Little Screwball Errors and other stories

Maia: "My nice, warm, clean bath towel.
You're not allowed to take it away and fold it."

* * *

"You're very graceful when you direct."

Laughter—I've practiced in front of the mirror, and it's possible I'm overdoing the aesthetics. "It's those seven months of ballet I took."

"Well, it helps. You don't need to be so nervous, you know."

"Oh, I'm nervous, like, ninety-five percent of the time, anyway."

"Yes, I know. I can see that. I used to be the same way."

"Oh, good! You mean it's possible to grow out of this?!"

"Yes. You just have to get to the point where you realize it doesn't matter. Like this; it's just the music for one Mass, at one parish..."

This week's cantor took the time to encourage me after choir practice, and his advice applies to a lot more in life than my mind can take in at once.

As it turns out, directing is splendid fun. Worth pushing through the nervousness for. And our choir is made up of fantastic, supportive, good-natured people, which helps a lot. I still have plenty of opportunity for major mistakes on Sunday, but the practice was both humbling and affirming. Sometimes it's hard to remember that it's possible to make little screwball errors, blush and falter, make something of an idiot out of yourself, persevere, and still be loved.

* * *

I've always loved standing beneath a ripening cherry tree.

And for all it's more or less out of the gardener's control, especially when said gardener forgets to go to pruning class and therefore doesn't do anything: there's something so satisfying about seeing trees thick with developing fruit.

Actually, Lou and I did prune the cherry tree.
But I didn't dare take loppers to our gorgeous old
apple tree without instruction.
Another thing this gardener had nothing much to do with: the neighbors' wild rose is growing up into our snowball bush, and I'm not about to stop that.

The day lily is in its first bloom, which is especially exciting as I had no idea what color it would be. I like the rusty orange.

Elderberry flowers are startlingly beautiful, as is that flax, and the red bark mulch I spread last Saturday is a pleasant improvement on the cat's ear and clover that were attempting to fill in the blanks before. ;)

Lastly, here's one of my early summer thrills: the sweet pea vines finally poking up through the rosemary.

* * *

Music of the week: When I walked into church for choir practice, our accompanist was playing a beautiful arrangement of a favorite old hymn I hadn't heard in forever. I asked him about it when he finished, and while I didn't positively catch the arranger's name, I think I've tracked down the right piece. Anyhow, it's lovely.

* * *

Today still needs to include housecleaning, dinner prep, a count-through of Sunday's music (my right arm is really feeling the workout), an errand to the fabric store, the making of a pan of brownies for tomorrow's family picnic in Eastern Washington (ten hours of driving and five hours of small talk all in one day, and then having to be up on time and mentally present for choir the next... yeehaw), and, if possible, scrubbing some spilled currant jelly out of the refrigerator. I'm off.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30)"I would like a question answered today," said Tiffany.

"Provided it's not the one about how you get baby hedgehogs," said the man.

"No," said Tiffany patiently. "It's about zoology."

"Zoology, eh? That's a big word, isn't it."

"No, actually it isn't," said Tiffany. "Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short."

The teacher's eyes narrowed further. Children like Tiffany were bad news. "I can see you're a clever one," he said. "But I don't know any teachers of zoology in these parts. Vetin'ry, yes, but not zoology. Any particular animal?"

"Jenny Green-Teeth. A water-dwelling monster with big teeth and claws and eyes like soup plates," said Tiffany.

"What size of soup plates? Do you mean big soup plates, a whole full-portion bowl with maybe some biscuits, possibly even a bread roll, or do you mean the little cup you might get if, for example, you just ordered a soup and a salad?"

"The size of soup plates that are eight inches across," said Tiffany, who'd never ordered soup and a salad anywhere in her life. "I checked."

Author: Terry Pratchett

From Goodreads: They're small. They're blue.
And nobody messes with them.

Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, young witch-to-be Tiffany Aching must defend her home against the very monsters of Fairyland. Luckily, she has some very unusual help: the local Nac Mac Feegle—aka the Wee Free Men—a clan of fierce, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men.

Together they must face headless horsemen, ferocious grimhounds, terrifying dreams come true, and ultimately the sinister Queen of the Elves herself....

Notes: The Tiffany Aching series was recommended to me—by whom, I've forgotten; probably Mr. Pond—when I said I'd found the first two Discworld books enjoyable, but not compelling enough to make me want to read more. My complaint had been the lack of strong lovable characters, which is a common problem among humor novels. As it turns out, the recommendation was good. Lack of lovability wasn't a problem for Tiffany at all.

It could have been; nine-year-old Tiffany is unaffectionate and practical to the point of caricature. But she's also hard-working and hard-thinking, fiercely loyal to her home and her land, and determined to be like her Granny Aching, who healed sheep with "turpentine and cussin'" and smoked Jolly Sailor tobacco and said little but was respected by all. It's hard not to love a character like that, and my inner ten-year-old wants to be much more like her than I am.

The portrayal of both Tiffany and her Granny is very much a good comic one, but what makes it great is that it's also deeply thoughtful. Granny Aching, for all her few words, lives in Tiffany's memory as a source of wisdom; there's a striking compassion beneath her tough exterior, and a lot of questioning and resolving beneath Tiffany's. There were a number of times that I stopped to ponder over a paragraph of one or the other's ideas.

And along those lines: because I have been so intensely religious all my life, it's hard for me to read a book like this without seeing the author's basically secular worldview waving at me from the text. It's a felt difference between this book and, say, the otherwise fairly comparable Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Most readers will not notice this, and some will of course be glad of it, but I was loosely uncomfortable with the here-and-there subversive tone, nontraditional ideas of virtue such as the "make your anger work for you" thing, and the profound emphasis on self-actualization as prime good. It wasn't malicious enough to put me off the story, but it was present.

But I loved the part about waking up.

Deep thoughts aside, the narrative is just plain funny. It's always hard to predict another reader's sense of humor, but I laughed aloud a lot. Pratchett keeps grown-up humor going throughout, while never quite transgressing the borders of reasonable middle-schooler understanding. The Nac Mac Feegle are an uproarious lot, from their names to their language to their roguery, and Tiffany and Granny, the teachers and the witches all offer plenty of amusement. They make for a fun read. This is a satisfying summer fantasy story, and I could definitely see myself going in for the sequel.



The Today meme is hosted by Masha! Join in over at Piękno, or leave your own sensory notes in the combox...

Today I am...

Feeling... a little tired, and a little nervous. It took us twenty minutes longer than usual to drag ourselves out of bed this morning, even though—small victory!—this eternal slowpoke dragged herself to bed before 11:30 for once. I think it's the rain. As for the nervousness bit, I'll be steadily nervous through Mass on Sunday, and it'll probably take me the afternoon (or possibly the rest of the week) to get rid of the residuals, but it's all right. A part of me is actually excited about directing choir, terrors notwithstanding.

Seeing... Maia skulking around like she thinks there might be an intruder in the house. By 'intruder', she means 'anyone other than Lou, Jenna, and Maia.' Her people are not as unfriendly as she is. I promise.

Smelling... all the girly post-shower scents. I love citrussy, tropical smells and am a total sucker for all the Clairol Herbal Essences and Calgon body mist marketing campaigns. Even when I hate their commercials, as I generally did with Clairol back when I had a television.

Tasting... that odd, bitter taste in the back of the throat that hints at the possibility of getting sick. I'm probably not; that's a semi-constant feeling in cold, rainy Washington State. But I'm taking elderberries, just in case.

Listening... to a freshly-burned copy of an album I made for my nieces and nephews. Out of distrust for my CD burner and iTunes, I try to listen to every copy I burn to be sure it's glitch-free.

Grateful... for Mary; for her comforting, motherly nearness, for her help in calming my mind.

Reading... I'm in between books now, but am about to pick up Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter.

Loving... my sister Beth, who talked with me on the phone for an hour and a quarter yesterday with a fussy baby on her lap, and planned sewing projects for my next visit.

Hoping... that my Kindle weather app's promise of "abundant sunshine" in early July will come to pass sooner rather than later. It's been holding heat and sunshine out like a dangling carrot, always four or five days away, for what feels like most of June. I'm wearing my skort and doubled-up tank tops and hoping for at least a short break in the clouds this afternoon.


Harry Potter Book Club: Free Class Period, Go Enjoy the Hogwarts Grounds

It's raining and dark enough to be evening even though it's midafternoon, and the owl just came by which reminds me that I have mail which I am supposed to be putting together and sending, and Christie hasn't posted this week, so this will be a short post. But I promise you, Christie has an excuse. She and her husband are from different countries, which means they're currently stuck living a bit too far apart to Apparate or ride thestrals, let alone broomsticks, and I hear magic carpets get a bit whippy out over the Atlantic. But the brave man has made the crossing, and I promised Christie myself that she didn't have to post while she had him home, so the H.P.B.C. is going to take this week easy and possibly next, too.

Masha did post, talking about centaurs and linking a couple of positive articles on Harry. If you haven't checked that out, you should!

In the meantime, some fun for all of us who want to see Slytherin and Gryffindor lighten up and make friends. It is impossible to watch this music video without grinning. At least, it is for me.

And in smashingly awesome Harry Potter and-other-stories news, The Hog's Head has kicked out the nargles... and trolls, and goblins, and a couple of old Death Eaters, sounds like... and is back up and running! Many thanks to Aaron the hard-working tech-elf! Firewhiskey is being poured into clean glasses, the Blogengamot is pulling up bar stools and finding things to talk over, and Travis thinks Benedict Cumberbatch could be our next great Snape or Voldemort. I think I'm with a couple of commenters, however, who suggested we wait till Cumberbatch is a little older and have him play Dumbledore.

Now I'm off to go read the next chapter or two. If I can manage it around a trip over the mountains and my first attempt at directing choir for a whole Mass by myself—as Dumbledore said, "Ah, music! A magic beyond all we do here!"—I'll have something up for next week even if Christie still needs time off. :)

Remember, you can still join in the discussion this week; just link up at last Monday's post!



Kitty-Proof Forcefields and other stories

Cat picture! Look closely.

There's nothing that baffles and frustrates Maia like spotting us through the window.

Maia: "This is so weird. It's like, an out of body experience or something. WHY CAN'T I GET WHERE YOU ARE?"

Me: "Aw, kitty, you're so cute sitting up in the windowsill."

Maia: "I DON'T UNDERSTAND. There's this... this forcefield! How did you get on the other side of it?"

Me: "You really hate it when your people are outside and you're inside, don't you?"

Maia: "It's not right, it's just not right! There has to be a way around it! Where's the magic portal?"

Me, to myself: "I probably shouldn't tell her it's in the laundry room."

* * *

It's official: the fennel is as tall as I am, which takes some doing.

In other gardening news: I haven't had flax in the yard since I was a child, and I'm loving these little blue flowers.

Also, during all the rain of the last couple of days—when it's been too wet to walk the yard much—the raspberries have begun ripening. The first batch is always the sweetest.

And I spent last Saturday rescuing the vegetable garden from the buttercup invasion, as well as handling one of the more intense tasks of the year: tying up the tomato plants and pruning the indeterminate ones. Unlike last year, when the poor little starts were wet and sun-starved, this year's tomato patch has had the freedom of warmth and shelter in plastic-covered garden hoops. When I took off the plastic cover to start trimming and tying, I found a three-foot-deep jungle.

This task involved hunting out the long-lost baby cucumber vines, which I found growing happily along the jungle floor. It also entailed planting basil starts in a few square inches of spare earth and pouring used coffee grounds around them to keep the slugs at bay, and redirecting the enthusiastic pumpkin vines to parts of the yard they're permitted to take over. I had to wall them off from the tomatoes with cage wire. I love my pumpkin vines, but they're not allowed into the tomato patch.

If I didn't suck at photography,
I'd have spotted the blue tape before shooting that picture.

Oregano, thyme, leeks, cilantro, peas and pumpkins.
For better or for worse, I do not make hard choices when I don't have to. Faced with the necessity of removing a couple of little pumpkin vines from the hill, as well as pulling a couple of tomatoes that came up of their own accord, I dragged a couple of old pots out and gave the little plants their chance at life. They're much behind their fellows, but hey, we have room.

Tomatoes on the left, new strawberry starts from Mom on the right!
* * *

Music of the week: This Ralph Vaughn Williams piece, "The Lark Ascending", is mood music for today. I'm just loving it.

* * *

Someone built Minas Tirith out of matchsticks. All I can say is, they'd better not let Denethor anywhere near it.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Lud-in-the-Mist

Lud-in-the-MistMaster Nathaniel was drinking in every word as if it was nectar. A sense of safety was tingling in his veins like a generous wine... mounting to his head, even, a little bit, so unused was he to that particular intoxicant.

Endymion Leer eyed him, with a little smile. "And now," he said, "perhaps your Worship will let me talk a little of your own case. The malady you suffer from should, I think, be called 'life-sickness.' You are, so to speak, a bad sailor, and the motion of life makes you brain-sick. There, beneath you, all around you, there surges and swells, and ebbs and flows, that great, ungovernable, ruthless element that we call life. And its motion gets into your blood, turns your head dizzy. Get your sea legs, Master Nathaniel! By which I do not mean you must cease feeling the motion... go on feeling it, but learn to like it; or if not to like it, at any rate to bear it with firm legs and a steady head."

Author: Hope Mirrlees

Synopsis: In the long-lost days of Duke Aubrey, both human and fairy tradition had their influence on the city of Lud-in-the-Mist, which sits on the border of Fairyland. But the Fairyland-loving Duke was a rascal, and the law-abiding citizens banished him. With his banishment, importing fairy fruit—or fairy anything else—was criminalized, and the very name of Fairy became taboo.

In the days of mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer, however, the unspeakable things have begun to resurface. Haunted by the memory of a single Note he once heard in playful mimicry of old mysteries, Nathaniel himself feels set apart from his fellow lawmakers—and when fairy fruit smugglers and an enigmatic but popular doctor wreak discord and havoc in the city, and Nathaniel's own son shows disturbing signs of having eaten the fruit, Nathaniel is drawn into the resurgent conflict between the worlds of Law and Fairy. Only he can save young Ranulph and the city of Lud-in-the-Mist.

Notes: This is a tale of the relationship between Fairyland and ordinary life, which puts it at the heart of my favorite storytelling traditions. Born during the late lifetime of fellow countryman George MacDonald (relevant works: Phantastes, Lilith), and just thirteen years younger than  G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy), Mirrlees seems to write under the guidance of the same muse that led them. It wouldn't surprise me if she were directly influenced by either one or both; nor would it surprise me if, like both of them, she influenced Tolkien (I'm thinking especially of "On Fairy Stories") and Lewis with her own work. Neil Gaiman (Stardust) apparently admits her as a favorite, and while I haven't heard anything Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) may have said on the subject, I strongly suspect she's read this book.

For all its both retrospective and forward-looking similarities to other great works of fantasy fiction, it's one of the more unpredictable tales I've ever read that yet managed an emotionally satisfying ending. I won't spoil the central points of unpredictability, but the satisfying ending bit required me to put my whole heart into sympathizing with the unlikely protagonist, which I did.

Nat Chanticleer, a plump, gin-and-cheese-loving, middle-aged lawmaker, is outwardly as steady and stodgy and Law-driven as his exquisitely stuffy friend Ambrose and all their comrades. But inwardly—well, inwardly, he's heard the Note. It's the Note that makes Nat a kindred spirit. He's never perfect; he's dithery and melancholic, and he bears comparatively little attachment to his daughter, for all he loves his son. But that Note helps him, and it's the first thing that puts tears in my eyes when I think back over the book.

For all the story's unpredictability, it's primarily a fairy tale. It reads a little like an allegory for something, but it's hard to fix on what, precisely. Mirrlees converted (from what, I'm not sure) to Catholicism just a couple of years after publishing this novel, and perhaps she, like me, saw in Catholicism one of the few places where Faerie took safe refuge from modernity, but her conversion did apparently come after writing the book, and her creatures of Fairyland are nearer relatives of Clarke's gentleman with the thistle-down hair than they are to any saint. That said, with the exception of possibly justifying certain dispositions of a certain rascal—I dare not get more spoilery than that—the allegory reads as true.

It's certainly an old-fashioned story; modern readers might find it difficult to get into, as it's heavily frontloaded with description and backstory. Nobody browbeat authors back then with the fear that such tactics might bore readers. The first half felt a tad long to me, but the second half—once the story began to be less about Lud in general and more about Nat—did not.

The second half is worth reading the first half for. It's hero's journey and murder mystery and philosophical conflict between law-abiding and lawlessness, and I thought it honestly delightful. But even the first half contains some startling little thought-gems and a lot of beautiful poetic prose.

I could see people disliking it, but it's hard to imagine who. If you like Clarke's work or Gaiman's, MacDonald's fairy stories or Tolkien's, it's worth giving Lud-in-the-Mist a try. It's not derivative fantasy; it's one of the classics from which the greats derive. I loved it. I could see myself reading it again. And perhaps again and again after that.



The Today meme is hosted by Masha! Join in over at Piękno, or leave your own sensory notes in the combox...

Today I am...

Feeling... close to all my friends who are suffering. So many prayers today. <3

Seeing... sheer gold curtains waving in the breeze. It's so wonderful to be warm enough to open the windows, even if I am sitting under a fleece throw and drinking hot coffee.

Smelling... fresh air. One of the great things about Bellingham is that it's almost never smoggy.

Tasting... the last cup of that Italian coffee, at least until it goes on sale again, and—last night—the very first cherry off our Benson sapling in the front yard. Lou and I split the cherry, which proved amazingly flavorful and sweet. That's a splendid little tree. I'm still furious at the deer that came by sometime Saturday night and ate a lot of the leaves off.

Listening... to myself singing "Dante's Prayer" and "Eileen Aroon" and "Scarborough Fair" and "Comin' Thro' the Rye" in the shower and around the house. My Scottish accent is horrifying. But I enjoy myself.

Grateful... for summer skies—the kind with puffs of white cumulus drifting across vivid, warm-weather blue.

Reading... the last chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, which is making me laugh a lot; a friend's long-awaited fantasy novel manuscript; and the sixth and seventh chapters (out of twelve) of my own work in progress.

Loving... my nieces and nephews. I got to spend Sunday with my family, and enslaved myself to the small fry out of sheer devotion. Being an aunty is one of my best consolations in life.

Hoping... for lots of pumpkins this year. I'd love to give some to the aforementioned small fry, and maybe let the little neighbor boys come over and pick one out, too. The neighbor boys are fascinated with the garden, and their mother tells me that watching Lou mow the lawn is a highlight of their week. :)


Harry Potter Book Club: Sorcerer's Stone, Chapters 13-15

Good morning, magical friends! It's sunny, I'm wearing my Hufflepuff outfit—minus the fishnets—and it's time to talk about monsters and fame and unicorns and planets and Harry! Before we do, though, here's last week's recap and a mini-essay... I have a feeling those will be common henceforth:

Masha posted first with a beautiful drawing by her husband—seriously, you should follow her for Seth's artwork as well as her own commentary—and some tender thoughts on Ron's inner hungers and strengths as seen through his Mirror of Erised experience. Meanwhile, Christie posted pictures of her attempt at our first butterbeer recipe, which looks tasty, even if, as she said, chocolate wine made it not beery enough. She also expounded upon on some of the particulars of Dumbledore's conversation with Harry, to lovely effect.

Masha also linked two well-known anti-Potter articles in her post, coming from two entirely different directions, and here comes the mini-essay.

Mini-Essay #1: A Brief and Inadequate Reply to the Two Main Varieties of Serious Potter Critic

Surviving the World: Lesson 447 by Dante Shepherd

Anti-Potter article number one is one of the most famous among Potter fans: Harold Bloom's 2000 piece titled "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." Professor Bloom—of Yale—is a very well-known literary critic, author of The Western Canon as well as many other books, and certainly not someone whose literary understanding can be thrown away lightly. He's had a very interesting career, judging by a quick scroll through Wikipedia (yeah, I know), and I confess to respecting him more after looking at his achievements than I did after reading his article.

This response is inadequate on several levels; I don't have time to go point by point, and I don't begin to have comparable education, let alone experience. Others have done better. My difficulty with Bloom's piece is simple: he and I have totally different perspectives on something, and I'm not sure whether the point of profound disagreement is centered in the evaluation of literature itself or in the definition of what it means for reading to "enrich mind or spirit or personality." But we certainly have inconsonant opinions on the latter.*

Art by el-grimlock
Anti-Potter article number two is too recent to have gained the kind of widespread internet contradiction that it would have in the heyday of Potter fandom. Obviously, Michael O'Brien has gained widespread contradiction enough to put him on the defensive, however, and the whole tone of the piece is affected by this. To be fair, the piece is an interview with him on the very subject of his critics: Steve Jalsevac's "Michael O'Brien responds to his critics re: Harry Potter" at LifeSiteNews.

O'Brien, author of the controversial A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind as well as the Father Elijah books and many others, has achieved something of a cult following for his detailed, religious-based criticism of various fantasy works. I hate to even give it the vague honorific "religious-based", since as a Catholic, he should know that there's no one-holy-Catholic-and-apostolic interpretation of any fictional work. The relationship of fiction to dogma is even fuzzier than the relationship of fiction to reality.

The inadequacy of my response is in how little space and time I have to devote to it at present. I'd love to go point by point, as displayed in my overexuberant reaction in Masha's combox. But I'll keep myself to the base problems with O'Brien's critical technique, which are twofold.

First, he treats symbolism as if each symbol is a neat container for a single positive or negative idea. This is simply not true. Snakes, for instance, are not universally irredeemable symbols of evil. They're not even treated that way in the Bible. With no appeal to the context of a given symbol's portrayal, O'Brien is doomed to miss the point of the story, and he consistently does.

Second, his understanding of the moral universe of Harry Potter is so baffling as to make me think of the ever-popular Internet aphorism, casually attributed on Goodreads to both Edmund Wilson and Diana Tixier Herald—goodness only knows with whom it actually originated—which states that "No two persons ever read the same book." If he'd read the same story I had, he could never have said this:
"In Potter world, the saving of the world comes through acquiring secret knowledge and perfecting supernatural powers, while never really developing significant character or virtues such as those we can so clearly see in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s heroes."
There are reasonable criticisms to be made of the Harry Potter stories, and he makes some, but that's certainly not one of them. He's wrong on all three points there, demonstrably wrong:
  • "the saving of the world comes through acquiring secret knowledge" The idea that "secret knowledge" and the power thereof can save either world or individual is Voldemort's mistake, not Harry's.
  • "and perfecting supernatural powers" Every last conflict between Harry and Voldemort is a David and Goliath scenario, as far as magical skill is concerned. It's also explicitly stated numerous times by a certain character that love, not magic, is Harry's sole hope of standing against his archenemy.
  • "while never really developing significant character or virtues" I just don't understand how it's possible to read Deathly Hallows and come away thinking this. Love. Courage, both physical and moral. Forgiveness. Compassion, even for an enemy. Respect. Harry makes visible, remarkable progress in all of these areas.
That last point, in particular, is farcical. If anything, Rowling is clearer in her symbolism and her direct emphasis on virtue than Tolkien was.

* * *

This Week in Reading Harry

Read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapters 13-15

It's hard to focus on single discussion points in these chapters; there are so many events to think over. Neville's character gets some development, and it would be hard not to end up loving him. Hermione and Harry manage to leave the Invisibility Cloak behind while sneaking around the castle at night, which has never made any sense to me, since Hermione is quick-thinking and cautious, and since the cloak is the only thing Harry has that was his father's. Harry's scar acts up in one of the most horrific scenes the books possess, and he's rescued by a centaur named after Florence, Italy (in Italian, the name is Firenze). Hagrid proves to be a valuable source of information, while cooing to a baby dragon and calling himself "Mommy".

Hagrid is so much fun. I just love him.

Some Other Potential Discussion Points:

1. Nicolas Flamel. This historical character—yes, he was real—has had long-standing legendary (and probably not real) status as an alchemist. A successful one; that is, he's said to have made the philosopher's stone. Rowling put the legend into play for her first mystery, and the sorcerer's stone, from which comes the Elixir of Life, is guarded underground at Hogwarts behind a series of enchantments and, appropriately, Cerberus.

This is only going to get more fun in the next chapters.

2. "Our kind have to keep putting spells on Muggles" Ron's offhand remark about the Ministry of Magic's handling of Muggle sightings of dragons is one of the first revelations of unethical Wizarding practices surrounding the Statute of Secrecy (the law preventing wizards from revealing themselves and their world to non-magical humans.)

3. Popular opinion. Rowling knows how fame treats a person now, knows it firsthand, but she apparently had a perfectly good understanding of it from the outset. Hogwarts students as a group vacillate between lionizing and demonizing Harry, and as far as I know, every famous person suffers this.

Ron was probably my favorite character in book one, and his loyalty to Harry in this section was part of that.

Art by wallace
4. Legality and mercy. Harry and Hermione get into trouble saving Hagrid from the law and himself. Hagrid is good-hearted, but not at all likely to pay much attention to seemingly arbitrary regulations about monster-keeping. And his confidence in his monster-managing skills—this is just the beginning of it, we haven't met Aragog or Grawp or the Blast-Ended Skrewts yet—is hyperconfidence; he's hiding a baby dragon in a wooden house.

Even law-abiding Hermione doesn't hesitate to help Harry get the dragon safely off to someone who has the wherewithal to keep it, though it means breaking a lot of school rules—and when she's caught, she doesn't betray Hagrid even to lessen her punishment. Nor does Harry.

This sort of ethical dilemma is generally resolved by Rowling with an eye to compassion rather than judgment, to mercy rather than straight-up justice. Ethicists and moralists will be arguing till the end of time over which virtue is more important in which case, but I think it's within the bounds of Catholic freedom to believe that both mercy and justice—as well as both compassion and judgment—are important, and that humility and wisdom and respect are prerequisites for good decision-making wherever the two seem to conflict.

In this case, going to Dumbledore would've been the best way to protect Hagrid, but Harry's just an eleven-year-old newcomer who doesn't yet know his headmaster. He handles it like a well-meaning eleven-year-old kid would, and suffers the consequences.

5. "Mars is bright tonight" The centaurs are reading the signs of war in the sky—and being infuriating in the process, which is mostly what the centaurs in Harry Potter do.

6. "Always the innocent are the first victims" Ronan's sighed philosophy strikes me as something to contemplate, but I'd need to put more time into it than I've got this afternoon. Anyone who wants to unpack his statement, feel free.

Art by Amy C. Reed
7. Unicorn blood. Firenze explains: "...it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn... Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."

This paragraph sets up the—if you'll pardon the wordplay—crux of the entire Potter saga. The conflict on which the whole story turns is this conflict between defenseless innocence and selfishness taken all the way to monstrosity.

Voldemort sets himself up as a god again and again throughout the story, sometimes coming off as a temperamental Grecian-style deity, but sometimes as something more sinister. Whether Rowling intended it or not, Voldemort's portrayal is often Luciferish, often a direct inversion of the Christ-image. This is one of the latter moments. Eucharistic imagery is inverted here as, instead of the divine self-sacrifice, we have a demoniac sacrifice of the innocent Other. And Firenze sets the passionate tone of righteous response:
"Do you not see that unicorn?" Firenze bellowed at Bane. "Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must."
As for what else stands between the defenseless innocent and the selfish monster, we'll get into that in chapter seventeen. But it's worth noting that both Harry and Voldemort are set up symbolically as representatives of our inner self. This becomes very clear in, if I remember correctly, books five and six—but if I say more about that, there will be spoilers....


* I was SO tempted to find a random trash can picture on the internet and caption it "The Dustbin of the Ages". Juvenile, I know, but that phrase just kills me.

** All right, Latinists. This is me using Google Translate; feel free to tell me I'm using the wrong word for the imperative "Discuss!", and that I'm liable to wind up smashed under a stack of hardbound doctoral theses....


Weeds on the March and other stories

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"There's already morning glory grown up the fence where I weeded last weekend," I said yesterday. "And there are buttercups blooming in the English ivy. Weeding doesn't even last as long as housework."

I snapped the morning glory stems this afternoon on my way by with the camera, but the English ivy will have to wait its turn again. The herb garden, which I had neatly cleaned out a month ago, is now being marched upon, besieged, razed, and trampled by the weeds overgrowing the brush pile. I didn't think anything could conquer the salad burnet, but it got beaten down a bit by wind, and now the buttercups and morning glory are taking advantage of its temporary weakness.

The sun needs to come out tomorrow. I'm rescuing the Egyptian walking onions (no, I've never caught them singing Bangles songs, but I have to wonder what they do when no one's looking...) and separating the pumpkins from the tomatoes and unburying the herbs. Also, I have a lot of little potted starts begging for some ground space:

Fern, pinks, basil, and sweet peas.
I can never resist tiny plants on clearance.

Cilantro, zucchini, fig tree, and wisteria.
The roses, however, are overall quite happy. They're currently showing their gratitude for Lou's conscientious care:

* * *

Music of the week: I came across William Joseph by way of Lindsey Stirling the other day, and goodness, what an exceptional young pianist. I'm trying not to be envious. This piece was my favorite of his that I came across; I liked the Led Zeppelin remake, too, but it got stuck in my head, so watch at your own risk.

* * *

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Right Ho, Jeeves

Right Ho, JeevesI mean to say, one does not court praise. The adulation of the multitude means very little to one. But all the same, when one has taken the trouble to whack out a highly juicy scheme to benefit an in-the-soup friend in his hour of travail, it’s pretty foul to find him giving the credit to one’s personal attendant, particularly if that personal attendant is a man who goes about the place not packing mess-jackets.

But after I had been splashing about in the porcelain for a bit, composure began to return. I have always found that in moments of heart-bowed-downness there is nothing that calms the bruised spirit like a good go at the soap and water. I don’t say I actually sang in the tub, but there were times when it was a mere spin of the coin whether I would do so or not.

The spiritual anguish induced by that tactless speech had become noticeably lessened.

The discovery of a toy duck in the soap dish, presumably the property of some former juvenile visitor, contributed not a little to this new and happier frame of mind. What with one thing and another, I hadn’t played with toy ducks in my bath for years, and I found the novel experience most invigorating. For the benefit of those interested, I may mention that if you shove the thing under the surface with the sponge and then let it go, it shoots out of the water in a manner calculated to divert the most careworn. Ten minutes of this and I was enabled to return to the bedchamber much more the old merry Bertram.

Author: P.G. Wodehouse

Synopsis: Bertie Wooster has plans to help a sensitive friend into a successful wooing, while also trying to patch up his cousin’s engagement and soften a potential misunderstanding between his favorite aunt and uncle. To his chagrin, however, everyone seems to want his servant Jeeves’ advice instead—the more so as his helpful suggestions begin to go extraordinarily wrong.

Notes: I read this book for two reasons: one, I knew from acquaintance with Psmith that Wodehouse is a funny man, and I was in the mood for some lighthearted reading, and 2) I did not know who Jeeves and Wooster were, but everyone else seemed to, and I was tired of my ignorance.

Not since Spindle’s End have I laughed out loud so heartily and so often at a novel. I loved Wooster’s cheerful narrative; it was childlike to the point of innocence, it was full of fun, it was hilarious. I loved the clarity of the other characters’ motivations, frustrations, and feelings, despite being seen through such a confused filter. And the classically comic setups, full of human foibles and absolutely devoid of shock value, were great fun.

There’s not much more I can say. Bertie Wooster speaks for himself, and I think it’s worth letting him.

This is a great read, especially for reinforcing a cheerful mood. It would go well with sunshine and a cold drink of the reader’s choice. Possibly whiskey and orange juice, which appear together in the story—although for myself, I prefer my orange juice with champagne.



I'm hopping into a new meme started by Masha! Join in over at Piękno, or leave your own sensory notes in the combox...

Today I am...

Feeling... enthused about new plans for going to bed earlier. I'm enlisting Lou; he's supposed to tell me to get off my computer at 10:15. When I do that, I usually play piano till eleven or a quarter past, and then I'm in bed by 11:30 instead of staying up till midnight, which is what happens when I keep working on my computer much past ten. That's right when my second wind kicks in.

Seeing... a touch of blue on the bayward horizon, which is where all the weather comes from. It's been a rather gray morning.

Smelling... the last dissipating aroma of a big cup of Italian coffee with cream.

Tasting... Raisin Nut Bran for breakfast—so expensive that I rarely buy it, but so much better on every level than standard Raisin Bran. And coffee, of course. Also, my next door neighbor gave me fresh-picked local strawberries, and fresh-picked local strawberries are one of my favorite things in the whole. wide. world.

Listening... to the silence that means the dryer has stopped. I need to go get the laundry changed over.

Grateful for... a free afternoon to spend with my family. Owing to everyone getting sick and the hockey game, I haven't seen the niece and nephew in three weeks. Aunty needs a kiddo fix.

Reading... besides Harry Potter... Lud in the Mist by Hope Mirrlees. It's longer than I expected it to be, which is the difficulty with Kindle books—you can't predict that just by looking. But it's enjoyable old fantasy.

Loving... my friend Janelle, whose birthday I'm celebrating this evening.

Hoping... the little dog that dodged in front of my car yesterday near the grocery found its way back to its family.


Harry Potter Book Club: Sorcerer's Stone, Chapters 11-12

We're flying (on brooms, of course) through Sorcerer's Stone, with probably just a couple of weeks left in it after this one. That is, unless we find too much to talk about, which is possible. There's lots of fun to be had at the end of book 1. :)

This is a huge post, so I'm dividing it up into mini-essays so you can choose what to read. First, however, here's last week's recap: Christie spoke of danger at Hogwarts and the improvement to Harry's situation, Masha celebrated Hogwarts, and Laura provided a roundup of pagan perspectives on Harry Potter. Laura also asked this question in Masha's combox, which inspired the first mini-essay:
Do you (pl. you guys, y'all) think magic in HP is more like its own entity, with its own personality, independent of its users, or more like an emergent property reflecting (with varying degrees of distortion etc.) the personalities (and foibles, and preoccupations, and limitations and hidden gifts) of its users? 
There it is, an open discussion point for anyone and everyone to talk about this week!

Mini-Essay #1: Is Rowling's Magic a Silent Sentience, or an Incognizant Efficaciousness?

The way the characters interact with magic mostly seems to suggest Laura's latter option. At the very least, magic allows itself to be shaped by the user. There's the involuntary magic of children, e.g., Harry Vanishing the glass off the snake display at the zoo, or Neville bouncing when his uncle dropped him out of an upstairs window. This sort of thing isn't controlled by the young witch or wizard, but is shaped by his or her need and emotion.

There's controlled magic, usually worked through a wand, though goblins and house-elves have power over their magic without wands. These things obviously reflect the personalities, etc., of the users.

But then there are magic-infused items like wands and the Hogwarts castle, and it's harder to say how much of that infusion is created by willed wizardry and how much is magic gathering and acting of its own accord. For instance, as it's hopefully not too much of a spoiler to point out, Muggle electronics supposedly go haywire around Hogwarts because of all the magic in the air (this isn't shown, but it's mentioned by Hermione, and she and her photographic memory would probably know).

Four people who definitely left some magic lying around Hogwarts.
Art by Len.
There are talking portraits and moving staircases and trick doors and argumentative chessmen and something of the personality of Rowena Ravenclaw in her House's common room door-knocker, and sure, a lot of this is explainable by means of charms and other spells being put on inanimate objects, but is all of it so easily explained away? Masha is exactly right about Hogwarts: there's "a sense of humor in the castle, as though thousands of laughing wizards have left their joy hidden in nooks and crannies." Some of it was obviously deliberately left by the wizards, but some of it seems to be simply their magic embedding itself in the places they frequented.

Possibly the strongest argument for magic as its own entity comes from book seven, in which—trying to be spoiler-free here—a certain wand does a certain something, apparently of its own volition. The question there is: is the wand a semi-volitional creature in its own right, or is it magic itself that is volitional, acting through its own object?

It looks to me like this could be taken either way, but the idea of magic as an animate power is an interesting one to explore. Explore away, fellow students!

This Week in Reading Harry

Read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapters 11-12

Chapter Twelve is a heartbreaker, y'all. But there's so much in it.

Also, here's a pattern for making your own Weasley sweater. If you're not up for knitting one (I wouldn't venture without my mom or sister's help), you can also get them on Etsy, presumably handmade with love.

Potential Discussion Points:

Mini-Essay #2: Gender-Inclusive Language

Oliver Wood. Source.
Oliver Wood opens himself up to feminist critique when he turns to a team of seven young people in which both genders are represented and says "Okay, men." Feminist discussion frequently degenerated into serious brawling at The Hog's Head in its day, so I'm always a little hesitant about bringing up the topic. But this one touches on one of my pet peeves: gender neutral or gender inclusive language.

See, there are some times when neutering English actually changes the meaning; a word like "people" does not carry the same shades of definition as "man" or "mankind" or "humanity". Linguistic inclusivism is also often extraordinarily unartistic. I loathe the practice when it comes to "updating" old hymns, for instance; I'll be singing my heart out in choir, and all at once I'll be singing different words from everyone else, because I'm going off childhood memory and most of the other choristers are reading the hymnal. Dear well-meaning hymn updaters, you cannot replace this:
Mortals join the mighty chorus
Which the morning stars began
Father love is reigning o'er us
Brother love binds man to man
with this:
Mortals join the mighty chorus
Which the morning stars began
God's own love is reigning o'er us
Joining people hand in hand
It doesn't rhyme, AND it's a terrible cliché. Also, all of us who grew up with that hymn already have it ingrained in our heads the old way. Speaking of which, this ploy is worst when imposed upon Christmas carols. Everybody already has them memorized with the traditional lyrics. "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" is what it is, and it should be left alone.

All that to say, linguistic inclusivism is a touch ridiculous when universally applied. But it's not a pointless concept, either. In Oliver Wood's case, I'm entirely with Angelina Johnson. You can't just look at your Quidditch team, boys and girls together, and address them all with, "Okay, men." There's this little thing called tact. It's friendly.

Mini Non-Essay: Minor Notable Points

Art by Jess.
1. The funny stuff. There's so much in these chapters, especially eleven, that's just so beautifully comic. I love Quidditch commentary—and this is just the start of it; wait till we get to book six. Also, I get a kick out of the fact that Hagrid bought the hellhound Cerberus off "a Greek chappie" in a pub and promptly re-christened him "Fluffy". And then there's Fred and George, wizard chess, wizard crackers, and Hagrid's cooking.

2. Weasley family dynamics. We get more insight into them at Christmastime, with Molly sending Harry a family sweater—considering that she's met him just once, this is incredibly tender and perceptive of her—and Fred and George making sure Percy and Ron stick with the family spirit. Percy's resistance comes from a different place than Ron's, but both of them will pay for their withdrawal before the series is out.

3. Books in Harry Potter. The Restricted Section of the library is creepy and fun; the books, imbued with magic, don't just shut up and let themselves be read. I actually think Rowling could have done a lot more with this, but talking about that would mean spoilers for Half-Blood Prince.

Mini-Essay #3: Alchemy

I designed this emblem for this discussion point.
You can expect to see it a lot in future.

Before I get started: Everything I know about alchemy, I learned from John Granger. Granger's primary sources are Lyndy Abraham and Titus Burkhardt, as I recall (other oft-referenced names include Jung, Lings, and Eliade). Of course, I may be an imperfect student and make mistakes, but I'll shoot as straight as I can.

There's a lot to alchemy, so here's a basic summary—not of everything, but of the beginning salient points.

A. Alchemy is concerned with several key tasks, including:
  1. Making the Philosopher's Stone, also sometimes termed the Sorcerer's Stone, which provides the means to immortality
  2. Turning lead into gold
  3. Purifying the soul of the alchemist
B. The alchemist's Great Work entails refining the prima materia—a formless, basic matter, analogous with his own soul—into the Philosopher's Stone. He refines matter and soul simultaneously in the one Work.

C. Refinement of the prima materia requires putting it through three main stages (or sometimes four; I'm sticking with Granger's explanation here), innately color coordinated for your convenience:
  1. The nigredo or black stage, in which the matter is burned and decomposed
  2. The albedo or white stage, in which impurities are washed away and the matter is acted upon by the "quarreling" opposites mercury and sulfur (this pair is represented in numerous ways, including cold and heat, female and male)
  3. The rubedo or red stage, in which the reddening of the matter indicates success of the Great Work.
From the very title of this book—which Rowling and her U.K. publisher called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," and Scholastic renamed "...Sorcerer's Stone" for American audiences—we see alchemical influence. The title, however, could just be a classic mystery title. The fact that Hermione Granger's initials form the periodic table symbol for mercury might have been coincidence. The colors dropped here and there in the book could just be colors.

Or they might not be.

Here are some beginning alchemical connections to watch for:
  1. The quarreling couple. Hermione is our cool, feminine Mercury, and Ron is our hot, masculine Sulphur. The two bicker constantly throughout each of the seven books. Their arguing often intensifies in the middle, during the build-up to the climax of the story, and the pair must always reconcile for the final phase of the story.
  2. Color progression. Each of the books takes Harry through all three stages (and the final three books are stages in and of themselves; more on that later). We're in the albedo stage now, in which white and silver are common colors; we've progressed from the trip across the "great black lake" to mirrors and silvery invisibility cloaks and snow and a generally paler tone to the story.
  3. Nicholas Flamel. :D
There'll be much more to come about alchemy. This is just a place to start!

Mini-Essay #4: The Mirror of Erised

Art by Harry-Potter-Spain
The inscription:
Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi
Hold it up to a mirror, if you haven't yet. (I think I read this book at least three or four times before I got this.)

The Mirror is a tricksy thing, and probably a lot darker and more complicated for adults than for most children. (Harry, obviously, is not most children.) I expect that I'd see different things on different days... but I know what I'd see most commonly, and I know it would mean an explosion of tears, and I know it would feel like losing loved ones to turn away. What would you see? Answer aloud only if you're feeling brave.

Harry and Ron make an interesting contrast here. Harry sees himself with his family, and as Dumbledore put it, "Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them." I'd love to put both of their visions in context with Deathly Hallows right now, but SPOILERS.

There are at least a couple of major discussion possibilities just off Harry's conversation with Dumbledore after looking in the Mirror:
  1. "The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is." I've never quite bought this. It almost suggests an odd individualism, as if there's nothing beyond being satisfied with ourselves, which sounds like hell, in my opinion. I suspect I'm over-reading it, but there the matter stands.
  2. "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." This is one of Dumbledore's most famous quotes, with excellent reason. The Mirror is one of the most dangerous things Harry ever comes across. Always wishing for what you don't have is a means to immense regret.
And I absolutely agree with Dumbledore on socks. Though I never turn down books for Christmas. :)

Go forth and talk Potter!


Jersey-Knit Lion Caves and other stories

As a general rule, I don't use this space to advertise, but I'm willing to when family starts cute Etsy shops. :) Check out Bijou Villa for work in silk and copper, wearable art and whimsy. I ought to patch my jeans with some of those butterflies.

* * *

After several months of depressive episode—which feels, to me, something like the drugged heaviness and mental dysfunction of getting up too early after taking Nyquil, only much more painful—I am awake this week.

Awake. I can see beauty with haze-free eyes, and concentrate on reading, and take childlike delight in little blessings like milkshakes made with cocoa and peanut butter, and cheer myself over imperfect but comparatively smooth attempts at Aeris' Theme on the piano. I can imagine ordering my days better toward neatness and productivity. I can sometimes even face up to my unfinished novels with a smile, and have thought about writing music again.

The windows are open, the sun is often out, and I'm awake. And I'm grateful for every minute of optimism and sunshine.

* * *

The last of the peonies are in splendid form right now. This deep purplish-red one might be my favorite of the lot:

I'm fond of this softer, frilly one, too, though:

Also: snapdragons! And a random buttercup. Buttercups are noxious weeds around here—they'll grow right up under your carefully planted flowers and vegetables and choke them out—but it's hard to hate something so cheerful.

* * *

I'm in the mood for summer reading. So much so that I’m half tempted to swear I won’t read anything dark or dreary or even difficult until the twenty-first of September. At which point, maybe I'll be ready to tackle War and Peace as promised.

Depression, begone; summer, come hither! I’ve got the first of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books awaiting me, and the new Sarah Dessen, too; I may look up the next Jeeves and Wooster (write-up on Right Ho, Jeeves coming next Wednesday), and I’m feeling adventurous with my Kindle. There are a handful of random romancey novels on my shelves, and I’ve got several unread Madeleine Brents and Mary Stewarts. I’ve even got a copy of The Wind in the Willows, which I haven’t read since childhood, and which, according to memory, is at least summery if not always cheerful. I might even decide to re-read an old happy favorite or two.

Expect some bright, blithe, warm-weather reading material around here in the next few months. :)

* * *

Along reading lines, and along the lines of many a grumpy post on this blog: I loved The Crescat's short rant on the fact that Catholic fiction nowadays always has to be so stuffily Catholic.

* * *

As longtime readers may remember, one of Maia's favorite things is laundry day. And one of her favorite parts of laundry day is getting made into the bed, which is especially fun in jersey-knit sheets:

Note the cat eyes, caught by the flash even through the sheet.
Maia: "I am a BRAVE CAVE LION. Mess with me at your own risk."

* * *

Masha reminded me rather poignantly this week that introverts get lonely, too. On account of which, I hesitated to link Buzzfeed's 31 Unmistakable Signs that You're an Introvert today... but seriously, O readers! This introvert has been far too busy since, like, last October. Consequently, a good 28 of those signs feel absolutely true right now (not all, because I do get dressed on the weekends).

It's also hilarious. But if you're in a lonely mood, maybe wait to read it till you're tired of being a social butterfly again.

* * *

Music of the week: I promised some Maire Brennan a few weeks back, and after listening to a playlist, found some favorites—this lullaby for her son in particular:

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Happy weekend!