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Monthly Archives: November 2012
I sit outside a closed door through which I can hear my daughter pulling her bow across violin strings. Through another door a rich, young, slightly nasal girl’s voice sings out a soulful, jazzy tune. The teacher stops her now and then, trains the breath, posture, draws out more sound, more soul. I start to sweat. I’m there in my mind–I am the one by the piano, finding my voice again, and emotions rush in. It’s been too long. So many voices to listen to at home, have to stay in tune with them, the audio system and stacks of CD’s don’t get used much. And now the young’uns are making their own musical sounds, more and more. My guitar case has got dusty under the couch where it lives, my tenor uke the same.
I sign up for a weekly voice lesson, and prepare by digging through my dusty music binder, with its blue hand painted cloth cover pull out Joni Mitchell, Indigo Girls, Neil Young, Waterboys, U2, Crash Test Dummies. What do I still relate to? No more heavy angst, hedonistic living themes, just want to ask questions, make observations, celebrate, contemplate, sometimes long or mourn, and, yes, still preach on occasion. And of course loosen up. So maybe I’ll start with “Wish I had a river” by Joni Mitchell…no, I don’t mean what she means, so it’ll be “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Long time ago someone said must be about drugs–silver girl a needle. Lately I read that it’s to Simon’s wife, that line, who noticed her first gray hair. “Sail on, silver girl…your time has come to shine; all your dreams are on their way.”
I find and reread lyrics penned by college friends. See new meanings–I was so oblivious. I didn’t notice the person reaching out through those words…Was I really much of a friend at all? Fun times with guitar, homemade cheesecake, late night conversations about politics, science, religion, the nature of things. But I didn’t like to get too close to the angst of others, except in a philosophical sense. Just wanted to link arms and walk through it together, dealing sidelong with pain and trouble. Music, food and humor being key.
As my kids discover the deeper side of music, I hope they be more thoughtful as they connect, let those tunes and croons draw forth their own meaning. Write their own songs, get out there and share it. And I cringe when I hear them singing along to a spirit of, I’m trying not to say it too harshly, well, stupidity. I did my share of that, and at the same age. So I just ask questions, suggest, at times, they listen for meaning, look for lyrics and musical atmosphere they can in good conscience allow to be part of them. And they’re onto that, seeing things from different angles, separating false from true. Now as ever, I have to watch out where I let my spirit flow. It has to mean something, and it has to be true.
A while ago I wrote on the importance of letting kids physically interact with, use and build with the stuff of nature, not just observe. Soon after I read “Look, Don’t Touch” in Orion by David Sobel, on the same idea. Now I’m reading the letters responding to that article. The writers of these letters remember special places where they played in the semi-wild and want to support the hands-on idea, but, sadly, they cannot in our day. It is nostalgic and unrealistic, it seems, to want kids to be able to dig holes, divert streams, and construct forts in the woods. Because what if everyone did that? Population is getting out of control, green spaces smaller, ecosystems more stressed and at risk, so we have to keep our hands off unless absolutely necessary, otherwise our natural spaces will be “loved to death.”
Yes, what if everyone did that? Someone has always had to to ask that question. And keep asking it. I always knew it applied to branch-breakers, polluters, people who let their dogs poop on the trail, and butterfly collectors, but somehow I missed that it might also apply to those who want to do something positive–to get closer, learn and explore, to create, build, and obtain nourishment. Because of what our society has collectively done to this earth, has it come to the point that we must lose such precious opportunities for our kids to bond with nature? How will our kids grow up to care enough about the earth to save it, if they only learn what it’s for, at least to humans, from theory?
What about this: What if no one did that? David Sobel was thinking of that, seeing the consequences of too little deep interaction with the rest of nature. Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods to warn of the consequences of this modern trend. It’s serious: children fail to bond with nature–that is, develop a deep caring relationship with the earth, and grow up to objectify nature. This is part of what has led to the environmental problems we have today. Nature becomes merely “natural resources,” even if we know they are limited and conserve for pragmatic reasons. Or for some, nature becomes kind of living force that wants to throw us off, something to be feared.
I agree, we can’t open up all parks and preserves to free play. But besides traditional green spaces and durable manufactured play structures, cities also need areas that can submit to more hands-on play. Every community ought to choose places, besides those that harbor fragile ecosystems, open them up for natural play, and rotate them (like croplands) now and then if they are in danger of being “loved to death.” Perhaps private property owners can rotate in their unused plots for a time. Of course, those of us who have access to our own lands can make a point of sharing with kids in our communities, inviting them for unstructured play or, if necessary, mentoring them in natural play (without electronics, organized games, or programmed learning activities). Even the rotation of a site into “low touch” mode can have great educational value, demonstrating nature’s resiliency and limits thereof, as well as the results of environmental restoration work.
I have done a rotation of this sort on a small scale in my yard for many years for my four children, making certain areas of my garden available to my kids and their friends for digging, fort-building, leaf-jumping and such. Mud baths and bug play parks are favorite activities. Sometimes they even light small fires during the wet season and roast apples or invent soups from things they find in the yard. They have especially enjoyed having these play times in sibling pairs–they call them “special times,” and I can remember numerous combinations of kids, each with its special dynamic. As homeschoolers, we always had time and opportunities to do this, and I almost always suspended formal lessons when a special time was going on. Special outings to our wooded plot of land would involve capturing snakes and lizards, seeing what new bird and rodent nests had been built since last time, creating island worlds in an old wading pool with clumps of sod, water and found objects, and experimenting with natural materials to discover their properties and uses. When friends were invited I would basically tell the kids the boundaries and rendezvous procedure, and off they’d go into the nearby woods and clearings while turned my hand to my garden plot or just sat in the shade with a good book.
“If we believe the Bible, we must believe that the vices of the great, both directly and consequentially, call down the judgments of the Almighty; and I may say to you that I am strongly influenced by the persuasion, that by marking such shameful debauchery, this publicly disclosed, with the stigma of the House of Commons, we should we should be acting in a manner that would be pleasing to God, and directly beneficial to the morals of the community.”
William Wilberforce to William Hey, 1809
Translation: If we believe the Bible (on ethics in this case), we must believe that God will judge a society for the sins of its leaders. I believe that when those who have a part in public discourse point out these sins for what they are, God is pleased and the morals of the public are benefited.
Can we talk about public display? Putting words, images, objects out there to communicate with anyone who has eyes to see. Beyond bumper stickers, which just zip by. Campaign signs. Gory Halloween displays.
Heard an interview on CBC of a business owner who had been keeping up a Halloween tradition that many found offensive. In her sidewalk store front, she and her team would create a gory window display for pedestrian passersby to view. Blood, body parts, violent scenes were mentioned. The reporter was tremendously respectful and neutral-sounding, but tried to ask questions that made sense of the situation that had arisen, that teased out relevant information and perspectives. The business owner was asked what was happening with her display, and why there were some who had problems with it. The creator showed little or no understanding of why anyone would take offense at being exposed to a model of graphic scene of carnage. All she did was identify the “sides” in the controversy–on one side, herself and her team, who, she said, “did not set out to offend anyone,” and were therefore innocent, along with those who appreciated or had nothing to say about the display, and on the other side, those who expressed their view of being offended or bothered by it. “What about small children, who might walk by and be frightened by the display?” asked the reporter. “I’m not going to bow down to a minority.” was her answer. It was about artistic freedom, freedom of expression, for her.
First, I really don’t believe she meant to offend in creating that display. But on the other hand, she showed tremendous insensitivity to others who did not know they were going to be exposed to the display, and didn’t seem to have a rationale for this, other than artistic expression. Furthermore, she didn’t express any clear idea of what worthy message she wanted to express. I think there was an element of protest about violence towards women, but it seemed to be mixed up in a horrid kind of spirit of fun. And I got the sense that she had completely blocked out certain messages others might want to communicate in response. To listen and respond to critique, to modify the form or clarify the truth of the message she put out was not an option. And her use of the word “minority” was just weird.
In further research, I found many similar stories of mixed public responses to Halloween displays. People who set up these things are an interesting set. Nice people with an interest in gore and shocking people. And people who want to be freaked out and flock to the displays. (I’ll write more soon on the ideas communicated through Halloween–an interesting topic in itself.)
At my house, I continually remind my kids that “I didn’t mean to” is no excuse. I believe this. While it can be a real comfort to an offended person to hear the phrase (if it is believable), I expect everyone in the family to grow in understanding others’ sensibilities and treat others as they would wish to be treated. Some “I didn’t mean to” offenses are out of ignorance or neglect. Many are out of tunnel vision–one’s own needs and wants take precedence over accommodating and considering others. So we try to “wake up” to others around us, understand what’s important to them and why they see things the way they do. Especially if we want to influence them in some way. It’s a life skill in which we all need to grow.
I also teach that there is a balance to this. We do not compromise our core beliefs or violate our consciences in order to accommodate or placate others. As we grow in understanding, we communicate the truth as we see it, but try to do so in humility and love. And sometimes, it’s appropriate to come on strong. We are all learning that so much of the effectiveness of our interpersonal communication depends on the level of trust in the relationship, of feeling accepted and appreciated. Effective communication also depends on timing. O, so much.
That’s within the close community of the family. But in public, the complexity of communication through public display is tremendous. Some people for that reason simply don’t engage in it–no bumper stickers, no yard signs. These are not necessarily folks who are short on opinions–not at all, but they shrink from the one-way kind of expression where one can’t really know what’s communicated to the many individual minds that perceive the message. Except maybe when they “like” on Facebook. (That’s another interesting topic.)
Others see it as valuable to go public with their stuff: “Hey, here’s what I think! I care about this!” They trust the folks out there to make something of it–to clarify, inform, influence, or not–whatever, but expression is better than lack thereof. Or they think that the more people publicly display their views, the more people are swayed by them. That doesn’t work all that well with certain people. In my family, for example. I think we’ve all learned at our house that “best seller” doesn’t necessarily mean best choice.
Where the message is non-verbal, as in art, communication is more complex. Impact can be more powerful, the the message more personal and visceral, but also for those reasons I think artists need to consider the audience and choose the venue carefully. People should be allowed to forgo the experience if it could be psychologically or emotionally harmful for them. And they may as well forgo it if they are not open to it.
Personally, as far as wanting to go public, my position flexes, depending on the nature and importance of the message and the likelihood of being misunderstood. I have a powerful desire to communicate, but I do hate to be misunderstood, or to see an important message badly communicated. The importance of the communication should make people either more careful in how they communicate (in case of oversimplification or misunderstanding), or bolder and more open (if it’s a simple message). I also feel how important it is to know others thoughts and views, and as I’m no CBC reporter, asking all the right questions, I appreciate being told. Now I know which of my neighbors are for Romney, which for Obama, which for and against gay marriage rights, and I can handle that. But I hope that those who take the trouble and risk to communicate can always be open (as the above store owner did not seem to be) to listening. A different store owner with a different Halloween window display did listen, and removed the most offensive mannequin from his display. While I question the value of gross-out Halloween displays in general, I do appreciate his showing some sensitivity. May he show more and more as Halloweens come and go, and may we all.