Sunday, March 30, 2014 Philip Stead

Sometimes, waiting outside your sister's piano lesson isn't just spent passing time.  Sometimes, it can be time well spent.

Friday, March 28, 2014

keep reading

Elliott has adhered to a strict I am only read to policy at bedtime for quite some time now, despite being able to read many of the books he requests that we read to him.  This is good.  Bedtime should be about centering and connecting over a book and is not the time to struggle through arduous decoding and phonemic awareness.

But, just two nights ago, while ready and waiting for his nighttime reading with us, while we ran about with homework and laundry and lunches and such, Elliott walked over to his book shelf and pulled out an old favorite.

As I passed through the room with a pile of clean folded towels on my way to shove them into the linen closet, I heard him speaking quietly.  And then realized he was reading.  I felt a mix of pleasure at hearing him do this and also a bit of guilt.

It reminded me of a story that a friend told me years ago about her second child, who she worried she had less time and patience for than she had had for her first child.  When her second born had hurt himself one day, she had moved toward him and asked him if he wanted her to kiss his hurt hand.  It's okay Mommy, he said, I kiss it ma-self, then planted a big smacker on his hand and moved on.

So Elliott was reading hisself.  Which is great.  But maybe it was because no one else was available.

I plopped the towels down on the dresser and crawled under the quilt with him.  And listened to him finish the book.

He, as usual, skipped the pages that he does not like.  These pages involve being mean to the poor rhinoceros.

And we -- as usual -- whenever we come across Shel's darker moments, did our best impressions of Shel singing, our code for Shel was an unusual man, with an unusual mind.  But we still love him.  Mostly.

He listened to me as I told him how much fun it was to listen to him read, and then he interrupted me to say anxiously: Are you still going to read me a story?

Well of course.  Do you want to go pick one and bring it back?  It was warm under that quilt...

He came back with The Curious Garden, and wanted to spend some time together comparing the endpapers at the beginning and at the end, flipping back and forth between the gray and desolate landscape of the beginning and the lush, green, and growing landscape of the end.  Then I read it to him.  And we looked at the endpapers again.  It felt good to be able to return to what are old favorites for all three children, to focus on the pictures and the simple familiar stories.

For Elliott, returning to loved and often read books is comforting. Looking again at pictures we have scanned together is like returning to an old friend.  Reading them himself, that's a whole new level of friendship.  Both Julia and Nicholas this week have needed to select new books for their independent reading.  And the way they both began their searches, by returning to the familiar books and authors and genres first, reminded me of just how strong the relationship is between children and their beloved books.  A kind of rapprochement, where we return to what we know, and then we move outward and try something new.

Nicholas and Julia both perused the book lists on their school library website, reading book summaries and writing down a few titles that looked interesting.  Jonathan and I created lists of books we wanted to recommend, too.  Thus ensued, for both of them, a book frenzy.

For Nicholas, we were a bit limited by his requirement, a good requirement, that they sample from different genres each time they choose.  He intelligently saved the one allotted fantasy genre book for the mid winter slump and read Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins for his most recent book.  But now, his remaining permissible genres are a bit outside his comfort zone.  He settled on reading something that was realistic fiction.

Here is the list that he, Jonathan, and I generated:

Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool
Twerp, by Mark Goldblatt
Hatchet, by Gary Paulson
Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt
Ungifted, by Gordon Korman
Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos
One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake

Nicholas had said, when considering this genre, that he wished he could read something like Wonder, but we had already done so this past summer.  While searching about, we happened upon the upcoming publication of R.J. Palacio's The Julian Chapter, and preordered it.  We were that excited.

With that on our minds, just how Palacio would treat Julian in this chapter, with anger or understanding, would we all come out feeling a little kinder toward him, as we did after hearing Julian's own precept at the end of the book, we found Twerp, and ultimately this is the book that Nicholas has chosen to read next. Which seemed kind of like it might be a Julian Chapter, but as a full book.  A book about a boy who makes a mistake, and then needs to move forward.  Nicholas was intrigued, as he has been intrigued by Julian from the start, wondering how much of Julian he might have within himself.  You know, the whole am I Anakin or Luke Skywalker struggle of every middle school child.  So I dashed off to the library to snag Twerp and brought it home.  He asked if he could read a few pages while I finished up dinner.  Let's just say that it was difficult to get him off the bench and to the dinner table later.

Next night was Julia's book frenzy.  She is fresh off Mr Terrupt Falls Again and Boy on the Porch. Unlike her older broth, this is a realistic fiction girl at the core. She sniffled for a bit about the fact that Julian would not be available for several more months, and then searched around a bit to see if any of her old standbys had perchance released a new book.  Our Google search history reveals Linda Urban, Kathryn Erskine, Jacqueline Kelly, and Jeanne Birdsall were all queried as to just what in the world they have been up to these days that is more important than giving Julia another story to submerge herself in.  Her list was a bit affected by listening to some of the choices she had heard from Nicholas' list the night before.

Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt
That Girl Lucy Moon, by Amy Timberlake
Moon over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool
Hokey Pokey, by Jerry Spinelli
Inside Out & Back Again, Thanhha Lai
The Lions of Little Rock, Kristin Levine

Hilariously, while I asked her to give me a minute to add to the list she had created, she said sure, sat down next to me with a book I had left sitting on the library book shelf, one I had grabbed from the newly acquired shelf at our library, and began to read.  It was The Truth of Me, by Patricia MacLachlan.

I dashed off to bee class with a quick stop at the library to pick up her choice from the above list.  Since I was, as usual, running a bit late, I considered not stopping at all since she was already so into The Truth of Me that she did not respond to me when I gave her a kiss on the head and ran out the door and likely, I thought, would not need a new book for a few days.  But when I returned home, her book was waiting with her homework folder on the counter.  The book mark showed she had read more than half of it while I was gone.

Her choice for her next read was The Lions of Little Rock.  I am going to read this one along with her, or close -- while panting and gasping for breath as I try to keep up with her as best I can -- behind her.  The content of this one makes me want to be able to discuss it with her as she reads to know what she might be grappling with as she moves through it.  I don't really know why I am worried.  Through her other reading, she has encountered child abuse, sibling death, sickness, autism, maternal death, and maternal death again followed by complete orphanization, oh and that happened to a child with autism...and she keeps jumping in this puddle of sadness for more, so she clearly has her coping skills attuned and at the ready.

What am I reading?  Well.  I just finished reading my latest modern fractured fairy tale, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.  Oh my, that was a good read.  It was devoured, along with enormous bowls of popcorn, burp, in just a few nights.  I would really like to jump into my new Wally Lamb book.  It has been waiting patiently for me.

Problem is, I try to keep up with what the kids are reading.  And I have gotten a bit behind by reading nonstop once I became entranced by Boy, Snow, Bird.  And before that, well, you know, falling asleep on my book, the lines of page edges pressed into my forehead.  I don't think Julia is quite ready for Boy, Bird, Snow, and Nicholas is not much of a reading about fairy tales and girls kind of kid.  So I can't make up for time by dangling this book like a carrot in front of them while I limp ahead like the tortoise.

So my pile, and my overdue late fees at the library, are building up.  The librarian informed me of my high balance when I checked out books for Julia's frenzy.  You are getting dangerously close to losing the ability to check out new books due to you library fees.  There was no time, and no cash in my wallet to settle up.  They will be okay.  They can buy a new book off my current late fees.  I wonder what it will be...

I have jumped into Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine.  Julia read this book a few weeks ago and loved it.  And asked me to read it.

I told her at breakfast this morning that I had started it the night before.

Good.  She said out of the corner of her smoothie glass.  Because there are some things in that book that I want to discuss.  Keep reading.

Well.  I have some work to do.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

bits and pieces of true things

A while ago, I showed you the creation of Front Door Library, a little library housed here in the unused entryway to our house.  This weekend, while the sap was boiling outside and it was a bit too raw and cold to be sitting around the wood stove for very long, Julia and Elliott decided that they needed to remodel their workspace.  Here's what's happening.

A book drop has been initiated for late night drops.

Ways to make the space more cozy and inviting have been addressed, with the addition of a fuzzy window seat.

And its uninsulated drafty coldness has been temporarily mitigated until more permanent solutions are completed.

The librarians have thought to add incentives for patrons to visit more frequently, including the addition of a library pet.  No risk of spilling water for this one.

They have kept things feeling new and interesting by rotating displays.

Their collection has grown, and they have therefore added more descriptive and specific categorization systems.

Fiction has become the most popular genre, and so, it has been divided into people fiction and animal fiction.

My favorite, and a category in which I always find something I need to check out when visiting, is this one: bits & pieces of true things.

Their most significant upgrade involves their check out system.

They have added a check out station.

The librarians are clearly identified.

And everyone has been given their very own personalized library card.

The more forgetful amongst us are allowed to keep our cards at the library, to help avoid those awkward moments when one must dig frantically through one's pockets while the line builds up behind you.  They keep these cards for you just beside the handmade bookmarks with their own patented logo.

Upon further consideration, they decided to embrace some 21st Century Information Technology norms and enlisted tech support from another Front Door Library devotee, their daddy.  Rest assured that the check out procedure is now the envy of a number of neighboring institutions..

With card in hand, and having taken into consideration the recommendations and guidance of the lovely staff employed there, one can now approach the desk.

And hand the books to the staff where they will scan your bar code with an iPod -- coincidentally on loan to them from their father's collection.

Julia has perfected her librarian's pursed lip expression, which will serve her well when I next commit a library patron faux pas.

Books scanned, they can now view each patron's record.

During this process, should it for some reason take longer than one might anticipate due to a librarian needing to run to the bathroom, or the iPod battery dying, or a mild but unfortunately timed moment of sibling rivalry, there are blank bookmarks available at the desk to doodle upon.  If you are interested, FDL is in the midst of a competition to choose a new logo for the library.  This ingenious distraction helps parents with young children avoid the oh-so-embarrassing library departure meltdowns.

These librarians are good at their job, because they are focused on making everyone's library experience as successful as possible.  Each book comes with a handwritten sticky note reminder of when it is due.  And just this morning, at breakfast, I was reminded that today was the day my books were due back, and that they would be open for a few hours this afternoon after school.

A few hours after checking out my selections the other day, I happened upon Julia and Elliott discussing the challenges of modern Librarianship.

Julia:  It is kind of boring here when there is nobody coming to take out books.

Me:  That's why librarians do story times.

Elliott (channeling Miss Merriweather):  And why librarians allow lions into the library.

They now have their eyes on repurposing some unused space.

And they are thinking of story times here and book related crafting activities in the hopes of boosting patron statistics.  And to address the inevitable mid-morning lull.

Front Door Library, as all libraries must be these days, is ready to evolve again.


Friday, March 21, 2014

grounded magazine

I am so happy to have an essay published in the Grow issue of Grounded Magazine.  Grounded is an online publication and space for parents to come together to share, reflect, and build a supportive community.  There are very few places that offer the thoughtfulness and mindfulness for parents that this magazine embodies.  I think it is unique for its heart and for its quietness.  And I am honored to be a part of it.

The world can be a noisy place, especially when you add the sounds and needs and creativity and growing of children, in my case three children, into the mix.  Sometimes you find yourself standing in the middle of this chaos, happy to be there, but also trying to think through some moment, some current struggle, some development, that happened during the day.  Grounded Magazine offers a place where you can quiet the noise and feel surrounded, virtually.  Where other parents are also pondering, wondering, and regrouping, trying to figure out how we are going to roll in this parenting gig, ever changing as it is.  While we also are trying to figure out how to be adults, to be supportive within our adult relationships, and to be parents together, and how we can pick up and move forward and grow.

My essay is about a unexpected storm in the woods, and -- years later -- about an approaching storm on a rock in the middle of a lake.  And how Julia and I were together in those moments.  Reflection.  It is such a wonderful place to be able to go to.  It all starts in your noisy kitchen, or as you are sitting by a lake, or on the side of a playground, or when you hear yourself, see yourself in a way that surprises you.  You are fighting against yourself, and your child self, and the many other selves in between.  All while trying to allow your child to grow.

A place like Grounded gives you the space to think about it, reflect upon it, think about what feelings and issues were being brought up for you in that moment.  For me, it wasn't until I connected my younger self -- cold and wet and fearful, sitting on the end of a diving board at the YWCA in my hometown -- that I was able to really understand, to reflect upon how different Julia can feel in similar situations.

As I write, what begins as one moment somehow gets connected to another, and then I find myself wondering, pondering, exploring why this connection may have occurred.  What theme, personalization, shift in the air or light, might have caused two unrelated moments to blend and try to teach me something.  Writing the essay gave me the opportunity to do, at the very least, a little bit better now.  And hopefully to be able to do a little bit better next time.

Because really, that's what parenting, and growing, is all about.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

maple revolution...strange thoughts on the act of decrowning trees

When I first met Jonathan, I could not believe it when I found Aunt Jemima in his refrigerator.  What is this?  I interrogated him, as though I had found lipstick on his collar.

I mean really, have you tasted that foul rot??

But I have won him over to the taste of pure maple syrup. So we are okay.

We are in the midst of sap collection here, and the weather is making it excitingly unpredictable, with the few days of warmth with ample sap flowing into our buckets and then a few days of a freezing temperatures causing the flow to stop.

We here love syrup.  Real syrup.  And especially love it when it has come from our own trees. I think of it as Sense of Place Syrup.  In the summer, we mark the trees, play in their shade and build forts that lean against their trunks.  We speak to them during the winter months as we snowshoe, slide or walk past them on our way to skate on the river below.  We reach out and touch those trees, spend a moment with them, knowing we are going to get up close and personal in a few months.  It is another way that we are modeling the importance of knowing our land, its landscape, and getting our hands into it.

Plus the syrup is just plain delicious.  For us, the process of collecting the sap and boiling it down makes it even sweeter, and makes it syrup with a story.  The fact that we tap trees here on our urban lot, while the cars whizz by just feet from some of the trees, a few drivers perhaps noticing our buckets and being reminded that nature lives here too?  Even better.

And so, despite the fact that I defaced their trunks with blue spray paint to remind me which ones are maples, using their summer leaves to identify them, I am quite protective of these trees.  They are not huge, most only large enough to allow one spout, but they are givers.  And there are stands of smaller trees that we have decided are not yet ready to go into service for us yet.  I look forward to the years ahead, when I can feel just how long we have been here, that we will begin to tap some of these now saplings, then trees.  That will mark our time here, and reflect another era in the very long life of this property.

We know our cast of characters intimately.  The trees that give only a bit of sap, but these drops taste sweeter than the rest.  The sloppy drippers that dribble down their trunks instead of into their buckets.  The ones that will either rip your parka as you crawl through thorns to get to them or slip down muddy banks with a sloshing bucket of sap.  The ones that will likely make a child, who inevitably spills their bucket, cry.  And the ones that are most generous on a sunny day when the warmth hits their trunks early.  Our 16 maple trees have names.

Old Drippy.


Far Out.

Driveway's end.

Or my personal Favorite: I. C. Dead-People.

Elliott's teacher, a knowledgeable sap expert herself, is in on our adoration as well.  She often greets us with a sap-based question, asking us one frozen morning, How's Old Drippy doing today?  We love our trees so.

I was recently alerted to new research, conducted primarily by the University of Vermont, of course, regarding a potential revolution in the maple syrup industry.  The UVM researchers have discovered a process by which maple saplings can produce as much sap for harvesting as mature trees.  These saplings can be planted plantation style, in densely packed rows on level and easily accessible land, a technique that contrasts significantly with the traditional approach of tapping mature trees far out in the wilds, demanding ingenious methods of collection and hauling.

And then?

image from, photo by Sally McCay/UVM

The horror.

The thought of topless densely placed maple saplings all in a row with caps and tubes coming out of them frankly gives me the heebie jeebies.  And makes me think of some dark scene from an alien movie, humans all lying on beds with tubes and monitors and beeps coming out of them.  They are what The Matrix calls batteries; while their minds live a virtual life, these people's bodies deteriorate from lack of use.  Ok.  A bit dark, right?  I'm just sayin...

So let's go here instead.  This process.  It is farming plantation style versus wild harvesting. It is kind of like turning a sapling into an annual, or rather, a seven-annual since you cannot start the process until the sapling is seven years old. Putting a sapling in the ground and watering it and caring for it and watching it grow.  Then lopping it off and vacuuming out it's fruit, or juice, or whatever.

Is it just me or is anyone else thinking about The Giving Tree here?

I am not really sure what it is that distinguishes collecting from saplings as worse than putting vegetable seeds in the ground, only to pull the plants out to eat them.  It's basically all just harvesting. What, besides bark and the ability to remain standing when it is windy, differentiates between the value of the carrot plant and a maple sapling?

Perhaps it is something about the child labor feel to it.  I mean, Elliott is a seven year old sapling.  Which makes me the age that is considered a mature tree.  Though I may be asking him to bring his dishes to the sink and put his dirty discarded socks in the laundry basket and open the backdoor to let the dogs out from time to time, I think Elliott is a bit young to be put into domestic service.  And really, a carrot was going to die in the Maine winter even if we had left it in the ground.

Each summer we plant our seeds.  We take care of them with water and sun and weeding. 

And then we yank that vegetable out of the ground, leaving nothing behind.  Not even possible roots for regrowth.  And we eat it.  Raw.

I was happy to learn that there are methods for not killing the saplings that are being developed.  Which is good, because I was becoming disturbed by the likelihood that the trees could not survive this process.  The apparatus that vacuums the sap can be removed and the crown will regrow, though eventually the growth of the tree will not be able to keep up with how much height must be removed each spring to reattach the apparatus.  There are alternative methods being studied, including coppicing, a process by which two trunks are encouraged to grow from the same trunk, allowing the collection to happen to only one trunk each year while the other recovers.  And then it is decrowned.

Ok.  I jest.  And I truly do support the idea of developing ways we can make agriculture sustainable so that we do not lose touch with our own food sources.  And I get that the yield of a harvest from a plantation style sap collection would allow many farms to yield a better profit and get real maple syrup on more people's tables.  It also apparently resolves some pest management issues and allows farmers to recover more quickly from tree loss.  That's important.  Very important.

The wild harvesting versus farming approach.  We do a bit of both here on our little urban homestead.  We collect the fruits and berries and sap from the established landscape and also put in a large garden, harvesting the plants we seed each year.  The idea of saplings being planted for their product and not for their very tree-ness.  It makes me think of the bees and beekeeping we do here, in the person-made hives, rather than all Pooh style climbing up a tree, and getting stung while I dip my furry paw into a feral bee colony.

There are lot of ways to stay connected to our food.  And some are old and we treat them with reverence and the traditions evoke a nostalgia for the old ways of doing things.

But I am just saying that we here, we love our storied syrup, and the trees that give it to us.

Then I realize.  That's the difference.  It is the love of the trees, our trees, here.  The ones that exist here because previous trees dropped their seeds and these trees grew.  Not because we wanted them, or wanted something from them.  But because that it is how nature developed here.  And so, for these trees, we will take from them, use them, play under them, but only in ways that do not harm them.