Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Patchwork Post for the Second Day of Christmas

So it turns out that if you want your kitchen to smell good on the day after Christmas, when you're just having leftovers, the key is to make another batch of stuffing. Onions and melted butter seem to provide just the right aroma...

I was so pleased with the way Christmas dinner turned out yesterday. We were given a big turkey this year, one that weighed about thirteen pounds. We're not huge meat eaters and most recent years, when we've been home and cooking on the holidays at all, we've simply done a small turkey breast in the crockpot. So it had been a long (very long!) time since I'd cooked a bird this big, and I was worried that I'd goof it up.

I had visions in my head of a rather disastrous cooking experience we had just a few years into our marriage. We attempted a biggish turkey then too (how hard could it be? I thought with the confidence of youth) and apparently did not thaw it enough. We cooked it and cooked it and cooked it...and it just wouldn't finish. Parts of it stayed pretty cold and parts started to brown too much and wasn't all that appetizing.

So this year, when I delivered a moist, juicy, perfectly cooked turkey to my husband for carving, I grinned at him and said "we've come a long way, baby." It really turned out to be quite easy. I confess I looked up some tips on the internet (something I couldn't do all those years ago) which provided a handy guide. I taught the sweet girl how to baste, and she enjoyed it so much we probably did it a little more than we needed to, which if anything made it even tastier. I kept things simple and just used butter and some freeze-dried poultry spices on the skin, and I added a couple of cups of our favorite veggie broth to the roasting pan. Yummy -- and lots of leftovers. I think I need to find some good turkey leftover recipes!

We had a lovely, quiet day. We're still not quite used to Christmas Day with just the three of us and no travel. I think it's hardest on D, who is used to seeing his family that day and to lots of hustle and bustle on Christmas in general. But the beginning of new traditions can also be enjoyable, and having a quiet day yesterday seemed to suit us all pretty well, especially at the end of a busy, tiring year.

We also seemed to strike a good balance with presents this year. The sweet girl got a few "oh, I really wanted this!" type of gifts, but also some sweet surprises, and D and I, though we don't get one another much, always do a good job of knowing something that will make the other's day.  The sweet girl also has some traditions of picking out some small things for us which are very cute because they don't vary much -- she loves to get us each a new mug, and often some candy, and she and her Daddy go together to pick out a small, inexpensive piece of department store jewelry for me (usually something from the 1928 collection, which I love).

D. did most of the wrapping this year, while I was doing other things, so one of the funniest moments came when the sweet girl opened a book I didn't know she was getting. I was confused because it was a book I'd picked up on clearance a couple of months ago and stashed away for family read-aloud. I hadn't intended to give it as a gift. I thought he must have picked up another copy as a gift for her. Later I mentioned that and he said, "um, gave it to me with the other stuff to wrap." So it *was* the copy I bought, though how it got in with the Christmas presents, I have no idea! Oh well! One can never go wrong with a book as a gift!

Speaking of book gifts, the sweet girl was thrilled out of her socks to get her very own copies of her two favorite books this year -- the ones she has checked out over and over from the library, and read over and over -- The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall, and the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson. She also got a new Calvin and Hobbes.

D. gave me a copy of P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction, another cute thing because he had no idea that I'd read it already, but assumed I would love it. I did love it, back when I read it, and am very happy to own a copy. Book-wise, I gave D. a copy of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander. We've seen the movie but neither of us has read the book. He's been so into sailing ships, pirates, and all things related to the high seas of late that it seemed like a good pick.

While cooking most of yesterday afternoon, I listened to Emmy Lou Harris' Christmas album and got in some good reading time...nearly finished the new Leonard Marcus biography of Madeleine L'Engle (not a Christmas present, just picked up from the library hold shelf). I am finding this an intriguing read and will likely blog more about it soon.

I missed my family, as always, but had a wonderful talk with my parents by phone. They were sharing their 60th Christmas together! My family is celebrating so much this year...the birth of three new babies in the next generation (I have two new great nieces and another great nephew this year), a marriage (which also includes a new stepchild for that niece), and the news of two more babies on the way in 2013. My parents can hardly believe they now have fourteen great-grandchildren with two more on the way.

So many blessings to count this Christmas, and the biggest blessing of all is the precious gift of Jesus. So thankful for the celebration of his birth, and so thankful for his continued presence in our lives each and every day.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Prayer for Christmas Morning (Henry Van Dyke)

"The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and crowns another year with peace and good will.

Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wisemen.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of love all over the world...

Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our bed with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus' sake. Amen."

(~Henry Van Dyke)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve (Christina Rossetti)

Christmas has a darkness
  Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas has a chillness
  Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas has a beauty
  Lovelier than the world can show;
For Christmas brings us Jesus,
  Brought for us so low.

Earth strike up your music,
  Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven has answering music
  For all angels soon to sing:
Earth put on your whitest
  Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas brings us Jesus,
  Brought for us so low.

~Christina Rossetti

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Literary Christmas Moments

We're still meandering our way through the sweet girl's first read-through of Little Women. The timing is rather perfect, because we'll hit the second Christmas scene (Mr. March's homecoming) right on Christmas Day.

Thinking about that lovely scene, and my even more favorite LW Christmas scene from the year before, when the girls share their Christmas breakfast, got me thinking about other literary Christmas moments. Do you remember...

When Betsy Ray goes to the magical city of Milwaukee to spend Christmas with Tib and all her German-American relatives?

When Laura Ingalls holds her new rag doll Charlotte in her arms and just stares and stares at her in wonder?

Or the Christmas when Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus and Mary and Laura get their new tin cups, their candy sticks, AND a shiny penny apiece? 

When the Austins' new baby brother is born late one Christmas Eve?

When Harry Potter opens yet one more jumper handmade by Mrs. Weasley?

When Lucy, Susan, Peter and the Beavers receive their gifts from Father Christmas, whose coming is a sure sign that Aslan is on the move and the witch's reign in Narnia is coming to an end?

When Matthew Cuthbert goes dress shopping for just the right dress (with puffed sleeves) for Anne of Green Gables?

When awful old Imogene Herdman sits there, dressed as Mary in her crookedy veil, and just cries? 

When Ramona isn't sure she wants to be a sheep in the pageant when her mother doesn't have time to finish her costume? 

When Buddy and his cousin dance in the kitchen while they make fruitcakes?

When Ebenezer Scrooge exclaims "The spirits have done it all in one night!"

These are just a few of my favorite Christmas literary moments. I'd love to hear some of your's!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Some second week of Advent ruminations

This odd sick week, brought to us courtesy of the flu, has been interestingly timed. Usually this is one of the busiest times of the year, but when flu slams you and then your child, you don't have much choice but to radically slow down.

Given that it's Advent, it means I've had time to do more quiet reading...and real listening...than usual. A side benefit and gift.

One book I picked up yesterday was Karen Edmisten's Through the Year With Mary. This is a little but very lovely book, filled with daily reflections on Mary, the mother of Jesus. I keep it tucked in a corner of my desk with some other special books I like to revisit, but it had been a while since I'd done so. Again, given the season, it just seemed like a timely book to open.

I was pulled up short by yesterday's reflection by Bl. Titus Brandsma. Reflecting on the holy family's flight into Egypt, he talks about Mary's obedience. Two small things stopped me in my tracks, one right after the other. The first was the line "Jesus was her strength." When I think of the flight into Egypt, I picture so many ancient icons and old paintings of the family on the move, young Jesus cradled protectively in his mother's arms. I think of them fleeing to keep him safe. But how often have I paused to consider that it is Jesus who gives Mary -- and Joseph -- the strength to do what needs to be done? That as the Son of God, even as a little child in need of their shelter and protection, he is still the sustaining love and strength of their world -- and of the *whole* world?

While still pondering that, I ran smack into this line:

 "In our bitter hours let us recall the flight of Jesus into Egypt. Let us picture Mary and Joseph who suffer because they were specially beloved of Jesus."

Whoa. And wow. Again, how often do I stop to consider suffering -- not as consequence, not as just-part-of-this-sad-and-suffering-world, not as something to be borne or something to pray my way out of, not even (on my better days) as something I know the Lord can use to shape and reshape me -- but as part of my life *because* I am beloved of Jesus? What does this mean when I stop to consider my own small sufferings, or when I ponder the far more significant sufferings of brothers and sisters in Jesus around the world?

Still pondering this. Still chewing.

And thankful for Karen's prayer at the end of the reflection, which reads: "Help me, Jesus, to remember that I can unite all my suffering to your suffering, thus giving my pain meaning. You renew my hope in my most difficult hours."  


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Little Women at 44...and 5:00 in the Morning

The sweet girl came down with the terrible flu bug in the middle of the night. This is the same one I've been slowly recovering from since Sunday, and I was so sorry she got hit with it too -- knowing that when it hits, it hits like a freight train. Which it did, leaving me to hold her hair, rub her back, speak murmuring words of encouragement, and generally just be present to her in the wee small hours as she got sick again and again.

Somewhere in there, as she battled ongoing waves of nausea (and isn't that the worst feeling?) she asked if I could read to her. I read Light at Tern Rock, one of our favorite Christmas reads, from start to finish, with only a few breaks for sick-tending. If one must be sick in the middle of the night, I have to say it's one of the most soothing, calming reads possible...and I tried to provide via my voice every ounce of quietness the text and the situation both seemed to call for.

Tern Rock isn't a very long story though, and by about 5 in the morning, with the waves still coming, the sweet girl asked me if we could keep going with Little Women. It's our current evening read-aloud, and we were only a few chapters in. I gladly picked up with "Being Neighborly" -- the lovely scene where mischievous Jo tosses a handful of soft snow up at Laurie and he smiles down at her and you just know that they are going to be friends for life.

I've written here and elsewhere quite a bit about my love for Little Women, and about how Alcott's classic tale of four sisters nourished my growing up years in so many ways. As I often say, I didn't just read the book when I was a child, I inhabited it. The shabby brown house with Marmee's smiling face at the window feels almost as much my childhood home as the wonderful home I actually grew up in. But unlike my actual home, where my parents still thankfully live, I don't visit it much. I read the book so many times in my childhood and young adulthood that it became a part of my inner much so that I haven't really returned to it very often in the past quarter century, except to occasionally read a favorite scene.

Several things dawned on me as I read it aloud in the wee small hours, watching my ten year old daughter's eyelids drift open and closed. They probably won't sound as significant as they felt to me when I realized them with the dawn's light breaking through our lace curtain and the Christmas tree lights shining softly next to the bright red geranium on the windowsill. But here they are, in no real order...

* I have never read this book aloud. A scene or two over the years, yes. In fact, I have the first few paragraphs of the book memorized and will sometimes say them aloud just for the comfort of hearing the words. But I have never read the book aloud start to finish. It amazes me how much I still know its rhythms and phrasing; it also amazes me how I know the girls' voices. I'm not doing a lot with the voices, but I do hear myself altering certain rhythms and intonations as I move from girl to girl, and it's odd because it's not something I am conscious of doing until I do it.

*I have never read this book through glasses.

*Reading this book with my reading glasses on, and while nursing a sick daughter, suddenly made me realize...

*I am Marmee. Of course I am still Jo. There is a part of me that will always be Jo. But really now, as I read it this time? I am Marmee...the mama cub, the protector, the teacher, the homeschooler (oh yes, she is), the one who tries to lead and guide and light the way, the one who admits her own faults to help her girls mend their's.

*I still have a lot to learn from Marmee. Has it ever occurred to you just how human and faulty the March girls are? There's not a "typical" one in the lot of them. Shy Beth's fears are standing out to me in a big way this time. Not that my sweet girl is shy (far from it) but oh, she battles many fears of a different sort, and in a big way.  What came home as I read through Marmee's calm, gentle patience, her ability to let go and let her girls be who they are (quirks and all) while she gently tries to help shape their characters in small but real ways...was my own lack of patience sometimes with my daughter's anxieties, my own stress about wanting her to overcome them, my worry that her quirks and our creative but challenging family and ministry life can lead to things that are sometimes just hard in her little life. But you know what? God can use all that in her. Marmee knew that about her girls too, even when they lived through real hardship and poverty. She was a wise woman.

*And finally...maybe there were reasons I inhabited this particular book as a child, beyond the mysterious reasons of heart-connecting with a beloved story and author from the past as we all do sometimes. Maybe God gave me this book when I was nine because he knew what my life was going to look like when I was 44. And reading it by Christmas tree light at 5:00...or well, finally the morning, a precious ten year old girl finally, peacefully asleep at last. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

What He Said

I had planned to post a reflection for the second week of Advent, but a bout of flu interrupted. While I'm exhausted and recovering (this has been a doozy of an illness) I thought I'd post this tried and true thought from C.S. Lewis, whose thoughts on the importance of re-reading are just one of the many reasons I love him.

By the way, this is one of the memes making the round on Facebook right now, originally posted by Ignatius Press. They have a new and rather lovely looking blog up -- all about Lewis and Tolkien. You can find it here at the link

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Homer's Looking Pretty Good For His Age

We’re studying ancient Greeks as we head down the homestretch of this semester and totally enjoying Rosemary Sutclif’s Black Ships Before Troy, her rendering of The Iliad.

It had been a long, long time since I’d read Homer (or even a re-telling of Homer). I overdosed on Greek literature as a young adult. We read a lot of Greek drama and The Odyssey in my senior high literature class, and then I seemed to get both The Iliad and The Odyssey (not to mention Oedipus) over and over as a literature major in college. After a while, it just felt like…well, homework.

Encountering Homer again after all these years, and in a re-telling for younger readers, has been utterly delightful. I opted to turn Black Ships into a read-aloud because…well, it’s a telling of The Iliad, for goodness’ sake, based on an epic poem by a bard who himself knew the story from ancient oral traditions. Sutclif’s prose has a definite music to it.

(For those interested, I’m supplementing our reading time by having the sweet girl read up on the various gods and goddesses encountered in the story. After our read-aloud time, she reads assigned pages in D’Aulaire’s Greek Mythology and writes up what she learns about the given character. I’m having her keep a list of the major immortal players.)

The story really is thrilling, the characters so relatable. I’m reading it in my best style, sometimes just letting the prose carry us along with its high, galloping drama. Yesterday I read at lunch so D., home from work, could enjoy it too. When I paused for breath in the middle of a chapter, the sweet girl exclaimed into the sudden silence: “This is the most exciting story ever!”

Gotta love those learning moments when the past feels vivid enough to be stalking around your kitchen.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Reflections: First Week of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of
darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of
this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit
us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come
again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the
dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.

BCP, Collect for 1 Advent 

I woke up this morning thinking about where I live. Not where I live physically, but where I actually live no matter where I am – in the presence and love of God.

That doesn’t occur to me as often as it should: as a child of God, I live constantly in his presence and in his love. Nothing can separate me from it, though there are days when I may not feel worthy of living there or graceful in living there. It is still where I abide, because he abides in me. He has made me his own and called me out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his wonderful light!

There are days when we need to actively “cast away the works of darkness” as the collect for this first week of Advent reminds us. It may be that we do that through choosing to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing (or the hard thing rather than the easy, convenient thing) or it may be that we need to cast away the works of darkness that would tempt us or trip us up. Casting away the works of darkness involves dressing ourselves in the armor of light. That armor protects us when we battle the enemy, and helps us to move forward with courage.

Choosing to remember where I live is, for me, a big part of the casting away the works of darkness. I do not need to dwell in despair, restlessness, anxiety, lack of hope, apathy, or anger. I may feel all those things from time to time, but I do not live there. Remembering that I am a child and a follower of the One who “came to visit us in great humility” and who will return one day “in his glorious majesty” goes a long way toward keeping me dressed, each day, in light.

Choose to put on light today, and remember that if you are a follower of Jesus, that is the nature of the kingdom in which you truly dwell. He is the Light of the world. He is your heart’s home.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

25 Things You Can Do to Celebrate Louisa May Alcott

Note: most of these ideas were inspired by Little Women, but a few were also inspired by Little Men.

Climb a tree.

Eat a really good apple while reading a book.

Hug your sister(s).

Write a sensational story.

Make a delicious breakfast and then give it to someone else.

Put on a play, complete with outlandish costumes and overly-dramatic dialogue.

Create a family newspaper.

Play “kitchen” with a young child.

Listen to some beautiful violin music.

Create the letters of the alphabet by twisting your arms and legs into letter shapes.

Have a sewing party.

Create a group story with each person taking turns picking up where the last one left off.

Paint or sculpt.

Create a family “post office” for the day and leave little notes and gifts for each other inside it.

Drop your glove and hope the guy you like notices.

Go skating (but watch for thin ice).

Forgive someone who needs forgiving (don’t let the sun go down on your anger).

Pretend to be your own housekeeper if a stranger comes to the door.

Make a new dress for the doll of a little girl you love.

Be kind to your aunt, even if she’s getting old and crotchety.

Create a draft of your will and think about what you’d leave to those you love.

Buy a good pair of boots and have fun stomping around in them.

Curl your sister’s hair with a curling iron (but be careful!)

Get a haircut and donate the locks to an organization like Locks of Love.

And of course...
Read the opening scene of Little Women aloud...or pick another favorite scene from LW or another of her many wonderful books. (What is your favorite Alcott scene?) Or read a good biography of Alcott ~ I liked this one. Or read a book about the Civil War.

Happy Birthday, Louisa, Jack and Madeleine!

As I post every year on November 29, today is what I call the "literary day of days." It's the birthday of Louisa May Alcott (1832), C.S. Lewis (1898), and Madeleine L'Engle (1918) three of the most important writers of my heart.

I love that these three -- so different, yet each so wonderful -- share a birthday. It feels like lovely serendipity!

Just in time for her birthday, an official FB page in Madeleine's honor has been launched. It's called Tesser Well and they've been posting some wonderful tidbits this week, including a review of Leonard Marcus' new biography of Madeleine (which I've not yet read, but have on hold) and an article about the dedication today of St. John the Divine's library (where Madeleine was cathedral librarian for years) as a literary landmark. The page is definitely worth checking out. They've created a beautiful photo collage of various editions of A Wrinkle in Time, including many translated into languages besides English.

C.S. Lewis is being honored in a few newspapers who can't seem to resist quoting the eminently quotable Jack. Huffington Post has nine quotes in his honor, but the Christian Science Monitor has gone them one better and posted ten.

The Monitor, bless them, did ten quotes from Louisa in honor of the day too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Princess Academy (review from the archives)

The sweet girl and I finished Princess Academy this evening...her first time to hear the book, and my fourth or fifth time reading it. I found myself wanting to talk about it a bit, but then it dawned on me I did that already, quite some time ago! I went back to revisit the review and found myself nodding in agreement over it all, so here's an oldie from 2009 that I hope you'll enjoy, a reflection I wrote called "Quarry Speech and Kything." Happy Thanksgiving!

Fun note: the sweet girl has been very into Madeleine L'Engle lately, and our reading of this book overlapped our reading of A Wind in the Door. Not planned. Just lovely serendipity.

*******From 2009*******

In the past couple of years, Shannon Hale has become one of my favorite fantasy authors for young adults. I first really fell for her work a couple of years ago when I read Princess Academy. Recently I re-read it again twice: to myself, and out-loud to my husband (who really liked it, and who was pleasantly surprised by the un-Disney nature of the story, given its title!).

I liked it even better the second and third times around, partly because I was fully prepared to enter into the world of Mt. Eskel. Since I knew the characters and the contour of the plot already, I was able to pay more attention to Hale's world-building. I'm impressed by the details she provides about life for the villagers on Mt. Eskel and how that builds a credible, substantial world for the story.

Hale tells us about the strength of the mountain itself, the beauty of the mountain views, the smell of the goats they herd, the beautifully streaked linder stone, the wild miri flowers that grow in cracks of stone, the chips and shards of rock that cut into thinning boot soles, the essential poverty of the people who must work hard to cut enough stone to trade for goods each season. She helps us understand that, while they're illiterate, they have an amazing communal memory which is showcased in festival time through the creativity of their "story-shouts." She describes their folk dances, their physical strength, their skill in mining linder, their lack of political status as members of a non-provincial territory of the kingdom of Danland, the way they care for one another. She hints at the lacks some of them feel by not having time or space in their lives for gardens or art (and their yearning to see the far-off ocean). And of course, she describes the way they communicate with one another in the quarry, using a language without words, often communicated through the sounds and rhythms of the work, tools and stone.

A huge part of Miri's coming of age, and her growing understanding of herself as a true daughter of the mountain, is her newfound ability to sing the mountain's songs even when she is cut off from many of the places and people she once thought were needed to make such speech possible. Before she left for the academy, she had never used quarry speech because she'd never been allowed inside the quarry (her father has his reasons, but he doesn't explain them to her, hence her feeling of uselessness). Her sojourn at the princess academy, along with eleven other girls from their territory, is not precisely an exile, but it functions as one, or at least a time away in a very different place where new thoughts and ideas and dreams arise (which strikes me as a notion one might come across in a Shakespearean comedy). While Miri is there, out of necessity she learns the music of the quarry, and unexpectedly discovers that she can speak/sing it outside of the quarry itself, as long as she is physically touching any stone that can be traced to a vein of linder. That unseen network of linder veins becomes a beautiful, unconscious scaffolding as Miri learns the secret of the speech is built on shared memories/community.

I guess the first time I read the book, I was so involved in the excitement of a first read-through that parallels didn't come to me, but this time through I found myself reading the descriptions of quarry speech and thinking about kything.

Kything is the form of unspoken communication that Madeleine L'Engle developed in her fantasy novels for young adults many years ago, particularly in A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O'Keefe learn to communicate with one another and with other people/creatures across vast distances and without words. The concept is developed throughout the books -- it's not actually named as kything until Wind, when Meg is tutored in the practice by Proginoskes, the singular cheribum who partners with her against the evil, unnaming Echthroi. What intrigues me is that, in that first instance where it's named, Progo works with Meg to help her remember a memory that she didn't realize she had stored in her brain. She heard a conversation (not realizing its full import) and thought she'd forgotten it, but Progo, in communicating/communing with her, is able to pull the memory forth so that she can see it and hear it clearly again. Meg becomes a particularly adept kyther, especially with Charles Wallace in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. While he's off riding a unicorn on the wind to save the planet from nuclear peril, she's in her attic bedroom, keeping her hand on a dog (whom we're led to believe just might be part guardian angel) since the act of touching the warm fur of the living creature seems to connect her more closely to her little brother's mind and heart. Shades of linder lines.

Meg also kythes deeply with Calvin, the young man who will grow up to be her husband. Their intimacy of communication is similar to what she shares with others, but also different, tinged with eros as well as philos, I guess you might say (and all of it bathed somehow in agape). The nuances are hard to describe, but definitely there, reminding me of Miri's ability to quarry-speak most clearly, especially when in peril, with the young man closest to her own heart, Peder. Although their feelings for one another have not been fully acknowledged or recognized even by themselves, the feelings are there (which Hale makes beautifully clear from their awkwardness around one another).

More than Meg and Calvin, however, Peder and Miri's ability to communicate reminded me forcefully of Vicky Austin and Adam Eddington in A Ring of Endless Light. If absolutely forced to choose a favorite L'Engle novel, I would probably choose Ring, which I read over and over again between the ages of 15-25. I don't know why it never dawned on me with any forcefulness (until now!) that the unspoken communication developed in Ring looks an awful lot like kything. Vicky experiences an ability to communicate without words (and to receive communications, often in the form of wordless images) first with dolphins (animals are always very important in Madeleine's work) and then with Adam, the young man who introduces her to the dolphins.

Maybe one reason I never made an explicit connection is because distinctions used to be often made between Madeleine's "chronos" books and her "kairos" books. In her so-called kairos books, characters were not bound by the normal nature of time, while characters in the chronos books never time-traveled. That's a useful enough distinction in some regards, but it's not so easy to break her books down into categories of "fantasy" and "realism" with the kairos books neatly falling into one and the chronos books into the other. Even in her more realistic books, where the characters don't fly with unicorns, there are mystical elements. Vicky, after all, flies with dolphins.

I've wandered far afield. My main observation is that Miri's unspoken message to Peder felt familiar, not in a derivative way, but in a lovely, shared tradition way. Peder's response in her time of peril mirrors Adam's. Vicky and Adam's wondering exchange (once the peril is past) is so sweet and simple: "I called you --" "And I came," he said. Words that could have been quarry-sung in another book, time and place.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What I Am Doing With All The Time I'm Not Blogging

I realized this evening that I am on track to complete my leanest blogging year ever in the (almost) seven years I've been blogging. Which made me wonder...what precisely am I doing these days with all the time I'm not blogging? Just in case you were curious, here are a few things on that list.

1) Grading papers. Tidal wave two hit Friday. As a mere teaching assistant this year, rather than a full-fledged adjunct, I somehow had the mistaken impression that grading would take up less of my time. But when paper deadlines hit for two seminary classes at roughly the same time, the avalanche is still an avalanche, even if I am only grading for mechanics and reading accountability rather than deeper content. Reading a paper and assessing it thoughtfully still takes time...maybe not as much time as it used to, but still plenty of it. So does answering student questions and managing record keeping. All of this, of course, on the everlastingly wonky computer (that I am nonetheless grateful for).

2) Moon watching. The sweet girl has always loved the moon, and lately her love for it seems to have grown. We're doing a lot of moon watching -- and star watching -- in the evenings. And reading/thinking about/talking about moon phases and constellations.

3) Battling a falling apart clothes dryer, whom I have now named Barky. Which, as my husband points out, is better than Sparky.

4) Cooking, cleaning, lesson planning. The usual suspects.

5) Teaching preschoolers about Isaiah the prophet.

6) Planning an out of town trip without credit.

7) Ghost-writing articles (mostly travel ones). Lots and lots and lots of ghostwriting this month.

8) Refining my ghostwriting travel voice by watching Rick Steves travel videos from the library.

9) Reading a lot of Madeleine L'Engle out loud. Because the sweet girl has fallen -- and fallen hard -- for this favorite author of my heart.

10) Watching Mary Tyler Moore season 1 episodes with my dear husband. Not that we have any time, but we're sneaking them in really, really late at night when we're both giggly with exhaustion. And I am discovering that MTM is great television comfort food. I can't tell you how nostalgic and warm it makes me feel. And oh, yeah...a little bit old too (the first season aired when I was 2).

11) Feeling utterly grateful for Christian community. We have been literally held up and sustained in this incredibly lean season by provision we could not possibly have imagined. God's people responding to our needs and to God's promptings and putting feet and hands and hearts to work to help us. My exhaustion level may still be there, but you know, my heart is so much lighter than it was a few weeks ago. Knowing this level of care from so many people makes all sorts of things feel possible in an impossible season.

12) Working on writing chapter 5 of The Four Princesses. Yes!! So excited to get back to this beloved project.

13) Mentally writing book (and movie and music) reviews, and missing Epinions like crazy.

14) Finishing up our afterschool arts program for the fall.

15) Listening to lots of Elgar. And Handel. And Bach.

16) Sneaking in the writing of an occasional poem. (See previous post.)

17) Praying my way through helping the sweet girl with some new levels of intensity and anxiety.

18) Praying WITH the sweet girl, a lot. And reading Isaiah with her. It's been an Isaiah kind of month.

19) Drawing. A little. Mostly in the tired cracks and crevices when I am most worn out but needing a creative boost that involves physically holding a pen/pencil and not sitting at the keyboard.

20) Contemplating where this year has gone. Do you realize Advent starts December 2?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dear Vincent (an original poem)

I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken 
in my great discouragement, and I will go on 
with my drawing.
 --Van Gogh

Dear Vincent,

I received your postcard.
I don’t know how much postage
Costs in the past that was your present,
But I do sense that the words cost you deeply.
I thank you for flinging them forward
In the wild, thick-stroked way you love
So that they would stick to the wall of the world
And land in the mailbox of my heart today.
I would just like to say
Take heart, take up, and go on
And know that no matter how hard it feels
To sketch each line
There is someone in the future who believes
That it matters
And who hears the scratching of your pencil
And thinks it is the most encouraging music
She has heard
In a long, long time.

(~EMP 11/16/12)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

3 Children and It

No, the title of my post is not a typo. I know the name of E. Nesbit's classic book is 5 Children and It. It's my favorite Nesbit, and one we read as a family about a year ago.

We've been revisiting Nesbit recently with a family read-aloud of The Treasure Seekers. We finished it last night. This was our introduction to the Bastables (I've been wanting to meet them for quite some time, especially since I realized they merit a brief mention from C.S. Lewis at the start of The Magician's Nephew) and we definitely enjoyed the introduction.

At the end of the book, there was a brief bit about the author, and I shared some of it with the sweet girl and her daddy -- how Edith Nesbit was born in 1858, how she wrote for a number of years before she discovered her great talent for writing for children (when she was about forty), the numbers of books she wrote after that, how it amused her when people assumed she was a man, etc. The synopsis mentioned 5 Children and It, which caused us to remember the story fondly.

Then the sweet girl said: "Ha! That's what Madeleine L'Engle could have called A Wrinkle in Time! 3 Children and IT!" and I just about died laughing.

Today's treat on the library hold shelf -- the new graphic novel version of Wrinkle. I was excited to pick it up, but S. has absconded with it already (she read the first chapter in the library). "When I'm done with it, I'll pass it on," she promised generously. She's been raiding my sock drawer recently for socks, so why am I surprised we're now vying for books on the hold shelf?

Life marches on!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Words, Words, Words

It's been a wordy week.

Not only have I been surfing the crest of the wave on essay reading/evaluating, but it's been a delightfully wordy week for the sweet girl. In Latin, she's been having fun with derivatives, and in grammar, she's been learning how to find etymologies in dictionary entries...two activities that go together so well, and yet that just "happened" to come together in our curricula this week. Love those moments of serendipity in learning.

In spelling, she's been working with words spelled with "ie" and "ei" -- and you know, some of those words are tricky, especially the ones that simply do NOT follow the "i before e except after c, or when they sound like an a, as in eighty and weigh." A great mnemonic device except that there are still exceptions like neither and either, and today's bonus word...leisure.

I think I've come up with a couple of ways to help her remember how to spell believe and pieces, however. With believe, she has a tendency to drop the second e. I told her to look for the word "lie" inside of believe, and to think "never believe a lie." With pieces, she just tends to...well, go all to pieces. She's spelled it a couple of different ways, but can't seem to get it down. So I suggested she look for the "pie" in pieces, and remember that "we cut a pie into pieces."

Meanwhile, I had another realization today about the power of sometimes, maybe especially when we're tired, they evoke things for us on all sorts of levels. One of her bonus spelling words, an easy one this time, was "eighteen." And no sooner had the word left my lips than I was seeing, in my mind's eye, a beautiful bouquet of pink roses. I don't think I had consciously remembered, for years, that my parents gave me eighteen pink roses for my eighteenth birthday, but suddenly there they were, pale and lustrous, sitting on the shiny wood of the piano on Dustin Drive.

Words can be playful. They also have power!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lovely Literary Geek Posts: Wilder Weather

I've had a simply exhausting week -- just the normal exhaustion with grading deadlines on top of it, which has meant not enough sleep for three nights running. And boy, do I feel it. At 44, one does not burn the candle at both ends. The candle burns you!

Be that as it may, utter and total exhaustion has its interesting moments. It sometimes seems to make me hear and see things with unusual clarity, followed (of course) by bouts of raucous giggling. Presidential debates, for instance, can seem a whole lot funnier and a lot less dire when you hear them in sleep-deprived condition. (Sometimes the lack of sleep can pitch me face first into despair...but just as often, it's likely to toss me off the cliff of hilarity. I prefer the latter.)

The other thing that seems to sharpen when I'm tired is my geekiness detector. I use geek here in the most loving way possible. One of the things that delights me about the world of the internet is that it introduces you to other people in the world who have crazy obsessions like your's. Well, sometimes like your's and sometimes quite different, but all in a similar "I just love to talk about this/read about this/research about this/spout fascinating facts about this" vein. I am particularly fond of finding fellow literary geeks, especially when their passions correspond at least somewhat with my own reading passions.

So I was delighted when, just yesterday, I stumbled across a blog called Wilder Weather. It's about...can you guess? can you? Yes, you can! It's about the weather in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, and seeing that such a blog exists made me absurdly happy. The blogger, Barbara Mayes Boustead, is serious about this stuff. She's a writer and history enthusiast who is also an honest to goodness meteorologist and climatologist and she loves tracking down cool facts about the weather in Wilder's books. Did you know that October 15th was the 131st anniversary of the blizzard that marked the beginning of the Long Winter? Now you do, and your life is richer because of it. I know mine is!

The weather in Laura's books has always fascinated me just as much as the food. I was the kind of kid who played "Long Winter" -- I would bundle myself up in blankets and eat bits of plain bread without any butter  (I think I toasted it to make it dry and hard) while I imagined that the wind was howling outside and the snow pouring down and the trains couldn't possibly get through and we were all going to starve before spring. (Little literary geek. Yes.)

When I grew up, my ongoing fascination with the books, especially as my daughter grew old enough to read them/listen to them, got me interested in learning more about 19th century winters on the prairie.  I ended up reading David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard (if you have any interest in the subject at all, this book is a must-read...please read my review at the link to see why). Then I turned to the amazing poems in Ted Kooser's The Blizzard Voices. I wrote about that book in a review titled "Small Poems Like Landmarks in a Storm." own geek credentials on this subject are pretty high, but not nearly as high as this delightful blogger who is working on a book (oh hooray) about Wilder Weather. As you can imagine, I plan to hunker down with that when it's finally published...probably while wrapped in a blanket and chomping on dry toast.

Friday, October 12, 2012

She Loved It

We finished reading A Wrinkle in Time tonight. It was an emotional experience for me, sharing this book with my daughter, much more so than I even expected.

She loved the book (yay!) and I thought I would jot a few paraphrases of my favorite things she said about it today. I should mention that we'd been reading Wrinkle during the day (school break) and still doing our re-read of our beloved Narnia (up to Last Battle again, but just barely started it) in the evenings....

"Can we read the last chapter of Wrinkle tonight instead of Last Battle? I know everything is going to turn out all right, but I want to find out how!"

"They are going to get Charles Wallace, right? They're going to get home, right?"

"This is a very suspenseful place!"

"I love these characters!"

"It's funny, when you read the first chapters of this book, you think, oh this is a nice family story. And then you keep reading and find out their father is missing and say, oh this is a good mystery. And then they start to tesser to other planets and you say, oh this is an adventure book! And then they go to Camazotz and strange things start happening and you say, oh this is science fiction!"

"All those people whose brains are connected to IT would die if somebody killed IT. So maybe somebody should go to Camazotz and love every person there to get them away from IT." 
"Can we read it again, this time slowly? And then I'm going to want to read the next book on my own."

And the moments I definitely heard her chuckle during the final chapter: when Calvin kissed Meg, and when Charles Wallace said they'd landed in the broccoli in the twins' vegetable garden.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mary's Song

I finally got my review up of Mary's Song, a lovely picture book recently published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

I say finally because the book was sent to me as part of the Early Reviewers program at Library Thing. I've had it for quite a while and the review has been percolating in the back of my mind for ages, but I just now got it up. At least well in advance of Advent! (Though the fall does seem to be flying by...doesn't time seem to speed up when we transition into a new season? The sudden colder weather has me feeling like we're already poised on the edge of winter, and I haven't even put away my summer sandals yet!)

I was especially taken with the beautiful pictures in the book. As I wrote:

Even more than Hopkins’ words, Alcorn’s beautiful pictures invite us to marvel anew over Jesus’ birth. Each sketch is rendered in various media (colored pencil and crayon seem to predominate) on a creamy ivory background. The color palette seems especially royal, with many hues of reds and blues shading into purple, and plenty of lighter yellow or golden touches, though homespun brown has its place in these sketches too. The drawings themselves seem to have been crafted with a light, almost unfinished touch, as though the artist himself moves lightly and wonderingly in the face of the mystery. There are almost no solid colors; the sketches instead are made of many long, flowing lines, crisscrossed with other darker lines to blend the colors almost impressionistically and to give a sense of texture and movement. 

If you'd like to read the rest of the review, you can find it at Library Thing here. I write there as greenglasspoet.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Pearl Harbor (by Steven M. Gillon)

I found an unexpected treat on the new nonfiction shelves at the library this weekend: Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War by Steven M. Gillon.

I've read several books on Pearl Harbor and on FDR over the years -- it's a topic I tend to go back to. I think it started long ago when I visited Pearl when I was eighteen (my sister was living in Hawaii then). Not only did I pick up my first book on Pearl Harbor in the gift shop at the visitor's center there, but seeing the monument and much of the surrounding area forever cemented the place in my mind, so that whenever I read books about it since, I can picture things so clearly.

I also spent a winter in the company of Roosevelt when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time. Maybe it's the sudden chill to the weather that made me drift over to the nonfiction shelves -- autumn and winter tend to be my time to hunker down with history and biography, especially big tomes.

But this is not a big tome, and I am speeding my way through its very accessible prose. Some of this is not new to me, but it's been a few years since I've visited Pearl Harbor in my reading so it feels fresh. I like Gillon's shaping of the narrative too -- he's essentially focused on the first 24 hours for FDR following the attack, though he does some necessary prologue work at the beginning and some side-stepping and rabbit trailing to provide other stories of interest.

Lots of interesting bits stand out, but one struck me especially this evening. At one point Gillon is detailing some of the condescending, sneering attitudes of the fascist nations toward the U.S. -- how many of the leaders assumed our nation was too "soft" to make a difference in the war or see it through, partly because of their beliefs about capitalism, partly because of their racism. At least in one case, however, that of Mussolini, there was sneering condescension about Roosevelt's ability to lead a country because he was crippled. Writes Dillon:

"Most of all, he (Mussolini) simply could not understand how a man incapable of walking could lead a nation during war. 'Never in history has a people been ruled by a paralytic,' he contemptuously said of FDR..." 

Contrast this with Dillon's profile of FDR's actual courageous fight to overcome polio and to help others who were battling it, and his long, arduous return to a political career despite his limitations.

"Once easily dismissed as superficial, ambitious, and shallow, FDR responded to polio in a way that added new depth to his character. It intensified his ability to set priorities and to focus. 'Polio,' Franklin Jr. said, 'taught Father to concentrate on the things he was physically able to do and not waste time thinking about things he could not.'...When asked how polio had changed him, Roosevelt replied, 'If you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!' 'Having handled that, he probably thought there wasn't anything he couldn't deal with,' said Henry Morgenthau. 'Once you've conquered that kind of illness, anything's possible.'"

Two things really stand out to me here:

~ the difference between looking only at what the surface shows you about a person versus really knowing and understanding their character, and

~the way that tribulation truly can encourage patience, build character, and lead to hope

The very thing that some thought had weakened Roosevelt had, in actuality, made him much stronger and tempered him into a man uniquely qualified to lead our nation in a time of crisis.

A lot to think about in our image conscious time.  A lot to think about as we ponder the qualities we consider essential in a leader.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Poetry Friday: Why Write? (an original poem)

Why Write?

Because words can bite
And words can sting,
But words can fly
And words can sing.
Because words make pictures in your head
And find the heart of gold in lead.
Because words can hope
When hope seems gone
And bring you friends
When you’re alone.

~EMP 10/4/12

Yesterday I found myself playing with list poems, inspired by the wonderful collection Falling Down the Page edited by Georgia Heard. This was my favorite result.

Poetry Friday roundup is at Laura Purdie Salas' site writing the world for kids. Visit and read some wonderful poetry!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Wrinkle Read-Aloud

A momentous event at our house this week...we've begun reading A Wrinkle in Time during morning reading time.

It was such an important book to me when I was around eleven. Although I hadn't put a whole lot of thought into when to introduce it, I guess I always had "eleven" in the back of my mind as the magic number. I'm not sure I had thought of it as a read-aloud either, given the fact that when I first read it, I fell into it headfirst on my own steam. But then, nobody really read aloud to me when I was a child (at least not much, and not onto in later childhood).

If I had thought about it at all, I think I assumed I would likely give the sweet girl Meet the Austins sometime this year. She's been acquainted with the Austins her whole life because I have about a quarter of a century tradition of reading The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas every Advent, and she was born somewhere in the middle of that tradition and joined it early. She's always liked that story and so it seemed a natural extension to move her on to the rich, middle-grade goodness of Meet the Austins, a lovely book of Madeleine's that I don't think gets enough attention.

But then we were discussing possible reads for our homeschool group this fall (we try to do a monthly book, with families coming in ready to discuss it on a given Friday) and I found myself suggesting Wrinkle. It's kind of funny how it happened -- we'd asked the two older kids, the sweet girl and her good friend (whom I'll call science boy) what kinds of books they'd like to read this year. We're mostly pitching to the two of them in our group, since the rest are littles more or less along for the reading ride. Science boy immediately said "let's read something with spaceships...and aliens!" and not a heartbeat behind him, sweet girl said, "let's read something girlish!"

Now there aren't many books that fit both bills, but Wrinkle comes awfully close. Granted, the elegance of tessering does away with the clunky need for spaceships, but there are "aliens" -- beings who live on other planets and even visit our own. travel, check. Aliens, check. Then there's the added bonus of a girl protagonist. And not just any girl protagonist, but the wonderfully gawky, braces-wearing, scraggly-haired, impatient, math genius Meg Murry -- and seriously, don't you just feel like hugging Madeleine right now, for gracing the world with Meg?

So I said "How about  A Wrinkle in Time?" and everybody said yes, and we picked October as our reading month for it.

I could have just handed the sweet girl the book...but she is just past ten, and does love being read to still. Plus we have a tradition of reading the homeschool books together. Plus -- true confession -- I just couldn't bear being left out of it. It had not occurred to me how momentous it would feel to read Wrinkle with my daughter. Nor had it dawned on me that apparently I've never read the book aloud. I have recommended it to countless people over the years -- I think I could seriously make a list of people I introduced to Madeleine L'Engle (I'm pretty sure reading the time trilogy was a prerequisite for anyone who dated me in college) but I don't think I've ever read it aloud.

Doing so has been a delight but also a bit bizarre. How does one pronounce Uriel -- with a short or long u? How do you reeeaaad ttthhee ssstammmering words of Mrs Which? For that matter, how do you read Mrs Who's Greek quotes when you don't know how to read Greek? What does Calvin sound like? How do you make Charles Wallace sound like a petulant, normal five year old somehow tinged with mysterious otherness? How do you change Mrs Whatsit's voice when she metamorphoses from one kind of being to another? (In the end, I decided not to.) And wow, the Black Thing -- it's pretty scary.

Those are some of the questions and thoughts that have been running through my mind as we've read the first few chapters together this week.

Oh...and in a marvelous bit of serendipity...the amazing "you could not possibly have scheduled this to happen if you'd tried a million times" kind...we are also re-reading Magician's Nephew as our bedtime read aloud. Today I got to read both Mrs Whatsit's flight with Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace on her back and Fledge's flight with Digory and Polly on his back. I am a very happy reading woman.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

On Conan Doyle

I'm about midway through Michael Dirda's biography/memoir On Conan Doyle. I'm really enjoying it, and learning some fascinating things I never knew about Doyle (though admittedly, I went to the book not knowing much).

First off, I love how this book feels in my hand. Especially in this age of e-readers, I think it's worthwhile to celebrate the pleasurable physicality of a book. It's small and slender with a lovely dust jacket featuring a black and white photo of Doyle reading in a remarkable looking sitting room with a tiger-skin rug at his feet.. My copy is from the library so my jacket is also covered in smooth plastic; even that seems to add to the pleasure of how easy it is to hold and read this book. It has ragged edges on raw-cut pages that are a perfect shade of cream for the dark text. (I live in hope that the age of e-readers may, among other things, be creating a culture of beautifully made physical books again....)

I like the way Dirda mixes biography and memoir. The reflections on Conan Doyle are biographically weighty, but they're shaped by Dirda's love of reading...not just Conan Doyle, but many other good books. For him, Doyle was his gateway into a lifelong love of reading, and many of the books and authors he's read since have some connection to Doyle, either in style or simply because he tends to compare other writers to Doyle (the first author of his heart -- he fell head over heels for Sherlock at the age of ten).

It's been interesting to realize just how prolific Doyle was and how much he wrote that most of us never hear about, knowing him primarily as the author behind Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, even in his lifetime, that drove Doyle a little crazy. That people only knew him for Sherlock was especially annoying because Doyle didn't consider Sherlock to be his "important" work. Despite not having read the historical novels and non-fiction of his that he did consider important, I found myself disagreeing -- quite vehemently -- with the sharp distinction he made between important and non-important work:

"The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now nobody can possibly be the better -- in the high sense in which I mean it -- for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so.  It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work ever can be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader."

To which I found myself saying "no, no!" in passionate (albeit inner) tones. I really struggle with this sense of "high" and "low" work -- it seems to dismiss good storytelling (and the huge human need for it) far too easily, not to mention it disqualifies a whole body of fiction from being "serious" in one fell swoop. I'm not saying I turn to detective fiction primarily for information or training in the virtues, or that it isn't pleasurable and lighter reading than, say, scholarly writing. But a well crafted work of detective fiction can provide both pleasure and tremendous insight into the human condition and into how human beings respond in times of suffering, confusion, and crisis. Compare Doyle's words there to P.D. James, in this recent interview, who provides a helpful insight into how such fiction has changed since the Golden Age:

"I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos... I think there's been a huge change since the novels of the Golden Age," she suggests. "What was popular then was the puzzle: such qualities as psychological truth or even atmospheric location were secondary to it. For me, characterisation is at the heart of my books. From the start, I felt that what I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation for murder. And such an investigation tears down all the walls of privacy that we build round ourselves and reveals us for who we are. It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."

In a less exalted way, James also values detective fiction for the way it can capture the tone and liveliness of an era (and though she uses Sayers as an example, certainly Sherlock Holmes is also proof of this premise):

"A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it's written than a more prestigious literature," James suggests. "If we want to know what it was like – actually like – to work in an office between the wars, we should go to Murder Must Advertise. It's all there: the people and personalities; the inter-departmental rivalry; the great excitement of having a flutter on the Grand National; right down to how much things cost and attitudes to sex and class. I wanted my books to do the same; to be unambiguously set in the present day, so that they give a picture of the life we're living. And if I'm lucky enough to be read in 50 years' time, I hope people will be able to point to them and say: that's what it was like."

Yes and yes. Both of James' insights here point to reasons why I read her books -- and Sayers, Christie, and Crombie, just to mention my favorites. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Patchwork Post

"I should blog about that," I've found myself thinking several times recently, but blogging time has been rare, as you can see from the paucity of posting here!

Nothing earth shaking happening, just an incredibly busy and tiring season. That's been true of most seasons lately, but it seems I am feeling more stretched all the time...and not only stretched, but slower. Slower is not always bad. In fact, sometimes I am very happy about the fact that I'm slowing down on purpose, trying to live more deeply right where I am. But sometimes slower just is, mostly because I'm getting older and my energy is seeming more finite all the time.

"Is seeming" -- is a present participle. That's what my tired brain just thought, and it thought that because I've spent a lot of time recently teaching grammar. The sweet girl's fifth grade venture is going swimmingly, but it does seem like she's doing a lot of grammar this year. The new grammar curric we went with, Saxon and Hake, does tons of review each day, though most of the concepts so far have been review or review with slightly new tweaks. I have been utterly thankful for the good foundation of First Language Lessons during the past four years, even more so because she's swimming in deep waters with grammar when it comes to Latin too.

We're loving Visual Latin. I only wish I'd found it sooner! What a terrific program! More on that forthcoming.

In fact, more on everything forthcoming. I've not forgotten that I need to do a part 2 post on teaching literature in the mid-grade levels (it's been percolating in my mind now for almost two months). I've got poetry posts percolating too, and I think I am long overdue for a reading roundup.

For now, it just feels good to check case anyone is still out there listening. It's a beautiful harvest moon October evening, and yes, I'm still here. Busy and tired and slow, but here.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy Birthday to the Hobbit!

It's the 75th anniversary of the original publishing date for The Hobbit. I intended to celebrate today by having a second breakfast, but alas, it was one of those days that got off to such a crazy start, I hardly got a first one!

A few things have been making the rounds in honor of this special day. One I especially enjoyed was this article by Devin Brown on the C.S. Lewis blog. It's a lovely post. While most Tolkien and Lewis enthusiasts won't learn much from it that's new, it's still delightful to be reminded of the story of The Hobbit's genesis and of the life-giving friendship between Lewis and Tolkien in the early years.

Two things I especially took away from my reflections on this post today. The first is in reference to The Hobbit's beginning. About that momentous and mysterious start, when Tolkien scribbled the line "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" inside an exam booklet he was correcting, Brown writes:

"Had Professor Tolkien not needed the money which grading secondary school exams provided, had there not been so many of them, had there not been a blank page left in one exam booklet, there might never have been the beloved story we know today."

Don't you love that thought? We can trace the lines in hindsight, but at the time they were such ordinary things. Tolkien was a hard working teacher who needed money and took what I'm sure was a mind-numbing job. (There's that insight again: limitations can sometimes push us to new creative territory.) And in the midst of the mind-numbing pile of papers, a blank page beckoned and a story he didn't even know was percolating put forth its first tentative shoot as he scrawled that one gift line.

Isn't it good of God to give us gift lines and gift images? Remember Lewis saying that Narnia started with the picture of a faun carrying parcels in a wood? From such small beginnings -- one line, one picture -- whole stories can bloom. What a wonderful, mysterious thing creativity is.

And I loved this wonderful reminder from Brown's reflection:

"In a real life story as fascinating as the imaginary ones they would later write, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis became friends, Tolkien became instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, and then Lewis became instrumental in Tolkien’s completing his great works.  Together they formed the Inklings, the close-knit Oxford reading and writing group which met in Lewis’s college rooms and at a pub named The Eagle and Child.  It was at these meetings that the early versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were first read aloud, critiqued, and made into what they are today."

Again we can trace the lines. Lewis and Tolkien's friendship, complex as it was, was nourishing and fruitful for them both. As Brown goes on to say, after Jack's death Tolkien would talk about what a debt he owed him and how he wouldn't have finished LOTR if it hadn't been for Lewis' encouragement. It was because Lewis wanted to hear more of the story that Tolkien kept writing; he was the kind of writer who needed that encouragement (I think most writers are, but some more than others). Sometimes in our rush to write and create as artists, we can forget how important that gift of encouragement can be to other artists who are also giving their all to write stories that are good and beautiful and true. What it would be to have a friend like Lewis to draw out the best in us. What it would be to be a Lewis for other writers.

It's the beauty and complexity of that collaboration amongst Lewis and Tolkien and the other Inklings that Diana Pavlac Glyer captures so beautifully in her masterful book The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. The book is a great read for many reasons, but I think it especially helped me to understand Tolkien better. As I wrote in my review of the book three years ago:

"If one individual Inkling stands out in this volume, it's Tolkien. Though Glyer does a great job of covering the group as a group, it's inevitable that the members who wrote more and are better known will receive fuller treatment. But I think there's more than that in the thoughtful depths of her look at Tolkien: Glyer clearly wants to paint a more accurate portrait of his working style than has been attempted before. He's often been looked at as a kind of solitary genius, but as Glyer points out (and brilliantly backs up) of all the Inklings, Tolkien may have been the most dependent on community for inspiration and encouragement, as he was what I believe she terms a "notorious non-finisher." 

That was due in part to his incredibly lengthy revisions: he could write for years on one project, and create draft after draft. Just consider that the 600,000 plus words of Lord of the Rings took him about two decades to bring to completion, and that he worked many more years than that on his Silmarillion (only published after his death, its many drafts finally edited by Christopher).  Tolkien, Glyer asserts, would never have finished LOTR without the Inklings: "they supported Tolkien's natural impulse to keep polishing and perfecting his work." Beyond this general encouragement, the Inklings and Lewis in particular made specific comments and suggestions that we know (from evidence Glyer provides here) "led to modifications" in the work. Key changes were made in the shape of the narrative, and even in Tolkien's choice of how to end the book" 

On the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, we can celebrate not only a wonderful story that has lasted in our hearts for so long, but the creative inspiration and collaboration that stood behind it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The George Lucas School of Cooking

Why is it that I’ve become a better and more creative cook the more our income shrinks?

I’ve been pondering that lately as I find myself cross-referencing my favorite recipes as I try to find ways to stretch what we buy. This works well when you’re cooking for three (or another small number) because many recipes are often written with larger amounts in mind. I can often cut a recipe in half, or at least 2/3, and still have some ingredients leftover. Then it becomes a creative task to try to connect the dots – what other meal can I use the remaining ingredients in? Sometimes I forget all that and just make extra of whatever I’m making – especially if it will freeze well. But sometimes I like the challenge, and my frugal Scotswoman self  loves feeling like I’ve gotten two meal possibilities out of one food item.

This week, for instance, I decided to make a pot of wedding soup. Again, I’m cooking for three, so there’s no way I’m going to start with 12 cups of broth. By cutting the recipe nearly in half, I realized that I was only going to need about half of the ground turkey for meatballs in the soup. The other half I could brown and put away and we could have them with pasta and sauce and a salad later in the week.

The soup also calls for kale (there’s that good “marriage” or “wedding” of meat and greens that gives the soup its title). I got a good size bunch, again knowing we wouldn’t need it all for the soup. Then I started thumbing through the index of the wonderful Recipes from the Root Cellar (a cookbook that never fails me) to see what I could do with a small amount of leftover fresh kale. Why not mashed potatoes and greens? Add a bit of soy sausage to the side and we’ve got another meal this week.

The irony is not lost on me. Years ago, back when I was working full-time for a fairly decent salary and had health insurance coverage and lived near scads of really good grocery stores, I was buying Stouffer’s frozen dinners. (Okay, not all the time, but when we first got married, I relied a lot on convenience foods and frozen foods for the two of us, and only slowly began to learn some tried and true “from scratch” sorts of recipes.) Now that I’m an insuranceless work-from-home mom with a family attempting to do ministry in a tiny urban area that only recently got a small grocery store within easy walking distance again, I count every nickel and dime (sometimes quite literally). And now, of course, I want to buy fresh veggies and fruits and good grains and flours and I want to cook real food.

But maybe it’s not too odd that limitations can make us more creative. Witness the vibrant original Star Wars trilogy (Lucas on a budget) versus the tepid, bloated second generation Star Wars films (Lucas run amok with money). If you don’t want to waste anything you find something interesting to do with it.

Of course sometimes limitation and lack, especially when they dip down to serious levels, can just become exhausting. We’ve been there sometimes – not quite with food (though I’ve had weeks I’ve wanted to bang my head in frustration over eating yet more peanut butter or more beans) but in other ways. There is a fine line, in all levels of life, between limitations that push you to find creative ways to do more with less and actual lack that frustrates you, tires you out, pushes you in the direction of anger and fear.  Dancing close to it sometimes has given me deeper empathy for people who have gone over that edge and live in that place regularly.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Psalms ~ For All Ages

Tomorrow we kick off a new year of Sunday School in our parish. I'm the point person for Sunday School this year, and D. and I jointly teach the pre-K/kindergarten and elementary grades. What that means is that, on a Sunday when enough of the pre-k/kindergarten age kids are there, I take them off to do the Bible storytelling time separately from the older elementary age, and then we all come back together for our missions moment, prayer time, and snack time. Since we're a small congregation, there are some Sundays when we don't have enough kids to do separate classes, and then we keep them all together the whole time -- though it's always a challenge with the little ones needing more wiggle time than the rest.

It keeps me on my toes knowing that I might, on any given Sunday, need to do the Bible lesson for 4 and 5 year olds. They have a whole different level of understanding as well as attention. It happens to be one of my favorite age groups to work with, so I welcome the challenge! I also find the preparation is often good for my own heart. Sometimes shaping the truths of the Scriptures in their simplest terms is not just what the little ones need. It's what I need.

And since we're working our way through the Bible with the kids over a few year period, I sometimes find myself faced with shaping a lesson on a portion of the Bible that not many packaged curricula for this age group tend to touch. A case in point -- this year we're kicking off with five weeks on the Psalms. My dear D., always so thoughtful when it comes to shaping the lessons for the older kids, has divided our focus over the weeks into the wisdom psalms, hymns, lament psalms, royal/Messianic psalms, and thanksgiving psalms.

So I find myself thinking through how to pull this into manageable, teachable pieces for the little guys, and here's what I've come up with:

~Staying on God's path/living God's way
~Praising God
~Telling God when we're sad
~Knowing God is our king
~Saying thank you to God

And really, when you think about it, aren't all five of those pieces part and parcel of the Psalms and of our lives as Christians? If we choose the wise way, not the foolish way, if we remember that God is worthy of our praise no matter what our circumstances and actively praise him, if we're honest before God and pour out our hearts when we're sad or lonely or afraid, if we remember that we serve the King of the universe (and nothing or no one else) and bow our hearts to him, and if we try to live each day as gratefully as we can, remembering to thank him for all he is and does -- well, that's a pretty good grounding for our spiritual lives, isn't it?

The poem I wrote and posted here yesterday, by the way, is very much a lament Psalm. I am tired and stressed and worn out on a lot of levels right now, in some deeper ways than I have ever felt those things before. But you know, it was good to bring my heart before the King and tell him what was on my heart. I learned how to do that from reading and loving and praying the Psalms.

And the Psalms, the prayer book of the community of faith, are not just for mid-life folks like me. They're for the little ones too.

Broken Things (an original poem)

Tonight I feel like a cracked plate
Or a pitcher that won’t hold water.
I am trying to remember the beauty
Of broken things, of birds
With clipped wings, chipped shells
Whose wholeness I can only guess,
Small tiles whose pictures
Made from broken bits impress.
I am trying to remember the glass
I used to find, small and worn,
Rounded smooth to my hand,
And the tiny bits of rock and mica
In the sand ~ the way they sift
Through my fingers, gritty, sharp.
And in the fire’s ashes,
One gnarled string of a golden harp.

Tonight I feel like a piece of old chalk,
A pencil lead slipped from its point.
I am trying to remember the beauty
Of broken forms, of twigs
That snap in storms and lie there on
The ground, and brown leaves,
Paper thin and crumpled, that fall
With whispered sound. I remember cups
With missing handles and bells
That no longer ring and voices
So cracked and dry they can barely sing.
A brittle bit of bone, a sagging step,
A bedraggled hem, a shoe without a heel.
It seems to me I know just how
All these broken things must feel.

Tonight I can hardly recall what it means
To be whole ~ and yet, the form is there,
The full shape, the deep wellness of my soul.
I can not turn from the hands that know
Me best, know every hurt and broken place
And all my aching need for rest.
He loves me with a love that is unending,
Knows all my wretched, ragged rending.
He sees the way my broken self is tending.
And only he can move me toward his mending.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

Remembering Madeleine L'Engle (Nov 29, 1918-Sept 6, 2007)

It's not often that I can remember what I was doing exactly five years ago, but this evening I can. It was five years ago today that Madeleine L'Engle passed away, moving from this earth to glory.

She meant so much to me as a person and a writer than her loss felt huge. I spent most of this evening, five years ago, crying and re-reading favorite portions of her books ~ which still take up a proportionately large section of my shelves.

I find it interesting that this day slipped up on me almost unawares, and yet I have had Madeleine on my mind and heart almost all week, as I'm working on the outline of a book that would potentially explore her work and the work of several other authors. 

Instead of trying to say anything moving and profound tonight (when I am, quite honestly, very stressed and tired) I thought I would post a few things from my archives. I have shared about Madeleine a good bit over the years.

Here's a post I wrote in honor of A Wrinkle in Time's 50th anniversary several months ago. It's in the form of a letter to Madeleine.

And this was the initial reflection I posted the day after she died, which I entitled, "For Madeleine, May All Her Seasons Be Blessed."  As I wrote there:

Her writing has shaped me and helped me in so many ways. She helped me think about life in terms of seasons; she helped me learn to order my time and count it as precious. She taught me the importance of names and naming, and what a precious gift it is to be given the gift of someone's name. She taught me to hope and believe that marriage, even or especially in its difficult times, could still grow and flourish. She reminded me to be honest in my prayers. Time and again, she returned my focus to God's amazing love for his beloved creation, and especially turned my eyes again and again to the incarnation and the wonderful gift of Jesus.

So thankful for her life. I still miss her.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Look What We Grew! (100 Species Challenge #s 14 & 15: Zinnias and Cosmos)

Zinnias (plantae asteraceae) so vibrant, have long been one of my favorite "easy-to-grow" garden flowers. This year I accidentally picked up a package of larger variety seeds. The results have been stunning, with this huge beauty the most gorgeous so far.

We also planted cosmos this year (they also belong to the asteraceae family) and they are so lovely, especially their feathery green leaves.