Friday, June 27, 2008

Which Is More Frustrating: Reading Lyrics to a Song You Cannot Hear? Or Reading About a Book You Cannot Buy?

I'm reading a really, really good novel right now. Unfortunately, you cannot read it. Nya, nya.

It's called Rainmaker's Wrestling, and it is by the inimitable Flicka Spumoni. If you've any sense at all, you will go and read the few chapters she has posted on her blog. It's not enough, but it will have to do.

I was determined to read this book, so I badgered Ms. Spumoni until she finally sent me a copy. Then, I was afraid of it; it sat on my shelf, rebuking me, for a few months. I mean, what if I couldn't get into it? Whatever would I say to Flicka, especially after having made such a fuss? I knew I liked the first chapter and the few middle chapters that she had made available, but here is my big secret: I am not a fiction reader.

What? The very title of this blog comes from a novel.

Yes, and a very good novel at that. But, even so, I am no fiction reader.

I do read some fiction, but it is very rare that I find a story that I can lose myself in. And, I tend to love Brit Lit best, and ignore or disparage most North American novels. There are many exceptions, but it's still safe to say that I lean toward non-fiction nine times out of ten. Of course, I read such a volume of books in general, that quite a few novels have been in the mix. I manage to work in about three or four a year.

Also, I knew that Rainmaker would be dark in places. There is a sense of brooding, almost American Gothic, that permeates the first chapter. It is all very beautiful in its stark, dark way, but could I sustain the stomach to read further? Would a girl who is drawn to the "light, bright, and sparkling" in literature be able to adapt to a tale that starts with whoredom, drugs, and abuse; especially when a little baby has to be born into all of it?

Well, I went into Chapter 2 with a catch in my throat, but my fears were immediately swept aside by this gripping tale. It is almost ludicrously easy to immerse yourself in this story. The characters are very real -- you would swear that these were people that the author hung out with yesterday, though the story begins sixty years ago. Within the first five chapters, I had already belly-laughed out loud once and cried twice.

Now, there are pitfalls when a story is this good. Sometimes the author makes the worst things happen to the best people. That is another reason that I tend not to read fiction. If it's non-fiction, I know pretty much who will live and die going in; novels tend to suck you in until you are completely devoted to a character or two and then the author causes their demise, which throws you into an emotional vortex. I will admit that after a certain chapter in this book, I was so broken-hearted that I had to set it aside for a few days; then, I got mad at Flicka, and left it aside for a few days more. The tragedy of that chapter infiltrated my dreams and gave me nightmares. It would pierce me suddenly when I was just going about my business, causing me to sob with as little control as I had the first time I read it. Dammit, Flicka! I've got a life to live here. You've gotta stop doing this to me.

But, of course, I'm back into it now. You cannot leave the other characters hanging just because your heart is rent. I'm still devastated, but I read on.

So, I am completely envious of Flicka's obvious and abundant talent for writing fiction. I'm a complete dud at that art form. Not only can she write novels, but she wrote a short story a while back called The Troll, The Flute and The Forbidden Music, that I printed off and have yet, because I find it so enchanting.

Alongside the envy, in fact overshadowing it in every way, is this tremendous pride I have in my genius friend who has blessed and privileged me with a copy of her novel. I am just so proud to know her and read her work before it's published. Because it will be published; of that I'm sure. She is a mighty fine writer.

Someday, you will be able to read it, too. Until then, I repeat: Nya, nya!

Friday, June 20, 2008

I Am Tan. Tan I Am.

I think that everyone is entitled to an entirely frivolous dream or two. Something that is emphatically not noble or generous or kind or idealistic. Just a selfish little desire that nags at the mind until it is realized. My dream of this nature has always been to get a tan.

OK, I know it's kind of lame, but just imagine: You are a pasty kid with mousy brown hair living in Southern California. Most people get tanned skin just by walking outside once or twice a week, but your skin stays stubbornly pale; except when you actually make an effort to lie in the sun -- then your fickle hide burns to tomato red and retreats back to white a few days later. This is very frustrating.

So, most of my teen and adult life I have harbored an entirely vain wish to see my skin caramelized at least once. I moved up to the blessed Pacific Northwest, and my melanin inferiority complex lessened a bit (at least many here were as pasty as I for the 8 months a year that the sun is shrouded in clouds), but, in the summer, these infuriatingly outdoorsy folks start showing up looking brown and healthy and fit. Jerks.

About six years ago, I tried tanning beds. I went every day for two weeks before a Las Vegas trip, and sat under the lamps for 10-15 minutes per session. I did not tell Jason, because I wanted him to be blown away when I first appeared at the Luxor's pool area in all my golden glory. Um, I should have known something was up when he never mentioned anything in those two weeks. In Vegas, my blinding whiteness reflected the glare from the water. I was depressed.

Last summer, I decided that my skin and UV rays could never learn to get along, so I went in big for sunless tanning. I bought the super-high-end stuff -- the stuff that says that it will not streak. I faithfully applied it every other day, even employing a disgruntled Jason to get my back. It streaked. And it looked horrible on my knees and elbows, despite the super light touch I used in those trouble spots. The only thing worse than suffering summer in a lily-white state is to go forth with streaky skin. I was embarrassed.

This year, I've been going pretty regularly to the gym (except last week, when I spent my gym time eating King's Hawaiian Bread instead). As I started seeing some buffness come to my arms and legs, their doughy complexion again began to niggle me. I eyed with renewed hope the tanning salon next door to the gym. A thousand and one quotes began to run through my mind; among them: Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience. Like a worn-out bride revisiting the conjugal altar, I pushed open the doors and walked inside.

There, I met the Nut Brown Girl (NBG). She is one of those favorites of fortune who radiate such warmth and likability that immediately engender an absolute trust in what they say. She looked like a wholesome, little nut: dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a deep, dusky tan. I decided to pour out my troubled tale of ultra-Caucasian angst to her.

At the end of the saga, I pathetically cried out, "So, can you help me? Can you tell me how to get the tan I've always wanted?" She nodded; knowingly, sympathetically, confidently.

"We can," the NBG asserted. And I believed.

She got me the right products and the right tanning bed. I've been three times, seven minutes each time, and I can say that I am tan. At least, I have a wee tan -- not much, but infinitely better than anything I've ever had before. True, some parts of me are red -- those parts, like my belly, which have surely never seen a UV ray before. But the parts that matter -- arms, legs, shoulders, and even my face (though I use sunscreen on it) -- are light brownish, and I feel great!

So, having got that monkey off my back, I can go back to the bigger, grander dreams of helping to achieve world peace and promoting the universal knowledge of Christ. Or, in my reality, the somewhat smaller, but not less important, dream of blessing the Lord and the people He loves in every way that I can.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It Was a Very Good Year: 1908

I'm sure you could come up with many things more
To list on this post, but I'll start with four.
Four wonderful things born in 1908
That made that year particularly great.
So here in my awkward and doggerel rhyme,
I'll celebrate the centennial of four things sublime.

The first was when one Gilbert, so witty and foxy
Published his masterpiece, Orthodoxy;
This work, so enchanting, funny, and profound,
Reflects its author, G.K., (though perhaps not as round).
Its excellence is compounded when -- oh woe is me! --
You realize he wrote it when he was thirty-three.

"For if this book is a joke, it is a joke against me. I am the man who, with the utmost daring, discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. . . . I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the late nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them, I tried to be some 10 minutes in advance of the truth. And I found I was 1,800 years behind it. . . . It may be, heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. . . .I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy."
[from "Introduction in Defense of Everything Else," Orthodoxy. G.K. Chesterton, 1908)

That year, a second Gilbert also came onto the scene,
Along with a red-haired girl with eyes of grey-green.
More laborous than the cleaning of those Augean Stables
Was Gilbert's task of wooing the maid of Green Gables.
This first was the start of a three-novel plan,
That at last saw Mr. Blythe win his spirited Anne.

"So far, the ordinary observer; an extraordinary observer might have seen that the chin was very pointed and pronounced; that the big eyes were full of spirit and vivacity; that the mouth was sweet-lipped and expressive; that the forehead was broad and full; in short, our discerning extraordinary observer might have concluded that no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child of whom shy Matthew Cuthbert was so ludicrously afraid."
[from "Matthew Cuthbert is Surprised," Anne of Green Gables. L.M. Montgomery, 1908)

If you are a fan of screwball comedy,
I'm sure you can guess who wins slot number three.
In October '08, when autumn winds blew in sweeter,
A stork in Fort Wayne dropped off tiny Jane Peters.
She grew to be beautiful, classy, a real card,
And we know her and love her as Carole Lombard.

“I live by a man's code, designed to fit a man's world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman's first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick." -- Carole Lombard

The last on this list is a favorite of mine,
Because it's a staple refrain at America's pasttime.
"Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was first sung in '08
And its popularity, it seems, will never abate.
Even while watching the Mariners lose, you poor wretch,
You're happy to sing it in the seventh-inning stretch.

"Take me out to the ballgame
Take me out to the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker-jacks
I don't care if I ever get back.
And we'll root, root, root for the Mariners
If they don't win it's a shame [but expected -- oy!]
'Cause it's one-two-three strikes you're out
At the old ballgame!"

So, there you have it, my nominations this year
Of centennial items we ought to still cheer.
Three things and one person, who each in its place
Spread betterment and joy to the whole human race.
So, read Orthodoxy and Anne; see a Lombard pic or two.
Go sing at a ballgame -- it's what Americans do!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Great Wal-Mart Debate

Jason and I have an ongoing debate about Wal-Mart vs. Small Town America. He is disgusted by towns that pass legislation designed to keep Wal-Mart out of their municipalities. I think that those towns are acting according to American principles; therefore, they are well within their rights.

Neither Jason nor I is a particular fan of Wal-Mart; especially of Wal-Mart in Renton, WA, which is an unappetizing cross between dirty dishevelment and sullied skankiness. On the other hand, we both adore Sam's Club. So, this is not an issue of loving or hating Sam Walton and all his legacy of low prices and mass quantities.

The crux of our disagreement is an understanding of what constitutes freedom of association. I have no problem with zoning laws, especially when they're established very locally. I think that people have a right to determine in what sort of town they want to live. Jason thinks that it is usually small, arrogant groups of elitists that punish people in their communities by limiting consumer choices. I grant him this point. He asserts that laws designed for the sole purpose of restricting one type of business are anti-freedom of association, because they do not permit the market to decide what sorts of businesses succeed in an area -- rather, it is political pull, which is pushes against every kind of freedom.

I return with the idea that, just as a community has every right to decide that they do not want strip clubs, casinos, prostitution, liquor stores, etc. in their town makeup, they ought to have every right to decide against other types of retail that they see as hurting their town's branding, values, charm, business climate, traffic congestion, and so on.

Jason cannot believe that I put Wal-Mart in the same league as strip clubs and casinos. Believe it, baby. I've been to Renton's Wal-Mart. It makes strip clubs and casinos look classy.

Seriously. Say I lived in one of those small towns in Vermont that only seems to convene its city council either to put out a warrant for the arrest of President Bush or bar Wal-Mart from building a local store. Say that I was determined to buy as many cheap products as I possibly could, regardless of their dubious quality and countries of origin. I have four choices: I can resign myself to buying from the overpriced, but awfully quaint, local General Store and shut up. I can move to one of the many places in this vast and varied land where there is a Wal-Mart within an hour's drive in any direction. I can run for the city council myself and fight to change the restrictive laws (and slap my fellow Vermonters out of their George W. Bush hysteria -- Calvin Coolidge would be ashamed of them -- though he wouldn't say much about it). I can order from, and pay a small shipping charge for all the Chinese-made crap my local UPS truck can carry. Sounds like representative democracy works, and I have as many choices as a person ought to have.

Jason usually responds at this point with something like, "You're just a communist!" (which is from the Ludwig von Mises school of argument stoppers*). He's joking, of course. He knows I'm not even a Democrat.

So, that's the gist of this argument we've let linger over the years. Each can concede that the other has a point. I mean, I don't like Wal-Mart very much, but I don't like snooty, whiny elitists who really hate Wal-Mart even more. While part of me abhors their general attitudes, I cannot help but acknowledge that at that very local level, government usually represents the will of the people. And neither of us would want to see Renton's Wal-Mart move any closer to our home. That's just not the kind of thing you want your kids exposed to.

*See: The Making of Modern Economics by Mark Skousen (Chapter 12, page 299), M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, NY, 2001.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Names of God

We sang "Ancient of Days" in church yesterday. I like that song mostly because it uses such a cool and rarely-referenced name for the Lord. I'm not sure, but I think that Ancient of Days is only used in the Book of Daniel. The description there is probably where the popular notion of Grandpa God in a white nightgown with white hair and beard comes from (Daniel 7:9). Of course, since this is an apocalyptic vision, God isn't just sitting there all jolly-like. Nope -- He's seated on a fiery throne with wheels (?) burning of fire, opening the books to judge the "ten thousand times ten thousand" before Him. Oh dear. I'm glad to think that when I am standing there, Jesus will be pleading on my behalf.

Have you ever seen those posters or booklets that list all the names by which God reveals Himself to people? I love reading them over and thinking how the different names have come to mean so much to me over the years. Here are a few of my favorites:

Yahweh -- the most common Biblical word for the Lord. I really like when this is shortened to Yah. Whenever we have Messianic Jews speak at our church, they say "Yah," instead of "God," and I would be delighted if the rest of us picked up this habit.

Lahai-Roi -- "The One Who Lives and Sees Me" from Genesis 16. I took off "Beer" which means "well" and left on Hagar's revelation about God. It is a beautiful name, and one that I remember when I am feeling particularly insignificant and one-six-billionth-ish.

Jehovah-Jireh -- "The Lord will Provide" is a promise that I've clung to many a time.

El-Shaddai -- "God Almighty" or "God All Sufficient" pretty much says it all. Plus, is there anyone alive who does not love this Michael Card song as sung by Amy Grant?

Jehovah-Nissi -- "The Lord our Banner" reminds me that we are not on this battlefield alone. "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war; With the cross of Jesus going on before . . ." The other side can never, ever win -- we just have to show up for the battles.

And then there are the names particular to Messiah. For instance:

Yeshua -- derived from the Hebrew "Y'shua" or "Je-Hoshua" (aka "Joshua") (and in Greek, of course, "Jesus") means "He will Save" or "Jehovah is Salvation" either of which is the gladdest news of any I've ever heard.

Alpha and Omega -- I love the continuity in this name. The Beginning and End and Everything in between -- and yet He shed His blood for me.

Of course, the I AM statements -- I AM the Way, the Truth, the Life; I AM the Bread of Life; I AM Living Water; I AM the Resurrection and the Life; Before Abraham was, I AM. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (Book II, Chapter 3): "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he's a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." I choose to fall at His feet.

What are your favorite names for the Lord Most High?

**I received much of this supplemental information (name translations from Hebrew and Greek, etc.) from this excellent website: The Names of God.**

Friday, June 13, 2008

Well, That Didn't Take Long

It did not take long for me to miss a couple days in my 30-day Blog Posting Blitz. Ah well . . .

So, here's what my week has been like:
  • This night owl has been up with the robins every morning; no worms as of yet, but plenty of sweet baby-lovin' time.
  • Sadie's gymnastics, karate, and ballet classes are rushing headlong toward their big shows/recitals; this has worn me out, but Sadie does not seem to be fazed.
  • I've only been to the gym one day this week; yet, my consumption of King's Hawaiian Bread is unabated.
  • A child who can read is a dangerous person to have around; for instance, it becomes impossible to substitute less-expensive Malt-O-Meal's Coco Roos for General Mills's Coco Puffs.
  • Ugh, Quatchi has come to torment me for the next 2 years. I despise the Olympic Games, but I recoil even more from the creepy Vancouver mascots. Unfortunately, Jason and Sadie love both.
  • Hanging out with two monkey-girls all day is fun and exciting, but exhausting. It leaves little time for putting coherent sentences together in conversation, let alone writing.
I'll be back . . .

P.S. How pathetic is it that I should feel so intellectually outgunned by a 19-month-old and a five-year-old? It doesn't help that they are not only both outstandingly smart, but also charming, cute, and unapologetically manipulative. Little stinkers!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Album Review: Smart Kid

Smart Kid
Clumsy Lovers
Nettwerk (2005)

Sometimes, after you fall in love with a work of art and you want to share your impressions with the world at large, you need to hole up in a room with your thesaurus for a week so that you can arm yourself with all the superlatives necessary to express adequately the transcendent nature of said project. I did not have time for that kind of research, but I'm going to have a go at reviewing this album, nonetheless.

Smart Kid is an album that you listen to for about the first ten times just because the music is so great. The eleventh time, the lyrics start to sink in, and you realize that the writing is as sharp and quirky and energetic as the music, but with a deeper bite to it than you first understood. The next five thousand spins it takes in your CD player (or iPod) will only lead to greater appreciation for the complete artistry that had come wrapped in unassuming cellophane. This may sound hyperbolic, but it's not.

The leading track, "Bobby Banjo," is an anachronistic and surreal adventure in the spirit of They Might Be Giants, but with better music. It's nonsense, but it's thoughtful, eerie, hilarious nonsense. Next, "Save For You" pairs cheerful music with rather melancholy lyrics that surprise you and keep you from getting too comfortable. "Coming Home," which is my daughter's favorite song, finds some smokin' fiddling alongside a pretty dark story. (Incidentally, this song was co-written by Carolyn Arends, Joy Jonat, and Chris Jonat (that's Carolyn's mother and brother) when Carolyn was around 10; I like to think that the line about the "second-hand revolver" belongs entirely to Carolyn's mom.)

"London Bridge" mixes a reggae beat with Clumsy Lovers' trademark enthusiastic fiddle and banjo to great effect. "Stand Up" has a great intro with funky whistling, and the song compels car dancing. For you Arends fans out there, you can hear her vocals contributing to the chorus. "Smart Kid" is funny and groovy and little sad, with one of the best refrains I've heard in a long time: Sometime trouble finds you/Sometimes you spark it/You may come out on the right side/But that don't make you the smart kid. Also this bridge: Don't try to tell me you never once drove with too much to drink/Or tried to outrun a train, driving too fast in the rain/You just got lucky when you forgot to think. Anyone who has been young and stupid can relate.

"People I've Been Meaning to Thank" is pure swinging country fun -- Andrea burns up the violin strings again, setting the pace on that one. "Better Days" is another one of their songs that you can listen to several times before the lyrics sink in. It's a pretty accurate portrayal of those dark days in relationships where you have to make the conscious decision to hold on: Don't give way; be strong, you say/It's just the price you pay/For the better days. "Okay Alright" is the only song on which the sole lady of the ensemble takes lead vocals, and Andrea Lewis's vocals are worth waiting for. I've always loved her wry, ironic voice -- especially on "Let the Sun Shine In" from Barnburner -- and this song was tailor-made for her powers of expression. Ever been fed up? This song is for you. It has my favorite mild swear word in it, too, which is even better.

"Cock of the North" is an instrumental variation on a traditional tune, and, again, Andrea's fiddle makes the song. "Don't Worry" is another chance for Arends fans to hear her warm vocals rise up in the background. I just want to take a second and say that the lead singer in Clumsy Lovers, Trevor Rogers, has one of the great male voices of this popular music era. Do you get sick of the whining sound that, unfortunately, has become the standard in masculine vocals? Goodness knows, I do. If you don't like that, you'll like Trevor Rogers voice.

"Clumsy Love Intro" and "This is Clumsy Love," both written, as most of these songs were, by Chris Jonat, are unqualified fun. "Rockefeller" is a paean to the simple pleasures that abound in family, faith and song -- and if that sounds mealy-mouthed at all to you, then just know that that description doesn't do full justice to the lyric.

"Not Long for This World" is the crown jewel of this sparkling album, in my opinion. Here is as concise and clear a nugget of useful theology and philosophy as any I've ever heard: You are not long for this world/So do not long for this world/Have a good look around/Take joy where it's found/But you are not long for this world. When was the last time you heard such a bold truth so beautifully spoken in song? It's a thoughtful and provocative ending to an all-around excellent album. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something utterly new and addictive.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Album Review: Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies

Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies
Andrew Peterson & Randall Goodgame
Square Peg Alliance (2006)

Are you ready for some great kids' music?

God made slugs and bugs
And rats and bats
And nasty bees that don't say please
They'll sting your elbows and your knees
If you chase them

God made snakes and snails
And killer whales
And if you were a baby seal
Then you would make a tasty meal
For orcas

But God made me like He made the sea
Filled it up with green and blue
Sent His Son, His only one
To fill me up and make me new

OK, so you don't have the frentic energy of the music to make these lyrics come alive. But, this is good stuff. I promise. 100% of the children who have listened to this album in my house have found themselves compulsively dancing along to this song and many others on Slug & Bugs & Lullabies. I'm so grateful that Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame collaborated on such a wonderful project -- we were getting pretty desperate for some new kids' music around here.

What a panoply of fun! The album can be divided into two parts: The "slugs & bugs" part is filled with laugh-out-loud lyrics and stomp-your-feet tunes; the "lullabies" are just that -- warm, soothing, sweet and earnest ballads that please the ears and calm the spirit. I'm exceedingly fond of every song, but I think that my favorite has to be the quirky, slightly edgy "Bears."

Bears, bears
They got no cares
Bears don't drink from a cup
Sharp teeth and claws
And furry paws
To catch you and eat you up.

How great is that? How many children's songs would dare to go a little dark? Yet, kids love that. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen knew well that kids like a tickle of uncertainty in their entertainment, and these guys know that, too.

Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame know more than that about children. They know that kids have wild imaginations and plan grand schemes, and they tap into those creative resources with really smart lyrics that resonate with my two little listeners (and, frankly, with me as well). It's refreshing to hear demands of "Play it again, Mom!" and gladly, willingly comply.

I would recommend this album for anyone who spends time with kids between the ages of Newborn to 12 and anyone else from 18 to Dotage. Jaded teens may poo-poo the magic, but, when they regain their ability to be enchanted, they will want to come again to the land of Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

On a Mission From God

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, 22 area churches and a group of local businessmen came together to help relieve Seattle's destitute population, and Seattle's Union Gospel Mission was born. Seventy-six years later, I got to join this legacy of Christ's hope and His ability to change lives by going to a volunteer orientation meeting. If you ever find yourself tempted to believe the popular and pernicious lie that Christians are just a group of self-righteous, judgmental pricks with no heart for ministering to people in pain in this world, then you need to go to the Union Gospel Mission in your town and meet the Christians on staff who have given their life's work to doing just that.

It is not glamorous work. I can only imagine that the pay is not great. But the retirement plan cannot be beat.

So, I went to the orientation at the Women and Children's Shelter in Seattle's International District. I spent the entire meeting trying to wipe the tears surreptitiously from my eyes, because I didn't want to seem like a total weenie. But, everything there seemed to freshen the flow. My eyes drank in -- through a watery veil -- scenes that were foreign to my pampered, suburban sensibilities, but left me richer by their witness:

The woman who gave her testimony about how she had come in as a heroin addict -- fresh from jail -- eight years before and was now clean and sober and working at the Mission to help other women learn the same lesson of Christ's peace that had changed her life.

The clean, but shabby, halls and rooms which came to be for countless women and children in their hour of trouble not only a refuge, but a small glimpse of what's in store in their Father's house.

The room of cast-off, unfashionable clothing donated to the Mission, that yet represented the first step in a new start for women at the end of their human strength.

It was the people who affected me the most. The orientation leader was a woman of warmth and gentleness who still seemed in awe of the Mission for which she worked. The big-eyed, smiling children scampered down the hallways, their laughter echoing in the rafters of the ancient building. The few program women we saw had eyes that held a mixture of pain and relief, but also a quiet dignity that whispered promises of their renewal. And the volunteers . . .

Our packed orientation room held a group that was cheerful, eager, compassionate and strong. I was mesmerized by the people of goodwill and servant hearts surrounding me. Then, it kind of dawned on me: Hey! I'm here, too. I get to be a part of this holy work. I get to join in with this wonderful organization and learn better how to be Christ's hands and feet in a hurting world. I felt so undeserving of this opportunity that I was shaking and longed to fall to my knees in gratitude. But, that would have been disruptive.

So, I just started crying some more.

I can hardly wait to get out into the mission field. It's right in my backyard.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Observation #437

It seems to me that when you get to the age where you have to worry about wrinkles and grey hair, you ought to be, by reason of sheer fairness, freed from the worry of pimples.

I have four pimples making an unattractive constellation on my face tonight, despite the grey hairs and crow's feet. Damn!

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Best Laid Schemes O' Mice an' Moms

Oh, how I had looked forward to this morning! All this week I had had to rise with the breaking day, and, no matter how early I go to bed the night before, early mornings will never be my friends. Friday was my one beautiful day, when I could turn off my alarm clock and revel in the glory of not needing to be anywhere. Saturday will see me up early to go for training in Seattle. Sunday, of course, will bring the rush of getting to church on time (or within ten minutes). All next week -- Monday through Friday -- will be "working" days with all dawn greetings in my future. So, Friday was my one hope for sleeping in a spell. I programmed the coffee maker to alleviate my "have-to-get-up-and-make-coffee-for-my-poor-hubby-before-he-trudges-off-to-work" guilt. I threw an extra blanket on the bed. I read for a bit. Then, I turned off the light a little after midnight and sank into my pillows -- convinced that I was not to awaken for at least eight hours. Ah, bliss.

Short-lived bliss.

Sadie exuberantly bounced into bed with us this morning at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM. I groaned and rolled over. She started twirling my hair. I snapped at her to stop that. She whimpered that it was her "hobby." I snarled back that she should go back to her own bed. She slid out of our bed. Two minutes later I heard the shrill voice of Dora the Explorer from our office computer.

"Turn that off!" I yelled.

Jason mooked out of bed and lured Sadie off the computer with the promise of coffee cake. As he got ready for work, Sadie started playing in her room. Loudly.

"Sadie! Keep it down!" I hollered and threw a pillow over my head.

Two hours of troubled tossing ensued, before I gave up and sat up in bed. Sadie zoomed around the corner -- grinning ear to ear.

"Yay! You're up!" she exclaimed. "I'm starving! Make me some breakfast!"

I'll be the first to admit that I am not a pleasant person in the morning. I glared at the wee interloper and stalked off into the kitchen. I refused to speak until I had my cup of coffee. Sweet, sweet caffeine mellowed me a bit, and I resumed motherly duties -- grudgingly.

Now, a few hours later, my perspective and sense of humor have returned abundantly. After all, it is nice to have someone here just longing for my company in the morning -- even if it is merely to grab them some victuals. And those lines of Robert Burns remain funny and true:

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
-- From "To a Mouse" or, in this instance, perhaps, "To a Mom"
And here's a little Chesterton to round out my bitter recounting of Friday's Disappointment:
Daybreak is a never-ending glory;
Getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bring Back McGuffey's!

We visited Rocky Ridge Farm last Friday. It is one of those places that you need to go as many times as you can, because it is so wholesome and refreshing and filled with the warmth and spirit of its erstwhile inhabitants. I miss Almanzo and Laura and Rose.

The gift shop there is definitely browseable. Our big find this trip was McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader and McGuffey's Eclectic Spelling Book. I bought them with glee. In fact, I am tempted to chuck all of the books and curricula that I've purchased so far for Sadie and homeschool from McGuffey's alone. These are some kick-ass school books.

I've had McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader since I was in fifth grade. My dad bought me a copy on one of our many trips to Knott's Berry Farm. They used to have a replica one-room schoolhouse at the amusement park, and it was one of my favorite spots. So, Dad gave me a copy of McGuffey's. I promptly drew some horses on the inside cover and forgot about the book.

Looking at it now, I can see why. This book is intense! Tiny print, few pictures, elaborate text -- tons of stuff crammed into one small book. I must have been completely intimidated by it when I was ten. Now, though, I can appreciate it. There are so many good essays, poems, and stories inside. There is a strong, unabashed Christian faith that informs the selections. It is a fascinating piece of history, right in my hands.

And now, I have two of the young-un books for Sadie. They are a nice size -- easy for little hands to hold. The first reader's print is sufficiently large. The lessons are short. It seems like an ideal addition to her education.

My dad, who drove us to Mansfield, MO, looked at the Fifth Reader and said in wonderment, "This is what fifth graders read in the 19th Century? I don't think many high school students could get through this today." That's true. But, children started school much later in the 1800's. Laura did not start until she was eight. I think that progress was much more individualized -- you studied in classes, rather than in grades. So, it was not necessarily ten-year-olds reading McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader.

I mentioned on the drive home that Laura had been a school teacher. My dad, still thinking in the 21st Century said, surprised, "Oh! Did she go to college?"

I said, "No, she just took a teaching examination, and they gave her a certificate."

My dad paused and reflected, "I guess with school books like those, they did not really need college."

If Sadie can learn in the way that Laura did -- to use her mind in such a productive, creative, structured, diligent way -- then she will have no problems tackling any challenge in life, with or without college. And, if McGuffey's can help inspire that, then this was a worthy purchase, indeed.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Book Review: The Lodger Shakespeare

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street
Charles Nicholl
Viking Penguin, New York (2008 -- American edition)

I doff my proverbial cap to any scholar who has to rely upon pre-19th Century English records as his primary sources. The vagaries in spelling alone twist your eyeballs inside-out (not to mention the inconsistent data and the tendency of fires to destroy everything every few years). And, if that scholar happens also to be writing in a biographical way of William Shakespeare, he has my respect two-fold. Infuriating Will lurks in the shadows of history, confounding those who would extract him from his enigmatic repose. So, many books about the Bard that tend toward the biographical, rather than literary, are long on speculation and extrapolation, short on facts and corroboration.

But, that does not mean they cannot be a lot of fun.

Charles Nicholl certainly has a lot of fun, it seems, coaxing out a vivid and entertaining tale of the people and situations that surrounded Shakespeare in the two years when history can actually pinpoint his lodgings. The bare facts are as follows: In 1612, William Shakespeare gave testimony and signed a deposition at the Court of Requests in Westminster. The case was a family dispute brought by the son-in-law of Mr. Mountjoy -- a man who had let a room to Shakespeare nearly ten years before. The son-in-law, Mr. Bellot, claimed that Mountjoy had promised to pay him a dowry of £60 when he married Mountjoy's daughter in 1604. Shakespeare gave evidence that, as he was living in the Mountjoy house on Silver Street at that time (from 1603-1605), he did remember that a dowry was promised, but could not recall the sum mentioned. Then, he signed his name -- the short way: Willm Shaks -- and that was that.

But, since this is one of the rare glimpses of the man who was, inarguably, England's greatest playwright, that could not possibly be left at that. In The Lodger Shakespeare, Nicholl takes this gossamer court account and spins from it a narrative equal parts concrete and fancy. The Mountjoys, French Huguenot immigrants and tradesmen specializing in wigs and elaborate hair adornments ('tiremaking'), certainly got around, and Nicholl found traces of them all over surviving records of the era. He has also found intriguing little bits on other players in the life of the Bard, and he leaves no stone unturned in connecting the people, places and interactions of this widespread group into a web that rests lightly on the estimable shoulders of Shakespeare.

Really, I don't know how he managed to keep his wits about him while doing the research for this book. I suspect that either an abiding love of Shakespeare or massive doses of Advil got him through. 16th and 17th Century handwriting is almost indecipherable -- and this is from clerks, ministers and other learned men; you can only imagine what the script of the barely literate was like. The spelling is a thing of wild beauty and utter incomprehensibility -- they spelled words as they sounded to the speaker; and spelling varied with regional accents. The first plate in the book's illustrations is the deposition, featuring the famous signature. Charles and Hulda Wallace, who discovered these papers in 1909, must have had thrice the collective patience of Job even to have found this historical treasure. I'm sure that I would have given up looking at wretched, yellowed manuscripts and gone off to drink long before I unearthed the precious document.

So, when I think of Charles Nicholl bending his head over page after page of parish registries, ancient journals, and royal records of payment, I am grateful on two accounts. The first is that the records survive at all -- for this was a fascinating era. The second is that he did it, not I, and that he so kindly recorded his findings for me to enjoy leisurely in bed with a cup of tea. Excellent!

In The Lodger Shakespeare, Will does not dominate the action -- because we have no real insight into his extra-theatrical doings -- but he is the center. It is like a Six Degrees of William Shakespeare adventure. People march through the scenes -- the Mountjoys, the Bellots, the irritable and unstable George Wilkins, fallen women, debauched men, quacks and royalty -- and their lives only really matter now because they may just have come into contact with the Man from Avon. And yet, their lives mattered very much to them at the time. Nicholl mines their stories and rounds out their characters with an eye for the colorful supposition. Was Marie Mountjoy's dead infant son a bastard? Were Stephen and Mary Bellot ever really in love? Could Christopher Mountjoy have really despised his daughter that much? Was Sir William Devenant actually Shakespeare's illegitimate son? Was George Wilkins career with The King's Men cut short by Shakespeare? And did Dr. Forman's methods ever work for anybody?

Most of all: How did these places where Shakespeare dwelt and these people with whom he interacted affect his work? Did they inspire and amuse him? Repulse and annoy him? Did their dramas ever find their ways onto the stage at The Globe? We'll never know, of course. Nicholl knows throughout that this is a type of game that writer and reader have agreed to play. We do not know anything more about the Man or the Author Shakespeare at the end of this book. But we do know more about his surroundings and his interactions and the world in which he lived. And that is a gift and the very joy of this book.

Bill Bryson wrote in his brief, witty, and free-wheeling biography, Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 2007), "It is diverting to imagine a tired and no doubt overstressed William Shakespeare trying to write Measure for Measure or Othello ( both probably written [in 1604]) in an upstairs room over a background din of family arguments" (pp 137-138). Of course, Bryson is right. It is fun to imagine all the things that Shakespeare saw and heard and what he must have thought of them -- with that unparalleled ability of his to capture the comedy and tragedy of the human condition. Nicholl has given us more than merely the Bellot-Mountjoy squabble to contemplate. He has given us a vivid snapshot of early Jacobean London, with just enough Shakespeare in it to keep you awake nights wondering just what that keen eye and ready wit made of the scenes around him. That alone makes this volume a worthy addition to the ever-growing body of work that seeks out the elusive Bard.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Marriage Changes Everything (Or At Least Some Things)

Jason and I have been married almost nine years. As we were both teenagers when we met, we have spent all of our adult lives as a couple. A couple of whats? Well, mostly a couple of goofballs.

After our first date (March 2. 1994), I called my father and told him that I had just been out with the man I was going to marry. It was a gutsy declaration for a 19-year-old, and my father, not unreasonably, scoffed at it. A year and a half later, I joyously became a Christian. Four years after that, Jason and I were married in a church where, to quote my dad, "they talked about Jesus, and all that."

It's been a great journey, and I know it will continue thus. A co-worker of mine once asked if I had prayed for Jason before we met. I answered that, as I was not then a Christian, praying for my future husband never entered my mind. But, God is gracious enough to give gifts that we would not think of requesting, and my husband has been one of His greatest acts of grace in my life.

But, I didn't start this post to get all mushy. I mostly wanted to establish that Jason and I have been influencing each other for about a billion and a half years (that's reckoned in Hollywood Marriage Time -- HMT) and make some observations about that sphere of influence. Ta-da!

It's kind of funny how the less-than-exceptional qualities of your spouse are the easiest to pick up. Basic Newtonian physics tells us that it is easier to bring something down a level, than it is to raise it up. For instance, I have had a very hooliganish effect on Jason's sleeping patterns. He is now just as much of a late night degenerate as I ever was -- maybe worse. I know he'd say that I have negatively affected his spending habits, too. I'd like to think that I have just helped him to embrace Matthew 6:24-27. He is now a lot more laissez-faire about money than he used to be -- although, compared to me, he is a budget hawk. (Thank God! We'd be out on the streets if I handled the finances.) In the "positives" column, he has certainly picked up something of my more relaxed nature and even-temperedness -- again, though, compared to me, he is yet a smouldering pillar of passion.

Under Jason's tutelage, I have become a bonafide baseball fan. He has yet to convince me completely about football (unless the Steelers are playing), and NASCAR is a hopeless case, because it repulses every sensibility I possess. He has entirely reversed my opinion about the necessity of household pets. I now see them more as messy inconveniences than faithful friends. My poor, old cat will not be replaced when he crosses the rainbow bridge. And I find the strange, childless Dog People of Seattle even less comprehensible than I did before. My brief, but energetic, bursts of money-managing are attributable entirely to him. Maybe one day one of them will last long enough to wipe the frown off of his face when he pays our monthly bills. And he has severed my alliance to Laura Scudder's Peanut Butter -- I am a happy Skippy girl, now.

Most edifying, though, are the ways we have grown together -- mostly in our walks of faith. My heart breaks for men and women who have to make those walks without holding the hands of their spouses. Jason was an apathetic Catholic and I pretty much a heathen when we met, but it did not take long after my conversion for Jason to start attending church with me. There was no great leap of belief for him, since he had never not believed on Jesus, but it has been a joy to see his faith strengthened and renewed as mine has blossomed and grown.

Most importantly, we have been each other's best friend since day one. We have leaned on each other, bolstered each other, comforted each other, encouraged each other, and neglected the world, rather than each other. We have had more nights filled with screams of laughter echoing at 3 AM than really is lawful in this year of Our Lord. I know that one of the ways that men and women are to become one in marriage is through children. But surely the other is in the day-to-day adventure of cohabitation. The quibbles and giggles, the compromises and acceptance, the routines and the unexpected jolts, the darkness and light, the good and bad -- it all strips away the non-essentials and makes you whole. That is, you are entirely yourself once you are half of the other person designed for you.

It's a weird, cool, scary, awesome trip.

Monday, June 02, 2008

No Gauntlet Was Thrown Down, But I Have Been Inspired!

I noticed over at Conversant Life that Carolyn Arends has been blogging quite frequently -- in fact, every day since May 28. OK, I know that's only five days, but, really, that's a lot.

So, I found out via her newsblog that she has decided to do a 30-day marathon of blogging at least one post per day. That's pretty cool -- especially considering all the other things she does.

I have been inspired by such noble inclinations. My blogging patterns have been noticably balding since the glory days of 2005. I know that, if you're reading this now, you most likely haven't been here in a long while. I haven't been here in many spans of long whiles either, nor have I been keeping up with my blog roll reading as I'd like.

So here's my goal: (insert drum roll or trumpet flourish here -- it's up to you!) In June, I will blog something here every day. Plus, I will catch up on my fellow bloggers' compositions and comment as I am led (that sounded very churchish). 'Cuz, y'know, I miss what we had going here in 2005, and I want it back, baby!

So, I already lost out on June 1; but, behold, two posts for June 2! Huzzah!

Book Review: Wrestling With Angels

Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR (2008)
(Formerly: Living the Questions: Making Sense of the Mess and Mystery of Life; Harvest House (2000))

As you can imagine, I read Living the Questions with great eagerness when it was released in 2000. Since the world o' blogs was either not yet invented by geniuses, or else simply not yet discovered by me (my blog history is more than fuzzy here) in that last year of the Twentieth Century,* I had no place to express my thoughts, inclinations, revelations, exuberations, meditations, and so on, other than the Staff Recommendations section at B&N.** There I recommended with all my heart -- squeezing as much onto the insufficiently sized shelf-talker (you retail folks are nodding right now) as I possibly could to cajole and command the unwitting consumer into purchasing this gem of a title. It worked pretty well. At my B&N, we sold over 100 copies of this volume from an overly talented, but under-publicized Canadian singer/songwriter, making Living the Questions a store bestseller and garnering it a place of honor on our year-end round-up table.

As much as my vanity would like to presume that it was my powerful, albeit curtailed, persuasive abilities that drew out the purchases, I cannot help but acknowledge that it was a pen other than mine that held the magic. Carolyn's book is a stand-out in every way. The writing is warm, witty and personable; the themes are big, important, engrossing; the stories are memorable, illustrative and redemptive. It is a joy.

I was reminded of that joy when I recently re-read LTQ in its new incarnation, Wrestling With Angels: Adventures in Faith and Doubt. Other than a spiffy new title and cover, as well as a characteristically Carolyn introduction, nothing seems to have changed from the original; which is good, because the original is so very good. I'm glad that no one at Harvest House was tempted to have Carolyn update it or expand it beyond the intro. If she has another book in her like this one, it deserves its own birthday party -- not a grafting onto its big sister's pages as some sort of conjoined nightmare. So, hurrah for that!

If I had been asked before I re-read this book what my favorites parts were, I would have immediately listed off the following stories: when Carolyn's dad sells his car ("The Bargain" p. 165); when Carolyn's mother fell into the fish pond ("The Fish Pond" p. 87); when Carolyn encountered the angry, swearing man at LAX with unexpected results ("The Donation" p. 183); and the heart-rending recounting of a stark and beautiful Christmas play ("Dreams of Kings and Carpenters" p. 193). And, in my most recent read-through, those chapters are still ones that make me laugh out loud, cry buckets, and ponder far into hours that I desperately need for sleep.

Yet, when I was reading WWA, I found myself wondering how I could have let such stories as "A Summer in the South" -- Carolyn's frightening, paralyzing journey of doubt and spiritual numbness -- and "The Journey Home" -- her startling, life-changing, gob-smacked by the hand of God realization that I AM is -- slip my mind? How did I mislay for so long the compartment of my brain that held "Forget-Me-Nots" -- Carolyn's heartfelt and beautiful paean of hope in the face of the travesty of Alzheimer's?*** And it's hard to imagine anyone who would not relate to the Josephian touch of "A Little Brother" -- or who would not wish to hang out with Carolyn's mother (like Larry Norman did) after reading that chapter's beautiful story of adoption (or "The Fish Pond" chapter, for that matter)?

In her new introduction, Carolyn writes of her difficulty in answering the inevitable question posed by interviewers and fans alike: "So, what's your book about?" Carolyn goes on to answer that question with her trademark humor, underscored by sincerity. She offers a few suggestions -- all of which are true, but somehow incomplete. Then she writes of the Jabbok River -- Jacob's real and her metaphorical meeting place where a fiercely tender God wrestles with believers, neither He nor they letting go, despite the breaking dawn. She writes:

Jacob has God in his arms, and God has Jacob in His. Of all the things Jacob could ask for -- strength to face his brother, healing from his pain, safety for his family -- he asks for a blessing. This is the part that makes me cry. He asks for a blessing. The love and acceptance of God, a chance to have something of His life. Jacob is willing to die for it. He's willing to live for it, too. (p. 20).

In her end analysis, her book is about wrestling with God -- about not being afraid to ask the questions that echo in eternity, answered only in a realm beyond human comprehension; about a tenacity of faith that will not let go without a blessing; about facing the fact that life is a mess and mystery, but God is beautiful and holy and draws us near to Him so that we can house His image fully.

Carolyn also writes in her introduction: I wish I could call up all the people who have read this book and ask them if they know what it's about. But I suspect that might be an unprecedented and slightly inappropriate approach. Also, I don't have most of their phone numbers. (p.12)

Well, here is one of the many reasons I find it so enchanting:

A book like Wrestling With Angels works because it is about the big stuff that gets hidden in the little stuff, and the little stuff that slowly, faithfully builds a believer. We know that life is not meant to be universally fair and fruitful and friendly and fortuitous in this fallen realm; but a life lived in the light of Christ is one that is open to the good, defiant against the evil, steeped in sweet fellowship, soaked in grace, abounding in compassion and good works, and alive with hope. But, on this side of the veil, despite our best efforts, it is also one awash in questions, mired in frustration, obscured by selfishness, choked with countless quibbles and shallow disputes among brethren that keep us from the fullness of the fellowship we desperately need. There is a black pit of aching that lives alongside the brightness of assurance. Ultimately, there is and will be reconciliation.

We can step out boldly in His name, because, though the shadows cloud our human perspective and the fog licks tauntingly at our feet, we stand on more than this faltering ground. When Carolyn shares her stories and the lessons she has extracted from them, she unerringly hits upon our common spiritual ground. We may not all be equipped by the Creator to be songwriters of exquisite caliber, or powerful and wise preachers, or valorous and intrepid African missionaries, or patient and kind teachers, or original and charming authors, but we all are gifted in some way and have a shared stake in humanity and a reason for being here. And we all have questions. And we all have doubts. And in the midst of those, we are blessed with faith. And it is quite the adventure.

*Yes, I was one of those annoying people who postponed millennial celebrations until 2001.
**Barnes & Noble
***Irony noted.