Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I haven't been blogging through Advent for a very good reason: I've been observing Advent.

I haven't been blogging through Advent for some bad reasons too, but since they are the usual, boring, sinful reasons (sloth, etc.), I'll let them lie.

But Advent! This has been a good Advent. It's been a hard Advent.

For the first time since the twins were born, it looks like Advent around here. We're doing an Advent wreath and a Jesse tree, and the devotions to go with. The children are all really learning the Christmas story and the history that preceded Christ's coming. (It comes out in their play. There were two Marys and one Elizabeth wandering up and down the stairs this morning, and at least a couple death threats from King Herod towards the camel.)

And I've been reading Revelation and Isaiah and the gospels and the psalms, and it's sinking into my heart.

I've been praying, and thinking about prayer. I don't know if I've got much worth saying about it yet, but I've been remembering my impression as a new wife (very new - it was an impression formed during my honeymoon) that the most important part of my role as a wife and mother would be to pray for my family.

I've been reading and listening to Dallas Willard, and praying and thinking about prayer some more.

I've been fighting what's starting to look like a seasonal depression, and beginning to understand (I think) why it's happening. I don't think it's about light. I think, three years ago, when I thought half of my family was going to die*, my body got used to fighting despair around this time of year, and I haven't kicked the habit of battening down all the hatches after All Saints' Day and not coming out till after the New Year. Can a body form a seasonal habit of depression based on one truly, truly stressful experience?** It surely feels like it. I feel like a wuss just saying it, but there it is. My journal entries from this time of year this year are almost identical to the ones the year before; I'm not imagining it.

And I was just about to type, "this experience hasn't been altogether awful", but I realized that that's not true; experientially, it has been. But I have hope that it might turn into something not awful, especially if I can learn to turn towards help instead of away when I feel weak and worthless.

And I've thought a lot about Christ coming into our dark world. There's a version of "The Carol of the Bells" done by the TransSiberian Orchestra that makes you think, "Christmas: the Action Movie", what with all the electric guitar and wild, wailing chords. But that just makes me think of "The Dream of the Rood"'s vision of "the young hero, Christ" who stepped onto the cross (willingly, of his own accord), and how Advent is really that: the story of the hero, choosing the adventure, the tragedy even, for the sake of those he loved. 

(And just like Lent: you can't keep the secret: it's not a tragedy, it's a eucatastrophe, it's all turned around, from the inside out, and the worst thing becomes the best thing, and he wins and it's  a victory and it's all brilliantly, brilliantly redeemed - and so instead of dirges this season, we sing carols, because he's come not just to die, but to rise, and better yet, to go and then to come back and to take us with him. To make us like him. And if you know him at all, well, then you know what good news that is.)

He's with us. And he was with us. Here, in this darkness, in this bleak midwinter. To quote Stephen Lawhead, He knows.

So. That is what I have. There's so much more I've been thinking about, but it feels like a season to take things in, and not to spew it all out in writing, because everything inside me needs to sit for awhile, and settle. But I can't help saying: He came. He is good. I'm so glad. 

May you all have a blessed and joyous Advent. 

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*My twins had a serious, potentially fatal in-utero condition and my husband had cancer.

**Since writing this, I've found out that, actually, yes, it can. Apparently it's a pretty common reaction.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

on the deceptive ease of the internet age

 You know, I keep putting off these chores that "will just take a minute on the computer" and wondering why I put off things that seem so easy . . . but then I sit down and do them and find that "just a minute at the computer" is a wild underestimation and then I remember "ah, yes, this is why I put this off".
Anyway, CSA renewal? Done. Registering the eldest for next semester's local homeschool P. E. class? Done. Requesting books for the subjects of the next few weeks' history and science lessons? Done. Cleaning out my email box/responding to blogs in open tabs/bookmarking interesting sites? Never, never, never done.
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Friday, December 3, 2010

Links! "Intellect and Romance Over Brute Force and Cynicism"

Gosh, combine two of my favorite things in the entertainment industry today - that'd be Doctor Who and The Craig Ferguson Show - and you get this awesome song. Which is awesome (minus weird sailor dude). (And from which we get the title of today's post.)

On a more serious note, Simcha Fisher's post about there being no petty virtues is really good.

It might be a bit late for me to do this this year, but I'm saving this idea for next year: Helping Siblings Christmas Shop for Each Other.

Also, just wanted to point everyone towards Quotidian Moments, because she's doing a cool series where she's going through the nonfiction she's accumulated on her bookshelf over the years, and posting notes on the high points of each book as she decides whether or not to keep it. It's interesting reading!

This snowflake craft is everything a Christmas craft should be: pretty, fun, and easy to clean up!

And speaking of Christmas crafts, here's a really impressive page full of them - and most of these look like they'd appeal to the 2-4 set, as well as school-age kids, which is a big bonus in my book.

Monday, November 29, 2010

we do what we can

I’m facing writing the chapter in my book that terrifies me to write, because I’m not equal to it. It’s the heart of the story, and I’m so scared I’m going to get it wrong. It is, in fact, not the place where the gospel is told, but where it is shown, and I'm scared I'm going to get it wrong. 
(I’m not scared that I’m wrong about what’s supposed to happen; it’s that what’s supposed to happen is so exactly right that I’m scared I won’t be able to write it well, because I am not exactly right.)

But then I was reading Fr. Reardon’s commentary on this week's readings today and read this section, where he is discussing Luke's accounts of the women who went to Jesus' grave to anoint his body after his death (emphasis mine):

Now there is a certain kind of “practical” person, an efficiency expert, who does not much appreciate what the Myrrhbearers were up to. Had he encountered them on the road that morning, he might well have asked them, “Just what good do you think you are going to accomplish?” Anointing a dead body, after all, does not make good business sense. It achieves nothing very practical. It is the sort of activity that fails to contribute to the Gross National Product. Except for its very small influence on the myrrh market, spice trading, and nard futures, it barely shows up on the Dow Industrials. It has no measurable results. The corpses thus anointed cannot be interviewed to ascertain if they are satisfied with the product, or which brand they prefer, or whether they would recommend it to their neighbors. Anointing dead bodies resists a quantitative analysis.

Over and against this quantitative point of view stands the completely unproductive, uneconomical, inefficient assessment of the ointment-pouring scene at Bethany: “She has done what she could” (Mark 14:8). In that assessment of the thing, we arrive very near the heart of the Gospel. Quite simply: We do what we can. We do not attempt to measure what we do, certainly not by its perceived results. We act solely out of love, letting God alone determine whether we have “loved much” (Luke 7:47). The final quality of our lives will not be assessed by what we have accomplished, but by our love (1 Corinthians 13:24). Only the God who reads the heart can put a value on that love.

Prominent in the midst of the Church, then, are those Myrrhbearers who came that morning loaded down with their spices and without the foggiest idea how they were going to enter a sealed tomb guarded by a massive stone. What an exercise in inefficiency, lack of cost analysis, and failure in planning. As it turned out, they could not even find a body to anoint. All that myrrh, just going to waste.

And I am reassured. “We do what we can. We do not attempt to measure what we do, certainly not by its perceived results. We act solely out of love, letting God alone determine whether we have ‘loved much’.”

Well. Now, at least, I know how to approach my work today. I will do what I can. I will do it out of love. I will pray for God’s mercy on me.
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Thursday, November 18, 2010

links: nursing twins, Harry Potter, Advent and more!

Shannon Hale wins at the internet. This may be the best blog post I've ever read.
Next, christianaudio.com is having their biannual sale, and all of their books on mp3 are $7.50. Our family got a bunch of great mp3s the last time they did this, including this awesome recording of The Count of Monte Cristo (47 hours for less than 8 bucks! that's a lot of dish-washing time well spent!) and this of Perelandra by C. S. Lewis, both produced by Blackstone (Blackstone's work is consistently excellent). They also have Peter Dennis' recording of Winnie-the-Pooh, and I can't tell you how many times over my kids have listed to that. (Be sure to check out his readings of the Milne's poetry too, which my husband and I both love.)
Okay. I don't usually link to sales, but my family has benefited so much from their last audiobook sale that I just had to pass it on. Now, to other things!
Starting with the terrifying and infuriating: Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners.  This is one amazing piece of journalism. Not just a copy of something from the AP wire (not to diss the AP), but some real anecdotal-yes-yet-compelling journalism. Pretty amazing stuff, and not in a good way. Also, a very lucid explanation of the foreclosure mess.
Even though it looks like (looks like!) Advent's going to be celebrated more faithfully in our house this year than it's been the last couple of years, I still was really encouraged by And Sometimes Tea's post "Confessions of a Domestic Church Slacker".
Check out this cool and easy pajama pants tutorial over at Learning As We Go. Great for Christmas gifts for the kids.

If you go read this day-in-the-life post by Susan Wise Bauer from 10 years ago, you are going to want to retroactively buy the excellent woman a drink. And then you're going to feel like falling onto the couch in sympathetic exhaustion - until you realize you are already on the couch due to your own real exhaustion and that, unlike her, your four children under the age of nine are still four children under the age of nine.
I thought this post positing the question: "what if an unschooler's parents found out their child was accepted to Hogwarts?" was hilarious.
That's it for tonight - enjoy!

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

writing playlist

The most important thing about writing a book is, of course, to write the book. That is: to write. That is: butt-in-chair-fingers-on-keys.*

But it doesn't hurt to have a few tricks up your sleeve to convince you to get said butt and said fingers doing their thing when you're sure it'd be easier to climb Kilamanjero than to get your heroine to the end of her scene. And one of the tricks I've come up with is making myself a playlist on iTunes for each book.

I put in songs that put me in the same mood I hope the book evokes in my readers. So I have a very different soundtrack for, say, my historical romance and my sci-fi adventure. 

I think it works because art feeds on art, and all of it is a long, long conversation. Listening to music prior to composing story is like eavesdropping for a second or two before you "hem, hem!" in your throat to let your friends know you've arrived at the party. It reminds you about what's going on with this circle of people and puts you in the mindset to discuss their fascinations with them.

So here's the current playlist for my historical romance (which has a strong theological theme running through it - hence the hymns):

-Arise My Love - Michael Card

-Ave Maria - Josh Groban

-Dela - Johnny Clegg and Savuka

-Do You Dream of Me - Michael W. Smith

-Hope to Carry On - Caedmon's Call

-How Firm a Foundation - Fernando Ortega

-I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) - The Proclaimers

-In Christ Alone - The Newsboys

-La Pared - Shakira

-Over the Hills and Far Away - John Tams/Dominic Muldowney

-Rogue's March - John Tams/Dominic Muldowney

-Springtime Indiana - Sandra McCracken

-That Where I Am, There You May Also Be - Rich Mullins

-There Is Power in the Blood - Fernando Ortega

-Thy Mercy - Caedmon's Call

-Walk in the Dark - Wayne Watson

-When She's Near - Fiction Family

Of course, not every song works for every scene! "La Pared" is great for the scene when my heroine is afraid the hero has been killed by French soldiers and is facing a life alone without him.  "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" for when we switch to the hero's point-of-view and he's fighting his way back to her. You don't want to confuse the mood of those two scenes. :)

But all in all, I'm really happy with the playlist. And tweaking it helps me tweak what I'm going for in the story. And listening the songs helps me remember what I'm aiming for as I write. 

I use different playlists for stuff like housecleaning and exercising too. Anyone else view iTunes** not just as a toy, but as a tool? And what do you use it for?

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*I finished another chapter today: joy for me! but sadness for my heroine. Poor girl. I swear I will give her a happy ending, but I don't think she'd believe me just now.

**Or other mp3-playing device. My husband would faint if he thought I thought iTunes was the only thing out there.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jesus' prayer for Peter

Tonight I was reading Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon's commentary on the week's readings and got to his words about Luke 22, which tells of the time just before the arrest of Jesus. I really appreciated these two paragraphs and thought I'd pass them on (emphasis mine):

In contemporary English (which makes no distinction between “thou” and “ye”), it is difficult to discern all the subtlety in these verses. The “you” in verse 31 is plural. That is to say, it is not only Peter that Satan desires to sift as wheat; it is all of the Apostles. Indeed, it is all Christians. Satan has “asked,” he has sought permission, to try them, just as he had formerly asked such permission with respect to Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). In the Lord’s Passion the disciples will be tried as Job was tried, and the Lord warns them of this in His words to Peter.

The “you” in verse 32, however, is singular, not plural. That is to say, it is Peter himself for whom the Lord prays. In fact, as the story goes on to show, Peter is the one most in danger, and Jesus foresees this. He also foresees Peter’s repentance, for which He prayed. In connection with this repentance, the Lord commands him to strengthen his brethren. Indeed, the story of Peter’s fall and repentance has been strengthening his brethren down to the present day.

Isn't that the truth? To read all of Fr. Reardon's commentary for the week, go here.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


One of these things is not like the other:

Yes, I am a nerd. But when I saw that tall, narrow pumpkin, I just couldn't resist carving the Doctor's Time-And-Relative-Dimension-In-Space machine. What do you think? I only wish I were a good enough carver to have managed to put "Police Box" across the top.  :)

(And yes, Dad, I used a Barkie.)

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

homeschooling is school . . . but maybe school gets in the way, sometimes

So, I've been thinking more about the women I've met this fall, the ones who take care to repeat at every meeting that "character is more important than academics," as if the two were in opposition. I've been trying to understand not just what makes them say that, but what makes them say it so many times over.

It's a warning. It took me awhile to figure that out. It's also an educational philosophy, and that's where I get hung up, because as an educational philosophy I disagree with it, even though as a statement by itself I think it's true. So I get tangled up in the educational philosophy side and spit out lots and lots of words trying to cut myself clear of the brambles.

But lately I've been thinking, Okay, I disagree with their methods. I get disturbed when I see veteran homeschoolers advise new ones "not to worry about academics" and "academics will come; don't worry about them" and "put away the books till after Christmas and concentrate on deschooling your child" and "cooking and playing is school" when the child is old enough to read and figure. But . . . what makes them do that? What makes them so scared? What am I missing?

And I don't have a firm answer. But I'm beginning to have a theory. And it goes back to the point where I agree with them: character is more important than academics. And these women - who have more experience than I do - consistently act like academics are an enemy to character, or at least, a potential one. I don't see it that way, and that's where I start getting riled up. All my life, academics has led me closer to God, has made me see new ways to live my life well, has introduced new beauties and truths to my eyes . . . it's never been in opposition to character or Christianity - even when I was taking classes from professors and teachers who were opposed to Christianity. I still dove into the new knowledge, certain that all truth was God's truth. The academics, the intellectual life, always led me closer to God and not away. So I've been having trouble understanding these women.

But, I remembered something important: my experience isn't everyone's experience. And if these women are so set on seeing academics in conflict with character, that must have been their experience at some point. My impression, also, is that it's not academics itself that's the problem, but that, at some point, their zeal for academics led them to neglect some other part of parenting.

And that, finally, strikes me as a problem that could be particular to homeschooling. If you are playing this dual role in your child's life, if you are both Mother and Teacher, well, then it's possible to get those two roles out of balance, and I'm beginning to think that that is what they're trying to say when they keep urging me "not to get hung up on the academics". I think that they're talking about a focus on schooling that eclipses our duties as Christian parents.

And I can see how that would happen. It's easier to check academic skills off of a list than to pay attention to all the multitudes of little moments that form a child's character. I can see how you could get lost in the one to the detriment of the other, simply because it's less daunting to attempt to teach a child algebra than it is to teach that child to love Christ. 

(Not to mention - and I keep coming back to this - that you have more control as a teacher than you do as a disciple-maker. You can probably force someone to learn math; you can't force anyone to become a Christian. And that powerlessness is scary. It could make you run in the other direction, in fact, towards something that you can control.)

And if it's a warning not to let a secondary duty distract me from a main duty, then I welcome the warning.

I still have trouble saying that it's okay for your child not to learn, when you have taken responsibility for seeing that she does. I still think that putting academics in opposition to character-building is making the apples to fight the oranges. I wish that they didn't see it that way; I think it leads to academic laxity that is irresponsible.

But I am glad for the warning against distraction, against substituting one good (academic achievement) for a better good (Christian character). That's something I can understand. 

And I'm glad to understand these women better . . . if I finally am understanding them.

So, what do you think? Am I closer to understanding what they mean by it, do you think?

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

At least she knows there was such a place . . .

I'm beginning to see that, when homeschooling, a plethora of subjects can lead to a bit of confusion on the part of the student, as the student's head is filled with stories and facts from history, from art, from literature and from science. Today, when I asked my first-grader to tell me something that she remembered from the story we just read, she told me: "I remember that Davy Crockett's mother was from Assyria*."


At least she knew that Tennessee was in the United States. :)

Peace of Christ to you, 

Jessica Snell

*Davy Crockett's mother was from Maryland, if you were curious.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the more it stays the same

When you want to go shopping with newborn twins, every bit of preparation - every get-your-shoes-on, make-sure-I-have-the-list, does-everyone-have-a-coat bit - is timed so that you can nurse them right before you walk out the door. That way, maybe, they'll make it without needing to be nursed again before you get home.

When you want to go shopping with two-year-old twins, every bit of preparation - every get-your-shoes-on, make-sure-I-have-the-list, does-everyone-have-a-coat bit - is timed so that you can have them go potty right before you walk out the door. So that maybe they'll make it home from the store with dry pants.

It's not that you have to stop paying exquisite attention to your timing. It's that what you're trying to time correctly changes.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Links! many, many mostly-unrelated things

I recommend this post by Fred Sanders on Cyrus the Great, which, in addition to explaining why that ancient king is important and providing one more good apology for classical education, includes many interesting quotations from Dorothy Sayers. ("Sayers" = must-read, yes?)
If you, like me, have a secondhand bread machine sans manual, you might find this post from the Hillbilly Housewife as helpful as I did. She goes through - in great and welcome detail - exactly how to use and figure out the quirks of your new-to-you appliance.
If you know who Fitzwilliam Darcy and Mark Darcy are, and if you have seen the Harry Potter films, you just might find this imagined conversation as funny as I did (it had me laughing out loud). (Also, I want to see the movie they're promoting. The trailer looks great.)
Speaking of Harry Potter, I'm pretty sure I need a "Make Love, Not Horcruxes" t-shirt.
I wrote earlier about using coconut oil as a moisturizer. If you want to read more about something similar, check out Kelly's post about using jojoba oil. She adds a "steaming" step to her routine, which sounds interesting.
Here's a neat blog post passed onto me by my sister-in-law called "Liturgy of the Home", comparing the rhythm of the author's home to the liturgy of the church, and looking at a few of the connections between them.
I really like this hairstyle tutorial (I'm wearing my hair this way right now, in fact!). It's quick and easy, but it looks very elegant.
This post, by a mother who has recently lost her son, is amazing and terrible and sad and all about the love of God. I don't have better words to describe it, but go read it. And pray for her and her husband, please.
Emily has a post about making your own bouillon which is intriguing.

I hope this week's links didn't give you too much whiplash! Not many of them are very related, but hopefully they provide you some good reading.
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Saturday, October 23, 2010



I don't know if I've ever read such a thematically perfect book. And I thought Bujold was good with characters.

Go read it! Go read it, everyone, so I can talk to someone about it.

Bujold is a virtuoso.

And she's done it again.

Go read, go read!

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Friday, October 22, 2010

It's the weekend and I want to do too many things at once

I want to write on my real novel (the oh-no-war-broke-out-and-I'm-in-the-wrong-country one).

I want to write on my "fun" novel (the intergalactic space princess one).

I want to write on my other fun novel (the reality show romance - don't laugh. Or do. It's supposed to be funny).

I want to read the new Miles Vorkosigan book (this is probably going to win out).

I want to read the new Cooking Light I just got in the mail.

I want to read the other magazines I just got in the mail.

I want to crochet a bathroom rug. 

I want to cross-stitch.

I want to read every single Cat the Cat book to my kids.

I want to sing every single Easter hymn in the hymnal (yes, I know it's the wrong time of year, but Christ yet risen).

I want to make toffee (I'm not going to, it's not Christmas yet).

I want to work on a certain someone's Christmas present (but I won't elaborate on that here because said person reads this blog - ha! maybe it's YOU.)

I want to finish sewing the birthday dress I started for my poor firstborn TWO YEARS AGO.

I want to declutter at least three different places in the house.

This is how I feel, apparently, when I finish a really, really good workout.

(Miles? Miles, are you there?)

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Thursday, October 21, 2010

CSA Basket and Menu Planning

I haven't done a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) basket post in awhile, and we're transitioning from summer to winter produce, which means different recipes (though I know that transition isn't as severe here in southern California as it is elsewhere in the country), so I thought I'd blog our last basket and last two weeks' menu plans that came from it.

Here's all the produce in the basket:

Wow. Our baskets just get so . . . green, come winter.

I'm sure it's good for us.

And here it is, spread out on our counter:

Here's what was in the basket:

-green beans


-three heads of lettuce







-winter squash










And here are the dishes we got out of that:

-pasta with basil, peas and Parmesan

-tenderloin with broccoli (this actually became chicken with broccoli on the side, I think)

-cilantro chicken with brown rice (so good!)

-frittata with green beans, served with salsa and biscuits (Our oven was on the fritz for a long time, but my husband fixed it - the stud! - and now I can make frittata again! This meal was all about celebrating the return of the oven in our house. The green beans were chopped small and added to the frittata itself, adding a nice juicy crunch to the dish.)

-meatball and chard soup

-squash and apple soup (it's terrible, but I made this and we didn't eat it. We had ice cream for dinner instead. Oh well. It was just that sort of day.)

The fruit became snacks. The parsley got chopped up and thrown into pasta for lunch. The avocado was made into guacamole for snacks by my husband. The lettuce and cucumber were also snacks (as salad and crudites) throughout the week.

And we just got our next basket, which looked pretty similar, but also had a pumpkin, a bunch of purple bell peppers, some plums, tomatoes, leeks and kale.

I made the basil into pesto last night, and I'm thinking about making Potato-Leek Flatbread with the leeks, and possibly picnic caviar (a family favorite) with the peppers. I might also give kale chips another go, since I have an oven and all. Hopefully this time I won't burn them! (Kale chips take careful watching, since they're so thin and thus burn easily.)  And we've got tons of chard, so I'm planning on using some of it in a crustless quiche tonight (good recipe, btw, but you can use about half the amount of cheese they suggest, and twice the amount of chard).

Anyone else out there enjoying some fall produce?


Monday, October 11, 2010

a bit more on education . . . or, Homeschooling is School, Part III

First though, for all my friends who have read The Republic, a question: would you characterize it as a treatise on education? And, to follow up: would you take Plato's recommendations about education within his thought-experiment republic literally, i.e., do you think that that is how he actually thought children should be educated?  

My memory of the book has me answering "no" to both questions, but that memory is also fuzzy enough that I'm realizing I really ought to just go and read the book again. Still. A lecture I attended tonight made me curious (okay, riled up) about the subject, and I'd love to have an answer in a shorter time than it will take me to reread the masterpiece. (Patience, thy name is . . . well, not me.)

(Also, would you say that the man who came up with the theory of recollection considered children to be a tabula rasa, as Locke did? That seems inconsistent to me, but I'm probably missing something.)

Right, that done, a bit more on education and academics.  

I really appreciated all the comments on my last post. I was especially grateful to Stephanie for suggesting the distinction between education and schooling. She said:

Eighteenth-century Americans from various denominations often used the term "education" to mean Christian/religious training and "schooling" to mean learning to read, write, and do math.

This, I think, encapsulates exactly what was bothering me about the educational philosophies I've been running into, the ones that imply (and sometimes explicitly state) that if a homeschooling parent raises a child who loves God and loves others - but is not academically excellent or competent - than that homeschooling parent has still succeeded.

To which I would answer: Well, she has mostly succeeded as a parent. She has failed as a teacher. (Or, I suppose, her children have failed as students. It's a two-player game, after all.)

And I'm not arguing that the latter is more important than the former. I don't think it is. I would rather my children loved God and their neighbor than that they were academically successful. 

But, if I am incompetent to lead them to academic success, I don't have any business homeschooling them. 

I suppose I should modify that slightly. I suppose that there could be circumstances where it was homeschool or end up with a child who didn't love God and his neighbor, in which case it would be an either/or choice: homeschool and be an academic failure or public school and be a moral failure. But I really don't think that choice happens very often, if at all, and it bothers me when it's framed as an either/or, as if all public school students were automatically destined for hell.

So, back to education and schooling. I think that children should, ideally, have both. Education is more important to the whole person, especially if we take Gabe's definition. He says: 

To answer my own question - education is for developing whole, virtuous, well-balanced people. It's not primarily for learning a trade or accumulating facts or getting a piece of paper. That can be said of all the subjects, and if you approach them from a utilitarian perspective I think you miss the point. For example: we don't learn Geometry because it will be useful at our job, we learn it because mathematics trains our minds and teaches us discipline and gives us insight into the ordered mind of God.

So, in his view (correct me if I'm getting it wrong, Gabe), education would tend to lead to schooling (e.g., the desire to train the mind and gain insight into the ordered mind of God would lead us to study Geometry). But, presumably, you could be educated without being schooled in the manner required by modern American law: say you're a member of a non-literate society who is nonetheless raised in the church, aurally receives the Word of God and meditates on it, is apprenticed to a trade, etc. It wouldn't pass muster legally here, but you're educated - you've been given the tools for becoming a whole, virtuous, well-balanced individual.

But also, this view leads me to say that whatever schooling your education does lead you to ought to be good schooling. If you really want to study Geometry because you want insight into the mind of God, doing a bad job at Geometry is unacceptable. Attacking it lazily, without care for the right answer, is not going to lead the results you want.

So, in this view, academic excellence should be considered important, right? And, if you slack on your academics because "character is what matters" aren't you, ironically, developing bad (slothful) character? In our Geometry example, if you are slack, sloppy and lazy in your endeavor, aren't you failing to bow your neck beneath the yoke of immutable mathematical law? Aren't you missing the chance to learn humility when you finally (as you will) come to the branches of math high enough to defeat your intellect? Aren't you failing to learn the virtue that comes when you have to do something that not only bores you, but that you are bad at?

And yes, in every subject save the few (or one) that become your specialty, there comes a point where you admit defeat, and you can quit. But unless there's a developmental disability, that point is not in the first grade! And I think it does a disservice to the homeschooling parent to constantly imply that the academics are not important. The academics are a legal requirement, and not an unreasonable one, in the culture we live in. In taking over your child's schooling (given the definitions above, you are already primarily responsible for her education), you have in effect promised that you will see that she is academically competent. And, given what you believe about education and virtue, why wouldn't you see that she was, as far as her abilities allow, academically excellent?

So, to conclude, I think the emphasis on character bothers me for two reasons: 

1) It seems to say that a rigorous education somehow excludes the possibility of being a person of excellent character. This is seen in the many, "If only they're good people who love Jesus, their SAT scores don't matter" talk. Well, yes. Of course. But why are you linking those two things together anyway? Because you're scared you're going to make a hash of the academics, that's why, and you want to point to the part you did well.*

(But if we're going there, I'd actually much rather think I was responsible for my child's poor SAT score than her damnation. Doesn't taking credit for your child's good character scare anyone else? Doesn't taking credit for it also mean you have to take the blame? Oh dear, that could be an whole other post . . . the idea that homeschooling = salvation . . . so I have two, no, Three! reasons for disliking the emphasis on character. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition . . .)

2) It assumes that character training is only done by homeschooling parents, that education is only done by homeschooling parents.

That second one might be another subject for another post. This one is already too long, I know. Thanks for listening to me think this out, friends. If you've got a corrective line of reasoning for me to follow, a helpful definition, or anything else, please chime in. I'm new to thinking hard about this, so I'd love to have help.**

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*See Jess. See Jess assume. Assume, Jess, assume.

**Among other things, this is code for, "I'm aware of the fact that a few more years of growth and maturity might have me eating my words." :D

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Couple of Experiments in Skincare and Housework

Hi folks!

We're a month into the school year now, and the days are turning over nicely, and all the blessings of routine life have me in an experimental mood. My curiosity is at a high enough peak that I'm actually trying new things instead of just thinking about them. They're not huge, life-shaking things. They're just little tweaks. But I like reading about other people's little life hacks, so I thought I'd write about mine.

One thing that I'm trying is using coconut oil on my face, as a moisturizer. Yes, that sounds a bit nuts, and the fear that I would instantly break out in the worst rash of pimples if I even hinted to my skin that I was going to try such an unconventional thing is what kept me just thinking about it for so long. But it's been a few days now, and there's no sign of a breakout. 

The two things that made me think about trying it were 1) it's done wonders for my hair and 2) my grandmother. My grandmother has the loveliest skin you'll ever see. She looks at least thirty years younger than she is because of it. And do you know what her skincare routine is? She puts Vaseline on her face every night. No kidding! And I think it probably sealed in the moisture after she washed her face before going to bed every night. I couldn't help but think that coconut oil would do the same thing.

Here's what I'm doing: every night, after washing my face, I dip the tip of my finger in coconut oil and then rub my hands together, and spread a thin layer of it over my face and neck. Then, in the morning, I wash it all off. I figure that I really will break out if I leave it on all day, because the oil will attract dirt. But at night, on a clean pillowcase, I don't see how it can.

The result so far is healthier-looking skin - honestly! I have an olive complexion that tends to leave me looking tired due to shadows under my eyes, and those have lessened, I think, just because the skin is plumped up a bit because it's not so dry. And I think I have fewer (hate even typing the word) zits than before; certainly I don't have more.

So . . . the second thing is housework. The older my youngest two get, the more energy I have. For some strange reason. Heh.  So I've been looking at my housekeeping routine and trying to figure out how to tweak it so that we have fewer chores left over till the weekend, and so that things are just generally cleaner. We do a good job around her at keeping vital things clean (like, say, food-prep areas), but things like, oh, the top of the fridge and  the baseboards - these are very seldom clean. And, you know, if I have the energy to do it, it's awfully nice to live in a clean home. 

So I'm trying this service. I was willing to experiment with it because it was just $2 for the rest of the year (Oct-Dec) and if I like it, I can just subscribe to the whole year in 2011, and buy that instead of a new personal calendar, adding nothing extra to the budget.

So far? So good. I'm using the page-a-day version and taking out things that don't apply to our home, and adding in things that do. For example, I've got 4 young kids, many of whom are not entirely clear on the proper way to use the toilet (i.e., it's not something you look at while your stream of pee goes elsewhere) and so I'm swiping down the toilet and floor right after I wipe out the bathroom sink. 

What do I like about it? I like that the very dirty areas are done once a day so that they just always look clean. What a luxury is a clean home! Really. I like that it reminds me to do the little things. I like that the less-frequent chores (like cleaning the fridge) are done a bit at a time. I also like that it's fairly similar to the to-do list I write out every day by hand anyway, and it saves me the writing-out part.

I'm also adding in the weekly zone missions from Flylady. Several years ago I did Flylady, and while I learned a lot (and kept up on a lot of it), it's just too over-the-top for me. Very emotional, those emails. And with the four kids, I get enough emotion thrown at me every day to last me, thank you. But the daily missions are helping me to do some deep-cleaning that was neglected in the Toddler Era, and that's nice. 

We're also starting to use this chore system with the older two kids. We've been hemming and hawing on what to do about allowance, and we've finally decided they'll get a small base amount every week, with the option of earning more. I think it strikes a nice balance between you-get-to-partake-in-our-resources-because-you're-part-of-the-family and you-get-to-contribute-your-blood-sweat-and-tears-because-you're-part-of-the-family. The thing I really like about the linked-to system (besides the fact that it's free) is that it lists both expected (unpaid chores) and paid chores, but the paid chores don't get paid unless the expected chores are done first.

The younger two children will be given the chance to earn pennies once I stop worrying about the likelihood of them eating said pennies.

So those are my recent experiments. I'll let you know if any of them crash and burn! But (especially regarding the first) don't expect pictures if they do. ;)

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

I recently read a top 100 list of the best first lines in fiction*. And while it got some things right - chiefly, it managed to include "There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it" - I can't help but think it was incomplete without this gem:

"As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, 'Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,' it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy."

Ah, Mr. Wodehouse. I lift my glass to thee.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*I'm sorry, I can't remember where.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dom Julian Stead's "There Shines Forth Christ"

If you've heard of Dom Julian Stead, it's probably because you've read "A Severe Mercy" by Sheldon VanAuken. And if you've read that, you probably remember Stead's lovely poem which ends, "For He is He, and I, I am only I."

What some people don't know is that Dom Julian Stead wrote much more than that one poem, and many of his poems are collected in the volume "There Shines Forth Christ." I received this from my sister-in-law, and have slowly read through it.

These poems are not great for their meter, nor are they concise and precise. But they have a beauty of imagery and a depth of devotion that makes them a pleasure to read, and I kept coming across lines that stopped my breath, like this one from "Fiftieth Birthday" (emphasis mine):

"I ran two miles

and half a century had ticked away.

But the beam was carried in my eye.

I asked for healing

and you gave me repose."

It reminds me of Donne's "Teach me to repent, for that's as good/As if thou hadst sealed my pardon with thy blood." Because, of course, in each case, the thing given was the thing asked for, in another guise. We could not repent without Christ's blood sealing our pardon, and we could not heal without repose.

It's full of imagery that makes you think, "yes, that's exactly what that looks like" - imagery you recognize, like this from "Nothing Can Remain":

". . . the leaves reflected back the sun's own music

In a thousand blades of light."

Can't you remember days when the trees looked like that? Days in the mountains when the air was so clear that every individual leaf flashed in the sun?

There is also imagery that captures not just the material world, but the spiritual, like these lines from his meditation on 2 Peter:

"You are the fountain

light-thirst can flee to".

Yes. Indeed. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Thursday, September 9, 2010

links: heresy vs. schism, what you can fit in the day, simplicity and more

First off, a short little meditation by David Mills, blogging over at First Things. Here's an excerpt:

Back when I was an Episcopal activist, both liberals who were busy gutting the Episcopal Church of its traditional beliefs and conservatives who didn’t want to challenge them were fond of intoning “Schism is worse than heresy.” It was a little odd to hear this from members of a tradition that began in a break with the Church of which it had been a part over what its leaders thought to be heresies.

But the real problem with the claim was theological: that heresy is itself an act of schism. It is a break with the tradition, a rejection of what had been the shared and official belief, a willful refusal to remain in unity with one’s brothers, a transfer of allegiance and obedience to a new and alien ideology.

I'd've copied more, but it's only about four paragraphs long anyway; I encourage you to follow the link and read the second half. It's brilliant. And sad.

Then, more brilliance from Patricia Wrede. You may have heard the rocks-sand-water-in-a-jar parable before, but I, at least, have never heard it told with this ending. If you ever feel like you're doing too much, or not getting done the things you think are most important, you'll want to go and read this.

Next, Auntie Leila on how we need to be less patient with our children. And . . . in the way she means it, I absolutely agree. Go read this wise woman's words.

Quotidian Moments has a short, simple post about, well, simplicity. I really liked this part, where she's talking about why she doesn't use Tapestry of Grace, even though it's a good program:

This is why I need simplicity, and it's why I have to define simplicity as what is simple for me. When I find some things overwhelming, I don't always know why. I have no idea why I can work with K12 fairly easily while TOG makes me feel jittery just looking at it. I just know I have to respect that. If I absolutely HAD to work with TOG, say, my husband really wanted me to or something, I'm sure I could make it work. But then, that would be different. Making things work is something different.

There's a sort of freedom in not needing to be involved with something that would be a burden, even if it is good in itself.

You've probably heard that muscle weighs less than fat, which isn't true, but here's a nifty photo showing what is true: that muscles takes up a lot less space than fat. I just think it's a neat visual.

This post on Conversion Diary offers a striking new perspective on the people who just happen to be in our lives (or, in other words, nothing's that random). In all honesty, this post has helped me even this week. 

This might be a bit connected to my current series (is it a series? It might be a series) on education and character . . . at least a bit. Anyway, go read about how "Christian faith is essentially thinking".

And, on that point, I'll leave off. I'll have a new post on homeschooling and character growth up soon, because I don't think I"ve changed my mind completely, but your comments and points are certainly refining my thinking on the subject, and helping me see what the ladies I met might have been getting at. I'm still mulling it all over, and I'm very grateful for the help you've contributed to that mulling-over process. Thank you!

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Homeschooling is School, II

Thanks so much for all the comments, ladies!

Here's some further information on the trend I'm noticing: it is specifically that character training is a subject, like math or reading, and that it is the most important subject. That is what I'm disagreeing with, because I don't think character can be taught as a subject. At least, I can see that it can, and maybe that should be a minor part of forming a child's character (after all, it's easier to try to be patient if you've been given a definition of "patience"), but I don't think it fits under the umbrella of "school" nearly as well as under "parenting" for the simple reason that most of our character development comes from what we see, do, and imitate.

School will be part of that, just because it's part of our day, but I don't think that character development is more particular to school than it is to, say, chores.

I suppose, when I look at school, I would say that the primary duty of a Christian teacher is good academics, just as the primary duty of a Christian carpenter is producing a good table (thank you Miss Sayers!).  In other words, if you let the academics slack because you're more concerned about a nebulous "character issue", you're actually having the opposite of your intended effect: you're producing a lazy, ignorant student.

But . . . I can certainly see viewing homeschooling as a weapon in your parenting arsenal. Much as you might use a chore chart to help produce diligence, you can use your schooling method to produce, well, diligence. :) And family closeness, and opportunities for Bible study, and on and on. That does make a lot of sense to me. What doesn't make sense to me is seeing the primary purpose of homeschooling as character development. I should think that the primary purpose of homeschooling is education - the primary purpose of any form of schooling is education. Now, the reason you most value education could well be character development. And you could certainly think that homeschooling, properly pursued, is more conducive to good character development than other forms of education. But I think if your schooling aims at a good character, you're not going to get it. But if your schooling aims at a good education, you will get that, and likely get a good character thrown in (if all the other necessities are in place, of course).

That said, as Kelly and Elena both pointed out, you can homeschool for developmental reasons, especially in the early years. I'd put my family in this group; we first started looking into homeschooling when we realized that public school would mean our five-year old would be out of the house for about the same amount of time my husband was at work! We honestly think homeschooling is better for our family dynamics (less stressed mom and kids!) right now. And that is connected to character - stress can lead to growth, but too much stress can stunt growth. But again, I would say that was a parenting decision . . . homeschooling was the right tool for the job (sometimes you want a Phillips screwdriver instead of a flat head screwdriver). 

But it was also what you might call an economic decision: I didn't think what we'd be getting would be worth what we'd be paying for it. I don't think that eight hours a day of my child's life is worth the return of an education that lacks history, foreign language and religion.  So the fact that my child would be unduly stressed was part of it, but also that she'd be unduly stressed and uneducated. Not worth it. Because, again, school should produced educated children.

Amie, I appreciate your point too, that Christians can educate better because we have the truth. I agree, actually. But I don't think that this is something that's impossible for Christian public school parents to do (I don't assume you do either!); there can be a lot of benefit from having teachers who disagree with you and then coming home and discussing it all with your parents, and having them help you form good arguments to support your own beliefs. Those parents are also educating Christianly, they're just doing it in a different manner.

So, in this particular case, it was literally the idea that the character issues I'm working on with my child (honesty, kindness, etc.) should be written down in my lesson plan book along with her math assignments. I just think it's miscategorization. I think those things exist alongside schooling, but if I had to categorize them, I'd certainly put them under parenting, and not schooling. I think that including them in schooling (perhaps unknowingly) assumes that public school parents couldn't possibly be discipling their children too, because it assumes that school is primarily about character growth, and not about education. (Again, if I'm cooking, I should be a good person while I'm cooking, sure, but when it comes to the job itself, what matters is not my character but how the chicken tastes!)

So, education certainly impacts character, and visa versa. But nothing in life is really unconnected to anything else, and just the fact that they're connected doesn't mean that they're in the same category. Huh. I suppose when it comes down to it, my frustration is really that I'm using the Dewey decimal system and they're using Library of Congress! 

(I.e., you're right, Amie, I should just ask more questions.)

Thanks again for the discussion; I'm very open to hearing yet more thoughts on the subject.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Homeschooling is School

Wow. So I lasted a whole year in homeschooling without acquiring my very own Homeschooling Pet Peeve. 

No longer! I now have one. And here it is: Homeschooling is School. 

At least, it is for our family. And I'm writing this partly so that I can understand the opposite point of view, because, well, it's always good to understand folks you disagree with, especially when they're obviously well-intentioned.

So, here it is: I've run into some other homeschooling moms whose big reason for homeschooling is so that they can develop the Christian character of their children. And here's my problem with that: that's not school; that's just parenting.

Character issues are not school. School is academic. I am not homeschooling in order to make my first-grader a Christian. By God’s grace, she is, and Adam and I are working hard to teach her and disciple her. But that’s PARENTING. That is not SCHOOLING.

Am I just compartmentalizing more than most people do? That's entirely possible. It's not that I see character growth and academics as totally divorced. Rather the opposite. First, what you study and learn can (and should) directly impact your actions. That's why Christians study the Bible and meditate on it. Secondly, all of our life - schooling included - can be dedicated to the Lord's service. All of it can be undertaken in such a way that it makes us more (or less) like Christ. In those two ways, I can clearly see how schooling and character issues are connected.

But neither of those are things that I'd write down in our lesson plan book, other than to mark off which chapters and verses of the Bible we've been studying. (The Bible is certainly a valid academic subject, and we study it more than secular folks would because we believe it's more important than they do. Fair enough.)  And I certainly wouldn't mark down character issues I'm working on with my daughter. Why? Because that's not schooling. That's parenting.  It's what we'd be doing if we were public schooling

I suppose that's part of the problem: framing character issues as part of homeschooling seems to imply that raising Christian children is the job of homeschooling mothers. But it's not. It's the job of Christian parents (and note the plural*).

I just . . . I just clearly have all kinds of problems with this. I think it’s silly. Moreover, I think it’s mistaken. I agree with the basic premise that Character Is More Important Than Academics. Sure. Who would disagree with that? But school IS about academics. Character Is Also More Important Than Cooking Skills. But when I’m making dinner I should focus a little more on the rice and a little less on my honesty, yes? My honesty will bide while I make the curry. I don’t get points off my Good Christian Chart for thinking a bit more about the garam masala than about the gospels during the short time I’m toasting the spices. Same with school. During science, I don’t want my daughter pondering the Golden Rule. I want her thinking about the characteristics of a cat.


I just . . . I just . . . I just am discovering that this issue makes me stutter "I just" a lot. Heh. I just have huge issues with this. Workable issues, because I can just not pick that fight. (And in real life - not blog life, I'm not arguing.**) But issues. Huge.

Anyone else? Or am I missing something huge here? Is this one I can simply look at from another point of view and understand? Or am I just going to get a swollen tongue from all the biting it I'm going to have to do? ;)

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*This is not to say single Christian parents have not the same vocation. Just that if both parents are present, it is then a shared responsibility.

**Explaining my POV, maybe, but not arguing. :D 

cheap diapers

Always a good thing, right? Just wanted to point those of you who haven't heard towards AmazonMom. It's a new program from Amazon where you can get diapers, disposable training pants, and wipes very cheaply. AND delivered to your door. And by cheaply, I mean those big boxes of diapers (size 4, 140 ct., for example - Sam's Club size boxes) for $25. That's an amazing price.

Anyway, I just used this to get cheap training pants for the twins, and I thought I'd pass it along. Hope it helps someone else!

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Friday, August 27, 2010


Patricia Wrede writes:

“I don’t have time to write” is one of the most common writers’ complaints, both from people who haven’t published yet and from seasoned pros.

The statement means different things to different people, but the most common meaning is “There are a lot of other things in my life that are more important to me than writing, so those are what I spend my time on.”

. . . But. Nobody gets more than 24 hours of time in a day, or more than 7 days in a week. That prolific professional who has six novels coming out next year (and four the year after that, and five more the year after that) has exactly the same amount of total time as the much-admired writer who produces one novel every eight to ten years, the newly sold author who’s trying to juggle editorial revisions and copyedit and galleys while producing his second book, the as-yet-unsold writer who’s struggling to persuade herself that her writing will sell one day in spite of the latest rejection letter, and the one-of-these-days-when-I-have-time “writer” who hasn’t produced two sentences in thirty years on account of having “no time to write.”

It’s not about having time. It’s about making choices.

Go read the rest, and the comments too, some of which are also by P. Wrede and even better (if possible) than the post itself.

And this is why I love Linda Holmes and her gorgeous, wonderful, analytical mind. She can take something as awful as the "Real Housewives" shows and come up with stuff like this:

"If you've never watched anything Real Housewives-related (and really, good for you), let me sum up most of the plotlines in the show's history: Someone Wants An Apology. Somebody did something to somebody else, and the somebody else just can't believe it, and they spend all of their time telling everyone to whom they speak that the lack of an apology is consuming their every thought to the point where they can barely sit through a mani-pedi without twitching. Usually there is a fashion show involved. (And yes, some of it is staged. At the same time, I am entirely convinced most of those who go to war absolutely do hate each other.)

"Meanwhile, Big Brother features a ridiculous amount of crying and emotional superreacting, which has recently included a couple who decided they were soulmates after about four days of making out, and then a guy who lay on a hammock (I think it was a hammock; I cannot bear to fact-check whether it was actually the chaise) crying to himself, all the while telling himself that it was, after all, only Big Brother — a point somewhat undermined by his position lying in the hammock/chaise, crying.

"At some point this summer, it all became clear: the rest of us are saved from becoming these people in part by the fact that we have to get up every day and do stuff."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Waxing Gibbous, or How the Phases of the Moon in 1803 Weren't What I Wish They Were

"Gibbous" is up there in the title because it is just fun to say. Gibbous, gibbous, gibbous. (Except I really want to say "gibbeous".)
Sadly for my hero, at the time he was making his slog across the northern part of France, at night, on the run from the gendarmes, and badly (but not cripplingly) injured, it was a waxing crescent moon. Which means that it didn't give much light and was only up for a couple hours in the early evening anyway.
Historically accurate novels are just such fun. Where's a full moon when you need it? Over in the middle of June, that's where it is!
Poor fellow. Oh well. Soldier on, Thomas!
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alarmingly Little

I just finished reading Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (you might know him as the author of About a Boy), and there are a few passages I'm still thinking about. One is the thoughts of Duncan, a rather miserable bloke, after he's just cheated on his girlfriend of fifteen years. It strikes me as summing up the problems inherent in living together without vows:

Duncan was sweating, and his heart was racing. He felt sick. Fifteen years! Or more, even! Was it really possible simply to jump from the belly of a fifteen-year relationship into the clear blue sky? Was it allowed? Or would he and Annie be made to attend courses, to see counselors, to go away together for a year or two and explore what had gone wrong? But who would make them? Nobody, that's who. And there was alarmingly little tying him down. He was one of the first people to complain about the increasing encroachment of the state into personal lives, but, actually, shouldn't there be a little more encroachment, when it came to things like this? Where was the protective fence, or the safety net? They made it hard for you to jump off bridges, or to smoke, to own a gun, to become a gynecologist. So how come they let you walk out on a stable, functioning relationship? They shouldn't. If this didn't work out, he could see himself become a homeless, jobless alcoholic within a year. And that would be worse for his health than a pack of Marlboros.

It also illustrates the weirdness of living in a society that legislates everything except morality.

Gosh, Hornby is good. He gets something like that in without seams in the story, with beautiful humor - funny and insightful, just great writing, that.

The other part I'm still thinking about are the thoughts of Tucker Crowe, an artist who was famous once but hasn't written any new songs in about twenty years. He's thinking about why that is, and you get this lovely piece of prose:

The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning, and he'd managed to do that with just about everybody he'd ever met or married or fathered. the truth about life was that nothing ever ended until you died, and even then you just left a whole bunch of unresolved narratives behind you. He'd somehow managed to retain the mental habits of a songwriter long after he'd stopped writing songs, and perhaps it was time to give them up.

That image of taking everything and putting it into a glass case and looking at it and thinking about it till it gives up its meaning . . . I'm going to be haunted by that image for a long time I think. Feel familiar to anyone else?

Three cheers for Nick Hornby!

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Sunday, August 22, 2010

the Writer's Tale

I just got a book that's been on my Amazon wishlist for awhile: Russell T Davies' (and Benjamin Cook's) Dr. Who: The Writer's Tale.

I've been an admirer of his work, and I'm becoming even more admiring of his honesty about his writing process. Some great stuff so far:

When asked if he's ever gone into some tricky situation in order to gather material, he says no, but then says, "Is that true, though? Did I just lie my way out of that? Okay, so I've never sought out an experience just so that I can use it in a script, but every experience, every single one, I'm thinking, this is interesting. And they do find their way into a script in the end. So which comes first? Blimey, that'll keep me awake." (Italics mine.)

On the so-called writer's block: "I never call it writer's block, though. I don't know why, but I sort of react with revulsion to that phrase. I imagine it to mean sitting there with No Ideas At All. For me, it feels more like the ideas just won't take the right shape or form. Do writers ever run out of ideas? Doesn't the block say that something else is wrong? Something bigger? I don't know."

I think he's right. It's always something bigger. (Often, in my experience, acedia.)

And then, when asked if you have to have suffered, in order to write, he answers no. But then says this: "I can't imagine writing and thinking, this is easy. I'm marvelling at those words. This. Is. Easy. They're impossible. I might as well say, 'I'm a Martian.'

        "There I go again, saying that you don't have to suffer, while admitting that the process is an act of suffering. Still. No one said that this had to be logical."

His observation about how, even in the midst of a troubling situation, the author part of him is detached and observing and thinking "how interesting!" - oh dear, so familiar. It never turns off, and it does make you feel a little inhuman at times. But only because you're so deeply interested in the human. So weird.

Anyway, fascinating book. You probably want to have watched Dr. Who before reading it, as the book discusses his writing process in putting together series 4 of that show. But this guy is a master storyteller, and it's fascinating to see behind the scenes, into the work of putting that story together.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

p.s. I should add, I suppose, so no one picking up this book on my recommendation is surprised, that Mr. Davies is a gay atheist, and that shows a lot in his writing. Which makes sense, your worldview always does (and should). And I think this particular worldview makes this an often depressing read, because it's a bleak worldview. But, if you are an artist, I think there is enough here well-worth reading that it is worth slogging through the hard stuff. Much, I hope, as any Christian writer could get an honest read from a honest atheist, though he'd find some of the Christian's thoughts hard going. 

I guess that's as much as to say (though it probably doesn't need to be said), that though I do think there are some things bad enough not to read, I think that we should be as charitable reading people that we disagree with as we would be listening to someone we disagree with, and listen and read the way we'd want to be listened to and read. I guess it's a kind of literary Golden Rule.*

Sorry for the digression. I do think it's worth thinking about though: how can we read with both discernment and charity? Some of it, I think, is also to be reading books where we can expect to do nothing but learn and soak in truth, books like de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, or Willard's The Divine Conspiracy, to balance out the books where we are learning some things and thinking through others and disagreeing with yet others.

*btw, I also think there are some things that are not worth reading, most of the time, much as there are some people who are not worth having a conversation with, most of the time. Think pornographic books and abusive people. But I think most civilized people who disagree with each other can profitably converse, just as most civilized people who disagree with a nonetheless worthwhile author can profitably read his book. If that's not true, how could any Christian read Plato or Aristotle? And think what we'd miss if we couldn't!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


This is a good reminder for any parent with a child young enough to sit in a carseat.

This article is about how the language you speak shapes the way you think. (Hat tip Semicolon.)

Two very helpful posts from Nathan Bransford: one on how to write a novel and one on how to revise one.

Love this post from Anne Kennedy, which includes the awesome declaration:

And so, in a fit of brilliance, the idea that we should Not Ever Ever Ever let fall the contents of our hands upon the earth, and nor should our children, nor our children's children, nor also the cat, nor the dog, nor any creature that moveth in the house or in the yard hit us as from Heaven itself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

on inspiration, maturity and work

A friend sent me this post, about a mom who let her kid just quit doing math for a few months, to look at and asked me what I think. I don't know what she thinks yet, so I don't know whether we agree or not, but it was certainly thought-provoking. Here's my immediate response, though I imagine yours will be different because what you think will probably depend on your experience of trying things that are too hard for you to do, and also on your kids' experiences when they try to do things that are beyond them.  Anyway, here's my not-very-reflective reflection on the post:

That it sounds like summer vacation. :)

My other thoughts are:
-yes, you take un-intentioned breaks sometimes (hmm, let me talk about my last year . . .)
-yes, sometimes there's growth that has to happen before mastery can be achieved, but . . .
-as Picasso said, "There is such a thing as inspiration, but it must find you working." I think that's so, so true. And I think not making the kid work is a disservice to the kid. Now, adjusting the work to fit the child's level . . . i.e., maybe switching to a different program, or playing math games instead of worksheets, or some such, till the necessary maturation occurs and the child gets it? Yeah, absolutely. But I think just letting the child stop working is a bad idea. (Unless, of course, it is summer vacation.)

Mostly because I think letting myself stop working is a bad idea. And I'd hate to be less fair to my child than I am to myself.

So, yeah, I think the back-burner idea is true. At least, I find it true in myself. But I also find it true that I: 1) get the concept faster if I'm still working in the area and 2) learn other good things in the meantime if I keep working in the area. Back-burner break-throughs seem to happen best when you ignore the exact problem area itself "(I can't seeeeeeee you" <-- is the dialogue in my head at those times) but still stick really close to the area around it. Otherwise you can waste days and days and days because you're not aware and alert and present when the readiness kicks in.

Also, we can be very, very wrong about whether or not we're able to do things. I'm always amazed at how much more I can do when I make myself work versus when I think about working. Again, I think the same is true of kids. (Minus the fact that they have a much lower tolerance of frustration. That's where we need to be careful, I think. Hitting frustration is something you don't want to do very often or very long with children. I'm finding. Hence the switching it up, but keeping close to the subject.)

There. I've blathered. What do you think?

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I've been working towards this for a YEAR

Tonight my six-year-old read me "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie". And she read it happily.

For the first time, I saw it make sense in her eyes. I saw her realize that if she was willing to read, she could experience a story she loved entirely under her own power. Not a phonics-graded reader, but a story familiar and beloved. The familiarity lowered the bar enough that she saw she could get over it, and the belovedness made her willing for the climb.

This is a book she knows well, but doesn't have memorized. So it was real reading, not just recollection. But she knew enough that she was able to use her memory of the story to help her take the right course when she got to words that were hard to sound out.

I think up till now, reading has been drudge work for her - remember this rule, solve this puzzle, shoulder through it. There would be times a sentence here or there would make her laugh, and those were the best times (this is my girl who will learn anything if it can make her laugh - for some reason, btw, math has largely fitted in this category), but this time, she saw the whole story, and persevered through words whose rules she knew, words whose rules she didn't and words of impossible length. The way her eyes lit up when she read "refrigerator" and realized she'd got it right! I want to bottle up that astonishment and delight and hold high for a light on a dark day.

Just glorious. I'm so happy for her. It's so exciting. After a year of work, we have a reader! She gets it!  :D

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Friday, August 13, 2010

links! Dr. Seuss, P. G. Wodehouse and religion in sci fi

Here's a good reflection on religion in science fiction: how it can be done badly, how it can be done well, and why it isn't done as much as it should be.
Ooooh . . . Peace Hill Press, the folks who brought you The Well-Trained Mind and The Story of the World, is releasing a Bible curriculum next year. Want!
This analysis of Dr. Seuss' great work Green Eggs and Ham is funny in its own right, but I have to admit that I like it most because it assures me that I am not the only person who has to restrain her snickers when reading the line, "I would not, could not, with a goat."
See, this is why Chip MacGregor's blog is so worth reading. (Link includes discussion of P. G. Wodehouse, so you know it's good.)
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I fixed a scene in my novel that's been bothering me for two months.  It wasn't right, and I k new I'd need to fix it, but I didn't know how. Turns out it needed to be a quarter of the length it was.  Oh, I'm so happy. 

I'm not letting it go so long next time. I'm going to give myself permission not to just revise, but to rewrite. As in, not to fix what I have down, but to write the whole scene again from scratch. That is what was needed.


Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Saturday, August 7, 2010


I had my "quotations" document open today, and thought others might be interested in my small-but-growing collection:

What we hope to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence. -Samuel Johnson

"You WILL carry out God's purpose. But it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John." CS Lewis

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.
-JRR Tolkien

"Don't worry about what you do not understand... Worry
about what you do understand in the Bible but do not
live by." ~Corrie ten Boom

"The difference between the easy way and hard way is that the hard way works" - Terry Prachet

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."~Barbara Kingsolver

In stuffing my face, I neglect my spiritual life. I turn to the refrigerator instead of turning to prayer.  -Joe Carter

"We are not walking with Our Lord unless we are spontaneously depriving ourselves of many things that our whims, vanity, pleasure or self-interest clamour for. Not a single day should pass that has not been seasoned with the salt and grace of mortification; and, please get rid of the idea that you would then be miserable. What a sad little happiness you will have if you don't learn to overcome yourself, if you let your passions and fancies dominate and crush you, instead of courageously taking up your cross!" (Friends of God, 129) - St. Josemaría Escrivá

"Years ago, in an interview in Saturday Review, novelist Elmore Leonard was asked what made his novels so successful. Here is a guy who has written at least a dozen bestsellers, and has kept up his success for a couple decades, so I was really focused on his answer. It was brilliant in its simplicity: 'I tend to leave out the parts people skip.'" - unknown columnist.

The only thing I would add to this, as neither a wise apostle nor a zealous reformer, is that I am learning something very valuable from Luther as my young children get a little older (the oldest is approaching double digits). It is very tempting for me to think that I have completed my job as a Christian father when I have taught my kids how to be good. I think it is literally a temptation: It would be a parental sin, a sin of the foolish variety, to launch my children into adulthood armed with nothing but the advice not to sin. What they really need is the knowledge of how to deal with sin and guilt as they all-too-predictably acquire it. I don’t want them to be blindsided by the fact that they are sinners, or uninformed about what to do with consciences that rightly condemn them. They need to learn the Christian skill of taking it to God, of walking in the light, of believing Christ boldly, rejoicing, and praying boldly. –Fred Sanders

Stupid Well-Named Friends: A Complaint

I am working on a new story, and looking for a good name for my hero, and there are just way too many that won't work because I know someone with that particular name and just cannot use it on a romantic hero. 

If only all my friends and relatives were named Plumperton or something. Then I could take all those good saints' and kings' names and bestow them on my characters.

Dear friends, if I end up calling you "Boozelbreath" instead of George or John or Peter*, you will know that it is because I have decided your moniker can be of more use elsewhere and that you would be willing to donate it to Art.


-Jessica Snell

*Actually, all three of these are available to me, unless I'm forgetting someone. Sadly, they will not do for this particular character. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

excellent work we will never accomplish

From St. Francis de Sales Finding God's Will For You:

The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished. Sometimes he even suggests the wish to undertake some excellent work that he foresees we will never accomplish. This is to distract us from the prosecution of some less excellent work that we would have easily completed. He does not care how many plans and beginnings we make, provided nothing is finished. No more than Pharaoh does he wish to prevent "the mystical women of Israel" - that is, Christian souls - from bringing forth male children, provided they are slain before they grow up.

In the excellent book Chapter after Chapter, Heather Sellers suggests that, after reading your hundred or so books on the craft of writing, you ought to pick three as your mentors. And then stop reading the hundreds of others. Just have your trusty few to guide you as you actually write.

In the first place, this strikes me as very similar to the advice St. Francis gives here. In the second place, I think there is merit in also choosing three or four spiritual "mentors" as well, and I think St. Francis de Sales is one of mine. I've finished two of his books now, and I want to go right back to the beginning and start them again (especially as I read bearing blog's series on de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life). De Sales is like Br. Laurence, but more thorough. He's like C. S. Lewis, but more Catholic. He's like Dallas Willard, but more succinct (probably because he was writing by hand! - and not that I would cut any one of Dr. Willard's words).* 

See how St. Francis follows up the paragraph above, following his warning of the danger with an explanation of the reward that is ours if we go by the narrow way:

On the contrary, as the great St. Jerome says, "Among Christians it is not so much the beginning as the end that counts." We must not swallow so much food that we cannot digest what we have taken. The spirit of the seducer holds us down to mere starts and keeps us content with a flowery springtime. The Spirit of God makes us consider beginnings only so as to arrive at the end, and makes us rejoice in the flowers of the spring only in expectation of enjoying the fruits of summer and autumn.

This is what I need to hear. What I always need to hear. I like beginning. I like planning. I like pondering. But finishing? What a glory!

It is wise to research, to think, to pray, to ask. But there comes a point when we must act, and keep acting, and work through the summer and heat. Otherwise we're never really working.

And the real end we're waiting for comes at the end of the whole of a human life. Let us not grow weary - or distracted - in the way.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*Speaking of spiritual mentors met via books, Lewis and Willard are probably my other two, though if I got two more, I'd add Frederica Mathewes-Green and Dorothy Sayers. If I could add a couple of poets? Donne and Herbert. And musicians? Rich Mullins and Michael Card, without a doubt. These are the people whose works I go back to again and again to learn how to love God aright. Who are yours?