Making Memories Through Music

image: pixabay.com

image: pixabay.com

Do you attach any significance to songs that start playing in your mind? I do. Maybe that’s because they often get stuck, becoming earworms that loop around for what seem like hours. Sometimes they even wake me in the middle of the night.

I can’t help but wonder why the underpinning of my consciousness loads a particular piece of music. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out because my husband was whistling it or it was playing at a restaurant or I heard a slice of it when a car stopped next to me at a traffic light. Most of the time it seems too random to be chance. So I try to figure out what the song tells me in lyric or mood or memory.

Today, simply walking into a room, my mind’s playlist came up with a tender song I haven’t heard in decades, “Never My Love.”

It took me right back to my childhood home. Most evenings my schoolteacher father sat in an armchair grading papers. I liked to sit on the floor with my back against his chair reading a book in the same warm circle of lamplight. On those nights he played music like  “Only You” by The Platters, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Cherish” by The Association, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, “So Far Away” by Carole King, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, and just about anything by Burt Bacharach.

My father loved all kinds of music. In college he was nicknamed “Pitch Pipe” – a play on his surname Piper and an homage to his perfect pitch. When my siblings and I were tiny he’d turn the stereo up so we could dance to big band music, the score from a musical, or a classical standard. He’d sing along, harmonizing against the melody. Without a shred of self-consciousness he’d lift up his arms to conduct a particularly tantalizing portion of Bach or Mozart. And sometimes after dinner a song would come on the radio and he’d dance with my mother, both of them smiling as they swooped around the kitchen linoleum.

My father’s father died when my dad was only five years old. The only thing my dad owned of his father’s was a guitar, which he taught himself to play. Supervising little kids’ baths was one of his chores in the parental division of duties, so he’d sit on the toilet lid singing and strumming that guitar while we played in the tub. My splashy siblings and I sang right along with him to tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” We also sang songs he remembered from his college days, lyrics edited for little ears.

I don’t know what it means that I’m hearing “Never My Love.” Most likely something below the surface of my awareness triggered a childhood memory. But I prefer to think it’s a form of connection that lasts even when death separates us.

I’m singing it aloud Dad. I’m singing it for you.

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

I Can’t Hear You, I’m Reading

can't hear when I read, lost in reading, unreachable reader,

“Girl Reading” Pierre-Auguste Renoir (public domain)

I don’t simply get lost in books. When I read, I am unreachable.

Getting too absorbed in reading was a problem when I was a kid. I didn’t notice if I’d been reading in the tub so long the water turned cold. I didn’t notice the lamp I surreptitiously turned on after bedtime was still illuminating my page close to midnight. I didn’t hear my mother tell me to “get your nose out of that book and go outside” or hear her call me for dinner. I wasn’t trying to disobey. When you’re swooping aloft on the air currents of a story it’s hard to notice what’s happening back on Earth.

The problem was worse in school. I’d get done with some inane social studies assignment and sneak a library book from my desk. Soon I’d lift off, finding myself in the howling winds of a Siberian blizzard or the scorching plains of Africa. Eventually the poke of a classmate’s finger would rouse me. I’d look up to an odd silence only to realize the class had moved on to math and the teacher had called on me.

I got lost in more than books. I started reading daily newspapers when I was ten or eleven years old. (Trying to figure out the nonsensical world of grown-ups, something I’m still trying to do.) My younger brother tells me I was entirely unreachable behind the paper. He had repeated nightmares that he ran into the room yelling, “Dad has been kidnapped!” only to hear my preoccupied “uh huh.”

When I became a mother I didn’t let myself read for fear of ignoring my babies. Okay, that’s a lie. I read when they were asleep or safely occupied. (Surely they needed a break from my constantly loving gaze and all those vocabulary-enhancing conversations.) I took my babies out twice a day in any weather passable enough for a jaunt, often walking with a book propped on the stroller handle. (This was possible only because there was no traffic in my neighborhood.) I also read while nursing, peeled potatoes with a book on the counter, read well into wee hours of the night despite chronic new mom exhaustion. Admitting this to people unafflicted with a library addiction as severe as mine feels uncomfortably revealing.

I thought my lost-in-books-syndrome had eased somewhat by now. That is, until I missed a flight because I was reading.

I rarely fly, so I’m super responsible about the details. I print out copies of my flight information for my family, compact everything I need in a small carry-on, take healthy snacks, and arrive at the airport ridiculously early. Apparently what’s really irresponsible is allowing myself to take reading materials.

Last time I had to fly I was heading home from San Francisco. My fellow homebodies will understand why I chose a non-direct flight, one that stopped in a small Texas airport, simply because it departed earlier in the day and let me get home sooner. I had almost two hours between connecting flights but didn’t waste a moment getting to the the departure area. In this not-so-big airport with its small departure gates I couldn’t find a seat unencumbered by people or their luggage or their Cinnabun bags. So I sat on the carpet, my back against the wall, and started reading. I made sure I was no more than 10 feet from the desk to ensure I’d hear them call my flight.

I repeatedly looked up to check the clock until I lifted off into the book, becoming lost to linear concepts like time. When I looked up again (after what seemed like only moments) the area was empty.

A plane was taxing away from the window.

I wasn’t on it.

A bored employee assured me the flight had been called several times. They saw me sitting there but I didn’t look up. There were no flights heading north or west after mine till the next morning.

I got to spend the entire night on a hard plastic airport bench. The lights were dimmed but informational announcements about keeping your luggage secure played every 15 minutes. All. Night. Long.

I finished my book. I read everything on my Kindle. I memorized the posters on the wall. I thought bitterly about living on a backward planet where transporter beams are not yet a reality.

Perhaps I should start a support group. Hello, my name is Laura. I’m an Unreachable Reader.

Evoking the State of Flow

state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rapt absorption, learning through flow, advance learning with flow,

CC by 2.0 Jonf728’s flickr photostream

Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”   ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My daughter spent much of this week with a deer skeleton she found in the woods.

As she searched the site she was thrilled to find most bones intact. I wasn’t at all involved beyond providing toothbrushes and bleach to clean them.

Today she’s reassembling the skeleton in the driveway. She shows me how the back legs fit into the hip sockets, giving the deer power to leap and run while the front legs are mostly held on by bone and connective tissue.

She points out that the spine is somewhat similar to a human spine in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions, but very different where the large cervical vertebrae come in.

I know so little about this topic that I forget what she’s telling me while she speaks.

Handling the bones carefully, she faithfully reconstructs the skeleton. She’s so deeply engrossed in the project that she hasn’t come in for lunch or bothered to put on a jacket to ward off the chill.

Her interests are far different than mine, but I know what it’s like to be this captivated.

You know the feeling too. You become so absorbed in something that time scurries by without your notice. Your whole being is engrossed by the project. You feel invigorated.

Skiers call it becoming “one with the mountain.” Athletes call it being in the “zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed it the “state of flow.”

In this marvelous state the boundaries between you and your experience seem fluid, as if you are merging with what you’re doing. The more opportunities any of us have to immerse ourselves in activities we love, especially those that stretch us to our full capacities, the more capable and centered we feel in other areas of our lives.

Photo by Claire Weldon

Children, especially the youngest ones, slide into flow effortlessly. While playing they concentrate so fully that they lose sense of themselves, of time, even of discomfort. They’re inherently drawn to full-on engagement. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Kids demonstrate flow when they’re eagerly drawing, building, climbing, pretending, reading, exploring—-however rapt involvement captures them. Their intent focus makes a mockery of what is supposedly a child’s developmental handicap — a short attention span.

Flow truly puts a person in the moment. No wonder it can be hard for our kids when we call them away from what they’re doing to what we deem more important. No wonder they might be more enthusiastic about playing with Legos than taking part in a structured geometry lesson.

Imposing too many of our grown-up preoccupations on kids can teach them to block the experience of flow.

What do we need to remember about this state?

Flow is typically triggered:

  1. when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
  2. during a self-chosen pursuit
  3. when they are looking to accomplish something worthwhile to them.

These characteristics are also the way we’re primed to learn from infancy on. It’s been called the Goldilocks Effect. This means we are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for us. Not too big a challenge, not too little, but something that sparks our interest and holds it close to the edge of our abilities, moving us toward greater mastery.

That’s pretty much the way science, art, and other major human endeavors happen too. Flow may indeed be our natural state.

Public domain by Cheryl Holt.

How do we encourage flow?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some ways to allow more flow in your kids’ lives (and yours too!).

  • Foster a calm, relaxed environment.
  • Engage in what brings out delighted fascination. If you’re not sure what that is, fool around with something hands-on. Tinker, paint, write, sculpt with clay, take something apart, dance, experiment—-whatever feels enticing.
  • Let go of worry and pressure.
  • Welcome mistakes as well as challenges.
  • As much as possible, don’t interrupt.
  • Remember that flow isn’t really separate from play.

The outcome of flow?

  • Deepened learning and stronger confidence.
  • A drive toward complexity, luring us to increase challenges, broaden our range of abilities, even face anxiety and boredom as we access an ever more profound state of engagement. (As A Playful Path author Bernie DeKoven explains here.)
  • Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work tells us achieving the flow state regularly is a key component of happiness.

That’s vital, even if it means you end up with a deer skeleton in your driveway.

Post first published on the wonderful site, Simple Homeschool.

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

Family Stories Form Us

 

My mother kept family stories alive by folding them into our lives as we grew up. She’d remark, “This would have been your Uncle John’s birthday,” and then she’d tell us something about him. Like the time he taught her how bad cigarettes were. That day he took her behind the garage and let her smoke until she was sick. (She was four years old.) Or how he skipped out on his college scholarship and pretended he didn’t have a bad back so he could sign up for the Air Force. His plane was shot down on his 47th mission, his body never found.

She told us about a great-great-grandfather, left to take a nap under a shade tree as a baby. He was taken by passing Native Americans, who may very likely have thought the tiny boy was abandoned. His parents didn’t go after him with guns, they brought pies and cakes to those who’d taken him to ask for him back.

She told us about a tiny great grandmother who expected other people to meet her every need, but when a candle caught the Christmas tree on fire that same helpless little grandmother immediately picked it up and threw it out the plate glass window to keep the house from burning down.

She told us about her Swedish grandmother who was widowed not long after coming to this country, but kept the family together by taking in laundry. And about the only son growing up in that family who ran away as a teen. They didn’t hear from him till he’d made a new life under a new name, years later.

My mother didn’t just talk about long-gone family members. She told us about people in our everyday lives too. She talked about dating our father, saying he was still the most wonderful man she ever met. She told us about meeting his sister and her husband for the first time—they were on the roof of the house they were building together, hammering down shingles. And she shared inspiring stories from friends, neighbors, and people she’d only read about. She never said it aloud, but her stories gave me the sense that I too had within me the sort of mettle and courage to handle whatever came my way.

Turns out there’s more value to stories than my mother might have imagined.

1. Child development experts say young children who know family stories have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, more family cohesiveness, and stronger internal locus of control. When mothers were taught to respond to their preschool-aged children with what researchers call elaborative reminiscence, their children were better able to understand other people’s people’s ideas and emotions—a vital skill at any age.

2. Family storytelling provides remarkable benefits as children get older. Preteens whose families regularly share thoughts and feelings about daily events as well as about recollections showed higher self-esteem. And for teens, intergenerational narratives help them to shape their own identity while feeling connected

3. Researchers asked children 20 questions on the Do You Know Scale, such as:

  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know the story of your birth?

Results showed that the most self-confident children had a sturdy intergenerational self, a sense they belonged and understood what their family was about. This sense of belonging was called the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

I’ll admit, the stories my mother told throughout my childhood didn’t skimp on tragedy but always highlighted positive character traits. It wasn’t until I was much older that more shadowed family tales slipped out—stories of mental health problems, alcoholism, and lifelong rifts. Those stories are just as important.

Our family tales are simply stories of humanity. All stories help to remind us what it means to be alive on this interconnected planet.  Every day that passes gives us more stories to tell. Even better, more to listen to as well.

family stories, tell children family stories, share family history, family history stories,

image: Navanna

 

The Dread Experience

dreadlocks, old people reactions,

image: pixabay

Kirby, who is now 15, is probably the most serene of my four kids. Completely without guile, he’s not even vain about his beautiful hair. It is dark blonde and wavy, coarse enough to fluff up into a temporary Afro, and so thick that balding men comment on it jealously.

Mostly it is an irritation to him because it grows so quickly. When he was 10 years old he decided he wouldn’t comb it again. He still doesn’t, yet it looks charmingly tousled with nary a tangle.

At his birthday party last year he got rid of his hair. It was quite an event — Kirby in the bathroom, his tall buddies crowding around the mirror, shaver cutting down to the scalp. He left a wide swath of hair all along the top. While this is popularly called a Mohawk, he informed us that members of the Mohawk tribe traditionally did not go about sporting that hairstyle. They actually used a kind of toupee. Only Kirby would bother to learn these details.

He kept the mistakenly-named Mohawk hairstyle only a few days before quickly realizing it wasn’t worth the trouble of shaving and putting on goop to keep the central path of hair standing. He didn’t get much of a reaction. Our liberal friends just gave him a thumbs up or asked if he was into punk music. Our more conservative friends just chuckled with a glad-it’s-not-my-kid look. The only extreme comment came from his grandmother, who asked, “Why do you want to change your personality?” (The assumption that appearance dictates character explains the strictures of my own upbringing.)

This year our musician son has grown taller and his hair, longer and longer.  At some stages his hair looked like yearbook pictures from the 70s, then like a movie poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. Finally it got to the length he deemed right for developing some dreadlocks. Yes, white-boy dreads. Not being blessed with the right hair for them to form naturally, he had to print out 20 pages of instructions he’d researched (some contradictory) and order $36 worth of specialty products including pure bar soap and chunks of beeswax with tea tree oil. He cleans out horse stalls for spending money so this is no minor expenditure.

When the dreading day arrived, Kirby’s girlfriend and I set up for the procedure in a festive mood. He looked pretty serious. We sectioned off his hair using an array of clips and held it back with a tortoise shell headband we called his tiara. I think we teased it enough. His hair that is. His tiara kept slipping and based on the number of times he said ‘ouch’ it was apparent we were hurting his scalp with all the tugging and fussing.  I’m pretty sure we used too much beeswax. By the time we were done he looked the way our dog’s belly does when he’s been outside after the rain, a dangling chandelier of mud.

Kirby was convinced the hair would eventually ‘dread’ around the beeswax spikes. He washed it with his pricey soap and smiled sweetly from under all those hair candles. He laughed when his dad danced around singing reggae tunes with made up lyrics. He adhered to the theory behind his hair research for at least a month.

Still, his hair looked more dreadful than dreadlocked.

We all missed his formerly beautiful hair. The faux dreads looked particularly out of place when, as a bagpiper, he dressed in his kilt to march with his highland band — a serious band made of mostly of formal older gentlemen. Kirby finally got the idea his rebel coiffure wasn’t appreciated when the band’s Scottish Pipe Master warned, in his thick brogue, “We dress as one man, we look as one man.”

So, Kirby decided the dread experiment was over. Being a person who doesn’t go halfway, he didn’t just cut his hair. He shaved it off completely.

His grandmother doesn’t adjust quickly to surprises. She was alarmed when he entered her door at our next visit sporting his new Mr. Clean look. She blurted out what should never be said to a teenaged male, especially by a grandmother, “Kirby, what a boner!”

I couldn’t explain to him right then that the term meant blunder to her generation.

No matter. He smiled at her calmly. His bald head shone.

Throwback post, first published by Errant Parent

Chronically Awkwards Anonymous

chronically awkward, klutz, oops,

Technically it’s not possible for those of us who are chronically awkward to remain anonymous. It’s not something we can easily hide. I know this for a fact.

As a child I had a brief taste of popularity. Then I walked into a giant concrete post.

As a teen my life was changed when I fell headlong into the locker of a boy I had a crush on.

As a young adult I accidentally committed a vast rudeness in reaction to a gentleman’s politeness.

As a working professional I was attacked by rampant vegetation disguised as a salad.

These aren’t the only incidents. Oh no. I’ve finally given up all hope that someday I’ll be naturally graceful or at least gifted with the wisdom to know when to shut up. I try to console myself that living beyond humiliation is a spiritual quest. That doesn’t always work. What does work is knowing there are other chronically awkward people out there who also go forth with the best intentions but somehow manage to mangle language or misunderstand gravity. They are my kinfolk.

I talked with someone recently who also claims chronically awkward status. Jessie is smart, funny, and adorable so I was skeptical. She and I were attending a mutual friend’s birthday party. I’d gotten there early on a steaming hot afternoon to carry chairs out of the house and set up tables. As people arrived I arranged potluck offerings on tables. I was happy to stand around chatting when Jessie arrived.

She and I shared a few of our awkward stories. She told me about having to attend a swanky fundraiser where she felt overdressed and out of place. Introduced to her husband’s boss for the first time, she blurted out a political observation that (she recognized immediately) was the opposite of his stance. I laughed too hard in sympathy (another of my awkward traits*). I shared the horrible thing I accidentally said to my neighbor when we first moved here. It’s far too awful to put in print but Jessie kindly laughed too hard in response. Even though I wasn’t convinced she was truly awkward, she and I chortled about forming an awkwards-only organization.

A tall woman arrived with a beautiful wooden tray of artfully arranged olives and squares of goat cheese, all sprinkled with fresh herbs. Perched on the tray was a tiny olive fork, the sort of thing gentlefolk use to deposit a single olive on their plates. I gestured to the table where she could set down the tray. She offered an olive to me.

Only after I stuck out my hand to seize one did I realize I wasn’t within immediate range of the olive tray. I propelled a foot forward while saying “Oooh, olives,” as if to prove I’m unable to engage in clever repartee.

The tray was held much higher than usual, so my arm loomed up just as my hand lowered to grab an olive. Rather than take two short steps necessary to be in range I lurched at her in one giant orangutan-ish* move. The approach of a short middle-aged barbarian clearly alarmed her. She lowered the tray in deference to my height and obvious clumsiness just as I reached down with thumb and finger in olive-gripping mode. That means the force I’d deemed necessary to lift one gleaming brown fruit was too much. My hand hit the tray. At least a dozen olives shot upward and scattered. One lump of goat cheese thwacked wetly on the table next to me.

In my defense, I have an essential tremor that’s much worse after I’ve held anything heavy, so maybe I can blame the olive debacle on my post-chair-carrying hands. Probably not. I think is has more to do with my veeery slow adjustment to the physics on this planet.

From the corner of my eye I noticed that Jessie didn’t know whether to rush over to help pick up olives or pretend she didn’t know me. Aaaaakwaaard. I guess she’s kin to me after all.

awkward, klutz,

*I promise to laugh way too long if you share an awkward story.

*No besmirching of orangutan gracefulness intended.

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Poetry’s Origin Story or Why Drink Skáldskapar Mjaðar

I have never heard the Norse version of how poetry was created. But thanks to Sam, who is reading The Prose Edda for the sheer pleasure of it, I now know about Skáldskapar Mjaðar: the Mead of Poetic Inspiration.

origins of poetry, Norse study, homeschooling,

Sam reading The Prose Edda using a Pomeranian bookrest.

Here’s the story as I understand it.

The Æsir Against the Vanir (wikimedia.org)

The Æsir Against the Vanir (wikimedia.org)

Groups of warmongering Norse gods, Vanir and Æsir, agreed to a truce after a long and bitter battle. Each side spat in a vat to preserve the peace.  The gods decided to keep the agreement safe by shaping their spittle into the form of a man they named Kvasir.

Kvasir was the wisest man on earth. He traveled the world— teaching, spreading knowledge, and correctly answering every question posed to him. (A lesson on the benefits of peace…)

But alas, evil dwarves Fjalar and Galar murdered Kvasir. They drained his blood and distilled it in Odhrǫrir, the magic caldron. (Apparently smarts are a downfall. The dwarves told the gods that Kvasir’s intelligence had suffocated him.)

Draining  Kvasir's blood. ( germanicmythology.com)

Draining Kvasir’s blood. ( germanicmythology.com)

Kvasir’s blood was mixed with honey to create the Mead of Poetic Inspiration. Poetry had once been the province of gods. But this drink held the power to turn all who imbibed it into skalds (poets) and blessed them with wisdom. Thus, skaldship spread.

child 2

Along came the giant Suttung. He sought revenge on the dwarves because they had killed his father, the giant Gilling, for sport. Suttung seized their precious mead and hid it in the center of a mountain with his daughter Gunnlöð standing guard.

Gunnlöð (wikimedia.org)

Gunnlöð (wikimedia.org)

But Óðin (a.k.a. Odin) was displeased that so vital a nectar was hidden in a remote cavern. Óðin was a biggie in the Norse pantheon. He was known as King of Asgard, ruler of the Aesir, father of the thunder god Thor and associated with battle, victory, death, wisdom, prophecy, and the hunt.

Òðinn (no.wikipedia.org)

Òðinn (no.wikipedia.org)

So Óðin disguised himself as a man and wooed Gunnlöð. After three nights of sex he got her to agree to offer him three sips of the mead. But he tricked her (or by some accounts she succumbed entirely to his charms). He emptied the first vessel with his first sip. His second swallow emptied the second vessel. His last swallow emptied the last vessel. Holding all the divine mead in his mouth, Óðin changed into an eagle and headed back to Asgard.

Óðin as an eagle. (norse-mythology.org)

Óðin as an eagle. (norse-mythology.org)

Suttung transformed into an eagle as well and gave chase. Óðin hurtled over the mountains. His people saw him coming and put out vessels in the courtyard. Óðin swooped low and spat the blessed mead into those containers. In the frenzy of the pursuit some of the mead came out “backwards.”

Yes, Óðin shat it.

Anyone that wants it can take that portion. It’s called skáldfífla hlutr, the rhymester’s share. It’s the portion for inferior poets.

Óðin pursued by Suttung, both in eagle form. Note the Mead of Poetic Inspiration being spat into vessels, with the mead for inferior poets coming out the other end. (en.wikipedia.org)

Óðin pursued by Suttung, both in eagle form. Note the Mead of Poetic Inspiration being spat into vessels, with the mead for inferior poets coming out the other end.
(en.wikipedia.org)

Hey, I’ll take whatever portion I can get.

 

Ceremonial drinking horn. (smithing-chick.deviantart.com)

Ceremonial drinking horn. (smithing-chick)

 

Quick update on the poetry-wise goodness that’s flowing my way.

  • I was nominated for, but did not win, a 2014 Pushcart Prize. (Where’s my fairy godmother when I need her to turn the pumpkin of my work into a magical coach?)
  • Houseboat did me the honor of featuring several of my poems along with some wonderfully evocative photographs.
  • Read+Write: 30 Days of Poetry, a National Poetry Month project by Cuyahoga County Public Library, happened thanks to the hard work of poet Diane Kendig. I was fortunate that she selected one of my poems to appear during those 30 days. Along with the other 29 poets in the project, I received the gift of tickets to hear former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky read. Of course I show up in my badly scuffed shoes wearing clothes decades out of date because, well, that’s pretty much the best I can do. The event took place in Cleveland’s dazzlingly beautiful Playhouse Square complex, with an advance reception for Mr. Pinsky held in a plush mezzanine featuring a gorgeous painted ceiling and gilded walls. I tried to hide my hermit-doesn’t-know-how-to-talk-to-stranger issues by lurking near the tables with finger foods, which led to me licking my fingers after a few bites, which led to someone who doesn’t approve of barbarians handing me a napkin accompanied by a withering look.
  • I was stunned by a beautifully written, deeply generous review of my book by Ivy Rutledge in the newest edition of Mom Egg Review.

What an abundance of blessings.

Free Range Chickens & Free Range Learning

free range learning, captive kids, natural learning, confined chickens,

“Don’t help, Mom,” Claire says as I go to pick up the three-day-old chick. So I watch instead. It’s peeping helplessly at the side of the ramp leading up to the chicken coop. The mother hen and her other chicks are already at the top but this chick can’t find the way. The hen answers each of its cheeps of distress with distinctive low clucks. After repeated attempts to hop directly up to its mother the chick turns and scurries back, finds the bottom of the ramp, and hurries to the comfort of her waiting wings.

“See?” Claire says. “It’s already learning.”

I’m amazed that a chick that tiny could learn to go away from the sound of its mother’s voice in order to find her, but it did. I guess I still need to trust that things tend to work out fine without well-intended intervention.

Reams of instructional books once languished on our shelves. Shiny packaged educational programs with CDs sat waiting for my children to learn foreign language, history, and math. But they always had better things to do. Sometimes that looked a lot like reading a book on the couch, looking things up on the net, or lying by the pond with the dogs. Other times that looked like gathering oddities from the dusty basement for an experiment. Or like all of us hustling off to a field trip with friends. The textbooks came in handy as references; the fussier educational materials were packed away in boxes to pass along. We knew another new homeschooler would need to go through the same ritual of grumbling over them.

My children have ample opportunities to explore their interests out here in the country. Currently Ben restores old farm equipment in anticipation of running his own farm some day. He’s so busy that some of his projects have become long-term decor out near the beehives. Flowering vines decorate hay rake tines and birds nest atop a combine. Right now he’s making a custom desk out of a circular saw blade for a friend. The garage glows as he welds, one of the many skills he taught himself.

Claire observes everything with a scientist’s eye. She journals about her hikes in the woods, her daily farm chores, and her volunteer work rehabilitating birds of prey. One summer she made a practice of examining a dead muskrat as the decomposition process reduced it to a skeleton. Her descriptions of it (yes, at the dinner table) clearly demonstrated how wondrous she found the natural world, even though her age group is depicted as finding more meaning at the shopping mall.

When Kirby isn’t playing his guitar or bagpipes or computer games, he likes to stroll around with a camera. His photos show that he sees things in a different light. He’s interested in the science and art of sound, and using the money he earned from cleaning stalls at local horse farms he’s made his bedroom into a recording studio. Friends come to record their music. He can edit out the laughter.

Sam, who was once the master of finding snakes and toads everywhere on our property, is now intrigued with greater feats than grabbing hapless creatures. He investigates the engineering behind propulsion systems and then conducts his own experiments. This involves shooting tennis balls, potatoes, or pumpkins long distances (often in collusion with his brothers). He’s been talking about designing advanced fuel systems for cars. And he’s started restoring a vintage Opel he bought with his own savings although he’s not old enough to drive.

While Claire and I watch chickens, she points out how the newly hatched chicks are perfectly suited to learn naturally. Days old, these tiny fluff balls listen and respond to different sounds from their mother which clearly tell them where to find food and when to run for cover under her wings. They range across our property while staying close to their mother. They locate each other through the underbrush, ramble into the pasture under the cow’s feet safely, and come into the coop at dusk as the older chickens do.

“Compare them to chicks we bought from the hatchery,” Claire says.

I see what she means.

Many times we have purchased a batch of day-old chicks and kept them in a large indoor pen. We brought them out of the house each day to a grassy enclosure so they could forage, but the chicks raised for their first two months with their age-mates were very different from the chicks hatched by their mothers and raised with the flock. The confined chicks were more sickly, panicked easily, and were more overtly aggressive or passive. Even after they were released out with the flock it took them quite a while to catch up. They didn’t problem-solve as easily. And it took them longer to react naturally, such as taking flight and roosting in low branches when sensing danger. Overall they were less likely to survive.

Interestingly, agricultural extension offices and poultry manuals insist that the treatment we’ve given the confined chicks is the only correct way. Their expert advice includes maintaining them on a diet of protein-enhanced feed, keeping them under warming lights, and watching over them carefully for their own good. Not being hatched by and raised by a hen.

Aside from small family farms like ours there are few chickens living in natural conditions—roaming freely in pastures and woods without fences, choosing their own food and affiliation groups, living with mixed age flock. (Right now we have 30 laying hens, five  roosters, three chicks, a few geriatric hens.) Even chickens described as “free range” are left inside with a small door open to a cramped outdoor pen to meet that definition. This door can be a single opening inaccessible to the hundreds of chickens in the flock.

Claire, who has experienced both schooling and homeschooling, can’t help but see a comparison. “Doesn’t that remind you of how people treat children? Experts supposedly know what’s right for them. I mean, how can anyone learn if they’re stuck in the same situation all the time? You learn as things come up.”

Confinement education, especially when based on tactics that feel like coercion to students, isn’t a whole education. Children thrive as free-range learners. They want to be a meaningful part of family and community, aware of their place as both givers and receivers. They’re cued to advance the growth of their minds, bodies, and spirits in ways unique to them. Their curiosity prompts them to explore and challenge themselves, gradually integrating what they’ve learned to advance their own possibilities. Although there are worlds of difference between raising children and raising chickens, we can trust that learning freely comes naturally to them both.

free range kids, free range learning,

Image: superfry

This is a throwback post, originally published in Home Education Magazine