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Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

— 1 —

Today’s one of my Living Faith days. Here you go!

(By the way that restaurant is doing the same Thanksgiving free-meal-for-all this year. Information here.)

 — 2 —

Moving on…

In  the words of my favorite math video guru…And….we’re done!

Friday morning, I’ll be sending along the manuscript of my next book for Loyola, to be published next fall. The manuscript is due 12/15, and look at me, submitting a month early.

Unheard of!

I’m usually not late, but nor am I this early. So settle down and I’ll tell you what happened. Apply to your own particular life as you will:

I knew writing this book would be a bit of a challenge because I would be back in the homeschooling game during the writing time.  I wrote The Loyola Kids book of Bible Stories last year while they were both in school, and while I had written a few things – devotionals and such – during the couple of years they were both homeschooling, I was a bit nervous about being able to fit writing this book into my life this year.

It’s not that my 12-year old demands attention. Not at all. It’s not him, it’s me. I’m so into the homeschooling thing, especially with this mature, curious young man and especially since I can see the end in sight: five more years, at the most, and he’ll be on his way (and it could be sooner, considering his capabilities). I want to spend time facilitating his learning – I want to do things with him and travel about and so on.

But then as I began writing it, I discovered a few things.

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First, the subject matter and the very clear structure the editors and I laid out at the beginning meant that it wasn’t a very mentally taxing book to write. I didn’t just color by the numbers, but it wasn’t like writing War and Peace, either. Not that I know what writing War and Peace is like. It was just that with the structure established, that was one less aspect to agonize about.

Secondly, my high school aged son began driving himself to school. Over the past couple of years, before he was driving, we’ve done some carpooling, but it’s been sporadic, which is the way it is once you hit high school and everyone has their activities, particularly in the afternoon.

But now, as he takes himself back and forth,  I find myself with an hour or two more to myself than I’ve had over the past couple of years during each day – for on the days that I got hit with both mornings and afternoon, that was a couple of hours that I’d be in the car.

Not having to drive back and forth across town twice a day has changed my life.

He gets up at 6:45, I wake up, he leaves a bit after 7, and I get to work. The other one won’t wake up until 9 or so (I let him stay up as late as he wants because in the evenings he’s either reading, drawing or playing music – no screens at that point – and so if he wants to do those things all night, that’s fine with me.), so there’s my first chunk of work for the day.

Which,  will tell you, is…different.  I have lived most of my life as a night person -and for the most part, I still am. I have never been able to actually think clearly and creatively in the mornings, especially early – probably because I’ve been up so late doing all that (usually pointless) thinking, and I’m tahred.

But as I have aged, I’ve found my powers of nighttime concentration dwindling, and more than that, my desire to work at night evaporating. I basically want to read, so leave me alone.

So if I was going to get good work done, I was going to have to set that sense of myself aside, develop some self-discipline and hit work first thing instead of staring into space or scrolling through my bookmarks online.

Which I’ve done. Actually done. Consistently, all fall. Amazing even myself. There’s prep work involved, though. The mental routine I’ve developed is a variation of the way I’ve always worked on these things. Basically, I realized a long time ago that I have a very active and fertile subconscious. Perhaps everyone does, but it’s something I became quite attuned to in high school, especially as I struggled with math and the more abstract sciences. I realized that when I agonized over something in the evenings, and then set it aside, forgot about it and went to sleep, when I woke up in the morning….I got it. I didn’t even have to try. My brain had just figured it out for me. Thanks, brain!

In college, I came to understand that there was only so much active studying that was useful to me. I would read, read, read, and then set material aside for a day…and then be able to do well on the exam, for the most part, no matter how jumbled it all seemed when I set it aside.

— 4

So when I work on writing projects of a certain type (catechetical, instructional), my process is generally:

  • Have a very clear structure laid out. If you look at my Loyola books, you can see this structure in the tables of contents. Once, for example, with the saints book, I figures out the structure of those subsections: “Saints are people who…” I was off to the races and wrote the book in six weeks, no joke. This latest book that I’ve just finished is the result of thoughtful collaboration with the Loyola editors. Their concept was quite smart and lent itself to very easy writing.
  • Research, research, research. Spend an hour, two – a day – whatever, reading. Then take a day. Or go to sleep.
  • Get up the next morning and write. No agony, just get it all out. And there it is.
  • Come back the next day and rewrite. That also functions as the warm-up for writing the new stuff you’ve researched the previous night.

I write on both paper and the computer. It depends on what, at that moment, helps me feel freer and less constrained. Sometimes that’s paper, but sometimes the physical act of writing is too slow, so I go to the computer and pound it out. And sometimes composing on the computer makes me feel a very confining, daunting expectation of putting down a perfect product – so back to paper I go.

And then I edit (my favorite part – love editing – it’s when the real stuff happens and I can really understand what I was trying to do and what I need to do) – and pull all the pieces together, and send it in, stuff the file folder with all my notes in a drawer (that’s one thing I do by hand – take notes), and then when the final MS has been okayed for publication…I toss it all away…

I’m not writing great, creative, inventive, stuff, but I’m committed to accessible and engaging, and I think I have a knack for it. I believe the stuff. I believe it’s all true, and I want to help spread that Good News. I really do. There’s one little thing I think I’m okay at: taking these concepts that are sometimes complex, and communicating them to various audiences.

But it feels…so good …when you’re done!

— 5 –

Oh, this was the other thing I was going to say: my intuition had told me to push myself on this one. Just do it. To suppress my natural tendencies to procrastination and just go ahead and do it and get it done. I do try to obey my instincts when they strongly tell me to just do it  – because what I find when I don’t is that sure enough, something will happen to eat up all that time I thought I was going to have: someone will get sick or have some other sort of crisis, or there’ll be some political or culture explosion that is impossible to tear myself away from watching – and then, once again, I’ll learn that lesson…you should have obeyed your instincts because now it’s due tomorrow, and here you are, idiot.

Well, I’ll just say that the instincts were correct again, and not because anything bad happened, but because a couple of opportunities for good work came up, opportunities that both had very tight, inflexible deadlines – and I wouldn’t have been able to take them on if I’d left this project until the last month before it was due, thinking…oh, I have time….

So yes. It was one of the few pieces of advice my mother ever handed out, and she was right:

Obey your first instincts.

— 6 —

Homeschooling this week:

  • Frog dissection
  • Symphony concert – Beethoven’s 4th – that’s this morning.
  • Piano, of course.
  • Basketball practice.
  • More Yearling. He’s enjoying it, as am I.
  • Monday’s jaunt: he is playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for one of his recitals, and as he was playing it, my memory was jogged….isn’t there a Birmingham connection to this song? 

Why yes, there is! The composer, Hugh Martin, was born and grew up in Birmingham, and some accounts say he wrote the song here, but I am thinking that is probably not correct. But whatever the case, he had strong Birmingham ties, so on Monday, we drove ten minutes and found his childhood home, complete with historic marker. His father was an architect and designed, among other local buildings, one of my favorites, the wonderful main downtown library. This home is not terribly far from where Walker Percy’s first childhood home would have been before it was torn down for the Red Mountain Expressway. Same general area. (the second Percy home, where is father committed suicide, is still standing.)

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  • The other usual stuff.
  • A side trip to …wait for it…BESSEMER, ALABAMA!
  • Jealous?
  • Yeah, well, don’t be. I just went to get my new car registered, and since we were in the neighborhood in this town that was once at the center of the once-thriving iron/coal/steel industries of this area, we took a look around. There’s a little museum: The Bessemer Hall of History, the star holdings of which are a typewriter from Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway and the door of a jail cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why was King in jail in Bessemer? Interestingly enough, that arrest was King’s last arrest, and occurred fifty years ago last month. The pre-arranged arrest was a fulfillment of punishments for charges related to the 1963 arrest (when “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was composed):

After King’s release from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, he fought charges that he and several others protested without the proper permits. He appealed several courts’ rulings until in 1967 a Supreme Court judge upheld his conviction and ordered him to serve the remaining three days of his four-day sentence.

The fanfare surrounding his arrival in Birmingham prompted officials to reroute him to Bessemer to escape the overwhelming attention from the media and the public. 

  • We searched for and eventually found the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the, if not the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the country. As I said, we eventually found it, but could not figure out the pathway in, and then it was time to head home, so we did.
  • Lunch was not at the venerable local institution called Bright Star – one of the oldest continuing operating restaurants in Alabama, but rather down the road at a lunch counter in a gas station, a spot noted on “best hamburgers in Alabama” lists. The hamburger eater agreed with the ranking.

— 7 —

St. Nicholas day is a few weeks away….and don’t forget Bambinelli Sunday!

St. Nicholas pamphlet. 

St. Nicholas Center website. 

Looking for Christmas gifts? Try here!

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For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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This is a repost from last year. Still worth a read, I believe. 

 

In addition to the woman-and-the-Reformation specific material I’ve been reading, I’ve also been looking at a few books that cover the Reformation in general. Since today is the day the Reformation is in the news, I thought I’d talk about them a bit.

First, Carlos Eire’s massive Reformations.  Some of you might know Eire as the author of two affecting memoirs, including Waiting for Snow in Havana.  His day job is that of historian, being a professor of history and religious studies at Yale.

Reformations EireReformations is aptly titled, for as Eire points out, there is no single “Reformation” with a single source and direction, but rather a number of movements that erupted in the same era.

It’s a survey, yes, but it’s worth a look for a couple of reasons. First, history cannot be apprehended as an objective entity in the present. History is a story and is always remembered and told from a point of view. I am interested in Eire’s point of view, so I’m going to read his book on this topic.

Secondly, history may explore events that happened long ago, but we in the present are continually discovering new information that shifts or even radically changes our understanding of those events. History is also written with varied resources and methodologies. Forgotten or newly embraced methodologies shed new light on old narratives.

So it is with the Protestant Reformation. It’s helpful to periodically take stock and reevaluate this  set of events so complex and usually narrated from such entrenched, specific perspectives.

I’ve only read through the Luther material in the Eire book, but I do intend to finish it if I can renew it from the library enough times (700+ pages of text). If you are at all familiar with the basics, you might be skimming parts, but Eire does highlight some elements with which I was not familiar, primarily those related to Catholic life on the Continent before the Reformation, and particularly reform movements within Catholicism that sought to strengthen Catholicism, rather than break it apart – and succeeded, especially those in Spain. Very interesting.

The material on Luther himself provides not much new to me and draws on standard sources (Bainton, for example) with surprising frequency, but what the general reader might find most illuminating is, indeed, the juxtaposition of the pre-Reformation material with Luther. Given the liveliness, breadth, depth and seriousness of Catholic reform happening in Europe pre-1517, it makes it all the more tragic that the particular, peculiar and narrow theological stylings of one individual gained so much traction and came to dominate and shatter the landscape.

Brand Luther is a very interesting book that offers one angle on how that happened. Historian Andrew Pettegree surveys the Lutheran movement in great detail, but through the particular prism of the history of printing.

Even if you only have the vaguest familiarity with Luther, you probably associate his movement with the still relatively new technology of moveable type. Pettegree explores that relationship in great depth, making clear that this association was no accident. Brand LutherLuther came from a craft/business family background and knew what he was doing. He was quite particular about how his work was presented, knew that this was a powerful tool, and was deeply involved in making his work attractive, easy to read and accessible. And the printers loved him, of course – well, those of whom he approved that is. Luther and his controversies were a boon for the printing industry, and the particular political and economic arrangements of Germany only helped deepen the bond. In most other areas of Europe, printing was centrally controlled by stronger central governments. The political patchwork that was “Germany” meant that even if your local Duke had more Catholic sympathies and refused printers permission from printing Luther’s works, the neighboring duchy which was going all in could flood the area with Luther’s tracts nonetheless.

An interesting side point. Luther’s works were immensely popular and millions were printed and sold over just the span of a few years. His theological and political arguments, his Bible translations, his catechisms and his works for the laity were the bread and butter of German printers for decades. One gets the impression from histories of the Luther movement that the Catholic response to all of this was characterized by not much more than ineptitude and short-sightedness. There may have been some of that, but what stands out from Brand Luther is the sheer marketing force and ingenuity that Luther exerted. He saw right away that if his cause was to succeed and if his life was to be preserved, he had to take this beyond academic circles to the popular arena. Therefore, he wrote in German rather than only in Latin, and he wrote works specifically directed at laypeople. This is what the Catholic side could not or would not understand.  And, to come back around the printers – Pettegree points out that it got to a point at which Catholic writers had plenty of responses to Luther ready to roll, but printers were uninterested in taking them on because they didn’t sell.

As I was reading Brand Luther,  I toyed with a slightly different take on this early period of the Reformation and the fire it spread – and so quickly- through German lands at the time. There are countless reasons for this wildfire: the authentic appeal of Luther’s ideas of “freedom” from Roman Catholic religious ritual and spiritual sensibilities, real, scandalous and problematic Catholic corruption, the support of secular rulers, disdain of Rome as a foreign power, and the new technology. It’s all there. But what struck me in the reading was, honestly, the titillating, profitable appeal of scandal and taboo-breaking. When I read Luther’s best-selling bold, cocky, profane and dismissive invectives against almost every aspect of Catholic life that every person reading him would have grown up knowing and holding as sacred, and contemplate the violent, scatological images of clergy and religious practices that were printed and distributed by the thousands,  it doesn’t seem like a culture in which there is calm-truth seeking happening. It feels frantic, taboo-shattering, dam-bursting and addictively scandalous. And that, as we know, will always, always sell.

(By the way – this is being posted in the leadup to October 31 – “Reformation Day” – the day Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door. The 500th anniversary, no less. Both Eire and Pettegree point out that there is little evidence that such an event happened on that date, or even happened at all, at least to any fanfare or notice. FYI.)

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A post that’s a compilation from previous years:
St. Teresa is in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. You can read most of the entry here, at the Loyola site – they have a great section on saints’ stories arranged according to the calendar year. Some of the stories they have posted are from my books, some from other Loyola Press saints’ books.

When we think about the difference that love can make, many people very often think of one amy-welborn-booksperson: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A tiny woman, just under five feet tall, with no tools except prayer, love, and the unique qualities God had given her, Mother Teresa is probably the most powerful symbol of the virtue of charity for people today.

Mother Teresa wasn’t, of course, born with that name. Her parents named her Agnes—or Gonxha in her own language—when she was born to them in Albania, a country north of Greece.

Agnes was one of four children. Her childhood was a busy, ordinary one. Although Agnes was very interested in missionary work around the world, as a child she didn’t really think about becoming a nun; but when she turned 18, she felt that God was beginning to tug at her heart, to call her, asking her to follow him.

Now Agnes, like all of us, had a choice. She could have ignored the tug on her heart. She could have filled her life up with other things so maybe she wouldn’t hear God’s call. But of course, she didn’t do that. She listened and followed, joining a religious order called the Sisters of Loreto, who were based in Dublin, Ireland.

Years ago,  when the excerpts from Mother Teresa’s journal detailing her “dark night” were published, I wrote several posts. All have links to other commentary.

The first is here.  One of the articles I linked there was this 2003 First Things piece.

A second post, in which I wrote:

My first post on the story of Mother Teresa’s decades-long struggle with spiritual darkness struck some as “dismissive,” and for that I apologize. That particular reaction was against the press coverage – not the Time article, but the subsequent filtering that I just knew would be picked up as a shocking new revelation and used by two groups to promote their own agendas: professional atheists (per the Hitchens reaction in the Time piece itself) and fundamentalist Protestants, who would take her lack of “blessed assurance” emotions as a sure sign that Catholicism was, indeed, far from being Christian.  Michael Spencer at Internet Monk had to issue a warning to his commentors on his Mother Teresa post, for example, that he wouldn’t be posting comments declaring that Roman Catholics weren’t Christian.

So that was my point in the “not news” remark. Because the simple fact of the dark night isn’t – not in terms of Mother Teresa herself or in terms of Catholic understanding and experience of spirituality.  It is very good that this book and the coverage has made this more widely known to people who were previously unaware of either the specifics or the general, and it is one more gift of Mother Teresa to the world, a gift she gave out of her own tremendous suffering. What strikes me is once again, at its best, taken as a whole, how honest Catholicism is about life, and our life with God. There is all of this room within Catholicism for every human experience of God, with no attempt to gloss over it or try to force every individual’s experience into a single mold of emotion or reaction.

In that post, I linked to Anthony Esolen at Touchstone:

Dubiety is inseparable from the human condition.  We must waver, because our knowledge comes to us piecemeal, sequentially, in time, mixed up with the static of sense impressions that lead us both toward and away from the truth we try to behold steadily.  The truths of faith are more certain than the truths arrived by rational deduction, says Aquinas, because the revealer of those truths speaks with ultimate authority, but they are less certain subjectively, from the point of view of the finite human being who receives them yet who does not, on earth, see them with the same clarity as one sees a tree or a stone or a brook.  It should give us Christians pause to consider that when Christ took upon himself our mortal flesh, he subjected himself to that same condition.  He did not doubt; His faith was steadfast; yet He did feel, at that most painful of moments upon the Cross, what it was like to be abandoned by God.  He was one with us even in that desert, a desert of suffering and love.  Nor did the Gospel writers — those same whom the world accuses on Monday of perpetrating the most ingenious literary and theological hoax in history, and on Tuesday of being dimwitted and ignorant fishermen, easily suggestible — refuse to tell us of that moment.

     In her love of Christ — and the world does not understand Christ, and is not too bright about love, either — Mother Teresa did not merely take up His cross and follow him.  She was nailed to that Cross with him. 

Another post with more links to commentary.

And one more.

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— 1 —

As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available. Amazon doesn’t have it shipping until next week (and by next week, it will probably be…the next week) But you can certainly order it from Loyola, request it from your local bookstore, or, if you like, from me – I have limited quantities available. Go here for that.

— 2 —

Bible stories? For kids? Aren’t there plenty of books like that out there already? Well, yes and no.

Here’s the niche I want to fill with my book:

When do most Catholics, adult and children, encounter Scripture? During Sunday Mass. So it made sense to me to offer a book that would reflect that reality and build on it.

So the stories in the book – written for a 5-11 age reading/read aloud level – are arranged according to the liturgical season during which you would most likely hear them in the context of Sunday  or a feastday Mass. That means, of course, that it’s not comprehensive – if you don’t hear it at Sunday Mass, it is most likely not in the book, although I did make a couple of exceptions for readings that are strongly associated with a particular season and might be heard during a weekday Mass.

The stories are retold, faithful to Scripture – I am a stickler about that. Some re-tellings of Scripture impose, for example, emotions or thoughts on figures in the narrative that aren’t actually explicitly in Scripture. I don’t do that.

Following the narrative of each story are thoughts relating the story to either the particular feast or liturgical season or some other spiritual or theological point (sacraments prayer, virtues, and so on), and then finally, a question for reflection and a very short prayer.

— 3 —

The book includes lovely maps as endpapers, a basic liturgical calendar, wonderful illustrations, of course, and an introduction that will hopefully help families and catechists use the book in meaningful ways.

What I hoped to do was to bring children and families more deeply into the dynamic of reading the Scriptures as a Catholic– that is, in unity with the Church. We hear the Scriptures in a liturgical context, we apply them to our own lives, we return to the liturgy with new insights – and we’re always part of that weOf course reading Scripture as an act of individual devotion and study is good and important, but even that must be in the context of our awareness of Revelation as a reality that’s for and about the cosmos, not just our little microcosm in one corner of it, and so to situate our hearing of the Word in the Church, the Body of Christ.

— 4 —

Speaking of books, I am finally getting around to “publishing” some of my out-of-print books for Amazon Kindle. There are other means of epublication, of course, but I can only handle one formatting effort at a time. You can find it here:

I’ll be doing Mary and the Christian Life next. Just as soon as I finish some actual other work this coming weekend.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this, I have taken the free version of Mary Magdalene down for the moment – just until I give it some time on Amazon. Then the free pdf will be back up at my website. I’ll do the same with Mary and the Christian life and the others: remove the free version for the first few weeks it’s on Amazon, and then offer it free again as well.

— 5 —

So how’s the homeschooling going? Thanks for asking! Well, if a bit scattered. I am not sure how the “unschooling” part is coming – we’ll see at the end of September – at that point, we’ll take a look at all of the daily and weekly record sheets (which are being maintained) – look at topics read about, books read, trips taken, and see what that looks like. What I keep telling him is that he needs to think about nine months from now – what does he want and hope to see when he looks back over the whole year?

Decent advice for the rest of life, I think.

— 6 —

So no big changes from what I’d said we’d be doing: Komen Pre-Algebra math review pages every day (fractions and decimals so far), Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra – finished chapter 1 and are beginning chapter 2. He’s been reading various magazines (National Geographic, National Geographic History, Archaeology) and non-fiction books on topics that interest him. He’s currently memorizing the list of US Presidents as a framework for History Bee prep. We do our daily liturgical prayer/Saint of the Day/poem reading. The Spanish curriculum arrived yesterday, so he’ll start that next week (his choice).  He had some heavy duty music theory this week – learning about the different kinds of minor keys/scales, which is all new to me, too. We had to do some supplementary video-watching for that. He’s watched various science/nature related videos – this on Daddy Long-Legs, for example.   Various videos from The Kids Should See ThisWe went to the zoo.  The homeschool boxing class got underway.  Piano lesson.

Another trip to Moss Rock Preserve. He climbed, made the acquaintance of a stick bug:

 

September will be very busy. His science center classes will be on Tuesday mornings. Photography class Thursday mornings. Boxing Tuesday afternoons. Piano Thursday afternoons. Getting two teeth pulled. Piano recital in mid-September. Our zoo does a “Zookeeper for a day” thing – really half a day, and of course, it ain’t free, but I justify the cost by saying…well, I’m not paying $600/month tuition any more, so I think I can swing this.  He’ll be doing that – in the reptile house – one afternoon in September, as well.  I thought they only allowed his age group to do this zookeeper for a day thing in either the children’s zoo (farm animals) or with birds, but when I contacted them, they said they’d just added the reptile house as an option – which is of course, our favorite. Although he likes birds quite a bit, too. But given the chance to hang out with the big snakes and lizards for an afternoon? Much more exciting.

— 7 —

I have taken some reins from the unschooler, though…you knew that would happen, didn’t you?

He reads a lot, but it’s very much leisure reading, which is just fine, but I did think…well, maybe I should be a bit more directive on this….so we agreed that he’d always have a “school-type” book going as well, of either his or my choice. So we’re starting with Animal Farm – which will be a good way for him to dive into various areas of history as well.

Then I read this article – “Memorize That Poem!” which is very, very good. 

It’s so good, I’d invite you to share it with any educators in your life or circle. We have done quite a bit of poetry memorization around here over the years, but it really fell by the wayside last school year with both of them in school. This was the nudge I needed for revival.

By the 1920s, educators increasingly questioned such poetry’s “relevance” to students’ lives. They began to abandon memorization in favor of teaching methods that emphasized self-expression, although the practice remained popular until about 1960 — and still endures in some foreign language classes (to pass a college Russian course, I had to memorize some Pushkin).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four).

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samara Huggins, 18, the winner of the 2017 national Poetry Out Loud contest, in which high school students recite poems before a panel of judges. She performed “Novel,” by the avant-garde 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud — not an author who, at first glance, has much in common with Ms. Huggins, a teenager from the Atlanta area.

Yet every good poem grapples with some essential piece of human experience. “Rimbaud wrote that poem when he was young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

Susan Wise Bauer, a writer whose best-selling home-school curriculums are based on classical and medieval models and stress memorization, told me that “you can’t express your ineffable yearnings for a world that is not quite what you thought it was going to be until you’ve memorized three or four poems that give you the words to begin.” She learned William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” when she was 8. “Every decade I grow older, I understand a little more what he means about that sense of loss of wonder,” she said.

Understanding a good poem is hard — all the more reason to memorize it. Ask students to write a paper on Wordsworth, and once they turn it in, they consign the text to oblivion. But if they memorize his lament, years from now — perhaps while they are cleaning up their child’s chocolate-smeared face after birthday cake — they may suddenly grasp his nostalgia for “Delight and liberty, the simple creed/Of Childhood” and the bittersweet truth that “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence.”

Of course, this writer’s evangelizing on behalf of poetry brought to mind all of my own evangelizing about the role of literature – and sacred literature, prayer, liturgy and yes, faith – in bringing us out of our own small narrow worlds and situating us in reality – which is much bigger than we are, and bigger than we  know.

So yes, poetry. We’ll be back at it –  next week. One good poem a month, that’s all. Now to figure out which one…

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Frost In May is a very  Catholic book, and I am really wondering how I’d never heard of it or its author before a couple of weeks ago, me being the self-styled pseudo-“expert” in Catholic Lit that I fancy I am.

Humility is always just around the corner, it seems.

I won’t leave you in suspense: it’s an excellent little novel, terse, painful, ironic and complicated.

People have various views on how much the biography of an artist should weigh on our evaluation or understanding of the art. I tend to land on the “let the piece stand on its own” side most of the time, even though there’s usually one significant biographical fact that helps illumine a work and is good to know before you go on: Walker Percy’s grandfather and father both committed suicide. Flannery O’Connor’s father died young from lupus, and she knew she’d die young from it too after a certain point. And so on.

I think with Frost in May¸ knowing a bit about Antonia White is helpful. I hasten to say, though – not too much, for there’s an event in her young life that makes its way into the novel and is a definite, sad twist – and it’s good not to know what it is going in.  So don’t do exhaustive research, and don’t read the introductions to modern editions before you read the novel.

(This is a pet peeve of mine – I have found this time and time again that these introductions to older novels, usually penned by popular contemporary authors, tend to give a lot of the plot away – so I’ve started skipping them. Perhaps it would be better for them to be supplementary essays in an appendix?)

But I will say that this incident – what happened to White and what happens to her protagonist – is an almost perfect distillation of the Plight of the Catholic Artist….

What’s helpful to know is this – Antonia White’s fiction is mostly autobiographical, pulling from her own life as the young Catholic convert only child of a Catholic convert father/schoolteacher, and then, as she got older, from her experience of mental illness and terrible relationships.

(Side note: when I was first running across mentions of this book and this writer, I thought I was reading about Antonia Fraser – and was a little confused. Not the same person.)

Her personal life was very, very difficult, and her own children weren’t spared from this difficultly – both daughters wrote negative books about their mother.

There’s an autobiographical entry from White at the Catholic Authors website – but be warned, it does relate this incident I’m talking about that figures in Frost in May – but I’ll quote here White’s assessment at the time she wrote the entry, of her own faith journey, as we say:

Though bad reviews can wound a lot, good ones do not always inflate one as much as they might. So often the flattering remarks seem to bear no relation to the novel one has actually written’ so that one feels rather like a cat that has been awarded a prize in a dog-show. What is far more heartening than even the kindest review is the letter from the stranger who has read the book and taken the trouble to write a personal appreciation. Best of all is the stranger who finds something in what one has written that corresponds to their own experience of life or even illuminates it. One such letter from a stranger in New Jersey (she is now a friend of many years’ standing) gave me courage to tackle a difficult theme . . . that of insanity. It is to this Catholic woman doctor that I dedicated my last novel, Beyond the Glass.

My novels and short stories are mainly about ordinary people who become involved in rather extraordinary situations. I do not mean in sensational adventures but in rather odd and difficult personal relationships largely due to their family background and their incomplete understanding of their own natures. I use both Catholic and non-Catholic characters and am particularly interested in the conflicts that arise between them and in the influences they have on each other. The fact that I lapsed from both faith and practice for fifteen years is naturally something I bitterly regret. Nevertheless, I think that it has given me a real understanding of those outside of the Church and of problems for Catholics themselves which those who have been spared ‘doubts’ do not always appreciate. Since I was fortunate enough to recover my faith in 1940, every year has given me a deeper conviction of its truth. If anything I have written or may write one day could reduce some of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholics, I would be more than rewarded for all the qualms and miseries I have every time I embark on the seemingly impossible task of writing another novel.

Frost in May is a novel about a young girl’s time in a Catholic boarding school at the Convent of the Five Wounds. We meet Nanda at the age of nine as she is on her way, with her father, to the school, and we say farewell to her at the end, when she is leaving – having been sent away – a few years later.

During those years, she encounters the sisters, strong women, one verging on the sociopathic, it seems, but the others, while strict and focused on their perceived mission, never really actually cruel. She makes friends – the girls do not come from a terribly varied background, given that this is a school that mainly caters to elite Catholic families, both British and Continental – but their personalities range in the ways you would expect, from the deeply pious to the scandalously skeptical, and, as is often the case in this genre (see The Trouble with Angels)  – those most deeply affected by life with the Sisters are never those you might expect from their external affect. Emotions run high and heated in such an atmosphere, as well.

The spirituality of the order is harsh and even a little nutty by modern standards. But what I appreciate is that White always presents these practices and traditions in a full human and spiritual context, so that while we, from a distance, can say..well, perhaps that goes a little far and isn’t necessary – we can also see that the rationale is rooted in a sincere desire to help these young women be faithful followers of Christ in all that life will be handing them.

We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.

It’s harsh:

Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.

The intention was always to teach the virtue of humility before God and other human beings – but this worthy goal can easily be perverted into a system of humiliation administered by flawed and sinful human beings in systems that ossify and lose sight of their original charism.

I think that Frost in May dramatizes that tension very well, and does so in a way that takes the root positive motivations seriously, and thereby avoids cheap shots or easy, cynical black-and-white post-mortems that don’t so much clarify the truth as heighten the pride of those of us who have the luxury of hindsight.

I’d also say that from the perspective of 2017 – almost a hundred years after the fictional Nanda is taken to the Convent of the Five Wounds – we can look at the fruit of that swinging pendulum with clear eyes. Yes, perhaps it was too much for the little old sister to correct Nanda’s sleeping posture on her first night:

“Now, lie down,” said the nun kindly, “you were not, by any chance, crying when I came in?”

“No, mother,” said Nanda decidedly.

“That is good. But you were lying in such a strange way. Did your mother never tell you at home to lie upon your back?”

“No, mother.”

“But it is more becoming that you should.”

Nanda straightened herself out from her comfortable ball, turned her back and thrust her feet bravely down into the cold sheets.

“So, it is better,” said the nun gently, “and now the hands.”

She took Nanda’s hands and crossed them over her breast.

“Now, ma petite,” she said, “if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night, you would be ready to meet him as a Catholic should. Good night, little one, and remember to let the holy Name of Jesus be the last word on your lips.”

She passed silently out of the cubicle.

Nanda retained her new position rigidly for a few minutes.

“I shall never get to sleep,” she thought miserably as she heard the outdoor clock strike eight. But even as she thought it her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper “Jesus” before she was fast asleep.

But…you know what? There’s that tension I’m talking about – at first glance, the sister’s insistence of proper Catholic sleeping posture sounds crazy and definitely over the top. God meets us where we are! But then….Nanda falls asleep and yes, Jesus is the word that takes her there.

Hindsight. We can look back, and hear witnesses attest to how this spirituality harmed or helped them – but then we can also look back, not so far, at our own recent history and see that perhaps the externals are irrelevant…do what’s in your heart…has its own less-than-perfect fruit as well.

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I’m sharing with you here the chapter on the Assumption from my book Mary and the Christian Life. You can click on each image for a larger, clearer version, or you can just make your life easier by downloading a pdf version of the book here. 

 

 

Interested in more free books? The following are all links to pdf versions of books of mine that our now out of print. Feel free to download and share and even use in the parish book groups.

De-Coding Mary Magdalene

Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI

The Power of the Cross

 

 

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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Back-Cover

What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

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