October 2013


I read two interesting articles Tuesday night, the night I was alone in the house without kids or beau, after a therapy appointment where I talked an hour, and two phone calls, one to my sister, one to my brother, before I talked to my beau. One was a NYTimes article was about public support for preschool in the US, the other was based on a talk by Neil Gaimon in support of British libraries. Both were in support of conversation, of imagination, of exploration of the mind, alone, and between people.

Yesterday I talked with my day care colleagues and children and families. As I was washing dishes at the end of the day, one of the day care dads, who is a psychiatrist, happened to ask me about the NYTimes article, and we talked about the importance of conversation in our day care. The line he remembered from the article was about the fear that in an attempt to introduce more language to early childhood classrooms and to increase the vocabulary of young children, early childhood educators would mistake talking about flash cards for real conversation. This line triggered for him a deeper recognition about what we are doing in our family day care, where we talk freely and all day, and write midday about our day and our conversations with the children in observations shared with the families and other teachers.  We then talked about the challenges he sees in his work with struggling clients who may not have grown up in environments rich in conversation, who may be struggling mightily, and about the importance of conversation and connection in healing and in making meaning in life. We went on to talk about this in the field of medicine, as office visits become less about conversation and more about charting, and in schools, where accountability takes precedence over relating, about my experience at Sudbury Valley, where the understanding that free conversation is a basic human tool for learning has created an environment with constant, intense conversations all around.

In the evening, my son and I were on our own, a rare event for us in our lives of sixteen years of family. We put away the groceries, made and ate our steak and sweet potato dinner, drank tea, ate cookies, listened to a really funny guy my son introduced me to, and talked and talked and talked.  I learn a tremendous amount from talking with my son. He knows and is curious about so many things. We talk about music, about humor and comedy, about writing and reading, about love and friendship, about the day care and school, about family. Last night we talked a bit about the John Stoessel tv episode on Sudbury Valley which was recently released online. The scene my son most loved, which was invisible to me until he pointed it out, was at the picnic table outside, where his favorite new four year old sat, along with kids from what my son described as “nearly every age group” up to his old friend, who is now eighteen. I realized aloud to him how rare that scene would be at any other school, asked him how it felt to be attending the most radical school around, while also musing at how normal life there can feel, in the context not of school, but of how people chose to spend their everyday lives.

On some level it feels abusive to deny the basic needs we humans have to talk freely, to play, to walk and talk and sleep and eat. These are what humans do, what we have done since we were able. Putting small children and teens and adults in settings where these basic activities are restricted seems to me to limit our potential in devastating ways.

As I struggle with my work and personal life, I try to keep all this in mind. Sleep restores. Good food nourishes. Conversation connects and makes meaning. Love heals. Play enlivens. Walking eases the mind, and settles the soul. All these things have the power to help us learn and grow and thrive, and if we can get them right in our basic settings for living, school, child care, home, work, community, we’ll be accomplishing a whole lot. The constant question is how and why and with whom and for how long do we work in one context which seems to get it right or not and when do we move on.

Had thought I would write more, but time is up. Must wake the boy, prepare for the day, drive the carpool, see the doctor, meet an old friend for lunch, return for day care nap and wakeup time, make dinner for the kids, prepare the house and self and kids for another weekend when I will be away in Western MA with my beau, doing all the restorative walking, talking, playing, eating, sleeping I can manage, while the house I call a home is home to only the cat. Weird, yet happy life.

I’ll add links to the articles and video below. See what you think about the NYTimes and Neil Gaimon pieces and laugh at the silly stuff Jonah and I laughed about over chores and dinner last night. How nice to share a world this way, in print and video, over the internet and in real life, whatever that distinction means at this point in time.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/us/language-gap-study-bolsters-a-push-for-pre-k.html?_r=0

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

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So, last night we drove many hours on the interstates to this small town in Upstate New York. When we got off the highway, things began to look familiar, small town strip of shops, older square box homes on wide set lots along Main Street, new Hampton Inn on the outskirts of town not far from the Interstate. It could have been Batavia near my mom’s, though this town seems not to have a Walmart or a Kmart or a BJ’s yet.

But the real reason this chain hotel room in this small Upstate New York town feels like home is because my kids are here and soon all three will be with me, a rare two days of the four of us being a small family again. We’re here to see the oldest play Ultimate Frisbee. For ten years most Saturdays in spring and fall I stood on the sidelines watching him and his brother and sister play Youth Soccer. For four years, since my boy left youth soccer at fourteen, I haven’t seen him play. He’s played at SVS, and in a local pickup league, but not on an organized team with tournaments and games until last year, when he went off to RPI on his own, and in many ways, never looked back. All last year I never sorted out a way to see him play. This fall I did. We’re here, showering, soon to eat the hotel breakfast, then off to the field to see my boy, several hundred miles away from Somerville and our home of twenty some years, home right here, where we are, together. Might learn something from that. Another reason writing takes me home, reminds me of what’s true. Often until I write it, I don’t really know it, or at least the knowledge isn’t fully accessible to my mind. Home, like love, comes in many forms, and you have to feel it, more than think or will it, to make it real.

The past two weeks I’ve stopped in to visit at SVS after morning carpool. I’ve spent an hour there reconnecting with old friends, adults and kids and teens. Today my old friend, the six, smiled at me from behind his dad’s back, whereas last week I was toast. The art room is familiar and today I leave more heavy duty paper from the Crane factory, which the kids used to love for painting last year and which had run out, as well as a pair of scissors to add to the school’s collection, now my after school run is done. It’s wonderful to be there, but after an hour, I am ready to go home. I have a new cold and a lot to do before the weekend visiting my son with his brother and sister, driving to Oneonta for an ultimate frisbee tournament, first time I’ll have seen my boy play, second year on the RPI team, many years of playing in the local league.

I return to city living wondering what it would be like to shift my life, a question I’ve been asking for years. Then at home, I stop into my local health care center, place where my babies were seen into this world by the kindest ob/gyn staff I could have wished, where my many small worries and lumps and bumps and aches and pains have been assuaged all these twenty years or so I’ve been a patient there, a place I might as well call home. After that its off to my local bank, where the bank manager and the tellers all call me by name, ask me about my day, where I deposit day care checks, withdraw some cash for the weekend, re-activate my son’s passbook account and one we opened when we were raising tree house funds, both gone dormant the last two years. Teele Square, Davis Square, Garrison Avenue, Somerville, Mass, all these places are my home.

After the bank, I drive the few blocks home, park in my usual spot on the street, under the tree my once husband insisted my mom not cut down when she was helping trim hedges many years ago, now nearly as tall as the house with branches that shade the van and the yard, once full of perennials, now mostly myrtle and some mulch. Upstairs there are a few dishes to do, some from the van my son sent home with me after his night sleeping near school, late night of work and socializing with friends for this boy one night a week, finding his way into the outside world little by little by little, while at home things get quieter. The cat is missing me, hangs around the kitchen, mews for me to sit down, which I do, bringing piles of the week’s mail to the radiator by the couch, where I stretch out and the cat climbs on my belly in her usual way, claws needing clipping, cat needing petting after too much time with me and the kids away. Some days it seems we barely live here, in spite of the bank tellers knowing our names.

In a few minutes, I head downstairs, lay out the rest mats, open the portable crib, greet the teachers and parents and kids, help the little ones through their lunch to nap routine, check in with the am and pm teachers so I know what’s what. Today the little ones settle easily and the baby is awake. I lie beside him on the futon, with my two on the other side. The two drifts off as the baby and I play, first smiling at one another side by side, then with him on my belly, sitting up, bouncing, standing up a bit. Gradually he tires and the dishes call out to me. I strap him onto my belly with his mama’s baby carrier, and we bounce a bit in the sunshine by the sink, water running, dishes slowly washed, until he burrows into my chest, closes his eyes, and sleeps. Once he’s settled, I take his fleecy sleep sack from his hook, lay it down on the sheet of his crib, lower him into it, fitting his feet into the sack, his arms through the holes, zip him up and settle him down, return to the sink.

Then my five comes to the kitchen, back room closed, and I offer him colored blocks from the back hall. He sits in the sun with a felt board on the table to dampen the sound, makes spiraling rainbows of colored block, then small walls, towers, runs his fingers along the board’s metal edge. The sun shines on his white head and I am reminded of the sunshine on the rug in my living room growing up, the afternoon’s lying there with only my mind to keep me company, and I feel less sad for him than grateful to be the only five today, glad to have a home for him to share, for the baby to nap in, for the toddlers to come to each day, with home dishes and couches and windows of wood which open and close like the ones in their own homes, a bathroom with a mirror and tub, front and back porches and a yard.

I drink my tea. Jen rests on the couch beside the last straggling napper, my five shifts to a balancing moon game, the iphones play soft music to keep us company, the dishes dry in the sun. For a short while its still and mostly quiet, a sensation that’s rare in a school.

I’m working on this sense of home in my mind, think as I play with the baby about getting to know him in this way, learning his sounds and movements, allowing him to get to know mine. As I wash dishes I think of the time we all need to sort out our own thoughts, the quiet which invites us to do that, the way we use the word home to mean so many things, intimacy, being known, feeling safe and at ease, being ourselves, private, cozy, warm. For most of us home is those things. For some it’s not, but that’s when we question the definition more.

When I found my two kitties they were living in a home near Three Rivers, Michigan, where I went that summer for retreat. The sign along the road said, Kittens, Free to a Good Home. I was driving home to face my husband’s move out of the house into his own apartment, what felt like the dissolution of our home. My kids would be with each of us half time. The kitties felt like the right move, something for us to love in the hard time. The sign felt like a challenge to make my home a good one, or to define it that way. When I’m away for four weekends in a row, two of them long weekends, I question my fitness to care for the cat, not to mention my own sense of home. For the last three years I’ve been living that life, dating men who live in other towns, traveling a lot, parted from my kids every other weekend, finding it easier to be away than in the home where they should be, off with them many of the weekends we’re together, making memories I hope will survive.

For many years, we did day care in our home upstairs, first year with the infants and toddlers and twos, second year until now less full time, but for many years there were school age kids in the afternoons, friends of my kids, day care alumni, and other connections. Our dining room table was shared with those kids for homework, projects, snack. The bedroom which is now my son’s was our project room, full of toys and art and building materials to share with the kids, some of which are still there, many of which line the shelves of the dining room, tv room, and fill a table outside the bathroom on the second floor. The life drained out of the house a bit when I stopped spending afternoons upstairs, when my kids left for private school an hour away and began returning home barely in time for dinner, tired and ready for time in their rooms, when the marriage came apart and the dinner parties and celebrations evaporated, too, when I started dating men an hour or more from home, when the place became lived in part time.

The day care below is still lively between the hours of eight and five, five days a week. For many years, we had housemates there, too. This spring I thought of doing that again. This summer that idea seemed less doable than hoped. Winter brings it on, the need to enliven the house, snow storms burying me in quiet, windows and doors closed to the outside world, nest as quiet as can be, snow a challenge I feel overwhelmed to tackle alone.

Ironic really, that the place I find most alive as home is the business I run downstairs, full of kids and parents and teachers five days a week, not the home where my kids and I live. Probably something to think about going forward, the meaning of home as the kids grow, empty nest a reality for me half time, for Frances the cat, too.

Baby is waking in the back room, good nap for him, nearly an hour long. Boy at the table is balancing circles on the moon, others are all in quiet rest. Peace in the afternoon, the glory of family day care life. Welcome home:)

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Here is another piece by Lynn Stoddard which relates back to nearly everything important in the world, LOVE. I wish you could meet Lynn. He radiates Love, and it is at the core of what he and all of us know our children need.

Today in carpool my riders and I were discussing crazy things teachers do which are not good for children, like structuring recess for four year olds rather than letting them play, or trying to force all children to learn to read by five (see the Exchange piece below which inspired that conversation.) When the kids asked me why teachers do these things, I thought, well, they are feeling obligated to meet standards, and they do things like try to make sure all kids can throw and catch and balance on one foot during recess, rather than allowing kids free play, or they try to teach all their four year olds to read, when only a few are ready or interested and most children would learn to read more easily at another time, because someone tells them they should and must. What I also think and said is that most teachers who know children feel and know that this stuff makes no sense, but they somehow do it anyway. Others leave the field. Still others do what Lynn Stoddard and Parker Palmer suggest, they have the courage to put the child at the center of their work, to love the child in their care, and to follow their own heart in working with the child.

Whether this is in a traditional school or progressive classroom, private or public, urban or rural, large or small, or even a democratic or free school, the basic treatment of a child as a full person worthy of love and respect is at the core for me. Teachers and caregivers, coaches and advisors, whoever you are working with the children and teens of this world, remember to love those in your care, to give them the care and respect each of us needs and deserves, and make this come before what somebody high up tells you is important. Follow your heart and intuition and I hope they’ll guide you as well as Lynn’s words and the piece from Exchange below. I love the quote. Make the new standard allowing each person to be the beguiling one they were meant to be!

http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/10/08/courage-teachers-show-love

ExchangeEveryDay
Reading at Five. Why?
October 10, 2013
If you’re not beguiling by age twelve, forget it.
-Lucy VanPelt (Charles Schulz)

Joan Almon talks about the current craze to promote reading by five in her article “Reading at Five. Why?” in the online magazine SEEN

“For 40 years I have searched without success for studies that support the notion that reading at five is a helpful step for long-term success in school. A recent doctoral thesis confirmed the absence of such evidence. Sebastian Suggate, studying in New Zealand, did an extensive search for quantitative, controlled studies that showed long-term gains for children who learned to read at five compared to those who learned at six or seven. He found one methodologically weak study from 1974 but could find no others. Thus, a major shift in American education has taken place without any evidence to support it. Nor have NAEP scores — Department of Education tests that are often called the nation’s report card — over the past 20 years increased enough to indicate that we are making strong gains, especially when one considers the problems that accompany the current focus on cognitive learning in kindergartens and in preschools.”

Today I have my little group of newbies..all twos in my group now, eating meals and traveling to and from the park together. They are learning the routine, how to put away toys, that meal time follows shoe time, which seat each child and adult prefers. On the way to the park, we have found a conversation topic or two. One is the owl figure positioned on the veranda of an apartment building whose courtyard we cross through going to and coming from the park. Today one two begins the conversation with the sound, “whoooo”, and a finger pointing at the owl’s place. We comment upon the owl. Later the topic is who is in the wagon, and I am asked to name each child in turn. The same child who talks about the owl, says “Mommy” in a voice that tells us that Mommy is not pushing the wagon, just after I list the riders, the walker, and the pusher, me. “No, Mommy doesn’t push the wagon, but does she push the stroller?” which gains an enthusiastic “Yeah” and a vigorous nod of the head, as well as others, telling us, “Mommy” or “My mommy pushes the stroller, too.” and again, we are all included, my youngest two making sure no one is left out each time we do an including conversation, not least his former nanny share buddy who is somewhat quiet in these talks. Then we talk about other things that Mommy does, like drive the car or ride a bike, and again, everyone must tell us that their mommy also has a bike. Amazing. The first time I remember noticing this with a group of young ones was many years ago when each child at meal time was thrilled to announce that at their home they also had milk, and water. Yes, that is a commonality which can thrill a one or two and a realization which can make my day, that all of us have milk and water in our homes and that to the youngest ones this is very big news and worth talking about and celebrating. I am one of you. You are like me. We are together in this. You understand, We have something in common. We are a group. Lovely to come to know this in the context of family child care. As I walk and talk about owls and bikes and mommies with my new ones I look forward to these themes expanding and developing over many years, maybe not the ten years my first kids who stayed from one to eleven or twelve were here, but hopefully another three or four, until these twos are off to school.

Which is another topic of shared interest, the school we pass each way to and from the park, the teenagers inside, today other teenagers we know, my own teenager and a friend of one of the twos, my son who attends a different school, her friend who attends this one, and then the schools the brother of one two attends, an elementary school, and the day care we all attend, the fact that I am not a teenager, nor are the twos, and that I was once long ago, that I am now adult, that we all grow up this way, baby, child, teen, adult, all of this is new and worth discussing, and in my happiness amongst the twos I am not only looking forward to the conversation growing, I am grateful for the time and freedom to have the conversation, the ease with which our days proceed and the ability we have in our privileged lives in these sometimes crazy times, to do as we please, to talk as we wish, to find the world of interest and to explore it at our pace. All these are seemingly rights and privileges of being human, but not all children or teachers or caregivers experience them today. For that I am both grateful that we are, and fearful of the impact on others of the restriction of basic freedoms which limits this sort of talk.

This morning I wake up wishing to write. Tuesday mornings are my day on my own and I often steal time here. A weekend or two a month I visit with my beau in Western, MA. We walk and and talk and are together nearly twenty four hours a day three days in a row, plus a night on either end, which is lovely as can be, but the shock of the return to single life can be, well, shocking, to wake up alone in the bed, to face the day again as a single gal, is a letdown, to say the least. This weekend and this morning were that for me.

But this morning, as I’m preparing to write my guy a brief morning note, a good friend writes to share some shocking news, an illness in the family which strikes me close to home, and all my troubles are put in perspective. Life with love and health and relative financial stability, three mostly happy kids, health care, a good job, a community where I’ve lived many years and where I’m somewhat known, all those things strike me as more than enough, if not the perfection of which my younger self had dreamed when setting up the doll house family with mother, father, sister, brother and extended family all within easy reach. 

It’s not that kind of life for me, the traditional family life, but it’s a life, and that is more than my dad got at this age, and more than many can hope for when they are in a bad place. I don’t pray, but I do think good thoughts, and I’m thinking those for all the ones in my life who are struggling now, and that is quite a few. I hope you’ll join me in the prayer, good thoughts thing, as you go about your day. All for now, as the laundry, dishes, shower, day care routine call. Peace and love on the journey is a big enough goal for now.