Saturday, July 31, 2010

Happy Birthday JKR and Harry (The 3rd Annual HP Birthday Post)

For the past two years, I've posted a poem or essay in honor of Harry Potter's birthday, which also happens to be the birthday of his author, JK Rowling. Last year I decided to make it an annual tradition, so here I am again to hum a few bars of "Happy Birthday to you" and hoist an imaginary slab of smushed chocolate cake (from Hagrid's pocket!) in honor of the day.

By creative reckoning, we know that today would be Harry's 30th birthday -- a milestone birthday indeed, and one that I'm sure causes him to reflect and look back on many birthdays past.

I've had the saints who have gone before on my mind lately, as you can probably tell from yesterday's posting. One of the most powerful elements of the Harry Potter series is how Rowling depicts Harry's departed loved ones and how they help Harry in times of deep need. So for this year, I decided to pull out a poem I wrote about Harry's mother Lily.


Lovely Lily, always smiling,
always winning, always shining,
lovely Lily, prettiest sister,
stubborn friend, staunch resister.
Not easy to sway, no simple romantic,
but once she loves, that love’s titanic.

Lovely Lily, precious wife,
still young mother, willing to give
herself for others, courage blazing,
voice beseeching, green eyes gazing.
Last moments spent with arms spread wide,
protector with nowhere to hide.

Lovely Lily, lioness
protecting cub in deep distress,
now forever memory, voice,
mirror image, finest choice,
shade who comforts, fortress strong,
the one to which he still belongs.

Lovely Lily, look down and see
the lion your cub has grown to be.


Many happy returns Harry! And Jo too!

Friday, July 30, 2010

I'm Trying to Imagine...

I'm trying to imagine what it must have been like for William Wilberforce, as he lay dying (during this July week one hundred and seventy-seven years ago) to receive word that slavery had been abolished in Great Britain.

The abolition of the slave trade, and eventually the institution of slavery itself, had been a major part of Wilberforce's life work. When he experienced his Christian conversion as a young man, he was already a rising star in parliament, and his immediate reaction was to think he should leave politics for some other more spiritual field. With the encouragement of his good friend William Pitt (then the youngest PM in British history) and his spiritual mentor John Newton (former slaver ship captain, then pastor, who penned the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace") Wilberforce was convinced that God could indeed call him to stay in parliament, and even use him there.

And oh, how God used Wilberforce's gifts as an orator, and his seemingly tireless passion for justice! I'm trying to imagine what it must have felt like, after years of weary work and toil, for Wilberforce to receive the news that righteousness was dawning and justice rolling down like a river.

But even that sweet and blessed news, after a lifetime of toil and even suffering, must have faded in comparison to the amazing moment of seeing his Savior and hearing "well done my good and faithful servant."

I'm trying to imagine what it was like for Miss Eleanor to enter into glory this week. Miss Eleanor was the oldest member of our church, 95 years old to be precise, a vibrant, joyous African-American lady who loved her Lord and loved others. She lived a life of her country (she was with the Medical Corps in WWII) and to her brothers and sisters. Well into her 90s, she worked as a volunteer with various ministries in town. My husband used to wheel her down the street to the office of the mission organization where he works, where Miss Eleanor would hold court, blessing everyone with her joyous smile while she busily folded envelopes.

This was a woman who radiated joy and peace. When I went to the viewing at the funeral home last night, I was immediately struck by the fact that she still did. Everyone seemed struck by it: her body lay in such tranquil repose, the hint of a smile on her face still so sweet, that it was impossible not to know that she had passed from this earthly life into the presence of her Lord. And she too heard "well done, my good and faithful servant."

I'm trying to imagine what that move, from earth to heaven, must feel like for those who are ready, who slip from one dimension to the next with the fluidity of light or water, so ready are they to lay down their journey here and continue it there. Absent from the body, present with the Lord. No wonder we celebrate a saint's feast day on the day they die (something I've been talking about lately with my eight year old). As joyous as a birth is, how much more so the passing into new and fuller life! Higher up and further in! Pressed in close to Jesus! Cup overflowing!

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal ;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul...

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate ;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

(From A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; you can go here to read the poem in its entirety.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Multitude Monday

Yes, it's Monday again! And I'm feeling especially thankful today...

56. For God's mercies, new every morning.

57. For a lovely note from friends, with a gift to help with our livelihood and support.

58. For other encouraging notes and emails from friends in the past week, including those who have sent me job and writing leads in this challenging time.

59. For the life of Miss Eleanor, a beloved member of our parish, and a great saint of God, who went home to Jesus this past weekend (she was in her 90s).

60. For the ways in which the sweet girl and I were able to talk openly, from the heart, about Miss Eleanor's life and death.

61. For my precious Daddy's recent 78th birthday. How thankful I am that he is still on this earth, able to celebrate his life and the many wonderful things the Lord has done to sustain him in the health crisis of the past months.

62. For writing, an article proposal, and some preliminary thinking (creative, collaborative brainstorming with my dear husband) on the juvenile mystery novel I began and deserted a few years ago. It may yet get written!

Monday, July 19, 2010

From the archives: Saint Macrina

When I first began blogging, back in 2006, I posted about Saint Macrina on July 19, her feast day. In honor of the day, I thought I'd re-post it.

On the Episcopal calendar, today is the day we celebrate Saint Macrina. Macrina was the oldest of ten children born around the year 327 to Basil the Elder and his wife Emmelia, a prominent Christian couple in Cappadocia (a mountainous district east of Asia Minor, where the Christian Gospel took early root). She's best known as the sister of two of the great Cappadocian fathers, Basil and Gregory, who along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus were important defenders of Nicaean orthodoxy during the height of the Arian controversy.

Macrina is also sometimes credited with the founding of what's usually known as "Basilian monasticism" because she undertook monastic life early on and influenced her brother Basil in his formation of monastic communities. Although it was the men in the family who took center stage at a crucial time in church history, Basil's letters and Gregory's Life of Saint Macrina (a beautiful meditation on his sister's holy life and death) make it clear that they were very shaped by the deep Christian teaching and example of sister, mother and grandmother.

I became rather fascinated by Macrina several years ago when I took a course in Patristics. I ended up writing a paper about her, which I've dug out a few times over the years, including today, to refresh myself on the particulars of this amazing woman's life.

I had hoped to include a picture or an icon with this posting, but I'm still getting the hang of how to post graphics and where I can get them without either copyright infringement or stealing someone's bandwidth. I know that the "flickr" site has plenty of photos usable for blogs, so I thought I'd check there today...though it turns out they primarily feature very contemporary photos. Ironically, the name "Macrina" brought up numerous photos of rich and delicious looking rolls, breads and pastries, all apparently made at a well-known bakery named Macrina's in Seattle, WA.

Why do I say ironic? Well, my first reaction was to think how strange it was to go looking for images of an ascetical saint (who lived and ate very simply and owned almost no posessions) and find all these images of rich, gooey, fattening desserts. What a contrast in eras, cultures and values! That was my immediate somewhat cynical inner response.

But then I thought some more. Saint Macrina was actually well-known as a breadmaker. (I might add that this fact apparently didn't escape the Seattle bakery owners...yes, I googled the word Macrina and came up with the bakery's fact, it was the first hit, ahead of an encylopedia article on Saint Macrina.) Macrina's father died when she was quite young and she helped her mother raise all the younger children in the family as well as caring for her mother. Later Macrina formed a community of women, and her mother lived in the community with her, along with a number of other women (many of whom had been poor or abandoned, some of whom had once been the family servants). Among her other prayerful concerns and activities, Macrina and presumably some of the other women in the community baked bread for Holy Communion.

So perhaps it's not so ironic that I would be looking at images of rich and glorious food. Macrina lived a life of holy detachment from things, but a life rich in the inner spirit and one focused on the joys and realities of the coming heavenly banquet. In life, she had only a cloak, veil, sandals, a cross necklace and ring. She had no other clothes. But as we know from the Life of Saint Macrina, her brother Gregory helped prepare her body for burial by dressing her in a beautiful wedding gown. We who believe in bodily resurrection can only imagine the rich sumptuousness of heaven. It's hard for me not to reflect on the possibility that Macrina might be smiling at the notion that when I went looking for her today, the "icons" I saw were of cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Links I Love: Preparing the Day

I've not shared any links lately, and thought I'd pop into today with this thoughtful post entitled "How to Prepare the Day for Our Children."

What I liked about this post was the way it focuses, not really on preparing the day or preparing a perfect looking life/house/meal, etc., but on preparing our own hearts as we head into the day. This is something I think all of us need to stop and think about from time to time, whether we're parents or not, but I think when you are a parent, especially of a young child, the need for some heart-time and prayer-time before the day begins feels even more necessary.

I've been feeling this need a lot lately, and noticing what happens when I lack that time. When I rush full speed ahead into a day, filled with anxieties, frustrations, or even just plain old busy-ness, the whole household knows it and feels it. So I'm praying for more time to enter the day intentionally and well, for myself and for my family. I like the way this author suggests that 5 minutes can do it, as well as two hours. That's a practical bit of discipline I can understand even attempt to put into practice!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sister Lit

Earlier today I posted a review of Laura Ingalls Wilder's By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fifth book in the Little House series. And one that I always forget how much I love until I read it again.

As I was writing, I found myself thinking about the way Laura and Mary's relationship shapes the narrative. This is the book in which we discover that Mary has become blind, the consequence of scarlet fever. It's also the book where Pa tells Laura, more than once, that she needs to "become Mary's eyes." And so Laura, ever dutiful, truly takes that task on. She describes everything she sees out there on the Dakota prairie to her sister, often in incredible detail.

As the sweet girl and I were reading the book through, we talked about that -- about the way in which Laura learned to describe things vividly and with such care. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the real-life experience of being a companion to her blind sister probably helped to shape the kind of writer that Wilder became, the writer who loves to pour on detail after detail so that we "see" right along with her.

The Laura-Mary relationship of Little House has always been one of the cores of the series for me. It colors so much, from the way Laura compares her own mischievous behavior to Mary's ladylike behavior when they're little girls, to the ways in which Laura tends to ally herself with Pa's adventurous wandering spirit over against the gentler, more domestic instincts of Ma and Mary, right down through their deepening friendship as Laura "becomes her eyes" and later works hard as a school-teacher to help provide Mary the opportunity to study in a special college. I've often felt that Mary's patient forbearance always seemed almost too good to be true, and wondered if Laura didn't overly-sentimentalize this portrait of her sister...though maybe not. Maybe Mary really did have those deeply-engrained virtues. And certainly Laura's loving respect for this sister, so different from her herself, shines through.

I'd never made the connection until this evening, but it struck me that the Laura-Mary relationship has a prelude in the Jo-Beth relationship of Little Women (with perhaps a dash of the Jo-Amy relationship sprinkled into the earlier books). Beth too suffered through scarlet fever, and though it didn't leave her blind, it left her heart so weak she became an invalid. Beth too is portrayed, far more than Mary even, as a real saint, especially in the midst of such suffering. Her loss is the turning point in Jo's character development and story. And of course, like Wilder's stories, Alcott's were based on her real family and growing up years, with her sister portraits based on her real sisters.

Sister literature is powerful, isn't it? Austen delved deeply into it too, though her stories were much less overtly autobiographical. But Jane too had a sister she loved deeply, Cassandra, and I've sometimes wondered how much of their relationship seeped into the storied relationships of Elizabeth-Jane and Elinor-Marianne. So many people see romance as the beating heart of every Austen novel, but to me, it often seems as those the sister relationships are the real core, especially in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

When you contemplate sister lit, what fictional sister pairings come to mind for you?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wonderful Storytellers: Pixar

We've always been a Pixar watching family. In fact, my husband and I laugh because the first movie we got out to see after we became parents (our first date after the sweet girl was born eight plus years ago) was Finding Nemo. We chuckled a bit sheepishly over the fact that we got a baby-sitter for our newborn so we could have some grown-up time...and then went to see an animated movie. But ah, what animation!

As amazing as Pixar's animation skills are, however, what has always set their movies apart is their amazing storytelling. They give us characters we really care about and compelling tales for them to walk (or run, swim, fly, or "fall with style" through).

We were reminded of that again this weekend when we went to the theater to see Toy Story 3. We don't get to the theater often; this was a belated birthday gift to the sweet girl, and our whole family was blessed by it.

The sweet girl has only become a Toy Story fan in recent weeks. When we realized the third film was coming up, we dug out our old library-sale VHS copies of the first two films and played them for her. (In general, she's more a book-girl than a movie-girl, and somehow we'd just never gotten around to them.) She fell for the characters and stories right away, and has become a particularly ardent fan of Buzz Lightyear. She especially likes to watch the second movie over and over...when she does fall for a story, she tends to like to inhabit it for a while, something I completely empathize with.

What's been particularly fun is watching how the well-crafted story shapes of these films are helping her become more aware of narrative art. She caught on right away to some of the "formula" elements of the tales, noting with great enjoyment how certain things seemed to repeat themselves (like the toys leaving Andy's house and needing rescue) but also got inverted (Woody saves Buzz, then Buzz saves Woody). She noticed more of those elements in Toy Story 3, which does a brilliant job of repeating those old motifs but keeping them fresh and lively. It also does an excellent job of paying off some story moments from the earlier films, including a couple I wasn't expecting.

She's had interesting questions that have actually led to some family discussions about story-telling, especially story-telling in the movies. She wondered why movies get so loud and exciting near the end, commenting on the extended sequences where that happened and where all the problems seemed to get solved. We actually got to introduce the words climax and denouement into dinner-time conversation!

She's also picking up on the joys of good characterization. This morning (the morning after our big Toy Story 3 in the theater moment) she made me laugh. She told me she'd been imagining a new Toy Story scene, this one involving a big bear with sharp claws. "And I know just what all the different toys would say," she said. Buzz would say "LOOK OUT!" The aliens would say "The CLAW!" Rex would say, "That's not just ANY claw, that's a bear claw! We're going to get stepped on!" and Woody would say "NOBODY is going to get stepped on!"

All of which seemed pretty spot-on to me (fan fiction writer in the making? or perhaps just fiction?)!

As for me, I realized yesterday just how far I trust Pixar's storytelling. I won't go into details (in case you've not yet seen the movie) but there's a scene of intense peril toward the end. It looks like all the beloved toys we've come to know are going to die for certain. I heard a plaintive "Mommy!" and turned to see the sweet girl looking thoroughly alarmed. I'm not sure, but I think she was actually physically trembling ~ and it was that intense. I leaned in close and squeezed her hand and whispered "It's all right. Keep watching. It's all going to come out all right," all the time my brain was working on another level. I was trusting that the outcome would be a satisfying one, praying that John Lasseter and the whole creative Pixar team was going to come through again! And on another level, I'd fallen completely into the story myself and was inwardly fretting about the potential outcome for Woody, Buzz and the gang, not seeing any conceivable way out.

It struck me anew how important it is to me to be able to trust a storyteller. That doesn't necessarily mean to trust a storyteller to always deliver a happy ending, or even the ending I exactly expect/hope for. But yes, I need to be able to trust that the storyteller knows what he or she is doing and is going to deliver an ending that's coherent, meaningful and satisfying.

It all makes me grateful, again, that we live in a world whose Storyteller we can trust, and that in the ultimate sense, we inhabit a Story of great coherence, meaning and sense, one we know is heading for a conclusion beyond all we can ask or imagine. And all the best stories echo that big Story, in ways big and small.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Wonderful Storytellers: Bob Hartman

I'm finding myself loving good storytellers these days, especially those who are particularly adept at retelling old stories in ways that make us hear them anew. Storytellers and writers who manage fresh but faithful re-tellings of Bible stories are at the top of my list, inspiring me to want to dive again into some Bible story re-tellings myself this summer.

I thought I'd introduce a couple of my favorite Bible storytellers here. And I thought I'd start with Bob Hartman.

He currently lives and writes in England, but he used to live in our area, and I had the privilege of attending a storytelling workshop he did at our seminary about a dozen years ago. As much as I enjoyed it then, I had no idea how much his books would come to mean to our family, and especially to my daughter. She loves his stories and could listen to them by the hour. She doesn't mind listening to them over and over, which is a good thing because I find myself wanting to read them over and over, since they lend themselves readily to repeated readings and tellings.

Our all-time Hartman favorite is probably Early Saints of God, a collection of saint stories from the first several hundred years of the church. We read it during the month of November every year, as a way of celebrating All Saints. Just lately, however, we've been reading and re-reading Angels, Angels All Around, a wonderful collection of Bible stories involving angels. Based on Biblical accounts, and on the marvelous diversity of God's creation, Hartman decided to make each angel unique and especially suited to its particular calling, which makes the stories shine with creativity.

Thus the angel who ministers to the despairing prophet Elijah in the desert is a maternal, spoon-wielding angel in an apron, whose recipe for cake is...well, heavenly. The angel who holds up a sword in Balaam's path is properly fierce, and practically rolls his eyes at the stubborn, donkey-ish behavior of the prophet. The angel who slips into prison to rescue Peter is a slender, boyish imp with a mischievous grin (think Peter Pan or Puck) who doesn't mind at all pulling a fast one on the jailers. The angel who ministers life to Hagar and Ishmael in the desert comes in the guise of a vulture (who drives all the real death-preying birds away). The angel in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego has a literally blazing smile and fiery-bright hair. The angel who answers Daniel's prayer and shuts the mouths of the lion's in the den is himself large and leonine, able to distract and wrestle with big cats. And Gabriel's visit to Mary -- well, it's full of surprises, mostly because the young girl is not at all like the angel expects.

Those are just a few of our favorites from the book -- there are several more stories we love too!

What I enjoy about Hartman's saint and Bible stories is the way he manages to sustain attention and interest, through creative uses of repetition and appropriate bits of humor, but how he always manages to hone in on an important truth about God's nature and character. You can tell this is a man who has wrestled, lovingly and faithfully, with the stories he's presenting. We love these stories and we learn from them too.

Hartman has also written a number of folk story and animal story re-tellings. We love his Lion Storyteller Bible and The Lion Storyteller Christmas Book (some re-tellings of the nativity, but also some stories based on traditional Christmas folktales from around the world). And I was really excited to find out that he has a new collection forthcoming, Mr. Aesop's Story Shop, based on the ancient stories of Aesop. I discovered that through this brief but very good online interview someone did with him this past spring. He talks there about the art of storytelling and also mentions some other exciting projects he has in the works, including a book he described as "Tom Wright for 8 year olds." I can't wait!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Book Notes: Christian History Musings

For the past few weeks, I've been doing a good bit of reading in general Christian history. It started when I decided to revisit Mark A. Noll's Turning Points, a book I'm considering using to teach a student in the diocesan deacon formation program this fall. Right when I was starting to read through Noll's book, a book I'd put on hold made it to the library shelf, and I found myself beginning Gerald Sittser's Water from a Deep Well. Then another little book seemed to fall into my lap, Justo Gonzalez' The Changing Shape of Church History. It's small but packs a wallop, and I swallowed it over the course of about two days, then found myself backing up to re-read bits and ponder more thoroughly. It's been providing an interesting lens for the other reading I've been doing since.

In the midst of all that, I began reading Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Medieval World (volume 2 of her general history survey, which has some interesting tie-ins, here and there, to church history, and also provides helpful background/context). And then I saw a blog recommendation for Diana Butler-Bass' A People's History of Christianity, which sounded like it had the potential to tie in, at least in some ways, to the ideas presented by Gonzalez. So I put it on hold, thinking I'd have a wait, and was surprised (delighted? dismayed?) when the library got it in right away.

Suddenly I'm in the midst of several "tomes" (no other word will do for some of these hefty volumes) but finding a need to go back and forth between them all as I read and think.

And it really is Gonzalez' little book that's providing the most thoughtful lens for thinking through the rest of it. Not that he hasn't written tomes himself. I was blessed indeed to have his two-volume Story of Christianity as my introduction to the discipline and study of Christian history (thirteen years ago this fall!). I still think those two volumes are some of the most fascinating and readable narratives on Christian history out there, and I'm glad they're on my shelves. I'm also glad that I was familiar enough with his work to pick up Changing Shape, even though it's such a slim, unassuming looking book.

I'm working on a longer review, but in a nutshell, what Changing Shape provides is a reflection on the way the changing map of Christianity (from a Christendom "centralized" in the western world, i.e. the North Atlantic in recent years, to a "decentralized" global Christianity, with multiple centers ranging all over the world) affects how we read Christian history.

History, Gonzalez reminds us, is not simply "what happened" but an interpretation of what happened. And depending on who is doing the seeing, and telling, the story that gets told can change shape. That's exciting; it can also be a little disorienting.

When we look back from the vantage point of our present, the way we see things, even the topography, can change. By topography here, he means those centuries and events that have "pushed up" like mountain ranges in the standard study of Christian history, the sorts of "everyone knows these are the most important things that happened and are worth our serious attention" moments.

I think his concluding insight, the one the book really pushes toward the whole way, is perhaps the most exciting. It's the one that's stayed with me. His point is that we in the west (or global north) don't have to look upon the marginalization of Christianity as a calamity or something to bemoan. Instead of mourning a loss of political, economic or cultural power, we can understand that our power lies in a different way of living (a way that at its best has always been counter-cultural). We can instead choose to focus upon it as an opportunity, an opportunity for the church to live out of a new paradigm (not the triumphalist paradigm of Christendom or an overly spiritualized paradigm where we downplay what's happening in the world). This new paradigm is what he calls "incarnate marginality," a phrase I love because it seems to speak so much out of the story of Jesus himself.

"...Christians must acknowledge that our proper place, both as individuals and as the church, is not necessarily a the center," he writes. "Without condemning Eusebius or Constantine, without declaring the entire Middle Ages apostate, without rejecting the inheritance that we have received from so many centuries of official and extraofficial support by the state and society at large, we must affirm that the proper place for those who follow Jesus Christ is the margin rather than the center; it is the valley rather than the hilltop; it is the cross rather than the throne."

I think this lens of "incarnate marginality" becomes a helpful one as we look at the history of the church, particularly those movements and people who have lived that kind of witness. And there have been so many. It's one reason I've found myself revisiting the stories of the early martyrs, and the work of Athanasius.

I think, though I'm not sure (having only read intro and first chapter thus far) that Butler-Bass is going for something similar when she discusses what she terms "generative Christianity" or "great command Christianity" -- a faith that "transforms the world through humble service to all." But I'm still wrestling with her thoughts.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Building Vocabulary the Beverly Cleary Way

I've talked about Beverly Cleary's books on this blog quite a bit. That's because the sweet girl (now eight! gulp!) loves them to pieces. Sometimes literally.

She's particularly a fan of the Ramona books, and we've been reading our way slowly through the series, doling them out like chocolate-covered read-aloud treats in between other books. Just today we finished Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (sweet girl's pick, just in time for her own 8th birthday!) the Newbery honor winning Ramona that was first published in 1981.

I've been thinking for a while about ways to begin to do some natural vocabulary building. Well, I'm a big believer in the fact that vocabulary does get built, quite naturally, the more we read -- and listen and converse. I've just wanted to find some more intentional ways of calling attention to word meanings, beyond the bit we do in spelling each week during the school year (where we often discuss word meanings or look a couple of the spelling words up in the glossary at the back of the spelling book). I'm also wanting to encourage more use of the dictionary, and to that end, we recently purchased a beautiful one: the DK Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary. We snagged a used copy from my favorite bookstore, Half-Price Books. I must say it's amazing what a couple of dog-eared corners can do to bring the price way, way down on a big hardback book like this.

My bright but obvious idea is to have the sweet girl think about words she comes across, especially in the books we read aloud together, that she's not familiar with. Then we can write them down together, in a lovely little composition book, and look them up. I say "we" not in the royal sense; for now this is a joint activity, but I foresee a time when it will become more independent.

I'm not pushing too hard on this -- not making her tell me every word she doesn't know -- because I don't want to take the joy and spontaneity out of our read-aloud time, and because I do think we learn a lot just by seeing and hearing a word in context. But this seems like a natural extension of that kind of learning. We often discuss what we read, which has led to some fun exploration of various topics (like leaning more about animals mentioned in the Little House books, or finding pictures of old automobiles when we read the Betsy-Tacy books). Reading always opens doors to explore further the things we don't know about, the subjects that intrigue us. Why shouldn't it open doors to learning about words that intrigue us too?

Cleary seemed like a golden opportunity to dive into this activity, both because her work is so beloved around here and because she uses such rich vocabulary. And so it was today that we found ourselves looking up feeble and indignant, inspiration and nag. Aren't those great Ramona words?

And it was fun! I planned for us to look up two words. It turned into four because the sweet girl got very enthusiastic. She asked me to just open the book to any page and read her a paragraph (we'd just finished the whole thing) and she'd stop me when she got to a word she wasn't quite sure she knew the meaning of. I have a feeling this exercise is going to be a keeper, and not just with Cleary books. Though I'm glad that's where we started.

Related post (from 2008): Teaching Nouns with Beverly Cleary

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Wordplay: Cento

I've not had much time lately for wordplay, but last evening I found myself just needing to spend some time with language...not organizing anything with it, not planning out my next writing projects (though I did that yesterday too) just enjoying it.

I always enjoy the Monday stretch over at the Miss Rumphius Effect, but I hadn't popped over there in a while. The stretch that intrigued me most last night was one she posted a couple of Mondays ago, a challenge to write a cento.

For those who have never heard of this form (I hadn't) a cento is defined as "a poem made entirely of pieces from poems by other authors. Centos can be rhymed or unrhymed, short or long." (Copying Miss R's attribution, this definition comes from The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms.)

Although I'd never heard the name of the form, I've seen similar ideas played with through "found poetry," and through the book A Stone, A Leaf, A Door (essentially prose by Thomas Wolfe that's been arranged into poems by another author).

Last night, tired as I was, this seemed just the right kind of exercise to get me reading, reflecting on, and writing poetry. I quickly pulled two books from my shelf: The One Year Book of Poetry: 365 Devotional Readings Based on Classic Christian Verse, and The Roar on the Other Side: A Guide for Student Poets. Both good books in different ways, and both crammed with lots of poems I could peruse and borrow words, lines and phrases from.

One of the enjoyable things about this creative stretch was the way it freed me to read poetry, at least the first time through, not so much for meaning as for sound. Sometimes I get caught up from the start in trying to discern what a poet is saying, and I lose the opportunity to simply fall into the poem as an artifact for the eye and ear. Last night I let myself fall, though I found that when a line grabbed me, as one almost inevitably did, I usually wanted to back up and find out why. Where did the line fit in the grander scheme of the whole poem? What would happen if I lifted it out of its context? What would happen if I lifted it out of its context and put it next to something completely different from it, written by someone else in a different time and place altogether?

The result was exhilarating. Not only for the joys of finding similar sounds and images that seemed to run through wildly disparate poems (like recurring wild flowers in amazingly different gardens) but for the ways those sounds and images began to weave together in my mind to create something entirely new.

Here's the result: the poem I assembled, followed by notes that tell you where the various lines came from.

Let this day's air
praise the Lord --
for ne'er saw I,
never felt, a calm
so deep!
Rinsed with gold,
endless, walking the fields,
the beauty of the morning;
silent, bare --
Let this day's air
praise the Lord
for strange treasures
lodged in this
fair world appear.
I cannot drift beyond
his love and care.
Let this day's air
praise the Lord --
his praise shall tune
my voice.

(EMP, 6-30-10)

"Let this day's air praise the Lord," which became my recurring line, is the first line of Robert Siegel's poem "Rinsed with Gold, Endless, Walking the Fields," printed on page 147 of The Roar on the Other Side.

"Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!" comes from William Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge," the poem for July 3 in The One Year Book of Poetry.

It seemed to be that returning to Siegel's poem, with the line he draws from his title, "Rinsed with gold, endless, walking the fields" provided the perfect description for that deep calm.

And then it made sense to return to Wordsworth again for "the beauty of the morning; silent, bare..."

As I kept going back to the Siegel refrain, I kept thinking of reasons why the very air around us praises the Lord (and oh it does). And so I moved to "strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear" from Thomas Traherne's poem "The Salutation," the poem for June 30 in The One Year Book of Poetry.

Both the sound and sense of that line seemed to move naturally to the more individual and personal gratitude of the line "I cannot drift beyond his love and care" from "The Eternal Goodness" by John Greenleaf Whittier (poem for May 25 from the One Year Book).

And as I repeated Siegel's line one more time, I wanted to try to tie it into a different (and again more personal) line involving praise, and so borrowed "his praise shall tune my voice" from William Cowper's poem "Joy and Peace in Believing" (the poem for May 14 in the One Year Book).


This was a fascinating exercise. The poem I ended up stitching together somehow felt greater than the sum of its parts, more like a choir of voices singing to me of similar themes. I found myself grateful to remember that everything that has breath praises the Lord, and that my own breath, my own voice, can be "tuned" by listening to the praise all around the air, in the strange treasures of the world, and in the poems of those who have gone before.

I'll definitely be adding cento poems to my regular repertoire of wordplay. If you're inspired to give it a try, let me know how it works for you!