On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Monday, December 30, 2013

Heaven on Earth: A Book Review

An author myself, I am keenly aware of fine writing, and writing which brings new light to a well-worn subject is particularly interesting to me.  Recently, I was privileged to view a video presentation by the author of the book I will be reviewing.  It was such an informative discussion on the subject, I wanted to read the book itself.  From that, I considered the message worth repeating. And though some might look at this and see it is mainly concerned with Lutheran liturgy, in a sense the book applies to virtually all Christian liturgies that follow a prescribed Biblical form of worship.  

Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service by Arthur A. Just Jr., may be found tucked away on church library shelves among other resource books.  It contains a thorough, historically accurate discussion on the roots and purpose of Lutheran liturgy, in particular, and even the liturgy of other churches whose origins may seem to be obscure. Not a dry, overly studious history, this book instead employs clear language and striking images to illustrate how liturgy has evolved and is practiced today.  And it is this traditional experience of Holy Communion which lifts us, Dr. Just asserts, into the realm of the transcendent God whom we find at the altar.

The Rev. Dr. Just of Concordia Theological Seminary, first shows how the Jewish worship traditions at the time of Jesus have influenced our own worship elements. He covers the first gatherings of smaller Jewish communities in homes which graduates to temple worship with more defined structure. Then he moves on to a change in the worship structure: the familiar “table worship” instituted by Christ himself.  Ultimately, Dr. Just details the apocalyptic nature of Christian worship that permeates the liturgy. 

It is through the Bible that we should understand how to undertake the sometimes disputed organization of the Divine Service, Dr. Just says. Despite or because of the “worship wars” in the church during the late twentieth century, Lutheran liturgy, as an obvious example, seems to have settled down to a new understanding of its importance to the culture of today.  Instead of trying to adapt the liturgy to a changing culture, we now understand the real role of liturgy is to bring the world into alignment with Biblical teachings. The impact of truthful interpretation of Scripture in our worship is critical, but the liturgy goes beyond a method to move through the service. Instead, Dr. Just calls the impact of our liturgy “a divine invasion . . . an alien invading our space.” 

As Christ himself broke through in his first incarnation, so does He break through from heaven to earth and back again in Holy Communion. Our liturgy of Divine Worship, then, is both physical and cosmic, says the author, and therefore apocalyptic, fulfilling its purpose to involve us in the mystery of the Creator “with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Christmas at Rosehall

(The following is an excerpt from the novel, Rosehall.)

What with Jenny Lou’s condition being so serious, Christmas drew closer with Becca hardly being conscious of the season.  The girl was due home from the hospital a week before the holiday, and as Becca made plans for her return she was suddenly brought up short by the fact she’d bought little or nothing for the family.  She’d spent most of her days at the girl’s bedside, letting the house go hang.  Her overriding concern at the moment was Jenny’s dullness, her empty eyes.  Despite constant soothing words from her mother, telling her news and reading stories, the child was almost catatonic, the doctor said.  Her trauma had been so severe, she couldn’t face it consciously, so she’d retreated into a world of shadows and quiet, numbing her to any stimulus.  It was heartbreaking.  Others from the family had come to the hospital for brief visits--all but Edward, who maintained his solitary drinking while pleading ill health--but they, too, became discouraged.  Now they could only hope once Jenny returned to Rosehall, she’d gather her wits about her and recover more quickly.
          But a nagging doubt about Jenny’s recovery pulled worry to the forefront of Becca’s mind like matted yarn.  The worry was dense and tangled with the idea of weakness in the Thorpes.  Miss Mitty had it; she hadn’t been able to get hold of herself after her own trials.  And there was that haunting story of Carrie in the attic.  So long ago, but now so real.  The weakness seemed to run through the generations of Thorpes like cockroaches in the kitchen. It hid itself and multiplied and then would finally trickle out in one poor soul or another, but by then it was too late.  Would Jenny have the mental strength to rid herself of the sickness? 
          Becca finally began to organize for Christmas.  Trey and David were commissioned to find the right size cedar tree to cut and set up in the front parlor.   She wanted it big--almost touching the tall ceiling and so spectacular Jenny would gasp at the sight of it.   While Jenny slept, Becca went shopping. 
          She found bargains, being it was so close to Christmas.  A warm pair of lined leather gloves for Mama Kate, a new sewing basket for Miss Mitty, an antique silver box for Charles, a shirt and sweater vest for Edward.  But the children’s gifts had her stumped.  She finally settled on a hunting bow for Trey.  He would be careful, already trained by Edward in one of his more lucid periods to hunt with Edward’s own rifle.  Jenny, she was afraid, wouldn’t take an interest in much.  What could she get her that might open her mind again to pleasure? 
          Then she remembered that the prized lavaliere had been lost from the time of Jenny’s attack.  Becca went to Bishop’s Jewelers and looked among the cases for something that would suit the girl.  She hadn’t that much to spend, but she thought she could go as high as twenty dollars.  She saw the perfect thing in the second case.  Mr. Bishop drew it out for her and set it on a black velvet pad.  She picked it up by the delicate gold chain and swung it so the crescent of pearls caught the light.
          “Beautiful!” she exclaimed. 
          “Pink seed pearls in a 14 karat, pink gold mounting,” Mr. Bishop said proudly. 
          Becca reached timidly for the little tag that told the price, and her face dropped.  It was marked $59.95.  “Oh, my,” she said.  “That’s too dear.  And I wanted something special for her, too.”
          “For your little girl?” the jeweler asked softly.  The whole town seemed to be aware of the attack though nothing had appeared in the paper.
          Becca nodded and returned the necklace to the velvet pad..
          “I think I can do better on this for you.”  Mr. Bishop held it in his hand as if weighing it and said, “How would you go for $17.95? There’s a huge markup in jewelry, you know.  That’s us jewelers’ little secret.   I’ll throw in gift wrap.”
          “Why that’d be perfect, Mr. Bishop.  Thank you kindly.”
          “No problem, it’s about time it went on sale.  It’ll suit her coloring, won’t it?”  He hesitated.  “I hope your girl does right well now that she’s home.”
          Becca thanked the man and left with a lighter heart.
          Christmas Day dawned sunny but cold.  Becca made a fire in the fireplace to take the chill off the room and then stepped across the hall to knock on David’s door.
          He answered it in his bathrobe.  “I’ve been lazy this morning,” he apologized, looking down at his pajama legs beneath the robe.
          “I would be too if I could get away with it.  Trey’s chomping at the bit.  So you’d best come on now for the present opening.  We’ll eat at noon.  For now, just throw on your clothes and come to the parlor.”  She’d begun bossing him like the others.
          “Yes, ma’am,” he saluted.  “I’ll get ready.”  He started to close the door as she turned away, but then called out, “Becca?  Can I do anything to help you?  With the dinner, I mean.   I’d like to help.”
          She nodded and smiled.  David could cheer her up faster than anyone.  “Good.  Come on to the kitchen after presents time and I’ll give you an apron.”
          She noticed Edward slouched in the corner of one of the sofas and felt an ache for what should have been between them but wasn’t. 
          Now she looked at Jenny Lou sitting beside her grandmother and her heart swelled with hope.  One of the fruits of this unhappy marriage.  Maybe the memories of past happy Christmases would break through and help the girl to heal.  She was so silent and dull.
          “Let Jenny Lou open hers first,” Trey suggested generously.  He’d been hefting and shaking his packages repeatedly for the last few days.
          Everyone agreed that would be appropriate, so her mother handed Jenny the little package tied in the big shiny silver bow.  The girl managed to unwrap it herself, but her face showed no anticipation.  When she opened the velvet box, she only looked at the lavaliere, until Becca told her to take it out.  She had to be helped, though, since the chain was hooked behind some tabs to keep it in place.
          “Do you like it, honey?” Becca asked anxiously.
          Jenny Lou gave her mother a long look and then turned her attention on the lavaliere.  But she only nodded.  At least that was something, a response.
          A deep, collective sigh seemed to go around the room.
          “Do you want to wear it, darling?”  Her grandmother leaned over to fasten it around her neck.
          But Jenny drew back.
          Becca signaled Mama Kate not to press her and placed it in the box for the girl.
          The moment had passed, and Jenny remained quiet and unimpressed with her other gifts as well as the loud exclamations and laughter from the others that punctuated opening the remainder of the packages.  Most of the presents betrayed a lack of funds, but a certain originality.  Miss Mitty constructed all her items from scraps, even giving David something he had to be told was a “pipe cozy.”  Charles had carefully selected items from his “collection” and parted, no doubt painfully, with those he thought might be appreciated by others.  Even Edward had made some small efforts to keep in the spirit of the occasion--candy for Mitty and his mother, a silk scarf for Becca, ties for Charles and David.  And David, too, had done well in remembering the family and their needs.  He bought personalized cocoa mugs for the children and a German coffee maker as a house gift.  “Of course,” he joked, “it’s totally selfish, since I intend to use it without fail every morning,” 
          Jenny had been taken to her room before dinner, too weakened from the activities to eat with the others. 
          Becca’s Pa would be dropping by any minute to give the children their gifts.  He’d been invited to partake of the Christmas meal, but typically for that independent cuss, thought Becca with a smile, he’d refused.
          “I know what I like and it don’t include sitting with a bunch of hoity-toity snobs.  I’ll see my grandchildren later on in the day on my own.”
          “I’m sorry Jenny isn’t well enough to bring her to the cabin, Pa.  Maybe in a few weeks.”
          Her pa’s visit had gone well enough with the rest of the household dispersed to their rooms to rest.  Jenny was not brought downstairs again, but instead Nevile Tucker joined his daughter and grandchildren in Jenny’s room where he sat like a resting animal while they opened his gifts and he theirs.  His quiet manner along with his small size seemed to make him a comfortable companion for the children.  They always had looked forward to his gifts, unique and thoughtful.  For Jenny he had put together a little wooden flute or recorder that was perfectly calibrated to a C scale.  Tucker had through the years piped on one, thrilling the children with his talent.
          “I’ll teach you how to play, my girl,” he said, “whenever you’re ready to learn.”
          Jenny set the instrument down beside her on the bed without a word, but she continued to look at it and touch it with her one finger while Trey opened his cache of hand finished arrows fitted with steel points.
          “Them’s for hunting, son,” his grandfather said.  “You’ve got plenty, your ma said, for target practice.  You can come out to the cabin and hunt for varmints anytime, y’know.”
          Becca had knitted her father a muffler and two pairs of socks, beginning her project months before the Thanksgiving incident.  She knew her father appreciated “hand wrought” goods more than “store bought.”  His own profession as country cabinet maker influenced his keen understanding of the time and care given to making even the simplest object.
          Later, Tucker spoke to Becca outside Jenny’s door.  “I want to bring the girl to the Ridge as soon’s she’s able.”
          “Pa,” Becca started to protest, but her father interrupted with a wave of his hand.
 “There’s something about this house that isn’t right for her healing.  I’ll be back in a few weeks and we’ll talk more.”  He left as quickly and quietly as he’d arrived.  No fuss.  That was Pa.