Monthly Archives: March 2015

You have to fight your battles

Resistance–part of human existence. Hear my insistence, accept some assistance, show some persistence, go beyond subsistence, in the manner and roots of your positive resistance.

My daughter is with friends celebrating someone’s birthday. The text thread between me (M) and daughter (D) goes like this:

D: “Can I watch [a certain PG13 movie] Mom?”

I go research the movie, read reviews I feel are informative and balanced, decide that this daughter hasn’t shown the maturity to be exposed to said PG movie without any Ps to G, and I don’t know who the Ps are that she’s with at this birthday get-together, and what kind of G they might provide. My daughter has not been open to G on even PG movies.

Raters look at movies “value-free,” and judge only by sensory content–visual and auditory. Atmosphere, innuendo, suggestion, values presented and how the audience is influenced by them and the choices of the characters are exempt from rating. I respect the power of the medium and peer socialization too much to go down easy. My daughters think I’m extreme.

M: “Sorry, I just looked at reviews and you’ll have to wait until you show more maturity.Thank you for checking. What are your other options?”

D: “Mom, please. I’ve been nice.”

It is not true that she has been nice, except to those outside of home. At home she has been disrespectful, demanding, ungrateful, and unkind to siblings. She was “grounded” (special privileges on hold–except birthday party) for this. I wonder, who is “everyone,” and what have they got to do with anything? Majority does not rule me in this.

D: “I saw the first one and everyone said it was good.”

M: “It’s not just that. I don’t expect you to be happy about it but I said no. This one has a lot more violence and other not okay content for my dear daughter.”

D: “I could get a ride.

I’m going to watch it anyway.

I’ve seen a lot worse.”

True, since she and her older siblings were given smart phones and free WiFi at home. Not my choice, and my husband agrees it has not been a positive change, nor have the conditions attached been adhered to.

M: “That is not a good reason and you know it.”

D: “Honestly.

I’ve been trying to be nice. I know what I can handle.”

M: “Most teens believe they are the best judge. You only realize later when you weren’t protected enough. I have to be as responsible as I can as a parent. You can trust me or defy me as you choose. Do what your conscience tells you.”

D: “I know it will be fine and her mom is going to buy the tickets. I was going to go watch this with [sister] anyway.

It’s not that I want to defy you it’s just you don’t understand.”

Just trust me.”

M: “You ask me, then expect me to be a puppet mom.

D: “It makes me not ask you.”

M: “Right. So I should always say what you want so you’ll keep asking? You want to stop asking because you don’t want to be under authority. If not under authority then say goodbye to privileges.

D: “Just be okay with it.

I’m watching a worse movie now LOL”

M: “I am not responsible for that. You are. And you will take the consequences.

D: “I won’t go.”

M: “I’m proud of you. This was a hard choice I know. Let’s go do something else fun if you end up sticking with this decision.”

D: “But I’m going to see it later.”

M: “When you are a bit older. Maybe you can see it with me :)”

D: “No, like tomorrow. I don’t really care what you say.

U r being dumb”

I’m glad that this has been a text exchange, where each of us can think and answer in our own timing. Also for accountability–what did I actually say? What did she say?

What can I make of this? I think it over as I stare out at the indigo water of the bay, out to the soft purple mound of the island a few miles away, and the western sky, slicing between horizon and blue-gray cloud bank, fades from tangerine to orange cream.

I think it’s one of those interactions that will only have meaning for her down the road, as in years from now. As told her in the car on the way home, I don’t expect her to be happy that I won’t give consent, that I wouldn’t have liked it at her age either, probably would have fought it too. I told her (in between being called dumb and ridiculous, and pulling the car over until she desisted) that I look back and wish my parents had been more clear about their values, wish they had been courageous enough to sit down with me and ask me to hold off on entering into certain experiences, wished they had guided me more. Yes, I would have resisted, but still, it would have eventually helped me, I realize now.

It was a hard drive home. She wanted to keep going around, wanted me to back down, didn’t want to turn her back on her desires, nor take any consequences for ignoring my decision. Pressure, then ad hominem attacks (name calling, etc.). I knew the next tactic would be divide and conquer. She went in the house yelling. I gathered my things and left to let things go as they would.

Like so many aspects of parenting, and of teaching, one can’t give up on one’s effort just because the results don’t come for a long time, maybe even after the student, the child, is gone out of one’s world. I take a little comfort in feeling I exerted myself on her behalf, that I didn’t lose my temper, and that she cared what I thought (despite loudly proclaiming otherwise). In the past this type of standing my ground has led to her respecting me more, rather than less–I see it in her demeanor. Something within this beloved and strong-willed daughter so needs to see that one can stand up to pressure when principle demands it. Since she can’t think of a principle we both agree on to justify her watching the movie now, I stand my ground. I hope it will transfer to her being able to stand up to other kinds of pressure–external or internal, on principles of her own. That’s the hope.

It’s like planting seeds. Or, as I am learning, more like inoculating logs with mushroom spores, which may not fruit for years, even under ideal conditions. One has to start with a new log, drill holes, insert spawn dowels, cover with breathable material, keep moist, and wait, without hovering. Like someone once said–who has no idea that I listened and am passing this along now–you plant the seed in prepared soil, and you don’t keep on uncovering it to check for growth, or even know, when the plant comes up, it the roots are good.


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Love stories about names

I was going to try to put together a how to manual for new substitute teachers, but I realized I wanted to pass on something that couldn’t be passed on that way. I suppose I could give some useful practical tips, in the tradition of saying things that might possibly not be known by the extreme novice, in the tradition of the instructions in the beginning of woodworking project books that include photos of hammers and types of wood. Which, of course, you don’t need to see in your second project book. I could write about how it’s a good idea to use a clipboard to carry around seating charts, to bring extra pencils, to take notes on who’s out of the classroom, who acts out. But a person can learn that on their own pretty quickly.

On the other hand, there are some things I now think are obvious that apparently aren’t, such as try not to spit on students when you talk, don’t use put-downs to control students, and if you don’t know something, admit it. I hear about those errors from my kids and other students. Sometimes I see them; sometimes I have done them. So I might write something up after all.

I still think that the best education “text” a professor had us read to prepare to be teachers was the one full of nothing but stories of exceptional people, as in people who had all the abilities others had, except maybe sight, or legs, or the ability to learn to read. Beautiful stories they were, and I wish I could tell these beautiful stories I am collecting inside to share what I feel about teaching, and offer warnings by telling some of the stories that look like they are taking a negative turn. Though I sometimes scoff at the ubiquity (and financial success) of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, I get why people are so receptive to them. They are stories, take from them what you wish.

I feel like the guy who was scheduled to give us a talk at a Christian student leader’s conference in Ottawa over twenty years ago, something to inspire, inform, maybe impress. He had prayed and sought wisdom and sweated and prayed and scanned the titles in his library and the topics in his Essential Discipleship manual, but all he could think of, all he thought the Creator wanted him to say to us, was that the Creator loved us so, so, so much. So, so, much, more than we could imagine. I was in the front row, and the speaker was sitting on the side of a stone hearth. His voice was low, he looked at each of us, and snow fell on the orange-lit city streets outside. Best sermon I ever heard, for content, delivery, and impact.

Here are a few small stories about names.

Alternative high school, classroom in a portable, students those who choose to show up, today two. One, I am told, can be allowed to watch online videos, and that’s a good day. I get the sense that he’s been a threat at times, and should not be taken lightly. He’s a big white guy, thickly built, with long, curly brown hair hanging in his eyes. Acne, loose fitting athletic type clothes. He’s wearing headphones and dances in his chair now and then, chants out lyrics occasionally–not very nice lyrics. I walk over to solicit his attention; he sees my mouth moving and takes the headphones off. I ask his name, and he says Josh; I tell him mine. He puts the earphones on again and turns to the computer screen. The para-educator, a warm, smiling fellow at least ten years younger than me, with glasses and a trim black beard, smiles and comments, “That’s funny–he introduced himself as Josh to the other sub too.” I can tell he’s an easy going person, probably one of the reasons he gets to work with kids who have had trouble with confrontational teachers. You have to get them away from teachers who get in their faces, however wrong the students might be.

“Oh–that’s not his name,” I answer. “He’s the first one that’s fooled me in a long time.” So I find out his real name, just in case. I’m no fool, and I know names really are handles of a sort. A teacher needs names, first of all, if at all possible. Yet I understand why sometimes students don’t want to give theirs out until there’s at least some trust. It made me wonder about this young man.

In the last ten years I have decided that if something like shyness or fear tries to get hold of me and stop me from doing or saying something that seems good, I’ll brush it aside. So I went over to his guy, who was then on a different computer farther away–maybe a boundary thing–and congratulated him for tricking me. Of course he knew I could find out his name from the para-ed, but in a way I wanted him to know that I would take care of that knowledge. I asked him why he had said his name was Josh. He said because people always shortened his name to the usual nickname, which he hated. “So I just don’t answer,” he said. If he ignored a person in authority, of course he’d be seen as disrespectful. Don’t we all hate being ignored? It’s one of the most powerful forms of passive aggression,and people in authority are rarely immune to the aggravation.

I told him I understood, that I felt it was disrespectful to assume things about people’s names, and I especially disliked hearing teachers use the generic, “Buddy”. I’d remember to call him William. A good name, same name as my grandfather and my uncle. Then I went away.

The next time I subbed there, he was at his screen still. I said hello and went to work with the other student on math. I asked the other para-ed what might the other boy, the one not a mere nickname, be expected to be working on, though the plan set as a reasonable expectation that he would watch videos or play games and not give anyone any trouble. She hunted up his binder and some astronomy (astronomy??) work, and said I might give him a heads up that in five minutes we would do some astronomy. “Make sure you give him a heads up,” she advised.

So I went over, showed him what we’d found and as sweetly as I could, asked if he’d be willing to try doing some astronomy. He said no. “But you’re here to do some academic work so let’s just try this out, or else why are you here?”

“I’m only here because my officer says I have to be.”

“Please? Just for five minutes, and if you hate it, you can do what you wanted.”

And he says, “I’ll consider it,” and turns away again. The para-ed raises her eyebrows.

Then she pulls out Fargo, a game with a math component, to play with the other student, a tall, lanky white senior with a serious manner, yet somewhat childlike. Proud of his math abilities, and willing to do a little beyond the daily assignment. I invite the first student, say please, and he joins us. The para-ed raises her eyebrows again.

We had a fine game, the boy with the name teasing and gloating and boasting, and making considered and careful plays, and coming in third. The astronomy to wait, but this fellow has given something significant in accepting the invitation to play, something the other para-ed, when he got back, said is unusual.

Was it because he was asked, and not “expected”? Was it something to do with his name?

Another story is from years back, just after I’d started at a new grad school, taking a few classes part time. I met a Chinese woman while we were washing hands in the ladies room ans we told each other our names. I repeated hers to check my pronunciation, and and as soon as she had gone away, wrote it down phonetically. I knew my weakness at remembering names, even ones like Steve and Barb, and I didn’t want her to think I’d forgotten her, next time I saw her.

When I did (it was a small campus), I greeted her by name, and I’ll never forget her reaction–she was so surprised and pleased, even relieved, to hear her name remembered and spoken. She thanked me several times, and allowed me to feel that I had been the means of blessing to her.

Because I’m dealing with new faces and names often as a substitute teacher, I see this tenderness people have about names often. I always, at the beginning of each new class, sketch a seating map and go around filling in names, whether I ask students directly, or ask some to help me fill in others’ names (for example, if they are busy shoving someone or shouting across the room). I feel students’ appreciation when I know their names, even when I ask. Some ask why I want to know, a few even ask if they are in trouble–I always explain that it’s just so I can call then by the proper name, and thank them when they give it to me. If I fail to do this name-gathering and try to do any teaching, I feel their disconnect and sense of “I don’t have to listen to or respond to you.”

I’ve also got better at remembering names this way, which makes everything go smoother.

Names are important. My advice to you, new teacher, is this: try not to mess with people’s names. Ask what they’d like to be called, make notes on pronunciation until you get it right, learn to spell the unfamiliar ones, and practice using people’s names. And here’s a straightforward, practical tip on this topic: don’t forget to give yours, and write it on the board.

Everyone has a name.

Please open this link with the lyrics to go with the song, embedded below, as you listen.





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College and career ready, flexible time line

I heard a student debate this week on CBC The Current on whether high school should be optional. The pro side argued that teens should be free at the age of fourteen or so to consider many options besides or in addition to formal schooling, including internships, work, volunteering, travel, or personal scholarship. The con side argued that most teens are not wise enough at that age to make decisions that could “close doors on their future” and thus limit them in their further learning and career options. The pro side thought they were mature enough, and also that parents and mentors would still be able to help with these decisions anyway.

I listened for the reasoning behind the assumption that all the speakers seemed to be making, without ever stating it, that because public schooling is free only up to one’s senior year, one has to cram in all the learning one can before then or it will be too late. They treated this limitation as if it were similar to human developmental stages such as attachment, or learning to crawl and walk, the appropriate phases for which really are fleeting, making remediation, or filling in the gaps, difficult.

I agree that there are developmental stages of learning in the early years, but the teen years are something else entirely. The teen is not in general a person that benefits from being constantly under authority (and authority they may see as not merited), subjected to seven plus hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing. Neither is it developmentally appropriate to require them to yield the management of their intellectual lives to–I was going to say teachers, but it’s not teachers who are running this show. Nor school administrators, nor school boards, nor legislatures, nor governors…who is it, anyway? Who are the people or entities that hold that vision of what kids need to learn? So far, when I trace the money and influence, it seems to have a good deal to do with economic competitiveness, social stability (which feeds economic competitiveness), and military strength (derived from economic competitiveness).

I was chatting with my daughter last night about ways to teach, convictions and passion that teachers carry and whether they can live by their principles within the system. She has an English teacher she respects, but she said sometimes he’ll say, “I think this is dumb that I’m supposed to teach this, but I’m supposed to, so I’ll do it anyway.” What does that say to students? Not that I think teachers should keep their views to themselves, or ignore policies and guidelines they are expected to follow, but maybe–I’m saying this as one who doesn’t yet have a contract job yet, mind you, but I need to preach to myself and see if I can keep up my courage to stand when the time comes–maybe he should have entered into a dialogue of a sort about how to reconcile, or overcome, these conflicts between conscience and convention or policy. What’s the process, and don’t we want to model that? Like, how do we recognize what’s worth standing up for, and how do we not be a whiner but instead be a courageous and loving voice, a patient and tireless advocate, for better and better principles? How do we model the strength to go against our own preferences at times instead of treating those too as if they are principles? I suppose one just gets tired, and the only relief is a bit of camaraderie with the students because of being fellow slaves to the system.

Yesterday I taught high schoolers about the effects of algal blooms fed by nutrient runoff, and some were with me, some were just not bothering to try. I feel I’m pretty engaging, and good at making it not intimidating to participate in a question and answer session or discussion. I use my seating charts, call on random students, give them more than one chance, and let them think about what I’m asking. But there were some students who just were tuned out, and though they’d pay attention for the few seconds I called on them, they’d drift off right after and forget what we were talking about. I was going around in circles just getting them to recall that plants produce oxygen when they are growing and decomposers use oxygen. Basic sixth grade science, but it just seemed beyond them, because they didn’t want to learn it, or remember it. In this situation a teacher can choose to, A) say,  “Oh, and this will be on the test tomorrow,” and keep going; or B) say “This will be on the final exam. Those willing to actively participate, please come to this side of the room and gather around,” and continue, while the other half does quiet work of their own choice or goes to the library or home.

As I circulated later while they worked on algae bloom flow charts, I felt prompted by one table of students to explain that some teachers are extremely strict and mandate all the rules and give lots of tests and grades are everything. Others teach without requiring anyone to tow any line as long as they are no causing trouble, take it or leave it, because they believe that only the students can choose whether to work hard or not, and only the students will take the consequences of their choices in the long run. I’m somewhere in the middle, I said, because I really want you to learn this and have a clearer understanding than students why it is important, and will build in incentives as I can, but realize that there’s a time to let someone choose to fail if that’s the way they roll. I’m here to encourage, do my best to teach well, and leave the rest to students. If I am tempted to try rescue, it’s because someone is trying hard and struggling, not because they have no will to succeed.

What I’d like to extend that to, or wonder if I could, is to have a series or gradation of conversations with students about their choices in learning. First,  as some students take on the challenge of personal scholarship, basically I just say, “Go girl!” *(or guy), and just sort of facilitate and cheer them on, give them their head, so to speak, and maybe do grades either differently or not at all. In the other polar situation, with students who are choosing not to make an effort, would come a  conversation first to determine if there were hurdles they were facing with which they needed a hand, or, if they really didn’t care and didn’t want to be there, that they be allowed, even required, to leave. I would let them know that I felt it was not my role to decide for them,and it was time to talk with them and parents privately about a better plan for their time.

I think sometimes the problem isn’t really the student him- or herself, but this complex interaction in which they have been largely disempowered about making any meaningful choices about their education, an/or have no mentors helping them see the value of school learning and hard work.

Getting back to the alternative high school where I subbed a few weeks ago (and signed up again this week even though it meant working more days than I had planned): the freedom was good for those students. Okay, so some chose not to show up at all. And I say, so be it, and let’s get to a place where most of these so-called dropouts become liftoffs, not just (as it seems they are generally now regarded) pregnant teens, drug dealers, low wage workers, and welfare recipients. If they find they are floundering, they can come by for support and mentoring, to discuss their choices and make a plan. Not because their options are dwindling as they near and pass the ripe old age of eighteen, but because that’s what a public system should do for its people. Public school. Public library. Resource-rich, staffed by qualified professionals and caring volunteers, free, and optional. And when learning with older peers seems to be more appropriate, and it’s become relevant to pick up Algebra II or English 99, students can attend community colleges, and take these high school equivalent courses for free.



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Passing something on to you, thinking you might not have heard this.

Fresh out of writing class, or the mentored group that has morphed out of that class, my mind going this way and that, forming complete sentences, and good ones, it seems, about really cool, deep, voiceful stuff.

I bagged up the cookies cooled on the counter, gave my daughter a back rub and saw her off to bed, took the dog out for his pee, checked for familiar constellations, came in and turned off lights and the gas fire. I had to get to bed in case of an early sub job. Looking forward to my writing time, thinking it would be easy. I plugged my laptop in by the bed in anticipation of the flow that was soon to occur. No hurry, though–first the evening ritual: pull on p.j.’s, brush teeth, unclip earrings, do a few sets of free weights and lunges.

But dang it if it isn’t difficult again. Time for the rubber to hit the road, as my friend J.B. used to say. I feel my relaxed muscles, the warm sheets, the satisfied, contentment of a day of getting things long on my list finally done. The final coat of finish on the dismantled chairs, the car tabs replaced, the grout ordered, phone calls placed, son’s college paperwork attended to.An uneventful sub job the day before in high school biology.

Time to exert will power, and start putting words on the page, one by one. Starting in the next paragraph.

I just finished listening to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle on audio. I enjoyed the precision of language in which he described each organism and geological feature, and found it interesting to hear about his assessment of the levels of civilization and moral development of the various peoples he encountered, from Christianized natives living in prosperous, pleasant villages to naked, hardscrabble tribes fishing from primitive dugouts and on the southern coast of South America, exhibiting no signs of artistic or civilized life. There was a measure of scientific objectivity about these descriptions, and also flashes of cultural bigotry. For example, he recounted the story of an old escaped slave woman who threw herself off a cliff in the face of recapture, and declared that. If she had been a Greek noblewoman, she would have been a tragic heroine, but in a black slave he saw it as stubborn willfulness. I’m not using quite the words he did, but that was the idea. But really, most of his observations about people were insightful, granted that he valued strength, honesty, self control, faithful monogamy, modesty (in women), hospitality, industry and temperance. He often compared the naturalized Europeans to the natives they had subjugated and/or converted, and found the natives superior.

But toward the end my mind drifted off the scientific and anthropological content and simply marveled at Darwin’s diction. I was thinking I could buy a copy of the book, highlight all the language not specifically about the topic and reuse it with new topic, to try the effect. Deft linking of clauses, no subtitles or dumbing down, so un-Neil Young.

My other reading is from a complete other dimension–poems collected by Robert Bly in a volume called The Winged Energy of Delight, and as I am an inarticulate ignoramus when it comes to literary commentary, I can only say, inner jaw-dropping amazing. So accessible and evocative. Check this out:

Tomas Tranströmer – from “April and Silence”

I am carried inside
my own shadow like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
hovers just out of reach
like the family silver
at the pawnbroker’s.

Kabir- from “Think While You are Alive”

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten–
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the city of Death.

And to think, what I said, you know, at the beginning of this, that I thought I had something coolto say.




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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music, Writing


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Tight soul, so tight
God himself would need a lubricant
But God is not that sort
He waits, woos,
and ravishes only when the lover is ripe



You are trailing sparks again, shooting shards of light
Your words flash, and as I, too casually, attend,I manage to grasp one, and it glows, but I am
damp moss, so it does not catch.
Here, another–by it I see a little
of what is hidden
before it too fades
A name, a thought, an intensity of desire,
a hope, an invitation–
showers of sparks on us all.

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Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music, My poems


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The friendly darkness

The other evening I started a fire outdoors in the metal pit someone gave us, the kind on legs with a little shelf all around and a grate at the bottom to let the ashes fall and the air rise. I lit it partly out of desire to get rid of some ugly old scrap wood rotting by the shed, and partly because I like a bonfire in the evening, when the air is cooling and the smoke will go straight up.

I got it going with dry kindling split from the door frames we replaced last summer, setting some of the damp pieces around the edges to bubble and steam. Then I drove to pick up a daughter and some hotdogs and s’more ingredients. Everyone roasted and ate and sat a while, then headed in one by one until only my oldest daughter and I were left. We bantered about this and that–life now, plans for the future, me trying to be a good listener but use openings to offer perspectives from hindsight.

Then she went in too, and I sat in the dark letting the glowing embers roast my knees. There was still too much light from the house so I turned off the nearest bulbs so I could see the stars, tumbled up like gems. Orion always draws my eyes first, then the Big Dipper, and the humble North star. I checked in on Cassiopeia too, which I’ve added to my mental cupboards, thanks to a star map.

Darkness is a comfort to me–the darker the better, except for campfires, stars and moonshine. I sometimes wonder why, but as a child I sought dark places. Two memories I can think of to reinforce that–one, playing Sardines–the game where one hides and waits for each other person in turn to discover and creep into one’s hiding place, so that at last all are hidden away cozily and trying not to giggle while the last seeker gets nearer and nearer, feeling abandoned and nervous, then, everyone leaps out and yells, “Sardines!” It was the only legitimate time to cuddle with siblings or friends, under cover of dark.

Second was the dark that would creep in from the edges of my circle of vision as I lay under warm, clean sheets for a minor surgery I had two or three times before age seven. Hovering over me were the dark brown face of Doctor James, and the nurse whose face and hair I remember, though not her name. Doctor James would tell me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in his Indian accent as I sank into the friendly dark, where everyone was watching over me until I woke up.

Sometimes when I have to get up at night I purposely walk forward before my eyes have adjusted to the dark, before I can dimly perceive the shapes of doorways and chairs. Feeling with my feet and pressing my face into what seems almost like a substance, as if I am closing my eyes and dunking my face into the surface of some body of water. I want to move by feel alone, sensing not only objects I touch, but the nearness of other objects, or emptiness, by feeling the almost imperceptible currents of air.

I grew up on a gravel road without streetlights, no houses lights visible at all from the front of the house. At ten o’clock I would go for a run, seeing the road only by the light of the heavens, knowing I too was a shadow. That was the safest way, I felt–to stay in the darkness so as not to be seen by anyone. In the rare event that a car approached, I would crouch at the edge of the ditch until it passed and and I could see in the dark again. Because it was the added light that made one not able to see, not the darkness itself. The idea someone tried to teach us young women of the city, that one should walk on lighted sidewalks only, even out in the empty street if necessary so as to be lit up, never made sense to me.

I have streetlights in front of my house now, and can never see much worth seeing out on a walk at night, though the moon and stars still manage to come through the electric haze. Maybe it’s time to scout out a hillside away from them all, sit still and listen to the deer cracking twigs, owls calling, raccoons squabbling. I’d even like to walk straight into the dark of the woods, going by feel. But I don’t really have the courage to do it alone, fearing as I have been taught the possibility of nasty humans lying in wait.


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