Thursday, December 29, 2011

Drawing and Writing

I've been wondering a lot this past year about the creative connections (brain-wise) between drawing and writing. I tend to write every day in some capacity, but I don't often take the time to draw. But during the last school year, the sweet girl and I took time every week to draw together, first utilizing Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes (a book I would highly recommend for people of all ages) and then just "free-drawing," often copying pictures from book illustrations.

The result was astonishing for me. The sweet girl had a boldness and freedom in drawing right away, a boldness I lacked (inhibited as I was by decades worth of no-practice, of cautious drawing and insecurities) but I gained confidence as the months went on. Although we've not been able to work drawing into our curriculum nearly as much this school year, we still make drawing time whenever we can, and we both (oh joy!) got beautiful new art supplies for Christmas.

What I've discovered, besides a real love of drawing for its own sake, is that drawing often seems to fire up the creative synapses in my brain. If there's time, I almost always follow up a drawing session with a bit of writing, not because I think I have to, but because one activity seems to flow naturally from the other. I write better -- I make more interesting connections with words, I play more -- if I'm warmed up first with drawing.

It's been a fascinating discovery, one that I wish I could spend more time thinking about, or even better, actually engaging in. For now, I'm discovering that drawing can also help me as I work on longer bits of fiction. In the waning days of 2011, I've found a sudden bit of fiction writing fire in my bones I haven't felt in a long time. In the past few weeks, in spite of tiredness, holiday busyness, and end of semester grading, I've dived back into a WIP (work in progress) that is essentially a fairy-tale/fantasy.

What's been helping me when I start to feel stuck? Drawing the characters, and most specifically styling their hair and creating costumes for them. For the latter inspiration, I'm hugely indebted to The Chronicles of Western Fashion, a library book D. brought home a few months ago when the art camp kids were working on costume design. We've checked it out abundant times since, and just this past week, it inspired me to create an important character in my story -- a queen I was having a hard time picturing. Picturing her with words is going to be much easier now that I've taken colored pencils in hand and drawn her likeness. It's so much easier to imagine how she she carries her head, the color of her eyes, the sound of the swish of her dress as she walks, now that I've drawn her.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy St. John's Day!

I love that the church, in all her wisdom, decreed so many feast days during the 12 days of Christmas. I also love that Christmas has 12 days and is a season. So much of the world seems ready to put Christmas away with the wrapping paper scraps and head back to work as usual. While the "work as usual" part can't be helped for some of us, knowing that Christmas is a whole, hallowed season somehow helps to infuse these still dark-outside days (it just keeps raining here!) with light and hope. Our commemoration of the Savior's birth is just the beginning -- now comes the 'real work of Christmas' -- to nourish that new life in ourselves, in others, and in the world.

And who better to sing to us in these dark, waning days of the year than John the Apostle, whose feast day we observe today?

"The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish." John 1:14

"This is how we've come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves." 1 John 3:16

"What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it - we're called children of God! That's who we really are." 1 John 3:1a

"The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out." John 1:5

"I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: "Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They're his people, he's their God. He'll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good - tears gone, crying gone, pain gone - all the first order of things gone"...The City doesn't need sun or moon for light. God's Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp!" Revelation 21:1-4, 23

(All Scripture quotations taken from The Message)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

A blessed Christmas to all!

Here's the wonderful hymn from Charles Wesley, one of my favorite bards of Christmas...

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

It's the anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen, born this day in 1775. That makes her just a teensy bit older than the United States. She's looking good for 236!

In honor of the day, I thought I would post this link to a funny piece I wrote back in 2008. I had just heard the news that they were making Pride and Prejudice into a musical, and my brain went into overdrive. I came up with potential musical numbers for the first half of P&P. It was a very fun exercise, though somehow I never ventured to do the second half. The title of Mr. Bennet's solo "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Nerves" might give you some idea of the tenor of the piece. Enjoy!

I'd also love hearing from any Austen fans out there today - what's your favorite of her six novels (and why, if you're so inclined to share)? And what's your favorite film adaptation?

My favorite of the novels changes every so often, but Persuasion is the reigning favorite. I think I love it for how different it is from anything else she wrote -- it's about a second chance at love rather than first love. And its gentle, autumnal tone seems to suit that theme of love renewed and Anne Elliot's personality so well.

I am still an unabashed fan of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice (1995). My favorite feature length adaptation is still the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility (also 1995...a really good year for Austen films in my opinion)!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Favorite Christmas Books: 24 Days Before Christmas

Today the sweet girl asked me if we could start The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas. Reading this classic book by Madeleine L'Engle has been a family tradition with me before I ever had my own family (I started reading it yearly before I got married, and that's been almost twenty years now!). I don't think the sweet girl can remember a year without it. Some years, like this one, we read it in a few installments over the space of a few days; other years we've read it in the car during Christmas travels.

I love this book for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is Vicky's narration. Vicky is quite possibly my favorite character in all of L'Engle's canon...she's certainly the one I relate to the most. Here we see her at the youngest age she ever appears in Madeleine's body of work. As I wrote when I reviewed the book seven years ago:

"Vicky makes a precocious seven year old narrator. L'Engle occasionally seems to give her a too "adult" kind of tone/reasoning...but readers familiar with the older Vicky can forgive this a bit, and I think even other readers will find her endearing. A lot of us have known very smart seven year olds (and even younger children) who surprise us with the intensity of their questions and the profundity of their thoughts. What feels perfectly natural about her narration is the undertone of anxiety shot through the joyful anticipation. What if she goofs up her part as an angel in the Christmas pageant? (She overhears the director say she's awkward, and spends much of the rest of the story walking around the house with an encyclopedia on her head, trying to improve her grace and poise.) Worse yet, what if the baby decides to come early and her mother ends up in the hospital for Christmas?"

This is also a lovely book to share with families who may not yet be all that familiar with Advent traditions. The Austin family, in their usual amazing way, manages to find something special to do every single day of December, something that gives them an opportunity to be together and to celebrate the joy of Christ's coming.

And fans of the Austin series of books (Meet the Austins, The Moon by Night, The Young Unicorns, A Ring of Endless Light, Troubling a Star, with two shorter books along with this one, A Full House and The Anti-Muffins) will love 24 Days because it gives us a glimpse of Rob's entrance into the world.

The edition pictured above is the one we have and love, with pictures by Joe DeVelasco. The latest edition, still in print, has a bright red cover with a Christmas tree on it and pictures by Jill Weber.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pageant Ponderings

Every year about this time, I start to ponder the wonder of the Christmas story anew -- and through the lens of our church pageant.

This year we're fully in charge of the pageant, and so spent our Sunday School time yesterday getting the kids into their costumes, setting up the scenes they'll be acting out while I and two of our teenage assistants narrate the story. My husband (good director that he is) helped the kids work out simple blocking, and he and I both tried to help the kids think through some of their responses ("When the angel appears, try to look really scared! Terrific! Great! Oh, you look really scared! Then when you hear the words 'great joy' start looking happy! Remember, this is GOOD NEWS!").

It occurred to me yesterday that people not familiar with the tradition of Christmas pageants could have some perplexed reactions if they stumbled upon our little troupe of robed elementary and preschool actors giggling through their roles. One response might be surprise that such young children are acting out a story with such serious (and in many ways adult) elements.

After all, this is a story about an unwed pregnant teenager mother traveling wearily, along with her fiancee, to a town where they're going to be counted so they can be taxed by an oppressive government. And they can't find a place to sleep, so they have to go -- "to a barn!" as one of the kids kept saying. And it's there that the young woman gives birth to her baby. Then a bunch of crazy, scraggly shepherds show up, hopeful and amazed, because they've seen a sky full of angels announcing that this poor baby wrapped up in rags is actually the Savior of the world.

I could see how some people might say the story is too grown-up for children. Or perhaps (in another similar reaction) too serious to be play-acted. I could see how people not familiar with the heart of the story (or the heart of the author of the story) might wonder if we were not taking it seriously enough, or think we were attempting to tame its wildness and wonder. They might look a little askance at four and five year old shepherds quaking in fear as my gangly nine year old, dressed in white (with a sparkly sash) waves her arms and beams, towering over them, or at the little eight year old girl dressed in blue, pretending to wash dishes and dropping one in surprise when the angel shows up to tell her she's conceived a baby. (Does it help to remember that Mary was probably only a few years older than this?) They might wonder what we're doing, asking children to enter into this very holy story about very real and sometimes gritty things.

But that is the wildness and wonder of the whole thing -- that we're all asked to enter into it, and that we're all children in the face of this incredible reality, this amazing love, this tremendous story. None of our celebrations, none of our actings out of the story, will ever come close to capturing its wonder and essence -- but we still enter it, year after year, doing our fumbling best. Because we need to and long to. Because we want to find our place in it and learn to live the story out. Because it is at the fountain of this story that we drink life.

And I sometimes think it is the simplest, youngest, most innocent, homemade renditions of that story that come closest to the edges of the real event -- earthy and poor and homemade as it was. This is, after all, the story of the birth of a baby, a tiny precious baby. That the baby is God wrapped in rags and cradled by a young, tired mother in a barn is so gloriously preposterous that it needs the wholehearted trusting faith of a child to even be approached. Christmas pageants give us this opportunity -- to enter in as children, to enter in with children, to enter in before the Child himself. We know the Child grows up; we know the holy life he will live and the pain he will endure on our behalf and the death he will die for us. But we cannot get to that part of the story without this part, this plain and simple earthly beginning embroidered around all its rough-hewn edges with angel song. We need to hear it, again and again, and walk into it over and over.

Gregory the Great was right. The Gospel is shallow enough for a lamb to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim. So I'm thankful for the Christmas pageant every year. Every year it's a new chance to usher children into the story, to walk with them as they leave the shore and head into the wild waters of the gospel, to give them waterwings and hold their hands as they learn to float, to teach them how to wade. And every year it's a chance for me to sink deeper, to swim farther, to stay longer in and farther out, knowing I will never ever exhaust the depth of this story no matter how long I live or how many times I move into its beautiful, rushing, life-giving current.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Two Christmas Picture Books

I'm tired. It's December and it's cold. It's near the end of the semester. And it's Advent (oh blessed season, I am so thankful it comes every year without fail, even when I'm not ready for it) and I am finding myself craving more time to read, write, think and pray.

Blog posts march through my mind often. Sometimes I begin mentally composing. Sometimes I begin actually composing as the abandoned drafts in my folder could attest. I've got a lot of things I'd love to reflect on here, including Advent thoughts and gratitude reflections. But for now they will have to keep percolating.

I did want to share briefly about two beautiful "new to us" picture books we've read this week. Yes, I know, the sweet girl is longer prime picture book age. But I think she will always love picture books, and certainly I've never stopped!

The two books we've especially loved this week are Patricia Palacco's Christmas Tapestry and Susan Wojciechowski and P.J. Lynch's The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Both books are beautifully told tales of miracles and hope at Christmas time. Palacco matches her masterful story-telling with her usual colorful, expressive pictures -- and took the story in a direction I wasn't expecting at all. I never seem to be able to get through one of her books without good, cleansing tears. Jonathan Toomey has a lovely storytelling cadence and absolutely luminous pictures by P.J. Lynch -- I do love his work.

Longer reviews of both books coming, I hope, but for now I just had to share how much we loved them both. Perhaps another post will begin percolating...about some of our "old favorite" Christmas picture books!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Imogene Herdman

When it comes to Christmas books, it doesn't get much better than The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Tonight we finished reading it...the sweet girl's first time through, and my hundred and umpteenth. (I still have my Weekly Reader copy from the 1970s...I've loved this book a long time!)

I was going to post all about why I love the book, and why I can't read the final scenes with Imogene Herdman without crying, but then I remembered that I'd written about this book here a few years ago. I went searching and found the 5+ year old post, and I thought I'd excerpt a bit of it here. Because some things never change, including the rush of wonder this book gives me every time I read it. What a delight to share it with my daughter.

Here's the old post, in part.


I think it's one of my favorite moments in any Christmas story -- and I love a lot of Christmas stories.

Imogene Herdman was crying.

In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears and she didn't even bother to wipe them away. She just sat there -- awful old Imogene -- in her crookedy veil, crying and crying and crying.

Well. It was the best Christmas pageant we ever had.

What's so wonderful about this scene, aside from its good storytelling sense, is that I think most of us have some Imogene Herdman in us. If we're honest, some of us have Imogene Herdman moments -- or days -- or perhaps even years. We know what it's like to be clumsy and broken, to not fit in anywhere, to have to take care of other people when sometimes we'd love if it people would take care of us for a change. We hide our insecurities behind bravado, sometimes irreverence, maybe even a touch of bullying.

And then comes that moment -- sometimes in the footlights, sometimes in the covers of a story, sometimes just in the quiet of our own heart -- when the wonder of God's love for us alights on our head like a beautiful bird. It comes home to us how much God loves us, awful old us, dressed up in our crookedy costumes, pretending to be someone we know we're not. That love washes over us like a flood, and in that moment we know who we are because we finally know whose we are.

And that's grace.