Friday, January 31, 2014

Reading Round-Up: End of January

The bitter cold for much of the month has had me staying in more. It's also made me want to curl up in a cave and read for the duration of the winter.

Lots of good books on tap this January...some I've finished, and some I'm still meandering through. Here's a peek at what I've been reading.

Having finished Alister McGrath's biography of C.S. Lewis, I've been enjoying the letters of Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis collected by Don King in Out of My Bone. I confess about half-way through, I skimmed forward to the end, but now am going back to read the final half of the book more fully. What a fascinating woman she was, and what a lively voice in her letters!

Ever since reading an essay on Elizabeth Enright (whom I've known for years as a writer of stories for children...we especially love her delightful books about the Melendy family) I've been wanting to read some of the short stories she wrote for adults. I finally got my hands on an old collection from the library system, whose thick teal cover and smudgy yellowing pages is reminding me of a high school textbook. What loveliness inside the covers of A Moment Before the Rain though. I love her way with description and how she sees so swiftly to the heart of ordinary things.

Alan Jacobs has graced the world with a terrific"biography" of the Book of Common Prayer, the very book I always wanted to read about the BCP. It's encapsulating what I know already in a beautifully written summation, and it's surprising me with fresh insights. What more can you ask? Plus who doesn't love the notion of a biography of a book? Because a book (especially one with this long and complex a history) does indeed take on a life of its own.

Taking fortifying sips from Richard J. Foster's Sanctuary of the Soul, a sustaining book on meditative prayer. A lot of these insights will sound familiar if you've read other books by Foster, but they bear repeated hearing, and it's nice to see them all in one place in a book focused specifically on this one topic.

Our continued journeys into better mental health has me trying to find new ways both to deal with my own stress and help the sweet girl cope with her anxieties. Michelle L. Bailey's book Parenting Your Stressed Child is helping me navigate a better understanding of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are some good breathing exercises I'm finding especially helpful.

Family read-aloud finds us plowing through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Yes, we've reached the darker part of the HP epic. It took the sweet girl a while to get used to angry, angsty adolescent Harry (didn't it take time for us all?) and her sensitivities to injustice, always high, have positively quivered with rage in response to the terrible Professor Umbridge, but it's been a good read for us so far. And oh my, how much fun to read these characters' voices. As villainous as Umbridge is, she is also hilarious (a tribute to JK Rowling's writing) and reading her "high, girlish" voice, so at odds with the tyrannous and oppressive things she's declaring, and making her high-pitched throat-clearings is a lot of fun. I love reading other voices too, from Hermione's even handed earnestness to Dumbledore's slow, careful cadences and everything in between.'s just fun to read British words like "git" on a regular basis (thank you, Ron). 

The sweet girl and I enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (another read-aloud this month) and she and I both read (independently of each other, but agreeing we loved it) Kevin Henkes' The Year of Billy Miller, which recently won a Newbery honor. Light, innocent fare with sweetly drawn characters you root for, especially Billy himself.  I've heard it described as Ramona for boys, but Billy, likable as he is, is not nearly as mischievous as Ramona (though he does worry a lot, just as she does). Something about the book put me more in mind of the old-fashioned Betsy books by Carolyn Heywood, though of course with a contemporary feel. Billy's little sister Sal is especially well drawn (and her name, perhaps, a tribute to Robert McCloskey? Hmm...that possibility just dawned on me) and their relationship feels so true to sibling-hood.

Oh, and I found Jane Langton! I read her first Homer Kelly mystery, written back in the 1960s, The Transcendental Murder, and found myself laughing aloud. She "gets" Concord so beautifully, and draws delightful characters. Turns out I actually knew her work from years ago (I'd read her children's book The Diamond in the Window) but didn't realize it was the same author until I looked her up.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

ALA Awards Announced: Newbery, Caldecott & Lots of Other Goodies!

I was really excited to hear that Kate DiCamillo won her second Newbery Medal yesterday. She is one of my favorite authors writing for children today. I reviewed Flora and Ulysses, the winning novel, back in November. Both the sweet girl and I really enjoyed this unusual tale about a girl and a superhero squirrel!

I just finished reading Kevin Henkes' The Year of Billy Miller, which won a Newbery honor. A review of that is forthcoming. Henkes, if you're not familiar with him, is both a fine author and a delightful illustrator (he's won a Caldecott in addition to Newbery honors). He also plows picture book and early reader ground in addition to writing stories for middle-grade readers. One of my favorite Henkes picture books is Old Bear, which I reviewed back in 2009.

Brian Floca won the Caldecott for Locomotive. It looks like a lovely book. While I didn't know any of the Caldecott books this year (proof positive that I'm just not spending enough time in picture book land these days) I did recently review Kadir Nelson's beautifully illustrated book Nelson Mandela, which won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor yesterday.

For a full round-up of yesterday's awards, see the article at Publisher's Weekly. You can click through to some fun interviews of DiCamillo and Floca from that page as well.

By the way, all of my review links here go to reviews I've written at Epinions. I make a (very) modest amount of income from these modest that the amount I've earned on most of them, even those that have been up for years, might buy a cup of tea, depending on where I buy it. Basically I write book reviews for the joy of writing book reviews, and because I love recommending good books for fellow readers. If you enjoy any of these reviews and think you know someone else who might benefit from them, please pass them on. And if there's a book (especially a children's book) that you'd enjoy seeing me review, let me know, and I'll see what I can do!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Forests and Trees

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the expression “she can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s an old expression (wonder where it came from?) and so familiar that it’s become trite, but trite expressions usually become that way because there’s truth in them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that when we get stuck in our problems, enmeshed in the exhausting business of just making it through the next round of whatever it is we need to make it through, we really do lose perspective. Fast.

Losing perspective is hard. When you’re busy just looking at the trees that loom all around you, or even the one giant tree (maybe fallen over, blocking your path) you sometimes can’t think of anything else. In true times of emergency or crisis, maybe it’s a blessing that our vision gets so narrowed, but I’m talking about other times, times when a given challenge in our lives (or a combination of challenges) just leaves us so bone weary that all we can think about is that one tree right in front of us.

It becomes huge. Why are its limbs so scratchy? Why is it so big? How are we ever going to get over it or past it or around it? Is there even a way? Why does forward feel so impossible?

We look at it and we lose ourselves in the details of that one thing to the point that we can’t even begin to look all around us. We lose the sense that there are other paths possible around the tree. We lose gratitude for anything good about the tree. We forget we’re in a forest that has other things in it too – not just other trees but grass and plants and bushes and birds and rabbits and sun filtering through branches and dancing shadows. We forget that the forest is in a larger world and that there’s sky above it and that all of it, all of it, is owned by the maker of everything. And that the maker of everything can help us.

Sometimes I think we need to learn to walk away from the tree. Not permanently, but just for a while. Whatever the tree is, we can trust it with God. We can walk into another part of the forest and breathe deep for a while, breathe slow, breathe peace and prayers. Maybe when we walk back to the tree, it won’t loom quite so huge or take up all our mental space and emotional energy. Maybe we can even begin to remember the beauty of the forest all around us.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

History Lesson Planning (for Intuitive Teachers and Semi-Reluctant Learners)

History is one of my great enthusiasms. I could spend far more time than I already do reading and pondering history. Cultural history and personal history embedded in good cultural history are some of my favorite things to read. In fact, the older I get, the more likely I am to drift over to the new non-fiction shelves at the library to check out the latest biographies or history books – first, before I head to new fiction.

The sweet girl, now eleven, enjoys listening to history, but it has not become one of her great learning and reading passions. Yet. (I live in hope.) While she’s taken more ownership of almost every other major subject in her schooling – math, science, language arts – she still needs me to take her by the hand in history. She will read and write what I assign, usually good-naturedly and sometimes grudgingly, but what she most enjoys is listening to good history narratives read aloud. We also talk history a lot at mealtimes and other family times.

As we study medieval history this year, that means we still do a lot of read-aloud time. I read from various books – good secondary sources, and sometimes also primary sources – and she draws while she listens, stopping me occasionally to ask questions or make a comment. Or I will stop midway through and review with her, asking some prompting questions, always pleasantly surprised by how much she’s heard and retained. (That’s partly due to the narration techniques we put into place during the grammar years. Good foundation!) Sometimes I give mini-lectures if it’s an area I know well, like church history. Sometimes we listen to Diana Waring lectures on CD, something she has enjoyed very much.

Although I let her draw while she listens, I do try to keep visuals open in front of her, which I refer to, and she stops and looks at while we work – maps, encyclopedia pages, books from the library. I’ve also been encouraging the pretty much every-lesson-use of her timeline. In earlier learning years, we would take a day every so often and do lots of timeline work at once; nowadays she keeps her timeline book handy and when I’m reading or sharing information, I will suddenly say – “and that’s probably an important date for your timeline.” She’ll pick it up and add it. (My secret goal is to have her begin to figure that out and do it on her own before the end of year…we’ll see how it goes.)

Lesson planning for this kind of learning has taken me a while to figure out, because I’m an intuitive kind of history teacher…I think “let’s just read that until it sparks something else interesting and then we’ll find something to read about that…” I think I’ve finally discovered how to make this work though. Here’s a rough idea of how I currently lesson plan for history. If you’re an intuitive history teacher, or have a semi-reluctant history student, maybe this will help you too.

  • When I prepare my history lessons, I think through where we want to go next geographically and chronologically. Once I’ve made that decision, I think through the important people and events I will likely want to cover within the new section.
  • I survey my resources and decide what books we will likely draw from. Right now I use several main resources a lot: Story of the World 2 (Medieval Times); Romans, Reformers, Revolutionaries; and the Greenleaf Guide to Famous Men of the Middle Ages. But I am also likely, on any given day, to pull from Monks and Mystics, English Literature for Boys and Girls, Blackline Maps of World History, and any number of library resources which I try to put on hold about two weeks before I may need them.
  • I think through any primary sources or supplemental resources online that might help us.
  • I note chapter and/or pages numbers in my resources, so I can flip right to them and not spend inordinate amounts of time hunting for things once we’re settled in for a learning session.
  • I think through anything I might want her to actively do (besides listen) during the session. Probably timeline, sometimes map work, sometimes further independent reading or writing. I’ve not been having her outline much this year, probably because that’s a skill she’s still actively working on learning in our writing curriculum (and she’s doing a fair amount of it there). This may be something I have her do more of next year.

I also am discovering that it’s nice to sketch out what I think a lesson will look like and keep it handy to refer to, but that I often move in different directions, as the need or enthusiasm arises. So I keep my original lesson plan written down, but at the end of lesson time, I write down what we actually did and how that will work as a springboard for the next lesson.

Flexibility is the key here. I might discover, as I did today, that I want us to spend a whole other session on a given topic before moving on the lesson I had originally scheduled next. As long as you keep a tentative goal in mind, in terms of what you hope to cover for a semester or year, slowing down (or speeding up) really isn’t that big of an issue. I’d rather have us pursue a learning trail that really catches her interest than rush past it in an attempt to stick to some pre-written lesson plan.

As an example, here’s what I thought we were going to do today in history. My original plan read:

Wednesday, January 8 – The Vikings invade England (SOTW) and Alfred the Great. We’ll use both SOTW and Diana Waring (beginning around p. 133) for this day. We’ll also spend a little bit of time enjoying some stanzas from G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (about Alfred the Great) which can be found here at Project Gutenberg:  Time permitting, have S. read the Alfred the Great chapter from Greenleaf and do some writing in her notebook.

Here’s how I amended this lesson at the end of the day:

We DID use both SOTW and Waring on Alfred and the Vikings, but I decided to read the section from English Literature for Boys and Girls instead of having Sarah read from Greenleaf. I’ve assigned her that reading…and some of the reading from the Alfred the Great Jackdaw…in preparation for a description she’s going to write of Alfred. We didn’t get to the Chesterton, but I think I will pull some of that together Monday. With our French studies beginning then, I think I will likely only have S. work on her Alfred report that day, rather than pushing ahead to Battle of Hastings.

While I’m aware that this kind of flexible planning might not work for everyone (and would, in fact, probably drive some types of teachers/learners crazy) it works for us. And one of the beauties of homeschooling is that I know I have the freedom to change this up if it’s not working well, or when it’s time to challenge her to even more independence in history learning.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Surprised by Lack of Joy: A Review of Alister McGrath's C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis’ writing has fundamentally shaped the way I look at the world. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about Lewis, whose work—as scholar, fantasy writer, theologian, and apologist— has profoundly influenced and shaped many people.

When you know the general contours of someone’s life and thought, it can be pure pleasure to rehearse those lines again, and picking up a biography about him can be an exercise in familiar delight. On the other hand, a new biography is precisely that – new – and there’s always the realization that by the time you reach the end of it, you will undoubtedly have learned things you never knew before. Even when it’s a biography of someone you know well, a guide has opened up a new doorway into their world, and it can take a while to feel at home there.

So slipping into Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet was both a foray into an unknown country and an exploration of a landscape that looked hauntingly familiar. It turned out not to be the most exhilarating walk I’d ever taken in Lewis country. Nonetheless, there were signs and wayposts that I enjoyed there, and I can see why it’s been lauded as an important book.

Let me list a few of the elements that make it valuable:

  • A solid, comprehensive book, it provides a fairly detailed chronology of Lewis’ life and writings. McGrath, himself an Oxford professor, is the first biographer to have taken full advantage of the complete letters of Lewis (edited by Walter Hooper) now available. He names the letters the backbone of his narrative.

  •  The book is valuable for its notes and lengthy works consulted list alone, and the acknowledgments read like a “who’s who” of recent, important Lewis scholarship. He is indebted to conversations with some of my favorite recent writers on Lewis, such as Alan Jacobs and Michael Ward.
  •  I think this is probably also the first Lewis biography I’ve ever seen that so carefully works through the books published in his lifetime, weaving them into the chronology of Lewis’ life. It’s eye-opening to see what was going on in Lewis’ life when he was working on certain books, and what experiences in his life and thinking helped shape his canon. McGrath also provides a synopsis of each work. This feels especially valuable with some of Lewis’ older and lesser-known works like The Pilgrim’s Regress.
  •  It provides detailed evidence, mostly based on careful noting of dates in letters, that in Surprised by Joy, Lewis named the wrong year (1929) for his conversion to Christianity. McGrath argues convincingly that the date should be 1930, a point I found interesting but belabored. It’s not extraordinary that Lewis, who never much liked numbers, might have gotten the date mixed up, and while it’s interesting that previous scholars haven’t noticed or brought attention to the slip, there’s little to be said for the significance of the later dating beyond the fact that it makes a great deal of emotional and spiritual sense to realize that Lewis’ father’s death probably compelled him forward in his faith journey. Given Lewis’ complicated relationship with his father, and the remorse he felt later about his treatment of his father when he was ill, it would be hard not to speculate that his father’s death had that kind of influence, though since Lewis himself doesn’t seem to write about that anywhere, it’s hard to take the thought much further.
Beyond the book’s general comprehensiveness, McGrath brought out some important insights that I hadn’t pondered much before. Here are a few of the insights I found most memorable:

  • Lewis’ identity as someone who was born and raised (till the age of 10) in Belfast, and then spent the majority of his life in England. McGrath, himself an Oxford transplant from Belfast, raises interesting thoughts about why Ireland has not embraced Lewis as a native son, and about Lewis’ conscious self-identity as a British rather than (nationalist) Irish writer. “His Irish identity, inspired by Ireland’s landscape rather than its political history, would find its expression in the literary mainstream, not one of its ‘side-tracks,’” writes McGrath, adding “Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.” (pp 13-14) He leaves that intriguing thought there; other writers, like Harry Blamires, have explored the question of Lewis’ intrinsic Irishness in more depth.

  •  Lewis’ brilliance as a scholar but his sometimes uneasy fit within the world of academia. McGrath’s understanding of the British school system and particularly the world of Oxford was very helpful for this American woman with a humble master’s degree. I still don’t pretend to understand all the politics of Lewis’ Oxford days, but having a deeper glimpse into that world helped me to at least begin to understand how oddly Lewis (with his very public commitment to Christianity) was perceived by some of his colleagues and why he was passed over for scholarly chairs and honors that he seemed to deserve.
  •  The differing and yet overlapping seasons of Lewis’ work as apologist and writer of imaginative fiction. McGrath neatly debunks, as have some others before him, the notion that it was Lewis’ public drubbing in a debate with Elizabeth Anscombe that caused him to make an abrupt turn from apologetics to the writing of imaginative fantasy. This odd speculation by earlier Lewis biographer A.N. Wilson doesn’t hold water, and McGrath pokes satisfying holes in the theory. To do this, he relies first on his understanding of the nature of the Socratic Club, helping readers to see that this debate was in the tried and true academic vein of one colleague offering a sharp and specific scholarly critique to another. While Lewis clearly didn’t enjoy the public setting-down, he appreciated Anscombe’s critique of his particular argument enough to use it to hone his argument in a subsequent revision of the pertinent chapter in Miracles. Secondly, McGrath makes the valid point that Lewis’ supposed turn to imaginative fiction, and its ability to capture minds and hearts and to convey theological convictions, had already begun a number of years before when he wrote the Ransom trilogy.
  • What he does take up quite helpfully is Lewis’ growing weariness in the role of public apologist, not for any abrupt reason (like being bested in one debate) but for a host of interwoven and very human reasons. This included Lewis’ weariness with public life in general: publicity seemed to weigh heavily on him, not only because it affected his professional, academic life, but because he took his role as apologist so seriously. He also suggests that the post-war Lewis was beginning to feel as though it was time to make room for younger voices in the field. McGrath also speculates that Lewis felt weary because, with all his success as an apologist, he felt singularly unsuccessful in his ability to convince two of the closest people in his life of the validity and importance of the Christian faith. He writes: “Mrs. Moore remained hostile to Christianity throughout her later life, and (Arthur) Greeves moved away from his somewhat austere Ulster Protestantism to an equally austere Unitarianism.” (p. 259) This is a consideration I had never pondered, but given his long-term affection and loyalty to both of these people, it rings heart-rendingly true.
  • McGrath’s biography also provides an entire section, two chapters out of fifteen, to Narnia. Within these chapters, he provides a good but by necessity somewhat cursory overview of the creation of the series and its place in Lewis’ canon and overall legacy. He covers many issues of importance to Narnia readers and scholars, including the preferred reading order of the books (and what Lewis said and didn’t say about that); the recent important interpretive lens of medieval cosmology that Michael Ward has presented as a key to unlocking further meaning and depth in the series; and a brief response to critics who charge Lewis with misogyny. While I can understand his desire to acknowledge that issue, I almost wish he hadn’t taken it up at all given the lack of space and time he was able to give it, as it basically just rehashes old issues without offering substantive analysis or defense. He makes the suggestion that Lewis was ahead of his time but behind our own (an odd assertion and one that smacks a bit of chronological snobbery).
My main struggles with the biography both centered, ironically, around joy.

The first and easiest challenge to pinpoint is McGrath’s treatment of Lewis’ relationship with his wife Joy Davidman Gresham. He paints Lewis’ relationship with Davidman (as he refers to her) in an almost completely negative light. At first, I was puzzled by the tone and thought perhaps I was either mistaking it or that he would eventually, given their happiness in their final years together, move toward a more positive assessment, but it never really happened.

While it’s true that Lewis’s relationship with Joy was unusual from the first, and remained puzzling to some of Lewis’ close friends, it seemed odd to me that McGrath was so selective about what and whom he chose to quote. For a biography that seems to be attempting some critical distance from its subject (he resists the use of Jack in referring to Lewis, he doesn’t seem to overtly rely on conversations with anyone still alive who knew Lewis) the section on Lewis’ marriage seems awash with negative connotations. Davidman comes across as aggressive and predatory, and McGrath seems to see no sense in the fact that Lewis came to love her (he goes out of his way to point out that Ruth Pitter would have made a more likely soul mate for Lewis).

Lest you think I exaggerate, consider the language that McGrath uses as he begins to describe Joy and her relationship with Lewis. Others “sought Lewis’ advice, Davidman “sought his soul.” Her “intention” was “to seduce Lewis.” Her poems of the period show her intention “to melt” the glacial figure of Lewis “through a heady mixture of intellectual sophistication and physical allure” (p. 323). Her “real intention” in visiting England was to befriend Lewis. She “initiated” correspondence and contact. Lewis “hurriedly” replaced one “chaperone” with another when lunching with her (though McGrath readily admits no one actually used the word chaperone in this situation). Davidman “made all the moves” and perhaps saw Lewis as a “possible vehicle” in helping her transplant from the U.S. to England (pp 324-325).

And so on. I would go on, but it continues in that vein for the remainder of the section. McGrath seems so determined to debunk the Hollywood image of Joy (the movie “Shadowlands” took liberties when depicting her and her marriage to Lewis) but ends up creating an unsympathetic portrait that, in its own way, also feels inaccurate. No one who has read much about her would deny that Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis was a bold, sometimes brash, always passionate woman, but those attributes can have positive as well as negative connotations. McGrath’s dislike of her feels subtle but pervasive, painting her as a manipulative interloper whose only contribution was that she turned out to be a good “midwife” for some of Lewis’ later and best respected works, an appellation I think she justly not grudgingly deserves.

I was happy to see that I was not alone in my response to this section of McGrath’s book. For a fuller and very helpful response, I would recommend that you read Gina Dalfonzo’s “C.S. Lewis’ Joy in Marriage,” at Christianity Today, which not only corrects McGrath’s portrait on certain points but also presents some of Lewis’ own words about his wife. One would certainly hope that Lewis’ views in this important matter should be consulted and trusted.

One happy byproduct of my wrestling with this section is that it led me to the book Out of My Bone, the collected letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King and published by Eerdmans in 2009. I’m only 75 pages in, still deep into Joy’s pre-Christian, Communist years, and I have already laughed out loud and found myself nodding in deep appreciation for her literary insights, keen mind, and outright wit. The Davidman found there in her own words practically leaps off the pages.

In the end, that may have been my biggest overall struggle with McGrath’s biography of Lewis: no one, not even Lewis himself, leaps off the page. This portrait lacks vitality and joy. While it is easy to appreciate the neat and detailed orderliness of the account, especially the account of Lewis’ writings, the book seems to serve more as historical chronicle than interpretive biography, with the exception of a few places where some strong biases show through. Beyond chronology, there is no strong, overall lens to guide us through the narrative.

McGrath makes an interesting case, in his chapters on Narnia, for the importance of subtitles (which he sees as key to noting the proper reading order of the series). Taking a nudge from that, I tried to invest McGrath’s own subtitle “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet” with more interpretive influence as I reflected on the book as a whole, but even that doesn’t help as much as I expected. Lewis’ genius has never been in question, and while he certainly had some eccentricities, it doesn’t seem to me that he had more than most complex people (and the older I get, the more convinced I become that almost everyone I know is complex). McGrath points out Lewis’ tendency toward secrecy in various aspects of his life, but I’m not sure how odd this tendency really is given his temperament and his life situation, including his brother’s alcoholism.

Nor am I entirely sure about the “reluctant prophet” part. Lewis once famously called himself a “reluctant convert,” but once he embraced the Christian faith, he did so with a winsome wholeheartedness. That doesn’t mean his faith didn’t have weary seasons or that his wrestling with his calling didn’t have times of raggedness, but the overall portrait one gets from Lewis’ own writings, and from those who knew him best, is that this was a man with an enormous love for God and people. While it is true that his prophetic critique of modernity did not always win him accolades or professional ease, he nonetheless chose to embrace that role, and the role of public apologist, despite the personal costs.

Some of Lewis’decisions likely brought him discomfort, but his overall embrace of his faith and calling seems to have moved him ever more deeply into joy. It’s this Lewis that I felt I caught only fleeting glimpses of in McGrath’s carefully researched narrative. God surprised Lewis by winning him to faith in the first place, and it seems likely that God continued to surprise him – with the opportunity to be a public voice for faith in wartime Britain, with the sudden vision of a faun in a wood that led him to write stories for children, with a brash, bold, and funny American woman who would become his beloved soul mate and  wife. Such surprises may not have always led to the easiest and most comfortable of lives, but they led Lewis into the places where God most  wanted him to be.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Thoughts to Ponder: Writers for Life

One of the habits I’ve cultivated over the years is collecting quotes. I used to jot them 
down in my journal, and while I still do that sometimes, these days I am more likely to past them (or type them, depending on where I find them) into a document on my computer. I add scripture verses, snippets of poetry, prayers, and inspiring quotes from all sorts of sources, and the ultimate collection can get pretty long (last year’s ran 13 pages). So each year I start a fresh document, labeled with the new year, and begin again.

I thought that from time to time, I’d post one of my daybook quotes here. I kicked off 2014 with these words I so resonated with from C.S. Lewis scholar Don W. King:

“Each of us should find a writer
we can read for the rest of our lives.”
Lewis may be the writer that is truest of for me. But also L’Engle, Tolkien, Austen. Sayers is moving toward that list as well. And Eugene Peterson. I go through seasons where I read them more or less, but I go back to all of these particular writers a lot, never feeling like I’ve exhausted what they have to say. They are also writers I love to read about – biography, literary analysis, appreciation.

With Lewis, I always feel especially glad that I have so much more of his work to read…I don’t think I could ever exhaust it. Even if I eventually read it all, it always bears repeat readings. That’s also true of Tolkien.

I’ve probably come closest to reading everything of L’Engle’s. In my late teens and early-mid twenties, I went out of my way to collect as much of her work as I could, even the harder to find things (and for at least a handful of Christmases, my family did an amazing job of giving me hard-to-find L’Engle books). She was hugely formative in my developing spiritual life, and while there are a few books of hers that I feel I’ve somewhat outgrown (not, by the way, her children’s books) many of them I still revisit often, and a few of them have deep places of honor in my mind and heart.

I’ve purposely not ever read all of Austen’s letters, her juvenalia, or her incomplete novel, mostly because I don’t want to say I’ve read everything she’s written! I’ve read most if not all of Sayers’ novels, and also Mind of the Maker, but only some of her drama and essays, and not many of her letters. Peterson is so prolific that I don’t think I could possibly exhaust all of his work, but I like knowing so much of it is there, and that I can always drink deep when I turn to him.

One reason why Lewis has moved to the top of my list over the years, besides the obvious richness to be found in his work, is that he is the kind of writer one really can visit in different seasons and moods. Narnia was my foray into Lewis’ world, and I entered it around the age of ten. But I still revisit Narnia, and I still find more there to learn and ponder and enjoy and love thirty-five years after I first read the books. They are perhaps richer for my having visited them so often, and richer still because I’ve now read so many others books by (and about) Lewis, including books it took me a while to be ready for. Essentially, he is not a writer I ever outgrow – he’s always somewhere I feel I need and want to be, saying something I need and want to hear, challenging me, delighting me, at different seasons and times in my life.

Is there a writer, or writers, that you feel you could read for the rest of your life?

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Little Year in Review

Reflecting a bit on the year just past. Would love to hear your reflections too.

More reflections on favorite books from 2013 to come. For now...Happy 2014!

Someone/something you’re especially grateful for:  God’s love, and the sustaining prayers and caring of friends.

A special moment that stands out in your mind: Relaxing at the beach in Lake Erie with my husband and daughter.

A challenge or difficulty you faced: Helping someone I love go through something challenging and hard. Financial stress.

Something you learned as you navigated the above: To lean deeper and trust God for the strength I need.

A news moment that you recall with clarity: The death of Nelson Mandela.

Something or someone you missed: I miss my extended family (far-flung over geographic distance).

Something you feel nostalgic for: Respect for leaders and more civil conversations about issues of public concern.

A book you read and enjoyed: Listening for Madeleine by Leonard S. Marcus. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.

A movie you enjoyed watching: Les Mis. Also Star Trek: Into Darkness.

A song you enjoyed listening to:  Speak, O Lord by Keith and Kristyn Getty.
Also Wild Child by Enya. (My eleven year old went crazy for Enya this year, and this song felt like the soundtrack to a lot of our days!)
An encouraging or inspiring quote you thought about:  "After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again." (~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
And from Galatians 5:22-23 (the Message):
"But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely."

Something you did that was new or surprising: Got past chapter 3 in the novel I’m writing. Earned more income from writing than teaching.

Something you wish you had more of in your life: Patience. And writing time.

Something you wish you had less of in your life: Worry.

A word or phrase that captures something about your year:  “My work…is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished” (Mary Oliver)