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m_and_me

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End Of Summer

One of the advantages of homeschooling, I always felt, was not having that artificial transition at the beginning of September — from the heady freedom of summer to the rigid schedule of school. I really enjoyed, in past years, the sense of sailing right over all the Back To School hype, and just letting the natural pace of the season unfold.

So I feel a slight wistfulness this year, because now that we’ll be going to Village Free School for three days each week, it definitely feels like a transition. One that I’m looking forward to — there are a variety of things going on this year that I’m excited about. All the old staff is returning, but they’re adding some new interns and volunteers, including one from Germany and one whose business card lists him as a “visual storyteller.” And I know there are plans in the works to try out some new project tools, and to introduce some new concepts this year.

Most exciting of all for me is that the kids are looking forward to school as well. They’ve really missed some of their schoolmates over the summer and are looking forward to seeing them; plus Nathan this year is planning on doing Project Time and working on his animations during it. (Dave has fixed up his old laptop for Nathan’s use.) I am really looking forward to seeing him engaged in Project Time and all the other Room B things that go along with that. My sense of Nathan for a while has been that he’s been transitioning out of his early-childhood mode, and becoming ready for new challenges and ideas.

Hopefully there will be lots of those going forward.

Quiet

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I’ve lived long enough with city noise that I’ve become accustomed to it. Just as there is never true darkness in the city (nor, sadly, in increasing amounts of the world — thanks, light pollution!), so there is never really quiet. Even in the middle of the night, some neighbor is awake, and anyway there is always the sound of traffic.

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But I grew up with quiet. Not silence, which on Earth is only a relative term, but a lack of that ever-present, ambient human noise. It was an everyday thing when I was growing up to hear the trees move in the wind, or water lapping against the shore; those sounds weren’t buried.

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Now when I visit my dad’s house I always notice it. Even walking on the beach with my family, I notice it — sure, there are children’s voices and footsteps, but there are also pauses in between, and there it is: Tiny waves spilling over stones. Leaves drifting against each other. Endless, and unaffected by me.

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When I was young, home — more specifically, the beach and woods around our house — was sanctuary, and my sense of it remains to this day. This sense of quiet is tied up in my sense of safety. When I spend a little time there I feel myself relaxing instinctively. There is nothing to prove, nothing to fear; it is entirely permissible simply to be.

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My children almost certainly lack that association. Or do they? I know I’m not the only person to respond this way to being away from the ever-present sense of people. Someday, when they’ve gotten old enough to express their self-reflection, I’ll ask them. For now I think it’s enough to be there with them.

Guessing Wrong

It’s easy to become complacent about the boys, to believe that just because I’ve been around all their lives, I get them. It’s therefore always a bit of a wake-up when I discover that I’m totally wrong about something.

Most recently this was brought home to me by The Art Book For Children. I got this from the library partly on a whim, partly by a recommendation, and thought it might well be one of those library books which is hardly opened. I loved making art as a child, but I was never much interested in learning about art history. The boys, who show only minimal enthusiasm for drawing, I thought would be similarly uninterested.

Then again, I could have reminded myself that I don’t always make good predictions about their reading interests. Only a few weeks ago I was surprised when Ryan, for his bedtime reading, worked us all the way through a book on shells — one aimed at children years older than him, talking about things like layers of calcium carbonate and how the structure thereof differs between a snail shell and an egg shell. Then he started us re-reading it again immediately after having finished.

He was the same one who picked out the art book and brought it to me. And yes, it’s written in an engaging style, and skips around to various artists from various times, so it doesn’t read like an art history book so much as an eclectic introduction to the wide world of art. (It would probably be better categorized as “art appreciation.”) Ryan seems more interested than Nathan; on the second night we looked at it he took me back to the Botticelli page for a re-reading. They both spent some time examining the page of optical illusions, and they both wanted to skip the Picasso page.

This is yet another reminder to me that they are simply in a different place in their lives. My world is full of ideas or subjects that I’ve chosen to pursue or not to pursue — and if I’m not careful, that choosing has ossified into a knee-jerk reaction. I am interested in biology, pre-modern history, and fiber arts; I’m not interested in politics, sports, and art history. I sometimes forget that the world is vast and fascinating and I am still just a neophyte in it, and that in any case I am a vastly different person from who I was even a few years ago.

But the boys, with fewer preconceptions, engage differently. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of arbitrary snap judgments — when I try them on a new recipe I hold my breath. But they haven’t already written off art history as probably boring, so a book about art doesn’t generate the same automatic reaction in them as it does in me.

Thank goodness. Because I’m enjoying this book too.

…And Done

The presents are gone; the stockings are empty. There is that languid December 26th feeling in the house, which I can best describe as “absence of anticipation.”

There are still traditions to come, of course. This year in addition to my taking-down-Christmas frenzy which I still hope to do on New Year’s Eve, I’ve also scheduled a Family Meeting. The topic is “What new things did we try this year, and what do we want to make happen next year?” I’ve no idea how that will go for the rest of the family, but it’s getting my brain going.

And I’ve done my other traditional post-Christmas task: creating a list on my computer for next Christmas. Next Christmas I’ll be totally organized, have all my ducks in a row, presents completed by October, advent calendar out on December 1st… You know the drill. The routine may be futile, but I find it comforting.

Rhythm

It was a long hot summer, and so it has been with relief as well as pleasure that I felt the first touches of autumn: open windows, chilly mornings, and ripe apples from our trees. As rain becomes more frequent and the garden more barren, I’ve been enjoying things that thirty years ago would only have been chores. The raspberries are thinned and tied up; the tomatoes have been pulled; corn has been removed and composted, and two-year-old compost dug back into those beds.

I speak in the passive voice, but let’s be honest, here: the hands that did all this were mine. The rest of the household has other things to do.

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I didn’t used to enjoy this part of gardening. When I was a kid I liked planting a little and weeding not at all and eating a great deal, but as I’ve gotten older things have changed. Maybe this is part of that wisdom that comes from age (which I’ve heard a great deal about, it seems) — the ability to see the larger picture. When I bake cookies with the kids they like getting things out, mixing, and tasting, but the cleanup they consider a separate task and it is No Fun. I don’t see it that way anymore, and I don’t see pulling tomato plants out as any less satisfying than planting them. In my mind I am already preparing for next year. But for the kids, taking a table and chairs out to the front lawn in order to play house is no trouble at all; bringing it in afterwards is So Much Work.

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Although I do sometimes require the kids to help with chores, I don’t require them to like it. For the most part I can accept that their current understanding of the world centers around play, around starting, around Leaping Forward rather than cleaning up. I still vaguely recall the hurry and intensity of childhood. If they would rather do a wagon ride or an al fresco snack than pruning, I can accept that. Especially as it means that someone else is entertaining the baby.

On Death

For some time now the boys have been interested in visiting a cemetery. I rather suspect this comes from some media exposure, but I can’t pinpoint an exact source — it might also be part of the normal childhood interest in death. I vaguely remember thinking on death myself when young: What did it mean? Where did people go? I had a vague awareness of something enormous and impossible which it was, thankfully, usually easy to ignore.

There is only one cemetery in the area with which I’m familiar, and as it turns out it is a historical cemetery as well as an active one, with graves dating from the late 1800’s. (Not impressive for those living almost anywhere else in the world, but for this area, that’s pretty old.) The appellation of “historical” assuaged some of the discomfort I’d felt about taking the kids there — we weren’t just popping into a cemetery to disrespectfully ogle graves, you see. This could, if necessary, be considered under the umbrella of homeschooling.

The cemetery is large, with a wide variety of stones. Some are older, elaborately carved, rough with age and lichen. Some families lie together (“Herbert,” “Charles,” “Alfred,” and “Mother” in one case that I noticed); I explained the concept of family plots to the boys. They were very interested, especially at first. “Wait, are we actually standing on dead people?” Nathan asked eagerly. They wanted to look at all the stones, and although they were not much interested in the dates, which all must have seemed equally distant to them, they were interested in picking out names and quotations. I read them bits of Robert Frost and bible verses. (The former, about two roads diverging in a wood, caused Ryan to ask me if the guy in the poem was lost.)

The older graves remind me that the terrible inevitability of death is followed by the terrible inevitability of being forgotten. Most of the time I am as oblivious to this fact as Mica, and I suspect it’s a good thing not to carry around the weight of impending mortality. But I do remember a sunny fall day after Mom died, and a walk I took with Nathan (just a baby!) on my back — the crisp autumn blue of the sky and the air filled with the smell of weeks of rain. The sidewalk was covered with the prints of fallen leaves — some clear and new, atop layers of older ones fading into suggestions. I remember thinking how similar our lives are to this: clearly imprinted while we’re alive, and then fading, none too slowly, to a vague outline in the memories of those left behind, until the last marks are worn away.

On the other hand, although the details of our lives become blurred beyond recognition, it isn’t at all correct to say that we disappear — at least so quickly. The influence I have on the people around me, especially my children, will leave traces after I’m gone. I suppose walking in a cemetery encourages me to think for a moment beyond the chores and errands of the day, about what it is I leave behind me in a broader sense.

Mica, who loves sitting on anything at the correct height for little baby legs, gave me a delighted smile from the steps of a mausoleum; the boys peered through the grating and listened to the echoes of their voices from inside. “I think there are people buried in the walls,” Nathan said in amazement. We talked about how I knew one grave was for a soldier, which led to a discussion of officer’s ranks that very quickly reached the limit of my knowledge; on another monument I pointed out the Star Of David and tried to explain what Judaism was. That conversation didn’t get very far — the boys needed to battle an invisible horde of zombies.

Their interest was clearly waning. I focused on portioning out the snack I’d brought and keeping Mica from stealing a perfectly baby-sized flag planted by the soldier.

On our way back out we walked through a newer section, with more modern, polished stones, and here Nathan was more interested in dates, particularly the current year and the year of his birth. He also wanted to nail down the terminology: the implications of gravestone vs. tombstone vs. headstone occupied us for some time, despite my professed ignorance. He is in some ways very sophisticated. On the other hand he didn’t seem to understand my amusement at a beautifully polished stone with “bite me” carved in small letters in one corner.

Nathan told me near the entrance that when I die he’d like to bury me in a graveyard near his house, so he could visit me. I told him we intended to be cremated, but that he would still be welcome to create a memorial stone if he liked, and he seemed to think that solution acceptable. I hear in that a child’s desire to be near his mother; hopefully by the time I die he’ll have long since become accustomed to managing for himself.