On the Shoulders of Giants…

I contemplated writing a blog about Christmas or tackling a challenge for the new year but last night changed all of that.

Several months ago, I wrote “Moving: Ends, Beginnings, and Continuums” about preparing my grandmother’s home for sale.  Earlier this year, she was moved from her three acres of rural bliss to a modest room in a local retirement home.  Dementia has slowly diminished her mind.  The spark in her eyes was replaced by an unsettling vacancy.  When it first began, she would have glimpses of confusion and episodes of disillusionment (a rare occurrence for a typically jovial woman).  She was well-known as a boisterous and friendly lady, a gentle soul.  I remember fondly her laugh, a full-throated cackle saturated with happiness and joy. During my childhood, my cousin Joey would push me around my grandmother’s property in a wheelbarrow.

Together, we would explore the vast wilderness of her land: the mysterious woods, the brambles and thorn bushes, the old well.  It was an ecstasy of the senses – the blackberries were slightly sour on my tongue, mornings began with the shrill repetition of a rooster, the texture of tomatoes was slick and smooth as we pulled them from the Earth.  Her small garden patch produced a variety of vegetation, and I will always remember her posture, her slow and methodical pace as she visited each plant, inspected its progress, and gently pulled it from the stem if it was ripe. The sun flooded the valley as she would go, a bag of produce swinging freely on her arm. She would also attend to the chicken coop, where several nests revealed new eggs nearly every morning.  The eggs were freshly laid, feathers on their delicate shells.  Several eggs were brown or speckled and as a child, I remember thinking (rather erroneously) that they were not as “clean” as the white ones we sometimes purchased at the store.  Ultimately, she had tamed her small corner of the Virginia wilderness and worked it with her hands, her sweat. It was something of great pride, her carrying on of the agrarian tradition of her ancestors.

Those are the memories I invoke as I sit in her quiet room at the retirement home.  Nearly two months ago, my family sold the property in order to meet her financial requirements. Now, nearly conquered by dementia, she sleeps uncomfortably in a small bed. She has learned to tune out the dull roar of the oxygen machine and the occasional groans of other patients. After practice, she can easily ignore such cacophony. A small shelf and television display moments of her life, memories stolen over the last few years by a tyrannous disease. Her fingers (she was once employed as a seamstress) now curl idly beneath her blanket, rising only to scratch an itch or pull the sheet closer to her chin.

Last night, I visited with her while my parents met with Hospice. The doctors believe she only has months left and have asked my father to make the proper arrangements.  While my parents met with the nurse, I casually watched her and spoke softly to her, as my father and mother have done during her stay at the home.  Her rest was rather inconsistent, periods of dozing interrupted by uncomfortable squirming. Her food arrived, pureed into three distinct portions.  She stirred when the nurse entered. I arose from the chair and carefully began to feed her dollop-sized portions on the tip of a spoon (as my father has done).  Obediently, she would open her lips to welcome it. After a few bites, she rested.  I sat in the chair near her bed and quietly wept. How many times has she fed me over my lifetime?  I couldn’t resist the urge to contrast this quiet, tiny woman with the larger-than-life matriarch I knew. In all her current frailty, did the nurses know how she used to be?  Strong, independent, self-assured, generous, loving.  As evening filled the window, she quietly ate her food and sipped her milk. How many more evenings does she have?  And is it selfish for me to want her to stay when she endures so much pain, locked in a tired body with an untrustworthy mind?

Even as I watch her silently struggle, I cannot help but feel some sense of hope, even in the utter despair one often sees in a rest home. There is something reassuring in those well-known words from the Bible: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”.  It is warm and comforting, after the long and arduous journey,  to collapse into the Father’s arms when you are tired from buffeting the storms of life. Power lies in those words, an exhalation of relief.  I ran my first 5K this year, and when I crossed the finish line, I could not describe the elation I felt. I hope that for her, it is the same.

Regardless of when she returns Home, I refuse to summon up these fresh images.  I prefer the old ones, the familiar ones. I want to remember her in all her glory: bent over her tomato plants as the morning sun streaks through tree branches or sitting contentedly in her pew at church highlighting pertinent verses in her Bible. Part of me wants to write her as a character one day, resurrecting that part of her I so admire (and honestly mourn).  She is passionately alive, in all her color and vitality, in my memory.  That is how she will remain for the rest of my life. I aspire to be like her, to have her fierce determination, her indomitable strength, her enduring faith. I know when I finally pass from these Shadowlands, I will find her again.  I will find her just as I remember and all will be restored.

I don’t want to get preachy, but as we welcome in the new year tonight, please spend time with those you love. Understand that time is finite, and we are never guaranteed the next moment. I am not attempting to recycle old clichés, but enduring wisdom still has resonance today. You succeed because you stand on the shoulders of giants (as C.S. Lewis once wrote).  Even when those giants begin to atrophy, be grateful.  Hoist them up with the strength they inspired you to have.

I wish each of you a very happy new year!

Who Put Something in my Cake?: A Review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit


 In J.R.R. Tolkein’s story “Smith of Wooten Major”** the village cook Alf is preparing to bake a grand cake for a Feast of Twenty-Four, a children’s feast celebrated once every twenty-four years and celebrated by twenty-four selected children.  A bit of a novice and quite nervous about the feast, Alf searches his kitchen for small treasures to place inside the cake.  While pillaging through his shelves, he remembers a strange black box left by his predecessor.  After he discovers it on a high shelf, Alf lifts the weathered lid to find a small star, “made of silver but…tarnished”.  Alf’s apprentice, Nokes, informs him that the star is indeed special – it is a “fay”, a star hailing from Faery. Alf ignores Nokes and places it in the cake, where a boy named “Smithson” nearly swallows it. Smithson, perplexed by the peculiar object on his tongue, spits the star out and places it on his forehead, where it stays throughout his life. He realizes that the star grants him unparalleled access to the Faery world.   Smithson (later called “Smith”) could visit the Faery world and return to a time of magic and wonder.  Smithson becomes a successful craftsman, wielding iron into beautiful shapes inspired by the images he sees in another reality. Smithson, as an adult, sometimes escapes into the Faery world, deep into an enchanted wood.  His adventure and interest into another world never ceases.

But who put something in my cake?   

As an only child, I escaped into distant lands via storybooks.  My parents read to me as a child, and I longed to drift into these magical worlds.  There was something charming about the escape. I had a wonderful childhood and stories only enhanced these experiences.

As I matured, I didn’t want to completely relinquish these stories. I enjoyed them but let’s be honest, it is completely uncool to discuss simple “kid” stories in college, with the analytical minds of the undergraduate English department. I couldn’t tell my English major friends, who had their heads down in a volume of Dostoyevsky, that there was still a twinge of delight at the old enchanted tales.   I read the required reading, usually darker novels; I was especially fond of the moderns.  I wanted pain.  I wanted anguish.  I wanted a complete dismantling of the old paradigms.  “Do I dare disturb the universe?” T.S. Eliot asked.  Disturb? I wanted a whole new order to sweep in and lay waste to the old traditions. I wanted to tear down the ivory towers of optimism and view humanity in all its brokenness.  The uglier, the better. I began to perceive optimistic works as juvenile. A modern mind would surely embrace the darker subjects (a rather “priggish” way to approach literature, I might add). I read thriller novels later, but even then, a vestige of those ancient stories remained.  The “good guy” should triumph and the “bad guy” should suffer.  This was the cherished tradition of the great tales. I eventually made my way back, quite delightfully, to the stories of my youth.

C.S. Lewis writes that fairy stories should not be read exclusively by children, but enjoyed well into adulthood.  Furthermore, fairy stories tickle that yearning we have for our “homeland”.  There is ethereal existence beyond our realm and even as adults, we can be drawn in, as Smithson was, to the vivid and magical worlds we embraced as children. Someone “put something in our cake” and we still desperately long to escape to these beautiful lands as the years pass.

That excitement emerged in me as I stood in line to watch The Hobbit last weekend.  I tightly clasped my 3D glasses with soaring hopes of a wonderful adventure. And I experienced one. As many of my colleagues have pointed out, there are (and always are) textually inaccuracies when a story is translated from page to screen. If you entered the theater a purist, you leave shouldering a fair amount of disappointments. I have actually taught The Hobbit (although it has been a while) so I already have my own preconceived notions.

However, as Sorina Higgins suggested before the film opened (http://iambicadmonit.blogspot.com/2012/11/packing-for-unexpected-journey.html), we need to leave The Hobbit at home.  It is a rare occurrence when such retellings remain faithful to the original works. Honestly, it shouldn’t reflect complete originality because essentially the story is told through the interpretive lens of someone else. Such other “interpreters” include the great William Shakespeare. My fellow Muse Andrew Lazo explains this concept very well in his latest post for All Nine (http://allninemuses.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/incarnational-invention-peter-jackson-retells-bilbo/). Only Tolkien can accurately tell his own story, so if you insist on authenticity, you are better off staying home, saving your money, and rereading the books.

Also, the film was not made for “Tolkienians” alone, as Donald Williams states (https://www.facebook.com/note.php?saved&&note_id=10151363762220520).  To appeal to such a large audience, Jackson uses broad strokes to tell the story.  In this way, some of the text is sacrificed.  However, Jackson attempted to remain faithful to the mythology Tolkien created, focusing his attentions on how The Hobbit fits into a long chronology of Middle Earth history. In fact, as others have noted, Jackson used many other Tolkien works, such as The Silmarillion, to complement his story. Most casual moviegoers will be unaware of such parallels. Jackson, I believe, had to step back and look at the overall result, which considering the long history Tolkein created is an ambitious task.  Will people think this is a good retelling? Does it have adventure and suspense? Those elements usually determine what is included and excluded in the film.

As for me, I enjoyed the film immensely.  Did I cringe at some of the changes? Well, yes. I think the Dwarves singing while they pillaged Bilbo’s house was unnecessary. The “pipe-smoking” chant was nice, however. I also have to side with Donald Williams here – a rabbit-led sled?  Seriously? Radagast, are there no other animals available?  Rabbits are far down my list of optimal creatures to pull me out of danger, especially when I’m being chased by a bunch of savage orcs. I don’t have too many qualms with the eagle scene, although I’m glad they were ALL in advantageous positions when everyone clings to life over a cliff.  The only other scruple I have with it was that, during the latter part of the movie, I felt that Bilbo’s story becomes secondary; Bilbo is almost relegated to a minor character. True, he was only “the thief” of the crew, but Jackson takes great pains to establish Bilbo as a home-loving, introverted creature in the beginning of the film (and thus one who is conflicted about going on an adventure).  At one point, he seems to completely disappear from the storyline. And no, not because he used the ring…

All in all, it is up to us to determine the yard stick with which we measure the film.  William O’Flaherty shared his criteria for judgment here(http://lewisminute.wordpress.com/).  When I left the theater, I asked myself, “Was I entertained? Was it worth the money I paid?” To this, I had to answer a firm “Yes”.  I really enjoyed the film. For nearly three hours, I was swept away into the climes of Middle Earth.  I went to Rivendell and overlooked the cliffs of the mighty mountain.  I watched intently as Bilbo and his scrawny antagonist Gollom exchanged riddles.  And I saw the vast fields of Hobbiton unfurl before my eyes.  I and a room full of strangers went on a marvelous journey together, with stars blazing brightly on our brows.


**This and other tales can be found in Tolkein’s Tales from the Perilous Realm.

On Hope: A Public Educator’s Response to the Connecticut Tragedy

April 1999.  Two disillusioned teenagers, both victims of vicious bullying, enter their Colorado high school brandishing weapons.  Then they open fire. Fueled by rage and resentment, they did not discriminate as they shot into open crowds throughout the school. Video captured the alarmed students as the shooters entered the lunchroom and sprayed bullets into the fray.  Scared teens, some crying and trembling, ducked under lunch tables.  Screams echoed off the walls. When the rampage was finished, the boys committed suicide in the library, ending the long, terrible episode of violence.

That same month, I was a sophomore declaring my major at Berea College in Kentucky.  At the time, I had contemplated teaching high school English.  When news of the tragedy hit campus, I severed all of my hopes of teaching. It was a strange case of deja vu.  Late in 1997, there had been a similar incident in Paducah, Kentucky.  Armed with a shotgun and pistol, a male student assaulted a morning prayer group at Heath High School, killing three and injuring five. Something deep within me still wanted to serve in education, but the fear was too strong.  I finished my English degree two years later, but remained adamant that I would NOT pursue Education.

But life has a way of curving your path toward your destiny, even if you stubbornly stomp in the opposite direction.

Now, nine years into my teaching career, I learned about the Connecticut tragedy while students file into my room for Creative Writing class. Surrounded by consciencious and talented individuals, I reported that another school shooting had occured, this time at an elementary school.  The students were both saddened and outraged.  “Who could do that to a bunch of little kids?” one asked.  A wave of shock swept through the room. “That is so sad!” another remarked.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I’ve had to report such ominous news.  In 2007, I told a room full of seniors that two hours north of us, a single shooter had claimed 32 lives at Virginia Tech.  One of my students had recently been accepted there, and was nervous about his own future.  Eventually, the student went on to have a very successful career at Tech, despite his initial misgivings.  While at this particular high school, we had two real lock-downs after students threatened violence against the school or administrators. It is a sober reminder how tragedies like Columbine have forever changed the landscape of public education.

Honestly, it’s hard to go to work the day following tragedies such as this. Some students are understandably absent, as parents fear a “copy cat” will strike in the local schools.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a dark cloud which tends to hang over our classrooms after these events. I remember, during the second lock-down, I had to squeeze 15 students into a book room, while trying to read Hamlet. As we plodded through an ironic play which questions the meanings and motivations of life (“To be or not to be”), I looked up to see 15 faces contorted in fear. Should students be forced to face their mortality this early in life?  It is a hard thing to witness. We comfort, we carry on. But why?

Why do we continue to have faith in humanity?  It is difficult to grasp the concept that 20 families will not celebrate Christmas with their children.  Perhaps there were already presents under the tree for them. Their stockings hang expectant.  But instead of celebrating the birth of Christ, these families will be mourning.  Mothers, who cried themselves to sleep, wake up this morning with the reality that it was not a horrible nightmare and weep afresh. The brave adults who risked and lost their lives will miss all of the Christmas parties and get-togethers.  Their spouses, children, and extended families will feel the emptiness.  A quiet house, a vacant side of the bed, her dirty coffee cup in the sink, the houserobe hanging behind the bathroom door undisturbed.  Those victims should be enjoying the warmth of the fire, but now they will be returned to the cold, hard soil. When we ponder such horrible things, how can we believe that the world can be better?

But you see, I believe we must be resilient and maintain our faith in humanity.  Hope is essential.  The reason I get up every morning and enter a classroom full of adolescents is because I genuinely believe that they can shape the future, that they can spread light through the darkness of ignorance, that they can make the world a better place.  Knowledge really is power. The world can be better if we teach the next generation to love, share, and be compassionate.  There is no excuse for the heinous acts that occur, but must we reply by losing hope?  The young are depending on us to protect them, to instruct them, and to model for them how to cope in such a tragedy. Do not forfeit hope.  We cannot insure ourselves against evil people, but we certainly can choose how we respond the day after.  Do not allow such events to erode our positive perspective of humanity; the malevolent shooter is an exception to a race that is flawed, but ultimately aspires to do good.

I have experienced far too much goodness, even in the shadow of fear, to relinquish hope.

So tomorrow morning, I will get up and return to my classroom with optimism in my heart and prayers on my lips.  Thirteen years ago, I was frightened into stagnation,  but I cannot be controlled by fear. The Bible tells us that true love casts out fear.  So today, I choose love.  I remain motivated by that hope.  For my fallen colleagues in Connecticut, I carry on because, I feel,  that is what you would have us do. It is our duty to reach out to our kids and teach them what faith and hope and goodness are.  We must look up and continue on. We cannot let anatagonists like this shooter compromise our vision for public education or of humanity as a whole.  We have the power to change lives, so let us not become distracted or grow weary.

For more great insight on this tragedy, please read William O’Flaherty’s blog  –  http://lewisminute.wordpress.com/    William is a trained counsellor and shares his wisdom about how we react to such tragedies, including how we discuss them with our children.

My prayers continue for the families of victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School and for the community of Newtown, Connecticut.  Please join me.

Leadership, Lincoln, and Living in the Passive Voice

“Do you think that people choose to be born?”

In the new film Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln poses this poignant question one evening to two young men employed in the Telegraph office. The calm giant, who towered over his friends and opponents in stature, was uncharacteristically anxious as his political career and the future of slavery depended upon a precarious possibility of peace. Lincoln wanted to abolish the scourge of slavery from the American consciousness.

But he was up against stiff adversaries.  Years of tradition prevented the south from relinquishing its chokehold of slavery. The House of Representatives was sharply divided on the issue of granting African Americans a voice in Congress. Meanwhile, the swarm of hostility extended far outside the debating halls of a young government.  Many men, both Union and Confederate soldiers, lay defeated on crimson battlefields.  Lincoln grieved deeply for the fallen soldiers and secretly arranged a peace meeting between the North and South. Exhausted yet optimistic, he juggled the frustrations of veteran politicians and a maze of diplomacy with the omnipresent dangers of domestic war. Personally, Lincoln still mourned the loss of his own son from illness, and struggled with a wife whose grief nearly overshadowed reality. What a tangle of circumstances was this! It was enough to bring the statuesque politician to his knees.

So that night, Lincoln awaited news on the state of affairs.  He was facing a choir of naysayers and a rising body count. He and two of his telegraphers occupy an otherwise lonely office.  The trio spoke warmly to one another, attempting to distract themselves from the terrible crisis at hand. Lincoln was known as a great storyteller, spinning yarns and eliciting laughter in the most dire of circumstances.  Some mistook his humor for indifference, but Lincoln simply wished to lift the dark cloud from an ominous situation. And so, in a moment of quiet reflection, he asks, “Do you think people choose to be born?”

To answer Lincoln, no.  No, we do not choose to be born, but we certainly have plenty of choices which await us as we journey through life. Lincoln could have easily obeyed the status quo and upheld the discriminatory attitude that African Americans were “less” than citizens. But he could not. He could not rest until every man, regardless of color, was guaranteed the same rights under the Constitution. Despite the wave of controversy, Lincoln persisted and utilized every avenue he had to persuade politicians to amend the Constitution to include voting rights for those considered slaves. The decision made him unpopular.  But sometimes good leadership requires one to be so.  Today, he is celebrated as a national and international hero (there is a statue of him near Westminster Abbey in London), but during his lifetime, he was renounced as a heretic.  He was accused of pandering politics, of dividing parties, of upsetting “the Southern economy” and even of disobeying the Biblical principle of slave and master (a verse taken out of context for generations to support the role of oppressors). Nonetheless, he did not relent.  He continued on determined as ever, carried on the tide of his convictions.  The decision, as we all now know, proved fatal.  Was Lincoln a martyr?  Yes, but more importantly, his work and dedication illustrate the significance of his choices.  His decision improved life for an untold number of Americans both past and present.

Pondering Lincoln’s question sparked an interesting inquiry for me.  How much of life is what happens to us?  Furthermore, what aspects of life correlate with our choices?  Are we responsible for the things that occur to us?

As an English teacher, I am very familiar with the passive voice.  Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab describes the passive voice as an instance when “the subject is acted upon; he or she receives the action expressed by the verb” (para. 1).  For example, instead of saying, “Jimmy ate the sandwich”, the sentence reads, “The sandwich was eaten by Jimmy.” We teachers like to take our nice red pens and correct this mistake in essays and research papers, but how many of us live in the passive voice?

Do we feel that life does us more than we do life?  How many of us travel through life checking tasks off a never-ending list?  Our schedules do not spin out of control all of a sudden.  The pace increases slowly, like filling up an ocean with tablespoons. Can’t you just tackle one more responsbility? Darwin said the key to survival was adaptation.  So we alter our routine to add another task.  There’s a ballgame here, and that meeting there, and we were just invited to this get-together on this date. Suddenly, we face a long inventory of expectations. Are we truly living life or are we carried on the silent gears of our requirements?  Our daily lives move us ever forward. Each spring eventually fades into winter, which melts into another spring.  Life moves so quickly. We stare in the mirror at a slightly older visage.  We see the evidence of laughter near our eyes and…is that a silver hair I see?!

Essentially, we must strive amid our daily lives to the ultimate goals we seek; that is what we were born to do. We may not be called to lead a nation out of slavery, but we have a higher purpose to fulfill.  Every morning, as the sun peaks over the horizon, we are given another opportunity to amend faults, to right wrongs, to create a better community and a better world.  We can do what is required of us (and we should because those things are important), but keep the bigger picture in mind. Progress is not a marathon or an expressway, rather it occurs slowly and methodically.  It requires patience and effort.  Although Lincoln’s life was abbreviated, he spent his living days fighting a daily battle for a better world, an effort that proved successful indeed.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that we often say our tasks prevent us from living our lives, but these tasks are our lives. Lewis knew this truth well.  He balanced a heavy student load at Oxford, sponsored the Socractic Club, responded to each letter he received, helped Mrs. Moore around their home The Kilns – all of this while writing the successful works he is known for today.  He composed the cascading waterfalls of Narnia after watching his faucet create dishwater.  He wrote The Voyage of the Dawn Treader years after building a makeshift skiff with his brother for use in their pond.  A pen occupied his hand, but so did a dishcloth, a broom and a hammer.  Those same hands which captured his imagination also maintained his humble home. We can never escape our work, but rather, create among these responsibilities.

We do not choose to be born, but we can certainly choose how to live our lives. Make it a daily goal to improve the inequities around us, to lead, to serve, to be humble, to have the courage to make a difference.