Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Poetry: Loveliness in Nine Lines

Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The holiday season is drawing to a close and a new year is setting slowly, stretching its last rays over the horizon. My reflections and favorite books I read in 2011 will be forthcoming, but today I want to bid 2011 adieu with a lovely poem by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. This poem bumped into me one day completely by accident, but I am so glad we met. It is a poem that can be applied to many stages of one's life, I believe, but today it seems to have been written for the end of a new year. New Year's resolutions come and go; rarely do they last longer than a month. But to live life fully, savor the simple and the grandiose equally, and to be at peace with my life and with all I know and love is my resolution for life. Take a deep breath. Enjoy.

by Czeslaw Milosz

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Currently Celebrating: JESUS' BIRTH!

Merry Christmas everybody! What a joyful, loving Christmas it has been... and it's not even over. There are still so many family members to greet and laughs to share. I am tingling with anticipation still, as well as happiness as I look back on this glorious day. The living room is lit only with Christmas lights and the room is still. Silent. Watchful. The perfect ingredients for some good pondering.

Today is the day. The day where we celebrate the greatest gift of all: Jesus coming to earth for us. We hear variations of this theme in church all the time- especially on Christmas Day. How we give gifts because Jesus was given to us. How He was born just so that He could die for us. We hear this, we internalize it, and we move on through our day, our month, our year.

But when I stop for a moment, sitting here by myself, and close my eyes, I envelop myself in the reality of these words. It's no longer just a sermon topic. I feel the truth of it flicker in my soul; I recognize that these events actually happened and I feel His eyes on mine. I have only seen Him once, but He was majestic and perfect, and all I need to do is close my eyes to feel that peace and hope envelop me again. I know He is real and even though I am not the child He deserves, I still love Him with everything I have.

So, God rest ye. Don't dismay. Jesus is real and He loves you. Be merry.... be comforted.... be joyful! Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Bookstore Happy

Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Merry Christmas! (Almost).

We are now back from the wonderful land of Hollywood, where we met Alex Trebek, Nathan tested his smarts on-camera, and we took a harrowing bus trip to Hollywood Boulevard (which was actually a bit of a let-down. Should've gone to the beach instead.)


You would think I would dread going from 65 degree, sunny weather to a cold and gloomy Chicago afternoon, but I was beyond excited to come home. It really hit me while flying over snow-capped mountains, leaving the warmth of California behind, that I will never be anything but a Midwest girl. I may not be a fan of bitter winds or freezing rain, but I love my seasons and their changing smells, the rolling farmland, and the perfect blend of city and country that defines the Midwest. Forget "California Girls"; I'll send Katy Perry some lyrics for "Midwest Girls."
I am convinced that one of the best places to be around Christmastime is Barnes & Noble. Each time we have ventured out to complete more Christmas shopping, Nathan and I have always allowed an extra hour for some much-needed relaxing time at B&N. It is festive, in a "Christmas bustle/coffeeshop smells/holiday displays" kind of a way. Yet even in the busy store, quiet spaces materialize amid the presence of thousands of books. The harried voices of annoyed shoppers and the frustrated look of employees evaporates when I sink down on the floor with a book that has caught my eye, or window-shop among the bookshelves, running my finger along spines of old friends and new acquaintances. The world stops when I am in the shelves of a bookstore or a library. It is just me among books- no distractions, no stress, no interruptions. Just soft, slow breaths and the careful patience of a child working on penmanship. No spa can relax me the way being surrounded by walls of books can.

OK, this may not be Barnes & Noble but this is one of my favorite independent bookstores. The whole atmosphere is permeated with cozy book love.

Two weeks ago, we went on a little B&N excursion. Nate and I split up once we got there, meeting again in the Cafe area, armed with books to peruse over hot Peppermint Mochas. What a blissful and rejuvenating 30 minutes! With every page turn of Young Goodman Brown, I felt any stress melt away, leaving a strong feeling of utter contentment in its place. (That feeling is when I know I'm feeding my soul a gourmet meal). I couldn't help myself from looking up and gazing around at the shoppers laden with newly-bought presents, Nathan poring over his book, and the kids caroling on the steps of the Starbucks area. (They weren't very good, but one has to appreciate the sentiment. We should all bring back caroling....why did it ever die out in the first place?!) I was happy just to be there, part of that moment, part of that scene.

We also used this trip to stock up on Christmas presents at B&N. Every year, I try to be creative in my present choices, but I always come back to this decision: a book is the best present of all. Not only can you literally find a book for everyone on your list if you try, but books act as a connection between you and another person. I especially love giving books I have already read and enjoyed; nothing is more satisfying than giving a favorite book to someone else, knowing that many great discussions will follow as they read and love it too. Sharing books is magical- it's part of the reason why I love working at a library. The gift is not just the book- the gift is also an experience, a feeling, a friend, that can be found within its pages. Talk about expressing your love and appreciation for someone- what better way to do it than with a book?

Give a book this Christmas....and I hope you receive many as well! Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 19, 2011


Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I will be AWOL for several days, for reasons I cannot disclose. I'll let this be a little teaser. :)


I have been using this opportunity to read like crazy... 100 pages of David Copperfield yesterday! Yes! Plus, I read and finished Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay in two days. After Christmas, I'll have a quick blog post about that one. Have a great week and I will be back on Friday!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tis the Season!

Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Currently Re-reading: my favorite Christmas kid books

Turn on the Christmas carols and grab a candy cane, because my Christmas muse is still going full-blast. I just cannot get enough of this season. All I have to do is listen to O Holy Night before I am overcome with peace and hope and love and absolute happiness. And since I try to spend my life finding happiness in anything I can, I'm sucking the marrow out of this wonderful time of year. Nate and I spent one of the greatest Sundays of my life worshiping our Lord at church, finishing our Christmas shopping, strolling through the mall, and then finishing the night by wrapping presents and watching Rudolph and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town. An entire day devoted to Christmas magic-making with the one I love? Perfect. :)

Our Christmas tree... why yes, our living room is snowing.

Tonight, I feel like reminiscing and revisiting some of my favorite Christmas books for children. (Warning: this is a LONG post... hope you stick with it!) As established in the previous post, when I think of Christmas, many of my thoughts and memories stray to my childhood. Christmas stories and books feature prominently on my shelf of Christmas memories. Unlike many of my memories, I can actually revisit my books- perhaps not reliving distinct moments, but remembering them with sharp clarity with every page I turn. So here are my musings on my favorite Christmas books...

I believe books and Christmas go together like cocoa and blankets... after all, the Christmas story started with a book- the best Book of them all.


"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8) It gives me chills.
I don't know why, but Jan Brett books make me think of my mother. I have no doubt she read them to us, but there is no specific memory linked to this- only a deep feeling of my mother every time I open a Jan Brett book. One of my favorites is called The Wild Christmas Reindeer. Jan Brett is a wonderful story-teller, but the true magic of her books lies in her illustrations. The main story, of a girl with the daunting responsibility of readying Santa's reindeer for the big night, dominates the center panel.


This is a North Pole unlike any in other stories. Santa and the elves live on a Winterfarm, which is strikingly Nordic-inspired; the reindeer have such lovely names- Bramble, Lichen, and Tundra. Along the margins, a separate story unfolds, purely in pictures. All of her illustrations are rich in detail and color, fascinating to behold. I have always preferred words to pictures, but these continue to delight me, even as an adult.

Not the best shot, but oh well.
Who doesn't love Tomie dePaola? Especially when he is writing about a spit-fire of an old lady trying to make the perfect Christmas feast without magic- for "Christmas has a magic of its own." Be still my heart.


Merry Christmas, Strega Nona
is by far my favorite Strega Nona book and never ceases to put a smile on my face. In fact, I just reread bits of it and I'm smiling away. The essence of Christmas is all here- the hurry, anticipation, excitement, and work of getting ready for Christmas. The comfort of tradition. Honoring the magic and love that celebrating Jesus' birth brings us. The bond of family and friends who come together to make Christmas special. It's the whole package.
"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Priceless. Classic. When you think of how ubiquitous this poem is, it's hard to believe this poem was penned in 1822.


From that early beginning, Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" still speaks to children and adults, encapsulating the glorious anticipation and delicious mystery of Christmas Eve. Without Moore, our image of Santa would be very different- for starters, he would not have eight reindeer or fly in a sleigh. (Do some research on the history of Santa... it's fascinating!) What would Christmas be without this little gem of a poem? Personally, I have always enjoyed the version illustrated by Scott Gustafson (a Marengo native!)


The colors are vibrant, practically bursting off of the page. I want to crawl inside each picture and wrap myself in it.
Every Christmas Eve since my grandparents moved away, my sister and I pull out our battered copies of Little House books and skip to the "Christmas" chapters in each. As my sister keeps her hands busy (usually baking), I read aloud to her stories of Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie celebrating another Christmas. We smile, we laugh aloud, we wipe tears from our eyes, and then we sigh and look out the window, imagining Christmases of the past, and reflecting on our own fleeting presence in this world and the fragility of moments like these.


It is one of my favorite Christmas traditions and will always be part of the special bond my sister and I share. Last year, Nathan joined us at the dining room table, with his head in his hand, listening devotedly. And for the first time, all of the books were not lined up in front of me on the table. Instead, I read from A Little House Christmas- an actual collection of all of the Christmas stories found in each Little House book.


An amazing find (thank you, Jennifer) that seems to have been made for our tradition alone.
Finally, my Christmas experience wouldn't be the same without the little-known-but-oh-so-delightful Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry. The plot is positively delightful- one that I think is entertaining to both children and adults. As a child, I always found great pleasure in the pattern of the story and the rhyme and rhythm of the words. The ending still makes me smile. But none of that explains why it's so special to me. Every year, my Oma will pull out a special stash of books that only appears at Christmastime. When I was young, I would read each of these books cover to cover- even the one that was only a book of carols. (I will read cereal boxes if I have to.) Anyway, our favorite was Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree, and like the amazing grandmother she is, my Oma would always read it to us.


We could read it ourselves, of course, but there is something so very special about snuggling next to someone as you are read to. We made Oma read this book to us so many times that even now, as I open the cover and start reading to myself, her voice echoes in my head. I can perfectly remember how she pronounces "Willowby" or how she reads "She gave it a chop, and threw away....the top!" with a perfect upward inflection. It is amazing how twenty-eight simple pages holds indelible memories of a grandmother who has been everything to me- a pretty large feat for one little book.
Just as Christmas has its own magic, so do books. The magic of books explains why we discuss them with each other, read them together, or seek them out in bookstores to wrap and give away for Christmas. Just like the newest Hallmark commercials proclaim about cards, books are not meant to be read alone. They are meant to be shared. When we share our books with each other, we forge bonds, reaffirm relationships, and create lasting memories. And we spread the magic.... the magic of love, comfort, and Christmas.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus.... The Christmas Motherlode Post

Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Happy Friday! I have wrapped the Christmas season tight around me lately and my soul is completely full. Right now, I am enjoying some "writing time" in my favorite coffee shop, surrounded by the Christmas spirit: Christmas carols on the radio, and the entire place draped in berries and lights and fake plastic pine. And this peppermint white chocolate mocha (I know.. be jealous, because it's amazing) is the perfect muse.
We spent Wednesday night putting up our tree and now it truly feels like Christmas at home. Our first Christmas in our own home... it's enough to make me tear up.


I know I'm not the only one, but when I anticipate Christmas, many of my thoughts creep back to childhood memories. Gazing into the flame of an Advent candle as "Heidchi Bumbeidchi" swells through the room instantly turns me into a child again, watching Oma light the Advent wreath. Certain songs or smells transport me to the Christmas where I got my dollhouse, the yearly tradition of decorating the tree with Mom, putting up Oma's Christmas Village. Memories that lie dormant all year long come into bright focus as December dawns: Giggling with my sister in my bed on Christmas Eve, sampling my mother's cookies, setting my St. Nikolaus boot on the windowsill, and waking up on the first day of Christmas break. What is it about Christmas that makes me not only remember past Christmases, but yearn for them?


One of my favorite things about Christmas is the dedication to tradition that we all, to some extent, participate in. We bake the same recipes we watched our mothers and grandmothers make, we watch the same beloved movies, and we strive to do everything the way it was last year and the year before. Tradition is cozy and safe, something that helps give our life meaning, and it holds particular importance with this most important and beautiful of holidays. My traditions connect me to my parents, my sister, my grandparents. It affirms who I am and what I believe in. And with each tradition I follow and each happy-cozy feeling that flutters in my soul, my faith and happiness and contentment with the world increases. My traditions are a way to declare my intense love for this holiday and my plan to celebrate it right.


Now I have the wonderful opportunity to introduce some of my traditions to Nathan, and partake in some of his, thereby creating our very own. I cannot wait to someday help shape my children's Christmas memories and give them, through our traditions and celebrations, the same sense of love and joy I get at Christmas-time.

In honor of my Christmas-induced mood, I'm posting a letter from the editor of the New York Sun in 1897 answering the query of a little girl named Virginia. This may not be a poem, but it is so beautiful and eloquent, it may as well be. The fat bearded man may not physically exist but everything he represents- love, childhood, faith, generosity does exist. It started with a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago, and continues in you and in me.
"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Merry Christmas! I pray that you savor all of your Christmas traditions and find joy in spreading a little Christmas cheer today!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Byman Student, Always and Forever

Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Let me start this post with a declaration: I am in love with David Copperfield. I forgot how much I loved Charles Dickens, and I have read enough of him to recognize with pleasure that this is not a love born from obligation (i.e. Charles Dickens is the epitome of a great novelist, therefore I must read his work and love him because otherwise librarians and professors will throw tomatoes at me), but in a "Mr. Dickens, it is truly awe-inspiring the way you can spin words into sentences that I want to hang on my wall" kind of a love.

What can be better than this: "God knows how infantine the memory may have been that was awakened within me by the sound of my mother's voice in the old parlour...The strain was new to me, and yet it was so old that it filled my heart brimful- like a friend come back from a long absence." Or this: "I am glad to think there were two such guileless hearts at Peggotty's marriage as little Em'ly's and mine. I am glad to think the Loves and Graces took such airy forms in its homely procession." Yet it's difficult to pull out specific quotations and air them on the line individually, because it seems the entire book is one sonorous quotation, winging along and imprinting itself into my mind. Every sentence I read makes me thirsty for more, which is why I am so pleased that I have over 700 pages to indulge in.
Stay tuned later this month for my list of favorite children's Christmas books. It will by no means be a comprehensive list since there are an unbelievable amount of Christmas kid books in this world, but the list will include my favorites, old and new.

For tonight, I will spend some time discussing Bernhard Schlinck's The Reader, which I finished about a week ago. (Ahem, Mary, if you are reading this... please go get it and read it pronto.) This book surprised me. I saw the movie about two years ago and was intrigued by the plot, so I naturally assumed that the book would be good and worth checking into. Oh baby. Was it ever. Do not be fooled by the dearth of paper between the covers- while short, this book is mighty. I was completely blown away by the intensity and the depth of this book. Quickly, I entered "Professor Byman-class" phase, where I instantly started analyzing the smallest details and posing questions for fellow classmates about the significance of the title, of Michael's desire to pursue a career in law, of how Hanna's fate and Michael's reactions mirrored Germany's fate and the perspective of the post-war generation in Germany. Once a Byman student, always a Byman student, I guess.

I loved this book. (If you haven't caught on yet, I say I love a lot of books. I don't give my love away to just any book, but I am not afraid to give books the "love" stamp of approval if they deserve it.) To make it brief: the book takes place in the decade after Nazi-era Germany. Our narrator, Michael, tells his story as an older man, reflecting back on the trajectory his life took when he was 15. For at that age, he entered into an affair with an older woman named Hanna (for sensitive readers, it does get a bit graphic but not in an unnecessary way). After a happy but tumultuous relationship, Hanna disappears. Michael does not see her again until years later, when he is a law student. There he comes face-to-face with the woman he thought he knew and the secrets she hid from him- and the world- for so long. It is haunting and moving and kept my thoughts chugging along to the point where I had to stop, rewind the CD (I listened to it as an audiobook... the narrator was fantastic), and listen again to the paragraphs I had just missed. As someone who is not only passionate about history but also connected to Nazi Germany through my family history, it raised questions that I have pondered before and led me to ask deeply personal questions as well: who must accept responsibility for what happened in Germany in WWII? At what point are we free from any responsibility or guilt for what happened in the past? How can we accept the role our loved ones played in that terrible time? Is there such a thing as innocence, even for those of us who weren't there? What is the cost of keeping secrets and to what lengths are people willing to go to preserve their self-worth? These thoughts have always been with me- Holocaust class brought them painfully into focus for me when I was in college and The Reader continued this reflection. While I don't have any answers, the book caused me to ask more questions.... which is exactly what a good book should do.
So if you are desperate for a thought-provoking, fascinating read, I highly recommend The Reader. And I would love to hear your perspective on it as well.
Tonight, the Christmas tree is going up and I'm busting out more carols.

Hobbes says "Merry Christmas"!Hope you're having a great week too! I'll be back on Friday with more poetry.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Music and Nature... Celebrating the Snow Billy Collins-style!

Currently Reading: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

IT SNOWED! I know, I know. Everyone is now groaning and thinking, "Not another wacko who thinks snow is something to celebrate!" Yes, it's dangerous and terrible to drive in and scares the bejebus out of me when I or someone I love has to travel during the winter. Who would like shoveling the freezing stuff off of their car, I ask you? I have a love-hate relationship with snow, believe me. I personally think snow is the Devil's plaything when it blows sideways into my face in sharp gusts of wind; and I certainly can't take the cold for long... (If you know me at all, you'll know that I get cold in summer time... so winter is especially detrimental to my inner thermometer.)


But this.... sigh. This shimmer of sunlight reflected off of newly fallen snow dancing across my bedroom wall... this slight dusting of snow on the bare world like powdered sugar on freshly-baked brownies... this sense of peace and calm that fills my beauty-hungry soul when the world gets dressed in completely different attire from its everyday garb. This is why I love snow. And in honor of our brave new world today, here is a poem that I love revisiting with every new and gentle snow. (It's another from Billy Collins.... is it obvious that I love the man?) He has written several about snow (I also like Shoveling Snow With Buddha and Neither Snow, but this is my favorite.) Music and nature just go so well together. Enjoy!

by Billy Collins

I cannot help noticing how this slow Monk solo
seems to go somehow
with the snow
that is coming down this morning,

how the notes and the spaces accompany
its easy falling
on the geometry of the ground,
on the flagstone path,
the slanted roof,
and the angles of the split-rail fence

as if he had imagined a winter scene
as he sat at the piano
late one night at the Five Spot
playing "Ruby, My Dear."

Then again, it's the kind of song
that would go easily with rain
or a tumult of leaves,

and for that matter it's a snow
that could attend
an adagio for strings,
the best of the Ronettes,
or George Thorogood and the Destroyers.

It falls so indifferently
into the spacious white parlor of the world,
if I were sitting here reading

in silence,
reading the morning paper
or reading Being and Nothingness,
not even letting the spoon
touch the inside of the cup,
I have a feeling
the snow would even go perfectly with that.

Keep On Reading...

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