Exodus

How many songs do you still know from high school? The old band – cooler than ice cream in its day – revs up the radio and you’re right back, lyrics sure after all these years. Which is why Holistic Boy learns a lot of things through music. He had the optional challenge of memorizing the first 17 verses of Exodus 20 in the King James the past school year and so I went to work. After writing the melody, I found the perfect male baritone (the voice of God), and recorded countless takes on the piano with Husband and Son on drums. The families in our homeschool community were given the best version to run at home. T and many of his homeschool friends learned it easily as we sang it a verse at a time in our weekly gatherings. The final stage presentation was open to anyone who wanted to perform it this spring, whether they had mastered it or not. Some who made Bible Master were too shy but I was so proud of the kids that night. We had five-year-olds up there. The 17th century diction and syntax were not easy but they got it.

1 And God spake all these words saying,
2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

 

Calling All Artists, Thinkers, Writers

After going through my posts on the writing process, blogger Kevin commented that I seem to “write with intent rather than for ‘mere’ expression.” A lot of his poetry arose from the fun of it and the wish to express himself in a particular way. He also asked if I always analyze what I read, if I ever read just for the pleasure of it.

Which leads me to ask you: what is art?

First, the question on reading. I don’t pick apart to death everything I read – in part for the small matter of time. As for intent, let’s visit some accomplished artists. I would almost kill to be able to ask Michelangelo, “Can art be a whim? An accident?” Did he ever “merely” express? Can art be spontaneous? My right-brain readers are nodding away. Can art be discovery? The Sam Francis exhibit that once ran at the Pasadena Museum of California Art showcases some extraordinary work by a most interesting painter. “Paintings are my thinking,” Francis said. “Not about anything…They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.” Is there then such a thing as chance in the art of mathematics?

Could we consult the Ancients in their wisdom? To this end, I veer off a bit to share some relevant thoughts on my blogging and the homeschooling that converged two years ago. A few months into the blogging, I came to see that what I’d been drawn to exploring on this blog were truth and beauty. Not long later in a seminar on Classical homeschooling, the speaker elaborated on the model I had chosen for our family; it was in essence about truth, beauty, and goodness. I was floored. We went on to hear a podcast featuring Andrew Kearn of the CiRCE Institute on the goal of education, which brought to light the meaning of the liberal arts. I’ve scaled it down to highlight some parts that bear on this post. Which of these insights resonate with your work?

geo-roundel-flower-13Liberal spawns from the Latin liber [free]. Without these arts, we cannot know the fullest extent of human freedom. The Hebrews and a good many of the Greeks were the only ones in the ancient world who believed truth is knowable. Freedom is intimately related to perception of the truth. Education is learning to see deeply into the truth or essence of whatever is before you – be it spouse or garden. To see beyond the “accident of it,” the things that come and go. The lost tools of truth-seeking are the liberal arts: the art of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (which make up the Trivium of communication); and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (the Quadrivium of calculation).

Harmony

The Greeks looked at how people communicate. What leads the community to truth, to harmony? If a good man or woman speaks effectively, that is the glory of rhetoric. The mind wants harmony. Math is the ability to find this in the universe. If I tell you 2 + 7 = 5, you feel the disturbance in your mind. Astronomy is the study of shapes moving. Planet literally means wanderer. The Greeks discovered that when you examine the movement of the stars, you see patterns. Your mind can be disciplined and ordered to see things you cannot see any other way. Same thing for reading or learning another language. If you can’t do either, there is no way someone can get you there virtually. The way you know a scientific theory is by its beautiful harmony.

This approach to learning took my breath away. And it happened to dovetail this post I had been mulling over two months. What is art? To what extent is achieving harmony or articulating the essence of something the goal in your dance, your sport, your music? What is it about your painting that begs visual utterance? Do you find you’ve been in pursuit of ancient and timeless virtues? Beauty does not necessarily express happiness or cheerfulness. There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure. Years ago I looked regretfully upon some morose paintings by a gifted artist who had grown up in a nudist colony and believed she had a bipolar disorder. Her rich work was a window into a dark psyche. I felt they would reach her promise if her painful confusion were redeemed. I’ve said in The Writing Process, Part 1: Color that the darkness is an easy way in through the door of inspiration. But I now feel great art is more than bleeding all over the page.

Often honored as a process, art need not be defined by its product. But does a story not have a point? A reader quoted for me from My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian, “the anticipation of the pleasure of making sense.” In my writing, this expectancy is the wee hours of dark that prelude the stream of dawn, the knowing stillness almost as thrilling as the satisfaction of breaking light on the landscape of my intention. The objective, to get across exactly what I’m seeing. Though a poem may sing in metaphor, should it not sustain a coherence that draws assent from the reader? Is art random? Take the greatest masterpiece we can name, the human body. Illness is simply disharmony. And the life in the womb: there is articulation, a little body forging ahead in full purpose. Though to elaborate would be another post entirely – indeed I find order, truth, beauty, goodness in our wondrous frame.

I’m thinking aloud for the answers, surveying the fields of virtuosity. Instinct whispers the difference between war and the art of war. There’s straightforward violence. Or the boxer who flails struggling at the level of technique, trying to get the moves just right. But observe the fighter who executes with fluidity the right tactic among all the possibilities in that moment, and be enthralled by elegance. Through my brief time in mixed martial arts, I came to see the brilliance in the problem-solving we call fighting. I now understand the sense and logic of the art. It is geometry – angles, lines, space in motion. Just shift and turn to create the space your opponent wants to deny you and make your way out. Fighting is chess. I love the Greek appreciation of AgatasGuitardisciplining and enlarging your mind to possibilities. The thousand drills you hammer into muscle memory are the tools for conceiving your art. The unspeakable beauty of ballet is borne of training and toil, from endless run-throughs that demand reflex and mastery. I agree with Miles Davis that more than the sight-reader, the musician is the one who can improvise. But you need to know the grammar of the music to be able to create at levels above, though some who have gone without the training find it by instinct. What I’m getting at is that art comes by merit. The endowment suggests a certain caliber of performance, of craftsmanship.

Which then incites the question whether something can be art at the elementary or exploratory stage. How about your kids’ fun on construction paper? We don’t hold up the canvas of children’s imagination against the expression of Monet’s, but isn’t there, shouldn’t there be a standard of measure within a given range of age or capability? Here I circle back to my beloved. Standard.

As I set out in my writing and my son’s learning two years ago (as it turned out, upon the same road), I accepted the guidance of the virtues named in the Classical world. As marvelous our fascination with the Minotaur, so we cheer Theseus on and breathe again when he rids Crete of the senseless terror. The living nightmare makes for a great tale but we don’t really want to live in fear and endless night. We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made.

Photo credits in order of appearance
wildersoul.wordpress.com
agatasartcorner.com

Long Live Latin

colosseum

At seven-and-a-half, Tennyson memorized
the first seven verses of John 1 in Latin and
English in the homeschooling with
Classical Conversations, a global home
education program based on the ancient
Classical model of learning. I set each text
to song and he downed them like dessert. T
adored the Latin and the third day or so said,
“I heard it last night [in bed]. It was beautiful
in my head and I loved it. It’s one of the most
beautiful songs ever, Mom.” The words in-
grained nice and deep; they’ve become a part
of him.

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat
apud Deum,
et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc
erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per
ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est
nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat,
et vita
erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris
lucet, et
tenebrae eam non
comprehenderunt. Fuit homo
missus a
Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. Hic venit in
testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de
lumine,
ut omnes crederent per illum.

In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was
God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has
been made. In him was life, and that life
was the light of all mankind. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it. There was a man
sent from God whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify concerning
that light, so that through him all might
believe.

Carry You In The Rain

Your toe broke through the sole of your shoe. I didn’t want you stepping on the cold, wet ground. I put you on my back – my boy almost seven – and had trouble walking. A friend of mine was with us and we peeped our head into some restaurants, more like run-down bars, for a new shoe. We left the row of shops and stood on a threshold under the eaves, facing the pavement. I cradled you.

I would carry you in the rain.

You grew a few years smaller in my arms. As I asked my friend to cover your face with your blue jacket, you slipped into bed with me, pulling me out into the fresh, dry morning. The first thing you asked was what I’d dreamt.

Last week you mused, “I wonder what’s inside the sun, Umma. I want to see.” You expressed this so imploringly. Should I not have told you that you will burn? Should I have left you to dream impossible dreams? Did I kill your wondering?

The other day you took car tracks bereft of car and remote, and turned them into a runway for your plane. The delight on your face when that plane took off. And Daddy and I had wanted to get rid of the tracks. You blow me away. Life blows you away.

I forget why I keep you close, teach you at home. To free you to stand on your slab of questions and ingenuity, ready to run into the sun. I know that this side of dreams, there’ll be no carrying you in the rain.

 

sunbig

 

We Underestimate The Human Brain

I couldn’t resist this post. Five-year-olds memorized facts in seven subject areas along with 1) the names of all the U.S. presidents 2) 24 verses of a chapter from the book of Ephesians and 3) enjoyed hands-on explorations in science, art, and music. Middle and high schoolers also wrote papers, redrew the map of the world from memory, analyzed text, and debated. These activities have kept the kids in our local homeschool community busy since the fall. I had to give you a glimpse of what some of this work looked like. My first grader loved every minute with our weekly small group. I have played the audios of songs and recitations almost every day the last eight months to drive them in nice and deep, and never has he tired of them.

Classical Conversations is a Christian version of the approach to education that draws its roots from the ancient Classical world. The Classical model takes its cue from the developing mind. We take advantage of the tremendous capacity for information the early years offer. We then encourage kids to draw relationships among the facts they’ve retained. Older teens integrate principles and articulate their reasoning. The students work hard. They even get a bit overwhelmed in transitioning between the levels as public schoolers moving on to high school do. But our students rise to the challenge and don’t see the memorization as such. It is doable, palatably apportioned week to week. As you can see, it’s fun.

The clips are from the cumulative memory work of 24 weeks that the students presented before family and friends two weeks ago. Turn up the volume for the indefinite pronouns rap:

The kids closed the event with the 204-point timeline of human history; here are the first 40 seconds. The hand motions include American Sign Language for tactile learners. Yes, the kids recited every word of the timeline you see listed. I think the best part is their enthusiasm in the learning.

timeline1

timeline2

timeline3

timeline4

The Writing Process, Part 4: Sensory Details

hailstonesI was about 23, teaching 5th grade in a diverse Philadelphia public school. Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the beautiful book of color poetry that inspires kids out of mediocre writing, sparked lovely poems in my own students. (It is the most recent edition that offers vibrant pictures). The contagious delight the kids took playing with words that detailed everyday sensory experiences prompted a color poem out of their teacher too. It was a special experience for us to write together.

Once the brainstorm page filled up, the poems wrote themselves. We divided a sheet of paper into six rows, each representing a physical sense with the addition of one for emotions (Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feeling). Then simply named observations and experiences in their category.  White: cotton candy for taste, blank coloring page for touch, chocolate for taste. Writers young and old will hear “show, not tell” or “paint a picture,” but may not quite know how to go about it. Sensory details paint clear verbal pictures, not unlike a 3-D presentation that appears to move toward the reader. They serve as a powerful writing tool for the grade school student as well as the blogger and the author on his fourth novel.

Here is the poem I wrote alongside my students that I’d completely forgotten about. I tried to keep it on the simple side so it’d be relatable for them. Feeling sheepish. I’d love to revise but share it to offer a glimpse of something born in happy league with little writers. Note the progression of a lifetime within the poem:

 


Time

White is
baby powder,
cotton candy
from the “Candy!” shouter,
eager page of a coloring book,
a glob of frosting some finger took,
childhood paste,
little league socks,
the vanilla taste,
background of polka dots,
a special chocolate to crave,
ivory pearls that swim cream waves,
a careful prom dress,
marble sheet on a winter lake,
the bride in grace,
a queenly wedding cake.
A piano key, white
plays a note of simplicity.
White is romance heaven-blessed.
It is the color of promise
and rest.
A dependable soul,
behind every color hides
a white shadow.
White hair is
humanity’s confession –
in age less the color of a question –
“Strength is gossamer,
time but a loan,”
white is the color
of home.

The Writing Process, Part 3: To Be or Not To Be

I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.

To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She be.  She is.

The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it. She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet. 

In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.

The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.

But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.

Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say

The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.

Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.

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Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:

So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.

I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.

The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.

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I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*

The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example.  The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…

Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….

Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.

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James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.

Revise!

James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….

The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.

Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.