and what we wish they were

Fight the War on Christmas! Observe Advent.

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The signs are everywhere.  Houses and yards are adorned with twinkling lights and plastic snowmen.  Stores festively display Christmas decorations and the latest must-have items of the season.  Our mailboxes are bursting forth with invitations to gift exchanges, tasting parties, and other holiday festivities. At long last that magical season is upon us.  But wait! It’s mid-November I still have fall leaves in my yard and a pumpkin on my porch.  I haven’t even planned our Thanksgiving meal yet?   How did it get to be the Christmas season already?

That’s easy.  The retailing powers decided long ago that the more shopping days there are in the Christmas (or as it in now known, holiday) season, the more people will shop.  The lines that begin forming outside some large chain stores before the pumpkin pie is even off the Thanksgiving table, prove that the retailers are right.

Since the holiday season is the time when manufacturers and retailers do their best business, they have a vested interest in dictating exactly how we observe the moment in history when God became man.  They want us to prepare for Holiest events in human history by shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping! However, to truly prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord, maybe we should consider how people used to do this before they had the benefit of Wal Mart to help them.

Actually, we first need to get our minds around the concept of preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord. There has been a lot of hubbub in recent years about The War on Christmas, but actually the war has been on Advent.  Our retailers don’t give two hoots about what we do December 25.  They care about all the shopping days before it is actually Christmas.  You see, what is now known as the Christmas season (the time somewhere between Halloween and the opening of the last gift) is actually called Advent.

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Traditionally Advent was a time of preparations.  Christians prepared themselves for Christ’s coming both as a baby in a manger and for His second coming at the end of time.  Parties, gorging on fudge, shopping and Hallmark movies are not actually longstanding Christian customs.  On the contrary, to prepare for the coming of Christ, Christians traditionally spent the days before Christmas in somber reflection.  Advent is a time to reflect on one’s shortcomings and to cleanse oneself in preparation for Christ’s arrival both spiritually in our hearts at Christmas and literally at the end of time.

But I live in the real (and increasing secular) world and I know that it is often unrealistic to cut out all the Christmas fun and  goodies until December 25th. There are class parties and office parties, family obligations and family expectations. Still, simply being aware that preparing for Christmas means more than wearing a Keep Christ in Christmas button to the mall is a start. So how can we observe Advent and truly prepare for the coming of the Lord in this hectic, consumer-driven season?

Shop early. One simple alternative is to spending Advent at the mall, is to shop before Advent begins. This takes some organization and forethought, but it keeps Advent simple and relatively stress-free.

Shop with companies that reflect Christian values.   SERRV, a nonprofit organization operated by Catholic Relief Services, offers beautiful handmade, fair trade gifts produced by families who struggle to earn a just wage. This article offers different perspectives on Christian consumerism and some suggestions for shopping too.

Shop local. Buying from a small mom and pop store helps support a family directly in a way that shopping the big chain stores does not. Not only that, these experiences are often more relaxing and more pleasant than negotiating a crowded mall. Shopping and chatting with friends and neighbors builds a sense of community that helps keep to get us in the Christmas spirit.

Buy an Advent Calendar.  A Christian one.  This charming tradition helps children focus on get excited about what (or who) is to come by daily drawing their attention back to the meaning of the season. Advent calendars can be even more powerful when paired with prayer.

Build a Spiritual Crib. This short daily devotion that is a great way to help kids prepare their hearts for the Baby Jesus.

Decorate in keeping with the season. Trim the tree and the mantel with purple ribbon, the liturgical color of Advent. Add red and green on Christmas Eve to signal the change from Advent to Christmas. Buy of make Christian ornaments for you tree like these or or these.  Pinterest is full of them.  Also consider getting or making a Jesse Tree.

Celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas. When my children were small, we would put their shoes in front of the hearth on the night of December 5th. The next day they would be filled with candy. Occasionally Saint Nicholas would leave a present like a new nativity set or some Christmas decorations. He always left a note encouraging the kids to keep preparing for the Baby Jesus through prayer and good behavior.
Light an Advent wreath. An Advent wreath and the prayers that accompany it are a visual and spiritual reminder that the Light of the World is coming to banish the darkness.
Of course the most important thing we can do to prepare for Jesus’s coming is to pray. Advent is a time to do this in a specific and beautiful way. My prayer is that my family and other Christian families will not get so caught up in the Christmas trappings that we fail to remember the One we celebrate on December 25 and every other day of the year.

ADVENT RESOURCES

Focus on the Family

Baby Steps for Celebrating Advent

Super Simple Ways to Celebrate Advent

Advent resources especially for Protestants

 

In Defense of Book Banning

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A couple of weeks ago the entire world celebrated Banned Books Week.  Okay maybe not the entire world, but a lot of librarians and English teachers did. Banned Books Week usually involves such activities as handing out bookmarks and challenging students to select and read a book from a list of commonly banned books.  And for the most part, that’s a good thing.  There are a lot of books on these lists that I have either bought for my children, read to them, or that I hope they will read one day.  I have wonderful memories of crying, no sobbing, with my kids when we read Bridge to Terabithia and Charlott’s Web.  In my English classes, I have taught Huckleberry FinnTo Kill a Mocking Bird,  and Lord of the Flies.   The Giver and Harry Potter are among my children’s favorite books.  And, while certainly not my favorite, my eldest daughter has read nearly all of  John Green ‘s books.

The fact is, it’s hard to imagine why many of these books were ever banned.  It’s just crazy.  But the crazy thing about the Banned Books Week movement is that proponents of the movement would have us believe that school libraries should be allowed to  provide young people with literally any book out there without having to justify the appropriateness of the book.  Any attempt to use discernment or determine age appropriateness is decried as censorship.  And those who call into question a librarian’s choices are considered a threat to intellectual freedom.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating government censorship or that books be banned from public libraries.  But as a mother and a tax payer, I would like to think that when I send my children to school, they will not happen across books in the school library that include passages like this one from Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban (which is actually a Common Core recommended text for 10th graders).

“Hugo and Felicia stripped in their room, dissolving easily into one another, and made love against the whitewashed walls. Hugo bit Felicia’s breast and left purplish bands of bruises on her upper thighs. He knelt before her in the tub and massaged black Spanish soap between her legs. He entered her repeatedly from behind.

“Felicia learned what pleased him. She tied his arms above his head with their underclothing and slapping him sharply when he asked.

“‘You’re my bitch,’” Hugo said, groaning.

According to the good folks at the American Library Association, any attempt to restrict this novel, or anything libraries choose to make available to children, is a violation of the First Amendment.  The ALA lists Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the most commonly challenged books of 2013, but according to the ALA, a child’s right to read this book should be protected.  This is apparently more important than protecting children from pornography.

Fear Monger Much?

Fear Monger Much?

I realize that censorship is a slippery slope.  At least that’s what the Banned Books people want us to fear.  If we ban Fifty Shades of Grey, what’s to stop us from banning every book with any sexual content whatsoever?  Censorship is such a loaded word.  It implies a secret plot to restrict ideas or knowledge or a Big Brother-like control over information.  But what we are really talking about is limits.  And don’t schools limit kids already?   Students are not allowed to curse in school.  They cannot make racially insensitive statements.  They aren’t allowed to watch sexually explicit films in class – even those based on a classic novel.  When, where, and how they can pray is restricted.  And most schools have some form of a dress code in place.  All of these rules restrict (censor) students’ freedom of expression is some way. Can you imagine a high school or middle school where kids were allowed to express themselves absolutely any way they wanted too?

Still, the slippery slope concerns are valid.  Obviously book banning can get out of hand. Many books that are now considered classroom and childhood staples have at one time been challenged.  Yet, should we really advocate, indeed celebrate, the notion that our children can potentially have access to books with virtually any content with no adult discernment as to the appropriateness of those books?

Where things get tricky is when people challenge books based on their own personal beliefs.  Just because some people don’t believe that children should read books about witches and wizards, doesn’t mean the library should ban all Harry Potter books.  Some people might feel that children should not read books that encourage them to challenge authority.  That does not mean we need to ban Animal Farm.  I get it.  Discerning books is a delicate matter because what seems like a harmless story to one family might be considered gravely sinful by another.

Still, even with all the challenges involved with book restrictions, can’t we at least strive for some standard of decency?  That’s all I’m asking for.  A standard of decency.   Can’t we at least agree that there are some things a child or young teenager should not be exposed to?  Even the film industry does that much.  How about this? If the contents of a book would warrant an R rating as film, then maybe it should not be made available to 14 year olds.  It’s radical, I know.

It might not be easy.  Sometimes we might ere too much on the side of caution.  But the alternative is no standard of decency.  To me, that is a much more frightening prospect than the notion that my children’s freedom will somehow be violated because their public school denied them access to porn.

Really?

Really?

Disclaimer:  This is in no way a condemnation of librarians.  My own children’s schools are staffed by thinking, sensitive librarians who seek to provide our kids with the best possible age-appropriate literature.  We are grateful to have them.  

Image credits in order of appearance…

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/

http://brkteenlib.tumblr.com/

What Not to Say

LC:

I begin each semester in Oral Communication with “What Happens in Vagueness…” That way the kids know right off what not to say.

Originally posted on Up With the Chickens:

What Not to Say

 

No long ago I happened across the article What Happens is Vagueness Stays in Vagueness. In the article Clark Whelton laments the decline of the English language.  Among other things, he notes the overuse of the word “like” as a sentence filler and the seeming inability of young people to answer a question in the affirmative, but rather to respond with a vocal inflection that would indicate a question.

Whelton also quotes a Vassar professor’s assertion (way back in 1988) that high school teachers seem to no longer hold their students to any sort of standard when it comes to how students speak in class. Yikes. That struck a nerve. How often have I failed to correct (or even flinch) when a student proclaimed, “I ain’t done my homework!” or “Can I borrow like a pencil?” And there is the ever-vague, “I have this sorta headache.  Can I…

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The Giver by Lois Lowery

Originally posted on What Kids Are Reading:

From goodreads.com

From goodreads.com

The Giver is a dystopian novel set around the life of a young boy, Jonah, and his community.  In this community everything is regulated – careers, family size, emotion, even the temperature.  At the age  12, when all children are assigned to their life’s work, Jonah is given the job of The Giver.  The Giver is the one person entrusted with all the memories of humanity.  For decades all other citizens have been denied  knowledge of the pain, fear, and joy people experienced before the community was “perfected.”  They are given only “the sameness.” The job of The Giver is both beautiful and torturous.  It also gives Jonah an understanding that no one else in his community could possibly have – an understanding that makes it impossible to go back to the content, secure life he knew before.

The Giver is not exactly pop fiction.  It has been…

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Back-to-School – For the Less-Than-Perfect

Originally posted on Charming Farming:

Recently I wrote about how lousy it makes me feel when I read about all the ways other mothers are managing to feed their children absolutely nothing but organic, homemade, raw, freshly sprouted, GMO free, free-range, amazingly delicious, healthy food.  Seriously, it’s exhausting.  Well, now it’s back-to-school time and I am faced with the same kind of Pinterest-induced guilt.

For starters, there’s the Back-to-School Party.

Seriously? We are not having a party.  The week before school starts my children are practically wearing sack cloth and ashes.  We distract.  We indulge.  We don’t celebrate.  We are in mourning.

There’s Back-to-School redecorating.  Does making them make their beds count?  I mean, we spend a small fortune on backpacks, note books, pens, markers, clothes, and Kleenex.  Who has extra money to redecorate?

For the child studying to be the next Martha Stewart

For the child studying to be the next Martha Stewart

There’s back-to-school menu planning for the…

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We Were Liars

Cadence Sinclair is the oldest grandchild in an old-money, east coast family.  She spends her childhood summers on the family’s private island with her cousins, Mirren and Johnny and their dear friend Gat.  They are The Liars.

Amazon.com

Amazon.com

The cousins are extremely close and fiercely loyal to each other, despite the efforts of their mothers, the Sinclair sisters, to use their children to win the favor of the family patriarch.  Cadence, Johnny, and Mirren’s mothers are each paranoid that the biggest summer home and the bulk of their father’s fortune will be bestowed on another sister. They attempt to pit the cousins against one another, and each Sinclair sister urges her child to make a play for their grandfather’s  sympathy and favor. Their Grandfather seems to take some perverse pleasure in his daughters’ greed.  He enjoys the rivalry.

Ye even in the midst of all this dysfunction, the Liars spend magical summers, swimming, playing games, and growing up together.  But the summer Cadence is 15 she suffers a a terrible accident that leaves her with memory loss and debilitating headaches.  While she tries to put together the pieces of what happened, her family seems to be falling apart and her relationships with Gat and with her cousins takes a confusing turn.  What Cadence discovers about her accident and that mysterious summer is haunting.

We Were Liars may not be the book for everyone.  It is very engrossing – read in one sitting engrossing.  But it is disturbing.  The end left me a little shaken.  That said, a friend of mine who read it predicted the surprise ending (maybe I’m a little dense) and wasn’t blown away like I was.  Either way, we both had mixed feelings about the novel. Neither of us could put it down, but in the end, we weren’t sure liked it.  We Were Liars paints a rich portrait of childhood summers and takes the reader back to those care-free days.  Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted to see all of the characters redeemed, become better people.  That’s what supposed to happen when things go terribly wrong. But in the end, I’m not sure any the Sinclairs are better people – just damaged in a different way and for a more legitimate reason.

We Were Liars illustrates the devastating effects of unbridled greed and selfish ambition. Their mothers’ greed ultimately destroys the family and changes the Liars forever.

Overall, the subject matter might be a bit heavy for middle schoolers. I recommend We Were Liars for grades 9 and up.

LANGUAGE

Perhaps some mild four letter words.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Cadence and Gat fall in love.  They kiss and their is some hinting at additional physical contact, but there is nothing graphic.  Mirren’s lies about having “a lot of sexual intercourse” with her boyfriend but in the end admits there is no boyfriend and no sex.

VIOLENCE

I don’t want to give too much away.  The truth of Cadence’s accident is not so much violent as disturbing.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“One day I looked at Gat, lying in the Clairmont hammock with a book, and he seemed, we’ll, like he was mine.  Like my particular person.

“Do not accept an evil you cN change.”

“A part of me died… And it was the best part.”

“Our kiss turns the world to dust.  There is only us and nothing else matters.”

“He cried like a man, not like a boy. Not like he was frustrated or hadn’t gotten his way, but like life was bitter.  Like his wounds couldn’t be healed.”

 

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

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When I took my daughters to see The Fault in Our Stars, we saw the preview for the upcoming film, If I Stay, based on the book by Gayle Forman.  And while I was hoping the TFIOS would fulfill our rip-your-heart-out movie quota for the year , I knew as soon as this preview started that there was to be yet another traumatic movie going experience in our future.  And I’ll admit I was intrigued too.

Of course I had to read the book.  One, because I know my girls will want to read it.   And two, because I cannot resist the opportunity to feel superior to all the people in the theater who have not read the book.

If I Stay is the story of Mia Hall, a classical cellist and the daughter of former punk rock parents.  From the beginning of the novel , we see that Mia’s is a happy, close-knit family.   Her relationship with her parents is easy and laid back, and she adores her nine year old brother Teddy.  When her school calls a snow day, the entire family decides to take advantage of the day off and enjoy a family outing.  Unfortunately, the outing turns tragic when their car is hit by an oncoming truck.

It takes Mia a few minutes to realize what has happened.  Her parents are dead.  She and Teddy are horribly injured.  And she is watching the entire scene unfold from outside her own body.   This is of course confusing to Mia.  How can she be lying in a hospital bed unconscious and at the same time fully aware of what is going on around her?  It is in this state that Mia realizes that the decision to live or to die is up to her.    The chapters that follow alternate from Mia watching what is happening at the hospital  to flashbacks of her life before the accident.

In these flashbacks we learn about Mia’s life.  Her parents are cool – permissive yes, but loving and devoted to their children.  This is a refreshing change from so many YA novels in which the parents are detached, selfish, clueless and more messed up than any teenager,  Still,  some parents of  teenage readers might want to discuss the Hall’s lax parenting style.  For example Mia’s parents seem to be fine with her sexual encounters in her upstairs bedroom. And when Mia gets her first boyfriend, her mother is quick to offer to take her to Planned Parenthood and to give her money for condoms.

But the real story of Mia and her parents is their deep love for each other.  In fact, their deaths are the main reason Mia considers giving up the struggle to live.  She can’t imagine a life without the family she loves.  But there are other people Mia loves too.  Her best friend Kim comes to the hospital and reminds comatose Mia that she still has a lot of people left who love her and want her to stay – aunts, uncles, cousins.  There is a particularly moving passage in which Mia’s grandfather talks to Mia about her decision to live or die.

And of course there is Adam, Mia’s boyfriend.  Her flashbacks detail their romance, one her mother describes as real but inconvenient at 17.  Adam is the lead singer in a punk rock band.  In a lot of ways, he is more like Mia’s parents than she is.   Her impending admission to Julliard and his rising singing career are a source of difficulty for the young couple.  As far as teenage romance novels go, the relationship between Mia and Adam is in some ways easier to take than others.  It is more mature, less desperate.   One version of the novel’s cover (see above) contains a review stating this story will appeal to TWILIGHT fans.  Perhaps, but unlike Bella Swan, Mia is accomplished and self-possessed.  She does suffer from the same unfortunate “why me”  response when Adam first notices her, but her entire existence and self-worth are not dependent on him.  If that were true, his love would make her decision about staying or leaving easy.  But it isn’t.  In fact in spite of his love, the thought of staying behind without her parents is almost unbearable for Mia.  Bella Swan, on the other hand, was willing to ditch her parents in a heartbeat to follow Edward into immortality.  So yes, Mia is a much stronger character than Bella, but I’m still waiting for the YA novel in which the girls knows how awesome she is before the boy falls in love with her.

The thing that is conspicuously absent from this novel is Mia’s concern for what will happen, where she’ll go, if she decides to die.  At one point she wonders if death will be just like a deep sleep, but other than that she spends little time contemplating eternity – Heaven, Hell, judgement, abyss, God, or an afterlife.  Hers is not a religious family, but they are not atheists, and they do sometimes go to church.  Her grandmother’s beliefs about the afterlife – people becoming angels in the form of an animals – crosses her mind, but in general, Mia seems more concerned about what living will be like than what being dead will be like.  This novel is not anti-religion or void of spirituality.  Rather, these things are only alluded to and not explored.  Perhaps this type of temporal thinking is realistically typical for a 17 year old.  But still, in a novel that tackles the subject of choosing life or death, one would hope the main character might wrestle with these questions.  However, even though Mia doesn’t, the reader of  If I Stay certainly might be inspired to do so.

LANGUAGE

Yes.  Mia’s mother in particular is a big cusser – the F word included.

SEXUAL CONTENT

There is a scene that takes place in Mia’s bedroom that is not graphic (in fact it’s not entirely clear how far they go), but it is very sensual.  There are also references to making out and to Adam sleeping over.  Still, Mia and Adam’s sexual relationship is not a major part of the novel or even of their relationship.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Mia’s grandmother does believe that some of her relatives have returned in the form of animals, but Mia does not seem to take this too seriously.

VIOLENCE

None.  We do not get any details of the accident; however, Mia does describe how her parents look lying dead in the snow.  Very sensitive readers might find this disturbing.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.  Do you think Mia’s relationship with her parents might be different if they were less permissive?  Less cool?

2.  Do you agree with Mia’s mother that sometimes you can fall truly in love too soon?

3. Mia doesn’t give a great deal of thought to the afterlife.  Do you think this is realistic or do you think someone facing her own death would be more apt to consider the afterlife?

4.  What is Mia’s relationship like with her brother, Teddy?  Why do they share the bond that they do?

5.  Do you think people in a situation like Mia’s can will themselves to live or to die?

6.  Do you think people in a coma can hear people talking to them?

7.  Like Bella in Twilight, Mia can’t quite believe that Adam really likes her.  She feels unworthy.  Do you think it is common for girls to base their worth on the  boys who like them?  Do you think that Mia is ultimately a stronger character than Bella?

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“And even though they don’t know who we are or what has happened, they pray for us.  I can feel them praying.”

“But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow…Hell, you’re the punkest girl I know no matter who you listen to or what you wear.”

“I shouldn’t have to care.  I shouldn’t have to work this hard.  I realize now that dying is easy.  Living is hard.”

“Sometimes you make your choices in life.  Sometimes your choices make you.”

“…seventeen is an inconvenient time to be in love.”

“Either way you win.  And either way you lose.  What can I tell you?  Love’s a bitch.” (Mia’s mom)

“I’ll let you go.  If you stay.”  (Adam talking to comatose Mia)

 

 

 


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