Monday, July 28, 2008

Walking with Children

I like to live on the edges, where my vantage point can look inward toward community or outward unencumbered. I live on the far corner of town, with views of both farm and field. I am lucky to be within sight of a bike path; a walk with a prairie view.

When I taught young children, we often took walks together. Special things happen when you walk with young people. Initially, everyone is bubbly with energy and excited to be released from indoors. Experiencing outdoors with pals always feels novel to children and hands find friends’ hands and bodies quiver with the joy of anticipation. Children have not yet learned indifference to nature and their fresh perspective, without fail, reawakened some forgotten wonder in me.

We would set off and let the walk unfold of its own volition. We never walked in formation, but higgledy-piggledy and always found areas where we could mingle and stop in a huddle together to examine and talk about inevitable finds. Here an empty snail shell, a cracked bird egg, various scat (always the impetus for some giggles- poop is, after all, universally funny), there an insect to be identified and remembered. I always brought a collection box for items we wanted to bring back to school, and for things that I couldn’t name. For to truly love something, we humans need to name it.

While walking the bike path recently, I thought about the many names of plants and birds that I didn’t know, visible all around me. I thought with regret how my grandfather would have been able to tell me the name of a certain red berry; if it was edible (I really wanted to taste it). I wished for the millionth time that my appreciation for his knowledge had coincided with the short years our lives had run parallel.

I mentioned my wish to know the names of the plants and birds along the bike path to a friend and fellow teacher, Heather Foran, and she graciously offered to ask her friend, Fran Harty. Mr. Harty is a research scientist/botanist/conservation expert from the Illinois Natural History Survey. He has taken time to take our students to participate in a Sangamon River study and is a wealth of knowledge. I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to walk the trail with him.

We set out one Saturday morning and within minutes, I marveled as Mr. Harty pointed out the wonders that flew and grew around me. My neighbors to the east have set up many martin houses and a large colony is thriving. A small wonder of the world within feet of my home.

As we continued, Mr. Harty pointed out the many prairie plants, and their uses, birds and bird song. Identifying birdsong is an art. You must teach yourself to separate the individual sounds from a symphony of noise. Carefully lifting layers of sound, you listen for a specific pattern, a set of trills, or a single note. Others have listened carefully and converted some of the bird song into human words or phrase for easier identification. Listening; it takes practice. Mt. Harty has a talent for it.

I thought about how fortunate that some people are bearers of this forgotten pool of once common knowledge. I watched as Mr. Harty “pished”. To pish is to make a sound or series of sounds (it is an onomatopoeia), that attracts the bird, which flies in for a closer look. The amazing thing is- it works.

We came upon the berries that I had wondered about. They were invasive honeysuckle berries, mildly toxic to humans, but birds love them. Mr. Harty called the juicy berries the fast food of nature. They are packed with short term energy, but have few nutrients. The fruit pass through the digestive tract of the bird within feet of feeding and thus, seeds are spread.

As we walked, Mr. Harty kindly wrote each plant, many trees, and birds in a notebook for me. I thought how nice it would be for people- families with children, to have an identifying list to take with them when they walked the trail (I will provide the list he created on my blog).

In between plant identifications, bird sightings and pishing, great stories were told. Walking is a dowsing tool to divine good, uninterrupted talk. I was again reminded of my years walking with children, for my students would inevitably sidle up during long walks, especially during the more subdued return journey. If my hands were not full of finds, small fingers would clasp mine on either side and the talk would begin. Latest happenings at home were told, worries were given voice- things of importance only in a child’s world were shared. Things of utmost importance. These moments in time, not trips to theme parks, are the real quality time

We need long, unbroken time with each other. Time that is not disturbed by cell phones, noise and distractions. Walking or working with children is a perfect venue to truly connect with your child, to know their soul.

My mother, a teacher at Metamorphosis Montessori School, recently told me a story that moved me and illustrates this wonderful phenomenon. She was working with one of my favorite people, Sarah Perdekamp, age 7. Sarah, lovely inside and out, seems to glow with inner light- she is a wonderful soul. The two were busy with Sarah’s birdhouse; sawing the boards (a job for two), and hammering the wood. The work is long, and sawing requires concentration and patience. In a lull, with saw in hand Sarah suddenly announced in the delightful, “no segue needed” manner of children,

“I think I understand it.”

My mom, thinking Sarah meant understanding how the birdhouse was built, said nothing and Sarah continued in her quiet, thoughtful way,

“I think it’s about thinking about what God wants first. Then thinking about what other people want. Maybe then, just a little bit about ourselves. But only a little bit. That’s what I’ve figured out”.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Seeing With Fresh Eyes

There is a common parable politicians tell to elicit goodwill and exemplify the power of people to change. The story’s origin has a historical basis and many readers may know the short tale of a monk who visits Rome:

“A monk, named Telemachus, left his native Asia and was led by an inner voice to go to Rome. Upon arrival, he followed the rowdy crowds to the Coliseum. There the monk saw two gladiators fighting, to the death, with swords.

Telemachus jumped between the gladiators shouting, “In the name of Christ, forbear!”, and was immediately run through with a sword. When the crowd saw the monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and were filled with remorse. The crowd slowly dispersed one by one. When the Emperor heard the story of the brave monk, he decreed an immediate end to the gladiator games.”

As a child I loved this story. As an adult, even after I learned the version from my childhood was not entirely truthful, I appreciated the story for its insight into the darkness and light that inhabits all of us. The true story is as nuanced as human nature. Telemachus did step bravely between two enormous gladiators in an attempt to stop the fighting; however, the parting gladiators did not kill him. The crowd, furious at the disruption of their entertainment, stoned the monk to death.

The impetus and date gladiator fighting ended is debated by historians. I like to believe that Telemachus’ act did have some influence on the Emperor. Perhaps the monk’s reaction to the scene and his actions reframed the games in the eyes of decision makers and the population.

I am reminded of this story and of the Coliseum when I watch television. I imagine that the chanting and jeering; the glassy-eyed bloodlust in the eyes of spectators at the Jerry Springer Show or the World Wrestling Foundation effectively conjure the atmosphere and crowds at the gladiator games.

I often think that we need people like Telemachus to help us see anew our own culture. We are so immersed in the sights and sounds of mass media that it is almost impossible to gain perspective. We’re assaulted with images- it often seems to me that these influences have permeated the very air around us. Television is in stores, doctor’s offices, restaurants, barber shops, schools, and some churches. Television’s bluish glow and inane sounds float on the evening air when I am out for a night walk. It feels like a culturally toxic amniotic fluid in which we all breathe and float. Yet, television is actually an isolating experience. I think communities need to use television and media collectively to help reveal its own dark side.

At our last Safe Schools Coalition Meeting, we showed a wonderful film called, “What a Girl Wants”. The piece is a short work by the Media Education Foundation that examines how media portrays girls and young women and the effects of popular culture on development. The film showed a collection of recent ad campaigns with young icons such as Brittney Spears. Professionals in education and socials services were in attendance. As we watched, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the images. One arresting ad had appeared in a popular teen girl’s magazine. The glossy page showed Brittney Spears in pig-tails, bending provocatively over a white, child’s bicycle complete with flowered basket wearing impossibly tiny pink underwear that had the word “Baby” across her bottom. The image purposely posed her as a prepubescent little girl. What is the message here and just as alarmingly, who is the intended consumer?

What I found interesting is that I had previewed the film alone and had not felt the same shock and embarrassment that I felt when viewing with others. Like most of us, I reached the Britney Spears saturation point years ago. I no longer really saw her –she had become just another brand name (now replaced with the newer, younger, and more marketable Miley Cyrus). I needed the eyes of others, whom I respected, juxtaposed with those images to help me see with fresh vision. They became my Telemachus.

While I worry about the path we are collectively traveling and often suffer from cultural indigestion, I am also very hopeful. History repeatedly shows that after dark ages, comes renaissance. Additionally, there are many people working diligently to help us re-examine the media and images we are consuming and that are consuming are children. People like Jackson Katz, Jean Kilbourne, Mary Pipher, Richard Louv and many others. The work of Jackson Katz can be viewed on You Tube for free. I also have a growing library of films produced by the Media Education Foundation and have planned a series of free parent film screenings and workshops and discussion groups which will begin this fall.

Links to You Tube Media Education Previews

Consuming Kids

What A Girl Wants

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pleasant Hill

I have tried unsuccessfully for years to embrace simplicity- the art of shedding the clutter and disorganization that flies in a chaotic cloud around me. My efforts are foiled by boys, dogs and my own absent-mindedness. A glimpse into an average day in my life reveals: a cell phone dead from lack of charging, a mislaid appointment book resulting in a missed appointment, a candle left dangerously burning unattended half the morning, an empty gas tank, unwashed, sweaty basketball jerseys stuffed under the seat of the car (resulting in puzzlement about the rank smell permeating the hot car, and alarmed sniffs from passengers), and strangest of all, a lone sock found in the freezer. Sometimes I think my purpose in life is to make other people feel more competent about their own lives.

I admire people who seem to function smoothly, simply, and cohesively in life. I appreciate the Amish, Quakers and the now extinct Shakers for their respective faith, industry, simplicity and mindfulness. Thoughtful attentiveness especially, eludes me. I am scattered and often lost in thought- the obvious often isn’t obvious to me. For example, I once arrived to deliver a speech to a group of professionals wearing dark sunglasses that I thought gave me a certain sophisticated air. Unfortunately, I had unknowingly lost a lens at some point in my day. The resulting glaring, lopsided look drew hard stares and snickers from the appreciative crowd. (My family still wonders how anyone could walk around for hours like that and be unaware.)

Another time, an important colleague I wished to impress opened my car door and was met with a can of SPAM on the front seat. I have never knowingly purchased SPAM, so its presence was a mystery to me. The SPAM’s jarring randomness, however, seems a metaphor for my life. I just can’t seem to get it together.

Thus, it was with much anticipation and desire for inspiration that I decided to visit a restored Shaker village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Located about 45 minutes outside of Lexington, and only accessible via a snaking two-lane road through rolling countryside, Pleasant Hill feels like a tiny island of calm in the midst of a cultural hurricane.

Upon arrival, we entered a village that remains as it was 200 years ago. Each building is restored and has a specific function: Meeting House, Center Dwelling, Trustees House, and others. The entire village is a living history museum with demonstrations of spinning (with wool from sheep raised on the farm), medicinal uses of plants and herbs, singing in the Meeting House of traditional music, and more. Not surprisingly, my grandmother, my two sons and I were some of just a few people visiting, although I learned that some guests were staying in the buildings converted to inns.

We walked the village on our own, but period attired guides were available when I wanted to learn more. I was immediately struck by a feeling of immeasurable calm and peace. The last Shaker to die here did so in 1924, yet their spirits have infused the entire area with a sanctified glow. Millions of prayers seem to have seeped into the walls and continually released goodwill. The rooms were spotless, free of clutter and suffused with light. I watched a woman spin wool and was struck with how certain work is a meditation in and of itself. Purposeful, with its own rhythms, its own timeline.

I toured the gardens with acres of heirloom and rare vegetables while the boys were communing with horses and examining some rare cattle. I wanted to look at the huge barn, and parked my grandmother’s wheelchair (she doesn’t share my passion for barns) under the shade of an elm tree, where she could hear “Simple Gifts”. I made my way down a sloping hill toward the vast barn and was soon deep in conversation with the horseman. As I stood examining the beamed roof and the glowing wooden stalls, polished to a high sheen by countless generations of horse and cattle bottoms, I heard a commotion that broke my reverie. I popped my head from the barn and saw my grandmother careening down the hill in her wheelchair at about 150 miles per hour, hair whipping in the wind, an enormous grin on her face, yelling, “Wheeee!” A multitude of pseudo-Shakers poured forth from various buildings, summoned by some secret distress signal, arms pumping with alarm and legs pistoning, they gave chase.

As she roared to the bottom of the hill, my grandma expertly applied her feet and hand brakes and with a gentle, curving skid, and landed safely in a cloud of dust. The crowd arrived seconds later and surrounded her in a buzzing, concerned cluster.

After determining that she was fine, and had, in fact, intentionally raced downhill seeking some action, the would-be rescuers began to drift back up the hill to their designated buildings, at least one muttering un-Shaker-esque expletives.

Since my grandma was obviously ready to move on to more exciting attractions, I decided to end our visit. We had given the village more action than it had seen in a century or more and Pleasant Hill had given me more inspiration and peace than I had felt in a decade.

I think if I were able to spend a week there, all would be well. I brought home a Shaker guiding principle that I hung in my kitchen to help me be mindful,” "Do all you work as if you had a thousand years to live and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Road Trip

My grandmother has always loved road trips. When I was a child, trips to the Florida shore in the winter and the Wisconsin woods in the summer were annual events. If memory is composed not of days, but of moments, my grandmother gave me some that I hope to recall all of my life. I think of the prickly thrill of fear I felt when black bears visited our cabin’s garbage cans in Wisconsin. As I lay saucer-eyed with fear, I could hear them snuffle inches away, next to my bedroom wall. I also remember being carried at 4 am to visit the sea at low tide with my grandmother. We saw a multitude of shark fins in the surf.

Sprinkled throughout the summer, my grandmother would surprise me with announcements to “pack up, we are going to St. Louis”, or Ohio, or Indiana to visit her sisters. If my friends were visiting, the invitation was often extended to them as well. It was wonderful for me (perhaps not so much for the hapless relatives who were not prepared to host hordes of children).

When my grandmother moved into the Piatt County Nursing Home last year after a series of health problems, it was difficult to help a person who had been independent and working only months before, try to shrink life down to fit a much smaller space. The transition was made much easier with help from the many employees who have been wonderful and have now become members of her extended family. Of course, meeting and sharing a friendship with a handsome fellow resident has also contributed to my Nana’s enthusiasm for her altered, yet still abundant life.

As she had every other year of her life, my grandma wanted to take a road trip this year. She wanted to go to Kentucky to see the landscape where her mother was born. With her short term memory failing, and confined mostly to a wheelchair, I wondered if I could manage her needs. The medicine schedule alone was daunting. I had a million projects to do for work and home; even a short trip would mean double duty when I returned. In the end, with the aid of her still formidable volition, we decided to go.

The trip would be short, just 6 days, but would cover large areas. Two of my three sons joined us and we all shared the excitement of venturing off to sights unseen; the Kentucky woods.

We set out as we had done so many times before, roles reversed. I planned and packed, drove and monitored the frequent rest stop breaks. She chatted and pointed out sights along the way. I brought music that I thought she would enjoy- songs from the 1930s and 40s. Many pleasant miles were spent listening to her sing “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “Sentimental Journey”, songs she had always sung in the car. Her voice is still pretty.

The music and the green, undulating land seemed to lubricate passages of memory that time and disuse had rusted shut. We took time to excavate forgotten details. Stories were told that I hadn’t heard about family, friends, and a life lived.

When we arrived, we saw the area, but not the homestead of my great-grandmother. Too many Waffle Houses, Cracker Barrels and Wal-Marts have obscured the recollections of people and the land. Only our own family continues to hold the memories of a girl who once walked barefooted named Ita. In the countryside, however, we saw sights she must have seen, and walked paths she may have traveled. Nana was satisfied.

To please the boys, we stopped at a large pizza/ arcade place- boasting to be one of the largest of its kind. The day was also my Grandmother’s birthday and she confessed that despite new physical limitations, she felt only 35 years old. She certainly looked half a century younger as she enthusiastically played every game she could manage from her wheelchair. She “whacked a mole”, and played slot machines that annoyed her by only producing jackpots of game tokens instead of cash. I had to draw a firm line when she wanted to try virtual skiing.

We had pictures drawn together and then, always game for any new experience; she sat in a photo booth that electronically depicted her in various wild styles of hair. We both howled at computerized images of Nan sporting a mullet, then a blonde bouffant, and finally dreadlocks.

It was a lovely trip. I hope these new memories will stay with her; that they will stay with me and my sons and I hope we can retrieve them when we need them, years from now. I think about memory and regret and know that eventually, shared experiences will be all we have of those we love. Although often fragile, memory is also, as Kevin Arnold once said,” a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” I hope we can hold tight to our memories of our one last trip for the road.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gatekeeping Pt. 1

There are moments in every parent’s life when they look at the behavior of their progeny and are simply horrified. At some low point during our parental tenure we will all wonder, “What, in the name of all things Holy, have I created?” A brief mental rewind can instantly illuminate several moments that still flood me with particular shame and embarrassment. For instance, when my oldest son James was three, we found ourselves in a social situation with a lovely Amish family. James was clothed in his everyday, self-selected attire: complete cowboy regalia. He was born equipped with a deep, gruff voice, and built-in swagger that authenticated his boots, cowboy hat, spurs, and ever-at-the-ready lasso (what was I thinking?).
The Amish family also had a 3-year-old son named James and the two looked very similar with their tow heads, blue eyes and toddler chubbiness. The Amish child was clad in his cultural outfit of dark pants and blue shirt with straw hat and both reminded everyone present of that ubiquitous picture of two blonde boys asking one another “Been farming long?” Both families formed a smiling half circle as the two babes stood bare toe to boot and silently eyed each other. After gentle prodding from his soft-spoken parents, the Amish cherub shyly offered a smiling, “Hello”, to which my own small heathen promptly and distinctly replied, “Hello, idiot.” In the deep, shocked silence that followed, I could hear the faint crackle of cultural bridges burning.
Not to be outdone by his older brother, my middle son Ben once wrought his own brand of havoc in the local Catholic Church. When the boys were ages 5, 4, and 3 we attended a mass with my mother, a member of St. Philomena. The boys had never attended a mass and the beauty and ceremony held them spellbound in their pew. The subject of the mass happened to be the Eucharist and as the priest began discussing the meaning and symbolism-the drinking of the wine that represented the blood of Christ and the taking of the host as His body, I glanced over at my small guys who were absorbing every word. I quickly did a double-take because the boys were not simply attentive to the priest; they were saucer-eyed, agape, apparently frozen in terror. I tried to smile reassuringly at the three, but to no avail. As the priest again extolled the drinking of the wine as blood and consuming the body of Christ, Ben could stand no more. He jumped up and yelled with sincere fear, “Mom, these people are all vampires and cannibals! Let’s get out of here!” I will borrow from Twain and ask to “draw a curtain of charity around the remainder of the scene.”
Now that the boys are older, we experience long stretches of relative calm and a welcome absence of parental humiliation. In fact it has been years since we’ve been excommunicated from a religious group with whom we have no formal affiliation. Occasionally, however, the boys still manage to create a mini-scandal or show such poor judgment in decision making that I am thrown into maternal despair.
Last week, I was expecting an important call from a well respected colleague who is a specialist in the field of sexual assault and violence against women. I had given her my various numbers including my cell number. However, because I am a hopeless flake, I unwittingly gave her my oldest son’s cell number instead of my own. When my son casually mentioned her name on his caller ID, I immediately called back. Normally warm, she was a bit cool and said she wondered if she didn’t have the wrong number when she hear the “music” played on my end while she waited. I had no idea what music she had heard and after we finished our business, I immediately called my 14 year old son’s cell number. I was greeted with that annoying recorded voice that urged me to , “Please enjoy the music while your party is located,” and then was suddenly loudly accosted by the following curse laden chant from a popular rap , “ B**CH STOP CALLIN ME!, B**CH STOP CALLIN ME!”, repeated many excruciating times.
Welcome to the world of cell phone technology, ring tones, clueless teens, gullible parents, and misogynistic hip hop music that enjoys a very lucrative association with all the above. With the ease of a button push, kids purchase and change the music on their phones almost as often as they change clothes. Not only had I been na├»ve in believing James would choose wisely, but to add insult to injury, I learned I had actually paid for Dem Franchize Boys’ to verbally abuse a colleague.
Cell phones and their accouterments are part of the vast wealth of technology that children and teens embrace and use with ease and which parents and others who care about kids and culture are struggling to fully understand. The technology and media that surround us can be incredibly useful, yet there are unintended consequences and side effects that we are just beginning to see and should start discussing.
Like many parents, I have put a great deal of thought and worry into what comes out of my children, what they do, what is visible. I realize that I need to focus an equal amount of time and energy thinking about what goes in, what they are culturally consuming, and the choices that are making. This is a difficult task in an age of social toxicity that makes parental gatekeeping almost impossible.