The Empty Chair

More than half of the seats in the auditorium were occupied and a hundred or so procrastinators were still in the aisles. Individuals were looking for a group to be a part of, and groups were chatting casually and looking for a row of enough empty seats for their comfort. The younger ones in the crowd (self-consciously playing with their hair in the reflection of their smart phones), social butterflies (flopping into the fold down chairs with relish), and social flops (floating around with eager hopes) were all obliged to take a seat for the next 45 minutes. The choosing of seat somehow took a higher importance than was perhaps necessary.

An older woman stopped suddenly in front of me and I brushed into her. She offered a brief apology as she turned around and went back up the steps the way we had just come. Perhaps she had seen someone on another aisle and needed to reach them. I would have ducked into the row to let her past, but the unshaved flannel shirt sitting there had his big boots sticking out so that I could not, without getting mud on my jeans. It was my turn to utter an apology to the flannel shirt for backing into him, though I felt he didn’t really deserve it. I continued a few steps down, not recognizing anyone very significant to me. I saw some friends from freshman year, but they were already sitting in a full row. I waved my hand casually as I passed them and few raised their own hands in acknowledgement, contented in their cozy spot among friends.

I saw a guy who had hit on me awkwardly in Public Speaking sitting by himself on a perfectly good row with several empty seats for spreading out. It wasn’t worth it. I continued several more rows before I would consider settling in again. I found another row with several empty seats. I chose a seat three in from the aisle. That should be welcoming enough without seeming like I was waiting for someone specific. The chair squeaked loudly as I sat. Well, there was no moving now without attracting attention. Just then, a group of chatting Elementary Ed. majors came down my row from the other side. They started counting seats. The number ended at my chair. They clearly stated the number of seats they needed again to one another and then looked at me dumbly.

“I can move down if you need me to,” I said as I picked up my purse and the chair protested loudly.

“Oh, could you? Thanks.”

A girl with designer clothes and boots so pristine, I was sure it was the first time she had worn them, sat next to me and laid her coat on the back of the chair, spilling the sleeve over into my space, which I tried not to notice. Once settled in, she immediately turned to the guy on her right. Apparently, he was a very amusing because she punctuated his every sentence with a high-pitched laugh or a bubbly euphemism. While her back was turned, I gently flipped her coat back over the arm rest and settled in to watch the crowd. I was about three quarters of the way back, so I commanded a good view of the rest of the masses and there was a good chance someone would take the seat beside me before the speaker began. The time on the screen currently flashed 2:41 and counting down.

More people walked down the aisle, some in groups, some alone. Most of the people alone were looking up only briefly from their phones to check for available seats. I didn’t recognize any of them. Would someone I know sit next to me? What if it was someone I hadn’t seen in a while? 2:07.

Would it look bad if I moved to the aisle seat if no one came by the start or would that look like I had been stood up? I picked my purse again and idly looked through it until I found my Chapstick. I put some on and by the time I put it back in my purse decided I would stay in this spot either way, so I set my purse back down. The transient trickle had slowed down now as most people had a place. I turned my head to see who else was still coming down the stairs. A few people moving a little more quickly than the others had, trying to beat the dimming of the lights, but still no one I knew. 0:53.

I gave up hope of having anyone interesting to converse with and entertained myself watching a girlfriend trying to discreetly signal her boyfriend who had passed her and had resorted to standing in the very front and scanning the crowd with his mouth open. He finally caught the signal right before the lights dimmed and took the steps two at a time.

I looked at the empty seat beside me one more time, and suddenly there was a hand on it, pressing it down. I made eye contact with the lanky man sitting there and we shared a brief smile then turned our attention back to the front as the announcements started. When he crossed his legs, I noticed his shoes were nice leather. I always liked it when guys took care to wear nice shoes instead of sneakers. Funny though, most people naturally cross their right leg over their left leg and he did the reverse. Was he left-handed too?

The 45 minutes passed, the speaker talked, and I tried to think of anything original to say or ask the pleasant gentleman on my left to prolong our acquaintance. Nothing original came to me. The talk finished, the lights went up. I slowly picked up my purse as the girl beside me stood up and tucked her coat under her arm as she continued talking. The coat was inches from my face. I craned my head away and as I did, I noticed he was already gone.

 

Image from unsplash.com

James Monroe’s Highland

President’s Day means a day off from school! In typical teacher fashion, I decided to take an educational day trip. My mom and grandparents took the trip with me to Charlottesville, VA. We started out with a delicious colonial buffet at Michie’s Tavern. They have a very simple menu, but the food is excellent and the atmosphere of the building and even the clothing of the servers sets the stage well for the meal. I had already been to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (and loved it!) so we decided to visit James Monroe’s Highland. He purchased the property to be neighbors with Jefferson. Even though the original home burned down more than a century ago, we were able to tour the guest house furnished mostly using his original furniture.

100_1868

100_1883

The original guest house

Of course, I learned some new things. Monroe is the president who has served in the most public offices. He was the only president other than George Washington to see active military duty during the Revolutionary War and he is pictured right behind Washington in the famous Crossing of the Delaware. He was also the only president other than Washington to run without opposition. He was the U.S. delegate to France at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and was very influential in this transaction.

100_1859

Statue originally commissioned by the country of Venezuela

Aside from the historical information I learned, I also enjoyed the grounds very much. The winding road in is flanked with tall ash trees on either side. It creates a lovely old plantation feel. The gardens included some trees that were in existence during Monroe’s residence there. Monroe had raised sheep for their wool and there is a small flock there currently. The sheep (including a lamb in the picture below) were panting in their thick wool coats on this unusually warm February day. On the other side of the property, there were cattle including a bull, several cows, and a few calves.

Later in the afternoon, we took some time to enjoy downtown Charlottesville. I found a charming used book shop called Blue Whale Books that also sold old prints, maps, and music in addition to a good variety of books. I was also thrilled to find Low – Vintage Clothing, Vinyl, and Antiques. I was impressed by the wide variety of vintage clothes (some truly antique as well as a huge selection from the 50 though 80s).

On our way out, I noticed the statue of Robert E. Lee. I have heard it is going to be taken down soon (article here). It makes me sad, though I can understand why Confederate symbols may cause deep hurt to some. Lee was a great man, a true Virginia gentleman. I like this picture with the setting sun behind him.

100_1909

Photos are my own.

Nothing New

Everyone wants to be original, creative, the first to do something. It is the mark of our culture. We are independent and unique. We value fresh, new, innovative art, music, and technology. Originality is held as a virtue. Does being original make one better than the rest?

I am also a product of my culture. I want to be seen as creative and unique, especially in my writing. I like when I can come up with a fresh idea or can think of a clever frame for a story. I feel like the written word is one of the few areas I am truly creative. In other areas, I am usually just following a model. I can cook well because I can follow a recipe well, I can sew or makes crafts well because I find good patterns. I can play beautiful music because I practiced technique and play exactly what is written by a composer.

In a book about the history of classical education, I read, “They tried not to say something new; they tried to say something worthy, and say it perfectly.” This quote reminded me that newness is not the end-all. It is completely acceptable to imitate what is good. Even the Italian renaissance, which I tend to think of as a time of fresh creativity, was actually an imitative era. It was a rebirth of the classical style of art, literature, architecture, etc. Renaissance thinkers and artists studied the written works of the Greek and Roman authors and admired their architecture and art. Success was measured by how a work held to the classical standard. The renaissance led the way into the modern era by looking back to a previous era.

Many people can be “original” without saying or showing anything worthwhile or beautiful. I want what I say (or make or do) to be first worthwhile and true. Secondly, I want to say it well, beautifully, and with clarity. If what I say is also something new, well and good, if it is even possible to say something truly original. In the end, what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Quote from Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons.

Photo is my own.

Poetry is Good for the Soul

A marbled black and white composition book that I got at the beginning of third grade is one of my most treasured possessions. It is full of hand-copied poems in the neatest handwriting I could muster. Poetry became special to me in first grade. I attended a small classical school and one of the key events of the year was a poetry competition. Every student (from kindergartners to seniors in high school) would memorize a poem to recite to their class. Finalists would be selected from each classroom for a poetry evening. I still remember the poems I learned in 1st and 2nd grade and how hard I worked on presenting them and how fun it was to wear a costume and have props.

In 3rd grade, when my mom began to homeschool me and my sister, we each received a notebook for poetry. We would practice penmanship while copying, talk about vocabulary, meaning, sometimes historical context, and then memorize the poem. We memorized about one a month. I kept it up through high school, memorizing everything from childhood poems by A.A. Milne, fairy tales by J.R.R. Tolkien, and brief poems by Emily Dickinson, to sonnets by Shakespeare and classics by Longfellow, Poe, and both the Brownings. I would sit down and read A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson from cover to cover. Though I have not done much memorizing since graduation, I keep my composition book out and handy. In college and after, I have added poems to it when I read or hear a new one that strikes a chord with me. Recent additions include Afternoon on a Hill by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Human Family by Maya Angelou.

This year, I had the privilege of helping my 1st grade students get ready for the same  poetry competition I was in so many years ago. This year’s selection of poems was written before 1840. My students memorized Mother Goose, Eliza Lee Follen, and even John Bunyan. They tackled some challenging words and abstract concepts and, for some, faced their fears by presenting in front of a large crowd of parents and grandparents.

Why should students have to interact with and even memorize poetry? How does it benefit them? Memorization is often discounted today because it is possible to memorize without understanding. It is true that understanding is the goal. However, it is also true that sometimes understanding follows memorization more easily than it follows explanation. This particular form of memory (poetry) has incredible benefits. Poetry uses an economy of words, often expresses emotions vividly, and trains children to listen to the sounds in spoken words (an important skill for reading). Memorizing poetry for presentation further impacts children. It teaches presentation skills, the use of clear diction, and creative expression. Reading and memorizing poems also helps students build up a stock of good examples of literature (from their own memory and those they have heard performed by their classmates) that they can enjoy and apply later on.

I have enjoyed some reading on classical education this month and found this quote by T.S. Eliot. “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest-for it is part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.” Even if poetry is difficult or seems boring to some children, it still has a valuable part in education.

 

 

Photo is my own.

Trying Could Mean Failing

Many of you know that I am a perfectionist. I like to get things exactly right the first time. Unfortunately, I have the tendency to avoid things that I don’t think I can do just right. In the new year, I have a uncharacteristic desire to try something new, even if that means I cannot do it perfectly.

I have been taking harp lessons again with a new teacher. At my first lesson, she mentioned she likes to teach how to arrange music. I had never tried to arrange anything. My friends who could play anything by ear always left me mystified. I am not very creative, but I can follow instructions really well. I have always relied on finding the best music and then learning to play it just like it is written. I decided to step out and try arranging a song since I had a willing teacher. I chose to start with I Wonder As I Wander (a nice minor key Christmas carol). It took me several weeks just to come up with a brief intro, interlude, and conclusion with little variation to the left hand (bass clef). It was hard to get started and there were several times when I kind of looked at my harp and looked at the blank staff paper and wondered if it would be easier to just write some notes down and then play them and keep trying until I hit on something. I finally got out a simple arrangement and even used some music writing software so that it looks like published music. You know what? I like it. I have decided I want to continue arranging in the new year with the help of my teacher. Even though it isn’t my natural bent, I hope it will get a little easier each time and I will be a little more satisfied with the result each time. I definitely have already learned a lot more about music theory and how written music works on the page just after one song. I had hardly ever thought about arranging my own songs before and definitely not composing, but now I even have that in the back of my mind. It might be a few years away, but it could happen.

Apart from the new things I want to do this year, I will also be doing some things that I am more used to. I am going to be helping my church with a free English conversation club that is available to the internationals in our area. I am excited to get to meet new people and to brush up on my ESL skills. I also want to continue blogging and write more fiction this year.

I encourage you to try something new, even if you try it and don’t like it or if you don’t stick with it the whole year. Remember that even if you fall short of your goal or fail utterly, a step forward is still significant and you can learn as much from failure as success.

 

Photo credit to Lauren Brouillette

Advent: Christ is Coming!

It has been a long time since I have enjoyed the Christmas season so much. Even though I have been home for Christmas the last two years, I have missed the lead up to Christmas that starts with Thanksgiving. It was so fun to be here for Thanksgiving, get to help with decorating the house, attend Christmas parties, and take part in the Christmas traditions that I have missed. I think the other reason I am enjoying it so much is that I get to teach my 1st grade class about Christmas. Our public schools are no longer allowed to celebrate Christmas (they are allowed to teach about it academically if they teach about other religious holidays equally). This means most schools did not decorate for Christmas, have a Christmas performance, or otherwise celebrate.

It is such a privilege to teach at a private Christian school where I am encouraged to celebrate and teach about Christmas in a meaningful, religious way. Having ties to the Reformed Episcopal church, our school made the distinction between the Advent and Christmas season. While advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, the Christmas season starts with Christmas day and continues until January 5th, the day before Epiphany. If you were wondering, Christmas season is 12 days. That’s right, the song is talking about the 12 days after Christmas, not before.

For 6-year-olds, waiting is hard. For that matter, waiting is hard for adults too. I am constantly catching myself wishing I could get this sooner and get through that quicker. Advent is all about waiting. Advent reminds us of the overarching story of the Bible and how the Israelites (and really the Gentiles unknowingly and even creation) waited for thousands of years for the coming of the Messiah. We talked about how many of the prophecies about the Messiah were written during some of the darkest days of Israel’s history, when their princes and priests were both corrupt and the nation was about to be destroyed. God gave them reminders of the hope to come, though it was still far off. As we think of the Israelites waiting and hoping, we remember that we are also waiting and hoping for Jesus. We are waiting for his second coming when he will come as the reigning king, bringing justice and destroying the curse.

I have also been teaching about the traditions that come out of Europe as they were passed on to the U.S. (though I was excited to devote a day to Mexico and talk about Las Posadas and the Poinsettia). We started out learning about St. Nicholas, who was from modern day Turkey, noted for his generosity, and who argued for the divinity of Christ in the Council of Nicaea. We talked about various traditions and legends associated with St. Nicholas in different countries, made some traditional ornaments and crafts, and thought about gift giving as a way to show generosity and kindness in remembrance of Christ’s selfless giving. I even got to wear my amazing vintage Polish dress that I got this fall. I can’t resist an opportunity to dress up, even at school!

dsc_0275

I love having our beautiful Victorian home decorated for Christmas for the first time. I have enjoyed making and buying gifts, singing so much Christmas music, and…eating Christmas cookies! The waiting time before Christmas is so sweet. I will be sad when it is over, but looking forward to what the New Year holds.

Photo by Laura Barnwell

This Our Hymn of Grateful Praise

For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies;

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

Every morning when I get up and look out my window, I am awed by the beauty around me. The mountains forever call my name and the hues of the bright trees catch my breath. When the sun sets, I again am amazed. Our God is the great God of creation.

100_1756

For the wonder of each hour of the day and of the night,

Hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light:

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

As much as I love the season of spring when all is new, as much as I love the mid-day sun when all is bright, every hour has its place and purpose. No matter the season or time of day, I am thankful for the plan God has for me and how He is teaching to be here now.

100_1805

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child;

Friends on earth and friends above; for all gentle thoughts and mild:

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

I am incredibly thankful to be with my family during this season of life. I have missed them so much and am glad that I can be present as a daughter and sister. The friends God has placed around me and around the world are treasures to me. For the friends who are near, and far, and those who have gone ahead of me to eternity, I must thank God for His gracious gifts to me for the time I had them close.

100_1791

For Thy Church that evermore lifteth holy hands above,

Offering up on every shore her pure sacrifice of love:

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

I cannot even begin to describe the great mystery of Christ and the Church. I do not understand why Christ would sacrifice Himself for her that we could have fellowship with Him. Neither do I understand how He allows us this incredible communion amongst each other and how the church can come together out of its many diverse parts to bring a song of praise. He knows that we need this kind of community.

11021213_847773988597505_6300617564145238986_n

For Thyself, best gift divine, to our race so freely given; 

For that great, great love of Thine, peace on earth and joy in heaven;

Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise. 

Best gift of all, the Giver. Thank You that we can know You intimately and that You are the source of all peace, joy, love, and hope. All that is beautiful and good comes from You. To You be glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.

 

For the Beauty of the Earth text by Folliott S. Pierpoint

First three photos are mine of Thanksgiving 2016. Fourth photo is Carola Venega’s of part of the Church in Mexico.