Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Roar on the Other Side

The seventh day of school found me wanting to shake things up a bit by adding some poetry into the mix. I’m pretty much always wanting to add in poetry (reading it, writing it) but these days S’ schedule is so packed, it can be hard to do. I hit upon the idea of tying a writing exercise into eating, and we did it over lunch.

I’ve long been excited about Suzanne U. Clark’s book The Roar on the Other Side: A Guide for Student Poets. I didn’t buy it, originally, as a homeschool book. I bought it because I consider myself a student poet. I’ve read it and enjoyed its prompts, meditations on the poetic arts, and great collection of poems for several years. When it dawned on me that it might be a good year to incorporate some of it into our home learning, I got quite excited.

One of the first “stepping stone” exercises that Clark includes in her first chapter, which has to do with the importance of noticing/seeing, is to write a journal entry describing an ordinary piece of fruit. I love these kinds of exercises that compel you to look at something “common” that you’ve seen a thousand times, but to look at it thoughtfully, slowly, and carefully, using all your senses. That’s what S. and I did at the lunch table with a peach today. We called it “mindful eating,” and by the time we were done, we not only each had a journal entry and a poem draft (S. really wanted to go on and play with writing a poem based on her descriptive notes) but we’d thoroughly and completely enjoyed all the juicy slices of that peach.

I’d almost forgotten that we had a small peach tree in my backyard for a number of years when I was growing up. Smelling and holding the peach, I let my mind wander to associations, and suddenly I recalled the golden color of the knobby bark and the smell of ripened peaches in the grass (we never seemed to harvest many, since the squirrels beat us to them).

I love how such a thoughtful exercise can be so many things at once: a break for hearts and minds in the middle of a busy day, a lesson in observing and writing, nourishing time spent together, food for the soul.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Patchwork Post (Homesick for Charis, Loving LOTR)

I'm tired. D. is traveling yet again regarding care issues for his mom, something that continues to weigh on our hearts and minds. S. is struggling some in ways she hasn't in a long time. School is taking up more time than I remembered it did, and while that's not a bad thing, I'm having a hard time remembering how to fit everything else I do into the cracks and crevices of our schooling life. I also seem to be coming down with something that is making me feel miserable and draggy.

In the midst of all this, I am missing Charis, the central country of my fictional work-in-progress. D. and I spent a lot of time this summer, sometimes even during our most tired times, working on history and geography. He's marvelous at helping me world-build, and if I wasn't feeling so tired, I think I would be writing a lot right now. Charis and its neighboring kingdoms and their complex history certainly are a big part of my thoughts at the moment. It's finding time and creativity and just plain energy to try to convert those thoughts to paper that's feeling difficult.

Most of my writing time at the moment is taken up with web content, and while I am thankful that writing educational/job profiles and product descriptions (as I can get them) are helping to bring in some necessary income, I am beginning to feel like if I write one more detailed description of a pair of hiking boots or explain one more time how one moves from an RN to BSN degree, I am going to either burst into laughter or tears. My push to accomplish more web content work came in a week when I discovered I wasn't going to be doing teaching assistant work for the seminary this fall (due to low enrollment) and when I had an essay I worked on in the summer turned down by a journal that I had real hopes might want to publish it. So I know some of the frustration level I'm feeling about the "floor mopping" kinds of writing I'm doing (and trying to do with love, since it's part of the way God provides) is part of a larger piece of frustration over a lack of opportunity to do more of the kinds of work that I feel more passionate about.

Mostly I am feeling grumpy and inept. There. That's honest! 

Lots of good things to be thankful for right now, including a good Sunday School kickoff yesterday, plus the ordinary blessings which are never all that ordinary really. Not to mention the fact that we're less than a hundred pages from the end of The Lord of the Rings, our first read-through as a family, and a powerful re-read for me this time through. Thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien, for the fortifying nourishment of your narrative.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Arrow Prayers

This has been my day for finding things I wrote quite awhile ago. Besides the poem snippet from seven years ago (see below) this afternoon I also found a collection of arrow prayers I put together sometime last year.

I wrote these thinking they might encourage S., who often struggles with thinking she's not "really" praying because she's so easily distracted during prayer (no matter how often I tell her that distraction is sometimes just part of prayer, and the Lord graciously understands that!).I don't remember if I ever introduced these to her or not, though it may be time to try that again, as she is struggling a lot again with the notion of what prayer really is and if God is really there and really hears us.

At any rate, in the midst of some of my own tired discouragement (the last couple of weeks have been very up and down for me, and the last couple of days particularly hard) I was very glad to find these and read through them again.

Tonight my heart was especially drawn to these two arrow prayers:

"Help me to want you more than I want anything else, God."


"Thank you, Jesus, that in you, everything holds together." 


Old Poem, Old Photo

S. was cleaning her room this afternoon and needed a magazine holder for her many copies of Nature Friends and Pockets. I didn’t have a new one, but obligingly moved some homeschooling magazines and old Vegetarian Times to give her one of my old holders. In the process, I discovered a tiny notebook where I’d jotted some rough drafts of poems in 2007.

It’s fun to come across snippets of verse you jotted seven plus years ago. I remembered none of these poems and pieces of poems clearly, though the genesis of the ideas or a turn of phrase occasionally came back to me as I glanced through the pages. Most of them are in nowhere near sharing stage, but one of them made me smile (for a reason I think you’ll see in a moment) and I thought I’d share it here. It’s untitled.

I found my grandfather
at twenty-three.
Twenty-three, both him and me.
I that young in bone and skin,
he that young inside, within
a small glass frame, a photo gray.
He still is twenty-three today,
smiling, so serene and fine,
while I’ve moved on to thirty-nine.

                                    EMP (1/9/07)

What makes me smile about this little poem are all the layers. I really did find a small photograph of my grandfather, aged 23, when I was 23 myself. I was at my aunt’s house, looking through boxes of old pictures, and I remember how wonderful that felt, to have that kind of “connection” with a man who was so important in our family, but whom I never had the chance to meet. He died six years before I was born.

I keep that photo of my 23 year old grandfather on my bureau. And I do recall the day I picked it up and realized that the smiling face in the photo was still as young as the day I’d put it in the frame, while I’d aged sixteen years in the meantime. Now another seven years have gone by, and the layers continue. I’ve passed on to the age of 46, and my young and smiling grandfather is still peering out at me from the frame. He was born in 1901, so it’s been 90 years since that photograph was taken.

Monday, September 01, 2014

First Day of Seventh Grade!

Year Eight in the homeschool journey begins! Yes, I know it's Labor Day, but we're starting late this year due to travel, and D. planned to be working today anyway. The sweet girl and I agreed we'd rather get a jump on things and get in a whole week, so here we are on a Monday morning.

I love the first day of school traditions we've put in place over the years: first day muffins, pictures, hand print (such a laugh now to see those little hand prints from earlier years!), new Scripture verse CD. For the first time ever this year, we listened to a Scripture CD that wasn't from the Harrow family, as we finished all the volumes in Sing the Word. Our first listen to the first verse in "Songs of Courage" earned a thumbs up from us: we liked the music a lot. And of course Jeremiah 33:3 is a wonderful verse: "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." Seems like a very appropriate verse for the beginning of a new season of our lives!

Let's not forget the new Ticonderoga pencils, one of which is being used even as I write. The sweet girl is tackling language arts this morning with great gusto.

The years seem to pass more swiftly the older I grow, and one way I know that's true is how quickly this day seems to roll around each year. Thank you, Lord, for another new beginning.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Teach Us to Number Our Days..."

Home yet again. This past journey was very different than last week's relaxing time, and if we could have ordered the two trips differently, we surely would have. But life has a way of happening unscheduled! And it was very important that we got to Virginia to see D's mom before fall schedules are upon us in full.

I am so thankful for so many things as I look back on those exhausting few days. Most of all, I am thankful that D's mom is currently in the respite section (being moved to rehab soon) of the assisted living area, and that she is being more fully evaluated. She was in need of care and attention, even more than we realized. Her physical, mental, and emotional decline have continued at a frightening pace. I had not seen her since last November, and even with the knowledge of her difficulties and with what D. shared with me after her saw her a few weeks ago, I was shocked at how much she had aged in those relatively few months. On the other hand, there are still a lot of moments when she is perfectly cogent and very much herself, with that mischievous smile peeking through and even a bit of what I think I would term healthy snark over her current situation. She's not terribly happy about being where she is, but she also seems to recognize on some level that she really needs the care.

I spent most of the days there working my way through the piles of paperwork that had accumulated over the past few weeks and months -- junk mail, bills, notices from the retirement community, etc. It was my self-appointed task to find and sort all that I could so that it all made some sense for my dear husband, who is her medical and financial power of attorney. He and his sister were in various meetings with the lawyer, social worker, accountant, etc., and it seemed to be the best way I could help. Since Grandma has sometimes taken to putting papers and cards and keys in places where you least expect to find them, I discovered that the sweet girl's keen eyes were very helpful. She prowled the shelves and some small drawers and discovered some things that were missing or that we otherwise needed to know about, so I was thankful for that. We also had a few moments of just sheer grace in terms of things "showing up" right when they needed to.

I was also thankful for how beautifully the sweet girl handled the trip. It was not easy for any of us to see D's mother struggling so much, and there were lots of times of stressful waiting, missed signals, places we needed to be, sitting around and talking through things ("boring adult talk" as she terms it) and paper shuffling. S. was a trooper. She had a few times where her stress got the better of her, but then we all did. Mostly it was good, growing trip which she handled with much grace. Even under the circumstances, she was so glad for time with her grandmother, aunt, and great aunt, as were we all.

I find myself not just tired and grateful today, as I play catch-up on a host of household chores and try to think my way through organizing for the new school year (that should have started this week but instead will start next week) but realizing anew how precious our lives are. Even if we're given threescore and ten years of relatively good health and sound mind, it's such a short amount of time really. I found myself renewing my heart's commitment to living as healthfully, fully, and passionately as I can in whatever years I'm allotted. So much living, loving, kingdom work, creative work, I still long to do. As Psalm 90:12 reminds us, "teach us to number our days," dear Lord, "that we may gain a heart of wisdom."  Or as it says in the Message: "Oh! Teach us to live well! Teach us to live wisely and well!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of Cottonwoods and Mallorn Trees

We had a beautiful long weekend in Erie. We spent almost every moment we could outdoors, from drives on the peninsula to shore time by the lake to playtime on the sweet girl's favorite sandy playground to s'mores around our trailer-side firepit at the campgrounds in the evening. We also got to see wonderful friends for dinner on two successive nights. Despite some stressed moments (we continue to be very concerned about D's mom's deteriorating health and will be making another trip soon to see her) and our usual sparse accommodations in the trailer (made even more rustic this year since they'd opted to improve the bathroom facilities but take out the shower) we really had a lovely time.

One of my favorite parts of the beautiful flora and fauna on Presque Isle are the cottonwood trees that seem to grow everywhere. These are tall, beautiful trees that rustle with a hushed music in the frequently strong winds. It was the sweet girl who pointed out that the back of the green leaves seemed to shimmer with silver -- the leaves are a kind of greenish-gray. Coupled with the few eager leaves already turning yellow in anticipation of the autumn, there was a lovely silver-gold quality to some of the trees. It made us think of the Mallorn trees of Lothlorien, and S. and I ended up calling them Lothlorien trees every time we traipsed under another stand of them near the beach.

I love seeing S. learn to love Tolkien. We're nearing the end of The Two Towers, and every time Tolkien stops to describe the phase of the moon and the quality/timing of its light, she practically shivers with delight. I love that our daughter, so like us and yet so uniquely her own self, loves him as much for his scientific accuracy as she does for his poetry. She is so impressed that here, at last, is an author who cares about those kinds of details!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reading Round-Up: August (and the "Slim Little Volumes")

I’ve been reading a lot of small books lately. The smallness describes their physical size, not necessarily their content. It’s interesting how reviewers often pick up on a book’s diminutive size as if surprised that a book with relatively few pages and a thin spine can contain something of worth. During my ten years of regular reviewing, I know I sometimes lapsed into the phrase “slim little volume,” which I now recognize as lazy writing, a sort of shorthand to express surprise that writing gems can be found in such little packages. It’s a strange sort of assessment. All we have to do is look to the world of humanity to understand how strange it is, since sometimes absolute dynamos (William Wilberforce, Mother Theresa, just to name two) are small in stature.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m drifting to smaller books in my non-fiction reading time because in fiction-world, I am still enamored of the work of P.D. James. My twelve year old sometimes gets an almost pained look on her face when she sees me bring home another James novel from the library. “Another P.D. James?” she’ll say a little skeptically, or sometimes just “that’s a loooonng book.” They are long books, full of slow, detailed prose, but I’m enjoying them immensely. I haven’t raced through James’ canon the way I raced through Deborah Crombie’s a couple of years ago. I seem to need breaks, sometimes of a few months or more, between outings. But when I get onto a P.D. James kick, I usually don’t stop with one. And I’m starting to prematurely mourn that I only have a few volumes left before I run out. I’m up to The Murder Room, which means that her detective Adam Dalgleish has actually embarked upon a romance, something I’m still a bit ambivalent about.

Whether or not I am moving toward smaller books because my brain needs a break from hefty mystery novels, the fact remains that the books on my nightstand (or rather in the unwieldy floor pile by the bed) are all fairly short right now. I’ve mentioned two of them here recently: I’m re-reading Justo Gonzalez’ The Changing Shape of Church History and I’m reading Macrina Wiederkehr’s A Tree Full of Angels.

Both of these books take me back to earlier seasons in my life. Gonzalez is the author of The Story of Christianity, my first real foray into the study of church history seventeen years ago. I will always feel indebted that he was my introduction to the discipline; he writes beautiful, readable historical chronicles. I was introduced to Wiederkehr even longer ago, when I worked for the Cabrini sisters (it’s been over 21 years now since I started my four and a half year stint with Cabrini, and I’m still learning from the time I spent with them). I’m pretty sure most of the Wiederkehr I’ve read was in excerpt, brought to prayer rooms on photocopied pages – the sisters and lay people I worked with there always brought beautiful poems and snippets of prose to prayer and meditation time. I’ve had one line floating in my head for two decades now, which I’m fairly certain is Wiederkehr’s, though I’m not sure of the context: “This is a trust song, Lord. I am in your hands like clay.” (If anybody knows where she says this, I’d love to be reminded.)

I’m also reading – or maybe it’s re-reading, I’m not quite sure – C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. I would have told you that of the five essays included in that volume, I had definitely read two or maybe three of them. I go back to the title essay, “The Weight of Glory,” probably once a year. This summer I decided to move straight on from there and read everything else in order, and so far I’m remembering them all, so perhaps this is a re-read. No matter. Everything Lewis wrote is worth reading and then chewing on again.

Lewis is one of the few writers in my life that I actually sometimes wake up feeling I need to read. It happened again this morning. I find myself thinking “it sure would be nice to spend some time with Jack this morning,” and I reach for whatever book happens to be handy (I’m blessed we have a lot of his books on our shelves, and there are a lot more right down the road at the seminary library). This morning, Jack wanted to talk with me about “Learning in War-Time,” and I was happy to listen again. The slightly browning edges of the page and the note underneath the title “A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939,” gave me a moment’s pause, as it suddenly occurred to me that this voice that feels so fresh first spoke these words seventy-five years ago. It’s strange that a mere one-line description of the sermon itself could move me so much, but it somehow made the whole thing feel more rich and real as I sat there on my bed and the morning sun slanted silver through the blinds. As I read, I found myself feeling like I’d slipped into a pew of the church, right behind a lady wearing a WWII era hat. When I left the pages, no doubt I would find myself traipsing down an English road lined with trees whose leaves were turning red and gold. 
In the “slim little volume” category (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I’m also reading More Baths Less Talking, Nick Hornby’s witty collection of literary columns. This was a Christmas gift from my sister last year, and it’s been mostly sitting on my desk intriguing me with its title. Not long ago I found myself drawn to it on the new non-fiction shelves at the library (“what a funny title!”) and then realized that I’d thought that before and the book was at home on my desk. It’s my first dip into Hornby’s work and it’s delightful. He has a droll sense of humor and an insightful way of cutting right to the heart of a book and what it meant to him.

I’m re-reading Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School. I decided recently that I wanted to get back to my literary devotional project, and saw that I had broken off (sometime last year) in the midst of ideas for a devotional based on this book. At that time it was fresh in my mind because I’d just read it aloud, for the second time, to the sweet girl. I thought I’d better give it a quick re-read to refresh my memory, since my notes were not entirely jogging my brain. But it’s such a beautiful story that reading it quickly feels almost impossible. I’m also having that interesting experience of realizing how different it is to read a book silently (and just to yourself) after having gotten to know it while reading it aloud.

My quest to read everything Gary D. Schmidt has written continues with his early novel Anson’s Way. I’m not very far into it yet, so I will probably take this one (along with the new P.D. James) to the peninsula when we head out on our few-day vacation soon.