Monday, January 18, 2016

Mind your P's

Several years ago I used to visit the parenting forums on the Today's Parent website; it was a good place to share ideas and ask for advice.

One day a woman posted to the "School-Age Children" forum. Her question went something like this:  

"My little boy can be pretty noisy at school.  Yesterday when he came home he told me that his teacher had told him to be quiet, and then she taped his mouth. He said she did it lightly -- but is she even allowed to do that? What should I do?"

Well, the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, and so did the punctuation marks:

"OMG, are you serious??????"

"Call the principal RIGHT AWAY!!!!!"

"Call the school board and have her removed. No teacher should be allowed to do that to a child -- EVER!!!"

"Absolutely zero tolerance!  This person should not be allowed around children -- EVER!!!!"

"Call Children's Aid! That's abuse!!!!"

"I don't care if she taped his mouth 'lightly'; that's absolutely unacceptable.  If the school won't do anything, call the police!!!"

Then someone wrote, "She did WHAT? Like, with duct tape?"

The original poster wrote back: "No -- she reached out with her finger and taped him on the mouth."

"Uh ... what do you mean, 'with her finger'?"

"She taped him on the mouth, like she was saying 'Shhh, shhh,' trying to get him to be quiet. It was just light, but I don't know if she's actually even supposed to touch him at all."

"Ohhhhhh .. you mean she TAPPED his mouth."

And suddenly it was a whole different discussion.

Some mild disagreement followed about whether a teacher should ever touch a student, even gently, especially when attempting to exercise discipline -- and about whether it even made sense for a teacher to say "Shh" and touch a child's mouth rather than her own. These were valid points of debate, but the tone of the conversation had completely changed. Nobody seemed to doubt that TAPING a child's mouth and TAPPING a child's mouth were two very different things calling for drastically different responses.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this incident:

Small things can make a big difference -- as anyone knows who has tried to send an email message but has one wrong digit in the email address.

It's often a good idea to confirm and clarify before reacting emotionally.

 Two things that look very similar can actually be worlds apart. 

And finally -- knowing how to spell and to conjugate verbs is really important. It can save you and everyone else a lot of bother.

Friday, January 15, 2016

January "Quick Lit": off and reading in 2016

As I do on the 15th of most months, I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy for her "Quick Lit" linkup, in which we share short reviews of what we've been reading in the past month. (Disclaimer: my reviews may or may not actually be short.)

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, and Out of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith, by Sarah Bessey, are two great books to read one after another, as I did, because of their overlapping subject matter yet different treatment. Each one explores the author's journey from a relatively simplistic belief system, through disillusionment and doubt, to a more authentic faith that puts Jesus at the centre yet still allows room for questions and uncertainty. These books are both excellent. I can't really do justice to them in such a brief review, but here's my attempt:

Evans's book is structured according to seven sacraments; each section contains several chapters that address both her own ongoing love-hate relationship with the evangelical church and other themes and stories about the church at large, past and present.  Her style is a beautiful combination of poetic description, thoughtful storytelling (with lots of humour, often at her own expense), and honest questions about the church and her place in it.  As I read, I felt like I was watching her weave a tapestry. But rather than hiding all the knots and mistakes on the back, Evans brings the knots to the front, struggles with them, and leaves them there to be acknowledged as part of the whole picture of the church. 

Bessey's book unpacks her own faith journey, showing how she has wrestled with topics like the person of Jesus, the Bible, the work of the Spirit, community, the Kingdom of God, and more. Bessey's writing style is that of a wise, safe friend. It's like she's sitting cross-legged on the floor with you, unpacking boxes, sorting through old possessions and traditions, and sharing her own story of the joys and disillusionments of faith -- and sometimes grasping your hands to exhort you ("God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because he loves you") or pray over you.

Contrary to some online reviews which seem to have been written by people who didn't actually read the books, these books are absolutely NOT about "How I abandoned orthodox Christian teachings and created a whole new belief system that meets my needs." These are strong, faithful, articulate Christian women whose voices are well worth listening to.


The Lake House is Kate Morton's latest novel. Like her other books, this one develops a complex mystery that spans decades. In 1933, an eleven-month-old baby boy disappears from his family's estate during a summer party. Seventy years later, a detective constable named Sadie stumbles upon the ruins of the estate and begins to investigate the unresolved case, enlisting the help of the missing boy's older sister Alice, who is now an elderly mystery novelist. 

Because I love Morton's work, I couldn't wait to devour this book -- and it was good, although I have to say I didn't like it as much as her previous two, The Distant Hours and The Secret Keeper. With the latter in particular, I became completely immersed in the story's atmosphere and found its final plot twist shocking yet believable and satisfying. With The Lake House, though, the "Sadie" plot line (detective gets suspended because of her mishandling of a sensitive case, goes away to sort things out, and stumbles upon a long-forgotten mystery) felt like a cliche; I kept wishing the book would stick to the past narrative rather than returning to the present-day one. Still, Morton again demonstrates her talent for weaving together different plot threads, building suspense, and showing how small incidents have ripple effects across generations. I wouldn't call it her best work, but I'd still recommend it to anyone who likes big, well-written novels that combine romance, history, and mystery.


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. This book is based on Strayed's "Dear Sugar" advice column, which she wrote anonymously in an online literary magazine for several years. (Strayed is the author of the bestselling memoir Wild, which is about her walk on the Pacific Crest Trail and which was made into a movie in 2014.)  The questions "Sugar" receives range from "Should I leave my husband?" to "What do you think about God?" to "Must I invite my father to my wedding?" to "Why am I so jealous?" etc. Strayed doesn't just dispense advice from a lofty mountaintop: she shares honest, often painful stories from her own past, challenges her questioners to face the truth and live out of it, and encourages them (with expressions like "sweet pea" as well as more, uh, colourful language) to dig deep and be their best selves. This is a really interesting, entertaining, insightful book.


Have you read these, and if so, what did you think? And are you reading anything good so far in 2016? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Just ducky: the end of the story

When I was a teenager, I was part of a Christian singing group. One of the group members was an older guy named Bill Andrews: he was a prolific songwriter who sang and played guitar, and he was the kind of person who seemed to travel wherever the wind took him. He was also a wood carver. At that time, one of his popular carvings was a potato-picker -- not the machine kind, but a figure of a man bending over to put potatoes into a basket. I bought one of these potato-picker carvings from him and gave it to my parents. It was fairly small -- the base of it was only about eight inches long -- so they set it on the window rail in the kitchen, above the blue couch. That's where it stayed ... for more than thirty years.

In August of 2014, my mom got sick and was diagnosed with liver cancer. While she was still in hospital, my dad moved to an apartment; she lived there with him for a couple of weeks before she died in September, but she never came back to the farm. 

During the time that the farmhouse was being emptied and cleaned, the potato-picker carving disappeared. It seemed strange that it could just vanish -- it had been in the same place for so many years, and many other knickknacks that had been around since forever seemed to have remained intact -- but it was also easy to imagine it being tossed out as garbage or lost in a pile of firewood. Nobody we mentioned it to had happened to see it, and it never did turn up. 

I knew it wasn't that important an item; after all, it had just sat there, mostly unattended to, for years, and its value was sentimental only. But I did feel a little sad that it was gone. I wished that I at least had some evidence of its existence, so I looked through the photos on my computer to see if there were any in which it appeared. This picture, from April 2012, is the only one I could find: the carving can be seen very faintly in the background, on the window rail above the heads of my niece and my dad.

A couple of weeks ago I got a Christmas card and note from my aunt (my mom's sister) in PEI. There was a little lump in the envelope, and when I opened it I found a one-and-a-half-inch-long carved wooden duck. 

My aunt told me in her note that she had happened to meet Bill Andrews, the maker of the original carving, on the street outside her house a few months earlier. She mentioned me, and Bill remembered me and how we had sung so many of his songs in our group. Then she told him about the potato-picker carving that had disappeared and asked him if he might happen to have one. "No, I make ducks now," he said. One day not long after, she found this duck in her mailbox, and she sent it to me.

I read her note to one of my brothers, and at the mention of the potato-picker he looked guiltily at his wife and said, "That was broken, so we threw it out" -- which made perfect sense. Probably it had fallen off the ledge once (or more than once) and got cracked; I could even envision my mom or dad just placing it back up there without even bothering to fix it. My brother probably had no idea of its origin, and the logical thing to do with a broken knickknack is to toss it out. 

When he said it was gone, I realized I didn't mind at all. I'm glad to know what happened to it. I'd actually rather know that it was actively discarded than wonder if it was languishing in a box somewhere or gathering dust on a shelf at Value Village. 

The little wooden duck is quaint, and I treasure it. It's not quite the same as having the potato-picker back, of course, but when I look at it, it sets into motion all the thoughts and memories that I've described here. And it carries its own touching associations: the fact that my aunt made a point of asking Bill about the potato-picker, that he made a point of returning to her house to put the duck in her mailbox, and that she sent it to me.

We've all heard accounts of people losing something and finding it again in the most unlikely way: "I happened to be strolling past a massive landfill and spotted something shiny, and there was my engagement ring!" Or "I was deep-sea diving in Florida and lo and behold, I found the glasses I lost ten years ago!"  This isn't one of those stories (sorry about that, if you were hoping for an unexpected twist at the end).  But it's still a nice one, isn't it?  A story can have a satisfying ending even if things don't turn out exactly the way we hoped.