August 2009


Today was the day of chocolate cake. It was also the day we had meant to say good-bye to Sarah, who sadly called in sick, and to our four headed to pre-k/kindergarten, who had a last minute chance to have a last official day of day care. Since I had promised the chocolate cake, I had to call Liana to come and help, or make the harder call to the mother of our four, and another mother of a two, who is catching up on work before the start of the semester, telling both their kids could not come today. Good news is Liana was free, as was her eleven year old son. More good news is that our eight and our eleven could get the cookbook from upstairs, read the list of ingredients, while I climbed on a chair to get things down and the littler ones washed hands and made the difficult decision of which apron to wear, purple, red, yellow, orange, green, blue, no fighting today, but lots of deciding. By the time we had the ingredients on the table, all the kids in the day care had arrived, twos, four, fives, eight, eleven, chairs full, and one little monkey or two sidling under the table to find a place between the chairs.

We took turns measuring and mixing, pouring and stirring, wiping the table, talking, organizing the work, our eleven and eight overseeing things while I ordered turns, asked the eleven to read the next step. We used Honest Pretzels, a cookbook for middle grade kids by Molly Katzen, with words and pictures designed for making this age group independent in the kitchen. The work was careful, if not enough for such a crowd. Slowly the youngest ones drifted away, the older ones staying to make sure every last bit of white was mixed into the brown and that the directions of stirring with a fork and a spoon in alternation were followed to a T.

We popped the cake in the oven, waiting to smell it baking, having enjoyed the scent of the vanilla, the eleven enjoyed the smell of the vinegar, not having bothered to taste the cocoa as these experts knew it would not be good without the sugar. The whole thing was mixed in the pan, heart shaped for our wishes to send our friend into the world with chocolate cake and love.

After lunch was eating time. Hard to believe that after we polished off bowls of maple and vanilla yogurt, carrots cooked and raw, frozen blueberries, and homemade buckwheat pancakes that we would have room for more, but we did. We sang Happy Kindergarten to our four, then to each of our fives, all here today and headed off to school next week, save one who starts this week and said good bye with his own chocolate cake last week. One five told me this morning he will celebrate his birthday right here, he emphasized this several times, and that he will have cake and trick candles, that won’t blow out. His birthday is in February. I didn’t burst his balloon. Another five told me last week she will help me plant the garden in the spring, as we were nibbling on tomotoes, the harvest of this year’s planting project, finally come to fruition, but the garden will go in in spring, and she will be in school. I tried to explain, but no matter, time makes no sense to a kid this age, experience will tell, and we hope very much that she will be back next summer to eat the tomatoes we will plant with our new crowd, and with the friends she’ll leave behind.

After the Happy Kindergarten song times five, we sang Happy Back to School to the Big Kids, and Happy Baby Time to the rest of us, as we are getting a whole new crop of lovelies.  We had our eight count heads, by this time past pickup time and with the big boys from upstairs in the crowd, and a parent, and the teachers, we were sixteen. Hard to cut a heart in sixteen pieces, but we did, and it was delicious.

This morning while others cleaned the table from the mixing of the cake, and while the cake was baking, one five who is an avid reader read the cookbook. Later as he ate his cake, he asked me to write down the recipe for him, as the cake was delicious. I told him I would send it on the computer so his parents could print it out. He wanted me to write it out on paper and hand it to him tomorow, sure his parents didn’t know how to print it. Here it is now. See if they do. If not, it’s back to paper and pencil for me and my five. Enjoy some chocolate cake at home to honor your special days. Make it with the kids, eat it all by itself or with a glass of milk, sprinkled with confectioners sugar or plain. Yum. Happy Kindergarten to our fours and fives, one last week of celebration and lap time and stories and dress up and building and transformers and art and mixed ages, then back to school and fall routines in day care and in school.

Made-in-the-pan Chocolate Cake

1 1/4 cup unbleached white flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup water

1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cider vinegar or white vinegar

The directions in the cook book are much nicer for kids. I highly recommend the cookbook, especially for the step by step directions made into diagrams which are terrific for kids. My simplified version:

Preheat oven to 325 F.  Add dry ingredients to 8 inch square baking pan. Mix slowly, taking turns with a fork and a soup spoon, until it is completely and evenly brown. Make four dents in the mixture with a spoon, 2 large, 2 small. Add 1 cup of water to one of the large dents, 1/3 cup of oil in the other large dent, 1 tsp. vanilla to one small dent, 1 tsp vinegar to the other. Stir slowly with a fork in little circles to get all of the dry parts wet. Directions for mixing continue. Basically, you want to make sure it is well mixed, sides, bottom and all, then scrape the sides down with a spatula before baking 30 minutes, cooling 30 minutes, and enjoying it with your friends or family or by yourself if you are feeling especially indulgent, over time of course.

From Honest Pretzels by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame)

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On the way back to fall, my daughter and I bemoan the loss of summer. I think swimming in the pond and lake, lying in the hot grass, touching sand, time with kids and for kids to do as they wish, old friends, family, time alone, and I think of the intimacy of summer, of the sheer sensory pleasure of sun and water and fresh fruit in season, of lazy conversations in the morning with my girl soon replaced by my commands to hurry up and get ready for school.

And then I think of the greeting of the day at school, of old friends and new, of waving to the teachers and the parents and the kids and the administrators, of new teachers and grades and lockers and desks for Isabel and moving classrooms in middle school and mixing with more neighborhood kids for Jonah, and of playground conversations for me, lots of unexpected to look forward to as well as comfort to regret in our move toward fall from summer.

And I think of day care, too, of all the pleasure of the summer, long and busy afternoons with kitties and blocks and paints and tea parties, leisurely mornings digging in the sand and making rivers, body painting, singing, kids arriving late and parents lingering to talk. And I will miss each of those things and look forward to them throughout the fall and winter and spring. They will make me plan for summer, and maybe more, so far, have pushed me to think hard about why and if we make our kids go back to school, or if we invite them to go back, or encourage them, if we send them off with honor and pride and a sense of looking forward or if we do so with reluctance, regret, sadness, or disappointment. Right now, about to start the last week of August, first week of September, last week with our mixed age summer group in the day care, two days in the middle where my Somerville kids and one of our school age day care crowd, will go to school, then come back for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Labor Day weekend one last taste of summer before we commit to next week, only next week, but really ten long months, as my daughter makes me calculate this morning, why ten months of school and two months of summer, she wonders and I wonder what it is she will miss most and it is greeting the day care kids in the morning and time alone with mom. So I explain out loud how we can find time for aloneness, but she and I are not really convinced, both knowing life gets busy, but also knowing, good thing, that we will come back around to summer. For now, at least, the fantasy of my new school, the one I also raise out loud as a possibility for continuing summer all year round, is not a possibility for our family, money in part at the root of me working more, less time together, also her not staying home and being part of a homeschool group. But I realize it is more than that, there is also Civic Engagement which we both would miss, and know deep down we love. Nothing simple, lots of mess in life and living.

Which is where the title of this piece came in, the Civic Engagement, Ideal/Real, Open/Closed, Inner and Outer Life, Mobius strip configuration of words that mean lots to me, probably not so much to you. Hoping I can explain, but losing steam. Civic Engagement is what I look forward to each fall, that back to school feeling that I still remember, standing on our cement porch in my new school dress, smiling for the camera and my mom, ready for the bus and the new kids and teacher, butterflies in my stomach, wondering. I still get that every single year, wonder about the new kids in the day care, antsy for my kids going back to their schools, happy to be with new teachers and new kids, the day care this year a mammoth mix of both, with Alice still in recovery and Liana’s stepson Danny, newly minted English teacher coming to be with our thousand and one toddlers and then our brand new experiment, sort of, but not really, as we do it all summer long and after school, but still new in it’s way, our Friday experiment with home schoolers mixed with day care kids and two mothers, too, something very different in a place whose name is half Day Care, half West Family. But that is our civic engagement, engaging with the outside world, saying good-bye to our familiars, our alumns, back to school, our fours and fives going off to public preschool and kindergarten, our summer teacher Sarah going to start her new job at a public alternative school, lots of good-byes as well as hellos, but the hellos the new thing. Mirror at my brother’s house this summer hanging in the music studio/basement apartment/guest quarters said, in grease pen, something like, To improve is to change. Words come back to me this morning, stick again.

And the Ideal/Real is my summer and my fall, the mixed age, outdoors and arty all the time, no or very few tears, good friends and long conversations, delicious food and swimming time of year contrasted with books and clothes and fall leaves and crisp air and homework, why homework, and soccer and meetings and long work weeks and busy weekends full of chores, not ideal as I look at it in my mind right now, but real, for this family at least, very real. And also my struggle with what is the school and what is the place I have been imagining that I would create as an Alternative to School, both with their mix of ideal and real, crashing into one another in this space in between summer and fall.

Open/Closed, also a lot like Ideal/Real, summer of being outdoors, of time to think and read and write, to stay up late, to travel, fall full of commitments, shoulds, musts, but also open to new ideas, new people, new challenges. Takes me to the Inner and Outer Life and the Mobius Strip idea, both stolen from a book I am reading with some reluctance, by Parker Palmer, about the divided life and how we must acknowledge all the pieces as part of life, the open/closed nature of living, the ideal/real struggle in each of our paths, and he resolves this dilemma, or explains it in a way I understood when I read it, want to explain now, with the Mobius Strip, which I cannot illustrate here as he does in his book, unless i actually made one and took a photo, which I realize now of course I can do, but not this minute. The mobius strip is his model for living an undivided life, inner and outer constantly exchanging, open and closed interchanging, too. Realize this am, I am, as we all are, living that way, go down deep, come up for air, open wide, close the door, go for a walk and go back home, family day care, family time, time to write and read and think and dream, time for school, make new friends keep the old one is silver and the other gold, cliche, but I was once a girl scout and that was my favorite tune.

In general, I have not been a religious person, but lately certain phrases stick, reading as rapture has taken over for reading for pleasure or independent reading, those having taken over a long time ago for SSI, sustained silent reading, same for writing, tonight at 1 am, I hear the words writing, channelling the divine, in the middle of the night they compel me to get up and write them down, taking over my mind with thoughts of conversations with my son the last few days, sharing stories of day care life and funny things the kids do the only funny stuff I seem to say, but my boy, an emerging writer, tells me I should write a book, fiction, and when I say I can’t write about anything except real life, what would I say in a novel, he says I could do a parody of family day care, and does a few attempts, mock two year olds doing outrageous things, I tell him I am also not very funny, on top of having no imagination for made up things, but he doesn’t lose faith, tells me about his online group, the work he is sharing there, the works in progress other twelve year old kids around the world are sharing and critiquing online on summer vacation in their free time (my boy up till nearly one in the am two nights ago, though he would argue, writing). And that is work he would not show me, some of which his teacher found so inspired he had to call me at home to read it out loud to find out if it was fake, if somebody helped him or if he might have copied it. Never having been allowed to read my boy’s writing, I didn’t know for sure, but hearing the words across the phone nearly made me cry, and I was quite sure they were his alone, confirmed that with the boy, still haven’t been allowed into the critic’s circle, maybe I need to join his online group, that not being my point tonight, though, when at 1 am I had wanted to tell you about channelling the divine, finding magic in places unexpected, like in letting your kid stay up to midnight using your old laptop, and finding out he is working toward national write a novel month or national write a script month, or whatever more clever words he shared for the names of the contest i now feel sure he’ll want to enter that make me think he may not make it in public school, make me say outloud to him how are you going to do that with your homework in seventh grade, and smile when I say you might have to go to SVS, sudbury valley school, where his brother goes and where our carpool friend, eighteen turning nineteen goes to write, taking an extra year to do just that, postponing college for the quiet and the peace to channel the divine, my words here, but writing this year convinces me there is something to them, scared though for my boy and my hopes for public school in the middle of the night I think of readers and writers workshop, balanced literacy, the Heineman catalogue that came in the mail, the experts and books and seminars on teaching kids to read and write, the book on capturing adolescent african american boys grabbing my attention, making me stop to read the formal language telling us teachers what we should already know, give the kids books that speak to their journey and they might want to read, might learn to feel cared for and known, to feel respected and seen at school, and only then, they might learn to read and write, to show their true selves, not the impoverished statistics they feel misrepresented to be, but the divine, the hope inside that might come out if we talk to it in a voice it can hear. And in the night I wonder how this can be done, if a seminar or a book could do what my boy’s teacher, calling his mother on a weekend to exclaim over a piece he loved, or a summer vacation and an old laptop and time and time and time and friends who also write and who want to read what you do, or an idea or love that you want to write about, that wakes you at 1 am to walk across the room, lean over a pile of camping gear to reach the plug and recharge the laptop’s battery just to say what you want to say before it gets away, and an audience you hope will read your words, rapture, if that is accomplished often or sometimes or never or maybe in the formality of school.

This morning I drove the old Mazda across town to pick up a friend for the boys, to get out of the house on a sunny day otherwise dedicated to chores, to help my friend, to make the boys happy. As we left the boy’s house, rounded the corner onto a private way, came to the next intersection, the car stalled and wouldn’t restart. Oh, well. What next. Considered, then tried pushing it to the opposite side of the intersection, worried about getting stuck midway, plan B. Called for a ride for the boy from the husband, called AAA, called the repair shop, bases covered, sit beside the road in the sun with the boy and talk about our adventure, he with his DS, me with my eyes and ears, then with our mouths we decide to break into the tray of Pillsbury Cinnamon Buns made by his mother, discussed over the phone as plans were made, lowbrow treat we both approve of and enjoy, makes the waiting sweeter for me and her boy, unexpected pleasure.

Then a neighbor in a clean white t-shirt, older guy, fit, walks by, asks if he can help. Comes back later and asks if he can bring me a cup of coffee, tells us where he lives, in case we need help with the pushing when my husband arrives. Folks drive down the street, I direct them to pass by, they decline, turn around, what appear to be grumpy expressions at first turn to understanding, have a good day. Then a guy in a big red econoline van turned camper asks if we need help, waves out the window when I say triple A is on the way, thank him for his offer, another good day sent my way. Woman on the bike tries to pass, I wonder if she can, no problem, she smiles, sorry for my trouble, I say how nice it is it’s sunny and she says it is, and then the husband arrives, the car starts when I get in to test it, I drive it around the corner just as the AAA guy calls on the phone, husband off with the kid to join the boys in a day of Magic, I here to ride to the shop with the tow truck guy.

He reminds me of my brother, muscular young guy, tan, short blond hair, cigarette dangling as he works (though David has quit, hurrah for a new baby to get him serious). He asks if I am going with him or staying here, I say I am hoping to go with him, as the shop is right near where I live.

Hard to know what to say to a tow truck guy in the tidy cab with the tool bag between us and the dispatch radio talking to itself or to some other driver, but I wonder after looking at the houses and the trash on trash day if it is harder driving here than in Everett where he has said he’s from, and then we talk all about driving, and trucks, and cars, and stick or standard, my term and his, and learning to drive, he with his father, me with my stepfather, both in trucks, both to get us somewhere we needed to go, me a country girl, he a city boy, and in his story I think later, he is telling me how much his dad loved him, how he taught him the things he needed to know, made him drive with dunkin donuts coffee, no lids, in the cupholders of a big standard truck just about like the one he is driving now, made him change a tire by letting out the air in one, restricting him to the tools on board, made him drive through Harvard Square his first few times out. We marvel at folks who never learn to drive in the city, I am grateful to my brother for having taken my boy out in his truck in Washington, tell the driver about him learning to drive stick in a field the way good country kids do, wonder aloud how I will teach the boy to drive in Harvard Square, not a total city girl yet, that still scares me, tell about the truck I drove, the car I wrecked, the first car we bought when we were young a civic, stick, which was so easy to drive it surprised me, now this car, might be dead, old, but like that Civic, I like to drive it, small, standard, I can park it and also know what it is about. And we talk about that, knowing what it is about and he tells me about the new truck his boss offered, an automatic, and how he didn’t want it, preferred this old truck with no AC, which at least could go up hills, and about the passing of those old standard trucks, amazing what two strangers can discuss in the two miles driving across Somerville in the cab of a truck.

And then we are home, at the shop atop my street, where the guys know me as they know the owners of other old cars in the neighborhood. I am becoming a regular, wonder if this is the last stop for the Mazda. The shop owner smiles and I drop off the keys, walk home with the keys to the house, minivan out front, boys at the table playing Magic, one cinnamon roll left on the counter, no coffee in the pot, should have accepted that cup from the stranger, go to my computer to tell my story instead, wonder if it is narcissism or self-exposure (lost the word for guys in trenchcoats), disturbing the privacy of the tow truck driver, or honoring him and his dad, to tell his story, too. What I want to say, in plain English, is that most of us had fathers who loved us, or who wanted us to have good lives, and that there is a lot of learning and a lot of story in each person’s life, each one deserving honor, a concept I read recently in the description of a Catholic man’s life, I think, and something I feel down deep, perhaps from my days in the church, for sure from the way I was brought up, grateful for that bit of raising and educating of this child, down deep.

Midway through naptime older kids are allowed to get off their mats. The five who has asked me a hundred times today if the kitties can come down at nap time, asks again, one hundred and one times yes.

Special privilege at this time of summer for fives is to be allowed to walk upstairs (where my family lives) to get the kitties on their own. This time the five takes a friend. They come back, asking me where the cats are hiding. I don’t know. I suggest they ask Jonah or Ben.

“Can you come with us?” The five wonders.

“No,” I reply, “I can’t go upstairs and leave the kids down here alone.”

“But their voices are so loud,” says five without cats.

“I think you can do it,” I say, making no move to get up.

Then to her friend,  “I think we can do it. Let’s try again.”

Now the soft voices come from the project room, where they have competently shut the door between us and the other door to the hall, trapping the kitties, down from upstairs, having braved the giants once again.

“Wow, running this day care must be harder than I even expected.”

“Yes, it is hard, but it is very rewarding.”

“Yes, I can see that. You come down and you get delicious food each day.” (my ten year old visitor stands beside me, buttering bagels while I cut watermelon and the others play with cats or eat watermelon (the very hungry just two has placed herself at the table, eating away in peace).)

“And you get paid to do it, too,” he says.

That is the knowing and being known part I was talking about this week, in a few lines.

Enjoy your day.

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