Consistency might be the web virtue I most admire . . .
AS A CLASSICAL EDUCATOR, I may have a more limited online reading list than most teachers. Sometimes I follow a blog for six months or so to get a feel for a writer’s perspective or selfishly just to see if there’s a personal benefit to me. Many times I unfollow after a time and move on, but these three sites have been a consistent intellectual meat source over the years:
For the classical educator, parent, or student, for those who value like-mindedness as well as challenges, this is my favorite site for well-reasoned articles with a touch of pith, earnestness, and spiritual heart.
For all things historical, for all things of deep thought, for all things of an academic nature, this is my go-to. I have found some of the best information here for my senior students as they prepare for thesis each year, AND I have discovered several other professors and writers to follow.
Well, when you don’t have cable or even when you do, I can’t imagine life without PBS and its regular shows. Masterpiece Theatre, Nova, Newshour, This Old House, and so many more add to my view of the world, and I feel, expand me personally. Quality television is important to me, and this website provides so much beyond that for lifelong learners and teachers.
It might be more entertaining to tell you which websites and blogs I no longer follow, and why of course, but I think consistency might be the web virtue I most admire. It is the most difficult to attain and maintain.
Which websites do you value? Which ones add to your life and work?
"She was illumined, and a Muse was born . . ."
WHEN WE THINK OF LOVE SONNETS, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or the flavorless mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Now throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly. Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire, and naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a form was born. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
The thing is Petrarch was not some obsessive stalker, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
FIRST LOVE. FIRST AID. FIRST LADY. FIRST BASE. FIRST BITE. FIRST FLIGHT. FIRST LIGHT.
Centuries ago the word first came from the word forma, meaning going before all others, chief, principal. It was a title or a physical position in Old English, German, and Dutch. You were the chief or the first of your tribe. It was a noun, not an adjective like it is today. I wonder if being an adjective makes it less important.
Monday was the first day of school for my family and for me as a teacher. Facebook and Instagram were filled with family pictures from near and far this week, celebrating those firsts. So what is it that makes us mark and celebrate the first days of life events? Not every first is pleasant you know. And when you get old enough, you've had lots of firsts.
First days are a blend of excitement, newness, anxiety, and dread even. Whether the first day of school for the very first time, the first day on a job, or the first day home from the hospital, it marks a transition, a time of moving from one season to the next. We may have many first days in life but only one like that day. That fact alone makes it worth celebrating. There aren’t any repeats, and it doesn’t last long because the second day is quickly approaching.
In Matthew, Jesus encourages us not to be anxious or worry about the day, its needs, our needs, its problems, our problems. We can’t add an hour to the day by our worry, even first days. Our heavenly Father knows each need. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Read Matthew 6. Provision, trust, forgiveness, His goodness in every part of any day—these are given to us.
I pray that we can see first days and the in-between days for what they are—God's gifts.
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me.
Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
1. Jane is a character of such growth. I know, I know. Bronte includes much of her own life and experiences in the novel, so maybe Jane isn’t so original after all. It doesn’t matter to me. At age 8, Charlotte Bronte was sent to a horrible school for poor clergymen’s daughters, and her two oldest sisters died of tuberculosis within six months. That was reality, and it also happens to make great drama. How do you survive and continue after that? Well, that’s Jane’s plight and saga to tell, and it absorbs me entirely each time.
2. Jane Eyre is a story of spiritual metamorphosis. From a loveless, relationless childhood where God is wielded as a threat to time spent at a Christian charity orphanage where the gospel of privation and public humiliation are standardized, Jane changes. Her heart may be hardened to Aunt Reed for a time, but through the influence of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, her view of the present and the eternal begins to change. What’s more is that through her budding relationship with Mr. Rochester, Jane’s morality deepens as it is tested. She is tempted to remain at Thornfield as Rochester’s mistress but chooses to flee instead without knowing her future. It’s as if she is reinstated as an orphan. Yet beseeching God first and foremost, Jane sets off and through time and choice is returned to her love, her person, a more righteous character than at her beginning.
3. Gothic drama and mystery are a perfect setting. How I enjoy the mysterious with Gothic flare! From Bronte’s first chapter where Jane is sent to the Red Room in fear of ghosts to the eerie Grace Poole and an insane woman in the attic, Bronte creates a place of doubt where her readers wonder about reality and the supernatural. That dramatic contrast is full-on Gothic style—places and persons of fear contradicting places of light and peace. The practical Jane gets to discover it all and see the truth.
4. Bronte wrote a best seller. It was a success for her, her publisher, and female authors of her time (and ours!). Book critics raved, writing about her “noble purpose,” the story’s freshness, originality, and power. The Liverpool Standard declared, “the writer has evidently studied well the human heart.” Yes, the key characters are dynamic, but then the miraculous happens, so frequently in fact, that I wonder who in the Victorian era could think this story was relatable. Yet it is that improbability that makes the novel likeable. I think of how God rescues us, and I can see why Bronte created a long-lost benevolent uncle with money to spare. Never mind if it isn’t realistic. Our hope surges as we read, and I cheer for Jane because I want the best for her, I want her to love and be loved, and most of all, because Bronte has made her real.
5. A deepening love is one of the hardest to describe because it is active and changing as you read, yet the first infatuation is also real. We are with Rochester in the library as he shares bluntly with Jane. We are with them as they walk the gardens and pause under the great chestnut. The first sign of fascination and love might be shallow, but it must be if that love will ever deepen. What’s more, as the audience, we are more entranced because we know the truth before Jane does. We play the “what if” game with Rochester. Could the wedding actually happen? When it doesn’t, we are crushed for them even though we’re glad the truth is known. Soon after, as Jane prays and hears from God, she must choose a life without love for a time. It’s a desert and a trial. But as she heals physically and emotionally, Jane grows and recognizes her life is empty without the friend who is part of her soul. Yes, St. John offers “love” and companionship of a sort, but her heart knows it would be incomplete. When she hears Rochester’s voice on the moors calling for her, she responds from within, a cry from spirit to spirit. It is then that Jane knows her heart and her readiness to return, to be complete: “Wherever you are is my home” (283). [New York: Penguin Classics, 2006)
reposted from September 2016
I FEEL LIKE I'M ALWAYS READING with plenty more to read, but I don't think I would ever describe myself as a well-read person. I have a feeling I'm not the only one too. I like reading and learning, plain and simple.
So as summer nears its end for me as a teacher, I thought I'd share bits of my summer stack. My stack is incomplete without my Kindle reads, but it's a fair representation. Here are my categories:
FAVORITE LIGHT READS.
SOMEHOW IN KIRA'S DEFORMED STATE, a few of the village leaders saw past her condition and instead saw the covenant gift within her young life. She was fed and given shelter and challenged to complete the mending of the ceremonial robe. The story quickly builds to a climax.
Christ too saw covenant, destiny, in every person. In fact, in some it was so strong when he met them that he renamed them: Simon, fisher of men, you are called Peter. James and John, sons of Zebedee, you shall be called Boanerges, sons of thunder. Zacchaeus wasn’t a despised tax collector to Jesus but a dinner host!
Christ didn’t see any of the sick and diseased and demon-possessed that were brought to him as worthless. He saw them whole before he even performed a miracle. He saw the inside where they were crippled too.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.'
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.'
Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.' --Luke 19:1-10
Zacchaeus caught a glimpse of who he was in Christ’s eyes, and it changed him. No one had to tell him the right thing to do. He no longer saw himself from the outside in, but from the inside out, the way God intended. Zacchaeus came to understand who he was in an entirely different way as does Kira by the end of Gathering Blue.
ACCORDING TO G. K. CHESTERTON, tales and stories are an elementary wonder because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. Their effect upon us is both simple and innate. More than that, Chesterton believed that stories are needed because they can awaken us, even startle us, when our lives have languished in familiarity:
Stories remind of us of reality. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. The tales make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. It is the same for fairytales. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and evil flies out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
The reality that stories bring also conveys truth. One such story is in Lois Lowry’s Giver series, Gathering Blue. In this futuristic tale, on an earth that has forgotten much of its history and seems to have reverted to the Dark Ages, young Kira has just lost her mother, the only parent that she’s known.
No one would desire Kira. No one ever had, except her mother. Often Katrina had told Kira the story of her birth—the birth of a fatherless girl with a twisted leg—and how her mother had fought to keep her alive. . . . 'They came to take you, Kir. They brought me food and were going to take you away to the Field.'
Kira is clearly a cripple. That’s how she is seen on the outside by everyone except her mother who is now gone. But being crippled is only the outside condition. Her status quickly reminds me of more than one account where people in Christ’s time only saw condition too. They yelled at the blind beggars to get off the road, they fled at the sight of lepers, and laughed at Jesus when he said Jairus’ daughter was only asleep. They would have made fun of the Samaritan woman too. Those who lived in Nazareth said Jesus was just the carpenter’s son. They saw condition, just the surface.
So now, Kira has to make her way in life, and she is afraid that her village will cast her out. As the story continues, we find out that Kira has a gift, one that’s just beginning to grow. She calls it the knowledge and first describes it as a keepsake.
With her thumb, Kira felt a small square of decorated woven cloth. She had forgotten the strip of cloth in the recent, confusing days . . . When she was much younger, the knowledge had come quite unexpectedly to her, and she recalled the look of amazement on her mother’s face as she watched Kira choose and pattern the threads one afternoon with sudden sureness. ‘I didn’t teach you that!’ her mother said laughing with delight and astonishment. ‘I wouldn’t know how!’ Kira hadn’t known how either, not really. It had come about almost magically, as if the threads had spoken to her, or sung. After that first time, the knowledge had grown. . . . the threads began to sing to her.
It is this gift that saves her from exile or death as a cripple, and the village elders now provide her food and her own dwelling so that she can sew and embroider for them.
*Part II will continue the story next week.
In Genesis 39, the Egyptian captain Potiphar had it made. Prestige, position, property, a beautiful wife, and most importantly, a slave who did it all. Who wouldn’t appreciate a servant who could run your life better than you could?
Genesis 39:2-7 (ESV) The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.
His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.
So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.
From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.
So he left all that he had in Joseph's charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.
Some translations read successful in verses 2 and 3; others speak of wealth, but the Genesis account is clear. God is with Joseph, and so prosperity has broken out. Potiphar had to have trusted Joseph implicitly to relinquish his own control to a slave and so quickly too. That every part of Potiphar’s holdings flourished is undeniable. Potiphar, his wife, and all of his slaves had to have known that Joseph’s presence, and so God’s presence, brought this amazing bounty to them.
Even before his wife’s false accusations left Joseph in prison, Potiphar had missed something. Perhaps he felt entitled since he had purchased Joseph for half a pound of silver. Maybe he thought he had good luck because of his prayers to his gods. Perhaps he was simply in denial. But what if he had not just rested on success? What if he had been aware of why he landed in such fortune?
I wouldn’t want to live in such ignorance, this Potipharland. I want to see God’s goodness, see him at work, to know His nature, and to fill with gratitude. Here Potiphar made a simple choice, a one-time purchase, that affected his whole household and his entire country. If he had only known.
In The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall asserts that we must wake up to knowledge. Along with becoming aware, Schall also insists that we can grasp the very realization of not knowing [which] can exhilarate us too. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, protagonist Guy Montag experiences such an understanding through the exposure of his job and through his exposure to different people, for he began to see what he did not have.
Having pilfered books for some time now, Guy Montag must have unconsciously perceived a need for change. As if disembodied, Montag describes his thefts--So it was the hand that started it all. At his last fire, Montag sees his hand that had done it all, his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief. Montag’s conscience has awakened. He aptly depicts the burning books as living things now in his hands.
For the decade he spent as a firefighter, unquestioningly battling books and the independence they stood for, Montag fully sees what was denied him. Schall, too, describes this--We become luminous to ourselves only when we know what is not ourselves. It is the idea that as we are exposed to things outside of our daily life, the things we are not, that we do become more aware of who we truly are.
During the summer I was 10, I clearly remember having a similar experience at the library. My mother would drop my sister and me off at the city library for two hours, and we would hungrily range through shelf after shelf. That summer, I discovered the world of Cherry Ames, R.N. I had one time hoped to become a nurse when I grew up, but Cherry’s life was even more appealing—a life of danger and mystery, alongside the healing arts. In book after book of her series, my impressionable mind saw a world outside of myself that seemed very possible. I had the curiosity Schall speaks of--We need to surround ourselves with books because we are and ought to be curious about reality, about what is. Though embracing the life of Cherry Ames may not have been realistic, I was able to see outside of myself. But it was not only books that occupied Montag because he also became more aware of his need to change through the people he encountered.
One possibility is that Montag knew he was unhappy, for it was immediately after Clarisse asked him, Are you happy? that he was drawn to look at the air grate where he had unconsciously hidden his books. This realization connects to his memory of meeting the old man in the park and whatever was shared there, again a possibility of becoming more aware as encounters with different people overlapped with the life of books.
Clarisse, however, awakened a full awareness within him, boldly telling him, You never stop to think what I’ve asked you. And she knew he was different from the other firemen. Her presence and interactions with him brought his unconscious actions to the forefront. It’s like having a friend who is so engaged with the world about them that they enable you to see more as well. Much like Schall, Clarisse would agree to know is also to be.
Now, it’s as if Montag’s senses have become alive and contrast starkly to his surroundings and home life. His awareness gouges a rift in daily routine that is unmistakable as his sleep, relationships, and work are all affected. Even in her stupor, his wife Mildred notices him thinking. In his last fire, Montag knew he could not hurt people anymore because he was aware of the meaninglessness within the people and society about him, the control measures Captain Beatty mentioned that kept people happy.
Ironically, the Captain’s own comments to Montag revealed the government’s place of control and confirmed the life change within Montag—he determines to never come in again and to uncover his hidden books—choices that are irreversible. Montag may not know what his future holds at this point, but he now has come to an awareness just as Schall details that everything is new.
I LOVE OUR BACK PORCH. Sunny or rainy, I can sit outside and write all I want while I listen to the neighborhood birds and just rest in the breeze. Except for the sawdust. A few years back, I began to notice little piles of sawdust on the floor. Naturally I looked up, and to my surprise, saw perfect little holes in the cedar beams. We had bees! Carpenter bees or wood bees, they were gnawing away at dead wood, laying eggs, and letting the new larvae feast on the wood too.
I researched in earnest and found out that there’s really not much you can do. Sure, fill the holes with steel wool. Ugly. Nail steel mesh to the bottom of your beams. Ugly. Install a spray system that mists every fifteen minutes to keep them at bay. Expensive. So, I did what most vigilant moms might. I prayed for the bees to go away, and I got my broom and stayed on guard several times a day for that first summer. As soon as a bee dug in, I swatted. After a few weeks, I had killed enough that further damage was averted.
But this year was different. In the late spring as I sat writing, I noticed dozens of smaller, solid black bees in the woodpile. It was as if they appeared in one day. But, while I was sitting there, a bird arrived, and not one I had ever seen before. He was small and round and brown, and he didn’t mind me a bit. If a bird could appear delighted, he did. He went to town, hopping from stick to log and then diving into the pile, eating those bees. I needed to do more research. Sure enough, those all-black bees were young carpenters, and that fine bird was a Brown Creeper, a nuthatch. What an unexpected answer to prayer.
I began to observe that nuthatch and his friends over the next few days, and they seemed to vacation and feast in my yard. Nuthatches never roost alone but always in a large family known as a jar. A jar of birds! The mother and father raise one brood each year, and offspring from previous years help raise the young. Siblings at your service. But I was at a loss when trying to figure out why they were so named until . . .
Ascending a pine tree, his little round ball of a body turned upside down as he scaled the tree, the nuthatch moved in a spiral pecking under the bark. And then I saw it. That one moment where he caught something. I think it was a beetle. Quick as could be, he tucked that beetle under some loose bark and pounded on the bark, splitting that beetle wide open. Thus, the nuthatch, “hatching” any large insect or seed was perfectly equipped.
Naturalist Winsor M. Tyler writes, “The Brown Creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of the detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree, he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind.” So poetic but picture perfect.
Over the next few weeks, this little community of ten happily took care of every wood bee. Tittering and chittering, they played in the dirt in the back corner of the yard and eagerly roosted in our small stand of trees. Then they were gone. The heat of summer had intensified, their food source depleted. I was sad not to see and hear them anymore. At the same time, I was filled with wonder at how God had provided for them and for me.