Newcomers To God’s Country

move to country bad idea, angry rural neighbors, rural life hilarity, rural living problems, religion as a weapon, angry Christians, We left behind gangs and sexual predators when we moved to the country. After city living, settling our family on a small farm seemed like coming to the Promised Land. Even the weather was welcoming as we made more and more repairs to the house we could barely afford. No matter. We hiked through the woods and crouched by the pond, watching frogs, fish, and goggle-eyed insects with a sense of gratitude that felt as solid as a good decision.

Then we got to know our neighbors.

Though we’d moved less than an hour away it seemed we’d crossed an unmarked border. Lovely pastoral stillness was regularly broken by target shooting, 4-wheelers careening around pastures, and barking from what sounded like a dog breeding operation. Some neighbors chose to burn garbage rather than pay the requisite fee for trash pickup, which explained the toxic stench of burnt plastic that sometimes hung in the air. And we quickly learned that some neighbors didn’t talk to other neighbors due to longstanding feuds. Allegedly these conflicts had escalated to bodily harm, lawsuits, and the biggest threat — eternal damnation.

This was the most overtly foreign to us, religion right out front as a beacon or bludgeon. Religious paraphernalia was evident everywhere; on bumper stickers, yard signs, and lapel pins. “Where do you go to church?” was the question people typically asked upon meeting us, right after “Where are you from?”

Realizing the only correct answer would be the exact denomination of the questioner, I gave vague relies. If pressed I said truthfully that we headed back north each Sunday to go to our old church before spending the afternoon visiting relatives. Then I quickly changed the subject. This conversational maneuver seemed to leave my new neighbors unsure of whether to save my soul or shun me. Left in the dreaded middle ground, many of them parted with helpful advice about sins I should take care to avoid.

“Don’t vote for the library levy, because you know the library is an agent of Satan. It has that Internet thing.”

“Don’t celebrate Halloween. That pleases the devil’s minions.”

But we couldn’t remain anonymous for long. Our children ventured down the street to scout out playmates. They returned quickly. Apparently the neighborhood children posed a single-question quiz before agreeing to make friends with newcomers. When our children didn’t know the answer to “Are you born again?” they weren’t allowed to stay.

Soon after we arrived, I was invited by a neighbor to her home. I brought muffins. She nodded as I handed them to her, saying, “God told me not to bake.” While ranging around her kitchen swatting flies and yelling at her children, this woman crisply explained why those who didn’t ascribe to her exact version of Christianity were destined for hell. With joyous fervor she started listing houses on the street by the sins of the occupants, from her next door neighbor (“She’s a Catholic, you know, one of those so-called Christians.”) to the woman who lived at the end of the street (“Don’t talk to her, she uses a hyphenated name. Probably a feminist.”) 

I demurred, saying something about seeing the light in each person. She swiveled her full attention in my direction, fly swatter in hand, and asked me where I went to church. No middle ground left, I told her that I attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

She was shocked.

“Oh, you people believe anything goes,” she gasped.

“Not intolerance,” I said.

She kicked me out of her house.

It seemed that my admission branded me, and not in the correct tattoo-for-Christ way. Word spread quickly. A man who lived a few doors down called soon after. When I answered the phone he asked to speak to my husband.

“Let your wife know she shouldn’t be hiking in the woods,” he said before adding gruffly, “I target shoot there and I don’t look first.”

I hoped school presented better possibilities.

Our children were assigned to two different rural elementary schools, miles apart. I picked our kindergartner up every day at lunchtime. Other parents also waited in the school hallway. It was immediately apparent that two factions leaned against opposite walls. This presented a difficult choice. If I spoke to the woman with frosted lipstick and tight shirt who stood on the less populated side, the woman with the heavy necklace and shag haircut on the other side would glare at me. And vice versa.

Frosted Lipstick talked to me more often. She told me about her well-muscled prayer partner and how she felt called to meet with him alone even though this made her husband jealous. She told me that Jesus gave her too many challenges. She told me I would be cuter if I wore lipstick.

Shag Haircut was more interesting, or maybe I just enjoyed her sardonic commentary. One day Shag Haircut told me what was behind the hallway glaring. A group of mothers were trying to remove Frosted Lipstick from membership in the school’s parent/teacher organization over a dispute concerning craft supplies. Ribbon and scissors worth something like $36 had not been returned. Shag Haircut and her cohorts considered Frosted Lipstick a thief.

I made what I hoped were reasonable suggestions to solve the problem. No luck.

I’ve taught conflict resolution for years but apparently peace wasn’t nearly as enticing as the entertainment value of scandal. A few weeks later the superintendent acted. Weary of the dispute, he threatened to eliminate the entire parent/teacher organization. Both sides of the hallway were deliciously shocked.

Frantically, Frosted Lipstick asked me to babysit after kindergarten so she could meet with him and solve the problem. I was relieved that she seemed to be taking my advice about talking the issue over, finding common ground, and healing the breach. I agreed to babysit, but explained that I needed to pick up my third-grader at the other school by three-thirty for a dentist appointment.

I assumed that she would drop off her kindergartner to play with my child. I was wrong. She appeared at my door with three additional boys. When she saw my surprise she said, “Everyone knows I operate a home daycare business.”

Everyone but the newcomer.

She went back to her minivan and returned with a woman she called Grandma. This woman was not her relative. Frosted Lipstick was branching out in the daycare business and had taken in an elderly confused person who needed supervision. Frosted Lipstick left quickly after I reminded her I needed to leave at three sharp. I made additional places at the table and invited these guests to lunch.

It became apparent that the boys were not accustomed to eating while sitting or eating without throwing food. They also used God’s name in vain frequently, surely a habit they didn’t indulge in while in the care of a woman who talked so much about her prayer life. I gave up the silly idea of showing them how to make sandwich shapes with cookies cutters and simply tried to impose order. It wasn’t working well.

Grandma wouldn’t sit. She smelled as if she might have damp undergarments but her waistband was fastened with some kind of dementia-proof catch. I couldn’t figure the thing out.

The afternoon deteriorated rapidly. My five-year-old normally enjoyed eating while I read to him, then he played Legos after lunch, but these boys were only amused by diversions such as hitting each other and slamming themselves into furniture. Grandma sidled along the walls with her hands up touching everything as if she read a form of Braille expressed in window frames and light switches. At one point she nearly escaped through the locked front door. Like hostages, my son and I exchanged repeated sympathy glances at each other as the home invasion dragged on.

Despite the chaos around me I was cheered by the knowledge that a greater good was being served — the conflict was being talked out at the superintendent’s office. In fact I was beginning to feel a sense of peace about the whole ordeal. Three o’clock was approaching. Frosted Lipstick would ring the doorbell and then I’d be free to retrieve my third grader. By now my son had retreated completely from the boys, who were bouncing around in a frenzy like ping pong balls. I couldn’t imagine the inner clamor their behavior was expressing. I also felt a generous amount of sorrow for Grandma, left here with strangers when she’d already lost so much.

Three o’clock got closer and closer. Frosted Lipstick still didn’t arrive. My smug sense of peace was evaporating. A few minutes after three, she called. Her tone was casual. She said she couldn’t get to my house but had made other arrangements. I was to drop off the kids and Grandma at the school’s aftercare program, she knew everyone there.

I had no time to express my indignation. I loaded the boys and Grandma in the van, checked seat belts, and turned onto the road. In moments the boys had taken off their seat belts and were beginning to crawl over the seats. That did it. I pulled over, trucks hurtling past, and told the boys to get their seat belts on using the slow dispassionate voice that my own children know indicates true rage. As I merged back into traffic I realized my vindictive thoughts were an indicator of how far I had to go before calling myself a pacifist.

In moments I was hurrying across the school parking lot holding many hands at once. We crammed into the tiny school office. I stood at the counter assuring the secretary that arrangements had been made for the boys to stay in the aftercare program. She seemed entirely unaware of such arrangements. Then I uttered Frosted Lipstick’s name. The school secretary’s face slackened into disgust. I leaned over the counter, trying to hear her response but the boys were arguing and shoving the hard-backed chairs back and forth on the linoleum. Grandma was running her hands along the corporate-sponsored posters on the walls. Clearly none of us wanted to be in this office but my own child was waiting miles away and I needed to assert some control over the situation. A chair tipped over, one boy slapped another.

I turned to the boys, hissing furiously over the din, “Stop it right now or I’ll tie you to those chairs!” Unfortunately just at that moment the principal came through the door with what appeared to be a new family. Upon seeing her, the boys stopped their noise immediately. Sudden silence turned my threat into a broadcast. Grandma strolled right into the principal, her upraised hands roaming across the guests’ bodies, along the door hinge, and onto the next wall. I’d been in the township less than two months and now was heard threatening to use restraints on a confused woman and three disorderly little boys.

The secretary said there was no protocol for leaving the boys without parental consent slips, and of course the elderly woman whose name I didn’t know could not stay. Trying to keep from hyperventilating, I asked the secretary to call the other school about my child, now surely left in the office. She tried. She told me no one was answering, Her tone assured everyone in the room that I was indeed a bad mother.

I did what I had to do. I subdued my hysteria, gathered my charges, and walked down the hall to the aftercare program. Both women working there said they knew the boys and the Grandma, as most people in the township seem to know everyone else. I informed them that Frosted Lipstick had told me to leave them for just a few minutes till she got back.

“Even the old lady?” asked one of the aides.

I nodded, wishing I had never stopped in the school office.

“Okay,” said the other aide. The first woman looked skeptical, but the moment the word “okay” left the mouth of a human being able to watch these four I took my son’s hand and ran from the building—past a janitor, several parents, and a blur of faces in the school office. I wondered if I abandonment charges were possible.

We pulled out of the parking lot and almost immediately found ourselves behind a line of traffic on the way to the other school. Cars, vans, trucks, and at the front, a school bus. It takes a single school bus to clog a rural road for miles. Worse, directly in front of us was a tractor pulling a manure spreader. Dark clumps fell onto the road and the heavy odor drifted in through our closed windows.

That drawn-out stinky scene wasn’t the final act of our little drama. Nor was it the sight of my third grader waiting for me in front of his school building, his face confident but his backpack sagging. No, it was the phone call from Frosted Lipstick later that evening. At the sound of her voice I was confident I would hear that the day’s calamities had been for a good cause.

“So did you resolve your differences?” I asked her.

“I went there to serve them with papers,” she said. “I’m suing the superintendent, the school, and the officers of the parent/teacher organization. God told me to seek vengeance.”

The Boy With No Toys

why toys are bad for kids, overstimulated kids,

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Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. Abandoned by the father, she was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When they were home they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.

She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not a single purchased plaything.

Will (name changed) and his mother live in a small mobile home park. By most standards they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, bartering when they have extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These routines activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.

They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.  He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks.  Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.

Sounds nice. But what about play?

natural play best for kids, free play, no toys,

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When Will was a baby his mother made all sorts of toys. Most took no time at all. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with drier fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.

Will is now six years old. He plays as any child naturally does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he recently discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project. He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and wisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.

What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items—crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences—a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.

natural child development,

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Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It’s has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.

Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in nature, which is by definition a challenging often constantly changing environment. In nature rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life IS an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.

Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.

In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment isn’t beneficial for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems accommodate intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in nature, in conversation, and in play they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without they’re bored.

And yet, so many people are amused when tiny children are clearly pushed to the limits by a toy too overwhelming for them

The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference  are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.

Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun long summer days into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her child.

play develops intelligence, benefits of free play, deprive your kids of toys, handmade toys,

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Published in Natural Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2011

Are Your Past Loves Hidden?

telling all in a relationship, total truth in relationship, sexual honesty,

Flickr photostream of qthomasbower

I was a teenaged bride (really). I began dating a tall, open-hearted 16-year-old guy when I was 14. I had a few middle school boyfriends before him, as well as a crush on a Jesus lookalike named Joe (which ended before it began when I fell headfirst into his locker while trying to coolly walk by) but never a true “past love.” We married when I was 18 and he was 20. Depending on how you look at it, either we missed out on all the fun of falling in love with other people or we were spared the emotional damage of falling in love with other people.

Everyone else I know has been in relationships that ended, often badly. Many of them in marriages that ended, also badly. When they talk about these former partners they tend to emphasize the negative. Surely this is a necessary part of the healing process, helping them to recognize where they were wounded as well as where they may have done some wounding. But sometimes, from my very limited experience in this area, I wonder why pain and anger seem to weigh down the rest of their memories— the funny ones, tender ones, and ordinary ones—memories that are an integral part of their earlier years. In truth, every fully lived moment goes into making a person who she or he is today.

Until I talked to Kate Harper and Leon Marasco, authors of If Only I Could Tell You..: Where Past Loves and Current Intimacy Meet, I hadn’t given much thought to past loves. They told me when they fell in love they learned to share the stories of their hearts’ travels as well as the feelings those stories still evoked. Doing so brought their relationship to profoundly deeper levels of intimacy and acceptance. They didn’t have to close off or reframe any part of their emotional lives. For example, Kate only heard a certain song the time her former partner Ted tenderly sang it to her. One day while she and Leon were sitting in a café, that song came on. Her eyes filled with tears, tears she didn’t have to pretend weren’t there. Leon already knew about Ted and how much that song meant to her. He reached across the table to hold her hand and they sat together sharing those feelings safely within their own cherished relationship.

They acknowledge that there are reasons to avoid talking about memories, but find even more reasons for speaking openly. As they write,

We are forever changed through what we have felt and experienced within an intimate relationship. That in itself is worth knowing. In the light remaining from each previous love, we can better see our inner world, see who we are. No matter how the romance ended, it began in hopes and dreams and that mysterious spark, not all of it physical, that brings lovers together. All of this is true whether we find a new love or remain alone.

And why does it matter if we recognize this? It matters in that we are creatures who thrive on the natural flow of what sustains us, nourishes us, strengthens us. Past loves—the special and profound energy fields they still engender—are one source of our lifeblood.

Their book includes interviews with 28 men and women, each talking frankly about how memories of former loves echo in their current lives. They also write about what is important to consider before sharing, as well as ways to think about when, how, and why that sharing might take place.

I have no memories of past loves to share, beyond those first self-doubting and all too often klutzy moments shared with middle school boyfriends equally new to romance. So I ask you to help me out of this ignorance. Do you hide the tender, funny, ordinary memories shared with your past loves?

Book Zombie

zone out while reading, reading addict, can't stop reading, staying up late to read, tune out the world when reading,

L.G. Weldon, book zombie

book [book]  noun
1. a work of fiction or nonfiction bound within covers or digital version
zom·bie  [zom-bee] noun
1. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, inanimate, remote
 2. an eccentric or peculiar person.

I stayed up past two a.m. last night happily churning through a book. Reading seems timeless to me, a book-related fugue state that got me in trouble in elementary school.  Many days the class moved on from reading time to math while I remained completely absorbed in a book. I’d look up to find I’d been called on to answer an equation. My brain would scramble to move from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’s18th century manor house to third grade long division, the plight of children dealing with villians more real than dreary numbers chalked on the board.

This still causes me trouble. I have no idea how many minutes or hours have elapsed when I finally lift my eyes from the page. That’s not helpful. At night I tuck into an enticing stack of books, often enjoying non-fiction for a few hours and then finishing up with a long indulgent dessert of fiction. The evening me doesn’t care about the morning me, she unpages chapter after chapter oblivious of the clock’s reality. But no matter how late she stays up reading there’s still an early start. When the morning me looks at the stack of books she isn’t bitter. She may sigh, but she also looks forward to reading some more.

When my kids were tiny I only let myself read when they were asleep or nursing. Okay, I also read while they were safely strapped in the stroller, pushing it with a book propped against the handle. I hoped this would keep them safe from their mother’s zombie reading state. It didn’t. Now they’re zombies when they read. Or maybe they pretend to be, the better to filter out reminding parental voices.

I can’t recall a fraction of all the marvelous books, essays, poems, and articles I’ve read over the years. But I’m convinced that they’re in there, ready to provide a bit of insight or wisdom I might call on when the need arises. They are a part of who I am as surely as the experiences that make up my life.

Yes, today I feel pretty zombified with only a few hours of sleep due to the magical novel, The Night Circus. But if my schedule allowed I wouldn’t wait until this evening to finish it.

Perhaps because I’m tired, it occurs to me that books lure us into this zombification. Think about it. Close scrutiny of readers reveals that we willingly zone out, only our eyes moving in oddly repetitive back and forth motions. While reading we are out of our own minds, happily roaming through the imaginings of someone else’s. Perhaps our beloved books build brains to feed on them. If that were true I’d say, “Nosh away my dear books. Make a buffet of my mind. I am your happy zombie.”

Are you a fellow book zombie? If so, what are you reading lately? And if not, does something else cause you to zombie-out?