How I discovered Irish Music: A St. Patrick’s Day Post

Four-leaved_clover2I’m often asked why I love St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish and Celtic. “Are you Irish, Laura?” is often the query. I do have a bit of Irish blood, but that’s far from the reason why I celebrate Ireland all year round. One of the elements I enjoy the most about Irish culture is the music, and here’s the story of how I first encountered it and the four artists who have become lifelong favorites.

1) Finding ALTAN

CelticOdysseyMy sister inadvertently introduced me to a lot of things that quickly became passions for me. She had a tape, I think made by a college friend, that had the Celtic Odyssey album on it (Narada Collection). It’s a sampler of songs from a bunch of different Celtic music artists, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. I had recently just read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and this album evoked all kinds of feelings and imagery from the book that had just changed my life. It was like the two were meant to go together.

Of all the songs on that album, my favorite was “Dónal Agus Mórag” by a band named Altan. It wasn’t even in English. I didn’t have a clue what the Irish lyrics were saying (the homemade tape just had the song names, no liner notes), but it captivated me. I began searching for this band and what other work they had done.

Enter: the Celtic Fields store. A store with Celtic and Irish-themed things opened in a mall near my home, and it quickly became my favorite place to go. The 1990s saw a huge influx of interest in all things Celtic and I was luckily standing in the right place when the tide came in. Yes (for those who remember them), Riverdance and Lord of the Dance were part of my journey too. It was at the Celtic Fields store that I found 3 other audiocassette tapes by Altan: “The Red Crow,” “Harvest Storm,” and “Island Angel” – and bought them immediately. I also bought some “Teach yourself Irish” tapes, but that’s another story…

Altan’s albums did not disappoint, I enjoyed scouring the liner notes that came with them, and trying to decipher the mysteries of the Irish language in the included lyrics. Eventually I somehow nabbed a catalog of their distributor: Green Linnet Records. This was my gateway to traditional Irish music. I found artists Eileen Ivers, Cherish the Ladies, Déanta, Andy Stewart, and more. I used my scanty funds as a high school student to buy more albums, and raided the public library, which luckily had plenty of CDs for these and other Celtic music artists to explore.

altan.jpgAnd what happened to Altan in my life, you ask? Well, naturally I bought all their albums, and continue to get each new one that comes out. I’ve also seen them 3 times live, which is always a supreme joy when I get a chance. My first Altan concert was February 1, 1999 (thanks parents!). I wrote an excited diary entry in green ink documenting the play list from the concert, audience reactions, the stage lighting and ambiance, and the way the band and audience interacted. High school Laura was disappointed all the Altan t-shirts were sold out, and reflected: “I really have more appreciation for the other members of the band on accordion, guitar, and bouzouki now that I actually got to see them in action and their parts in the mold of music.” Interestingly enough, that same diary entry records that I got my acceptance letter to Wheaton College that day. It gets a half-sentence mention. At the end.

My second time seeing Altan was in Ann Arbor, MI during grad school in the spring of 2005, but the third time seeing the band remains my favorite. It was on March 12, 2011 at the Ramsey Auditorium at Fermilab. I was there with friends good enough to put up with my, shall we say “excited?”, demeanor. We had great seats to see the band well and their hands as they made magic happen on their instruments. After the concert they said they’d stick around for a meet & greet and to sign albums. I had bought the lead singer’s solo album, Imeall by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (beastly difficult to get with limited distribution), and wanted to get her signature.

I was the last in line, and when I stepped up to her I got to say: “You played my favorite song tonight during the concert!” “Which one?” she asked, with her characteristic smile. “Dónal Agus Mórag” I said, hoping my pronunciation passed. “Oh! We just started playing that again!” she said. (Lucky me!) “Your music has been a huge blessing in my life, and I’ve been a fan for many years,” I added. “What a sweet thing to say!” said Mairéad, giving me a hug. I then had my photo taken with the whole band. “Go in amongst the gentlemen in the middle” Mairéad said, waving me over. That photo is framed and gives me the largest grin every time I see it sitting on my bookshelf at home. And yes, CD cover and program were both signed by Mairéad and the band.

 

2) Finding ENYA

EnyaMy first encounter with Enya was a very strange occurrence indeed. Well, the first encounter I enjoyed. My sister also had an Enya song on one of her mix tapes, but it was “Cursum Perficio,” one of what I now affectionately call her “angry-sounding Latin songs” and not to my taste. No, I had been watching an episode of Northern Exposure (one of my favorite shows) and was poised to turn off the TV because Baywatch was coming on, when I heard the most amazing music ever. Some lady in a blue swimsuit was doing a slow-motion complex dive through the air, but the music filling the scene was a sound of beauty like I’d never heard before, and I was transfixed. What was this mysterious music with the ethereal singer? It was Enya’s song “Caribbean Blue,” and it remains my favorite song by her to this day. Do you know how hard it was to find that out in the pre-internet days? Well, it was hard.

My first Enya album was Watermark, and “Orinoco Flow” wowed me just like everyone else. When I got to Shepherd Moons, I was very intrigued to see that one song title was “Lothlórien.” Good heavens! Could Enya be a Tolkien fan too?? Turns out she is, as the world found out when she scored two songs for The Fellowship of the Ring film in 2001. And what else did I learn after some investigation? She had been on keyboards back in the day with Altan and came from the same part of Ireland as them. Whaaaatt?!

Another favorite early Enya memory is when I spotted a VHS tape in a store (Best Buy?) that was of her music videos. “Music videos aren’t generally very entertaining,” my mother warned me, “you won’t want to watch it more than once.” But, this is Enya. I mean, I couldn’t imagine how her videos couldn’t be good. They were probably filmed in secluded forests and ended with Enya walking up a rainbow into the sky, right? Well, my high school wishes were pretty close to that. The thought that went into the videos is evident, and the visual imagery is stunning. Her videos are amazing, and although I now have a DVD with all of them on it, the VHS tape still sits proudly on my shelf as my first introduction to the visualization of her music. I’ve also gotten into artist Maxfield Parrish thanks to her videos and album art.

And Enya’s music is one of the two artists I can listen to on infinite repeat, without weariness, and whenever I need to concentrate or relax. The other artist? Owl City, who by the way loves Enya too, and has said that he uses a lot of her chord progressions and techniques in his own music. Of course he does.

3) Finding LOREENA MCKENNITT

The VisitSo my sister had this mix tape made for her by a friend…seeing a trend here? This time the song was “The Lady of Shalott” off of Loreena McKennitt‘s album The Visit. I was familiar with the Tennyson poem from Anne of Green Gables, which made me predisposed to like the song. What I wasn’t prepared for was that it was 11 minutes long! A good portion of the poem was used, beautifully set to music, and Loreena’s haunting voice had me hooked at once. I got the album from the library, and the rest is history.

I used Loreena’s version of “The Two Trees” for my report on Yeats in my junior year high school English class. I also begged my senior year high school English teacher to include “The Lady of Shalott” poem in our studies of English literature even though there wasn’t time for it in the schedule. She did, much to my delight.

Had the pleasure of seeing Loreena live at the Lyric Opera in Chicago on May 1, 2007. She’s just as good live as she is on her recordings, and I wrote a thorough concert report to capture every memory from the experience. Hoping to see her again soon…she has a new album coming out after all!

4) Finding THE CORRS

Forgiven_Not_Forgotten.jpgIn the summer of 2001 I traveled to Ireland for the first time as a college student with the Wheaton in England program through Wheaton College. You can maybe, just maybe, gauge how excited I was on that trip after reading the post up until now. I booked it to the Irish Music Hall of Fame and Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, and was so excited to hear live music and explore. Amongst the rows of albums I thumbed through at the ITMA, and the CDs available for sale in stores, the album Forgiven, Not Forgotten by The Corrs caught my eye.

The band is a set of 4 siblings who have been trained in traditional Irish music, but splice it with pop-style music. It was, and remains, a very fun and dynamic combination. Soon I was shoving my headphones into friends’ ears as we bumped along the Irish roads in our big coach bus saying: “Listen to this new band I just found. Aren’t they great?!” Some people on the trip had heard The Corrs’ popular single “Breathless,” which led me to more of their albums, which I looked up in the internet labs and cafés when we were lucky enough to have such luxuries of web access. I remember sitting in my St. Anne’s College dorm room in Oxford jamming to the Talk on Corners album on my discman.

One of my favorite Corrs memories though was long after at my friend Elizabeth’s wedding. She and I had been on the Wheaton in England trip together and she had a certain favorite Corrs song that was a very peppy Irish jig she enjoyed dancing to. Without telling anyone but the DJ, we played the song at her wedding reception and she suddenly leapt into an Irish jig dance with several bridesmaids. It was magic.

So that, friends, is my tale of Irish & Celtic music discovery, and what a marvelous journey it has been! I’m always up for trying out new artists. Can’t wait to see what else is just around the corner!

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY, EVERYONE!!

Irish-Trad-Poster

Postcard I got in Ireland.

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Mind the Gap: Where Scholarship on C.S. Lewis and other Wade Authors needs some Filling-In

mind-the-gapHello friends. As promised, and long overdue, I am checking in again to write the third and final post on reflections of the C.S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium that took place at Taylor University in June 2016. Posts one and two focused on why I felt the Colloquium embodied a healthy example of academia, and the enjoyment I had of attending as an archivist. This post will focus on a gap in scholarship on C.S. Lewis (and other Wade authors) that I’ve noticed and that I was reminded of at the Colloquium.

Let me start by making 2 observations I’ve had as archivist at the Wade Center over the past 12 years:

    1. First of all, for many years people would come up to me and say: “I’m leading a Bible study group / church group / book discussion group and we’re reading C.S. Lewis’s book: (fill in title blank here). What resources have been published that will help me teach this book / lead discussion in a group setting?” Earlier on, I had to shamefully hang my head and say: “Amazingly enough, I have nothing to recommend to you unless you are teaching The Chronicles of Narnia.” That is, thankfully, no longer the case for several of Lewis’s books, including some of the most popular titles, but remains the reality for many other important Lewis titles, and those of other Wade authors.questions
    2. Next, it has been surprisingly apparent that although Lewis is known for the clarity of his writing and amazing ability to communicate complex ideas to the common reader, his texts are thought to be too “heady” for many people today to read and understand. There may be a number of reasons for this. As we move further away from the era when Lewis was writing, it is possible that his examples or vocabulary are harder for the average person to grasp. In a similar vein, I’ve heard at least one Lewis scholar argue that people’s ability to grasp complex ideas while reading has decreased greatly in recent years due to the media-infused culture in which we currently live. A philosophy professor friend confirmed this to me as well, saying that students are less capable of spending time with a text, or of reading it multiple times, in order to grasp its content if the first read-through doesn’t make sense to them.

     

  1. Now before we all start to despair over current culture, I have seen many examples in contrast to point #2. I know a lot of people who are readers, and many who are quite capable of patiently pursuing complex thoughts and ideas in texts that require such attention. I also realize, however, that I move in academic circles which are not exactly mainstream society…but a conversation about culture trends or proving statistics is not what this blog is about.The fact that people want to engage with Lewis’s works, but have roadblocks to doing so, is disheartening to me. I, for one, have gained so much from reading him; I definitely want others to have the same experience and remove any roadblocks keeping them from doing so. This is where my call to Lewis (and other authors!) scholars comes in, with a question and some ideas.The question: how can we help modern readers, both those academically inclined and the more casual reader, dig deep in Lewis’s works and find the gold in them?

    I have a few ideas, which I’ll list here:

    1. pilgrimsregress_cropped-cover.jpgCritical & Annotated Guides: Scholars have a very unique set of information that readers can really benefit from, and critical / annotated versions of books are a great way for a reader to have an experienced / informed guide walk them through a text. Such books contain notes in the margins or footnotes that provide context to historical references which most readers won’t know, explain complex concepts that might be outside of a reader’s range of experiences, and also interesting facts about the text like how an example is understood in British culture, or where an idea may have come from the author’s personal life. These notes are like a wise companion along the reading road, and that guidance helps readers finish the reading journey and get the most out of all the roadside attractions and truths along the way.
      Examples of some books in this category includeThe Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, annotated by David C. Downing; and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, annotated by Craig M. Kibler.
    2. heavenStudy Guides for groups and individuals: When you’re leading some kind of class or book discussion, a quality resource that comes in an easy-to-access pre-packaged format is always a great help. Having guides written by people who KNOW the text well is essential, and can be very effective if that knowledge informs how to break the text down for group consumption over a number of class or meeting sessions, complete with recommended group activities, homework, appendices, charts, guides to the main themes in the text, glossaries, and study questions.

      Examples of some books in this category includeA Reader’s Guide Through the Wardrobe: Exploring C.S. Lewis’s Classic Story (a literary guide on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) by Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead; Speaking of Jack: a C.S. Lewis Discussion Guide by Will Vaus; and C.S. Lewis goes to Heaven: A Reader’s Guide to The Great Divorce by David G. Clark.

    3. Bandersnatch-coverAdapted texts for non-academic readers: A recent trend I’ve noticed is scholarly / academic books being reformatted and adapted to simpler texts intended for non-academic readers. This can transform the difficult-to-digest academic concept texts into texts edible by the common reader, while still conveying the same observations and ideas. This way: everyone can partake in the feast.

      Examples of some books in this category includeBandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (a reworking of the earlier title The Company They Keep) both by Diana Pavlac Glyer; and The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens (a reworking of the earlier title Planet Narnia) both by Michael Ward.

    4. SG_DVD_BOOK_imageMedia supplemental material: And the answer some folks have arrived at is by providing a media-infused culture with media supplements to go along with reading the texts. Notice I said supplements. No video montage or podcast can ever replace reading the original work by the author, but it can aid it, particularly for those who thrive on visual elements or learning through a lecturer or coach. The key here also remains to provide plenty of substance in whatever is created, rather than just filling the space with fluff or surface-level observations. This requires both a deep understanding of the text and, especially with video, a creative flair to make it engaging to modern audiences.

      Examples of some books in this category includeDiscussing Mere Christianity: Exploring the History, Meaning & Relevance of C.S. Lewis’s Greatest Book by Devin Brown (book and DVD set); and the C.S. Lewis Study Program Lectures by the C.S. Lewis Institute (sets of free online video lectures by Lewis experts on Mere ChristianityLetters to Malcolm, and The Screwtape Letters).

    I would love to see any and all of the books by the seven Wade authors given this kind of attention by scholars who can do the job well (emphasis on well, folks), but particularly the works of C.S. Lewis which haven’t yet had this treatment. They have a ready-made audience for such resources. And if traditional publishers won’t bite, then self-publishing or free online resources might be other avenues to pursue.

    Want to see a few more examples of what’s already been written in the “study guide” genre for the Wade author’s works? Well, check out this listing in our catalog of around 250 titles (but most of those are for K-12 classrooms, y’all).

    Here are some of the top Wade author titles that come to mind which have not yet been fully mined in this way:

    C.S. LEWIS:

    1. The Space (Cosmic / Ransom) TrilogyOut of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength
    2. Till We Have Faces
    3. The Four Loves
    4. Letters to Malcolm
    5. Lewis’s essays (various titles)
    6. A Grief Observed
    7. The Problem of Pain
    8. Miracles
    9. Surprised by Joy

     

    G.K. CHESTERTON:everlasting

    1. Orthodoxy
    2. The Everlasting Man
    3. The Man Who Was Thursday
    4. Manalive
    5. The Father Brown mystery stories (various titles – particularly their embodiment of elements of theology and philosophy)
    6. I also really want a succinct text on Chesterton’s conversion story, but one can’t have everything…


    DOROTHY L. SAYERS
    :

    1. Religious dramas (various titles)
    2. Selected essays (various titles, but particularly those in Creed or Chaos)


    CHARLES WILLIAMS
    :

    1. His 7 novels in particular, but
    2. Pretty much anything else the man wrote


    GEORGE MACDONALD
    :

    1. Phantastes & Lilith (particularly focused on his use of imagery in these stories, and the journey of the individual through redemptive experiences)
    2. His fairy tales (if study guides wouldn’t ruin their magic…)
    3. Any of his novels


    OWEN BARFIELD
    :PoeticDiction

    1. Poetic Diction
    2. Saving the Appearances
    3. Anything else the man wrote
    4. But let’s be honest, what Barfield really needs is a biography written at the same caliber as Grevel Lindop and Abigail Santamaria’s masterpieces. And it’s true, that’s far from easy to accomplish.

    And to the best of my knowledge, J.R.R. Tolkien is already covered — but feel free to prove me wrong!

    So there you have it. Spread the word! Go! Write! Find ways to get the concepts embedded in these authors’ works into the hands of the masses (not just academic papers that are read and / or accessible to only 12 people – although those are important too)! We’ll keep doin’ our thing at the Wade with this mission and always love to collaborate with those who share that vision.

    Feel free to post any guides you’ve found particularly helpful on the Wade authors’ works in the comments section of this blog post.

Book Review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Script_Book_Cover***NON-SPOILER CONTENT***

I just finished reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne. The book is the published script from the 2 plays by the same title currently being performed in London. Altogether, the script embodies 6 hours of on-stage drama. As I’ve learned by reading Shakespeare over the years, reading a play and watching a play can be very different experiences, so note that this review is based solely on what I read in the content of the book. I would be interested to know how the play compares, and welcome anyone who has seen the play to weigh in.

First off, as to be expected, something big is lost in the setting when you’re reading rather than seeing a play. I imagine that the special effects, costuming, and backdrops would be spectacular to see on a stage. I missed having the settings described in the book version of the play as they would be in a novel. Seeing the magical world in action in real time in front of you, rather than a TV or movie screen, would indeed be a sight to relish.

One of my main disappointments was the characterization of this latest addition to the Potter universe. For me as a reader, it felt as if the characters were stereotypes or caricatures of themselves rather than the deep, believable, and wonderful people we got to know and love in the previous seven volumes. The talents of Hermione and Harry in particular seemed dim examples of what they were in the past. Instead of seeing them untangle riddles and stay ahead of the action as they had done even as Hogwarts students, they always seem one or two steps behind. Is being slower simply the curse of adulthood, or could we have expected more from the talented trio of Ron, Hermione, and Harry in their adult years? Granted, the story does not have them as the focal point, and again, reading a script strips the story of the way actors can add life to the roles.

The written voices of the characters seemed different at times too. Ron was flat, only used as comic relief most of the time, and I only fully recognized Harry’s voice later in the story near the end where he takes on the noble and caring tones we know to be deep in the heart of his character. I did appreciate seeing more roundness and backstory for Draco Malfoy’s character, which is consistent with the boy we knew in the first seven books who was battling the pressures of right and wrong and the power struggles that surrounded him in Hogwarts, his family, and within Voldemort’s circle of followers. Neville at least is mentioned as a background character, although I would have liked to see more of him. And Luna? She’s not in the story at all, which is a disappointment.

Regarding the plot, I felt that it rested too heavily on previous backstories from the original seven books rather than paving new ground. It is always a gamble in such a sequel to know how much to give an audience from “the familiar” in previous stories, and how much to make “new.” Going too far in either direction can make a story collapse, and in this case — although the story premise is an intriguing “what if” speculation — I felt that my affections were being called for on the grounds of how I felt reading the previous seven books rather than dedicating them to the action and characters of a new and engaging story. And when you have a really convincing villain who is destroyed in the final volume of the previous story, it’s hard to create another threat that can propel the action of a new story convincingly. It’s easier to go back to the old tried and true villain and threaten a return or an unforeseen connection that was not fully blotted out, and so it proved here.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book, but have to say that I don’t think I’ll be reading it again or will be tempted to see the play in person now knowing the story. It didn’t add to the Harry Potter world I knew and loved, and was working hard to remain part of it — which I’m not sure it did successfully. I guess it lacked that indescribable element which the previous tales had and makes all great stories endearing and lasting…magic.

***SPOILER SECTION BELOW***

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To expand a little on some of the “characterization” disappointments I mentioned above, here are some points to consider:

-Since Harry, Hermione, and Ron had witnessed first-hand how to break into the Ministry of Magic (and a dozen other places), as well as the full uses and limitations of Polyjuice Potion, I find it hard to believe that Hermione as Minister for Magic would not have placed security measures that would have prevented Scorpius and Albus from getting into the Ministry and stealing the time turner as easily as they did. But then again, you have time limitations in a stage play you don’t have when writing an 800-page book.

-When Professor McGonagall mentions on p. 58 that “Boomslang skin” and “lacewing flies” are missing from the Hogwarts potion stores, and then goes on to state that they think Peeves stole them, how in the world can no one suggest that someone may be brewing Polyjuice potion, particularly Hermione who had made it herself? It seems remiss not only of Hermione, but also of Professor McGonagall, who we all know is not a person lacking insight and intelligence. Her dealings with Ron, Hermione, and Harry also seem to remain on a “student-teacher” level rather than as colleagues who are now adults and share a long history of knowledge and friendship together.

-I’m glad for the Malfoys having a chance at redemption and Draco actually getting to work with the team. It’s believable that he has always envied them their closeness and friendship. Would the “lust for power” he previously had ingrained into him by his family, as well as the past jealousies, pettiness, anger, and hurt really have allowed him to get to this point as a character though?

-The Trolley Witch’s background and task to keep all students on the Hogwart’s Express was one of the only things I found that added something wholly new to the HP universe (other than revealing Voldemort had a child — which I can see as both believable and unbelievable). A fanatical spike-ridden Trolley Witch was an interesting idea, but instead of feeling it clever or enjoyable, I found it simply creepy and her chance to have a realistic character with actual history and roundness was lost.

-Harry’s comments in Act 4 scene 4 with Dumbledore’s portrait didn’t seem to really fit until the end of the scene, which was charming. I know he’s stressed and upset with Albus missing and the world he knows on the brink of destruction, but his comment to Dumbledore: “Go. Leave. I don’t want you here, I don’t need you. You were absent every time it really counted. I fought [Voldemort] three times without you. I’ll face him again, if needs be — alone.” Really? Would he really say this? It sounded more like 15 year old Harry from book 5 than how adult Harry should sound. I suppose seeing it played on stage and allowing Harry to have this moment of vulnerability, not saying things he actually means, could be quite a different experience. The same is true for the “I wish you weren’t my son” comment he says to Albus earlier in the play.

-I really enjoyed Harry’s character at the end of the story and how he sacrifices himself for his son. That’s the kind of tenderness and maturity learned from previous failures and experiences we’ve seen that I would have expected to see earlier in the story as an adult Harry. It is at least closer to the character I knew from the previous books. The themes of friendship and loyalty are still very present in this story and have always been a great strength in all of Rowling’s Harry Potter writings.

 

Who let the Archivist Out?: A Reflection from the Lewis and Friends Colloquium

This is the second of three posts reflecting on the experience I had at the Taylor University Lewis and Friends Colloquium which took place June 2-5, 2016.

An additional element of joy I experienced at the colloquium was attending as the Wade Center Archivist and seeing my professional life overlap with my personal interests (which, honestly, happens quite frequently since I’ve got my dream job). Upon first arriving and walking up to the registration table, I immediately saw scores of friendly faces who had come to visit the Wade Center at various times. It was a wonderful opportunity to see folks I’d helped on an individual basis in the Wade Center’s reading room over the years ALL IN ONE PLACE! I even had the pleasure of attending some presentations where the speaker had written me a reference question email a few days or weeks before. “Oh I see now why they needed that bit of information,” I said to myself as I listened to the talk and watched the glowing Powerpoint slides pass.

In essence, these experiences brought the work of research to life and let me see it walking around in the world outside of the Wade Center; applicable to others in real time. Diana Glyer said most notably: “It’s like my bookshelves have come to life!” Hearing authors’ voices explain what their books or topics are about, and the passion behind their research motivations, on such a broad scale was truly a memorable experience. Now every time I see these books on the reading room shelves I’ll not just have a face and name, but a voice speaking from the pages as well.

The Kilby Reading Room, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL

The Kilby Reading Room, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL

I’ve been to other Wade author-themed conferences before, but I don’t think I’ve ever had this many Wade visitors & researchers all together in once place at the same time. When public programming is hosted by the Wade Center (which will happen again at the end of June), the engagement I have in the proceedings and with the guests must, by necessity, be different. I’m in a fully  “professional” role and often need to step aside from events and conversations to see that things run smoothly and/or assist guests in our reading room with accessing materials. It is the hosts & planners who create wonderful events, but they often don’t get to reap the full benefit of attending those events; a point worthy for us all to remember, and appreciate.

Balance with professional duties must also occur during normal Wade Center operations as I’m at my desk working on projects or answering emails while also assisting reading room patrons. No matter how smoothly one tries to navigate the balance, it can often feel like trying to do advanced calculus while playing classical music on the harmonica. The focus is, and always must be, on the person there in the flesh before you – but it is also necessary to have other points of focus during a working day. Even after 11 years in the saddle I can find navigating this balance difficult at times.

At the Colloquium, I was freed from both programming responsibilities as well as professional archival duties. To have the luxury of talking about topics, theories, shared areas of enjoyment, family news, and travel plans was just delightful. Sometimes I was called to put on my “archival” hat, or my “fan” hat, or my “scholar” hat, and sometimes just my “Laura” hat. The “hats” experience put me greatly in mind of Owen Barfield’s book This Ever Diverse Pair, which changed the way I viewed my personal and professional life upon reading it several years ago. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

pair-bigWhen Barfield wrote the book, he was a solicitor (British lawyer) dealing with the frustration of working a day job which stifled his creative side. He was eager for writing, philosophy, and other artistic venues, but there simply wasn’t sufficient time, money, or energy to be creative and earn a living. He personifies his “professional” legal side and his “creative” side as two partners in a law firm who are constantly bickering. The resultant humor, reflections, and realizations as the partners muddle through their work days are quite poignant and thought-provoking. (Also: Lewis is a character in one of the chapters in a fictionalized version of a real-life event between him and Barfield. The whole book is worth reading just for that part.)

Doesn’t every working person feel there is some kind of separation between professional self and personal self? The barrier between the two may be thinner for some than others, but presently it seems vocation is often used as the sole identification technique. “What do you do?” is a popular conversation ice-breaking topic. Many people spend their lives devoted to their work to the point where they may not have a full identity outside of that sphere; a terrifying thought when retirement comes on the horizon.

For me, after reading Barfield’s book I pondered my title “the Archivist” which often follows my name. Who is Laura without “the Archivist” attached? Who is “the Archivist” without Laura attached? How do they look, act, and feel when paired together? It’s an exercise that can be done with almost any profession, I’d imagine.

hustle + grind

Add “God is calling me to do it” and you’ve got it!

The beauty of vocation comes when the two selves are paired allowing both personalities to flourish. Dorothy L. Sayers goes after this ideal in her writings (see her essay “Why Work?” and her play The Zeal of Thy House) on work and vocation when she states that it is our God-given gift to be workers using the talents He provided to do creative and purposeful acts. As Christians work must be done, and done well, no matter where we find ourselves in the professional realm. That work becomes a joy when it is aligned with our true talents and heart desires which God has given us just for that purpose. And in the end the work speaks for itself, not bolstering the ego of the artisan who completed it, but providing the community with joy that the work was done, and done to God’s glory. It was the struggle to suppress these inherent creative desires that drove Barfield to write This Ever Diverse Pair. I am sure many people can relate to his story.

And so at the Colloquium I rejoiced in seeing researchers with their scholar hats on, fans with their enthusiasm overflowing, professionals speaking the languages of their trades, but I also delighted in the freedom to speak of families, hobbies and creative projects, and the way a good story can leave an imprint on your soul. I liked talking to people as friends as well as colleagues, and the respect that goes along with both categories. I delight in the safe havens that allow individuals to be fully themselves as both professionals and people, without marring or insulting either persona. We’re meant to be whole people despite our different roles. Let’s embrace the complexity of what that looks like when getting to know each other, rather than cutting it into digestible bits which fit our cultural definitions of sense-making. Life and personhood are too rich to dissect in such a manner.

Final blog post on the Taylor Colloquium is up next. The topic: where I see a gap in the scholarship of Lewis & Friends – a call to scholars.

Reclaiming the Ideals of Academia: A Reflection from the Lewis and Friends Colloquium

20160602_195413I just spent a very refreshing weekend in the good company of friends and colleagues at Taylor University’s Lewis and Friends Colloquium (June 2-5). I’ve been to various conferences in the past relating to the Wade authors, but upon reflection what made this one memorable was two main qualities:

  1. The level of scholarship in the presentations
  2. The camaraderie & collegiality of the participants

If you look at the speaker list then #1 is no surprise! However I want to focus on #2, which in my estimation is far more difficult to achieve in any group setting as it requires “buy in” from all in attendance, and a conducive atmosphere in which to flourish. Let me back up a little here to explain why I find this quality such a refreshing attribute.

Academia is, to put it mildly, a challenging world and certainly not for the faint of heart. Experts in their fields are honed to be the best they can be, which can lead to extreme levels of competition to get into the best programs, retain prestigious mentors, maintain GPA, land the desired internships / post-docs, and ultimately clench the best job positions and secure tenure. The levels of stress to simply survive in this kind of climate are off the chart for a great many people, and it’s also a climate where unkindness can flourish.

Through my educational career I’ve heard (and seen) stories unfold in the jungle of academia that have made my blood run cold.

Real Examples:

  • An adviser stealing 75% of the income from their teaching assistant and spending it on travelling or other extraneous expenses.
  • A master’s thesis denied from passing because one adviser had a grudge against another adviser (nothing to do with the student who wrote the thesis)
  • Work stolen and claimed to be the work of another person
  • A display damaged by a jealous colleague to reflect poorly on the designer
  • False accusations to sully reputations

On some of my less-optimistic days walking among academic buildings with quotes written in stone proclaiming the pursuit of truth, illumination, morality, wisdom, and religion; I’ve wondered how many people on those campuses still followed such lofty ideals. Of course these instances of pettiness and cruelty are not unique to academia; they are the cancer of humanity in a broken world and can be found everywhere. It is disheartening, however, to ponder what academia claims to exist for and how far it often falls from that standard.

AngellHall

I will also hasten to add that for all the sad examples listed above, I’ve also encountered some of the most humble, servant-hearted, incredible people along my academic path, for whom I will forever remain grateful. The difference? In a world that trains you to shout: “I am the best!” these fine people are still motivated to:

  • Put others first through quality teaching and mentoring along with self-sacrificing acts of service
  • Truly love and want to forward their discipline through good scholarship and raising the next generation of scholars
  • Be good listeners along with deep, discerning, and honest intellectual rigor

Now let’s get back to what I witnessed at the Taylor Colloquium last weekend. Academic professionals from across the US and a handful of international locales descended on Upland, IN to give and attend talks of scholarship and have rigorous intellectual discussions, but were also actively engaged in laughing together, having sing-alongs and amateur drama, and above all befriending and encouraging all those present, be they a scholar, a student, or a local enthusiast. In our world which is currently so ready to react with anger and alienation where thoughts and opinions differ, there is a real beauty in witnessing intellectuals who revel in those differences, feel thankful for them, and work collaboratively for love of forwarding the discipline that has brought them together; all while laughing and enjoying each other’s company and friendship. It is a celebration of so much that is right, true, and good. How could the world of academia change if these values were embraced?

Scholars gather to enjoy looking at an original C.S. Lewis manuscript at the Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends at Taylor University.

Scholars gather to enjoy looking at an original C.S. Lewis manuscript at the Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends at Taylor University.

Diana Glyer, one of the three excellent keynote speakers at the Colloquium, defines this practice as “intellectual hospitality.” If you haven’t heard her speak on this, I highly encourage you to watch this video which explains the concept.

Real Examples of Intellectual Hospitality from the Colloquium:

  • Encouraging comments, discerning feedback, and honest critiques during sessions and informal conversations
  • Fellowship at meals and times of fun
  • Helping fellow scholars solve research queries through shared resources
  • Desire for collaboration in future projects
  • A respected scholar who was willing to send me a pre-published draft of his article which will help with my current research (this has happened more than once)
  • Discussion on how to encourage more student participation, and mentor the next generation of scholars
  • An invitation during a chapel service to share meaningful moments from the conference and/or the works of the authors we’re there celebrating
  • Prayer for those at the conference with health and job needs

That last point is another element, as a Christian, that I highly valued. Taking time to pray for those with real concerns outside of the conference topics was a touching gesture. Gracious collegiality of this sort is not exclusive to the Christian academic community, nor is it a given in Christian academic community, but when the two coincide it is a glorious sight to behold. It combines academic integrity with loving someone as the Maker intended; not for their work or their title, but because of the inherent beauty of their soul and worth as a human being created in the image of God.

The weekend was a lovely look at the best in present academia and all it could be in the future. I can think of no better way to transform academic culture and help it recapture those lofty ideals carved in stone across campuses around the world.

One or two more blog posts to come on other Colloquium reflection topics. Stay tuned!

Awaiting the Harvest

Greetings after a long hiatus, friends! I think periods of silence and reflection can sometimes be just as beneficial as periods of expression, and this one has been good for me. With the start of the school year, a theme I’ve been mulling over has come together in some thoughts to share.

Campus is once again buzzing with activity, and after a decade in my current position the beginning of the school year brings into sharp contrast past memories alongside new joys and anticipation. I see, or think I see, students and friends from days past roaming the campus grounds, but realize they’re no longer here and are replaced by a new crop of students, many whom I still know, but plenty more whom I do not. In the more distant past, which I actually have to work harder to recall these days, I see friends from my own days as a student, and the storied places where memories with these dear people were made.

Planting-SeedsThese people have not all disappeared from my life, in fact I still see many of them regularly — or after a few years in joyful reunions like my adventures out west this past summer. And still the school years race by, seemingly faster every year, with more friends to make, more students to greet, and more to wish farewell. On one hand, the microcosm of each school year illustrates beautifully the meetings and partings in life we all have to make, and the process of “letting go” which I’ve written about in past reflections. But is that the end of the story? A continual process of planting seeds and then walking away, or letting balloons go without any tears in their wake?

That may be the way life goes in some cases, and yet that is not the ultimate message of Hope in the Christian life. Hope is about the harvest of labors, relationships, and dreams, whether that harvest is seen by the individuals awaiting it, or not.

A verse that has long been an inspiration to me is James 5:7 – “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.” These words are particularly pertinent to those living the academic year’s rhythm, where everything starts in the fall and ends in the spring. But they are not reserved solely for academics.

Recently I am reminded of those who strain in the proverbial seasons of planting and wonder: “Will I see this harvest? Will there even be a harvest?” International workers wonder this as they report on their efforts overseas; each new relationship a battle to win, and the sharing of the Gospel like drops attempting to fill a barrel. Many of my dearest friends called to be mothers wonder if the life and death (sometimes quite literally) battle each day to keep their kids healthy, clean, fed, and rested (not to mention all the teaching of morals and wisdom going on ad infinitum) is going to produce fruit. “Why is this so hard? Will my efforts make any difference?” The plowing and sowing goes on seemingly endlessly, and growth is hard to perceive.

For myself, I’ve often expressed to friends in the recent years that each new year brings with it more calls to plant, without any assurance of whether the planted seeds will sprout and flourish, or not. The growing is in the Lord’s hands rather than my own, but how hard it is to labor without assurance, and yet the call comes to continue.

Then there are those sweet, sweet moments where you get to see fruit. The words you thought had never reached ears or hearts are repeated back to you, with assurance that they made a difference. The friends who have left return in unexpected ways, and a feast of reunion is shared in ways that only long-held friendship can yield. The student that has launched into the uncertain realm of career reaches out to reconnect, thanking for past support, and offering continued friendship and connection. Truly this is fruit that only the Lord can give, and it is sweet to taste.

Why do we continue to plant? Because we can’t let fears of what fruits will develop, or whether we will see the harvest, keep us from putting those seeds in the ground. We must watch and marvel at each sprig and leaf that peeks through the ground – miracles that the Farmer allows us His workers to rejoice in with Him as He also invites us to share in His work.

Watch for the growth and remember it. On those days when you’re planting yet another seed and wondering why you even bother, remember the taste of fruit, the vivid greens, and the fullness of newly sprouted leaves which came from seeds previously planted by your hands, or those of others. Then whisper to yourself: this is why I plant, even if this harvest does not turn out as expected, or is left for others to see. It is worth the labor.

“[Niggle] gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said.” (Leaf by Niggle, J.R.R. Tolkien)

soil

Movie Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Hobbit_BattleofFiveArmies

Well, here we are at last – here at the end of all Jackson movie review posts. And I am glad you are with me, dear readers. What a journey it has been, starting in 2001 with “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I reflected on this amazing time period on December 18, the day after I saw The Hobbit: TBOFA for the first time. If you’re interested in reminiscing with me, check out:

My Facebook Photo Album

A video compilation of photos from 2001-2014

Containing this awesome end credit song sung by the one and only Billy Boyd! I think Annie Lennox and “Into the West” still gets me on a deeper emotional level, but hey, this song is great too! 🙂

I’ve now seen Hobbit: BOFA twice (Dec. 17 and 19) in normal 2D showings. My short, spoiler-free review of this most recent film (which I’ve been telling people all week) is: i liked movie 3 better than movie 2, but not as much as movie 1. And I personally enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films more than the Hobbit films.

Detailed review follows below beneath the picture of my Hobbit movie ticket stubs. BEWARE! There be spoilers below!

All my Hobbit movie ticket stubs. Saw movie 1 four times (2D, 3D, and 24 and 48 fps), and the other 2 twice in regular 2D.

All my Hobbit movie ticket stubs. Saw movie 1 four times (2D, 3D, and 24 and 48 fps), and the other 2 twice in regular 2D.

Spoilers begin here!!!

I will admit openly that I was not overly inspired to see this film. Movie 2 proved to be such a disappointment, I ended up attending this last one out of duty rather than excitement. Even after selling 60 tickets to other Wheaties and making plans to see the film twice, I kept forgetting the day of the event that I was going to see the film that evening! All that to say: my expectations were so low I no doubt was thrilled at any moment in the film which gave me unexpected delight or seemed to capture the spirit of the book.

The scenery and costuming were beautiful as always (when has New Zealand or the camera crew or WETA ever let us down, now really?). The acting was very well executed, I thought, and Martin Freeman incomparable, as usual. This movie also gets bonus points for animal diversity. We got sled rabbits, war pigs and mountain goats (or were those sheep?), that crazy bull moose (or whatever it was) that Thranduil rides, bats which give rides to dashing elves, talking ravens (extra bonus points there for story authenticity), and the completely unnecessary, unexplained, and not even used after their introduction: WERE WORMS. *smacks forehead* Really? Really?

And the romance that was in movie 2 between Tauriel and Kili? Yep, it was still there. I did not, however, want to claw through the back of my theater seat while watching it this time, so either the dialog was slightly better (even while still in an unbelievable context), or my aforementioned low expectations proved a suitable numbing agent. Legolas continued his larger-than-life stunts as well, which always prove amusing and leave me chuckling. More than one student pointed out that his leaping onto falling stones defied the laws of physics, but hey, he’s Legolas, and he just did it.

Everyone who was supposed to die did die. This was great, since letting Thorin live would have caused havoc with the story, but I did miss seeing proper burials and acknowledgements of the losses. No Thorin with Orcrist and the Arkenstone in his tomb beneath the mountain. Pity. Several plot threads were left dangling, which although it did not greatly upset me, was at least regrettable: what happens to Tauriel?, did Thranduil get his jewels?, what happens to the unctuous Alfrid?, how did the dwarves and men rebuild their lives after the battle?, did Dain become king? (we all know he did…but still, nice to have such things confirmed, right?)

thorinI truly appreciated the themes of greed explored in the film with the effect of treasure on Thorin and how it impacted his relationships. This was spot-on with the feeling I got in the book with these sections, and nicely accented with comparisons to Smaug’s character, and the beautiful scene with Bilbo holding the acorn and his appreciation for simple pleasures. Bilbo’s character in the film in general was fantastic. He is humble, loving, self-sacrificing, has little desire for treasure, and embodied everything we expect from our dear Mr. Baggins. The scenes with the Arkenstone, the mithril shirt, and the confrontation with Thorin at the gate were particularly poignant for me. And I’m forever grateful for the inclusion of my all-time favorite Tolkien quote, spoken by Thorin at his parting with Bilbo. It is paraphrased in the movie, but the meaning was the same:

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

Well-spoken, Thorin, and hear hear! I noticed several sections with text almost verbatim from the book, which I’ve had the benefit of re-reading very recently whilst leading a Hobbit book discussion group this fall. The conversation between Thorin and Bard at the gate was heavy with book residue.

One book to screen scene which suffered some botched meaning was the parting scene between Bilbo and Gandalf just before Bilbo returns to Bag End to find the auction going on. In the book, the text runs thusly:

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a
fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you
don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

In the film, it is made to look like this speech is all about the Ring, with Gandalf stating that it is the source of much of Bilbo’s luck, and serves as a convenient plot-arc over to the Lord of the Rings, which is more than likely, and understandably, what the screenwriters wanted to accomplish with it. The Ring is the largest connecting piece between the two tales, after all, and the main focus of the later story.

bardHowever, the book quotes rest on the authority of the prophecies coming true for purposes outside of Bilbo’s own welfare. This suggestive statement points to another directing Force or Will behind the events of the story, made even more evident by a closer examination of all the instances of “luck” which occur during the tale. “Luck” is often wrapped together with the fruition of prophecy, such as the revelation of the moon letters on the map of the Lonely Mountain, and the return of the king under the mountain. Looking for Divine presence and influence in Tolkien’s tales is one of my chiefest delights, so it was disappointing to me to see this section watered down, and Bilbo’s last line of humility lost, stating his gladness to be a small person in a large and mysterious world.

I loved the ending in the Shire, and the silver spoons making their famous appearance in the possession of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. I had heard a couple years ago that Frodo’s parents had been cast and maybe we’d get a glimpse of them and a younger Frodo, perhaps as a story arc between the Hobbit and Rings films. No luck there! The Extended Edition is the last hope for that one. Bilbo and Frodo’s relationship has always interested me, so this was a disappointment to not see that develop before Frodo’s adoption as Bilbo’s heir.

Some other tidbits Tolkien fans may appreciate:

  • We don’t know anything about Legolas’s mother (at least nothing I’ve seen), so the movie was free to invent those facts.
  • Mount Gundabad was indeed the source of goblin armies, one of their main strongholds.
  • Aragorn was born in 2931, and The Hobbit takes place in 2941. I really missed seeing a 10-year-old Aragorn running through Rivendell in movie 1 (missed opportunity!), and one would hazard a guess that he wouldn’t have done anything significant enough at that tender age to make Thranduil recommend Legolas seek him out as a man of “potential greatness.” Maybe Legolas babysat him for a couple years? hehe 🙂 Another friend of mine suggested the movies are slightly ahead of the book chronology. Anybody know more about this?
  • The White Council did kick Sauron out of Dol Guldur, and Galadriel did favor Gandalf above Saruman. Exactly what went down during the kicking-out is something I need to brush up on. Comments on this welcome!

The fight between Azog and Thorin was definitely edge-of-seat cringe-worthy as well. Loved him tossing the ball and chain and watching Azog slip off into the water. And they had me hoping for a way out for Thorin before I remembered he had to die in that fight. Pity.

All that said, and reflecting on the whole film trilogy now, I would have to say that in the end, I do think these films would have been SIGNIFICANTLY stronger if they had made 2 movies instead of 3. I felt that there were so many gratuitous scenes, irresponsible dialog and storytelling moments, and “filler” content, that often the key story elements and characters got lost and then the whole momentum of the film fell flat. Did you know that the last film (at 114 minutes long) only covers 72pp. of source material from the book? That’s more screen time than pages, folks. Why not trim the 45 minutes chasing Smaug in movie two, trim some additional battle scenes in BotFA, ditch the Kili/Tauriel romance and end it nicely in 2 films? It would have helped the choppier points in editing as well and tightened the whole thing up better.

There were also several elements that were not just reminiscent of the Rings films, they were IDENTICAL. The manner of healing by Tauriel in movie 2 was so close to Liv Tyler’s glowing, it felt like a disservice to fans. Several sound effects and other elements seemed cut and pasted directly out of the Rings films. I know Jackson had intended a similar feel to the Rings films for consistency, but this felt more like repetitive laziness than consistency. If it could have only felt old, but been new…that would have nailed the sweet spot for fans.

But still, whether it pleased fans or not, whether it was good film making or not, whether it was a suitable re-telling of The Hobbit or not, I am grateful to Jackson and his team for bringing these films to the screen. They’re fans as well, and told the story in their own way. Because of them, I’ve had amazing moments with many friends watching these films, and will no doubt continue doing so at film events well into the future. Because of them, I can say Tolkien character names in conversation and have instant recognition from my listeners. Because of them, I have seen a generation led back to the books, and a revolution of new-interest in these stories and their author. Tolkien is back in common culture, and for a long-time fan and reader like me, that’s the sweetest part of all. I’m grateful. Thanks, Peter.

OK, so who wants to do re-makes of these films now? Any takers???