Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Rationality of Religion

I have spent the last year writing a history curriculum for the ancient time period. Reading about the faith of ancient people had never interested or offended me before. Greek mythology was barely interesting, and Egyptian mythology was even less captivating. The Romans were frauds, and the Babylonians were just the bad guys in the Bible.

But reading something to teach it is different from reading it because you have to read it to get your three credits which will help you get to the total required to earn the expensive piece of paper. I have been struck over the past year by how similar we are, across faiths and centuries and millennia. We want the same things: love, health, bread, shelter. We lack the same things: power, control over death and disease. And so we pray. We make sacrifices. We honor the gods. Sometimes things work out, and we point to that as evidence to sustain our faith. Sometimes things don't work out, and we are smitten by the gods, by the devils, by our own shortcomings and sin.

For a while now, the more I read, the smaller my prayers sounded—a single note in a cosmic symphony of human prayers. Yes, I believed my God was true and real...just like so many, many others throughout time have believed. Others who were ridiculous for believing the silly gods who die and return to life again...

I found myself stopping my own train of thought. I have children. I am too old now to question my faith, because the salvation and upbringing of others depends on it (to some extent). But, of course, what is faith if it requires the death of reason? And so I continued to read, to see the similarities, to find issues in the Bible to which I objected but had been able to blissfully ignore since I outgrew my childhood Sunday School classes.

Two things happened. First, I realized that I believe in the Christian God and that that faith is not something to be logically defended. It simply is, like the love I feel for my husband and children. For better or worse, I live by it, act on it, and choose to continue doing so. Even when it doesn't make sense to me; even when they leave messes in the kitchen, don't change the toilet paper roll, leave laundry everywhere, and talk back. It just is.

Second, I quite suddenly saw the similarities in faith from another angle: religion is something we share. Across faiths, across nationalities, race, and time, we look beyond ourselves for help and guidance. Animals do not do that. It is the peculiar habit of rational creatures to look beyond themselves, to imagine gods, to dream of a Creator.

We may not agree on who He is or that He is, but the fact that we (almost?) universally consider the possibility—look with our hearts or minds or spirits—is itself a suggestion of the possibility, the hope that we are not alone in a free fall of biological happenstance, that the human habit of religion is rational.

The Logic of Hope

I am a pessimist in day-to-day life. I am not surprised when I find that we are out of bread at lunch time, out of diapers when I don't have the car, that the jelly side always hits the floor.

But I am a fierce optimist when it comes to the bigger things. For so long now, life has continued on a downward spiral for my family, but every year, I find myself not just hoping but believing that things. will. get. better.

It's gotten to be funny—to me, if no one else. I grew up quite poor and determined not to be that way again. My brother thought college was ridiculous; my sister got tired of it and graduated with a general studies degree, which she followed up randomly with sociology. I knew better. I got a real degree from a real school, and while I dreamed of things like writing, art, and architecture, I followed my real degree up with something practical: a master's in teaching. My sister and brother are both doing better than I am.

In college, my husband and I knew all sorts of people: art majors, drug addicts, homeless men, and mentally ill women. They've all made better lives for themselves than we've managed.

Since then, we've seen people make terrible mistakes: marriages that didn't work, careers that didn't work, lifestyles that didn't work. They've all picked up the pieces and gone on to be more successful than we've managed so far.

As far as we go, I figured my husband's salary based on the price of gas recently. In 1995, I was making minimum wage. In an hour, I could buy four gallons of gas. Today? One hour will buy around three gallons, but we've also got student loans and five children.

It bothers me a lot. Sometimes I'm sure things will always be like this, or that they're actually going to get worse. Sometimes I see all the things we've failed to do for our children, all the time that's slipped by while we've been failing so miserably, and I get horribly depressed.

But most of the time? I'm certain that things will be better soon. If when I am old, I am going to walk upon the beach in white flannel trousers with the bottoms of my trousers rolled, this path must lead somehow to that one and the beach house where I will stand and look at the ocean and write beautiful things and paint poetry.

I am not oblivious, though, and I am more naturally a pessimist than an optimist. I have noticed that things do not always work out for everyone, and despite the success of those around me now, I have seen failure, loss, and death.

So why do I still believe things will get better? It had gotten funny to me, like a mental illness is funny, like you laugh when you watch your house burn down once your children are out but nothing else can be saved. Last year, we actually celebrated New Year's by making a hope chain that listed all the good things we expected or hoped for the new year. This year? I'm keeping my mouth shut, but the audacious, ridiculous voice inside me that won't. shut. up. keeps at it—this year. This year will be better.

Something occurred to me tonight. As things get worse, odds of them continuing to get worse must decrease at a proportionate rate of velocity. I mean, at some point, the "worse" options become one in a million because you've already been through most of them. How many times can you crash your car with an airplane? Or give birth to a ten pound baby AND end up in NICU?

So maybe hope is logical after all. That silly Hope part of me? It's cheering at the thought: OF COURSE things are going to get better. All the stories worth telling have happy endings, after all.

The pessimist part of me isn't all that useful anyway, figured he'd lose the argument, doesn't really have anything to gain by winning, so what he thinks is immaterial.

If nothing else, hope is more tenacious than despair. After all, if hope fails, despair will always be there tomorrow.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

People are Still Reading

While waiting on a kid to finish some Latin so I can maniacally grade it as it is finished, I read an article on Yahoo about a ball falling from space into a field in Namibia. Apparently, this has been happening in Australia and Africa for about twenty years, but we don't know what these things are. So why am I writing about it?

The comments below were funny and relatively intelligent in their humor—not the most common thing for the comments section of an internet article. But then something struck me in the camaraderie of the geeky humor I so enjoy: the comments section serves as more than a sense of community, more than a forum for airing opinions—it's hard evidence that we still have a reason to hope in the human race. I realize that's more than a dubious assessment of the comments section on most articles, but on THIS one, I realized some important things:

1. People are still reading. Whew. THAT in itself is reason to hope.

2. People will even read articles about space. And geography. Maybe I'm setting the bar pretty low, since Namibia was peripheral to the article and the topic was technically space balls, inciting junior high laughter from the best of us, but still—there was some almost technical stuff in that article. Kudos to those of us outside the professional field who took the time to read it.

3. So maybe the humor in the comments section was based primarily on Transformers and The X-Files, and maybe that's not exactly a measure of intelligence, BUT—applying information and experiences across fields IS a measure of intelligence, and since there was more of that than the bathroom humor that came to mind first when we read "space balls," I'm all tingly with hope and joy and faith that human nature has not become as depraved as other articles suggested. Maybe those are just isolated incidents. Or maybe I've had too much eggnog.

4. Mainly, people are still reading.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tiny Miracles

Sitting on the sofa this morning (with a new book of Latin answers, a tiny miracle in itself), I was watching the light dusting of snow across the neighborhood like powdered sugar finishing off a holiday cake, holding the baby, and thinking as I was tempted to turn away from the snow to the Latin—I hope I never get used to this. I hope I never shrug & say—"Meh, it's just an inch." I hope the snow always dazzles me like it does now. I love anything that has the power to make me stand still and watch.

And I looked down at my new baby, who is six weeks old today and remembered how many times I've thought the same thing about him. Smelling his baby-smell is like cramming for a test, trying to memorize every detail because I know they're all so fleeting. (He's already wearing size 3-6mos.) I look at my bigger kids, and the scarce fragments of memory that are left of their newborn days serve as a grim reminder of how frail this human memory is, & I work against its finitude all the harder.

That's when I began counting. How many snowfalls have I seen since we've been here? How many days have I held this baby, followed him down the halls of NICU, carried him up the stairs at home, changed diapers—and really—we don't experience babies in days but in hours, neckaches, sniffs of babiness. And I wondered—is he too old yet for me to calculate his age in hours?

Six weeks times seven days times 24 hours. He won't be completely six weeks old until this evening. And sure enough, as I sat there sniffing his head and calculating, he turned 1001 hours old in my arms. It's enough time to fall in love. It's time to learn the quiet song of baby breath and snorting. It's enough time to outgrow clothes and diapers, to learn cries and smiles and coos. 1000 hours is time enough to change your life forever and be glad it's been changed, but I hope for thousands more, and like the snow, I pray that I'll never acclimate, never shrug off a moment of this miracle because of the generosity of the Giver of Moments, whose hand holds out such precious blessings.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


We think of fireplaces, Thanksgiving, something from childhood.

After two nights in NICU, I will always think of it as a Miracle.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Military vs Education

The soldier in the field merely obeys orders, so when someone suggests that teachers "police their own," what that person fails to realize is that, to match the military, this would have to be done from the top down—not on a peer level. To that end, administrators would be "policing" teachers (as they already do), getting rid of all the bad apples and, as per the speaker's wishes, rewarding the good ones.

First of all, this already happens. Teachers who are deemed to be failing are put on improvement plans, have contracts that do not renew, or are given the dregs of the student body, the worst classrooms, terrible schedules. Occasionally, they are even fired. The good ones are rewarded with more planning periods, higher pay and stipends, better students, and smaller class sizes. The problem? The process is political, as with many things. There are good and bad teachers who get "rewarded." There are good and bad teachers stuck in the "dungeon" with the large class sizes and poor ventilation.

We haven't managed to fix the political system, so I'm not sure how we're supposed to use political power to fix the politics that go on in the education system, but—let's try it anyway! The ideas floating around now involve monetary rewards for high-performing teachers (and schools) and consequences for the "failing" ones.

I'd like to think about how that would play out in the military. Imagine the soldier who is paid based on the number of bad guys he shoots. Doesn't really seem like a good measure of success, does it?

But since teachers can't shoot their students, this isn't a fair comparison. Students aren't even the enemy, someone will point out. Of course, not everyone who gets killed in a military conflict is the enemy, either, but I digress. The "bad guys" are the OBJECT of the soldier's work as students are the OBJECT of the teacher's work. Teachers aren't allowed to defend themselves on any level, or they're out of a job.

So imagine soldiers being sent into a war without equipment, and the measure of their success is how much they change the hearts and minds of the opposition they encounter. Based on THAT, their pay, performance, and job stability are determined.

It's actually a good idea, if you think about it. A Ghandi-vision of world peace.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Giftedness

I have a secret passion for gifted studies. I’ve always been fascinated by the brain and education, but standing in a Barnes & Noble one day about ten years ago, waiting for my husband who was about to meet me for lunch, I found a coffee table book about giftedness. Having grown up in gifted programs, I’ve always been drawn to books on giftedness, as if it’s evidence of a secret club I once belonged to as a kid. You see, gifted programs end with high school, sometimes before, like the tree houses that say, “No girls allowed.” So evidence that it really did exist—this haven where there were others like me—is nostalgic. It’s nice.

But what I read in that coffee table book—hardly a deep analysis of giftedness—has changed my life. I knew that giftedness meant that I went to a special class like the special needs kids. I knew I went because I was smart in some kind of off-kilter way: I’d started school early and was always bored, but I was hardly the highest achiever in the class.

Beyond that, no one ever told me what it meant, this “gift.” We did logic puzzles once a week and extra work when we got back to the classroom. I loved it because it was a place I felt understood, and so it was worth the extra work, but other kids thought we were crazy to volunteer for such torture.
The book I skimmed at Barnes & Noble that day brought me to tears. On every page, it described every failure of my life in acute detail, as if it were an art book instead of a brag book for parents. This book knew already that it would take me seven years to finish my BA after transferring back and forth between nine schools and more majors than I can count. Instead of calling me a quitter, as my college guidance counselor did, it said I could do anything and was interested in everything. The book made it sound not so bad.
It described the way I would approach projects—with the vision and gusto of a person with clinical OCD—as if it had been there when I tried to paint the 8’x12’ mural of a street scene in France onto fabric for curtains for a closet in a single day, when I tried to build a life-size model of the Eiffel tower for an informational booth at church, when I decided my first sewing project would be an evening gown for a Christmas party the week of Calculus finals when I was nine months pregnant with my first baby.
And then it described the late nights and tears when my grand visions were realized for what they were: more failures, more lofty dreams. Dresses hemmed in duct tape, informational booths that everyone passes by, unfinished curtains and carpet stained in blue paint.
This book had seen inside my closet, too—all the unfinished projects, all the hobbies I have to maintain to keep the world more interesting. It knew that the world moved too slowly for me, that I hurt people with my impatience. But the book forgave me, because it knew that I was impatient with myself most of all.
The book knew that what I experience on the inside looks more like bipolar disorder than any kind of “gift”—there are the days when I can do anything, when I believe in my writing and my art and the education I am giving my kids. And there are the dark days. The book knew the statistics for suicide that I had always thought were just me.
The book knew that when I graduated from the gifted program and was thrust into real life, the odds were against me. It predicted the joblessness, frustration, and guilt, but it offered no advice. The book was written to parents. And so I stood in Barnes & Noble and tried not to cry. If only I had been told what the obstacles would be, I could have faced them better instead of being eaten up by the shame.
Because of that book—the name of which I don’t recall—I earned a master’s degree in two years, without changing majors or schools or adding on half a dozen minors. That degree has turned out to be almost as unprofitable as a liberal arts degree, but it represents a victory over myself, over my dark side. It’s a sign of normalcy that I can waive like a flag, even though my very self was the cost of that flag and lies buried beneath it.
The degree is in Education and was obtained so that I would never be unemployed again, a double whammy for a homeschooling mother in an economy that has put all of the local schools on a hiring freeze. I’d dreamed of an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature so that I could hide in an ivory tower and think beautiful thoughts. Equally useless, perhaps, but if I’d known that that would be the case, I would have chosen the more beautiful path. Life is full of false starts for me, although I expect to have it figured out by the time my hair has lost its natural color.
But I told you that my passion for giftedness is secret. I have rarely told even a friend that I fall into these ranks, much less internet strangers, because I know the dissension wrapped around the word. People think that those who are gifted brag about this glamorous state or that their parents brag about them. They think that “giftedness” is an indictment of the rest of the world, that it is nothing more than academic prowess. In fact, giftedness does not always even mean success in school, and in practice, it looks much more like something one would medicate to make it go away rather than something someone would embrace, much less announce. One is more likely to look around for a limb to sever, another part to bury so that she a few more moments with the Normalcy flag for a party or other social obligation—anything big enough to hide the truth.
Tonight I am longing for the OCD eyes to give way so I can sleep, but instead I am sitting at my computer at 2:30 in the morning, surrounded by books and papers and filled with the irony of ideas and creativity and grief, wondering again if I can bury myself beneath a flag of normalcy or if the sacrifice is ever worth it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Like a Little Child

"To not know history is to remain forever a child." Or something like that.

The kids finally asked the question--WHY study history. I was eloquent; Landon quoted famous quotes like the one above.

8yo said, "But doesn't the Bible say to remain like a child?" Uh......

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On the Cusp of 3

Sitting here overseeing school, explaining singular and plural in Latin and 6 blue marbles plus 4 red marbles times 5 bags and why you can't pick your nose at the table, & I overhear my little one in the background making truck noises and saying, "That will be a good idea," pronouncing "good" like it rhymes with "food."

My 4yo starts cleaning up, & 2yo cries because she's only picking up his toys. I tell her to quit it & tell him she's sorry. She does, & I hear, "I forgive you. It's not time to pick up—that's not how we play." And the truck noises start again.

I think everyone should always have an on-the-cusp-of-3yo in their house. It's like having a beautiful garden and a song and a philosopher who helps you see what's true and what's small and what's big. It's a reminder that tears are for more than tragedy and rejoicing is for less than a new job. It's the birth of hyperbole and faith. It's never being bored or smelling quite right.

This morning, I am thanking God for these years.

Monday, April 18, 2011

This Moment

He steals grapes. He sneaks apples. But he can only manage to get the apple on one side, so I find the Other Halves the playroom, the sofa, my bed...

I've been promised that one day I'll miss the surprises.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Eschewing Obfuscation in Academia via Kinesthetic Jargon-Elimination...

or "Learning Vocabulary"

Sometimes when I’m writing lesson plans, I have an epiphany, and I realize that my kids’ attention spans are no longer or deeper than my own. If I have not managed to retain the definitions of stomata, xylem, and chloroplasts from our reading…they probably haven’t, either. And if a review of the terms simply makes my eyes glaze over…then I know that their “study skills” leave something to be desired, too.

Science vocabulary in particular has always eluded me: it seems an obnoxious way to weed people out who might very well understand concepts but get tongue-tied when it comes to names. I’m the same way with meeting people at church, reducing them to layman’s terms: “Talking Man” and “Meat Sandwich.” (The latter was the unfortunate result of a lady trying in vain to help people remember her name: she’s the wife of a guy named Pat, and in Sunday School, she’d sit next to a girl named Pat. She said she was the middle of a “Pat Sandwich.” She also said her name, but I forget that part. I do know it wasn’t Pat.)

Looking again at the mysterious vocabulary, I began to work to make the mental pictures that allow me to remember faces, if not names. I pretended to care, and the result was the following lesson plan:

Vocabulary: phloem, xylem, leaf, root.
Method: Put on a play.
Name tags are passed out to the audience, including “Flower,” “Bud,” and  “Stem.”
Play opens with Mrs. Root sitting in a blue laundry basket. Leaf is cooking in the kitchen, wearing an apron that says, “LEAF the cooking to the cook!”  Phloem and Xylem are dressed as waiters.
Leaf: “Soup’s on!”
Phloem takes his tray to the kitchen and loads it up with food.  Then he carries it out to serve to the audience.  (This could be play food or snacks.)  He also takes a plate to Mrs. Root.
Xylem takes his tray to Mrs. Root, where he fills it with cups of water.  He serves those to the audience members.  He also takes a cup to Leaf.
The End.
My oldest enjoyed practicing the play so much that he wrote an extended version of the script.  It was simple enough that my two-year-old and three-year-old played the extra parts.  We performed it for our homeschool open house, passing out cookies and punch to Granny (“Flower”), Grand Dad (“Bud”), and Aunt Pat (“Blossom”).
Now it’s easy for all of us to remember that Phloem and Xylem are the “waiters” of the plant.  Which is which?  PHloem serves the Food.  (It alliterates.)
My husband was a Biology major for a semester in college.  There was only the one class before he switched to World History, but from that experience, his conclusion is that learning the vocabulary is half the battle.  In other words, it’s worth some creative effort to help your kids learn the obnoxious terminology—the jargon—of academic fields.
An added benefit?  As the vocabulary becomes more manageable and familiar, the concepts become less foreign, too.  Before you know it, you’ve learned a lot more than vocabulary.  (And your kids have, too!)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Plato & Games

There was a public debate between two of my professors in college regarding whether or not movies were the fulfillment of Plato’s “cave.” We sit in the dark, watching images on the screen, one argued, and all of our conversations revolve around those images, waiting eagerly for the next shape to appear.

The professor who argued against movies profoundly misunderstood the ancient philosopher, I audaciously believe. Plato was complaining about fiction, about “making up” things that are not true and are thus far removed from the Form—the essence of Truth. He illustrated his objection…with a story, a fiction about people living in a cave.

Plato liked to trap his interlocutor with false dilemmas and misleading assumptions, and if we fall for those traps, we too will be left laughing at the mindless crowds who pack themselves into movie theaters with overpriced popcorn.

Instead, I think Plato wanted us to see the value of story. He uses these fictions to convey his ideas about Truth. Nathan the prophet did the same thing when approaching King David about his sin with Bathsheba. And when God became Incarnate, He spent the precious time He had with His disciples…telling stories. Parables.

I learned about the Russian Revolution as a high school English teacher teaching Animal Farm. I have never since been able to look at communism without hearing the echo of the horse’s insistent voice, “I must work harder.”

History texts are written about kings and conquerors. Stories give voice to the unnamed peasants who suffered the change…or lack of change that came with a new regime, a natural disaster, a plague.

I’m an English teacher—of course I believe that stories are important and powerful. Recently, though, I have come to see stories woven into games. As my husband and I play with our children and each other, I have noticed that we are weaving a narrative. We know from years of playing Risk, for example, that Madagascar is a fierce island off the coast of Africa that absolutely cannot be defeated, even if one brings all the power of Rome against the tiny island.

We understand from Axis and Allies the geographical reasons that America had great resources but a difficult time applying them to the problem. There is a force at work, invisible, beneath the board of Gobblet, spinning pieces round like a spider’s web trapping its prey.

There’s a living memory in shared games. We know that the yellow pieces in Risk cannot win—they are cowards and klutzes and fall on their own weapons. We know that gold fever can wreck a sailor’s ships in Seafarers.

When I was a child, I could not add 75 and 75 very quickly, but I knew six quarters were a dollar fifty. I am terrible with geography, but I know Madagascar is off the eastern coast of Africa and Irkutsk is in Russia. I can only spell ‘Mississippi’ when I let the jump rope chant run through my head.

Most of us can put information on a short term go-cart ride from the text to the test, but I believe stories help us move information from the short term go-cart track to long-term neural pathways we’ll keep with us. Historical fiction and playground rhymes are great ways to build these neural highways.

Telling the stories ourselves, though, has an even greater impact on long-term learning, understanding, and making cross-curricular connections. Games allow us to tell the stories ourselves, to interact with the decisions and disasters that faced our predecessors, whether that be a world war or making change from $500.

If Plato had lived in this century, I think he would have argued against movies….and I think he would have made his point via film.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Should School be Fun?

Some homeschooling friends are debating this question right now, vacillating between guilt that their kids aren’t having enough “fun” homeschooling and conviction that too much fun in the early years will lead to an inability to concentrate and work hard later on.

I did what any responsible educator would do: I asked my kids.

Should school be fun? “Of course,” they agreed. “Why wouldn’t it be?” So I told them that some teachers thought that might not be a good idea, and their jaws dropped.

First, they think fun is good. They suggested that school is often as fun as playing. I think the key here, though, is not necessarily offering chocolate chips for every worksheet completed, as my nine-year-old suggested, but in teaching kids to enjoy learning. Instead of making up games to make reading seem fun and broccoli taste good, we should be finding good books and great recipes.

Of course, I try to keep the competition at a minimum, too: television and sugar can stunt perfectly good taste buds.
Second, my kids pointed out that even if you enjoy school, there will still be other things in life that you have to do that aren’t fun, like chores, which are mostly not fun.  Of course, if you’ve been taught to enjoy things, sometimes even chores can be a little fun.  Sometimes, you actually get more chores done by racing Mama or playing soldier, with the mess being enemy combatants.  Learning to make unpleasant tasks more palatable might just be an important life skill, a first step on the path to self-discipline.
Finally, my kids think that they’ve retained more information because they enjoyed the process of learning it.  When education is fun, you find yourself thinking about wars and grammar rules even when no one’s making you do it.  The information sticks better when it becomes part of your private thought-world.
Education that makes you think, makes you interact with ideas and information, can’t help but be fun.  I’d be willing to guess that most of the time, if learning is not fun, it’s because the student is not being challenged.  This does not necessarily mean he needs harder work–sometimes it could be quite the opposite.  Building a skyscraper would not challenge me; it would be too far over my head to even begin!
On the contrary, challenging kids assumes working within their range of ability with a little stretching.  Instead of more math problems or harder ones, then, a kid is challenged, I believe, when he is invested in his work.  Counting money for Monopoly is a lot more fun than counting black and white money printed on a worksheet.  Counting money from a jar of coins in order to buy something yourself is even better because it’s relevant.  One allows you to play a game; the other allows you to buy a game.
Right now, my kids are in the other room arguing over rules to a game that they’re designing themselves based on the sea battles of World War I.  My eyes glaze over when people start talking about battle ships versus cruisers, different kinds of ammunition, and various war planes, but suddenly, for the sake of designing a strategy game, I’m fascinated by the details and capabilities of each.  As we work together to balance simplicity and complexity, we see the problem of supplying troops.  The battle ships that the books said were big, are Really Big.  They fit in our hands, but they can cross several tiles of water and take out every cruiser in their way in one turn.  That’s relevant.  That gets our attention.
We will go back and read again about the Bismarck when we’re done, and instead of another battle, another general, another page, my kids will see a brilliant military strategist.  Then they’ll probably try to copy the strategy and beat me at my own game.
I think that asking if school should be fun might be the wrong question.  One of us hears “fun” and thinks “entertainment” while another one thinks “engaging.”  One of us hears more work for the teacher while another imagines more responsibility for the student.  I think with different phrasing, we’d probably agree on the latter.
There’s also the concern that if kids don’t learn to do things they don’t enjoy now, then they won’t have the responsibility to do them later.  I’ve been thinking about this argument especially.  I imagine Office Space.  My kids under fluorescent lights, carrying cups of burned coffee to their cubicles, swiping time cards for lunch breaks.
That happens to some of us.  Sometimes life puts us in places where we have to do things we don’t want to do, but it’s necessity that enables us to do them, not discipline.  Those with a good education and strong self-discipline end up in jobs they love more often than the rest of the world.  If you want to do more of what you love, if you want your job to be “as fun as playing,” as my kids described school, then you have to learn how to enjoy things that others see as hard work.  You have to learn to care about what you do, so that it will be relevant.  Then, if you do somehow end up on Office Space, at least you won’t be the guy hiding out in the break room protecting his red stapler.  Maybe instead, you’ll look around the office, chuckle, and write a great movie.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ashes, Part II

I don't think there are really any spoilers, but I've gotten some email asking for the details of why I loved this book, & since I'm dying to talk about it more, here goes

[Stop reading if you want to finish the book first but haven't. Stop reading if your name is Landon.]

Ok, you've been warned.

A friend described this book as "ok" without any extraordinary plot twists. Although I enjoyed the plot, my friend is right—the beauty of Ashes is not primarily in the plot.

First, it was the voice. Gabriella genuinely sounded like a 13yo girl at the outset, & her gushing commentary on actresses & movies of the time had an unusual combination of genuine 13yo girl & really having grown up during the first run of those movies—at the very least, I believed that the author had spent weeks watching & rewatching period films to try to see what 13yo girls would have seen at the time.

Then there was the description of Einstein. At first, I was a little put out by it. I mean, it's kind-of fun for him to turn up as a minor character, but…he was so undeveloped in his first fleeting appearance, that it seemed kind-of gimmicky. But his mannerisms…were actually quite vivid. His lack of development early on made sense, too, when I thought of him as a colleague of the main character’s father—not someone she’d pay that much attention to. As the book progresses…there were a lot of little things that added up to a strong supporting character. My favorite? Einstein almost stepping on her as he crossed the lawn, both coming to visit her father and going home later that night.

These impressed me, kept me reading, made me enjoy the process. The perspective added a lot, too: I haven’t seen anything (that I can think of) written about this period (PRE-WWII) or from this point of view (non-Jewish). A fresh look at something is always intriguing to me.

But what took my breath away in a time-slowing surreal sort of way was the book burning. Of course it’s bad to burn books. We all know that. But I’ve never thought about the experience of a book burning, of being surrounded by people who madly cheer the process.

It was the scent of the Linden trees being overcome by the scent of burning paper that made everything stop for me. Who but a first-hand observer would know of something as minute as the scent of a Linden tree? And who but a writer would pause to notice?

It was this combination of details that are indiscernible by research and clarity that cannot be captured by a witness that captivated me. How did she know, I found myself wondering. How could she? I calculated and recalculated Lasky’s possible age, knowing this could not be a first-hand account but unable to accept that research could be so seamless, so authentic, so thorough.

She explains in an afterword as she thanks the people who contributed to the authenticity of the work. From German phrases threaded in and out of conversations—as if that language were more natural than English—to the names of shops and breads and stars, I believe in Gabriella. I believe in her world, her shame, her voice. And for the first time, I have a glimpse of the Germany she did not want to leave behind.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

No Other Gods

Okay, I can't resist.

I visited a ladies' Bible study last night. The theme of the 8-week class is "No other gods." Then they passed the calendar around, to remind everyone that there would be no class on Super Bowl Sunday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

I didn't know that my heart had breath until it stopped breathing. I feel like a kid who's just read his first chapter book & is breathless with the exhilaration of the freedom that comes with reading.

That first taste of freedom is quickly drowned by a gluttony of books, & he begins to discover that all books are not written equally. The feel of the wind rushing up under his wings is forgotten as he stares at walls & walls of books with the dour pessimism that can only be embodied by a young reader: I've read everything good. There's nothing left.

I have just been reminded of that feeling, though, & I am long past my first experience with a book. I have beside me Ashes by Kathryn Lasky. It's the library's copy, & I tell myself that it's much cheaper to buy my own than to keep this one, but like my husband and my children, this is a...voice...I cannot part with. Not ever.

Ashes is a young adult historical fiction set in pre-WWII Germany. Within that period, I've read many fiction and non-fiction books; this one is the first that I can think of that is not specifically about the Holocaust. It tells another story of the Nazi tragedy that is haunting because we all know so well what came after.

I enjoy historical fiction, but it almost seems unfair to classify this book: it rises above genre. It's a coming-of-age story, & it's a human story. Post-WWI Germany is just its tumultuous setting, although "just" is hardly an appropriate adjective. When we define something as a "setting," there seems to be the implication that it's distinctly less relevant than plot or characterization. But of course, none of us can really separate the setting of our lives from the plot, & it is often as much our setting as anything that gives us character, makes us who we are. Lasky writes as if she understands this deeply.

It's not due back until the end of January, so I have some time to get to a bookstore. My real concern, of course, is how many copies to buy & how to get them autographed. When I return the book to the library, I'm thinking of returning it with a donation, in honor of my gratitude to a system that stocks such great literature so soon after its publication date (2010). And for being brave enough to share it with me.

I feel as if I have never read a good book before, as if I'd just this week learned to enjoy reading. Actually, based on my previous might agree.

Ashes is as fun to read as mind-candy & perhaps it is that that makes its beauty all the more stunning. Several times, I had to stop reading—just to breathe. It's not a breathless adventure novel; it's just that its...authenticity...takes you that much by surprise. In retrospect, I don't think I've ever read a truer book, on either side of the library.

Ashes is not a style I've ever been particularly drawn to. It's relatively traditional (with the exception of the preface through chapter 3), but the tightness of the writing & the authenticity of the voice, the texture with which Lasky weaves the story—are all revolutionary in their excellence.

I want to give you examples, but my husband has asked that I don't. He wants to keep the experience pure for himself as he reads, to be as surprised by the skillfulness of the author & the detail of the story as I was. For his sake, I'll at least hold off on examples. But I do have advice for you before you run out to get your own copy:

1. Do not read the dust jacket. It's a good book, so you don't need a preview (although I enjoyed reading the back cover first), & I think the dust jacket gives just a little too much away. Not anything plot-changing, but more fun as a surprise.

2. If you've ever read anything else by Kathryn Lasky, assume nothing about this novel. I read The Night Journey to the kids the week before I read Ashes. Thirty years have passed between the publication of the two books, & it shows. Lasky's skill has developed so incredibly in those intervening years that she is almost unrecognizable from one book to another. Ashes reads as if it were a story she'd been wanting to tell her whole life & finally, she's pulled together the words & the images, & the result is a masterpiece, a life's work.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Reading

For the last several months, I have disappeared. We’ve gotten most of our schoolwork done, but everything else from cooking to cleaning and sometimes answering the phone, has dropped off my radar.

I’ve been reading.  I’m an odd bird when it comes to reading.  Although I’d never say so in front of my children, I don’t like to read.  I’m a literature major, for heaven’s sake!  But I like writing more than reading, and I have found that books too often disappoint me.  The writing is weak, or the climax is less than I’d imagined.  No matter what, a book requires tedious hours of sitting still and waiting.  I don’t wait well.  I peek at the last pages, I shake the boxes under the Christmas tree when everyone’s sleeping, and—don’t tell—sometimes I read the Spark Notes or watch the movie.  The disappointment of a bad book is so easily replaced with the thrill of getting away with not reading it.
So now you understand, and most of you have probably stopped reading in disgust.  To make things worse, I’m a classical homeschooler who likes to teach through literature.  I just don’t like to read.  Read-alouds here take anywhere from six weeks to a year.  My oldest two learned to read because they gave up on me sitting down with them.
But wait.  It gets worse.  All of that is just how I feel about fiction, and compared to nonfiction, I adore made-up stories.  My husband is the kind who enjoys the history channel and remembers odd facts about science and gets excited about new dinosaur discoveries and other such dry information.  At least fiction can be made into a good movie.  Nothing can be done to save nonfiction, and while I used to feign interest in such high-browed subjects in polite company, the truth is that I don’t care. Please don’t tell my children.
It’s a good show I pull off, and if you knew me in real life, you’d be laughing, thinking I was lying.  I’m not.
So I’ve spent the last several months feeding my kids frozen pizzas and sandwiches they make themselves because I’ve been busy reading, but the frightening thing here is what I’ve been reading.  Nonfiction.  Stacks of it.  I took a rolly cart full of books with me to Starbucks one day, lest I run out of books.  And to compound my poor husband’s confusion, it’s the worst kind of nonfiction: there are no pictures.  There are over 100 pages in each pictureless book.  The full moon has come and gone, and my rolly cart has been refilled again and again with books that I’m actually reading, ranging from the history of ancient China to the geography of Africa.
Last summer, I realized that I didn’t have a history program for next year.  We would be finishing Story of the World, and I couldn’t find a satisfactory program to use afterward.  Research led to reading which led to research which led to reading, and I’ve been lost in ancient China, dreamed I was a hieroglyph, and marched toward Stonehenge on the winter solstice.  From a handful of kids’ books—they may not have pictures, but I’m still sticking to the juvenile side of the library—I’ve learned more about ancient history than my husband, who actually reads and has a degree in history.
I felt guilty at first, to indulge myself to such a degree in my own meandering pursuit of information.  At first, there were no notes, no product, nothing but soaking my synapses in the information and reveling in the raw knowledge I was amassing, and the guilt was huge.  I’d hurry through grammar and tell the kids to help themselves in the kitchen so I could get back to my own reading.  I let my nine-year-old figure out the laundry while I read.  Dishes were washed on an as-needed basis, but my wise husband invested in paper plates and frozen meals.
Worse, I’ve been incredibly boring to talk to.  My in-laws took the kids for the weekend a few weeks ago, and when my husband wanted to go to a movie, I snuck a book in with us.  Over coffee afterward, I genuinely tried to talk about something other than the Derg, to no avail.
As I’ve been reading, however, my family has been sucked in.  The kids pick up books I’ve finished and read them.  My husband endures my conversations and helps me brainstorm the big picture.  At this point, it may not matter what we use for history next year: we’ve learned ancient history together this year.
And in the end, that is my point.  Even with all of our great insights into education and shiny curricula and nifty manipulatives, we tend to fit education into a kind of a box, in which we as educators present information and our children fill in the blanks.  We break out of this box from time to time, in some subjects more than others, but the box seems to always be there, pulling us back, offering us something easy.
I’ve begun to read, against my nature, and to learn ancient history and geography, even more against my nature, because I had a real-life problem to solve: finding or writing a history curriculum for my kids.  It may not be the most exciting problem to solve, but the problem provides motivation to do the work that needs to be done and a disguise for the least palatable aspects of research.  Like the self-discovery of hands-on exhibits at museums, I gave myself the whole of ancient history to dissect and touch and see.
I like boxes.  I like a list of objectives beside my jar of play-doh, or too often I find myself mashing the dough wondering what the point is.  On the other hand, a problem to solve is as exciting to me as a blank sheet of paper.  It’s like putting a door in the box, so that my imagination can take over, rescuing me, and with that imagination, I can free others, too.
Last night, we spent the evening fighting over raw meat and animal bones in order to survive the Stone Age, and suddenly the monumental nature of Stonehenge and the Sphinx and the terra cotta army has the power to bring us to our knees.  Instead of a sidebar in a history textbook, we see these things for what they are: time spent on something other than survival.  And we marvel at what it is to be human, to work day in and day out at the mundane while our spirits yearn for so much more.