Today in My Commonplace


Perhaps I need to start posting my favorite bits of a few different books. This makes… what, the fifth quote from Sir Gibbie that I couldn’t bear to keep to myself?

Well. This one’s not terribly long–unlike the last one. But it’s the kind of that convicts.

This quote is about Janet, a character whom I suspect is only a passing character that we only meet for a few pages in a several hundred page novel. And yet… I learned a lot from this Janet, no matter her short time in the spotlight. You see, Janet is “good people”.

She was a mother. One who is mother only to her own children is not a mother; she is only a woman who has borne children. But here was one of God’s mothers.

I had to stop and think. I’ve said to myself before that I have a hard time loving other people’s children… I never stopped to wonder what that said about how much I have to learn about charity.

My first thoughts were about other people’s young children. Right now, I certainly don’t make any special efforts to mother them. Not really. Not like my husband Rocketman makes efforts to love and minister to other people’s children. It’s one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place; and maybe it was especially attractive because I knew I was lacking in this area. I think that while I may not be one of God’s mothers as here defined by Macdonald, that my husband may be one of God’s fathers. And, while the role of father is in many ways different to that of a mother, I think I can still learn from him.

Wherever we move to, and we’ve moved a few times, children find my husband irresistible. Somehow, he really, actually cares about whatever it is children prattle on about. Too often, I simply find it tiresome. Rocketman? It’s the most natural conversation topic in the world. Everything is interesting.

He’s told me his secret before: you treat them like people. Like real, honest-to-goodness, valuable-in-their-own-right, worthwhile people. You play with them, and you enjoy it, because of course spending time with fun people is fun. And the children know you value their presence. What child doesn’t want to be thought of as a fun person?

You look them in the eyes. And when they talk, you are genuinely interested. If they’re expressing a simple opinion desperately in want of an expanded perspective, you never shoot it down like an almighty adult. Instead, you get a gleam in your eye, that says, Oh, I know something irresistibly interesting about that! And they’ll hang onto your every word. If you’re just bursting at the seams with the desire to share interesting insight–not preach at them–because, really why wouldn’t anyone want to know? then they’ll listen, and you can teach them. And they’ll love you even more.

I’m thinking more about what Macdonald said about God’s mothers. “One who is mother only to her own children is not a mother; she is only a woman who has borne children.” Well–every single human being on the planet is some mother’s child. Even the grumpy 90-year-olds are some mother’s child. Even the bored-looking young adult cashier at the grocery store. Even the bum on the street.

Am I mother to them? What does it mean to be mother to every stranger you meet?

I’m certainly lacking here, as well. Certainly I don’t have the means to clothe and feed everyone on the planet. But maybe I can learn from one of God’s fathers–the one I’m married to.

What if I really listened to everyone who spoke to me, because I genuinely cared about what they had to say? What if I actually valued their presence? Maybe grown-ups don’t simply desire to be thought of as “a fun person”… but yet again, perhaps they do. That’s what so many people despair about not having, isn’t it? No one who actually wants them around? Someone who likes them for themselves?

What does it mean to be mother to every stranger you meet?




Today in My Commonplace


I found more in Sir Gibbie (affiliate link) to think about. This is one long paragraph from the author… His main character, although dim, is angelically good, and he anticipates that people be annoyed at how unrealistic this is. Here it is, in one giant, unwieldy paragraph.

If any one thinks I am unfaithful to human fact, and overcharge the description of this child, I on my side doubt the extent of the experience of that man or woman. I admit the child a rarity, but a rarity in the right direction, and therefore a being with whom humanity has the greater need to be made acquainted. I admit that the best things are the commonest, but the highest types and the best combinations of them are the rarest. There is more love in the world than anything else, for instance; but the best love and the individual in whom love is supreme are the rarest of all things. That for which humanity has the strongest claim upon its workmen, is the representation of its own best; but the loudest demand of the present day is for the representation of that grade of humanity of which men see the most—that type of things which could never have been but that it might pass. The demand marks the commonness, narrowness, low-levelled satisfaction of the age. It loves its own—not that which might be, and ought to be its own—not its better self, infinitely higher than its present, for the sake of whose approach it exists. I do not think that the age is worse in this respect than those which have preceded it, but that vulgarity, and a certain vile contentment swelling to self-admiration, have become more vocal than hitherto; just as unbelief, which I think in reality less prevailing than in former ages, has become largely more articulate, and thereby more loud and peremptory. But whatever the demand of the age, I insist that that which ought to be presented to its beholding, is the common good uncommonly developed, and that not because of its rarity, but because it is truer to humanity. Shall I admit those conditions, those facts, to be true exponents of humanity, which, except they be changed, purified, or abandoned, must soon cause that humanity to cease from its very name, must destroy its very being? To make the admission would be to assert that a house may be divided against itself, and yet stand. It is the noble, not the failure from the noble, that is the true human; and if I must show the failure, let it ever be with an eye to the final possible, yea, imperative, success. But in our day, a man who will accept any oddity of idiosyncratic development in manners, tastes, or habits, will refuse, not only as improbable, but as inconsistent with human nature, the representation of a man trying to be merely as noble as is absolutely essential to his being—except, indeed, he be at the same time represented as failing utterly in the attempt, and compelled to fall back upon the imperfections of humanity, and acknowledge them as its laws. Its improbability, judged by the experience of most men I admit; its unreality in fact I deny; and its absolute unity with the true idea of humanity, I believe and assert.

Now, I know not everyone reads 140-year-old English every day, so really it’s tempting to immediately go not only into TL;DR mode, it’s almost tempting to go into TC;DR mode, where C stands for complicated.

But I really liked this paragraph so much that I’m just going to have to break it down for you and force you to notice the deep thoughts therein.

Yes, Macdonald readily admits–the goodness of little Gibbie is a rarity, but it’s a rarity of the right kind. Humanity at large really needs to be exposed to the examples of uncommon goodness far more than what is usually demanded from literature (and I might add, TV shows and movies)… that is, a faithful representation of the mediocre.

Think about it. The demand is for believably flawed heroes. People don’t want to read about the nearly-perfect; they don’t want to have to compare themselves to a hero and find themselves so much less than their hero. It’s much easier to live with the comforting fact, that yes, Hero A is pretty awesome, but hey, he’s not so much different from myself, given Huge Failing #1. He’s a flawed hero. Maybe I’m a flawed hero. Sometimes, we seem to be more concerned with feeling good about our flawed selves than we are concerned with aspiring to be less flawed. We want to be satisfied with ourselves, not forced to put forth effort and become a better person.

Macdonald insists though, that we must have presented to our view, the stories of insanely good people. Sure the stories of the common certainly have their place, but not to the exclusion of the stories of the uncommonly virtuous. After all, if we wallow in our failings, and even celebrate our failings, a downfall is sure to come. Aspiring to be greater is what will help humanity.

Now, of course, I’m looking at my little rehash of what Macdonald said, and I find it lacking. This calls for a re-read of the original paragraph. And then a really long, really deep think.



Today in My Commonplace

gibbieI found yet another great quote in Sir Gibbie. This one’s a miniature treatise on addiction and abstinence. Some of my most beloved friends deal with addictions, and if they have taught me anything, it’s that addiction is basically an allegory for the whole human struggle of improvement.


Breaking habits is difficult. It’s like trying to derail a speeding train going downhill. And changing a nasty habit, or even a merely bad one, can be like committing to stopping that speeding train with your bare hands—overwhelming, scary, and maybe even downright impossible. It really depends on the size of the train, doesn’t it?

For context, this quote is about a woman who keeps swearing she’ll give up alcohol. But something stressful just happened, and she can’t quit now when it’s hard… but then she can’t even really enjoy her drink because she just gave up on herself.

Even the whisky itself gave her little relief; it seemed to scald both stomach and conscience, and she vowed never to take it again. But alas! this time is never the time for self-denial; it is always the next time. Abstinence is so much more pleasant to contemplate upon the other side of indulgence! Yet the struggles after betterment that many a drunkard has made in vain, would, had his aim been high enough, have saved his soul from death, and turned the charnel of his life into a temple. Abject as he is, foiled and despised, such a one may not yet be half so contemptible as many a so-counted respectable member of society, who looks down on him from a height too lofty even for scorn. (pg. 18)

Ouch! “This time is never the time for self-denial.” It never really is. Always next time. “Abstinence is so much more pleasant to contemplate upon the other side of indulgence!” Ugh, this one gets me. It’s easy to say you’ll never do something again after you’ve just done it; but to say that before you’ve given in and done it yet again—now that takes strength.

I really like that Macdonald here notes the ennobling power of striving to be better, even if the outward signs of that struggle are not always evident. “[… T]he struggles after betterment […] turned the charnel of his life into a temple.” Ooh. That’s lovely. I admit I had to look up charnel: it’s a vault for storing human remains. The imagery of transforming oneself from that into a house of worship is absolutely stunning.

“Abject [hopeless] as he is, foiled and despised, such a one may not yet be half so contemptible as many a so-counted respectable member of society, who looks down on him from a height too lofty even for scorn.” Ooh, so good. It strikes me that the hopeless drunkard here striving upwards is more virtuous that someone who never bothers to strive, and in fact, looks down upon others.

This is a great reminder to strive upward, and to reach upward for assistance.

Today in My Commonplace

gibbieI have to share another quote from Sir Gibbie (affiliate link!). This one is about a woman who runs a drinking joint. She liked to say that having a reputable place for the lost souls of the world to drink in saved these people from themselves… otherwise they’d commit suicide, or perhaps get into other trouble. And so, even though this lady has heard all her life that strong drink is of the devil, she has justified to herself reasons for this mode of making her living.

I find this fascinating. Justification and excuses are some powerful stuff. It’s worth pointing out that you can, if you wish, always find a way to justify any course of action to yourself. And, if you talk to “the wicked” people in the world, and talk to them about their choices, you’ll find that they always have justifications and excuses, and usually well-reasoned ones at that.

Anyway, here’s that quote that made me stop and think:

The truth was that, like her customers, she also was going down the hill, justifying to herself every step of her descent. Until lately, she had been in the way of going regularly to church, and she did go occasionally yet, and always took the yearly sacrament; but the only result seemed to be that she abounded the more in finding justifications, or, where they were not to be had, excuses, for all she did. Probably the stirring of her conscience made this the more necessary to her peace. (pg. 13-14)

This made me ask myself the question… do I view the good I do as simply making up for the bad? It’s a good, searching question, and I think it’s fitting to remember that eternal salvation doesn’t work that way. Good acts do not pay for bad ones; the atonement and grace of Christ pay for bad choices.


Today in My Commonplace

gibbieI’ve had Sir Gibbie by George Macdonald on my TBR (to be read) pile for about a year now. The ladies on the AO forum put it in the discussion queue quite a while ago now, so in anticipation, I went through an insane amount of effort trying to find a print edition that wasn’t print on demand (because sadly those tend to only be good as kindling for your Christmas fire) or severely abridged, edited, or whatnot.  This tale seems to be particularly plagued by helpful souls who want to do plastic surgery with it, due to a fair amount of Scottish brogue as well as religious content. The ideal “chopped” version would be simply one that merely tried to make the Scottish dialogue easier to read, but alas, such an abridgment does not yet exist.

I did find a few unchopped versions, such as this one, a reprint by Johannesen Printing (affiliate link!), but it took a lot of sorting through editions to finally find one. But none are currently in print, and so they can expensive. Darn.

But guys, it was totally worth all the effort to find an original, unabridged text. I’m only on page 21, and I can tell it was worth it—George Macdonald’s prose is delightful. And to think I was suspicious that I wouldn’t have time to read this with everyone else during the AO discussion. Hah! Mama has to make time for this one.

Here’s a little sampling of what I wrote in my commonplace notebook from chapter 2.

…it is wonderful upon how little those rare natures capable of making the most of things will live and thrive. There is a great deal more to be got out of things than is generally got out of them, whether the thing be a chapter of the Bible or a yellow turnip, and the marvel is that those who use the most material should so often be those that show the least result in strength or character.

It’s time for bed, and I know what I’ll be thinking upon.


Jenna does AO1: Week 1

(FYI: When I link to Amazon, I use an affiliate link; if you buy something, I get a teensy amount of money from your purchase. I’m experimenting with including these because my book habit is rather expensive, and I’m running out of ideas to fund it!)

Well, I had some fun. I started a narration notebook to keep my narrations in. And… well, can I just say something? These readings are wonderful. Just So Stories? It’s a hoot. Parables from NatureDarling. I just read A Lesson of Faith. Fantastic. The Burgess Bird Book is sneakily educational.


Some of the things I did for myself, I found the littles crowding around to participate, too. In particular, they adored Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton.

And they were miffed when I tried to put away the art. They snatched my laminated print of Saint George Battles the Dragon, and I was bombarded with questions about it.

Well, thankfully, I just narrated nearly the entirety of Faerie Queene, book 1, on the AO forum, so I could launch into an epic retelling of this battle with ease. (Have I mentioned that narration is amazing?) Even Rocketman stopped playing his video game to listen in.

I might pull out the year 1 free read Saint George and the Dragon and read it to the littles simply because they are so enthralled will Rubens’ painting. I’ve caught them acting out the battle multiple times since we looked at the painting. Success!

The kids and I heartily approve of Telemann; Jadzia gushed about how beautiful his Concerto for 4 Violins in G major (TWV 40:201) (YouTube) was, and told me how much she appreciates when I play beautiful music. Yessss.

Nature journaling was… well, see for yourself. I’m going to say that was successful. It was also surprisingly soul-calming.


I must confess, however, that I did all these things roughly a month ago, and then I got extremely ill (I’m still fighting to recover, in fact) and I just had to sleep all day, every day instead of do… mother culture things.

Or hey, I suppose I haven’t failed at mother culture. Check out this lovely quote from Charlotte Mason:

If mothers could learn to do for themselves what they do for their children when these are overdone, we should have happier households. Let the mother go out to play! If she would only have courage to let everything go when life becomes too tense, and just take a day, or half a day, out in the fields, or with a favourite book, or in a picture gallery looking long and well at just two or three pictures, or in bed, without the children, life would go on far more happily for both children and parents. (Vol. 3, pg. 34, emphasis mine)

So hey, I’m all ready to get back on track starting today, and I needn’t feel guilty for taking time to heal. After all, we got plenty of Telemann in, and we saw a downy woodpecker yesterday. I’d recently read about those in HONS, so I was able to observe firsthand some behaviors Anna Comstock described there. Jadzia asked why the woodpecker didn’t slide down off the tree, and I got to explain about how woodpecker’s feet are specially designed to hold on to the bark, and they can climb up the tree, but if they ever want to get back down, they have to fly down instead of climb. Sounds like an excellent candidate for our next nature journaling entry!


Planning My Own Year 1

For the most part I will be following the readings in AO Year 1 as written, so here is an obligatory picture of all my books. (You might even be able to tell I’m a book collector. Ha.)


I’ve acquired all the free reads as well, just in case. I’m not sure I’ll get to them, but you never know. Some of them are pretty short.


I’ll also be trying to learn Spencerian handwriting, because I’ve always wanted to. (Do I really need a reason?) I have some workbooks to try out with my new fancy fountain pen.


I’ll also be trying my hand at recitation… this has me a little spooked, I’ll be honest. But that probably means I should do it. We’ve already recited scriptures together as a family since the day Rocketman and I got married, but I’ve noticed we tend to say the same ones over and over and over…

For math… well, I’m pretty good at arithmetic, it’s true. That said, I’ve been wanting to type-set Frank Hall’s Arithmetic Primer and make a version that I (and other families) can print out. My goal is to type up and set graphics for one page every day, and at the end of the year, I’ll have a fancy resource to share with the greater homeschooling community. (Woohoo!)


We’ve been learning Serbian as a family, with the aid of a native tutor. We learn nursery rhymes, songs, poems, and stories. I’m considering figuring out a few Gouin series to introduce.


I don’t want to neglect physical activity, because that’s been a weak spot. I’ve been that stereotypical nerd who doesn’t know how to operate her own body, so I’m working on fixing that. I’ll be doing lots of restorative exercises to combat all my pains and such, and of course, walking out in nature as much as I can. (Can you say nature study?!)

Speaking of nature, I’ve actually taken the plunge and instead of merely reading about nature in the Handbook of Nature Study and keeping my eyes open while outside, I actually going to start my nature journal.


This ties into art; I’ve known I have a hidden talent for art, and I feel convicted to start actually using it. My daughter also exhibits several clear signs of artistic giftedness, and boy, oh boy, is she eager to master art. I’d like to start working through Drawing with Children with her. The few drawing sessions we’ve done have been a huge hit. Even the baby loves drawing all over everything, as you might be able to tell…


For handicrafts, I’d love to take up wood-carving… eventually. For now, we’re starting with soap carving since that’s safer for the littles. And let’s be honest, those determined little tots would find a way to get any forbidden carving tools and wreak havoc with them. I’m not really for that, so boom! We made tools out of popsicle sticks… and of course, now the littles beg to soap carve everything.


We’re also a heavily musical family, so I’m going back to daily piano practice, and I’m going to start sol-fa, which I’ve always been a little miffed about not knowing. Besides, I want to be able to teach it next year. Of course, we already enjoy the folksong, composer and artist rotations available from AO; recently I also helped create an LDS hymn rotation with a few other LDS CMers. I plan to use that, but being a hymn nerd, I plan to secretly (okay, not really secretly) indulge myself by enjoying Protestant hymn rotation from AO, even if we don’t officially include it in school.


I hope to also flesh out an appropriate CM-approved LDS scripture plan for all twelve school years, but especially year 1, given that I’ll need something to assign Jadzia when she starts next year. This is quite the conundrum. We Latter-day Saints have a plenitude of scripture, which is, in fact, wonderful, but when I see AO’s Bible assignments, I just get a little jealous that other children will get to immerse themselves so thoroughly in the Bible.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to have my students read through the entire Bible narrative three times in twelve years, which AO does (well, almost), but I want them grounded thoroughly in the Bible anyway… even with the added scripture, which I want them to know just as well.

Anyway, the encouragement I’ve received with lots of prayer and reading through CM’s volumes and looking at the PNEU schedules is that CM was less concerned with how many times a student read through the Bible, but instead wanted her students to form deep, intimate relationships with scripture and God Himself. (Note to self, long term goal: also find appropriate LDS devotional reading for upper years…)

So anyway, I’ve laid myself a rich feast and I am ready to start eating. First grade, here I come!



Why I’m Starting AO Year 1 for Myself

One of the things I love about the Charlotte Mason community is the encouragement for mothers not to forget their own growth and education. Mothers should take time for themselves to read good literature, think great thoughts, listen to lovely music, look at great art, notice nature, and make beautiful things…

So I have been. I’ve been doing all these things.

But as my oldest child, Jadzia (5) approaches school age, I keep looking at AmblesideOnline year 1, and I think, “Man. I’m so jealous. *I* want to do all that.” And, well, of course I’ll be reading it all aloud to her next year.

But here’s the thing… when I’m doing that, the focus will be all on her. *She* will be the one to narrate, not me.

And narration, wow. Can we just talk about some of the benefits of narration? Charlotte Mason calls narration “the act of knowing” (Vol. 6, p. 99), and that’s totally the truth.

“Whatever a child or grown-up person can tell, that we may be sure he knows, and what he cannot tell, he does not know” (Vol. 6, pp. 172-173).

I think I can safely say I had the absolute best that public education had to offer; I was in the gifted program with excellent teachers. In high school I sated myself with AP and IB courses… and yet, after all that, I froze in panic if I was ever asked to talk about anything I’d learned in school. Oh, heck yeah, I could rock all those tests, but I was haunted by the niggling feeling that I wasn’t actually, truly learning. If I could not explain a blessed thing about American history after spending an entire year on it–what had I spent so much time on? If I couldn’t explain any scientific principles after years of AP science, did I really learn anything, or had I just memorized a bunch of algorithms for solving problems in the textbooks?

And the problem didn’t end in high school. I got my bachelor’s in neuroscience, and while I can explain some of the basic principles fairly well, I couldn’t help feeling that I was completely unworthy of that neuroscience degree despite performing well in my classes.

After college, though, I got a real job. And my job was to narrate.

For real! My job title was medical scribe, but what that meant was that I followed a reproductive endocrinologist around all day while he spoke to patients, and I wrote up the medical records. I enjoyed the benefit of explaining on paper what the doctor had explained orally to the patient; further, I enjoyed the benefit of explaining how the doctor had arrived at a particular diagnosis. For the first time in my life, I felt like I rocked learning something… and even if it was something as specific as reproductive endocrinology, oh boy, did I know that stuff backwards and forwards.

Some years later, I was no longer working outside of the home, and I had some deep questions about what I wanted for my kids’ education. Long story short, I found Charlotte Mason, and as I read her words about narration–ding ding ding!

Narration. Narration explains everything. Why didn’t I actually know anything I learned in sixteen years of school? Because I never, ever narrated. And in contrast, why did I know backwards and forwards the principles of reproductive endocrinology? Because I narrated that material day in and day out for fifteen months straight.

So when I look at the mouth-wateringly rich curriculum that is AmblesideOnline, I can’t help but think that I totally missed out, and I will continue to miss out–even while guiding multiple children through all 12 years–if I don’t manage to narrate the readings myself.

And, boy, do I want to really get the hang of narrating. That’s really the point of starting all the down at the bottom in year 1. I stink at narrating long readings. I can’t narrate without looking back at the book multiple times. Eventually I’d like to train my brain to take in longer and longer reading selections and then be able to masterfully narrate it… but to do that, I’m going to start with the easy-to-narrate year 1 books and work up.

Next post, I’ll explain my specific plans for my very own AO Year 1.

(So excited.)



Richard III by William Shakespeare (1592)


I had a blast leading this discussion on the AO forum. And this play is amazing. Richard III is just a slimy villain. He has no remorse, and he adroitly plays with people’s minds. He manages to kill off his brothers, his brother’s sons, his wife, and a gajillion political rivals.

By the end, though, he’s not really fooling anyone. All the fools have been murdered at this point. So even though he’s king, he can’t really sit on that throne securely. He doesn’t trust anyone and grows paranoid.

My favorite scene was the night before the battle between Richmond (the future Henry VII) and Richard. Shakespeare has a most intriguing set-up on the stage: Richard is sleeping in his tent on one end of the stage, and Richmond is sleeping in his own tent on the other end of the stage. And then the ghosts come and haunt both of them in their sleep. Of course, these are the ghosts of all the people Richard has murdered, and so they all curse him, and bless his rival with success. In the morning Richard wakes up as if from a nightmare, very ill-rested. Richmond, on the other hand, wakes up after the best sleep of his life. Such a clever stage play.

Shakespeare’s Richard is an amazing villain, but of course, we all know this is a bunch of Tudor propaganda, don’t we? So I’ll have to read Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time soon to balance this one out. Woohoo!

What’s Going On In There? by Lise Eliot, PhD (2000)

Oh, wow. Babies and neuroscience! What’s not to like? I have three very young kids and a degree in neuroscience, so this was right up my alley.

I was so impressed with this book. It’s explained simply enough for the layperson, but with enough detail to satisfy an expert. There were several times I found myself wanting to wake my husband to tell him a cool brain development factoid I learned…

Because I took coursework on sensation and perception back in my neuroscience days, much of the information on touch, proprioception, smell, taste, vision and hearing was nothing new to me. And the motor development section was familiar, too…

I especially liked the next chapters about language acquisition, memory, social-emotional development, sex differences, and intelligence. I lapped that all up.

Anyway, a few fun factoids… Intelligence is about half genetics and half environment. Babies also have both polite smiles and genuine smiles–there’s an eye muscle involved in a real smile, and strangers don’t get those eye smiles. Deaf babies don’t babble aloud, but do “babble” in sign language.

A warning about this one though–at about 500 pages, it’ll take a while to get through. But this is for sure going to end up as a classic book on child development.