Monday, December 27, 2010


In an exciting turn of events, severe winter weather decided to hit our area, leaving us all stranded on the mountain! Fortunately, the Melton's house is well-stocked with food, internet, and DVDs, so we're all quite happy being stuck here. To pass the time, in addition to such wholesome activities as shooting each other (and Jasper) with Nerf guns, we've also been enjoying some hilarious videos on YouTube. One that we found is just too good not to share:

Note to my parents: Don't worry, we'll be able to make it down off the mountain by late tomorrow, so Rachel and I are still leaving for Michigan on the 28th.

Here's hoping everyone else is having equally fun holidays!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

For Christmas

No Christmas is complete without my favorite Christmas songs:

Merry Christmas, everyone! As Tiny Tim said, "God bless us, every one!"

A Memorable Advent

It has truly been the best Advent ever for me. I just can't believe that in one year I started out with no friends in the area, hoping desperately to find just one kindred spirit, and ended up part of a closely-knit family of kindred spirits. I just can't believe how richly God has blessed me in 2010. To suddenly be essential and wanted, when before I felt displaced and even ignored, is a blessing for which I cannot stop marveling.

I've started several Christmas traditions for myself this year, as I suspect that I still have many years ahead of being single, and refuse to allow that circumstance to rob me of holiday joy. The first new tradition was my real tree. In my whole life, I had never had a real Christmas tree, and thus had no idea what I was missing. I cannot say enough how much better my real tree has been. The scent, the appearance, the fun of selecting the perfect one (I named him Clarence) . . . it's definitely going to take place each year, from now on.

Additionally, I greatly enjoyed my cookie-invention tradition, although I went a bit above and beyond this year: I invented five new types of cookies. Handing them out to others was so rewarding that I've decided to continue that each year as well. I regret that I did not have the time to make homemade cards, as I did last year, but I will make a solid effort to reinstate that tradition next year. I also plan to add in advent candles and readings next year; I meant to do it this year, but all the problems with migraines and medications left me too exhausted to put forth the effort.

Last weekend, I went with friends to see part of Handel's Messiah performed in Appomattox; it was absolutely heavenly. The music from Messiah always gives me goosebumps! As I often say, the mark of truly great music is when it makes the hair on the back of one's neck stand up. After the music, my close friends Rachel and David and I went out to a local coffee shop for coffee and biscotti. We ended up staying for a few hours! A few other patrons pulled out instruments, and before we knew it, the entire coffee shop (about twenty people) were spontaneously singing Christmas carols together. It was magical, like something you would see in a Frank Capra film. As the complete strangers sang together and shared holiday memories, you could feel the true spirit of Christmas enveloping that little coffee shop. I almost expected Jimmy Stewart to burst through the door and wish us all a merry Christmas!

On Tuesday of this week, the dogs and I headed up in the mountains to spend the remainder of Advent with dear friends from Lantern Hollow Press. Cozily ensconced around their old-fashioned wood-burning stove, with a fire adding both warmth and ambiance, we've had a lovely time. We've spent many hours editing, working on audio versions of stories (Brian built an impressive sound booth), and writing some new material. In addition, there has been plenty of fun, like cooking, baking, and watching scary shows after seven-year-old Annora is tucked into bed.

I've been able to spend loads of quality time with my very precocious goddaughter, Annora. We went sledding together the other day, we've watched Christmas movies together, and we've had some very enjoyable conversations (I love hearing a seven-year-old's vast store of wisdom). Annora told me all about her hopes for Christmas, and informed me that "I have been a very good girl this year, at least recently." Yesterday, when I had a horrible migraine all day long, Annora sweetly rubbed my neck for me and prayed for me. When I gratefully told her that I could not possibly have picked a nicer goddaughter than her, Annora replied, "But Aunt Stephanie, you didn't pick me. Mama and Daddy picked you!"

Jasper and Éowyn have loved running about off-leash in the snow, antagonizing the cats (the Meltons have two), exploring the house, playing with Annora, and grabbing any food that drops during the Christmas cooking. Yesterday Annora and I made rice crispy snowmen, which gave the dogs plenty of opportunity for droppings. Of course, Annora and I would never create normal snowmen; ours were alien snowmen with googly eyes, horns on their heads, and in one case, a bit of blood (candy) pouring from a battle wound (Annora's idea).

The best part of the holiday (so far) came yesterday. Annora dearly loves her grandmother and has been a bit saddened at not having her here for the holiday. Little did she know, one of her presents was her grandmother! Although Brian, Kami, and I have all nearly blown the secret in the past week, we miraculously managed to keep Annora from figuring out what was going on. Last night, we went out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a trip sullied only by the fact that we had to stop for me to vomit on the way (the migraine was in full power). Throwing up did a lot of good; the migraine was nearly gone by the time we reached the restaurant.

As we sat pretending to look at our menus, Kami got the video camera fixed on Annora, who happily hammed it up and babbled away for the camera. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide as she observed a familiar figure walking into the restaurant.

"That looks like, that can't be . . . that's Nanny! It's Nanny! How did Nanny get here? Nanny, how did you get here? How did you do that?" Little Annora was the most adorable mixture of surprise, joy, and childlike confusion. It was so precious to see a little girl getting what she wanted most of all for Christmas!

Annora said the blessing for the meal, which she loves to do. I was overwhelmed at the sweet and merciful spirit of this little girl when she prayed specifically for a family we have never met, whom I read about in a news article a few days ago. This Ohio family lost all three children in a fire on the weekend, then the grandparents died in a car accident on the way to the funeral. It's a tragically sad story, but I did not expect a young child to remember it so clearly and take it to heart, particularly when she only overheard me telling her parents about the story. She's been thinking a lot about that family; I wish more of us could be so caring about strangers. We could all learn a lot from children.

Tonight will be a truly special Christmas Eve. We'll be dining on a delicious venison roast this evening, then driving out to St. Timothy's for the Christmas Eve service. After the service, we're having an extended fellowship time, along with a Christmas toast. Then we'll all troop back up the mountain, joined by two more friends. We'll hang our stockings, watch Christmas movies, and eat yummy baked goods. Best of all, we'll all be surrounded by people we love. That's the best Christmas gift anyone could ask for.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Bit of Morning Excitement

The weather forecast called for a severe weather system for us, so I figured work would probably get cancelled. When I got up at 6:30, however, there was no word from anyone. I took the dogs out and observed that there was none of the forecasted snow, sighed (I have a bad cold, so a day off would have been nice), and went back inside. When I left at quarter til eight, however, it was a whole different story.

About two inches of snow had fallen, and it was of the wet variety. Black ice grabbed my tires as I braked at the end of the apartment complex. Immediately, my little car happily slid out into the road . . . and right into the path of the oncoming big truck. I knew it was going to hit me. Fortunately, God had other ideas, and the truck missed me by mere inches. Whew! I shook all the way to Liberty!

In the parking lot, I had more fun. Apparently, my steering doesn't work well in inclement weather. Happily, most people apparently assumed that everything was cancelled, so there was plenty of open space in which to regain control of the vehicle. The really severe weather should be hitting by eleven, so getting home is going to be "fun".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Only Sayers Can Be Sayers

I ordered a few frivolous (i.e. non-academic) books as a reward for surviving this very stressful semester. Among those was one which particularly excited me, Thrones, Dominions. Thrones, Dominions is based off of a final, unpublished manuscript left behind by Dorothy Sayers, my favorite author and admitted role model. Years after her death, Jill Paten Walsh was asked to finish the manuscript. I had heard that she did so seamlessly, so although I despise on principle the practice of modern authors attempting to write as older authors, I decided to give the book a chance.

I ought never to have done so. The book is an abomination, a blight on the brilliant works of one of the most fascinating and inspiring female novelists (Sayers, not Walsh). Walsh may be a talented writer; not having read her work, I cannot judge whether or not she is capable in her own right. As Sayers, however, Walsh is incapable. The book is blundering, at times nearly crass, and wobbles unsteadily from chapter to chapter, each character a hollow imitation, even an unintentional burlesque, of the full-fledged characters Sayers carefully and skillfully created. I stopped reading midway through, unable to stand the horrid text any longer. Someday I'll sell it at a garage sale, and the offending document will trouble my bookcase no longer.

The dreadful collection of pages masquerading as a novel led me to ponder the sad state of modern fiction. I have been accused before of being elitist in my literary taste, a rebuke that is perhaps occasionally earned (although, let me remind one and all that most great writers of the classics, such as Dickens, wrote not for the elite alone, but for the common masses). I do often make the judgment that if a book is a bestseller today, it must therefore be awful, since mass appeal is seldom earned anymore by books of quality. From time to time, I have been proven wrong in this judgment. More frequently, however, I have been proven right. I do not know whether it is the readers or the writers who are ultimately most to blame, but a large portion of censure is certainly deserved by the writers.

Many modern authors really don't understand how to write! Character development is the greatest casualty; so many modern writers are incapable of creating unique, flesh-and-blood personalities that are distinguishable from one another (and from book to book). Plots are cliche-ridden and oftentimes paper-thin, routinely teetering dangerously on one coincidental decision by a character, or, worse, mere whim. Authors are now increasingly falling into the Hollywood trap of dumbing down for audiences (I give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume that they themselves are not the stupid ones): every part of the story must be explained repeatedly in this new literary style. One cannot simply let the characters take over the story, as the old masters did; no, they have to tell the poor, stupid readers exactly why Mary crinkles her nose or tell us every thought coming in John's head as he gazes upon the lovely woman (and the woman is always lovely). We must be reminded over and over why a certain action takes place, why the door is closed, why the heroine wore red. Occasionally, the author attempts to be clever and delivers a crucial, plot-altering decision devoid of reason! Gone is subtlety; art is dead.

Allusions to brilliant old works are seldom quoted anymore; Sayers positively delighted in obscure literary references, which gave a peculiarly wonderful and scholarly feel to even her detective fiction. Sayers' characters had multiple sides to them, depth, passions, dreams, and, most importantly, history. The past directed, haunted, pursued, and by some characters, could be overcome. Characters grew and developed from their pasts. An entire novel did not have one plot alone; Sayers had side-stories and peripheral events, just as real lives do. Her characters conversed intelligently; modern characters comment on surface details, like how attractive they find one another. Sayers's characters had lives; modern characters have episodes.

As I sadly learned last night, only Sayers can be Sayers. She was a gifted, scholarly, multi-faceted novelist with vigor and depth. She was a theologian, philosopher, educator, and historian as well as author. Many modern writers (I'll be fair and not say all, since I have come across a few rare and deeply appreciated exceptions) are apparently graduates of the People Magazine school of writing: all beauty lies on the surface, where the dense can see and appreciate it, all people are guided solely by their glands, and a woman's sole purpose is be a man's sex toy. Thought, depth, and scholarship are penniless orphans cast into the snow, left to freeze and starve.

Listen for the Bells

I've been increasingly reminded lately, even in the midst of the almost ceaseless migraines, of just how fortunate I am and how much I have been given. It seems like so many dreams that I had become practical and given up on have suddenly been laid out before me, wrapped in silver paper. If I were to try to write them out, I don't know that I would ever finish.

I wanted to give something back. So many people have entered and enriched my life this year; somehow, it wasn't enough just to thank God for them. I wanted to thank them, too. I wanted something more than that, even; I wanted to hear the bells.

There's an old story that I remember reading years ago, which made quite an impression. It was about an old chapel whose bells would only ring when someone gave a gift of true worth and love. Kings and other wealthy and important men traveled for many miles to reach the chapel, where they lay down gifts of jewels, gold, and beautiful garments on the alter. But the chimes remained silent. Week after week, the gifts continued to be given, and the chimes continued to stay still. People grew angry, believing that the bells were broken, or that their beautiful music was nothing but a lie concocted to gain wealth for the chapel. Many people took back their gifts and went on their way. Then, one particularly cold and windy night, a little boy came upon the chapel. He searched his pockets for something to give, but he had nothing. Finally, his face brightened into a smile and he took off his thin little coat and laid it on the alter. Instantly, the bells sprang to life, and the air was filled with the most beautiful chimes anyone had ever heard.

I think about those bells a lot. I didn't hear them last year, because I was too caught up in my own misery (largely self-imposed) to listen. But I did think about them then. I thought they had gone silent. So did one of my favorite poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once. In 1862, he was having a miserable year. He had lost his dearly beloved wife, Frances, in a fire. His first-born son Charles had left abruptly earlier in the year to fight in the Civil War, and had been severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church. The war itself was ongoing, with no end in sight, and an entire country torn in half. On Christmas morning of 1862, a broken, heavy-hearted Longfellow put his pen to paper and the words poured out:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Yesterday morning, sick with a migraine, I had to stay home from church. I started to feel sorry for myself, something I've been prone to with all of the health woes this semester. Then I thought about my favorite professor, one of the dearest people in the world, and the much worse health problems he is battling. I thought of some of the hard-working people I know who get over-looked or under-appreciated, and of some of the people with power whom I know, who deal with stress that completely dwarfs my own. I thought about how kind they have all been to me, and about the daily encouragement I receive from them.

I started baking. For the entire day, I ignored the migraine and stayed on my feet, until the entire kitchen and dining room were covered with warm, fragrant cookies. Although the pain and nausea never left, I didn't seem to feel as much of them. I focused on the people I was baking for and felt very, very blessed. In the back of my mind, I thought I heard a faint chiming.

Today, loaded down with an enormous box full of bags of fresh cookies, I played elf, going from office to office. I delivered cookies to all of my coworkers and professors, as well as a few deserving people who work in stressful offices. Nothing is quite as much fun as surprising frequently-overlooked and under-appreciated people with yummy baked goods. I got some hugs, a few cheers, lots of surprised looks, and lots of smiles. That's really one of the best parts of the holiday season: when you give something to someone, thereby letting them know that they matter enough to be thought of. The bells are beautiful then, unlike any earthly music.

It's amazing just how many deserving people get taken for granted, even people with the big offices and their own secretaries. I guess everyone just assumes that they know their own worth. I know that I often do. Maybe people don't think about it at all. Maybe a mass-mailed e-card seems like enough. Somehow, though, nothing brings quite the twinkle and smile that cookies or handmade gifts do.

It takes time to make things, a lot more time than it takes to fill a shopping cart. Especially now that online shopping makes it so much faster. You can sit, and you're comfortable, and your feet don't hurt. You don't burn your fingers, and there's no mess to clean up afterwards. The bells don't seem to ring as loudly, though. Sometimes they don't ring at all. I guess most people would say the bells don't really matter; after all, only the giver can usually hear them. And you can't keep them, or wear them, or replay them over and over. They're old-fashioned, maybe even corny. Sappy and sentimental, surely. But they are so beautiful . . .

The whole time you make a gift, you think of the one you're giving it to. A little bit of love goes into that stitch, or that paint-stroke, or that cookie batter. You're thinking about them, not yourself. That's a foreign concept today; I think some people would even laugh about it. What do you really get out of making things? Sore feet, sore back, burned fingers and palms, headache, a bit of sweat. It takes time; time is valuable. Time is ours; it ought to be spent on the things most important to us. Oughtn't it?

Last year I spent that time feeling sorry for myself, and I never heard a single bell. I missed those bells, but I was too busy with me to notice. A funny thing happened; the more I thought about my misery, the more miserable I felt. Misery loves fertile ground to grow and thrive in. Sometimes it generously invites its friends: regret, sorrow, bitterness, jealousy . . .

This year, I decided to spend the time better. I spent it remembering the hearty "good morning" that greets me every day, the offer of help when the copier gets stubborn, the concern when I don't feel well, the explanation of how to write the book review better next time. I spent time thinking about the helpful advice, the phone call that straightened out my student account, the joke that lightened a stressful day. People spent their time on me; yesterday I remembered. I gave back a little bit of time. The migraine made it cost more, but, for once, I spent it anyway.

And yesterday and today, I heard the bells.

And . . . It's Over (Almost. Really, Really Almost.)

The hardest semester of my academic life has at last drawn to a close. Can you hear the peasants' collective sigh of relief? Whew; I honestly thought at one point that I might not make it. All those migraines can make one think some crazy thoughts. I went off the preventative meds in order to be able to concentrate better last week (the side effects are really strong on the current mixture of pills), but I've gone back on this week, so I'm hoping to make it through today without a migraine.

All that's left of my semester is one presentation, which I'm giving tonight. I'm presenting my research on colonial diseases, which apparently impressed my professor much more than I thought it would (considering the duress under which I finished the paper). I was going to bake a cake shaped like cholera to give my presentation some pizzazz, but I was too tired last night. So, instead I created an interactive presentation with music, pictures, and a game for the class to play. I figured, it's the end of the semester and the end of my graduate classes, so why not have some fun?

Yup, you heard me right a second ago: this is my very last day of graduate classes. It's all over; nothing left now but thesis. That terrifying monster is supposed to be finished by March 31. Somebody hold me! Ah well, as my mother is fond of saying, I seem to thrive on stress.

I hope.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I'm a Godmother Now!

Despite all of the stress of this horrible paper which refuses to write itself, yesterday was a very special day, and I willingly gave up valuable writing time just to enjoy it. Yesterday I gained one of the world's most brilliant, witty, and adorable seven-year-olds as my goddaughter.

Annora's baptism was a beautiful, tearful event, not only because I was so honored to become one of her godmothers, but also because of her own behavior at the event. In our church, there are a series of questions asked when one is baptized, sort of like marriage vows. The person being baptized is demonstrating not only their willingness, but also their readiness. For babies and young children (since we believe Covenant theology, we do baptize infants), the parents and godparents answer the questions. In little Annora's case, however, that smart little sprite answered the questions herself. Seriously, and with full understanding of exactly what she was saying, she answered each one in a clear, confident voice. Pretty much every person in the church teared up. Few things are as beautiful as a devout child.

Afterwards, the monthly potluck was held in Annora's honor. Despite all the homework waiting at home, I stayed for the whole thing. I love these potlucks; they're more like family gatherings. And the food we wind up with is so remarkably different from most potluck fare that it always makes me laugh. No green bean casserole, no fried chicken, no baked beans . . . but we did have Indian food, Jewish food, apricot chicken, and butternut squash soup, among the many other offerings.

Well, back to this dreadful paper now. Let's hope I can get the wretched thing done in the next few hours.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Oh, the Exhaustion!

December is a very, very, very hectic and overcrowded month this year. And to further muddle things, I'm now on three preventative daily drugs for migraines (all of which have "fun" side effects) and I have given up dairy products. No egg nog, no delicious holiday creamers, no ice cream, no cheese. It's a miserable experiment, but I have got to find out whether or not foods are influencing my migraines. So, December is "non-dairy month" and January will be (shudder) "wheatless month". In February, I'll try giving up caffeine and chocolate. Hopefully, by then I'll be able to discern if anything makes a difference. With a thesis looming in my future, I have to do whatever it takes to get the migraines under control.

On the bright side, I discovered that Silk makes their own version of egg nog without any dairy, so I've been consoling myself with that. I also found, after considerable searching, an ice cream that is made from coconut milk. It actually tastes better than most ice cream, but the price is enough to bring on a migraine! I've reserved it for a very special treat.

My final days of graduate classes are upon me; after the 13th of this month, all I'll have left is my thesis. The workload for these last ten days is staggering: two research papers, two required books to read (on top of what I read for research), two presentations, an arduous quiz, and two book reviews. And, of course, I still have my two jobs. And I have a puppy to housebreak. And I am on the church hospitality committee. And I'm sending out applications for further education upon graduation.

Pardon me for a moment while I go whimper.

Okay, that feels better. In happier news, Sidhe Eyes is still progressing at an acceptable rate, though I'm not quite certain how I've been managing it. I'm now on chapter 5 of Book Two, which means Book Two is about a fourth of the way done. I'm going to go back and add to Book One in order to balance things better, since I believe that Book Two will probably require twenty chapters, and Book One only has thirteen. I'm hoping to get a lot done over Christmas break.

I have narrowed down my list of programs to apply to. I'm going to apply to three PhD programs and two post-graduate certificate programs, all of which excite me. I'm also applying for adjunct positions at several universities and sending in applications to a few other possibilities. As I've said before, I am really keeping my options open. Overall, I'd prefer to stay here, but I'm open to alternatives.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Turkey Week at Lantern Hollow Press

In honor of Thanksgiving, we at Lantern Hollow Press held a "turkey shoot" in which we sought out films that failed to live up to the hype or the books they were based on and shot the offending critters through the heart. It was highly cathartic for all of us. If you're interested, here are our "turkey shoot" posts:

Monday: Melissa went after Ella Enchanted with a deadly dagger.

Tuesday: Erik rolled up his sleeves and took on Avatar.

Wednesday: Brian boldly tackled both Prince Caspian and Lord of the Rings, and wrestled them into submission.

Thursday: Rachel dealt a mighty blow to the abominable Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice.

Friday: Kyle eagerly pummeled Starship Troopers into the dusty ground.

Saturday: I hopped into a mental B-17 and strafed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Feel free to comment on our "turkey shoot" posts with your own frustrations about these films. Believe me, it really feels great to get it out of your system!
"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"