Sunday, January 28, 2007

Useful Mess

I was watching CBS News Sunday Morning today and saw a great piece Bill Geist did on the benefits of mess. He cited a new book called A Perfect Mess and used the offices of CBS reporters and producers to support the book's theory that there is such a thing as "useful mess."

The Barnes and Noble editors say of the book: "At long last, a retort to the neatniks! A Perfect Mess can be read as a sound rejoinder to all those "cut-the-clutter" arguments, but it serves a far deeper purpose than settling family tiffs over closet space. Columbia University management professor Eric Abrahamson and writing partner David Freedman have constructed a book about the beneficial implications of disorder in nearly every aspect of our lives. Their lively, anecdote-rich narrative draws on examples from business, parenting, cooking, retail, and politics. A heterodox thesis; a groundbreaking book."

Now given the state of my three offices (at home, at school, and in the classroom I now share), you can imagine that the piece at least piqued my interest. The publisher says "A PERFECT MESS will help readers assess what the right amount of disorder is for a given system, and how to apply these ideas onto a large scale--government, society-- and on a small scale--in your attic, kitchen, or office. A PERFECT MESS will forever change the way we think about those unruly heaps of paper on our desks." And Bill Geist's humorous approach to the subject helped me gain some perspective on the stress I usually feel on Sundays to gain control of the things I've not had time to do during the week.

If you're single and you work in a job that is anything but 9 to 5 as I do, it's difficult to keep a handle on household chores, never mind the clutter that naturally accumulates with every day living. By the sounds of it, though, there is help...or hope...on the horizon for people such as me. I think I just may head out to find that book and see for myself. Meanwhile, Geist closed his piece with this: "If, as Albert Einstein said, 'A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind.' Of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?"

Photos: Things I use to distract from the useful mess in my house: flowers, interesting dolls, bears, and funny cats. =)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Playa del Carmen, Peru, and some Pondering...

A few years ago, I went on a Mission Trip with our senior class to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a city about 45 minutes south of Cancun. Originally the town was established as a temporary place for workers to live while they built all the luxury hotels along the gorgeous Cancun beaches. These workers lived in poverty while they built exquisite hotels and mansions for the wealthy to party in. As the years passed, the temporary worker village became permanent and the worker huts became home to thousands.

I and two others took about 20 seniors to this now full-blown city to work mostly in the barrios surrounding our hotels. Beautiful restaurants and hotels lined the even more beautiful beach, while blocks away people lived in treated cardboard and stick huts with no electricity, water, windows or bathrooms.

Some of our group worked in the Red Cross clinic, some in the dental clinic, some built cement block churches, and some (my group) visited in the homes, bringing clothes and trinkets for the families and children.

The living conditions were shocking to most of our group. None of us could imagine living in such situations. And yet over and over our kids were struck with how happy everyone seemed to them. At the time, I thought our students were being a little naive. After all, why would anyone be happy in such conditions. If they were, it was only because they didn't know anything better.

It was the same thing I thought when, five years later, I took another senior class to Peru for a mission trip. Again, we saw people living in the most extreme poverty. One day we took a boat ride out to the middle of Lake Titticaca to the Indian tribe that live on floating islands (yes, they float). Now truly, I think those were the poorest living conditions I've ever seen. And yet we were totally charmed by them, they were so different from anything else we'd ever seen. But again, there was no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, just straw (reeds) and lake water. And the people seemed happy. Not being fluent enough in the language of these Pereuvians or the Mexicans, I was unable to have enough conversation to discover their happiness on any level. We only had their surface joy at meeting and mingling with us.

Looking at their faces, they seemed happy. Comparing their living arrangements to what we know, it didn't seem possible that they were content. Faces were chapped and burned to cracking. No shoes. Raggedy clothes. But beautiful smiles, loving personalities (I was kissed so many times by children with the dirtiest faces!).

The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere between the two extremes. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, "It is well, it is well with my soul." Put another way, there is something to be said for finding a way to be content with your situation in life, especially if you cannot change it (providing it is not dangerous or harmful to your life and health). Both times, my young friends left those impoverished places with a new respect for their own lives, but also a healthy suspicion of the dangers of materialism. They questioned their need for things after seeing so many seemingly happy people who did without what we consider necessities.

That's not the reason we go to such places for mission projects, necessarily, but I do think it's an added wind up appreciating your blessings but also realizing that there can be happiness with less...far less.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Read Any Good Books Lately?

That was the title of our sermon this week. When I saw it in the bulletin I had to smile, I just couldn't help myself. That's one of my favorite questions to ask...and to answer. I always have something to say to that, and am always interested to hear what others say.

The pastor chronicled his love affair with the written word as he told of evenings as a child, sitting around the fire, listening to mom read; of the excitement of getting his first library card when got older and of trips to the library to stock up on reading material for the week; of the joy of finding a good book at Good Will or a used book store. He talked of the floor-to-ceiling stacks of books in his study, of the need to read every night in bed before falling asleep. He talked of the wild rush of first hearing beautiful poetic works like William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis and of the appreciation he had for those who urged him to make their acquaintance. Do you remember, he asked, where you were when you first heard those words "So live, that when thy summons comes to move to that mysterious realm where each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death, thou go not, like the quarry slave at night, scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams."? [I do. I first learned them in 11th grade. I've never forgotten them, nor had to relearn them. When I teach American Lit. I make my students learn them, too.]

All that I know and identify with. There is nothing like a good book, in my mind...unless it's talking to others about that same good book. I, too, have cherished memories of cuddling in front of the fire while listening to one or the other of my parents reading to us, or of the books my grandmother read to my cousin, my sisters and me on our annual summer visits to her home. A Spy in Williamsburg, Litling of Gaywood, the Little House books, Anne of Green Gables, and so many more. My introduction to the library was a Book Mobile that visited our neighborhood weekly before I was even in school. It would stop just outside our house and we'd run down to trade in last week's books for new ones. And then discovering Lois Lenski at the public library and taking boxes of books on vacation to while away the hours riding in the car.

I love going into a book store--used, independent, or (sorry) chain (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks, etc.)--and just walking by the tables and looking at titles, smiling to see the hundreds of books I've already read, greeting them as if they were long-lost friends (they are!). I love giving books to others, knowing they, too, will make new friends with my friends. I love teaching a good book and hearing my students say, sometimes grudgingly, that was a good book.

Of course my own home is crowded with books. Everywhere you look, there's a pile of books, or a wall of books. I love when my nieces or sisters come over and just stand in front of the book shelves looking for a "good book to read." Lately I've been sharing Elizabethan books with my oldest niece. She fell in love with the Renaissance period in our English Literature class together last year (I taught it). And my other niece loves the same mystery series on Egyptian archeology that I enjoy. As long as there are books, we will always have common ground.

There really is nothing like a good book! And yes, I've read many good books lately. How about you?

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Library Restaurant and Writers on a New England Stage

I took my mother out to dinner last night in a beautiful restaurant in Portsmouth, NH. She lives about 45 miles from there and I'm about an hour away, so it was a nice half-way meeting place. The real reason we were town was to attend a lecture by a favorite author of ours, Anita Diamant. But we thought we might as well make a full evening of it. Hence, the dinner prior to the "real" event.

In searching out places "within walking distance" (of which there were many), I saw "The Library Restaurant" and knew we had no choice but to go there. I was even more intrigued when I went to the website and read its history:

"The Rockingham House occupies the site of the home once owned by Judge Woodbury Langdon. When this mansion was built in 1785, it was one of the most handsome brick houses in New England. It was first opened to the public as a hotel on Nov. 1, 1833 by Thomas Coburn. Frank Jones became the owner of the Rockingham in 1870 and greatly enlarged it. In 1884, there was a disastrous fire which destroyed all but the octagonal dining room. Mr. Jones rebuilt the hotel around this room, sparing no expense. His payroll for the project was more than the entire Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Much of the Rockingham's original elegance and grandeur has been well preserved, and it is still very much in evidence. The most significant historic event to take place at the Rockingham was the signing of the Russo-Japanese Treaty on August 8, 1905, for the press. Just a few of the noteworthy personages who have eaten or stayed at the Rockingham include presidents George Washington, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Chester Arthur, William Taft and John F. Kennedy." And now, my mother and me!!!

As we are vegetarians, and we really were there for the ambiance more than the food, we ordered several of the sides and a salad. Those and an incredible strawberry cheesecake more than satisfied us. Then, it was on to the Music Hall for the icing on the cake, as it were.

Anita Diamant--author of The Red Tent, Good Harbor, and The Last Days of Dogtown--was the speaker for the evening. As her work mostly appeals to women, the audience was largely women. Only a handful of men had the "courage," as she put it, to come. Speaking about her writing process, Anita held her audience captive, hanging on every word. She was witty, funny, charming, fascinating. When she finished her talk, the host of New Hampshire Public Radio interviewed her and presented questions from the audience. In all, it was a wonderful evening.

The Red Tent is the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, found in Genesis 35. The story is just a few verses long there, so Anita's work is more a product of her imagination than anything else. Still, it is a real as if Dinah had left a detailed diary behind for all to read. I could not put the book once I started it. And I did not want it to end. That, in my mind, is the sign of a good book!

Good Harbor is a contemporary work set on the North Shore of Massachusetts at a beach my family has often visited. I like reading books about places I know, so this book caught my attention for that reason first. Well, perhaps the author's name was the first reason. So, second. Anyway, this was another attention-capturing work exploring "the lives of modern women, considering the precarious balance of marriage and career, motherhood and friendship."

I've yet to read her most recent book, The Last Days of Dogtown, but I now can't wait to read the copy I purchased for my mother--after she finishes it, of course. It was this work that Anita mostly talked about. It is, according to her, "set in the early 1800s in rural Massachusetts. In it, I set out to imagine the lives of people who have been left out of history: the poor, widows and spinsters, orphans, New England Africans - both enslaved and free. Marginal and voiceless, these folks fascinate me because so little is known about them."

Anita Diamant lives not 15 miles from me. I've been reading her column in the Boston Globe for years. To hear her speak was not only interesting, but inspiring. I am hoping that inspiration will drive me to action to write something substantially more than the little pieces I do each week. Someday, I will just need to stop everything else and just do it!

Next up, Cokie Roberts. This time my dad will join my mother and me to hear yet another favorite writer of ours. This was our first experience with Writers on a New England Stage, but I am betting we'll be back for more than just these two now that we have enjoyed our first taste.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Content of our Character

One of my favorite works of literature to teach is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. We usually hear all, or parts of, it at least once a year around this time—the time of his birthday. I’ve studied and taught this speech many, many times, and each time I do, I hear/learn something new and important. This year, I’m not teaching freshmen or American literature, which is where I teach the speech, and I missed it. So I thought I’d do my annual musing here this year instead. My favorite part is nestled in the several lines that begin with the phrase that gives the speech its familiar moniker: “I have a dream.” You know how it goes. King is talking about his vision for a dramatic change in the way we treat each other, the way we look for quality in our fellow human beings. He says that he has a dream that one day his four little children will be “judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”

The content of their character. Maybe because one of the things I try to do is teach character, but those words all but jump out at me. There are so many implications for us in that little phrase. First of all, it demands that we look beyond the surface when we look at each other. It says that superficial qualities are not what’s essential in a life. It implies that we need to be more like God, looking at the heart rather than at the outward appearance, the color of one’s skin. That much is obvious, I think. What may not be as obvious, but which is equally important, if not more so, is how imperative it is that there is something of quality inside to see if and when others get beyond the surface. In other words, Character Counts. The quality of our character counts. If we want people to see and know us for what we are inside, shouldn’t what’s inside be worth seeing and knowing? A rhetorical question, I think. The answer has to be “Yes.” But it’s not so academic or easy to actually accomplish. And yet, it’s something that we absolutely must accomplish if we want our lives to be the best of times instead of the worst of times. And we need to get it done right now.

In Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen, (another literary work I love to teach and share) Reuven’s father talks with his son about making his character count and the importance of doing it now. He says “Human beings do not live forever. We live less time than it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So—you may ask what value is there to a human life? There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? Actually, the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the person who lives that span—that person (you)—is something. You can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? You must fill your life with meaning; meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning.”

So. What kind of meaning do you think you are supposed to fill your life with? The Bible has a number of answers for us. You’ve probably heard them many times, in Sabbath School, in church, in worships, in sermons. Maybe even in some of the books you read. All of those answers take us back to Jesus, though, to putting Jesus first in our lives. In Matthew 10:24, 25, Jesus is in the midst of a conversation with his disciples. He’s been showing and telling them about the meaning of discipleship throughout the book of Matthew, and here, he brings us to the crux of the matter. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master.” Jesus’ statement implies that His disciples need to be like Him. In essence, Jesus and Mr. Malther are saying the same thing, that as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we must fill our lives with meaning, that we must make our characters count.

But it takes time and effort to fill our lives with meaning. And listening—LOTS of it. It takes doing things we may not think are enjoyable . . . but doing them anyway because it’s the right thing to do. It means realizing that we are responsible for our words and actions —that there are risks involved in being a part of humanity—and consequences too. It means being honest with others, but more importantly with ourselves. It means being vulnerable—to hurt, yes, but also to life—and to friendship and the wonderful strength that it can bring to our lives. “If you cannot do these things,” Mr. Malther tells his son, “your life has no depth, no value. Merely to live, merely to exist—what sense is there to that? A fly also lives.”

The apostle Paul has a lot to say about the meaning we should fill our lives with, about the content of our characters. In 1st Corinthians 13 he suggests that we need to be patient and kind, that we should not be envious or conceited, that we should not be rude or easily provoked. He says we should think no evil, and should not rejoice when others are in trouble. In Galatians 5 he reminds us that if the Holy Spirit is directing our lives, we will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In Philippians, he tells us that we should fill our minds with whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, good, virtuous, and praiseworthy. And in Colossians 3, he tells us to demonstrate tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience towards others. He says we should bear with one another, forgive one another, love one another and let the peace of God rule our hearts. He says to be thankful, to teach and encourage one another, and to sing with grace in our hearts.

So, there you have it. As you go through your busy days, I would like to suggest that you slow yourselves down a minute—long enough to examine the direction you are racing in. Look at your lives. Is there quality in you that you can be proud of? Is there meaning to your present—and direction to your future? See if there isn’t anything you can do to make yourselves the best you can be. With God’s love and protection, and the encouragement of friends and family, how can you help but find meaning in your life—and add quality to all who meet you?!

To close, I’d like to go back to a quote I shared a week or so ago—I have it posted next to my computer to remind myself each day of the only way I can fill my life with meaning so that others will judge me by the quality of my character rather than anything else they may notice about me. It comes from M. L. Haskins’ book The Desert and it says this: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand in the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Uncle Tom's Needlework

My father's uncle was an artist...but not in the typical way I think of a man being an artist. I don't know of anything else he created aside from this one piece, but it's a masterpiece, at least in my mind. For as long as I can remember, the picture hung in my father's parent's home. When they had to leave their home in the Catskills Mountains and come live with my parents, the picture came with them and was hung over the fireplace in the room they shared there.

When first one, then the other passed away, my parents gave the picture to my sister who had it over her fireplace until three years ago when my parents moved from their home of nearly 30 years back to Maine. The picture now hangs over the sofa in their living room.

What's so interesting about the needlework is that it is a contracted view of two places very important to him: his home and the family church. I used to look at it and wonder what the real places looked like. Then a year and a half ago, I saw for myself. The home has the most incredible view I can imagine for a home...on the side of a mountain looking down on a lake. The church is one of those beautiful old family churches crammed full of history. Now, when I look at the needlework, I see so much more than amazing craftsmanship...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Louisa May Alcott

I have long loved Louisa May Alcott as an author. I've been reading her books for as long as I can remember. Way back into grade school years, I was reveling in the stories of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy along with Rose and Polly, Jack and Jill, and all the rest. As I got older, I was introduced to the "other" LMA books: Moods, Work, and her more sensational works. And within the past few years, some of her very early stories have been republished as single books. I have read all of them and enjoyed them equally as well...albeit differently from the beloved books.

Having lived in Massachusetts for most of my life, and much of that time within 20 minutes of Orchard House, I have visited the place numerous times. What I appreciate about it is that the tour is never the same. They are always changing it up, depending on the time of year and the audience. It's one of my favorite places to take friends who are readers.

Recently (December 29), I visited Orchard House with my cousin Penelope and her daughter Zoe. What fun it was to go through a place quite familiar to me with a young girl, new to Little Women! Zoe was so interested in the tour, asking a number of "good questions" and just enjoying the experience of being in a place she'd read about. I loved that!

As usual, the gift shop snared me and I was forced to buy yet another Alcott book, this time the definitive biography written by Madeline Stern more than 50 years ago. Now, I thought I knew a lot about the Alcotts in general and Louisa in particular. But from the get-go, I was learning all kinds of new things. For example, I had no idea that the family lived in other places in Harvard/Still River besides Fruitlands. I did not know that Louisa loved to play on Bare Hill Pond, a place I once knew well myself!

I'm not saying that I'm star-struck about having walked where she walked, having gone swimming where she and her family had...quite possibly from the exact place I did, back in my early college years. Not exactly. But I am...well, surprised. One of my favorite places to watch a sunset is Prospect Hill, a place she, too delighted in.

My discovery today, in trying to research the Still River days, was that Jack and Jill is set there in Harvard/Still River!!! Now, I have to go back and read that book with my own visual context for it. When I read it as a child, I still lived in Ohio and had no real-life setting to place the story in. Now I do. I expect the experience to be quite different!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

At the Gate of the Year

One of my favorite poems to read around the beginning of the new year was written almost 100 years ago by Minnie Louise Haskins, the author of The Desert. It was made famous when
George VI quoted it at the end of a broadcast he made during one of the darkest hours for England in World War II.

At the Gate of the Year

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

And he replied,
'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.

So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife of things
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention."

'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!' I just love that! I first saw those lines in the town newspaper that I used to write for (my hometown paper actually). We had an artist on staff, and she chose those lines to illustrate one year. I loved it so much that I made an enlargement of it for the bulletin board in my classroom.

It is my prayer that you will put your hand into the hand of God and find light and safety as you go your way in this new year.