March 2010


Today my three who loves the flowers notices at breakfast that the daffodils are not as perky as they were. “Hey Maria, the flowers are dying,” she says.

They are dying. I ask her how she can tell, if she thinks I should get rid of them. I say I think it is interesting to watch things change as they get old and die, wonder if the kids have noticed how people change as they get old, their hair, their voices, the way they move. The kids are quiet, thoughtful, and we begin eating.

I think in my mind about the importance of being in the presence of death, even if it is just the death of a bunch of daffodils, of watching the petals droop and turn brown, fall off, of seeing the color fade, the moisture evaporate, of feeding the dead bouquet to our friends the worms, back to the earth, then compost for our garden of new flowers.

After a little while, my three tells me, “My grandma is dying. She is going to be dead in a little while. In a few days.”

“Really,” I muse, wondering if this is true, think it might be in the three year old sense of things, but not in the adult sense.

Later my newly four tells me that when she was with her father, they saw in a church where someone had died. I tell them that tonight I might go to the funeral of the father of our friend Sue, a fellow day care provider we see at the park. The kids wonder how and why. I tell them that Sue’s father was very old, and in a nursing home, that his body just slowed down, he stopped eating and drinking, then he stopped breathing. I tell them it is a kind thing to do, to be with our friends and family when someone they love has died, to express our sadness together, and that people do all different things, have funerals in churches, services in funeral homes and family homes, parties sometimes.

The kids take it in, eat their breakfast, then on the walk to the park my newly four says something again, about one of her grandparents, I think, who she says has told her she will never die. It is pouring rain, and I can’t hear well, and even when I ask her to repeat herself, I can’t be sure what she has said, want on one hand to say we all die sometime, on the other hand, to reassure my kids that while the daffodils are dying, the snowdrops we have just past are dying (noticed also by my three who loves the flowers), Sue’s dad has died, the crocuses are still blooming, the irises have just arrived (noticed also by the three), and many of us are just coming into the world, wishing to be with the ones we love for eternity.

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So, for weeks the top post or the second most popular post on this blog has been Making a Top Hat, which I wrote last year about two boys who were working on a play and a hat. I enjoyed writing it, but never imagined it would be my most popular post ever. Turns out it is, some days it tops all the visits to the blog. I am sort of stunned and amazed that Jennie Powell, a british mummy blogger has that much traffic on her site from folks looking to make their boys an Easter bonnet or hat that her spillover tops my readership. I wonder what is going to happen next week, when Easter is past. Is there something about British culture that I don’t know that inspires so many people to search out ideas on the internet for making their boys’ Easter bonnets or hats? I have never, in my life had the urge or the need for such a thing, and I am getting curious. So far today, 7 readers have come to Making a Top Hat. Yesterday 20 readers! And I don’t even give directions for making a top hat, I only describe what a four and a five did to emulate the five’s dad’s work. YIKES! Blogging is weird.

http://jenniepowell.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/more-easter-bonnets-or-hats-for-boys/

Yesterday was another one of those nice, long days with my kids. We slept late, had pancakes near noon, mac and cheese later on, leftovers, then french fries and ginger ale for a late and lazy dinner, with ketchup and conversation. In between, we walked and talked, cleaned, did mountains of laundry, sorted through winter clothes to put away, outgrown clothes to give away, and my kids spent a lot of time on the computer, two of them researching purchases with intense focus and care, one writing with friends and thinking about things he loves.

Partway into the day, I think as we were scooping hot mac and cheese from the pan into our shallow bowls, something came up about my age, and how amazing it is that my life may not even be half way over, that at forty three, I have accomplished so many things that as a young person I dreamed of making happen in my life. I have a home, a career, and children I love. What next is the question I really can’t answer, and I have maybe forty or fifty or possibly even sixty years left to find out, to fill, to live. This is amazing to me, this surprise of the second half of life. In a couple of weeks, I will go with my colleague(s) and friend(s) to hear Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot talk about the her new book, The Third Chapter, about the last third of life, still thinking of the next half here, but someday soon it will be the last third.

But my boy is not there yet. Instead he is thinking about life spans of his own generation, and he tells me a statistic he has heard, that his generation will be the first to have a life span shorter than their parents. This is sad to both of us, and while we feel pretty sure that he is not likely to have a shorter lifespan than me, as he is a healthy eater, physically active, does not suffer from the epidemics that affect so many of his peers who struggle with asthma, diabetes, obesity, we think of all the things that have both lengthened the life span of human beings, penicillin, medical advances, we also wonder how we humans will turn things around, what lessons we all will learn and what changes we will make when my children’s generation faces the reality of their plight.

I feel confident somehow that it is possible for us human beings to find a better way. Alternative ideas bring me hope. I read and learn about people who made a difference in all sorts of ways, through their words and deeds and lives, whether scientists, poets, or educators, any of us who lives with passion lives with dreams and stories, and increasingly my faith is in those, in the belief that we can imagine and live a new world where things do indeed get better.

So this morning, I wake up and find someone has been reading my old blog post on Compulsory Education, which when I reread is also about Greeting the Day, and I go back and read it to greet my day, and I think about the alternatives to Compulsory Education, I wonder how on earth we got to this place of locking our children and young people away all day and week in school, sometimes even on Saturday, how we gave up our precious time with them, how we might get it back. Seems a long road from Compulsory Education back to freedom, and I wonder if the education that some of us want to believe will grant our children freedom really will or really won’t, and I wonder how on earth our society could ever reverse this trend, how could we reorder and reorganize society so that children and young people all could have more freedom, could live richer, fuller lives, could follow their passions and their dreams, could maximize their potential, could feel the power of real work and contribution to their families and communities, and for me this line of thinking is new, somewhat, to wonder about tearing it all down piece by piece and rebuilding our expectations, our stories for ourselves of how things have to be, to start fresh and to say, if we could do it any old way, how would we do it, if we could imagine a world for our children in which they lived as long and as richly as we do, maybe more so, how would we see it and how would we get there?

I wonder if there is a way to reintegrate our society, so that young and old spend time together, so that a society of children and young people could exist and thrive outside of what we now have as school, if there is a way for children and young folks to move again, to be part of growing or at least making their own healthy food, for us to give credence to the importance of nature and beauty and art and relationships, to give children significant roles and contributions in their homes and in society, and to step back and reconsider the importance of our curriculum and our standards, which so many of us have come to take for granted, in spite of the fact that they are less than two hundred years old, and in spite of the fact that my children on a Saturday can connect with the world from my dining room, researching and purchasing American Girl Doll clothes and snow board bindings and boards, can do math and reading and science and social studies right there on their own, with me, can budget, plan, organize, save, doing computations and problem solving more complicated in real life than most of the MCAS challenges of the week, with motivation and relevance pushing them on, not threats and punishments for themselves or their school.

And I am fully aware that not every child has a mother or a house or a computer or a wallet with a credit card to buy American Girl doll clothes or snow boards, or a country house where farmers grow local food and sell it in the center of town for families to handle, learn about, cook, and eat. So I take my children’s privilege and mine and I compare it to those who have the ability and desire to homeschool and I know some do it with less and some do it with more, and then I compare what we have to what so many in public school have, and I know we have more than many, less than many there, too, and I think, it is not about the family, only, this education of the child, but also about the society, John Dewey again, The School and Society, The Child and the Curriculum,  my first introduction to progressive education, words I still hear in my head fairly often, and I wonder, what does our society want for itself, and how are we going to imagine our way into  a new world, where children and adults know one another, where alienation is not the norm, where taking care of ourselves in the most basic of ways again provides deep satisfaction and good health, where the creativity, joy, intelligence we are meant to evolve continues to blossom and grow, and not to be stunted by poverty, harshness, and disconnect, where we find somehow a way to live with computers and home grown tomatoes, compost and recycling and invention, where our kids live as long, as happily, and with as much love not only as we have lived, but as we can imagine.

This morning I sleep in, a rare, rare treat for me, a person who has trouble sleeping past 5 on a work day, 6 on the weekend. My daughter is sick and comes into bed in the middle of the night, crying, in a half dream, half wakeful state, worrying that I will be killed, hugging and kissing me, telling me she loves her life so much she doesn’t want me to go. I feel sane in comparison, am grateful to be able to hold her in her fleecy nightgown while she goes back to sleep, wake late this morning with the bottom of her warm foot against my leg, her deep and regular breathing no doubt part of my sleeping late. After awhile, she gets up to watch tv, and I read my Writer’s Almanac, let my mind wander over all the things it wants to remember and to think about, the luxury of waking early most days extended on a weekend, when the sun shines through the shade near ten and the house is quiet one of two days a week, no feet downstairs running back and forth, no families to greet, no kids to get off to school. I wonder as I lay here, should today be another banana bread and mac and cheese day or are we ready for something different? I think about chocolate chip pancakes, wonder what my kids would like, what I feel like making. I also think of grown up things that have nothing to do with children, while my kids lay low in front of the tv and my teenager sleeps late, I feel some guilt at the anticipation of spending some of my morning writing here, before making breakfast, should I have waited?

Last night I was out with friends at a reading. Two friends were readers in a crowd of women writers. My friends were the white women. I was at a table of white folks in a cafe of many colors. Their readings were about self, about the woods, about fairy tales, about the heart and love. The other women were from China, Africa, Haiti, Boston and the South. They were reading poems and narratives about hard times both inside and outside the heart, while my friends’ lives felt relatively secure, though I know that isn’t all true, no lives secure. When we left the reading, kids at home without adults, birthday to celebrate before bed and friends’ children rising for Charter School exam and Saturday school, we were the first to leave, the organizer still talking of drinking wine and talking into the evening in this warm close cafe in a not too fancy neighborhood of Cambridge, filled with poets and writers and their friends, we were going home to our children, shifting from adults on the town to parents, and I could feel again the sensations when I was nursing my babies, and how hard it was to be away, and the difference now, when I can be away a whole evening, kids on their own, and feel ok, but yet, in the morning, choosing to write awhile before making breakfast on a Saturday still fills me with questions, I wonder how long till a mother is without those feelings, maybe never, my mom still writing nearly daily to ask how I am, to tell me how much she likes my blog, to share her news, and today’s poem on Writers’ Almanac is one of my favorites of late, about a daughter and an African tradition of naming and renaming a child throughout her life according to what she becomes and the events and circumstances she experiences, makes me think about all those women last night finding time to write poems and personal narratives, to care for their children and themselves, to invest in caring about Haiti or Africa, or a shelter full of struggling same skinned but different lived African Americans in New Orleans when the writer was an African, to care about love, and the self, and god and spirituality and politics and feminism and prisoners, and I think about the woman who I talked with at pickup in the day care last night, a grandmother of our new girl, who shared her story of full time mothering four children and going on to get her Phd. in English Literature and to teach writing and women’s studies and about The Making of a Top Hat, the post that keeps getting the most hits, or second most hits on this blog, a not so great piece I wrote last spring about two day care boys making a hat in day care, which is read more because it is a randomly generated link from a blog written by a woman in England, Jennie Powell, who seems to be a full time mom who loves her two sons and crafts and birthday parties. She has written a post about Making Easter Hats for Boys or something like that, which at the bottom has a randomly generated link to my post, Making a Top Hat, and every day for the last month or two many people come to my blog from that post, and part of me thinks we are linked, Jennie Powell and me, not only through that randomly generated post, but also through our motherhood and our wish to do more with our lives, and through our writing for the world. Jennie, however, has had over one hundred thousand readers coming to her blog to learn to make Easter Hats for boys or other crafts, to look at her boys’ watercolours, and just the spillover from those who are willing to click on a possibly related post, have topped my personally generated posts in terms of readers.

Time to make the pancakes, the real work in my day, and to get the house in order after a long time on taxes and enrollments and mono, things gone awry mainly on the third floor, which is the only purely personal space in our house/day care/after school, no coincidence that the cleaners come to the first two floors now, mop, dust, vacuum, place kept relatively tidy for the clients and the friends, third floor in serious disarray, time to go back to that.

enjoy the poem before you start your day or with your midday tea or coffee.

Naming My Daughter

by Patricia Fargnoli

In the Uruba tribe of Africa, children are
named not only at birth but throughout their
lives by their characteristics and the events
that befall them
.

The one who took hold in the cold night
The one who kicked loudly
The one who slid down quickly in the ice storm
She who came while the doctor was eating dessert
New one held up by heels in the glare
The river between two brothers
Second pot on the stove
Princess of a hundred dolls
Hair like water falling beneath moonlight
Strides into the day
She who runs away with motorcycle club president
Daughter kicked with a boot
Daughter blizzard in the sky
Daughter night-pocket
She who sells sports club memberships
One who loves over and over
She who wants child but lost one.
She who wants marriage but has none
She who never gives up
Diana (Goddess of the Chase)
Doris (for the carrot-top grandmother
she never knew)
Fargnoli (for the father
who drank and left and died)
Peter Pan, Iron Pumper
Tumbleweed who goes mouths without calling
Daughter who is a pillar of light
Daughter mirror, Daughter stands alone
Daughter boomerang who always comes back
Daughter who flies forward into the day
where I will be nameless.

“Naming My Daughter” by Patricia Fargnoli, from Necessary Light. © Utah State University Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I have known for a long time how important aesthetics are in many types of care and education. Waldorf schools choose materials, palettes, and decorations to express their appreciation of the natural world, creating pastel watercolor art, a peaceful space without bright colors, busy patterns, or manufactured materials. Montessori programs also have a clear aesthetic, materials arranged on trays and shelves for individual use, glass and wood and fabric prominent, order and purpose evident in the way materials are presented, child sized furniture and access to materials showing respect for the child as a competent individual. Reggio Emilia spaces show materials, many from the industrial era, to be things of beauty and creativity, displayed in transparent jars on open shelves and present objects and art projects as decorative items for the appreciation and study and reflection of the children and adults who live, work in, and visit the space. Reggio Programs may even have a component of transforming a public space with a project done by the children and artists and teachers to share their creativity with the world, to engage in a dialogue between the small world of the children and the larger world around them.

Today I think about these things as we eat our lunch. I have forgotten to put the vases on the table for our meals. The last two weeks I have bought bunches of daffodils for the day care and upstairs where the after school meets, three bunches for five dollars means each table can have a vase of flowers during meals. The vases in the day care travel. They have been on the art table amidst a group of painters. They have been at the drawing and writing table amidst a group of drawers. They have been next to the amaryllis bulb, shooting up and budding. Today they are on the bureau beside the kitchen table, and when I photograph them I notice they are beside the binder with the updated regulations inside. When I apologize to my group at the end of the meal for forgetting to put the flowers on the table today, my newly four says, “It’s ok, we can see them anyway. Flowers are cute and beautiful, aren’t they?”

I think about a book I bought once when I was giving a workshop on resilience, when I wanted to share with the larger world of early education and care what I thought the family day care model brought children and families in terms or strengths. One of the books I bought I have rarely read, but it sticks with me. It is called Something Beautiful and it is about a girl in a rough urban neighborhood and her search for beauty there. Because our children are surrounded by beauty, by gardens with flowers and houses that are mostly well cared for and in a day care full of art materials and projects on display, I am not sure how they would relate to this book, probably they are too young for it anyway, though my after school kids might like it. I can’t remember what the girl finds that is beautiful, but she finds a lot, probably flowers in cracks of sidewalks and colored glass and maybe the smile of a beloved’s face. What I thought of today was both how lucky our children are to be surrounded by beauty, how lucky I am to be able to offer them flowers on the table, and how little of that is emphasized, or encouraged, or regulated even, or discussed in the wider world of education. It’s one thing to have standards for our curriculum, to put art appreciation in our goals for art class, but it’s another to have flowers on the table, to cultivate a sense with our children that beauty is a priority, that stopping to smell the flowers is worth the time, that spending five dollars a week on flowers is as important as spending five dollars on paper or pencils or for some reason today, I thought, flowers are our meat and our processed food. If I spend five dollars a week on flowers while making homemade bread and serving vegetarian meals, I am likely to still come out ahead in terms of what the federal food program allowance would expect or cover. I’ll take daffodils over lunch meat any day.

Now I am recovered from mono, I have to get my life back in order. This includes making bread from scratch again, so far just one basic whole wheat recipe, in the bread machine. I was in the book store today and was perusing Michael Pollan’s new book Food Rules. His advice fits. One suggestion is not to eat anything with more than five ingredients. This almost fits. Another is not to eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. This fits, too, except for the funny shape of the loaf.

Day care kids, my kids, school age kids all eat it. That is rule number one for me. Enjoy. Thanks to one day care mom for requesting the recipe. Once I type a recipe for one person, I might as well share it with the world.

Put the following in the bread machine container first:

1 1/3 c. milk
1/4 c. water
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. honey
4 tsp. butter

Then on top of that, measure :

2 c. whole wheat flour
2 c. bread flour

Make a well in the dry ingredients and add:

1 1/4 tsp. yeast

Put the container in the bread machine. I use the Rapid Whole Wheat or the Whole Wheat settings.

This makes a two pound loaf. It is easy enough to slice, makes good sandwich bread, good toast, and smells great when it is baking.

The Spaciousness of an Abandoned Barn. Words come to me on my drive to Sudbury Valley, WUMB singing me songs which also resonate, my paper napkin writer’s notebook and dashboard pen come in handy when I need to remember, write down the songs, the singers, the words that I want to stick. The place I love on the drive is flooded, looks new, with trees buried up to their branches in water, new fences installed alongside the picturesque stone bridge, to keep debris from moving under the bridge, I imagine, and around then the image comes to me of the barn, the words, The Spaciousness of an Abandoned Barn come into my mind and stay, though I write them on that napkin just in case, pull over at the Dunkin Donuts parking lot, ostensibly to get a cup of coffee for my headache, a consequence of accepting the pull back to caffeine, on again, off again no good for my head. But the Dunkin Donuts in Sudbury has no drive through, and the internet connection is alive, last few stops at the library the Donutnet worked better than the Sudbury town library access, go figure, commercial interests beating out the common good, serving me, nonetheless.

And the image of the barn is of high, high roof, open space, stacked bales of hay like those I smelled recently that made me cry for my childhood gone by, the rafters up so high bringing stories to life of my mom and her sisters and brothers up there walking them, climbing the wooden ladders, really slats of wood nailed to the supporting beams, and of my grandma and her seven children, off in the barn, sometimes taunting one another up so high, never seriously hurt, but knowing they were getting away with murder, climbing higher because they were, I wonder, or just climbing high for the thrill.

I remember the peacefulness of the place, the rooms off the hay loft where my cousin’s Model T lay in bags, taken apart before he left for the army, never put back together, burned in the fire, the dried wild flowers hanging in bunches upside down and the old metal containers my aunt collected for her country art, reminders to me of all my family might have been, my cousin working in the Napa Auto Parts store now, owns it with a partner, my aunt working in the school cafeteria roasting turkeys when she wasn’t raising her kids or taking care of the farm, still gardening, making beautiful things now in her old age, living far from the farm, close to the earth and sure as anyone of the beauty around, and I also thought then in that abandoned barn, that I could feel the farm in me, I could imagine the barn full of cows that my grandfather milked in the dusty milking parlor below, I could imagine the horses my mom and aunts and uncles road through the woods and down the road with friends when I went down below to visit Ginger, my cousin’s pony, the only pet that lived there, at times there were heifers there, barn and pastures leased to a farmer I never knew, who put the animals there until they were ready to sell or milk, when he took them, I imagine now, to market, or to his home barn, alive with milking and farmers, not only with children climbing and imagining, looking and pretending. And I remember too the cracks between the vertical boards of the hay loft, dark boards, no light inside, sun shining through highlighting the gaps, and wondering then how much longer that barn would last, who would paint and repair it, now the farm was just a home, and then my wondering had an answer, the barn burned down one night when I was away in college, and I wrote about it and I wanted to paint it, and it was gone, all gone, only the pastures there, some grown up in trees, others mowed by the couple who bought the place from my aunt and uncle, no cow barn there now, no place for the imagination to go on that farm now for the family who loved the barn.

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