Sunday, November 24, 2013

has honey bees

We were leaving Nicholas' guitar lesson, packing up to go, me still struggling to zip my boot while standing on one foot, holding his guitar upright and keeping it from falling over with my other hand.  Nicholas and I, his full sized guitar, a coat rack, several pairs of shoes and a stool were all precariously balanced in a very small space at the bottom of a narrow flight of stairs, a quick landing and turn just before the door from the apartment to the stairwell.  I looked over my shoulder, still hopping on one foot.  And grabbed for Nicholas' fleece on the coat rack, the one he was about to leave behind.

All during the ride over to his lesson, we had been working on his Latin homework.  He was memorizing declension lists.  He has been surprising me at how good he is at memorizing things.  Like lists of words.  In English.  And not in English.  And though I don't actually know what the word declension means for sure, my inner teenager smirks each time he says it, because it sounds like declenchion.  Snort.

This had launched us into a conversation about what he feels like he does well at school, and what he does not.

And like the appropriately egocentric 12 year old that he is, that conversation from before the lesson picked right back up again, him talking fast and enthusiastically about math and a reading project he had just completed.

Want me to carry my guitar?  he interrupted himself, noticing my struggle.

I glanced at the sign taped to the wall.  Please try not to scratch the paint with your guitar cases.  

No, I'll do it, I answered.  You carried it on the way in.  You take your bag.

Ok, he said, thanks, and walked out the door of the apartment.  The door, on an admittedly strong spring, slammed shut between he and I.  He had not held it, had not thought of it, his latest still child act.  I switched hands, pried open the door again, and hobbled out, burdened by the guitar, my bag, his fleece, folded in half because I have caught the hem of my skirt in my boot zipper.  Hugging the guitar case, hoping for a clean and nonscratchy -- albeit graceless -- exit.

Sorry, he embarrassedly grinned.  And talked faster to make up for the moments of conversation we had missed while the door had so rudely come between us.

I laughed, and we started down the stairs.  Four flights of stairs.

You know, that's true, I say.  Pant, pant.  Sometimes I see you do something and I think wow!  How do you do that so well.  Like stacking the firewood.  Or figuring out connections between different ideas.  And then it hits me.  It's Lego.  Thunk, I smack the guitar case into the railing.  You got that from doing so much Lego.  You know how to make things fit.  How to make things symmetrical.  Gasp, I trip as I turn the corner onto the first floor landing.  Patterns.  Three dimensional envisioning.

I think I lost him in there somewhere.  But he kept jabbering back at me.  Then we declenched all the way home.  He in the back seat, me driving.  Using the stopwatch on my iPhone to time how many seconds it took him to scribble out his list.  Speed competitions, it turns out, are a great motivation for the middle school boy.  He worked at making his pace faster and faster, a homework pass on the line.

We arrived home to the swirl that is the going to bed routine of his brother and sister.  They were reading together with Jonathan on our bed. And headed off to their beds soon after.  Elliott to sleep. Julia to do her assigned independent reading homework.

Jonathan soon joined me in the playroom, just outside their bedrooms.

Inspired by the change of weather, and necessitated by the fact that certain parts of the house had become so messy that it was either time to move or dig in, we have been reorganizing the playroom.  This is the room into which the three children's bedrooms as well as their bathroom and our bedroom all empty.  We haven't quite figured out how to use it well, despite having been here for some time now.  The room gets tidied up, toys sorted into bins, games into the small vestigial closet, art supplies into cubbies, every now and then.  Five doors, one small window, a fireplace and a closet -- all with no hallway on the second floor; it all adds up to a kind of a hallway/room.  Our previous cleaning of it and better containing the toys in there had resulted in no seating and no table surface.  Which resulted, a few months later, in heaps of toys and art supplies and board games on the floor.

So, we are at it again.  I have decided there must be a table.  And there must be comfortable places to sit.  We are starting there.  And then figuring out what to do with the stuff of the room.

Because three children later, one of whom has been receiving toys for the past 12 years and with a mom who had a pretty well developed stash of toys from her play therapy days before he was born?  We have a lot of stuff.

This cleanup is partly for them.  I am a very strong believer in keeping kids playing, with real toys, not virtual ones, for as long as we possibly can.  A reorganization, a freshening, a remix of toys often inspires new creative play and months of new ideas and themes.  An old toy, placed next to a toy that was hidden in the back of a shelf behind a bin, feels new.  I am reluctant to stow away any, or do anything that in any way suggests that we are taking the toys away.  Or suggests to the kids that they are getting too old for playing with some of the toys.

But this cleanup is likely equally for me.  I cannot accept yet that we are moving way from the toys, especially some of the younger ones.  That perhaps there should be a ping pong table and Wii (shudder) in the room instead of the toys. 

We pulled a table from the porch and put a few chairs around it, a floor lamp next to it.  The toys from the bins that were previously on that wall are now in heaps in the middle of the room, cute animals and Legos and Playmobil and fabric scraps silently screaming in unsorted agony.  Nicholas entered.  Freshly showered, sporting the pajama pants that make me do a double take each time because something about them screams man pants.  He entered the room.  And said, Cool!  A table.  Can I do my homework in here?

Well, I had imagined art work, board games, and perhaps a puzzle left out for people to fit a few pieces into every once in a while.  But okay.

Standing overwhelmed and a bit heartbroken by the heap of toys in the middle of the room, I said sure.  And realized that this table, a place on the second floor for homework, so Nicholas could be close by while we put the younger kids to bed, allowing him to ask questions that might come up, was just what this room needed.

Homework.  In our playroom.

Nicholas said, I am reading a chapter for History on beekeeping in ancient Egypt.  It is really hard to read.  Can I read it out loud to you? I think you will like it.

A few months prior, it had struck me that Nicholas, when asked to describe himself in a few phrases, had included: has honey bees.

I don't know why it surprised me.  Maybe because I consider the beekeeping thing to be kind of my thing, definitely not middle school cool, something best done in the privacy of our backyard.  I think it may have something to do with the element of danger, with the need for equipment, with the possibility of swarm catching -- our own version of the Homesteading X Games.

But there it was, scribbled in a colorful marker.  All proud like.

But clearly, this beekeeping thing.  It is something he considers that we do together, just as we used to create whole worlds out of Playmobil figures and blocks and plastic animals for hours on our playroom floor together.

I collapsed into one of the wing chairs we got for free in a barn sale, desperately in need of slipcovers, and started listening.  Relieved that I was not going to need to box up our children's childhood right then.  Because Nicholas and I were going to read together, about bees.  This is also something we do and have done, reading together.  We were on familiar ground here.

He parsed the dense text, rich in meaty vocabulary words, strange in its phrasing, and just plain hard to understand.  I listened, working hard to understand it myself.  Stopping him every once in a while to make sure he was following what he was reading.  Which he was, mostly.  And I listened to the content.

Apparently Ancient Egypt?  Had honey bees.  He read me passages about the honey bee as the symbol for Southern Egypt.  Of reliefs found depicting beekeeping practices.  Of the uses of wax, honey, and the treatment of the bees as sacred.

I listened closely as Nicholas read to me about barges that were built and poled up the Nile, to follow the pollen sources of heather.  The barges started up river, with the hives placed in pyramidal stacks on them.  The bees were allowed to forage for pollen and nectar on the river banks and then they brought their loot back to the hives on the barges.  Once the nectar flow was waning in that area, the barges would be moved down on the river's current a few miles and the process would begin again.  It was, likely, the first evidence of migrant beekeeping, the origins of our commercial migrant beekeeping today, with hundreds of thousands of hives being moved across the United States each year, pollinating monoculture crops, ending up here in Maine, for our blueberry and apple crops.

He got the the end of this section and said to me, Wait.  Doesn't spring come first to the south and then move north?  Why would the nectar flow be moving north to south there.


This is happening to me a lot lately.  I am finding myself rather unhelpful in the homework department.  Already, Jonathan has been commissioned to help with all questions History and English related.  And Jonathan is not allowed to help with Math.  That is my domain.  And Science.  We have become specialists in our respective disciplines.  But even just the other day I found myself quickly googling addition and subtraction of positive and negative integers.  Because I could not for the life of me remember how to calculate -8 - (-9).  My math teacher/mother was called in on that one.

Wait.  Does it have to do with being on the other side of the equator? he asked.  I glanced about the room for a map book, or a cartoonish world map puzzle in the heap.  And then I spotted it.  The retro world globe we had purchased when Nicholas was a baby at a tag sale in Connecticut, which fit so well into his baby room decor of vintage childhood toys, glass marbles in ball jars, painted wooden letter blocks spelling out NICHOLAS, some of my vintage Fisher Price round bottomed people from the children's hospital set...

Luckily, given their likely lead paint content and sharp edges and choking hazards, he was just a baby.  And they sat there on his shelves, looking pretty.

And somewhere in the transition from baby to little boy to big boy to boy, and from fuzzy to baseball to Lego to homework, the globe got rejected from his room and had landed here, in the playroom.

I grabbed for it.  And tried to find Egypt quickly, without needing to admit to Nicholas that I did not know exactly what relationship Egypt and the equator have with one another.

I gave the globe a spin, noticed that Russia looked a bit different on this globe than on more recent maps I have seen, and started searching.  Nicholas rose and came over to my chair and we looked together.  Egypt, as you all know, and he and I both now know, has no relationship whatsoever with that all important world bisecting line.

So we were a bit mystified.  It is likely that over time, the territory, the division of the world has changed, that what once was a large area has been chopped up, boundaries moved.  Dictators and armies and wars have likely made their historical marks here.  This was Nicholas' explanation.  And also, like children, rivers don't always run in straight lines.  And their flow is not necessarily from what we think of as top to bottom.  A straight line from young to grown up.  That the flow, the movement, is not always in the direction we would expect.  This is my explanation.

We decided to read on.  It was getting late.  It was, after all, getting on toward 9:00 at night.  Nicholas sitting in the circle of light at the table in his man pants.  His childhood in a heap on the floor.  Me sitting in an unknown old woman's chair.  We decided that pulling from the heap, pulling from what we knew, what we had thus far, wasn't quite enough.  We decided that we just didn't know yet.

Nicholas and I will likely learn about all of our questions from that evening.  About bees.  And Egypt.  And growing up.  Together.  We will have our honeybee explanation at some point in the future.  And just what has bees meant.  To Egypt, and to Nicholas.

We will turn to each other in that moment, when the changing historical, topological, and developmental map has been explained to us, him at the homework table and me in my little old lady's wing chair and say:

Oh!  Thats funny.  Remember the whole thing about the barges and the honey bees and how they moved down the river and we thought this meant from north to south?  This is why!  I will hear the sound of a Lego piece clicking into position.  Shoring the whole structure up.  Making it all hold together firmly and with strength.  Click.

But for now, we will wonder about it.  Together.

And so, after Nicholas goes to bed, Jonathan and I will put the toys in bins and back on the shelves.

We will weed a bit, sending a few "too young but not too special" ones off to the thrift shop and send other wooden special ones up to the attic in sealed bins.  To either be pulled out next time some creative spurt occurs, of Narnia meets mad scientist lab meets farm animals balancing precariously on each other's backs type scenario.  Or when we are wondering about something that is connected to what we already know, what we already have from our heap of childhood.  When that happens, we can run up to the playroom and the attic and find the carefully labelled bins and bring them down.  To play around with.

Or perhaps, the bins will stay there.  For a long time.  Until sometime in the farther away future, I open the bins, pushed back behind more recently packed bins of ice skates and sports equipment and saved art and school work.  And I will pull out the wooden hand carved animals.  And hold them in my hands.  And fit my memories of these children, as the persons they were when they last played with these toys,  shoring up the person that they are then, known to my future self in the attic.

I am confident that it will all make sense.  That I will have a moment of understanding something about them that baffled me back then.  Back now.  All afforded by the things that are laying in a heap at my feet right now.


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