December 2011

I worried about this vacation. I worried I wouldn’t see enough of my kids. I worried we would miss going to visit my brother and his family, would miss our place in the country, would miss our chance to go to NH with friends.

Instead, we’ve been fine. The Christmas holiday was a happy one. The Christmas- New Year week is working, too. I’ve been working at the dining room table every day except Christmas, when I took the day off, and Christmas Eve, when I worked at the kitchen table, because the dining room table was covered in cookie fixings.

Christmas Eve morning was day care work. Monday and Tuesday were the first pass at the financial aid forms. Wednesday and Thursday were data entry days for me, entering the years’ bank and credit card statements into the computer for end of year results, and essay writing days for my boy, who needed coaching and moral support, as did I. The rest of the vacation will be more of the same, hopefully resulting in near completed college applications, tax return, and financial aid forms, as well as multiple personal projects for my daughter and middle son.

I worried my daughter and younger son would be irritable. Instead, my girl has been lost in doll house world, constructing the small house (someday to be the biggest doll house in the world, possibly housed in a museum) in her corner of the third floor while the big house around her goes to chaos, hammer and nails and sanding block on the dining room table, along with wrapping paper, ribbon, Dungeons and Dragons manuals, mom’s financial books, edited college essays, novels, drinking glasses, flowers.

Middle guy has been immersed as well, alternating music, reading, Dungeon Mastering, animation, screen play and script writing, drawing, and talking through his ideas, in person and on skype.

I’ve taken breaks, some to visit with my mom, to have dinner and an evening with a friend, one for a charter school meeting to prepare for our board’s hearing with the state, some to clean the house, reheat the food, wash the dishes, do the laundry, one to spend two glorious hours walking, drinking coffee, and talking with my middle son on his birthday, another long one to see The Muppets with my kids and our friends, followed by dinner, drinks, games, conversation, tea, and cookies at our house, another to drive middle boy across town to retrieve his computer from his dad’s, another this afternoon to take the cat to the vet to investigate a creepy bone protruding from his chest under his lush fur, more sure to come, blessedly as yet undefined.

The cats love having us around as much as I do. They’re rarely out of sight or reach this week. The dining room table, piled with projects on top of our red Christmas tablecloth, is alive, as is the house, with four souls breathing, creating, making a life. For a mom who sees her kids half time, who works full time, a vacation at home catching up and doing our thing together is a big, good deal. Amen. It’s Friday, but that felt like a sermon. I wonder if our at home vacation will continue to be great through Monday. We’ll see. I’m hopeful that it will.

I’m listening to Steve Earle Pandora..Bob Dylan comes on with a mournful song I love, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, and it reminds me of another good-bye, not of a lover, but of a boy, the one I’ve stuck my butt in the chair for since 8 am. It’s near 3 pm, and I’m just now taking a break to shower and make coffee, having spent the day filling out financial aid forms, tossing queries to his dad, hoping for clarity, ending up with sore elbows from resting them on the table while I type, atop the Christmas red tablecloth made by my dear friend Ferriss a couple of years ago, spread for the holidays, which have come and gone, though New Year’s is on the way.

I gather all the financial data I can find on the internet, IRA’s, a money market, mortgage statements, estimated home values, tax return information for 2010, and put as much of it as I can on the forms, fully aware of how much more is left to gather, to put together the 2011 return and data, to figure out how a family divided into two can support the oldest child into this transition to adulthood.

It’s a lot to figure, and it breaks my heart. Stanley Kunitz is here again, “the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.”  How can a boy and his mother and father pay 60 thousand dollars a year, if the boy is accepted at the top schools to which he is applying, encouraged by his strong SAT scores, his love of math and science, his wish to be amongst peers, to make something of himself?

Was I, was my son, insane to think he had the right to apply to these places? Are we able to claim the privilege, seventeen year old boy and middle income earner mom divorced from newly remarried dad, full of midlife uncertainty and high hopes for our future? Will all the angst of gathering data and sending it off to the College Board and the FAFSA folks make the dream a reality, or just confirm our fears that these places aren’t for us? Will even the least expensive of his choice, UMass Amherst, be within our reach?

All this presumes that my boy, of nontraditional schooling at Sudbury Valley, where there are no grades, no classes, no transcripts, will find his way into the hearts and minds of the Admissions offices, will find a place amongst the select few who are admitted, should they afford to matriculate.

Never mind the mother, who like Sharon Olds, has as much angst about the lack of a son’s breathing in the house as about the money and the challenges of acceptance. Never mind that only sixteen years ago the boy was my baby. Never mind that I left school teaching when he was born and started the day care when he was ten months old, have shaped my life around raising these children who will all go off, if we can afford to send them, into the great wide world. It’s enough to crush a woman’s spirit, dark, gray day two days after Christmas, one day after my middle son’s birthday, two days after my daughter’s, nine days before my oldest son’s, when he’ll turn seventeen, and if all goes well, we’ll have mailed off several completed college applications and the financial aid forms, too.

Happy New Year is on the way. Plenty of change ahead.

Enjoy a little Bob Dylan on me and feel your own good-byes.

The day care was closed today. I was busy. I also took some time for coffee with a friend. We talked until we should have stopped. The walk there and back was brisk and energizing. On the way home, I stopped at the bank to deposit some checks, hoping to beef up my balance before draining my account with holiday expenses, estimated taxes, and an IRA, in anticipation of the filing of the financial aid forms for my son..

While I was there in the bank, the teller, who knows me, but had never started a conversation, chatted me up about the bags I was carrying from Dave’s pasta, where I had stopped to buy a bottle of wine and a six pack of beer, using the last of my gift certificate from years ago. There was a man in the bank from the Carribean, and an Elvis look alike, who also knew the tellers, then later an elderly woman, counting out two hundred and ten dollars in twenties and fives, made me think her grandchildren and children were getting cash. The Carribbean guy in his long dreds chuckled with the tellers when the Elvis look alike left, had another chat with the bank manager on his way out. When I left she wished me a Merry Christmas, used my first name, as she always does. I cash my paychecks, my child support checks, my day care tuition checks, though not today. These folks see every dime that comes and goes from my accounts. Today we talked about the teller’s mother-in-law, about my godmother, about Dave’s pasta, common denominator of the three fresh-made pasta, which I fed my kids for dinner last night, not from Dave’s, but from Whole Foods

For today, I feel part of the world, part of the city. When I’m home and near done with chores, I cook with Bob Marley, feel part of the world.

Enjoy some Bob, Redemption Song, with his happy mug flashing at you from across the years. Merry, Merry, Happy, Happy, Tis the Season, Be Jolly and Free:

Here is this morning’s Writers’ Almanac Poem, a good enough spear to the heart of the ambivalence and hope I feel this time of year, which make it hard to know if and what to write or do.

My children are here and asleep, back from their dad’s, back from the doctor’s office, where my daughter was not diagnosed with strep throat, but a more ambivalent (and hopeful?) virus, should return to school today, for Secret Santa, really Secret Gift Exchange, or some other equally ambivalent, hopeful name, gift for her giftee to be bought on the way to school according to the good graces of her brother, the new driver and co-parent in the family, taking on adult responsibilities along with the use of his dad’s car or my van, relegating me to turn-taker, walker, ride begger, errand consolidator.

The family will be here on Christmas Day. The plans for that, for Christmas Eve, for various other things from now til then and afterwards this holiday time off school and work are in the works. College and financial aid applications loom, more ambiguity and hope, as do holiday time birthdays for all three kids, no clear plan for celebrating eleven, fifteen, and seventeen just yet, and a funeral and memorial service, for an old friend and first Harvard Extension teacher and mentor to my son, who knew him from the time he was born, passed on yesterday morning to wherever we want or are able to believe souls go, four days after my son, seventeen year old driver and shopping chaperone and college applicant, visited her in her home along with his dad and another old friend and now mentor to my boy, math people of the world unite, first time he visited a dying person, of his own volition, as a priority over visiting his friends, and now she’s gone, and he’s got his instincts confirmed, he made the right decision last weekend to visit, and so this week may include a gathering with those she loved and who loved her.

And it’s been a week of gingerbread, as much as I could muster in this busy time of year. I made dough with my little ones on Monday morning, rolled and cut and baked cookies with the after school kids around my kitchen table Tuesday afternoon and with the little ones yesterday morning around the day care table, shared it both rounds afterwards, in smell and taste and feel, more happening downstairs today with Alice and Liana while I run errands and do all the things I need to do with the van so my boy can take it tomorrow to school and til Saturday to be with his friends before the holidays while at home we celebrate in some way with his brother and sister and my friend, makeshift holidays unfolding day by day by day, along with makeshift life.

As Gary Johnson says:

Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark,

And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.


by Gary Johnson

A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled.
Not much triumph going on here—and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.

“December” by Gary Johnson. Used with permission of the poet.

This afternoon is quiet. I have a candle on the table. Sufjan Stevens plays holiday tunes on the speakers. The counters are clean. The Dunkin Donuts box on the dining room table is half gone. My gal is upstairs in Barbie World. My oldest boy is in his room on the computer. My middle guy is with friends playing D and D.

This morning we did the errands, knocked several items off the to do list. I woke up after a full night’s sleep, to a vivid house dream extraordinaire, would like to read some Jung to tell me more about it’s meaning, instead, held it for awhile in mind and heart, wondered upon and guessed at it’s meaning, proceeded to the worries of the day.

I’m a morning worrier, wake up full of all I have to sort out, sleeping brain not restful at all. My kids get me moving, inspired to do the morning dishes left from last night’s chinese takeout meal, to leave the counters clean with a note for the sleeping boys while the girl and I head out and around the town.

This evening will be a Solstice Party, a place where if all goes as planned, those opposed to and in support of the charter school, and hopefully many with open minds, will gather around a fire in the biggest yard in Somerville to which I have ever been invited, around the living room fireplace, another rarity in this town, around the food laden kitchen table and drink laden kitchen counters, and talk and talk and talk, hopefully about stuff other than school.

I’d like for my kids to go along. We’ll see how that goes. Teenagers are hard to drag. Gal and I plan to get our Christmas tree between now and then. I’m debating a batch of homemade mac and cheese or a batch of Grandma’s Christmas Cookie dough in there, too, have done my scheduling, banking, laundry, cleaning, shopping, online and in store bits, always more to do.

It was a big build up to the public hearing for our school on Wednesday. Things around that have settled down a bit.

It was a big week at school for my kids, leading up to the Winter Show on Thursady, which was lovely in all sorts of ways.

It is a big week now leading up to the holidays and vacation and the birthdays of all three of my kids.

Lots to keep my mind and heart and body busy. This morning a day care mom shared a Jack Prelutsky poem with me, all about silence. I want to make time for that, too. If you have a little child in your life, maybe they’d like to hear the poem. In honor of quiet and poetry, I’m going to take a little rest with my new Elizabeth Bishop poetry collection, gift to myself during this past week of busyness. Then it’s off to get the tree and to cook or bake and to visit with friends around a fire or a table. Lucky life, oh, lucky, lucky life. Hard as it sometimes feels, it could be a whole lot worse.

When I Am Full of Silence
When I am full of silence
and no one else is near,
the voice I keep inside me
is all I want to hear.
I settle in my secret place,
contented and alone,
and think no other thoughts except
the thoughts that are my own.
When I am full of silence
I do not care to play,
to run and jump and fuss about,
the way I do all day.
The pictures painted in my mind
are all I need to see
when I am full of silence…
when I am truly me.

On Wednesday from 4 to 6 pm, there will be a hearing in the Somerville High School auditorium, hosted by the DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to allow for public input relevant to the granting of the charter for our school.

The city is a bit on fire, at least on the internet where I read posts from mostly opponents, and in the schools, where a founder’s child was told last week by his classmates that our school would cause their school to close, if ours opens..and where at PTA nights and school councils, the charter school has been on all the agendas.

I have believed in this school since we started working on it a year and a half ago. I’ve been dreaming about it much longer. I didn’t expect this level of intensity leading up to the hearing, or this level of anger around the city, am not entirely sure what to think or do.

For me, talking one on one is the way I sort out these things, or writing, or attending meetings, or reflecting, or possibly dreaming. My dreams have been less than kind. This morning between five and six am, my car was stolen, my kids and mother and I were stranded in a restaurant far from home, it was getting dark, and I had a cheap track phone which wouldn’t work, and 911 seemed not to pick up while nearby uniformed men were hard to identify as police or something else.

We’ll see where we’re headed. It’s not up to the city, but the DESE to decide if we’ll get our charter. If we do, there is a whole lot more to do before we open in September. If we don’t, the group intends to try and try again.

Regardless of what happens for our charter, the city is talking about education, and my hope is more kids and families and teachers will get what they need as a result. Only time will tell. Again, time to embrace the mystery and unknown, to act as best we can, and to hope.

Today the kids and Liana and I made an adventure. We walked up the hill to Broadway, down Broadway to the new entrance to the new section of the Alewife Brook Greenway, followed the path to the end, crossed the street, and peered down into the water where the Alewife Brook meets the Mystic River, turned around, walked back again along the path to Broadway, walked the opposite direction on Broadway, entered the cemetery across from the path, traversed the plots to the Brook, followed it to a small path in the woods, emerged on the small bridge over the Brook where we have been starting our recent adventures of playing beside the Brook.

There are pillars with maps of these paths and waterways at the intersections of the path. The children and teachers are studying them, positioning ourselves, reading the names, studying the brooks, rivers, ponds, wondering how much further we’ll go.

When I last walked this path, I was with my friend James. We had continued on along the Mystic River, where we met some kayakers hoping to continue on to the ocean. I tell that to my children, wonder if someday we’ll walk to the ocean. My five tells me the ocean has waves. We admire the water, as it flows from storm drains and trickles over soda bottles buried in the mud. The children name the trickling a waterfall, ooh and awe at the gushing storm drains, name the ducks, daddies and mommies, lay low on the boardwalk to get a closer look at a stream running under it from wetland to brook, slip and slide on the steep boards up to Broadway and through the rutted path in the woods leading from cemetery to bridge.

When we near my house, we can’t see it, but things are familiar. The children exclaim. It’s my house! It’s a funny house! I wonder if they thought we would walk all day. We didn’t check a watch. When we get home, we find we’ve walked two hours and it is time for lunch, time for midday pickups. We are wet. Our fingers are stiff. We change our clothes. I make soup, bagels, cut cheese, offer clementines. Liana helps kids undress and dress, bags wet things, organizes the front hall. We eat together in the kitchen. The children are loud, not worn out as I would have predicted, but laughing, teasing. I think now that most likely they were proud.

The past month or so, I’ve been embroiled in two heated debates amongst groups trying to do the right thing. At Sudbury Valley, there was a decision to change the governance structure of the school, to remove the body which included parent representation. It was a contentious, long-debated decision. In Somerville, our Charter School has hit the news and the City is debating all kinds of things leading up to a public hearing with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Debates get me stirred up.

This morning we were debating how to spend our outside time. Liana and I were considering a trip to the Brook or a walk to the park. We tried to decide between us, but neither one of us had a strong preference. I decided, as we had last week, to open the decision up to the kids, who ranged from two to six.

At first there was shouting, Park! Brook! Park! Brook! Boring! Fun!

I realized this pattern was all too familiar, both within our day care group, where this sort of battling has happened before and lead to less than harmonious outcomes, and in my larger life of democratic school and city.

I suggested to the kids that when reasonable people want to make a decision in a group, they can express a preference and give reasons for that preference. Someone might want to go to the park to play on the riding toys or to use the monkey bars. Someone might want to go to the brook to be in nature or to play in the leaves.

One by one, we went around. To my surprise and delight, each child expressed a preference or the fact that they had none, and a reason for their choice. In the end, there were more voices preferring the Brook and that is where we went.

Unlike previous decisions, when kids who didn’t get their way by shouting out or taking sides, these kids went along with the group decision happily. No one complained. Of course it’s going to be another park day soon. It did feel good, though, to practice civilized dialogue, to have the kids express their thoughts and listen to one another, and to make a decision together.

As we walked, I thought out loud, that I am that kind of person. Some people like to decide things on their own. I like to hear the discussion of a group as I make up my mind. I also wondered what sorts of decisions the kids in our school will make and how the process there will unfold.

My friend Macky forwarded this article to me. I found time to read it this morning in the coffee shop, in between chauffering my kids and house and day care and charter school chores.

Like Barbie dolls, it seems Princesses can be used by little girls to sort out the world and to invent and reinvent themselves. They don’t have to be evil corrupters of our daughter’s feminine strength or ability to conquer the world. Ask my daughter, who loved the Disney princess set her dad gave her at four as much as any figurines yet, wore pink and frilly things, which she changed more times a day than we could count, and who now lives in a room so full of doll houses and Barbie Dolls and American Girls I have to leave the light on after kissing her good night to avoid breaking my leg or one of the dolls as I walk to the door. She’s a mighty powerful girl, creative, articulate, athletic, knows her mind and how to act on it. Perhaps its not princesses and Barbie dolls be damned, but dolls in many forms be praised. The Disney princesses live on for my girl on a shelf on the wall, in memory of her early strong self and the days when her dad lived here.

Enjoy the article. Thank you to my friends for sifting through the NYTimes I’d love to read more thoroughly myself but never do, and sending me the pieces you know will float my boat.

This morning my son and I get up early. At 6:30 my cell phone alarm wakes me up. A few minutes later I knock on my son’s door, where he’s sleeping under two down comforters, rises to shower and get ready for the SAT subject tests he’ll take this morning, having been out late last night babysitting for boys who used to be in the day care.

As my son makes his now daily egg with Kupel’s sesame bagel and we make a plan for his day and the things he’ll need to take to the test, I decide to flip the laundry, a result of remembering the sock pile turned up on cleaning day yesterday in his brother’s room, pile of black athletic socks atop a drum reminding me to flip the laundry. On my way to the basement, I look out the back door, where once I saw a bird drawing hay from a nest the children had built on a table there, to see chalk words lining a retaining wall built by my former father-in-law many years ago to hold the soil he removed when laying a brick patio. The soil had submerged the raspberry patch, though the canes grew up eventually to bear fruit.

I step outside today to read the words, which in fact begin on the brick patio, continue on the retaining wall, and then onto the porch, where the girl who wrote them, an eight year old who is with us after school, who had asked me if she and her friend could rake leaves for money again yesterday, as they had last Friday, had ended up coming to the door awhile later to show me what she had done, which at the time, looked like just the words on the porch floor, written in chalk beside a rainbow, I LOVE THE DAY CARE. The rake and bucket and a slim pile of leaves beside were left on the patio, with words straight across the bricks saying, “We got two dollars last Friday from Maria (look up).”  This morning I find those words, after finding the piece on the retaining wall, which says, “Today we’ll get more by working.”

I wonder at the three part piece. Love. Work. Money. Which is it? Or is it all three?

I’ve been reading a book Liana gave me for my birthday about children’s writing and art as true literature and art. I believe it is. I’ll tell you more about the book later. I love it, as Liana knew I would. It was recommended to her by a dear older friend who knows her, and children, and learning and school and teachers and now I imagine art and literature, quite well. I think of this friend on my ride across town later in the morning, not because of the book, but because as I drop my son at the High School for the SAT’s, where I recognize none of the others rushing in to take the test, where I open my window to tell my son I love him, wondering if I’ll embarrass him, regretting not giving him a kiss, and the others walking in are mostly darker skinned, and I feel this pang of love and loss, this overwhelming need to know what is right and good, and the utter futility of wanting to be sure, and so on the way home, my mind travels to our school, which is under attack all around the city that I love, for all kinds of reasons, some having to do with the issues of skin color, of language, of privilege, of personal choice, of money, of power, of control, of shame and saving face, and I think of the angry man who sat in my co-founder’s living room and listened, and talked, how I tried to make the talking and the listening fair to all present and had hoped for truth and decency, and how this man then went to a larger audience and questioned the test scores of the founders’ children as evidence that we had no right to question the system in which our children were educated or to try to make a place we thought fit our notion of right and good with which that system might compete or cooperate, depending on the version you choose to tell or believe..And so I thought of all the elders to whom I have looked, I thought of all the friends and colleagues and clients and families and children who have known me over the years, and I wondered which ones might stand before an auditorium of people like this man and challenge his assumption that the school we want to make is no good or self-serving or not right. And there were very few in that number who I could ask or who I believe would want to do it, not because they don’t believe in me or in our school, if they know it well enough to judge, but because of the rancor, and of perhaps not wanting to assert themselves where they feel they don’t belong.

The city was empty as I’ve ever seen it, before 8 as I drove through Davis Square, where most of the parking spots were vacant.