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Category Archives: Relationships

Bereavement can be a gradual thing

Is this a frog in a slowly heating pot scenario? If so, it’s not always a bad thing. When there’s a necessity of radical change to avert disaster, such as climate change, the frog dies a stupid death. But if something has to die, if death is coming slowly closer just because it’s natural and inevitable, well then, let’s not have any shocks along the way, splash around, enjoy the view through the beaker glass, and hardly feel those nerves as they cook and shut down.

Sometimes I stand back and observe myself in action, amazed. I putter in the kitchen or garden, joke with one of my kids, get irritated at a mess on the counter, post a photo online, respond to my husband calling, plunk down to chat with him, check to see whether he wants his pain meds on time, rub some essential oil onto his tailbone, all normal-like. There I am, in the moment, as if nothing unusual is going on. I receive visitors and care givers, arrange hospital visits, make up to-do and grocery lists, take my son to drum lessons, and go to bed with my husband at night. We adjust without noticing to an infinitesimally shifted normal each day. It only seems shocking and surreal if we compare our life now to a few short months ago, when my husband weighed sixty pounds more and was concerned with work, the games on TV, the newest iphone, and trying to get the kids out skiing more, wondering how my oldest was doing in his final year of college. And staying awake to welcome me into bed at night with more than a bony, hand extended hand and a sleepy “I love you” before dropping off to a fitful sleep.

The last few days the neighbors and we have been painting our new shared fence, the one that my husband built last year, with sealer. I’m thankful the neighbor is driving this project—I wouldn’t have had the gumption, but do enjoy seeing the progress and being able to offer our youngest son some paid work. Other projects will be picked up in the wake of this—finishing the top of the new retaining wall my husband built, improving the soil by the fence, and planting some nice shrubs and flowers–some daisies, foxgloves, currant bushes, maybe strawberries to hang down by the hot tub my husband installed less than a year ago. There are the trees to prune, and next year’s…next year’s compost pile to layer up. Berries to freeze for the new year, canning and picking for the future. The future will come, and be full of more ordinary moments. Right?

Things will change soon, though–the water temperature will jump and we”l feel it. My husband’s body continues to lose the battle to pancreatic cancer, despite his belief that he is getting better. I’m trying to prepare, trying to help the kids, and my husband, prepare, but it’s my first time with this, and I don’t know what I don’t know. I try to learn as much as I can, ’cause that’s what I do, as a Type 5, but there’s no way to preview what’s about to happen, when, how quickly, or how each of us–wife, children, parents, siblings, and friends, will go through our grieving process.

 

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Upsize, same-size, downsize

When tech was bubbling, our software business was there in a minor way, my husband contracting for a billionaire who wanted his MP3 and image collections database set up and made accessible from his various homes and yachts, and was willing to hire a whole team and pay well. We bought land then and paid off our “starter” house in town, a 1200 square foot rancher plus garage. Not a dream home, but acceptable, and affordable. We invested not in the stock market, thank heaven, but in land–our own twenty acres, the dream property that satisfied my husband’s longing for woods and mountains and water view, and mine for enough light for a garden and lots of cool places to explore with the kids.We got to work on it right away–smoothed the driveway, cut down alders and blackberry vines (after harvest), scraped away a ledge for the garden, planted and watered it from the dusty well, planted miniature daffodils around an old willow, and fenced the garden to try to keep out deer. Then we planted apple trees, killed a porcupine that was devouring them, and skinned it at midnight back at the house, me holding the light and giving directions as a former novice trapper. I don’t recommend learning this skill on a porcupine.

We worked on a house design, a modified mirror-image of one we found in a magazine. It was to be a homeschooling family house with room for crafts, a shop, lots of light. But it always ended up too big, too overwhelming to tackle, and too much of a leap, seemingly, into exclusivity, and the promise of an enormous tax bill once the land was changed from woodlot to view residential status. I couldn’t imagine myself living such a privileged existence anyway. And in trying to combine our ideas and preferences, we kept getting stressed and stuck. One wanted a soaring ceiling, one wanted a cozy height. One wanted a huge shop, the other a small one. One wanted rooms for every type of activity, the other didn’t wanted to multi-use to cut down on housekeeping. And we both cared about wood finishes, colors, styles, and furnishings, so even that couldn’t be divided and conquered. The discussion was taking too much, time, too much energy, and was generating too much conflict. We had children to raise, other things to accomplish, so we shelved the house plans. We didn’t have time and mental space, as my husband was commuting to the city and I was raising the four kids, homeschooling, keeping the books. It was a very busy, absorbing time without extra projects.

The property sat idle, produced trees, thistles, deer, butterflies and spring peepers faithfully. We’d go now and then, drawing in our breath at the beauty and peacefulness—a fern-dressed creek hidden in the gorge at the back, the aroma of live woods, at the view–southwest over the Puget Sound, but it never did feel like the right time to build our house. So we just camped there when we could, set up a big tent, a repurposed sink to wash up, solar shower, gas barbecue, even electricity for the cooler. The kids ran around, dug miniature rivers and lakes, carved sticks, built forts, caught lizards and snakes and hunted for shed antlers and fossils. We had all their birthday parties there, with Capture the Flag, water fights, an evening campfire and sometimes tent camping. kids running around in the woods, up and down the gravel lane between tall alders and arched blackberry brambles. The parents visited around the food tables and campfire, and sometimes we camped around in various clearings. We mowed now and then, tried to keep back some of the brambles, and left it houseless (though we did pour a foundation for a cabin above the main site).

A neighboring property sprouted a castle-like house, complete with emerald lawn, tidy ferns, picnic park. The neighborhood gate opened and closed to its various coded inputs, we paid our dues to help with road maintenance, but went to the property less and less. We started looking for an already built house elsewhere in the county, but everything we both liked, and these were few, and overpriced, because it was the Bubble. Then tech slowed down, and instead of investing in overpriced real estate, we banked on our savings for a two and a half year study sabbatical overseas. The property would be a fun place to visit, and a long term investment to atone for low retirement savings. It grew cedars and regrew alders where we were away. for another few years while we were away

We came back rich with experiences, but financially broke–more than broke, as the economy continued to flag, and we had little work. We chose to resettle in our same town instead of closer to urban-based tech work, and I was to return to teaching. But my credentials were outdated and I had no recent references, and responsibilities at home were still heavy, our kids adjusting to life back in the states, to public school, and getting involved in athletics, music lessons. Plus our house had been water damaged and needed updating, so when my husband got work, extra cash went into the remodel, which we did mostly ourselves, and so it took a long time. We couldn’t afford to add on, so reconfigured the inside and set up a bedroom in the garage for two of the kids. Smaller than our overseas apartment had been, it was tight with six of us; there was tension, our oldest two moving into adolescence and wanting more space we didn’t have. A psychiatrist friend mentioned research on rodents kept in cramped quarters.

We pressed on to finish the fix-up so we could upsize, but to that rare entity, a house with arable land on the south side. Prices were down–in some cases to almost half. But so was our income, we couldn’t get a loan because of our years off work, and savings were non-existent. We’d even dipped into retirement and borrowed from family on both sides (and paid a penalty).

The castle next to our dream property, one our neighbors there built on spec, sold for several million. We met with the neighborhood association for the first time, all very nice people, but not the type of cultural experience I wanted for us–I felt like an oddball among such wealthy and semi-retired people with no children at home. I foresaw feeling awkward about sharing my home with friends because of my obvious privilege, rather than enjoyment of the perks of the gated life. I hated the message of the gate, though I understood its usefulness- don’t explore, camp, dump garbage here; we paid for this spot. And I could see myself being lonely way out there, especially as the kids started to go on their ways to university, college, work, travels. I’d miss my runs on the trails, walks down to the local coffee shops, random encounters with neighbors and friends living close by. And access to the pool was so easy for the kids and me. The prime time for a happy family home in the woods had passed.

We took up the possibility of adding on to our little house instead of buying another one. I used CAD to design a two bedroom, one bath addition with cozy library, my husband got ready to dig the hole for the slab, and then suddenly we dropped that plan too. We’d go back to house hunting, he decided–cheaper overall, and less hassle, and we’d built up some savings and a better income history. We went to open houses, had our realtor keep his eyes open, and searched online and across the county by car in our spare time for what turned out to be another impossible dream– a house on property that we could afford, that we both liked, and that was in the right spot to commute to the city and had a neighborhood I felt I could relate to. I brought my husband to the table three times to make low ball offers on fixer-uppers he thought were acceptable and I saw some magic in, but over a span of about five years, nothing. Instead, I was expanding my garden, with my husband’s help, no longer willing to wait for the dream garden property, under the guise of improving the attractions of out little place to future buyers. People are into raised beds and mature fruit trees, I reasoned. But in my heart, these became MY apple trees, MY blueberry bushes, and I was ready to settle down. We had lived in the place almost twenty years, after all, way past the average of seven before up sizing. Yes, it was a tighter fir than ever, and our teens were going out a lot to socialize in friends’ houses, struggling with covetousness at times, or finding their personal devices useful in making them feel spaced out.

The other factor was two were just about ready to head off to college, and the years would fly by, and soon we’d be empty nesters. Sure enough, in two years, we had some more space. Not to use for new purposes, because the bedrooms had to be kept, but relational space, at least. It wouldn’t be long, I said, and our house would be just the right size again, so I held the line. My husband, tractor parked in front of the Subaru in the driveway, still longed for a mini-farm. My longing was fading, along with my sense of the likelihood of our finding the place, and as my attachment to my nurtured soil, fruiting young trees, and plans for a rainwater harvesting system and bike shed grew. I quietly turned over another foot of lawn’s edge to convert to vegetables. My husband’s protest was out of habit only–his vision of playing touch football and croquet with the kids on an expanse of green lawn was fading. He even seemed to like my ideas for a writing studio/office extension on the tool shed. We replaced most of the fence, which was falling down, and build a retaining wall in the process, although my husband chose to view that as improving sales appeal. But then, I admitted that I would be okay with getting a hot tub–something he’d wanted long ago but we’d decided wan’t necessary, as the kids could swim at the pool down the road, and what time did we have in those days to hide away in a spa, anyway? Now the kids were grown, and they could enjoy it with us, or with their friends, and we had mid-life stresses to soak out. We installed oneon the windowless side of the house in a corner of the fenced area, and the house didn’t feel too small at all any more. The hot tub became our away room.

As it turned out, we all needed that spa. Not so much as a place to hang out together, but to get away and de-stress, calm down, process feelings, and shed tears. In the process of setting up the hot tub, my husband we fighting some kind of gut flue, it seemed, that didn’t o away. An herbal cleanse made it worse. There was something wrong. He finished installing the hot tub,  but was feeling so bad, with bloating, nausea, and sensitivity to smells, he didn’t want to try out the steaming, bubbling waters in case the bromine made him gag. During the process of seeking answers about his condition, cancer was suspected, and then it was confirmed though various scans and biopsies that he had through the diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Expected survival of three to six months. He started a super-healthy diet, and started a few medications, decided to stay away from the even greater discomforts, and uselessness for cure, of chemo. He also stayed out of the hut tub. For the rest of us, except my oldest son, who was away at college, it became our refuge. A soak in the steaming water that winter, looking up at the dark trees, the stars, feeling the cool rain, and sometimes, snowflakes, was so, so, soothing and healing.

I wanted my husband to enjoy it too, especially as he became more bedridden and butt sore. I urged him to see if he too found it comforting and soothing, promised to let the bromine dissipate, and finally, in he went. It was so good. For the next three months, he  soaked for a few hours several times a day, finding relief for his body as well as that sense of being enveloped in warmth that feels unspeakably comforting. Sometimes we’d soak together, not saying much, or just me chattering away about the kids, the garden, whatever.

To me the discussion about upsizing is irrelevant now. My husband still enjoys talking about the dream, even seems to plan on it–they tractor stays in the driveway, and he is ever hopeful. But now, it really is just a dream.

Our house is, if not perfect now, a home I see myself living in for a long time. The garden is my exercise, my useful work, and my interesting distraction between times of caring for my husband. There’s life, change, always a new season past and another one coming, but so much in the present every day. I planted sweet peas and sunflowers by our bedroom window where my husband can see and smell them, and each morning now I pick berries for his breakfast granola. Whether we, I ever make any more improvements has become less important, and the feeling of our mortality and the shortness of this life has made home mean something different to us all. All four children are home, even our oldest, who is in transition between graduating from college and having enough to get his own place. It’s way too early in my husband’s life for something like this to happen, but here we are in our little easy-care, nothing fancy, neighborhood house with a garden, all together, and life is good.

 

 

 
 

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Old friend, new friend

Early Runner introduced herself to me when I was a newlywed just moved in to the neighborhood, as she was a friend of the family too. My husband and I were starting our married life sharing the home of my newly widowed mother-in-law, who had known Early Runner way back, such a nice girl, and so devoted as she had cared for her mom while she suffered her last years with a terminal brain tumor.

I liked her right away, and was pleased to have a new friend, and as she was outgoing, approachable, and genuinely interested in a friendship, she made me feel very welcome in my new country, new life, new church (which she also attended).

We visited from time to time, I admired but was not able to follow her example of 6 a.m. runs, let her two daughters play with my first baby boy, and had coffee from time to time. My husband and I moved about a year after the birth of our boy to a town a half hour north and connected with a whole new community, and Early Runner and I would only hear each other’s news through the grape vine and occasionally visit. Her marriage was not well. I was absorbed in rearing several more children, and life went on without our connecting much.

Ten years ago we met again at the family cottage of a different mutual friend, this time another friend of the family, and a home town connection with Early Runner, with whom I’d connected over being neighbors in our new town, homeschoolers, and moms of four kids each about the same age. She had a new love, and a new son the same age as my youngest, but we didn’t have much time to visit. Then off we went overseas and lost touch.

A few weeks ago she heard from my family about my husband’s diagnosis (she’s known him since grade school), and reached out to see if she could drop by and give me a hug. We arranged to meet for a walk and visit, and I have just come back feeling that I have remade a new friend. Turns out we have more in common than we had realized, and not just the experience of caring for a terminally ill loved one. She is in town for a local writer’s conference, which I was planning to attend until our lives shifted this winter. She writes poetry and wants to blog to develop a more public expression, has no desire to go to Disneyland ever again and thinks it’s strange and fake, and finds evangelical Christians too simplistic and judgmental, yet retains some faith and desire to hear from God in a real way. She has written and shared about plans for her own funeral as I have, and has struggled with retaining a sense of independent identity in a committed marriage and with the Christian stereotypes about a woman’s place in marriage, as I have.

We drank wine, forgot about ordering and then eating our food while we caught up, shared dreams, and asked questions. She wants to go with me to the annual poetry retreat I’ve been hoping to attend for the third time, and we have a plan for main conversation topic next time we get together. I was hoping for just such a friend, so it’s been a good day.

 

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Death isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person, Part II

The people who are praying for and with my husband, bless their hearts, seem to believe that sickness and disease are against the created order, a manifestation of the Fall. None of our friends, and not many of our acquaintances, are prosperity gospel types, looking automatically for moral failures and faith deficits in the sick — my husband is doing that task himself — not as a way to cast out the demons of sickness, but as a response to the reminder of the limit on the days of his life, and as part of the physical cleansing and peacemaking one must do to support wholeness. Of course he wants to live –and of course I want him to. I am waiting for a miracle too, and his faith is helping us all to stay brave and cheerful. I want him to go on growing along with us, so he can accompany our children into and through their adult lives. But neither of us really believes that cancer is evil. It is testing by fire, but if the fire eventually burns you up, well, it is fire, and we are combustible.

One of our cancer recovery books has a quote that says runaway cancer cells are simply response to starvation of the right nutrients and the long term barrage of harmful substances from our diets, environments, and emotional chemistry. The starved cells can’t help but go out of control, and unless we prevent that, or deal with it over the several months it takes for healthy tissues to regenerate, cancer takes hold. We’re hopeful that his body can recover, at least come away from the edge that seems so close, and alleviate symptoms, but perhaps, if there’s time to repair the damage, full recovery. Chemo can’t do that for pancreatic cancer.

Then there’s the other part of my brain, that acknowledges that the data says three to six months, without chemo, a year to a year and a half with, and no cure, and no recommended end to chemo. Five year life expectancy, 1 to 2%. Deadline, lifeline, both at once.

One MUST believe in healing, because one can, and it makes life better. Yet one must make preparations, as if, well, we had to to do these things anyway–paperwork and such, so why not now, even if we both have decades ahead of us after all. For the children’s sake.

A friend, sleepless because of thinking of us, found a podcast by Kate Bowler  (Faith, Cancer, and Living Scan to Scan), and bought me the book, Everything Happens For A Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved); I loved the title, and the book was good. I think I would like her, if I met her, especially her wry Canadian sense of humor.

One of the things she said was “I did feel like cancer was the key that opened up this whole other reality…you notice things…like I was cracked open and I could see everything for the first time.” That’s where my husband is, most of the time, and I have a glimpse of that. But certain things are still very hard. Some of them are the same things as ever, which is disappointing. My tears last night were about that — how much of our time so far has been spent not being friends, either by default or by active relational dysfunction and poor communication. Now, when I need to be an even better friend, and need an even better friend, the pressure’s a little much, sometimes.

 

 

 

 

 

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Tenderly

I feel so privileged to be a teacher. This going through cancer in the family has made me feel that even more deeply. Yes, I wish I could quit and spend more time with my husband and children, have more quiet for my soul, more time to write and work in the garden. Especially since my husband is starting to get me better and wants to take more part in what he calls my special spirituality. Which is less about going up front to ask for prayer, and more about taking deep breaths as the sun rises, stopping at thickets full of chickadees, and growing seedlings. He said he’ll let me teach him how to start the different types of seeds in pots tomorrow. I loved being a house mom/wife. But what I do at work is very, very special in terms of what is possible, what might happen, how I and my colleagues might affect some young people. We get to find ways to communicate that they matter, that there’s hope, that if they want to, they can. All in the guise of teaching math and science.

One of my favorite times, as I have said before, is the twice-a-week morning homework help drop-in, two and a quarter hours long. More students are coming now, for the math, yes, but that is definitely not the whole deal. There’s something going on I can’t put my finger on, a dynamic that connects from person to person as one gets a problem, another gets stuck, someone jokingly teases another, another one brings up something unrelated to the math, but important to life.

One girl might, just might, be starting to see her self-defeating attitude for what it is. Another might, just might, believe that even though Geometry continues to be extremely difficult for her, all the extra work she puts in is making her mind stronger and more capable. Another might, just might, believe that there’s hope for a young farmer and a good life that builds up the soil, meets new market demands, and is sustainable, and that the most important quality about a man is not the power of his truck. That one is still a longer shot, but today I saw a certain openness in his eyes.

I think I might need to shift the tables around, though, There’s this one section where everyone sits together, and a few newer attendees sit apart and alone. I need to get a new zone going, a branch of the community. The two new girls will learn to ask for help, I hope, not just wait shyly until I come over to see how it’s going. I want them to connect with each other –both are still on the edge of that, for different reasons.

As I consider what the role of teachers is in preventing violence such as the recent Florida school shooting, I think that part of it, for sure, is to simply be kind–deeply kind, not just professionally courteous and friendly, but to communicate the “I see you” that can help heal those ragged edges. I think of two of our students–both obese, academically passive, socially awkward, and obsessed with guns. They are lucky–we are lucky, and who who knows who else will be lucky–that at our school, they will not fall between the cracks and end up bent out of shape by the system–not if we can help it. My lead teacher is a real inspiration there–as problems seem unsolvable, she just ups the commitment, ups the connection, ups the support, sometimes making up for what a dysfunctional family doesn’t even know is missing in terms of parenting.

I think about how nice it would be to have fewer preps and work closer to home, but today our whole staff came in to my room an hour and a half after quitting time just to say they were all rooting for me and my husband, that we’d be in their prayers, and to let them know if there was anything I needed. Gave me a card full of sweet words and several hefty grocery store gift cards so I could buy the special foods my husband can eat. I’m at the right place, that’s for sure.

 

 
 

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Death can’t be the worst thing that can happen to us, since its probability is 100%

Never had so much prayer goin’ down around here before, and I say Bring it on! Whatever prayer is, whether objective truth or pragmatic placebo, I don’t care. I’m leaving behind my Truth filter, for this part of my life at least, and saying, whatever works, and I don’t care how or why.

My husband has been diagnosed with stage four cancer.

A long time ago I started writing a post called An Idol Demands a Sacrifice, about my husband’s addiction to chewing tobacco, which had its roots in football culture of the ’80s. I went though anger, trying to pressure him, then letting go and distancing myself. Then I was relieved that he quit, then came new disappointment and anger when he started again. Anger at his brother for leading him into temptation. There was a good deal of fear back when the kids were younger, as he had no life insurance, no job security, and, most of the time, we didn’t have much in savings. I was substituting, coming back into teaching after fifteen years of homeschooling our children.

His dad died in his fifties of esophageal cancer complications (lots f prayer healed the cancer, but not the perforated esophagus that resulted from radiation and bungling).

Two months ago he quit, and he knew it was for good, and no more excuses. A month and a half ago he decided to do an herbal detox, and soon started feeling stomach pain along with the cleansing. Thought it was just a reaction, or maybe the flu, which was going round. He quit the detox, still had pain, and we decided h should get checked. Blood tests came back normal, but internal scans did not.

This time my anger didn’t last long–I’ve learned to let go of it, along with worry and fear. I know how to let go, and detach from intense emotions. I kept the anger to myself except to confide in a friend, who totally got it, and said now she was mad at him too. But I’m done with it now, and good riddance. By the time I shared the preliminary news with my daughter, I had to explain my calmness so she wouldn’t think I was unfeeling.

The cancer either originated in the stomach or the pancreas, but fortunately (or unfortunately, as it led to it being missed until advanced), relatively low pain, for that kind of cancer. It’s been a week or so of appointments, and there are a few biopsy results to come in, but we saw the endoscopy photos and CT scan images, and we can be 99% sure. It’s off to oncology to look at options next week. Medical options appear to be few and too awful to bother with. We’re not that desperate.

Still, we’re inviting anyone and everyone to pray for us. All my wonderful believing colleagues and my husband’s family have been bending the knee on our behalf. Last week a Catholic priest engaged in the sacrament with my husband, who has no denominational, or even major religious category, hangups. This morning an old Bible study friend and his son, both now known for a gift of healing, and several other prayer warriors, some we’d never met, gathered around my husband for a laying on of hands, and even a bit of babbling and grunting sounds that apparently come from the Spirit. One of the women prayed for me generally, and claimed an annointing for me, but darned if I can’t remember which one. Must ask my other friend of many years, who was there too shedding tears with me, if she recalls. Or maybe just wait for a manifestation. Don’t mind if I do.

This evening there turned out to be a multi-denominational healing prayer service, so my husband went there too, and people prayed in all kinds of languages, one declared that he’ll live to a hundred.

We hold all possibilities with open minds.When he came home from the prayer meeting, I suggested we write down all the prayer times and special words, prophesies, or occurances, so we can track progress and share the story. I said, I don’t even know what prayer is, and I don’t really care, becasue I know its the right direction. He smiled and agreed. You know, I added, I’m not into all the shaking and weird sounds — I don’t get that, never will–it’s not my personality. I hope no one will judge me as unspiritual for that, and I hope I won’t judge anyone for being more of a Pentecostal type. I’m just more of a Presbyterian, I guess. Though I do like to pull in the other direction of any majority I’m among, I must say. I don’t like getting worked up  or manipulated into some kind of meditative state, though I recognize the value of that sort of leadership, I guess, for certain personalities.

We are also strengthening my husband’s immune system in every way we know how, with advice coming in from all angles. My husband has declared over and again that I was right all along about nutrition, and is glad that his radical turnabout has been pretty smooth for us all, since I had the kale and cabbage in the garden, a freezer full of antioxidant rich home grown berries, and knew how to make dandelion coffee and identify cancer-fighting weeds growing in abundance even in the winter. The additional learning I had to do for my How Not to Starve class is a bonus.

And my husband is finally laughing at my lame humor. Yesterday morning, I came out in the morning to find my husband in tears of joy, and he shared what he had heard from God, and the sense of love he felt. Then he said he wanted to do some more juicing. “I want to drink a cabbage, he said.

“Is that what God told you?” I asked. He started to shake with laughter, held in, because his stomach was sore, but went on and on, as I joined him. Kind of a Monty Python style, like the shrubbery skit (Nights of Nih) “You must drink….a..cabbage!”

We’re pretty sure my husband’s cancer will have to slow down, at least. All that love, peace, humor, and good nutrition will have its effect. And we’re pretty sure we don’t want him to do any radiation or chemo, which may attack the cancer, but also attacks any sort of physical comfortableness and placebo effect  that one needs to feel half decent and heal. Prayer, love, laughter, and good food have no drawbacks at all as far as we can tell.

 

 

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There may be no right or wrong answers, but I’m not sure the unopinionated life is worth living

I don’t hear much talk any more in education about “values clarification,” in which teachers are supposed to facilitate discussions around personal ethics, keeping strict neutrality and never advocating for any particular point of view. One can, however, still obtain plans for classroom activities which “emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions” (a direct quote, including emphasis, from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org). Thank divinity or non-divinity there are only opinions, and that although majority opinion rules, majority opinion can easily be manipulated so we can have some sort of progress, which is all we really need. And opinion can’t really hurt anyone, again thank divinity or non-divinity, or economic progress, or whatever.

So in Civics class, for example, we can teach kids how many reps and senators there are and how municipal, state and federal election campaigns and voting work, and encourage everyone to vote (whether they are informed or thoughtful or not). But if we see kids blindly following the voting preferences of their parents, or of their culturally accepted talk radio or news station, and bringing strong opinions into the classroom, we will make sure that “no one will be put down for having (by inheritance or cultural osmosis or guess-and-check, or whatever) a different value than others have.” Not put down, as in “You are stupid/ a redneck/ a flaming liberal” such phrases being always off the table in our schools, but also not, “You are wrong/ misguided/ misinformed/ short sighted,” etc. Who can say who’s wrong, when there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions?

Fortunately, history, social studies, sociology and civics teachers who as college students used to argue late into the night their political, social, ethical viewpoints have been transformed through a process of becoming paid a tax-derived salary into objective, impartial, value-free adults able to fairly facilitate the values clarification process in their students, if indeed they wish to touch on values at all. Leanings, if any, are toward the restoration of balance, which in our town involves emphasizing the contributions of indigenous, Arab and Muslim cultures, female perspectives, the LGBTQ community, and so on. Thank goodness for the big, benevolent edifice of curriculum designers, on whom we can rely to create learning materials that are values-free (other than a a value for domination of the market, which is tough when you can offend anyone but have an economy of scale. All the helpful advice from all the interest groups who indicate their objections to this or that type of angle or literary selections of images reminds these publishers on which side their bread is buttered.

I recently read a treatise by educational historian Diane Ravitch called The Language Police in which she traces the growth of self-censorship by curriculum and standardized test companies because of pressure from interest groups from all over the spectrum. Each of which have very valid points: Don’t portray women mainly in subservient positions. Don’t teach using texts that include violent or destructive behaviors. Don’t show the disabled as lacking abilities or needing assistance. No portrayal of people of color in prison or disadvantaged conditions. Equal numbers of able and disabled, whites and non-whites, males and females, and secular and religious dress in illustrations of  extreme sports, professions, and all other situations (but go light on the LGBTQ for now, as the corporate cost outweighs the benefit still. Except nurses should mainly be male, doctors female and preferably of color, machine operators likewise. No lewd language, no stories in which parents and other authority figures are shown disrespect (or excessive respect, unless they are veterans or progressive-minded elders), no criticism of the American government or its actions throughout history, or portrayal of any attitude that may undermine American patriotism or a belief in the capitalist market economy. When it comes to literature, this essentially boils down to: no literature from before 1970 without revision and/or heavy commentary. And when it comes to appeasing groups with mostly irreconcilable differences, the resulting literary passages and historical accounts are so bland as to be ineffective for igniting any real interest or sense of identification with the characters of the story.

All districts, I believe, have some sort of policy relating to what constitutes acceptable curriculum. Our district commits to:

Curriculum Bias BPS Policy document clip

I’m not sure we came up with this after thorough discussion of our community’s needs, and vision, and the implications to the “elimination” clause–does “instructional materials” include literature from before 1970, for example, and will we be taking out our black markers on the rest, or just having a book sale and buying the specially selected and abridged color textbook versions from Pearson? No, the guideline is borrowed language—a web search makes that clear enough. But I suppose one is entitled to use one’s own interpretation of “bias,” and that professional discretion by teachers allows for the use of “biased” materials in an “unbiased” way.

One could argue that local districts have a right to define that according to local values, arrived at not merely by conservation of past values, but dynamically, face to face, in community as communities evolve. The top-down, paternalistic approach whereby government dictates, beyond the dictates of the Constitution, that is, does not serve a valuing of diversity but opposes it.

I’m not trying to reawaken the complaint against “political correctness” we raised in the eighties and nineties, crying foul when we were called to tolerate all except the intolerant (those who don’t tolerate all), to ostracize and marginalize those who have standards (a.k.a. discrimination).

There are only opinions, but apparently there are also “ground rules.” And if not, “it might be useful to spend a few minutes getting [discussion group participants] to set some,” says the Advocates for Youth website, and the “Creating Group Agreement” lesson helpfully suggests ten, based apparently on natural law, though as a biologist I have not observed nature really supporting such tolerance and inclusiveness. Any decent teacher of course being able to facilitate the adoption of these rules and making the youth feel that they have developed them by their own consensus. Subtly handling student proposals to choose champions to duke it out on the playground to determine outcomes, to roll dice, or to ask someone in authority so the group remains “on track” (a track they do not even sense their wagon wheels are attached to).

With younger children educators are more honest. These are our rules, they say, in order to have a safe place of learning, and they train the children to obey them. Obedience to rules is indeed necessary for any sort of group to accomplish set objectives. It’s not/should not be the teacher’s desire to perpetuate control of the masses that leads to the teaching of raising one’s hand, asking to go to the bathroom, and lining up to wash hands and go to lunch. I accept these rules as appropriate for group management. I’m glad elementary teachers know how to train their kids in behaviors that enable crowds of kids to learn together safely. But I also expect that by the time students have reached middle school, they are well along are in the process of self-governance and taking reasonable consequences for their choices. I have only a few rules: 1) Be kind. 2) Do quality work. I try to teach them , when necessary, in an organic, personalized, collaborative way, and try to avoid the usual clamping down on everyone when a few make irresponsible choices. When I ask older students to raise their hands and wait to be called on, I explain why, and hope that a more natural pattern of courtesy will evolve. I’m a little embarrassed when a student asks is he or she can go to the bathroom, even though I know it can be important to keep an accurate running tally of those present or missed instruction time. I’d much rather teach the principle of choosing appropriate times to move around and talk than always requiring permission.

The other day, I asked one of my classes what usually happens when a few people take advantage of their freedom to be destructive, irresponsible, or hurtful. They knew–the leaders get more controlling. At least in our small school, with small classes full of students from families who understand interpersonal responsibility, I am very hopeful it will never need to come to that. Even more, I hope that we as a whole community can restore harmony if their’s disruption–not mere conformity, standardization, obedience, but dynamic harmony. That’s a value worth standing up for, in my opinion.

 

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2017 in Education, Ethics, Relationships

 

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