Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Before March Slips Away: Birthday Flower Portraits

I had a lovely birthday last week. It rained (as it often does on my birthday; I've got wonderful rainy birthday memories!) and we went downtown to the conservatory to drink in great quantities of spring beauty. It's been quite cold here with trees barely in bud, so seeing quantities of blossoms in warm greenhouse conditions was balm to every weary part of me.

I could easily spend at least one day a week in the conservatory and never grow tired of it.

Thank you God for most this amazing day...

Monday, March 30, 2009

So Much Math, So Little Time

The sweet girl was finishing up her math lesson today when she suddenly said, oh so sagely, "It's impressive how many kinds of math there are. You can do math with almost anything as long as you have more than one!"

And then a few minutes later: "Actually you can do math even when you only have one. Look..." (holding out one colored pencil) "here's one pencil. Take it away and you have none!"

Saturday, March 28, 2009

No Fridge Required

Did you know that you can create poetry on the magnetic poetry website?

I just created this one:

your window
soft sky
warm morning
most joy

Lovely site!

HT to Karen Edmisten

Down From the Shelf

I'm trying to get better about jotting some family reading notes each week.

The sweet girl has been into Shirley Hughes again. Her books are regular favorites around here, but we go through seasons when we read her a lot. This week it's been the Alfie and Annie Rose Storybook with the added, first-time pleasure of S. actually reading some of the stories on her own. Last night we read my favorite in the collection, "Mr. MacNally's Hat," before bedtime.

I've mostly been reading church history this week. I try to read one to two weeks ahead of the current session for which my students are writing, so this week I've been delving into the Wesleys. I also began the intro to David Adam's book Aidan, Bede and Cuthbert (isn't that a marvelous title? Kind of an "ABC" of Celtic saints!).

I'm continuing to read a biography (yes, a grown-up one) of Wilson Bentley, called Snowflake Man. Nothing very lyrical about the prose, but it's well-researched and provides a fascinating glimpse into turn of the 20th century Vermont -- and one man's creative obsession.

Just started Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death, another Vane/Wimsey novel she wrote (this one based on Sayers' Wimsey Papers, not on an unfinished Sayers novel).

I think D. has been reading Book, Bath, Table and Time again (subtitled "Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry").

We've been doing about two chapters per day of the Burgess Bird Book for Children during read-aloud time. I'm glad I held off on this one. What a great time to read about returning springtime birds! We also read Jim Arnosky's I See Animals Hiding and were thrilled to realize that we could identify the woodcock on the cover (thanks to what we've been learning in Burgess).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In honor of the celebration of the annunciation, I thought I would post a poem I wrote many years ago about my favorite painting, H.O. Tanner's "Annunciation."

Tanner Annunciation

She waits with her hands clasped
and one toe peeking out
beneath the hem of her robe,
as the angel arrives.
The angel arrives, glides
in with golden precision,
illumines the dusky
corners of the room with light.
It is night, and she must decide
to hear what ears cannot
believe and see what eyes
can barely see. Hands clasped,
eyes open, she waits for
the voice that speaks her future
into being with just a few
small words. One small
response is all she needs
to make in this moment.
It is enough and more
for the world to come.
It is risk and dare, leap
and live, room for God,
space for love, in a crowded
space and time that makes
little room. She waits,
hands clasped, eyes opening,
for the light to leave once
the job is done, but the light
stays with her still.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Saturn's Moons and the Eastern Bluebird's Song

Good links from science studies this week...

The site whatbird.com has all sorts of information about birds: illustrations, photos, written descriptions, range maps, interesting facts, and recordings of bird calls. Here's the one we looked at today for the Eastern Bluebird. It's a virtual field-guide and a great accompaniment to our current reading in the Burgess Bird Book for Children.

Hubblesite, the website for the Hubble telescope, posted this amazing picture of Saturn and four of its moons just a few days ago. You have to really zoom to see two of them. The sweet girl was in awe of this photo and so were her Dad and I. Obviously we're getting a jump on 2nd grade earth science!

I poked around Hubblesite a bit more and was excited to see that they post photos regularly. You can also search their archives by category. A great site!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

That's One Happy Solar System!

The sweet girl has become utterly fascinated with everything to do with outer space. She's always loved the moon and stars (looking at them, reading about them, talking about them) but in the past week or so she's become very enamored of learning about the planets in our solar system.

After months of calling herself Ramona, she's now dubbed herself "Saturn Girl!" and has taken to wearing a cut-out construction paper version of the ringed planet taped to her shirt.

Best of all, she's begun drawing diagrams of the solar system. She tries hard to get them in their proper places around the sun and to color them close to the colors represented in the books we've been reading. My favorite picture is the one she drew today and taped to the kitchen cabinet. "The planets are very happy!" she informed us, and indeed they are. Every single one of them (except Pluto, who is too small and dark and faraway for us to see his face) has a wonderful smiling face on the surface. Saturn looks like a cheerful bird, his rings somehow resembling wings. Venus' yellow sulfur clouds billow up like bright curls. And smiling Earth appears to be wearing a cloud-shaped hat.

It's hard to feel despondent about anything with such a cheerful bit of universe peeking at me every time I go to get a clean glass.

Somehow I have a feeling C.S. Lewis would chuckle over all this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Yes, I'm a day late, but I had to fight round 2 of the terrible intestinal virus (it's apparently that and not flu) and spent yesterday in bed again. Let me tell you, it's really no fun getting blitzed by the same germ twice when you haven't had a chance to recover from the first round.

At least my pajamas are green, so I was still in proper St. Patty's Day attire, if not quite the outfit I was hoping to wear!

Here's what I was planning to post yesterday, in honor of the feast day of one of my favorite saints:

My review of our family's favorite picture book on the life of St. Patrick, Tomie DePaola's Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland.

A link to Bob Hartman's book Early Saints of God, which contains a wonderful profile/story about Patrick for young listeners. This is a great book we've used extensively for the past couple of years, especially during November (following All Saints Day). I think it's out of print, but Amazon still has a number of used copies, some of them quite inexpensive.

The recipe for Irish Soda Bread that the sweet girl and I had planned to make yesterday. My nausea and exhaustion prevented that one, but we hope to make it soon. If anyone beats us to it, let us know how it turns out!

Monday, March 16, 2009

"The Land of Counterpane"

"When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day..."

Remember the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson? I hadn't thought of it in a long while, but had cause to remember it yesterday as "I was sick and lay a-bed." I seriously think this was the first time in years I'd spent the majority of the day in bed, but I got run over by a little truck called intestinal flu on Saturday. Wham!

Actually the last four days have been a foggy blur of illness. It started when the sweet girl threw up during math lesson on Thursday. No, math doesn't make her sick (I promise!) she was just the first one to succumb to the germs. She was sick on Thursday and Friday, spending all of Friday in her pajamas, a very rare event. She was definitely ill, but it never got too terrible...she was mostly just lethargic.

I dragged during those two days, not feeling too well myself, but when she turned the corner, I mistakenly thought I'd beaten the germs off too. Got up Saturday morning feeling more or less normal. By 2, I could hardly stand upright. I slept all afternoon. By Saturday evening, I knew I'd been hit with a much worse version of the illness. I'll spare you the details, but it was pretty awful and I was up most of Saturday night.

I didn't have any toys to keep me occupied yesterday, but I did keep a book next to me at all times, for those moments when I woke up and felt like reading before I succumbed to the next wave of sleep. The sweet girl kindly came in (after she and her Daddy got home from church) to check on me and tuck me in. She tenderly patted my head, then grinned her gap-tooth grin (finally lost that loose top tooth) and tucked my book in beside me, pulling the covers up around its binding. It happened to be a library copy of Sayers' Gaudy Night...somehow I've misplaced my copy, and I wanted to re-read it before I reviewed it. Somehow I was so moved the last time I read it I wasn't actually able to write a review; I needed to let it percolate for a while. I can tell I'm smitten with this book because I just read it in January (for the first time in several years) and already felt ready for it again.

Grateful just to have gotten through the past few days. I've still hardly eaten anything (though thankful for gatorade) and am feeling pretty weak and wiped out. But hopefully the worst is behind us...we're hoping D. never catches this!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What Difference Does a Pen Make?

One of my favorite parts of Andy Crouch's book Culture-Making is what he terms the "five questions." These are five questions he suggests that we can put to any cultural artifact or culture-making endeavor, often with interesting results. As we contemplate any bit of culture, from something as seemingly small as making an omelet to something as complex as the engineering and building of the interstate highway system, we can ask ourselves:

1- what does it assume about the world?
2- what does it assume about the way the world should be?
3- what does it make possible?
4- what does it make impossible (or at least much more difficult)?
5- what new culture is created in response to it?

I've had fun applying these questions. In fact, they keep popping up as I'm reading, looking at, or discussing various bits of culture.

Every time I teach church history in any form (lately almost always English church history) when we get to the reformation, we end up discussing the importance of the printing press as part of a cultural "tipping point" that enabled the reformation (and reforming ideas) to take hold and snowball as they did. I'm used to thinking about the transition to print as a major cultural innovation that had a far-reaching ripple effects.

But how about the invention of the pen?

Not even the first pen, mind you, but the first metal pen. I've been reading Kitty Burns Florey's book Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, a sort of cultural history about the art of handwriting. Yesterday I got to her section on the transition from quill pens to metal tipped pens (the "metal nib" was patented in 1803) and I found myself fascinated...and asking Crouch's five questions.

It really was a transition. Quill pens had been around for ages and had spawned a whole little culture of their own. Many people were adept at making their own quills, though they were also manufactured and sold. Penknives were invented to cut and shape quills and to keep them sharp.

The transition to metal pens was a big deal, and not everyone was quick to embrace the change. Florey compared it to the way some people resisted the move to typewriters and then later computers. Apparently Dickens was one of the resisters: he kept on using a quill (and blue ink, which he said dried faster).

What did the transition to metal pens assume about the world or how the world should be? Well, it assumed that people needed writing implements that were easier to maintain, longer-lasting, and more portable.

What did it make possible? Longer letters, for one. As Florey points out, the summer before the metal pen was patented: "the poet Coleridge took off on a nine-day walking/writing tour among the peaks of the Lake District, carrying six quills and a portable inkwell. Four years later, his friend Wordsworth wrote an eighteen-page letter to a friend -- a feat he claimed was possible because he'd received a steel pen as a gift." Metal pens, because they were easier to handle, also made fancier handwriting scripts more possible (such as copperplate and Spencerian).

What did it make impossible (or at least much more difficult)? Well, most likely the art of quill making itself. As metal pens grew in popularity, probably fewer people knew how to turn a feather plucked from a goose in the barnyard into a passable pen. It may have meant that fewer such animals were raised in certain areas as their feathers were no longer necessary for the quill industry. It might make it more difficult for a very poor person who couldn't afford a pen at the shops to have the know-how to make one on their own...or to be able to find the instruments and ink connected with quill-making. It relegated quill-making and use to something quaint and old-fashioned.

What new culture was created in response to it? This is what really fascinated me. I've already mentioned fancier scripts came into vogue because of the ease of metal pens. But so did the screw-press, a machine which enabled metal pens to be stamped out, rounded and split by a machine (rather than made by hand). New inks had to be developed too, since the old ones were acid-based and those turned out to corrode metal pen points. Thomas Jefferson also invented something called the "polygraph machine" a kind of holder that attached a second metal pen to the one he was holding so that as he wrote, a second copy was automatically made.

Makes you want to stop and ask the five questions of all sorts of cultural transitions, doesn't it? Although we're often not as good at spotting the ones going on around us now!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Lenten Reading and More on Reading Trails (Strewn With Popcorn)

A few posts back, I mentioned that I was trying to decide what to read for my special Lenten reading this year. In the end, I decided to keep it simple.

It occurred to me ("like an ox I'm slow") that when the church calls us to observe a Holy Lent, the call is to self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, but the only reading specifically mentioned is "reading and meditating on God's holy Word." Which of course makes perfect sense and feels like a no-brainer, but it did dawn on me that stepping up my reading of and attentiveness to Scripture in this season should be reading priority number one in Lent.

I've decided to take Michael Card's advice and "flee to the life of Jesus." I'm reading through the gospel of Mark, not in any overly planned way (x amounts of chapters per day) but as I feel led. Each morning I'm opening to that gospel and I read until I hit something that I think I need to chew on more and then I stop and try to chew. Or else (to be perfectly honest) I read until I'm interrupted or I read what I can before I feel the pull into a busy morning. At any rate, my goal is to keep reading the gospel of Mark. If I finish it (and likely I will, as it's short) I'll start over and do it again. It's my Lenten road-map this year.

A few posts further back, I talked about the possibility of implementing other reading plans (not just seasonal ones) and promised another blog post about that. I'm sorry I've not written more but I've reached the conclusion that formal reading plans don't work well for me. I have what I've always termed a "popcorn brain" with one idea leading me to another. Often the connections come quickly, much as kernels popping in hot oil, one right after the other. I am trying to be more disciplined about the kinds of reading I do (looking for more of a balance in fiction/non-fiction, scholarly/popular) and about giving myself more time to really read with attention, and for formation, in books which richly pay back that sort of investment.

But it's very difficult for me to decide in advance everything that I might read in a given time. I value the freedom to chase down trails, to follow my instincts on a topic. I'm also starting to map my popcorn strewn reading trails, noting the connections as they occur, or at least sometime soon after.

For instance: Dorothy Sayers. Her work is my most recent reading/re-reading passion. It was originally sparked by my watching of the Petherbridge/Walters BBC series of three of the Wimsey-Vane novels. That sent me back to re-reading all of the Wimsey-Vane novels. And they led me (follow the popcorn trail!) to begin reading a work of literary and cultural criticism on the Wimsey novels (called Conundrums for the Long Weekend), then to the first formal biography of Sayers, written back in the 1970s (Such a Strange Lady). When I discovered that Jill Paton Walsh had completed the unfinished Wimsey-Vane novel Thrones, Dominations (found in manuscript in Sayers' attic after she died in 1957), I knew I wanted to read it. But I wanted to find out what kind of mystery novelist Walsh was first, so I proceeded to read three of her mysteries (two of which I thought terrific). I finally started Thrones, Dominations today. I'm excited about it, both because of what I learned about the unfinished manuscript in Conundrums and because I'm interested to see how Walsh's writing will mesh with Sayers' and how she shaped the unfinished novel.

I like this kind of freedom to explore a subject thoroughly and from all sorts of angles. I plan to keep reading Sayers this year -- her work and writing connected to her work. I've not read her drama or theological work in several years and would love to re-read Mind of the Maker and The Man Who Would Be King (maybe my Easter reading this year?). Certain essays, books and plays I've never read at all. I've not read her translation of Dante. Despite John Granger's inspiration I still feel some trepidation about tackling Dante, whom I never seemed to 'get' (even though I was an English major and probably should have).

My reading trails feel too organic to call them plans, but they work for me. If anyone else has similar stories to tell of reading "trails" you've followed, I'd love to hear about them.

Like Mother, Like Daughter: The Colonial Mob Cap Craze

I grew up about an hour and a half from colonial Williamsburg, which made it prime territory for elementary school field trips and family vacations. I have happy memories of traipsing through the many buildings in the historic area, marveling over the ways people used to make candles and soap, playing on the green, and goofing off with my sister around the "stocks," where colonial miscreants were put in irons if they broke the law.

Seven years ago, my husband and I went to colonial Williamsburg for what we fondly termed our last "couple vacation." We stayed in a quaint, old-fashioned lodge where each room was basically a tiny cottage that felt like your own postage-stamp sized house (with the tiniest shower imaginable). I was about seven months pregnant at the time, struggling with terrible congestion in my ears (the beginning of my ongoing ear problems) but we had a wonderful time. While we were there, we bought three hats: a black tri-cornered hat for D., and white, lacy "mob caps" for me and our baby-on-the-way. We couldn't resist the hats: I still fondly recalled loving the little "mob cap" I'd gotten on one of those long-ago family trips.

The sweet girl loved Williamsburg, even in utero. As we walked up and down the historic streets, me clad in good walking shoes and sitting down whenever my back protested, she kicked more often than was her usual habit (at least during the day...she was an active night-time baby!). D. and I laugh to remember how she always seemed to kick really hard when we paused near a particular restaurant, whose food smelled delicious (you could catch the scent on the sidewalk, as some diners dined outdoors) but whose menu prices were sky-high (way past our budget)!

I have no idea where the tri-cornered hat and grown-up mob cap went to -- likely relegated to a closet shelf. But the little girl mob cap is still around, and the sweet girl recently rediscovered it. We've told her about Williamsburg and we're hoping to make a family field trip there sometime near or during her third grade year. She's fascinated by the little lacy cap. Watching her wear it is almost like watching myself as an enthusiastic grade schooler all over again.

Yesterday she decided to wear it to church! I'm pretty sure it was the first time anyone had ever worn a colonial mob cab into our urban parish. What I loved was the double-takes and then the delighted grins as people saw her in it. Sometimes people flashed the smiles right at her, and sometimes they twisted around and grinned at us. I also deeply appreciated the cool junior high girl who made sure to tell her how much she liked it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Easy Reader Romance

I love the Mr. Putter & Tabby books written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard. They're definitely my favorite "easy reader" books written in this generation (Arnold Lobel's Frog & Toad books still stand in a classic place of honor from my own childhood).

Mr. Putter is a delightful old man who reminds me of so many of the neighbors I grew up with. He's slow-moving, kind, courteous, with a love of nostalgia. He spends a lot of time on his porch reading the paper. He's got creaky knees and can (on rare occasions) be a bit grumpy. Mostly he's just an all-around good guy. He lives with his equally creaky and sweet cat, a skinny yellowish-orange feline named Tabby. Their next door neighbors are the ever cheerful and resourceful Mrs. Teaberry and her drooling, good-natured bulldog Zeke.

My six year old really likes Mr. P & T. It's her mother who is crazy about them. I keep putting them on the library hold shelf. I suspect one day we will eventually read them all.

My friend Erin (long-time reader/encourager on this blog) has already beaten us to the punch. She loves the Mr. Putter & Tabby books even more than we do. She's not only read them all, she's reviewed them all on Epinions. (I confess I've reviewed a handful of them too, because they're so much to write about! But Erin has covered every single one!)

A few months ago, when Erin was writing a lot of her Putter reviews, she and I had a fun email exchange about the series. We both agreed that we thought Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry were probably falling in love, even if they didn't realize it. We certainly thought they would be wonderful as "more than friends." Of course we had a great laugh over our romantic sensibilities about an easy reader series of books (though I confessed I've been waiting for Bob the Builder to wake up and smell the coffee for years when it comes to his colleague Wendy) and we coined the phrase "Easy Reader Romance."

One of the things I love about Erin's creativity is that she doesn't let a good idea just sit there. When something inspires her, or tickles her funny bone (or both) she usually does something about it. The result is often charming and wonderful. That's definitely the case with her poem "Mr. Putter and Tabby Send the Note." If you're a fan of the series, check it out. You'll love it!