Exploring where life and story meet!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Effects of Exposure to Classic Literature on Young Readers and Their Future Reading and Writing Habits

This would make a fabulous thesis if one actually had the time, patience, and funding for such an endeavor, and if one could come up with an accepted list of 'classic literature.'  I had the requisite school reading of course, mostly things in the dystopian and modern lit. genre, all of which are hugely enjoyed by 8th graders and no doubt responsible for the continuing love of reading seen among the millennials.  I wanted to be an avid reader but lacked resources and direction.  We did have a decent library but I had no one to show me what was good and what wasn't.  Everything I read in class only deterred me from seeking out anything considered 'classic.'  So I was left to the endless shelves and random chance to select my next book, the result of which was predictable.  I did enjoy the Newberry Award nominees every year and found some decent reading therein.  But sadly, the main force that kept me reading was the summer program at the library every year.  I read to 'win' stuff (and because there wasn't all that much to do when it was 90 outside and the internet had not yet been invented).  You read so many pages and then received a piece of disposable plastic in the shape of various kid-friendly creatures or things, definitely worthwhile!  At least it eventually lead me to some books worth reading and taught me that reading for its own sake could be rather diverting.

What classic books did I pick up that influenced my development as both a reader and a writer?  Our library had a fine collection of Star Wars books, the Dragon Riders of Pern, and that lady that writes horse books (Marguerite Henry).  Classics all!  As with most young ladies, I thought I had a horse obsession which the latter satisfied, but soon I turned to dragons and interstellar drama (don't we all?).  There you have it, the beloved tomes that shaped my own taste for literature.  Perhaps I didn't learn all that much about social unrest or repression but I learned to use my imagination and developed an insatiable appetite for literature, good or otherwise.  I learned to love Story in any format and to decide for myself what was worth reading and what was not.  It was also in a book that I discovered that it is okay to believe in fairies, in fact life is much more interesting and colorful when you can see beyond the ubiquitous beige of suburban life to worlds beyond our own.

It was only in my twenties and even my thirties that I began to read things actually considered classics and found that things english teachers like might not be that bad.  I developed a taste for the works of dead Brits and expanded from there.  I do not cling to a genre or certain author so much as I look for a good story, strong plot, believable characters and world, and a talented writer.  I haven't revisited the favorites of my girlhood however, I still enjoy a couple of the old Star Wars books on rare occasions but as the series evolved and went places I didn't want to go I gave it up, and as there is a new movie in the works that will completely ignore what happened in the books, I figure there isn't much point anymore.  As to Pern, I loved the older books available to me at the library, but the newer ones have turned me off completely.  The whole point of the books has become to push a certain social agenda which only detracts from an otherwise interesting world.  It was like finding smut in Jane Austen sequels, it ruined the whole experience.  One does not read Jane Austen for the romantic interludes (described in minute detail!) and any author who seeks to emulate her would be wise to remember this.  Neither does one read the Pern books for the torrid love affairs, but sadly that became the focus and a die-hard fan went away disappointed, never to return.  And worse, I can't recommend them to my kids, though I was delighted when I discovered them for myself.

I suppose the whole point of this meandering essay is that whatever your kids read, assuming it is not detrimental to their emotional or spiritual wellbeing or their developing english skills, as long as they are reading something, there is hope one day they will develop a real taste for good literature.  I started with starships, dragons, and horses and ended with Austen and Shakespeare, there is hope!  Keep the flame of reading alive and one day they might surprise you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


"A man’s heart plans his way,
But the Lord directs his steps."
 (Proverbs 16:9 nKJV)

We westerners like to think we have the final say in much of life: I am going to do such and such on such a day, and most of the time we can live happily within this delusion, but sometimes it all comes crashing down and we are left gaping in astonishment after the accident or disaster, and at other times it falls softly like snow, gently reminding us that we are mortal and fleeting as the dew of morning.  Whether we live a day or a hundred years, what is that but a breath?  We have no say in our day of birth and little in our death.  What then are the plans of men?  

What then should we do?  Huddle in dejected misery, staring wide-eyed and terrified at the heavens, wondering when it all shall end or what is the point at all?  'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?'  Neither of these views is realistic, just check out your local college campus full of eager, hopeful young things ready to do their part to 'save the world,' with nary a thought of death, let alone how to finance their education; they truly live in the moment, not thinking of tomorrow and the sorrows or troubles it might bring but rather they go forth boldly with the immortality of youth, yet unjaded by time and sorrow; a vision of man in his forgotten innocence.  Men cannot flourish in the midst of despair nor in living only for the moment, rather we truly live when we learn to trust our lives and even our plans to the One who sees the big picture, knows all ends, and has bigger plans for us than we can even dare dream.  Ours is not a call to hopelessness nor debauchery but to Joy and Peace beyond the world's understanding, and in that is our hope.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Just Peachy!

“There is no safe investment.  To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.  I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness… We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it.” 
~C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves~

I love C.S. Lewis, he can say amazing things with simple words and in only a few sentences; he also seems to be something of a prophet, speaking candidly to modern hearts and problems though he was a man of a far different era, or perhaps it is just that men never change and he speaks to problems common to humanity since the first morning of the world.  That is the more likely answer, he chose timeless topics rather than popular issues, much as the writer of Ecclesiastes did thus it still speaks to those of us who live at a distant place and time in a culture foreign as any alien civilization.  

I found this quote on the back of a compilation of some of Lewis' works and felt chills while reading it.  He could have been talking about me!  This was how I grew up, and I wonder how many others have as well and hardly even know it.  Some of my family still try and live this way and it is heartbreaking to watch.  Personally, I know we (my family) has been hurt so much in love that the only option seems to be burying your heart and pretending you don't have one, and then just keep so busy that you don't notice your emptiness and misery.  I am afraid this is a far reaching epidemic in western culture and not just a familial affliction peculiar to myself, I have no data to back up this supposition but just check your favorite social media site and observe a general sampling of what people put up: everyone is wonderful, happy, perfect, in an ideal relationship (or wonderfully independent), has awesome kids/pets/stuff/trips, and ever so many friends.  I wonder if Facebook might be a leading cause of depression among millennials?  But what is behind all the happy, perfect lives?  What is under that thin veneer of wonderfulness?  Are you the only person on the planet with problems, hurts, disappointments, sorrows, failures, and embarrassments?  Does anyone ever have a bad hair day any more?

On the outside our lives are perfect, on the inside we are falling apart.  But we can't tell any one, we can't appear weak or no one will like us.  But at what cost?  Our souls are shriveling that our selfies might smile.  We need to love and be loved, not that fickle, fleeting feeling of warmth or liking that is a distant echo of joy and modern society's only definition of the word, but rather the kind of love we only hear about at cheesy weddings with a recitation of, 'love is patient, love is kind…'  Have you read the entire list?  That kind of love is hard, but it is the only type worth having.  I've tried living without it and that is harder still.  Love hurts, but it hurts far more trying to pretend you don't need it, don't want it, and that everything is just peachy without it.  That is a short road to misery and loneliness, yeah life can get complicated and messy when we are real and vulnerable with others, but at least it is a life, rather than a mere existence.  It isn't really even an existence, it is a mortal version of Hell.  A little messy has to be better than that!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another link

Here's a charming little piece you might enjoy if you are fond of Lewis, Tolkien, etc.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On character and characters

What makes a good character?  Why are we attracted to certain personalities, fictitious or not, while others we shrug off, ignore, or overlook?  Why is a too good hero or an ultimate villain sort of dull when a rather ordinary minor character steals the show?  Why is Samwise Gamgee so much more interesting than Sauron?

I think we attach to characters with whom we can relate, that is those who are most like ourselves: the most human.  We want a character who has suffered sorrow and defeat, who has failed, who yet has the hope of triumph, one with a a sense of humor or a quick wit, a mysterious or humble background is always nice, and though they are riddled with foibles and failings (as we ourselves, if we are honest) they are still resilient, willing to learn, willing to get back up and try again.  If they are too good and never fail or struggle, we cannot relate and find the character beyond our experience.  If they are an embodiment of evil (like Tolkien's Sauron) we might feel a little uneasy at mention of their name, but we never really consider them a true character.  Darth Vader is a character we find intriguing while the Emperor (at least in the original trilogy) is just a shadowy force behind the bad guys in the Star Wars epic; we shudder when we see or hear about him, but forget him once he is gone.  Perhaps it is this conflict within a character, the struggle that reflects our own: like calling to like.  The evil against the good and vice versa.  Sam struggled with his baser self while Vader could not quite repress certain feelings unfit for an evil overlord.  Perhaps it is this struggle that draws us like moths to the flame, for it is our own.

I often wonder if this is not part of the reason for the Incarnation.  What can a mere mortal know of God?  No wonder the Israelites trembled in the desert and sent Moses as their go between.  But God made flesh?  Immanuel, God with us?  That we can sort of wrap our minds around.  He dealt with rejection, weariness, sorrow, temptation; He wept and from some of His statements, I am sure He laughed, just like each of us.  He is the ultimate character, what He intends each of us to become: our real and true selves.  We find little interest in a life spent numbly plodding along, merely reacting to what happens around us; never truly knowing ourselves or being known.  We are intrigued by a life that is changed, that is full of honest struggle, that though failure happens the person rises from the ashes and pushes on, by someone who admits they are not perfect but does not despair at this statement nor do they boast in their strengths but rather uses them for the good of others.  This is what we want in our characters and what God wants for each of us.  Do not simply exist, placid as a cow in a meadow with never a thought for the really important things in life.  Be a character, be the actual you!  Discover who and what you are, 'know as you are known.'  Don't just post things on social media and decorate your exterior so everyone thinks you are something, rather be something, exercise that flabby thing called a soul, that part of you that will last forever.  Become the character you were meant to be.  Get out of the Shire, defy the Emperor, get you gone on whatever journey of the heart lays before you!  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The New Fairy Tale

I have watched several movies over the years, and I am sure there are others of which I am unaware, all with the same theme: a modern man, advancing the influence of progress, finds himself on the wrong side of justice when faced with a native or traditional people group; only by finding acceptance among said people group and standing with them (often futilely) against his former allies can he find redemption.  'Dances with Wolves,' 'Medicine Man,' 'The Last Samurai,' and "Avatar,' all come to mind, all of which are beautifully filmed, with a stirring soundtrack, and a compelling narrative.  Whether it is told in the 'old west,' Japan, or on a distant planet, it is the same story with different pajamas.  This seems to be 'the fall' narrative of the modern, quasi-new age materialist and also their 'redemption' saga.

The great 'sin' of humanity is its wanton destruction of nature, traditional cultures, and denying justice, fairness, and equality (however defined) to 'the others.'  And man's only hope is to embrace the imperiled culture of 'the others,' and live in harmony with nature and his fellow man.  It is a beautiful and compelling story, that gives hope to a world with little of joy to be found.  The only problem is that it is completely, and utterly, impossible.  No matter how we idealize any given culture or the natural world, there never has been and never will be a human society that is 'in harmony' with nature, that is not infested with greed, hatred, envy, strife, treachery, lying, and the like.  It makes a nice movie but has no basis in reality.  No matter your culture, your race, your gender, your creed, your language, we are at heart all human.  And as humans, regardless of our society, a grouping of humans will all have the same faults, shortcomings, and failings.  It is our nature.  As for this gracious mother earth that will embrace us if only we 'understand' her, go watch a nature show, particularly from the 1980's or early 90's (some of the more modern films are edited to remove the more gruesome aspects of life in the wild).  There is no nurturing, mother earth.  In the wild, it is kill or be killed.  The young, old, and pregnant are not spared but rather preyed upon.  There is no mercy, only survival.

The makers of these films (and writers of the original stories) are correct in assuming we need such a story, it is innate in our being and old as man himself.  "Tale as old as time," as a certain singing tea pot puts it.  That is why these films are so powerful: they resonate in the deepest part of our souls.  We already have such a tale, but we don't want that story, we want a story where man can save himself.  We want to be the hero, not the princess locked away in the tower by the evil step-mother.  In dispensing with the old tale, we find ourselves floundering and restless until we find one to replace it.  This meta-narrative that our salvation can be found by embracing our true humanity and the natural world is a nice dream, but it falls apart upon waking.  We cannot fix what is broken by embracing something that is flawed at its core.  Humanity is flawed, broken, and we cannot fix ourselves.  Long ago, when the stars were young, someone whispered, 'ye can be gods,' we listened and broke the world.  We are still broken and still think ourselves gods, gods that sound like defiant toddlers screaming that I can 'do it myself.'  We even invent stories to reassure us of this fact.  But they are just that, stories, and they will not fix the world.  But there is an older tale that can do just that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Words of four letters


For so common a word one would think it wouldn't have so vague and ephemeral a definition and elicit feelings ranging from warmth to dread to guilt to longing in those who hear it.  But then, it is intimately linked with love, and of all words in the English language, love is the least precise and the most dangerous:

 "The girls nowadays indulge in such exaggerated statements that one can never tell what they do mean.  It wasn't so in my young days.  Then a girl did not say she loved turnips, in just the same tone she might have said she loved her mother or her Savior," Miss Patty, Anne of the Island

We all want it, home, love, whatever the name we choose to give it, it is innate in the human soul.  We all want to belong, to be accepted, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to have a place to set out from and return to, to be safe, to have fun, to rest, to work for something that lasts, to care for others and be cared for in return, to have hope, joy, and peace, a place to laugh and to cry.  Many of us have a house or apartment or a condo or tent or what have you, but very few actually have a home.  Innately we know the difference between a house and a home (and no, a cat does not make it magically happen, regardless of what the cute poster says).  Some of us go through life and never find it while others spend our whole lives trying to escape it or trying to find it again once we do.  I was one of the former, though I didn't quite know it at the time.

I knew I wanted it, and always thought I had it, didn't I get warm fuzzy feelings around Christmas?  I think the whole world gets warm fuzzy feelings around Christmas, at least the young and the young at heart.  I thought it meant a place of my own, where I could do my own thing and have some privacy and be alone.  Oh so alone.  That was no fun either.  So if home isn't automatically found with your family of origin or in having your own life, where is it?

A quote from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, "not all who wander are lost," had become rather popular in certain circles some years back, and I used to really like it too, I still do, but it is very sad if you stop and consider the meaning.  It was written about a man who is forced to wander because he no longer has a home, he might have a home in some distant, unknown future but there is no guarantee and he might wander forever for all he knows.  We geeks know that it works out in the end, but he doesn't know that.  He, like all of us, wants to find home.  But where?

I have found it, at last, though I went kicking and screaming (or at least like Jonah, running as fast as I could in the opposite direction).  I did not want relationship, it was scary, it hurt, it wasn't worth it.  And like Jonah, I eventually got the idea (though hopefully with a little better attitude) that one cannot resist one's destiny indefinitely, you can run, you can balk, you can refuse, but you cannot escape, at least not without enduring an ordeal far more painful and difficult than whatever it is you are supposed to be doing.  Such is the dreadful power of Love and Home!  We are all called to it, most of us are terrified, for it is scary and painful and full of grief, but it is also the only thing worth doing and finding in this world and beyond.  For Christ it led to Golgotha.  Can we then expect our own journey to be free of sorrow?  But it is a good sorrow, a grief that will one day die and leave only those things that last forever. It shapes us, builds us up, breaks us down, mends us, and mars us; it hurts to be shapen yet would we rather remain forever a raw chunk of marble or an unpurified lump of ore?  Can we be useful, beautiful, or happy in such a state?  Love demands what is best for us, and in this fallen sphere that means hurt and change.  Home demands Love, for it is the key to that place we all so desperately desire yet all too willingly flee.