Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shutting Down This Shop, Opening Another

I've got a new blog now, Skills For Tomorrow, with a focus on how I'm trying to learn to be more self-sufficient and less of an energy-guzzler. Please join me!


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Watering the Seeds of Joy

Today we celebrated Buddha's birthday at the Zen Center by pouring sweet tea over a statue of the baby Buddha and chanting the Heart Sutra many, many times while everyone got their turn to give Buddha his bath, eventually leaving my kids splayed like limp noodles across my lap, mowed down by the sheer drone of it all. Bridger got to carry the little Buddha statue in to the zendo, and he was very dignified and composed, bowing at the altar without any coaching. "I helped put flowers on the pagoda, too!" he said proudly (meaning the little wooden lattice-work shelter over the Buddha statue).

The guiding teacher, Byakuren Judith Ragir, talked today about watering the seeds of joy, an image I find lovely and helpful at this time of year. She said that there are four allies of joy--generosity, beauty, simplicity, and gratitude--and urged us to watch for the times our minds turn to complaining and whining and to see if we can gently turn our gazes to one of the four allies of joy instead.

I tried it today, walking alongside Cassidy on her trike. She was scooting along very slowly, and Brian and Bridger were already at the park where I wanted to join them. I started getting agitated, thinking about all the fun I was missing with the boys at the park. Then I thought of the four allies of joy, and gratitude seemed to be a good one to try.

There was plenty to be grateful for. My daughter was healthy, getting exercise on her trike, happy alongside me if I could just stop pestering her that we were going to miss playing with Bridger and Dad if we didn't get to the park faster. The day was warm and beautiful, with green things springing out all over the place. I noticed that by walking slowly, I could get a better look at the tiny new leaves on branches, the tulip stems swelling up with flowers. I could notice the brown creeper pecking its way up a trunk, beautifully camouflaged against the rough bark. What was there to be agitated about, for goodness's sake?

The mindfulness practice for our whole Zen Center sangha this month is to water the seeds of joy through just this kind of practice. I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mighty Midway Love

Last night was full of bad dreams--I dreamed that the yard suddenly filled with fierce tigers, baboons, and other dangerous escaped zoo animals while Bridger was playing outside by himself. I dreamed of being unpleasantly surprised by a killer whale while paddling in a skimpy little kayak. I dreamed of walking with the kids on an unfamiliar, seedy street at nightfall and being threatened by scary teenagers with long knives. Terrifying stuff, all in one night.

But the dream that really had me in a cold sweat was the one in which we'd moved to a new house, and I suddenly realized that WE NO LONGER LIVED IN THE MIDWAY. Shudder! Gasp! The horror!

It has taken me nearly fourteen years, almost the whole time I've lived in this neighborhood, to come to this deep and tender love for my 'hood, this sense of fierce rootedness.

Some people I know here have had family in the community for generations. For others of us, though, this neighborhood was not a first-choice neighborhood. It was the compromise we came to when we realized that our first choice was out of reach. It struck me today that this may be part of why so many people who live here work so hard to make this place a good one to live, and why they feel such deep loyalty to the community once they've stayed a while--they want to make this second choice feel like it was really their first choice all along. They want to make the compromise neighborhood more like the neighborhood of their dreams. And of course, they get used to seeing the same smiles on their walks around the neighborhood, the same folks reading the paper at the library, the same families at the kids' concerts at Ginkgo and on the local playgrounds. They begin to mark the seasons by when the apple tree on the corner starts dropping its apples, when the goldenrod in their favorite native wildflower garden starts to bloom, when they can make out the strains of some Eighties hair band playing at the State Fair Grandstand on a balmy September night.

Bordered by Interstate 94 and University Avenue, with Snelling Avenue roaring right through the middle, the Midway is what many Twin Citians consider a drive-through neighborhood. I wonder if that is a part of why the people who live here fight so ferociously for the walkable amenities--like our little library--that we have. Maybe that is why they were practically rioting in the streets when a beloved neighborhood coffee shop changed hands and the new owners didn't have the same community spirit and warmth.

I'd lived in six different states by the time I was twelve, pulled from place to place by my father's rise up the corporate ladder. It wasn't until now, at age forty-one, that I finally began to feel the tug of staying put, even if the neighbors sometimes wake me at 2 AM singing on their front stoops--maybe even because they do.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Here Comes the Sun

Six years ago I took this photo of Bridger exulting in his first real glimpse of crocuses. This week, the crocuses came up again, and we marveled at how they closed their petals up tight when it got cold, then opened again when the temperature warmed.

These days we're on kind of an Anglophile kick around here. We started with Peter Pan, a very interesting read with a fascinating narrator who seems on the surface to detest his child characters for their beastly cockiness and inconsiderate behavior, but whom you can tell is actually reveling in their ability to be "gay and innocent and heartless" enough to fly.

After reading Peter Pan three times in a row, we read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, another big hit, and now we're several chapters into The Secret Garden, a wonderful book to read in spring, and interesting because it features a protagonist who starts out unsympathetic and who blossoms through the course of the book into a truly compassionate, vibrantly alive young girl. I'm absolutely loving it, and the kids seem to be enjoying it, too. (It's also reminding me of the grand literary tradition of British orphans fending their way through a cruel world to find their true place, from Dickens and Charlotte Bronte right on up through James and the Giant Peach and Harry Potter.)

It's a time of growth, and not just for the crocuses and daffodils. Cassidy has been overcoming her longtime, near-paralyzing fear of dogs. If she sees cute dogs in public that are small and appear unlikely to bark, lick, or jump on her, she wants to go pet them. We've taken to scoping out prospective dog friends--does that one move fast, or slow? Is it straining at the leash, or just barely chugging along? It's been amazing to see her start to kick this phobia of hers, and we're learning a lot about the varieties of dog behavior and temperament, too.

Bridger is reading with more and more ease, volunteering to help out around the house, and showing a lot of generosity and kindness toward his sister lately, as well.

Brian is enjoying taking a martial arts class at the wonderful martial arts school that Bridger used to attend, Kuk Sool Won of St. Paul, and he's planning to compete in the Midwest Kuk Sool Won tournament in St. Louis in April.

As for me, I'm coming out of a depression that's been dogging me off and on since late January. The sunshine and warmer weather helped a lot. So did talking with friends, making the effort to meditate regularly, and getting out and taking more walks. I also decided to work with an unschooling-friendly life coach to clarify some questions that have been dogging me: How do I take better care of myself while being more present for my family? How do I fit my own creative dreams and goals into my life with my children? And how can I become, as the life coach put it, more rooted in my homeschooling choices--flexible enough to bend when needed, but stable at the same time?

In Dr. Dolittle, I actually found an unlikely hero to inspire me at this juncture in our lives. At one point on their sea voyage, an experienced but annoying stowaway sailor is warning that Dr. Dolittle is doing everything wrong and they're surely all going to die if they follow Dr. Dolittle's lead. Dr. Dolittle is steering toward land to put the stowaway off the boat at the next port.

The book's narrator, a young boy who's been taken on as Dr. Dolittle's assistant, has a conversation with the parrot Polynesia about all the hubbub:

"Do you really think," I interrupted, "that it is safe for the Doctor to cross the Atlantic without any regular seaman on his ship?"

You see, it had upset me quite a good deal to find out all the things we had been doing were wrong, and I was beginning to wonder what might happen if we ran into a storm. . . But Polynesia merely tossed her head scornfully.

"Oh, bless you, my boy," said she, "you're always safe with John Dolittle. Remember that. . . Of course it is perfectly true that the Doctor does do everything wrong. But with him it doesn't matter. Mark my words, if you travel with John Dolittle, you always get there, as you heard him say. . . Sometimes the ship is upside down when you get there, and sometimes it's right way up. But you get there just the same."

So here we go, bobbing along in our upside-down boat, heading for an unseen shore we can't even really imagine.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Season of Flapping Trash Is Almost Upon Us

I know it's not March yet, but there were things about today that made me think of what March is often like here in Minnesota. It was cold enough to go skiing, and yet the parking lot was full of puddles. As I walked to my car after taking off my skis, I got mud all over my ski boots. Late winter here is an in-between time, a time when the trash that has been trapped under the snow for four or five months starts coming loose and flying around wildly in the wind. It's a time when we can typically expect at least one snowstorm to dump a half-foot or so of wet, heavy, back-breaking-to-shovel, traffic-snarling snow, and yet at the same time, the male cardinals are beginning to sing their "I want to be your boyfriend" song to the lady cardinals.

One of my favorite Minnesota-in-March memories comes from my first year here, after a winter when cold snaps took temperatures down to 30 and 40 below zero. I was taking a walk around Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis on a sunny, warm day. There were still piles of snow all around, and the ice was solid enough to support an ice fisherman hunkered down on an upside-down bucket. At the same time, though, on the lake shore, a row of sunscreen-greased Adonises in Speedos and sunglasses were lounging on their folding beach chairs, right on top of the crusty old snow. It was the kind of sight that made me positively gleeful to live in the Twin Cities.

We've entered the season of Lent, too, and even though I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, I still remember how much I relished giving up chocolate for those forty days before Easter, knowing that the deprivation would make my chocolate Easter bunny taste all the better. Cassidy has decided to give up calling people "dummy," hitting, and pulling hair. So far, she's doing pretty well on that vow, and the house has actually been a much more pleasant place to live.

I noticed that a friend of mine has vowed to spend less time on the Internet for the next two months (a vow posted, appropriately enough, on Facebook). I can't help thinking that it would be a healthy thing for me to take a vow like that, too, at least for Lent. Today in the Zen center, we recited a kid-friendly version of the precepts, the Buddhist guidelines for living an ethical life. One of them was "I will avoid things that cloud my mind. I will keep myself bright and clear." I immediately thought of the computer, my drug of choice these days, the one my mind inevitably veers toward when I'm bored, or full of doubt, or lonely.

If you don't hear from me for a while, you'll know I've decided to take a little break for Lent. I'll be out watching the plastic bags snagged on bare tree branches, the puddles swimming with oily rainbows, the tree buds swelling near to bursting with the secrets they're about to whisper to the world.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reading, Writing, and the Love of Tintin

At seven, Bridger is slowly teaching himself to read, mainly through poring over Tintin comic books (thanks to my friend Danna, whose son loves Tintin, too, for bringing the books to my attention, and literacy advocate Jim Trelease of Read-Aloud Handbook fame for validating these books). My dearly beloved but not yet-initiated local librarian scoffed, "I'm not sure those count as books" when I commented on how much Bridger was loving Tintin. But here's what Trelease had to say:

"If you are looking to challenge a child's mind and vocabulary with comics, then I'd choose The Adventures of Tintin. . . If you read the list of favorite read-alouds offered by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the New York Times Book Review, you would have found Herge's Tintin between Huckleberry Finn and the Greek myths."

Mind you, there are some heinous racial stereotypes in these comics, but I've tried to put those in historical context as we read and point out the inaccuracies and distortions. The stereotypes have actually provided some good fodder for discussion, and at times Herge even spoofs his own stereotypes from earlier comics, trying to correct earlier wrongs. But I can also imagine there are some parents who just wouldn't even want to introduce those stereotypes into their house. The comics do feature some violence and gunplay, though it's not bloody, is often implied rather than shown, and is no worse than what I devoured by the hour watching cartoons as a kid.

Probably if you are interested but not familiar with the books, you'd want to preview them first and decide for yourself. Tintin in Tibet is a pretty good, unobjectionable starting point--relatively free of violence and stereotypes, and just a rousing rescue yarn full of adventure and heart-warming loyalty. It was even cited positively by the Dalai Lama as one of the West's first glimpses of Tibet in popular culture.

But I'm warning you--once you read one, you will probably want to keep gobbling them up right alongside your child. I've found that my available time to read Tintin out loud to Bridger has not kept up with his interest in the books, so he often just looks at the pictures, and I suspect he is trying to figure out the words as he goes, too.

Concurrent with this frequent poring over of Tintin, Bridger is rapidly reading more and more words in the world around him--from street signs, store windows, the Internet, museum displays, cereal boxes, books I'm reading aloud to him and Cassidy.

I'm thrilled at how much he's learning, reading-wise, in a way that is pleasurable and stress-free for him. I'm trying not to get too antsy about the fact that he has not gotten equally interested in, say, writing his own Tintin-inspired comics, or writing down stories about the Legos creations he's endlessly weaving in his head. He's not even interested in my taking dictation from him, though I'd be thrilled to do it and I offer, though maybe not as often as I should. The most he's done recently in the way of writing is slipping a pictographic note to Cassidy under her door to tell her he was mad at her. It started with the letter "I", then came a lightning bolt, then "U." To underscore the point, he drew a picture of himself, frowning, with an "M" and an arrow pointing to the figure. (I'm guessing the "M" represents "me"?) Vivid, yes. Up to grade level and easily understood by everyone? Well, um, no.

Why doesn't this "behindness" worry me? Well, for starters, I've been inspired by thinkers, from Raymond and Dorothy Moore to Waldorf educators and unschooler Sandra Dodd, who argue that there may actually be educational and developmental benefits for kids who are late readers and writers (not to say that there aren't some wonderful benefits for early readers and writers, too--we just rarely hear about any advantages of late reading in our "earlier is better" culture).

There are actually kids who don't read and write fluently until they are 11 or 12 who become effective writers and avid readers as teenagers and young adults. I've known them, both personally and through the anecdotes of others. In addition to turning out perfectly capable, these kids have also gained the confidence that comes with independently mastering subjects our culture assumes must be taught to children by experts. I personally believe that that kind of self-directed learning is a wonderful preparation for the tasks these kids will have to face later in life, when no one will be giving them step-by-step instructions for how to accomplish their goals.

That's why it doesn't freak me out (well, not that much) that Bridger is "behind" in his writing. I just figure he's working really hard on other things right now, and writing will come when he's ready and sees a real need for it in his life. Granted, there are plenty of kids who don't read and write well when they're young who still have trouble with reading and writing when they're older. Sometimes there are learning problems that need addressing, sometimes it's a lack of opportunity and resources--but I'd speculate that a key difference in how "late" reading and writing play out long-term is how the adults around the child respond. Do they say, "You can't read, and you should be able to by now" to the child, or do they simply say, "You're not reading yet, but when you're ready, you will"? I suspect the difference between those two statements could be life-changing.

Still, I have to admit I will exhale a huge sigh of relief and joy when Bridger does finally start writing, for real. It's ironic, really. Before I had children, I used to teach creative writing to kids, both in public schools and with small groups of homeschoolers. I was often struck by how amazed the teachers and parents were that my classes had inspired reluctant writers--especially the boys--to write. At times I felt pretty dang smug about my ability to work creative miracles. Now, I think I understand how profoundly grateful I will feel when my kids find the mentors who will allow them to discover their own potential in ways that I--for whatever reasons of history, personality, relationship, karma--cannot.

For now, I'm grateful to Tintin for helping Bridger to gradually unlock the mysteries of reading, in his own, Bridger-esque way. And I am trying to trust that given time and lots of different opportunities, writing will click for him, too, in a way I might never expect but that will make me marvel when it happens.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Presidents' Day Weekend on the North Shore

The last time our family took a winter vacation on Lake Superior was three years ago, and the kids looked like this:

When I look at those old photos, I get a huge pang of nostalgia for those chubby, sweet-faced children. But I have to admit that traveling with their older incarnations was a heck of a lot easier and calmer. No diaper changes in strange bathrooms, no stops to nurse a screaming baby on the roadside. I got in two long cross-country skis for the first time in years, and ample time to sit on the couch staring out at the lake.

I was reminded once again that the best things to do on vacation with kids are usually simple, close by, and free. I think they could have spent the whole trip scrambling around on the rocks near our cabin, throwing chunks of ice in the big lake. When I tried to take my cues from them, I had much more fun than when I got all invested in running around trying to see and do as much as possible while we were up there. It was a delicious time, one I'm so grateful we got to have together at this stage of our lives.