All, Bookworm, Faith

Book Recommendation: “Dear Mr. Knightley”

Gifts come in diverse places and forms. They can be large or small. They can have life-altering consequences or maybe provide a temporary lightness of heart.

An unassuming, easily overlooked gift arrived in my life a couple weeks ago. I was at the library hurriedly searching for a new story, scanning some of the authors a good friend of mine had suggested but nothing was piquing my interest. I said a quick prayer– yes, I prayed for Jesus to help me find a good book. He cares about all our concerns even those as seemingly insignificant as checking out a book at the library. Finally, I decided to look for another of my friend’s suggestions: Dear Mr. Knightley.

I went over to one of the search computers, typed in the title and, lo and behold, Dear Mr. Knightley was available at that library branch, no request necessary. Thank You, Jesus!

Oh my gosh! I devoured that book. It felt like finding a new friend. And I am now currently re-reading it. 🤓

Though a bit of my initial enthusiasm has waned on a second reading, it’s a book I will likely re-read again in the future.

Dear Mr. Knightley is a well-written, engaging Christian romance/fiction. The characters have some depth and dimension to them and have believable development and growth. Moreover, if the title didn’t give you a clue, this novel is brimming with references to classic English literature (Mr. Knightley is the hero in Jane Austen’s Emma).

Don’t be wary of its Christian classification. It does not brow beat you or preach at you. Rather, it’s through the faith, goodness, and love of some of the characters that the heroine begins to believe in God’s love for her.

Written by Katherine Reay, it is a re-telling of the 1912 story, Daddy-Long-legs by Jean Webster (which is now on my to-read list, haha.)

Samantha Moore, the main character, has had a difficult childhood – abusive parents, in and out of foster homes. She’s now in her early twenties and endeavoring to find her place in the world and to take ownership of her life.

She loves reading and writing (to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables: I think she’s a kindred spirit!) and is attending graduate school for journalism through the financial support of her anonymous benefactor, the mysterious Mr. Knightley. The only condition for the arrangement is that she must write him letters describing her life and her progress in school. Hence, the book’s narrative takes the form of letters penned by Samantha to the mysterious Mr. Knightley.

Reay writes in the afterword that this is a story about forgiveness. Which is true. Samantha states decidedly at the beginning of the story that she does not forgive. However, by the conclusion, she is faced with a life-altering opportunity to forgive, and the painful growth she has undergone may enable her to assent to doing so.

Another motif of the novel is “unwarranted and undeserved” grace, as Samantha’s mentor Father John describes, and the choices we make to accept or reject that grace.

Samantha must accept and acknowledge the wrongs committed against her as well as her own sins and shortcomings and consciously strive to do better. She must give and receive second chances.

Then, of course, there is Samantha’s love life. This brings me to another element of the story: the various types of love.

True, constant love of any variety is something basically foreign to Samantha. She always has used her affinity for literature and its characters as a means to hide and to hold people at arm’s length, actually quoting stories to evade revealing her own thoughts and feelings.

Now, as she begins to blaze a path forward, she must learn to offer and accept love in a healthy way and in a variety of scenarios: to parent/mentor figures, to friends, and to potential romantic love interests.

One of my favorite relationships in the book is between Samantha and Kyle, a teenage foster kid for whom Samantha plays the role of mentor. Yet this mentorship blossoms into a true friendship, and Kyle is the catalyst for an event that brings major healing both to him and to Samantha.

The primary love story, which I won’t spoil, involves a handsome young novelist and is refreshingly clean in this “too-much-information” culture in which we dwell. It has its fairy tale elements, but it also has a lot of reality as two struggling, striving people find friendship and eventually love.

Samantha is relatable to me in many ways. From her physical description (tall brunette), to her proclivity for reading and writing, to her feeling of disorientation and being behind the curve in some areas of life. Our childhoods were not remotely similar, but there is much in Samantha that I think many twenty-somethings can find appealing.

Another perk to this book is the rich reference made to classic literature. It has re-awakened my interest in reading some stories which I haven’t picked up in a long time and in delving into some new ones as well (like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South).

Of course, after reading Dear Mr. Knightley, I wanted to read more of Reay’s work. Accordingly, I checked out The Bronte Plot, also filled with literary references, coming of age, and finding forgiveness. I definitely plan to read more.

As I said at the opening, gifts come in surprising packages sometimes. And though I am always truly grateful for books and stories, finding this new golden nugget felt like a God-wink, a little gift that popped up just when I needed it.

If you’re looking for a breezy summer read that also has heart, I hope you pick it up and enjoy!

Happy Reading!📖☺️

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All, Culture/Life

Celebrating “Old Glory”

The older I grow, the more I love patriotic holidays. Lucky for me, today, June 14th, the country has double the celebration because it’s the U.S. Army’s birthday and Flag Day! 🇺🇸

In honor of this double dose of festive patriotism, here are some fun facts about the Army and Old Glory!

1.) The Army is America’s oldest fighting force, even older the the country itself! Military.com tells us that it was founded by the Second Continental Congress in 1775 in order to protect the 13 original colonies’ freedom. That means that today is the Army’s 243rd Birthday! 🎂🎉We salute all our soldiers and all members of the military! God bless you, one and all!

2.) The American flag’s 13 red and white stripes represent the 13 original colonies while the stars represent all the states in the Union.

3.) Though it is unclear as to the precise reason why the colors of red, white, and blue were selected to adorn the flag, the Congress of the Confederation chose the same trio of colors for the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 for the following representative purposes. Red symbolizes valor and hardiness, white represents purity and innocence, and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice. (Source: ushistory.org.)

4.) Betsy Ross is credited with sewing the first American flag though it is unclear whether this is actual history or legend. Fun fact: in second grade, I did a project on Betsy Ross, complete with a written book report on a children’s biography about Ross and an in-class presentation for which I was dressed up as our patriotic heroine and distributed graham cracker flag cookies that my Mom had made! 😋

5.) The flag derives its nickname “Old Glory” from Captain William Driver, who seeing the flag unfurl on his ship as he was leaving on a voyage in 1831, exclaimed, “Old Glory!” (Source: ushistory.org)

6.) The American flag should not be allowed to drag on the ground. There are also numerous other guidelines for properly and respectfully displaying and disposing of flags. Google them!

7.) According to Wikipedia, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day, and National Flag Day was established by an act of Congress in August 1946.

8.) The lively, patriotic march “You’re a Grand Old Flag” was written by George M. Cohen in 1906 for his musical George Washington, Jr. (Source: Wikipedia).

9.) Today is also President Trump’s birthday! Whether you like him or not, it’s pretty appropriate that an American president was born on Flag Day.

In case these fun American history tidbits whet your appetite for more information about the emblem of our great nation, do some research on your own. Today is the perfect day to start! And remember to be grateful for the blessings of liberty we enjoy (and take for granted) in our country and for those who’ve fought and died to secure that freedom!

Image credit: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=134882&picture=american-flag-grunge)
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All, Culture/Life

“Ride the hobbyhorse”: Thoughts on Understanding

You know that feeling when someone just gets you, gets your situation. No need to try to explain or to justify. That person understands. What a rush of relief! A burden lifted off your heart. An untying of the defensive knot in the pit of your stomach.

Quite the contrast to when someone looks quizzically at you or gives you a semi-blank stare and a perfunctory, polite response. That person doesn’t get it. And he or she is not really interested in trying to do so.

Two of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of understanding are as follows:

A mental grasp: comprehension”; “sympathy.”

Sometimes the former is not possible. We can’t always comprehend everyone and their individual circumstances. The majority of us cannot fathom the experiences of a military combat veteran. It’s hard for me to grasp the mentality of someone who goes through life without faith in God. Sometimes it’s hard for a family member or friend to understand a loved one who struggles with depression or anxiety. The list is endless.

However, when comprehension is absent, sympathy or maybe empathy can and should fill up the difference.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes,

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

One of my primary professors in college taught his students David Sanderlin’s concept of “riding a hobbyhorse” when writing a history paper. A “hobbyhorse” is someone’s individual perception or viewpoint of the world shaped by their unique experiences. We need to be aware of our own hobbyhorse as well as try to figure out the hobbyhorse of the author/historian whose work we are reading.

PC: http://www.reusableart.com/horse-images-22.html

Like with research, one can identify someone else’s hobbyhorse in real life while still maintaining the integrity of one’s own principles and viewpoint. Extending understanding to another person does not mean we must compromise what we hold to be right and true. It means we show respect to someone whose life experiences have been different than ours.

Understanding is something sorely lacking in today’s society and public discourse.

Everyone nowadays is labeled and pigeon-holed. Groups, demographics, identity politics. Us versus them.

We tend to be scared of what we don’t understand maybe because we’ve encountered something truly foreign to us or maybe because we’re apprehensive that it may challenge our thinking or lifestyle.

Racist. Bigot. Homophobe. Sexist. We hear these epithets thrown around on a daily basis in the media. Perhaps justifiably in some cases. Perhaps more often because we don’t want to admit that the situation or topic around which these ugly labels are used is complex and nuanced.

When we don’t understand a person or a situation or a way of thinking, we resort to petty mockery or personal criticism. We don’t debate an idea or a principle but go after a person. We let our emotions overpower our reason. We invoke flippant sarcasm or ad hominem attacks instead of intelligent wit and logical arguments.

We forget that understanding, whether comprehension or sympathy, is a gift we can give to another. If we can’t attain a “mental grasp,” we can still show sympathy. We can compassionately ask for that other person to share with us and we may find that our own understanding is expanded in the process. Maybe what we can share with that person will help him or her in return.

Whether we’re addressing a different way of thinking or trying to comprehend another person’s health struggle, it takes humility to admit, “I don’t understand, but I want to. Please explain it to me.”

Sanderlin offers this pearl of wisdom in Writing the History Paper,“We will never understand, much less learn from others, if we condemn them for not knowing what we know, rather than respect them for knowing what we do not know.”

We are all children of God. While we debate and hopefully endeavor to seek truth and the common good, we need to remind ourselves that we can all learn from one another.

Again, though he is referring to a study of history, Sanderlin offers sage advice when he states, “The historian strives to understand people in the past that he might better understand himself.”

Endeavoring to understand someone else’s viewpoint may lead us to a deeper gratitude for our own beliefs and life experiences or it maybe it will challenge us to approach some people and situations differently.

Offering support to someone living with with physical or emotional challenges can teach us to have greater patience and compassion and to learn to put someone else’s needs before our own.

We know how freeing and reassuring it is when understanding is extended to us. We need to pray and to strive to offer understanding to others in return.

All, Culture/Life

The Hero

I’m going to ask for your indulgence again when it comes to my attempts at poetry. This latest poem was partially inspired by a truly awesome opportunity I recently had. In March, the ballet company with which I dance put on a memorable outreach performance at a veterans care facility in my state. We performed a very poignant piece that’s set during WWII. It’s an audience favorite that whisks me away to a different time and place, and I feel so incredibly grateful to be a part of this beautiful tribute to our military, especially those of the WWII era.

After our mini show, we were able to greet many of the elderly veterans who had watched. The warmth of those interactions left a long-lasting imprint with us as dancers.

I have written about supporting the troops before, and the military has a special spot in my heart for numerous reasons. So without further ado, here is:

“The Hero”

There he marched,

Tall and straight,

Strength and vigor in his gait.

His uniform, starched and pressed,

American patriotism at its best.

His unwhiskered chin set like steel,

But a glance at his eyes

And one could feel

His fears and hopes and

Dreams delayed,

His home to defend,

The land of the brave,

Family and comrades whom he loved,

For whom he would fight,

Would shed his blood.

A girl, his sweetheart,

The love of his life,

He still prayed that

She would be his wife.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Wrinkled and weathered,

There he sat,

A twinkle in his eyes,

And on his lap

Lay a faded veteran’s cap.

His trembling hand

Reached out for mine.

His grip secure,

Undiminished by time.

I could picture him,

Young and strong,

Filled with devotion, mischief,

And charm,

His deportment upright,

But his smile,

Roguishly warm.

Now his grin grew wide

As he spoke of his bride

The girl he had once prayed to marry.

They had made a home

With kids of their own,

A life that was blessed

With joy, strife, and rest.

In his heart, her love

He’d always carry.

Then his eyes grew dim,

His mouth became grim

When he remembered

His fallen brothers.

His voice tight and quavering,

With loyalty unwavering,

His attention still upon others.

My heart, it glowed with love and pride,

Tears in my eyes could not be denied.

He thanked me for being there,

“No, thank YOU!” I cried.

While silently I offered a prayer

Of blessing and thanks to God:

“Oh, bless this hero

And all he gave

For the land of the free

And the home of the brave!”

(Image credit: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=134882&picture=american-flag-grunge)

All, Bookworm

“So Big”: It’s a Big Deal

Edna_Ferber
Edna Ferber

When I initially started writing this post back in the fall, I had recently re-read Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel So Big, which I first encountered in high school. This book is not only enjoyable, but it also arguably offers many profound lessons. Should one pursue worldly wealth or should one sacrifice and work for what is truly fulfilling and for which one has passion and talent? What is beauty and where do we find it? What is a true education? What is the value of living on and working the land versus living in a city? And what are the consequences of the choices we make about our life directions?

So Big is an important, multi-layered book, insightful in its look at cultural history and its philosophical questions about life. On top of all that, it is an engaging story with vivid, believable characters. Ferber doesn’t give the reader a tidy, “happily ever after” conclusion but rather a realistic one with one of the characters facing a moment of crisis and decision about what he will do in his life.

Set in rural Illinois and in Chicago from the late 1800’s to post-World War I, the reader witnesses the deracination of the culture with the Industrial Age and the accompanying generational shifts in people’s priorities and values as well as some of the disillusionment among the wealthy, “gilded youth” after the war.

The book takes its colloquial title from the game parents often play with their toddlers: “how big is baby? Soooo big.”  SoBig becomes the childhood nickname of the main character’s son and by the end of the book, the reader is left to wonder about the cost of being “sooo big” in the eyes of the world.

The story centers around Selina Peake Dejong, who is only nineteen when the action of the plot gets going.  Her father is loving and good-natured but he is a gambler by trade and tragically becomes the accidental victim of a fatal shooting.

He had instilled in Selina an appreciation for and love of beauty, and he had imparted this seminal piece of wisdom: “The more kinds of people you see and the more things you do and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living.” He told her that life is a grand adventure.

In order to support herself, Selina takes the position of school teacher in the bucolic, Dutch area of Illinois known as High Prairie. She is something of a fish out of water in the decidedly pragmatic and phlegmatic but welcoming community.  Yet, she accepts the challenges of her job and her new farm life as an adventure.

With her characteristic eye for beauty, she exclaims upon first sight that the cabbages grown by the Pooles (the family with whom she stays) are beautiful. Her reaction raises the mirth of all her new companions except for the Pooles’ twelve-year-old son, Roelf whose sensitive, artistic disposition contrasts with his family but finds a kindred spirit in Selina. Selina encourages Roelf’s artistic tendencies and loans him some of her classic literature to read.

Selina marries and settles on a High Prairie farm into a life she has never imagined for herself.

She has her fair share of hardships, including being widowed and having to raise her young son by herself, but she faces her trials squarely with poise, courage, intelligence, and creativity as she herself matures and grows as a person. She never loses her ideal of beauty but integrates it into all aspects of her life from how she runs her farm, to how she raises her son, to how she treats and views other people.

Even years after first moving to High Prairie, she still finds the cabbages beautiful. Ferber writes, “Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

Selina has a child-like curiosity and simple kindness about her that attracts other people to her and gives a luminosity to her eyes. Ferber makes a point of contrasting Selina’s eyes to those of Julie Arnold, Selina’s girlhood friend, who attains wealth and societal prestige and can afford all the latest cosmetics. Yet Julie’s eyes do not shine like Selina’s but remain dull despite make-up, perhaps illustrating that old adage that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Julie does not carry the same inner beauty that Selina possesses.

Selina is steady and steadfast, the “rock” of the story.

Her son Dirk is a different tale. Selina wants Dirk to have more opportunity than a farm life can proffer. She sends him to college where he decides to study architecture. This elates the beauty-loving Selina. However, away from his mother’s grounding influence, Dirk begins to stray from some of the values she held dear, even in how he treats those considered unpopular by the in-crowd.

When the Great War breaks out, Dirk gives up architecture for the more swiftly lucrative career of selling war bonds. He then transitions to banking when the war ends.

He falls into the restless, pleasure-seeking set of wealthy, gilded youth and their insipid, homogenous lifestyle, particularly that of his friend, the conniving and unhappily married Paula.

However, Dirk is ill-at-ease and Paula grates his nerves.

Selina, naturally, is concerned about her son and warns him not to betray beauty, saying that beauty may no longer be there when he decides he wants her. Basically, she is reminding him to take stock of his priorities and what he truly values personally and professionally.

Despite himself, Dirk finds that he is falling for a woman named Dallas, an unassuming, bohemian artist whose views on life are very similar to those of his mother Selina.

Dallas sizes up Dirk and decidedly gives him her opinion, and Dirk is left to accept the consequences of his life pursuits and choose in which direction he will turn.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. I don’t think it is as well-known nowadays as it should be. Its questions and conflicts are as relevant and timely today, if not more so, as they were one hundred years ago.

If you are looking for both a thought-provoking as well as engrossing read, check out So Big. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

All, Culture/Life, Faith

Laetare, Rejoice!!

Happy Easter!! Hallelujah!

One of my favorite aspects of the Catholic Faith is the extended celebration of Christmas and Easter.

The Catholic Church doesn’t confine these holidays to one day only but rather these feasts are assigned whole liturgical seasons. We can really revel and soak in the grace and joy of these marvelous days.

And this is completely fitting because the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are literally the most important events that ever have occurred or will occur in human history. No human words can adequately convey their magnitude.

They should fill us with uncontainable joy, gratitude, and hope for He has won our salvation.

We are now coming to the end of the Easter octave, eight days that liturgically are viewed as one day, namely, Easter Day! The Easter season then stretches until Pentecost Sunday, totaling fifty days altogether. #Catholicsknowhowtoparty 😉🎉

Fortunately, I have been on spring break from dancing and teaching this week following Easter Sunday, so this holiday has truly been a holiday for me. While I was driving on Monday, the thought hit me that a mere day after Easter so many people were having to return to their ordinary schedules of work and commitments. Yet we shouldn’t be ordinary in these extraordinary days! They should be filled with prayer and praise and celebrations!

However, in the midst of daily responsibilities and tasks, we can still strive to cling to Easter joy and hope and have our own moments of rejoicing, even within the quiet of our own hearts and minds.

This past weekend I attended the Easter Vigil, which St. Augustine called “the Mother of all Vigils.” I usually attend Easter Mass Sunday morning, but this year, I decided to attend the Saturday night vigil for the first time in a few years.

There are many ways to describe this remarkable liturgy: Sublime. Mysterious. Beautiful. Ancient. Joyful. Simple. Symbolic. Glorious. Hope-filled. Sacramental. Solemn. Exultant.

One of the most awesome parts is the lighting of the Paschal Fire, symbolizing the light of Christ that warms and illumines but doesn’t destroy. The Paschal Fire is an actual fire about the size of a small bonfire. The congregation proceeded out of the church and into the parking lot where a miniature wooden tower (for lack of a better word) was built. Our pastor began to read prayers and prepared the Easter candle to be kindled from the fire. Suddenly, a fiery arrow whizzed down a string from the roof of the church and the Fire ignited. I’m not sure if the flaming arrow is customary in other places/parishes but it is a mesmerizing and stirring sight to behold. I looked at the faces of the children in the crowd when all this was taking place. Wonderment was painted there. I felt it, too.

The church’s Easter candle was then lit from the fire and from that candle the small candles that all of us in the crowd were holding were enkindled. The light was passed from one person to another, never diminishing but growing as it was shared, reminding us that the light of Christ does not dim but only expands as we bring it to others.

We started out in a cold, dark parking lot but as soon as the fire and those candles were set ablaze the atmosphere suddenly was a bit warmer. It was a little easier to see. Just like sin and hardship can darken our lives and make things seem cold until we allow ourselves to stand in the warmth and light of God’s love and mercy.

Holding our tiny flames, the parishioners then returned to the church, which was in darkness. We listened to the sonorous intoning of the Easter Exsultet by one of the many priests con-celebrating the Mass as well as to various Scripture readings from the Old Testament. Prior to a reading from the New Testament and the proclamation of the Gospel, the Gloria was sung jubilantly to the accompaniment of music and the ringing of bells. This was the first time that singing had had musical accompaniment since the Gloria during Holy Thursday Mass two nights before. (This moment has even more of a build-up since the the only time the Gloria is sung at Mass between the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday and the Easter Vigil is on Holy Thursday and on a Solemnity like the feast day of St. Joseph.) As the Gloria progressed, the lights began to be turned on until the whole church was illuminated. It was an impressive and joyful moment!!

The priest who delivered the homily incorporated an Easter analogy from one of my favorite book series, The Lord of the Rings. For those of you unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent trilogy, I highly recommend it to you. Father spoke about the light of Galadriel (an Elven queen), and how she presented this phial of light to the hobbit Frodo as he was journeying to destroy the evil One Ring. It contained the light of a very special star, and when she gave this gift, she said, “May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.” So Father encouraged all of us to be that type of light to the world.

The Easter Vigil is also when new converts are welcomed formally into the Church and receive the Sacraments of Initiation. It is extremely moving to witness adults being baptized and confirmed! When this part of the vigil was completed and they turned to face the congregation, we applauded to welcome them home to the Faith. My cheeks hurt from smiling so hard. Later on in the Mass, many of them would receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time!!

From beginning to end, the Easter Vigil was a feast for the both the soul and the bodily senses!

It was such a hopeful moment to witness those adults choose Christ and His Church, choose to set themselves on the path of light and life. Especially nowadays when it is so easy to succumb to discouragement amidst the corruption and sorrow we recognize in ourselves, others, and society at large on a daily basis.

The challenge is to hold onto the message and promise of Easter joy and hope even when the Easter season has concluded. Christ has conquered sin and the devil. He has defeated sorrow and anxiety. He has vanquished darkness and death. We still must face adversity and trials in this life. We still must work daily to convert and to turn away from sin. But Jesus has won the ultimate victory and His grace and mercy are always there when we truly seek it!

He died and rose for everyone, every person who has ever lived or will live.

I wish all people could experience and believe in the message of Easter! Whether you are a believer or not, know that Jesus loves you. He died for you. And He desires you to know Him and His love.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.'” -John 11:25-26.

Happy Easter, friends! 😊

All, Bookworm, Culture/Life

The Healing Power of Play

Playing, imagining, creating. These are an integral and indispensable aspect of every person’s life and development, particularly as children.

As a child of the nineties, I grew up going to Toys R Us, and I feel a bit like I’m mourning the end of an era with the news of the toy stores’ closings around the country. It seems the chain is just the latest to succumb to the swiftly changing retail landscape, thanks in part to the internet.

Technology certainly has its beneficial uses for work and for recreation but, to me, it’s frightening just how pervasive and how profound is its influence when it comes to affecting people’s lives and well-being. Physical problems like back and eye ailments, increased loneliness, social isolation and bullying. All these adverse conditions are attributable at least partially to technology. Not to mention the stress of being accessible 24/7 through smart phones.

Technology has also impacted the realm of children’s play. Computer games, video games, TV shows and movies available anywhere and everywhere due to mobile devices and in-car screens. Yet, more and more, it is being recognized that children’s screen time needs to be monitored and limited.

But this is not a post bashing all technology. I mean I’m typing this commentary on a smart phone for goodness’ sake.

Rather, it’s an invitation to remember and maybe try to re-capture some of your natural childhood wonder and imagination.

The Broadway musical “Finding Neverland,” which tells the story of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, has a whimsical but thought-provoking song that asks:

“Can you remember back when you were young?/When all the simple things you did were so much fun/ You got lost somewhere along the way/You’ve forgotten how to play, every single day.”

It’s refrain declares, “The world is so mysterious and wild/when you start to see it through the eyes of a child.”

PC: https://www.disneyclips.com/imagesnewb/peterpan3.html
PC: disneyclips.com

Back in February, my ballet company hosted a Father/Daughter Valentine’s Day event, which included the dancers teaching a simple dance to the dads and daughters.

In one section of the dance, the parents and children formed a “tunnel” with their hands and all the couples passed under it. You can imagine the giggles and gleeful expressions this elicited when the six-foot-plus dads tried to squeeze through with their tiny pre-school and elementary age daughters.

Yet, as I was watching and directing, it struck me that I was seeing looks of authentic happiness on the faces of these dads. They were genuinely having fun. And what were they doing? Dancing. Playing. Creating a memory that did not involve a cell phone or a screen.

Earlier this year, I was reading the story of a ballet to young students whom I teach, and I noticed their intent attention to the illustrations and the comments and questions they shared. It made me remember just how enjoyable such a simple activity like studying a picture can be.

Lately, I’ve been on a kick of re-discovering and reading classic children’s books. I’m slowly making my way through the Little House series. I re-read Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryand Shilohfor the first time since third grade. I’ve even re-read some of my favorite picture books from childhood.

In a world that is overly-technological, morally confused and is continually feeding us disquieting headlines, I think we could all use a healthy dose of child-like wonder in the little moments and opportunities for fun throughout the day. That doesn’t mean we shirk our responsibilities or ignore realities. But we don’t let our duties or technology or our worries overwhelm our capability for the simple joys that are offered to us every day.

Allowing ourselves to remember and experience those innocent realities of childhood- the fun of laughing, of using our imagination, of playing a game, or maybe even re-reading some of those classic or favorite children’s books- can be an excellent antidote to the ubiquitous stress and hustle-bustle of daily schedules and commitments. I really believe it can be healing, refreshing, and reassuring for one’s mind and spirit.

So un-plug from social media for a day or a week. Don’t allow yourself to check your email for an evening.

Use your leisure time to actually be leisurely-which is different from being idle- and enjoy your life, your friends, your children, your family.

In the words of Walt Disney,

“Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age. And dreams are forever.”

All, Culture/Life, Faith, Tales from the Tutu Side

A Lesson from the Little Drummer Boy

This past Sunday was the first day of the liturgical season of Advent, a special time in which we prepare to remember and celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas as well as to welcome Him anew into our lives and hearts. It also serves as a reminder that we will meet Him one day face-to-face and that He will judge the world at the end of time.

One of the primary points of the homily during Mass this past Sunday was the obligation we have to use our gifts and talents for the glory of God and as a means of preparation for His coming. The priest said that God has given us these gifts for the specific day and age in which we live. And we must use our talents to build up the Church and the world.

Later that day the thought occurred to me that the Christmas song The Little Drummer Boyexemplifies this message.

The impoverished Little Drummer Boy wants desperately to give a gift to the newborn Christ Child but has nothing of material value to offer, so he plays his drum, that is, he uses his talent for the baby Jesus. His simple offering of music in love pleases the Baby Who smiles at him in return. His offering of the intangible talent is his gift.

I think we can learn something of extraordinary value from this gentle Christmas carol. A lesson succinctly summed up in the following quote:

“Our talents are the gift that God gives to us. …What we make of our talents is our gift back to God.”

-Leo Buscaglia

The Bible says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” -Colossians 3:17

I think it’s easy to downplay or discredit our skills and gifts as unimportant or to disassociate them from our spiritual and religious lives. Or we can wrongfully use our talents primarily as a means of self-gratification and aggrandizement.

The truth is God wants us to discover, to nurture, and to build up the talents He has bestowed on us to bring His light and joy to others. When we do this, we glorify Him. How we do this likely will change as we journey through the different stages and phases of our lives, but as the parable of the talents in the Gospels illustrates, we will be called to account for how we made use of what we were given (Matthew 25:14-30).

The cultivation and sharing of our talents can truly be a means to our own growth in sanctity and joy.

And “talents” can encompass an array of gifts. Certainly, things like artistic skills or athletic ability or eloquent writing or an aptitude for science and medicine or even impressive culinary skills. All of these things, undoubtedly, can be a conduit for the uplifting of others.

But less obvious qualities can also be a talent. The knack for making people laugh. A gift of being a good listener or being able to diffuse a tense situation and be a peacemaker. A compassion for others’ hardships and the willingness to offer quiet encouragement. The list could go on and on.

We all have multiple talents and characteristics, and they are meant to build up those around us, for we all bear God’s image.

In his Advent homily, Father also spoke about how each person’s talents are a different reflection of God.

That is a really cool idea to ponder.

Just think about it: artists, musicians, dancers can be a reflection of God’s beauty. Athletes can reflect His strength. A scientific or mathematical proclivity, His orderliness. That ready, listening ear, His love and gentleness. Of course, God is not just beautiful and strong. He is beauty. He is might and love. But His creation can and does mirror Who He is.

As a professional ballerina, I feel so grateful that it is built into my job to have the opportunity to touch people’s hearts and raise their spirits in both ticketed productions as well as outreach shows at elementary schools and assisted living facilities.

It makes what I do so much more meaningful and gratifying. Especially at this holiday and family-oriented time of year, it is a good reminder for me that I am a part of helping create special memories for children and adults alike, even as the weeks-long run of Nutcracker performances can sometimes be wearying.

As we prepare for Christmas during this season of Advent and as we plot and scheme about tangible holiday presents, I hope I can remember the Little Drummer Boy and the surpassing value of those intangible gifts we all have to share, not only at this time of year but throughout our lives.

All, Culture/Life

In defense of thank you notes

Well, folks, the holidays are officially upon us! 😱

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and before we know it, Christmas and New Year will be here.

People are visiting one another, exchanging gifts, reminiscing about the past.

One sentiment that should be foremost this time of year is gratitude. Perhaps we have forgotten that Thanksgiving isn’t actually about eating gluttonous amounts of food but is a day to thank God and celebrate with loved ones the good things in our lives, which can include turkey and all the trimmings. 😉

Christmas is not about getting material goods but about remembering the gift of God’s Son to our world and in response giving to others.

However, gratitude is something we should practice all year long not just during the holidays.

One concrete way that we can express gratitude is through the increasingly endangered custom of hand-written thank you notes.

Letter-writing, in general, is a practice that I wish would revive.

If you Google “benefits of writing thank you notes,” a whole slew of articles will come up.

Here is my own contribution to the discussion about the value of letter-writing and thank you notes.

1.) Writing thank you notes is polite and considerate. Nowadays, it sometimes seems like what was once known as “common courtesy” is not so common any more. I don’t need to list the ways in which society today regularly divides and degrades people. Any little act of courtesy and thoughtfulness, like a thank you note or a “thinking of you” card, can be a light in the darkness.

2.) Thank you notes or hand-written cards and letters are more personal than typed emails or texts. A person’s hand-writing is unique. When you write something to someone, you are really giving a part of yourself to that person.

A text message or email could be typed by anyone. It all looks the same. It’s kind of ironic really. Out culture is constantly pushing individualism, yet our proliferation of and dependence on technology as the primary mode of communicating is obliterating one of the most individual things about a person, namely, his or her hand-writing, especially cursive.

One can also find several articles about the benefits of hand-writing through a simple Google search, just FYI.

This being said, if you want to thank someone immediately for a mailed present, etc., or to let someone know you received a gift, sending an email or text is a nice idea. You can always send a thank you note later.

3.) Writing a thank you note or other type of letter shows you truly care. Whether you’re thanking someone for a gift or a favor or for hosting you at his or her house for the weekend, it’s likely that person expended time, energy, and thought on your behalf.

The least we could do then is sacrifice a bit of our own time and energy to write a thank you note.

4.) Receiving mail is just plain fun! Don’t you like to receive a letter in the mail? Aren’t you grateful when someone takes the time to thank you or check in on you through good old-fashioned snail mail?Well then, you are not alone in this feeling. Share the joy with another person!

5.) Letters and notes can be a keepsake of the past. If you’re having a gloomy day, you can pull out an old note or letter and be rejuvenated by someone’s kind words.

Or think about how much information and insight we glean about history from reading the letters of people in various time periods.

A hundred years from now, it’ll be slim pickings for our descendants when it comes to letters informing them of our daily lives.

Instead, they’ll have to find old external hard drives and flash drives to read emails? That seems pretty sad.

In whatever form it takes, an in-person thank you, a phone call (which is also a decreasing practice due to texting), a text or email, gratitude is a virtue we all need to cultivate consciously. But making that extra effort to write a thank you note, undoubtedly, is a worthwhile endeavor.

Uncategorized

“So Big”: It’s a Big Deal

Edna_Ferber
Edna Ferber

When I initially started writing this post back in the fall, I had recently re-read Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel So Big, which I first encountered in high school. This book is not only enjoyable, but it also arguably offers many profound lessons. Should one pursue worldly wealth or should one sacrifice and work for what is truly fulfilling and for which one has passion and talent? What is beauty and where do we find it? What is a true education? What is the value of living on and working the land versus living in a city? And what are the consequences of the choices we make about our life directions?

So Big is an important, multi-layered book, insightful in its look at cultural history and its philosophical questions about life. On top of all that, it is an engaging story with vivid, believable characters. Ferber doesn’t give the reader a tidy, “happily ever after” conclusion but rather a realistic one with one of the characters facing a moment of crisis and decision about what he will do in his life.

Set in rural Illinois and in Chicago from the late 1800’s to post-World War I, the reader witnesses the deracination of the culture with the Industrial Age and the accompanying generational shifts in people’s priorities and values as well as some of the disillusionment among the wealthy, “gilded youth” after the war.

The book takes its colloquial title from the game parents often play with their toddlers: “how big is baby? Soooo big.”  SoBig becomes the childhood nickname of the main character’s son and by the end of the book, the reader is left to wonder about the cost of being “sooo big” in the eyes of the world.

The story centers around Selina Peake Dejong, who is only nineteen when the action of the plot gets going.  Her father is loving and good-natured but he is a gambler by trade and tragically becomes the accidental victim of a fatal shooting.

He had instilled in Selina an appreciation for and love of beauty, and he had imparted this seminal piece of wisdom: “The more kinds of people you see and the more things you do and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living.” He told her that life is a grand adventure.

In order to support herself, Selina takes the position of school teacher in the bucolic, Dutch area of Illinois known as High Prairie. She is something of a fish out of water in the decidedly pragmatic and phlegmatic but welcoming community.  Yet, she accepts the challenges of her job and her new farm life as an adventure.

With her characteristic eye for beauty, she exclaims upon first sight that the cabbages grown by the Pooles (the family with whom she stays) are beautiful. Her reaction raises the mirth of all her new companions except for the Pooles’ twelve-year-old son, Roelf whose sensitive, artistic disposition contrasts with his family but finds a kindred spirit in Selina. Selina encourages Roelf’s artistic tendencies and loans him some of her classic literature to read.

Selina marries and settles on a High Prairie farm into a life she has never imagined for herself.

She has her fair share of hardships, including being widowed and having to raise her young son by herself, but she faces her trials squarely with poise, courage, intelligence, and creativity as she herself matures and grows as a person. She never loses her ideal of beauty but integrates it into all aspects of her life from how she runs her farm, to how she raises her son, to how to treats and views other people.

Even years after first moving to High Prairie, she still finds the cabbages beautiful. Ferber writes, “Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

Selina has a child-like curiosity and simple kindness about her that attracts other people to her and gives a luminosity to her eyes. Ferber makes a point of contrasting Selina’s eyes to those of Julie Arnold, Selina’s girlhood friend, who attains wealth and societal prestige and can afford all the latest cosmetics. Yet Julie’s eyes do not shine like Selina’s but remain dull despite make-up, perhaps illustrating that old adage that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Julie does not carry the same inner beauty that Selina possesses.

Selina is steady and steadfast, the “rock” of the story.

Her son Dirk is a different tale. Selina wants Dirk to have more opportunity than a farm life can proffer. She sends him to college where he decides to study architecture. This elates the beauty-loving Selina. However, away from his mother’s grounding influence, Dirk begins to stray from some of the values she held dear even in how he treats those considered unpopular by the in-crowd.

When the Great War breaks out, Dirk gives up architecture for the more swiftly lucrative career of selling war bonds. He then transitions to banking when the war ends.

He falls into the restless, pleasure-seeking set of wealthy, gilded youth and their insipid, homogenous lifestyle, particularly that of his friend, the conniving and unhappily married Paula.

However, Dirk is ill-at-ease and Paula grates his nerves.

Selina, naturally, is concerned about her son and warns him not to betray beauty, saying that beauty may no longer be there when he decides he wants her. Basically, she is reminding him to take stock of his priorities and what he truly values personally and professionally.

Despite himself, Dirk finds that he is falling for a woman named Dallas, an unassuming, bohemian artist whose views on life are very similar to those of his mother Selina.

Dallas sizes up Dirk and decidedly gives him her opinion, and Dirk is left to accept the consequences of his life pursuits and choose in which direction he will turn.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. I don’t think it is as well-known nowadays as it should be. Its questions and conflicts are as relevant and timely today, if not more so, as they were one hundred years ago.

If you are looking for both a thought-provoking as well as engrossing read, check out So Big. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.