On good sportsmanship.

We recently made a brilliant family investment by purchasing Dinosaur Bingo for our sons.  It is a total blast.  We really enjoy playing it together.  And it’s educational: you learn about the dinos themselves (lots of different kinds); you learn to scan for text and image; you learn letters and counting (how many spaces do you have left?); you learn the value of close attention (“Follow your BOARD, Papa!”).

It’s all fun and games until we get to the end.  The end really is the climax of the game, not just because we get to sort the world (again) into winners and losers, but because the winner gets to throw his arms in the air and shout “TERRIBLE LIZARD!”  “Dinosaur,” you see, means “terrible lizard.”

So we are happily playing in the kitchen one morning and then Malachi wins and shouts “TERRIBLE LIZARD!” and Ezra (4) has a hissy fit about how he wants to win TOO and maybe Chi is the VERY FIRST winner but he will be the FIRST winner and Chi is protesting vehemently and I am quietly resting my forehead on the table, perhaps giving it a gentle occasional thump.  I am breathing deeply.  When I have gathered my resources, I shush the boys and begin my lecture about how people don’t like to play games with other people who are always grumpy at the end, and good sportsmanship is about being happy for other people and can’t we just enjoy the GAME and PLAYING without having to worry about the issue of winning and losing?  And in the middle of my stream of thoughtful and strategic guidance, Malachi (who is two) turns to me, raises his arms, and shouts: “TERRIBLE MAMA!”

You’d think that might be the end of our day, but really it was the beginning.  I couldn’t help myself.  I guffawed.  I laughed till I cried, and the boys laughed too.  Laughing, you see, really IS more fun than winning.

On school choice.

This has been a rough month for a range of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve been struggling to decide what to do with Ezra in terms of Pre-K next year.

The scene: our little guy is smart; academically motivated; significantly beyond age-typical intellectual development; emotionally/socially about normal; very sensitive to others’ interest and approval/disapproval; EAGER to get to school.  We live in the highest-performing elementary district in our city.  I am a HUGE fan of community-based public education.  Our school has one pre-K teacher.  I have visited the class; talked with her; talked with various friends who have had kids in her class.  There’s also, 25 minutes away, a charter school rooted in Reggio-Emilia, with an emphasis on arts and sciences, and Ezra got in through the lottery.

The dilemma: our guy will be (is) a total nightmare if he gets bored.  Our local pre-K seems guaranteed to bore him (and the teacher expresses no curiosity about him nor any interest in the question of how to help kids not get bored).  Transportation to/from the charter school will be a huge hassle.  But in all seriousness, when I think about the predictable outcomes (not fear-based, but logical foreseeable conclusions) of his participation in the local school, I imagine a high likelihood of difficult behavior and (to add the fear-based pieces which are also reasonable in our culture) possible diagnoses and medication.  When you take a smart, active kid and you bore him and teach him that you don’t care about his particular needs, it is reasonable to assume that he will go haywire (and we know he can do this beautifully).

The nutshell: we have, we feel, no real choice in the matter, given the realities of our particular situation.  But that is true of many people we’ve talked to (and not true of many; I’ve been appalled to hear blanket statements like “I hate public school!” from people who don’t even know what district their kid is in).  I feel one of my jobs in life is to try and rescue public education, and I thought I’d be doing that in part as an engaged parent in the local system.  Yes, the charter is public, but I don’t even BELIEVE in charter schools, except in extreme cases.  And I don’t think we’re that extreme.  But maybe we are — maybe the “we” isn’t my family but the system as a whole.  If we have arrived at a place where our teachers are, by inclination or by rule, more interested in managing a whole class for non-disruption than in sustaining a love for learning EVEN AT THE PRE-K LEVEL, then how can we expect to participate long enough to make change?  The risk is too great: it’s not about academic “success” even; it’s about the whole life and worldview and sanity of a child.

Can you tell how uncomfortable I am with this situation?  How deep my grief is for the community I thought we would enter through participation in our local Pre-K?  How sad I am for the system I’ve seen fading for years, as more and more of my brightest, most motivated college students who WANTED MORE THAN ANYTHING TO BE TEACHERS stepped away from those dreams because they couldn’t afford to pay off their loans on a teacher’s salary, they couldn’t imagine sacrificing their ideals to the extent they knew they had to, they couldn’t condone following standards that were about a strange societal commitment to “academic” performance rather than a genuine commitment to the healthy development (and academic learning!) of whole children?  I LOVE public education.  I want to be part of it.  I want my children to revel in it.  But until they are old enough to sort out which are the sucky parts of the game you play because you have to, and which are the nourishing, life-giving aspects that we can find in the middle of the rest — well, until then, I guess they go the charter route.  And we count ourselves lucky.

I welcome thoughtful comments and perspectives, as ever!

On our most valuable commodity: time.

What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time.  But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore.  We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.

Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often).  There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably.  The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.

As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car.  Then a bigger kitchen.  Then private school for the kids.  Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one.  Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have.  Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue.  Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.

You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time.  We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands.  And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it.  We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done.  And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth.  Sigh.  It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.

But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time.  Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share.  The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches.  Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement.  With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one.  We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games.  Volunteer.  Build things.

Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it.  That’s no way to live.

I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching.  I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right.  It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time.  I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management.  It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification.  The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can.  (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)

This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial.  We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us.  The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.

At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late.  For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful.  For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift.  We CHATTED.  About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home.  About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery.  Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.

I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time.  I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time.  He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener.  His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is.  Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time.  Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war.  Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves.  The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.

The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time.  They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest.  They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening.  They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present.  These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices.  They fill me with hope.

 

On physical therapy as therapy.

This is kind of a theme of mine, so forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.  But working out today I had the chance to chat with a friend who is also a physical therapist at the office I go to (it’s a “continuing fitness” rehab thing for those of us who are pushing beyond PT per se but still need support from time to time — brilliant, I say).  So anyway, there we are, and I’m asking about whether it’s best to use a foam roller to iron out difficult muscles before or after working out.  John, my friend the PT, says at first that you should do it afterward.  Then he thinks some more and says that there’d be no argument against doing it before, especially for someone like me, where the tensest muscle groups tend to be the ones we’re trying to strengthen.  And for me, that statement causes a total Lucy Van Pelt moment:

“That’s it!” I holler (internally, lest people think me strange).  I want to strengthen what’s all balled up (my writing, my consulting, my willingness to be out there in the world), and instead of working on the simple, feel-good steps along the way (which are, incidentally, totally vital), I beat myself up for not being there yet.

Once again, pt offers a perfect metaphor for my life.  You can’t properly strengthen muscles that are foreshortened due to tension — they are in the wrong places, using bad habits, and you have to guide them into better paths before they can really do what they are designed to do.

I realize that this may mean I need to stop watching Grey’s Anatomy, but only if I want to take my own medicine.  Which I may not.  But here’s the thing: I’m a writer. I’m a reader and a teacher and a thinker and a critic and an organizer and a grower and a maker and a friend and a mother.  Of those things I am meant to do, the only ones I GET to do are the ones I HAVE to do.  I parent because I have kids and they rock the house.  I read what I have signed up to teach and I teach when I get the opportunity because it’s the best way I know to make a buck. I read and critique what I need to to be useful on the board I’ve committed to serve; I grow in the summer because it’s cheaper than buying food; I make things I’ve promised to make, and I don’t often promise any more.  I am a friend when I can squeeze in a phone call without kids around (can ANYTHING make them whine and cling faster than seeing me pick up a phone?).  But overall, when I look at my life with clear eyes, I offer this diagnosis:

I am no longer broken; I am not in pain.  But there are many things I long to do, muscles I long to work, that feel like “luxuries.”  Just like using the foam roller feels like a luxury.  If it feels good, this particular logic goes, it must not be very important.  Pain is the indicator that something is broken, and if we can limp along without much pain, well then, we are fine.  Today, I think: fine is not good enough.

Today I want to sort feeling comfortable from feeling alive; feeling pain from feeling vulnerable.  Because vulnerability, discomfort, awakeness when we’d rather be asleep, are the things that make us whole.  They are that deep and welcome ache when you hit the specific muscle that needs release.  They give us room to live, to thrive, to explore, to develop.

Here’s a handy reference tool for sorting what is crucial and what is luxury.  For me, now, today.  Feel free to make your own.

Warm delicious snuggles with loved ones: crucial.  (Ezra staggered into our room at 6:10 with his new dinosaur book, flipping on the light and climbing into bed between us, only to discover later, I think, that he was not in fact really awake at the time.)

Stretching, foam roller, or other forms of muscle relaxation: crucial.  (Just because it feels good does not mean it’s non-essential.  It is hard work for me to remember that.)

Strength-training, in body and spirit (weight-lifting; meditation): crucial.

Long delicious shower after a workout: crucial for spirit; luxury in terms of time.

Writing up creative ideas for community projects and being willing to share them in their draft stage: crucial.  Also, luxury, because more time would make for better work…but what great practice at letting something take shape among people rather than just in my own mind!

Taking a nap: probably a luxury today, since I got a good seven hours last night.  But sleep: crucial.

Eating well and making good food for my family: crucial AND a luxury.  I have a friend doing the hard work of cooking in advance and freezing whole meals…that’s hard work that makes sense.  But I’m not there yet.  I’m here.

Exploring new ideas through reading and writing: crucial.  Crucial, I say.

Watching tv for downtime during lunch…well, I’m allowed a little luxury, right?

On relearning the important parts.

It’s exhausting to keep living this nonlinear life, with its ups and downs, its difficult lessons, its outrageous joys.  You learn something, then forget it, then spend years learning it again.  I much prefer more academic models of learning, where we learn something, check it off as “learned,” and move on.  (It doesn’t really WORK that way, but the shared illusion is so pleasant.)

Alas.  Here we are. And so this holiday season totally ate me alive, and I was not present or thoughtful or connected.  Indeed, I was barely civil.  I spent much of my time holed up waiting for something loving or memorable or fun to happen…and as you might guess, those things don’t typically come looking for you.  You have to generate them, and generative was about the last thing I was.

But it’s a new year now, and another new beginning.  I will write again.  (See?  See?  I AM writing.)  I will read more.  I will ask better questions of my friends and family and I will work harder to remember the answers.  These are not resolutions, because those are part of the whole linear mapping of the world that frankly doesn’t work for me.  But if I can hold to these simple intentions, I will be grateful: to show more often the love I feel; to use more often the gifts I cultivate; to move more often beyond a place of comfort.  To hold myself open to the pleasure and the pain.  To be both the adult and the child I am.  To cherish, savor,  create, let go.  Most of all, to remember that ass-on-couch is a default mode rather than a true rest, and that restoration often looks like work.

Thanks for reading, friends.  I hope to hear from all of you as your new year’s journey unfolds.

On the generative power of dialogue. Or, learning by talking.

I’m an idea person.  I have a lot of them, and I like to talk about them.  I like other people’s ideas, too, and not much makes me happier than an exchange of ideas, especially in person.  (With good food and bev, preferably, though not necessarily.)  So when I have a big new idea, I like to talk it out.

My latest big idea is a new blog.  I’ll be announcing it here once I get it formed and fleshed enough that it’s ready for public engagement.  And in the meantime, I’m seeking out smart people to help me think about its scope and ambition.   Here’s a sampling of those conversations and what I’ve learned from them.

In a friend’s living room, with various babies crawling around, I chatted with a woman I’ve known for a long time but never really had a chance to buttonhole before.  And I’ve wanted to.  She’s an organizer who works on smart and interesting issues, always justice-oriented, always thinking about the experiences of EVERYONE, not just the mainstream folks.  She has a huge, flamboyant personality, full of hugs and squeezes and prone to sitting on the floor and touching you while she talks.  She reminds me that my own large, noisy self is usually toned down, and that sometimes I’d like it not to be.  She reminds me that it’s okay to laugh loudly and share big enthusiasms and ask hard questions.  When I mentioned my incipient blog, she said that she had one, too, and that she’d been NOT writing it for three years (hurray! I’m not the only one!) but that now she was going to begin, because you can only wait so long to achieve Full and Perfect Knowledge of your topic, and sometimes you just have to START, to get your ideas OUT there.  She cited Myles Horton, which makes me want to reread We Make the Road By Walking.  She proposed the concept paper as a way of sharing what needs to be shared, and I love it.  I love her.  I am inspired.

I talk to my program-officer husband about my project all the time, and to my amazing friend Kate who blends love and justice seamlessly in her many commitments at home, on her farm, in her paid work teaching new immigrants English, in her support of important causes.  Both of them agree that the divide between what we do at home, what our homes are LIKE, how they are run, what they contain, who they include, and what we do outside in our paid work, our board work, our volunteer work, our social commitments and attitudes…that divide is far too great and far too thoughtless.  Whether or not you work outside the home, I’ve decided, is no longer primarily a feminist question, because it’s determined by too many issues beyond our control.  But HOW we live, how we conceptualize and raise our families, those are fundamentally feminist questions, human questions, and also questions of justice across spiritual, economic, financial, social, and environmental domains.  My friend and husband help me see this.

A third (fourth?) conversation that wants to be mentioned here just happened on the phone.  My dad, who has a complicated life and who has done social and humanitarian work in a bunch of contexts and had a career with the UN, caught up with me on the phone after a bit of tag.  I caught up with him, really, as he had just finished some tractor work at his house — a totally off-grid, locally- and self-built timber-frame on nineteen acres with lots of forest, much garden, and some open field.  He sat down in the tractor bucket to talk, pleased, I think, with this rudimentary and totally available seat.  I could picture the cold wind up there chilling his phone hand; I imagine he switched hands a couple of times to warm up the other one.  We talked about jobs, and work, and writing, and my boys; we chewed on the problems of civil society and an economy that has screwed itself by overprivileging the few at the expense of the many.  He reminded me, when I mentioned my new blog and my hopes that it will serve as an idea-bank for a whole range of issues spanning love and justice, at home and in the world, that every conversation is just a conversation.  And it helps to have an introduction, and it helps to have back-up materials, but mostly it is just a conversation.  And people are kind and sometimes this conversation is their work, so get on in there.

As we hung up, he explained that he would now climb out of the tractor bucket.

Perhaps that what I’m trying to do today: have a conversation, then get out of the tractor bucket and have another.

 

On agrarianism.

This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.

So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program.  This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”

What is agrarianism, you ask?  A range of things.  But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell  Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.”  Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.

The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life.  New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life.  New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is.  The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming.  (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian ReaderThe Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)

If you’re yawning, bear with me.  This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next.  In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.  Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big.  Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.

Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels.  Some have said that they move to slowly.  No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral.  In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life).  Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not.  I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself.  Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER.  (Go back.  It’s gotten better since high school.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us!  As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!