". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Family that Eats Together

Someone shared this article on Facebook yesterday. It's about the importance of having supper together as a family--sitting around the table at a designated time, eating together, and talking. Especially talking. I couldn't agree more.

I didn't grow up with this experience. I am the youngest of my siblings, and there are seven years between me and the next-youngest. I have a few memories of people being around at mealtimes, but I have more memories of being the only child in the house, and more often than not, eating supper on a TV tray while watching television in the living room. A few times a year one of my aunts would visit, and I cherished those times because when Aunt Lou came we ate around the table. Not only that, Aunt Lou made sure we prayed before we ate.

My husband and I have always had supper together, first without kids, then with kids. I don't remember our making a conscious decision to do so. It's just something we did. Then some years ago one of our pastors taught us how to do an even better job of making mealtime a family event. I wrote about that in a past blog post, but here's a summary:

1) The meal is to begin and end with prayer. Prayer is led by the Table Master (see #2) unless the Table Master assigns someone else to do so.

2) Father is the Table Master. If Father is not present, Mother is the Table Master. If the Table Master desires, he or she can designate someone else as Table Master for the meal.

3) Once the meal has begun, no one leaves the table without requesting and receiving permission from the Table Master.

4) The Table Master designates one of those dining to be the Server. The Server has permission to come and go from the table as needed to meet the needs of those dining.

5) No one leaves the table until all have eaten, the closing prayer has been said, and the Table Master has dismissed the table.

Over the years we have become a little more relaxed with the table rules, especially with the college kids. We don't explicitly appoint a Server. We don't require the adult children to ask permission to get up from the table if they need to get something during the meal. But the general principles remain: the meal begins and ends with prayer. No one leaves the table until the closing prayer is said. Our kids know this and respect it, and even our adult children ask to be excused if they need to leave the table early. (There have been a few times when they were younger that we were eating at someone else's house and our kids kept sitting, and sitting, and sitting, until I realized they were waiting for the closing prayer and dismissal.)

Also over the years, my husband has added another element to our meals: sharing time. There are some meals that are more hurried, so we don't always have sharing time, but we often do. Before the closing prayer, Dad goes around the table asking each person in turn: "Do you have anything to share?" Of course, there has been sharing up to that point. But maybe someone has something to share that he didn't get the opportunity to share earlier. This is his chance to do so while everyone is still present and listening.

There are times now when the college kids are away and Dad's schedule doesn't allow him to come home for supper that it's just me, Evan, and Grandma. Sometimes Evan and I eat at different times from Grandma, and especially when that happens we tend not to take as much time with the meal. I guess that's okay, since Evan and I still spend the majority of every day together, so there is plenty of time for sharing. We still always begin and end with prayer. But I need to make sure that as he grows up, we continue to cherish the family mealtime as we always have. I think the article is spot on. There are immeasurable benefits, not only to the family, but to the individuals in it, in making mealtime a focus of the family's life together. If it is not something you are doing in your own family, it's not too late to start. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 Reading Challenge

I can't believe I'm doing this. Seriously, I can't. In 2015 I will celebrate my eight-year blogiversary. In all that time, I have avoided any hint of anything remotely resembling a reading challenge. I have written here in the past about my struggles with reading. My former status as an English teacher notwithstanding, in the last 20 years (basically since becoming a mom) I have found it increasingly difficult to read material of serious length or depth, family readalouds excepted. I think the reasons are varied but primarily include motherhood-induced attention deficit as well as the advent of electronic communication and social media. Both have contributed to my declining ability to concentrate on anything at all for more than about thirty seconds, much less 350 pages.

The last few years, however, have seen an improvement in my ability to stick with and finish a book. I'm still not reading as much as I would like or as much as I used to, but I'm reading again. So against my better judgment I'm going to assign myself a reading list this year. Unlike some of my friends whose lists number 50 or more, I have decided to aim low: more than one book per month, but less than two. The list below consists of titles that have either been on my to-read list a long time or have been suggested or otherwise made known to me in the last few years. They are grouped by category.


1. Unbroken, Hillenbrand. Already started.

2. Night, Elie Wiesel

3. The Failure of Sex Education in the Church, Bartlett

4. The Eternal Woman, Gertrud von le Fort

5. The Seven Deadly Virtues, Hemingway et. al.

6. Orthodoxy, Chesterton

7. Studies in Words, C. S. Lewis

8. Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, Camille Paglia

9. My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman

10. Bondage of the Will, Luther

Children's literature:

11. The Princess and the Goblin, MacDonald

12. The Marvelous Land of Snergs, Wyke-Smith. "I should like to record my own love and my children's love of E. A. Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs." - J. R. R. Tolkien


13. Looking for Alaska, Green.

14. Les Miserables, Hugo. Backup plan if I hate Les Mis: Anna Karenina, Tolstoy. Backup plan if I hate Anna: nothing.

15. Alas, Babylon, Frank

16. Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton

17. The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury

18. Robinson Crusoe, Defoe

19. Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain. Or maybe Roughing It. Something by Twain.

20. Lord of the Rings, Tolkien. What can I say? Tried it many years ago, but didn't get through the first book. I am not a huge fan of fantasy. But so many of the people I love, love these books. I like the movies. I think I need to try the book(s) again.

In addition, 2015 is apparently the year of the re-read (who decides these things, anyway?) So to keep the reading gods happy, here are two re-reads, one that I loved and one I didn't.

21. A Wrinkle in Time, L'Engle. A childhood favorite.

22. Pride and Prejudice, Austen. I read it many years ago and didn't enjoy it enough to read any more Austen. But so many of my friends love Austen that I think I need to give Lady Jane another try. We always tell our kids they have to try the foods they don't like periodically because maybe their taste buds have changed. Well, maybe my reading taste has also changed. Or maybe I'll still not understand the passion some of you have for Austen. We'll see.

Also this year I will be getting my first ever review copy of a book! More on that later. And I hope to read my daughter's novel, but first she has to finish it. Disclaimer: I reserve the right to stop reading anything on this list if after giving it a fair chance I find it doesn't pull me in. Life is short. Books are aplenty. Reading should be a joy, not a chore. Besides, I'm not in school anymore and don't have to read anything I don't want to. So there.

Feel free to make suggestions for future reading lists, or additions to this list in case I get through it (miracles can happen!) and need more.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Of Monsters and Angels

At the suggestion of several people whose opinions I respect, I recently read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I have never read any of Gaiman's work before and wasn't sure what to expect. Initially I thought the book was going to be a psychological drama with an element of mystery but it didn't take long to realize that what I was reading instead was a no-holds barred fairy tale for adults. I wouldn't call the book an allegory, but if you enjoy allegory, fantasy, and tales with supernatural elements, I would recommend it. It is a fairly quick and easy read. I hasten to add that while several reviews I read suggested it is suitable for all ages, I strongly disagree. It is one very scary book, and there are several scenes that are definitely not appropriate for children.

I should clarify what I mean in calling the book easy to read. It is limited in narrative scope, focusing on a few characters primarily at a single point in time and space, and it is straightforwardly told. So it is easy in the storytelling sense. It is not, however, easy to pinpoint the book's meaning, and as a one-time English major I like to be able to do just that. So ever since I finished reading I have been trying to figure out what it all means, and here in non-spoiler fashion is what I have concluded (at least for now).

One of my favorite parts of the book occurs when the main character/narrator, who is seven years old at the time, has a conversation about monsters with his 11-year-old friend. (Monsters figure prominently in the book.) As they discuss the nature of monsters, Lettie, the 11-year-old, observes:

"Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't."

The conversation between the two continues as they discuss one of the adult characters whose behavior has been nothing short of monstrous:

I said, "People should be scared of Ursula Monkton." 

"P'raps. What do you think Ursula Monkton is scared of?"

"Dunno. Why do you think she's scared of anything? She's a grown-up, isn't she? Grown-ups and monsters aren't scared of things."

"Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters. And as for grown-ups . . . . I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. . . . "

In my opinion this passage encapsulates what the book is about. As the story opens the narrator is an adult returning to the town of his childhood to attend a funeral; he is soon overtaken by the repressed memory of something terrible that happened when he was seven years old. The bulk of the book recounts that memory, which includes an epic battle against some pretty horrifying creatures. Therein lies the heart of the book. Throughout our lives we encounter monsters in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes they look like monsters; sometimes they don't. Sometimes we recognize them; sometimes we don't. But they are there, and in one way or another we are always battling them. If we are lucky we will have someone on our side helping us fight them. But we will always bear the scars of the various monsters we encounter, and it may take a long time for those scars to heal. Moreover, even when the battle is over and we have moved on, the memories have a way of calling us back and making us relive the entire ordeal. That is to be expected and is a necessary part of processing what has happened. That battle with the monster was real, and pretending it wasn't doesn't help. Acknowledging and facing it is part of the process of healing and moving on.

I am a Christian and as such tend to read everything through the lens of my faith. Neil Gaiman is not a Christian as far as I know, and neither is his book, but there are several themes in the book that rang true for me as a Christian. There is no doubt in this book that there is such a thing as evil and such a thing as good and that they are at war with each other in big and small ways. There is no doubt that there is more to the created world than what we see on the surface. And perhaps most important, there is something called love, and it is so powerful that it can lead one to sacrifice himself for the sake of another.

Here are a few more takeaways from the book that rang especially true for me:

Monsters are real, but they don't always look like what you might expect.
The same goes for angels.
Sometimes the people you most trust turn out to be monsters.
The monsters are afraid, too. Sometimes they don't even know they're monsters. They may even think they're doing good.
Help can come from the most unexpected places.
There is such a thing as evil. It is powerful, but good is more powerful.
Things are not always as they seem.
Much of life doesn't make sense, but every once in a while we are granted a moment of clarity, and it can strengthen us for the rest of the journey.

If you're looking for a book to get lost in for a few days, one that will capture your imagination and get you thinking about some of the Big Questions, you could do worse than The Ocean at the End of the Lane.