Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Best Books I Read in 2014

I read many amazing and wonderful books this year. But I want to highlight three because they are extraordinarily good. And this is why I am a writer, because I strive not just to write, but to write well. I want to make a difference and these three books have done that for me. They are keepers. They are friends to accompany me on my journey.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. If I loved Code Name Verity, I loved Rose even more. It had so much heart. I know some people don't like all the details of flying or cars or whatnot, but I absolutely adored all the details that allowed me to imagine more fully as I read the book. The author's voice is sure and strong in both books and I trusted her to take me for a brilliant ride again. I've been interested in Holocaust survival stories since I first picked up the Diary of Anne Frank. These are stories we must never forget and I thank Elizabeth Wein for writing an unforgettable story about the Polish *rabbits* and their friendship with the women in Ravensbruck. Despite the difficult subject, there were moments that made me laugh. It just goes to show that joy is the most infallible sign of God's love. This is a book I will definitely read when I want to remember the power of perseverance and the power of words.

The 12 Steps to Holiness and Salvation by St. Alphonsus Ligouri. I might have started off a bit sour, thinking it's too hard to practice these Christian virtues but this great saint has been guiding me this entire year on increasing my virtue and it's a book I will return to again and again, perhaps even next year. This is not a self-help book. This is a book about getting to heaven. And for less than ten bucks, you can't afford not to study and live this book. Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. ~ Matthew 5:48 

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass. I'm only halfway through this book because I'm doing the writing exercises and boy does Don push you to dig deeper and deeper. I already have his Breakout Novel Workbook and it helped me to revise the first novel I ever completed. But this book, through various prompts and exercises forces you to think beyond the obvious. If you ever hang out at Writer Unboxed, you will discover what a generous fellow he is. Even his comments are mini-lessons.

What are the best books you read this year? What are you looking forward to? Please do share. I value the recommendations that come from you.

Wishing all my Jewish friends a very happy and blessed Hannukah!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Theokotos)

Today we celebrate not the miraculous conception of Jesus by the Holy Ghost (that's Mar. 25, the Annunciation), but the miraculous conception of Mary, the Mother of God, by her saintly parents Joachim and Anne.

16th century, Russian icon

Extra-Gospel sources tell us that this devout older couple was ridiculed for their barrenness, their offerings refused by the High Priest. St. Joachim, filled with grief, went to the desert to pray. St. Anne prayed at home. When I first read about them, I thought, oh people, you have to be together, work with God, you know? Thankfully, an angel appeared to both of them telling them that their prayer will be answered, not just with any child, but with Mary, full of grace, who would give birth to the Savior. Joachim and Anne met at the temple :) and the rest is history.

As you can imagine, many women who hope to conceive a child ask for these saints to pray for them. Myself included.

This feast of the Immaculate Conception causes a lot of confusion ... when we were going through RCIA, we wondered about Mary, full of grace. What does it mean? And what did it mean to be preserved from the stain of original sin? Does it mean Mary has no need of a Savior? I am not sure I can explain this well, but let me try with an example. It means that Mary, instead of falling into the pit of sin like all of us and then being saved by Jesus, was prevented from falling into the pit in the first place (by the merits of Jesus before He is Incarnated as a human). She was given ALL the graces necessary to become the Mother of God, but she still had free will and could've said no. But she didn't. She lived in the Divine Will by the grace of God.

Here's the official language of the Feast:

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful. —Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854

Saturday, December 6, 2014

You Better Watch Out!

This Advent might be a good time to read Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How we became a Nation of Heretics, mend our ways and avoid a punch from St. Nick.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On Prayer

We ought always to pray, and not to faint. Luke 18:1
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thess 5:16
Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Matt 6:9

I blame a late Thanksgiving for doing my Nov. post in Dec. This was another favorite chapter because like Tweety Bird I can say, “I did! I did! I did pway.” Nowadays, my heart and mind are lifted to God many times throughout the day. It is as natural for me to be with Him as it is to be with my family or a good friend and in prayer, time and distance from loved ones dissolves. I didn’t come by this at once, rather in small steps, first by thanksgiving and sorrow for my sins, later petitioning, and still later in contemplation. I find it fascinating that I lose nothing of myself by being open to Him. I am still me, but being with Him makes me as I ought to be. There are times even now when I don’t want to talk to God, but it’s laughable that I can even try to keep a secret from Him. He knows the depths of my heart even when I don’t want to admit to some of my longings and desires. Even if I begin my prayers like a recalcitrant child, I end up in His arms, content. 

When I lost my faith at age 12, I didn’t stop praying immediately. In fact, I wept because I thought I lost my best friend, but a few months later, my mind hardly turned to Jesus, and a few years later, I gave Him no thought at all. And I can honestly say that it was the path to perdition. It is so easy to become your own god, to do what is right for yourself (moral relativism), and not give a care to anyone else. I am not the most charitable person on this planet, but in my 20s, I was downright callous. The poor and suffering were not even worth a thought, a tear, a prayer. And yet, prayer … sweet hour of prayer. It is the *one talent* we are all given, by which we can gain all other graces. I never thought about this until St. Alphonsus pointed it out in this chapter and which was discussed in a beautiful homily by Father Ryan: http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-one-talent-prayer-gains-all-rest.html   
St. Alphonsus says, “The worship of God takes the first place in the order of moral virtues; it is occupied more with God and leads us nearer to Him than the others. For every Christian, therefore, who is striving after perfection it must be a matter of no little concern to make this virtue his own in the highest degree. Now the easiest means of doing so, a means that we can employ at all times and in all places, is found in prayer. Whether it be a prayer of praise or thanksgiving or impenetration or propitiation, we are worshipping God, for every prayer is a humble acknowledgement of the greatness or goodness or fidelity or mercy of God.”
“Vocal prayer, or prayer pronounced by the lips, is very pleasing to God because by it the endless Majesty of God is acknowledged and glorified. … In order, however, that vocal prayer may tend to God’s glory and our own salvation, it must be accompanied by attention and devotion. Such prayer is like sweet-smelling incense that is agreeable to God and wins for us treasures of graces. On the other hand, prayer without recollection is insulting and offensive to God and calls down His wrath on the offender."

OUCH!!! I am mortified at all the times I have given lip-service but my mind was elsewhere. St. Alphonsus always gives it to me straight.
We can blame the devil for the worldly distractions. St. Alphonsus says, “It’s because he desires to rob us of the benefit we derive from fervent prayer; and on the other he wishes to make us guilty of disrespect towards God, and therefore deserving of punishment.” As always, he gives some practical suggestions. “Offer Him beforehand (Mass) the prayers you intend to say, and beg Him to preserve you from distractions. During prayer, avoid haste... Abstain from everything that is incompatible with interior recollection, ex. gazing at every distracting object, speaking with others, etc. Interior attention is threefold: it may be directed to the words you utter, or to their sense, or, finally, to God. When during prayer, your mind is fixed on God with a view to adore Him, to thank Him, to love Him or to ask Him for His graces.
“The easiest means of practicing vocal prayer consists in uttering fervent ejaculations. These pious outpourings of the heart need not be restricted to any particular place or time. They are in order at all times and in all places, at work, at meals, at recreation, at home or away from home. They may take the form of acts of desire, conformity, love, oblation, or self-denial; they may be acts of petition, thanksgiving, humility, confidence and the like. ... Those who frequently utter ejaculations close the door against Satan and prevent his constant annoyance and wicked thoughts." Some examples:
O my God, I desire only Thee and nothing else.
I give myself wholly to Thee.

My God, I love Thee.
My Love, my All!


That last ejaculation was sometimes all I could say when I was in severe pain. Just "Jesus." On better days, I find myself singing various hymns or parts of the Mass, like the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei.

St. Alphonsus reminds us, “The invocation of the holy names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph should have first place. All that we love and desire and hope to possess is summed up in these beautiful names. Jesus Christ has not saved us only once; He is continually saving us by His merits, when in accordance with His promise, He frees us from the danger of sin as often as we invoke His Holy Name. Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that I will do. John 14:13

"With the holy name of Jesus we must unite the beautiful name of Mary. It is so powerful that all hell trembles when it is pronounced. ... If the King of Heaven and earth conferred on Joseph the honor of being the foster father of His Beloved Son and the protector of the holy and immaculate Mother, surely it behooves us to honor him and invoke his powerful intercession.

“You may also, without uttering a word, raise your eyes to Heaven or cast a loving glance at the tabernacle or the crucifix. … The best acts of love, of course, are those that well up from the depth of the heart at the impulse of the Holy Ghost."

St. Alphonsus then focuses the remainder of the chapter on silent prayer and meditation. He says, "Our Divine Redeemer had no need to retire to a lonely place to pray; for as His blessed soul was constantly in the presence of His heavenly Father … He did this to teach us the necessity of interior prayer."
"Mental prayer is like a mirror. If you have a speck of dirt on your face and come before a looking glass, you see the dirt at once and remove it. Had you not looked in the mirror, you would not have thought of the dirt nor washed it away. So it is with mental prayer; we are standing before the mirror of our soul. It is then we recognize our faults and the danger we are in, and accordingly we take measures to rid ourselves of the faults and to escape from the dangers that threaten us."

He then gives a method that is in three parts: preparation, consideration and conclusion. Since this post is already too long, I direct you to: St. Alphonsus' method of mental prayer

I agree with the saint completely when he says, "Without prayer it is absolutely impossible to lead a virtuous life." If you do not pray, do not despair. You can start now. Let the Jim Reeves song give you hope. It still brings tears to my eyes. I used to sing these songs with my mother. Requiescat in pace, Ai.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Art and Electronics

Looks like Max isn't the only winner. Dagny's horse won a blue ribbon at the county art fair ... it's hanging up in school. This is not it ... but as soon as I get a picture, I'll edit this post:

And here are a couple more noteworthy pieces. Dagny's best friend at school drew her mother using the photograph. It might have been taken 20 years ago, but she still looks the same!  And Max made the bowl and Christmas tree in his ceramics class.

 I find that the children used to spend hours drawing and experimenting. Now that they are older, their creative output is so much less. They play computer games or read the news or participate in social media ... I can't help but think they're swimming in the shallows. We routinely turn off everything so that they can reset (and just look at my own language -- it reflects how much the electronics have taken over my own life).

I will be ever grateful that we had some sense to keep all this away for the first decade of their lives so that they could develop their minds. We introduced the electronics in a limited way 4 yrs ago, but as they enter adolescence, we are letting them have full use and it's interesting (and dismaying and sad) to observe how quickly they discard the development of their own art in favor of becoming consumers. So we let them loose, and rein them in. And trying hard to cultivate a few good habits since the electronics are here to stay in their lives. But I mourn the loss of hours and hours of play. Even my own creative life thrives when I take the time to walk and observe all the beauty around me, listen to bird-song, play the piano, and write for no reason except to put words on paper or play with the arrangement of words. I often switch between different projects with poetry  because it shakes things loose in my brain. I do not want the children to waste this wonderful time in their lives glued to a device in their *free time*. Now it's not all bad. It is the computer that has allowed us to play with pictures and make little home movies. But note the operative word: PLAY.

Parents, tell me, how do you strike a balance with your children? 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Lizard's Tail

A LIZARD'S TAIL by Bish Denham: From the moment he hatches, Marvin P. Tinkleberry knows he is destined for greatness. For one, he has a marvelous, well-groomed tail. For another he can puff out his throat pouch in the most spectacular way. Maybe the other lizards in his colony don't take him seriously, but he knows the truth. It lives in the marrow of his bones; he's going to be a hero.
When a feral cat threatens the lives of all who live at Stone Wall in the Garden by the Sea, Marvin knows it's HIS destiny to get rid of the fearsome beast. Travelling Over the Hill to find help should be as easy as snapping up a sleeping moth. But it doesn't take long for Marvin to see that the world beyond Stone Wall is not the same as his pampered life back at the garden. From the deadly Sucker Cactus Forest to deadly mongooses, danger lurks around every corner and Marvin will have to decide if he's willing to be the hero he's long bragged about being.

I encountered Marvin P. Tinkleberry soon after I met Bish on the ICL boards. She mentioned she had a first draft of an animal story and I'm a sucker for animal stories so I offered to read. Wow! It was the best first draft I've ever read. All the advice you might ever have read about just getting the story down is spot on. This story seemed to pour out of Bish and Marvin was such a great character, I fell in love with him right away.
Not only is this a fantastic animal story, it is set in a marvelous locale -- a tropical island. I found myself musing about the habits of lizards vs. geckos. Or the smells I lost long ago, like that of hibiscus, frangipani. Best of all, we really get to see how tragic it can be when a cat (I love cats) goes after a colony of lizards. I have evidence right here. In defense of the cat, she was only playing with this fellow ... and it's too bad he didn't make it. But I digress. A Lizard's Tail makes a great read-aloud. I highly recommend it for lovers of animal stories who are wanting something a bit different than the usual mouse or rat or pig tales. 

You can find A Lizard's Tail on Amazon. Bish is also the author of Anansi and Company: Retold JamaicanFolk Tales.

Bish Denham was raised in the U. S. Virgin Islands. Her mother's side of the family has lived in the Caribbean for over one hundred years and she still has plenty of family there whom she visits regularly. She says, "Growing up in the islands was like living inside a history book. Columbus named the islands, Sir Francis Drake sailed through the area, and Alexander Hamilton was raised on St. Croix. Then there were the pirates who plied the waters. Life for me was magical, and through my writing I hope to pass on some of that magic." Bish has known many lizards in her life. Marvin and Leeza are based on two that lived in her bedroom.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Cold Snap

My sweet clementines, my hot peppers! They aren't liking this cold snap one bit. Neither am I. This weekend we harvest everything.


Seventh and eighth graders got to go on a field trip to the Cotton Museum and a farm. I missed it because of Harry. Blasted Harry. But Dagny took some great pictures and I'm happy the kids had a wonderful time. I remember when Max went two years ago.


Dagny is developing a good eye for taking pictures. Here are some she took on her walk with the dog. Enjoy! The apple cake was delicious too ... she's an excellent cook as my growing girth will testify.