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.