Category Archives: books

The world that lives in me – and us.

Pippin once upon a time.

“I wish you many years — but not for them to be too happy, because happiness in the world isn’t really so healthy. When a man is too happy in this world, he forgets God and forgets death.” 

— Elder Paisios 

It is customary in the Orthodox Church to wish people “Many years!” or to sing the whole hymn, “God grant you many years…” (x3 of course) on any happy occasion such as an anniversary or birthday. Three birthdays of my children and grandchildren are coming up this week and next, so the quote is timely.

We visited our favorite apple ranch.

 

 

In the last ten days Soldier’s family and I did not think much about death, we were so happy together. Still, we didn’t forget God for long periods, because we know to Whom to be thankful. The children and their liveliness was the focus of our attention. When fear grips our hearts over what deathliness they will have to encounter in the future, we try to pray….

They departed yesterday, and I don’t know when I’ll see them again. Kate and Tom are in Panama, very securely quarantined there for their jobs, I’m afraid. I see their family on FaceTime. I don’t plan to visit Pearl in Wisconsin in the next months, because I already went there in fall and winter, and would like to experience that part of the country in a different season next time.

Pathfinder is in the middle of smoke; no one would want to go there unnecessarily. It’s kinda smoky where Pippin is, too, but I hope to go next week anyway, to be with Ivy for her birthday; I missed it last year.

Picking raspberries in Mr. and Mrs. Bread’s garden.

Pippin brought her three down last weekend to see their cousins.
The kids gathered around the Lego bin right away.

We went to the beach again,
a different one with lots of marine plants to identify.


The sky was not orange that time.

Turkish Towel on the right.
Grape Tongue kelp
Chain Bladder Kelp and Ostrich Plume Hydroid

One of those nights at bedtime Ivy asked me to fasten her nightgown in the back — the one I originally made for Aunt Kate decades ago — but only one of the three buttons could reach its buttonhole. Next morning we agreed that I would sew her a new nightgown, and we sat browsing flannel prints at my desktop; she started with the idea of a pink flowered nightie, but when she saw the cats, she changed her mind. I ordered the cat fabric.

“The Socialist saw plainly the rights of the Society; the Anarchist saw the rights of the Individual. How therefore were these

— Robert Hugh Benson

Liam found a California Sister butterfly (some might know it as “Arizona Sister”!) and when Ivy said, “Can I have it?” he let it crawl onto her hand.

“One should never direct people towards happiness, because happiness too is an idol of the marketplace.  One should direct them towards mutual affection. A beast gnawing at its prey can be happy too, but only human beings can feel affection for each other, and this is the highest achievement they can aspire to.”

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Also while six grandchildren were on the premises, four of them helped Soldier to stack a cord of oak firewood. I had on hand children’s gloves for such a time as this. Even four-year-old Brodie was a willing worker who did not tire easily; he lugged logs for quite a while before he even interrupted his flow to put shoes on.

My son shopped all over town with me, considering which wood stove I should buy to replace my current one that is dying. It was so helpful to have help in choosing such a big item. It’s scheduled to be installed before winter.

“The family is the test of freedom;
because the family is the only thing that the free man makes
for himself and by himself.”

— G.K. Chesterton

Recently I got the bright idea to do as my grandfather had done when I was in my teens: Once when we were visiting him he told us four children, of whom I was the oldest, that we might take home and keep any four books from his vast shelves. I still own my four books. My own shelves are loaded with titles that I know my grandchildren of various ages would enjoy, but they aren’t ever around long enough to think of perusing  the shelves.

Previously gifted.

So I told them the same this week, Please take as many as four books home with you. Two immediately wanted Socks for Supper.

The younger children who aren’t fluent readers needed some help to choose books that they didn’t already have at home, but in the end everyone took at least one. No one took four, which was interesting; maybe they aren’t developing their grandmother’s book gluttony. Does it surprise you that I just ordered replacements for two of the books they took?

Jamie’s pick.

Scout carried off dog stories by Albert Payson Terhune, and a cookbook. Liam took Finn Family Moomintroll, Rockinghorse Secret, and The Five Sisters, which I recently bought but hadn’t read. Laddie settled on The Pig in the Spigot, even though the illustrations are weird, we all agree.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”  -C.S. Lewis

One of the last jobs we worked on together was dehydrating a few of the apples that we’d bought at the farm. I cored them, two boys sliced, and one arranged the slices on the trays. The fruit dried all through the night and the rings were packed into bags to take on their journey home. Good-bye! Good-bye! and Godspeed!

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye
and put miles between you,
but at the same time you carry them with you
in your heart, your mind, your stomach,
because you do not just live in a world
but a world lives in you.”

Frederick Buechner

I revisit my fellow pilgrim.

Kristin Nunnally wifeIt’s been ten years since I posted this review. Since then I have revisited the story itself, and it seemed good to publish again. It’s well worth sharing at least that often.

A big part of the plot is how Kristin’s husband, whom she chose in youthful rebellion, gets involved in an insurrection. That, and his recklessness on the moral level, combine to cause the loss of a heritage that had taken generations to build.

The first time I came to the end of Kristin Lavransdatter I resolved to read it again very soon. The friend of a friend reads the trilogy once a year, and certainly it could stand up to that degree of intimacy; Kristin’s world of Norway in the 14th Century is vast with well-developed characters, complicated politics, and a daily life where the pervasiveness of the church and Christian faith often shows cracks revealing the old pagan traditions as an under layer.

My own initial discovery, in the translation from Norwegian into English by Charles Archer, seemed to provide a mere introduction, partly because I was reading too fast, eager to see how the heroine’s life turned out. There were so many people involved, as I noticed midway, I started taking notes on how they were related to the protagonists, knowing that it would help me understand their significance. My plan was to take even more extensive notes from the outset on my next reading.

That was more than ten years ago, and by the time I got to my second reading this year I was willing to try the new translation by Tiina Nunnally, touted by pretty much everyone as a better one, in that it does not involve the unnecessary–and, to some people, stilted and cumbersome–older English words and syntax. I had rather appreciated the language, as a reminder that Kristin’s world was not much like my own, no matter how similar some of her womanly and just plain human concerns resembled those of people everywhere down through the ages.

This time, I was reading in bed, lying down before sleep, or at the gym on the treadmill, so my smart plan to take notes wasn’t feasible. I had to make my second tour through the novel as I’ve been admonished to travel through a foreign country, fully expecting and planning that it won’t be the last time I visit. They say that is the only way to make yourself relax enough to enjoy and retain what you do manage to see and encounter.

And I did see new and different things this time through. There are many books I truly want to read more than once, but not many novels have I actually gone back to again, so this kind of rereading was not a familiar exercise. As I came to remembered parts of the Kristin tale I was surprised to see that they didn’t take up as many pages as I thought they would need. Many sub-plots and attributes of Kristin’s family and friends were as good as new to me; evidently I missed them completely before.

As infused with a sacramental faith as the medieval world of these books is, I’m sure they influenced me on my path to Orthodoxy. Now that my own perceptions and beliefs are being forged into something more like the tradition that was Kristin’s foundation, I think I am better able to appreciate some parts of the story. The deathbed scenes were striking, for the way the Christian reverence for the body, and the repentant hearts of the Christians, were displayed. I’d like to write more on how they compare with descriptions of similar scenes in the Islamic culture of The Cairo Trilogy.

For a few pages near the end of this recent reading I found myself thinking that I was getting boreSigrid Undsetd with medieval Norway, or at least, that I didn’t want to spend time on a third reading when there are so many other books still to be known. That feeling didn’t last long, because by the time I came to the last pages I knew that I still have a lot to gain from acquaintance with the themes in this amazing epic by Sigrid Undset. It’s a glory to God that one human mind can create a complex and rich world like that of Kristin, peopled with characters whose drama reflects our own struggles to love God and repent of our besetting sins. Image Journal included the novel in its list of 100 best books of the 20th century that “manifest a genuine engagement with the Judeo-Christian heritage of faith.”

The Nunnally translation has extensive notes on the history and politics of that era in Norway, and some real historical characters come into play in the fictionalized account. Wikipedia’s entry on the novel lists many of the characters; I think I’ll print it out and use it for an outline on which to build my notes, those notes that I am still hoping to make on one of my revisits. I’m eager to return again and again to a place where my faith and thankfulness are encouraged as I make friends with fellow pilgrims.

I pray with my fellow creatures.

THE PRAYER OF THE GOLDFISH

O God,
forever I turn in this hard crystal,
so transparent, yet I can find no way out.
Lord,
deliver me from the cramp of this water
and these terrifying things I see through it.
Put me back in the play of Your torrents,
in Your limpid springs.
Let me no longer be a little goldfish
in its prison of glass,
but a living spark
in the gentleness of Your reeds.

Amen

– Carmen Bernos de Gasztold
Prayers from the Ark
Translated from the French by Rumer Godden.

Illustrated by Jean Primrose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Mrs. Bread gave me this book “some time” ago. I did not peruse it much until this week when I was feeling the need of poetry and wondered if I had any on my mobile bookshelf here in the kitchen/family room. It was the only book of poems there currently.

When did I move it downstairs? It is a constant wonder how various boons (I did mean boons and not only books) are organized and lined up so as to come to me at the perfect time. I know Who does it, and so does Mrs. Bread, but I bet even she is surprised to find how long it took Him to arrange this one by means of my constantly re-jumbling the jumble.

If you read French you might like to read or listen to these prayer poems in that language in which they were written. Rumer Godden was very motivated to do her best, but she writes in the foreword how difficult and not completely satisfying it was. One example she gives is the use of encense in “The Old Horse”:

Ma pauvre tête encense
toute la solitude de mon coeur!

…which she understands as giving “in two syllables, the double picture of the old horse’s swinging head and a censer swinging to ‘offer up’ in the Catholic sense [I might say, the Orthodox as well] all that he has left, his loneliness? The dictionary translation of encenser, which, when used of a horse, means ‘to toss,’ is too young and gay.” She ends up writing it as, “my poor head swings.”

The old horse’s prayer, and that of the butterfly and the lark and a couple of others, are especially meaningful to me among the more than two dozen animals featured. Oh, and Noah prays as well, you will be glad to know! Certain personalities or complaints resonate with my own human self. Imagining how the animal might pray does engender a feeling of fellow-creatureliness, and their heartfelt prayers teach me how to talk to God about my longings and sufferings. The animal whose prayer I will share in closing might be the one I fly – I mean pray! – with most of all; I can always relate to:

THE PRAYER OF THE BUTTERFLY

Lord!
Where was I?
Oh yes! This flower, this sun,
thank You! Your world is beautiful!
This scent of roses…
Where was I?
A drop of dew
rolls to sparkle in a lily’s heart.
I have to go…
Where? I do not know!
The wind has painted fancies
on my wings.
Fancies…
Where was I?
Oh yes! Lord,
I had something to tell you:

Amen

Beautiful life project, with heavy books.

After a brief introduction to Japanese literature and culture for a few months of 2019, when I joined a Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided to leave behind the aesthetic vision of Japan, so to speak, and explore the reality and idea of Beauty in a less specific and encultured way.

My remodeling project and accompanying disorder are the reason, I believe, that I haven’t been able to concentrate on this extended philosophical reading project. It could be also that the topic is just too out-of-sync with the situation in my (indoor) living space. The chaos results from having none of the planned-for storage finished — that’s closets and cabinets in six or seven rooms — and that situation is abetted by the pandemic shutdowns of various sorts. The pandemic itself taxes the mind and emotions, and lately I’ve been reading more children’s books than anything.

But, the planned exploration looms large in the background, and its bulk has increased in a physical way, by means of big books. (I consider The Book of Tea to be about beauty, and it was by contrast such a slim and elegant item!) I’m not going to tell you about all of my Beauty books yet. Goodness, I haven’t begun anything in earnest. But the last one that came into the house was only recently published, and I may be most excited of all about it.

It’s The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, and it “weighs in” at over 700 pages. Professor Patitsas explains in the first sentence of his Preface what he is about: “…to recover a lost way of doing Ethics, one in which love for Beauty played the central and the leading role.” He shows how the definition of contemporary ethics, when seen in terms of Socrates’ three transcendentals of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (ethics being the study of Goodness), is biased against Beauty. A little more from the Preface:

“The central text about Orthodox Christian prayer life, The Philokalia, itself means ‘the love of the beautiful.’ The Ethics of Beauty is best conceived as a prose companion to that spiritual collection — certainly not on the same level as that classic text, but hopefully recognizably in the same family. Where The Philokalia is an aid to the pursuit of the Beautiful Way in prayer, The Ethics of Beauty is a discussion of why the Beauty-first Way is preferable, and an examination of the Way within as many areas of life as possible.”

“I would never have set out upon the journey that led me to The Ethics of Beauty had I not read Jonathan Shay’s observation in his Achilles in Vietnam that contemporary analytical psychotherapy has been largely unable to heal the suffering of the soldiers afflicted most severely with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have slowly come to see that… the initial focus of soul-healing must be on Beauty rather than on truth, on a living vision of a loving and crucified God, rather than on an autopsy of the broken self.”

Hmmm… I wouldn’t be surprised if Dee Pennock talks about this healing effect of Beauty in her book that I recently mentioned.

But, going back to the beginning of my vague plan, about a year ago I brought a fat book about Beauty and Truth into the house. The priest who lent it to me said he’d been unable to penetrate it. I knew it would likely be as heavy for me intellectually as it was in poundage, but it seemed a work I should at least have at hand when I began my study of Beauty.

This one is The Beauty of the Infinite, by David Bentley Hart; I had never yet opened it to read a line, but it’s been sitting on my mobile bookshelf in the kitchen/family room. When the Patitsas book arrived, I took Hart’s book off the shelf behind me and set it on the table so that the two could meet. And a few days later, avoiding some work, I’m sure, I opened Hart randomly in the middle, and my eyes landed here:

“…theology owes Nietzsche a debt: I intend nothing facetious in saying that Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself — of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity….

My own philosophy and theology were settled already on this source of Beauty: the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A few years ago Jonathan Edwards put me in mind of it in his thoughtful way, and maybe I should go back and read the extensive quotes I transcribed on the subject. But if I never get around to reading all these pages of words that are waiting for me in books, it’s okay. My heart knows the story.