Saturday, April 21, 2007


Elizabeth's Lilacs
by Xlaogang Zhu

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
~T.S. Eliot

The lilac has always been my signature flower. I can never get enough of its evocative fragrance. Once, as a teenager, my high school sweetheart filled my car with arm loads of blossoms. I still recall the memory when I breath the fragrance.

Later, my husband indulged my love of lilacs by introducing me to the Ewing Park in Des Moines, where the Lilac Arboretum is nothing short of supernal. As newlyweds we lived nearby and I remember brilliant spring days, running from bush to bush and exclaiming over the variety of colors and fragrances. And the high point of it all was to just lay on a blanket and get intoxicated with the perfume.

Never the blossoms of nobility, lilacs are loved by "common folk". In the language of flowers, their short-lived blooms symbolize humility.

Chalk up one more good reason to be ordinary!

What is your signature flower?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Try on History

This is a picture of a lovely, historical landmark in our area called the General Crook House Museum. Of the Italianate style, it once served as the residence of the commanding General of a military fort. Here the General and his gracious wife entertained at least 2 presidents and many other important dignitaries (1880's era).

Meticulously restored and furnished with Victorian furniture, it boasts wonderful collections of glass and period artifacts. Most impressive is the costume collection and a wonderful learning program for girls called 'Try on History".

I was privileged, along with 2 of my girls and 10 other homeschooled girls, to participate in this 4+ hour experience. The docent who leads the program is a retired science teacher~~a real gentleman with a white moustache and proper manners to match the atmosphere of the museum. The girls were subtly challenged to act in keeping with their surroundings; to sit with good posture, to walk elegantly and slowly, to exhibit good manners and speak gentle words.

The teaching style was Socratic; a continual stream of questions stimulated thought and conversation. It was fascinating to watch the effect it had on the girls. For example, the teacher explained that kerosene lamps had to be washed daily because they produced soot. Later, he questioned the girls as to why there might be a protective, circular plate around the hanging chandelier? They made the connection on their own and were able to ascertain that it was for the purpose of keeping the soot off of the ceiling. I saw the girls making connections like that all afternoon.

An especially fun part of the program was the kitchen demonstration. This was very hands-on. A cast iron waffle iron was handed from girl to girl to test each person's strength. It was very heavy and had to be flipped deftly and quickly in order to avoid imaginary "spills". This little exercise gave everyone a dose of reality. Ladies from the Victorian era needed MUSCLE and had to work very, very hard.

All the time we were in the kitchen we were smelling cornbread baking, and then got to enjoy it piping hot from the oven and slathered with honey butter. mmmmmm!

The grand finale of the afternoon was the costume segment. Each of the dozen girls got to model a vintage costume (complete with drawers, petticoats, chemises, hoops, and under-blouses!) and were presented very formally. Then the docent twirled them three times so they could enjoy their wonderful, twirly skirts. There were ball gowns of satin, bankers' wives suits with trains, prairie dresses, school dresses, frilly dresses and business suits. What amazed me was that the elderly gentleman selected styles that perfectly matched the personality and coloring of the young ladies. He obviously had a trained eye and was an astute judge of human nature.

I loved this experience. I loved the shy smiles on the girls faces as they twirled in their skirts. I loved the interest that shone in their eyes as they envisioned bygone days. I loved their chirping, excited voices after it was all over. One little girl exclaimed, "Oh, I wish we could go back inside and do it ALL OVER AGAIN!"

The season of childhood is so brief and fleeting. Sometimes I, too, want to go back and do it ALL OVER AGAIN. To savor and enjoy the sweet memories being tucked away in my children's hearts is the next best thing.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Can You Parallel Park?

When I took the test to obtain my first driver's license (many moons ago), the only thing that caused me great anxiety was PARALLEL PARKING. Somehow, the idea that this particular maneuver is DIFFICULT has stubbornly remained embedded in my psyche. Thirty-five years later, I still don't like to do it unless there is no other choice.

Judy at The Fearless Driver has instructions here for "Stressless Parallel Parking."

Hey, if this woman can operate a fearless driving school in San Francisco, she must know what she is talking about!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Letters from George Washington

George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1796

My children have been receiving mysterious letters in old-fashioned copperplate writing, each detailing a Revolutionary War event and signed "General George Washington." We had to do a little detective work to discover the source of these epistles~~an adult friend who is a very knowledgeable history buff. I so appreciate gestures such as these, and am thrilled that my children are being enriched by history in this unique way. Here is a copy (in part) of their latest correspondence:

Dearest Children,

In dire straits for food and no prospects of supply, God's providence provided our sustenance. Quite dramatically, the famine completely ended. Countless thousands of fat shad, swimming up the Schuylkill to spawn, filled the river...Soldiers thronged the river bank~ the cavalry was ordered into the river bed~ the horsemen rode upstream, noisily shouting and beating the water, driving the shad before them into nets spread across the Schuylkill...

So thick were the shad that, when the fish were cornered in the nets, a pole could not be thrust into the water without striking fish....The netting was continued day after day... until the army was thoroughly stuffed with fish and in addition, hundreds of barrels of shad were salted down for future use. Praise be the Almighty in our time of need~ as He is ever faithful.

~General George Washington

Another Prodigy Story

I followed up my reading of Chaim Potok's The Chosen with another of his novels. Entitled My Name is Asher Lev, it is considered by some to be Potok's best novel. It is another story of a young Hasidic Jewish boy, a born artist. Art is not something that is understood in his family or in his religious community, and Asher's pursuit of artistic expression results in a great deal of tension both internally and between the boy and his parents. His parents are in fact never able to fully decide whether Asher's artistic ability is a gift of God or if it is from the "other side."

Because I had familiarized myself with some of the Jewish words and phrases from The Chosen, this time I didn't keep a word list. Instead, I looked up all of the artists and art pieces mentioned by name. The sculptor who became Asher Lev's mentor insisted on his studying great art work in detail. This made for an interesting little side trip and broadened my understanding of how an artist develops his or her talent.

I always wonder how an author gets inside of the mind of a prodigy. As I think back and remember the books I have read in the past few years, I see there are quite a few that are prodigy stories. People with shining talents and gifts seem to hold a high level of fascination for readers. Here is a short list of prodigy stories that I remember off-the-cuff:

  • The Soloist ~which I reviewed here. The story of a cello player whose gift evaporated when he reached adulthood.
  • The Chosen~an intellectual prodigy, Danny Saunders, teaches himself German so that he may study Freud's work in its original language.
  • Heart and Soul~ by Frank Conroy is about a poor city boy who becomes a world-renowned pianist. Fascinating detailing of the mental discipline required for the feat.
  • The Song of the Lark~ by Willa Cather. Though I have loved Willa Cather's other works, especially My Antonia, I had a real love-hate relationship with this book. It is said to be semi-autobiographical. I love Cather's prose and descriptive writing, but could never find anything to like about the prairie girl who made it big in the opera. The more successful she became, the more elitist she grew to be.
  • Great Masters: Mozart~~ His Life and Music- This is an audio course by Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the Great Courses. Mozart is perhaps the most famous musical prodigy of all times. I appreciate Greenberg's assertion that too many people attribute Mozart's prolific composing to "giftedness" rather than to hard work. He makes the point that even though the gift was obvious, credit should be given to Mozart for the tremendous amount of personal blood, sweat and tears he invested in his work.

I think that having read all of these books, I am glad to be a common person possessing gifts only in ordinary measure. It seems that prodigies and those who are born with exceptional gifts have extreme struggles fitting into society, while at the same time they battle great inner tension and the drive to create.

What prodigy books can you add to my list?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Spring Song

Calla Lily Turned Away, 1923
Georgia O'keeffe

the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible

~by Lucille Clifton

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Favorite Easter Anthology

Michael Hague's Family Easter Treasury is something we pull out every Easter season for our morning family circle time. It is filled with short stories and poetry divided into four categories: A Time of Faith, A Time of Rebirth, A Time of Celebration, and A Time of Love. Michael Hague's illustrations are truly gorgeous; bright and cheerful pastel/watercolors interspersed with more somber, darker selections where appropriate.

Each chapter begins with a gospel narrative of the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Two of my favorite short stories include "The Maid of Emmaus" by Alice Sligh Turnbull, and Oscar Wilde's tale entitled "The Selfish Giant". I don't know why that last one affects me the way it does, but year after year I cry when I read it aloud~~and at the same place each time:

Downstairs ran the Giant in great joy, and out into the garden. He hastened across the grass, and came near to the child. And when he came quite close his face grew red with anger, and he said, "Who hath dared to wound thee?" For on the palms of the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet.

"Who hath dared to wound thee?" cried the Giant, "tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him."

"Nay," answered the child; "but these are the wounds of Love."

"Who art thou?" said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him. and he knelt before the little child.

And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, "You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise."

And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.

You can read the entire story online here.

Unfortunately, Michael Hague's treasury is out-of-print, but I noticed there were used copies available on Amazon for under $3.00. I think beautiful books like this one create wonderful family memories.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Day of Small Things

"For who hath despised the day of small things?" Zechariah 4:10

Don't you love to rub shoulders with a person who does a small job with finesse? We met just such an individual last week at Applebee's restaurant. Our table waiter introduced himself as Antonio. He was an aspiring algebra teacher putting himself through college by waiting tables. He hand-prints rebus puzzles to pass out to his customers as they wait for their food to arrive, and enthusiastically delights in discussing them. As a teacher, I connected with him immediately; his enthusiasm will be an instant "hook" for any subject he chooses to teach.

The bonus was that the rebus puzzles were so much fun, and so engaged our family that I went online (here) and collected a whole raft of them to put in my purse for future idle moments. I'll share a few with you here, but WARNING! They are addictive!

1) m_ce, m_ce, m_ce


3) symphon

4) PENsword

1) Three blind mice~ the "i"s are missing

2) Rob in hood = Robin Hood

3) unfinished symphony

4) The pen is mightier than the sword

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Different Sort of Luncheon-Basket

A few days ago I was musing over the delectable luncheon basket that the River Rat packed for his friend in Kenneth Grahame's beloved story, Wind in the Willows. Today that memorable description returned to me as I was in the process of packing a different sort of luncheon-basket. I have been asked to speak at a Mother's Day brunch in a neighboring state and am in the midst of making heart preparations so that I may provide my friends with a yard of French bread, sausage out of which the garlic sings, cheese that lays down and cries, and red wine that recalls the ripeness of summer fruit.

The bread (God's Word) is the staff of life, the daily essential-but-never-mundane element of our diet. Sausage with a tang of garlic makes for strength and robustness. The sharp cheese adds pungency (perhaps a little prick of conviction?), and the wine joy.

Oh, may that be the kind of luncheon basket I carry with me to share with my friends.

"What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?

Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?

If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?"
Matthew 7:9-11

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Raising of the Cross

The Raising of the Cross by Rembrandt is a deeply moving piece of art to consider, especially at Easter season. Rembrandt paints himself in the scene as one of the soldiers, revealing his own sense of responsibility in the crucifixion of Christ. Although there are countless paintings depicting the crucifixion, no artist before this time (1633) made the scene personal in the way Rembrandt does. This painting is meaningful to discuss in a Sunday School class or homeschool art class, and adds visual import to the reading of the scriptural passages during holy week.
As a hands-on project, students can paint or sketch their own crucifixion scene and place themselves in it as Rembrandt did.