Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why I Love the Lectionary

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

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

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

Rejoicing over a new baby....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Joy, Christmas Light

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

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

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

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

~EMP, Advent 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

If Betsy and Tacy Had Blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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

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

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

Wow. Just wow.

H/T to love2learnblog

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

- G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Supplemental Reading List for School (December)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Drop of Water
by Walter Wick

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

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

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

Peter the Great

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

Poetry Friday: Aileen Fisher

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

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

~Aileen Fisher

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity Visits...

at the strangest times.

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

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

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

It's incredibly cold and pouring snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity...what a mysterious process.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Like Powdered Sugar...

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

I love those blogs, and I don't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Wrapping Up Alcott Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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