A somewhat grainy photo of my four oldest children taken at the Point Loma Lighthouse in 2007, not long after we moved to San Diego. The Pacific was still quite new to them. When I coined the term “tidal homeschooling,” we lived in Virginia and the image was entirely figurative—but when I think back to those early tidal-learning days, this pic is the one I see.
I remember writing here long ago about how my favorite category of post was connections. The serendipitous links of thought we encounter when something we’re reading or experiencing echoes or relates to some earlier conversation, book, film, experience.
Today, for example: we read another Hauge poem (“Winter Morning”) and had a really rich discussion of how much is going on in those four simple lines—a discussion that incorporated some of the conversation we had in the comments here about yesterday’s poem. We talked about the way Hauge uses simple, crisp, concrete images (frosted windowpanes, the glow of a good dream, a woodstove “pour[ing] out its warmth/ from a wood block it had enjoyed the whole night”) to describe a moment, and something much bigger than the moment. And from that rather animated discussion we jumped to Linda Gregg’s “Art of Finding” essay:
I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders,” or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck.
But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.
Okay, here’s the thing. I had planned to read this excerpt of Gregg’s essay, and to introduce a new practice for the four of us—Huck, Rilla, Scott, and me. We have a spiral-bound sketchbook that, at intervals, we use as a shared family journal. In 2020 it was the whole family chiming in with quips, sketches, and interesting tidbits. It went dormant last year, and when the Linda Gregg passage resurfaced in my Readwise review over the holidays, I decided to appropriate the journal for this practice. Maybe not daily, but several times a week, we’ll jot down things we’ve seen or heard.
But weeks have passed since I reread the passage, and I’d forgotten that last line—the “marrying of the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.” That’s exactly what we’d just been talking about with the Hauge poem, and what we talked about yesterday. The way he expresses a single image that speaks vividly both as a literal description (in a way that makes your breath catch) and as a reflection on some aspect of human experience. “Marrying the sacred to the world” is what Hauge does best.
So: part intention, part serendipity. The best kind of high-tide morning.
A postscript added after I made today’s recording—listening to the Linda Gregg passage read aloud, I got to “the art of finding” and went Oh of course! And made a note to let tomorrow’s poem be Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Another connection.
I’m circling back to yesterday’s topic. The bird clock chirped before I got to the best kind of connections! A few hours later, laughing with Huck and Rilla over a math problem, I knew I’d want to revisit the subject today.
We’ve been doing the enrichment pages of Math-U-See’s Pre-Algebra book together, the three of us. Side by side on the old green couch—a housewarming gift from Scott’s parents in 1999 when we (then a family of four) moved from our little Queens apartment to a one-bedroom-bigger place on Long Island. That sofa has seen some life, let me tell you. Our first Christmas here in Portland, my parents gave us a nice new Ikea sectional—finally enough comfy seating for the whole family—but my entire crew refused to hear of the removal of the old sofa. It lives now under the windows in our dining area, a favorite place to flop and read or listen to music.
So: the green sofa, a page of puzzle problems on my lap, Huck and Rilla on either side. Huck had sharpened all the pencils right after breakfast, so I had a nice fresh point. The final problem on the page elicited a gasp from Rilla. That gasp—the inrush of breath that signals a connection has just been made—is my chief delight as a homeschooling mom. And in the connection of ideas, we connect with each other.
Huge chunks of this blog are devoted to chronicling those moments. My own notebooks are full of them—connections the kids have made between this book, that game, this show, that moment of hilarity in the kitchen; and my own connections too, the synthesis of ideas and images gathered on my greedy, plate-loaded-at-the-buffet, rabbit-trailing, metaphor-mixing lifelong learning adventure.
Our math problem had reminded her of a tidbit she’d puzzled over many times as a little girl. In the book, Scarecrow and friends are plotting an escape from a flock of jackdaws. They have a handful of wishing pills but not enough to go around—not, says the Tin Woodman, unless they can count to seventeen by twos. The sawhorse declares that’s easy to do, if you just start counting at “a half of one.”
Rilla remembered being extremely confused by the sawhorse’s logic. She could never figure out how he arrived at that solution. While we puzzled it out together (spoiler: he cheated), I absently doodled on the page. The kids laughed at me—this, too, is a longrunning point of connection for us and amusement for them. It’s extremely hard for me to focus on what anyone is saying if I can’t doodle or stitch or do something fiddly with my hands. (One reason I always encourage kids to draw, or play with Sculpey or beeswax, or crochet while I’m reading to them.)
And I guess the quiet pauses while kids work out math problems are another place I need the help of a pencil. The margins of their math books are full of nonsense drawings. I have a shelf full of elementary Math-U-See instruction books I can’t resell because I’ve scribbled all over them!
*”Every day” is more aspirational than practical. “Things to make time for over the course of a week” is more realistic. Or a shorter rolling time span, say two or three days. I’m not troubling myself with fastidiousness here. These ideas are more like recipes for a healthy diet. Reminders of nutrients I want to make sure I’m getting enough of.
Connection—you’d think it would be the hardest element to include right now, given the 13-months-and-counting we’ve been living in semi-isolation. Even though most of my family received the Pfizer vaccine in February, we’re continuing to be cautious because Huck and Rilla were too young to qualify. Until the 12-16yo version rolls out, we’ll keep playing it safe. As more of my local friends pass their second-dose-plus-two-weeks mark (oh hooray!), I’m beginning to anticipate some backyard hangouts. For now, though: I live quietly at home.
Zooma zooma zooma-Zoom
But I haven’t felt isolated—and I don’t just mean because I live in a very full house. 🙂 I know a lot of folks are completely Zoomed-out, but not me. I love the connections that platform has allowed to thrive all year. Four days a week, I open a coworking room for my Patreon subscribers. There are usually three or four of us in there, working with our mics off for 50 minutes, then unmuting for a ten-minute check-in chat. Over the course of the year, I’ve witnessed the creation of books, art, and all sorts of projects. I’ve written hundreds of pages of Brave Writer literature guides during these sessions, among other things. The work is easier in community, but it’s the check-ins I treasure: the laughter, the shared challenges, the warm support.
Singing in community
I’ve dearly missed singing shoulder to shoulder with my Low Bar Chorale community—when I think about a post-pandemic life, that’s where my thoughts go first—but I’m astonished and so proud of the way Low Bar has endured and even expanded during the past year. Our song leader, Ben Landsverk, began hosting weekly or twice-monthly livestreams where he sang—often accompanied by a video composite of our whole band—and we sang along from home. Not just our Portland singalong community, but people from around the world! Perhaps you’ve seen the videos I’ve shared here.
So—I can’t wait, CANNOT WAIT!, to be back in our space at Revolution Hall, singing in harmony with a crowd, but I’m thrilled that the community has remained connected during our year+ of isolation. Regular Zoom chats have allowed me to get to know a number of singalong pals better, and my social media work for the group keeps me in conversation with the rest of the team.
Unconventional (get it?)
This will be another summer without San Diego Comic-Con (there’s going to be a scaled-back version of the convention over Thanksgiving weekend, but LOL no, we’ll be sitting that one out). I miss that annual point of connection like crazy—a chance to catch up in person with artist and writer friends who are scattered around the globe. Here again it was Zoom to the rescue; occasional chats have kept us connected, and no one had to push through a sweaty crowd to get there.
Not the same as in person, but not negligible. Face to face conversation in a quiet room is, for me, a truly satisfying form of connection. It has its distinctive perks: I’m curled up in my favorite chair, in comfy yoga pants, perhaps with a bit of stitching in my hands. It’s a lot cheaper, too!
Turns out I was already living this way
But then I suppose I was already deeply engaged with Zoom-based conversation and connection before the pandemic. Helen McLaughlin’s wonderful Get-It-Done Days; Holly Wren Spaulding’s poetry workshops; regular update chats with small groups of friends working on their own creative projects. And of course I’ve been finding friendship and community in online spaces since, gosh, 1995, and here on the blog since 2005. I mean: hello friends!
But I get it: I don’t live alone; and I’m an extrovert who finds a Zoom conversation just as satisfying as an in-person visit, in its way. The year was a wholly different experience for my friends who live alone, or my introvert friends whose batteries are drained by video chats.
Funny how much time I spent in coffee shops, considering I don’t even like coffee
My big struggle with the isolation wasn’t so much about personal connection (except at a remove, aching for Huck who sorely misses his friends and his co-op classes), but with the inability to work in coffee shops and pubs. Until I couldn’t walk down Fremont to one of my favorite writing haunts, I didn’t know how much I relied on the low-key stimulation of a coffee shop to remain focused! And nope, the Youtube videos of ambient café sounds don’t work for me as a substitute. It was the people, the human connection, the just-right amount of visual stimulation and variety, that kept me focused and working. For a rabbit-trailing mind like mind, it’s key to find just the right kind of distraction.
I’ve focused here on the human-connection part of connection. There’s another part, of course—the connection of ideas that is so cherished by homeschoolers and creatives. That’s a whole different post, and I’m out of time!
How about you?
Instead, let me ask: what has your experience of social connection been like this past year? Have you struggled? Found yourself actually enjoying the excuse to stay home? Which half of the Holderness couple are you? (Scott and I laughed like crazy at this gender-swapped depiction of the two of us.)
This is what’s happening while I’m reading aloud, in case you were wondering
I called for Huck and Rilla to join me for lesson time, and Huck yelled back that he was almost done reading Matilda, would it be all right if he finished? I said OF COURSE I’m not going to yank someone away from the last few pages of Matilda. Rilla laughed and asked her brother, “Who do you think you’re talking to? This is Mom, not Miss Trunchbull.”
During lessons, we were revisiting last week’s history reading about the sack of Carthage. We’d read that when Rome and Carthage were eyeing each other leading into the first Punic War, the Romans—who had no fleet at that point—found a Carthaginian shipwreck and used it as the model to build their own boats. Rilla, pondering the second Punic War which resulted in Rome’s eventual victory over Carthage, despite Hannibal and his elephant strategy, wondered aloud what it would be like to be the captain of that wrecked ship that served as Rome’s model—to know (if you had survived the shipwreck) that your personal tragedy led to the destruction of your whole city. Huck’s eyes at this notion: big as Tiffany Aching’s soup plates.
I can speculate with near certainty that my older children, reading this, will now have the Clouds song from Snoopy: The Musical stuck in their ears. Anyone else out there unable to hear “the sack of Carthage” without the immediate followup of “and the Army-Navy game”?
That Snoopy link goes to a post I wrote in (gasp) March, 2005. And I’m laughing now because some things never change. My kids and I, we’ve had this moment before. Different batch of kids, different moment in Roman history, but:
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.
Of course you know I’m now lost in my own archives. The post just before that Snoopy one:
At the girls’ gym class the other day, someone’s baby dropped a pacifier. Wonderboy picked it up and regarded it studiously. Then he tried to stick it in his ear. He must have thought it was a hearing aid.
The black curagh working slowly through this world of grey, and the soft hissing of the rain gave me one of the moods in which we realise with immense distress the short moment we have left us to experience all the wonder and beauty of the world.
This week Beanie and I reached the J. M. Synge episode of The Irish Identity. The quote above found me at the perfect time, as I neared the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s lovely Station Eleven, and on the day the President announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Even after the people of the south island, these men of Inishmaan seemed to be moved by strange archaic sympathies with the world. Their mood accorded itself with wonderful fineness to the suggestions of the day, and their ancient Gaelic seemed so full of divine simplicity that I would have liked to turn the prow to the west and row with them for ever.
Today I forgot to blog first; it’s nearly bedtime. 🙂
Melanie has begun a link-up for sharing daily learning notes, always an engaging topic (if you’re anything like me). I used to have an entire side-blog for my daily notes, and then a different one, and then a different one. These days I’m tracking things on paper, but I do like to compile some of our best resources and rabbit trails here pretty often, as you know.
Selvi asked in the comments the other day why we were working on memorizing the English monarchs, because I’ve mentioned that several times. The main reason, as I replied to her, is because they make very handy pegs for hanging other historical events on. So often in our history, literature, and science reading we come across some incident involving Great Britain and we used to always say, “Who was king then? Or was it queen?” So we set about learning the list (and American presidents as well, but that was easier because these kids grew up on the Singin’ Smart CD with its infectious tune for the presidents) and it turned into a really fun family accomplishment. Oh the triumph now when we can all get through the Horrible Histories song without a hitch! 😉
Our various readings continue to interconnect in satisfying ways. We spent a couple of weeks on Wordsworth (you don’t leave this house until you know a good bit about the Romantics, that’s just the way it is) and are reading Coleridge this week, and that has created excellent crossover with our readings about the French Revolution. Except a MOST UNFORTUNATE THING happened and that is: while (continuing on in the juggernaut of world history) reading aloud about Napoleon, my tongue got twisted and his name came out BonaFART. Never, never, never shall I be allowed to live this down. Never, never, never shall I be permitted to read another word about him without a ripple of giggles across the room. Waterloo can’t come fast enough, believe me. I might have to move to Elba myself.
ANYWAY, back to Coleridge. We began a discussion of “Frost at Midnight” today, which is one of my most beloved poems. It’s a good many years since I’ve lived where there’s frost, but I still look at a winter sky and inhale the cold air and think of silent icicles quietly shining to the quiet moon. We found so much to discuss in the first stanza that that’s as far as we got for now—and the best is yet to come.
Today during our after-lunch block (that’s when I focus my attention on Huck and Rilla), we did cornmeal letters. Uppercase printing for Huck and lowercase cursive for Rilla. This was a new activity for Huck and he enjoyed it tremendously. (And ate a whole lot of dry cornmeal, gah.) He’s not yet shown much interest in writing or drawing—loves to paint big swirls and stripes of color, but crayons interest him not at all—but we have a Montessori Letter Shapes app that mimics this kind of tactile finger-tracing, and he used to play that quite a lot. When I put the plate of cornmeal in front of him today and showed him what we were going to do, he asked, politely puzzled, “But how do we reset it?” No reset button, you see. Oh my digital-era child.
He got the hang of the analog method pretty quick. 😉
“Isaacson takes the reader on a leisurely, respectful tour of buildings around the world: churches, houses, museums, lighthouses, all kinds of structures, from the humble to the magnificent. In simple, straightforward prose he discusses various architectural concepts such as the impact of building materials, the interplay of light and color, and the significance of roof shape. His stunning photographs turn even the roughest earthen hut into a work of art. His lyrical text helps us see in the pictures what we might otherwise have missed:
‘These buildings are part of the Shaker Village at Sabbathday, Maine. On an afternoon in late winter they are warm and creamy, but in December, shadows thrown at them make them look haunted. A building only a few yards away fades into the land on a hazy morning.'”
Round Buildings, Square Buildings was edited by my first boss in publishing, the great Stephanie Spinner. It was near completion by the time I came on board; I don’t think I did much more than look over galleys and jacket copy, and probably put through the request for Mr. Isaacson’s author copies. It’s one of those books I sat at my desk reading, unable to believe my good fortune: This is my job now; I’m getting paid to read.
Before Round Buildings I hadn’t done much real seeing of architecture. There were buildings I loved: the sandstone administration building (formerly a convent) of my first college, Loretto Heights, with its red tower soft-edged against a blue sky, and inside, a gorgeous mosaic floor—tiny tiles set into place by wagon-training nuns, so the story went. But even there, I was drawn more to story than to form. Most of the buildings that captured my imagination, pre-Isaacson, lived in books: Green Gables, the House o’ Dreams, Jane’s Lantern Hill house with its “lashings of magic.” The Muskoka cabin. (No one does houses better than Montgomery.) Plumfield. Juniper’s cottage. Miss Suzy’s tree-house with its acorn cups. Vicky Austin’s grandfather’s house-in-a-converted-stable with the stalls full of books. A great many English houses in a great many English novels.
But most of the time, my eye was drawn more to nature than to man’s edifices. I had next to no vocabulary for understanding architecture. Isaacson changed that in a paragraph with his description of the creamy walls of the Taj Mahal changing colors as the sun moved across them—the very passage I read with Beanie and Rose this morning. He writes about harmony and you find yourself looking for it everywhere you go. He made me see my world differently—just as John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic changed how I looked at just about everything else: power lines, rain gutters, a sculpture garden, the line at the DMV. The way Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain changed the way I see faces.
Clicking through these old posts, I see I’ve made a connection between these three books before. They’re transformative, all three.
Funny also to see in the old Stilgoe post I linked above, “Way Leads on to Way,” that I’d been reading Fifty Famous Stories Retold* to Beanie that year—in March, 2008, when she was seven years old. And now here’s Rilla seven, and I’m reading it to her. (Today’s tale: Androclus and the Lion. It drew cheers, and a narration with gusto. Because LION.) I have to laugh: way doesn’t just lead on to way; sometimes it leads right back full circle. I didn’t choose Round Buildings for the older girls and Fifty Famous Stories for the seven-year-old at the same time—again—on purpose; I guess it’s just that I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know what works for us, and these things have worked time and again. It did strike me this morning, reading the Isaacson, that the Stilgoe might be a satisfying read for Jane and Rose right about now.