Thursday, December 28, 2006

Book review: Light from Heaven by Jan Karon

Jan Karon's Mitford series is my "dessert" reading. The Christmas break afforded me the opportunity to savor the last chapter of the final book in the series, Light from Heaven. It turns out the timing of my reading was perfect, since the book closes with a Christmas celebration.

If you like a White Christmas, there is a decided advantage to stepping in on the Mitford celebration. You can enjoy the snow without shoveling it or driving in it!

"The snow was falling thick and fast by the time they turned into the driveway at Meadowgate. The wreaths on the gateposts had a fine topping of snow, and the wipers had already pushed a good bit of it to either side of the windshield."

Doesn't that sound idyllic?

Whenever I finish a "Mitford" book, a sense of sweetness lingers. I'm not quite sure how the author achieves that result, because the characters she portrays certainly have flaws and foibles. But those are perhaps the very things that serve to endear the characters to my heart. Whether we hail from a rural, mountain community like Mitford or from the plains or the desert, underneath we are all people of like passion.

Father Kavanaugh, the main character, is a man of deep and vibrant faith. Very refreshing, because there is no timidity in the way he is portrayed.

Often, I find myself reaching for pen and paper to jot down the snippets of poetry that are sprinkled throughout the book. Like this one, entitled "Let the Stable Still Astonish" by Leslie Leyland Fields:

Let the stable still astonish;
Straw--dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkey, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?

Who would have said: 'Yes.
Let the God of all the heavens
And earth
Be born here, in this place'?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms
of our hearts
and says, 'Yes.
let the God of Heaven and Earth
be born here-
in this place.'"

I LOVE that and would use it in my next Christmas greeting, but for its length. Most people don't read greetings over a couple of sentences long.

Incidentally, there is a book of Father Tim's favorite quotes and poems entitled Patches of Godlight. I own the book and love it, too, but somehow I always see the words differently when they are applied to the story.

I am a little sad to close the last page on Mitford. I've laughed and cried with those folks for many years. But of course I can and will go back and re-live their best moments. Our family enjoys taking the audio books with us on long car trips, the ones read by the author. Jan Karon has a slight southern lilt that adds just the right touch to the reading.

Light from Heaven is certainly a worthy finale to the Mitford series.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Rest

artwork by Artiste, age 7

"The idle man does not know what it is to enjoy rest."
Albert Einstein, 1879-1955

Merry Christmas, and may you experience true rest and peace this blessed day.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Winter Solstice

Dawn turned her purple pillow
And late, late came the winter day,
Snow was curved to the boughs of the willow,
The sunless world was white and grey.

At noon we heard a blue-jay scolding,
At five the last thin light was lost
From snow-banked windows faintly holding
The feathery filigree of frost.

by Sara Teasdale

Friday, December 15, 2006

Watership Down: LIFE IS NOW

Albrecht Durer. A Young Hare. 1502. Watercolour and gouache on paper. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria.

Watership Down is proving to be a delightful read. I am so glad that I chose to make this a read- aloud book rather than assigning it to my two Junior High students to read on their own. They would have devoured it quickly and we would have missed many rich discussions.

It is the story of a journey, of immigration and new beginnings. The pilgrims in this story happen to be rabbits. The book is too long and complex to be called a fable; I would categorize it as an epic. There are many morals and lessons to be learned along the way.

There is humor, too. We have sometimes chuckled as certain incidents in the story have evoked our memory of Brer Rabbit.

But the book has also prompted more serious discussions centered on social welfare, the role of leaders and prophets, and stewardship.

Here is a little taste of the book, taken from chapter 22. I found it good food for thought:

"Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now."

Scripture expresses this same idea so
eloquently : " thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead." Phillipians 3:13

Life is Now. At the close of the year, I take inventory of my life. For me, this has been a year of tears, but God has saved them all in a bottle :

"Thou hast taken account of my wandering;
Put my tears in Thy bottle;
Are they not in Thy book?"
Psalm 56:8

Good literature always helps me put things in perspective. The perspective gained from Watership Down is so simple, yet so profound. LIFE IS NOW.

Two Christmas Books by Ruth Sawyer

Because our bookshelves are groaning, I have to keep my collection of Christmas books in a large plastic bin. Opening the book bin each holiday season is something of a special occasion, like greeting long-lost friends!

I have chosen two of my lesser-known favorites to tell you about.

Maggie Rose: Her Birthday Christmas by Ruth Sawyer (who also wrote This Way to Christmas, which is mentioned below)

This is a charming book, especially for girls up to about age 10 or 12. It is out of print, but used copies are not hard to find. Here is the description from the cover:

"Eight-going on nine-year-old Maggie Rose, who was born on the night before Christmas and named after a real live princess, is one of "those Bunkers," a lazy and shiftless family who live in a dilapidated shack on the wrong side of the Point, a resort spot near Bangor, Maine, and are known to one and all as the laziest, laughingest, singingest family for miles around. Tim and Liz Bunker and their brood of seven children are without an ambition in the world and prefer to lean generously on the charity of their neighbors rather than go out and work. Only Maggie Rose ever wishes for something a little better; most especially, she wishes that just for once there was enough money for "those Bunkers" to have a wonderful birthday Christmas celebration all of their own.

In spite of their faults "those Bunkers" have a fine feeling for the important things in life and they all recognize Maggie Rose as something special, someone who might have come out of the top bureau drawer, had they had a bureau drawer. So when tragedy threatens Maggie Rose, "those Bunkers" are finally jolted out of their kitchen chairs, and in an unprecedented move they rally together and determinedly set about making Maggie Rose's dream come true.

Ruth Sawyer's unfailing magic...brings smiles and tears to her readers.There's the feel of Maine and Maine people in the telling-the author has a gift for absorbing local idiom, for telling a story out of the hearts of her characters."

This Way to Christmas, also by Ruth Sawyer

Text notes from the online version:

Ruth Sawyer's This Way To Christmas is a collection of Christmas stories from various cultures. But it is also a story about loneliness, isolation, and the overcoming of prejudice. David is sent away from his family because of the first world war. Irish Johanna, David's old nurse, regards the other people on their isolated mountain as "heathen". David finds comfort by visiting them, hearing their stories of Christmas, and retelling their stories to his hosts. It is no accident that each of the story-tellers represents a group which was viewed with suspicion or dislike in 1916 America. Feeling against Germans was strong because of the war; Eastern Europeans were viewed with suspicion and South Americans and Negroes were often treated as inferior races. (Sawyer herself falls into stereotypes in portraying black Uncle Joab as childish and subservient.) It is David, younger and less prejudiced, and feeling a common sense of exile, who communicates a vision of their shared humanity to his elders. In the end, they are all seated at one table, eating together as one human family.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Weaving, the Art of Queens

In his book, _Sesame and Lilies_, John Ruskin speaks of weaving as the "art of queens." Addressing well-to-do art lovers, he speaks scathing words because they have not used this skill to adequately clothe the poor.

A quote from the book:
"Six thousand years of weaving, and have we learned to weave? Might not every naked wall have been purple with tapestry, and every feeble breast fenced with sweet colors from the cold?"

He then uses the words of Christ as a reproach:
"I was naked, and ye clothed me not."

All of these lofty ideas were running through my mind as my seven year old daughter, Artiste, tackled her first weaving project this week. All of my girls have been introduced to weaving by making a simple potholder. It is a satisfying project for a young girl, because it can be finished in an hour or two and produces something both lovely and useful. My older girls quickly graduated to using a larger loom and making more substantial items.

Creative pursuits train little hands to be skillful and little eyes to notice details. But there is much more than skill and self satisfaction involved. Domestic arts provide young ladies with a tool by which they may contribute to the welfare of others.

It may seem that giving the gift of a simple potholder would not benefit another person a great deal. But consider the following incident.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine lost her mother. We all grieved for her loss.
This happened at about the same time my oldest daughter, Melody, had been honing her weaving skills. Melody had such compassion for my friend, and immediately asked, "Mom, could I make her some potholders?"

Now most people give flowers as a gift of condolence. But my friend got potholders.
They were woven with love and sympathy, tangible evidence that my daughter cared.

That incident is one that I have treasured in my heart. And I think it epitomizes John Ruskin's ideals. Sometimes we feel so small and insignificant in the midst of worldly sorrow and brokenness. I cannot feed or clothe the multitudes en masse, but I can touch the soul of others, one potholder at a time.

"She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff; she stretcheth out her hand to the poor. She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed with scarlet." Proverbs 31:19-20

Domestic arts are not frivolous. They serve a meaningful purpose in life and provide the means by which we might serve our fellow man.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Carol has written such a wonderful article about her experience learning Latin. I especially loved her way of describing the way a Latin-lover looks at words:
"Multiple times daily I look at a word and see the Latin behind it. I feel like I've been given a secret code or a special set of glasses that makes the bright colors pop out. My world has been expanded far beyond my expectations."

I cannot say that this happens to me multiple times daily, but it is happening often enough that I am grateful for the little bit of Latin that I know.

I always felt a bit cheated that Latin was not offered at my small-town high school. So, from the moment I commenced to homeschool my own family, the inclusion of Latin was a given. In a way, that decision is probably a little selfish. I know that it is a great benefit to my students, but I am primarily learning Latin for ME!

It is a tall order, however, to teach Latin when you do not know it yourself. My goal has been simply to stay one step ahead of the students.
How I would love to have a tutor like the one that Carol described!

Here is how I have approached it:
When my oldest was in 4th grade, I purchased an introductory curriculum entitled _Our Roman Roots_. It is billed as a Catholic curriculum, and we are not Catholic, but we found it very suitable for beginning our Latin journey. I taught the curriculum that year in a cottage school setting, with about a dozen students of all ages.

As recommended by the author, we repeated the entire book again when my oldest daughter reached 7th grade (this time at home rather than in a group situation). That gave extra reinforcement to learning the basics and it gave me a little more confidence to move forward.

This year, I have been using an antique book called _Latin Book One_ by Harry Fletcher Scott and Annabel Horn. It is online here, which makes it an economical choice. It is definitely a bare bones curriculum in comparison to the _Roman Roots_ approach. It does not have any stories or chants or cultural tidbits. But it is a solid program, heavy on translation work.
All three of my students, grades 5, 7, and 8 are able to grasp the concepts.
This is not to say it is easy, however!

It is gradually dawning on me that this is a l-o-n-g term pursuit, and that the most good is accomplished in small portions taken consistently. By consistently, I mean DAILY. If that sounds burdensome, it is not. It has proven to be very economical in terms of time, because it incorporates the best elements of English class all under one umbrella.

I think all word lovers would benefit from a bit of Latin; even if it is only learning a few derivatives. My goal for my children is that they would be able to use words accurately, precisely, and beautifully so that they are better equipped to share God's Word with their generation. Accuracy is so important to those who handle scripture, as the apostle Paul affirms in his letter to Timothy: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth."

My prayer is that I may help to develop habits of diligent study in my children so that they will be those unashamed workers of truth. Latin, I believe, is certainly stretching us to be able to achieve that end.

Denim Purse Project

My daughters learned to make purses from worn out jeans at our recent homeschool craft day. Melody, my oldest, especially enjoyed the project and has decided to make several as Christmas gifts. She has been scouting out cute jeans at the local thrift shop and adding sparkles, beads, and trim to the pockets. It is an easy and inexpensive project that can be accomplished in an afternoon. I love it when my children come up with their own ideas for Christmas gifts. And personalized gifts are always so appreciated!