Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: dictionary

Chapter 2 – Alphabet blocks

I found the wooden alphabet block with the letter N and added it to the row that was beginning to spell my name — R O B E R T G O O D N . . . Now I needed one more O. I carefully rotated each of the blocks I had not used, but could not find another O. This was a familiar problem; there are just too many O’s in my name. Now I had to take the blocks I had already used, rotate them one by one to find another O, then find a block with the letter I had taken away. Finally it is done: R O B E R T G O O D N O U G H.

I was four years old and this set of blocks was my favourite toy. With it I could build fences, walls, barns, houses, towers. When night came, I gathered them all into the wooden box with wooden wheels and put them away for another day.

One day, I don’t remember when, my mother began to explain the meaning of the mysterious symbols on the blocks. She showed me how to spell words like M O M, D A D, C A T, D O G and then how to spell my name. Soon I began to sound out words I saw in other places and found that there was no end of things to read. My cousin Julia, 18 years older than me, had once been a teacher. She noted my love for words and began bringing me little books each time she and her husband made a trip to Moose Jaw.

The day that I began school, my mother went with me and informed the teacher, “Robert can read.” The teacher was sceptical; she stuck a newspaper in front of me and said: “Read.” I read it aloud, smoothly, pronouncing the words correctly, though I may not have understood all that the news story was about. Thus I began Grade 1, and was introduced to the mindless Dick and Jane books: “SEE SPOT. SEE SPOT RUN.” Not very interesting to someone who was way beyond that at home. After Christmas, I was in Grade 2.

How did it happen that I was already a fluent reader the day I started school? It never seemed like my mother was trying to teach me to read. Outdoors, I had a trike, a wagon and a whole big yard to explore. Indoors, my set of blocks was my multipurpose toy kit, useful for most anything my fertile imagination could dream up. The incident in the first paragraph is one of my earliest memories and it was oft repeated as I learned the sounds of letters. My mother did just enough to pique my curiosity, then forever after had to answer my questions.

My mother was my first and best teacher. Yet she had known only Plautdietsch until the day she started school. For six years she attended a one-room school run by the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church, spending equal time learning German and English. In 1920 the Saskatchewan government decided that all private schools would be closed. When Mom went to enroll in the public school that fall, they told her she would have to begin the sixth grade again. Her father decided that if that was the case, she didn’t need to go to school anymore. Despite having only six years of formal education, my mother was in many ways better educated than my father, who had considerably more schooling and whose mother tongue was English.

The explanation for my mother’s learning achievements lies in her physical handicap, her father’s disability and the special relationship between them. My grandfather was blind. Glaucoma had robbed him of much of his vision in his youth and he later became almost totally blind. He still ran a farm and raised fourteen healthy children.
My mother was number six and she was born with congenital hip dysplasia. Nowadays, this condition can be corrected in newborns without surgery. A hundred years ago, doctors didn’t know what her problem was. They thought she had a back problem, as that was where she had pain, but had no idea how to treat it. One day, long after I was grown up, she told me that she had never walked without pain. I thought back to the times that she would play ball with me, even run foot races with me and wondered if a mother’s love had eased the pain.

Because of his blindness, my grandfather needed help, and who was more able and ready to help him than this daughter who didn’t get around as easily or as fast as his other children? She read to him, letters, farm papers, books, whatever he needed or whatever interested him. She helped him with managing the business side of the farm, helping with correspondence and learning how to manage money. If her parents went away for a Sunday dinner and she stayed home, as soon as her parents came home her father would want to know what she had been reading. He would ask her to retell the whole story that she had read.

A large, well-used English dictionary was one of her prized possessions. She studied it assiduously, looking up every new word she found, learning its meaning and how to use it. Her brothers and sisters would tell her that she had swallowed the dictionary. She spoke clear, unaccented, grammatically correct English.

My parents’ home contained hundreds of books, the legacy of my father’s parents and of his brother who had abandoned the prairies for British Columbia. With a mother like this, and a house full of old, well-written books, how could I help but become a serious reader and a lover of good books?

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If you are a writer . . .

If you are a writer . . .man-29749_640.png

– you love words, you study words, their origins and all the nuances of their meanings. You don’t aim to dazzle readers with the knowledge you acquire, you want to be able to select the best words to make your readers see what you are seeing.

– you know that words are inadequate for what needs to be said. So you spend time searching for the words that come closest to saying what you want to say and avoid words and expressions that make no contribution to what you are trying to describe..

– you know that the reader can only see what you show him. A reader in Saskatchewan doesn’t know what a trillium looks like, or that many people in Ontario say youse when speaking to more than one person. A reader in Ontario doesn’t know what a slough is or what a chokecherry tastes like.

– you know that inspiration is not enough. Writing is the craft that brings the inspiration to life for your readers, by using just the right words and removing all the useless words that distract readers from perceiving what it was that inspired you.

– everything you see, and hear, and dream, becomes grist for your mill. You notice the little wildflower that is invisible to others, you hear the song of a toad at dusk, you see and hear the way people do and say things. These all become part of your storehouse and sooner or later they appear somewhere in your writing.

– you are a writer all the time. You have a full time job, you are a student, a busy mother, a caregiver to an aged relative. In all you do you find insights, nuggets of truth, startling images, moments of tenderness, moments of hilarity, and you tuck the memories away to be brought out when you sit down with a pen or at a keyboard.

– you are delighted to hear a reader repeat something you wrote that gave him new light on a subject, even if he can’t remember who wrote it.

Gossip

Gossip. talk or news about the personal lives of other people that is often not kind or true.

The above definition comes from the Harcourt Brace Canadian Dictionary for Students, © 1997. I think this was the best school dictionary ever, but it is unfortunately out of print due to Thompson Corp buying up a whole bunch of Canadian textbook and dictionary publishers and merging them into one. I also think this definition is better than any definition in a dictionary for grownups.

Christians may be particularly prone to gossip. We care about each other and when we hear about some bad thing happening to a brother or sister we want to know if it is true. Whether or not that is gossip depends on who we ask. If we ask someone who probably knows no more than we do, or less, “Did you hear what happened to sister so-and-so?”, that is gossip. And it will surely spread and grow into an even bigger scandal.

If we ask the person supposedly involved, or someone close to her, that is not gossip. If we find that the story is true, we don’t need to talk to others about it, but we can, and ought to, pray. If we find the story is not true, then we have a responsibility to pass that news on to those who think it is.

I learned that lesson from a minister many years ago. A group of brethren were visiting after church and the main topic was the disrespect shown to a visitor in a far away congregation. The minister listened awhile, then spoke up “I heard those stories too, so I phoned the person who was supposed to be involved. It never happened.” The others took that in and decided that was not an interesting topic of conversation anymore.

Wouldn’t it do a lot to build love and unity among brothers and sisters if we would all pick up the phone when we hear such stories and ask what really happened. We will often be left wondering how such a baseless story got into circulation. Even if the story is more or less true, it is likely that some details got changed or added before the story got to us.

Memories of the Inscribe Conference

You know you’re in a group of writers when a workshop leader asks each participant to name five of their favourite books from childhood and one includes the dictionary in her list. She says she used to read two pages a day. And nobody thought that was weird.

That happened in Colleen McCubbin’s class on writing for children. Our goal in writing for children should be to charm, inform and nourish on the intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual levels. She recommended a book by Mollie Hunter, a Scottish writer for children, entitled Talent is Not Enough. I have ordered the book and will share my impressions once I have read it.

Jack Popjes was probably the most entertaining attendee. At supper one day someone chided him for taking two desserts (they were small). “I only allow myself one dessert per day,” he said. “This one is for August 23, 2016 and this one is for August 24, 2016.”

There is another side to Jack. He and his wife spent 20 years living with an unreached tribe in Brazil. They learned the language, put it into writing, taught the people to read and write. At the same time they translated the Bible into this language and by the time they left there was a thriving congregation of believers.

We were told that the conference cost $265.00 per attendee. Of this, $100.00 per person went for the rent of the space we used, travel expenses for speakers, honorariums for the speakers and workshop leaders and miscellaneous other expenses. The other $165.00 was the cost of the meals and coffee breaks. Three meals and five or six breaks with coffee, tea, juices and snacks were provided.

As is usual in meetings like this, it is not permitted to bring in food from outside sources. We live in a litigation-happy world and if anyone got sick from food that was brought in, someone would be likely to sue the hotel. At least that is the fear. The conference was held in the Edmonton South Sawridge Inn. For those of us who stayed at the hotel, our breakfast was included in the room rate. This was a real breakfast, not the “continental breakfast” that many motels offer.

That’s all for today, I will write more about the conference in coming days.

Weeds and stones in our writing

Floyd McNeill* farmed near the banks of the Moose Jaw River, one of those prairie rivers consisting of a deep, wide valley with a little creek meandering its way along a narrow channel on the bottom. Being near the river bank, there were stones scattered through the fields, some small enough that a man could have gathered them up with a few days of manual labour. Some were larger and would have required a tractor with a front end loader. Floyd did not have a front end loader, nor did he have much inclination for physical labour, so the stones remained.

Year after year Floyd seeded wheat in his fields without making any attempt to deal with the stones, or with the weeds that grew. At harvest time, some wheat was too short to cut and more was missed as he dodged around the stones. He was a bachelor, living alone along a back road in a house with no modern conveniences. He didn’t appear to need a lot of money, yet I occasionally wondered if he had some other source of income, perhaps the manufacture of a stimulating beverage.

One year he announced that he was going to farm scientifically. He bought certified seed and fertilizer for his fields, but did nothing about the weeds and the stones. As I drove by his farm that summer I saw that the weeds, particularly the wild mustard, were doing better than ever. The harvest could not have been much different than preceding years.

Too many Christian writers are like Floyd. They start with an inspiration from God, that is the good seed, and believe that is enough. The writing that results is full of weeds that choke out the message and littered with stones that break the teeth of the cutting bar when a reader attempts to glean the meaning hidden in the field of this writing.

Adjectives and adverbs are occasionally needed to make the meaning clear. When a writer adds more than are needed they become weeds choking out the life of the writing. Stones are awkward sentence structure, misuse of the passive voice, or words used inappropriately.

Writers are also readers. Sometimes we come upon a new word, think we understand it and decide to use it in our writing. Often this leaves the reader to guess what it was that we thought we were saying. I recently read an article that referred to “nascent believers.” I think the writer meant new believers, but that wasn’t what he said. Nascent means “in the process of being born.” Close maybe, but not the appropriate word. The writing had a good message, but was marred by a few clunkers like this and a few sentences that took a long time to find a stopping point.

Reading books by good authors will develop an ear for good English. It won’t work to copy their style, but noting passages that are particularly effective will help us in our own writing. Every writer should have a good dictionary and learn to use it, not a pocket edition but one that gives all shades of meaning, word origins and examples of usage. Every once in a while we should read a book about writing to see if we have fallen into bad habits.

We should not be like Floyd and think that having good seed is all that we need. Floyd would have resented any hint that he was lazy. So would most writers, yet the work required to provide a meaningful harvest for the reader may seem formidable. One well-known Canadian writer had this advice for his son: “Revise and revise, and revise again until you think there is nothing left that you can improve. Then revise one more time.”

*Not his real name. I have forgotten his real name, which is just as well.

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