I prove this quotation true at the start of just about every season. I simply cannot enter a fresh spate of months without a stack of doughty books to march down the road of those vast and undiscovered days beside me. I’m a happy woman today because I’ve found my companions. My summer list is set. Glory be.
This summer, I feel that I am walking with a faerie host. There is such richness in the books pictured below. I must admit, I always feel a little like one of those clever heroes in a folk tale who manages to win the favor (and the secrets) of some fantastic faerie personage. It is so vastly satisfying to hunt down and corral all the books I want to read, stack them high, and know that they will soon yield their comradeship and courage to my hungry mind. The hunt for the out-of-print books I want, the scouting of just the right titles, it feels like a contest and a game to me. A pile like this means I’ve won something rich.
Now, as soon as I posted this picture, I realized that I needed a bit more fiction and poetry. So I begged the advice of my friends and they fleshed out my list. The new books aren’t pictured yet, but here are the suggested titles, for those who want to know. For fiction, The Trunk by Elizabeth Coatsworth, The Faraway Tree Stories by Enid Blyton, Descent into Hell by Charles Williams, The Invisible Bridge, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. For poetry (I always go to my expert friend Ruth), I was pointed toward the Collected Poems by R.S. Thomas, and the poetry of A.E. Stallings.
And NOW, I want to know what’s on your summer reading list. One, two, three… go!Read More
We just don’t seem able to manage a Mother’s Day together, do we? Well. In your absence and decidedly in your honor, I have a story to tell. Perhaps you’ll think it an odd one for a tribute to your motherhood. A workaday tale it may be, but in my mind it is a bright, unfading gem. For what you gave me one Texas morning almost twenty years ago remains a grace that forms the bedrock of my heart. Memories don’t get much better than that, odd or not. Here goes.
I stood with munchkin nose pressed hard against the back door glass. Outside, the skies tumbled and fought, the rain fell in torrents for the fifth day, and the roar of newborn creeks called me even through the panes. Behind me, you gathered books and pencils for a morning of school work, switching on the lamps to battle the outdoor gloom. But even as you did, the boys slipped beside me, glued their noses to the window too and when you called we turned three small, grieved faces away from a world that seemed tailor made for splashing and exploration.
“Aww Mom,” we groaned, timid but yearning for that alluring realm beyond, “can’t we just go outside and explore today?”
I still remember my startlement at your “yes.” The way you were silent for a second, took a deep breath, pushed the books aside, and put your hands on your hips.
“Old shoes and old clothes on before you go,” you ordered and we hastened for our gear, grabbing boots and jackets, hearts pattering in elation at this wholly unexpected day. We were back in two minutes, and behold, so were you. A tiny jolt touched my heart at sight of you decked in scuffed shoes and old jeans, intent upon joining our expedition. I hadn’t expected that; the Queen would lead the adventure, a queen who would also wash the several loads of muddy clothes resulting, mop up our bootprints on the kitchen floor, and defend our bedraggled state to my grandmother when we returned. But I was too little to know all of that. All I knew was that your presence hallowed the adventure. And ah, there was so much we longed to show you.
Out we tromped into a world all a-whisper, the air tingling with rain, the sky swift and changeful as the rivulets below. In an ecstasy of abandon we jumped in every puddle to be had within the first ten feet, twirled and whooped and ran all out, limbs loose and swinging, to the pasture gate that led to the flooded tank. There the real drama awaited, a real flood down by the giant oak, now up to his waist in new-made rivers.
“Come on Mom!” we screeched above the roar of the water, picking our way through the mud of the old cattle-trails, ducking beneath cedar branches and wintered vines. You came. Smiling, eyebrows arched in interest at every fossil we pointed out, every yell of false-alarm when a branch turned out not to be a snake. You came right into the streams, splashed us with the cold, swift water, and when we eyed the swiftest torrent with daring, hungry eyes, you nodded your permission. In we went, right up to our short little waists, fighting against the current in an overjoyed grapple with the one joyous fact of the water.
I remember that for one instant I looked back at you. Already in the current, I turned and sought your face. I was a little in awe that you would let us dare the flood. I was proud that you were there to see us do it. And if I was also a little afraid of the torrent, well, I had you at my back. You caught my eye. And to this day I cannot forget the glint of fun that blazed in your glance. Then the slight nod of reassurance that told me I would never be out of your sight. Then the smile, like a whisper between those who know the great camaraderie of adventure. I laughed. And dove straight in.
And that Mom, is one of the clarion moments for which I will thank you all my days.
For in that instant you gave me your own heroic view of life. I know now that courage was always your mark. You were a dreamer; lover of the underdog, a missionary in communist Poland, a writer, a teacher, daring in faith and fierce in friendship. And even when three squirmy children invaded your life, you kept that courage strong. You brought it right into your motherhood and determined that we should learn it too. That rainy day adventure was a lesson in valor, in gladness, in dreams. You wanted your children to taste the haunting grace of the world, so you freed us to heed the cry of the rain. You knew that danger is always close, so you came too. You knew that life is full of risk, so when we met the dare of the water, you let us hope, and reach, and try, and you taught us the boldness with which this thing called life must be met.
Only now, grown up as I am with the demons of oughts and shoulds ever breathing down my neck do I understand the import of the choice you made that morning. You could have said no. You could have resolutely shut that door, glared down our yearning little hearts, rebuked our impractical imaginations. You could have insisted on an ordinary day and a checklist of chores. But you saw that our hearts were ripe for the forming. You saw that holy hunger for far horizons, you saw our need to try, to dare, to reach for something just beyond our grasp. So you opened the door. Be bold, said your eyes, be joyous. Be brave with my blessing.
But you also gave us yourself. Your presence was the strength at our back, your laughter the song that sent us leaping through the rain. You stood there on the creek bank, eagle-eyed, cheerful, strong, and the sight of you glimpsed through the splash and rain sent a courage like blood pulsing through our veins. We tried all the harder because you were there. We dared because we knew you would await us at the end. And when we tromped home, gloriously wet and utterly exhausted, it was you who sat us by the fire, brewed the cocoa, and lingered with us in the flickering light. Your interest made us heroes. We told of the current that nearly got us, the branch that nearly broke, the newest fossil found, and it was your admiring words that turned us into knights at battle’s end, triumphant and ready to fight again.
To know that life is a great quest is one thing. To be given the love to meet it is another altogether. You, my precious mother, gave us both.
Courage in living and love that does not fail – these themes defined my childhood. That one bright day was a note in a larger song. When life was dark, you lit candles. When times were grim, you made a feast (even if it was only homemade bread and cheese). When the battle I faced was doubt of God, you looked me in the eye and said “He’s bigger than your doubts.” But then you took my hand; “don’t worry, I’ll have faith for you until yours lives again.” When sickness came, when friendships failed, you challenged me to write, to love, to hope with every fibre of my being. When Oxford seemed a dream beyond all grasping, you said “just try.” And when once there, I thought for sure my essays would be flops, you ordered me to take a good long walk, drink tea, and “give it one more go.”
Meet the battle and face it with a song. Light a candle and lay a feast in the very teeth of darkness. Dare, always, to try once more. To love again. That’s what you taught me.
So here’s to you beloved and valiant mother o’ my heart. You make me think of Tennyson’s line in Ulysses, “we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts.” To have shared your heart and learned your courage is a gift that will follow me all my days. I hope I learn to be as brave as you.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Today I offer you a feast of fat things to watch, read, discover, consider. It’s not often that I find a bevy of discoveries I want to share, but the resources and books and writers below are things I love, things that have nourished and taught me. I feel rich in new ideas and friends right now. They must be shared.
Well, this one is personal, because it’s where I’ll be working this summer. I love this program. I loved working as a mentor with Semester a couple of years ago and I’m absolutely delighted to be part of the program this summer. In addition to a special course on the life and works of C.S. Lewis, a small group limited to twelve students will get to study theology, politics, religion, literature, etc., with teachers who bear both great passion and expertise in their subjects. L’Abri style feasts and discussions, hikes in the Colorado mountains, one-on-one discipleship with mentors (me!), and life in a lively, faithful community form the beauty of this program. If you know any college-ageish people who might be interested, tell them to take a look.
My dear, brilliant friend Karen has finally answered my (and many other people’s) prayer and is offering her original course in art history through a series of online books. Karen’s deep love for great art and her intricate knowledge of its history has been a delight, and continuing source of education to me ever since I walked into her house and noticed the art posters on her walls years ago. Now, I cannot visit her home and lovely self without learning. I walk round her house staring at posters and paintings, asking question after question, and always getting a fascinating answer. You can read her professional history on her website, but Karen has taught online courses in art history for a state university and is now making them accessible on Amazon. She is an invaluable resource. I plan to go through each part of her courses myself and cannot recommend them highly enough to anyone wanting to understand the history, the power, and the beauty residing in art. Click the link above for the website, but you can find the books on Amazon here, and check out her facebook page here.
Lancia Smith is a new, and oh-so delightful friend whose love for beauty has already offered me an immense amount of thought, nourishment, and encouragement. Her blog, a feast of literary good things, is a place where the good, the true, and the beautiful is sought, considered, and richly celebrated. Lancia has the knowledge of an Inklings scholar, a love and insight into C.S. Lewis, his world and works, and is an incomporable resource for all things Lewisian and imaginative. Her interviews with scholars and writers such as Malcolm Guite, Alister McGrath, and Andrew Lazo are brilliant pieces of information and insight, but are also vastly heartening spiritually. You will greatly enjoy the beauty and insight she offers in her lovely home on the web. Go forth and explore.
Have you ever read a Shakespeare play aloud with friends? Have you ever encountered the sheer brilliance of his wordplay? Well, you must. But if you find him at all daunting, then I highly recommend this PBS (and BBC, I think) series of hour-long documentaries on the Bard’s greatest plays. Each episode features a different play (such as The Tempest, Hamlet, the Comedies, etc.), and is hosted by a well-known Shakespearean actor or director. Educational, fascinating, literary, even poignant in their insight into the soul-deep themes that drove Shakespeare’s brilliance, these are not to be missed. And they are all free on PBS. I’ve posted one below (but be sure to scroll on past the video for one more thought):
And now friends, in pure fun and in honor of the Shakespearean wonders above, I leave you with the St. Crispin’s day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599). One thing I will say. I sincerely hope that I am part of something within my lifetime that gives me leave to remember it with the same triumph and pathos embodied in this speech. Enjoy!
WESTMORELAND: O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING: What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
A year ago today, I was walking the Naschmarkt in Vienna. I met my mom downtown today for a stroll after a morning of work, and as we walked and hunted for the first (late) daffodils, she reminded me of our Vienna jaunt. The mere thought of it was like breathing new air, basking in a fresher light. Vienna, my love.
There is a special grace that comes to me in that city. I don’t know if its because of my family’s history there, or if it really is a grace specific to that city with its particular story, its music, its honey-toned buildings and copper-roofed palaces with the cobbles and the pigeons and geraniums in all the windows. Whatever the cause, it freshens and revives me just to think of it. So, though I am on a writing deadline and really wasn’t going to post today, at least I can share a bit of Vienna with you. The post below is a repost from a visit a couple of years ago. Vienna is one of those places that, even when I leave it, in my heart I am always on my way back…
:: reposted :: Never before have I known it so fully. Vienna is part of my history, yes. My first conscious memories claim Vienna as their home. The images from that time march through my imagination in all the splendor, and blur, of an Impressionist painting. I recall flocks of pigeons in the cobblestone squares, a park with giant blocks that made a fantastic playground, a tiny door next to our fireplace, a statue of mother and child, an ice cream shop (gelato I’m sure) I visited with my dad, perched on his shoulders. We moved away when I was three, but those images were the first whose beauty formed my memory.
I did not return to Vienna until I was fifteen. Then I came on trip with my mother, a journey in which she introduced me to the Europe that had captured her heart and soul when she was a young woman. Together we savored, we wandered, and wondered as we went. My early life came alive to me there through her stories. Again, I came to Vienna when I was sixteen and spent part of the summer with Gwen, a friend as good as family. The city began to be mine then, at least in part. I spent whole days alone wandering the cobbles and back alleys, learning the “strasses” and “gasses” that twisted through parks and under the brows of buildings older than anything I could remember. It was almost mine, but I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the way the city formed my story.
Until now. I have come full circle. This time, I know the city as my own. This lovely place comes to me as a presence that has lingered in the background of my being all my life. Vienna, I realize, is mother to much of what I love. As I walk the cobbles in company with the grey sky and quiet houses this time, I feel a sense of homecoming. Finally, I am beginning to understand how deeply Austria shaped the values of my parents when they were young, newly married, with their babies just beginning to tumble into the world. What they tasted and heard, walked and saw in these streets changed the way they raised us.
Vienna is a city mighty in beauty. The very streets, the rhythm of the days here reflect a philosophy of life that holds loveliness to be necessary as bread. Music to be dear as water, celebration to be precious as fresh, clean air. I noticed this time, the way candlelight glimmers in so many windows at dusk. The way that music fills the streets at night, violinists on the corners, the latest opera broadcast on an outdoor screen so that the late walkers downtown make their way through shadows that seem made of music. Geraniums gild the windows. Cafes guard the cobble street corners, serving very strong coffee in very small cups. One may sit for many hours, stare, and think.
Vienna is a place of creation. An atmosphere of excellence pervades the city, for it is a refuge for those who study, who delve, who make, and sing. Music is made here, books are written, philosophy taught, worship given. My parents have told me that it was the people they met here, friends who discussed and read, thought hard and deep, who held themselves unceasingly to the task of learning that modeled to my parents what an education ought to be. The spiritual pace thrums swiftly here, new thoughts are born, or fresh things created, painted, sung. Vienna is a city whose palaces and courts have sheltered the making of much that has enriched the world. Everywhere I walk, I am confronted with artistry. The careful creation of forgotten hands reaches out to me from the statues, the doorposts, the solemn churches.
But the city itself, a sprawling, golden maze is a gift simply in itself. The mornings here are my favorite, for then I get to walk with the dawn, alone, exultant. I stride long in the cold, sweet stream of the early wind. Stone streets, dark, then gold, under my feet, each narrow alley lifting a slender, enigmatic face. The sky is close somehow, a rivulet of cloud and blue in a ripple between the creamy walls of the houses, the leaping, giant heads of the copper-domed churches. There are a hundred alleys down which I could duck, a thousand streets tossed before me like the shimmer and snake of “a gypsy’s ribbon.” Stone arches beyond which curve, now a flagged alley lined by dark-eyed windows, then an archway of tawny bricks trickling up to a polished wooden door flanked by wild curtains of ivy, then the Hoffburg filling the sky from cobble to sun, walls the color of butter, with the fierce, sea green helmet of his roof.
Vienna, I find, requires of me, and required of my parents, a love for what is lovely. Vienna taught them the power of beauty to form the soul to love what is true and good, and they, in turn, taught it to me. Even as a child, Vienna helped me to understand that what is beautiful has a power beyond the merely material. Beauty, I understood, speaks eloquently of the world and the value of the people who fill it. Beauty requires excellence from those who would create it, forms the very inner minds of those who set themselves to seek it. Vienna is an eloquent place. It’s loveliness calms, its rhythms root one in grace. Perhaps it is a particularly powerful atmosphere for me because of the story my family has lived within it. Each person has a place or two of their own that calls them into life.
But Vienna is one of mine, a place that grounds me, reminds me of my story and what I have been given, and of all that I must now work to become. I am deeply thankful that my parents glimpsed loveliness here when they were young and decided to bring this particular brand of life into our home. I’m thankful to be prodded into new creation by the sight of old beauties that have lasted. Whatever your own place of life, I hope this glimpse of Vienna returns you to it in thought, or brings a fresh beauty of its own.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” -Henry David Thoreau
New eras begin with new ideas, as Thoreau well knew. He spent a lifetime writing the kinds of books that might arrest a man mid-step, shake him to the core of his soul and set a new road at his feet. Sometimes, you can read something so powerful, so exactly sating to the hunger or hope of your particular soul that it sets a new path at your feet and changes the course of your journey. Thoreau knew it and these days, so do I.
Friends, I’m about to start a new era. The time has come and the choice is made. At 29 years of age, I’m finally heading off to college. I’ve been accepted to Wheaton College (near Chicago) and I’ll begin my studies in English and Philosophy this fall. Wish me grace as I go?
The book that prompted this change? Well, it wasn’t really just one. I suppose you could say it was the Bodleian itself and every stack of books I ordered for every essay and all the old libraries in Oxford that instigated this decision. But the books that really sparked it all were the ones I read through my C.S. Lewis tutorial, books that explored the “truth-bearing faculty” of imagination (as Malcolm Guite says). When I read Lewis’ Surprised by Joy one rainy day, and understood that we may know what is Real through observation and reason, but also and equally through imagination and experience, through a beauty that speaks in a “language without words,” I sat up straight in my library chair and knew that heightened air of a newborn era.
You see, I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand the truth that came to me through imagination. In the stories I have read, the music I have heard, through the hours I have spent in creation, I have known something true about God that has been the foundation of my faith. Beauty has spoken to me of spiritual reality since childhood, and I knew it was truth even though the knowing came through a language without words. The stories I read deeply shaped my interior world, widening my capacity to enter the story of God. But I never felt quite able to argue for the power of the imagination as equal to that of logic and reason.
As I studied in Oxford, I finally began to realize that in Western culture, we generally place the highest value on what we know through Reason, on the truths that are quantifiable, easily counted and observed. We tend to denigrate the knowledge of imagination and experience because it is something received, a presence that is subjective, interior, known only from within. Because of this, we think of beauty and the arts as peripheral to the spiritual, a by-product of holiness, rather than something that powerfully communicates it to us. But Lewis explained to me that this is a lop-sided view. Language is simply another set of symbols pointing back, along with imagination and creation, to what is ultimately Real.
My heart stood up straight at this new understanding. The dogged lists of Reason have never convinced me of God’s reality and goodness. Creation has. Stories have. Music sings Him to me, and starlight glimmers him forth, and the images that come to me in imagination are signposts of a world that I know is real as my own breath. What I read in Oxford gave me, for the first time, the ability to articulate and defend the truth-bearing power of imagination. I had tried before. My book and talks on children’s literature are all an exploration of the way that stories shape the interior of a child’s soul. My blog is about becoming alive to God through beauty. But the study I did at Oxford made me able to speak and defend all that I felt.
I think it was the day I finished an essay on reason and imagination in the writing of C.S. Lewis that the era of long-term, formal study opened in my heart. Of course, it took awhile. I got home and kept on reading. Guite on “imagination as a truth-bearing faculty,” Owen Barfield on poetic language as a way to evoke that which is beyond our sight, more of Lewis, Tolkien on the gospel-like grace of fairy tales. But the more I learned, the more keenly I percieved the impact that imagination has on our faith, our education, our very experience of daily life. Surely imagination ought to shape childhood education, surely we must cultivate children with a deep capacity to experience beauty, to imagine, to taste, to enjoy and so know what is Real, instead of plying them with facts alone. Surely imagination must be vital to the way we communicate faith to those who don’t believe. Surely, art and poetry and music help us to apprehend the sacred nature of life. The more I read, the more I knew that I wanted to study imagination, articulate its power, write of its grace.
So when, about a month ago, I was confronted with the task of planning my future, the new era was like a storm ready to burst over my head. I prayed, I questioned, and I felt God push me to identify just what I would do and pursue if all limitations and fears were laid aside. My answer was instant. It had been a year in the making, but it was ripe as a golden apple when the question came. I’d get my degree and go to grad school to study the nature and role of imagination. Well then, humphed God. No more prevarication, no more fear, no more confusion. Get to it.
Literally that day I sent in a late transfer application to the schools of my choice. Wheaton was always my first choice for many reasons, one of them being the fact that it is home to the Wade Center, a research library and museum dedicated to the writings of the Inklings and their friends. With hours to spare, I submitted my forms and sat back to pray. When, one blustery day, I walked to them mailbox to find my acceptance letter waiting, I felt as if God had placed, not merely a gift, but a whole new story into my hands.
So, I’m starting with Wheaton. I’ll do my undergrad in English literature (no surprise there), but I want to add some side study in philosophy, to better understand how we know as human beings. Then, I’m thinking maybe the M.Litt at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts in Scotland, or something like it, and then… well, Oxford is in my blood. I kinda hope I end up there. At any rate, the adventure has begun.
I couldn’t have gone to college before this with anything like the conviction I carry now. The timing, the place, the provision of this particular school in this particular year is so clearly, to my mind, the guiding of God, I wake in thanks every day. I’ll still be writing here along the way (when I’m not feeling swamped with essays and exams!), and I intend for this to be a place where the study of imagination is cultivated and a hunger for the beautiful continued.
So, wish me luck as it all begins. I love the start of a fresh story. And I think this is going to be a good one.