Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April Is National Poetry Month!!

Yes, April is National Poetry Month!! 

Did you hear that?

We have an entire month dedicated to reading, writing, and basking in poetry!!

So where do we start?

2014 National Poetry Month Poster

The Academy of American Poets hosts all sorts of poetry fun at their site Poets.org. I worked ahead and ordered one of the free National Poetry Month posters (see image above) for our home school; I hung it up as soon as the clock struck midnight. Here's their page devoted to National Poetry Month. And they even have a National Poetry Month FAQ, so check it out!

It was through Poets.org that I first started reading the Poem-A-Day e-mails which first started as a National Poetry Month treat (yes, only available in April) but has now been expanded to a year-round event. A free service, recipients receive a contemporary poem (usually published within the current year) on weekdays while weekends are reserved for classic poems, a.k.a. "old friends." You may sign up for this amazing gift of starting your day with poetry here: Poem-A-Day

In addition, Poets.org started the annual celebration of Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day in which we are encouraged to tuck a favorite poem (written by us or by a favorite poet) into our pocket and share it with at least one other person during the course of our day. Which day? April 24 is the official Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day, so prepare!! More information can be obtained on the page Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day

In 2013 as part of National Poetry Month, Poets.org sponsored a Dear Poet Project in which students and teachers could write letters to some of the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. More about the project and some of the letters may be viewed here: 2013 Dear Poet Project. Although the project is not being extended to this year's celebration of National Poetry Month, a lesson plan has been designed for students in grades 7-10: Letters to Poets Lesson Plan.

Well, Robert Lee Brewer, editor of Poet's Market on the Writer's Digest website, is hosting the annual PAD (Poem A Day) Challenge in which he'll post a different prompt for each day in April, and everyone tosses their efforts into the ring. I took this challenge in 2010 and really enjoyed the process. This year there are a host of professional judges, plus a book of the best poems (as selected by said judges) will be published by Writer's Market, and a little journal-type books is also available with this year's prompts and "room to add your own" (see above image) is available already. It's a pretty cool opportunity, indeed. Here's the link: PAD Challenge Guidelines. And here's where participants will post their poems on the Writer's Digest site: Poetic Asides: PAD Challenge

I'm in an especially poetry-induced euphoria as I've spent the last week teaching poetry through Brave Writer's Playing with Poetry Family Workshop. In this four-week course, I taught the basics of poetry analysis and structure and how to read and truly enjoy poetry. Then we wrote the following types of poems: free verse including autobiographical and "I Am From..." free verse poems; visual poetry including shape poems, concrete poems, and acrostics; cinquains and diamante poems; the Japanese poetry forms of haiku and tanka; conventional poetry, including couplets, tercets (and terza rima), quatrains, and limericks; and finally alternative poetry which encompassed fragmented poems, "After..." poems, kennings, and then various types of "found" poems including black-out poems, highlighted poems, and book spine poems, among others.

While several of my own poems became part of the class, I wrote a new fragmented poem (a poem written entirely in sentence fragments--usually an editor's nightmare!) that I thought I'd share with you in honor of National Poetry Month. This is only a second draft, so I may go back through it later and revise certain lines:

when the world was newly-burnished,
as the sun ducked behind the rounded hills
suffusing the sky with rose and gold,
the hues ever darkening
before the night falls.

because creation is awash in peaceful activity
the lamb curling up beside the lion,
the rabbit teasing the fox,
nudging bushy tail with wiggling nose.
just before the evening coolness in which He strolls daily

admiring the beauty of His creativity,
no longer alone in the gloaming—
but enjoying the heartbeat of companionship at last.
when the pregnant hush comes,
suspending all in that fearful, frozen moment—

as the woman reaches up
into the forbidden, the deadly,
grasping the delectable fruit,
plucking it, admiring its golden rosiness in her palm--
ruining all as her teeth break the bitter skin.

~copyright 2014 by Susanne Barrett
All rights reserved. 

So I wish you all a wonderful celebration of National Poetry Month!! Please feel free to link to any special poems you've been writing or reading, and I'll share some of my favorite poems this month as well.

Poetically yours,

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Value of Visual Arts

This morning's Daily Reflection from The High Calling is entitled "How Art Helps Me to Be Still." I am reproducing the reflection in its entirety here, or you may click on the Daily Reflection title above to read it on the website.

How Art Helps Me to Be Still

Our God says, “Calm down, and learn that I am God! All nations on earth will honor me.” 
Being still has never come easily to me, and I know I’m not alone. Whenever I ask friends how they are doing, the answer is inevitably some variation of, “I’m so busy!” Busy with work, busy with family, busy with looking for work, busy looking for the spouse with whom to have a family—we are all so very busy. Yet God says, “Calm down…” Or, in another well-known translation, “Be still and know that I am God.” How does this happen? How can we help one another to “calm down”?
At the end of 2013, I was, of course, busy. Despite the fact that I had taken the months of November and December off from work in order to observe a sabbatical, somehow my life was as hectic as ever. It is so ingrained in me to be doing things—writing, creating, and producing results—that to stop, to calm down, seemed impossible for me. The more I tried to be still, the antsier I became to be active and to achieve something.
There was one thing during those two months, however, that helped me come to a full stop: looking at art. During my two months off, I made it a practice to visit art galleries and museums regularly, not in order to attend openings or to research opportunities for the artists I represent, but rather to simply experience the gift that fine art is.
Over the Christmas holiday, my husband and I visited the National Gallery of Art. The museum was crowded with tourists, noisy with a cacophony of different languages being spoken, and docents trying to talk above the din. Yet, as I made my way through several galleries of impressionist paintings and stood before Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge” series of three paintings, it was as if the noise did not exist. I stopped and stood, transfixed by the beauty, inspired by the breath of God’s Spirit right there in Gallery 87. In those moments, things that had weighed me down for months seemed trivial and unimportant. Encountering the beauty, skill, and inspiration in these works lifted my eyes away from myself and toward the glory that was before me.
Art—good art—can give us busy people a huge gift. It can help us stop and be still. You simply cannot rush through the experience of looking at art. Viewing art—experiencing art—demands that we slow down and set aside the cares of the world for a few moments in order to see—really see—what is before us.
A life of worship is a life that includes times of being still. While many find stillness through meditation, or prayer, or sitting quietly in a room surrounded by stained glass, I find stillness in the sanctuary of the gallery. It is there, the awe I feel when I experience great art, inevitably that leads to a sense of awe for the One who created all things, and from whom all blessings flow.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What comes to your mind when you consider the admonition to “be still and know that I am God”? Have you ever been transfixed by a painting or sculpture? Take a moment and reflect on what it was that so captured your heart and mind. Was it the color palette? The forms on the canvas? The textures? The scene itself? When, or in what circumstances, do you feel most able to “calm down” and consider God’s God-ness? 
PRAYER: Creator God, how difficult it is for so many of us to quiet our hearts, calm down, and be still as we consider your majesty and wonder. Help us to identify the places where we are able to be still, so that we may be among those who know that you are God and among those who honor you. Amen.
As a busy homeschooling mom with two graduated young people and two still at home for school (grades 8 and 11 this year) and an instructor at Brave Writer and at Heritage Christian School's co-op Class Days (not to mention my own business of grading essays via e-mail and copy editing/proofreading), I struggle with busy-ness. Big time.
Especially during this Lent, a time a year in which I try to instill a new way of drawing closer to God, I am focusing on morning and evening prayer times. I use an app on my phone called Prayer Popper which "pops" four times a day with daily prayers for Keith and the kids, extended family, friends, myself, etc. I use my morning and evening devotional time for worship. 
In the mornings and evenings, I use the Book of Common Prayer 2011 (which I helped to edit; we just published our second printing which is gorgeous!!). I pray through Morning Prayer, including the Lectionary Readings for Morning Prayer (one Old Testament reading and one New Testament reading) and the appointed Psalms for the day. (The Psalter, which uses the ESV Bible, divided the 150 Psalms into morning and evening readings for 30 days, i.e., for each month.) Today I read the selection for Day 22: Morning Prayer which was Psalm 107. I pray through the various canticles which are mostly straight Scripture (again, all ESV), pray the Apostle's Creed and The Lord's Prayer, then the Collect for the week (a collective prayer for the entire Anglican Communion, the second largest global Christian denomination after Roman Catholicism) which changes each Sunday, then the various Morning Prayer and Family Morning Prayer Collects. This one is my favorite:
For God's Blessing This Day
O GOD, we ask your grace and protection for this new day; Keep us clear-minded in all things and focused on our calling; Grant us patience in our difficulties; Give us grace to be just and honest in all our dealings, to be calm, peace-filled, and full of compassion; Make us ready to love others, according to our ability and opportunity; Direct us in all our ways; Defend us from all danger and trouble; Keep us and those who are dear to us under your fatherly care and protection; As you know our needs before we ask,send us your help; Through the sacrifice of your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. Psalm 145.8; 1 Peter 3.11; Psalm 119.105; John 10.29
(Book of Common Prayer 2011: Family Prayers: Morning Prayers 57)
The Scripture references at the end of the Collects show the Biblical basis for each particular Collect and is a new aid in this BCP. At night, I pray through both Evening Prayer and Compline, again adding the Collects from Family Prayers: Evening Prayer. 
In addition to using the BCP 2011 for my times of being still with God, I also pray through the Morning and Evening prayers in John Baillie's Diary of Private Prayer. I have been using this prayer book off and on (and more on than off) for over fifteen years and have yet to tire of it. The prayers are beautifully worded, focused on our relationship with God and our worship of Him, and are short and to-the-point.   
Also, in the mornings I am using The Magnificat Lenten Companion, a .99 cent e-book from either Magnificat or Amazon. This little devotional book reminds me a great deal of the evangelical booklets Our Daily Bread. Actually, I'm using the 2013 version which I purchased last year and didn't finish--so why purchase a new one? ;) In the evenings, I've dusted off The One Year Book Of Hymns: 365 Devotional Readings Based on Great Hymns of the Faith. (Amazon states that there are 70-some paperback copies of this book starting at only $.16--yes, that's sixteen cents!! (plus shipping, of course). Still, that's an amazing book for less than a latte at Starbucks!) The left page has a hymn, the right page the back story of the hymn followed by a verse or two of Scripture for meditation. 
I also take time to copy Scriptures and quotations from my prayers and readings that seem especially significant to me into my Quotation Journal/Commonplace Book. 
So while art is a wonderful way to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46.10), I find that my Lenten readings and prayers are doing the same thing--and beautifully. 
But I do still find myself turning to art to calm my mind, heart, and soul. A slow stroll through The San Diego Museum of Art and the neighboring Timken Gallery (the latter of which is free!!) does help me to still and center myself in the Artist of All Creation. Here are my favorite pieces from each museum:
I love both the subject matter and the rich colors in this painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, (link includes information about the painting) by the Italian artist Guernico, painted in 1654-1655. The attention to detail and the amazing SIZE of this work are draw me in; I can hear the Scripture whispered in my ear as I peruse the facial expressions, the depth of color, and the overall emotion. 
Return of the Prodigal Son by Guernico (1654-1655)
It's difficult to choose only one work from the San Diego Museum of Art as I have many paintings there that I love. But Keith and I chose only one to purchase as a print; it hangs above our piano in the living room. The Young Shepherdess (link includes more info on the painting) was painted by the French artist, William-Adolphe Borguereau in 1885. The peaceful pastoral scene behind her, the stillness of the shepherdess, her calm expression with the exception of the restlessness in her eyes all quiet my very soul. It's a remarkable painting, drawing me in with the subtle use of color and the lovely details of Realism--along with the sheer size: this painting is over five feet in height and two feet in width, making her nearly life-sized. I can sit and watch her for hours, wondering what she's thinking and dreaming as she watches over the sheep in her charge.  
Young Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bourguereau (1885)
I won't take the time to share a great deal about two of my favorite non-San Diego-based paintings as they aren't really works that encourage calm meditation, but I'll post links for you, anyway. Both were in London, are HUGE in size, and simply mesmerized me; I sat before each of them for over half an hour, absorbing them fully, especially the use of light and dark and the richness of color: 
So let's find our own path to combat busyness of body, mind, heart, and soul through artwork and through our daily time with God. However you center yourself contemplatively, we need to take the time to focus on a creative outlet, a way to draw close to our Creator, the original Artist who created the heavens and the earth.   
Wishing you peace, this day and always,

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Perry's Dorchester Terrace

With my busyness lately, teaching classes at Heritage Class Days and at Brave Writer, not to mention homeschooling two teen boys and writing my third novel (which is coming along far too slowly, thank you), I haven't kept up with one of my favorite authors, Scottish mystery writer Anne Perry. While some readers enjoy her William Monk series of mysteries, they're a bit too dark and hopeless for me.

Instead, I prefer her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries which are set in Victorian England, mostly London. I was delighted the other day to check Goodreads and find that Perry has not added one but two new books to the Pitt series since I read the last one, Treason at Lisson Grove (which was one of my favorites!).

So I ordered both new books from the library and just finished the first, Dorchester Terrace. I plan to start reading Midnight at Marble Arch tomorrow. ;) My only worry is to return the latter before it's due as I had to get it through the county library circuit (actually, it's from the San Diego Public Library), and thus it cannot be renewed.

I appreciate seeing Thomas and Charlotte's relationship develop over the years, from their first encounter when Pitt seeks a serial murderer in Charlotte's neighborhood, one who kills her older sister, Sarah. Pitt, the son of a gamekeeper, and Charlotte, a young society miss, do not hit it off right away--but they slowly grow closer and Charlotte marries him, despite her step down in society by becoming a mere policeman's wife.

They become a team, Pitt the detective and Charlotte, often with her younger sister Emily, their mother, plus Emily's Great Aunt Vespasia, helping with societal connections from time to time in order to solve a case. Perry's writing is rich, complex, and beautiful--she keeps the writing out of the way of the story yet every word resonates. All of these elements combine flawlessly to form the recipe for a wonderful mystery series, and Perry always leaves me guessing until the very end.

My Review: Spoiler-Free
The 25th book in this series, Dorchester Terrace gives us another incredible Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery. Pitt is now Head of Special Branch and faces his first real threat: the possible assassination of a visiting Hapsburg duke from Austria. It's definitely a mystery that keeps one guessing until the very end--to the second-to-the-last page, in fact.

I do miss how active Charlotte's role used to be in helping Thomas to solve the various murders he came across, but now with his appointment as Victor Narraway's successor, he cannot share the various threats with her--or his trepidation that a gamekeeper's son and policeman holds a place usually given to a member of the nobility, or at least the upper class.

But Charlotte does get drawn into the case in her own way, of course, as do Emily and Jack. Plus, Aunt Vespasia and Narraway are very much involved behind the scenes in this mystery--which is really two different crimes/potential crimes which link together about 3/4 the way through the book. Dorchester Terrace is yet another brilliant success for Perry!

So the books in my library stack (several of which will need to be renewed):
Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry (Thomas and Charlotte Pitt #26)
Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale (sequel to Austenland)
Why Shoot a Butler?  by Georgette Heyer (in progress when the Pitt mysteries arrived and set aside until I finish them)
North by Northanger and The Matters at Mansfield by Carrie Bebris (Mr. & Mrs. Darcy mysteries--oops, they're overdue! I'll have to renew them immediately!)
Getting over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald

So, happy reading to all!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lent Begins Wednesday!

Lent is a precious, precious time for me--I look forward to it with even more anticipation than Advent and Christmas.

Don't get me wrong--I adore Advent and Christmas: the family traditions, the Christmas carols (especially the carols!!), the snugness of the house as winter approaches, the scent of cinnamon and baking wafting from the kitchen, and the anticipation of unveiling the secrets wrapped under the tree.

But while Christmas is an amazing time of year, I admit that the excessive busyness and the hype get to me, robbing me of the joy I should be feeling in celebrating Christ's Incarnation...which is why I look forward with such anticipation to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday.

There is little hype and full concentration on living out God's Word in our lives, of God-at-work in the Spiritual Spring Cleaning which is Lent.

(If you'd like to read more about the practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent, see my page "On Lent," a talk I gave to a women's Bible study at Lake Murray Community Church in 2010.)   

Several years ago I read an incredible post about something dear to my heart--written by the wonderful Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience (my favorite blog). She shared about the process of making Easter as meaningful in our lives as Christmas.

That's a convicting thought, isn't it?

If we invest all this effort, time, money into Christmas, celebrating the Incarnation, how can we not do at least the same, if not more, to celebrate the Resurrection?

Ann writes:
And Advent completes at Lent.

When Christ completes what He came to do.

She continues:
We call it the “spirit of Christmas,” the spirit of giving, and we try to contain it to holly and poinsettias, when it is holy and it is more. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Easter, the Love that so loved the world, that He gave.

And the words that stings heart and motivates soul:
The Incarnation of Christ was meant for the Crucifixion of Christ and we never incarnate Christ until we abdicate self.

And "abdicat[ing] self" is the whole meaning behind the practice of Lent.

And I think it's perhaps why Lent feels so precious to me. For in the abdication of self, we may gain the merest glimpse of His glory--the swirl of His cloak, His whisper in the wind, His hand on our shoulder as He nudges us onward in His holiness.

And thus Lent is one way to join Christ on His journey to Calvary. It's a gift, really--to become one of the weeping women of His beloved city, the city He wept over, clad in dusty garments and worn sandals, the women of Jerusalem whom He took the time to greet and to warn despite searing pain and the weight of the world on His shoulders--beaten raw, seeping blood.

"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming...." (Luke 23:28-29, ESV)
Lent allows us to join Jesus on the Road to Calvary, sharing a minuscule bit of His pain as we follow in His footsteps, only imagining what He willingly bore for us--the agony, the betrayals, the sin of past, present, and future generations--of all humanity. Even the mere visualization stabs my heart...much less the real experience of Christ's obedient suffering.

After poking around online for a bit, looking for some new additions to my Commonplace Book, I've chosen two quotations about Lent for this week (see sidebar):

"The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare."

~Pope Benedict XVI

"The Lord measures our perfection neither by the multitude nor by the magnitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them."

~Saint John of the Cross

During this Lent, may we walk with Him as He stumbles forward, humanly-weak but divinely-strong, as "he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV).

And may we be so obedient in our Lenten disciplines, empowered by Christ and not ourselves as He molds us into His image, cutting away the sinful dross that accumulates in our lives all-too-easily.

Stumbling ever onward in His sacred footfalls,

(Partially from the Archives....)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Quotations of the Week

I love quotations. Over the past twelve years I have filled one entire journal with quotations, and I started a new quotation journal last August. The old-fashioned name for a quotation journal is a commonplace book.

So, for this week I've chosen two quotations on the subject of creativity by a very famous person from my current commonplace book:

"Creativity is intelligence having fun."

~Albert Einstein

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

~Albert Einstein 

From The Book of Common Prayer 2011 for this week:



LORD God, who sees that we cannot trust in anything that we do; By your power may we be defended against all adversity for your mercy's sake; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and rules with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. (References: Psalm 3.7-8; 129.17-18; Hebrews 7.35)

So as Lent approaches, I pray that God will reveal to me what He wants me to focus upon during these 40 days in the spiritual wilderness, just as Christ spent 40 days in the desert before starting His earthly ministry. We can learn much if only we quiet our minds, hearts, and souls so that we can hear Him speaking to us. How easy it is to be distracted by the Internet and Facebook, by television and Netflix, by cell phones and Instagram, and yes, even by blogging. So I pray that as I take time for silence, I will relax into His Spirit and be truly teachable. 

Wishing you all a blessed pre-Lent,

Friday, February 21, 2014

My Favorite Painter: Fra Angelico

Considering that my Master of Arts in English from Catholic University of San Diego was in Medieval Literature (with many courses taught by an amazing nun with a Harvard Ph.D.), it's not surprising that my favorite artist would also be from the medieval period.

Fra Angelico was born the same year that Chaucer died: 1400. Although he only lived fifty years, he produced an incredible body of artistic work.

Earlier this week, the Church celebrated his Feast Day, and the following is from the daily "Saint of the Day" e-mail from AmericanCatholic.org that I received on Tuesday:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Blessed John of Fiesole
(c. 1400-1455)

The patron of Christian artists was born around 1400 in a village overlooking Florence. He took up painting as a young boy and studied under the watchful eye of a local painting master. He joined the Dominicans at about age 20, taking the name Fra Giovanni. He eventually came to be known as Fra Angelico, perhaps a tribute to his own angelic qualities or maybe the devotional tone of his works. 

He continued to study painting and perfect his own techniques, which included broad-brush strokes, vivid colors and generous, lifelike figures. Michelangelo once said of Fra Angelico: “One has to believe that this good monk has visited paradise and been allowed to choose his models there.” Whatever his subject matter, Fra Angelico sought to generate feelings of religious devotion in response to his paintings. Among his most famous works are the Annunciation and Descent from the Cross as well as frescoes in the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

He also served in leadership positions within the Dominican Order. At one point Pope Eugenius approached him about serving as archbishop of Florence. Fra Angelico declined, preferring a simpler life. He died in 1455.

So let's take a look at some of his more famous works:

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
The Visitation by Fra Angelico
Madonna and Child by Fra Angelico
The Crucifixion by Fra Angelico
The Resurrection by Fra Angelico
The last painting here was the only wallpaper I ever used on my first laptop computer. The colors, especially of the first three paintings, are still so vivid, and his figures are pre-Renaissance in their three-dimensionality versus the usual flat, two-dimensional work of the medieval period. 

So I hope that you will enjoy the work of this amazing medieval artist as much as I have and continue to do!

Artistically yours,

Friday, February 14, 2014

An Odd Saint Valentine's Day....

This Saint Valentine's Day is unlike any other in my and Keith's 30+ year relationship.

I won't be seeing him today.

Since his dad (who is 82) had knee replacement surgery just before Thanksgiving and also has been struggling with the progression of his Parkinson's disease, Keith has been spending anywhere from two to five nights per week in Ramona. Fortunately, Keith's brother, who built a house adjoining his family's large home for their parents (although their Mom died before it was completed), has quite a long to-do list for Keith to tackle, paying him a discounted rate to build a storage shed and a treehouse for their kids (two of their kids have already graduated from high school, so this fun place is for their three younger ones, ages 8-11), to begin with. In addition to being there to keep watch over his dad and to work on Kevin's projects. Keith has also been helping the younger kids with their chores and homework when they get home from school since they're often alone until dinner time.

And Keith left yesterday to spend last night and tonight in Ramona; he'll be home Saturday evening.

So we're apart for Saint Valentine's Day.

Since 1997, it has been our family tradition to take the grandkids to my parents' house for pizza and ice cream sundaes on Valentine's Day while we "parents" enjoy an evening out. We began this tradition after my mom's father died on Valentine's Day in 1996, and she wanted her grandchildren with her on the anniversary of his death. The kids still get out the craft stuff and create Valentine's Day cards while Keith and I and my siblings and their spouses go out on our dates.

So tonight we're still heading to Pacific Beach to spend the evening with my parents; I'll just be staying there for the pizza and sundaes, too.

Last night I wrote out Valentine's cards for the kids, writing each one a personal note of encouragement and affirmation with a different Scripture verse for each, telling them how much they are loved (and also set two large Reese's Hearts on each of their placemats). Elizabeth made everyone cool Star Wars Valentines with a glo-stick attached as a light saber, along with a small box of Valentine's Nerds (my favorite non-chocolate candy) and three Ghiradelli milk chocolate-caramel squares. Yum!

But family traditions aside, this day is special because of the love of one man, Saint Valentine, and his dedication to God. I found a very interesting history of Saint Valentine's Day at the History Channel site. Following are excerpts from that history:

Every February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine's Day — and its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that February has long been a month of romance. St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. So, who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite? Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.

According to one legend, Valentine actually sent the first 'valentine' greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailor's daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed 'From your Valentine,' an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. It's no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.

Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day around 498 A.D. Later, during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds' mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of February — Valentine's Day — should be a day for romance. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting, which was written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

In Great Britain, Valentine's Day began to be popularly celebrated around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one's feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine's Day greetings.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages (written Valentine's didn't begin to appear until after 1400), and the oldest known Valentine card is on display at the British Museum. The first commercial Valentine's Day greeting cards produced in the U.S. were created in the 1840s by Esther A. Howland. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as "scrap."
And from a website called Women for Faith and Family comes additional information about Saint Valentine's Day and a call to "re-Christianize" this holy day:
The popular customs connected with Saint Valentine's Day's probably originated in medieval Europe. At that time, when "courtly love" was in flower, there was a common belief in England and France that on February 14th, precisely half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair.

Thus, we read in the 14th century English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer's "Parliament of Foules":

For this was on Seynt Valentynes' day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
(Chaucer's original spelling).

This belief about "love-birds" is probably the reason Saint Valentine's feast day came to be seen as specially consecrated to lovers, and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lover's tokens. The literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth-century in both France and England contain allusions to this practice.

This association with romantic love, along with the medieval revival of interest in classic literature, no doubt led to the "paganizing" of this martyr's feast, so that the Roman god, Cupid (the counterpart of Eros in Greek mythology), supplanted the saint in the celebration of the feast. In Roman mythology, Cupid, the son of Venus, was a winged immortal who had the mischievous habit of shooting invisible arrows into the hearts of mortals, which inflamed them with blind and helpless passion -- for the next person they might see.

The Golden Legend, a medieval book of stories about saints, says that Valentine, a priest, was imprisioned by the emperor Claudius II for leading people to Christ. While Valentine was being interrogated by a Roman officer, the priest preached Christ as the "one and only Light". The officer, who had a blind daughter, challenged Valentine to pray to Christ for her cure. The girl was cured, and the entire family were converted to Christianity. According to legend, while awaiting execution, he wrote notes of instruction, affection and encouragement to the Christian community in Rome, which were secretly delivered by a boy who visited him in prison.

It is ironic that a Roman Christian who died defending the faith is now chiefly associated with a pagan god, Cupid.

I would like to close with a prayer for Saint Valentine's Day:

Most Gracious Heavenly Father, You gave Saint Valentine the courage to witness to the gospel of Christ, even to the point of giving his life for it. Help us to endure all suffering for love of you, and to seek you with all our hearts; for you alone are the source of life and love. Grant that we may have the courage and love to be strong witnesses of your truth to our friends and family and to the whole world. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wishing you all a blessed remembrance of Saint Valentine and of Christ's command to "Love one another,"

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Joy and Pain of Writing

" Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard."

~David McCullough

"The proper words in the proper places are the true definition of style."

~Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

For the past few weeks, I have been good and stuck. And I mean really stuck

Sometimes writing is the most wonderful and freeing feeling in the world. When the characters behave themselves and the images vividly stretch across my mind's eye and the words flow forward so smoothly and perfectly (rather like the ice dancing I'm watching on the Olympics from Sochi, Russia, as I write this) that the challenge is to capture each expression and nuance before the next blooms forth....

That's when I love writing. 

That's when I can almost believe that I am a writer.


That's what has NOT been happening lately. 

Because of my busy schedule, I've been publishing the average of one chapter a month rather than my regular schedule of one chapter a week. Of course, these chapters are much longer--twice as long as the chapters in my previous novels. But still, I've been so crazy busy with my teaching schedule that writing has had to take a back seat.

Not to mention my faithful readers who understand both my insane schedule and my physical limitations...but who are politely eager for the next chapter of my novel--the whole "so what happens next?" question needs to be answered for their sake.  

But without that regular mindset of writing, editing, and publishing a new chapter each week, it's easy to lose the emotional thread of the story, to lose the subtleties of the characters, to lose the flow of images that I usually race to type before the vividness fades. 

All these issues are difficult. Yet the problems with this latest chapter go far beyond what I've described above. I drafted this twelfth chapter of my current novel in November during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). A delightful dream vision came to me, so I followed it. But when I reread the chapter, it just didn't seem to work right, and my brilliant and insightful pre-reader agreed and offered me some wonderful suggestions.

So I rewrote. 

And it still wasn't right. 

My pre-reader agreed and offered me more wonderful suggestions. 

So I rewrote again. 

And it STILL wasn't right. 

My pre-reader agreed and offered me more wonderful suggestions.

So I'm rewriting this chapter again

Right now I hate writing. In fact, I feel much more like a bumbler than a writer. I'm not crafting words; I'm slaughtering them. 

And it's rather a bloody mess. 

So as I gird my scattered mind to rewrite this recalcitrant chapter once AGAIN, I take comfort in these two quotations from two great writers, praying that I can somehow fulfill these words on writing. 

And...back to my novel I go....

Writing away (and trying to not tear out my hair),

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: The Truth in Lies

Image from www.JeanneMcDonald.com

A few of you know that I have written two novels and several short stories which I have posted online under a pen name (and no, I'm not telling my pen name to you) on two websites. Currently I'm writing a third novel, and all together I've received more than 3 million "reads" (hits) between the two sites. One of my novels is up for Top 10 Story of 2013 in its genre, and my current novel--only 11 chapters in--was nominated for Best Supporting Cast in the 2014 Fan Choice Awards.

One of the most amazing perks of publishing novels online chapter-by-chapter serial-style (following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, after all) is the amazing authors I've come to know as I read their work and they read mine. Through these websites, we are able to review each other's chapters and leave comments and questions.

Jeanne McDonald is one of those authors. I read the original version of her The Truth in Lies Saga online, and I loved it so much that I read it THREE times. (Yes, that is really *3* times!!) So I was thrilled when the revised version of The Truth in Lies e-book was available on Amazon (it's also available in print on Amazon as well).

As much as I loved the preliminary version, I adore the new version now available for sale.

Here's a quick plot synopsis (minus spoilers): The main character, Mackenzie, a speech pathologist, undergoes a traumatic experience and, when her relationship with boyfriend Nate sours as a result, she moves in with her longtime best friend, the fashionable Olivia. However, Mackenzie finds greater understanding, friendship, and solace in the handsome and athletic attorney, Andrew, Olivia's new boyfriend, than she does from her best friend. Despite the fact that the connection and attraction between Drew and Mackenzie is immediate and undeniable, they both attempt to resist each other since Drew is still with Olivia. Complications also arise with Jared, Mackenzie's best guy friend who works with her as a music therapist and who can't stand Olivia. And, since I don't want to give away any spoilers, let's just say that "chaos ensues."

Jeanne McDonald did more than revise an already excellent novel; she completely transformed the plot details while keeping the compelling character dynamics intact; in fact, she focused and sharpened the intriguing relationships. With Drew and Mackenzie, she added more complexities, more uncertainties between them yet also removed some of the moral culpability for their feelings and actions, placing the reader squarely on their side. In the first version, some events occurred between them that would definitely be classified as "cheating." Although I loved the characters of Mackenzie and Drew in the first edition, I didn't like and couldn't approve of some of their actions which muddied my feelings toward them. And with the other main characters of Nate, Olivia, and Jared, the author made their motivations far more direct and clear-cut with fewer gray areas.

My only reservation is that I truly wonder how Mackenzie could be "best friends" with someone as unlike her as possible; the character of Olivia seems to have few redeeming qualities which makes me wonder how both Mackenzie and Drew were drawn her.

In addition, new characters appear in this revised edition, such as Mackenzie's parents, while others seem to have disappeared, namely the main character's first husband and their son with Asperger's (a high-functioning type of autism) who live in a different state. The overall effect of these alterations results in a more unified story that eliminates some of the questionable moral decisions made by some characters while bringing other characters into the action, creating more direct participation and less feeling of their being mere bystanders in the resulting drama.

But the big surprise was a HUGE plot twist at the end of this first volume of The Truth in Lies Saga that I did not expect; in fact, I was simply flabbergasted in the best way. (I love it when books absolutely surprise me, and considering that I had read the earlier version of this story several times, the most recent time only a month ago, shocking me was quite an accomplishment!!) The possibility of this twist never occurred to me, and I practically dropped my Kindle, jaw unattractively agape, as I read the end of this first volume.

Admittedly, this first volume ends with quite the cliffhanger--and a rather distressing one at that. It seems impossible for good to happen to our couple at the close of The Truth in Lies. Of course, I'll have to wait until the second volume, The Certainty of Deception, is published in June to find out what happens next. The suspense is delightfully delicious, and despite the bleakness of the end of this volume, we can't help hoping that good will happen to Mackenzie and Drew.

And I have to admit that I am waiting quite impatiently for June 17 to arrive. :)

Okay, okay, I'll admit it: I'm counting the days until the appearance of The Certainty of Deception. (Just 135 days to go!! Yay!!)

I highly recommend The Truth in Lies, the first volume of The Truth in Lies Saga. It's a human-interest story with compelling characters and a plot full of twists that somehow seem completely natural and works incredibly well, taking into careful account the characters' personalities and foibles.

I also highly recommend following Jeanne McDonald on Goodreads and her website at JeanneMcDonald.com as she is writing and releasing additional books in 2014 and beyond. An extremely talented writer, Jeanne McDonald is an author whose work I plan to follow for a long time to come.

I give The Truth in Lies (Book 1 of The Truth in Lies Saga) 4 1/2 stars (of 5 stars possible, a rating only given to my favorite classic novels).



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