All, Bookworm

Book Recommendation: “The Legend of Holly Claus”

It’s no secret that Christmas and its festivities and traditions have provided rich material for stories and books through the centuries. A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, not to mention the innumerable Hallmark-style, Christmas love stories and all the wonderful children’s books about Christmas. In fact, there’s really a whole canon of Christmas tales – some profound and moving, some historical, others sacchrinely sweet and sappy, still others charming, fanciful and fun.

This year, through the recommendation of a friend, I discovered a Christmas story that completely transported me to its world: The Legend of Holly Claus by Brittney Ryan and illustrations by Laurel Long. It instantaneously became a favorite.

Holly Claus is not a picture book, but the illustrations, if you can find the colored version, are absolutely luminous and breathtaking. Even in black-and-white, they are magical.

Ryan includes mythological creatures and recognizable names from history to create this legend centering on Holly Claus, daughter of King Nicholas (Santa Claus) and his wife Viviana, and princess of Forever, the Land of the Immortals. Holly is the first human to be born in Forever and shortly after her birth she, along with the other immortals are cursed by the evil Harrikhan whose pride previously had caused him to be punished by the elders of the universe.

When Holly grows up, she decides she must earn her place in Forever and break the spell that holds her and her people captive.

Her adventure leads her to the mortal realm into Victorian New York City where she befriends a group of orphans and comes to work at a toy store, which is instrumental in the outcome of her future and fate.

Accompanying Holly on her journey are four animal friends, which I wish could be my companions: Tundra, the wise but tender wolf who is Holly’s protector and advisor; Alexia, the opinionated fox with a flair for fashion; Emperia, the slightly befuddled but well-meaning owl; and Empy, the loving and stout-hearted penguin. These four characters provide crucial help to Holly as well as comic relief to the story.

Holly is an admirable heroine. Her heart is pure and good, but she is not a goody-two-shoes. She’s genuine and fun-loving. She’s honest, humble, and brave.

The Legend of Holly Claus very beautifully conveys the theme of the power of love, that love is more powerful than fear upon which evil thrives and is even more powerful than time. This aspect of the story, which plays a major role in the conclusion, reminded me of the Bible verse: “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

Another motif is the importance of hopes and dreams, and without giving away spoilers , let’s just say Holly has a very special gift of discerning the dreams of children and creating something to help them define those dreams.

Ryan’s writing combines the stately tone of a noble legend with the beauty of poetry and the relatability of human conversation and experience.

I really can not recommend this book enough. Read it with your kids or enjoy this gem on your own. It is pure Christmas magic and delight and there’s even a love story interwoven in the narrative as well.

It may be January, but this enchanting legend is sure to keep that Christmas cheer in your heart through the cold winter nights.

All, Culture/Life, Faith

I Believe 🎅🏻

Note: I wrote this short essay some years back as a school assignment inspired by NPR’s “This I Believe” program. I think it’s an appropriate time of year to retrieve from the annals and share with you all. A few minor edits have been made. 😉🎅🏻

I believe in Santa Claus. It might seem strange that a 21-year-old college student claims to believe in Santa Claus, but why shouldn’t I? From “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” to “Miracle on 34th Street,” there has been story after story that reaffirms faith in the jolly resident of the North Pole and in all he represents, and I have always eaten these stories up like Santa eats the milk and cookies left out for him on Christmas Eve.

Growing up, it was part of my family’s ritual at Christmas time to go visit “Legendary Santa” in a city not far from us. My parents would dress up my brother and me, and we’d go wait in line, sometimes for hours on end, to get our chance to sit on Santa’s lap, have our picture taken, and make our requests known to this magical gift-giver. This was a momentous occasion, and we were always practically shaking with fright and excitement. In fact, I was so terrified that it wasn’t until I was five years old that I would even sit on Santa’s knee. Every year prior, except when I was a baby and didn’t know any better, the picture with Santa invariably has me latched on for dear life to my Mother, head turned away from my brother and Santa Claus. Nevertheless, I still loved Santa!

Come Christmas Eve, (even after Santa and I were on speaking terms), I could hardly sleep; I would lie in bed barely daring to move or breathe, my head nearly completely covered by my blankets. However, without fail, Christmas morning would ring with shouts of “He came!” and “Thank you, Santa!”

One year I was totally flabbergasted because under the tree was a doll for which I had secretly been wishing; I hadn’t even told my parents, but somehow, Santa knew. Another year, a doll of my Mom’s, which she had handed down to me and which needed some repairs, mysteriously went missing from my room, a candy cane left in its place. Sure enough, on Christmas morning, there was the doll beautifully restored under the Christmas tree. Christmas magic indeed!

Now I’m not saying I literally believe there is a man who lives at the North Pole and delivers presents on Christmas Eve, but I’m also not saying I don’t believe. After all, the legacy of Santa Claus began with an historical man, St. Nicholas, a bishop who legend says helped a needy father pay for his three daughters’ weddings. Moreover, Christmas is a time when I celebrate Christ’s birth. It is remembered as a time of miracles and of love.

I believe this is what Santa Claus represents. He is a reminder that there is still mystery and wonder and innocence in the world, and that love, joy, and generosity are timeless. So yes, I am twenty-one, and I believe in Santa Claus, and I plan to keep believing in him throughout my life because his spirit and what he stands for is undoubtedly good and worthy of belief.

Image credit: http://www.reusableart.com/santa-21.html (This picture was used to illustrate Clement Moore’s “Night Before Christmas”
All, Culture/Life, Imaginative Musings

Autumn’s Poetry

As I was sitting and resting in my car, I pondered the colorful copse of trees before me. The thought occurred to my mind that an autumnal bower with its dappled, golden light and playing beams is a place of magic — a meeting place for the world of fancy and the world of the senses.

If one is very quiet and very still and allows the realm of imagination and wonder to open, the citizens of story, of history, of legend will be there, amongst the trees, to welcome the visitor, not as an interloper, but as a friend.

One may come to understand the language of the animals — to decipher the animated discourses of the squirrels protecting their winter hoards, the call of the birds to their comrades flying south. In the kaleidoscopic poetry of a fall thicket, one should not be shocked if a chipmunk were to scurry up and ask for an opinion on where to find food or if a shy deer were to blink curiously from a protective bush.

Then again, one may espy fairies frolicking on sunbeams and dryads giggling among the branches as they wink mischievously at the human sojourner in this dreamy region of natural enchantment.

And listen! That crunch of leaves may just be the footfall of General Washington as he exhorts his footsore and ragged troops to manful endurance. Or it may be a band of hobbits seeking forgotten ancestral gold. Perhaps it is Jane Eyre fleeing heartbreak and betrayal and seeking repose on the lap of Mother Nature.

It’s possible I am “too fond of books and it has turned [my] brain.” (Louisa May Alcott)

But to sit and absorb this fanciful wonderment, to let this natural beauty and autumnal serenity seep into one’s skin and mind and heart is to begin to find healing and wholeness.

We may echo Anne Shirley’s declaration: “Dear old world. You are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.” (L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables)

For the imprint of God, “the original source of beauty,” is here, and His “imperishable spirit is in all things.” (Wisdom 13:3; 11:26)

All, Bookworm

Spooky Reads for October: Classics Edition

At last, it’s beginning to feel a bit more like fall. Seemingly overnight, the trees have donned their autumnal dress of warm, vibrant hues. The evening twilight gathers earlier and earlier. There’s a crisp bite to the air in the mornings.

This time of year you may enjoy having your reading fare line up with the season -the spooky season. If you find it fun to have a chill up your spine to match the chill in the air but don’t want to deal with the surfeit of gore and evil all too prevalent in modern “scary stories,” you have to look no further than some tried-and-true classics, which you may just remember from high school literature courses.

These selections are more restrained, leave some things to the imagination, and often seek to impart a deeper moral message or show a character’s development as a person. They don’t promote or glorify gratuitous violence and darkness for its own sake as some contemporary tales are wont to do but they entertain nonetheless.

With that in mind, here are five timeless novels that may not initially seem like a spooky or weird read but that, nevertheless, contain elements to create an eerie, suspenseful mood.

1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

This novel is a staple of high school literature classes and though at first blush, one may not consider it a “spooky read,” it contains many of the elements of an uncanny, October tale.

The titular heroine, Jane, starts off as a forlorn but passionate orphan who’s mistreated by relatives and cruel school mistresses. She grows up to become governess to the ward of Mr. Rochester, the enigmatic and brooding master of the old mansion Thornfield Hall. Jane’s goodness, frankness, and strength, despite her menial background, attracts the troubled Rochester and the two fall in love only for Jane to discover on the day of her wedding that her betrothed is already married to an insane wife whom he has hidden away in the attic of the mansion. This demented woman is the cause of midnight fires and other mysterious goings-on that had aroused Jane’s curiosity.

Jane runs away after learning of Rochester’s betrayal but eventually is drawn back to him by an almost spiritual, preternatural communication between their two hearts. She finds he’s been blinded and maimed in a conflagration set by Bertha in which Bertha herself perished despite Rochester’s attempts to save her.

All of these Gothic, gloomy qualities (though there is light-heartedness as well) create quite an atmospheric story but Jane’s integrity and character eventually triumph.

2) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne’s American classics are also heavy with brooding and mysterious atmospheres. The Scarlet Letter, set in Puritan New England, contains the time period’s superstitions surrounding witchcraft, lending a creepy element to this tale of the shunned and ostracized Hester Prynne, her child Pearl, and the troubled minister Dimmesdale who carries a scandalous secret. Imagery, symbolism, and conflict as well as themes of guilt and innocence, light and darkness, truth and deception, punishment and redemption all combine to make this a suspenseful novel.

3) The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another Hawthorne classic that contains many of the same weird and superstitious ingredients as The Scarlet Letter. A young woman Phoebe goes to care for her reclusive relatives in their old and lifeless ancestral home. The threads of Puritan superstition about witchcraft and the gloomy setting of the mansion also make this a story weighty with atmosphere and mystery.

4) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I first read this book about three years ago and I was surprised by its suspense. The story opens with the protagonist Pip as a young orphan encountering an escaped convict in a foggy cemetery. Moving through the novel, one of the main characters that covertly propels some of the plot is Miss Havisham, a bitter and vindictive old woman living in a decaying mansion. She was betrayed by her husband-to-be on their wedding day and has left the wedding cake and everything else in her home just as it was at the moment her life changed. She even stopped all the clocks- a moment frozen in time. Disillusioned and hardened, she’s now training her protege Estella to toy with men’s emotions and to hurt them as she had been hurt. The aforementioned escaped convict also comes to play a pivotal role in the protagonist Pip’s life and fortunes as a young man. There are numerous twists and turns and suspenseful moments throughout this Dickens tome.

Though these four seemingly unlikely candidates for “spooky reads” are more subtle with their creepiness, they are, nonetheless, satisfying.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention some of the more obvious classic spooky tales, which may come to mind during October.

1) The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a page-turning Sherlock Holmes mystery about a potentially preternatural dog haunting an estate.

2.) Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve never read this one myself but from what I’ve heard its not simply a tale of horror but really a tale of good and evil with some deeper philosophical and moral messages.

3) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I also need to read, and which like Dracula has some deeper messages to ponder.

If you’re more interested in short stories, there’s always Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost and nearly anything written by Edgar Allen Poe.

Hope these classic tales offer you just the hair-raising thrill that is characteristic of this time of year. Happy Reading!!

🍁🎃🍂

All, Culture/Life, Imaginative Musings

A September Reflection

A page of the book is lifting, rising and settling with the wind.

The angle of the sun is shifting. The feel of the air is changing. Autumn is calling.

The heat and the air have adopted a mellower, more golden tone, one that lulls and rocks to sleep. No more the brash, exuberant summer brightness shouting to wake up and come play. Not yet the sharp, crisp note bidding you to breathe deep and sigh.

Brown, scented pine needles are showering down with a shake from a playful squirrel.

Leaves are starting to crisp and color on the edges. There is more crunch and color beneath my feet.

A small maple’s change of dress is still incomplete — autumnal hues of green, yellow, and red all slide into one another like the ripening apples burdening the limbs in the orchard.

Mornings come later. Evenings are chillier.

But the need for scarves and sweaters has not quite arrived.

Like the caw of the wheeling blackbird, I can hear Fall’s greetings, echoing, beckoning.

All, Bookworm, Culture/Life

Patriot Summer

Is it just me or does summer feel like an especially patriotic time of year? As soon as the 80 degree weather rolls in, I’m ready to roll out all the red, white, and blue.

This inclination is likely for good reason: late spring and summer offer multiple patriotic holidays.

Cue a John Phillip Sousa march! 🎶

We just marked the solemn occasions of Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during WWII–both necessary and important reminders of the cost of our freedom here in this sweet land of liberty.

Now, we are on to more festive and jubilant holidays: Flag Day (also the US Army’s Birthday) today, June 14th and, of course, Independence Day on July 4th!! #partylikeits1776

As a bookworm and a history buff, some of my favorite types of books are ones about American history as well as memoirs of our presidents, military service members, and other notable figures.

What better time than these sun-drenched days of summer to lay on a hammock with a cool drink on a lazy afternoon and learn more about our nation’s history and the people who have helped to shape it both in the past and the present?

It may make all these patriotic holidays even more meaningful.

So without further ado, I thought I’d share some books I think are worth reading.

1) 1776 by David McCullough

1776 reads more like a novel than a history book. McCullough’s writing is engaging and vivid. He presents all the historical figures, American and British, in their full humanity with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, and idiosyncrasies. Ample recourse to primary sources such as letters serves almost as dialogue in this riveting story. I learned much about this pivotal year in America’s founding as well as the characters of its principle playmakers, especially the admirable, fallible, courageous tenacity and leadership of George Washington whose circumstances and obstacles frequently appeared insurmountable.

2) The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders Really Believed by Alf J. Mapp, Jr.

I haven’t read this book in a few years, but I remember it as an interesting look at the Founders’ religious beliefs, which ranged from orthodox to definitely not-so-orthodox. It’s not a continuous narrative but divided up by individual people, so it’s a book you can set aside and then pick up again without having to refresh your memory about what just transpired.

3) The Declaration of Independence

Okay, this one isn’t a book, but what more appropriate time than Independence Day to read the document that officially declared that our country was the United States of America! It’s kind of like our nation’s birth certificate. You can find it online.
Under this entry, I’ll also add The Patriot’s Reference: Documents, Speeches, and Sermons that Compose the American Soul edited by Joel J. Miller and Kristen Parrish. This book contains the Declaration and numerous other primary sources of American History. I have not read them all but it’s a good book to have on hand.

4) Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

This is the book on which the popular TV mini-series was based. It brings home the unthinkable realities of war. Well-written and engrossing.

5) When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

If you’re a voracious bookworm and a fan of WWII history like me, this book is a perfect combination. I had no idea of the tremendous impact that books, especially the Armed Services Editions paperbacks, had on the morale of our troops. Not only that but the books turned a whole sector of the population into readers and learners post-War. Books were “weapons in the war of ideas,” which this book shows was just as critical as the physical battles being fought. Books represented democracy and freedom in contrast to the Axis powers’ tyranny and oppression. Amazingly, the U.S. distributed more books to the troops than Hitler destroyed.

6) Over Here, Over There: The Andrew Sisters and the USO Stars in World War II by Maxine Andrews and Bill Gilbert

A more light-hearted but still informative look at the WWII years and just how much every part of society gave up to support the war effort. Makes one wistful for a time when the country was so united and everyone was willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves.

7) American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice

I have not seen the movie based on this memoir but the book is certainly an eye-opening and gritty firsthand account of war.

8) Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Lutrell and Patrick Robinson

Gripping and page-turning story of endurance and sacrifice as told by the Lone Survivor Marcus Lutrell. In recent years,his story was also turned into a movie (haven’t seen that one either.)
Both American Sniper and Lone Survivor are intense accounts of war but they offer authentic, thought-provoking perspectives for civilians who have never had to endure the unimaginable atmosphere of modern warfare. Both Kyle and Lutrell are gloriously unpolitically correct. They definitely pull no punches in their accounts in order to sugar coat harsh realities or to protect feelings. Yet they are not writing to sensationalize their experiences but to honor those who served alongside them. These aren’t always easy books to read but they are certainly impactful and profound.

9) Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service by Gary Sinise

You may know Gary Sinise from the movie Forrest Gump in which he played Lieutenant Dan or from the TV series CSI:NY but you may not know all he has done to support our military service members, veterans, first responders, and their families. He has gone on 100 USO tours to entertain the troops, and he has established the Gary Sinise Foundation, which has several different programs assisting our service members, veterans, and first responders. He is such a decent, good man and a true patriot. His story really inspires you to support those who protect our freedoms as well as to persevere through one’s own challenges.

10) My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas

Very interesting autobiographical account of the life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He writes honestly of his own shortcomings and the obstacles he faced as an African-American man raised in the South and coming of age in the Civil Rights era. His determination and thoughtful opinions based on experience when it came to things like Affirmative Action are certainly valuable to today’s public discourse.

11) Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meachem

I checked this book out at the library shortly after President George H. W. Bush passed away last December. It is quite the tome but Meachem’s writing is not dry and this book is a lesson not only in the life of our late president but also in how politics functions and in the historical and cultural changes that transpired during Bush’s life span which covered a large portion of the twentieth century. Side note: Jon Meachem eulogized Bush at his funeral.

12) Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me by Condoleezza Rice

I’ve read this book a couple times. Rice’s journey from a little girl in the segregated South to her service in the national government is inspiring. Her attitude of never succumbing to victimhood in the face of prejudice and of striving always to be her best and pursue her passions is inspiring.

Note: Obviously, recommending a book does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of everything contained in said books.

Happy Reading and Happy Summer!!

🇺🇸😎

All, Culture/Life, poetry

Dawn

This little poem began to formulate in my brain early one morning while I was still half asleep, and I decided to write it down once I really woke up. I’m definitely no Emily Dickinson but it was fun to compose nevertheless.

The birds twittering outside my window, often well before the sky is fully light, are some of the first signs that night is passing away.

Honestly, I do wish they’d sometimes sleep in a bit longer, haha. But they are doing what they’re supposed to do, and wouldn’t it be grand if we could all wake up singing and rejoicing in the new day of life we’ve been granted!

“Dawn”

In the early, grey hours when I’m snug inside my bed,

My little birdy neighbors commence their choral greetings near my head.

Like tiny, feathered midwives, in their tweeting, sing-song way, they cheer on Mother Nature giving birth to a new day.

“Come on, come on, come on!” They say.

Then to me: “Wake up, wake up, wake up!”

But I retort: “Go back to sleep! Go back to sleep!”

Yet these heralds of life and light persistently peep:

“It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!” as they announce the sun.

Darkness has relinquished its hold on the world. A fresh morning has begun!

P.S. I’ve also been watching a Momma Robin sitting on her nest behind my home for several days now, and within the last 24 hours, the babies have hatched!! Praying St. Francis of Assisi keeps Mom and babies going strong! 🙏😉🐣

All, Bookworm, Culture/Life

The Secret Wisdom of Nancy Drew: How the Teenage Sleuth Reminds Us of Important Life Truths

Have you ever noticed that re-visiting favorite childhood stories as adults allows us to pick up on so much that is easily overlooked as children in the sheer enjoyment of the plot’s action? Pearls of wisdom we may have missed or ways of thinking and talking that are now considered passé or politically incorrect.  This was the case for me when I recently re-read a couple books in the Nancy Drew mystery series. 

Written by multiple authors under the pen name Carolyn Keene, the books began to be published in the 1930s and have been popular reading material for generations of school-age girls ever since.  Penguin Random House’s website describes the books as “a cherished part of our cultural landscape” and “a noted inspiration for generations of women.”  The books have generated movie adaptations of the teenage sleuth as well as computer games and other items. One year, I even had a Nancy Drew wall calendar!

Though I haven’t come close to reading all of books, I periodically like to return to some of the older stories.  While outmoded elements can be found in descriptions of and references to characters, I also found myself recognizing positive messages that this perennial series subtly conveys.

There are many hallmark features of these books: descriptions of Nancy’s and her friends’ various outfits on different occasions, plentiful meals and snacks supplied by Nancy’s housekeeper Hannah Gruen, and mention of the title of the previous mystery Nancy solved as well as an anticipatory mention of the next mystery Nancy will tackle after she has wrapped up the current one.  And who can forget those classic cliffhanger chapter endings that made you read just a little bit more to see who had screamed or what would happen to Nancy after she was struck in the head and blacked out?

However, beneath the light-hearted fun and page-turning thrills, a few deeper messages emerge that are valuable reminders for readers of any age.

1.) The importance of family relationships. Nancy’s relationship with her attorney father Carson Drew is one of openness, respect, and confidence.  Nancy always discusses her mysteries and problems with her Dad, asking for his advice and help when needed.  In return, Carson Drew unfailingly tries to assist her.  He also just as unfailingly encourages Nancy and puts his trust in her abilities and judgment.  He has confidence in her, and she has the utmost respect for him.

Though it’s hard to imagine many real-life fathers agreeing to allow their 18-year-old daughters to attempt many of the things Nancy ventured to do in pursuit of clues and criminals, their relationship is a good example of a father-daughter bond.  Moreover, it underscores the importance of parents and mentors in the lives of young adults not only to advise and to warn but to encourage and to instill self-confidence.  Especially in the ‘30s when the books were first published, Carson Drew’s support of his daughter Nancy’s intelligent and adventuresome spirit is noteworthy and empowering. 

Meanwhile, Nancy’s rapport with the Drews’ housekeeper Hannah Gruen is just as endearing in different ways.  As we are reminded in each book, Nancy’s mother died when Nancy was a little girl and Hannah became a mother-figure to her.  Always fretful over the danger Nancy might be facing on her adventures and ready with revivifying food any time of the day or night, Hannah’s tender love and concern for Nancy exemplify the importance of always being there for family (blood-related or not) and of not being afraid to show you care.

2.) The need for loyal, supportive friends. Though our sometimes seemingly perfect heroine Nancy is clever, brave, and self-reliant, she could never have solved her many mysteries without the aid of her best girlfriends Bess and George and frequently her “favorite date” Ned Nickerson as well as Dave and Burt, Bess’ and George’s boyfriends, respectively. And Nancy would likely be the first to acknowledge that fact.  They were the ones alongside Nancy, “in the trenches,” so to speak, braving danger, contriving narrow escapes, and outwitting bad guys.  Bold George always jumped at the chance to assist however she could.  Bess, though usually more timid at the start, continually came through for her friend.  Of course, the boys always did their best not only to protect their girlfriends but also to help solve the case.

These friends’ willingness to help their pal Nancy through thick and thin reminds us not only of the need to have people in our corner to assist us in reaching our goals and overcoming our challenges but also of the need to be that kind of supportive person for our loves ones.  Everyone needs help along the way and the Nancy Drew books provide concrete examples of this truth through the lens of a group of friends teaming up to solve a mystery.

3.) Compassion for others.  In the series’ first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, Carson Drew states that Nancy loves to help people.  Nancy’s intelligence, affinity for mystery and her sense of adventure aren’t used for frivolous or selfish motives.  Instead, she puts them at the service of others.  She’s not hesitant to become involved in the problems of other people, even people she just met.  She utilizes her talents to help them.  While we obviously must exercise prudence in determining how much we insert ourselves into other people’s problems, these stories show us that good, old-fashioned love of neighbor can come in many forms.  We sometimes might think that charity only consists in volunteering with or donating money to a designated charitable organization.  However, Nancy demonstrates that serving others can be as simple and as creative as using our talents and interests to help those we meet, and she always makes new friends in process. This is certainly a message that is both timely and timeless.

One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis is: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The truth is that quality children’s literature, seemingly simple as it may be, frequently contains a wealth of wisdom while also providing an entertaining tale.  Initially, the Nancy Drew mystery series may not seem like a candidate for such edifying literature, but a closer look at this famous teenage sleuth with her kindness, smarts, spunk, and respect for others, may just show that she is a worthy girlhood role model who will continue to stand the test of time.

All, Culture/Life, Imaginative Musings

A Thanksgiving Reflection

I stood in a world of color and light. The leaves had deepened to garnet and purple, burnt orange and bronze and brown. Though no longer aflame, the autumnal landscape was imbued with a solemn beauty.

As the sun painted the sky with its rising, the expanding glow irradiated the shadows of the woods with morning light and danced on the shimmering frost lightly coating the foliage that glimmered like gems.

All was still.

I could hear the silence and feel the peace enveloping me with golden rays.

Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply the cold, crystal air, and, opening them again, I exhaled a visible puff of breath.

Woodsy, comforting scents pricked my nose: the spicy odor of crunched leaves blanketing the ground, the fragrance of fir and pine, evergreen.

A squirrel’s cheeky chattering broke the silence as the little creature scampered up an oak tree. Two chipmunks chased each other in zig-zags on the ground sending leaves scattering and whirling. A wood pecker’s ruby head caught my attention as it tapped a cadence on the trunk of a maple.

I basked in the serenity and joy of it all.

The world was beautiful and alive.

I could feel my heart’s rhythmic beating and feel strength in my muscles. I was alive.

I whispered a prayer of gratitude and slowly ambled my way back to the drowsing house that sheltered sleeping loved ones. Time to put the turkey in the oven. It was Thanksgiving, and I was thankful.

Image credit: http://www.clipartpal.com/_thumbs/pd/holiday/thanksgiving/First_Thanksgiving_in_America.png

(This is an imagined reflection.)

All, Culture/Life, Faith

Lessons from “The Gift of the Magi”

The holiday season is a time of love and peace. A celebration of faith and tradition with family and friends. It’s a period of reflection, renewal, joy, and generosity.

Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.

Regrettably, the pressures of the commercialization and material expectations of this special season often make peace seem more like a dream than a reality for many people and often long before December even rolls around.

If you’re experiencing the stress of a hectic holiday and worrying excessively about checking off that to-do list more incessantly than Santa checks his list, a few minutes with O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi” may help calm your jangled nerves.
     O. Henry, the pen name of William Henry Porter (1862-1910), was an American author renowned for his short stories, which frequently had a surprise or unexpected twist at the end. One of his best-known works is “The Gift of the Magi.”
     At fewer than ten pages, this story is ideal to pick up and read during a moment of down time amid the holiday bustle. You may just come away from it looking at all your tasks with fresh eyes.
(Warning: spoilers ahead!)
     This brief but impactful Christmas tale centers on a young married couple, Jim and Della Dillingham, who don’t have much money to buy one another Christmas presents. Consequently, they both secretly decide to sell a prized possession in order to purchase a gift for the other.
     A witty narrator guides the reader through this domestic drama, focusing mainly on the experience and journey of Della. Through Della’s and Jim’s struggles and triumphs, the reader is reminded of some important truths that apply not only during the holidays but throughout the whole year.
1) People are more important than possessions.
This lesson may be an obvious conclusion from the basic plot of the story, but it merits pondering nonetheless. As already mentioned, both Jim and Della possess something of which they are extremely proud.
     Jim owns a magnificent gold watch, a family heirloom that had belonged to his father and grandfather. “Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard in envy,” writes O. Henry.
     Della’s point of pride is her voluminous, beautiful brown hair. “Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts.”
Clearly, these were valuable objects to the Dillinghams.
     The action of the story begins on Christmas Eve when Della realizes that the $1.87 that she painstakingly saved for Jim’s Christmas present will never be enough for anything she deems worthy of her husband.
     Suddenly a flash of inspiration strikes her, and, looking in the mirror, she resolves to sell her bountiful hair in order to buy Jim something he deserves. She receives $20 for her locks, a handsome sum, and she immediately scours the stores for the perfect item.
We later learn that Jim has sold his cherished gold watch to buy something for Della. (Notice I’m not yet mentioning what they bought in exchange for their prized possessions.)
Jim and Della’s actions of selling a treasured item in order to bring happiness to one another reminds us to check our priorities.
     Do we put material wealth, goods, appearance over the happiness of our loved ones? Do we really consider the people for whom we are buying a gift, thinking of what they truly need or enjoy? Or do we select something perfunctorily out of obligation? What are we willing to give up for those we love?
This last question brings me to the next lesson.
2) True love involves sacrifice. Any type of love, be it of the romantic, familial, or friendship variety, necessarily involves giving of oneself, sometimes painfully, if it is to be a real love that abides and grows. By humbling themselves through relinquishing their points of pride in self-denial, Della and Jim exemplify this other-oriented love.
      When Della resolves to sell her hair, O. Henry notes, “Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.” Yet he also describes her eyes as having a “brilliant sparkle.” Her countenance is an accurate depiction of the bittersweet nature of sacrifice. Giving up her beautiful hair isn’t easy and once the deed is done, she worries about Jim’s reaction to her altered appearance. However, the sparkle in her eye indicates a deeper feeling of grace and sweetness in sacrificing for a loved one.

     We don’t know any reservations with which Jim may have grappled, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that he also felt twinges of reluctance to part with something so high in monetary and sentimental value as his gold watch. Regardless, his action demonstrates that his love for his wife enabled him to give up a dear possession.

How do we serve those we love? Are we unselfish in giving of time and sharing our blessings, material or otherwise? Or do we like those people only because of how they can benefit us?

3) The most valuable gifts aren’t necessarily material goods. As you may have suspected by now if you’re unfamiliar with the tale, Jim and Della each selected an item for the other to complement his or her prized possession. Della bought an elegant gold chain for Jim’s watch, and Jim bought a lovely set of hair combs for which Della had wished. Materially speaking, their well-intentioned generosity was in vain since neither could use the gift. However, neither one is vexed for long.

Jim has a “peculiar expression” when he first sees his wife’s shorn locks. Furthermore, he must comfort Della, who is initially distressed when she unwraps her combs, but she soon smiles agreeably and remarks how fast her hair grows. When Jim sees his watch chain, he also smiles and suggests storing away their gifts temporarily. Della then prepares their supper.

As thoughtful as the material items were meant to be, Della and Jim’s sacrifice for each other was the gift of greater value.

O. Henry concludes his story by describing Jim and Della as “the magi,” saying that of all wise men this young couple is the wisest because of their self-sacrifice for each other.

We have been taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that we also receive when we give to others. However, we sometimes forget that the hidden ingredient behind the truth of these words is love. It is selfless love that animates sacrifice and makes it sweet and that empowers the act of giving to be something other than a mechanical offering.

O. Henry reminds us of this lesson through the fictional characters of Jim and Della.

The gift of self-sacrifice might entail giving up material goods like the Dillinghams did. Yet self-sacrifice could also mean we give up previously-made plans to take care of a sick loved one or to call a friend going through a hard time.

Self-giving could also come in the form of devoting time, energy, and resources to create something homemade (instead of store-bought) like a hand-knitted scarf, a home-cooked meal or a photo album of old memories accompanied by hand-written notes.

What better time than the holidays to re-ignite a more personal and selfless type of love in our attitude to gift-giving and in our interactions with loved ones and in our communities? We may find that our disquieting holiday stress melts into the joy and goodwill that this season is meant to celebrate.

Photographic Reproduction of Currier and Ives’ “American Homestead Winter.” Source: Wikimedia.