Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Timely Thrasher

Today, Second Daughter and I read about the Brown Thrasher in The Burgess Bird Book for Children. A few hours later, I watched a pair them outside the window, one of which was digging in the leaves and earth, throwing bits of debris all over.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Escape from Siberia: The Long Walk

by Slavomir Rawicz

This book is recommended by Mater Amabilis for Level 4 (8th grade) geography. This was a new book to me, one I hadn't even heard of before.

It's the supposedly true story of an escape from a Siberian gulag by walking south through the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayan Mountains. Along the way, the escapees face thirst, hunger, injury, and despair. Not all of the companions survive the story.

It's quite likely this story is not exactly true. At one point, for example, he claims they saw Sasquatch. He also reports walking through the dessert without water for eight days but I imagine that is unlikely.

As a riveting tale of strength, courage, and the people of Tibet and Mongolia, however, it's amazing. First Son is going to love this book.

There is a brief respectful mention of a Roman Catholic priest in the gulag.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Justice and Truth: To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

This book is recommended for Level 4 (8th grade) by Mater Amabilis, which would be First Son's level next year. There's a note encouraging parents to read the text first to determine if it is appropriate. It is, of course, the story of the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. As with far too many "classics," this is a book I never read but it has been on my list, so I requested it from the library.

Written from the point of view of young Scout, the book explores overt and subtle racism. I've decided First Son will read it, but I'm going to make a reading journal for him where I'll ask him to record his thoughts in response to questions I'll pose (probably not for every chapter). Set in the 1930s, many of the characters who are less racist are actually still quite racist by today's standards. Among other things I want to be able to tease this out a little with my son.

My reading of this book prompted a little discussion on the Mater Amabilis facebook page. Thinking about this book myself, I was concerned about the possibility of First Son (and later my girls) internalizing the idea of a woman who falsely accuses someone of rape. This topic is sensitive and there are certainly false accusations, but I'd like my children to give accusers the benefit of the doubt and let those in authority make determinations of fault. In addition, I wanted my girls to feel safe talking with me or someone else if they felt like someone was taking advantage of them. One of the very wise moms in the group pointed out that Tom (the accused) is really the one who isn't believed despite the evidence. We can use this part of the novel to talk about how those who are generally powerless slash out at others and how whether we believe someone can initially depend more on context and prejudices than facts and truth.

This is yet another book I look forward to sharing with First Son next year.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Heeding God's Call: Cosmas or the Love of God

by Pierre de Calan
translated by Peter Hebblethwaite

This novel explores the vocation of a potential novice at a monastery. Through multiple crises, he and his spiritual advisors wonder, "Is the consecrated life at this monastery his vocation?" Through the conversations and challenges, the reader is led to explore the meaning of vocation and how it might be discovered.

James Martin, SJ, writes in the introduction of the thoughts that rise in his mind as he reads this book:
The questions upon which the novel turns are: What is a vocation? Is a vocation something that you feel God is calling you to do? And, if you feel drawn to a particular vocation but discover that you cannot do it, does it follow that God is now asking you not to do it?
Whole lives--single, married, vowed, ordained--have been spent pondering those difficult questions. Does unhappiness in a religious community mean that one should leave? Or is fidelity and perseverance the answer? Likewise, does unhappiness in a job, in a friendship, or in a marriage mean that one should switch careers, sever a relationship, or even end a marriage?
 The narrator of the novel was the novice master when Cosmas approached the monastery. He writes with compassion and ambivalence about Cosmas's vocation. The book is in the form of letters to a non-Catholic who had visited the monastery.
A vocation is not open to empirical investigation. The Lord is relentless when he wants to enlist someone in his service; but his is also incredibly self-effacing. One cannot possibly understand the signs of a vocation unless one remembers that God, because he is love, woos souls with all the delicacy and shyness of a lover. Even those who, like myself, can say that they have never had the slightest doubt about their vocation, still feel overwhelmed and at a loss to explain exactly what this means. For here contradictory truths, inaccessible to ordinary human logic, come together: there is a sense of being led by someone stronger than oneself, and yet of remaining free; the feeling that the voice that calls us will never fall silent, that it will pursue us in season and out of season, and yet that it is within our power at any given moment not to heed it; the understanding that God has need of our cooperation to lead us wherever he desires.
One of the problems Cosmas encountered was realizing the imperfections of the other men in the monastery. This startling revelation is just as common for newly married couples and priests. A vocation is still lived by a man or a woman, sinfully but hopefully.
They have to learn that they will not find in monastic life and its Rule a ready-made peace and perfection, but that monastic life and the Rule are rather a road toward peace and perfection that each one has to take at his own pace. They have to learn to accept and to love their neighbor as he is, knowing that the help and example of other people will inevitably and to some extent be flawed and disappointing; and that everyone has to find his own original way forward, which will depend on his personal relationship with God rather than the imitation of someone else. 
It's common within a vocation to experience times of stress and struggle, but sometimes people are just as disturbed by times of quiet dullness. Yet the narrator affirms the value in small ordinary sacrifices.
The life of the community reflected the weather: nothing very outstanding happened; there was no particular mood to record. I was sometimes reminded of the sense of grayness and routine that Cosmas had found so dispiriting. And yet every day prayer and praise, acts of renunciation, humble tasks accomplished in obedience, repugnances mastered, clashes of mood or superficial irritations overcome by charity--all these rose up to the Lord. And God, who had called us to this life, no doubt found them good.
In the end, and this is revealed within the first few pages of the novel, Cosmas dies before he can complete his novitiate. Near the end of the novel, the Father Abbot is talking with the novice master about Cosmas and the continued uncertainty about his vocation.
"The vocation of a Bach or a Mozart seems to be beyond all question because of the wonderful music they produced. But in the sight of God, have they any more value than that of any other musician, without their talent and grace, who has heard an inner call and tried to answer it until death? Those who suffer from this gap between their aspirations and their attainments--and whom we cruelly call failures--are perhaps less deceived about their talent than we imagine. But in their eyes the sense of inadequacy, of getting nowhere, and their failures, do not relieve them of the responsibility to keep on trying, unweariedly through in vain..."
In this novel, the reader can find real men struggling to live a difficult vocation within a monastery, but the examples within the pages can be applied to those of us attempting to live our vocation, wherever we are. It was a pleasure to read.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Latin Humor and Dedication: Good-bye Mr. Chips

by James Hilton

This book is recommended by Mater Amabilis for Level 4, as a classic of twentieth-century literature. It's a rather brief book, describing a beloved teacher at a boys' boarding school in England. His tenure extends through multiple heads of the school, including his own service in that role after his retirement during World War I. The war itself is far away, but touches the school and its students in the deaths of its instructors and former students as well as bombings by German planes. Mr. Chips endures it all with his steady fortitude and good humor. In my favorite scene, he continues to lead his Latin class during a bombing, making quiet jokes and assigning lines from Caesar about the fighting style of Germans.

I'm looking forward to First Son reading this book next year in Level 4, eighth grade.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Prince Edward Island Perfection: Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables
by L.M. Montgomery

My ten-year-old daughter is reading the Anne books right now. Inspired by her interest, I picked up the first book of the series to read it again myself. I probably haven't read any Anne books in decades but I was delighted at how perfectly it stood the test of time and maturity. I loved it as much or more than when I was a girl.

So if you've never read it or haven't in years, pick it up again!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

2017 February and March Bird Lists

American Dipper in Wyoming, not Kansas
We have recently acquired a stand for more bird feeders and have been enjoying the increased traffic outside our kitchen windows. We added a little finch feeder (like these) and a suet feeder. (The bird bath, however, blew away within a day or two in the our breezy Kansas country.) Second Daughter has also been delightedly choosing recipes from Cooking for the Birds.

Here are some of the bird sightings we've had:


  • the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk
  • red-bellied woodpecker
  • blue jay
  • cardinal
  • house finch
  • house sparrow
  • song sparrow
  • white-crowned sparrow (These are usually seen in brushy areas adjacent to open country rather than a backyard bird feeder, but you can apparently attract them if you keep the areas near your house brushy and wild, as we have done.)
  • Harris's sparrow
  • ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Eastern meadowlark (only heard near home; but spotted along the roadside)

March - much of the same and also...

  • horned lark (wandering the yard, not at our feeder)
  • red-winged blackbirds
  • robins (usually in our backyard rather than the feeder)
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Eastern bluebird
  • downy woodpecker (at Grammy's house)
  • purple finch (along the roadside)
  • goldfinch (within a day of putting up our finch feeder)
  • golden eagle (a regular though unusual sight in March along a bit of road we traveled regularly)
  • common grackle
We always see a few bluebirds in the spring but they haven't stuck around. I'm contemplating installing a bluebird house or two over the winter so we might be able to attract some to nest next year.

Don't go bird watching in Kansas without The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hotspots, one of my favorite books! (Our library has lots of copies for local folks.)