Friday, 31 May 2013

"It's Been A Great Year!"

At a time when I am keenly aware of the growth of my children, when I find myself unable to donate baby clothes because I don't want to face the reality that I'm probably not going to have another child, I also find myself looking back at a period of nine months, with its growth, labors, and fruits.   So, here I sit, at nearly midnight on my back porch, as I wait for an apple pie to cool, and I try to put down my thoughts about our first year of public school.

Nine months ago, I wrote of my feelings on the first day of school for my daughters.   After attempting to home school for several years, I had to admit defeat and send my children to school.   Even though I was optimistic, I still managed to feel a bit like a failure.   I was a pretty darn good teacher back in my classroom days and we had arranged our lives--even purchased our current home--around home schooling.   I missed them and looked forward to picking them up each afternoon.   I.   Me.   I've realized that much of my thoughts on schooling have centered around me and my feelings.   This year has been a time for me to get a little more over myself and find who I am without as well as, within.   When people ask about our experience this year, I usually just smile and say, "It's been a great year."   And inside, I'm hugging myself as I say it.

Because where do I begin?   How do I describe how bad our last year of homeschooling was and that public school has been a much better fit for our family at this time in our lives.   No generalizations for other families; that's "our family," I'm talking about here.   Then, there's our school.   It's not of the razzle-dazzle variety.   The parties and carnival aren't going to get tons of re-pins on Pinterest.   All the cute programs and events that I hear about might not be happening as often at our school.  As someone who's been on the inside as a public school teacher, with a husband who has taught public school at the elementary and middle levels, parochial high school at an exclusive girls' academy, university level in Louisiana and Texas and who is now an administrator, I know that razzle-dazzle is not always that impressive.   Sometimes, it is accompanied by excellent teachers and instruction, but it is not a given that they will all go hand-in-hand.   Sometimes, the razzle-dazzle just diverts attention away from weaknesses elsewhere.

I love our sweet school.   My husband and I were instantly relieved and put at-ease at Meet the Teacher Night.   We felt such peace and order.   There were families everywhere, including many from our parish.   When I was a teacher, I never saw as many fathers at an event as I did that night.   There was such a feeling of family about the whole school.   Every time we visit the campus, planned or as a drop-in to do something like eat lunch with our children, that same peaceful feeling is there.   You can't fake that; our experience in schools gives us a sense for the overall feeling of a campus as we walk around it during a school day.

In terms of teachers, we hit the jackpot.   Emmeline's third grade teachers have been wonderful.   Her language arts teacher has shared her enthusiasm for words and Emmeline has grown to love reading and writing more because of her teacher's influence.   I wish I could have done that, but the desired result is there and that's what really matters.   Her math teacher is knowledgeable and skilled.   She understands mathematics and uses meaningful instruction and practice to teach.   She was willing to work with Emmeline when she didn't understand a concept and she helped her catch up when she had to miss school for several days at a time.   With the flu, viruses and walking pneumonia, she missed a bit of school this year, although it was one of her healthiest winters.   I really don't think public school would have been an option in the past due to how many days she would have probably missed.   Emmeline truly loved both of her teachers and it made me so happy to see her face light up when she talked about them.   What more could I want from the people caring for my daughter during the day?

Clare's kindergarten year has left me speechless at times.

When I was a university student and observed kindergarten teachers, I was amazed by them.   Those teachers are gifted; they are proof that teaching is an art, not a science.   I don't know how Heaven will be organized, but I think good Kindergarten teachers should get the best rooms in Our Father's Mansion, along with pediatric oncologists, and other special people.   I could never do it and I admire those who can do it so well.   Clare's teacher is the best kindergarten teacher I have EVER seen.   Clare's experience was as close to Montessori as a public school teacher could manage.   Her teacher is an expert in early childhood development and she truly understands how children learn.   Clare came home dirty most days, from all the activities and centers which involved food, paint, dirt, water, etc...   The classroom was activity, not worksheet, driven.   Every activity was meaningful and purposeful.   Nothing was done just because it would be cute, fun, or impressive when brought home.   She learned an incredible amount this year.   I really am awestruck.   She is reading so well and her progress in writing, not just in handwriting, but the quality of her thoughts, vocabulary, and sentence structure, has just been remarkable.   Her teacher truly loves children and I know she really loves my Clare.

Both girls made some great friends this year.   They both have a nice little circle of girls in their classes.   They were always happy to get to school and they usually needed naps from the activity of the day.

Tomorrow is the last day of school.   I've assembled teacher presents, including a homemade apple pie for the Greatest Kindergarten Teacher in the World.   Sorry, your child may have had a good one, but ours is The Greatest ;)   I baked pies for Emmeline's teachers after the state standardized test, so they are getting something different for the end of the year.   I have dreaded this day.   Clare has dreaded this day.   She is already missing her teacher and she gets teary if she talks about the end of kindergarten.   I just want to draw up the whole staff in a giant hug and say, "THANK YOU."   I wasn't at my best this year with some medical issues, but I could at least feel confident that my children were in a good place, with people who cared for them, who taught them well, and brought out the best in them.   There may be tears tomorrow as our van pulls away from school, but I will hug myself a bit and say, "It's been a great year."

Monday, 27 May 2013

Memorial Day/A Normal Day & Every Day

Today, my children are home from school, but my husband went off to work like any other normal day.   It is one of countless normal days made possible by those in uniform who had to do things which were anything but normal, in circumstances which had lost all resemblance to the ordinary.   Yesterday, I finished the second book of the Regeneration trilogy, The Eye in the Door, written by Pat Barker.   The books are British novels set during World War I and they focus on the lives of officers receiving care from Dr. Rivers, a respected psychologist.   He helps treat the officers and plays a large role in determining if they are fit to return to the Front or if their new post need be a desk or another hospital bed.   It was a fitting book to read this weekend.   Like any realistic World War I novels, they are described as being anti-war.   And like any good war novels, they do not wrap the story up in a neat little bow or worry about the comfort of the readers.   There is too much mud, terror, and death for neat little bows and comfort, although hope can always be found.    

My Facebook profile and cover photo have not changed because there is no picture good enough to represent the people this day was created to honor.   In my youngest years, I would remember civil war battlegrounds on this day.   Growing up in the deep south, you are surrounded by the statistics and physical reminders of the gruesomeness of war.   Of the inconceivable loss and the scars which never completely fade.   Later, this day called forth memories of my visit to Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam War Memorial.   Gravestones as far as my vision held.   Names carved into stone slabs which stretched to a point invisible to me by distance and obstruction caused by the mourning who were discovering a particular name or leaving an offering.   I remembered news reports of the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Memorial, which some people felt was ugly.   But standing there, even as a sixteen year old, I knew there was no other form the memorial could take.   It was stark and seemingly endless.   The names would not stop coming; you were forced to be overwhelmed.   It evoked silence as people felt a physical identity being given to the magnitude of their loss or others of us just began to realize the reality of death in war.   Today, I am the mother of a little boy, only four years old.   Since his birth, the way I view this day and all things related to war, has been changed.  

As a sixteen-year-old, I thought the reality of that memorial belonged to the past.   I didn't really believe we would ever  be faced again with soldiers returning home for burial or coming home with missing limbs and all the other physical and mental scars of war.   And yet, the funerals continue.   Spouses, children, parents, surviving brothers-in-arms still grieve.   And most of us just continue with our normal days, with our relatively normal lives.

Happy?   Happy Memorial Day?   Sometimes followed by exclamation points?   That I do not get, any more than I would get running up to a grieving family in a funeral home or under a funeral tent which covers a freshly-dug grave to exclaim, "Happy Funeral Day!"    Here's a card on the anniversary of the death of your loved one this year: "Happy Death Remembrance Day!"  

If you choose to take a vacation, think about how freely you travel to do so.   Even our current airport security is not what others in so many parts of the world experience.   Think how many lines, visible and invisible, you cross on your journey without being stopped by armed guards, without your progress being marked by dangerous check-points.   In the chaos of the backyard barbecue, with children running around, squealing with fun or whining with heat and boredom, think of the fact that it really is not chaos.   That most of us have never really experienced real chaos.   When you're maxing out the credit card or counting saved pennies for the family vacations, figure out when you can get your kids to Washington, D.C. so they can see the gravestones and the names in person.   So they can contrast it with the cool marble halls where decisions are made and papers are signed as to who will be sent to areas of Anything But Normal so we might enjoy just another normal day.   If your children are old enough, begin a read-aloud at bedtime of The Hobbit.   Think about the men represented by Bilbo Baggins.   The men, of whom the book's author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was one, the men with which he served during The Great War--the war to end all wars--who were ripped from their cozy hearths to face tests of courage and horrors they never imagined possible.   After the kids are in bed, watch a documentary or movie, or read a book which portrays the realities of loss in war.   Something that makes you uncomfortable.      Something that makes this day not just another ordinary day but which makes you thankful for all your ordinary days.   I know I am always in need of the reminder.

God bless the souls of all those who died in service to their country.   God bless their families and friends who still mourn their loss.   God bless our politicians and give them wisdom as they make decisions.   God bless those of us who benefit from all the loss and help us to never forget.   Amen.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Summer: It's Not All About You

Amongst my major flaws is my resistance to popular things just because they are popular.   Any endorsement by a large majority is enough to turn me off anything.   New York Times Bestseller's List?  It's going to take some recommendations by people whose literary opinions I trust for me to read a book with that distinction.   Number one at the box office?   Again, it's going to take a trusted actor, director, screenwriter or reviews from trusted sources for me to approach the ticket window.  Everyone's doing it?   Then, I'm definitely NOT. The major drawback when we first toured our current home was that it has a floor plan which is very common in our town.   It was a stumbling block for me.  As an adult, I've learned to consider my strong opinions in light of this flaw.   So, for instance, a common floor plan is not a reason to ignore a home that offers everything we needed at a good price.

Over the past few weeks, my e-mail, facebook feed, and blog subscriptions have been full of Summer Ideas.   And Pinterest?   Good grief.   Surely, there are no longer any swim noodles, dishwashing liquid, or ingredients for homemade sidewalk chalk left on any store shelves   There's a similar occurrence at Christmas Break or Spring Break, but those are nothing like the near-frantic rush during May to collect ideas, materials, and tickets to Keep Children Busy During Summer Break.  Calenders have been completely scheduled with camps and vacations.   Because every family has to take at least One Big Trip Which Stresses the Bank Accounts or your family is of the freak variety.   Disney World is now a Rite (right) of Passage.    I have no similar actions of my own mother and my childhood to which I can relate this current phenomenon.   I have a pretty good idea of what my mother's opinion would be of it all, based on my childhood summers which I described in an earlier post.

I've thought about this and I really believe my strong aversion to this summer planning is not simply my digging my heals against doing what the masses are doing.   It's based on my own childhood and its effects on my adult life and my experiences in the classroom.   I don't want to be a part of the Entertained Child culture.   I don't want to raise Entertained Children.

The idea of the Entertained has been at the forefront of my mind since I saw the current adaptation of The Great Gatsby at the cinema.   F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my literary soft-spot figures and The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels.   My current copy is dog-eared and bent from favorite lines and passages being marked so I can return to them and savor them.   It was actually an early exercise in life that I was open to the book, considering that it was such a popular choice in high school English classes because of its relatively short length.   Its power and beauty was stronger than its popularity for me.   So, I was very curious about this new film adaptation.   I was intrigued by the trailers and it seemed that the casting was perfect, with each person looking so much as I pictured them each time I read the novel.   Well, all of the casting seemed perfect with the exception of Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan.   I admired Edgerton as an actor.   If you haven't seen him in Warrior, please remedy that.   He just didn't immediately look like Tom to me.   I was so wrong; he was a brilliant choice.   The entire film was amazing from set and costume design to casting to the screenplay, to the acting.   I am going to see it with my husband this weekend and I'll probably see it at least one more time after that while it's on the big screen.   Director  Baz Luhrmann must love the novel because he translated the details and the big themes of the novel perfectly onto film.   Di Caprio IS Jay Gatsby.   In his performance, he manages to physically convey all the written details given by Fitzgerald as to the inner workings of this mysterious man.   Carey Mulligan IS Daisy and Tobey McGuire's Nick is spot-on.   The use of modern music in the soundtrack is original and it works perfectly.   The device used for Nick's remembrance of his Gatsby experience was the perfect addition for an effective translation to film.   Two omissions from the novel, Nick's relationship with Jordan and the appearance of Gatsby's father were something I missed, but I understand a director's dilemma when producing a feature-length adaptation.   One of my favorite additions in the screenplay is the flashback sequence of Gatsby as a young man with his mentor, Dan Cody.   That one bit where we see him as he seems to first be saying aloud his signature "old sport" in imitation of Cody in such a child-like manner worked beautifully to reveal an aspect of Gatsby to the audience.   There is so much more to say about the novel and the film.   SO MUCH.   Instead, I'll get back on track with the idea of the Entertained as we see portrayed in the world of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

One of my favorite single lines for its literary effectiveness in telling a world of information with such perfect economy is:

Before I could reply that he was my neighbour dinner was announced; wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine, Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square.

" though he were moving a checker to another square."   This loaded phrase reveals the heart of Tom and the world in which he was raised.   He and Daisy were raised as Older, if not technically, Old Money.   Mansions, servants, travel, fine food and clothing were all a part of their upbringings and married life.   Also a part of their lives was a constant attempt to placate boredom.   A restlessness rooted in an ingrained sense of a right to be entertained.   The people around them--those closest such as family or those more distant such as employees--were only useful in as much as they could relieve their boredom or desires.   People in their world held little or no more value than their mansions, clothing, or automobiles.   They were nothing more than playing pieces and Tom and Daisy both moved them from a sense of entitlement to do so.   The things and people of their world were there to please them, according to their whims and preferences.   That is why Tom is capable of spouting his racist theories, as we see shockingly portrayed on film as he says such ugliness right in front of his servants.   That is why their daughter was nothing more than a doll to be brought out as suited them.   That is why Tom is upset, not by the state of his marriage or distress of his wife, but by the situation of his wife and mistress no longer being in their proper places, pieces controlled by him.   It is the WHY of a string of decisions they make which leave us heartbroken and sympathetic to Gatsby.   It is the WHY which still allows so much evil or a lack of stand against evil in our world today.

All the bible stories, vacation bible schools, church camps, retreats won't work alone to form a conscience if children are allowed to become part of the Entertained.   Boredom is not a disease which must be treated.   Restlessness is not an illness for which we must provide an immediate prescription.   Parents are not meant to be playing pieces which children manipulate for their pleasure.   My purpose is to love them, train them, shelter and feed them, protect them from real danger, and guide them.   It is not my job to make them happy or prevent every unpleasant experience or feeling.   It is a good thing to sometimes sit and do nothing, to just rest and be at peace with silence and a lack of activity.   It is a lifetime burden to feel the need to run from silence and to constantly seek entertainment or action.   It is a good thing when a lack of something to do serves as a catalyst for creativity.   Forts built of pillows and blankets result.   Knotting together clover blooms to form necklaces can happen.   The discovery that rolling clouds resemble animals or people can be made.   It is the lifestyle in which a child is raised which has a huge impact on his formation; it's in the day-to-day rhythms, interactions, and structure that he learns about life.

Our homes are not meant to be entirely for the pleasure of our children.   Pretties on a shelf which must not be touched remind children that every object does not exist entirely for them or their pleasure.   Restrictions on screen times--television, video games, computers, phones, etc...-- teach children that there is a rhythm to our lives and our time.   We have work and chores that we have to do first.   Then, we have to make choices about what leisure activities are best and in what amounts.   Organic--not orchestrated-- reading, artwork and creative play should fill more of our leisure time than should screens.  Bitter cold in winter and oppressive summer heat (writing from Texas) teach children that they can't control nature; the sky, sun and weather patterns of our world do not exist for their pleasure, nor can they be controlled according to their preferences.   Children who learn these lessons naturally are more likely to understand the proper place of physical items in their world.   Decorative items make a home welcoming and clothing should be attractive and useful; constant buying and accumulation are not leisure activities which refresh mind, body or spirit.   Friends are there to help when they need it, to share common interests, to make you want to be a better person; they do not exist to entertain you, to be called upon when useful or tossed out when they no longer serve your interests.   Every single person's value is rooted in their creation by God; it is not dependent upon their value or perceived usefulness by you or society.   The overall message is simply: "It's not about you."  

So, instead of amassing huge amounts of kits and project-specific materials or spending a small fortune on camps, I'm going to do what my mom did.   I mean, I've already provided them with a front yard and a back yard.    They'll have a huge supply of crayons, washable markers, and drawing paper, in addition to glue, tape, and scissors.   When I do a "project" with them, it will be because it will be fun to spend time with them, not just to occupy them so they will be out of my hair.   If there's a camp experience that is a rare opportunity which we can't experience during the school year, I'll sign them up.   I'm not going to ship them off just so I can do what I want to do.   I'm planning on doing a little baking class for children in August, so I obviously don't think camps are a bad idea.   When they get in junior and high school, I won't have control over all their summer time, so I want to give them this time now to just have free summers.   I will give them permission to figure out how they can use the hose to find some relief from the heat.   I will take them to the pool and I'll buy fruit juice or puree fresh fruit so they can fill Popsicle containers.   I will drive them to the library, in addition to reminding them of the huge amount of money I've already spent on their overflowing bookshelves.   And I will show them by example how I spend my day.   Dishes have to be washed so we can eat and drink.   Meals have to be prepared so we can eat and drink.   Bathrooms have to be cleaned so we don't get sick or just disgusted.   Floors have to be cleaned.   I'll just get those things out of the way because some things you just have to do.   Get over it.   Then, when faced with leisure time, I'll lay in a chaise lounge outside and read a book.   Maybe I'll just take a nap because I need it.   Maybe I'll just sit and my children will see that stillness is not to be avoided.   We find God in the stillness and silence.   I might bake something or sand a piece of furniture that I want to paint or re-finish.   In the most oppressive heat, we might pop popcorn and cuddle on the couch to watch a movie.   It will all be cheap and easy.   It will mostly be me as a safety supervisor, not a teacher.

Summer is a time of exploration, discovery, work, parental exasperation, fun, crankiness, activity, griping, sweat, refreshing water, laughs: REAL LIFE.    In The Great Gatsby, we see Daisy turn back to her upbringing when faced with real difficulty.   Summer, with all of its hours to be filled, is a child's safe training ground for all those times as an adult when plans don't work out and you have to find something else to do.   For all those things you must do even though you don't really want to do them.   For all the times when no one cares one bit about how you feel about something or about making sure you're in a perpetual state of Happy.   We do not exist to be entertained, nor do other people exist for that entertainment.   Break loose from the Entertained Masses.   Get over it, embrace the fullness of life, and hang on for the ride.  

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Mother's Day: Gratitude for the Less-Than-Perfect

This will be my ninth Mother's Day without Mama.   We didn't know at the time of my first Mother's Day that it was to be her last.   She and my dad came for a visit and took us all out to eat.   Mama held Emmeline as much as she could and over that pretty little bonnet-covered head we shared looks of understanding and a new camaraderie.   We were no longer just mother and daughter, but for a short time--nine months--our relationship had a new dimension as we were now both mothers.

Mama is memory for me now.   Memory of realities, blurred around the edges, softened with time, details fuzzy or sometimes sharp and focused.   I cry on Mother's Day, usually the night before, after everyone is asleep and I am alone in the quiet.   Just a good cry and then prayer.   Thank you, God, for the time I had with her.   Thank you for the mother you gave me.   Help me to be even half as good as that woman.   May my eyes not be puffy in the morning.   May the sadness fade in the face of handmade drawings and sweetly-clutched flower weeds throughout the day.   May the memories remain and not fade away.   Mama, pray for me.   Mary, my other mother, pray for me.   Amen.

Scenes of Mama pass through my mind during the quiet moments of the day, as they often do throughout the year.   Happy memories, sad memories.   Heart-warming, treasured,  always.   Perfect, never.

The silly.   Standing in line at a Brookshire's grocery store check-out, exact change in my hand and cans of tuna--six, the limit listed in the sale ad--standing behind Mama as she also purchased six cans of tuna.  

The heart-breaking.   Grandad's funeral, cruel snow and ice, Mama thrown across my brother's grave, shaking as she wailed, "I lost one baby and now I've lost another."   The one and only time I saw her give in to it all.   The image that made me a good college kid, not because I was such a great person, but because I would have never willingly added to the weight on her shoulders by causing her trouble.
The first months after Mama's death, with my father, his brain nearly given over to dementia, explaining how hard it would be to replace her because she was always such a good worker.   Knowing all along that was the reality of the sentiment regardless of his mental state, but hurting from the actual words being spoken.

The inspiring.   The stories she told me about my father's hard childhood, her attempts to explain that perhaps he did all, or the best, he could.   The way she had of holding on to the good, letting go of the bad, especially when there was little or nothing to do to change it.    I learned from others what she went through as the mother of a severely handicapped child; I rarely heard of the hard times from her and when I did it was always related to her helplessness as she watched Greg suffer.   Sure, I heard her share some parenting struggles and receive advice from close friends, but I think burying a child eliminates navel-gazing and brings a keen awareness of that which is worth your occupation of time and of that you should let go.   The way she treated everyone well.   The neighbor's farm hand living in a shack to whom she always said, "Yes, sir," and eagerly spoke to whenever she saw him across our barbed-wire fence.     The woman in a crumbling mobile home, in whose yard we stood for hours visiting, after we stopped to compliment her on her beautiful flower beds.   The wealthy businessmen who visited our home after they entered the cattle business, especially the one who pulled up in a Mercedes to spend the night only two weeks after we had moved into our new home.    Everyone has value, worth.  People deserve a second glance and a second chance.   A college degree is no guarantee of intelligence.   The heart, not the clothes, make the man.   Never forget from where you came.   All lessons I learned, not as theory, but as her actual practice.

The initial embarrassment which always turned to pride.   Changing clothes in a mall dressing room, while listening  to tanned college-age girls joke about their recent sunburns.   Thinking, "No, no, surely she won't..."   And then she did.   Pulled up her sleeve to reveal the semi-circle carved out of her upper arm.   Lumpy, white skin, the shocking scar of aggressive treatment of even more aggressive melanoma.   Exiting the dressing room to find the girls sitting on either side of Mama, nodding, talking in hushed tones with her.   Thanking her and promising her to be more careful.   Always, when I was embarrassed by my mother's lack of coolness, I realized that people were attracted to her for her mothering.   Who needed another cool person around them?   So many people just want a mom.  

I admit I place my mother on a high pedestal.   But not for perfection.   Her position is secure because of her perseverance, her joy, her example in the midst of imperfection.   I read the blogs.   The wives who are striving to be holy, to be good mothers.   Struggling as part of a couple where both husband and wife have the same goals, even if at every given moment they aren't on the same page.   Beautiful stories of stressful times where a husband expressed appreciation after realizing he had become lax in such communication.   Change resulting from prayer together, even if the answers to prayers were different from those initially desired.   It's all beautiful, wonderful, and I have admired so much in those women.   So much good, never claiming perfection, but on the road with an equal partner.   Equally yoked.   So much to which I may aspire.   What a legacy their lives and their marriages will be for their children.   

But, my mama?   Her accomplishment leaves me in awe.   She didn't crumble.   She didn't become bitter.   She had every right to do either.   She didn't take me to church, but she taught me that God did exist and told me the stories of my holy grandparents.   Her marriage was not the one she envisioned.   The one she described as a junior high student in a hand-written essay I found in her cedar chest after her death.   The marriage ideal she patterned after her parents and her eldest sister, Nadine, who married Bob, one of two men--other than Jesus--that I think my mother believed could walk on water.   Still, she managed to teach me about marriage.   An example in spite of the non-example.    Amazing.

For people whose memories include looks of love between parents, catching that glimpse of "Ain't she something?" as your father watches your mother, you have been blessed.   Husbands who lead the charge in the kitchen on Mother's Day to make mom breakfast in bed.   Husbands who plan thoughtful Anniversary celebrations.   The memories of fights or hard times diminished by the memories of tenderness and appreciation.   I am genuinely happy for you.  

In our family imperfection, though, came my mother's response.   Self-sacrifice so I wouldn't suffer in as much as she could control.   Finding joy in her children, friends, hobbies, surely God in private moments as there is no other explanation.   It is a beautiful, real accomplishment to work hand-in-hand in a supportive union to raise children in a home of love and comfort, a place of refuge from the sometimes frightening, sometimes scarring outside world.   But to manage all of those accomplishments on your own, in the face of the reality of lost dreams.   That's just as much--if not more--being a Mother.   No outward signs of self-pity.   No transference of what must have been sorrow onto others.    Too busy doing to sit and analyze it all.   Sometimes, just the best she could do, but often, still the best she could have done.    Just real living.   Real loving.  

And I make an addition to the prayer:

Thank you for the Mother you gave me.   For the example she was in the face of all she lost or never had.  For the example of how to strive, to continue--in joy and hope--regardless of the circumstances.   May she rest in the arms of perfect Love, the heavenly reality of what she sought to show me while she was on earth.   Amen.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Work: Foundation for Faith

When I was an Elementary Education major at university, I was asked to serve as a student representative on a committee of the College of Education.   The committee's purpose was to improve practical classroom experience for education majors and to strengthen our relationship with the cooperating classroom teachers who served as our mentors.   The best part of being on that committee was the time before the meetings when I had a chance to speak with two classroom teachers who were also on the committee.   One day, the topic of conversation turned to math instruction.   I was in college when the use of manipulatives was being integrated into instruction to replace rote instruction alone.   It was the first time in my life that math excited me and I wished I could have been taught in that manner.   Topics were introduced through concrete activities, with real-world connections and then paper-and-pencil practice would follow.   One of the teachers voiced her idea that she wondered about the effectiveness of manipulatives in the classroom.   I was shocked and already making judgements about her as a teacher when she continued to explain her concern.
She said that in past years, children were physically active.   They played with basic physical toys which had to be manipulated by hand.   They spent time outside, doing things such as digging in dirt, climbing trees, collecting leaves and bugs.  Their learning was based on the senses and physical interaction.  It was how the majority of their ideas about the world were formed.  Current students, though, were much more likely to take in information in a more passive manner, often through media rather than physical interaction.   Would they have any previous experiences with which to connect the classroom ones?   I served on this committee in 1994.   Imagine how she would describe today's students.   Her words have stayed with me as a teacher and a mother.   They've especially come to mind as a Catholic.

I'm walking with a slight limp from a severely sunburned leg.   Both my shoulders cause a pain-twinge if they rub against even something so minor as the fabric of my sleeve.   And the pain in my hands kept me up two nights ago.   All little reminders of an amazing weekend retreat.   Often silent, but mostly not, primarily spent on my knees--sometimes my rear end--arranged and played out according to the sun, the stars, necessity, ancestry, dirt, mortality and the Immortal.   What began as an attempt to tidy up a flowerbed as part of getting outside to enjoy the weather turned into a major overhaul of our front flowerbeds.

It was the end of a week in which I felt for the first time in two years that I was at home.   My house had finally felt like my home.   Earlier in the week, I finally hung some drapes in the living room, after rearranging the furniture.   The key move for the interior came, though, when I turned the long wall in the room into a gallery wall.   In ordered disorder, I hung a combination of prints, Mama's paintings, and family photographs.   Eventually, the wall will be covered from floor to ceiling as we add to the collection in coming years.    It makes me happy and it's like a museum wall for our little family's history.   It's mismatched (ahem...eclectic), cozy and homey and I DID IT MYSELF.   We purchased our first home in 2005, after eight years of renting.   It was a small ranch-style home that delighted us because we never expected that we'd be able to afford anything that nice on one teacher's salary while that teacher also attended graduate school.   We painted every wall.   We dug every hole for every plant and bush.   We spent hours moving an oscillating sprinkler around our yard.   I decorated, cleaned, and loved that home.   I was connected to that home through my physical efforts.   In modern marketing jargon--bleh--, I was invested in it.   The day before closing, the day before another family would take possession of my sweet home, I took pictures of every detail I could and touched as many surfaces as possible as I walked through its rooms.

I still miss our sweet house.

Physical labor can give you an opportunity to think.   You can slow down and consider things in a way that other activities don't allow.   So, as I sat, kneeling in the dirt, as I dug deep to pull out the very roots of every weed I could locate, I thought about physical connections.   When we moved in our current home,  we hired a painter because my husband is not a painter and after back surgery, I can't stand on a ladder to paint our tall walls.   The previous owners painted everything with a flat finish and with our little ones, the walls were already covered with scuffs and prints that could not be removed.   We hired someone to install hard flooring instead of carpet so our home would be cleaner for our eldest daughter who has asthma/allergy issues and for myself as I am also allergic to dust mites.   We had new counter tops installed due to water damage to the wood underneath the existing punctured laminate.   Last year, we hired a young man to clean out our flowerbeds which had not been maintained by the previous owners.   There in the dirt, I was finally making a real connection with my home because I was doing something.

Maybe it's my slight Cherokee heritage that makes the physical so necessary to me.   There's my tree thing.   Our yard has only one tree and it's a small specimen-type tree.   I yearn for trees.  My friends hear about this ALL the time.    I don't just miss the shade or think it would be pretty to have a tree in the yard.   I go to our neighborhood park, stand amongst the mature trees, breath in deep and I feel calm and at home.   It's the same feeling I get in our home parish, with its abundance of wood, especially the sanctuary ceiling, designed to look like the hull of a ship.   Maybe it's my pioneer ancestry that makes physical work such a necessary part of my life.   I don't mean everyday tasks such as cleaning or laundry.   I mean wearing work clothes, hair piled under a hat while I do dirty jobs of digging or pulling weeds by roots which are deep and winding.   I mean being covered in sweat and so intent on the task at hand that my physical appearance no longer matters and I am completely motivated by the promise of seeing the concrete fruit of my efforts before me.   Mama worked like that and I always thought I would NEVER do that.   I imagined gardeners and hired hands to do physical work for me.   I would be the pretty lady, in the wide brimmed hat with pristine gardening gloves, who bent over to clip a few stems of heather and roses and then returned to my beautiful kitchen to artfully arrange them.    Instead of the pretty lady in the wide-brimmed hat, I'm the funny-looking character with my rear-end up in the air for all the neighbors and passing drivers to see, as I try to pull that stubborn weed or plant that new flower.  I am my mother.   And my children are there with me.   Sometimes, they're in the way and it's necessary for me to send them to play near-by.   Sometimes, they are helping, doing their own work to contribute to the job.   My children open up to me over shared work.  

Inside my home, I find a similar connection when I am cooking.   It is therapeutic for me, with both moments for creativity and monotony.   The textures, scents.   The changes wrought by heat and cold.   The melding and intensification of flavors.   Drawing sweetness out through roasting or sauteeing.   Changing texture with pressure.   Better than the cooking, though, is the sharing of the work and the finished dishes.   I'm not passionate about food; I'm passionate about feeding people and sharing food with others.  Conversation happens easily over food.      Words and feelings flow with the act of eating.   Food prepared in the home and eaten around a table does not merely feed us; it nourishes us.

As Catholics, we are not just spiritual, but also, physical people.   Fingers dipped in holy water and forming the sign of the cross, legs standing, kneeling, genuflecting, tongue and teeth eating the Holy Eucharist, Jesus' body and blood.   As the teacher had pondered whether children's lack of physical interaction impaired their ability to learn effectively through concrete items, there in the dirt of my flowerbed, I pondered the connection between my physical labors and my faith.   As a mother, I considered the foundations I was helping to lay for my children.

So many times work for children is presented by parents in terms of punishment or as chores which are usually tied to monetary reward.   Then, it is often the mundane tasks of laundry, dishes, tidying up a room which are included.   These are all important and require effort, but they routine and not laborious.   They don't build up the sweat or the sensory and cognitive connections that only work such as yard work, building, or cooking can build.   Our brains were designed to experience the world around us.   Picture the brain as being a large room with hooks hanging from the ceiling.   With each new interaction with knowledge, we hang a new hook on an existing one so our brain is using those in combination to form our knowledge.   If we obtain a new piece of information and have no existing related hook on which it may hang, it falls to the floor, left on its own to be forgotten because there was no connection to be made.   This image had great meaning to me as a teacher when it came to curriculum design and instruction.   It has greater meaning--and purpose--to me as a mother, as well as for myself as a Catholic.

With our paid-for painted walls and flowerbeds, I missed the experience of effort, delayed gratification, and reaping the fruit of my efforts.   I missed the struggle and aggravation which eventually ended and resulted in something that brought me great satisfaction, happiness and maybe even a slight bit more patience.   A trip through a drive-through, with only the effort of unwrapping paper or opening plastic packets delivers only an end to a feeling of being hungry.   It doesn't nourish anyone, neither those who prepare it nor those who eat it.   Playing a video game until the next level is reached can never develop the same persistence and problem-solving  skills that are achieved from building a tower of blocks which finally stands on its own.  

In our old neighborhood, a favorite neighbor was Mrs. Vi, short for Viola.   She and her husband, Phil, were the original owners of their home and they had lived there over forty years.   Their yard was a wonderland.   It was shaded by mature trees.   Beautiful flower beds took up most of the yard, with winding paths and bubbling fountains finding places between them.   As soon as I heard the squeak of the chain link gate, I felt I was in a different place.   It reminded me of my Mama's yard and the yards to which I was accustomed in Louisiana.   One day, as I sat on Mrs. Vi's back patio sipping lemonade, I lamented that my own yard was so bare and that I wished it looked like hers.   "Oh, hon," she said.   "When we moved in, your yard was still a pasture with cattle grazing on it."   Then she pointed to some majestic oaks.   "We planted every one of those trees and planted every bush and plant.   You're seeing it all like it is today, but it took over forty years to get it to look like this."

Is it not the same with our souls?   We want the final version of our souls.   We want to be like the Saints at the end of their lives.   We're looking at the beauty and forgetting all the hard work, the actual toil, effort, and frustration that took place over so many years.   The physical world prepares us for the struggles of our souls.   A clay pot on a city fire escape or window ledge can provide a sacred plot of earth where the lessons of sowing and reaping may be learned.   The tiniest of kitchens can bring us a world of tastes, sounds, scents to experience as real food is washed, peeled, sliced, diced, fried, sauteed, roasted and baked so that something special is created.   Pre-packaged food served up by a waitress simply isn't the same as the meal we eat after waiting and playing a part in its preparation.  The bouquet of flowers from the floral shop can brighten our days while they last, but it doesn't have the same impact as tending to our own plant and watching it grow.   When your child hears talk of Eucharist as a banquet or feast, prepared for him by Christ, will that image invoke effort, sacrifice, conversation, comfort, and joy or will such a description only invoke an image of convenience and temporary satisfaction of physical desires?   When your child reads of St. Therese's sacrifices being like roses showered upon the earth, will he understand how precious is a rose?   The care in planting and tending required so that picking is done with care and appreciation?   Blooms so precious they are not to be wasted?   Upon what "hooks" will your child hang the parables or the communal feeding imagery of the New Testament?  

Work can certainly form "hooks" of knowledge so we can better understand the parables of Christ.  In addition, work of our hands is a safe, natural way to experience struggle.   It forms our experience of starting with little or with raw, independent ingredients and tools.   We learn what to do when our first method fails.   We learn that the sweat, tears, and callouses were all worth it when we saw the finished product.   We learn that we are sometimes rewarded immediately from our efforts, but sometimes we have to wait a long time.   Are we just completing chores necessary for living or are we also working?   Are we building and creating, even if it is uncomfortable?   As Christians, we don't want to simply live.   We want to work for Christ and grow with Him so that one day we may spend Eternity with Him.   Marriage is hard work.   Friendships are hard work.   Parenting is hard work.   It's messy and if you are searching for contentment as the pretty lady in the wide-brimmed hat, you're going to end up with disappointment.   Holiness is in the planting and tending; God does the artful arrangement of what we offer Him.   Get in the dirt.   Get in the kitchen.   Plant, build, cook.   Make it real.   It will be hard, messy, and often frustrating.   But work, honest and offered up to God, will lead us closer to Christ who is the only real thing on which we can rely.

Philippians 2:12   And so, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only when I was with you but even more now that I am absent, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Work is a good thing for man--a good thing for his humanity--because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more of a human being.Laborem exercens



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