Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heroes for February: George Freidrich Handel

Just because it's his birthday. :)
And in the last days of his life, he wrote something that still fills my soul:

The last few days have been rather difficult as we received word that my mother-in-law's cancer has developed so rapidly as to be untreatable. She has weeks left to live, so she is coming home today and we will be spending as much time with her as we can.
Please pray for grace and strength for her and for all of us.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On this day in the history of Middle Earth (Heroes for February: J. R. R. Tolkien)

According to  the little “Today in history” gadget on my iGoogle page, today marks the anniversary of the departure of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship from the woods of Lorien.

I am so glad that something more interesting than 1971’s “Decimalisation of British and Irish coinage” and more heartening that 399 B.C.’s “Socrates sentenced to die” happened on this day...

Coincidentally, I had been planning to write a Tolkien post for tomorrow, but then, I didn’t know what an important day today was. I hope you can forgive me throwing off my schedule to honor the anniversary. :)

So, yes, it will be today that my full geekiness is revealed for you all. I can write in Elvish. I know the dwarvish runic alphabet called “Futhork.” According to The Hobbit Name Generator, my hobbit name is Peony Bleecker-Baggins of Fair Downs, and my self-determined Elvish name is Aldariel (it means “Tree Maiden”). If I had to choose a race, it’d be Rohan, hands down...but who wants to choose?

(I imagine standing on a stage in your underwear feels a little like it just did to reveal all that...)

Luckily, I’m not the only one with such a strange fascination. If you read Leonard Marcus’s brilliant book of interviews with fantasy writers, The Wand in the Word, you’ll see a running theme: Tolkien. I heard Mr. Marcus speak about this phenomenon at a conference. “The only writer who didn’t like The Lord of the Rings,” he said, “was Phillip Pullman. He also didn’t believe in God. I think--no, I’m sure, the two are related.”

Which leads us into a “secret” of Tolkien’s genius: he wrote about what he believed. He wrote his passions. He wrote about things that mattered to him, and thus matter to the world. He didn’t care that a fantasy steeped with myth and magic and made-up languages was not the trend. He wrote about what he loved, and the world came to love it with him.

He also practiced what he preached. Even with a work like that, he put his family first. He avoided the spotlight and preferred, hobbit-like, to spend his time in a garden or cozy pub. He was a thoughtful, generous, and honest friend. He passionately defended the oppressed, as when he wrote a letter to his German publisher, who had inquired if he was of Aryan descent:

“But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject—which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”

All of this aside, the single reason I am most grateful to Tolkien is this: Eowyn. You just don’t get better than that when it comes to girl power, whatever the idiots, er, misinformed people who claim Tolkien was anti-woman say. (Did they read the last book??) She has become a  sort of standard for me, to hold my own heroines up against. There’s a scale, you see, with Eowyn on one end and Bella on the other...(Just kidding, just kidding...)

I hope my fellow Tolkien fanatics enthusiasts will come out of the woodwork and share what you love about him, too! (Please...because it’s getting cold on this stage...;) 
Now, as Galadriel would say, Namárie! (Farewell!)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Heroes for February: Madeleine L'Engle

Have you ever been asked that tried-and-true interview question: “If you could have dinner with any person from history, who would it be?”

While Julia Child always pops into mind at mention of the word “dinner,” at the top of my real list is Madeleine L'Engle. I could skip the dinner in fact, because I'd be so busy asking questions and listening that I wouldn't have time for chewing and swallowing.

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time. It's hard to imagine what I'd be writing had that book been rejected a few more times (it was turned down by the first 27 editors who saw it!) because there are few books that have become so much a part of how I think and how I see the world.

I've never connected with a character as I did with Meg Murray. I read her story when I was ten years old, in the midst of becoming more self-aware as a person. I had come to the realization that I was a very flawed person, and there were times when I found it difficult not to dislike myself. I had a fiery temper and a stubborn streak that was penned across me in wide-tipped permanent marker. I was trying to be better, but I failed more often than I succeeded. Enter Meg. A character who did not so much overcome her failings as learn to use them. Her temper and stubbornness saved the world, because she learned that they were part of her and that she could master them instead of letting them master her.

Since I've “grown up,” fiery temper and stubborn streak still intact—though, well, tempered—I've found more and more to love about Meg's creator. After reading Walking on Water, I discovered a friend who shared my ideas about art and life and faith, and who deepened my understanding of them. Now whenever I'm down about my writing or about the world, I turn to that book and always find encouragement. I recommend that you read the entire thing if you haven't already, but to whet your appetite I'll leave you with a few of the lines to which I most often turn:

“Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.”

“But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.”

“We don't want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don't want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Heroes for February: Corrie ten Boom and Margaret Clitherow

Today I'd like to introduce you to two of my heroes who have influenced not the way I write, but the way I try to live. Though divided by countries and centuries, they have a lot in common...

You may be familiar with Corrie ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place. During the Nazi occupation of Holland, she and her family harbored Jews in a secret room in their home—saving the Jews, but landing themselves in prison. Ever since I first read her story, I've been amazed by this woman's courage, faith and ability to face trial with a sense of humor. It forces you to rethink the way you live, where you place your priorities...and to remember to smile even when the world is in a shambles.

And speaking of “shambles,” that word originally referred to a street in Yorkshire, England, where the madly arranged Tudor buildings create a picturesque disarray. This street was the home of my other hero for today, Margaret Clitherow. In the reign of Elizabeth I, when any Roman Catholics who tried to practice their religion were executed, Margaret hid priests in a secret room in her home. Even before this was discovered, she had been arrested several times for failure to attend the Church of England services, and had used her time in solitary confinement to teach herself how to read and study. When it was discovered, she was sentenced to one of the worst deaths allowable by law: being slowly crushed under a door weighted down with hundred of pounds of rocks. While she was being led out to her death, she made her fellow prisoners laugh by making shadow pictures of gallows on the cell wall. That's what I call putting things in perspective.

The lessons both these women taught me: Be fearless in protecting the persecuted. And remember to smile.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Heroes for February: L. M. Montgomery

In the U.S., February is a month in which we remember several of our country's heroes, so I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this blog for a month to writing about several of mine.

One of the first heroes that comes to mind and heart is Lucy Maud Montgomery. I think if I had to choose one author that most influenced my decision to be a writer, it would be she. Because I could go on ad infinitum about the reasons why, I'll try to put together a little list here to limit myself:

1. Anne of Green Gables. As one of the first “thick” books I ever read, it has a special place in my heart. It taught me more about character development than any book on writing I've ever read. And it provides an example to live up to in creating a story with an emotional heart.

2. Gilbert Blythe, Hilary Gordon, and Teddy Kent. L. M. Montgomery's heroes showed me that real men treat women with respect and affection, do great things with the time given to them, and aren't afraid to recite poetry in public. This certainly shaped the heroes I create...and I think it had more than a little to do with the standard I set for finding a husband. (Incidentally, one of the most heart-stopping love letters I ever received was the one in which Mark told me how much I reminded him of Anne Shirley...luckily I didn't have to break a slate over his head to get his attention.)

3. Her perseverance. At the time Maud Montgomery set out to be a writer, the world was not as accepting of women writers as it is now. Still she set her eyes on her goal and achieved it....despite the fact that she received rejection after rejection for her poetry and short stories, and even Anne of Green Gables was turned down four times.

4. Her journals. Has anyone else read them? Amazing.

5. Emily of New Moon and its sequels. There is very little about this “trilogy” that I don't like, but I think the scene I consider most is Mr. Carpenter's deathbed, where he gives Emily some of the best writing advice you'll ever find:

“…Never write to please anybody but yourself… No use trying to please everybody. No use trying to please critics. Live under your own hat. Don’t be led away by those yowls about realism. Remember—pine woods are just as real as pigsties—and a darn sight pleasanter to be in.... Don’t tell the world everything. That’s what’s the matter with our literature. Lost the charm of mystery—and reserve…Beware of italics.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

Life, death, and Joyce Kilmer

Last year, I read the essays and letters of one of my favorite poets, Joyce Kilmer. The most moving of these were the ones he wrote to his friends and family while he was in France, fighting in the first world war. Besides the touching love and affection for his family, his courage in the face of death, and his deep faith, the thing that I remember most from these letters is his many mentions of the book he was going to write when he came home. He thought about it often, was planning it and thinking about it while he suffered through the atrocities of war. He never came home to write it, however, because he died bravely in battle on July 30th, 1918.

Please forgive me for a somber topic, but somber topics are on my heart of late. Life, death, how we live, and how we die... My mother-in-law, Nancy Hough, has just been diagnosed with advanced cancer. She is often in a great deal of pain, and, while the prognosis changes with the results of each test, we have been told we need to hope for a miracle.

Nancy, who we know as “Mama,” is a writer and an artist. She, like Joyce Kilmer, may never have the chance to finish the book that she has been working on and thinking about for years. But, like that other poet, she has faith that our work does not end with this life. She believes that we are children of God, and are made to praise him in this life and the next. It is important to remember, for those of us who have a longer time left in this waiting room of earth, that the work we can accomplish now is only a shadow of what we will accomplish in heaven. If art is a way to praise God on earth and share in his act of creation, there is no reason to believe that it will cease in heaven—rather, there is much reason to believe that it will go on, perfected.

I wonder what masterful works of art Joyce Kilmer is creating in eternity. If I regret that he died before he finished the work he thought would be his masterpiece, it is because my own faith is weak. I think if he decided to descend from heaven to have a word with me, he might playfully smack my ear and say, “You fool! Why should you regret that my work can now be greater, clearer, and more beautiful than anything I wrote on earth? Don't you know how hard it was to write before? I'm glad I don't have to deal with that blasted writers' block anymore...”

Maybe Mama will get to read that masterpiece before I will. Maybe she will be able soon to create her own, unhampered by time and trials. Or maybe not. Like Kilmer, I believe that miracles happen. Sometimes God will show his might by healing the sick. And sometimes he will show his gentleness by giving us peace and surrounding us with love.

Please join me in praying for both.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

More on philosophies and ice cream

Just a couple links, actually.

If you, like me, want to "learn as if you'll live forever," you'll probably like this:
Open Culture site

And if you're seeking out more frozen deliciousness, go here to get your mouth watering:
Jeni's Ice Cream

Have a lovely Wednesday!