Thursday, December 02, 2010

A Tale of Two Marriages: Part II

photo by andy.w2008

At first glance, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln seem ill-matched: she, the elegant daughter of wealth and society, and Abraham the homely son of a poor frontiersman.  But the two things they held in common were enough to cement their lives together in matrimony, namely a shared literary interest and an unabashed political ambition.
Mary enjoyed a truly classical education, some of it obtained surreptitiously when she sought out the tutorship of a man who was headmaster of a private boys' school. She mastered classical literature and languages while other girls her age were sewing a fine seam. All her life she remained an avid reader and lover of the arts.
Abraham, however, did not have opportunity to sit under learned scholars but his similar thirst for knowledge drove him to self-education.  Philosophy, Burns, poems of despair such as Holmes' "Last Leaf," and other classics all became fodder for his mind's ravenous appetite. He repeated things aloud to himself to fix them in his mind. He read to himself, to Mary Todd, and to his children. In the darkest days of the Civil War, when no man or woman could share his sorrow and perplexity, he drank deeply of Shakespeare's tragedies and the Bible, especially the book of Job.

The self education of this man produced something of a rarity: a political-poet.  His succinct, well chosen words were always penned to be spoken to an audience, and in some cases his words proved absolutely spell-binding.  Lincoln's "lost speech" was so profoundly moving that the journalists laid down their pens, listening as if entranced. 

If the literary magnet was what drew their minds together as one, it was the fire of political ambition in their bellies that cemented the relationship between Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln.  Since Abraham was subject to bouts of "hypo", which today would probably be diagnosed as manic depression, Mary's ambition was strong enough to carry them both. Without her, he may not have been able to sustain the effort that was required to rise to the top of the political barrel.

Mary would pay dearly to promote her husband's political career.  In the early days of their marriage, she was home alone with two small children for extended periods of time as Lincoln rode the circuit as a lawyer.  When he did arrive home, her loneliness was sometimes painfully extended as she had to wait out Abraham's bouts of "hypo." 

"His friends were saying, 'Poor Abraham Lincoln, married to Mary Todd'...If they knew the full facts, if they had to live with him, might they not rather say, 'Poor Mary Todd, married to Abraham Lincoln'?"

The saving grace:  the ability to re-engage in companionship and camaraderie after such absences had ended.  Mary and Abraham seemed to be able to pick up where they had left off each time, to repair the disjointedness and to move forward.  
"Would you keep me company?" seems a simplistic remedy to marital loneliness and yet it is so effective.  Visits to country clients, shared visits to wounded soldiers, a carriage ride in the country---none of these moments shared between Mary and abraham seem significant in themselves. Each is a slender thread, but the accumulation of many threads creates a tightly woven bond of unity, one that can survive even a civil war.

Engraved on the wedding ring that Abraham slipped on Mary's finger were the words "Love is Eternal." Irving Stone chose those same three words as the title of his biographical novel of Mary's life. It is a sympathetic novel, one that elevates Mary above the usual caricature of an ego-centric, materialistic, shrew.  She was a complex woman, a woman who endured the tragedy of losing two sons and several brothers. She was not always able to bear her tragedy with grace, nonetheless she was a faithful spouse and I believe her love for Abraham Lincoln survived the fires of affliction.  Her story is poignant and instructive.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Dying Christian to His Soul by Alexander Pope

From zaazaa777

Vital spark of heav’nly flame!
Quit, O quit this mortal frame:
Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying,
O the pain, the bliss of dying!
Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,
And let me languish into life.

Hark! they whisper; angels say,
Sister Spirit, come away!
What is this absorbs me quite?
Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?
Tell me, my soul, can this be death?

The world recedes; it disappears!
Heav’n opens on my eyes! my ears
With sounds seraphic ring!
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?

After laying a dear friend to rest yesterday, I found this poem to be a comfort. 
I'm reflecting this morning on the funeral and the importance it plays in our grieving. This funeral was held at our church rather than in a funeral home, something that is becoming increasingly rare. When I was a little girl, nearly all the funerals I remember were held in a church. What blessed me about yesterday's church funeral was the personal touches:  familiar hymns sung by familiar voices, home grown roses, a bountiful luncheon prepared by loving hands. I've often experienced a pang of regret for families who are making final arrangements for a loved one without ever having forged a place in a community of faith. It leaves a hollow spot to hire people to take care of the details.  A church family provides a huge network of support at life's extremity and I'm so grateful for the cords of love that bind us together.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My AntoniaMy Antonia by Willa Cather

I read a slew of Willa Cather books when I first moved to Nebraska. (Cather is from Red Cloud). This is my favorite of them all, hands down.  The description of the mysterious dried mushrooms, the snowflakes falling from the sky like big feathers from a pillow, the farm plow silhouetted against the setting sun---Cather etches scenery into your mind's eye in an unforgettable way. The characters drawn from the fictional Black Hawk, Nebraska are complex and multi-faceted and if you've any past connection with rural America, they will without a doubt strike a resemblance to someone you know. Alas for the young or the city-dweller who may have no such example in the memory bank.

This is a character driven novel, centering on the Bohemian girl Antonia, who came with her family to Nebraska to homestead in the late 1800s.  Antonia typifies a nearly extinct class of immigrant women who bore the crushing weight of hard work, want, misunderstanding, and hardship that accompanied the immigrant/pioneer experience. The west was not civilized apart from the Antonias, whose inner vivacity could not be extinguished by the daily hard labor, or by poverty, loneliness, and death.  Willa Cather has gifted future generations by carving the likeness of such strong women in stone so that our heritage is not forgotten.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anthem by Ayn Rand (Halcyon Classics)Anthem by Ayn Rand

A deceptively quick read. You can read it in an afternoon but I guarantee you will still be thinking about it days later. "Anthem" is the first book I've read by Ayn Rand, though I am somewhat familiar with her philosophy called objectivism. The tenets of that philosophy intersect with my Christian world view on some points: the value of the individual, personal responsibility,property ownership, etc.

The title of this book encapsulates the part of her philosophy that I take issue with. "Anthem" infers music infused with the divine, and in this case the praise is unabashedly directed toward the "I" or man's ego. Ayn Rand seems to believe there is no power higher than man's reason. I choose to believe that reason must bow to God, and that my thoughts are judged by the higher revelation contained in His Word (the Bible).

Nevertheless, this book presents a valuable exercise in considering where collectivism leads us. Very apropos for our times, especially in light of the political ideas being bounced around today, i.e. "collective salvation", social justice, and equality. She paints a chillingly accurate picture of where these popular ideas will lead a society. Antithetically, she drops rosy hints about where objectivism leads and here is where I feel her to be unrealistic & Utopian. Why is she able to see man's sin so clearly in collectivism but fails to see that those same seeds must be harbored also in the heart of the free & reasonable man?

I'm looking forward to discussing this book in depth with my 16 yr old son this year. There's a fine line between respect for the individual and worship of the individual, and I can't wait to bounce these ideas around verbally. The Sovereign God who declared Himself the "I AM" created us in His image. I am an individual with the freedom to make choices because of how HE made me. I celebrate my individuality but I do not worship it. Just goes to show you, religion can be neatly divided into two antithetical camps: you either acknowledge JEHOVAH IS GOD or you claim I AM GOD. I recommend this book if you like to wrestle with philosophy and think about where it leads society.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tale of Two Marriages: Part I

photo by andy.w2008
A.W. Tozer is one of my spiritual heroes. I'm now in my fourth decade of reading his incisive, literary books and essays, and have greatly benefited from his other-worldly perspective. Sadly, Tozer did not attain hero status in the eyes of his wife.

A portrait of the marriage of A.W. and Ada Tozer is chronicled in Tozer's biography, A Passion for God by Lyle Dorsett. Tozer's entry into the "deeper life," the place of mystical communion with God for which he was so respected, was birthed in the living room of his (then future) Mother-in-law. The young Tozer received the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a result of this woman's influence, an enduement of heavenly power that would launch him into a fruitful, lifelong ministry as preacher, prophet, and penman for God.

Ada was a lovely and very suitable marriage partner for the young, serious, and largely untrained preacher. Possessing a godly family heritage, she was both literate and wise. One can easily see how her gifts complemented her husband's drive and desire to be self educated and effective in using pulpit and pen.

It is unclear to me whether Ada and A.W. were ever truly soul mates. From the beginning, it seemed that A.W. had one burning desire: to know God. Everything else was incidental. In reading the early history of their marriage I almost felt out-of-breath as I traced A.W.'s course. He accepted calls to preach at the drop of a hat and sometimes Ada was left behind to secure her own passage as best she could manage. The telling of the story made me feel as though there was never time for them to focus on each other or build a strong marital foundation.

Through the decades, Ada seemed always to be two steps behind A. W. She had to secure transportation to church services as best she could by depending on others, since her husband refused to purchase an automobile. Sometimes she walked a considerable distance to church and arrived shivering from the cold, harsh Chicago winter.

Struggling with the elements was only a small part of what Ada had to deal with. Being the one partner who was always home with their seven children, her management skills were honed to the maximum in order to stretch a "half sized" paycheck to cover daily necessities for the growing brood. Why was this popular preacher's paycheck only half sized? Because A.W. disdained money. He usually returned half of his paycheck back to the church and often refused pay increases.

Most likely, A.W. Tozer was never purposely ill-intentioned toward his wife and family, but he was so singly focused on spiritual matters that his managing of practical matters bordered on insensitivity. How do two people thrive in a marriage when, for years and years, they live and move and breathe in entirely different spheres, when one is feasting on living ideas and stimulating conversations and the other is left to feast on macaroni and cheese day after day?

If Ada did not thrive, she survived. She had too much dignity to complain openly or denigrate her husband. She "made do" on cheap food, by begging rides or taking public transportation, and to her credit even extended herself to others less fortunate than herself. But by all accounts, her life exuded a marked lack of joy.

Meanwhile, A.W. was thriving in his sphere of ministry. He spent countless hours on his knees in prayer, purportedly the secret to his heavenly perspective, his powerful preaching, and his prolific writing. Young people, especially college students, benefited greatly from his ministry and he had countless speaking and conference engagements.

As I was considering the contrast between husband and wife's circumstances, it struck me that the rich writing that I have hungrily devoured was purchased at the expense of Mrs. A.W. Tozer, all of which leads me to ask: could it have been different? If the Tozer's had enjoyed a sizzling marriage, would his focus have shifted? Would his brilliant spiritual perspective have been pulled down to mediocrity? Dare I ask....would it have been better for a man like A.W. Tozer to remain unmarried?

Because I am a pastor's wife, or perhaps only because I am a woman, my sympathies are aroused and I am indignant for Ada Tozer. My mind envisions how wrongs might have been remedied and inwardly I scold Ada's insensitive husband. Then the counter arguments present themselves; great things are achieved at great cost. Both members of the marriage sacrificed themselves in different ways, and as this biography reveals, even the greatest and best among us are still only flawed earthen vessels.

A.W. said, toward the end of his life, "I've had a lonely life."

Hauntingly, Ada's recorded words were very similar: "No one knew what a lonely life I had."

There is a sense of sadness when one reads those words. Surely the difficult circumstances were not insurmountable, surely God intended joy in the midst of such circumstances. Why did they fail to penetrate the loneliness, to share the joy?

My personal experience leads me to believe that loneliness can be endured if there are sure occasions of emotional connection to look forward to. When those connecting times wane, I think that the human soul seeks to build a protective shell around the heart, a shield against the pain of loneliness. A vicious cycle is established---it becomes increasingly difficult to bridge the barrier between two beating hearts. The story of A.W. and Ada Tozer gives me renewed impetus to keep and hold sacred regular times of connecting emotionally with my beloved. Youth can rely on spontaneity, but as the years go by and responsibilities increase it takes a purposeful effort to guard spaces of time set apart for strengthening the tie that binds.

I am left with a profound sense of gratitude to both A.W. and Ada Tozer for their sacrifices and gifts that continue to strengthen my spiritual life. I am also left with the great certainty that in spite of the joy they may have missed in this life, there is a Biblical guarantee that
"Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy"
Psalm 126:5

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Johnny Do-It-All

by gedtee

When asked about his future plans, my 16 year old son makes no bones about wanting to be a "renaissance man," someone who has broad range of interests and knowledge. I muse on our conversation and smile.

There was a time when I might have been anxious about the fact that he doesn't have anything definite pinned down, hasn't charted a specific course for his future. I've relaxed considerably the past few years as I have seen the fruits of letting go, of easing up on the reins of my control inch-by- inch in favor of letting him make choices.

Homeschool Moms love to direct. They love to make lists of books to read and they enjoy designing projects and field trips and learning experiences for their children. The problem is, Moms tend to enjoy it just a little too much. Controlling and directing can become toxic and addictive. I see this in myself and yes, I see this as a weakness in homeschooling Moms in general. When our careful input bears fruit and we see them mature at an early age---we are loathe to let them take flight. They have thrived under our tutelage and it's difficult for us to see that these sturdy saplings no longer need our moment by moment tending.

I remember a poem that my Mom stitched for me after I left home. Because it has hung on my wall for many years, it is etched in the fabric of my heart as well:

I remember when you were my little girl.
As much a part of me as my right arm.
My every breath and step held you in mind.
Then suddenly, one morning, you were grown.
I was not finished with you.
But we must love our children enough to let them go.
But in my heart you will always be
My Little Girl.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Tale of Two Marriages: an Introduction

photo by andy.w2008

My summer reading list includes a biography of A. W. Tozer and a biographical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, and I keep finding myself mentally contrasting their marriages. It would never occur to me to compare the marriages of two such disparate personages except for the fact that their life stories happen to lie side-by-side on my reading table. Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but the juxtaposing of the two marriages elicit some interesting thoughts and questions.

It's lonely at the top. That aphorism seems to hold true even for people who start their climb with a beloved soul mate. Paradoxically, in the case of both A.W. Tozer and Abraham Lincoln, entrance into their destined arenas was granted via their wives. Stepping over the threshold, they went on to live and move and breathe in a world in which their partners seemed locked out. Is it possible to remain soul mates when living in two separate worlds?

I've also wondered whether marital tension actually serves to catapult the man to the top, by forcing him to make a conscious choice about how he spends his lifeblood, about where he channels his energy. Tension creates a climate where the man must define his boundaries and clarify his goals.

It is always instructive to study the lives of great men and women, and to consider where their choices led them, but because my ruminations are lengthy, I've chosen to write them in separate parts. I will recap the stories of the Tozers and the Lincolns in separate posts, and then seek to ask questions and draw some conclusions from there.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Classic for Father's Day

Dad 'n' Brad (My brother) 1961

Small boys become big men through the influence of big men who care about small boys.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Dreaded Question

Nickolas Muray (1892-1965) George Eastman House Collection 1931

"Where are you going to college?" is the inevitable question every highschool grad will be asked, again and again. With a steady gaze and unwavering voice, my daughter has answered, "I'm not going to college."

As if to comfort, some have turned to me and said in a low voice, "Perhaps she'll be ready for college next year."

I don't think so.

And, thank you, but I don't need to be comforted. I am proud of her decision, one that she made prayerfully and carefully.

If not college, then *what*?? I will answer that question with another question, the same one that Melody asked me some time back when she was grappling with the college decision:
"Would it be OK to use my gifts at home and at church?"

The simple answer is "yes." At home she will have a safe refuge plus the one essential she needs as a budding composer: the luxury of time. She will continue under the wise tutelage of her long-time teacher/mentor, an arrangement that simply cannot be improved upon at this time.

At church, Melody has ample opportunity to grow in leadership skills as well as musically. The responsibilities she carries out there would be a challenge to someone twice her age.

Will she stagnate? I think not. Her homeschool education has endowed her with a thirst for knowledge and a love of reading. On her nightstand this very moment you will find a stack of books: The Bible, a medical mystery-thriller, Paradise Lost, Mein Kamf, three holocaust survivor memoirs, and a large tome on WWII. Melody will continue to enjoy the intellectual freedom to study what she wishes, when she wishes.

But what about money? Looking at college from the utilitarian standpoint, I suppose it is possible her financial future may not have the safety net that a college education could supply. But she also will not incur the huge debts that would require the income of a college grad :)

In her own words, "I feel called to the life of faith." Faith WILL be required, because the musical opportunities that carry remuneration are irregular. The sales garnered from her newly released CD are being held in a special account, to be used as seed money for the next project. Ultimately, it is an act of faith to pursue what you love and expect that at some point the abundant rewards will follow, financial provision included.

Lean seasons and challenging stretches will no doubt be a part of her journey. I'm just crazy enough to believe that those experiences, too, will be part and parcel of her ongoing life learning. My hope is that she will gain confidence in her calling and that all of her encounters, both joyful and difficult, will be the means by which the intangible qualities of maturity can blossom.

May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace; may our granaries be full, providing all kinds of produce; may our sheep bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields; may our cattle be heavy with young, suffering no mishap or failure in bearing; may there be no cry of distress in our streets! Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall! Blessed are the people whose God is the LORD!

~Psalm 144:12-15

One Wild and Precious Life

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems,
Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver

Melody's graduation evening

Friday, June 04, 2010

More Than You Want to Know About Cupcakes....

I opted to serve cupcakes instead of sheet cake at Melody's CD release reception for several reasons. One, they are easier for an amateur to bake and decorate. I started baking about a month in advance, popped the unfrosted cakes in the freezer, and frosted them all at once on the week-end of the big event.
Other advantages:
  • you don't have to mess with cutting the cake
  • no need to enlist an extra hand to serve cake
  • a greater variety of flavors can be offered
  • they are just so darned cute!
There are all kinds of cupcake trees available for purchase, but I ended up with this 3-tiered glass set by Anchor Hocking. It was inexpensive and elegant, and since it can be taken apart, it's versatile as well.

The Cake Mix Doctor is my go-to book for cakes, but for economy & ease I decided to skip the premium ingredients and go for the simplicity of cake mixes. (Duncan Hines makes a great red velvet mix!) The crowning glory was the silky buttercream frosting and I piped it on as artfully as possible using an icing bag and a 1 M decorator's tip. Filling the decorating bag with frosting is easier if you place it in an upright drinking glass like this:

Here is the recipe for the Buttercream Frosting. It was one I found on the web, and tweaked slightly by switching out part of the butter for shortening. I would have used 100% butter if the cupcakes hadn't needed to be transported; the shortening gives the frosting a little more stability to endure warmth and transport. This makes a lot of frosting, one batch can probably frost about 75 cupcakes, depending how thick you lay it on.

Silky Buttercream Frosting

1 lb. butter (4 sticks), unsalted
1 c. (or 1 lg. stick) butter flavored shortening
2 tsp. vanilla extract (clear)
2 tsp. salt
1 Tblsp. corn syrup
2 lb. confectioners sugar, sifted

Blend shortening and butter together well. Add vanilla, salt and corn syrup. Blend well.
Add sugar in small batches, until it is all incorporated. Blend until light and fluffy.

To make chocolate frosting, mix about 1 c. of cocoa in with the sugar before adding to the shortening mixture. Almond extract complements the chocolate.

Life's Poetry

"Too often we see life's prose, but not its poetry."
~Mrs. Charles Cowman

I made gallons of fruit salad for my daughter's graduation reception, and couldn't resist snapping this photo of the grapes drying on the table. I had asked the Lord to enable me to savor this event, and He truly did. We had spent the bulk of our budget on producing the piano CD, which necessitated that I prepare the food buffet myself. Thankfully, I had plenty of help both at home and from our beloved church family!

Transporting Cupcakes

Transporting hundreds of cupcakes on a warm day can be a challenge. I purchased 19-inch cake boxes at Michael's, and inserted cardboard forms that I salvaged from a warehouse grocery store. The forms originally held yogurt, and were just the right size for a single cupcake.

I baked a variety of cupcakes; this picture shows the chocolate but we had red velvet, lemon, and white cupcakes as well. I'm happy to say they arrived in good shape and looked lovely on the table for our daughter's graduation reception.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Cure for Sore Feet

Photo from the Washington Post
Tony Smith, left, takes Brandon Winn, 30 and Brenna Wiebe, 22, of Sterling, Kan., to the Natural History Museum

I am a walker. Last year I walked Washington D.C. for 3 days with my children and sometimes I had tired, but never sore feet. This year was another story. Our first day of travel kept us busy for 21 hours, and we were asked to dress up for our private tour of the capitol. Alas, dress shoes are the wrong thing to be wearing when you are already tired and are going the distance on hard marble floors. I felt hamstrung.

So my kind husband hailed a pedicab for our sightseeing. What fun! Not only was the weather lovely, but we had a friendly young Navy recruit as our driver. Part of the fun of traveling is rubbing shoulders with people like him. The cost? Whatever you'd like to pay him. What a treat to meet a young man who is pleasant, hard working, and willing to trust that his hard work will be generously remunerated.


"June" by John White Alexander 1911 oil on canvas

May is usually the busiest month of the year for me; especially true this year as we celebrated my eldest daughter's graduation and the release of her piano CD. As much as I loved the festivities, I admit to casting a longing gaze at the "June" calendar page. White space! And for me June brings the first roses, the hammock and a glass of lemonade, the closing of homeschool for the season, and the opening of delicious books that I can peruse at leisure. That feeling of being on the precipice of summer is so regally captured in this painting, one of the many visual delights I enjoyed on my recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery. The light filtered through filmy curtains and the counterpoint created between the elegant lady and the flower vase create a scene that invites one to linger. And I did :)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Art for Memorial Day

Last week I had the luxury of three hours in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It is perhaps my favorite place of all the Smithsonian museums. This picture by Eastman Johnson caught my eye, and I thought Memorial Day was a great time to share it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Buggles the Mind

You don't have to be an entomologist to enjoy the unique art of Christopher Marley. He arranges insects in symmetrical patterns that mimic a kaleidoscope. The colors leap off the page and beg to be studied up close. His book, Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley, is an unusual collection that will engage even an avowed insect-hater.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Why I Love Hymns

I love hymns because they encapsulate sound doctrine.
Anyone who carries a repertoire of hymns in the heart will not need a raft of dry theology
books on the shelf.

I love hymns because they are timeless.
~My Grandmother loved them and played them on her piano.
~My Father loved them and sang them in his clear tenor voice.
~I played them on a great swelling organ.
~My daughter collects hymn books and creates fresh arrangements for the guitar.

I love hymns for their ability to comfort.
~At the hour of departure (do read Carol's post "Music to Accompany a Dying Soul").
~At funerals
~When grieving: My husband lost his brother last May. During our road trip following the
funeral, we sang hymns a capella for a full 2 hours. Our hearts were quieted and consoled.

I love hymns because they are strength to the weary.
Like the pilgrim who finds it within his means to walk a few extra miles if he whistles along the
way, hymns can lighten the workload. While cleaning house or washing the dishes, a hymn
can be a vehicle to transport the mind to higher places while my hands remain in dishwater.

I love hymns because of their proclamation value.
Telling forth is a tenet of my Christian faith. Hymns give my voice the means by which I can
boldly proclaim truth. Timidity is swept aside as my mouth declares the praises of the One
who was, and is, and is to come.

I love hymns because they unite me with the Body of Christ.
To hear a hymn rising from strong voices united as one gives an intrinsic pleasure: I belong to
this family. "That we might with one mouth glorify God." Romans 15: 6

I love hymns because the God who created me "joys over me with singing." Zephaniah 3:17
Only a hardened heart could fail to respond in like fashion. A singing heart is evidence of the
indwelling Holy Spirit, and the one so filled will pour forth with "songs, hymns, and spiritual
songs." This is our heritage. This is our gift.

What are your favorite hymns?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What is Education?

"Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die." -- John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing us Down

Monday, January 18, 2010

Iron Music

Forth he sends the good news, making
Iron music through the land.
How they shouted! What rejoicing!
How the old bell shook the air,
Till the clang of freedom echoed
From the belfries everywhere.

The old State House bell is silent,
Hushed is now its clamorous tongue,
But the spirit it awakened
Still is living, ever young.

~~Author unknown

We visited countless memorials, museums, battlegrounds, and places of historical moment during our last vacation, but the only time I was moved to tears was when I stood in front of the Liberty Bell. I tried to analyze my unexpected burst of emotion: what was it about this icon that touched me so deeply? Perhaps it was a respect for the incredible history this venerable bell has witnessed. Or was it the crack, the jagged gash that evokes memory of the scar our nation bears from her Civil War? Was my emotion tied to my deepening belief that there is an impending need for its iron music to sound anew?

I shelved my feelings for further examination at some more private and convenient time. That appointment with myself came due today as I was reading Bruce Feiler's book, America's Prophet. The 13 page chunk he devoted to the liberty bell and its history affirms that my experience is by no means unique.

One reason cited for its universal appeal is the fact that it is a flexible symbol, borrowed by the people for purposes beyond the Revolution. It was sent from state to state after the Civil War as a unifying symbol. It was borrowed as the symbol of hope for women suffragettes, civil rights activists, and others who deemed themselves oppressed. Even though the bell was created to be heard, it has become a visual object of hope. Its famous inscription only enhances its ringing purpose:

"Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Therof." Leviticus 25:10

I love this quote from the book:

"Hearing is our most fundamental sense. Even a deaf person can feel vibration. And it's the same with this place. The bell is the most important part of this otherwise public building. It's the universal part. It sings the Declaration of Independence. The smallest part of the building turns out to have the biggest voice." ~~ Karie Diethorn

Singing the Declaration. Making iron music. The clamorous tongue hushed, but the spirit of liberty awakened. I love these phrases.

Our American icons are packed with meaning. They deserve a special place in our hearts and in our heritage.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cinematic Poetry: Wit

If there is such a thing as cinematic poetry, Wit fits the description. John Donne's poems serve as the backdrop for this drama, the story of a middle aged college professor (Vivian Bearing) who has spent her life studying and teaching his poetry. During her final, eight- month battle with ovarian cancer, Vivian has much to say in monologue fashion. Her words reflect some of the wit that John Donne is known for:

"This is my play's last scene Here... 'Heavens appoint my pilgrimage's last mile And my race Idly, yet quickly run Hath this last pace My span's last inch My minute's last point And gluttonous death Will instantly unjoint my body and soul' John Donne... I've always particularly liked that poem. In the abstract. Now I find the image of my minute's last point, a little too, shall we say... pointed."

Vivian flashes back to a time when she sat at the feet of her mentor, learning about the significant comma in Donne's poem Death Be Not Proud:

"Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.
'And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark! '

If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner's edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads,

'And death shall be no more' comma 'death, thou shalt die.'

Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.

Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause.

In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma. "

Poetry, lovely though it be, cannot meet Vivian's true human need in the final moments of her life. The mentor who spoke the eloquent words above is Vivian's last visitor and she offers to recite Donne as a well-meaning act of consolation. But Vivian's need is not poetry; her need is love. In a most touching final scene, the elderly mentor climbs into bed with Vivian and extends that love to her. She cradles her head and speaks to her soothingly, as a mother. She opens her bag and takes out a children's book (The Runaway Bunny) and reads it to her. Vivian is comforted and quieted by her touch and her simple ministrations.

This is the kind of movie that leaves a mark on your heart and mind, and I've found myself thinking on it and digesting its message for several weeks following my initial viewing. If you are a crier, you'll want to have kleenex handy for this one.

As an addendum: Shortly after viewing Wit, I came across some interesting information about "poetry of wit" in my current reading, How Does a Poem Mean? The author cites John Donne as the consummate poet of wit. This type of poet "welcome into their poems the rush of every sort of experience." In contrast, poets of high seriousness (Wordsworth is an example) are more concerned with diction and fine writing. This type of poet would exclude certain words or metaphors as being crass or unworthy of mention.

It's always enriching to connect threads of understanding from disparate sources. That is the delight of intellectual freedom.