Friends, Mentors, and Guides

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Child_Reading_(Enfant_lisant)_-_BF51_-_Barnes_Foundation When I think back on my growing-up years, my most cherished memories are of the books that filled my life.  I began to read in kindergarten and after I learned, it was a rare occasion I wasn’t reading a book.  Curled up in a chair, lying flat on my bed, perched on a tree branch, riding in the car, at my desk in school—every location was the perfect place to read a book. I raced through The Black Stallion books, inherited from my father, and spent countless hours poring over the volumes of Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales that had belonged to my mother. Christmas and birthday gifts always included beautiful hardcover books such as The Little Princess, Alice in WonderlandThe Wind in the Willows, and other classics. With my allowance, I bought myself the Nancy Drew mysteries that my library didn’t own and filled in the gaps in my collection of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books.  

Each trip to the library resulted in a new stack of books to savor, the highlight of my week. Books by Beverly Cleary, sequels to Little Women, and The Scarlet Pimpernel were titles I borrowed over the years. Staying home sick in bed meant time to reread my favorite Narnia book. If I had to miss church, my parents would bring home Bible story books from the church library to keep me occupied for the afternoon.   

Every time we moved, one of the first things I did was to set up the bookcase that my great-grandfather had built in my new bedroom. Made of dark, heavy wood and held together only by slots and pegs, the bookcase contained all of my treasured volumes and remained the focal point of my room.  

However, it wasn’t merely the books that charmed me or the stories they contained. The truths they contained, the characters that became my friends, and the worlds to which they introduced me that were the real treasures.  

My imagination grew as I traveled to fabulous places. I went to Wonderland with Alice and met the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Red Queen. Dorothy’s adventures in Oz drew me to a place where monkeys flew, lions talked, and terrifying tornadoes became vehicles to other worlds. I grew to love the English countryside of Mary Lennox and Rat, Mole, and Toad. The American woods and prairies, as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder, became my playground too, in my mind, while I longed to go to Narnia with Lucy and Edmund, Susan and Peter to meet Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, and the Beavers. 

Also, the heroines inspired me with their character and strength . When I was feeling put upon by having to do chores around the house and yard, I would imagine myself a princess like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess.  Instead of complaining about shoveling the walk, I would do it cheerfully as I thought Sara would do.  Rather than whine about a dinner I didn’t like, I would remind myself that at least I had good food to eat. When I was embarrassed by a pair of shoes I had to wear one year, I remembered Sara’s clothes being old and shabby.  Seeing how difficult it was for Sara, without parents to love her, I learned to better appreciate my own happy childhood.

After reading Anne of Green Gables in fifth grade, I not only found a heroine to emulate but also identified with her imagination and fanciful ways. I loved to read and put myself in the place of the heroine although I fortunately never sank in a leaky boat. I, too, spent hours wandering through the woods and fields near my home, and named my favorite haunts. Violet Valley, a small depression carpeted with violets each spring, was my favorite place. I would sink down among the flowers and pick handfuls of the purple and white blooms for my mother every year.  When I read the chapter Where the Violets Grow in By the Shores of Silver Lake, I was not only reading the words, but I knew exactly what it was like to sink down into a mass of violets.  

Reading opened the world to me. I learned how to be more compassionate to those in need, to understand people from different places and cultures than mine. I was inspired to make jam, bake bread, and keep a house from some books. Other books prodded me to study hard and succeed at school. Still others pushed me to continue with my writing. I learned what qualities make a good friend and wife and mother.  Poetry opened my life to a richness of emotion and put words to things in my heart that I didn’t know could be described in words.  

Spending so many hours reading during my childhood and adolescence was not only helpful in my growth academically and intellectually. I grew as a human being as I encountered the experiences and relationships of fictional characters. Books have been my friends, my mentors, and my guides.  The person I am today is a due to the books and stories I have absorbed and delighted in throughout my life.  

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Off the Clock

Now that I’m working outside my home every day, I’m having to be much more mindful of how I spend my time. I “discovered” Laura Vanderkam this past year and tracked my hours for a week while reading her book, 168 Hours. It was eye-opening to see how I really spent my time.

Yesterday, I received her new book, Off the Clock, which deals with how to use your time so that you can focus on what is important to you. That will lead to the feeling that you have more time to get your priorities accomplished. It should be good!

A Room of My Own

For many years, my bedroom was the room where I did much of my study, reading, writing, and thinking. Morning is when I read, meditate, pray, reflect, and work on my current study project. With children in the house and a busy schedule, there was no other time and place to work on my own studies and cultivate my devotional life.

Now that my children are grown and mostly gone, I am working every day outside the home so I still don’t have a lot of time. However I still write and read in the morning, and I now have a place for my studies. When we moved into our house, my husband decided that since I was the only woman in a house full of men, it would be a good thing for me to have a room I could call my own. He had our contractor take the back porch and turn it into a room off the back of the house.

It’s a jewel of a room. The pale green walls reflect the sunlight that pours in like liquid gold throughout the day. The dark wood floor is covered with an oriental carpet with rich, deep colors, which my father gave me. Family heirlooms dot the room and the wingback chairs are both elegant and comfortable. And, of course, there is a full wall of bookshelves, covered in books of all kinds, so that I have novels to sink into and bits of information right at my fingertips.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, that for a woman to write fiction, [she] must have money and a room of her own…. She did not just mean a physical place, but also that one must have leisure as well as mental and emotional space in order to pour out her thoughts onto a page.

While I believe that anyone can write in the middle of a busy, crowded room, if necessary, as journalists and other professional writers have learned to do, I also can see what Woolf was implying. In order to write, you must create a mental space to take in information through reading, watching, observing, and then meditate on those things long enough to turn them into your own thoughts. Once those thoughts are formed, they must then be written down in some way. All of this takes time and space and energy, much of which is lacking in busy family life, especially when the children are small.

Of course, a mother must make time for her children. Interruptions must be allowed. Attention must be turned from her work to her child’s needs. Reeve Lindbergh discussed this in her memoir, Under a Wing:

…if I knocked at my mother’s door, she always answered, and if I entered the room, she never seemed to mind. She would put down her pen immediately, and smile gently, and ask what I wanted.

However, since my children have grown and moved out into the world to embrace their lives as adults, it has been easier for me to go deeper and further in my thinking and writing. The empty nest has allowed me to acquire the mental and physical space I need work. Having a room with doors that can be closed signals to others that I am in working mode: please do not disturb. I can now fall into what I call the “black hole of research” without being concerned for hungry tummies and skinned knees.

It doesn’t mean that the men in my house always pay attention to that closed door (which is why I still get up before everyone else in the mornings), but it does help me to feel less conflicted and less likely to be interrupted, which allows me to more freely pour out what I want to communicate. Long stretches of time are still scant, but with careful planning, I can often find corners of time and sometimes even a few hours to gaze out the window, read beautiful prose, chase down my myriad of thoughts, and write what’s in my heart.

A room of one’s own—what a luxury and a comfort to have this place of beauty in which to work and think and ponder the important things of life. This room, this jewel, is in the top ten of things for which I am thankful every day.

Penny Plain by O. Douglas

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I had another blog post planned for today, but I just finished Penny Plain by O. Douglas and had to share about this new to me author.

I had heard of O. Douglas, a pseudonym for Anna Buchan, because my boys and I have long loved John Buchan’s books. I still enjoy reading about Richard Hannay and his adventures, especially Mr. Standfast. Did you know that John Buchan is the father of spy novels? His first, The 39 Steps, was written in 1915 but set just before World War I. The first time I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s so full of hair-raising adventures and last minutes escapes that you find that you must read one more chapter to see if Hannay escapes the current tight corner.

Anyhow, because of my enjoyment of Richard Hannay, I had read about Buchan’s sister, Anna Buchan/O. Douglas, and had seen her books reviewed by other middlebrow novel enthusiasts. However, until this weekend, I had never read one for myself.

I downloaded Penny Plain for free onto my kindle. (As an aside, while I still adore real books, being able to read out of print, unaccessible books is one of the definite upsides of the digital book revolution). I’ve spent the last two days in Scotland with Jean Jardine and her three brothers, whom she is bringing up by herself after the death of her parents and her aunt.

It’s a charming little story with wonderful characters and a happy ending, the best kind of book. Jean is making do with little money but lots of books and love when Pamela Reston comes to the village of Priorsford to escape the social whirl for a while. The book is set just after World War I and the sorrows of the loss of so many young men come across from time to time. In a way, it is more poignant than a modern novel about the losses because the author knew those aching gaps in a way we modern readers never will.

However, the book itself is upbeat and tells about the kind heart of Jean, her genius for helping others, and the way her life takes an unexpected turn as a result of her kindnesses. Also, there are numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and poetry, which I will have to track down to their sources one of these days for the sheer fun of it. I love books that are full of quotations.

Just a few bits to give you the flavor of the book:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

She has been nowhere and seen very little; books are her world, and she talks of book-people as if they were everyday acquaintances.

She was glad she lived among people who had the decency to go on caring for each other in spite of lines and wrinkles—comfortable couples whose affection for each other was a shelter in the time of storm, a shelter built of common joys, of “fireside talks and counsels in the dawn,” cemented by tears shed over common sorrows.

It wasn’t sad to be old, Jean told herself, for as the physical sight dims, the soul sees more clearly, and the light from the world to come illumines the last dark bit of the way….

The other rooms are lovely, but they are meant for crowds of people. This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

If you love books with kindness and laughter and true values and happy ever afters, even in the midst of life’s sorrows, then you will enjoy Penny Plain.

 

An Opportunity to Trust

White Arum Lilies by Tony Hisgett

A few months ago, I received a call from one of my children. He was sitting in a parking lot an hour away from school with a smoking vehicle. The car was dead.

Usually, this particular young man is more than capable. However, this situation was beyond his experience, and he was unsure about what to do next. After discussing the situation, we agreed that the only thing to do was to call a tow truck. I had to leave for a meeting with my pastor and said I would call him later to decide the next step.

As I drove to my meeting, I worried and prayed. I told the Lord how J needed a car to work this last year in school. I told Him that he had food to buy and school bills to pay. Without that car, J couldn’t get to work. What if he would be forced to drop out of school a semester before graduation? None of us had the money to buy him even a junker car to last until May. What were we going to do?

At my meeting, I shared my anxiety. My pastor prayed with me for my son and his situation. As I was leaving, he said, “This is an opportunity to trust, to trust that God will provide for J’s needs.”

An opportunity to trust. How often do we see difficult or perplexing circumstances as opportunities to worry and to fuss and to run around, crying and complaining instead of seeing them as opportunities to trust God? We can have faith that our loving Heavenly Father, who created the world, who owns all things, and knows our needs before we are even aware of them, has every new circumstance in control. He wasn’t caught by surprise when J’s car broke down. He wasn’t wringing His hands in heaven because of the school bills or food needs or lack of transportation.

No, God had all of this in His sovereign control. He knew the exact minute that car would die, and He allowed it to happen for His own glory and J’s good. The Lord already had the provision ready to meet J’s need before the circumstance occurred. He wants His children to depend on Him just as the sparrows depend on him for food and the lilies of the field depend on Him for clothing. He wants us to depend on Him for our daily bread and for our every need.

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. [Matthew 6:31-32]

Give us this day our daily bread. [Matthew 6:11]

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? [Romans 8:31-32]

In our proud independence, we think that we need to take care of our own needs, to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, instead of relying on God’s gracious, abundant provision. Scripture says that the Lord doesn’t let the children of the righteous beg for bread I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread. [Psalm 37:25].

Here I was anxiously seeking provision for my son when God has promised to take of J. In myself, I am not righteous, but because of Christ, God the Father regards me as righteous so I can trust Him to not allow my children to be in need, physically or spiritually.

How many times over the years have I seen His provision! Over and over again I have been in need, sometimes financially, sometimes emotionally, often spiritually. Yet, I have never been abandoned by our God. He has always supplied my every need in His perfect time and usually gave me more than I asked for. His generosity never fails. Sometimes His timing wasn’t what I thought it should be, but it was always exactly right for the situation.

There is a hymn that I would sing with my children when they were small. The words even now remind me of the Lord’s provision when my faith is weak:

Children of the heav?nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e?er was given

God, His own doth tend and nourish
In His holy courts they flourish
From all evil things He spares them
In His mighty arms He bears them

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord, His children sever
Unto them His grace He showeth
And their sorrows all He knoweth

Though He giveth or He taketh
God His children ne?er forsaketh
His, the loving purpose solely
To preserve them, pure and holy

Lo, their very hairs He numbers
And no daily care encumbers
Them that share His ev?ry blessing
And His help in woes distressing

Praise the Lord in joyful numbers
Your Protector never slumbers
At the will of your Defender
Ev?ry foeman must surrender

Children of the heav?nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e?er was given –Caroline V. Sandell-Berg

Christian friend, are you in need today? Is there a circumstance in your life where you are poor and needy. Go to your Heavenly Father. Take this opportunity to trust Him. He loves you with an everlasting love, and He always gives good gifts to His children.

For my readers who don’t yet have the Lord as your Heavenly Father, are you in need today? He is willing to meet your needs—spiritually in Christ first and also physically and emotionally and in every other way. Go to the Lord, ask Him to save your soul and to provide for your needs. You can list those needs, but He already knows exactly what you are lacking in your life. Take this opportunity to trust that Jesus died for you, that He rose again from the dead to save you, and that He will lead you for the rest of your life.

As for J’s need, a friend had a van that he is not using. He graciously loaned it to J for the remainder of the school year until J graduates and can buy a new car.

God provided quickly and abundantly. He will provide for you, too. The next time a need arises, remember my pastor’s words: “It is an opportunity to trust.”

Favorite Authors: Madeleine L’Engle

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Last week I finished A Circle of Quiet, the first in the Crosswicks books, by Madeleine L’Engle. It has been on my “to be read” list for years. However, I had never found the right time or been in the right mood for it until now. What a lovely book! L’Engle talks about the writing life, family, community, God, and many other things. It’s a memoir of sorts but so much more. Listening to her voice, I heard echoes of ideas I have pondered, events I have meditated upon, and values I also hold dear. It gave me hope that my writing is not in vain and that I must continue to pursue it as long as I am called to put words on paper.

This is not the first time that L’Engle has written something that filtered into my mind as sunlight filters through the branches of a stand of trees. In my early teens, I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time. The protagonist, Meg, was so like me—nerdy, misunderstood, thoughtful, awkward. I had braces but no glasses at that point in my life. Instead, I had wild, curly hair in a time when everyone had straight hair, “feathered back”.  My nose was stuck in a book every possible moment, I spent hours writing in journals, and I was still fond of my dolls, although I’d never dream of letting anyone at school find out.

I loved Meg and her search for her father, the quirky Mrs. Whatsit and the adventure. When Meg found a friend in Calvin, who seemed out of her reach, I realized that I might not always be weird and misunderstood. Her little brother Charles Wallace, her mother’s lab at the house, and making spaghetti sauce while doing research charmed me.

The sequel, A Wind in the Door, was another favorite. Looking back, I suspect it had something to do with my love of biology in high school and choice of a major in biochemistry. I spent many hours in the library after finishing A Wind in the Door, reading about mitochondria and wishing that farandolae existed so I could discover them.

Both of the books helped form my thinking as a teenager. I learned that being odd was okay, that big thoughts were allowable, and that someday my outer and inner lives would reach an equilibrium of some sort.

I read many of L’Engle’s adult fiction years later including one of my favorite books, A Small Rain, and its sequel, A Severed Wasp. As I read these two books I realized how L’Engle incorporated her belief about God throughout her books, which caused me to view her writing in a new light.

Five years ago, I first picked up one of her nonfiction books, The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. I marked so many of the thoughts, it’s almost a solid underline. I did the same with Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art a couple years later.

I plan to read the rest of the Crosswicks quartet soon and someday finish the Austin books (I’ve only read the first). I know that Madeleine L’Engle’s books have much more to say to me as a writer, as a human being, and as a Christian. It is a delight to know there are so many of her works I have yet to read for the first time. I look forward to learning much from them as well as enjoying her prose and sampling her poetry.