Monthly Archives: July 2013

Wrestling with myself and my enormous patch of weeds

Wrestling with myself and my enormous patch of weeds

Curly dock has a deep-digging claw-like root that grasps the soil and rocks underground like a half a dozen dandelions working together, defying removal. I’d let a whole patch get ahead of me, and today went at it for a breather from a tense conversation. By my apple tree was a thicket of mature dock plants almost three feet tall above more seedlings awaiting a sunlight breakthrough at ground level. The big ones were clustered five or six per square foot in places–obviously I had let whole crops of seed settle and take root while I tended to lettuces elsewhere. But with the energy of frustration, the leverage of my spading fork and the strength of my arms, I started working, loosening soil, prying, plunging the fork deeper, prying, and then, the satisfying muffled snap of each root tip. One by one I wrenched them all up and piled them to decompose by the path, releasing their nutrients back into the topsoil.

Weeding is meditative for me–not in the peaceful, out-of-body sense, but it has a rhythm and set purpose that channels my physical tension and frees my mind to consider, grapple with, remember, process. Reminds me of “Gavin’s Woodpile,” a Bruce Cockburn song in which he wrestles with the contrast between the various manifestations of “the curse of these modern times” with the beauties of living. Listen here, and the lyrics are below:

working out on Gavin’s woodpile
safe within the harmony of kin
visions begin to crowd my eyes
like a meteor shower in the autumn skies
and the soil beneath me seems to moan
with a sound like the wind through a hollow bone
and my mind fills with figures like Lappish runes of power…
and log slams on rough-hewn log
and a voice from somewhere scolds a barking dog.

i remember a bleak-eyed prisoner
in the Stoney Mountain life-suspension home
you drink and fight and damage someone
and they throw you away for some years of boredom
one year done and five more to go —
no job waiting so no parole
and over and over they tell you that you’re nothing…
and i toss another log on Gavin’s woodpile
and wonder at the lamp-warm window’s welcome smile.

i remember crackling embers
coloured windows shining through the rain
like the coloured slicks on the English River
death in the marrow and death in the liver
and some government gambler with his mouth full of steak
saying “if you can’t eat the fish, fish in some other lake.
To watch a people die — it is no new thing.”
and the stack of wood grows higher and higher
and a helpless rage seems to set my brain on fire.

and everywhere the free space fills
like a punctured diving suit and i’m
paralyzed in the face of it all
cursed with the curse of these modern times

distant mountains, blue and liquid,
luminous like a thickening of sky
flash in my mind like a stairway to life —
a train whistle cuts through the scene like a knife
three hawks wheel in a dazzling sky —
a slow motion jet makes them look like a lie
and i’m left to conclude there’s no human answer near…
but there’s a narrow path to a life to come
that explodes into sight with the power of the sun.

a mist rises as the sun goes down
and the light that’s left forms a kind of crown
the earth is bread, the sun is wine
it’s a sign of a hope that’s ours for all time.


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Facebook adds meaning to your life. No, it’s just a rush of dopamine, after all.

I have a FB account again. Told myself I’d use it only to stay abreast of my friends and groups. Yet tonight I clicked, and clicked–added books to the “read” list (with dubious intentions–trying to impress?), made some friend requests, threw on a few photos, scrolled down the never-ending column of friends’ posts, wondering if I should defriend a few because, as much as I like them personally, I don’t need to hear from them this way–it makes no difference to me or them. If I could adjust the frequency of their updates, perhaps…

I feel the dope when I go to WordPress, too, but at least (after checking stats), there’s some work involved.

My kids are also addicted, in more ways, and I have to figure out how to help them. In a family meeting today, I confessed it’s new to us, this challenge of helping them use technology appropriately, monitoring them reasonably. Told them I don’t expect them to like being questioned, monitored or limited, but that it’s our responsibility, and we can’t assume they have enough wisdom to make the best choices on their own. For example, my husband and I told them that from now on their right to use the smart phones and internet service we bought them (and for the youngest, the family computer) was directly linked with their contribution to the family, in household work, in good relations among members, and in being responsible. That’s a start, but we need to come up with a more comprehensive plan for other ways to help our kids with this new opportunity, responsibility and source of temptation. There just no guidance for this in our otherwise excellent childrearing classics.

Last month I read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. My son’s karate sensei told me about it, and about what he’s observed about new students coming into the dojo. It takes longer, he said, than it used to, to teach them sustained focus, concentration, and rigor. This is consistent with the changes that are being effected on young people’s brains by computer games and the internet.

When I was growing up, my father was continually reminding us to turn out the light when we left the room, close the door when we went outside, and put on our seat belts before we drove off. There were good reasons for all these actions, but reason wasn’t enough to get up to habitually do them. We did finally get into the habit. My parents also purposely did not keep a television in the house, because they didn’t think it was a good, necessary tool in children’s development, and was likely to make us lazy in mind and body if we had the opportunity to get in the habit of watching. Why not at least teach us responsible use of television rather than eliminating it? They did not regard it as a necessary part of life or culture.

For my part, I do not have the option of denying the children smart phones–not because I believe they are a necessary part of life or culture (even though going without is even more counter-cultural that was being T.V.-free years ago)–it’s a Dad thing. I was brought up to be skeptical of social trends, and mass culture technology trends in particular. My husband grew up more mainstream than I and then went into software, and he’s so immersed in technology he leaves the burden of doubt on the naysayers. He sees cell phones as necessary for teens, and smart phones as only a small expense for the increased powers they offer.

My teens are plugged in way too much for my liking. I continually remind them to do something real, to move their bodies, talk or play with a real person, create a genuine physical object with hand tools. I hope I can somehow keep that creative, personal part of their thinking alive, and keep them in the habit, keep those neural pathways open, and at the same time create some advocates of the same in the next generation. Many times I despair of success–it takes a substantial adjustment, a withdrawal period, really, for them to adjust to the real world, let alone appreciate it and the family members in it. It’s hard for me to have patience with them about this, because I still prefer the real world, and want to stay that way. I want them to just wake up and say, like Carr did, “I missed my old brain.” I want them to take up painting, sewing, woodworking, cut, glue, pasting again. But these days, I have very little room to lay out materials for to entice them into creative projects. Hope that will change after this home redo is done. And I get that surge of fall energy and drive, and a kind of moral force and cheer that’s more winning than the tired, repetitive scolding and pessimism I tend to fall into in the summer heat. An endless supply of apps will never substitute for the real world, where there are real people and useful work to do.


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Death in the family

Death in the family

Thursdays are swim meet nights for me and the kids–two kids swimming in events, the other two cheer them on with me. Grandma and Grandpa came tonight, too. Love to visit with them–most wonderful in-laws I could have wanted. And friends, their kids, fiances, news about the few grandkids who have already made their way into this world. Like a holiday, after hours of working on the house, errands, housework. Good to laugh and smile, be thankful to be part of this. See my daughter reconnect with her swim friends from high school, son learning his strokes and hearing us cheer for him. Night falls, we wrap blankets and extra towels around our legs, watch the silhouettes of the fir trees against the sky now orange and pink.

At 10 pm the last relay is done, swimmers wrap up and we walk a block to our house, find last snacks, toothbrushes.

Then my daughter comes in and tells me the missing boy, the one who ran away the other day (word put out on local social media) has committed suicide. No confirmation of this–she got a message from someone. I can’t take it in. He was thirteen years old, she says–I knew him–he was really nice, she says. He talked to me at track.

We just look at each other, shocked, saying nothing else. Oh no, I moan, how awful.

It’s late; they go off to the tent. I drop into a chair at my makeshift desk, and enter into the grief zone. Then my younger daughter comes back in, and tells me she realized that the boy is the brother of a friend she knew at school. Whom I knew, remember her sweet face from the school retreat I went on as chaperone. I think of her, her parents, whose faces I can also recall…Oh, to lose a child in such a way! Please let some of this shock, this grief bring some sort of healing to them! Let’s all bow our heads and pray. We have to watch out for each other so much, I tell my daughter. She’s thirteen too. Intense personality from the beginning, struggles with not feeling she gets enough attention at times, compares herself negatively to others. Will she be, is she, vulnerable in that way? Even relatively consistently adequate parents can have such terrible shocks. But I think, I believe we are navigating these hard days with love, and growing closer, more resilient.

God grieves for those who suffer, grieved and longed for that boy in what he was going through, I am sure. WHay was it so hard for him to hold on? Where were the other people in his life? What does the Master of the Universe require of us? How will he take care of this family now? What a dreadful journey they must make.

My sister died when I was nine, and she was almost thirteen. Suddenly I would never get to see her again. And we might have started to become friends, since she had shown me her diary and let me read some of it. She had a lot of diaries, Hilroy notebooks mostly, with lots of doodles all over the covers. Or maybe those were mine I remember from later years when I doodled when I was bored in class–I think hers were nicely decorated in color.

It was a bad car accident, with me, my mom, and Janice in a VW bug, in a snow storm, driving to school because we had missed the bus, and we slid into an oncoming snowplow. I was trying to soothe my mom after I woke up–she was in shock and in a panic. I heard myself saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay!” She had broken her femur. I had been flung around in the back seat, but was only bruised. Mom’s friend’s house was near, and I think she called the ambulance, and also my father. The ambulance took Mom and Janice away, and Dad drove me home, then went to the hospital. Or maybe someone else drove me to the hospital to get checked–I don’t remember. I know I didn’t ride in an ambulance.

My grandmother was staying at our house, and took care of us. She was nicer than usual to me, and didn’t make me eat my leftovers. I rested on a couch in the living room, and I think there was a fire in the fireplace.I think it was she who broke the news to me that Janice had died. I felt bad, but there was no depth or trouble to it, just strangeness, that I would never see Janice again. I was given comforting food, and heard voices in the rest of the house, but don’t remember any words, or anyone addressing me directly. People from church brought us food. When I went back to school, all my classmates and teachers were extra kind. Perhaps my best friends asked me about it, and I told them–she broke her neck and died right away. She was making gurgling noises, so I didn’t know she was gone.

I was too young to have complex grief. Mom had a visitation after Janice died, she said–as if she was standing just behind her, and she said, “I wouldn’t have wanted to live, anyway.” She told me that when I was a teen, and it upset me, made me feel vulnerable, like one of the walls of my invisible safety zone had fallen away.

I never saw my dad cry, which didn’t seem right. I guess he did, though. He keeps a journal, and I wonder if he wrote about it.

My younger brother was eight, and my sister was two, so death was even simpler and starker for them, easier to recover. I had my bruises to remind me and carry me through some sort of process. I wonder how it was for my two older brothers, who were eleven and fifteen. Did anyone help them with that? I have never discussed it with them, and I don’t know if that is allowed. I only see them every few years for a few days, and somehow that doesn’t seem like a good topic to bring up.


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What I like about my house

What I like about my house
  • It’s small enough not to lose family members and pets in. Usually I can keep track of my purse and keys too.
  • It’s small enough not to take long to clean.
  • There aren’t any upper windows out of which to fall and get hurt.
  • It’s small enough not to have a high property tax valuation.
  • It has a dishwasher. I love that.
  • It has more than one bathroom now, which is great, because we are six people.
  • It has a beautiful new master bathroom that my hubby built and I tiled.
  • I tiled the other one too, and tile is very easy to maintain, and lasts longer than houses, even. Mold-resistant grout, too.
  • It’s small enough that when the kids move out, we won’t have to downsize.
  • The walls are decorated with my dad’s and my children’s artwork.
  • It has little storage, so we are not very tempted to accumulate too much stuff. If we do, I sneak some off to the storage unit and try to chip way at the contents in private.
  • It’s not very near large, expensive houses, so I don’t feel pressured to hire a landscaping company to keep up the yard.
  • It has a huge yard for gardening and playing, and setting up tents to create extra rooms in the summer.
  • It has oak floors throughout, which I am refinishing. Even if I do a lousy job, the wood itself will be beautiful.
  • It has lots of windows to let light in, and view the trees, garden, and kids playing.
  • In the front yard are towering evergreens, which keep us from ever getting overheated in the late afternoon.
  • All the bedrooms have closets.
  • We have lots of bookcases full of books (the only furniture we bought new except the bunk beds.
  • Most of the furniture is second hand or borrowed, so if we come into money we can ditch it quick and redecorate. Except I really like shopping second hand, so it still won’t look like a Costco showroom.
  • I have wonderful neighbors on three sides, with whom I can share vegetables, eggs, news, and others things. The others aren’t so bad, because they help me practice my conflict resolution skills.
  • It has a garage with a vaulted roof, and when it rains it sounds tremendously cozy.
  • It’s painted a cheerful sunshine yellow color. I still like that, though I might like to change that this year.
  • It’s close to the community pool, so getting the kids to swim lessons and summer team has always been low stress. I can also visit my friends when their kids have lessons, or invite them over for a cup of coffee afterwards.
  • We have good, heavy patio furniture that doesn’t blow away in windstorms (like the glass tabletops used to do).
  • The soil has lots of clay, which is rich in nutrients and holds water. We never have to water our lawn to keep it green like the neighbors who bought soil.
  • We have two refrigerators and a deep freeze for all the berries, bulk food, and homemade cheesecakes I like to keep on hand.
  • The ceilings are not very high, so it’s easy to repaint them.
  • My husband and I live there with our children, and none of them has left for college yet. We also have two dogs, two cats, a budgie, three chickens, and numerous fish.
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Posted by on July 24, 2013 in Places & Experiences


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Bellinghamsters show a certain respect for boundaries

Bellinghamsters show a certain respect for boundaries

20130607-652 GMG

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Posted by on July 24, 2013 in Culture & Society


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Help with the lifting

Slept under a canopy in the back yard, all our bedroom suites having been removed from the house for floor refinishing. Not really sweet suites, just a hodgepodge of lent and second-hand furniture, boxes, bags, and suitcases. A few more pajamas than usual needed, but still in my usual bed, under extra blankets–the jungle print my husband’s college girlfriend made him, the wool patchwork his mom made, and the blue cotton sheets. Tired from a stressful morning, pulling a sander the rest of the day, and the bed was so comfortable. Cool sheets, cool air, and lots of blankets, the way I like it. Hot summer air has left as of the end of last week, and now we have clear skies with fresh breeze. It’s dark, though as my eyes adjust I can see all I need to. Nearby two tents, one with daughters and a puppy, one with sons. The cat’s weight suddenly manifests by my knees. She purrs, content to have us back from house sitting next door. Fed and sheltered she was, but no mammal heat to share. She left offerings on the front step twice to try to entice us back–a rat one day, and a bird the next, both freshly killed.

I discover I’ve missed a text from my oldest son, sent last night–“Can I stay at —‘s? He’ll drive me to work.” He knows it’ll probably have been yes, so maybe only one son in the tent. When he, eldest told me he was heading there yesterday eve, he looked sympathetic as I puffed under my dust mask, apologized for not being around much, and said he would spend more time at home after that. Been at a treehouse sleepover marathon with buddies down the road, working at the pool, and he knew I could use his help and that his brother and I missed him.

So instead of loading the drum sander into the car with his help so I switch to laying on polyurethane finish for a day or two (for a break), I head to the garage where my laptop is set up on a card table and write to the soft rhythm of the washer jogging sudsy laundry. Perhaps I can get my neighbor to help with the lifting. But as for myself, I’m lifted.


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When it comes to public education, one must be idealistic

When it comes to public education, one must be idealistic

We eased into public school. Part time, just the youngest two, just P.E. We’d just arrived back from overseas, where we’d homeschooled some, co-op’d some, had the kids in language study, public school and private school, each in turn to try to find the right situation given their levels of maturity, flexibility, and cultural adjustment. Maybe the kids would be going to school the next year full time instead of homeschooling, since we’d pretty much run out of money and I’d have to try to find work. Besides, the nearest campus was just around the block. Met the principal, a short, seemingly sleepy woman, but as it tuned out, very astute. We had our choice of schedules and class arrangements, something full-timers don’t. Did the paperwork, signed the kids up for their respective classes, the remaining semester only. They both had Mr. Kline–a wonderful, experienced, kind man who knew how to really teach as well as keep an orderly and positive gym environment.

Some days one or the other claimed to be sick or injured, but it seemed to be mostly discomfort, and no wonder. Thirty kids per class, only twice a week of busy gym time, so no time to form friendships, starting in the middle of the year, having to learn new moves. And so did I have to learn new moves. I’d been on the school parent end in Israel, but that was different in the sense that they expected my kids would need lots of parental support, being in a different culture and language immersion environment and all. I’d show up to discuss problems with the teacher, provide alternate study materials, arrange for extra tutoring, eventually arrange a part-time schedule. I had certainly learned to take principals’ assurances with a grain of salt, assurances that the school was fantastic, all the teachers above reproach, and so on. I learned to observe, be an assertive advocate for my kids, while at the same time encouraging them to do their best, be patient, stick with it, find their niches, try to remember that one day they’d be glad they had such an adventure.

But how much of those skills would translate back in the U.S.?

Perhaps it’s disloyal, not socialist and egalitarian enough, but I’d prefer do the same thing here, take that consumer approach, advocate for my kids (and therefore support a model for other parents being able to do the same thing). Rather than just sign ’em up and hand ’em over, complete with free bus ride from my block. I’d prefer to walk into the school the previous year, observe classes, meet and even choose my kids’ teachers, decide on “grade” (expertise required and intensity of study?) level (different for different subjects?), electives, bring someone in one-on-one (or one with a half dozen others) during classes or activities that don’t have value for my kid, so he can instead do extra free writing (with prompts and feedback), delve into poetry, form a musical group, get extra tutoring. Self-paid, but using available school space? Open houses would be important for researching school and teachers, as now, but need it be so contrived–shiny, happy people holding hands–can we watch candid class video clips? We look at teacher notes, meet former students and their parents, read and hear teacher reviews! And how about individualized schedules? Five-day, four-day, three-day fifth grade? Only mornings or afternoons? I’d be responsible for the rest of the program, of course, maybe help organize something with the other parents on my type of schedule–field trips? Co-op? A performance choir? Carpentry class?

What if teachers offered a variety of approaches, according to their philosophies and gifts? Starting out, perhaps, with the traditional approach and lots of peer mentoring, and becoming more truly individual and in tune to student needs, an organic, dynamic approach. And if it seemed like some teacher needed to bust out due to values perhaps not allowable in state funded program, could there be a crowd-funded spin-off program or element (tax breaks for the funders)?

Many teachers look back on their teacher education programs critically, judging them as no sort of preparation. I can’t say that about mine. Of course it was a strain to learn to organize my own classroom and program, adjust to school and local culture, figure out how I could best deal with those strange teenage creatures, most of who had little value for the system we worked in. But philosophically, I feel I was well grounded (partly by my upbringing, of course, but my B.Ed. program was key. One of the most valuable elements in the Acadia University School of Education approach (in those years, at least) was that each professor was free to take the approach that most suited his or her personality and/or the focus/material of the class. So I saw, by their example, that a good teacher might hand out a syllabus and schedule of topics, list of meaningful assignments with due dates and percent grade weight. Another might have everyone sit in a circle, and ask “So what do you need to know, and how can I help you get there?” A third might specialize in rich all-class discussion and debate, periodically launching into spontaneous role play to explore various viewpoint on philosophical issues. Yet another might offer content-heavy lectures with Q&A along with a detailed list of what a student must accomplish to achieve an A+, A, A-, and so on, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. And there was a typical boring, out-of-touch, inexperienced professor who taught straight from his post-doc publications because it’s what I he knew. And so on. One professor brought almost every discussion and assignment evaluation down to his mantra, “SUCCESS!” He felt that a teacher ought to do whatever he or she could to help every student succeed. Incredibly short, wrinkled, smiling man in a rumpled suit, he also exclaimed, “TEACHING IS REVISING!” whenever he could make that point from what we were working on. So I saw individualized teaching, flexibility, and trust in students to pursue their own learning goals, with a lot or a little help from the teacher. I’ve never forgotten that.

Instead I call my new neighborhood school, find out the principal does not know who next year’s teacher will be, will not even guess, and of course cannot comment on which teacher would the best for my kid. It will be a class of up to thirty-five, depending on enrollment. Only guarantee is that students will be grouped by age. Special permission needed to enroll in the school on the other block (why should individuals have individual choices–it wouldn’t be fair!) Children need to have bad teachers too, to learn how to deal with that, I’ve heard in various quarters.

Of course, some can choose homeschooling, unschooling, independent community cooperatives, school-home partnerships (do lots of paperwork and stay away from religious content, and you can get some materials paid for by the district, in return for registering as a public school student, thus bringing in more state funding without adding a body to the classroom). Out of the homeschooling “movement” has come very independent, creative thinkers who believe that education, personal scholarship, training, all can and ought to be individualized. And that parents have the right to manage and individualize their kids’ education if they can, whether it’s “fair” or not. Might even benefit society as a whole if we end of with some variety in educational preparation. Off these young adults go to interesting , universities, trips around the world, internships, jobs, sometimes without even bothering to graduate high school. Yes, that’s allowed (tell your principal).

Ivan Illich wrote of deschooling society and breaking the school’s monopoly on education. What if we broke open the structure of the thing, went beyond the status quo? Is it time to act more like a consumer of educational opportunities? I agree with John Taylor Gatto that “public” should make “public” schools more like public libraries–full of the works of a variety of real people freely expressing themselves and offering to share, to be used by choice and in various ways according to individual needs and priorities. Should something “public” really be compulsory? See this link to Gatto’s writing.

What a lot of work that would be for parents, though–all that organizing, advocacy, truly being part of our children’s educational process during “school hours.” As if more than a few of us aren’t obliged to work full time and therefore, when it comes to the education of our children (both a personal and a public responsibility), we do end up signing ’em up and dropping ’em off. Still, one must be idealistic. Yes, that’s what I said. One must be idealistic to see change for the better. Being practical will take care of itself (thanks to those wonderful practical people) if we start in work in some more idealism.


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