Courage, Dear Heart

A few summers ago, my husband and I took our four small children for a hike on Washington’s Mt. Rainier.  It was fairly early in the season, so there were few hikers around. Most visitor centers were still closed and the snow crowded the higher roads.  We decided to hike farther down the mountain where all snow had melted into a rushing stream and the falls promised to be spectacular.  

It was a beautiful hike with lush ferns, whistling forest birds, and a steady descent into a cool valley.  Our kids were enthusiastic little hikers and they were more independent than ever before.

Snacking on cookies under a mossy 15 foot boulder, we heard a motorcycle approach. We were quite surprised at how loud it was, because there was no road around us for miles.  It sounded like it was right above us on the boulder.

My husband frowned at me over our children’s little heads.  I returned a questioning look, and the panic started rising in my throat.

In an instant, I knew it was not a motorcycle; there was no mistaking the growl of a mountain lion.  With my heart racing and fingers shaking, we quickly gathered up the children and continued the hike at a faster pace.  The kids wondered why they had to finish up their cookies while walking quickly, but all we said was that we needed to get going before it got too late.  

My husband took the lead with the three year old on his shoulders, I took the rear, and we marched back to the car like our lives depended on it.  

Considering that we heard that growl follow us constantly over the next 30 minutes, I believe our lives did depend on quick action. 

I have never been so terrified in my life.  The images of a winter-starved cougar pouncing on my babies and dragging one off into the forest will never leave me, and I still shake when I think of it.  It was a real possibility.

I don’t know much about these big cats, but I do know that you can fight them head on if you need to, and I was more than prepared to stand my ground and fight for my children.  

However, in this particular case, retreat to safety was the best decision.  The hiking we do in Yellowstone around grizzly bears would call for a different plan–that’s when bear spray and curling into a ball are your best course of action.

No matter where we hike, we always need to be prepared for any dangerous situation and bring a healthy dose of courage.  I tend to worry overly much about the risk of harm and injury, whereas my husband is the one leading us on to our goal. While I have literally cowered in fear at a waterfall trailhead (not one of my finer moments), my husband carefully weighs a situation and prepares for it.  He is never one to take thoughtless action, but he can see the reward in a risk far better than I can.

These thoughts all come to mind because right now we all face daily decisions of risk versus reward.  Death, disease, loss, sadness, isolation, and countless insecurities are knocking on our doors. They are following us down the trail of life like a hungry lion ready to pounce.  We look frantically behind our shoulders and see shadows, hear the growling, and our hearts stick in our throats.  

I imagine during this time we have all awakened from a restless sleep, worry and fear pounding a drumbeat we have to fight with all our strength. I know I have experienced this a couple times just over the last two weeks. 

And yet: Have courage, dear heart.  

In the midst of our fears and worries, we do truly have a choice in how we face our days.  

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the lion is strength, wisdom, and protection for the children, kings and queens throughout the series.  Yet he slips in and out, and there are even moments when he appears to have lost a fight, died, or even forgotten the world he breathed into life.  

In The Horse and His Boy, he appears as a fierce wild cat chasing the boy Shasta as he races through the dark forest.  It is only when Shasta really looks carefully that he sees he is not being chased but is protected by that same lion.  

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy Pevensie fears all is lost and cries out for Aslan, only to worry he is far gone and uncaring.  Yet in the midst of panic and fear, she hears the whispered words, “Courage, dear heart,” and she knows in her heart and mind that Aslan is there and that with him she is more than capable of handling what is demanded of her.  Her resolve and bravery is renewed.

It seems to me that we have a choice every day: will we let the growling, stalking lion of fear determine our choices, or will we look and listen carefully for courage and direction to do the right thing?

This choice is no different today than it was yesterday, a month, a year, or 100 years ago. Death and disease are a daily part of life, but sometimes we think we have them at bay or under control.  

We do not. We truly do not, ever. Those dangers are always there, lurking, stalking, ready to 

pounce. If it is not one predator, it is another.  And they are not going anywhere anytime soon.  

We probably all have different ideas of what the “right thing” is right now.  Some of us are worried about disease, death, and economic uncertainty. That fear might be for others, it might be for ourselves.  Even opening the mail can feel like a risk (and if it’s a bill, there’s certainly no reward in that). None of those fears are unfounded. 

Allowing that fear to determine our thoughts, words, and actions is not, however, what gives man meaning, fulfillment, and reward. May we all valiantly face our fears, listen to that still, small whisper that speaks wisdom and courage and love, and move forward despite the shadows lurking about us.

Have courage, dear heart.

Beauty in the Commonplace

I have been pondering lately why poetry matters.

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As you may know from my blog and Instagram (don’t follow me yet? Find me at @moiraferrerwriter), nowadays I cover poetry more than any other type of literature. This is a strange phenomenon, because I am neither a poet nor an expert of any kind. In fact, poetry scares me.

Poetry has always been a dragon to me: powerful, mythical, unknowable, beautiful, and intimidating. Most of the time, I don’t understand what I’m reading, and it doesn’t matter if it’s new or old, it’s just confusing. The words and patterns are strange (does anyone even talk like this?). When I do understand it, it’s maybe one or two words. Those words or phrases hit me hard, but I could still chuck half the poem and get the same meaning from it.

I’m just being honest.

While I was in college, I focused on the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, like John Donne, but I never really knew what to do about it, or why I was attracted to their writing. I was as confused back then as I am now. But I was intrigued and had the luxury of trying them out.

I dropped poetry altogether after graduating and moving on into adulthood. When I taught 3rd and 4th graders, I tried to impress in them an appreciation of literature, but poetry is hard to teach at that level–or so I thought. In later years as a preschool teacher and mother of young children, I used nursery rhymes as a means to share knowledge of language and life. But Mother Goose is only marginally inspiring, and I put the poems away.

That early fascination has crept back into my life, a very normal, seemingly unpoetic and unromantic life. My recent rediscovery of poetry coincides with a growing desire for beauty. But where does this need come from? Perhaps it is merely the winter, or something mundane like settling into a long period of steadiness as I raise my elementary age children.

But this is my conclusion: my need for beauty comes from the quiet reality of my humanity, of being a body and soul created by the God of wonder and beauty. It is intrinsic to our nature as humans to crave beauty, and we look for it everywhere.

I could go into the misled search for beauty that we find in pop culture: models in magazines, music that hints at but misses the mark, Hollywood. But I prefer to focus on the good, true, and lovely. That beauty is right in front of us, even if we are told it is trite, old-fashioned, or overdone. This beauty is given to us through the people around us, creation in all its big and small glories, and words we use.

Poetry can bring this beauty into our midst not because poets use fancy language or can shoehorn words into rhymes better than the rest of us, but because they see better than most of us. Poets and writers take time to observe the world around them and they share those observations through their poetry and writing. They look with a squinted eye and stilled body, holding up a mental picture frame to capture the tiny moments in front of them. They ponder the humdrum or remarkable events of life, looking for significance and meaning.

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Most of us do not have time to watch an ant crawl out of the first spring peony. A baby’s smile can be as commonplace as the potatoes on our plate. The sunrise is not an artist’s masterful painting but a traffic hazard our sunglasses can’t block out.

And this is precisely why poetry matters for every single one of us: we will continue to miss the beauty all around us, so lovingly gifted to us, if we do not take the time to see it. The words a poet uses will draw our attention to those things we either take for granted, see as run-of-the-mill, or even see as inconvenient.

Even in a confusing mass of words, I guarantee that a poem will give you at least two words that will make you think a little harder about the beauty around you. Sometimes, that very tangle of hard-to-pronounce nonsense might make you pause long enough to breathe and take a break from your normal routine. Perhaps a poem’s obscurity of word and image might make you roll your eyes, but you might think a little differently afterwards. There’s a chance you might see something you didn’t notice the day before. It might just be enough to see the gifts around you.

Just like Mother Goose for toddlers, poetry truly is a means to share knowledge of language and life, and it also gives us glimpses of beauty, beauty that we were made to know and appreciate and partake in. It may be an imperfect vehicle of beauty and truth, but it’s there nonetheless, a tool I hope we can all use regardless of how scary, strange or useless it might seem.

Poetry Monday: Today There is Sunlight

The heart and mind are so fickle.

Like clockwork, on the dawn of March 1st I awoke craving light, color, and warmth. I had dreamt of tulips and cherry blossoms that night.

Like clockwork, this world delivered snow and cold, and dark, suffocating clouds. My spirits fell almost as soon as I peeked through the window; I’d hardly been awake for more than two minutes and I was already subdued by the unending winter.

Why did I expect otherwise? Considering I have lived in the same town for almost two decades, you would think I would know March is never warm. Ever.

Where did my hopefulness come from? Why would I presume the weather would follow the calendar and my heart rather than its normal patterns? And yet I did have hope and I did expect beauty.

Hope, expectation, and a desire for beauty are deep-seated human characteristics, God-breathed and gifted. We cycle through the seasons expecting what is right and good in its time. We anticipate warmth and color one season, energy and life the next, then in time the rest, security, and purity of winter snow. This is all good and right. We are a people who bask in the rhythms and patterns of the seasons, a people of hope.

Yet we are also a fallen people, and our relationship with both God and nature has been broken. Our knowledge of seasonal rhythms often turns into bitterness as as we tire of the current weather and patterns. We want what’s next, now. We live a life of wanting more rather than of gratitude for what we have and where we are. It takes a concerted effort to face daily life living in that hope rather than in bitterness.

Today I am going to accept the weather as it is, to accept my life as it is, and live in gratitude and joy. I’ll look for the beauty in the melting snow, in the bare branches reaching toward cold sunlight. The light and beauty I desire is there, I just have to look a little harder and look past my own expectations.

The poem below by Elizabeth Goudge reminded me that there is so much to be grateful for in every season. Today there is sunlight–what more do I need? Rather than constantly wanting more and other, I desire a “whole being…hushed and at rest.”

Today There is Sunlight by Elizabeth Goudge

Today there is sunlight caressing the dew,

Today clouds go chasing all over the blue,

Today echo answers the cry of the dove,

Today there is laughter and singing and love.

And now I have tasted the fullness of bliss,

And now I have given my heart with a kiss,

And now I hold heaven close clasped to my breast,

And now my whole being is hushed and at rest.

My life is now given for weal or for woe,

My life is your own now wherever we go,

My life is your vassal, your child, and your slave,

My life your possession through death and the grave.

God shield us from partings, hobgoblins, and tears,

God save us from demons and dangers and fears,

God keep us together the length of the day,

God grant we keep laughing the whole of the way.

Friday Four

This week I thought I would share what I’m listening to- not music, but podcasts. Whether I am going for a walk, running errands, or folding laundry, I still try to fill my days and hours with worthwhile words and thoughts. Every moment of the day is an opportunity to grow and expand the inner life. Podcasts have been a lifeline for me and keep my mind on the good and beautiful and true. Here are four that I listen to weekly:

The Close Reads podcast is by far my favorite and the one that I save my laundry for. About an hour long (or more, if you’re lucky), Close Reads is a Forma podcast led by David Kern of the CIRCE Institute. Kern, Heidi White and Tim McKintosh lead a discussion, taking a close look at the book of the month. It’s like sitting in on the best high school or college lit class where the discussion is rollicking, enlightening, and thought provoking. They’ve picked some great classics- the Odyssey discussion was fantastic- but they occasionally choose modern literature that will knock your socks off (I discovered my favorite book of the year, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, through this podcast). If you’re interested in delving headlong into a masterpiece, this is your podcast.

The Daily Poem is another CIRCE/Forma podcast, and it has the simplest concept: 5 minutes, one poem, a quick reflection. If you have any interest in poetry, but don’t know where to begin or what to do with it, this is the way to go. So quick, so easy, so lovely. You’re welcome.

It is important to stay informed and up to date on what’s what and who’s who in the world, but there’s hardly enough time in the day to shift through all the noise. I turn to Allie Stuckey to keep me informed from a Christian conservative perspective. There’s no denying where she stands on the political spectrum, and I am grateful for her no nonsense approach to our current world. She’s a fresh voice that speaks truth. Even if you aren’t sure where you stand or are more “independent” I recommend Relatable for rational Christian thought.

If I had to choose one podcast to listen to for the rest of my life, it would be At Home with Sally. I believe every mom should listen to or read Sally Clarkson. No matter what phase of childrearing you are in, Sally speaks words of truth and beauty. She is encouraging, practical yet idealistic, and has been in the trenches so her voice is one of authority. She’s lighthearted and funny, but completely serious about the importance of motherhood and Christianity. Sally is adamant that every choice, word, and action we make as individuals and as parents has eternal significance. Whether it is setting the table, holding a crying baby, or listening to a hurting teenager, every action we take has lasting affects. This podcast is the single most influential one I listen to, and I can’t recommend it enough.

What podcasts do you enjoy? Please share- I’m always interested in hearing more! Have you listened to any of these?

On Lent and Truth

A smear of ashes on a forehead. A reminder of our beginnings and our destiny, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

For many, Ash Wednesday is a distressing day, a day when many of us are reminded of sin and shame.  The day can stir up all kinds of feelings. Perhaps we focus on the apparent hypocrisy of Christians, flaunting an ashed forehead at the grocery store or on social media.  Perhaps we scoff at this unnecessary tradition, the old fashioned practices of the church of our youth or of our grandparents. We might associate it with a wild Mardi Gras or the frustrating beginning of 40 days without our prefered vices.  Perhaps we don’t even notice and have never really thought of Lent and wonder what all the fuss is about.  

Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter.  Every church over the last 2,000 years has celebrated this season differently, but it has been around since first century Christianity, and it has always been a season of reflection and abstinence.  

I have run the gamut of Christian denominations and have thus experienced Lent from all sides of the prism.  At times I feel like I’ve taken part in a Christian shipwreck and am surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of tradition, trying to stay afloat but never sure what wreckage to take hold of.  Ash Wednesday and Lent brings these feelings all to a head, and I wonder if I’m the only Christian confused by it all. But I don’t think I am. I think it is more often than not a puzzling time.  

So why do I bring this up on a blog where I (generally) discuss books and reading?  What in the world do books and church traditions have in common? I believe that any confusion we may have regarding Lent and church practices can be cleared up by the same fundamental values that lead to the reading life.  

Readers are curious people.  We want to know the answers, and our questions are never ending.  We turn to books, to reading anything and everything. The knowledge we gain comes from the wisdom of others–and the wisdom of the ages.  We acknowledge that others know more than we do, and we appreciate the lives others have lived and their willingness to share their knowledge with us.  We hunger for truth. We happily look to authors from the past and present for their understanding. We soak up their words like water in a sponge. Thanks be to God for the wisdom, knowledge, experience and truth literature offers us.  

And thanks be to God for the truth, wisdom, knowledge and experience of the Church.  Because of 2,000 years of history, we do not have to reinvent the wheel of truth and wisdom.  The Church as a whole has been through more ups and downs than we as individuals can ever experience, and for that I am eternally grateful.  I do not need to rediscover God’s truth on my own, but can look to the Church to guide and nurture my understanding of His Word and my place in this crazy world.    

And yet, as we all know, there is still confusion and misunderstanding.  Denominations still exist and arguments abound. But just as I feel lost in that sea filled with debris, there is the lighthouse sending out its searching light.  It pulses across the wreckage, and I spot silhouettes of truth and wisdom. The Church, for all its faults, exposes the truth and revewls it to us, albeit dimly at times.  The Church is there to guide and bring us home to the safe shore.

I am not here to tell you how to celebrate this season of repentance.  But I am here to say that there is truth to the traditions of the church, and it might be of value to look toward the beacon it shines this season.  Lent is a time of reflection, and it is never, ever, bad to reflect on our lives as a fallen yet redeemed child of God.  

I am reminded, in this search for truth and wisdom, as I puzzle over how to use the valuable traditions of the Church, of a quote by C. S. Lewis in his excellent book, The Great Divorce:

“There is but one good; that is God.  Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.”  

Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Not all traditions are unnecessary or dangerous.  If a tradition, a day, or a season, looks to Him, it is good.  Just as we value the advice and wisdom of literature and its authors, we can value what the Church has given us over the ages.  Perhaps, this year, you will challenge yourself to discover the value and the good in this season of Lent.

Friday Four: What My Kids Are Reading

I have had a few questions about what I have my four kids read, so I thought I would do a monthly update under “Friday Four.” Their ages range from 5 to 10, two boys and two girls, and their interests in reading, and other personal interests, vary. I hope this feature will be helpful if you are looking for books for your own children. But first a few notes on the process.

Finding books for kids to read can be a real struggle at times. The library and bookstore can be almost overwhelming in their plethora of books and we all know how kids love to read what their friends are reading. There is a surprising amount of pressure on kids and the books they read. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

There are a number of markers you can use when deciding upon the quality of children’s books, but this is ultimately up to the parents. My husband and I seek out books that 1) are well-written; 2) do not clash with our worldview and morals; 3) are edifying (at least to an extent); and 4) are entertaining. We want our children to enjoy reading, for it to be pleasant pastime for them, but we also want to make sure what they read is not undermining the values we are trying to instill.

When I am at the library or bookstore, I do read the synopsis and page through it quickly before giving an “OK”. If I am not sure and cannot make a snap judgment, I will ask my child to wait until the next visit so I can look up reviews. Take advantage of the internet and all it has to offer. Amazon, Goodreads, and even a quick Google search of book blogs (hello!) can provide needed information.

Occasionally, we do have books “slip through” and the kids will read a “borderline” book, but we always spend time discussing questions and concerns the kids have.

In addition to the quality of books, parents should be aware of their child’s reading level, which they can learn from observation and testing/grades from school. Most books will have a level listed on the back or inside flap. However, this is just a baseline guide. Keep in mind a child’s individual skills, interests, and attention span, and you should be good to go!

What They’re Loving

  • My 10 year old daughter just discovered the classic Anne of Green Gables series, and she can’t put them down. As friends and dynamics within her class change, she has been able to see herself in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley and now has a vocabulary for the changes she is experiencing. Anne is showing my daughter that everything she is feeling and questioning and experiencing is normal, and that she can come out ahead on the other side. These books are not about angst-ridden teenagers; Anne Shirley is a girl of kindness and imagination who grows into a woman of dignity, elegance, and grace. Every step of the way, from a young orphan to a mother of many, Anne is a character I am comfortable letting my daughter emulate. The story is extremely well-written, encouraging, and just plain fun.
  • My 9 year old son is completely engrossed with Jenny L. Cote’s books. The Amazing Tales of Max and Liz are adventurous, challenging, and rewarding. I have only read the first book in this particular series, but I can’t wait to get my hands on her American history books for the whole family. All three of my older children have read the Max and Liz books, and you couldn’t find a greater fan club. Cote’s books follow the most likable anthropomorphic animals (in this case, a Scotty dog and black cat) throughout biblical history. Children learn extremely well researched history that is never dry and always wrapped carefully within a thrilling plot line. These books are huge–almost 500 pages–but kids don’t even notice while they’re in the story, and they build confidence to tackle other daunting books.
  • Our 7 year old daughter is still working on her confidence and stamina, so right now she is enjoying Rebecca Elliot’s Owl Diaries. These darling books are more graphic novel than anything else, and are definitely geared toward 1-3rd graders. The books follow sweetly-drawn owls in school and their mild dramas. There is a lot of word play and puns that build language skills for young readers, and they’re easy to zip through in an evening, building up confidence and interest.
  • My kindergartner is learning to read but is more limited still than he would like to be. He wants to be reading just like his older brother and sisters, but doesn’t have the skills quite yet, so he prefers reading old favorites that are familiar. While I do have him read easy readers to me, I want to allow him space to find comfort in his books, even if he’s not technically reading. The Complete Illustrated Children’s Bible by Harvest Kids is the only book he “reads” at night before bed. We have read through every story countless times, and the illustrations are engaging–there’s always something new to find in the pictures. He knows the stories by heart and he loves to find familiar words in the text.

I hope this not only helps you find a few new books, but also builds your confidence in your own ability to choose books for the children in your life. If you have any questions or suggestions, please comment below. I’d love to know what your children are reading right now, too!

On Being Made New (and Poetry Monday)

This business of becoming new. It is important if we are a people of His eternal purpose. Do not let the fears of change and work keep you from becoming new. If this drive for newness is from Him, then it is good and right.

Welcome back! I hope your Christmas break was relaxing. I am certainly reinvigorated after a fresh snow fall, the break from the normal routine, and wonderful time spent with my family. I cannot tell you how much of a homebody I am, and two full weeks at home with nothing to do but just be with my loved ones was just what I needed. However, as much as I enjoyed the break, it’s time to get writing again.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see that I am joining my first writers challenge (ever), and the prompt for today, January 6, is the word “new”. The word ties in beautifully to a poem I wanted to share with you today for Poetry Monday, Up-Hill by Christina Rossetti.

For many, “new” is rejuvenating, scintillating, and full of promise. The new year is the proverbial new slate, clean, sparkling, with “no mistakes” like the eternal optimist Anne Shirley so famously philosophized. A new start, and you can look down the tunnel of the next year knowing you will be better than ever.

But perhaps, like me, the word “new” produces fear in you. The unknown can tie you up in knots if you are a creature of comfort, of the tried and true, of pattern and tradition. “New” implies change, and change means work. Work is hard, work is effort, and for some of us, it is confusing and paralyzing. It makes you feel vulnerable. A new year brings fear as you look down that tunnel of change, not knowing what it all means or how you will be exposed. What trains will barrel down through that darkness?

So, I suppose, it is easy for some of us to not change, to dismiss out of hand goals and resolutions, to give up before we even start. This is where I have been lately. Why put in the effort if I will fail before I even begin. I know I’ll fail, because I do every year right around January 2nd.

A particular book deeply changed my jaded, scared attitude toward change, the new, and purpose. N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” is a beautiful exposition on life after life after death (say what?). Without going through a formal review, the crux of the book is this: what we do on earth matters, and it matters for eternity. In short, we must act with purpose and not live a life that is “careless and casual”. The book, based on deep scriptural understanding, has forced me to accept that we must live with purpose (a heavenly purpose) and this requires change.

But what about our fear? What about our need for rest and peace? Must we work constantly to be made new, to work out our purpose day by day? This sounds exhausting and daunting. This is where Christina Rossetti’s poem comes in to play.

Up-Hill by Christian Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.

Rossetti addresses all our worries and fears in this poem, just as God does in his Word, over and over. Do not fear. You will face troubles, but do not fear. Rest in his peace. In Matthew 11, Christ says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This business of becoming new. It is important if we are a people of His eternal purpose. Do not let the fears of change and work keep you from becoming new. If this drive for newness is from Him, then it is good and right. We are promised it will be hard, but if our work is for Him, with Him, and in Him, there is a promise of peace and eternal success. Your growth, be it ever so small (or large!) is of lasting value. You are not alone in the journey: Christ’s Spirit is with us just as surely as Rossetti’s wayfarers travel the road before and with us. So find comfort in your labor, fear not, and travel well.

How will you live a life of purpose this year?