Starting “in media res”

Start in media res – in the middle of things.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of in media res lately. Specifically, about the way being in the middle of things raises the temptation to plow through rather than savor life. So often, I find myself realizing after many weeks that I have a problem. The problem was there all along, but I was so busy dealing with it in the moment that I never stepped back to call it out as an issue.

I always think I need a fresh beginning to make a change. You know, I’ll start the diet on Monday, I’ll make the resolution on January 1, I’ll really get my habits in line on the first day of school…but I like the idea of starting in media res.

When I turned 32, someone told me (only half-joking) that hopefully I had already accomplished everything I hoped to do in my life, because no one ever does anything big after the age of 32. Aside from the fact that the idea is patently false, it’s also a pretty sad conviction, don’t you think? Why not see any day or any year or any life stage as a place to start?

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach talks about how to get past the surface with your life stories, to “look for where you can crack things open” and expand and dig deeper. Apart from the obvious application to writing memoir Roorbach intended, I like the picture of cracking things open, of starting in media res. It’s not about blowing up your life, but about seeing brittle places as opportunities for growth.

What do you think?

 

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On Music

The object therefore of the instruction…should be to foster the natural good taste of the subject, and gradually to build up a fund of experience, which may serve as a standard of right and wrong, incidentally bringing him into contact with some of the great creative geniuses of the world and providing him with a treasure house of beautiful things, which will be a joy to him all his life.

infiniteA Touch of the Infinite is an excellent resource for adding music to education–in a homeschool, after kids get back from school, or for yourself. Megan Elizabeth Hoyt struck a wonderful balance between casting a vision for musical education and practical suggestions. I am so glad to own a copy of this book for frequent reference.

Hoyt includes invaluable insight into helping us understand composers and complicated music, while also explaining how simpler forms also serve a purpose. From musical instruments to singing to being an educated audience member at symphonies and other concerts, Hoyt covers so much ground in the book that there probably isn’t any way you could complete it all in a lifetime.

In that sense, I see this book as a great inspiration, a practical guide, and a lifelong handbook for growing in understanding, making, and appreciating music in many genres and forms.

Students need to know why it is important that they learn about music—what purpose it will serve for their lives. What do we expect to accomplish in providing them with a cultured existence full of art, music, architecture, and sculpture?…The benefit of learning about all aspects of the arts and sciences, mathematics and history, is that it encourages us to form relationships with people, things, and events of the past, present, and future—to understand our universe and to fully grasp our place within the broader scheme.

In compiling this resource, Hoyt drew on her own extensive background in music, as well as her review of British educator Charlotte Mason’s methods for music instruction. Even if you’re not a Charlotte Mason fan, you might be surprised to see how widely applicable the principles are in music, and Hoyt did a masterful job of discussing how CM schools handled music while also pulling in her own outside knowledge and experience.

We study a composer every school term, and often have music playing at home (classical, yes, but other genres, too). But until I read A Touch of the Infinite, I never realized how many opportunities there are for training our ears, increasing our understanding, and building our enjoyment of the music we surround ourselves with. I’m excited to put many of these tactics and suggestions into place for the new school year, and highly recommend this book.

 

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“There is always, always a trade off.”

Essentialism-book-coverI recently re-read Essentialism. (Here’s my review from 2014.) It’s an amazing, high impact book, full of helpful inspiration for untangling your confusing and stressful hyper-busyness and focusing down on what really matters.

And yet, last weekend my husband and I had (yet another) discussion about how he thinks I am trying to do too much and am burning out. I agree, but just don’t know what to do about it. “No one else is actually doing all the things you are doing,” he said, “and the trade off is your sleep, and down time, and your ability to enjoy your life.”

Preacher’s telling the truth and it hurts.

The problem is, I love the concept of essentialism, but I’m terrible at putting it into practice.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. – John Maxwell

I take a lot of notes when I read. Sometimes I take action on them right away. More often, I put my notes into the think file on my desk. It’s a literal, physical file of things I need to think about. I hardly ever set aside enough time to work through it. The think file is about three inches thick at the moment.

The faster and busier things get, the more we need to build thinking time into our schedule. And the noisier things get, the more we need to build quiet reflection spaces in which we can truly focus.

If there is anything I can say about life as a homeschooling and self-employed mother of five, it’s that it’s noisy. Sometimes, I love the noise of everyone laughing and singing and being crazy. Sometimes, I feel like I will lose it if I don’t get a few quiet moments to think. I wonder if this is the root of my chronic insomnia. The middle of the night is when I can reliably have a quiet house to myself. Maybe I will start using those hours for my think file.

If we feel total and utter conviction, we say yes. Anything less gets a thumbs down.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not for me. And, I think, it’s probably not a once-and-done endeavor. It’s a constant challenge to be honest about my energy level, my callings, what I’m really able to accomplish in a given chunk of time, and where I’m out of sync with my priorities. Often, I feel “total and utter conviction” about too many things.

It’s the time of year when I start planning for the fall. I love a new school year. It’s so full of possibility! Surely this is the year when everyone will begin to love handwriting and will stop bickering over inconsequential nonsense and will not drag their feet about doing their chores. I think “Ooh! Shiny!” about all the things. With our new-found efficiency we will have time to play board games! We could do tae-kwon-do! The kids could act in plays! I could teach myself Greek in 30 minutes a day!

And yet…

What do you need to do to be able to go to sleep peacefully?

Not so many things. Essentialism. I’m working on it.

 

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In Keeping: None Like Him

none like himI almost skipped None Like Him, because it has roses on the cover. In case you are likewise reluctant, allow me to assure you that in spite of its floral cover art, this book is not the pink-and-purple-butterfly-ish theology lite so often marketed to women. It’s by Jen Wilkin, so I should have known better. In actual fact, None Like Him is an excellent book of depth and richness that any Christian could learn from.

I highly recommend Wilkin’s book for it’s thoughtfulness and perspective. I took reams of notes, and so rather than a standard review I decided to make this a post of a few of the quotes I’m keeping from my reading.

Sanctification is the process of learning increasing dependence, not autonomy.

In the back of my mind, I keep waiting to grow up. So often, I look around in a moment of crisis and think, “Um, shouldn’t an adult step in?” Of course, with five children and a mortgage one might argue that this is about as grown up as it gets. Maybe there’s not some mythical moment when you figure things out this side of heaven. If anything, as the years go by, I realize more and more where I fall short and how much growth I still need. So I liked Wilkin’s note that sanctification–growing more Christlike–is a process of learning dependence rather than autonomy. It’s counterintuitive, but admitting need may be more mature than attempting to power through alone.

Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime for the ugly to be made beautiful…but this does not mean that what God is doing is not perfectly timed.

Isn’t this profoundly hopeful? So many problems are too big for my one small life. What a glorious hope to know that my timeline is not The Timeline.

Over what do I have control? A few very important things. My thoughts, which I can take captive by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if I can control my thoughts, it follows that I can control my attitude—toward my body, my stuff, my relationships, and my circumstances. If my thoughts and attitude are in control, my words will be as well, and my actions.

While I’m always telling the children, “Change your thoughts!” I’m not always as good at changing my own. This really does tie in with a desire for control–which Wilkin points out is really a form of idolatry. So often, life feels as though it’s careening out of control. At those moments, this reminder is sound. What can I control? Only a few things. My thoughts, my attitudes…and out of those flow my words and my actions. That’s a fair circle of impact, and that’s where my focus should be, not on the circumstances I can’t control and am not responsible for.

Long after the beloved generations that debate tattoos around my table have gone to dust, long after your generation fades like grass, the God of all generations will endure. Thanks be to the God for whom a thousand years are but as yesterday, the God who is from everlasting to everlasting. Thanks be to God for the limit of time, by which we are bound and he is not. Eternal God, establish the work of our hands.

I love this. What peace in knowing that God has my days marked out, and every one is a gift–not a prize or a punishment. However long I have, there is work marked out for me to do. Whether it be high impact or negligible by worldly standards is immaterial. I can work for His glory and rest in that grace and peace.

None Like Him made an excellent personal study, but would be great for a group discussion as well. If you read it, come back and let me know your thoughts.

 

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Hodge-podge: Ancient Rome Read Alouds

Our school year sputtered to an end when the reality of summer swim team gob-smacked us. Fortunately, we already had our required days in (plus three!) and had pretty much finished our semester’s foray into Roman times. Below are the books we read aloud together or which I read in order to better discuss them with the big kids. The big kids all read a ton of other related titles, but I’m only listing the ones I personally read.

The Roman Mysteries Series – I was surprised at how much we liked these books. The author, Caroline Lawrence, puts so much period detail into the books, but without making them feel didactic. So we learned all sorts of fascinating things about daily life in Roman times, but all in the course of rousing mysteries and problem solving. However, I will caveat that I only read the first four, and there were a couple of issues that I wanted to talk over with the kids, like a point where someone drinks too much (and has a terrible headache and says things they regret as a result), and a distressing choice made by one character’s mother. Both incidents were handled tastefully in the book, but really did require discussion. So be aware of that if you choose this series. Even so, I highly, highly recommend these books. The audio versions were great–check your library’s OverDrive app if you’ve got travel upcoming!

The Silver Branch and Outcast – Rosemary Sutcliff is one of my favorite children’s authors, so we snapped up her books about Rome. Actually, the kids read a couple of others and liked them as well, so really you can just look out for this author and be assured that you won’t go wrong. Her characters are complex and well-drawn, action is excellent, and you always wind up with great insight into the time periods covered. Both of these books covered Britain in Roman times, which was fascinating.

Beric the Briton – Another solid choice about Roman Britain is G.A. Henty. Although his books can be a bit slow to start, overall they are great adventure stories. I always look for Henty at used book stores, but you can also find good audio versions.

Detectives in Togas – I didn’t love this one as much this time around (having read it the last time we did Rome four years ago)–it’s not particularly noteworthy as literature, and falls far short of Sutcliff or Henty or Lawrence for historical detail. If you’re short on time, or your kids need an easy-ish read but you’re not that concerned about historical depth, this book is fine. The kids like it as a story.

Julius Caesar – Naturally, we chose JC as our Shakespeare play of the term. We read it out loud together taking parts, and also listened to a dramatized audio version. Although I wouldn’t say it was my favorite Shakespeare play, it was good.

Archimedes and the Door of Science – OK, Archimedes was technically a Greek. But I already did the Greek read-alouds post. So here you go, Archimedes, old boy, we’re sticking you with the Romans. At any rate, this was a great book–a nice mix of biography, history, and science. We really enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a read-aloud or read-alone.

In Search of a Homeland – If you’re looking for a solid retelling of the Aeneid, I recommend this one. It will make more sense if your kids are already familiar with the Odyssey, but is pretty crucial for understanding Roman history, in my opinion. Next time around I think we’re going to go with the real deal, but in the meantime, this retelling is great (side note: the kids also read The Aeneid for Boys and Girls and said it was ok, but they preferred In Search of a Homeland).

The Story of the Romans and Famous Men of Rome – Reading both of these got a little repetitive as we read about the same people back and forth–we should have chosen one and left it at that. However, having read two of these books about famous Romans, the kids and I are SO primed for Plutarch.

Plutarch’s Lives  – So after reading about famous Greeks and famous Romans, we dove right in to Plutarch and I was surprised and pleased to see that the kids were ready to interact with it. Why read Plutarch after we already read about many of these people in other books? That’s like saying “but we’ve read the Jesus Storybook Bible, so we don’t need to read the WHOLE Bible, right?” Plutarch was required reading for most of history, and is really a civics/government primer, as well as a general springboard for discussion about character, leadership, and being a good citizen. We started with Poplicola because that’s what everyone says to do, and because we were familiar with him. Then we just went to the front of the book and started with the first life, Theseus. We’ll go straight through from here on out and eventually we’ll have read the whole phone book. It’s going to be awesome.

SPQR – One last note: this one was not for kids, but I read it as background for myself. It was a slog, but I think that was because I read it on the Kindle app on my phone. That’s a handy thing, but not the best way for me to read/learn. A better reference for ancient times is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World (link is to my original review, when I read it as background in 2012).

And here we are in summer “break” (or the break it would be, were swim team not in the picture!). I think the year went well overall. I saw a lot of improvement and maturing in abilities. I changed some things, and am contemplating ways to make our next school year run even more smoothly. This was the last year–for a while at least–that I plan for the three big kids to be in the same history/literature time frame. It’s funny. Initially we began combining for history and literature because I couldn’t imagine how I could keep up with three separate eras, or why the kids would want to be alone in one. Now, the opposite is true. I think the kids are in a spot where they need the individual ownership and space. We’ll still do lots of read-alouds together, because that’s just who we are, but we’ll do different independent reads. I’m excited to see how it works out.

Meanwhile, summer reading! What’s on deck at your house?

 

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Eifelheim

Here is what you need for your summer reading: an addictive yet literary genre-bending novel combining physics, history, the Middle Ages, faith, personhood…and aliens.

Now that I have lost basically all of you one way or another, allow me to introduce you to your next favorite book: Eifelheim. I loved it, and I honestly think you will, too. If you’re not generally a sci-fi fan, the compelling story and resounding themes will win you. If you’re not generally a literary fiction fan, the history and sci-fi elements will make it worth your while. And if you are a historical fiction reader, you really, really have to read this book.

Thanks to last summer’s excellent (albeit extremely long) reading challenge, wherein I tackled Charles Taylor’s amazing A Secular Age and James K. A. Smith’s likewise excellent How (Not) To Be Secular, I could see how accurately Eifelheim gets into the medieval mindset–the way common people lived and thought about life, God, and science. It’s a far cry from popular conception, and this novel nails it.

It also strikes me that science fiction may be the last genre where you can read a serious exploration of faith in a secular book. Isn’t it odd that it takes aliens to approach topics like salvation? In that way, this book reminded me of Lewis’s space trilogy, which I also recommend.

Although there were a few storylines that I didn’t find satisfactory, overall I loved Eifelheim, and was caught in that terrible place of wanting to race through it while being sad that it was ending. If you’re looking for a fascinating, unusual, well-written book this summer, I think Eifelheim would make an excellent choice.

 

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Different

“What if raising [your different child] is an act of service [God has] called you to? Will you accept him as a gift? Will you submit to the circumstances he brings to your whole family because you believe God is in control? Will you humble yourself and accept God’s will and cease to fight against [your child]? Even if no one else ever sees the battles you have lived through or knows your quiet faithfulness to love him and to believe forward into his life? Your service of worship is not lost.”

I do believe that all children are gifts and special and made in God’s image, so they should be respected and treasured, both in families and the culture at large. But some kids are a little different in one way or another. And whether that’s because of mental illness or physical disability or giftedness or just eccentricity, whenever someone is different from the norm, there is conflict. As a parent, this can be a very intense and difficult thing to navigate.

Enter Sally Clarkson, whose books I have referenced before. People who write parenting books are generally assumed to be perfect, but in her latest volume, Sally took a different direction, writing about her son’s mental illness and how that impacted her life and perspective.

Different is eponymously not the same as Sally’s other books–she co-wrote it with her son, Nathan, who she describes as her out-of-the-box kid. If you have one (or two, or more) of these, you should certainly read the book. While the Clarksons were dealing with diagnosed mental illnesses, I found their observations equally helpful as a parent of intense/gifted kids who aren’t dealing with any particular medical conditions but are different in some unexpected ways. I appreciated Sally’s honesty and encouragement, and would recommend this book if you are parenting a kid who is different in any way.

 

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Mere Motherhood

“[Parenting] is a walk of joy that often includes the tearing off of the old dragon skin one painful layer at a time, made all the worse because you didn’t even know you were wearing dragon skin. No one ever does.”

How I loved this book! It’s an odd little book–sort of a memoir and sort of a parenting book and sort of a manifesto. It’s short, and yet jam-packed with striking observations and insights. It rambles, but in the best possible way. As I read, I really felt like I was having a conversation with the author. You know those wonderful talks where no one is being superficial and you move effortlessly from topic to topic soaking up ideas and connection? This book is like that. Cindy is a reader and a thinker and a mom of lots of boys (and one girl), who are now mostly grown up. I don’t know about you, but I need that perspective right about now. Cindy has such an arresting way of putting things, and a much-needed style that both embraces the depths of motherhood and pushes back on the idea that it’s the be-all-end-all.

Mere Motherhood inspired and perplexed me, and made me cry. Twice. Highly recommended.

 

Note: Mere Motherhood is not available on Amazon, although the Circe website notes that it’s coming soon to Kindle. For now, you can get it from Circe (not an affiliate link), but shipping is high and makes the book really pricey. I happily found it at my library, and would love to own it, should it ever be offered for a lower shipping cost. 

Hodge Podge: Fiction For the Armchair Traveler

IMG_6466The kids recently entered a contest by building a multi-featured island clubhouse out of Legos. Grand prize? A trip to Legoland in Denmark. Although I knew in my heart of hearts that the chances of winning were nil, I still experienced a moment of panic when I realized that if they DID win, we would have a hard time traveling on expired or non-existent passports. What a relief when some British child won, cutting short my panicked research into the hazards of procuring expedited passports from Chicago.

Although a trip to the hygge-ligt peninsula is out for the forseeable future for a variety of reasons including-but-not-limited-to my aforementioned expired passport, I do still enjoy the sensation of traveling vicariously. Hence this week’s hodge-podge, which is dedicated to international settings.

For Grown-ups:

A Gentleman in Moscow – This delightful book about a Russian aristocrat consigned to life under house arrest in a hotel touches on so many fascinating themes–from how little events can change the trajectory of a life to being gracious with your fate to the importance of respect for people as persons–the constrained setting actually opens up a world of thought and inquiry. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the main character’s approach to change, his past, and his shifting circumstances. “For as it turns out, one can revisit the past quite pleasantly, as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.” I highly recommend this novel, and think it would be a great choice for a book club.

And Then There Were None – This fun, romping mystery set on a British island is a fast read with surprising twists. If you’re a mystery fan, or looking for something fairly light and quick, this would be a great choice.

Einstein’s Dreams – I bought this book thinking I was going to a book signing with the author, but the fates conspired to change my plans (which is an elegant way of saying we double booked and I was too tired anyway). Given my investment, I read it anyway. Fortunately, it was short, because I thought it was so-so. While there are some intriguing topics as to time and purpose and how we live our lives, it wasn’t a stand-out overall.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven – I read a lot of World War II fiction, and this was one of the better selections in that genre. The author struck an excellent tone, with a perfect balance of humor, cleverness, and respect. If you’re a fan of the genre, definitely read this one. Even if WWII novels aren’t generally your thing, I suggest it as a particularly worthwhile choice.

Salt to the Sea – In need of still more World War II? This book highlights a lesser-known event–the sinking of the Gustloff–which I found interesting.

For Kids:

Around the World in 80 Days – Having grown up watching the excellent mini-series starring Pierce Brosnan, it was a delight to read this book with my kids. The book, as is so often the case, is far more detailed than the series, and I so enjoyed getting even more of the adventures of the stuffy English gentleman and his hapless French manservant.

Have Space Suit, Will Travel – Out of nowhere, this sci-fi classic became a favorite. I’m not certain it’s a kids book per se, but the main characters are kids, and it’s good, clean fun so I can recommend it. We listened to the book on audio and thought the dramatized (but unabridged) version was excellent.

If you were to suddenly win a trip overseas, is your passport at the ready? And where would you hope to go?

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On Vietnam

MatterhornI should tell you up front that Matterhorn is not a novel for the faint of heart, but I still think it should be required reading. The novel covers a company of US Marines on a brief series of maneuvers during the Vietnam War and delivers a blistering glimpse of how the war was conducted, while also offering a deeply moving account of the bravery and humanity of the soldiers involved.

The book’s author, Karl Marlantes, was himself a young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, so the detail included is first-person recollection. That’s a good thing, because otherwise I would not have believed it. As I read, I kept thinking there was no way anyone could have survived the conditions. It astounds me that any of these guys lived and that any of them returned able to function in their former lives. How do people recover from living through situations like this? How could these men possibly get over the trauma? Marlantes offers some clues–a very compelling character with deep faith, men who keep their focus on others rather than the futility of the situation, even the author’s act of telling the story.

One technique Marlantes used brilliantly was referring to the Marines as kids. It’s easy to read history and forget that most of the players in wars are teenagers. Through direct reference, comments about high school, and imagery like the kids on patrol drinking kool-aid from their canteens, Marlantes never lets readers forget that the people being put into such unbelievable peril were not that much older than the little boy sitting across from you at the dinner table. This device could easily have slipped into an anti-war morality judgment, but Marlantes has too much respect for the military to do that. Instead, the reminders served to underscore the amazing fortitude and bravery of the kids, while also emphasizing how much was being put on such young shoulders and raising both the tension and the stakes in the story.

Another narrative strength of the book is Marlantes’ description of decision-making on the ground. He shows how the older officers often made decisions based on their experiences in prior wars–on the situations they faced when they were lieutenants in Korea or World War II. They were, in many (not all) cases, fighting the last war–often with disastrous results. At the same time, the worst choices the older officers made came when they forgot what it was like to be on the front lines and started chasing promotions and stats rather than what was good for their men. The best leaders were those who both understood history and stayed close to the human costs of victory. I think this is important to understand even for citizens who are not affiliated with the military–we have a responsibility to understand our history, and also to seek out truth and perspective on current circumstances.

“Intense” is really too light a word to describe Matterhorn–it’s wound so tight that I could only read short sections at a time and couldn’t help exclaiming aloud as thing after thing happened to these guys. I even cried several times–not because the book is a tear-jerker, but because I’m a mother. In an odd way, I was crying for the characters’ moms. I hated the idea that these things were happening to their little boys and they couldn’t be there–of course we can’t protect our sons forever, but I hated the thought of the boys suffering without comfort.

So you might wonder, why did I continue reading this book, when it was so intense and full of tough subject matter? Honestly, I read it because I felt like I needed to–like I owed it to the people who fought and died in the Vietnam War (on both sides) to at least try to understand what they went through. I felt like it would be horrible of me to sit in my comfortable home and refuse to read a book that only described the actual circumstances people experienced.

Although Matterhorn is exhausting and certainly not something you want to pack along for a beach vacation, I highly recommend it. It’s an important book, and it’s important that we add this sort of depth to our usually superficial historical understanding of events.

sympathizer

Also set in Vietnam, The Sympathizer is a more literary novel focused on a half-Vietnamese boy who largely navigates the country post-war–trying to find a place for his allegiance when the Communists, the Nationalists, and the Americans all want to use him and never accept him (being half-Vietnamese is simultaneously too much and not enough, depending on the company he’s in), eventually all turning on him in various ways.

I could have lived without some of the grittier details in the book that didn’t add to the story and seemed placed to check a box for “literary value” or something (I hate that about modern literary fiction, though I prefer the genre on the whole). If you read the book, feel free to skim/skip when you get to those scenes–you don’t need them and won’t miss them.

That said, I think the story was helpful to my understanding of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and worthwhile for its exploration of themes like culture, belonging, and loyalty.

If you’re reading up on Vietnam, you might also be interested in Thanha Lai’s books – they are for younger audiences, but could prove valuable to adult readers as well.

 

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