October 2012


I wake up this morning post Sandy and nothing has blown away. I waited yesterday, checking the porch periodically to see if the chair cushions might take flight, to see if at least the lid to my small grill might leave me, but nothing did. Even the plastic organizer bins my daughter pulled off the curb which I have come to use beside the porch litter box to hold the scoop and spare litter stayed put.

All day, I think, I was hoping the storm might help me out, might lighten my load. No such luck. Lightening takes time and effort.

My children are growing. My daughter wears high heels and makeup, while outside her bedroom door the playmobil castle awaits, still set up for the ball, couples of queens and kings and princes and princesses preparing for the wedding that in some ways was her father’s, castle project abandoned once his wedding passed.

Nearby, where my son’s bed used to lie under the eaves, when all our beds were on the third floor and the boys shared this room without a door, my girl’s doll house, once hoped to be the largest in the world, lies neglected, the floor beside it covered in abandoned Barbie dolls in various states of undress, and their accessories, strewn as wildly as the clothes on the floor of my girl’s room, along with towels, jewelry, and makeup, all in transition as my girl rearranges her room again.

The book shelves of the boys’ old room are covered with the books they used to read, pre-laptops, as preteens. Now both boys have bedrooms downstairs on the second floor. One has become our de facto guest room, where my brother will sleep when he arrives at midnight tonight to do some plumbing repairs in the day care below, while I go off to work at my kids’ school.

In the dining room, a large cloth covers the shelf abandoned when the after school program shifted downstairs, cloth hiding wooden blocks, Littlest Petshop figures, and who knows what else, which we haven’t considered much this year.

In the hall beside the bathroom, there is a table full of figurines and playsets, playmobil knights and their castle, the second playmobil school, bought when just one was too hard for my girl to share with after school kids, so the first went to her dad’s, is probably still in its box in their new house, not put together once they left the apartment and she left her public school for SVS.

Yesterday I imagined all these places in my mind, along with the empty dresser in the upstairs bath, drained of my son’s clothes, which now live in his college dorm, the buckets of legos in the basement, the children’s books lining the upstairs hall, the thermos containers the kids used in public school, before they had the SVS microwave to heat their lunch, even the small divided plates for a long time my girl was unready to abandon, meant for toddlers, good enough for packing lunch if she used the lids.

The kids are growing up. This year there won’t be many toys under our tree. No one has built a lego set in this house for many years. The grandchildren, if they come, are a ways off. For now, it’s becoming a childless place, at least upstairs. The toys need to go, the rooms need rearranging. I need to be ready and up to the task. That alone may take some time.

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It’s been a long, quiet day, except for music and a fabulous podcast of Krista Tippet interviewing poet Christian Wiman: http://www.onbeing.org/program/remembering-god/4535

I’m grateful for the power in the midst of the big storm. The power is out in our place in Western Mass, but here, it’s on, if a bit flickery midday.

Whenever I have a day alone in the house, I think of retreat. Whenever I think of retreat, I think of spiritual, existential, human things. Poetry always means more. So, the podcast was perfect.

Today I didn’t cook or read. I did desk work and I lost track of time. I don’t really know what I did. It’s evening, and I’ve fantasized about clearing the house of all the unnecessary bits, with plans for leaving the place that on days like this is home to only me and much too big, or for sharing the place with someone new. Either plan requires clearing out. So far, I’ve tackled only a few kitchen drawers and cupboards in reality, though I’ve done much more in my mind.

As Christian Wiman says in the podcast, and I’ll paraphrase rather than quote, there really isn’t a present, there are only a past and a future, and those are where we live, either remembering the past or planning the future. That thought at least makes me feel less alone in the world.

Back to my attempts to clear out cupboards, closets, shelves, and drawers, never mind the middles of whole rooms of clutter. I feel hopeful some days that I’m at the apex of stuff. With one son moved out, two children here half time, my own life at somewhat of a midpoint, I feel hopeful that I will slowly downsize until I can travel on my image of the week, a comfy school bus outfitted for living. It’s been awhile since I had such nomadic urges. Kids growing up and living half time with their dad, no adult to share the house, a day care that’s moved fully downstairs, a house that is too big and unwieldy for me to maintain alone, a second shared place in the country where many weekends I’d prefer to be, family far away, a beau in another state, and a job three days a week an hour out of town all add up to a weakening sense of this place as my home. No surprise, I suppose, when I consider the situation this way, but again, I feel caught off guard by this sense of rootlessness and unwanted obligation to stuff and place. It would feel good to pack my most precious possessions into a small space and to take off for a bit with only a backpack and an iphone, focussing on people and experience instead of stuff. Interesting to fantasize this way, but its a long way from reality, this image. We’ll see where it takes me…hopefully for now, to another task on the de-cluttering list, if nowhere else.

Here’s a poem for your evening, written by Robert Bringhurst and recited by Christian Wiman during the podcast, in case it inspires you to check out the podcast, or just to consider life differently.

These Poems, She Said

BY ROBERT BRINGHURST

These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
who would leave his wife and child because
they made noise in his study. These are the poems
of a man who would murder his mother to claim
the inheritance. These are the poems of a man
like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
comprehend but which nevertheless
offended me. These are the poems of a man
who would rather sleep with himself than with women,
she said. These are the poems of a man
with eyes like a drawknife, with hands like a pickpocket’s
hands, woven of water and logic
and hunger, with no strand of love in them. These
poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant
as elm leaves, which if they love love only
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said,
and not a beginning. Love means love
of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.
These poems, she said….
                                       You are, he said,
beautiful.
                That is not love, she said rightly.

Robert Bringhurst, “These Poems, She Said” from The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982.Copyright © 1982 by Robert Bringhurst. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

This week at SVS I spent a lot of time with kids and beads. Few things make me happier than being in a group of happy kids working on a project and talking. Last Friday afternoon I helped bake cookies for the school Open House with two teens and two younger kids. Yesterday afternoon and most of today I hung out in the art room with kids exploring a new and newly found collection of beads. We sorted and packaged and priced a large bag I found on a high shelf on Wednesday when we were clearing clutter and making space for kids’ work in progress and a culled collection of board games. We also divided a huge assortment of beads I bought a few weeks ago at Michael’s.

Then the kids began the sifting and the sorting and the selling and the buying. One young guy spent most of the day pouring over a collection of colorful glass beads in many shapes, gradually purchasing enough five cent beads to go over his one dollar of folded cash held tightly in his hand and moving into his discretionary account, while another young gal came to the table when the beads were first put out yesterday and began her selecting and her making of jewelry, then came back today for more, choosing her favorites, making necklaces and bracelets, decorating herself, and gifting her friends, beginning my day and ending hers at the art table with the beads. Three gals helped me bag the tiny beads, scooping them up with a special bead scoop, filling tiny ziploc bags, and writing prices on them with a Sharpie pen. A whole group of girls from eight to ten or so learned to use the bead looms and began the process of stringing and weaving pieces that will take many days, and maybe weeks to finish.

We started at 10 am when I arrived, took a break around 1 pm for lunch, then returned til kids went home little by little, and finally closed up shop when I had to do my kid count at 4 pm, with a work in progress shelf full of bead looms, bead boxes, and jewelry in process, a few fancier kids, and a smile on my face. One of the big topics of conversation was pierced ears, who has them, how long they’ve been pierced, what sorts of earrings each one wears and likes. The treasure bag had some findings for making earrings, which were snapped up quickly. Kids are wondering if we can get more. I bet we can. I’ll be looking for those on my next trip to Michael’s, along with more needles, as the ones we used today were not as sturdy as hoped, some broke, and with all the interest in beading, we don’t have enough. We also talked about learning new things and being able to spend as much time as we want working on the things we love, and how lucky we are to be able to do both as we choose at our school.

Feels good to be useful, and to be finding my way in the art room and with the kids there on the days the other staff regulars who help kids a lot with clay and art are out. Last week we sewed, this week we beaded. I bought knitting needles and yarn and am hoping that will be on the agenda soon. If anyone has sewing, beading, weaving, knitting or crocheting materials to donate, I’ll be happy to share them with the kids.

This weekend we visited my boy at college. We arrived midday and left without having dinner, found time in between for frisbee, a walk downtown to the farmers market, the shops, and a cafe for lunch, a drive to look for dress shoes for my boy, a good round of basketball on a nearby court, and a few trips to my boy’s room, where we met the locals, a group of like-minded guys who can laugh and talk about differential equations, honors physics and computer science as much as my boy wants.

While we were on the basketball court, the only outdoor court around, which was on the grounds of a local park beside the hospital, just off campus, I was in a little slice of personal heaven. The first part of the day had been sunny and pleasant. Midday there had been a huge downpour, during which we took our drive to the shoe store. By late afternoon when we were shooting hoops, the sky was luminous, bold blue with striking cloud formations as a backdrop to the yellow leaves of the tree beside the court and the glowing green grass of the park. The only people in the world for that hour or so were me and my three kids, first the three of them laughing and playing together while I watched from a bench, then the four of us playing basketball together.

After the game, which second son and I lost to first son and daughter, my boy attempted to teach me how to shoot. His long arms and fingers are graceful and skilled. Mine not so much. Why are you throwing that way, he wondered? All I could think was that no one ever thought to teach me any other way. He showed me how to arc the ball, how to make it spin, how to coordinate these two motions so that when the ball came to the net it would fall in, and two or three times, it worked for me, too.

Later, when I was home in bed and near to sleep, I thought of that moment. My boy never knew my dad and my dad never knew him or his brother or his sister, or me as their mom, but somehow I think if my dad had lived long enough he would have showed me how to shoot just like my boy did.

Yesterday I left work an hour early to get to Wheelock College for a Documentation Studio event held there periodically throughout the year. I have been once or twice and was happy Liana and I could go this time. Liana has been working on an article inspired by the folks who run this place about our day care observations and the way the process of writing and sharing them impacts us all, caregivers, families, children.

I’ve been wondering how this piece of my thinking and feeling life will bridge to my new life at SVS. Yesterday the guest speaker was from the art department. Fittingly, his talk centered on a slide show of good and great art and advertising copy and on the visual language he uses to see those images. At first I felt like too much of a novice to know why we were there in the same room. I glanced back at Liana several times to see if perhaps she wanted to go. No, we were both entranced. The images and language out of another discipline were just what we each needed. I’ve been feeling at a loss with my photos and my day care observations, also unsure of how to use this blog at this point in my non-school starting life. It’s ok, the talk and images seemed to say, you’ll find your way, back or forward, you’re always moving. Life is like that.

The speaker showed and talked about powerful elements in visual communication, balance, color, light and dark, black and white, bright and dull, text, horizontal, vertical and some other fancy form of balance, not always focussing on the center. As I imagine he and the organizers expected, though I hadn’t seen it coming until we were in that moment, his meaning connected to ours and at the end of his piece, the audience found lots in their lives to talk about. The images of putting together an art show of many artists came to mind for me, along with our work in the day care balancing the photographic and narrative observations of our work with children, and the four caregivers who each bring a unique perspective and way of documenting.

After the talk, Liana and I and one of the organizers sat with a young woman working in a Boston center, doing art with young children. She wondered how to move from using mostly photos with captions to more narrative documentation, also how to collaborate with others in her program. We learned as much by talking with her about these questions as from her experience of working in an urban child care program seeking NAEYC accreditation, another point where my mind diverted, going back to my years on the BAEYC board, and the year I left in mind, body, and spirit, when those new accreditation standards and procedures were taking over, with their own form of documentation and standardization.

I wake up this morning full of thoughts on how this new life might connect to the old..about all the thoughts in the title I don’t really have time to write as I am off to the doing part of the day, driving, being with kids, finding my way in the day to day.

Another cool connection from last night was the presence of another artist who is making a magazine about the everyday, with the word prosaics in the title. He’s promised me a copy if I call the office. Check it out online if you have more time than I do right now!

As seems inevitable, a month into my new job at Sudbury Valley I am thinking a lot about student choice and self-determination, two values upon which the school was founded towards which I have gravitated my whole life of thinking about how we raise and educate our children. Even that phrasing sounds paternalistic, when I stop and listen..how we raise and educate our children..is only part true..how our children are raised and educated, how our children grow up and learn being two more points on the spectrum of control of children’s lives.

The longer I’ve worked with children, and the older I’ve gotten, the more these two values stand out. As I sit here typing in a cafe a young girl beside me tells me about her video game, wishing her mom had her computer with her, so this girl could play it. Her mom is sure to tell me it’s an Arthur game from PBS, and I am sure to tell her my sons played that game a long time ago and now the eldest is in college and studying computer science and the mother is reassured, but the girl mostly wants to tell me about how in the game you get to choose, you get to choose, you get to choose.  Choice matters. Probably, now I think of it, that is a big part of why kids love video games, why so many of us do..one choice after the next..what hairdo for the prom is the latest app displayed on my iphone, my daughter’s choice, what outfit for DW is the question this gal beside me wants to answer, which character to fight the demons, or which way to turn to avoid them, which way to point the gun, when to shoot..all just choices on the continuum..leading a child or a person to feel effective in the world, to make an impact, to determine a future, to create a fantasy, which leads to a new reality, or not, your choice, as well as not.

All day long at school I watch children and adults choose how to spend their days and I am fascinated. Even choosing to be still in a quiet room is profound when the context is school, or raking and playing in leaves with friends, a universal middle childhood activity, also profound when the context is school, or having a conversation about the weekend, or about an art project, or the budget, or fairness in the treatment of someone who has broken a school rule, large or small, also profound when considered in the context of choice all day, choice all the way. Is it real that there is a place where children and adults get to choose, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, ALL YEAR, FOR AS LONG AS THEY CHOOSE OR THEIR PARENTS ALLOW THEM TO STAY? Hard to believe some days, but yes, it is true.  It’s both miraculous and mundane to observe and to be a part of such a place.

Many years ago when I was a public school teacher I stuck my neck out for student choice. Pre-ed reform, pre-MCAS, I taught second grade in a school that had not really had materials available to students, had not given much priority to student choice, had not had a time of day in the schedule referred to as Choice Time, until I arrived. I bought the blocks, the paint, the books, the yarn, the tape, the legos, the puzzles, the games..and set up our classroom schedule so each day started with Choice Time, printed it on the daily schedule on the wall, fought my fellow teachers and the principal and the parents for the children’s right to play, to make choices, to start the day in ways they chose. This Choice Time was either twenty minutes or forty minutes, I forget. That is the time many students at SVS probably take to hang up their things, sign in, find their friends, and catch up from the day before. That was it in my public school life, and it was never, ever enough, not ever. Clean up was always too soon. I always wished for more. I extended recess, offered choice time when it rained and recess was held inside, tried to incorporate Math Choices, Literacy Choices, Friday afternoon Choice time. Still not enough. Twenty years later at SVS it’s Choice Time all day every day all year long..and the choices are similar and different. We have games, blocks, art and craft materials, places for reading and writing and cooking and using the computer. We also allow children to talk and talk and talk, to be by themselves for lengths of time most school teachers would find worrisome, to play outside for as long as they want, to do one thing all day every day or something different every few minutes.

And no one keeps track.

That is another profundity amongst the many.

No one worries, some seem not even to notice, if someone is reading or writing or doing math or playing in leaves or talking or using the computer, shooting things or studying french or building forts or climbing trees or playing foursquare or piano or painting or drawing or making a pot, attending or running a meeting or not. It’s all good. Sometimes I think it’s too good to believe. Other days I think I should keep it a secret in case the wrong person finds out. Most days I still wonder how this place was ever founded, how it still exists, how much longer we can protect it, what will happen if it’s gone.

SVS has transformed, and in some cases saved the lives of many students.

There are families and students who have moved across the country and the world so their children could grow up in freedom. I am not exaggerating. The place is that profound, that rare. I spend three days a week immersed in it’s culture. My kids spend five days a week, one for four years, the other two for more, assuming all goes well.

What is the effect of all this freedom, of all this choice, of the lack of judgment or control over the choices of the children in this school? SVS press has published many articles, books, and videos sharing the experience and philosophy of the school. Others, including Sir Ken Robinson, a pretty famous guy, have visited the school and touted it as an example of a school of the future. Day to day, though, it is a place where people live, young people from four to twenty one and adults hired as staff. Every day much of what happens there could happen anywhere..playing in leaves, talking, making music and art, studying math, reading, writing, using the computer, cooking, making budgets and running a small business. What makes it special? Why not let children grow up this way in many other places?

This, I think, was a piece of a dream I had last week, with children swimming in deep water, in a flood created by melting snow, holding on to sleds they used as kickboards, barely above water, with fire trucks and emergency vehicles racing from place to place managing crises, one dump truck full of burning debris that made it to a frigid lake just before starting the cab on fire, crisis averted this time around, or managed, but what next?

There lie the questions. How long can the kids (and adults) hold on? What crises will prompt the next emergency response? Which voices are going unheard amidst the din of emergency vehicles and when will they be heard?

This evening we got home late. I made a simple dinner of roast potatoes, stir fried bok choy and carrots from the last farmers’ markets I’m likely to attend this season, and roast beef sandwiches with horseradish caraway mustard from a farm stand near my mom’s. The flavors weren’t particularly elegant together, but we were hungry, and everything tasted good.

While I cooked, and later while I cleaned up and then folded laundry, I listened to an episode of On Being which I have been unable to get working on my ipod. This one was right on, The Inward Work of American Democracy with philosopher Jacob Needleman: http://www.onbeing.org/program/inward-work-democracy-jacob-needleman/222

I love working in a democratic school. Today’s school meeting was just one example of democracy at work, with a debate on issues of free speech, elections, and close examination of judicial process at the school. The living of values, the attempts at using deep conscience as a guide, the struggle to balance the interests of individuals with those of the community, and rights with responsibilities, the attempts to hear the voice of each individual and to make decisions collectively do mirror for me the ideas discussed in the On Being episode that held my attention when I got home from a full day of not only democratic meetings, but also beading, conversation, observation, chores and duties and free will choosing.

According to Needleman, the founding fathers and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights echo deep values which are also reflected in the world’s spiritual traditions, highlighting the deep ethical nature of our democracy, which Needleman claims is as much about freedom and responsibility as it is about creation of true selves, as it is about soul.

I am afraid my attempts to explain the podcast will be inadequate. If you have an hour while you’re making dinner, or if you can figure out how to listen to podcasts in your car or on your iphone (which I haven’t yet!), listen to this conversation between Krista Tippet and Jacob Needleman and see how it pertains to your life and the democracy you live. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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