Friday, May 31, 2013

on the deacon's bench, at home and away

At my parents' camp in Northern Maine, they have a deacon's bench along one wall.  It fills up with various items during the year, things thrown there on one's way between the beach and the woods and the boat and the kitchen.  In the fall, items that are usually outside get placed upon it to protect them from the winter weather.  Each spring I clear it off, dust it, and begin to fill it again with items we have brought with us.  But I start to do this in my mind even before we arrive.  As I move through the winter, things that I would like to have time to do with the children, or for myself, get logged into a mental catalogue for the deacon's bench.

Mostly we fill it with books - books upon books - often from the library here in Portland.  We arrive for our longer visits with selections that we have carefully collected, science fiction and fantasy for Nicholas, poetry and nature for Julia, and picture books about animals for Elliott.  There are usually five or more audiobooks that the kids can listen to together on rainy days, or in the early mornings so that Jonathan and I can sleep in a bit.  I also have nonfiction children's books that are relevant to time spent in the Maine woods, books about stars, books about lakes and rivers, books about the woods, books about ecology.  Add a few more devoted to some crafting projects, some fiction for myself, and usually some education books for Jonathan.  This all adds up to several wheel barrows full of LL Bean bags stuffed with library treasure.   The camp deacon's bench is my holder of all of my hopes for how our children will spend their time during the summer, time spent thinking and dreaming and experiencing while we are there.

When we moved into our home in Portland, we found we had a space, long and narrow, that was just begging for a deacon's bench of our own.  A few searches on craigslist later and I had found the perfect budget friendly version for here.  Jonathan drove down into southern Maine and returned with the bench, and relayed its story to me.  I love that it came with a story of its own.  It is from the town hall in South Berwick, and it then spent some time in the nearby A.M.E. church.  It was given to the seller's family as a way of recognizing her father's years of service on the town council.   The family was downsizing for retirement.   We feel lucky to hold the bench and its story here now.

It is, given its budget friendly price tag, in need of some care and repair.  We have all the spindles but they are not necessarily attached to the bench right now.  It has been stripped of what looks like white paint, but it probably needs to be stained or painted (sorry, Antiques Roadshow).  We hope to repair it and make it sturdy enough to be able to actually use it, to pull it up to the table for extra seating when we have guests for dinner.

I treat this bench here as I do the bench at camp.  It holds projects that are hoped for or already in process.  Until a few days ago, it held the frames and foundation for our honeybee hives.  A cleanout of the dining area this past weekend, when the seedlings moved toward their garden destination, has left the bench clean and dusted.  I have even vacuumed beneath it.

It is currently empty.  And ready to be filled.

Summer is our time to slow down and reconnect.  And, in our family, this is often done through books.  It was from the camp bench that one summer Nicholas discovered graphic novels.  Books he could read that were actually interesting to him in content - despite his reluctance to read during the school year.  It was from the camp bench that we discovered that Julia, unbeknownst to us, had secretly taught herself to read independently.  And it is from the camp bench that I hope Elliott will decide this summer that, despite his reluctance and resistance, there is something magical and empowering and fun about being able to read the words on a page himself, and not just the pictures.

I think in some ways I try to address any worries, concerns, or frustrations I have had during the school year by finding the right book to place on the bench for each of them, there for them to reach for at some moment during the summer that is the perfect moment, and sit down and read, and have a moment of reflection and change.  Not just in terms of their actual reading ability, because really, that is the least important thing to me.  It is through books that the kids, with enough emotional distance from the characters themselves, have been able to glean kernels, nuggets of truth, self reflection, and eye popping realizations about themselves, their friendships, or their place in the world.

We usually have an all family audio book running at all times, played on the weekends here or in the car as we drive.  But in the summer, we can sometimes be found sitting all together on the floor, with paper, clay, fabric, or embroidery in hand while we all listen together to a book that is working for all of us, from beginning to end, in one sitting.  One year we began the summer with the three books from the Penderwick series, the third book having been recently released.  I had chosen this series because there is something about that family and how it cares for each other, cares about each other, and bumbles through misadventure after misunderstanding that was just what I was wishing for us as a family that year.

One summer we listened to the Little House series, from beginning to end, while we sat on the floor and I taught the kids how to make friendship bracelets.  During breaks in the listening, the kids could be found up in the playroom building elaborate space alien stations out of legos, an incongruity that was fascinating and somehow working for them, and for me.

And last summer we plowed through the Septimus Heap series, book after book, until one morning in northern Maine they all said that they had had enough and needed to take a bit of a break from the series, despite their love for it...it was just so very long.  The decision to let something go, to choose against something, or to walk away?  Also very empowering.  And, with a bit of distance, we eagerly returned to the series a few months later.

So, bench cleared off and cleaned, the kids ending school this next week, Jonathan a few weeks behind in terms of being home with us for the summer months, my mind has gone to just how we are going to fill the benches.  The bench here at home, and the bench away in Northern Maine.  And the bags that will travel with us all summer long.

One plan is to fulfill a promise to Nicholas that after several years of telling him we were going to wait to read the Hunger Games, he and I would do so together this summer.  But he knows that he has to do something for me in exchange.  I have told him that first we are going to read the Giver Quartet:  The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger and her newest and final book in the quartet, Son.  Why?  Because I think Lois Lowry is one of the most gifted writers for children out there.  And I love what she says about her series here as compared to the the Hunger Games.

For Julia, I hope to have book frenzy after book frenzy, to continue to help her connect with books, to push her reading skills further, and to have more time to discuss with her what she is reading, and to really hear from her what she thinks about what she has read.  That mind of hers...

And for Elliott, who understands the world visually and reads books mostly for their pictures, I hope to show him how the words can tell him interesting information as well (though I think he is just as likely to show me that, in fact, in the best children's books, the stories are actually better told through the pictures).

I think I am going to start here.

I just searched for almost all of these books on our public library website and found the ones that are available, ordered others from other libraries through the interlibrary loan system, and am going to have to either pine away for the ones that are not in the Maine public library system until they are, or find another way to get them in my mitts.  Because they look so good.

As we move through the summer, I will add other titles to the bench, because the magic of our summer is that we do not really know where it will take us, what will happen, what unexpected occurence will throw us into a frenetic book-centered learn everything we can about it while lying on our bellies on the floor while we map out on a huge piece of paper our study of...something.  Something that works for three very differently aged children with very different interests and very different sensibilities.  But we always seem to find that magic place.

And from that, from the whirlwind of information and story and reading and passion and fun and yes, squabbling, will emerge a shared language between us.  A shared language of the story of our summer. Making meaning and conspiratorial references to characters from books and happenings for ourselves.  Of misadventures and successes.  Of activities and jokes and memories that somehow all originated from some seed buried in what we read together.

This summer, as our children get older, I realize more than ever that it is not just what I choose that will end up on the bench.  Our children are plunking things down on it as well.  And we need to follow the paths that these deposits lead us towards.  Because in many ways, those paths are the most meaningful, the most fun, and the most necessary.

And it all starts with what we place on the bench.


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