IF EVER I WANTED to step into a landscape to walk with a poet, I would eagerly join John Keats . . . lush bounty, harvest color, the promise of abundant provision. As a season, autumn is not a sign that winter death is near. It is a confirmation of the blessing of a season, the full-bodied experience of an autumn landscape. John Keats’ praise of autumn is one of his finest romantic creations, and one of his last.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
This—this is a rich land of milk and honey and sweet words. Keats’ descriptions are magical personification. Autumn is both friend and co-conspirator with the sun. They work together to ripen the final harvest of apples, gourds, nuts, and honey.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Autumn is a wisp of a woman waiting in her storehouse. The winnowing wind is the faint trace of her hair in the breeze. Then for a moment she drowses outside in the field, perhaps overcome by the heady scent, causing the harvesters to leave a swath of wheat and flowers behind because they are beautiful. And finally, with a heavy head from a full day she watches the cider presses do their work, a sign of her bounty as well.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Autumn has her own song of color and life and sound. She cannot be compared to her sister Spring, and yet their songs are similar. Listen to the sad hum of gnat clouds, the bleat of lambs, the song of crickets, the robin, the swallow.
Autumn is romanticized, but the beauty of every sense is brought to life with an attitude of gratefulness, a recognition that autumn brings life too.
“I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.”—C.S. Lewis
I can’t explain it as well as I’d like, but there’s something to George MacDonald’s preachy style. As a teenager, I read voraciously and whipped through a number of his romances such as The Seaboard Parish (1869) and The Fisherman’s Lady (1875). In each story, a prominent character is in need of a rescue, and in a predictable pattern, MacDonald provided a devout Christian who could guide and lead the needy to Christ. Simple conflicts, happy endings, nice and neat.
Yet these are only one type of novel he wrote. The fairy and fable of his early years feature deeper, even darker thoughts. Consider Phantastes (1858). Here, young Anodos, meaning pathless in Greek, discovers an atypical fairy world, a place of goodness and darkness. The inexperienced Anodos doesn’t always know who to believe among the world of fairies, trees, and creatures, and most alarmingly, he unearths his own shadow, a being that is himself and yet wholly evil. After many adventures by fable’s end, Anodos reawakens in the real world and finds he has been asleep for twenty-one days. This type of fantasy along with MacDonald’s children’s stories and poems is only one small part of his writings though. Having been a Congregational minister for a time, MacDonald can’t seem to keep himself from sermonizing, let alone moralizing, in his stories.
So recently I picked up a piece of his I hadn’t read before, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1866). Our story begins with the honest and friendly greeting of Harry Walton, a new vicar in a rural parish harmlessly called Marshmallows. The story is replete with stereotypical characters such as the rich old widow manipulating others through her position, the old geezer working the local grain mill, the young working-class couple separated by a gruff father, and so on.
What’s unique is MacDonald’s perspective. Young Walton is ever the narrator and describes what he sees: “Why did I not use to see such people about me before?” He recognizes that he is learning to truly see each parishioner as they are, and his ideals are clear. He is driven (or is it inspired?) to make God real to the people in his charge:
a man must be partaker of the Divine nature; that for a man’s work to be done thoroughly, God must come and do it first himself; that to help men, He must be what He is—man in God, God in man—visibly before their eyes, or to the hearing of their ears. So much I saw.
Through Walton’s eyes and ears, we see his encounters and hear his sermons. We see his sincere desires and his need to bring people together, even if he must solve the mysteries of people themselves. He is a winning protagonist, even if pedantic in times.
Personally, I enjoyed hearing the voices of the Victorian age, whether the Spenserian carols at the vicar’s Christmas party or the pulpit pounders straight from MacDonald himself. Unlike other MacDonald novels, Scottish brogue and dialect are hugely absent since our narrator is a cultured man, all the easier for his audience to enjoy the style and theology that is MacDonald’s.
Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood is available in several volumes now as a reprint or digitized for public use at projectgutenberg.com. The Wade Center at Wheaton College and the George MacDonald Society websites provide a delightful array of resources and texts. Librivox also features 19 hours of MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons.
Dictionary and thesaurus apps. Etymology and word roots. Language study and interlinear Bibles.
Writing tools in this century are at our fingertips. Yet as I work on my first novel, the most unusual resource has resurfaced—a 1929 Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder. I call it my fat word builder.
I admit it’s been abandoned for a while on our bookshelves, possibly for ten years, but now—now it’s a rarefied gem in my eyes. Yes, it’s a single book. No, it is not digitized, but there are many newer editions.
Its genius resides in the collection of associated meanings, not just straight synonyms.
Let me give you an example from my summer editing work. In my novel's first draft, I have definitely overused certain words like come, wind, were, and a most heinous repetitive phrase--began to. Apparently my heroine Carina likes to begin things. She began to sit or stand. She began to crouch. She began to laugh. Goodness. I promise she finishes things. Really.
Now for the edits with Hartrampf's help. I look up the word "begin" in the back index. I'm delighted to find an entire page devoted to its use. The top of this page says to see other possible connections for "start" or "commencement." A handy list with additional pages is right there: birthplace, excite—rouse, change, opening—foreword, musical beginnings, time preceding, or cause. Which kind of "begin" do I want? I could flip to any of those or look below at the parts of speech:
And this is just one-eighth of the page. The word wonder continues with many family and neighbor words for "begin." For my character, though, I found that many times she was not truly beginning something. Instead of "With knife in hand, Carina began to crouch . . ." I realized she wasn't beginning anything. "With knife in hand, Carina crouched . . ." was more accurate and less wordy. Of course, I could have said, "She prepared herself." In reality "crouched" became the best fat word. Yes, fat. These words contain action and image and power.
As a writer, I can say in all sincerity that I have finally found a happy and pleasant use for the word fat.
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me. Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
I SERIOUSLY NEED TO WRITE this cautionary book for secondary teachers. Teaching is really not for everyone, though I still hear stories about how someone just fell into it as a backup job. Sometimes they are a natural, and you hear, "Oh my goodness, I am called to this!" Good for them, but that is not normal by any means. And it’s not that teaching requires a certain personality. Any type of personality can fit, but I do think flexible cholerics have an advantage.
1. Teachers may fail because they didn’t quite understand one word--preparation. This is before employment. This goes back to college coursework. In the good ol’ days, an education degree was required in most states. Drama education, Math education, English education. These were actual degree names. They are rarities now. In my own state, all you need to do is pass one general and one specific certification test and you can teach grades 6 through 12. Just like that. No training. No coursework. No student teaching. I suppose that a number of states were trying to entice retirees or other job lookers. Unfortunately they just hired inexperienced people (can we call them teachers?) who quickly quit.
Here’s why the college coursework is part of that preparation. I had classes in understanding the statistics of test scores and what they really tell us, I had a course in creating every type of visual aid on the cheap in addition to tech training, and most importantly, I had an entire semester class on the ever practical classroom management. This was nuts and bolts. This was the class that covered so many realistic scenarios that I really was prepared to teach 17 year olds when I was 21. You can’t tell me that a few exams will do that. And for the private schools who don’t require teaching degrees, certification, or even experience, good luck! I’m sure those newbies were great in their interviews. They probably shared inspiring tales of how one key professor truly showed them how great teaching could be, as if watching a salesman charm a customer makes me a fabulous salesman.
If you fall into this scenario, then I only have one piece of advice. Before you are literally responsible for a group of little humans, you owe it to them to know what you are getting into. It doesn’t matter if you need college credit. You need life experience. Call a few public or private schools and ask to observe one of their master teachers in the subject you want to teach. Maybe they have to vet you. Maybe they meet with you in person in an interview of sorts, but arrange to go for as many weeks as they will allow and absorb how it’s done. Imitation of good practices goes a long way.
2. Once hired and in the trenches, teachers also fail when they don’t understand that preparation is daily. It requires dedicated time. You do read, study, practice, and prepare before you teach anything. The first few years of teaching a subject well require serious time. If you wing it, you usually fail. If you have no idea where you want a class discussion to go because you didn’t do the reading homework you assigned to your own students, then don’t be surprised at their confusion. How can you lead well, if you have no aim? Actually, that may be part of the problem. A good number of average teachers have succumbed to the malaise of biding their time until they hit twenty years and retire. Their aim is no longer about learning or about the lives they influence.
How can you lead well if you have no aim?
3. Teachers may also fail if they don’t understand the reality of living, breathing, and teaching for an entire school year. In the real world as opposed to the school world, you have good days, bad ones, and meh ones. The same goes for a school year. Even when you are prepared, even when students do the homework, even when you’ve managed your class setting well, your day can be blah. You can even have weeks of blah. Yes, weeks! Or the one thing you can’t predict—one class will interact with you in a phenomenal manner and all the others are a major disappointment. The point is that it’s not you. Well, not usually. Even if you thought you were inspiring, sometimes human beings are unpredictable. It happens. Know that it happens. A realistic viewpoint helps.
4. In the same vein, teachers also fail when they are judged by their performance. First year evaluations in a public or private school can be intense. Surprise class observations. All kinds of advice. Some helpful bits thrown in with some harsh ones. But this is a broken system to me. These are snapshots of you, just 30 to 45 minutes of your teaching LIFE once a month, if that. If any administrator were to observe you five days in a row, then and only then, would they have a realistic picture of who you were as a teacher working with children. I can’t change that system, but I will tell you what many public and private school veterans would advise--
Forget acting like this is a normal class period. Do not go on as if this is a typical day. Instead, by the seat of your pants, pull out all the stops. This is an audition. Teach to impress the students and the administrator. Quote the best material. Ask the best questions you can. Roam around the room and interact more than ever. This should be a damn fine performance!”
I know. It sounds overdramatic, but until I learned this fact of life, my evaluations were lower than those who practiced this. Really. Thank God I had a tremendous veteran teacher mentor me my first year. And trust me, it is true for both public and private schools.
(I do know teacher performance is also judged by student performance. But testing, its practice, its ideals, would require more space.)
5. The most significant reason teachers fail is because they are unable to manage students well. If you can’t control them, you can’t teach them. It does sound awful, but it’s true. That word control sounds like utter manipulation. And it is. If you manage your students’ behavior well, then you are manipulating them. Manipulate does mean “to handle skillfully.” You are hopefully creating an environment where you keep negative or interfering behaviors in check at the same time that you teach and interact. You are respectful and respected. You inspire and create interest, ALL as you teach. This is skill. This requires experience.
Some teachers fail regularly at this because they just aren’t good at predicting human behavior. Sometimes they are just too hopeful that students might choose well regarding their own behavior (Hint: Assume they won’t choose well). And sometimes, teachers really don’t know what they’re doing. They might suppose they are instructing little adults, and that is a serious mistake.
How to help? If a new teacher lacks experience, we must require more. That is the formula. They must observe others who do it well. That does not mean becoming exactly like another personality. You still have to be yourself and acquire these skills to suit your personality. At the same time, you must have a mentor teacher in the same building and subjects as you. If it’s not required and one is not assigned to you, humble yourself and ask around. I think mentors should be assigned for the first three years, not just the first. If you ever think you are done learning from someone, that they have taught you everything you could ever need, then you will fail. Working side by side for several years is invaluable experience.
What do you think? As parents, educators, students, we have been part of every type of classroom. What works? What advice would you offer?
IN THE MIDST OF MY WRITING FLURRY this summer, I was able to read more than I thought. Skim through for a range from historical to Victorian to fantasy.
The Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown
Brown conveys the brutal legalism of religion alongside the harsh adaptation to native life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1600s, and though I don’t agree with every description of Native Americans or the colonists, I do appreciate Brown’s ability to place us, the readers, in the midst of Rowlandson’s story. It is a fiction after all. The historical element carries such weight to the harrowing journey of Mary White Rowlandson that I could not easily put this down. Did Rowlandson really think all of English life was repressive and likely worthless? Did she, a woman, speak out about the sin of slavery in a male-controlled society? It’s possible, but we will never really know. Rowlandson’s Native friend James the Printer expresses best that "We must learn new truths or die,” and I agree. Without having read this accounting, I would not have reconsidered the “truths” of the historical accounts from this era in the early colonies.
The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures
This was a new collection for me, and frankly, it caught my eye because of the word “adventure.” I delight in Muir’s grandiose poetical landscapes, but this collation is all about those near-misses. Bears, glaciers, rock climbing, avalanches, wild weather. Think Muir v. Wild. It might be limited in scope by design, but this grouping is a great introduction for new Muir readers.
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
In a straightforward autobiographical style, the youngest Bronte writes of the lonely yoke of being a governess working among a bad breed of families who refuse to discipline their children or establish moral thought. Comforts are few, but our central character Agnes encourages herself and her readers: "I determined always strictly to fulfill the threats and promises I made; and, to that end, I must be cautious to threaten or promise nothing that I could not perform." She speaks of that determination, even in the midst of multiple failures, as "unshaken firmness, devoted diligence, unwearied perseverance, unceasing care."
The novel is surprising in that it most boldly criticizes the aristocracy and gentry. "But some people think rank and wealth the chief good; and, if they can secure that for their children, they think they have done their duty." The final third contrasts from the darker and somewhat preachy beginning in a most hopeful way. No spoilers here.
The Last Good Day by Robert Kugler
I would consider this a research read for me because I am writing a young adult novel and want to be more than just familiar with popular writing. With that said, if you enjoy Nicholas Sparks, you'll like Kugler's YA debut. Young love, deep thoughts, friendship, talent, humor in batches. Though I've never been to Jersey or Wildwood, I delighted in walking the streets, the beach, the clubs, goodness, even the Christmas shop, with Angela and Avery.
The Wounded Shadow by Patrick W. Carr
It so happens that the novel I’m writing is considered fantasy, so what better way to inspire myself than to read a Christian fantasy author I admire? The entire Dark Shadow series was thoughtful and action-filled, a rare combination. The war of good versus evil was never plain or simplistic but as intricate as the world Carr built so effectively. To maintain this world and each character's development requires so much as a writer. I am in awe. What an amazing ending to the stories of so many characters. I especially want to meet Custos some day!
. . . more books and poetry to follow next week.
TWO SUMMERS AGO our back porch was inundated with carpenter bees. Their damage was disheartening, and little could be done aside from trying to kill them one by one. I offered a singular prayer. It was simple really. I asked God for help. One month later a jar of nuthatches, an entire family of extended siblings, arrived.
They were a living picture.
Now nuthatches or brown creepers are not common in Oklahoma, especially in neighborhoods. This little covey, however, twittered away as they began to feast, hopping through the firewood pile first, eating the young black bees. I walked as close as I could to them and told them how glad I was that they had come, that they were sent by God as my helpers. [Yes, I talk to birds, trees, and lots of God’s creation in my yard.] The group then spiraled upside down through the pine trunks, taking care of the pine bark beetles too. Within ten days all the bees were gone and so were the eleven nuthatches.
Last summer a few bees returned, but I saw nary a nuthatch. I missed my friends and began to wonder if they would ever reappear. I swatted at bees with my broom instead.
This year, on the week of my wedding anniversary mind you, I was in the backyard in the heat of the afternoon looking for our cat Kiwi. I heard a single chirrup then another one a few yards away. As I peered into the trees, I saw them—two nuthatches. I moved back into the shade of the porch and watched. The smaller one, the female, was hunting along a tree trunk, but every now and then she chirped to the male who was deep in my magnolia bush. He echoed right back. Every time she moved she chirped to him as if she was sending both her location and an “all is well” signal. He always responded.
My face was wet in minutes. I just knew these two were part of the family that had traveled through my backyard before, and they had returned to build a nest and a family. My home was their home. But even more, they were a living picture, a picture of working together, a reminder on my anniversary week, a picture of God's love for me, and an answer to a simple prayer once again.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro' endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door –
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" –
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
AS A POET, Emily Dickinson creates a buffet for the senses and the imagination in “I taste a liquor never brewed.” By her first implication, the reader knows that this poem does not refer to something natural, something “brewed” by man, but to the sense of something hard to define. This mysterious element combined with unusual imagery elicits a playful almost festive theme of the summer season.
Dickinson persistently uses drunken imagery in all its connotations as a metaphor for the exhilaration she enjoys outdoors in the summer. She first mentions that nothing can compare to this heady sensation, no other emotion can “yield such an alcohol.” The imagery continues as she next mentions she is drunk on the very air and summer dew, “reeling” all season long in the “inns” or taverns under the sky. Dickinson even relishes summer more than the insects that thrive then. Lines 9 through 12 show how the bee has had his fill of “drink” from the foxgloves, and the butterflies now “renounce their drams” and can’t drink or even desire another drop. Yet Dickinson exclaims she’ll keep drinking—consuming, absorbing, enjoying all creation.
So much of Dickinson’s description lies in tangible sensation.
First person point of view pervades these first three stanzas, and this is part of the power of this poem. In line 1, Dickinson tastes this “liquor” of summer. In line 5, she is the one who is drunk on air and dew, and in line 12, she shouts that when the bee and butterflies are done drinking, “I shall but drink the more!” Her point of view is just that, not a commentary or guide to how the reader should feel about summer, but an exclamation of her intense emotion in a most unusual metaphor.
The perspective of the final stanza shifts, however, as Dickinson describes angels and saints in heaven gazing down through their “snowy Hats” or clouds and “windows” at her. As narrators, they in turn term her a “Tippler,” someone who makes a habit of drinking. Interestingly, a tippler isn’t an extreme drinker or drunk but simply a regular and daily drinker. The angels and saints witness her “Leaning against the - Sun!” not overcome and leaning against a bar or wall in a tavern, but against the sun itself, the epitome of the season. Dickinson is the one regularly “drinking in” the sun
She remains wholly conjoined to the essence of summer.
So much of Dickinson’s description lies in tangible sensation, the taste of drink, or even physical movement, but not in color or sound. Yet the absence of these two senses does not diminish her apparent expression of heart-felt emotion. She remains wholly conjoined to the essence of summer.
originally posted 6/8/17
From the first moments when we meet Douglas Spaulding, we know his life is one of imagination and adventure. In Dandelion Wine, Doug is tantalized by the summer season, and his full-bodied experiences entice the most reticent reader to enter again into a season of discovery. One of the most notable elements of Bradbury’s fiction is this ability to depict the wonder and sometimes the harsh reality of childhood through experience and imagery.
We can relive our own childhood awakening through Douglas’s first summer moments. Riding in his Dad’s car through the countryside, Doug declares that Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once. This was that day for Doug where he literally became aware of every sight, sound, and taste about him in the woods.
I, too, have shared in some of those childhood experiences. I remember going on fishing trips with my father and big sister in the early Mississippi morning hours to a local pond or practically anywhere we could drive his 1971 Chevy truck under an hour’s time. Even at five or six years of age, I could bait my own hooks with crickets and worms. The problem was that I was easily distracted by the wonder of where we were. I could sit on a bank and doodle my bobber in the water for a time, but almost always, I would leave my pole and wander a dirt path or two, investigating for critters or anything I couldn’t catch in my own backyard.
Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once.
For me, the freedom to explore my little unknown habitat, even for a morning, was a treasure. I could sit still and listen to the wind in the pines, the jays and their squabbles, the plunk of bullfrogs for what seemed an infinitesimal day. I could close my eyes and just feel the aliveness around me, the breeze, the humid liquid air, the sense of a twig in my hand as I dug in the dirt. Like Doug, I could then open my eyes and know that absolutely everything was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him. It’s the utter sense of being fully awake and being wholly part of a place and moment in time.
Though Doug begins his summer declaring I want to feel all there is to feel, he soon discerns that time is slipping quickly by: The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing. Through the experience of life and death in the town and their family, Doug and his brother realize that happy endings don’t always go with summer, but it is a part of awakening to life.
On one of those same summer fishing days, I remember my first experience with death, and it too, startled me. I had been fishing with a juicy worm in the hot sun without luck when I suddenly felt my bobber jerk deep. I hollered for my dad who ran to help me pull the fish in. It was a red snapping turtle instead, and it was huge to my small eyes. As fascinating as it was, it wouldn’t let go of my big worm even though my dad tried to get it to bite a stick instead. That was one aggressive turtle, and it wouldn’t let go of that line. My dad later said that the turtle had never swallowed the bait nor hook but was just plain ornery. Though I was fascinated by their tussle, my dad shouted at me to get back, then he tried again to get that turtle to grab the stick, and it did. As soon as it crunched, my dad whipped out his Bowie knife from his boot and cut off its head right where it had extended its neck. I was mortified and sickened, for I had caught many a tiny box turtle in our yard as a pet kept for weeks at a time, and I sure didn’t understand my dad’s reaction. I just sat down in the dirt and cried out of pure shock as my dad flung the parts in the lake.
Like Tom who saw a different part of his mother’s character one night at the ravine or like Doug who loses a friend to a move or as both as they lose neighbors and their own great-grandma to death, so many changes come at unexpected times, and something as pleasant as a summer day can devolve into horror and grief. The wonder and simple pleasures of summer then can not only be contagious at times as we revel in creation and experience, but also tempered by the realities of life and death.
originally posted 3/31/17
Ages ago I took a college course titled “History of the English Language.” In the principle text, Pyle and Algeo argue that language development makes us human. They begin with what we know—speech comes first then writing. We talk before we can write. In fact, there are spoken languages with no written form. In spoken language, inflection and stress provide intended meaning. Writing itself distinguishes meaning through its process, but it is useless without words.
Words are building blocks, units, ingredients, pieces of a sentence or thought puzzle. How else could we have the word worsdsmith, one who works with words just as a tradesman works with his piece of wood or iron?
But before it entered an English dictionary, the word word was known by the Greeks as logos. In pre-Socratic philosophy it was the principle governing the cosmos because it encapsulated human reasoning. The Sophists later saw it as the topics of rational argument or the arguments themselves. The Stoics viewed logos as nous—the active, material, rational principle of the cosmos that was identified with God. It was both the source of all activity and generation and the power of reason residing in the human soul. In Judaism, logos becomes the living, active word of God. It is creative power, and it is God’s medium of communication with the human race. In Christianity, logos becomes the creative word of God which is itself God incarnate in Jesus in John 1.
Words are building blocks, units, ingredients, pieces of a sentence or thought puzzle.
As I write this summer, I am ever conscious of how words are used, and not just mine. The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 might describe it this way—words are used to inspire fear, to bring wisdom, to bring joy, to show emotion, to display passions, to attack or defend, to bring comfort, to encourage, to belittle or tear down, to cause pain, to bring healing, to mend.
The inherent caution is there. Our words have life, and as writers, readers, and speakers, we share a responsibility. Let’s apply our hearts to instruction, our ears and the ears of our listeners to words of knowledge.