Lies, bribes, threats, and tears

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Our daughters have been homeschooled for the last four years.  This year, we all decided that it might be a good idea to try public school – for an adventure, to compare the two types of schooling, to broaden their horizons a bit, to give mom a much-needed break and some time to re-invent herself and her goals.

They went to their first day of school last week and then we took them out of school for the next two days – (we had planned our family get-away before they enrolled and it didn’t seem fair to miss out on it!)  I know, things are not starting off on the right foot, but, one of the marks of homeschooled children is that they easily adapt to changes.  So, today was their second day of school.

Bob the bus driver picked them up about an hour ago.  Since then, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how in the world I’m going to get my thoughts out into this blog without offending people.  I don’t think I can.  So, at the risk of sounding like a political zealot, I have decided, after much hesitation, to put my current thoughts on schooling out there.  Here they are.

Schooling is a system of lies, bribes and threats that serves to keep everyone in line.  Here is what I mean:

Our day began at 6:30.

One daughter woke up and began getting washed and dressed for school.  Wow!  That was easy!  Until, I saw her watery eyes.

“Don’t worry, honey.  We know this is a big change, but it will be great.  I promise!  School is a ton of fun!”  (LIE!)

Our other daughter woke up with the birds, but wouldn’t get out of bed.  Grasping the spindles of her headboard with her kung-fu grip, she vehemently refused to go to school.

“It’s awful!  A lot of the kids were rude to the teacher – they didn’t listen!  The art teacher is mean – she made us spend more than half the period testing markers to see which ones had dried out!  The cafeteria stinks!”

“Honey, you have to go to school.  It’s the law.  Now that you’ve enrolled, you need to show up.  I’ll tell you what, get up and get yourself dressed for the day.  When you’re ready, I’ll have a nice, fresh blueberry muffin waiting for you in the kitchen.”  (BRIBE!)

“I’m not going.”

I called in the big guns.  I enlisted my husband to go upstairs and coax her out of bed and into the school bus.

From downstairs in the kitchen, all was silent.  I took this to mean that his calm nature was effectively turning our determined child into a compliant one.  Then, I heard –

“If you don’t go to school, you can’t go to your dance class tonight.  No school = no dance!”  (THREAT!)

It was only 7:00 A.M.   We were all broken.

Eventually, she got out of bed and managed to get ready for school.  Not, I can assure you, without putting up a good verbal assault on the truancy laws of our state and the effectiveness of coercion upon the behavioral development of children.  (If you are thinking about homeschooling and think that there might be a time in the future when you decide to send your children back to “regular school,”  remember this:  Homeschooling children have a lot of time on their hands.  Time to play, create, explore, and form powerful arguments for just about anything that they deem worthy of investigating.  They excel in debate and often leave their parents dumbfounded and tongue-tied.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you!)

After Bob the bus driver dutifully picked up our girls, I began to think about this school thing.

I remember my years at school.  Some of them were, indeed, wonderful.  Three of them, to be exact.  The majority of them were, more or less, unremarkable.  A few of them were torture.

The teachers all did a fantastic job of teaching and inspiring me.  Some were strict, others permissive.  Some were young, others old.  Some were creative, some were “by-the-book.”  All in all, the quality of the educators assigned to me was superior.  It wasn’t the teachers that made school undesirable.  It was, well, schooling.

School boards are pressured to increase the quality of our schools by the taxpayers of the town.  More computers!  Better pay for more qualified teachers!  New books!  White boards!  Digital payment options in the cafeteria!  If the taxpayers don’t get what they ask for, the quality of our schools and, ultimately, our tax-base will be compromised.  (THREAT!)

Curriculums are adopted to meet the regulations of federal and state mandates that were created by teams of educators, researchers, politicians and publishing houses. (BRIBES!)

Superintendents and principals are encouraged to work in a bi-partisan manner with the teachers, parents, students, taxpayers and boards of education. If they don’t keep the boat from rocking, their jobs are in jeopardy. (THREAT!)

Teachers must create plans to meet the diverse educational and emotional needs of twenty-five students while satisfying national curriculum standards and parent expectations.  This is what they are getting paid for.  This is what they went to college for.  This is what they signed up for! (LIE!)

Parents must comply to school rules and expectations.  Volunteering isn’t required but it is encouraged (HINT, HINT.)  Allowing your child to skip class to see a half-price performance of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Swan Lake has negative results on the classroom as a whole as well as on your child’s academic performance. (THREAT!)

Encourage your child to practice that tuba that she comes home with every Friday afternoon.  All your hard work and encouragement will pay off in spades when you hear her play it at the spring concert.  (BRIBE! and LIE!)

If you don’t study, you won’t get good grades.  If you don’t get good grades, your parents will be disappointed. (THREAT!)

Behave according to our rules or you will find yourself in the principal’s office. (THREAT!)

Those of you who remain quiet throughout the entire assembly will not have to do any homework tonight. (BRIBE!)

Whoever talks during silent reading time will lose ten minutes of their recess.  (THREAT!)

You must remember the value of Pi – you will need to use it one day.  (LIE!)

The way I see it, there is an awful lot of people complying with the rules and expectations of others.  Such is life.

I have to wonder.  Is is necessary for our educational system to function this way? School is a precursor for the big adult world that we all must face.  I do not think that it should be all puffy clouds and sunshine.  I do not think that there should be an absence of consequences for disrespectful or negligent behavior.  I do not think that children should be sheltered from society’s expectations.  But, I do find myself questioning the way in which we allow our schools to enforce these rules.  Not just on the children, but on the adults as well.  Is a system of lies, bribes, and threats an easy way out?  Don’t we owe it to ourselves to conjure up a more positive system?  Unrealistic? Probably.  But, it’s nice to dream.

At the end of the day, I know this:

There are children in hundreds of towns and cities in this country who will cry today.  Out of frustration, fear, anger, or exhaustion.

There are parents in hundreds of towns and cities in this country who will cry today.  Out of frustration, fear, anger, or exhaustion.

There are teachers in hundreds of towns and cities in this country who will cry today.  I’m betting mostly out of frustration and exhaustion.

Perhaps I’m unrealistic.  Or, just frustrated and exhausted.  I’m hoping that tomorrow morning will be a little easier.  I’m determined not to succumb to the ease of dolling out lies, bribes, and threats in order to make my children comply to my expectations.  I will try harder tomorrow.  In the meantime, I would love to hear from all of you out there.  What are your thoughts?

The notebooks

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The notebooks

Every writer has their own creative process – some are organized and methodical, others are haphazard and unpredictable.  Some writers have a certain bravado when it comes to writing – their words flow effortlessly from them.  They exude a devil-may-care attitude – not really bothering to entertain the negative critiques and opinions of their readers.  Then there is the tortured writer – the one who deliberates upon every syllable, sweating the details, and allowing self-doubt to percolate between the lines.  There are hundreds of other hybrid writers, as well.  All unique in their approach and methods.

But, for every species of writer that I have had the pleasure of knowing, there is one common thread that ties them together – the notebook.  No serious writer is without one.

My observation is this – In the beginning, when a writer first decides to put her thoughts and emotions on paper, she will most likely run out to the nearest art store or Barnes and Noble, to purchase a beautiful, hard-bound, clumsy journal.  Inside it are 125 pure white, double-sided pages begging to be written on.  The responsibility of filling those pages with lofty observations or personal revelations is crippling.  It’s rare to find a first journal that boasts more than a few dozen entries.  First journals can often be found languishing under beds or buried deep in bureau drawers.

The second step to writing comes in the form of a plastic bag from Target or Walmart, filled with cheap, one subject lined notebooks in every color offered.  This army of notebooks says, “I’m committed.  I’m really going to do this.”  The advantage to these notebooks is that they are lightweight and cheap.  About six months after they’ve been embraced by the over-eager writer, it becomes apparent that only one of them has any writing in it.  The others end up being transformed from keepers of the grail to repositories for grocery lists, to-do-lists, and phone messages.  Younger children receive them with delight when the writer realizes that buying fifteen notebooks was a bit overzealous and she decides to share the wealth.

The third stage in the birth of the writer is the eclectic, sloppy, and rebellious phase.  This is usually characterized by the writer using any manner of paper product to jot down flashing thoughts or pithy observations.  Torn napkins, backsides of grocery receipts, corners of business cards, gum wrappers, pink memo slips pinched from a doctor’s receptionist’s desk – these are all examples of the flotsam and jetsam that flow from the bags, pockets, and drawers of the writer deeply buried in phase three.

At some point, phase three becomes unwieldy.  This is when the writer attempts a return to organization.  She buys a file folder to hold all those slips – maybe actually labelling the files according to subject or theme.  It is a rare day when she has the time to look through all those floating slips.  Ideas, settings, metaphors, and character sketches are lost in the abyss.

Finally, the writer admits that ideas come at inopportune times.  She goes out to the store and buys a handful of small 3 X 5 inch notebooks.  She places them strategically.  One by the bed.  One in the car.  One in her bag.  One by the computer.  One in her pocket.  The writer is on her way.  The notebooks are easily managed.  Their size is discreet.  The small pages are effortlessly filled with just a few lines of scrawl.  They are all within reach – a support system – seeds for the page.

These are the notebooks that hold the first sentences, the painful observations, the surreal descriptions and the daring concepts that take root in the stories that find their voice in the writer.  These notebooks are the gatekeepers – the writer’s baby blankets.  They are the common thread that all writers share along the trail to self-discovery.

Heat Wave!

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It wasn’t so long ago that I wrote a post about embracing where we are planted.  When I wrote it, I truly believed that I had found contentment – that I was happy in my cluttered home, watching my children play in our yard and tending to our sometimes messy but always fulfilling life.  Then July happened.  Hot, steamy, stifling July.   This is my least favorite month of the year.  This is the month when my normally happy home turns into a hellish boiling pot of crankiness and discomfort.  The floors and counters are glazed with humidity.  The children are sticky with sweat and grass clippings.  The dogs are drooling and panting.  Bugs are out in force.  Fruit and bread molds in what seems like minutes.  It’s too hot to eat.  Too hot to sleep.

I think back to that post.  What was I thinking?  I don’t want to be planted here in this inferno!  I want to be planted in the North Pole (although I hear it’s getting pretty warm there, too!)  I want out of this pollen haze and into a cool breeze speckled with salt.

Wanderlust has struck again.  I take back what I said about embracing the opportunity to bloom where I’m planted.  I’ll return to that frame of thinking at the end of August.  For now, I want a good, stiff, breeze, 55 degree nights, and dappled sunshine.  I want to breathe dry air.  I don’t want to take three cold showers a day just to cool off.  I don’t care if there are great white sharks parading along the coastline.  I’ll take my chances.  Just, please, give me a wide, empty beach with choppy waves and a sheet to rest my cranky self on.

Bloom where I’m planted?  Not this month!  I’ll try again in about five weeks!

Clotheslines

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White sheets and shirts hanging upside down on a gray rope.  This is my favorite image of summer.  Sure photos of sandy beaches and candy sunsets are beautiful.  Of course, I love the blooms of a mid-summer garden or those quintessential cotton clouds hanging still in a brilliant blue haze.  Those images are, undeniably, lovely.  But, for me, it is the image of a clothesline that says – summer.

Clothelines are slow and steady.  They don’t succumb to the fast pace of what is happening outside our backyards.  I suppose that’s one of the reasons I feel partial to them.  My summer days don’t languish the way they did when I was young.  They don’t creep along, with their minutes ticking at half-time.  Now, they are speeding arrows – organized, planned, and dictatorial.  Clubs, coaches, teachers, and schedules overrun the irresponsibility of summer that I crave for myself and my family.  I find myself digging for lost time.

And so, I turn to the comfort of a clothesline – and its promise of a crisp, fresh bed or a sun-bleached shirt – fresh starts at the end of a frantic day.

The right word

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“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” –

Mark Twain

Well, ain’t that the truth!!!

I have found myself struggling to write this week.  Ideas are flowing and I’m dutifully logging them into the little journal that I keep with me for just such occasions.  The problem is that once I sit down to write the stories, the words just won’t come.  The plots are in my mind – clear and crisp.  Outlines are formed.  Arcs are established.  Characters developed so fully in my mind’s eye that I feel I can physically touch them.  Yet, the words won’t come.  Well, I should say that the RIGHT words won’t come.  Plenty of wrong ones are finding their way onto my pages.  Monotonous, flat, saccharin, dramatic words are spilling themselves with abandon all over my stories.  But, the right words, the ones that make my sentences flutter or float or sink with melancholy and despair are hiding deep in some cavern that I can’t locate.  I know they’re there but I just can’t get my hands on them.  And, so, I wait, staring at a blank page or a blinking cursor, hoping that the right word will swan dive into my sentence.  The heat pulsing through the window is oppressive.  My desk is sticky with humidity.  My children are cranky.  Their hair is matted to their foreheads and their little faces are speckled with sweaty droplets.  My mind is seething in the heat – angry that those words won’t lend themselves to me.  I have no choice.  Surrender, Dorothy.  Get on with your other projects.  Let this one sit and stew.  When the time is right, lightening will strike.  And, when it does, the right words will wrangle their way past the unwelcome ones and anchor themselves in my stories.

I just hope that happens soon!

Thunder

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The black skies and rolling rumbles of thunder amaze me.  In just a few short minutes, this type of deep weather can turn an entire day inside out.  Outdoor plans are postponed or cancelled.  Dry clothes hanging on the line are soaked and splattered with mud before they have had a chance to be collected.  Dogs cower under tables.  Wet paper grocery bags tear just before we reach the doorknob.  Lights flicker.  Contractors must pack up their gear and try again later or maybe even the next day.  Mailmen get soaked.

To many people, these can be big inconveniences.  But, I rather welcome them (particularly because they don’t happen all the time.)  Summer thunder has the same effect on me that a Nor-easter dumping eleven inches of snow has (although in a much swifter and less all-consuming manner.)  A heavy, powerful thunder storm causes me to stop what I’m doing and take notice.  I get to move outside of the mundane monotony of daily routines and look around.  Leaves turn their silver undersides upward.  Birds take cover.  Lawnmowers stop their interminable whining.   NPR’s broadcasts crackle.  Thunder storms help me to take a breath and live in the present- if only for ten minutes.  When they are done, I am refreshed.  Maybe it’s the electrical charge or maybe it’s just because I’ve witnessed a sudden change in plans that I had no control over, but whatever the reason, I welcome the reprieve.

In a short while, the birds will begin chirping again and the driveway will start to steam and dry up.  The dogs will beg to go outside and the children will run out to splash in the hot puddles.  The traffic will pick up on the road outside my window.  The barn doors will need to be re-opened and the animals set out to pasture again.  It will soon be time to sit down at my desk once more and continue working.  But, now, for just a few more minutes, I can wait and listen to the deep grumbles of the clouds and breathe.

Sick Days

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My daughter wasn’t feeling well this past weekend.  For twelve hours, she suffered through stomach pains, nausea, and a brutal headache.  After a long night of back scratches, head rubs, cuddles, and story time, she finally started to improve.  We spent the rest of the weekend taking it easy and giving her body the time it needed to recover.  By Sunday night, she was back to normal.  Before she fell asleep, she said that the best part about feeling sick was feeling better.  I love the succinct clarity with which children philosophize.

I was thinking about her words this morning when I woke up.  After a sleepless night on Saturday and a late night watching the Tony’s on Sunday, I felt like taking a sick day myself.  I knew that there were errands to run, a toilet to fix, a fence to mend, laundry to wash, and deadlines to meet.  I started to feel queasy.  A headache, I was sure, was not far behind.

Why not take a sick day? I asked.  It wasn’t crucial that I got the errands done, the toilet could wait till tomorrow (thankfully, we have another.) The fence has been broken for four days – one more wouldn’t matter.  The laundry could wait – we weren’t out of underwear yet!  As for those deadlines – they were self – imposed.  By executive order, I granted myself a 24 – hour reprieve.

And so, here I am.  Feeling perfectly healthy and happy on my sick day.  I’m enjoying the sounds of my carefree children playing together.  My dogs are napping.  There may not be much in the cabinets for dinner, but somehow, we’ll pull something together.  We’ll be eating cherries and half of a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch (we only have three pieces of bread left in the breadbox.)

The sun just poked through the clouds and my bare feet are begging for the warmth of its rays.  The patio furniture beckons.  The girls and I have some drawing and coloring to do.  There’s that book on the shelf that I wanted to start reading last year.  The phone is off the hook.

I agree with my daughter.  The best part about feeling sick is feeling better.

I love sick days.

To do: Ditch the to-do list

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For nearly twenty years, I have been faithfully making to-do lists.  They have accompanied me in my pockets, backpacks, briefcases, pocketbooks, and wallets.  They have even been tucked into my bra.  They are detailed and scrupulously planned out.  I have often written two or three in a day – revising the numbers 1, 2, 3,… and so on to adjust to how my day is evolving.  Many of these lists, I am ashamed to admit, have numbers circled beside them.  These numbers are supposed to represent how much time I think that task is going to take.  I even schedule my free time in on these lists.  I remember lists that have listed knit (30,) or call a friend (25,) or even meditate (15.)  These lists have become a compulsion.  Some of them were even artistic – embedded in scrolls, vines, curly-cues and geometric designs rendered in multi-colored gel pen glory around the words that would command my day.  Oh yes, there was even color-coding – something akin to the Homeland Security’s color coded system of warnings.  Red meant you’d better be sure this gets done or you’re dead meat.  Orange was of utmost importance but could probably be put off if, and only if, an emergency arose.  Yellow was something that should definitely be attended to.  Any other color – ending in blue – was meant to highlight something that needed attention but I knew, along with those gel pens, that any item not highlighted in red, orange, or yellow, didn’t stand much of a chance at all of ever being accomplished.

And, here is my point.  Tweny years of lists – planned, colored, decorated, itemized, and timed – and only once in all those years did I ever, EVER, complete the list.  It happened just two weeks ago.  I was stunned.  Shortly after, a sense of deep satisfaction came over me.  I had done it.  I had completed every item on my to-do list.  Two hours later, I was annoyed and embarrassed.  I had actually spent twenty years – TWENTY YEARS! – paying attention to a stupid to-do list.  I had only succeeded in completing one.  By my calculations, I had written 7,300 lists (yes, there were days that I didn’t write one, but, remember, there were those days that I wrote two, three, and sometimes four.)  What a colossal waste of time.  If I had just gone about my business, I would have saved approximately 109,500 minutes of time – minutes I could have spent actually accomplishing those items on my lists.

So here it is.  My final to-do list.  This one only has one item on it.

TO DO LIST – June 1, 2012

1.  Stop making to-do lists. (5 minutes.)

Done.

Phew.

Where are you planted?

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I read a great article written by Rebekah Teal  (www.rebekahteal.com)  in the Oct/Nov 2011 edition of Mary Jane’s Farm (www.maryjanesfarm.org )  She felt that relocating would make her happier. It wasn’t until her daughter asked her why the family couldn’t just blossom right where they were, that she realized that it doesn’t matter where you are – just that you are there. There aren’t many articles that stick in my memory the way that one did.

I contacted Ms. Teal to ask permission to cite her article in this blog.  She graciously granted her permission and, in closing, asked me, “Are you blossoming now? Where are you planted?”

The questions stopped me cold.

Am I blossoming?  I wondered.  Where am I planted?  The obvious answer was, “I live at …” blah, blah, blah.  Digging a bit deeper, I discovered a whole new crop of variations and answers.

Where am I planted today?

Where do I want to be planted?

Where should I be planted?

I reflected on the previous day.  It started out with me “planted” on the wet grass bottlefeeding our lambs.  Then, I  was off to muck the stalls and mow the front field.  After that, I found myself plunked on the sofa reading with my daughters.  An hour later, I was propped at my desk editing a manuscript.  That evening, I found myself rooted at a cocktail table surrounded by a group of  fabulous writers celebrating the success of a friend’s debut novel  ( www.lyndamullalyhunt.com )  At midnight, I found myself lying in my warm bed listening to the silent sounds of our sleeping home… thinking.

I realized that in order to bloom, you have to be solidly planted – not in a particular place but, rather, in a particular moment.  Of course, we all fantasize about that dream home – the one on the beach, or overlooking the Seine, or perhaps perched at the top of a mountain.  But, that’s why they call them dream homes.

Ms. Teal’s daughter was right.  No matter what you do, or where you go, you just can’t blossom unless you can embrace your life – ugly parts and all.  When I look around and see everything that I have to be grateful for, I realize that selling the farm and uprooting my family for an unknown destination isn’t what I really need right now.  What I need is to slow down long enough to enjoy watching my family blossom – minute by minute, day by day – right where we are.

The pain of editing

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There is nothing I dread more than editing a manuscript.  The process is painful, although the result is bliss.  To make the decision to read your own hard – won words and then assassinate them is not an easy one.  Nearly every word of a manuscript is deliberated upon – sometimes for hours – until it takes its rightful place on the page.  Over days, and sometimes months, those words set roots.  They become familiar.  Reliable.  Then, the fateful day comes when you realize that those very words that have comforted you with their loyal monotony need to be cast away.  The process is more painstaking than the one that got them onto the page in the first place.  Is that word necessary?  Does it move the story along?  Is it too sentimental?  Too common?  What about all the words that it resides near?  Are they fit to stay or should they suffer an ugly end as well?  It’s hard to snip and cut and sever.  However, the end result, once the operation is over, is nothing short of cathartic.  Those words that have clung onto your page have been released.  In their place, they have left fresh, open spaces and possibilities for a reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.  And, with those fresh, new spaces, the writer can breathe again.  Spring cleaning our manuscripts forces us to re-evaluate our product and forge ahead into unchartered territory.  It is simultaneously freeing and bittersweet.  And, utterly necessary.