Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What We Read - Instant Reviews Dec - Nov


  • “right now I'm not - that's the problem. I want to get back to the biochemistry and electrical engineering stuff.”

  • Biology (Campbell) "Broad survey, very interesting, well-written."


  • alphabet, by Inger Christensen. "I've got this slim paperback propped up in the kitchen window / laundry window to work on memorizing as I work. Long poem, psalm-like in its rhythms, beauty of the natural world, hope and hatred"

  • Daniel Plainway, or the Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League, by Van Reid. "Light, likable, innocent and easy-paced mystery set in Maine of the late 1800's."

  • The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins. "National poet laureate is witty and wry - these are funny(!!) poems, often with a tug at the end.”

  • Everlost, by Neal Shusterman. "YA sci-fi, an alternate afterlife, inventive, funny, thought-provoking."

  • The Victorious Expression: Four Spanish Poets, by Howard Young. "Good biographical / historical context and commentary, translations of poems are clunky, originals lovely."

  • Wooden Fish Songs, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. "Bio-novel of the father of the Florida citrus industry and groundbreaking hybridizer – Lue Gim Gong – told in the voices of three women: Lue remains a benign mystery – the disappearing point of origin that connects three otherwise disparate realities. Beautiful achievement."

  • The Saffron Kitchen (Yasmin Crowther) "English/Iranian woman and her troubled mother leave London for the village near the Afghan border where their family lived. Predictable and irritating."


  • Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. "Very thought-provoking school assignment."

  • American Pageant "My history book - it's actually really well written - more like a storybook than dusty historical tome.”

  • Ironhand, by Charlie Fletcher. "London statues come alive, one of the coolest books in A WHILE."

  • Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini. "Eragon series, great escape-read."

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. "NY girl grows up right before WWI, insightful look at human nature, very interesting"


  • Grand Sophy and The Nonesuch, by Georgette Heyer. "Classic and good as always."

  • Amazing Grace, by Megan Shull. "Really good! I agree with the blurb on the front 'a chick-lit grand-slam!”

  • Just One Wish, by Janette Rallison. "Teen romance, cheesy, but good.”


  • The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen. "I liked the robber maiden and the reindeer. I think the robber maiden was kind of crazy."

  • Meerkats (Storad) "They're fast-diggers. A bunch of them live together"

  • Centipedes, Millipedes, Scorpions, and Spiders (Gilpin) "Disgusting. I had to quit reading the book because I was so grossed out.”

  • The Story of Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. "I think it's cool that salt used to be rare and now you can find it everywhere."

  • Nellie - A Horse to Remember (school reader) "This 4 year-old horse looks like a swayback, but becomes steeplechase champion. Things keep happening.”

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gifts of Such Astonishment

(week of Dec 21 – 27)


Youngest: We didn’t get as much presents this year, did we?

Middlest: But weren’t they nice presents?

Youngest: Well, yeah, but . . . I didn’t get a sword. And last year, didn’t we have the baskets filled up to like there . . .

Unfortunately for my swordsman-less-the-sword, for our family most of the North Pole preparations are completed many weeks before the children at my house get around to penning those wishful laundry lists.

The girls learned long ago that writing down “robot” on a letter to Santa wasn’t at all like placing an order with Scholastic Books – if you actually did get a robot, it was the next year and was more like a remote control Lego-thing you built yourself and not the handy chore-and-homework-helper you’d imagined.

This has been my son’s year of realization. Last year when I had temporized, “I don’t think there’s money for your very own helicopter . . . ,” he’d insisted, “But Santa can!” This year he brought me his list:

Christmas Wish List for
[spelling out his whole name, so there’d be no mistaking just who was listing wishes]
(2 sided)
* A sword
* Something to help the whole family
* rhodochrosite
* gold
* silver
* blue ore
* ruby
* halite
* flourite
* emerald
* diamond
* pegmatite
* Forever happiness for the whole family

[second side]
* A bell off your slay
* Some tools to help my Dad
* Three pigs
* A dog
* A cat
* five chickens
* A cow
* Two goats
* A parrot

As I came to the end, laughing, he asked a little wistfully if I thought the list was “very possible.”

“It’s certainly long!”

So the next day he came back with a new list:

* A Robot
* three rocks (rare)
* six candles
* three pounds of candy
[with an appropriately nauseated - or sugarcrazed? - face]

and on the other side:
* ipod classic
* A flame thrower
* a cell phone
* $200.00
* Grandma
* Grandpa
[canny choices!]

I laughed harder. His sisters told him they just waited to be surprised. But you can probably imagine that Santa seriously blew it – he didn’t even bring the 6 candles! Or a single sleigh bell! What a Grinch!

Our celebration this year was subdued. Even if we weren’t anxious on our own account (for our own accounts?), the news of our local paper mill laying off someone from so many of the households in our town – households of our children’s classmates – was enough to urge a frugal moderation. So we made merry in a quiet way.

After a full week snowbound, we had ventured (skiddingly) down off the hill the day before the Day Before Christmas to spend the afternoon with friends. We’d been told to each bring our favorite Christmas book. In our friends’ sunny front room, sun reflecting in off piled snow, we read to each other ‘Twas the Night before Christmas and Good King Wenceslaus and The Jolly Postman Rides Again and Davy and the First Christmas and The Nativity Story and Poochy the Pup (!).

Our combined young people watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before dinner, while my husband and I ducked out to make a trip into town for last-minute necessities. Sloshing and sliding around on the ice trying to get chains for our Famobile – which were not in stock. Wandering the aisles of the busy grocery store with strangely empty shelves (no marshmallow crème for the daughter who wanted to make fudge. And no eggnog as requested by our son. Not even any whole milk because the dairy trucks hadn’t been able to get through). But the whole time my husband and I laughing together over things I can’t remember now.

Because honestly, being stuck in the house together this month has not been so great for our marital bliss. There have been years when having time to be together was all it took to remind us why we wanted to marry. But one late night these past weeks I found myself reading some stranger’s blog about “what it’s like living with a depressed husband” and thinking, How much of that is just living with a husband? Nor am I intrepid enough to ask, nor even imagine, what it’s been like living with me.

I don’t know why this year we grate on each other so. Because he’s anxious and I’m worried about what’s coming next? Because we’re both feeling the tug of - not sadness, for both of us it's intriguing and satisfying to see our children coming into their own - but our daughters changed our lives so much by coming to us that now how do we think about how it will be when they go? Because we are the age we are and only perfectly average middle-aged people (which is not what we wrote down on our wish lists)? Or is it just because – as a favor and gift to me – he’s cleaning his half of the closet and everything out of the basement so we can have a room where visitors can stay – with the natural result that upstairs and downstairs are in wild disarray from years of packratting (my POV) and he’s being kicked out of his cave and made to throw away valuables that will be needed the moment they’re donated (his)?

The morning of Christmas Eve a phone call came that a woman we don’t know but who lives on our road was worried the roof to her manufactured home was going to cave in. She and a woman from our church both work in the same realty and so when our church member read her co-worker's emails about being stranded with a creaking ceiling and neighbors a far trudge away through the snow, she had called us, “Don’t you live up on . . . ?”

When I went upstairs to tell my husband I’d signed him up to help me shovel off the neighbor’s roof, he was soaking in a hot bath (and I wonder why he finds me difficult!) reading about global warming – “I guess I don’t have to worry about that today,” he tossed the magazine aside as I rubbed steam off the mirror.

He fired up the tractor and began digging out our snowbound neighbor's long driveway while I tromped around to others on our road trying to find someone with a snow shovel (only our oldest long-timer had one, of course – it’s been that long since anyone’s needed one!) Our new friends were grateful and almost incredulous as the neighbors began showing up – one man had even run to his shop and built a long-handled snow-squeegee. “I can’t believe you would do this!” she said.

“But what a great way to celebrate Christmas Eve!” we said.

“It’s just like a barn-raising!” she said, throwing her arms wide as we all stood on her roof, boots buried in snow. “People just don’t do things like this any more these days. People are usually so cold-hearted.”

“Oh, I think the world is full of good people,” I cried out, without thinking, because I can’t bear the thought that we’re not capable of better. “We’re just ignorant. We just don’t know each other’s need. But I think people are willing to help each other, if they just knew what to do.”

And the quiet neighbor man who’d stopped a minute to catch his breath, resting his hands on his hips, looking out over the white fields and our scatter of houses against the high walls of snowbound firs, nodded, "That's so."

“Maybe we just need to change ourselves, get to know our neighbors better” – so the talk on the rooftop and later down by another neighbors’ house who was also worried their place wasn’t built to withstand 10 thousand pounds of snow – (is that possible? That’s the number they were batting around. Can snowflakes really weigh that much?) – the talk was of summer barbecues and housewarmings once building projects were finished up. Warm thoughts as our toes turned to ice inside our rubber rain boots no matter how many pairs of socks we’d put on.

Christmas Eve proper the power went out as my oldest was in the middle of making Pepper Pot Soup, as my husband was finishing his second hot bath of the day, as the rest of us began setting the table for dinner.

We lit the house with candles: our clumsy kitchen suddenly beautiful - a cluster of long-legged candlesticks on the table, candles high up on top of the kitchen cupboards throwing their cheery light toward the rafters, a row of pinecone candles given to us years ago but never lit until now brightening the hearth in the next room. We could have bagels and kippered herring for Christmas Eve dinner and finish making the soup tomorrow when we could see to light the propane stove outside if need be. I was wondering whether to call our neighbors (who’d mentioned they had no way to heat their house if the power went out) when the lights flickered, shone - all the electrical apparatus of our lives up and buzzing again.

We turned the lights back off and by candlelight soon were spooning up my daughter’s soup - very tasty (though not as divine as the Red Butter Chicken she made for Curry Night the day after the Day After Christmas). We sang the songs – The Holly and the Ivy, Boy’s Carol, God Rest Ye Merry, Silent Night – and read the story in Luke, watching the lights on our overgrown jade plant masquerading as this year's Christmas tree.

The Day After Christmas (almost before my husband and I were wearing again on each other’s patience), he came in to tell me he’d signed me up to come with him - our neighbor needed a ride to the pharmacy. And we went. And it was good to get out and to be together.

Even if it wasn’t what we’d planned or wished for.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Snow Sisters

(week of Dec 14 - 20)

During dinner dishes last Sunday I read out loud Snow White & Rose Red

“Oh!” said one daughter, “this has always been one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too!” said the other. Which I knew. Which is why I’d chosen that picture book as part of a holiday break from Marc Aronson’s very good, but too-often interrupted Real Revolution (A Global History of American Independence) which I think we’re all ready to be done with because we've had to go back so often and pick up the thread of the story - what a waste of a great book!

My daughters’ delight in Snow White & Rose Red had always mystified me. The two girls in the story do nothing but mind their mother. Okay, they also let a talking bear into their little house, beat the snow off his pelt and then when spring comes, innocently help a bad-tempered gnome steal away the bear’s fortune in repeated episodes until the bear re-appears and kills the gnome which frees the bear from enchantment (so why didn't he do that years ago?) and the bear changes back into a prince who has a similarly princely brother – and they all four live happily ever after.

But they're mostly passive from beginning to end. It’s a particularly unsatisfying fairy tale (though the pictures are lovely – by Gennady Spirin).

This time, a new disappointment in my older daughter’s voice: “Nothing happens,” she says at the end of the story, some of the magic this tale has had for her obviously dribbling away.

In the past I had wondered if it's the sisterliness of the story that my two girls found so enchanting:

The two sisters loved each other so dearly that they always walked hand in hand whenever they went out together, and when Snow White said, “We will never desert one another,” Rose Red would answer, “No, not as long as we live,” and their mother would add, “Whatever one gets she shall share with the other.”
I realized earlier this week – when my younger daughter was trying to convince me to rent (again!) White Christmas, one of the most abysmally boring holiday movies ever made, and her clincher was to break out in a song from the show –
Sisters, sisters,
There never were such devoted sisters
. . .
Caring, sharing
Every little thing that we are wearing
When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome -
She wore the dress and I stayed home!

- I realized that “being a sister” is in some ways as integral to her idea of herself as “being oldest” has always been to me. My sisters are much younger than I am, with a good bunch of brothers between. Growing up, it was “me and the boys," too often, "me vs. the boys," or "me in charge of the boys."

One of the great joys of college roommates and later women friends has been discovering sisterhood – sisters related by affection only, as well as the biological ones that have at last grown up to be nearly the same age as me. I love being a sister among sisters - but I learned how to be one largely from watching my two younger sisters with each other.

And from watching my own daughters.

This week it snowed and snowed and snowed. In our part of the country there are few snowplows, so though there’re nothing like the depths we’d see growing up in Wisconsin or  Ohio, here the day-to-day comes to a sudden halt. School is cancelled. My husband works from home. We can’t get down the hill (or at any rate, back up) without chains for the car. And so we’re stranded. Which means – sensibly - we have more company than ever.

Since my two girls were young they’ve planned parties at the drop of a hat – a doll’s fair, a Valentine’s Pink Party for a houseful of girls, Last Day of School, Middle of the Summer, birthday parties for themselves and their brother.

All they need from me were supplies and permission. Back then, this entailed curtsying and simpering: "Hi, Majesty, we are your maidens,” before getting down to business: “So, may we have ice cream and four friends each over tomorrow?"

Now that my oldest drives, just the capital investment and: "Okay, Mom?"

Before I always thought a party was a more complicated thing – something to be dreaded over, worried over, games to be planned, favors to be bought, invitations to be chosen, written, mailed out and the too probable humiliation of no one coming.

Not for them. Maybe because they always have each other, guarding each other’s back, maybe because they’ve inherited their dad’s open-hearted nature, they throw the door open with glee.

Monday, Wednesday, Thursday they invited their generous dozen every day to come sled down the hill, in varying combinations for ultimate compatibility (which they know how to determine - another mysterious gift!). 

They call around, then walk the 1km down to the corner and wait for their friends to park at the foot of the hill or be dropped off by parents, then all troop back up the hill.

It’s like stepping into an old-fashioned novel to hear from the other room all their laughing voices, the games of charades and piano playing, or to watch them flying down the hill with friends over and over, groups sneaking up behind another group with their hands full of snowballs.

My younger baking daughter comes in to make cookies when the games go on too long. Girls giggle in the hallway. Boys josh each other taking off boots by the front door. We keep spiced cider warm on the stove and the kettle full of hot water for cocoa.

An ovenful of potatoes, many cans of chili, a big bowl of shredded cheese and a frying pan of soft, golden sweet onions fill the red-cheeked hordes one day.

Boboli bread pizzas – built to individual specs – keep them going another day.

Their friends are all very polite to me – patient with my girls’ younger brother – kind to each other – ready to let themselves play and find fun. And they stay until dark - because “sledding by moonlight is so great.”

“Thank you!” my daughters come wrap their arms around me when the last group leaves, “thanks for letting us have everyone over!” And then they walk off down the hall to their room, arms around each other's waists, planning the next day already.

"So what do you think the appeal of that fairy tale used to be?" I ask my oldest daughter this Sunday night when she brings over a bowl of the leftover Spiced Sweet-Potato Soup we made together the day before, as I write at the computer, as she sits herself down across the table.

"I don't know. The pictures?" and her younger sister looks up from over her older sister's shoulder - their hair mingling, the younger's hand resting on her sister's shoulder.

And I wonder suddenly - why not? why insist on characters that change and break away?  why this irrepressible hankering after “things happening”? – revolutions and independence? I’m starting to feel the charm of that old story myself, which ends:

Their old mother lived peacefully in the palace with her two daughters for many years. She brought her two rose trees with her, and they grew in front of her window, and every year they bore her the finest roses, both white and red.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tidings of Joy

A friend recently asked several of us for our Christmas traditions and so I dutifully trotted out our usual pony-show - the tricks we do, the small spectaculars, the material goods that accompany our celebration:

· Only one major "Christmas project" - the years we make a gingerbread house then that's it for the baking. Other years the girls have organized a carolling party. One year we made origami stars to decorate the windows. One year we made fudge. One year we made tins of Christmas cookies. One year we made real clam chowder with clams still living in their shells and a big pot of homemade chili (that was our healthy year). But never more than one biggish effort - and sometimes the BIG project is small.

· Another tradition is that we have to walk (or ride the tractor) to get our tree and carry it up the hill to our house (or cut it down from volunteers in the yard). I like our tree to be small enough to be set up on a little table so we can cover the tree stand and the table with bright Christmas fabric. Then all the gifts go underneath the cloth on the little shelf under the table - that way the tree doesn't look bare once the presents are all opened and it helps us keep the gift-aspect less predominant. Of course, the kids prefer TALL TALL trees, and that's where their having to carry it back up the hill comes in handy.

· We try to slip the gifts secretly under the tree. Sometimes I make up poem-clues on the gifts rather than name-tags so the kids don't know which one is theirs.

· We always put up the Nativity sets. I don't believe in collecting multiples but somehow (!) I have a plain white porcelain set like the one we had in my childhood and another terracotta set made by a man in Venezuela with such human expressions on the faces. My in-laws gave the children an unbreakable one of their own which the kids always put on the hearth where they can hide the angels in the basket of pinecones, moving the animals and shepherds and wise men around the huddle of Baby Jesus, his mother Mary and Joseph.

· We bring out the Christmas picture books that have been put away all year with the ornaments - even the girls (nearly grown) still like to read these - especially the Richard Scarry Little Bear's scratch-and-sniff Scents of Christmas book and Tolkien's Father Christmas letters (which he wrote for his own children) and a pop-up Natvity. I'll often catch them looking through the pictures in the nativity books. We also like our advent calendar: a set of little tree ornaments/ storybooks on golden loops of thread that tell one tiny part of the nativity story each night.

· Christmas Eve day the house must be Christmas-cleaned (which is the children's best gift to me) When they were small we told them Santa doesn't deliver to cluttered houses where there is obviously no place for new toys - "and that's true," says my son, reading over my shoulder.

· On Christmas Eve we always have a simple dinner - some kind of soup usually and bread. Then we all sit in the front room (sometimes we have a fire, but usually just a few candles) and sing Christmas carols, then my husband reads the story of the birth of Christ from Luke and the visit of the three wisemen from Matthew, we sing one more song (usually "Silent Night") and then hang up the red-and-green granny-square stockings my mom crocheted when we were first married and then I did my best to continue for each of our children when they were born (or a few years later . . . ).

· In the morning no one goes into the front room without everyone else - the kids come bounce on our bed until everyone is gathered and then their Dad goes out to check that Santa really has come and to turn on the tree lights and some Christmas music. I usually have the kids eat breakfast in my bedroom first - something like muffins or granola or croissants and hot chocolate. Then the kids line up, youngest to oldest, with their eyes closed, and we all go out to the tree together. The kids examine their stockings (which are their only gift from Santa) - there's always a chocolate orange, a candy cane, gummies, chocolate coins and nuts, an apple, a banana and a satsuma orange, plus a few individual surprises and then things like lip balm and flavored dental floss and hot cocoa packets and Dinosaur Egg instant oatmeal packets. Santa also always gives stationery and stamps for thank-you notes.

· The stockings always take a surprisingly long time, then each child gets an empty laundry basket to keep their stocking stuff and other gifts contained. And we open a couple of paper grocery bags in preparation for the discarded wrappings. (I've learned the wisdom of making the tidying-up an expected part of the Christmas rituals so I'm not left alone with the mess at the end.)

· We like to linger over the gift-opening as long as possible (to make the most of it - which would certainly drive some people batty, but I think it gives us time to think about each giver and the time they took to choose and send or make gifts for us - also this makes a few presents go a LONG way). So we only open one gift at a time. The youngest picks the first gift - it has to be for someone else - and carries it over to the recipient, we all ooh and ah appropriately, hugs and kisses between recipient and giver - and then the next oldest chooses a gift. There's an excitement about choosing the gift, watching others open the gifts you've put under the tree, seeing what others are giving, as well as opening your own. One of the girls always makes a batch of No-Bake cookies for their Dad as their gift - sometimes there's a treasure hunt with clues to find the cookies.

· Finally when the gifts are all opened, the kids sit at the table and write thank-you notes and address & stamp the envelopes. (Except I think we need to add the tradition of walking down and mailing the notes so they don't end up in the kitchen drawer until after the 4th of July!)

· Then we eat fruit and nuts from our stockings, cereal, yogurt, etc. And there's kippered herring and smoked salmon set out with cream cheese and bagels. Some of us curl up with a new book. Some of us may take a nap. My husband usually starts a fire in the fireplace. Some of us go outside and play - if there's snow especially. The kids sometimes play board games and try out new toys. We call our faraway family members on the phone. If we have a good light-hearted DVD we may watch that in the evening. All day we just do whatever we want to do.

And I do like our quiet Christmases. But looking over it, I wish we had more a tradition of service. Like everyone, we do some quiet things for other people - invite people up for dinner who may be lonely, donate boxes of fresh fruit or canned goods at the Food Bank, help some of the widows we know put up and take down their Christmas trees. But I wish we did something more useful and immediate . . .

And maybe something more physically adventurous - like snowshoeing - or how about carrying pine logs thither like Good King Wenceslaus?

Or am I letting myself get carried away with the idea of having a Christmas that will impress - well, at least myself?

We were talking over dinner (Bacon Potato Soup, Medieval Forest Brussel Sprouts, baked acorn squash) how we should celebrate Christmas this year: a very strong consensus that we didn't need to do anything more - just to do what we have done. And to celebrate together, quietly, without a crowd.

Last Christmas Eve was the most beautiful for me of any I've ever experienced - I had been slogging through the day, trying to get everyone to do chores and get things tidied up. Getting grouchy.

But then my elder daughter decided to be a light - she offered to make dinner. I found myself stepping back - I helped her, working under her direction, chopping onions, running errands, doing whatever she asked. It changed everything. We all cleaned up, bustling around now - even the other two children bustled.

After dinner, the children were the ones to gather us into the front room. I had lit candles at all the windows and on the lid of our upright piano. The children - my young son in particular - had us sing song after song - all the Christmas hymns in the book. And then he chose,"There is a Green Hill Far Away." And then, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

Birth - sacrifice - resurrection. There was the whole story of what Christmas is, sung in the thin silvery voice of my seven-year-old son.

What peace! And if I had been functioning in Supermommy mode I would never have seen my children's grace and strength. What a gift to feel I had done - enough - at least for that particular evening. And that it wasn't just me making good things happen.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fool's Confession

(week of Nov 30 – December 6)

There’s a painting I love by Brian Kershisnik called Fool’s Confession. I love the coy dignity of the main figure’s gesture – which I wish I could copy and show you, but you'll just have to imagine (or remember) - his hand so humbly to his chest and his eyes downcast demurely, taking us into his confidence to tell us his shameful secret: from his mouth a slender pale scroll where we can read his just-above-a-whisper, “I am a fool.” And yet he couldn’t have kept that knowledge from us: his belled cap and motley tunic proclaim what he is so loudly. It's always been obvious to everyone but him.

I've been lagging two weeks behind and my “publish dates” are unabashed works of fiction – as unnecessary a confession, surely, as when I admitted a few weeks ago that I wrote at too long a length. (It’s been suggested that blongs are what I write – not blogs).

But now I'm almost caught up once again AND I’ve posted poems and other writing at this more anonymous Imaginary Bicycle site. I’ve left out the poem the husband calls "Oh, That One," as well as the one he calls, "Oh, No, NOT That One." But I think the earthiness of the others is all within bounds - though doesn't that make you just slightly curious to read them through in the off chance ?

I have been reassured however that everything is appropriately tedious and to-be-expected – nothing errant – or would that be arrant and in reference only to the nonsense?

As for this week – ah! – mostly I’ve caught my breath.
We heard Sam Payne sing jazzy Christmas carols at the Venetian Theater – that was fun. I’ve cooked nothing anyone can remember – except when the girls invited their friends over to study and the teenage boys filled up on seconds and thirds of Shepherd's Pie made of Thanksgiving leftovers. And I finally decided where to hang the print of Kershisnik’s painting Nativity.

And I came across an article that traces so well the shape of my feelings for this painting. Here’s an excerpt from the article (actually by the same Sam Payne we heard this weekend) written last year about Kershisnik’s Nativity. (See link below for the entire article.)

For several minutes, I’m the only one there. Me and the holy family, and a glittering heavenly host, hair all unkempt (they’ve been flying, after all), and white clothes that look like they’ve been pulled from the temple bags of my wife and my mother and my grandmother. The angels are streaming rapidly in from the left (their tears are windswept back across their faces), rushing in to be close to the baby and his family. In the center of the painting, the angels gather like family at a baby blessing — all awe and congratulatory hush, and helping the other angel-kids to see. The angels, as they exit to the right of the painting, are singing (“they’ll keep singing all the way out into the hills, where they’ll startle shepherds,” I thought). The painting is predominantly solid angels, but down in a gentle, dark pocket rests the Holy Family. Mary is there. There are midwives there too, their hands in a pail, the blood from the birth clinging to them as they clean up. The women all wear gentle smiles, and there is a soft triangle in their focus that includes the women and the baby.

And there’s Joseph. Oh, Joseph. I’ve been in the delivery room for all our baby boys, and there’s always this moment after the birth: I’m standing up where I can dab at Kris’ forehead with a damp cloth and feed her ice chips. She’s exhausted. And for a moment, the weight of responsibility for a new life, the weight of Kris’ trust in me — the first glimpse of a path that you know widens into an all-consuming forever — presses down on me. I love the new child with all my heart, but that moment feels for all the world like agony. And while men in Brian’s paintings often seem, well…befuddled (or confident in a way that makes them seem foolish), the bewilderment and nerves and love and portent of every delivery room experience I’ve ever had is there, writ large on poor Joseph’s face. And among the myriad angels pushing past to see the baby and his mother, one angel (unseen by Joseph) stops to place a comforting hand on Joseph’s head — on mine.

I’m deep in that place (a shared experience between the work and the observer, in case you’re not paying attention), when I realize that I’m not alone anymore. A couple has come into the gallery room behind me. Val and Alice.

I ask what they think of the painting, and Alice is smiling, but can’t speak for her tears. Val, like me, begins talking about what happens in the delivery room. Only Val is an honest-to-goodness pediatrician. “Look,” he says, “The women are cleaning up. There’s blood on their hands, and the baby — so new that he hasn’t been washed [Val points out the blood on the baby’s head, and his deep, red coloring] — is put immediately to the breast [he turns to me] you have to do that, you know; [back to the painting] it’s bloody, but it’s not gruesome. It’s a close, holy time — look at those women, and you’ll see. Mary is flushed, and there are circles under her eyes. The greatness of it all is tumbling in on Joseph. It’s here. It’s all here. He’s told the story as it happens — in stables and in delivery rooms. And he’s reminded us that it’s holy.”

Alice blinks back her tears, flings her arms out and says, “And there are angels everywhere! There we are [‘there we are,’ she says], and we’re trying to be as quiet as we can, but there are so many of us! It’s as if we’re cheering for the holy family. ‘He’s here!’ we’re saying. ‘Joseph, you can do it!’ we’re saying.” Alice lapses into silence, and then says, “I wish Brian would paint one like this of Gethsemane, with all of us there too.”

Do you think you were there in the host that sang Hosanna that silent night 2000 years ago?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Moonless darkness stands between

"Nativity," by Carl Bloch

"Moonless Darkness Stands Between"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, O Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

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