Saturday, June 28, 2014

Picture This!

What’s your favorite picture book? The Story of Babar? Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile? The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Where the Wild Things Are

Picture books tell a story with words and pictures together. Although usually written for children, these short books can be enjoyed and appreciated by people of all ages. Whenever you read one to your favorite child, you should thank a man named Randolph Caldecott, father of the modern picture book.

Caldecott was a British artist who lived in the 19th century. Although he died young, at only 39 years of age, he had a great influence on children’s art. Many of his illustrations featured bright colors, humor, and a sense of motion—as if the characters are about to leap right off the page.

A Caldecott illustration

When Caldecott was only six, his mother died. That was the same year he began to draw. Although his heart was damaged by rheumatic fever, young Randolph loved the outdoors and sports. And he took every chance he could to enjoy both.

He did well in school, even though he doodled in his textbooks and spent his spare time exploring the countryside. At age 14, he finished school, and his father arranged for him to get a job as a clerk at a bank in Whitchurch, Shropshire—not far from his home. Of course, what Randolph really wanted to do was to be an artist, but he kept in practice by drawing sketches of people around the bank. And the bank job gave him a lot of free time for hunting, fishing, and art.

Randolph knew that his whimsical drawings would never hang in art museums alongside Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But there was a growing need for illustrations for newspapers and magazines, and he was hoping to break into that market.

After a year in Whitchurch, he saw his chance. A fire broke out at the Queen’s Railway Hotel. Caldecott had to go to the scene and draw the burning building. Then he sent his sketch by rail to the Illustrated London News, where an engraving was made from his drawing. The illustration ran in the Dec. 7th issue, a few days after the fire. His name didn’t even appear on the sketch when it was printed, but the important thing was that his art had been published. He had made the first step toward a new career.

Over time he had more illustrations published, and he began to create children’s books as well. He used few words and let the pictures help to tell the story. Picture books of today use techniques that Caldecott pioneered.

And the dish ran away with the spoon....

Finally, he was able to quit working at the bank. He moved to London to pursue his art full time. And although his paintings might not hang on the walls of the world’s great museums, his work was loved and appreciated by many—including the artists Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Today, one of the most prestigious awards in art bears Caldecott’s name. Each year — beginning in 1938 — the Association for Library Service to Children has presented the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the "most distinguished American picture book for children." The honorees have included such well-known artists as Jerry Pinkney, Gerald McDermott, Leo Leoni, David Macaulay, Tomie dePaola, Maurice Sendak,  and Dr. Seuss. 

Owl Moon, a Caldecott winner

Look for the Caldecott emblem on picture books in your local library — and remember the kid who doodled in his schoolbooks, Randolph Caldecott.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Seventy Sacraments of Ordinary Life

Guess you could say that I "don't know much about theology."

I do know that the Catholic Church acknowledges seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. (And I know this only because I consulted the Great Oracle, Wikipedia.)

No argument here. But I can't help thinking that the sacraments number closer to seventy than seven, that even ordinary, ho-hum life is brimming over with sacramental moments.

Like the sacrament of work. The work that sustains us is certainly a holy thing. The same God who said, "Remember the Sabbath" also said, "Six days you shall labor." The work of the farmer, the weaver, the grocer—the bank clerk, the janitor, the doctor—are they not all sacred and blessed when done well and with a grateful heart? When the dishes are cleaned until they shine, when the fence is mended to be strong and sturdy, surely this is sacramental.

I also find a sacrament in art—creating it, appreciating it, or helping someone else to create it or enjoy it. Bless that priesthood of piano teachers and grade school art teachers who open new windows to the spiritual for children. When the poem is pared until it sings, when the wet clay yields to the potter's hands, this is sacramental. 

And there's the sacrament of service. For all who lay aside, for an hour or a lifetime, their own plans to help someone else--the cake bakers and card senders, the volunteers at the soup kitchen, the guy who stops by the roadside to change your flat tire. Angels, every one.

But there are so many more. 

There's the sacrament of our senses--eyes that really see, ears that really hear--and a heart that counts its treasures in diamonds on morning grass and silver on the undersides of maple leaves. Surely, as a famous poem says, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God"--a beauty that radiates "like shining from shook foil." Gerard Manley Hopkins understood the sacrament of seeing.

I believe there's a sacrament of friendship and a sacrament of parenthood. I have a friend who has devoted years of her life to homeschooling her nephews and to helping them to be all they can be. Daughters, cousins, uncles, grandmothers, boyfriends, mentors, pet-owners -- shouldn't every relationship we have be infused with love, the very nature of God?

Add to these the sacraments of prayer and reflection, the sacraments of birth and of dying, and the simple sacraments of looking at the stars in wonder, or picking peaches from the trees and canning them in clear jars that sparkle in the sun. 

Truly the categories run together like colors in a sunset--until we have to admit that, even when no incense is burning and no choirs are singing, life is itself "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace."

Seven sacraments? Seventy? Might as well count the sand on the seashore, for life is precious and amazing and delicious--a gift from God. And that's sacramental.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Here's to Dads!

Here’s to dads who stumble out of bed in the cold and dark, get dressed (matching socks optional), scrape ice off the windshield, and brave rush hour traffic to go to work.

Here’s to dads who come home tired at night but still change diapers, help with homework, unclog the toilet, tell bedtime stories, and chase away nightmares.

Here’s to dads with marriage or family problems who seek counseling and show up for the sessions.

Here’s to dads who get help for anger issues, alcoholism, addictions, and post traumatic stress.

Here’s to dads who don’t bail when a child with a disability puts an added stress on the family system.

Here’s to dads who say no to temptation when an office flirt offers what they may not be getting at home.

Here’s to dads who model manhood and fatherhood for their sons and what-a-husband-should-be for their daughters.

Here's to dads who aren't afraid to say, "I don't know." Or "I'm sorry." Or "I love you."

Here’s to dads who do the right thing when no one is looking, when no one thanks them, when it feels like nobody cares.

Here's to dads who don't woose out on child support after a marriage fails.

Here’s to dads who fail but don’t quit, who fall but get back up and try again.

Here’s to the dads who understand that this job of parenting lasts a lifetime—and that's okay with them. They wouldn't have it any other way. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

I Want to Go on Living

Anne woke up early, bubbling with  excitement. Today—June 12, 1942—was her thirteenth birthday. 

A little after seven, she woke her parents, and they watched as she opened presents. A blue blouse, a game, a bottle of grape juice, some flowers. . . .

But her favorite present was a book with blank pages. It was an autograph book, but Anne decided to use it as a diary.

Anne had loving parents, a devoted older sister, and many friends—both boys and girls. But there was one thing she didn’t have—a true friend, someone to share her deepest secrets with. But that changed the day she started her diary. She even gave the diary a name—Kitty.

“Dear Kitty,” wrote Anne. “Paper has more patience than people.” Anne was glad to have someone at last she could talk to about school, boys, and her hopes and dreams.

Anne Frank was a remarkable girl who lived at an extraordinary time. She was a Jewish girl, born in Germany but living in Nazi-occupied Holland. Hitler hated all the Jews, and he made laws to keep them under his thumb. They had to  wear a yellow star for identification. They were forbidden to use bicycles or buses or cars. They were not allowed to do athletics, to attend movies, or to be outdoors after 8:00 pm. 

The Frank House
photo by Massimo Catarinella

And then things got even worse. Anne’s sister Margot received a “call-up notice” from the government. That meant she would be sent away to a work camp. And so Anne’s family—including Anne’s friend Kitty—went into hiding. During their escape, they wore several layers of clothing because they couldn’t risk being seen with a suitcase. Mr. Frank left a note, saying they had gone to Switzerland, in order to confuse the officials. Anne wrote about their daily life in hiding—in some back storerooms of their father’s business.

The Franks lived with another Jewish Family in the “Secret Annex.” The entrance to their hideaway was hidden by a bookcase. They lived in constant fear of capture. Anne wrote that Margot was “forbidden” to cough at night. They covered the windows so that no light could be seen from the street. “Dear Kitty. . .I have plenty of dreams, but the reality is we’ll have to stay here until the war is over. We can’t ever go outside.” 

Anne continued to pour out her soul in her diary:

"I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want! I know I can write ..., but it remains to be seen whether I really have talent ...

"I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!

"When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?"

Her last diary entry is dated August 4, 1944. On that day, the Franks were discovered and arrested. Anne and Margot died of Typhus in a concentration camp in March of 1946. Anne was only 15 years old.

Later, workers discovered the pages of Anne’s diary strewn across the floor of the Secret Annex. After the war, the pages were given to Anne’s father Otto. As a tribute to his daughter, Otto Frank edited and published the diary. For many people who knew little about the Jewish Holocaust under Hitler, Anne became the face and the voice of these persecuted Jews.

“Dear Kitty . . . It seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.”  

Anne's life was far too short, and yet, even in that short time, she achieved her life's ambition: "I want to go on living, even after my death." 

Little did Anne know that her diary would one day be read around the world, translated into more than 60 languages, and used as inspiration for plays, movies, and music. Anne would be surprised to learn that countless children and adults have been fascinated by her best-selling book, The Diary of a Young Girl.

The First Edition of Anne's Diary

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Windy Day Whimsy (for Pentecost)

So what if a big
really big
really really big wind
just whips and whirls
and rips the roof right off your house
and tables and chairs do do-se-do’s
and all your papers, pots, and plans
go tipsy-topsy-turvy
and all that’s false or fearful
funnels right on up the chimney?

What if now your house is full of light
and rivers and rain and stars
and something so so so amazing
you don’t even know its name? 

"Windy Night" by Reene -- Scratchboard

Then what if you speak with tongues of fire,
or what if you can’t speak at all?
What if the neighbors think you’re high
because you waltz with one unseen?

Fear not—
it’s only omnipotence filling your heart
like a clown blowing up a balloon, then whooosh—
you ride the wind on wings of peace.

Welcome, Holy Spirit!