Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Losing a Child

I'm sitting here tonight with a fever, & I've spent the afternoon throwing up, but I'm not sick: I'm heart broken.

A fellow writer at HOTM lost a child this week. She's a lady I've never met, never spoken with online, whose last name I don't even know, & she lost a child. There are virtual hugs and a group effort to process the tragedy. Women have come together to tell their own stories of near losses, so that others can hold their babies close and be ever vigilant, & I can't breathe.

We should bolt our bookshelves down & cover our outlets & put child-proof locks on windows and doors and medicine. There are hundreds of ways to protect our children, & yet these stories still come, and the tragedy still strikes, & I can't breathe.

We put the L-brackets for the bookshelves on the to-do list, & most of them get clamped down. But we forget the one in the bedroom, or we have to move one to fix an outlet. The smoke detector won't stop buzzing, & there's not a fire, & we forget after pulling it out of the wall in the middle of the night. A stray grocery bag gets left in a far corner of the kitchen or gets swept into the hallway.

Most of the time, nothing happens. Occasionally, we have a near-miss. And then there are the other times, the times that seem only theoretical & unreal until someone is holding a phone with a 911 operator on the other end.

I can't forget that it is Christmas. I can't stop thinking about the pain of a family burying a child, of the dreams and images that will be with them the rest of their lives. I imagine losing one of mine, & then I imagine watching the siblings grieve, & the weeping starts again, & I can't breathe. I imagine these children grown up, when the pain has dulled, & I know that a stocking will still hang on the mantle for their little brother. I know that they'll think of his absence on their wedding days.

It's Christmas. I know that his presents have already been bought. They will stay in the back of the closet for years to come, & every time his mother goes to get dressed, she'll feel her knees buckle under her with the weight of the pain. My hands shake to think of it, & the weeping begins again, & I can't breathe.

I hear the encouraging words we're supposed to say to each other, the words that we all know do not really comfort the bereaved: our children are gifts, on loan from God. They're not ours. Our time with them may be brief. We must love them while we can--

And all I feel is angry. All I feel is this bone-wracking ache for this child & his mother. I don't want to live in a world where children can be lost. And there are so many opportunities to lose them.

I have a two-year-old & a three-year-old, & they were napping when I read Dana's story. I was glad that I'd have time to start breathing again before they came crying for snacks & a hundred other things that plague their days. I also wanted to tear their bedroom doors open & pull them to me, to make sure they were alright. But when they got up, they would not be held. One sucked his thumb while the other demanded food "for her heart." They cried to go potty & cried for the light on & cried that they could do it themselves but needed help, & there was no time for me to cry any more.

I took them to church & sat in the parking lot & cried, though.

Then we came home, & I watched numbly as my husband put them to bed. Every syllable they mispronounce breaks my heart for the mother who has lost her baby's song, & I weep, & I know I have to start breathing again. My head aches, & I can't eat or think, & my babies are all safely tucked into bed, & I feel like I'm violating the very core of motherhood by stealing someone else's grief, but I can't help it. My throat is closing, & any effort to forget feels like betrayal, like admitting defeat. If only I can keep my mind on this little boy, then maybe it's not true, maybe he will live. If only I can hold up the universe with my thoughts, maybe the other children whose mamas have loved them will live, too. And my only stray thoughts are of the other children I've known who've been lost too soon, & I can't breathe, & it's too hot in here.

My nine-year-old likes to take his pillow & blanket down from his bed & sleep on the floor beside his two-year-old brother. The older boy hates to sleep on the floor, so this is especially sweet. I hear him at night sometimes singing to the little one, long after bedtime, & I smile & try to hold these memories in my heart.

Tonight as I walked past, I thought I heard the older one singing, but then I heard the younger one, too, & I realized they were talking & playing, so I went in to sternly put them back to bed.

When I walked in, the little one said, "The crickets are singin to me, Mama!"

"Did John tell you that?"

"Yes," he said, sticking his thumb back in his mouth after a big grin.

I lay down between them, & the three of us listened to "the cricket & frog songs" for a while. There in that silence, in the softness of their ears and their breathing and soggy thumbs and awkward limbs, I felt it—the pieces of my heart, willing to heal. As I ran my hands over the soft baby hair and the coarser big kid hair, knowing that I could lose them at any time, knowing that life is so fragile & uncertain & that all my love & all my mental gymnastics cannot keep my children safe, I was comforted by their wide eyes & warm breathing.

This is now. It's all I can hold, & if tragedy strikes, it's all I will have. I must embrace the now.

It's hard on those nights to stand up, turn around, & walk away. You sense the loss. Even if we sidestep fate & see our children grow up, this night cannot be captured, & once we turn out the lights & close the doors, it is a memory. How do we ever walk away? But we do. We must.

And the only weapon we have against regret is to embrace the now, to be fully there, in the moment with the delicious sounds of temper tantrums & the awful smell of life & the rosy cheeks & scrapes & joys & sorrows they bring us.

The little one brought home a present from his teacher at church. He held it all the way home, calling it a "party" with a "Christmas" on top—the bow. We told him to put it under the tree, & he ran enthusiastically to do so, but when his feet hit the carpet, something in him stopped, & he looked at his "party." He tore just a little piece of the paper away & looked at the tree. I saw his feet wiggle, as if they really wanted to go & obey, but he looked at the "party" again, & peeled away another tiny piece of paper, watching it float to the ground.

He unwrapped the whole party, which turned out to be a puzzle, which to a two-year-old is just another party waiting to be unwrapped.

I watched those little pieces of paper float to the ground with him tonight. I didn't stop his fiendish entrancement with the mystery. I let him be my mystery, & I watched as a tiny piece of something separating us floated to the ground so that for a moment, I could see the party through his eyes, the wonder of it, the mystery that overpowers like the last twenty pages of a great book you can't put down. I reveled in his discovery like I was watching an old home movie of something I can no longer touch, & I rejoiced in being able to reach through the film of grief that enveloped me to touch him.

Oh my heavy heart. If only all this weeping meant that another's pain were softened, but there is no sense to any of it. Only hurting, & now the only balm.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ode to Blanky

Oh Blanky!

You the most wonderful Blanky in the world!

--Guest post by 2yo

Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Midwife's Arms

There's a picture of my midwife weighing one of my babies that has been on my mind lately. Actually, I think we have the same picture from each birth. She's holding a stork-shaped sling as high over her head as she can—I'm not sure she's 5' tall—& you can barely see her face behind the bag.

There's a baby in the bag, & she's weighing it. No easy task, since my children have averaged 9lb at birth. All you can see of the baby is little toes sticking out of the weighing-sack. All you can see of my midwife is her arms holding up the sling.

It's her arms that I've been thinking about. She's a tiny lady with a lovely figure, a warm British accent, & happy, happy curls. She calls me "Obrey" with a long O instead of "Aubrey," & she's held every one of my children in her arms.

In these pictures, you really notice those arms, disproportionately large, surprisingly strong. The strength in those two arms stood out to me suddenly, & for the first time, I thought about the work of her job.

I love these photos. I love those arms.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Canyon & the River

I recently got an email from a reader, & I wanted to go ahead & address it here, for everybody. So first the email:

"I just read your article in TOS and I really liked it...liked how you were honest about the things you learned, but not always being able to embrace them. I think too often we don't want others to see our weak spots, so we gloss over them and hope no one notices. Thanks for being transparent and through that, giving encouragement to so many, especially me!

I do have one question. You mentioned that one of your children would not easily succeed in a classroom because she " fiercely independent but has a gentle side when her independence is met with understanding." Can you tell me a little about what that looks like where the rubber meets the road? I have a child like that and sometimes the constant struggles just wear me down, so I don't always respond to him in the right way. What ways have you found to meet your daughter’s independence with understanding?"

First of all, my daughter. She reminds me of Norah Jones. She's got long, long black hair w/ red highlights that show up only in a certain light. She's got big, deep brown eyes, & even before she was born, I imagined her standing on a cliff in Ireland, overlooking the ocean, with an electric guitar slung over her back, black curls waving in the wind.

And that's exactly who she is. A fierce, woman-warrior who does everything w/ 110% of herself. Once when I told her I could eat her up, her dark eyes flashed with fury like a storm on the ocean that's come out of nowhere. "Good mamas don't eat their children," she said. She was two.

From almost the time she was born, my baby cried. Constantly. Once she figured out how to scream, she screamed. She climbed into the trash can & the toilet; she climbed her big siblings' loft beds. Most people didn't know it, though, because she is also incredibly outgoing & has a smile that fills up her whole marshmallow face (when she decides to use it).

Since she could talk, she's been my child who will march up to strangers on the playground & say, "My Mama won't push me in the swing. Will you?" And worse, she'll ask some men, "Are YOU my Daddy?" (It's a game she plays, from the book, Are You My Mother?, but I'm always afraid it will sound...much worse than that!)

Most people have at least one kid who has the independent streak. We laugh when we say that & we groan, but I believe there may be more going on with my daughter. In the past year, I've begun to read about sensory disorders, allergies, and other symptoms of the child who's a shade more "off" than simply "independent."

Now that you understand to a degree what I'm talking about, you should also know my parenting background. Before getting married (at 19), I thought A LOT about parenting philosophies. I have no idea why. I thought about homeschooling a lot, too. It was like a scientific experiment for me—I wanted to see if my ideas of parenting & education could produce the "perfect" children.

In thinking about parenting, though, I leaned VERY conservative. My mother attended a Growing Kids God's Way conference; compared to Bill Gothard, who had previously been a strong influence in our lives, GKGW was a breath of fresh air. The approach to parenting outlined in this course & in the companion Baby Wise were so much more logical than anything I'd heard before.

Bear with me. I know this is controversial. I did not know that at the time.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I went to visit my mother, & I occupied some of the time that I was there with reading her copy of GKGW, specifically the section on spanking, something I had always thought that any decent parent would do, something I thought qualified as criminal negligence NOT to do. (Remember kids tend to be very concrete, black & white, & up to this point, I'd really still been a kid.)

While I was pregnant, though, something in me started to nag a little. It wasn't that I believed in spanking any less, but...I really wanted to see a good argument for it in print. My brain works well that way.

The chapter on spanking was extremely disconcerting for me, though. The author took on a very condescending tone, offered no logical support of the practice, & continued to deride anyone who failed to spank their children. This made me question the practice further, greatly upsetting some of my family, who retorted, "Not everyone can be an English major like you!" Another logical fallacy that left me questioning the logic of spanking.

The baby came, despite my lack of confidence about spanking or not spanking, immunizing or not immunizing, etc. I did what most mothers do: I fed my baby, rocked him, cared for him in the best way that I could. Although I had been philosophically staunch about many things, I've always been more middle-of-the-road in practice, & age has softened my philosophies with experience.

My oldest has a mild personality, very reasonable. The spanking issue was one my husband and I went back and forth on, & we settled on reserving it for emergency situations, to get a child's attention. Unbuckling his carseat while we're driving, running out in the street—spankings. Everything else, we wanted to try to deal with differently.

Sometimes we did. Sometimes we didn't. We did ok, I think, but I was never able to regain my youthful confidence that spanking was really great. Our second child came, & she was more compliant than the first, actually applying all of her sibling rivalry toward being better behaved than her brother. Our children were scary, they were so good. We still hadn't resolved our feelings about spanking, but it was not a crisis. We were well-able to train our children with or without spankings, we felt, & we understood both sides of the argument.

Then our 3rd child came. She's the one who is so fundamentally different. Very early on, I came to the conclusion that we could not spank this child. The fierceness of her soul is almost indescribable. Even now, I'm imagining flint, honed down into a spear, & that's my baby. She told me once, with that snap in her eyes, that "the cat has sin." The cat had scratched her, & she wasn't just sad or angry. She had a calculated scale for the injustice of the world.

I told my husband that I'm afraid that if we get in her way, she will see us as the enemy, & we will be the object of her calculated scales, her fierce desire for justice. She is a rock, a flint spear, a cliff, & she has the determination and fortitude to accomplish anything.

I began when she was one to work beside her instead of opposite her—the easier approach to parenting I had taken with my first two—thinking of myself like water & her like a canyon. I could not shape her into the person she needed to become with anything less than dynamite, & dynamite would crush the spirit that made her great. I would lose my relationship with her, & I knew that a relationship with one like this could be fragile. I believe that once it is secured, though, it is secure, because her loyalty is as fierce as her judgment; her joy as fierce as her anger. Water, in a canyon, is intricately part of the landscape, gently carving out beauty in an almost symbiotic relationship.

Lovely, you say, but what does that even mean?

I try to avoid anger with this daughter. (Not that I don't with the others, but I saw an even greater need for it with her, & this extra effort has overflowed into making me a better mother for the others as well. At least, I hope!) I try not to yell. I try to understand. All things that I have always done, but making a greater effort to set aside my point of view and understand hers.

I have always taken a child who is crying for a cookie, asked him to calm down, asked him to use his words, repeated his words back to him, & then explained why the answer is no. (If the answer is no.) I have found that repeating a child's words BACK to them helps them to know you understand what they're saying—a very big deal for toddlers who really aren't always sure that they're being understood.

This one needs longer listening, more stretch to the imagination. More patience. Her mood swings can be crazy, especially when she's tired, but despite that, she needs less sleep. I fought that with my oldest; with this one, I have accepted her quirky hours better. She still naps, but she naps because I've explained the logic of it to her:

You have a Cranky Monster that lives inside you. You've also got robots inside you to tie him up, but they can only work when you're sleeping (white blood cells, for the scientifically-minded). When your Cranky Monster breaks free, he makes you cry & gets you in trouble... By then, she's put herself to bed (a miracle), grinning, because she has the power to defeat the "Cranky Monster."

I let her wear mismatched clothes. I let her choose her pink shoes or her gray ones. And when she gets uncontrollable, when days go by w/out an ounce of obedience, I stop. I pull her up in my lap, & I read her a story. I tell her all the reasons I love her. I tell her what she has done well. I work to pour myself into her, literally.

I rely more on redirection than I did with the others. I work to remind myself how tender she is, even when it's not immediately obvious. Really, it's this last point that I was trying to get at in the article quoted at the beginning. This little one needs to be cared for by someone who has something invested in her future, or she will wear the caretaker down to nothing, & the result would likely be spirit-crushing for her. She can take people being angry with her, but it feeds the rock. I'm the opposite: I'm overly-sensitive, & other people's disappointment & anger just crushes me. I've come to believe that this daughter, in being a polar opposite, is actually the same as me. She can take disappointment, but...I don't know how to say it. It gets converted into negative energy.

And it's like magic. Today she saw me washing dishes, & she pulled up a stool, got out a dishcloth, & began drying. She offered her little brother one of the trains she was playing with when he cried, & she went on to explain to him, "These are God's toys. But He shares them with us. God is Love."

My little mountain is slowly, gently becoming a beautiful canyon, but I'm no longer certain whether I am the river or the rock, because I'm becoming so much more beautiful by her presence in my life as well.

Note: My kids are 9, 7, 3, & 2 at the time of this post.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ralph II

We had a wasp problem a couple of weeks ago, & you know what they say about lemonade...We decided to adopt a pet wasp...

We found the little guy crawling on the carpet, & by some divine stroke of personality-changing miracle-potion-ness, I caught him instead of killing him.

Even killing wasps is so far outside my comfort zone, I think my genes must have done that splicey thing where you get super powers. Obviously, since I then went completely round the bend.

We watched as "Ralph" sat beside us on the carpet, trying to sting his jar—isn't that cute, we sighed. My oldest watched the new friend like a fish in a tank.

A professional bug service came the day we adopted Ralph, to take care of our wasp problem. I didn't have time to move Ralph, so I was faced with the awkward problem of trying to explain our new pet.

"I caught one," I said..."um...we're homeschoolers, see...and...I don't really like bugs, at all..."

"No problem," he says, "lots of folks do that, to show us what kind they've got."

Well lots of folks are CRAZY.

I took the kids & ran away. (But had to come back for my glasses. And then again for cash. But then we RAN.)

At last, I came home to a note that said: "I sprayed the one in the jar. Be sure to wash the jar."

RIP, Ralph. I mean, metaphorically speaking, because let's face it: we all know where wasps are going. No peace there.

On a brighter note, we'd been home to the smell of bug spray for less than 5 min, & I'd already had the adrenaline-boosting opportunity to kill ANOTHER wasp. That was #4 for me that day. Too bad the bug guy didn't leave us a tally, so we could combine scores.

Eventually, the bug guy had to come back. My husband tried a fire in the fireplace (aka Wasp Hallow). We were lucky. We did not have angry balls of wasp fire chasing us & our dear children through the house. They were not on fire. And they were a little dazed from the smoke. Otherwise, yes, there were wasps to protect the homeland.

It was my 9yo who finally found the source of the wasps in the house (as opposed to the cute colony swarming outside the house, despite the genocidal attempts of the bug guy to wipe out the innocent population).

It's been a good two weeks now, & only yesterday did we begin to be blessed with the supernatural presence of those adrenaline-boosting beings. For some crazy reason, they were crawling across the floor en masse in a creepy zombie formation.

*sigh* I guess I missed Ralph. I grabbed a jar. (If you've ever met me, you think this whole thing is a fairy tale—goblin tale, rather—& you don't believe me anyway. It's true, though, so you might as well let the strangers in blogosphere be in awe of my crazy courage. I just hide it in real life. Don't test me on this, though.)

We were out of wasp spray, so I was armed with shower spray in one hand and a mason jar in the other. I guess it was because the jar was in my right hand, which is dominant. Maybe it was really the longing for Ralph. Something overcame my natural instincts (to run) again, & the jar went over the angry yellow insect who for some reason wouldn't fly.  My heart warmed. Ralph!

And so we named him Ralph II. And so began the First Wasp Dynasty.

Ralph II isn't as smart as Ralph I. He, too, tries to sting his jar, & now that he's in it, he does fly, but when my 7yo accidentally knocked it over, the figure head refused to leave his throne, & all I had to do was tip it back on the ground.

Ralph II also has some temperance problems. My husband offered him a drink, & the poor guy died of alcohol poisoning. It's ok, though. We're a preserving kingdom, so he'll get his place on a poster, & we might even give him a trip through the Magnifying Styx River.
Ah, Ralph. And Ralph. We have loved thee...well...not all that well, actually. Perhaps we will make up for it in sonnet, & at least your name shall live on. And all your progeny shall share the blessed name.

The End.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ralph I

Seventh grade was torture. We dissected worms. And by "we," I mean the guys in my group because I quickly assured them that I had the best handwriting & should therefore be the note-taker. Anything to not slice into a gooey dead worm.

Then there was the shark dissection. We were supposed to bring money and order either small, medium, or large-with-a-baby sharks. I found the loophole in that one, though, & simply did not order a shark. Boy was my teacher mad the day that the room was filled with the scent of formaldehyde and my precocious answer to her inquiry.

Where's your shark, Aubrey?

Like I'd brought one from home or hidden it in my backpack.

The bug project was not so easily side-stepped, though. We had to collect fifty bugs. 50 Oh, excuse me, not bugs, but insects. So spiders don't count. I lived in an apartment at the time, and despite their buggy reputation, we had little other than cockroaches and spiders. Sure, roaches count, but only once, and only if you had the guts to catch them in the first place.

Besides hunting down fifty different species of insect, we also had to kill them in such a way as to preserve their color & shape. (No squishing, vacuuming, or bug-spraying.) Then we were supposed to pin them to a board & label them. Labeling's fine with me, but piercing the hard shell of an icky dead bug was not. I figured I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.

I'd collected 5 bugs when my ratty box of insects disappeared. We were all keeping them on the back table of our science class, and until now, I'd always assumed that a custodian had thrown mine out. Considering everyone else's bugs were still there, though...I bet somebody nabbed mine & added them to their own collection!

Either way, those five bugs represented everything I'd done—all the sweat, tears, and general ICK. The project was almost due. I did the only thing I could: I went to my teacher. She was relentless. I'd have to start over. I should have taken better care of my bugs.

I negotiated: what if I did a more in-depth project, detailed drawings of each bug? What if I did 100 like this? What if I wrote reports? Anything. Just don't make me go after more bugs.

She would not negotiate. I worried for a little while, and then I realized: I'm not doing this. Period. It's yucky.  I've tried to be reasonable.

So I failed that 6 weeks of science. It was the first time I'd ever failed anything.

My mom was furious. When she heard what had happened, she decided the best consequence would be to make me collect & label bugs for her. She was always a homeschooler at heart. I cried over the torture of it for about a week. By then, though, she'd had to take me out looking for bugs. She liked bugs about as much as I did, so when she stopped mentioning it, so did I.

Until last week, I'd caught 5 bugs in my whole life, all of them for 7th grade science. I'm 30-something now, and my kids have mysteriously fallen in love with the hobby of catching grasshoppers in the backyard. For a recent science project, they were bringing in leaves for us to identify, press, and label, but one had a bug on it.

It was a pretty cool bug. A yellow-striped beetle-looking thing. I happen to have mason jars sitting around, one of the few things that have been unpacked since we moved last month. I looked up how to kill bugs for collecting, but it turns out, you don't need the freaky cotton ball soaked in stinky stuff. (I can't remember what we used in 7th grade.) You just throw the mason jar in the freezer for a couple of days, & voila! Dead bug.

So yesterday when my 3yo began crying about a bug in the was pretty easy to scoop him into a mason jar. So he's in my freezer now, too. Just an average ugly black beetle. Maybe a click beetle.

Today we caught a moth. It was trying to get out the window & scaring the kids, so it really needed to be dealt with somehow. So what if he's in the freezer?

It's funny how life comes back on you like this. I guess I could say homeschooling is its own punishment? Or curiosity breeds courage? But I haven't had to go after one cockroack, and nobody's stealing my collection. Plus, it's a group project. If I get too wigged out, I've got a 9yo boy. He thinks icky bugs are pretty awesome. He's hoping for a dissection. ICK!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Learning By Hand

I managed a garden this summer, for the first time in my life. Well…I should clarify…I helped the kids plant some seeds indoors and then transplant them outside. Since then, I have allowed (and sometimes reminded) them to go and water the plants. They have weeded, nursed, and made friends with the zucchini, squash, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and other living things out in the triple digit Texas heat.

But I’ll take credit.

I’ve also started cooking more from scratch in the past year and a half. My husband has a mild wheat allergy and a more serious milk allergy, and we finally pulled all of those things from his diet, which for me, meant learning to cook all over again. Or…for the first time, maybe.
There are things in life that we learn from books, like math and reading and history. There are things, though, that can only be really learned from other people. Recipes are printed out of order, with ingredients lined up at the top, as if they were to be plopped right in the bowl, only to be followed by instructions that say, “Wait.” Oops.
I have always found the things that are learned from people too difficult, too disorganized, too overwhelming to learn. Books about gardening are worse than cookbooks. I’ve got my seeds and some dirt, and they start with a more complex scientific experiment than anything in Advanced High School Chemistry: something about the pH balance of dirt.
I give up at step one. Or I skip it and give up at step two: Advanced Geography. I’m planting in a region, and I have to find out which one. Which season, which region, what kind of dirt, and after all that, the seeds I’ve got are wrong or outdated or need to be organic, heirloom, sentimental, royal, something-or-other. My kids look up with sad, dirt-streaked faces when I say, “Oops. Our dirt molded.”
“Does that matter, Mama?” I have no idea.
So what changed this year? I think it was the impetus of feeding my allergic husband something other than salad. I decided to start small, with just one strange kind of flour, one recipe. I bought him a loaf of bread, and I made a batch of cookies. I checked GFCF cookbooks out of the library, and I bought one more kind of flour, made one more batch of something non-wheat.
I realized I couldn’t use cream of anything in any recipe, since those cans are filled with smooth mixtures of wheat flour and milk. Bit by bit, I built up what I knew, but I wasn’t reading a book with a twelve step program, like my linear brain prefers. It was more of a spiral, a process of trial and error, as my hands learned to cook. Now I can look in the refrigerator, see a cauliflower that needs to be used, and just leave it to my hands. My head gets in the way.
Hands chop, melt butter, add rice, mix it all with chicken, and surprise! I’ve got a cauliflower-rice casserole, despite the hours of fretting my brain did, to no avail.
Gardening has been the same way. I skipped the instructions, a method that works well for me, since hands and brain seem to lack communication. We just planted. Our peas died, and our squash ruled one side of the garden, to the dwarfing of the peppers. The kids wanted to plant “real” cantaloupe seeds, which I knew would never work. Instead of stopping them, though, or trying to find the answers at the hardware store or in a book, we made it a science experiment, and we planted the seeds from the melon we ate at one end of the garden, and the seeds from the packet we’d bought at the other end.
Both grew, but the ones from the melon we ate were bigger and heartier. So we planted lemon seeds from a lemon, without bothering to read books about seed preparation. We’ve got tiny lemon plants in the window sill.
As we encounter plants that won’t grow, bugs, and brown spots, we look for answers, ask questions, read books. When our cantaloupe cannibalized our tomatoes and then peeked out from tomato cages like overgrown tomatoes–as if we can’t tell the difference–we laughed. When my three-year-old later mistook a jalapeno for a tomato and grinned as she swiped it but later cried, “Whew! I almost nearly died!” we laughed again.
As we weave our own stories about plants we are getting to know on a first-name basis, we find more of the information making sense, and so we know a little more. Our hands are learning to cook and grow, so that next year, instead of brains too full to know where to begin, our hands bear memory that will grow squash, if nothing else.
With confidence, now, we’re following the spiral, learning how much information we can contain before we let our hands try, like little pots that can only hold so much water. Then we plant and cook, and ask again. The information seeps in, past too-linear brains, to hands that have learned the feel of dirt, the rhythm of sauce, a kind of knowledge our brains still cannot explain, but which is passed relationally, from one friend to another, grandfather to grandson, neighbor to neighbor.
In the freedom to try and fail, it has been not only squash and sweet potatoes that have blossomed, but curiosity and courage as well.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Shoot-Out

My husband died last week in a shoot-out with Shoshone Indians on the Oregon Trail, and while it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else (including my husband), I find myself brooding over the situation as I put away laundry and wash dishes.

We were approached by six Shoshone Indians on horseback. There were seven of us, and we panicked. Well, the kids did. One of them wanted to start shooting right away. The other convinced him to call their grandparents.

The reasoning was quite rational. It went like this: you can’t outrun them. You’ve got oxen and a wagon. If you try to talk to them, and they’re “fierce,” you won’t have a chance to get to your guns. So the safest, most logical thing to do was shoot.

And they did.
Yeah, we were pretending. But my kids still chose to shoot at innocent strangers rather than talk first. They were caught up in the simulation, I know. In real life we don’t even own any guns, and we never shoot strangers. I’m taking it too seriously, I’ve been told.
But I played the simulation with my husband before the kids began. I knew that the situation could be gotten out of with a friendly conversation and a gift. Like most things in life, if we will use our words, we will have less trouble.
The “guns” we shot were just rolls of the dice. The Indians were make-believe. Nobody got hurt, not really. “But,” I asked them, “who were these men you killed? Brothers? Fathers? Husbands?” And even now I want to weep. Because I know that these imaginary people in a history simulation represent real people who were killed just as senselessly as my sweet children rolled the dice.
Yes, it seemed safer to just shoot. In many ways, it often seems safer to just shoot. Then we don’t have to worry about understanding other people, being hurt, risking ourselves in an attempt to cross the chasm between one human heart and another.
But I believe in stepping away from my guns and risking my life to cross the prairie to a stranger, hand held out in friendship. It doesn’t sound like much, not shooting strangers for fear they’ll shoot you first, but sometimes…when you’ve run out of food and outrun cholera and winter’s approaching…sometimes life is hard, and it’s easy to think only of survival. In those difficult, stretched-to-the-point-of-breaking times, that’s when we really choose Who to follow, and survival was not a message He preached.
My husband and I have a strict policy of non-intervention with this simulation. We let them buy the snake oil from Professor Thaddeus P. Farnsworth and get sick trying it. We let them bring the silverware and every spare part a wagon could need, even though that meant bringing less food. We giggled but said nothing when they decided to buy oxen instead of donkeys, since that meant they wouldn’t have to bring donkey food. We knew those oxen would come to places where the grass was too scarce to eat, would pull the wagon too slowly and leave them fighting blizzards and avalanches.
We let them decide to shoot the Indians, too.
The simulation does not teach you what to think. It’s merely fact, choices, odds, dice. If you try to outrun the Indians, they’ll ride beside you and laugh. If you try to talk to them, they’ll trade with you. If you shoot them, they’ll shoot back. The impetus to give meaning to these outcomes is on us as teachers.
I’ve told the kids what I think: they killed innocent people. But you can see in their faces that the information does not register, not really. They think they went left when they should have gone right, made an error of judgment. They don’t see the deeper significance. They don’t see that these six characters represented real people.
So we’re reading about Native Americans for the next few weeks. We’ve learned that the Hopis are a subgroup of the Pueblo Indians, and my son is fascinated by the pueblos they built. We’ve read If You lived With the Sioux Indians and learned about some of the things they made from bison. We’re working our way around the continent with crafts from More Than Moccasins, and more books and films that are on hold at the library now.
My son said to me this week, “Wow. The Indians are really interesting. They’re like real people!”
Almost all my kids knew about Native Americans came from Little House on the Prairie, and I failed to realize it sooner. I’d dutifully pointed out the racist passages that that book contains as they were reading through it, we discussed them, and we kept reading.
When presented with a group of Shoshone Indians, though, and grandparents who suggested they might be “fierce,” I asked them, “Are they? Are these Indians ‘fierce?’”
My daughter quoted Ma’s objections to Indians and my objections to Ma’s racism.
“So what does that mean?” I asked.
“That means I don’t know,” she said.
We will be reading about the Shoshone next week and about Sacajawea and her baby, her joy over being reunited with her older brother, a relationship my two take very seriously and so will relate with deeply. When we do, then then they will weep. Because then they will know who they killed at Independence Rock.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Teach Writing

Writing has long been one of the most feared and most hated subjects in school. Honestly? I think that’s true for public, private, AND home educators. I believe part of the reason for this is a hyper-focus on grammar & punctuation balanced by only a vague picture of what makes good writing good. Properly placed periods never made bad writing good, and good writing is only improved by such formalities. I love perfect punctuation & clear grammar, but it is no reason to make a student cry.

Writing is about two things: vivid detail and strong voice. My two older children and I finished reading Across Five Aprils today, and while we already knew the ending–that President Lincoln would be assassinated and would not in fact be the beacon of hope for the wounded nation that the main character so longed for him to be–the actual description of the loss made it so much more personal, so much more devastating, that my son and I wept for a loss we had known but never tasted. The detail was vivid.

In students’ writing, we must remind them to use all of their senses, or they will forget that the greatest beauty of homemade bread is the smell of it cooking and the way that its smell reaches inside you and grasps your heart like the hand of a loved one. They will forget that its taste is not flavor alone but texture, and remembering the airy lightness of a special bread made by Grandpa, who passed last year, can be like suddenly smelling his aftershave on the air. Remembering the sticky hardness of a bite taken before news of sudden loss, the feeling of it sticking in your throat as you struggle to swallow it past the grief brings back so much more than just the taste or the texture of the bread.

Strong voice is not as simple as reminding students to use their five senses. This aspect must be developed over time by asking students, “And what do YOU think about that?” It’s not that our personal opinions are more important than facts but that our opinions, feelings, and reactions are human, and ultimately, when we read, we are looking for human connections.
One of my students once wrote about how he decided to become a dentist, perhaps an unusual career ambition for a sixteen-year-old kid, but otherwise a typical writing assignment with its mundane response. Except his wasn’t. He wrote about being in a car accident, regaining consciousness, and immediately feeling for his teeth. He wrote so passionately about his teeth that I was laughing out loud, and I will never forget his essay.
When the humanity of the writer, with all of his or her foibles, eccentricities, pain, rage, laughter, and passion, comes through on the printed page, this is strong voice. Leave the reader laughing or leave him crying, and your story will never leave him.
Teaching the humanity of the voice of the writer and convincing a student that the image in his head is not on the paper of course is more blood, sweat, and tears than it is lovely philosophy.
One way to begin this process is by listening—let the student read his work to you, so that you are not distracted by his spelling or grammar errors.
Focus on content and big ideas the first time through, and immediately find something to praise, preferably two to three things. Give concrete examples of what the student did well—I like how much detail you gave about the dinosaur! This kind of compliment sits deeper with anyone, as it comes across more sincerely and serves as a measuring stick by which the student can remember that he is a good writer, but it’s also a subtle example of how to write. In your praise, you are demonstrating vivid detail.
Next, ask the student if there’s anything he’d change about his finished product if he could. Mine usually take several minutes with very serious faces to read back over what they’ve written while I actively bite my tongue. Listen, and either agree or disagree with his assessment, but remember that his feelings are involved. Writing is personal. You will always have greater success teaching a student who believes he can complete the task you’ve assigned than one who’s convinced he’ll fail before he even starts, so be gentle!
Finally, add a suggestion of your own. This is different from a correction. It’s an interested request for more information or guidance in reading. For example, you could say,
“I sure would like to know more about that dinosaur. I wonder what color he is. Imagine what he smells like! Try to use ALL five of your senses when you’re describing. Except…don’t lick the dinosaurs!” (See—no hurt feelings here.)
Never give more than two or at the most three suggestions. It’s overwhelming, and it’s too much information to remember anyway. The goal is to give the child a sense of pride in his work and the feeling that he’s good at this and can do even better next time. The simple change between believing that one can write and believing that it’s too hard produces dramatic results in itself.
Suggestions should be given according to importance. The most important thing about a piece of writing is NOT punctuation or grammar but coherence. After all, how long can you continue reading something you don’t understand? It’s a painful activity! If the writing is incoherent, ask the student questions to try to draw him out, and make notes of his answers, so that he can see how he might compose a better response in the future.
Second in importance is how focused & clear the writing is. Does the student respond to the assignment? Does he stay on topic? Does he support his ideas well? You may understand all of his ideas, but if he jumps around from one topic to another so much that you feel as if you’re suffering from mental whiplash, you might want to spend some time talking to him about his main ideas, making outlines, and filtering supporting details from rabbit trails. Again, though, be gentle:
“Wow! That’s really interesting information you included here about Australia. And I’d love to know more about the House Finch. But…I’m wondering what those have to do with dinosaurs?” There’s usually a silent pause here, followed by laughter as the student realizes his own mistake. If he defends his choices, though, be prepared to hear him out and offer suggestions for either writing separate papers about Australia and House Finches or changing the topic of the paper to illustrate the student’s understanding of the connection between these three topics. You may just be lucky enough to get a rare and beautiful peek into the mind of your child.
Only after the big things listed above are in order should we worry about grammar and punctuation. The good news? Some of those grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors will likely be self-edited by the student along the way.
This is where you could tell a student to watch out for sentence fragments or explain comma splices, my personal favorite piece of punctuation. However, if you see that basic grammar and punctuation are a problem but the big issues are not in order, you should make a note of the grammar problems and address them in grammar class, when his feelings and writing are not at stake. Teaching grammar within the natural context of writing can be overwhelming if approached too soon. I imagine that it feels like juggling to the student–remembering good spelling, punctuation, capitalization, topic sentences, content–it’s enough to leave grad students in tears! I think it’s best to keep the grammar separate from writing until the writing is so good that the grammar IS the biggest issue.
One final note. It’s easy to get bogged down with writing and feel as if you’re slogging through endless trenches of Nowhere, whether you’re student or teacher. Make sure to keep samples of students’ work so that you can both go back and look at the progress you’re making together. The difference between a piece of writing produced at the beginning of the school year and one produced in the middle or especially at the end, is the best piece of encouragement anyone can offer.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ode to Old Green Beans

I have loved thee long, green beans, though not well,
Since thy days in darkness I have squandered,
Seeking other, fresher goods from the dell,
While thou, waiting, hoping, my love pondered.

Long hast thou lived in the stank repose of death:
Thou hast seen holidays and merriment
Beyond the fleeting dreams of life’s stale breath,
More than legumes before you ere they went!

But today the dirge is finally sung,
Thy plastic coffin I joylessly rend:
It looks as though thou wilt again be young
In the fungal afterlife without end.

Green beans, string beans, I will remember you

Until trash be taken, whilst your smell I rue.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Gift of Story

I'm a story-teller—a reader, a writer. While Prufrock is measuring his life with coffee spoons, I measure mine with stories. The ones I tell, like birth stories and the loss of my father, and the ones that I read, from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle to Faulkner.

For a long time, I looked forward to having and homeschooling children because of the stories we’d share. I remembered the deep-down rapture of Charlotte’s Web and the magic of Narnia, and it was like the smell of baking brownies inside me—the tantalizing aroma of a good story waiting to be shared in a way that you can’t as a child, when language is still relatively new and in a way that you don’t in college classrooms, where E. B. White and L’Engle are too humble to grace the pages of a syllabus.

My oldest is nine. He’s read a lot, and for the most part, it’s been of a higher quality than what I’d read at his age. I haven’t read most of the books he’s reading, and he’s just on the cusp of the ones I remember loving most. Next year, I’m planning to give him A Wrinkle in Time because I read it when I was ten, and I think it has been my favorite story ever since.

We have not yet shared stories in the way I’d always imagined, and my son is old enough that this has recently begun to bother me. I read Charlotte’s Web aloud a couple of years ago like my second grade teacher read it aloud to my class when I was a child. I pre-read Carry on, Mr. Bowditch and then challenged my sensitive son to read it despite the grief and loss within its pages.

My husband and I have each taken a turn reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I finally found a copy of an out-of-print mystery that was my mother’s when she was little. Three generations of my family have loved The Ghost of Dibble Hollow now.

My point is that we do share stories. The Secret Garden, Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to name a few more. But the sharing that has happened? It reminds me of sitting on the back porch with my dad when I was a little girl. I’d catch frogs while he looked at the stars, and he would tell me, “Listen.”

“Listen to what?” I’d ask, but he would only say, “Shh. Listen.” And I would listen to the sounds of the night, straining to hear beyond them to whatever deeper thing it was that Dad was listening to, until I became distracted again by frogs and we were called in from the supernatural to the mundane.

I’d expected sharing stories and midnight talks with my children to feel like that, but I hadn’t seen it yet through my dad’s eyes. I’d expected to feel the magic the way I’d felt it as a child and to experience my children’s reactions to it firsthand.

Whatever is going on inside their brains and hearts, though, is theirs. It comes to me in bits and pieces, as they try to patch together the words I insist they share, but their feelings are filtered through language that is fresh. Instead of the child enrapt in the wonder of a brand new story, I am the teacher now, the parent, the voice pleading under the stars that little bodies be still for a moment and listen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


It was a blue watercolor dreamscape, shades of cadet and steel and midnight swallowing one another alternately, endless night. And she was blue like the waters that held her, blue like the sea above and sea below, blue like mother and father and home, forever the same shades without mercy, forever the same pressure, holding her down, holding her in, and even buoying her up.

But she had heard the sapphires, the dazzling cerulean, and oh! the turquoise. Up, up, till she’d almost broken sky, some promise of something, of light. She dared not touch it, lest it scatter her like the dingy shades of blue, into sparkling bits of something better than herself, something unimaginably other.

It haunted her, that light she longed to listen to, that light that liquid lingered in the jewels of the sea, in the depths of her own blue heart. But more…it was that she listened and loved alone, that they never spoke of the sapphire song or the turquoise harmony. Only the darkness, and then not the darkness of the deep but the darkness of the mystery that lay upon this world like a heavy body, dead, and breathing decay down into the sea.

Day after day she floated beneath the turquoise stars and wondered at the vast world beyond her, the world with other shades of blue. Then she would flutter gracefully home, leaving a wake of cloudy blue behind her.

When she reached her blue home, the door was ajar, the effects of a younger sistser, and deep in thought, forgetting her mersong, she slipped in and up to her room. By dinnertime, she heard her family congregating and swam slowly down, melancholy, and forever blue.

They did not speak to her, and she served a plate and sat down in her place in silence, picking at scallops and frowning at seaweed. At last one of them asked of her, whether her younger sister had heard from her. And then her older brother. The conversation continued between her worried parents as if she were not there, and they did not sing to each other as they sang. They sang at her as if she were empty chair only.

She felt as if the blue had swallowed her at last: body unbearably blue, she had become completely camouflaged by her surroundings, nothing but blue at last. And she began to cry quiet blue tears that were swallowed by the vast blue sea, but when she sniffled them back, her mother gasped, her father listened to her with wide, glassy blue eyes, her sister let out a squeal, and her brother beside her jumped back, knocking his chair to the woven seaweed floor.


“Daddy?” she answered from her blueness.

“Have you been there the whole time? Where is your mersong?” he demanded.

“Daddy, couldn’t you hear me? I’ve been right here in front of you--”

“How can I hear a silent mermaid?”

“But…I hear you, Daddy, always. When you wake in the mornings and swim down--”

“Because I sing!” he bellowed.

“Not until you reach the kitchen,” she answered. “And Mama in the garden--”

“I sing in the garden!”

“Sometimes you get lost in the anemones and forget, and there is only the memory of your song.”

“You imagine it! No one can hear a silent merman,” her father objected as her mother wept.

“With your other ears, of course you can,” she answered in surprise.

“Other ears?” Her father’s face turned toward her mother, but his gaze missed her by a head. He rose then, and swam over to his daughter, and put his hands a the sides of her head.

“Two ears. As I remembered. No more of this nonsense now. Mersong at all times, child, or you’ll be kept to your room, so we’ll know where you are!”

“No, Daddy, not those ears,” she reached for his hands and moved them to her face. “These,” she sang softly.

She closed her face as he felt those other ears. Then he moved his hands to his own face, and at last, softly, “Daughter, these are not ears. These are dead orifices for tears. Mermen do not hear sadness; their tears become one with the sea.”

She thought of the other blue, the mystery and shattered gems. She heard them only with these ears, she realized. Perhaps they were tears then, the bright blue baubles that contrasted with the boiling sea. Perhaps they were being drawn up and out, sadness swallowed so that the mersong would go on.

But they did not sound like sadness to she who could hear them, and so she took her brother with her to hear the sapphires sing like silver bells, for his curiosity was piqued by the ears in his face.

But the other blues did not sing for him. There was mersong for him only, for him only endless blue.

“These are not ears,” he concluded, “for mine do not hear.”

“But it is a different kind of hearing,” she said, closing her face-ears to try to explain, but when she closed them, the song was gone. The sapphires and azure illuminations did not just stop their song, they stopped altogether. They were not. There was only deepest, saddest blue, and that without tone or melody. No steel, no cadet. Only midnight forever. Only endless eve.

She opened them again and listened to her brother--not his mersong only, but his blue fins streaked with violet, his strong blue form, his lavender hair flowing behind him. She heard it in his fins, just a snatch of the turquoise melody, just when he swam near the surface song. As if a piece of heaven, a bright star were buried there in him. She looked at her own fins and saw the same: cerulean sparkles that did not belong to this blue world.

“Open your ears!” she cried, swimming toward the surface at last without fear, for she was made of the stuff above, and as she swam she realized the great blue tragedy of her people: they who sang the mersong were deaf.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who Am I as a Writer?

Thanks to Robin, I came across this Wanna Be Writers Meme, & it looks like fun! I tend to be very solitary in my writing, am shy about discussing it, & don't pass it around to even my best friends until it's finished. I've been thinking of getting out of the cave, & this seems like a good place to test the waters.

Who am I as a writer? I'm currently working on a young adult trilogy that is probably the truest work I've ever written, the most me. But I'm also working on a sci fi trilogy that's FUN, interesting, all the things that good fiction should be. I love what the Matrix should have been (don't quite understand what it is), & I am always drawn into thought-provoking works in the vein of 1984, I, Robot, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, etc. I'm also working on a series of fairy tale rewrites, a Bible study on faith, & I keep poetry going to rotate through everything. Ideas are never short around here.

Where I am in the writing process: I've been writing since 1989. I was 10 years old & finally *got* it. Writing was nothing more than a drawn out description held together by a plot. I'd never been able to do description before because I had this idea that it had to fit into a paragraph. Actually describing everything in real detail was overwhelming, but when I finally let myself go & tried it, the words just poured out. I became a weapon of mass destruction with my ability to gross my husband out. No, that came much later. I was very lady-like with my powers until I met him.

I have long wanted to be a writer & have been pretty steady in writing over the years, but I had this idea that to BE a writer, I needed someone else's say-so. I think I'm mostly past that, but I've also started writing smaller things to help with that self-image, & I've started actively sending out my mss. Okay, it hasn't actually been active lately, but that's because I've had another idea....

My current problems: I've decided that the books in my YA trilogy don't stand alone, so I'm smashing them together into one great big work that I intend to begin sending out (again) as soon as I'm done w/ the polished version of book 3. I'd finished book 1 & started sending it out while I worked on other things, but this epiphany has brought me back to finishing (completely) this set of books. I'm very, very happy with how they are turning out.

My question(s) this week: I guess my question is about consistency and/or staying connected in the real world. It seems like I can do one or the other well but not both. In other words, my head is in my fictional place, & I'm getting a good bit of writing done consistently, or my head is in homeschooling my four kids, keeping house, tutoring, & being in this world, & then I'm not writing consistently.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On Hope

I read a book review recently which concluded, "Books like [this] make you laugh and cry and ultimately leave you feeling happy and hopeful."

You know that nice, warm, after-a-movie feeling when the world is almost-right and you can do anything. You even look like the heroine of the film until you get to the bathroom and have to stand under the garish movie theater bathroom lighting.

We call that "hope." We like that feeling, fleeting as it is, and sometimes we chase it like an exotic butterfly because we're so desperate to feel hope.

I do not want to feel hopeful. I do not want to be full of hope—not in the emotional sense of the word. Not in the synonym-for-optimism sense. Feelings are far too fickle for me, and like a drug, I find that they leave me feeling emptier when they're gone.

I am a confirmed pessimist. I lose fights in my dreams, but worse, I lose them in my imagination, when I'm fully awake and fully in control. Give me a few minutes to discuss your problems, and while I can encourage, I can really discourage. I can suck the optimism from an entire room with the precision of a government-designed weapon.

Not that I've ever tried.

But if I'm going to deal in hope, it's not going to be trite. It's not going to be sticky stuff that comes from a tree. Hope is not the ephemeral sense that "everything will work out."

I'm discouraging partly because I'm so hard to encourage.

The problem with this kind of hope is simple, though. It's a feeling. Real hope—the kind that is the marrow of the human race—is not an emotion. It is a tool. It is an engine, a generator that spurs the human heart onward when all else has failed.

Sometimes it's only an oar, and you have to pick it up and push back the sea with all your strength until you want to weep with exhaustion. For the sake of survival, though, you pick up the oar, you choose to hope, and you press on with all the determination and fortitude you can muster.

Hope is a powerful force—one to be wielded, not merely felt, not merely enjoyed at the end of a good book.  Hope is a lifeboat, and when your boat sinks, it will get you to that distant shore.

Keep it close. Use it well.