Monday, December 8, 2014

The Shepherd and the Wise Man

I love nativity sets. I love the little baby Jesus lying in a manger (or better yet, being held by Mary). I love to see Joseph watching over his family with care—a wife he loved and a boy he would raise as his son. I love the star and the angels. I love it all, but sometimes what I love most is the shepherds and the wise men and the lessons they teach about coming to Christ.

I imagine that the shepherds were average, decent people with regular lives. I think that, like many of us, they worked and played, just going about the business of daily living. I doubt they were looking for anything amazing.

And then, imagine it, one night an angel came to them. An angel! Of course they were frightened, but the angel comforted them:

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Matt. 2:10–11)

Then more angels gathered together and praised God. And how did the shepherds respond—these men who were unprepared for such an incredible revelation? They dropped everything and ran:

“As the angels were gone away from them into heaven [they didn’t even wait until the angels had left!], the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass. …

And they came with haste.” (Luke 2:15–16)

They were so excited to receive the gift that God had sent—to meet His Son—that they went without hesitation. And once they had seen Him, they “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” (v. 17)

This night had changed their lives, and they wanted everyone to experience what they had felt.

The wise men, on the other hand, had already been looking for Christ and for signs of His coming. They were waiting for Him. When they came to find Him, they told Herod, “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matt. 2:2)

They had to travel to reach Christ. I don’t know how far, but I think they had to make quite a journey to find the babe, and I think they began their preparation for that journey long before they saw the star. They prepared for its rising, and when they saw it, they were ready. They traveled however far they needed so that they could reach the Christ child. This was not the journey of one night. This was a journey that required effort and planning and deliberation and steadfastness.

They too rejoiced when they finally found Christ: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and … they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (v. 11) These gifts symbolized the roles Christ would play, but I imagine they were also very precious to the wise men.

They came to Christ and set before Him the best of what they had. But maybe the best thing they could give Him had already been given: their lives, spent in watching for their Savior.

How often are we given brilliant moments of spiritual illumination, moments that beg us to act upon personal revelation that would bring us to Christ? And how often do we wait, intending to do it in just five minutes? Or tomorrow, or next week? The shepherds knew, I think—they knew that the details of living can so easily get in the way. So they did not wait; they left their tasks of the moment—tasks that were undoubtedly important—and they ran to seize the most important opportunity of their lives. They ran to meet their Christ.

And then, on the other hand, are we not also given opportunities that require time and planning, work that cannot be finished and checked off in one day? And how often do we begin these tasks with great enthusiasm but find our desire and our will tapering off? Or do we sometimes forget, after days or months, to keep a vital watch over our lives? Do we, for example, forget to seek Him and watch for Him? And when we forget, do we miss the signs that Christ has come to our lives? Do we miss Him? The wise men waited and watched; I imagine some of them spent their whole lives living in preparation to meet the Christ. They continued on, even if it sometimes seemed boring or irrelevant, even if it was hard to find hope that they would someday receive their sign. They kept looking.

So at this time of year I am reminded of the ways each had of coming unto Christ. And I hope that I, too, can come unto Christ with the enthusiasm of the shepherd and the determination of the wise man.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Kids Meet Shannon Hale

About a month ago, Shannon Hale came to Annapolis for a book signing. In case you missed it, I have a major author crush on her.

True story (briefly mentioned in my blog post about Kiersten White): A couple years back, when she came to the Baltimore Book Festival, I of course dragged my bestie to go see her. Then, at the festival, I almost walked straight into her because I was talking on the phone and apparently I can’t talk and walk at the same time. So, after I nearly knocked into her with my very graceful personage, I jerked to a stop and said something brilliant like, “You’re Shannon Hale!”

“Yes. I am,” she replied.

I am so very clever.

Anyway, moving on, she came to the Annapolis Barnes and Noble on her The Princess in Black book tour, and I was dying to get that book. Especially since it was just before my own little princess in black’s fourth birthday (okay, technically, my child would prefer to be a queen, but we can’t have everything). Also, my six-year-old absolutely loves the Ever After High books, so I thought she would enjoy getting to meet the author.

Hale was gracious and funny and friendly. She dressed up to do a reading from her book, and when I mentioned my daughter’s upcoming birthday, Hale gave her a free t-shirt that says, “This princess wears black.” Then we bought books of course: The Princess in Black and a boxed set of the Ever After High books. When I tried to take away The Princess in Black so that I could buy it, the three/four-year-old wouldn’t let it go; I practically had to pry off her fingers. And after we got them signed, the six-year-old simply sat and hugged her Ever After High books—all the way home.

And me? I once again made a brilliant impression by telling Hale all about the time I was pregnant with my kid while she was pregnant with her twins and I dreamed one night that we had her over for dinner. It was only in retrospect that I realized I probably sounded like a total stalker.*

So good times were had by all.

Brief book reviews:
The Princess in Black
The next day, when we officially gave the three/four-year-old her birthday book, The Princess in Black, we read it together and were all delighted. The illustrations are charming, and you just kind of want to hug everyone (especially the big blue monster). The story is fun, and I love the princess with a secret identity. I hope there will be lots more of these books.

The Storybook of Legends (Ever After High, #1)The Ever After High books, I must admit, are not my favorite. The storyline and idea are fun, the book design is super froofy-girly-cute, but for me there are too many efforts to mishmash the regular and the fairy tale worlds—things like MirrorPhones, hybrid carriages, muse-ic class, home evil-nomics, and the slang “hexcellent.” It’s just a teensy bit overboard for me. However, like I said, the six-year-old loves them,** so I think they’re great for a younger set. I just don’t think they’re nearly as good adult crossover books as most of Hale’s other works.

And now, a side note: If you haven’t heard, I have a pathological fear of driving. It has gotten better, but a drive to Annapolis would have been unthinkable even a year ago. So I was pretty darn proud of myself for getting up the courage to drive to Annapolis and back—especially in the dark and the rain. Also, hooray for GPS! And also also, this should show just how much I love Shannon Hale.***

* The fact is that I dream about all sorts of weird stuff all the time, so dreaming about you doesn’t mean I’m a stalker. It just means my brain is weird.
** Reading my review over my shoulder, she said, “But those are my favorite parts!”
*** But, as we have already established, in a totally non-stalkery way.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Author Crush: Kiersten White

I have three qualifications for an author crush:

1. The author must have written something inconceivably awesome that makes me wildly jealous that I didn’t write it and may never write something that awesome.
2. The author must have some other quality that makes him/her shiny-spiffy aside from said inconceivably awesome book(s).
3. In most cases, the author’s awesome books must be books I can recommend to other people (therefore, generally fairly clean of swearing, sex, gore,* and general ickiness**).

I don’t have a lot of author crushes, but Kiersten White has made that list.

Paranormalcy (Paranormalcy, #1)It started with Paranormalcy, which was an awesome title. This was a fun book—not mind-blowingly awesome to me, but a fun, clean, fantasy read. Plus it involved a girl who is so sparkly pink you kind of want to barf on her—in a happy, loving way. Because she has things like a sparkly pink Taser, and really, who doesn’t want one of those?*** The other two books in the series were fun too, though Paranormalcy was my favorite.

So I kind of loved Kiersten White a little bit already.

Partially it was silly things—like the way her character said “bleeping” instead of swearing (and she had a backstory for this, so it fit the character). Partially it was that in a realm of YA fantasy/paranormal wherein sex and sexual tension always kind of made me gag, roll my eyes, or want to throw the book in the trash, here was a paranormal that felt like good clean fun.

Mind Games (Mind Games, #1)But if it had just been the Paranormalcy series, I probably wouldn’t have loved Kiersten White enough to gush about her here. What really did it for me was Mind Games. I bought it on a whim, on a Kindle deal, because I knew the author’s name and suspected I could trust it to be not trashy. It turned out to be so much more.

I thought Mind Games was unequivocally amazing. It’s a psychological thriller with a bit of scifi/magic (it depends on how you look at the powers involved—reading people’s thoughts and such; there’s theoretically science behind it, but that doesn’t matter to the story—so it’s essentially magic).

Why was it amazing? The essential brokenness of the main character was, I thought, well-written and believable. The plot, the complexities the characters had to deal with, and the eventual resolution of the difficulties—awesomesauce. When you’re sitting there looking at the characters and screaming with them at what they are dealing with, that’s good stuff. Also, the switching between timelines kept me on my toes, heightened suspense, and made me want to see what happened next (my dishes and laundry did not thank White, but oh well).

If Mind Games wasn’t enough, its sequel, Perfect Lies, was equally gripping. Everything just got worse and worse for the main characters (and I was happy to see Annie, who I didn’t really like in the first book, get super-cool by the end of this one). And then it got resolved! Hoorah! But there were still scars, still problems that the characters would have to deal with—probably for the rest of their lives. Which I think is fair and fitting and, for me, deeply satisfying. To have suffered so much and come out unscathed would have felt fake.

Speaking of the suffering, I will add this caveat: I have recommended Mind Games to some others, and I know that for one, the story and the psychological trauma and violence was too much. So it’s not exactly gentle. But I thought it was incredible.

Okay, so now I’m hooked on Kiersten White’s writing, but who is she as a person? When I like someone’s writing this much, I sometimes like to know a bit about what they’re like in the real world. It turns out that, judging from her tweets and blogging, she is funny, delightful, supportive, and kind of sparkly. So she’s awesome. Check. I will now read pretty much anything she writes.

Which brings us to the next book, In the Shadows. This was quite interesting, simply because of its format. In the Shadows is part regular novel and part graphic novel (that part is written by Jim DiBartolo). It alternates between two stories that are clearly linked, but the linkage is not explained until very near the end. I spent a great deal of the book having no clue how the two stories matched up (this is partially due to the fact that I was hung up on “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was not even remotely written when I thought it was—but that’s beside the point). It took me longer to get into this book, probably mostly because I’m not very visual (it was about a third of the way through the book before I realized that the character in the graphic novel section was all the same guy—even though he clearly had a scar through his eye that I just never noticed—because I’m observant like that). I enjoyed it and was happy to see White do something very different and have fun with it.

The Chaos of Stars
Also note: All her covers
are so pretty you could pretty
much crush on them too.
Since then I have also read The Chaos of Stars, a lovely story about complicated family relationships, a dreamy boy, and also Egyptian gods. Here’s another event that shows my love of Kiersten White: I wanted to read it without ever having read the book flap. If you know my reading habits, you know how unusual this is. I read cover copy obsessively; I read front matter—heck, I even read the copyright page!*** I never choose books without knowing what they’re about. Ever.

So far, even though I have not loved all her books equally, I have enjoyed each of them. I also love that she has tried out some different ways of telling stories (most notably in In the Shadows). And not once have I felt icky from reading them, which is a big deal to me. It’s lovely to have an author you love and who feels morally good. It’s hard to describe what I mean here, but it’s something I appreciate. So go buy her books—lots of them! Or at least go read them and talk about them and make other people buy them too.

Kiersten White has at least one new book coming in the fall (Illusions of Fate), and I’m super excited to read it. I may even buy it early (which is a huge compliment because even though I love books I’m also pretty cheap, especially if I haven’t read the book yet). I will also continue to internet stalk her in a friendly, nonpsychotic way, because I think she’s shiny. And someday, should I get the chance to meet her, I will probably say something incredibly stupid like I did that time I literally walked into Shannon Hale.***** Because that’s just how cool I am.

* Violence is okay; gore is not so much.

** Don’t ask me to define this. It’s totally subjective.

*** Okay, I don’t want one of those. But I appreciate the contrast so much that I kind of love it even when I don’t.

**** I’m not kidding.

***** Here’s what I said: “You’re Shannon Hale.” Here’s what she said: “Yes, I am.”

Friday, July 11, 2014

I believe we should all just come
to accept that my addition of visual content
is always going to be pretty subpar. Hooray,
at least, for wikipedia and morguefile, or
you'd have no pics at all.
It turns out that in one of my many false starts (and middles and ends) for Unsightly (AKA Eye of the Beholder AKA Sight Unseen AKA Beheld AKA Oh-How-I-Hate-Titles), Isabel suddenly developed a desire to play the harp—and absolutely no aptitude for it. Really it became quite a large part of the book for a while until I suddenly found myself thinking, “There is no point to this.” Okay, it wasn’t strictly true. There was sort of a point. It was this whole way of showing that Isabel wasn’t very good at sticking to things, gave up when the going got hard, blah blah blah. But in the final analysis, it was just sort of flat.

However, tragically, I had already written a number of scenes (oh my gosh! the endless numbers of words that I cut from this story! I wrote at least 150K for my 72K novel; argh!) involving the harp.

And I liked at least one of them (originally I liked three, but time will kill delusions of grandeur, and now, a year later, I only like one). So what’s a girl to do with a scene about a harp that never made it to the finished product? Post it on her blog, of course!

 “What shall it be tonight, Isabel?” he asked one evening as we were settling into the library. “A story? Or will you finally play your harp for me?”
“I have not been practicing as I ought,” I told him. “Perhaps next week. I’m sure by then . . . ”
“Your excuses will not work on me tonight. What better time to practice than now? Come, I insist. You have put it off too long and I am nearly expiring from curiosity.”
“I suppose I cannot avoid it forever,” I told him. “But please recall that you were warned.”
I had long since moved my harp from the parlor and its cold formality to the gentle comfort of the library. Now all I had to do was rise and move to the opposite end of the room. As I rose, I attempted to sneak a glance into the shadows. The Beast, as usual, was invisible, seeming to draw even farther into the dark when I looked his way. I sighed. My recent increased efforts to see his face had returned me nothing but frustration.
For the umpteenth time I put it from my mind. Sometimes I felt that’s all I ever did—put from my mind the things I cared about most. But that was my way. So ignoring the mystery again, I sat at the harp and began to play.
I liked the idea of being able to play a harp just as much as I used to. It was such a graceful instrument. But I didn’t seem to have the coordination for it—or the desire to practice. I did not look forward to the embarrassment I was going to suffer tonight.
“Why don’t we wait one more day?” I pleaded. “You sound very tired. I’m sure you need to get to bed.”
“Oh no,” he said with a chuckle. “You are not going to get out of it so easily.”
I sighed my best long-suffering sigh and began to play. It was a beautiful instrument, I had to admit. Graceful and sweet, sound pouring out of it like the songs of birds.
If those birds had no sense of tune and were suffering under torture.
A few moments of almost-music passed and when I stopped and looked down, the Beast applauded politely. I thought I could detect, even in his clap, a hint of amusement.
I began to play again, this time with a bit more gusto. “That, in case you are wondering,” I told him as I played, “was the sound of a flight of angels taking off toward heaven.” Discordant noises floated in the air. “You should by no means mistake it for a herd of hippopotami trudging across shards of broken glass.”
The snort from across the room was loud. It really was a rather apt description. “Of course I had not imagined it anything other than a flight of angels.” Then a pause as I hit more incorrect notes. “And I believe that was the sound of the angels crashing into a tableful of goblets.” He sighed gustily. “Ah, such lovely music.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I do have a rare talent for it.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Small Things

This is a rough draft of a longer piece I started working on a while ago, which may or may not go anywhere. One way or another, I thought I'd share. I think it's nice to sometimes think about the less shiny moments that people have as well as their perfect ones.

Ankita watched the little boy as he sat on the ground, staring intently at something she couldn’t see. His hands were dusty and his feet caked with the dirt beneath him. She thought she could see smudges on his nose and forehead as well.

She looked up at her father, a question on her face.

He shrugged and smiled. “What exactly did you expect? He’s not yet two.”

Her gaze went back to the little boy, who was now crawling on his hands and knees, apparently following the course of some small creature as it swerved back and forth.

Something a little more majestic, she thought. Something that proclaimed him special. Something like the star they had seen in the sky, the one that had brought them here in the first place. Not grubby little fingers and dirty cheeks.

But they were here, and they would deliver her father’s gift no matter what she thought. So after their pause to watch the boy for a moment, Ankita and her father approached the little house in the middle of town. The rest of the men followed behind.

“Hello,” her father called.

The child looked up and smiled, a toothy grin. He waved a chubby hand then ran from the yard into his house. A moment later, a woman emerged, wiping her hands on a rag. She looked up. “Yes?”

Ankita’s father stepped forward, the designated spokesman for the group, and Ankita trailed behind. The woman smiled at them both politely and waited.

Her father held up his package. The others did the same. “We come bearing gifts for a king.”

Ankita stood back, suddenly uncertain of her role in all this. It had seemed so vast and important when she begged him to take her with him; he would be going to see the king of the Jews! How could she not go too? Now, though, she felt foolish. She had not brought any gifts; her father was rich but she just a child, just some more baggage.

Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t hear the woman’s response to the riches they brought. But Ankita couldn’t help but notice how unsuited their gifts were for such a life as she saw before her. What would a carpenter and his wife have to do with rich spices and scents and gold? They probably didn’t even know where to sell such things.

Still, the woman accepted the vessels graciously. They were more than she could carry, so she invited the men inside. Ankita had been temporarily forgotten, and she moved back even farther, beside their pack animals, waiting to be remembered and invited in.

Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she turned to look. Around the side of the house, the little boy peeked out at her. He pulled back quickly when she looked toward him, so she barely caught a glimpse of dark hair before it disappeared. A tiny giggle sounded from around the corner.

Oh, she knew this game. She could play too. So she deliberately turned around, her back to the house, but she kept the corner just within her sight. When the dark head peeped out again, she zipped around to catch him with her gaze. But he was gone again, too quick for her. The giggle was louder now.

She turned again, and the game proceeded for several minutes until finally she pounced forward and went rushing around the house. The boy shrieked delightedly and ran from her. But his pudgy toddler legs were no match for hers, and she caught up with him in only a few steps, pulling him to the ground and tickling him. He retaliated by tugging on her long braid. Soon they were both rolling on the sandy ground, laughter bursting out of them.

“Ankita?” her father called. She whooshed to sitting, looking down at herself. Oh, she had spoiled the lovely clothes he’d let her wear especially for this day.

He came around the corner of the house then stopped short when he saw her. “All is well?” He raised his brow, a glint of humor in his eyes.

She nodded, feeling sheepish and far too young. Standing, she brushed off her dress as best she could, avoiding looking again at the little boy who had made her forget that she was supposed to be too old for such games.

For the rest of the visit, she pretended not to see him. She sat still and silent as the adults broke bread. She listened intently as they spoke of prophecies and warnings. She followed her father out to the animals again, their stay already over, their journey stretching out far before them.

But just as she turned to mount, there was the little boy, standing behind her, tugging on her dress.

“Present,” he said in a voice that still couldn’t pronounce all the consonants. He held out an object, which he dropped into her hand. “Thank you.”

It was a rock, small and round and cool in her hand. A small thing, she thought, looking down at it. Like the manna from the story they’d told her or like the words of the prophet Zechariah.

She looked then at the small boy before her. For a moment, she imagined him grown, strong, powerful. In his grin, she caught a hint of who he might be ten, twenty, thirty years from now.

In his eyes, she saw reflected who she might be as well. 

She smiled back, her fingers wrapping around this treasure.