Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: The Eighth Day

The Eighth Day: A Novel by Thornton Wilder

I've never read anything by Thornton Wilder other than Our Town, which is a little surprising given how much I love certain lines in that play. In this far-reaching book, Wilder follows the fates of two families in Coaltown when the father of one of them is incorrectly convicted of murdering the father of the other. Everyone is surprised when he is rescued from the train on his way to his execution.

When reading a book like this one which includes a lot of "philosophizing," I always feel like the author is trying to make a big statement about the meaning of life that I don't quite understand. In the end, though, I love reading books like this because they focus my own thoughts on the meaning of life. It matters less to me that I understand what Wilder is saying is true than that I spend time working through my own thoughts on the matter.

On people of faith, Wilder says:
There is no creation without faith and hope.
There is no faith and hope that does not express itself in creation. These men and women work. The spectacle that most discourages them is not error or ignorance or cruelty, but sloth. This work that they do may often seem to be all but imperceptible. That is characteristic of activity that never for a moment envisages an audience.
Later, I read about some of the creations by those people of faith:
For Ashley, the function of a room was to be serviceable; it had never occurred to him that it could be beautiful. He who lacked so many qualities--humor, ambition, vanity, reflection--had never distinguished a category of the beautiful. Some pictures on grocers' calendars has pleased him. At school he had been praised for the "beauty" of his mechanical drawings. We remember how on his flight through Illinois he had been overwhelmed by the beauty of dawn, and later of Chimborazo, and of his Chilean peaks. He sat down in a high-backed chair and looked about him. He became aware of an odd sensation in his throat; he sobbed. His eyes rested on the exhausted and submissive head on the wall before him. The world was a place of cruelty, suffering, and confusion, but men and women could surmount despair by making beautiful things, emulating the beauty of the first creation.
I found lots of bits and pieces that called to mind other books I've read recently like Boys Adrift.
A man can produce fortitude from his own vitals, but the true food of valor is example.
Speaking of boys, Wilder apparently knows them well. As I read this paragraph, I was a little saddened that so many boys today are spending time with electronics rather than other boys in the freedom of unchaperoned time out-of-doors.
Even in the best of homes, at the best of times, a boy is always in the wrong. Boys are filled with exhausting energies; they enjoy noise; they are (or where would we be?) adventurous and inquiring. They creep out onto ledges and fall into caves and two hundred men spend nights searching for them. They must hurl objects. They particularly cherish small animals and must have them near. A respect for cleanliness is as slowly and painfully acquired as mastery of the violin. They are perpetually famished and can barely be taught to eat decorously (the fork was late appearing in society). They are unable to sit still for more than ten minutes unless they are being told a story about mayhem and sudden death (or where would we be?). They receive several hundred rebukes a day. They rage at the humiliation of being male and not men. They strain to hasten the calendar. they must smoke and swear. Dark warnings are thrown out to them about "impurity" and "filthiness"--interesting occupations which seem to be reserved to adults. They peer into mirrors for the first promise of a beard. No wonder they are happy only among their coevals; they return from their unending games (that resemble warfare) puffed up, it may be, with triumph--late, dirty, or bloody.
I loved this speech to one of the young men in the novel. He was headstrong and often misguided. Instead of chastising him, she treated him with understanding and respect. Her words give him hope and purpose (though still often misguided).
You are young. You are not happy now because you have not yet discovered the work to which you will give your life. Somewhere in the world there is a work for you to do, to which you will bring courage and honor and loyalty. For every man there is one great task that God has given him to do. I think that yours will demand a brave heart and some suffering; but you will triumph.
I think what I liked best in the book is Wilder's language. Like in Our Town, he presents the world and our human experience as bigger than anything we can comprehend. Sometimes I feel that way myself, as if my heart would burst with all the emotion and hope and beauty and fear and despair in creation. These are not feelings to be understood, but shared. When I first read Our Town as a young girl, I realized for the first time I was not alone in feeling that way.
A feeling of something portentous and strange in human experience had been gathering within him. He felt as though he had walked all his life in ignorance of abysses and wonders, of ambushes, of eyes watching him, of writing on clouds. It came to him that surely life is vaster, deeper, and more perilous than we think it is. He dropped the envelope and bent over to pick it up. He was suddenly filled with fear that he would go through life ignorant--stump ignorant--of the powers of light and the powers of darkness that were engaged in some mighty conflict behind the screen of appearances--fear, fear that he would live like a slave, or like a four-footed thing with lowered head.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: A Place in Time

by Wendell Berry

Kansas Dad recommended this book to me after I read and loved Hannah Coulter. This is a book of short stories, told from different points of view but all centered on the Port William community. In it, Mr. Berry argues economic changes in our country eliminated small farms brought about by the economic changes in our country and therefore destroyed a better way of life. More than anything, though, this book had me considered how we can be thoughtful and deliberate in the way we raise our children within our community, fostering their relationships with people of all ages.

In "Stand by Me," he talks of how young boys were encouraged (forced) to participate in the economic work of the farm, contributing to the family as they were able, learning, and growing.
To spare Grandma, and when they were out of school, we kept the boys at work with us. That way they learned to work. They played at it, and while they were playing at it, they were doing it. And they were helping too. We generally had a use for them, and so from that time on they knew we needed them, and they were proud to be helping us to make a living.
Over and over, I was reminded of Boys Adrift, which I read recently. The young men in these stories were learning how to be men through their relationships with the men of the community, by observing how they lived and working with them. In "A New Day," Mr. Berry describes a weekly basketball game in which young men (high school students) and older men played together.
It seemed that everybody who wanted to play was playing, a full dozen by Elton's count. But it took him a while to determine who was on which side, since there was only the one goal and the players were in work clothes. The only readily visible difference among the players was that on both teams the boys were wearing the rubber-soled shoes that they called "tennis shoes," though none of them had ever so much as seen a game of tennis, but the men were all wearing their work shoes. A considerable part of the interest of the game was the men's efforts to start and stop and stay upright in those shoes on boards that had been polished by the hay shoved across them for fifty years. Also the boys, who had been playing basketball at school all winder, were in practice, young and agile and comparatively fast, whereas the men were out of practice or had never played before, and were comparatively slow and awkward in addition to being poorly shod.
In the course of the game, there is an accident, one that might have been tragic but was instead merely hilarious.
It was one of the best moments of the sporting life of the Port William neighborhood. Fifty years later you could still find people who hadn't been there who could tell you all about it.
After the game, Mr. Berry writes:
The boys started idly shooting goals. The men stood around retelling the story of Pascal's fall and laughing. If any of them knew which side had won the game or what the score was, the subject was never raised. Maybe the boys knew.
The game was a time of action and comraderie, and the boys were as invested in it as the older men. They were comfortably together in a way that's impossible at a contemporary high school basketball or football game.

I love this quote from "At Home."
When he got home from the war, still recovering from his wound, he knew his life was a gift, not so probable as he had once thought, and yet unquestionable as that of any tree, not to be hoarded or clutched at, not to be undervalued or too much prized, for there were many days now lost back in time when he could have died as easily and unremarkably as a fly. It was a life now simply to be lived, accepting hardships and pleasures, joys and griefs equally as they came.
Mr. Berry writes often of the work he finds most praise-worthy, that is, the improvement of a piece of land: the planting and tending of a garden and fields, the proper care of chickens and hogs, the mending of fences, the painting of buildings, the making of something good and beautiful where before there was neglect and desolation. From "A Place in Time":
This accomplishment of the Penns stood among the other good things of the early life of Andy Catlett like an illuminated page. He had seen firsthand what they had done and how they had done it. They had taken what had been given them and what had been available in the time and place, and they had brought it to abundance and the luster of a new thing.
As a young boy and man, Andy Catlett watched his neighbors and learned how to leave the world better than it was. Later in the same story, Mr. Berry is explicit in his criticisms.
The Penns' story, then, was a story of the gathering up of a small, brief coherence within a larger, longer story of disconnection and incoherence. Even as Elton and Mary were making themselves whole, in their marriage and in their place, Port William and its neighborhood were coming increasingly into the story of cheap fuel, speed, and the fire-driven machinery of disintegration. By the time of Elton's death in 1974, the balance had tilted against such a life as he had aspired to and lived. The economy of industry had prevailed. The land and the people who did the land's work were to be used, and used up, by the measures of mechanical efficiency and corporate profit. Green was replacing thrift as an economic virtue. All was to be taken, nothing given back.
The last two paragraphs of the last story:
It seemed to him almost a proof of immortality that nothing mortal could contain all its sorrow. He thought, as we have all been taught to think, of our half-lit world, a speck hardly visible, hardly noticeable, among scattered lights in the black well in which it spins. If all its sorrow could somehow be voiced, somehow heard, what an immensity would be the outcry!
In the silent, shadowy room in the great night he was thinking of heavenly pity, heavenly forgiveness, and his thought was a confession of need. It was a prayer.
In some ways, I mourn the small farm Mr. Berry mourns, but I also fear I would have made a poor farmer's wife. I don't care for gardens or chickens. I would much rather sit snuggled in a chair and read one of his books! I also know there are many farmers now who work to feed their families and provide nutrition for a great many people, that changes in agriculture do allow greater yields. Given our country today, what can we do to nurture the relationships to our community and the land that would allow us to live fuller lives, lives of contentment and purpose?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Homeschool Review: Kindergarten Stories and Morning Talks

written and compiled by Sara E. Wiltse

We used this book when First Daughter was in kindergarten (2012-2013). I find it hard to believe I neglected to review it for the blog. Though I purchased this book for kindergarten, my son who was in third grade, also often listened to the stories.

This book is a reproduction of a kindergarten curriculum for a classroom in the 1890s with the addition of a lot of period-appropriate illustrations and photographs. For September through June, it provides four weekly lessons (sometimes five) of object lessons, seasonal lessons, stories of virtue, faith and morals, and other sweet stories little ones love.

Because it was originally published in the 1890s, the explanations of how things are made are not up-to-date, but, if you are so inclined, it is easy enough to find out how things are made today. I appreciated the descriptions of the older methods as they often were easier to understand and explain to young children. Even though, for example, cotton cloth is no longer made in exactly the same way, there is value in understanding how something is cultivated, processed, and delivered in a way that children rarely glimpse in today's world. My children especially enjoyed learning ten ways a cow was used. I also appreciated the impetus to provide the children with real objects to hold and manipulate, like a cotton boll (which I never did find) and granite, while we listened to stories together.

We did not use all of the stories in the book. Though designed for a weekly lesson, I found them too long to read in one sitting and would instead choose one or two of the selections each week. When we read through this book next year, I think I might use more of it but spread it over two or three days a week. I had to adjust the seasonal lessons as well, as we start school rather early in August for the autumn lessons of September and finish long before the June lessons would be reached.

If you are just beginning with a kindergarten student, this book would be an excellent source for your kindergarten curriculum. In fact, I would discourage a new homeschooler from using much more.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reading 2013: A Year in Review

Well, I have finally finished posting about all the books I read in December in all the extra time I had because I wasn't posting on the blog, so it's time for the annual favorite books post. Because I liked Brandy's post, I decided to do something similar here.

The book covers below are affiliate links to Amazon. I've linked the book titles to my book reviews here on the blog or to the monthly book report for the month in which I read the book.

Favorite Book of 2013

A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis 

After reading this book, I realized anew how blessed I am to be Catholic and how blessed we all are by the cloistered communities around the world who pray for us.

Best Fiction and Best New-to-Me Author
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

If I weren't so tied to my books-to-read-list, I would plan to read at least one book by Berry every month until I'd read them all. And then maybe I'd start over again. I liked this one so much, I asked for it for Christmas so I could own my very own copy.
Best Non-Fiction
When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Best Classic Book I'd Never Read Before
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

After I read this, we listened to an audio CD of it from the library. Everyone liked it and now we have the continued pleasure of a three year old singing, "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!"

Best Book I Pre-Read for School
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome 

Book that Made Me Cry

Yeah...I can't really pick one here. Just about every book I read makes me cry at some point. Eventually the children are going to get used to this. Or give up on me and read the books aloud themselves.

Book that Made Me Laugh

I've recommended these books to everyone I know with a middle grade reader. I'm just as excited as First Son to read the final book in the trilogy when it comes out in April.

Best Homeschooling or Education Book (also Most Challenging)
Poetic Knowledge by James S. Taylor

Best Book I Read Aloud
Canadian Summer by Hilda van Stockum

The whole Mithcells series was wonderful. This was one of the more difficult categories because there are so many wonderful books to read aloud. Adam of the Road was another fantastic book, perfect to share with just about any child.

Best Kansas Book
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Best Book on Faith
Story of a Soul translated from the original manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D.
(other than A Right to Be Merry, of course)

My Other Favorite Books
They may have been beaten out by one of the books above, but they still deserve a mention as one of my favorite books read in 2013.  In alphabetical order by title, for lack of a better system:

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Call It Courage by Armstrong Perry
The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Half Upon a Time by James Riley
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The Saturdays (Melendy Quartet) by Elizabeth Enright
Something Beautiful for God by Malcom Muggeridge
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

I was also really pleased to read Macbeth and The Tempest this year. Reading the plays myself is the best part of studying Shakespeare with the children.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: Parenting without Borders

by Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D.

I picked up this book on one of those rare days I was at the library and could peruse the new books in person. At first, as I read it, I thought it was a brief and unnecessary survey of ideas I had already seen and read elsewhere, but as I continued, I found a coherent and thoughtful response to the author's own experiences in other countries as well as a well-researched book bringing together lots of sources and information for American parents. Dr. Gross-Loh (whose degree is not in education or child psychology or anything particularly related to the material in the book) manages to provide insight into the lessons of other cultures while respecting and honoring the American ideals of individuality, creativity, and independence. While it is true she did not present much I had not already read somewhere else, she has summarized it well and non-threateningly. I highly recommend this book to new parents and parents of young children.

Unlike in the United States, parents overseas were confident and certain where we Americans were beset by too many options, which tended to make us feel confused about our role. As I learned more about the history behind many of our contemporary parenting practices, I wondered if perhaps we Americans were paying a price for what we thought were enlightened and modern parenting ways, ways that give us choices, along with the mistaken (but oppressive) belief that as long as we choose wisely, we will be able to completely and perfectly control how our children's lives turn out.
The author's initial interest in the subject of parenting across cultures arose in the years she lived in Japan with her two young sons. In Japan, her children attending a yochien, a single school for preschool and kindergarten in which children mingle across the ages.
But in parent-education workshops held throughout the year, the yochien teachers explained that fighting, crying, and making up again were normal ways of figuring out how to get along. They insisted it was important not to interfere in this natural process, but to let children hone their innate abilities to work things out on their own. The teachers didn't see aggression as a sign of aberrant behavior or the mark of a "problem child" who would grow into a violent adult, but something normal that arose in childhood and would naturally fade when it had been allowed to run its course.
When I read of this kind of situation, I always think of the mother in Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly, "Work it out, you two!"
Because peers are harder on each other than adults, peer play gives kids even more opportunity for challenge, negotiation, and growth than they have when we adults are playing with them. Peer play gives kids powerful opportunities to learn how to resolve conflicts, how to read other kids' verbal and nonverbal cues, and how to interact with different personalities and play styles.
Reading passages about how children choose to spend their time in other countries encourage me in our search for "real" experiences for our children, time to explore the real world in a tactile and messy way rather than through apps. (Not that we don't have any apps, but they hold a much less important place.)
Kids making mud balls learned much about the world in a tactile way that no book could teach them. They were learning about the properties of mud: how mud changes when it is wet, or when it is dry, how much water to use, how much force to apply as they roll it over and over in their little palms. They were learning to cultivate patience, concentration, perseverance, and self-control as they dealt with frustration over the occasional failed or cracked mud ball. They practiced conflict resolution as they dealt with children who might accidentally step on and crush their mud balls. They felt task satisfaction when they watched the little mud balls pile up. And they gained the respect of their peers, and learned about cooperation, as they crouched side by side to make these little balls.
But the most important thing was that this play, whether kids were making mud balls, playing house or tag, or looking for bugs in the garden, was self-directed.
The information on active play and recess was especially interesting for me. This is an area in which I need constant reminders to send my children outside. (How thankful I am for our new neighbors and the boys who lure my children far from the beaten path on our own land!)
In our country, school administrators and teachers are under pressure to provide visible, measurable academic results, often compelling them to cut back on recess to make more room for academics. But the neuroscience of play has shown that this is the wrong approach. It's especially counterproductive since today's students need to develop twenty-first-century skills that require the sort of initiative and creativity that they develop through play.
She talks about a "forest kindergarten" she visits in Denmark (and mentions them in other places as well). These were also mentioned in a book I read recently, Boys Adrift.
The kindergarten is for ages three to six and is located on the edge of a forest; a small, icy bay lies on the other side.
The children are outside for the entire class. They have circle time outside, maybe a snack, and then they play. Self-directed play. They walk in the woods. They build playground equipment. They dip their feet in the frozen bay.

If kindergarten were like that here, I'd send my children. That would be better than what I do with them at home. You know, because I don't like to go outside myself. Anyone around here want to start one? I'll enroll Second Daughter and Second Son!

She interviewed a lot of parents that spent time in multiple countries. One mother, a Finnish woman who lived in America and Finland with her children said:
"Here in the United States I feel like I spend all my time fighting for a situation that can work for her. They try to fit her into a box. In Finland, they fit the box around her." In  Finland her learning style was not a problem. In America it became a disability.
Some of the statements were shocking. Her last chapter focused on teaching our children to be kind, considerate, compassionate, and unselfish.
One study compared three- and five-year-olds' sense of fairness and sharing candies and other desirable items in seven different cultures: China, Peru, Fiji, the United States, and three distinct urban sites in Brazil. The study showed that while many traits were consistent across cultures (by five years old, all children tended to show more fairness in sharing), they differed in the degree of self-interest that children showed...Two groups of children displayed the highest and most similar degree of self-interest: impoverished, unschooled, unsupervised Brazilian street children and the middle-class suburban American children.

I'm glad I took a little time to read this book myself. In many ways, it comforted me in some of the choices we've made that, while not necessarily against the grain in our community and social groups (considering we're Catholic homeschoolers in Kansas), are in some ways more difficult than other options. As I said above, I highly recommend this book to new parents and parents of young children as well as those that find themselves dissatisfied with the people they see their children becoming in contemporary America.

Monday, January 20, 2014

December 2013 Book Reports

Joy To The World: Christmas Legends by Ruth Sawyer, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman was recommended on a number of blogs and message boards for Advent reading. I was pleased to find a copy of this out-of-print book at our library. I enjoyed the stories, but decided not to read them aloud to the children. I just like other stories better, I guess. (library copy)

The Christmas Tree by Julie Salemon was a nice story, but the writing seemed forced to me. Having just read A Right to be Merry, I didn't find the characters of the nuns convincing or attractive. (library copy)

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was a pre-read for First Son and highly enjoyable. Four unusual children are unlikely heroes in a battle for the hearts and souls of...well, everyone. Friendship, teamwork, perseverance, trust, really, there's too much good stuff here to list it all and wonderfully entertaining, too. This is on First Son's list for next summer's reading. It's the first in a series of four and I intend to read them all myself just because I want to know what happens. (library copy)

A Right to be Merry by Mother Mary Francis (inter-library loan)

Love Wins by Rob Bell (library copy)

The Year of the Christmas Dragon by Ruth Sawyer came up in my library search when I was looking for Joy to the World. A young Chinese book travels by dragon to a new land (Mexico) and the dragon participates in the Christmas festival hundreds of years later. It's a short book, written for children, and I think I'm going to read it aloud to the children next year. I love how the story of the Nativity and Christ's appearance on earth is so enthralling for the dragon. I think it might help the children think about what a wondrous story it is, this Nativity they've known since they can remember. (library copy)

Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. (library copy)

Saint Clothilde: The First Christian Queen of France Tells Her Story by Blandine Male and Helene Fabe-Henriet is a book I saw recommended on some homeschooling sites and wondered about adding to our history studies. I thought it was a nice book, but I'm not yet convinced it would be worth the investment. (inter-library loan)

  Books in Progress (and date started)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Boys Adrift

by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

This is the second book I've read by Leonard Sax. You can see a brief review of Why Gender Matters here. I'll always remember that book because Kansas Dad read it first, suggested I read it, and joked that maybe we should homeschool. And here we are, seven years later, homeschooling and usually thankful for the experience.

In this book, Dr. Sax addresses a problem he sees manifesting in young men in America: men without ambition or desire to get a job, marry and raise a family, or really grow up.
Certainly, not all boys have been infected by this weird new virus of apathy. Some are still as driven and intense as their sisters. They still want the same independence, financial and otherwise, for which we expect young people to strive. Because we still see some of these successful young men around us, it's easy to miss the reality that more young men than ever before are falling by the wayside on the road to the American dream. The end result, then, are frantic parents wondering why their son can't, or won't, get a life. He's adrift, floating wherever the currents in the sea of life may carry him--which may be no place at all.
While reading this book, I  asked Kansas Dad if there really were grown men living in their parents' basements, playing video games all day. I certainly don't know any men like that. Being a professor, Kansas Dad said he recognized many of the symptoms Dr. Sax mentions in his students. Not all his male students, of course, but enough that he agrees it seems to be a common problem. I remember seeing in the book a particularly startling graphic from two researchers at Queens College at City University of New York (Andrew Beveridge and Susan Weber-Stoger). In it, they showed a steady and unequivocal increase in able-bodied men aged 30-54 who are not looking for work (and therefore not included in unemployment statistics). From 1950 to 2004, there is a startling increase every decade in every state.

Dr. Sax gives five reasons he believes a larger number of young men in America are disengaging from life. (You can find a summary of the five factors on his website)

1. Change in schooling - Kindergarten now is much more academic than it used to be. As many boys are not ready for such academic work at five years old, they are learning to dislike school.

2. Video games - There are some references in this chapter to good studies showing actual deficits linked to playing video games. They are, in fact, not good for you at all, and some many be especially bad for young boys. (As I write this, First Son is playing on the Wii...)

3. Medications for ADHD - Though he is careful to caution against changing any medications without working with a doctor, Dr. Sax gives some strong evidence for the over-medicating of boys in our country.

4. Endocrine disruptors - This chapter outlines research linking materials in plastics (like PBA) with gender-specific effects in boys. This book was published in 2009 and I think much of this information is pretty commonly known among parents today.

5. Neglecting the transition from adolescence to manhood - This was one of the most interesting chapters. Here, Dr. Sax looked at how we as a nation teach our sons what it is to be a man, suggesting that our method for doing so (or lack thereof) is one of the reasons boys are apathetic.
A boy does not naturally become a gentleman--by which I mean a man who is courteous and kind and unselfish. That behavior is not hardwired. It must be taught.
He suggests
[B]eing a real man has nothing to do with drinking any particular brand of beer. It has to do with using your strength in the service of others.
That definition--giving all you have in the service of others--is an integral part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has animated Western history for the past two millennia.
I am not suggesting that this definition of real manliness is the only one...But a culture is defined in part by how it answers the question "What defines a real man?" Every culture must make choices and value judgments...We must choose, individually and collectively, how we are going to define masculinity. If we abstain from this choice, that failure to make a choice is itself a choice--and the marketplace will make the choice for us...
The end results of ignoring this question is not a generation of androgynous flower children. The result is, on the one hand, young men who have no motivation to work or to serve, young men who feel no shame in living indefinitely in their parents' homes, no shame in taking much and giving little in return. These young men--many of whom are white men living in the suburbs--don't have any concern about being seen as "real men." It's not important to them.
It's not important to them because our culture has taught them a real man isn't to be respected or honored. Dr. Sax makes this argument based on how grown men are portrayed in contemporary television shows.
On the other hand, we are beginning to reap a fearful harvest of young men who do care about being real men and who--receiving no guidance from the adult community about what that means--are turning instead to gang violence, or street racing, or drug abuse, for affirmation of their masculine identity and for their rites of passage. The devaluation and disintegration of the masculine ideal is the fifth factor driving the growing epidemic we've been investigating.
In the eighth chapter, he gives recommendations for what we can do as a society to bring young men back into the community, addressing each factor in turn.

I found this book a little frightening in the bleak picture it paints for many young men in this country, and perhaps he overstates his case a little. I thought it was enlightening, though, and it definitely gave me some ideas on how to interact with our sons as they grow.

Here's a link to the website focused on the book. (He should use some of his profits from his books and speaking engagements to hire a designer for his website.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review: Love Wins

by Rob Bell
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?
This is the question Rob Bell poses in his book, Love Wins. While I obviously don't agree with Mr. Bell on everything, and his writing style is a little frustrating, I think this short book could be a good source of discussion.
Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
Mr. Bell is talking about something like the Jesus prayer for Evangelicals, but with Catholics this kind of thinking can be even more disheartening. Many of the opportunities the Catholic church provides to help prepare our souls for the life Christ calls us to in this world and the one hereafter become requirements to get into heaven. Small technicalities then become impenetrable walls, relegating huge numbers of people to hell and oblivion.

But if the culmination of God's kingdom means the perfection of the world, the righting of every wrong, does it seem just and merciful to treat in technicalities?
We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God's love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.
In a discussion of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Mr. Bell says:
The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is.
Could a loving Father who seeks our joy and a relationship with us in this life endure an eternity of torment for us in the next life if it's not what we choose?

Mr. Bell is an Evangelical Christian and, while Catholics and Evangelicals agree on many points, I was interested in learning what the Catholic doctrine of Heaven is. As with most Catholic doctrines, it appears there is a spectrum of beliefs. I found this First Things article by Avery Cardinal Dulles very helpful. (Cardinal Dulles was one of Kansas Dad's mentors at Fordham University.)

In this quote from Dulles, he is discussing Hans Urs von Balthasar's book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell:
But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die. He concedes, however, that the opposite is also possible. Since we are able to resist the grace of God, none of us is safe. We must therefore leave the question speculatively open, thinking primarily of the danger in which we ourselves stand.
According to Dulles, Fr. von Balthasar's book is true to the Catholic faith:
This position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar’s position, moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost. But the position is at least adventurous. It runs against the obvious interpretation of the words of Jesus in the New Testament and against the dominant theological opinion down through the centuries, which maintains that some, and in fact very many, are lost.
Later, he says:
It is unfair and incorrect to accuse either Balthasar or Neuhaus of teaching that no one goes to hell. They grant that it is probable that some or even many do go there, but they assert, on the ground that God is capable of bringing any sinner to repentance, that we have a right to hope and pray that all will be saved. The fact that something is highly improbable need not prevent us from hoping and praying that it will happen.
I especially liked this final quote from Cardinal Dulles:
All told, it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned, we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all, or nearly all, are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in an unholy rivalry. We would rejoice in every sign that others were among the lost, since our own chances of election would thereby be increased. Such a competitive spirit would hardly be compatible with the gospel.
Thinking about Hell was remarkably satisfying.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013: A Big Year on the Range

I've been thinking 2013 was a pretty big year for us.

Kansas Dad got tenure!

First Son got an appliance and, on the first day of school, braces.

The kids and I went to my cousin's bat mitzvah. I loved seeing all my family. The kids loved staying at a hotel with a pool, which none of them remembered ever doing before.

I traveled to Boston for a few days away with friends. Just me.

I quit my job!

We celebrated our 15th anniversary! In anticipation of the anniversary, Kansas Dad and I spent a few days alone at a cabin in Illinois. The boys had a vacation with Grammy and Paw Paw while the girls spent time with cousins and grandparents in Illinois.

Second Son moved to the bunk bed, leaving us without a child sleeping in a crib (or a baby who could sleep in a crib) for the first time in almost ten years.

We have lived in this house for five years. That is not only the longest Kansas Dad and I have ever lived at the same address since we were married; it's the longest I've ever lived at a single address in my entire life!

First Son, our oldest, turned 10 - double digits!

I was hoping I could include being a diaper-free household, but, alas, we haven't quite reached that goal. We're getting there in 2014, though, which will hopefully otherwise be a relatively quiet year for us. No one has been to the hospital, yet, so we're off to a good start!

Happy New Year!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Homeschool Review: Paddle-to-the-Sea

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling

As recommended by Mater Amabilis, we read this book in fourth grade. I planned for the girls to listen in, but they were usually otherwise occupied (babies and preted play and other important things for seven and five year olds), so I read it aloud to First Son alone and enjoyed every moment.

If you don't already know, Paddle-to-the-Sea explores the geography of the Great Lakes through the journey of Paddle, a carved Indian in a canoe, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The text and illustrations are enthralling on their own and also offer plenty of invitations to learn more about environments and industries along the route.

We roughly followed the lesson plans in Rea C. Berg's Literature Approach to Geography , which I found useful, but certainly not necessary. Mainly we focused on narration, a few notebooking pages and map work. The notebooking subjects, like one of how locks work, are easily found within the text.

I loved the map set. I put the big one up on the wall and colored it while First Son colored one I printed out from online. (I did not find a great map for him to color. If anyone has suggestions, please let me know.) We used our artist quality colored pencils and the end product is a map I'd be happy to leave on my wall for months to come except that I'll need to replace it with the next one in the schedule. (We spent the first eighteen weeks on Paddle and will be transitioning to Seabird.)

Every few weeks, we would look at the Google Earth file created for Paddle-to-the-Sea, which you can download for free here. This file allowed us to explore the areas even more. First Son loved watching the lines appear and peeking at a number of the pictures. For our Kansas family, the pictures of the locks were most interesting. We also augmented a little with YouTube videos. The kids all liked watching some of the travel videos on Niagara Falls.

When we finished reading, we watched Paddle to the Sea (The Criterion Collection), a short movie based on the book. It in no way replaces the geographical value of the book, but the children enjoyed watching Paddle run the rapids and go over Niagara Falls.

Note: Links to Amazon above are affiliate links. Links to Sacred Heart Books and Gifts are not affiliate links. I received my copy of Paddle-to-the-Sea from a kind member of The other materials I purchased from a variety of retailers.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Review: A Right to Be Merry

by Mother Mary Francis

I read this book back in December. This is absolutely one of my favorite books, certainly of 2013, but probably ever. Sister Mary Francis (who later became an abbess) writes eloquently and lovingly of the cloistered life, sharing with everyone the great joy that inspired St. Clare to join St. Francis in a life of poverty and complete trust in God all those centuries ago.

Before reading this book, I had only the barest understanding of the cloistered Orders, or of any Orders. I was a child in the Church in a time when the monasteries and convents were not discussed much.
Like the Trappists and Carmelites, the Poor Clares form part of the contemplative vanguard of the Church Militant. Their cloistered Order was not founded to care for the sick or the orphans or the aged, nor to lecture to students, nor to convert aborigines in the African bush. They do not belong to any class of society, but to society. The Order of Poor Clares was instituted for the whole world and every man, woman and child in it.
In a word, the cloistered Orders pray for all the rest of us, including those who are unwilling or unable to pray for themselves, those who are feeling most lost and separated from our Lord.
But where is there a more essentially practical Christian than the girl who rises in the night to pray for those who do not pray, who performs with joy a whole lifetime of penance for those who sin and wish to do no penance, who chooses the obscurity of the first thirty years of the God-Man's life rather than the activity of the final three, who elects to dwell with our Lady in a cloud of silence and at the immediate beck and call of her Lord?..
The unique vocation of the cloistered contemplative is to be entirely dedicated to the service of mankind because she is utterly given to God.
Over and over, Sister Mary Francis shows the joyful and enriched lives of the sisters in the cloister.
In one way or another, all of us find ourselves fulfilled and not thwarted in the enclosure. The little outward ways I have touched upon are merely symbolic of the tremendous spiritual fulfillment begun in the cloister and perfected in eternity.
She dwells on the disadvantages of living in the cloister in order to reveal their true necessity and beauty.
Virginity is not only a giving, but a receiving...A woman who knows herself to be completely cherished is a woman of confidence and poise. This carries over into the spiritual life, and gives a Poor Clare interior confidence and spiritual poise in whatever sorrows and trials may lie ahead. She does penance, she may suffer in multitudinous and soul-searching ways. But she knows she is loved, cherished, chosen.
In talking about St. Clare's rule, she touches on obedience but focuses on how St. Clare has ordered the abbess's responsibilities to draw the nuns together in love.
It is the business of the subject to obey her abbess whether she has any personal love for that dignitary or not. But it is not the business of the abbess to get a good grip on her authority and let love go by the board. St. Clare wants the abbesses of her Order to be leaders in virtue and superior to the other nuns in holy behavior. And when St. Clare sets down these norms, she shows how intensely practical and even shrewd she was. For mere authority as such never takes hold of our hearts, but virtues and holy lovableness do.
Her writing on her vocation, on anyone's vocation, was particularly beautiful. While she wrote of her own vocation to the cloistered community, a vocation is the call of God to anyone for the life He has planned.
A vocation is so mysterious a gift, a thing so locked in the inner court of the soul where alone God speaks His wishes, that no one can properly describe or explain it. What can be said is that a true vocation is a call so compelling that a soul must loosen its hold on the dearest and even the holiest of its loves to rise up and follow the summons.
The author's topics were wide-ranging, touching on every part of the cloistered life.
Education worthy of the name is built on integration and correlation of knowledge. It has nothing at all to do with the ability to spout facts like a geyser. Real education brings to flower the seeds of intelligence in the human mind. Intelligence is quite independent of education, it is true (one of the most intelligent women I ever knew was also one of the most unschooled), but education is a cultivation of the intelligence; and the blossoms it produces are just as fragrant in the cloister as anywhere else, and just as necessary.
The thought of this community of nuns, and of all cloistered communities, praying for the world inspired renewed hope in me, a hope for all the pain and anxiety I see in the news and in our lives out here in the world. I don't understand prayer, and I certainly don't understand how the prayers of a cloistered nun make a difference in my life, but I trust that God does and the power and simplicity of all those prayers warms my heart.
Who knows how many chasms of sin are leaped, how many hatreds wilt, how much anguish is softened and consecrated in the world because some have stepped out of the world to begin the work of eternity beforehand? This is the great mystery of God's love by which no credit accrues to contemplatives, but all glory returns to Him who owns it.
Mother Mary Francis's community is alive and well, even growing. You can visit their home page. There is an informative page on the author of the book, who passed away in 2006. My favorite page is this delightful call for vocations.

Though this book is not available on Amazon (as I write this post), it is in print. It can be found in paperback at Sacred Heart Books and Gifts. I requested a copy through inter-library loan, but it is one of the books I've put on my wish list. I have every intention of reading this again with my children, hoping it will inspire them to contemplate deeply the vocation, whatever it is, with which God calls each of them.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

First Son Is Ten!

My very first baby turned ten years old in December. That's right - double digits! To celebrate, we have a whole post of pictures of First Son.

First Son with his St. Nicholas feast day cookie. His birth month is one of celebrations from beginning to end and we revel in them all.

Grammy took me and the kids to a local museum to make gingerbread houses (which the girls told us repeatedly were graham crackers, not gingerbread cookies). First Son was much more interested in the museum. He hurriedly put a few things on his house and moved on.

He only listens peripherally to the picture books for Christmas this year. (Sad mama.) But he likes the Jesse Tree readings and still likes opening the books on his days.

He's tremendously protective and helpful with Second Son, except when he's not.

First Son started fourth grade in August. We love fourth grade. His favorite subject is Latin (thanks entirely to Latin for Children which we all enjoy). He does the majority of his work independently. He's essentially teaching himself math using the book which just amazes me.

His least favorite subject is Writing with Ease, particularly on the dictation days. I think he's learning it's not too difficult if he just listens and writes without worrying about it so much. He often complains about narration in general. He doesn't like telling me what he's read or heard when he knows I know it already. He also doesn't like mental math, but he was pleased to hit the midpoint of his math book on his birthday. (I had put a sticky note in telling him to do a little dance in celebration, but he didn't dance, just smiled.) Even the mental math became less contentious after we watched Arthur Benjamin a few times.

First Son started seeing an orthodontist in April. He got braces in August on the first day of school. He doesn't like them, but he treats them well and is always careful about what he eats. We'll all be glad when he gets them off, just before First Daughter will have hers put on.

His favorite activity: screen time. He always chooses to play a game on the Wii when he has first choice.

For his birthday, he really wanted Super Mario Galaxy 2, which we found for him. For Christmas, he really wanted a Nintendo 3DS XL and not much else. Grammy and Paw Paw generously bought one for the whole family to share. It was his favorite choice while riding in the van to visit my parents in Illinois.

He has finally started reading chapter books (real chapter books) on his own. I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz out loud to the family (oh, how everyone loved it!) and he promptly began reading all of the sequels. I think his favorite independent reading book so far this year is Theras and His Town which he's reading now. He's been surprisingly happy listening to A Christmas Carol.

My mom found this K'nex set at Goodwill for a bargain. We had to supplement with a few pieces, but First Son had a fabulous time putting it together. It lived on the kitchen counter for as long as I could stand it; then we made a video of it in action and took it apart.

He does not really like to go outside and play, but we have new neighbors now with boys near his age. Now they all go out and play happily and we parents let them.

He complains about his chores a lot, but he does them and almost always does what I ask the first time.

For his birthday, he requested enchiladas and homemade Oreo cookies. Of course, he started the day with a pancake as big as his head, which he polished off easily along with his eggs.

He wanted a Mario party for his birthday this year. I made a pinata like a question mark cube which turned out to be remarkably difficult to smash apart. First Daughter helped color the goody boxes yellow and filled them with coins. He invited a lot of kids - sixteen, including our four.  I even made some cookies, but my friend made the cake again.

 My mom and aunt surprised us during the party. They had driven to Oklahoma for my cousin's graduation and drove home through Kansas at just the right time.

For his baptismal anniversary, he received a copy of the Glory Story on Blessed John Paul II and I tried to make John Paul II's favorite dessert, a Polish pastry custard cake. I think my recipe wasn't quite right, though, as it was more like shortcake with custard. It was delicious, however.

May God bless you in the coming year, First Son!