April 2009

This is a huge topic. I think about it all the time, don’t know at all how to make it work, wish I did, struggle to get the ethics and the reality in balance, to sleep at night sometimes wondering about money and the lives of children, families, and caregivers.

I won’t do the topic justice here, but the prompt to get me thinking about this was my class this week and a follow up discussion with a wise family child care colleague. The jist of the class conversation was the difference between programs in the US and those in Europe which value child care and families and children, not only economically, but with strong financial support as the clear evidence of their value. In contrast, nearly all US child care programs seem underfunded or compromised in some way by economics. Even the best programs are often compromised by economics in not serving a reasonable balance of poor and wealthy and middle class kids.

My family child care colleague continued this thread with me via e-mail, noting that when she began working in early childhood in the early 70’s, she recalls the programs being of higher quality, with stronger staff, better professional development, adequate financial support. We both wonder how to communicate this trend and our concern about the status of our field more effectively. We have been thinking for years of writing a book to share our view of early childhood, and are now wondering about the possibility of doing something online.

Today we are back from vacation. It is the second summery day care day we have had, in the 70’s, sunny and clear. When we closed for vacation a week ago, it was also warm, and we spent the entire morning outside, ate our breakfast on the porch stunned that we could do such a thing, then missed our park time in favor of just hanging out in the yard, turning over stumps to find creepy crawlies, mending the broken fire pole on the climber, indulging in sun.

Today we were restless, and after greeting families, exchanging stories, singing a bit, and breakfast, we headed to the park. It was lovely all the way there, with so many things to see that had not been there when we left one week ago, trees in full blossom, an unreal row of jonquils along the front walk that I don’t even remember planting, front garden full of tiny purple flowers (myrtle?), leaves on the hedge just emerging, a first bumble bee along the edge of the school driveway, and two big geese just over the edge of the school yard where we could talk with them, then a school yard of teens having a fire drill for lots of conversation about fire drills and why the big kids are having one, then watching the geese cope with the crowd, talk with us about their fears, fly away awkwardly over the new house being built on the lot next door, also something new, a frame rising over the old foundation that has been exposed for nearly five years, risen in the week we were away, then new mulch at the apartments, dandelions enough to pick at last, blossoms at the park on the pear trees, more nearly popping out on the most decadent piece of nature we know, the ornamental cherries.

Kids played in the natural elements all morning long, digging in sand, collecting flowers, petals, leaves, rocks, sticks, luxuriating in the warmth and softness of the warm earth, scraping sap off the trees, digging for bugs in the soil underneath, lining up dandelions in the sand, collecting a bouquet of dandelions for one of our elderly neighbors who stops to talk and gets admired by our kids.

Later I pick up the big kids from school, the seven to twelves, and they play on the school yard, then at home go straight to the back yard, for homework time, but really they walk and talk around the yard, balancing on the stumps, laughing, telling stories, up the dirt mound in the corner, around to the garden, on to the porch finally to read a book and do their work. After snack all the kids go out again, one to twelve, and they cook with nature. Isabel and I have bought little metal cooking pots at the Salvation Army and the kids collect chives, ivy, forsythia blossoms, break them up and mix them with water in pots and buckets and serve soup to the parents when they arrive. They also play chase around and up and over our collection of stumps, run up and down the little dirt mound, no doubt someone finds a bug or worm.

I wonder on days like today why we have toys, why we stay inside at all, what it must be like to be part of a nature kindergarten or a Waldorf school, or what life would be like today if kids grew up in neighborhoods like I did, with yards and trees and creeks and woods and fields and the freedom and companionship to explore it all at will. How different our children’s lives are from the kids who live in  Manhattan (or any inner city, really), where I drove yesterday with my kids, many, many kids out with families in parks, but many more certainly without access to nature that they can explore freely, without many places with worms and bugs to collect, forget about forsythia flowers or chives or ivy for making soup in old pots on a dirt mound in the yard.

So, Disney World is big news. Five day pass about wiped out the mama, but the kids could keep on going. Drive back starts tonight, no doubt it will be exhausting. Hoping for some moments of inspiration along the way, some cool views of a beautiful bridge or a tender moment between kids in line waiting for ice cream, something to remind me of being human in a sea of humans, not purely anonymous.

The kids had a great time at the parks, but there were also lines, heat, short tempers, miscommunications, all the stuff vacations in busy places with lots of people trying to be together are made of. In the cracks, the kids swam in the pool with their cousins and their cousins’s cousins. We made and shared meals together every night. Kids played volleyball in the development court. I walked in the soft white sand along the edge of their game, enjoying the kids and the sand on my feet, wondering if I will ever walk on a Carribbean beach, wondering where the beautiful white sand came from and what happens to that beach now.

Just now we are all having a media time, me writing to make meaning of our trip, twelve year old playing his favorite video game on a laptop, and eight year old watching some trashy tv before we hit the water park. All sorts of stories to write and play and watch and live and think and tell.

Yesterday was the day we went to the Magic Kingdom. Lots of fears to face down, roller coasters, parental and kid meltdowns, exhaustion, getting lost. Good news is today we are all alive, some parts a bit stronger for facing the fears, some parts definitely in need of some building up before day three, water park and animal park (?).

I am reading a book at night called, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Phd. given to me by my mom. When she told me about it, I said, I want to read that book. She said others tell her it is not their thing at all. 

For my kids, 8. 12, and 14, first timers to Disney and not real amusement park kids, facing the overwhelming intensity of a trip to Disney World is exciting and challenging. All three were incredibly proud to have gone on and enjoyed Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain, two fun rides that even their old lady could handle. Having me along for the ride as the queen of wimps gave them someone to look out for, hoping it made them a bit stronger.

Keeping it all together seems to be the big fear of the adults. Things keep challenging us, tearful teen, stormy preschooler, adolescent left his pass at the house, relations between all the many adults making plans and looking after all the kids (9 adults and 10 kids between two houses, with kids from 4 to 17 and adults from around 40 to close to 70). Taking time to read and write and cook and listen to music when we are not full blast helps me. Kids just love being with the cousins, last night had a blast sitting around telling jokes, swimming together, watching tv at the big house while my mom and I had quiet time at our littler house.

And of course, there is the fear of not doing it all or doing too much! Which of those will prevail.

Yesterday my kids and I went with our extended family to Epcot Center, our first time. Parts of it were overwhelming, parts amazing, parts just real, which surprised me as much as anything. My brother in law and his five year old son found a big old turtle and a bunch of what they thought were sunfish swimming in the water of the over the top floating gardens and took a long time to watch and show them to other folks.

After a ride in a shell necklace with Nemo characters and music in the background colors and sounds too bright to see the real fish behind them in the tanks of the aquarium, we took a long time looking at sea life. My nephew wondered if the pale grayish white schooling fish were real. To me they were too ugly not to be. Ben thought about computer animation, how they could have made these fish that way, but how it was probably still cheaper to have real fish. Then we found two manatees, rescued from somewhere, and in a small, scientific looking tank, with lettuce floating on the surface. The kids and my brother in law and I watched a long time. Ben told me about how sailors used to think that manatees were mermaids. We laughed about the figures of these tubby creatures and our images now of mermaids, wondered what the sailors saw. Jonah told me about the stories of how these manatees got to the tank, how much they weighed, again made us wonder how that works.

There were flowers all over, really incredible flowers, and some gardeners. We were amazed by the work involved in these gardens, wondered which parts were real, which fake, impressed by the gardeners who maintain these intense spaces, contrasted their acomplishments with our paltry efforts at keeping anything alive in our yard.

The kids found a water fountain that shot water up out of cement circles in amazing ways, spent a long while catching water balls that shot straight up, even pulled me in, until I decided to take photos, the first place I felt inspired. I took millions, not very artistic, but full of the kids jumping, smiling ,getting wet, amazed by the magic of water doing unnatural things. Ben took photos of the water that seemed to juggle.

And then Isabel dancing to the background music and Jonah ecstatic telling about the test car ride and their enthusiasm making people around them smile and me smile with them, and talking with the workers, saying thank you and being treated kindly after the thousands before us, and the woodworker at the African gift stop and the drums there the kids and I played and didn’t want to leave. 

Even in the Magic Kingdom, the real stuff was what got me, the natural moments, the awe of what humans imagined and made out of ordinary stuff and dreams as well as the just plain nature that sneaks in.

My kids and I are on a road trip. Drove through ten states since last night after work and school. Tired, but I think those kids will know their geography. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York (love those lights from the George Washington Bridge for those old enough to stay awake), New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Waved to the cousins and friends and mom’s old life in NYC along the way. Tomorrow Florida. Living and learning on school vacation.

I have been reading short pieces on a website I found called Spirituality and Practice (http://www.SpiritualityandPractice.com/), reminding me of life themes to consider. This week, with Easter and springtime on the agenda, Resurrection was a big theme of the poems, book excerpts, and film reviews. My Easter weekend was different this year. I didn’t miss the churchy part. I enjoyed the resurrection theme. I read a great book with a group of kids I adore while they made little figures out of wool and wood and thread. They listened intently as I read all 200 (large type) pages of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, pausing only a few times so someone could get help with tying a knot or threading a needle or cutting some felt, or so I could gather myself to continue through a particularly moving passage. The story is of a toy rabbit, reminiscent in some ways of The Velveteen Rabbit, another story I love to read aloud, especially from a copy given to me by my friend Jackie, my bosom buddy from Teachers’ College. Edward Tulane, though, has a much harder life even than the Velveteen Rabbit, passed from the good life he takes for granted with a young girl and her family and via one tragic event after another, landing in hard places, the sea, the dump, the ground beside a train, and finally, a doll repair shop and then home. (sorry to give away that ending?). Each time the rabbit is tossed out or lost, he is found by someone who loves him in a new way, he is transformed by the experience, and then is lost to it again, until finally he returns home. I can only think on my Easter Sunday of all those I have lost in my life, all those the children have lost, and how we each have been found again, and at some point, we find those we have lost (and perhaps ourselves) resurrected in some new form. The children listened in silence, no questions or comments. We cleaned up the dollmaking supplies. Each made a doll more lovely than they have made before. My teenage girl friend stitched flowers and stripes of embroidery floss on a green dress and even stitched pink flowers in the doll’s red hair. The features drawn in colored pencil were delicate and lovely. My daughter made a beautiful round faced girl with soft golden buns on each side of the face, a shapely blue dress cut by her teenage friend, stitched herself, knotted by her brother. My twelve year old son made not only a doll, but a baby with a baby sling. He worked especially hard to find a way to secure the baby to the dad so that the baby would not hang down and the dad would not be strangled. Near to tears, he finally invented a way he had not expected to work. My teenage son did not make a doll, but he listened and watched my face, especially when I couldn’t talk through tears. In our car ride on the way home from Western MA we talked a long while about the book, about life and death and knowing people and ourselves, about growing old and memory, and about how hard it is to live and how important to connect to what is inside and to those around us. I thought that he has had his own resurrection this year, moving from an often quiet and distant adolescent to a more social, engaged teen. It is great to have him back. He flew a kite yesterday, ran and smiled and glowed in the sun, reminded me of doing the same as a girl in the field behind my house, though I was much younger in my field than he was in his. I liked that.

So, today I was again thinking of resurrection when I was in the day care, and noticing all the moments in our day when kids moved from sorrow and despair (it really is that deep) to joy and  hope (it really is that high).  There were more than I could possibly remember. I started out around 9:30 writing them on a scrap of paper, then tried desperately to notice and record in my brain when I had no access to paper, during meals, dish washing, walking, park time. It was astounding how many times we were resurrected in one day. I thought to make a list, wondered how that would capture resurrection. Now I wonder still, how to communicate to strangers or to those who weren’t there about something that we lived today.

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