Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Dickens and Darkness: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

After reading Bleak House last year and loving it so much, I decided I should read a book by Dickens every year. This year, Oliver Twist was on First Son's reading list for seventh grade, so it seemed the perfect choice for my Dickens for the year.

Oliver Twist is the familiar tale of an orphan abused by the church organization meant to care and protect him and threatened by the vermin (the human kind) of London's criminals. Beginning with sarcastic descriptions of the arrogant and small-minded behavior of the church authorities caring for orphans (and the widows and the poor), it quickly devolves into frighteningly dangerous situations. As a mother, I think I was more disturbed by these scenes than First Son will be when he reads them.
The night was bitter cold. The snow lay on the ground, frozen into a hard thick crust, so that only the heaps that had drifted into byways and corners were affected by the sharp wind that howled abroad: which, as if expending increased fury on such prey as it found, caught it savagely up in clouds, and, whirling it into a thousand misty eddies, scattered it in air. Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.
I had considered an audio version of this book for our Grand Adventure, but I'm glad we didn't listen to it aloud with the whole family; I found it a little grim for the little ones including domestic violence, a terrible murder, a hanging, references to adultery, and a dog that "dashed out his brains". First Son should be able to handle it.
"I have seen enough, too, to know that it is not always the youngest and best who are spared to those that love them; but this should give us comfort in our sorrow; for Heaven is just; and such things teach us, impressively, that there is a brighter world than this; and that the passage to it is speedy. God's will be done! I love her; and He knows how well!"
One of the criminals brutally murders his lover (clearly not his wife, though subtly described so the nonobservant young teenage boy may not realize it). The murder is described, but in a way to condemn the action rather than glorify it (as some modern novels and media seem to do). After the murder, the dread only grows:
Of all bad deeds that, under cover of the darkness, had been committed within wide London's bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.
The sun--the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man--burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray. It lighted up the room where the murdered woman lay. It did. He tried to shut it out, but it would stream in. If the sight had been a ghastly one in the dull morning, what was it, now, in all that brilliant light!
The murderer suffers for his crime.

Oliver Twist does contain what might be one of the best chapter titles I've ever read (chapter 36):
Is a very short one, and may appear of no great importance in its place, but it should be read notwithstanding, as a sequel to the last, and a key to one that will follow when its time arrives
It's not my favorite Dickens. I'm glad I read it and I think it will serve well as First Son's first Dickens. The mystery and griminess will appeal to a boy of twelve or thirteen, and it introduces well the plight of the poor, one which continues today as much as it did in the time of Dickens.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Continual Struggle Against the Sin of Pride: Humility of Heart

by Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo
translated by Herbert Cardinal Vaughan 
O God, Who resistest the proud and givest Thy grace to the humble, grant us the grace of true humility, of which Thine only begotten Son showed forth in Himself an example to the faithful, that we may never, puffed up by pride, incur Thine anger, but that, submissive to Thy Will, we may receive the gifts of Thy grace.
A few years ago, I began to feel I should more proactively seek the virtue of humility. I had encountered situations in which I recognized my pride was fostering discontent and disgruntlement in myself.

I talked to a few trusted friends and one of them shared a book our parish priest was currently reading focused on humility, Humility of Heart. I ordered it before Lent in 2015 thinking I'd read through it during Lent as my spiritual focus on humility. This is not the kind of book I could read quickly, especially as I failed to read it every day as had been my original intention.

Humility is a difficult virtue to understand. By its very nature, the moment a person believes herself humble, she is not. In our modern times, we tend to reject notions of our unworthiness, even before God, so humility is a virtue often cast aside or acknowledged only in words.

I have slowly read this book. It's broken up into short sections, excellently presented for a section or two of reading each day.

Am I more humble? I don't know. Maybe. I do know that I'm more likely to recognize my pride than before and to, sometimes at least, remind myself that everything good in my life and in my abilities, comes from God, a gift freely given but that ultimately still belongs to Him.
But must not all these gifts be regarded as so many benefits proceeding from God, for which we must render an account if we do not use them to resist temptation and conform to the ordination of God? We are debtors to God for every benefit that we receive and are bound to employ these gifts and to trade with them for the glory of God, like merchants to whom capital is entrusted. When we consider how many benefits, both of body and soul, we have received from Him, we are compelled to admit that there are so many debts which we have contracted toward Him--and why should we glory in our debts? 
Part 1 is the longest section of the book, focused on why humility is the primary virtue, the one from which all others flow and without which, we are doomed. The author is quite emphatic that the slightest bit of humility will bar the penitent from heaven. It seems like he qualifies this a bit here and there by saying we really need to just work toward humility and acknowledge our failures, but the tone was especially jarring for a modern reader. I'm not entirely sure he was wrong, but I'm not entirely sure he was right, either.
Let us therefore examine ourselves daily on this point: let us accuse ourselves of it in our Confessions, and acknowledging our pride in this manner will be an excellent incentive to become humble.
The author encourages frequent confession and explicit confession of sins against humility.
There are but few who accuse themselves of it [pride], but those who really wish to amend their lives should make it a special subject of their examen and Confession, in order to learn to hate it and repent of it and to make firm resolutions of amendment in the future.
There are a few helpful suggestions in Part 1, like frequent confession. There was also a mention of distractions during prayer I found particularly helpful.
There are some who are troubled because their prayers are full of distractions. This proceeds from pride, which is presumptuous enough to be astonished at the weakness and impotency of the mind. When you perceive that your thoughts are wandering, make an act of humility, and exclaim: "O my God, what an abject creature I am in not being able to fix my thoughts on Thee, even for a few moments." Renew this act of humility as often as these distractions occur, and if it is written of charity that it "covereth a multitude of sins," (1 Peter 4:8), it is also true of humility and contributes greatly to our perfection.
It reminded me of what St. Therese says of her tendency to fall asleep during her prayers: that the One who loves so much is still pleased with the desires of a little child who falls asleep at her tasks. I like this attitude, to apologize and refocus rather than berating ourselves for our distracted prayers.

For the most part, though, Part 1 was more theoretical than practical. Part 2 ushers in the Practical Examen on the Virtue of Humility, which begins immediately with a plan. The reader is urged to make the examen at least once a day, to choose a focus of one or two habits for each day, to clearly confess faults against humility in confession, and to return to this part often.

The remaining parts provide examens (which the internet assures me is the plural of examen) on humility toward God, toward our neighbor, toward oneself, and a final section on moral doctrine. Here I found many passages of practical advice in the form of questions focused on actions or thoughts I could identify in myself and therefore address.
Do you esteem yourself above others for any gift of nature, education or grace? That is true pride, and you must subdue this by humility, holding yourself inferior to others, as in fact you may be before God.
In the part on humility towards our neighbor, I found exactly how to respond when I sense I am being corrected, which has the benefit of being effective whether the correction is warranted.
The humble man, when he is reproved, receives the correction in good part and thanks him who has had the kindness and goodness to give it. He does not judge or speak evil of anyone, because he believes that everyone is better than he is, and because he knows he is capable of doing worse things still. 
Even if the comment is unsolicited, unfair, or outrageously incorrect, I can thank the giver and move on. There are other, probably worse, things that could truly be said, even if this particular comment is incorrect.
The proud man dwells more willingly on the little good he does, on the little devotion he feels, than on the thought of the evil he has committed and which he does daily. He puts behind him the multitude of his sins, so that he need not be ashamed and humble himself; and he reflects often upon certain of his minute exercises of Christian piety, so as to indulge his self-complacency.
Part 6, on moral doctrine, has an illuminating section on the "terrible danger" of the vice or pride (section 139 for those interested in looking it up). In it, the author outlines seven reasons why pride is so dangerous to our soul, all of which I found accurate in describing my own situation in life. The second one reads:
Because the other vices are to be feared only when we are disposed to evil; but pride, says St. Augustine, insinuates itself even when we are trying to do good.
A sentence or two later, the third is listed:
Because after having fought against and overcome the other vices, we may justly rejoice; but as soon as we begin to rejoice that we have triumphed over pride, it triumphs over us and becomes victorious over us in that very act for which we are praising ourselves for conquering it.
I believe re-reading this particular section will fortify my continuing battle against pride and in fostering humility.

A word of caution: If you know you have a tendency to scrupulosity, don't read this book or only read it under the care of a spiritual director. It discusses scrupulosity and certainly doesn't intend to play on those fears, but I believe it could nonetheless.

And, a confession: As I copied some of the quotes from this book into my commonplace book, I definitely gazed proudly at what I believed was beautiful handwriting.

So now it's time to start all over again on that humility thing.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Second Son's Birthday Post: Six Years Old

Last month, Second Son, my baby, turned six years old. He wanted a Star Wars birthday party, so we planned a Jedi Academy for him and a few of his friends. They tore through those tasks in about fifteen minutes! But check out the cake!

This picture of Second Son with his godmother and the amazing BB8 cake she made is one of my new favorites.

I love the look of awe on his face when we lit the candles.

This boy loves his chicken enchiladas. He requested them for his birthday and his baptismal anniversary. He also asked for Kansas Dad's chocolate peanut butter cake for his baptismal anniversary dessert.

His other favorite foods are angel food cake, sherbert, Mountain Dew (a controlled substance in this household), a host of other sugary drinks, and snacks. He tends to skip breakfast, then start begging for snacks around 10:30 am and basically graze the rest of the day. It's hard to believe how much he eats because he's so skinny. (Hard to believe, too, he was my biggest baby at an ounce over ten pounds.) We keep telling him to eat more, but he spends so much time bouncing around (literally on his trampoline), that there's no time for the calories to build up in his system.

His favorite saints are St. Micheal the Archangel, St. George, St. Moses, and St. Francis. He asks them to pray for us every night during our litany of saints and evening prayer.

He loves water. When we went on our Grand Adventure, he spent every minute he could right at the water's edge (if we were near water). He would claim he was trying to stay dry, but this was a hopeless endeavor day after day.

Second Son says his favorite parts of the trip were visiting the aquarium in Vancouver and the science museum in Denver, but I really think it was the ocean.

He mastered rudimentary reading on our trip. We did a lot of phonics and a few early reading lessons last year in school, but he started sounding out longer words and really reading books on the big trip. All those hours in the van, I guess. His first book? Calvin and Hobbes. Yep.


He lost the two bottom teeth earlier this summer. So far, the top two teeth still aren't coming in, but the bottom ones are. We keep promising him a big celebratory dinner when those top teeth come in and suggesting things like apples (which he can never bit properly) but all he wants is sherbet. (Those top two were crushed in a pool accident when he fell on his face just before his second birthday, so it's been more than four years since the boy had top teeth.)

He's starting kindergarten this year. We didn't start him properly last year because of his late birthday, though it's nice that he's already reading. He loves all of his lessons, but especially reading, dot-to-dot books (which he does for some math, just because he likes them), and Aesop's Fables. (This book has been a favorite year after year. I've been reading from it for four years straight and plan two more with him.)

first day of school
He loves to play games. He'd play games all day long. When no one can play with him, he sets everything up and plays against Mr. Nobody. In the past, Mr. Nobody always lost, but Second Son tells me he recently won three games of chess in a row. "He had good moves." (Second Daughter taught him to play chess; I'm not really sure he even knows the proper rules.) He received Star Wars Risk for his birthday, so it's a new favorite, but Munchkin is still at the top of his list. (Standard warning: Munchkin is not for all households.)

His favorite books are Asterix comic books and Jedi Academy 2. We'll pretend he's also reading from the extensive and lovely library I have built over the past dozen years (spending a good bit of Kansas Dad's earnings).

He takes showers now, which are faster than a bath (and the only reason he allows them). He still needs some help making sure he gets all the bubbles rinsed away. He would wear flip-flops everywhere if I let him, and prefers to go barefoot rather than wear any other kind of shoe.

His bedtime routine is similar to last year: three stuffed animals have to whisper dreams in someone's ear (usually Kansas Dad, who is best at deciphering their hilarious misadventures). Last year, it was just Mousy Mouse (a kangaroo rat purchased at Great Sand Dunes), Fluffy (a puppy that was First Son's years ago), and Teddy (a teddy bear that was a gift after Second Daughter's birth). Now he's added Cody (a stuffed coyote purchased with his own money at the Grand Canyon), Doritos (a finger puppet chipmunk purchased with his own money at Rocky Mountain National Park), and Yellow Belly (a yellow-bellied marmot he received for his birthday; he had wanted to buy one on the big trip but he'd run out of money).

Second Son announced on his birthday that, now he was six, he was old enough to start taekwondo with the big kids. I'm not sure where he heard six was the magic number, but we let him give it a try and so far he seems to be doing very well. He saws taekwondo days are his favorite days, though he hates waiting all day for the class.

This little guy is getting to be quite the joy for us. He's grudgingly taking on more chores, controlling his temper better (now that he knows he can't go to taekwondo if he hits anyone), and reading everthing. I can't wait to see what the future holds for him!

Happy birthday, Second Son!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

First Day of School Pictures

The 2016-2017 school year has begun! We're two weeks in and so far, no one has died. There haven't even been that many tears!
Goofy kindergartner, Second Son
Sweet second grader, Second Daughter
I forgot to take pictures of the older two without the cards showing their names.  I do have pictures of all four of them together.

First Son (7th grade), First Daughter (4th grade), Second Daughter (2nd grade), Second Son (kind.)
Believe it or not, that was the "serious" picture.

And this is the tamest of the silly ones. Second Daughter is playing the drums on Second Son's head. Yes, that is an old bike tire around his neck. We live on the wild side here on the Range.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Second Daughter's Birthday Post: Eight Years Old

Last month, Second Daughter turned eight years old. For her birthday, she received a parakeet, courtesy of her parents and grandparents. (The bird isn't very expensive, but she also needed a cage, toys, food, and all such things.) It's a blue and white one, quite pretty.

Second Daughter has been less excited about pancakes-as-big-as-your-head for her birthday breakfast than the other kids, so this year Kansas Dad started her day with ooey-gooey-cinnamon-bars from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. (Oh, yes, they are heavenly. You can find lots of delicious recipes on the website, but this one is only in the cookbook.)

For her birthday dinner, she requested ribs. Usually we wouldn't be quite so extravagant, but we had some ribs in the freezer from a sale and Kansas Dad loves to eat them even more than Second Daughter does. It's another Smitten Kitchen recipe. (I'm sensing a theme for our celebratory recipes.)

We co-hosted a birthday party with a dear friend of hers who turned seven a bit later. They had a bird painting party. My contribution was this dirt cake (made with all gluten-free goodies given to us by another friend!).

Kansas Dad said it was "a fine example of its genre" and that's about as good as it gets with me and birthday cakes. The painted bird cookies were something else altogether, a contribution from the co-host family. Aren't they beautiful?

Second Daughter's current favorite foods: ribs, spaghetti (without sauce), Smitten Kitchen chocolate peanut butter cake, enchiladas without sauce on top, yogurt without fruit chunks. Vegetables of all stripes and colors are her least favorite foods.

Second Daughter loves to play in sand. She likes to sit and let it run through her fingers, onto her clothes or shoes or into a pile. Our recent camping trip to the Rocky Mountains was like heaven for her. Just look at all that sandy dirt right at the campground!

Oh, and water. Second Daughter loves water! She'll still pour water from one container into another in the sink. Back and forth, until inevitably something spills.

Second Daughter excelled in her swimming lessons. She was disappointed in being paired with Second Son; she thought he held her back. She insists she can do whatever the older two do in the pool, and perhaps she can.

The girls have been taking a sewing class at a coop. I never expected them to learn as much as they have since they only meet for an hour once a month but it's really been amazing. One of the best aspects is how they'll patch together little bits of cloth to make gifts. Second Daughter made a yellow-bellied marmot for her grandmother. Just because.

She's just started second grade and is excited because she'll receive First Communion next spring. She started piano this year, too. We were prepared to limit the lessons to five or ten minutes but she's done so well she's having thirty minute lessons just like the older two.

first day of school
For the first time, she's reading a few books and narrating them to me. So far, I am totally impressed. Her narrations from Saints for Young Readers for Every Day are detailed and lively. She asked for more books to read independently and narrate, so I'm considering our options. Quite a few of the second grade books I've selected are still too hard for her, I think. Then again, she recently decided to read the Harry Potter books so perhaps she can manage more than I think she can. (That's almost certainly true.)

Her favorite lesson is science, which is a continued study of Birds using The Burgess Bird Book for Children (we have a different version) and a coloring book. She also claims to enjoy handwriting and copywork. Her least favorite lesson is dictation.

Her favorites books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Junie B. Jones series, the Little House series, lots of bird books (especially those with colorful birds of the parrot family).

Her favorite games: Skippity, really just about anything anyone will play with her, though she's on a Munchkin* strike at the moment (angry about something her brother did to her character in the game, though I'm not sure she remembers quite what he did)

She will often skip her screen time, preferring instead to read and watch the others play. (This may have something to do with her options now that our two first generation Kindle Fires finally died.)

She loved crafts of all kinds. We have a craft bin full of bits and pieces of paper and crafty materials that she digs into on a regular basis. We have a new book for her art this year and I think she's going to love it. The very first week she was painting with watercolor crayons.

She begged to play soccer and waited very patiently for the fall, so we're going to give U10 a try. (First Daughter will play as well as they can be on the same team.) She taught herself to ride a bike and also loves to roller-skate and ride a scooter.

Second Daughter is a wonderful friend to our goddaughter, who is three and just adores Second Daughter. We're with them about once a week and she almost always includes the little one in the play.

I was reading over last year's birthday post for Second Daughter and marvel at how much is still the same. She loves the same play and games, being outside, observing birds, and reading. She still makes me crazy by saying "Don't worry, Mom" when I know very well that means to increase my worrying!

May God bless you, Second Daughter, in this momentous year!

* Please note that Munchkin, while a favorite game in our house, is not right for every family. Many of the cards are inappropriate (and have therefore been modified by the grown-ups here).

As always, links to Amazon are affiliate links. I receive a small commission if you follow the link, add something to your cart, and purchase it within whatever time frame Amazon specifies. My family appreciates every little bit.

Monday, August 1, 2016

2016 Grand Adventure, Days 17-18: Redwoods National Park and Whale Watching

You can find links to any other 2016 Grand Adventure posts at the "home page."

Day 17: We woke up in the Redwoods campground surprisingly refreshed after a night at a spot right next to the bathrooms. We stopped at the Visitor's Center to ask about the best hike with children if we only had a few hours and could only do one. They were very helpful and directed us to one right outside the building. We hiked a loop back to the parking lot that included bits of the Prairie Creek Trail, the Cathedral Trees Trail, and the Foothills Trail.

The whole hike was delightful. There wasn't much elevation change. The twists and turns of the path meant we often felt completely alone in the wilderness despite a few other hikers along the way.

Redwoods was one of the parks that most felt otherworldly to us; we kept teasing the children that Yoda's house was nestled in the trees somewhere nearby.

They try let the trees rot where they fall, but sometimes have to make concessions, like people-sized tunnels cut out of enormous trees that fall on the path.

It may be hard to see in the picture below, but Kansas Dad and the kids are far ahead of me! They look so small next to those trees and you still can't see the tops.

After our hike, we piled back into the van for another drive. (Of course!) We headed north into Oregon which not only has one of the most beautiful coastlines I have ever seen, but park after park along the coast for visiting the coast and eating picnic lunches!

We arrived at our campground at an Oregon State Park (boy, those state parks in Oregon are nice!) almost in time for dinner but really needed a laundromat. So we drove past the park, started our laundry, ate at a nearby restaurant while it got all nice and clean, and then drove back to the campground. Kansas Dad and First Son set up camp while the little ones showered. A late night to bed, but we were all excited for the next day.

Total driving for day 17 - 225 miles.

Day 18: We drove to Depoe Bay for whale watching! We decided it would be worth it to take the kids out a bit in a boat onto the ocean even if we didn't see whales, but we were lucky. First, the children were delighted by the sea lions on the buoys.

They were batting for a sunning spot and we laughed to watch the newcomers get thrown back into the water.

First Daughter got a picture of a gray whale; if you look really closely, you may see a small dark spot rising out of the water. That's her! We also saw her calf and followed them for a while. The children were enthralled by the whales, the waves, the sea lions, all of it!

Smiling despite being back on land!
We left Depoe Bay and kept following the coast up to Seaquest State Park. Luckily we were able to see Mount St. Helen's from the road because the next day, when we had hoped to visit, it was all clouded over. I loved driving along the Oregon coast and would happily return there just to sit by the water for hours on end.

Total driving for day 18 - 239 miles.