Saturday, August 31, 2013

Learning to Live Without a Car (and Within Limitations)

It’s been several years since our family has gone for such an extended period of time without a car. While a car is not an absolute necessity (as we’re learning once again) given our culture and location, having one sure does make life a lot easier. Here are some of the things I’ve been re-learning as we cope with being without a vehicle again.

1)      Realize that public transportation is a blessing – and it also has real limitations. Think of this the next time you see people waiting at a bus stop in broiling 90 degree heat or a freezing cold rain. When you take public transportation, you have the following blessings: someone else gets you where you need to go while you read, think, or people-watch. But you must work your life around the schedule of pick-ups and drop-offs. That means being on time to catch things (hurry! hurry!) or dawdling somewhere while you have an extended wait for the next one, no matter what the weather. Every errand you run will take longer when you factor in stops, waits, and transfers. And some places are nigh onto impossible to get to on public transportation, or will require a good bit of walking even when you take buses. Which leads me to #2….

2)      Be humble enough to ask for rides or to borrow a car. On occasion, something you need to do will be important enough that you can’t drop it from your schedule even if it’s impossible to get there via a bus or buses. The sweet girl’s psychologist appointments fall in these parameters for us right now. She is making great progress with her anxiety issues and those regularly scheduled meetings are important to her (and our) health and well-being. We literally feel we can’t drop them from our schedule. But we can’t easily get there in any way, shape or form without a car. God has blessed us with a neighbor who has allowed us to borrow her’s each week. Which leads me to #3…

3)      Consolidate your errands. If you only have a car for a couple of hours a week, you begin to think long and hard about what you can do with it while you have it. It doesn’t really matter if your schedule is inconvenienced, you may need to use that brief window of time to pick up something at a store you can’t easily get to any other way. Which leads me to #4…

4)      Get creative about meal-planning. Meal-planning is highly affected by what stores you can access.  We had grown used to shopping at a handful of stores each week/month to get the best deals we could for our meager food budget. Sometimes when you don’t have a car, that’s not possible. You make the best choices you can make given what you have in front of you. That may mean buying brands you don’t prefer, either generics that may or may not be the quality you’d like or sometimes buying name-brands for higher-prices because that’s what a store has. You will get creative, I promise you. You will discover that you can meal plan around grocery aisles you hardly used before in the one store that you can get to easily. You will discover new impetus to cook more from scratch – a good thing, but sometimes time consuming. (Again, don’t be afraid to take time. Our culture is so enamored of speed. You’ve got to step outside that mind-set because speed can’t be a priority.) And a side note here: the next time you’re tempted to think critical thoughts about someone who is poor who seems to be making less than optimum choices about how to spend their money or what to eat, remember that sometimes their choices are more limited than your choices. People can only do what they can do given what they can access.

5)      Be aware you’re going to get into good shape. We’re walking more than we’ve walked in months just to get where we need to go. The store, the bank, the post office, our church. Some of those we walk to a lot anyway, but not all the time, which has become necessary. Sometimes you will walk those places carrying heavy bags. Invest in good canvas bags. Be prepared for neck and shoulder aches. D and I have been realizing we’re not even in as good a shape as we thought we were (and we didn’t think we were that great). My legs and ankles feel perpetually tired right now. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just something to get used to in the new normal.

6)      Decide what hills you want to die on. For instance, in our family, we use the public library two towns over a lot…for pleasure, for homeschool, for teaching and writing research, for after school program planning. We get a lot of books, some of them big and heavy. Guess what? Without a car, we tote those books on the bus. I tell myself : decide now if you need seven things on the hold shelf this week or could honestly get by with three.

7)      Give yourselves lots and lots of grace. In our family, that means being willing to be as flexible as possible and to live with other people’s stresses. Given the sweet girl’s issues with OCD (and her weather-related anxieties) this is not always easy. There may be times we really can’t all get where we think we need to go in a given time frame. Guess what? It’s not the end of the world. Learn to do without. Learn to compromise. Learn to be thankful for whatever the day holds (a good lesson no matter what).

8)      Stay expectant. We’re still looking for ways to afford our car repairs. I find myself on tip-toes as I pray for open doors for more work or even an unexpected gift. We know the weather is going to get colder in the coming weeks; we know our situation isn’t the easiest for our family right now and is likely to get more challenging when that happens. We also trust God knows our needs, not just in terms of getting from point A to point B, but how much stress our little family unit can manage. This kind of situation gives you lots of exercise – not just physical exercise for your muscles, but spiritual exercise. Letting ordinary stresses deepen us, make us more grateful, humble, empathetic and hopeful is a good thing. Learning what we can live without is a good thing. Leaning ever deeper on God and trusting him to provide is a very good thing indeed.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"I Always Think There's a Band, Kid": Gospel Echoes in "The Music Man"

It’s been a Music Man week in our family.

I don’t know if your family has “go-to” movies that are the equivalent of comfort food, but our family definitely does. If The Sound of Music is our mashed potatoes movie, then The Music Man is probably our homemade mac and cheese. I got my daughter hooked on this film early (she once watched the “Marian the Librarian” scene five times in a row) though it’s only been recently that she’s been ready to sit through the whole thing. My husband and I have enjoyed watching it numerous times over the years – I think he once helped design a set for a stage production of it.

I confess I also love the movie for Marian's hat.
I fell in love with this movie in my early teen years. There was a year where I probably watched it once a month. I love its bright colors, the fact that it’s set in “my” historical era (the early 20th century), the costumes, the creative music, the humor, the great performances. Of course I had a crush on Robert Preston, which probably goes without saying.  And it always made me smile to see little “Ronny” Howard hoofing it to “Gary, Indiana” years before he’d grow up to direct things like Parenthood and Apollo 13.

Watching it again this week – in two sittings, because it’s so long – I found myself musing again why I love this story so much. Yes, it’s funny and snarky – its caricatures of human nature draw big pictures we can all relate to on some level. The plot, like most musical plots, doesn’t hold up under intense scrutiny. And yet, there are moments in this movie that actually make me tear up, even though they come in the midst of so much delightful silliness, and even though I’ve seen them twenty-seven times. That’s the power of story for you.

All the moments, I realized, involved Harold Hill. I got to thinking about Harold Hill and why he makes such a terrific “every-man.” Despite his incredible charm, he’s really a scoundrel. OK, yes, a Han Solo kind of scoundrel, but a scoundrel nonetheless. He’s a con man, one with years of practice at hoodwinking innocent people into buying stuff they don’t need and will never really use by whipping them up into a frenzy over how important that stuff is to their health and well-being. (In other words, he’s in advertising.) He also has an eye for any side benefits he can get out of his latest con, including making time with the pretty ladies – especially the town music teachers who might figure out his con and rat on him to the authorities unless he keeps them off-kilter emotionally.

Despite his brimming confidence, a confidence that Preston plays brilliantly right down to the way he walks and gestures, you get glimpses of the fact that Harold Hill is insecure. He never stays long enough in one place to get caught – or to get close to anybody. He hides behind the mask of “music professor” – something we learn he actually isn’t – and even behind his name. His friend Marcellus, who used to run cons with him before turning legitimate and getting a job, knows him by the name of Gregory. We never find out if that, in fact, is his real name, or was just another false name he wore in some other towns he conned long ago.

Nobody in town has a clue who Harold Hill really is, perhaps most especially Harold Hill himself.

The beauty of the story comes when one person sees through all the masks he’s hiding behind to the real person underneath. Marian Paroo, herself no stranger to hiding and insecurity (just in other ways) realizes that Harold Hill is behaving shamefully. She sees that he’s a liar and a fraud pretending to be someone he’s not. She invests time in uncovering those lies, only to find that when she gets to the end of them that she doesn’t actually want to shame him in front of the town. That’s because she’s come to appreciate the gifts that Harold has, unbeknownst to himself, actually brought to them – his imagination, energy, his passion for living, his ability to make people care about something beyond their insulated little lives. She begins to see Harold not as he is, but who he might become, and she loves him, even while he’s still a mess. That’s grace.

It’s also why I tend to tear up in three places: the first when Harold, alone for a few moments (as he hardly ever is) imagines himself conducting a band just as he claims he can. We see the magic that thought brings him, and the sadness he feels when the dream disappears and leaves him with the reality of who he actually is. I’m also moved every time I see the scene where Winthrop, Marian’s little brother, who has looked up to Harold as a hero, tearfully demands, “Are you a big fat liar?” and Harold, who for once has promised the truth, exclaims “Yes!” in a great moment of confession. That’s followed quickly by the most poignant line of the movie. After Winthrop says spitefully, “What band?” throwing Harold’s lie right back in his face, Harold says sorrowfully “I always think there’s a band, kid,” reminding us of that redeemed moment in his imagination and his longing to be the man he says he is.

And then of course, there’s the other great line, not long after, when Marian, having made her beautiful declaration of gratitude for everything he’s brought them, urges Harold to go before the angry townspeople descend on him to arrest him. Even Winthrop, dejected, urges him to go. And Harold says, in a completely wondering tone… “I can’t go, Winthrop…for the first time in my life, I got my foot caught in the door.”

What a great picture of how God’s grace catches us. We’re all little Harold Hills – conning ourselves and others, hiding behind masks, intentionally and even unintentionally causing others pain. Then someone unexpectedly shows us love – love that loves us in spite of the worst it sees in us – and when we try to run again, to escape through the door we’ve always left open as our emergency hatch when anybody gets too close, we stumble on the threshold. We slow down. We stop, even though we know that it’s not the easiest choice to stop. But we can’t help it. The pull of love is too strong, the pull of truth too beautiful. We don’t want to run anymore. The Hound of Heaven has caught us. And having loved us enough to pursue us and catch us, He’s going to love us into new creatures.

Who knew The Music Man was so full of gospel echoes?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Writing Gem #1: The Fun of Asking "And Then What?"

Sixth grade has begun in our homeschool, and for the first time, we’re building creative writing time into our learning schedule each week.

We’ve done bits of creative writing in the past, but this year I am intentionally working it into our schedule, giving it some priority time in language arts. And I’m so glad we are. Not only because I love writing and teaching writing, but because teaching writing craft (how does a writer think? plan? organize? brainstorm? choose?) is a wonderfully organic way to teach literature as well. When you’re unpacking how a writer does something, you’re teaching how to analyze writing. How and why did the writer do that? is a great analytical step; the creative step comes when we apply it ourselves and our work – now how can I do that when I write?

I’m using Boris Fishman’s The Creative Writer: Level One (Five Finger Exercises) as a springboard here at the beginning of the term, but because I’m a writer, I can’t resist adding plenty of my own thoughts and exercises. We’re having fun. Today we talked about plot points (or beats). Fishman presented an excerpt from Tom Sawyer, then presented the part of the plot we’d just read in 10 points. S. liked that; she liked it even better when I asked her to verbally give me plot points for Peter Rabbit (a great, well-built plot that is both short and memorable) and even better when we brainstormed the beginning of a story together and then she took off to create plot points for where the story might go next.

The delightful part of plotting, of course, is that you can take a story in so many different directions, and you can always go back to where a story branches into a new place and change its course.

That’s the gem we took away from today’s writing time. I’m calling it gem #1, because I suspect we’re going to collect a lot of gems this year, which I will record here in case they are useful for other young, growing writers and their teachers! Perhaps when the year is done, we will string them into a necklace.

Writing Gem #1: Writers ask “and then what?” when they are crafting stories. Stories can go in lots of different directions depending on how the writer answers that question.

Monday, August 26, 2013

On the Eve of Year Seven...

It’s hard to believe we’re entering our seventh official year of homeschooling, and yet here we are! The sweet girl was so excited before she went to bed tonight. The delights she’s most looking forward to? “Brand new Ticonderoga pencils!” and “Getting to do a math lesson!”

As for me, I am in a different place than I think I've ever been at the start of a new school-year. I don't know if it's because I'm tired (quite possibly) or just more relaxed (maybe a bit of both).  I normally spend more time fussing and fretting the small stuff before we start a new year, getting things set "just so" and overthinking all my curricula choices and how we're going to tackle all the new work in the new year. It's not that I haven't done some of that thinking this year -- I have -- but I find myself thinking more of the big picture than the little details. We've had so much to learn and do and figure out this summer, and we've got so many big challenges ahead. As I told someone recently, I feel like this year is less about what we do than how we do it, and I'm peaceful about that.

I learned today that the word curriculum comes from a Latin word that means race, or racecourse. I love that. And I love that learning, and life, is a long-distance run, not a sprint.

So the first day of school muffins (blueberry) are made and ready for breakfast, and I spent the evening watching a Downton Abbey episode with my dear husband while sipping ginger ale in the fanciest, most celebratory glass I could find.

Year 7 starts tomorrow. Ready as I'll ever be!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Let Jesus Fill You With Joy

“Give Jesus not only your hands to serve, but your heart to love. Pray with absolute trust in God’s loving care for you. Let Him use you without consulting you. Let Jesus fill you with joy that you may preach without preaching.”
—Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Legacy of Transformed Lives

In preparation for a class I'm teaching this fall, I've begun reading Greg Ogden's Transforming Discipleship. The first two chapters, diagnosing some of the problems or challenges facing the church's understanding and practice of discipleship, is solid but not very eye-opening (in the sense that it doesn't cover much I hadn't thought about before, and it limits the understanding of discipleship issues to more or less one segment of the Christian tradition).

Where the book is beginning to get lively and thought-provoking for me is in chapter 3, "Why Jesus Invested in a Few," where Ogden ruminates upon the wisdom of Jesus' practice of investing deeply in the lives of a handful of disciples. Why not build his ministry on mass appeal and following? he asks, and reflects that...

"The very nature of a crowd is the ability to be lost in it. It costs nothing to be a part of the masses. One can either be positively or negatively inclined. A member of a crowd, such as a worshiper in a congregation, can remain lost in a sea of faces, neither having to commit nor declare loyalty. A person can be anything from a curious observer to a skeptic or bored pew-sitter. Jesus ministered to the crowd in order to call people out of it. One was not on the road to discipleship unless that person came out of the crowd to identify with Jesus. There are twin prerequisites for following Christ -- cost and commitment, neither of which can occur in the anonymity of the masses." (my emphasis)

Ogden also points out that the gospels show us the fickleness of the crowds (think about the passion week narratives, where the same crowd that shouts "Hosanna!" one day shouts "Crucify him!" the next). Jesus, he reminds us, didn't stake things on the loyalty of the crowd. He quotes A.B. Bruce who wrote "But for the twelve, the doctrine, the works, the image of Jesus might have perished from human resemblance, nothing remaining but a vague mythical tradition, of historical value, of little practical importance."

It occurs to me that isn't really an overstatement. I think often about the apostolicity of the Scriptures -- that living witness that comes down to us through the written Word. And I know I have thought often about the importance of trusting the Holy Spirit in the process of inspiration; we trust the Spirit and so trust that witness is reliable and sure. I've also thought a lot about what an oral culture Jesus lived in, and how in some ways it's not surprising that he himself did not leave a written account. But isn't it amazing and wonderful to ponder that Jesus entrusted so much of his life -- and the transmission of that life -- to his disciples? As Ogden writes:

"A former president attempts to shape the perceptions of history by writing his memoirs. Why did Jesus not choose the same approach? Jesus appeared to rely on two means to carry his life and mission forward: the Holy Spirit and the Twelve. His life was transferred to their life by his Spirit and by his association with and investment in them. The irrefutable legacy Jesus wanted to leave behind was the transformed lives of ordinary men who would carry on his work after he returned to the Father."