March 2012


Last night my girl had her first sleepover with friends from her new school, where she’s been now just over a year. Last night my son was out til midnight with his girl, out of touch til nearly eleven. I was worried about him, driving home late through Boston without a cell phone, and also I wanted the girls to sleep. I slept curled on the new/old loveseat in the day care, shoes and glasses on, fully dressed, until the girls fell asleep and the boy came home apologetic. When I went upstairs to bed near one, I found my middle guy on the computer in his room, light coming through the crack under the door. I pulled the plug, literally, as he and I have been sharing a power cord between our two computers and my battery was nearly dead, and said good night.

This morning I woke up to my middle boy running the shower, a petite nine-year-old in a red velour dress outside the door asking me if I knew where the bathroom was, and my oldest guy offering to make omlettes for  the kitchen full of girls. They all refused. Instead they ate pasta, rice, cereal. They packed lunch, ate potato chips, organized their things, got dressed and in the van. My house was more orderly when they left than when they arrived.

Downstairs, the day care was filling with children as we left for school in my van, all seven seats filled again, after a year of not much carpool. In the day care there was a homeschooler in the doorway, dropping off his younger brother, a three coming to greet me, Liana and Jen welcoming families and preparing for the day, parents saying hello, Liana wondering if we had space for a sibling, as his mother had called about backup care. We did not. My house of kids was full up, just the way I love it. I always wish for space for more.

Last night one am, though, I lay in bed in worry. I woke up again near six, to wonder how I’d raise these many kids who had all gone to bed too late, after a long, full day. They surprised me as they often do, were up organizing their things in the day care after the sleepover without a wakeup call, showering on the second floor without being dragged from bed, offering omlettes from the goodness of his heart. And when I drop them off at school, not a one looks back. I don’t get my usual good bye hugs and kisses. The kids are fluid in their transition and it’s ok, because I’ll see them soon at the Spring Show, and later, when I drive them home. More importantly, it’s ok, because school to them feels like home, and that is what they need and I wish. As I drive the van of kids to and from school yesterday and today I fantasize about the life of a stay at home mom, who might do this every day, but I also love my life, love the house of kids, mine and others, love sharing our place with families and teachers who come and go each day, with friends from school who don’t expect too much of me, who are happy with pizza for dinner and for lunch, who clean up and get themselves together, who talk politely and mind their manners and tease and laugh and love my children, even when I’m not around.

The worry is eased. The sealed envelope from the last college for which we had held out hope, which I left on my son’s desk last evening when I brought in the mail, which he read in his room alone at midnight after he apologized for not letting me know where he was, for making me worry, which I read this morning as I got him up for school, after I asked what was in it and he had told me, “nothing good”, feels less important when I look in the rearview mirror of my van of kids and see him in the third row seat, squished up against my daughter’s friend from school, laughing as the small girl in the velour dress disses his music while simultaneously poking my middle boy who has claimed and been granted shotgun, pulling his hair and tossing insults back and forth, and my girl on the other side of the third row seat, surrounded by her three girlfriends, who are also friends of my boys, six kids from school, ages nine through seventeen, familiar, tender, at ease. It’s hard to imagine my boy leaving. I wonder if perhaps he’ll stay.

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Yesterday my kids and I had dentist appointments. They take forever and we have hours in the waiting room. I thought I might read while I was there. Last time I brought a book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I think it was, and talked with my dentist about her mother, the elderly Arabic reader. This time I bring John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum, The School and Society. I have time to read only a short bit, though we are in the office two hours, as I talk with the hygenist, the dentist, and my kids, and take some time to close my eyes and rest in the chair while I am alone in the examination room, quiet in the day too good to read.

I do read the introductions, and I look at the publication dates, 1901, 1915. I begin the first chapter, and I am immediately in love. I came back to the book to see how John Dewey fits with SVS, to see how John Dewey fits with my now, and in the few short pages I wrestled with him, I found him as prescient as ever, as readable as my grandmother on her best days with me, as familiar as a friend.

Later I talk with my friend about my reading and he helps me wonder on the resonance. I think a lot about the things John Dewey writes about in his book. I wonder how much of my thinking about those things is about my history and who I am and how much of it is about what he’s written, which is in me, too, as I have returned to this book over time since I first discovered it, either as an undergraduate or graduate student, just learning about progressive education.

I had been wondering about the timing of his life and work when I was talking with Brenda Engel recently about the history of progressive education and the lives of those I’ve known or heard of, and of the schools that emerged at different times and the readings that influenced the stories as they were lived.

I’ve been wondering on all the talk about our schools needing to be revolutionized to reflect the needs of the digital age and the future, as they were developed for the Industrial Age. John Dewey starts this book with similar ideas. His life, in fact, spanned the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, yet I feel as though his ideas work now..He watched the world go from mainly agrarian to industrial, from isolated to interconnected, and he marveled at the life he saw passing and the one on the way.

My friend points out this has something to do with Jung, and I wonder on this, something about archtypes and living through shifts and transformation, noting the losses and gains. I wonder about this. Must also find out when Jung lived and wrote, see how history affected him, how he affected it.

I marvel also at the intelligence and clarity and depth of thinking and feeling in John Dewey’s work. I wonder if he attended college or was self-taught, at his own station in life and early mentors and upbringing, and I think about how ways of learning work to create intelligence, intellectualism, patterns of thought, creativity, discipline, which Dewey talks about, too, as he laments the passing of the neighborhood and family focus of life, when hard work, accountability, relevance, systemic understanding of the processes of life were integral to living and brought people along in their learning in ways school often doesn’t. Somewhere in there is the connection to SVS, is the heart of my own wondering, farm family turned wage earners, rural roots and city life, childhood world of extended family to adult network of colleagues and friends, party line to wifi and 4G connections, big changes in a short time for Dewey and me, wondering on what is lost and what is gained in living every day, as Joni Mitchell would say, best be off to prepare for the day, as always, squeeze in the writing, dump the thoughts here as efficiently as I can so as not to be late for work, which I love, but which is not solitary, and which is not a time for dumping thoughts on paper or computer, but a time for being solidly in the world.

Have a little Joni, on me and youtube, recorded before the world went digital, of course:)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCnf46boC3I

It’s a kid weekend for me, teenager weekend, really. They all sleep in now, while in middle age, I wake up early. This gives me hours in the early morning to contemplate life, to order and reorder thoughts, to wonder on the lists of chores, on the people and places in my life, come and gone, here and now.

Good place to start the chores for me is at the kitchen counter. Feels good to wash the dishes, to dump the leftover food from my daughter’s lunch containers, wipe the counters, listen to music, Joe Cocker this morning, look out the now closed window at the gray day dotted by pink blossoms on the trees, eighty five degree summer spring yesterday turns to thirty degree winter spring this week, sandals in the middle of the tv room floor bought ahead of schedule for her summer camp in July, worn all week long, may return to the shelf a week or two, will come out when she goes to Texas with her dad and brothers, last weekend kids will be with me again for awhile, til we are together for Spring Break, sorting out the college returns may drag out that long, maybe longer, as my boy got waitlisted yesterday at two schools which interest him, and we haven’t yet visited the schools to which he’s been accepted, first choice still to come, and two others in the next week or so, long process of preparation, investigation, waiting, wondering, hoping, and all the while his final year at home, at the school he loves passes by, must make sure to notice the passing as well, to mark the going, so one thing I think of as I wash his dishes at the sink is of the graduation thesis he must write next month and the graduation party I hope we’ll have in June, am not ready, and the tears come as I write this, to think to the packing of his things and of the sending off of his person we’ll do in August, months away, and I’ll keep it that way for now.

Time to tidy the house, have given up on the muffin making I had spent the early morning planning, kids will find food in the cupboards and the fridge, and I may bring donuts home from my morning around town, will spend the morning putting the house in order and attending to some desk work I didn’t do the last couple of days when I was with a friend in the hospital, and helping him settle in back home, time passes differently, priorities come clearer in a shared hospital room when anything could happen, reading a book, sharing a movie, small talk to pass the time, walking around the hall, visiting with the roommate, talking on the phone are about all a person can do, sort of comforting in a way to put the world on hold and to just be for awhile, back in it now, and working to adjust. Good news is the friend is home, we both have food in the cupboards and money in the bank, thanks to errands after the hospital release, and a weekend ahead with kids, grounding in it’s own way.

Last night we were all home, my three kids and me and my son’s girlfriend. Perfect night for a middle aged single mom, the normal I rarely have, and it felt darn good. Rest of the weekend is wide open, so we shall see..

Today the kids come in and get to playing, mid-March style, in full form. One three says to her good friend, another three, “Actually, I don’t want to be a mom. I want to be a dog.” She switches from looking after wayward children to being dragged around on a long pink ribbon of a leash by her four year old friend, her three year old buddy on a matching leash by her side.

Soon after, Liana gets excited to take some kids outside to do rubbings. One of our threes loves the words he finds on our walks around town, GAS in particular. Liana asks who would like to join her, and soon has a crowd of four, then six, when the dogs shift gears to adventurers.

In the back room two boys are playing, a three and a five who have discovered they both like to build and pretend. One five is beside me on the couch, resting and snuggling after having been out sick nearly two weeks. A lone three stands on top of the climber across from us. I wonder if he might be lonely. I ask him if he’d like to go out and do rubbings, or play in the back room with his friends, or join us on the couch for a book. “I’m hunting.” he says. “I’m hunting elephants.” Well, yes, I guess I shouldn’t assume a person on the climber is just standing there with no plan.

Later in the day, when the kids come inside and my five is desperate for food, having had a stomach bug and an ear infection and a fever and GI trouble from the antibiotics so long she feels delicate and limp at my side, I go to see what has been happening in the back room. The hunter had joined the three and the five and I am astounded to see they have covered the floor with enclosures and filled them with animals, groups of elephants, tigers, pairs of cows, a baby dinosaur on a large dinosaur’s back, giraffes, a giraffe and a panda bear, with a divider down the middle of their cage, a killer whale made of tinker toys. I am so impressed I call the kids to the back room to organize ourselves for meeting and clean up. When we are all there, I start the meeting by noticing that my three and five have been very busy. The five adds that the other three was also part of the game. He says he was “ordering the animals” and I wonder in my mind if that means bossing the animals around or lining them up in tidy rows, ask aloud, “what do you mean by ordering the animals?”

The three clarifies, “I shot a buck. I’m cooking it right now.”

The five wonders what is a buck. I ask the three to clarify. He says it is an animal with big horns, with four points, and he touches the sides of his head near the top, where the horns would come out. The five wonders if this is a bull. The three cannot say, but thinks it is not. I wonder if a buck is a deer, but this seems unclear to the three as well.

We move on and kids notice the different animals in the pens. We talk about and look at the zoo. We share the rubbings from outside and make a plan to take some kids on further adventures making sidewalk rubbings with Liana after breakfast while others go straight to the park with me.

This is the nature of choice and young children with us. Some days it is best to be a mom, other days a dog, some days a hunter, a builder, a zoo maker, or an out of doors adventurer on the teacher’s plan. It’s taken me a lifetime to get here, or perhaps to come back here from the time I was a girl, to fully appreciate the children’s agendas and creative instincts, to be in their presence with a minimal agenda of my own and to expect that some days they will barely need me at all, at least not to figure out what they want to be or do.

I woke up this morning to open windows, and to the sound of bird song, which reminded me of other years of waking to bird song, and of the country, mostly in the Texas Hill Country, where watching and listening to the birds was one of our favorite occupations, as life there for us was otherwise so quiet. The open windows and the sounds of the city were what I had remembered at bedtime last night, the cars and sirens taking me to other years and other cities, most notably New York, where my open windows on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 121st Street let in all manner of city sounds, some days so loud I’d have to shut the windows. In New York, there were also strong city smells, and in Texas, fragrant country scents. This morning the house does smell fresher, having had it’s doors and windows open three days running.

Yesterday afternoon I took all the curtains from the day care windows and doors, and even the shelf and shower and tossed them in the wash. In the evening, I pulled fresh white cotton curtains from the washer and put them in the dryer, then pulled warm, clean, dry curtains from the dryer and dumped them on our new hand me down loveseat in the day care. Today I’ll rehang them in honor of spring.

Outside there are flowers, inside there are flowers. Several years ago, when times in my house were as hard as I might remember, I began bringing flowers home for the dining room table and for the day care. Now we have many, as well as potted plants and dried and living pussy willows in vases and dried blossoms in bowls. The whole thing is meant to remind me/us that spring is on it’s way, which it always is, and which it is always good to remember. The children were most amazed of late when the Gerbera daisy, which had been flowering when I brought it home from Whole Foods this winter, but which had only leaves for quite awhile, made a large red blossom. “It’s the first time that happened in my whole life!” exclaimed my three, who came to us as a babe in arms at just over one, and who will be one of our oldest girls next year at just over four. I was pleased to have offered her the flower, as I am pleased when the children exclaim at the rings of purple crocuses larger than ever in my front yard this year, or at the small purple myrtle flowers that barely stopped blooming this year, and which emerge, tucked under the vines, to the childrens’ delight. Yesterday there were also dandelions, which my more experienced four collected in a bunch and my less experienced three collected in a single blossom. “I want more,” he pined. “I think I’m going to keep mine for now,” she mused, without malice, I think, just needing a bunch of flowers so early in the year.

I’m hoping that besides hanging fresh curtains today, we might also celebrate the Equinox by working in the yard. Yesterday I dreamed with Alice and with a day care dad about a fence we could put alongside the broken down thing my neighbor won’t likely replace. We wondered on a piece of art to string between galvanized poles set in the landscaping timbers my former father-in-law laid along the edges of our yard. I wanted an easel, a mirror, a musical panel of tonal pipes or wood, a weaving made by the children, a wall of plants, something other than another stockade fence over which I’d likely argue with the absentee landlord of the place next door, who last time I saw him, was getting his son to chainsaw and pick axe our hedges. More spring, the yard work, the dreaming, the flowers, the birds, the art, the creation of new solutions to problems, the children discovering the world anew. Welcome.

I spent last evening just before bed sealing the envelopes for fall contracts, looking ahead to new children joining our group feels springy, too. Perhaps that’s why we do it now, rather than in summer.

This morning’s Writers’ Almanac was what reminded me that not only did it feel and sound and look like Spring, but in fact it is officially Spring. Mary Oliver reminded me how to remember again that we are of the world. Whether our windows are open in Manhattan or in Somerville or in Texas or Cape Cod, the world is out there changing all around, for the bears, for the neighbors, for the birds, and for us. Best to love it as it is, even as we do our best to make it our own.

 LISTEN

Spring

by Mary Oliver

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

“Spring” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Well, I mistakenly posted this here instead of to the private blog for families. I guess I’ll get rid of names and you can see what sorts of things we say to families every day. It is a good life we live with the children, and a pleasure to write and reflect upon it each afternoon while the children rest.

We are a small crew today. One is still out sick. One is with her grandparents. One is with her family in Mexico. So there are only seven of the children, and they play much of the inside time together in the back room, making a big train track and using adventure gear and a little bit on the couch in the front room with food.

Alice attended a conference this weekend and comes to day care with a new timer that shows the time passing with a decreasing red section of the circular timer. We try this for the countdown to clean up, then show it to the kids and talk about timers at meeting, then try to do a fifteen minute cleanup, which seems like a long time, but is about how long the group needs today. Then we use it again at nap time to show what time must pass before the threes may get up from nap and how much time must pass before the fours can get up.  Right now everyone is resting quietly, after a lively lunch of pancakes, yogurt, blueberries, and carrots, and a downright summery, minus the leaves on the trees, walk and time at the park.

It was quite warm, and one mom called near the end of park time to ask about sunscreen,which reminded me to remind all of you that if you sunscreen your kids, you might want to start this week, as we’ll be out a lot if the weather prediction holds true, and unlike in summer, when the leaves are out, we can’t  promise in March that kids will find the shade.

I am getting remarkably close to finishing fall enrollments and summer scheduling, so I’m going to stop writing and work on that a bit now. I should be able to let folks know about both this week, if all goes well. Then I’ll send a trial schedule for both summer and fall, and begin to get contracts out to hold spaces for both.

Thanks and happy summer in March!

This morning I woke up and checked things on the computer. Recently, someone had read a blog post I had written last spring, Poem for Spring Bicycle Riders: Generations Learn to Ride. I had written the piece and shared the poem in honor of my dad and my daughter, my dad who taught me to ride, and my girl for whom I had just bought a fancy new bike. The poem was timely, and true.

As I thought about that post, it occurred to me how little I write here about my mother, who is here, very much around and in our lives, and how easy it is to wonder about the ones who’ve gone, my dad who died when I was a girl, her dad who died when she was a young mother, just after I was born. Then, searching for something to grab onto in the e-mail pile of junk, I find today’s Writers’ Almanac poem, and it’s as though I’m in the barn with my mother and her dad, she wondering about a horse, he milking cows. I thought as I began the poem that it would be about me and my sister, who very much wanted a horse, and who had one for a few years, after begging my mom. Turns out, though, that this poem was about our mom. Her dad, like the one in the poem, was a dairy farmer who began his farming years with horses, ended with tractors and milking machines. My mother remembered recently in a gathering of her siblings which my sister and I drove many hours to attend, that she kept her dad company in the barn. Her sisters remembered being sheltered from the barn work, and how their mother never did it either. As a point of pride and respect in their father’s love for their mother, even through the Great Depression and World War Two, he held the barn and she held the house and garden. My mother, though, took it as a point of pride that she had been there with her dad, carrying milk up from the barn in a can or jar a story she has loved to tell from the time we were small, along with the stories of her dad’s humor and love for his littlest two of seven, my mom and her younger sister, and of all the animals he brought home to them as the others grew up, went away, off to work, to marriage, to war. On that farm they had horses to ride, not just the younger ones, but all of them. There were ponies and puppies and kittens and rabbits and maybe chicks and ducks and goats, I can’t remember now, but what I remember is my mom telling us about how my grandfather brought these things to them as gifts, as signs of his love and adoration, and how the family cared for them and made their fun on the backs of horses, in the woods and along the creeks and streams, in the pastures and on the hill.

It was a different time. There was no one working the land with work horses by the time I came along. My grandfather, perhaps wanting to hold my mother close, perhaps reluctantly sent her off to college, where she trained to become a teacher, went on later, when we were nearly grown, to earn her masters degree in reading, then to teach not only at the local elementary and middle schools, but to finish her career at the local community college, and to end her working days as an administrative assistant in a local education cooperative.

Not one of my mother’s or father’s siblings, not one of the seven or ten on either side, went on to become a farmer. They went on to the military, to work in factories and local banks, the school cafeteria, the prison, the hospital, the deli at the grocery store, the laundromat, some of my father’s brothers went on to become engineers, mostly after a few years of work before starting and finishing their degrees. Not one became a farmer.

When I was a girl, the farm was the thing. It was where we went to play, to be with family, to hear the stories that bound us to the past. The farms my parents grew up on were in the family when I was a girl and in some of my childhood dreams I imagined I would be the one to grow up and become a farmer. When my mother was a girl, she wished to become a cowgirl, just like the girl  in the poem, both inspired by the Westerns on tv, which my mother’s father may or may not have had time to watch. Never having had the privilege of talking with him, I don’t know, but its something I could surely ask my mom. She spent her girlhood on horseback with her brother and their friends, roaming the countryside. I spent two weeks with my uncle and grandmother and sister and cousins in Eastern Oregon, riding as much as we could, even into town to get the mail. My sister, who always was persistent, convinced my mother some years after that, that we could have a horse. We had a small storage barn and a six acre field surrounding our country house. My stepfather built an attached shed on the side of the barn for our horse. Someone, maybe him, strung wire between fenceposts and electrified it. My mother took us to look at a few horses, and we chose Amir, a white gelding Arabian, lovely in his stature and bearing, who shortly after arrived at our home by trailer from his owner, blind in one eye, to our surprise and dismay, which limited our riding, but not much else. Until our place was ready, now I remember, the horse boarded at the small farm across the road. Our neighbor Don, who worked for the town, and lived in a new house beside the farm where his parents lived and he had grown up, looked after some young heifers for his father, is what I remember.  Amir was in the barn and barnyard and pasture with the heifers. That was a happy time for me and the horse, as I would do my barn chores while Don did his, and Amir had the company of the heifers. The older Mr. McKenzie may not have thought as much of the arrangement, I’m not sure, but eventually, we got the shed up beside the storage barn and the electric fence and then we had only to carry water, hot water in winter from a newly installed hot water tap in our two car garage, out to Amir each morning before school and each evening before bed, to toss hay for him to eat and most importantly, to clean the stall with a pitchfork, hauling the soiled bedding to a pile outside, and replacing it with fresh straw. The best part was the grooming, which led to the conversation with the horse, which is what I remember and loved best.

My mom didn’t become a cowgirl and I didn’t become a farmer. Each of our parents gave us horses, though, and in our way, we each rode away. She had her backyard gardens and the horse for us girls in our six acre field, I have my raspberry canes, my tomatoes and herbs and blackberry vines and potatoes, and my compost bin in our Somerville yard, and in those small ways, the legacies continue.

Here’s the poem from Writers’ Almanac. Enjoy.

 LISTEN

What Every Girl Wants

by Joyce Sutphen

I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.

“What Every Girl Wants” by Joyce Sutphen, from First Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

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