Category Archives: books

Firelight and that happy grace.

The phrase I took for the title of this post describes what my housemate and I soaked up this evening as we sat by the stove, where she had been tending a wood fire since she got home from work. When I came downstairs from a nap, it was already brightening up the whole house, and our dispositions as well. The modern world doesn’t let us feel comfortable about the slowing-down and love of staying home that are natural during these cold and short days, but Kenneth Grahame does:

“The rapid nightfall of mid-December had quite beset the little village as they approached it on soft feet over a first thin fall of powdery snow. Little was visible but squares of a dusky orange-red on either side of the street, where the firelight or lamplight of each cottage overflowed through the casements into the dark world without. Most of the low latticed windows were innocent of blinds, and to the lookers-in from outside, the inmates, gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture–the natural grace which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation.

“Moving at will from one theatre to another, the two spectators, so far from home themselves, had something of wistfulness in their eyes as they watched a cat being stroked, a sleepy child picked up and huddled off to bed, or a tired man stretch and knock out his pipe on the end of a smouldering log.”

― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

A story, and thoughts for Advent.

The greatest pleasure and thrill of Christmas can’t be had without a little waiting, something like children of yore had to do, when their Christmas trees weren’t even ready for viewing until Christmas Day.

Seven years ago Pom Pom hosted a Childlike Christmas (blog) Party, a party to which we were invited to show up via our blogs four times during December. This year she hopes we will join her every day during December, but this time it’s a more general theme: Advent Blogging. Maybe it is the child in me that is once again saying, in spite of the much greater challenge, “Sure! No problem!” I am updating this post from back then as I join in seven-years-later, partly because I wanted to retain a quote from Pom Pom’s 2011 party announcement:

“Yesterday I asked my students, ‘Why the big greed festival over the holidays? Aren’t we fine right now? Don’t we have enough?’ …Here at Pom Pom’s Ponderings, we are going to think about the simple pleasures of the holidays, the childlike wonder that doesn’t involve the ka-ching ka-ching of the cash register….four holiday Wednesdays of posts that attend to the simple childlike thrills of Christmas. ….that babe in a manger and the children He loves and cherishes.”

The babe in the manger is, of course, the One whose Advent we are anticipating, but I feel the topical field to be pretty wide open. I will be writing about whatever I am doing and thinking during this season, knowing that He is the life and breath of me and everything.

The modern world likes to jump into Christmas immediately after Halloween or Thanksgiving, but the more traditional way to celebrate involves some Anticipation and Preparation. Children might think of it as Waiting and Getting Ready. Some of us have been in Advent, which we call the Nativity Fast, since November 15th.

I’m not experienced in helping children to forgo the treats that are pressed upon them in every shop and neighbor’s house at this time of year, but even before I found the Church and its traditions I tried to keep the family thinking ahead to a special Holy Day, and not just because of the presents.

We need some weeks to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” and for it to register in our minds that God’s people had to wait many generations and thousands of years for the coming of the Savior. A little bit of suffering in the form of doing without the usual quantity of food, or rich foods (in the Orthodox Church we eat less, and almost vegan, when fasting) can make it more real for us that the world before Christ was suffering under the curse of sin. We feel our own weakness, too, when eating less, and that can soften our hearts.

Why the photo of Holy Trinity Cathedral above? My church and sister churches sponsor Advent retreats every year, usually a day or half a day when we can hear a lecture and attend services together to help us focus on the coming feast in a fruitful way. One year I attended one at Holy Trinity and took the picture.

A children’s book that might contribute to a child’s understanding of time, and the processes that are necessary preliminaries to accomplishing a goal, in particular a few points on the timeline of our salvation history, is The Tale of Three Trees, “a traditional folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt with illustrations by Tim Jonke.”

Three small trees stand on a hilltop and dream about what they might do when they are grown. One wants to be a treasure chest, one a sailing ship that carries kings, and one just wants to stay where it is and point to God.

It takes many years for them to get big enough to be cut for lumber and fashioned into items that play a part in the earthly life of our Lord. The first tree is made into a manger — and this first creation of wood that the Christ Child came in contact with establishes the story as one for Christmas.

All the trees feel initial disappointment and humiliation, none more so than the one that is made into a rude cross and used for violent purposes: “She felt ugly and harsh and cruel.” But in the end all of the trees realize the blessedness of being used for the glory of God, and the young reader is reminded of the reason a Baby was born at Bethlehem.

Even our Lord Jesus went through a period of preparation, growing up as a man for 30 years before He began His ministry, but He surely wasn’t idle during that time. As we wait for Christmas we can prepare our hearts by prayer and fasting and acts of love.

Those of us with families are blessed to have many possibilities under what might be the Acts of Love category. (They might even include some noise of cash registers, but I won’t say any more about that at this party.) I know I typically have things like cookie-baking, doll-clothes-sewing, decorating and menu-planning and making up beds on my list.

The truth is, I’m not very good at being child-like before Christmas. I feel so many responsibilities that children don’t have to concern themselves with, and I get pretty busy with all the fun type of preparations, not to mention all of the usual work that doesn’t stop.

Somehow, though, all of that, when combined with participation in the church traditions and services, adds up to make me feel some of the longing and the weakness that are appropriate right now.

It’s hard to juggle everything, including trips to the post office or the extra shopping and chores, with the quietness we long for. Maybe that tale of the trees has a meaning even for me as a grownup, about being used for His purposes, and finding comfort and courage in that, even when things are crazy with hammers and saws, blood and humiliation.

One thing more about children: Their feeling about Christmas, as I have heard, but can’t quite remember, is that it takes forever to get here! For me, it comes on like a bullet train. Will I even be able to notice each day before it is gone, long enough to post something? In any case, as Metropolitan Anthony says,

“…if the time ahead has a meaning that is necessary for us, it is inevitably coming towards us at a sure and regular pace, sometimes more quickly than we could run to meet it.”

Sometimes more quickly? I just got a funny picture in my head of the children running out ahead to meet Christmas, and us adults dragging them back by their sleeves with one hand, while we try to write the last batch of Christmas cards (or today’s blog post) with the other. Here’s an idea: Let’s all stop, and sit by the fire to read another Christmas story!

The risk of dancing with Little Bee.

Little Bee is among a rare set of books in my personal Modern Era, in that I found it in “hard copy” right in front of me, and picked it up with my own hands, and read it through to the end without consulting Goodreads or Amazon in making a guess as to its worth or suitability. That day last week, when I visited the used bookstore in Colorado Springs, it was the four double-sided book racks on the sidewalk that drew me closer, and that’s where I found Little Bee carrying a $1 sticker like all its shelfmates. A cheap risk.

The book appealed to me first because of its short and sweet title that reminded me of the friends in my garden, and secondly because of its appearance: small (unintimidating), paperback, and mostly a pleasing orange color. I did read a few lines of blurbs on the back and inside cover, and noted words like “dark” and “hope.” I probably also read a bit in the middle somewhere, to see if anything tacky jumped out.

I bought it and read it in a couple of days. It helped that I had at least three solid hours coming home Tuesday, on the plane and bus and at the bus stops, and I reached the last page in bed, just before turning out the light. — Forgive me, that was a long intro that would annoy me if I read it somewhere.

Little Bee is a page-turner of a novel. It tells the story of a young refugee from Nigeria first of all: “Everything was happiness and singing when I was a little girl. There was plenty of time for it. We did not have hurry. We did not have electricity or fresh water or sadness either, because none of these had been connected to our village yet….that village we did not yet know was built on an oil field and would soon be fought over by men in a crazy hurry to drill down into the oil.”

Though she never drank tea in her country, because it was mostly exported, she did get a cup on arrival at the detention center: “And when I tasted it, all I wanted to do was to get back into the boat and go home again, to my country. Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter  and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes — the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist.”

I likely read those lines before I got on the airplane, and when the attendant asked what I would drink, hot tea seemed the best choice. I resolved to drink more real tea in the future. I always knew it was rich in historical associations, but Little Bee’s words reveal it as rich in art and philosophy as well.

After Little Bee, this is the story of the British family with whose lives hers is indissolubly linked by one of those events called “dark.” Given the subject matter, the novel might have been highly politicized, but instead it is an account of how the various characters cope with the traumas from outside, and with the troubling revelations of their own souls’ poverty.

“Isn’t it sad, growing up? You start off like my Charlie. You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little older, maybe Little Bee’s age, and you realize that some of the world’s badness is inside you, that maybe you’re a part of it. And then you get a little bit older still, and a bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you’ve seen in yourself is really all that bad at all….”

“Maybe that’s just developing as a person, Sarah.”

“Well,” I said, “Maybe this is a developing world.”

Because of the grace of God, the way He made us humans with the strength of spirit to survive all the darkness threatening to kill us, there is much beauty and joy in the book. Like Little Bee’s description of this breakfast table scene: “The sun was lighting up the kitchen. It was thick yellow — a warm light, but not a show-off light. It did not want the glory for the illumination of the room. It made each object look as if it was glowing with a light from deep inside itself. Lawrence, the table with its clean blue cotton tablecloth, his orange tea mug and my yellow one — all of it glowing from within. The light made me feel very cheerful. I thought to myself, that is a good trick.”

The two women in the story alternate telling the tale in the first person, sometimes describing the same event from their vastly different perspectives. And those two characters especially spend a good bit of time filling each other in on their past. This is Little Bee talking again, typically philosophical:

“Everyone in my village liked U2. Everyone in my country, maybe. Wouldn’t that be funny, if the oil rebels were playing U2 in their jungle camps, and the government soldiers were playing U2 in their trucks. I think everyone was killing everyone else and listening to the same music. Do you know what? The first week I was in the detention center, U2 were number one here, too. That is a good trick about this world, Sarah. No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2.”

The girl tells how U2 was playing in her Nigerian home, the radio on which they were supposed to be listening to the BBC having been tuned by her sister to the music station instead, because “Nkiruka loved music and now I saw that she was right because life is extremely short and you cannot dance to current affairs.”

The motivations that drive these characters’ actions, their rationalizations, their good deeds, are not pure or simple. Survival, anger, boredom, revenge, guilt… and sometimes, the heart knowledge that we are fellow humans on our way to the grave, and we have nothing to lose from loving.

I very much enjoyed the character of Little Bee, whose child self is haunted by horrific memories even as she is growing into a wise young woman. The less sympathetic characters are shown to be not all that different from us average lost sheep who wander bleating here and there looking for food, and they all get at least a little more light and understanding as the novel progresses. Even one of the “baddies” is shown in remarkably few words to be irreducible to a caricature.

Picking up a book that I know nothing about, and then reading the whole thing privately, with not one iota of input digital or otherwise from another reader — that is a refreshing experience. It feels almost wild and irresponsible to my recent self. But this experiment with Little Bee was satisfying at all levels, and I can see myself taking similar risks in the future. Here’s to more reading adventure!

Earth, sky, and symphony.

It’s a wonder, all the fascinating things I get to discuss and learn about, inspired by reading books to boys who range in age from two to six years old. Before they’d even shed their pajamas this morning they brought me a book found on the shelf here at the temporary house, a worn 1966 school discard by Isaac Asimov titled The Moon.

What instantly got my attention was the picture on the first page, a closeup of the moon showing its topography, with many names of craters, valleys and mountains. Where did these names come from? When were they given? Who is Piccolomini? Astronomy has never exactly sparked my interest; maybe because of my inability to grasp the spatial arrangement of bodies and trajectories in the Universe. But show me a map, and names that carry historic or literary or philosophical meanings as these seem to, and I’m intrigued.

Mr. Asimov doesn’t get into all that. He goes right to theories of ages and descriptions of orbits. Liam was happy to stay with me a while on the names — remember, we both love words — and pointed out that Piccolomini has two words in it: piccolo and mini. This name is significant to our other “studies” as I will come back to later.

Before we could turn the page of this book, we had to sit down and eat the breakfast I’d made, and then the rest of the household who weren’t at work went to visit another new friend, and as I was simultaneously working on some oatmeal muffins for lunch I read about lunar topography. The man who came up with the first nomenclature for the moon, much of which is still used, was a Jesuit priest of the early 17th century, Giovanni Battista Riccioli. Riccioli considered himself first a theologian, but spent the vast majority of his long life researching and teaching about astronomy, as well as logic and physics, especially pendulums. What a learned and productive human, who lived in a challenging time for a natural philosopher. People debate about his possible secret beliefs, based on how he chose and arranged names of lunar features.

“He said that once the enthusiasm for astronomy arose within him he could never extinguish it, and so he became more committed to astronomy than theology. Eventually his superiors in the Jesuit order officially assigned him to the task of astronomical research. However, he also continued to write on theology…”

Will I integrate these evocative moon names into the tangled web of my mind’s musings? Perhaps the only thing I will have gained is another name for what’s in my head: “Sea of Vapors.” That name is from this newer map, featuring the waters of the moon, which I will leave at closing of this subject. Oh, and Piccolomini was an Italian poet and astronomer.

Soldier and Joy did bring along a big bag of their own books for the children, including several titles I wasn’t familiar with before, like this one about orchestral instruments. It made me think of the song I used to sing with my children, “Nous Sommes à la Musicale.” (“We are at the musical,” in French.) I couldn’t remember much of it, but Pippin came to my rescue and sent me a cute video of herself singing it. It’s ultra simple and catchy — there are no other French lines other than the names of the instruments — and you can hear a clip of it on this Folkways recording. Perhaps I borrowed the LP from the library once in the distant past.

More singing: here is Liam sweeping while singing “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills,” etc.

I wanted the children to be able to hear the sounds of all the instruments pictured in the book above, and  I found quite a few good videos on YouTube, including a half-hour performance without any lecturing, from Benjamin Britten’s Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. I loved it because it showed nearly every instrument and closeups of the musicians playing, and the conductor was fun to watch as well. There were many shots of the piccolo player!

The boys had heard “Peter and the Wolf” many times, but never seen it played. I found a charming ensemble of seven musicians from Qatar performing to a backdrop of a sort of shadow puppet show of the story, and that was a hit.

Browsing the library shelves last week with Laddie, I came across this beautiful book, Behold the Trees, by Sue Alexander, illustrated by Leonid Gore. It is a simple telling of the story of “living, life-giving trees” in the Holy Land, from ancient times when they were plentiful, to the 20th century when Jews all over the world contributed funds for planting trees to replace those that had been over the centuries and for various reasons cut down.

 

“They grew in stands and groves and great forests. They held back the sea, cooled the air, and protected the earth for the people and animals who lived there… So it was, for hundreds and hundreds of years….”

But then, people needed cleared land for farms and doors for shops; armies “cut down trees to build fortresses and palaces, shrines to their gods, cities and towns.” Whole forests were burned to remove hiding places for enemies. Eventually “the land became salt marsh and sand,” and animals disappeared.

I love the illustrations in this book showing these events and the people planting trees. And the names of the trees listed simply, and as elegant as a poem. I wanted to know more about the history of this re-greening effort, and I learned a few things online that were fascinating and encouraging.

As recently as the 1960’s the project was begun to plant Yatir Forest on the edge of the Negev Desert. A long Wikipedia article tells much about this “living laboratory” that is the largest forest in Israel, and on another site I found a succinct explanation of one way that the trees survive the climate that they are not suited to:

“Partial results of the research by Professor Yakir and his team show that the forest’s trees have adapted themselves to arid environmental conditions by naturally smart use of the high level of carbon dioxide in the air.  Professor Yakir explains that because of the rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the air, the trees absorb all the carbon dioxide they require without needing to fully open all the stomas (apertures) in their leaves’ membranes. Partial opening of the stomas reduces the evaporation of the water on the leaves and so a tree uses less water without any damage to its development.”

The last of the recent book discoveries was one I found at a used bookstore just yesterday. I was headed straight toward Target, but when my eyes saw a sign declaring “BOOKS,” my feet veered that way. When I finally escaped I had bought several used books for me and for the children. The illustrations in Once There Was a Tree are rich, and do justice to the beauty of the forest, where the main character is a tree stump, and the questions are philosophical.

It might have been titled “Whose Tree is It?” or “Who owns the earth?” The fundamental message is gently told, of how countless numbers of us creatures benefit from as humble a piece of earth as nurtures a stump in the woods, and we should share. I intend to write on the end page Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”

Because truly He is the beginning and end, the source of all the wealth of gifts and resources that surround us, and of which I have been partaking by means of the sharing of so many of His creatures, from tree-planters to musicians, from a scientist-priest to a children’s book illustrator.

The world — my world — His world — is full of delights.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s offering.