October 2011

Tonight I’m making beef stew for dinner. My children are out, with friends who used to be mine, celebrating Samhain, a holiday I once celebrated, too. This year I’ll miss a lot of holiday time with my kids,  Samhain, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, my son’s birthday, and the days before and after Christmas. While I know this is the price a modern woman pays for divorce when she wants her children to have a father she didn’t have, the poem in Writers’ Almanac, which I didn’t read this morning, read while making beef stew as the cold rain turns to snow outside the light bouncing off the kitchen windows, gets it right. Here it is. It talks of November, my birthday month, nearly here, no month for a birthday, what I’ve got.

Poems get it right. As do songs. Listen to Brandi Carlile’s album The Story if you’re feeling melancholy as I am tonight. It’s keeping me and the beef stew company along with a pot of tea and some soon to be lit candles on the table, flowers from friends the last two weeks faded and ready for the bin.

Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself,

by Barbara Crooker

like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

“Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself,” by Barbara Crooker, fromRadiance. © Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today I’m puttering in the kitchen during the quiet part of nap before the baby wakes up. Some kids are playing with cars or looking at books in the back room. The newly arrived first grader is reading Bone on the couch. Two fours are at the table, where they have been working nearly an hour with paper and crayons, scissors and tape. They are speaking softly to one another as they work, which strikes me, and I comment.

“You two are awfully kind to one another while you’re working.”

“What?” they ask.

“You two are kind when you’re working with one another.”

“Yes,” says one four to me and to the other. “We’re talking to each other because…”

And the other four picks up where she left off, “we love each other and we don’t want to die, right?”

The first four pauses, then, “Yeah. A long time ago I forgot that people could die.”

The two are still there working. There is a two who has come to join, having had a quiet rest and played a few minutes with cars. He is cutting a small green square into bits.

“You love to cut, right—-” comments the four.

“Yeah, I love to cut.” And I think of how pleasurable it is to be known, how companionable to work beside a friend or friends who love what you love, doing it in his or her or their way, noticing what you do and appreciating you for your love. Our children here are lucky in many ways. This is just one.

When I was a girl I loved to pretend. I played house, church, dolls, family, school. Now I’m an adult, I’m making a school. The longer I work on it, the more it feels like play. We visited a space yesterday, which got me so excited I feel about to burst. As I drove carpool this morning, I remembered being a kid, finding a fort in the woods, or a space carved under a bush, and making it into an imaginary world. Exploring a building and imagining the story we’ll play out as our school, with the others imagining it, is fun.

This morning I’m reading the by-laws. In some ways, it’s like pretend as well, loaded with legalese. The kids say, You be the mother. I’ll be the father. You be the baby. The other kid says, no I’ll be the mommy. And so it goes, year after year after year. Making a Board of Trustees is like this. The kids say, let’s pretend I’m going to work and you’re staying at day care, or whatever. We say, this and this will happen in our school, and then we negotiate. The back and forth of making a school is familiar from the back and forth of playing school.

When people advocate for play, they remind the world it’s children’s work. I’d argue it’s adults’ work, too, if we’re open to seeing it that way. Our school doesn’t exist in a way. In our minds it’s more and more real every day. Play is like that. If you watch the children you begin to understand them as well as yourself. Kind of nice growing up this way, right through to middle age.

This fall we’ve been gifted with flowers. The children pick them from the neighborhood, weeds only. Sometimes they bring them from their home gardens or those of their grandparents. My friends gave me flowers three times this month, which I share on the dining room table or bureau, so the kids after school can be with them. I’ve bought plants to put in the day care, trying for things that will flower and then linger. I love watching the children’s appreciation of the flowers. I love the way the light hits them in the afternoon, late afternoon especially, or midday if I’m home and the sun is coming in the kitchen window on the dish drainer and the countertops.  Here are some of the flowers that have inspired me to and the kids to make pictures, and some of their work, too. Enjoy.

Tonight is a night without kids or obligations. It feels rare and decadent to lay on the couch and do my thing. Today was a fine day in day care. One of the children, a new two, had her first day when I was with her feeling at home. It’s a hump we have to get over each year, the transition to fall, and when we’re on our way, I sometimes wonder when things will ease up,when kids will stop crying when parents leave, when the rich play and projects will begin. Kids decorated the climber with tissue paper, gorgeous colors cut or torn and attached with colored tape. It reminded me of the decoration with crepe paper, caught the light in jeweled ways, used up tissue paper I bought sixteen years ago at a long closed toy and school supply store, Sandy and Son, when I was preparing to open the day care.

In after school today, kids for the first time needed me very little. That’s my goal, not to be unimportant, but to be part of the scene, not a hostess or an entertainer, or even a facilitator, but a helper. I can help kids figure out what they want to eat, help them remember where to find the apples, the cutting board, the apple corer. They can decide on apples, get the apples and the equipment, cut the apple, share with friends. They do their homework independently, find books to read and snuggle in cozy places that feel like home, play inside and out with some abandon, talk with one another as much or more than with me, make art not because they don’t know what else to do but draw, but because they are at ease and want to create, find materials that compel or ideas that inspire, shapes that please.

I listen to music, do dishes, sit with the kids and enjoy the cookies we baked last week and reheated today, look up on google what happens when you put metal in the microwave after our new guy does, finish my food program homework while the kids do theirs, mail off the contract for new storm windows, just in time for winter, and in the budget for the year, dream of a new chair or two for the day care, dark pink/magenta with light pink polka dots if my four with excellent color sense gets her wish, and mine, something like the chair in A Chair for My Mother, saved for with coins in a big jar, chosen by mother, daughter and grandmother in the book, after a devastating house fire, celebration here a bit different, a big the same, house never burned in real life, did in some ways, remaking home comes in all forms, as does loss.

Listening to music from an old friend’s father’s funeral as I write..bluegrass and lovely, rhythmically rocking me with it’s religious themes, not wishing for salvation so much as feeling held, feeling hope. Good to be on that road again.

Here’s the version of Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures I liked best from those I could find on Youtube. The sound quality is a little iffy, but I like their style, and I sure wish I could play the mandolin and join in.


This morning my children have pie for breakfast. I abstain. We had pie for dessert last night, just past nine.  We made pie instead of dinner. We ordered Chinese. My children left this morning. When they leave my daughter says, as she always does, When will I see you again?, which naturally breaks my heart, every time.

In my urge to make this life enough, to make things all right, I tell myself that some mothers have been separated from their children since the children were infants, while I had my babies with me, for day care, for after school, almost all the time, until I didn’t have them with me half the time, which is really much more than half the time, since school is nearly that, and their father and I share the rest.

Over the weekend, I left them Friday evening for a Founders Meeting. That was important. So are they. On Saturday, I left the boys at home and took my daughter to an appointment. Then later we ran errands, went to a party, and one boy was out, one was home. In the evening, one boy babysat while the other kids and I had dinner, watched some tv. Sunday I left them to go to the grocery store, part work for day care food, part family obligation. Then I left the younger two most of the day to take the older one to visit a college, to visit friends on the other side of Boston. He came home late while the other two and I made pie, ordered chinese, watched tv, ate pie.

In between, I play super mom. I make good food for dinner between work and meeting on Friday. On Saturday I make pancakes for breakfast, stop for donuts, bagels, rolls, at their favorite places. I make mac and cheese and brussel sprouts for lunch, we have leftovers for dinner, to clean out the fridge and to make more time, somehow that is so often the goal, to make more time. I didn’t see a friend, except at the meeting and the open house. I didn’t read a book. I was too tired when I got to bed. I didn’t go for a walk or a bike ride or a swim. I did the dishes, the laundry, the tidying, the trash and compost and recycling, with help from kids as they were able. When I was out, or they were away, I called on the cell phones I help them keep track of and for which I pay the monthly fees. In between I joke that I’m a bad mom, I tell them I feel guilty. They say, no, I’m not a bad mom, they are ok. Still, after a weekend, which was meant to be my weekend with them, even pie for breakfast is not enough.

As my daughter said, when I was struggling to make a new, better schedule for this fall, with their dad moving across town from around the corner, telling her we’ll get used to it eventually, “Maybe we’ll never get used to it. It’s been two years and we’re not used to it yet.” That, I suppose, is the best I can hope for, that, and that their parents’ divorce doesn’t turn them against me one day. For that I can only hope and pray to their future therapists. Please let it come out all right.

And of course, I wonder, does this stuff feel different, harder, because of who I am, because of my history? Is it worse because I lost my dad at six, because I spent my life in a step family that eventually broke apart, because I’m a sensitive gal, because my life’s work is with children, because I’ve shaped my life around my own, because I’ve always worked, mostly full time, even when the second two were two weeks old, because, because, because..hard to know.

Its good to start the day and week, to get to a place where I’m needed, downstairs, to work. Day care week begins. Family life on hold til Wednesday, then again on Friday til next Wednesday, crazy life for a mom at mid-forties sending kid one off to school in a year, kids two and three not for several more, empty nest comes earlier for some than others, all learning, just a bit out of sync, as with so many things, try to remember that, no life is model, no ideal within reach, all doing our best with what we’ve got, all the time. Somehow, writing it here helps. And of course, I wonder, does it help anyone else, or just me?

This evening I learn of a video of Central Park East Elementary in its early days, circa 1979-1980, about ten years before I student taught there while earning my masters degree at Teachers’ College. Deborah Meier has shared it with the world on vimeo. Her web site is full of other interesting information for those curious about Deborah Meier and her writings and involvement in progressive education.

The video, black and white, is timeless, lovely, makes my night, at least in terms of educational dreams. I miss working with the full range of kids. I love my middle class, multicultural, multilingual, diverse family crowd. I loved working in East Harlem, in the housing projects in Ithaca, NY and I love seeing the children in this film and their teacher learn and talk and write and do so many thoughtful, creative, insightful things.

Children are children. As an African American parent in the film says, and I’ll paraphrase rather than quote her, “Some people feel that oppressed children need traditional schooling to learn. I don’t think that’s true.” The children in this film beam. They strut their intellectual stuff. They and their teacher thrive in one another’s presence, hold hands, touch, sit in laps and in comfy chairs.

The classroom isn’t fancy, but it’s rich. There is paint. There are blocks. There are animals and nearby parks. There is conversation. There is movement, talking, noise, not rowdy, but bustling. The teacher and her students are serious with one another, in the way good friends or colleagues of any age discussing or doing important things are serious with one another.

The teacher says at one point, again paraphrased, “The best way to learn about how a child reads is to read with the child.” She’s holding a child in her lap, surrounded by children reading books, magazines, alone, together, aloud, in silence, to themselves and one another. The child in her lap reads to her and she listens, and I imagine, as she says, she knows as much about that child’s reading as any MCAS scorer ever could or will, most likely much, much more. How has this wisdom been lost on the larger world making today’s rules and how can we get it back?


Deborah Meier’s website resource list:


Go back in time with the video. Trace Debbie’s ideas and schools over the last thirty two years. Be inspired. Then meet me at the Coalition for Essential Schools Fall Forum over Veterans’ Day weekend and see what Deborah Meier and others are doing today.

Fall Forum link:


Next Page »