Saturday, December 29, 2012

More Pseudoku

Five, seven, and five:
not really haiku, but still 
a good exercise.

Okay, so maybe I'm not really done with my "haiku" streak.  I feel a little bit sheepish, because I know full well that for the most part, what I'm doing isn't actually haiku at all. It's really just the standard grade-school exercise loosely based on the Japanese poetic form.

But you know what? It's a really, really good exercise.

It was good practice back then, and it's good practice now.

Also? It's fun. It's a great way to gripe about headaches...

When the light show fades,
I know that there will be pain.
For now, it's pretty.

... and to make report card comments more interesting, although I obviously can't share any of those.

Mostly though, it's just a way to hold onto ideas as I struggle to develop them out into essays and sonnets...

Undeserved and free,
grace poured out in the measure
of our own ladles.


Star of bitterness,
glistening with Rachel's tears;
Mage's salvation.


Tears and stories spill
from broken alabaster,
collapse together.

So I keep on plugging at my little game of "pseudoku"--enjoying it for what it is, all the while hoping every once in a while to find

a tiny image,
crafted out of syllables
to trap a thousand words.

Monday, December 24, 2012

'Frozen Trees on the Golf course' photo (c) 2004, Ewen Roberts - license: comes suddenly, whether we're ready or not.
The long waiting and anticipation is over.
In an instant, the water will freeze into place, whether or not we are ready with the lamps to transform the wild wastes into a wonderland.

Christmas comes suddenly, in the midst of all the busy fullness, and we scramble about just to sweep out a stall, gather a few fresh blankets. There is never enough room, but Christmas comes anyway, and for all the anticipation, its gift always comes as a surprise.

May Christmas come to you with its swift and long-expected gladness, making you suddenly ready.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


January, 2001
(everything changes, but somehow it always comes back around again...)

I always seem to think best with my fingers in hot, soapy water.  As the water rinses over the clean dishes, words start pouring through me, and I pause to watch them melt together into now a story, now a harmonic progression, now a poem, as my fingers mindlessly play with the bubbles.  I love college life, but it feels so good to be washing dishes again.  I still haven't found any other context quite so suitable for dreaming.  So as I shape these words, on an un-Arizona-ish-ly cold January evening, I'm washing dishes.  And I'm home.

I went down.  It really wasn't as profound as I had hoped it would be.  I was hoping to hike, strangely enough.  As a child, I always hated hiking.  Every trip was a horrible ordeal, although to be perfectly honest, the hike itself was usually a lot of fun.  It was only the anticipation of misery that was actually miserable.  Dreading hard work sure takes a lot out of you.

It was a bit ironic.  I had hoped and longed and begged and wished to take the helicopter so many times, but almost every time, we hiked.  Eventually, though, I learned to love the hikes.  And sure enough, just about every trip since then, we've needed to take the chopper for one reason or another.

Even when we've only been out for a little two week shopping trip, flying into the canyon is usually bizarre and disorienting. It takes me a long time to figure out where I am, who I am, and what strange world this is.  The hike gives me time to adjust, but when we fly, I always spend the first day back in the village in a bewildered daze.  This time, I'd been away for a whole semester, and much had changed--for me, for my family, for Supai. It should have been much harder than usual.

But it wasn't.  I was home, and everything else was just a dream.  Ida was there; apparently she'd come in on the flight before us.  She smiled at me, and amid the wrinkles and wisdom, she looked just like a delighted little girl.  We shook hands.  For one brief moment I thought that I was welcoming her home.  After all, she was the one who'd been gone . . . right?

After a semester of Plato and Bach, here I am again in this place of Jesus Loves Me, Hot Cross Buns, and Jingle Bells, more than a little off-key, and tiny fingers twining through my hair, covering my jeans with hominy and kool-aid.  After four months of sophisticated dialogue, I am back where life is simple, where everything is stripped down to a few basic truths. After pondering the abstract concepts of food and water and forgiveness and shelter and love and hate and hurt and hope and anguish, here I am again, where they are as concrete as can be.  After working everything out into tidy little syllogisms in my head, I'm back to the place where reality is very, very complicated.  Because this is where it matters.

Just a ways beyond the place where the rubber meets the road is the place where my bare toes crunch through the dust.  This is the place where sky touches earth.  This is the horizon, the age-old now.  And this is where I live.

The light shimmered through a particularly magnificent bubble, and colors danced and wove through one another.  Mom interrupted my reverie, and the bubble popped, leaving me staring at my own hand.

"Oh, Elena.  I know that the textures of the water are fascinating, but if you stand there and dream too long, you'll never get anything done."

So I plunged my hand down beyond the glorious bubbles, picked up the rag and a cup, and began to scrub.

You shall call his name... Joshua

The other night, Andrew asked Willie what Bible story he wanted to hear.

He wanted to hear the story of Lyle.

You know, the friendly Viking.

Because surely any story from Veggie Tales must be in the Bible somewhere...

In the end, Will decided he would settle for the story of Joshua and the battle at Jericho. Daddy sent one older sibling to go find an ESV, and I sent another one downstairs to bring me my Septuagint, so I could take advantage of the language learning opportunity.

It took several kids several tries to find it--it was camouflaged among the encyclopaedia volumes--but eventually we were all settled in. Andrew began to read as I flipped through to the book of...

Iesus Naue.

Jesus of Nun.

On some level, I'd known that Jesus and Joshua meant the same thing, were transliterations of the same name. But it still felt bizarre to read this familiar story, now with the main character bearing the exact name of Christ.

In our English Bibles, the name Iesus shows up for the first time with the announcement of the angel Gabriel, but that's really just a fluke of translation history, evidence that in the Old Testament, we transliterate Hebrew names directly, whereas in the New Testament we Anglicize their Greek transliterations. It certainly wasn't the first time this name showed up in the Bibles of the Gospel writers.

He was to bear the name of the one who came after Moses. The one God raised up to do what Moses couldn't do, and lead them into the promise.

Law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Joshua, the messiah.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Let the Wind Groan

For this there are no words,
but only groanings.
Still, we must speak;
we must speak on behalf of the silence.

Words are wind or of the wind;
explanation is a vapor.

Yet not a sparrow falls
unseen, but the unseen wind
still broods upon our void,
and with deep groanings speaks our silence.

Friday, December 14, 2012


My poems collapse:
no sonnets, only haiku.
Twitter is to blame.

Actually, that's not entirely true. My muses had already traded iambic pentameter for pithy-little 17-syllable fragments.

Twitter just made this wave more fun to ride out, with @baffled's one word haiku prompts.

It's advent, and I'm nesting... it's the time of winter when thoughts turn simultaneously to the fragility and constant newness of life. It's a time of bright solemnity and somber light. There is a time for analysis, and there is a time for simply holding on to paradox. A time for gestation.

Mine is still a very Western muse, but haiku makes for a good container to hold these thoughts as they grow.

Your fluttering heart
pulses blood as red as leaves;
only for a bit.

See what I mean? Incurably Western. Out of all the little 17-syllable poems I've been writing, I'm pretty sure that only one of them is really haiku-like at all.

A small pebble drops.
Ripples slowly fade away
from the still center.

The haiku muses seem to be fluttering away now, and I'm working on some prose and sonnets.

Prose, sonnets... and housecleaning. It's still advent, and I'm still nesting, awash in quiet wonder and anticipation. Waiting in the already-not-yet.

Tremblingly you gasp,
your small damp lungs expanding,
fill with breath of life.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A little perspective before finals week...

'Orange Hibiscus Glow-1' photo (c) 2011, Thomas Tolkien - license:

Valedictory victory of the kindergarten class,
remember that the greatness of your glory soon shall pass.
I'll come along in first grade, and I'll force you to salute;
if I should reign 'til second grade, why that would still be moot.
No one will remember the rank in which we rate,
for other matters matter more when we all graduate.
And if a Tiffany window should adorn your palace bright,
may it remind you of the leaves that dabble in the light.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Seek and Find

Like many bloggers, I have fun looking at the different ways readers find this site.

Most of the time, it's pretty straightforward... people were looking for this blog, or for some particular poem. Or for a definition of "iambic pentameter."

So here we go:

Iambic pentameter is verse composed of five-footed lines--poetic pentapedes, if you will. The feet, in this case, are iambs, or pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. "Iambic pentameter" is a good example of a phrase that is NOT iambic, and this fact has caused me to become rather stressed off and on, since it severely limits the possibilities for self-referential sonnets. However, all is not lost, because at least you can use iambic pentameter to describe its decidedly non-iambic rhythm: "The silly thing's an amphibrachic phrase."

At any rate, apparently one reader came here wondering whether or not Genesis is in iambic pentameter... and that set me to wondering, too.

Hebrew poetry uses very different structures altogether, but as it turns out, somebody has indeed translated Genesis into English blank verse.

But I can't really tell you much about it until my copy arrives in the mail.  =)

Meanwhile, I'm going to go look for some nice juicy leaves to feed my new pet pentapede.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Greek to Me

This is an exciting year for Andrew. He has a great group of students and colleagues, and as he digs deeper into the texts every year, things just get better and better.

But as great as the humanities classes are, the really exciting thing is that he's teaching math again--and he's teaching it the way he wants to. He's doing Euclidean geometry with a small group of bright and committed students, and it's the real deal. They're doing real math, the way real mathematicians do it, with nothing  watered down.

It's hard work, and the class is only possible because the students are so committed. It's not the sort of thing you can force anyone to do.

But for those students who really want to do it, in a lot of ways it's actually easier than a standard high school geometry class. Standard classes are designed to accommodate unwilling students--and what facilitates good compulsory education is often very different from what facilitates easy learning for committed students.

I've found this to be true in my own personal intellectual life as well. Sometimes, if you really want to learn something, you can just dive straight into the deep end, and do it. And sometimes when you jump right in, you can do stuff that you wouldn't have been able to do in the gradual, step-by-step way.
Recently, somebody linked to an interesting article on the Loeb Classics and the Hamiltonian method. (Sorry, I can't remember who to thank...) This is essentially what I've been doing with Greek for the past few years.

I can't really comment on the comparative effectiveness of this method versus a standard grammar-based approach. The standard method may get you further faster, and it may lay a more solid foundation. Certainly it provides more opportunities for cheat-proof evaluation. As a busy mother of five, though, I can heartily recommend a Loeb-style quasi-Hamiltonian approach for one very important reason: it's actually possible.

I wanted to learn Greek for a very long time. Every few years, Andrew and I would carefully scheme to  carve out a bit of time each day to sit down together with our textbooks and grammars, but it never worked for more than a few weeks. Life would always interrupt us, and by the time we would get back to the books, we were at ground zero again.

A few years ago, I gave up on all of that, and just started doing morning devotions in Greek. 

It was all Greek to me. I had about a five-word vocabulary from my many false starts, and I (mostly) knew the alphabet, although I went several weeks without discovering that chi and kappa were two different letters. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but every morning I spent a few minutes staring at the beginning of John's gospel. Every morning I got a little bit further, and every morning it made a little more sense.

Meanwhile, the kids and I listened to the gospel of John on mp3 over and over. It was running in the background as we did our chores, ran our errands, until I had it stuck in my head like a song that won't go away.

That way, when I stared at the unfamiliar Greek, I already knew what it meant. The puzzle was just to figure out how it meant that. It started very, very slowly... but it was exhilarating to watch meaning emerge out of the formless void.

Once I became a little more comfortable, it was very productive to follow along in the Greek while listening in English. Eventually, I began carrying my Greek New Testament everywhere, so I could take advantage of this incredible opportunity every time someone read aloud from the New Testament. (Side note: somebody needs to publish a single-volume Koine Bible, because it's rather cumbersome to carry around both Septuigint and NT!)

I'm still a beginner, but Greek is now an important and enriching part of my life, and of my involvement with Scripture. It's also a sustainable part of my life, with steady progress built right into the fabric of my routines. As it turned out, learning Greek didn't require carving out enough time to break it all down step by step. It just required using the time I already had to step out into the unknown and sit with the frighteningly unfamiliar.

There are a lot of special interlinear texts designed for use with the Hamiltonian method--texts in which the word order of the original is rearranged to match the word order of an English translation. I've never used any of these texts, and frankly, it doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. It also doesn't seem necessary. It's okay to be confused. Just do it. This sort of thing can be scary for us grownups, but we have to become like little children anyway in order to enter the Kingdom, so this is just good practice.

I do sometimes use an ordinary interlinear Bible, and that has definite advantages. This allows me to cover extended passages with greater speed, and whenever I'm just quickly looking up a verse or two, this lets me slip in a bit of Greek practice without any extra time investment. It can be easy to slip into just reading the English, though. For the most part, though I find a Loeb-style format to be ideal--the straight original text with easy access to a fairly literal translation.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Cyclops gets Skewered

'lit' photo (c) 2008, Bill S - license: an in-class writing assignment, Andrew had his students paraphrase Odysseus' encounter with Polyphemus.

Of course, the teacher had to write one too...


The Blinding of the Cyclops
by Andrew Johnston

With that he over fell, spread eagle on the ground
And round about his lolling head gross carnage spilled around.
Mixed in with wine he spat it up – he barfed it like a bum
Who after begging bought some wine to drink when he’d had done.
“The time has come,” I told my men, “to poke the Cyclops’ eye!”
So in the fire I thrust the stake to heat up like a pie.
And when I read the temperature, my stake, it was well done
So out I dragged the glowing stick while some god made me run
Then in his face we rammed that trunk once lifted to the sky
And round and round we spun, “So fun!” while gunk spewed out his eye.
The process made me think of how a ship is made by men
Who spin a drill bit round and round their civ-il-i-za-ti-on.
A blacksmith with his hammer will hit a metal ax
Till shaped just so he calms it down in ice-brooks’ temper lax
Then steam pours forth with screeching sound from metal hardening
And thus the pierced optic sphere of Cyclops took to wing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

'The Wave At Lower Antelope' photo (c) 2007, Brent Pearson - license: 

You sang to me, your own peculiar throat
once held the throbbing waves of warm moist air.
The gentle rhythms rustled through my hair
and touched my soul; the pulse of every note
grown large and firm, the airy letters wrote
themselves at once so palpable and rare,
filling up the space in which we share
our lullaby, the waves on which dreams float.

But safely hid from these engulfing waves,
you've found a refuge off in exile far,
and I would hesitate to call you back,
except that deep within your winding caves,
your inward flame still burns without a star,
and your cruel shelter holds no want of lack.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

More hope, musical saws, and theremins

Here's a completely different take on "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."

 Isn't the earthy, makeshift musical saw bizarrely similar to the high-tech, disembodied theremin?

Somehow these two songs feel like negative images of one another...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happy Birthday, Christina Rossetti!

It can be a perplexing thing to be a woman--particularly a woman who likes to think.

I'm not entirely sure why that should be the case, but I do know that I'm not alone in my perplexity. Most women that I know have run into these same paradoxes in one form or another.

Christina Rossetti reminds me, however, that my struggles are as interior as they are universal.

Unlike me, Rossetti lived in times when there were real, tangible barriers to women's education. And yet... there she is, with her rich legacy of theological poetry. She chose the better part, and it could not be taken from her.

It would seem that I am bound, not by anything outside of myself, but by my own foolish, Eve-like tendency to listen to all the seductive snake-voices that would try to redefine me.

The solution is found, I think, in the introduction to her commentary on Revelation, in that deep fear of God that makes all other anxieties irrelevant.

"Teach us, O Lord, to fear Thee without terror, and to trust Thee without misgiving: to fear Thee with love, until it shall please Thee that we should love Thee without fear."

And now for a few of my favorite Rossetti poems:

A Daughter of Eve
by Christina Rossetti

A fool I was to sleep at noon,
         And wake when night is chilly
Beneath the comfortless cold moon;
A fool to pluck my rose too soon,
         A fool to snap my lily.

My garden-plot I have not kept;
         Faded and all-forsaken,
I weep as I have never wept:
Oh it was summer when I slept,
         It's winter now I waken.

Talk what you please of future spring
         And sun-warm'd sweet to-morrow:—
Stripp'd bare of hope and everything,
No more to laugh, no more to sing,
         I sit alone with sorrow.


Rossetti asks all the right questions, and she asks them with such honest fear and trembling, that when she finds joy--and she does!--it resonates in my soul with certainty and hope.

A Birthday
by Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

I actually like Kenny Potter's easy setting for middle school choir better than the more sophisticated versions professional choirs sing. The music is so full of hope... and feathers. =)

Monday, December 3, 2012


'Night fog lights' photo (c) 2007, Jason - license:


Her hair tumbles down,
loose, outrageous, and fallen.
Strong perfume rises.

The music's too loud
and the beat is seductive.
Fog machine and lights
mingle in the spectacle:
scandalous extravagance.