Wednesday, March 19, 2014

honor and a task

Variation on a Theme by Rilke
             (The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)

by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what I knew: I can.

* * *
"Eventually, many, if not most, highly sensitive people are probably forced into what I call 'liberation,' even if it doesn't happen until the second half of life. They tune in to the inner question and the inner voices rather than the questions others are asking them to answer. Being so eager to please, we're not easy to liberate. We're too aware of what others need. Yet our intuition also picks up on the inner question that must be answered. These two strong, conflicting currents may buffet us for years. Don't worry if your progress toward liberation is slow, for it's almost inevitable."
The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron
I am reading a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person. Some of it is ho hum (I must be reaching my lifetime quota for these sorts of books--there is only so much more they can teach me), but other parts of it are decently illuminating. Like so many "studies," it hones in to prove some pattern in human behavior that is arguably observable via life experience or common sense--like the "studies" that show that playing outdoors is good for children's brain development. Duh-uh-uh. But I find that since I really do believe that children should play outdoors, I don't mind there being a "study" to indulge and validate my sanctimonious sense of rightness on this and many other topics.

So I appreciate this book, because it asserts that there is a slim slice of the population that could be considered, in one way or another, "highly sensitive," and that life for this percentage (it's actually 20%) of the population can hold particular challenges. This is something I have always sensed, and now there is a study bearing that out. Eighty percent of the population is probably smirking at this (actually, they are probably not reading my blog at all), but I am getting-- as a highly sensitive person embarking on the second half of life-- too old to care.

Jeff and I recently watched the first episode of House of Cards because we have heard good things about this television series from a lot of people. I can see why people are impressed and drawn in, but I'm not sure I want to go on with this series. It was not just that Kevin Spacey plays a cold and creepy southern senator so convincingly, or that his wife is so creepy that her name should be something really obvious like "Malificent," or that their marriage is like a well-oiled machine of quiet creepiness. What is difficult is just how easy it is to believe that the people running our country in D.C. really are-- in all likelihood-- precisely that creepy. The show was too believable and for that reason, scary. I did not like feeling the palpable presence of that cold vacuousness in my sacred, cozy home. I did not want those prying eyes coming through the screen, like a glare of unkindness and crassness that would belittle the whole of my life. It was just television, but I had a notion to pray the Psalms when it was over--something about people digging a pit and then falling into their own pit. Something about people weaving a net and getting caught in their own snare. I need to believe that, and, let me see, do I? I find that yes, I really do. The meek shall inherit the earth.

Maybe we'll continue the series, if I can get used to the idea of having these creeps in my living room. I picked out this poem a few days ago and was going to write about how much I have loved being at home with my girls (all things, including some discouraging times, considered) for the last school year-- how I have been, little by little, pushing the boundaries of my domestic skills and hobbies, and how that makes me feel happy and empowered. There is a chance-- unexpectedly-- that this might change for the next school year. There is a possibility that the girls might go to a school in the fall that I really admire, but it might also not work out, so I cannot really write about it yet with any certainty. But if it does work out, life will change again and become busier, and I won't be at home so much. But this year has been good. I think the step into homeschooling was an exercise in self-responsibility on a level I have never tried before. Just being able to say to oneself, "I am responsible for my child's education," is a paradigm shift away from the statement, "I could never do that."

There is something so easy and relieving about handing something-- anything-- over to an expert. And yet there is something so empowering and liberating about taking on the job with your own wits and strength. There is something beautiful about the word homesteading. And I think that many people are trying to move back toward that kind of independence and reclaim some of the skills that have been lost over several generations of industrialism, of handing almost everything over to a specialist, an expert, an assembly line.

Truly, I am thankful to live in a country that gives at least some space and freedom to make, at least to some extent, an experiment of independence, because I think that people need the space to make such experiments, to exercise and test what is possible through their own efforts. I find myself ideologically caught between believing in the good of social services, like public schools, and also believing in the human spirit of rugged individuality that needs a bit of breathing room and can only reach its potential when left to struggle a bit with the prospect of extinction or making something beautiful through tremendous creative effort. I seem to have a little anarchist inside of me cohabiting with an upstanding citizen. The upstanding citizen has every intention of cooperating and blending in with society, but I'm not always sure which one I am. The rebel in me keeps emerging and will not be snuffed out. This is probably all part of the plight of the highly sensitive person, "buffeted for years by these conflicting currents," to paraphrase The Highly Sensitive Person.

As I stay quietly at home experimenting with sourdough bread, sewing, digging out a stubborn plot of grass where I plan to put a flower bed this spring, and sitting down making up math equations with base ten blocks with my seven year-old, it dawns on me that, for quite a while now, the theme of my life and the direction of my development has been this resounding voice saying: I CAN. And I am sad to realize that this voice was absent and underdeveloped through much of my childhood as I was shuffled through the public school system. I don't mind admitting that for the time being, I am more than happy to have the government no closer to my living room than in the form of the image of an actor named Kevin Spacey.

Yesterday at our local garden center I asked the owner why I was not seeing any seeds for milkweed. I had planned to plant some in our yard this summer because it is beneficial to the monarch butterflies, who are struggling as a species right now and need assistance as they migrate north from Mexico. Milkweed is essential to their survival. He told me that they can't sell milkweed seeds because the State of Missouri has labeled it a noxious weed. "But," he added, "if you go off onto the byways near a train track or other place and find the plant in blossom when the pods are rattling...," and he trailed off.

Poetry Wednesday

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

a difficult birth

A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998

by Gillian Clarke

An old ewe that somehow till this year

had given the ram the slip. We thought her barren.

Good Friday, and the Irish peace deal close,

and tonight she’s serious, restless and hoofing the straw.

We put off the quiet supper and bottle of wine

we’d planned, to celebrate if the news is good.

Her waters broke an hour ago and she’s sipped

her own lost salty ocean from the ground.

While they slog it out in Belfast, eight decades

since Easter 1916, exhausted, tamed by pain,

she licks my fingers with a burning tongue,

lies down again. Two hooves and a muzzle.

But the lamb won’t come. You phone for help

and step into the lane to watch for car lights.

This is when the whitecoats come to the women,

well meaning, knowing best, with their needles and forceps.

So I ease my fingers in, take the slippery head

in my right hand, two hooves in my left.

We strain together, harder than we dared.

I feel a creak in the limbs and pull till he comes

in a syrupy flood. She drinks him, famished, and you find us

peaceful, at a cradling that might have been a death.

Then the second lamb slips through her opened door,

the stone rolled away.

* * *

I found this poem here. I discovered this poet because I am reading a novel set in Wales and it is inspiring me to seek out Welsh writers. Gillian Clarke is the National Poet of Wales and so she seemed like a good place to begin. The book I am reading is How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. I have a sneaking suspicion that this book, although it won the National Book Award and was a bestseller in 1940, is not considered to be real literature anymore-- or even popular literature--because it seems to be out of print except as an e-book. But I accidentally stumbled on a recommendation via a book board I follow on Pinterest and decided to order a used copy. I am really enjoying the book, although oscillating back and forth over how far to take it seriously and give myself permission to love it. Some of what it describes is so quaint that it is just hard to believe, and even the "troubles" and conflicts that come about seem innocent in a certain way. I have absolutely no barometer to gauge whether or not certain aspects, like the dialect, are phony or genuine because all of it is too far out of my realm of experience. My sense is that the story and the writing are truly great-- or at least have many great moments-- but that the book has probably been passed over and forgotten because it has too many passages that come across as trite and platitudinal. But who knows: maybe it will rise again from the dead.

In any case, I like reading about life in a quaint, pre-industrial village and I don't mind the piety or the platitudes. It tends to break my heart, actually, because it presents me with a picture of so many things that are lost forever in a post-industrialized, post-post-everything society. I know that any idealization is simply the way we never were, and I am going to get scolded or scoffed at by someone for idealizing this past. These kinds of villages were the places of shaming, scarlet letters, homophobia, sexism, and witch burnings. I might very well have died in childbirth there as well. But there is still a part of me that wants to go back and take my chances in such a place, just so I can churn butter and know what it's like when an entire village shows up to prepare and celebrate when a wayward son comes home.

But anyway, back to this blog post. I love the poem above by Gillian Clarke. Birth, death, and resurrection to new life-- all happening with great difficulty and miraculous ease--which? That is exactly how life is and feels, literally and metaphorically.

If you want to use global and important things, you have the Irish Peace Deal or the impossible and tragic situation in the Ukraine this winter. If a small and inconsequential example is needed, a sheep in labor might be appropriate, or my own life could also offer an instance of how stones sometimes roll away, even in the most seemingly small and inconsequential situations. I strain inwardly harder than I ever dared, until one conversation or chance encounter acts as a catalyst. Then everything that was blocked and painful comes unblocked and flows forth easily and fast, turning out well and safe. I never really know how this happens, but things often do turn out surprisingly well after long stretches of angst.

Remembering that, I am trying not to worry so much, to relax, and, as naive as it really is, to trust. The older I get, the more I start to believe that nothing happens in this world easily, and that is just discouraging and a bummer. Why can't things be easier? I don't know how people grow old without giving up at some point; it's amazing. But then it is true that miraculous endings are still always possible, and do keep happening, so maybe that is how people keep going.

There is a scene in Llewellyn's novel in which the main character, a boy who is at the time about twelve, witnesses a woman in labor and giving birth from a hidden opening in the hovel where she and her impoverished family live. Before that time, the boy Huw is totally ignorant about the way that babies come into the world. He even thinks that the doctor shows up and somehow brings the baby to the mother. After he witness the birth he feels guilty and shocked. He runs away, feeling sick. His mother finds out and it is decided that his father will come up and talk to him after he is in bed, in that very formal and grand way that rites of passages must have happened in pre-industrial villages. I'll conclude with Dada's platitudinal speech to his son Huw (sexist language, naive capitalization, and all):
Listen to me. Forget all you saw. Take your mind from it. It has nothing to do with you. But use it for experience. Now you know what hurt it brings to women when men come into the world. Remember, and make it up to your Mama and to all women. And another thing let it do. There is no room for pride in any man. There is no room for unkindness. There is no room for wit at the expense of others. All men are born the same, and equal. As you saw to-day, so come the Captains, and the Kings and the Tinkers and the Tailors. Let the memory directs your dealings with men and women. And be sure to take good care of Mama.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

five days in the hospital-- a story

This was dawn from our hospital room on the last day of our stay. What went through my head was: "Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs," a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem God's Grandeur. Sorry, that's just the way my mind works. 

The big story in our lives of late is that my youngest daughter was in the hospital for five days with a concussion. Before telling the story I'll skip to the conclusion: she is now completely alright, at home, and her old self.

Not every moment of the hospital stay was terrible and some of it was on the luxurious level of what I would describe as boredom. When the feeling of boredom returned, I knew we were truly fortunate. But much of the time I was too worried to be bored, suspended in a state of vigilance that made me insensible to time and made it impossible to pass the time with anything as mundane as reading, television, or even Pinterest--they all seemed intolerable. For most of the time my worry was held in check by a fair amount of certainty that everything would be ok, but the pull was relentless in both directions, and created a surreal feeling of tension around me that did not really go away until the very end. I should also mention that I must have the best Facebook friends in the entire world. I felt a little tentative at first about posting anything on Facebook, knowing that once people knew, they would want to know updates and social media anxiety was really the last thing I needed. But in the end I was glad that I chose to share it there because I did feel extremely supported that way. There was one night in particular when, upon going to bed in the fold-out chair next to Elsa, I felt an almost supernatural peace in our room--like a brightness filling the air and hovering all around me. I really felt that this was owed to the prayers of friends and family.

But there were also some dark dips when I felt extremely alone and my thoughts started going into bad directions, into the possibility that my little girl might not be alright--might in some way be altered permanently after this head injury, because for so many days she was not herself. And then there were other even worse moments when I was standing at the edge of the abyss of the possibility (yes, the possibility alone is an abyss) of losing my child, and felt just a tiny bit of that horror which is unbearable.

I have lived a relatively insulated, healthy life. I am hardly an authority on suffering. But I have to wonder if watching your child suffer, facing the possibility of losing your child, or-- God forbid-- losing your child are not the worst kinds of human suffering possible. Everyone seems to agree about this and talks about how preferable it would be to take your child's place in an illness or injury, and now I understand. It was hard to be at a children's hospital and see the other children on our floor and their parents keeping vigil, moving alongside me in the kitchen area where everyone shuffled around quietly and soberly, making tea and coffee, getting ice water, heating up meals in the microwave, then shuffling back down the door of their child's room.

I knew that I was in a fortunate category since we were only there for a concussion, and what the doctors were calling, after a while, symptom management. We were not there for cancer or a rare blood disease. But it still felt as if we had tumbled through a hole in the surface of everyday life--Life-- and placed in a strange cul de sac of inertia, vigilance, and fragility. I drive past hospitals all the time and forget that inside them people are going through these things.

Incidentally, I have a newfound respect for people who work in hospitals-- probably nurses first and foremost, and then chaplains, and lastly doctors. Doctors come in different stripes and flavors and some I like more than others-- and of course they deserve respect for the huge responsibility they carry-- but in many ways they are further removed from patients--and from suffering-- than nurses. And I don't think that doctors in hospitals really see their role as one of healing. They save lives, they intervene, they deftly problem-solve. But in a case like ours, once the initial crisis had passed, they were largely distant, at a loss for suggestions, while Elsa struggled to heal and get on top of this thing that had dragged her under.

Nurses can leverage a kind of distance in their mannerism as well, and I imagine that they have to learn the art of non-involvement--it would be detrimental in the long run and probably unsustainable to become emotionally involved with patients. But the disposition of a nurse coming in and out of the room can make a big difference for a patient (or in my case a parent who feels just as helpless while staying by her child's side), and, I came to realize, that just as in motherhood, which also consists of doing things for people who are dependent on you, there are varying degrees of willingness among nurses. There was one nurse who, on our third day, finally offered us the bath tub on our hall, which no one else had told me about. I'm sure that this created extra work for her or for someone-- mopping the wet floor afterward, dealing with the dirty linen. But it meant so much to be able to finally wash the vomit out of Elsa's hair, and it improved her mood hugely to have a bath. I had to wonder why none of the nurses before had mentioned it as a possibility. I am not judging them though. Serving other people day after day is hard work, and I have days as a mother when I am willing to take those extra steps of servitude, and other days when I go into self-preservation mode and only do the bare minimum. Life is exhausting, to be sure, and you never know when you are dealing with a justifiably exhausted person. But sometimes that willingness to serve a little bit extra does make a big difference. Being a patient (or a parent bound to a child patient) is a very vulnerable and helpless position.

"And a crack on the ceiling had the habit / of sometimes looking like a rabbit." I could never figure out if this beach-blob mural was intentionally or unintentionally rabbit shaped. I told my daughter that now she had the distinction of a long hospital stay, like Madeline in the book. She loves Madeline, but somehow was not cheered up by this.

As you can see, I had a lot of time to form opinions about the hospital and the mainstream medical system.

But I digress. My daughter's concussion happened a little before 10:00 a.m. on a cold Thursday morning two weeks ago now. We were having a slow morning and my oldest daughter was playing after having done a few homeschooling lessons that morning. I was sitting with my laptop at the dining room table and I remember my four year-old running into the bedroom in the periphery of my vision. In my memory it seems as if she was running quickly to get something and bring it back out to the living room where she and her sister were immersed in their usual pretend play with dolls. But then I heard the thump of her body hitting the floor and a loud wail, so of course I ran into the room and immediately knelt beside her and held her and started to look her up and down. I thought at first that she had just had a hard fall-- nothing terribly unusual-- but she was crying, "My forehead, my forehead," and then she started acting very strange-- her head lolling back and her eyes almost closing like she was passing out. My husband had the car at work so I called him and told him what had happened and that I was a little scared. He looked up signs of a concussion online and started telling me to check her pupils, ask her questions, etc. I told him she wasn't showing any of the signs he was describing, but to just come home in the mean time and he said he would. Her pupils seemed normal and she was talking, but scaring me by acting as if she was going to pass out. I was afraid to let her fall asleep and kept talking to her and holding her upright. Then, while on the sofa, facing me on my lap, she threw up everywhere.

I called my husband back and told him I was calling 911. From there the day just escalated in a fearful progression. The 911 medics came and checked her out and thought that she looked ok. Her pupils, blood pressure, pulse were all normal. She was still talking coherently. They offered to "take her in" but implied that it would just be a precaution, since all her vital signs were normal. I was very wary of having her go in the ambulance and incur a huge medical bill if the medics were saying she was ok. We have had ER false alarms in the past which we are still paying for, and unfortunately, it is just hard to err on the side of precaution when a $600+ bill is looming in your mind. So I was really weighing in my mind whether or not to take that step. The medics said she should be seen by a doctor that day, and I knew that I would make sure that this happened. But after they left my instinct that something was wrong grew more intense.

She had gone instantly from being playful, energetic, chatty, to looking floppy, drowsy, and distant. I got on the phone to get an appointment with her regular doctor. They were booked and offered an appointment at 9:30 the next morning. I said absolutely not. Looking at her, I said she needed to be seen as soon as possible, so the administrative assistant found me another appointment at a different office in town, which was actually closer to our house. I drove there right away, growing more alarmed because Elsa threw up again on the way to the doctor, and then again when I carried her into the waiting room. By that time I was scared and a little panicked but decided to wait to see what the doctor would say. When she finally walked into the examination room and saw her she almost immediately said she needed to go to the emergency room. That was when I felt truly terrified. The doctor offered to call an ambulance but I decided to pull myself together and drive her. "But honey, you're stressed," she said. And when she said that, I burst into tears and accepted a hug from this older woman who had a grandmotherly demeanor and an accent that I thought was Scottish. She hugged me and told me she would be praying for us, which registered with me as unusual for a doctor.

I was still trying to stay as disentangled as possible from any dramatic step that would incur a huge medical bill, but there I was, driving to the ER, as I probably should have from the beginning, in spite of the confusing 911 experience. I don't know whether to be ashamed by this or not, but it was the reality hanging over my head. We have medical insurance through my husband's job, but it is always impossible to tell beforehand how much it going to be covered. Of course, several more steps down the line I stopped thinking about the bill altogether-- which I wish could have been the case from the beginning, but I'm afraid that was just not the reality.

In any case, driving her to the hospital-- waiting at red lights and patiently lining up with a procession of cars entering the highway (driven by people insensible to my emergency) while I was internally swelling with panic was surreal and frightening. I had to talk myself through each detail of the road to keep from driving stupidly, but we made it fine. I parked in the ER circle and I carried her inside, where again she threw up immediately. Thankfully they took her back right away. A really kind nurse told me to take a deep breath and to go park my car and come back to room #3. When I finally joined my daughter in the room I just remember that things happened fast and it was decided fairly quickly to give her a CT scan. They told me that they just got a new scanner which was lower radiation and safer for children. The scan only took about two minutes. Silly--I remember there was a Smurf cartoon playing on a big screen on the ceiling and the mannerisms of everyone at this children's hospital so far were making things better-- they seemed to know how to make children feel less scared. Elsa was very focused on me and scared of being separated, but really, from that point on we were basically attached inseparably for five straight days.

The scan came back fine, and that was really when I was able to relax a lot. The most dangerous and scary outcome of a head injury was ruled out by that scan--no fracture, no blood--and after that I was just so thankful. They gave her a medication for nausea and finally, now that she wasn't being jostled and moved around from place to place, she did what she had been trying to do ever since the fall and simply fell asleep. The ER doctor and the nurse said that most likely when she woke up she would be able to go home. But after an hour or so she woke up and immediately vomited again, and that changed everything yet again. The doctor seemed conflicted but after a while said that her recommendation was to admit her for the night. She said she did not admit many concussion patients-- maybe two a year-- but in this case it would be better to keep an eye on her rather than have her go home and get dehydrated-- unless I felt really strongly about taking her home. I said I was worried and also thought she should stay. A little later, I felt more conflicted about her staying overnight. They put an IV in her hand and after she got some hydration she started to be more wakeful and began talking again more like her normal self-- though not totally. But she started to say that she wanted to go home and seemed afraid of being in the hospital. I told her we would be put in a more regular room-- not like the one we were in, which was cramped and had no windows. She said, "I hope it has a normal bed, like yours and daddy's bed, or like my bed." When she said that, my heart leapt because I knew that she was thinking pretty clearly. Once she was perking up like this, I had a strong impulse to whisk her home right then. I think I was just not accounting for how much, at that point, the hydration from the IV was contributing to her acting well and normal.

To be brief, the one night of "monitoring" turned into four nights, as she just continued to vomit through the next day and night, and again the next day and night, and so on until she finally started holding down food and water on the fourth day. The doctors seemed a little baffled and at one point even discussed the possibility of doing an MRI. They also took an x-ray of her stomach just to make sure that there wasn't anything amiss there. But the neurologists that checked her many times thought that she looked very good and there wasn't anything neurologically wrong, so in the end the doctors just kept calling her vomiting a symptom of the concussion, nothing more-- albeit atypical for its long duration.

Obviously she was not herself on the second and third day after all of this vomiting, and what was hard for me was trying to discern how much of that was due simply to the exhaustion of the vomiting and lack of calories in her rather than some scary brain-related outcome of a head injury. I only really began to feel reassured when she started holding down a little food again and her personality began to re-emerge, like a bright little light, on the fourth day. At some point I told her to fight the vomiting. I knew she wanted to go home. We had a serious discussion. She understood that she would not be able to go home or get that horrible plastic contraption out of her hand (the IV) until she could stop throwing up. I really think that she did start to fight it on the fourth day. She was angry at the sight of the pink plastic bucket that I kept always at arm's length and if I offered it when I heard a little gagging sound she would push it away with irritation. I was proud of her.

So this is a little long. I suppose my blog is, instead of growing in a wider appeal, becoming only more narrow as time goes on. Part of me wants it simply as a record for my children for when they get older. I don't know who else is going to read this with interest, except family and close friends (I think I know who you are). I am not that good of a writer to make such a story interesting for all, but here it is. Already I can see that there are details I am leaving out, maybe things Elsa will want to remember when she is older, like the fact that, in our final hours at the hospital, when we really were at a loss for how to spend the time, a funny med student volunteer showed up and made her happy by telling her ridiculous jokes, finding a Wizard of Oz coloring book in the store room to let her take home, and also getting out tons of really messy glitter for her to use in an art project.

Our first night in the hospital, when I was simply grateful that the CT scan had come back fine, I had the desire to find some kind of prayer of thanksgiving and I thought I remembered there being an Akathist of Thanksgiving somewhere in existence. There was! I found it online on my phone and read it and cried and have recited it many times since coming home when putting my girls to bed. It is really beautiful,  and startlingly unexpected--all the more so because it was composed by a man in a Russian prison camp-- unbelievable to keep in mind when you read this poetry. So I am posting a link here to the full text and quoting only some of it here. And that will be my poem for today, which is technically Poetry Wednesday in Flakedoves time, which is totally different than real world time, if you go in for that sort of thing.

Lord, how good it is to be Your guest: the delicately scented wind, the
mountains stretching to the sky, the waters reflecting like infinite mirrors the
golden rays of the sun, the airiness of clouds. All nature secretly whispers,
full of tenderness, and even the birds and beasts bear the mark of Your love.
Blessed is Mother Earth with her beauty which is transient, making one long
for the homeland which is eternal and where in imperishable beauty, rings
out: Alleluia. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

i was at hand

What the Figtree Said

by Denise Levertov

Literal minds! Embarrassed humans! His friends
were blushing for Him
in secret; wouldn't admit they were shocked.
They thought Him
petulant to curse me! -- yet how could the Lord
be unfair? -- so they looked away,
then and now.
But I, I knew that
helplessly barren though I was,
my day had come. I served
Christ the Poet,
who spoke in images: I was at hand,
a metaphor for their failure to bring forth
what is within them (as figs
were not within me). They who had walked
in His sunlight presence,
they could have ripened,
could have perceived His thirst and hunger,
His innocent appetite;
they could have offered
human fruits--compassion, comprehension--
without being asked,
without being told of need.
My absent fruits
stood for their barren hearts. He cursed
not me, not them, but
(ears that hear not, eyes that see not)
their dullness, that withholds
gifts unimagined.

* * *

This poem, like most, if not all, needs at least three readings. I like that the fig tree is the one speaking, happy to fulfill its destiny as a poetic metaphor, since it had failed to come in handy as a fruit tree.

I am thinking lately about works and efficacy, the efficacy of my life in general. I am thinking about service, the quality of being serviceable, useful, bringing forth gifts that other people can use, living a good life, not shunning the work that each day demands. I am thinking about what goes into making good choices each day, putting one foot in front of the other, even on days when the feet are heavy; pulling out, more and more, what is abstract on the inside and, in a hands-on way, turning it into something tangible on the outside.

Being at home now with my girls has led me into this place that feels like a baseball dug out within me. I'm running up and down the stairs countless times per day, bringing things out of the cool, dormant shadows of storage into the playing field where crates of things are being pried open for distribution and use. For the first time in my life I really feel that I may make some strides in the area of home economics. I am spending a lot more time in the kitchen doing economical things like making our own tortillas instead of buying them at the store. I have all the ingredients in bulk as I write this to make a massive batch of granola bars. I am planning to triple a waffle recipe and freeze them for quick breakfasts-- maybe breakfast burritos as well. I whipped out two lasagnas the other night-- one for us and one for a family at our church that just had a baby. These things never came easily to me in the past but maybe I've finally exercised my domestic muscles enough that I've broken through to a new plateau of domestic fitness. Or it might have more to do with willingness and simple understanding of what it takes.

In any case, my mindset about domestic things has evolved quite a bit. I thoroughly accept now that food preparation takes time-- a lot more time than I used to be willing to allocate. I did not write a New Year's resolution but, keeping it simple, made only a few mental ones so that they'd be easy to remember and easy to realize. One thing I would like to do in 2014 is spend more time in the kitchen. I am thinking ahead more. I'm thinking, here and there, how and where I can prepare and be a step or two ahead of my constantly hungry children (their constant asking for something to eat drives me crazy, it's true, but there is apparently nothing I can do to stop it).

"Do something today that your future self will thank you for," is the general idea. Like ready-made granola bars.

On a similar theme I've been thinking about slowing down in other areas. My husband has been reading the book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, by David Mikics. I probably won't read the book, but, completely contrary to the message of the book itself, have picked it up and skimmed through it a few times. I've also heard a little from my husband about the book's theme-- enough to get a (hurried) notion of what it is about: read slowly and deeply; be willing to re-read books you've read before; be willing to go back and re-read parts of books you are currently reading; be willing to press on when a book you are reading gets difficult or tedious. Make it through to the other side, go back and read that part again, don't speed through in order to, as it were, check it off a list.

I might read the book but honestly, just this little summary was enough to inspire me to try a new tactic with reading in 2014. I applied it immediately to a book I started while we were in the lap of in-law luxury in Tennessee over Christmas (that is, we were enjoying an adult/child ratio of four to two, which meant that I had a lot of free time to read) and I spent a lot of time curled up on the sofa throughout the day next to my mother-in-law's lavishly decorated Christmas tree, reading. I was reading Sigrid Undset's biography of Catherine of Sienna. For portions it is a page turner but then becomes difficult at parts. Two words: Medieval Italy. I found myself half-reading and half-tuning-out a few chapters in the middle, populated as they were by Popes and Italian city-states. I was doing the thing I often do when history is involved: letting it slide through the sieve which is my brain. Not so this time. I made a conscious decision to simply go back and re-read those medieval-Pope-riddled chapters. No rushing to the finish line this time, no sir--just engagement with a worthy book. And I was so glad. I realized when I went back how much I had missed, particularly a short anecdote about a particular miracle that Catherine performed which, compared to many of her other miracles, was not at all flashy but almost pedestrian and therefore easy to overlook. But I liked it almost better for that, and was glad I went back and discovered it rather than pushing hastily through.

Slow food, slow reading: join the movement(s)!

I'm still not done with the book. We came home and life went back to what you might call normal. So the last few chapters have remained un-read. But I will go back and read them, and try to read them well. Maybe I will even re-read the last chapter to get a running start back into the book, a practice I have unequivocally shunned in the past.

So, this is all I have for today. There is much more I could write about, but I need to go make the soup we are supposed to have for dinner tonight. I must work the works I need to work while it is still called today...or something like that. Homeschooling has been going well since we started back after our long Christmas break, which is another way of saying that if someone casually asks me about it in a social situation, I won't go into an internal tailspin of anxiety and then, later, in the quiet hours of the night, sink privately into a dark night of the soul. I'm being facetious. But truly, it's going just fine now that it is actually going again and I might want to write another update about it soon. I am learning a lot.

Poetry Wednesday

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

our hands' daily labor

I bless our hands' daily labor

by Marina Tsvetaeva

I bless our hands' daily labor, bless
sleep every night.
Bless every night. 

And the coat, your coat, my coat,
half dust, half holes.
And I bless the peace

in a stranger's house-- the bread in a stranger's oven. 

* * * 

When winter storms and arctic temperatures visit the entire Midwest, life is not exactly normal. For two and a half days we did not really go anywhere. That was fine. We started back to homeschool this week. As if to reiterate that we are living a counter-cultural lifestyle, we started back to school on the very Monday that all the schools in our area were canceled. Most everything that could be canceled in our city was canceled. I, on the other hand, was chomping at the bit to get back to something like a rigorous work schedule. 

The resultant mood in our house was what I hoped for and mostly expected: good, normal, all restored to relative balance. I was a youngest child in my own family but I am coming gradually to understand the needs of an oldest child: the need to be challenged; the need for structure and discipline, new information, expectations placed upon her. When she does not have these for a long time (i.e. the long stretch of irregular time surrounding Christmas), her behavior goes haywire, squirrely, and yes, bratty. So this week has been about getting things back into line-- any kind of line-- preferably a straightish one. The discipline works wonders and turns her sweet again. 

And so things around here are improved and I feel good about life right now. What amazes me is how, when we are stuck inside the house, there is still so much to do, so much to stay occupied with. If all you do is make the beds, wipe down the bathroom surfaces, put in a load of laundry, keep the dishwasher loaded and unloaded, there is a lot to do. Pick up the toys and books that the girls scatter; fold and put away clean laundry (never catching up). Dissolve a packet of yeast in water in the stand mixer, twist in some flour and oil, let sit. Later: homemade pizza creates a floury mess all over the table. Eat, clean up. Get children to bed in the hopes of some free time. Squander that time online; remember that book you were reading and read. The day is filled with undone things leftover tomorrow. And this without ever leaving the house. 

The house, your world. And I can be happy this way. 

Granted, my reserve of patience did run out at the end of two and a half days inside. Thankfully by that time the temperature outside was up in the twenties and my husband (who was working on a card table in the bedroom because there was no parking at the snowed-over university campus and his basement desk area was too cold), suggested throwing in the towel of duty and calling time out on all the grumbling and pointless parent-child and child-child quarrels erupting indoors and all going sledding. And that was good-- what we desperately needed, even though I was pretty grumpy during the process of getting on all the requisite snow clothing, and grumpy still when we arrived at the idyllic sledding hill in front of the art museum. But by the end we were all cured of grumpiness and ready to start another day of being indoors.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

just the partridge, please

From The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Laurel Long

An Old Christmas Greeting

Nursery Rhyme

Sing hey! Sing hey!
For Christmas Day.
Twine mistletoe and holly,
For friendship glows,
In winter snows,
And so let's all by jolly.

* * *

I said I would not post again in December but it is hard to stay away from Poetry Wednesday. I said I was going to have a slow and lazy December, and I've done that, but I also miscalculated my need for productivity, and well, that tricky, ever-nagging need-for-balance problem. Yesterday, in a semi-manic burst of reactionary energy, I decided to continue the abandoned project of painting the girls' room pink-- the color they begged for and which I began painting the room over a year ago, but then quickly abandoned because I became alarmed at the intensity of the color once I saw it on the wall. Over the course of the many months, however, the lone blob of pink has grown on me, especially in the evening when it seems to glow with a good warmth. So I decided a long time ago that I might as well finish using the gallon of pink paint now sitting down in the basement. But a year passed and I never took up the task.

I am not sure how painting a room fits into the spirit of the days leading up to Christmas. It doesn't. I am sure that more sensible people who celebrate Christmas are all making their final preparations for gifting and travel, not embarking on messy home improvement projects that involve moving a bunk bed into the middle of a small room. But somehow it lifted my spirits tremendously to throw myself into the task, and the girls were so excited to see their room being transformed in a pinkwardly direction, while they got to watch an untold number of Mr. Ed episodes in the next room. The day before I spent a large part of the day shopping for cookie ingredients and then baking six dozen gingerbread stars for a cookie exchange. Maybe my tolerance for the anti-pragmatism of things like cookie baking is less than I thought. I seemed to urgently need the semi-enduring sense of achievement afforded by applying paint to walls after all that fooling around with a rather stubborn recipe for gingerbread dough that was strangely difficult to roll out repeatedly.

I also added a bookshelf to the girls' room that I have been meaning to bring up from the basement for ages. (It is an Ikea bookshelf that comes apart in three different pieces, so it was easy to move by myself.) Now things are a lot more organized and sane in their room and I feel less stressed about adding whatever things that Santa Claus (by which I mostly mean Mimi) might add on Christmas morning.

When I was working part-time and the girls were both in school at this time last year, all I wanted was less structure-- no structure-- for us all. I was ragged from running around in the car and had no time or energy for hobbies, projects around the house, or leisurely activities with my girls. Unfinished projects around the house haunted me; I felt disconnected from my children; my resentment toward the imposed structure on my life built up to the point of bursting. But this month, after taking a break from homeschooling for just a few weeks, I feel a little crazy the other way. I am burdened by the lack of an imposed structure, and the responsibility of creating structure singlehandedly day in and out, without the cushion that a little bit of disposable income might afford-- the options and outlets that money can buy. I know that by staying at home, I am giving up an income that could make life as a stay-at-home a lot more pleasant, which of course, does not make any sense. It would be lovely to afford, for example, dance lessons or other programs that could give the girls an occasional break from one another and from me. But as we all know, anything you want to do in life, along those lines, takes money and more money. I don't have that cushion, and I know that if I went back to work, the cushion of extra income would be offset by busyness so that it would turn out not to be a cushion at all. So, I cast in my lot--I made my bed--as a stay-at-home mother. Now I have to lie in that bed and play the hand I dealt to myself. This means beginning each day anew, creating order and balance again each morning, single-handedly, using only the materials that are already available.

When reading the Twelve Days of Christmas with my youngest, I asked her at the end if she would want all of those things for Christmas-- the ten pipers piping, the collie birds, the maids a-milking, and so forth-- all of it. She deliberated a moment and said: "Mmm, maybe just that partridge."

So I am looking forward to the fresh start known as January. Christmas is wonderful, of course, but after the teas and cakes and ices-- and skirts that trail along the floor and this and so much more-- I want the colder, brisker, starker air of the New Year to come and sweep through our rooms, drying the paint on the wall, airing out the fumes of leisure, bringing something a little more regimented, a little bit checklist, a little bit calendar, a little less pajamas and pear tree partridges-- into our days. This while the needle-shedding tree sits naked out on the curb.

Poetry Wednesday

Thursday, December 05, 2013

stories of lights


by Seamus Heaney

Always there would be stories of lights
hovering among the bushes or at the foot
of a meadow; maybe a goat with cold horns
pluming into the moon; a tingle of chains

on the midnight road. And then maybe
word would come round of that watery
art, the lamping of fishes, and I'd be
mooning my flashlamp on the licked black pelt

of the stream, my left arm splayed to take
a heavy pour and run of the current
occluding the net. Was that the beam
buckling over an eddy or a gleam

of the fabulous? Steady the light
and come to your sense, they're saying good-night.

* * *

I am going to take the month of December off from blogging. I cannot claim to be the busiest person in the world, and I pride myself on that, just to stick it to the status quo of the badge of busy pride. But I can make an honest claim to being mentally preoccupied. I am trying to make a lot of gifts on our Christmas list this year rather than buy them, and I think it's going to take a lot of thought and time. Often when I make something I think about it for many hours for every minute that I actually spend working on it. I wish that were not so but it seems to be.

I like the poem above because it seems to be about storytelling around a fire, and getting lost in the story, or possibly just the conversation, until you almost forget your time and place, and the late hour. I could be wrong; the poem might be about something completely different. But if that is what it is about, then it makes me long for that setting, and for that kind of lost feeling to happen to me more often, in the company of nice people.

In rebellion against the fast-paced world, I am aiming to be the worst kind of slow-poke surrounding Christmas this year. Today I printed out a free Nativity paper doll scene on card stock and sat coloring, cutting and gluing it together with my daughter, just because. It took a really long time; I was surprised how long it took. It was fun picking out the color scheme for the robes of the wise men, shepherds, etc., and staying in the lines with markers. I knew that my daughter's markers were the scented kind, but I had never really experienced them fully, in a long stint of coloring, and I got to enter into her fruity, marker-scented world for a while. I know she appreciates it when I do this. Even though we are homeschooling, I can avoid that kind of fusion with my children's world very easily without even realizing it for days on end. But when I emerge from that fusion, it feels as if everyone is more whole and healed, so I know that it is a good thing.

I want to do a lot of things like that this month. Or, more realistically, I want to do a small handful of things like that this month. The longer they take and the more pointless, the better. I will probably do a gingerbread house this year and take it really seriously.

I wish, as usual, that I had close friends living near me--as in down the street or next door. I need someone to knock on my door and shake me out of my lame preoccupations. I wish for conversations and a lot of times I think that the only difference between the happy, contented me and the sad or dull me is the total hours I have spent recently in--yes-- meaningful conversation. Not to scare anyone, but I really need a certain quota of talking. For now I'll just roll out another episode of British period drama on Amazon Instant Video (like they need the free advertising), something set in a small English village before the trains came through bringing scandal and displacement. And we need to buy a truckload of firewood from the industrious young fellow that lives a few blocks away from us and does odd jobs for money. We have a fireplace-- it's true!

So this is my Merry Christmas to all (or merry fill-in-the-blank-with-your holiday-- we'll be joined this year, after all, by the Jewish American Girl Doll, Rebecca Rubin, who my four year-old is head-over-heels in love with, and so now I love her too). And for weeks we've all been walking around with a Hanukkah song stuck in our head that my other daughter will sing in her holiday concert. And Happy New Year, too! I will definitely be back in January.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

spiritual trust


"You [God]  are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon."  - Flannery O'Connor
I don't have a poem for today so I am cheating with a few lines from my new copy of A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor. It is newly published. Our pre-ordered copy arrived yesterday, so it is about as new as it can possibly be--to me and to the world.

I've only read a little so I do not have much to say about it yet, except that it is certainly poetic. I am a longtime fan of Flannery O'Connor, and especially her letters in The Habit of Being, but it is clear to me that this little prayer journal will reveal a much more intimate--and youthful-- side of her than what letters reveal. A part of me worried about feeling voyeuristic, prying into these youthful yearnings, but my husband astutely pointed out that, had she wanted to keep this journal hidden from the world, she would likely have thought to get rid of it before her death. She was not exactly obscure at that point, and her death was the opposite of sudden.

The journal is short and I personally (being far from an expert, and without even yet having finished it) find myself preparing to approach it as juvenilia. Why? Certainly not because she was lacking the intellectual brilliance in her early twenties that she would demonstrate by and by. I think instead it is because of the dramatic irony. That is, the reader of this prayer journal already knows something that its then-innocent author did not: the enormous trials that were just ahead of her, hidden from her sight. And yet the trials-- the fires of art and suffering, suffering and art-- are the things she seems to be yearning for in this journal, as if prophetically sensing the shape of her life.

For several weeks now I've been writing our weekly schedule out on the chalkboard. Things get added, subtracted, and rearranged, but overall this is working well and keeping me on track. However, last week was extremely rough. There was a lot of tension every day between my girls and me and everything I attempted seemed to flop miserably. After the weekend I resolved to make a fresh start. The night I took this photo, the room felt peaceful and made me feel hopeful.

Some people say that public schools are the devil's playground. I wonder if homeschooling isn't as well. The insidious beasts of expectations, ideals, and perfectionism seem particularly attracted to this seemingly safe shelter. For my own part, the place inside of me where I plan, plot, worry, and project has been especially gullible-- drawn into the arena with the lions-- since I've decided to take on the arguably crazy-making job of piloting My Children's Education. Last week I was harassed, over-thinking everything, worrying a lot, and seeing failure at every turn. Then I realized that it was not My Children's Education that was beating me up, but my own ego and pride which make me a slave to shadows dressed up in various costumes like, for example, My Children's Education, among other shape-shifting possibilities.

Flannery O'Connor compares her own ego to a shadow big enough to nearly block out the moon. This week has been so much better for me. I am putting distance between myself and the bullying beasties that come alive in that shadow, and finding my way into that little crescent shaped sliver of light-- mercy, help, rest. Help, rest, mercy. Pray without ceasing is the recommendation. The implication is that the moment one ceases to depend completely on God, the enslaving ego automatically takes over--again. Flannery O'Connor goes on to pray,
Let me henceforth ask you with resignation--that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind--realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.

Friday, November 08, 2013

photo friday: abundance

Halloween always feels to me like the kick-off to a season of abundance which lasts until Christmas is over. The abundance train is picking up speed now and will reach its peak on Thanksgiving Day, not slowing down until around the New Year. Mostly the abundance is wonderful, of course, but it does have a shadow side, starting with the bag of candy gleaned on Halloween night that weighs as much as a bowling ball. Up it goes on top of the refrigerator, and then the non-stop candy obsession, begging, and negotiations begin. It's exhausting for me and so this year I sought a way to speedily curtail this nonsense, which would otherwise drag on for weeks. I gave my girls the option to trade in their entire candy stash for a new toy, which I would pick out (I was not about to let this trade turn into a fresh avenue of parent-child negotiations). I was counting on them choosing the trade, and they did. Special thanks goes to my friend Manuela who gave me this idea. They were both thrilled with the toy, and I haven't heard one word about the candy since it left our house. It cost me twenty dollars, but what price won't I pay to keep things as complexity-free as possible around here?

On our last road trip we began listening to The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, on audiobook in the car. We finished the rest in snippets, during errands around town. It ends with a very spartan, but incredibly joyful and cozy Christmas, which requires the resourcefulness of every member of the Ingalls family to pull off, given the circumstances of the harshest winter the Minnesota prairie has known for decades. Yes, it is just a story-- fiction-- but the human potentiality it presents seems perfectly authentic to me, and no doubt to many readers, as this series has earned its place as a perennial favorite. It demonstrates a kind of joy that is possible within the context of scarcity that might not be so easily accessible in the context of surfeit. Perhaps I am romanticizing things, but I do harbor a belief that some amount of scarcity is good for the human spirit. That damned wholesome Ingalls family-- they haunt the corners of my consciousness.

This year my girls are on top of their Christmas game. They've already begun their collaborative letter to the North Pole, four pages and growing. We told them that Santa doesn't start opening mail until after Thanksgiving, so they can cool it just a little. We are going to have to figure out how to stage an abundant visit from Santa on a strict budget in the days of Disney Stores, Nintendo DS, and a mailbox which is now daily crammed--crammed, I tell you-- with catalogues advertising Annual Outerwear Sales and Free Shipping galore. Ma and Pa Ingalls thought they had it rough out there on the Minnesota prairie.

Photo Friday

Folk painted doll chairs from Mexico. Neighbors (in NC) were throwing these out.

"The Magnet," a lesson in Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

lest I should be old-fashioned

The morns are meeker than they were,

The nuts are getting brown;

The berry's cheek is plumper,

The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,

The field a scarlet gown.

Lest I should be old-fashioned,

I'll put a trinket on.

By Emily Dickinson 

* * *

I had my seven year old daughter copy out the above poem this week for her school work. She had to ask about the meaning of: morns, meeker, plumper, gayer, and trinket. It is amazing how many words a seven year-old still has to learn. I explained all of them as best I could. She drew a picture of a rose with arms and legs, walking out of town.

The morns are definitely getting meeker, and I love it. We have been in the process of migrating toward a new curriculum-- Charlotte Mason. It is just like life that I have drifted away from the curriculum we paid for and adopted one that is perfectly free on this website ( But I am so happy with this new method that I don't even care. I count it all a part of the process. I am learning so much and in many ways re-connecting with the wonder of the world and life. I love that this curriculum is grounded in good literature. It is somehow gentle and formidable at the same time. Nothing is dumbed down for young children, but the lessons are short and the weekly load is not at all burdensome. We read Rudyard Kipling and real poems, like the one above, full of the mysteries of unfamiliar and often antiquated vocabulary. It's another form of trust, I suppose, to simply trust that a child can pick up these words and absorb the cadence of good literature without much force or technical explanation. But I am already seeing that this is how it works.

This morning we talked about geography and the world in the most basic sense, using the globe. We talked about the roundness of the world, and how it could possibly be that people discovered the shape of the world before the time of space travel, etc. It was an interesting conversation to have first thing in the morning, over breakfast. We talked about how the earth spins and also travels annually around the sun. We talked about gravity, oxygen, the equator, the north and south poles. We imagined explorers in ships, before the days of cars, airplanes, or space shuttles.

I know that these are topics probably covered in public school, but somehow discussing them at home with my own children feels strangely rich and special, like entering into a mystery together. It really is strange to introduce children to the basic human situation which adults take for granted. And there was a poem to go along with the geography lesson about how wonderful the world is-- similar to Psalm 104 read in the Orthodox vesper service. It made me feel good to be introducing the basic context of life to my girls this way. The world is wonderful; the world is good.

Too much time on the internet--all those Facebook links to the Posts, Huffington and Washington--can make me feel as if the earth has an evil earth-shaped twin-- a ball of sinister evil hovering over it, about to roll on top of its innocent soul and crush it, envelope it, eclipse, or suffocate it totally, at any moment. Well, there is tremendous evil in this world, and good and evil are complex topics, but for the purposes of children, evil can wait. There will be time enough for them to know about the degrading ubiquitousness of pornography and all the oppressions of past and present wars. For now, it is valid to simply swathe them round about with what is good and delightful, Frog, Toad, Bilbo Baggins, and the host of others, even as the Lord, day after day, even in the year 2013 (that is what the verb tense implies), stretchest out the heavens like a curtain, layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters, maketh his clouds his chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind. 

Poetry Wednesday

Friday, October 25, 2013

photo friday: complicated

My photos this week are from another recent trip to North Carolina. They are not complicated photos. On the contrary, they reflect my desire to grasp simplicity and escape from the complications of everyday life. I think complication and complexity are the norm--the inflated currency of our time. You need a barrel of it to buy a single moment of simplicity, it seems. So rest assured that I am not exempt from this bad economy; I am swimming in it just like everyone else. I wish I knew how to construct an uncomplicated life, short of taking monastic vows, but right now life feels as complicated as ever, and in the most banal and mundane ways. 

People are coming to work on our basement today. In preparation we had to move everything we have stored in the basement at least four feet away from all the walls. This was so disruptive to our sleeping clutter and my cherished, sleeping notion that this clutter is not a real problem. I see now that it is a big problem--one which is, for me, almost paralyzing. Moving things around forced me to face all of the unnecessary things we are now undeniably hoarding down there. My husband even had to move a few unwieldy things (some of which, to be fair, were already down in the basement when we moved in) out behind our house. Our tidy neighbors are really going to be thrilled to find that they are living next to Sanford & Son. So, in short, the uncomplicated scenes reflected in these photos were each payed for dearly by a big fat wad of cash--the price of many and sundry complications of traveling with two little kids and a dog, and other uncategorized and uncategorizable (that's not a real word) details of life. I hope that one day I can construct a more simple life, but for now I keep forking over the price that these moments demand, because they truly are worth the price. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

nothing that didn't sound illusory

The Kite

By Judith Beveridge

Today I watched a boy fly his kite.
It didn’t crackle in the wind – but
gave out a barely perceptible hum.

At a certain height, I’d swear I heard
it sing. He could make it climb in
any wind; could crank those angles up,

make it veer with the precision of
an insect targeting a sting; then he’d
let it roil in rapturous finesse, a tiny

bird in mid-air courtship. When
lightning cracked across the cliff –
(like quick pale flicks of yak-hair

fly-whisks) – he stayed steady. For
so long he kept his arms up, as if
he knew he’d hoist that kite enough.

I asked if it was made of special silk,
if he used some particular string –
and what he’d heard while holding it.

He looked at me from a distance,
then asked about my alms bowl,
my robes, and about that for which

a monk lives. It was then I saw
I could tell him nothing in the cohort
wind, that didn’t sound illusory.

* * *

It is difficult to get into the territory of defending intangible things. And by intangible I don't mean spiritual things, necessarily, like the invisible prayers wafting from the cliffs of Mount Athos, although of course these would be included. I mean just about anything that has no quantifiable value. Kite flying might be an example; or just having a nice Saturday at the park when you really need the rest. Or staying up that extra hour when you'd rather go to bed in order to really clean the kitchen so that the next day will begin more peacefully. Or giving your dog a bath and washing his bedding in hot water in order to relieve his ragweed allergies, which are causing him to scratch off entire patches of fur on his haunches. Or listening to an audiobook by George Eliot while you fold laundry. Or sitting and having tea in the afternoon with your kids while reading to them a fairy tale. Or knowing when you need to be strict, even though at that moment you don't even feel like getting up from your chair. Or making a conscious choice to loosen up when you don't feel like being easy going. These are among the things I "do" these days, staying at home with my kids, and these sorts of activities do not really cut a very impressive figure at university mixers, among the colleagues of one's spouse, if for no other reason than they are too varied to summarize easily. They are what one might do in a typical week, but there is no concise way to express all or any of this when someone you have just met is looking at you expectantly with unblinking eyes. I tend to feel like a deer in headlights when people ask me about what I do now. It would be much more convenient to have a degree and a job title to flash about, like (in my case) a dog eared birth certificate proving you actually exist.

At the university my husband teaches a class on Christians in the Middle East. It's an undergraduate course. A few weeks ago he showed a documentary depicting the lives of Eastern Christian monks who live in monasteries which have been pilgrimage sites from ancient times until now. The reaction was unexpected: a lot of the students were angry. It must be nice, they said, to sit around all day doing nothing, contributing nothing to society, and thinking you're really special. This was their scathing assessment of the grey-haired, bearded monks who were interviewed in this documentary, who, by the way, are self-supporting, live in an inhospitable desert, and spend most of their waking hours in prayer. My husband spent the remainder of the class coaxing them to see the matter from another angle, if not to completely change their opinion, which was unlikely, at least to lead them to the admission that their way of perceiving the world is not, well, you know, the only possible way. There are ways of framing human experience that may have never occurred to a nineteen year-old American college kid who has never lived anywhere outside of America.

I suppose we could all stand to have our minds pried open a tiny bit further than we might think. And that is kind of the whole point of college. But where am I headed with this? Maybe I'm not making any grand point other than to say that I can sympathize with those monks, who, though they will never hear about the dread judgement being pronounced by these college kids and likely wouldn't care (or would certainly strive not to care) if they did, I feel that my life's work at present falls into a similar category of illusiveness, which, as such, because it is not quantifiably valuable in any obvious way, might illicit the same cultural biases, in the form of fiery coals--hot, judgmental, rather stupid, fiery coals.

Poetry Wednesday

P.S. I'm finishing this again away from my computer so the normal link is missing. Visit for At Least One Other Poetry Wednesday.

Friday, October 11, 2013

photo friday: pale

Big O, little o-- forming letters with blocks. 

I think of fall as the opposite of pale; it is saturated with earthy colors and the sun can still shine very intensely. But a few mornings ago I noticed a change during breakfast. I needed a sweatshirt to sit comfortably by the open window. Our October this year is too-warm and fall is not cooperating. But mornings are behaving more appropriately fall-like, before the day gets to feeling like early September again. These October mornings are obediently shedding the characteristics of summer, moving in a winterly direction. And it occurred to me that winter mornings are pale; it's the quality of winter paleness I'm noticing these days in the early hours.

I need to bring our oil lamp out of the basement for the breakfast table. Incandescent overhead light is too jarring for me in the early hours of the mornings. And actually, I have just recently devised a new plot to make breakfast time a reading time with my girls now that they are not running out the door in their pajamas like wild things first thing in the morning, as they did most of the summer. So far it is working, but it might help even more to have a cozy lighted wick in the center of the table to draw everyone's attention even more inward.

We are settling into homeschooling more. My focus has shifted onto books. We go to the library at least once a week. I realized that I have a dream deep inside: to expose my children to beautiful language, beautiful stories, and the best of everything literary. But always they manage to pick out books about sparkling princesses, or-- mysteriously, almost instinctively-- books containing rude themes like burping or peeing, in the name of teaching children manners. With these supposedly good manner themed books, my girls sit in the back seat of the car and giggle all the way home from the library at the words and themes that I try, unsuccessfully, to limit to the confines of the bathroom. This sort of thing used to stress me out badly and even smite me with a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness. I confess that I am afraid if the Crass World.

But now that we are homeschooling I feel myself far more able to relax. I know that the time we spend with Good Books will be the majority of our time, and this makes the Bad Books less of a threat. I know that my girls are close to me, and this makes the Crass World less menacing, less engulfing. I never felt that public school itself was crass, but I learned that I couldn't trust it to keep the crassness out. 

But now I can relax a little and let small amounts of crassness in, like germs and dirt, hoping that some exposure will build up resistence and even innoculation. So I let them make multiple trips to our library table, bringing back stacks of Tinker Bell and random picture books that to me look like sorry excuses for children's books (because, really, there are too many shoddily executed children's books in the world). Then while they are not looking, I put at least some of them back on the cart for re-shelving and give them the satisfaction of bringing home some of their ever-erratic kid-picks. Meanwhile, I pick out a big selection of titles that are, in my snooty opinion, a bit more classic and ennobling.

I'm enjoying my new role. I have had so much fun reading through quite a few chapter books lately, like Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. There are some truly amazing juvenile books out there that completely passed me by in school. Even though I have fond memories of reading some of these great titles when I was a kid, like Where the Red Fern Grows and The Island of the Blue Dolphins, I realize now that I only experienced a small pool of the great books that sit inert on library shelves, waiting. I am so excited now to hunt them down, create a reading wish list, and read through them now as an adult. I never read (to name one conspicuous example) A Wrinkle In Time. I checked out a copy and plan to read it next.

In these pale mornings while I drink my coffee and the girls eat their breakfast, I've started reading a series of books by Maud Hart Lovelace about three girls named Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. Yes, they are old fashioned books. But I concluded that their literary merit stands alone, almost in spite of their quaintness. They transcend sentimentality. Maud Hart Lovelace possesses that special understanding for children that great children's authors seem to have. I laugh so much reading them and the girls always ask for one more chapter, which, at their age, does not often happen with books that are mostly text and almost no pictures.

More and more I am seeing my oldest daughter exhibiting the traits of a future bookworm. I find her more and more on her own with a book. Sometimes I cringe if the book she is curled up with looks like it popped out of a cartoon Disney book-making-machine in a batch of one thousand. But just as often the book is about something like the story of St. Brigid's cloak or the poems of Shel Silverstein. And I cannot deny that this makes me really proud and happy. And if all else fails, I blitz her at bedtime with the audiobook version of the Laura Ingles Wilder series as she lies in the dark and finally grows entranced in the words.

I feel as if something special is beginning in our house. While the girls were in school (and preschool) I never felt as if there was time to explore or go deep with books. Now we have the leisure to read and go deep with books that deserve someone's-- anyone's-- attention. Beautiful language and beautiful stories deserve the attention of a lifetime, beginning with childhood. Is there anyone in this frenetic world who will stop and give themselves to all of these worthy books. Who in this world finds it worthwhile to read Strawberry Girl, with its archaic Florida cracker dialect and simple, unvarnished themes of homesteading in a sandy land inhabited by alligators. I saw the curriculum in the public school valuing themes like economics-- the consumer and the producer-- for my first grader. I saw that they were working on things like how-to books in kindergarten. I'm sure that somewhere along the way there would be some kind of summer reading list with Caldecott and Newbury winners, but for the most part, I could perceive that these kids were never going to get around to more than a small sampling of the total pool of great books that are possible for grade school level kids. Maybe only the stray, unconventional oddball, here and there would ever get around to a book like Strawberry Girl. And so I feel myself making an inward declaration: Let our family be the unconventional oddballs who stay home and pay homage to as many great books as time will allow.

So, I am happy for the coming season of inwardness that the paleness of fall and winter bring so that I can burrow into the world of books with my children. And not just books. We will burrow into conversations when my older daughter asks what "fair trade" means on the outside of the coffee canister. This alone turns into a lesson in geography, economics, and ethics. We will burrow into good language through good songs, like the Scottish songs my daughter is learning through her children's choir (we sang them together and I had her copy out Dream Angus in her own handwriting today, which counts for language arts and music at the same time). We'll do things with our hands with yarn, thread, and other materials. We'll go on nature walks and talk about tree identification and the cycle of the year. We'll have the library to ourselves during the school day.

My neighbor next door will ask me casually, delicately, and suggestively whether I plan to give them standardized tests so that I can measure whether or not they are on track. I'll say I might but deep down I know that I really do not trust those tests, even though I admit that I would want my kids to do well on them. 

There is some anxiety wrapped up in all of this. But I realize that delving deeply into books quells this anxiety for me, as if books form a sturdy rope bridge over a psychological abyss. Maxim Gorky said: "I came to appreciate what good books really were and realized how much I needed them and they gradually gave me a stoical confidence in myself: I was not alone in this world and I would not perish!" Certain authors have always had the power to make me feel less lonely, supported, comforted, and confident. It occurred to me that as I grow into this role of my children's teacher, children's authors will likewise be there to lend a hidden joy, confidence, and security in an endeavor that can be really very lonely.

Photo Friday