Monday, August 30, 2010

Things I Love About the First Day of School

~How eager we all are to get up in the morning, even though we're tired and still making the move from relaxed summertime bedtime schedules.

~First day of school muffins. I think I made the best ones ever this year -- really tasty! I always feel like we should wait for Tacy to drop in to have one.

~The handprint tradition, which we started in kindergarten. Oh Lord, bless the work of our hands this year!

~Cracking open brand new books. There's something about glossy covers with no bent corners and bindings that are still uncracked that just get the learning sap flowing!

~New pencils. This year's treat: a root beer scented smencil.

~The first "learning bumps" (both teacher & student). It's almost a relief when we hit them because it snaps us out of the "everything is going to be perfect this year" mode (which usually only lasts about fourteen minutes...)

~Figuring out what's missing or not yet organized. For instance, all of our hand-held pencil sharpeners seem to have gone AWOL, and the battery-powered one is running out of juice. (But hooray for my DH, who stocked up on batteries the other day...

~Seeing how much your student REMEMBERS from last year. Yes, it's also a day to begin to realize what they've forgotten -- and that's helpful in its own way. But lots of fun to celebrate, with small inner cartwheels, all the good stuff that "stuck."

~A spirit of openness and flexibility!

ETA: Although it has an early time signature, I enjoyed adding to the post a bit at a time through the day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Augustine of Hippo (d. 430)

It's the feast day of Augustine of Hippo (not to be confused with Augustine of Canterbury, another Augustine of particular significance in the Anglican tradition).

I recently finished David C. Downing's book Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis. I was hoping to have a chance to review it this week, but thus far that time has eluded me! But I thought I'd make a couple of brief comments on his sections on Augustine, the "prince of mysticism." Downing sees Augustine's influence on Lewis, by the way, particularly in Till We Have Faces.

One of the most interesting things I learned from Downing about Augustine is that Augustine's account, in his Confessions, of a deeply mystical experience is:
"remarkable in several respects. It is the earliest account of the actual stages of mystical transport: from contemplation to a sense of leaving behind the material world to entering the quiet sanctuary of one's own soul to momentarily glimpsing eternal truth. Augustine's description is typical in that the rapturous experience is transitory and it seems to occur in distinct stages. But the account is also highly unusual in that it seems to occur communally, not individually, and that one of those caught up is both uneducated and a woman. In the mystery religions of the ancient world someone like Augustine's mother, however devout, would not be an initiate and would not be considered qualified for mystical experiences."

I loved this thought for two reasons:
1) It seems fitting that Augustine and Monica would share such deep spiritual closeness, especially given her deep love for son, and her tears and prayers that availed so much in moving Augustine toward God's path for his life.

2) Once again, I am unutterably grateful for the radical availability of God's grace and love, which flows so freely to all and is not reserved for a special few or some mysterious "initiates" who possess great wisdom, learning and secret knowledge. God welcomes all to his table, all to his family, regardless of their background or status. Worldly prestige and honor matter not a whit. In fact, God seems to rejoice in choosing the lowly and those of "no account" in the eyes of the world.

"...For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."

100 Species Challenge #12: Yellow Flag (Iris)

I took this photo a few months ago on the bank of a stream at the duck park we like to frequent. Not my best shot, but it was a beautiful flower. I just recalled it the other day when looking through a book on water plants, where I spotted its classification "Iris Pseudacorus - Yellow Flag" and remembered again how lovely it was. Apparently this flower likes to grow near natural ponds. There's also a variegated variety with cream striped leaves.

The sweet girl has been lugging home big gardening books from the library. Although we don't have a yard (and hence no garden) she loves to look at beautiful gardens and flowers, just like her mom. She first discovered a big gardening book with color photos when I was looking through new non-fiction at the library one day. Since then I've introduced her to the gardening section in the grown-up part of the library (her first foray into that area) and she's been choosing some gorgeous books. They've been providing me with some wonderful beauty breaks too.

One day (I hope, I dream) she and I will be able to grow a real garden together. In the meantime, we'll keep cultivating a love of beauty!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

T-4 and Counting...

We start school again in four days. Four days! The sweet girl couldn't be more excited. While I've been printing daily schedules, setting up notebooks, re-organizing our shelves and doing other things to get ready, she's been gathering supplies for her school box and decorating it. Her annual school box is one of those sturdy plastic boxes you can buy for a $1 at Staples. This year she has covered it in stickers and adorned it with a name tag. One of the stickers reads "Congratulations!" which she said she put on there to celebrate going into third grade.

I've been planning lots of posts, mentally at least, about our school plans, but I've been too busy this week actually implementing them to write about them. Still, I am feeling much better this year, than in years past, about my attempts to organize and set up record-keeping. Most of all, I am just excited as S. get started again.

Wherever you and your family may be in the "back to school" process -- blessings!


We do all children a massive disservice when we "chew" over the material and "spit the pulp" out for them. People reject the secondhand results of someone else's efforts. No, let the children remember because they took it in themselves. Let them think their own thoughts about it. Let them respond in narration, with questions, with... ideas. -Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

Monday, August 23, 2010

Agatha Christie in the 1920s

I've always had a bit of a love-hate affair with Wikipedia. Back when it was still a novelty, some of my graduate level students would use it rather liberally as a source for academic papers. And while I discouraged that kind of use, I've come to realize it can be a help even in researching more academic sorts of topics, especially if you focus on the "external links" at the end, which can lead you to good websites of primary sources.

But one thing I've come to love about Wikipedia is the thoroughness of many of its articles on pop culture and literature. I love looking up favorite authors there, not only to find links to good sources, but because you can also find full bibliographies right there at your fingertips. Without having to lug out large reference books (which, depending on publication date, might or might not have a full listing of a more contemporary author's books) you can peruse a full listing of an author's works, usually in publication order.

I'm a sucker for publication order. There's something about it that satisfies all my inner "J" (that's the "J" that comes at the end of the Myers-Briggs personality type test) the same J'ness that loved doing shelf-reads when I worked in a library. I love seeing the order of things. In the case of an author's work, I love seeing the order in which they wrote their books, especially if they wrote a lot of them. That doesn't mean I will always go back and read their books in a certain order, or that I won't have favorites I return to disproportionately, but it's such fun to note the development of characters, themes, images and ideas when you read an author from start to finish.

Agatha Christie, the great mystery novelist, has long been one of my favorite writers. I discovered her when I was about fifteen. Our local library had at least two or three shelves stuffed with her books, and I worked my way through the lot of them. Of course, back in the technological dark ages (long before Wikipedia!) I didn't have a handy list of what she wrote when. With Agatha, more of a pulp novelist (though a brilliant one) it matters less what order you read things in than it would with a more sheerly "literary" author. But I still did little inner cartwheels when I came across her Wikipedia bibliography not long ago. Suddenly I could see when and where she introduced her various detectives, and note where her particular masterpieces arrived in her writing career. Great fun for a "J" gal like me.

So I've begun working my way through, in order, Christie's novels of the 1920s, the first decade in which she was published. I think Hercule Poirot, with his love of method and order, would be really pleased! In the last few years I'd read the first two anyway, when I'd gone in search of the first Poirot and the first Tommy and Tuppence. I plan to review them all on Epinions, a fact which I hope won't annoy the ever-patient book category leads too much, since I'm having to get them to add some of these to the database. (When I requested she add a book from 1923, the CL informed me that she thought this was probably the oldest "new" book she'd ever been asked to add to the database!)

If you're a Christie fan...or thinking of becoming one...I hope you'll take a look at my Christie reviews from the 1920s. Here are the first three (linked) with the last just posted this morning. As I keeping reading and adding to my reviews, I'll edit this listing and try to give a shout-out.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) -- the first novel starring Hercule Poirot, the amazing Belgian detective, and his stolid English sidekick Hastings

The Secret Adversary (1922) -- the dashing crime novel that introduces Tommy and Tuppence, two of my favorite Christie detectives (though they only starred in a handful of books over the years)

The Murder on the Links (1923) -- Poirot and Hastings together again! Poirot proves the superiority of his detective methods, and Hastings finds romance.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) showcases Christie's audacious artistry and provides one of the best surprise twists ever. Poirot is on the job again, though the beginning of the story finds him "retired" and growing vegetable marrows.

The Big Four (1927) brings Poirot and Hastings back together to hunt down four arch-criminals trying to take over the world!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Patchwork Post as Summer Winds Down...

I didn't mean to disappear entirely, but the past couple of weeks have been busy! Last week we helped our church put on our (mostly) annual Vacation Bible School. This year we went off-site and did it at the rec center of the housing projects up the hill. The result was challenging, exciting, wonderful and exhausting. Over the course of the week, we had well over 50 kids come through the program, though I don't think we ever topped 45 on any given night. Still, that's a lot of children in a very small (and hot and humid) space.

It was a privilege to be able to help feed these children: food for their physical bodies, but most of all food for their hungry hearts. We used the curriculum my husband wrote/developed three years ago, called "Pirates in Paradise." The nightly skits included a band of awful pirates who at first are focused on finding treasure, only to discover the truth that earthly treasure rots and decays, and only heavenly treasure really lasts. In the end, all of the pirates, except for the villainous Captain Harry DuPillage, come to accept "the royal pardon" and find their lives and hearts totally changed.


We were so tired on Saturday, following the VBS week, that we took the whole day off. That probably doesn't sound like a big deal for a Saturday, but with my husband's two-job schedule, it's a rarity. We all slept in, and after a leisurely breakfast did our weekly library visit. Then in the afternoon we went to a local park to play on the playground and feed the ducks.

It turned out the ducks weren't very hungry -- most of them had congregated on a small island in the middle of the lake, taking naps in the heat of the day -- but we found a few stalwarts near the left-hand bank and fed them. Or at least we tried. Two of them, one white, one black and white, kept patrolling the territory and pushing back a slightly smaller brown duck that wanted food too. We did our best to lob small pieces of bread over the heads of the bullying ducks so that Mr. Brown could also eat, but after a while he gave it up and so did we.

We stopped for ice cream on the way home and made friends with a small, bright-eyed wren in the parking lot begging for crumbs from our cones. We obliged him with a few pieces and watched in fascination as he would pick up the crumb and fly off, every time in the same exact flight pattern, across the busy road and into the parking lot of a shopping area across the street. He'd swoop up high over the roof of the pizza restaurant and zoom into the thicket of a tall green tree. Clearly he was taking food home to the family, for just as soon as you could blink, he'd zoom back out, fly back across the road (same flight pattern) and land just a few feet in front of us, looking at us with bright expectancy. It was my hubby who suddenly remembered we still had bread in the car, leftover from the ducks. So we sprinkled a liberal amount of crumbs all over the parking lot and watched our wren friend, along with some other birds, have a feast. They all seemed to enjoy it, but none more than that hard-working little bird who kept up his trek to the tree behind Pizza Joe's, over and over. What faithfulness!


We're heading out soon for our two-day mini-vacation in Erie. We realized simultaneously that we couldn't afford it and that we desperately needed it. The Lord blessed us in that we were able to find a good spot at a local campgrounds (the one we stayed at last year, very reasonably priced, had closed). I can't tell you how much we're looking forward to two and a half days of sun, wind, sand, waves, trees, birds, clouds....the peninsula has become such a refreshing oasis in our busy city lives. I always come back renewed, after lots of time to rest, pray, read, and just soak in the goodness of creation. Hopefully by the time we get back, I'll be in a better writing rhythm here. Here's hoping our computer will also be functioning better after some time off!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

100 Species Challenge #11: Peony

Two years ago (!) I decided to embrace the 100 Species Challenge. I began taking pictures of various plants and flowers in our area, and posting them here, in the hopes that I might eventually catalog 100 different kinds of flora and fauna.

It's actually been a great challenge. It's kept me on the lookout, these past two years, for whatever bits of natural beauty I can find in our little town. It's also sent me looking up information about various plants: sometimes to identify them and learn their names, and sometimes to learn more about plants I already knew. Because we live in an urban area, the species diversity is not as strong as it is in some other parts of the country/world, but I've still been pleasantly surprised and grateful for the diversity I've found.

I've been remiss in posting many of the pictures I've taken, which is why I'm only up to #11 on my "countdown." Just recently I've resized and tagged a good handful of photos and hope to post several of them in the coming weeks. A lot of them are spring flowers, so don't be surprised by a sudden onslaught of spring beauty here on the blog as we begin wending our way towards fall.

But as I get back into the swing of things, I thought I'd post a photo from early June. Every June, for the past several years, I try to get a picture of the beautiful white peonies (genus paeonia) that push through the white fence of a nearby yard. I love walking down that particular street in early June, just to find these short-lived but sumptuous blooms.

I'm not sure what the lovely little wildflower scraggling up the side of the fence is -- if you know, I'd love to find out (and will add it to my growing list).

I was curious to know why we always see ants crawling on or near the peonies. I've wondered if they might hurt the plants. Apparently the answer is no -- they're neither "harmful or beneficial" -- they're just there because they like "the sugary liquid secreted by the flower buds."

Friday, August 06, 2010

Reading Round-Up, Summertime

I've not been posting regular reading lists this year, but lately I find myself wanting to post some reading reflections. So I thought I'd start with a brief list of some of the things I'm reading/reading "at" this summer.

I've been following Jack Lewis' advice about the importance of reading old books alongside new ones. My old book at the moment is very old indeed: Athanasius' On the Incarnation.

Athanasius has long been one of my heroes of the faith. Sitting down to actually read one of his books, cover to cover (not in excerpted snippets) has been powerful indeed, and far more than the interesting academic exercise I thought it would be. I've spent so many years, as a church history teacher, encouraging the reading of "primary sources" -- and for all sorts of good reasons. But when I open one myself, the immediate benefits hit me right away. Sitting at the feet of someone, listening to their voice, tends to break down the walls of years. You begin to see how much you and the writer have in common, despite the centuries between you, because of your bond in Christ. That bond begins to look again like the shining gold ribbon it is, running through the years and making sense of the wonderings, ponderings, tears, fears that are all so essentially human and that hardly ever seem to change (yet another bond).

What a treasure-house of books we Christians have that we hardly ever open. And what a privilege to be able to take our time, to be able to walk slowly through old pages and really digest what's there. Sometimes I think I have spent so many years as a student or student-teacher that I have a tendency to rush to understand/synthesize/spout back. Sometimes those are important parts of learning (one reason I use narration so much when I teach the sweet girl!) but as you season as a learner, you can learn to slow down. I'm lingering on passages in Athanasius for the pure joy of it, for formation and not just information. More on this book soon.

From old to very new...about a week ago I picked up a small paperback on the "new books" shelf of our local library. It's a memoir called Thin Places and is written by Mary E. DeMuth. I've never heard of her, but apparently she is a novelist who has written for Christian publishers (this book, described as a "spiritual memoir" is published by Zondervan). I primarily picked it up for its title, since the image of "thin places" is one that's been important in my own spiritual journey. The book has been nothing like I expected, but in a good way. I want to call her a kinder, gentler version of Anne Lamott, except that sounds too derivative (and I don't mean the comparison to demean either writer in any way). At any rate, I'm several chapters in and have been slammed to the heart by a few passages. More on this book soon too.

From the sublime to the...well, no, not ridiculous. I refuse to call juvenile mysteries ridiculous, particularly because I'm attempting to work out the plot for one again! Yes, with my husband's encouragement I am back to work on the juvenile mystery I began to write about four years ago. I abandoned it then due to lack of time and some major plot problems. He and I have been working (aloud, in the late evenings) on some of the knottier plot problems...have I mentioned how much I love being married to a dramatist? He's so good at understanding dramatic action...what will work and not work as opening/rising action, what characters I've sketched that hold the most potential as major players in the drama. He's also great at getting me to visualize the scenes I consider most important. I love working with him, and I am getting excited about diving back into the writing. I'm also priming the pump through the reading of a slew of old Trixie Belden mysteries. These are the books that turned me into a mystery enthusiast at the age of nine. They are the backbone of my understanding of the genre, though I've read other juvenile mysteries (then and now). I'm especially studying up the first 6 books in the series, the originals (for Trixie purists) penned by Julie Campbell. She really did an amazing job of writing character.

Reading with the sweet girl this summer has also been a delight. We finished Caddie Woodlawn (a lovely book I hope to review soon) and moved on to the sequel to All-of-a-Kind Family, appropriately entitled More All-of-a-Kind Family. (This became a fun joke, when S. would ask, "Could we read More More?") We loved the sequel almost as much as the original, and that's saying something.

The summer has been more of a challenge for S. as an indepedent reader, which concerns me a bit. I know she's had camp; she's also been bitten by the retro-video-game bug (her Dad got us a plug n' play video game for family present on her birthday, and she's become an amazing Pac Man player!). I've had to really encourage the reading time every day, something that's hard for me to fathom. By her age I was gobbling books without any encouragement at all, and so I'm trying not to either worry or compare...just encourage. Reading is just a huge part of our lives, and I know how much she loves stories, so I think big reading seasons, and eventually deep reading habits, will still come. She's been reading more of the Ramona books on her own, and I've encouraged her to read aloud to me from some readers. We've especially been enjoying the Poppleton and Mr. Putter and Tabby books by Cynthia Rylant.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Slow Learner I Am (And God's Long Patience)

Late last night I found myself feeling discouraged at the end of a long day. And I found myself doing something I don't do very often: visiting the archives of this blog.

I don't know why I don't think to do that more often. I will often wend my way through pages of old journal (the physical journal notebooks I still keep, albeit less often than I used to) to mine them for quotes, snippets of half-finished poems, bits of half-shaped creativity, insights into struggles. And maybe that's the point. My private journal often feels like a work-in-progress (more like me) and something that I can turn to to find ongoing sustenance as I keep journeying on.

My blog, simply because it is a blog, feels somehow tidier and more complete. First of all, it gets broadcast -- it's "out there" -- ostensibly for anyone to read. And it looks so darn organized, with those neat little blogger functions tying up each month in a bow and then each year in a bundle. For the past couple of years, I've even "tagged" my posts, so I can go back and sort them according to category. All in all, it's just a very different way of writing and thinking.

But it's still me, and I'm still and forever a work in progress, which means plenty of ragged and half-finished creative moments. So when I felt a nudge from the Lord last night to go back and look over some posts from the first couple of years, I did.

And I found this, from a post written about 3 1/2 years ago, a piece of a post which I could have almost written again last night. The challenging issues in my daughter's life have changed; the physical season has changed (though not the crazy work schedules and the tiredness); my ongoing struggles to do what I'm called to do haven't. In some ways that's frustrating, in other ways comforting. At least I know these are the edges God has been working on in me for a long time. And I can trust his hands.

"Being patient with myself and loving myself is far harder. Why? I'm not sure. I'm tired right now; I do realize that. Winter is long and cold and icy in our neck of the woods, and D. and I have been working far too many hours and juggling far too many things. We haven't had a really refreshing break in I don't know how long. When I get depleted like this, I am more susceptible to letting myself be shaped by discouragement and untruths. I need to stop doing that, because that kind of behavior hurts me. (Sounds familiar -- sounds like the kinds of things I say to S.!)

So I will try not to listen to the lie that I am a bad parent, and a failure as a mom and a teacher. My daughter is struggling with something that she needs to overcome; I need to find creative ways to be patient enough with myself and with her to help her overcome it. This isn't the first hill we've faced together, and it won't be the last. Grounded in prayer, we're going to keep on climbing."