Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Snowed Under

I got an email from a friend the other day asking where I went, since I haven't posted anything here in over a week. The answer is that we went on a staff retreat over the weekend. Going away for the weekend requires a week of preparation to catch up before going and then a week of catching up when you get back because you didn't get caught up enough before, in spite of your efforts. At least, for me it does. If I don't do four or five hours of work on Saturday, I pay for the omission the whole week. So now I'm paying. It's not just the work itself, which can be done here and there in five minute increments - it's the chance to get my thoughts together and feel thoroughly prepared. I need that and this week I just didn't get it. Hope to be back soon!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Birds

It's Bird Day again.


I've become a weather junkie. I'm always checking out Weather.com, the National Hurricane Center, and, most lately, Yahoo Weather. I particularly like Yahoo Weather, because you can personalize it. I have it set up to show me the weather in cities around the world. This is going to be even more fun when North American winter really sets in and I can feel smug about how much warmer I am than any of my friends and family members who live there.

Another great thing about Yahoo Weather is that I get a list of articles having to do with weather. (Some of them don't have much to do with weather really - if there's been a storm of protest in some scandal, the storm reference sends the article into my list.) There is always flooding somewhere - and the poor suffer disproportionately from this, as from everything else. In countries around the world, people with no homeowner's insurance and no FEMA are drying out their few possessions that survived one flood or another and mourning those who were washed away.

It was on Yahoo Weather that I found this article, too. It seems that some people in Ohio have been without power for five days and have taken to the streets to protest. (People do that here, too, but it takes them a lot longer than five days to reach that point. Sometimes after five months or so they might go out and burn a few tires and block the roads.) I sympathize with these people, honestly I do. The article notes that some of them are on oxygen and depend on the elevators in their building working. It's not easy to be without power, as I know better than many!

Weather obsesses us because there's not much we can do about it. People can forecast it, with varying degrees of accuracy, but we can't make it go away. And it affects what we want to do, irritatingly enough. On my Yahoo Weather page I notice a link to Fisherman's Weather, which I imagined was for fleets of fishermen going out to earn their living, but which turns out to be for recreational fishermen and to have more to do with whether the fish are biting than with the calmness of the ocean. There's also a Honeymoon Planner, because as the site says, "Your dream destination wedding or honeymoon can quickly turn into a nightmare if you're not prepared for the weather."

It all reminds me that we are very much at the mercy of things beyond our control, even though we like to convince ourselves that we can plan our future and run our own lives. The Bible is clear on this, in the book of James, saying: "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'"(James 4:13-15). In this country Christians always add "if God wills" whenever they use the word "tomorrow." For years I've resisted doing it because it seems so formulaic. "If God wills" is just part of the word "tomorrow" in the whole mumbled phrase, "See-you-tomorrow-if-God-wills." Sometimes it strikes me as a bit fatalistic and a way of avoiding responsibility for one's own actions. But lately, in the midst of yet another round of crisis for this sad little country where I live, I find myself adding the phrase to my speech, not in a formulaic way but remembering every time I say it that our life is a vapor, a mist, not lasting, subject to any number of unexpected disasters and yet also full of countless joys. We had a pastor once who remarked after a huge snowstorm that shut down activity and canceled church that God likes to do that every once in a while to remind us who's in charge.

Am I saying God sent the storms that caused so much damage and loss of life? I am struggling with that question. I believe God could have prevented them hitting this country, already in the throes of so many problems. Why didn't He? I don't know why He allows suffering in this world, though I have read many books on the subject and have my answers all formulated in a philosophical sense - but those pat answers fall apart sometimes in the face of misery and grief. It's easier for me to explain away problems caused by human beings - God allows for our free will, etc. etc. - than the so-called "Acts of God." (And yes, there's the whole global warming factor, with human activity affecting severity of weather, but let's face it - there were catastrophic events well before the internal combustion engine and people have always wrestled with these questions.)

This isn't the time for agonizing over philosophical and theological questions, though, it's a time for neighbors helping each other and outsiders coming with aid and comfort. It's a time for me to look at unfathomable, overwhelming need, and say, "I can't do much, but I can clean out my closet and pass on clothes, I can play with some displaced orphans, I can donate money, I can keep life normal for the children of others who are out helping more directly, I can pray."

I didn't intend to become so impassioned in this post. It was just going to be a lighthearted note on the features of Yahoo Weather. But life is overshadowed now with grief. "In the midst of life we are in death," says the Book of Common Prayer. That's always the case, but in times like these we are more aware of the fact. And as Lewis reminds me in his "Learning in Wartime" (which I blogged about here), it's a good thing for us to be aware of mortality.

Incidentally, I smiled when I noticed at BibleGateway.com, where I'd gone to look up the verses from James, that today's verse of the day is “Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.”- Joel 2:23

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Poetry Friday - To Night

To Night
by Joseph Blanco White (1775 – 1841)

Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?

This poem was on the Classic Poetry Aloud podcast during the summer. A professor I had in college said that all poetry is about death, because most of it is about beauty, and you can't write about beauty without knowing that it's all temporary. This poem is explicitly about death, and urges us not to fear it, since it will bring us a wider view - a realization of all that life hides from us.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the World Yet?

Well, has it? Find out here.

(You can find out what this thing is here, if, like me, you never heard of it until today. Thanks Tricia.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on Haiti

I'm shocked to see that Haiti doesn't even make the Google News front page, but here's some more on what is going on and what you can do to help.

I wrote about Gonaives the other day and here's more on what's happening there. But many other parts of Haiti have been severely hit as well. You can see descriptions and photos here, here, here, and here.

There are some ways you can help here and here. Many, many other organizations are in dire need of funds right now, so just Google "Haiti Hurricane Relief" and give to the group of your choice. As Tara puts it on her blog,
Many were swept away in the water and lost loved ones and homes and possessions. State Farm Insurance is not cutting checks in two weeks, two months or ever. These losses are huge. They will have long-lasting effects on these areas.

The gardens are gone. The animals are gone. The houses are gone. Everything these people had (and in most cases, that wasn't a whole lot) is gone. And nobody seems to know how many people have been lost - every single article has a different number. Lord, have mercy on dear little Haiti.

Monday, September 08, 2008


I can understand why people worship the sun. That feeling you get when it appears in the sky after days of gloom is certainly a spiritual one. Ecstasy, just about.

We had a professional development day scheduled for today but our speaker couldn't come - his flight was canceled. (We shouldn't schedule any special events for storm season. Or election season. Or kidnapping season. Or riot season. Or, really, ever. As Homer Simpson would say, "So you tried, and you failed. The lesson here is: don't try.") We're going to meet anyway and I'm sure we'll get some things done.

Here's to a sunny week!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Gonaïves, Haïti

Cathedral in Gonaïves after Hurricane Hanna, Photo from Yahoo News

Here's what happened in Gonaïves, Haïti during Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004.

Here's what happened there during Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna in 2008. (One pastor said this year's destruction was "ten times worse.")

And here's some about Hurricane Ike. And more about Ike's effects in Gonaives and elsewhere.

Early Morning Reading Update

I'm up early - I can't remember what woke me, but when I went to check on the kids (as I do almost every time I wake up in the night - is that neurotic?) I found that the leak in my son's ceiling had spilled over the strategically placed washtub. I put a towel under the washtub and found another washtub and strategically placed that one too - and by then I was wide, wide awake. It's raining and raining, and has been for hours, apparently, judging by the amount in the previously mentioned washtub.

So anyway, it's been a while since I posted a reading update.

Book #43 was Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope, by the Van Ryn and Cerak families. Remember this story from the news? There was a huge accident involving students from Taylor University, and the one survivor was misidentified - the wrong family sat by her bedside for five weeks before they figured out what was going on. Very interesting book, terribly sad, but also full of hope.

Book #44 was Your Child's Strengths:Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them, by Jenifer Fox. Fox believes that the prevailing educational system is based on weakness, not strength, and that we need to be encouraging kids to find their areas of strength. She makes a good case and I have used some of her material with my students already. I found that this book influenced the way I think about students. And I loved the item from the workbook where she suggests talking to kids about how they would handle it if the power were off at their house (among many other discussion items). Power off? Would they even notice?

Book #45 was Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai. I picked this book up because I loved Desai's later book The Inheritance of Loss. This one wasn't as good - same breezy style, similar eccentric characters, but not nearly as poignant and believable. Still, I guess it shows that Desai is getting better!

Book #46 was C. S. Lewis' book Miracles, which I read because my friend Janet posted this amazing quote from it. Lewis doesn't disappoint. Reading him always makes me feel as though I've been doing brain calisthenics. I loved this book. Janet writes way more coherently about it, in the post I already linked and a couple of others.

Books #47 and #48 were Nobody's Princess and Nobody's Prize, by Esther Friesner. These books are terrific fun. They are about Helen of Troy as a young girl, before she was Helen of Troy. In most retellings of the Iliad she comes across as completely insipid. Not in these books! She has as much adventure as it's possible to fit into a book, and she's a thoroughly memorable character, surrounded by other thoroughly memorable characters, many of whom happen to be folk you've read about in myths all your life. It's delightful to see Friesner's take on many of these.

The internet connection has gone in and out while I have been writing this post, and the power has gone off, and a child has arrived in my bed, and through it all the rain has pounded steadily on.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Learning in Wartime

Someone at a staff meeting referred last week to C. S. Lewis' sermon Learning in Wartime. I had read it before; back in 2001, after September 11th, a lot of people were reading and discussing it. (Here's an article published in Christianity Today at the time.)

Lewis gave this sermon to undergraduates during the second World War. How, they wondered, could they justify being at university and studying when such cataclysmic events were going on? Particularly, how could they study the seemingly impractical things they were working on? (This is something I think about a lot. I mean, what good am I in an emergency? I can just hear it now: "Ah, someone with a literature degree! Two literature degrees, you say! Just what we need right now in the middle of this crisis, in this country with a 50% literacy rate! Hurry over here, there's a text to be explicated! What a relief to have an expert on hand!")

The relevance of this Lewis sermon now was that we as a staff are overwhelmed with what is going on around us in this country, with the death and destruction and suffering. Of course, it's useful to keep people's children safe and occupied while they are out there making things better. Of course, it's useful to educate children. But sometimes it seems that the things we're teaching are perhaps not the best use of our time - why aren't we out there doing something useful? What good are equations and metaphors and chemical formulae now?

If you've ever felt that way, I highly recommend that you read this piece. (You can find it in PDF format here.) (Edit - Wow, I've worked and worked on posting the right link and I can't seem to get it - just do what I did and Google "C. S. Lewis Learning in Wartime PDF" and you should find it. It's at ncgv.net.)

Here's an excerpt:

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something
infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed
the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure
the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when
we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been
normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil,
like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to
be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible
reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely
cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long
ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted
knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the
suitable moment that never came. Periclean Athens leaves
us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral
Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have
sought first the material welfare and security of the hive,
and presumably they have their reward. Men are
different. They propound mathematical theorems in
beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in
condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last
new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and
comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is
our nature.

Literature is part of what it means to be human - yes, even in a country where so many can't read it. It helps us understand one another, appreciate one another, and maybe be less likely to kill one another. It may not be of immediate practical value, but humanity wants knowledge and beauty now. The suitable moment will never come.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Week that Was

I am thanking God it's Friday. (And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup, by the way). This week was a rough one, for several reasons.

One reason is that I'm a weenie, and I hate gloomy weather. I am spoiled here - we usually have perfect weather (if somewhat warm for some people's tastes). None of this gentle sweep of the seasons stuff - we have blue skies and lovely warm temperatures all year round, and we love it! Or at least, I do. This week was windy, dark, and rainy - oh my goodness, rainy. It rained almost all the time.

The second reason is linked to the first - this bad weather caused horrible damage in this country - not to my house, but to the houses of thousands of others. It killed people, displaced people, ruined people's lives. It was a week of grief, and that grief continues.

The third reason is that I was sick all week, and I lost my voice. A voice is rather important for a teacher. I realized once again that my voice is my main tool of the trade. I use it all day long, to explain and encourage and cajole and instruct and correct and, well, teach. I try not to raise it too often, but I take roll, read aloud, ask and answer questions, maintain order in the hallways, give directions, conference with kids, pray (it's a Christian school, don't call the ACLU). I was constantly reminded every day this week how important my voice is to the work I do. I would force it all morning with my middle schoolers and then be basically mute by the afternoon and give my high schoolers something to do that wouldn't require me to talk.

Today the sky was blue and gorgeous again, and the sun was out. That cheered me up immensely. And I was starting to feel physically normal again, too. One of my lessons today went so well that I wanted to jump up and down. I wished I had been being observed by an administrator. It was that good. One of those moments when you say, yes, I'm fabulous, this is why I'm a teacher!

At the same time, though, I can't stop thinking about the citizens of this country who have lost everything this week. I met some this afternoon, kids who were asleep in their orphanage when the waters started to rise. They escaped with their lives and their pyjamas and nothing else.

And that was my week. I'm hoping and praying for an uneventful weekend with clear skies.