Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Vassar Miller on Poetry (Quote for the Day Book)

"Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying. It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning."

Hat tip and thank you to Brain Pickings for quoting this today, and for reminding me of Vassar Miller's poetry. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

He Did Not Weaken in Faith When He Considered...

I love Abraham. The Scriptures tell us that he believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

I think we have a tendency -- at least I do -- to think of our heroes and saints in the faith as people to whom believing must have come naturally, or at least more easily than it comes for us. So I love that Romans chapter 4 tells us more of Abraham's believing story.

 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”

He believed in God and God's promise, in spite of all the evidence that would seem to pull him away from belief. It wasn't that he didn't realize how dire his situation was, how impossible. He considered his own body, which was as good as dead -- I love how Paul doesn't mince words here. He considered  the fact that Sarah was barren. Put those two facts together, and it must have felt nigh unto impossible to believe that the two of them could ever conceive a baby, let alone become the patriarch and matriarch of a people more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

It wasn't that unbelief was not an option. It was. Unbelief must have been in the very air he breathed, a very real temptation. Strong evidence he could see with his eyes and consider with his mind pointed him to the impossibility of God being able to keep his promise. Unbelief was there. But it did not make him waver. And look at what Paul tells us next: he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 

He grew strong in his faith AS HE GAVE GLORY TO GOD. As he praised God for who he was and what he had done, his faith grew stronger. It grew stronger despite the depressing facts that seemed to surround him and his good as dead body (and yes, I am drawn to that line more than I ever have been, in the wake of my cancer diagnosis). He gave glory to God because he knew who God was. Look back at verses 16 and 17:

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring -- not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations" -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Abraham intimately knew God, and he knew that God could do amazing things. He knew that God had the power to give life to the dead (so his as good as dead body was no obstacle) and that he calls into existence the things that do not exist (so his wife's barrenness was no obstacle). How precisely Abraham knew all these things about God we don't know....God must have revealed them to him. 

We know these same things because God has revealed them to us in the Scriptures. We see God act in creation to call things into existence that never existed before. We see also how he gives life to the dead (or those as good as dead!), from his rescue of Isaac with the ram in the thicket to the raising of the widow's son through Elijah, through Jonah being rescued from the belly of the whale on through Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones taking on flesh. We see it in Jesus' raising of Jairus' daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus of Bethany, and ultimately God's power manifested in a whole new way with the resurrection of Jesus himself. 

Whatever pictures and words God used to share who he was with Abraham, it was enough and more than enough, because Abraham knew God. He knew him and he believed him, and through faith, he was able to hold onto the promise that otherwise seemed impossible. He gave God glory; God strengthened his faith, and ultimately, the promise came true.

And -- oh beautiful beyond imagining -- but Abraham's faith can be ours, because Abraham's God is ours.  Jump ahead to verses 23-25:

23 But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

As Abraham's descendants, we are children of faith, people of the promise. We can believe in God and God's promises even as we consider the facts around us, which sometimes seem to do nothing but point us to despair and unbelief. We can consider the facts and acknowledge that unbelief is there, a tempting option sometimes because it feels so easy to fall into. 

But unbelief does not need to make us waver. The remedy for unbelief is to give God glory and to allow him to strengthen our faith. He will help us hold on, and he will do it through our praise and thanksgiving for who he is and what he has done. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Put Your Trust in God (The Importance of Talking to Ourselves)

I was reading my morning psalm, Psalm 42, and remembering again the importance of talking to myself.

Talking to himself is exactly what the psalmist does here. He actually addresses his soul, his inmost, essential self:

"Why are you are full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God."

He addresses God in this psalm too ("I will say to the God of my strength, Why have you forgotten me? and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?") but he addresses himself twice, asking the same questions of his soul both times...

 "Why are you are full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me?"

and then he gives his soul a talking to both times, with the same words:

"Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God."

This doesn't seem to be a mere poetic device, and the "your" in this psalm is definitely himself. He is talking to himself, reminding himself of the importance of putting his trust in God and giving thanks, remembering that it will be God who will lift up his head and help his countenance -- change the very look of his face!

I think this jumped out at me this morning because of a talk our family had in the car yesterday, while we were out running errands. The sweet girl had her iPod in the backseat, and told me with much real sweetness that I would be glad to hear she was listening to some Christian music. For a long time, she had gotten away from listening to Christian music, and when I asked her about that, she told me what she told us again yesterday....that during the past few months, and the worst part of my illness and treatment, she had a hard time listening to Christian music because it felt so encouraging and happy, and somehow during the hardest times, that felt a little fake to her. She felt sad, and she gravitated toward music that tended to be sad (which happened to be secular).

Laying aside for a moment any critiques we might make of Christian music for not giving us enough lament or blues (and I can think of some wonderful musicians who are Christians and do give us plenty of lament and honest complexity...Sara Groves is just one example of a musician who helped get me through this season) I appreciated my daughter's honesty about this.

But I also appreciated her dad's response yesterday, which pulls us right back to Psalm 42. He pointed out that sometimes when we're sad, when our souls are "heavy" within us, we need to talk to our souls. We need to remind our souls, our very selves, of the truth of God's goodness, and of our need to put our hope in him.

We had a good talk about that need to speak the truth to ourselves. I am thankful that both music and the Scriptures can help us to do that. And prayers. Sometimes we cannot find the words we need to speak to ourselves. We just don't have it in us, especially not during those sad and heavy times. But we can cling to the words that others have said, sung, and prayed down through the centuries.

And we can hold onto that hope, knowing it is real, even when everything around us and in us tempts us to fear instead, or to sadness and despair. 

I like how Eugene Peterson translated the "talking to himself" of the psalmist in 42:
Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
    Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God—
    soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
    He’s my God.

And here's how Francesca Battistelli puts it (a singer my dear husband and sweet daughter introduced me to a couple of years ago). Note how she repeats that line "Put your hope in God." Not mere repetition for the sake of repetition. We need to keep telling ourselves, over and over, that no matter what, this is what we need to do. For he is faithful and trustworthy and worth holding onto. Even in the heaviest times. Especially in the heaviest times.

He never sleeps, He never slumbers
He's been awake at every hour
No tear catches Him by surprise
He's never lost, He never runs out
He never lives in the shadows of doubt
No fear catches Him by surprise

Find rest my soul
Put your hope in God
Put your hope, put your hope in God

He always is, He always will be
He always has been everything I need
How can this be catching me by surprise
He's ever strong, He's ever faithful
His love is real, now nothing is impossible
'Cause nothing catches Him by surprise

Find rest my soul
Put your hope in God
Put your hope, put your hope in God

I close my eyes, and I can see
The arms of mercy holding me
I close my eyes, and I can see
The arms of Jesus holding me

Find rest my soul
Put your hope in God
Put your hope, put your hope in God
Put your hope in God
Put your hope in God

Friday, June 17, 2016

Ken Burns on Learning from History and How History Shapes Us

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns recently gave a commencement speech at Stanford. It has been making its way around the web. There are many good things in the speech, but a couple of sections really stood out to me. As a fellow student and teacher of history,  I wanted to post them here so I could come back to them from time to time.

First, on the importance on learning from history:

Over those decades of historical documentary filmmaking, I have also come to the realization that history is not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts and events that add up to a quantifiable, certain, confidently known truth. History is a mysterious and malleable thing, constantly changing, not just as new information emerges, but as our own interests, emotions and inclinations change. Each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of its past that gives its present new meaning, new possibility and new power. The question becomes for us now – for you especially – what will we choose as our inspiration? Which distant events and long dead figures will provide us with the greatest help, the most coherent context and the wisdom to go forward?

This is in part an existential question. None of us gets out of here alive...The hard times and vicissitudes of life will ultimately visit everyone. You will also come to realize that you are less defined by the good things that happen to you, your moments of happiness and apparent control, than you are by those misfortunes and unexpected challenges that, in fact, shape you more definitively, and help to solidify your true character – the measure of any human value. You, especially, know that the conversation that comes out of tragedy and injustice needs to be encouraged, emphasis on courage. It is through those conversations that we make progress.

And on the importance of stories...and moments...that shape us:

I have a searing memory of the summer of 1962, when I was almost 9, joining our family dinner on a hot, sweltering day in a tract house in a development in Newark, Delaware, and seeing my mother crying. She had just learned, and my brother and I had just been told, that she would be dead of cancer within six months. But that’s not what was causing her tears. Our inadequate health insurance had practically bankrupted us, and our neighbors – equally struggling working people – had taken up a collection and presented my parents with six crisp $20 bills – $120 in total – enough to keep us solvent for more than a month. In that moment, I understood something about community and courage, about constant struggle and little victories. That hot June evening was a victory. And I have spent my entire professional life trying to resurrect small moments within the larger sweep of American history, trying to find our better angels in the most difficult of circumstances, trying to wake the dead, to hear their stories.

But how do we keep that realization of our own inevitable mortality from paralyzing us with fear? And how do we also keep our usual denial of this fact from depriving our lives and our actions of real meaning, of real purpose? This is our great human challenge, your challenge. This is where history can help. The past often offers an illuminating and clear-headed perspective from which to observe and reconcile the passions of the present moment, just when they threaten to overwhelm us. The history we know, the stories we tell ourselves, relieve that existential anxiety, allow us to live beyond our fleeting lifespans, and permit us to value and love and distinguish what is important. And the practice of history, both personal and professional, becomes a kind of conscience for us.

Good words to ponder.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


I can't remember which blogger coined the word "perspectacles," but I love it.

I have been given new perspectacles on a lot of things this year. Having an aggressive/caught late cancer will do that for you.

As we move into our summer schedules, I am discovering new perspectacles on the most ordinary of activities. Here are a few things I feel completely differently about than I did a few months ago.

It wasn't very long ago that I could barely walk at all, and was having to use a wheel chair whenever I went in for treatments at the cancer center. This week I walked to the post office from our home, which is probably about a quarter mile. Yes, I was very slow, and yes, sometimes my leg and feet hurt, and yes, I stopped and took a half-hour break at the seminary before walking back home. But I did it. And it was lovely to do this walk with my sweet teen girl, who danced ahead of me most of the way but came hurrying back when I needed her. Favorite moment might have been when I took her arm as we stopped at a crosswalk. Years of taking her hand or arm when she was little compelled her to exclaim "Mom! I don't need you to hold onto me while I cross the street!" at which point I just chuckled and said, "I'm not holding on because you need it. I'm holding on because I do."

I had months where I couldn't shower easily without help. Getting in and out of the shower was painful. Standing up for more than a couple of minutes was painful. Bending down to pick up the soap I dropped was painful or too hard to bother. You get it. I wouldn't shower unless someone else was home in case I got shaky or nauseated and needed help getting out. And I almost always needed help getting dressed. These days I am fine on my own. Still slow, especially the dressing part, but that's okay.

My hair.
Did I used to get stressed about bad hair days? I suppose so, but I can't remember. Right now I am just so happy that my hair is starting to grow again. It is short and fuzzy...for a while I felt like a peach or a cucumber, and then a hedgehog, and now a teddy bear. Years of mostly long, thick hair did not prepare me for no hair at all, and I don't think I will ever forget the day my dear sister Mary bravely shaved my wispy haired head (while both of us resolutely did not cry). While I stayed philosophical about it (hair seemed like a small price to pay for treatments that could help save my life) I have missed my hair and am so  happy to see it coming in again.

Grocery stores.
When I walked into one a week or so ago, it was the first time I had been in a grocery store since January. I was so blessed that, during these past few months, my faithful husband shopped for us, and my precious sisters. And people sent meals. But oh, it was such a delight to peruse the produce aisles. I am even finding myself enjoying meal planning. And I'm cooking a little bit. Didn't I use to complain about that too?

Web content work.
Writing web content is not the most creative work on the planet. In fact, it is often downright boring. I've done a lot of it in the past couple of years, and I have often referred to it as my floor mopping kind of work. I'm grateful to have it, but it's not really fun. This past week, I wrote web content for my favorite client for the first time in almost five months. And you know what? Weirdly, it was fun. It made me happy that my brain and fingers were working well enough together that I could put sentences and paragraphs together in ways that made sense. And cents. Because I haven't been paid regularly in many months either, and earning even a little bit again made me feel very grateful.

Journaling and sketching.
My hands are somewhat numb from neuropathy, and I don't hold a pen or a pencil terribly well, but I *can* hold a pen or pencil, and thank God, I can also type. And I'm awake and energetic enough to spend time both sketching and journaling again. Thank you, God.

School portfolio.
It's June, which means I have to pull together the sweet girl's school portfolio. I dreaded it this year, because the second half of the year was such a difficult and challenging time, and I didn't feel enough work had been done. But you know what? Even though this learning year did not look "normal" (by any stretch of the imagination) a lot of learning happened. A lot. More academic work than I realized (including a whole slew of things I'd forgotten we'd done first semester, before everything hit the fan) but also plenty of life learning.

Lesson planning.
That I am even well enough to contemplate the fall and to begin planning lessons just feels like a blessing. Still not sure how we're going to pay for all we need, but you know what, that's a perennial concern, not a dire one, and even ordinary commonplace worries feel good right now. Weirdly so. This week I worked through a semester's worth of English plans for S' 9th grade year.

Things I've misplaced.
I've misplaced so many things in the past several months it's not funny, but I am starting to find them again, a little at a time. Some of them are things I didn't even know I was missing (a couple of gift cards wonderful people sent when I first got sick, which are actually coming in very handy now) and some of them are things I really hope to find (my blue writing bag and my notebook with all my timeline/background work for my novel, which I hope will soon be my novel-in-progress again). But you know what? The more I clean and organize, the more I keep finding things, and it's such a joy. And I don't find that I am getting overly irritated at myself for misplacing things, the way I used to, because really, who wouldn't have misplaced stuff during all the blurry, crazy weeks of pain and sleep and stress? I am actually amazed I didn't lose more stuff!

Loved ones.
Family and friends have been incredible during this time. The prayers that have been prayed on my behalf and behalf of my family, the meals that have been cooked or bought for my family, the times people have taken care of my dear daughter, the lovely things sent my way -- cards and notes and letters and prayer shawls and checks and gift cards and weekly communion and lovely artwork and Facebook pictures and videos -- all of this has just sustained me (and us) and made me feel so loved. For months, our place had one or more vases of fresh flowers in it almost all the time (I tossed the last dried flowers yesterday).  In the midst of everything, I have had time to contemplate a lot going on in the lives of some friends, and I am really in awe over the compassion and courage and calling of many of the people I know. I feel so blessed by our network of community. Thank you for the church, Lord. Thank you for people who care. 


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Power of Poetry: Billy Collins' The Lanyard

Here's the power of poetry: a friend of mine posted a funny picture on Facebook this morning. It was a macrame owl, and he made the joking comment that macrame was making a comeback. Seeing that little rainbow colored owl suddenly made me think of all the sweet but rather lame craft type projects I did in the 70s and 80s, things like weaving strips of cloth together to make pot holders, putting together leather bracelets at the camp craft hut, or carefully gluing together popsicle sticks to make...well, something.

And all of that suddenly triggered the memory of Billy Collins' beautiful poem, The Lanyard.  Collins is a master at taking something ordinary, even something ordinary and a little lame, and turning it round and round so you see all its facets. As though this thing, this moment, that we thought was so ordinary, turns out to be a diamond, because in it we see ourselves and our lives in a new way that is not at all ordinary and might even be profound.

The poem begins with these words:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.


And it  ends with these words:

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

If you've never read the poem in its entirety, you can find it here at The Writer's Almanac.

It's a poem I've loved for a long time, but this was the first time I'd read it since my mother's passing, and I find that I love it even more. The poem hasn't changed, but I have, and I needed to remember its unworn truths -- not just that we can't repay our mothers (the "worn truth" he admits as the obvious takeaway) but the audacity of our childhood love.

Of course the gift of a lanyard could never "make us even" with the huge, giving generosity poured on us by a loving parent. But here's the wonderful thing I see, from the vantage point of my own motherhood and the vantage point of losing my own dear mother -- a mother doesn't see such gifts as "useless" or "worthless" and that is *part* of the generosity and grace she gives. The poem's narrator looks back ruefully with adult eyes, recognizing how much he owes his mother, and maybe how ungrateful he sometimes was at different times in his life, or how oblivious -- and that in itself is a gift.

But I would be willing to bet that the mother's view of that gift when he gave it is much different than his view of it now. I would be willing to bet that she laughed over that clumsy lanyard (not in his presence) and put it away like a treasured jewel to be brought out years later, when she remembered not so much the gift itself, but the precious boy who gave it to her, and she reflected on how quickly he had grown, and how amazing that he had turned into a man who could grace the world with beautifully made things (like poems) and how good it was of God to have given her the chance to raise him.

And I remember a home movie of my own mother, on a Christmas morning (before I was even born) accepting the gift of some plastic roses from the hand of my older sister or brother (I can't remember which one handed them to her). Her face as she took those plastic blossoms was just luminous. She leaned in and pretended to smell them, and then she reached down and hugged that child with a gratitude that even now, fifty-some years later, feels palpably real and loving.

Friday, June 10, 2016

June Reading Round-Up

I'm so excited that a) I feel well enough to write a reading round-up; and b) I am reading enough to have plenty to write about. One of the beauties of regaining some energy, post-chemo, is that I am both writing and reading again!

I am like a kid in a candy store when I go the library right now, or when I peruse books online (to put on hold at the library). I probably will not finish half of these, but it feels so good to have multiple books going again, per my usual reading habits. Right now, here's what I'm "reading at":

The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation by Thomas Kessner. It was inevitable that I'd pick up this book once it made its way into the house as D was prepping the sweet girl's 1920s history unit. Lindbergh, for all his controversy, has long been one of my favorite American figures to read about. In my college years, I became so fascinated with the Lindbergh family that I read the complete journals of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I like Kessner's approach, which is to look at Lindbergh not just for his individual accomplishments but as part of the bigger picture of the growth of aviation in America.

Getting into Lindbergh again also made me turn to the chapter on aviator-writers in David McCullough's Brave Companions: Portraits in History. These are based on lectures and talks he's given over the years, so they don't go as in depth as a lot of McCullough's books.  But it was a good chapter nonetheless and made me think of a lot of the aviators whose time I spent company in during those years in my 20s when I was reading so much about that era.

As I turn my thoughts toward long term writing projects again, I am revisiting the idea I had years ago to write a book about several mostly 20th century women authors who excelled at writing family stories. Some of the writers I've been contemplating grouping together include Sydney Taylor, Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L'Engle, and Jeanne Birdsall. I've had a special fascination with learning more about Elizabeth Enright, so I was happy to read her 1939 Newbery acceptance speech in Newbery Medal Books 1922-1955, which also included an autobiographical note she wrote around that time.

I'm also reading Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. More on this one soon, as I think I will want to post some choice quotes.

I seem to be thinking a lot about books and authors I loved in my twenties. I was a big fan of Herman Wouk in those years (though I always, always! fought with his novel endings). I've been dipping into his recent memoir Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.  This is a nice book for dipping because he is writing snippets and scenes more than a full autobiography. You can almost flip it open at random and read a few entertaining anecdotes.

At long last, I am finally reading Susan Wise Bauer's The Story of Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory.  It's a good chronicle of science writing down through the ages, and may be a book I decide we need on our shelves for the sweet girl's high school years.

I am also meandering my way through a not very well written cozy mystery (which shall remain nameless). Although I love the portability of my Kindle, I have discovered I do not really enjoy reading long e-books (I love the Kindle for things like my daily Scripture readings, poetry, and checking in on social media). However, I've signed up for notifications from BookBub, and they do include free ebooks in some of their selections, so every now and then I give it a go.  Fluffy mysteries are fine e-book fare, but the more I read in the genre, the more I long for the golden years of mystery writing and for books with the literary punch of modern writers like P.D. James and Deborah Crombie. Cozies are cute and fun, but the writing in them seems awfully lazy. I used to think that was a quirk of one or two writers, but I'm beginning to think it's a mark of the genre. Part of the fun for me, when I read them, is that I get to think about how I would edit the stories and revise the writing.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Re-Watching Downton Abbey (Series One)

I've begun to turn the corner in terms of energy and appetite, but I'm still very limited in terms of what I can do each day. I get around better on my leg than I used to, but I'm struggling with neuropathy (numbness in my feet and a little in my hands) as a result of the chemo, which is also slowing me down. In between trying to do what I can do each day, I still need to rest a lot. Enter good books, my sketch pad, and yes...library copies of the first seasons of Downton Abbey.

We finally finished watching the final series (number six) a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself feeling really sad that the show was over. I also found myself trying to remember what the Abbey was like at the beginning of the show, which originally starts in 1912 (it ends on New Years 1926). Those fourteen years covered by six seasons cover a lot of change in the characters' lives.

Last week I wound my way through series one, which covers 1912 (it begins with the sinking of the Titanic and the drowning of the would-be heirs to the estate, propelling the plot forward) through 1914 (the declaration of what would become the Great War or World War I). Here are a few things that struck me as I watched the show with 20/20 hindsight (or as my husband chuckled, with "2016 hindsight"). I'm making comments here based on the entire show, so if you've not watched the whole thing, beware of spoilers.


The music and the house itself are magical from the very beginning. The house is clearly set up as the "main character" from the get go, and everything swirls around the estate -- how people feel about it (upstairs and down), how the family is trying to hold onto it in the midst of change, how they navigate its rooms or make the whole place run. And the music is just wonderful. I've put a collection of Downton Abbey tunes on hold and am looking forward to listening to the evocative melodies minus the narrative to see how it holds up.

Bates and Anna become fast friends from the beginning too. After everything we end up watching those two go through -- their tumultuous courtship and their angst-ridden soap-opera riddled marriage -- it was refreshing to see them as friends before all that. They quickly become allies in the house against the scheming O'Brien and Thomas and it's a delight to see the reserved Bates start to unbend and smile as he chats in the kitchen or the hallways with sweet Anna. I'm not sure I really like where they took Bates' character in subsequent seasons -- they always seem to cast doubts on whether or not he was really guilty of heinous crimes -- but watching series 1 made me remember how much I originally liked him, and helped me remember why Anna fell in love with him in the first place. They do a good job of establishing Bates' deep sense of honor and loyalty (which can sometimes make him rigid and get him in trouble). They also do a terrific job of establishing those same things in Anna which somehow aren't as rigid. I also love seeing her friendship with Lady Mary and how strong it is from the beginning as well. Mary will let down her hair (literally!) with Anna when she won't with anyone else.

The Dowager and Isobel Crawley are at daggers from the beginning too, and it just makes me laugh in delight because we know how many more years of those wonderful zingers are still to come...and yet how much of a friendship will ultimately be built between the two of them as well.

I still love Matthew Crawley and mourn the knowledge that he will only survive half of the show. It's almost impossible not to love him from the very beginning, when he toddles around the village on his bicycle, exuding sweetness and putting his foot in it with Lady Mary and scandalizing the Dowager with his middle class roots and his talk of work and weekends. We begin to see his essential kindness in the way he treats Mr. Moesley even when he feels that the work Moesley does is superfluous and pointless. You begin to realize that in some ways, learning to get used to Matthew is like a trial run for the Crawleys who are going to have to face much harder things in sons-in-laws down the pike (like the Irish nationalist chauffeur).

Lady Sybil! She's alive! I'd forgotten how much I loved Sybil and why I mourned her passing with actual tears. It's so much fun to see her in the early shows, shaking everyone up with her sprightly youth and her modern ideas. She is such necessary ballast for the family, especially for Mary and Edith.

And speaking of Edith, I had completely forgotten how utterly unlikeable she was in series one, at least a lot of the time. Kudos to the actress who does an amazing job of taking the character through one of the best character arcs in the show. Edith really matures over the years, deepening in ways we can respect and admire. It's almost impossible to reconcile the elegant, assured, and caring woman we know at the end with the insecure, pinched-face, mean-spirited young woman she is at the beginning. The best we can do is to feel sorry for her because the ultimate insecurities of the younger daughter come through from the start. But it's hard to feel too sorry for her when she's manipulating events and trying to wreck everything for her sister. I know Mary's not terribly likeable at the start either, but there feels like more depth to Mary from the beginning, even though she goes out of her way to hide it. I kept wanting to say "oh, grow up!" to Edith in exasperation, but it feels good to know that she will do exactly that.

I had forgotten how much Mrs. Patmore yells in the first series, especially at poor Daisy. Knowing how close they will grow over the years, it's a little startling to see her treating Daisy like the mere servant she is...and oy, how hard Daisy works.

Then again, they all work hard....and there are so many of them in series one. I'd forgotten just how big the downstairs staff was before the war. No wonder Mr. Carson spends the rest of the show lamenting the glory years when they had a full working staff, not the skeleton crew they end up with. The pre-war years show Downton in its full almost still 19th century glory. Maids and footmen seem to be everywhere, all of them in much more formal attire than I recalled.

Mr. Carson is such a loveable curmudgeon from the start. His devotion to Downton and to Lady Mary becomes an essentially understandable part of who he is from the very beginning. Downton is his family in ways that none of the other servants ever quite feel. I was also surprised to realize how close he and Mrs. Hughes are, despite their differences, from the very beginning....I was thinking that developed more over time. We get small glimpses into each of their pasts (Carson's time on a vaudeville stage, Mrs. Hughes' early opportunity to marry a farmer) which makes them richer characters we want to know more about. I find it interesting that the only person that Mrs. Hughes tells about the farmer's second proposal (when he comes back into her life in the episode where the fair comes to the village) is Carson. I don't know if it was my imagination or not, but Carson seemed awfully relieved that Mrs. Hughes was staying...and I don't know if that was just because he prized her skills as a housekeeper.

Daisy is another character who goes through great changes; she is lovably daft in series 1. She retains some of that daftness the whole way through, but she also grows up a lot. I had forgotten her hapless crush on Tom and her cluelessness about William's crush on her. William is just a sweetie. It's a bit hard to enjoy his presence in this first series knowing what's ahead for him in the war. 

I barely recognized Tom Branson. Golly gumdrops, as Lord Grantham might say, the early Tom and the later Tom are continents apart. I remembered, of course, that Tom was an Irish nationalist and a socialist, and that he was part of Lady Sybil's political awakening ("votes for women!") but it's a bit startling to see just how much fervor young Tom has for revolutionary politics and how much disdain he has for the English aristocracy when he essentially becomes a card carrying member of that aristocracy later in the show. I get that he comes to love the family, and that he wants them to know young Sybil (especially after her mother dies) but does it seem totally realistic that he would step so easily into the world he derided for so long? I like both manifestations of Tom (and I was especially glad he was still around to help the family after the writers killed off Matthew) but I'm just not sure that I believe in the ease of his transition from one kind of life to another.

Who remembers the back story of Cora and the Earl of Grantham? I certainly did not recall that he married Cora solely for her money (they seem to have no trouble admitting that, either of them, when Robert is bemoaning the awful fortune hunting Duke that snubs Mary) and only fell in love with her later, in their first year of marriage. Some prequel fan fiction just seems to be begging to be written here. Can you imagine the Dowager Countess' indignation over her son the Earl chasing a vulgar American in order to save the estate? Even though she would understand the practical need. No wonder she and Cora are still a little prickly with each other, even twenty years or so on.

O'Brien is just wicked this first season, though she becomes a little more sympathetic in season two (more on that season later...I've only just started watching it again). I had forgotten what a terrible influence she was on Thomas, who has moments when you wish you could like him. He is so easy to manipulate, maybe because he's hungry for friendship and respect. It's amazing the way Thomas keeps managing to keep his job at Downton, despite all of his scheming.

Gwen was an interesting character in series one, but I can see why they moved her on quickly. In many ways, she stood most symbolically for the changes that were happening in the world....for women, for the servant class. She also plays an important part in showing Lady Sybil's kindness and her openness to not just embrace change, but to be part of its unfolding. I am glad that they decided to bring Gwen back for a scene or two in the final series, as it just felt like a "full circle" sort of ending to her story. It also helped us to remember why we loved Sybil's character so much.