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 being a social creature.

I’ve always been social.  Part of it is clearly personality; much of it is growing up in a context where social connections outside of the home were vital — in the original sense of not just important but necessary to life.  And social anxiety has been part of the scene all along, as well, complicating mightily the basic impulse to connect.  But here’s what I know now that I’m forty:

1. People are awesome. They are interesting and complicated and varied and often not in the ways you’d expect.  There’s always more to learn, about them and therefore about you.  And there’s always poignancy, humor, rage, disapproval, astonishment, respect, and joy in knowing others.

2. I like to have people in my life.  Not just my completely fabulous husband and sons…other people, too.  I want people who do different things, think different ways, hold different values.  And I want people who are like-minded, too, who model for me how I want to be, what I wish I had the courage or the skill to achieve.  I like the beauty of other people: their style, their generosity, their quirky natures.  They take me out of myself and remind me how much bigger and more important the world is.

3. I like my people to like my other people.  This is what we call community…well, either the liking bit or just being-together-despite-not-really-liking, but in this era of isolation, I’ll go ahead and say that community in my life is having a group of people who all like each other and choose to spend time together.  I like us to have reasons to get together at least once a month.

4. For whatever set of reasons, that’s really hard to achieve.  When I lived in Iowa, I was part of a group who all valued good food and good company and who all got a little bored (and maybe antsy?) living in such a small town.  So we started a Thursday night potluck dinner.  Location rotated; themes were often international; food and companionship were always excellent.  I’ve missed that like crazy.  I tried, when we first moved here, to arrange lots of gatherings, but I always felt that no one came, so I gave up.  I slipped into the culture of isolation that, we are told, is typical to the cold Northeast.  But I don’t like it.  So I’m not going to do it anymore.

5.  Announcing that people are awesome and that therefore they will gather with other awesome people seems like a good strategy.  I launched that recently and got some positive responses.  And yet it continues to feel strange to engineer our social lives to this extent…we persist in the illusion that community develops naturally, that we fall together with the people we like to be together with.  And maybe that’s true for those who have careers and lives they’ve managed to fill with evenly balanced activities.  For me, and for many people (especially moms) I know, it’s a much harder thing.  We need the intentionality or else we end up alone, every night, watching Netflix with a glass of wine.  (Which could be a lot worse, which is why we do it.  But you see my point here, I think.)

In a nutshell, then, my strategy is like my friend April’s.  When I saw her by surprise at one point, she held out her arms and said, “Hug me!”.  Exactly.  People rock and I adore them and they need to hang out with me more.  And hug me.  And clearly it’s up to me to tell them so.

On wading in: Day 30.

This is the last post of my September commitment, an exploration of a month-long journey to “wade in” to the currents and eddies of my life.  It’s hard, producing something every day that you’re not plain embarrassed to post; it’s hard finding meaningful ways to look at your life when you’re tired and scattered and worn down.  But like most writers, I find regular practice does in fact support more and better writing; like most mindfulness practitioners, I find regular commitment does in fact sustain clearer vision and deeper breathing.  No news here.

I thought I’d like to sift back through the posts of this month and pull together their various tools or insights, the images I liked the best, the ideas you seemed to like the best.  But then I realized that that would feel like more dodging — the kind of subtle, artful dodging I’ve come to understand as my most pernicious habit.  I’d do it under the guise of critical review, or summative reflection, or some other noble impulse, when it’s also really a way for me to avoid saying anything new.

So here are some things that have been sticking with me, in the ways that my “wading” approach to life encourages:

Our favorite farmer at the market comes from Somalia and spent years in the Dadaab refugee camp before coming here.  She participates in the market through a program called Fresh Start (formerly the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project), which engages new Mainers who used to farm back home in farming here, offering land and lessons in climate and crops.  Every week after we buy what we need, she sneaks around from behind her stall and tucks into our bag, or hands to one of our small boys, something extra: a pepper, a head of broccoli, a delicata squash.  It is a gesture so kind and familiar that every week it breaks my heart open a little.  And I want to ask her — someday I will — if during those brutal years of flight and transition, and even now in the difficult journey of her life, if she hoped to feed a family like mine.  Because she feeds us.  She is our farmer and she gives us nourishment.  I love her strength and power and generosity, and I am grateful for it, for her, for the funders and organizers and smart people who made it possible for someone kicked off her own patch of earth to nourish others from a new one.

Also, just today: my boys and I raked the driveway leaves (drier than the fog-ridden lawn-leaves) into a big pile and jumped and tossed and buried each other in the heap for a lovely warm half-hour.  Then Ezra wandered up the driveway a bit to gather a new handful and began to scream.  I turned toward him, running already, as he bent over, batting at his face and clothes and screaming, screaming, screaming.  Just a few weeks before, he’d noticed a yellow-jacket hive in the maple over the driveway, but it had clearly been there all summer and we had never had any problems, so we let it be, hoping for an early frost.  But all of a sudden, they swooped in on this tiny man, stinging him four times on the face and neck and twice on the hand.  One sting, on his eyebrow, actually drew blood.  He was sobbing and shaking in full-blown panic — of course!  — as I batted away the remaining bees and hauled him down the driveway toward safety.  It took nearly an hour for the tremors to subside completely, and an hour more for him to externalize enough to look out the window and explain that those yellow-jackets were the ones that had stung him.  His left eye is still swollen shut, but he’s back in the saddle now, and I can’t help but marvel at the resilience of his being.  A massive, painful assault, out of nowhere, in the middle of a joyful morning’s play, and he can squint his way back to a recognition that maybe they thought he was a danger to their nest.  I am astonished all over again at the courage of a human who hasn’t yet lived for four years on this earth.  (Or maybe, I suppose, that’s the ticket.)

As we leave September now and head into October, things pick up speed: our fifteenth anniversary; many, many family birthdays; various programs and projects I’m working on will move ahead more quickly.  But I want to carry this month of transition, of intention, of courage and hope, with me into the rest; I want to remember that time is both more finite and more elastic than I pretend; I want to choose more often the life-giving activities that make more of me and of us.  I want to develop my capacity to know what I’m avoiding and to look at it in clear light; I want to dive in more deeply where and when I can.  (There, I should add, is my one pleasure at releasing this commitment to daily posting: some of these ideas need longer exploration and more research, and there’s been no time on this schedule.  But soon, soon.)  Thanks for reading along on these daily posts!  I look forward to hearing from you as it all keeps unfolding.

On wading in: Day 29. The least obvious kinds of blessings.

We’ve been gardening and CSA-ing for long enough that we’re used to having fresh local food, at least much of the time.  And we’re big fans of local arts and crafts, DIY and various forms of microenterprise.  And every day that I get to grow something, buy something locally, or give to support an initiative I believe in, I am grateful that I have enough (time, land, money, energy, knowledge, compassion, community) to be able to do that.

Every once in a while, though, something shifts a little in how I view the world, and that happened today.  We were driving home from the farmer’s market downtown with a little car bursting with local goodness: cabbage, beets, turnips, red onions, raspberries, Sungold tomatoes, soft pretzels, eggs, camembert, and two kinds of pork sausage, all produced in and around our area.  And we’d enjoyed seeing our farmers and growers as well as assorted friends we run into downtown.

As we headed home, I was wishing I’d had a chance to get to my friend’s shop not far away, Downtown Handmade and Vintage.  It’s a funky, beautiful, creative place, and I’m feeling like I need a little more funk in my life.  But every time I go to buy an item of clothing from an ordinary place (like my Old Navy jeans and H&M shirt at the moment), I feel a little gross.  Just a little bit.  And I’m not suggesting YOU should; I’m just saying that it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile my pretty minimal clothing needs with my pretty substantial concerns about global fiscal, labor, and environmental sustainability.  My clothing is part of me and yet it’s also mostly part of a culture and practices that I don’t want to support.

So here’s what occurred to me: the ability to buy things you cherish from people you want to support in a community you are happy to belong to — this is the perhaps the least obvious and most important kind of blessing.

Herman Daly says in one of his many fabulous articles on sustainable economics that water (as in the “trickle down” theory) is the wrong metaphor for money in an economic system.  Blood makes more sense, he argues.  Because economies don’t get rained on from above; they are circulatory, with all organs needing the flow of funds and important central organs driving its pulse, pressure, and purity.  (Okay, he may not have spelled it out in such detail; I can’t remember.  Check out his work at Orion Magazine and elsewhere to find out.)  But here’s my point: when we have money to spend and the inclination to spend it locally, we are part of the heart of our community.  When we love what we buy and are grateful to its makers and growers, we are part of the soul of our community.  It’s not only a responsibility to buy local, but a privilege and a positive pleasure.

(“Duh,” you’re thinking.  Well, sure.  But still.  Right?)

What are you taking care of?

Ezra, in the midst of pulling books off his shelf the other morning, turned to me and announced: “When I grow up, I am going to take care of giraffes.”  Then he turned to his brother, who was standing on Ezra’s bed with his tiny face pressed to the window: “Malachi, what are you going to take care of when you grow up?”

We are invited to think about our work in a lot of ways – what we do, how much money we make, what industry we are part of, what sector we contribute to.  But maybe this should be our core question: what, or who, do we take care of?

I used to teach a senior seminar on work as service; all the students were doing a non-profit internship of some kind as a way of exploring a field they might consider for the future.  And we all came together one evening a week to talk over readings on vocation, sustainability, meaning-making, community, and the sociology of work.  It was one of my gladdest times, one of the truest moments of vocation for me personally, because it brought together my best and favorite tools: teaching, critical reading, group discussion, exploratory writing, program-management, community partnership, administration in the original sense of caring for or ministering to.  And the seminar asked essentially Ezra’s question, though never so bluntly.  I wish it had.

As I write this, Jack Johnson’s “lullaby” version of “With My Own Two Hands” is on the stereo, and I realize that it names our common desire: to make the world a more beautiful place, a safer place, with our own two hands.  And open beside me on the scuffed blue kitchen table is Wendell Berry’s incomparable Hannah Coulter, and she is telling us of how in times of grief we stand by one another, we stand with one another: “He came to offer himself…to love us without hope or help” (55).  And eventually, she says “the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end” (62).  What we build and what we hold up only exist by virtue of love, of ad-ministration; what would it look like if we named that truth?  If we thought of our work in the world as always a taking care?

William Sullivan wrote a brilliant book called Work and Integrity: the Perils and Promise of Civic Professionalism.  In it, he traces the civic roots of the professions – business began because people needed goods; lawyers happened because people needed a system to manage disputes and to institutionalize fairness; doctors, well obviously, doctors have always existed in one form or another, though only in recent history do we carve out with such diligence the many forms and ranks of physical care-giving.  He suggests, boldly and reasonably (in fact, it’s bold to be so plainly reasonable) that we might all benefit from a return to these foundational commitments.  Yes.  Of course.  The absence of them is what makes us all so outraged, astonished, and generally speechless: when a drug company hides evidence that its medication does harm; when a financial corporation allows the loss of lifetime-savings entrusted to its care; when food crops are sprayed with poisons so someone can make a bigger or faster profit.  These are betrayals of the basic human contract and certainly violations of the unwritten code of professions.  Who, we might ask, are those decision-makers taking care of?

I know there is room for disagreement.  There always is, and there always should be.  But can we begin with better questions?  Can we learn to question ourselves and our colleagues?  Can we keep a clearer sense of what’s at stake?  Because it’s pretty big and there’s kind of a lot of it: our whole selves, our communities, our nation, our earth.  The air we breathe and the water we drink.  And, Ezra would add, “oceans and jungles and fish and gorillas and babies.”  Right.

So: what are you taking care of?

Friends: to have and to hold

I recently read Pam Houston’s latest book, “Contents May Have Shifted.”  Like most of her work, it’s a fascinating inside look at globetrotting, wilderness survival (usually both of those, together), relationships with men, and some measure of recovery from an abusive childhood.  And all of them lean heavily on her friendships with women — rich, whole, complicated, open, hilarious, and intimate. Most of the time, these friendships seem like backstory, or like the tide that moves her life, enabling her to cope with everything else.  But for the first time in this novel, it hit me: these friendships are her LIFE.  For real.

So of course it got me thinking about my own friendships, the handful of extraordinary women I treasure around the globe, and how the first thing I got when I had a baby was a bluetooth so I could talk while nursing.  Well, eventually my bluetooth died and I had another baby and then it just came to pass that most of my conversations with my friends were in my head.  And since that’s the kind of people these women are, it was okay just to touch base every six (or eighteen) months.  But here’s the thing: I MISS them.  I miss the sound of their voices, the stories of their cooking, their kids, their bosses, their wardrobes, their reading, their vacations, their partners, their home improvement projects, their yoga mishaps, their favorite new wine, their afternoon tea habits.  I miss the gestures that you can’t get over the phone anyway, but at least the turns of phrase will help.  It occurs to me that handwriting is an excellent substitute, so I’m digging up my stash of cards and trying to locate some stamps.  (STAMPS?)

How do we end up here, more connected than ever and yet so busy and distracted that we forget to even WANT the kind of deep connection that used to be the whole point?  And more significantly, how do we get back?  Or how do we move forward into each other’s lives in ways that honor what all we’ve got going on AND our need for each other?  How do we construct a village when we live so scattered?  I realize this is largely what the blogosphere has done for many of us, and I am powerfully grateful.  But there’s more to it than that, and I want to live in it.  So I’m trying harder to live like Pam (or her characters; that’s always a little fuzzy): to let people in, even right from the beginning.  To recognize the connection that’s there rather than play it down.  To issue invitations and keep issuing invitations; to go when and where you are invited.  To bring things with you, however small.  To realize that thank-you notes are not always about formality but are often actually about real gratitude that doesn’t NEED to be expressed but that WANTS to be.

I called a dear friend yesterday to see how her boys were recovering from the flu, and we had a hilarious hour of conversation, punctuated by the games and needs and uproar of our collective male offspring.  At one point, her four-year-old, who now has a suspected stomach bug, dragged his exhausted body across the floor to her, every fiber of his being working toward, it appeared, resisting the need to vomit.  She’s offering me a cautious “hang on a minute…” when I hear her boy ask in a sprightly way: “Who ya talkin to?”  Surprise!  He’s fine.  Just enjoying the drama of mama home — again — with all their illnesses.  She sighed, appropriately pleased to be still clean and dry, and told me in a thoughtful way: “You know, I’m really glad you called.  I don’t think I could have made it through another one of these days.  I may call you again this afternoon.”  You see?  We are lifelines, and laughter, and succor, and sanity.  We are, it often seems, all we’ve really got.  Which is absurd, in many ways, but you know what I mean: we are the only ones who get us completely, who ARE us, in a certain way.  So if our job is to be present to ourselves, surely that means in part being present to our better selves, wherever and in whomever those selves are located.