Friday, May 24, 2013

A Reading Life

Today I would like to welcome to my blog Kelly, a Catholic homeschooling mom of two boys, ages 8 and 5. She has begun the amazing task of starting her own lending library from her home, and can now say she owns about 2,500 books...with more on the way! She writes from Wisconsin, where she is busy creating a cataloging system for her books and hunting down good children's books that she highlights on her blog, As she likes to say, "Good children's books can touch anyone."

Even though I watched TV as a kid, I always loved to read. I was a typical 1970s/80s girl who read Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy. Regrettably, I also read my fair share of Judy Blume and other then-popular fiction. I also must have read the Little House series, right? But I remember the TV series much more, of course. (It was a total delight when I read the whole series a few years ago with my then five-year-old son. It all seemed brand-new to me. Oh, and if you love the series like I do, be sure to enjoy the audio versions of all of the books done amazingly well by Cherry Jones - unabridged!) I can only guess at the number of hours I spent reading in my bedroom during my childhood. 

In high school, I fell in love with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, both the movie and the book. (I learned early on the power of the movie over the book to leave a lasting visual impression.) In later adult years during a difficult time, I read through all of Austen’s novels. During that same time, I read through the entire Bible - it took me about 18 months. (Please, find a way to do this at least once in your life. You will not regret it!)

When I graduated college, I couldn’t wait to begin reading for enjoyment again. I had taken an English literature class during my last semester and treasured the list the teaching assistant compiled for me (I still have that list somewhere...). My greatest accomplishment off that list was reading Middlemarch by George Eliot, a long but beautifully painful read.

In my 20s, I read whatever struck me - popular fiction with a classic novel thrown in here and there. No doubt, I wasted some good reading time here but I only realized it in hindsight. In my 30s, before children, I discovered an amazing Catholic author named Michael D. O’Brien. His books were absolutely life-changing, the kind of books that live inside of you. Our public library owned them, so I read them all. Even my husband, who is not a big reader, was unable to put Father Elijah down until he finished it. We still talk about that book eight years later. 

When my son arrived, I had already collected a few books for him. I had been waiting so long for the chance to read to my children! I had the requisite Dr. Seuss books along with a few others I had picked up on the sale tables at various bookstores. I wasn’t deliberate about it; I thought any children’s book was good. We utilized the public library heavily. Our family book collection was small - perhaps 50 books total. The public library was so well-stocked that I didn’t feel any urgency to own more than a few books.

When my oldest son was 2 1/2 years old, I began to think ahead about his education. I felt a strong pull to homeschool so I read books and articles for months to learn all I could about it. As I was researching, I began to come across book lists that had been compiled by homeschooling moms. The lists were titled things like, “Top 50 books to read to your child” or “Must-read books.” I couldn’t resist. I love lists! Print, print, print. I used up a lot of paper and a lot of ink. I began to realize that the world of children’s books extended far beyond Dr. Seuss and that there was a quality to these books that was so different from the popular literature I was finding prominently displayed at the public library. I began to utilize the public library’s online hold/request system to track these books down and began to buy copies of our favorites. I soon learned how important books would be in our educational journey, and I discovered Amazon. Our home library began to grow.

Another big change in my reading life occurred about a year ago when I discovered a group of ladies online who are operating (or hoping to operate) homeschool lending libraries out of their homes. Their libraries are comprised largely of older, out-of-print books published during what many call “The Golden Age of Children's Literature,” from 1930-1970. My membership in this group has been another life-changing experience for me and has inspired additional growth in my knowledge and love for good children’s books. Could I open a library like that? I wondered. So before I really knew what I was doing, I began buying large quantities of these good books. I was buying online and going to library and rummage sales. I was working off those wonderful booklists I love so much and also adding books that are favorites of ours, books from the past and some newer books. We had begun reading many of these for history, science and literature and I discovered again that there really is a difference in some of the older books: a beauty in language and understanding of children and a desire to pass on good values even in the midst of darkness and pain. I hated history and science when I was young. These books changed that for me. Good children’s books can touch anyone.

I now have close to 2,500 books in my home library and I am growing that number every month. I still have that dream of opening a homeschool lending library someday - only God knows if it will ever happen. I spend a lot of time and any money that I can trying to rescue these books that are being purged from peoples’ homes and the public library. I feel like I am saving something that is dying in our culture and enriching our lives at the same time. Thankfully, my boys love books. When they are both reading fluently on their own, I hope they will find hours of delight on our bookshelves. In the meantime, I love our read-aloud time. I love that I get to enjoy these wonderful books, too. I plan to read to them until they leave home! And at the end of a busy day, I love the few minutes I have to curl up with one of the many books that are always sitting on my nightstand. (Even though I have many books I want to read, I am re-reading Father Elijah by Michael D. O’Brien. Something about this time in our country compelled me to read it again. I am also reading through the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid; and Boys Should Be Boys by Meg Meeker. This is all very heavy/serious reading for me now - I need to add in something lighter!)


I used to love watching TV. Every night had its line-up and I ordered my life around that. I suppose VCRs changed that a bit, freeing me up to - gasp! - do something else while my favorite show was on. And then cable made it possible to watch something any time of the day or night. This went on for many years before something began to change. I felt a call to cancel cable. I felt a call to turn off the TV and do something else. I realized that I felt enslaved, like my time was not my own, that I was giving my precious free time to The Box. I began to crave freedom from the TV schedule, the movies, and even the sports. And for me to give up watching sports? You’d have to know me to understand what a big deal it was, and how odd it made me look to my family. Thankfully, my husband was open to it and one day, the TV went dark. We started a tradition of playing games together - we got really good at Cribbage. We started reading. For me, reading had already been a big part of my life once - I was simply reviving it. For him, he was always a reluctant reader so this was something new. 

Fast forward eight years, and two children later. My husband and I do not play Cribbage every night anymore. (!) We don’t read together at night anymore. (!) We have a TV, but it is down in the basement on a cart. We pull it out when we really want to watch something, usually a sporting event.  And I guess I watched all of the presidential debates last fall, though some I watched online. It’s a pain to pull it out and get the antennae positioned right (just slightly better than rabbit ears) so we don’t do it often. I think there’s something to that. Our kids occasionally watch DVDs on my laptop or on our little travel DVD player. And because my husband and I are often so tired when it comes to date night, we regularly watch a movie or old TV show on Netflix. I don’t judge those who enjoy watching TV or have cable. I lived that life for a very long time and do still enjoy a good movie now and then. But for me, nothing can beat a reading life filled with truly good and worthy books. I love my reading life.

Monday, May 20, 2013

How Christlike It Is To Share!

As I write this, the lilacs are in bloom here in Michigan in all different shades of lavender and white. They smell heavenly. They look like purple candy.  I've always loved the smell of lilacs, and every spring when I see and smell them, I am reminded of a story from my childhood.

I was a girl of about eleven or so when my best friend Jenny and I discovered a wooded area near our houses with the largest lilac bushes imaginable. And more than one bush; there were several that were absolutely covered in lilacs from top to bottom. We couldn't believe our luck when we came across them, and in our youthful innocence, decided to bring some home to our mothers as a little present. We tried to snap off a few but realized that we needed scissors of some type. I had remembered seeing some clippers in our garage. We ran back to my house, retrieved the clippers, and hurried back to the bushes, eager to create lovely bouquets for our mothers. It was a beautiful spring day, and upon arriving back at the lilacs, we took in their sweet, floral scent. Happily, we snipped a few clips here and there and headed home with our treasures. My mother put hers in a little bud vase in our bathroom. She was absolutely delighted to receive them. She kept talking about how beautiful they smelled, and wondered where we had gotten them. The flowers made her very happy, which in turn made me very happy.

I told her about the wooded area by our neighborhood. In those days, kids would roam free for hours, so unlike today when parents barely let their children out of their sight for more than a few minutes. We had no cell phones for our parents to keep track of us, and you just sort of knew when dinnertime was, since it was the same time every day, when the sun looked a certain way in the sky. My brother's friend would come home at the sound of a long, sharp whistle his dad would make around 6:00. Whenever you heard that whistle emanating through the streets, you knew it was time for John to go home for dinner. You didn't think anything of it; it was dinnertime at John's house.

Naturally, Jenny and I went back to the lilac bushes when the lilacs in our houses started to wilt after a couple of days, clippers in hand, to snip off a few more branches.

We arrived at the bushes and found ourselves face to face with an angry woman, hands on her hips.

"SO," she said angrily. "You're the ones who have been cutting my lilacs!"

We stood there in shock. I froze, clippers in hand, and glanced at the enormous bushes, so full of lilacs, enough for dozens of little girls to take home to their mothers. We had barely made a dent in the bushes, but apparently she had noticed some missing.

"I didn't know they belonged to anybody," I said, my lip trembling. "We thought they were wild." I was very sensitive and could cry at the drop of a hat. Having this strange woman being angry at us was more than I could take.

"Well, they're not wild; they are MY bushes," she said, "and I don't want anyone clipping them! Now go on home."

Jenny and I walked away, dejected. Apparently we had stolen the lilacs, and we didn't even realize it.

"We stole them," I said, unbelieving it. "I thought they were wild," I repeated.

This was a lot to take in. We were thieves, apparently. Lilac thieves. It was sad after that, because we had no more lilacs to smell in our homes. Neither of us had lilac bushes growing in our yards. Jenny's mother grew swiss chard and zucchini, and my mother grew tomatoes and geraniums. None of those plants had the sweet, intoxicating smell as the lilacs.

Jenny and I both agreed that the lady was really mean for yelling at us like that.

"She has so many!" I wailed to my mom afterward. "What is she going to do with all of those lilacs? She can't possibly use them all!" No more little lilac bouquets for the bud vases. It was so sad.

"Well," my mom said sadly, "if they belong to her, then they belong to her. Nothing you can do about it."

"But she should share!" I said. "Why can't she share them with people? We didn't even cut from the front of the bush; we cut from the back where nobody can even see them!"

It was a tough lesson in sharing—or lack thereof. I was used to generous people in my little world. Family was generous and gave of themselves. Friends were generous as well. Our neighbors were generous, letting us cut through their yards on our way to friends' houses. We were generous with others in return.  But you can't force people to share. Not that I would want to. There's something very wrong with forcing people to share.

To this day, whenever I see lilacs, I am taken back to that spring day when that lady would not share. It was her right not to, of course. They were her lilac bushes. I still think that it would have been nice of her to snip a few for us, in a gesture of springtime goodwill. How we would have remembered that about her!

And what if she would have told us how old the bushes were, how to take care of them, how many varieties of lilacs there are, what kind of birds are attracted to lilac bushes? That would have been such a pleasant memory. And what if she would have said, "You know, I don't mind you girls taking a few, but please ask first, okay?" That would have been such a lovely memory. Instead, I think of her yelling at us to leave. What an opportunity she missed, to have shown compassion.  There are people with so much who give so little. There are also people who have so little who give so much. And then there are the people in between.

I read a story of a chef who recently won a $10,000 prize in a cooking contest. His opponent was trying to win the money so she could visit her beloved dying grandmother in France, to see her one last time. He and his wife had bills to pay, so when he won the prize, he was ecstatic.

"What are you going to do with the prize money?" they asked him.

He smiled and asked for his opponent to come back out on the stage. He offered her enough of his share so that she could buy an airline ticket to see her dying grandmother, which she did gratefully. I was really taken by this show of Christlike compassion. It was a beautiful thing to do.

This is true sharing: sharing when we don't have to, want to, or when it is not expected of us. It is not easy to do; I realize that. It is not easy to follow Christ, to love like He does. After all, He shares everything: He shares and gives us Himself in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

 There are some days we want to keep all of the lilacs, all of the prize money, for ourselves. But what happens when we hoard God's gifts? I always wondered what that woman did with all of those many, many lilacs. I am sure most of them just died off naturally, giving joy to no one else but her.

Yes, had we known the lilac bushes belonged to someone, we would have asked first. You don't just go clipping flowers from people's property.

But it sure would have been nice if that lady would have shared her abundance with us.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Review: Elizabeth—A Holy Land Pilgrimage

Good, Catholic fiction of the modern era is not that easy to come by, so when I picked up Cheryl Dickow's Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage, (Bezalel Books  I was so excited to finally find a tale I could relate to.  Elizabeth is fast approaching middle age like me (perhaps I'm already there!), and takes a solo trip away from her husband and teenaged kids. Her two-week spiritual respite is in Israel, where Elizabeth discovers more about the Jewish roots of Catholicism. Readers will be drawn in to the story of the friends she meets, the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, and her emotional walk down the Via Dolorosa. I've never been to Israel but I felt like I was there with her, sipping tea, praying, and reflecting calmly and peacefully about what God means to each of us. I felt like I was on a religious retreat with a good friend. Elizabeth returns to her family with a renewed sense of purpose as a woman, a wife, and a mom. For weary moms everywhere, I highly recommend a retreat with Elizabeth!

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