Have Courage and Be Kind

I will be the first to admit that Cinderella isn’t my favorite fairy tale, nor is it my favorite Disney adaptation of a fairy tale. There is no specific reason why, it just isn’t.

However, when I saw the trailers for Disney’s live action Cinderella movie, AND I found out it was opening the weekend of my birthday, well, guess who dragged her husband to see it with her?

Now, I’m not here to write a movie review of the newest Cinderella. If you’ve read other reviews, most of them tell it like it is: it’s a fairly faithful retelling of Disney’s 1950 animated version. Orphaned Ella is cruelly treated by her stepmother and stepsisters, but her kind heart keeps her from becoming hard and bitter. Fairy godmother gives her a fabulous dress and impractical shoes, our heroine goes to the ball, falls in love with a prince (this is slightly changed, as Ella met had “Kit” previously), but leaves behind her glass slipper in her hurry to get home before the clock strikes twelve. Prince leads hunt to find his lady love and all is well when it turns out no one else can fit into those remarkable shoes.

Yes, the costumes are spectacular, and Cate (“the great”) Blanchett is delectably evil as the stepmother. Richard Madden as the prince is pretty hot.

Some reviewers complained about the lack of “feminism” in the film, that Ella is your typical damsel in distress who needs her prince to rescue her. However, I think they missed the overarching message, repeated over and over again throughout the film:  have courage and be kind.

cinderella-lily-james-cate-blanchett-2Ella’s mother tells her this before she dies, and our plucky heroine calls upon this knowledge whenever faced with hardships. When her father dies, she gathers her courage to face the road ahead. When her stepmother and stepsisters make her serve them breakfast and sleep in the attic, she swallows her anger and kindly takes it without repaying their cruelty. When her fairy godmother, disguised as an old woman, asks for water when Ella is weeping away her disappointment at not going to the ball, Ella wipes away her tears and compassionately pours her a cup. When Ella is finally reunited with Kit, she doesn’t punish her stepmother for her treatment of her. Rather, she simply tells her she forgives her.

This is exactly the kind of kindness Jesus demonstrated for us. He fed those who were hungry and helped those in need. He treated sinners with respect and dignity and without judgement. He forgave those who beat him and crucified him.

It takes a lot of courage to be kind to those who abuse us. To return insults with a smile. To say a nice thing to someone we know has gossiped about us. To forgive someone who has betrayed us or hurt us. Heck, even just to resist saying a snide comment about someone who annoys us, or cuts us off in traffic.

You don’t have to be a Disney princess to act with courage and be kind to one another.

OK, I just added this one in here because he’s so handsome. That smile! Those blue eyes!

*Just a fun little story to end this: I ended up sitting next to a little girl who was at the movie with her grandma. The girl looked to be about seven or eight, and was absolutely enraptured with the movie. I distinctly became aware of her when the fairy godmother was transforming Ella’s rags into her spectacular blue ball gown, when I heard a breathy  sigh, followed by an “oh, it’s so beautiful!” I snuck a few glances at her throughout the film, and probably enjoyed the movie a little extra seeing it through the eyes of a child. When the prince finally fit the glass slipper to Ella’s delicate foot, I heard little squeals of delight, and a “this is my favorite part!” When the movie was over, I saw her grandmother taking pictures of this little girl in front of the big cardboard display of Cinderella. I hope that little girl, whoever she is, can treasure the thought of a prince sweeping her off her feet someday, and follow Ella’s example to just have courage and be kind.

The Return of the King

I have a shameful secret for a voracious reader to admit: I saw movie before I read the book.

I know, I know!

But, after seeing the The Fellowship of the Ring on December 26, 2001, I was absolutely in love with the story. I immediately went home with my family and dug out my dad’s old copy of the trilogy and devoured all three books during my Christmas break from college. By the time I went back to school, I was a huge fan of Tolkien and this wonderful, mysterious, beautiful, and dangerous place he called Middle Earth.

Me and Frodo in my college dorm room.

Me and Frodo in my college dorm room.

So much so, in fact, that I was given a card-board cut out of Frodo Baggins for my 19th birthday that has been on many adventures with me (including living in my dorm room for three and a half years, going to a semi-formal dance, starring in my first student film, and now currently residing in my office). I bought the four-disc extended editions when they were released and held LOTR parties with my friends. I named a plant I was raising Legolas. I even took a Tolkien class in college devoted to studying his works, including “The Silmarillion.”

Me and my college roommate, Ruth, took Frodo to a dance.
Me and my college roommate, Ruth, took Frodo to a dance.

But what is it that drew me to The Lord of the Rings?

You know, I can’t really say it is one thing. There are so many facets to the story, so many lessons and virtues to be mined and polished from, what is essentially, a story of good versus evil. One of my favorite books related to this is “Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues” by Mark Eddy Smith.

SamwiseAlthough there are many heroes in LOTR, my hands down favorite character is Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s loyal gardener, trusted friend, and most staunch ally. I love Sam’s devotion, his optimism, his servant’s heart, his willingness to sacrifice everything, even his life, not in the name of saving the world from the destructive power of the Ring, but rather in the name of his friendship with Frodo. The scene of him carrying his master up Mount Doom because Frodo is too weary to continue the quest brings a tear to my eye.

But one of my most favorite passages in the whole of the story is just a small scene, hardly even a paragraph long, and not even worth a few seconds in The Return of the King film. Frodo and Sam are trekking across the wasteland that is Mordor, exhausted, nearly out of food and water, and practically defeated by the growing shadow of the Ring. Frodo falls into a weary sleep, while Sam keeps watch.

He peers out from their hiding place, the sky dark with clouds, menace, and the shadow of Sauron.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This, to me, is the heart of The Lord of the Rings. That goodness and light are beyond evil; that no matter how dark and awful things on earth are, God and His Heaven will triumph over all. God has always been, always was, and always will be be.

The journey may be fraught with danger, despair, perhaps even death. Frodo and Sam make it out alive but with great personal sacrifice. But Sam knew that in the end, even if he and Frodo failed, or they were killed, that good would win in the end. Just as Aragorn reclaimed his throne, our King Jesus will return in the end, to wage war on evil and triumph in the end.

“Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.” Psalm 93:2.

Mozart or Math?

Mr. Holland’s Opus is one of favorite movies. It’s a beautiful story of a man who wants to be a famous composer, toiling away on his personal symphony for years, making ends meet by being a band instructor at the local high school. As the decades pass, Mr. Holland teaches students everything from the difference between a treble clef and a bass clef and what it means to play pianissimo, to performing music from the heart. Eventually, he finds he is at the end of his career, as his position is being eliminated, and his students celebrate his legacy by showing him that while he did indeed compose a beautiful piece of music, they, his students, are really his opus.

Mr_Hollands_OpusOne of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Mr. Holland learns that the school district is eliminating the music and arts programs. When questioned, the principal tell him that if he has to make a choice between teaching students reading and writing or music, he chooses the three ‘r’s.

Mr. Holland replies, “Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

While I personally haven’t hear of any school eliminating their arts program entirely, schools are facing the problem of finding a way to fund these programs. Just this month, the school district I live in proposed cuts to the district’s music education budget, which included eliminating several music instructors at the junior high level.

But instead of going quietly into the night, about a hundred parents and students attended the school board hearing, testifying for more than four hours about the advantages that participating in band and learning music had for them. In fact, 20 more students were ready to testify before the board had to call the meeting for the evening.

Thankfully, the school board decided to find their budget cuts elsewhere, and the music programs were saved. For now.

While I agree with Mr. Holland’s principal that basic learning like reading, writing, math and history are incredibly important to education, so is music and the arts. Research has found that learning music facilitates learning other subjects and enhances skills that people, specifically children who learn an instrument at a young age, inevitably use in other areas.

The Children’s Music Workshop has a great article, found here, about 12 Benefits of Music Education, which include language and reasoning development, spatial intelligence, higher test scores. It even has other benefits, such as teaching the rewards of practicing and hard work, learning from mistakes, taking risks and conquering fears. music-wallpapers-free-download

To quote from another movie I love, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating tells his students, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I believe music can fall into that category as well. And if we don’t continue to teach it, to continue to encourage children to be the next Beethoven, or Aaron Copland, or Louie Armstrong, or Joshua Bell, what will there be to read and write about?

The Look of Love

“As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

Isaiah 62:5b

I wanted to be a bride as long as I can remember.

I always wanted the beautiful white dress, the wispy veil, the colorful flowers, the flickering candles, the heart-pounding kiss at the altar. I wanted my friends and family watch me say “I do.” I wanted my dad to cry as he gave his little girl away. I wanted to feel like the most beautiful woman in the world.

I practiced this all the time. I would go in my room and put on my prettiest dress, pretending I was getting married. I would pull on my grandmother’s old white gloves, and slip a plastic ring on my finger. I would walk down the aisle of my church slowly– right together, left together– imagining my husband at the end beaming at me. Even in college, when I decorated my dorm room with a few yards of tulle, my roommate recalls me pulling it over my head like a wedding veil, and telling her “Look! I’m a bride!”

The fripperies of a wedding are fun, and make it a day to remember. But through the years, although the style of my imagined wedding dress changed, and the colors of the wedding party rotated, and the friends I wanted to stand up with me came in and out of my life, there was always one constant in my fairy tale bridal dreams: the groom.

I wanted a prince at the end of the aisle to look at me with such adoration that I knew I would be cherished for the rest of my life.

Falling-in-Love-with-Jesus-Workbook-Brestin-Dee-9780849988202When I was a freshman in college, I participated in a Bible study with my campus ministry called “Falling in Love with Jesus,” by Dee Breston and Kathy Trocolli. The book talks about the various types of love, from first love, wilderness love, redeeming love, and everlasting love, using the marriage of Christ and his church as an example of personal, abiding love.

Isaiah 62:5 was one of the verses that really struck me, because it was the first time I had imagined Jesus as a true husband, someone who loves me and cherishes me, someone who will love me and stick with me no matter what. Someone who will forgive when I’m wrong, and hold me when I’m hurting, and protect me from harm.

Someone who will rejoice at the prospect of ME, Stephanie, because she is the ONE. She is His bride.

At a wedding, most people watch the bride as she makes her grand entrance. But some like to look at the groom, to see his face light up as he sees the woman he is about to pledge his love and life to.

That is how I love to imagine my bridegroom Jesus: that every time I say a prayer, He lights up. When I sing a song of praise, He smiles radiantly. And when I dedicate my heart in worship, He can’t help telling His angels, “She’s the One. She’s my bride.”

I eventually found my earthly husband, and I had the wedding of my dreams, down to the big white dress, the fluttering veil, and even my dad crying as he gave me away (actually, I was crying, too.) I remember my husband’s face when he saw me come toward him.

Nervous but excited. The handsomest I’d ever seen him.

And full of so much love.

Rejoicing over me, his bride, just as my Jesus does in Heaven.

Headline news

For seven years, I was a bonafide Girl Friday, a Lois Lane, a Nellie Bly: I was a newspaper reporter. I worked for several different papers, churning out multiple stories a week, interviewing people, writing many different types of news stories, and ultimately, learning how to be a better, faster, tighter writer.

While I have never published a novel, I have had thousands of newspaper articles published over the years, so here are a few things I learned in the newspaper business that I think can apply in any sort of writing situation.

Write a good lead.

How many news article do you actually read every day? For the most part, people just skim a news story for the highlights. Journalism students are taught to write a good “lead” (the first 1-2 sentences of typewrtiera news story) that will essentially capture the entire story into one or two neat little sentences. If it’s a feature story (a nice, feel-good story), it’s even more important to write a solid lead that will make people want to read the entire article.

This can be applied to fiction writing as well: write a good opening scene, or even better, a great opening sentence. I’ve actually decided against buying a book in the bookstore if I open it up to Chapter 1 and the opening sentence or scene doesn’t even remotely capture my attention. One of my favorite opening scenes is in a suspense thriller called The Romanov Prophecy by Steve Berry. Here’s the opening sentence:

“In fifteen seconds, Miles Lord’s life changed forever.”

Wham pow! I know something incredible is going to happen in the next couple of pages and it made me want to find out what changed his life.

Do your research.

When I worked for my college paper, one of the hard and fast rules we had was to have at least three sources (people that you quoted/interviewed) in your story. This is a good rule because when you have multiple sources, you have a better overall view of the story you are trying to tell, plus it doesn’t allow just one person’s bias to rule a story. This is the same whether you are writing a news story or a fictional story. I know historical fiction writers consult multiple sources when researching an era, and even contemporary writers need to do their research when writing about specific subjects, rather than lean on their own opinions of bias.

Be prepared!

You never know when you’re going to come across a good story, so always keep a notebook with you. A few years back, I literally stumbled upon a story. A 16-year old girl and her father were reporter notebooksdriving home with a large load of manure in the back end of their pickup truck. The girl lost control of the truck and rolled it into a ditch. Thankfully, she and her father were fine, but the manure was strewn across the highway for more than thirty feet. I came across this accident about two minutes after it happened as I was driving home, and since I had my trusty notebook and a camera with me, this accident became front page news (yeah, it was a rural community, so this was bigger than the time a piglet escaped a hog truck and decided to wander around downtown for a good hour. True story.).

But having a notebook isn’t just for journalists. How many times have you had a sudden inspiration for a story, and not had anything to write it down on? I’ve filled hundreds of notebooks with story ideas, notes, character sketches, even actual scenes! I wrote the ending of my first novel while sitting in a courthouse waiting for the trial I was covering to come up on the docket. I also have a running tab of ways for people to die by musical instrument that I’ve written while sitting in several symphony concerts (hey, I’m writing a murder mystery set around an orchestra!). You just never know when inspiration will strike.