things that capture our attention 3: land of stories

Image result for land of storiesThe girl chose The Land of Stories book 1 a year ago when she was gifted a choice of books on her way to sleepover camp. She picked it because it was good and thick. She didn’t get to the book then because they kept them busy and her counselor read to them during rest time, but she read it soon after. She really enjoyed it and ran through the whole series of 6 books quickly. I saw how intrigued she was, and I liked the premise (2 kids find themselves in the world of fairy tales), so I asked if I could read one. The series was written by Chris Colfer of Glee fame, so I had my reservations, did he get to write it just because he was a celebrity? In fact, from the first book, it was super clever and imaginative. The writing wasn’t fabulous, but the ideas really were. Twin brother and sister find themselves in the world of fairy tales and go on a quest to find spell pieces so they can return home. The fairy tale characters were fun to meet and main characters Alex and Conner were well drawn. It was worth reading. I continued to slowly read the second book, and by the third I was hooked. They continued to be clever with surprising twists and turns. I could guess some, but not all of them. They are long books, and maybe could be a bit shorter; I got bored at a few points in the penultimate one, but by and large they are fast moving and exciting. It’s a series well worth reading if you like books and fairy tales and teenage angst. The minor characters are filled in more and more as the series on and the writing improves quite a lot between 1 and 6. Really fun read.

Posted in Books, The Kids | Tagged | 1 Comment

things that capture our attention part 2: wordgirl and jean little

Image result for Look through my window jean littleI’ve shared many books with my girl; it’s one of my great delights of mothering a daughter. We’ve read or she has read and we’ve talked about Harry Potter (all 7!) and Anne of Green Gables (all 7!) and Little Women (3 out of 4) and The Chronicles of Narnia (3 out of 7) and Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family series (the first 3 anyway). She’s also read a bunch of series I don’t know anything about (Benedict Society, something about spies and clones) and a 5 part series (Land of Stories) I began reading at her request (it’s taken me awhile, but I’ve enjoyed it).

For all the fantasy and science/speculative fiction series and fun, the girl says that her favorite books are realistic fiction. She’s been on a kick right now of historical fiction around World War II and the Civil Rights era. But her first taste of realistic fiction is still her favorite, and it utterly delights me.

Jean Little is a Canadian author of books for middle grade kids (or, as I like to say, books about 10-year-old girls, though she did eventually expand that slightly). As a 10-year-old-girl (or 8-11), I felt a resonance with the girls in her books that I didn’t feel with any others, even Madeleine L’Engle’s protagonists, whom I loved. Jean Little’s protagonists were so normal and so me. They read a lot. They never quite felt like they fit in. They tried anyway. I think my first one was One to Grow On. Janie doesn’t quite fit in with her family. She doesn’t fit in at school. She wants to be like the popular girls except that she doesn’t. It just resonated with me. And then the school library in Taiwan (grades 4-6) had a bunch of the books. And I read them all. And re-read them. I lived and laughed and wept with Sal who comes home from a special needs boarding school to live at home and go to regular school for the first time and Anna who comes from Germany as an immigrant and learns she has vision trouble, and Jenny whose twin brother died in a car accident, and Janey who’s just a normal misfit kid, and Laurel who is shy and protective of her little brother, and Emily who writes poems and is lonely. And then, my senior year of high school, Little’s autobiography came out. I read it, and in some ways I could have been reading about myself. I understood why I resonated so much with her characters. We were so utterly alike. Part of it is the third culture kid thing, but part of it has to be just deep and intrinsic personality. And so. As a grown-up, I slowly collected all her books that I had loved as a kid (Yay for trips to Powell’s Books first and later Amazon). And so it was with some trepidation that I handed the girl a Jean Little book. The girl was and is not me. For starters, she is not a third culture kid. By the time I was reading these books, I was living in my 4th country. She has lived in one house her entire life, gone to one school, one church (except when she was tiny). but she was a 10-year-old girl, and she liked to read. So I took the chance. And it was good. She has read and re-read them. She is surprised and a little put out that they aren’t well known, that no one has made movies of them (“they’d be easy movies to make, Mom”). They are akin to Katherine Paterson’s books and Paterson’s books have recently been made into films (and the girl has read both Bridge to Terebithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins) (and the writers know each other– Little discusses the connection in her second autobiography), but Little’s books are smaller in scope and they are Canadian, not from the US. The girl’s very favorite, a little bit to my surprise though it shouldn’t have been, is Look Through My Window, the story of Emily, the lonely only child who lives in an apartment in the city and writes poetry who suddenly finds herself big sister to 4 small cousins living in a big house in the country. The girl child has always wanted younger siblings. Emily gets to live out the dream. This is not just Wordgirl’s favorite Jean Little book, it’s her favorite book. Period. The one she keeps in her bed and reads when she can’t sleep or just needs something to read. It’s THE book.

So, slightly obscure books written by the almost blind daughter of medical missionaries from Canada. The things that catch our attention.

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things that capture our attention part 1: the boy


Battlebots 2018 (I’m taking a photo of Computerguy taking a photo of Mathkid holding the big trophy: the Giant Nut.)

What did you love when you were a child? What are you hoping to introduce your children to and have them love? Which of those are working and what do they love that is new to you? (also, the balance of finding the right timing to introduce something you are dying to introduce.)

My son (now 9 and headed into 4th grade in the fall) asked why we were different in our media consumption (maybe not those words) than his friends’ families. We admitted we are older, whiter, and geekier. (Side note: the boy’s friends tend to have young Latinx parents. Most of the boys are the oldest or middle of several siblings. The girls’ friends are more diverse in gender, ethnicity, and family make-up: a youngest child of a blended family, the much younger brother of older sisters, the boy with an older father and younger mother, etc., as well as young parents with, as she likes to remind us, grandparents about our age. Anyway…)

Computerguy was a big fan of the original iteration of BattleBots. Enough so that he showed the kids old videos, we followed the first new season, and since have gone to a couple of tapings. The boy loves it! He knows all the bots and their trainers.

We do family movie/game night on Fridays. We take turns choosing an activity. We’ve introduced movies to our kids this way. They have enjoyed The Swiss Family Robinson and Escape to Witch Mountain, 2 of my favorites, but haven’t run for the books or wanted to re-watch them or anything.

The kids have been on a new Pixar appreciation run. The had enjoyed DVDs of Pixar shorts and Inside Out, but the boys was never a Cars fan in spite of it being all the rage when he was little (It was hard to find little boys things that weren’t Cars themed). He was much more interested in Star Wars (which he did like early much to my spouse’s delight) and shorter pieces like Dora and Diego and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. And Pokemon. It took our kids a long time to like movies as well as TV shows. The kids are surprised when we tell them we used to get babysitters so we could go see the new Pixar films. The boy is entranced by Up right now and we watched The Incredibles before we went to see The Incredibles 2 (and all 4 of us agreed we liked the second one even more).

Computerguy and young Mathkid did a run of Roald Dahl books this year. That was fun.

So, the boy likes some of the things we like (and I’ll talk about a few more in the both kids section), but he also likes a lot of newer stuff. His favorite books to read himself are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. He loves Captain Underpants. His new obsession this summer are the Origami Yoda books.

He loves the Paddington films. I had loved the books, but missed really getting the kids into them. It’s fun to see this new experience (and the films really are terrific!)

He loves YouTube and has favorite YouTubers. We try to keep a watch on what they are, and they seem to be pretty unobjectionable so far. Most of them are either game players or funny videos.

He loves Teen Titans Go!, and I have to admit that I appreciate it, too. There are so many references to the 80s, that it sucks this parent in. Some day we will show him The Breakfast Club  and My Cousin Vinnie and he will recognize them from TTG! (Also, Frogger and Oregon Trail and a ton of other passing references.)

One of his most interesting things to me is Wild Kratts. He has loved this show since he was small, and he still does. He and I were talking about it this morning because there were new episodes (an exciting morning!). He was waxing nostalgic about watching it with his grandfather and sister before he was even in school, and he still loves it. We have our Tivo set up so that it records all the episodes and deletes none, and he still goes back and watches them. And he knows more about animals than I ever will. He can pull up facts about animals anytime, anywhere (like during jeopardy), and it’s pretty much all thanks to Wild Kratts.

So we will continue to share with him the things we love, and we will continue to learn to love the things he finds. There is such an abundance of imaginative stuff out there. What a world to discover!

Posted in Books, Films, The Kids, TV | 2 Comments


IMG_4998Tonight we went to see GodSpell at the community college where I teach. It was really good. And it’s so faithful to the scripture. When explaining it to the kids, I told them it was the Gospel of Matthew sort of translated into hippie 1960s culture. So they said, “you mean it’s 2000 years old acting like it’s 50 years old?” I was taken about by the 50 year designation, but yes, pretty much. And it is. But it is also contemporary. And it’s gospel. ComputerGuy and I were talking on the way home about how community college can do things almost no one else can. It was a creative production with extra physical and verbal bits thrown in that my son loved (“Mom, my favorite part was the Mario music”). Jesus was a small black young man, powerful singer. John/Judas was a tall white young man. There were cast members of all shapes and sizes, black and white, Asian and Latinx. They used flowers and bandanas as symbols of Jesus’ followers, and hand sanitizer in the “foot washing” scene. And Jesus broke bread, (and for me, having broken bread this year, and spoken his words, I saw that in a different light).

Because I mostly listen to the music, I forget how much of the book comes straight from the Gospel. They’re telling parables and stories and the sermon on the mount and recreating scenes. I found the sheep and the goats particularly poignant tonight. “Whatever you have (not) done for the least of these my brothers, however humble, you have (not) done for me.” I’m struggling to put this into words, but I was also struck by the natural speech rhythms of Jesus. When we read scripture, especially in church, it’s a production. To simply hear Jesus saying these things to his followers gave me a different sense of them.

We had just watched NBC’s live Superstar the other night, and it noticeably ends on the cross. So here, when Jesus comes down from the cross and slips in with the disciples, and the pure joy is expressed–both his and theirs–it seemed particularly meaningful.

I am fascinated by the sudden resurgence of both these musicals. In a culture where people are fighting over what it means to follow Jesus, we may be asking, “who is this Jesus?” These were two really different portraits of Jesus, controversial when they opened–that reflect the culture of early seventies America and England, both worth contemplating as we ask, who is this Jesus we follow? and what does it mean to follow him?

(Also, I’ve been listening to Superstar and Godspell my whole life. My parents played the records. Godspell evidently opened off broadway 5 days after I was born. And I will trust my mom to correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s the first musical I remember seeing at my dad’s high school when I was about 4. I can still picture the experience in my mind. I was mesmerized. And have been enamored of musicals ever since.)

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a wrinkle in time (more or less)

Spoiler Alert: herein I talk about the movie and some differences between the film and the book, so if you haven’t seen it and want to judge it for yourself, do wait to read this. (I wrote this Thursday night, but set it to publish Saturday morning. We decided to go ahead and take the family and see it. We’re cool like that. Or nerdy like that. Or something. It was a 7:00 movie. We wouldn’t have done some crazy midnight thing. We’re too old and the kids are too young. There were about 10 people in the theater. Our town is a tough sell. I hope it is doing better elsewhere.)

I thought it was moving and terrific and I loved Storm Reid’s Meg.

I know the book so well, I’ve been trying not to nit-pick it, but they did skip my favorite Mrs Who quote, “The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing” Pascal. They also skipped my favorite part, the section with Aunt Beast where the ice in Meg’s heart thaws and she learns to forgive her father.

There are other changes; some of them make sense and some are baffling, but I’m trying not to nit-pick.

Movie Mom thinks the film fails with Charles Wallace, and I am inclined to agree, but my almost 9-year-old son loved him and loved the film. I’ll take that.

Three and a half years ago, when Jennifer Lee of Frozen was announced as a screenwriter, Kristin and I had a conversation about the upcoming film and casting decisions (Can Meg be Unattractive? (me) and Heroines Plain and Awkward (Kristin)).

By the time Ava DuVernay was announced as director, and her plan of using mixed race kids for the main characters was announced, I had almost completely fallen off blogging. It was probably on that ubiquitous social networking site that I said I was excited about the casting. It seemed to me to be a brilliant way to update L’Engle’s themes and to allow for Meg’s social outsider status. They did not make that explicit in the film; there were no racial epithets thrown at her or anything, but it existed in the subtext, the foundations for the character. Storm Reid was excellent; she was angry and awkward and stubborn and suspicious and brave and loving and passionate. She was also lovely. She just was. In this case, I think I’m okay with that.

One interesting move they made was to include flashbacks of the Drs. Murry. In that way, they were much more a part of the story arc than they are in the book. I don’t know yet what I think about that.

I have to admit I am more disappointed than I thought I would be at the erasure of the specific Christian references. The themes are there, more or less, but the references are gone, even though other religious figures are named. L’Engle was so much the kind of inclusive, loving Christian that it would be nice to hold up, and her faith was so integral to her identity and work, I’m a little sad. It wouldn’t have had to be prominent or pushy. Just there, in the list of light-bringers. Or as a quote alongside Buddha and Rumi and Miranda. With all the darkness and light imagery and language, I kept waiting for someone to say “the light shines in the darkness.” I understand, and I am disappointed.

I also realized that I struggled to get a feel for the film as a whole because I spent the whole time wondering what they were going to do with the next scene. I would like to watch it again now that I know so I can simply enjoy what is there instead of wondering how they will adapt it.

Posted in Books, Faith, Family, Films | 3 Comments

roundtable discussion assignment

2 years ago, when I taught my first Community College Brit Lit survey class, I included a basic group presentation on the syllabus. I had 4 topics (thematically linked sections from the Norton) and had the students present on them. And they were fine, but they were typical presentations. Some kids did most of the work, and they weren’t very interesting. I went back to the drawing board (because group assignments are supposed to be part of the curriculum and they do serve a purpose).

I thought a lot about it, and I thought about how much I like listening to roundtable style podcasts, even when I’m not familiar with the subjects. And so I started to work toward something like that.

The next semester, I called them panel discussions. I had the students read the thematic units, each group doing a different set of texts, and had them summarize the topic and the texts for the class and then ask each other questions about the texts and answer them in their group but in front of the class. It went better, but there was not as active of listening from the rest of the class as I had hoped. I debriefed the process with the class afterward and we decided that it would be better if we opened up the discussion to the class at the end of the time.

Last term, I called them roundtable discussions and after they explained the topic and summarized the texts and answered one another’s questions, I opened the floor to the class. There was a little more active listening, but classmates asked really hard questions and it got awkward. And, this time, there was a struggle with the text summaries taking longer than I had been hoping. There was more summary and less discussion.

This semester, I called them roundtable discussions, but I had them make handouts with the explanation of the theme and the summaries of the texts. The rest of the class was given the handouts and a few minutes to read through them. Then the discussion time was given entirely to posing and answering questions (3-5 questions. Every member of the group is expected to offer an answer to every question.) The discussions were supposed to be 30-35 minutes in length. At around the 20/25 minute mark, we opened the discussion to the class asking, “What did you notice?” “What do you wonder?” questions we have practiced in class before. This worked much better than just opening it to any and all discussion. Then, at about the 30 minute mark, a went back to the group and each member gave a wrap-up comment.

I had also played with seating arrangements each term. The first time it was a small circle of desks in front of the class while everyone else stayed in their normal rows. The second time I let groups circle up where they were in the room and everyone else stayed in their seats. This time I made a small circle of desks for the group surrounded by a large circle for the rest of the class. This arrangement seemed to work better.

As I had every term, I talked about how this is an evolving assignment and I debriefed it with them. They gave many things they liked about it, especially in comparison to a traditional presentation. One student said she wasn’t exactly sure what to expect in the actual discussion, so I could be more clear about that. But that was the only room for improvement note I was given.

In fact, they liked it so much (everybody participated! It was interesting to listen to! We got to choose what we wanted to read! We got to have an in-depth discussion!) that they said they’d like to do it again and they suggested I do it earlier in the semester to help students get to know one another. I can’t do the latter this semester, but I’ve looked at the schedule and there is no reason I can’t shift things around a bit and go ahead and do a second round.

Group presentations have always been kind of a trial. They are worthwhile for the students because they learn the material they are presenting, but they usually just aren’t that interesting. And some students obviously do much more work than others. I am pleased with the way students lean in to these discussions and how interesting they really are.

I’d be happy to share the assignment sheet if anyone found it useful.

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ruling elder commissioned to particular pastoral service


In my early twenties, I went to a Southern Baptist break-out session on “Is seminary for me?” They made it very clear that seminary was not for me (though it was for my friend Steve).

In my early thirties, I realized that the Baptists weren’t the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith and began exploring other options. I also began a Ph.D. in English because that seemed to be where I was headed.

In my early forties (with my Ph.D.), I looked at the guys in my Presbyterian church who were going to seminary and looking at ordination, thought, “They’re nice guys, but they don’t have anything I don’t except an unquestioned belief that they can do this.” I began working at the church. I took a seminary course for people like me who weren’t going to do an M.Div., but who longed to learn and lead.

Eventually, someone (the chair of the committee on preparation for ministry, also my pastor’s spouse) said, “you could become a Commissioned Local Pastor.” The denominational term is Commissioned Ruling Elder, but the Presbytery admits that “pastor” is a better term and means more to people and local means that it is only here and only now. One is ordained for life. One is commissioned for 3 years.

So I went through the process. And then we had to decide if my role in my congregation was actually pastoral. Eventually we decided it was. And on Sunday I was commissioned. The Presbyterians have a *thing* about every ruling elder already being ordained. So. My ordination is as an elder–not as a minister of word and sacrament. But. For the next three years (renewable), in this Presbytery, I have all the rights of a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I can consecrate the elements in communion. I can baptize. I can moderate a session meeting (Presbyterians have no hierarchy of ministry, but a distinctive is that it is the Pastors who moderate Session (council). Most other protestant denominations have lay members moderate their councils/vestries. Presbyterians also have few technical “lay” members. If you have been ordained an elder or deacon, you are ordained–not lay.)

This is a position that was created in the 90s because rural areas and ethnic congregations were finding themselves unable to find and/or pay a full Minister of Word and Sacrament (and there are Presbytery Minimums). Finding someone with good training but not a complete seminary course became a possibility. 30 years later, as churches find themselves unable to pay for an associate pastor, they are beginning to look at commissioned folks in that spot. It’s a new idea, and it’s where I find myself. The odd thing is the ambiguity I feel. I believe in education. I believe it means something. If our congregation could afford an associate, that person wouldn’t look like me (I am a decade younger than my colleague, but otherwise, we are the same demographic: middle-aged, middle-class white women. Our parents were all public school teachers. Ideally, she would prefer to have a male colleague who is ethnically more like our neighborhood. I can’t argue. Yet here I am.)

Presbyterians want to be unambiguous. There are lots of rules. So, I was commissioned on Sunday–not ordained (because I was ordained in 2010)–but the service was similar to an ordination. And I was given the gifts that are symbolic of ministry: a robe, a stole, and a communion cup and plate (and my parents, I believe, will gift me with a portable communion set).

My role in my congregation won’t change much. I will be able to preside at the communion table even if my Colleagues are absent. I could do a baptism, but I can’t imagine that happening because people want the *Pastor* to preside. I can moderate a session meeting if it becomes important (which it did in November when my colleague broke her arm, but I hadn’t been commissioned yet). But mostly I will continue to work on the orders of worship, to prepare “creative” worship services, to work to make sure youth and children are part of worship leadership. And, occasionally, I’ll preach.

I could be called to serve at another congregation in the Presbytery. If that happens, we will have to see what that means. I am open to being led by the Spirit, but I am also aware that my family is settled here. (I was looking for photos for the Nurture Committee’s annual report and almost sent my son’s birthday party photo because every person present is from this congregation.)

It feels like a culmination of a lifetime of seeking for me. In college, I wanted to be the one who worked on worship, but I was relegated to the one who did “discipleship” because I was studying to be a teacher and I am not a singer. I used to joke about wanting to preach, except it wasn’t really a joke for me, I just passed it off that way because that’s how it was taken. I was amazed when I joined the Presbyterian church how differently the same Scripture could be interpreted. They not only had a place for me as a woman, but they also had a place for me as an academic and a word smith and I didn’t have to be able to sing. I found my home.

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