Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Books & Homeschool Musings

Since we travel each Christmas, our family has gotten into a tradition of opening our gifts to each other sometime during the 12 days of Christmas after we return home. In recent years, we've tended to open gifts on New Year's Day, for the very practical reason that my husband has off from the office and we can have a relaxed and leisurely family morning.

Gifts are relatively few this year, but I suppose it's still possible I might have a book or two lying unopened beneath the tree (along with some socks, of course...) I've got a share in a family gift certificate to B&N thanks to a precious friend, and am pondering my endless list of books I'd love to read (there are many titles on my wishlist). Thanks to my very generous sister, however, I've already received two books, both from my Amazon wishlist, this Christmas: Alice Gunther's A Haystack Full of Needles, and Bob Hartman's Telling the Bible.

So tell me, what books did you get for Christmas?

It struck me, after I asked for these particular books, how much my reading tastes have changed in the past several years. For starters, both titles are non-fiction, something I used to read far more sparingly than I do now. These days I find myself far more drawn to the "new non-fiction" shelves at the library than the "new fiction" shelves, at least the adult fiction.

Secondly, the books represent deepening and ongoing passions in my life: my desire to build more community into our daily lives and homeschooling experience (hence the Gunther book) and my desire to be a better, more faithful and creative teller/writer/teacher of the Bible, at home and in other contexts (hence the Hartman).

It also dawned on me how much of my reading tastes are shaped by the internet. I would never have found Alice Gunther's book without having first read her blog and the blog of her friend Melissa Wiley. Those dear ladies, and a handful of other Catholic moms, writers, and homeschoolers, have no idea how much their blogs have meant to me in the past couple of years. As an Anglican homeschooler, I am in real awe of the richness of the Catholic homeschooling community and am so delighted I get to eavesdrop on their wonderful creativity. The way they share their lives with one another (and by extension with folks like me) is inspiring. My longing to build similar kinds of community and pockets of friendship is intensifying all the time. My desire to shape our homeschool experience by our observance of the church year and our unique traditions as Anglicans is also deepening.

The difficult thing, of course, is that most Anglicans don't homeschool...or at least relatively few of us in comparison to Catholics and non-Anglican evangelicals. Frankly I get lonely. The fact that I'm Anglican, that my family's life is shaped by urban mission and ministry, and that I only have one child can sometimes make me feel like an oddly shaped jigsaw piece trying to fit into a gorgeous puzzle. All the other pieces are shiny and well-cut and know where they're supposed to go. I'm the one that fell out of the box and got stuck under the sofa and then bent by the toddler. Whenever I start to feel that way though, I make myself stop. I think about the amazing diversity I have found among the homeschooling movement (where there seems to be no such thing as a "typical" homeschooling family, despite the abundant stereotypes). I laugh to think how some acquaintances of mine, who I'm pretty sure think homeschooling is only for crazy people, would marvel if they could see the depth and beauty of home learning in lives as diverse as the ones found at A Circle of Quiet, Karen Edmisten, and Mental Multivitamin.

Well, I've wandered far afield in these musings, which basically started out as "here are the books I got for Christmas"...but the point of good books is that they make me wander. And wonder. And ask questions. And think about who I am and who I'm still hoping to become.

All good things to ponder before opening presents on New Year's Day.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Fourth Day of Christmas, and Richard III

I hope everyone had a wonderful and blessed Christmas (or soon will...a note of greeting in case any of my eastern Christian friends are reading this!). We got home from our travels last night, a little worn out, a lot grateful, and mostly glad to be here.

It's snowing outside, and I've spent the day going back and forth between writing work and laundry, with an evening of grocery shopping and paper grading ahead of me. We're taking some days off from school, which I'm hoping will give me time to both catch up on end of semester work as well as an editing project. Then I need to move ahead, with joy and energy! to lesson plans and syllabi tweaking for the new year.

The sweet girl gave her dolls a Christmas party this morning. We spent time curled up reading Christmas picture books this afternoon, and she's spent the rest of the day doing various art projects.

I've not had much time for reading in these oh so busy weeks (nor for writing about what I'm reading) but I did just finish up William W. Lace's The Little Princes in the Tower, a fascinating introductory book about the two young princes imprisoned in the Tower of London by Richard of Gloucester in 1483. I got interested in the topic when we covered the War of the Roses in Story of the World in our last week of school before Christmas break.

Lacy's book is a quick read, at only a bit more than 100 pages long, and is going on my book list for 6th grade, the next time we plan to cover medieval history. Yes, I'm finally getting wise and starting to make book lists that far ahead. So often I pick up library books which aren't quite "right" for the sweet girl's current age level, or are a bit advanced so we only use bits of them, but I find myself thinking "this is a good book for down the road." It finally dawned on me that every time I think that, the book should go on a list for the future!

Reading about Richard of Gloucester, who became Richard III, made me think of Richard III, of course, as in Shakespeare's Richard III. I honestly can't recall if I've read the play or not, though I've seen the film version starring Ian McKellan. (I remember it's a rather odd version...does anyone have any thoughts about how it compares to the old Olivier version?)

It's been a long while since I've tackled reading any Shakespeare, and I decided I wanted to try this particular play while the subject's on my mind. I need a copy I can carry around with me, not the hardback Riverside Complete Shakespeare from my college days (which could work well as a boat if we ever got caught in a flood) so I went looking in the library catalog for a suitable paperback. Who knew just how many paperback versions of the bard existed?

I went with Penguin's Penguin. But I'd love to know if any seasoned Shakespeare readers out there have a favorite version of his plays to recommend, either in paperback or in online sources (one with particularly good notes would be especially helpful). I don't do e-readers, and I spend way too much time working on our slow computer to be able to enjoy reading anything of length and complexity on screen, but if there's a good online version with helpful notes, I'd love to bookmark it and visit it periodically while I'm waddling around with my Penguin paperback this January.

Happy fourth day of Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Why have I never read this poem before today? Certain lines seemed vaguely familiar, but like faint if I have read it, it must have been a long time ago.

The more I read Chesterton, the more I love him. I was so moved by this that I almost wept. I really needed this poem before heading out, weary as I am, for our holiday travels. It's getting tucked inside my journal.

Thank you to A Quotidian Life for posting it.

I'm so glad I know where Home is, and who.

The House of Christmas

G.K Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Wonder What I'm Getting for Christmas...

A little while ago, the sweet girl and I were working our way through a big pile of laundry, chatting as we folded.

She held up one of my more pitiful socks.

S: Mommy, why do most of your socks have holes?
M: Well, a lot of my socks have worn out. And I haven't been able to replace them. So I'm keeping the ones with holes until I'm able to replace them.
S: (all in a rush) Don't do that till after Christmas! ~a pause, then ~ Not that I'm telling you what you're getting, just don't go out and buy any socks.

Hmm. Methinks my feet are going to be a lot more warm and cozy in January than they've been in December!

Of course, this slip-of-the-tongue can work both ways. I came close to doing it myself this morning when she came running over, holding up one of her favorite twist-up crayons with almost no crayon left in it. "Mommy, I'd really like it if we could get some more of these twisty crayons sometime. Lots of my favorite colors are out or almost out."

And I was this close to saying "Oh that's all right, honey. Daddy wrapped a package of those last night." Caught myself just in time!

Any good Christmas surprises hidden at your house?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Jesse Tea

December is flying by, filled with its usual crazy mix of mundane end-of-semester duties and delightful seasonal joys, including people to see, places to go, work on the annual family letter and the writing of my annual advent poem. I feel crammed to bursting with too much to do and too much to ponder (if that second is possible) and too little time to do it in. I think that's true of most Decembers, but it feels particularly true of this year (just more work has come my way than usual recently) which means sometimes I feel like I'm running on fumes.

So I'm feeling extra grateful for any opportunities to catch my breath and also to exercise some creativity. Last Friday was a little bit of both those things, when I hosted a "Jesse Tea" for five children in our local little homeschool group.

I fell in love with the Jesse Tea idea when I first read about it here on Alice Gunther's blog Cottage Blessings. I probably first saw it a couple of years ago, and it's been in the back of my mind ever since to try to do this. I'm so glad I was able to do it for the homeschool group this year.

The Jesse Tea takes the traditional advent idea of a Jesse Tree (I love the play on words!) with its symbols of God's promises in Scripture, and moves it into the realm of a tea/celebration with the snacks taking on the symbolic roles. The snack ideas themselves are incredibly simple and I adapted/tweaked them even further to help my budget and to exercise some bits of my own creativity. I spent more time pondering the devotional thoughts that I talked through with the kids as I presented them with each snack or activity (I skipped one of the snack steps, the Noah boats, and had the kids color place cards with arks and rainbows on them instead). God's faithfulness to keep his promises and his loving and rescuing work each step along the Story were natural themes that kept coming out in the devotional ponderings.

I wasn't able to take many photographs -- and hesitate to use photos of the other kids without their parents' permission -- but these couple of photos will give you a glimpse of the "Joseph's coats" the children decorated (bread shapes, soft butter, colored sprinkles) and also the "Flowers of Jesse" we enjoyed at the end (shaped from spice gumdrops).

I wish I had gotten photos of some of the "Isaac's Bundles of Sticks" (pretzel sticks tied with red licorice laces) and some of "Abraham's Stars" (white chocolate chips with a dark purple plate for background). The kids also enjoyed "Moses' Burning Bush" (broccoli florets dipped in honey mustard dressing) and several other creative treats. We even had gummi worms (a big hit!) with our apples, to remind us of how sin entered the world, the disobedience of Adam and Eve to which God responded with his redemptive, rescuing work.

I was delighted to see how well the children responded to the whole thing. I'm already thinking about how I could do it again and do it even better, but this really was a lovely event! What I especially loved was hearing the kids answer questions I asked about the Bible stories and seeing them "make the connections" between the symbols and stories and between the stories themselves. My favorite was when we talked about the root of Jesse, and how God promised a "small shoot" would grow from the stump, all that was left of David's once great royal house. When I asked the kids "and who was the tiny shoot that grew from the root of Jesse," a lovely six year old girl piped up "Jesus -- when he was just a little, tiny baby!"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just Imagine It's a Garden...

When we left for church this Sunday morning, it was raining -- freezing rain. The skies were filled with lowering gray clouds, the hills misted with fog and we were running late. I slipped a bit as I hurried into the car, and made some sort of disgruntled noise. And then I just plain old grumbled: "It would be much easier to walk over here if this was still grass."

Remember we used to have a bit of grass there? But last summer, it got ripped up and paved over to make...sigh....more sidewalk. That's the sidewalk I found myself inadvertently skating on this a.m. I've been grumpy about it for such a long time, venting about it on an icy morning seemed all too easy.

The sweet girl told me I shouldn't complain. She said the people who paved the sidewalk must have needed to. I agreed I shouldn't complain but told her that I didn't think they'd really needed to. And then I sighed and said something about the gray day and the expanse of icy parking lot.

"Just imagine it's a garden, mommy," my seven year old said. (She knows me well!)

And you know what? It helped.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Thankful for the Light

Monday, a new work and school week, a new opportunity to share some of my thanksgivings.

This morning I find myself particularly thankful for:

24. A beautiful weekend with D. and the sweet girl, full of Christmas preparation and events. The festival of Christmas trees, a horse and wagon ride down Church Street, candles in the cold. Good time around the advent wreath. Putting up our tree.

25. And oh, that tree! The sweet girl decorated most of it, so it's heavy (dripping!) with ornaments from about four feet and downwards. I know lots of people decorate beautiful, designer looking trees, but give me our homemade hodge-podge anytime, with every ornament collected over the past eighteen years a story in and of itself.

26. A lovely service at church yesterday, honoring our retired pastor. It was both a good and challenging time for me, as it brought up emotions and feelings on a lot of levels (including some, connected to our church's journey, that I didn't know I had). But ultimately good.

27. Lights! I love the lights on our tree, and the purple lights (for advent) that we string around the living room wall. Craving light as I am at this dark time of year, there couldn't be a better time to enjoy these tiny bits of brightness in our home. And how I loved hearing the sweet girl at prayers this morning (we prayed and did Bible reading by the tree) when she said so sweetly and simply "and thank you for the lights on our tree and how they remind us of Your light."

28. Slipper socks. This is not a joke, though I feel very Albus Dumbledore (well, early pre-DH Albus, anyway) when I write it. I have been so incredibly cold the past couple of weeks and I confess I've been having a bit of a pity party for myself because my heating pad died several months ago and all of my socks seem to have sprung holes at the same time (and we're having one of our very, very lean months where purchasing things like socks and heating pads just aren't on the list). Imagine my delight yesterday when I scrounged around in my drawer and found an old pair of slipper socks (warm, fuzzy, sky-blue, sans holes!) stuck way in the back. I think my sister might have given them to me for Christmas a few years ago, and they've still got some good wear in them. My toes are so much happier today!

29. The advent poem is coming. The advent poem is coming! (I feel like a breathless herald, like Paul Revere!) It's currently in embryo in my journal -- a very rough draft, in its most scribbled, lines-crossed-out, margin-noted form. But it is on its way.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Advent 1: "To come remain awake"

Our thanksgiving trip was full of blessings, though the travel itself was exhausting. We came home and "hit the ground running"...and it feels like we haven't stopped running yet!

I've been trying to move this week into a watchful, listening attitude, as of course we have also moved into Advent. Due to lots of traffic delays, we got home so late on Sunday evening that it was tempting to just push the beginning of Advent off by one day. But we love this season so much that it felt important to go ahead. Note to self next year: get the wreath and candles set up before we leave for our trip, so it's waiting and inviting us as soon as we walk in the door.

I'm discovering this year just how hard it is to stop and rest and listen when life feels stuffed with a long to-do list. Most of these "to-do's" aren't holiday related (though of course there are some extra activities connected to advent and Christmas and the almost inevitable stresses of our travel schedule) just ordinary work, life, family, ministry. Among other things, I'm a teacher, so it's end of semester crunch!

I hadn't realized how much I've been taking on and now it seems like everything is coming to a head all at once, with deadlines looming and many things needing attention. Most all of it is good, but I'm beginning to feel like I'm living in an overrun garden that needs pruning.

It's been helpful to dig back through some old journals and read snippets of poems, reflections, and quotes from other years, including some years when I seemed to have an easier time moving into listening/reflecting mode. Of all the books I have inside me to write (I told D. the other day that I think I have 7 or 8 books inside me at the moment, to which he replied "sounds painful!") the book of advent reflections feels closest to the surface.

Looking through a nine year old journal the other evening, I stumbled on this quote by C.S. Lewis, whose feast day we just celebrated.

"We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."

I've loved that quote for a long time, but it's speaking to me on deep heart levels in this particular busy time. How comforting to know that in this "crowded world" (crowded with people, things, feelings, obligations, and so much more) that the world is "crowded with Him" -- that in fact, He walks among and through and in the midst of all that other stuff, trying to get our attention, often using it to get our attention. Our labour is to walk through the world on the lookout for signs of his presence, and to walk with attention -- not sleep-walk (as it's so easy to do when we're feeling so tired, or when we're experiencing emotional stress) but to really walk with our eyes open, paying attention.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


On Sunday we celebrated Christ the King, which always falls on the final Sunday before Advent. When I turn to the readings in the Prayer Book these days, I am very near the back of the book as we've moved into the final "proper" before the readings beginning anew with Advent 1.

The older I get, the more I'm finding myself much more deeply attuned to the rhythms of the church year than to the actual calendar year. I'm realizing that it's this time of year when I'm getting truly excited about newness and fresh starts, much more than when we turn the calendar to January 1, although that's enjoyable too.

It's combination of things: the approach of Thanksgiving, a holiday near to my heart because it reminds me to be grateful and because it's the most time we get to spend with extended family each year, the approach of the prayerful, watchful season of Advent, which of course leads us to the dazzling light of Christmas. It's knowing that no matter how short and dark days seem right now, we're about to turn the corner and begin to bask in just a bit more light each day, a glorious reflection of the Light whose birth we're about to celebrate.

I love the month of October and have long called it my favorite. From a purely seasonal point of view, that's still true -- I love the bright blue days, the colored leaves, apples, pumpkin, corn, the still-longer amounts of daylight, the not-quite-so-cold as it's going to get. But from a heart perspective, I'm beginning to realize how much I love November. All Saints, Christ the King, Thanksgiving, the very tip of Advent.

And from a literary point of view (and those literary days are a deep part of my heart's journey) the November 22 Feast Day of C.S. "Jack" Lewis, and the commemoration of birthdays: Robert Louis Stevenson on November 13, Jack, Madeleine and Louisa (Lewis, L'Engle and Alcott) on November 29. And on the family calender, several extended family members' birthdays and also November 16, my late (paternal) grandparents' anniversary. 80 years since their wedding this year; I still keep a picture of their beautiful wedding day up on my bookshelf.

We're heading out for family visits soon, and I likely won't have much computer access for a few days. If you're reading this, know how many blessings I am wishing your way during this thanksgiving season, this beautiful November.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dear Governor...

You've made my daughter cry. How does it feel to make a second grader cry?

Yes, that's right. Thanks to your recent $15 million budget cuts to the state historical and museum commission, our local historic site, a wonderful place that has provided us (not to mention thousands of other people) hours of learning and enjoyment, is being forced to shut its doors. It's a unique place, a place many towns across America would love to have in their midst. It's a place that provides an oasis of beauty in the midst of rusted urban decay and historic pride in a tiny town that has seen better days and doesn't always feel like it's got a lot to brag about anymore.

Frankly, we think you've made a mistake.

What good does it do to promise to maintain the buildings if you're not going to help maintain a staff there that can keep the place open to the public and provide educational tours for the public and for schoolchildren?

We're all aware these are difficult economic times, but oh, how I would love to get a look at the state budget and see what was prioritized ahead of the historical commission. I'll bet you some very smart moms and dads and schoolteachers and yes, schoolchildren could help you figure out other things that could be trimmed from that budget.

I'm endeavoring to at least teach my daughter a lesson in civics and in the potential for positive change if people come together and work hard enough. Today I explained to her what petitions are (since I was busy signing one). I've also suggested that she write you a letter. I don't know if she'll do it or not. She was busy wiping away tears and feeling unsure that a letter from a second grader could really make a difference.

So...civics lesson another day. Today we just needed some time and space to feel sad.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grateful Heart: Thankful Monday

I've not been posting my gratitude list every Monday, but I have really been enjoying the exercise of reflecting on my blessings each Sunday, at the beginning of each new week. Here are a few to add to my ongoing list:

16. My husband is home! He had good, refreshing time away in South Carolina (and that's a blessing too) but now he is home, and I'm so delighted. Between his work hours and travel schedule, we've not had much time together this month, so the bits we've gotten in the past few days feel precious.

17. Time for creativity and shared imagination.
I started working on a story during the days D. was away. Unexpectedly, it's a fantasy/fairy-tale type story (though perhaps that's not surprising given my reading fare in recent months). I really liked the characters, places, and political intrigues that were coming to me. When I started bouncing my ideas around with D., he immediately got into it, and now we're spending some time each evening creating more details together about this fictional world. We've even drawn a map! It's great fun to be working on a creative project together. I especially love how his great questions help spark my imagination.

18. Beautiful autumn weather. After that deep cold spell we had in October, November has turned unseasonably warm. That's not only a blessing for our utility bill, but gives us extra time to enjoy the outdoors before winter settles in to stay.

19. Time with a dear friend I'd not seen in several months. My friend Sandy moved to British Columbia in June, but is back to visit her precious first grandbaby. Yesterday we got a couple of hours together to walk and talk in the beautiful autumn weather I just mentioned.

20. My folks are OK from Hurricane Ida. They weren't in the worst of it down in Virginia, but they got a ton of rain and wind as the hurricane moved on. Lots of standing water in the yard, but no flooding in the house, no downed trees (like they suffered several years ago in the wake of Hurricane Isabel -- their roof took a real beating then!) and no power outages.

21. Some time to read and note-take on some good church history reads. I don't get/make enough time for that kind of continuing ed. but I find I am always blessed when I do -- and it strengthens my teaching in both the short-and-long term.

22. Recent assurance from the Lord that he loves me no matter what, and that my "adequacy" has nothing to do with it.

23. The sweet girl and I are reading a new Ramona book together. They're some of her favorite books in the world, and I parcel them out like chocolates!

So many more I could list, but I'll stop for now...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Literary Birthdays: Robert Louis Stevenson, November 13, 1850

This morning the sweet girl and I celebrated Robert Louis Stevenson's birthday with muffins and poetry reading. In a wonderful "coincidence," we just happened to be reading a book of his poems this month (before I remembered that November was his birth month).

Next perhaps to some hymn writers and the apostle John, Robert Louis Stevenson was probably the first poetic voice to speak to my heart. I shared his poems early with my daughter, and have continued to share them as she grows. She loves his work too.

There are so many repeated images and themes in his poetry that I love: dreams; rain; birds; ships at sea. I love that he is such a liminal poet. He seems to walk boundaries -- day/night, dark/light, sun/shadow, childhood/adulthood, waking/sleeping -- with the gracefulness of a tightrope walker.

We read a brief biography of him this morning, from the Robert Louis Stevenson volume in the "Poetry for Young People" series. A few of the facts we gleaned:

He came from a long line of lighthouse builders; he built poems.

He was ill during much of his childhood and spent a lot of time in bed; his weak lungs often meant he'd spend long nights coughing and longing for the dawn. Small wonder he explored the things he did.

His lungs never did get better. He ended up living in Samoa in his later years, searching for warm climates where he could breathe more easily. He died there of tuberculosis at the incredibly young age of 44. On his gravestone are etched these words, which he himself penned:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The Scottish Stevenson as painted by Sargent

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dragon PR

Earlier this week I finished Michelle Knudsen's The Dragon of Trelian (my full review at the link). For any of you scratching your heads and trying to come up with why the author's name sounds familiar, yes, she's the author of Library Lion, one of my seven year old's favorite picture books of all time (and it's pretty high on her dad's and my lists too). I picked the book up because it was penned by Knudsen -- I love her story-telling, and I'm always curious to know how someone known for good crafting in one genre tackles another. The answer here is: well, and quite creatively. It's a solid mid-grade fantasy.

Of course, it got me to thinking about dragons again. They do keep popping up. Remember this post from a few months back, when I found myself musing about the different ways in which dragons were presented in Tolkien and Rowling? Since then I've read three more dragon tales: this one, Rosemary Sutcliff's The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup, and a re-read of Margaret Hodges' picture book version of St. George and the Dragon.

It does seem as though dragons are getting a major make-over in fantasy literature today. While the more traditional tales (either older stories, or ones based on older stories, like Hodges') keep dragons in traditional roles, the newer tales, while maintaining many of the things we love about dragons -- their fierceness, scaliness, and fire-breathing capabilities -- have softened their image considerably. I keep thinking of those "soft lenses" that get used on Hollywood starlets, the ones that made their features look slightly blurred and dreamy and a bit more beautiful than they might look in harsher light.

The title dragon in Knudsen's story gets this softer treatment. His name is Jakl and he's an orphan. A young princess named Meglynne finds him, adopts him and cares for him, and ends up sharing a strange, mystical connection with him (think Vulcan mind link, only cross-species).

That seems to be part of the new package: it seems like lots of people have secretly wanted dragons for pets/companions, and these days those kinds of stories abound. I know this isn't a precisely new element to dragon stories (Kenneth Grahame and Ruth Stiles come to mind, as earlier representatives) but it does seem to be making a comeback. I suspect that may be due almost entirely to Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper who gave Norbert his own teddy bear...

The other recurring elements I'm seeing in this trend: viewing dragons as somehow misunderstood or mistreated, and seeing them ultimately fight on the "right" side. Part of the fun in Trelian is seeing the dragon fight with and for the princess. Indeed, there's a heart-stopping moment where you realize, once the major battle against the baddies has been won, that the dragon might be brought down by unobservant good guys who just aren't used to seeing a dragon fighting to protect the castle and its inhabitants. My favorite line in the whole book, uttered by the magician Serek: "The dragon is, ah, on our side."

Almost makes you wish you could steal an imaginative page from a dragon PR agent. I suspect it would read something like this. "Baby, the days of type-casting are so over! I know you're tired of breathing fire and looking like a bad guy, but you don't have to limit yourself to those kinds of scenes. Remember Norbert! Remember Jakl! Be subversive! Hold out for the ground-breaking roles!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Everybody's a Critic: The "New" Winnie the Pooh

I finally picked up my library hold shelf copy of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, the authorized "sequel" to A.A. Milne's original Pooh classics. I've only read the introduction and the first story, but so far am cautiously optimistic. David Benedictus mostly seems to "get" Milne's voice and rhythm, and the illustrations by Mark Burgess gently mimic E.H. Shepard's original illustrations. They're also colored with lovely, light washes of color.

I know my friend Erin, Pooh devotee extraordinaire, enjoyed it, but I hear it's not getting very good reviews overall. When my husband picked the book up at the library, the librarian basically told him to tell me not to get my hopes up because the early reviews have been dreadful.

The sweet girl was curious about the book, so I explained to her that this author and artist have been given permission by the people who own the rights to the original Pooh stories, to write and draw more stories like them. I tried to explain the notion of similar styles, and I explained how long ago the original Pooh books were written because I wasn't sure she realized just how old they were (we do love them!).

When she was getting ready for her bath this evening she paused to look at the cover of the book, then said, in a rather disapproving voice, "Why is Piglet's sweater green?"

"What?" I asked, having (I must confess) not noticed this detail of the cover art.

"Why is Piglet's sweater green? It should be pink." And then she added, in a resigned tone, "Maybe the man who drew the new pictures for this new book just didn't know what color Piglet's sweater should be."

I guess everyone's a critic, even my seven year old. That Pooh bar is set pretty high!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Cost of a Lighted World

A few years ago I jotted down this story from the book Aquachurch by Leonard Sweet:

"As a child in the 1950s, I heard a story at a holiness revival meeting in New York. It seems a certain missionary, home on leave, was shopping for a globe of the world to take back to her mission station. The clerk showed her a reasonably priced globe and another one with a light bulb inside. 'This is nicer,' the clerk said, pointing to the illuminated globe, 'but of course, a lighted world costs more.'

What has lighting our world cost you lately?"

I thought of that story yesterday evening when the sweet girl called me into her room after dinner. The early darkness (courtesy of daylight savings) means she is getting more dark-evening playtime after dinner, and she's taken full advantage of it the past few nights. She dresses in dance skirt and shoes, pulls the shades, douses every light in her room, brings out flashlights, and then hits the play button on the CD player. Her favorite right now is Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and she'll dance away to it, beaming her flashlights around to make spotlights. (If anyone on the hill happens to be watching the windows of our building, they probably think we're signaling some urgent message...)

But last night she came running out her room, insisting I come back and see something neat. Her inflatable globe -- not the globe on a stand we bought from mission-going friends at their recent yard sale -- would light up if she positioned her flashlight on one of the light blue ocean areas. The light wouldn't shine through the darker colored plastic of the continents, but when she pushed her little flashlight against one of the oceans, the entire world did indeed light up.

It sounds so simple, a little plastic globe lit by a flashlight, but can I tell you something? It was breathtaking. We both just stood there in awe, looking at that brightly lit sphere in the midst of her dark room. It was a bit of magic, a small, softly glowing planet seeming to hover in the dark but familiar space of her room. There was something fragile and lovely about it, like a Christmas ornament. We slowly turned it, letting it revolve as the music played. Beauty discovered. Beauty shared. I realized later that it was one of those moments that I think will stand out indelibly in my mind in years to come, as I look back on my little girl's growing up years.

Hours later, I thought of the Sweet quote. I've always liked it, not only because it's a terrific illustration ("that'll preach," as one of my seminary profs used to say) but because that final question seems so challenging. "What has lighting our world cost you lately?" helps me to think about my actions, whether or not what I'm doing or not doing helps to shed some light in dark places. And sometimes, yes, light-filled actions are costly.

But that night I found myself thinking of something different. In one sense, a lighted world costs a great deal. In another sense, for we children of God it's utterly free, a gift, the kind of gift you're not at all expecting, like when your seven year old runs toward you, her face eager and alight, to tell you she wants to show you something beautiful.

Because we don't light the world, do we? At least not in the sense that God does. God, the one who said "let there be light," the one who himself is called "the light," the one who shined light on the people who had walked in great darkness, he is the one who truly bears light to this dark world. He is the one who promised his people, when they were languishing in despairing darkness, that he would not leave them there, that he would come and rescue them, even if it cost him everything.

And it did. So in a very deep sense, you can truly say that a lighted world costs everything. It cost Jesus everything. And yet, as grateful receivers of that light that illumines our hearts, we know it is also utterly and beautifully free.

I know, of course, that we too are called to be lights, to not hide our lamps under a bushel, to let our lights so shine before others that God is glorified and so those who see our lesser lights find themselves looking to the source of light and life we reflect. Small wonder we creatures of this world love the moon, that "lesser light to rule the night," because in a deep sense, we relate to a waxing and waning satellite that has no true light of its own but can only reflect the greater light. Of course, it is still the moon's task to shine. And so it is our's. But we need to be in the right position to do so, our face turned towards the source of all radiance.

Oh Lord, make us radiant. Make your face to shine upon us so that we reflect your glory. Help us remember that you have lit the world at great, dear cost. Help us to take your light (like a small flashlight in the hand of an eager child) into those corners and heart spaces where your light has not been fully comprehended, into places where the darkness battles bitterly to try to take back ground. Help us, Lord, to do battle with courage, and not to cede an inch to the dark. For this world is so beautiful when it's fully lit by your love.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Thankful Monday

Another Monday zipping by, and I've not had time to post my gratitude list. Right now I'm especially thankful for:

11. Time this past weekend to cook, bake and clean. Now if I could only wiggle some writing time in there!

12. The fact that my seven year old truly enjoys (yes, ENJOYS!) scrubbing the bathtub. Cleaning the bathroom has always been my least favorite chore, and it's so much more fun with an enthusiastic little girl right beside me, chipping in and marveling over the fun of scrubbing sponges and soap.

13. That we have not yet succumbed to illness. There are a lot of germs floating around out there, seemingly everywhere we turn. Neither D nor I has been getting the sleep we need, and we've all battled some congestion/sore throats, but not one of us has really fallen badly ill.

14. For the opportunity to reconnect with a couple of old friends this week via Facebook. I know FB can be a bit of a mixed blessing, but sometimes it's a real gift.

15. For the Lord's continued provision for our family. We're able to pay the bills this month again, always a "thank you." And thanks to extra work projects and some timely gifts from loving friends and ministry partners, we've been able to buy groceries for the past few weeks without resorting to credit and without huge levels of anxiety in the grocery store. I can't tell you how good that feels. Even better, the delight of relaxing and being able to give a bit more ourselves.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

For All the Saints, Who From Their Labor Rest

I so love this hymn.

You can hear it here, with a full choir and organ.

The text is by William How, the glorious music by Ralph Vaughn Williams (whose music I've listened to for much of this day). God's gift of music through Ralph Vaughn Williams is yet one more reason I am thankful for the Anglican tradition.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!/We feebly struggle/they in glory shine/all are one in Thee/for all are Thine./Alleluia! Alleluia!

A blessed All Saints Day to you!

The Continuing Adventures of Betsy, Tacy and Tib

Although I thought the sweet girl was relating most to Tib in our recent read-aloud of Maud Hart Lovelace's first two Betsy-Tacy books, she has recently declared herself Betsy. She's named two of her dolls Tacy and Tib, and this afternoon they've been very busy. In fact, everywhere I turn, that trio is up to something!

Today's adventures....Betsy, Tacy and Tib have played with Lego's, given each other fun hairstyles, and gone to dancing class. That would be the sweet girl's darkened room, with music playing and a big flashlight to use as a spotlight.

Although I cracked up over the idea of Betsy, Tacy and Tib (those playmates of the late 1890s) playing with Lego's, it did dawn on me that they would probably have loved them if they'd been invented back then. Tib's brother Hobbie would have too. In fact, one could almost imagine Hobbie growing up to invent them. Think about what great fun they had building a playhouse with the wood in the Mueller's basement!

I must confess that seeing the sweet girl so enthusiastically making up stories for the terrific trio makes me wish that she had a) sisters; b) nearby cousins, both in age and geography; or c) neighbors with bookworm kids.

But I will count my blessings that she is blessed with a lovely, vivid imagination!

I wonder if we could start a girl's book group?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fully 5/6 An Authentic Janeite

True confession: though I've loved Jane Austen's work for a decade, and spoke and written of my love for her work far and wide, I've never really felt like a fully authentic Janeite.

Yes, I've read all six of her published novels. No, I've not read all her letters (though I have read some) and I've not read her "juvenalia" or her unfinished novel Sanditon. That last is a purposeful decision...I found myself feeling so sad that I had no more Austen novels to read, I just didn't want to read the very last one yet, even if it's incomplete.

When I say I've read all six of her novels, here's the caveat: four of them I have read repeatedly. They've turned into almost annual re-reads for me. I especially love reading Jane in autumn and winter, and these four novels have become real delights in my life. Ordering them into a list of favorites would be difficult, since I love them all and they've each probably been "my favorite" at one time or another. If forced to choose, I will probably order them this way: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

Okay, my secret is out. I do not regularly re-read either Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park. How to justify this? Well, Northanger Abbey was the first Austen book I read after Pride and Prejudice, about a decade ago. I liked it, but I don't think I had yet fully learned to appreciate her work. I do think that Austen is an acquired taste. The complexity of her prose (especially dialogue) and the surprisingly and sometimes subtly humorous tone (which I'd never been prepared for) take a while to fully fall into. Or at least they did me. Once I fell, I fell completely, but I think it was a book or so past Northanger. In the meantime, I'd seen the A&E 1995 mini-series version of P&P, which I credit with training my ear to be able to "hear" Austen as I read the words on the page.

And I have no good reason for not returning to Mansfield Park. I know many people swear that it's the best of all her work, but the one time I read it, it somehow struck me as different in tone than the others. (Duh...different how? I don't yet know.) The characters didn't grab me by the scruff of the neck and demand to be remembered (or even ask me to dance).

I've read bits and pieces about both novels over the years, but I've not allowed myself to watch any film adaptations of either, not wanting to be prejudiced before I read them again. And I've not actually returned to reading either book again...until this past week.

This week I decided to re-read Northanger Abbey. I figured what better week to read Gothic satire than the week leading up to Halloween? But I confess I felt nervous as I took the book off my shelf. It felt too smooth, the binding too uncreased, the pages too new to be one of my beloved Austen books. And what if...perish the reading experience remained the same as the first time and I still didn't "fall into it completely"?

Silly me. If Jane is an acquired taste, then I have so long ago acquired it that reading her now feels like second nature. I should have realized that I've spent so much time with Jane in the intervening years that I would recognize her voice as soon as I began reading. I should have known that one can never really have the same reading experience twice, because wherever one is today is not where one was ten years ago (or five, or one, or possibly even last month).

So I picked it up and began: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine."

And oh, I fell! I fell!

What a delicious novel! Its pointed satire, witty dialogue, delightfully and sometimes painfully naive young heroine, hysterical send-ups of gothic literature (no wonder Bronte tut-tutted over Jane), and sometimes just downright snarky humor had me chuckling as I turned pages. And turned pages quickly, as I discovered, much to my joy, that reading it after the passage of so many years made it almost feel like a "new" Austen book, one I couldn't put down. Henry Tilney is a marvelous hero: funny and snarky himself at times, but almost unfailingly kind to Catherine and (thankfully) stable. And the looked-for-and-expected cad, John Thorpe, is not quite the devilish cad of later Austen novels -- he's mostly just a colossal bore who talks endlessly of the superiority of his horse and curricle (think of a contemporary man who drones on about his car, or for you Lovelace fans -- think Phil Brandish and his amazing red auto). The mis-communications between Thorpe and Catherine were enough to make me laugh into my pillow.

What a delight to re-read Northanger Abbey and love it so. I now consider myself almost completely an authentic Janeite, or at least 5/6 of one. Next up, sometime this autumn or winter, a re-read of Mansfield Park!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Comfort Food" Movies

I've been thinking a lot about comfort food this week as I begin to make some of my favorite fall recipes. Suddenly we're cooking and baking with lots of orange, from pumpkin to sweet potatoes! Autumn is a time for squash soups, for thick, warm breads, for butter and cinnamon and apples.

Yesterday the sweet girl and I had a poetry tea party (I guess we could call these "poet-teas"?) the first of many, I hope. We'd baked our traditional pumpkin-butterscotch cookies the day before, and had some of those along with tea in thin white cups (she wanted peppermint with good dollops of milk from the little pumpkin-shaped cream pitcher, and I had decaf British Blend, my current favorite) all on an autumn-patterned cloth. We read fall-like poetry and just other poems that struck our fancy: Robert Louis Stevenson, David McCord, Christina Rossetti, William Blake.

I've been feeling extra tired this week. So last night, with D. having another late night at work and the sweet girl in bed, I crashed on the couch in front of one of my favorite "comfort food movies" -- The Sound of Music.

You know what I mean by comfort food movies -- the kind of movies that are so deliciously familiar that you feel like you're eating your mom's mashed potatoes or your favorite homemade mac and cheese. It's nourishing but not surprising to your palette -- you know just how it's going to taste, and it always feels great going down. You know it was made with love. You know other people love it too. Not twists or turns in the story recipe, which you know by heart, so it sometimes makes you sleepy (and you can probably quote from it in your sleep too). That kind of comfort food movie.

The Sound of Music is one of my favorite such movies. Besides the story, acting and singing (all of which I love) I love the feelings it evokes for me. I always remember the wonderful evening, oh so many years ago, when the film first burst onto my consciousness. I went with my dad and older sister to see it on a big screen at the Byrd Theater in Richmond. The Byrd was a majestic movie house from a bygone age of film-going, and it forever ruined me for utilitarian multiplexes. It had ornate decorations and red velvet seating, a "mighty wurlitzer" organ, and a lobby with a shimmering chandelier. I still recall how stunned I felt when we stepped back into that lobby at intermission (yes, a real intermission with an orchestral interlude). Remember what happens right before the intermission? Maria has just packed her bag so she can run away to the abbey, away from the dashing retired naval captain whose love she'd never sought but whose love she nevertheless finds herself longing for, and as she leaves she casts one last yearning look around the huge entrance-hall to the von Trapp family mansion. You know, the one with the shimmering chandelier. When we stepped out of the film world and into the lobby of the Byrd, I am pretty certain I just stood there and gawked. I was sure somehow the movie world had extended into my real nine-year-old life and I was just plain dazzled.

So every time I watch The Sound of Music, that memory watches with me. But so many other memories come along for the ride too. After seeing it on the big screen, I watched it for many years in its choppily edited version on network television. I still know all the places where the t.v. version made cuts, because I still find myself startled when the actors and actresses move into those bits of speech or song, as though they snuck them in as extras when I wasn't looking. After all these years, it still feels like bonus material.

And of course, I know the songs by heart. My sister and I used to sing along with the record album...yes, I did say album...and I know Julie Andrews' inflections and phrasings so well I tend to note the places where she pauses for breath. I also know all the places where she soars on the high notes, so I can adjust the volume on the remote control accordingly (since we're spread out on one floor, late-night movies tend to keep other people in the house awake, like tired seven year olds who should be sleeping, so I'm careful with volume).

Did I mention that Christopher Plummer was my first "movie crush"? I still melt into a puddle over the love scene in the gazebo, even though I've long since read and heard the things Andrews and Plummer have said about the hilariousness of that shot, their unprofessional bout of giggles, and how Robert Wise basically gave in and shot it in semi-darkness in an attempt to calm things down. He liked the silhouette so well he decided to keep it.

And I'm amazed that I still find things to notice in the movie that I've never really noticed before, like the shot that pans upward at the wedding, focusing in on the beautiful church altar, then swings to the bell-towers as we note the passing of time, then seems to hover in mid-air as we find our focus on a nazi flag and a square full of goose-stepping soldiers. I got shivers last night seeing that, noting how quickly and powerfully our attention was moved from the altar to the flag, and how that seemed to symbolize, in just a few seconds, exactly how Germany had swallowed up Austria. Only of course, not swallowed it up entirely, as we see in subsequent scenes of quiet courage.

What a great movie. What a great week for comfort food.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Multitude Monday (Counting One Thousand Gifts)

The weekend provided some good time to rest and catch-up on things here at home. The weather was beautiful too, even though it got a tad chillier again. At least not as cold as the week before! I think our leaves are at their peak...

I'm trying to be better at counting my blessings, and am trying to remember to share some of them each Monday (or at least some Mondays!) on my blog. This is an ongoing project; I got the idea from the Gratitude Community at Holy Experience. So far it's been a good exercise, helping to keep me more conscious of the many people and things I have to be grateful for.

Today I'm feeling especially grateful for:

5. Time spent in the little gazebo park yesterday with the sweet girl. There are several lovely trees there, truly at the peak of their colors (I'll try to post some photos later on). While she piled leaves high and played, first alone and then with some thoughtful older kids from the neighborhood (kids we'd never met before) I had the chance to just sit nearby and rest and write some snippets of poetry.

6. Old movies. Sometimes there's just nothing better than popping in an old movie and snuggling down under a fleece blanket to watch it. Last night I watched most of the first half of The Sound of Music, and it brought back such lovely memories from my childhood, especially the time I saw it on the big screen with my Dad and sister.

7. Good sermons. I am feeling so thankful for the quality of preaching in our church right now. Our pastor has been preaching a particularly rich sermon series on 2nd Corinthians, and I almost always leave with so much to ponder. Yesterday was especially thought-provoking, all about authentic discipleship; lots there for the Lord to work deeper into my heart.

8. Far-away friends who continue to love us and partner with us in ministry. So, so thankful for these folks.

9. A husband who prays for me, learns and grows with me, encourages me, and makes me laugh. I wish I could remember what we got the giggles about late last night, when we were both feeling extra silly and tired. I'm sure it will come back to me sometime!

10. Beautiful music. This week, especially Bach, and especially the Well-Tempered Clavier. I've been listening to a wonderful 2-CD set from our public library, with the songs played by a pianist named Vladimir Feltsman. I love that the sweet girl is really responding to Bach too. She's been asking for him by name...that is, when she isn't asking for doo-wop (which has recently become one of her favorite types of music...yes, another library CD getting a lot of play!).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lovely Links

Two blessings to my weekend...too lovely not to share.

One is this wonderful blog post by Karen Edmisten. I'm very thankful she "dipped into her archives" to re-post "When They're Older..." a reflection on parenting and "living in the moment" that moved me to tears (even while I grinned wryly at how much I saw myself and our family in it). Every once in a while, I read something that's so moving, so right, so much something I need to hear at this precise moment that I think, "Well, Lord, that was for me, wasn't it?" Of course I know it's not *just* for me! Which is just one reason I decided to share it.

The other is a beautiful ballad that my friend Erin posted on YouTube. It's called Lucy's Lament, and is inspired, as so many of Erin's creations are, by her love for a particular story or character, in this case Lucy Pevensie of Narnia. Erin is a marvelous poet. In fact, I first got to know her (and I'm so thankful I did) after she posted this poem a few years ago on Epinions. I found it so moving that I wrote her an email about it, and the rest, as they say, is history. A handful of years, much correspondence, a couple of re-reading blogs, and two real-life visits later, she and I are still friends -- and I still love this poem. I'm so glad she has now set it to music.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It Turns Out She's Tib

The sweet girl and I have both had a difficult week, individually and together. This isn't a place I've designated for whining (I save that for my precious & patient husband, or my journal, and sometimes my prayers -- I'm SO thankful God is patient and really wants to hear what's on my heart!) so I'll just say that it's been a week full of learnings for us both. And a week to try my patience on.

In the midst of the hard stuff, some of which is just mundane, tiring stuff, one bright spot has been our daily read-aloud time. For S. is absolutely loving -- nay, adoring -- the first Betsy-Tacy books. We read the first three around the time she was five, and she seemed to enjoy them then, but I guess it was a bit early. She claimed not to remember them very well. But judging from her delighted response now, she is definitely ready for them!

We zipped through Betsy-Tacy and moved right on in to Betsy-Tacy and Tib. "Could we ready just ONE more chapter please?" has been the week's mantra. And yes, I'm a sucker, especially when it comes to reading books I love so much. Despite not getting nearly enough done this week on a number of writing, teaching and household projects, I find myself saying "sure! yes! you bet!" and we read another chapter.

The most eye-opening thing for me has been to see her response to Tib. I've always related most to Betsy (the imaginative story-teller) and in some respects to Tacy (I was just about that desperately shy in my very earliest years) but the sweet girl, with her strongly literal streak, really "gets" Tib. When Betsy plans something outrageous and Tib looks admiring but politely skeptical...well, let's just say the sweet girl understands that look. After all, jumping off things really ISN'T flying, though it sure is fun to do it, and OK, Betsy, we'll humor you and call it flying. And hey, by the way, mixing everything you can find in the kitchen in one big pan really ISN'T cooking, and probably is going to taste pretty bad. But OK, Betsy, we know it will be fun if we do it together, especially if you make up a song about it.

It makes me chuckle to see how much my daughter relates to Tib, and it also gives me insight into some of the ways in which she and I relate to one another. I guess good story-telling does that: holds up mirrors for us, mirrors we can look into and see reflections of ourselves and others, or at least reflections that remind us of different parts of who we are. And yes, it's true, there really ISN'T a palace inside the mirror, and beautiful Aunt Dolly really lives in Milwaukee anyway, not a palace. But OK, Betsy, we'll all get mirrors and pretend we're walking on the ceiling because it sure is fun to imagine. Especially when we can do it together.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I just found out that a very dear man passed away last night. He turned 98 years old yesterday, and he is one of my sister's closest friends (more like family than friend). He was active and vibrant until almost the end. I had the privilege of getting to know him and his beautiful wife many years ago.

Thinking about him today, and about precious friendships and how quickly life passes, even when we're given a longer-than-usual allotment of years. I found myself trying to remember a certain poem about autumn and loss, but I couldn't recall precisely what it was. So I wrote this instead. It's still a rough draft, but from the heart.


A poem is on the tip of my tongue.
A friend has died, and it is October,
the season of loss and deepening cold,
rich orange and red, old brown, bright gold.
A poem is on the tip of my tongue,
but images hover, words escape me.
I can’t even recall if it was one I wrote
or one I discovered late one night
in a pool of yellow lamplight
when I couldn’t sleep
because poetry beckoned.
It called to me then, it calls to me still,
a small gem, a careful bit of art,
a tiny but defiant act of will,
a bit of beauty in the midst of grief,
planted in a book, or loose in sheaf.
What did it say? I’m no pretender.
A poem is on the tip of my tongue,
a friend has died, and I can’t remember
what the poem once said.
I only sense that the words were right,
important, precious, the ones
needed now in this time of grief.
The words drifting past like
a red and orange leaf.
Strange how close they seem,
wind-blown, and with a purpose.

~EMP 10/18/09

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Take Two of These and Call Me in the Morning

"Betsy-Tacy and ginger-ale. That sounds like a really good idea."

I think those were the sweet girl's exact words to me earlier today, and I heartily concurred. She sipped bubbly gingery soda and I read the first three chapters of the first Betsy-Tacy book. We decided to go back to the beginning, since she doesn't remember the first couple of books very well. Oh, how I love those opening chapters of B-T! "You needn't call names!" The little glass pitcher with the gold rim. The gift of a friend. Tacy's mother's unfrosted cake. The supper bench. Betsy's first story. Floating away on pink feather clouds.

We had a bit of a "lost day" today. I was up incredibly late working on an editing project so was exhausted from the moment the alarm went off. Then the sweet girl felt sick at breakfast and seems to have been battling a stomach bug or some sort of virus all day (no fever, but not appetite or energy either). I spent an hour plus in a dental chair this afternoon, having a tooth rebuilt by my amazing dentist (but nevertheless returning home with a splitting headache). D. had to work all day (still there) except for the hour or so he was home while I was at the dentist.

Did I mention it's in the 30s outside and pouring rain? In mid-October? So we gave in and turned on the heat. The apartment has been sooooo cold, but we were trying to hold out turning on the heat till November because we know how awful our heating bills will be this winter. I wasn't expecting snow showers in the forecast this early in October though. (I laughed and told D. that you know you're tired when you almost fall asleep while the dentist is drilling and rebuilding your tooth...but hey, it was cozy and warm in that office!)

S. and I cuddled late this afternoon and read each other books. Well, I tried to read, through a still-numb mouth, and she actually did read. She read aloud to me, some of her old picture book favorites (Old Bear, We're Going on a Leaf Hunt, Everywhere Babies) and I dozed, curled up in my bathrobe, and tried to pretend I hadn't been sleeping when she would stop to ask "Mommy, are you asleep?" Fortunately I know Old Bear by heart, so I could instantly cotton on to wherever we were in the plot.

So...just a weird, bleary day in many ways...but a good one in many ways too. And hopefully we'll all get to bed early tonight and wake up refreshed in the morning.

Monday, October 12, 2009

An Attitude of Gratitude

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite hymns was Count Your Blessings. You may remember it:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings,
name them one by one, Count your blessings,
see what God hath done! Count your blessings,
name them one by one,
Count your many blessings see what God has done.

One reason I loved it so much was because my big sister Martha used to sing it with me, and she always made the chorus so much fun. When she got to the second "name them one by one" she would slow down dramatically and then add "two, three, four," as a melodic aside. Although this isn't a song I hear sung much in churches nowadays, I still sometimes sing it and I always add my sister's creative flourish.

I've been thinking for a while of joining the "Gratitude Community" over at the blog Holy Experience. It's a wonderful blog (which should have long ago made it into the sidebar of my favorites) written by Ann Voskamp, the author of the geography/earth science text I'm using with the sweet girl in our grammar 2 year. She's encouraging people to cultivate gratitude, and her "Gratitude Community" is a place where people join in by choosing to consciously list things they're grateful for, either in a private journal and/or via blogs. The idea as I see it is not to fixate on the counting itself or the number (though she suggests members strive to eventually list 1000 things they're grateful for) but to let the exercise itself nourish one's inner attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

I often find myself journaling about the things I'm most thankful for, but in these busy and way-too-full days, I think I need the added encouragement of walking beside others who are doing it regularly. I want it to become a habit. So I'll be trying to cultivate more times of thanksgiving in my prayers and private journaling, and on Mondays, I will try to share some of those things I'm thankful for here.

So here's the first handful of things I'm thankful for:

1. Our church is out of the basement. After years of worshiping in our temporary space downstairs, our small church family moved to our newly-renovated-but-still-in-process sanctuary late this summer. On Saturday, our bishop/archbishop came to bless the space, and to install our interim pastor as our rector. It was a joyous celebration with the space filled to the brim with friends old and new. I just kept thinking "how beautiful is the body of Christ."

2. The sweet girl played drums at the offertory. Yes, my precious seven year old, once such a shy toddler she burst into tears and ran away from a ballet recital, played drums with several of her musical classmates at the worship service. (Our music minister has been teaching world drums at a weekly class.) She was the youngest one playing, and she did great, which blessed her parents' hearts on all kinds of levels. Perhaps the deepest level was the song they played ("Nothing But the Blood of Jesus," long a favorite) and realizing she was actually part of the worship team. A close second was how many members of the congregation came up and said something encouraging to her or to us later. This is the community she's spent her whole life in, was baptized in, spoke some of her first words in on a miraculous Easter Sunday in 2005. Some of these folks have prayed for her since before she was born.

3. The annual family tradition of going to Ohio for an October craft & music festival. We went on Sunday (after the late evening at worship on Saturday) and it was just a gorgeous autumn day. We watched the clog dancers (the sweet girl's favorite), wandered around looking at beautiful handcrafted arts, sat under yellowing trees and listened to our favorite bluegrass band (we hear them every year)...and I ate sweet potato fries.

4. My mom and sister Mary's recent trip to Asheville. They got to go together to the annual play about the life of Thomas Wolfe. My paternal grandparents (long passed on) are characters in the play, and M & M said it was so amazing to see them depicted on stage. They got to have dinner with the playwright, producer and the actor playing our grandfather. I'm thankful for people who care about writing (and acting) good stories that honor the lives of real people. I'm thankful my mom and sister had this precious time together.

holy experience

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"How to Talk to Children About Art": A Book I'm "Reading At"

I've been realizing that I tend to categorize books I'm reading into two major categories: books I read, and books I "read at."

"Read at" is a funny expression, I suppose (does it come from my southern roots?) but it seems to capture what I mean by the way I read certain books. Although many books have narratives that inspire me to read from cover to cover, others are books that I only dip into periodically, or read for a spell and then go back to later.

Some of my "read at" books would best be classified as reference books, while others are longer books that I find myself taking breaks from but going back to. For me, those are most often history books. History tends to hum, like a giant refrigerator, in the background of whatever else I'm reading. I have favorite periods of history I go back to especially often.

"Read at" books sometimes get a bit shortchanged: they can't always be added to a neat little list of "books read this month" or even "books read this season" (like my quarterly reading round-ups). Sometimes I "read at" a book for a long enough period of time that I do eventually finish it, but even then, I find reviewing it more challenging.

So every once in a while, I plan to do a post where I talk about some of the books I'm "reading at" -- the ones humming in the background while I'm busy reading other things.

One such "at" book for me right now is How to Talk to Children About Art by Francoise Barbe-Gall. I found this book by accident when I was looking for another book about art for children: it was one of those eye-grabbers in our county library system. I placed it on hold and then forgot about it until it came in.

But it's a terrific little book. Just the right size to tuck into a bag and take to a museum, if you're so inclined, and it would be very useful there. In addition to a large section of discussions of actual paintings, under the heading "How to Look at a Picture," the book also contains two other sections. One is called "A Good Start" and offers practical guidance on how to help a child develop an interest in paintings, ways to get the most out of museum trips with children, and what kinds of paintings are best to show children, depending on their ages.

The ages the author addresses are 5-7, 8-10, and 11-13 year olds. The book doesn't tackle the topic of art with adolescents, but my guess is, if your child is good and hooked on art by the time he or she is a teenager, then further exploration will unfold naturally. Because it only goes up through 13, the ages don't quite equate to the "trivium" stages of learning, but the suggestions for each of the age groups did seem to roughly correspond to learning styles and methods most classical homeschoolers will be familiar with from their understanding of the grammar/logic/rhetoric phases. In other words, the focus of learning moves from concrete to more analytical.

Th middle section, entitled "It's OK Not to Know," includes questions and answers about museums, art and art history. I've learned a lot myself from perusing this part.

The final section offers 30 paintings (produced here in small color reproductions) with more questions and answers, sort of discussion starters/prompts, if you will, about each of the paintings. The author has colored coded the pages so you know which Q&As will help you most when talking with children in the aforementioned age groups.

The organization reminds me of a field guide! But instead of color codes for bird plumage, there are color codes for kids. So the "red" sections provide prompts where the goals are straightforward: "identity what you see in the painting...identify the various elements of a painting" (not always easy even for adults, the author says). Then the "yellow" section provides "slightly more searching questions" to help understand the painting, questions that "require some thought and additional time". Finally, the "blue" section helps you find ways to "consider the painting in relation to the outside world" which includes thoughts about the painter and the work's historical importance.

Some of the practical advice in this book seems so obvious, but I found myself thinking about it a lot when we went to the Carnegie Museum of Art this past Sunday (it was a free day!) with our seven year old. I remembered the author's suggestion that I get down on her eye-level and see what she was seeing (and that's eye-opening!) and also the suggestion that I let her tell me what she liked in a particular room full of art (rather than dragging her over to the things I consider most noteworthy) and then spend time looking at it and talking about it together. We also took the sweet girl's "I'm tired" and "my feet hurt" a lot more to heart, and cut the wandering-through-gallery part of the afternoon a little shorter than we might have normally. I agree that it's much better to have her leave with good memories of really looking at a few things than to drag her around till the whole family's exhausted in some effort to cram in more than she's really ready to see.

I've not read all the notes on all the paintings yet (that's part of what makes this book a "read at") but every time I pick it up, I enjoy it more and learn something else new. I like it so much, I'm considering adding it to our permanent library.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

100 Species Challege #9: Jewelweed

I'm so far behind on posting pictures/notes for our 100 Species Challenge that I'd blush except for the fact that I'm enjoying crawling along at turtle-pace. The pace seems to fit the way I find myself looking at the world these days: longer, more slowly, with real attention. At the rate I'm going, I may finish this project in time for my 50th birthday (that gives me about 8 1/2 more years...)

And I'm going to have to fudge this entry a bit because I don't have an original picture of the plant. I promise you that I did see it, back in September when we picked wildflowers at a nearby park.

Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, and though I dutifully picked a small, fragile jewelweed (or to be honest, had Dana pick it, as he was wearing long pants and sneakers and could traipse into the undergrowth to get it for me) it had faded completely by the time we got home. I guess there's a reason these flowers are sometimes called "Spotted Touch-Me-Nots" (Impatiens capensis).

But you can see a lovely close-up photo here. It reminds me of a cross between a miniature tiger lily and an elongated violet.

I found this picture -- and the identification of the flower -- at the terrific website It specifically tracks wildflowers in my region (western PA) and I love the search engine, where you can look things up by color, leaf or petal shape, month sighted, region, common name, scientific name, and many other ways (sometimes in combination). I found the jewelweed's orange color and delicate spots quite striking, so this was easy: I entered orange for color and September for month sighted, and was able to ID the flower in a matter of seconds. I hope other areas of the country have websites like this one!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Miss Summer and Mr. Autumn

This past week it turned downright chilly. After a mild and warm-sometimes-hot September, the move into October seemed to prod our little part of the world into settling down to some seriously cooler weather.

It's been overcast here for a few days (a reminder of the gray winter to come) and sometimes quite rainy and windy. The sweet girl's had some congestion and a croupy cough. We've had to go digging for sweaters and I'm discovering just how few pants and long-sleeved shirts she has that actually fit...she seems to have lots of things she's either just grown out of or hasn't yet grown into!

Yesterday we were walking briskly down the sidewalk and feeling buffeted by a chill wind. S. leaned into it, pretending the wind was even stronger than it was -- "look, I'm in a hurricane!" she exclaimed, flailing with her arms as though swimming. We remembered how hot it was just a week or so ago, and suddenly she chuckled. "Mommy, summer and autumn are neighbors."

Next door neighbors, we agreed.

And ever since then, I can't get images out of my head: Miss Summer is tall, slender, dressed in a bright green and yellow sundress and sandals, her toenails painted bright colors, while Mr. Autumn is a bit older, wearing jeans and a rumpled orange sweater and smoking a musky pipe. I think they do sometimes sit on each other's porches, sipping sweet tea and exchanging quips about the weather. Miss Summer collects seashells; Mr. Autumn collects leaves. They both love those blue sky days filled with puffs and streaks of white clouds.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

High School is Just "Heaven to Betsy"!

That's the name of my review of Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, which I posted at Epinions the other day in honor of the Harper Betsy-Tacy reissues.

I had a lovely time re-reading and then reviewing HTB. And of course, I found myself wanting to keep going, so I'm now re-reading Betsy in Spite of Herself. Hopefully a review forthcoming in October!

I also got my copy of the reissue of Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (they've been bound as one volume) for giveaway! That's right, it's Betsy-Tacy convert week. I found a book-loving family at our church that had never heard of the series. They have two girls, somewhere around the ages of 10 and 12, and I passed the book on to them along with a letter telling them about my own lifelong love of the series.

All the folks participating in the B-T Convert Week have been assigned a society. I'm a Zetamathian, just like Betsy. Go Zets! Though darn, I hear that cute new boy Joe Willard is a Philo...

All this Lovelace reading has me in a very Betsy-Tacy frame of mind, so I've also spent time this week revisiting a B-T writing project I started last year. I'm tentatively calling it "The Betsy-Tacy Guide to Americana." More on this soon, if I'm able to continue working on it.

For Your Listening Pleasure

We've been enjoying two audio books around our house these past few weeks.

The first is the James Herriot Treasury for Children, as read by Jim Dale of Harry Potter audio book fame. The James Herriot treasury is truly beloved by our family...we read it at least annually, and I tend to bring it out in the autumn.

I was delighted to find this delightful audio version at the library, and the sweet girl enjoyed it at rest time for two weeks running. Dale does a very fine job of reading Herriot's tender Yorkshire tales about cows, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. And isn't it fitting that a man with the last name of Dale would read stories that made the Yorkshire dales so beloved to so many readers?

The other audio book is one that my husband and I have been enjoying during our occasional lunchtimes together. It's The Book of Three, the first book in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. I just finished reading the whole five-book series a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed them so much I told D. that I hoped I could read them aloud to him (a common practice around here). But the more I contemplated reading them aloud, the more I wished that I could hear someone else pronounce some of the Welsh names first!

So I went looking for an audio version of the first book in the series, and now that we've started, I wonder if we won't just keeping going this way. That's because I'm completely in love with narrator James Langton's interpretation of these characters. I confess I'm not always a huge audio book fan, often because I think the reader doesn't do the work justice (or read it the way I've been hearing it in my head, or the way I would read it aloud...I love to read aloud!) but Langton's narration is amazing. He's created incredibly distinctive voices for each of the characters, most of which feel "just right." I'm especially impressed with his reading of Eilonwy (and yes, I can say her name correctly now!) and of Fflewddur Fflam, the courageous and funny bard with the truth-telling harp.

Listening to The Book of Three after finishing the whole series has also been a pleasure because I'm realizing anew what an excellent job Alexander did of setting up so many of the important events and moments in the series right here at the start. So much of The High King, the fifth and final book, rings more powerfully when you go full-circle back to the beginning. I'm also realizing anew just how funny the books are. Langton's reading makes the humorous parts, even the small and subtle ones, shine through. I highly recommend this audio version, but I hope that you can find it at the library as it appears to be out of print. (I just noted that the only copy available on Amazon is selling for over $100!)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blogging Betsy-Tacy

In honor of the reissues of the last six books in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (Heaven to Betsy, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy Was a Junior, Betsy and Joe, Betsy and the Great World and Betsy's Wedding are being reissued this month as Harper Perennial Classics) a number of writers will be posting on their blogs about the Betsy-Tacy books for the next couple of weeks. The tour is already in progress: today's stop is at Here in the Bonny Glen, where one of my favorite bloggers, Melissa Wiley, weighs in with delightful ruminations on Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, the third book in the series.

Big Hill
is also one of my favorite books in the series. I reviewed it at Epinions back in 2006, under the title "Hills Were Higher Then." As I wrote in that review:

The older I get, and the more times I read these delightful stories, the more impressed I grow with their narrative artistry. Having recently re-visited these first three books, and knowing so well all that's still to come in the final seven, I'm especially moved by the way Lovelace used the landscape of Deep Valley's hills to portray both the concrete, physical community the girls grew up in, and the symbolic, more poetic image of the "wide world" that surrounded them. In each book, the girls find a way of pushing the boundaries of those hills a little further: from longing to climb the big hill near their homes, to actually doing it, to finally climbing all the way over it (in this installment) and finding a completely different community of people on the other side. Though this is the only book to reference the hills in its title, Lovelace will continue throughout the series to push at the notion of how the ever expanding boundaries of the world shape Betsy -- how the hills that surround her hometown confer familiarity and comfort and yet how they beckon her to step out, confident and curious, into a much wider space.

I just finished my umpteenth re-read of Heaven to Betsy (the first of the high school books) and plan to post a review at Epinions in the coming week, which I'll link here. I also want to do a post about how I first came to love the books, and the long journey to find and read them all!

I was delighted to hear about the blog tour. Although I'm not officially part of it, I hope at least some Betsy-Tacy fans will meander off the main drag and find my little path here, as I plan to post more about these beloved books in the coming couple of weeks. They've been such a huge part of my life for so many years -- what joy to be able to talk about them with other people who love them too!

Astronomy Picture of the Day

A friend recently told me about the Astronomy Picture of the Day website, and it's become one of my favorite online stops. The photos are usually fascinating and beautiful, sometimes taken of planets, stars, nebulas and galaxies but sometimes taken of things in the nightsky as seen over lands and seas here on earth. As much as I love the mysterious space photos (definitely the sweet girl's favorites) I'm partial to the ones taken from the surface of our own beloved planet.

Yesterday's photo, of gorgeous green auroras over the Northwest Territories in Canada, just about took my breath away. Something about the juxtaposition of the green lights in the blue skies, and that bright round white moon shining over the water, just filled my jar of beauty to overflowing. The heavens are telling the glory of God!

You can see yesterday's photo here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Inner Life of Atticus Finch

Last night I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It's not the first time I've read it, but it had been a few years.

What amazes me about some books is their ability to pull you back in so completely, even if you've read them before. That happened to me this time around: though I remembered much of the story, I felt absolutely compelled to keep going. I literally couldn't put it down for about three hours (and three straight hours of reading is unfortunately not something I can often allow myself these days, unless I have the excuse of not feeling well, which I had last evening).

I was also unprepared for how incredibly moving I would find the ending still. You would think that, minus the "surprise" element, the impact would lessen. Not so. The near perfect-pitch of the writing in those final pages grabbed me all over again. I chuckled over barefooted Scout in her "ham" costume, falling asleep and then running onto the stage late, to the consternation of the school-teacher who had poured so much heartfelt sincerity into the Maycomb County pageant. And then as soon as we left the comfort of the school carnival, I felt my heart clutch with fear as Jem and Scout walked home on that dark, shadowy Halloween night, stalked by the shuffling footsteps of...well, they don't know who (though the reader has a pretty good idea, which only ups the fright). I felt myself almost faint with relief when their unlikely rescuer appeared. And I dissolved into tears, lots and lots of tears, as I always do whenever I get to those two precious, whispered words "Hey, Boo," spoken later by Scout, in the warm lamplight of Jem's room.

Truly this is a brilliant novel. Just brilliant. I think I finally had a glimpse of understanding last night, as I closed its pages again, as to why Harper never wrote another one. If you could write one book this powerful, this beautiful, this profound, would you feel a strong need to write another one? Maybe. I don't know.

Part of its brilliance, I'm coming to see, is the way it counterbalances the two major story-elements: the children's obsession with their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, and Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of heinous crimes. How those stories weave together, through Scout's eyes and in Scout's voice, is just amazing story-telling.

And then there's Atticus. Oh, how I love Atticus Finch. I've been realizing lately how often my favorite fictional characters are like Atticus: the ones where still waters run very, very deep. The ones we get to know only obliquely, through someone else's eyes, thus primarily through their actions. We feel like we know Atticus through and through when this story is over, having seen him through the respectful and loving eyes of his daughter (herself a grown woman looking back and telling the story of her childhood, which adds another layer of complexity) and we really do know almost everything important, or at least important to the tale. We know him for his courtesy to everyone, his firm but open and easy discipline of his children, his respect for their housekeeper/nurse Calpurnia. We know him for what he doesn't do, as well as what he does: he doesn't ever carry a gun, even when it would seem expedient, but as it turns out and we discover on the day a mad dog wanders into the neighborhood, he's one of the best shots in the county. The fact that this is news to his wondering children also speaks volumes.

There's so much about Atticus we'd love to know, but never find out. What does he think about in the evenings as he reads that newspaper, or reads books in his office? How much grief does he feel over his departed wife? Does he doubt his own wisdom in raising his children? (We get hints that he does.) Does he fear for his life more than he lets on, when so many people are angry at him for defending Tom? Why has he chosen to distance himself (but only so much) from his distinguished family? Where did he get his integrity, his honesty, his desire to be the same person in one place that he is in another? Who instilled in him those exquisite, authentic manners, and the vision to see other people the way he sees them? What are his prayers like? His favorite portions of the Bible? The novels he goes back to time and time again?

I love asking the questions. I love that Harper Lee has given us a character so richly layered, so real, that I feel like there must be answers somewhere, even if only in stories and books that never got written.