Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Come to the Table: A Celebration of Family Life

I try to read a few books each year that enhance my homemaking skills, since scripture mandates that I be the manager of my home (Titus 2:5). It is so easy to get into a rut, isn't it? Fresh inspiration is a must for me. My friend Peregrina has some wonderful thoughts and quotes on this subject in her recent post, Housekeeping 101.

Happily, I picked up another source of fresh encouragement for a song at a 2nd hand bookstore. Entitled Come to the Table, it is written by Doris Christopher, the president and founder of the Pampered Chef, Ltd. This gifted woman will give you a perspective that goes far beyond the here-and-now.

Here is a sample quote that I especially like:

"Savor the moments you spend at the table surrounded by people you love. Commit them to memory-- store them deep in your archives--so that you can relive them at will, because these special days are the jewels in life's crown And while we may not fully appreciate them at the time, racing back and forth with our platters and bowls, we look back on them later through the softening filter of time as the very best days of our live."

This book is more inspiration than how-to, although there are plenty of practical suggestions, too. The chapter titles are:

  • Celebrations
  • Sundays~ she is very realistic here. Many of us have difficulty attaining to the chicken and mashed potatoes Sunday dinners we remember from a bygone era. (Boy, can I relate to this one. As a pastor's wife, we are often the last ones out of the church door, and we arrive home ravenous, long after the usual lunch hour has passed). Doris makes the point that even if it is take-out pizza, the tradition of sitting down together is not negotiable. Make it mandatory. Food is really just a prop; the important thing is the family togetherness.
  • Teenagers and the Table~ another great chapter. One of the most important and fragile areas to be preserved in the teen years is communication. Doris argues that the meal time tradition needs to become a deeply-ingrained habit in the years prior to adolescence. In her words, " If nothing else, adolescence is a humbling time for most parents, who need every conceivable advantage. In our experience, the most effective of these was the family table, and others I've talked with agree."
  • Winter Comforts
  • Communities, Neighbors, and Friends
  • Holidays
  • The Children's Hour
  • Summer Pleasures~ grow tomatoes. Have a picnic. Make jam. Barbecue. Bring out the colorful tablecloths and plates.
  • Family Reunions
  • Reaching Out ~ how the act of providing and preparing food for people in crisis provides sustenance for the soul.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fiddler on the Roof

Money magazine recently named our smallish community the 6th most desirable place to live in the U.S. The only weakness cited was in the area of arts and culture. I suppose it is just too easy for suburbanites to drive to the nearby city to partake of these things.

But change is in the air! This past week-end we were treated to the very first performance of a new theatre group in our brand new outdoor amphitheater. It was one of my favorites, Fiddler on the Roof.

I love Tevye's monologues. I love the music. I am just sentimental enough to cry during "Sunrise, Sunset", much to my children's embarrassment. Can't help it~~~I've been a human faucet since hitting my 5th decade. I carry the wad of kleenex that Santa so thoughtfully left in my last Christmas stocking for just such occasions as this.

But beyond the sentiment, I recognized serious questions. How did the move into the 20th century change family tradition? The play highlights the arrival of the first sewing machine in the village, which was reverently embraced by the people. Little did they understand the impending changes the industrial revolution would bring.

One of Tevye's daughters was a reader, which was a huge break with tradition. Reading had been the sole right of men. Her reading led her to marry a social activist, resulting in her leaving the village of her birth and to move far away from her family. Another huge change for people who were used to being firmly rooted in the village of their birth.

I have ordered the book on which Fiddler on the Roof is based, called Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem. It is a book of Tevye's monologues, written by a Yiddish humorist. Can't wait to dive into this!

Addressing the musical aspect of the play: Fiddler on the Roof was extremely well received in America. The thousands of Jewish immigrants who entered this country via the portal of Ellis Island left their mark on us musically. The peculiar harmonic minor scale that is unique to Jewish music became a part of our culture, and also forms a basis for jazz music. Consider some of the notable Jewish musicians of the last century: Gershwin, Bernstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Dorothy Fields.

How rich we are to have so many flavors of music blended in our "melting pot".

Ten Beautiful Words

I keep an antique book at my bedside entitled 1000 Beautiful Things, by Marjorie Barrows. It contains short excerpts and poetry and is perfect for a two minute pick-me-up. As a word lover, I found the following entry fascinating:

"Wilfred J. Funk, poet, lexicographer and president of Funk & Wagnalls, once listed what he considered the ten most beautiful words in the English language~ 'Beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letters.'

His list, compiled after a 'thorough sifting of thousands of words,' is~ dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody."

I haven't sifted thousands of words, but I've been keeping a list of words that I think are beautiful. Here is my own list:

  • soothe
  • enthusiasm (en=in theos=God)
  • serendipity
  • cherish
  • verdant
  • melodious
  • jaunty
  • exhilarate
  • lithe
  • exotic
  • delight
Which words would you include on such a list?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Art of Inquiry

"Sam kept a diary~~a daybook about his life. It was just a cheap notebook that was always by his bed. Every night, before he turned in, he would write in the book. He wrote about things he had done, things he had seen, and thoughts he had had. Sometimes he drew a picture. he always ended by asking himself a question so he would have something to think about while falling asleep." from Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

The questions Sam wrote down in his diary were simple, but profound. Why does a fox bark? How does a bird know how to build a nest? I wonder what I'm going to be when I grow up?

Sam was an independent learner, and his most valuable asset was his ability to wonder; to ask the right questions. Neil Postman, in his book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, claims this as the most significant intellectual skill to be cultivated in a student. In his summary of how to teach reason and skepticism (usually called critical thinking), Postman places the first thing on his list this need to teach the art and science of asking questions.

After finishing two of Postman's books, the one quality of his writing that stands out to me is this very thing: here is a who man knows how to ask probing, deep questions.

I am familiar with the Socratic method of teaching, in which teachers guide a learning experience by asking questions designed to draw out thoughtful answers from the learner. But Socratic teaching seems to be the inverse of what Postman is advocating. Ultimately, it is the student that needs to ask the questions if deep learning is to occur. And isn't that the exact opposite of what usually happens in school? Aren't the students usually the ones expected to give answers rather than to ask questions?

Postman says,
"They want our students to be answer-givers, not question-askers. They want students to be believers, not skeptics. They want to measure the quantity of answers, not the quality of question (which, in any case, is probably not measurable). Those who think otherwise, who think an active, courageous, and skillful question-asker is precisely what a "proper education" should produce, can take comfort and inspiration from Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Priestley, and Jefferson. Surely they would applaud the effort."

These comments have set me to asking my own questions. How does a teacher go about teaching the skill of asking questions? How are young people encouraged to get beyond the surface questions and ask really deep, important questions? How can this skill become integral to the entire curriculum, not just to science?

I've only scratched the surface in finding answers to these queries, but now that I am sensitized to the subject I hope to learn more about this as I practice teaching in homeschool and cooperative school this coming fall.

Here is a short list of thoughts that are getting me started in the direction that Neil Postman suggests:

  • Create an atmosphere where questions are welcomed and congratulated. "That's a great question!" seems trite but always makes the student feel glad that he asked.
  • Assign students to write study questions instead of always producing a written report. The best ones could be used in a group setting for discussion.
  • When studying history, look for the big questions that were being grappled with during a certain historical period or by a famous historical person.
  • Model curiosity by learning to ask questions myself.

Can you contribute any wisdom or additional insight on this subject?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Quintessential Tomboy

My youngest daughter, Artiste, is the quintessential tomboy. This morning she came in with a piece of bread with peanut butter smeared on it. "Mom, somebody plastered this on the back of our car."

"Who would do that?" I asked.

"Probably Evan*. He's very angry with me."

"He is? Why?"

"Because I gave him a black eye."

Now this bit of information had escaped me, so of course I asked , "WHY?"

"Because he tried to do this (kissing smacks) when he came swimming in our pool the last time. I don't appreciate that because I'm not even grown up!"

I tried to hide my smirk.....and I didn't tell her my thought: sometimes it pays to be a tomboy!

*not his real name

My Sphere of Influence

"We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us-- a sphere which especially includes you."
~2 Corinthians 10:13

I've recently been engaged with the idea of my sphere of influence. My nearest and dearest dwell within the center of that sphere, and in the outlying concentric circles lie those with whom I am acquainted, but to a lesser degree. The people in the uttermost parts of the world are at the periphery of the circle; in truth, most lie beyond the border of my sphere.

The technology of our times has brought our generation unprecedented knowledge of those at the periphery and beyond via the evening news, internet news blogs, etc. Neil Postman's book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, has given me much food for thought on this issue. He descries the shallowness of relationship that results from our steady diet of forty-five second news clips. His contention is that "It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute's time. "

He goes on the say:
"What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of 'being informed' by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. (snip) Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information--misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information --information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. (snip) I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?"

That last question is profound. What shall we do?

If you are like me, you feel a nagging sense of guilt when confronted with another world crisis. It seems almost wicked to go ahead and eat your toast and drink your coffee when you know that people halfway around the world are suffering. But the question remains: what shall I do?

Postman is better at asking the question than he is at providing the remedy. He feels that the last chance for stemming the decay of culture is through education.

But enter a woman's perspective. It happens that my reading of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea has been juxtaposed with the Postman book. She ruminates on the same subject, but from a different angle:

"We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world. (snip) The inter-relatedness of the world links us constantly with more problems than the human frame can carry. (snip) Our grandmothers, and even--with some scrambling--our mothers, lived in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time. (snip)

But can one really feel deeply for an abstraction called the mass?

If we stop to think about it, are not the real casualties in modern life just these centers I have been discussing: the here, the now, the individual and his relationships. (snip)

The here, the now and the individual, have always been the special concern of the saint, the artist, the poet, and --from time immemorial--the woman. In the small circle of the home she has never quite forgotten the particular uniqueness of each member of the family; the spontaneity of now; the vividness of here. These are the individual elements that form the bigger entities like mass; future, world. "

YES!! Lindbergh's answer resonates within me. It is the individual that makes up the masses, and as I tend to the individuals that are within my sphere of influence, I am contributing health and vitality to the masses. Culture truly does begin at home, maybe even in the kitchen! My little home circle is not insignificant and does not have to be sacrificed on the altar of global causes.

Carol brought this lesson home in another, very practical way. Her love for a woman in Zimbabwe brought a personal connection with someone on the periphery of the circle. A distant place suddenly wears a human face, and loving prayer and support can be lavished upon a unique individual for the ultimate benefit of the masses.

I love the connections that are gleaned from reading a variety of books. Who would ever dream that Neil Postman and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had something in common? Neil gave me much food for the intellect; Anne gave me affirmation of the soul. We need to know the problems in our world, but we also need to know that our small contributions matter.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Middle Age Turbulence: the Presage of Growth

I found Anne Morrow Lindbergh's thoughts on the passage into middle-age to be insightful. Here is a quote from her book, Gift from the Sea:

"Many people never climb above the plateau of forty-to-fifty. The signs that presage growth, so similar, it seems to me, to those in early adolescence: discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, longing, are interpreted falsely as sign of decay. In youth one does not as often misinterpret the signs; one accepts them, quite rightly, as growing pains. (snip) But in middle age, because of the false assumption that it is a period of decline, one interprets these life-sign, paradoxically, as signs of approaching death. Instead of facing them, one runs away; one escapes--into depressions, nervous breakdowns, drink, love affairs, or frantic, thoughtless, fruitless overwork. Anything, rather than face them. Anything, rather than stand still and learn from them. One tries to cure the signs of growth, to exorcise them, as if they were devils, when really they might be angels of annunciation.

Angels of annunciation of what? Of a new stage in living when, having shed many of the physical struggles, the worldly ambitions, the material encumbrances of active life, one might be free to fulfill the neglected side of ones self. One might be free for growth of mind, heart, and talent......"

As one who is climbing that middle-age plateau, and at the same time observing my children experiencing adolescence, I was interested in her comparison of the two stages of life. I like the optimism in her words, and her observation that the struggles of life presage growth rather than decay.

I am just beginning to taste the freedom of that new stage of life; a little more solitude, a smidgen of time to devote to personal interests, to develop heart, mind, and talent. I have many years of child rearing and homeschooling ahead of me yet, and my challenge is to balance the freedom with the responsibility.

Perspective seems key in the process of growth. Whether growth in myself or in my loved ones, I need to see the big picture: struggles do not have to destroy us. Struggles strengthen us for new challenges that lie ahead.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

House Guest

My husband and I often sit out on the deck in the evenings for a cup of coffee. We have recently heard a strange noise coming from the surrounding greenery, a noise completely unfamiliar to us. Was it a bird? An insect? A toad?

Then one evening when my husband was away, I saw this frog hanging on my glass sliding door. Here was obviously the answer to our mystery. I took a good look at him to see if I could figure out how he managed to hang from slick glass. I noticed that he had little round disks at the end of each toe (toe? claw? paw?)

My little bit of research identifies him as a tree frog, and those round discs on his feet have adhesive qualities. Interesting creature~~~but I was ready to go inside.

I gingerly began to slide the door open, hoping the little fellow would just hop off. Instead, he slid himself through the crack straight into my kitchen! There he chose to hang on the inside of the glass slider. Happily, after all the children had the chance to take a good look at him,my son was willing to play the hero on my behalf and take prince frog back outside where he belongs.

Love Thine Enemies: A Slice of Nebraska History

Our 4th of July travels took us beyond our usual haunts, and as a result we were thrilled to discover a jewel of a museum near Holdrege, Nebraska. The Nebraska Prairie Museum was HUGE; over one acre of indoor collections in pristine condition. We saw period clothing, antique toys, farm equipment, tools and household items, a unique W.W.II German POW exhibit room, and even fine art.

I was surprised to find the very classy art gallery in a separate section; it houses an exhibit that tells the story of a unique chapter of history: a German POW camp. This was a chapter of history with which I was completely unfamiliar, and it was fascinating!

The POW camps in Nebraska were not widely publicized. People would have panicked had they known that 100,000 Germans passed through the camp gates, right in the heart of our country. Those numbers are huge when you compare them with the population of the county, which was less than 9,000 total.

Half of the male population in Nebraska was engaged in military service, which created a crisis on the farm. Labor was sorely needed on the family farms. The government's answer to this was to provide a German Prisoner of War Camp, built near Atlanta, Nebraska. This was not slave labor or a concentration camp. Prisoners were treated humanely and could volunteer for all types of work. They were then paid by their local employers through a U.S. government agency.

Only about 8% of the POWs were hard core Nazis, and these were identified and separated. The majority of the prisoners were friendly and willing to work for "our side". Most poignant to me were the letters that the prisoners wrote to the farmers after they were released and returned back home when the war ended. Genuine friendship and love developed between the prisoners and the host families. The farm wives baked them cherry pies and treated them with great kindness , so that lifelong friendships resulted. Some of the prisoners opted to stay in the USA and became citizens.

Artist Thomas F. Naegele worked at the prison camps as an interpreter. He painted life as he saw it in the camp, often using pieces of wood that were in the wood pile for burning. His series of pictures is entitled, "In the Eye of the Storm", to capture the conflicts of the world at that time between two theaters of war, the calm that prevailed in the life of the German soldier held in Camp Atlanta.

Here are a couple of samples of his work; a more complete series can be viewed here.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Liberty by Lynn Curlee

Liberty was our family read aloud on Independence Day, a great book for the occasion and a little something to make the miles zoom by faster! Lynn Curlee is a gifted illustrator and combines architecture, art, and history in a fascinating way. Though considered picture books, none of the titles I have seen have been too juvenile for an adult to enjoy. Boys who like to build things and figure out how things work will especially enjoy the Brooklyn Bridge title.

Back to the subject at hand......Liberty is the story of our own "Mother of Exiles," the Statue of Liberty, from her earliest conception to her recent renovation. It is a fascinating journey that begins in Versailles, France at a dinner party. American admirer and law professor Edouard deLaboulaye was hosting a dinner party at his home in 1865, and during the course of the evening's conversation suggested that a monument "Be built in America as a memorial to their a united effort...the common work of both nations."

His words planted a seed of vision in a young sculptor named Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, a man who knew how to dream BIG. Building a modern day colossus, a tribute to liberty, became his obsession. Liberty details the travels, fund raising, the public relations efforts and preliminary sculpting that the young visionary had to go through in order to see his dream become a reality.
One thing I found astounding was that Bartholdi began his work (on the hand and torch) before knowing HOW the immense copper statue would actually be held up. It seems he had the boldness to begin his project, and the momentum brought it forward to the point where each problem was solved in turn.

The armature of the statue was was designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, the famous French engineer known as the "magician of Iron." He would later (in 1889) go on to build his own masterpiece, the Eiffel Tower. The support system was comprised of iron beams and ribs and 600,000 rivets. All of this is intricately and clearly explained in the book.

The picture I loved best was one depicting the head of Lady Liberty being transported in a wagon of straw with 13 huge draft horses pulling her through the streets. On her way to a Paris exposition, she seemed almost alive as the movement gave her the appearance of nodding to the onlookers.

The Emma Lazarus poem, "The New Colossus" has become inextricably linked to Lady Liberty, and is quoted and explained for young readers.

I came away with a sense of awe as I closed the book~~ what a magnanimous gift our country was given. I hope someday to see her for myself. But beyond that~~my hope is that somehow, in spite of the quagmire of immigration tangles, we may continue be known as a nation equally magnanimous and wise in giving the gift of light and liberty to "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Pioneer Village

How do you celebrate Independence day? Our family's 4th of July traditions are almost as firmly embedded as our Christmas traditions. We make a three hour trek to a small town in Nebraska to visit Pioneer Village. It is about as non-glitzy as you can get; I think it is the antithesis of modern American attractions. I fear it may not be able to remain solvent forever, because the crowds are always small and some of the collections are sorely in need of a little TLC. Still, it has a place in our hearts and it just wouldn't be Independence Day if we didn't go! There will be patriotic music from the Senior Citizen's Band, a picnic on the grass, and small-town fireworks after dark. Sometimes we get in on the Civil War re-enactments and the historical cannon salute at nearby Fort Kearny. I'm thankful that our fun can also serve to reinforce in our children a sense of history and patriotism.

Here is a description of Pioneer Village taken from their website:

Relive America's Golden Yesterdays
You have to see it to believe it... The largest private collection of Americana anywhere. The Pioneer Village complex comprises 28 buildings on 20 acres housing over 50,000 irreplaceable items of historical value, restored to operating order, arranged in groups and also in the chronological order of their development. There are 12 historic buildings around the circular "green". There's a Frontier Fort, a real honest-to-goodness Pony Express Station, an Iron Horse, and a home made of sod. There's a general store and a toy store, chock full of all the goods from yesteryear. An original art collection including 25 Currier and Ives prints, 23 Jackson paintings, and the largest single collection of Rogers statues. You can ride a priceless steam carousel, see 17 historic flying machines and marvel at 100 antique tractors. See a 1902 Cadillac and a 1903 Ford, both designed by Henry Ford, plus 350 other antique cars, all displayed in their order of development. For a relaxing trip into yesterday, come to Pioneer Village.
  • Pony Express Relay Station
  • Original Elm Creek Stockade
  • Historic Country Church
  • Historic General Store
  • Historic Sod House
  • One Room School House
  • Antique Toy Collection
  • Blacksmith Shop

Zebra Brownies

Zebra Brownies will certainly be in our picnic basket tomorrow. It's my most requested treat; I could probably whip up a batch in my sleep because I' ve made them so many times. Here is the recipe:

One package of brownie mix (20 oz.)
8 oz. pkg. of cream cheese, softened
1/3 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 t. vanilla
1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare brownie mix as directed on the package (cake-like option). Pour most of the batter into a greased 13-by-9-inch baking pan, but reserve a little of the batter for the topping.

Next, beat the cream cheese and sugar in small bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well. Pour the cheese mixture over brownie mixture. Top with dollops of the remaining brownie batter that has been reserved. Cut through the batter with a knife for a marbled effect.

Sprinkle with chips. Bake 35 minutes or until cream cheese mixture is lightly browned.

Makes 18 servings.

***Here is my best brownie tip. Use a plastic knife to cut the brownies. The knife will glide right through without gunking up like a metal knife will.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Teen Girl Book List

As I was wrapping up the records for the past school year, I was feeling guilty that we didn't quite make it through the Winston Churchill book we had chosen as the spine for my oldest daughter's history studies. But then, I compiled a list of all that she HAD read and I ended up feeling happy rather than guilty. Here are the books my 14 year old daughter, Melody, read the past 9 months:

The Great Little Madison
The Birth of Britain (20 chapters)
The Wind in the Willows
The Velvet Room
Beautiful Girlhood
Watership Down
Mary Emma and Company
The Care and Feeding of Me
The Yearling
The Sea Around Us
Two from Galilee
Wandering through Winter (portion)
Coincidence, Chaos, and all that Math Jazz (portion)
Christie's Old Organ
Shaking the Nickel Bush
Dickens' Christmas Carol
Last Days of Pompeii (portion)
How the Heather Looks
Tennyson Poetry
The Gift of Music
Our Town (play)
The Joy of Mathematics (portion)
Mornings on Horseback (audio, portion)
Great masters: Mozart- His Life and Music 5 lectures on audio (Teaching company)
Mere Christianity (in process)
Lilias Trotter: A Passion for the Impossible (in process)
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Hollow- Agatha Christie
Robin Hood- Pyle selected chapters

I'm finally relaxing to the point where we can enjoy some books in part without reading every single chapter. Like the math books. They make a fabulous change of pace from the everyday workbook assignments, but we just dip into them on occasion. I'm growing! I'm not as enslaved to lists and schedules as I once was, though I still like to have a plan down on paper. Sometimes the deviations turn out to be the best part of the school year!

Modeling Grace

"Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons:" Mark 3:14-15 (emphasis added)

I usually think of the twelve apostles in terms of their calling to preach, heal, and cast out demons. But their first calling, before all of that activity, was to simply be with Jesus.

When a disciple spends a great deal of time with his or her teacher, some of the learning is "caught" rather than "taught." The teacher imparts intangibles by modeling truth in everyday living. The disciples were with Jesus as He walked, ate meals, handled large crowds, confronted opponents, and blessed children. They never had formal training in crowd control or conducting children's ministry; they simply watched Jesus.

When I think of discipling others, I think first of my own children. Though I consciously and carefully prepare lessons for them in our homeschool and in our devotional time, much of what they learn from me is "caught".

They catch my attitude when they watch me engaging in crowd control (hordes of neighbor kids in our pool), as they see me offering hospitality, or simply mopping the floor.

As they are with me, I wish my disciples were immune to "catching" my sin. My little students no doubt learn new ways to sin from me, because, unlike the Master Teacher who was spotless and blameless, I am a fallen creature.

Ah, but there is grace that is greater than all my sin. And after these entrusted to me have been discipled, have been with me as the twelve were with Jesus~~ then there will come a time when they will be sent out. This is parenting by faith; expecting His grace have the upper hand.

"And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." Acts 4:33

LORD, I have need of your great grace. May that grace be upon us all this day. Amen