December 2010

Holidays have passed. Relatives have gone. Kids are off with their dad and with a friend. House is quiet. Chores loom. Weekend ahead of celebration in the country. Then back to work. On to a New Year. Festivities build up big, bit of let down when they’re done.

Putting the house back in order little by little. Running errands. Sifting through bureaus and closets and cupboards, getting rid of the old, torn, tattered, neglected, folding, ordering, stacking, tidying what seems worth keeping, for now. Stuff abounds. Gifts, food, clothes, recycling, trash, toys, games, books, bags, wrapping, boxes, bows, all call out for some human to restore some sense of order.

Bathroom is clean. Floors are vacuumed. Bag for Goodwill is begun. Piles of books beside the bed made into piles–education, fiction, indulgence, dreams, poems, kids, teens, done, in progress, to read, some shelved, most stacked beside the bed in high hopes of attending to them in the new year..always hope along with the melancholy in these dark days of winter.

Thus the candles, Guardian Angel votive from Shaw’s, and two others, gifts from ones I love, lit while I sit here in the dark before turning in, listening to Johnny Cash Unearthed. Album is so long I once listened to it all night long till morning, another time listened to it much of the day and into the evening. Every song comforts. None stands out to interrupt the flow. Johnny understands melancholy and the human condition. While he’s singing, you can’t be alone, or if you are, you know he was once, too. Then he wasn’t. Most of the holiday I’ve been with people. Good to have one night alone to go to the deep, dark place, remember that part of winter, too.

Here’s one of the songs from Unearthed, from Youtube, a Singer of Songs. Here also is a poem with a lovely melancholy turn of the year feel, sent out by Writers’ Almanac earlier in the week, capturing the mood of the transition to deep winter and the anticipation of spring, in lots of senses. Music and poetry as prayer, saving my soul again and again and again. Enjoy.

A Short Testament

by Anne Porter

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.

“A Short Testament” by Anne Porter, from Living Things. © Zoland Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Nor’easter dropped a heavy load on Garrison Avenue. Have been out shoveling all afternoon. Just as we were finishing the last bit of stuff in between where the cars had been parked, the plow came by and dumped another round at the end of the driveway. My girl helped with the stairs and Grandma’s car. My boy helped with the walk and the end of the drive, the first plow load the worst of it. My other boy helped with the sidewalk and the van, then took a break and came back to help me finish the drive. I’m tired. My cheeks are rosy. I’m ready for a roast beef and gravy over mashed potato lunch, having worked up a manly appetite for my hours in the snow. No yoga today, or maybe this week or this month. Had high hopes for that, but real work takes precedence over exercise for pleasure.

The whole time I was shoveling, I was thinking, Strong girl voice, women can do this, get tough old girl cause you’re what you’ve got this round. Neighbors were out shoveling, too, mostly men. On Facebook a friend commented on the snow, as did a sister-in-law, only to follow with the fact that their husband’s are out shoveling. I thought of my boys, of being a single mom, and I thought of my girl, and how hard she worked yesterday assembling her playmobil sets, how she told me when I commented on how steady and patient she was and skilled, that she learned it from me, from watching me put together all those sets in years gone by. I thought of that as I dug out snow clothes from the basement, found shovels and jobs for each kid, watched them find their own job, get tired, move on, leave me to finish, come back to help. Always thinking of the Living and Learning Together thing, hoping that maybe if I keep on pluggin away, asking for help, trying to be a cheerful work partner, that my kids will grow up learning to be helpful, kind, hardworking, to look after themselves and others, to master the New England art of shoveling snow, of clearing a grandparent’s car of snow, and a mother’s, and I wonder as I write who will help me when I’m really old, maybe the paid guy with plow truck, snow blower, shovel. For now, I have help and we’ll spend our cash on other things, and hopefully, also grow kids who know how to work.

Always more to learn. Me, too. Last year when my ex-husband moved out, I was scared out of my mind about looking after the house alone, especially of shoveling snow. I managed. Kids helped, and a friend, on one occasion, and I was tired some nights, shoveling in the dark at bedtime to be ready for the morning, in the early morning before work to be ready for the day care kids. I got mono in the early spring, and there were floods and damaged roofs and basements full of water, but I made it, not even the lice could take me down, pestilence be d*@!. Real women can manage, even when they’re scared and sick and down. We get by.

My nephew, tow headed wonder of fifteen months, was here with us this Christmas. He was our delight. When I read this poem near bedtime, having read it the first time with the Writers’ Almanac before starting the day in the early morning, I thought of our little guy. The next youngest grandchild in our family is near six. There’s something awfully dear about having a baby around again. Thanks to my brother and sister-in-law for bringing him to us this year.

A Christmas Carol

by G. K. Chesterton

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all alright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

“A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton. Public domain. (buy now)

My brother arrived last night at dinner time. All afternoon my kids had been asking, When is Uncle Dave getting here? I hadn’t known. It might have been last night, might have been this morning. He brought his son straight to me in the kitchen where I was cleaning up and the boy came straight to me, let me hold him in my arms, kiss his head, talk to him awhile before he wanted down. For a one-year-old who’s never met me, never been to my house, that was awfully good.

We ate Gypsy Soup I had made in anticipation of their coming, and all the bagels I had bought for my boys to eat over the course of the week, a package of cheese, three apples, drank half a gallon of apple cider, making me realize I should have bought the full gallon as I usually do, in spite of the fact that there is a quarter of a gallon at the back of my fridge from Thanksgiving going fizzy, Dave and Co. eat a lot, as Dave said to me as we sat on pillows and chair and couch in our tiny tv room, watching Modern Family on my thirteen inch laptop, teaching my brother about Netflix, as he has just moved from the West Coast to rural upstate New York, where the only internet is delivered by satellite dish and the connection would be too slow for watching shows on Netflix on demand, and the cell phone doesn’t work.

After dinner and before tv and setting up the beds in the day care below, my sister-in-law and my son and my daughter and then Dave and my nephew and I made music. This is what I love. The guitar I bought in college with dreams of playing music and singing with a group is in my son’s arms and Josee, singer songwriter, is teaching him to play Christmas songs and my daughter, clearing articulating each word, opening her mouth wide, holding the lyrics in up high in  front of her as she sings with Josee, comes to me every so often to ask me to print out lyrics to the next one from the laptop in the kitchen where I do dishes and talk to Dave and get my older son to show Dave the ropes of waste management on Garrison Avenue, no pigs here to eat our compost, just a bin of worms beside the house, no recycling at his new country home, but here in the city there is, bag of trash goes out to my bins, truck will be here to pick it up on Monday, where he is he’s made friends already with the guy who works at the dump, just like old times, and also new times, my brother tells me it is only five and a half hours from his new place to here, we both know for the last ten years we’ve lived on separate coasts, neither with money or time to spend much of it together, and now here we are, Christmas Carols in the living room, where we join the others, and I bring a bucket of day care instruments to my nephew and he and Dave and I play them, and laugh at the lyrics to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, realizing for the first time together how rude those guests can be, not leaving til they get their figgy pudding, and the singing and playing goes on after we lose interest and move on to the kitchen again, Dave to the back porch to talk on the phone and tell another friend in NY he is back, me to roll the Christmas Cookies at last, Dave to taste the dough and ask about that taste, is it fennel, and I say at first yes, but then no, it is anise and we talk about fennel as the seed on Kimmelwick rolls (knowing that taste from Beef on Wick, favorite sandwich of our Western NY growing up), but no, that’s not right either, it’s caroway on Kimmelwick rolls, and I think how just that morning as I made the cookie dough I almost added fennel instead of anise, but they are different, somehow, the fennel seeds were larger and slightly green, the anise smaller and more brown, and now here we are discussing it in my kitchen, over the taste of the dough, memory brought back through taste, story circling round, priority of the morning, making Grandma’s cookie dough, was right.

This is what makes me happy. Happy Christmas Eve morning. My kids are asleep upstairs and on this level. My nephew is making sounds below. I am off to wrap some things and clean the kitchen, again. This afternoon more will arrive. The day and the next many will be full. I am reminded why I don’t much like being alone, conversation I had with my friend Therese as I dropped her off late Wednesday night after dinner in a pub, after two long days of work and appointments, we both were happy to be together, so much so that in calling my other friend when I got home, he wrote me just after we got off the phone to tell me he could hear the happiness in my voice. I love people. I hate to be alone.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas (check out these lyrics and sing them at home..who knew those holiday guests could be so demanding?!)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas : Lyrics

Play Music !

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year. 

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer

We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I put the soft dough in the fridge. I lick the silicon spatula as I scrape the remnants from the mixing bowl. Taste is spot on, texture is spot on. As I think to write this piece I anticipate that the smell will be spot on as the cookies bake.

I wonder if memory of taste and smell and feel can be conjured without physically repeating the experience. Can you smell (or taste or feel) your baby’s neck again? Can you do any of those for the fresh snow of your youth? Or can you only remember the image and story of being there?

Perhaps that’s why this morning of my list of chores I chose making cookie dough to start my day. Chore number two may be the grocery store. Seems I’ll save the gift wrapping and house tidying for later, may write the cards when the holiday is past. Happy New Year will come in words and images. For now, it’s taste and smell and feel, back to the sensorimotor stage to start the holiday off right (back where it started, at home in the country when I was a girl.)

I’ve been having lots of dreams lately, both in my sleep, and in my daytime mental wanderings. Long drives and deep sleeps full of images of life as it might be. Last night I both dreamed I was driving my van with my son beside me without being able to fully operate the brakes and that I had a hand carved wooden dish/disc which allowed me to fly and maneuvered much like a Segway inside of a crowded house. While I was driving I dreamed of creating a school from the ground up with a group of teachers who believe as I do that school must start with the children and the adults who spend their days with them. I imagined sitting around my dining room table or living room with a group of teachers I respect, talking about our dream school, then sorting out how to make it happen for the widest range of kids.

While I was dreaming about that, I was also thinking about memory, and which things from my early school life I remember. Guess what, it’s not the textbook or lecture content. Its the hands on real life experiences like Colonial day or recess or pom-pom club. It’s the people, teachers and kids, and the relationships amongst us. Which lead me to think that if schools should do anything, it’s make life meaningful (memorable) for the children and adults who spend their days there. Why spend the most important hours and years of our young lives or work lives doing what others tell us to do or what some high up official thinks we ought to do? While it may seem crazy to trust teachers and children to make the most of their own time (and maybe it is crazy in some places and times), it happens at my kids’ school, Sudbury Valley, and the place, believe it or not, seems as calm and peaceful and joyful and energetic as any school I’ve been to yet. Says something about meaningful, memorable moments and about the importance of controlling our everyday lives, whether we’re four or forty four.

When I was in fifth grade I had a teacher named Mr. Dupra who rocked our rural school by giving the kids a lot of freedom. We divided our classroom into areas using colorful fabric he hung from the ceiling.  We made clubs and we played records and danced at recess. My friend Jackie and I sat in the hall during math and talked the day away. Next year I went off to Ms. Rock’s math class, and life was all about pretest, problems, post test. In Mr. Dupra’s fifth grade class I did about half the fifth grade math book. In Ms. Rock’s class, I worked at my desk in rows, stood in line beside Ms. Rock’s desk, waiting for her to correct my problems or my tests and I finished the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade math texts.

Until this morning in my dreaming about schools state I had thought of how loosey goosey Mr. Dupra had been, how he hadn’t made sure I learned math, instead letting me spend my math time in the hall talking with my friend. I had even gone so far as to think he must not have had a clue we were out there talking. Ms. Rock’s desks in rows, textbook time, test til you drop approach had gotten me through over two years of math material, while his loosey goosey approach had gotten me through less than one year’s worth. Of course, no one really liked Ms. Rock and we liked Mr. Dupra. But in our adults are to be respected and even feared a little bit world, we wondered if he was really worth respecting if he gave us so much freedom and let us call him nicknames like The Dupe.

This morning as I was driving, I was thinking that maybe Mr. Dupra did know we were in the hall talking. I was thinking that when I was in fifth grade my mom had only recently remarried, and my little brother was born. My best friend and neighbor since before I went to school was getting ready to move across the country to Michigan. My friend and hall talking partner, Jackie, had a horse, and what fifth grade girl whose mother grew up on a farm roaming the countryside on horseback with her brothers and sisters and friends wouldn’t rather talk to Jackie about horses than work boring text book math problems. What kid whose life was so full of change wouldn’t want to connect with a good friend when she had a chance. And maybe, maybe, what teacher who put kids and their whole selves first, who knew I was a pretty sharp tack, would really worry if I finished that fifth grade textbook in fifth grade or not? Maybe Mr. Dupra knew or wondered if talking in the hall with Jackie was just as important that year as doing reams of math problems. Maybe not, but I wonder.

The other thing I realized, not for the first time, but in a new way after talking with a teacher friend last night about teaching math to his sixth graders, is that just because I didn’t finish the fifth grade math book in fifth grade didn’t mean fifth grade math was lost to me. I caught up and went beyond grade level math in sixth grade. Sudbury Valley literature references just such a phenomenon, if more extreme. Several of their books talk about students who learn basic math concepts in a matter of weeks when they are motivated to do so, having had little previous formal math instruction, as opposed to students who struggle for years in compulsory formal math classes in schools and still don’t master the basic concepts.

All this came about as I was thinking about making an ideal school, trying to rectify the differences between a place like Sudbury Valley, which gives kids soo much freedom to spend their time, not making any classes or meetings compulsory except for Judicial Committee hearings for members who have broken rules, and public schools in our current environment, where teachers  and students have increasingly less freedom to determine how they spend their days. My questions are endless. The data points are scant. How could I prove to myself and to the school community struggling with creating a unified school, or to our Charter School group, that allowing children and adults so much freedom in how to spend their time is going to lead kids to competence in the adult world? (While the Sudbury Valley literature is plentiful, it’s not peer reviewed research, which is what the public school world seems to want.) Would Sudbury Valley work for all kids? Will my own kids regret not having learned things like the biology and english literature presented in a standard high school course? Or will they learn that material some other way? Is it even important? Or is it important enough that every single kid in America has to spend hours of their life working on it? Will the freedom my kids at SVS have make any regrets small in comparison to the gains of being given the opportunity to shape their own days? What sort of community of young people and adults, what facilities and environment would we need to pull off a Sudbury School in a more urban environment? Could we ever off it to kids in a public school context or to kids whose families couldn’t pay full tuition? Would the talented and energetic teachers I imagine sitting around my living room cooking up our ideal school find their way to a model so much like Sudbury we’d have to call it a Sudbury Valley School, or would we come up with something more like the old Choice Program or Central Park East Elementary or Central School in Ithaca, or Mr. Dupra’s class, where I began to shape my own dreams of what school could be?

Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.  So much more to know (and wonder about) in the world. Did have that sense as I was sorting through my dreams that I am not done yet, that I don’t want to die without making more of my school dreams come true. Now I need to figure out what that means:)

I woke in the night to the most fantastical dream and the clearest clarity. In my dream, there was a blue tattered fabric extravaganza too odd to describe. Large, overlapping, eyeball shaped constructions of fabric danced in ways that compelled an audience to look, at once fantastical and grotesque, until the dance enveloped itself and we all looked away. The image was so purely physical, I can’t find words to describe it.

When I woke, though, the words that came were crystal clear. I thought it was near morning, but it was only two am. The evening before I had attended a school meeting, left outraged in frustration, shoveled my walk for the first time, talked with a friend, took a walk in the snow and lights to Davis Square, attempting to clear my head. The words in my mind when I woke from the dream were the words I had been searching for last night, something about vision and child-centered, constructivism. When I woke this morning, I remembered them, but not clearly, just their spirit.

The other thing I remembered, both in a physical image, and in words, was our disintegrating alternative public school’s founding document, which I read a fair bit when I was working actively at my kids’ school. What I remembered from that document were words that described the importance of beginning with a view of how children learn. Last night at the meeting I tried to say that, but what I found myself doing more was pounding my chest right over my heart. The old document had heart. Parent, teachers, administrators, and a consultant from Tufts with a solid understanding of developmental education, then a term that carried some admiration, not the scorn it seemed to hold at last night’s meeting, worked over that document a long, long time, to create a program based on an understanding of how children learn and how teachers might teach to best respond to children’s needs and to their own understanding of the children in their midst.

I bet there were not many references to the word standards in that document. I bet the goal was much less about accommodating to the powers that be and much more about creating an ideal school. So much about our discussion last night was about compromise, about data, about non-negotiables. What about questioning authority? What about struggling in face-to-face conversation to try to understand one another. What about teachers as experts and principals as educational visionaries and leaders? How have we gone so wrong that the people whose voices matter most are not the ones in the room or in the school or even in the community, but those from outside consultants and the state and federal government.

I want the teachers working with my child to get to know her. I don’t want more standardized measures of what she knows. I want her to be KNOWN, from the HEART. If all goes well, that word I fear, SOUL, might even come into play. Whatever the word, Soul, Heart, Known, Self, we have to begin with the children and the adults who teach them and allow them to get to know one another in the most human of ways. If we can’t fight for that, I don’t know what we’re fighting for and I might have to bow out yet again..

I need some powerful quotes, not more research papers. I need some poems, some songs, some art, some stories, that will communicate the power of what is being lost and of what might be gained if somehow we could see straight into the eyes of the children, not through them to the adults who will punish us if we don’t do what they say.

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