November 2011


http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/01/the-5-best-toys-of-all-time/all/1

This list came from a dad at SVS, trying to lighten the conversation in a heated listserv thread. I love it. Reminds me to tone it down this holiday season, and keep up our daily trips with kids to the park, where all of this abounds. As the elderly man at the senior housing complex said to the kids today, “They’re (meaning us caregivers) are taking good care of you. I see how happy you are. They make sure you go to the park every day.” Good to know the neighbors see the significance in what we do and the benefits to our kids. Gotta love the great outdoors.

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Here’s an article from the NY Times on the reemergence of blocks in schools. I love blocks. Thanks to Yvonne from Central Park East Elementary for time in her classroom, where blocks were given enormous space, time, and respect, and for The Block Book, which she and her assistant Betty gave me as a departing gift when I left their classroom.

When I taught at Fayerweather, we had blocks in third and fourth grade. When I taught second grade in Mansfield, I spent my own money to buy blocks from all the local toy stores which were then going out of business due to competition from Toys R Us, at a time when few public school classrooms beyond kindergarten had blocks.

When my kids were born and the day care was growing, I bought blocks to add to our collection. When nephews and friends’ babies were born, we sent blocks.

When we visited Sudbury Valley for our kids, I was happy to find a well-used set of blocks in the play room, and to hear stories of kids small and large playing with them.

Now I have a good sized set of blocks in the day care for kids from one to ten or so and in my dining room upstairs for after school kids. I’m wondering how many blocks we’ll manage to squeeze into our new school, where they’ll live, who will play with them, and when..Glad to know the trend is upwards for respecting blocks as learning tools and just great things to have around.

Haven’t had time to finish the article. That will be my break time treat. Vacation is over, shift back to work and school and day care. Welcome back.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/nyregion/with-building-blocks-educators-going-back-to-basics.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&emc=eta1&adxnnlx=1322485080-+b+FCJpCWIBzpyMdWPbfbw

This morning I wake up dreaming of our new school. I am a bit fixated, obsessed my oldest son would say. The children are in Western, MA with their dad and his family and our friends, having a holiday much like the one described in the Writers’ Almanac I’ll share below, with a crowd in the kitchen, a fire place, order out of chaos by midday. Shortly, I’ll be headed to my sister’s, where they’ve got a similiar scene going, three nephews loud and active, not likely sleeping in, but up and at ’em as I think my father used to say.

I’m here in the kitchen exchanging e-mails with folks working on our school, trying to make it real, making the second pie, thinking on the exchanges I had yesterday over e-mail while I spent the day in silence on my own, last pie finished near midnight, along with the squash, dishes here for the morning, and laundry, and tidying, and banking, and packing before I go.

I finished Joan Didion’s Blue Nights last night near two am. Fitting for me to do this on my day alone, sleep half the day, cook in the evening, read half the night, in the company of my music and the e-mail on the laptop with it’s relatively new innards, reasonably old shell, which came to me as perhaps the last birthday gift from my husband, photo of me on that Thanksgiving birthday with the kids in Ashfield, after I opened the box.

This morning, I heard Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken as the sun came through my curtains with the sunrise, after I’d been awake and thinking quite awhile. Joan Didion ended her book in a way I could not correct, shockingly suddenly, on memory, where I’ve been stuck awhile. It is a terrifying thing to lose a partner or a child, perhaps seconded only by losing one’s memory of that love and the longterm security that love might have brought.

She is a beautiful writer. I loved the poems she shared near the end of her book, at the end of her daughter’s and her husband’s lives. Made me want to write her and thank her for her book, for her story, for expending the energy it took to come and talk where I could hear and see her from the balcony of the First Parish Church in Harvard Square.

Last night just before bed I discovered that a woman with the same name as Grace Paley’s daughter had read and thanked me for my post on sharing poems with my kids, most importantly her mother’s. It was a fine thank you to discover on Thanksgiving Eve in a quiet house alone near midnight, made the world both larger and more intimate somehow, this finding of one another in words on a page, in words on the internet. Shared humanity comes in many forms.

Which is also what came to me over a quiet, dark day in the house alone. After letting myself collapse into sleep and some sadness, I came up for air, to the messages on my phone and computer, extending a hand, respecting my privacy and exhaustion, inviting me back into the world. Which made me grateful, and the gratitude gave me energy to put myself back out there, to thank others for their piece of me that they so generously shared. I feel less like a single person when I am alone sometimes, than as a conglomeration of memory and shared experience, layered over years and years of love and loss. This at only forty four, near forty five. I wonder what it will be like when I’m really old!

Time to make the second pie, taking my slow time, with apples my kids and I collected, recipe from my mom for crust, from her old cookbook for the filling. Quiet house will smell good, feel productive, then I’ll be off into the crowds for the more traditional turkey Thanksgiving.

Thank you for reading and for all you do. It’s good to feel surrounded by love even on the quietest of days.

As I cut and paste the poem from Writers’ Almanac, I realize two things: 1. The poet is a Texan, as are my ex-husband and his family. 2. The collection was published in 1984, the year I graduated from High School. I can now imagine both the Texans in our place in Ashfield and the Western New Yorkers in my mom’s or aunt’s home, making Thanksgiving dinner in a way that looks a lot like the poem. Connect the dots, and there might be a story there, too:)

Thanksgiving

by Linda McCarriston,

Every year we call it down upon ourselves,
the chaos of the day before the occasion,
the morning before the meal. Outdoors,
the men cut wood, fueling appetite
in the gray air, as Nana, Arlene, Mary,
Robin—whatever women we amount to—
turn loose from their wrappers the raw,
unmade ingredients. A flour sack leaks,
potatoes wobble down counter tops
tracking dirt like kids, blue hubbard erupts
into shards and sticky pulp when it’s whacked
with the big knife, cranberries leap away
rather than be halved. And the bird, poor
blue thing—only we see it in its dead skin—
gives up for good the long, obscene neck, the gizzard,
the liver quivering in my hand, the heart.

So what? What of it? Besides the laughter,
I mean, or the steam that shades the windows
so that the youngest sons must come inside
to see how the smells look. Besides
the piled wood closing over the porch windows,
the pipes the men fill, the beers
they crack, waiting in front of the game.

Any deliberate leap into chaos, small or large,
with an intent to make order, matters. That’s what.
A whole day has passed between the first apple
cored for pie, and the last glass polished
and set down. This is a feast we know how to make,
a Day of Feast, a day of thanksgiving
for all we have and all we are and whatever
we’ve learned to do with it: Dear God, we thank you
for your gifts in this kitchen, the fire,
the food, the wine. That we are together here.
Bless the world that swirls outside these windows—
a room full of gifts seeming raw and disordered,
a great room in which the stoves are cold,
the food scattered, the children locked forever
outside dark windows. Dear God, grant
to the makers and keepers power to save it all.

“Thanksgiving” by Linda McCarriston, from Talking Soft Dutch. © Texas Tech Press, 1984. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

While I’m here, I might as well send along the Cat Stevens tune, as well. Morning has Broken, looking very much like 1973, the year my dad died and I most likely had one of those big Thanksgivings in some extended family member’s country home. Ah, history, and rebirth:)

Last night I went to see Being Elmo at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square. It’s playing there all week. Being Elmo is a documentary centering around the life of Kevin Clash, who is known to many of us as the voice of Elmo (and after seeing the movie, I would say, also the persona of Elmo). I went with my son and his friend, who stayed for the later showing of Muppets in Space, while I went home to help my older son with college applications. The film was magical for me for lots of reasons. I love stories of how people follow their passions, of how dreams come true. I love family stories that show how loving parents support their kids, against whatever odds they face. I love breaking stereotypes, here a young, low income African American man makes it to Sesame Street and international fame through his love of puppets. I loved more than I expected, to see the puppets come alive in Kevin’s hands and voices. It was pure magic, caught the shared attention of my son and his friend and me viscerally, so that when I looked over, my son was also looking over at me, and we were mirroring one another’s tender amazement at Kevin Clash’s talent. Go see the movie, or wait for it to come to DVD or Netflix, or wherever it is you see your favorite shows.

We went to see Being Elmo at my suggestion, in part because I had a Groupon to The Brattle and am on their mailing list, but more importantly because my kids and I spent much of last weekend working on a birthday gift for their friend,  a Bon Jovi outfit for her sock monkey. We spent a good part of Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday morning on the get-up, which the kids made from a pair of my boys’ old jeans, ripped in the knee, having been under the basement sink in the rag bag many years. Watching my daughter and son pull a jean jacket, jeans, a microphone, and a wig for the little monkey out of the scraps around our house made me very happy. I took some photos and will share them here. Watching our kids grow up and try things is one of the greatest pleasures most parents experience. On the screen last night, Kevin Clash’s parents shared that with me and with the world. When Kevin Clash made Elmo, he had a lightbulb moment. The energy that came through Elmo to the kids with Kevin’s help was Love. That love came to Kevin through his parents. What a gift to the world, I was thinking, watching Kevin and Elmo interact with handicapped and terminally ill kids, watching Kevin move through life impressing and warming others with his passion, and in the final scenes, watching Kevin guide another young African American child into the world of puppetry, that child’s passion as well.

And of course, the whole time I was watching, I was thinking of our school, wanting very much for it to be a place that supports kids in their passions and with our love.

This morning I wake up in a quiet house with kids. My oldest was out with friends overnight. We spent the day together before that. The other two were with friends yesterday afternoon, home last night. I live with teens who I like to think I know well. There’s always more to know.  I learn a lot from reading and from friends. I’m lucky to have a few friends with children older than my own and near my kids’ ages who know me well and who I know well enough to talk with nuance about sex and our kids. Lately, I’ve found myself in lots of surprising places in those conversations, talking about teens sleeping with partners in their parents’ homes, about kids figuring out their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, about adult relationships transforming as we move out of the busy years of caring for our children. We consider these in the context of all the stories, information, role models, uncertainty, and questions that surround us in a society that is so much more open today than it was when we were growing up it challenges us to relate our experiences to those of our kids.

I’m a bit sheltered. I was raised Catholic in a fairly conservative part of the world in a family that didn’t talk much about this stuff. I live in a liberal part of the world where most of my friends are not religious and have good relationships with their kids, talk pretty openly with their friends. I was married nineteen years to my college sweetheart. Now I’m dating. In some ways I’m learning along with my kids. Which might feel creepy to them. I worry about that a little, do my best to be respectful, to keep my personal life private, my kids lives their own. Boy, would it be nice to have a sex ed class for them like the one described in the NYTimes this morning, in an article I read after scanning past all the news of the day, mostly bad, finding this one inspiring enough to pass along to friends, returning to finish it just now as my son walks through the door at nearly 9 am.

Thing is I trust my kids. Maybe I’m naive. I like their friends. I wish, as my kids know, that the kids would bring their friends here more. I’d like to know them better. We have lousy technology, small screen tv, no game console. We haven’t got a finished basement or a game room or a media room, or anything like that. We live in the midst of a family day care and the kids have outgrown the idea of a tree house, haven’t figured out what it is their friends would do here as teens. Or maybe it’s something else. I don’t know. Like a lot of things, I just don’t know. I’m learning.

Feels like I’ve wandered off here, as no doubt so many well-intentioned talks on sex ed do. Read the article (read the book, is what I think I said to the kids awhile back). See what you think. Maybe if more Americans trusted their kids, knew their bodies and themselves, loved their partners, could find ways to speak openly on the many dimensions of sexuality, we could turn the current trend of negative messaged sex ed into something real that includes not only danger but daring and desire of the caring kind.

Read about Mr. Vernacchio and his kids and tell me you wouldn’t love to have been in his class, one more place where knowing and being known are what it’s all about.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magazine/teaching-good-sex.html?pagewanted=8&_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha210

This morning the Writers’ Almanac shares another poem that resonates, First Thanksgiving by Sharon Olds, whose poem, High School Senior I posted here last week. It’s not from the same collection, but it feels to me like a sequel. The high school senior has gone off to college and is coming back. That may be my family next Thanksgiving. For this Thanksgiving, all three of my children are with me one whole week before the holidays, with their dad nearly one week during the holidays. I worry most about the lack of breathing in the house when they’re away.

Funny to me how Sharon Olds writes about this, while I’ve spent the last two years noticing it, telling it mostly to myself and to readers here, though mostly in the positive. There’s something about a morning when I wake with my children sleeping in the house that brings me peace. At the same time it reminds me that half the time they’re sleeping someplace else.

This morning when I read the poem, I think about Thanksgiving and waking in the house alone, the pies I’ll bake the day before, when the children will be off with their dad and in-laws and friends to our shared place in the country, where I won’t walk in the woods or sit by the fire or work in the kitchen or share stories or tease nephews this time around. I’ll listen to Making Pies by Patti Griffin, which I found the first Thanksgiving without the kids, listening to WUMB fade out as I was driving to my sister’s on the Cape, which I’ll do again this year, and every other year, until the kids are off on their own, and in charge of their own Thanksgivings.

Divorce is a bit like sending kids off to college half time, except in my case, and in many, I imagine, I was unprepared. There wasn’t a year of SATs and college visits and applications. I wasn’t involved in choosing where my kids would live, per se, though I did want them with their dad half time, with me that much and really more. If they could be two places at once, I’d want them in both our houses full time.

Learning to hold the bittersweetness of it all is helped by the poems. Without them I’m not sure how I would have coped. Poems are sort of in-service training for those experiencing great loss, overwhelming change, transformation, terrible ennui. Living life in all it’s many forms, without a sure god, for me, requires poems.

Here’s the one for today. In the cracks of the full life I’ll live with my kids the next few days, and the quieter days without them to follow, I’ve got my poems, online, in books, maybe in my mind.

Thanks, Sharon Olds. If you want to read more of her story, check out Writers’ Almanac. http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/11/19.  Sharon Olds one of the featured poets  today. You might even subscribe and get your poem a day, just like me. Pleasure for the bargain hunter never got this good.

First Thanksgiving

by Sharon Olds,

When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. She came into my life the
second great arrival, after him, fresh
from the other world—which lay, from within him,
within me, Those nights, I fed her to sleep,
week after week, the moon rising,
and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,
in a slow blur, around our planet.
Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,
and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult
to have her in that room again,
behind that door! As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.

“First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

This morning I brought my new book of Grace Paley poems to day care. I started off the day reading a couple myself, after my kids left for school and before starting down the stairs to work. I shared one with my co-teacher, Liana, who has many elders in her world. The poems were from Grace Paley’s last collection before she died, titled Fidelity. I don’t know that I’ve read her poems before. I love them.

Two weeks ago I heard Joan Didion speak in Harvard Square, another elder in the world. One thing I took from the q and a was that Joan Didion reads a lot of poetry. She wouldn’t say which poems she read, but when I began to read Blue Nights, I could hear the poetry in her writing, wished to hear it in my own, went to the poetry shelves of Brookline Booksmith’s basement used book section, found three volumes for myself, Grace Paley, Sharon Olds, and Nicki Giovanni, three women who have lived life and made their poems about it, gutsy, direct, visceral, accessible words I’d be proud to call my own, poems I expect to shape my world for years to come.

Later in the morning, during clean up, I picked up my poems again. For some reason I can’t remember, I opened the book and read a page to the kids. They asked to hear another. My four asked if I had a poem about death, because her Poppy had died. In fact, I did, the one I had read and shared with Liana earlier. Also about love, my girl added. When I read the poem to her, she agreed, turned her thoughts inward to reflect upon the poem, thought in fact, as I did, it was about both, love and death.

She searched the book for others, asking me how to spell love and death, searching for those letters on the page. Then it was time for breakfast. We talked more about poems. She said she’d like to read a poem by herself. After breakfast I found A Rocket in My Pocket, a collection from my teaching days which has lived on the shelf of the back room for a good long while, unopened til now. She asked for the title poem, we found it, I read it, she sat down on the couch to study it, asking me for help with words, what does I T spell? It. On she went until she had it down, and her friend beside her, who also loved the poems and would love to read, went to get a book, saying to herself, I wonder if I could sound out the words and read a book, too.

This is how it happens. Like magic, passion spreads, poems touch the hearts of even the very young. In preparation for breakfast, then in the bathroom washing hands, we talk about wanting other poems about important things, microbes, minerals, death, love. I wonder what it is about a poem that speaks to us so strongly. The girls wonder, too.

On the walk to the park we talk about poems again. The girls would like to write poems, not only read them, one for one’s Poppy, one for the other’s brother, recovering from surgery and home from day care for three weeks. Later when I suggest the poem writing, my four says, no, she would like to read more poems, but not write one. I suggest not yet, let her know that I’ve been reading poems a few years now, have been wishing to write one, haven’t had the courage all this time. Time. Waiting. Reading. Wondering. Hoping.

At snack, A Rocket in My Pocket is on the kitchen floor. I ask my eight who loves to read if she has ever written a poem. She hasn’t. I ask my seven. He hasn’t either. I wonder if the eight has ever read a poem. She and the seven both have. The eight has Shel Silverstein at home. We talk about his several volumes, which she has, which I have, where in the day care or house they might be. My four listens. I suggest she may like Shel Silverstein, too. We don’t do more today.

It may be like the snake project awhile ago. The kids saw a snake. Alice took photos. The kids made art, not at our suggestion, but as an impulse. The snake was the subject of their fascination, of the teachers’, too. The next time Alice was here she shared her photos, along with some she found online, identifying the snake. We posted all three, kid art, teacher and online photos, on the bulletin board, tried sharing with the kids.

For now, the snake is gone. Life and learning are like that. Things get very exciting. Sometimes the excitement lasts a few minutes, other times longer. Sometimes an idea grows and transforms. Other times it goes underground. I’ve been thinking of this like fungi. We never know when conditions will be right for things to grow.

How did my girls know at four that poems speak about love and death?

Here are the Grace Paley poems we read today. If you have favorite poetry collections to share with kids, I’m looking for suggestions.

Life is as risky

as it is branchy

treetop and twigtip

are only the beginning

then comes the westwind to lean

and the northwind to turn

then the sunshine implores

and up all of us go

we are like any

green growing machinery

riding the daylight route

to darkness

I needed to talk to my sister…

~

I needed to talk to my sister
talk to her on the telephone I mean
just as I used to every morning
in the evening too whenever the
grandchildren said a sentence that
clasped both our hearts

I called her phone rang four times
you can imagine my breath stopped then
there was a terrible telephonic noise
a voice said this number is no
longer in use how wonderful I
thought I can
call again they have not yet assigned
her number to another person despite
two years of absence due to death

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