Monday, February 25, 2013

Watching the Boats (an original poem)

Monet's Les Barques
Where clouds end and boats begin
I cannot tell.
I only feel the gentle swaying swell
of the waves beneath my feet
and hear the billowed sails that snap
like sheets on a line. Are there eight?
Maybe nine? I start to count
but am lost in delight as the wind-capped waves
meet blue sky bright. Spume, clouds, sails –
soft as cotton or down, the sky in a bowl
and the world upside down and the wind
rushing free and the bend of dark trees and
the roofs of red tiles and the sense of good
miles still before me today.
I don’t know what to say.

~EMP, 2/25/13 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When Words Just "Click": Fun Today With Visual Latin

The sweet girl has been working through Lesson 17 of Visual Latin this week. In the reading/translation section of the lesson, she's up to the story of Noah and the ark. VL uses an adapted version of the Vulgate for these sections.

As part of the "immersion" approach, the Visual Latin teacher, Dwane Thomas, first reads the passage aloud while the student just listens. Then he reads it again, more slowly, pausing between sentences or phrases, while the student repeats it after him. (The words are written on the screen each time too.) Then the student works through the same passage to translate it, with any new vocabulary for the week listed at the end of the passage.

This means that by the time the student actually has the passage in front of them to translate, they've already heard all the words twice and said them once. Sometimes it's fun to see the brow wrinkling that can go on when the sweet girl is listening to a passage and a word she hasn't heard before pops up. I saw that today when the teacher read: "Signum est arcus. Nimbi sunt in caelo. Arcus quoquo in caelo est."

She knew the word "arca" from last week, and from earlier in today's passage. She knew it meant ark. But "arcus" -- close to arca, and yet so far -- was a brand new word. The brow definitely wrinkled when he read "Arcus quoque in caelo est," because if you translated "arcus" as "ark," it would read, "The ark is also in the sky."

Sure enough, when she got to that part of the passage, she wasn't quite sure what to do. I pointed out that "arcus" was a different word than "arca" and told her to go to her new vocabulary sheet. Light dawned as she realized that "arcus" can mean "bow, arch, or rainbow."

"Oh!" she said, "I get it! The RAINBOW is also in the sky. Not the ark. I was wondering. I was thinking maybe it was talking about when the ark landed on the mountain!"

We had a good laugh, and then a fun marvel over the closeness of the words. It had never fully dawned on either of us that the rainbow "arch" in the sky is really the inverted shape of the "ark" in the water.

Don't you love it when you learn new things about words, and when words just suddenly "click"?

Monday, February 18, 2013

More Than a Puritan Valentine: Remembering Anne Bradstreet

In honor of Valentine’s Day, a couple of friends posted a funny meme. It had to do with “Puritan Valentines” and showed a series of cards designed as though written by Puritans, things along the lines of “Roses are red, violets are blue, and both of those things are completely frivolous and useless.” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)

I’m all for a little good-natured snark on Valentine’s Day – I had another friend post something about how strange it is we honor St. Valentine the martyr by buying chocolates – but giggling over Puritan Valentines, I suddenly remembered Anne Bradstreet’s touching love poem to her husband.

Why don’t we remember Anne Bradstreet more often?

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was a Puritan and a poet. She was also a dedicated wife and mother to eight children.

Her’s was “an authentic Puritan voice” and she was also “the first notable poet in American literature” ~ to quote what I think of as the liner notes in my Norton American Literature anthology.

Stop and ponder the coolness of that for a moment. “The first notable poet in American literature” was not a wealthy, elite, highly educated man making his living as a writer of literature, but a relatively well-educated Puritan woman who got married at 16, shipped out to the Massachusetts Bay Colony at 18, and spent many years reading and writing in the crevices of a pioneering farm life while she raised eight children.

Stop also to consider that she was a pioneer 230 years before the Ingalls family headed west, and that she lamented “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits” more than 150 years before Jane Austen had Captain Wentworth drop his pen in Persuasion, right before Anne Elliot declared that “…Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story…the pen has been in their hands…”

What I like about Bradstreet is that she built her poems out of the real pieces of her life. She writes about giving birth and about watching her children grow up and fly away from the nest. She writes about her love for her husband and how much she misses him when he has to travel. Yes, she writes love poems – less sentimental than Valentines, more true to the kinds of daily loving and living we all know. One of my favorite lines comes in the poem where she’s missing her husband while he’s away (he was a magistrate and often traveled on business) and misses him most poignantly when she looks around the house at her children and notices they are “true living pictures of their father’s face.” She concludes that poem simply but eloquently: “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,/I here, thou there, yet both but one.”

She also writes movingly of sadness and hardship. The poems that mark hard events are especially touching. She often includes important dates in the title, so you feel as though you’re getting a peek into her diary. “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased August, 1665, Being a Year and a Half Old” is the title of one, and “Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666” is another. That was clearly a very hard year. In that last poem, she spends several stanzas lamenting the loss of their house, which lies in smoldering ruins she vividly recreates in words. The she turns her words to prayers and gratitude, remembering she has a more permanent home “on high erect/Framed by that mighty Architect…”  She then added this wonderfully real and homey detail to her theology: “It’s purchased and paid for too/By Him who hath enough to do.” 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Giving Up & Embracing: Lenten Spiritual Disciplines

I wrote this post on Sunday. Then I almost decided not to post it at all, partly because I felt a little shy about sharing something this honest about my shortcomings. It also may seem a little wacky. But then I thought, what better time of year than Lent to post something this wackily honest? So here it is...


I had what I think is a God-given spiritual insight today. It sounds simple, but it’s something I think I need to grasp and hold onto tightly with both hands. It’s simply this: the enemy can’t defeat us on ground we haven’t ceded.

I was having a deep spiritual struggle this afternoon. I had been fighting a deep sense of failure for much of the afternoon – failure as a mom, a wife, a friend, a provider, a nurturer, a writer. You name it, if it was part of my vocation, I felt like I was totally failing in it. Mostly especially I was feeling, very deeply, failures in the first three categories – all the relational ones.

Then I had a fight with my ten year old about her messy room. I reacted impatiently and angrily to small things, mostly because I was letting everything she did and said play into that terrible pit of failure I was living out of. Of course she didn’t want to clean her room – not because she was a normal ten year old, but because I had failed as a parent to instill in her a sense of discipline. That’s the kind of beating I was letting myself take inwardly. (And while I’m not saying there’s not a lot of truth to the fact that I need to teach and model a whole better than I’m doing, I don’t think God wants me to feel browbeaten and defeated about the challenge.)

The hits just kept coming. My husband and daughter left to spend some time together, and I found myself cleaning the messy house and feeling ferociously a failure at every turn. Even housekeeping. Even this. Even that.

It was at my lowest ebb that I finally realized I was getting beat up. So I started to fight back. I don’t often shake my fist at the enemy the way Luther did, but today, I needed to. So I did. I started telling the enemy, in the name of Jesus, that he could take a hike. I told him that he could not tell me I wasn’t good enough, because I don’t need to be good enough, I only need to hold onto God’s grace and righteousness. I told him that he couldn’t slam me for the amount of spiritual growth there might or might not be in my daughter’s life, because I’m not ultimately responsible for that growth – I am a seed planter and waterer, and only God can make things grow. I told him he couldn’t slam me for not being beautiful, because God has made me beautiful. I told him he couldn’t get me to give into anxiety, because I was casting my cares on God. I told him he couldn’t trip me up by making me ungrateful about my life, because I was choosing to be grateful.

All that time, I was cleaning and organizing. We’ve had a broken dryer for a long time, but even before dealing with laundromats, we were dealing with a dryer that ran too hot, and it kept shrinking our sheets. We haven’t been able to afford really good sheets in a long time, and there’s something about not wanting to spend money on good ones that you know are going to shrink or scorch anyway. But having sheets that don’t fit well and slip off the mattress really bugs my husband. It bugs me too, but it’s a real nuisance for him. He finally gave in the other day and bought a new fitted sheet on sale. It’s not the best quality, but it’s a new sheet, and I was wrestling to put it on and realizing that we really need a new top sheet too. I ended up putting on a top sheet from a pile of sheets we got from my mother-in-law, only they’re not quite big enough.

All the time I’m dealing with making the bed, the enemy – that terrible sneak – starts pushing and prodding at me to get mad about the sheets. He’s trying to trip me up on something so small that I don’t even notice. I’m starting to grumble and growl about the sheets and how tired I am of having sheets that aren’t soft and don’t fit or sheets that have scorch marks. Seriously. Sheets. And then – are you ready for this? – he brings to mind some sheets I slept on a couple of years ago, when visiting my older sister. They were gorgeous sheets. Seriously. Soft and satiny and fresh smelling and just lovely in every way, and I remember slipping under them and feeling just amazed that sheets could ever feel that way. And the stupid enemy – you know what he’s doing? He’s trying to get me to fall into envy OVER SHEETS.

I know this is weird, but I’m explaining it in such detail because of what it led me to. As I’m falling under the onrushing bus of envy, it suddenly hits me – I DON’T HAVE TO. I took this ground back from the enemy a long time ago. When we made the decision to stay here, to embrace a life of ministry and mission and homeschooling, we embraced simplicity. That was the discipline of engagement. We also, at the same time, renounced certain material things and the dreams of other material things, like having a house. That’s the discipline of letting go. I told the enemy – you know what, you can’t get me here either. Because I let go of my need for nice sheets a long time ago. Because I can be grateful for the few nights I had sleeping with nice ones at my sister’s. Because there are people in this world who have no sheets, or blankets, or beds. Sorry, buster, but there’s no playing field here. You lose again.

And it’s true. Of course, the fact that he could still make headway shows that I’ve still got some sheet envy in me. (Go ahead. Laugh. It’s good for the soul.) But it also shows what a pathetic attack strategy he really has. And most of all, it showed me anew the importance of those disciplines of relinquishment and engagement. We may think those are small moves we make, the little things we willingly (or not so willingly) give up, but they matter. They matter to our soul’s health. And when we willingly put ourselves in the love of the Father, who truly knows our needs, and daily give up and daily embrace what he asks, he will use those little relinquishments and embraces to make us stronger and more stable when attacks – paltry or big – come, as they surely will. When we find ourselves in a place of anger or sadness or despair or self-pity, that’s when the enemy sometimes tries to trip us up on the small stuff, the old stuff. But you know what? He can’t if we won’t play.

The enemy cannot defeat us on ground we haven’t ceded.

And if we find ourselves ceding it again? In the name of Jesus, who hallowed that ground, we can step boldly forward and take it back.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Favorite Books of 2012: A Sweet Year

January rushed past me, murmuring "Excuse me, February coming through..."  Feeling winter dig its cold elbow into my ribs, it dawned on me that somehow I have not yet posted my list of favorite books from last year.

For the past few years, I've done a lengthy list with numerous categories. This year it's going to be shorter and sweeter. I changed my cataloging system part-way through the year, which made coming up with the list more challenging than usual. More than that, however, is the simple fact that last year had so many prolonged seasons of tiredness and stress that my reading was not as wide and deep as usual.

Yes, you heard it here. 2012 was the year of fluff reading. Not entirely, of course, and I'm not sure it was a bad thing -- but I mostly read to be refreshed and to have my heart lightened. I usually like to mix up my reading "pace," but last year I did almost no heavy lifting.

Still, I've got a number of books and authors I'd love to recommend, so sit back and enjoy this year's short, sweet, fluffy little edition.

If 2012 was especially marked by one writer for me, that writer was Deborah Crombie. I had never even heard of her until about a year ago when I came across a review of her latest mystery novel. The review was sparse, but there was enough in it to intrigue me, and I went hunting for the beginning of the series. Once I got acquainted with her detectives, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, I couldn't seem to stop. In fact, I read through the entire 14 books of her canon last year -- and am feeling so excited to know that #15 will be published this month. I've got it on hold already!

I especially love the heart and intelligence of Crombie's books. Her mystery plots are always layered and well carried out, but it's the depth of her characters, both main and secondary, that I find especially inviting. I've reviewed all 14 books; if you click here, it will take you to my review of the last novel, No Mark Upon Her, which includes active links to my reviews of all the earlier titles in the series.

Finding Crombie's work was a delight this year, but I also fell pretty hard for the mysteries of P.D. James, though in a different way. While I don't think you can call mystery reading heavy lifting, with James, it comes close. She writes in a very dense prose style and really makes you work for your fun. If some mysteries could be considered marshmallow fluff in the world of literary s'mores, P.D. James books are the rich, dark, quality chocolate. Her Dalgliesh books generally have a somewhat intense, somber tone, which often means I need time in between them (usually time to read more Crombie, who gives me a delicious graham cracker crunch). James did surprise me with a lighter sense of humor in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I'm only up to the Dalgliesh books published in the later 1970s now, so I've got a long way to go...and I think I will enjoy parceling them out slowly.

I enjoyed some biographies this year, but probably none more than the one I read in the final days of December, Leonard S. Marcus' new mosaic work on Madeleine L'Engle. Listening for Madeleine does what its subtitle promises and creates a portrait in "many voices."

My favorite history read this year was Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War.

My favorite book on writing was Jane Yolen's Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft.

One of the books that both intrigued me the most and made me laugh was Quinn Cummings' The Year of Learning Dangerously. I found this comical but informative memoir of a first year in homeschooling quite provocative.

In the literary memoir and travel category, another book that made me ponder as well as laugh was the delightful All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith. Not at all what you'd expect -- it's a good book on Austen, but an even better book on cross-cultural learning.

The "new to me" mid-grade books I enjoyed the most this year? Melissa Wiley's The Prairie Thief and Hope Larson's graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time. I loved introducing the sweet girl to the original A Wrinkle in Time this year -- and I also loved reading Little Women to her for the first time.

Other books worth mentioning this year include Lauren Winner's spiritual memoir Still, and Gary D. Schmidt's mid-grade/YA fantasy What Came From the Stars. Oh, and I also really enjoyed Matt Phelan's Around the World, a mid-grade/YA graphic novel about three late 19th century journeys around the world.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Third Annual Crocus Poem

For the past two years, I've marked my first sighting of crocuses with a tiny poem. Our afternoon walk yielded this year's first sighting of a clump of purple beauties. So here is this year's small poetic celebration!

The sun threw a party
for my winter-tired eyes.
Thirty-one crocuses popped
up and yelled "surprise!"

~EMP, 2/7/13