Review: A New Look at the Saints

Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage

On July 24, 2023, TAN Book released Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage written by Kimberly Begg with Forward by Leila Miller. While working on a review of Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: An Introductory Latin Missal for Children, I received a copy of Unbreakable.

The premise of the book is that modern society will present challenges to our children we never dreamed of. The forward by Leila Miller lays out these concerns directly.

But are we at war?

I’m not generally one for battle language. The polarizing us against them turns me off. I’m the “let’s hear each other’s stories and live and let live” type of person. But I’m also a freelancer that works from home in California while homeschooling my children in a Catholic accredited program. We live on a rural acre outside city limits. My husband owns his own business, from which he also works from home, except when he’s playing the organ at our parish.

So while I don’t generally go in for the battle language, I recognize my family isn’t facing the pressures of the workplace or the school place. We don’t have to navigate all the rapid changes that have occurred in language and ideology at the risk of censure.

So maybe her language isn’t all that out of place.

As I sat with the discomfort of my very sheltered, not too curious twelve-year-old reading the reality of her own country promoting abortion, I replayed the words by Beggs early on. We must do all we can to shelter them early, but then we must help them also build the virtue of courage, moral courage.

For my morning prayer, I’m working my way through A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation written by Thomas More as he sat in the tower. In speaking about persecution, he advises that we talk early and often about the lives of the saints, about suffering, about the idea of giving it all up for God, so that children can form these ideas in their minds while they are still safe and comfortable. This will prepare them should the time arise when that comfort is forcibly withdrawn.

Otherwise, we leave them to the utter shock of it should it come unexpected.

Now, I relish the idea of handing my daughter this book.

But that language rarely makes it into the rest of the work. In fact, Begg proceeds with the fantastic tactic of teaching through storytelling.

Great storytelling

Beggs takes the higher, more subtle approach in Unbreakable.

With just enough historical context, Beggs’ storytelling flows extremely well. Without taking too long, she pauses her story of the subject to explain something about the saints who inspired the subject. As we continue reading, we discover how relevant those models were.

The stories are about as long as a lengthy children’s picture biography. Chapter lengths are accessible. The text goes in more mature detail without being too graphic, blunt or long-winded like we might see with a book targeted towards adults.

The connections she draws are remarkable.

Beggs writes with a purpose: to help inspire moral courage in our youth and to instill moral courage in the home educators and parents as they raise youth in a world that is drastically different.

I like the way the author approaches this and her preface. Unbreakable shows without telling, avoiding preaching at the reader. This is the best way a saint story or any story should be written.

But do we need another book of saints?

I say yes.

The three of the four saints presented are young, courageous saints. Beggs argues by demonstration that great faith is not grown in isolation. We are connected to and inspired and encouraged and prayed for by those who have come before us. This aspect of the book makes it stand out. I never asked who St. Margaret was or which St. Catherine appeared to Joan of Arc or why it was St. Michael and not anyone else. And now I know.

Mother Teresa takes up the final story and hers is an important edition. She was neither burned nor tortured. Rather, Beggs highlights that as times changed, and as Mother Teresa addressed different audiences, her messaged changed in an important way.

So our work may be one thing, but when we see a culture suffering so deeply, when given the platform, it is our duty to speak up, out of love, with love, and through love of God and love of neighbor.

We have to tell the bold stories.

As I grew in the faith the emphasis was on demonstrating how relatable saints were to our lives. It was good to read about Therese crying on the staircase, the way Augustine dilly-dallied on his way towards purity, or to read about modern saints who skied and worked.

But, I think the period is coming to a close when we praised the domesticity of lay saints. The ministers I speak with who work with youth tell me it’s the big stories, the big saints, the gigantic roses and lilies in Therese’s garden that captivate teens today.

In this relativistic culture, the willingness to die for truth is revolutionary. No matter what our children will face whether it’s the internal openness of accepting another child with joy, difficulty standing ones ground in the workplace, or refraining from answering questionnaire in a leading way. There is an intense effort to make others conform to a set of beliefs that are at odds with Christian tradition. Navigating those will take prudence, gentleness and probably some cunning.

And we have a tradition, be it Thomas More, the 2015 Coptic martyrs, and the saints portrayed in Unbreakable.

The Greenhouse Effect

Without our roots, we cannot be grounded, when pushed, we will falter. The author presents us with four diverse saints: one medieval female from France, one teenager from Mexico, one teenager from Poland, and old woman from Albania. Four very different governments that each targeted the faith in the specific way.

The more I read, the more I looked forward to handing this book over to my daughter. As I finished the final pages and closed it, Unbreakable left me with the conviction of my responsibility as a parent, not only to raise them in the greenhouse of our home education and faith tradition, but then to pay attention to when the time comes to start hardening them off before they go out into the world. Little by little.

Find Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage at TAN Books, Bookshop, Amazon, or request at your local Catholic bookstore.

Review: New Latin Missal for Children

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: An Introductory Latin Missal for Children

Cover of "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: An Introductory Latin Missal for Children"

This summer, TAN Books published Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: An Introductory Latin Missal for Children, illustrated by Adalee Hude (June 13, 2023). The slim hardcover edition is a mere 42 pages, with no page wasted. The book is beautifully illustrated with a medieval design and illuminated borders.

It offers the latest English translation in this traditional style Latin mass missile. Historically people carried their missiles to the church for mass with one side English one side Latin and followed along the mysterious smells and bells of the Latin mass now called the extraordinary form or the traditional Latin Mass.

It is somewhat remarkable that this book arrives on the scene two years after recent restrictions proposed by Pope Francis set forth by Pope Francis in a motu proprio Tradiciones Custodes. Despite restrictions people continue to find the mass of their choosing in most places as bishops have found alternative ways of following the new law or apply more by more pastoral approach, judging the needs of their flock, by permitting it to continue.

An visual teaching tool

Every aspect of this book is created as a teaching tool. Much like the mass itself, before the book even properly begins, on the cover pages you’ll find the steps a priest takes when vesting and the order of the procession.

Illustrations alternate between the face of the priest the view of the people, and display spiritual realities of what occurs in the mass beyond what we can see. It cuts down some of the more lengthy prayers and shows the postures by illustration only. The responses of the alter servers and people are included in Latin and English.

Following the flow of the mass, the tone of the illustrations change throughout as the mass itself leads to its climax from the quiet focus the consecration following the brilliant jubilation at the Sanctus.

A Visual Illustration of Spiritual Realities

The book communicates through its images such deep meanings of the mass like the communion of saints and the ties to history, the church militant, the church triumphant, and the church suffering. Again providing a gentle introduction to the ideas and tradition, in some places, it includes neume musical notation, which is how one will find Gregorian and other chants printed.

The communion page shows the words the priest speaks as he gives each person communion. Communicants illustrated are dressed from all times and places, another visual cue to a spiritual reality of the union the people of Christ enter into as they receive the Body of Christ.

Throughout the book itself the reader is treated to a subtle diversity like what one experience at the church itself, where people and their ancestors come from all over the world to worship in this one place, united not by a shout about the importance of diversity but through the one Christ in the Eucharist, brought about through the actions of the priest and the grace of God as he follows the commandment “Do this in memory of me.”

It’s a good book.

As an adult struggling to learn the Latin expressions but too lazy to get something for myself, it’s he sort of book that, I think to myself “Oh good, this is just what I needed. Perhaps I’ll read over my child’s shoulder.”

My upbringing was at a typical American Catholic Parish. The structure was built in the 1970s and so were the songs. The focus was a communal gathering where people could fully, actively, consciously participate through song and gesture.

Over the years as babies encroached on my ability to sing or stand, I struggled with this concept. Now as I wrangle toddlers and shush older children, the quiet solitude of the Latin mass drew me in. The action of the mass did not depend on my singing or standing, but took place apart from me, as I entered in, internally, to the spiritual reality before me.

Like every mass, there is something bigger than me there, only in this setting, it was more apparent and easier for me to focus when I could focus and orient myself to that central action.

Sanctus, Sanctus: An Introductory Latin Missal for Children reflects that reality. The same beauty I will to enter into during mass is on display in these pages directly connecting with we see or hear or feel or contemplate in the mass. It is a fitting integration of the way the spiritual reality breaks into the physical moment in time and space.

Will it make my children love the mass?

I did not let me children preview this book beforehand but pulled it out of my purse as mass began. My three year old was not interested. My seven year old thumbed through the pages and picked it up again when he grew bored. The 10 year old expressed delight when I showed him the words in the illuminated border were those we were reciting at that moment. I looked across our semi-circle church and saw another seven year old holding his copy.

Like most booklets for children, this will not be the magic volume that wakes them up to the beauty of the mass. But its one more tool that, with repetition, can create a fertile soil for when that moment comes, when Heaven touches earth and their hearts to the extraordinary reality before us.

Targeted for Reading levels from 6-14 years and Grade levels 2-8, you can find Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, at TAN Books, Bookshop, Amazon, or check with your local Catholic bookstore.

An Introduction to The Trinity Forum

Get Help Grappling with Great Works

No Undset?

I am a long and ardent admirer, and Sigrid Undset and her works. Unable to access many of her works, including newly reissued books, through our library or Link+, a statewide interlibrary loan, I turned to Zip Books. Through the Stanislaus County Library, this program seeks to provide books to readers not yet available in their library by ordering them from Amazon through a grant. To my surprise, in response to my questioning, the staff member behind the program in our country said books by Undset are “only held by university libraries and wouldn’t circulate in a public library.”

Indeed, most classics are filed under the teen section as students read them in high school. Unfortunately, there is little expectation that readers in this more rural setting will pick up the likes of Undset, Tolstoy, Dante or Steinbeck. And it’s a shame.

Kristin Lavransdatter, the latest Trinity Forum Readers

But it’s also true that these works can feel very long and intimidating. So it was with interest that I reached out to The Trinity Forum to review their recent publication, Kristin Lavransdatter, with an introduction of Jessica Hooten Wilson.

The compact booklet, which I learned is one of their quarterly “readers,” features an introduction by Jessica Hooten Wilson, excerpts from the approximately 1000-page, three-volume novel, and discussion questions.

And it’s Good!

The Trinity Forum boasts of its experts who write these introductions. My familiarity with this novel made it immediately apparent that Hooten Wilson knows this work inside and out. Hooten Wilson writes that Kristin “reveals to us what is timeless and permanent about being human.” The introduction also contained an excellent biographical sketch of the author’s life, drawing the connections between the author’s experiences and the titular character’s life. The analysis is fantastic. The booklet presents excerpts from the three volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter, with comments between excerpts that tie them all together, sharing the authentic “flavor” of the novel. The brilliance of Undset’s writing comes across quickly, and the notes link us to the very best parts of Kristen.

By giving such a well-crafted taste of a long work, this product could really help those of us outside the university setting approach these classics with confidence. Looking back after reading this, I realized I already owned another booklet by the Trinity Forum on Gerard Manley Hopkins with an introduction by Dana Gioia. Hopkins’s poetry was lauded but confusing to me. The Reader helped me understand how to read and appreciate this classic poet.

While Kristin does contain “spoilers,” for works of great depth and great length, having a sense of the narrative structure beforehand may actually help first-time readers enter in and see its depth.

The booklet ends with well-crafted discussion questions that could be used in a book club or even as essay prompts for high school and college students.

About the Trinity Forum

According to its website, The Trinity Forum seeks to bring the public the “best of classic literature and letters, introduced by today’s experts, and tailored for individual reflection and group discussion.” They do this through in-person events held in Washington D.C. five or six times a year, twice monthly online Zoom meetings, and quarterly Readers like this introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter that are mailed to members or can be purchased a la carte from their website. Those Readers follow the same format with expert introductions, excerpts or the complete work in the case of short stories and discussion questions. I’ve already put their booklet on T.S. Eliot in my cart to help me navigate “The Four Quartets” this year.

A membership with The Trinity Forum begins at $100/year. Members receive daily digest emails highlighting thoughtful content in books, articles and podcasts; quarterly Readers in the mail; and discounts on in-person events.

The Trinity Forum’s Founding and Vision

The Trinity Forum began in 1991 by Os Guinness and Alonzo McDonald to bring government and business leaders together to explore big ideas and connect Christian thought with other areas of life. According to Vice President Tom Walsh, the mission and focus of The Trinity Forum have evolved, particularly under the leadership of Cherie Harder. With the COVID-19 shutdowns, like many organizations, The Trinity Forum shifted its work online through Zoom. From those Washington D.C. and Nashville meetings that gathered 300-500 attendees, The Trinity Forum now sees 2000 registrants from all across the globe in its regular meetings. While in-person events charge a modest sum of $15 for members and $25 for non-members, online events are free. “We have a mission mindset about this access to things that can help people live wisely and well,” Walsh said.

Those meetings will focus on particular readings or invite presenters to dig deep into a topic, like the recent event discussing technology with author Andy Crouch and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Online Offerings

But for those of us beside the other shining sea, The Trinity Forum is exploring how to serve its recently widened audience best. The booklets can be used to form local reading groups or individually. Walsh said the Forum recognizes the challenges to people’s schedules to attend live Zoom events offered at 10:30 PT and 1:30 ET and is looking into how to give people perpetual access to the recordings.

I think we’re on to something here

As a work-from-home housewife in a small town, access to these materials is a boon for creativity, maintaining the intellectual life, and finding delight that transcends the mundane day-to-day while also enlivening what I have to offer as a mother and educator of my children. I highly recommend their work, particularly these Trinity Forum Readers, to look deeper into life’s big questions beyond the algorithms and passing media passions that surround us.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Barbie’s Philosophical Undercurrents and Tidal Waves

My take on the new Greta Gerwig film, “Barbie.”

Barbie is a PG-13 fantasy comedy film directed by Greta Gerwig and written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. It stars Margot Robbie as the “stereotypical Barbie” (what you think of when you think of Barbie) and Ryan Gosling as “stereotypical Ken.” It was released in theaters on July 20 this year.

According to film critic Stephen Greydanus, publicists for the film did not make it easy to preview, meaning that previews have trickled in after the media marketing storm that created intense hype and expectations. 

There is a meme depicting “what I thought watching it would be like” and what it actually was, which is fitting for various reasons. I knew the movie would be excellently made, loaded with controversy and ideas people can disagree about. It did not disappoint. 

What everyone is saying or should say: the movie is beautifully produced, costuming is phenomenal, and a delight to the eyes; the humor and past movie references are witty. I laughed out loud. The roles were written for Robbie and Gosling, so it is no wonder they fill them perfectly, and as the reviewers are saying, Gosling is pitch-perfect bringing in talent from every stage of his acting career. 

Now, the ideas. We have three significant plots competing for space here.

  • 1. Barbie has an awakening.
  • 2. Who rules the world? 
  • 3. Ken loves Barbie; Barbie isn’t very interested in Ken. 

But before we dig in, let us remember to ask ourselves, from what lens are we viewing this movie? Is it an omniscient narrator? Is it a first-person perspective? While there is a narrator, our clue as to whose lens this is comes from when Barbie floats down from her dreamhouse because when girls play with dolls, they do not walk downstairs; they float, the narrator tells us. So this film is seen through the lens of girls or women. Just as we see Barbie the way girls see her, so we also see the Kens. Even the strangeness of male actions in the real world could arguably be seen through this lens as well because it just doesn’t quite fit reality, but it fits the lens of how women see them.

On to the plot(s) – there are spoilers, but not aggressively so

1. Barbie has an awakening.

It is not unlike the illumination outside Plato’s cave. Barbie has intrusive thoughts about death, experiences anxiety, tears and self-consciousness for the first time and marvels at the beauty of old age. 

This parallels the coming of age of a girl, who has been told she can be anything, do anything, and look great doing it, realizes this isn’t true. We don’t all have the smarts, the means, the cooperation with the universe, or the looks to have it all. For a lot of women, this realization hurts. My generation was raised on this, as was Gerwig’s, and the real world mother in the story. The next generation, represented by the real world daughter, may be a lot more disillusioned from the start. That lack of hope is what Barbie encounters.

However, this plot point goes from Plato’s Cave to The Velveteen Rabbit, in which it isn’t really an awakening but the impact of how Barbie as a doll has been played with by the girl who loves her. While this connection is beautiful, it isn’t clear or consistent with the other things taking place in the story. The Velveteen move becomes more of a shortcut to explain Barbie’s actions and get us to the next thing. 

It’s the former child-to-adult realization of what womanhood is, how messy and complicated it is, that turns the climatic conflict and saves the day.

Remember perspective or lens of the films?

This realization isn’t for men. The film is not speaking about grand ideas about what a woman is. It articulates what it is like to live as a woman and the experience of being female in modern society. 

The film is not saying what it is like to be a man. So when the men look chauvinistic, contradictory, violent or foolish, it articulates the woman’s interaction with the man – not a philosophical stance on masculinity or what it is to be a man. It’s offensive to men, but it might help some men to understand that this is really how a lot of men present themselves to women.

What’s interesting is that a vast majority of films play this way in reverse, movies about men, for men, made in the perspective of men, show women presented merely through the view of man – as a villain or virgin or eye candy. We are so used to it that we don’t always notice when that happens. Reversing it upsets a lot of people. 

2. Who rules the world? 

The movie is very much about the relationship between men and women—a little philosophy for us. Sr. Prudence Allen gives us these terms and understanding.

Plato believed that men and women did not have significant differences, and so were equal. This is called sex unity. Barbie doesn’t propose this. 

Aristotle believed that men and women had significant differences and that men were superior to women. This is called sex polarity.

Feminism, particularly second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, believed that men and women have significant differences and that women are superior to men. This is called reverse sex polarity. 

Sex complementarity teaches that men and women are significantly different but equal and complement each other in meaningful ways.

Fractional sex complementarity teaches that men and women are significantly different but incomplete on their own and basically need each other to make up the difference. Man brave. Woman gentle. 

Integral sex complementarity teaches that men and women are significantly different but, as individuals, are still whole complete human beings. They express qualities and traits in a uniquely feminine or masculine way, but both are capable of possessing the characteristics. Men and women can be brave. Men and women can be gentle. It just looks different, and we can learn from each other’s style of bravery or gentleness.

Back to Barbie Land.

Barbie Land is a world of Reverse Sex Polarity. Feminism rightly identifies a good deal of human history as operating under Sex Polarity – but in this movie, they call it “patriarchy.” It might help us understand the movie if we can get away from catchy (ahem, triggering) nicknames.

After discovering it in the Real World, Ken tries to bring “patriarchy” to Barbie Land. The viewer sees the shallowest forms of how society looks under that way of thinking. It’s funny. I hope we can see the humor in this.

Barbies takes it back and reaffirms the complexity of women (a long struggle for men to grapple with – I told my husband to say “complex” not “complicated”) and reestablish the original order of Reverse Sex Polarity by not giving the Kens equal rights. 

Is it good? Is it bad? 

The writers are playing out the ideas as they tell a story and not necessarily making a stand on what the real world should do with it. 

3. Ken loves Barbie; Barbie isn’t very interested in Ken. 

Standpoint Theory in feminism rightly points out that women are often viewed primarily in relation to men. Again, think back to the lens through which a story is told. Integral gender complementarity would have us see that women are complete creations by God, called to growth, no doubt, but don’t require a masculine presence to flourish as a person. That is why we can have nuns, and it’s good. 

Barbie isn’t defined by her man. That’s the reality of the toy and its a longstanding joke about the toy and Ken.

In the film, Ken expresses his dependency on Barbie for identity.

She encourages him to see who he is as an individual. That is good and healthy.

Sadly, there is no understanding of the complementary dynamic between men and women. Except for this final conversation with Barbie and Ken, men and women are at odds. This dynamic of being in competition for power has its roots in second wave feminism which has its roots in Marxist thought (class struggle for power). The resolution between Barbie and Ken makes little sense in light of everything that came before it.

What do we do with this information? How do we make the world a better place? There are no answers, which might just be this modern generation’s deep sadness. 

The writers see the patriarchy, a society organized around sex polarity, as responsible for the challenging experience of living as a woman and the evils women suffer instead of understanding that this came about as a result of the fall of “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This dynamic is the result of the fall. It not a prescription to help us get through the fall, as some men believe.

Barbie’s decision, in the end, isn’t at all clear. But it shows the writers reaching and knowing there is something good worth going after, but, as I imagine the writers themselves feel, they don’t know exactly what it is. For me, the ending was very flat.

But as to what came before it, I love it. My all-time favorite moment was Gosling’s power ballad (some weak vocals notwithstanding) and dance number that referenced the oldest of movie musicals and Footloose vibes.

The movie is good, even if it is wrong.

I do not recommend it unless you are ready to tackle these ideas intellectually. For those wanting to see CRT or feminism, that’s all there. For those who desire to explore the concepts behind it, it’s a feast. 

I do not believe this is Marxist propaganda. And it isn’t a kid’s movie (hence that PG-13 rating). 

Instead, it is a creative exploration into the ideas that have shaped the writers, and if people never explore those ideas, how will they ever find the truth? 

It is a movie by a woman who works in a male-dominated environment. Women who have not been in that setting may see the world differently. Indeed, men will. I respect Gerwig’s effort and willingness to search through these answers with so much delight and humor and play out these questions’ ideas. What if we just turned a society based on sex polarity nicknamed “patriarchy” and flipped it to reverse sex polarity, in this case, Barbie Land? 

I hope modern feminists viewers can see that such a solution is not an answer. Although, I know there are plenty of movements that promote it.

At least someone with a budget behind her has this opportunity to ask the questions and unabashedly acknowledge that women are complicated, complex and beautiful creatures.

Summer Movies Line-Up

I love a good theme and summer movies are no exception. Without the oppressive feeling of too much structure, it gives focus to what can undoubtedly be a chaotic, unstructured summer.

Summer Movies in June: Adventures on the High Seas

This June, our family will focus on Adventures on the High Seas.

Treasure Island

Best Summer Movies: Treasure Island

That means the children were politely requested to read versions, original or adapted, of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in order to watch the 1950 adventure film of the same title produced by RKO-Walt Disney. The film may have been filmed in England, but as Stevenson is said to have based Spy Glass Hill on Point Lobos, we plan to make a family field trip to Monterey Bay this week for a less harrowing adventure.

Swiss Family Robinson

Other films for the month will include Swiss Family Robinson, the 1960 film by Walt Disney Pictures, adapted from the 1812 novel by Johann David Wyss. On their own, the children read the Adapted Illustrated Edition to compare notes. My 7-year-old is very fond of bringing up the issue that it is an anaconda snake in the film, but in the book, it is not. From the same series of adapted stories, my children read Robinson Crusoe. They were delighted to hear the film of the shipwrecked family was filmed on the same island of Tobago where the fictional Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked.

Mutiny on the Bounty

Moving away from Disney, we’ll see some fun for all ages with the black-and-white Mutiny on the Bounty, where I shall sneak in some talks about virtue, duty and whatnot, in this 1935 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama film based on the 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. No pre-reading necessary.

Jamaica Inn

Since there will still be talk of pirates, Jamaica Inn will be a new addition to the line-up. The film stars Maureen O’Hara as an innocent young lady who goes to live with her aunt, who happens to be married to a leader of thieves. Alfred Hitchcock directed the 1939 film based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. I don’t know how this will play out for the younger audiences, but I know my daughters and will enjoy it thoroughly.*

(*Edited to add: this turned out not so good. The movie was dark, over-my-kids’-heads implications of what was happening was fairly harrowing and it ends with a characters’ suicide – So! Now I know. It takes time to curate a family’s movie list)

Summer Movies in July: Medieval Times

In July, we’ll travel back to Medieval Times, which I learned covers roughly 1000 years. This will be my incoming 8th grader’s historical and literary focus this year. The theme fitting.

Robin Hood

Best Summer Movies: Robin Hood

We begin with the 1922 silent adventure film Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. A silent movie for kids, you ask? If children are only ever exposed to new, colorful, fast-paced media, the older flicks, no matter how well-crafted, will appear dull, dry and slow – to adults and children. I make it a point to expose my children to a wide swath of decades of cinema to keep them open-minded.


Nevertheless, we move back to color with the 1952 Ivanhoe, a British-American historical adventure epic film starring Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine, based on the 1819 historical novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Much of our stories of Robin Hood are derived from this story.

Robin Hood, The Sword in The Stone, and The Court Jester

Naturally, we mustn’t neglect the 1973 animated Robin Hood and 1963 The Sword in the Stone, both by Walt Disney Productions. The Sword in the Stone comes from the brilliant Once and Future King by T.H. White. It will also be necessary to watch the fantastic The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye, a delightful, near-parody of all the other things we’ve watched. Best remembered for the wordplay, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”

Summer Movies in August: High and Dry

From the forest to the west, we shall begin our High and Dry season of Westerns when temperatures become unbearable here in California.

Old Yeller

Best Summer Movies: Old Yeller

That means the 1957, the Walt Disney Production of Old Yeller. My 10-year-old elected to read all the sad animal stories this year. It’s a sadness my farm kids know too well, I’m afraid, but it will help them process the more difficult losses that inevitably come in life as they get older.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

Next up, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. I don’t know why my children love this as much as they do, but they do.

High Noon

We’ll pair a field trip to Columbia State Park with the film High Noon, the 1952 American Western film starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, for an excellent opportunity to discuss violence and justice and how “The West” is right in our backyard.

Dodge City and Broken Arrow

The month will close with the 1939 Dodge City starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sheridan, and Broken Arrow, a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler. Whenever we’re watching old westerns, it’s crucial to address the stereotypes presented and balance it accordingly with a better, more authentic depiction. Broken Arrow isn’t about good guys and bad guys. Rather it show both sides of the beginning of the Apache War with humanity, mistakes and all.

How to Get it

I generally rely on the library systems or my inherited collection of DVDs to supply the films for us. Most of these films are from the 1950s and 1960s. a bit of a golden era for family films, I believe. This is due to the combination of new color technology, reliance on fiction for story sources, Walt Disney live action triumphs, and the self-imposed censorship of Hollywood at that time making films squeaky clean but also very interesting. It isn’t perfect, but it is good. And when it falls short, as things in life will do, that’s an opportunity for discussion, too.

Photo by Zhifei Zhou on Unsplash

A Review of Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

And an inheritance of women offered through von Hildebrand

Cover of Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

There are voices that helped form us, for good or ill, into the people we are today. You can hear them in the nostalgic stories of the past, in an older generation’s lament about the newer generation, in how a mother firmly but lovingly scolds her child, and in a graduating senior’s speech about what living in a small town means to her.

How good it is for us to know the sources of those voices, the ones who shaped the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves.

Alice von Hildebrand is one of those voices for me.

I do not know who first introduced me to her through her book The Privilege of Being a Woman. Likely, it happened sometime in high school.

Cover of The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand

Von Hildebrand was, in a way, always in the background of my life. Her ideas echoed in youth group ceremonies upholding the dignity of womanhood, crowning us ladies as daughters of a king.

And then there she was, eloquently, lucidly, lovingly explaining what it is that makes being female not only tolerable but a good thing. There she was, explaining that the fall in Genesis turned our perception upside down so that weakness was directly marked as something negative, and power was directly marked as something good.

On Femininity

All this happened back before feminism seemed to target children and teenagers. We girls received the trickle-down message from our short-haired mothers that being a woman wasn’t about being girly, that there was no right way to be a girl, and that you didn’t have to be a boy to be cool, athletic, or adventurous.

Femininity had little to do with skirts, long hair and a sashay of the hips but had everything to do with how we were born and grew. Von Hildebrand gave a theological root to this idea, and it would shape me forever. Prudence Allen later offered a scientific and philosophical explanation. John Paul II elucidated the theological and scriptural roots. Still, it was von Hildebrand’s voice that taught me, woman to woman, how to be a woman in a world full of confusion and why no matter how hard the going got, it was worth it, and it was good.

Then last year, she died.

The death opened the door for those who longed to present an even greater body of her work to the world, explore her writings and papers, compile them, and promote her legacy as she did for her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand.

And so, this year, Hildebrand Press published Remnant of Paradise: Selected Essays by Alice von Hildebrand, edited by John Henry Crosby.

Cover of Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

The first set of essays gives the reader an excellent sample of her teaching on that femaleness I spoke of and the privilege of being a woman with wit and wisdom. These are controversial terms these days, no doubt.

She referenced Augustine’s “warmheartedness.” Indeed, here is a woman who understands that to feel and express emotion is a valuable power of the human person, so long as it is ordered rightly. She writes about friendship, an essay I could revisit again and again. She writes about widowhood and old age, under-appreciated topics in our society.

Sample of chapter titles from Remnant of Paradise by Alice von Hildebrand

The final essay selections feel like the essays were collected for me, reassuring me like the lessons or stories an old aunt chooses to tell. She writes about truth and charity, how the first exists and how the two are bound together. Von Hildebrand explains the true meaning behind sacramentals, that it is a betrayal of truth and love to be unwilling to care about a loved one’s moral state, or that an ancient sacred liturgy should not be forbidden.

She gives a voice to the ideas that swirl around my mind and reminds me what we believe and why we believe it.  Reading her words, I feel seen, known and loved. And as always, von Hildebrand does this in an effortless, approachable, conversational style.

In addition to von Hildebrand’s essays, Remnant of Paradise contains remembrances of those who knew her or were influenced by her during her almost 99 years of living. It comes as a paperback book with an unassuming minimal yet feminine design reminiscent of von Hildebrand’s writing style.

This book reminds me of the debt I owe her. It gives me an eager appetite for more. I hope the Hildebrand Project will not let me down.

In the Margins of Motherhood / A Review of Create Anyway

Create Anyway by Ashlee Gadd

There are few books I have read on creativity that are so absolutely satisfying, personal, and broadly practically applicable as Create Anyway: The Joy of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood. This recent release by Ashley Gadd (Bethany House, 2023) is, frankly, a remarkable book.

Gadd, a wife and mother of three in Northern California, founded Coffee + Crumbs, an online storytelling community for mothers. She describes her work time as “writing in the margins.” Those margins or the cracks of the day may be the only time a homeschooling or mother of young children can create.

Born that way

There are those of us with a burning desire to make something, to create, to arrange, to beautify, to put our hands to some craft or project and make something of it, whether or not the finished project is for our gratification, something consumable like a delicious cake bound to be devoured by your children, something foundational that will grow with us like a garden, or something artistic destined for the gallery walls of the local arts center. There are those of us who are incomplete without this action. Gadd recognizes this, being one of those types herself.

The 19 chapters of Create Anyway address a broad scope of heart issues related to motherhood and creativity: the doubts, insecurity, fears, challenges and obstacles of living motherhood and creative life. It targets the lie from social media or online experts that the only way to build a successful portfolio is to charge for everything, to post everything online, and to make an online following that meets the magical metrics of the gatekeepers in these fields. I’ve written before about how elusive those goals are. Gadd reminds us how little they matter.

The book is written from a Christian perspective grounded in the belief that God as the Creator has endowed human beings, made in his image, as co-creators, little creations of him who are drawn to create as a way of living out the Imago Dei. It is part of human nature to create.

Golden and Glittery Lessons

There were lessons in other chapters that I remember learning in the early days of my business as a writer: Permission to do the thing whether or not it’s paid work and that what you need is within you. The easy part is getting the words down; the hard part is turning those words into art. Creativity begets creativity.

Professionally, having moved through the lessons of “Mission over Metrics” and giving myself permission not to pursue an online following aggressively, I find myself working through those ideas in “Abundance over Scarcity” and “Throwing Glitter,” which not only address refraining from comparing ourselves to others but actively building up those around us, especially those in creative work. That I can see the writer I was ten years ago and five years ago and the writer I am today in different chapters of this book speaks to the magnitude of what Gadd is doing here.

Each chapter closes with Creative Exercises and Journaling Prompts to help the reader interact with the material personally.

Better shared than stored

I am eager to share this with others. Create Anyway is for any woman who has a passion she pursues or wants to pursue. Or shoot, even a hobby she is trying to make time for.

It’s for the artist about to deliver her first child. It is for the seasoned entrepreneur constantly readjusting her workload to make space for her family.

Or the woman who doesn’t feel all that creative, to begin with, but describes knitting as therapeutic and spends time in the evening exploring new stitches may even find permission to stop downplaying her creative contribution to the world, which she’s learned to talk down because it is not posted online.

Gadd does waste a moment.

The book itself is beautifully hardbound with a sewn binding, the pages slightly glossy, making the most of its color photographs taken by Gadd on film. These are not ornaments for a beautifully laid-out book with plenty of white space. They are illustrations of her point.

Gadd’s illustrations wove together the lesson at the heart of this book which she lays out early in the Introduction. “I used to believe motherhood and creativity were opposing forces—that my mothering was in the way of my creative work, and my creative work was in the way of my mothering,” she writes. “I’ve realized that motherhood inspires creativity, and likewise, creativity inspires motherhood.”

Create Anyway will be on my desk for a time. I hope you’ll consider adding it to yours.

I received a copy of Create Anyway for review from Bethany House. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Story into Song with Opera Modesto

Designing Curriculum for Opera Modesto’s Story into Song

There is a lifestyle in which one is hired at age 24 or 25 and works there until retirement. I know this life exists, but I do not think it exists for my husband or me. Instead, we began growing our family, and with each addition, a significant shift had to occur within the family dynamic. My husband and I are both self-employed in the arts in one form or another. He is a teacher, an organist, a windchime maker, and a composer. I am a housewife, a home educator, a reporter, a sometime poet, a speaker and now, Curriculum Designer for the Opera Modesto Arts Education Program.

Story into Song

It makes sense, after all, writing so long and so often about the Story Into Song Literacy Initiative. I began volunteering a couple of months back to brainstorm ways to create a supplemental curriculum for the initiative. Through SISLI, Opera Modesto performs an opera based on a work of literature. They provide special student showings called reader performances at a low cost and with scholarships when even that cost cannot be met.

When the position opened up, discussions commenced. General Director Roy Stevens split one job into two hiring me for this position and Camille Iorns, for The Arts Education Program Coordinator. Thus each of us can do the thing we are most passionate about.

Time to start designing

I dove into reading librettos, listening to scores, contacting librettists, researching sources and piecing together ideas that make all that information easy to reach, diverse in the style of instruction and something that could both enrich the student’s experience and enjoyment of watching Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant in January 2024. Librettist E.M. Lewis based the opera on “The Norwood Builder” by Arthur Conan Doyle. Then she mashed it up with Jack and the Beanstalk. It sounds wild, but once seen how deftly she pieces it together, it makes the whole idea rather delightful, and I say this as a literary purist.

While I tinker away with Word documents, Iorns will contact schools and teachers to see if they want to sign up a group of students to come to a Reader Performance. The public performances will be at the State Theater in Modesto on January 13–14, 2024.

Prop 28

With funds from Proposition 28 on the table, Stevens hopes to be able to take this show on the road. Already, some theaters outside Modesto have signed up to host a day of performances.

According to Karen D’Souza, writing for EdSource, “Proposition 28 creates a guaranteed annual funding stream for music and arts education that equals 1% of the state’s general fund. In 2023, that comes out to roughly $941 million.”

Schools are still waiting to discover how this will all play out. The anticipation is excellent as teachers and artists consult to prepare preliminary budgets. Any student group, including private and homeschool, can sign up their group for a Reader Performance by emailing Iorns at

Ask your school what they hope to accomplish through the future funds. Voice the arts you wish to see represented.

It is a great opportunity. As the arts were often among the first areas to be slashed when budgets tightened, it is an opportunity schools have very much needed.

Greg LeBlanc interviewed former Poet Laureate Dana Gioia on Episode 266 of the unSILOed podcast. In that interview, Gioia, who grew up in Los Angeles, explained the valuable role of the school band at his high school. He saw it help underprivileged students who may have been more likely to go to jail than graduate, play together and find a place and connection in their life apart from gangs. Gioia described theater programs as avenues for children who may not fit in with other groups find their place and bring those qualities that make them unique to the general public, to be celebrated for it, and build lifelong friendships. I spend the morning interviewing graduating seniors as part of their exit interview from Hughson High School. Again and again, students said art was one of the most memorable classes—the arts matter.

And meanwhile, I’ll be tinkering away, creating reader guides and ideas through the rabbit trails linked to a creative opera. I hope we’ll see you there.

            Although an employee of Opera Modesto, this column was written separately from that work and was not sponsored by Opera Modesto, nor was I compensated by Opera Modesto for my time writing it. The views expressed here are my own.

What Kind of Book is A Little More Beautiful?

The wait is over. The book, A Little More Beautiful is out!

No publisher would take it. So she began her own publishing company. Sarah Mackenzie, who founded and runs Read-Aloud Revival, an expert in what makes a picture book a work of art, is now a published author. A Little More Beautiful began arriving at houses in March. 

Seven months ago they set a goal to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to fund the project. Within hours it passed $100,000 and by the time the window closed raised $200,000 towards published. 

Now the book is out with another book by Waxwing publishers in the works. Waxwing is a boutique publishing company, meaning the team will publish a small number of, I gather, remarkable books if this first book is any indication.

A Little More Beautiful does everything Mackenzie has prized a good read-aloud picture book for.

It clearly grounds the reader in a sense of place and time with a remarkably minimal amount of words with the same clarity as Virginia Lee Burton, in The Little House.

It uses the poetic repetition that makes excellent read-aloud picture books so delicious with the same ear as Robert McCloskey, in Burt Dow, Deep Water Man or Make Way for Ducklings.

A Little More Beautiful moves perfectly from storytelling with words, introducing readers to place and characters, before shifting to storytelling with pictures, actively engaging the reader’s imagination. The reader sees the story unfold, like Mac Barnett, particularly in Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. And for the finale, she deftly brings the reader back to just enough words, with the imagination fully engaged, holding the weight of what those words mean throughout the story. 

Mackenzie did not just set out to write a good book.

Knowing that when all the pieces of a picture book work together, we sink into the whole experience. Children’s literature is an art unto itself. 

Like Mac Barnett, she uses the size and shape and layout of the book to emphasize the story. Mackenzie did not do this alone but hired book designer Cara Llewellyn to lay out the words and pages in their artful attire. 

Breezy Brookshire illustrated A Little More Beautiful in soft watercolors. The beauty is breathtaking. It’s no wonder they offered these as art prints in the bonus purchases on Kickstarter.

But as much as Mackenzie takes the absolute best of children’s literature techniques to craft the story, there is something much deeper here. 

The theme of A Little More Beautiful tells the story of the need to be connected. We are interpersonal beings and need relationships. We can connect through books, as Mackenzie has done with thousands of people in her podcast and community of read-aloud revival premium members. Mackenzie teaches that the love of literature is often born in the connection of occurs in the shared experience of reading aloud. 

Yet, we connect over all different kinds of mediums. We see this bond in the two main characters of A Little More Beautiful. She also connects with Lou Alice in a shared love of flowers. We influence each other from afar.

The material good we bring about is good, but it is not enough.

Something is missing if we do not have relationships.

How many of us have left a place and been forgotten about, or feared that would be the case? What will our legacy be without social media to capture it or something concrete to show us?

That will not complete us, and the world would be lacking something if we stopped there. If we stopped at the human connection and left those who have lost the ability to live independently, who are too often seen as burdens on society or their family. It isn’t so. 

I think back to the conversations I had with Cindy Morphy in August last year during National Night Out. “It’s okay for any of us when you see neighbors that you talk to them, but you also need to say, where is the neighbor that’s not here? I think we need to make neighbors aware of neighbors and who’s missing and how we can help those there might need love. We need to know our neighbors,” Morphy said. 

Not every story needs to moralize.

Mackenzie shows and does not tell us the good we can do when we remember one another, and when we act on that impulse to give. The little girl in the story, breezes through the book with the vitality of youth, bursting in with a gift of love. She is innocent and good, not inhibited by the message too many in our world receive, “don’t worry about it, let someone else take care of it.” The book reminds us that no, you have a gift to give. You are needed. And you can make the world a little more beautiful.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Poetry from the Muses / A Review of Meet Me At the Lighthouse

Meet Me at the Lighthouse

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a new collection of poems by former poet-laureate Dana Gioia, released February 9 by Graywolf Press.

The collection offers a style for everyone, capturing what Gioia says —with a nod to Robert Frost— poetry is meant to do, utilizing poetry as “the most concise, expressive, moving and memorable way of articulating what it means to be human” to remember that which it “would impoverish us to forget.”

These lessons from Gioia, through his interviews and teaching, come to the fore in this little bound book of poems. Through the five sections, Meet Me at the Lighthouse presents us with his reminiscences, a ballad recalling the adventure and death of his great-grandfather, and a long poem that references the greatest poets and myths of history, illustrating the journey through death.

An Exercise of Memory

To be sure, as others have said, Meet Me at the Lighthouse is nostalgic. But even more, this work explores what Gioia so often speaks about, that this ancient art of poetry is an exercise of memory. That does not mean the sort of memory that dryly recalls the facts and figures of a city’s population growth, but the sweet feeling of recalling stories and children swallowing the stories whole recounted in “The Ancient Ones.”

In a series of teaching videos on YouTube, Gioia explains “No people can know where to go into the future without knowing where they came from in the past” and so here in this work he honors his past, not only his familial ancestors and their stories, but the poets who came before him, as in “Three Drunk Poets” when Gioia with two friends walk the nighttime streets reciting poetry.

Poetry goes still further.

When answering “What is Poetry?” Gioia states, it is

“not merely communication, poetry is a kind of enchantment that desires covertly or overtly to transform the world.”

Reading Meet Me at the Lighthouse I felt this in no place more deeply than in the section of modern psalms and laments for Los Angeles.

Here, Gioia taps into the Judeo-Christian consciousnesses as he recalls with heartache, longing, love, and righteous anger the place of his youth. It is beautiful. By tapping that shared culture of those who have read the psalms, the poet takes a shortcut to the vulnerable places of the hearts of those who mediated on those words, “How can I forget you, O Jerusalem?”

What does all this looking back do for the reader or listener of such poems?

I wondered where that attachment or nostalgic feeling was for me. What places did I love so dearly?

Those were the college days, my golden age. Transplanted to that world of snow, in those days, as Gioia wrote, we felt immortal.

And what about ancient ones who share their stories?

The ancient ones at the general store 100 years ago? The matriarchs and patriarchs of families at Thanksgiving? More accessible to me is our small town historical society. I see what Gioia describes: the little ones —my daughters— entranced, the older ones distracted with their tales, the absence of middle age.

What if our families are not storytellers?

Because the poet, whatever else he has taken in, must turn it around inside his mind, perceive it and make something of it.

We make the memories by soaking in the moment, by being willing to look back and let our imagination run wild while we recall the story.

And this is how we capture the beauty.

Gioia brings an earthiness to his poetry that might mean you don’t read them aloud to your children at night, but the feelings are true, beautiful, sad and transcendent — all the best things that poetry can be.

Three of the poems are set to music by Helen Sung, in a remarkable collaboration that takes me back, nostalgically so, to those college days of mine, driving downtown on a Saturday night to The Artist’s Quarter, buying drinks, then sobering up in the Minnesota chill while we grab a hamburger from Mickey’s, before driving home.

Meet Me at the Lighthouse is grounded in time and place, which makes the poetry more real, more transporting. He comes the neighborhood of Pulp Fiction and his odes to that metropolis exercise my empathy, as I imagine how someone could actually feel that way about a place I dislike so much. Poetry has that power too, it erases the exterior differences and gets to the heart of it.

This small volume can be consumed quickly, and feel free to do that, like browsing the buffet before you settle in to savor it, but please do savor it, and pick up a copy of Meet Me at the Lighthouse.

As Gioia says,

“Lean back relax and listen. Clear your mind of the clutter of the 21st century. Open your imagination and poetry will do the rest.”

Cover of Meet Me at the Lighthouse by Dana Gioia