Tuesday, November 29, 2011

For Louisa, Jack, and Madeleine... (Literary Day of Days)

It's my favorite literary day of the year: the anniversary of the birth of three of the deepest writers of my heart. Louisa May Alcott was born on this day in 1832, Clive Staples (Jack) Lewis in 1898, and Madeleine L'Engle in 1918. What an amazing gift it is to be able to celebrate all three of them on the same day!

I fell in love with all three of these writers when I was very young and my love for them has continued over the years, though it's taken different shape in different seasons. As I pondered today all the profound ways they have influenced me through the years -- far too many ways to count -- it occurred to me that even if each had only graced the world with a fraction of what they wrote, I still would feel grateful. Playing on that idea, I wrote this poem in tribute to them, and in tribute to three of their characters who have been my special friends.

For Louisa, Jack and Madeleine

It would have been enough to give us Jo –

Tree climber, boot stomper, apple muncher,
Snow thrower, writer of tales.
In the mirror of pages across the ages,
We still see the ink stain on her finger,
The scorch on her dress, the wild, rumpled hair.
We hear her tears in the garret,
Mingled with rain, and know
the soft, satin feel of the ribbon
tied round her stories.

It would have been enough to give us Lucy –

Door opener, truth teller, faun friend,
merry queen, lion-hearted girl.
In the mirror of pages across the ages,
We still see the flask of healing cordial,
The white-winged albatross, snowflakes
Glittering in the lamppost light.
We hear her muffled tears the night
The world seemed to end, and know
the soft, tangled tresses of the wild lion’s mane
wrapped round her fingers.

It would have been enough to give us Meg –

Problem solver, hand holder, cocoa maker,
namer, friend of cherubim.
In the mirror of pages across the ages,
We still see glasses slip in the moonlight,
Dragon scales in a dripping garden,
A bright quilt in a wind-rocked attic room.
We hear her tears of relief as she clutches
Her rescued brother, and know
the soft, small boy feel of his hair
pressed close to her cheek.

~EMP, 11-29-11

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Gracious Slip of the Tongue

Sometimes slips of the tongue -- especially when done by kids -- can be downright funny. Other times they feel a little profound.

The sweet girl has been working on memorizing Psalm 103 this fall, doing a little more each week. She has an excellent memory and for the most part it's been smooth sailing. But for the past couple of weeks, whenever we get to these lines she's stumbled a bit:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.

The stumble has been linguistic ~ and it's also been lovely. What she keeps wanting to say is "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and a fountain of lovingkindness."

I love the way "abounding" and "fountain" play so musically together. And how I keep picturing the Lord's lovingkindness now, surging up in an abounding fountain of goodness and grace and mercy that just keeps flowing and flowing and flowing. No wonder our little cups can't possibly contain it!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent (and More Advent Reading)

"...our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth."

This is just one of many beautiful and ponder-worthy quotes from God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, a lovely collection of Advent meditations culled from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and sermons. Highly recommended reading this Advent season and on into Christmas (the final daily reflection is for Epiphany).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robert Louis Stevenson

It's the birthday of the wonderful Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13, 1850-December 3, 1894). He is one of the poets I have loved the longest.

Stevenson came from a long line of lighthouse engineers but decided that life was not for him. He became a novelist and poet instead, and the world is a richer place for that decision.

A few years ago I wrote this poem that enters, via imagination, his vocational choice. I thought I'd post it today in honor of his birthday. He's certainly kept lights burning for so many!

Keep the light burning, Louis –
let it shine 'cross the sea.
Let it guide travelers tossed,
said my family to me.

They imagined me keeping
traditions long kept,
they imagined me living
on rocks wild, wind-swept.

Sea runs in my veins
and I love the wind’s song
but to that kind of life
I don’t quite belong.

I need paper and pens,
poems and stories to be
a strong man who shines
a bright light on the sea.

See my words? They are beacons
and paths and a port,
they are helps in great storms
and lights of a sort.

Though faith and deep joy
aren’t easy to measure,
They’re my way of keeping
traditions long treasured.

~EMP (2008)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jessica Powers: Creature of God

One of the poets of my heart is Jessica Powers (1905-1988) a Carmelite nun whose beautiful, prayerful poems are rich in evocative imagery. They remind me a good bit of George Herbert's poems though they are also wildly and wonderfully unique.

If you'll forgive the pun, Powers often speaks powerfully to my heart. I go back often to my dog-eared copy of her collected poems. Even when I haven't visited the book in a while, something will trigger a memory of a line or an image and I find myself back there again.

Last night such a trigger came when I found myself musing, in a tired way, about my own finiteness. Not in the ultimate sense, but in the ordinary, daily grind kind of way. I think the way I expressed it to a friend was that lately I keep feeling like I'm going THUMP against the walls of my finiteness, my limitations, wherever I turn.

And then I remembered Jessica Power's poem "Creature of God." And I remembered that even on those days when I seem to be running into walls left and right, I can go to God...just as I am, finite, limited, broken and all...and stand bathed in the vastness of his love and grace. He meets me there. It's there that he gathers me into his arms.

Creature of God

That God stands tall, incomprehensible,
infinite and immutable and free,
I know. Yet more I marvel that His call
trickles and thunders down through space to me;

that from His far eternities He shouts
to me, one small inconsequence of day.
I kneel down in the vastness of His love,
cover myself with creaturehood and pray.

God likes me covered with my creaturehood
and with my limits spread across His face.
He likes to see me lifting to His eyes
even the wretchedness that dropped His grace.

I make no guess what greatness took me in,
I only know, and relish it as good,
that I am gathered more to God's embrace
the more I greet Him through my creaturehood.

~Jessica Powers

Thursday, November 10, 2011

True Confessions

The other day I noticed that the sweet girl was re-reading Sarah, Plain and Tall. (Yes, I'm proudly raising a re-reader!) I smiled and said something like "Oh sweetie, it's fun to see you reading that book again. You've loved it for a long time."

She grinned and agreed. And then she gave a mirthful little chuckle. "You know something, Mommy?" she asked. "The first time you read this book to me, when I was about five, I thought it was about three people named Sarah, Plain, and Tall."

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Week in Review (7): Awash in the Victorian Era (Sherlock Holmes, Secret Garden, Emily Dickinson and More)

If you read my last post, you'll be all prepped for the ongoing "week in review" posts which I hope to start putting here regularly again. You'll also know this one is cheating a bit, since I'm actually catching up on most of the month of October and just putting it all here. Here are some of the choice picks from the month gathered in one place.

My review for the banned-books write-off this year was of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Not the first time I'd read the book, but it had been a lot of years. Still just as powerful -- and disturbing -- as I remembered.

The sweet girl and I continued to wend our way through the Civil War and Lincoln. Two good reads for the elementary age crowd, the chapter book My Brother's Keeper and the picture book Lincoln Tells a Joke. My Brother's Keeper is by Mary Pope Osborne of Magic Treehouse Fame. It's a fictional diary by a nine year old girl living in Gettysburg at the time of the battle. Lincoln Tells a Joke is a lively, clever (but still respectful) picture book biography of our sixteenth president. Wonderful illustrations.

I don't write many reviews in travel, but from time to time I'll review an historic site we've visited. We loved our visit to the Frick Estate in Pittsburgh (thanks to the free RAD Days in October) which includes a Victorian era home, car & carriage museum, and art museum. Here's my enthusiastic take on the Frick Car and Carriage Museum.

My fascination with all things Emily continues. We enjoyed Jane Yolen's picture book My Uncle Emily. This was one of those books that I discovered I liked even more than I realized when I sat down to review it. Sometimes the careful looking and thinking you do about a book when you review it helps you uncover things you missed the first time through when you just approached it as a reader ready to enjoy.

Just in time for the sequel (which I know I won't see in the theater anyway) we finally watched and enjoyed the "new" Sherlock Holmes film. Ahem...new meaning it came out in 2009. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law give great performances in this oddly contemporary telling of Sherlock Holmes -- still set in Victorian Era London, but not quite the Holmes and Watson you're used to. I liked it a lot.

Even in our family read-alouds we kept up the Victorian theme. Two classics during October, both lovely: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and the Mowgli Stories from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. Nicola Bayley's illustrations in the Candlewick Press edition (the one I reviewed) are stunning.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Why Write Book Reviews? And Why Post Review Links?

For those of you still hanging in there and reading my blog, you might be wondering where my regular "Week in Review" posts have gone. For that matter, you might have been wondering why I started posting those in the first place! I thought a post regarding my book/film reviews and my attempts to link to them here might be in order.

First off, I became a reviewer almost by "accident". I've always enjoyed writing about what I'm reading, watching, listening to, but it wasn't until spring of 2003 that I stumbled onto an online platform where I began writing reviews regularly. The sweet girl was just a baby then, and I was looking for some way to keep my writing muscles in shape during her frequent but short naps. (I couldn't resist posting a picture from that season of our lives...)

I found the website Epinions while looking for reviews of children's books. This was before I'd discovered blogs and the kidlitosphere! At that point, it seemed that nowhere I looked online had quite the kinds of reviews I wanted to read (as a writer and a parent). When I realized that Epinions gave people the opportunity to write and post their own reviews, it dawned on me that perhaps I could be writing the kinds of reviews I wanted to read.

I never expected that almost nine years later I'd still be writing reviews. I've written many other things since, but review writing gets in your blood. Over a thousand reviews later, I still find I have lots to say about what I'm reading, watching, listening to...and it's fun to try to find fresh ways to say it.

I've also thoroughly enjoyed the Epinions community. (I found one of my best friends there!) Beyond that, I've had good exchanges with writers of all sorts. There are many kind, thoughtful people writing there. Like any website of its kind, the writing quality varies dramatically on Epinions. With so much content, some of it is going to be sub-par but a good percentage of it is solid and some of it is really brilliant.

What's also fun when you read a body of reviews from a relatively small number of people over time is that you begin to learn about particular passions. Because of Epinions, I've learned new things about gardening, guitar playing, foreign films, cozy mysteries, superheroes, classical music, and a host of other (sometimes fascinatingly obscure) topics. I particularly like it when writers get really excited about other writers. We have one book review writer on Epinions, a retired gentleman, who has the lovely habit of reading through a given writer exhaustively over a period of about a year -- and posts reviews of everything he reads by and about that writer for others' edification/learning. He and I have had email conversations about all sorts of writers, including Kipling and James Fenimore Cooper.

I do earn income, of a sort, from my reviews on Epinions. It is not a lucrative business, review writing for general interest online venues (where the greatest number of visitors are likely to be looking for information on vacuum cleaners and digital cameras rather than wanting to read about The Great Gatsby or Anne of Green Gables). When you click on one of my review links here, it will take you to my review on the Epinions site. I do *not* earn money just because you click on the link. However, the number of outside visitors (meaning non-members of the site) to my reviews do help establish my readership and factor into what I earn via monthly income share. If you're patient and keep writing (and reading and rating and commenting on other writers' reviews) then eventually one does begin to earn something helpful on the site. The laborer is worthy of her hire, and I'm thankful that I've been able to earn enough through my review writing to cover most of our homeschool books and curriculum so far. Given our family's current needs, and our ongoing commitment to ministry in a small, poor, urban community, my writing income is an important part of our livelihood. In fact, I would love to have my writing income, here and elsewhere, grow. I appreciate prayers to that end!

The main benefit from clicking on my review links, from my perspective (and I hope your's) is that I get to share with you about something I enjoy. Most of my reviews are of books (and movies and music) that I truly loved or at least greatly liked. I will sometimes write reviews that "pan" something, but that's very rare. Mostly I try hard to craft reviews that will inform and encourage. Though I review books of all sorts, the bulk of my content is still centered on children's books. I'm still trying to craft the kinds of reviews that I wanted to read as a new parent. I love sharing about living literature, books that teach and challenge and inspire both me and my daughter. I sometimes post favorite book lists or essays about books, and I even do an occasional series, each year, of books we're using to supplement our homeschool history studies. Lately I've been writing more about books we use in our art studies too.

So there you have it. A post about why I write reviews, and a little bit about why I've been posting links to my reviews here more regularly. I've gotten behind on that lately and will probably do a "week in review" post that will actually have most of my links from the month of October (a busy month for me, hence not a very prolific review writing month). Then I can start fresh with posting weekly in November again. At least that's my hope.


One more note: if this has sparked your interest in the possibility of writing for Epinions, let me know. The site has been going through some growing pains (good ones, we hope) and recent upgrades, and they're beginning to more actively seek new writers. If you decide you'd like to check them out and maybe even sign up, please leave me a comment. If you go through me, I'll get a small referral fee.

Brick by Brick...

I've not meant to disappear from my blog. I miss writing here, but the past several weeks have been a rather long slog of stress and exhaustion on so many levels.

In the midst of all that, however, there has been blessing. Lots of it. So much of it that I should probably do a big gratitude post (which I'm way overdue to write anyway). But for now I just have to share one lovely thing.

My dad finished laying the bricks on the back patio today. This is at my parents' home in Virginia, the house where I grew up. They've always had a small red brick patio. A few years ago they had to have some work done on their sewage lines or something and a lot of the patio had to be dug up. My dad, always the craftsman and hard worker, set out to lay the bricks back himself. He was in the midst of the project in April 2010 when he went into the hospital with congestive heart failure.

It's strange sometimes how something can become so symbolic. For my dad, that patio seemed to represent something big that was left undone. As he lay in the hospital, very ill (with doctors telling us he might not live more than another couple of months) he fretted about the patio. He wanted to finish it. It became both a struggle in his mind (you could see that sometimes) and also a tangible project that he needed to hold onto with both hands as he determined to get better.

All during the following months -- eighteen of them -- as mom has lovingly cared for dad and as dad has astounded us all by his amazing recovery, dad has worked on the patio. A little at a time. Brick by brick. Five minutes here. Ten minutes there. Longer if he could manage it, sometimes driving my mother crazy because he would stay out too long and his blood pressure would drop through the floor. As he began to regain some strength, he began to do other things too, like paint my mom's portrait. (He really is amazing.) But he was determined to get that patio done.

Today Mom emailed all of her children with the news. The last brick was laid, she said. And she called it a doxology moment. Indeed. I felt like singing the doxology. So I did.

I'm so proud of my daddy I could burst. I'm proud of my mom too, who has had to learn a whole new way of encouraging and caretaking in these months.

It hurts my heart a little bit to think that we will not likely make it down to Virginia for thanksgiving this year -- our usual annual trek is likely to be off because of our continuing financial stress. I would so love to see that patio. But mostly I want to hug my dad and mom while seeing that patio! Sometimes my homesickness for them and for that little back yard in Virginia just grows acute.

But heartaches aside, today I am just smiling. Because my dad did it. Brick by brick.