Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books Read in 2015

Every year I attempt to track the books I read, and in recent years, I've tried all sorts of different ways to keep the list. Most recently I've been using Goodreads, which I find fun and useful. A tool is only as good as the time you put into it, however, and I confess I sometimes slipped up and still forgot to note what I read. I also don't use Goodreads to track our family read-alouds, which I continue to keep in a side bar here on the blog.

One thing I like about Goodreads is that they send you a little year-end "your year in books" note, in which they provide some enjoyable stats. This year they told me that the shortest book I read all year was Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early. They also let me know that among all my books, it was the highest rated one on their site, which just goes to show you that you don't need a lot of words to make a big impact -- especially when you're an amazing poet like Mary Oliver.

The longest book I read this year was (no surprise): David McCullough's Truman. I finished that early in 2015, but the satisfaction of reading such a well-researched and beautiful biographical tome has stayed with me. I am grateful for the way in which McCullough captured Truman's time and presidency, giving me a sense of almost having "been there." And Truman will forever after be on my list of most respected presidents.

Other fun stats from Goodreads are the "most popular" and "least popular" stats. I find these interesting to ponder. What these stats reflect is how many other readers who use Goodreads happened to have read a book I also read, so it's not precisely an accurate reflection of a book's popularity (or worth). Still, it came as little surprise again that over half a million (!) readers joined me in reading Andy Weir's novel The Martian, while only 55 other Goodreaders joined me in reading the profound essays in James K.A. Smith's Discipleship in the Present Tense. I enjoyed both in very different ways, but it probably doesn't take much of a leap to tell you which book influenced me the most and will stay with me longest. Thank you, Jamie Smith.

2015 was also the year I finished P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh series, just a few months after James passed away. It was the year I finally read and loved Richard Adams' classic Watership Down (a book we read as a family) and made the delightfully funny acquaintance of P.D. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster. I also continued my foray into Arthur Conan Doyle by reading his Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four. 

Later summer found me immersed in the world of Harper Lee, first as I tiptoed somewhat gingerly through the novel draft Go Set a Watchman and then as I enjoyed Charles J. Shields' loving biography of Lee, Mockingbird.

Besides P.D. James, I enjoyed some of the cozy mysteries of Patricia Wentworth and also returned to J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith's mystery world with The Silkworm. I also started Alan Bradley's novels starring the young girl detective Flavia de Luce

Some of my favorite spiritual formation type reading this year, beyond Smith's book already mentioned, came in Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God, and a re-read of Henri Nouwen's beautiful book The Return of the Prodigal Son.

I didn't read enough children's fiction this year, but several of the books I read in that genre were memorable: Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks in Spring, Linda Mullaly Hunt's One for the Murphys and her Fish in a Tree, and Kwame Alexander's Newbery award winning novel in verse, The Crossover.  Many of the books I read in this genre were recommendations from my sweet Jedi Teen (or else I happened to pick them up while she was reading them). I read several other good mid-grade books that somehow didn't make the official reading list.

A book that colored our family's dinner-time (and other time) conversations for quite a while was Tom Standage's The Neptune File. It made me realize that we need to read more science books written at an engaging, popular level. Similar to that are history books written in an engaging, lively fashion, such as Nathan Philbrick's The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World, which I also enjoyed this year.

While this isn't quite a full list of my reading -- it leaves out many family read-alouds, Bible reading, more devotional reading, favorite re-reads, a couple of pop culture reads, cookbooks, and plenty of books I read "at" but didn't read in their entirety -- it does a pretty good job of capturing at least a snapshot of my reading year.

I look forward to the new (and old) books I will meet in 2016!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Snow Went On....

The snow went on so bright and deep, and dark in patches where shadows grew. Sometimes white sometimes gray then silver then blue, and all around us the hushing sound of runners sliding past the icy ground and the horse’s breath misting clouds in the air and a few flakes still falling and we don’t know where we’re going but the snow goes on as far as the eye can see. So bright and deep and dark. 

Sometimes when I am most tired, like now, I find myself needing to riff on images. This beautiful painting by Winslow Homer, simply titled "Sleigh Ride," (and painted between 1890-95), called out for a swooshing rush of words last night. Poetry? Prose? A prose poem, perhaps, and one that slides along like the sleigh on the snow. 

Checked the weather forecast this morning. It looks like the cold is finally settling in to stay awhile.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sing All Ye Citizens of Heaven Above!

My last post was written a week ago, but it feels so much longer. In that time, we've finished the Advent season and moved into Christmas. And my mother has entered into glory.

At 83, my precious, wonderful mother was feeling better than she had in a long, long time. We loved our visit with her on Thanksgiving. She was telling stories....lots of them. In fact, I wrote in my journal at the time that she seemed to be putting together the pieces of her life like a jigsaw puzzle. She lingered long over stories about her childhood, youth, and adulthood, especially about her journey of faith. She and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner together. She loved watching Sarah do her Irish dancing on the backyard patio. I remember her hearing the neighbors on the other side of the fence and hurrying over to chat with them (chatting with neighbors being something she loved doing more than almost anything!). She'd only recovered from hip surgery a few months before, but she was scrambling up on tiptoes and pulling herself up so she could call over the fence.

I had no idea that less than a month later, she would be gone from this earth and in the presence of Jesus.

The sudden and unexpected heart attack she had on Sunday was all the more unexpected because of how well she'd been feeling. She had no history of heart disease. She took incredibly good care of herself (and my dad took wonderful care of her during her hip recovery and her bout of cellulitis). She always believed a merry heart was the best medicine. Her doctors often told her how strong she was constitutionally. Her own mother lived to be 92; her maternal grandfather lived to be 100. I truly thought she had lots of time left.

But the Lord called her home this Christmas, and when the Lord calls, you answer. My mother answered with peace. She was one of the most active people I know, and yet when the time came, God gave her the serenity to simply surrender into his arms with assurance and peace. She taught me so much in her life, and even in her death, she continues to teach me.

I have so many stories I could tell about the grace filled moments of the past few days. Maybe I will soon. But on this day, Christmas day, I am simply rejoicing that Mama is home with Jesus....and simply missing her so much I ache all over.

Friday, December 18, 2015

O! The Antiphons of Advent

Although I graduated from seminary, I am not a liturgy geek. I have friends (lots of them) who are...who can tell you the historical background behind all the various prayers, colors, and traditions in the church. I love beautiful liturgy and will forever be thankful that the prayer book grabbed me so many years ago and helped direct me to the Anglican tradition I now call home. But as a lay person, not a priest or deacon, I am usually perfectly content to participate in the liturgy without understanding all the exact whys and wherefores of why we do what we do.

Since I'm not a liturgy geek, but I do love history and music, occasionally I stumble upon something that I feel like I should have known about before but didn't. This year it is the "O Antiphons" of Advent.

I learned about the O Antiphons this year when I went looking for background on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." It's the sweet girl's favorite Advent hymn, and I had promised we could delve into its meaning a little bit during our evening Advent prayers around the wreath. (And yes, liturgical geek friends, our candle colors are wrong this year! We were late buying candles and the best we could do this year was dark green with one pink.)

I knew that the names for Jesus in O Come were all Scriptural, so I decided we would dive into those biblical allusions. What I didn't realize was that the verses of the hymn correspond to ancient antiphonal prayers, each one beginning with an O!

I love those Os! Isn't it a wonderful exclamation! As though you are drawing your breath in, feeling total amazement and awe. Addressing a king. Stunned by the beauty of the gospel.

An antiphon, by the way, is simply a prayer that is read or sung antiphonally -- with voices volleying the words back and forth. The seven Antiphons of Advent are typically prayed in the week leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas day. They are wonderful prayers that help us to prepare our hearts to make room for the celebration of the Nativity.

We've reflected together on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and now we are praying our way through the O Antiphons. Last night it was a prayer to "Wisdom of the Most High," and tonight we address God as "Ruler of the House of the Israel." O, I love that we never run out of names for God!

Here's a lovely site with all the Antiphons, from whence I pulled the beautiful image for this post. It's an original artwork by Jeanne Kun, entitled "The Root of Jesse."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Creativity Angel Come to Visit

I had to laugh when I walked into the living room this morning and discovered the creativity angel on the floor.

Twenty-eight years ago I spent a year in Connecticut, living with my older sister. We spent a lot of time reading, cooking, and creating together. One of her gifts to me that year a set of tiny "angel cards." Each card has a picture of a small angel on it, right next to a gift word. "Responsibility," "Surrender," "Love," "Creativity," etc.

I honestly am not sure where the whole set is anymore, but occasionally the angels turn up in unexpected places, as angels tend to do.

Today's angel was, I'm pretty sure, tucked inside a basket of photographs and cards that I keep on the white shelf between my dining room and living room. The basket overturned late last night when I was hunting for a hole punch so that Jedi Teen could finish up her Stars Wars Christmas ornaments (speaking of creativity). I scooped everything up willy-nilly and shoved it all back in the basket, too tired to organize it in any way. Apparently the creativity angel escaped my clean-up efforts. Seems fitting somehow!

And this morning, I think I finally finished this year's advent poem. 

May the creativity angel visit your house soon too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Praying Life (by Paul E. Miller)

I was going to try a reading round-up post....remember those? But I'll be honest, I'm not managing to read a lot in these crammed and tired days. The reading I am most enjoying is our nightly family reading time, where we are revisiting Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. My tried and true December reading habits are being tested in big ways this year. I didn't seem to have enough energy to tackle a big Advent reading project. The history and biography habit that always seems to feed me in the cold winter months hasn't yet kicked in (maybe because the cold weather hasn't).

But I have to give a shout-out to this lovely book on prayer which I've been sipping at for several weeks. Because I am in slooooww-reading....(think marinating, slow cooking)...I am not going to finish it before it has to go back to the library, but that's okay. It's worth getting again.

I've dipped my toes into a lot of prayer books over the years, reading some of them fully (and more than once) and skimming others. This is one of the best I can recall. It's simple, clear, and incredibly honest. Miller talks about prayer in ways that I think almost anyone can resonate with, letting us know in the book's introduction that God taught him to pray through suffering.  "...prayer isn't meant to be a production or a problem," David Powlison writes in the foreword. "And God is here, now. Prayer is meant to be the conversation where your life and your God meet. Paul Miller understands that."

I think he does, which is why sitting down with the book feels less like sitting down at the feet of someone who has all the answers and more like sharing a cup of tea with a friend who gets all the reasons I have for a dry or impatient or faith-lacking prayer life. I need to hear this book-friend's encouraging words.

"Come overwhelmed with life. Come with a wandering mind. Come messy."
"Don't be embarrassed by how needy your heart is and how much it needs to cry out for grace. Just start praying."
  "If you know that you, like Jesus, can't do life on your own, then prayer makes complete sense."

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...

Despite the unusually warm temperatures outside, it's definitely mid-December. I know this because the advent wreath is on the dining room table, the Christmas tree is up and decorated, the box of Christmas books and videos/DVDs has made its appearance in the living room, and the cookie recipes are scattered in the kitchen. I also know it because yesterday was Christmas pageant rehearsal number two (one more to go before performance on 4th Advent), and on Saturday, Santa rode into our little town at the back of the Christmas parade. S' Christmas cactus is blooming wildly on the windowsill, brightly advent pink (joy!), and the poinsettia she rescued a couple of years back is also blooming again. I love her green thumb.

Then there's the fact that I spent a few minutes this morning hunting down the elusive notebook with my advent poem jottings. Yet another year that I am feeling almost certain that a poem won't get written, but I've managed it for twenty-three years running, even in really dry and difficult years, and somehow or other, it will happen in year twenty-four.

Dry and difficult aren't quite the words I would use for this particular advent season, but there have been lots of struggles this year. My stress levels have been an almost all-time high in the past week or so, and the stress is manifesting itself in physical ways -- I am struggling with back and hip pain of the kind I only get when my body has just maxed out stress-wise. S' anxiety levels have been enormous of late, which is affecting all of us, especially as she struggles with sleep. (Though blessedly, last night was better. Thank you, Abba!)  I also know a lot my own stress is due to being deep down tired:  I've had health issues while needing to keep an incredible work pace this year, and it's not over yet. Some of it is our financial stress -- we've had a rotten fourth quarter, and the personal Christmas miracle I am praying for right now is the ability to keep our electricity on through the holidays (not an exaggeration). Some of it is also weariness in the face of difficult news of suffering from around the world, which sometimes seems more (not less) acute when we look at it with advent eyes.

In and through all of this, it can sometimes be difficult to hear the gospel sing, but sing it does, and that too is another reason I know it's mid-December. Because Jesus has come and still comes and will come again, and that means light in dark places and tender care for all aches and hope where reason tells us there's no reason to hope. So deeply thankful that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas again.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Poetry Friday: The Cedar Tree (Jessica Powers)

I woke this morning with snow on my mind. I'm not sure why, since it's still quite mild here for December, and all we've seen this week is rain. But I found myself marveling over the beauty of Monet's painting "The Magpie," and then I found myself turning to one of my favorite Jessica Powers poems, "The Cedar Tree."

The Cedar Tree

In the beginnng, in the unbeginning
of endlessness and of eternity,
God saw this tree.
He saw these cedar branches bending low
under the full exhaustion of the snow.
And since He set no wind of day to rising,
this burden of beauty and this burden of cold,
whether the wood breaks or the branches hold
must be of His devising.

The rest of the poem is here. The end of the poem almost always brings me to tears. 

The Poetry Friday round-up today is at A Teaching Life.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Advent Reading: Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas

I recently went looking through my review archives to read over some of the reflections I wrote, in years past, about Advent and Christmas books. One of the Advent books I have loved the longest is Madeleine L'Engle's Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.  I wrote briefly about it here on the blog back in 2011, and I reviewed it in full on the now defunct back in 2004!

In honor of the first week of Advent, and in honor of what would have been Madeleine's 97th birthday on November 29, I thought I would post that old review in its entirety here. And yes, that precious 2 1/2 year old girl I talk about in the review is now a wonderful 13 1/2.

Last Sunday night, while we were still finishing the Thanksgiving leftovers, we got out our family Advent wreath and set it up with new candles. This is the first year that our daughter, almost two and a half, is really getting "into" the Advent traditions that her Daddy and I had already established for a decade before her birth. The lighting of the wreath, along with a special prayer time each night, is the best part.

For centuries, it has been the tradition of the Christian church to mark the weeks before Christmas as a time of reflection and celebration of the coming of Jesus. A good summary of what Advent is all about is "He comes; He's coming again!" Even as we await Christmas day (the celebration of the feast of the nativity) many of the appointed Scripture lessons focus our attention on the eventual return of Jesus as King. So our vision has a kind of dual focus: the humility of God coming to earth as a tiny child, and the majesty of Jesus' promised return as King to set things right and make all things new.

The wisdom of the tradition of Advent feels more and more apparent to me the older I get, especially now that I'm a parent. In the darkest days of the year, the season of Advent turns our attention to the coming of light. In the frenetic rush and busyness of a consumer crazed culture, the season of Advent refocuses our attention on the gift of the incarnation, God-become-human-being. Advent helps us to "anticipate" with joy, things both small and large. It's natural that our family is excited about good things at this time of year: beautiful decorations, time with family and friends, traditional music, delicious food, the exchange of gifts with loved ones. Taking time out to reflect and rest in the meaning of the celebration reminds us that these good things we're waiting for are just side-dishes, with the real banquet of love and light still to come one day.

Some of my first meaningful brushes with the whole Advent concept of "slowing-down/waiting/anticipating with joy" came in Madeleine L'Engle's marvelous book The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas. First published in 1964, it is still in print. The edition I own, well loved and well read, is the hardback edition illustrated by Joe DeVelasco and published by Shaw. I believe this edition is now out of print, but used copies still seem to be floating around. It's well worth it if you can find it because the illustrations are charming and help bring the story to life.

Fans of Madeleine L'Engle will recognize the family in the story. The Austins were introduced by L'Engle in 1960's Meet the Austins and were the focus of several other books she wrote from the 1960's on into the 1990's: The Moon by Night (1963), The Young Unicorns (1968), A Ring of Endless Light (1980), and Troubling a Star (1994). All of those were novel length, but in addition to these, L'Engle revisited the Austin family from time to time in "long short story" format, including The Anti-Muffins and A Full House which shows the Austins on another Christmas. Of the three shorter books, The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas is my favorite, and I think by far the strongest and most interesting narrative.

Like all Austin stories (except for Young Unicorns and A Full House), this one is narrated by Vicky Austin. Readers familiar with the novels know Vicky as an adolescent, but in this "prequel" she is only 7 years old. Also part of her family: older brother John, younger sister Suzy, father Wallace (a doctor by trade), and mother Victoria. Oh yes, also Colette the poodle and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane. In all other Austin books, one of the most memorable characters is the youngest Austin sibling, Rob. He is definitely a part of this book too, but in a different way: Mrs. Austin is pregnant and Rob makes his somewhat dramatic appearance toward the end of the book.

The Austins live in an unnamed New England village. The book opens with Vicky proclaiming "December is probably my favorite month". That's because the family gets to do something special for each day of the four weeks leading up to Christmas. They start each December with a new Advent calendar, and then each day they get to do something else new and special. Most of these are ordinary but creative family traditions: making cards, making cookies, getting familiar ornaments out of the attic, choosing their tree from the woods. Vicky relates what the family does to celebrate each day in the course of a story packed with all sorts of other anticipation. The children keep waiting for the first snowfall of the year; they are excited about the upcoming church Christmas pageant; and most of all they are excited about the new baby, due in early January.

Vicky makes a precocious seven year old narrator. L'Engle occasionally seems to give her a too "adult" kind of tone/reasoning...but readers familiar with the older Vicky can forgive this a bit, and I think even other readers will find her endearing. A lot of us have known very smart seven year olds (and even younger children) who surprise us with the intensity of their questions and the profundity of their thoughts. What feels perfectly natural about her narration is the undertone of anxiety shot through the joyful anticipation. What if she goofs up her part as an angel in the Christmas pageant? (She overhears the director say she's awkward, and spends much of the rest of the story walking around the house with an encyclopedia on her head, trying to improve her grace and poise.) Worse yet, what if the baby decides to come early and her mother ends up in the hospital for Christmas?

L'Engle delightfully resolves these childish but oh so understandable dilemmas and fears. The end result is a story shot through with the Advent themes of waiting, working, praying and loving in joyful anticipation.

Vicky is very much a member of a family, and readers will enjoy getting to see her interact with her parents and siblings in ordinary ways. Some critics have faulted L'Engle for "unreal" or "ideal" portrayals of family life, but I think that's probably more a commentary on the sad brokenness we're used to than on her writing. The Austins, at any rate, always felt much more real to me than L'Engle's other famous family (the time-traveling Murrys) and I love them here. They fuss, fret, squabble, laugh, cry, eat, pray, and read together. As the youngest member of my own family (and so basically an "only" child by the time I was 13) I loved stepping vicariously into the Austin household. Of course, I also related somewhat intensely to the gawky, introverted Vicky. Still do!

All in all, this book is a wonderful introduction for children and grown-ups to the celebration of Advent. I remember reading this when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and thinking "I want to do those kinds of things with my children some day." Now I'm getting to, and I'm still grateful for the inspiration this story provided.

And it is a story with enough tender moments to make you wish to be a part of it again and again. I am always especially touched by Vicky's night-time thoughts by the creche, and by Rob Austin's birth. Yes, he comes within the 24 days...just!

The story comes in at 48 pages of fairly packed prose, although in my edition a few of those are full page illustrations. It can be read in one long sitting -- something I've done and enjoyed on Christmas Eves past, but that might be tough going for very little children. Alternatively, it can be read and enjoyed as a kind of "serial" since each day of the month is described. Some of the days have long narrative sections and others only brief mentions, so you might want to plan ahead and plot a reading course that works best for your family.

Happy first week of Advent, and happy reading!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Gospel: New and Yet the Same

I had a difficult night's sleep where I seemed to be worrying and fretting about many things (to paraphrase Jesus in speaking to Martha of Bethany). It was one of those nights where I tossed back and forth, never sleeping deeply, my dreams punctuated by lots of things, big and little, that are making me anxious.

It didn't help that I woke up a little before 2 certain that I'd heard gunshots outside. We live in a small city and we're in an area near a now empty lot, so I suppose it's possible -- though it's also possible I heard firecrackers (that happens too) or a car backfiring or just a loud noise that my brain transformed into something much more anxiety producing.

I finally fell a little more asleep in the wee small hours, though I never felt like I slept as deeply as I needed. Which is all the more reason to be grateful for the thoughts I woke up to, which are simply this: the gospel never changes. The same gospel at work in the lives of the apostles, saints, and martyrs is the gospel at work in me. The same gospel that freed my great-grandmother and set the hearts of so many others in our family to dancing in delight is the gospel I get to dance to today.

Isn't that amazing? It's true that God's mercies are new every morning (great is your faithfulness!) and that those mercies are new and fresh in each generation, each person, in a different way. But our hope, while as fresh as the new dawn, is also as old and older than the sun. God doesn't change, and neither does his life-giving word. Our hope is rooted in his eternal changelessness and yet new and fresh as he stirs it into the swirling waters of this day, this me, this life. The gospel that spoke to my anxiety and fears in the night is the same gospel that shines brightly in the light of the morning. We have this sure and certain hope.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hard Times Come Again No More

I first learned the beautiful song "Hard Times Come Again No More" from Emmylou Harris. It was written (in case you don't know -- I didn't until recently) by Stephen Foster, the wonderfully prolific 19th century songwriter who also penned "Beautiful Dreamer," "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Camptown Races," and "O! Susana!"

Oh, and "Slumber my Darling," which you really need to hear here, performed by Alison Kraus with Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor, and Edgar Meyer. 

The sweet girl and I were listening to Foster's music today as part of her 1850s history unit. We played the Emmylou Harris version, of course, but we also listened to the deep, rich tones of Mavis Staples and the gravely gravity of Johnny Cash.

This is a song that travels well.

And I don't know -- but on top of all the heartbreaking news recently regarding Syrian refugees and escalating terror attacks in so many places -- I heard this song with a bigger lump in my throat than ever before. Those first two lines feel like a siren call to prayer.

Hard Times Come Again No More
(Stephen Foster)

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Confessions of a Bake Off Watcher

It's been a very busy November with mountains of writing deadlines and plenty of other work and ministry. I feel I've been going at quite a galloping pace! It's not always been easy, especially since I'm continuing to work through some health issues (and just recently finished a round of antibiotics).

In the midst of all this busyness, I've found myself working a lot of very late nights and early mornings. Sometimes those are the best hours right now for writing and thinking, when the house is quiet and I can push through larger sections of work than I can when I'm working in the cracks and crevices of the day. I have discovered that I am becoming more of a morning person all the time -- which just makes me laugh. All those years I dragged out of bed for early commitments, and now I am often awake early and can't get back to sleep. I find my mind is fresher and usually more creative in the morning.

All this work has meant very little down time, especially for reading or any sort of creative writing that isn't immediately work related. When I've needed brain breaks, I've been indulging in bits of episodes of the Great British and Great Irish Bake Offs.

If you haven't caught these shows, they're great fun, especially if you enjoy watching other people bake. I love both the actual baking and the goofiness of the competition. These shows are terrific little opportunities for character studies: it's fun to notice which contestants take themselves and their baking as serious art, which ones bake like it's relaxed therapy, which ones cheerfully deal with mistakes and try to incorporate them into something creative or at least presentable, and which ones completely melt down (like chocolate?) when in crisis. The editing of the shows is intended, of course, to make these bake offs look as competitive and tense as possible, but I find it sort of goofily endearing, especially since they are a lot less over the top about this stuff in the UK than they are on American television.

It's also so much fun to contemplate creativity as you watch them approach their ideas. Some of them have these incredibly cool and creative ideas and can't carry them out at all while others are cautious in their ideas and meticulous in the execution. Some of them are so confident that it borders on cocky and can't get overly deflated even when their stuff falls apart, and some of them are so incredibly insecure that the cameraman tends to focus on their anxious eyes as they work. It's the insecure folks, I'm discovering, who often turn out the best things...and then look delighted and surprised.

The shows are really as much about people and personalities as they are baking, but I'm still learning new baking terms and concepts. I doubt I will ever try many of these things in my own kitchen, but I have found myself thinking a little more creatively about my own baking lately because of it, and I have a feeling I may end up working some of my newfound baking terminology into a story at some point! In fact, I was thinking a murder mystery in a bake off tent just might prove to be an intriguing plot.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Remembering What We Can Do

Yesterday I had a moment where I was completely focused on what I could not do. Have you ever caught yourself in a moment like that? It was humbling.

For years, twenty-three plus of them (ever since we got married) we've sponsored a child through Compassion. We've been blessed to have had relationships with three different children in that time, one of whom is now grown, a wonderful woman with whom we are still in touch.

In recent years, our monthly giving commitments have grown harder, not just with Compassion but with everything else. Our decision to stay in mission and ministry in our small town, and the various work the Lord has led us to (all part-time and self-employment) means we live lean and a bit adventurously. That last part has never come naturally to me, quiet and uncourageous woman that I am sometimes.

Some months we are able to pay our bills and meet our giving commitments, and some months we aren't. In those months, in order to keep lights on and food on the table and medicines paid, we sometimes fall behind on other things that don't seem to have the same immediate urgency. (Sometimes we also squander where we shouldn't...just because we're relatively poor doesn't mean we don't sometimes make stupid budget decisions, or give in to the whispering that tells us we deserve to eat out or we really need more books.) I have been grateful beyond words that even on the months we've fallen behind, Compassion has been willing to work with us. And that the Lord continues to provide us enough work that often, when I am paid for one of my self-employed writing or teaching projects, we are able to catch back up. I always feel better when that is the case.

We are in one of our lean, adventurous quarters right now -- end of the year is always particularly difficult for us -- and yesterday an envelope arrived from Compassion. I opened it, and several pictures fell out into my hand. Pictures of unsponsored children. The enclosed letter asked for generous giving to help them and other children like them who are in need.

The guilt I felt in the first moments when I saw those pictures was palpable. Our bank balance at the moment is at serious low-tide. We've had two recent gifts from friends that have been designated for other things than immediate spending (one is to ensure that we can spend a few days at the end of this month with our beloved parents down in Virginia) for which I am overwhelmingly grateful, but we're behind on bills and have fallen into the hole just trying to cover the month's day-to-day expenses.  In other words, my immediate heart's response to seeing those pictures was an anguished "I can't."

And the "I can't" made me feel crippled. I literally almost put the pictures aside. I didn't want to look at them because, narcissistic fool that I was, I had about seventeen seconds of only thinking about myself. Poor me, not capable enough to support my own family, much less give the way I want and long to.

And then I heard the still, small voice. You know the one! The one that said, simply, "you can pray for them." The one that didn't want to brook my navel-gazing nonsense, and who simply wasn't interested in the fact that I sometimes put justifiers in front of the word "pray," as in "we can only pray," or "there's nothing I can do in this situation but pray." There is nothing mere or only about prayer.

So I started looking at their faces and reading the backs of the cards. I've put them on the kitchen table and I'll go back to them and read more. I will be praying for these children.

Sometimes it's not what we can't's remembering what we can do. I am deeply thankful that God got my attention on that yesterday.

Friday, November 06, 2015

An Open Letter to the Story Idea That is Fast Slipping Away

Dear Story Idea,

Please come back.

I know it has been about 36 hours since you first came to me in my Thursday morning shower. I know you really, really wanted to be written down right after that, when you were fresh and when all the creative connections were still firing in my brain.

I know it's not your fault that you chose to come on one of the busiest days of my week. During a season of huge amounts of work deadlines that I am struggling to meet. During a time of real financial stress. In the midst of ongoing weirdness with my health.

I planned to get back to you later yesterday. And again last night. And again this morning. And after I got some of my work done. And housework. And school time. And helped my daughter through a really hard day. And cried for a while.

I didn't know how my tiredness and discouragement would send you into hiding.

I've been feeling pretty lonely, and having you drop in yesterday in the midst of everything that feels so fragile and tiring felt really great. I'm sorry you couldn't stay longer.

It sure would be nice if you'd come back to visit. I promise I will try to be ready with a pen this time.


Monday, November 02, 2015

The Great Circle of the Saints

Yesterday was All Saints day. It turned out to be a difficult one for me (for reasons which don't need to get written about this morning) but all day long, even in the midst of stress and tiredness, I found myself remembering deep down how grateful and glad I am to be a part of the company of saints.

During opening worship service yesterday, I found myself dwelling again on the image of that great company all connected. When it was time to go downstairs with the children for Sunday School, I couldn't help but want to share that with them.

So I had our little crew hold hands in a circle. We thought about how we were there that morning to worship Jesus together. Then I asked them to think about how big the circle would be if we expanded it to include all the grown-ups still in the service upstairs.

And if we included all our fellow Christians in town -- other people at other churches who had gathered to pray and worship in Jesus' name that morning.

And if we included all the other saints on out into the city.

And if we included all the other followers of Jesus in our country.

And all the other followers of Jesus in our world today.

And all the other followers of Jesus who have ever lived, present and past, since the beginning.

I asked them to imagine how big that circle would get. (One of the kids suggested bigger than Jupiter, which made me smile.)

I asked them to throw into the picture the bright company of angels.

I asked them to imagine all of us standing around God's throne forever, worshiping and loving God forever.

So very, very grateful to be part of this family!!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Praying With Psalm 40

"Let all who seek you rejoice in you and be glad;
let those who love your salvation continually say,
"Great is the Lord!""

I had never noticed what a wonderful prayer this is in Psalm 40:17. This is the prayer book version, which I came across in my reading this morning.

When I begin to read Psalm 40, I tend to get a little lost in music. "I waited patiently for the Lord," the opening line, usually kicks me into the U2 sung version of this psalm. When I get to "He put a new song in my mouth," in verse 3,  I start to hear Messianic singer Marty Goetz. (Yes, two incredibly different kinds of music.) It's apparent that a lot of different people feel the need to sing this psalm.

My own heart has sung different parts of it before, but where I lingered today was in verse 17, a verse I don't remember lingering over before.

It seems to encompass two kinds of people we're privileged to pray for: "those who seek you," and "those who love your salvation." That seems to sum up a lot of my intercessory prayer. I pray for those who don't yet know the Lord or who seem to be seeking him -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not. And I pray for those who already know him to know him better, to be drawn closer to his heart in prayer and praise.

It's really the same prayer for both, just worded and shaped a little differently. We pray that those who don't yet know him will come to know and love him, that they will learn to rejoice in God and be glad in that rejoicing. And we pray that those who know him already will find great reasons to rejoice in their salvation, to dwell in his refuge and let their abiding in him well up in them in praise and adoration.

That we all may come to know God in deeper, better, more gladsome ways than we have ever encountered and known him before.

What a good song to sing!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mrs. B's Centennial

A couple of weeks ago, on the 12th of October, it was the 100th birthday of dear Mrs. Brooks, the neighbor and lifelong family friend who shared Jesus with me when I was a little girl.

Mrs. B, as I grew up thinking of her, is a precious saint. She was not only instrumental in leading me to faith, but in influencing and loving most of my family in Jesus' direction. When my mother, spiritually hungry and looking for help in understanding God, went to her door years ago to find out about the Bible clubs Mrs. B had for neighborhood kids, Mrs. B invited her to come see for herself what it was all about. That invitation, and her gentle teaching and loving presence, made all the difference in the life of our family. I will be forever grateful that she was the one who scattered gospel seeds and helped to water them for so many years.

I have no idea how many other lives and families Mrs. B touched over the years, but I would guess it is beyond counting. She taught Bible clubs for decades. She and her kind husband, Clifton (who always reminded me a gentler real-life version of Fred Flintstone) were known for their loving and generous friendship to many. Just as one example, when I was a pre-schooler, they once took care of me for a whole week during the day-time when my mother was in the hospital and then recovering from surgery. For a child who had not grown up located near grandparents, this was heady stuff. I still remember Mrs B scrambling eggs for my breakfast and adding bacon bits to them, Mr B pushing me in the cart at the grocery store, and Mrs. B laughing as she made me peanut butter sandwiches (hers were the best, I apparently proclaimed, because she spread the peanut butter right to the edges).

Both of my sisters eventually taught during the summers with CEF, the organization Mrs B was a part of. Although I never did their summer program, I did end up working with Mrs B in a Bible club when I was a teenager. She had decided to teach some refugee children from Cambodia who had moved into the neighborhood and she asked me to help. We couldn't speak their language and they could speak only a little of ours, but she loved on those kids with Jesus love and I followed along in her wake, happy to watch and learn.

Loving others in her gentle way has always been what Mrs B does best, and it's why her quiet voice, speaking the truth of the gospel, has always carried such weight. During my first couple of college vacations, I went with my mom and Mrs B to a program that Mrs. B regularly taught in. It was a detention center for juvenile girls who had gotten in trouble with the law, and Mrs B thought it would be good if someone closer to the girls' age could share a testimony with them. Introvert that I am (never a public speaker), I went because she asked, and I did my best to share as honestly and lovingly as she had shared with me. And I watched as those teen girls, hip and cool and insecure and in pain, swarmed around her after the Bible lesson she taught, just wanting to be with her. Some of them called her Grandma.

Mrs. B has outlived her dear Clifton (though he lived to be near 90, I think) and has even outlived one of her children, her pastor son who sadly died unexpectedly of a heart attack several years ago. She now lives in a nursing home where she can get the daily care she needs. It's not hard for me to imagine her bathing everyone there in the same gentle love she's always shone on everyone she's come into contact with.

I didn't know what image to put on the card I made for her birthday. I finally chose this:

I had seen this painting no long ago on the "I Require Art" blog. It's a painting called "Yellow Sycamore in Autumn," painted by Edgar Payne. I thought the wonderful spreading shelter of the tree, and its bright color and stage of life, seemed to capture so much of what I felt when I thought of Mrs B and all the beauty she's shared in her hundred years. Right down to that blue patch of a window where you can glimpse heaven.

When I went to write down the specifics of the painting so I could put them on the back of the card (something I always try to do when using an artistic image) I almost laughed aloud. Payne painted this in 1916. It's 99 years old...painted when Mrs B was just a tiny girl of 1.

Friday, October 16, 2015

"A stately squadron of snowy geese..." (Reading Washington Irving)

Jedi Teen and I have been reading Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," first published in 1820. This is one of those stories that I could have sworn I must have read somewhere along the line in my literature studies, but apparently I missed it.

The headless horseman is such a deep part of our American literary landscape that the story and its characters feel very familiar. I think I must have seen the Disney version (their Ichabod Crane is the visual that kept playing in my brain as I read) and I am guessing I read some sort of abridged version in grade school or middle school. I also came across inferences to the story in my beloved Trixie Belden mysteries that I read over and over as a child, stories that happened to be set in the Hudson River valley.

I don't know why I never read much Irving, given that his collected works was one the books that my grandmother, an inveterate re-reader, read regularly. It was one of the beloved books she brought with her from her home in North Carolina when she moved into our home in Virginia when I was nine. I caught onto some of her other reading loves, but somehow I mostly missed Irving.

I'm glad I found him now. I had a delightful time wending my way aloud through his dense prose, deliciously thick with description. There's something substantial about biting down on 19th century literature: when you finish a novel or a story (or sometimes even a page, paragraph, or sentence!) you feel you've eaten something hearty and filling, like a good creamy potato soup with a dark grain bread.

It's not surprising I mention food here. Irving delights in showing us how much Ichabod Crane, skinny as a scarecrow, loves to eat. One of the funniest scenes in the story, and there are many, is when he goes to the Van Tassel home to woo his sweetheart. He's enamored of her family's wealth as much as he's enamored of her, and the way he notes that wealth is to note how much there is to eat. Every animal he sees in the barnyard, alive and kicking, he envisions on a platter:

"The pedagogue's mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind's eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy..."

We were both impressed with so many turns of phrases. The sweet girl couldn't help chuckling over some of them, like the phrase "sleek unwieldy porkers" to describe a group of pigs. In that same scene, I appreciated the alliterative joys of a "a stately squadron of snowy geese..." I know that more than one of my English teachers would have likely slashed at some of those adjectives with a red pen, or at least warned me against their overuse, but there is something about the sheer layers of words that really works to create this story's atmosphere and tone.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Pevensies at Hogwarts

I feel nigh unto certain that someone has written about this already, but have you ever noticed how neatly you could divvy up the Pevensie children in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe into houses at Hogwarts?

I was not feeling terribly well last night and picked up my well-worn copy of LWW just to let myself dip into a few of its friendly and familiar pages. And right there, on page three, we have this exchange among the four children who have just landed at the Professors' house:

"It's an owl," said Peter. "This is going to be a wonderful place for birds. I shall go to bed now. I say, let's go and explore to-morrow. You might find anything in a place like this. Did you see those mountains as we came along? And the woods? There might be eagles. There might be stags. There'll be hawks."

"Badgers!" said Lucy.

"Snakes!" said Edmund.

"Foxes!" said Susan.

Laying aside the fun possibility that the owl they hear hooting outside is delivering mail, don't you find their animal choices somewhat fascinating? In the world of Harry Potter, the animals associated with people are always "telling" about someone's character -- whether they are the animals associated with their Hogwarts house, or with their patronuses or an animagus form.

Peter's enthusiasm gives us a lot of animals to choose from, but I find it interesting that he ends with stags and hawks. The reference to stags here at the beginning of the story could be a pre-echo of the end of the tale, but as I think of it in connection to Harry Potter, I think of course of Prongs. Hawks are birds associated with heraldry -- not to mention hawks rhymes with Fawkes. Put that all together with Peter's kingly courage and the gift of the sword from Father Christmas, and I'm going to say the Sorting Hat would put him in Gryffindor.

Lucy's badger puts her firmly in Hufflepuff, which I find delightful and just right. Her loyalty to the truth, her faithfulness to Aslan, and her perseverance in the face of trials all seem to make this Hogwarts house just the right place for her.

"Snakes!" said Edmund...which is where I almost started laughing. Slytherin, anyone? Edmund, pre-Narnia and especially pre-encounter-with-Aslan, seems to fit the scheming, ambitious, smart-yet-insecure portrait of many a Slytherin. Post-Aslan, of course, he's a different sort of boy, and one can imagine him having more trouble fitting into Slytherin after that (one thinks of Jill Pole noting how much Eustace has changed when he goes back to school after his adventures in Narnia) but perhaps he could bring qualities that house sorely needs.

Susan's mention of foxes is a little more ambiguous, though I do think that foxes, as very smart animals, make her a potentially good fit for Ravenclaw. It's too bad that she didn't say eagle instead of Peter, or this whole scheme would feel almost tailor-made for the four houses.

It would be interesting to see a whole family sorted into different houses, unlike the Weasleys who are just Gryffindors through and through.

I feel half-way certain that I must've read something about this somewhere at some point, or it wouldn't have jumped off the page and bitten me like it did last night. So forgive me if the thoughts aren't entirely original. I just found it fun to contemplate story worlds colliding. I've written about that in other ways before, both here (where I find preludes to Rowling in E.M. Forster) and here (where I find them in Elizabeth Goudge). Hmm. And I've found bits of Tolkien in Rowling too. Once again, we realize just what a wonderful story soup Rowling has stirred up in Harry Potter.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

John Couch Adams and the Search for the Planet Neptune

Not long ago, I was helping my daughter brainstorm for an independent writing project. This is a project from her writing curriculum, so certain assignment parameters were set, but the topic was open (partly to encourage brainstorming from inspiration to final paper).

Her dad and I decided to ask her to confine her topic choices to something in the 19th century, chiefly around the middle of the century, since that's the period she's currently studying in history. Beyond the era, we gave her carte blanche on topic choice. As usual, she gravitated (pun intended) to science first, though she ended up swerving direction in the end and is currently at work on a paper about the impressionist artist Edgar Degas.

Before she got there, we were doing some online research into scientific events in the mid-19th century and came upon the discovery of Neptune. In the wonderful way of learning trails, this led us to the book The Neptune File by Tom Standage, which our library quickly moved to the hold shelf for us.

As I said in my very brief review on Goodreads:
This is a highly readable account of the 19th century search for Neptune, the first planet ever discovered not by observation but by mathematical deduction. Standage's writing style is engaging. He makes the science, and even the math, not only interesting but understandable.

His fascination with the history is evident on every page too. I enjoyed his profiles of some of the major players involved in the discovery and the controversy that surrounded it, especially John Couch Adams, Airy, and Le Verrier. Adams emerged as one of my new 19th century heroes: his humility is just as impressive as his intellect.

The story of John Couch Adams (pronounced "Cooch"; he was from Cornwall) really did intrigue me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that he was a poor and relatively unknown graduate student who "got there" faster than anyone else (meaning he got to the relative position of the unknown planet based on his elegant and complex mathematics) and yet due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and downright blunders, almost never was credited for that amazing work. Someone else "got there" not far behind him. Le Verrier's math may not have been as elegant, but he got there all the same, and he had the good fortune to be in a position to get people with powerful telescopes to listen to him and take him seriously, so they could point those instruments to the sky and confirm his prediction. Which they did, prompting the world to credit Le Verrier with a discovery that Couch Adams had actually made first.

This controversy from 1846 was the whole reason I found this fascinating book in the first place. When the sweet girl and I were looking up the discovery of Neptune, the first thing she asked was: "Who DID discover it?" I went to a trusty online search and came up with...Le Verrier. And then read and googled a bit more and came up with...Couch Adams. Which one was it? she wanted to know. And based on a hasty skim read of online sources, I couldn't tell her, which surprised me. It would seem that something as momentous as the first finding of a planet via mathematical deduction would be a pretty certain fact. It was clear that Le Verrier and Couch Adams hadn't been collaborators, that there was some confusion about who got the credit.

In the end, as I learned from Standage, they shared the credit pretty peaceably, though there were people who shouted at each other across the English Channel about this for a long time. A lot of people in England, responsible for the errors and mistakes that caused Couch Adams' work to be ignored rather than explored at the proper time, tried to justify themselves and pass the buck. To Couch Adams' credit, he never laid into anyone publicly, blaming them for this or anything else. Genuinely excited about the discovery and genuinely humble, he praised Le Verrier's work, seemed gratified that they'd reached the same conclusion, and went on about the business of working. He even turned down an eventual knighthood.

As I concluded in my review:
It's also fascinating to reflect on how a story like this played out in 1846 -- so very different from how it would play out in our age of social media.

The last two chapters would benefit from a revision just because so much has happened regarding both Pluto (the recent fly-by) and the search for extrasolar planets since he wrote the book. (To date, NASA has confirmed over 1,800 exosolar planets!) Still, this is a very readable and enjoyable scientific narrative, one I would recommend to youth as well as adults. I plan to read this one with my eighth grader, as it ties in beautifully with both her physics and modern history studies in homeschool this year.
Can you imagine what the shouting would have been like if they'd had Facebook when this controversy occurred?! Kind of makes you wistful for a time of slightly more civil conversations.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Middle Years

Lately I've been realizing that some of the challenges (joys, tensions, giggles) at our house consist in the fact that we're all in our "middle years."

The sweet girl (aka Jedi Teen) is in the "middle years" between childhood and adulthood -- never an easy road to travel.

Her dad and I are in our middle years, period. Which turns out aren't the easiest road to travel either, bringing with them new aches and pains, different kinds of questions about our lives and what we've done/still want to do with them, and other issues we hadn't thought about very much before they got here, like the challenges of watching and accompanying our parents as they age.

Now don't get me wrong: both sets of middle years have their blessings and compensations. The sweet girl would likely tell you she enjoys newfound freedoms and enthusiasms, and in some ways, that's true for us in our middle years too.

But sometimes the different kinds of middle years collide head on, and then the fireworks can fly! Sometimes it makes me laugh.

I know that part of the challenge for me is that I am slow to keep up with changes of any sort these days, and my daughter is just full of them -- she is a walking, talking, laughing, long-legged dancing, eye-rolling, hollering, crying, giggling ball of change most days. This slow middle-years mama (who feels like it was just yesterday she was teaching this adolescent dynamo-who-is-taller-than-she-is how to tie her shoes) sometimes just stands there in awe while she watches that dynamo practice her slip jig for Irish dance class.

I suspect, though I don't know, that parents of more than one child get to ease into all this change a little more gradually. Because there is some space between children, they get to keep experiencing one stage of life with one child while another leaps ahead into the next. I've seen this with friends who have kids at multi-ages and stages, and sometimes I am a little wistful about it. Maybe I would deal better with the swift progressions of adolescence if I was still cutting crusts off sandwiches and reading Eric Carle to an up-and-coming sibling. But that's not our experience nor our particular blessing (though I am grateful I still get the chance to spend time and work with younger kids in other venues, even if not here at home).

Still, I think I need to remind myself from time to time to relax and laugh a little more about the middle years. These too shall pass. And probably far too swiftly.