Dappled Beauty

Recently, I mentioned a book club which I was so graciously invited into a couple of years back.  Many of the women have a long-standing history with one another, and yet graft newcomers in seamlessly.  If you read my last blog post I describe our latest read – Tolkien’s delightful Letters from Father Christmas in which he fantasizes to his children on the happenings at the North Pole each year.  Each December the book club members bring a wrapped book to exchange.  It is always interesting to see what is contributed to the pile and what each person ends up with – from fiction to memoirs, cookbooks to devotionals.  This  year I came home with Booked by Karen Swallow Prior in which she confesses early on that she “thought [her] love of books was taking [her] away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwoods path back to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.”

My own love of books dates back to the farthest reaches of my memory when, as a toddler, I would pile the books from shelves around me in bed as I drifted off to sleep.  Instead of a favorite stuffed bear, I slept with all the characters and words collected from my day.  As I make my way through Prior’s tribute to the written word, I feel an immediate affinity with her as I have struggled to express what various works have meant to me over the years.

Here she quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins in her effort to explain the place language and text and story, especially poetry, held in her life as she used it to guard against feelings of awkwardness.  The written word is not merely an escape, but a means of explaining that incomprehensible truth from Scripture, “my power is made complete in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Beauty may be hiding in those places the world may see as ugly.  Don’t forget the travel-weary, Jewish carpenter huddled with a young girl and a shriveled newborn in a back stable.  Today, do you feel your soul to be stained seemingly beyond worth?  Or rather, is your soul crying to escape the prison of an ugly, unwanted body?  With regret and confusion I recall the hours spent in tears and frustration because I was not as I should be….that my child felt the pain and confusion of not being “right” in this world.  Oh, dappled beauty!  May we always see things as they truly are and praise Him.  Whatever is fulfilling its purpose, or better still His purpose, is imbued with beauty beyond description, even if it be beyond our vision.  Here is how Gerard Manley Hopkins describes it:

Glory be to God for dappled things-

For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour;  adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

According to Tolkien

According to J.R.R. Tolkien, Father Christmas resides at the North Pole, is assisted largely by the Great Polar Bear and the Bear’s mischievous nephews, and periodically fights off the damaging rampages of black goblins.  The fanciful musings of the British author most famous for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy are new to me.  A few weeks ago someone in our book club suggested we read this lighthearted collection for our end of the year meeting.  From 1920 – 1943 Tolkien wrote letters nearly each holiday season to his children John, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla as Father Christmas, recounting his misadventures in packing the annual presents for the world’s children, and in living way up north with such mythological creatures as elves,  talking animals and  “The Man in the Moon.”  This is a collection impossible to read without smiling.  Utterly charming, at times outright comical, I at once decided to share it with my boys.  A and S believe themselves to be past the age of fairy tales, although one of them is an enormous Tolkien fan.  Even so,  we began taking our turns reading a few letters from Father Christmas each morning, which has even elicited a couple of giggles from G.  Small children (and adults) will laugh at some of the antics and comments from the Polar Bear.  A kindle version is available complete with the reprints of Tolkien’s original handwritten letters and colored pencil sketches.

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Reading these letters on my kindle app has made impromptu research more convenient as I searched for images of Lotts bricks, Picabrix and original Meccano kits.  If anyone is interested, the visitor Father Christmas mentions in the late 1920s who has come to the Tolkien family from Iceland was actually working as an au pair.  Tolkien learned to speak some Icelandic before her arrival and was inspired by Icelandic mythology in his creation of various creatures in his trilogy.

Now, do you think I could interest anyone at the book club in a game of Snapdragon?

Planning thankfulness

Being back in Arkansas is like going back in time. No, I do not mean the Natural State is old-fashioned or stuck in a time warp. Rather, it is like being back in early October 2014, weather-wise. Not impressive in the way of time travel, but walking around my in-laws’ neighborhood today, I gloried in the clear, blue sky and the ridiculously tall coniferous trees. After experiencing such prematurely harsh winter weather in the Midwest upon our return from Arizona, the mildness of the southern late fall is a beautiful thing. Here, the dried leaves of the backyard maples are still shedding their leaves.

Many of us are pinching pie crusts at this time, anticipating the arrival of relatives and friends. My mother-in-law is pulling apple pies out of the oven even as I compose these words. She sets the green beans to the side, preparing the space for her to snap them. Family is coming over tomorrow for a noon time feast, family I have not seen in years, some since my husband and I first married eighteen years ago. Some of the children we will be seeing for the first time. These are third cousins to A, S and G. We have spent their lifetime training them for moments like this- how to speak to unknown adults, how to use polite manners, how to conscientiously excuse yourself from a large gathering that inevitably makes you want to bury yourself in the dark and never come out, at least until it is quiet, or until the guests have all gone home.

I have no doubt my boys will behave admirably. I hope they enjoy having other children around close in age, even if not close in acquaintance.

The truth is we all spend a lifetime training ourselves for moments like these, don’t we? A room full of people, whether related or not, can place a strain on the best of us during the holidays, but for us introverts the strain only seems compounded.

So, instead of thinking of myself and my own awkwardness, I pray tomorrow I will be concerned with reaching out to others. Planning ahead, I make mental notes of ways my words may bring encouragement and blessings tomorrow. It will be a day of thanksgiving. It will be a day full of gratitude to God. And we all need that kind of day.

As I help set the table, mingle and answer the door, or listen to family stories, as I interact and eat the apple pie,
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14

“Travel schooling” : learning to relax

Many home school families have been amused by the term HOME schooling or HOME education, because, well frankly, we are not quite home as much as others may think.  We drive to co-ops and extra classes, drive to the parks, to social groups, and drive to countless field trips.  Perhaps we ought to call it car schooling?  But that concept might be for a different post.  Once or twice during the school year our family embarks on a major trip across country or states to visit family.  As we are out of our routine for one to three weeks, I never like to just take off all that time from academic work.  I am still quite caught up in counting the number of “school” days and making the most of every learning opportunity, besides the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult for my boys to jump back into books and studies when they have had a lengthy hiatus.  As I type these words in to my iPad, we are munching pretzels and sipping cranberry juice on the airplane while on our way back from family and friends in Arizona.  It was a successful visit in many ways.  Here are a few of the simple ways we maintained our learning while still having a fun vacation.

Make use of local museums-

While this may not always be possible depending on your budget and the affordability of your destination, museums are a wonderful way to experience new places while learning.  Although not necessary, if you can tie them in to your curriculum, even better.  This trip our family hit the art museum and science center.  On previous visits, we have explored children’s museums, geology centers and history or state museums.

Appreciate relationships as their own education-

Here is where the tired and trite socialization argument dies.  Before we officially began our home schooling adventure we comprised a concise list of all the reasons we wanted to keep our kids at home.  The freedom to travel and family closeness topped the list.  I love seeing A’s and S’s brotherly relationship solidify the longer we do this thing.  G adores being a part of his big brothers’ daily routines, and has learned an indescribable amount. Traveling only enhances this.  It is not only the relationships in our immediate family, however, that benefit us when we travel, but the relationships with everyone we meet.  This is particularly crucial for my guy with Asperger’s.  All three of my guys need to know their grandparents.  We live in a time when the value of family may be fading.  Unconditional love can be the greatest educational tool, not to mention all those extra life skills they may learn from being around different people from different generations.  Utilize them in your travels, or if you have the grandparents next door, be appreciative, and allow them to serve your family well.

Notice nature and take advantage of the outdoors-

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Regardless where your journeys take you, there will be something new to see and explore.  Taking advantage of nature centers, hiking trails and parks only makes sense.  It can be as simple as photographing and observing the diversity in our world to something more intentional.  One year we spent two weeks walking about my parents’ neighborhood identifying various cactuses – saguaro, ocotillo, prickly pear, organ pipe, cholla, etc.  One of S’s favorite memories is chasing (and catching) lizards around the Sonoran desert.

Travel lightly-

Packing textbooks and heavy curriculum is not what you want to do.  Traveling with kids can be stressful enough. Simplify.  On this trip we packed The Story of the World, volume 3 by Susan Wise Bauer, and our read aloud, which currently happens to be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  That’s it.  We read the Bible together, we practiced our copy work, we watched a couple of science videos, and did some random math practice.  Supplemented by our museum trips, it felt like just the right amount without providing too many stressful expectations.

Let go.  Come to terms with taking days off.

Honestly, I only “counted” two-thirds of our travel days toward schooling.  The rest of the time I let the guys just be.  They laid around and watched far more t.v. than is usually permitted.  They played in parks, and threw rocks at each other in the backyard.  They ate far more desserts than was typical.  They relaxed.

Now, we are back in the Midwest buckling down once more to studies and winter.  Though leaves are sparse, we love them.  “Travel schooling” allowed us to go from summery hikes to craving peppermint mochas in a single day.  It was a wonderful break.

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Pulling Tolstoy off the shelf

Pulling Tolstoy off the shelf one day I flipped through Anna Karenina while waiting for my son to collect his shoes. The hefty volume opened easily, and I was a little surprised to discover the following:

“You’re very, very funny,” Darya Alexandrovna repeated studying his face tenderly. “Well, all right, it will be as if we never spoke of it. What is it, Tanya?” she said in French to the girl who had just come in.

“Where’s my shovel, Mama?”

“I am speaking French, and you should do the same. “

The girl wanted to do the same, but forgot what a shovel is called in French; her mother told her amd then proceeded to tell her in French where to find the shovel. And Levin found this disagreeable.

Now everything in Darya Alexandrovna’s house and in her children seemed less nice to him than before.

“And why does she speak French with the children?” he thought, “How unnatural and false it is! And the children can feel it. Teaching French and unteaching sincerity,” he thought to himself, not knowing that Darya Alexandrovna had already thought it all over twenty times and, to the detriment of sincerity, had found it necessary to teach her children in this way.

My thoughts instantly applied these words to my own parenting and home education. Living and teaching educational and moral integrity are a great concern to me. So often I fall prey to comparing myself to others, or even worse, comparing myself to unrealistic ideals, which live solely in my own head. In the end, my children may be the ones to suffer. Instead of allowing them to explore their own, genuine interests, I demand standards which do not honor who my children really are. I want to be authentic, full of integrity. I want to love my children for who they are, allowing them to pursue their own fields of study, despite the fact that they may be far from my own. Relationships before arithmetic. Sincerity and strong moral character before chemistry. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8.

What parent doesn’t want their child looking to them with love and respect? First, I need to show them the same love and respect, perhaps in even greater quantity. Even if it entails encouraging the compilation of Hogwart’s spells. Or let’s say, baseball statistics.

As I speak and live for my children, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14.

Sliding Tolstoy back on the shelf, I help G tie his shoes.

DR. BONES (and other things nominally related to the Halloween season)

About five or six years ago Dr. Bones, an approximately two-foot tall, plastic decorative skeleton, entered our family.  Well, back then he was just Mr. Bones.  Apparently he has since completed his doctoral thesis, because the boys have conferred upon  him the title of higher learning.   Here he is two years ago relaxing with A watching a bit of television.

Watching a game with Dr. BonesHe graces our door at this time of year, the bones from his femur to his metatarsals swaying and clattering eerily against the front door at the slightest provocation, like a gentle breeze.  We hesitated to bring him out of his garage hibernation when G was a baby, thinking perhaps it would scare him.  Instead, early exposure must prevent fear, or in other words, it might be that someone cannot be afraid of something unless they are told they should be.  Either way, Dr. Bones has always been a great friend to G.  He takes him off the door periodically and they play board games or just sit in the pop-up tent together.  Dr. Bones is someone who entertains us for the month of October.

Last year he became quite useful when we  studied human anatomy and physiology.  We used Apologia, if you wish to view the curriculum here.  He allowed us to label him with sticky notes.  Patiently, he sported signs which read, “Cranium,” “patella,” and “ulna, radius.”  Although this year A and S are concentrating on astronomy, G still likes to get out a few of our books for kids on anatomy.  This layered Scholastic find is one of his favorites.

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The other day Dr. Bones aided us in our research of the skeletal system.  On our metal-topped kitchen table we laid out the magnetic pieces from our Greggo Magnetic skeleton kit.  You can take a look at it more closely here.  They also make a wonderful kit for the human organs.  photo 1 (1)

Dr. Bones acted as the model for G to connect the bones in the correct order, orienting them in the right direction.  Once completed, we named and pointed to several of the bones I knew he recognized.  Then, they left to go play in the family room.

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An Unfortunate Epilogue:

Even in the midst of typing these words, G has brought to me the severed head of Dr. Bones.  An investigation still ensues.  I am attempting to re-attach it, experimenting with a couple of kinds of glue.  The prognosis does not look good.  I fear we may need a gruesome sign: R.I.P., Dr. Bones.  But how do you lay to rest an entity who was even originally a lifeless skeleton?  He served us well.

Happy Halloween.

Changing

The sky shone a brilliant blue, showcasing the scarlet leaves of a few red maples in our neighborhood.  The persistent breeze blew huskily in bursts chasing the great wisps of clouds across the sky.  Four-year-old G was riding his scooter as fast as his left leg could propel him down the street.  He would periodically zigzag across the sidewalk, never decreasing his speed, fueled by a genuine enthusiasm for the autumn gusts and the piles of crunchy, dried leaves collecting in random patches.  Another rush of wind would shake the branches, tear leaves from their stems, fling my hair upward and cause dozens of individual leaves to dance across the street toward us.   They crossed our path in an ecstatic state, frantically attempting to reach a spot to rest in safety.  And G was off again with a laugh.  He would only stop as a particular leaf caught his attention.  Leaving his scooter for mere seconds, he would remove the leaf from the swirling masses.  “For my nature journal,” and off again he zipped way ahead of me.  Knowing his conscientious nature, I was assured he would soon pause and wait for me to catch up with him.

This time his leaf discovery elicited a larger reaction.  “Mama, this leaf is two different colors!”

“Yes, it is.  It must have been blown off the tree in the process of changing.”

“It’s BEAUTIFUL!” he breathed and returned to his autumn dash.

We are in the process of changing our colors, too.  Grace is what holds us together, even after we are tossed through the air by gusty winds.  Once we have made that decision to follow Jesus, we are being transformed.  Even now we “are being transformed into the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18.  The trees in autumn reflect God’s glorious planning.  They do not change their hues instantaneously, but the leaves closest to Him begin their gradual transformation.  From the tips of the trees to the center, and finally the lower branches reveal their inner, earthy glow.  They beam yellow, gold, orange, red, scarlet, even flicker in browns.

God has even created the trees to be transformed in a graduated fashion, in their proper time.  His grace extends even to us.  Our acceptance into the love of God is immediate, change commences instantaneously, but is a slow, painful, even tedious process.  We glow half in greens and browns, yellows and oranges, some of us struggling to find our reds, desperate we may never fully transform.  Grace is in the autumn.  I just pray that we may find the aching process as beautiful as G does.

Now, we grow imperceptibly.  One day, however, it will be all at once, and we will not know of any other beauty.  We will be complete, all aglow with the brilliance of Christ.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of any eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

I Corinthians 15:51-52

G's leaf collection
G’s leaf collection

A Trustworthy Saying

Spring is about renewal, resurrection, the hope of youth, emerging offspring, green vibrancy, rebirth.  It is about rain replenishing nature, warming skin, hearts and minds.  So, what is autumn?  Is it the harbinger of death, and gloom?  Is it chilly days threatening frozen temperatures, the death of leaves and trees?  Is it a symbol of the year’s finality, even the end of our days?

Autumn also represents a kind of hope, a burgeoning glimpse at the reincarnation of nature.

You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.”  The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.

John 3:7-8

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

John 12:24

So, nature applauds rotting plants and biodegrading leaves, and we applaud the sacrament of baptism, a submersible decision to die to self.  Thus, it explains our joy even when we witness the break down of chlorophyll and the slow, steady disappearance of vibrant greens, even when the rusty leaves glow from their branches.  Their branches, bare, protrude awkwardly, reaching out to nothing in particular, haphazardly underlining a gaggle of migrating geese in the October sky.  Even so, we thrill with its beauty.

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And so, it explains a child’s joy, an irrepressible giggle bursting forth as he tumbles and spills across the dead, dried leaves. They serve not so much as evidence of death, but as a reminder of an ever-renewing promise.

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Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,

we will also live with him;

II Timothy 2:11

Ancient Words

Do you have a favorite Bible verse?  If you do, chances are it may begin something like, “For God so loved the world…” or  ” I can do all things through him…”  Beautiful verses.  From the time I was relatively young, however, one of my favorite verses peculiarly has been Daniel 1:4.

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz…to bring…young men….showing aptitude…and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.  He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.

Could there be anything more thrilling than studying to mastery the language and philosophy of an old and exotic people?  It sounded so romantic…in the literary sense.  I had always aspired to be involved in something equally exciting one day.  Except, I already was.  I may not have ever deciphered Hiitite code or Babylonian writings (although that reminds me another trip to the Oriental Institute may be in order), but as a Christian and daily Bible reader, I pore over ancient Hebrew and Greek texts regularly.  Perhaps not in the original language, but I am certainly familiar with their texts, and have even memorized pivotal lines from their pages.  I know many of you are more studious than I in your Bible reading and spend substantial amounts of time absorbed in its message.  I do not take access to this knowledge for granted.

Our minister launched a theology reading group a few months back.  We have been reading a relatively academic book on our own and meet monthly to discuss it.  To paraphrase him, if our study of theology does not result in doxology, it is in vain.  In other words, our looking into scripture should not be strictly cerebral.  Application is imperative.  It should inform the way we live out our lives.  If you are interested, here is the book we are currently wrapping up.

In opening the Bible, somehow we are able to live in harmony with ancient texts.  We, in the post-modern world, are inextricably tied together with these ancient and holy words through threads of oral tradition and the rites of ancient mythologies.  Something from my ten-year-old self thrills with this privilege.

The forms of kingly annals, wisdom literature, psalms of ascent, biblical poetry and the like are not foreign to my contemporary sensibilities because at an early age I heard them repeated.  They were recited and memorized, not with cold, analytical study, but so that they would retain their original fervor from the time they were initially pronounced.  Here is my challenge as a parent – to create a biblically literate culture for my own children to grow up in.  Living out our faith somehow breathes life back into “obsolete” documents of the distant past, and imbues them with significance.  Because of this, the Hebrew (and Greek) scriptures, their poetry and ancient civilizations have never been completely foreign or irrelevant to me.

Holy words long preserved

For our walk in this world

They resound with God’s own heart

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

 

Words of life, words of Hope

Give us strength, help us cope

In this world, where e’er we roam

Ancient words will guide us home.

 

Ancient words ever true

Changing me, changing you

We have come with open hearts

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

 

Holy words of our Faith

Handed down to this age

Came to us through sacrifice

Oh, heed the faithful words of Christ

 

Holy words long preserved

For our walk in this world

They resound with God’s own heart

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

 

Ancient words ever true

Changing me, changing you

We have come with open hearts

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

- Michael W. Smith

Books with Bridges

Mysterious and inviting they call to us.  Monet painted them.  San Franciscans and New Yorkers venerate them.  The Midwest covers them.  They connect us to land, carry us over shallow and deep waters.  They tie land from one side of the gorge to the other, unite towns and communities.  They erase the distance between people’s hearts.

Bridges fasinate us.  G particularly loves them.  We have walked out of our way to cross them, thrown rocks and sticks from off their edges, used them to set out on adventures into new worlds, and  traversed them simply to see what lie on the other side.  Bridges hold both a charm and an excitement.  Below is a carefully thought out list, some of our favorite books and stories honoring that most common of man-made tools, the bridge.

BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

    

A Full Hand by Thomas F. Yezerski – When nine-year-old Asa helps his captain boat father drive the mules along the canal, he makes his first “full hand.”  Traveling through Pennsylvania and New Jersey during the fall, Asa learns not only about mules, inclined planes, aquaducts, bridges and locks, but also about the courage of his father.  He, then, is able to imagine his own future, alongside bowls of beef stew.


Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel – Although some find this classic to be culturally insensitive, I am not sure I agree.  Lyrical and repetitive, this tale is meant to be read aloud.  Children are encouraged to memorize the oldest brother’s long, ridiculous name, as well as the route across the bridge to the “old man with the ladder” who ultimately rescues both mischievous brothers from the well.

The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wise- G and I just finished a fun week and a half with activities we created based on this classic.  From counting Ping’s cousins, to creating a construction paper duck with moveable wings, we loved this stubborn little waterfowl.  Living on the beautiful Yangtze River, Ping decides he does not want a spank on the back for being last up the little bridge to his home on the wise-eyed boat, so he hides.  Was it a good decision?  Will Ping ever find his family and the wise-eyed boat again?

Bridges to Cross by Philomen Sturges – My only non-fiction book on this list, this is a wonderful way to introduce preschool and early elementary-aged children to the amazing world of engineering.  Featuring famous bridges from throughout the  world, the illustrations are created surprisingly with layers of torn paper – a built in art project idea to accomplish on your own!

 

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne- Read the heart-warming classic and then go play Pooh-sticks off a bridge.

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson – A chapter book written for tweens, this is a beautiful story of friendship and family, the joy and freedom of imagination, and the importance of nature in growing up.  It is definitely a story for older children as death plays a role in its pages.

BOOKS FOR ADULTS

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather- Published in 1912, this first novella by Cather describes the conflicted Bartley Alexander, who as an middle-aged engineer begins repairs on a bridge in Canada.  His conscience plays havoc with him as he is tossed between loyalty to his wife Winifred and his former lover Hilda Burgoyne.  Cather presents to us  America as she emerges as a powerful, creative, industrial force, and the American psyche, sure of who he is neither morally nor innately.

 

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric- The most celebrated novel in the Serbo-Croatian language, it spans three centuries.  From the bridge’s construction in Bosnia’s Visegrad at the height  of the Ottoman empire to a period of a swiftly changing Europe during WWI, the bridge is the central figure of the novel.  Ivo Andric, Bosnian writer and distinguished Yugoslav diplomat won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 for this masterful epic.  Death, loss, and revenge all occur on the bridge itself or near its gates.

“Thus in all this fresh storm which had burst over the town, overturning and tearing up by the roots its ancient customs, sweeping away living man and inanimate things, the bridge remained white, solid and invulnerable as it had always been.”