What’s on your nightstand – April 2015

DSC_5007My previous WOYN post showed a (well, for me, at least) pristine nightstand with four books neatly stacked. All but one of those books are still on the nightstand, in the if-I-put-it-there-maybe-I’ll-read-it-next happy thought category.

Random notes:

§  Earthen Vessels is my present read. I’m loving in, but taking it in small bites. It’s about how the body matters in things of faith. Favorite quote so far: Grace is not a technique.

§  See two books with the fore edge showing? One says E.O.C. Library on it? They remind me of a story I have to tell you. We were at a friends’ house for dinner and she had a whole bookshelf of books with the spines facing in and the fore edges out. Whaaaa? I stammered. She laughed and said, I just love the look. Aren’t they pretty? … Have you ever??

§  About those books–one is a Ring of Words, about Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary or ‘the OED’ if you want to impress academic types. I say I want to read this book. I have a son who adores Tolkien, who also has a birthday soon. But. The combo of heavy-words and light-head have put it in the slogging category of reading.

§  The two top on the right are some Alexander McCall Smith books I snatched from the library, part of the 44 Scotland Street series. I love Bertie, the six year old prodigy who only wants to be normal. Lots of laugh alouds.

§  Not shown: the Call the Midwife triology. I haven’t made up my mind since I’ve finished reading them. Big sections are 5 stars and a few places are 1.5 stars. It’s sort of like life: lots of love mixed with disappointments.

§  What’s in me ears? Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Interesting and enjoyable.

§  Finally, I started reading the Nikon D3100 book. Wow. I’ve had my camera 3 years and this book makes so much more sense now. I’m trying to wean myself off of auto settings and the long lens. This book is a good one to regularly dip into.


Revisiting Medieval Civilization

I read and loved this book about 15 years ago. In a rare act of courage and rationality, I decided to sell it, a proclamation of shelf reclamation. Because, you know, when would I actually read these 624 pages again? Just opening the book and noting my penciled responses ushered in delight and rediscovery, then gnawing regret. I knew I had to pull some long nights and re-read it one last time. And get as much in my commonplace book before the deadline to mail it.

Rereading Civilization brought back all the best parts of home schooling and banished from memory the days of despair, inadequacy, frustration, exhaustion. What I loved was learning history, reading literature, connecting dots — the enlivening of a formerly dead subject.


Cantor, a Jewish historian from Winnipeg (Winnipeg is a delectable collection of syllables you have to repeat aloud ten times), is a winsome writer. The Civilization of the Middle Ages has been a bestseller for decades because his writing is both interesting and accessible.

I got a sense of the wide sweep of history, but reveled in descriptions like this:

Despite his scholarly achievements, Augustine was no armchair theologian. As a priest and as bishop of Hippo (a fairly poor, undistinguished, and remote town in North Africa), he was deeply involved in the lives and the problems of his flock. What Augustine said about people and God came not only from his multicultural background but from his profound commitment to the needs and troubles of people. This is a rare combination at any time, particularly within the church, whose scholars have usually been cloistered from the life of the community.

One other quote, fodder for thought:

One can posit this rule: The more important your family as the shaper of your life, the more medieval the nature of a society.

There is a bonus in the back. Ten movies that portray the Middle Ages. And *you* can access this list, including his commentary, free! Here’s how: click on the link above, which will take you to Amazon. Click on “Look Inside!” In the box under “Search Inside This Book” type in *film* (don’t type the asterisks). Click on page 567. Or you could check out my previous blog post on Medieval Movies.

Ironically, writing this review made me want more Cantor. I just ordered In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made and I’ve added Inventing Norman Cantor: Confessions of a Medievalist to my wish list!

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The book is chock full of fun facts. Here are some that made it into my journal.

10th century technological advances:
the horse collar,
the stirrup,
water mills,
saw mills
and lateen sails.

The average 11th century knight was 5’3″.

Vassal comes from the Celtic word for ‘boy’.

Three power blocks:

Both Constantine and Justinian I came from Balkan peasant stock.

The year 400 – at least 80% of the population
never moved more than ten miles from where they were born.
Year 1050 — 80% didn’t move more than
twenty miles from their birthplace.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Saying Thank You Before Opening Gifts

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_A_Little_Coaxing_(1890)I read a passage from The Approaching Storm in September which has taken up residence in my thoughts. It describes a Czech Christmas in 1937.

This was a feudal Christmas. Castle and estate people joined in its celebration, as has always been the custom here. They were all Czech. They came to the tree gorgeously dressed in silk and satin of lovely colors, finely embroidered. The men and boys were as handsomely garbed as the girls and women. There was no servility in these people. I liked their quiet self-assurance.

The celebrations were opened by the children going up to their parents and thanking them for their love and care since last Christmas. The eldest, a son of fifteen, spoke first. He was followed by his brother and sister. This is an annual custom.  […] Then we had the presents.

My first instinct on reading this was to clap my hands together and plan a new custom in our family. Then I paused. This Czech annual custom was rooted in generations of thankful attitudes. Can we turn that around with a simple prelude to opening gifts? No, I debate myself, that is not the way to change a culture. Just another band aid fix.  It’s hard enough to get some of our kiddos to say “thank you” after they’ve opened gifts!

I’ve mulled this over. Thankfulness has to be inculcated in kids from the get go. I’ve seen parents teach thankful habits in tiny tots using Baby Sign Language. Long before they can talk, they sign “Please” and “Thank you”, the cornerstones of good manners.

I’m still pondering, still admiring this custom. Wanting the heart felt version, not the formulaic one. Thoughts, anyone?

10 Quotes I Copied

DSC_1936You could call my method of reading and copying quotes in my journal cumbersome…and you would be correct. It slows me down, my reading gets ahead of my copying, I end up going through each book twice. Say what you’re thinking: inefficient!

But I can’t articulate the joy that I get from reliving the delight in a well-turned phrase or a clearly expressed thought when I go back through my journal. It brings back the memory of the experience of reading that book. At the top of some pages there is a date and a short description of where I am when I am copying, i.e. 5-13-13, day after Mother’s Day, at the river with Scott, Dad and Mom. Or on the plane to Raleigh-Durham, 11-8-13.

My husband is patient with my quirkiness, but he scratches his head and asks, “What am I supposed to do with these journals if you die before I do?” You know, I don’t care! They have proved their value to me here and now. Here, in chronological order of copying into my journal, are ten great quotes of 2013.

1. In his solitude he can sunder and besmirch the fellowship, or he can strengthen and hallow it. Every act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship.
— Diietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

2. Distillation is selection, and selection, as I am hardly the first to affirm, is the essence of writing history. It is the cardinal process of composition, the most difficult, the most delicate, the most fraught with error as art. Ability to distinguish what is significant from what is insignificant is sine qua non. Failure to do so means that the point of the story, not to mention the reader’s interest, becomes lost in a morass of undifferentiated matter. What it requires is simply the courage and self-confidence to make choices and, above all, to leave things out. — Barbara Tuchman in Practicing History

3. Seed biscuits and milk! I hated Mrs. Mullet’s seed biscuits the way Saint Paul hated sin. Perhaps even more so. I wanted to clamber up onto the table, and with a sausage on the end of a fork as my sceptor, shout in my best Laurence Olivier voice, “Will no one rid us of the turbulent pastry cook?” — Alan Bradly in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

4. She was beloved by friends and family for her unique wit perfectly blended with a gift for hospitality and kindness to others.  — Billee Ratzlaff 1926-2013

5.  It is a rare person who isn’t somewhat traumatized by the state of his or her desk. — David Levy in Scrolling Forward

6.  In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal.  —Peter Godwin in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

7. There is so much in the world for us all if we only have the eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves—so much in men and women, so much in art and literature, so much everywhere in which to delight, and for which to be thankful. — Lucy Maud Montgomery in Anne of the Island

8.  Her thoughts were always directed outward toward others, and never inward towards herself. She never in all her life knew an introspective moment. Because of this there was no murky fog of self-consciousness between herself and others. She saw not her own disabilities but them and like unclouded sunshine her warmth and light were theirs without hindrance. No one was ever shy of Peronelle—she did not give them time to be shy. She looked at them, she loved them, and with one leap she had curled herself inside their hearts. — Elizabeth Goudge in Island Magic

9.  Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, you may leave a wake.  — N.D. Wilson in Death by Living

10. To sum up, analysis and abstraction are not demons to exorcise, but like the machine, to be mastered, not obeyed. To live amid lax words and dim thoughts more or less translatable into concreteness depletes energy and deadens the joy of life. — Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence.

15 New Words


In writing I am seduced by the sound of words and by the interaction of their sound and sense.

— Barbara Tuchman in Practicing History

I read all books—even borrowed ones—with a soft-leaded pencil in my hand. When I come across a word I don’t know I put a √ in the margin. When I copy quotes into my journal, I add the words I’ve learned. I also add to my collection of be– words (beguiled, bewhiskered, betake, etc.), but that’s a story for another day.

Here are a few of my favorite 2013 additions to my treasure chest of words:

taradiddles — lies
shrammed — benumbed with cold
virago — loud, overbearing woman

flibbertigibbet — silly, flighty person
semaphores — visual signaling with flags or light
boulevardier — man who strolls on Paris boulevard

billyho — unimaginable large amount
fortnight — contraction for “fourteen nights”
carnival = carne vale = goodbye meat

aptronymic — suitably named
debouched — to cause to emerge
snuggery — a snug, cozy place

smeddum — spirit, energy, determination
plaint — expression of grief
puling — whining, whimpering, crying plaintively

Pachelbel’s Canon


[This post will alienate most of you, my dear readers. Be warned.]

Two weeks ago I played the piano for dear Anna’s wedding. Anna’s uncle and aunt, extraordinary musicians from Georgia, played violins. We had a sort of impromptu string trio. As we were reviewing music for the prelude, Uncle John, fiddling around, played the familiar phrase that begins Pachelbel’s Canon. I shuddered. Fixing a glare, pointing my index finger, I proclaimed “This will be a Pachelbel Free Wedding!!”

For a moment I rested my face in my hands.

“I’m sorry. It’s just so overdone…”  I barely knew these people and here I was issuing commands.

John grinned. “Why do you think we know it by heart?”

“So you don’t really want to play it?”

“No.” One syllable conveyed his meaning, make no mistake.

I exhaled and sighed at the same time.  “We are on the same side of the river?”

“Oh yes.”


Pachelbel’s Canon in D is the original three chord, twenty-two verse ditty. Exquisite the first seventy-three times you hear it. The seventy-fourth time, however, it loses its charm. Wedding musicians are bone weary of this piece. How many bridesmaids in the world have hesitation-stepped down an aisle to Canon in D? Somewhere beyond twenty-six million is my guess.

It’s time to stop the madness, people. If the bride or groom request Pachelbel, I will gladly (and sweetly!) play Pachelbel. But when I am asked to choose the music, it is good-bye dear Johann, I wish you well.

Back in the day, Paul Stookey’s Wedding Song was the rage. Practically a one note, one chord, monoculture of a song. Pick a note, a low note you like, and sing it three times to the words “There is love.” Then repeat the same note with “There is love.” Three same notes yet again to make sure the audience knows there is love. It finally fell out of favor. It has been a happy twenty-five years since I’ve heard that gem at a wedding.

It’s time to give Pachelbel’s Canon a well-deserved rest. Let our great-grandchildren rediscover it.


John, Rebecca and I played a postlude until the last row of guests were leaving their seats.

“It’s a wrap!” I gratefully smiled. It’s always a relief to not have muffed it up.

In muted tones, with a twinkle in his eye, John played the opening notes of Pachelbel’s Canon.

I just laughed.

Raise Your Joys and Triumphs High


So profound was Anna and Robert’s wedding that I can’t stop pondering its potent magic.

The families supporting and standing behind Robert and Anna are a fortress of fidelity. Three sets of grandparents sojourned to our beautiful Shire to witness the vows. I’m guessing around 150 years of marital faithfulness are represented in their marriages. Winsome, dignified, charming. These gentle folk are who I want to be when I grow up. Their flame is still burning, their love abides, they joyfully treasure each other in the sunset years. Clearly, their children and grandchildren adore them, rendering preference and respect. It was a comfort to move among these well-oiled relationships.



Also behind the bride and groom are delighted parents, grateful to be in this moment, so proud of their child and so pleased with his/her choice. Parents who have worked diligently to arrive at this junction, who rejoice to see maturity and beauty in their children.

Beside Robert and Anna are ten siblings (plus four added by marriage). Their devotion is palpable. Their toasts were deep with emotion involving some long, very throat-lumpish pauses. There’s a shadow of grief—the tiny sorrow of separation and change—the kind of shadow that with its shades highlights the bright joy. You see, these dear ones are cherished and respected. And yet, there was no sense of you-aren’t-good-enough-for-my-sister (daughter, brother, son). 

Robert and Anna are both glorious; a glory that comes from all directions: inward, upward, downward, outward.   



     Photo credit: Rebecca James

Each family’s culture was represented. Many of the Taylor clan wore salwar kurtas to the rehearsal to reflect their Indian heritage. The Hurley appreciation of excellent music was evident with Uncle John and Aunt Rebecca’s violin contributions to the music and in the congregational hymn We Are God’s People, the processional in other Hurley weddings. The Callihan rehearsal dinner had cowboy boots as centerpieces and barbed wire on the serving table. Callihans enjoy dramatic productions: the guys wrote and produced a skit for the evening’s entertainment.





It is deliciously simple and profoundly mysterious, this love between Robert and Anna. Grounded in faith, expressed in humility, bounded by restraint, Christ-centered, other-oriented, staggering in its beauty, strong as death. They are not perfect, but there is an excellence in their love that called for a robust celebration: navy dresses with daffodil yellow shoes, bold bright flowers, Anna’s entrance to For All the Saints, a homily focused on dancing together, a feast of home-made pies, a Father-Daughter led Grand March, Robert and Anna’s first dance to Eric Bibb’s Gratitude, and their departure as we sang the Lutkin Benediction. It was good. It was fitting. It was full of glory.




As Robert and Anna danced the next generation looked on, hopes and dreams germinating.


My account of Robert’s sister’s wedding

Robert’s dad, Wes Callihan, on this wedding