Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I'm So Glad Christmas is a Season

As I pondered writing about this today, it dawned on me that I wrote some reflections two years ago that never found their way here. These reflections are part of others I've written over the years that may (or may not) make it into my Advent and Christmas poetry collection one day.

I wrote this back on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) in 2011, hence some of the dated references. I hope you'll find something here worth pondering on this blessed seventh day of Christmas in 2013.


This morning I took the trash out – two big bags worth, detritus leftover from yesterday’s Christmas celebration. Although this year I did not pile the wrapping paper scraps into the trash. My environmentally conscious nine year old, bless her, made me put it all in a box to take the borough paper recycling dumpster later.

Since we live over a warehouse in a building that belongs to the lumber yard next door, our trash dumpster is also in the lumber yard. Among other things, this means I get serenaded every time I take the trash out by the PA system that blares radio music left on for the lumber yard workers to hear while they pile wood and confer with customers and drive fork lifts.

The lumber yard was open this morning, though almost deserted. Either the workers were all inside having one more Monday morning after the holiday cup of coffee, or some of them had taken the day off. Certainly no customers were in sight, and no trucks moving about. But the office and store lights were on and the gate was open, so I shouldered my plastic bags like Santa and hoisted them into the dumpster.

The music on the PA system brought me up sharply. During most of the year, what plays on the radio doesn’t register with me when I take the trash out, especially if it’s advertising. I’m forty-three; I’ve gotten very good at tuning out commercials, one of the biggest wastes of brain energy ever encountered. Usually I am working out a story or musing on a poem or looking at the sky – or on more prosaic days (and they happen) – planning what to cook for dinner or thinking through my next language arts lesson with my daughter. I only pay attention to the sounds of the radio station if they’re playing music, and then often only if they’re playing a song I know and particularly like.

The couple of weeks or so before Christmas are different. The lumber yard tunes to one of the “oldies” stations that plays Christmas music all the time up until and through Christmas day. During cold, dark December days, I get used to trudging to the dumpster to tunes like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or (if I’m really blessed) “The First Noel.” (Yes, our oldies station will occasionally still throw an actual Christmas carol onto the playlist.)

So today I went trudging into the lumber yard, December 26, the second day of Christmas – and what do I hear? An old rock song from the 80’s. Not a Christmas carol. Not even a so-called secular Christmas anthem. Nothing Christmassy at all. And it slams home to me once more how the culture really doesn’t get Christmas.

It happens every year, but every year I forget it. Decorations come down swiftly, the stores sweep a few Christmas items onto sales shelves prelude to decking for Valentine’s Day, the radios stop playing Christmas music, even the bland songs that hardly feel like Christmas but at least pay minor lip-service to the time of year. People get back to work, most of them tired from staying up too late, some of them secretly glad the whole crazy holiday time is just “over” for another year. And I want to say “People? Seriously? We’re just getting started!”

There’s a reason there’s a whole Christmas season. The church, in its wisdom, has given us twelve whole wondrous days to celebrate the birth of Jesus – and we pack that calendar full of other celebrations and commemorations while we’re at it. On the 26th (today) we get the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on the 27th we celebrate St. John, the apostle and evangelist, on the 28th we remember the Holy Innocents who died at the hand of Herod. On January 1 we celebrate Holy Name day, remembering the day Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and named (and were met by prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna, who sang and spoke over the holy child). And of course on the 6th, traditionally known as 12th night, it all culminates in Epiphany, when we remember the Wise Men who came from the East, following the star, and how they worshipped the young child who they knew to be the King of the Jews.

It makes such perfect sense that we continue to celebrate the unfolding story – not just of Jesus’ birth and the events that took place in the days and months after it – but the unfolding story of those who would follow after him in years to come. If this birth is what we say it is – the birth that changed everything, the birth of the only one who could come to save and rescue us, the coming of Almighty God into the world of space and time and skin – then everything changes. It’s not something we can sing about and shout about for one day, and then just sweep it all away and go back to business as usual. This birth changes everything.

I wonder sometimes if even people who really don’t have an understanding of the season – who aren’t sure why they celebrate Christmas except that it seems to be a culturally acceptable time to give and receive gifts and go to parties and take time off work (and listen to Christmas themed songs on the radio) – don’t feel the acute disappointment and strangeness of the swiftness of the workaday, everyday world’s return following the celebration. Even in dim culturally bound echoes, the Christmas season can burn so brightly. The festive foods, the time spent with family that you might not see any other time of year, the chance to give help to people who are truly in need, the brightly wrapped gifts, the lights on the trees (or the streetlamps or town gazebos). The scent of evergreen and ginger, plastic nativity scenes on lawns, bright flags flapping on porches, scarlet poinsettia plants gracing front halls.  Even in dim echoes, the celebration can sometimes stun us with beauty and moments of heart-rending heartache, like we’re seeing something out of the corner of our eye that takes our breath and calls us home.

I wonder too if we can’t take a clue from our ordinary, lived experience – the kind of ordinary, everyday, lived experience that God entered and forever hallowed in Jesus – and look at how we celebrate “ordinary” human birth and feel its aftermath. If you’ve ever given birth to a child, or welcomed a child into your family by adoption, you know how it feels in the weeks and months leading up to the grand event. You know the exhaustion and exhilaration of hard labor to bring that child into the world, or the anxious waiting to welcome that little one into your arms. You know that the day that baby is born, or brought home, is one of the most memorable, mountain-top experiences of your life. You could never, ever forget the way it feels. But you also come to know, through days, weeks, months, and years of parenting and learning to be a family, that the day was just the beginning. It stands out like a shining crystal, never to be forgotten, but it was just the beginning, the start of something beautiful and deep, a whole journey of learning to love that little person and make them part of your life.

Would it make sense to give birth to a baby, celebrate the fact giddily and gratefully for twenty-four hours, then say “Wow, that was great! Let’s do it again next year?” and go on living just the way you did before the baby was born, as though the event never happened? To not care for, cherish, and nourish the new life we’ve been given, to enfold that life and its rhythms and the way it shapes us into our ordinary everyday?

Of course not. Nor does it make any sense to prepare for weeks leading up to Christmas, celebrate it in giddy joy for twenty-four hours, then cart all the leftover detritus to the dumpster to workaday music and try to get back to being just who you were before the grand event.

Not if the event means what we say it means. Because every year we celebrate Christ’s birth, his coming into the world, we remind ourselves that because he has come, our lives are forever changed. Because he has come, he still comes – every day, in new ways, in the hearts and lives of those who know him as Savior and Lord. And he is coming again, one day, in great glory and power and majesty, to judge the living and the dead and to make all things brand new. So brand new that even the brightest, most sincerely beautiful and reverent of Christmas celebrations, or even that mountain-top moment you held your precious baby in your arms for the first time – are going to pale in comparison to the amazing glory that will be revealed.

O Come, Let Us Adore Him is not just a call for one day of the year.  Really each Christmas prepares us just a little bit more for the celebration of forever living in his presence. And we’re being prepared not just for a season of love, but an eternity of it. A time when the glorious music that sings his praise will never fade, and the candles that echo his vast and glorious light will never be put out.

Friday, December 27, 2013

St. John the Evangelist

I always love that the feast day of St. John the Evangelist falls on December 27. It seems so wholly (and holy!) fitting that the beloved apostle who wrote most profoundly of the incarnation should be celebrated during the Christmas season.

I spent some time this morning meditating on the prologue to the gospel of John. If you've never read it in The Message (Eugene Peterson's Scripture paraphrase) you might enjoy pondering it afresh that way today. I especially love the lines "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" and "We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift."

1-2 The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
    God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
    in readiness for God from day one.
3-5 Everything was created through him;
    nothing—not one thing!—
    came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out.
6-8 There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.
9-13 The Life-Light was the real thing:
    Every person entering Life
    he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
    the world was there through him,
    and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
    but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
    who believed he was who he claimed
    and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
    their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
    not blood-begotten,
    not flesh-begotten,
    not sex-begotten.
14 The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.
15 John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.”
16-18 We all live off his generous bounty,
        gift after gift after gift.
    We got the basics from Moses,
        and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
    This endless knowing and understanding—
        all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
    No one has ever seen God,
        not so much as a glimpse.
    This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
        who exists at the very heart of the Father,
        has made him plain as day.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How Quietly the Morning Dawns (A Christmas Hymn)

For my annual advent poem this year, I decided to write a Christmas hymn. A blessed, happy, holy Christmas to you and all you love!

How quietly the morning dawns! Gold streams across the sky,
And in the stable Mary sleeps, her baby sleeps nearby.
And Joseph drowses by the door to guard his family dear,
While echoes of angelic song remind them Love’s drawn near.

How quickly did the Light arrive in the middle of the night,
How bright and beautiful the Babe who’s come to give us sight.
We wandered in the cold and dark, all alone and so afraid,
But now we marvel at this child; he’s just as God had said.

The promise spoke by prophets bold in days so long ago,
Kept alive for all these years is now fulfilled in Mary’s son.
We’ve wept and waited, watched and prayed, to see his strength and might;
Now in the still and wakening day, we’re given brand new sight.

Our understanding dawns like gold, like sun across a cloud,
To the weak and poor he humbly came and not unto the proud.
This tiny baby wrapped in rags and slumbering in the morn
Has changed us all and all the world. Rejoice that He is born!

~EMP, Advent 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christina Rossetti: Love Came Down at Christmas

Christina Rossetti is clearly one of my favorite Christmas poets. I was just about to post her poem Christmas Eve, when I realized I did that on this day last year!

So instead I thought I would post this beautiful gem, also by Rossetti.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Many blessings to you and your loved ones this Christmas! 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Pageant Day

Christmas Pageant day has become one of the holiest and most hectic days I know each year. By the time we get through the final rehearsal, I’m usually tired and a tiny bit worried (at least in a small part of me) that something huge and Herdmanesque is going to happen this year. Then God reminds me that he shines everywhere, and gently nudges me about how important it is to laugh a lot while we sojourn on this earth. He also reminds me that…oh yes, he came as a baby and that this story, big and beautiful and profound and life-changing as it is, is a story that little ones can and should enter into wholeheartedly, and that when they enter it, they bring the hearts of the older generation with them into it. And God does amazing things in that mix.

This year was full of its usual crazy beauties, the kinds of moments that make me so thankful that it is our real, human, messy lives that God enters. There was the little girl who sweetly decided she wanted to be Mary, only to realize she was too shy to do it, and another little girl, not quite five and a half, who bravely stepped into the role. There was the little boy who wanted to be a sheep until he saw the older boy dressed as a soldier (we had a scene with the Wise Men and Herod this year). In fact, all the boys pretty much wanted swords and shields so they could be soldiers too. (We let the little one be a smaller soldier, but then he decided what he really wanted to be was a king!) There was the little boy who was so very little that I had to pull his wooly sheep’s costume over his head while he insisted on holding his sippy cup…we normally don’t have kids quite that young in the performance.

There was our almost 9 year old Joseph, who’s very verbal and articulate, coming up to me to say plaintively, “I don’t understand why my part is so important when I don’t even have any lines.” (A sentiment I wonder if the real Joseph might not have understood; his has always seemed like such an important and yet quietly supportive role.) I tried to explain to him how strong Joseph was, and how special since God chose him to care for Mary and the baby. His eyes widened and he said, “well, sometimes I’m strong!”

There was the second announcing angel, who stepped in to take on another speaking role as the king’s scribe (at the last minute, when we realized we didn’t have anyone else to play it). There was my own sweet eleven year old playing the lead announcing angel, skipping with joy and singing “Joy to the World” as she left the shepherd’s field…the only angel who remembered to sing. The sweet girl also did a tremendous job of being my right-hand girl in helping the little ones get ready. She often struggles with the chaos that reigns pre-pageant, as everyone is getting dressed and we’re running last minute lines, but she showed so much grace and maturity this year that it made my heart want to sing too.

There were the shepherds who forgot where to go and kept milling around the manger when it was time for them to leave proclaiming the good news, and who finally wandered on down the aisle forgetting to say anything at all but beaming at the audience as they carried their wrapping paper roll crooks. There was the little girl who played both a rejoicing angel and the innkeeper who was supposed to take pity on tired Mary and lead her to the stable, only she forgot she was supposed to lead her to the stable and just scrabbled over to the manger, reached under it for the baby (not yet born) and plunked him into the hay. Joseph hurriedly rectified that situation, proving once again what an important role he has in this story!

Then there was the eighth grade girl, playing one of the Wise Men, who burst into tears during the opening worship set (we had the kids already dressed and upstairs during the singing that begins the service, as the pageant takes the place of the sermon after the Scripture lessons). I gently led her to the back of the room to ask what was wrong, thinking someone had made her upset or she had a case of nerves, and all she could do was keep crying and tell me, in a precious not fully articulate way, “that the songs just sometimes make me feel sad and funny.” So I just patted her gently on the shoulder and told her that sometimes God uses the songs to move our hearts. I just love the fact that while I was busy thinking about entrances, exits, and line prompts, God was moving hearts in worship.

Another pageant day. Another lesson in holy flexibility, laughter, and grace.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent Reading: Love Came Down

I usually try to post something about my Advent reading each year. I love it when people recommend good books for this season! And here we are in the third week already. I'm later than usual, but I thought I'd share what I'm reading this year and post some links to some of my older recommendations.

This year I'm enjoying the meditations in Love Came Down,  a collection of readings compiled by Christopher L. Webber. An Anglican clergy friend recommended this book, which is subtitled "Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas." It's a good collection, running the gamut of a lot of years (from Hugh Latimer on up to roughly present day) though I keep stumbling over the fact that Lewis isn't in the collection. And while I appreciate that Madeleine L'Engle is, I'm not sure why some other more contemporary Anglicans didn't make the cut.

The compiler has a love for the early and middle years of Anglicanism. So you get Andrewes, Donne, Keble, Pusey, Law, and Taylor, among others. He has a bit of a high church bent (likes Caroline Divines and Oxford Movement)  but does include some "broad church" folks like Maurice and Brooks (and no, he doesn't include Brooks' "O little town of Bethlehem," rather some excerpts from his sermons, surprisingly chew-worthy). He's clearly not fond of evangelicals. So you'll find no Wesleys, either John or Charles -- and how one can include Anglican advent poems and hymnody and not include Charles Wesley, who penned some of the very best, just baffles me. But every collection bears the particular stamp of its collector.

One of the elements that makes this book both rich and challenging is that it really focuses on traditional Advent themes -- namely heaven, hell, the second coming, the "last things." Many Advent books focus almost solely on the first coming of Jesus and forgot some of those other traditional themes. This one delves deep into "last things" for a good bit of the text, then moves into deeper reflection upon the incarnation and nativity especially in the final week of Advent and the Christmas season to follow  (readings begin with November 28 and move up through January 6, Epiphany). 

I'm adding this to my list of previously recommended books for Advent, which include (in no particular order): The Irrational Season, WinterSong, The Vigil, God With Us, and God is in the Manger. I posted here about most of these a few years ago.

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Marmee Through the Window"

I have an essay published at Literary Mama this week. I hope you'll check it out and enjoy my reflections on one of the ways that motherhood has changed my perspective as a reader!

This piece was a real labor of love for me. If you have thoughts to share, I'd love to hear them here. Or you could even post a response to the writing prompt they've put up to accompany the piece.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rudolph Revisited

Last night, we brought out one of our family favorites and watched Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer during dinner. This Rankin and Bass claymation classic premiered on television 49 years ago (yes, folks, gear up – the 50th anniversary of Rudolph draweth nigh) which means it’s been on the planet longer than I have. It still holds up as a delicious bunch of corny, sentimental fun, even when you’ve seen it over and over as every one of us (even our 11 year old) has.

I don’t know what was in our tacos, but all three of us were in a silly, snarky mood as we watched. The end result was that we found ourselves pondering some of these age-old questions. Here they are, in no particular order.

1)      How did they make Rudolph’s nose glow the way they did?
2)      What’s wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys?
3)      Does Rudolph actually know what a dentist is?
4)      Why does Hermy the elf have hair when all the rest of the boy elves don’t?
5)      Did they pattern the tall elf with glasses after Richard Deacon (on the Dick Van Dyke show)?
6)      How did Rudolph know Santa’s name before they’d been formally introduced? Is this an instinctual thing, something that flying reindeer are just born knowing?
7)      Does it occur to NO ONE that Rudolph’s nose might come in handy someday?
8)      When Santa says “too bad, he had a nice take-off too” – does he truly believe that a glowing nose will adversely affect Rudolph’s flying ability?
9)      Is there anyone who doesn’t laugh when Burl Ives quotes Donner as saying “No, this is man’s work!”?
10)  How did a poodle get the job of pulling Yukon Cornelius’ sleigh?
11)  Does Yukon really think he can taste silver and gold? Does he not worry that he will cut his tongue every time he licks his pick-ax?
12)  When Yukon and the Bumble go over the cliff, why can’t Rudolph and his friends see him when they look over? They act like they’ve completely disappeared. If the Bumble bounces, wouldn’t they hit and just bounce back up? (Unless it’s a really, really high drop.)
13)  What is IN the all-purple food that Mrs. Claus feeds Santa, enabling him to gain about a hundred pounds in just a few minutes?
14)  How does Rudolph suddenly learn how to magically control his nose (at the end, when he pulls Santa’s sleigh) when before it seemed to turn on and off without him being able to control it?
15)  Why does Rudolph leave the door open when he sneaks out of the house late at night to go off on his own? Wouldn’t Yukon and Hermy have frozen in that weather?
16)  If King Moonracer flies all over the place looking for toys to bring to his island, why can’t he just zoom over to Christmas Town and ask Santa to help them himself?
17)  Did they create Clarice’s tears out of glue?
18)  And last but not least, at the end when they throw the misfit toys out of Santa’s sleigh, how did the poor bird learn to fly? He was a misfit because he could only swim, not fly. But they don’t give him an umbrella, and one can only imagine the poor creature plummeting to his death.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Glorify the Lord, Ye Snow

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold,
drops of dew and flakes of snow.
Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
(~From the Book of Common Prayer) 

 Wilson“Snowflake” Bentley is one of my artist/scientist heroes. He spent a lifetime paying attention to something hardly anyone else ever paid attention to – snowflakes. (He was also fascinated with other tiny bits of creation, like raindrops and dew.) He spent years developing a technique to photograph snowflakes, in a day and age when that seemed impossibly hard. His creativity and patience seemed to know no bounds.

So when I see something like this article, posted by two of my dear nieces on FB, I find myself smiling with gratitude but also recognition. The work of this photographer, Alexy Kljatov, is beautiful and amazing, and clearly still takes innovation and patience (see his blog post, here, on his photographic techniques) but you realize too how much easier it is using the photographic equipment we have today, and how much he stands on the shoulders of a pioneering giant like Bentley. Perhaps that’s truer than we know for most artistic and scientific endeavor, though we don’t always remember it.

I also smiled over the opening line from the commentator who posted the pictures of Kljatov’s work, calling attention to the “impossibly perfect” design of snowflakes. She writes: “One of the true wonders of the world are snowflakes, tiny designs made of ice that are so individually unique, so detailed, and so spectacular it's hard to comprehend that they happen naturally and aren't pulled from the depths of our own imaginations.”

Uh-huh. Might it not indicate, perhaps, that the depths of our own imaginations, wonderful as they are, are themselves the creation of someone whose imagination is far deeper and vaster than our own? I love that God creates snowflakes, which in our puny understanding don’t need to be so incredibly beautiful (considering their size and transience) and yet just are. They are stunning, unique, intricately pattered. They are clearly exercises in artistic delight. And they appear to “happen naturally” (you’ve got to smile over the hint of casualness the word “happen” evokes) because he has placed this kind of beauty into the very ordinary unfolding fabric of the world. Praise Him!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Moveable Feasts and Holy Flexibility

I think this may have been the longest unintended hiatus I've ever taken from this blog. It's not been for lack of anything to say -- in fact, I've had ideas for probably a dozen posts during the past few weeks. It's just been a very busy season. Illness and travel colored the first part, and a great deal of work has colored the second. Not to mention entry into the wonderful Advent season, always a blessed time!

I was delighted that we got to travel to see family in Virginia for Thanksgiving, another very blessed time. However, it meant that I was without internet access for a few days (not a bad thing in and of itself) including on November 29, what I like to call the Literary Day of Days. Every year I try to celebrate the mutual birthdays of Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle, three amazing writers who have influenced my life in some very deep ways. I find it beautifully serendipitous that they share a birth date. Though I was sorry to not be able to publicly celebrate the trio this year, it felt comforting to know that other people were. There was a lot of celebration around Lewis this year in particular because it was the 50th anniversary of his death (his feast day just a few days before his birthday) and that too felt comforting.

The church, in its wisdom, sometimes moves holy feasts out of practical necessity. I love that -- it reminds me that it's not the date in and of itself that is sacred, but the person or event we celebrate, and that can happen at any time. We can learn a lot from holy flexibility, even with our more "secular" feasts (though the older I get, the less I feel that anything worth celebrating with joy and gratitude to God is secular). I remembered that this year when our typical Thanksgiving plans had to change to accommodate the needs of our aging parents. The sweet girl, who struggles so mightily with change, briefly had a hard time with the notion that things were going to be "different" this year, but in the end, it all worked beautifully. We practiced holy flexibility (you're picturing monks doing yoga now, right?) and I think we were blessed for, by, and through it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

An Hour With C.S. Lewis

Today I got to spend an hour with C.S. Lewis.

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis' passing to greater glory, and it felt fitting to set aside time this week to read some of his words and to pray in thanksgiving for this departed saint who has meant so much in my life and in the life of so many.

O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike; Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Train Station That Suggested Infinity

I love it when books wave to each other across the years.

You know how it goes. You're reading along, and suddenly a sentence or a passage jumps up and rings a bell in your brain. (I'm thinking about those games at fairs where you have to pound with a hammer to propel something up toward the bell. Sometimes it comes close but doesn't quite make it, plummeting back to earth, but sometimes it zooms right up and rings.)

That's what it can feel like when you're reading along and encounter words whose ideas or music somehow triggers the memory of other words you've read before. It's particularly fascinating when you're not on the lookout for it, because you have no idea if these two writers have ever "met." Their respective place and space in time may have made an actual meeting impossible, though sometimes these connections feel so strong you wonder if the second writer knew the first, and if so, how deep the influence goes. Has she read everything writer one ever wrote, so the influence just seeps in naturally? Did she stumble upon this passage one day and have an illuminating flash of how she might one day use it in a story of her own? Is the connection purely coincidental and serendipitous, based on their shared love of certain other writers? Or (and this last mysterious question can make you shiver) is the connection you see there unique to the three of you: these two writers and you, the reader who is building the bridge?

I found myself thinking about all this the other day when I was reading E.M. Forster. I recently finished A Room With a View, my first foray into his work, and moved not long after into Howards End. I'm still learning my way around Forster and never quite know what to expect next. He has an authoritative narrative voice, and sometimes that authorial voice trips into interesting rabbit trails and side fancies.

One of those happens toward the end of chapter 2 in Howards End, when a woman named Margaret is dropping someone off at a train station in London. Forster muses: "Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, and to them, alas! we return..."  He then goes on to muse about the different ethos in each train station, how each one can suggest something different to imaginative sensibilities.

"To Margaret -- I hope that it will not set the reader against her -- the station at King's Cross had always suggested Infinity. Its very situation -- withdrawn a little behind the facile splendors of St. Pancras -- implied a comment on the materialism of life. Those two great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity..."

And suddenly, of course, I'm sitting with Harry Potter and Dumbledore in the misty, empty version of King's Cross to which Harry is transported in Deathly Hallows. I know that train stations as way stations to other worldly experiences are not unique to J.K. Rowling (to make one more jump, one could certainly say that the train in C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian was a gateway to adventure, and that alas! the children had to return from Narnia to the station) but reading this gave me such a pleasurable shiver of recognition. I also have no idea if Rowling ever read the passage. But isn't it delightful? Switch out Margaret's name for Harry's and read it again. "To Harry -- the station at King's Cross had always suggested Infinity."

Kind of makes you wonder if Margaret didn't walk right past platform 9 3/4 on her way home...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Revisiting a Classic: The Practice of the Presence of God

The Practice of the Presence of God is one of those classic works of devotion that I feel I should have read in its entirety...but I'm not sure I ever have. I know I've read it in excerpt, but it's been a while since I've done even that. Still the idea of Brother Lawrence, living his simple, every-day life in a 17th century monastery and practicing his awareness of God's presence while he washes dishes is very appealing to this tired, simple, every-day mom-teacher-writer. So today I thought I would pick it up and start it anew.

The funny thing was, I loved the first page so much, I couldn't get past it. (Okay, today was a busy day...but still...I really felt the need to linger on those opening paragraphs.)

Here's what I especially loved in those first few paragraphs:

  • That he felt his first deep "kindling" of love towards God when contemplating a bare, winter tree and considering how it would soon bloom with flowers and fruit again. This gave him a vision of God's providence and power.
  •  That when he first joined the monastery, he assumed everything about the life would show him his awkwardness and faults and that he'd be making a big sacrifice to enter that kind of life, but God instead gave him years of satisfaction and contentment. (Surprise! How like God to give us joy where we expect difficulty!)
  • That we need to be faithful in times of dryness, insensibility, and "irksomeness in prayer," that our faithfulness in times like those could do much for our growth in love for God. (I love how he just candidly admits to irksome prayer times.)
  • That instead of troubling himself and freaking out (okay, my paraphrase) about how bad people could be and how awful the world was getting, he marveled that, given the power of sin, things weren't worse, he prayed for those who were sinning, and he trusted that God could remedy anything. And after that, he wouldn't trouble himself about those things anymore. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Staying Power of Art

My husband brings home the most interesting books. This week it's Charles M. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time.

You may think you don't know Knight, but if you're at least forty, you probably do -- even if not by name. Knight was the artist/naturalist who, for many years, was the "go-to" guy for artistic renderings of dinosaurs in museums and textbooks.

Although the jury is still out on what dinosaurs looked like/acted like (in recent years, there's been a switch to quicker moving avian-like as opposed to slower moving reptilian-like) it was Knight's imaginative renderings, based on fossil reconstructions and the scholarship of his day, that captured the public imagination for so many years. When I look at the paintings in this book, especially of his T-Rex and Brontosaurus, I harken back to elementary school...and I also think "yup...that's what's dinosaurs look like." Stephen J. Gould is referenced for saying that "although Knight never published original research in scientific journals, he was more influential in shaping our ideas about ancient extinct animals than any paleontologist who ever lived."

I found this buzzing around my brain this morning as I thought again about what I reflected on in my last post ("Feeling and Thinking"). The power of imaginative work that engages our senses as well as our minds is staggering. Work that captures our curiosity, makes us feel or ponder, has real longevity -- in our own lives and in the life of the culture. It's not that creative artists can't be scholarly -- many creative artists are also scholars, or are creating their works of art (paintings, songs, stories) as part of a responsive engagement to scholarship. But it's the stories/poems/songs/paintings that have the staying power, long after the scientific (or theological) journals are set aside.

For evidence of that, one need only turn to an imaginative storyteller like C.S. Lewis whose heart and imagination capturing work has phenomenal staying power. So does J.R.R. Tolkien's. The pictures these writers painted of a world invaded by grace have an ability to raise questions, stir eternal longings, and move people Godward. Their work lives on in a way that the work of academic theologians of the same era -- and there were some good ones -- simply can't. I'm not saying that good, theological scholars aren't necessary; I'm not even saying that either Lewis or Tolkien saw themselves as theologians. But they were actively engaged people of faith who poured their grace-steeped views of the world into their work, with the result that the gospel truth was so intricately and beautifully woven into their stories that people still see it and marvel and respond to the whole big picture (and sometimes without even seeing all the threads). 

One of the reasons I think it's so deeply necessary for Christians to engage in the arts (beyond the sheer joy of doing so, in response to our very creative God!) is that it's storied/poemed/sung/painted truth that has a lasting power in the shaping of the human soul and a lasting influence on the culture.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Feeling and Thinking

“ Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it.” ~Pope Francis
Not long ago, I came across this beautiful quote from Pope Francis. I so resonated with it, and it keeps coming back to me as I contemplate my experience of both music and stories.
It seems to me that our deepest experience of either music or story comes when we fall headfirst, or perhaps heartfirst, inside the world that's been created. We find ourselves in the world of sound and harmony or the world of narrative and poetry, and while there, all we can do is listen, not think outside of the experience. 
When we're inside that subcreated world, listening is what matters. I think many of us have had the literal sense of being so lost (and paradoxically so found) inside a created song or story that it feels like a "coming back" to the outside world when the last note sounds or the final word is read and we close the book. 
Many of the best things we read or listen to do indeed cause us to think, but the thinking comes later, and that kind of more analytical thinking is a distinctly different kind of pleasure than what we experienced in our initial encounter with the work. We might think about the creation of the work itself: how did the composer, the writer, do what he did, and why? What thoughts or experiences inspired a certain bend or turn in the work that we didn't expect?  Frankly, I love doing that kind of thinking, but not everyone does, and I don't think we need to assume that a person who doesn't love it has had any less of a deep experience, though they may respond in a completely different way.
Just a few rambling thoughts this afternoon...more to come another day. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tolkien as Artist (Heraldic Symbols from Middle-earth)

We're continuing our study of imaginary landscapes in the afterschool arts program today. D. has been researching into art inspired by Tolkien – there’s a lot of it – and he’s also had a fascinating book and documentary video that showcase some of Tolkien’s own visual art.

I knew that J.R.R.T. had done maps, other drawings, and water colors. I had even seen a few of them (mostly the ones that appear on the covers of some editions of his books) but I had no idea how many lovely paintings and drawings he did. Not to mention some very fine doodling. As a somewhat prolific doodler myself, I was happy to see some of the interesting designs he created in pen and ink and watercolor.

One of the things that fascinated me most was to see that he had created heraldic devices, symbols for many of the characters and houses in Middle-earth. It doesn’t really surprise me to learn that he did, given the incredible amount of detail that went into the creation of every aspect of his subcreation: language, geography, cartography, legends, music. It makes complete sense that he would have colors and symbols in mind for his characters. But oh, I love them. As someone who likes to play with repeating designs, I find these symbols beautifully winsome. I think they have inspired me to try my hand at some similar symbols and designs for my characters in the Four Princesses.

They're all lovely, but I think this one, for Luthien, is one of my favorites:

(This is taken from the Tolkien Gateway site; as a non-profit, they use the image under fair use laws.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is Writing a Joy, or Is It Work? Yes.

Over the months, I’ve signed up for a few “writer’s pages” at Facebook, primarily because I enjoy the inspirational quotes, occasional writing prompts, and the spirit of camaraderie fostered by hearing other writers talk about writing. Today one of those pages posted this quote by Agatha Christie, which has garnered a number of comments, some in agreement and some not:

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t particularly writing well.”

This is provocative. One responder claimed this was the reason she’d never be a professional writer. Another one said she wants to be a professional but will only ever write what she wants and as long as she loves it. (To which I say, “heh.”)

The problem (if it is a problem) is that, in good Anglican fashion, I both agree and disagree with Christie’s words, which means I both agree and disagree with the responders.

There is a very real sense in which being a professional – at anything, writing included – means showing up day and after day and doing the job. That includes days you don’t feel like doing it. And if you’re going to do something as mundane as, say, earn an income from writing, then you will likely be tackling some writing assignments that you would never touch unless someone said to you “we need this by Friday…can you do it?”

It’s what Jane Yolen helpful refers to as the B.I.C. approach to writing: “butt in chair.” There are days, quite frankly, when I would like to be elsewhere, doing something else, but I stick to the chair as though duct taped there because the work needs to be done.

Of course – and here’s the flip-side, folks – why would I be doing that if I didn’t want to write in the first place? There are a lot of other things I could be doing, but I choose to do *this,* even on the days when it’s hard or boring or lonely or not going well, because quite frankly I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even when I am not in the chair, I am thinking like a writer, processing like a writer, responding to life like a writer, working on projects in my head (whether that’s mentally mapping out a lead for a book review in the shower, planning a blog post while I cook, or having an inner conversation with one of my fictional characters while I fold laundry).

Not coincidentally, the Jane Yolen “B.I.C.” approach is one that she expounds in her lovely book titled Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. Clearly Yolen, a highly prolific writer, sees no contradiction between saying that she loves writing and writes for the joy of it and that she needs a pragmatic/dutiful/persevering approach to writing sometimes. In fact, one might say that it’s the joy of the thing – the sheer enjoyment of finding the right word, of putting words together into phrases and sentences and paragraphs and stories – that keeps you in the chair (and keeps you from pulling out your hair) on certain days.

Even on the writing projects you really love, that you do not because they’re assigned or because anyone has promised you any recompense, you’re going to have times when you despair that the writing will ever be what you want it to be. Do you quit then? Well, sometimes. But if you’re a professional, you don’t quit for long stretches. You quit to go walk the dog or check the casserole in the oven or answer an email or read a book to your child or watch an episode of Sherlock or eat some ice cream. But you don’t quit forever. You go back to the page that day or that night or the next day, because you’re a writer…and writing is what you love to do.

Loving to write, however, doesn’t always mean that it’s going to be easy. I think this is where our culture tends to trip up with the whole idea of love and work or duty – seeing them as diametrically opposed when they’re really not. We say “I’m only going to do something if I really love doing it!” when what we really mean is “I’m only going to do it as long as it’s fun and feels easy and doesn’t take too much time or inconvenience my schedule.” It’s only when you really love to do something that you make room for it in your life even when it’s not easy, when you commit to doing it even when it’s difficult or when you aren’t doing it as well as you’d like to but still feel called to keep at it.

So the answer to “is writing hard work?” is a resounding yes, but that yes will feel much easier and more life-giving if your answer to “is writing a joy?” is a yes that reverberates even more loudly.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

No Joy In Mudville

In honor of the Pirates (and their great season though heart-breaking loss last night) the sweet girl and I enjoyed reading "Casey at the Bat" this afternoon. I gave it my most rousing rendition. Is there any better anti-climax to a narrative poem than this?

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

You can read the whole poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer here, at poets.org 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Re-Reading Sayers: Strong Poison

It's been a re-reading kind of week. I don't always know what gives me the re-reading bug, but I suspect it has something to do with busyness. When life is feeling full to overflowing, it's especially wonderful to go to the bookshelf and pull down an old friend.

This week the old friend happened to be Strong Poison, the first of the Wimsey/Vane novels by Dorothy Sayers. I am a big fan of Lord Peter's, but especially in the season where he gets to know and love Harriet.

It had been five years since I last visited this novel, and though I'd not forgotten the solution to the mystery, I had fun remembering how Sayers guides Peter...and her readers...to the very end. What I had almost forgotten was how delightfully funny certain passages are. As Lord Peter might say, "I'm frightfully fond and all that" of Miss Climpson, despite her annoying habit of speaking in italics. Despite the irritation, there's something endearing about it, you know! I found myself giggling over the passage where Miss Climpson turns sleuth and inwardly debates the pros and cons of pursuing the woman she's following (per Peter's instructions) into a shoe store. Such a dilemma...on the one hand, an opportunity to sit next to your unsuspecting quarry and strike up a conversation while you're both trying on shoes, and on the other hand, courting the possibility that the person you're pursuing may slip outside while you're shoeless, or even worse, in the "amphibious" condition of one shoe on/one shoe off.

It's wink and nudge moments like that keep Sayers books so lively. She is not always the best mystery plotter, though I like the plot of this one, and her novels sometimes struggle a bit with pacing (I noticed that again this time out) but it's difficult to care because she's having so much fun. The fun she felt while writing is infectious. Peter seems to feel it, and so do we.

Harriet is hardly a shadow in this one, not at all the full-blown character she'll become in later books. We see her only a handful of times, either in the dock on trial for her life, or in prison when Peter goes to see her. His immediate attraction to her would probably have been even more off-putting if Harriet hadn't been so tense and worried about the trial. As I said in my review of the book five years ago:

But in spite of this very strange beginning to their relationship, we readers can tell that Harriet soon realizes there's more to Lord Peter than meets to eye. Something about this wealthy, light-hearted aristocratic man-with-the-monocle inspires trust. It may be his brain (which is quite good at figuring out knotty problems that stump the police) or it might be his kind heart. It might be the way his sometimes brash bravado clashes with his child-like vulnerability. 

I still stand by that, and the rest of the review too, though I confess it's hard not to let the other Peter/Harriet books color one's sensibility when re-reading these early ones. Maybe that's not a bad thing. In fact, it just might be time to re-read Have His Carcase....

Related post, if you're so inclined: "Oh What a Lovely Gaudy Night," a reflection from 2009 in which I explored some of the wonderful ways in which Sayers deepened Harriet's character as the books progressed.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Seven Year Shoes: Gratitude and Simplicity

My all-weather mocs have finally worn out! I figured out how old they are by revisiting a post I remembered writing about them (and about the blessing of sister love and gifts) back in 2006.

There is something really satisfying in actually wearing out a pair of shoes, especially when they are good quality shoes that have seen a ton of walking wear. I remember, back in my younger years, feeling sort of in awe of Richard Foster's chapter on the spiritual discipline of simplicity where he talked about wearing out clothes. In my youth, I couldn't quite fathom that. In the past decade and a half, I have not only learned it can be done, I've made a practice of doing it. Granted, I've mostly come to this from the practical fact that we can't afford many clothes, and since I am a) not working outside the house and b) not growing anymore (unless unintentionally because of weight gain, alas) I am the one in our household who can get by with fewer things. But sometimes practical considerations and choices, when they become habits over time, can work their way into our hearts and help us learn and grow. Like the practice of writing and sending a poem to friends during the Advent season, or the practice of cooking mostly meatless meals.

The whole conversation around spiritual disciplines and daily choices can take time to work out in your heart, I think. The sweet girl and I were talking recently about why I first became a vegetarian many years ago (I'm no longer a full vegetarian, but only eat poultry and fish, not red meat or pork). I had a lot of reasons, but one of them was to eat lower on the food chain, partly out of solidarity with hungry people. That's a hard one to explain sometimes, because my eating less will not help anyone eat more -- just as my wearing my clothes longer (not getting hung up on fashion, and wearing things till they wear out) will not clothe anyone who needs clothes. I think it's why we need disciplines of engagement (like works of mercy -- feeding the poor, providing clothes to those in need) along with disciplines of dis-engagement and self-denial.

Any time we learn to do without -- especially if we let it draw us closer to God and to our fellow human beings -- there can be blessings. Doing without, or simplifying, in and of itself, is not necessarily virtuous. You can do without and possess a spirit of envy and discontent or anger. Or you can do without and feel pride in the doing without. We're really good at falling into sin either way, we human beings, even when we're trying our hardest not to. But doing without can also be a window and a place of grace.

It's not always easy. I am super, incredibly thankful for the generous gifts that helped us to get our car fixed recently. Not having a reliable car for two months, while doable, was plain hard. Our family has been there before, and likely will be again, and while I am so grateful for God's provision, I'm also grateful for lessons we learned while walking and riding buses. I'm proud of how my daughter, whose struggles with OCD and anxiety make it very hard for her to embrace change and deal with brokenness, dealt with those two months that were filled with other challenges at the same time.

I'm also learning newfound thankfulness for the people I see all around me who see situations of hardship and choose to walk right into them and do what can be done with love. I think of two dear friends making a difference with a homeless shelter ministry two hours north of me, and a woman in our church, in ministry in the town across the river, who is gathering formula and gift certificates for moms who can't get WIC during the government shut-down. I think of people who will never know how their incredibly timed gifts have sometimes literally fed and clothed my family.

It's so awesome when we become hands and feet for each other in the body of Christ. And it's funny how just looking at a worn out pair of shoes can sometimes be cause for doxology.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Books! Books! And More Books....

I’m missing book reviews. Not reading them, but writing them.

The platform where I’ve been a regular, active reviewer for over a decade is currently in a state of huge flux. At the moment, it’s unclear whether or not the site issues will resolve so that book reviewers can remain viable contributors to the site. I’m sad over this for several reasons, one being that I do earn a small amount of consistent income from reviewing for the site each month, and another being that I’ve met some wonderful people through the site and would miss the camaraderie and community there if I had to step away completely.

But the strangest thing of all right now is not having this one niche to place book reviews – a niche I’ve relied on since the sweet girl (now eleven years old) was a baby. In that time I’ve averaged between 2-3 reviews per week, most of them books. I had not realized how engrained the review writing habit had become until the past couple of weeks, when I’ve not been able to post reviews of several books I’ve read and enjoyed. Granted, I could write and post elsewhere – like here – but I would miss the larger readership I have there, and the sense that I’m building something that’s connected to a community and not just me.

So what books have I read lately that I’m wanting to talk about?

In children’s books, the sweet girl and I just recently finished a “team read” of an amazing book called Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. After searching for ages for mid-grade resources on the moon landing and never feeling entirely satisfied, I felt like we hit the jackpot with this gorgeous picture book. Well, it’s picture book sized, but stuffed with text as well as photos. Written by Catherine Thimmesh, Team Moon stuns you with beauty and fascinates you with “behind the scenes” information about the moon landing. Despite the fact that the Apollo 11 mission was 44 years ago, Thimmesh manages to build suspense into the telling. She also shares about a number of people, beyond the three astronauts, who had a large share in getting them there.

Also in children’s books, I’ve discovered a delightfully wacky mystery series for mid-grade readers. I’m not sure how many Wilma Tenderfoot books there are, but having just laughed my way through the first, I hope there are a lot more. The book has a winking, all-knowing narrator and a terrific way of spoofing both orphan tales and detective stories. It managed to make me think of Harry Potter, Unfortunate Events, the Benedict Society, and Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and Saturday morning cartoons. Not to mention orphan girl Wilma (who so wants to become a detective) has a delightful sidekick in a beagle named Pickle. This series is by British author Emma Kennedy.

In books for grown-ups (I do still read those!) I’ve discovered a new mystery series I’m enjoying. The author is Christobel Kent, and the novels, which feature her private investigator Sandro Cellini, are set in and around Florence, Italy. Italy has become something of a fascination for me in recent weeks as we’ve made it our first geography study this year in school. Among other things, that’s meant that we’ve watched some good travel documentaries (yay, Rick Steves!) which have given me great visuals to keep in mind as I read. I’m not sure what I’m enjoying most about the series: Kent’s atmospheric writing, her lovable detective Cellini, or the great descriptions of Italy, but the combination of all those things definitely makes these books worth reading. The mystery plots are also strong, always a plus in these days where great characters and settings abound but writers tend to clunk their way through clich├ęd mystery plots. Not the case here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Downton Abbey: Seven Reasons We'll Miss Matthew Crawley

We’ve just finished watching the third series of Downton Abbey. We’ve got months to go before we can see the fourth series (just now airing in the UK; not to air in the US till January, and even later for the DVD release we’ll need to wait for) so I figure that gives me plenty of time to muse about characters we’ll miss.

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you no doubt know that actor Dan Stevens, who has played Matthew Crawley for the first three series, decided not to renew his contract for the fourth season. I can only imagine the headache this caused series creator and writer Julian Fellowes, who somehow had to negotiate series 3 knowing what he was going to have to do at the end of it, and how unhappy that was going to make the show’s many fans. If you don’t know precisely what happened at the end of series 3 and you don’t want to be spoiled, read no further. From here out, if you’re still reading, I’ll assume you know or don’t mind knowing.

My goodness, we’re going to miss Matthew. In trying to figure out why I felt so terribly disappointed and saddened by his exit, I realized it wasn’t just that he was a likable character who had been at the heart of the show since the beginning. His character and his character arc were tied up in many things. Here are seven reasons I think we’ll especially miss Matthew Crawley:

1)      The romantic chemistry he shared with Mary.  These two really did have chemistry, but it was more than chemistry that made their love for each other seem so luminous. Matthew brought out the best in Mary. Simply put, he knew how to melt the porcupine prickles around her heart. In series three, after they finally came together and wed (following plenty of ups and downs in the first two series) there was something especially sweet about the ways they realized they were good for each other. More than once, Mary alluded to the fact that Matthew was the only person who truly saw her as a good person, and more than once, Matthew alluded to the fact that it was because he knew her best – helping her gently understand that the person he saw and loved was who Mary really was deep-down. I hope that Mary’s unfolding understanding of herself will continue as she matures through grief and motherhood. I also hope she will remember the laughter and kindness she shared with Matthew and maybe try to share them more with others.

2)      The levity he brought to the table. Sometimes quite literally the table – that all-important gathering place for the aristocratic Crawley clan. Matthew was able to use his outsider status to help them thaw out a bit, but more than that, he had a sprightly way of laughing at himself and others that lightened up the family. A raised eyebrow, a slight smile, a self-deprecating remark – those were Matthew’s usual trademarks. There was one scene in an episode of series 3 that made me laugh aloud, when Matthew, alone with Mary in their room, dropped onto the bed with loud sigh over some bit of charged aristocratic drama that had just unfolded downstairs. Mary was sitting primly before her mirror, touching up her hair, and here’s Matthew flopping onto the bed like a fish, letting out a gusty sigh. It cracked me up.

3)      His partnership with Robert and Tom.  This was just starting to coalesce and I will miss seeing its development. Robert (the Earl of Grantham) has had such a hard time coming to grips with the need to modernize the management of the estate. He had come to a grudging acceptance of the fact that he needed to work with the newer generation and their ideas – his two young sons-in-law. Matthew’s outsider status, as the distant solicitor cousin set to inherit, seemed dwarfed by Tom’s outsider status as Irish nationalist chauffeur who dared to marry the Earl’s youngest daughter, but nevertheless, neither grew up an English aristocrat. That grudging acceptance was turning into real respect for what each young man could bring to the partnership.

Robert’s eye-opening conversation with his Scottish cousin Shrimpy, whom he discovered (in the final episode of series 3) was losing his estate due to mismanagement and a lack of courage regarding modernizing, was interestingly timed. I’m glad we had a chance to hear Robert tell Cora how much he had come to appreciate Matthew’s contributions, but I’m sad he never had a chance to tell Matthew himself. And I’m really curious to know how Robert and Tom will work together without Matthew there to act as the gracious but stubborn buffer between them. Once again, Matthew was really good at seeing the best in people – in his old-fashioned, sometimes stuck-in-his-ways father-in-law, and in his hotheaded, still often uncomfortable-in-this-world brother-in-law. They will miss him sorely. I have some ideas how I would move this scenario forward as a writer, but I have no idea where the writer will actually go.

4)      His long-awaited and newfound joy in fatherhood. Matthew was so excited to become a daddy at long last. He radiated that joy. It is heartbreaking that he only ever saw his child one time, and that he will not be there to see his son grow up.

5)      His close relationship to his mother. Poor Isobel. She tends to get a little overlooked amidst all the flashier characters on the show, but I really love Isobel. And one thing I know for sure is how much Isobel loved and respected her only son. She helped him navigate the unexpected inheritance by moving with him into a world that she isn’t entirely comfortable in herself, and she’s not let that world change who she is at the core, continuing on her outspoken, forthright way. I worry about how Isobel will navigate her own grief over Matthew’s passing…most likely, she will stuff it. Then again, this could be an opportunity for the writers to let her character really grow. Is it possible she might rethink Dr. Clarkson’s almost-proposal? And how will she and Mary relate now that Matthew is gone…how much will Isobel want to be involved in her grandson’s upbringing?

6)      His encouragement of Edith. This one feels tiny in comparison to the others, but I’ll still miss it. Matthew has been a stalwart champion and a real confidante for Edith. (Among other things, I’m pretty sure he was the only member of the family who knows that Edith is in love with a married man with a mad wife in the attic. OK, not the attic, but you get what I mean.) Edith doesn’t get close to many people, but Matthew was someone she really trusted.

7)      The way his presence on the show constantly reminded us of the story’s beginnings. It was the sinking of the Titanic, with the heir on board, that drove Matthew to Downton in the very first episode, and it was his coming that “unsettled” this aristocratic little hamlet from the start. You could say that Matthew dropping into their lives was like a rock thrown into a puddle, and the ripples have been moving out ever since. I’ll miss seeing those ripples continue to expand, and I’ll miss the ways the show might have been able to do some neat “full-circle” kind of writing if he’d stayed with it.

And I could have added an eighth: he can’t come back. I really wonder, did his exit have to be so entirely final? Could they not have talked the actor into the possibility of occasional appearances and worked creatively around the absences? Maybe not, but oh, I wish they’d tried.