January 2012


My girl who will be off to kindergarten in the fall began as a shy person in our group. Today she told us about a dancing class where she is afraid to participate because she is shy. She said this in our informal group meeting time, when others were talking about dancing. This participation alone made me happy she is no longer shy with us.

For a long time, this girl and I have shared time at the kitchen sink in the afternoon. She loves water. I first thought to do it with her because she did not join easily in the afternoon playtime of the other threes and fours awake at nap, and because I knew she spent a lot of time in the company of her many grandparents. When I was a girl, I loved to visit my grandmother. One of my favorite things to do at her house was to wash the dishes with her, with my uncle, with my sister, my cousins, my mother, my aunts, whoever was there for tea or lunch or dinner or a party.

Here are photos I took last week of my girl at the sink. This is her third year of washing with me, I think. That is something I love about mixed age grouping and about family child care. We are together for a long time, and we do regular things together, many of which give us great pleasure. Ask the fours and fives that helped to haul the Halloween pumpkin which had frozen and softened on my porch around the side of the house and into the compost bin this morning. They didn’t want to leave for the park for all the fun they were having with that pumpkin, working together to drag it on a large wood handled, metal scooped shovel along the brick walk, where I hoisted it into the compost bin and they jabbed at it with pitchforks, letting the air out of it like a big balloon, watching the liquid drain from the holes, pulling strands of pulp out the holes which they called noodles, watching the thing collapse on the pile of composting food and leaves and fungi, as our fungi loving newly five admired. Real work is real learning and real fun.

What I loved about this series of photos is the shifting of the activity from sink to table. I also loved being able to take the photos without disturbing her work or concentration. If anything, the photographing seemed to make her more attentive and invested in her project, which turned into filling glasses and carrying them on a tray to a table, which she set gradually to look as though she were expecting guests.

I’ve also included four photos of her work before the dish washing. You can see how she has made a place for herself to work on the kitchen floor by laying a table cloth there and bringing puzzles and a game, and how she has made a cozy nest on the futon where she rested beside me while I typed and the younger children fell asleep. The ability to create spaces of one’s own is something we all need. Our family child care tries to create such opportunities within our space and routine. The children make many small worlds each day.

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This weekend I took some time away. I’ve finished my taxes. I submitted one set of financial aid forms on Thursday, the other on Friday. Saturday afternoon I bought a multitasking machine to help me send the tax returns to the colleges which require them, long johns for my kids’ winter camping trip, and cross-country skis for myself. Sunday I cross-country skied with a friend. Yeah!

In between, there were other things. Last night while we cooked, we listened to Johnny Cash Unearthed, and I was, again, unearthed. The way Johnny sings those songs makes me listen. His life comes through in the lyrics he writes or chooses, in the emotions in his voice.

Later, we watched Downton Abby, my new favorite tv show. The characters struggle with their lives, with change they want to make and change forced upon them, with love in many forms, with work and what it means and says about them, with all sorts of things that make me want to watch.

After one episode, we stop, in spite of Netflix’s offer to click for the next episode. Which means I am able to finish Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which Joan would probably like to know, was perhaps one of two books my ex-husband and I bought for each other for Christmas, that and Cold Mountain, I think, though Joan’s was the last, neither of which we read together, neither of which he read, as far as I know, in spite of the synchronicity. I loved Cold Mountain. I loved Joan Didion, too, but at the time I first started it, several years ago, it was too sad for me to read, too difficult in some way I can only guess to remember. It didn’t make enough sense. My daughter found the book in the bedside table cupboard in Ashfield last weekend, bookmark still in it, as Joan would also want to know, showing where I had left off. As I read this time around, I kept that bookmark in it, from 2005, I believe, which seems so long ago, I wonder if it came with the book, or was just a bookmark floating around the house which I picked up and used to mark the book.  Each time I came to a new stopping place this time, I folded the bookmark down to mark it without losing the original place. This time the book made perfect sense, the emotions and experiences Joan Didion describes were quite real to me. First time I read it I was married, though I imagine things were coming apart. I think I tried reading it again when I was going through the separation and divorce, though that memory is “mudgy” as Joan Didion and her daughter would say. I didn’t manage to finish then, either. This time I had not only enough distance from my own raw emotions to hear hers, I had a bit of my own story figured out, could line the two up against one another in my mind, make some further adjustments to my understanding of my own life while seeking to understand hers.

Joan Didion’s writing struck me as beautiful this time. Last time I had not been reading poetry. This time I had. I also have heard and seen her speak in real life, heard her say she reads mainly poetry, which I then heard in Blue Nights, the book about her daughter I read awhile back after the reading in Harvard Square, around the holidays, when I was aching for my children. The two books go together, Blue Nights about losing her daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking about losing her husband. In her case, her family has died. In my case, we have come apart. Parallel stories, much in common, meaning to be made from closer reading of the two.

I woke this morning to vivid dreams. One was about home and the other about day care, adjusting in the first, I now remember, to making a home for a family, of which I may have been a part, in the home of an elderly man, a tiny room, with beds and closet space enough after his own few possessions were stored and needs met, for a parent and two children, to make due til something better came along. The second was about adapting to changes in the day care, first some renovations, then a visiting day, first by spending time at the library, where Macky had told us the story hour couldn’t be beat, then by shifting the kids around at nap time to places in the day care where the visitors wouldn’t be.

I woke up to messages in my inbox about a sick child, wrote to a parent who had written last night looking for an opening for her son, offered her the sick child’s space, to two messages about tonight’s charter school personnel meeting,which I’m hosting, and for which my friend and I made soup with Johnny Cash. The week is back. I’m in it. Life goes on, stories continue when the book or the episode or the song or the marriage or the weekend ends.

Enjoy a little Johnny Cash singing Cat Stevens Father and Son, the song my friend and I shared while we tested the soup for our dinner last night. I loved Cat Stevens singing it when I was twenty and living abroad as a student in London. I loved Johnny Cash singing it when I was newly separated and needed help understanding what that meant, to make such a big change at midlife, fatherless, husbandless girl/woman on my own for the first time since London. I love it now, sending my boy off to school. No matter what the critics say, I think Johnny makes good on this one.

All day long I wanted to write. I never found time. Now it’s near eleven. I have a few minutes and will try. I don’t know what to say, only that I miss the writing habit.

My son Ben and I have been working hard the last month or so to complete his college applications, my yearly accounting and 2011 tax return, and our financial aid applications. The holidays are past. We’re in a lull between events in the life of the Charter School. I’m communicating with prospective day care families for September 2012. Two families visited today, and many more will visit over the next few weeks. Yesterday Liana attended a workshop about documenting children’s learning. When I stopped to visit at the end of my second parent interview this morning, she was deep into a conversation with the children about her experience. I left them doing egg experiments, physics. This evening one of the parents shared more about the egg experiments, which her son and his dad were enjoying at home. She shared her gratitude and wonder at Liana’s teaching. I felt lucky, as I often do, to be working with her, and a little envious, both of her for having attended this workshop, which I would have loved to attend, and also for her pure love of children and her way of engaging with them so wholeheartedly in their learning. On days like today, I love talking with our new families and having time to do my desk work, but I feel like an administrator more than a teacher. I miss the kids and being with them and Liana and Alice.

Tonight I had my kids at home. I finished more of the financial aid process, got my bills in order, communicated with a financial advisor, wondered at the steps still ahead in this marathon of college applications. When I took a break at last, near eight, my son and I made dinner, then my daughter joined us and we ate and talked. As I sat back in my chair I wondered at the normalcy and the specialness of it, that time at the table with my children talking, as I had as I looked in the side view mirror of my van while I waited at the drive through window of the bank, where I caught a glimpse of workers on scaffolding putting together the newest luxury condos in what used to be a our working class neighborhood, and of the delicate, sparse snow flakes catching the sunshine like fairy dust floating in the air around me and my van and the bank windows and the workers, and I thought I caught the worker’s eye, which makes no sense now, but did in the moment of feeling myself adrift in a magical world of normal.

Now my daughter is beside me sleeping, having drifted off before I realized it, while I read to her from The Wheel on the School, tired girl, near eleven, past her bedtime. We stretched out the night, as we have only two nights together  this week, then the girl and her brothers are gone five nights with their dad, this weekend and then again next weekend, so they can go winter camping with him and our friends. I worried with her before she drifted off that her boots are not right for winter camping. They’re leather and the winter camping advice sent from the campground to her dad to me to her today has warned us all that leather boots may freeze, even if they are, as my girl reminds me, waterproof. The boys are home, too, the oldest from a babysitting job, the middle guy here all night long, telling me as we cooked about Colbert and his election antics, and about Mitt Romney and his foolishness, and I’m grateful as I listen and join in, that I listened to NPR on my drive around town today, all about Mitt Romney and his money and the elections, rather than listening to music, was grateful even as I listened, to be back in the world again, to have passed that phase of my life where all news was overwhelming, where only music on WUMB or from one of my favorite CD’s would do.

I thought then of how passing into the dark for awhile makes the light all that much brighter when we emerge. Later I wondered if that was why the snowflakes in the sun looked so much like fairy dust, if that was why my childrens’ conversation over dinner made me so especially happy, if that was why my son’s new facebook profile picture looks like a new boy.

I’m grateful to be back amongst the living with some cash in the bank, with our bills paid, with a job I love and children who are strong and healthy and happy and fun to be around, with kitties who have their bad habits, but who fall asleep occasionally on my chest while I watch tv with my youngest two and we all laugh at the silly stuff and sometimes I cry at the not so silly stuff. Watching tv and dinner and chores and npr and store bought salad dressing and a new pair of pants in a larger size that fit and won’t remind me too much of the weight I’ve gained, and the e-mail my mom sent yesterday about being thankful for small things remind me to do just that. Happy New Year 2012!

This morning I am still tired, as I am so often these days upon waking. The snow that was on the skylight at bedtime, reminding me to get up this morning in time to shovel, has turned to rain. The e-mail from another school parent that arrived just minutes ago asks the school if the ski trip would be delayed since there is a winter weather advisory near the ski hill and local schools there have delays. I think to forward this e-mail to my children’s father, to suggest he check on things before sending the kids off to school, think of my son, who will be driving his sister and brother to school for the first time in snow, then realize they have gone, their father and his new wife have gotten the children up in the dark and put them on the road, in whatever conditions existed at 6:30, when I did in fact wake up, out of a deep sleep, not to wake the children, but to wonder why I was awake an hour before my alarm was to go off, since I had showered the night before, and fallen exhausted into bed ahead of my usual schedule. Perhaps I woke up at 6:30 in solidarity with my kids. More likely I woke up at 6:30 because it is my pattern.

Last year I had the kids here every other Monday, so Tuesday morning ski days were mine half time. I’d get the boys up, make them egg sandwiches and hot chocolate in paper travel cups I’d saved to reuse, drive them to a teenage driver’s place nearby, thank him for his care and wish them well, say good-bye in the dark, worrying each time that something would happen on the early morning drive or on the mountain, leaving my daughter in bed for a few minutes while I was away, then going home to wake her up and take her to school across town.  This year all of that is gone, school across town no longer hers, driving my kids to carpool or school no longer my job, kids sleeping at my house on Mondays no longer our routine, no hot chocolate, no egg sandwiches to ease the loss, to protect the boys from hunger, if not danger, only a short blog entry across town, too late, as they are already at school I realize before writing here, the mother who was writing must have checked the weather after sending her boys and girl off, too, and was wondering how they were.

There’s a siren in the distance, or several. The rain falls heavy on the rooftops. I’m under warm and heavy covers, flannel flowers and a quilt, in pajamas so cozy I think I’ll leave them on under my clothes as the day care kids often do, when I rise, momentarily, add a few layers, walk down three flights of stairs to the sidewalk, and shovel the snow on the walk on my own, quickly, if I can, before Liana and the day care families arrive, filling my house for the day, while my children snowboard in the snow and rain and my oldest drives and the younger ones sleep in the car and all three sleep on the bus if they are tired, heads tilted back, mouths slack, same as when they were small.

Life has a way of moving on. Here I am days and weeks and months and years from various milestones and anniversaries in my life, alone in the house, at the end of the work day, feet up on the couch before dinner, tree half undressed, thanks to the company of my two after school kids, having discussed death, cancer, poverty, health care, grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents, cookies, clementines, grapefruit candy, worms, compost, and other big and small things around my kitchen table over snack in a house lit by Christmas tree lights, sconces, lamps, dark outside making it impossible to know if the worms were there beneath the newly composting pumpkin, the recently added leaves, oatmeal, vegetable and fruit and bread scraps committed to the next life as the food supply for the worms, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, life goes on and on and on, darkness of a winter night lit for January nightfall in the late afternoon will transform, slowly to spring sunshine to midsummer sunset at eight or nine, worms will warm, compost will get moving, bin full up, composted soil must be tossed on the garden this year one way or another, another milestone, hefting that soil myself, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load to the garden on the opposite side of the yard, if all goes well, with the help and company of the kids again, my partners in work around the house, family child care good for chores that teach and support our life together, this morning’s work in the day care teaching children to pour milk into pitchers, to count out spoons and bowls and plates and cups enough to serve their friends, to find the frozen raspberries amidst a full fridge, to divide them evenly between two bowls for two groups of children who love them very much, to mop up the spilled juice from the floor, the counter, the cabinets when it sloshes on the trip from counter to project room, where half the hungry eaters await.

All this is in a full day with children, which I wonder as I always do, will it be like this in our school, will the children feel part of things, really part, so that they look after one another and the space and place, will there be raspberries for lunch, maple yogurt to mix them in, whether to make it like blood or to make it pink, child’s choice of fantasy, will there be english cucumbers to taste, as opposed to the usual, whole grain english muffins to dip in the yogurt, adults and children to talk with about the important stuff, whether cucumbers or worms or death, will there be time to dress and learn to do it, to be outside long enough for snowpants in a dry January, will the adults hold the children in their laps, know their family stories, share their own, will the day have breaks for aloneness, for chores, for conversation, for play, will the learning be surprising and wondrous and real, will the adults and children love and care for one another, will the worms crawl up out of the asphalt and into a compost bin or a garden or a flower or herb bed, will the children identify the plants and pick and taste the ones for eating, will there be a mitten bag and a sweater bag so that on days when parents forget warm clothing the children will go out and be comfortable in the cold, what else is there to remember from this place I love to take with me to the larger world of school?

And I think, three years after my marriage fell apart, I’ve learned to look forward to an hour on my own after work, to mind the house and bills and compost and garden and yard and my own mind and heart well enough to not only get by, but to look ahead a bit and to plan, to engage again with the larger world. It’s a long time coming, and it feels good.

This morning I wake up early. It’s my oldest son’s seventeenth birthday. My kids were home last night after a couple of days with their dad, first time together since our “vacation” of taxes and financial aid forms and college applications. This morning I have chosen black dress pants and sweater, trying my best to look the part of the charter school personnel board seat which I’ll shortly represent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Charter Office during our board of trustees interview with them. I was up late last night and early this morning rereading relevant sections of the charter application, preparing a chart in my best, not-so-great excel format to remind myself of all the folks who want to work at our school.

My kids are off school. They’ll be here this morning on their own. When I get back, I’ll hope to spend the day with them without too much charter school or day care or college application or tax prep stuff or errands or chores getting in the way. We’ll see how that goes. Tonight we’ll share dinner in the Japanese place my son has chosen for his birthday, and some sort of dessert, and a few gifts, some sense of compromise, I not knowing just how to please a seventeen, seventeen not knowing just what he wants, life is like that, we do our best, cliche or not.

Here is a poem from this morning’s Writers’ Almanac, which felt right on. Perhaps I should have shared it first. Nice thing about a good poem, it can make a cliche feel real. The personal is political is one bumper sticker I always debate slapping on my minivan. Caring for children is a big, big job. Hoping I’m up to it, as always. Wish me/us luck:)

 LISTEN

Shoulders

by Naomi Shihab Nye

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

“Shoulders” by Naomi Shihab Nye, from Red Suitcase. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)