Rudyard Kipling's son Jack who was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915. It was the day after his eighteenth birthday, and he was the lieutenant of a platoon. His father had pulled major strings to get him into the army despite the boy's severe myopia. It's a haunting and beautiful film (David Haig, who stars as Rudyard, wrote the original play and also the screenplay, and Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, turns in a solid performance as Jack). Perhaps what is most haunting about it is not the understandable guilt that Kipling felt for what he had done, but the realization that he did what he did out of a desire to see his son a "success." He truly thought that fighting in the war would provide his son a noble calling and a chance at glory. How empty such sentiments seemed to him, and to Jack's mother and sister, after Jack is killed.

No war, even a "just" one, ever really seems glorious, but the more I read of World War I, the more horrified I am by its brutality and its meaninglessness. One of the most painful moments in the film comes after the family receives the initial telegram that Jack is missing and presumed wounded. That leaves them just enough hope to cling to, and Jack's mother, reacting in a way I think many mothers would, becomes obsessed with trying to find any word she can of her son's possible whereabouts. Since the Kiplings were well-off and well-known, they had connections, and the mother convinces the head of the Red Cross to send her thousands of pictures of wounded men who have passed through their care. She and Rudyard sit up late into the night, plowing through the pile of photos. It's heartbreaking, both for the mother's dogged determination in the face of such awful odds, and because you realize (though it's never said aloud, and never needs to be) that every picture they look at and lay aside is yet someone else's son.

The book is the 2006 Pulitzer prize winning novel March, by Australian author Geraldine Brooks. I wasn't sure what I was expecting from this book, but it was a powerful and disturbing read. Brooks is both an excellent historical novelist and a beautiful wordsmith. March tells the imagined story of what might have happened to Mr. March, the father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, during his year-long chaplaincy with the Union Army in the Civil War. Given how important Alcott and Little Women were to me in my childhood, I found this "creative riff" a fascinating one, but truly didn't know what to expect. It's very much an adult novel, despite taking flight from a classic novel for young people. Brooks draws on the history of the actual Alcott family in Concord (on whom Alcott based her fictional March family) and on the history of slavery and abolition. It's a sad and sobering novel, and while it is not at all how I would have imagined Mr. March's story, I nonetheless found myself moving fully into the world Brooks imagined and believing that this could easily have been his story. I was also amazed at the seamless way she was able to weave in moments from Little Women itself (through Mr. March's letters and flashbacks mostly) and I especially loved one scene she gave to the desperately shy Beth, connected to the family's imagined involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The two books converge more toward the end of Brooks' narrative, when Marmee goes to Washington to nurse her ill husband. We hear only the tiniest of snippets about this in Little Women, of course, because the real action of that novel is taking place in the lives of the girls back home. Here we follow Marmee into the squallor of 1861 Georgetown and the mess of a hospital for convalescing soldiers, and we enter into Mr. March's complete and utter despair over what he has seen in the war (and either been unable to stop, or actually feels culpable because his own moral choices are bound up in the suffering of others).

As Marmee looks at her husband, so pale and ill and so changed, she reflects, in spite of her understanding of the importance of the cause for which the Union was fighting, with real bitterness on when he chose to go to war -- at the unheard of age of 40.

When I saw him stand up on that tree stump in the cattle ground, surrounded by the avid faces of the young, I knew that as he spoke to them, he was thinking that it was unfair to lay the burden so fully on that innocent generation. I could see the look of love for those boys in his eyes, and I saw also that the moment was carrying him away. I raised my arms to him, imploring him not to say the words that I knew were forming in his mind. He looked me full in the face, he saw my tears, and he ignored them and did as he pleased. And then I in my turn had to pretend to be pleased by my hero of a husband. When he stepped down, and came to me, I could not speak. I took his hand and dug my nails into the flesh of it, wanting to hurt him for the hurt he was inflicting upon me.

I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.

The waste of it. I sit here, and look at him, and it is as if a hundred women sit beside me: the revolutionary farm wife, the English peasant woman, the Spartan mother -- "Come back with your shield or on it," she cried, because that was what she was expected to cry. And then she leaned across the broken body of her son and the words turned to dust in her throat.

Thank God that I have daughters only, and no sons. How would I bear it if Meg were now a soldier at sixteen, and the prospect of this war stretching into years, so that Jo, too, might come of age while it yet rages?...

What is left of him? What remains, now that war and disease have worked their dreadful alchemy? I could see the change in him, even before I heard the mutterings of his delirium. When they directed me to him this afternoon, I thought they had sent me to the wrong beside. Truly, I did not know him."