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!