Friday, March 21, 2008

A White Bird Flying

"'My grandmother is in no danger,' said Irene, smiling.

Curdie took the princess again, and both turned their eyes to the globe of light. The same moment there shot from it a white bird, which, descending with outstretched wings, made one circle round the king and Curdie and the princess, and then glided up again. The light and the pigeon vanished together."

~from George MacDonald's book The Princess and the Goblin

Good Friday is about death, and contemplating death can be such a somber and sad proposition. How much the better to picture it as George MacDonald does in his fairy tale, as a a white bird soaring upward.

I thought of my teacher-friend Alice, who was laid to rest last week after reaching the age of 96. The obituary said simply "She was a longtime member of the First Baptist Church in Shenandoah. She taught Sunday School and was chairman of the May Breakfast for many years."

How inadequate those words are in expressing the "globe of light" that she was to me and to the stream of first graders who sat in the little wooden chairs in "her" class during the course of her (50 year?) ministry.

I don' t remember many specifics about what she taught me. But I do remember the love. Love that extended far beyond first grade. Love that meant sending me a chatty greeting card year after year on my birthday until she was unable to do so any longer (I was 50 years old by then).

I'm thankful that because of the death and resurrection of my Saviour, Jesus Christ, Alice has been released from her weak and frail body and is soaring in heavenly places like the white bird flying.

"But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
~ I Corinthians 15:54-55

Thursday, March 20, 2008

City Bites

This little article will be the counterpart to my previous one about the delights of a small town. Cities have their advantages as well, and one perk I especially enjoy is access to the Melting Pot Restaurant.

Maybe it's nostalgia--the 6 girls I hung out with in my teen years (1970's) were no strangers to the fondue pot. I seem to remember pigs-in-blankets fried in hot oil. Yikes! We were all skinny back then!

The Melting Pot has a more refined fondue selection, but the interactive fun and leisurely pace have not changed from those "fondue parties" of the past that I remember so well. My dining partner, "Derf", has been one of my dearest friends since we were in 7th grade together. We have made a tradition of getting together three times a year, often at the Melting Pot. Last week our meal took almost 4 hours, but it flew by incredibly quickly because we had so much conversing to do in order to catch up on each others' lives! The take-your-time atmosphere is such a welcome change from the rush of the "quick bite".

If you are lucky enough to be close to one of the 120+ franchises, you can expect 4 courses. First is the typical cheese fondue, but there are 6 variations to choose from. This time we had the artichoke/spinach offering, served with french bread cubes and veggies.

The salad is the 2nd course and it is , well.....groovy! The California salad with walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette makes a nice contrast to the cheesy first course.

The cooking mediums for the meat course range from boullion, to coq au vin, to mojo. The seasonings are subtle and can be chosen to complement pork, sirloin, salmon, shrimp, chicken, or even (pricey) lobster. We usually get an assortment that allows us to sample each one. There are half a dozen dipping sauces to add to the fun.

Dessert is a MUST here. I can pass it up in nearly any other restaurant, but not at the Melting Pot. It's chocolate, of course: dark, milk, oreo, yin and yang, s'mores, peanut butter.....oooh la la! Served with fresh strawberries, pineapple, pound cake, and marshmallows, it is truly worth the splurge.

I have a fondue pot in my cupboard that doesn't come out too often, but I used it recently with the teen boys that I teach on Sundays-- I guess I just wanted to stir up some wonderful memories for them to dip into when they look back......

Small Town Delights

I am a born-and-bred small town girl myself, and though I've migrated to the suburbs, it seems my most memorable occasions still center around small towns. Some time back I wrote about our wonderful, serendipitous day in Greensburg, Kansas, the little community that was literally blown away by a tornado only a few months after our visit.

Fremont, Nebraska is my newest haunt. It has all the elements that make for a perfect, one-day vacation: unique eateries, one-of-a kind shops, interesting architecture, and BOOKS! My dear friend M. arranged for us to spend a day together there this past week as a birthday gift, one that I'm still savoring days later.

Starting at Thornhill, a cozy fine dining establishment in a restored home, we enjoyed Beef Wellington with caramelized onions and saffron risotto. And the tea! We had a hard time choosing, but ended up deciding on the Paris blend described as "a fruity black tea with a hint of lemony bergamot" served in a charming teapot and kept warm over a tea light.

The weather was mild and balmy (finally! a hint of spring), so we walked the town. My friend had arranged for us to have a personal tour of the Dragonfly, which is a large Victorian home that has been tastefully restored. It now houses a tea room, a floral shop, a gift shop, and a complete day spa. We ooohed and ahhhed over the elegant accoutrements in which the "Grand Old Dame" (circa 1890's) had been dressed.

On to Dime Store Days, a classy antique mall. We picked up some vintage schoolbooks there~ something I like to collect when the right volume presents itself. They play the most beautiful background music in that place, the music of Bob Patin. You can't listen to his music without smiling, so I couldn't resist picking up another of his CD's on this trip, this one entitled You Raise Me Up. (Listen to excerpts here.)

We found stuffed rabbits made by Boyd's Bears at our next stop at a ridiculously low price. I bought 4 for my children and paid $9 total!! They will find them in their spring baskets when they have breakfast this morning (we do spring baskets instead of Easter baskets).

Our final destination was the venerated Yankee Peddler West, which is worth a day all in itself. Rooms and rooms of used books in pristine condition, artfully arranged and interspersed with antique military artifacts, hats, toys, art work, and accessories of every kind imaginable. The proprietor speaks Swedish, too! I'm getting very picky about the used books I buy. Nothing stinky or mildewed, please. No crumbling spines or loose pages, either. I was not disappointed. Here is my stash from this trip:

  • The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, a hardback in perfect condition
  • Joy Cometh in the Morning: A Story for Boys ~ charming cover and decorations, written 1924
  • The Desire of My Eyes: The Life and Work of John Ruskin by Wolfgang Kemp~ I've had an ongoing interest in John Ruskin for many years and can't wait to read this biography!
  • A paperback set in slipcase of Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples. My older kids didn't connect with Winston, but I love him, so I bought these for ME :)

Not bad for a day out on the town, eh?

These excursions are few and far between for me, so I guess that is why I write about them with such enthusiasm. I know that my choicest fruit will be born at home, but God is so good in giving us days that bring us out of our usual routine that refresh us and restore the sparkle. I'm sparkling now, enjoying it all over again as I write. Thank you, M!!!!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Toiling and Tilling of St. Patrick

Fine Art Print
by Jessie Wilcox-Smith

And not seldom, after the manner of the Apostle Paul, he toiled with manual labor, fishing, and tilling the ground; but chiefly in building churches, to the which employment he much urged his disciples, both by exhortation and example.

The Life and Acts of St. Patrick by Jocelin

The Practice of Looking Deeply

Double Exposure of Human Eye and Sunset
Photographic Print

I have a sneaking suspicion that as I grow older, the observation skills that I have honed over the last 50+ years are in danger of stagnating. I see almost nothing that surprises or shocks me anymore; and the possibility of taking for granted the beauty all around becomes very real. Young children are a tonic for this; their contagious wonder when they witness a sunrise, a bumblebee, a rainbow~~ reawakens the inner eye that has grown sleepy.

Acute observation skills are not developed by chance, and once developed, it takes real effort to maintain the practice of looking deeply. The British educator, Charlotte Mason, emphasized observation skills as a way of life and felt that this skill was an important educational underpinning.

Nature observations were central to her method of exercising visual acuity. Miss Mason encouraged Mothers to spend long hours outdoors with the children, guiding them to see not just trees, but trees with unique characteristics. Children were challenged not only to notice the distinctives of each tree, the shape of the leaves, the texture of the bark, the type of seeds, etc.-- but to make these discoveries ON THEIR OWN. In other words, Mom was to pique their curiosity and stimulate them to make their own discoveries.

Alas, children don't keep. In their absence, one can grow rusty about noticing the little things: the street sign that says "2th" instead of "2nd", the heart-shaped branch on the tree, and the sparkle of frost on the window pane. And have you noticed that there is a white arrow on the Federal Express truck? No, I didn't notice this myself. I read it in this fascinating article called The Eyes Have It, about a Harvard educator named Professor Stilgoe, a man that would make Charlotte Mason proud.

If you, like me, have never noticed the white arrow on the truck, Stilgoe proposes a reason:

"It's because your eyes and your brain have been conditioned to read the letters. Before they've learned to read, toddlers will see the arrow. And I've asked toddlers, ‘Do you see the arrow on the truck?’ And they usually do,” says Stilgoe. “The arrow is between the lower half of the capital E, and the X." He goes on to say that most people stop looking after they learn to read. It seems almost heretical to mention any downside to reading, doesn't it? But there you have it.

The failure to notice the Fed X arrow may not be such a bad thing. After all, a mind has to sift out the minutiae that is less-than-essential or else our thoughts are clogged and cluttered. But, I wonder, could I also be editing out details that would make for my delight? How can I combat my own visual illiteracy? Is there a way I can encourage my kids to develop skills of acute observation?

Stilgoe's suggestions are pretty common sense. Truth be known, I need to be reminded of them often, suggestions such as:

  • Slow down the pace of life. Meander. Don't go on a walk just for your health, but also for delectation. Go for a ride once in a while without a destination in mind, and enjoy the view.
  • Don't be afraid of being slightly disorganized. Spontaneity can invite fresh experiences and new scenery.
  • Make sure the children have plenty of "self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity". (Charlotte Mason called this masterly inactivity).

In thinking on these suggestions, I would add the following:

  • Writing or sketching my observations enables me to slow down, notice more detail, and savor the moment. Our state university has introduced sketching into their medical training. Doctors in training must draw the expressions on the faces of their patients. They begin to recognize facial expressions associated with pain, fear, anxiety because they have slowed down long enough to observe telltale details.
  • Draw from the examples of master teachers who have achieved great things. Louis Agassiz comes to mind, along with the famous story of his method of teaching a student how to really observe a fish. It's worth a re-read and it's online here. (Scroll down to chapter IV).
  • Marry a slow-paced man. I did! Sometimes it drives me crazy, as when we are hurrying to be late. But usually I am blessed. When given a choice, my husband will nearly always choose the scenic route and I am richer for it.
  • Stilgoe's phrase "slight disorganization" intrigues me. The push, push, push for productivity that affects us all calls for super-organizational skills. The problem is, when smugly organized, I get irate when my tidy little world gets mussed. The solution is to be organized just enough. Slight disorganization will leave some margin in our lives for serendipity, one of my favorite words!
  • Leaving time for the children to have non-guided, non-sports activities is pure wisdom. I am finding that this was easier when they were wee little tots. As they get older, I have to have jealous vigilance if there is to be any margin of white space in our schedules. Time will tell, I hope, that it has been worth the struggle.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

More on Writing

"A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg. So I don't worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It's a matter of just sitting down and working. I have never had the problem of a writing block. I've heard about it. I've felt reluctant to write on some days, for whole weeks, or sometimes even longer. I'd much rather go fishing, for example, or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not. But, later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, "Well, now it's writing time and now I'll write." There's no difference on paper between the two. "
— Frank Herbert

Herbert's words have the ring of truth in them. If I wait until I feel inspired to sew, sketch, exercise, play the piano, or write, there are long stretches in between times when those things are neglected. Then I am frustrated at my lack of skill when the "big idea" comes to me because I am unable to execute it well. Self-discipline requires consistency, which in turn develops the skill to bring an inspired idea out of the head into the realm of the tangible. Little disciplines matter.

On Writing

I borrowed the poster from Little Momma. Isn't it great?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Sensible and Human Things

The Bath by Mary Cassatt

I read from Psalm 52 this morning, about the evil, boasting man whom God will "uproot from the land of the living." In contrast, the righteous have deep roots and thrive like a "green olive tree". I want the permanent faith and the longevity of the olive tree. But how does that translate into the context of my everyday life? What will the daily activities of the rooted righteous look like?

I think this quote by C.S. Lewis answers that question very nicely. He wrote this during WWII, when the English were living in fear of German bomb raids.

"The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things -- praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts -- not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. " ~~C. S. Lewis

I'll be doing quite a few of those sensible and human things today, with a new perspective on them. Those common activities matter, and they make an eternal difference.

What will your day find you doing?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

What I've Learned About Birthday Parties
Rosemary Babikan

My newly-turned-nine-year-old daughter had a little party this afternoon. She is very, very tired because she planned and prepared most of it herself. I'm reflecting tonight, as Moms often do when they see their children reach a milestone. I'm also thinking about how much more relaxed I am now in comparison with the way I managed such events with my first born. Here are some things I think I have learned:

  • Anticipating the event is as much fun as the event itself. Allow plenty of time at bedtime to talk about how much fun it will be and to kick around ideas.
  • The process is more important than the product. So what if the words on the invitation are a little crooked? Who cares if the crepe paper streamers have a few kinks? And does it really matter that she forgot to put frosting in the hole of the angel food cake?
  • Play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
  • Let the children use the web camera on the iMac. It's such fun to hear them laugh over the images of their stretched-out selves~~ almost like the crazy mirrors of my day :)
  • Don't have a party every year. When it is EXPECTED, it loses its luster.
  • Floam (or Model Magic Fusion), feathers, Styrofoam balls, and pipe cleaners provide hours of fun at the table.
  • Clean after the party, not before.
  • Savor the memories.

Book Review: Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke

I've read very little fiction this past year, not because I don't like it, but because I got hooked on Neil Postman books which led me down other rabbit trails. But in the midst of this l-o-n-g winter I found myself wanting/needing some light reading, and the book Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke presented itself. I found it a very satisfactory diversion for several reasons.

First, I love C.S. Lewis and although the setting of the story picks up immediately after his death (mid 1960's), his influence and teaching lives on in the life of a young man he mentored (David MacKenzie). I loved the C.S. Lewis quotes sprinkled throughout and the well researched tidbits about his life that were woven into the reading. I also relished walking the Oxford campus and experiencing it vicariously through the eyes of a young American student who was studying there, Kate Hughes. I think my mid-winter doldrums matched the way she sometimes felt as she learned to live with the rainy weather of England!

This was a romance story, and admittedly the plot was not anything out of the ordinary. But there were many elements to enjoy nonetheless: the exhilaration of finding the life partner of God's choosing, the struggles entailed in blending lives from two different cultures, and the issue of pre-marital purity. The author managed to make the commitment to purity appear reasonable and honorable, when it could have just as easily looked prudish and old-fashioned.
I would not hesitate to hand this book to a teenager because it reinforces high standards in a relationship without making it look too easy.

I enjoyed this novel, which was a first for pastor's wife/homeschool Mom Melanie M. Jeschke. In fact, I straightaway ordered the whole trilogy to place on our book table at the upcoming woman's retreat. I tend to put "heavy" books on the table most years, and I think the ladies will enjoy the pages of a sweet, English, C.S. Lewis tinged romance as much as I did.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Gabriela Montero: Master of Improv

I would have missed Gabriela Montero's unique piano recital if my blogging friend Carol had not introduced me to her considerable talents via this video clip. The Venezuelan-born pianist performed nearly 2 hours in our city this past week. Her much anticipated recital did not disappoint!

During the first half of the program, Gabriela showcased her talent by performing Schumann's
Carnaval, a series of short, musical vignettes depicting historical and folk characters. In typical romantic fashion, bursts of passionate energy were interspersed with short cycles of tender melody requiring a gossamer touch on the keys.

Gabriela was up to the challenge, and interpreted the forceful, strong sections with the agility of a musical athlete. The contrasting playful and singing movements were executed in such a way to make you feel as though you were listening to musical poetry.

But the real treat was the final half of the program, in which Gabriella shared her unique gift of improvisational playing. Most of us would probably associate improv musicians with jazz, but Gabriella proves that classically trained musicians can contribute with equal aplomb.

Taking requests from the audience, Gabriella would take a well known theme and proceed to turn it inside out and upside down in the tradition of the Baroque masters.
But although baroque is obviously her forte, she is not above throwing in other musical styles and rhythms.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame as a two-part invention? The Beatles' song Michelle with hints of salsa? How about Over the Rainbow in ragtime?
She could and did do it all.

The net result of her improvisational display was that the audience became totally engaged in the music. The stiff, formal atmosphere melted as the performer and the audience shared in the JOY of the music.

Music is a uniquely human pursuit, and whether we are polished musicians or amateurs who sing off-key in the shower, sharing our enjoyment together creates powerful memories. How wonderful to see a musician who can transcend the gap between performer and listener! Gabriela Montero has contributed significantly to my musical memory bank.