Another week full of drafts and snippets, words squeezing into the teasing interstices of busy days. Most of what I jotted down had to do with the subjects that got their hooks into us: a chronicle of paths wandered, links explored.
During our Balboa Park day last week, Jane strolled through the Timken Museum of Art. One piece she found particularly compelling was Benjamin West’s Fidelia and Speranza, painted in 1771. West was a friend of Benjamin Franklin (his portrait of Franklin’s famous moment with the key and the kite is a hoot). Jane was struck by the image of the girl (Fidelia) holding a chalice with a serpent looking out from it. A little digging informed us that the sisters are figures from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Faith and Hope, who reside in the House of Holiness to which Una (Truth) guides the Red Cross Knight.
Thus as they gan of sundry things devise,
Loe two most goodly virgins came in place,
Ylinked arme in arme in lovely wise,
With countenance demure, and modest grace,
They numbred even steps and equall pace:
Of which the eldest, that Fidelia hight,
Like sunny beames threw from her christall face,
That could have dazd the rash beholders sight,
And round about her head did shine like heavens light.
She was araied all in lilly white,
And in her right hand bore a cup of gold,
With wine and water fild up to the hight,
In which a Serpent did himselfe enfold,
That horrour made to all that did behold;
But she no whit did chaunge her constant mood:
And in her other hand she fast did hold
A booke, that was both signd and seald with blood:
Wherin darke things were writ, hard to be understood.
Her younger sister, that Speranza hight,
Was clad in blew, that her beseemed well;
Not all so chearefull seemed she of sight,
As was her sister; whether dread did dwell,
Or anguish in her hart, is hard to tell:
Upon her arme a silver anchor lay,
Whereon she leaned ever, as befell:
And ever up to heaven, as she did pray,
Her stedfast eyes were bent, ne swarved other way.
Well, that led to a lot of Spenser-related digging. We can’t undertake to read much of Faerie Queene right now; we dove into The Odyssey this month and I think one epic poem at a time is enough!
The week’s other big research project (for various children) had to do with Tamagotchis—the craze has resurfaced here, after a year of dead batteries. Growth charts, game strategies, daily logs: it’s like living in a research lab. One of the sites that turned up on our search was this critical analysis of Tamagotchi use, which I found quite interesting, especially this bit:
I was reminded of Professor Ken Goldberg’s Tele-garden, a web-based project where users can plant and water seeds in a small garden through the use of a remote robotic system. In a presentation on the project, Professor Goldberg mentioned a shift from the Paleolithic Hunter/Gatherer state of the World Wide Web (brief forays into the world of technology for the purpose of apprehending some piece of information) and the Neolithic Husbandry model supported by the project (where users must devote sustained interest and effort to foster growth).
The Tamagotchi is indicative of a similar shift in video game modeling. The majority of video games (especially popular video games) hinge on a model of conquest and succession – temporally limited tasks with set goals attainable through skill and reflexes. Key examples range from Pac Man and Galaxians to Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat. Player/users identify with the “main character” of a simple narrative – “destroy or be destroyed”. Having completed a set amount of destruction, the player/user rests for a moment before taking on a progressively difficult level.
Notable exceptions exist. The most popular of these is the Maxis line of Sim- products, including SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimEarth, SimAnt, and others. Here we see the stirrings of the “Neolithic shift”. The user is responsible for the growth and maintenance of a town (or world, or ant colony, or whatever) and the ultimate goal is to simply “flourish”.
What do you think? Do you prefer Hunter/Gatherer internet experiences, or Neolithic Husbandry?
Speaking of hunting, I fell into a research project of my own last night, as you know if you’re my friend on Facebook or Twitter (which seems to be a synthesis of the hunter/gatherer and husbandry models, if you ask me). For fifteen years I have wondered which version of the Te Deum was the one referred to by Sheldon Vanauken in A Severe Mercy. Vanauken writes:
St. Ebbe’s sang the Te Deum to a setting that made a triumphant proclamation of the line: “Thou art the King of Glory, O-O-O-O-O Christ!”—the O’s ascending to the mighty ‘Christ!’
St. Ebbe’s is the Anglican church in Oxford the Vanaukens attended around 1950. Between YouTube and ChoralWiki, I have investigated, well, scores of scores (ba dum bum), looking for that particular setting of the Te Deum. A commenter at the MusicaSacra forum suggested it might be Benjamin Britten’s Festival Te Deum: that’s the only score I’ve found that has ascending O-O-Os, so perhaps he is right.
But most lovely and stirring of all is this piece a Twitter responder reminded me of: not the Te Deum, but rather the Non Nobis. I remember how I was moved to tears by this music (and this scene) when I saw Branagh’s Henry V several years back. I meant to buy the soundtrack (score by Patrick Doyle) but forgot all about it. How is that possible? This—this is unforgettable.
What we read today (an excerpt; “the astronomer” is a boy named Dick, who is stargazing with his sister, Dorothea):
“Got it,” he said. “Just over the top of the hill. Come and see it.”
Dorothea joined him. He pointed out the bright Aldebaran and the other stars of Taurus, and offered her the telescope.
“I can see a lot better without,” said Dorothea.
“How many of the Pleiades can you see?”
“Six,” said Dorothea.
“There are lots more than that,” said Dick. “But it’s awfully hard to see them when the telescope won’t keep still. How far away does it say the Pleiades are?”
Dorothea went back to the fire and found the place in the book.
“The light from the group known as the Pleiades (referred to by Tennyson in ‘Locksley Hall’)…”
“Oh, hang Tennyson!”
“The light from the group known as the Pleiades reaches our planet in rather more than three hundred years after it leaves them.”
“Light goes at one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second,” said the voice of the astronomer in the darkness.
But Dorothea was also doing some calculations.
“Shakespeare died 1616.”
“Well, if the light takes more than three hundred years to get here, it may have started while Shakespeare was alive, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps. Sir Walter Raleigh may have seen it start…”
“But of course he didn’t,” said the astronomer indignantly. “the light of the stars he saw had started three hundred years before that…”
“Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. Bows and arrows.” Dorothea was off again.
But Dick was no longer listening. One hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second. Sixty times as far as that in a minute. Sixty times sixty times as far as that in an hour. Twenty-four hours in a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. Not counting leap years. And then three hundred years of it. Those little stars that seemed to speckles a not too dreadfully distant blue ceiling were farther away than he could make himself think, try as he might. Those little stars must be enormous. The whole earth must be a tiny pebble in comparison. A spinning pebble, and he, on it, the astronomer, looking at flaming gigantic worlds so far away that they seemed no more than sparkling grains of dust. He felt for a moment less than nothing, and then, suddenly, size did not seem to matter. Distant and huge the stars might be, but he, standing here with chattering teeth on the dark hill-side, could see them and name them and even foretell what next they were going to do. “The January Sky.” And there they were, Taurus, Aldebaran, the Pleiades, obedient as slaves…He felt an odd wish to shout at them in triumph, but remembered in time that this would not be scientific.
—from Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome,
one of the Swallows & Amazons books
Where it took us:
* We read the opening of “Locksley Hall,” a long and complex poem which I enjoyed thinking my way through later in the day. With the kids, I read and discussed the first several stanzas, all of us lingering especially over:
Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.
* Of course after that we had to see the Pleiades. Discovered Google Sky. Oh. My. Goodness. Truly, we live in an amazing age.
* Spent a long time playing with Google Sky, looking up many constellations including all those mentioned in the Winter Holiday chapter. Rose told me the story of Orion being chased by the serpent, and we read the legend of the Pleiades, those seven sisters, daughters of Atlas. Beanie fetched D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths because both she and Rose wanted to read me several relevant passages.
* Hunted up our copy of Rey’s Find the Constellations and read about the different magnitudes of stars, among other things.
* Rose found Sirius, the Dog Star, her favorite star, says she, because she loves Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel, Dogsbody, so.
“Here about the beach I wandered,” Tennyson’s poem continues, “nourishing a youth sublime / With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time…”
I don’t know about “sublime,” and we’d have to substitute “internet” for “beach,” I suppose, but yeah, it was a pretty nourishing morning.
I already put this Blue Yonder post in my Google Shared Items, but I know from my stat counter that only about a dozen of you will click through, and this post is waaaay too funny to be missed: Purple Daze.
“I want you to know that my house stinks. It stinks really badly. It stinks like a man from Tyre.”
We took our own little purple dye rabbit trail once, but I wasn’t ambitious enough to promise a tie-dyeing session of our own. (This is possibly a case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot. Goodness knows I wrote enough natural dyes in the Martha books. Matter of fact, the part where Auld Mary uses stale urine as a color fixative was one of the favorite parts of the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate attorney, who, along with the heir to the estate, had to approve all my manuscripts before they went to press.)
Anyway, my hat is off to intrepid homeschooling mom Stefani for following through on her stinky, stinky promise. Those are some gorgeous shirts, by the way.
Yesterday my kids pulled out a CD we used to listen to all the time: the soundtrack to Snoopy: The Musical. This was a play I loved as a teenager, when it was performed by some friends at a different high school. I had a crackly tape recording of a dress rehearsal which my sisters and I listened to ad nauseum. We had, after all, outgrown the soundtrack to Annie by then, and I had yet to discover the melodramatic satisfaction that is Les Miz.
So when Jane was five or six and I, for no particular reason, found myself humming one of the dear old Snoopy songs, I hunted around online and found a recording. Ah, the bliss of Google! My tiny girls loved the album, as I knew they would. A singing dog! A boy named Linus! A squeaky-voiced Sally belting out tongue-twisters!
Later, as the girls grew, they connected to Snoopy on different terms. One of our favorite songs on the album, “Clouds,” is like a theme song for homeschoolers. Charlie Brown and the gang are lying around looking at the sky, and someone asks Charlie Brown what he sees in the clouds.
“I see a—” he begins, but Sally cuts him off to sing that she sees: “A mermaid riding on a unicorn.” Peppermint Patty sees “an angel blowing on a big long horn.” Linus, ever my favorite, is a visionary. “I see Goliath, half a mile tall, waving at me….what do you see?”
Poor Charlie Brown. How can he get an answer in edgewise? Lucy sees a team of fifty milk-white horses; Patty sees a dinosaur; Linus sees Prometheus, waving; Snoopy, grandiose as always, sees the Civil War. The entire Civil War.
You could spend a year rabbit-trailing your way through this song. The Peanuts kids know their history, I’ll give ’em that. (Although they seem to hit a bit of a roadblock when it comes to a certain American poet/storyteller, as evinced by their poor classroom performance in the hilarous song “Edgar Allen Poe,” elsewhere on the album.) When these kids gaze at the clouds, they see Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Fall of Rome, and even all twelve apostles, waving at Linus.
Linus: “The Pyramid of Khufu!”
Sally: “You too?”
All but Charlie Brown: “Seven Wonders of the World…”
For our family, this is a song of reciprocal delights. Some of these cloud-tableaux are historical events the girls already knew about, and the idea of Snoopy beholding an entire war sculpted in cumulus is irresistibly funny. Some events are things my kids first encountered in the song. When, years later, we read about the Rubicon in A Child’s History of the World, there were gasps of delighted recognition from everyone including the then-two-year-old. Click, another connection is made.
So I was happy to hear the Peanuts gang belting away once more yesterday afternoon. It has been a couple of years since last they regaled us with their splendid visions. The girls have encountered more of the world, more of the past, and so they have more to connect with in the lyrics of Charlie Brown’s imaginative friends.
As for Charles, alas. The gang, having at long last exhausted the gamut of grand happenings to see in the heavens, demand of Charlie, “Well, what do you see?”
Says Charlie, glumly (and you probably remember the punchline from the Sunday funnies when you were a kid): “I was going to say a horsie and a ducky, but I changed my mind.”
(Cue hysterical laughter from little girls. Every. Single. Time.)
Just don’t take this the wrong way: you make it sound so easy. Lay the right books around the house, throw in a little yarn and cool background music, and away you go! I know it can’t be so simple all the time.
I thought about this all day, and I realized that this really is the easiest thing I do. If I am alert and open for conversation, present and mindful in the way Leonie has been describing, the connections happen like fireworks, pop pop pop pop pop all around us.
That post wasn’t meant to be a blow-by-blow account of our day. I had just finished jotting down notes about the cool things we talked about that day, as I try to do most days, for my own enjoyment really, and I thought it might be fun to flesh out the notes a little over here. But there were lots of things that happened yesterday that didn’t make it into my little connections list, and not all of them were easy. One of the kids had a particularly rough afternoon. By the end of the day I was a shriveled husk of a person, and Scott probably read desperation in my eyes when he walked through the door. His jovial hustling of the kids outside to run races is undoubtedly what saved me from blowing my calm-and-patient streak. (Owe you one, honey.)
So my goodness, please don’t read that post as an account of a perfect day. It’s the account of some awesome moments in a pretty typical day. I am suddenly reminded of a conversation I had with Alice not long after I made the cross-country drive to San Diego alone with my kids. Alice was in the planning stages for her upcoming Golden Gate adventure, and she was trying to decide whether to drive or fly to San Francisco. “Seriously,” she asked me, “how bad was it?”
I replied, “No worse than any regular day at home.”
I still remember her peal of laughter: she saw at once what I meant. Any day at home in the company of many small children is full of challenges. There are great moments, and there are moments when the sound and fury threatens to swallow your sanity. I love this life, this stay-at-home mom stuff. I’m grateful to be able to do it. But there’s no denying it’s a bumpy ride at times. My toddler has decided she is morally opposed to sitting in her carseat. She has no choice, but every journey begins with an outraged protest. My four-year-old falls apart if I put my keys on the counter instead of in my purse. My introverted nine-year-old would love nothing more than to be at home all the time, but she is sandwiched between sisters who bubble over with eagerness to Go and Do. We compromise, we bend, we go up, we go down. Every day has its moments. Gorgeous moments, and moments of the sort that make a 2500 mile road trip seem like a walk in the park.
But the connections moments? Apart from the difficulty of climbing out of my own head and being alert and present for those around me, this really is the easiest part of my life.
In our CM days, I used to keep rough daily lists of the books we read, lessons we did, games we played, “big ideas” we discussed, connections we made. The latter two categories were my favorite things to record, and I still keep notes about those. Sometimes here, sometimes in my notebook, sometimes at the old daily notes blog. I love to look back and marvel at all the places my children have taken me, figuratively speaking.
Today Wonderboy had speech therapy, and as the rest of us waited in the car we got into a lively discussion about perseverance and self-motivation. I’d mentioned a blog post I’d read that said kids don’t possess innate fortitude and need their parents to provide external motivation for pushing through challenging tasks, the parents providing backbone the kids themselves don’t have yet. Jane said, “But Mom! Remember in Eight Cousins when Aunt Clara wants Rose to wear a corset? And Uncle Alec gets mad and says that the custom of putting even babies in stiffened waists makes them grow up with weak backs?” Her mind had made a leap because of the backbone metaphor, and it was great to see how she analyzed the comparison and expanded upon it. “If someone is being your backbone for you, I don’t see where perseverance comes in.” Which is interesting, because that’s the same thing I’d thought when I read the post, but I hadn’t told her that. Sticking at a task because someone is making you would seem to require more obedience than perseverance.
We talked about external motivation vs. internal motivation, and people who succeeded at difficult endeavors through their own determination and persistence. She gave me a short history of Andrew Johnson, about whose pre-presidential life I knew nothing until today. It seems he was well past ten before he learned to read, and not until age 18 did he learn to write and cipher.
Me: How do you know all this?
Jane: From So You Want to Be President, of course.
That was one of Scott’s daddy-book picks a few years ago. He gives each kid a picture book for Christmas and birthdays. I should do a series of posts about those, one of these days. He finds the most interesting books.
In the parking lot outside speech, we saw what looked remarkably like a pair of Eastern bluebirds. They can’t have been, not in San Diego. We looked up blue birds (not bluebirds) in our Western Birds field guide back at home, but nothing we found looked right. So there’s a mystery we need to solve.
Rose wanted me to read the origin story of comic-book hero Adam Strange. Seems he was an archaeologist who discovered a hidden city of the Incas, including a vast treasure which had been intended for the ransom of the Inca emporer, Atahualpa, who was captured (and eventually killed) by Pizarro. Just as Adam Strange is about to be clobbered by the secret city’s protectors, he happens into a stray space-ray that teleports him to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. Much sci-fi superhero action ensues. The girls had some wry commentary on certain gaping plot-holes, but they are great fans of Adam Strange nonetheless.
Jane asked me to do some of the puzzles in her Mensa Mind Puzzle book with her. This is a big fat book of brainteasers my father gave her. She adores it with the intensity of an Alpha Centauri space-ray. We sat on the couch together and worked on a couple of pages’ worth of puzzles. We’re both good at the number/logic ones and the word puzzles, but when it comes to the visual pattern solving games, I’m sunk. She’s very quick at those. My brain goes all fuzzy. We talked about Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory and visual/spatial intelligence vs. logic/mathematics intelligence vs. linguistic intelligence, and others.
Scott sent us this link, and we watched, and gasped, and realized, and laughed.
Toward the end of the afternoon, things fell apart a little. Squabbles broke out; I got tired. Beanie thought it would be nice to lie down together while she read me riddles from The Book of Think. She was right.
When Scott came home from work, he had all the kids out in the backyard running wind sprints. They were writing down their times and when they came in, the girls made a chart. Scott put on some David Bowie and I heard him quizzing the baby: “Who’s this?”
“Bow Ee!” She’s at that age where every syllable is its own word.
“That’s my girl.”
Now the little ones are asleep and Scott is reading Harry Potter to Rose. When last I saw Jane, she was crocheting while listening to something on her Walkman. Beanie is reading Adam Strange. I need to go sweep the kitchen floor.
Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, wrote a second book called Hey! Listen to This. It’s a collection of stories for reading aloud to young children. I read it many years ago and don’t remember anything about what stories are in the book; what I do remember, have never forgotten, is his story about the book’s title. He said his kids teased him about saying those words more than any other: “Hey, listen to this!”—and then he’d read aloud something that had fired his enthusiasm in a book, newspaper, magazine he was reading.
I laughed out loud the first time I read that anecdote, because that’s exactly what Scott and I did to each other all the time. We were practically newlyweds then, but it’s a habit that hasn’t changed over the years. At any given moment, someone, somewhere in my house, is likely to call out, “Hey, check this out” or “Whoa! You’ve gotta hear this!” and read a passage aloud for anyone in the vicinity.
Our bedsides are piled with books and articles one of us read and thought someone else would enjoy too. I suppose the flurry of links we email back and forth is an extension of that pile. Once upon a time, I was the one strewing reading material in Jane’s path. These days she strews just as much, or more, back into mine. Muse magazine has been the jumping-off point for a thousand heady discussions. I’m still working my way through the Redwall books she loves so dearly, not to mention the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series. She has more time to read than I do, so I get the fun of restocking her pile on practically a daily basis.
I’ve been reading Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle to Beanie. It’s the sequel to Half Magic, and if you don’t know these books, you are so lucky because all the fun is still in front of you. Eager was (like me) a huge fan of Edith Nesbit’s children’s books. He set out to write books in the same rich and rollicking spirit, and he succeeded beautifully. Half Magic is the story of four siblings who find a magic charm that grants wishes. Sort of. It’s an old charm and only grants wishes at half strength, resulting in much mishap, hilarity, and confusion. For example, the youngest girl wishes her cat could talk, and the poor beast winds up able to speak a garbled, nonsensical half-version of English. The cat’s outraged utterances have become regular contributions to discussion around here. “Idgwits! Foos!”
The young heroes of Knight’s Castle, much to my children’s delight, are the children of the Half Magic kids. Jane tells me that the next book in the series, and I can’t remember if it’s Magic by the Lake or The Time Garden, but I’m thinking the former, is another story about the four Half Magic children, and then the fourth book is about their kids again. I’m told that the most delicious part is that the second generation of children actually get to meet their parents as children, though I don’t think they let their young future parents in on the secret.
One of my favorite things about Eager’s writing is his fondness for referencing other authors, other books. Nesbit in particular (the Half Magic and Knight’s Castle kids alike are great fans), but also Sir Walter Scott, Jane Porter, and many others. It’s as if Eager is always crying out, “Hey, listen to this!” and gushing about the books that set his imagination on fire.
Yesterday when I was reading to Beanie, Rose got sucked in. She’s read Half Magic herself but not the rest of the series, and she had thought she’d prefer to read them on her own but the snippet she overheard yesterday proved too bewitching, and she decided she wanted to hear the book out loud after all. She asked if I would catch her up, so we started over at the beginning and read all afternoon, and that’s why dinner was late.
In chapter two the children (two sets of cousins) are taken to see Ivanhoe, much to the delight of young Robert, who, we’re told, is in a yeomanry phase. Back at home, a massive Ivanhoe reenactment is set up by all four of the kids. The descriptions of Scott’s colorful characters had Rose and Bean clamoring to watch the same movie. (“In Technicolor, just like in the book!” says Bean.) Jane thinks it’s cool that Ivanhoe, the novel, makes an appearance in so many of her favorite books. It’s a plot point in one of the Betsy-Tacy high-school books, I forget which; I always loved the bit about how Betsy narrates the plot to two friends who forgot to read the assigned book over the summer, and they get perfect marks on the summaries they’re made to write on the first day of school, but Betsy herself, a devoted fan of the book, waxes on in such detail that she runs out of time while still describing the opening episode—and is severely rebuked by her teacher, who takes her paper as evidence that she never read more than the first chapter. Ouch, dear Betsy, I feel your pain.
When I was researching the fourth Charlotte book (I think it was the fourth), I found a Boston newspaper article from the year in which that book takes place excitedly announcing the arrival on U.S. shores of Sir Walter Scott’s latest novel, Ivanhoe. Naturally, I couldn’t resist including that event in the book, so Charlotte’s family enjoys it as their own read-aloud.
We were just talking yesterday about yet another children’s book that references Ivanhoe, but I forget what it was and Jane isn’t up yet. Probably there are many, but she was talking about one in particular.
I think Edward Eager would have gotten a kick out of knowing that Jeanne Birdsall set out to write her delightful novel The Penderwicks “in the spirit of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit.” The Penderwick children are also great devourers and quoters of books.
As I’m writing this, iChat is pinging me to let me know that Scott, making his early-morning internet rounds on the other computer, is saying “check this out” about something interesting he’s come across. Whatever it is, it’ll probably show up later in one of my del.icio.us link autoposts, the 21st-century version of “Hey! Listen to this!”
I’ve been thinking through some things in emails (and offline) lately, and I wanted to bring some of those thoughts here. It has to do with patience, a good kind and a bad kind, and their relationship to happiness and learning, especially unschooling.
My children think I’m a pretty swell mom, but they know all too well that I have my faults. If you asked them, they would say (if they weren’t too loyal to rat on me) that my greatest fault is impatience. They’d be right, at least as far as my relationship with the kids is concerned. Impatience comes from frustration, (or does it lead to frustration?), and I think we all know that what spills over from an impatient person’s frustration is scolding, or nagging, or sharp words. Impatience is what you feel when people aren’t doing what you want them to do: it’s a frustrated desire for control.
When Jane was two years old, in the hospital fighting leukemia, people used to constantly compliment me for my patience. Other parents, nurses, doctors—I heard it from many people and it always puzzled me. I didn’t feel ‘patient,’ not in any virtuous sense. What I felt was a keen awareness that my days with this child might possibly be numbered, and I didn’t want to lose a single one of them to a bad mood. I wanted to savor every moment with my baby girl, in case I didn’t have many moments left to savor. So I gladly, gratefully, spent hours playing playdough with her, or giving her i.v. pole rides in the hallways, or holding her while she slept. You don’t need ‘patience’ to live through moments like that.
And through the years, I’ve held on to that sense of ‘savor this moment because it is precious’ with my kids. But I cannot deny that as the years passed, and as more children joined the party, impatience elbowed its way into my heart, my words, my actions. I can almost pinpoint the moment I changed, or at least the moment impatience boiled over into sharpness. Rose was three years old, and Beanie was a baby; we were at a lake beach near our home in Virginia, and I got stuck. Stuck trying to leave the beach, with an unhappy, sandy Bean crying on my hip and a bag slipping off my shoulder, and an intractible Rose straining to pull away from me, her heels digging into the wet sand, wavelets lapping at our ankles. We needed to leave. Jane was already halfway to the parking lot (and too young to be there alone). I couldn’t put the baby down without getting her wet (again), and I was out of diapers. Rose refused to budge. I felt helpless, completely held hostage by a stubborn toddler. I had to scoop her up under one arm like a football and carry her, screaming and squirming, back to the car.
I say “had to,” but I’m sure I had other options. It didn’t seem like it at the time. We were there with friends—the dad friend would, in later years, recall that episode with glee, the day he “saw Lissa lose it.” Why I didn’t holler to him to stop grinning and pick up Rose, I don’t remember. I am quite certain that either of the mom friends who were present would have been happy to help. They probably offered to, but what I remember about the moment is that sense of helplessness and frustration.
Moms of small children can run into that feeling often. What it is, really, is a feeling of being out of control. Loss of control is scary. I dealt with it well when the loss of control was due to illness, something out of any human being’s power to alter. But ah, it’s when a person, or people, especially small people who are “supposed” to obey their mama, are flouting my attempts to control—that‘s when impatience comes in.
People who try to control other people often find themselves feeling impatient, or worse. The reason mothers (to single out one kind of person) scold or fuss or nag or criticize their children is because they are trying to bring a situation back under control—that is, to make things go the way the mom wants them to go.
When I had three or four children each wanting to go a different direction, that’s when I got impatient. That’s when I became a mom who scolds. That’s when I stopped savoring every moment, only selected moments.
That’s when I started to wonder what had happened to the patient mommy I used to be. I used to be so patient—I would think that all the time, forgetting that in the days when people remarked upon my patience, I hadn’t felt like patience came into the equation at all.
I think when we talk about patience in terms of a quality we don’t feel like we possess (“I used to be so patient”), we are talking about a kind of patience that isn’t really a virtue at all. That kind of patience is about enduring the present moment until a better one comes along. It’s a gritting-one’s-teeth-and-getting-through-it state of mind.
It’s how many of us endured countless hours of our lives in school. The kids who didn’t patiently endure were the ones labeled troublemakers. Patient endurance is how most people get through hours in line at the DMV, or (to poke my own self here) the interminable waits in doctor’s offices. There is no moment-savoring going on in that kind of patience. In fact, often ‘being patient’ really just means ‘being quiet and not making a fuss’ while resentment or irritation is churning underneath.
I think the reason people tend to be less patient with their children is because they can in fact exert some external control over the children—as opposed to the doctors who keep us waiting, or the complicated beaucratic systems directing the flow of traffic at the DMV.
But “exerting control” by nagging, scolding, lecturing, ordering in a drill-sergeant’s bark—these are actions that, sooner or later, will do harm to a relationship. Nobody likes being nagged, scolded, or lectured ‘for their own good.’ I sure don’t like it, I know that much. It’s a complete violation of the Golden Rule, isn’t it? Treating children the way we’d like to be treated if we were in their shoes means finding other ways of dealing with those out-of-control moments.
I think for me, the shift back toward a better way began when I drove the kids from Virginia to California by myself. Rilla was six months old, Wonderboy three. Scott had already started his job out here, and he would have flown back to drive with us but I talked him out of it. If he came along, we’d be on the clock; he could only take so much time off work. If I drove alone, we could amble, stopping as often and as long as the kids needed to—which turned out to be very, very often. I had to abandon myself to the flow of the trip: letting go of the desire to control every move we made. We wound up having a wonderful time, the six of us, and I think a big part of the reason is because that 2700-mile journey was about taking each moment as it came. They were moments worth savoring, and savor them I did.
Not that there weren’t some bumps in the road. There were (are) still five children, not all of them always wanting the same thing. But I found that being mindful of the difference between ‘taking care of’ and ‘controlling’ (or trying to control), and being determined to appreciate the present moment, not just try to to ‘get through’ it—those attitudes eliminate impatience. Really. And then the bumps in the road become part of the grand adventure, challenges to be tackled, puzzles to be solved. It’s so much more satisfying to be creative and fun than to be frustrated and stern.
There is another kind of patience, a good kind. It’s the quality that allows a mother with ten places to put every minute to sit in the driveway drawing chalk figures for her toddler, or blow bubbles until the whole bottle is gone, or take half an hour to walk down the block, admiring every dandelion and ant that catches her little one’s eye. It’s the patience that plays a game of Monopoly with an eight-year-old until every last dollar is in someone’s pile, the kind that listens with interest to a detailed recounting of the latest phone-book-sized Teen Titans collection. That kind of patience isn’t about enduring the present moment until a better one comes along. It’s about enjoying the present moment for exactly what it is, with gusto and gratitude.
There’s “patience in suffering,” too, of course, and while perhaps that kind isn’t about enjoying the present (painful or sorrowful) moment, it too involves a willingness to accept the present moment for what it is. People who are patient in suffering tend to be people overflowing with gratitude for all the other things in their lives besides suffering. This is a very great virtue, and I think it grows out of the peaceful sense of appreciation for what is, now, as opposed to a longing for something different, something better: it’s the good kind of patience all grown up.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this in conjunction with unschooling, which is a whole way of living that embraces the present moment, rejoices in what is good about it. Unschooling says: this day, this encounter, this connection of ideas, this moment between us—this is very, very good. Unschooling begins with a dismissal of the kind of experiences that a child must “patiently endure” in order to be “educated,” but it is more than that, more than a rejection of one way of being. Unschoolers see everything in the whole wide world as interesting, connected, something they can learn about.(Scroll halfway down at the link and you’ll see why I linked that page in particular, though the whole site speaks to the point.) Instead of patiently (or impatiently) enduring the long wait at the DMV, an unschooler might look around, notice things, think about them, wonder how and why. Why are all the people sitting in the back two rows in this waiting area, but are scattered among all the rows in that bank of seats over there? What kinds of jobs do the people waiting in line have, and was it hard for them to get time off to spend a weekday morning here? When did the old cameras get dumped in favor of digital cameras? Why are the walls a glaring white instead of something soft and soothing like in doctors’ offices? What is the ratio of DMV employees to customers? Is customer the right word for a person in line at the DMV?
Of course I’m not saying that unschoolers are the only people who approach life this way. Harvard professor John Stilgoe, the author of that book I’m still reading: he gets it. He sees what’s interesting in power lines and telephone poles and manhole covers. He has made these things interesting to me. Reading that book is making visible—even beautiful—all sorts of things that were ugly or invisible to me before. The other day I looked out my windshield sideways down a street and saw, for the first time in my life, how the rows of of drooping wires made a spiderweb against the sky: lacy, delicate, lovely.
I’ll never forget reading, in college, Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and how one of her students said that after taking Betty’s drawing class and working on portraits, every face she looked at seemed beautiful to her. The drawing lessons taught her to really look at people, and when she did, she saw beauty everywhere.
I know I’m going all over the place here, but in my mind these things are all connected: this way of really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. And what I can do for my children is refuse to fill up their lives with things they must patiently endure until a better moment comes. I can savor the moments as they happen, and give them the time and space to find what’s interesting and beautiful in every face the world shows them.
As I was writing that last sentence, Beanie appeared in front of me with a big smile and a present: a bracelet made of safety pins linked together, each pin shining with green and blue beads. “It’s for you, Mommy,” she breathed, so proud and excited. “Jane showed me how.” How patiently (the good kind of patience) she must have worked to slide all those beads in place.
I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!
“…I refuse to provide a schedule of topics. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” they grow uneasy. They like to get through the material.
“I explain that the lack of a topic schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to answer questions that arise in class or office hours, to follow leads we discover while studying something else. Each of the courses, I explain patiently, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track.
“My students resist the lack of topic structure because they are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment. Over and over I explain that if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own.”
“Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised—and sometimes answered—that never would be otherwise. Any explorer sees things that reward not just a bit of scrutiny but a bit of thought, sometimes a lot of thought over years. Put the things in spatial context or arrange them in time, and they acquire value immediately.”
This is exactly what I’ve enthused about when I write about the connections my kids have made—I get so excited about it; it amazes me to see what they put together in their minds, and where the subsequent discussion takes us. It’s how I learn best, and live best, too.
The Baldwin book is a great one for connections. When we see rocks poking up from beneath the waves out at sea, Bean calls out, “The Inchcape Rock!” We have a whole long-running family joke spinning off King Alfred and the cakes he burned while daydreaming military strategy. The joke kind of blurs into my kids’ very, very favorite Gunther children quote, uttered by a young Margaret at dinner one night: “Mommy, my burnt corn is cold!”
(One of the many reasons I adore Alice. She’s my kind of cook.)
Last weekend the girls were watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom was conducting an orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl (and beating down an eager Jerry who wanted to help). Jane wanted to know what the music was. I thought it sounded like Strauss, but I wasn’t sure, so I (what else) Googled it. Sure enough: it’s the overture from Die Fledermaus. We looked it up on Wikipedia and read about the opera, and we watched the overture on YouTube. Which led to viewing other songs, mostly sung by the famous coloratura Edita Gruberova, who is famous for her Adele in Fledermaus and who also played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, which (if you want another Alice connection) is the song my cell phone plays when she calls me because it always reminds me of her daughter Theresa singing the aria around the house. And from there way led on to many other ways, and these connections will keep popping up in years to come, linking to something else.
Oh, I just remembered writing about this years ago, how I love that we call it “linking” when a topic on one web page connects to a page somewhere else.
“Way leads on to way,” of course, is a quote from “The Road Less Traveled.” But unlike Frost’s traveller, who, “knowing how way leads on to way,” doubts life will ever bring him back to this crossroads in the wood where he has chosen to take the less traveled path, the paths unfolding before our connections can and will be revisited and explored endlessly, in different ways, all through our lives. And like the paths in the wood, where wind and light and leaves and wildlife are always altering the landscape so that the path changes from hour to hour, our mental landmarks are changed and built upon and nuanced every time we revisit them.
Another funny connection: I had read much of the first chapter of Outside Lies Magic to Jane yesterday—it’s one of those books you just can’t keep to yourself—including the parts quoted above about Stilgoe’s students being uncomfortable working without a clearly defined linear schedule. This morning I asked Beanie to do a job for me, and I was explaining it step by step— overexplaining, evidently, because Jane laughed and said, “Gosh, Mom, it’s like you think she’s a Harvard student.” Heh.
“Exploration,” says John Stilgoe,
“is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.”
Yes: it is so, so much fun, and that is why I write these posts all chattery with excitement over this or that connection the kids made today. (Or that I made myself!) I know I get carried away, but that’s the point, isn’t it, that way leading on to way has carried me away? And yet—and yet—I think we are at once ‘carried away’ and made more fully present in the now, more rooted, by these relationships between ideas about things past and future. The joy of connection makes me want to celebrate this moment, this brief encounter with wild-haired child and broad-trunked tree, bus going by, sign on church wall, Scottish warlord creeping over the tower wall and startling the English soldier’s wife who has just put her babe in arms to sleep by crooning that the Black Douglas won’t get him. Child, laughing, shouting “Dinna ye be sae sure aboot that!” across the courtyard outside the library. How can I not celebrate this freedom?