15 Smarty Pants Ways To Enjoy Snow

 

Save some coldness for summer. (CC by 2.0 dumbledad)

Explore the science, art, and dessert potential of snow. Image: CC by 2.0 dumbledad’s flickr photostream.

There’s much more to snow than its seasonal good looks. It’s invigorating to get out in the frosty cold (it’s even good for babies). And those lovely piles of frozen water vapor just might inspire you to indulge in some brain-boosting activities.

1. Identify snowflakes. Look carefully at snowflakes that fall on your sleeve or cling to your window. Although no two snowflakes are alike, there are basic shapes. 

snow activities, learn from snow, snow learning activities,

IDing snowflakes. Image: caltech.edu.

 2. Stalk snowflakes. Go outside with a sheet of black paper, a good way to see individual shapes. You can even hunt for specific snowflake types using Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes or make quick sketches (still quite possible with mittens) in a journal. Enough snowflake stalking and you may I.D. quite a few.

3. Photograph snowflakes. Snowflakes seem to be everywhere, but they’re reluctant to pose for photos. They twirl away in the wind, clump together, or simply melt when you breathe on them. Persistence is the key. Get out there when flakes are falling slowly and there’s little to no wind. If you keep your phone (or camera) out, you’ll be ready to capture that brief moment when you can see individual flakes on your jacket.

A little planning can make decent shots more likely. We’ve had some success with this method. Take heavy dark blue or black plastic outdoors (we used a trash can set on its side). Place it in a bright area without shadows and let it chill to air temperature. Then, quickly photograph flakes as they settle on the surface. It’s best if you put your device on a tripod and set it to telephoto. Chances are you’ll get a few good images.

how to photograph snowflakes,

Snowflakes on jacket. Image: CC by 2.0 jenny mcflint.

4. Make paper snowflakes. Lacy snowflake cut-outs dangling from thread are classic winter decorations. Plus, they have a lot to teach us about symmetry—and patience. For ideas, check out easy paper snowflakes from coffee filters or more exacting snowflake designs.  I tend to skip all design recommendations. Just fold, cut, and unfold. The results are likely to be as unique as, well, a snowflake.

cut out paper snowflakes

5. Learn snow symbols There are  100 weather symbols used in meteorology. Check here, they’re pretty interesting. Snow symbols jump around, starting with number 22, which is pretty much an asterisk followed by a square bracket. Right now out my window, we’re experiencing #72 conditions, which look much prettier than their symbolic representation:

6. Grow your own snowflakes. This experiment calls for things we don’t usually have around the house like Styrofoam cups, soda bottles, and dry ice. But it’s worth it for the chance to briefly impersonate Boreas, the ancient Greek god of winter. You might also want to grow salt crystals, borax crystals , alum crystals, or the ever-reliable rock candy.

make rock candy

Rock candy. Image: CC by 2.0 gazeronly.

 

7. Chill out with some snowflake history. Wilson A. Bentley, a homeschooled Vermont farm boy born in 1865, became an amateur scientist and artist whose work remains a standard in the field.  Younger children will enjoy learning about him in Snowflake Bentley, while teens and adults may enjoy The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley. And stop in to see his original photos at the Jericho Historical Society, if you ever find yourself near Bentley’s hometown of Jericho, Vermont.

Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley. (Wikipedia.org)

Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley. Wikipedia.org.

8. Shovel snow. It’s a great workout for the whole family. It’s also a warm act of kindness to surprise a neighbor with a shoveled drive, particularly for folks who are unwell or home with a new baby. For some reason, it’s even more fun to do this sort of favor secretly, so if you know the elderly couple next door won’t be home for a few hours, it’s a great time to dash over there with shovels. (There are plenty of other great ways to volunteer with kids, too.)

Good deed, good exercise. Image: Pippalou

Good deed, good exercise. Image: Pippalou

9. Build a snow fort. A snowdrift or a nice pile of snow from all of that shoveling is the perfect way to start. If there’s not enough snow, just hollow out a kid-sized space in the snow and anchor a sheet with a few snowballs to make a temporary roof.

Easy snow fort. Image: CC by 2.9 popofatticus.

Easy snow fort. Image: CC by 2.9
popofatticus.

10. Look into flaky science. Do snowflakes always have six branches? Are most snowflakes damaged before they land? What are the chances a similar snowflake has fallen in Earth’s history? Delve into these books to find out. Kids 4 to 7 will enjoy The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s WonderThe Snowflake : A Water Cycle Story, and a glimpse into where wild creatures handle winter in Under the SnowKids 8 to 12 will enjoy The Secret Life of a Snowflake: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes.

11. Make snow candy.  It’s unusual, memorable, and very sweet. Try the maple syrup method.

All natural! (CC by 2.0 the seafarer)

All natural! Image: CC by 2.0 the seafarer.

12. Mix up some snow ice cream. Try vanillachocolate peanut butter, or chocolate peppermint. Be sure to mix up all of the ingredients in advance, then go collect clean snow to mix in. Otherwise it’s a melty mess.

snow ice cream

 

13. Conduct the Clean Snow Experiment. You may, ahem, want to do this before making maple sugar candy or snow ice cream. All you need is a coffee filter and some snow. Pile the snow in the filter and let it melt completely, then examine what particulates may have been lurking in that white fluff.  It may deter you from eating snow and snow-related goodies, it may not.

Snowy crystals. (Image: pixabay.com)

 14. Read wintry fiction. For the little ones, try books like Snowflake Baby by Elise Broach,  Little Penguins by Cynthia RylantWhen Snowflakes Fall and Winter Friends, both by Carl SamsFor kids 4 to 7, snuggle up to read Snow by Cynthia Rylant, Snow by Uri Shulevitz, and the classic The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader. Wintry YA books include The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin,  Snow-walker by Catherine Fisherand Jack London’s enduring tale White Fang

Cooperation in the forest. (Image: Wikipedia.org)

15. Freeze snowballs. Time to stock up. Get out there and pack lots of nice tight snowballs to save for the long snow-free months of summer. If you have lots of room, let each member of the family label and freeze his or her personal bag of snowballs. Wait patiently. Then on the steamiest, most uncomfortable day of summer, get those snowballs out. You’ll find something to do with them, guaranteed.

freeze a supply of snowballs

 

Whatever you do, just don’t forget to savor snow. Take a cue from kids so young they don’t remember last year’s winter. On their faces you see awe at how snow turns an ordinary neighborhood into a wonderland.

 

I Want You To Meet Kathy Ceceri

 

Kathy with one of her newest books.  Photo provided by Kathy Ceceri.

Educator and author Kathy Ceceri  and I have been colleagues on and off for nearly 15 years, writing for some of the same publications and collaborating on projects. Kathy has always been an inspiration to me — focused and innovative with a powerful can-do approach. It’s not just me. Her work inspires kids, parents, and educators every day.

Kathy has written nearly a dozen books and kids in her hands-on workshops make fascinating things. Really fascinating — like a hydraulic Lego 3D food printer, solar baked oatmeal cookies, a light-up paper cat, or a swarm of gliding vibrobots. Better yet, her goal is getting them to come up with their own creations.

I suspect all of us would like to know more about Kathy. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

My background is in journalism, although my training was all “on-the-job,” writing news reports, lifestyle and art features, and investigative pieces for newspapers, magazines, and websites.

My training in education was all “on-the-job” as well — I homeschooled my two sons from kindergarten up until college. I have written about kid-friendly hands-on learning projects for Family Fun and Wired.com, and as the “Homeschooling Expert” (yes, that was really my title) for About.com. I currently produce books and articles for Make Magazine and other publishers and lead workshops for kids, families, and educators.

How does starting out as a writer and artist lead to a quest to advance STEAM and Maker learning?

STEAM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math,” and the Maker Movement is about building, inventing, and exploring in the physical realm (as opposed to creating software). Both these educational trends excite me because as a kid I was always creating homes, environments, and accessories for my dolls and recycling materials into playthings. I was also very crafty, trying a little bit of everything that came along from stained glass to candlemaking to macrame. And my favorite type of reading was fantasy and science fiction.

I studied some art in college but never really applied it until I discovered ways to incorporate it into projects that involved engineering and science. Today design and technology is an area of concentration in many art programs, but not when I was in school! Making robotic systems out of cardboard and duct tape is a perfect expression of everything I enjoy. And it seems to appeal to an audience of teachers and students who want to get started but don’t know where to dive in (or don’t have the resources to start big).

Can you share a project or two in depth? (including a link to instructions?)

Sure! This Tin Can Cooker project from my latest book Edible Inventions dates back to my days at Girl Scout camp.

And these recipes for Refrigerator PIckles and Yogurt in a Mug are family standards.

You can find links to more projects from my books at my website Crafts for Learning.

Are your projects do-able for people who don’t have much in the way of DIY experience.

Definitely. I describe my projects as “low tech/no tech” and I design them to draw on skills and materials that most people already have. As I always say, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Can you share a story of how hands-on projects can empower kids?

My favorite stories are the parents who come back and say, “He spent the whole weekend working on making his robot better,” or “She went home and taught her sister how to make that project.”  If nothing else, kids who try my books and workshops come away knowing how to troubleshoot, and have a little more confidence about trying something to see where it leads. The nice thing about Maker projects is there’s no one right answer. Unlike math worksheets, there are many ways to set out, and many different directions you can go in. That’s something kids don’t get enough of nowadays.

You are making a difference. Can you give us some encouragement to follow our own passions? 

That’s very nice of you to say! If I’ve followed my passion, it’s because it was the path that best fit the life I had at that moment. I guess my advice is don’t be afraid to promote yourself and your particular strengths and talents. If you’re passionate, sooner or later you’ll find someone who responds to that energy and will open up new ways to channel it that you might not have imagined.

Kathy’s book titles include:

And her newest, due out in March 2017.

Check out Kathy’s site Crafts for Learning for low-tech projects, her workshop schedule, and Makerspace suggestions. Thanks Kathy!

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Leftovers As Love

why we cook for people we love

Ingredients? I’ve got the stinking ingredients.  (Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1564)

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” ~M.F.K. Fisher

I’m scooping Thanksgiving leftovers into containers with tears in my eyes. Mashed potatoes, turkey, wild rice stuffing, cranberry pomegranate sauce, Aunt Tricia’s pecan bars and her pumpkin parfait are packed into a cooler along with mason jars of peach jam, applesauce, and salsa. They’re for one of my sons, who has a full day of driving to get back to his regularly scheduled life a few states away. He’s got a fantastic career, wide-ranging hobbies, and wonderful friends. I’m entirely happy for him and don’t for a moment want to hold him back. There’s just something about feeding him into the next week that gets to me in a tear-inducing way. I suspect it’s more than a mom thing.

There are names for people like me in nearly every language, some of them not very flattering. We lavish attention on people we love, in part, by cooking for them. We’re the ones foisting leftovers on you as you try to leave. We’re the ones who do our best to have (what we believe are) your favorites available when you visit — even if you last said you couldn’t get enough bean pate back in the 90’s. We’re the ones who hardly taste the food we serve, our senses already full from making it. We can be annoying. We can’t help it.

Speaking for myself, it’s not entirely about the people I cook for.* It’s about me too.

I can ignore serious pressing deadlines without a sideways glance when it’s time to cook for our weekly Sunday extended family get-togethers. For a few glorious hours on Saturday I make dishes for two meals the next day, sometimes happily getting up before dawn on Sunday to knead dough or roll out pie crust to complete those meals. I can also ignore my deadlines when we host one of our regular potlucks or, as we did last month, have a house concert here. Actually, I can rely on the Feeding People Excuse pretty much every day, whether I’m working in the garden or harvesting produce from that garden to make a pot of soup. Chopping vegetables is, for me, a more reliable way to enter that lovely state of flow than clattering at a keyboard, although I wouldn’t give up writing any more than I’d give up cooking.

All this time spent in the kitchen hasn’t made me more accomplished than anyone else. I have serious faults that include broiling when I shouldn’t broil, horrendous knife skills, an overly casual approach to measuring, and chronic delight in using strange ingredients when normal ones would have worked better. I’m also (rightly) accused of making enough food for a lumberjack camp. Which gives me all those leftovers to send with you…

But I can say this. The cells of our bodies are built by the air we breathe as well as by the food and drink we ingest. To grow that food, to cook that food, is to be part of nourishing life in those we cherish. This, to me, is one of the most basic ways to demonstrate love.

 

*Yes I ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m breaking rules outside of the kitchen too. 

Dinner To Bring a Nation Together

 

This is Sarah Josepha Hale. You may know her as the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Don’t let the demure smile fool you, this woman leaned in.

She was born in 1788 to parents so shockingly progressive that they believed in equal education for boys and girls. Sarah was homeschooled and didn’t marry until she was well over the hill for her era — all of 25. Nine years after their marriage, her husband died of pneumonia while she was pregnant with their fifth child.

This aspiring author and newly single mother sold hats to make money and wrote at night after the children were in bed. A few years later, her novel decrying slavery was published (25 years before the more widely known Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print). On the strength of that novel, she was offered the editor’s job at Ladies’ Magazine, a periodical that later merged with  Godey’s Lady’s Book. While other publications of the era packed their pages with reprinted British articles, Sarah insisted this magazine would be written by American authors as much as possible. Early on that sometimes meant she wrote much of the content herself. She worked as editor until she was nearly 90, also finding time to write close to 50 books.

Her position at the only major women’s magazine in the country gave her a powerful platform — imagine Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, and Beyonce’s influence combined. Sarah’s tastes affected everything from the nation’s literature to its architecture. Although she accepted the era’s norms when it came to gender roles, she used her influence for profound social change. Sarah pushed for children’s rights, women’s education, and the abolition of slavery between pages of fashion, homemaking advice, and recipes.

Sarah Hale, Thanksgiving

As tensions built in pre-Civil War America, she took on another cause.  At the time, the holiday we call Thanksgiving was held at different times in different jurisdictions on any date between October and January in the United States. Or not at all. And in the South the holiday was largely unknown.

Starting in 1846, Hale used the magazine to push for a national day of gratitude. She hoped such a holiday would help to unify the North and South, even prevent a Civil War.  Year after year she wrote editorials asking the nation’s leaders to declare the last Thursday in November a national holiday–Thanksgiving Day. In November 1857 she wrote,

Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the “feast of fat things” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world.

Marketing wizard that she was, Sarah didn’t stick to editorials. She shifted popular public opinion by promoting Thanksgiving recipes (including the now traditional roast turkey and pumpkin pie) along with sentimental poems, stories, and drawings of families gathered around the Thanksgiving table. She also wrote hundreds of letters to governors, presidents, and secretaries of state as part of her campaign.

Seventeen years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated as a national holiday. He recommended his fellow citizens, “…reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land…”

No, it didn’t help to unify a nation that year. Frankly that’s asking a lot out of dinner. But this year let’s do our best to sit down at the table together in the spirit of peace, union, and harmony. And then, with a nod to Sarah’s enviable energy, let’s get back up to work for profound social change.

Ways of Speaking

faith like a spider

 

Ways of Speaking

 

I’m weary of those who talk

in slogans stamped and packed

by someone else, like

long distance truckers paid to drive

without knowing the weight

hauled onto that dark highway.

 

I want to walk, instead

where I can read the body’s slow knowing.

Where each thing watched long speaks aloud.

 

A spider tossed by the breeze reaches one strand

thin as faith. As it takes hold she dances between twigs

and waits within a design both beginning and end.

When the web breaks she begins again

tiny legs speaking in ways

we’re meant to hear.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

Find this and other poems in my collection, Tending. 

 

House Undivided

political opposites get along

This isn’t an accurate representation of the house I’m describing! CC by 2.0, photo by Michal Osmenda

When I drive into town, I go past a house that never fails to interest me. The house itself is entirely ordinary. I’ve never met the inhabitants. What’s fascinating is the dichotomy on display out front.

Take the driveway. Most evenings a pickup truck with mud streaks from off-roading is neatly parked next to a fuel-efficient hybrid.

Or take the landscaping. For over a decade and a half, the garden bed under the front window has sported a perennial planting — two equally large logos for rival teams Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines. This is a brave statement here in Ohio.

But the lawn is my favorite. Each presidential election season a competition is waged right there on the grass. A regular-sized Gore/Lieberman sign appeared close to the street in early autumn of 2000. The next time I drove by, a Bush/Cheney sign was placed directly in front of that sign. As weeks went by the signs were moved like two parrying chess pieces until a much larger Bush/Cheney sign appeared. That was followed by a larger Gore/Lieberman sign. A similar dance of political signs took place for the Kerry vs Bush race, the Obama vs McCain race, and the Obama vs Romney race. (This year, two very small signs….)

The couple in this house surely eat at the same table, sit on the same couch, flush the same toilet, and sleep in the same bed. They’ve managed to live together all these years while holding widely differing opinions. I thought I lived in a household of contradictions but these two are an inspiring example of publicly embracing their differences.

We’re told we live in an ever more divisive country. We tend to choose news sources that amplify our own worldviews. We tend to delete social media friends who don’t share our opinions. We tend to live in areas and move in social circles with people very similar to us. Yet insulating ourselves from those who are different just strengthens the perception that we’re irreconcilably different.

Research shows us that diversity sparks more innovative and energizing approaches to building strong communities and successful businesses.  Diversity can lead to some invigorating soul-searching  and growth on a personal level too. One of the main principles of nonviolence is finding common ground with each other. Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, individual purpose, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

This house reminds me we can express our differences and still laugh.  We can challenge each other and in doing so, learn from each other. We can get beyond the urge to assert the superiority of our viewpoints by respecting each other, helping each other, and collaborating with each other. This house is who we really are as a nation. May it be so.

“Society evolves not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.” ~Lewis Thomas

Playing With Logical Fallacies

return logic to politics, make logic a game, free logic game, free critical thinking game, teach logic, teach common sense,

yourlogicalfallacyis.com

Heated political rhetoric is everywhere. It sets us apart from one another and erodes what’s left of civil discourse. It grinds the worthy concept of logic into dust. Not any more. Not when we fight back with a game I’m calling Logic Shrink.

I’m not selling a thing. You don’t need an app, a console, even a board. It’s entirely your game. Play a solitary version. Play it during a get-together with your extended family. Play it with kids, especially teens. Bring it to the classroom, assisted living center, or secret Super PAC meeting. It will entertain.

Afterwards, when the lively score-keeping has ended there will be something new in the room. It may be unfamiliar at first. It’s a state of being that requires no name calling, no slippery slope.  It’s logical thinking.

Now just envision the game being played over and over, from living rooms to sports bars, spreading this thing called logic across all so-called divisions. Even if every snarky pundit huffed off the airwaves the game wouldn’t have to end. We’d just spread nice thick layers of logic in plenty of other places.

 

How To Play Logic Shrink

The general idea is to watch or listen to two sides of an issue as presented by pundits, politicians, or other talking heads. Using a guide to logical fallacies, players call out any errors they perceive. The first person to call out a fallacy that at least a third of other players agree is correctly identified, gains points. Players who correctly estimate in advance how many fallacies will be committed by each side gain points too.

1. First, print out or otherwise make available a list of logical fallacies. (Here’s one and here’s another but you can find many online or use the graphic heading this post.) As with any game, the players won’t be immediately familiar with all of these fallacies nor the names they’re commonly called. Shorten the list to the most common fallacies for new players or younger kids. Give a little time in advance of each game for players to go over the list. It seems dull now, but it won’t when players use the list to score points. Liven up the logical fallacy list any way you like, perhaps giving an introduction to each as a stand-up comedy routine or asking each player to offer an example of a logical fallacy they’ve heard recently.

2. Locate competing sources. That might be right (Glenn BeckRush LimbaughFox & Friends) versus left (Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartmann, Democracy Now). It might be a political debate. It might be two podcasters squaring off on an inflammatory issue. It’s best if the sources are taped or otherwise turn-off-able, because you’ll be stopping them a few times. Start with no more than ten minutes of each. Maybe five.

2.  Scoring. This is your game so you may keep score any way you choose. Here are my suggestions. At the beginning of each game, guess the number of fallacies each different segment will provide and put that number at the top of your list or other scoring method. Then keep track of fallacies outed. The easiest way? Provide two different colored pencils to each player (helpful for designating which source committed which fallacy), then let players check off each fallacy on the list they hear. They must be the first to call out the fallacy aloud to earn points. You can get more high tech if you’d like, there are all sorts of student response systems (SRS), audience response systems (ARS), and personal response systems (PRS) available for smart phones and tablets. Or hell, make a wall-sized board that lights up when players touch a remote. This game is ripe for geekifying.

3. Disputing scores. This is where it gets, shall we say, energized. Stick to the statements heard and the way those statements fit on the list of logical fallacies.  The goal of the game is only to discover illogical rhetoric. Be the first to call out a logical fallacy, you get five points if at least a third of other players agree by a quick show of hands. Other players can dispute the exact fallacy you claim or that any fallacy exists. (The recording will need to be turned off or backed up a few times.) Everyone should add the agreed-upon fallacies to their overall score sheet, seeing who gets closest to their pre-game estimates. At the end, the closest overall estimator gets 25 points. Also add up scores earned during the game. Grand total wins, although we all know, logic is the true champion.

To recap

  • Pass out list of logical fallacies.
  • Go over them together.
  • Explain scoring.
  • Start the show, stopping when necessary to sort out all the yelling and raised hands.
  • Finish by adding up scores.
  • Cheer for the elevation of reason and logic.

Tell me how you play, and improve on, Logic Shrink. If you come up with a great app or device to use with Logic Shrink, feel free to give me a cut. So far, tirelessly advancing good causes hasn’t paid me a nickel.

Would You Open the Door?

who is a hero?

Image: CC by 2.0 flickr Tom Roeleveld

Like many adjunct professors, Jessamine Irwin spends a lot of time commuting. The other day she way on her way to New York University after teaching a class at Fordham. She got on a New York subway and sat in a seat at the back of the train, near the door leading to the next car. She settled into the commuter’s lull, relaxed and half awake, when she was startled into awareness by a loud noise against the back door of the train car.

She was shocked to see two people between the cars. One, a large man, was shaking the other, as if trying to throw that person onto the tracks.

Horrified, she called out to her fellow passengers, “What’s happening!”

No one seemed to react. At the same time, the aggressor shoved his victim to the other side, and then slammed him with his back to the door of Ms. Irwin’s car.

Almost without thinking, she opened the door and grabbed the victim.

He half fell as she pulled him to safety, away from an aggressor she describes as muscular and over six feet tall. The aggressor, thankfully, did not pursue his victim into the car although that was the risk Ms. Irwin took.

Only after she got the victim into the car did she realize he was an 11-year-old boy.

His t-shirt revealed the name of his school but he was so traumatized by his ordeal that he could barely talk. She used his phone, trying to call his mother, but lost reception.

His arms were bruised from the assault and he’d hit his head against the subway car. He held her hand as, at the next stop, she led him off the train to the transit police. He explained to the police that he’d been play-fighting with a friend and his friend accidentally bumped into the man.  When the boy denied witnessing this,  the man grabbed him and dragged him between the cars.

Some say there’s a difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate it. We know too little about how to develop that capacity in ourselves and our children. Instead we’re surrounded by news outlets, pundits, and advertisers who spew greed and misery, giving us all a sense of helplessness.

The issues of our time are serious indeed. But unnoticed acts of kindness are what allow life to flourish as we nurture the youngest and tend to the oldest, share with those in need, and weave the web of mutuality that holds us together. Most of these acts are not as dramatic as Ms. Irwin’s. But she, like so many perfectly ordinary people, show us what humanity is capable of doing.

If faced with a similar crisis, I’d like to think that you and I would open the door too.

Moving to the Hinterland

The car stereo shorted out repeatedly during our move to the country, defaulting from quiet public radio to a station transmitting evangelical hellfire at top volume.

I guess that was the first sign.

Though my husband, Mark, and I had long dreamed of raising our children in the country, we’d come to love the benefits of our busy suburban community. Along with a group of neighbors we’d established traditions including full moon walks, bike parades, Halloween get-togethers, even pig pen parties. But difficult circumstances — everything from a bully next door to a gun-toting gang  harassing our oldest son at school —  motivated us to leave. And because Mark had a home business without a commute, we were free to move farther away.

We scrounged the means to buy a rural place and found one we could afford.  As we carried our belongings into our new home we savored the pastoral refuge we’d found – a pond, fields, forest, and a low hill where we envisioned building a barn. We couldn’t wait to meet the neighbors.

The next day one of them walked over carrying a towel-covered dish. I’d always greeted new people on our old street with homemade bread so I was heartened to see her.

“This is my husband’s favorite,” she said. “It’s cherry pie.”

Her hair was sprayed into stiff curls, her face thick with make-up. Her expression seemed deeply unhappy. Three silent girls accompanied her. None of them wanted to meet my children when I offered to call them in from the woods. She stayed only long enough to ask if I’d found a nearby house of worship. I said we were still attending our former church. She asked its denomination, twice. I realized it was better to change the subject than tell her we attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

On the way out her youngest child noticed a painting from India on our wall. The girl looked at me and spoke for the first time since she’d arrived. “Pagan idols!” she said in horror.

A few days later another neighbor walked over. She brought cookies and promptly asked about our church affiliation. While her toddler rampaged through the house she suggested we remove the sign on our lawn promoting the library levy. “No one around here supports the library,” she said softly. “It’s an agent of Satan.”

I was confused.

She explained that the library had “that Internet thing,” exposing children to “evil and filth on the screen.” I nodded at her concerns but gave examples of greater good brought about by the net. Words like “awareness” caused her nostrils to flare. She informed me that worldwide violence was a preordained sign of the End Times. Just then her tiny child ran into the room, assumed a firing stance and yelled, “I kill you.”

As this first month in our bucolic country home continued, more neighbors stopped by, usually in an advisory capacity. A minivan pulled in while I was putting up our Halloween decorations. The driver cautioned me that such décor would mark me as a devil worshiper.

“It’s not worth the effort anyway,” she said, “no one trick or treats around here.”

We commiserated about the reduction of household chocolate this represented. She leaned an elbow out the van window and went on about the holiday boycott. As we laughed I experienced a surge of hope, thinking I might have found a kindred spirit. She said there was a movement underway to halt even the October 31 “harvest parties” at school to which children wore costumes. I let out an ill-advised laugh and said something sarcastic. The relaxed expression on her face changed. She retorted that her pastor did not support anything which pleased “the desires of the devil and his minions” and backed out of the drive.

A brief conversation with neighbor who lived a few doors down revealed that our families had attended the same Presbyterian church when we were growing up. She invited me over. This seemed promising. When I brought muffins she nodded as she took them, saying that God had told her not to bake. As she ranged around the kitchen smacking insects with a fly swatter, she gave me a who’s who of the area.

“Don’t talk to the lady in the yellow house, she has a hyphenated name, probably a feminist. And next door, they’re Catholic, you know, so-called Christians.” She went on to list those in her own family who were going to hell because they were still Presbyterians rather than members of her non-denominational church. Finally she noticed I had gently protested each of her denunciations. The fly swatter stopped. I tried again.

“Aren’t Christians meant to see Christ in each person?” I asked gently.

She kicked me out of her house.

We’ve been here nine years now. We cherish the simple pleasures of raising cows, chickens, and bees on our land. And yes, we’ve found friends nearby with whom we can discuss politics and religion openly (even though our views don’t necessarily align). We’ve developed new traditions including potlucks to which we invite friends from urban and farm community together.

All the while our most fundamentalist neighbors have served as amazing teachers. They’ve truly given us lessons on finding that spark of divinity in everyone.

But sometimes I have to admit to myself, “Christ, good disguise.”

 

Originally published a decade ago by Geez Magazine: Contemplative Cultural Resistance. Our early months living in this community were actually much more harrowing as well as more strangely amusing. Here’s more on that. We’re still here on the same little farm and can truly say we appreciate all of our neighbors. (I don’t ask if the feeling is mutual…)  

Oil & Gas Pipeline Closing In On Our Township

oil and gas pipeline through rural areas

No! No! No! 

Pipeline Protest 

 

Its name is Nexus,

from the Latin

meaning to bind, fasten, tie.

The pipeline, nearly as wide

as a kindergartener is tall,

will cut through

dairy farms and backyards,

hurtling high-pressure

danger for profit. Always profit.

 

Maybe it’s another wake-up call,

like the one Bush offered

by invading a sovereign nation;

brutalizing the Iraqi people

we claimed to be saving.

Brutalizing ourselves.

 

Of course we keep hitting

the snooze button.

Waking up isn’t easy.

Birds flounder

in oily waters

and we’re desperate

to sleep a little longer.

 

Today you and I stand

amidst hand-lettered signs:

Windmills Not Oil Spills,

Eminent Domain=Greed,

Fuck Fracking.

Cold wind brings tears to our eyes.

 

Fear brings us here. Anger too.

And bone-deep grief

for this lovely lovely planet.

Awakening shows us a million ways

to climb past despair.

I want us to do it for love.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

 

Originally published in the Blue Collar Review. Find more poetry in my collection, Tending. 

 

  • Here’s more about the Nexus pipeline including the route and blast radius in Ohio.
  • Here’s an article I wrote about how fracking might affect my family, and yours.  (First published on Wired.com.)
  • Here’s a glimpse at just how shady the oil and gas industry can be. More than 100 letters sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC) in support of the pipeline are fakes, using names and addresses of Medina County residents who did not write them or sign them. A FERC project manager said the falsified letters would remain on the docket.
  • Here’s recent disheartening news. An appeals court, using a 65 year old Ohio law meant to facilitate the construction of utility infrastructure after World War II,  has ruled against the rights of property owners. This means pipeline surveyors are free to intrude on the yards and farms of 65 landowners who have actively objected. Yesterday armed security guards stood by as surveyors took measurements on a horse farm just south of the fairgrounds, a farm that’s bordered on three sides by wetlands and park property. As resident Paul Gierosky said in a recent article, “NEXUS is no more a utility than I’m an astronaut. This pipeline is not a public agency designed to service the people along its route. It’s a for-profit company that’s going to sell the gas to a foreign country.”
Image: Garry Knight, CC by 2.0

Image: Garry Knight, CC by 2.0