Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Big Vision, Difficult Tasks, Lasting Fruit

A letter from a missionary organization hit my electronic mailbox this morning. In it, I found this wonderful prayer its leaders have been praying recently, one which I think I need to adopt as a prayer of my own. They are praying for:

"A vision bigger than what our faith believes. Tasks bigger than our own hands can accomplish. Fruit that will last longer than our lifetimes."

Very Amen!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The World is Almost Too Beautiful

The world is almost too beautiful. The variegated petals of a tulip, the wisps of straw fluttering from the open door of the white birdhouse where sparrows are once again busy setting up housekeeping, the way the light looks on a late March afternoon when you’re not yet used to the lingering softness of the light. It is almost too beautiful, almost, until you remember, your throat aching with mingled joy and sorrow, the echoing beauties of redemption, forgiveness, release, and deep, deep peace. And you recall the beauty of the Author of it all, beauty past recounting, rhyme or reason, beauty that can only make you stutter in worship and fall down in praise. 

(Just a little prose poem on this Palm Sunday.) 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Middle School Reading: Then and Now (Or Old Books and New)

An interesting post hit my FB page earlier today, with a link to this list of middle school reading in Minnesota today and Minnesota of 1908. (And all Betsy-Tacy fans will almost immediately think, "Margaret Ray would have been in middle school just a few years after this!")

The accompanying article, which I confess I only had time to skim, addressed the significant differences in the time periods, thematic elements, and reading levels addressed by the books in question. Under time period, she was chiefly pointing out that the 1908 list didn't hesitate to recommend reading to students that had been published 50-100 years before, while the current list mostly features contemporary work of the past 20 years.

While I think the article makes some valid and important points, especially on reading levels and on our current trepidation about giving young people older books, I think the discussion could be even more fruitful if we allowed ourselves to notice that at least some of the contemporary books appear to contain literature that provides some cultural perspective beyond Anglo-American. I agree with the writer of the article that we need to give our young people literature that helps them understand the foundation of the United States and of western civilization. (And I totally agree we need to give them language and sentence structures that challenge them.)

Without addressing the merits of the individual books in question on either list (some of which I know pretty well, and others I don't know at all) wouldn't it be wonderful if we could both give them the foundational literature of our country and culture and the more contemporary literature that tries to broaden our understanding of the complexities of American history, the riches of the American melting pot, and the responsibilities and joys of global citizenship? Just a thought, but wouldn't having the grounding in foundational American and English literature prepare them to better read (and appreciate in context) some of the literature that is being produced in the English-speaking world today?

Seems to me that we would all be well-served by C.S. Lewis' idea of varying our reading diet to include three old books for every new one (not a challenge I always meet, but one I appreciate). If you haven't ever read Lewis' Introduction to Athansius's On the Incarnation, where he explains this idea and the reasons behind it, it is well worth your time. In fact, the whole book is worth your time, and one of those delightful exercises in reading something "relatively new" (the Lewis introductory essay) and then something very old, the Athanasius work. As someone who has sometimes questioned my own ability to read, comprehend, and absorb older literature, I occasionally read Lewis to bolster my courage and enthusiasm. He helps me want to dive and dive deep, even if I end up getting in over my head. (Was it Karl Barth who once used the metaphor of surfing to describe reading theology? It sometimes feels just about that vigorous!)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

George Herbert, Jane Austen, and My Forty-Seventh Birthday

It's my forty-seventh birthday, and I woke up thinking about people who have died young.

Heh. Don't worry. I am not feeling terribly morose (far from it...it's been a lovely day) and that comment is not nearly as somber as it sounds. I just found myself reflecting on the Scriptural admonition "teach us to number our days," and thinking about people who gifted the world even during very brief sojourns.

This has been on my mind since I read Timothy George's essay "George Herbert in Lent," the other day at First Things. I either didn't know or at least didn't recall that George Herbert, the extraordinary Anglican poet and priest, died in March of 1633, just short of his 40th birthday. I'm pretty sure that I never realized before now that he never saw any of his poems published. He left them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar; they were all published after his death.

I suspect that both George Herbert and Jane Austen, who died at the age of 41, would be astounded at the strength of their legacies so long after their deaths. They were quiet people whose influence, during their lifetimes, was in relatively small spheres. And yet their influence, their creative power, has spread to so many others, in ever widening circles as the years pass. While it's true that not all of us have the creative genius of these two, I think that the imprint they left behind doesn't have to do only with their words, but with the faithful lives they lived and the quiet but faithful ways they used the gifts they were given. I love the Richard Baxter quote that Timothy George provided regarding Herbert: he was "“a man who speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God.”

The older I get, the more I begin to realize that it's the quiet but loving moments that may have the most staying power in my own life, and the most influence for good on people I'll eventually leave behind. Those circles of quiet and loving influence feel so big in my own life. I know, I know. Sober sounding reflections for a 47th birthday. But right now I'm not feeling particularly glum about how old I am, just tremendously grateful for the years I've been given so far and hopeful that in the years ahead, I can stay a faithful course and love even more deeply. I'd like someone to be able to say about me one day that she is "a woman who speaks to God like someone who really believes in God, and her business in the world is most with God."  That's a legacy worth having.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella (Book Review)

This past Friday, we treated ourselves to a rare event: a movie in the theater. My daughter's love of Cinderella and my love of Kenneth Branagh directed films, not to mention my upcoming birthday, all combined to compel the family to the new Disney version of the classic fairy-tale. It was a stunningly lovely movie, so very well-made, and I hope to still find time to write a real review! (The short version: if you love fairy-tales, see it. If you love Kenneth Branagh movies, see it.)

Seeing the familiar story play out got me thinking about the film's source material, not only the 1950 Disney animated film but the classic Perrault and Grimm versions. That got me thinking about other versions of the tale too, which took me into my book review archives. I dug up a review I wrote over seven years ago and decided to dust it off and give it a rewrite.

Without further ado, here's my slightly revamped review of Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella, a beautiful picture book written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. It was published in 2007 by Henry Holt.


Almost everyone knows and loves the story of Cinderella. We can easily sketch the tale because we know its images and contours so well. There's poor lonely Cinderella, abused by stepmother and stepsisters, clad in rags and sweeping up the ashes, overworked almost to death. Look! Here comes her fairy godmother! Away Cinderella rolls to the ball in her pumpkin coach, glass slippers on her feet. She loses one at the stroke of midnight, but her beloved prince picks it up and vows to find the woman who has lost that tiny sparkling shoe and stolen his heart in the bargain. And so he does find her. The stepsisters are aghast. Wedding bells ring. Happily ever after.

Am I close? Is that just about the way you know and remember it?

Maybe...or maybe not.

What author Paul Fleischman has given us in the lovely and unusual picture book Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal is not just a familiar re-telling of Cinderella as many of us in the West have growing up hearing it told. His Cinderella has gone global. Fleischman's fascination with the Cinderella story led him to look for it in other cultures than our own. What he discovered was that people the world over love to tell this story. And while the main shape remains the same, the details change in wonderful ways from culture to culture. His book is an attempt to weave those varied details together into one rich tapestry. He calls it "a worldwide Cinderella."

Fleishman chooses to tell the worldwide Cinderella as one story, with the different versions woven together. An easier route, less creatively challenging to author and reader, might have been to simply tell the story several times over and let the versions stand side by side for comparison. Instead, Fleischman has woven various cultural strands together and attempted to tell one coherent story.

He is helped in this task by the vibrantly colored gouache paintings of illustrator Julie Paschkis. Her illustrations have a definite "folk art" feel. The main pictures and text are bordered but appear on colorful, busy backgrounds of motifs and patterns that arise in the story. The backgrounds reminded me of batik cloths or other bright textiles.  If you look carefully at each background, you will see the name of a country printed. It almost looks like a little tag "sewed" into the backdrop. That little tag lets you know, on each page, what country's folk-tale tradition is being pulled on for the particular details.

So you move from the way the story is told in Mexico (where the potential stepmother appears kind at first, offering sweets like pan dulce for little Cinderella to eat) to the story as told in Korea  (where poor Cinderella learns what a hard taskmaster her new stepmother can be, and has to spend long days weeding in the rice fields) and then on to Iraq (where Cinderella remembers how she'd wanted her father to remarry and laments "I picked up the scorpion with my own hand").

Although the story often devotes one whole page or a two-page spread to a certain country's telling, there are some pages on which you shift cultures more rapidly. This is set off visually by background color changes, and by setting the text off in smaller boxes (and always with the name of the country near the appropriate text, embedded in the background). The rapid shift is a fun way for the author/compiler to pile up a lot of details and to quickly show readers the plethora of storytelling choices available when one reaches important parts of the story. For instance, when it's time for Cinderella to be clothed in something beautiful for the ball, you might be expecting a fairy godmother, but you won't find one here. In Laos, she simply reaches into her mother's sewing basket. In Russia, she finds clothing in a hole in a birch tree. In Indonesia, a crocodile swims up to her, and in its mouth was a sarong made of gold... or if you prefer the Chinese and Japanese versions, presented immediately afterwards, a cloak sewn of kingfisher feathers or a kimono red as sunset.

It's fun to see the different ways people around the world tell one story. The pages where the details come quickest remind me of those old "choose your own adventure" books! You and your young reader may find yourself wondering about the missing details you don’t hear from the different cultural versions, which might inspire you to go looking.

Another strength: the book introduces different cultural traditions and expressions, especially from cultures that we're not as familiar with in the West. The only nods to North America are the few places where the story moves into a folk telling from Appalachia. It’s an intriguing way to illustrate how different places in the world have different ways of telling stories, different expressions, and different ideas of what's beautiful to wear or delicious to eat, as the varied menu at the  wedding feast near the book's end so amply illustrates.

The literal jumping from place to place and the piling up of different cultural details is both the book's strength and a potential weakness. The story doesn't quite work as one coherent story. There's still a rags to riches storyline and we get to the happy ending, but Cinderella (never named in the actual text, just the title) changes so rapidly in the text and in the accompanying illustrations. As she morphs from culture to culture, it might present a visual and creative challenge to very young readers or listeners, who could struggle to keep up or to comprehend all the changes. For that reason, I think I would recommend the book primarily for children 7 and up, who will likely have an easier time grasping the concept and probably have a deeper interest in comparing the different versions.

As an adult with a real love of fairy-tales, I found this weaving of global tellings of Cinderella quite enchanting. If you know a child who loves fairy-tales, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal could be a lovely way to introduce them to the way stories are told and changed as they move from culture to culture.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tired But Blessed

Tired I am (says this mom in Yoda-speak). It's been an incredibly busy month filled with more work than I've been able to handle well, though I've given it a good try, and plenty of other stresses too. And yet today....

  • I am super grateful for the fact that spring is almost here! Despite today's 40 degree temperature that felt colder in the wind, we are really and truly out of single digit temperatures. The sunshine is strengthening, the days are lengthening, there's a mess of purple crocuses blooming down the road, and I've seen two robins this week.

  • I am deeply blessed to have mailed two cards today: one for my parents' 61st wedding anniversary (this Friday) and the other for my mom's 83 birthday (Saturday). 

  • And I am thankful for the gifts and blessings of the Lenten season.