Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why I Love the Lectionary

Yesterday was one of those days when I remembered how close joy and sorrow can be. Some of the reasons I won't go into here, but maybe a "big picture" view will be enough to share what I mean.

My niece in Minnesota gave birth night before last to a precious baby girl. Mom, baby, and whole family are beautifully well, and there was great rejoicing throughout our extended family.

And yesterday's lectionary gave us the readings for Holy Innocents Day (transferred this year, because of 1st Sunday of Christmas falling on what would normally be St. Stephen's Day).

Rejoicing over a new baby....

Sorrowing over Herod's slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth.

It would seem that those two things are miles and miles apart. And yet...

This is one of the many reasons why I love the lectionary, love the scaffolding it provides for my life and my daily leaning deeper into God.

Left on my own, I am pretty sure I would gravitate to certain passages in the Scriptures again and again. In fact, I do -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as I think the Lord draws us, by His Holy Spirit, to certain places in the Word that speak to our deepest needs. It's why some of us have "life verses" or have memorized certain sections of Scripture or feel a deep affinity for certain figures in the Bible, the ones whose stories seem to connect with our own stories in startling ways, and so we go back to their stories often to mine them for riches.

But I still need the lectionary. I need it in is four-fold messiness, its imperfections, and its sometimes seeming arbitrariness about what to read and what not to read. I need it to pull me to passages I'd rather skip, thank you, and would probably not go near if I were given the choice for the day. I need it for the way it disciplines me to listen to snippets of the Story, and to hunt for the gold thread that binds that particular snippet to the wonderful whole tapestry of God's unfolding narrative.

I need it for the way it tempers my high ecstatic joys with reminders of the suffering that still exists, with reminders of the "now and not yet" nature of the kingdom.

I need it for the way it tempers my deepest, darkest despondences with real hope and light -- not sprinkled on top of the despondency like sugar on a cookie, but hope and light stirred deep into the batter of my soul, even on days when I really struggle with despair and frustration.

I need it for the way the voices in the daily passages sing, not just to me, but across the centuries to each other. Think of robed choirs on opposite sides of a chancel, or monks chanting Psalms in a darkened chapel in the early morning. Or friends at a table drinking coffee and sharing their hearts. Do you hear the way the words dance together, then apart, then together again?

The song across time this morning came from Isaiah 25 and Revelation 1. Isaiah and John sang together, a duet whose harmonies were painfully rich and beautiful. You could hardly tell where one voice started and the other stopped.

Jesus holds the keys of death and hades.
He died, and behold, he is alive forevermore!
He will swallow up death forever -- the covering, the veil spread out over all the peoples.
He will wipe away tears from all faces.
He will take away the reproach of his people.
He is a stronghold for the poor and needy, a shelter from the storm, a shade from the heat.
His voice is like the roar of many waters.
His face is like the sun shining in full strength.

To which we cry: YES! And we see and know, deep in our hearts, that who and what Isaiah and John saw and knew, across the many years that separated them, was one and the same Lord and God, one and the same kingdom vision. The seamless Story told in different pieces, different patches, different pictures and voices. If only we have eyes to see. If only we have ears to listen.

Praying that God will give me those eyes and ears more and more in the coming year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Joy, Christmas Light

One candle burning bright
Reminds us of the end of night.

Two candles, shining, glowing,
Guide us on the way we’re going.

Three candles, slender blooms
Whose fragrance graces our heart rooms.

And in the middle, one true light,
Always shining, always bright,
Hands outstretched to lead and guide,
Love from which we cannot hide,
Rose that blooms in desert wild –
King and Ruler, Holy Child.

~EMP, Advent 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

If Betsy and Tacy Had Blogs

I was up very late again last night, reading through and making responses to papers and posts in my online class. Nearing the end of the semester, the only way to make progress up the mountain is to take a deep breath and just climb.

One of the things getting me through these good but exhausting late night teaching treks is beautiful Christmas music. In addition to playing through some of my old favorites, I've been finding some Christmas gems on youtube. When you're bleary eyed at 1:30 am from reading patristic theology (a fine thing to do during Advent, by the way) it can put tremendous vigor into your soul to spend time listening to Andrea Bocelli sing "Adestes Fideles".

Somewhere in the midst of recent late-night multiple play-throughs, the thought came to me suddenly: Julia Ray would love Andrea Bocelli.

Julia Ray, of course, is the older sister of Betsy Ray, the main character in Maud Hart Lovelace's beloved Betsy-Tacy series, set in the early 1900s. Julia's heart belongs to opera, but she also enjoys popular music, and she is quite a fan girl of Caruso. It dawned on me that if the Betsy-Tacy characters lived in the internet age, Julia would no doubt be the administrator of the Andrea Bocelli fan page on Facebook.

(Side note: does anyone else ever do this: see or hear something and think "oh, so- and-so would just love this!" when "so-and-so" happens to be a fictional character? It helps, of course, when you've grown up with fictional characters and loved them for so long that they feel like friends.)

Picturing Julia Ray on FB gave me the late-night giggles. Suddenly I found myself thinking about other Deep Valley characters, and what they might be doing if they had access to the internet.

Grown-up Betsy, of course, would have a very writerly blog. I think she'd name it "Willards' Emporium" after the now-defunct store. I picture its banner as a photo of rosy apple blossoms. She'd have an oft-changing quote (with things like "to thine own self be true") and a sidebar picture of a long-legged crane. Joe would pop in from time to time to guest post, and she'd also keep a neatly organized side-bar with clips of his online journalistic endeavors. Whenever she or Joe got published, she'd post about it with a picture of the naughty chair from the Violent Study Club. And of course, she'd be the one keeping the Study Club's calendar in Yahoo Groups.

Tacy would keep a blog too. She'd include cute photos of her homeschooled kids. Yes, I've pegged Tacy for a homeschooler. I think she'd be an unschooler with a bent toward classical education -- something in gentle Miss Clark's freshman ancient history class must have stuck somehow! She'd share recipes for her best company dinner too -- roast chicken, giblet gravy good enough for a millionaire, and chocolate meringue pie. She might even tell a few good-natured Irish jokes.

I can't quite picture Tib keeping a blog, but I do think she'd have all the latest technological gadgets, including a really smart phone. She'd no doubt snap pictures of her latest brilliant dressmaking creations or fabulous dinners and send them electronically to Betsy and Tacy, sure they'd want to post her pictures on their blogs. And she'd be right. Naturally. (She'd also make sure that any new friends got a look at the Betsy-Tacy cat duet she put up on youtube.)

Carney might have a blog too, though I've been wavering about what kind. Somehow I can picture her creating a very cool looking sewing blog and running a brisk, efficient business of handmade items on etsy. She's gotta help pay for the kids' music lessons after all. She's also busy with vice presidential duties on her Vassar alumnae FB page (she generously let Isabelle be president).

You can find out a lot from the online CV of Emily Webster-Wakeman, MSW, PhD. It's posted at her university website. You'll note she's on the board for several refugee and immigrant advocacy groups and is in demand as a public speaker. Emily also enjoys a wide circle of friends on FB, where she proudly sports flair and fan pages for Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moosers, Jane Addams, and Robert Browning. Her husband Jed is busy on FB too, especially with his college wrestling buddies and his fellow civil war re-enactors.

Okay,'s been fun...but the mountain of end of semester work awaits! I'll stop for now. Of course, if you're a Deep Valley fan, feel free to chime in with your own ideas about Betsy-Tacy in the internet age!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chesterton: "....a lingering fragrance...from the exultant explosion"

Amazing words from G.K. Chesterton that I needed to hear this Advent season.

The power of God. The love of God. The descent into enemy territory on our behalf.

Wow. Just wow.

H/T to love2learnblog

"All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw's den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace."

- G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Supplemental Reading List for School (December)

I've been doing a much better job of record-keeping this fall. But one thing I keep intending (and forgetting!) to do is a list of the supplemental books we're using in our studies.

By supplemental, I mean books we're using to back up the core/spine texts we're using in each subject. Usually these are library resources, picture books or other sorts of books (or videos or CDs) that add an extra layer to our learning. Sometimes I choose them purposefully; other times I pick them up "on the fly" as the sweet girl develops a sudden interest in something she's studying (or a side trail connected to it). Sometimes we read these books cover to cover, and other times we skim them, enjoying pictures and reading excerpts. But all of them enhance our learning in some way.

I like to keep annotated lists of these resources, but I often find myself scrambling to remember to do it. Then the book or CD is due and I turn it back in without ever adding it to the list. I thought perhaps if I kept ongoing monthly lists here (edited as we go along) it would provide more incentive to remember! It's a lot more fun to share about good learning resources with others than simply to annotate for myself.

So here's the list for December so far, categorized by subject.

Language Arts:
Robert Frost (Poetry for Young People series)
~I'm not sure the sweet girl has been entirely ready for this: many of the poems have felt like huge stretches for us. But she's been game for it, relaxing into my counsel to simply enjoy the sound of the poems, even when she doesn't understand what Frost is saying. Of course some of the poems have worked better than others -- I think I will likely write a whole post on the challenges of reading Frost with children. But I do love Frost, and I love this poetry series. This one feels special because it's edited by Gary D. Schmidt, a writer whose work I love, and illustrated by Henri Sorenson, whose picture books always charm us with their beauty. A winning combination.

A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms
by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka
~I'm not sure we've been quite ready for this one either, but it's been fun to "read at" it. Some of the poetic forms are too advanced to try to teach in any significant way to a third grader, but the poems are nevertheless fun to enjoy (even without the instructions about the forms). And at least the book is helping me get across the idea of what poetic forms are. The sweet girl has been most taken with the simpler forms she can try herself, especially the rhyming ones like couplets and quatrains. Today she tried writing a set of Christmas "cuplets" (as she spelled it).

A Drop of Water
by Walter Wick

~Hooray for this marvelous photo esaay. The pictures are gorgeous, the science ties in almost perfectly with the work we've done all semester in Adventures with Atoms and Molecules. I plan to review this one on Epinions and will try to update with a review link here.

William Penn, Founder of Pennsylvania
by Steven Kroll, illustrated by Ronald Himler

~A picture book biography with very nice pictures, but a disappointingly dry text. It's stuffed with information, but not told engagingly. And we'd learned most of it already from other resources, especially Story of the World (Vol. 3) and a video about Penn. I mainly tried this as a way to stretch our learning time on Pennsylvania history, and Penn is such an interesting subject. This might work better for slightly older (5th-6th grade?) kids who are researching Penn's life on their own, but I wasn't impressed with it as a read-aloud.

Peter the Great

by Diane Stanley
~Stanley, on the other hand, really knows how to create scintillating picture book biographies. Meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated, winningly really helped the sweet girl to understand Peter's desire to learn more about the West. Me too!

We've taken some time during this Advent to study about Christmas customs, traditions and legends. We've read at several books...but I think I will save them for a separate post.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Poetry Friday: Aileen Fisher

I fell in love with Aileen Fisher's poems when the sweet girl was a toddler. We seemed to come across them regularly in poetry collections and anthologies, and almost every one became a favorite. Sometimes her work is hard to find (and I think a lot of it is out of print) but it's always worth looking for.

I couldn't find a copy of this one online, but I wanted to share it -- it feels so wonderfully appropriate for the month we're having!

~Aileen Fisher

I like days
with a snow-white collar,
and nights when the moon
is a silver dollar,
and hills are filled
with eiderdown stuffing
and your breath makes smoke
like an engine puffing.

I like days
when feathers are snowing,
and all the eaves
have petticoats showing,
and the air is cold,
and the wires are humming,
but you feel all warm ...
with Christmas coming.

Happy Poetry Friday! The roundup today is at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas Music Review (from the Epi Archives): John Michael Talbot's "The Birth of Jesus"

Some fellow reviewers at Epinions have been posting their lists of favorite Christmas songs. I haven't had time to join in the write-off yet, but I've found myself contemplating some of my favorites...and of course, at this time of year, I'm doing a lot of listening to Christmas music!

Scrolling through some of my old music reviews at Epinions, I found this review I posted in 2005 of John Michael Talbot's "The Birth of Jesus."

Whether you're familiar with Talbot's wonderful work or not, this is truly a special recording. As I wrote in the review: "He knows how to arrange music so that the essence of the song shines through. The sensibility I get from this album is of dark bare limbs of gnarled and ancient trees illuminated by bright, contemporary street lights on a snow-hushed winter street."

Yes. Reading this review over today, I found myself wanting to share about this music again. This is a recording I have loved so deeply over the years, one that has moved me time and again to worshipful prayer and praise during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Belated St. Nicholas Day & Second Week of Advent Already!

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Nicholas. This one always sneaks up on us, and given how sick 2/3 of us are, we didn't do much yesterday beyond remembering it was his day during our regular Advent prayers around the wreath. The sweet girl drew us a couple of quick pictures and put them in our shoes/slippers, which was very sweet. Next year, my plan is to have us make some special cookies/treats and take them to friends.

One reason we've come to love St. Nicholas is because of the wonderful story about him in Bob Hartman's Early Saints of God. I know I've sung the praises of this book before: it's our family "go-to" book during November, and we often go back to it in December and January too. We always bring it out on All Saints and begin to read through it again. We usually get through it a couple of times during fall/winter months, and it's always a treat to revisit these beautiful stories and the reflections they inspire.

I was happy to see find this link for the St. Nicholas Center via Karen Edmisten this morning. I must say I love the St. Nicholas traditions they have in Karen's family, especially the socks and chocolates. We may have to borrow those for next year too!

It's second week of Advent already, and I can't believe how quickly the season is passing. Despite illness and tiredness, we're enjoying our nightly time around the Advent wreath. This year we're using a couple of small booklets we ordered from The Printery House. One is a booklet called "Happy Birthday Jesus All Over the World" and details Advent/Christmas traditions from different countries. We're having fun marking each place on a big laminated world map as we talk about those traditions. We're also using the "Gifts of Love" Advent Sticker Book, and placing a sticker each night on a little cardboard centerpiece (instead of using an advent calendar this year). You can see both of those booklets and some other advent resources, for adults and children, at the Printery House page here.

Happy St. Nicholas day (a day late) and Happy Second Week of Advent!

Creativity Visits...

at the strangest times.

I must confess that I'm running on fumes right now. We've been passing sickness back and forth for quite a while in our little family. D. is on antibiotics for sinusitis, and has also come down with laryngitis (usually my m.o.). He's had a nagging cough for a couple of months.

I've battled the cough now for about three weeks, and it's taken a turn toward my chest. My throat is killing me, and over the weekend it's all gone to my right ear (as it so often does). I'm pretty sure I have an ear infection, and am heading to the doctor tomorrow.

Thankfully the sweet girl is A-OK. Though of course that means her energy level for school is a lot higher than mine at the moment!

It's incredibly cold and pouring snow.

I face a mountain of work before end of semester. I was a little behind before we left for Thanksgiving, became a lot behind before we got home, and spent most of last week dragging energy-wise (as I fought the worsening of this sickness) so have only made a small dent in the piles of reading and grading I need to do, even after several hours of plugging away over the weekend and this evening.

And in the midst of all this...what do I want to do? Write a story.

I do think that stories visit at the strangest times. This has often been the case for me in recent years, that I get ideas for a new story, or an urge to revisit an old, unfinished one, right at a time when I simply have no energy to give to it.

This is a revisit. I've been falling asleep imagining scenes from this particular story, which I began writing over a year ago. It involves four princesses, seven princes (excessive I know) and a lot of interesting political intrigue. It has some moments of romance and humor and a lot of sister time.

A couple of weeks ago, I actually found myself penning new scenes. Only a couple, scribbled in a sprawling hand late at night when I needed to be working, but they were enough to jump start my brain. These characters keep knocking at the door, inviting themselves in, sitting down for a cup of tea. I keep telling them I'm really too busy right now but they won't listen.

I need to be writing my yearly advent poem, and yes, scraps of a possible poem have started coming, but my late night mind keeps going to these characters and this story. And it's getting hard to ignore, despite my exhaustion levels.

A very funny moment has come more than once, very late at night, when I'm up and still on the computer (like now) trying to wind down after working. I find myself wanting to google the characters' I think the story already exists somewhere besides my mind and a few scraps of scattered though I could find out what happens next by looking them up online.

Creativity...what a mysterious process.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Like Powdered Sugar...

I love beautiful blogs this time of year. You know the kind I mean, the ones where bloggers post pictures of their lovely red-cheeked kids playing in incredible looking landscapes that just happen to be their backyards. They then post wonderful ideas for getting the kids out into nature, no matter what the weather, so they can feed the deer or hang birdfeeders or snap photos of snow laden pine trees or brightly colored birds in the bare branches of a birch tree.

I love those blogs, and I don't.

They can help feed my need for natural beauty, and I do seem to have a deep hunger for it. Living for the past thirteen years in an apartment in a tiny post-industrial city can sometimes up my need for green to alarming levels. (Picture "green alert" like a Star Trek "red alert.") Even though I've made peace with our call here, even though I know we're where we're supposed to be, there are days (especially slate-gray-sky ones filled with spitting snow) when I think if I see one more bit of asphalt, I will scream.

Because sometimes, truth be told? Such blogs make me envious. And then I get grumpy because I know envy is such a scurvy little green-eyed thing and I need to get rid of it. Envy can grow into discontent, and discontent is not the land where I want to live, not during Advent or any other time of the year.

I don't own acres of land or a farm or a patch of Christmas trees. We don't have huge lovely windows that open out onto quiet tree-filled vistas. Sometimes even our glimpses of the sky are blocked by electrical wires and brick buildings. We do get out and nature walk, even in December and January and February, even here. We look for bits of beauty and thank God, we find them.

We even occasionally go somewhere else where such bits of beauty are more readily abundant, like our time at my parents' last week in Virginia. I thought my heart would burst when I saw a red cardinal in the bare branches of a crepe myrtle. He perched next to a green bird feeder and was backed by copper and yellow leaves still hanging on other trees. When I let my glance wander over to the right, I saw the fall-blooming camellia bush, laden with pale pink blossoms, and the coppery-plum leaves of the smoke tree. Tucked almost hidden in their side yard was a miniature Japanese maple whose leaves rivaled the cardinal's feathers.

That's a rich day, and I'm thankful for it, storing it in my memory banks. Here such moments are rare indeed, so I'll enjoy what I see: my eight year old curled up on the narrow sill of our window with a couch cushion and a pillow (longing for a window seat) marveling over the street below us. "Mommy," she said this morning, in the most enchanted of tones, "the parking lot looks like it's dusted with powdered sugar."

And so it does, a small citified Christmas cookie, baked with love and hand-decorated by God himself.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Wrapping Up Alcott Month

I never got back to posting my last "literary day of days" reflection about Louisa May Alcott, but I decided to go on and post a "wrap-up" post for my month of celebrating Alcott.

I won't call the month a failure, though I wasn't able to do nearly as much as I'd hoped in terms of posting, reading or discussing. Given the somewhat hectic pace of life right now, that's probably not too surprising. I think if I decide to do this again sometime (either with Alcott or another author) I will plan the month well in advance and make sure I get some guest posters involved!

Still, I had a lot of fun revisiting my love for Little Women and exploring Alcott's continuing legacy. Here are some highlights of this month of shared celebration:

~Having Susan Bailey stop by in the comments to introduce herself and her terrific blog Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. This is a great site full of resources, book reviews, and discussion of all things Alcott. I've enjoyed visiting it several times this month and know I will go back.

~Pondering my writer-friend (and fellow homeschooling mom) Michele's comment that Marmee was "strong and modern and full of zeal for her daughters. She was the first homeschooler I ever met." I hadn't stopped to consider how much Marmee (and Little Women in general) may have influenced my own early thinking about education and homeschooling.

~I also loved the fun insight of my friend Erin, a huge Anne of Green Gables fan, when she said that seeing Jo end up with someone other than Laurie was "kind of like seeing what Anne might have turned out like if she'd continued to say no to Gilbert. Or maybe Montgomery was a Little Women fan who was always frustrated that Jo and Laurie didn't end up together..." Maybe! I found myself pondering how Alcott has influenced my notions of romance, particularly what qualifies as good dramatic tension and satisfying conclusion in fictional romance.

~I also enjoyed some Little Women posts that Karen Edmisten generously shared with me from her archives, including this beautiful one about reading LW with her daughters and how Jo's experiences in New York led them into fruitful thought and discussion about the power of pictures and ideas and how they can shape us. Karen also picked up on Marmee's kinship to homeschooling . I would slap myself in the head for missing this again, except for the fact that (despite having read LW umpteen times in my youth) I've not read the book fully since becoming a mother. Must remedy that soon. Maybe with a family read-aloud next year?

~I spent a while scrolling the recent acquisitions of our county library catalog and noting the plethora of Alcott related books. It's not just's also graphic novels and mid-grade novels. Love of Little Women has permeated both Heather Vogel Frederick's Mother-Daughter Book Club series and Megan McDonald's Sister Club series (links to my reviews of both LW inspired books). The Sisters Club book had a delightful updated version of the Jo-burning-Meg's-hair scene variety; I almost laughed out loud. I'm happy to see that Alcott's influence is alive and well among the younger crowd.

Thanks to everyone who shared in this celebration of Alcott and Little Women!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Literary Day of Days: Celebrating C.S. Lewis

It was getting dark when we pulled onto the turnpike last night for the last long push home. At that point, we've still got a good two and a half hours to go -- well, that length if we don't stop for bathroom breaks or a meal (and we usually need to do both) and if traffic is moving swiftly (and on the weekend after Thanksgiving, it was barely moving at all for a while).

We had just finished a family read-aloud earlier in the afternoon, but I knew that reading would be what would get us through the next few hours, as it usually is. And I'd saved the best for last: it was time to begin our read of The Last Battle.

The Last Battle is, of course, the seventh book in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, books I read and re-read as a child (and continue to as an adult). Our family read-through of the Chronicles has taken a long time. We've doled them out like delicious chocolates. We've meandered, reading many other books in between them. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is now so long ago in the sweet girl's memory that we plan to read it again later this winter. (Since we read it the year she was five, it's truly become akin to one of the "ancient stories" recalled about the Golden Age of Narnia in Prince Caspian!) She remembers better the more recent books, especially The Magician's Nephew, which I think has been her favorite of the series so far.

Reading the first several chapters of The Last the end of a long and emotional trip, by the light of a tiny booklight, on a busy turnpike under darkening skies, with a voice slightly hoarse from a worsening cough...well, let me just say again how much I love the fact that one can always be transported to Narnia.

I love to read aloud. If my voice holds out, and if I have a willing audience, I can go a long time. Certain stories I love work well when read aloud, but I am fairly certain that Lewis' writing, especially in Narnia, is some of the very best writing for read-aloud ever. A kind, benevolent, generous voice shines through each page, as Lewis the storyteller gently takes you by the hand and leads you through where you need to go. He lets the story unfold of its own accord, creating characters whose lives and feelings you understand, and a world you love to walk through. But once in a while he gives you that authorial nudge, reminding you that it's a story, but somehow not pulling you out of the story-spell you've fallen under:

"If one had known what was going to happen next, it would have been a treat to watch the grace and ease with which the huge bird glided down..."

"Jill had, as you might say, quite fallen in love with the Unicorn. She thought -- and she wasn't far wrong -- that he was the shiningest, delicatest, most graceful animal she had ever met: and he was so gentle and soft of speech that, if you hadn't known, you would hardly have believed how fierce and terrible he could be in battle."

"They drank from a stream, splashed their faces with water, and tumbled into their bunks, except for Puzzle and Jewel who said they'd be more comfortable outside. This perhaps was just as well, for a Unicorn and a fat, full-grown donkey indoors always makes a room feel rather crowded."

Omniscient narration is not terribly "in" these days, but Lewis reminds me of how beautifully and artfully it can be done in the hands of a writer who both loves the cadence of old-fashioned tales and whose story vision is crystal clear.

Happy Birthday, Jack. Thank you for gracing so many of our miles last night, and so many of the miles of my life, with your wonderful voice.

Literary Day of Days: Celebrating Madeleine L'Engle

I went back into my archives to find where I first coined the phrase "literary day of days" to describe today, November 29. It was this post, back in 2006, the first year I kept this blog.

I really do love the fact that I get to celebrate a trio of such incredible authors of my heart in one day: Madeleine, Jack and Louisa. This year, I thought I'd sprinkle celebration snippets throughout the day.

First up: Madeleine. It would be her 92nd birthday today, and I can just imagine the sort of feasting her family and friends must be doing in her honor! I personally hope she has a front-row seat for some Bach today in heaven...

Glimpses of Grace, the book of Madeleine's thoughts and reflections edited by Carole Chase, has a beautiful quote today. In it, Madeleine talks about aging, all the ways in which our bodies begin to weary and break down, reminding us that "chronos is not merely illusion." As I reflect on recent days spent with our parents, growing older in ways that suddenly seem so swift, and on my own increasing awareness of physical limitations (even in smaller ways) these words resonate with me more than ever:

"There is nothing I can do to stop the passage of the kind of time in which we human beings are set. I can work with it rather than against it, but I cannot stop it. I do not like what it is doing to my body. If I live as long as many of my forbears, these outward diminishments will get worse, not better. But these are outward signs of chronology, and there is another Madeleine who is untouched by them, the part of me that lives forever in kairos and bears God's image."

Thank you, Madeleine.

For all of you embarking on the celebration of Advent, you might also be delighted to know there's a new edition of The Twenty-Four Days of Christmas out this year. It has new illustrations by Jill Weber. I still love my hardback copy illustrated by Joe DeVelasco, but I'd be interested to see this one -- and am thinking of getting it for the sweet girl, so she can have a copy of her very own. We read it together every year. (The link on the title is to a review I wrote of the book back in 2004, when she was just two and a half. Talk about the swiftness of chronology!)

Thanksgiving Into Advent: A Funny Sort of Gratitude Post

I hope that you and your's had a blessed Thanksgiving!

We got back late last night from our Thanksgiving travels. And can I be honest? This trip was just hard.

It was hard for all sorts of reasons, some of which I understand and others I don't. There were obvious things that made it challenging, like way too much traffic, my blooming cold and cough (complete with sinus headache) which was aggravated by one house we stayed in being too hot and the other (at least the bedroom we slept in) too cold. The sweet girl was a whirl of emotions, loving time with family, but as the only kid in households of adults, sometimes struggling with all that "adult talk" that gets "soooo boring." And as always, dealing with the emotions of good-byes very hard for her. She had some struggles in the last two days particularly, with several outbursts, and I was on edge, feeling raggedy and sick, and lost my temper and my patience more than once.

Both our parental households (where we split the days we were away) are pretty stressed in different ways right now, with our moms worn out from care for dad and stepdad, both ill. At D's house, his stepfather's confusion, as his Alzheimer's worsens, continues to be a heartbreak for all of us and an especial challenge for his mom. At my house, I think my mom spent most of the time trying to make sure my dad didn't overdo while my sister and I spent most of our time trying to make sure mom didn't overdo. I was not fully prepared to see how tired my mother is. And it was painfully hard (since I'm being so honest here) to be with my sister for a couple of days and yet not really get any time just to be with my sister. Though I loved all the ways she went out of her way to make sure that she and the sweet girl got some special time together in the midst of everything.

So...home late last night to the realization that we had not bought any advent candles and to some tears as we tiredly straggled around our table, worn out from the jammed turnpike and a day where we hadn't always shown one another the grace we should (and I raise my hand first into the air here).

And yet...

So much to be thankful for. Thankful for:

88. ~the grace that met us round the mostly empty (except for a few old candle stubs) advent wreath, even when we didn't come with any of our own

89. ~the grace that always meets us, wherever we are, and sustains us even in difficult times

90. ~safe travels in our old car, despite so much traffic, and relatively few bad delays

91. ~time spent with loved ones, so dear to us

92. ~my Dad still being with us this Thanksgiving (something I would not have been at all sure of in May)

93. ~time just being hugged by my Mom

94. ~a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by loving hands, and the fun of both helping to prepare it and eat it!

95. ~time to get to know my brother-in-law better

96. ~the opportunity to "meet" (via phone) my niece's fiance -- and to celebrate in their joy as they're planning to wed in January

97. ~laughter with my sister

98. ~walking in the garden with Dad, and smelling the fall-blooming camellias, so lovely and mildly pink in the midst of the autumnal yard

99. ~having autumn back for a few days! (it's winter cold here, and the leaves mostly long gone, but there were still some brilliant colors down south)

100. ~the sweetness of my husband, especially when I was feeling anything but sweet

101. ~a special time at my husband's grandparents' graves, with his dear aunt

102. ~watching the sweet girl hand-in-hand with her aunt and uncle as we walked around the block in the neighborhood where I grew up

103. ~the license plate game -- what would we do without it?! -- and the fun of finding 38 states

104. ~the added fun of coming up with crazy mnemonics as we memorized the thirteen original colonies in order of their statehood

105. ~the colorful construction paper leaves on the "thankful tree" in the dining room, and the sweet girl's leaves (each signed with a flourish in her best cursive signature) especially the one that read simply "Lord, thank you for sending your Son."

106. ~remembering that God isn't through working in me -- and in all of us -- yet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Five Favorite Authors

The sweet girl heard me talking about the "15 favorite authors" meme making the rounds on Facebook (a meme I've not yet had a chance to do!) and decided she'd like to make a list of her favorite 5.

Here it is, penciled this morning at breakfast. She told me these aren't in order of importance, just how they came to her. (I retained the original spelling for your enjoyment. Her spelling is truly improving, but names are hard!)

1. Beetris Poter
2. Loes Elert
3. Lara Wileder
4. Beverly Clery
5. E.B. White

Friday, November 19, 2010

Poetry Friday: Daffodils in November

My eight year old is memorizing William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud" and I'm remembering how much I love this poem:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

You can find the final stanzas here at The Poetry Foundation.

I hesitated briefly about sharing this. It is, after all, November ("dull November brings the blast/then the leaves are whirling fast"!). So it may seem a bit strange to share such a springtime poem.

But then it occurred to me that Wordsworth would love knowing we're reading and enjoying his poem in November. For Wordsworth, part of the magic of poetry was "recollection." He wrote elsewhere that poetic images could provide "life and food for future years." And so we see him in this poem, in that last stanza, lying on his couch in "vacant or in pensive mood," finding pleasure as this remembered image of the golden daffodils "flashes" on his "inward eye."

We don't know, of course, when he lay pensively on his couch recollecting this golden sea, but a dull, gray November day might be a good bet.

For some extra loveliness, you can listen as Jeremy Irons reads the poem.

This week's poetry round-up can be found at Random Noodling.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Did Alcott Read Austen?

I'm genuinely curious.

As I wrote up my post about Jo sitting lovingly beside Beth's bed, and as I pondered the emotional power of sister kinship in that scene, I kept getting flashes of another sister-at-the-bedside scene: Elinor watching over Marianne Dashwood.

And then I started thinking about the sister threads that run through Austen in general, and how those sister relationships often carry even deeper emotional resonance than the romantic relationships.

And then it occurred to me that family theatricals take place in both Alcott and Austen.

Both of them also enjoy using letters to advance plot and reveal character.

All of these, of course, could be coincidental similarities, or might be owing to other shared influences. there any evidence anywhere, I wonder, that points to Alcott reading Austen?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Little Women: Grief, Death, Life

As the fourth and youngest child, I was born into a pretty lively household. That fact, combined with the fact that I learned to read independently quite early, means I have very few memories of being read to except for the long, wonderful Bible reading times at the kitchen table with my mother.

By the time I was nine, my grandmother had joined our family, which changed the dynamic even further as she needed pretty constant care. I realize, as I look back, how enormous were the demands on my parents' time, and I marvel at the time they managed to spend doing special things with and for me and my siblings. They certainly encouraged my love of reading, partly just by making sure we had plenty of good books around, and partly by regular library trips. Watching my grandmother devour books also helped cement my passion for reading.

But it was very rare for any adult to guide my reading in any way. I discovered good books by looking for them on my own. I discovered books I wasn't quite ready for the same way.

The only exception to this that I clearly remember is Little Women. Sometime when I was around the age of five, my mother spent some time reading it aloud -- mostly to my older sister, but of course I was there too, hanging on every word. We must've gotten pretty far, far enough in to get near the place where Beth first comes down with scarlet fever, because I remember my mother closing the book and putting it back on the shelf. Maybe she finished reading it with my sister when I was already in bed. But she made a decision, which I somehow vaguely recall, that we were stopping because she didn't think I was quite ready for it yet.

I was little enough that I didn't understand, nor do I remember questioning my mom's wisdom. But when I was old enough to pick the book back up for myself, round about the time my grandmother moved in with us, it didn't take me too long to discover why my mother had quietly decided to put the book away.

Little Women is sad. Not all of it, of course, not by a long shot. So much of it is lively, fun, filled with joy. Jo climbing trees and running races with Laurie, throwing a snowball up at his window, eating apples and clomping around in boots. Amy sleeping with a clothespin on her nose so she could look more aristocratic. Jo's cooking (enough said!) and Aunt March "settling the question" for Meg and John. Jo burning Meg's hair. The whole family sitting around and sewing their way through continents or telling wild gothic-influenced stories. Beth cheerfully playing her music -- when you think back, doesn't it seem like her piano playing is a soundtrack for the whole first half of the story?

But oh, the sadness of a beloved sister falling ill, never recovering, and finally dying at such a young age. I myself am one of three sisters, and I was moved to the core when I first read those pages, and read them again and again over the next few years. Even now, I can't really read Jo and Beth's conversation at the seashore or hear Alcott describe Beth's last hours without weeping:

Jo had never left for her an hour since Beth had said "I feel stronger when you are here." She slept on a couch in the room, waking often to renew the fire, to feed, lift, or wait upon the patient creature who seldom asked for anything, and "tried not to be a trouble." All day she haunted the room, jealous of any other nurse, and prouder of being chosen then than of any honor her life ever brought her. Precious and helpful hours for Jo, for now her heart received the teaching that it needed: lessons in patience were so sweetly taught her that she could not fail to learn them; charity for all, the lovely spirit that can forgive and truly forget unkindness, the loyalty to duty that makes the hardest easy, and the sincere faith that fears nothing, but trusts undoubtingly.

By writing so movingly and honestly about the death of someone beloved, Louisa May Alcott gave me one of my first, and deepest, literary tastes of grief. For many years, I remembered these scenes in Beth's sickroom and thought about what I'd learned about death -- but when I read them now, so many years later, I realize that much of their staying power comes through what they say about life. We see the beauty of a life well lived, a life lived for others. And we see that it's in moments of hardship and heartbreak that our hearts often receive the teaching they need most, that even or especially through love and grief, we're being shaped and formed by loving hands.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gratitude Sunday

It's past midnight and I'm up responding to student papers. Feeling tired, feeling a tad bit anxious...not because the student papers aren't mostly brilliant and good reading, but because I've been overwhelmed in the past week or so with far too much to do, and very little time to focus and get it done as I'd like.

And I realized this evening, I am *way* overdue for a gratitude post.

So here it is, the exhausted, late-night, I-really-should-be-in-bed version of what I'm grateful for:

75. A fun day with my family. Saturday morning was especially delightful, with D's super-special artistic pancakes (have I mentioned that my husband can make incredible pancakes shapes? Like camels and hummingbirds?) followed by some errands and the library.

76. I heart our library. Seven things in on the hold shelf today, including books for school, a fun mid-grade novel with a Louisa May Alcott tie-in, season 2 of the Muppet Show (which we inaugurated at dinner) and some clarinet concertos by a Finnish performer I recently found on youtube. (And it suddenly strikes me that my Mamaw McCoy would have loved living in the 21st century...)

77. New mini-blinds for the living room window. Ours have been failing for weeks, squeaking terribly when you tried to pull them, snagging and pulling up crooked, even some slats breaking. Yesterday they came crashing down when I tried to open them! I thought replacing them would be wildly expensive, but we found just what we needed on sale at a local home store. They're a slightly creamier color than the blinds on the other window, which would bother me more except the way the sunlight shines through them feels richer and more golden -- more buttermilk custard than silvered. I found myself enthralled with the way the light looks -- enough that I'm thinking we might just go ahead and replace the other (equally ancient) set soon.

78. The love and generosity of a dear friend. Yesterday's mail brought us a gift we were not expecting in any way, shape, or form -- but which delighted our whole family so much. I sat down and cried when I opened it. We are the astonished and grateful recipients of a year-long family membership to the Carnegie musuems downtown. This is something we've always wanted to do and could never afford, and we're just...well...pretty speechless. Except I wanted to find and use words to tell our friend just how much she has blessed us. Thank you again, friend!

79. The chance to bless someone else with a small kindness this past week.

80. The sweet girl pretending to be a queen protecting princesses (two of her dolls) in seemingly constant peril. And my husband chortling and saying "You know how you felt like you struggled with catching her imagination when you were studying medieval history last year? Why is it she's totally into playing royalty when you're studying 'no more kings' and early American history?"

81. Warmer weather. Yes, I know, it's November, and it's supposed to be getting colder. And the temps yo-yo'ing back and forth means we're struggling with congestion and sore throats. But I know what's coming over the next four months, so I persist in total gratitude for sunny days in the 60s!

82. In the midst of the absolutely most crammed-busy time I can remember, taking the time to bake another loaf of bread from scratch yesterday. And enjoying the kneading of the dough as I listened to Mozart.

83. Drawing time with the sweet girl yesterday (again, another taking the time). Trying my hand at copying one of Audubon's snowy owls. Loving our Audubon studies this month.

84. 19 kids at the Thursday night outreach at church! Seeing what could have been total chaos turn into only mild chaos with real moments of God-touched connections and hope. Seeing how hungry some of the kids were for learning about peace, and our source of peace.

85. Time with the desert fathers as I've read for my diocesan and sem work this week. Even having to snatch reading time in the early morning and late at night, I just feel blessed to be able to hang out with folks like Abba Antony. Thank you, God, for all the saints.

86. An email from a dear friend yesterday morning, one that not only assured me of ongoing prayers, but showed me again how good the Lord is at helping others discern, even from afar, some of our deepest prayer needs.

87. The realization that, if I could keep my eyes open, I could keep this list going a lot longer.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Little Women: The Copy I Read to Tatters

In my minds-eye, I can still see the brown wooden shelf. It was on the left-hand side of the living room window (as I stood by the stereo cabinet and as I faced the Sheehy's house next door) and it felt like a veritable treasure trove of book goodness. Standing side by side, like noble soldiers, were about a dozen books with brightly colored spines. A small green glass vase stood somewhere nearby, and a ceramic girl with a cherubic face also stood guard.

Sometime in the 1960s, probably when my oldest sister and brother were in grade school, my parents purchased a set of literary classics produced especially for children. These were the Grosset and Dunlap Companion Library classics, the "two-in-one" volumes that fascinated me. Hold The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on your lap and enjoy reading, and when you're done, simply flip the book over and discover Huckleberry Finn. Not all of the paired books were by the same author, but some were, and I loved the "twin" book concept. You can see a picture of some of the books I mean on this vintage book site (where yes, some gently used copies are for sale).

I don't remember how old I was when I first picked up one of the companion books from the shelf, but I do know I loved them. This set was my introduction to Black Beauty, The Five Little Peppers, Arabian Nights, and many other excellent books. Most importantly, it was my introduction to Little Women and to Little Men, the "two-in-one" Alcotts in the set.

I don't know what happened to the rest of those books (do my parents still have them?) but I do know they completely understood that I took my copy of Little Women/Little Men with me when I grew up and left home. Of course, by that time, it no longer had its colorful spine -- I had worn it off from my repeated readings. My original copy of LW looked like a wounded soldier who had done faithful service in the line of duty, perhaps not unlike some of Alcott's charges in the Washington hospital where she served as a nurse during the Civil War.

And here it is, in all its tattered glory:

You're not imagining the dirt. It's really engrained in the cover. How could it not be? I dragged this copy of Little Women up so many trees (my favorite place to read). I was a good tree-climber, but my dad was so worried that I might fall while toting books with me (and climbing one-armed) that he made a string-pulley. I could tie my books to the pulley while safely on the ground, climb with both hands free, and haul the books up after me. I'm afraid, however, that I used to lower the books again very fast and dump them unceremoniously on the ground at the base of the tree. So the dirt worked into the cover is good Virginia soil!

And what about that cover? Like many Little Women fans, I often played "guess the sister" since there was nothing that definitively stated which girl was which. I had a very definite idea about who was who on my edition's cover. Amy, of course, is easy to spot -- she's the only one with blond hair -- but the other three are brunettes. But I thought the tall one in the yellow dress had to be matronly Meg, the smiling one in purple was Beth, and the one with her back to the audience and her elbows jutting out at sharp angles had to be Jo. I mean really, who else could it be?

Examining my tattered copy again this week, I was intrigued to note just how yellowed the pages are becoming and how brittle the binding is. I clearly had favorite places I returned to again and again. For instance, I loved that first chapter dearly, so one of the first big binding breaks comes between chapters one and two:

But the death of beloved sister Beth, and Jo's subsequent journey through grief, always moved me so deeply. I wasn't surprised to see a big binding break here either:

We are physical, encultured people. The books we love, and read again and again, live forever in our minds and hearts, but there is something deeply beloved in the actual look and feel of the book itself. This is where we first entered these worlds and met these characters. Books are doorways, but sometimes what evokes the memory of the first magical passageway into a beloved fictional world is seeing and holding again the actual book itself: enjoying the threshold, the doorjamb, the shiny brass knob (tarnished over time), and even the fingerprints we've left all over it.

As I contemplated my first real post in celebration of Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, I realized the best way I could convey my deep love and appreciation for this story was to show you my first copy.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Sunday Into Monday

I grew up thinking that Mondays were the real start of a new week. It was only as an adult, moving more into an awareness of sacred time, that I discovered what an important and necessary part of my Christian journey Sunday-as-the-first-day-of-the-week truly was. I need Sundays, different from the rhythm of any other day, different because I gather with "all the saints" to pray and worship, different because I truly try to find good resting time (even if only in snatches in this busy season of parish ministry and constant teaching). Sundays launch me into an awareness of new beginnings in a way that Monday morning never did. And thankfully, Sundays also help prepare me to face the beginning of a new work and school week.

Because Mondays have newness about them too. We face five days of a similarly patterned rhythm in our household, where we all follow (even if loosely) work and schooling schedules. I spend time on Sunday evening looking over lesson plans for the week: setting discussion forums for my online students, seeing what I need to read for teaching preparation, beginning to read through papers posted over the weekend (reading Hippolytus and Tertullian this week, responding to papers on early asceticism).

I also work on lesson plans for the sweet girl. What will we cover this week in history, science? How can I find more creative ways to engage her in narration? What's the new spelling list look like? What part of a sentence will we be learning to diagram? Where can I sneak more poetry into our learning time? Are we tackling anything new in math? (Two digit times one digit in multiplication this week...)

And who are we especially called to pray for and serve this week?

In a way, Monday is like the second new start of the week, but it's fueled by the first new start on Sunday.

All of which makes me glad that every day, really, is a new start with God, a fresh beginning. Every day, no matter what the calendar says, is new and a gift from him...and crammed fresh-full of brand spanking new mercies. A blank piece of paper on which to begin another chapter of the story. A page on which we can sketch a new drawing in our fumbling lines.

Friday, November 05, 2010

November: Celebrating Alcott and Little Women

November is one of my favorite months. Despite the growing cold and the headlong rush toward winter, there is so much about November I love: All Saints Day, Thanksgiving, the beginning of Advent, and the literary day of days.

If you've been acquainted with my blog for long, you'll know I call November 29th the literary day of days. That's because it's the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle, three of the most formative writers of my life. Three of the writers of my heart.

I thought it might be enjoyable to set aside a November to celebrate each of those authors, and this year I thought I'd start with Alcott. Not just because she comes first in the alphabet, first chronologically (born in 1832) and first in my childhood reading...though all of that is true.

I've had Alcott especially on my mind of late, in part because I just finished reading the first book in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series, which is (in large part) a loving tribute to Alcott's literary masterpiece. It's fascinating to me to see that, so many years after its initial publication, Little Women continues to inspire creativity and loyal readership.

I've also recently read Harriet Reisen's biography of Louisa May Alcott, which I highly recommended in this review last May.

And in March, I participated in Fuse #8's Top 100 Children's Novels poll. Not many 19th century novels made the cut, but Little Women came in at #25. It was, in fact, the oldest book to make the list. And I was delighted to see my quote about it posted front and center.

So for 2010, Alcott it is. Given the pace of my life right now, I don't know how much time I'll be able to devote to the celebration, but I do hope to get up some posts, particularly in celebration of Little Women. I've already got a questionnaire out to some friends who expressed interest in talking about the book with me...if you're a Little Women fan and would be interested in responding to the questions too, please let me know in the comments. And please, spread the word to any other Little Women fans you know!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Art of the Circular Conversation

A little while ago...

Me: When we got out this afternoon we need to dress warmly. Your dad says it's gotten quite cold.

Sweet Girl: (indignant) COLD! No! You mean it's gotten chilly.

Me: Well, it's in the 40s.

S: (in total I heart winter/native Pittsburgher fashion) I don't consider it cold until it gets down to 30 or below.

Me: (shrugging) OK. So I guess you could say it's gotten very chilly.

S: (heads over to front window and touches palm to glass) BRR-RRR! The glass is freezing!

Me: Well, I told you it's gotten quite chilly.

S: No, it's cold.

Yes!! We have finally perfected the art of the circular conversation at our house.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Can Facebook Help You Write a Poem?


The other day I posted, as my status update, that I was wrestling with the week's poetry stretch. Write a poem about the moon. And I asked my Facebook friends this question: "what do you love about the moon?"

I loved the answers. Stories, songs, nursery rhymes, associations with the moonwalk, memories of a grandfather. It got me thinking (one of those delightful side benefits of FB from time to time) about all the different ways we delight in the moon.

So I wrote this.

Multiple Moons

The one outside
the window
is real,
rock hard,
reflecting the sunlight--
sometimes golden hued,
sometimes even
blue or rose,
or pearl in
a silver setting--

though wait,
now I am approaching
the metaphor moon,
the one that peeps
a friendly face
through tattered cloud curtains,
sits cool and serene,
a scoop of vanilla ice cream
in its dark sky bowl,
or grins a lopsided smile
on a young girl
and her silver-haired grandfather--

but hey,
I'm edging now
toward the story moon,
the one that followed Owl home,
the moon that got poked
in the eye by the rocket
that brought the picnickers
who loved cheese,
the revelers who sat
and warbled homesick songs
but then
when they saw the cow
leap right over them,
flying who knows where.

EMP 10-28-10

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Notes: Children's Lit Version

I've been swamped, overwhelmed, tired...and my writing rhythm (here as elsewhere) has been ragged at best.

But yes, I do still read!

And on a blog called Endless Books, I do still love to talk about books. So here are a few (very) random musings on reading from the past week or two. For this post, I'll stick to children's literature I've read, and also family read-alouds. Grown-up fare coming in another post soon.

* Erin was right. I loved The Mother-Daughter Book Club, a mid-grade novel (first in a series) by Heather Vogel Frederick. It's light, fun fare for the middle school girl crowd, a book that pays loving homage to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, one of the books of my heart. It might even possibly inspire a contemporary girl to read LW, if she's not normally too excited about 19th century literature, but my guess is that this book and the subsequent ones in the series, which pay tribute to other classic books, will fare best with girls who already love reading those kinds of books. Not to mention their moms. And of course, it made me long to start a mother-daughter book club, except that we know hardly any moms with girls anywhere remotely near the sweet girl's age right now.

* The Little House weeks appear to have drawn to a close. We read Long Winter followed immediately by Little Town on the Prairie, mostly because the sweet girl begged to. We usually take a break in between series books, but she's been on such a Laura Ingalls Wilder kick, I didn't have the heart to say it was too much fun to resist. Little Town is not my favorite book in the series, but it is an important bridge between two books that are: Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years. I am thinking the latter might make a good Christmas present for the sweet girl, since (oddly) it appears to be the only Little House book we don't own a copy of. We most usually have multiple copies, or at least doubles, but I seem to have misplaced my childhood copy of Golden Years and I guess we never picked up a newer copy at Half-Price books.

* While on the Little House kick, we had fun looking at some Laura Ingalls Wilder websites. I also thought it might be fun for the sweet girl to watch an episode or two of the Little House television series from my childhood, so I put the first season DVD set on hold. It arrived, and she immediately squelched that idea: "I don't think it will be anything like the books." Well, she's right about that, so I didn't push it, but D. and I had fun watching the first regular season episode last night, despite neither of us having any time to watch anything lately. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry: the series brought back such sweet memories (well, for me, at least) but the characters are so *not* the characters we know and love from the books. Michael Landon is charming, but he's just not Pa, is he? (Does he ever play the fiddle on the show? I can't recall...) We also found ourselves falling into fits of laughter over the California landscape (rugged hills and lots of old trees) trying to masquerade as Minnesota prairie. The sheer sentimentality of the show I had almost forgotten, though I did find myself almost tearing up at the end when the Ingalls realized the strength of their new community. But that probably has more to do with my own longing for deeper community right now than it does with the show's script or acting.

* "I need to find lots of things!" the sweet girl announced plaintively the other evening. She's been on the lookout for things she can "borrow" for the small dollhouse doll she has recently renamed Arriety. Yes, we're reading Mary Norton's The Borrowers for family read-aloud. I'd forgotten what a delight it is!

* Melissa Wiley went to Mankato. Isn't that awesome? I've been longing to go there for years, and it was such fun to see it through her eyes. The new issues of Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart (with Melissa's foreword) and Emily of Deep Valley were released a few weeks ago. I especially love Emily and Carney, and hope to add these beautiful new editions to my collection soon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bits of Beauty in Autumn

Our little town is not exactly known for its beauty. In fact, sometimes you have to dig deep to find it.

But find it you can, from time to time, in small pockets. Here were a couple of those pockets we discovered last week on a autumnal walk.

Isn't the light here particularly stunning? It makes the rose so luminous and makes the fountain behind it look like glass. And the curly green moss on the side so differently textured from the sheet of falling water.

Thank the Lord for the maple trees by the town gazebo. The late afternoon sun glinting through the leaves just about melted my heart.

As did the sweet girl's heartfelt address to the treetops, when she lifted up her head and gave this impromptu oration: "Dear Leaves, please don't worry about dying. You will become dirt, and more things will grow from you."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Vermeer Reviews

I've posted two reviews recently on books that creatively engage the wonderful art of Jan Vermeer (1632-1675).

The first is Bob Raczka's The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations With Seven Works of Art, perhaps my favorite "art appreciation" kind of book for children ever.

The second is In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a poet I only recently discovered. It felt like such serendipity to come across and enjoy her poems, only to find that she'd done a whole collection centered around and inspired by Vermeer's artwork, which I've also been enjoying so much this autumn.

While the first book is good for all ages (especially appropriate and helpful for eight and up) the second is probably more suited for adults and young adults (though the music of the poems may entrance younger listeners, even if they don't grasp some of the themes).

Another book that creatively engages Vermeer is, of course, Blue Balliett's delightfully different mid-grade novel Chasing Vermeer. I'd post a review except that apparently, I never got around to writing one...hmm. I did however review both its sequels, The Wright Three and The Calder Game. Apparently both of these reviews are buried/lost in the Epinions database right now (which continues to have problems) so if you're interested in them, I'd love it if you'd click through directly from here so you can actually access them.

I'd also love to hear about any other good books and resources you'd recommend on the life and work of Jan Vermeer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Scriptures: Light, Food, Fire

I'm up too late again, but wrestling through some good reading, thinking and praying. These days I am often up late reading church history and responding to student papers (my seminary students and also the diocesan students I'm working with this term). Tonight I'm mainly reading, but finding it hard to concentrate on the academic side of things because I keep getting stopped in my tracks by thoughts from theologians and writers of the past. I find myself wrestling with what they're saying on a personal, heart level, as I consider my own journey with Jesus. And I find myself thinking a lot about the kids we're teaching in catechesis class each week.

I don't know if I've written anything about that here (my blogging has been so sporadic this fall) but my husband and I are co-teaching catechesis for 6 young people, ages 13-18, in our parish. Actually my husband is doing the bulk of the teaching and coordinating, and I'm there for as much of the meeting as I can be (some weeks I have other meetings I have to do first) to help spur discussion, teach a bit of church history, and pray with them. The purpose of our weekly meeting is mostly informational, in that we're providing a lot of teaching content for the kids to chew on -- material about the story of the Scriptures, the story of the church, the creeds and the Lord's prayer. We're basically the classroom while the kids' work with their mentors, outside of the class, is like their lab. It's there where they're supposed to try their wings, attempt some spiritual stretches, engage in inner and outer spiritual disciplines, wrestle with the daily stuff, though hopefully we're helping provide framework and context for all that.

I confess I have never felt as inept as a teacher as I have with this group, except perhaps for how inept I'm currently feeling on Thursday nights where we're working with a group of highly rambunctious K-4th graders, mostly unchurched, who are having a really hard time sitting still. But that's a post for another time.

I know I'm tired, and it's easy (oh so easy) to get discouraged when I'm this tired. It's also easy to fall into the trap of thinking: if we could just come up with teaching methods more creative, more interesting, more relevant, more _______ (fill in the blank) the kids would be more responsive. But I've been wrestling through that tonight and have come to the conclusion that maybe the best thing we can be right now is just faithful. Faithful to pray for these kids, faithful to try to engage them, faithful to prod them or challenge them when necessary, faithful to let them ask questions, faithful to listen.

One thing that's particularly flummoxing me is how to share with them, in ways that are real and authentic, what the Bible can mean in a person's life (and what it means in mine). We've been challenged by the fact that they are not doing the weekly Bible reading we've assigned (or at least not willing to admit they're doing it). We've been surprised by how difficult it is for them to sustain attention or even pay attention when we read passages in class (no matter how we've tried approaching the reading). We've been stumped by how much they're struggling to see this class as something life-giving and real, an opportunity to grow with God, as opposed to a series of things they need to check off if they want to get confirmed. I wonder how much of that isn't just the way our culture sets us up to learn. How many of us are taught to think, from an early age, that we only have to put forth effort to do something if there will be a concrete kind of "pay off" -- will there be a pop quiz? is this on the test? if I don't do it, are there immediate consequences? Instead of learning that it's good to put forth effort, and to build habits, simply because the doing of something is good in and of itself, and is good for us.

Why do you read the Bible? What does it mean to you? I've had all sorts of thoughts about those questions, and all sorts of images swimming 'round my brain this evening. I've been reading Thomas Cranmer's Preface to the Great Bible from 1540, and I actually found myself chuckling a bit because the things he's addressing are almost *exactly* the challenges we're facing. He talks about how people say they don't have time to read the Scriptures because their lives are too full. Or their lives are too complex and messy. Or because they don't understand them. And he addresses all of those in ways that are both simple and helpful.

And then there's this from Cranmer, a description of the Scriptures that really arrested my attention:

…I would marvel much that any man should be so mad, as to refuse in darkness, light; in hunger, food; in cold, fire. For the word of God is light: Lucerna pedibus meis, verbum tuum. (See Psalm 119) Thy word is a lantern unto my feet. It is food: Non in solo pane viuit homo, sed in omni verbo dei. (See Matthew 4) Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word of God. It is fire: Ignem veni mittere in tertam, & quid volo nisi vt ardeat? (See Luke 12) I am come to send fire on the earth, and what is my desire but that it be kindled?

And that's what I wish I could find a way to get across to our teenagers: how the Scriptures are light in our darkness, food for our hunger, and fire in our cold.

Living in the Present Moment

I always seem drawn to quotes about living in the present moment. Perhaps it's because I struggle to live that way, but am always blessed when I'm able to open myself to that kind of moment-to-moment living in God.

Friends who are currently fundraising to move to Singapore as missionaries wrote this in their prayer letter (received today) as they worked through the fact that they're probably not going to meet their original fundraising "deadline":

"Though God is known for working miracles, he is also known to include a 40-year detour. What we have been coming to terms with this month is how to accept either option in the future while still living our lives in the present."

I loved this, and wanted to pass it on. How true it is that often God's "time-table" isn't quite what we expect, but he stretches us, shapes and forms us through the time that he chooses for us to walk through a certain season or place. (13 plus years here in this little town we thought we'd moved to for 2 years. Becoming immersed in mission and ministry in this little town! Really. Who knew?)

And again, from these wise friends: "...I think God has us (here) for a purpose. Personally, this gives me the confidence to live in his moment today instead of my imaginary future."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Maybe They Migrated

I love autumn. The leaves here in western Pennsylvania are truly beginning to turn. Yesterday, when I walked to the post office, I was almost stunned by the beauty of the locust tree in the town park, right next to the p.o.'s flagpole. The sky was that lovely shade of blue you hardly ever see except in September/October, and the small leaves on the tree shimmered like golden coins.

The maple by the town gazebo is also blushing from the top down. A carrot top! There are several maples bunched together there, but one of them almost always turns first, and it's currently a blaze of rich, mellowy orange.

One of the advantages of living in so small a town is that you get to know the individual trees so well they fell like old friends. That's why I was shocked to realize the other day that the beautiful ginkgo trees by the public library are gone.

I don't know how I missed this fact. There were three (I think!) lovely ginkgos there for years, their skinny, knobby trunks rising like church spires. The fan-shaped leaves are beautiful when green, but especially noticeable in fall when they turn a perfectly pale yellow. They make wonderful leaf piles to play in, soft and slippery. The sweet girl played in those piles more times than I can count when she was a toddler/preschooler, and we always brought yellow ginkgo leaves home for the table.

We came out of the back door of the library last week and headed for the sidewalk. I had just opened my mouth to say "let's see if the ginkgos have started turning yellow yet" when I stopped, my mouth practically still open, and stared at the spaces where ginkgo trees used to be. Someone must have cut them down in spring or summer (though how we failed to notice this is beyond me) and really rooted them out, stumps and all. We were able to find the still slightly bare patches where the stumps used to be, but just barely.

"Where did they go?" I found myself asking stupidly, and after a thoughtful minute, the sweet girl replied, with a giggle, "Maybe they migrated!"

We had fun amusing ourselves the rest of the way home, imagining the skinny ginkgos stalking around like long-legged storks (I can't wait till we get to Tolkien and the sweet girl becomes acquainted with Ents) but I must confess I'm still in mourning. I wish now that I'd taken photos of those beautiful trees. I miss the delicate yellow fans that used to decorate our fall table.

I feel sad to think of them being cut down. I'd rather imagine them winging their way through October blue skies headed who knows where for the winter.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Patchwork Post

Just a few patches from the crazy quilt of recent days...


If you were a little flummoxed by yesterday's brief post, or if you've been wondering where the heck I've been, it can all be summed up in one word: SICK.

And what an odd round of sickness it's been. It started almost a week ago when I discovered I'd done a mysterious something to my back. Terrible muscle spasms, not being able to bend or walk without real pain, and it felt worst while sitting in (or getting up from) my desk chair at the computer.

It got so bad late Thursday-into-Friday that I really couldn't walk or lie down without terrible spasms radiating from my lower back into my right hip. In desperation, I strayed from my normal natural homeopathic path (a good path, by the way) and slathered myself in the menthol Icy Hot ointment. And then (in a haze of pain) completely disregarded package directions and put moist heat on top of it, which must have made the stuff absorb into my skin incredibly deeply.

Note, if you think you might have the slightest allergy to salicylates, don't do what I did.

So the result was several days of some of the worst hives I've ever had, and believe me, I've had some doozies.

Then the weather turned chilly and it started pouring rain, and I started my annual autumn bout of congestion/cough. And the cough seemed to strain my starting-to-heal back, which gave me a couple more bad days (though not quite as bad) with my back.

And then yesterday I couldn't bear the hives anymore...they didn't seem to be responding to the homeopathic remedy I was I switched to another remedy and also gave in and took Benadryl.

Which proceeded to knock me flat for most of the day. SoI was either sleeping, fighting sleep, or wishing I was sleeping...

Hence my post about not teaching while under the influence!


That was the sweet girl's enthusiastic greeting to me the other day. Yes, we've been studying the first few lessons in Prima Latina.

I'm glad we decided to take the gentle route with Latin this year. It's been a good, slow beginning for us, just what we needed. I'm having a hard time getting in all the things we want to do, but including one PL lesson per week has been easy peasy and such an enjoyment for all of us. We couldn't afford the DVDs, but we like the audio CD. The woman who narrates the vocabulary has such a sweet southern inflection.

One of the nice things about Prima Latina is its inclusion of Latin prayers. We've been working on memorizing the Sanctus. The sweet girl's favorite word from her lessons so far is "Oremus" -- "let us pray." She often uses it as our call to prayer at dinner time or candles!


Being sick has at least afforded me some opportunity to read, and read I must if I'm going to keep ahead of the curve as I help teach the Early Church course for the seminary. It's been so good to dive back into the apostolic and sub-apostolic periods (the course runs from NT church up through Chalcedon). So I'm spending a lot of waking hours in the company of folks like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr.

Good company...probably some quotes/posts forthcoming.

"FASCINATING," said Mr. Spock, with his eyebrow raised.

Although we've had almost no time to breathe, much less watch movies, Dana and I continue our meander through the Netflix provided season 1 of the original Star Trek. What a great show...and what memories it brings back (mostly of watching them in re-runs in the 70s, along with my big brother).

I've always been fond of Bones (given my maiden name, probably understandable) but I'm really finding myself drawn to Spock lately. Hmm...


I have fallen in love with this cookbook by Andrea Chesman, which I found recently on the "just-in" shelves at our library. It's subtitled "270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables" and although I've only tried 2 of the recipes so far, I feel game to try as many as I can from the other 268. I LOVE winter vegetables, and this book has offered some wonderful ideas for using them. Full of yummy ideas using potatoes, squashes, dark greens, carrots and other root veggies (not to mention apples).

So far I've made the Italian Wedding Soup with kale (really good, though I'd like to try it with a veggie chicken broth next time...all I had on hand was regular veggie broth) and Rumbledethump (fell in love with the name!) a casserole dish based on a recipe for Scottish colcannon.


I joked that cooking up such a hearty Scottish dish (made with potatoes, onions, and cabbage) made me feel a little like Ma Ingalls. But I've got Ma and all the rest of the Ingalls on the brain anyway, since we have been having a Little House festival of reading this fall. Unplanned, but delightful...we finished Long Winter the other day and launched immediately into Little Town. We've been saving the reading for bedtime so, Daddy...can join the fun.


Oh, do I miss writing book reviews. It's funny that a writing pastime that began on a whim several years ago has become such a delight of my heart, but I do loving writing book reviews. And I'm currently in a major review writing drought -- not for lack of books, but serious lack of time (busiest schedule ever this fall, compounded by health stuff lately...)

In addition to all the books I've read recently that are piling up on my desk (and beckoning me to write about them) yesterday I got a package of books to review from Greenwillow Press, imprint of Harper Collins. It's only the second time I've had a publisher directly send me books to review, and I have to confess, though it sounds silly, that I felt like a real reviewer as I oohed and aahed my way through these beautiful books I get to read, share about and keep. You would think almost 900 written and posted reviews online would make me feel like a real book reviewer already, wouldn't you? But we writers are funny creatures...

Many more patches I could share, but dinner calls.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Dear Benadryl, might I humbly suggest that you add "Do not attempt to teach your third grader her math lesson while taking this drug" to your warning label?

One tired teacher

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning About Leaning

There's a scene that often comes back to me from the sweet and sentimental comedy While You Were Sleeping. Our heroine, Lucy, is falling in love with Jack, the brother of the man she thought she was in love with (it's a twisty plot). Neither of them has confessed their feelings for each other yet, but Jack finds himself getting jealous over the perceived attentions of Lucy's oddball neighbor. He explains that he thought that the neighbor man was "leaning" into Lucy, which in Jack's understanding means the two are especially close.

"Leaning?" Lucy asks, somewhat blankly. Yes, leaning. It's a funny, sweet scene because Jack (played by Bill Pullman in his younger years) proceeds to try to explain to her what he means by leaning. He moves in close to her, explaining that only people who feel very close or very drawn to one another find themselves "leaning." The oddball neighbor (whose intentions, as it turns out, are mostly harmless) happens by at that time and proceeds to prove Jack's point. "Is he bothering you? Because it looks like he's leaning."

I've been thinking a lot about leaning lately, and what it means in the spiritual life. Despite growing up with the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," it's not a concept I've thought of much in connection to my relationship with God. But lately I find myself thinking of it a lot, perhaps because I am finding myself recognizing how much I need to lean. How much I need to be literally held up, sustained by the love and strength of God.

It turns out that "leaning" on God is a biblical image, and one that really does conjure up intimacy, especially the closeness of a parent/child. But it's not just the kind of leaning described in the sweet scene of a romantic movie (though that does make me smile) the kind of leaning where someone draws protectively close to someone else. Biblical leaning has to do with recognizing our essential reliance on the God who sustains us and who holds the world in being, in whom all things cohere. And it's a reliance that starts, according to the Psalmist, before we're ever aware of it, before we're even born:

"Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb. My praise is continually of you." (Psalm 71:6)

So leaning on God is our essential state, the way we're created to be. He's the one who watches over us even as we shelter, hidden, in our mother's womb. He's the one who sustains us and brings us into the light of day, the first of many deliverances the Lord graciously provides to his people.

Sin and its power can be described in a lot of apt ways, ways that help us to understand its dangers and how it can corrupt and subvert God's plans and purposes for us. Missing the mark, being twisted or bent, turned inward, are all ways of describing or thinking about sin. But I've been thinking lately about sin also causing us to lean in the wrong direction. We lean away from God (thus moving out of the close circle of his arms) and often end up trying to lean on other things, expecting they will hold us up or sustain us, only to discover how unstable and unsteady those things are. Part of our restoration, when we begin to walk with the Lord, is that he draws us back to the close circle of his arms and helps us begin to lean on him again. Notice the use of the word in this verse from Isaiah, which describes how the people of Israel will be day be returned from their captivity to Assyria and restored to right relationship with God:

"In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth." (Isaiah 10:20)

Even once we're restored and in right relationship with God, we still sometimes find ourselves moving away from him and leaning on the wrong things. Sometimes this is obvious, and other times more subtle, but sometimes we find ourselves more dependent on external things (for happiness, peace, comfort, security) than on God himself. And when that happens, we need to repent, literally turn around, and lean back into God.

He wants us to lean. He welcomes our leaning. He remembers what we're made of (remember, he is the One who knit us together in the first place!). Perhaps a great deal of our spiritual disciplines -- prayer, solitude, study, service -- are really all about learning to lean closer and closer into him. Lean deeper. Lean with the sure and certain knowledge that he won't let us fall. And as we lean in, we discover, much to our paradoxical delight, that we are able to move outward -- not in wrong or hasty directions (looking for sustenance and security where there isn't any) but in freedom and joy, like a rooted tree, pliable in the wind.

Lord, let us lean.